Monday, January 12, 2015

The Southern Cross

Back in 1986 I had more than a few misadventures while serving only 9 months as the Youth & Education Director for the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers). Here are a few such moments.

The Southern Cross (at right) is a constellation that has helped sailors navigate the seas for hundreds of years. For me, the phrase conjures up two images- a song by Crosby, Still and Nash, and my time in New England Yearly Meeting. Today I will tell you some stories of mishaps and mayhem during 1986. Some of these stories may lead you to believe that Quakerism in New England was in a strange state of affairs at the time. I cannot argue against that point of view. There were many wonderful, faithful people in the region, and my time spent among those Friends was a brief but blessed time- for the most part. As for are three stories that represent my experience.

In March I led a retreat for youth in western Mass. We worshiped together, played together and learned together. It was a great weekend, and something very new for many of the youth involved. I talked to many parents as they picked up their kids, and most seemed excited at the new direction I was taking the program. One mom, from the Boston suburb of Peabody (pronounced PeeBUDee, NOT pea body!) had a concern. She pulled me aside and said without a trace of a smile "If my daughter comes home talking like you (with a southern accent) then she will not be allowed back at these events." I laughed and responded "I don't think that is anything ya'll have to worry about." She fired back "I'm not kidding. Learn to speak proper English." And she walked away. So much for the Quaker belief in the equality of all people, whether they be Yankee or not...

Sometime that same Spring there was a workshop on religious education at a Friends Meeting out near Cape Cod. (By the way- is there any national historic monument more disappointing than Plymouth Rock?  I mean come's really just a rock?) On Saturday I spoke to a crowd of about 30 on new methods of teaching the Bible to children. My session focused on how Jesus Christ called the children to come to him, and how he indicated that we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. Afterwards, while having refreshments, an older woman (I am guessing about 107!) came up to me and got right in my face- well, she would have been right in my face if she could have reached it! Seriously, she had to reach up just to be able to poke me in the chest- which she did! She spoke to me in one of those cackling, Wicked Witch of the Northeast type voices and said "Young man, we don't talk like that here!" I searched my memory, trying to remember what could have been said that would have been offensive, but I had no idea- and told her so. She poked me once more and said in a low, condemning snarl, "you said JESUS CHRIST. We don't say that here. You can talk about Jesus or you can talk about Christ, but don't assume they are the same." I was stunned. How were we ever going to get anywhere with theology like that floating around? I had to just walk away.

Most of the meetings (churches) in New England featured traditional Quaker worship, with no pastor or planned music. The format came from the concept that if you gather in expectant silence, God will speak through the worshippers. In the earliest days of Quaker worship elders often gave hour long sermons from the silence. I had experienced great moments of God's presence through this style of "open worship" at New Garden Friends Meeting and at Quaker Lake Camp, so I looked forward to worshipping with Friends all over New England. One Sunday (or First Day, in the traditional Quaker language) I found myself settling into the silence with about a dozen others at a meetinghouse in Rhode Island. Midway through the hour I felt God tugging at my heart with a message, and, as often happens in such situations, I suddenly found myself on my feet and speaking. Worship concluded without anyone else speaking, and afterwards, I found myself being ignored. I finally stopped an older man, introduced myself and asked if there was anything the Yearly Meeting office could do for their Meeting. He very tersely told me no, and then proceeded to ask me why I had spoken like that. I told him that God has led me to speak. He shook his head and informed me that this was a silent meeting, and that my words were the first to spoken during worship there in over 40 years. A silent meeting- talk about adventures in missing the point!

There were Friends Meetings with only three or four members left, keeping the doors open to keep alive the memory of their ancestors who had founded them. There were people who had no idea that George Fox, the original Quaker, had been a Christian and a biblical scholar. And there were lots and lots of folks who worshipped Quakerism, pacifism and history- all things that I love, but in this case, false idols all!  I became more and more convinced that I needed to bring a focus on Jesus to the youth I had come there to serve.  I needed them to know that we are a Resurrection People. They needed to know about the cross and the empty tomb. The needed to know the Good News!  They just didn't want to hear it in a southern accent...

Because of Jesus,

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