Clerk’s Post 12/20/21 — “On the Eve of the Solstice in a Season of Lights: News and Reflections from the Clerk’s Post”

I would like to share a bit of news and then also some reflections on the season we are in. One key piece of news is that the dates for the 2022 Summer Research Seminar have been set. It will be held from Monday, August 15th through Friday, August 19th. It will be held again as it was this year, using a zoom format for a series of virtual workshops, group activities and – central to it all – Meetings for Worship for the Conduct of Research. If you have a project or proposal you would be interested in collaborating on in that week, please let us know. (For instance, drop me a note at gray@coa.edu.) If you are interested in knowing more about the work during this last August, please note that recordings of the 2021 Summer Research Seminar (SRS) are available now through our Youtube channel here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwTrtmp9is3xkA97LrCewtw/playlists

A second key piece of news is that the research stipend program for Young Friends at that last SRS was very successful and we are planning on continuing it in the coming year. If you are aware of younger friends who might be interested in working with QIF in the course of pursuing research of some kind, please encourage them to get in touch with us. We are continuing to look for ways to support younger scholars and activists doing Spirit-led research and would welcome suggestions. I find myself personally led to think about this in part by the wonderful model of outreach to youth provided by Dianne Randall and the work of others at FCNL. But I am perhaps even more moved by a concern to restore and strengthen the essentially youthful character of our faith tradition that in the 1600’s proclaimed themselves to be “Children of the Light”.

This has led me, in this season of holidays, to reflect more on various experiences and images of light as they come to us from a variety of spiritual traditions. One springs from Wabnaki practices of Firekeeping and First Light ceremonies which I read of this fall in a wonderful new book: The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous/Settler Relations. Thanks to the wonders of Zoom and the connections of Maine Friends (some of whom were key authors of the text) there have been opportunities this fall to hear stories and talk with some of the people who took part in the years of encounters it recounts. The experience of watching fire and feeding it through the night provides one important metaphor for the activities of “holding in the Light” that Friends find so powerful. The experience, further, of then watching the sun crack the sky open with color and emerge in all its radiance at daybreak provides another powerful metaphor for experiences of Light. For those of us who live up north in Maine and heat with wood stoves, in this season of ever shorter days, waiting for the solstice, these experiences are perhaps not just metaphors for experiences of Light but, perhaps, embodiments of them in a kind of earth centered spirituality that attunes people to their natural environment. (And as we wait for hope in political and social change, perhaps we can hold ourselves and others in the Light by Firekeeping and ceremonies of First Light of other sorts, adapted to other cultural visions of light that include, for instance, the Menorah, Diwali, Kwanza, the Dao, and Islam.

As Christmas approaches, reflections on youth and on light have converged for me in images of the Christ child as they might connect to the Quaker tradition of experiences of that of the divine in each of us. The vision of Light coming to the world through a child invites a understanding of the divine not as a Lord who Rules but as a community that includes us all as we live into the future through our children. Because there is that of god in each person, we each are part of the larger community that can include others and transform all our lives collectively through that power of love that is a presence we can experience collectively and directly — immediately.

At QIF we have been laboring over a number of questions about “Decolonization”, “Alternatives to Colonization”, “Anti-racism” and related themes connected, for instance, to visions of how we might reinvent the ways in which systems of law connect people to nature and to each other. In that context, I have been reading a really fascinating book by David Graeber and David Wengrow on The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Early on they note that there have been many communities of indigenous and other people around the world who were not ruled in hierarchies. Europeans had great difficulty understanding the social structure of the Eastern Woodland Indians like Huron, Iroquois and Wabnaki because they kept wanting to identify the kings or lords or princes among them who ruled – and there were none. And in return those peoples native to the land there found it extremely surprising and puzzling to find that Europeans were willing to scrape and bow and take orders from their lords and masters instead of making decisions for themselves and leading their own lives as they saw fit.

At this time of year, thinking of beginnings and endings, I sometimes look ahead to Easter and get reminded of the tragicomic character of the central Christian narrative, the way in which the tragedy of death gets upended by the return to life and the rebirth and renewal that is available to us all at every moment, no matter how dire the dilemma or difficulty we face. In this time of Christmas, I am reminded even more, however, of the comic, upending character of the narratives of Jesus’ life. To have the Messiah arrive in a manger for donkeys and cattle was about as anti-aristocratic and counter-hierarchical a birth story as one could imagine. Most Romans who heard the story of how this “King of the Jews” was born must have burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of the thought. But for me it has long been the kind of joke that carries a welcome message which goes like this: “When Jesus died he returned and spent forty days with his disciples and community and then he ascended up through the gates of heaven. And he left the gates of heaven wide open for everyone else. And do you know why? It’s because he was born in a barn!”

Careful readings of the texts and times reveal an even bigger joke, of course. This is made clear in scholarly works like Robert Funk’s The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The evidence makes clear that he himself never claimed to be a messiah and never viewed himself as a king of any kind. Those concepts and the ways they were fused with the notion of Light and the Word in John and later authors were simply not part of the way that the very Jewish Jesus conceived of himself and others. He was, instead, a child of the divine parent who called us all to reclaim that same kind of childhood in order to transform our lives and enter the community of heaven. The deeper punchline for Christians themselves is not just that, in this sense, Jesus did not think he was the Christ (and was not, himself, a Christian). It is, instead, that Jesus was inviting us to be ruled not by a lord but by love. He was calling us in; not calling us in to a kingdom but to a community.

This seems to me especially relevant to a set of concerns that have repeatedly surfaced for QIF Board members and which a QIF Circle of Discernment on “Bridging the Polarities” has been wrestling with. In the midst of all the darkness and division and polarities that threaten this world we love, it is helpful to continually reflect on this truth – that there is that of god in each and every one of us. And this means not only that they deserve our love but that, even more, they themselves – even the most hostile and enemy-like of them — are a resource, a potential power, a vast fountain of potential love, a divine power that can transform this troubled world. This, for me, is a central lesson from the “primitive Christianity restored” that early Quakers sought to share. The Truth is not just within us, it is also out there – in others. The Ocean of Love flows out through all those we encounter, even those who seem to have the most incomprehensible of views and the most alien of behaviors. The challenge is simply to see the salt water under the skin and hear the tides running in the pulses of their blood – and to not only leave our own gates open, but also recognize when something that looks like a solid wall actually is filled with windows and doors that swing wide and will welcome us, if only we knock with care.

One of the things I especially value about the Quaker tradition is its calendar which takes a friendly approach to sharing in the ceremonies and holidays of others and being open to whatever kinds of Truth they may provide portal towards. And yet Quakers have, historically, practiced “plain” system of naming days of the week and dates of the year, insisting that no one day is more holy or sacramental than another – which leaves us open to experience every day as equally holy and equally opportune for experiences of Light, transformation and Truth. In closing, if that Friendly view of time appeals to you, you might enjoy a song of mine celebrating it which begins by noting that “While in the world folk wait in haste to celebrate some holiday, some with a calendar more plain, celebrate every day . . . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1QfNYJCabY

P. S. Here is the full text of the song if you would like to read it before or after listening:

While in the world folks wait in haste to celebrate some holiday,
some with a calendar more plain celebrate every day
with music in their breath and dancing in their steps
and gestures that do ornament each motion of their lives.
So sing we now a merry song and left our laughter ring.
Lift our hearts with joy and make the rafters sing
with music in our breath and dancing in our steps
and gestures that do ornament each motion of our lives.
And some await a hallowed day to eat a fattened beast,
but every day is holy and every meal a feast!
with music in our breath and dancing in our step
and gestures that do ornament each motion of our lives.
— Written and performed by Gray Cox (and welcome to be shared through a Creative Commons license 😉

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