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Communicating Quaker experience to connect and deepen spiritual lives
Updated: 4 hours 15 min ago


Mon, 2017-08-21 08:30

Solar eclipse of 13 November 2012, as seen from northern Australia. Screen capture of NASA video.

This article was originally published in the October 15, 1984 issue of Friends Journal. View and download the whole issue in the archives, which are accessible online by members only. Join us today for as little as $28.

A late spring solar eclipse—”the last one until the mid-1990s”—brought a measure of excitement to students and teachers enduring the remaining days of a rapidly waning school year. Students gathered at my window, unable to see the sun but aware of the softly filtered light from the cloudless sky. A few with passes from their science teachers asked to leave class to observe the eclipse outdoors. Cautioned not to look directly at the sun, they flashed their “how-dumb-does-he-think-we-are” smiles and showed me their opaque x-ray film and their cards with pinholes and white viewing surfaces. A few students without passes wanted to go too, so I provided cards, straight pins, instructions, and renewed warnings.

“Looking at the sun couldn’t really blind us,” a few scoffed. I assured them it could. Warned but still skeptical, they departed.

In a few minutes they were back. “Did you see it?” I asked.

“Yeah, the card and the pinhole really worked!” one replied, his voice expressing amazement that an English teacher could know about such things.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I dunno. It’s kinda weird . . .”

We take light—external light—for granted, unaware until it dims or disappears of how much we depend on it. History and myth both record the panic that primitive peoples felt and the extreme means they sometimes took to assuage the gods who were robbing them of light, consuming the sun. Even now, informed by the media of the exact time and extent of an eclipse, we find the experience “kinda weird.”

How do we react to the presence or the seeming absence of the Light Within?

Often it is the presence of the Inner Light that we find upsetting or disquieting. Its absence, or at least our lack of awareness of its presence, seems the natural order. When, in the midst of busy schedules, we sense its presence, we seek ways of denying it, of avoiding it, of subverting it. Often we succeed. We seek it in periods of meditation; but when it appears, we shift uneasily in our places. Sometimes like our forebears, we quake before its intensity and its leadings. Blinded by the light, we stumble.

The absence of the light seems more natural. Our cares and concerns crowd in and obscure the dim glow. Anxiously we hold them to the light, but they only block its passage.

Perhaps, as with the external light, we need techniques and precautions to avoid the extremes of too much or too little light. Becoming preoccupied with light—looking at it rather than seeing by it—may limit vision. We need to relax, accepting light instead of darkness as the natural order. Rather than following it blindly, we ought to follow the way it reveals.

When the light is dim or obscured, looking too hard can limit vision also. A technique, borrowed, ironically, from military surveillance training, may be helpful. Instead of looking directly at an object, the observer is instructed to look past it. Peripheral vision is more sensitive to light and to movement. Instead of looking directly at a concern, we may do better by looking past it, waiting quietly, allowing the light to surround it, modeling its features and showing a way.

The sun is back to full brightness now, and we walk in its light. It can burn us or leave us cold, but mostly it warms us and shows us the way. When it leaves for a time, we trust that it will return. Eclipses are, after all, only temporary.

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Beauty; Beauty Everywhere

Mon, 2017-08-21 02:00

One night, on the cusp of summer, Glenn’s wife called to update me.

“They are going to put him on some kind of super pain killer. I forgot the name of it, but I guess you know what that means. He wanted me to ask if you’d stop by.”

I had planned to go the next day and promised to make it the first thing in the morning.

Glenn was a huge man in every sense of the word. Tall, husky, and muscular. He had made his money for most of his life driving a big rig and had the kind of “manly man” swagger that some found off-putting. But those who knew him understood that Glenn had a heart of gold, and some even accused him of being a “cream puff” underneath his rough-and-tumble exterior. He had a deep booming voice that was commanding and warm at the same time. People loved his greetings, and he was a called a big lovable teddy bear by most who knew him. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Glenn swore to fight it “like a man.” And he did, with strength and bravado, until it was apparent nothing was working. Finally he asked to be admitted to the hospice where I would have this last visit with him.

It had rained for hours the night before, a hard drenching rain. When I pulled into the parking lot the air was still damp, and there were puddles scattered between the cars. But the sun was up, and there was a hint that things would soon be dry. As I walked through the complex’s lovely courtyard on a concrete path, I noticed a gaggle of young children running from the walk to the flower beds with a great deal of enthusiasm. I realized they were youngsters from the daycare that had been intentionally built on the hospice campus. As I approached they were so intent on their task that they did not notice me, and I realized they were picking up worms from the sidewalk and bringing them to the flower beds.

A young woman was watching her charges with a smile and said, “We are on a rescue mission.”

I nodded with a chuckle and entered the main building, making my way to Glenn’s room. As I entered the room he was on his side facing away from me and gazing out the big window that all the patient rooms had. He was looking out on the courtyard I had just crossed.

“Hi,” he said with a wave, but not looking at me. “I saw you coming.”

I was looking at the back of his head, but I sensed Glenn was smiling. He rolled over and confirmed my suspicion with a big ear-to-ear grin. “What in the world were those kids doing?”

“They were picking up worms that had beached themselves on the sidewalk after the rain.”

He laughed out loud, “No kidding. I’ll be damned, they looked like they were having a ball.”

“Absolutely, but they were very serious about their work.”

He laughed again with a cough and rolled back to look out the window. I sensed Glenn wanted to be quiet. I have learned from making these visits that if the dying get visits at all, they are often talked at. They are told “to hang in there” and “you’ll be ok” when everyone knows they won’t. The usual platitudes about God’s plan and such go on and on. Folks like Glenn know people mean well, and they appreciate the visits, but they know people are too anxious to just listen to those who are in their final days. It leaves people like him feeling lonely. So I often just sit and listen, or simply join in their silence. For that I’m glad for my years as a Quaker. Silence is not something to be afraid of and is in fact something profoundly meaningful.

So I sat in a bedside chair and waited. Minutes went by and after a while I didn’t hear Glenn’s labored breathing. The sound of machines, monitors, and people in the hallway evaporated. It felt like being in meeting for worship when the gathered center down and it’s just us and the Light of God losing ourselves in a blessed silence. For a moment it was as if Glenn and I were lifted up and held in peace.

Time went by and a mist began to rise over the lawn of the courtyard. Glenn stirred and sighed. “You know when this is over I think it’s going to be like that. I mean just beauty; beauty everywhere. There’s something special about the sunshine after a rain, the flowers too. That’s what it will be, just beauty all around like a sunny day after the rain makes the air clean.”

“I think that sounds like the best description of the hereafter I’ve ever heard,” I said.

“And it will be filled with joy. Like those kids, the air will be full of it, like kids having a ball and doing something they love.” He rolled over and looked at me, “It’ll be like that.”

“I think you’re right.”

“I have no doubt.”

He nodded at me and rolled onto his back with a grunt. “I’m glad you came. I wanted to say thanks.”

I didn’t bother asking him why. I knew what he meant. But at the time I was feeling particularly grateful for knowing him and sharing these last months with him.

So I said, “You’re welcome Glenn. And thank you!”

“For what?”

“For letting me in on what a real man is and for assuring me about the beauty you will have.”

“We all will.”

“I know.”

He paused for a moment and then said, while on his back and looking at the ceiling, “I have a feeling this will be the last time I see you, you know,” waving his hand around the room, “like this.”

“I suspect you’re right. But I don’t think it will be the last time I see you,” I replied.

“Oh I know that too,” he stirred to look at me and went on to say, “Thanks for everything, really,” and reached out his hand to me.

His hand had been big and bulky. Now the cancer had reduced it to a pale white appendage with frail, slender fingers. But somehow Glenn mustered the strength to grip my hand with a firmness like he always had done with pride. Something in this simple gesture reminded me that cancer could deplete his body, but Glenn’s spirit was, if anything, even stronger than before.

We shook hands and looked at each other.

“When this is all over, would you stop in on my wife now and then? She’ll have a lot of people around I guess and it will annoy her to no end, but would you do it anyway?”


“And take care of your family.”

“I will.”

“It’s hard, but I guess I should say goodbye.”

Glenn’s eyes moistened and so did mine.

“I know, goodbye Glenn, but like we just figured, I’ll see you again.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what we’ll look like then, but if you don’t recognize me, I’ll be the one helping the kids with the worms,” he said with a grin.

“Gotcha, I’ll know how to find you.”

I waved and he gave me a thumbs up, then I left.


It has been said that the story of Israel is one of pain and sorrow healed by joy, of losing your home and then being welcomed back to a new one. The Christian story is about birth under tragic circumstances but with the Light being born, about a death on Friday and then new life on Sunday. In short those stories are about life. About the struggles and triumphs that come to everyone. Glenn’s story was, and remains, one of rain and then sun, of pain and death but finally about hope and joy.

A few days after my visit, Glenn died. At calling hours, the funeral home was bursting with flowers that filled the room with their fragrance and everyone said he’d have wanted it that way.


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The Art of Dying and the Afterlife: August Full Issue Access

Tue, 2017-08-01 04:00
Members can download the full PDF or read any article online (see links below). Features: “Unaccompanied” by Boyce Upholt; “A Quaker’s Passing: My Father’s Way” by Shannon Zimmerman, “Heaven-based Living” by Michael Resman, “A Simple State of Being That Never Truly Dies” by Robert Stephen Dicken, “Children and Death” by John Graham-Pole, and “Weeping to Joy” by Betsy Blake. Online exclusives include: “Death and Dying&#8221🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Among Friends: Understanding Death through Life

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:30

Through the course of civilization, we humans have gotten ever better at focusing our intelligence on the mysteries of the natural world. We’ve tested, mastered, and applied knowledge to phenomena that were once the province of magic.

Yet one of the most fundamental mysteries of our existence remains stubbornly opaque: what happens to us after death. Someone looking at the hard science might conclude that death is the final shutdown and that there is no “after” after it: neurotransmissions stop, blood coagulates, and the body begins a rapid deterioration process. Yet many of us continue to wonder if there is more. We have glimpses in the accounts of those back from near-death experiences. The sensitive among us will swear they’ve felt the presence of departed loved ones. Our various religious traditions provide answers, if we can believe on faith alone. Mysteries abound.

You might expect Quakerism, a tradition borne of an insistence on the authority of direct experience, to downplay unanswerable questions. To be sure, early Friends fully believed in the redemptive power of Jesus’s death and Christian claims to eternal life, but I rarely see them get caught in the metaphysics of post-death experiences. They were a practical bunch. You can find more clues about a Quaker theology of death by watching how they approached it in life.

One clue comes from Quaker burial grounds. They were astoundingly plain, little more than designated fields for unmarked graves. Quaker theology: we are all equals in death; the skin and bones of our bodies are unimportant. Over time, small tombstones crept in, but these weren’t protection: more than one burial ground has been repurposed for the more pressing needs of the living. Theology: we don’t physically venerate the dead.

We could also look to what we could call the Quaker art of dying: a centuries-old lived culture that accepts death. There are our oft-retold stories of faithful Friends facing approaching death with calm dignity, assured there was nothing to fear on the other side. The clear, if unstated, theology is that there is something more after death: an afterlife that we need not fear.

This issue of Friends Journal brings Friends together to share their experiences of living with death. There are moments when you’ll want to have tissues handy. After all, it is hard not to see echoes of one’s own departed loved ones in these stories. But the process of reconciling sorrow brought these Friends to a deeper understanding not only of death but of life, and how to live life as Quakers.

Friend Shannon Zimmerman found that the answers she searched for in books were to be found, instead, at her dying father’s bedside. When a teenaged Betsy Blake blamed God for not healing her sister, her mother gently corrected her that God had done the healing, “just not in the way we expected.” After Robert Stephen Dicken’s mother died, he realized her passage was not unlike meeting for worship: an encounter with a welcoming Jesus guiding us to the Inward Light. And Michael Resman had an mystical experience of God in meeting for worship itself, giving him a clarity of purpose which has since guided his life.


In recent months, Friends Journal has been blessed with many more fascinating submissions than we can fit in the pages of our print magazine. In August our website will feature four online-only articles on death and dying that are well worth your time. We’d love to hear your stories and your reactions in the comment threads of the website.


The post Among Friends: Understanding Death through Life appeared first on Friends Journal.

Forum, August 2017

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:25
Hedges, transformations, and breaking points

There is no doubt that Quakers in all four branches (Pastoral, Conservative, Evangelical, and Liberal) are in transition (“Finally Breaking Down the Hedge?” by Thomas Hamm, FJ June/July). The result may well be a “convergence” rather than a “breaking point.” Here are some changes happening in the Quaker world that I’ve observed that will be just fine once clarity emerges.

Liberal yearly meetings  are under pressure to simplify their structures, so their constituent monthly meetings are not burdened with huge apportionments placed on them by their yearly meetings. Newly created Liberal yearly meetings are using modern structures like the Internet to either eliminate apportionments or reduce them greatly.

Conservative Friends (with perhaps the exception of Ohio Yearly Meeting) are fast abandoning the old Conservative Quaker ways and are looking more like Liberal Quakers in their thinking and openness to non-Christian spirituality. This is especially true as Liberal Quaker meetings are doing the reverse: re-embracing the teachings of Jesus as a respected and valued spiritual path in their meetings’ universal spirituality.

Many pastoral Quaker meetings and churches (programmed and semi-programmed) are finding they have more in common with Liberal unprogrammed meetings than they do with many other pastoral Quaker meetings, and they are associating (as individuals or congregations) with Friends General Conference.

Howard Brod
Powhatan, Va.


Thomas Hamm presents a good case that Friends Society might be at a crossroads or even a crisis point. He states that the Hicksite approach was that “purely theological views” belong to the individual and thus are “not a matter for church discipline or disownment.”

I am a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), a Hicksite meeting, and currently an active attender of Duluth-Superior (Minn.) Meeting, and that view strikes an approving chord.

I became a convinced Quaker after years of attendance, principally because it offered a haven for someone with my beliefs and philosophy. I can fully share in the communal observances and still maintain my own personal vision.

It is unfortunate to think, as this article says, that the Quaker community can get so hung up on divisive issues that the whole institution might collapse. “The breaking point may have been reached,” Hamm says. This may reflect contemporary politics, which have forged the country into rigidly partisan camps. Perhaps, too, Hamm is right: we might not be able to continue as Quakers any longer. Bear in mind that, while it is not an appealing idea to entertain, the Religious Society of Friends is an institution created by human beings, and all institutions so created ultimately fail. It could also be a very good time for the Society to evolve.

Ray Allard
Duluth, Minn.


Around 1946 my father, who had been superintendent of Indiana and Jamaica Yearly Meetings as well as a pastor and missionary, cautioned against the admittance of non-Quakers as pastors—or at least those without major education in Friends faith and practice. I would interpret this as a “hedge” against non-Quaker influences, which increased in the latter half of the twentieth century. Another aspect of my father’s “prophetic nature” was his goal in his pastoral and missionary work to work himself out of a job. On the mission field, this meant teaching and training local individuals to take over all aspects of the mission.  At the local meeting level, it meant that congregations should be led to recognize and develop the ministry of every member, so that the pastor might become a “servant leader” rather than anything more.

His feelings about this became so great that in the last few years before his death (at age 57 in 1976), he believed that the pastoral system had ruined Quakerism. I would suggest that in the last 50-plus years his warnings that the “hedge” (not his word, but I suspect he would have agreed) was dying out only became much clearer. I would also suggest that the “other wing” of Friends similarly has lost much of its Friends identity.

Tom Smith
Shoreview, Minn.


Our diverse liveries

Thanks for Marisa Johnson’s “Membership as Commitment and Belonging” (FJ June/July online). I did not choose my birth family, but I choose every other relationship. The number one community is humanity, and I learn to move forward toward it through every relationship, group, and community I choose to commit to. I like William Penn’s reflection of 1693: “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.”

Daniel Flynn
Brussels, Belgium


The good news is that Marisa Johnson’s essay is a sound, eloquent, and reasonably comprehensive account of what Friends consider when they contemplate membership in the Religious Society of Friends. The bad news is that there is usually something missing in our short-sighted, one-sided conception of membership. Ideally it should be, in the Friend’s words, “a mutually supportive, contented companionship; a daily struggle for adjustment and compromise; or an all consuming passion to know and be known.” But Johnson asks, “what kind of marriage” is it in reality?

The answer is that all too often membership in meeting is no more spiritual than membership in any secular volunteer organization. We all know the drill. A secular organization will come to you and say, “Greetings! We think you’re wonderful, and because our organization is wonderful, too, we want you to join us. We want your time, money, and devotion to enable us to do all the cool things we want to do.” But the grim fact is that this is a one-way street. You join the society. There is no promise that the society will join you back.

Your accomplishments and triumphs, no matter how great, will not necessarily be embraced and nurtured. Your sorrows and frustrations, no matter how grave, will not necessarily be taken to heart as a call to action in the community. Now, it is true that the system works splendidly for some people: mostly middle-class, straight Anglo families, and of course, this is why the system survives. But there is little provision made for the differing needs of young and old singles, particularly those without family networks, and Friends are invited here to insert their own awareness of other estranged classes. Families with busy and rewarding social lives find it impossible to imagine the sheer alienation of city life for the average person. Meetings, if they are to be spiritual, are called to respond to such practical and ongoing challenges with an extension of true friendship, in a way that, for example, a neighborhood association is not.

Therein may lie the answer to the old question about why attenders often do not commit to membership. Even though the matter may never rise to enough recognition to be articulated, unconsciously, do you suppose that, perhaps, Spirit recognizes the fraudulent social contract that is being offered, and wants no part of it? Johnson, in a perfectly telling example of the prevailing attitude, asks, “Perhaps membership should allow the exercise of accountability, but how? Should we ensure applicants are well-versed in ‘Quaker ways’—at least as we understand and practice them?”

All this can—and I would suggest, must—be turned around: It may sound revolutionary, or even heretical, but perhaps meetings should exercise accountability to their members. I say this with the authority of a Friend who has intentionally disowned two meetings for their faithlessness, but have now returned to one to seek precisely such accountability. I left meeting to save my Quakerism, and I succeeded, brilliantly. But something calls me back.

Mitchell Santine Gould
Portland, Ore. To whom do we belong?

There are many reasons to retain the important concept of “membership.” I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement of the initial reason of the founders: “they needed to know for whom they were responsible,” as stated in Margaret Fraser’s “Turning Somersaults in the Quaker Ecosystem” (FJ June/July). While that need was different in the founders’ days, I feel strongly that it is still real and will become more real. My generation, the baby boomers, have experienced an unusually prosperous era. It does not take a historian to be aware of life before my generation, and the prospects for our descendants are extremely disconcerting.

Parker Palmer asks all of us two questions: “Who am I?,” which we are all familiar with. And he asks, “To whom do we belong?” To belong to any group, that group must, by definition, identify or separate itself. The purpose of membership should be thought through carefully before discarding.

Daniel O’Keefe
Shorewood, Wis.


We are called Quakers after all

I do tremble quietly in the silent meeting, pretty much every time (“Do Quakers Quake?”, May). It’s the way that my body responds to the presence of the Spirit, and the experience is very peaceful and comforting. At times it can intensify to a stronger shaking, but I try to keep it down, so as not to be a distraction to others in the meeting. Having experienced this for years in worship settings, when I started attending Quaker meetings, I thought it might be appropriate, since the group is indeed called “Quakers.”

Jonathan G.
Vancouver, B.C.

Yes, I have quaked on occasion. In yoga, these are called kriyas, cleansings. We can think of the nervous system, especially the parasympathetic trunk lines that run in a pair of spirals around the central spinal cord, as pipes, as in plumbing. Karma is the buildup of tension stored in the neuroendocrine and muscular systems, deposits in the pipes that obstruct the flow of prana, life force, holy spirit. In plumbing running too much water through the pipes makes them shake. When centering deeply, when a lot of spirit gets moving in the nervous system, it shakes. My transcendental meditation teachers said that this shaking was the release of this tension, of this accretion karma in the nervous system.

Steven Davison
Philadelphia, Pa.


This is part of our Pentecostal, charismatic, mystical Christian roots that parts of the Quaker family no longer know about. I call myself a Quaking Quaker, but since switching my yearly meeting I no longer quake as much as I used to.

Coming to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared is harder for me. Also, my current worship group contains less people who come to worship in “expectant waiting.” We rarely gather as a majority in the Spirit and go deeper together.

I still quake three to four times per year, and the cleansing it brings helps me a lot. Sometimes the revelation is just for myself, and other times for the group or someone else in the group.

We know from our past that it takes sensitive souls to act as prophetic witnesses and that these concerns are then tested by the worshiping community. If we are to see the changes we are called to bring about then should we not be encouraging more quaking?

Hamburg, Germany


Finding a deeper sense of purpose

A couple of thoughts on Mackenzie Morgan’s “We Need a YAF” (FJ June/July online), one tactical and one more strategic.

The tactical one is about naming things. Our rural Lopez Island (Wash.) Meeting is relatively new. A few years back we had the luxury of creating and naming committees from scratch. We gave those names some discernment as we wanted the name to help remind us what the committee was actually about. So good old Ministry and Oversight Committee was named the Spiritual Life Committee. Nominating was renamed (echoing one of Morgan’s themes), the Gifts and Talents Committee. Does the name solve all problems? Of course not. Do we now perfectly discern gifts and place Friends in the perfect role? No. But I will say that being more intentional about the naming of things does provide us with a touchstone to come back to when we struggle. It is a way of being intentional and public about what our current hope and charge is for that committee.

The second more strategic thought is also about mission and purpose, but at a broader level. In what might come as a surprise to some Friends, the Religious Society of Friends does not exist to provide Friends with committees that they can struggle to fill. The committees are absolutely not the end. We seem to continually forget that. We forget that when we name our committees. We forget that in how we staff our committees. We forget that when we never lay down committees or bring new ones to life.

If we could recapture the deeper sense of purpose and prophetic calling for the Religious Society of Friends—or as I like to refer to it, the Quaker Movement—then what committees we need would become much clearer. If you know your purpose and why it is important, then organizing to fulfill that purpose becomes pretty straightforward, and the energy to do those necessary things rises up.

John Helding
Lopez Island, Wash.


If Morgan’s intention was to stimulate thought about what gifts one has and how to use them, she was successful with me. I hope others will be similarly inspired. I remember using these considerations when I served on a nominating committee in the past, but I haven’t practiced much discernment about my roles since then. Thanks for reminding me of the essence of committee work.

Holly Anderson
Ventura, Calif.


We seem to want new people without actually wanting to be affected by their difference or changing ourselves to actually be more welcoming. We need to reflect on our actual “openness and understanding in what we’re unfamiliar with.” We need to be Friendly with being uncomfortable. Always sticking with what’s comfortable is really un-Quaker-like as well as a recipe for actively reducing new members.

Sonja Darai
Somerville, Mass.

The post Forum, August 2017 appeared first on Friends Journal.

The Tapestry of Meeting for Worship

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:20
A Friend at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Mass.) was recently asked by a non-Quaker why she didn’t privately meditate instead of attending First-day worship. She responded by noting the importance of connecting with others in our meeting community. While important, this hardly captures what makes meeting profound, special, and sacred, which has been revealed to me layer by layer, through decades of worshiping in meeting. As a junior member in meeting for worship, the hour took an eternity to pass. The silence was a boring void from which🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Tue, 2017-08-01 03:15

(c) archiwiz

For as long as I can remember, my father’s piano playing, self-taught and imperfect, accompanied the hymns at our Quaker service on Christmas Eve. Ours is not the most tuneful congregation, but it matters — theologically, even — that the hymns are created together, and not delivered to us from some perfect choir. Dad’s piano formed a line, a cord, over which we draped our ragged voices, as we together unfurled the songs.

This Christmas Eve, without his piano, the songs had no center. Raw and uncertain, our voices never settled on a single key. Others may have found that a joyful noise, but I did not. I could not. Though I will consider it a fitting noise to mark last winter, when so many of us found ourselves missing the comforting center we used to believe we had.

My parents were committed news watchers (my mother still is), and last July, during my father’s final hospital stay, he kept up that habit. Each night, he watched talking heads present the events of the Republican National Convention, and for my father that monstrous pageantry did not end when he turned off the television. As he slept — fitfully, alone in a hospital, aware that he was at the end of his days — Donald J. Trump haunted his dreams. Trump was, if not quite my father’s worst nightmare, perhaps his final bad dream.

I do not often rise to anger. But in my parents’ house one of those nights, I decided to watch the convention myself, and I felt my anger rise to disgust. A white man on stage promised law and order to an almost all-white audience ,  living in a nation with falling crime rates. A black man labeled his fellow black men and women rioters and anarchists   because they had the nerve to declare that they deserved to live. Meanwhile, the police department led by that same man was under investigation for killing an inmate through “profound dehydration.” The water had been turned off in his cell. I had to turn off the television.

I was much calmer a few weeks later as I read an essay at my father’s memorial service. It centered around a line from Wendell Berry’s poetry: “the dark conceals all possibilities.”

I meant that line to honor my father’s investigations of the unknown: his scientific research; his world travels; even his work in his garden, dipping his hands through the darkness of dirt, which, through the only magic I believe in — the only magic I need — converts the putrefaction of death into new life. I meant to find a way to see death as a darkness that could also give us hope.

I did not know that I was already living in a different kind of darkness. Most of us in that room, during the memorial service, were. Three months later, as we watched the election results pour in, we learned we had not known the world in which we lived. I had to turn the television off again.

The next morning was in some ways harder for me than the morning my father died. I was more beaten; I was more dismayed. My father had been dying, first slowly and then quickly ; when his death arrived, I had known it was on its way. But I had failed to imagine the reality of a President Trump. I know I was not the only one. Now I see the election as a kind of reminder: we always live in darkness, and darkness conceals all possibilities — and not all possibilities are good.


My family’s arrival at Christmas Eve service used to be a production. Dad would squeeze in a few last minutes of practice at home, and then we’d stuff a lamp into the trunk of the Prius so he could read the music in the dark meetinghouse, and then we’d hustle off, to ensure an early arrival and seating close to the fire at the front of the cold meetingroom.

Last Christmas Eve, I arrived just as the service was starting, and sat alone near the back. I tried — hard — to find beauty in the tuneless, unaccompanied singing. On a pop record, you’ll hear the off-kilter harmonies of a children’s choir, intended to convey an innocent joy. Perhaps others could hear that on Christmas Eve. At best, I could tell myself that despite the gloom, despite my father’s absent through line, still we continued to sing.

I slipped out as soon as the service was over, so that I didn’t have to answer questions and greetings from acquaintances whose names I couldn’t remember. As I left, I visited the permagarden my father had helped plant behind the meetinghouse. Nothing was blooming, of course, and it was dark anyway, so all I could see were the gravestones rising in the night — old, old gravestones, which predate the construction of the meetinghouse. Though my father is not buried there, those markers reminded me that there are plans to name the garden in his honor, that this is where we plan to scatter some of his ashes (which still sit in a box in a closet), that this garden is where I will need to come whenever I want to feel a physical proximity with my dad. I rarely cry: once or twice every few years, though lately, if I watch a sentimental movie, I can feel tears close. Standing in the garden, tears finally came.

My mother and sister stayed home, not ready for hymns without my father’s accompaniment—thus my lonely presence at the back of the room. Why put myself through it? I contemplated that question the next day — Christmas, of course — as my family, diminished by one, spread ourselves across a trail in the woods.

Hiking is one of the few group activities that we all enjoy, so whenever we’re home for the holidays, we head for the woods. I walked ahead, unspooling this essay in my mind — the trail, like my father’s piano, becoming a line over which to hang ragged words and ideas.

In the months since my father’s death, I’ve arrived at a metaphor for my heart, which of course is already a metaphor. Sometimes it feels as if I’ve packed the harder emotions — anger, sure, but sadness most of all — into a black box, which I then lowered into the depths of my gut. It all occurs somehow beyond my command, beyond even my knowledge. The box sits down there, hiding its contents, which is why I went to the service: I wanted to dredge up the black box.

Yes, the dark contains possibilities. In the months since my father’s death (and in the months since the election), I have found myself becoming the person I have always intended to be. I have stopped driving so much and ride my bike around town, just like my father did. I have planted a garden, a memorial, though it hasn’t always bloomed. I have quit my job, and now when people ask me what I do, the answer is the precise dream of my childhood: I am a writer, I tell them. This flourishing is what I spoke of at my father’s memorial service: Death is difficult, but death is the price of the wildness that makes life worth living at all. The dark contains all possibilities.

But that means the dark contains too ,  as Wendell Berry admits in the poem I quoted ,  death itself. It contains despair. It contains — in my father’s last nightmare come true — the stink of despotism in our beloved democracy. But we would be fools to pretend that the bilious possibilities now exposed are novel; we were fools not to have seen them before.

This all sounds grim, but it also reminds me that in that tuneless, unaccompanied Christmas Eve singing was a kind of light: light shining down onto my heart’s black box. And there is light in our election, too. If the dark conceals all possibilities, then the light wakes us. The light clarifies. The light, I hope, can show us the way out.

The post Unaccompanied appeared first on Friends Journal.

A Quaker’s Passing: My Father’s Way

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:10
Final portrait of Shannon Zimmerman’s father done by her older sister Erika Delzell Zimmerman. Courtesy of the author. My sisters and I were raised in a small town in Colorado that did not have its own Quaker meeting. Though my father would sometimes drive to the next town to attend meeting, we never went as a family. My sisters and I were, at first appearance, raised outside🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Heaven-based Living

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:05

For many years, I thought that heaven was an abstract and irrelevant concept. At most it was a comforting and vague belief, carried forward from my childhood with no certainty or specificity. As for the future, I thought that only good people get into heaven, while hoping and assuming that I was one of the chosen. Such hopes required ignoring my less stellar behaviors, as well as the limited and occasional relationship I had with the Divine.

Since my epiphany experience, heaven has been the moment-to-moment basis of my life.

Twenty-five years ago, I was going through a time of personal crisis. While praying in meeting for worship, I was lifted to heaven and into the presence of God for ten minutes. Those minutes transformed my life. I have since been blessed with other spiritual encounters, but was in heaven only once. I took away from that brief time two certainties: God is perfect love, and heaven is forever.

Neither of these is a unique concept. I had long thought that God was loving, and had assumed the afterlife was eternal. Seeing God—being immersed, saturated, and consumed in that great love—was far more wonderful than I could have imagined. A glimpse of eternity was greater than any concept I had held, greater than I could comprehend or communicate. All these years later, I am confounded and comforted by the expansive enormity of eternity.

Having encountered perfect love, I have since looked forward to dying and returning to heaven. Some Friends have told me this is an unhealthy attitude. For me, it is the basis of a joyful life. How could it be otherwise, knowing the love that awaits me? Following my peak experience, I know God exists, loves me, and waits for me.


After my epiphany, I pondered many questions in light of what I knew of God’s love. I wondered why there seems to be little justice in this world, and what happens after death. My answers reflect decades of prayer and thought, and not what I had directly experienced. Thus, “insights” is an accurate term. I don’t know if they are true, but they are my understanding.

I’ve concluded that everyone goes to heaven; that we will spend eternity with those we have loved, helped, and harmed; and that we will be confronted with the consequences of all we have done.

There are a number of passages in the Bible that refer to some exclusivity about getting into heaven, and that those who don’t make it end up in hell where they encounter the Devil. The only evil I have encountered in my spiritual life is the potential that resides in me.

I don’t believe that humans are inherently sinful. Instead, we are souls temporarily wrapped in the skin of an animal. If I were to let loose the hungers that arise from my being an animal, I would cause great harm. When joined by other people, I could be part of horrific actions. As for hell, I can’t conceive of perfect love condemning anyone to eternal, impossible-to-rectify misery.

On the other hand, I also can’t understand how humans—limited and flawed as we are—can convince ourselves that we will spend eternity in perpetual bliss. None of us deserves that. We have all acted in ways that are contrary to the example of perfect love. God loves us not because we have earned or deserve it, but because God is infinitely merciful. Time and again, I have fallen on my face and crawled to God asking for forgiveness, and I am forgiven.

I cannot, however, fool myself that God’s forgiveness means that all is forgotten: forgiven, yes; forgotten, no. I am convinced that there is justice in eternity.


The central reality in heaven is our immersion in love. When I experienced it, God’s love for me was greater than the love all mothers throughout the history of the world have felt for their children. This great love waits for each of us and will be our central reality, the ground of our being. Resting in this love, our eyes will be opened. As humans, we see and understand little. Our only infinite capacity is self-justification. In heaven, the blinders come off, and we will see our actions and their widespread consequences.

Some of these sights will be wonderful. I have seen the souls of my father and grandfather waiting for me on a pine-studded shore, where we canoed together. Joyful reunions will start eternal celebrations of loving relationships. The results of our compassionate acts while on earth will be revealed, many of them traveling far further than we realized.

Other sights will be very painful. Whether deliberate or thoughtless, we will see the full effects of the harm we caused. The outcomes of our participation in societal and national actions will be undeniable. The willful ignorance of injustice, suffering, poverty, starvation, and illness that so many in affluent countries practice will be seen.

I expect that in addition to those I loved and helped that I will spend eternity with the souls of those I hurt and harmed. I have an image of spending that time with the soul of a child from the developing world who died of disease or malnutrition on my lap. I did not cause the death, but didn’t do enough to prevent it.

The judgment that I fear after death is not God’s or St. Peter’s, but mine. Our time on earth is an opportunity to grow in holiness, acting as agents of God’s mercy. I am sobered by the thought of forever facing what I could have done when alive. This reality propels me to grow in compassion and generosity while always humbly seeking God’s will.

This is not a vision of heaven that many want to hear, but how can it be otherwise? Many mystics have stated that we are all one, joined together in God’s heart before we were born, and again when we die. It is only when we’re on earth that we’re oblivious.


My understanding of heaven influences my daily life. I am filled with spiritual joy and gratitude. What’s the worst that could happen in any given circumstance? I could die and go to heaven. It also determines my view of others. There is no “us and them,” not even a “you and me”; we are all one. What hurts or helps you, hurts or helps me. I must spend my life loving God and my fellow humans, while carrying out the tasks put before me. I live in the knowledge that I am loved, now and forever.

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A Simple State of Being That Never Truly Dies

Tue, 2017-08-01 03:00
I was present for the births of my three sons, and I was present for the deaths of both my parents. All five incidents occurred before I became a Quaker and were benchmarks for my understanding of life and death. Years before these life-changing moments had happened, I taught an elective course on death and dying in our local high school English🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Children and Death

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:55

My mom died of cancer when I was 12, which lit the spark for my 40-year career as a children’s oncologist. The culture in 1950s’ Britain was to avoid discussing death, especially around children. I wasn’t told of her passing until three days later, on a brief excursion home from my boarding school. Twenty-five years later, I immigrated to America and by chance was introduced to Quakers in Columbus, Ohio. It was a troubling time in my life. I had ended my marriage and was struggling with the stresses of culture shock and long-distance parenting. But I knew I’d found an instant spiritual home in that worshipful silence and its encouragement to listen prayerfully for the still, small voice. Something about being received by loving Friends and listened to without judgment let me finally start to shed the cumulative grief I had suppressed since early adolescence.

I’m often asked how I could spend my working life around seriously ill children, often close to death, and remain fulfilled. I’ve come to see that such work gives back at least as much as I bring to it: in intimate, loving relationships with these young people, families, and coworkers. The artificial barriers we erect fall away.

Caring for these children came to be a profound source of comfort. They inspired me not only through their courage and resilience, but also by their seeming acceptance of the hand fate dealt them. Though some would recover and lead healthy lives, many would not. It wasn’t in my job description to take time at the end of the day to sit on their beds and learn about their lives, and share something of my own. It was at the bedside of these children and families that I had the chance to touch the core of the doctor–patient relationship. Part of me certainly felt a sense of failure that I couldn’t always offer effective treatment. But in the face of a five-year-old’s incurable cancer, I also realized how my presence at the end served a purpose. I’d moved from busy fixer to silent witness, from objective professional to listening companion.


Becoming a Quaker taught me belief in “spirit medicine.” I’m happy to say most medical schools now have coursework on dying and on spirituality in medicine, but I learned almost everything I know from my patients—by paying good attention and finding out what worked. And thank heaven for humor: it can sometimes make the unbearable bearable. My friend Patch Adams says, “Show me the evidence that solemnity ever cured anything!” And to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, children like angels can fly, because they take themselves lightly.

My Quaker beliefs made me aware how vital it is to bring body, mind, and spirit to work each day and, since there is that of God in everyone, to be ready to find that still, small space not just in every person but in every situation. Whenever I could remember to bring a small part of the meditative silence of Quaker worship to the bedside, it could come to feel more like communion than conversation. This was the one thing that let me make a true connection. Children are often more in touch with their spiritual selves than grown-ups, perhaps especially so when confronting a life-endangering illness.

Soon after I became an attending physician in a university hospital, a 16-year-old boy with advanced bone cancer (I’ll call him “Brian”) was referred to me by a radiation oncologist. When I first went into his hospital room, he was stretched out on a gurney in obvious pain, his parents on either side. It wasn’t until I came closer and our eyes met that I saw abruptly that this whole scenario was an uncharted sea for me. I’d never had to tell a patient, let alone an adolescent, that I had little to offer save comfort. I’d certainly never uttered that spectral D word. In all the conversations I’d been present at between senior doctors and patients, I’d never seen true candor shown. None of my teachers had even talked privately about how such dialogues should go; it wasn’t in the teaching curriculum.

So here I was, and here the buck stopped. I couldn’t duck the truth and be true to myself. I sensed the tension in the room, but Brian was holding my look, like it was high time someone talked to him about what was going on. I had a strong intuition to talk to Brian directly, and not wait till I could talk about him behind his back with his parents. I pulled my chair up close to his side, put a hand on his forearm, and asked about his symptoms, whether he was getting enough pain meds (it didn’t look like it), and how his treatments had been. He was hard to draw out until I asked about how he liked to spend his time. He loosened up, mentioned friends who came around, managed a wry grin about missing so much school. After a bit, I brought his parents in on the conversation, asking them what the other doctor had told them. They were awkward talking freely in front of Brian, but when they saw I wasn’t in a rush to leave and was encouraging them to open up a little, things began to flow. And that dreaded C word—cancer—came up for what was surely the first time among the three of them.


For my part, I had another, happier epiphany: listening largely in silence was a whole lot easier than filling the air with words. It gave me the chance to sense not just their understanding but the emotional temperature among them—and gave me time to frame my own approach. I started talking about what it really meant for treatments to stop working. I told them about chemotherapy, what they could reasonably expect and at what expense in terms of side effects. I let each bit sink in, while giving myself time to breathe and take in their response. I told them they must weigh things among themselves and not rush their decision—and that I’d be happy to look after Brian, help with his pain and other symptoms, whether or not he chose to get the chemo. They didn’t ask about the future, and no one used the D word, but its presence was palpable.

I looked after Brian throughout the next six weeks until his death. He didn’t speak freely in his parents’ presence, but we found opportunities to talk privately and frankly about what to expect as his time approached. What I learned from my teenaged mentor was that he didn’t fear death, but did worry about how desperately hard it would be for his parents. He seemed to accept that his short life had meaning and had served some purpose. Raised in a high Anglican religious tradition, he believed quite simply that there was a heaven awaiting him. He talked less and less toward the end, so I allowed us both to take comfort from the growing quiet of his private room. I told him about my Quaker form of worship, and had the strong sense he understood that my sitting with him silently was a prayerful act.

After his death, I was talking to another pediatric oncologist about my conversations with Brian, and she told me she felt it better to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” rather than come right out and tell a young person that they were going to die.


Later in my career, I became the medical director of a children’s hospice, giving me many opportunities to visit children with incurable and life-limiting illnesses in their homes. I was usually able to be at the bedside when a child died. I became very close to a four-year-old girl, Marie, whose treatments were no longer working. When she came home for the last time, Marie made it clear she didn’t want to sleep in her bedroom anymore. Her mom told me she’d been frightened of something—perhaps some presence—in there, though her daughter wasn’t able to articulate what bothered her. Marie was insistent about wanting to have her family close at hand at all times, so they made up a comfy mattress-bed on the living room floor, and her parents took turns sleeping beside her. Then on the evening before her death, she suddenly announced to Mommy that she wanted to go back into her bedroom “to play with my friends.” Within minutes of being tucked in her own bed for the first time in several weeks, she closed her eyes and slipped away. We were left to ponder the somehow comforting mystery of who those friends of hers might be.

I wrote the following requiem for Marie, and for other children I have known and lost.

Flowers and Soldiers

An ill-timed final frost felled my March azalea regiments;
a happening no more rational than the child’s death.
Last night they’d paraded, stems erect, my guard of rose and crimson,
shedding their wind-jarred petal-deck to mark my frontier posts.

Like this chosen child they’d shimmered shortly in an early sun.
Now my nursery box brims with their brave residue.
Their soldier paint has run to rust in the crevices of cedar chip,
they who left without notice, unwilling that age should wrinkle them.


How to talk about death and dying to very ill people and their families is only now finding a place in medical school curricula. Many students still get little training in how to break bad news. The paraphernalia of medical care can keep people alive almost indefinitely, even when we feel we are acting against our conscience. To break bad news “well” requires a capacity for closeness. Such a connection between doctor and patient must come not from our technical training but from our hearts—heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit converge in the human self. This in turn asks the gift of our presence, the gift of our time. The word servant comes from the Greek, θεραπς (theraps), from which we get therapist. But servant also means attendant, and nowadays that label gets attached to us doctors—the “attending” physician. To my mind, the best attendings are those who can bring to their work what the Tibetan Buddhists call compassionate objectivity, especially in the care of dying patients.


At the time of my retirement, I took the notion to write a letter to my mother, who by then had been dead for 50 years. I had recently taken to writing occasional longhand letters, especially to my sisters, as a small protest against the impersonality of email correspondence. I had no expectation that she might “get” my letter in some non-earthly delivery, but I’d discovered that writing letters to our beloved dead is an ancient epistolary art form. It features in both C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s The Wheel of Life. There are surviving fragments of such letters written on papyrus, pottery bowls, and linen dating from Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2700–2200 B.C.E.). The word “mourning” derives from the Indo-Germanic for remembering, that Scott Becker and Roger Knudson described in 2003 as “moving into the mythopoetic space in which the living and the dead coexist.”

In the heyday of letter writing, letters must have felt like direct oral communication, a continued conversation between two people physically distant from each other. They would have arrived on your doorstep with the expectation of a reply, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to receive a prompt one from Mom. In October 2007, three weeks after writing my letter, my sister Elizabeth’s husband died after a long illness. Back at her house after the funeral, Elizabeth produced a letter with a British stamp on the envelope, and the date and place of mailing clearly visible:  Weston-super-Mare (our childhood home in England), December 31, 1954. Ten days before our mother died.

“John, I was going through several boxes that we’d left undisturbed for years,” Elizabeth told me, “and I came across this unopened letter from 1954. Isn’t it astonishing? It even talks about her wanting you to become a doctor.”

The letter read in part:

My darling Elizabeth, Mary, Jane and John, my best beloveds, I shall not be far away from you, always watching your proud achievements. . . . John, I hope you set your goal early on and go for it. I think you will choose medicine . . . remember the two principles I instilled in you—Faith and Fortitude.

God Bless you, Mummy

I told my sister that I didn’t remember our mother ever bringing the idea of a medical career up to me: “And to think that’s what she wanted for me all along. The really astonishing thing, though, is that I wrote a letter to her less than a month ago, telling her all about what I ended up doing with my life.”


I think the word “afterlife” is something of a misnomer. It seems to lend credence to the idea espoused by many religions that we are still living in some quasi-mortal sense after we die. The term “after-death” seems simpler and has no such connotations. Believing every one of us has that of God within leads me to think that is what does persist after our deaths. But does that something continue to have some kind of after-death connection to our best beloveds, or even to others we’ve known on this earth? We’ll just have to wait and see.

The post Children and Death appeared first on Friends Journal.

Weeping to Joy

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:50

The author (center) with her sister Bonnie (left) and mother. Photo taken a few months before Bonnie’s death. Photo courtesy of the author.

The morning after my little sister died, I found my mom sobbing in her bed. She was turned to one side, her back to me, crumpled atop the blanket on her old, uneven mattress. She wore street clothes, a blouse and soft slacks. I could see her face was red and wet. Now in addition to my own pain was the helplessness of seeing my unselfish, ever-believing mother that way. It didn’t seem right, and I immediately began to cry too.  I hadn’t felt angry about Bonnie’s passing til that moment, and it ignited me, like a hot ember seeking to scald.

“We trusted God! We trusted Him,” I wailed, tears pouring from my eyes. “How could He let this happen? We believed! He was supposed to heal Bonnie! We believed!”

I stood there feeling mocked by the One who was supposed to be the lover of my soul; the One who said we could carry all things to Him and find rest; the One who promised that the faith of a mustard seed could move mountains.

What was keeping a 15-year-old alive just a while longer so she might receive a double lung transplant? That should be nothing to Him. She was healthy in every other way.

We did nothing but praise God. We had turned our lives to Him holding nothing back. We had moved from small town to small town, often subsisting on sacrificial wages so my dad could preach in Quaker churches. I frequently endured ridicule for being the new kid, and I had turned the other cheek. Where was God now?

My mother’s eyes grew wide, and she sat straight up in bed, her whole countenance suddenly clean and bright.

“God did heal Bonnie,” she said with absolute calm. “Just not in the way we expected.”

My anger extinguished as soon as it had sparked. I collapsed into bed with her for the first time since I was a child. Now at age 17, I soaked her shirt with the salt of my tears.


The days after that were strange.

First was the body. It was odd to be let into the large, wood-paneled room with an open casket in the center. I was both excited and frightened to see her. My dad had asked me to choose the clothes to bury her in. I remember wanting her to be stylish but not overdressed—cool, hip, yet classic and uniquely her. I wondered if she would be flattered, appalled, or relieved that I was choosing her last outfit. Many kids from school would see her. How does one dress a young corpse? This was never a feature in any of my teen magazines. As I packed the bag for the funeral home, I remember asking myself, “Would she need socks? Undergarments?” I hated having to think of these things.

The mortician had applied thick foundation and makeup to Bonnie’s face. She was a shriveled, cold, firm version of herself. There but not there. I touched her hand. It also had makeup on it.

The wake wouldn’t begin for at least an hour. What would we do? “Let’s pray around her,” my dad suggested.

My parents and two youngest sisters took hands, encircling Bonnie’s large, wooden casket. We bowed our heads.

As soon as we began speaking, I became aware of her presence in the room. I felt her energy, but she was hovering behind me outside the circle. I felt her, this Light of bright radiance. I knew she was there! I felt two other presences with her, this semi-human-shaped orb of presence. My back was turned, but I sensed it as almost blue in color. The other presence was ancient. It appeared almost gray in color, hovering near the top of the room. I didn’t turn to look, and I was not afraid. I was joyful. Bonnie was there—this sudden intensity in both the reunion and the separation.


It had never crossed my mind that Bonnie might die, despite the severity of her medical condition: she was on a waiting list for a double lung transplant. We never discussed it. We were assured that she would have a new set of lungs before then. An eventual transplant was assumed, as though she would need braces for her teeth someday.

She was two years younger than me, salutatorian of her class. She was studious and a whiz at math, always ahead of me in that subject. She was taller than me, blonde, had a serious disposition, and was a voracious reader. She had deep friendships, but navigating social scenes was always easier for me. We annoyed one another to no end. Yet when times were tough we pulled together.

Months before she died, Bonnie read a book, Embraced by the Light, about a woman’s near-death experience. I sat on the floor of her bedroom one evening as she described it to me. I was rarely in her room. The author, Betty J. Eadie, described the pre-existence of souls in a heavenly space. Eadie said we choose our bodies and our families.

There were so many things that were hard about our family at the time, and I found it amusing to consider that I had somehow wanted the life around me. Through squinted eyes I said, “Why do you think you chose to be my sister then?” Quickly she replied, “If we weren’t sisters, there’s no way I would hang out with you on purpose.”

A heavy pause led to bubbling laughter. I knew this to be true for both of us.

After her death, I wanted to know if she had felt pain? What were the last moments like? Was she afraid? Where was she now? What was she doing? These questions plagued me.


Late one night a few weeks after her funeral, there was a knock at the door. We weren’t expecting company. I held back, curious and surprised by a visitor.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry to come so late and unannounced.” It was Mama Lewis, a well-known woman in the community. She was a substitute teacher, a local pastor’s wife with a larger-than-life personality and a thick Southern accent. There is an understood level of competition between pastor families in small towns, but there can be an intimacy too, unspoken in the shared experience of a public and private life.

I remember Mama Lewis standing there, her black hair with wisps of gray wildly combed outward above thickly framed glasses. Her body was heavy and strong in the entryway of our aging home. She had never visited here before.

“I just had to come right away. I had to tell you what happened,” she said, her eyes wide and rimmed in wet magenta.

She said it was about Bonnie, and we huddled, mouths open. I stood there confused and intrigued by the sound of her name, which I had been hearing less and less.

“I was vacuuming in my home,” she began. “And I was thinking of Bonnie. As I stood there in the landing of my stairs, I heard a voice, and it quoted the scripture, ‘In my Father’s house, there are many rooms . . .’ and then the voice went on to say, ‘and this one is Bonnie’s.’”

She said she turned and was filled with a vision. She saw my sister in a bedroom. She described the space, and it was nearly identical to my sister’s physical room in our house. She described the rose tones and pale blues, the flowers, the flowing curtains. She said Bonnie was in the middle of the room. Her hair was caught in a breeze and she was shining. She said her cheeks were so pink, as were her lips and nail beds too. This was notable because in the weeks before Bonnie had passed, her oxygen levels had dropped and those parts of her skin were often tinged a slight blue.

I was dazzled by the account—curious and comforted. If there is some sort of afterlife, I don’t think we get permanently stuck in our earthly designs. But I do think there is a message of landing in a place that is comfortable and good, with new healed bodies . . . as mysterious as it all is, this nebulous fate that awaits us all.

I trusted Mama Lewis: the passion in her voice, the way she trembled. When she spoke, I felt her too: Bonnie.


My mother tells the story that my sister was nearly four weeks overdue. It was summer, and she was swollen, miserable, and desperate. She found herself reading Psalm 30 alone in the darkness. The psalm is about deliverance and finding comfort and favor in the One. Whatever dismay we feel in our sense of separation will be bridged. The passage assures that God will provide healing—even celebration—turning our weeping into joy. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes the morning” (Psalm 30:5). She vowed to make the baby’s middle name Joy. Her contractions began the next morning.

That same verse is now etched on my sister’s tombstone.


The Bible says a day in heaven is like a thousand years for us. I started doing the math: 15 minutes. We’ll all be together again in roughly 15 heavenly minutes, maybe less. Times of prayer and aching sometimes feel like text messages sent back and forth. “On my way.” “On my way!” “I’ll be there soon.”

Together we move, companions on this journey, not knowing when we will arrive, exactly what it will be like, or whom we will encounter when we get there. We simply reach out for connection in any place or person where the Spirit may be found. Joy meets us in the discovery—tiny tastes of what is to come. Lord Jesus, we wait.

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Measuring Joy

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:45

(c) pauchi

(with gratitude to Camay Murphy)

My grandmother put a little sugar in everything she cooked.
A teaspoon here, a pinch there, a whole cup in her apple pie.

And we ate everything.
And loved it.

I grew up to believe that all food was delicious,
that mealtime was never to be missed,

and because I knew that everything
my grandmother cooked was graced with love,

no matter what happened during the day,
dinner healed with its sweetness.

Every night I went to bed
with that taste in my mouth

and every morning I met the school bus,

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Friends Bearing Food

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:40
(c) Vicuschka   Word goes out, and they start to come from close and far, leaving behind the cleaning and sawmill and fields, the ironing and TV, somehow fitting themselves into patterns as stable as the seasons: the widows first, in better tune with this sort of thing: “Honey, I just heard . . .” but with warning enough to have🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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The Woman Who Refused to Take “No” for an Answer

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:35

The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly.

And Other Testimonies of Equality and Community in Early Christianity

“At once a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him and came and fell at his feet. Now this woman was a gentile, by birth a Syrophoenician, and she begged him to drive the devil out of her daughter.” —Mark 7:24–30

Equality and community are two of four (or more) “Quaker Testimonies” that Howard Brinton in his classic introduction to Friends understands as broad expressions of a living Christian faith. I have noticed these two testimonies in particular in gospel stories and letters of the early church. Jesus’s encounters with women and “gentiles” are numerous, suggesting an emphasis on feminine leadership and inclusiveness.

In the story of the cure of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, for example, Jesus is suddenly convinced to minister to non-Jews after his encounter with this woman. To me this suggests a turning point in his mission. The narrative is a bold stroke, the only one in the Christian canon in which “Messiah” is outwitted—and by a woman! The universalist implications of this story come from a covenant obligation to return all the world’s people to sanity (Exodus 19.5–6; Isaiah 49.6).

But evidently Jesus doesn’t yet welcome non-Jews to his healing ministry; he initially rejects the woman’s appeal for help for her mentally ill daughter by telling her, “The children [Jews] should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs [non-Jews].” Jesus has not only said “no,” he uses insulting language. “Dogs” were sacred prostitutes of Canaanite fertility rites so abhorrent to the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 23.18–19). The woman could have responded in kind, but does not; instead she keeps her wits and answers him, “Ah yes, sir . . . but little dogs under the table eat the scraps from the children.”

He responds, “For saying this you can go home happy; the devil has gone out of your daughter.” The response implies that the result is not from something Jesus has said or done, but from her trust in him. Her daughter not only will live a normal life henceforth, but this courageous and persevering woman evidently changed Jesus’s mind about ministering to non-Jews.

Other gospel evidence of gender equality

There are stories of women having a stronger natural faithfulness than men, especially “men in charge” (Mark 5.21–43; John 4.1–54). In the Mary/Martha story Jesus encourages women to leave tradition-bound roles and become his disciples (Luke 10.38–42). Friend Elizabeth Watson (Wisdom’s Daughters), observes that there were so many female disciples of Jesus they could not be named (see Luke 8.1–3).

Though it is popular to think of the emissary Paul as anti-woman, some evidence says otherwise: Paul expressed gratitude for key women in the gatherings, evidently thinking nothing strange about feminine leadership (Romans 16.1–16). He also encouraged spoken ministry by women, often in opposition to gentile conventions (1 Corinthians 11.3–16). He admonished the gatherings to consider God’s view of equality, in which ethnicity, rank, and gender do not figure (Galatians 3.26–29).

Paul nurtured every aspect of inclusivity in church organization as well, going so far as to say that people who never heard of Jesus or the Bible could be faithful servants of God as revealed by their carriage and life; it was as if they had the “law engraved on their hearts” (Romans 2.13–16). He also cautioned people who spontaneously reverted to their village dialects—“tongues”—while giving Spirit-filled ministry, to do so only if someone could translate their message into “market Greek” so everyone could understand the message (1 Corinthians 14.1–28).

Friends’ views of gender equality and universalism

Friends expected women to minister, though there was some controversy around this at first (see George Fox’s Journal). Perhaps this is not unexpected in a nascent seventeenth-century religious movement that is bucking 8,000 years of male domination of human affairs, which was not the case for most of human evolution. It is clear how Fox and most Quakers felt about this issue. Fox boldly challenges Margaret Fell, changing her life forever: “Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say?”

Friends’ theology embraced the universality of Jesus’s message. The church that really mattered they said was “the invisible church,” its worldwide members faithfully following God’s guidance unaware of each other’s existence! All of us who have traveled outside our cultural comfort zone with eyes and ears wide open have met such people and know exactly what Robert Barclay meant (Apology, 1676). To him, these members of Christ’s body are “walking cheerfully” and living as “patterns and examples” for “everyone of every nation” unselfconsciously—like Paul’s faithful who have the law engraved on their hearts. Moreover, Barclay sought support for Quaker ideas in traditions both distinct from and within Christianity in his classic defense of Friends.

Thus Friends’ idea of religious organization followed the maxim “keep it simple.” Friends emphasized personal responsibility, burden-sharing, and ministry by everyone, each according to his/her light and gift.

The tale of the cure of a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter shows that women and non-Jews were thought to have as much in the department of wits and faithfulness as any man or birthright Jew. This narrative is a striking illustration of the Quaker testimonies of equality and community in early Christian discourse.

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News, August 2017

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:30
Great Plains Yearly Meeting expanding Two new monthly meetings joined Great Plains Yearly Meeting during its annual yearly meeting held June 1–4 in Wichita, Kans. Topeka (Kans.) Meeting and Lubbock (Tex.) Friends of Christ joined meetings from Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska in the regional group. “We are celebrating these meetings joining with us and are so thankful for God’s work here in our region,” said LaVonna Loesch, presiding clerk of Great Plains Yearly Meeting. The theme of the yearly meeting was “Unifying Our Community with Courage🔒 Friends Journal Member? Sign in here!
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Death and Dying: A Personal Adventure

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:03

©2017 Rebekah West. Used by permission.

Death is a fact of life. It is the ultimate life passage. Death and dying is a great adventure in which we all participate. It can also be a gift, transforming how we live our lives.

We have all experienced death at various times in our lives. Some have had more encounters with death and dying than others and some at younger ages. Some actively engage in the process and some choose to avoid it as long as they can. Many people fear death, but there are others who have cultivated a deeper understanding of their own mortality and are not afraid to die.

My life has been marked and measured by the passing of friends and family members, some who died suddenly in car accidents or by suicide and others over a period of time from a terminal illness. Death and dying have shaped my life.


My understanding of death and dying was honed by a dear friend. When we were 28 years old, she learned that the many lumps in her breasts were not merely cysts, as she had been told when she was younger, but malignant tumors. The cancer had metastasized throughout her body. This brilliant writer and soon-to-be lawyer was given three to six months to live.

Over the course of the ensuing two years, in pursuit of alternative treatments and answers to her questions, she became one of Bernie Siegel’s “incredible cancer patients” described in Love, Medicine and Miracles, a cook on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Healing Waters Farm, and our guide on her end-of-life adventure.

Her friends learned first-hand about all the stages of grief. We felt her fear and wrestled with what comes next. This was a life-changing time for me. My friend’s terminal illness initiated my search for answers that would anchor my beliefs—not just about what happens after we die, but how to live well and die well.

As a regular attender of Quaker meeting, I found a welcoming place to deepen my spiritual life. Through the ministries of Friends, I garnered a more expansive view of Christian teachings. However, as my dear father-in-law was dying, I was given Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It was through the Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation that I made sense of the death of my friend and the many friends and family who have died in the years since. The exploration of both these religious traditions has given me the ability to meet people wherever they are in their path toward death, regardless of their beliefs.

The ease with which I approach death and dying may be why people over the years have engaged me in their own investigation of this forbidden topic. This has led me to train as a death doula, home funeral guide, and Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at ceremonies celebrating the dead. As a professional facilitator, I determined that I could provide an important service by presenting an opportunity for everyone, not just friends, to come together to discuss death and dying.

Death Cafés have become a worldwide movement responding to the demonstrated need of individuals who don’t have friends or family members willing to engage in a lively conversation about death and dying. Joining with others, often strangers, in a casual safe space like a coffee shop, community room, or someone’s home, to have an open-ended conversation with no agenda turns out to be very appealing. These gatherings fill a void in our society where, as some participants said, “It is taboo to talk about dying.” According to the founders of the Death Café movement, the aim is to “increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” For some, this is their first foray into frank, candid conversations about death, while others are providing elder care, wanting to assist their parents in achieving a dignified death. Some participants just want to be informed and prepared, and to develop a vision for how they would like to die.

A colleague, a death midwifery practitioner, and I offered a series of five Death Cafés in five communities throughout the month of March. A friend said, “Couldn’t you have named it something else? Who do you think is going to come and talk about death?” As it turned out, a surprising number of people responded. Providing a time and place for people to share stories, confide their fears, or ask questions of others has resulted in new friendships and forged new paths for participants in their personal journeys with and approaches to death and dying. This has been followed by requests to organize more Death Cafés: “No, not next fall, next month!”

Facilitating Death Cafés has reinforced what I have come to understand about death and dying. In answer to the query, “We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for our loved ones, and ourselves?” My conviction has been affirmed that it is deeply personal, individual, and diverse.

This is true for Friends as well. When seasoned Friends were asked during a recent monthly meeting retreat, “How do Friends approach the end of life? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die?” They responded that each Friend has their own perspective and belief, and answers to these questions will be based on their own experience. This has certainly been true for me.

There are so many practical questions to consider, ranging from the legal requirements, to ceremonies and rituals, to the disposal of our bodies; there include but not limited to:

  • Have we completed our wills and accompanying powers of attorney?
  • Have we considered our advance care directives and do not resuscitate (DNR) orders?
  • Do we wish to remain in our home and engage hospice at end of life or relocate to a retirement community with an assisted living/care facility?
  • Do we want to die at home or in hospital?
  • Do we have a home funeral with family and friends or a traditional service in a church or funeral home?
  • Do we have our body cremated and the ashes collected to be present at a celebration of life in a backyard, community hall, or park at a later date?
  • If we are cremated, where can our ashes be dispersed?

But a far more important question is how do we live life more fully?


Our life is precious and sometimes all too short. These questions require exploration and contemplation, and decisions need to be made. This final life passage demands our utmost attention and communication while we are in good health and of sound mind. It is about time we look to this fundamental fact of life and consider how we wish to die and what it will look like. For Friends, a clearness committee can help us navigate through these daunting questions and discern what is the right path. A committee of care can provide support for Friends during their final journey. For others it means considering who, of your family and friends, would be most supportive in this discernment process. Death and dying offer us a grand opportunity to have one of the most important conversations with our loved ones in our lifetime so that we can die consciously and gracefully. These dialogues can transform relationships and lives.

My favorite story about how someone approached death is that of an old farmer who was dying, having lived well into his 90s. His daughter was sitting by his bedside during his final days and asked “How are you feeling?” and he responded, “I am so excited.” “Why?” she asked. “I finally get to learn what is on the other side!” he replied. His curiosity opened a new window, a new view on death and the question we all have pondered, “What happens after we die?” Again different religions and cultures have different beliefs, and people have developed different views on the afterlife, some based on a personal near-death experience. With all these possible perspectives and much speculation over the centuries, what happens next remains the ultimate mystery.

At the end of the day, what we believe and how we deal with death is a matter of personal choice. With care and attention we can craft a new way to approach death that is perfect for us. In the process, we can develop more awareness around our own mortality, embrace it and reap the rewards of living more completely. By accepting that death is a fact of life, this final adventure can be a gift, if we’re open to receiving it.

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A Quaker Approach to Living with Dying

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:00

I’ve been present with hundreds of people as they’ve died, hundreds more who were already dead by the time I was paged, and hundreds more who were in their dying process. I’ve accompanied spouses, parents, children, friends and family members as they’ve experienced the horror and sorrow of grief. For the past 20 years, I’ve been a chaplain, mostly in hospitals, a few with hospice. In doing this work, I’ve crossed death’s path more often than I can count as I’ve zigzagged my way through the hospital corridors and in the homes of folks experiencing the last days, weeks, months of life. Those of us on the interdisciplinary healthcare team struggle, as best we can, to provide our dying patients with a “good death,” however they and their families define such. There’s a saying in healthcare, “People die as they have lived.” Sometimes that is not the case, but, more often than not, that’s the way it goes.

Often, Quakerism is defined as a way of life. Some questions that I have carried for years in the ministry of chaplaincy include the following:

  • What does our Quaker faith and spirituality offer us as we face decline, diminishment, and death?
  • What can we say, as Quakers, with regard to dying and death as a personal and spiritual experience?
  • Is there a Quaker way of dying? How do we, as Quakers, do this?

My formative experience with regard to the Quaker way of dying was by accompanying a Friend through her decline and death. Her final illness, dying process, and death were Quaker community and meeting experiences. Her experience wasn’t a private or family-only affair. When she couldn’t come to meeting, small groups of Friends were dispatched to her home, hospital, or nursing facility to have meeting for worship with her. Friends from meeting stayed with her overnight in the hospital when she had to be on the breathing machine and was so uncomfortable and scared. She had a committee of trusted Friends who arranged for her practical needs when she was still able to live independently, including staying with her 24/7 when just home from the hospital and at times of extreme debility. These Friends helped with discernment regarding transition from independent living to a skilled nursing facility. In what turned out to be her final hospitalization, these Friends helped her discern her choice to decline heroic life-sustaining treatment and allow herself a natural death. Friends reflected with her about her desire for integrity and living in alignment with the testimonies, her beliefs about an afterlife. She was afforded the opportunity, though her Quaker way of living, to proceed to a Quaker way of dying. One First Day, as we knew death was approaching, our meeting of about 80 Friends decided to meet in a hospital conference room for worship. About halfway into the worship hour, a Friend came downstairs to announce our Friend’s death. It was a gathered meeting. Our Friend died the way she had lived.

Last year, desiring conversation on these questions, I facilitated an interest group I called “The Quaker Art of Dying” at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. The conference brings women together from the divergent Friends traditions in the Pacific Northwest, primarily from Canadian, North Pacific, and Northwest Yearly Meetings, as well as other independent meetings and churches, to articulate our faith and to learn from each other. The group was well attended and diverse. I presented three queries to the group for discussion. We broke into small groups each taking one of the queries, then reconvened into the large group to get the bigger picture.

What is a Quaker approach to declining health, dying, and death?

Friends reported their understanding that all life is sacred and Spirit informs all life. A Quaker approach would be a mindful, conscious, and prepared approach, with an excitement—or at least a willingness—to enter the mystery of death. It was agreed that a Quaker approach would involve less denial that someone is dying or that death is imminent. There is a value for listening, hearing one another’s experiences, and entering new situations with curiosity, not offering answers. Especially for Liberal Friends, but for some Evangelical Friends as well, there was less focus on an afterlife. A Quaker approach would be a well-ordered approach, with orderly records, legal documents, and final letters and lists of wishes. Friends agreed that cremation was customary and in alignment with Quaker values. The writing of a memorial minute was another Quaker tradition to document the passing of a Quaker life. As one Friend stated, “The Quaker approach is portable; you can take the heart of the Quaker way wherever it needs to go.”

How do our beliefs, testimonies, and values inform our approach to the end of life?

Friends agreed in their understandings that we have a direct connection with the Divine. Some Friends voiced a lack of fear about death. Others voiced fears about the decline of physical and cognitive abilities and the actual process of dying, such as the possibility of pain, loss of competence, being a curmudgeon, or depleting family resources. One Friend likened the burdens of dying to birthing: “Both are hard work.” Friends agreed that upholding the dying person in community benefits the community as well as dying person. Friends voiced an intention to allow support and presence of others as we approach the end of life, as well as taking all the alone time we need.

How can we prepare for death? Our own and that of our loved ones? A list emerged.

We need to:

  • Pray.
  • Think about what we want.
  • Talk about what we want, even though it is difficult, especially with our children.
  • Talk about what others want.
  • Talk with our families about our wishes.
  • Pray some more.
  • Deal with unfinished business—either finishing it or leaving it unfinished, but dealing with it intentionally.
  • Educate ourselves about health decline and the dying process by reading books like Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
  • Talk with our spouses or significant others, about things we’ll need to know if they can’t tell us themselves for whatever reason.
  • Prepare for the process:
    • Who do we want involved? Who do we not want involved? Do we want a care committee or not?
    • How do we want our remains disposed? Do we prefer cremation or burial? If we want to be cremated, do we want our remains to be scattered, interred, or buried?
    • What do we want for a memorial or funeral?
    • Do we want an obituary; a eulogy? What would we want said in our memorial minute?
  • We need to help meetings and churches be prepared for the decline, debility and deaths of their members and attenders.
  • Keep praying.

This conversation continues. In a recent meeting of our Quaker women’s discussion group, I facilitated a robust discussion about a Quaker approach to end-of-life issues and posed similar queries to the group. Evangelical Friends spoke of the “continuum of life” that transcends death, the need for “being right with God,” and the peace that “being with Jesus” will bring. Liberal Friends spoke of “entering the mystery” and “going into the Light.” There seemed to be agreement and assurance that “all will be well” at the end of physical life. Some women focused on the need to enter this time of life with their “affairs in order.” Other women spoke of their experiences accompanying a dying person in their meeting or church or in their own families. All seemed to enjoy the discussion of “things we don’t usually get to talk about” and voiced an intention to encourage further discussion in our churches and meetings. Later this month, I will attend my own meeting’s retreat where the topic will be “Spirituality As We Age.” No doubt, we will be continuing the discussion of how we Quakers intend to die as we have lived.

The post A Quaker Approach to Living with Dying appeared first on Friends Journal.

Integrity and the Ultimate

Tue, 2017-08-01 02:00

Via Flickr/wickenden


Once when I was an associate pastor, completing my master’s of divinity degree, I moved a trash can in a hallway of the church I was serving to another part of the same hallway. I don’t recall why I moved it or what motivated me to make this bold and unusual step, but I can tell you that it was the last trash can that I ever moved in any other church. Within hours, the trash can was moved back to its original position. There was a story that went with it which I don’t remember. However, I do remember the lesson quite well: change is hard.

Change is hard, no matter how liberal or conservative, no matter how silent or vocal, no matter your race, religion, creed or non-creed. Even if the change is counted as a gain, there is always loss associated with it. A child leaves home for college: the child loses security, but is gaining independence, while the parents gain a bedroom, but lose the child.

As much as we don’t like to admit it, our lives are defined by the change we encounter daily. How well we adapt to change may be a good measure of how well we cope with stress. What tools do we keep in our toolboxes to deal with stress? For Quakers, our testimonies can be an overlooked yet important element to coping with change in a dynamic world, especially when faced with the ultimate change in life—death.


Death is never a popular topic, except in murder mysteries and genealogical society meetings. Aging, and the eventual death which attends it, is fought tooth, nail, nip and tuck in our society. Youth and vitality are honored and worshiped, while the aged and aging become unpopular and invisible. Humanity’s adverse reaction to death is historical and monumental, as we see the results of cultures attempting to assure their place in the after “life” and memorialize their lives with structures which can be seen from space. Our world’s financial health often turns on the health of insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, which dictate to many around the world the length and comfort of their lives.


To those who have suffered a recent loss, or to those who are struggling with a life-ending illness (and to you who are caring for those loved ones you will be losing soon), I pray for good grieving and peaceful passing. I am deeply sorry for your losses. I am deeply sorry for the gaping wounds this passing will leave in your lives, and pray the comfort of the Spirit abide with you during this time of transition.

I believe within the paragraph above I conveyed the message of empathy with those suffering from death or near-death, speaking in a way which recognized the truth of the situation. Integrity is a holistic approach to truth-telling and truth-living, testifying of God’s love through truth. As much as we fight against the idea of death, Scripture is correct—we don’t know the numbers of our days; tomorrow isn’t promised to us. We don’t know the hour and the day of our Lord’s coming (Matthew 24:42).

Living with death, as an integral part of our lives, testifies to the truth of God’s love for us. We can begin to discuss with our loved ones our departure from this earthly home to another home with God. With integrity we can begin planning for a time when hard questions may be harder because of physical or mental instability. Many questions must be answered, which evoke strong emotions for families and friends, because the truth of our mortality reminds us we won’t always be physically present. Do we want to be buried in a family plot? Or cremated and interred? Who is going to pay for the expenses of death, such as a funeral?

One of my friends recently asked her husband about his wishes for end-of-life: did he want to be kept alive by artificial means, or sign a do-not-resuscitate order? Where did he want to be buried? She felt the need to have both of their wishes known officially, so their families would not have to struggle with these decisions. He was not prepared to have that discussion with her. Many folks are not prepared, and lack of preparation can inflict serious, long-term consequences when families are faced with gut-wrenching, heart-breaking decisions. Even if a person’s wishes are known, sometimes the pain of the moment is overwhelming for families.

How can we approach this topic with our loved ones? Peaceful integrity can overcome the overwhelming emotions associated with our own and our family’s death. My friend made a great start, and the key to her success is to peacefully finish the discussion. Her husband’s reaction was a gift; she now understands how he feels about the topic of death and dying. He wouldn’t talk about it, but that doesn’t mean that sometime soon—hopefully sooner than later for her sake—he will be prepared to talk about it. He knows the topic is on her mind. She knows the topic is painful to him. Both know death is part of life; both have suffered the loss of a parent while they have been adults.

Storytelling can be a wonderful avenue of opening a serious discussion about our mortality. “Remember when Aunt Betsy died, and her sister screamed because the undertaker put her in the wrong suit of clothes?” Unfortunately, I had to make up a funny funeral story. Most of mine are filled with families in the throes of pain who act out badly. Those are instructive as well, teaching how not to act. These stories can bring out discussions based on comparisons: “Uncle Mike was cremated, but my parents have a family plot, and I always wanted to be buried with them.”


How can we talk about death when we’re so vibrantly alive?

What do we say to a friend who has lost a child? What do we say to a husband who has just lost his wife of over 50 years? How can we show them the love of God without sounding like a Hallmark card, or worse, hurting them with a popular yet inappropriate comment? Of course we want to fix our loved ones who are aching, but no amount of words from us will ever bring back their loved one. With integrity, first we can admit to ourselves that we don’t have that power. Guess what? Our friends and family know it, too, and don’t expect us to work miracles.

Second, when someone is faced with imminent death, the best gift we can give anyone is our presence, our undivided presence. Use those active listening skills you’ve mastered over the years, and make that person the center of your universe. You don’t have answers to the hard questions—no one does. You don’t know why they became ill. You don’t know why people suffer. You don’t know that everything is going to be all right, because it might not be. Living and speaking with integrity means that you admit to the person or persons that you don’t have the answers, but you’re happy to be with them at this time. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’re willing to be with them when it does. Don’t be afraid to look people in the eyes and cry with them when they cry. Don’t shove tissues at them because their crying makes you uncomfortable and you want them to stop. That’s an example of sympathy. An empathetic person allows their friend to cry until they want to finish, and maybe shed a tear with them as well.

Third, most folks’ spiritual lives affect their views on death. I have spent time with families just two ICU rooms apart who were both self-described Christians yet had very different views of death and dying. Each of these views fit their understanding of Christ, life, and death. Each view led to actions which resulted in vastly different outcomes. One family member is still alive with the assistance of modern medicine and machines and is “awake” at times. The other family, based on the patient’s request, chose to discontinue any support, and sat with their loved one until they died.

Each family made decisions based on their understanding of the human condition—physically and spiritually. Each family made the decision as a family, looking to one another for wisdom and support. Each family sought to discern the wishes of their loved one, the wishes of one another, in such a way that their loved one was still respected and treated with dignity. The decision to maintain life, or to end it, was done thoughtfully, emotionally, and spiritually. The families walked away from ICU knowing they acted with integrity, satisfied if not grieving.

Fourth, as I have previously mentioned, great emotional upheaval often accompanies just the thought of death and dying. Putting aside that emotion, while making decisions about end-of-life situations, is not healthy nor is it acting with integrity. Emotions help us name our feelings, and our feelings are instructive as a part of self-reflection. When I think about my own death, I feel sad that my children’s lives will be affected. For example, I feel sad that they will miss work, will spend time struggling with legal issues and tax forms. Perhaps if I recognize the cause of this sadness, then I can attempt to alleviate some of their future stress.

Lastly, we need to tell one another the truth in love when confronting death. Integrity demands that we accept the ultimate truth, and our relationships will be stronger after the storms of loss have passed. As a chaplain at a men’s prison, part of my job description is to assist offenders who have suffered losses in their families. Family members contact my office almost daily to inform offenders that someone has died. Some families decide to wait and tell the offender the bad news, sometimes as long as several months. This inaction rarely has a positive effect; in fact, the offender feels more alienated and pushed outside the family circle than ever before. The offender, who is physically disconnected from their family, is disconnected from a communal grief process as well. During these times, a telephone call is often their only source of comfort.

One offender was contacted by a hospice organization so that he could speak to his dying sibling one last time. The offender was stunned, because he did not know his sibling was ill. His family had decided not to share that, believing it would save the offender stress. At a loss, the offender asked me what he should say on the phone. I advised him to be honest—whatever he said, just tell his loved one the truth. The moment came when the phone was placed at the ear of his dying sibling, and the offender began to pour out his heartfelt words. My plain, poorly painted, disorganized office became holy ground as the offender reached out one last time.

He told the truth through tears, with integrity.


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Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters with the Bible

Tue, 2017-08-01 01:30
By T. Vail Palmer Jr. Barclay Press, 2016. 288 pages. $20/paperback. Buy from QuakerBooks

In Face to Face, T. Vail Palmer Jr. creates a rich tapestry woven with many threads and leading to a compelling depiction of important aspects of Quaker history well worth pondering. One way to identify those threads is by the questions which prompt them. Here are some of those questions: How did earlier generations of Friends read and use the Bible? What actually happened at Sedbergh and Firbank Fell in 1652? How can we make sense of the first Friends’ self-understanding as participants in the “Lamb’s War”? How did the distinctive life-in-community of early Friends come into being in such a way as to resemble in important respects that of the early Christian church? How was it that in spite of the diversity within the Bible regarding God’s apparent encouragement and approval of war, mass killing, and the like, early Friends were both deeply informed by scripture and yet took “pioneering positions on matters such as war, women’s ministry, and justice”? How could later seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century Friends read the Bible so differently from one another without these differences separating them or disrupting their friendships? All of which point toward the question: what can we learn about reading the Bible and about community from earlier generations of Friends?

My initial key to reading Face to Face was the importance Palmer ascribes to reading the Bible empathetically. While he was pursuing graduate studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he encountered biblical theologians trying, in words he quotes from Bernard Anderson, “to understand the biblical message in its dynamic context of culture, politics, and geography . . . to enter sympathetically and imaginatively into this [biblical] community and to relive its sacred history.” Years later, Palmer realized that George Fox, Edward Burrough, and Margaret Fell were reading the Bible in this way back in the 1650s. Face to Face is on one level an investigation of various ways Quakers have read and used the Bible from the beginning of the movement down through the great separations of the late 1820s. But empathetic reading was my initial key to reading this book because Palmer invites us into his own world, as it were, allowing us to understand not only how Friends during the first 180 years read the Bible, but how he reads the Quaker writings he samples and analyzes.

Once I caught on to his methodology I went willingly with him, enjoying for its own sake the way some significant earlier Friends expressed themselves in writing, and vicariously participating in gathering linguistic data for an inductive assessment. With Palmer, I was startled by how differently Fox, Fell, and Burrough used scripture compared with how Penn and Barclay did, without any of them appearing to notice how radical the difference was. Borrowing from Alan Kolp, Palmer helpfully characterizes the writings of Fox, Fell, and Burrough as manifesting an “affective spirituality,” while those of Penn and Barclay, a “speculative spirituality.” How is it, I asked myself, that I most deeply hear and harken to the Guide?

Friends were not and are not immune to notional currents in the larger society in which they or we find ourselves. Palmer gives due attention to this and shows how the influence over the centuries of Restoration, Quietist, Enlightenment, and Evangelical modes of thinking influenced Quakers’ readings and uses of the Bible and their understanding of Quaker faith and practice generally. The factors influencing developments in Quaker thought, practice, and spirituality, as in all such developments over centuries, are extraordinarily complex.

Unless we employ tunnel vision, we necessarily encounter ambiguity and paradox. There will always be important aspects of the phenomena that escape our notice. Early in my career I was advised by philosopher Héctor-Neri Castañeda: “When in doubt, complicate the data.” Palmer complicates the data in very interesting ways, disclosing aspects of Quaker history well worth our attention.

This book is engagingly written. Palmer employs the practice of reading empathetically in his reading of selected earlier Friends and in so doing invites us to do so as well. I think it would be a wonderful book for members of a Friends meeting to study together. For me, the comments on the contribution of being oppressed and/or marginalized to facilitating an empathetic reading of the Bible seemed particularly poignant.

The book is part of a larger project that explores spiritual and theological aspects of the tragic separations of the nineteenth century. In the epilogue, Palmer announces that there will be a second volume that will pick up, among other threads of the tapestry, “the place of creeds among Friends, and the ways Friends have understood Christ’s atonement.” I look forward to that volume and to how Palmer will “complicate the data” so as to enrich our understanding.

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