Category: Quakerism

Talking Bible and Zoom Among Friends AKA Quakers

Months ago I sat down for an interview with the hosts of A Quaker Take. Based in the UK as a joint project of Quakers in Britain and Woodbrooke Centre, they take on various issues. You must listen to the excellent episode, “A Quaker Take on Sex.”

I appear with respected Friends and colleagues in A Quaker Take on the Bible.

How do Quakers read and interpret the Bible? This episode we hear from Mark Russ, Rhiannon Grant, Peterson Toscano and Timothy Ashworth for their takes on the Bible. We discuss how Quakers have read scripture over the centuries, how we can engage with it now and look at how Biblical texts can help us explore Quaker concerns today.

Also this month I published an article in the Friends Journal.  How do we adapt from live presentations to Zoom presentations? And how do we retain authenticity and integrity in the performance. In Other Voices Other Zooms, I share my own journey of going from stage to a very small screen.

I casually thought out loud, “maybe I can design something new for the Zoom environment.”

I might have been inspired by a passage in the Gospel of Matthew I memorized years ago in Sunday school:

But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.

A new type of performance space requires a new type of performance.

Featured Photo by Dimitry Anikin from Pexels

Lazy or Being Productive Doing Nothing?

Photo by Tonny Tran on Unsplash

Olga Mecking of the New York Times writes The Case for Doing Nothing. Reading it though, it sounds like a solid endorsement for what I do every week during Quaker meeting.

Generally speaking, our culture does not promote sitting still, and that can have wide-reaching consequences for our mental health, well-being, productivity and other areas of our lives. Technology doesn’t make it any easier: The smartphone you carry with you at all hours makes it almost impossible to truly unplug and embrace idleness. And by keeping ourselves busy at all times, we may be losing our ability to sit still because our brains are actually being rewired.

Indeed, the benefits of idleness can be wide-ranging.

Ms. Mann’s research has found that daydreaming — an inevitable effect of idleness — “literally makes us more creative, better at problem-solving, better at coming up with creative ideas.” For that to happen, though, total idleness is required.

“Let the mind search for its own stimulation,” Ms. Mann said. “That’s when you get the daydreaming and mind wandering, and that’s when you’re more likely to get the creativity.”

There is no way I could look at my smartphone during Quaker Meeting for Worship; I am so terrified it might go off during the quiet, I leave it in the car.

The sort of quiet, doing nothing mode, Mecking advocates seems to work best for me when I do it with others. It may just be the accountability or there is a strange power in group idling, but when I am in Meeting for Worship, I can sit still for up to an hour. When I go it alone? About 10 minutes. Of course I can easily spend multiples of 10 throughout the day as I sit and pause between items on my to-do list as I often do.

Last year physicist and novelist, Alan Lightman, wrote about the importance of being quiet and still. He raises the alarm about how our brains have been altered by the immediate and constant access to data through our various devices. He then outlines steps of what we can do to free up our brains. He makes the case for Why we owe it to ourselves to spend quiet time alone every day.

What can we do? Somehow, we need to create a new habit of mind, as individuals and as a society. We need a mental attitude that values and protects stillness, privacy, solitude, slowness, personal reflection; that honors the inner self; that allows each of us to wander about without schedule within our own minds.

Wilson’s proposal is bold, and I would like to make a similarly bold proposal: that half our waking minds be designated and saved for quiet reflection. Otherwise, we are destroying our inner selves and our creative capacities. Different moments throughout the day can be devoted to contemplation and stillness, free from the external world.

Especially when I am not on the road and have some stability at home, I do two things that are very helpful in recapturing my brain.

  1. I leave my devices downstairs after dinner and then spend the evening with a book. I tend to fall asleep faster, and when I wake up there is no device by the side of my bed calling me out of my slumber. Instead I just wake up. (I also have a husband who always gets up before me–a human alarm clock.) I might lie in bed a bit and let the daylight awaken me as I think about the day ahead. I might reach for a book and read a bit. I then stumble downstairs (it takes me some effort to wake up) and make coffee. Then I read news, and finally when I am awake, I go to my study and look at emails and the social media streams.
  2. I take the day off on Sundays. When home, I try to make Sundays a device-free day. I don’t look at email, social media, news, etc. I drive to Quaker meeting, sit in the silence, then spend the rest of the day living like I did before there was all this technology. Sometimes I get painfully bored, then I get an idea to do something–clear out a cupboard, make jam, listen to a Stevie Wonder LP, write a letter, or just sit on the front porch.

What about you? Do you have a way of sitting still and doing nothing? Does it require a special place or conditions?

(featured image: Photo by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash)

Quakers and the Arts — A Rich and Complex History

The Friends Journal, a North American Quaker publication, dedicated its June/July 2018 edition to the topic of Creativity and the Arts. Various Quakers (or Friends) weighed in about the art they do and how they do it as a Quaker and for Quakers.

  • Joey Hartman-Dow, who collaborated with me for The Amazing Adventures of the Afterbirth of Jesus, writes about being a visual artist. In addition to creating deliciously whimsical characters based on shapes found in maps, Joey recently started a comic book series for the Quaker organization, FCNL. Joey’s piece, Art That Works, looks at the questions that come up for this Quaker artist: What do you want to be? and How am I going to make enough money to survive, in the same weird world I’m trying to change? Included in Joey’s reflections are samples of the gorgeous and stimulating art.
  • Arthur Fink writes about dance, not something that one imagines happens much in a quiet, still Quaker meeting for worship. Applying the practices of freedom of expression and of being self-aware that Arthur experiences in Quaker meeting for worship, Arthur worked with dancers in a studio and photographed them as they moved without choreography. Instead the dancers created their own movements that emanated from within. Arthur’s piece is The Dance Studio is my Other Quaker Meetinghouse.
  • Maggie Nelson writes about an intergenerational Art Camp. Like Joey, Maggie raises important questions: “Creative Friends and spiritual folk are everywhere, but are we recognizing the interconnectedness of our art and faith? What are we missing when we don’t worship with all of our senses? And what does it mean for the Quaker community when its members start experimenting with art and worship?”

I contributed my own piece, A Reluctant Minister. I write about the weird tension I feel from competing roles of artist, activist, and academic. Added to these are the pulls that come from presenting to Friends. Early on a member of the Hartford Meeting referred to me as having a “prophetic ministry.” My reaction to this statement surprised my support committee and has given me something to consider even now in my 15th year of public performing.

I suddenly felt cornered. I explained I had attended Pentecostal and Evangelical churches for nearly 20 years. The words “ministry” and “prophetic” stirred up trauma for me. The “ministry” I had received attempted to “de-gay” me and destroy much of my personality. The prophecies, at times literally yelled in my face, served to undermine my sense of self. Bill nodded and listened. His tone softened as he assured me, “I am talking about something different. You are speaking truth to a generation that needs to hear a message about justice and equality. You are pointing out wrongs in the world and showing people a different, better way. Your prophetic ministry gives light for straight people like me who need to see the world in a fresh, new way.”

As I considered this, I relaxed back into my seat; my fists unclenched. His description of prophetic ministry was getting closer to what I sought to do with my play Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo Halfway House, but still, something unsettled me. After a period of silence I spoke, “I hear what you are saying, but it is hard for me to accept that position. It sounds like you see me as a preacher, but I am not; I am a performance artist.”

Check out the many pieces in the current Friends Journal.

A Queer Connecticut Quaker in Pennsylvania Amish Country

I just published a piece in Liturgy journal. When the editor first contacted me over a year ago, he wanted to know if I could write about Quaker liturgy in a rural setting. It was a strange request. We Quakers are basically the anti-liturgy sect:

Quakers can be defined by what we do not do and what we do not have during our times of worship. In the Quaker meetings I have attended, we do not have a written liturgy. We do not recognize sacraments of the Christian church or the church calendar. We do not have clergy in the traditional sense or a laity; each one of us is considered a minister. We do not have a programmed worship at all but opt for an hour of silence, trusting the members of the gathering to vocalize short messages leaving pauses in between messages. Sometimes we have a complete hour of quiet with no words spoken aloud.

Thinking about the rural setting though got me reflecting on Quakerism and how the worship itself is a way of sliding into the natural world even in meetings in the heart of major cities.

Quakers in Florida worshiping with music (so rare) outside

Throughout Quaker history, Friends have pointed to two natural sources to help describe their spiritual quest. The first is the Light. Quakers speak and write regularly about the “Light within” and the process of “holding in the Light” a person who needs prayer or an important issue. Light is natural, emanating from the sun, and it is a natural element present in urban settings as well as in rural. Unlike fresh air, one does not need to slip away from an industrialized city to discover light. One simply needs to open the shutter or curtain and let it in. What we lack in cities, however, is darkness. The urban environment has so much light that the wilderness of natural darkness is obscured.

The other natural object regularly referred to in Quaker writings and vocal ministry is “the Seed.” Tiny and full of potential, the seed is usually something hidden from sight deep underground, waiting to burst forth with new life and growth. Unlike looking to trees and flowers and animals, the seed speaks to the quiet place of waiting, patiently, longingly, while believing in greater things to come.

Quakerism started in England before the Industrial Revolution, but continued to grow as the world grew louder, more mechanized, crowded, dirty, gray, and hectic. Quaker meeting houses and the worship they offered gave Friends in English cities a chance to escape the crush of the streets and the sounds of industry—to enter into a spiritual secret garden of serenity. No wonder Quakers flourished in large industrialized cities like Birmingham and London. People with less and less access to the peace and quiet of nature needed a retreat. The quiet and stillness of Quaker meeting provided this.

Writing about all this though, I continued to return to a theme that has been knocking around my head for the past few years–the complicated relationship many LGBTQ people have had with nature, particularly in rural spaces.

Like many gay men in America I originally come from a rural community that I escaped the first chance I had after high school graduation. Born in the city of Stamford, Connecticut, we moved to the Catskill Mountains in New York State when I was five, in part to help me flee the pollution of the city that routinely sent me to the hospital with asthma attacks. Coming of age in rural New York state during the HIV/AIDS Crisis and a growing organized movement to protect the church and family from what was called “The Gay Lifestyle,” I consumed secular and religious messages that told me I would be more valuable if I were heterosexual and masculine.

It was in a rural independent Bible church that I gave my heart to Jesus and determined to repent from homosexual attractions and possible future gay relationships. I began an odyssey to de-gay myself through Ex-Gay programs and ministries and through pastoral counseling. While many gay men flocked to cities where large lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities formed, I moved to New York City to join a fledgling gay conversion therapy Christian ministry. We were about forty men and women struggling with homosexual desires and also from the homophobia we experienced in our rural communities back home. We believed it was wrong to be gay, and if we prayed enough and got close enough to God, our same-sex attractions would get burned off like fog on a lake in the morning sun. I felt committed to this path and ultimately spent seventeen years and $30,000 on three continents pursuing a cure for being gay so that I could finally be eligible for Christian service in the churches I chose to attend.

If you would like to read the entire piece, check it out at Liturgy: Quaker Liturgy in a Rural Setting (unfortunately there is a paywall that I can’t get around)

The Secret Lives of Quakers Revealed

As a Quaker, I intentionally spend a lot of time in silence both on my own and in groups during Quaker meeting for worship. I can be sitting and quiet for a full hour, which might be a little too much for some people, but after years of being pummeled by words in church, I appreciate a little peace and quiet.

While it may look like I am just sitting there doing nothing, often a whole world opens up inside my head. At times I create whole monologues, solve complex problems, and work through a troubling emotional conundrum.

No doubt some of the times I am bored out of my mind and every minute drags on, but typically it is a positive experience. I decided to create a short video explaining what happens for me in Quaker worship. It is actually very much like running a utility on my computer. Yes, a defrag from my soul!

Revealed! What Really Happens in Quaker Meeting for Worship

Quaker Hell–A Definition

All those years in Pentecostal Holiness Churches I heard lots of sermons about hell with vivid descriptions of the tortures, despair, and pain inflicted upon sinners forever and ever. As Pastor Dave warned us: It is a dangerous thing to fall into the hands of an angry god, (who apparently was unwilling or unable to end the torture of the people he loved so much.)

Now I am a Quaker. Quakers don’t really talk about a future in hell. We talk about injustice today–hell on earth for many who often face relentless oppression. Quakers also talk about impending doom from fracking, GMO’s, and the Koch Brothers. But sometimes I find myself wondering what an Quaker hell might be, the place of torments that will terrify the many North American Quakers I know. Below are some possible hellish scenarios for Quakers. I’d love to hear yours.

Quaker Hell: Where there is an eternity of announcements.

Quaker Hell: Where they only serve meat, wheat, and dairy. On Styrofoam

Quaker Hell: Where there is the constant droning of a gas-p0wered lawnmower in the background, they serve Maxwell House® coffee purchased at Walmart, and you are all alone; there is no one around to criticize.


We do not own the world… Quaker Advice with Photos

“We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.”

Britain Yearly Meeting of Quakers Advices and Queries, 1994, No.42

Photos taken during my recent trip to Quebec Province.

Quakers speak out about the Environment and Justice

In the Quaker world I inhabit, we talk a lot about Advices and Queries. These short statements and questions focus our attention on topics like Equality, Community, Death and Old Age, Integrity, and Diversity. Quakers in different places use different language and emphasize different points. Some Quakers refer to God and Jesus, while others talk about the Divine or leave off God talk all together.

I have been enjoying the Quaker Advices and Queries iPhone app as I click on it first thing every morning when I wake up (instead of immediately checking my emails which is such an awful jolt to my delicate system and often hurls me into a dreadful mood or gets me working in my head prematurely.)

How Quakers talk about the Environment gets covered by the app, and in spending the past two weeks sitting with these, I appreciate how different Quakers in different parts of the world raise a diversity of considerations. Below are some of these Environmental Queries and the regional/national Quaker groups that published them. Which resonate with you?

Do we endeavor to live in harmony with nature? Are we careful in our stewardship of the world’s irreplaceable resources? -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship


In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people? Does our way of life threaten the viability of life on Earth? -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for the Meeting


Do we support measures to avoid pollution of air and water? Do we support measures to establish the conservation and right use of natural resources? -New York Yearly Meeting, query number 10


Are we concerned that humanity’s increasing power over nature should not be used irresponsibly, but with the reverence for life and with a sense of the splendor of God’s continuing creation? -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship


All life is interrelated. Each individual plant and animal has its own needs, and is important to others. Many species in Australia and worldwide are now extinct and many more are endangered. Do you treat all life with respect, recognizing a particular obligation to those animals we breed and maintain for our own use and enjoyment? In order to secure the survival of all, including ourselves, are you prepared to change your ideas about who you are in relation to your environment and every living thing in it? -Australia Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, number 44


In what ways do I express gratitude for the wondrous expressions of life on Earth? Do I consider the damage I might do to the Earth’s vulnerable systems in choices I make of what I do, what I buy, and how I spend my time? -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for Individuals


We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation. -Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Stewardship


We need to respect, revere and cooperate with other life systems on our planet. The earth’s diverse riches are not ours to exploit. Seek reverence for life and a sense of wonder at God’s continuing presence in all of creation. Do you work to conserve the earth’s beauty and resources, both now and in the future, for the many people who depend on this planet and the many other species that share it? -Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, E14


Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth. Call attention to what fosters or harms Earth’s exquisite beauty, balances and interdependencies. Guided by Spirit, work to translate this understanding into ways of living that reflect our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations. -Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Advices


As a Christian steward, do you treat the earth with respect and with a sense of God’s splendor in creation, guarding it against abuse by greed, misapplied technology, or your own carelessness? -Northwest Yearly Meeting, Query 19

Quaker Environmental Advices and Queries. I got the iPhone App!

Today I am hanging out with Quakers at the annual New England Yearly Meeting way up in Vermont. After I became a Quaker Hartford, CT in 2001, I discovered the wonderful and at times quirky world of Quaker Advices and Queries. All over the world wherever Quakers have put together books of Faith and Practice (and Books of Discipline in some traditions) these short statements and questions help focus Friends (aka Quakers) on the topics most meaningful to us.D - Discipline QF&P

One of my favorite queries comes out of New Zealand and raises a useful and direct question about the practice of speaking during the worship service. As Quakers, we are welcome to stand up and share a message, but we don’t want this sharing to be a free for all. Reading the following query, I wonder if the writers of it had a particularly person in mind or they were addressing an epidemic of blabbers during the Quaker worship time. From Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, B9: 

Do you sometimes speak too often, too predictably, or too soon after someone else has spoken? 

UnknownRecently I discovered an awesome app for my iPhone: Quaker Advices and Queries created by Simon Gray. The description promises that the app provides:

A selection of Advices and Queries from around the Quaker world in one handy place, categorised according to themes. Looking for some inspiring wisdom about children and family? Poke the children and family button! Something to say about diversity, the environment, worship, prayer, or Quaker business? Likewise!

I love that the app includes multiple meetings from around the world: The Advices from the Elders at Balby (1656), Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, Baltimore, Britain, Evangelical Friends Church Southwest, Friends of Truth, Great Plains, Ireland, North Carolina (Conservative), New York, Northwest, Ohio (Conservative), Ohio Valley, Pacific, and Rocky Mountain.

I don’t know about you, but when I wake up in the morning, all too often I reach for my phone, check the time, then check email, Facebook, and Twitter. Before my feet touch the ground I am already caught up in a whirlwind of work, social media drama, and news–good, bad, and banal. For the next two weeks though my plan is to turn to the Advices and Queries app instead and clicking on the Environment button. I’ll be sure to share what a find here on the blog.

This is the one I read today:

In our witness for the global environment, are we careful to consider justice and the well-being of the world’s poorest people? Does our way of life threaten the viability of life on Earth?

– Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Harmony with Creation, Queries for the Meeting


Artwork by Deborah Klein 

Talking about a Queer Quaker Response to Climate Change

Last year I visited Guilford College in Greensboro, NC and presented the first inklings of a talk around the odd question, What is a Queer Response to Climate Change? As a gay guy, a person of faith from a Christian background now sporting Quaker bonnet and Friendly ways, I daily feel pulled in many different justice directions as my social media feed gets bloated with scores of vital worthy causes–LGBTQ Rights, immigration reform, the reform of the prison industrial complex, anti-racism work, women’s rights, and a constant stream of environmental concerns from anti-fracking to anti-wind farming (because a handful of Quakers I know are concerned about the danger to bird populations.)

So many issues, so little time.

In Quaker circles we talk about having a leading–a deep feeling, interest, fascination, and need to devote time and energy to learn and act around a particular issue. For me that issue is Climate Change with the many human rights, ecological, and political aspects connected to it. But I come to this leading through the lens of being a gay guy, interested in gender issues, passionate about transgender rights, and out of a faith tradition that informs much of what I do.

So no wonder the way I see Climate Change is through those lenses. This multi-focal world view gets revealed in an interview conducted by the Guildorian on March 8 of last year. My ideas have expanded a great deal since then, (and I have three new presentations to prove it) but re-reading the article I see the seeds already sprouting and metaphors and ideas about Queer Climate Activism forming.

The author, Josh Barker, asks, Can you briefly summarize the Queer Quaker response to Climate Change?

First I speak out of a childless gay perspective that for me climate change is  NOT all about the children. Some folks don’t have children or grandchildren yet are very concerned about the plight of the planet and lifeforms on it.  I then got on to say,

We see the world in very different ways, often because of our experiences. We know what it’s like when people tell lies about us, and there are a lot of lies being told about climate and there’s a coordinated effort to misinform people. That sounds familiar to me as a gay man.

To address the climate also means really thinking outside of the box. Thinking about future living, what will that look like. It may mean alternative families where lots of people live together with a lower carbon footprint. The gay community has been doing that for a long time where many of us create our own families and pairings of units of families.

So, there are very specific things like that, and even thinking outside of the box how we can actually partner with conservative people, because this is what is going to have to happen.

Looking at a carbon fee and dividend scheme could be a very useful thing. Using more nuclear energy, which is blasphemous to many liberal Quakers, is much less carbon-intensive then anything we have going on, particularly in this period.
So I don’t know if there is a particular queer Quaker response to this, but I think of my great, great, great grandfather Walt Whitman who had Quaker grandparents, who had an epiphany at one point in his life. And I think, “What would Walt Whitman do today?”

That gives me a little bit of guidance as I try to navigate what I’m going to do.

Who knows where a leading may lead, particularly when we experience the first inklings of an idea, the beginning stirrings of passion, the formation of an odd question, and a growing concern that may become a life’s work?