One of the nicest ways to spend a springtime Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia is to walk along the Schukill River. From the art museum you can walk about five or six miles up one side, cross over and come down the other. Altogether it makes a good fourteen or fifteen mile jaunt for me from the Lucrettia Mott House. Not hiking exactly, but a good walk. Nice, even though as a park in a major metropolitan center I am never there alone. People fish the river (beautiful from a distance but close up its cleanliness is questionable). There are often college crew races on the it with cheering parents and friends on the bank. Along the river is a plethora of all shapes sizes of people involved in all the things one might imagine, an assembly of weekend warriors and folks involved in various levels of activities. Near the art museum is "Boat House Row." Racing sculls are kept in the boat houses; but seemingly the boat houses' primary function is as a gathering spot for socialization, clearly "old money" and very posh. One Saturday along this stretch I was suddenly in the center of a remarkable surreal scene. The path in front of Boat House Row glutted with bikers and skaters and runners, some wearing expensive sport clothes of their chosen activity, some in cut off sweat pants and old t-shirts, and baby strollers and toddlers with chocolate ice cream on their faces. Coming up the path intermingling and weaving around them was a large group of formally dressed people -- tuxedos and formal gowns walking to one of the boat houses for a reception. Add to that a Korean festival with women in traditional Korean dress and makeup involved in stylized Korean dances and movement. It was pretty amazing. Everyone laughing and running and talking and sweating and laughing some more. What a jumble of humanity!
The next Saturday I was at a Section Executive Committee meeting, about thirty miles from the Schukill River as the crow flies, and about a century away from urban America in the village of Woodstown New Jersey. Don't be fooled by the name of the state, Woodstown is a stereotype-buster. As soon as you get off the interstate in South Jersey you're in farm country. Low lying with rich dark soil. An abundant fertile farm country that is, among other things, the birthplace of Campbell Soups. Farm stands and narrow country roads. Historically called West Jersey it predates Pennsylvania as a Quaker colony, and Quakers were settled there while what became Philadelphia was still called Wicaco and was part of New Sweden. The village is quiet, with a rural settled feel to it. Folks still leave their doors unlocked and their keys in the car ignition when parked in their own yard. The meetinghouse in Woodstown, rebuilt in 1785, before Vermont was a state, is a beautiful brick building. By looking carefully at the brick exterior walls, you can see the additions years of growth required although now the meeting is about the same size as Plainfield. The meeting room is dark wood and deep red cushions, lovingly polished and cared for. A huge kitchen and dining room fed more than 600 people at the strawberry festival four days before the Executive Committee gathered there.
To this place, so far from the melange on the path along the Schukill River, the Executive Committee brought its own diversity. While there was a continuum of dress from plain to more elaborate and from casual to more formal our differences were more internal than external: Friends for whom Christ Jesus is Lord and Savior and Friends for whom Jesus is a perhaps dated teacher, Friends who read the Bible daily and Friends whose spiritual reading is Tao Teh Ching, Friends who understanding of God in their life is intuitive and ethereal and Friends who prefer a cerebral, intellectual understanding of the way the universe operates. And of course there were Friends in the middle of all those continua. The agenda was long and, in a number of places, hard. Our differences came up in some of the places you'd expect--talking about the courts confirmation of the Boy Scout decision to exclude gay scout masters, the way to move ahead to support sister relationships among yearly meetings, implementation of a new set of priorities in the Section's structure. But there was also a comfort, a sense of unity in spirit even if it was not evident around a specific issue.
There is a universality about Quakers gathered, be it yearly meeting or quarterly meeting or a committee meeting. There, for me, is always a sense of expecting to come to know each other in the presence of the Divine. Of seeking unity through our disagreements not in spite of them. It resonates with me deeply. It responds to some of the discordance of humanity.
On some level we are all outcast, strangers in a strange land, making our way in a peculiar, often wondrous, sometimes fearful, world. Has it always been that way or does our age--full of the horrors of sophisticated killing and torture, alienation made extreme through callous and self serving nation-states and dehumanization exaggerated by technology--hold a unique corner on being exiles? We carefully build structures to buffer us. Friends have, for me at least, found the way through the wilderness to a place of wholeness.
By the waters of Babylon / Where we sat down / And there we wept / When we remember Zion. / For the wicked carry us away, captivity, / Require from us a song; / But how can we sing King Alhpa's song in a strange land? / Oh, let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our heart be acceptable in your sight.
The song has resonated with me since my daughter sung it in an eighth grade production. How do we sing the song of our lives in a hostile world? The answer is as profound as it is simple--with the words of our mouth and the mediation of my heart. But, still, some piece is missing. A morsel that lies just below the surface of scenes like the one at Boat House Row.
One of the places I've found where Friends are not especially diverse is in our demeanor. All in all we're a darn serious lot. Much too serious as a group especially given the exciting heartwarming knowledge we have to share with the world. A few weeks ago at a potluck celebrating the blossoming of a cherry tree, I met a boy of maybe ten whose name is Carl. We sat together and talked a while, enjoying sharing the same name and discovering a surprisingly long list of things an urban pre-adolescent and a middle aged guy from the country had in common. What struck me though, both as we talked and as I watched him with others was the depth of his joy. It was abundant and a little surprising in a kid so young. What I saw, what I felt, was the deep sense of joy that springs from the same depth that deep sorrow springs from. It was vibrant and unconditional and effervescing. I envy his family who get to bask in such beautiful joy all the time. It remind me of how serious and full of myself I can become.
With the words of our mouths and the mediation of our hearts. Eating and drinking together is a symbol. A powerful symbol but only a reflection of reality. The community of God isn't really eating and drinking. It's the peace of knowing faithfulness. It's the unfailing knowledge of certainty. And it's the abundant joyful celebration of sharing all that. (Romans 14:17)
How easy it is to get so caught up in doing right, in doing good that we forget to do joyful, almost as though the two were mutually exclusive. How easy and how silly. In the discordant human reality, in the cacophony of human experience bring Truth. Bring it joyfully. It is in abundant joy that the Truth grows.
All contents of this page -- © Copyright 2001 Carl Williams, All Rights Reserved