We love our Francis. Now 11, he can go from sweet and huggy to upset in a matter of moments. Autistic, sensory issues around sound can easily trigger an meltdown. With three siblings, sound is all pervasive in our house. We've read books, tried therapy, had him on anti-anxiety medications... While everything's helped, nothing has helped enough.
It feels like a crucial time for him. He's getting too big for angry outbursts. He needs to learn how to deal with his emotions and calm himself down. A teenager or young adult melting down in public won't get the sympathetic glances—or even tsk-tsk judgements—that passersby display for toddlers. These next few years will largely determine whether he will be able to become a semi-independent adult.
What Francis does love is dogs. Anytime we run into a dog he befriends him within a matter of moments. He shows a patience and calmness with them that is transformative. He's started going on weekly dates with our uncle to walk around the marshes. And so it's time to find Francis a therapy dog. The hope is that a trained dog would help him in times of stress. Those skills should then (fingers crossed) transfer over to dog-less times.
We've put together a fundraising page to help defray the considerable costs. Details at the link.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:
I've read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between "conservative" friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I'm in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don't identify as such?
Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I've noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they'll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it's not the right type. That’s so tragic.
What the terms don't mean
The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don't refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.
Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can't think of any that doesn't span some diversity of theologies.
Historically (and currently) we've had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we'd append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).
In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side's labelled appendage is "Conservative," giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.
A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting's clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).
All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio's gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.
I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you'll find people who are very attached to labels. That's what the comment section is for.
The meanings of the terms
Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.
But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).
Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.
The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It's all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.
But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.
Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn't bound by any of our silly words.
Thanks to James for the question!
Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.
Last Sunday I have a presentation to Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting’s adult First-day school class about “Sharing the Good News with Social Media.” As I prepared I found I was less and less interested in the techniques of Facebook, etc., than I was in how outreach has historically worked for Friends.
For an early, short, period Quakers were so in-your-face and notorious that they could draw a crowd just by walking a few miles up the road to the next town. More recently, we’ve attracted newcomers as much by the example of our lives than by any outreach campaign. When I talk to adult newcomers, they often cite some Quaker example in their lives – a favorite teacher or delightfully eccentric aunt.
People can sense when there’s something of greater life in the way we approach our work, friendships, and families. Let me be the first in line to say I’m horribly imperfect. But there are Quaker techniques and values and folkways that are guides to genuinely good ways to live in the world. There’s nothing exclusively Quaker about them (indeed, most come from careful reading of the Gospels and Paul’s letters), but they are tools our religious community has emphasized and into which we’ve helped each other live more fully.
In the last fifteen years, the ways Friends are known has undergone a radical transformation. The Internet has made us incredibly easy to find and research. This is a mixed blessing as it means others are defining who we are. Careful corporate discernment conducted through long-developed techniques of Quaker process are no match for the “edit” button in Wikipedia or some commercial site with good page rank.
That said, I think people still are discovering Friends through personal examples. George Fox told us to be patterns and examples in the world and to answer that of God in everyone. A lot of our exampling and answering today is going to be on the threaded comments of Facebook and Twitter. What will they find? Do we use Facebook like everyone else, trolling, spamming, engaging in flame wars, focusing on ourselves? Or do Quaker folkways still apply. Here are some questions that I regularly wrestle with:
When I use social media, am I being open, public, and transparent?
Am I careful to share that which is good and eternal rather than titillating for its own sake?
Do I remember that the Good News is simply something we borrow to share and that the Inward Christ needs to do the final delivery into hearts?
Do I pray for those I disagree with? Do I practice holding my tongue when my motivation is anger or jealousy?
What struggles do others face? What might be our online folkways?
NPR’s Planet Money recently ran an article on glass recycling, How A Used Bottle Becomes A New Bottle, In 6 Gifs. The Gif part is what intrigued me. A “gif” is a tightly-compressed image format file that web designers leaned on a lot back in the days of low bandwidth. It’s especially good for designs with a few discreet colors, such as corporate logos or simple cartoons. It also supports a kind of primitive animation that was completely overused in the late 90s to give webpages flying unicorns and spinning globes.
Animated gifs have grown up. They make up half the posts on Tumblr. They are often derived from funny scenes in movies and come with humorous captions. The Planet Money piece uses them for storytelling: text is illustrated by six gifs showing different parts of the recycling process. The movement helps tell the story – indeed most of the shots would be visually uninteresting if they were static.
The short loops reminds me of Vine, the six-second video service from Twitter which I’ve used a lot for silly kid antics. They can also tell a simple story (they’re particularly well suited to repetitive kid antics: up the steps, down the slide, up the steps, down the slide, up…).
In my work with Friends Journal I’ve done some 7 – 12 minute video interviews with off-site authors using Google Hangouts, which essentially just records the video conversation. It’s fine for what we use it for, but the quality depends a lot on the equipment on the other end. If the bandwidth is low or the webcam poor quality, it will show, and there are few options for post-production editing. But honestly, this is why I use Hangouts: a short web-only interview won’t turn into a weeklong project.
Producing high-quality video requires controlling all of the equipment, shooting ten times more footage than you think you’ll need, and then hours of work condensing and editing it down to a story. And after all this it’s possible you’ll end up with something that doesn’t get many views. Few Youtube users actually watch videos all the way through to the end, drifting away to other internet distractions in the first few minutes.
I like the combination of the simple short video clips (whether Vine or animated gif) wedded to words. My last post here was the very light-weight story about a summer afternoon project. Yesterday, I tried again, shooting a short animated gif of Tibetan monks visiting a local meetinghouse. I don’t think it really worked. They’re constructing a sand mandala grain-by-grain. The small movements of their funnel sticks as sand drops is so small that a regular static photo would suffice. But I’ll keep experimenting with the form.
Sometimes I see blog posts that make me really sad at the state of journalism. PhilyMag is the latest but you have the follow the daisy-chain of ramped-up hyperbole back just to make see how ridiculous it is.
The restaurant chain Red Robin recently made a fifteen-second TV ad whose joke is that its veggie-burgers are perfect for customers whose teenage daughters are “going through a phase.” It’s had rather limited airplay (it’s the 450th or so most run ad in the past 30 days) but still, Business Insider ran a piece on it which claimed that “the chain managed to insult all potential vegetarian and vegan customers” with the ad. For evidence, it cited three mild comments on Red Robin’s Facebook page. Fair enough.
But then the page-view-whores at Huffington Post saw the BI piece and wrote that Red Robin is “under fire for dissing vegetarians,” still citing just those Facebook comments. Under fire? For three comments?
Sensing fresh (veggie?) meat, Phillymag links to HuffPost to claim that ”vegetarians and vegans far and wide are freaking out” and that a boycott has been declared. The author tells us that “‘Offended’ gets tossed around so rapidly” and it must be true, right?, as she uses it three more times just in her opening paragraph. It’s a pity that none of the three Facebook commenters were considerate enough to actually use the words “outrage” or “boycott.” One described the ad as “disappointing” (ouch!). Another used the word “dissatisfied” (zing!), though he was speaking not about the ad per se but rather a recent visit to the restaurant.
Seems like if there is an epidemic of offended-ness going on, we might take a look at the desperation of what passes for modern journalism these days. Offended-ness must get page views, so why not be offended at being offended? (I imagine some hack further down the pageview food chain is right now reading the Phillymag piece and typing out a headline about the worldwide vegan army issuing a fatwa on the teenage daughters of Red Roof executives.) Is this really the kind of crap that people like to share on Facebook? Do Internet users just not follow links backward to judge if there’s any truth to outrage posts on outrage? I usually ignore this kind of junk even to read past the ridiculous headline. But the phenomenon is all too ubiquitous on the interwebs these days and is really so unnecessarily divisive and stereotype-perpetuating.