The Quaker Art of Dying?

Hopewell Ceme­tery, Winslow Town­ship N.J. One of the many South Jer­sey Quak­er buri­al grounds on long-bypassed coun­try roads. The meet­ing­house that was here is long gone.

We’re now cast­ing about for arti­cles for a Friends Jour­nal issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life.” I’m inter­est­ed to see what we’ll get. Every so often some­one will ask me about Quak­er belief in the after­life. I’ve always found it rather remark­able that I don’t have any sat­is­fy­ing canon­i­cal answer to give them. While indi­vid­u­als Friends might have var­i­ous the­o­ries, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in ear­ly Friends the­ol­o­gy.

As extreme­ly atten­tive Chris­tians they would have signed off on the idea of eter­nal life through Christ. Since they thought of them­selves as liv­ing in end times, they total­ly emu­lat­ed New Tes­ta­ment mir­a­cles. George Fox him­self brought a man back from the dead in a town off Exit 109 of the Gar­den State Express­way. Strange things afoot at the Cir­cle K!

Fox’s biog­ra­phers quick­ly scaled back the whole mir­a­cle thing. Appar­ent­ly that was an odd­ness too far. The cut-out parts of his biog­ra­phy have been repub­lished but even the repub­lish­ing now appears out of print (nev­er fear: Ama­zon has it used for not too much).

But Friends has folk cus­toms and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t undu­ly ven­er­at­ed. They recy­cled grave plots with­out much con­cern. I can think of a cou­ple of his­toric Quak­er buri­al grounds in Philly that have been repur­posed for activ­i­ties deemed more prac­ti­cal to the liv­ing. The phi­los­o­phy of green buri­al is catch­ing up with Quak­ers’ prac­tice, a fas­ci­nat­ing coming-around.

It also seems there’s a strong old Quak­er cul­ture of face imped­ing death with equa­nim­i­ty. That makes sense given Friends’ mod­esty around indi­vid­u­al achieve­ments. There’s a prac­ti­cal­i­ty that I see in many old­er Friends as they age. I’d be curi­ous to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also care­tak­ers and fam­i­lies and hos­pice chap­lains who have accom­pa­nied Friends though death.

Writ­ing sub­mis­sions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the After­life” are due May 8. You can learn about writ­ing for us at:

https://​www​.friend​sjour​nal​.org/​s​u​b​m​i​s​s​i​o​ns/

How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re liv­ing longer and dying longer. How do we make deci­sions on end-of-life care for our­selves and our loved ones? Do Quak­ers have insight into what hap­pens after we die? Sub­mis­sions due 5/8/2017.

ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tra­di­tion. There are many heal­ers who have revived ideas of Quak­er heal­ing. We have a high pro­por­tion of main­stream med­ical heal­ers as well as those fol­low­ing more mys­ti­cal heal­ing paths. If that’s of inter­est to you, nev­er fear: Octo­ber 2017 will be an issue on heal­ing!).

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
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.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

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.

Worshipping?

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.

Quaker news editor needed

Here at Friends Journal, we're very lucky to have some very committed volunteers. Karie Firoozmand and Eileen Redden sends books out to dozens of volunteer readers and pull the results together into our monthly books column. Rosemary Zimmerman reads through all the poetry that comes in, carefully selecting pieces to appear in the magazine. Mary Julia Street reworks the birth notices and obituaries that come in to include more interesting details than you get in most newspaper listings.

Last year we won the "Best in Class" award from the Associated Church Press. We're proud, of course, but I was pleasantly. Compared to most denominational magazines, Friends Journal is crazily understaffed. Forgive the pugilistic metaphor, but these volunteer editors are a big reason we punch above our weight. Cutting through cultural static and the manufactured busyness of modern life and reach seekers is a never-ending challenge. Think about whether you might be led to work with us on this

The extended deadline is January 16th. MLK Day. Learn more at:

Friends on Giving

The new issue of Friends Journal is available online. This month looks at Giving and Philanthropy. There’s some good reflections from Friends on why they give to the causes and institutions they do. There’s also a nice piece from Quaker fundraiser Henry Freeman on the “language of Quaker values.” If you’re trying to unpack what it means to be Quaker, this on-the-ground perspective is one way to parse out the reality of Quaker testimonies.

Chatting with Greg Woods

Yes­ter­day I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose arti­cle, Orga­niz­ing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Jour­nal. Greg and I have been hav­ing vari­a­tions on this con­ver­sa­tion for years. Back in 2011, we worked togeth­er alongside Stephen Dot­son to put togeth­er a now-dated Young Adult Friends web­site (watch us eat in double-time in its pro­mo­tion­al video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF orga­niz­ing web­site I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting togeth­er a net­work of Quak­er cam­pus min­istries. It’s one of those obvi­ous needs that I hope Friends will sup­port.

Delayed readership

A Quak­er edu­ca­tor recent­ly told me he had appre­ci­at­ed some­thing I wrote about the way Quak­er cul­ture plays out in Quak­er schools. It was a 2012 blog post, Were Friends part of Obama’s Evo­lu­tion?

It was a bit of a ran­dom post at the time. I had read a wide­ly shared inter­view that after­noon and was mulling over the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a behind-the-scenes Quak­er influ­ence. This sort of ran­dom­ness hap­pens fre­quent­ly but in the rush of work and fam­i­ly I don’t always take the time to blog it. That day I did and a few years lat­er it influ­ence spline on some small way. 

It reminds me of an old obser­va­tion: the imme­di­ate boost we get when friends com­ment in our blog posts or like a Face­book update is an imme­di­ate hit of dopamine — excit­ing and ego grat­i­fy­ing. But the greater effect often comes months and years lat­er when some­one finds some­thing of yours that they’re search­ing for. This delayed read­er­ship may be one of the great­est dif­fer­ences between blog­ging and Face­book­ing.