This week's Friends Journal feature is my interview with Joyce Ajlouny, who is leaving her role as head of the Ramallah Friends School to become the next general secretary for American Friends Service Committee.
I interviewed her by phone from my back porch on a snowy day and very much enjoyed conversation. I’m fascinated by the challenges of an organization like AFSC—one that has to balance strong roots in a religious tradition while largely working outside of it. How do you balancing the conflicting identities? It’s not unlike the challenge of a Friends school like Ramallah's.
I was also particularly moved by the genuine enthusiasm in her voice as she talked about engaging in honest conversations with people with whom we have strong disagreements. In this polarized age, it’s tempting to try to stay in the safety our bubbles. Joyce seems to thrive stepping out of that comfort zone:
I think we’ve learned from this last U.S. election that we need to listen more. This can often be a challenge for people who are very passionate about the positions they take. Sometimes the passion is so overwhelming that it sort of overrides that willingness to listen to other narratives. This is something that we really need to work much harder on. Truth is always incomplete. We always have to look for other truths. We need to break through some of these boundaries that we’ve put around ourselves and seek a wider spectrum of perspectives.
Today Google came out with a new app called PhotoScan that will scan your old photo collection. Like just everyone, I have stashes of shoeboxes inherited from parents full of pictures. Some were scanned in a scanner, back when I had one that was compatible with a computer. More recently, I’ve used scanning apps like Readdle’s Scanner Pro and Scanbot. These de-skew the photographs of the photos that your phone takes but the resolution’s is not always the best and there can be some glare from overhead lights, especially when you’re working with a glossy original pictures.
Google’s approach cleverly stitches together multiple photos. It uses a process much like their 360-degree photo app: you start with a overview photo. Once taken, you see four circles hovering to the sides of the picture. Move the camera to each and it takes more pictures. Once you’ve gone over all four circles, Google stitches these five photos together in such a way that there’s no perspective distortion.
What’s remarkable is the speed. I scanned 15 photos in while also making dinner for the kids. The dimensions of all looked good and the resolution looks about as good as the original. These are good results for something so easy.
It’s one of those quotes we frequently hear: that George Fox said a minister’s job was “to bring people to Christ, and to leave them there.” But when I go to Google, I only find secondhand references, sandwiched in quote marks but never sourced. It turns up most frequently in the works of British Friend William Pollard, who used it as kind of a catch phrase in his talks on “An Old Fashioned Quakerism” from 1889. Suspiciously missing is any search result from the journal or epistles of Fox himself. It’s possible Pollard has paraphrased something from Fox into a speech-friendly shorthand that Google misses, but it’s also possible it’s one of those passed-down Fox myths like Penn’s sword.
So in modern fashion, I posed the question to the Facebook hive mind. After great discussions, I’m going to call this a half-truth. On the Facebook thread, Allistair Lomax shared a Fox epistle that convinces me the founder of Friends would have agreed with the basic concept:
I’m guessing it is paraphrase of a portion of Fox’s from epistle 308, 1674. Fox wrote “You know the manner of my life, the best part of thirty years since I went forth and forsook all things. I sought not myself. I sought you and his glory that sent me. When I turned you to him that is able to save you, I left you to him.”
Mark Wutka shared quotations from Stephen Grellet and William Williams which have convince me that it describes the “two step dance” of convincement for early Friends:
From Stephen Grellet: “I have endeavoured to lead this people to the Lord and to his Spirit, and there is is safe to leave them.” And this from William Williams: “To persuade people to seek the Lord, and to be faithful to his word, the inspoken words of the heart, is what we ought to do; and then leave them to be directed by the inward feelings of the mind;”
The two-step image comes from Angela York Crane’s comment:
So it’s a two step dance. First, that who we are and how we live and speak turns others to the Lord, and second, that we trust enough to leave them there.
But: as a pithy catch phrase directly attributed to Fox it’s another myth. It perhaps borrowed some images from a mid-19th century talk by Charles Spurgeon on George Fox, but came together in the 1870s as a central catch phrase of British reformer Friend William Pollard. Pollard is a fascinating figure in his own right, an early proponent of modern liberalism in a London Yearly Meeting that was then largely evangelical and missionary. Even his pamphlet and book titles were telling, including Primitive Christianity Revived and A Reasonable Faith. He had an agenda and this phrase was a key formulation of his argument and vision.
He is hardly the first or last Friend to have lifted an incidental phrase or concept of George Fox’s and given it the weight of a modern tenet (“That of God” springs to mind). More interesting to me is that Pollard’s work was frequently reprinted and referenced in Friends Intelligencer, the American Hicksite publication (and predecessor of Friends Journal), at a time when London Friends didn’t recognize Hicksites as legitimate Quakers. His vision of an “Old Fashioned Quakerism” reincorporated quietism and sought to bring British Friends back to a two-step convincement practice. It paved the way for the transformation of British Quakerism following the transformational 1895 Manchester Conference and gave American Friends interested in modern liberal philosophical ideals a blueprint for incorporating them into a Quaker framework.
The phrase “bring people to Christ/leave them there” is a compelling image that has lived on in the 130 or so odd years since its coinage. I suspect it is still used much as Pollard intended: as a quietist braking system for top-down missionary programs. It’s a great concept. Only our testimony in truth now requires that we introduce it, “As William Pollard said, a Quaker minister’s job is to…”
And for those wondering, yes, I have just ordered Pollard’s Old Fashioned Quakerism via Vintage Quaker Books. He seems like something of a kindred spirit and I want to learn more.
I haven't posted anything on the horrific mass shooting because like most of you, I've been in shock, trying to learn and trying to make sense of something that will never make any sense. I don't have any profound insights on the shooting. I don't want to claim I know the real reason this happened and I don't want to mansplain a list of fixes that will keep it from ever happening again. I'm grieving for the victims and their families.
I ache for my LGBTQI family who are too used to random violence, both mass and personal. I worry for the way the shooter's ethnicity and allegiance will only be used to justify more bigotry and violence. I'm sick of living in a world where ISIL thinks mass shootings are a justifiable political statement and I'm sick of living in a country where the NRA and its politicians think it's okay to sell military-grade assault weapons. I pray for simple things: love, healing, consolation. And I cry inside and out. Life and love will win out.
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.
The most popular post on my blog, year after year (and now decade after decade), is a 2005 piece on baby names: Unpopular Baby Names: Avoiding the Jacobs, Emilys and Madisons. We used the techniques listed to aid in our attempt to give our own kids classic names that wouldn’t be overused among their peers. The 2015 numbers are out from the Social Security Administration. How did we do? The charts below shows the respective rankings from 2015 to the year they were born.
The names of our two “babies” — Gregory, 5, and Laura, 4, are both less popular now than they were the year we named them. Yea! They’re both in the low 300s – viable names but far from overused.
Francis, now 10, was dropping in popularity and dropping into the low 600s. With that trend, we actually worried about the name becoming too unpopular. But an uptick started in 2010 and became pronounced in 2013 when an Argentinian named Jorge Mario Bergoglio decided to start calling himself Francis. The name is now in the high 400s.
The popularity of our eldest son’s name, Theodore (“I’m Theo!, don’t call me Theodore!”), started off in the low 300s was holding steady within a 20-point range for years until around 2009. In 2015 it cracked the top 100. It’s only at 99 but clearly something’s happening. Equally disturbing, “Theo” wasn’t even on the top 1000 until 2010, when it snuck in at position 918. Since then it’s leap 100 spots a year. It’s currently at 408 with no sign of slowing.
And for those of you looking to spot trends: did we just call our names early? Maybe “Francis” isn’t a slow climb but is about the go shooting for the top 100 in two years time. Maybe “Gregory” and “Laura” will be all the rage for mothers come 2020. Yikes!
I've been meaning to get more into the habit of sharing upcoming Friends Journal issue themes. We started focusing on themed issues back around 2012 as a way to bring some diversity to our subject matter and help encourage Friends to talk about topics that weren't as regularly-covered.
The next issue we're looking to fill is a topic I find interesting: Quaker Spaces. I've joked internally that we could call it "Meetinghouse Porn," and while we already have some beautiful illustrations lined up, I think there's a real chance at juicy Quaker theology in this issue as well.
One of my pet theories is that since we downplay creeds, we talk theology in the minutia of our meetinghouses. Not officially of course—our worship spaces are neutral, unconsecrated, empty buildings. But as Helen Kobek wrote in our March issue on "Disabilities and Inclusion," we all need physical accommodations and these provide templates to express our values. Earlier Friends expressed a theology that distrusted forms by developing an architectural style devoid of crosses, steeples. The classic meetinghouse looks like a barn, the most down-to-early humble architectural form a northern English sheepherders could imagine.
But theologies shift. As Friends assimilated, some started taking on other forms and Methodist-like meetinghouse (even sometimes daringly called churches) started popping up. Modern meetinghouses might have big plate glass windows looking out over a forest, a nod to our contemporary worship of nature or they might be in a converted house in a down-and-out neighborhood to show our love of social justice.
But it's not just the outsides where theology shows up. All of the classic Northeastern U.S. meetinghouses had rows of benches facing forward, with elevated fencing benches reserved for the Quaker elders. A theologically-infused distrust of this model has led many a meeting to rearrange the pews into a more circular arrangement. Sometimes someone will sneak something into the middle of the space—flowers, or a Bible or hymnal—as if in recognition that they don't find the emptiness of the Quaker form sufficient. If asked, most of these decisions will be explained away in a light-hearted manner but it's hard for me to believe there isn't at least an unconscious nod to theology in some of the choices.
I'd love to hear stories of Friends negotiating the meeting space. Has the desire to build or move a meetinghouse solidified or divided your meeting? Do you share the space with other groups, or rent it out during the week? If so, how have you decided on the groups that can use it? Have you bickered over the details of a space. Here in the Northeast, there are many tales of meetings coming close to schism over the question of replacing ancient horsehair bench cushions, but I'm sure there are considerations and debates to be had over the form of folding chairs.
You can find out more about submitting to this or any other upcoming issue our the Friends Journal Submissions page. Other upcoming issues are "Crossing Cultures" and "Social Media and Technology."
Aug 2016: Quaker Spaces
What do our architecture, interior design, and meetinghouse locations say about our theology and our work in the world? Quakers don’t consecrate our worship spaces but there’s a strong pull of nostalgia that brings people into our historic buildings and an undeniable energy to innovative Quaker spaces. How do our physical manifestations keep us grounded or keep us from sharing the “Quaker gospel” more widely? Submissions due 5/2/2016.
Strange moment this morning when I checked my blog stats and realized that I get a fair amount of traffic for a movie review I wrote last year. I was checking the stats to see if any of the Quaker-related search terms might give clues for future content on Friends Journal or QuakerSpeak and for that purpose the review’s popularity with Google (and readers) isn’t that useful.
But this blog is just my life spun out. I don’t aim for keywords and I don’t want to dominate a thought-sphere. If I see a movie and jot down some impressions that attract a small audience, then my blog post is a success. A dozen or so random people a month Google in to spend a couple of minutes reading my thoughts on a fifty-year-old movie. That’s cool. That’s enough. In all the talk of targeting and SEO we sometimes forget that it’s an honor to simply be read.
The other night stayed up late to cuddled with my wife and watch good-natured but flawed Rom-Com. I read some reviews on IMDB and pondered the cliches in the shower the next morning. Boiling these impressions down into 500 words on a train commute would be easy enough. I should do it more.