Story author
A message offered by videoconference to Durham (ME) Friends by Noah Merrill
Sunrise from behind trees, through mist

Since I was a child, I’ve heard that there’s no such thing as a solitary Quaker. You could say that we are a people defined by gathering.

When you think about it, gathering feels so essential to who we are that a collection of Quakers—really of any size—is called a “meeting.” Even more than other churches or spiritual communities I know, gathering in various forms shapes our common life. The calendars of Friends across New England are filled with "meetings"—meetings for worship, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, any number of other meetings. One of our most beloved origin stories speaks about George Fox’s vision, on Pendle Hill in England, of a “great people to be gathered.” Gathering, it seems, is in our DNA as a People.    

And yet, here we are.

I’m grateful for the refuge many of us may find this morning, in the midst of this storm in our world. And I know that for many of us, the added strains of this time make the burdens of loneliness, insecurity, health concerns, and loss still more difficult to bear.

Some of us may have heard the news that yesterday, the Permanent Board of our Yearly Meeting reached unity to affirm the painful decision that New England Friends would refrain from gathering in person for Annual Sessions this summer. I know that for some of us, that may seem like something distant, if participating in Annual Sessions hasn’t been a regular part of our lives. And yet for many, this news is deeply and personally painful. As this loss settles in, I recognize that we’ve all experienced losses in recent weeks, small losses and great ones. I want to invite us, for a moment, to hold all these losses in silent prayer, knowing that even as we hold one another, we are held in God’s Love.

The hymn we sang as we began this morning invites us to come to the River, where living water can be found. I want to invite you, if you’re willing, to join me in holding in the Light each person on this call, whether by phone or video. As we hold one another, allowing the Love in which we’re held to be present more deeply in our hearts, I invite you to widen the circle of this holding. Hold your neighbors in this Love. Now widen this circle to include all those in our communities, all who are afraid, who are suffering, who are ill, who are imprisoned, who are angry, who are numb, those without shelter or medical care, who are confused and struggling with ignorance, who are mourning or struggling to mourn, who are risking their lives to offer care. All who are delivering food and mail, who are making sacrifices so that we and others can live. Expanding beyond borders, beyond divisions, beyond our knowing, let us hold every being on this beloved planet in the Light of God’s care.  

There are so many questions and uncertainties before us.

When we can’t even gather in person, where do we turn? When we are apart from one another in moments of grief, how do we mourn? How do we share and nurture joy, across the distances that separate us?

There’s a poem from the Irish poet and theologian Padraig O Tuama about looking for answers:

And I said to him:
Are there answers to all of this?

And he said:
The answer is in a story
and the story is being told.

And I said:
But there is so much pain
And she answered, plainly:
Pain will happen.

Then I said:
Will I ever find meaning?
And they said:
You will find meaning

where you give meaning.

The answer is in a story
and the story isn’t finished.

I keep imagining a moment on the other side of all this. When the lockdowns are over, and the pervasive fear has faded. Maybe soon, maybe a long way off. I don’t know the circumstances, but I know that people will gather. They will come from many directions. Some carefully at first, some running with shouts of joy.

I imagine they’ll look into each others’ eyes. They’ll embrace. They’ll sit down together. They’ll share food they’ve prepared for one another. And then—one by one at first, and then in many voices—they will begin to tell each other how it was, how it happened, where it hurt, how they survived. They’ll share their part of the story. In grief and laughter, in joy and lamentation, in silence and song, they’ll give their testimony.

Those who are gathered will tell each other the stories of the time we are now living. And what will matter most then, and what those listening will yearn to hear from each other, is not simply what happened, but what our living meant in the moments we were given.

I know this will happen in the future. But we don’t have to wait to tell the story.

We don’t need to wait until this time is “over” to find meaning in the midst of chaos and suffering. We don’t need to wait until tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year—or until we can gather again face to face. Right here, right now, we’re already part of the Story.

The tradition our spiritual ancestors have turned to for generations—and written with their lives—is filled with stories that help us to know how to live in times of uncertainty and fear.

The voices of the Hebrew prophets offer us companionship and solidarity in our heartbreak with the condition of the world, even as they challenge us to live in this moment as if the truth of God’s past faithfulness, and the promise of God’s still-arriving justice, wholeness, and peace, is already in some sense true—and also yet to be born.

The Easter story can anchor us, when we find ourselves waiting and watching with the first Friends, in the desolation and not knowing of the second day, in the wrenching absence of the Teacher. Before new Life. Before everything changes.

And the Psalms, those prayer songs sung by communities of faith for millennia, speak to us about unshakeable Presence that will not let us go:

Where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your presence?

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of morning,
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall guide me,
your right hand shall hold me fast.

There’s a centuries-old practice in Christian tradition that has been an anchor for me: Coram Deo. It translates as “before the face of God,” or maybe, “in the Presence of God.” From what I've come to understand, practicing Coram Deo is a way of recognizing that the fullness of our life—all that we are, all the choices we make, all the aspects of our experience—is held in the awareness, care, and infinite loving regard of the Divine.

What would it mean to live my whole life knowing I was held in the gaze of infinite Love? Knowing that my every thought, every action, every relationship, risk, fear and failing, every hope and dream and possibility, was enfolded in the sight of the Beloved?

When I can return to this understanding, I find can take refuge in it. And when I can move from this Belovedness in my daily life, I find my responses change. I grow in resilience, and my capacity to be present to suffering—my own and others’—grows too.

When I live my life rooted in the reality of this Love—knowing that no matter how great the suffering, all of Creation is unshakably held before the face of God—I am participating in the Story.

And the story isn’t finished.

I hope that in the time to come, when those people gather, they will say that we cried. I hope they will say that we allowed our hearts to be broken open. I hope they will say that in the midst of such absence, we sought to be present with each other, to our neighbors, and to the Presence that accompanies our days. I hope they will say that we allowed ourselves to be changed by the recognition of the injustice in our society, by the ravaging of Creation, laid bare in new ways for some of us by the pandemic. I hope they will say that we celebrated birthdays, that we married, that we mourned. I hope they will say that we sought to serve. I hope they will say that we loved, and that this loving helped others to know how deeply they are beloved, no matter the weight of suffering, or isolation, or oppression any of us may experience. And I hope that our living helped make this more real. I hope they will say that we loved.

Because the truth is this: whether we are a gathered people goes far beyond our capacity to be physically together.

The reality of the gathering Friends have testified to transcends time and space. It transcends death.

William Penn writes,

“They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it…”

We don’t need to be physically together for this gathering to happen.

There are countless stories from the journals of early Friends describing the sense of being knit together spiritually across oceans, across barriers of language, beyond prison walls. When we testify to the experience of a “gathered meeting” we’re describing so much more than people in a room, we’re describing the presence and action of the living Spirit among us—guiding, holding, teaching, transforming.

It’s the lived reality of being caught up, called in, welcomed home in God’s embrace.  It’s the joy that Mary Dyer expresses in 1661, even as she is being marched to the gallows in Boston, trusting with absolute assurance that there will be others who will come after her who will live this same Story, and who will play their part in this same work of Love’s unfolding in the days they are given.

These are her words:

It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy.

This is the Story that never ends. May we help one another to tell it—together.