Nurturing the Seeds of Hope
Baltimore Yearly Meeting Annual Carey Memorial Lecture 2007
Friday, August 3, 2007
By Joe Volk, FCNL Executive Secretary
Thank you for the invitation to give the Carey lecture tonight at Baltimore Yearly Meeting. I am honored by your invitation to address the yearly meeting on the topic of “Nurturing the Seeds of Hope.”
Thank you also to the Carey family whose gift has made possible the series of Carey lectures at Baltimore Yearly Meeting, since 1947.
While I’m thanking people, I want to thank you, the members of the several monthly meetings of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, for the support, volunteer leadership, and encouragement that you give to FCNL -- to me, to my FCNL colleagues, and to our committee members. It makes a difference to us. Speaking of being thankful for the support that individual Friends give to FCNL, many of you will remember Ann and Hal Cope, both now deceased. Ann and Hal exemplified the way that Friends work in the world as a practice of faith. They helped to govern FCNL by serving on our committees; they responded to our legislative action requests by contacting their members of Congress; they came into the office to volunteer their labor for phone banking and even stuffing envelopes; they encouraged others to participate in FCNL; and each found ways to support our staff members. FCNL and other Friends organizations thrive on such gifts of the spirit that come from individual Friends who are engaged with us. I can’t name now everyone who deserves such thanks, and I hope that saying thanks to two, Ann and Hal Cope, will stand for the many.
You have enjoyed a series of remarkable scholars and public Friends through the years at these Carey Lectures. As Liz Hofmeister explained in her introduction, the Carey Memorial Lecture is the gift of Millicent Carey Mclntosh in memory of her parents, A. Morris and Margaret Thomas Carey, who all their lives were active members of Baltimore Monthly Meeting (Homewood). I’m told that the first lecture was given in 1947 by Rufus M. Jones, and that a fellow graduate of Miami University, Elizabeth Watson, lectured in 1976. More recently others who have given the lecture have included Retha McCutcheon, Vicki Cooley, Ron Mattson, Tracey Peterson, Paul Lacey, Jay Marshall, and Thomas Taylor.
The term “public Friend” may fit me after working 35 years, combined at the American Friends Service Committee and FCNL. However, I certainly don’t fit the shoes of a Rufus Jones. I’m humbled by that list of speakers.
I’ve been asked to address the topic, “Nurturing the Seeds of Hope,” the theme of your gathering here this week at Frostburg State University. I have two questions for you: 1. Why is this year’s topic on Hope? and 2. Can we parse the topic “Nurturing the Seeds of Hope” in a way that might offer a metaphor that would be useful?
Why the topic Hope?:
I have heard it said that one talks more about what one wants but does not have. I have heard it said that is why we humans have so many love songs. My assumption – which is untested and may be quite wrong – is that, living in this world, seeing the horrors on the nightly news, watching our government engage in conduct unbecoming America, learning of the looming catastrophe promised by global climate change, and simply coping with daily family life, some Friends have lost hope. But, they want to find it again. Thus, this year’s annual BYM session theme: Nurturing the Seeds of Hope.
Last March, after my return from Iran where I met with President Ahmadinejad and with religious leaders there, I was invited to give the homily at French Memorial Chapel at Hastings College in Nebraska. My host, the Reverend Doctor David B. McCarthy selected a hymn that he thought would be appropriate for a visiting Quaker. I think the first verse of that hymn, “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” would be a fitting opening here:
“Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead, find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed: Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see all the things that really matter, be at peace, and simply be.” (from Words 1992 Hope Publishing Co.; words Shirley Erena Murray; Music Attr to B.F. White; Beach Spring 87.87 D)
Parsing the topic:
“Nurturing the Seeds of Hope” certainly brings to my mind the metaphor of the gardener. Is it peculiarly Quaker that we tend to settle on nature and gardening metaphors more than we settle on shepherding or guiding metaphors? In any case, the topic raises in me some interesting questions, or, I should say the topic raises some questions that interest me.
If I am a gardener and if I want to nurture the seeds of vegetables, I go to a gardening catalogue or a gardening center, select my seeds; I get some composted manure; I get some mulch; and, then, I go home to plant my vegetable garden. Having planted it, I tend it by weeding, by watering, by thinning, by fertilizing (organically, of course), and by pruning. If the weather is good, if the seeds germinate, if a pest doesn’t make a complete mess of it, a time comes when I can harvest. Some vegetables come to harvests sooner than others. I can get my scallions and spinach early, but I suffer in waiting for my wonderful heirloom tomatoes. If I persist and if I’m patient, the garden that I nurture returns nourishment and pleasure to me. That’s our vegetable garden, and some of us do that year after year over many decades. A labor of love that yields wonderful, if simple, returns.
Now, if I want to nurture the seeds of hope, where do I go to acquire the seeds? What kind of fertilizer will I need and where to go for that? Does it require mulching? And where do I plant the seeds? How do I water them? Do they need weeding? Thinning? Fertilizing? Pruning? Can I possibly have time to raise my family, go to work, do the household chores, tend my vegetable garden, and, also, nurture the seeds of hope.
I’m not going to take this metaphor further tonight, but you get my point that maybe this topic could be mined for more meaning than I can give it.
One God and One People:
Where does one go to acquire the seeds of hope? This question has both religious and psychological answers and probably also biochemical answers. I’m going to pass on the psychology and on the biochemical. I’ll turn to the religious for just a moment.
About two years ago, my Presbyterian buddies, Rich Kilmer and Barbara Green, invited me to participate in a by-invitation consultation of Christian and Muslim leaders in North America. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Churches Center for Theology and Public Policy, and the Islamic Society of North America hosted the consultation at Pontantico, a conference center near Tarrytown, NY. We were addressing the question whether Muslims and Christians shared a common agenda in addressing the threat of nuclear weapons. In one of our many interfaith worship sessions, this group of 30 heard a Muslim and then a Christian say respectively, “We human beings say to God, ‘God you are One.’ And, then, “Yes, and, God says to us human beings, ‘although you come to me on different pathways, you are all one to me.’” A long and deep silence followed in which I felt that we fell into unity. At that moment, I felt a coming alive of hope in that room.
Two Worlds: This One and the Now But Not Yet World
I hear the phrase “Nurturing the Seeds of Hope” with western, Christian ears. As a Christian, I’m familiar with the idea that the end of this world is near and with the promise that the Messiah is coming “like a thief in the night.” These ideas have great importance for me, but for many, including perhaps many of you, such Christian and religious ideas have been dangerous and have caused tremendous human suffering over the centuries. As a result, many people eschew the New Testament and have put away such so-called superstitious and childish notions. So, if you are among those who cannot hear in the way that I hear, I want to affirm your good instincts to reject bad religion and ask you to be patient with me. Although some people seek to find the seeds of hope in religion, religion can be a source of false hope and real suffering.
Religion for Good or Religion for Evil:
Charles Kimball has done a great service by writing a remarkable book entitled When Religion Turns Evil. He cites five warning signs when religion has gone bad. The five warning signs of corruption in religion, he says, are:
1. Absolute Truth Claims
2. Blind Obedience
3. Establishing the “Ideal” Time
4. The End Justifies the Means, and
5. Declaring Holy War.
With Charles Kimball’s cautions in mind about the ways in which religion can turn evil, I want to return to the matter of my Christian beliefs, how I got them, and why these are a source of hope for me.
My parents wanted me to grow up to be a good boy, and they wanted me to grow up with a group of well behaved and purpose-driven children. So they took me to a Christian church, a mainline Protestant denomination. After years of going to church, I disappointed them terribly … by becoming a Christian. They certainly had no intention of that happening. They just wanted me to be a good boy who would be respected in our community and who would hang out with the right kind of people. Their disappointment turned to dread, when I refused to go to Vietnam with my mechanized cavalry unit, my father’s despair came out in his exclamation to me, “Who the hell do you think you are? Jesus H.Christ? You’re just supposed to believe that stuff; you’re not supposed to do it! Everybody knows that!” I think he was angry at what I had done and disappointed that I was so naïve.
I had not succumbed, I think, to any of the five signs of corruption in religion. Rather, I had taken some of the Gospel stories to heart and applied them to my situation. One story was of Jesus remonstrating Peter and telling him to put away his sword and healing the Roman soldier’s severed ear – laying down of arms in the midst of the enemy. The other story was Jesus remark that, in as much as we have done it unto the least amongst us, we have done it unto Him. I thought simply, “Well, at this time, the least amongst us are the Vietnamese, and we better stop killing them, if for no other reason than for His sake.”
Mine was not a very sophisticated theology, but it was enough to get me into trouble and to humiliate my family. At that moment, when I should have felt entirely hopeless and bereft, I experienced instead a powerful spiritual freedom, even while I was confined in an Army stockade, a stockade of a few white guys and many very angry people of color.
My personal experience during the Vietnam War then led me to believe – I can’t document or prove it – that hope results from a merging of faith with action and risk. I thought that I had a religious insight that hope is not a noun but a verb. Hope is not something one holds. Hope is something that one does. Do nothing and you will have no hope. Do something and you might make a peep hole in the world through which hope could sneak back in.
Early in my study of the Gospels and the commentary on the Gospels, I came across the idea that God calls us to live in a now-but-not-yet world. As we enter into that now-but-not-yet world, we help to dissolve this world and we help to bring into creation the world that God wills for us. Over the years, I’ve become convinced that hope is something one practices, and that the practice of hope is best done in community.
In my early years, I did not have clarity on these points, and I experienced doubt. In graduate school – prior to my Army days – I had read some early Christian thinkers. One stood out then to me and came to mind during periods of doubt in my later war resistance. This fellow had asserted that doubt ministers to faith. Doubt is not contrary to faith. Doubt is a gift from God, a gift that helps us to refine our faith. Without doubt, we would be condemned to a perpetual juvenile spiritual life. With doubt, we could mature in our spiritual understandings. I have ever since tried to exercise the courage to embrace doubt as a friend who might lead me to new understandings.
Communities of Hope: Rebuilding FCNL’s House:
I’ve said that practicing hope works best in community, and one example of that from my FCNL experience would be our committee’s new, accessible, green building on Capitol Hill, the first green building on Capitol Hill.
When, in the 1990s, our governing committee learned that the building was failing to meet the needs of our programs and that engineers advised that it would have to be replaced in five years or abandoned; the situation appeared hopeless. Our committee had to face up to both the reality that the building would not serve much longer and that we simply did not have the means, namely an extra five or six million dollars, to fix it. We had to consider leaving Capitol Hill for something affordable. The problem was just too big for our little group to manage. Many experts agreed with this assessment.
But, our committee stuck with the Quaker decision making process. It let this matter season among us. The committee returned to the matter regularly. Members’ considerations were informed by studies of various kinds that provided hard facts. Through this process our best thinking and experience was gathered. Our discussions added up to a “Big Problem.” Until at some point in a worship sharing session someone offered a simple message that turned us around and pointed us in another direction. That simple message was this: Friends we have painted ourselves into a corner. We have defined our site and building on Capitol Hill as a problem. We want to get rid of our problem. But our building is an opportunity. If we see it as an opportunity, surely we will not want to rid ourselves of it. What can we do with this opportunity?
FCNL’s house was falling down, but that presented our community with an opportunity if only we could have eyes to see it. We could take the opportunity to make good on our lobbying for the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Maybe we could incarnate our “We seek an Earth restored” claim into a witness on Capitol Hill that would call Congress to its senses on energy and tax policies for addressing climate change. If our little community – just 120,000 of us in the United States – could create an accessible and green building on Capitol Hill, then no one could say it’s too difficult to do. Here we had an opportunity to be a pattern to the world, to let our lives speak. Shouldn’t we try to take that opportunity?
The risks were great for us. The project was a stretch. The labor of raising the money and of managing the renovation and construction did tax our capacities. “Opportunity” does not mean “easily accomplished.” Yet, our Quaker decision-making process let the spirit lead us to what we thought God’s will was for us at that time. I think our governing committees did merge faith with action and risk, and the outcome has been a simple, beautiful, green building that speaks truth to power at the very time when climate change and energy policy is the hot topic in Congress. Somehow, we got on the right pathway in 1997 with that project, and that project got us to the right and timely destination in 2007. We probably could not have calculated that outcome and planned for it. Practicing hope was what got us there, I believe.
Community Practice of Hope: Rebuilding our House of Democracy
In the way that FCNL’s house was falling down and required renovation, our country’s house of democracy is falling down and requires renovation. In the way that FCNL’s building was seen as a problem to be rid of, so too our falling down house of democracy is something that many would like to just walk away from, to be rid of it. Can we see that this growing problem is really an opportunity for us to practice hope, to see what love can do to mend a broken world?
Hope and our Historic Moment:
Looking to the history of our Quaker movement one finds both the seeds of hope and the role models for how to nurture those seeds.
My FCNL colleagues who are here tonight know that I’m stuck on the idea that we live in an historic moment. Of course, every moment in history will be historic one day and every moment is unique, because it hasn’t happened before. That is the way of the space time continuum.
Yet, our times may be quite unusual. More people are alive today than lived in all of past human history. In the past one hundred years we humans have burned up an oil supply that took millions of years to create, due, in large part, if not entirely, to that human activity, the ice caps are melting and sea levels may rise by seven meters before a thousand years have passed; a new East-West conflict is brewing and destabilizing geopolitics; the gap between rich and poor is widening here and abroad; large populations suffer from HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis; a looming shortage of potable water promises new resource wars; the infrastructure of the U.S. would require nearly $2 trillion in the next ten years to be fixed; the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq may pull the stilts from under the aspiring American empire at the cost of many innocent lives and it is sucking up that $2 trillion that we need for infrastructure to support human security; with the end of the Cold War, we have a chance to replace an old world military order with a new civil world order. I could go on but you get my point. Our moment in history and what we do in it could make a huge difference to future generations, to way beyond the next seven generations.
Let’s remind ourselves what Friends have done with scant numbers of people and few resources in previous historic moments. I like to tell the story of my Iowa interview with a conservative talk radio guy on one of those 50,000 watt clear channel stations.
I walked into the broadcast studio in Des Moines, IA, in September 2001 a day or two before the 9-11 attacks. The host, a loquacious fellow who read voraciously in theology and policy, warmly welcomed me, put a hot cup of coffee in my hand, invited me to put on my headphones, put the microphone up to my mouth, did a quick sound check, said how pleased he was for me to be there and how much he was looking forward to our discussion. I thought ‘what a pleasant surprise,’ a real convivial guy.
Then he said, “Okay, the commercial break is just about finished,” and I heard his producer in my headphones say, “... and three, two, one.” My host greeted his audience and said something like the following: he was looking forward to “eating his next guest alive. My guest is Joe Volk, from the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and he is definitely an extremist. This guy works for people – the Quakers – who hate the American government, who evade military service and insult our men and women in the armed forces, and get this, they don’t want to protect America from enemy missiles. They’re against missile defense. I think they claim they’re Christians but talk about naive and ineffective! So, Joe, why do Quakers always side with the bad guys, anyway?”
“You’re right,” I told him and his "clear channel" audience. “We Quakers have often been considered extreme in our times. We’ve been shunned, persecuted, and jailed for our extreme views. Let me mention just a few:
- rejecting theocracy: we rejected the state-run church and practiced freedom of religion, when it wasn’t permitted; extreme at the time, but later incorporated into our Bill of Rights;
- equality of women: we recognized women as equals of men – although we men still have a step learning curve to go – and we accepted women as ministers too; extreme at the time, but later it helped to lead us on a pathway to co-education, women’s suffrage, and women’s rights;
- opposition to slavery: we held that no human being could be owned by another human being; we were outlaws running the underground railroad to transport slaves out of bondage to free land; extreme and illegal at the time, but now slavery has been abolished and museums applaud the underground railroad.
The folks who started the anti-slavery movement with about seven ordinary people meeting in a print shop, were a small beginning for an historic outcome. We should find reason to practice hope in that story.
Hope Demands Something of Us:
Hope demands something of us, something exemplified, I think, by Alexander Graham Bell. My wife Beth and I recently visited Baddeck, Nova Scotia. We stopped by the Alexander Graham Bell museum set up by Parks Canada, a remarkable exhibit about the inventor’s work, family, life, and, I think, how he nurtured hope. The inventor of the telephone, hydrofoils, and numerous others innovations that have changed lives, Bell once wrote this for an article in Youth’s Companion, according to the museum curator,
We are all too inclined, I think, to walk through life with our eyes closed. There are things around us and right at our very feet that we have never seen because we have never really looked. We should not keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone; we should leave the beaten track occasionally and enter the woods. Every time you do that you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before. Of course, it will be a little thing; but do not ignore it. Follow it up, explore all around it, one discovery will lead to another, and before you know it you will have something worth thinking about to occupy your mind, for all really big discoveries are the results of thought.” (“Observation, Twin Brother to Invention,” by Alexander Graham Bell. Published in, Youth’s Companion.)
Importance of Nonviolence:
There’s no nurturing the seeds of hope without nonviolence. How we do something is as important as what we accomplish in the doing. An inseparable relationship exists between the means to and end and the end itself, and that means-end relationship is determinative of the outcome. The combination of the power of love and the force of truth has the capability to transform us and the world.
No question about it, a kind of power does come from the barrel of a gun, but that’s a power of this world that lacks transformative capacity. It can destroy, but it doesn’t create sustainable communities. Nonviolence works differently. Nonviolence does destroy enemies, but it does so by converting them into friends.
Not infrequently, nonviolence demands voluntary self-suffering. But, when you think about the choices between war or nonviolence, the choice is not whether to suffer or not suffer, rather the question is to what purpose will I put my suffering.
Nonviolence is deceptively simple. Gandhi’s march to the sea ended in his simple act of picking up sea salt in the palm of his hand. In doing so, he violated the British Empire’s law and thus began the liberation of India. What is today’s equivalent of Gandhi’s march to the sea to free us from the bonds of war and killing?
Where is the Seed of Hope?:
As we at FCNL met with our architects to plan the program for our renovated green building, the principal architect, Harry Gordon, said something simple and quite profound: “Joe, as we go into the design process for your new building, you need to remember that there is no elegant solution to a poorly defined problem.”
How true. There is no elegant solution to a poorly defined problem. But, if we can get the problem definition right, then we create the opening to work on the problem and the possibility of an elegant solution. This applies not only to architecture for buildings but also to “architecture for public policy.” For example, after 9-11, a poorly defined problem, “they all hate us and want to kill us” led to an ugly and ineffective solution, “kill them all before they kill us.” The result has been a loss of hope, much human suffering, a monumental waste of treasure, and making the problem worse.
Hope might be restored if we take the time to redefine the problem in light of information and wisdom. We need to define problems in ways that we can work on them through nonviolent means. If we practice hope in that way, then the seeds of hope may be nurtured and may bring us into a now but not yet world, the promised land. We flawed human beings will never fully arrive at the promised land, but we can get back on the road that goes in that direction.
The spirit in which we approach our work to transform this world into a world at peace with justice on an earth restored will make all the difference in the outcome of our project.
In closing, I would like to read from Kenneth Boulding’s introduction to his “Naylor Sonnets,” because this passage speaks so powerfully about the spirit that we seek.
Kenneth Boulding introduces James Naylor’s parting remarks in this way:
In October 1660 he (Naylor) set off from London northwards on foot, intending to visit his wife and children in Wakefield. On the way he was robbed, and found bound in a field. He was taken to a Friend’s house, where he died. The passage …was spoken by him about two hours before his death. It is a classic expression of a spirit too close to the source of truth to have a name. It carries a message of peace to a world at war, a clear wind of pure truth amid the fogs of propaganda and deceit, an intimation of that love which is indeed God. There are times and places in history when we feel the wings of the spirit brushing very close to earth. The tragedy of James Naylor is such an occasion …
The Naylor death bed passage reads:
There is a Spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings: for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.
(from “There Is A Spirit: the Naylor Sonnets,” by Kenneth E. Boulding, QHS Quaker Home Service & Pendle Hill Publications, 1945, 1959, 1992)
The Carey Memorial Lecture. The lectureship is the gift of Millicent Carey Mclntosh in memory of her parents, A. Morris and Margaret Thomas Carey, who all their lives were active members of Baltimore Monthly Meeting (Homewood). The first lecture was given in 1947 by Rufus M. Jones.