Closing Chapter of the Summer

This blog is from Friend in Residence Kriss Miller – a reflection on her first year as Friend in Residence along with her husband Gary.

I’ve read a lot of good books in my life, but I have read very few books that became so
intertwined with my own longing that I slowed the pace of my reading to delay the ending. Those books are rare and delicious and require a particular kind of savoring. They teach one about their own dreams and desires. I love those books.

This summer at Chautauqua was one of those “books” for me. I came to this position with
curiosity, excitement, and a heartfelt desire to do all I could to support the Quaker House and its mission. As the summer wore on I felt my growing connection to these grounds, the founding ideals of Chautauqua, and the Quaker House intersection with these more deeply than I could have anticipated. I was introduced to a wide range of characters that brought joy, insight, and meaning into the story of my summer. The settings and storylines ranged from beautiful and idyllic to stressful, even terrorizing, in ways that would have been almost unimaginable at the beginning of the season.

The Chautauqua experience is both a tale of fiction and non-fiction. The storyline is unique; messy, beautiful, creative, and mystical. This story is filled with dynamic and interesting characters; talented, inspiring, and living lives of paradox. It is an ongoing story where current chapters are being written that clarify both the facts and fiction of past chapters. It is a riveting story that develops characters who are part of an experience and experiment of what it means to be in community with humans striving for high ideals in both the best of times and the worst of them. Each of us here this summer took our place in this story.

The 2022 season went by so fast. Too fast. This was a “beach read” that I couldn’t slow down. It was an immersive practice of being in and savoring the moment. It was a recognition of the importance of engaging in this practice of being every day as we write the story of our own lives.
Be in peace, friends.

Week 5 Blog Post

Guest post from our Week 5 Friend of the Week, David Wakeley.  David is from Wilmington, Delaware and is a member of Centre Monthly Meeting in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

The theme from Week Five was “Democracy and the Vote.”  As I thought about how to view this theme through my Quaker filter, the words of Isaac Pennington from over 350 years ago came to me.  “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.” (1667)

I heard this advice from Rev. Jordan-Simpson in her sermons several times throughout the week.  On Sunday she asked us “to not stop looking for God in the eyes of your neighbor.”  She went on to say that if we do so, hope cannot be defeated.  I heard this advice again from her on Tuesday when she reminded us that the most radical thing we can do when the worst things happen is to stand with one another as a friend and just listen for a while.  Later in the week she asked us to remember that we are all held together as one and we all have a place.

All the speakers from both the 10:45am and 2:00pm lectures articulately and forcefully laid out the challenges facing our democracy today.  Trevor Potter reported that there is widespread dissatisfaction with our institutions and leaders at levels not seen for a few generations.  Sherman Clark later that day observed that the public rhetoric today (as we all are surely aware) is divisive and angry.  Public rhetoric, he noted, is indicative of the kind of community we wish to be.   Linda Chavez reminded us that a functional democracy is fully dependent on absolute trust, something which has eroded measurably across the political spectrum in the recent past.  Frank Thomas spoke forcefully about the human tendency to lie in order to explain away irreconcilable differences to convince ourselves that our motives are pure and consistent.  (e.g. It’s not about voter suppression, it’s about making sure that the vote is fair and secure).  In short, we are a fractured nation which has lost confidence in our government to provide for the common good, and we are at once increasingly incapable of civil dialogue and increasingly concerned about violence in our elections.

All week I found myself wondering how we came to such a place.  When I was a kid growing up, we seemed to be a nation that dreamed.  We envisaged sending people to the moon and then did it.  We imagined that we could perhaps end poverty and for a time at least tried.  And of course Martin Luther King had a dream.  I think that Americans still dream, but our dreams seem to be drown out by the polarization of our politics and our public discourse, and maybe fear or doubt that we cannot do what we dream.  I believe that we can do almost anything that we dream, but doing so requires that we regard one another as neighbors, not enemies. 

So as I ponder the challenges to our democracy and nation as laid out during the week filtered through Friend Isaac Pennington, there are a few things that come to mind that resonate with Quaker theology:

  1. Let us begin by listening to each other. Really listen, and deeply listen.  Listen to people you disagree with, not with the intention of changing them or changing their mind, but just to learn something about them.  As Valerie Kaur wrote, “Listening does not grant the other side legitimacy. It grants them humanity—and preserves our own.” 1  So we must listen earnestly, with wonder and curiosity.  Instead of asking what is holding a person back from changing their mind, we might ask ourselves, what are we holding on to.  Listening in this way leaves open the possibility to be changed by others.  If we can listen to one another like this, we will not be able to make an enemy out of our neighbors. 
  • At the same time we must not look away or avert our gaze, nor let ourselves go numb to the real problems we face.  In these days when all hell is breaking lose we can’t afford to let power structures which distort truth extinguish our hope.  George Fox understood that when he called out the hypocrisy of clergy during his time.  John Woolman and the many other abolitionists would not let wealthy landowners who enslaved people avert their gaze from the truth that owning people is inconsistent with the Gospel. And Lucretia Mott and the suffragettes would not let the male political structure look away from the truth that denying women the vote was nothing other than a pitiful attempt to deny women political power. 
  • We must have the courage to stand up to lies and name them as such, but we must also do so in a way that separates the lie or the action from the person.  It is possible to love people who think things and do things that hurt us.  I think we all have had that experience.  We must “bear with one another and forgive one another.”  It’s hard, but it’s possible and it’s consistent with the teaching of the Gospel and Friends’ theology that we are all united as one with God through an inextinguishable divine spark. 

Let me close then with this passage from John’s gospel:  22 The glory that You have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and You in me, that they may become completely one.”  (John 17:22-23)  May we one day learn to be completely one.

1  Valerie Kaur, “See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love,” (Random House: New York), 2020.

David is a 2022 graduate from Earlham School of Religion with a MA Peace and Social Transformation.  In September, he will begin a residency in hospital chaplaincy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

What is Quaker House? What is Chautauqua?

Blog post by Max and Jane Carter Friends of the Week-

Our Friends of the week, Max and Jane Carter had never experienced either Quaker house or Chautauqua. enjoy their perspective with “new” eyes.

What is Quaker House at Chautauqua — and for that matter, what on earth is a Chautauqua?! After a week there, it’s still hard to describe a house of hospitality that “becomes” whatever the many people who visit it weekly bring to the house — and an Institution that offers more than 50 programs daily, from which one can only reasonably take in a handful!

As Friends-in-Residence for week #8 of Chautauqua’s summer season, we were delighted to try to begin unpacking the meaning. Having never been to the Institution, let alone Quaker House, before, we had little idea of what was in store for us. Soon we learned: it’s like drinking from a fire hose! First off, the hospitality offered by our hosts at Quaker House, Kriss and Gary, made us feel wonderfully welcomed as “newbies” and “outlanders” from that realm of Quakerism so many in the North have less clue about than we did about Chautauqua: the South! It certainly helped that we shared common roots in Indiana and that Kriss’s best friend in high school was Max’s campus ministry student worker when he was at Earlham College! But beyond that, our hosts guided us through the rich array of daily offerings, accompanied us to various programs, and invited us into stimulating conversations and opportunities. Kriss even digitized many of the Quaker history slides Max had mothballed since retiring from teaching at Guilford College seven years ago!

Our offerings at Quaker House were meager in comparison with what we gained. There was a brown bag lunch discussion about Max’s spiritual journey from a circumscribed farm and evangelical Quaker background to a more expansive theology and work in multi-faith campus ministry and peace & justice service in Palestine. And there was a reflection on the week’s theme at Chautauqua, “New Profiles in Courage.” Choosing to emphasize “holy obedience” rather than “courage,” we shared the stories of Quakers who have displayed what most would call “courage,” but which those historical figures merely described as “obedience:” William Edmondson, Levi Coffin, Alice Shaffer, and Annice Carter. We also enjoyed informal conversations each day with our hosts, visitors to Quaker House, and the other guest for the week, Welling Hall.

It is harder to describe the rich smorgasbord of programs that we got to choose from. Daily worship with Kelly Brown Douglas; musical offerings; speakers ranging from Sr. Joan Chittister to Prima ballerina Misty Copeland to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa — and many, many more — moved, entertained, and inspired us. It was almost more fun, enjoyment, and stimulation than Quaker propriety might allow!

Max wrote daily Facebook posts about the experiences. We’ll conclude with his summary of the talk given by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD). His comment about being informed by the “Golden Rule” espoused by Rabbi Hillel echoed a common theme of almost all the speakers during the week, whether “right,” “left,” or “center.” In our troubled times, we need to use whatever platform we have — not to promote ourselves but seek to elevate all by “doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves.”

With Liberty and Justice

(art by Christy Schee – ©Folding Hamster)

With Liberty and Justice

By Kriss Miller – Friend in Residence

As the days begin to shorten and we head towards what will soon be Fall, we will leave here to face a democracy in crisis. It was pretty much unanimous. Every speaker during week 5, where the theme of the week was Democracy and the Vote, mentioned the same thing over and again; we need to spend more time listening to each other. Every other, even the “other” others.

It seems like solving this problem might be easier for Quakers. Listening is in our cultural DNA. In the divisiveness of the political climate it is incredibly important to both model and share this practice; perhaps more than ever before. But easier isn’t always easy.

Today as we still sit in the balm that is Chautauqua we must wrestle with how to synthesize all that we have been offered in the 4 pillars of this special place; Religion, Arts, Education, and Recreation are the courses of daily manna offered here. We attend morning devotions from myriad faith practices, consume nearly hourly lectures from dawn to dusk while being offered 10+ weekly opportunities to sit in community and digest what we have taken in. This delectable experience is all scooped into a cone and served up with a symphony on top.

So rich is this experience that it cannot be the sustenance of our daily lives; this is a vitamin for envisioning, a spiritual supplement to make us strong enough to undertake the difficult job the founders of Chautauqua set forth for us all; take the message into your communities.

As we work towards a world of Liberty and Justice we must engage our capacity to listen. We must expand our capacity to hear beyond the words. We must listen for the rumbling hunger in our neighbors; a soul hunger rooted in exclusion, inequity, poverty, prejudice, loss, misinformation, and a deep craving for the deliciousness of connection. May we attend that hunger. And as we wait in the still silence may we remember to listen with our hearts as well as our ears.

Reflections from a Kenyan Quaker

Please note: This is a post from our week two Friend of the Week, Sussie Ingosi Ndanyi

“We are considering you to go to Chautauqua in New York State. Expect an email soon.” These words from one of the planners at the Quaker House at Chautauqua brought a sense of excitement within me. I had come to the United States over a year ago from Kenya and had not gotten an opportunity yet to visit this wonderful country. The thought of getting a glimpse of the topographical view of the various States across America as we take a road trip from Richmond, Indiana through Ohio, Pennsylvania into Chautauqua, New York was exhilarating. As I write this, I am sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of Quaker House, on 28 Ames Avenue in Chautauqua surrounded by huge trees providing a canopy of safety, imagining what kind of history these trees hold. Bikers are enjoying their uninterrupted rides; I see an elderly couple walk by hand-in-hand and marvel at their sense of joy. Yes, this peace of mind, I feel it too. The cool evening breeze is so refreshing for me, an international student currently undertaking studies at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana having come from Nairobi, Kenya. Chautauqua indeed is magical.  

I think of the theme for this week- The Wild: Reconnecting with our Natural World, and I am coming to terms with the reality of how far we as a people have moved away from the essence of life in terms of relationships with our creator.

One night, I attended the symphony concert, the very first-time live performance in my life. In listening to the organ and orchestra I was transfixed at how a different form of music, distinctive from my African drums, that involves singing and high impact energy is a source of entertainment. As the orchestra played the music, marked by periodic silence and building up to a crescendo, it wove a beautiful, melancholy music and I was totally captivated by it. This was a whole new experience. Sometimes the silence in our lives, when we intentionally listen, gives breath to the music when we have a discerning ear. Sometimes those silences bring a precious and new appreciation to life. In that moment I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, I smiled, feeling the connectedness with others in the amphitheater, for what the Lord had allowed me to experience in a faraway country among a different culture from my own drum-frenzy African experience. What might appear as the diverse dissonance in music is an opportunity to lean in, to have an attentive ear and enjoy the music.

This was truly wild.

I liken Quakerism to a rainbow with various colors in the Universe, its diverse styles of fellowship, be it silent worship where we allow the inward spirit to minister to our self or listening to the spoken word via a Pastor and therein lies the voice of God or a mixture of both, brings a spectrum of varying traditions and cultural experiences together in worship to express our Quaker message to the world.

Beliefs are embedded in the community. There are Quakers of all religious backgrounds, races, education, sexual orientation, gender identities and classes. We believe that every person is loved by the divine spirit. I am an African Quaker, where worship involves listening to a Pastor espouse the message from God. My belief is in a personal relationship with my creator, God as a friend whom I continuously communicate to through reading the bible, singing, and listening to Him especially when I take solitary walks, in so doing, receive clarity in my mind. This friendship with Jesus is conditional: “you are my friends if you do what I command you” John 15:14.

As I continue to mature in my Christian faith, I am tendering towards a commitment to always speaking my truth-so help me God. I often say more than is helpful when I could instead be curious to listen to and learn from people making different opinions. Such instances are an opportunity to lean in, to pay attention to the music that creates tension and release, dissonance and consonance. This is what my experience at Chautauqua was all about.

I kept reflecting on my Social location that in rooted in an African Quaker religious hierarchical background where the men have dominance in the church and women leaders are few. The unmarried women or single female parent are rarely welcomed to this table of leadership nor are they invited to participate in policy making at Church, yet they form a majority of members

My mission is to provide a voice of this marginalized group, I long for the day when I shall witness a female as head of Church in Kenya. I know for sure an army, a workforce of dedicated committed young women, wholeheartedly serving the body of Jesus Christ is in our future. What gives me confidence to work in the vineyard is expressed in 1st Thessalonians 5:24 that, “The one who called You is faithful, and he will do it.” The only thing I believe I have beyond everything else, is my voice, to be used in speaking up, to say the things that need to be said. If you are conscious of how things work, how things move, you will always find a place where your voice is needed. You will find there will always be gaps and and in those gaps, your voice is needed.

Another tenet of the Quaker belief is the Quaker Peace Testimony. The short version States: “utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons.” The peace testimony has always been more than that. It is an active expression of our understanding of the nature of how we should live in this world: and I would dare say, how to reconnect with the wild world. This is lived out by:

  1. an understanding that comes from our experiences of meeting together in worship:– periods of collective quiet prayer and reflection.
  2. It is an evolving expression of an insight at the heart of our approach to faith, challenging us in every generation.

We call it a “testimony” because it is how we witness to the world about our beliefs. Our experience is that everyone can respond to and express the living spirit of God within us.

We try to live out our commitment to peace in our daily lives and in our work, individually and together. Sometimes, we set up and support long- term individual and collective Quaker action as an expression of our peace testimony. At other times, simply “bearing witness” to a different way, a way that affirms the value of all life rather than denies it through warfare, is all we can do as individuals. But this too is an important part of our testimony. Herein lies my query.

And therefore, today in Chautauqua, in the Year 2022, I probe myself as a Quaker, with a view to affirm the value of life with the query, How do I witness my life to this wild Natural world?

The call to action is more important now than ever before in this hurting world. As we clamor to be heard and be visible in this wild world, I am reminded of the words of a poem “Desiderata” written in the early 1920’s by the American Writer Max Ehrmann that call us to be calm and gentle. In part it says,

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence…. speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit

May the reality of the gospel of accommodating (the other), the practice of meeting together in worship, the gospel of peace come alive in our spirits. Amen.

Of Being: Week 4

Blog post by Friend in Residence, Kriss Miller

Week 4, The Future of History, gave us time to consider both the darkness and light of our history. The speakers urged us to examine the complexity of our pasts with courage, honesty, and compassion. We were challenged to acknowledge the true costs of our actions and to educate and integrate these truths as a society. Without this process, we cannot begin to imagine the future of our history as a nation, let alone our being as individuals.

This will not be easy. There is no universally known workout routine that promises to strengthen character, increase our ability to be flexible in the face of societal changes towards inclusiveness, develop stamina for problem-solving, and offer the increased capacity required for staying in the process of reimagining our nation.

In her poem Practice, from her book Ledger, Jane Hirshfield offers a poetic observation that resonated with me as I thought of our limitations in exercising our compassion, creativity, and understanding, towards the goal of a stronger tomorrow – mid-poem she writes:

I also do ten push-ups, morning and evening.

Women’s push-ups,

From the knees.

They resemble certain forms of religious bowing.

In place of one, two, four, seven,

I count the names of incomprehension: Sanford, Ferguson, Charleston, Aleppo, Sarajevo, Nagasaki.

I never reach: Troy, Ur.

I have done this for years now.

Bystander. Listener. One of the Lucky.

I do not seem to grow stronger.

Though Hirschfield did not see the change desired, she does offer a crack of light when we read “I do not seem to grow stronger”.

The Week 4 speakers gave us much to ponder as they offered varying levels of hope and practice. The golden thread that I found running through every lecture was the word LISTEN.

I wondered further about how unpracticed we have all become at a skill that we focused on every minute, of every day, from our earliest moments of existence. In the womb, there was a time when we first heard our mother’s heartbeat, then the sounds of our family waiting to welcome us; the joys and sorrows of the coming world. We heard the music that would eventually fill our homes and ears, unfiltered by the salty water of our first home.

Our earliest ability to listen gave us the power to learn spoken language if our ears were able to hear, but listening comes through all the senses.  Listening is required to hear the messages of touch and taste, it is needed to understand the smells and sights that tell us the stories of who we are and who we are capable of being. Listening is far beyond words.

As we consider how we birth a new nation of inclusion, compassion, and consciousness, perhaps we should start by once again just listening. The answers will come. Just. Listen.

The Future of History

Guest post from our Week 4 Friend of the Week, Stephen Angell. The weekly theme was “The Future of History.” Below, Steve describes some of the talks he attended, and offers a Quaker response. In addition to being our Friend of the Week, Stephen W. Angell also serves as Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion.

The Future of History

            The theme of Chautauqua Institution this week was the “future of history.” So, what do Quakers have to say about the future of history? It was my task this week to help our f/Friends figure that out. (Let me just give a shout out to Gary and Kriss Miller, our absolutely wonderful hosts at Quaker House, without whom much or all of this would have been impossible. Thanks, Friends!) Back to the theme: It’s a marvelously mystical yet practical topic, and everybody has a different approach to it.

            I’ll start with what others had to say about the theme. The historian Jon Meacham concentrated  on the challenges of the current American political system, where the right is currently pursuing different goals than the center and the left. To the extent that the right is contemplating and actively pursuing obstructing the peaceful transfer of power, Meacham observed that much pressure lies on the center and left to work with renewed vigor to preserve the American constitutional system. If all sides in the political spectrum give in and place such constitutional bedrock principles as the peaceful transfer of power as a secondary goal at best, then the American constitutional system that has endured for more than two centuries is in even greater danger than it is now. Meacham spiced up his presentation with conversations with various famous and ordinary people, especially one of his biographical subjects, George H. W. Bush.

            Diplomat and college administrator Eliot Cohen explored the current controversy over preservation of statues. Cohen is all for taking down statues of Confederate icons such as Robert E. Lee, relegating such statuary to cemeteries, museums, and battlefields. But he argued for preserving statues of flawed heroes such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and argued that Benedict Arnold deserves a better reputation than he currently has, because at the Battle of Saratoga he saved the cause of American independence, something of more significance than his later attempts to betray the new nation and to undermine its independence.

            Historian Barbara Savage, whose presentation was sponsored by the African American Heritage House, talked extensively about the fascinating subject of her forthcoming biography, Merze Tate, a long time, well traveled, well published, brilliant, and all-but-forgotten African-American diplomatic historian who taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Author and director Bill Barclay and a brilliant ensemble of actors and musicians presented a most educational musical about Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint Georges, the “Black Mozart” whose music was all-but-forgotten until very recently. Rediscoveries like these are important! For history to have a rich future, as we all hope that it does, it is of great importance to delve more fully into the riches of the past in order to inform our outlook on the future.

            Well, what do Quakers have to say about all this?

            I come to that subject having authored or co-authored ten books on Quaker and other histories: The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013); Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Quaker Press of FGC, 2011); The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism (Cambridge University Press, 2018); Indiana Trainwreck: Divisions in Indiana Quaker Communities over Inclusion of Homosexuals, Church Authority, Christ, and the Bible (Quaker Theology Press, 2019), among others.

            In Black Fire, my co-authors, Hal Weaver and Paul Kriese, and I attempted to bring to life some Black Quakers who had been all-but-forgotten or who have not received the attention they deserve, such as Bayard Rustin, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Barrington Dunbar, Mahalah Ashley Dickerson, Jean Toomer, Helen Morgan Books, and many more. Recovery of vital parts of our past is important for Quakers, too.

            The number of Quakers in their ancestral homelands of Britain and North America have been declining in recent decades, while the number of Quakers in the global South have been growing. We need to hear more of the stories of Quakers in the global South. The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism gives a good overview of these phenomena. But we also need to hear more Quaker voices from the global South. One work that makes a modest start in this direction is the history of some of the Quakers in Bolivia recently assembled by a bi-national team: See Nancy J. Thomas, A Long Walk, a Gradual Ascent: The Story of the Bolivian Friends Church in its Context of Conflict (Wipf and Stock, 2019).

            Much of Quakerism today is characterized by theological diversity. How to cope with that diversity, and the conflict that often results from it, is explored in Indiana Trainwreck: Divisions in Indiana Quaker Communities over Inclusion of Homosexuals, Church Authority, Christ, and the Bible. This explores one of several divisions that have occurred among primarily pastoral Quakers in the 2010s. Chuck Fager, Jade Souza and I have brought out a series of three books on what we call “The Separation Generation,” of which Indiana Trainwreck was the first. My own view: separation is the middle option. If Friends of varying theological persuasions can find a way to really listen to one another and to continue to work together fruitfully, that is the best. Outright fighting and name-calling is the worst. Separation is preferable to that.

            Like many of the speakers this week, I emphasized going back to the well of history, and continuing to explore the vision and insight of Quakers in the past, especially the first generation of Friends. Like many others, I have toured the 1652 country in the North of England where Quakers first became a vital movement. With Ben Dandelion, I have climbed Pendle Hill, as Quaker founder George Fox and his traveling companion Richard Farnworth did in 1652. From the chilly summit of Pendle Hill, one can see quite far.  In 1652, from those heights, in the midst of many convincements of people becoming Friends, Fox saw “a great people to be gathered.” Might we be able to see the same? My bet is that we can, and we will.

Books mentioned in this blogpost:

A Long Walk, A Gradual Ascent:

The Cambridge Companion to Quakerism:

Black Fire:

Indiana Trainwreck:

Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies:

How is It

by Kriss Miller – Friend in Residence

from Prayer for a Child by Rachel Field; illustrated by Elizabeth Orton

How is It

How is It

how is it so much to ask

to right the wrongs of the human condition

to find the strength  

to hold space for the anguish of another

how is it so much to ask

that one’s body belongs to itself

and not the current state of the state

how is it so much to ask

for food

not only for the body

but for the soul

how is it so much to ask

that the trees breathe in air

as clean for their lungs

as the air, they offer us in return

how is it so much to ask

that a child might run free

in the light of an eternal love

that pours out adoration without extraction

how is it so much to ask

that one sleeps soundly through the night

in a bed with a blanket

woven from their hopes and dreams

how is it so much to ask

for just the right eraser

to rub out the line

between the darkness and the Light

what if instead

we let our hearts be broken

that we ourselves might open

to let in the Light

stopped the asking

erased the lines

and wrapped ourselves in the blankets of our wildest dreams

as though Spirit would ever deny this option

come Light, I am willing

Out of the Amp and into the Wild

“Cosmic Cliffs” – July 12, 2022 11:22AM (EDT) Release ID: 2022-031 –


by Kriss Miller – Friend in Residence

It was a sunny day and a gentle breeze that provided the backdrop for Victoria Loorz to remind those of us sitting in the Hall of Philosophy of the importance of staying in conversation with nature. In the Interfaith series for this Wild week 2 of the Chautauqua season, Loorz brought up ways in which inaccurate interpretations of the Bible can alter one’s perception of not only their place in the world but the world’s place as well.  Other speakers echoed the same sentiment during the week, beckoning us back into an existence where human connection, collaboration, and conversation with the natural world are the rule, rather than the exception.

We humans are unique creatures. We are filled with wonder yet selfishly controlling. We are born with a drive to create yet we are dangerously destructive. We have expanded an almost unimaginable intelligence yet we are incredibly ignorant. We can be wholly capable of solving problems of enormous magnitude at the same time we are burying our heads in the sand.

While pondering this post, breathtaking images from the edges of creation were coming back to NASA via the James Webb telescope. These awe-inspiring images instantly made me feel tiny and weightless. There is relief in the weightlessness, relief in feeling very small. There is laser clarity that ours is not the only point of view. So I wonder. What if somewhere, in a faraway spot in this seemingly eternal darkness, there is one teeny tiny dot that represents our sun. And just maybe, somewhere in a far-off universe, there is a child, pointing up at our star, and wondering what is happening where we live. What are we doing to keep our light shining.

The Webb Telescope photos serve as a reminder of the limits of our universal value. It also gives us permission to savor the amazing gift of being part of this web of existence. It urges us to treasure our place in this beautiful, wild, and wonderful universe.  It offers us the opportunity to de-center ourselves as the sole focus of the Creator. If we are called to see that of God in all, then the all includes caring about and for every piece of this wondrous existence in our corner of eternity.

Something’s lost and some things found

It was 8:45 in the morning when we stepped out into the crispness that is uniquely Chautauquan at this time of year. Gretchen and I walked to the daily Peace gathering. On the way, I noticed an odd piece of hardware, a slotted washer laying in the street. I am a maker of things. I especially like to collect detritus and imagine how it came to be found. A few blocks later and a length of rusty hanger strap was added to my stash; a world of possibility came into view.

The stash

Soon we joined the voices in prayer, clasped hands, and completed our short time together by singing Let There Be Peace On Earth. I felt like a “Who down in Whoville” praying that we too might be on the brink of experiencing the benefit of expanding hearts in a world too full of Grinches.

Starting the season with the topic What is America’s Role in the World, was a heavy lift. We are in crisis. We are juggling a lot right now: climate change, the hearings about January 6th, a serious gun violence issue, ongoing Covid concerns, and a SCOTUS decision to irrevocably change the rights of all those for whom pregnancy is a possibility. The ink was barely dry on the Court’s decision as I walked toward the amphitheater to welcome the start of the season. I yearned for possible solutions from minds much wiser than mine.

The national struggle is real. Now, more than ever, I hear people discussing their exit strategies; an exodus from the country that claims to be the city on the hill, the beacon of hope; the model of what it means to be exceptional. Each day I have wrestled with this question: What might this country look like if this were true? What would it be like if we were exceptional? While this doesn’t make for an easy night’s sleep, it certainly has made for a week of deep contemplation and rich conversation.

Stay open, I cautioned. Look around, I reminded. Answers are everywhere.
Later Gretchen offered a closed fist saying, “I have a gift for you.” I held out my hand where she dropped a key; a key with a story, a key that once had unlocked something. Then my husband brought me what looked to be a pad from a piece of furniture that he found in the street; lost while moving in, or perhaps, moving out. And when I arrived back at Quaker House, Bhante had left an avocado pit for me in the sink. Three gifts in one day, three people who had understood things important to me. Each had a lesson; a key that opened a door to the unknown, a felt pad that added a layer of protection against the damage done by constant friction and the ever-intriguing gifts of the avocado pit. Avo pits can be sprouted and grown into a producing tree. They can also be boiled to yield the loveliest peachy-pink brew that successfully dyes fabric or can be distilled into ink. The rich color staining all that it touches.

I kept the washer and the key in my pocket all week and listened for what they might have to share, but it is the avocado pit that informed me the most. America itself is this seed, this pit, with so much beauty and so much potential packed inside. If we are willing to truly be exceptional then we will face and wrestle with our truest past, grow into our fullest potential so that we can provide for future generations and like the avocado pit, mark the places where we make contact with exceptional beauty.