What I’d Promised to Baltimore
Friday, August 18, 2006 at 01:59PM
Marshall Massey in A Long Listen

More than a year ago — bare weeks after I accepted the initial invitation to speak at Baltimore Yearly Meeting — I received an e-mail from the program committee there: as long as I was coming to the yearly meeting, anyway, would I like to convene a workshop, too?

Now, as it happens, I have a long-standing hobbyhorse for such occasions. It’s a workshop on “the ancient discipline of witness”.

For yes, indeed — witness was a discipline in ancient days, as much as integrity was, or the rejection of idols, or abstinence from pork. It was a discipline that was raised to a high level of power in the hands of the ancient Hebrew prophets, and, later on, in the hands of entire Jewish and Christian communities. And it had other high points, too — including among ancient Greek philosophers, among medieval Ch’an and Zen teachers, among early Friends, in Gandhi’s India, and here in the U.S. during the Civil Rights era.

One can find isolated cases of it in almost every civilization and time. It seems, at least to some extent, to be a universal instinct, or a universal wisdom, among human beings everywhere. But in the places where it rose to a high point, it seems also to have been to a considerable extent a taught and practiced skill, and to have been passed by teaching and example from leaders to disciples and followers and from group to group. — Which fascinates me: I think we Friends, as members of a strongly prophetic tradition, can benefit a great deal from studying its methodologies and learning what we can together, today.

So I’ve been leading witness workshops from time to time all over the country, for more than a decade now, and generally they have been pretty popular and successful. And I thought: of all places, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, which includes Friends in metropolitan Washington, D.C., would be a great place to do such a workshop. And so I made the offer to the yearly meeting program committee, and they accepted.

And then, not much later, I got another e-mail from the program committee: they really had a lot of workshops scheduled, but they were short on people to lead Bible study: could I lead a Bible study group instead? Maybe on the Bible and the environment?

Well, okay: I’ve led some Bible study groups in my day. And I’ve got at least a fair acquaintance with what modern scholarship has to say on a fairly good fraction of the Bible. It’s not too hard for me nowadays to lead Bible study sessions even if I don’t have reference texts on hand, and (thank heaven for the computer age) I actually carry around a fair number of reference texts on my laptop, which I knew I’d be taking with me.

And actually, I’ve found some interesting things out about the environmental dimensions of the Bible, in my twenty-odd years of work in the religious-environmental arena. Things that most people don’t know, or don’t think about, but that are (again) empowering to folks of good heart and aims.

So I said yes to that request, too.

Maybe I was crazy. This meant that I had four hours of Bible study, six hours of workshop, and a keynote speech, to present at Baltimore Yearly Meeting — an awful lot of program time crammed into just four days. And my conscience wouldn’t let me respond to such challenges routinely; I’d try to make it fresh and new all the time. But it all seemed doable, at least.

And now I’d actually arrived in Harrisonburg, and Baltimore Yearly Meeting was about to start, and I was still in the final stages of working through what I’d been given to talk about in my keynote speech. The time had come to produce all that good stuff I’d promised.

Not without a sigh of regret for the yearly meeting activities I’d be missing, I buried myself in my dorm room from Monday afternoon to Wednesday morning, and refreshed my memory on the subjects I’d be addressing, and put together hand-outs for the first sessions of the Bible study and the workshop.

Again, thank heaven for the computer age. In the old days, I’d had to type up hand-outs from scratch on typewriters, rummaging frantically through a stack of physical books at my side for exact facts and quotations, and then getting copies made at some achingly slow (and expensive) commercial printer. It was so much easier now! — cutting and pasting from earlier hand-outs that I’d used in other places and had saved on my hard drive, adapting and editing the old documents on my screen, and then transferring the result in PDF format to the memory stick on my keychain for plugging-and-printing in the yearly meeting office!

I figured I’d have some people who participated in both the Bible study and the witness workshop, and some who participated in one or the other, or both, and then heard the speech. So it felt right to me to structure the three things in such a way that they would overlap just a trifle and no more, and add dimensions to one another. And doing so proved remarkably easy.

And lo, I had everything ready in time for each session of the Bible study and each session of the workshop. It took most of my free time to do it, but I never felt desperate about it for one moment. Maybe that was the result of the clarity I’d come to in two-and-two-thirds months on the road?

The schedule had it that my morning Bible-study sessions were to begin on Wednesday (August 2) and continue through Saturday. My afternoon witness workshop sessions were to begin on Thursday and continue through Saturday. And the speech was to be on Saturday. Thus I’d have two of the four Bible study sessions finished before the witness workshop even began, and I’d have both the Bible study and the witness workshops completely finished shortly before I gave the speech.

It seems to me that the easiest way to report on these matters, therefore, is not according to strict chronology, but rather, first covering the Bible study, and then backing up a little and covering the witness workshop, and then finishing up with the speech.

So: the next posting will be on the Bible study sessions.

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Article originally appeared on earthwitness (http://journal.earthwitness.org/).
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