”All God’s Critters Got a Place In the Choir.”
And being in the choir is work.
I’m not much for singing gospel songs; but Bill Staines, who wrote this one, was more of a folkie, and his tune, “All God’s Critters” is more folk than (Lord help us) “praise” music. But whatever the genre, I’m more interested in its theology, because I agree with it.
All God’s critters got a place in the choir,
Some sing low, some sing higher,
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire.
And some just clap their hands, or paws,
or anything they got now . . . .
That is, I agree mostly. But being a sometime theologian, I have comments; of course. We theologians always do.
I think my “career” as a Quaker, if it makes any sense, fits the thesis of the song: all of us have a place in whatever work God (however defined) is up to in the world (and maybe elsewhere).
But here are a few thoughts about that, based on experience and reflection:
Everybody’s got a place. Yes, and some people are basically born in their place, or splash right into it like a wet kid on a waterslide.
Lucky for them, I guess; for sure it saves time.
But others, like me, don’t have that automatic bit of DNA. Or the religious “shoes” we were obliged to wear as a kid didn’t fit the real feet which were to carry us through life. We had to find our place in the choir (and the right “shoes”).
That can take awhile, perhaps quite awhile.
And when we find it, some of us even have to make our place in the choir, kind of elbow our way into it. Because even though the sign outside the door may say “All Are Welcome,” sometimes those church signs exaggerate, and we’re maybe not as welcomed in the particular ensemble we’re drawn into as we might be.
(The song, which says a lot by indirection, does not tell us that all the critters are welcome in the choir seat God puts them into; maybe that’s just temporary, but maybe not at all in their lives. The song even has a line about how “The porcupine talks to herself.” But what if she’s got the best alto in the group??)
Further, sometimes we have to change our place in the choir. Many a tenor in a boys choir has gone from singing high to singing low when the teenage hormones caught up with his voice. And lots of other changes can affect where we’re singing our bit.
Plus, trouble and woe can happen to a choir or its members, just like anything or anyone else. In which case, sometimes a critter may have to change choirs. Yes, find a different one.
I had to do that.
Or even start a new one, like George Fox did. That might not always be fun, or an enjoyable transition. It got Fox beat up and thrown in jail, more than once. (And don’t get me started on what they did to Jesus.) But such stuff happens.
This kind of change can even include those whose place is making new music for the choir.
Two brothers, John and Charles Wesley wrote 482 original hymns – so many, their choirs had to start a new church, the Methodist Church, to fit them all in.
Writing 482 hymns was a lot of work; after all, in those days every hymn was supposed to rhyme, all the time; or else it was a crime; or it wasn’t worth a dime.
And speaking of work, there’s a Quaker theologian who has written about this very usefully, at least for me. His name is John Calvi. And he lives in Vermont. He doesn’t think of himself as a theologian, but he is one anyway.
Calvi published a book called How Far Have You Travelled? It’s 212 pages, a collection of many short pieces, a lot of them deeply reflective, and some very funny, about his life and development as a Quaker healer. And I want to mention two words used in his book – two words that are in my view very important in what I regard as current Quaker theology.
The first word is “transformation.” I see it all the time in popular Quaker writing. “Transformation” this and “transformation” that. In fact I see it way too often; almost as often as kale.
I believe it’s very overused. It’s like a tire, rated for 75,000 miles – which is a very good rating – but has been driven 200,000 miles: it’s gone round and round so much that the treads are worn off and it doesn’t really grip the roadway of meaning anymore.
I remember when the U.S. military invaded Iraq, that awful war, the Secretary of Defense said it was a transformation of warfare. That’s 20 years ago this spring, and I knew then that if such a word could be used to describe that wave of senseless destruction and death, it had worn out its usefulness. But I keep reading it in Quaker pages, where it’s supposed to be getting at the essence of what real Quakerism means in the world.
But John Calvi, in his 212 pages, also deals mostly with Quakerism, as he has learned and known and practiced it for 30 years as a healer. He’s worked with torture and abuse victims/survivors, people dying of HIV/AIDS, rapists and murderers in prisons, and many plain ordinary, but very sick people.
And by the way, it’s doing all the years of that kind of work, and living to tell about it, and writing to bear witness about the doing — that’s what makes him a theologian, even if he never took a theology course.
And John Calvi in his whole book only uses “transform” twice. Two times.
(Further, he wrote another book a few years earlier, called The Dance Between love and Fear, 225 pages, on a similar topic, and he uses “transform” in that book twice more.
Four times in 440 pages; about once every hundred pages. Which is about enough, as far as I’m concerned.)
But there’s another theological word he uses, more than 800 times in his two books — that’s about two times per page — and when I read the books and checked out these numbers I was amazed and thrilled –
“Yes!” I shouted: “John Calvi hit the nail on the head. He knows what Quakerism and Quaker theology are all about.” Or at least he knows what it’s all about for me.
What was that 800 times word? I don’t find it very much in current Quaker theological writing. But it’s not some esoteric obscure piece of academic jargon mostly repeated in seminaries. We hear and use it all the time in other contexts.
What is it? Think about it for a minute or two.
. . . . [A minute or two]
Well, the word, the key word for Quaker theology and practice, according to John Calvi and me, is this:
That’s right: work.
Here’s how John puts it:
We [Quakers] have done a lot of spiritual homework and we’re no longer volunteering for work that is inappropriate to our skill package. We know what we’re good at and we’re doing it. The problem is there’s too much to do. Why is there too much to do? We have got both serious greed and serious suffering on the planet.
The first thing is that we do not do good works to save the world. We do good works to come closer to the Divine, to reform our interiors, to find the Light within us that is our God-given gift to the world.
Our task actually is to clean that Light and make it bright. It is our task to do our best. It is not our task to do our most. Your best is fabulous. My best is fabulous. [So] What do I need, to do my best for a long time?
We need a certain amount of work. It’s always going to be less than what’s needed. You can look in any corner of the world and see a hundred things that need doing. Out of that hundred you might actually have talent and expertise for ten. Out of the ten you might have time for doing two. If those two fit you — if you make friends with them and make a commitment — then you can do that work for a long time. The planet does not need for us to do good works for a short time, but to do them for a long time.”
That quote from John is 258 words, about a typed page, and – did you notice? — it uses “work” fifteen times. Which to my mind is just about right for Quaker theologizing. But John Calvi didn’t even realize there was this overarching theme all through his books til I did the numbers and pointed them out to him. But he agreed.
For John Calvi, and for me, Quakerism is about doing work. In theological terms, God had some particular work to do that fit a peculiar group like Quakerism, so that’s why Quakerism was brought into being, to do our part. Our parts.
It’s not that we’re better than anybody else, because we’re not. We just have our work, other groups have theirs; and sometimes we can work together too. Things called transformations come and go, or maybe they don’t; but work abides.
Work is amazing: it’s intergenerational and ecumenical, comes in a thousand different flavors and colors, and lots of it is free. As John says, there’s always more work to do.
Not working just for work’s sake; but, as John Calvi said, “We do good works to come closer to the Divine, to reform our interiors, to find the Light within us that is our God-given gift to the world.”
Which also means that figuring out what our work is, as individuals and as part of meetings, and the larger Quaker networks, is also part of the work. (And it’s okay to take downtime, for vacations, sabbaticals, throwing parties, and like my Friends meeting, even marking your 250th anniversary.)
Plus, over time, circumstances change; we’ll make mistakes and have to fix them, and our work can change too, or some work can be finished, or passed on to the next generation.
So like Bill Staines’ song says, All God’s critters got a place in the choir. And finding that place is part of the choir’s work. Changing it can be too. I figure these are in a verse Bill Staines maybe meant to add, but got busy doing his other work, and forgot to write down.
I’ll wrap up this reflection with another quote from John Calvi’s book. It’s actually not something he wrote, but a quote he took from another Quaker, one of his best friends, named Bill Kreidler.
Bill’s place in the choir, which at first he couldn’t find and then finally created, was as a schoolteacher who built a new career as a peacemaker in some of the toughest settings around: public school classrooms.
Along the way, he became a remarkable Quaker minister and speaker, before his untimely death from HIVAIDS in 2000. In 1989, Bill gave a talk to a Quaker audience, talking about finding and creating his own place in the Quaker choir, and here’s a bit of what he said:
“I’m 36 years old and I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be an old Quaker lady. . . .
And before I go on I should explain what I mean by the term “old Quaker lady.”
Old Quaker ladies are the ones you see sitting in meeting. They sit with their eyes closed. You’re looking around the room.
And they have a look on their faces — and you can’t see in the mirror — but you’re pretty sure that look is not on your face. It’s a kind of a glow.
And I look at them and I think– their feet are on this earth [same as mine] and yet they are hearing voices from somewhere that I am not.
And when I see an old Quaker lady in meeting — I’m never sure what’s the right word to use for what I see, if it’s serenity or ecstasy — maybe they’re not mutually exclusive.
Now an old Quaker lady isn’t necessarily old, isn’t necessarily a woman, and isn’t necessarily a Quaker. In fact one of the best descriptions I’ve ever come across is one that Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables and he is describing, in fact, an old Catholic woman.
And he says about her – “her life, which had been a series of pious works, had cloaked her in a kind of transparent brightness, and in growing old she had acquired the beauty of goodness. What had been thinness in her youth, was in her maturity a transparency, and through this transparency the angel could be seen.”
Now Friends, I read that and thought, “Hot damn—that’s for me!”
And by God, Bill Kreidler went out and turned that image into his real place in the humble choir that is Quakerism. (The book containing several of his memorable talks is available here.) Not just for work’s sake; but, as John Calvi said, “to come closer to the Divine, to reform our interiors, to find the Light within us that is our God-given gift to the world.”
It took time, and was not always easy or painless, but he did it.
Bill Kreidler’s discovery was cited by John Calvi, and requoted by me, from my modest place, this morning, at our small Quaker “choir,” Spring Friends Meeting, in the thick of things in south Alamance County, North Carolina.
It’s as good a place to do Quaker work as any.
Your place is too.