This winter, our family discovered the wonderful world of Netfix via Wii. I’ve watched several cultural documentaries, and this past Saturday night included a wild and crazy evening watching a 1 hour Ken Burns PBS documentary, "The Shakers."
The Shakers were a religious sect that evolved in 1700s Colonial America with the leadership of Ann Lee. In many ways, the group paralleled the Quakers in their practices of simple living, pacifism, and equality among all people. Living a communal life, the group believed hard work, prayer and abstinence were ways to glorify and worship God. This focus on work led them to produce high quality furniture and crafts, as well as unique architecture structures. They contributed to the musical, cultural and artistry of early American life. Every job was valuable and brought glory to God. From onion sellers to weavers, all were beloved children of God, deserving of dignity, and able of experiencing spiritual transformation.
At their height, 6,000 Shakers lived communally from Maine to Indiana. If you think about the challenges of life in early America, communal living would have aided in survival among members. The spiritual support provided to Shakers created families for many who, prior to joining the movement, were alone. Following the Civil War, Shakers began to decline. Western expansion, cultural changes, and the fact that Shakers were abstinent and could not create more followers led to the closure of communities and the virtual extinction of the group. Online sources state there are only 4 Shakers left today living communally in Maine.
The Shakers fascinated me. They found a way to survive in early America, to share faith and to experience transformation through simple daily living. Though I’m not suggesting we all go live in communes, I think there are several lessons we can learn from Shakers.
Transformational living: This Sunday, our Gospel reading tells of Christ’s “transfiguration” on the mountaintop (Matthew 17:1-9). Christ’s clothing becomes white and He is surrounded by light. The disciples experience a “mountaintop experience” with the Lord. However, I would argue that it is not primarily mountaintop events that enliven faith. It is the day to day work and interactions with others that demonstrate the depth and power of Christ’s love in our lives. While Shaker leaders had visions and “mountaintop” experiences, it was living together, negotiating relationships, and striving for a common goal that deepened faith. We too have the opportunity to be transformed in our faith through simple, daily work with others.
Equality: Long before the Civil War, Shakers purchased freedom for slaves. Long before women won the right to vote, female and male members were seen as gifted equal people and given voice. We too live in divisive times—our political parties, economic systems, churches and communities create barriers and hierarchies. Who is worthy? Who is not? Instead of asking these questions, we need to focus on the fact that we are all beloved children of God, precious in His sight.
Family & Community: Shakers took in orphaned children, single men, widows, and many others who were alone in early America. Community was essential for survival. If you didn’t have food, shelter, warmth, you would die. But more importantly, if you didn’t have others to love, you could not live. This has not changed in our culture; we still need one another to live. How do we welcome in the stranger, support one another, and lift up the gifts of all people to glorify God? How do we value the diverse calls of every individual? How do we live with the hope that in all things, we work to honor God?
My prayer for you this week is that you experience a community where God’s transformational love is alive. Where you are valued as a child of God. Where we come together, not because we are afraid we may die if we are alone, but because we need one another to live.
Enjoy life's simple gifts