Evangelism Reconsidered, Part One

February 12, 2014 § 2 Comments

I have been surprised to find how much I have to say about evangelism. I think this is because it gets to what I feel are two essential questions, at least for Liberal Friends: what is our message and what is the place of Christ in that message?  I had promised in my last post to offer a positive exploration of evangelism as one of the purposes of Quakerism, and when I got started, I ended up with two really long posts following different threads, but often crossing the same ground. So I am going to publish them separately but simultaneously, and hope you will accept the inevitable repetition.

Evangelism, the Quaker Message, and the Christ

In the Greek of Christian Scripture, evangelion means to proclaim the good news. For centuries, Friends have proclaimed the good news that salvation from sin can be found in the direct experience of the Light of Christ and needs no outward mediator—no priests, no outward sacraments, but only the direct experience of the Christ. Furthermore, this salvation through direct communion is available to anyone, for the Light of Christ is universal; it enlightens everyone.

I believe that Friends do have good news to proclaim. However, as I said in my last post, I believe that the Quaker message is bigger, more inclusive, and more positive than just salvation in Christ, though this obviously is one of the purposes of Quakerism and demonstrably a great blessing to those who find in him their savior.

Thus I propose that our purpose, our message, is to bring souls to Christ, irrespective of “salvation”, and inclusive of salvation. My Liberal Quaker readers might be more comfortable with “awakening people to the Light within them”. I think “bringing people to Christ” and “awakening people to the Light within them” are the same thing. And I do believe that the Christ belongs at the center of our message, even for those of us who have not personally experienced the Christ as Jesus Christ.

I want to diverge for a moment and talk about how we know such things, how we make the connection between the Liberal Quaker’s Inner Light (or “that of God”, or whatever you want to call it) and the spirit of Jesus the Christ, the spirit of the man who walked the deserted places of Galilee and Judea, who taught, enacted, and embodied the kingdom of God, and of whom people have had visions and visitations throughout the centuries.

Interpreting mystical experience of—and as—the Christ

I have had a number of “mystical” experiences. Two of them were of Jesus appearing in the midst of a meeting for worship as an apparition that connected me directly and psychically to inward things that were happening to others in the meeting. In both cases, he stood right behind someone who would in moments rise to speak powerful ministry. I felt that he was connecting me to them in some way.

In my own formative spiritual experience, I was visited by a presence in the midst of a very deep and overwhelming altered state induced by an intense sweat lodge ceremony. This presence had a name, a voice (made of sounds repeated in patterns), and a mission. It took me weeks to understand the voice’s message and the messenger’s mission. It took help from someone with a little shamanistic training to find my footing inside the experience right after it happened. I have conducted my spiritual life as a covenant with this spirit ever since. But what is that spirit, really?

Even really powerful “visionary” experiences are extremely subjective; the vague, “still small voice” experiences that are much more common are even more subjective. These experiences are full of mystery, of questions. Was it real? Was it real as it presented itself—can I take the experience at face value—or was it essentially symbolic in its manifestation? Where did it come from? Was I communing with an independent spiritual entity, or an archetype in the collective unconscious, or “merely” projecting from my own unconscious—or all of the above? What does this experience mean? What mental and spiritual tools do I need to better understand it? Is the help I get from others to gain understanding to be trusted, or are my human mentors just guessing or projecting, too, or at least limited by their own mental and spiritual tools?

You can see all these questions playing out in accounts in Scripture of such events. Peter, James, and John have no idea what’s going on at first in the transfiguration. When Jesus walks across the sea in the darkness, his own disciples do not recognize him. The men to whom the risen Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus do not recognize him, even though they walk with him for hours talking specifically about Jesus’s career and death—until they “break bread” with him. Paul gets help from Ananias in understanding his visitation. The disciples often don’t even understand Jesus’ parables, let alone their visions, and he has to interpret his stories for them.

I love thinking about these questions, but they don’t really go anywhere. I end up making intellectual choices based on what makes the most sense to me. But I know that really I am just speculating.

So my own approach is to accept transcendental experiences on the terms in which they present themselves; I take them more or less at face value. I wait to see what else is revealed. And I acknowledge to myself that what I’ve experienced could just be inside my head; or at least, that something else might be going on that I do not yet perceive or understand.

This is not skepticism. I do not doubt the experience. But I hold it lightly, gingerly, expecting that more about it may be revealed—but not necessarily.

This is why I accept at face value the testimony of Friends, both ancient and modern, who knew and know Jesus Christ inwardly. This is why I will not deny the testimony of others or try to redefine their experience into terms that work better for me, just as I don’t want others to redefine for me what my experience means. I do not translate other people’s messages into terms I like better, as many Friends do. I try to embrace their language as their truth, and potentially, therefore, as my truth, too. For how many stories do we have of some Friend awakened to a new truth by another Friend’s challenging vocal ministry? Margaret Fell and Elizabeth Fry come to mind immediately.

The Christ today and the Quaker message

And this is why I feel free to assume that the Christ is still working in people’s hearts and in the midst of Quaker meetings, still saving us, still gathering us, still teaching us, still healing us, still leading us into new revelation. Just because he is not wearing his name tag does not mean he is no longer alive, present, and active.

On the other hand, just because the Bible tells us he is alive, present, and active doesn’t necessarily mean that he actually is. This is all a mystery. Thus some would say that it is a matter of faith: we are left to simply believe it or not. I don’t agree. I won’t “believe” something I haven’t experienced. Instead, I “entertain” it: I give it a room of its own in my mind and heart and it is welcome to dwell within me while we try each other out. I will give it shelter, I will even feed it with my Bible study and prayer, share it with other visitors into my life, play with it, and try to learn from it.

Sometimes, a new belief—an idea I’m entertaining that does not rest on direct experience—starts paying rent. It bears fruit. It is confirmed by experience, or at least comes to feel so right that I now consider it a member of my inner household. Or not. I have a whole boarding house of ideas that I am still working with experimentally, using them to approach my life when they seem useful, but without the convincement that comes with direct experience.

The idea that the Christ is a consciousness, that, in practical terms, the Christ is the consciousness of the gathered meeting, seems increasingly right to me, ever since the opening that came while writing my series on the gathered meeting in this blog. And for years, I have been entertaining the idea that the Christ, the consciousness that the evangelists were trying to convey in the gospels, is still among us and still working within us, but without “a name tag”, as I put—without declaring his identity or demanding our confession.

Thus, in the same way that I entertain new ideas and beliefs, I feel that the Christ has been “entertaining” me, that as a non-Christian Friend, I am a guest in the house that Christ built. I am grateful that I have been welcomed. I try to respect the Master of the house and the human stewards who know him personally. I try to know him personally myself, through study and prayer and meditation.

I have arranged the furniture in the room I occupy in this mansion to suit my religious sensibilities, but I don’t try to move the furniture in the rest of the house around without sharing a process of discernment with the other inhabitants, hopefully with the explicit invitation to the owner—the Christ—to join us and guide us.

Put more plainly, I do not claim that my Liberal, post-Christian Quakerism is the only legitimate Quakerism, or, even worse, that traditional Christ-centered Quakerism is somehow illegitimate, or at least passé, or that we have somehow outgrown it or laid it aside. I do not claim that our core belief is that “there is that of God in everyone”, not at least without linking it to the Christ and acknowledging that this is relatively new light that is still being tested.

I said that I feel we should explicitly invite the Christ into our meetings for worship, our meetings for business in worship, and our other discernment processes. This is pretty rare in Liberal Quaker meetings. When we’re at our most attentive and faithful, we acknowledge that we labor under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our discernment, but we rarely name “the Spirit” as the spirit of the Christ. (And all too often, we are actually just trying to reach a consensus, anyway, rather than a true sense of the meeting.)

Well, if the Christ isn’t going to manifest himself clearly to us and, like me, we are not willing to just “believe” as a matter of faith without experience, then dropping back a notch in our language to “the Spirit” makes sense. Only never should we forget or deny the testimony of Friends over centuries and among us today that we actually are gathered in the Christ, or as I prefer, the Christ-consciousness. For that is what the Christ is—a consciousness, a spirit. Even if that consciousness was the same consciousness Jesus of Nazareth possessed, now, today, Jesus the man is gone, and all we presently have is the consciousness of the Christ.

This is why I believe that the Christ should still stand at the center of our message, whether we have experienced him there or not. And so, this is how I express the good news that we Friends can offer the world, as I presented it in my previous post:

There is in everyone a light that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do, that can heal us, that can save us from our demons and relieve us of our inner suffering, that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity, that can lead us to become the people we were meant to be, and that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future, when we are faithful to its call. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Evangelism

January 31, 2014 § 9 Comments

Typical of a Liberal Friend, only now, after unpacking all the other subjects under “Bringing people to G*d”, have I realized that I had left out one crucial (if you’ll forgive the pun) category—evangelism, bringing souls to Christ.

If we were not seriously allergic to the word itself and what it usually stands for, we Liberal Friends might redefine “evangelism” as energetically getting the Quaker message out there, with the goal of bringing people to Quakerism—evangelism as outreach, essentially. But of course, that begs the question of what “the Quaker message” is. And it evades the basic question implied by evangelism: what is our relation to the Christ and to salvation in Christ? And we don’t want to bring people to Quakerism with our evangelism, anyway; it is to G*d, to the Light within them, to the Christ, that we want to awaken them. If they end up finding their religious home with us, great.

I do think that Liberal Quakers should be “energetically getting our message out there”. And I do have an answer for what the Liberal message could be—and it includes the Christ. In a nutshell:

There is in everyone a light that guides and strengthens us to do the right, that awakens us to the wrong we have done and are about to do, that heals us, that saves us from our demons and relieves us of our inner suffering, that inspires us to acts of kindness and to creativity, that leads us to become the people we were meant to be, and that opens to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and our movement into the future, when we are faithful to its call. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.

What my understanding of evangelism does not include is the more forceful and exclusionary evangelical message that salvation in Christ is the only thing that really matters and you better believe or else.

In fact, nothing about what I call the salvation paradigm of evangelical Christianity works for me:

  • I do not believe that sinfulness is the only aspect of human nature that really matters in religious life, or that it is even the most important aspect of human nature.
  • I do not experience God as primarily, let alone essentially, a lawgiver, king, and judge—a divine being defined primarily by will and who expresses his (sic) love primarily by his willingness to forgive us and kill his only son in order to do it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son?” I don’t think so, or he is a monster, like Kronos.
  • I do not confine my understanding of sin to disobedience against such a God and his laws or will. My most serious sins have victims; they are sins against people, not against a divine lawgiver and judge.
  • Nor do I believe that even my most egregious sins would so inflame this God that I deserve eternal damnation under his judgment.
  • I would not believe that the human sacrifice/divine sacrifice of God’s son would ever be required to save me from this fate, either, even if I believed in such a fate.
  • And I do not believe that all I would have to do to escape this fate is to accept this sacrificial son as my savior.

I recognize that traditional Quakerism doesn’t base human salvation on simple acceptance of a set of beliefs, either. Rather, we have believed that only inward alignment toward and experience of Christ can bring salvation.

Now, I have experienced the light in the conscience, as early Friends put it. I have since childhood sought constantly to turn toward the light within me, that it might reveal to me the wrong things I have done and the right things to do, and help me to resist wrongdoing. I had experienced this light long before I had learned about Quakerism, the Light of Christ, or the Inner Light of modern liberal Quakerism.

And of course, I have failed many, many times—uncountable times—to follow the light. Does that mean I am damned, because I have repeatedly turned away from the light within me, and haven’t asked this divine judge to forgive me for it or named or experienced his son as my savior? And is this struggle with wrongdoing the only role of the Light in a truly religious person’s life? I do not believe so.

I am not saying that the Christ is not a savior. I know people who have been saved by Christ, who have been released from their demons and their inner suffering by Christ, and I believe their testimony, and I can see what a great blessing it has been.

No, I am saying that the Christian gospel and the Quaker message can both be much bigger and in general more positive than a preoccupation with sin and “salvation in Christ” would suggest. The good news we have to proclaim includes salvation in Christ, but there’s a lot more to it; it is fuller and richer than this, and more universal, more exciting to more people.

Furthermore, I do not think that the conventional evangelical message that I laid out above is faithful to Christian scripture, anyway. At least it is not faithful to the gospel of Jesus as we have it in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

The conventional evangelical gospel comes, it seems to me, mostly from Paul, and from John the evangelist, and I think they both got Jesus wrong. Or put it this way, if I must hew to Scripture in the first place: given the huge and, in my opinion irreconcilable, disparities between the Jesus of the synoptics, the Jesus of John, and the Christ of Paul, I feel I must choose which seems more faithful, and the Jesus of the synoptics seems to me closer to the truth.

But I don’t want to get into this right now. Unpacking Steven Davison’s interpretation of Scripture in this matter would take an awful lot of blog posts. Another time, perhaps. Back to “evangelism”.

For me, the conventional evangelical understanding of “salvation” is essentially a pathological preoccupation. It makes human nature a disease and for the cure, it focuses only on a battle with evil and is preoccupied with death—our death, the death of the Christ, and even the death of the whole world.

For me, human nature is a blessing, not a disease, notwithstanding that it is made of both shadow and light, of—yes—disease and suffering and evil, but also of love and community and communication and science and striving for the good, and striving for truth and for wholeness. Human nature is art: blues riffs on Eric Clapton’s fretboard, van Gogh’s Starry Night, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus at Colonus, Balanchine’s Serenade. And, yes, Adolf Hitler, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, napalm, the bomb. And Gandhi, MLK, Sojourner Truth, and the Friends I know who have followed a call into prison ministry. My point is that the light of Christ inspires truth and art and goodness and progress and life. It does not just reveal to us our shadows.

I know this does not square with the gospel as George Fox and early Friends believed it and preached it. Yes, I have stepped outside the stream in which even those Friends who gave birth to the Liberal Quaker movement at the turn of the twentieth century lived their religious lives. My approach is not traditional Quakerism, I admit it. I have to admit it: I think these Friends got it wrong, too. Well, not wrong so much, as lopsided. They emphasized the darkness too much. They “preached up” sin too much, even though Fox famously railed against his contemporaries for “preaching up sin”. His point was that they didn’t preach up salvation from Christ acting within us. My point is that the whole sin-salvation framework focuses our spiritual attention too narrowly and in the wrong direction.

Why obsess about sin and salvation when there is so much good and beauty going on in the human world? Why obsess, I ask? I do not deny evil and I do not recast sin as simply “missing the mark”, as many Liberal Friends do. There is too much sin and oppression in the world to deny it or to think of it as just a mistake. Sin and evil are real and so is salvation. But why obsess about it? Why narrow religion to that concern only?

No, for me, one of the gifts of the experience of the light within us is that the light shines in all directions. It shines inward and outward, it illuminates the way forward and it reveals our hidden shadows. For me, true religion radiates in the same way, in all directions. It does not just focus on sin, judgment, and salvation. It also leads us forward in revelation, while it heals us along the way. And that is the direction I choose to face.

Well, I’ve ranted about my rejection of evangelism as evangelical Christianity traditionally understands it, without expressing much of my positive vision for it—this in unconscious mimicry of the very thing I am criticizing: here I am focusing on the negative myself.

See? When you become preoccupied with an enemy, you become like the enemy. If you focus on sin and sinfulness and judgment and damnation and the torture and blood of the cross, you become pathological. Your thoughts fill up with darkness and wrong and this crowds out thoughts of the good and the light. This historical theological preoccupation is why Paradise Lost and the Inferno are great works of poetry and nobody reads Paradise Regained and the Paradiso. This is why we know all about hell and its horrors and we have Hieronymous Bosch, and our vision of heaven is puerile, sterile, and boring. Our legacy religious ideology is an obsession with darkness and it tends to crowd out all the other colors in the light.

Well, I’m ranting again. I hunger so much for a religion of the positive. I remember something Timothy Leary used to say: that traditional religion said, “For God’s sake, feel bad”, when, instead, we should “for God’s sake feel good”.

So, in the next post, a positive vision for evangelism and for the role of the Christ in an inclusive message that I think we Liberal Quakers could proclaim with confidence and enthusiasm.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship & the Angel of the Meeting

January 11, 2014 § 16 Comments

In his class on Quakerism at Pendle Hill, Bill Taber taught that many Friends in the 19th and especially the 18th centuries believed in “the angel of the meeting”, that each meeting had its own angel. Friends got this idea from the book of Revelation, chapter 1:17 through chapter 3. Chapters two and three are letters written by “the one like the Son of Man” (Christ) to the angels of seven churches in Asia Minor. For example:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand (the seven angels; 1:20), who walks among the seven golden lamp stands (the seven churches; 1:20).

Bill said that some Friends who had a reputation for effectively ministering to troubled meetings would travel to labor with them, and before even meeting with any of the parties involved, they would ask for a meeting for worship with the whole community. In the meeting for worship, they would try to commune with the angel of the meeting, in order to learn first hand from the meeting as a whole what the condition of the meeting was, without the filter of accounts from the human members.

Ever since learning this, I have tried to commune with the angel of the meetings that I’ve visited and I greet the angel of my own meeting at the beginning of worship. Three times have I had an experience of a meeting’s angel, twice quite dramatically. I don’t actually remember where the third instance was, but the other two were Rahway-Plainfield in New Jersey and Santa Cruz, California. I have never experienced the angel of my own meetings, but that is because they are partly a manifestation of myself as one of the meeting’s members. That’s what the angel is, the spirituality of a meeting, and thus a projection, if you will, of all its members. It’s really hard to spiritually commune with your own true self.

This faith and practice isn’t New Age balderdash. It is literal biblical Quaker Christianity in a unique manifestation.

Most of us already have some inkling of this kind of thing. We have had the experience that, as soon as you enter a new meeting’s meeting room, you can begin to sense something of the meeting’s personality and this sense deepens as you worship with them or talk to its members.

And lucky for us, we even have some guidelines about what is going on and how to commune with a meeting and its angel in this way. I am talking about the theologian Walter Wink’s extraordinary series of books on “the Powers”—his catchword for the various spiritual entities mentioned in Christian Scripture. I am especially referring to the chapter in the second book in the series, Unmasking the Powers, on the angels of churches. [Note: I just learned that Walter Wink died a few years ago. He was easily my favorite theologian. He made really valuable contributions to our understanding of the gospel. I’m sad.]

Wink’s approach is very modern: he looks at the Powers as the interior spirituality of things, not as the conventional beings with wings and semi-divine powers that we have in popular culture. In section three of the introductory book Naming the Powers, two of his chapter headings will give you a sense of his approach: “The Powers are the inner aspect of material reality”, and “Heaven is the transcendent “within” of material reality”.

I think his insights are so good that I want to quote extensively from Unmasking the Powers on the angels of churches.

What is the angel of the meeting?

It would appear that the angel is not something separate from the congregation, but must somehow represent it as a totality. . . . The angel would then exist in, with, and under the material expressions of the church’s life as its interiority. As the corporate personality or felt sense of the whole, the angel of the church would have no separate existence apart from the people. . . . Angel and people are the inner and outer aspects of one and the same reality. The people incarnate or embody the angelic spirit; the angel distills the invisible essence of their totality as a group. The angel and the congregation come into being together and, if such is their destiny, pass out of existence together. The one cannot exist without the other. (p. 70)

Is the angel of the church then real? On the question of the metaphysical status of angels I have no direct knowledge. . . . I am inclined to follow a more functionalist approach. What the ancients called the angel of a collective entity actually answers to an aspect of all corporate realities: they do have an inner spirit, though our culture has been trained to ignore it. To that degree their angels are real, whether they possess personal metaphysical reality apart from their function or not. Their function is manifested by their personality and their vocation. (p. 71)

The “vocation” of the angel of the meeting—what is its purpose and how should this inform our relationship with it?

Far from being perfect heavenly beings, these angels encompass every aspect of a church’s current reality, good and bad alike. In the same way that I am at every moment simultaneously who I am and who I might become, the angel encompasses both what the church is and what it is called to be. . . . (p. 72)

The coexistence of these two aspects within a single image may be confusing, but this complexity is precisely what gives to this category its heuristic power. Sociological analyses of a congregation can lift up aspects of its personality, but can make no normative statement about what it should become. Theological analyses can speak about vocation [what it is called to become], but tend to do so in global generalizations and categorical imperatives that make no allowance for the unique problems and possibilities of individual congregations. The angel of the church provides us with an exceedingly rich category for congregational analysis, while at the same time providing us with a biblical image for reflecting theologically on the congregation’s unique vocation. The angel gathers up into a single whole all the aspirations and grudges, hopes and vendettas, fidelity and unfaithfulness of a given community of believers, and lays it all before God for judgment, correction, and healing. (p. 73)

In the letters to the churches in Revelation, Christ as the Son of Man* lays out observations about the condition of each church and then prescribes the changes that it should undertake and the rewards that await them if they “conquer”. These are pastoral letters intended to shine the Light on the churches’ shadows and show them the way to grace. The last letter ends with a passage that was a favorite of George Fox when talking about turning toward the light of Christ:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Rev. 3:20)

Discerning the angel of the meeting.

Wink goes on to describe ways in which we can discern the angel of a meeting.

If we wish to discern the angel of a church, then, we first need to see what is there. Once we have become acquainted with its personality we can ask about its vocation. If the congregation and its physical structures are the outward manifestation of the angelic spirit, then the inner reality should be made manifest by its outer concretions. So we can start from the visible, isolating the manifest characteristics of a church and asking what each reveals about its angel. The items that I will highlight are merely suggestive, certainly not exhaustive, and would serve as but starters for a full analysis of a church. [He then discusses the following areas:]

  • architecture and ambiance;
  • economic class and income, social and ethnic background, education, age, and gender of the members;
  • the meeting’s power structure;
  • how the meeting handles conflict;
  • the form of worship (liturgy); and
  • history—how the meeting sees itself.

Many of these aspects are quite different from one Christian denomination to another, but they vary a lot less among Friends. Think of the difference between a Congregatational church in New England versus a Roman Catholic cathedral, in terms of architecture, power structure, and liturgy, etc. Nevertheless, I think they all apply to some degree to Quaker meetings. I think of Fifteenth Street’s huge meetinghouse in Manhattan compared to my meeting’s modest house in Yardley, PA. This is especially true with the way we handle conflict and our histories. So we need our own markers, in addition to the ones Wink provides. I suggest the following:

  • any history in the separations—Orthodox, Hicksite, Wilburite?
  • committee structure—what committees does the meeting have and how many are there relative to their meeting size;
  • presence or absence of recorded ministers, Friends traveling or serving under minutes, and attitudes toward recording, minutes of travel, and other formal programs for ministry and spiritual formation and nurture;
  • presence or absence of potlucks, Friendly Eights, and other opportunities for socializing;
  • existence or absence of corporate witness, outreach, and ecumenical participation in the wider community;
  • number of families with children and the state of First Day School;
  • state of adult religious education;
  • presence or absence of meeting retreats;
  • percentage of members and attenders who attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship;
  • ratio of attenders to members;
  • gender and age mix among the meeting’s leadership (clerks and committee clerks);
  • presence or absence of Bible study and attitudes toward the Bible;
  • “tolerance” (or intolerance) versus welcoming of all kinds of vocal ministry, especially of biblical and Christian content and of prophetic witness;
  • number of Friends active in the regional meeting and the yearly meeting;
  • number of Friends whose knowledge of Quaker faith, practice, and history prepares them to teach these things in the meeting.

Ministering to the meeting through its angel

Wink’s whole approach to the angels of churches focuses on vocation—on helping churches become what they are called to be, for their members and in the world. He himself is a very dedicated activist theologian, having written a whole book on apartheid back in the 1980s, and he gave us a breakthrough interpretation of Jesus’ “resist not evil” teachings (“if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the left”, etc.). His extraordinary reading revealed Jesus as anything but passive, but rather, as a master of the jiujitsu move against oppression—turning nonviolent protest into a challenge for the oppressor (a topic for a later post).

Like him, and like those early Friends, I believe we can use the idea—the reality, in my experience—of the angel of the meeting to help transform our meetings, especially when we fall into conflict. The last section of Wink’s chapter on the angel of the church is a case study of how this framework was actually used by a pastor of a congregation.

But the angel is not itself an agent of change. “That role, the letters [in Revelation] make clear, belongs to the “one like a human being,” the Christ.

 . . . no matter how far the congregation has deviated from the divine will, the knowledge of that will is still encoded in its “higher self,” the angel. (p. 78–79)

It is only the “one like a human being” [meaning an angel who has the form of a human, rather than an angelic body; that angel is Christ] who can bring the churches into line with the will of God. . . . God must suddenly appear to the congregations as outside their ken. They must experience a jolt of recognition: we are out of phase with the will of God.

That Otherness that lays such a radical demand on these insignificant congregations must be revealed to them, however, in a way that is not wholly discontinuous with their history. Hence the role of the intermediary, John [writer of Revelation], who is a part of their sameness and yet has beheld the Otherness and can unmask the ways their existence is out of line with their vocation. . . .

In the final analysis only Christ as the Spirit of the whole church (emphasis mine) can change a church, and only the renewed presence of that spirit can bring the churches into line with their supreme vocation. Only as changes in personnel, programs, and relationships take place in congruence with that vocation will genuine transformation take place. For that reason the single most important element in Revelation 1–3 is not the letters as such, but the primal vision that makes them possible: the vision of Christ as the Ultimate Human (1:9–10). Change requires all our strength and sagacity but it also requires that we sit quite still until we have discerned the angel and have been caught up in a vision of what it could become if it were alive to the divine presence that “walks among the seven golden lamp stands” (2:1). . . .

This requires discerning the lineaments and characteristics of a church’s angel. It means holding its present reality up before the one who is present in its midst (emphasis mine) for judgment or affirmation. It involves accepting and loving its present reality, however corrupt, just as one would any other sinner. Churches are like people: they do not change in order that they might be accepted; they must be accepted in order that they might change. If we accept and love the wounded angel, praying for a vision of its true personality (rather than imposing our own), and engaging with others in the struggle to discern the true nature of its calling, then the whole congregation may move toward it organically. (pp. 80–82)

Walter Wink is a Christian, of course, and so he turns to Christ, following the text of Revelation itself, and he takes for granted the value of this very strange book in the Bible for the congregations and readers he is addressing. I wonder how this language is going over with my post-Christian readers?

I highlighted three phrases that seem quite close to Quaker tradition. The reason he uses these phrases may be that Wink does, in fact, attend a Quaker meeting fairly frequently. He knows our tradition. I hope that these phrases will give my readers a door into how this thinking might work for us.

I believe that his approach, which marries sociology to spirituality, is just the kind of approach that should appeal to even our post-Christian meetings. This was one of the fruits for me of my exploration of the gathered meeting—discovering how Christ can be understood as the consciousness of the gathered meeting. Though he is much more, Wink describes Christ as the consciousness of the church as a whole, as the angel of the meeting that is the whole of the universal church. And it was Wink’s books on the Powers that came back to me when I started exploring the relationship between the Christ and the gathered meeting.

Meanwhile, Wink’s approach does, I believe, also provide us with tools that can help us minister to our meetings. At the very least, this framework reminds us that spirit is involved in the dynamics and the conflicts of our meetings, not just sociology—not just human feelings and relationships, but also the inward standing wave of identity and direction that is a meeting’s life—its spiritual momentum, if you will.

Which helps to explain why meetings resist change. They have momentum. They have a certain spiritual mass and direction already, and you can’t turn them at will. You must address this inner dimension of meeting life to bring it transformation, just as you must address the outer dimensions of a meeting’s life.

Well, this has turned into a really long post. I quoted a lot, but there’s lots more. I hope it’s been worth it. I cannot recommend Walter Wink’s books enough, and perhaps some of my readers will find this compelling enough to buy these books and read this whole chapter for yourselves.

Thanks for hanging on this long.

* The Son of Man is the only title Jesus takes for himself in the gospel of Mark. Literally, it translates as “son of Adam”, which is a Hebrew and Aramaic idiom for mortal, or human. But in translations, the title is usually capitalized because it not only is a title, but refers to a specific angelic manifestation of Jesus who will return to judge the world at the end time. This is an exceedingly rich image, deriving meaning from its use in the books of Daniel and Revelation, in addition to the gospels, especially Mark, and also the pseudepigraphical Book of Enoch, which the letter of 1 Peter quotes verbatim, so we know the early Christians considered at least parts of it to be divinely inspired. I believe understanding the “Son of Man” is the key to understanding why Jesus came to be understood as divine. But to unpack that claim would take a long monograph. Thus—for another time and another venue.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Doing G*d’s Work

January 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

[Reminder: I use the asterisk in the middle of G*d to stand in for whatever your experience of God is.]

Note: I have more to say about Fellowship as the mission of the Quaker meeting, but I want to do a little research first, so I am going on to the meeting for business in worship and will return to Fellowship in a subsequent post.

When I asked one of my grown sons a while back why, after being raised a Quaker, he has not continued, he answered, “Because meeting for worship is a bunch of blowhards saying the same things every week and meeting for business is about things that don’t really matter.” Something like that.

I think there’s probably more to it than that. And I think he might have a rather different experience of meeting for worship if he went to some other nearby meetings. But I doubt that the meeting for business would be different.

I once statistically analyzed the business of a yearly meeting over a year, as recorded in its minutes. The vast majority of that business was irrelevant to the kingdom of G*d *. Only three pieces of business out of some 120 minutes came to the Yearly Meeting floor in gospel order, that is, originating in a local meeting and passing on through a regional meeting to the yearly meeting because that was the appropriate body for it; and one of these items was a fairly routine request for a disbursement from a trust fund asking for help with meetinghouse repairs.

Almost all of the yearly meeting’s business was generated by the yearly meeting’s committees. Most had to do with either the mechanics of the meeting sessions or money. Most of the business affected only the yearly meeting organization (by which I mean the yearly meeting’s committees and the Friends under appointment to those committees, and the apparatus of the Yearly Meeting sessions). Most of our business is, to use the most shocking and crass expression possible, spiritual masturbation. It brings forth almost nothing in the world we live in, which is in dire need of spirit-led ministry. It is a waste of the Seed.

A lot of our business is quite mundane, it’s true. Property matters, budget stuff, routine reports from committees on their work. We have to do this work, and it is boring at the surface level of management. So we all sit there doing it, usually with the utmost conscientiousness, in my experience. Fine.

But we do sometimes get lulled into a pro forma treatment of this work. Put another way, we let ourselves fall into habit—and out of worship. And our meetings for business are supposed to be meetings for worship. Often, the tone of our business meetings is to get out of there as soon as possible. And it’s not always just tacit. My own meeting cuts fifteen minutes off the meeting for worship that day so that we can get out earlier.

Clerks, both the presiding clerk and committee clerks, can help maintain a spirit of worship by being prepared and thoughtful about the agenda, trying to help committees present effectively, maintaining a good period of silent waiting between items, knowing Quaker process well, and setting a worshipful tone throughout.

Then there are the decisions that are contentious or otherwise difficult. Two things really get on my nerves in the way we often handle difficult business. The first is our habit of asking for voiced approval before everyone who might have an objection has been heard, which forces the meeting to return to its discernment after approving something—which feels very odd to me and often results in some chaos in the discernment. Second, and often in tandem with this first dynamic, we often do our discernment by editing the text of a minute, focusing on tweaks to the language and often devolving into points of grammar and semantics, instead of focusing on the guidance of our Teacher.

I feel that clerks should pointedly ask for objections to a verbally proposed test minute, and do so repeatedly until no one speaks up; then ask the recording clerk to read her/his record of the minute that’s just been presented verbally by the presiding clerk—and then ask again for objections and corrections until no one speaks up; then ask if s/he may take the body’s silence as approval. (Doing this also means you don’t have to reread and approve this minute later in the process of approving minutes.)

But the basic problem remains: where is the kingdom-work? Why do we do so little that addresses directly the spiritual lives of our members or the woes of the world? Even when we approve a minute of conscience, all we are usually doing is laying down some words. Maybe we issue a press release or in some other way broadcast our words. Still just words.

I believe the root problem behind our lackluster business agendas is that we have lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. I know I keep saying this, but this is my ministry—to recover the central role that I believe ministry could and should play in our personal and corporate spiritual lives. I believe that the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the very soul of Quaker spirituality, both personal and collective.

Currently, our standing committees generate most of our business. I believe that some of the work that some of our committees do should be treated as ministries under the care of the meeting and in the hands of people who feel led to do the work, with committees of support and oversight when appropriate. I’ve written about this before.

However, we do need standing committees for some of our work, especially that which concerns the necessary and routine business for which we have fiduciary responsibility: property, money, the corporation. But I question the use of standing committees that are organized around concerns, like our witness committees, advancement, outreach, even religious education. But that’s another blog post.

If we actively taught—trained, really—our members in the faith and practice of ministry as a personal path, ministries would arise, hopefully even flourish. By “ministry” I mean clear leadings to do something to enrich our members’ spiritual lives or to bring G*d’s love, healing, compassion, and justice into the world. Then we would have some great work to do in our meetings for business in worship, helping to discern and support these leadings—are they spirit-led, what exactly is our Friend led to do, what can we do to help, does our minister need oversight, how do we track the ministry’s progress, when should s/he and we lay it down?

Imagine business meetings so packed with G*d’s work that we have to lay over property decisions, or simply leave them in the hands of our competent property committee! For this kind of work, young people like my son might show up. In fact, they probably would be bringing a lot of the work, if our meetings fostered this kind of religious environment.

One other thing would deepen our business meetings and invite some kingdom-building: extended periods of open worship without an agenda at all, except a kind of non-binding focus on the life of the meeting and its members and on the world we live in, leaving the more open-ended, not-focused worship to our regular meetings for worship.

*  Saying “kingdom of G*d” is like saying “mankind”—it carries bad gender baggage, and I would like to use some other phrase. I hope my readers will accept that I mean what the Greek of Christian scripture really connotes with the word “basileus“, which translates clumsily in English. For us, influenced by Latin more than Greek, “kingdom” is an abstract noun. It denotes a place and a state governed by a man. But the Greek basileus is, like most Greek nouns, a verb-noun: it’s a noun built from a verb. So a gerund would be more faithful: “ruling”, without the “-dom” on the end, would be a better translation: the “ruling of God”, rather than the “kingdom of God”, the state in which God rules.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship . . . sometimes with conflict

January 8, 2014 § 6 Comments

I have a good Friend who feels so badly about the way s/he has been treated by her/his meeting that s/he has withdrawn from local meeting life. Another is so upset about things that have happened in her/his meeting that s/he is tempted to withdraw, as well, and sometimes suffers greatly in the moment. Probably most of us know of situations like this.

In any community, conflicts of one sort or another inevitably arise from time to time. Because we are a religious community, this can hurt extra deeply and in ways that we don’t experience in other communities or contexts. Because we have a peace testimony and, truth be told, sometimes a culture of conflict avoidance, we sometimes are either in denial about its causes or even its existence, and sometimes are ill-equipped to deal with it.

This is when the commandment of love should kick in, in the covenantal sense I discussed in my last post: remaining faithful to each other precisely when we don’t want to, staying at the table, continuing to talk, to forgive, to stay open, to seek reconciliation, to avoid backbiting, tail bearing, parking lot rumor mongering, and holding the meeting hostage with your emotions.

In our attempts to deal with conflict, we should avoid email. I believe, from experience, that sensitive pastoral care should never be done by email. Use it only to set up a time to talk on the phone, or better, in person face to face. You have to be able to hear voice inflections, at least, and at best, see facial expressions and body language in order to most effectively bring divine love into the work.

The main problem with email is that we occasionally say something in an email that we would never say to someone in person. Email encourages us to follow our usual habits with email: to be short but not necessarily concise, sometimes even to be terse; to be flip, or at least to write off the cuff and not to review what we have written before we send it; to send the message accidentally before it’s finished . . . well, you know. By contrast, personal contact keeps us more honest, allows for long, unbroken exchanges, helps us avoid misunderstandings, and it communicates the spirit of love, not just its letter.

Gospel order

Since the very beginning of the movement, Friends have turned to the practice of gospel order to deal with conflict in the meeting. This is one of several meanings for the phrase “gospel order”. This meaning comes from the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18 on how to deal with conflict in his community:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20)

This passage also is one of the biblical foundations for the meeting for business in worship, and in fact for all our discernment processes, promising Jesus’ presence and guidance when making decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is the source of the image of the Presence in the Midst.

The Presence in the MidstEarly Friends took this advice seriously and adapted Jesus’ process in their own efforts at transforming conflict. You can click the following link to download a couple of excerpts from George Fox on early Friends exercise of gospel order according to Matthew 18.

As we in the Liberal tradition have progressively abandoned the biblical foundations of our faith and practice and the traditions early Friends had built on this foundation, so many meetings have lost both the knowledge of this form of gospel order and experience in its exercise. I think it would serve us well to recover it.

Conflict Transformation Committee of New York Yearly Meeting

Meanwhile, modern research and thought has greatly refined our understanding of he dynamics of conflict and we now have more tools for dealing with it.

New York Yearly Meeting has a Conflict Transformation Committee that has done excellent work in this area, focusing specifically on the dynamics that are common in Friends meetings. The Committee offers intervention services to meetings facing conflict and it conducts a workshop called Conflict in Quaker Meetings: Crisis or Opportunity?. You can view a (just published!) film of this workshop in its entirety and shorter videos of each of its seven modules by clicking on this link: Conflict in Quaker Meetings: Crisis or Opportunity? The Committee has other resources available on their web page here: NYYM Conflict Transformation Committee.

I recommend checking these resources out, if your meeting finds itself in trouble. Or anytime, actually. There’s nothing like facing a crisis with a sense of direction and with tools already at hand. Note that Friends World Committee for Consultation–Section of the Americas has invited the Conflict Transformation Committee to do its workshop at two events in the spring of 2014: March 14–16, Sacramento, California; April 11–13, High Point, North Carolina. Link to website: 2014 Consultations.

Quaker dialog

Some meetings have found that inviting parties in conflict to participate in “Quaker dialog” sometimes at least brings a moment of peace in which the parties are able to hear each other. Sometimes it also clears up confusions and misunderstandings about what has actually happened in the circumstances of the conflict, as all get to tell their story without interruption or contradiction. When you get a chance to really listen to the other side, you often hear things you really needed to know.

This process was first developed by Claremont Meeting in California. You can read a description of its basic format when used in conflict situations here (note that this is not a Quaker source, but it’s faithful to the process and it is clear and concise).

Claremont Meeting has published a pamphlet titled Fellowship; in Depth and Spiritual Renewal through Quaker Dialogue “Creative Listening”; Suggestions for Leaders of Group Dialogues Derived from the Experience of Claremont, California Friends. However,  it seems that this pamphlet is no longer widely available. Text on the back says that you can order a copy by writing them at Library Committee, Claremont Monthly Meeting, 727 West Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711; $1 each. They do not give an email address, as the pamphlet was published before we had email. I’m not sure whether they still provide this service. Also, an article they wrote for Friends Journal can be found in the online Friends Journal archive at Friends Journal, July 15, 1963: “A Meeting’s Creative Experience”.

The process described in the pamphlet is not specifically intended as a tool for conflict transformation, but rather is designed to deepen the fellowship of the meeting by posing queries that give participants a chance to share their spiritual lives. In this way, it is more like worship sharing. But I know of meetings that have adapted the basic process successfully in conflict situations, especially when it involves conflict between members in the community.


I have heard several stories of Friends who turned to prayer after suffering terribly from ill feelings regarding another person in their meeting. Having tried gospel order and other attempts at reconciliation and facing despair of any change in the relationship, they began praying for the party with whom they had difficulty, and for themselves. And it worked. Sometimes dramatically. At the very least, prayer can realign your own heart and unburden you from your own dark emotions. And sometimes just this change in one’s self can evoke change in another. And having seen it happen, I personally believe very strongly in the more transcendental and miraculous power of prayer to bring unexpected grace into the world.

Other resources for conflict transformation

FGC’s bookstore has a lot of books on what they call conflict resolution, which is a somewhat goal than the transformation that the NYYM Committee works toward. But there are a lot of resources here. Many relate to international conflict and peacemaking, but not all. And here are some resources more focused on conflict in meetings:

  • Britain Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Eldership and Oversight has also published a rather lengthy pamphlet titled Conflict in Meetings, also available from QuakerBooks.org.
  • Connie McPeak Green and Marty Paxson Grundy have authored a Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#399) titled Matthew 18: Wisdom for Living in Community.

What is the Religious Society for? — Fellowship

January 1, 2014 § 7 Comments

To celebrate and share our joy in G*d’s work and love.

The Religious Society of Friends has taken its name from Jesus’ discourse on love and obedience in John 14 and 15:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9–17)

One of the things I love most about my meeting (Yardley, Pennsylvania; PhYM) is that we do a pretty good job of living up to this commandment. There have been some difficulties, yes. There inevitably are. What human community has not known conflict? But our love for each other has almost always returned us to a measure of wholeness.

This kind of faithfulness is not just born of sentiment. It takes will.

For Jesus and his listeners, “love” was a “technical” legal term, if you will—a word given its meaning by the covenant between “the Father” and Israel in Jesus’ tradition. It is not so much an emotion as it is an action, an act of will. It is not a sentiment, or a feeling, per se, something that happens between people as a matter of “chemistry” spontaneously, but rather a law, a commandment, something we are ordered to do:

You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The structure of the book of Deuteronomy and of the covenant laid out in that book are based directly on Assyrian vassal treat formulary. An example exists of such a vassal treaty between the Assyrian king (I don’t remember which one for sure, though what comes to mind is Assurbanipal) and his vassal kings. It has this exact phrase in it, though, of course, the “lord” is the Assyrian king. The book of Deuteronomy was written (or discovered, as it claims) in the shadow of the Assyrian threat to Judah after the Assyrian empire had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah was Assyria’s vassal, paying tribute to buy its peace.

In both Deuteronomy and the Assyrian vassal treaty it has redefined, love and the three terms of the covenant commandment have specific legal meanings.

Love: To “love” means to follow the terms of the covenant assiduously—to follow the law, not just in the “letter” but in the spirit, to follow the covenant with joy, eagerness, and steadfastness.

The heart. We get our anthropology of the body and its parts’ roles in the human condition from the Greeks, for whom the heart was the house of the emotions, and of love, in particular. But the Semitic anthropology of ancient Israel, of Jesus and his listeners, locates human will in the heart; the emotions are in the gut, if I remember correctly. Thus to command love with all one’s heart means, in the covenantal context, to follow the law with all one’s diligence and intention, joyfully and without hesitation or restraint. It means specifically, to study the law—to know it inside out. This is why Luke breaks the traditional triad by adding oddly the fourth term of “all your mind”—he knows that his Greek-speaking readers will think in terms of Greek anthropology and not get that this commandment means study of the gospel.

The soul. Again, we get our concept of the “soul” from the Greeks, who conceived it as something separate from the body and as being poured, if you will, into the body as into a vessel. The soul is spiritual and eternal, while the body is physical and mortal. But for Jesus and his listeners, the soul was inseparable from the body and it encompassed more than just the mortal frame, but all of one’s life. It meant one’s life. “All your soul” meant all aspects of your life, all your energy and activity and everything involved in living in this world—being willing to “lay down one’s life”.

Strength. Originally, in the Assyrian vassal treaty and in Deuteronomy, “strength” meant specifically, military support—being willing to muster the men of fighting age in your mispaha, or family group, the basic fighting unit in ancient Israel, in answer to the call to arms by your lord. In ancient Israel, the “Lord” was Yahweh, of course, and this meant answering a call to help defend one of the tribes of Israel against some aggression. By the time of Deuteronomy, Judah was a nation state with a more or less standing army and so this meant that each tribe had responsibility for providing men and material support at the ready, under command of the king. We see the ancient sacred war process at work quite clearly in the book of Judges, a book assembled by the so-called “Deuteronomic school” of ancient Israel, a group that maintained the worldview we see in Deuteronomy for several centuries after it was written.

By the time at least of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning around 160 BCE), and probably from the time of Deuteronomy itself, “strength” meant all your worldly assets, and included specifically, your wealth; that is, the yield of your fields and folds and/or your money. For one of the book of Deuteronomy’s innovations over the covenant defined in Exodus is that, by this time, Israel and Judah had fairly well-developed urban market economies and the book defines cultic responsibilities to the temple in monetary terms, as well as in terms of grain and animals.

Jesus. So when Jesus commands his disciples to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, his listeners heard:

Follow my gospel with all your will and intention and mindful study, with all of your life in all its aspects, and with all the treasure you have in this world.

I doubt that early Friends knew all of this, at least in these terms. Modern biblical scholarship would not be born for another two hundred years. But they obviously intuited it, as they did so often, reaching past the surface to the heart of scripture.

What I’m getting at (and I had not originally intended to pursue this angle in such detail) is that love—divine, or spirit-led love—is something you do, not just something you feel. You follow Jesus’ commandments—you follow the gospel of love—precisely when you don’t want to, when the feelings you have are anger, hate, jealousy, fear, resistance. This is a commandment to stay at the table of fellowship precisely when you least want to.

And if we do, if we are steadfast in our love, “[Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of love and truth. . . .  the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15–17, 26)

This, I believe, is part of the biblical foundation for the meaning of “Friends” in our name. This is the foundation of our fellowship, and the promise of divine guidance in our work, our meetings for business in worship. The key to both is to worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) and to love one another.

Well—. I had more to say about fellowship in this post, but it’s already really long, so it will have to wait.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

December 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve written quite a bit already about the next items in my outline of What the Religious Society of Friends is for—the role of the community in nurturing the spiritual lives of its members and attenders. I want to revisit some of those themes here and to expand on them to include more of the corporate worship life and fellowship of the meeting itself. Here’s the excerpt from the outline:

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual nurture in covenantal community: Engage in each other’s spiritual growth through a robust and nurturing culture of eldership; protect the communal fellowship and the community’s worship.

Take responsibility for the corporate side of personal spiritual nurture; that is, work together to name each other’s gifts and discern and support each other’s ministry.

By “covenantal community” I mean a meeting in which the members invite the meeting to actively participate in their spiritual lives and offer their own active participation in the life of the meeting. In concrete terms, this means:

  • Sharing your spiritual and religious experience with the meeting. Does anyone in your meeting know what your spiritual practice is? How you came to Quakerism? Why you stay? What you want from the meeting and whether you are getting it? If you were going through a crisis or a dry period in your prayer life, your family life, your work life, your creative life, would your meeting know? If you were facing an important decision and didn’t see clearly what to do, would you ask for a clearness committee?
    • If you asked for a clearness committee, would the meeting know what to do? Would your meeting welcome deeper knowledge of your spiritual life? Would they be prepared to help you with a crisis in your spiritual or prayer life? Does your meeting have elders whose own depth of religious experience would equip them to mentor you or help you with your spiritual life? Are you yourself such an elder, at least potentially? Do you look for opportunities to serve the members of your meeting in these ways?
  • Eldering. Do you feel that there are people whose behavior disturbs your meeting’s worship or fellowship? Do conflicts trouble your meeting? If you were yourself bringing conflict or disturbance to your meeting, would you welcome loving eldering—the meeting’s caring attention to your behavior?
    • Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the worship from inappropriate behavior? Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the fellowship of the meeting? Is your meeting in denial of the conflicts that trouble it? Does your meeting bring accountability up in any way with applicants for membership in its committees for clearness on membership?
  • Inviting the meeting to help you deepen your spiritual gifts, your vocal ministry, and the other ministries to which you feel called. Have you identified your gifts of the spirit? Are you engaged in some activity outside of meeting that is a ministry, that the meeting doesn’t know about? Do you think of it as a ministry yourself? Do you speak fairly often in meeting? Do you want to deepen your vocal ministry? Do you feel some obstacle to speaking in meeting?
    • Would your meeting welcome knowledge of your leadings? Does your meeting do anything concrete to name each other’s gifts of the spirit? Does your meeting know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry well enough to take responsibility for it? Do they know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment of leadings? Does your meeting provide opportunities to discuss ministry, especially vocal ministry, in general? Does your meeting provide its ministers with committees of support or oversight, or engage with them in any other way?

What if your answers to some of these questions are no? If our “no”s involve the personal queries about our own relation to the meeting, we can start thinking about how to reengage with the meeting. But often, our reticence stems from our sense that our meeting will not be there for us. So what then? What do we do when our meeting does not meet our spiritual needs, either because it does not have the resources, especially the human resources, or it doesn’t have the interest or the will?

Meetings often lack the will to be a true covenantal community in the way I am describing (that is, to work with their members and attenders in a meaningful way to enrich their spiritual lives) because it isn’t in unity about it whether to do it, let alone about how to do it. Some Friends just wouldn’t want to go there, and through tacit understanding, it just never even comes up. And we are so cautious about possibly hurting people or driving them away. In my experience, very often a solid majority of people in the meeting would be uncomfortable with this kind of meeting life, for a variety of reasons.

People come to a meeting and to religious life wanting different things. Most want comfort, support, spiritual companionship, renewal, recharging—peace. Far fewer want transformation, let alone the fire of the spiritual crucible. And yet a meeting should try to meet all these needs, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

So a meeting should try to accommodate those of us who want more engagement around our spiritual lives, but hopefully in ways that don’t threaten others, or force them to change in ways they don’t want to, or that pulls the community rug out from under them. This is a delicate balance and hard-to-achieve. Any experiments along the path toward greater engagement and accountability between members and the meeting would inevitably meet obstacles and inevitably, we would make some mistakes.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Naturally, we can’t force our meeting to change just for us, especially if we really are in the minority about this sort of thing. Some meetings might be led in this direction over time—a long time, probably—given some deft leadership.

But it’s awkward—and not often successful—to try to be the leader yourself, the person who teaches the meeting to how meet your needs; to teach the meeting how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, for instance, when you are the one who needs help with discernment; or to teach the meeting how to write a minute for travel when you are the minister who feels the leading to travel.

And it’s even more complicated when eldering is called for, when conflict or inappropriate behavior or weak clerking trouble the meeting. In these cases, bold and wise leadership is called for, and it’s not easy to take the initiative, especially if you’re not serving on a committee that would normally deal with such things.

Very often, in fact, the nominating process is one of the sources of the problem—people appointed to positions for which they lack the depth or knowledge of the Quaker way, or who in areas in which they have a strong opinion or an axe to grind that would obstruct the committee’s effective action. I have seen more than one committee on worship and ministry with a member or two who either know very little about Quaker ministry and/or are uncomfortable with its faith and practice, especially with the role of eldering, and would resist action in these areas. I am not sure what to do in these situations, except perhaps speak with nominating committee about one’s concerns, and see what the next cycle of nominations brings about.

In the easier case of personal ministry and spiritual nurture, the only thing I can think to do is to try the meeting first, to see how far you can go. And then, if it looks like the meeting isn’t going to be able to respond to your needs in a timely fashion, to try to create for one’s self, with others of like mind, a non-formal structure for spiritual exploration, support, nurture, and accountability independent of the meeting’s formal structures. For many Friends in smaller meetings or meetings less amenable to these ideas, this will mean some kind of regional group. In New York Yearly Meeting, the networking for this kind of engagement is quite lively at the Yearly Meeting level, but it hasn’t moved down into the regional meetings very much, as far as I know.

What I’m getting at is that, in many yearly Meetings, there might be opportunities for grassroots networking at the local meeting level around this kind of spiritual nurture that could converge with similar efforts taking place at the yearly meeting level, which could then be relocated at the regional meeting level without too much difficulty. New York Yearly Meeting is too big geographically and meets too seldom as a yearly meeting body to host groups that serve these kinds of spiritual needs very well. But a New York City spiritual nurture group, or an outer Long Island group, or a central or northern New Jersey or Finger Lakes group might be able to meet more regularly.

The model here might be the Experiment with Light groups, which are usually organized, if I am not mistaken, at the local meeting level, but often with participants from nearby meetings; and the spiritual nurture groups formed by the School of the Spirit and by the spiritual nurture programs sponsored by Baltimore and other yearly meetings.

And what would such groups do? The following ideas assume that the local meetings are not willing or able to serve your needs in these ways:

  • Hold extended periods of open worship, hopefully without a programmed time to end.
  • Provide opportunities to share the joys, challenges, and evolution of each others’ inner lives, personal practice, and the life of the spirit in general.
  • Conduct clearness committees for discernment of leadings.
  • Name each others’ spiritual gifts in some way, and find ways to help each other mature in your gifts.
  • Share your spiritual practices with each other and provide mentoring in them, if you feel qualified and others show interest.
  • Create structures for sharing and learning together the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and Quaker spirituality.
  • Provide support and oversight committees for those following a leading, especially those led to travel in the ministry or to pursue some specific service, and for those who feel called to vocal ministry.
  • They would not, however, intervene in local meeting situations that require eldering. This, I think, remains the prerogative of the meeting, even if it’s dysfunctional in this area.

Hopefully, within some meetings, such non-formal groups would prove to be seeds for a more robust culture of eldership based in the meeting, once members saw how it worked and how valuable it was for its participants. So these groups should not hide their light under a bushel. Nor should they evangelize out of spiritual pride. But they should be open and inviting to any who would want to participate. For this is one of the things that the Religious Society of Friends is for—corporate nurture and support of personal ministry and spiritual life.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Prayer

December 19, 2013 § 7 Comments

The gift of prayer. 

In my last post about family devotional life, I mentioned prayer, but deferred discussion because it is too big a subject to add to an already long post. And it’s bigger than “family” as a category. As I said then, I believe that a good discussion of prayer will take us to the heart of our religious life.

In his introduction to George Fox’s Journal, William Penn wrote that, as many and as great were Fox’s gifts,

“above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt, or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.”

Today, the gift of prayer—the ability to sweep others in the meeting up into the Presence with the intensity and integrity of our prayer—is almost totally lost among us. At least that’s true of the liberal meetings with which I am acquainted. And I wonder about our programmed meetings. You at least do pray vocally in meeting. But do you program your prayer the way you program everything else? Can programmed prayer dissolve the invisible sheath that holds us away from the presence of G*d? Are those who do feel the spontaneous, spirit-led call to prayer free in that moment to sink to their knees and take the meeting with them?

To whom do we pray? 

Prayer as it is traditionally practiced assumes a Being that is listening, that cares, that answers. That was the assumption behind the practice of prayer in my church and in my family when I was a kid.

However, I suspect that many Friends in the liberal tradition, anyway, just couldn’t with integrity teach their children to pray to a traditionally defined supreme being kind of god. Many of us just do not believe in such a god or have any experience of him (sic). So to whom would we pray?

And if you’re not praying to some entity that could hear your prayer and maybe answer it (or cherish it, if the prayer is not supplicatory), what do you do? I think a lot of us have just stopped praying in the face of this dilemma.

Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has nothing to do with relationship—it is very abstract. On the other hand, simply addressing a divine being in the traditional way also seems a bit weak. Both do something to align the soul inwardly toward something we’re saying is divine. But both are too often just a vague exercise of the imagination—a form without power.

In my experience, prayer is effective in direct proportion to how focused it is, both in the mind and in the heart. The 19th century Indian master Ramakrishna used to hold his disciples underwater in the Ganges until they were about to drown. Then he would haul them up and say, “As badly as you wanted air just then, that’s how badly you need to want God.”

Well, that’s a bit extreme. But you get the idea.

This gets to the heart of the issue for Liberal Friends: just who—or what—is God for us? What is worship if there is no supreme being, or at least, no distinct identifiable spiritual entity capable of relationship with us? What is prayer without some one to address, rather than some thing—or nothing at all?

My own prayer journey.

My own journey in this area is quite heterodox; but maybe not so uncommon, in its broad strokes.

As I said in my last post, my mother prayed with my brother and me at bedtime when we were little. I wish I remember when she stopped doing that. I do remember that she would ask us to remember to pray during what I guess was a kind of transition stage when we got a little older and she wasn’t doing it with us. The prayer was a stock family favorite that actually made me somewhat nervous: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lord my soul to take.” You can guess the part that caused some anxiety. Also, of course, our family prayed together before every meal, also a stock family favorite: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”

My parents took for granted a traditional theistic God to whom you could pray quite naturally and they believed that he (sic) was paying attention, not just to our prayers, but to everything we did. However, when I went to college during the height of the ‘60s, a bunch of factors combined to undo this simple faith for me. I replaced prayer with meditation, for which I learned several methods, and with other practices that worked better for me than conventional prayer. I still practice them.

And then I reconnected with theism in a new way in a mystical experience in the mid-1980s and I recovered prayer as direct address to an identifiable Spirit (just not the traditional Christian God; I choose to call this being an angel, but that just begs the question of what I mean by “angel”, and that’s a discussion for another time). More recently I find myself praying sometimes to Christ, to what I think of as the Christ-spirit (but that, of course, begs the question of what do I mean by “Christ-spirit”).

The real breakthrough came only last year, in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of New York Yearly Meeting during its Summer Sessions. I finally found the address—the “to whom” that I might pray:
    Our Father who art in Heaven,
    our Mother who art in Earth,
    our Holy Spirit who art in all things living
        and in each one of us,
    we thank you for your transcendental revelations, and
    for your abundant beauty and providence, and
    for your abiding presence and
        the truth that you have awakened within us.
    We ask that you guide our steps and
        illuminate our minds,
    that you sustain and heal our bodies, and
    that you bring our hearts into lasting loving kindness.
    We pray this in the spirit of honest yearning,
    in the confidence of your revealing, and
    with the humble commitment to be faithful to your call.

So my own prayer life keeps evolving.

Recovering the gift of prayer.

From this sometimes intense and unexpected path, I have learned the following: Prayer life evolves. All you have to do is start where you are and practice. And there are ways to focus one’s spiritual attention that are deeply satisfying other than the traditional simple address to a spiritual being. On the other hand (in my experience), “spiritual beings” do exist, Christ included, and spiritual life conducted in the context of relationship with such a being is even more satisfying.

I was going to say here that you can’t just make it up, but upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s true. What I mean is that I believe it can be enough to just start with whatever you can do, practice it, and see where it goes. The sustained inward alignment works like meditation works. At a certain point, a standing wave gets established in your consciousness and you move to a new level; something deeper starts happening. Eventually, you can feel called into prayer, maybe even into relationship.

A multitude of forms await those who seek a vital prayer life, and the key is just to start, however lame it feels, and see what happens.

Finally, as I’ve said in other contexts, I think consciousness is the key. Whatever you do, doing it from a centered consciousness makes it better. It’s not necessary, of course not. But it is better—deeper, more consistent, more rewarding, more fulfilling. So learning a deepening technique and combining it with prayer really helps.

We don’t know whether George Fox used some “technique” or whether Jesus did, to find their center, to find the Presence that dwells there. We like to romanticize such prophetic figures and think of them as utterly self-taught, but that is rarely true. Jesus had John the Baptist; was there some schooling in the spirit done? (Of course, traditional theology holds that Jesus was himself already God, so he was always in the Presence; he was in fact the Presence itself. Yet he still prayed to his Father. A topic for another post.)

However, both men possessed a charism of great depth. Clearly they both lived in the Life in some powerful, natural way. I’m not in their league. I use deepening techniques because they work for me.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Family devotional life

December 18, 2013 § 2 Comments

After closing my first posting on the family, I realized that I had left out an important aspect—shared family devotional life and the ways that meetings might help families develop and deepen family religious practice.

The family used to be the home of religious life for Friends. Families prayed together, worshipped together, read the Bible together. And not just for Friends.

When I was a kid, we read straight through the Bible one and a half times or so, one chapter a night after dinner. We went to (Lutheran) church every Sunday. My brother and I had a paper route, and we would come back to the house Sunday morning to a big breakfast, usually with something my mother had specially baked or prepared. Her sticky buns were incredible. We dressed up, my parents went to choir rehearsal while my brother and I were in Sunday School, and then we all attended service. We prayed before meals, and my mom prayed with us at bedtime when we were little. Right out of Normal Rockwell. It was the 1950s.

This kind of family devotional life is mostly lost to us today, I fear. So we should explore new ways to share our Quakerism in the family. We will have to accommodate the crazy lifestyles that most of us live today, but it’s more important than it ever was, I think, to try.

So we have two problems to solve: content—what do you do as a family? and time—when do you do it?


FGC’s bookstore has a couple of resources to check out:

  • Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Well-being, by Margaret Crompton; a Pendle Hill Pamphlet.
  • One Small Plot of Heaven: Reflections on Family Life by a Quaker Sociologist, by the incomparable Elise Boulding.

I’m not familiar with either one of these works, so I’m not sure whether they could serve as a practical guide for how to “organize” family devotional life. My guess is that we’re mostly going to have to make it up ourselves.

I see three possible places to start, three springboards families could use for conversation and practice around Quaker spirituality.

The first is a traditional one—reading the Bible (and other religious literature). The Bible has served Quaker families for generations as a reliable and powerful resource for religious life.

However, in my (adult) experience, the Bible is a dangerous book (that’s why I called my first blog BibleMonster): As soon as you get below the surface, it tends to raise more questions than it answers. And while we might believe, as a matter of faith, that the Bible is spirit-led, I personally treat its books and stories and poems the way I treat vocal ministry in meeting for worship: a given message may speak to someone in the meeting, while not speaking to me, or the other way around. A lot of the Bible probably spoke to readers when it was written, but that does not necessarily mean that it will speak to our condition today.

Furthermore, a lot of the Bible is just not appropriate for younger children at all (though I guess I was not so damaged by it myself, since I did hear it all—I think. Did my dad skip the very violent and bizarre stories in Judges or the esoteric rules of Leviticus? Did my parents discuss beforehand what was rated PG and what wasn’t?). Finally, parents might want to be fairly comfortable with the Bible themselves to present it confidently and usefully to their children, and many of us aren’t. However, this just means that we have a chance to explore it together. Still, reading and discussing the Bible together may not be as straightforward an option as it once was.

Then there’s Quaker faith and practice. That’s how my meeting organizes its First Day School, in a general way, and that works pretty well, touching in a more or less systematic way on the Quaker essentials over time. But First Day School is only once a week and First Day School is a school—kids come expecting to be taught in a way not too dissimilar from regular school. Family devotions should be more than just a teaching platform. It should be a time of sharing and of worship, as well.

The most useful approach, I think, might be to start with the spiritual lives of the family members. The parents can share what their spiritual lives mean to them—stories of the spiritual and religious experiences they’ve had, what they think they mean, what they do in meeting for worship—that kind of thing. A focus on personal sharing and stories means that the family devotional life stays real and concrete, and kids are always keen to learn about their parents’ lives. Hopefully, the stories generate questions and answers.

Then, more importantly, parents can ask their kids what’s going on inside of them, looking for opportunities to point out the Light at work within them, working with the kids’ accounts of their day and the day-to-day interactions of family life. My older son home-schooled his children and I was very impressed with how they could drop into school mode at the drop of a hat when he or his partner saw an opportunity to teach. We would be hiking in the California redwoods and suddenly we’re identifying trees or talking about the life cycle of the banana slug. It takes a little practice and attention, is all.

But I’m admittedly just groping here. I didn’t do this with my own children, who are grown now, until they were teenagers. Maybe I’m naive about what will work. All I know is that it would be worth a try to do something. And that you would probably have to stick with it for a while to find out whether you’re getting somewhere. Kids accept whatever you do up to a certain age, and then they reject whatever you do for a while. So this would be one protracted, basically life-long experiment.

Prayer. Finally, we have to talk about prayer. But when I started writing here about prayer in the context of family devotional life, the post started getting really long (and it’s already really long) and I found myself talking about other important related subjects, as well. So prayer will have to be its own post. More than one post, I suspect.

For I think that prayer is a really important topic that gets to the heart of our religious life. But as I said, prayer is too deep a subject to simply add to this entry. It deserves more, so it will have to wait. Meanwhile . . .


So when can families do whatever they might do together as a family practice? Not much time to work with, is there? Three time slots present themselves as possibilities for families with young children, two for those with older children.

Bedtime. I bet a lot of my parent readers read to their young children at bedtime. Here’s a chance to do something in addition to reading secular stories. I think it matters less how much time it gets, and matters more that it is regular and that it engages the imagination. At the least, there are quite a few children’s books written by and for Friends. We read the Obadiah series to our kids.

Dinnertime. Does your family regularly eat the dinner meal together at a table, without some media engaging everyone’s attention? I think this is really important to a family spiritually, whether or not anything “religious” takes place. If this is not your family’s practice, then maybe it would be good to check in with the testimony of simplicity, and ask the Light within yourself whether this feels right, to be so disjointed in lifestyle with your family that you can’t eat together. Just a thought.

Dinnertime, it seems to me, breaks down into three time slots: a chance to bless the food and the family before eating and to give thanks, a chance to talk during the meal, and a chance to do something more focused toward the end. Okay, so maybe not during the meal. And maybe not a chapter from the Bible every night. But something?

Sunday morning. If you’re coming to meeting anyway, then doing something together to prepare seems possible. No? Depends on your family, doesn’t it?

Mixed Quaker-nonQuaker families. I am married to a woman who appreciates Quakerism but she’s not gonna join herself. My children are grown and come from a previous marriage, but my ex and I both became Friends after a while, and we were always in tune about this kind of thing, anyway, so it worked out fairly well. Christine and I do not have children together, however. If we did have kids, I can see that it might be hard to get some family devotional life going. I honestly don’t know what you can do about that.

Even without kids, I find it very frustrating not to be able to share my religion with my spouse. I must pursue it on my own, and my married life necessarily competes with my meeting commitments—and my religious life competes with my family obligations, to Christine’s frustration.

This is presumably one of the reasons why Friends once disowned Friends when they married out of the meeting. “Yoke not thyself to an unbeliever,” said Paul somewhere in his letters.

Well, we do the best we can.

The meeting’s role. How can the meeting help their families with their shared devotional life? The obvious place to start, it seems to me, is with the religious education committee. These Friends presumably know the families already. At least, they know the kids.

The simplest thing would be to just hold a meeting about the subject for parents and even the children, at least the ones old enough to participate. At the least, you’ll have to provide childcare so that the parents can come.

Start, perhaps, with an open discussion. Find out whether the families are already doing something. Whether they want to do something. Discuss how to integrate the curriculum with activities at home. And take it from there.

The opportunity. One final opportunity for family practice, which I believe needs revival. Bill Taber, author of Four Doors into Quaker Worship and other really good writings and a long-time faculty member at Pendle Hill, was a Conservative Friend. He brought with him from his Conservative tradition the practice of the “opportunity”, the elder-days term for those times when a group of Friends found the Holy Spirit falling upon them spontaneously, unplanned and unexpected. Maybe while working, or whatever. Suddenly, everyone recognizes that they are called into worship, right then and there.

Bill Taber was keen to revive this practice and became its champion, so he was proactive about it. He would invite you to an “opportunity”. Or he would invite himself to your house for one. And this is what he would do:

Just talk for a few minutes to feel settled with each other. Then settle into worship. No agenda. No timeline, though usually twenty or thirty minutes or so would pass. Just sit together in the waiting, gathering silence, speaking if led, until it becomes clear that G*d is done with you. That simple. The powerful part is knowing when the Spirit is done with you. That part is not so simple. But extremely enlivening and deepening. Whoah—so good and powerful!

My opportunities with Bill were some of the most wonderful and worshipful experiences in my religious life. And it was great every single time. They deepened our relationship, they deepened my spiritual life, and they often led to real openings of the Spirit.

I encourage others to experiment with this practice, and especially in the family. Just a little informal meeting for worship together whenever you find the opportunity.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Families

December 14, 2013 § 3 Comments

Providing religious education for children and supportive religious community for families.

This is one of the biggest challenges we face, as we all know. Lots of meetings are too small to have any families and so they are not likely to attract new families who are searching for a religious home, especially for their kids. Too often, meetings don’t have any adults who are not themselves parents to teach First Day School, and as a result, the parents too often end up teaching their own kids. If they are new, they often don’t know enough Quakerism to feel confident to teach it. And of course, they would prefer to be in meeting for worship.

The only solution, really, is for the meeting to make an up-front commitment to provide First Day School no matter what, staffed by Friends who are not those kids’ parents. And then, if you don’t already have one, be prepared to start a First Day School as soon as a family arrives—that First Day. (Or, if you have the money, you could hire a teacher, as my meeting has done this year for the middle schoolers.)

The big obstacles to staffing a First Day School are: too few Friends willing to give up meeting for worship, too few Friends with the temperament and/or experience needed for dealing with children, and a perceived lack of curriculum—lack of confidence in what you could teach.

Not much you can do about the first two except pray. For the third, though, there really is no excuse. There is a lot of curricular material out there, and for all ages. So much in fact that combing through it all is its own obstacle.

I really like what my meeting’s RE committee has done. Quite a few Friends, both parents and teachers, took the Faith & Play/Godly Play training, available from Friends General Conference. This gave them an approach, confidence, a strong sense of First Day School community, and content. They developed a two-year framework for covering the Quaker essentials, timing topics when possible with the Queries we read every second First Day in both meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship. And they meet regularly to map out the details for the next few months, both in terms of content and teachers. They include Bible study in every lesson.

This is ideal, to me: it is Quaker religious education, rich in Quaker content. It includes the biblical foundation for our faith. And it is strategic: after two years, these kids have touched all the Quaker bases at their level of understanding, and then they go through it again at their new level. This approach raises competent, confident young Friends.

Way too many meetings shy away from Quaker and especially biblical content. I understand. I myself, with some help from at least one other parent, prevented my then-meeting’s First Day School from teaching the Bible. When those kids became young adult Friends, they came back to us and complained that they hadn’t learned anything and that we were lucky they were still around. And a lot of those kids aren’t still around, my own kids included.

I was so wrong to do that. And my meeting should not have let me do it. We owe it to our children to give them a real foundation for their religious lives. And we have such a fantastic foundation to give them! They may let it go. They may actively reject it or rebel against it. Fine. But they will know who we are and they will know who they are, if they leave. And when they stay, they will know what they are doing as Friends.

The all-too-common alternative to teaching real content is to teach “Quaker values”. This usually means the testimonies, plus the unspoken social attitudes common in Quaker circles, taught through example, osmosis and behavior control: liberal political leanings, tolerance, embracing “diversity”, making nice and avoiding conflict, using passive aggression when you really are in conflict, and the other affects of white middle-class culture. Too harsh? Maybe.

Still, it is the case that Liberal Quakerism increasingly defines itself in terms of “Quaker process” and “Quaker values”, rather than in terms of content, the rich legacy of our tradition.

A few years ago, after being laid off during the Great Recession, I thought I would like to volunteer as a guest resource in local Quaker schools. And here in the Philadelphia region, there are a lot of Quaker schools, most of them under the care of some meeting.

I visited the websites of literally dozens of Quaker schools looking to identify their religion faculty to contact. There were none. Out all those schools, only two had religion faculty, and only one or two more seemed to include religion or Quakerism in their curriculum in any way. I couldn’t believe it.

We hear their ads on NPR all the time, and they all tout their (Quaker) values as essential to their model of education, though they usually leave “Quaker” inside the parentheses. And I bet they do a good job of teaching these wonderful values. But where is the Quakerism? And don’t tell me that most of their students aren’t Quakers. That doesn’t stop the Catholics.

This simply reflects the way Liberal Quakerism in general is progressively abandoning its content for its values. Well, we can’t do anything about those schools. But we can make sure that we teach Quakerism, its values and its content, to our own children.

We should be teaching them something else, too, something that I feel is even more important than our faith and practice. We should help them find their own spiritual path. We should help them to recognize spiritual experience when it happens to them. We should not just teach them about the Light within them, but help them discover it for themselves.

For the youngest ones, this will mostly mean, I think, leading them to the Light in the conscience, that voice inside them that alerts them to wrong action, that prompts them toward love and peacefulness and reconciliation, rather than toward anger and resentment. This is “values” instruction”, but not as a list of outward principles to live by, but as the movement of the Spirit within their hearts toward love.

For the older ones, especially around middle school, we can go deeper. My first conscious religious experiences happened in seventh grade. Looking back, I see that I was groping at least by sixth grade, though I didn’t recognize it at the time. Our role should be to help kids recognize G*d at work in their lives and in their hearts and souls.

As with virtually any instruction, nothing works better than stories. And we have so many great stories to share. First there are all those stories in the Bible, especially the prophets, first-hand accounts of hearing and answering the call of God. And the story of Joseph the patriarch—all about family, conflict, and reconciliation.

And then we have our own Quaker prophets: George Fox, John Woolman, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, Bayard Rustin, Larry Apsy, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, John Bellers, William Penn . . . the list just goes on and on. Stories of real people waking up to the Light within them.

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