We meet in silence. Sometimes we have a reading to draw us in, and we often pray and speak what the Spirit provokes, but the ground of our worship is silence. The silence makes space for God’s presence within us and among us.
For me, the silence is confrontational. The first twenty to thirty minutes, and sometimes longer, feels like I am wrestling God. The immediate pleasantness of silence wears off within five minutes, and anxiety usually begins to roll up my chest, into my throat. I struggle to sink into myself, and hush myself before God. I start thinking about work, what I forgot to do today, and I have to counsel myself back into the silence. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I have to bring each of these thoughts before God, and God lets me reason it out to the best of my ability, before I ultimately don’t care. It becomes easy to let these thoughts fall off when I just want to be with God.
We are cautioned in the letter from the elders of Balby that “these things [which we have shared with you] we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided . . . and fulfilled in the Spirit,—not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” (Emphasis added)
Our current books of discipline, our yearly meetings’ books of faith and practice were conceived of and written largely by white Friends with limited or no direct experience, or analysis, of the cumulative harms of racism, white supremacy, and implicit bias. Year after year, generation after generation, although our good intentions as white Friends have carried our predominantly white worship communities through racial tensions, we have failed our Friends of color, whether they worship with us on First Days or not. We must begin to consider the possibility that our Faith and Practice may be flawed or that we have begun to rely too much on guidance from the printed word, rather than on the Spirit that brought them forth. The words and advices contained therein may reinforce patterns, behaviors, and worldviews grounded in unexamined whiteness, unknowingly cultivating attitudes that favor compliance or conformity to worldly norms rather than encouraging unity with the Living Spirit.
EDIT: I KNOW THE JARGON THAT I AM USING “INCORRECTLY” HERE. Yes, a “Quaker church” is called a meeting. The thing is, most of my readers would not understand what a meeting is. I care more about being accessible than about playing this shitty game with jargon.
Google Quaker process.
But if you aren’t a Quaker or are relatively new to Quaker jargon, the search results might be confusing and overwhelming. If you are a Quaker like me and have been trying to become a Quaker for four years, then you might cry.
Like every other organized religion and institution, Quakers have their own system, structure, and language. Quakers aren’t special because they talk in code.
Quakers, however, keep their code, structure, and system a secret. A secret cloaked in the language of inclusion and equality and welcome. If you don’t understand the system, you just aren’t trying hard enough (or so they tell me).
I used to call myself a Quaker. I never joined a meeting, and honestly, I had suspicions from the beginning that it just wasn’t going to work. But I was desperate for people, and I really wanted the Quakerism I’d read about.
I couldn’t find it, though, and now I’m not sure it exists.
In the meantime, I’ve been talking, and writing, and a number of Friends say my critical observations about Quaker institutions and culture are illegitimate, either because of my lack of membership or because of my newness. I don’t have a right to point out classism and white supremacy, they say.
It’s been hard finding my place and voice in the Religious Society of Friends. And honestly, I’ve given up. I don’t see the point.
When I read what early Friends wrote, I’m drawn to their vision. Friends lived out of step with the world. Their yielding to Christ demanded deep listening, joy in suffering for the truth, abandonment to the movement of Love. They declared the end of days and rejected the idolatry of nationalism. They were living into a new Society of Friends.
In his book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut declared himself a Christ-worshipping agnostic. “I’m enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount,” the Hoosier-born writer wrote. “Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.” Those words were part of a sermon he delivered on Palm Sunday 1980 about concern for the poor and how Christians have too often misinterpreted Christ’s statement that the poor would always be among us as justification to ignore those in need.
In the same book he wrote:
“What is so comical about religious people in modern times? They believe so many things which science has proved to be unknowable or absolutely wrong.”
“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful – and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing.”
I have been attending Quaker meetings here in the UK for nearly a decade but have never settled at one. I usually attend for a few months then find some convenient excuse to leave it behind and neglect my spiritual needs. ‘I didn’t like that Friend’s testimony’ ‘There isn’t enough discipline at this meeting’ ‘It’s too near a noisy road’ I tell myself I don’t need a religious community, I don’t need God. I know deep down these are just excuses I tell myself to disguise the real reason I cannot remain at one meeting for any real amount of time; my fears and insecurities.
I am afraid of getting close to a Quaker community because of the sheer challenges presented by Quakerism. For me Quakerism is not easily defined and it varies a great deal depending on which part of the world you worship with Friends. Is your meeting Liberal or Conservative? Perhaps it is Evangelical? Is it programmed or unprogrammed? Would the majority of Friends at your meeting be comfortable being described as Christians or would they not? It sometimes seems there are more questions than answers and, in some ways that frightens me. This isn’t what religion is supposed to be about is it? It’s about answers not questions. Quakers live their faith, not just talk about it, which can be an intimidating prospect. I’m far from perfect.
I tell people I’ve been trying to be Quaker for about a year. I keep asking how one goes about becoming a Quaker, and people keep telling me that I just declare myself one. I think the lack of real process here has something to do with not recognizing hierarchy. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not very helpful.
I shouldn’t just get to declare myself a Quaker. That’s not how these things go. I feel like I need a long-standing, birthright Quaker to recognize me as a Quaker. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.
My bike led me home. Physically. Spiritually. Emotionally. It was Sunday, September 4, 2011. The forecast called for rain.
I pedaled north from my house just outside of Indianapolis. Subdivisions gave way to scattered homes, woods, fields. About 12 miles into my ride, the rain started.
I approached a small white church on a knoll, a spot I’d ridden by hundreds of times before and since – Hinkle Creek Friends Church. A little porch with an overhang offered escape from the downpour. I sat on the steps and listened. Just the other side of the door, a man played an acoustic guitar and sang a folk song. His soothing music blended with the sound of raindrops hitting the trees. He had no idea I was his audience. An unexpected sense of peace and comfort – what I could best describe as a nearness to God – swept over me. I felt tears, and I knew I needed to share this experience.
"We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation." —Extracts from the Writings of Friends, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice
A phrase that keeps coming to mind is "a new Quakerism," and oddly enough, I've been hearing other Friends unknowingly echo this phrase back to me. It seems to me that many Friends, even those who consider themselves "convinced," are hungry for more than what the Society has to offer. We keep coming back to the same point: we desperately need to re-imagine Quakerism.
As I have found myself drawn to Quakerism, it does not feel like I am discovering something new. In fact, I feel like I am rediscovering the impulses I had as a new believer in Christ, as well as seeing those subtle, quiet revelations I have gained over the years come together. I have often said that my charismatic convictions have led me to Quakerism, and I mean it when I say that. The implications of the Pentecost, in how it revealed the egalitarian nature of the Church and the accessibility of God’s power and presence, are radical and I find that Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Movement, and Quakerism have understood this to various degrees. The past few years, as I have been confronted by the revelation that Jesus defines God, and have had my views on both the Scriptures and sacraments change a bit, I have discovered that these sorts of things have been addressed and realized in Quakerism for quite some time.
After seven semesters at a Quaker university, I had decided that it would make sense for me to understand who Friends are and what they believe. And so I gathered with a group to discuss Quaker history and beliefs. After the first session, those of us who were less familiar with Quakerism were encouraged to do some poking around, to see what we could discover about Friends.
I came to the second meeting invigorated by what I had discovered. Having never spent much time looking into Quakers, I was surprised to see the wide range of theological diversity among Friends. In my research I had read about Nonthiest Friends, Orthodox Friends, Evangelical Friends, Neopagan Friends, and Fundamentalist Friends. I was shocked, but pleasantly so. Here was a group of religious folks who could stand to associate with one another despite vast difference in faith and practice. Or, at least I thought they did. As I spoke of my findings, an older Friend cut me off - "Well, Brandon, some of those people you're talking about aren't really Quakers." He didn't specify which group(s) he was ostensibly ready to vote off the Quaker Island, but his meaning was clear: I am not at all comfortable associating with some of those people as Friends.
Even though I hold pretty strongly to the Evangelical side of my Evangelical Friends tradition, I find it difficult to adopt the view, often associated with Evangelicals, of the Inerrancy of Scripture. Having actually read the Bible (like, all of it, more than once) I can admit that there are some stories that seem pretty historically improbable, some parallel accounts that are contradictory, and some descriptions that seem scientifically inaccurate. For the most part, this doesn’t bother me. As a Friend, I see the Bible as a secondary source of revelation. In my experience, it’s the direct, unmediated revelation of Jesus that is central (though, like Robert Barclay, I don’t think the two necessarily contradict).
What does it mean to identify as a Quaker today? I’m not sure. I’d probably be more excited about owning that attribution were this 19th century America with characters like Alice Paul, Elizabeth Fry, and Susan B. Anthony pursuing justice. (Quaker tradition appeals to my inner feminist.) But where are those quietly raging heroines and heroes of the faith now? Early Friends forged their reputation via holy troublemaking; how are we distinguished today?
Are we quietly raging against the tides of oppression and injustice, or simply quiet?