15 March 2007

Quaker shorts

Last month the weblog Brooklyn Quaker included a brief and moving essay, "The Religious Society of Friends has been very very good to me." As I commented there, his story and his sentiment are mine except for personal details. Along with several recent Friendly listings ("10 things I love about Friends," "10 things that drive me crazy about Friends," "My commitment to Friends faith and values in 250 words or less," and so on), that essay inspired the following items.

As an antidote to my recent grumblings about Quaker quarrels and self-absorption (yes, I'm aware that I'm not helping with the latter!), here's a very partial list of things I'm grateful for among Friends.
  • When Jesus finally reached me shortly after I turned 21, and I realized that that he is alive and trustworthy, I was able to believe him but not able to shuck 21 years of anti-religious programming from my parents. Friends (specifically Ottawa Meeting) were there to receive me with what I needed--a low-overhead alternative to the religion industry.
  • Ottawa Friends mentored me in specific ways. For example, they accepted my application for membership after a scandalously short waiting period. (I knew on day one--August 11, 1974--that I wanted to join, but waited for what seemed to me a decent interval to apply. By the standards of others, I later found out, I was in a bit of a hurry.) They put me on their outreach committee, sent me as one of Canadian Yearly Meeting's thirty observers to the Friends World Committee for Consultation's triennial sessions in Hamilton, Ontario, nominated me to a yearly meeting board, supported my summer service with Voice of Calvary in Mississippi in 1975, gave me temporary gigs as warden of the meetinghouse and business manager of The Canadian Friend, and more.
  • I gradually realized that the Ottawa meeting was not entirely in unity on matters of incredible importance to me--such as the important role of the Bible in discernment, and the importance of personal conversion--but no Ottawa Friend ever poured cold water on my story or my beliefs. (Others tried to do so later, but that's another list!) Instead, several Friends in Ottawa gave me precious instruction and encouragement for my growth as a Christian. I almost don't dare start listing them for fear of leaving someone out--but I will mention a few who are no longer alive: Deborah Haight, Betty and Len Huggard, and Susan Pepper.
  • My parents responded to my conversion and my choice of Christian fellowship with incomprehension. The more time I spent with Friends, the more they became my new family. Thankfully, my Canadian relatives, who at that time were in the Anglican charismatic movement, were supportive of my choices. I know that I'm part of the much larger Body of Christ, but it's Quakers who really provided my mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters in the faith.
  • Four different Friends employers harnessed my passion to communicate Christian faith and practice, supporting me financially for most of my working life to this point.
  • Judy and I met and married within the Boston-area Friends community. Words are totally inadequate even to summarize this blessing, so forgive me if I move on.
  • Friends also provided a funeral for my sister Ellen, twenty years after she was murdered. (My parents buried her with great sorrow but without any ceremony or observance. I didn't know she was buried until I saw the mortuary bill.)

The one thing that drives me crazy about Friends: Our false dichotomies over Quaker identity, which thankfully our little community of bloggers seems to be helping overcome. We do not need to choose between passionate, prophetic, whole-wheat Christianity, with all that this implies (to me) about personal discipleship and evangelism, and being fully Quaker. To me, the relationship between conversion and convincement is this: Conversion is when I crossed the threshold into conscious relationship with Christ, and decided to believe his promises and rely on his company until death. Convincement refers to my decision that Friends discipleship was, for me, the best possible way to implement the commitments that resulted from my conversion.

I remember the late Fred Boots (Quaker librarian, bookseller, and pastor, graduate of Malone College) saying with his inimitable laugh, "Evangelical Friends--that's redundant."

Altar envy: Last week I attended a convocation for adult converts to Roman Catholicism, which took place at St. Mary's Cathedral in Lafayette, Indiana. A dear friend of mine is moving from Quakers to Catholics. We've been corresponding for some time about this decision, and the issues reminded me of another friend of mine who went on the same path almost thirty years ago.

Sometimes I find myself in awe over the cumulative spiritual resources and wisdom of Catholicism--and the sheer density of those resources. With 1.1 billion adherents, there's a richness, a stability, an incredible variety, a racial and ethnic near-universality, that makes Friends sometimes seem mighty thin and whiny and petty. Of course I do not believe that obsessive comparisons are helpful; I believe that God raised up Friends with a particular vocation that makes us neither inferior nor superior, just a different (and tiny) part of the larger Body. If Friends were to abandon our charism, the loss would not only be ours, but other Christians' too. But when we are tempted to compare, we can see that, for our part, there's clearly no place for arrogance!

So what is our vocation among the larger body of Christians? We are called to shape a community around the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. Our central testimony is trust in the promises and power of God, freeing us from the endless searches for control, security, and wealth. Trust is our central testimony; all the others spring from it. With trust in the promises and mandates that Jesus made in person to our family 2000 years ago and confirms daily, we can lay down our dependence on weapons, false social distinctions, and affluence.

Three factors (at least) weaken us in our contemporary realization of this calling: not enough of us know our own spiritual gifts and how they mesh together in the community; we pay far too little attention to making our communities accessible to those who would find spiritual liberation among us; and too often we cover up the weaknesses caused by these failures by the usual counterfeits: legalism (either a Christian legalism or an absurdly thorough mastery of Quaker trivia); lame imitation of "successful" models outside Friends; uncritical sentimentality; a social quakerism devoid of belief in the power of God--what Parker Palmer called functional atheism.

More proof that we are family: I'm very grateful for the prayers that surrounded me when I want to Zion, Illinois, for my mother's memorial meeting at the Arbor View nursing home.

My mother taught German language and literature for many years, and one of my earliest childhood memories is of looking at the spines of volume after volume of books of German literature in her library. One of the readings I chose for the service was this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (Cliff Crego's translation from this site):
Ich bin auf der Welt zu allein und doch nicht allein genug,
um jede Stunde zu weihen.
Ich bin auf der Welt zu gering und doch nicht klein genug,
um vor dir zu sein wie ein Ding,
dunkel und klug.
Ich will meinen Willen und will meinen Willen begleiten
die Wege zur Tat;
und will in stillen, irgendwie zörgernden Zeiten,
wenn etwas naht,
unter den Wissenden sein
oder allein.
Ich will dich immer spiegeln in ganzer Gestalt,
und will niemals blind sein oder zu alt,
um dein schweres schwankendes Bild zu halten.
Ich will mich entfalten.
Nirgends will ich gebogen bleiben,
denn dort bin ich gelogen, wo ich gebogen bin.
Und ich will meinen Sinn
wahr vor dir. Ich will mich beschreiben
wie ein Bild, das ich sah,
lange und nah,
wie ein Wort, das ich begriff,
wie meinen täglichen Krug,
wie meiner Mutter Gesicht,
wie ein Schiff,
das mich trug
durch den tödlichsten Sturm.

I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every hour holy.
I am too small in the world, and yet not tiny enough
just to stand before you like a thing,
dark and shrewd.
I want my will, and I want to be with my will
as it moves towards deed;
and in those quiet, somehow hesitating times,
when something is approaching,
I want to be with those who are wise
or else alone.
I want always to be a mirror that reflects your whole being,
and never to be too blind or too old
to hold your heavy, swaying image.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere do I want to remain folded,
because where I am bent and folded, there I am lie.
And I want my meaning
true for you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I studied
closely for a long, long time,
like a word I finally understood,
like the pitcher of water I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the deadliest storm of all.

Among this week's righteous links, this just in: Rebecca Solnit on "Not forgetting New Orleans."

T. Vail Palmer, the Friend who first told me about my present meeting, Reedwood Friends Church, about three decades ago, has been writing about "Friends, God, and the Bible." He has set up a new Web site to make his work available.

The Mobtown Blues entry, "All paths don't lead to the top of the same mountain," provided a lot of food for thought for me this week.

I was delighted to see a Northwest Yearly Meeting Friend blogging recently about John Perkins, whose Voice of Calvary organization provided the Mississippi experience I mentioned above and wrote about here at greater length. The Christianity Today Web site has this appreciation of "Grandpa" John and Vera Mae Perkins.

I consume these "Hello I'm a Mac"/"And I'm a PC" ads like candy (my favorite is "the counselor"), but as effective as these ads are, I realize that I don't see myself switching to the Mac side. I still miss DOS!

If a theologically conservative Baptist preacher and radio talk show host can raise the subject of impeaching George Bush, is it really such a fringe idea? The motivation for impeachment should not arise from venom or a mean spirit, but the possibility should not be avoided simply out of undue awe at its radical nature, nor out of fear of a Cheney presidency. A free and democratic people, whose constitution has made available this mechanism for dealing with high crimes and misdemeanors, should use the mechanism when it is appropriate--not casually, but there is nothing casual about the corruption, deception, and centralization of power in the White House that is the record of Bush's leadership. To advocate impeachment, it is also not necessary to determine in advance whether Bush is a nice person or has decent and honorable motives. The simple object of impeachment is to remove from this powerful office, the U.S. presidency, a man who is not fit to occupy that office. [Thanks to John Sugg of creativeloafing.com for the reference.]

Howlin' Wolf, back on that German sound stage, performs "I'll Be Back Someday":


Unknown said...

Relative to your comment about being in a service for adult converts to Catholicism, my mother, several years after founding a Friends meeting, converted to Catholicism at age 79.

I haven't done so. But while there are things about Catholicism that rub me the wrong way, it also seems that much good comes out of it. I recently came across Pope Benedict XVI's call to us to use Lent to bring ourselves into Christian nonviolence. I made it into a guest blog entry, On the Revolution of Love.

Chris M. said...


I truly appreciate the spirit in which you offer your thoughts. There is something about how you stand rooted and grounded in your faith, and able to remain self-aware as well as see the larger picture. This occurred to me when you wrote, "As an antidote to my recent grumblings about Quaker quarrels and self-absorption (yes, I'm aware that I'm not helping with the latter!)..."

Thank you for being a publisher of truth.

-- Chris M.

Nancy A said...

This puts me in mind of a quotation in the old blue British version of Faith and Practice:

"I BELIEVE THAT GOD'S BEST for another may be so different from my experience and way of living as to be actually impossible for me. I recognize [a change] to have taken place in myself, from a certain assumption that mine was really the better way, to a very complete recognition that there is no better way, and that God needs all kinds of people and ways of living through which to manifest Light in the world."
Henry Hodgkin, 1933

Fortunately for you and many other Friends, your/their Quaker meeting didn't require you/them to conform to a single type of spiritual experience, but fostered you/them in what was already real.

My meeting is giving me the same support as I leave them to set up a programmed meeting.

But we must be mindful that this orientation goes both ways: Friends and newcomers who don't have an experience of a Christ and whose sense of God is as a nonBeing -- they have to be welcomed and listened to as much as any other. Firm and resolute answers may be apparent to one group, but the fallacy of this firmness and resoluteness may be apparent to another. These sorts of differences can't ever be resolved. So instead, we have to focus on the Light as we see, hear, and experience it, and then use our hands and voices to make it real to others.

Re- conversions to Catholicism - I grew up catholic. It was catholicism that led me to quakerism, and I don't see a lot of difference between them. Both treat spirituality as an empty vessel: through ritual or through silence. The process is to submit and then open up to receive. Both are based on communion and experience. The bread is just bread, and the silence is just silence, until we make it something different, until we receive and change it.

I like to remind people that there are two catholicisms: the catholic hierarchy/clergy, with all its rules and dogmas (the one you hear about on TV, and the one that protestantism likes to talk about); and the catholic people, who are looking for a regular experience of spiritual communion and who blythely ignore all the rules and dogmas.

Both catholic and quaker gatherings don't work on TV or radio. Neither religion is cerebral or verbal -- they're not mental exercises or cheerleading sessions for a belief system. And in both, people think very much for themselves.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Bill, Chris, and Nancy.

The Henry Hodgkin quotation could easily be read as an all-or-nothing statement, even in its wider context of the full Faith and Practice quotation, and I am not sure that's helpful. (Missionary zeal is completely wrong, relativism is completely right.) I'm reminded of the Mobtown post title, "All paths don't lead to the top of the same mountain." And, as much as I love Ottawa Meeting, whose inscription on the date of my joining Friends is in the front of my blue Faith and Practice, for me it was a way station. I can't avoid the realization that, at some point, I needed to worship with people who shared a Center, who were unified by a Finding as well as a Seeking. Out of that shared Center, we can deliberately create an attitude of eager receptivity to the discoveries of others.

In an earlier post, I talked about some of these seeker/finder tensions. I confess I have no formula answers. I know that, even now, I'm sometimes a seeker, sometimes a finder. In the wider richness of the Divine economy, there is a different sort of connectedness than seems obvious from our organizational charts.

Paul L said...

Re the relationsip between Quakers and Catholics, I'm reminded of a story (told to me) of an early meeting of New Call to Peacemaking in the '80s. Someone was explaining to the audience that New Call was an initiative of "the three historic peace churches", referring to Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren.

A Catholic priest in the back row raised his hand and said, "As I member of the original peace church, I resent that."

Jed Carosaari said...

Thanks for the link, re: John Perkins. Please be aprised, I have now moved the blog to a new location, at www.biosaari.blogspot.com. All 2ndary links remain the same.