Reflections on Quaker Revival

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The Icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles– 6th century,

I’m currently in Pisac, Peru for the Friends World Committee’s World Plenary Meeting. There are Friends from all over the world and from every Quaker Tradition—Evangelical, Liberal, Holiness, and Conservative—worshipping and enjoying fellowship together. The sight of these mutually affirming interactions between Friends has been profoundly touching, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed, in a glorious, beautiful way, but in a way that is still exhausting and feels like a burden. I am seeing the gifts that every branch has to offer, and have met so many Friends who truly care about the well-being of the whole Society of Friends, and I am finding some hope to believe that renewal, and perhaps even revival, is possible in this strange Religious Society I’ve stumbled into. But part of me feels the weight of the challenge of renewal.

My head is flooded with questions, concerns, and doubts.

What will it take to usher in renewal into the Society of Friends? What does a revival that includes both Christian and non-Christian Friends look like? Is it possible? Does a Quaker revival have to include institutional Quakerism? Part of me would love to be done with institutional Quakerism and carry my Quaker convictions elsewhere, perhaps in a more organic Christian community.

I feel the weight of old wineskins, the static ritualism and unspoken etiquette, clogging up our meetings. I feel the individualism flaunted in Liberal Quakerism blocking us from truly becoming an inclusive community. I am haunted by the lack of spiritual identity and a focused vision in Liberal Quakerism. I know in my heart that Proverbs 29:18 is true: where there is no vision, the people perish. I see it happening right before my eyes.

And programmed, pastoral Quakerism has me equally concerned. How are these dividing yearly meetings reflecting the reality of Pentecost and the reconciling work of Christ? What will it take for Evangelical Friends to affirm, support, and bless their LGBT+ sisters and brothers? What makes progressive Evangelical Friends distinct from other liberal Protestant churches, and even Liberal Quakerism?

And I wonder, what authority do I have to raise these questions, let alone critique this established tradition and try to offer solutions?

Maybe those issues shouldn’t concern me. Maybe this is all in fact a good thing and I don’t doubt that I am unable to see all that God is up to. And as a person without theological training, and even without a degree, I often doubt that I have a role in this conversation, let alone the fact that I’m a newcomer to the Society.

Somehow, though, I feel a loyalty and commitment to this Body. I don’t know how it happened exactly, especially since I am so often unable to connect and relate to Liberal Quaker culture (and I am an attender of a Liberal meeting) and to be frank, I don’t feel welcome in any branch of Quakerism. But my personality and faith tend to be quite communal, and I cannot help but feel gratitude to the Quaker Saints of the past who lived shameless, prophetic, and radical lifestyles and built up a community that knew the love and power of God. I cannot help but sense that I was led here to inherit the gifts, graces, and mantle of these saints, and continue their laboring for the gospel. I am blown away by the good news they preached and lived, and I personally feel led to honor them by being active in the Society they met Christ in.

And I know living saints today who continue to preach this gospel and reveal Christ in a way that expands on the revelations and work of earlier Friends. I want to walk beside these Friends and encourage them in the Way of Peace and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

More than anything, I would hate to see the potential gifts that Quakerism has to offer both the Christian and the spiritual seeker go unrealized.

The interdependent spiritual community, centered not on dogma but the dynamic experience of the Spirit of Love, is something I see many seeking but unable to find. We can be a community that offers a healthy, communal mysticism, not for our own “edification,” but so that we can be launched into the world to extend this love at all costs. Believe me, once you experience the love of God, you can’t keep it to yourself. We were meant to be a community of radical prophets. And people want this.

Yet so often Quaker legalism and what is perceived as a lack of Spirit in our tribe keeps these seekers from finding the treasures of Quakerism. We have other issues, too, of course, like the overwhelming whiteness in American Quakerism. But I believe that more than clever marketing, and more than new programs, the root of our issue is that we need the Spirit of God to be able to reach the people that want what we offer.

We need to be willing to be shaken by the Spirit in order to be revived.  We need the fire of the Spirit to refine us in order to fully embrace what God has in store for us. We need to be willing to be transformed, even if it means giving up our traditions and sacrificing our sacred cows. We need to be humbled so that God can do what God wants to do. We desperately need the Holy Spirit in order to creatively usher in this all-consuming revival. And if we don’t yield to the Spirit, we will perish.

Who am I to say these things? What authority do I have? None really. But I can assure you that I say this because I care about Friends, and I care about those seeking an authentic spirituality and community, and I care about the burnt out Christians looking for a purer gospel. In the world, I suppose I have little authority, but I hope that me being a child of God will be enough reason for Friends to hear me out and join me in prayer.

The Grace of Liberal Friends

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Photo taken by Tyler Heston

I fell in love with Quakerism much before I attempted to be a part of the Religious Society of Friends. The writings of early Friends were often a part of my devotions in my more-Evangelical days. The stories of their radical and prophetic lifestyles, their bold simplicity, their thorough understanding of an apostolic community, their love for and devotion to Jesus, and their experience of Godranging from contemplative to ecstatic—it all inspired me. I wanted that Church. I needed that Church. It looked like the Book of Acts. It looked like Jesus. And I didn’t think it could exist in the modern Society of Friends. I thought it died with the second generation of Friends and, arrogantly I admit, believed the Society was unable to be redeemed.

Making my way into Quakerism took some time. I distantly engaged with Quakers online and read books on Quakerism, but for quite sometime I was hesitant to attend meeting for worship. I’ll admit that I barely counted the Liberal branch of Quakerism as true Quakerism, as if I had some say in who made the cut. I thought it was great that they preserved the contemplative nature of Quaker worship, as well as the long-held prophetic values of the Religious Society, but it was all futile without the explicit glorification of Jesus Christ. Though my soteriology at the time was open to the possibility of the salvation for non-Christians, I was in no way seeking authentic spiritually nourishing relationships with those not claiming Christ as their savior, especially if I wasn’t saving the unbeliever.

My summer internship with the Friends of Jesus Fellowship in 2014 was kicked off in Barnesville, Ohio at the annual cross-branch, week-long event called Quaker Spring. The majority of Friends I met were in one way or another Liberal Friends, though there were a number of Conservative Friends, many from Ohio Yearly Meeting. I was quick to feel comfortable among the Conservative Friends, since much of our language and theology overlapped, but I won’t lie, I was scared to fellowship with the Liberal Friends. I even was wary of the Christ-centered Liberal Friends, as I assumed that their christologies were far too low to be yoked with.

Then, I found myself worshiping with these Friends, and a woman who earlier that day let me know that she was “comfortable with Buddhism and Native American spirituality” spoke. She prayed and prophesied boldly and the atmosphere was drenched with a penetrating Light. I could not deny that she was endowed with the gift of the Holy Ghost. She spoke to the specific needs of my heart and something in me shifted that night. I began opening my heart to God in a new way. I began seeing God in all people.

I long-denied that throughout Quakerism, throughout this whole Society, the impulses and convictions of the early Friends had been preserved. As this Liberal Friend spoke under the power of the Spirit, I came to realize how close-hearted and wrong I had been. It was ridiculous that I thought I knew what was best for this movement of God. For so long I was blind to the graces and gifts that each branch and even yearly meeting held. And even beyond that, I was blind to Christ within each individual.

As I mentioned in my last post, Quakerism gave me the confidence to declare and live out a truth I had long-known: there is that of God in all people. My conviction that Christ’s work on the Cross was sufficient, that the Spirit of God was poured out on all flesh, and that God’s nature was Love, came to life in the Society of Friends as I began to fellowship with Buddhists, Pagans, Christians with fundamentally different theological views, and even non-Theists.

I’d say that this is one of the greatest graces carried in the Liberal tradition of Friends. Meeting for worship among Liberal Friends is sprinkled with people all over the map, in terms of theology, but firmly united in a faith that honors the dignity and divinity within all people. This thread of Quakerism, so beautifully captured in the doctrine of the universal inner/inward Light, can be seen in the writings of George Fox, Margaret Fell, and other early Friends. All throughout Quaker history, Friends have known this Light within all people, and some have abandoned the language for it, and some may have gave up emphasizing this, and some perhaps have even rejected all universalistic language and theology, but it cannot be denied that this glorious truth is known and experienced by Liberal Friends.

Finally, to my Liberal Friends: I am sorry for the ways I’ve judged you and dismissed the wisdom and blessings that pack your tradition. Thank you for teaching me about grace despite my own lack of grace. I give thanks to God for your role in this peculiar Society. You are Friends.

“Gentiles as well as Jews, Heathens and Indians as well as Englishmen and Christians (so called)… all have some measure of that Grace nigh them, which in the least measure is sufficient to heal and help them.” (Hooks, Works of Samuel Fisher, London: 1660, p. 656)