Seeking a People

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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.

George Fox wrote about the Kingdom of God breaking into this world – and it came from within – this was the gospel I knew, the gospel I needed. Quakers were holy fools, apocalyptic evangelists, soldiers of prophecy. They were about liberation and creating the age-to-come. That was the Spirit I knew. This was the church I longed for.

Then I found Quakers. They weren’t exactly what I’d read about, and it was kind of confusing. But I decided to stick around for a while. After all, maybe God could use existing Quaker institutions to renew the Society of Friends. I believed and hoped that some of these institutions might lead Friends of all branches into convergence, and then that the Spirit might dissolve our dependence on institutions. I thought that as we yielded to the Spirit, she would return us to that apostolic and anarchic ecclesiology of early Friends.

What I’ve found, instead, is that Friends have converged on a shared history and a handful of practices.

But if the Society of Friends is to ever again carry the anointing of early Quakers, if it is to ever embody the vision of Margaret Fell, going “hand in hand in the unity and fellowship of this eternal Spirit,” it must do more than embrace a convoluted historical connection and some shared practices.

If we are converging on history and practice, we are missing the point. If we are depending on institutions to create a new society or usher in the Kingdom, then we are deceived. These will not bring the radically egalitarian and Spirit-filled communities that God fostered among early Friends. These are forms, and Friends must follow the Spirit.

I’ve met others who need a Spirit-led Society. We share this vision, and we share the disappointment of being drowned out in meeting by classism, ageism, and racism. Some of us wonder if Quakerism isn’t all that different from the rest of liberal religion. From what we’ve seen, it isn’t apocalyptic. It isn’t radical. It doesn’t sound like Fox or look like Jesus. It works at incremental transformation while simultaneously shushing those who need the system overthrown.

I’ve moved on.

But even as I’ve stopped attending meeting – even as institutional Quakerism has, for the most part, become irrelevant to me – I cannot deny that I am a Friend. Quaker conceptions of Christ’s gospel have led me closer to Jesus and it’s integral to what I believe and how I live. At the end of the day, though, if tables aren’t being turned, if people aren’t being healed and set free, if the prophets aren’t marching naked, I’ll have to follow Jesus elsewhere.

I hear early Friend Sarah Blackwell’s words ringing in my heart: “Christ is trying to make a dwelling place within you but he is left rejected and homeless.”

Jesus is still seeking his people, people who see the Spirit of God in the suffering and offer refuge. I’m seeking those people, too.

16 thoughts on “Seeking a People

  1. Joanna Michal Hoyt says:

    I hope you will find what you seek.

    I also came to Friends seeking that, and have reluctantly ended up outside Quaker structures partly as a result of seeking to be the kind of person whose fellowship I sought. I’m still part of a family that worships after the manner of Friends, and still find some early and recent Friends pointing the way I need to go, but that’s about it.

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible for an identifiable institution to be, and to remain, a Spirit-led Society and a gathering of Jesus’ people as you describe it. I read this by William James before I found Woolman (and, through Woolman, Quakers) and it still tends to echo in my mind:

    “A genuine first-hand religious experience… is bound to be a heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread to any others, it becomes a definite and labeled heresy. But if it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy; and when a religion has become an orthodoxy, its day of inwardness is over: the spring is dry; the faithful live at second hand exclusively and stone the prophets in their turn. The new church, in spite of whatever human goodness it may foster, can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit, and to stop all later bubblings of the fountain from which in purer days it drew its own supply of inspiration.”

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  2. Quotes for a seeker:

    “Christianity [also Quakerism] is not the all-embracing faith that it is said to be. You must find the church that suits you, that you can stand and that can stand you, and stick with it.”

    –Robertson Davies, “The Cunning Man”
    – – – – – – – – –
    “Still with all our [Quaker] faults, I know of no religious association I would prefer to it. . . . I would rather hear of [a Friend] laboring very faithfully, and with all Christian daring, in his society, than withdrawing from it.”

    – Lucretia Mott, 1842
    [I’m With Her.]
    – – – – – – – – – –
    “Much of what we tend to regard as the achievement of Friends as a whole was, in fact, the work of individual Friends, or small groups of Friends, often in the face of opposition or neglect of their monthly meetings. (One of the most positive – if often tedious – aspects of Quaker culture may be its capacity to produce or attract individuals who are willing to stand up to it)” (Bowen Alpern, in “Godless For God’s Sake”)

    “Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. What better way to conceal one’s evil from oneself, as well as from others, than to be a deacon or some other highly visible form of Christian within our culture.
    – M. Scott Peck, “People of the Lie,” p. 76

    From novelist Frederic Buechner:

    Isaiah

    There were banks of candles in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness and stinging his eyes, and high above him . . there was the Mystery Itself . . .and the whole vast reeking place started to shake beneath his feet . . .and he cried out, “O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I’m a goner and sunk.”
    Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said, “There, it will be all right now,” and the Mystery Itself said, “Who will it be?” and with charred lips he said “Me,” and Mystery said, “GO.”
    Mystery said, “Go give the deaf hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.”
    Isaiah said, “Do it till when?”
    Mystery said, “Till Hell freezes over.”
    Mystery said, “Do it till the cows come home.”
    And that is what a prophet does for a living, so starting from the year that King Uzziah died when he saw and heard all these things, Isaiah went and did it.

    — Frederic Buechner, “Peculiar Treasures, A Biblical Who’s Who.”

    And from the prophet Lily Tomlin: “No matter how cynical I get, it’s just never enough to keep up.”

    Bon voyage.

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  3. I have many times felt the same way — and yet, the essence of being a spirit-led people is that it’s going to look like what God has in mind. It won’t necessarily speak my own mind — but at best leaves room for me to speak it myself and find a few people who yes, have seen what I’m talking about.

    I myself am not a ten-foot high paragon of virtues. God takes what God can get, with me — and this is mercy!

    The Kingdom may grow like a weed, some years, but often it’s a crop that grows slowly. At 72 I’m one of God’s little kids, growing up as fast as I can — but continually needing patience. God creates and loves with the materials at hand.

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  4. And ableism.

    In October 1993 Richard Latimer killed his daughter claiming it to be an act of compassion; his daughter had cerebral palsy and was subject to multiple operations, seizures and painful spasms. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison which means that despite clear evidence of planning and intention the courts did not see this as “murder” in the usual sense (usual sentence being life with mandatory parole the 25 year mark in Canada).

    In 1999 a Paul indicated that 73% of Canadians believed Latimer acted out of compassion and receive a more lenient sentence. Quakers being a more or less liberal sect tended I think to support that contention. At one yearly meeting in and around that time I found myself being harassed for not signing a petition for his pardon. At one point I found myself sitting alone hyperventilating because I did not feel emotionally or even physically safe in my own faith community. I live with a congenital condition called arthrogryposis.

    Within a year of that event I found myself visiting the Friends meeting that used to be my home meeting. One Friend rose and spoke to the Latimer situation and in his “ministry” indicated that all reasonable people agreed that Latimer should be freed. While I like to think of myself as a reasonable person (at least most of the time) I was deeply conflicted about this at the time. I recognize that Latimer saw himself as acting out of compassion. But also saw the threat of putting what he did in the kind of box that said a disabled life is less worth living. I had already spoken in meeting. And I wanted very much to speak to this Friend’ s concern. The social rules of who speaks and when so weighed down on me that it felt like a physical presence. The rules social propriety oppressed me as much or more than the words spoken. As the oppression came from within. And all I could do was sit there and pray that someone would say something anything to put that man’s words into some kind of perspective. Nothing.

    My sense of connection to Quakers has been tenuous ever since.

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    • BCZ says:

      I’m not sure I get that this is an example of ableism, and I am increasingly wary of these increasingly ideologically laden terms for reasons that will be clear in a minute. That said, I fully agree that the rules of propriety are intensely brutal when ministry is ‘ministry’. That person should have been Eldered STAT. That is an exclusionary political statement that, frankly, doesn’t sound like any movement of the spirit I know. Od doesn’t say ‘failure to agree with this position on this issues makes you dumb’. It’s a clear example of the far to explicit fusion of political orthodoxy in quaker communities… where rather tha politcal testimonies flowing from the spirit I directly they are allowed to fully usurp,the spirit. I’m blessed that my meeting suffers from no such problem.

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  5. Viv Hawkins says:

    God bless you for holding to your sense of faithfulness and for not forfeiting that to anyone.
    How to gather the remnant when the salt loses its taste? That is a task worth our attention.

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  6. Howard Brod says:

    There are liberal Quaker meetings that ARE entirely egalitarian as were the very earliest Quakers (the first decade before they were even labeled “Quakers”), as well as were the very earliest followers of Jesus (the very first generation before they were even labeled “Christians”). And just like those earliest groups who sought to live in the Light, these modern egalitarian liberal Quaker groups that have no leader and no ‘guiding’ committees, eagerly embrace the Spirit that manifests from within each Friend in the meeting – because the action of the Spirit within each Friend is cherished, heard, and valued in that meeting.

    That Spirit of Light is where those meetings find their spiritual unity -not in history, not in doctrines, not in human experts, not in “sacred” books, not in beliefs, not in Quaker traditions, not in forms, not in opinions, not in politics, not even in Quakerism. And those Friends seek to take that same Spirit of Light with them out of the meetinghouse door so it might shine everywhere they go as a beacon for the world.

    And many of those liberal Quaker meetings were not always functioning in that egalitarian Light-filled way – yet with patience and love and Light and Friends who lived their truth without judgement of others among them; those meetings were eventually transformed over time to a new way of being that was once modeled by Jesus and other wise spiritual beings over the centuries.

    Your job? Stop looking for a meeting (or church) like that and let go of control and outcomes; and just let the Spirit use you at opportune times to model the way forward. Period.

    Pretty simple if you can do it.

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  7. Liberal Quakers assume that if the external forms are discarded, the Spirit is what remains, however, it is not such an either/or situation. There can be a lack of Spirit (life and power) where there is a lack of form, just as easily as where there is form. Today’s meetings lack both form and substance: life and power. What you are lamenting about this loss in the Church is a common complaint throughout the ages, which Penington speaks to here:

    The presence of the life and power makes the form living; and no longer is it or can it be so, than the life and power remain with it. Now they not abiding in the life and in the power (the apostasy coming, spoken of, 2 Thess. 2:3), the life and the power also withdrew from them, and left them the dead form, into which the prince of death immediately enters; and so that which was a church unto God while the life abode there, and they in the life, becomes a synagogue of Satan, he entering into the dead form, and being worshipped there in the dead form. So that it is not any outward gathering or profession that makes a church under the New Testament, but only the life and power. That gathering which is in the life and power is a true church; that which is not, is a synagogue of Satan, let them profess what they will. For the living God dwells in living temples only, and the prince of death dwells in all the territories of death (Works, II, 280).

    It is our coming into unity with Christ that is our joy, whether or not we enjoy community with others. That seems to be a rarity in history. Here’s how Jesus saw the situation:

    Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me (Jn. 16:32).

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  8. Sarah says:

    I find myself in the same boat and struggling. I have not yet given up hope. I am close but not yet.

    Maybe there is a vacuum being created that God can fill.

    I pray that it is so.

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  9. BCZ says:

    I feel like there are at least two movements in Quakerism writ large that speak to y(our) concerns, and I’d like to hear your take in them. One is Be son’s New Foundation Fellowship, and the other is the Friends of Jesus fellowship organized and spearheaded by Micha Bales and co.

    I don’t entirely share your hostility to the very loose institutional structure OR the incrementalism nature of those institutions. I believe strongly that they necessarily aid in discernment,and are a necessary on man’s narcissism and continual urge to reject the light. That said, I think these for,s work terribly without a common starting point, and that lack of starting point (atheist Quakers? Really?) is what makes these institutions glacial and – as you rightly say – totally unradical and even Worldly. To put on my political scientist hat for a minute (because that is my worldly profession) if you have a consensus or consensus-like system of collective decision or discernment, the more disparate the ideals of the various parties to that decision the more impossible any movement will be and the more status quo bias will creep in. If the status quo is for most Quakers to be politically postmodern left… that worldy position will dominate discernment and the spirit is utterly unable to use our fellowship to communicate and spread the message.

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  10. Patricia says: “Liberal Quakers assume that if the external forms are discarded, the Spirit is what remains, however, it is not such an either/or situation.”

    There are many people (from liberal and conservative contexts) who are come into the invisible church of God by the power and grace of the inshining Light itself in itself ruling and governing in our conscious and conscience. In this life, the Light itself is our form and is our rule without regard to or for outward forms, institutions, organizations, leaders, mediators, or teachers. We are come into a life that knows and lives in the Spirit itself in itself and we speak the Name. I am the Light and you are the Light and the Light is in us and we are the Light. In this life we are come into a new form that is not of the nature and process of identification with outward ideological, intellectual, and instituional constructs. It is discovered to us the sufficiency of the rule and govnerment of the Light itself in all things and circumstances in our daily life.

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  11. Blythe says:

    Hi Hye Sung! You are a Friend! And, as you relinquish the connection to an institution, you’ll become even more so. Good luck in your quest.

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    • True, certainly! But not to relinquish the connection to the people in that institution. We need inconvenient people to be each other’s obstacles, to provide occasions for rubbing off each other’s scratchy bits…

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