Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
One of the challenges with outreach is the fact that being a Quaker is not easy. Let's face it. Quakers do things the hard way. Our decisions require consensus (or unity, or sense of the Meeting or whatever). We depend upon volunteers to do just about everything. Raising funds would be much easier if we just passed that little plate around. So much of what we do demands an understanding of many subtleties. Even our benches are hard!
And of course (for many Meetings) there is unprogrammed worship. Can we admit that it sounds boring? It not only sounds boring but it is boring to for so many on the first try. It can require commitment (even practice) before the exercise is profitable.
Do Friends agree that this an impediment to letting our light shine?
I would like to suggest that we use this “weakness” as a strength. When we consider outreach, we might be a little more challenging. If Quakerism is not for everyone, we might say just that. It requires a commitment but has a reward.
I have written a short piece that tries to take this approach. I would like to hear Friends comments on both the suggested approach to outreach and my piece in particular.
The piece is posted on our Meeting’s website at http://www.marlboroughmeeting.org/DoThingsTheHardWay.htm. If Friends find some merit in it, it might be printed as a tract. I welcome suggestions for improvement.
But I am most interested in having Friends discuss selling Quakerism as “The Hard Way”.
Folding chairs are far less comfortable than benches.
But I don't think God has purposely set out to make people do things "the hard way."
That "hard way" is like what happens when the arresting officer has really gotten annoyed; it's a sign that what looked like the easy way wasn't.
I think we're more about trying to do things right the first time, which looks harder but works better. (Look at our record on slavery: took us decades but finished 80 years before the rest of the US, with far fewer casualties.)
Where we've become locked into "following Quaker process" as an end in itself, it's a sign that we're "doing something hard" where what we needed instead was to see and do something far too simple, to really seek to know and follow the will of God.
"My yoke is easy and my burden is light," but all this requires is everything. (We can, however, pay in installments...)
I'm glad to see that you've raised this idea and discussion. In general, I like what you've written. I do question the title and the emphasis on it being "hard." You've presented an opportunity for me to reflect a bit on this.
In my initial burst of enthusiasm for my discovery of the Quaker faith and practice, I couldn't see why everyone wouldn't flock to it. In my time volunteering as a guide at Arch Street Meetinghouse in historic Philadelphia, talking to hundreds of tourists about the Quaker faith, answering countless questions, I began to more clearly see the challenges that this path provides for most. But I also experienced such deep satisfaction each time the message clearly found resonance with seekers.
Since then, I've thought a lot about what makes this religion difficult and what makes it "easy." I totally appreciate your desire for authenticity around outreach, but I tend to think, perhaps like Lola and Forrest, that it can't be summed up simply as "the hard way." Once at a Meeting for Worship in Greene Street Friends Meeting in the Germantown area of Philadelphia, where the struggles typical of inner city neighborhoods abound, I witnessed two attenders stand up at the end of meeting and relate their experience of being there. Both were from the neighborhood. The first, an African American man with hair in dreads, had dropped in for the first time that day, curious, he said, about what was going on there. He shared his gratitude, saying that he didn't even know that he needed the silence that was offered. He exclaimed how blessed he had been to have discovered the stillness, the break from the noise of his life. The other attender, a woman who lived nearby, stood up and said she had been coming now for awhile and found the stillness addictive. She needed it now. I have no idea as to whether these two continued coming. I can imagine that in most meetings, filled with white, middle class, educated members, that the cultural differences would prevent full participation in the life of the meeting for most newcomers not of the same fabric. But the experience told me that this experience of an hour of stillness with others was very welcome, not hard.
I think what can make it hard are the things that make our lives too complex in general: too busy with all the other activities of our lives to have the time for daily devotional reading, for routine prayer, for focus on our spiritual community vs. all the other communities we participate in routinely. With the ease of transportation and digital communication, we are fooled into unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We try to keep up with countless events and communities -- from our kids' soccer teams to local civic organizations, from our job communities to national political endeavors. To add onto this active membership on a committee of our meeting seems overwhelming .... and hard. And it often is. I think that active membership in the Religious Society of Friends is a call to live more simply in general. And this is not easy in a society where tidal waves of expectations to 'keep up" on so many fronts overwhelm us daily.
I don't have the answers. It often seems to me that I won't be able to be the type of involved Quaker I'd like to be until I retire from my job --- which, given current financial realities, might never happen! This is true for so many. We do not live in a world of mutual interdependence for the most part; we are each trying to make it on our own, all working full time jobs. As capitalism declines and the middle class diminishes, the time that it takes to produce income consumes more of our lives. I don't see how the work of a Quaker meeting can happen without greater interdependence.
This past year I finished a CD (Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong, released by Quaker Press at the FGC Gathering this summer), with 21 quotations from early Friends, each one speaking to what I consider an important aspect of this faith tradition. Before writing the liner notes, I presented copies to a number of non-Quakers, mostly Protestant Christians, to get their reactions. I was curious to know how non-Quakers would understand the messages. The response by and large was extremely favorable, with the messages seemingly both well understood and appreciated. Since then, the CD has made its way, through the grace of Spirit I believe, into the hands of non-Quakers, especially a growing group of religious practitioners -- contemplative Christians. The growing interest in the mystical aspects of Christianity along with that of Eastern spirituality reflect a thirst for the kind of religious experience that Quaker practice has historically provided. The responses from people who have heard my musical renditions of these early Friends' messages have expressed amazement that this faith tradition has existed and still exists today. One Catholic community I know of is using the CD at its prayer groups, where they've initiated a practice of silent worship. One person wrote that he had attended his first Quaker meeting as a result of hearing the CD. An Episcopalian priest is singing the song/chants at her retreats on contemplative Christianity. I think as Quakers we might also think of outreach as not only bringing more people into our meetings, but also as bringing our message and practices into other faith traditions.
And, as a singer and lover of communal song and its power to heal and open the heart, we might also think about expanding our own notions of worship to include more forms of worship beyond our unprogrammed silent meetings! Some of what is considered "hard" by many non-Quakers is the idea of having to give up the ecstatic joy that can come from the emotional sharing of congregational singing and movement, with its tears and shouts of praise!
Thanks for the opportunity to take time from my Saturday morning agenda to write this!
I appreciate and agree with all of these comments. They have given me much food for thought. In fact, they demonstrate a deeper consideration of the question than I originally intended.
I had started from a place where I wondered why our denomination has lost numbers ever since the first generation. I am convinced we have precious jewel that so much of the world could profit from. Yet for some reason, we hold little appeal for those looking for a spiritual home. It seems to me that if we could just get folks to try us out for a little bit, we would be an asset to many.
So I was trying to look at the issue from a practical matter. Why does Quakerism seem unappealing at first glance? As much as I love Waiting Worship it is hard to ignore the fact that it does not draw the interest of the average American.
We live in a service economy. When we go to a restaurant, we expect good service. We go shopping and expect the same. Movies entertain us. We “compete” with denominations whose service mimics that which people find in the world. They come in for a nice theological lecture, some music and go on their way. There are some attenders in steeple houses who are not there to serve God, but to be serviced.
This is a bit unfair. I exaggerate for effect. True seekers also make connections with God in traditional church services. But (with the greatest respect intended) is it any surprise that the branch of our Society with the largest numbers tend not to use un-programmed worship?
I am certainly not suggesting that we lay silent meetings aside, nor that we measure success in numbers. But if Waiting Worship is the thing that is holding some people back, it occurred to me that we might shine our light on those for whom a challenge holds an appeal.
I have contemplated this quite a bit. I have come to the conclusion that a more precise word for the situation might be "challenging" rather than "hard." Athletes don't do things just because they are hard, but they may do something just because it is a challenge . . . I think Quakerism is challenging, and yes it can be hard (but any attempt at a relationship is hard) but I think challenging is more to the point here . . .
I like your piece and your approach. One thing I think you could add, though, is that even though it is challenging (I like Isabel's word) you aren't doing it alone. God will help you. People need reassurance that it's ok to begin as you are.
So many people, when they find out I'm a Quaker, say something along the lines of "that's what I would be if I were going to go to church," or "I have a lot of admiration for Quakers." I had this sense myself when I was in college. I attended a couple of meetings and decided that I wasn't a good enough person to be a Quaker. It wasn't the silence, which I enjoyed. It was the ministry I heard, which at the time was far beyond me, and all the literature about action for social justice in the lobby.
I met with similar reactions when I told people I visited prisoners years later. One priest said to me, "it takes a special person to do that." It doesn't, actually. I was really lousy at it for a long time. Doing the work seasoned me for it. I think what silent meetings and prisons have in common is that they appear intimidating from the outside. People perhaps think they are already supposed to be whatever God wants them to be. We need to point out that God does most of the work after you start making yourself available. (Knowing that might also help with the inevitable disillusionment that sets in for anyone who does start attending a meeting.)
I believe Jesus was saying that many would get lost along the way.
I've been literally lost, many times. Usually I've been able to turn around and find-- if not the place I was looking for, at least the place God intended.
In the context of "the road that leads to life," the same applies. Arriving where you want, on time, is a good thing. But again, God has ways of making the wanderings into 'the route'. It might be better to think of a ladder... You don't get up without climbing. But that ladder is always there.
Whether God preserves all personalities... I knoweth not, only that God creates us with whatever peculiarities, and "loves" us in the Biblical sense: doing us whatever good we're able to receive. In cases like James Thurber's Wicked Duke ("We all have our faults, and mine is being wicked!")... I think it comes down to God's intention, in creating/becoming us. That intention will not fail.
One of my first Meetings, long before I became a regular. These were apocalyptic times, in a small college town where strange notions were highly contagious, virtually epidemic... and I was expecting near-whatever! Actually, I'd been thinking we might all start following our consciences boldly into nonviolent battle against the myriad evils of the world... but shortly into the meeting, I felt a strange, invisible presence in the doorway: "Why Forrest, what are you doing?-- Trying to hide among the Good People?" Busted.