Baltimore YM is affiliated with Friends United Meeting which acknowledges Jesus as "Teacher and Lord." Honestly, the number of Friends in BYM who have any relationship with or involvement in FUM is nominal. Few individual meetings offer education about the ministries of FUM. How many African, Latin or Midwestern ministers and elders have been invited to monthly meetings to speak, teach or worship? Do our women participate in United Society of Friends Women or our men with Quaker Men? Do we participate in the prayer chains and circles that are a common part of FUM meetings? I can guess the answer to those questions. No, we really are General Conference Yearly Meeting. Baltimore long ago forgot what it means to be a consolidated Yearly Meeting, and one example was the move to formally end the practice of recognizing and nurturing monthly meetings who call out individuals to serve as gospel ministers and elders. This is a common practice among FUM and Conservative yearly meetings. In Baltimore YM, the consolidation of the Hicksite and Orthodox Yearly Meetings has ended up being what it has in most of the East Coast Yearly Meetings: Christian thought and expression in has been, for lack of a better word, overcome. We can still point to pockets here and there in BYM, of individuals in this meeting or that who are Christian. Even so, these Christian friends often seem to have to defend their position rather than to boldly proclaim their faith as a living, freeing path that brings them joy. It's also true that many Christians have done enough damage to make it hard to be "out" about being Christian in many FGC yearly meetings.
I remember a Kimo Press button that was passed out or sold, one, at FGC Summer Gathering in 1990 "More Christ-centered than thee, and more humble too!" Too often the conversation, if we can call it a conversation, regarding Friends' Christian witness has been acrimonious, sanctimonious, contentious and, yes, obnoxious. At the extremes you have two sides knowingly pushing each others' buttons, heels firmly planted in the ground, equally dogmatic in their understanding of Quakerism. Then you have the large middle, of Friends who are Christian but who vary in their understanding of what that means.
I have grown up with Friends for whom Jesus is their Lord and Savior, Friend and Teacher. They have experienced the transforming power that comes from a deep understanding of being faithful and yielding to that holy Spirit, the Light of Christ, which speaks to them directly as well as through the Scriptures. They see no difference between the Jesus of history and the eternal Logos. Some of these Friends are Evangelicals, some Conservatives and others Liberals. These Friends call themselves Christians. I've also met Friends, mostly General Conference Friends, who refuse the label "Christian" but whose relationship to Jesus as the Living One who can speak to their condition is no less real than those who call themselves Christians. For these latter Friends, "Christian" is a loaded term with too much negativity. I understand, though do not agree with their conclusion to drop the name. I also know Friends who call themselves "CHristian" who do not see Jesus and the Christ as synonymous. Nonetheless, Jesus is central to their mythology, and they do know and have experienced the Universal Light that has indeed transformed them. They know and are dependent upon this Christ, believing that this Christ is the Spirit that has spoken to all people at all times, the Universal Logos, which filled Jesus (if he existed, some add) and fills them. Frankly, since 1986 when I first started traveling and worshiping with Friends, I've met Friends who would have fit into almost every Christian movement (and heresy) since the beginning of the faith: Arians, Orthodox, Gnostic, you name it. There is a Quaker Christian (or Christian Quaker) who would have found a home at some point in time in Christian history.
To some this may just spell trouble, and the need to have doctrinal orthodoxy overrides any authenticity of experience. I'll admit, that not all experience is guided by or experienced in the Light of Truth. The Adversary can come as an Angel of Light. How many preachers and teachers have there been who preach prosperity, hate, judgment, wrath, division, schism, racism, violence all in the name of the Prince of Peace? Even good people who have a wonderful relationship with Christ sometimes emphasize "right doctrine" and eschew anything that doesn't sound like orthodox Christianity. Friends United Meeting, Ohio Conservative and Evangelical Friends International have many Friends who are good people, true Christians, but who have little room for anything unorthodox.
I've come to the understanding at this point in my spiritual journey that Quakerism is lost if it claims anything other than Christianity as its corporate faith tradition. Parenthetically, I don't believe that precludes the validity of other paths for Quakers or other people. Zen Buddhism, for example, may open Friends up to unprogrammed worship. Neo-paganism may lead Friends to revere Creation. I'm talking our corporate faith tradition. I'm writing about one Buddhist monk's advice to go deeply in the well of our own culture to get the fullness of that well rather than skimming the surface water off of many wells. My walk with Jesus has not always been among Friends or even Christians. But Jesus was still with me when I took a detour. That being said, cultures and religions operate with common mythologies, and a common language. When we divorce Quakerism and the Spirit/Light/Seed language from it's Christian and Biblical roots, I feel it's disingenuous and unnecessary. When we say "we come from the Christian tradition, but have moved beyond it" we show that we are more influenced by the changing winds around our Society than by the Spirit. Maybe I'm wrong, but I sense I'm at least close to accurate.
I also have seen that in our history, the most schisms have come through efforts at doctrinal orthodoxy. Quakerism at its core has been Christian, with most Friends being admittedly orthodox in their belief, and a larger majority claiming Jesus and the Scriptures as a central part, if not the only focus of their faith. But Christianity has been seen as a Way. This is not to be confused, necessarily, with Quaker process or style of worship (in some circles outward forms that border on idolatry). Quakerism as a Christian movement
focuses on Jesus as the Way.
What is this way? I can only offer my understanding: It is a way of transformation, of giving up of ones attachments, addictions, sense of self-importance, ego, etc. The power to do so may come from within, but the source of this power is God. We avoid planning and creating our own path to recovery and self-help, rather relying on the Light to show us the Way forward. We follow the Scriptures which serve as a guide-post, a check on how the Spirit is moving us. We also seek a community of others who are on this same path, so that we may encourage each other in this growth. We recognize each other not merely by all affirming that we are following Jesus' Way, because there are many who claim Jesus but whose lives speak otherwise. We know each other by the fruits that come from the private, personal relationship with the Spirit bring. We come together in community to partake of the great banquet laid before us each of us bringing what fruit God has given, nurturing the Tree of Life together. And what fruits are these? Well, these are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
We are also given gifts of the spirit: wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, piety (reverence) and fear of the Lord (wonder and awe). Thomas Aquinas corresponded these gifts with virtues: wisdom leads to charity, understanding and knowledge lead to faith, right judgment leads to prudence, courage leads to fortitude, fear (wonder and awe) lead to hope, and reverence leads to justice. I reflect upon these, considering all that I've read and have been taught in First Day School, at Guilford and at Earlham and find that while I'm leery of making these into formulas, there is no Stop in me in understanding them to be True.
This transformation that came over time has been described by Friends as living up to the Light that one has, and more will be given. To whom much is given, much is expected. In a world whose teachings are based in materialism, consumption, hoarding, vengeance, retribution, and instant gratification (and I'm sure more can be added to this list), that is to say, in a world of sin, there is deliverance. There is salvation. There is forgiveness. To those who would condemn people to a life of bondage, saying that we are always going to be depraved, with minds that are grounded in selfish motives, Quakers point to this Salvation that comes from faithfulness and yielding, believing through experience that just as Jesus did, so can we. Just as he was the Son of God, we are among God's many sons and daughters. Just as Jesus was perfect, so can we be perfect in our faithfulness. Whereas now we may be angry victims of some horrible act done to us at some point in our lives, afflicted by addictions and mental illnesses rooted in our woundedness, there is a Physician who can lead us from this state. It doesn't matter whose "fault"it is that we are in the state we are: society's, our parents', a stranger's or our own. A life focused on guilt, victimization, shame or on idols (money, control, power, addiction, even family-- whatever comes first before God), is not a life focused on the Light. Jesus' Way is a Life focused on the Light; of walking, standing and always minding it. This Life is Freedom. This Life is Salvation. This Life is the Kin(g)dom of Heaven for here and now. This Life is available to all who seek it, who turn to the Light which will instruct them and deliver them.
To the Principalities and Powers it says "you say Caesar is the Son of God, we say Jesus is the Son of God." You say "I want it now" we say "wait on the Lord." It turns conventional wisdom on its head. It challenges any so-called "good news" which does not point to transformation that leads to the fruit and virtues of the spirit. And what is particular to Jesus' way is that this is all grounded in Love. God is Spirit. God is Love. Anything that smells, feels, tastes, looks or sounds contrary to that Charitable spirit is an Angel of Darkness cloaked in a false Light. False prophets teach a gospel that comes from conventional wisdom. True prophets will have the fruits and gifts of the spirit.
This is how I understand the powerful message of Jesus' disciples and early followers. This is how I understand Early Friends. They went so far as to deny the Trinity not because they denied "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" as real. It was because they focused on the relationship with God and the New Life that came with following the Way. Religion was not a dead form bound in doctrine and ritual. Just as Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it, because Laws simply guide but do not transform us, Friends did not deny the Gospel of Christ rather choosing to fulfill what the Church had for centuries had tried (and in their eyes failed) to do: offer salvation and freedom.
I see this way, that is indeed preached in many different Christian denominations, especially the Evangelical and mystical ones, as the Way to which I am called. While theology is interesting and stimulates my mind, I have learned the folly of approaching religion through the mind. It is exactly what Early Friends warned would lead to atheism. Instead True Knowledge comes from starting within. From within I learn the motions of Love in my heart. As I learn to yield to this Love, the source of which is none other than God, I am brought into a fuller understanding of the outward testimonies of God, namely the Scriptures. Doctrines of the church are opened to me in a meaningful way. The Spirit teaches, comforts and heals me and I learn to become reliant on it as my primary authority. Through trial and error, I have learned my need for others on the same path, understanding that alone my perceptions of the Spirit can be fallible. When I am yoked with those who walk the same path, I walk with surer footing. Instead of starting with "accepting Jesus as my Lord and personal savior" and claiming "the Bible or New Testament is my Creed" I am allowing the Spirit to reveal and teach me about Jesus. I see Jesus through Spiritual Eyes, and in Jesus this Unknowable Mystery in which I have a hard time believing is miraculously becoming my Mother/Father.
So, as Old Town approaches Stony Run Friends to take us under our care, I am faced with in which basked I put my eggs. Assuming Way opens for Stony Run to care for us, I will need to decide whether or not to transfer my membership. I am clearer than ever that it is with the Body that seeks to be born of the spirit, the Second Birth, that I am to become a part. When one part of that body is ill, it will be my concern. When I am ill, it will be the body's concern. Membership is not about orthodoxy, it's about community and commitment. But if the body cares not for itself, for its transformation, it's rebirth into grace, then the body cannot care for the members that do.
And so some Friends have warned us at Old Town about joining with a Yearly Meeting that does not acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior. This has weighed heavily on my mind for a good while now. Upon reflecting on my understanding of what is Christian, I find no clarity regarding Baltimore Yearly Meeting or Stony Run Friends Meeting. I offer my own understanding here with the hopes that Friends from Baltimore Yearly Meeting will read this, pray on it, meditate on it, and respond. I claim nothing other than my own fallible understanding. I do not say "this is true for everyone." That being said, I know that many CHristians challenged early Friends' Christian faith, and Friends responded defending their Christian faith: sometimes with theological statements such as Fox's Letter to the Governor of Barbados
, or Barclay's Apology
, and other times by writing of their own experiences relating their stories to that of Scripture and offering personal testimony to their spiritual relationship with Christ rather than pointing to any outward form (Bible, Creed, etc). THe point is, that when it came down to it, early Friends were prophets to the Church, they saw the hypocrisy and dead forms and sought to call the Church back to Christ. They defended themselves as "Christian" even if they did, as they Catholic Church says, "take every Christian heresy to its logical conclusion." We have self-corrected and over-corrected during the past 3 centuries. My hope is that in BYM, we can continue in the vein of experiential Christianity, without apology. Or, are is BYM really post-Christian, feeling we have "above and beyond" a "limiting religion" as has been said to some of us at Old Town?