Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Before continuing reading this article, go to this youtube video. I've been a fan of The Onion News Network for a while now, they really do provide some good social and political satire. I do really love satire, because it is a superficial untruth that speaks to a deeper truth. Okay, so now that you've had a good laugh, go to the last few seconds of the video, and watch the news ticker at the bottom. It says: “New videotape from Quaker extremists hints at plan to befriend thousands.” This little satirical blub gives me two thoughts, 1) wow, this says a lot about our current collective state of affairs, that any group of Friends who would aim at increasing our meetings by thousands would be considered extremists. And 2) wow, does anyone know the name and phone number of this extremist group, so I can join it?
I was recently on a hiking trip in southern Utah with my uncle, and also down there were two friends of his, an older, but recently married couple. While on a hike with this couple we were discussing the Mormon religion in general, when I disclosed that I had once had a romantic relationship with a Mormon woman, but that one of the factors in the ending of the relationship was the incompatibility of our religious beliefs. So of course he asked if I was religious, and I informed him that I was a Quaker. “So what do Quakers believe” he asked me, and so I gave him a 2 minute synopsis of the belief of the divine in everyone, the mystical component of direct spiritual experience being primary, and of the simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality testimonies. His reply - “Well, I guess I would be a Quaker then.” So then that same evening, when my uncle returned from his hiking trip, he flat out told my uncle that he learned today that he was a Quaker. What was also interesting about this situation was that he had grown up in New Jersey, had been to Pennsylvania many times, and had heard about the unprogrammed manner of worship during his childhood. And yet it was in Utah of all places, and from a Utah Quaker who is likely young enough to be his son, that he first heard about the fundamental beliefs of our faith. By coincidence (or perhaps not?) I had brought with me 2 pamphlets I had printed out from the Pendle Hill website for my own reading, and he gladly accepted them.
This experience was sort of a “coming out of the Quaker closet” experience for me. I've been going to meeting only for about two and a half years, and a member of my meeting for a little less than a year. My parents know I'm a Quaker, as well as some of my friends and closer coworkers. But many people who know me do not know of my faith, including even my own brother. I've always felt somewhat awkward just bringing it up in conversation, I don't know that most people really know how to respond to someone saying “hey, guess what, I'm a Quaker”. And yet talking about it gave me this wonderful feeling of personal authenticity, that others now really know much more about who I really am, and that I can be comfortable expressing this very important aspect of myself.
It was encouraging to know that others would be interested in being a member of our society. But we are not very good at letting others know what we are about. This man I was hiking with only found out that he was a Quaker by a chance encounter, and a chance conversation. Personally, I had to really work to find Quakerism. When I moved to Salt Lake City from Washington State, I had a fairly good idea what I believed, but I had little hope that there was any group or church that could really match where I was, and my spiritual needs. So many churches are prescriptive in their beliefs, and you pretty much have to buy into the whole complex belief system and rituals to really be a full member. Spiritual doubt and questioning are generally not encouraged. I did attend a Unitarian Universalist church for about 2 years, and although I was initially impressed with it, soon I became disenchanted, and I now understand why: it had the exterior religious shell, but I felt like there was no spiritual substance inside. I really had no idea what this church believed in, and it usually felt devoid of anything truly religious or spiritual. Once I stopped going to this church, I began searching for other places that were more fitting. By chance, I came across the Wikipedia article about the society of friends, and was instantly impressed, and I knew that this was something that I could truly believe in, and something that could really meet my spiritual needs. I thought to myself “I've been a Quaker for a while now, I just didn't know it”! So I searched to see if there were any meetings in Salt Lake City, but for some reason I did not find it the first time, and it was a year later that I searched for it again that I found the Salt Lake Monthly Meeting. Going to my first meeting was not easy either, I did not know anyone there, and I felt my own insecurities coming out.
Few people will find us by the method I did. So in what other ways would people find us? The method by which my uncle's friend came to know about us is perhaps a little more likely, but not enough to make a huge difference in our ability to attract new members. Jesus encourages us not to hide the light of Truth under a bushel, but to put it instead on the lightstand, so that it can give illumination to others. But I just had a realization as I was writing this, that Jesus does not say that we should force this light upon others or follow others around with our lanterns, he just wants us to make the light of Truth easily accessible for those who seek it. I do not like to be proselytized, and I feel very strongly that we should not proselytize others. However, from my psychological background, I have doubts that this aversion to proselytization is the only source of our reluctance to tell others what we believe, to share our message. Are we afraid of exposing our beliefs to others, because we might be criticized or rejected? I know that this is true to some degree for myself, and I have little doubt that this is true for many Friends in general.
And so I am beginning a journey here. I've been thinking a lot about the decline in membership in most monthly meetings and friends churches. I had been planning on bringing up the issue of outreach at an upcoming meeting for business. However, during a recent ministry and counsel committee meeting, one of the two other members brought up the subject himself, (again, a coincidence?) and within 20 minutes, we had begun laying out the groundwork for some exciting outreach opportunities. A substantial portion of our next Ministry and Counsel Committee meeting will be dedicated to this topic. I am very excited indeed, and I hope to be able to write more on these outreach efforts.
We have a wonderful message, there is a fullness in it which is difficult to describe. Let us share this religious and spiritual aspect of ourselves, and how we have gotten so much out of it. Let us share not to force ourselves onto others, but to provide others an experience of an essential part of who we are as a person and a people, so that others may know us for who we truly are, and therefore create true community with the other people who we are close to. For when we share fully of ourselves, others will likely respond in kind. Let us share to give others the opportunity to partake in this wonderful way of life, if they wish to do so. For ours is not the only way to a truly spiritual life, but it is a wondrous way indeed. And now, there is nothing more to say than this