Why Am I a Friend and What’s It To You?

I became a Quaker in the mid-1970s, joining Germantown Friends Meeting. Hardly a week has gone by since that I haven’t wondered why I was a Friend. I wonder what that means to me, and I wonder how that may (or may not) come across to others.

It’s odd being a Quaker; people view you as odd if you are one. For myself, I’ve never particularly wanted either the weirdness that some attach to Quakers nor the honorific that others attach. For more than a decade before joining I struggled with the declaration I’d be making to others in joining Friends.  I wanted to be a Quaker for myself, in my own understanding, if I were going to be one, not a Quaker in anyone else’s understanding.  I probably wouldn’t answer the question Why Am I a Friend the same way today as I did then, but four decades later, why am I still a Friend?

For me, a shorthand answer is that being a Friend is an orientation, a discipline, and a set of commitments all of which help me on a daily basis live as I believe I ought. 

I grew up a member of a very nice Presbyterian Church. In my teens I found myself wondering whether it was right that I should be a Presbyterian when so many people weren’t: they were Methodists or Episcopalians or Catholics or Jews. It seemed like being a Presbyterian – or any of those other things – meant subscribing to a specific set of beliefs. Each Sunday, somewhere in the service, we would collectively recite some statement of those shared beliefs – the Nicene Creed, for example.

I drew away from this growing-up affiliation as it increasingly troubled me that no, I didn’t in fact truly believe all those things I was asked to say via the creedal statements. I was also troubled at the suggestion that what God had to say to us had been said many centuries ago; that we had heard all we were going to hear through the Bible.  I don’t know that anyone actually told me that or even meant to imply that, but it certainly is what I came to think I was asked to believe. And that just didn’t make sense. 

I encountered Quakers by accident at Haverford College. I don’t remember anyone making much of an effort to explain to me who Friends were or what they believed, but I was required to go to Meeting for Worship a few Fifth Days each semester. They were hardly the best of Meetings (most of us were restive about the requirement to attend) but I did learn that Quakers were pacifists. Gradually I came to think that I was one, too, and so began my period of fellow-travelling. 

I learned that most Friends were seekers: that Friends did not have a creed and would not ask you to subscribe to a specific set of beliefs. No one would ask you to speak words that were not yours.  Gradually I also came to understand that Friends were confident that God would still speak to us today: would speak to all who stilled themselves and listened. These two, being a seeker and having confidence that God will speak to me today, are what I mean by an orientation. It’s an unusual (not unique) orientation that Friends have. They are important to me because I feel like I need God’s guidance, but that guidance is hardly something that feels finished. 

This orientation made sense to me of Friends’ unusual waiting worship, the gathering together in stillness and speaking if and when one feels moved to speak. I came to realize that waiting worship was for me a spiritual discipline that was especially useful for me.  I needed some active way to turn myself toward God. I needed a regular practice that worked for me. Waiting worship is, for me, a spiritual discipline that works.

I suspect that everyone needs God’s presence and needs to have a spiritual discipline that helps them tune in to what God is saying.  (Do I know that? No, but I don’t really know what it’s like to be anyone else.) In finding a spiritual discipline for me in the ways of Friends, I also came to the realization that there are a great many spiritual disciplines, and that people differ in what works for them. For several years I had a secretary who was an observant Roman Catholic. A few times she took me to Mass at a church that still celebrated the Mass in Latin. I could sense that there was something holy and wonderful in the celebration, but I also knew it wasn’t a spiritual discipline for me, or at least not on a regular basis. Today it seems entirely right to me that there are quite a number of different denominations, even religions. People are different; the various churches present us with an array of spiritual disciplines. Each of these disciplines is a possible pathway to hearing God.

Another aspect of the orientation of Friends is a sense that if you know what God asks of you then you should do it. Belief leads – should lead – to action. If we believe that God loves everyone and asks us to love everyone as well, that should guide our daily lives. If God asks us to be peacemakers, if God asks us to live with integrity, then we should do our best to follow these leadings. That’s what I mean by commitments: what Friends call testimonies. I need to (try to) let my life speak.    

An orientation, a discipline, a set of commitments that grow out of this orientation and the discipline that arises from it: these are why I am a Friend. What’s it to you? Simply an invitation: does this orientation make sense to you? Does this discipline work for you? Do you feel led to undertake these commitments?

Also posted on River View Friend.

Views: 447

Comment by Keith Saylor on 6th mo. 4, 2014 at 12:22pm
Hello Doug,

These words from your piece stirred inside me:

"These two, being a seeker and having confidence that God will speak to me today, are what I mean by an orientation."

Are you willing expound on what you mean by, that is, what is it about the term "seeker" that you identify with. Also, specifically, how does God speak to you?

I'm not asking as one wishing your advice on how I may become a seeker and how I may hesr the voice of God. I'm interested in how you are a seeker an how you hear the voice of God.


Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 4, 2014 at 3:52pm

Thanks for the questions, Keith.  Asked what he believed, someone once said “everything I can.” I’d say the same thing. On the one hand I have a deep, unshakeable conviction that there is a truth to be known and a goodness to be pursued, but on the other I find statements of truth and rules for goodness to be shallow and unreliable. What we might know and what we should do seem always beyond human grasp, and yet recognizing this does not lessen my sense that I should try to know what is true and what God asks of me. That is the sense in which I am a seeker. The quest seems essential even if I know the fruits will never seem nearly enough. 

I don’t quite know how I hear God. I can only say that in the stillness of prayer and gathered worship, matters that were unclear or troubling sometimes become clearer. And once that clarity emerges, I am much more at peace with myself and with others, and more surefooted.  

Comment by Jay Thatcher on 6th mo. 8, 2014 at 8:24pm

The relationship with my meeting is important to me.  I discover Truth through being part of that group of Friends.  When I became a member, a lot of the motivation was about that relationship. 

Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 9, 2014 at 10:46am

That's true for me, too, Jay, and thanks for mentioning this.  An important aspect of waiting worship as a spiritual practice for me is the gathering with others. Worshipping with others deepens the experience for me immeasurably. It not only changes the worship experience itself, it radiates out to strengthen the connections I have with others in the meeting. I feel like I'm pulled forward by my connections with others in the meeting when I'm in a good relationship with my meeting.  (And when that relationship isn't so strong, I feel the lack of it.)

Comment by Tom Gottshalk on 6th mo. 17, 2014 at 11:28am

How I became a Friend seems easier to know than why. My short answer to why is: I became a Friend because I gave in to my love of God. That appears short and simple but I arrived at the point of giving in after a life time of ambiguity which was necessarily complicated and convoluted. I say necessarily because that is the wanderer, or as mentioned above, the seeker in me. I had to go through that process to understand I had a true spiritual self. At that point I had to decide what to do with my spirituality. My story of how I became a Friend begins there with a new sense of my spiritual reality.

I was familiar with Quakers growing up in Philadelphia. I did some research and found an unprogramed  meeting in Orlando, FL. I became an attender then a member and I have since been seeking greater understanding and growth of my spirit. The seeking part has become more difficult the longer I worship and the more I am with friends. Sometimes it is as if bright lights are turned on after being in the dark for a long time. I recoil and retreat as if I have seen too much for my limited ability to understand. Then my spirit sinks and I feel lost in the fields of weeds that I pushed through before. It is when I sit and become still and silent on First Day with Friends I have a chance of resurfacing especially after one of them provides a message.

I think my story is not unlike many Quakers I talked to. It seems to me many Quakers begin seeking Quakerism long before they find it or perhaps it finds them. I think that is a real possibility. One of the most fruitful questions asked in a meeting was, how does God speak to you?  The answers to that question has come to me like pieces of a mosaic creating a picture. God speaks to me through all of my senses, through my heart, and through my brain. God can be understood in every language on earth and I believe by every living creature through out the cosmos. Perhaps what is not so well understood is how do we find our humanity loving God and with God's love for us? Among the things I am seeking is my humanity and the humanity of the rest of us.     

Comment by Doug Bennett on 6th mo. 18, 2014 at 8:58am

Thanks, Tom, for your story. I especially liked this: "It seems to me many Quakers begin seeking Quakerism long before they find it or perhaps it finds them."


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