Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
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.