I am embarrassed but glad to confess that for many years now, a watchword for me has been the title of James Nayler’s paper of confession and explanation: To the Life of God In All. For me this encapsulates how we are to live together: to anchor our considerations, words, and deeds in that life and to speak and act so as to engage with that life in others. This is a beautiful and challenging conception of human life, so I am glad to confess it as my motto but I am very much aware that on a daily basis I have failed to live in that life consistently — hence the embarrassment. But when I was asked to join this panel and “to share your spiritual, emotional journey with Friends United Meeting and our relationship with FUM,” it was the first thing that came to mind.
The second thing I realized is that I felt perplexed and intrigued because no one has ever asked me a question like that with reference to FUM. Now, whenever I am feeling perplexed about something, I always reach for a primer: What are the foundation principles that apply here? Asking about the role of FUM is not the most basic question, from my point of view. The most basic question is this: In this Society, what are we about? We are called to holiness.
I have come to understand this difficult idea as the invitation, and perhaps imperative, to live wholly available to and at the disposal of, the divine Life, whose being is both truth and love. Though that is the central goal, it is not always clear how next to move towards it or re-orient to it after a time of wandering and distraction. To allow that Life to shape any particular situation very often requires growth and change—which is frustrating to wait for, sometimes, and joyous to experience when at last it comes.
I was led to Friends from my childhood religion; driven with no clear destination and like Abraham’s father, Terah, led by God out of Ur but with no promised land ahead. I found among you the freedom to move towards this goal in a way that allowed maximum coherence and truthfulness to my condition. I also found the Quaker understanding of how to live the Gospel to be both inspiring and difficult to the highest degree, and the freedom it offers means that I am free to fail in any way that suits me.
It took me a while to realize that I was overlooking one important implication of being led to a spiritual community, which is this: you have to be in community because that’s how you learn about love and about truth and how you come to understand the ways in which you do and do not embody them.
Entering a spiritual community means joining your spiritual life to that of the other members of the community. In Christian language, this means becoming a member of the body of Christ, with Christ as the head and fountainhead. Can the head say to the foot, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21)? The deeper we go in this life, the more it becomes clear that my welfare and yours are bound up together. (I am the vine, you are the branches [John 15:5]). And so we must seek ever and again to stand in the divine Life, if our goal is to dwell faithful to the Life of God in all, to speak in our various tongues, and to undertake our witnesses for the building up of the whole body.
It is tempting, but not wise, to see community as the destination of our search. Our religious society has emerged, under God’s guidance, we believe, as an aid to help us stay oriented to the calling to holiness, to nurture our learning and persistence towards the goal, and to give each other comfort and encouragement with our reports of progress along the way.
So I think the better way to view our community is as a pathway, which provides footing, guidance, and some help with orientation. It also helps with examples of people who have more experience on the trail than I and people who are moving at different speeds, and some stepping off the path, some going backwards, some crashing through the undergrowth to leap onto the path and join the throng. But we don’t just share the path, all walking along as individuals, because in some important ways we are becoming one, in a way that transforms and renews our individual selves.
Humans are tool-using creatures. Sometimes we create new tools to solve problems we hadn’t recognized before, so institutions and systems proliferate.
Spiritually speaking, the problem with this aspect of human nature is that we are always falling, often unwittingly, into idolatry: into giving more reverence to the tools, without which we cannot operate in the world, than to the Life in, through, and from which we are striving to act and grow. We can idolize our tribe, our favorite stories, a particular practice, and forget that tools are a means but that ultimately they are not the goal.
It is truthful to recognize this, but it requires love as well as truth (both in their active forms) to free ourselves from too great a dependence on our forms and structures.
So now I am ready to come to the subject of FUM. FUM and Friends General Conference are tools developed long ago to meet certain needs and revised from time to time as needs and understandings have changed.
There are a lot of things about the stream of history that led from the separations of the nineteenth century through all the years to our present time, that seem to me regrettable, and they have resulted in conditions and practices in both of these groupings of Friends which I feel oppress the life of God or distract from our response to it. As so often with our best attempts at faithfulness, some blessing comes, but not unmixed: perhaps most of all, we suffer from the human inability to foresee the full consequences of our choices.
There are times when I just want to walk away from all the strife and contention. Despite my great love for this yearly meeting, the struggles about FUM (and the struggles we are neglecting, including some relating to FGC) make me want to say “Enough already, with all these committees and commitments and definitions, and this Society, such a cracked vessel to hold the Spirit in!” But then I come to the spirit in which Erasmus (confronting the divided and corrupted religious society of the Renaissance) said, “I must stay with this church until I find a better one, and the church must put up with me until I am a better person.” I am not free of the leading that brought me here, to Friends.
So then the task for me is to inhabit my spiritual family so as to forward everyone’s growth in holiness, in availability to the Holy Spirit. This means putting everything to the test of love as well as truth. Because “love” can be pretty vague, I feel the need to reach for a statement that requires more presence of mind and more honesty: Inasmuch as you do something to the least of these my brethren, you do it to me (Matt. 25:40).
It seems to me that if we are centered in love, then any acts driven by a disturbance of conscience, or new perception of truth, can be done in a way that reaches to the life of our Friends, and it must be done so. Finding the way to do that can take a long time, often leaving us in perplexity, where we can only voice, or pray, our un-ease. But we are told that the tender, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the ones who long for righteousness, who mourn, who wash their friends’ feet—these are the blessed, not the ones with all the answers. Love is rigorous because we must be prepared to live it, and new occasions require new preparation.
As I was thinking about this event, my attention was drawn to the diagram or algorithm for appropriate speaking printed in our yearly meeting advance documents, which takes us through various paths of discernment, and at many points says “Return to Center.”
What is in the Center? It’s not just an empty circle, a place of nothingness. There is a spirit there but not just any spirit. It is the Spirit of the God who sends the sun and rain on the just and the unjust, whose law is summarized in love of God with one’s whole being, and of one’s neighbor as oneself.
The Center is also filled with fire, light, and the stream of divine life, which is like a stream of nourishing and cleansing water. Here again we find that love and light can be rigorous in their demands. For example, try this as a discipline for a few months: if you go to the temple (meeting) and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your offering at the altar (turn back before getting to meeting) and be reconciled with your brother or sister; then return to worship and offer your gift.
We may think that we are returning to the Center, but it’s good to ask ourselves: Is our worship bringing us to a place in which impurities are named and burned away, certainties transformed, and everything dissolved and reassembled by the action of love? If so, then little by little, poco a poco, we are renewed, a little more free, a little more able to speak to the Life of God in all. If not, we have not come to the true worship, the Center of dynamic and turbulent peace. Sometimes, Friends, that is the center we have spoken from, but often it has not been. So we have more work to do.