Friends and Other Quakers

Identity as a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, is hard won. With no liturgy to speak of nor creed, I must work diligently to articulate my relationship to God, who I am as a Quaker, what I believe, and what is involved in my spiritual journey. In this struggle it becomes difficult to deal with others who say they are Quaker, yet are clearly different. If he claims to be a Christian and she doesn’t agree, what does that make her? If you pray aloud and I cannot, which of us is on the right path? It’s hard enough to reconcile programmed and unprogrammed Friends, evangelicals and liberals, but add layers of language and culture and we are all heading for our individual, safe holes in the ground. Is Light there?

Why is difference so threatening? What hinders our becoming one people? What can heal us?

When early humans first peered out of the cave, anything that looked different was dangerous. People were physiologically wired to run away from something huge and furry that walked on four legs and grinned with fangs. We no longer face saber-toothed tigers, but we are still wired to be suspicious of difference. Familiarity is security; the unfamiliar, by definition, is insecure.

More pertinent is our place in the family. We are children of God. Our chosen path, Quakerism, defines the family we belong to. Family is so much a part of who we are that if someone new appears who claims to be a member of our family, we again become children troubled by the birth of another baby. Are we being replaced? Do we need to change to remain lovable? What does it mean to be a member of this family? We have carried attitudes of sibling rivalry into adult life.

One device a child uses to alleviate the pain of this rivalry is to emphasize differences. If I choose to define myself by actions and beliefs that are opposite to that other person, we need not be compared. On the surface maybe both of us can win, but maybe both of us can lose. Secretly, each may cherish the idea we are right or superior. This keeps competition alive. And by emphasizing differences, by polarizing our personalities and refusing to admit we have anything in common, we cut ourselves off from parts of ourselves, our full potential.

When I go abroad among Friends, others put on me the label "Eastern Liberal Friend." I don’t know what that means. I attend an unprogrammed meeting, but I grew up in a liturgical church and have recovered an appreciation of those forms. When I study the continuum of beliefs that Fran and William Taber have constructed, I see that I move on it; I’m not always in the same place. I worship in silence and in song. In prayer sometimes I listen, sometimes use words, mine or others’. I may call upon Jesus for guidance or rant at that old man in the sky with the long, white beard, the Patriarch. Sometimes I experience God as a still, small voice, sometimes as wind, always as inexplicable. If a label is such an uncomfortable, indeed impossible, fit for me, how can labels fit others? If my spiritual life is not a monolithic thing, then there must be ways in which I coincide with others who seem at first glance to be different. Lables can define, but inevitably they limit both me and the other and what we could be together, something rich in diversity.

In addition to our fear of difference and need to be recognized as singular in the family, to be valued as particularly important, another thing that hinders us from accepting the richness of diversity among Friends is our habitual ways of thinking and knowing. The jury is still out on whether thinking determines language or language determines thought patterns. I tend toward the latter because English has gotten me into a lot of trouble. Our language is structured on an either-or basis. Almost any word has an opposite: up/down, in/out, happy/sad, right/wrong, Christian/non-Christian. Never the twain shall meet. Unlike Eastern thinkers, we do not deal much in middle positions such as both/and, together/with, or shades of gray. The word "gray" even carries connotations of murkiness and lack of clarity, bad things in our precise world.

When I first went to Japan, I had the strongest urge to speak French. As an English-speaking thinker, I was operating on the theory that I was in a foreign country, the only foreign language I know is French, therefore I should speak French. Actually, I had some sense this wouldn’t work, so I tried English. Here again either/or thinking held sway: I thought I should try English on people who looked non-Japanese. Well, answers like, "Habla Español?" and "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" foiled these attempts, but I hadn’t yet learned that Japanese people can also speak English. Finally, I found a person who did not look Japanese sweeping away dry leaves in a Zen garden. Very slowly, in carefully enunciated English, I asked, "Do . . . you . . . speak . . . English?" The young man leaned down and said equally clearly, "Nearly . . . as . . . well . . . as . . . you . . . do." Polarized thinking can keep us apart and lead us in circles.

Another problem with a Western way of thinking comes as a result of the scientific revolution. In the West we are taught that we can know something if we use the correct procedure, if we prove it by means of the scientific method. But there is inherent in the scientific method the idea of hypothesis, a guess as to what may be true. You test an idea by using your senses to evaluate the hypothesis. If many observations support the original idea, you say something is true. For now. But science keeps changing its ideas about the nature of the universe. Repeated experimentation, better information from advances in technology, and insights that come to people in the middle of the night all modify "truth."

Unfortunately, many in our culture assume that the scientific method is the only way something can be proven to be true, that other so-called ways of knowing are lesser or completely wrong. My high school geometry teacher used that word. Often. In mathematics there may be only one right answer, but there are other ways of knowing. Today that statement is heretical, but before the scientific revolution people not only believed it, but experienced it. In fact many people experience other ways of knowing today. We exist much of the time beyond the realm of reason, outside the so-called proofs of the scientific method. I am nurtured by love. I am transported to joy by the intricacies and beauties of nature. I know the presence of my late husband at our daughter’s wedding. Friends in meeting sense the presence of God. These things cannot be proven by any rational system. But reason is not our only sense. Madeleine L’Engle says, "Our understanding (of Jesus and God) will not come in ordinary mathematical proofs or equations, but in flashes of the reality of love."

So much for geometry.

Quakerism itself can heal our divisions. We can be one people by knowing our history, whole-heartedly entering the experience of other Friends and trusting that experience, by being faithful to our calling to be Friends of Truth.

The middle of the 17th century was a time of great zeal and religious seriousness in England. In most of the country, villages were dominated by two forces, secular power through the lord of the manor and religious orthodoxy through the clergy in the parish church. Things were different in the northwestern part of the country. One clergyman served many churches, so there were fewer to stamp out radicalism. There were fewer resident landowners; small farmers saw themselves as free people and free thinkers. Many in Westmoreland stopped attending church, started meeting in homes with their own preachers, and often worshiped in silence. They called themselves Seekers.

By 1652, George Fox had been a traveling preacher for several years. On Pendle Hill, he received from God a clear sense of direction and mission. It brought him to the Westmoreland Seekers. He went first to Brigflatts, where people were interested in his message, but slightly alarmed by his unorthodox, that is zealous, behavior. Richard Robinson, the local blacksmith, agreed to provide George Fox a bed for the night, but locked him in the room just to be on the safe side. On nearby Firbank Fell, Fox preached that Christ’s Spirit was available to all and that if people allowed themselves to be led by that Spirit, a new world of peace and righteousness would ensue. Many were convinced that day, recognizing the word of God and receiving it with joy and amazement. A large number of ministers emerged from this gathering. Fox then traveled farther west where he met Margaret and Thomas Fell. Their home, Swarthmore Hall, became the base of the Quaker mission.

In 14 years, Quakerism grew from zero to ten percent of the population of England. Francis Howgill has described the spiritual experience of those times (1672): "The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net. . . . We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us. . . . And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be people for His praise in our generation."

As Friends we are called to open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit so that we, too, can be changed. Our legacy is to know God’s Spirit alive as a flame in our hearts. Our legacy is to be so transformed that the practices of every day are translucent, the love of God shining through. Our membership in the family is not a matter of language or liturgy, but of living, of acting in that Spirit. Led by the Spirit we can become fully mature. Being centered in God enables us to create space in our hearts for others, to recognize the voice of God in them. Where there is charity and steadfast love, God dwells.

At an international gathering of Friends, my roommate was a woman from Northwest Yearly Meeting. We seemed to be from opposite ends of the Quaker continuum, evangelical and liberal, but both of us had had enough experience with consultation among Friends that we were prepared to talk with each other. And talk we did, especially about theology and life as a spiritual journey. Many times we did not agree. I might say to her, "What do you think about homosexuality?" and she would say, "Oh, that’s something I’m holding lightly.” She might say to me: "What do you think about salvation?" and I would say, "Oh, that’s something I’m holding lightly." One day we were discussing spiritual nurture, and she said, "When we are working with someone, we often pray aloud for them." I felt a chill. I had to say that was foreign to me, it was a sticking point. I could pray silently with someone, but not aloud. I couldn’t even say I was holding the idea lightly.

Later in the week a group of us was planning a meeting for worship. A woman from India, not a Quaker, offered to say a prayer in Hindi, then translate it into English. She wanted very much to do this, and we wanted her to, but she was terrified about how it might be received. She started to cry. As was my custom, I put an arm around her and began to pray silently. After a while, a man from Northwest Yearly Meeting started to pray aloud. He asked for the comfort of God’s presence, for the strength to do our work. Then the presence of the Holy Spirit was with us. My heart moved. I felt opened to the possibility of my praying aloud. Our Indian friend was calmed, and we were able to continue our work. Reason does not explain this, love does.

Just as we try to read the Bible in the same Light in which it was written, so we must try to listen to others. During gatherings of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, meetings for business are held in Spanish and English. In meetings for worship, often someone rises with a speaker to translate. Sometimes a translator does not feel moved to do this, but we feel where the words come from. The power of the Holy Spirit grants understanding.

A Friend from the United States tells of such an occurrence when an Aymara Indian from Latin America was speaking. No one rose to translate the message. While walking home from the meeting, her Korean roommate said, "How is it that an Aymara Indian can speak Korean?"

Quakerism requires faithfulness, faithfulness to the call to express the Inexpressible, faithfulness in listening to God expressed by others. When we speak, when we act, we need to stay as close as possible to the living experience of Christ’s Spirit, trusting that God will shine through. Friends believe in that of God in every person. Acting on this belief can bring forth God in us and in others. We can be who we are truly meant to be, individually and as a people gathered for God’s praise in our generation.

Sally Miller

Sally Miller, a member of Syracuse (N.Y.) Meeting, was a representative from New York Yearly Meeting to Friends World Committee for Consultation for 12 years, after which she was co-opted for 3.