Shake before Opening

Most of us experience an internal struggle before participating in vocal ministry. The shy child within us can hold us back. I have the opposite problem. My child is much too eager, like a student who calls out to the teacher to be chosen before being sure that the answer is ready.

For this reason, I was particularly cautious when I sensed a leading to carry a message beyond my own meeting community. At first, my caution prevailed, but the leading grew into an urging that would not let me go. At times it seemed insistent, even impatient. It is odd that at times like this we will debate with our Caller. My argument to myself was that this sort of thing requires a clearness committee. I might have had a point, if I had actually requested such a committee. But I did not, and the urging continued and strengthened, until I found myself visiting meetings without the discernment of other Friends. I had even established a monthly visiting routine by the time I requested a committee, and several months had passed before we finally gathered.

Our meeting is very small, so the size of my clearness committee reflected this. Only two Friends were available to help discern if my calling was true. Yet I found their wisdom compelling. They saw some authenticity in the fact that the urging had continued over a long period of time. After silent consideration, the committee felt it right that I should continue in my travels. It was then that a member of the committee did what is obvious in hindsight. He grabbed a copy of Faith and Practice and looked up the procedure for traveling in the ministry. I still hesitate to use this label for my visits. Our heritage is rich with traveling ministers: John Woolman, Elias Hicks, and, of course, George Fox. For many years a significant population of traveling ministers helped our Religious Society along its spiritual path. It does not seem right to consider myself part of this legacy. But it did seem appropriate to consult what is still called our "Book of Christian Discipline." In it, we found that a traveling minute should be drawn up and considered for approval by the meeting. This would be presented to the clerk or other appropriate Friend at the meeting visited. It was also advised that a companion travel with me. I have been blessed with three Friends who have taken turns accompanying me in my visits to meetings in the Philadelphia area.

To understand the message that I feel I am to share, it is best to understand my spiritual path. I grew up in Woodbury (N.J.) Meeting in Salem Quarter. It is odd to remember those years as a young Quaker. I knew that my "church" was unusual. I knew that other places of worship had fancy trimmings such as stained glass windows. I knew that church buildings would have a cross or crucifix placed in a central location. But my parents explained to me that just because there was no cross in our meetinghouse, it did not mean that Christ was not present in our midst. This was typical of the environment of my youth. We did not frequently speak of Jesus, or Christ. But our Christian roots were evident, even to children. My father taught me First-day school and tried to get me to memorize the names of the books of the Bible. He also read me stories from Scripture and offered a critical eye while doing so. Above all, continuing revelation was emphasized, and I was urged to listen in the silence for that "still, small voice" and be ready to hear the voice of God through vocal ministry.

I must say that I was proud of being a Quaker. This pride only grew during the Vietnam era. I felt I was part of one of the few denominations that was not schizophrenic with respect to war. We did not have to reconcile God and country. Christian solders were not to join an army of violence. It was clear that God wanted us to love our enemies and do good to those who hated us. And, of course, in those days peace was fashionable! Unfortunately, as the years went by the word "peace" was used more and the word Christ less. I must admit that I did not notice the change.

In my late 20s, I met the woman who would be my partner in life. I am ever thankful that Penny felt ready to attend meeting with me, and we became a regular pair at Woodbury. Like many new to Quakerism, Penny had many questions. Chief among them was the role that Christ played in our religion. I felt comfortable in assuring her that while not all Friends were Christocentric, deeply committed Christians played a key role in the life of the meeting. I did not realize it at the time, but this applied more to the meeting of my youth than the community that welcomed her in the late 1970s. Although she became involved, at times she also felt a disconnect. More often than not, when someone invoked the name Christ, it was to proclaim loudly that he was not divine, but just a man. This gave Penny a sense that Friends would not be so welcoming if they knew what was in her heart.

Fortunately, this disconnect played little role in our deepening love, and in 1981 we were married under the care of the meeting. The meeting was good to us, and our family grew alongside several other young families. In time, Penny felt it right to join, and she was accepted into membership. Our two sons grew up in the meeting.

Looking back, I see this period in my life as spiritually calm. I felt I understood my relationship to God. Worshiping each week in the meeting that I was born into was a central part of that relationship. I had little doubt that I would stay there my whole life and be buried with my father and grandmother in the Woodbury Meeting graveyard.

Recently, Penny had prepared for me a breakfast to eat in the car on my way to work. Driving down the road I glanced at the small bottle of orange juice she had included. Some sediment had settled to the bottom. There were instructions printed on the bottle that said, "Shake before opening." After 40 years of living in South Jersey, my life was to be shaken.

During the late ’80s and early ’90s "corporate America" was experiencing a wave of buyouts and consolidations. For many years the company I worked for had its corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh. In 1993 I was informed that my job was moving to the corporate center. I was invited to join it. The economy was such that I dared not decline. In Eighth Month Penny and I, our two small sons, and two dogs left our small South Jersey farmhouse for a suburban development north of Pittsburgh.

The obvious meeting for us to attend was Pittsburgh Meeting. For about half a year we did just that. Pittsburgh is an excellent meeting, but a few things prevented us from making a connection. The location in the city seemed awkward for our family. Parking was not easy, especially in the snow. The meeting was very large, and our kids seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Some Friends were impressed when our youngest preferred to stay with us through meeting for worship rather than participate in First-day school. Little did they know that it was not the Silence that drew him, but the hubbub of the class that frightened him. And Penny’s struggle with her Quaker identity did not improve. If anything, Pittsburgh seemed less inviting to a Friend with a Christian point of view.

For these reasons, a search began for other meetings. After a few phone calls Middleton Meeting in Columbiana, Ohio, was suggested. Middleton is a part of Ohio (Conservative) Yearly Meeting and was quite a distance away. I must admit that I was a little hesitant. I knew that this yearly meeting was firmly Christian. To me, that meant narrow-mindedness and proselytizing. I agreed to go, but inside I was readying myself with a host of arguments to rebuff the onslaught that was sure to come.

For some reason, I have little memory of the first time we walked into the Middleton meetinghouse. I know that we were greeted by many warm smiles and that we presented a letter of introduction to the clerk. But this is not an unusual experience among Friends. I do remember how easily a silence formed when worship began. This silence was deeply comforting and homelike. In that worship I felt myself drawn to Paul’s essay on Love in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. I do not remember if I had brought my Bible, or if there was one on the bench beside me. But I found myself standing and reading that essay. These words from Scripture settled easily into the meeting, and I was comfortable that I had done as I was supposed to do. However, I was slightly taken aback when an elderly Friend knelt and prayed soon after the reading. The prayer was heartfelt, the speaker was almost in tears. His prayer carried me and the meeting before the Almighty. We became a gathered meeting.

The welcoming atmosphere did not dissipate as we continued to attend Middleton. Meeting for worship never failed to ease into a deep and powerful silence. I felt a strength in worship that I had not felt since childhood. I had not noticed that it was missing. This is not to suggest that worship in Middleton is superior to worship elsewhere. But it spoke to my condition in a way that I could not have predicted, and still do not understand.

One First Day I felt that I should speak out of the Silence. It seemed I was asked to point out that while we can wander away from God, God does not leave us. I realized before I stood that I might confess that I am one of those who wanders. But when I came to that moment of confession, I found myself racked with sobs and could barely speak the words. At the rise of that meeting, the old and wrinkled farmer sitting next to me did not shake my hand, but embraced me.

It is not surprising that First-day school was held with a firm Christian perspective, but all the arguments I had prepared to defend my understanding of God were never used. Instead, it was I that turned. Eventually I came to an understanding that the best way for me to be close to God was to worship in the name of Christ. Ironically, all those old arguments still lie in my head. I can easily recall them and explain why worshiping in anyone’s name is imposing preconceived notions on God. Nevertheless, I have found Christ at the center. Cerebral arguments are not helpful.

My spiritual life deepened and I came to other truths. Understanding that Christ was and is divine was a powerful tool. If the Spirit of Love were to take fleshly form and walk among us, would it not call us to love our neighbor and our enemy, to do good to those who hate us and spitefully use us? Would it not heal us, and remind us of God’s love? Would we not be invited into the Kingdom of God? And if this Word of God were publicly humiliated and put to death, would it not arise? In my heart, I know that that Love could pass through this trial and resurrect. I have found it most profitable to embrace a history that actually saw this event.

Part of me still finds it unreal that I would publicly declare myself to be Christian. My deepest understandings have been shaken. But the shaking was followed by opening.

While my spiritual life was in full blossom, I was fairly unhappy at work. In the late 1990s the economic picture improved, and a new position was offered to me in the Philadelphia area. It was difficult to uproot the family again, but my discomfort with my job was very great. Penny was concerned about moving away from the place that had been such an asset to our spiritual lives. There was also a fear that (despite the best of intentions) the atmosphere in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is not always conducive to Friends with a Christian understanding of God. But we stepped out in faith. We searched for a new home in a good school district. The choice of a monthly meeting was not a factor as we looked. There are times when the hand of God is hard to ignore. We ended up in a house half a mile from Marlborough (Pa.) Meeting. Marlborough is known for its beautiful setting in Chester County. But its spiritual orientation also reminds one more of Ohio Conservative than Philadelphia.

It was after we had moved back to the Delaware Valley that Penny and I heard another calling. The overwhelming majority of Ohio Conservative Friends have laid aside plain dress. Yet there are still a few who believe that their clothing should reflect the simplicity of Quaker gray. Our journey to plain dress is a story unto itself. But the fact is that this is now our condition.

The Christocentric approach has been a tremendous asset to my spiritual life. It seems unlikely that I would have found this path outside of Ohio Conservative. It might have been possible in the meeting of my youth, but the current state of the Religious Society does not encourage this view of God. It is not unreasonable to think that others could profit from the inward Christ as I have. I feel led to do what I can to make the way easy for these Friends. But I fear that I will be misunderstood in the process. I fear that the message I have been given to share will be confused with any number of Protestant views of Christianity.

Like George Fox, my understanding of Christ is one I have come to experientially. It stands in stark contrast to the theological representations of Jesus held by organized religions. More importantly I am not called to share my understanding of Christ. Rather, I feel called to remind Friends to sweep away preconceived notions before seeking. We should lay aside both the notions of who God is and notions of who God is not. It is true that we should plunge into the spiritual depths without carrying any words with us. But we should not fear any words that are given to us in those depths.

Our spiritual communities must be supportive of all messages that come out of that experience. Too often we become defensive when we hear the words "Christ Jesus" in vocal ministry. At times these words are tolerated, but if the speaker holds up the Spirit of Christ to be "the way, the truth, and the life," then the tolerance can shift to prejudice. Ironically it is just this sort of prejudice that Friends have historically worked to prevent.

I try to set aside every third First Day of the month for travel. As the appointed day approaches, I often feel the burden of leaving the security of my own community. But each visit has been a fantastic experience. I must admit that there have been several times when my fears of prejudice appeared justified. There have been occasions when a Friend has felt it necessary to labor with me over a message. Fortunately, the overwhelming number of times I have been warmly welcomed. But the real treasure that I have discovered is a vast diversity of Quaker communities. All have so much in common, yet each is quite distinctive. I have felt a real depth of worship in many places and experienced more gathered meetings than I ever expected.

I am not absolutely certain how many meetings I have visited. I started before my clearness committee met and before a traveling minute had been prepared. It is almost comical with hindsight, but there was a time when I left a copy of my minute with each meeting I visited. This was before I realized that the accepted practice is for the meeting to endorse the minute, if they feel it right. The result is that the number of endorsements on my minute has little connection to the number of my visits. I have been given advice to keep a journal of my travels. This I have tried to do. Reviewing my journal, I would say that I have worshiped with more than 25 different meetings.

My journal bears little resemblance to the traditional journal of a traveling Friend. One difference is that I have fallen into the habit of trying to remember and record what I have been given to say. I understand that early Friends were loath to do this. A message from God is one that should be heard in the experience of worship. However, a few Friends whom I deeply respect record their messages, and I have followed suit. Obviously more than a few words are lost between the time of worship and the time I am able to sit down to try to recollect them. But I have found the experience worthwhile.

It has occurred to me that a reader of this article might be interested in one such message. On Fifth Month 15 last year I visited Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia. It was a particularly powerful experience. Germantown is a large meeting. I would not have guessed that a meeting of that size could be so spiritually led. There was a lot going on, and many messages. Yet the movement of the Spirit was evident to me. I must admit that one Friend was so uncomfortable with my message that she labored mightily with me at the rise of meeting. Even so, I count it as one of my most memorable and positive visits. The following is what I understand God was to have me say:

Friends, I have a concern that I would like to lay before you today. I hope the tone does not seem harsh, for believe me when I say that it is a concern born of Love.

Now, would you say that many or most, or perhaps even all of the Friends gathered in this room today would be ready at a moment’s notice to publicly stand and declare for the way of peace? And we would do this, even though, by doing so we might be considered traitors in our own country. We would do this because we know that speaking truth to power is the very essence of U.S. patriotism.

But here I think that I have discovered a rather odd thing. For while we have the courage to risk being mistaken for traitors and cowards, for some reason we hesitate to don the title Christian for fear that we might be mistaken for a very narrow and particular Christian theology with which we do not unite. For there are those Christians who feel they must proselytize, and there are those Christians who feel they must dwell on judgement, even hellfire and damnation. While we do not understand this particular theology, and at times I struggle to understand the Christians that profess it, one thing you must say is at least they stand and speak the truth, as they understand it.

Why is it, then, that we as Friends cannot speak the truth of Christ, as we know it? For we know that Christ did not come to judge the world. We know that the Spirit of Christ is a loving Spirit, it is a tender Spirit. And we also know that living in the power and the presence of this Spirit takes away the occasion for all wars.

Friends, if we are able to reclaim our Christian identity, we would be in a better position to explain to the world that the way of peace is a natural outcome of the teachings of Jesus. We would be better able to point out that if one feels the need to say that Christ is the Way, one must also be prepared to say that peace is the way.

But if we cut off our Christian roots, if we hide our Christian identity, we hide these truths even from ourselves.

Friends, you are the Light of the world! But no one lights a light and hides it under a bushel.

Friends, you are the Salt of the Earth! But if that salt loses its saltiness, if it loses its savor, it is no longer effective because it is no longer used. It is simply laid aside or cast away.

I hope it has not been inappropriate for me to have shared this concern with you today. I am ready now that we might return to the silence, where we can seek and find that still, small voice, where we can be strengthened by the warmth and love of the Inner Light. But let us not hesitate to call it the Inner Christ. For in doing so, we may rediscover a bright and shining Quaker jewel that has been so valued by so many Friends for so long.

My experience at Germantown is representative of my overall experience traveling in the ministry. Some seemed comfortable with my message. Others openly struggled with it. But it was only one message among other Words of God that were spoken that day. I do not know how much others profited from what I said, but I know that I came away deeply enriched both by the silence and the words.

I would urge other Friends to listen carefully to that still, small voice. You may be called to share a message beyond your local community. Even if you do not find this call, consider visitation to other meetings. We may be struggling with numbers, but our foundation is rich and diverse and healthy. We would do well by experiencing as much of it as we can.

Chip Thomas

Chip Thomas, a software engineer, is a member of Marlborough (Pa.) Meeting and recording clerk of Western Quarterly Meeting. He serves as Web manager for Friends Tract Association.