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Friends: A Broken, Tender People?

To be led by God is to be free of the hold of fear. Fear may or may not be present on any given occasion, but, with God, its power to control us is broken. We seek to make our meetings a safe place, while too often what we really want is a place where no one will disagree with us. Friends are called into that safe and secure place held by the Spirit; a place where we can enjoy the differences among us and not be afraid to speak what is on our hearts; a place where we are tender with one another, even as we are open to finding the creativity released by conflict; a place of self‐knowledge and humility where God’s power is made visible and can change the world.

We, as Friends, witness to a faith that is in the world but not of it, and which draws its strength from humility and faithfulness to the Eternal Presence. We are grounded by our willingness to wait and attend, by the transformation of our beings in encounter with the Seed, and by taking up the Cross to the demands of the ego and the world. The more grounded we are, the more we make visible the New Creation—a place of justice, mercy, and equity; a place of compassion, healing, and hope. Yet we also need regular times of retirement, to step back from action and seek renewal. Our strength is in God and in our community of broken, tender individuals. This is how I see my faith and the calling of Friends.

Waiting, attending

Friends are called to expectant waiting, to anticipate the Eternal Presence, and to know (or to hope to know) God as immediate and real. Whether in blinding visions or gentle, intuitive nudges on the heart, we can hear the Spirit and let the Spirit guide our feet as we listen, attend, and be witnesses to the availability of the Spirit to all people. How hard that can be! How easy that can be! How varied the experience is among all who share this globe.

My own experience was that of waiting: for many years passively and without awareness, and for many more years in the more active form I call “attending.” After God changed my entire awareness and turned my life in unexpected directions, waiting and listening perhaps became even more important. Today, patience gradually grows in me and takes new forms. I have learned what it is like to listen with the inner ear and see with the inner eye. Remembering to do so takes regular reminders, both from myself and others.
My encounter with the Eternal and my drive to learn a language of faith lead me to help others see something of the dimensions of God active in the world, and to share what Friends might have to teach about matters of the Spirit out of the context of Quaker tradition. Early Friends mentor me. Modern Friends sat with me as I struggled into new life, and teach me with their lives as well as their words. Our faith is not passive. It is one of engagement with God, with each other, and with the world.

Encountering the Seed

We are called to honor and seek to respond to the Seed of God within all people. Learning to recognize that Seed is part of our worship. What is its taste and feel? Can I acknowledge that Seed within my own soul? These, too, are essential questions of faith. Some of us may find them easy to answer, while others are unsure or have few words that suffice.

Increasingly, I am able to speak to what I know directly of God, and of Christ, and part of my calling is to share as best I can how my spiritual ancestors knew this Seed and what they have taught me. Those Friends are essential mentors for me, and I find I must take Christianity seriously if I claim to be an inheritor of their faith. Coming to this position has taken much hard work in healing and substantial probing of what it means to honor the divine Seed in others. I have had to face the depth of my prejudice against evangelical Christian Friends in order to be able to listen to them, recognize the Seed in them, and accept that they hold at least as much claim to being a Friend as I do. This process turns many things upside down in me and pushes me into looking afresh at my own sense of myself and the faith I profess.

Early Friends saw their faith as universal as well as an encounter with Christ Jesus as immediate as that of first century‐Christians. Today, we in the liberal branch of Friends also see our faith as universal, but our spiritual ancestors would probably find troubling the way many of us deny Christ incarnated in our being. My experience convinces me that a vital Quaker faith holds in tension the awareness that it is Christ that speaks to our condition and that this same Spirit, present before the universe was, is available to all people in all times and places. This is integral to how God has touched my life. I know Christianity as a particular manifestation of universal Truth and Love, and I am shaped by both the universal and the particular. The immediacy and guidance of the Spirit reshapes lives and is the impetus for our work in the world.

Taking up the Cross

Friends are called to take up the Cross daily—not as a symbol, but as the living reality of Truth present in our lives and countering egotism. The Cross as Friends know it speaks to something deep in the human condition, and says something profound about the nature of all that is holy.

One can see the Cross as horizontal and vertical lines marking the intersection of the sacred and the earthly creation, or as a sign of God’s reconciliation with humanity through Jesus Christ. Either way, the Cross points to the tension of separation and unity between the visible and the unseen aspects of our lives: the separation of humanity from God. The Cross overcomes our fear of death and suffering. It speaks to us as individuals, but also to our deep connections with all of humankind as well as all creation. It draws each of us into being part of a world‐changing response that overcomes violence. And it points to the reality of divine guidance and calls us to faithful listening against all opposition.

Taking up the Cross daily was long a common phrase among Friends. But the immediate image this phrase draws up—that of someone seeking out suffering— is not what they meant. To take up the Cross is to be attentive to the Eternal Principle in every moment (or at least as often as we can manage) and to know that the guidance of the Spirit is more important than being successful in business, popular, wealthy, or socially influential. To take up the Cross is to shift one’s entire frame of reference about what is crucial in this life and what is not. It allows us to hold on to the world lightly, yet identify with the pain of others. It also allows us to face suffering, knowing that we will be upheld, and to accept that sometimes suffering is necessary if we are to be faithful witnesses.

I resist taking up the Cross. All too often my head doesn’t want to do what I hear the still small voice pushing me to do. My fears overwhelm me, and my imagination builds up stories in my head about what might go wrong. When I respond to the sense of divine love flowing into me and through me to the world, I find myself stepping into a place of certainty and clarity where I know I move with a tenderness that is more than human. I am sustained in my soul. The love flowing through me touches others around me. My work is rightly ordered. Taking up the Cross can have surprising consequences, including quiet delight at the beauty and glory of God.

The New Creation

We are called to live in the New Creation, a life lived in accord with the Beatitudes and other teachings of Jesus. A life of simplicity and integrity evidences a life transformed so thoroughly that greed, or fear, or the opinions of popular culture are no longer central. In such lives, and in such communities, the Light shines so clearly that the City of God becomes visible.

The City of God is visible in everyone who lives Truth in all things. At the center of the City of God stands the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations and which for me symbolizes the hope of the City (Rev. 22). The City is a place for justice, where all people know respect. Here we also come to know our rightful place in the dynamic system that is the Earth and all its creatures. And the existence of the City can only come about through the “Lamb’s War,” which rejects all violence and knows only the weapons of kindness, gentleness, truth, peace, joy, and compassion.

Raising up the New Creation and seeking to live it out on Earth puts us at odds with popular culture and much that happens around us. Yet this vision is not unique to Friends; it is the way a significant number of people read the Gospel message, and is consistent with what I know of Buddhism, as well as the teachings of the Yoga sutras. It is a way of being that many people have reached through various faith traditions. The particular take any group has on this vision is its own, but we share much in common. It is a path that is simultaneously very lonely and full of fellow travelers.

Currently, in the United States, such a path rarely puts us at significant risk of injury, loss, or death. That may be a sign of the tolerance around us, or a sign that we are not truly faithful to the leadings of Light and Truth. We live amidst temptations of wealth and ease that draw us away from Jesus’ words. We each have to find our way in conversation with the Inward Guide and Monitor.

To take this stance—that to live in the New Creation is the highest life of the Spirit—may be the result of a series of almost intuitive actions. We may act when the Spirit reveals openings, or when an unmistakable motion of Truth drives a radical change. George Fox experienced this transformation when he was “come up through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before.” The Light may lead us to large actions or small gestures. There is no magic formula, just hope, and knowledge that there is a way to live on this Earth that respects all creation and is free from fear.

Retirement

We are called to take times of “retirement” from the world and respond to “opportunities” to worship amid the bustle of daily life. Who among us does not feel the weight of “too much”? Too much to do, too little time. It is easy to claim this weight as an ill of the modern age; and to some degree it is, especially when compared to a farming life where individuals and families had fallow months when there was no work to be done in the fields. Yet often that period would be crucial for making repairs, mending, taking odd jobs in the cold times to bring in cash, or the only opportunity for education. For many people over the centuries, days were filled with long hours of literal servitude, and an eight‐hour workday was luxury beyond imagination. We fill our hours tight, but how much is optional? There is always more to be done than is possible to accomplish. That has always been true, especially for one who feels obligated to change the world.

William Penn articulated well an understanding of the need for times of retirement—whether one is an admiral’s son or a housemaid—as part of a life of faith attuned to the Inward Guide. “Retirement” is a conscious stepping away from the pressures of all the relationships around us, good as well as bad, and away from the need to “do,” to accomplish, in order to spend time with God. Each of us can benefit from frequent times of solitude and prayer when we might be renewed in the Spirit.

When we follow Thomas Kelly’s advice “to pray always,” retirement in this sense of renewal is something that might pepper our days. Simply turning the mind to God, or even taking an extra breath, can reset the heart into a quieter beat. Similarly, two or more people conversing or working together might find or create “opportunities” by dropping into a brief time of worship in the midst of whatever else might be happening. We might even visit one another in our homes for such times of spontaneous worship.

Retreats into the mountains or to monastic centers are traditional forms of retirement. A weekend, a week, or a more prolonged time taken outside the normal routines of life might be structured by a leader to focus on particular questions, or simply a time to “be” in nature or in a simple room. In times of significant transformation or periods of exhaustion, these longer breaks give space for doing difficult inner work, or even being numb while unconscious change reshapes and rebuilds us.

Inherent in the willingness to experience periodic times of retirement is a need to be gentle with oneself—not to ignore wrongs or errors, but to hold both joys and failures up to the all‐loving Eternal Presence, to ask for guidance, and to hold lightly to our human ability to control the outcome.

Broken, tender meetings

Friends are called to be a broken and tender people. The words “broken” and “tender” speak to my spiritual condition. They describe much of what I’ve been through in the past dozen and more years. They tie me to my spiritual ancestors as well as to other Friends today. In these words I also learn of changes needed in myself and in my spiritual community: the brokenness that needs to be fixed, as well as the brokenness that is the precursor to wholeness. They tell me that I may feel raw and tender as my heart expands and learns to be tender to the movement of the Spirit in other souls.

Fear is alive and well in the world; I have no doubt of that. Many people are willing to play on that fear and use it to their advantage. One mark of Truth is that, while it may point out fear and make it visible, it is not based in fear; it destroys the power of fear. We hide behind barriers in false hope of protection, and the breaking down of these barriers is a sign of God at work in the soul.

Fear often feels raw as it rubs off the hard edges of the heart. To be tender is not always pleasant, nor is being broken. I often back away from both as fast and hard as I can, but desire draws me back: desire to be held in the circle of Mercy, longing for the water of Life, and a wish to move out of the muck and step onto solid ground.

I am part of a faith community that nourishes these longings and supports me when I am raw from the rubbing. I am part of a faith community that links back well over 300 years, then back thousands more, yet has fragmented itself again and again and forgotten much of its way. I am part of a faith community that, as it links forward in hope for unseeable generations, needs to lift the weight of prejudice and disdain for other members of that community today. I am part of a faith community that seeks to stand with all who are oppressed, speak for justice and integrity, and follow the path of nonviolence.

My faith calls me to encourage all people to wait and to attend on the still, small voice that transforms the heart. In the silence of our soul and in gathered worship, we encounter the Seed, the Holy Light that guides and admonishes us. Through this Light, we learn to take up the Cross to self‐will and enter into the suffering of the world with compassion. Our lives can show others something of what it means to live in the City of God, which honors at its center the waters of Life and the tree for the healing of the nations. Ever again we are called into times of waiting when we step back from the pressures of the world so that we might attend to God’s way, becoming broken and tender in the process.

If we can live as a broken, tender community that calls us forth away from fear, we can be transparent to the Light in a way that makes visible to the world the spaciousness of God’s love for all people. We can count ourselves among those who make visible the City of God.

Marge Abbott is a member of Multnomah Meeting in Portland, Oreg., and writes regularly about Quaker theology and spirituality. This article is an abstract of her latest book in progress.

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