Things I Ponder while Sitting in Meeting

Nearly every Sunday morning we have visitors to our Quaker meeting for worship. They enter the front door tentatively, peering around our 1892 Indiana meetinghouse, taking in the oaken pews, the fine cracks in the horsehair plaster, the carved pulpit that rests on a six-inch plywood base, raised when Gene Lewis, 6’4”, was our pastor in 1957. The pulpit had been made in the early 1900s, under the ecclesial leadership of Sarah Woodard, 5’2”.

A Regulator clock hangs next to the door. Dick Givan winds it each Sunday morning. Once, while I was preaching, Dick realized he’d forgotten to wind it and, never one to shirk his duties, proceeded to do so. He was, for many years, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indiana. Since Quakers are wary of honorifics and titles, believing they confer a privileged status, Dick keeps it simple. "Call me Dick," he says.

There is a general lack of awareness about Quakers. We are evangelically bashful and too thrifty to advertise. Consequently, ignorance about us abounds. The customary responses when people discover I’m a Quaker are: (1) I thought you all were dead; (2) Aren’t you like the Amish?; and (3) The oatmeal people, right?

Though the Bible warns against pride, we Quakers take a certain pleasure in our eccentricities. Anyone can be a Baptist, but it takes a real character to be a Quaker. We don’t vote on church matters and mistrust would-be bishops. When we don’t agree on a matter, we talk about it, sometimes for years. Every now and then, a Quaker might overestimate his importance and grow officious, but he is politely ignored. When unsuitable persons are nominated to positions of spiritual leadership, a Quaker never says, "You’ve got to be kidding." We might want to, but we never would. Instead, we smile and say, "That name would not have occurred to me." That is hardball, Quaker-style.

I watch the visitors during the silence. When we fall quiet, they look around, thinking someone has forgotten to speak. They are embarrassed for the poor soul. But after a bit, they notice our calm and settle themselves into the stillness. At least most of them. A few grow agitated, unnerved by the silence. They leaf through a hymnal, clip their fingernails, or study the occasional car passing by outside, wondering what odd collection of people they have stumbled upon. Others come in search of certainty and leave disappointed that we’re not more doctrinaire.

But in the past decade, a theological tempest has churned the surface of the Quaker pond. The same issues that roil the waters in every other denomination have stirred ours—gay marriage, the authority of Scripture, on down the litmus list. While we are not strangers to conflict, a sad trend has lately emerged—a rising reluctance to labor thoughtfully and prayerfully over difficult matters. We come to our meetings with minds made up, firm in our ways, fixed in our positions.

It had long been our practice to listen carefully to opposing points of view, to discern the Spirit’s nudge in the spoken word, to wait patiently for guidance, not acting until clarity was reached. Those days are fast retreating. Steeped in rage radio and guerrilla evangelism, we have replaced talk with tirades and compromise with ultimatums. It is a dark day when even the Quakers are infected with this pox of discord, this puffed-up posturing that knows with brash exactness the will and mind of God.

If the ranters who fill our airwaves sat on our front porches, speaking of our loved ones the way they speak of others, we would find their behavior appalling and ask them to leave. But because they are electronic visitors and because we confuse celebrity for knowledge, we receive them gladly and pay to do so, bowing before our flickering altars. Their fury seems innocuous at first, but it turns out we weren’t immune and their rude disease has spread.

We Quakers joke about striking back, of televising our meeting for worship. One hundred and twenty Quakers sitting on oaken pews in an 1892 meetinghouse. A little singing, a dab of preaching, then 20 minutes of silence with viewers whacking their televisions thinking they’ve gone on the blink, jabbing at the volume button on their remote, their anger mounting.

I’m not sure how we appear to our visitors, whether they are put off by our low church simplicity or charmed by it. I can usually tell who will come back for another visit. Men wearing ties seldom return. I’m the only man in my meeting who wears a tie, mostly to keep my congregation off-balance. I sit on the liberal side of religion, at God’s left hand, but dress conservatively and, consequently, am hard to pin down.

People carrying big Bibles usually don’t come back. We have perfectly serviceable Bibles in our pews and see no need to arm ourselves with additional copies. This strikes some visitors as theologically suspect, that we’re not sufficiently biblical. One Sunday, a man visited carrying a Bible so large it needed built-in wheels. He didn’t make it halfway through meeting for worship. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but when I saw him, I was reminded of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. "My, what a big Bible you have," said little Red. "All the better to bludgeon you," answered the wolf.

Men who are handy with tools think twice about returning. They spend the hour studying our old meetinghouse, envisioning a lifetime of indentured servitude stretching before them. We reel them in slowly, first asking them to replace a fuse. When they agree, the hook is set. Within the year, we’ll have them balancing precariously on ladders, painting soffits and reroofing the meetinghouse. If they should fall from the ladder and perish, we Quakers do a wonderful job with memorial services.

If you are fortunate enough to expire in the bosom of a Quaker meeting, you will receive a sendoff like no other. Dozens of people will testify of your fine qualities, whether you had any or not. We’ll bear your casket out the meetinghouse door, down the stairs, across the road to the cemetery, where you’ll be lowered carefully in the ground. Then your loved ones will gather in the meetinghouse dining room and partake of meat loaf, green beans, orange jello with carrot slivers, iced tea, and a variety of homemade pies. I once conducted a funeral service and had 13 members of the deceased’s family join our meeting the next week.

In the 21st century, this is what it means to be Quaker in our neck of the woods—retaining some traditions, while jettisoning others. It remains to be seen whether we have distinguished correctly between the essential and the trivial. I ponder these matters and more while sitting in meeting, the Regulator clock subtracting the minutes until we shall meet the Lord.

Philip H. Gulley

Philip H. Gulley is pastor of Fairfield Meeting in Camby, Ind. He is the author of several books including Front Porch Talks and Just Shy of Harmony. This essay will be included in his forthcoming book Porch Talk.