I was 16 years old when I attended meeting for worship for the first time. Also present were a woman marathon runner, several professors, an ancient colonel from World War I, and a man who spoke Navajo and his poet wife. Not all were vegetarians or tax resisters. Not all the men had been conscientious objectors. All were white middle class people who tried not to be part of the problems of 1968, but there was only some general agreement on how to be part of the solution.
Now, 38 years later, as I travel among Friends as a teacher, I still see this odd collection of people who don’t quite fit any single description except that maybe they still want to be part of the solution to the suffering in the world.
Considering the question, what are Friends called to today, I find the answers as numerous as the various ways that Friends live their lives. On the one hand, there are the passions—the conscious, deliberate decisions and actions Friends take in their work and living. On the other hand, there are the inward, spiritual practices that deepen over time. Both influence the way our lives contribute to society and help us identify the problems and the solutions.
Personally, I see a large, open classroom called Life on Earth, and the shelves are full of the various learning materials. Some of us choose the books, some the blocks, some the math materials, and others are dancing with scarves on the round rug near the blackboard. We choose according to what catches our eye and our heart, making each choice not only valid, but important. We work with our material until we understand it, and we take that knowledge to other materials. And we all move at various rates and at varying depths in ever-changing cycles. We are in motion individually, in small groups, and as the Religious Society of Friends.
We are called as watercolors are called across a page: not a simple, straight line nor one shape, but many colors with different densities of light and overlapping pigment, rarely tidy. And so it is that the meat-eaters and the vegetarians work for social justice. The old and the young work against war. And men and women work against sexism, racism, and homophobia among some Friends (and maybe not so much among other Friends).
Lately, I see fatigue among Friends in trying to sort out what is true. Can it be that the United States needs a law to protect U.S. military personnel from prosecution for torture? Is what political leaders say true, and why are their messages reported in the media without the background or history to show that they are not true? There is fatigue from witnessing the grand theft of the treasury while the basic needs of the people increasingly go unmet. Yes, we see and feel the outrage among ourselves and we work locally as best we can, but our tax dollars continue to support the disasters taking place in the halls of power.
Friends today are called to put out so many fires of injustice, cruelty, militarism, and poverty; it may be that we haven’t been so busy since the days of King Charles and Cromwell. If this is so, then Friends should be called to greater spiritual disciplines than ever before—spiritual disciplines because the crux of our faith is to listen for the Divine message and act upon it. Listening and acting have become more difficult as the noise of the world from suffering and deceit has risen.
So, what disciplines should we attend to? Perhaps these:
- enough silence, listening for the Divine, trying not to hear yourself
- enough rest and nurture to be clear vessels to receive Light
- enough stillness to feel our humility as fragile carriers of Light
- enough comfort to offer our best effort
- enough strength kept up for the long haul
- enough concentration to focus while listening
- enough love of life to see beauty while surrounded by pain
The first conference of the Quaker Initiative to End Torture in June 2006 at Guilford College in North Carolina was an open classroom like the one described above. Friends came together with interests in various aspects of the topic: history, legislation, treatment, education, and direct action. They worked individually to absorb the information, and then worked in small groups to plan actions for still larger groups. Many Friends will attend to this work, but there will be no lockstep movement with total agreement nor singular action towards one task. Rather, Friends will choose work that best fits each one’s gifts and energy level. What remains unified is the intention and the spiritual discipline, aimed at staying in the Light as both seekers and carriers.
What are Friends called to do? To be good Friends and to become better Friends, especially at times when the worst potential of human nature is yet again being realized and spreading here at home.