“You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles saith this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
George Fox said this, as reported by Margaret Fell, during a period of time when the Catholics and Protestants were fighting with each other over the ultimate source of truth: the Bible or Papal authority. Fox’s radical message was that people could have a direct experience with God, and know the Truth themselves. It is still a radical message.
It is to this Center—the direct experience of God—we must return to over and over again as we Friends try to make our meetings what we want them to be. How would our business meetings be if we could listen for divine direction? How would our committee meetings be if we could find that guidance? How would our fellowship be if we could feel the Inner Light of those with whom we are gathered? How would our worship be if we believed the Holy One would provide the messages and that is what we heard? This help is available to us in the Living Center.
In the early days of Quakerism, Friends would greet each other with: “How goes the Spirit with Thee?” This was a serious question. It was not the “How are you?” with the obligatory answer of “fine” (regardless of how we really are)—but a sincere desire to know the spiritual state of the other, which was considered paramount. Friends expected to know each other spiritually. Early Friends worshiped together with their neighbors. They raised each other’s barns, they birthed each other’s babies, and they often knew each other from cradle to grave.
It is harder for modern Friends to really know each other. We usually see each other only on Sundays, and we sit in silence, which does not breed familiarity. We must find new ways to know each other spiritually so when we look around at our meetings for worship, we know each other’s spiritual conditions—and those speak to us also in the silence. It is good that in our adult education hours we learn about Quaker history, our testimonies, and about the social concerns of our day, but we need to enter into worship sharing together as well—to know who has a spiritual dry spell right now, who is alive with the spirit, who is in a spiritual crisis, and what the nature is of the spiritual dilemmas with which we each struggle. We need to know how our personal relationships with God are going!
When we know each other in this way, a work party becomes holy fellowship; we have patience and forbearance for each other in our committee work; we hear the holy message clothed in the personality and speaking style of our friend who has risen to deliver the Author’s message. When we are known in this way, our community becomes The Parent’s arms that hold us in our struggles.
There are more convinced Friends in the Religious Society of Friends than ever before since the first generation of Friends. Some convinced Friends have been Friends for many decades, others have attended for only a few months. Small meetings struggle with how to teach and model Quakerism to new attenders. When we fail at this, we risk losing our Center as a Religious Society. Mennonites are much clearer than Quakers in speaking of God’s Kingdom and the world, which is made up of “powers and principalities.” They talk about two ways of being in the world—one with the Divine at the Center, and one where we are lost in the values, customs, and beliefs of popular culture. Among Mennonites, non-conforming means to not adhere to worldly values, to instead be true to Kingdom values. When we, as Friends, fail to teach new Friends about the Divine Center, then democracy, a majority rule mindset, starts to sift into our business meetings and committee meetings. The way of the world suggests we strike compromises rather than engage in the process of divine guidance that leads to spiritual consensus. A polite social distance that is “not too nosey” drifts into our expectations of how well we know each other. Uninspired messages, or no messages at all, are given because we no longer know how to season or test messages. Ultimately, when we fail to teach and model Quakerism, the ways of the world start to sneak in, and we lose what is most precious to us as Friends: our Divine Center.
To nurture each other in Quakerism, we must recapture the original meaning of eldering. Among Friends these days, “eldering” has taken on almost a “dirty word” status, because in the worst days of our history during the splits, elders wrote people out of meeting and tried to keep a rigid orthodoxy. These acts, however, should not distract us from the true essence of eldering. The word elder is not self-explanatory. While it seems to simply imply an older person, early Friends records show “elders,” or “weighty friends,” were often recorded to be in their 20s; it had nothing to do with age. Eldering is about nurturing others in Quakerism and having spiritual discernment. We could attempt to substitute the modern-day word mentoring, but a mentor is not necessarily grounded in Spirit, nor does the word connote spiritual support. This would again bring in concepts from the world that don’t reflect the whole spiritual picture of the Kingdom.
It is easy sometimes to look at our meeting with frustration and see the shortcomings from the Quaker ideal— to compare this meeting with others we have attended, or to this meeting in better times. I think, instead, we must approach our relationship to Meeting as one approaches a marriage. Two parties have entered into a mutually committed relationship: for better and for worse, in sickness and in health—and Quakers were wise to add: “with divine assistance I will be such a partner.” So, rather than looking at what is missing in our meetings and feeling critical, we must look at it as the beloved one we are to nurture, and understand that we will do this not alone but with Holy Assistance. Again, as we turn to the Center we will receive guidance for how to improve our meetings.
If we feel that ministry is not rich in our meeting, we must work to build worship sharing and ways of getting to know each other spiritually at a greater depth. If we feel our committees are not functioning well, we must look to a spiritually grounded nominating process, and we must look to how we have built fellowship in general in our meeting. If our committees are overburdened, we must look to outreach, nurturing Friends who may be disaffected, and simplifying our committee structure so it serves well and does not merely mirror “how we have always done it.” If our meetings for worship for business are tedious and nonproductive, we must look at the overall spiritual well-being of our meeting and how well our committees are functioning, as well as how we teach business practice to our new members. We must also look to how we use outside resources (Friends General Conference, yearly meeting, Pendle Hill, etc.) to build skills in our meeting clerks and our committee clerks.
Marriages are work. They do not succeed without effort and nurturing. The same is true of meetings. As we are enriched by marriages that provide us a place to give and receive love and to build a home, so also is this true of our membership in our meetings. Some people wonder whether to become a member as opposed to remaining an attender. For me the reason to become a member is to commit ourselves to a mutually fulfilling relationship and the work it entails.
Elders do this kind of work in their meetings. They listen to the Center to discern the condition of the meeting. They take actions designed to support the spiritual well-being of the meeting, and they nurture other members in their spiritual life. This means everything from encouraging the unfolding spoken ministry of those who are just beginning, to nurturing the children and newcomers in learning the ways of Quakerism. It means discerning and nurturing the gifts of members in our nominating processes. It means creating adult education programs designed to lend support where the meeting struggles and is trying to grow. It means providing pastoral care or oversight to meeting members and attenders that deepens their connections to the meeting and nurtures their spiritual lives. It means facing the conflicts in our midst and dealing with them with love rather than trying to sweep them under the carpet. It means being willing to share joyfully what we experience in Quakerism with those we meet in the world. It means sharing what we love and cherish about Quakerism so we may offer it as an attractive place for others to visit and find their spiritual home.
Lynn Fitz-Hugh, clerk of Eastside Meeting in Bellevue, Wash., is a therapist. This “was given” to her as a message while visiting Arizona Half-Yearly Meeting of Intermountain Yearly Meeting.