I recently watched a QuakerSpeak video by Colin Saxton, the general secretary of Friends United Meeting (an international organization of the Religious Society of Friends) and was struck again by the wonderful explanation of the Friends’ belief that Christ dwells within each of us and is our spiritual teacher and guide if we allow it.
The fractured nature of the Quaker community breaks my heart. If we truly believe that Christ is our teacher and guide why are we not listening to that inner voice? Why are we not living the testimonies that we claim?
Fear and anger are the two most destructive forces within the human lexicon of emotion. The Bible says over and over again, “do not fear,” yet that is where we constantly take ourselves. Fear creates the feeling of being threatened by “the other” and human nature creates an overwhelming need to defend ourselves. This need to prove that we are right and the other is wrong has created the most damage the world has ever experienced.
I have been a deeply spiritual person from my earliest memories as a child. My personal journey is marked with dissatisfaction with organized church; raised Lutheran, a short foray into a Full Gospel Student Fellowship, many years outside church, Methodist, and finally Quaker. Every time I have embraced a group and felt it might be a place to seek spiritual truth and find comfort and support, I have been disappointed, yet have never wavered in my knowledge that God is One. I know that people who attend church are sinners and flawed but I long—no, yearn—for a spiritual community that accepts and loves each other for who each person is, and for where they are in their journey.
I thought I had found that in a Quaker meeting. The writings of the early Quakers George Fox, Isaac Penington, Margaret Fell, and John Woolman spoke truth to me, and later writers did as well: Caroline Stephen, Thomas Kelly, and Rufus Jones caused my heart to soar. The people of this meeting greeted my family warmly and drew us into their embrace. We felt loved and wanted. We participated gladly in all activities and got involved at the yearly meeting level as well. I thought I had at last found my spiritual community and home. I knew I was more liberal politically and in some of my interpretations of scripture than the majority in this rural meeting, but I did not get the sense of being an outsider. I respected their opinions and spoke what was being revealed to me from my meditations and spiritual explorations as it seemed appropriate.
Then things began to change.
I felt restless when the open (silent) worship portion of the service was often cut short to accommodate all the other things: special music, a guest speaker, youth skits, announcements. That space of quiet seemed to become shorter and shorter. But I loved these people, and if that made them happy, I would spend more time in silent listening at home. I sensed that sometimes when I asked earnest questions to learn why others believed made them uncomfortable.
With a new pastor who was not from a Quaker background, things changed even more. The fear of the world and the way things are was emphasized and encouraged. The “end times” were discussed often and with great drama. I heard more negative tone in what was said about that awful world “out there” and how we must guard against it and keep our children insulated and isolated from its evil influence. We began to teach them to fear the world rather than to walk within the inner light of Christ with as perfect a love as we can muster. All educators were portrayed as secular humanists intent on tearing our children away from our belief in God (not necessarily the child’s; it was about preserving what “we” believe), and we must fear it and fight against this influence. It was insisted upon that the Bible must be taken literally (including the creation story which made evolution impossible and a lie instead of a wondrous work of God), and the interpretation of scripture must be the one preached from the pulpit and not from the ultimate teacher, the inner light of Christ (hence even the pastor doesn’t believe the Bible can be taken literally).
I saw people change, become more judgmental, critical, angry, and fearful. They laughed at jokes made from the pulpit at the expense of those not exactly like “us.”
The loss of my community came when I asked this pastor if there was room for me at this meeting if I did not agree with everything being taught. I was told I could stay if I kept silent. I was crushed.
It broke my heart and still breaks my heart that so many Quaker meetings have either gone down this path and lost the original intent of what George Fox had revealed to him or have taken a path totally eliminating Christ in favor of political activism. Losing the corporate, silent listening to God left me isolated and alone, unable to be in this meeting any longer. I grieved mightily. And I grieve for our yearly meeting that is being torn apart, weakened beyond repair because the two versions of Quakerism appear to be irreconcilable, both sides digging in with intractable positions. This leaves me with no Quaker or spiritual home since I cannot participate in either option.
I still have not found a spiritual community, yet I still yearn for one. I may never find it, and I am at peace with that. I am willing to continue my journey to experience Christ personally and honor the inner seed alone until way opens and God brings me into community again if that is what I need.
I still read historic Quaker writings with awe at the authentic joy and peace experienced when centered in Christ and find inspiration there, but the reality of the Quaker meetings where I live do not reflect the depth of spiritual understanding of these wise elders.
I do not see a middle ground in North Carolina. Our yearly meeting is dissolving. It is one of the oldest yearly meetings in the United States. We are as polarized as the political environment thus unable to help heal the divides and demonstrate the peace testimony.
I am at a loss for where those of us displaced by this contentious battle are to go and unable right now to keep seeking. As I meet others in this situation, I pray that the light within will find a way to reach out, connect, and form new community even as the established community dissolves around me.