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Learning from John Woolman, as a Christian Quaker

From the 1932 edition of The journal and essays of John Woolman, edited by Amelia M. Gummere. Via Internet Archive.

On a fateful day 20 years ago, events were set in motion that pushed me to immerse myself with great intensity in a text by John Woolman with its accompanying biblical reference. Doing this was an important way for me to express my identity as a Christian Quaker. The narration below illustrates ways in which biblical and historical texts seem to be central to the experience of Christian Quakers.

My definition of a Christian Quaker is someone who grapples with the central questions of Christianity, in that person’s experience, and through exploring biblical passages and historical texts that tell the story of Quaker faith through the ages.

Quaker communities where this kind of exploration is central to the life of the meeting may define themselves as “Christian,” or they may not. In most Liberal meetings of my acquaintance, there is little collective grappling with the Christian faith. It’s hard to imagine such meetings self‐identifying as Christian.

Here’s my story: I was sitting in a library, reading John Woolman’s journal, and the word “church” jumped out at me with great power, emerging from the following sentence:

We rejoice in filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church.

The word “church” answered a deep longing that I hadn’t even been aware of having. It satisfied me, while calling me to go deeper and look for something more.

I had come to Friends many years prior, after leaving the Presbyterian Church. Quakerism attracted me because it seemed to have such potential for depth. I liked the emphasis on seeking one’s own Truth and living one’s convictions with integrity. I was living in Philadelphia, trying to find my place in a large Quaker network where Christians seemed to coexist perfectly comfortably with non‐Christian Friends. Being an open‐minded, universalist Christian had been central to my identity since childhood.

The word “church” spoke so powerfully to me because it it seemed like a lost treasure that was being unearthed, ready to spring forth in my life, ready to challenge me to new openness and new Truth.

I decided to memorize several verses adjacent to the one that had so attracted my attention, confident that the kind of attention given to the passage in the memorization process would bear fruit in time.

Here are the words that I eventually memorized (a contextual framework to the reference to “the church” that had so captivated me):

Now I find that, in the pure obedience, the mind learns contentment in appearing weak and foolish to that wisdom which is of the World. In these lowly labors, they who stand in a low place, rightly exercised under the cross, will find nourishment.

The gift is pure; and, while the eye is single in attending thereto, the understanding is preserved clear: self is kept out.

We rejoice in filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church.

Some years after memorizing this passage, I had the privilege of attending a program presented by the beloved Quaker elder and teacher William P. “Bill” Taber (1927–2005). It occurred to me to ask Bill privately about the Woolman passage. After hearing the passage, he quietly said that nothing was coming to him but suggested I take a look at the first chapter of Colossians. Here’s what I found:

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church. – Colossians 1:24 (New King James Version)

In this way I saw how the Woolman passage was in turn dependent on a biblical passage.

I started trying to ask myself what it would be like to put into practice what Woolman was talking about. If I really tried to take the will of God seriously, as Woolman did, what would happen? Could I, like Woolman, actually put aside the limited self, out of a desire to go deeper? As I began making the effort, amazing joy and peace came to me seemingly out of nowhere, as a gift. Love multiplied in my life.

Then when I would return to the particular sentence about “the church” that had initially grabbed my attention (rejoicing in “filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church”) I found myself beset with questions that kept eluding any and all attempts at a solution, such as the following:

  • Sufferings—sufferings for another person—how do I feel about the many controversies and questions about the meaning of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection?
  • How can suffering possibly be “good”? Isn’t suffering necessarily incompatible with the will of God? How can I deal with residue of outdated theological assumptions about suffering that seem so hopelessly dysfunctional?
  • How can anything actually be “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ? Doesn’t the Resurrection bring about an end to Christ’s suffering?
  • Does God weep in solidarity with human and ecological brokenness? But the passage talks about suffering for the sake of the church. The two ideas don’t fit together.
  • If we are the church, do we necessarily need to be the Body of Christ? Do we need to represent Christ in the way that a person’s body represents that person?

Not getting any definitive answers, I discovered instead that these open questions were energizing just as they were—without being resolved. I came to the point of acknowledging that these types of questions were absolutely central to me as a Christian Quaker. In the case of this particular passage from Woolman’s journal, the questions led to an ongoing dialogue with God about brokenness and suffering, and about the nature of the church. Other passages invariably led to other conundrums, other acknowledgements of Mystery.

I asked myself repeatedly which of the issues mentioned by Woolman was most important in my life. Eventually I came to see that for me that issue was “the church.” This is because I’m the kind of person that Woolman saw as “feel[ing] the care of the churches upon them.” I’m the kind of person who labors in meekness to (in Woolman’s words) “keep the name of Christ sacred in the visible gathered church.” Sometimes the heavy burden I experience through my deep concern for the church can be misunderstood or rejected. There’s no easy resting place.

I believe that God has invited me into spiritual membership in the “invisible gathered church,” which is very different from membership in a Quaker institutionalized community. An actual feeling for this kind of “membership” comes to me as I participate in various prayer or meditation groups, in the Experiment with Light, in extended worship, and in particular spiritual friendships. The empowerment that I experience in these groups and these friendships helps me face up to the fact that I do actually suffer. I mourn; I grieve; I lament for Friends, for (as Woolman puts it) “the sake of Christ’s body, which is the church.”

It’s not unusual to find other Friends who are concerned or who lament the current state of our religious society. But it’s hard to find people who envision Christ sharing our lament. To Woolman such people were “members of the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.” Woolman observed that such Friends tend to be sincere in heart, abiding in true stillness, and giving expression to that stillness in their lives. They would never do anything that would increase the “cloudiness” or “dimness” of the Quaker community by failing to follow the Divine Master. In Woolman’s words:

When our minds entirely yield to Christ, that silence is known [in which] we learn abiding in the divine will, and there feel that we have no cause to promote but only that in which the Light of Life directs us in our proceedings, and that the only way to be useful in the church of Christ is to abide faithfully under the leadings of his Holy Spirit in all cases…being preserved thereby in purity of heart and holiness of conversation.

Through his writings, with their related Bible passages, John Woolman gives me language for describing an emerging sense of empowerment in Christ (“Christ in me, the hope of glory”) that is actually my experience. I’m beset with both power and powerlessness, which go hand‐in‐hand. Speaking out of the “low place” that Woolman is talking about, I am often painfully alone, which leads me to the surprisingly happy and unexpected rediscovery of my utter dependence on God.

 

Helene Pollock has participated in all branches of Friends during her 40 years of association with Friends. Her primary Quaker community at this time is the extended worship community that meets in the Philadelphia area. She is the former director of Quaker Affairs at Haverford College.


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