“Be careful of those ‘other branch’ Quakers.”
These words were spoken to me at a recent Wednesday evening Bible study by the group leader. I had been in conversation with a partner teacher at our church, a woman who was teaching Quaker history to the children in her charge. I was telling her that I was teaching Quaker values and practice on alternate Sundays to the same children. We were comparing notes to determine if there was any overlap, not that it mattered. Our Bible study leader was listening to the conversation, since his lesson for the evening hadn’t yet begun. I think it was my mention of peacemaking and unprogrammed meetings that got his attention.
I asked him to clarify his thoughts about “other branch” Quakers. He said “they” had the tendency to emphasize the Divine Light as a guide for life as opposed to affirming the centrality of Jesus Christ. Hmm.
I attend services at an Evangelical Friends Church (EFC) meeting. We have a programmed service, with a pastor and a choir; a sermon; and singing. Our church is historically Quaker, but we do things differently from our unprogrammed “other branch” Friends.
We have about 400 regular and irregular attendees. The focus is the Sunday morning services; we have two. But there is a schedule of activities in addition to services, including youth projects, service opportunities, Bible studies, and chances for people to get together. We have a café, a library, several classrooms, and even a gym. Our salaried staff includes the pastor, a church administrator, a youth director, a music director, and others. Our clerk is not salaried. We are well organized.
I was bothered by the us/them thinking implied by the phrase “other branch Quakers.” It indicates the divisions in our movement, where today we are seeing meetings ranging from traditional Christian congregations—such as mine—to non-traditional, unprogrammed worship structure. It has been a practice of mine to ignore advice, such as that given by my Bible study leader, and visit Quaker meetings in other places, including Wooster Friends, Cleveland Friends, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Friends, and several others which have the unprogrammed format.
My experiences have taught me that we sometimes create enclaves within our churches and meetings, as we do in other walks of life. These enclaves become shelters of influence where we see ourselves as the ones who have the correct perspectives in life, and we see outsiders—“other branches”—as those who don’t. In these shelters of influence, the rhetoric will be familiar and comforting. People will agree to the same, or a similar, point of view.
Conservative Christians, such as fundamentalists and many evangelicals, create a shelter of influence for themselves far removed from more liberal religious and academic circles. Many homeschool their children, teaching them conservative values and politics. Conservative Christians vote and encourage each other to vote for like-minded candidates. Not surprisingly, liberal shelters of influence are much like this, that is, acting from their own perspectives.
Shelters of influence create isolated pockets of thinking where people listen only to those leaders they trust and read only books, pamphlets, and literature promoting their preconceived understandings. They will visit websites where they can find wording for their opinions. They will tune in to media personnel who promote their agenda. With few exceptions, people in one shelter of influence rarely cross over to hear what others are saying. They may pick up bits and pieces here and there to learn that the other shelters of influence are—in their view— just plain misguided.
Even Friends meetings can become shelters of influence when particular values and opinions are promoted within the meeting, be they conservative politically or liberal, militaristic or pacifist, given to emphasis on Scripture or Divine Light.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of pulling away from each other, we ought to find places where we have common ground, at least enough to have give-and-take discussion. Listening to another point of view doesn’t mean giving up one’s own.
When George Fox in the 1600s told of his opening that “there is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to thy condition,” it not only was the beginning of the Quaker movement, but it also spoke of great understanding of what it means to be Christian. The experience goes beyond salvation provided by Jesus; it moves the individual to listen carefully to his teachings, what he had to say about faith, about life, about service. Jesus wanted us to learn many things and to be open to his lessons. I think he would advise us to avoid shelters of influence, where Christians only associate with others just like themselves.
Christianity thus was meant to be an active lifestyle. Being confined to a shelter of influence, where only a few points of view are recognized, stifles these important messages. Christians need to move beyond the shelter and, strengthened by faith, deal with the problems of the kingdom.
I have believed for a long time that an inner spiritual life is vital and necessary before meaningful service can be accomplished. Individuals must know where they stand before they can live an effective life of helping others. Believing that Jesus is a great teacher is not enough; we must believe that Jesus embodies great purpose and enlightenment. The spiritual, or inner life, inspires and drives the physical, or outer life. We can’t have one without the other.
Elton Trueblood, in The People Called Quakers, writes, “The experience is inner and spiritual, because it is God who calls, but the experience cannot be genuine unless it eventuates in work.” We cannot walk on one leg; we need both legs in order to follow God: the leg of spiritual life, precipitated by an ongoing faith and seeking of God’s will, and the leg of service and evangelism, meeting others’ needs and spreading Jesus’ love. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and heal the sick, trying the best we can to bring a complete life to everyone in need. We fight for the causes that promote equality of persons, justice, and peace in our world. And we tell others about Jesus, both through our actions and our words.
Unfortunately many Christians go to worship for fellowship and/or sermons but do little else with their lives. On the other hand, there are many who get into service and righteous causes simply because they are good and important. But unless we are grounded in a spiritual purpose, it becomes mere superficiality. People who worship with great vigor and energy and do nothing else are trying to walk on one leg. Those who are given to service and good works and nothing else are trying to walk on the other one.
Not only is walking on two legs vital to effectiveness, it is vital to growth. When one concern is emphasized and the other neglected, eventually life becomes a series of temporary events, without meaning or fulfillment. A meaningful, spiritual life would lead to meaningful service. I think the early Quakers understood this, as they understood what the earliest Christians understood. This understanding is needed today.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:9).
If the Bible verse John 1:9 has any validity, and I think it does, then God sent Jesus Christ into the world to be the Light “to every man,” and this supplies the Quaker belief that there is “that of God in each person.” This Light can be called the Holy Spirit, and many people understand it that way. Jesus came into the world and essentially never left; he is still here as Light, as Holy Spirit.
It bothered me to hear my Bible study leader separate Light from Jesus when he advised me to be careful of those “other branch Quakers.” If Jesus is the Light, then he is working in my conscience all the time. I began to think there was a problem with the wording or with the understanding of Scripture. The “other branch Quakers,” the ones I have visited, tend to use the term “Light” quite a bit. At my branch, Jesus is mentioned frequently. Walking on two legs allows me to understand that Light and Jesus are the same, and this validates the Scripture reference.
I have learned also that the Bible, Holy Scripture, has much to say not only about Jesus but also about his message. I have learned valuable lessons in those pages, lessons which come alive through stories and parables.
I think true Quakers would give the Bible a prominent place in their lives, using it as it was intended: as a source of instruction, of reproof, of guidance, and of inspiration. It tells the story of God’s love. We should attend to it as well as we attend to continuing revelation. I don’t think Jesus, as the Divine Light of my soul, wants me to ignore the Bible.
A compatible balance between a reverence for Scripture and for revelation from the Divine Light is necessary. Christianity needs both. Quakers need both. I believe Jesus speaks to us through the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Bible. Our lives should reflect this.
Using George Fox’s realization that Jesus Christ is the focus of the individual’s life (“one…who speaks to thy condition”), it is clear to me where my spirituality leans. My own church affirms Jesus’ centrality to spiritual life. It is a great comfort to have his presence to rely on as Savior and teacher, the One who shows the way, and the One who is the Light of the world. This centrality of Jesus Christ, by name, defines the focus of my branch of Quakerism.
Authentic worship in a programmed Friends church can be a blessing beyond measure. When an inspired speaker addresses a particular point of Scripture or a controversial issue and is able to bring understanding to individuals in the pews, it is a moment of uplifting drama. When voices are raised to sing songs of worship and meaning, hearts are affected.
Of course, I have found a great deal of spiritual uplift in my visits to unprogrammed Quaker meetings as well. There is value in quiet waiting for God and attending to Jesus speaking to my condition. As the Light of the world, he will bring truth and comfort as I sit in corporate quiet time.
Occasionally, a speaker is heard in the quiet time, not an ordained or recorded minister with a prepared sermon but an ordinary congregant with a message from the heart. It’s wonderful to hear these openings; I never know what to expect. The speaker has even been me.
Finally, I would ask this question: In our Quaker worship times, whether programmed or unprogrammed, does God come to us, or do we go to God? Well, it’s a little bit of both. When we go to that quiet, secret place and deliberately free ourselves from worldly distraction, we go to God. In that moment of eternity, he comes to us. It’s a moment beyond words, beyond visualizations, and beyond the limitations with which we are born and the limitations we create for ourselves.
It’s a mystery with which even the great theologians grapple. People speak of the “still small voice” of God that comes in moments of quiet reflection. When we wait for God in our silence, we hope for that. We pray for that. It can be in either programmed or unprogrammed worship time that I feel close to him, so close sometimes that I believe he is right there beside me. I have gone to him, and he has come to me.
Because of the difficulties and limitations of human comprehension, people create organized religion to help overcome the anxiety of separation from eternal God. Religion is our creation, not his. Clergy may be hired to learn all they can,so they can tell us what it all means. Rituals are created so that we can find comfort in the majesty and splendor of ceremony. Many people love the Roman Catholic High Mass because it is programmed with parade and costume, music and incense, chanting, and repetition. The senses of each individual are treated to spectacle and emotion. But I wonder if they are closer to God as a result. But even unprogrammed worship time can be considered ritual. Any congregation that practices a repeated formula of worship and/or has a list of dogmas to be memorized and followed falls into this limited way of understanding God.
But God is greater than all this. He is greater in such a way that he enters quietly, enters the heart and soul of the individual. God exists beyond prescriptions of behavior, lists of beliefs, shelters of influence, or methods of corporate worship. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “God should come into our thoughts with no more parade than zephyr into our ears. Only strangers approach him with ceremony.”
Many of us crave ritual and ceremony while remaining strangers to God. Maybe we are just widening the gap, so to speak. Perhaps we use rituals because we are afraid to know him, afraid to wait and listen for his still small voice, afraid of the truth.
It has become clear to me that my search for the perfect Quaker meeting may never be realized. It isn’t simply a matter of sitting silently, waiting for the spirit to inspire, or sitting passively, listening to a sermon on some significant Bible message. It isn’t a matter of keeping company with those who may share political persuasions or similar viewpoints of a particular shelter of influence.
It is a matter of searching for a personal and authentic relationship with the Divine, with God, with the Light of the world. This is a lifetime quest for meaning and meaningfulness of things transcendent, for spiritual reality, for truth. It is seeking a place to stand in faith and a place to walk with mission, using both legs for the journey. I have found value in both programmed and unprogrammed worship times. I have seen the importance of a spiritual life that informs a practical life of service. I am learning how these two work together. I have decided to make the most of the several decades I’ve been given by walking among the various branches of Quakerism, by attending as fully as I can to living a complete Christian life.