January 30, 2013
Consider us contraltos in God’s holy choir. Consider us paratroopers in God’s holy army (OK, medics if you’d prefer). Consider us utility infielders on God’s holy baseball team. Consider us produce clerks in God’s holy supermarket.
I’ve been searching for metaphors for Quakers. I’ve been searching for an image of what it means to me to be a Quaker, a picture of why that identity has meaning to me. Each of these metaphors pictures us as parts of a whole, parts with special roles to play. Each role has its own ways of doing things and its own intrinsic worth, but each role has value to others, too.
These metaphors are quite different from saying we are champions in God’s holy Wimbledon or the highest ranked denomination in God’s U.S. News and World Report rankings. I’m more drawn to metaphors that imagine a pleasing variety in God’s garden than a competition to find a best-in-show.
Does it matter to me, or to anyone else, that I am a Quaker? This question of why it matters to me that I call myself a Quaker has been on my mind for several reasons.
Micah Bales recently wrote a blog post entitled Being Quaker Is Not the Point, and he was reflecting on a Quaker Life article from David Johns entitled Moving Forward or Circling the Wagons, in which David says that for too many of us “preserving the distinctive traits of our 350-year-old tradition has become more important than listening to the living voice of the Spirit in our midst.” Surely God calls all of us with One Voice.
Then comes a blog post from Josh Brown entitled The Ghost of Denominations Past, in which Josh urges “It’s time for us to come up with something more workable and realistic, affordable and adapted to today’s needs and interests. We aren’t a denomination any more. What can we be together?”
So is there a point in being a Quaker – and if so, what is that point? Is there something valuable that draws us together with one another that also separates us from other Christians? Why uphold the separation?
The question has also been on my mind for a more personal reason. Most Sundays (that is, most First Days) I worship not at a Quaker meeting but First Parish Church, a United Church of Christ church in Brunswick, Maine. My wife, Ellen, recently joined First Parish, and is now a choir member there. Many of our friends and neighbors worship there. The church has an excellent Sunday (First Day) School for our son, Robbie (age 9), something the local Quaker meeting lacks.
But I haven’t joined First Parish. I’m still a Quaker; my membership is still at First Friends in Richmond, Indiana, one of the outcast congregations from Indiana Yearly Meeting. I’m happy to worship at First Parish: I love the music, and most of the sermons are excellent. Nevertheless, when Communion is celebrated once each month, I abstain.
I abstain because of a leading shared by most Friends: the outward act, the ritual of the Last Supper, is not nearly as important as the inward communion with God. And that inward communion can’t be a once-a-month thing; it needs to be an everyday, steady aspiration. I abstain in recognition that the outward ritual might displace the inward communion.
I grew up in a Presbyterian Church, where (of course) I celebrated Communion each month. As I entered my teens, one of my regular internal questions was about why ‘we’ Presbyterians had figured out what God wanted us to believe and all those other denominations had failed. At the same time I couldn’t help but notice that most people were members of the church in which they had been born. It didn’t seem like too many people were giving fresh thought to the wide array of alternatives available. So was it just family inertia that made me a Presbyterian?
I realize now that I was looking at the choice among churches or denominations as a kind of competition, one in which churches were striving to be the one and only true way for everyone. The story went like this: once upon a time, there was One Church. Then there was an effort to reform that One Church but it ended up fracturing the One Church. The many churches that emerged from that fracturing (the Reformation) presented themselves as so many best exemplars of the One True Church, and the competition was on.
Long ago I ceased thinking that way. I was drawn to worship among Friends because Quakers assured me that God continues to speak to us today. That resonated with me: it was something I knew experimentally but unconfidently until I encountered Friends. I was drawn to worship among Friends because I found that gathering and seeking with others in silence was the surest way for me to hear what God is saying to me and to others.
I was drawn to the spiritual insights of Friends and to Friends modes of worship. At the same time, I came to see that what works for me as an approach to God may not work for everyone. I came to see that there are many ways of approaching God. I simply hope others find what works for them as I have found what works for me.
So why be a Quaker? It is not to form a denomination separate from others, and certainly not to proclaim the One True Way. I simply want to join with others to form and sustain a spiritual community that works for me and others, and also works for all who care to join that pathway to knowing what God asks of us. That’s one reason.
Another reason is akin to it. None of us can know all that we might know of God. There is too much that might be known. Different people carry different notes, different lines of the same complex music.
Quakers (as well as others) carry certain special understandings of God that are valuable: valuable both to ourselves but also to others. Here’s a quick list of those understandings we have a special commission to carry into the world:
Jesus has come to teach His people Himself.
True communion is an inward, ongoing experience, not a special event.
A valuable, regular spiritual practice is joining with others in silence in seeking God.
All are called to ministry – yes, all.
Let your lives speak.
Jesus was unequivocally clear that we should not ever engage in violence.
The world needs to hear these things, and we Quakers are bearers of these notes. So consider me a contralto in God’s holy choir.
I believe as Friends we have important spiritual practices and important spiritual insights to offer. We are eager to have others worship with us who are drawn to those same practices and insights. At the same time we can learn from the practices and insights of others — the altos, the countertenors. And we can try to be sure that others hear our special notes as clearly as possible.
When I go to First Parish Church, I take special joy when I hear these special Quaker notes affirmed.
We aren’t Quakers to hold ourselves apart; we are different in order to be our best in joining with others. Consider me a paratrooper in God’s holy (non-violent) army.