What Are We Doing Here?

Message delivered at Durham Friends Meeting, June 4, 2017

“What are we doing here?”

I wrote those words on a sheet of paper a few hours after I agreed to bring today’s message. I don’t really know where they came from. My spiritual life is often like that: suddenly there’s a little bit of something on my mind, and I’m tugging at it trying to unravel a knot. The unraveling often takes several days or even weeks. So here I am unraveling in front of you.

What are we doing here? For me, the question brings back memories of “Do we have to go?” That’s a question from my childhood – one more often thought to myself than asked out loud. I knew that it wasn’t up to me. But now that it is up to me, “What are we doing here?” I think, is the grown-up version of that childhood question.

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So what are we doing here?

We come from many directions, from miles away, from many different starting points, each Sunday morning.   With my family on First Days, I drive by a Baptist Church and a Presbyterian church in Topsham, drive by the newly planted Hope Church on Pleasant Street in Brunswick, pass close by a Unitarian Universalist, an Episcopalian, and a Roman Catholic Church, and then drive 10 minutes further to be here, a little brick Quaker Church off by itself in Durham.

Probably all of us drive by a variety of other churches to get here.

Quakers have been worshipping on this site since the American Revolution. This part of Maine was an area of settlement for Quaker farmers. This was the Meeting they established. There has been an officially recognized Quaker Meeting here since 1790. This particular building has been here since 1829. There are a lot of memories in these walls.

Maybe a few of us are here in part because of a lifelong family tradition. But most of us aren’t descended from those early Quaker settlers in the lower mid-coast. Probably a comfortable majority of us weren’t born Quakers at all. In Quaker parlance, most of us are not “birthright;” we’re “convinced” Friends.

That’s an odd word to use. Convinced of what?  That’s not an easy question to answer. Any of you visiting today or new to us should know that there is a pretty broad spectrum of beliefs among us. Here at Durham Meeting, like at most Quaker Meetings, we do not bind ourselves to any creed or formal statement of belief.

Many of us describe ourselves as seekers. We know there are important questions and we’re looking for answers. We’re pretty sure there’s a truth deep down at the heart of things, but we also know it is elusive and difficult to pin down in words. It is not something that can be captured by a creed. Spiritual or divine things aren’t like that. We’re here because we’re trying to gain some understanding – anything – of the truth we dimly perceive deep down at the heart of things.

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So what are we doing here?

A few months ago, the Quaker blogger Chuck Fager put a Quaker FAQ on his blog. (Answers to Frequently Asked Questions; that’s an FAQ). One of the questions was this: Q.: Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?  And here’s his answer.

About 360 years ago in England, God had an idea. He (or She) wanted a group of people to come together and do some special pieces of God’s work, in some particular ways. So when a man named George Fox climbed up a place called Pendle Hill, God called to him and showed him that there was “a great people to be gathered” there, to do that particular work, in those particular ways.

That “people” or group was the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. It appeared because God gathered it, to do some particular work, in the particular ways we’re supposed to do it. (What we call the Testimonies are part of this work; but only part.) We’re not done yet, and God’s not done with us, and that’s why Quakers are still around.

Fager takes Quakers to be a movement, people who are called to some particular work. He’s telling us we’re here because we’ve joined the movement. We’re here to do work, work like advancing the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship of the Earth.

I was struck by Fager’s answer. It’s appealing but it isn’t what I would have said at all. Those testimonies are important to me, but they’re not what brings me to Quaker Meeting each week.  I understand why he can see it that way, and I know he isn’t alone in seeing Quakerism in that way.  But it isn’t how I see Quakerism. I’d sum up the gist of Quakerism in a different way.

For me, Quaker worship is a particular approach to knowing God. It’s a kind of pathway. “Be still and know that I am God.” That’s from Psalm 46. For Quakers, the best way to know God is to settle into silence and listen.

Waiting worship we sometimes call it. This Quaker pathway is one especially suited to seekers. Stilling ourselves to listen, sharing what we learn with one another: that’s a productive pathway to seek those elusive truths deep down at the heart of things.

Why does waiting worship work – for me or anyone else? The answer to that is also my answer to “What are we doing here?”  My hunch about why waiting worship works for us is the belief that God is still speaking to us. I believe – and most Quakers believe — that God still has more to say, but to hear it, we have to still ourselves and listen.

We can do this by ourselves, but joined in community we can do better. Together we can hear more and more clearly.

Quakers believe that God is still speaking to us.  “Believe,” however doesn’t feel like quite the right word. I know this experientially. In my experience, I find that if I still myself in worship, sometimes God does speak to me. Sometimes it’s a leading; sometimes it’s just a question like “What are we doing here?”

I also find the Quaker pathway – waiting worship – works for me because I need a more active approach to knowing God. I can’t be a spectator. I can’t be part of an audience. It’s better when I put myself wholly into it.  I find myself driven away by too many prescribed, ‘authoritative’ words from others. I need a more active approach than reciting creeds or formulas. I prefer silence (at least my own) to saying things prescribed by others that call forth my doubts.  In general, ritual is not good for me as a regular practice.  In waiting worship, there isn’t much ritual. Every worship service is different.

I have to do the work myself. But I also know it’s also better when I join my efforts with the best efforts of others. Seeking with Friends is better than seeking by myself.

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What about all the other pathways? What about all those other churches each of us drives by to come here?

I work from the assumption (and I don’t think I’m alone here) that all who seek God are seeking the same God, whoever or whatever God is.

God is hard to know so people come up with different pathways. That can be awkward, even tense, but, awkward or not, that is the way it is.  Trying to simplify knowing God by insisting on one true pathway for everyone leads regularly to trouble.  Sometimes even violence, and I know God doesn’t call us to that.

Instead, I think, ‘Because God is difficult to know, of course people have different approaches or practices to help them.’  Because people are different, I don’t see any point in insisting that there is just one best way to know God.

I know the Roman Catholic Mass works well for some people. Monastic life works well for a few. Hymn singing is essential for some.  Fasting, the Labyrinth, incense, sacred dance, Bible reading, sweat lodges, even bean suppers: all these work for some.

This is the clearest understanding I have for why people divide into different religious groups even if everyone is seeking the same God. For me, gathering with others in waiting worship is best for me.

That’s why, on First Days, I drive past a Presbyterian Church, a UU Church, an Episcopalian Church, and all those others, to come here to this old brick Meetinghouse in the woods.

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So what are we doing here? For you, that’s for you to say. But here’s my answer.

I come as a seeker for the elusive truths deep down at the heart of things.

I come for the answers I often find.  But much more, I come for the questions. Questions lead my seeking.

I come for the sense of certainty I find here, the certainty shared among us that there is a truth.  And just as much I come for the uncertainty, the recognition that I may never fully grasp that truth but that it is worth the seeking.

I come for the honesty I find here. Words aren’t spoken here just because they are answers we’ve inherited from the past. Words are spoken because they are the best approximation of truth we can find now, today. I come for the freshness.

I come for the words that are shared from everyone and from every corner of this this square meetinghouse set up in the round. Those words often have divine origins.  And just as much I come for the stillness and the silence in which I hope to hear God speaking.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Quaker Identity, Quaker Practices, Quaker Testimonies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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