This is the problem a small faith community that doesn’t hedge itself well constantly [has] to face: that the religious milieu in its congregations/meetings depend on the cultural melieu of different generations of its members.I've been coming to understand that Quakerism is passed onto younger people in a pattern similar to how Deaf culture and native sign language is transmitted across Deaf generations.
In my earlier professional life, I learned that about 90% of deaf children are born into non-deaf families. These deaf children, if they are to acquire and learn a natural, native sign language, if they are going to learn about Deaf culture, they will do so primarily by interacting with other deaf children, a few of whom will have been born to Deaf parents. In addition, deaf children will learn about their own identity secondarily through their teachers in school, many of whom are not deaf themselves.
Many contemporary Friends are convinced Friends and not born into or raised by Quaker families. We learn about our faith and the beliefs and practices therein from our peers or from others who are older than us but who likely are also convinced Friends. If we are exposed to Quakerism in only a limited way and through only a few individuals; if there is no reinforcement of Quaker values and principles by our family and by our wider societal structures (schools, community programs, etc.); and if Quaker meetings are inundated with young non-Quaker families because of strong First Day School programs that focus on interpersonal values and peacemaking, is it a wonder that Quakerism seems to lose its edge, lose its hedge, for long stretches at a time?
As a convinced Friend, I first was exposed to unprogrammed worship when I was in college, and I embraced it. It took me years to understand that there was much, much more to Quakerism than just meeting for worship. After graduating, I ended up moving to a completely different city and later got re-engaged with Friends, and even then it still took me a few years to attend my first Meeting for Worship for Business and to join my first committee. And despite the new involvement, I had yet to understand the concepts of corporate discernment or Gospel Order or waiting on the Spirit for guidance. None of my peers or spiritual friends at the time were talking with me about this stuff; and I have no recollection of anyone making the Quaker decision-making process more explicit at the time--which doesn't mean it didn't happen, just that I don't remember learning about it til much later.
My own grasp of certain Quaker principles--the centrality of the Divine, the reliance on corporate discernment, the significance of testing a leading--came first from individual Friends who had already done the same seeking (and finding) that I was then doing; and it came from serving on a certain committee at just the right time, when its clerk was the type who took advantage of "teachable moments," making transparent for me and for others just what we were doing as Friends and why we doing it the way we were. I was beginning to understand how the Quaker faith was put into Quaker practice.
One of the most significant periods of my Quaker journey was when I asked a woman who was about 40 years my senior if she would be an elder for me. But my request came before I knew that the word and concept of "elder" held for many at the time a sting of discomfort. The Friend I approached took a breath before answering and said, "Well... Just what do you mean by 'elder'? What would that look like?" I innocently replied that it would mean that the two of us would get together, maybe over lunch once a month, and trade stories about our experiences among Friends; that I had questions about my spiritual development and she seemed like someone I could turn to for support and spiritual nurturing.
We met monthly for lunch over the next four years.
I think early on in our get-togethers, she explained to me what her experience was around the word "elder," and we had a good laugh. My friend was there for me as an elder when I had questions about money and possessions; about relationships falling apart; about how things were evolving at meeting; about our shared experience at FGC's Gathering. Later, when I moved yet again, she and I would have long talks on the phone, and we'd run into each other at other Quaker events. In many ways, this Friend held Quaker doors open for me long enough for me to walk through them and into new Quaker territory that I could then explore on my own.
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I've been reading Mary Pipher's book Another Country. The book is about navigating the generation gap between adult children and their aging parents. But tucked away in the early pages of the book is a description of how our parents and grandparents lived through most of the 20th century, where communal life was instrumental, and when it was perhaps closer to the ideal:
Margaret Mead defined an ideal community as one that has a place for every human gift. An ideal community would somehow keep the best of the old ways and add the best of the new. We would have a mixing of races, generations, and viewpoints... We'd have privacy and potluck dinners, freedom and civic responsibility. All the adults would take responsibility to help all the children. We would have connection without clannishness, accountability without autocratic control. The ideal community would support individual growth and development and foster loyalty and commitment to the common good.I couldn't help but think of what Lloyd Lee Wilson, Sandra Cronk, Marty Grundy and others call covenant community, a place where our collective desire for knowing God and for a commitment to Right Relationship are the pillars of a faith community; where elders would help us conserve "the best of the old ways"; young adult Friends and younger Friends would help us "add the best of the new." We'd experience a balance of private seeking and corporate worship; we'd hold community-wide meals and share our food with those in need. We'd support one another in our well-tested individual leadings and engage in corporate witness in accordance to our beliefs.
These days, I yearn for a sustainable and vibrant Quakerism. I engage in more Quaker contexts as I explore what that means: I spend more time within my Quaker community. I communicate much more regularly with Quaker friends. I read more Quaker books. And I am passing the gift of eldership onto others so perhaps the thread will not be so easily lost between generations. There are wee Friends in the worship group I attend, and I make it a point to greet each of them and ask to share a hug hello or goodbye; there are those new to Friends who serve on committees that I clerk, and during our meetings, I look for teachable moments that I can lean into; and there are chance Opportunities here and there, where the Spirit puts me and another in the same place and the same time, and we meet in the Light of the moment and we leave the experience mutually made tender by one another.
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UPDATE, 31 Third Month 2005
Here are additional posts related to sustaining or reviving Quakerism.
RW at The Contrarian Quaker: no longer active "A Concern for Resonance"
Rob at Consider the Lilies: no longer active "What Keeps Us Quaker"
Martin at Quaker Ranter: Uh-Oh: Beppe’s Doubts
Carol, a reader of Quaker Ranter: You Don’t Want to Be Ranters Anymore
Martin, again at Quaker Ranter: It's My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry
UPDATE, 4 Eighth Month 2005
Scott at Quaker Renewal Forum. Look through the archives for any number of worthwhile topics. Here's one, for example: Quaker Culture or Quaker Faith - It's Time to Choose