November 3, 2006

Paul Kelly: How we talk about Quakerism

A guest piece by Paul Kelly, used with permission.

The following piece originally appeared in The Good Raised Up as a comment in response to an earlier post. Although I don't consider myself Christian, I appreciate the observations that Paul Kelly makes about how Friends talk about the Christian message, Jesus, etc. –Liz
We left our episcopal parish this past spring when ... the politics of the parish had become a constant subterranean distraction, and had deepened to differences over "biblical authority." Worship there wasn't working for us anymore, though we still love many of the people, the sincerity of faith, music. Many good memories. I don't regret the 7 year exposure to more traditional Christian preaching, teaching, and spirituality. But to make a long story short, we seem to be back among Friends.

Thinking about some of the themes in the conversation about "convergence"... A couple of Gordon College students came to meeting Sunday on assignment, and a small group was giving them the run-down on Quakerism. I was struck by how quickly Friends turn to their history to describe themselves, even if they don't know their history very well. It struck me that one problem with this tendency is that it can make it harder to see Friends' history clearly--history becomes too freighted if it becomes the terms in which we describe who we are now.

One participant offered that Friends were more concerned with the teachings OF Jesus than the teachings ABOUT Jesus. I'd heard this before--actually from the grown daughter of an Indiana Yearly Meeting pastor describing her father's approach. But I was uncomfortable here, too. On the one hand, early Friends did have strong teachings ABOUT Christ Jesus as light, seed, truth, come to teach his people himself. On the other hand, there can be long stretches of time when what makes sense to me (or what I want to challenge myself with) are some of the teachings OF Jesus. But I realized afterward that what made me uneasy was the implicit stake in denying (or at least setting safely aside) a big part of the traditional gospel. Whether or not I can affirm Jesus as Teacher and Lord--and whether or not I expect others to affirm--I want it all available.

My younger daughter and I attended the annual retreat of the small meeting we are attending. An old woman (she would prefer "old" to "older") born in Germany, lived through Hitler, is an important quiet (sometimes sleeping) elder in the meeting. Her love and faith are very real, and she faces the debilities of age with enormous appreciation for the many good, active years she has enjoyed. But she is one who would rather not even use the word "God." "Life" works for her, and she needed Quakers' non-creedal space to free her natural reverence into something to cherish and share with others. Well, "life" works and doesn't work for me. "God" carries other meanings that somehow go beyond life as shown on this planet, and sometimes I need that beyond in order to maintain faith here. But I have no desire to tell her she is missing the boat or "hiding from the summons of the cross." Fact is, I'm not that sort of evangelical. I am deeply grateful that she is available to the meeting, to me, to my daughters--and she will give her own testimony. Is it too much to want the gospel, the NT, the Hebrew tradition, the history of the church, Quaker history, Ghandi, Buddha, sentimental French moral tales of the 19th century, and you and I today all available as we seek, a la Paul, to not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good? Is Jesus too much totalitarian fire in a bottle to be held that way? Always a question for me. But I find from experience that I either hold it lightly or not at all.

I was thinking the ideal response to an inquirer would not be a disquisition on Quaker history, practices or beliefs, but, as Jesus once said, "Come and see."

Paul Kelly


Anonymous said...

Dear Liz,

I have followed your notes for awhile, and would like to mention how much I appreciate your insight. You have a nice manner, which makes it a joy to visit, and now guest writers too!

I have been to several meetings now, and I sense that I have found a spiritual home. I come from a family background with a moral upbringing, but little "church" (when it was, it was Methodist) My wife comes from a strong Caholic background, and the girls have are been raised as such, and I am pleased that they were exposed to religion in a way that I was not.

The curious thing is that I am drawn to the meetinghouse especially because I feel a closer presence of Christ than I have elsewhere, especially in light of the tendency in the blogosphere to somewhat lessen Jesus as the center. I never have experienced a protestant or catholic service where I felt uplifted in this way.

I had expressed to a neighbor, who is a birthright friend, my fear that the local meeting could be more of a "group in search of a cause" than a group in search of Christ, but so far I am pleased to discover that this seems not to be the case.

For now, I will continue to simply enjoy my time Sundays in search of Him; in the meantime, thank you for your thoughtfulness.

regards and God bless,

Bill G
Dorchester, Ma

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Bill-- thanks for the comment!

I am finding that the journey we take among Friends may start off rather scenic ("Oh, how nice this experience is") and later becomes rather bustling ("So much to do, so little time!") and later still becomes a series of detours ("There's this cause that needs our help; then there's this book study group I want to go to; then there's the committee work I have to do...").

All that said, it's becoming more and more clear to me that while some Friends keep the Light and the Seed in the center of our faith, other Friends simply do not find Truth or meaning in that concept, and so their faith is expressed differently, such as through activism, interpersonal relationships, and other community involvement.

Still, I am glad to read of your own direct experience, of feeling "a closer presence of Christ." Your words of feeling uplifted remind me of George Fox's own excitement:

And when all my hopes... were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly, to help me; nor could tell what to do; then, O then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition": and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy...


Peterson Toscano said...

Liz, thanks for posting this. As a Christian Quaker (Quaker Christian?), I appreciate reading it.

GMC said...

I find it amasing the way the spirit works among Quakers. A non-Christian Quaker spreading the working of Christ amongst people in meeting. I don't think that labels ever give a real idea of all the neuances hidden in the many layers of a person and I believe that Christian is one of the most abused.

I myself left a main line prostent church after attending Meeting for a period. My sound-bite statement about it is "as a Lutheran I worshipped God, as a Quaker I commune with God.

Liz Opp said...

Peterson and GMC--

As always, I'm so glad you took a moment to drop me a line.

I avoid thinking too long about me, Christianity, and Quakerism: The illogic of finding myself here, if I dwell on it, can lead me down a path that separates me from God. I continue to ask myself a few questions to help me stay centered:

1. How might I be of service?

2. Am I being faithful?

3. Am I being well-used?

4. Am I happy?

Those are questions I never knew to ask when I was growing up.


Martin Kelley said...

I appreciate Paul's observation that we Friends are often too quick to turn to history to describe ourselves. It's easier to talk about history and past personalities than to risk realizing that meeting members might not share any kind of core set of beliefs. Thorny questions would be raised and difficult conversations might ensue. This kind of "who are we" challenge is necessary for a religious body and is quite appropriate but many Friends have become afraid of it. The problem is probably most acute in regions where only one type of Quaker tradition is recognized and the impulse for conformity most acute.

When I teach Quakerism I try to avoid the Quaker history lesson as much as possible--no one ever really remembers the differences between Wilburites and Gurneyites anyway and it distracts the group from really addressing that "What Canst Thou Say" imperative, a Fox phrase that I think captures one of core values.

Martin aka Quaker Ranter

Anonymous said...

Thomas Hamm, writing about Elias Hicks said that "Hicks argued that Jesus was not born as the Christ. Instead, he became the Christ, the Son of God, because he had been the only human being ever to live in perfect obediance to the Divine Light that was within him." (The Quakers in America, Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 40)

John 1 says "In the begining was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This Word, the Christ, this Seed, is what Quakers believe lives in each of us. We come to know each other in the "things that are eternal" because we come to know that of Christ in one another through our ministry to one another.

This sort of Christ, this Truth, is what I see in others in my Meeting and in my Life. I seek to be in that place of connection with this Christ where I can experience holiness in every moment. We don't necessarily need to talk about the man Jesus who embodied a life fully connected to the Divine in such an inspiring way that many followed him, to experience this Christ. We don't necessarily need to believe all that the Church placed upon the message of Jesus, as one said "the messages we got about the messages of Jesus," to experience this Christ. I experience the Christ, the Word, the Seed, in all my spiritual (read: life) encounters when I take the time and the silence necessary to be fully present and to therefore honor the sacredness of the encounter. A difficult, wonderful desire.

Anonymous said...

Hi--Paul Kelly here.

Thanks to all for your comments.

I note that the gospels simultaneously point to the special authority or role of Jesus and to teaching that is utterly simple and basic. This dynamic is pointed to by passages in John's farewell discourse, where Jesus says, "You believe in God; believe also in me." And then, "If you love me, you will do what I command, and my commandment is this, that you love one another." In Mark, Jesus tells the parable of the king who sends his only son to the vinyard and its tenants, only to be killed. And Jesus answers the Sanhedrin straightforwardly, "I am the Christ." Yet Mark also reports Jesus' oh-so-simple moral reasoning in the controversy of his healing on the Sabbath: "If you ox falls in a ditch on the Sabbath, would you get it out?" Also, "It is not what goes into a man that makes him clean or unclean, but what comes out." That he cuts to the quick, appealing to simple goodness, is a key to his authority. Looked at the other way, he uses his authority (you have heard it said, ... , but I say, ... ) to move from argument from authority (the law) to argument that just rings the bell of goodness-almost-too-good-to-be-true (blessed are those who mourn) in us.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Martin and Elizabeth and Paul--

This conversation is indeed rich, and I'm glad to see it has carried on without me recently. My life has been overfull and I've had to Listen a bit more carefully as to where I am to direct my attention.