Can Quakerism Be Saved?
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
September 15, 2019
2 Timothy 1:13-14 (MSG)
13-14 So keep at your work, this faith and love rooted in Christ, exactly as I set it out for you. It’s as sound as the day you first heard it from me. Guard this precious thing placed in your custody by the Holy Spirit who works in us.
This past summer I had the opportunity to speak at several different Quaker gatherings here in Indiana. From the annual Stoking the Fire event for Friends United Meeting to the Leadership Conference at Earlham School of Religion, each gathering afforded me the opportunity to speak on different subjects to a variety of diverse Quakers. One thing that seemed to be evident and very similar at each gathering was a deep sense of concern for the future of Quakerism. Often, I found myself among people who posed questions like, Can Quakerism be saved? or What hope is there for Quakerism, today?
Something similar also came up at one of the other events I was asked to present at this summer – our own Western Yearly Meeting Sessions in July. I was part of a panel discussion that was tasked with revisiting some of the vision and actions of earlier Friends that might compel us to rekindle some of their love and power for contemporary times. My 20-minute presentation focused on Quaker Civil Rights activists Bayard Rustin and Barrington Dunbar.
After we all presented, they opened it for general Q&A. Our own John Moorman asked the panel a more personal question. (Please note: I had to call John this week to try and get the exact question he asked – so here is the best we could come up with.)
What about Quakerism has been important to you and that you consider important to its future?
I was glad that a couple of the other presenters had the opportunity to go first, to give me time to think. As I sat looking out as part of the panel from the front of the Plainfield Meetinghouse, I wrestled with just how to answer John’s question. Honestly, there was not enough time to unpack all that I wanted to say. As the microphone was finally passed to me. I looked up and said,
“What has been important to me in Quakerism
is that we don’t have to be right or have all the answers.”
Immediately, almost every eye in the room rose to meet mine. Some seemed shocked while others looked quizzical or maybe even confused. I quickly knew that what I had said, was already being interpreted, judged and categorized.
A bit hesitantly, I went on to explain how that morning, a picture had shown up on my Facebook feed from a Northwest Yearly Meeting Business Session that I had attended a few years earlier. In the photo were the Clerk, Assistant Clerk, Recording Clerk, and at the time, a youth from my meeting in Silverton who was making a presentation and representing a group of several hundred passionate youth.
What I explained in the panel was how each of the people in that photo were Quakers that I admired and looked up to – some of them had even been mentors that had taught me the importance of not having to be right or having all the answers. Please understand – this was all while we were in the midst of some difficult battles in our Yearly Meeting about biblical authority, same-sex relationships, and even atonement theories – fun stuff to say the least, that you must know would ultimately tear us apart. Through it all, these people had modeled and encouraged Quaker process and discernment, and always led by example in listening to their inner Light for leadings and nudgings. Our clerk alone at the time was able to convey the shear importance of minding the light and waiting on the spirit to give guidance and wisdom, and he was also able to provide a place where an answer or “being right” was not always necessary.
I didn’t go much further in answering John’s question, because I sensed the room uncomfortable and not completely buying what I was saying. Over the years, I have learned that not having the answers or not being right is often too scary for many people, especially those who have been taught to rely or lean on belief systems, dogmas, and certain theologies – allowing the systems to almost believe for them instead of exploring or seeking for themselves. So, I passed the microphone on.
As I have had time to process my experiences this summer and think more about the answer to John’s impromptu question, I have continued to return to the words I said that day in hopes of expanding the ideas. As a pastor who is often sought out for the right answer, I continue to see the freedom and possibilities of not having to be right or to have the answers - especially as it pertains to one’s spiritual growth and opportunities for diverse and rich communities of dialogue and relationship. As I have been processing this, I also returned for another look at Brian McLaren’s book, The Great Spiritual Migration, which has offered me more details and ways to help explain my thoughts further – thus our Fall Sermon Series which I begin today. [Pause]
Now folks, I am going to be totally honest, I believe Quakerism is more relevant today, than ever in history. This almost seems ironic to proclaim as we continue to hear of meetings being laid down by the dozens, yearly meetings splitting and suffering to survive, and division proliferating among Quakers.
But let’s be honest, most of that division stems from two things: needing to be right and having the answers.
Brian McLaren sheds some light on this. He says,
“For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs.”
I must say this has been true for Quakers at certain times as well. When I taught our Youth Affirmation Class, I brought with me several different Faith and Practices from around Quakerdon to peruse. There were some similarities, but a great deal of differences. Sadly, what we have labeled as our Faith and Practice has often become a stagnant and rigid system or statements or beliefs from a specific era and theological perspective rather than a fluid document that guides the understanding of our faith and practice and offers an openness to question and even makes changes over time. One of the things that convinced me to be a Quaker was that fluidity, that openness and that opportunity for change.
Brian goes on to be extremely honest about the outcomes and tragedies that have occurred because people have become comfortable and unmovable around their system of beliefs, he says that our systems of belief have
“…supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBTQ people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege.”
Now, some of these unintended consequences are evident in Quakerism as I speak, and many are even the cause of much of the suffering and division amongst us. If we were fully honest, we might even find some of these unintended consequences within these very walls.
Prior to coming to Indianapolis, I was on the front lines of some of those unintended consequences out in the Northwest. I saw lines being drawn and the following of specific beliefs alienating and even harming individuals and groups of people – especially people who refused to fall in-line or find themselves on the “correct” side. Acutally, even my own family and I were alienated and harmed by these consequences.
Exploration, questioning, and discernment was stifled and sorely missing. Conversations, debates, and even biblical exegesis was replaced with doctrinal absolutes and finalities about what should be understood or considered if one was a true Christian or their brand of Quaker. This was not the Quakerism or Christianity that had convinced me. In reality, all of this became so ugly, that I didn’t even know if I wanted to be associated with Jesus or Christianity or anything that smelled of religion. Being spiritual but not religious, like a growing part of our world, was starting to appeal to me – simply because I was becoming appalled and embarrassed by those who proclaimed they were Christian and followed Jesus by allowing their systems of belief to judge, exclude, and hurt their neighbors.
But that was just it, I was (and am) a Quaker. This was not what my Quaker history taught or what I had come to be convinced of. I started to ask some deeper questions: Wasn’t it George Fox who reacted to the formalism and traditionalism of the established church in his day? Didn’t he place what he considered the God-given inward light above creeds and scriptures and regarded personal experience as the true source of authority? And rather than a religion, weren’t we part of a Society of Friends who was to present the world with a new, even radical, way of living based on values like simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality? Values that were modeled and exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus. Fellow Quaker minister Phil Gulley would write an entire book about living this Quaker Way just a few years after I began to ask these questions. I highly recommend his book, and yes, it is in our meeting’s library.
What I was coming to realize was that Quakerism wasn’t about a set of steps to follow, dogmas to believe, rules to enforce, or hoops to jump through – but rather it was about a way of life among community, where our guiding center was our Inner Light or what early Quakers considered the Present Christ or presence of the Spirit.
Brian McLaren also challenged me to consider a similar shift in our faith communities today, he asked…
“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
In many ways, what he is describing is a return to Quakerism at its purest, and I believe he is getting to exactly what could actually save Quakerism. We need to rediscover our faith as a way of life again. We need, in Brian’s words, to migrate again. Remember, Quakers have been migrating from their inception. George Fox, himself, was one who migrated from the Anglican and Puritan faiths because of their controlling system of beliefs to centering on one’s Inner Light and way of life modeled by Jesus.
I can relate to these migratory patterns.
I think one of my first attempts at migrating came when I was a freshman in college. I had grown up being taught in the church that women had no place in church leadership. I soon found myself stepping out and questioning that during a small group session at my freshman initiation. Please note, my undergraduate school was a product of my church denomination who held this same belief about women. I remember the young ladies in my small group ridiculing me for being wrong and saying it was an honor to be submissive to a man God had put over her. It took several more years before I finally was able to fully migrate on this issue and come to a more egalitarian position.
Another happened on my internship at a church in Oviedo, Florida, where one Sunday, a man who was suffering from Aids showed up for Sunday worship. Again, I was taught in many of my religious circles growing up that Aids was the “gay plague” and God’s retribution for homosexual sin. I watched as my senior pastor avoided the man on Sunday morning and then literally left out the back door of the office before the man came to a scheduled meeting with the pastor during the week. Once the man gave up waiting and exited the parking lot, the pastor quickly appeared again to vigorously scrub down every chair and doorknob in our office the man may have touched – all out of fear of getting Aids. As an intern, I was shocked and confused but it stuck with me…This was not how Jesus approached the lepers or others with diseases in the bible? Sadly, the pastor’s response to that man with Aids would be how the majority of churches out there would respond during the entire Aids epidemic. Just a few years earlier, right here in Indiana, I remember struggling with the response of the church to Ryan White. It had such a great impact on me, I later wrote about it being my first dark night of the soul. Too often the well-meaning church has stood firm on their condemning belief system rather than on expressing a loving way of life that would embrace or help the vulnerable.
‘These are just a couple examples, but I have continued to migrate over the years…
From liturgical and over-programmed worship to Quaker semi and unprogrammed worship
From a wrathful and punishing God to a non-violent peace-loving God
From exclusion of the LGBTQ community to acceptance and affirmation
From biblical literalism to seeing poetry, allegory, and context
From fear to love
And so many more…some that I will share as we continue this series.
And in these times of questions, exploration, and migration, I have often had what Brian McLaren refers to as my “inner fundamentalist” appear and speak into my ear (kind of like the cartoons with the devil and angel – except mine is the voice of my inner-fundamentalist that would often say,
“Just a minute! You are not allowed to do that. Christian faith was defined once and for all by Jesus and the apostles. It is encoded in the creeds and preserved by religious leaders and institutions. It’s already fully constructed, and there’s nothing to deconstruct or reconstruct. Our generation’s duty is to hand it down faithfully, without change. Here we stand [something that growing up Lutheran was engrained in me because Luther, himself, would say it in the midst of his own migration from the Catholic faith], without apology, accommodation, or migration. Christianity must always be what it has always been. Anything else is unorthodox, heretical, apostate, and wrong…
But like Brian McLaren, my inner fundamentalist also misled me. He assumed that the faith that was passed down to me from my family and my church was exactly the same treasure given by Jesus and the apostles. Brian points out that, “He didn’t realize how often through history we Christians have tampered with that original gift, how often we’ve weighed it down with baggage or suppressed some parts of it and exaggerated others, how often we’ve said the words but missed the point.”
And that takes me back to why I believe Quakerism is so important and needs to be saved. Quakerism is a treasure and gift for anyone seeking, growing, spiritually forming, questioning, doubting, and yes, most importantly migrating. It offers a space where you don’t have to have the answer or be right, but can simply be a part of a faith journey and exploration with a diversity of others who are journeying toward Truth.
That is what I love about First Friends – I believe we are a picture of a New Kind of Quakerism. Unlike many other faith communities, we aren’t trying to make cookie-cutter Quakers that all look and act the same. Nor are we making it about a system of beliefs or theological hoops to jump through. Rather, at First Friends we are simply taking people where they are and giving them tools to seek, grow, form, question, doubt, and migrate to new and exciting possibilities. And we embrace the migrating or those needing to migrate, and heck, I just may encourage a bit of migrating throughout the rest of this sermon series. It’s time to get moving!
As we move into waiting worship, let us take a moment to ponder some queries.
Do you know anyone who has left organized religion or is close to doing so? What has driven them away?
How have belief systems influenced your view of God and neighbor? Have you made any changes over time?
Where have we migrated or where do we need to migrate at First Friends?
Also, something new for this fall – after Meeting for Worship we are offering a space for those wanting to further explore and discuss the queries and ideas from the sermon. Feel free to grab a cup of coffee and a snack and head into the Seeking Friends room this morning. Please note that those who gather will facilitate the conversation. On non-monthly meeting Sundays we will meet in the parlor.