Friday, October 24, 2014

Queries & Questions from a Quasi Quaker

One of the many blessings of my recent week in North Carolina was reconnecting with my Quaker roots. As many of you are aware, I grew up attending a Friends Meeting (Some Quakers use the words Meeting and Meetinghouse instead of Church because they believe the church is made up of people, not buildings or institutions. Others have abandoned this practice.) and spent the first 16 years of my professional ministry serving within the Society of Friends. In addition to working with local congregations, my involvement at the statewide level (Q's refer to their conferences as Yearly Meetings, because they gather once a year to do business) was significant. For a number of years I chaired the Young Friends (youth age) Activities Committee, served on the Quaker Lake Planning Committee and the QLC Board and represented our Yearly Meeting on a few national committees as well. I was well known in Quaker circles and my opinions were often valued. My involvement in those years was intense, time consuming and very important to me. When I left Quakers in 1994 to take a youth ministry position among United Methodists in Florida, a part of my heart was very heavy. And a part of me was very relieved.

You see, being a Quaker is very hard work. Friends have long believed (as did Jesus) that a good question is often better than an easy answer. It is hard to explain what a denomination believes when the answer is so personal. There is no creed or statement of faith that lays it all out- you must discover faith for yourself. Friends affirm that there are many paths one can walk on a spiritual journey and that no church or pastor can answer our questions and fulfill our needs completely- only God can. We are all called to be lifelong seekers of truth, according to traditional Quakerism. While I believe in this basic concept as stated by the first Quaker, George Fox, in 1652- "there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition" - in practice it does create some interesting dynamics. A room of 50 Quakers can have (and often does!) 50 different opinions, and because Friends are not a creedal society they are all "correct." This has led to turmoil, disagreement, compromise and discovery on many occasions throughout their 350 years. Quakers have had a disproportionate impact on history for such a small society. They were among the early leaders for religious freedom in the 13 colonies, among the leaders in abolishing slavery, among the leaders in obtaining voting rights for women and consistently at the forefront of peace and social justice issues, including the equal rights movement past and present. It is my belief that they had that kind of impact because they used their differences to grow and become stronger instead of to hold each other down. They found common ground in loving people. They changed the world in many ways. I read a pamphlet as a teenager published by the Catholic Church about the Society of Friends that contained this statement- "Quakers differ from us in nearly every way in the organization and practice of the faith. But it is hard to deny that Quakers often make the best Christians."

But recently, as old friend after old friend described to me the turmoil currently taking place in NC Yearly Meeting, it was clear there has been a major shift. The once healthy debate and respect for the spiritual equality of all people has turned into a typical USAmerican Red State/Blue State type of battleground. Fewer and fewer are seeing those 50 people in the room as different but right. Now they are different and WRONG. There has been a move from disagreement and debate to "Throw the bums out!" Pastors and other "Weighty Friends (a Quaker term for someone with wisdom, experience and reputation for speaking the truth)" spoke of a growing sentiment that the Yearly Meeting might split, dissolve or just get rid of some "trouble makers." Some of the issues are theological. By design (no creeds), Quakers are a very diverse group in both faith and practice. For many years the varying worship styles and debates on the topic of evangelism versus social justice have created tension. Tolerance for this wide range of beliefs seems to have reached a new low. Some problems are financial. Dwindling numbers have put new financial burdens on local Meetings, and their abilities to pay their Yearly Meeting "askings" have been compromised. Those who do pay are demanding a greater say in where and how the money is spent. And part of the issue seems to be just good ol' USAmerican arrogance- "I'm right...and you're stupid!"

All of this saddens me. My experiences with Quakers as a teenager and young adult are at the base of everything I  believe today. They taught me to search, to accept and to look for "that of God in everyone." My theology these days is simple- it's all about Jesus. I identify with the part of NCYM that holds to a Christ-centered faith and understand the frustration that arises when it feels like others don't believe the one thing you find to be most important. But I also understand the history and the practices of the Society of Friends. There are those who find refuge in a more open faith, accepting possibilities and practices that are foreign to me now. But know this- I came from that very same place. I was allowed to seek. I was nurtured. And eventually I came to believe in Jesus as my savior because I found it to be true in my own life- not just because someone else told me so. Choosing to be part of a non-creedal denomination means you forfeit the right to dictate what others in your group believe. You can disagree, complain, argue and influence- but you cannot dictate. The other choice is for YOU to leave, not to seek to throw those with whom you disagree out of a fellowship they have belonged to for hundreds of years. Being a Quaker is often about compromise. When I reached the point where that was uncomfortable for me, I left. But a part of my heart will always be among Friends.

In true Quaker fashion, there days there are tough questions with no easy answers. There are amazingly faithful people, and people I love dearly, on both ends and squarely in the middle of this struggle. It is my hope, through prayer and reconciliation, that healing can take place and NCYM can remain whole. Every time I pray about this my heart hurts for ministries like Quaker Lake Camp and the Serenity Youth Choir that have long served EVERYONE in the Yearly Meeting- no matter where they are on the theological spectrum. It would be tragic to sacrifice such great, life-changing programs to any kind of selfish, superior attitude that denies the spiritual equality of all Friends. It's been 20 years since my days on the inside of Quaker politics, and my voice no longer matters there. But my prayers do. And this quasi Quaker is praying hard. Please join me.

Because of Jesus,

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