On your own, discover just how hard it is to continue even an outward practice. Maintaining a witness is no less difficult. Moreover, it’s hard to keep from being overwhelmed by the negative influences around us. Maybe part of the restorative answer is right in front of us all along – Society of Friends, plural.
Trying to define Truth, I leap to its opposites: lies, Satan (the “author of lies”), discord, disorder, untrustworthiness, chaos – and unexpectedly embrace so much I hold dear, in harmony, structure, reliability, and order. How often, too, do Truth and worldly power appear to be in an inverted relationship! I cheer for the underdog to bring political or economic injustice to bay.
I’m always startled to hear people say they can pursue spirituality without any teacher or community. Nothing in my experience, as a yogi or a Christian, supports that.
One reason we need community to accompany our spiritual deepening and expansion comes in the ways it can counter tendencies toward self-deception, human weakness, laziness, or distraction. In the practice of our faith, we instruct, encourage, acknowledge, embrace, correct, inspire, comfort, guide – even rebuke – one another. These are matters the New Testament points tp as discipleship.
Lloyd Lee Wilson has reminded us there are no Quakers apart from the meeting, which is another way of saying each Friend needs to be part of this interactive dynamic.
The library in many Friends meetinghouses may have a few shelves like this. From a similar bookcase in Ohio I once borrowed Joseph Besse’s 1753 two-volume A collection of the sufferings of the people called Quakers, for the testimony of a good conscience from the time of their being first distinguished by that name in the year 1650 to the time of the act commonly called the Act of toleration granted to Protestant dissenters in the first year of the reign of King William the Third and Queen Mary in the year 1689. Alas, we don’t have that one in our collection – those big books are a genealogical treasure. We still have plenty for a serious scholar or bibliophile to engage. It’s likely that many of the authors visited Dover as travelling ministers.
Yes, it’s this week. And to think, this was Dover Friends’ third house of worship, coming a little more than a century after the first Quaker convincements along the Piscataqua and Cocheco waterways. The structure covers a lot of history, as we would see if we created timelines of those years – the entire life of our nation, for starters.
It’s hard for us to envision the activity of that day, with its swarm of activity, everyone seemingly knowing the tasks to be done. Cookbook writer Marcia Adams says it takes at least 100 to 150 men to raise an Amish barn, and then recites a menu that fed 175 men in the 1800s. Oxen and strong horses or mules would have been part of the scene, with pulleys and poles lifting the posts and beams into place. Many of the skills used that day have likely been lost to antiquity. A similar number of women would have been arranging the accompanying feast, and children would have been assisting everywhere.
In the background, I hear an echo of an old Friend in Iowa, viewing the beautiful curly maple shutters in a meetinghouse about to be shipped by rail car to another part of the state. “It will be a good thing if they be not too proud of it,” she said, with a curious balance of humility and admiration. The advice, of course, extends to us, as well. The fact remains that Friends do not worship in a temple but a house, with all of its Biblical sense of extended family and even their domestic animals. Welcome to our house.
We are left with an invitation to investigate ways their thinking fits into our own cognition and measures of authenticity. I am interested, especially, in insights that advance an understanding of the Truth as a metaphor, with overlapping layers of experience and vision.
While Pilate raises the question, “What is truth,” he makes little effort to look beyond the immediate issues of maintaining public order – and his position as imperial governor. In the Matthew 27:24 telling of the story, in fact, he washes his hands in public – absolving himself, he supposes, of any moral consequences of his ruling. The events that follow, of course, prove otherwise.
And as we see with that which is eternal, so we judge … only those who mind the light of the spirit, discern and own our testimony, and receive our witness and his power who is true, and so become willing to follow that truth that leads to freedom.
It’s not the same as taking minutes of a board meeting or city council session, but ours has a dimension all its own. Originating in the recording of persecutions in the initial decades of the Quaker movement, and in the subsequent petitions for redress and justice, our earliest minutes tell of “sufferings for Truth’s sake” and soon lead into the efforts of determining just what it means to live as a people of conscience.
Sometimes today we find the practice burdensome or unnecessary. Friends who follow the Old Ways in this matter will draft and read aloud the record on that part of the agenda, moving ahead only after that minute has been revised to satisfaction and approved. It’s slow and tedious, but it does focus the deliberations.
Here, the concept of clerking – especially for the recording clerk – has a meaning related to “clerk of court,” where the official records decisions from the bench above. In our case, Friends traditionally saw the high judge as Christ, and the meeting gathered as witnesses who would voice the sense of the resolution. I suppose we might see Friends attending our business sessions as a jury, then. If it were only as simple as guilty or not guilty!
Prayer, fasting, study of Scripture, plus the soup of other currents fed into their theology – the political, social, and economic upheaval of an extraordinary chapter of world history.
There are also the successive generations’ backing off from that, ultimately into earthly riches (that capitalist twist). From Levellers and Diggers came descendants who wound up as Whigs and Republicans.
And on to our own mix – the New Age or the undefined generic religion, with its own response: how can we stand with something sustained and unique? (Friends can acknowledge those who left Quaker Meeting for Zen sitting or Catholic orders or the Eastern Orthodox down the street, where – they’ve said – they found something more concrete.)
I see, too, how often we settle for conformity rather than consensus or deep unity. How often, as well, we forget to be loving – even Light-hearted.
We’re getting ready to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the erection of our meetinghouse in June 1768. It’s our third and went up in one day, like an Amish barn-raising nowadays. The big sign stashed in the gallery upstairs announced a play one Friend wrote and the rest of the Meeting performed in honor of the 200th anniversary. Yes, poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s parents were married in our meetinghouse.
One of the difficulties facing modern pastors or priests is that congregations expect them to assume all three of the historic Quaker offices – to be ministers, elders, and overseers – while few individuals are gifted in more than one. Somebody who’s great in the pulpit may be lousy in hospital visits or in coping with children. Add to that expectations as administrator or chief executive or even as a major fundraiser or organizational planner, and you can imagine the stresses and burnout that result.