I’m not talking about a pastor with a microphone at a lectern, but something far more intimate and modest – sometimes with the Friend down on one knee in the midst of the circle.
It’s been said that prayer is the central duty or activity of a Christian, and the apostle Paul counseled the faithful to pray without ceasing. William Penn wrote that George Fox excelled, most of all, in prayer.
Hearing me discuss the interlocking scope of the Light/Seed/Truth metaphors, my wife replied that it seemed to mirror a line of contemporary intellectual inquiry known as complex systems organization.
Originating in several different disciplines, this perspective attempts to understand the actual requirements and behavior of an individual organism or ecosystem in operation, rather than limiting its placement to a linear explanation, traditionally often viewed as a top-down hierarchy.
One of its threads springs from attempts to understand how biological systems actually work, once scientists slowly began to recognize the need to look at the interactions of many parts and not just a straight-line chart.
For all of our claims of “seeing that of God in all people,” we can be pretty one-sided in our public views. Ditto for our proclamations of “inclusiveness” – we do carry a number of exclusionary issues, often subtle, and not just political. And we do know that many Dover Friends are involved in party politics – to the best of my knowledge, all on one side of the political spectrum.
Besides, I’ve heard it said – not just of my Meeting – “I know what they believe in politically. I just don’t know what they believe in” – meaning religiously. That part really troubles me.
Nowadays, the general public knows little or nothing about Quakers. So some of us are trying to be a bit more visible.
For the past several years we’ve been participating in the annual Apple Harvest Day street fair the chamber of commerce hosts the first Saturday in October. It’s grown into a beehive that sprawls over the entire downtown and down along a riverside park, attracting tens of thousands to town. While many of the tents are for arts and crafts vendors or local eateries, nonprofits are also a major presence.
Each year, we’re learning a little more. Remember, too, that it’s repeated positive impressions that eventually lead individuals to try what you’re offering.
We’re just getting our message out. We’ve developed from these humble first appearances to a more focused Meet a Quaker theme. Unlike many of the other tents, we’re not selling anything – we’re just trying to raise the visibility of the state’s fifth oldest congregation.
The pursuit of Truth requires humility and receptivity, the necessity of seeing and admitting, “I was wrong; we were wrong.” We can value our mercurial thoughts and feelings – the flash of blind emotion or intense dream – even when we differentiate their changeable excitement from eternal Truth. To the extent that we perceive a unifying Truth among us, we can also appreciate the richness of our individual encounters, skills, and situations. We can turn to each other to enlarge our comprehension and practice.
I wonder how we would react if a soldier in uniform showed up to worship with us, or a woman wearing a great deal of makeup, or a man straight off a lobster boat. Yes, we would tolerate them (I hope). But would we feel awkward – to say nothing of them? Would we be able to truly extend a welcome?
Our possessions and style extend subtle signals reflecting our places in a larger society. Ours is no longer a blue-collar community. Our vocal ministry often relies on “big words” and metaphors – rather than pointed messages that drive home an unmistakable point. Even so, while we stand apart from the larger society in many ways, perhaps we engage ourselves in it too much. These are ultimately matters to consider when striking a balance between inclusion and identity, nurture and welcome, growth or decline.
Peterson Toscano is a remarkable Bible scholar, one who frequently opens a passage in a new way to me. Let’s say I quote him a lot. But he’s also, well, as he’s described it, a “quirky, queer, Quaker performing artist and comic” and environmental and social justice activist and a lot more. He adapts readily to any audience, large or small, young or old, indoors or out. Oh, and he is incredibly funny, even when dissecting a Biblical passage. I always find him quite refreshing.
Here he is in the Gonic meetinghouse in Rochester, New Hampshire.
Maintaining particular elements that set a faith community apart from the larger society and a desire to be like everyone else is a basic tension in religious history.
The problem that arises along the way is that other values, like the Peace Witness, can also be eroded along the road to a generic Protestant practice or New Age miasma.
It’s important that we remain aware of what are known as “distinctives” – in our stream of Quakerism, the unprogrammed worship, simple meetinghouses, and decision-making process are highly obvious. Once, our discipline of Plain dress and speech, our system of “guarded education” in Quaker parochial schools, and our avoidance of public entertainments would have also set us apart.