Our way of doing business, requiring unity but no voting, requires us to listen carefully to each other. In practice, this can be difficult, especially if someone opposed to a proposal refuses to speak up or speak fully or, perhaps more serious, refuses to attend the business sessions where the matter is being considered.
I didn’t clearly perceive this revolutionary foundation until two seemingly disconnected utterances arose in the midst of open worship a week apart. The first, from John 15:14-15, is where Jesus elevates his faithful followers from the status of servants and declares they are his friends. Among Quakers, it’s a central quotation, giving us our formal name as the Religious Society of Friends. On the surface, it’s a feel-good line of goodwill and invitation.
The second message however, based on Luke 9:23-25, is one that many ministers would prefer to avoid proclaiming. Here Jesus declares that each of his followers must deny himself and take up his own cross. The content is harsh and rebuffing. There’s no way to soften its directive:
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
It was a passage I hadn’t considered for several years, but revisiting it now came as a jolt. I wondered what was going through the minds of others in the room, especially those who had never before encountered it.
George Fox’s time of sitting “in hollow trees and lonesome places,” and his recognition that among the priests and preachers he consulted, “there was none among them that could speak to my condition,” and his eventual proclamation of “the pure knowledge of God and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing,” the vital fact remains that he was stimulated by early dialogue all the same and, once he’d experienced Divine Revelation, did not keep it to himself but was instead drawn out to others who were having similar transformations.
I would point, too, to the spiritual support he received initially from Elizabeth Hooten (who, incidentally, came in her advanced age to Dover to minister among Friends here) and later from Margaret Fell.
As Margaret Fell remembered hearing George Fox preach in 1652:
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?
That is, meld spiritual truth into all dimensions of personal daily action and awareness, with an ideal of producing a life of integrity instead of a life of expediency.
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.
In short, I uncover a buried passion for Truth.
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.
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.
– James Nayler, Salutation to the Seed of God
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!