“Becoming Quaker,” by Joyce Gibson

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, January 9, 2022

G’ morning Y’all,

Happy New Year!  IT IS GOOD TO  BE HERE WITH EVERYONE.  WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE COMMUNITES I BELONG TO, THIS MEETING IS HIGH ON MY LIST, JUST BEYOND MY FAMILY.  MORE DISCUSSION ABOUT COMMUNITY COMES LATER.

EACH TIME I OFFER A MESSAGE I CHOOSE A TOPIC I AM STRUGGLING WITH; THIS TIME IS NO DIFFERENT.  I HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT WHETHER I AM A QUAKER.  HOW DO I KNOW WHEN I BECOME A QUAKER?  DOES ATTENDING OR BECOMING A MEMBER OF A MEETING MAKE ONE A QUAKER?  WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A QUAKER?  THUS, THIS MORNING, I HOPE TO THINK WITH YOU ABOUT WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A QUAKER.  IS  BEING A DURHAM QUAKER DIFFERENT FROM BEING A PORTLAND OR WOODBROOKE QUAKER?

HOW DO WE MANIFEST OUR QUAKERISM?  FIRST, I THOUGHT ABOUT OUR TESTIMONIES AND OUR PRINCIPLES.  GEORGE FOX IS NORMALLY THOUGHT OF AS OUR FOUNDER, AT LEAST THE PERSON WHO IS KNOWN FOR ‘DISCOVERING THE LIGHT’, AFTER A LONG SPIRITUAL QUEST WHICH BEGAN IN HIS LATE TEENS BECAUSE HE FELT THAT CHRISTIANS HE KNEW WERE NOT ‘LIVING THEIR BELIEFS’.  GORDON BROWNE, WHO WROTE A PENDLE HILL PAMPHLET CALLED INTRODUCING QUAKERS (Adapted from a Pendle Hill-On-The-Road presentation, Newbury, VT, Nov. 2-3,1990), SUMMARIZED THE PRINCIPLES OF FOX BASED ON FOX’S UNDERSTANDING OF THE BIBLE WHICH HE KNEW INTIMATELY:

  • That God is directly accessible to all persons without the need of an intermediary priest or ritual;
  • That there is in all persons an in-dwelling Seed or Christ or Light (he used all these metaphors) which is of God and which, if they will but heed it, will guide them and shape their lives in accordance with the will of God;
  • That true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words or rituals, which Fox called “empty forms”, but comes only from direct experiences of God, known through the Seed or Christ or Light within;
  • That the Scriptures can be understood only as one enters into the Spirit which gave them forth;
  • That there is an ocean of darkness and death—of sin and misery—over the world but also an ocean of light and of love, which flows over the ocean of darkness, revealing the infinite love of God; and
  • That the power and love of God are over all, erasing the artificial division between the secular and religious so that all of life, when lived in the Spirit, becomes sacramental.  The traditional outward sacraments, again characterized as empty forms, are to be discarded in favor of the spiritual reality they symbolize. (Pages, 2, 3 from Introducing Quakers, 1990)

You can imagine that these ideas did not play well in the 17th century, though based Biblically, and Fox’s public ministry was not welcomed by the authorities in the churches.  Though he found thousands of seekers and influenced his ideas to be spread by others, (and eventually across the pond to Boston and Cape Cod in 1656, and 1657 respectively), he paid heavily personally and physically with imprisonments and beatings because of what he believed.

THEN THERE ARE QUAKER TESTIMONIES.  DURING THE TIME I BECAME A MEMBER OF DURHAM MEETING (THIS DOES NOT MEAN I BECAME A QUAKER, Y’ALL!) IN 2015, OUR THEN PASTOR, DOUG GWYN AND OTHERS REFERENCED OUR TESTIMONIES AS AN ACRONYM:  SPICES—SIMPLICITY, PEACE, INTEGRITY, COMMUNITY, EQUALITY, AND SUSTANIBILITY.  LIVING YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF THESE TESTIMONIES DEPENDS ON HOW YOU INTERPRET THEM, BUT YOU CAN CERTAINLY FIND EXAMPLES IN OUR FAITH AND PRACTICE BOOKS FROM NEW ENGLAND YEARLY MEETING; ACTUALLY, BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, SOME OF US WERE LEARNING HOW FOLKS IN OUR COMMUNITY VIEWED THE TESTIMONIES THROUGH SHARING THEIR FAITH JOURNIES IN THE ADULT EDUCATION CLASSES.

A BOOK I WANT TO SHARE QUOTES FROM IS A SHORT ONE BY GEOFFREY DURHAM, CALLED WHAT DO QUAKERS BELIEVE ? (Christian Alternative Books, 2019).  HE WRITES REGULARLY ABOUT QUAKERS, AND IS ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF QUAKER QUEST, AN OUTREACH PROJECT TO INTRODUCE FOLKS TO QUAKERISM.  IT IS A PAPERBACK OF ONLY 68 PAGES, WITH CLEAR EVERYDAY LANGUAGE.  HERE ARE A FEW THINGS HE OFFERS:

  • Quakers believe that formal creeds are unnecessary, because what matters to them is the truth and integrity of personal experience.
  • Quakers believe that religious doctrines and dogmas are unhelpful and should be set aside.
  • Quakers believe that regular attendance at Quaker meetings has the power to change people, help them find meaning and give them a purpose in life.
  • Quakers believe that they should be guided by love and what love requires of them.  (Pages 9, 10)

HOW DO WE DISCERN WHAT LOVE REQUIRES OF US? 

(BY THE WAY, BROWNE REPORTS THAT EARLY FRIENDS CALLED THEMSELVES “FRIENDS OF TRUTH” OR “PUBLISHERS OF TRUTH” NOT THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS…THE TRUTH THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT WAS CAPITAL “T” AND IT BELONGED TO GOD; IT WAS ETERNAL, UNCHANGING, AND HUMAN BEINGS WOULD EXPERIENCE GLIMPSES OF IT AND GAIN FRAGMENTS OF IT BY BEING OPEN AND SENSITIVE TO THE LEADINGS OF THE SEED, THE CHRIST, THE LIGHT WITHIN).  QUAKERS BELIEVE THAT REVELATION OF GOD’STRUTH DOES NOT END WITH THE BIBLE, BUT CAN BE REALIZED THROUGH PEOPLE’S EXPERIENCES TODAY. 

SO, WE HAVE PRINCIPLES, TESTMONIES, THINGS WE BELIEVE, INCLUDING TRUTH TELLING . . . NOW WHAT?

  • DOES UNDERSTANDING THESE PRINCIPLES AND TESTIMONIES HELP US BECOME QUAKERS?
  • WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE BECOMING QUAKER?
  • DID YOU TAKE COURSES?  DID YOU JUST SOAK IT ALL IN BY ATTENDING MEETINGS?
  • DO YOU HAVE A QUAKER MENTOR OR SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR? 
  • DID YOU JUST GROW UP QUAKER AND LEARNED THROUGH YOUR FAMILY AND OTHER FRIENDS?  OR DID YOU BECOME A CONVINCED QUAKER FROM SOME OTHER RELIGIOUS TRADITION?
  • DOES BECOMING QUAKER REQUIRE INDIVIDUAL EFFORT AND COMMUNITY EXPERIENCES?

BEGINNING YOUR QUAKER SPIRITUAL JOURNEY: HERE ARE SOME THINGS I KNOW ABOUT BECOMING A QUAKER…

  1. LEARNING FROM OTHERS:  WE HAVE QUITE A POOL OF PEOPLE WHO EXHIBIT THE PRINCIPLES OF QUAKERISM @DURHAM; JUST WATCHING THEM AND UNDERSTANDING THEIR ACTIONS OFFER ‘WHAT PRACTICING QUAKER PRINCIPLES LOOKS LIKE. You can name them, and some are here today, right on the screen.
  2. LETTING GO OF THINKING YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF YOURSELF (AND OTHERS THINGS IN OUR WORLD); THIS IS THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGE OF OUR SPIRITUAL JOURNEY.  ROBERT GRISWOLD SHARES IN HIS PAMPHLET ON “MARKING THE QUAKER PATH” (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 439, 2016) THAT NO ONE TOLD HIM THAT BEING ON THIS SPIRITUAL JOURNEY TO BECOME A QUAKER, IS A LIFELONG PROCESS.

YOUR EGO AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS IN OUR WORLD, COMPETE MIGHTLY TO PREVENT YOU FROM CONNECTING TO THAT “STILL SMALL VOICE” OF GOD.  THE GOD WHO LOVES AND ACCEPTS YOU UNCONDITIONALLY, BY THE WAY!

In NEYM’s 1985 Faith and Practice we learn about Waiting Upon the Lord, p.97:

           When you come to your meetings . . . what do you do? . . . Do you walk in the “Light of your own fire and the sparks which you have kindled?”  Or rather, do you sit down in True Silence, resting from your own Will and Workings, and waiting upon the Lord, fixed with your minds in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you, until the Lord breaths life in you, refresheth you, and prepares you . . . that you may offer unto him a pure and spiritual sacrifice? (William Penn:  Works, ed. Joseph Besse, 1726, vol 1, p.219.  “A tender visitation,” published 1677.

  • AN EXPERIENCE WITH GOD.  An experience of Divine Reality changes us from fearful, wounded, and lost people into a safe, healing, and compassionate people on a meaningful journey.  With this experience we come to be aware that we are at home in the world and at peace.  It isn’t good enough to think we’ve found the path, or to believe we have found the path, or to hope we have found the path.  We have to find the path and stay on it.  And, to have this experience, we have to stop and wait and be silent, inside as well as outside. (Page 8, Griswold, 2016)

I HAD BEGUN TO GO ON SILENT RETREATS WITH A GROUP CALLED, CHURCH OF THE SAVIOR IN MARYLAND; THIS RELATIONSHIP HAD BEGUN WITH OUR CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH IN LITTLETON, MA WHEN WE DECIDED TO RE FRESH OURSELVES SPIRITUALLY, WORK ON OUR INWARD AND OUTWARD JOURNEYS AS A CHURCH COMMUNITY.  WE STAYED ON THE MAILING LIST AFTER OUR EXPERIENCE, AND SILENT RETREATS WERE PART OF THEIR REGULAR PRACTICE.  I ATTENDED A COUPLE OF THEM AND ON MY LAST ONE WAS CONVINCED BY A LOVING COUPLE TO CONSIDER FINDING A SPIRITUAL ADVISOR FOR DEEPER SPIRITUAL GROWTH.

*I FOUND A SPRITUAL ADVISOR WHO WAS QUAKER. EARLY ON IN OUR SESSIONS, SHE HAD A PRACTICE WHERE SHE WOULD STOP LISTENING TO MY ISSUES, AND ASK THAT WE STOP TO DISCERN WHAT GOD THINKS ABOUT THE SITUATION.  FOR MONTHS I WOULD CLOSE MY EYES, JUST LOOK AROUND, THINK SHE WAS OUT OF HER HEAD, OR WONDER WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME THAT I COULD NOT HEAR GOD SPEAKING TO ME IN THE SILENCE.  THEN ONE DAY, I HEARD HIM, THOUGH IT DID NOT HAPPEN EVERY SESSION, I BEGAN TO LET GO AND CONNECT.

  • DISCIPLINES:  INDIVIDUAL ACTIVITY, SUCH AS PRAYING; LISTENING, BUILDING THE TRUST NEEDED TO CULTIVATE A HEART THAT CAN HEAR AND EYES THAT CAN SEE ALL THAT IS SAID, OR NOT SAID; WORKING ON SPIRITUAL TASKS WITH OTHERS.
  • Becoming a Quaker is ALWAYS A WORK IN PROGRESS. 
  • NEXT WEEK: HOW DO WE HELP AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER ON OUR JOURNEYS—AS A COMMUNITY?