20 August 2007

The Now Sound of Quaker

On lazy summer afternoons, I've been taking my youngest son to the swimming pool for lessons. I'd while away the hour with my knitting as he learned his strokes.

Other mothers would strike up conversations. We'd chat about children and menus and all those things that moms talk about at their children's lessons. I participated lazily, one eye on my son and the other on my knitting.

One day, one of the other mothers hesitantly asked if I thought she could learn to knit.

"Absolutely," I replied.

Her grandmother had tried to teach her, but she was left-handed and it hadn't worked out.

"I'm left-handed," I said.

She really wanted to learn to knit, she said, because she was trying to quit smoking and she needed something to do with her hands.

I told her I'd be happy to teach her to knit. I loved the idea of helping a human soul free herself from the false god nicotine. A simple act of service, and all I needed to to was to share something I loved.

After I'd taught her to cast on and form her stitches, we sat in my living room and knit companionably. She started talking about her belief in a Higher Power and asked me if I went to church.

"Yes," I said, having learned that it is simpler to call Meeting "church" when talking to non-Quakers, "we're part of the Santa Cruz Quaker Meeting."

"There are still Quakers?" she asked, "What do you believe?"

"Well," I said, sifting through my mind for a concise-yet-essential description, "we believe that each person has a direct relationship with God. We sit in Meeting together and wait for God to speak to us, in our hearts."

"But that's what I believe!" she said, "Are Quakers Christians? Do you follow the Bible?"

"We started as Puritans," I explained, "The early Quakers believed very much in the Bible, but they also believed that Christ had come to teach his people himself. That inner teaching, that direct connection with God was very important to them. Over time, Quakers have become more universalist, but our roots are very much Christian."

I did not get into the different varieties of Quakers. If I'm given the opportunity to proselytize my Quaker faith, I'm going to speak that bit of Light that's been given to me, and not worry overmuch about representing Quakerdom as a whole.

Later, as I was thinking about this exchange, I thought, "We're not the early Quakers. It's a bit fusty, really, to cling so much to words from the 17th century." The tune to a song from my childhood called The Now Sound of Christmas went through my head. "What we need is The Now Sound of Quaker."

"We are the Quakers," I thought, "what can we say?"

My authentic experience doesn't read like a travelogue through 17th-century England. I don't have the epiphanies they had, the leadings they had, or the struggles they had. I sometimes question my small leadings, wondering whether they're really Quakerly enough to be called leadings. I am led to help women kick the habit, protect children from abuse, promote breastfeeding, promote home birth, and give away canvas grocery sacks. Can any of those things really count as 21st century Quaker witness?

If not, what can? What constitutes the now sound of Quaker?


RichardM said...


Another lovely honest post.

You touch on the issue of how we explain Quakerism to people who are not Quakers. Most of us, I fear, are not very good at it. Your reflection on what you said to your neighbor resonates with me. Yes, we tend to launch into a history lesson a bit too fast. Wouldn't it be better to say more about what we are now? I think it would. Now I'm not saying that a little history is inappropriate. In fact it is helpful, but we shouldn't let our discomfort over not having a handy-dandy creed to flout to all and sundry distract us.

Also I think you are on the right track with telling people about yourself and not trying to give a fair and accurate summary of what every Quaker believes. I've found that people I talk to are more interested in the person right in front of them anyway.

I also don't think you should feel inferior to early Friends because they had such dramatic leadings whereas yours are more mundane. The leadings that get written down and talked about are the more colorful ones. Even back in the 17th century the majority of Friends had the simple unspectacular kind of leadings you experience. And don't think that the quiet kind are somehow less valuable or genuine than the flashy kind. God doesn't look at it that way, I'm sure. Moreover the desire for big flashy leadings is a kind of ego prompting. And many times these flashy leadings are not in fact genuine but are really just manifestations of human pride. Early Friends were in the practice of reminding each other to stay "low" and be especially careful about pride.

One final note, it is misleading to say that early Friends were Puritans. The Puritans adopted a Calvinist theology that conflicted with Quakerism and in colonial America tensions sometimes ran high between Puritan and Quaker.

Liz Opp said...

Like Richard, I want to point out that typically only the most exemplary of leadings and acts of obedience are published--which sets the bar for the rest of us very high indeed!

(...which is another reason I think Quaker blogs are important: they bring things down to a right-here, right-now sort of scale...)

Contrary to belief, I don't do a lot of Quaker reading, but of the little I've done, I have found that a more "human" account of the struggle to be faithful is represented in the life of David Ferris... and the text is much shorter and easier to get through then some of the Bigger Dudes!

All that aside, the question I keep coming back to, and it is with me as I read your post, is:

Do you feel as though you are faithful in the deeds you do?

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Friendly Mama said...

I became pregnant with my oldest child 17 years ago. When pregnant with him, a friend (along with "Spiritual Midwifery") introduced me to homebirth and her midwife. My decision to birth my son at home flowed into the choice to school him at home. I think that stepping outside of our society's norms allowed me the freedom to be open to Friends Meeting when I was guided there by Spirit.

Anyway, I think encouraging young mothers to be faithful to their intuition is teaching them to listen for God. Our women's bodies are created to birth our babies and feed our babies perfectly. God made it that way. By helping women trust in the wholeness of their bodies, you are helping them know the holiness of them. What you do may not feel like a great leading but it surely is God's work.

Honey said...

I believe you can only say what makes you a quaker and speak your truth. I have met quakers from all over the world, and the Northern Irish evangelical quakers do not speak my truth for example, we are all so different, each meeting house..
what is your truth?

Blue Gal said...

I love this post, both for the knitting and the listening. I think it's important for me to remember that it is the same God speaking to us now as it was at any time in so-called human history. I also think I tend to discount small leadings just as I discount stockinette stitch. Too small, too plain, not enough "bang for the buck." Yet even the most intricate sweater imaginable is made up of only knits and purls. Thank you for a terrific post.

Michael said...

Thank you for this post, Friend.

I like it both for your "concise-yet-essential description" of "what Quakers believe" and for your deeper query about how 21st century Quakers sound, as contrasted with the 17th century ones.

Increasingly I am on the lookout for what I see in myself and other f/Friends which is about doing rather than about believing.

Hence, I agree with RichardM and Liz that your "small leadings" are the most important ones... because they have to do with getting yourself and others from this present moment to the next present moment... where all the little blessings are.

Thanks again,

QuakerDave said...

I believe you can only say what makes you a Quaker and speak your truth.


But if we needed a song for that CD, would we start with "The Sound of Silence"?

Anonymous said...

If you have helped many to kick a bad habit, you know that the first step is for the person to unwaveringly acknowledge the habit for what it is - something from outside the self that has found a weakness in the self and uses that weakness to take over the self and parasitize it. Without such an acknowledgement, the person is left with the lie that the bad habit is part of him or herself and that to get rid of the habit involves self-destruction.

Conversely, be a Friend ("Quaker") now, or at any time, one must unwaveringly acknowledge that the spirit in us which loves good and wants to serve others is the Savior - the one who delivers us from the power of selfishness and fear and bad habits. This Savior, the Word and Light of God have existed from the beginning, because they are a part of God. The Savior, who we know from the Bible was enbodied in Jesus, does not sneak into us and deceive us, as the bad habits do. He knocks at the doors of our hearts and asks patiently to be allowed in. When we let him, he does not take us over for His good, to suck us dry like the bad habist do. He feeds us and quenches our thirst and builds us up. He shows us that by relinquishing all to Him we do not lose our lives, as when we yield to a bad habit. Rather, we gain a totally new life, a life of peace and good cheer and confidence.
This Savior knocks at the door of every person's heart, whether or not that person recognizes Him as Jesus. If we all the Savior to heal us and to lead us to turn to the good and away from the bad, we have accepted Christ, whether or not we use that name. The name, in whatever human language we use, is only a word. When we know and heed the Word of God in our hearts, we are saved, whether or now we have ever been taught the human word.
However, if we have read the Bible and prayed and compared our own experience with the Light and the Word with Christ as he is described in Scripture, and if we willfully deny that they are the same, we are missing the power and life Jesus offers us, just as the addict misses the chance for freedom by willfully denying the addiction.
"Quakers" did not name ourselves "Friends of one another." We are Friends of Truth, that Truth being Christ, forever present everywhere for everyone.

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