Questpost 2: gusty winds

On Wednesday January 30th, some Friends gathered at the Pendle Hill study center to participate in a consultation on Quaker Quest, led by Elaine Craudereuff of F.G.C. Present were the General Secretaries of New England, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore Yearly Meetings, as well as representatives from Pendle Hill and F.G.C. Also there were invited Friends with an interest in outreach and/or Quaker Quest, which explains my presence there. The weightiness of the Friends there is a testament to the excitement QQ is generating.

As we gathered for worship that morning, joined by the Pendle Hill community, a cold front blew gusty winds through the campus outside, our cozy barn sheltering us from the buffeting gusts. There was ministry shared on the winds of change which spoke to my condition. I felt the truth about change, especially Spirit-led change which is what I sense QQ is, and the truth I felt is this: sometimes change comes charging in, disregarding sober deliberation, yes, even Quaker deliberation.

The day was spent participating in Quaker Quest exercises and hearing the program described in some detail. It struck me that a great part of QQ has to do with helping us learn to talk about our faith without equivocation, but still leaving room for mystery, which is an essential feature of our faith. It is this celebration of mystery, which Rufus Jones has written so much about, which makes our faith so hard to describe in this current age of sound bites and outcome assessments. But we discovered last Wednesday that we can describe it, especially when the words come from our hearts. I discovered that it takes courage, because in defining my faith I must take a stand about a few things, and risk excluding someone, even the one I am talking to, who may say “that’s not for me.” So I wonder if in our determination to make our faith accessible to everyone, we haven’t made it an ersatz faith, which says nothing in an attempt to speak to everyone’s condition.

We ended the morning session participating in a mock QQ session, in which we were given new name tags. Some said “Quaker” and some said “Seeker”. I was a seeker. Being an actor, I naturally jumped at the chance to play a role, and the role I chose to play (having no direction in the matter) was of a suspicious seeker, a man filled with doubt about religious dogma, uneasy about Spiritual language and looking for a reason to leave. In short, the kind of “tough nut” we may occasionally draw to us through QQ. After the initial presentations (on “Quakers and Worship”, ably presented by a Philadelphia and New York Friend), we broke into small discussion groups with two or so “seekers” joining a “Quaker”. This gave me a chance to flesh out my character, who I came to call “Jack”. I could tell my Friend from New England who was our “Quaker” was a bit taken aback by “Jack”. Later, during the “worship” portion of the mock session, “Jack” spoke awkwardly from a sitting position about not really understanding what was going on. Later, Friends lovingly teased me about my Jack performance, calling me a trouble-maker. But what I was doing was intentional, and meant to assist in grasping what we are about in offering QQ to the wider world. “Jack” became clearer to me at the end of the day.

It was a a joy to get to know Friends from other Yearly Meetings, and to feel my kinship with them. Over lunch I shared stories of home meetings with Friends from New England and New York. There is so much common experience and the bonds felt loving and familial to me. I also met a young Friend who works at Pendle Hill is much interested in outreach. I described QQ to him, and he replied with a story about a woman who came to his home meeting in the Pacific Northwest, and about how when she rose to speak he was taken aback by her red-neck accent. But then he described how the Spirit moved in him to witness to the gift of true diversity she brought to his meeting. “Quaker Quest, huh?” he said, “Maybe we’ll finally branch out from the safety of our Birkenstock-wearing, N.P.R. listening comfort zone.”

The afternoon was spent in discussion about the morning’s exercises, and about QQ generally. There was great enthusiasm expressed. Some worried about how smaller meetings, the ones which could really used some new people, how these meetings could present QQ. It was offered that such meetings could unite with others nearby to present QQ. This reminded me of my meeting’s interest in gathering our Quarter behind our QQ session, and use it to promote other meetings nearby and to build bridges between those meetings. There was also a great emphasis placed on the dualistic nature of QQ: that it is both inreach and outreach, and meetings which concentrate too much either on one or the other of those aspects tend to have less successful QQ experiences.

Towards the end of the day, I noticed a Friend from Baltimore with his head in his hands as we continued to talk about QQ. Then he raised his hand, and described a concern which gathered around the following vision: that in response to QQ, a man dressed in camos would pull up to his meeting in a pickup truck with a gun rack, and that his fear of this man would send him running away. Many laughed. I didn’t. I thought of “Jack”.

An hour later, at the final gathering of the day, I was led to speak. Though we were not in worship, we were seated in the worship room and the gathering I felt inside me to speak felt like the winds which had blown in the morning. It felt like ministry, and as I spoke, I saw some Friends bow their heads and close their eyes. The words were about my Baltimore Friend’s vision, about how that vision felt prophetic to me, and about how “Jack” was an intentional choice to rehearse for the changes to come. The words were about my young Friend who works at Pendle Hill, and his perception of our comfort zone. The people we draw to us through QQ will change us, I was led to say, the way the gusting winds blow dead leaves about and snap off old branches. These new people may make us uncomfortable, they may even frighten us, but this is the cost of the pendulum swinging back towards engagement and away from withdrawal. The pendulum which describes the dynamic tension we feel in our faith as we try to be in the world, but not of it. I was led to say that our task is to help these new seekers become transformed themselves, even as they are transforming us.

If the Friends gathered at Pendle Hill last Wednesday could be said to represent the broad congregation of unprogrammed American Quakerism, then the pendulum of that congregation might look like this: 1700 – 1820, engagement; 1850 – 1920, withdrawal; 1920 – 1970, engagement; 1970 – 2008, withdrawal. Perhaps in this new era of engagement we are entering, and I am certain that we are entering it, certain that Quaker Quest is coming and coming on strong, ready or not, perhaps now as we teeter on this threshold, we might remember the words of William Penn:

True godliness does not turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.