Virtual Quakerism

His email began, “I like you. Let’s get that out of the way.” Then he spent twelve paragraphs telling me, essentially, that I had been rude and disrespectful on a social network he’s created. His email ended with a threat: “If you cannot respect the purpose of the site, then you will have to leave.” Being the creator of the site, this was no idle threat. He has the technical means to prevent me from participating in the on-going conversation there.

What did I say, you wonder? Did I call into question the integrity of the site? Did I mock or humiliate someone? Did I call him out in some flaming, virtual throw-down? No. I posed some queries. They were part of a discussion thread in a group I was eager to participate in: Convergent Philadelphia. He actually invited me to join the group. It is intended to be an online group of people in the Philadelphia area interested in the Convergent Christian movement. This is a movement with a variety of definitions. For me, as a Quaker, I am drawn to its aim of de-emphasizing the differences between us, differences which have resulted in a fractured Religious Society of Friends.

The thread, which he authored, was called “So where are we on First Day mornings?” I found the title of the thread amusing, maybe a bit tongue in cheek, since he used the Quaker term for Sunday – First Day. I led off:

“I’m an old-fashioned Friend I guess, so I worship at a Friend’s meeting where I’ve been a member since 1998: Haverford Friends Meeting. It is my spiritual home, and after nearly jumping ship a few years ago, I hung in there and I’m glad I did. I feel that many Friends let themselves off the hook by leaving meetings because those meetings don’t “work for them” in some way, or because they don’t like someone in the meeting community. But Jesus calls us to live in faith together not because it’s easy, and not so that we’ll agree with each other, but because Community is the crucible of Love. It is where all the testimonies are formed and practiced in meaningful and enduring ways. As my beloved and departed Elder Bill Newlin once remarked: “I know I am in my spiritual community when I am worshipping with people I don’t like.”

While I feel it is important for each Friend to settle in a community that feels right, I am wary of litmus tests. What does “convergent-friendly” mean? How about “agnostic- friendly”? Or “Christ-friendly?” Or “Republican- friendly?”. I worship in a community which practices tolerance and open-mindedness to things Spiritual, which is why I stay there. In fact, it’s why I’m a Friend.

A query is lifted up in my mind: is our pickiness about Quaker meetings really a form of vanity? Is it an unwillingness to engage in (at times) the messy and uncomfortable work of living with others? Is it a sign that we are growing further apart from each other because of fora like this?”

These queries come from a genuine concern. I have friends who call themselves Quakers but don’t attend meeting for worship. I find this perplexing. I don’t understand how you can be a Quaker and NOT go to meeting. Being in actual community with each other was a central aspect of the founding of Quakerism, and remained so until the 20th century, when Friends meetings began shrinking. The reason my friends don’t go to meeting essentially boils down to one phenomenon: there is something or someone at the meeting they don’t like.

But this is what living in spiritual community is all about. Worshipping with people you don’t like, who say things that irritate you, is an essential spiritual practice, one that Friends have been practicing from the beginning. Quaker writing through the ages is full of descriptions of Friends who disagree or come into conflict, and the means meetings used to deal with these situations. Ideally, these difficult encounters were the stuff of continuing revelation, as something moved inside each of the aggrieved Friends, and the Friends who attended them were witness to the power of prayer, love and forgiveness. Our Society evolved a little with each of these encounters, usually held in Clearness Meetings, in which the Friends in question met in prayer with other Friends. In the struggle to understand each other, our understanding of our own living faith was changed, expanded and strengthened.

And so, after receiving the twelve paragraph email and threat, I reached out to my Friend, inviting him to meet with me over coffee. I wrote, “I’d like to speak to you about all this, and listen to what you have to say. I feel that email at this point isn’t helpful.”

He responded electronically: “To be completely honest, I don’t want to spend an hour with you throwing out the attitude you displayed on [the site].”

At this point, I reached out to a Friend he and I both know and respect, and asked him to look at the discussion in question and give me his honest appraisal. I was seeking a virtual Clearness Meeting. Our Friend looked at the discussion, and was as confused as I was, finding nothing there offensive or rude. But he let me know that I had raised an issue my aggrieved Friend was sensitive about: the whole issue of how “welcoming” or not Quaker meetings are.

And so I reached out again. I wrote a longer email this time, stating that I rejected his characterization of what I had written. I also wrote: “I think you’re reacting very emotionally to something here – and I’m not sure what it is. I’m just trying to understand, and when emotions become heightened – as they are here – my experience has been that email makes things worse, not better. I thought about a point by point rebuttal/reaction to your [first] email, but I feel that would not have been useful. Nor do I think it would have made you feel any better. It has been my experience that face to face meetings lead to reconciliation and understanding.”

He again declined my offer to meet, writing: “In the meantime I cannot allow you to continue posting to [the site’s] discussion threads. I need the site to be a safe space for Christians who are not fed by nearby Friends Meetings. My 1/26 comment was my first warning, this email is my second. If you post again implying that a Christian who doesn’t attend a PYM meeting is “vain”, “picky,” etc., I will suspend you from the site.”

Ouch. He’s really pissed at me.

And yet this whole sad exchange is exhibit A on the limitations – dangers even – of “virtual Quakerism”. By that I mean any exchange between Friends that isn’t face to face, and there’s a lot of it going around now. Our hearts are softened when we are in each other’s presence. The Holy Spirit travels between us when we are in the same room. In my experience it rarely travels through electronic means. My aggrieved Friend is deeply invested in virtual Quakerism, and is divorced from actual Quakerism: the daily communal living, and weekly worshipping, we do with the same essential group of people. We do it not because we agree with them, not because they make us happy all the time, not because it’s easy or comfortable. We do it because we are astonished how often God unites us across our differences, heals our hurts, speaks to our condition through the mouths of people who pissed us off the week before.

And his threat to banish me from the site strikes me as spiritually unsound, not to mention a gross violation of some basic free speech issues. But it turns out his site is not about free speech. His site is a place where he can control the discourse, eliminating the queries that trouble him and lifting up the blogs, discussions and tweets which he enjoys. If a Quaker community is one in which open communication, delivered with a gentle integrity, is protected, then his site is not a Quaker community. There, I got it off my chest. His site is just that: his site. And I have to say, it’s no wonder he was reluctant to meet with me. It’s no wonder he doesn’t go to Quaker meeting. It seems to me he has made up his mind about some things, and his heart isn’t soft enough to be changed.

My heart has been changed in Quaker meeting over and over. I came to Friends full of biases against Christianity and Jesus. But Friends shown me that I had adopted someone else’s definition of “Christian”. They showed me that I could discover Jesus in my time and in my own way. This is the gorgeous openness of Quaker worship, an openness that was duplicated in my heart, making room for God. I have had to confront my own temper and judgment in my community of Friends. I have had to make myself humble. I have had to throw my trust to room full of people I wasn’t sure I entirely trusted and say, here, take me and do what you want, it’s okay with me. I have been yelled at and scolded. But more than all of this, I have been loved and lifted up. When I think about what constitutes the foundation of my Quaker faith, it is not something I have read. It is the living experience of being a member of a Quaker meeting which is my foundation, full of exaltation and contradiction, always in flux, always new, full of the most amazing people, young and old and in between.

Early Friends worked hard to help aggrieved Friends heal differences because they understood that all the testimonies they espoused were utter hypocrisy unless they could be practiced with each other. Another Elder said to me once, “It’s easy to go on a peace march. It’s hard to love your neighbor.” Virtual Quakerism is good at singing the praises of the global witness of our faith, and for intellectual debates and discussions about things theological. But it sucks at matters of the heart, where in my experience, God works most miracles.

I like you too. Let’s not get this out of the way. Let’s put it at the center of our lives as the most important aspect of our faith: preserving the love between us, face to face.

Virtual Quakerism, originally published Saturday, February 6, 2010