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Readings for Reflection: September 2009
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

This month there are two “Readings.” The first is the Consolidated Response to the Annual LEYM Query on our openness to “The Other,” which we considered in worship sharing last December. This summary was created by the LEYM Committee on Ministry & Nurture, based upon the responses of 12 monthly meetings and worship groups. Later this fall, we will have an evening to consider a new query from LEYM, focusing on our experiences of wonder and awe.

Consolidated Response to Annual LEYM Query

The Query:

    Are we open to the Other?
    What keeps me/us from connecting with those who are different from me/us?
    What fears cloud my/our vision of the Light in all beings?
    How can I listen with my heart, willing to be vulnerable?
    How are we teaching our children that God’s love includes all?

To be unconditionally open requires a rare maturity of spirit. It takes courage to approach the “Other” with the possibility that one’s own position may change. How one attains this level of vulnerability remains a mystery but is central to finding the Light in all beings. We classify, group, or stereotype people to make sense of the world. But this can lead to a multitude of fears: fear of rejection or ridicule, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged wrong, fear of being hurt. Misinterpretation of others and lack of trust also separate us.

The differences that could be in the “Other” are limitless, but could include race, social or economic status, gender, tastes, lifestyle, values, religion, and politics. We most often focus on others’ behavior rather than on their being. We sometimes focus on these differences rather than our similarities.

We need to accept with humility that others do not have to think like us to also be children of the Divine. We need to find the courage to engage with people who think very differently from us, and this engagement needs to sometimes include listening to them without trying to change or convert them. It is a challenge for many liberal Friends to find ways to meaningfully connect with politically or socially conservative individuals or groups.

Sometimes it is easier to see that of God in others than in ourselves. Perhaps we need to learn to have more love and compassion for ourselves, and this will enable us to do the same for others. Some of us find that it seems easier to love and forgive those who are at a distance.

A couple of meetings suggested that we can improve how we explain ourselves as Quakers to people who express interest, including visitors to our meetings. Quaker Quest is one potential tool for this endeavor.

Teaching our children is another challenge. The example that we set for them is very important. We are blind to our own prejudices, and children learn what they observe. “It is not so much what they are taught, but what they have caught.”

How do we demonstrate that God’s love includes all? Part of it is in the neighborhoods that we live in – are they integrated or segregated? Another part is in how we treat friends and strangers: Do we make eye contact, smile at them, recognize them as human beings? In our conversations with and around children, how do we refer to other groups or people?

One way to bridge perceived differences is to cultivate openness and the ability to listen with our hearts. Here, faithfulness to the Light is about how you behave – the charity you show to others.

The second Reading is a minute summarizing a workshop at the 2009 FGC Gathering on “Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith” – shared by Anne Remley, who attended the workshop.

Minute of the Workshop on "Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith,"
at the FGC Gathering, Blacksburg, Virginia, July 2009

28 Friends (26 from USA and one each from Britain and Canada) have participated in this workshop. We have met together on six successive mornings from June 28 to July 3, 2009 to tackle some of the questions facing unprogrammed Friends today: What unites us in our diversity? Do we have a common Quaker language? Is our theological diversity a strength or a weakness? What can we say together?

We began by each describing where we find ourselves within the spectrum of diversity, revealing ourselves to be a mix of theist and nontheist Friends, Christocentric and Universalist Friends, and Friends who prefer to avoid labels. We were able to affirm this diversity as a strength, while recognizing that significant differences in theology and our understanding of spirituality can create barriers and tensions. We acknowledged a need to work through these tensions and misunderstandings by mutually supportive discussion and in shared worship.

We examined our history and noted that unprogrammed Quakerism has always been changing, from Fox's day to Penn's, from activism to quietism, from evangelicalism to liberalism, and from liberalism to today's pluralism. But we sought out characteristics that have remained constant through these outward changes: rejection of formal hierarchy, corporate discernment and decision-making, attention to Advices and Queries rather than commandments, rejection of outward sacraments, refusal to express our faith in credal formulations, faithfulness to our tradition of unprogrammed worship, and unmediated access to the sources of truth.

We acknowledged that some characteristics we commonly claim for ourselves are not a Quaker monopoly. Other traditions also commit to peace-making, social justice, forms of corporate decision-making, and the quest for both personal transformation and building a better world. We claim no monopoly of truth.

From seeking a common thread of identity in our history we switched our focus to the pluralism of contemporary unprogrammed Quakerism. We explored the issue of the presence in the Society of explicitly nontheist Friends, seeing this as a sign of our greater inclusiveness but also recognizing it as a source of tension in some of our meetings. This led us to explore our Quaker language, where we noted that key terms such as "God" and "the Spirit" may be used with integrity by all Friends, understanding them either literally or metaphorically, and with appropriate translation strategies. Similarly, we explored our Quaker worship, recalling the Old English origin of the word "worship" as meaning "things of great worth." For some of us, worship is an encounter with the living God; for some, reflection on and commitment to those values we accord ultimate worth; and for some, an opening up to that which we understand to be greater than ourselves.

In small groups contributing to the writing of this Minute we affirmed the following: We met and deliberated in a spirit of love. We learned that there is diversity in nontheism as well as in theism. We sought to reach beyond words and to listen to where words came from. We found more pointers to Quaker identity in Quaker action than in Quaker belief. We affirmed as a central conviction the concept of that of God, Light, Spirit, the Good, in everyone, as the basis for our core processes of unprogrammed worship and corporate discernment. We heard again the call to let our lives speak.

We discussed and worshipped, sometimes all together, sometimes in small groups. We helped each other think through our own positions as we exchanged experiences, examined vocabulary, searched for similarities, and acknowledged differences. We did not seek a verbal formulation defining Quaker identity, but as we talked, listened, and fell silent together before each contributing to the writing of this Minute, our common identity as Friends was known experimentally, overriding our different theologies and life journeys. We know who we are. We are Friends together.

Although some Friends indicated a preference for a different wording in some places, all 28 of us united with the spirit of this Minute.

Signed on behalf of the participants by David Boulton, workshop facilitator, July 3, 2009

All Readings for Reflection
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