Quakers & the Bible

I wrote the following in 2014. Hard to believe that’s 6 years ago. Hopefully this is the first of a series of posts. I’ve been writing, stuff just hasn’t been making it to the blog.      Martin Melville

My experience of Quakers and the Bible.

My parents were members of the Bethesda, MD Unitarian Church. In Sunday school, Bible stories were acknowledged with a wink and a nod. My mother was raised Methodist in north-central Iowa. We often had bible stories read to us for bedtime. We also had Greek myths and the little engine that could. They were all stories. God was out there, a force I eventually named Nature. But Jesus as savior? Not mentioned. When we visited my Iowa grandmother, I was encouraged to attend church with my friends who were mostly Lutheran. They spoke a strange religious language of salvation and human fallenness.

When I was old enough, I joined a Boy Scout troop. The scoutmaster was (as it turned out) a Quaker, though I only know of him attending Meeting once or twice. That was an interesting paradigm for practicing faith: until then, I had conceived of church attendance as essential to any practice or profession of faith. In hindsight, though, his conduct and calm demeanor in dealing with a bunch of ornery, rambunctious boys really was a model of the faith I was going to eventually join.

His wife and daughters did attend Sandy Spring Meeting. I was fond of Nancy, the oldest, and started going to meeting with them. We sat in meeting for a bit, then trundled off to First Day school. When Nancy and her family moved away, I continued going to meeting. One of the girls in the First Day school class invited me back, but I replied that I preferred Meeting.

In that time, in the early 1970s, transcendental meditation (TM)was the thing. I professed to be an agnostic, or sometimes an atheist, but “waiter” might be the most accurate term. I wasn’t seeking anything outside my mind. Not that I was self-absorbed, but my sense was that wisdom could come from within. There was not the intentional emptying of the mind typical of TM; I just worked with the stuff that was piled around the sides of the garage of my mind. For several years (it seemed) all I “heard” in Meeting was the loud tick-tock of the Regulator clock that hung on the wall. There was an elder who liked to talk about the power and the glory. There were anti-war messages. There was silence. There was a bible on a podium in a dusty corner of the meetingroom. Spirit was acknowledged. I was never aware that Christ was.

Fast forward 15 years. College. Marriage. House. Kids. State College (PA) monthly meeting. A reading group formed to study the Journal of George Fox. I was surprised to discover that this fellowship I had fallen in with had its roots in a very biblical sort of Christianity. Best kept secret around, I thought. Fox kept saying “this I knew experimentally.” I engaged in a seeking that was guided by an outward spirit, though I couldn’t have called it Christ at that time. It was different than the non-directed experience at Sandy Spring. I asked. I waited. Like the images in a “Where’s Waldo” picture, the answers (as promised) were present in the world around me. They were full of grace. They served to explain the Presence. And they often differed from the mainstream of Quaker thought. My demeanor took on a peace, a calmness that others noticed enough to comment on. The experience was mystical and transformative.

I read a smattering of other writers, notably Brother Lawrence, Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen. I re-read Fox on my own “in the spirit in which it had been given,” (Fox, p. ?) and the words and times came alive for me. These all pointed (for me, at least) to the fact that if we live our lives “in the Spirit,” our outward needs are taken care of. So in a parallel to the research biofeedback generated in the ‘70s, I began to intentionally seek ways to find, and stay in, the Light, the Presence. In meeting, there began to be a shift in vocal ministry from being almost wholly Universalist (where Christian language and images were avoided, almost unacceptable), to a growing acceptance of Christ-centered messages. Now the balance is the other direction: Universalist messages are rare. When there is a balance, the movement of the Spirit is richer, broader, and deeper.

Our particular meeting attracts a significant number of people who found their previous religious experience inadequate. This pattern has been affirmed in conversations with friends at the yearly meeting level (Baltimore YM). Many have had their birth faith used as a hammer to attempt to forge them into conformity or some “shape” besides their own. The sentient response to negative stimuli is avoidance. A significant number deny that the Bible has any Truth to impart.

If one sits on the south side of our meetingroom, the ridge is behind you, out of sight. You can truthfully deny that there is a ridge. If you sit on the north side of the meetingroom, you can deny that there is a college with 40,000+ students, for then it is behind you, out of sight. If we are to apprehend any sort of balanced truth which we can then speak to the world, it seems to me that it is necessary to apprehend Truth wherever we find it. If the Bible is the ridge and our mystical experience is the college, we need to acknowledge that they inform each other. Mysticism that is grounded in our imperfect selves runs a great risk of “running off into imaginations,” as Fox would say (Fox, p. ?). The Bible and other works of wisdom literature are (dare I say) essential to keeping us grounded. Likewise, the Bible can be informed by mystical understandings of it. In many ways, these understandings bring to life radical (root, basic) understandings of what it means to live life in the Presence (of the Lord). This is true to such a degree that if we have faith and intention (which is part of faith) it is possible to live in unity with the Spirit here on earth. Not easy or common, but possible.

What should a Quaker reading of the Bible look like? First of all, for it to do any good, it needs to be opened and read. Decades ago, research showed that sleeping with a book under your pillow did not measurably increase knowledge. But given our audience, it needs to be opened gently, almost silently, to keep from scaring or further hurting timid souls. A wild animal can learn to eat from your hand. It takes quietness, stillness, an unimposing demeanor, patience. The animal has to think you have something it wants, some tasty morsel that is worth risking its safety for. For the timid soul, this can be food, shelter, nurture, for modern life has a way of grinding us up and spitting us out, and secular society tells us our needs are material. We know when our bellies are hungry; we forget to feed our souls. Like a 2-year old in the frenzy of play, we tell ourselves we don’t have time to eat. Like them, we get cranky. All we know is that something’s missing. We just can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Any reading of the bible for today’s audience must be relevant. This is the crucial intersection of the mystical and the traditional, the awesome and the mundane. I will hazard a guess that none of us knows kings or Philistines, at least by those names.

Humor helps. God has a sense of humor and playfulness that is often overlooked in the slate-sky colored landscape of judgment. Admittedly, not all is goodness and light.

A Quaker (and hopefully other denominations, too) reading of the Bible should give us tools with which we can live faithfully. The needs of the World are often overwhelming. One aspect of this relevance is understanding how it is that we are to Be, how we would look if we attained unity with Spirit. That, then, manifests in our behaviors (ministry) towards others. The more wholly we allow Spirit to guide us, the more wholly our lives are illuminated by and become, ministry. Ah. Another feedback loop. On the one hand, we develop the ability to tell the mountain to “get thee gone,” (Matt. 17:20) and on the other, we recognize that our own efforts, if they are uninformed by faith, are sadly finite.

I believe one of the strengths of the Society of Friends is its theological diversity. In order for that to work, we must come to realize that in some ways John Owen’s fear of there being as many readings of the Bible as there are people has come true (Owen, p. 850). On the other hand, I will argue that is as it should be: No one is being made a shape they were never intended to be. Each of us experiences God in our own unique way. On one hand, we need to realize that. On the other, we need to be open to at least hearing the truth others have to share from their own readings of the Bible.

Places of dis/continuity: Conservative meetings (such as North Carolina) are arguably closest to the original Quaker (eg. George Fox) reading of the Bible (pp. 31,32). That is what they will tell you is their goal (personal correspondence, Debra Fisch, Iowa YM (conservative)). To my way of thinking, orthodox and evangelical meetings have reverted to a puritan or Anglican reading (pp. 9-10). Modernist Friends and Liberal-Liberal Friends struggle to acknowledge its existence (class discussion).

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