I once saw an image when doing a Google search that said "Quaker? Maybe!" It was a sign posted outside a Friends meeting house somewhere out in Minnesota (I think).
This video made me ponder: why did I choose the Religious Society of Friends? I remember being about 12 years old, in seventh grade. I used to ask to go to the bathroom only to sneak off to the library. I loved the library and I loved Sabra Brown, the librarian. She opened up the world of fantasy to me. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia, but through her suggestions I also fell in love with historical fiction. One book in particular was the Witch of Blackbird pond. I really identified with the outcast Quaker, Hannah Tupper. So, I asked Mrs. Brown more about Quakers. She gave me all the books she had.
I was enthralled.
Persecuted (me: bullied). They had great influence despite or because of their persecution. I admired that. I wanted to aspire to be a great person and do great things. They challenged the doctrines of their day. Frankly I didn't understand the Catholic church and the Protestant churches around me, well, no thanks. They didn't speak to me. In fact, some of them turned me off completely. As I read George Fox's Journal and Barclay's Apology over the next few years (yes, I read absolutely everything I could find at the public library), I became convinced of the Truth, as it were. I adopted early Quaker belief as my own. I challenged everything else around me. I challenged my military family, my "so-called" Christian neighbors, everything. I wanted to BE an early Friend.
Suffice it to say West Knoxville Friends had no idea what they were getting into when I started attending meeting! There was one Friend, Gary Salk, who would be my counselor and my guide, and guide me through high school. He understood me. (Until I came out, then he wanted to fix me -- another story for another time).
What I found was two types of Quakers that resembled nothing that I had read about. First Friends Church didn't seem Quaker at all on the exterior. They seemed like a banal community church. Their worship didn't speak to me. Then I attended West Knoxville Friends. I yawned my way through worship after praying diligently for the first ten minutes. But it was to them I would return, they seemed like the real deal.
Only they were pro-gay (I was fearfully in the closet). Many were almost anti-Christian (I was fervently a believer). They didn't support those called to vocal ministry (I was sure I was, and later they set up a clearness committee which would affirm that calling--only one Friend, Sam, would corner me when I was alone, at age 16, and tell me we don't do ministers and perhaps I would be happier elsewhere). What was an early-Friend-o-phile to do?!
Annoy more Quakers and my family. I would take my fire to every Quaker body I came across. I would write to Friends Journal telling them how liberal Quakers had strayed from the Truth. I would write to Quaker Life and criticize a century-old system of worship and ministry (pastoral meetings). The only true Friends were the Conservatives, you see. If only we could all just get along, put down the forms and beliefs that had developed over generations, and, well, become Conservatives!
Oh and my poor parents. They weren't even religious. And as far as I know we've served in almost every war except, I think, the Spanish-American War. My grandfather was career Air Guard/Force. My dad was JAG. But they were WRONG.
My Catholic friends were WRONG.
My Baptist friends were WRONG (and loons).
I did sneak off to the Episcopal Church, however, but never felt the connection to the community. I loved the worship though. But it was WRONG (thus sayeth 300 year old Quaker texts).
I practiced magick for a spell, even though I was never part of an actual pagan community.
WRONG. GUILT. SHAME. DEVIL. SIN. HYPOCRITE.
So I would return back to my rigid early-Quaker fundamentalism. No matter where I would stray to, Episcopalians, pagans, non-denominational charismatic churches evangelical churches, I would feel guilty or else just realize I didn't like it, and return back to early Quaker belief. I can't remember where I read it, I've neglected my Quaker studies for far too long, but I once recall and advice of early Friends not to extinguish the fire of young Friends ministers. Elders were to guide them and instruct them. Basically I got fire extinguishers, buckets and garden sprayers aimed at me!
But there were a few friends who took me under their wings and gently tried to push this obstinate, cocksure teenager along a gentler path.
What we all did agree on was killing was wrong (a sin to me); lying was wrong (though I seem to try it as often as possible when not wanting to tell mom and dad where I was really going or what I was really doing, or that I was straight ha ha ha). We were all equal (except gays, who were sinners,even though I knew I was a big ol' homo). We should be plain (I've forayed into Plain dress as a teen and young adult, but either was misread my Guide or couldn't keep up the testimony. Both, one because of the other?
So, did I choose Friends because they believed what I already believed?
I don't think so. In fact, I don't know that I really believed what early Friends and modern Friends believed. Not all of it. I'll blog about it more later, but I think my pacifism was a cover for being totally terrified of violence and conflict. Truth be told, I couldn't fight my way out of a box. I was scared of the military. So how convenient that Quakers were opposed to it. Then again, I honestly believed it was wrong too. So maybe it was both. I was totally enamored by expensive European cars. I wanted a SAAB 900 with all my heart. When mom and dad delivered a Monte Carlo landau that someone's grandma probably owned, I was disappointed. I had no choice in my new car. None. I hated it. But I did some body work and cosmetic work to make it my own. (Spoiled brat). I would eventually go to private school (Guilford) study abroad in Paris, get a BMW 3 series when I returned (because I had a conniption when I learned while in Paris that my kid bro's first car was a 5 series). I wanted the SAAB, but dad said no because of unreliability. I almost got the Porche 944, but we found out to change the clutch cost 1500$. So we settled on the beemer. Yeah. "settled' So, I don't think I really believed in simplicity.
I finally came around on equality. I came out. Then I had to start facing my racism as black students on campus began speaking openly about racism. It was only the beginning. I was terrified of dating black guys, and those who wanted to go out with me got a firm rejection. I smiled of course and wiggled my way out of blatant rejection. (Now I regret telling one of the guys no-this absolutely stunningly gorgeous guy). Racism. But I "believed" in Equality.
Community. I tried to become involved with the Quaker communities, but it seemed I was too Christ-centered for some, too gay for others. I really didn't feel completely at home once I came out. I was encouraged by Max Carter to keep open that I had a gift, but no Quaker community felt at home. When I came out I quickly found the club culture and hooking up. When New Garden meeting responded to my letter for membership "we have never been in the business of asking people's sexuality...." I believe the letter went, I realized that I would not get help for ministry or coming out. I turned to the gay community in it's immature, sex-crazed, activist oriented, in-your-face, drug popping, booze guzzling glory. And it was fabulous. And awful. And fun. And scary. And made me feel accepted for the fist time. And made me feel guilty and a sinner because I knew I was behaving in ways contrary to the manner of Friends of ALL stripes.
So that's a period of 9 years; 7th grade through senior in college.
But through that whole time, I felt the presence of God. I knew God's presence, though I don't honestly know that I ever allowed him to be my Lord and Savior. That would require faithfulness and obedience. Even before I came out, I really didn't spend any time alone in silent waiting. Oh, I listened to Chuck Stanley and Charles Swindoll on Christian Radio and would pray with them. I studied scripture and plowed through Quaker texts. But I kept hearing God's call to be faithful and yield and something deep within me resisted. Once I came out, I just shut out the Light.
Poor Max Carter. I would sit with him in the Hut on campus and spill my guts out to him. I would recount, in graphic detail my sexual and partying exploits. I had already lost all my scholarships (minus a few) when I earned a 1.8 GPA my freshman year and went on academic probation (I ended my career with a 3.0 and a 3.6 in my major). One day, I'll never forget it, he looked me in the eye and said "Does thee feel the Light in thee?" "Very little, almost not at all" I responded. "Then thee's sinning."
SINNING? A Quaker finally used those words to me.
But it didn't change a thing.
I would go to the school counselor and tell him I was afraid I was going to get AIDS if I didn't stop what I was doing. (There was no cocktail out yet). He looked me square in the eye and said "you'll change if you want to change. You have a death wish."
Fuck you. What the hell?
So, until just recently, I would continue living a life that was completely out of keeping with the way of Friends. I would live a double life. On one hand, seeking God and on the other ignoring him completely.
You see, I would seek OUTWARD fixing, OUTWARD motivation, OUTWARD change OUTWARD boundaries.
I would avoid the very message of early Friends beyond theology beyond testimonies. Change comes from within. Change comes from the Light and the Holy Spirit. Change comes from entering into silence and listening. It comes through daily prayer and devotional studies. It comes through group worship on a regular basis. It comes to saying NO to that which is dangerous or harmful, even when saying "NO" is a burden. Change comes from allowing the community to hold me accountable and to help as best they can, not trying to do everything alone. Change comes from admitting past mistakes and making amends. All Quaker teachings for 350+ years.
But I wanted to be marionette. God was to be my puppet master.
Only, that's not God. And that's certainly not what Friends of any stripe that I have met so far believe.
Nonetheless, God makes God's way into my life. Whether sitting in meeting for worship as at age 16 and having God LIFT me up out of my seat and move my mouth to speak and panicking because I didn't know what was happening, whether I was sobbing in my living room while at Earlham School of Religion feeling like I'll never shake my sinful ways, or sobbing at St Judes Shrine, my faith gone after Russell's death, or through conversations with others of faith (whatever faith) or sometimes just walking around and sensing a deep presence comfort and/or joy, God made God's self known. The Divine Wonder, the Eternal One, the Great I AM, has made it/him/herself known; even when I doubt or don't believe.
My experience is somewhat different than this Friend's. Quakerism did shape me in a big way, because I really didn't know exactly what I believed before coming to them. I was 12 when I found them and 14 when I started worshiping with them! God did break into my heart. God did make godself known at an early age, but I did not allow God the space to cultivate himself in me. Sure, self-loathing and fear ruled much of my life. I have spent the better part of my life escaping all of that. The conflict, the feeling of not living a life of integrity. The doubt that I really believe everything that Quakers say we should (testimonies). The theological merry-go-round I ride. But the Quaker faith provided a context in which to grow spiritually. Quakers have allowed me to make mistakes (not always without repercussions). Friends have guided me towards progress and health and sometimes shielded me from harm. Friends have greatly impacted how I think, how I approach problems, how I view the world. They've had tremendous impact on my spirituality and my intellectual curiosity and pursuits. I struggle with the Quaker Way. I don't know that I'm a pacifist, or that I oppose war for any reason. I support my troops though I don't really support my government's treatment of them or use of them. I support the police, even though I support the racism that exists in enforcing law. I live a life that could improve in terms of my consumption of materials and goods. I struggle with various hurts, habits and hangups, some of which are direct results from having chosen gay pop culture at 18 instead of Quaker community.
What I do agree with is that when I come into the assemblies of God's people (to quote Barclay), I find a group that cares for me and others, and the Light in me does shine. And I have hope. I have a home.