Up until now, I have been rather philosophical, and have not spoken of my personal experience. George Fox asked someone who was talking about the words of others “What canst thou say?” If Friends have a future they must attract people and they must keep people.
I am, what you might call an eclectic Friend. Baptists and Mennonites had more to do with my early introduction to Christianity than Quakers. As an older child, I was baptized by immersion 3 times, and I studied scripture carefully because part of my background was generic American Fundamentalism. My father’s side of the family has been Quakers long enough to know George Fox, my mother was Presbyterian (though, she joined with Friends). My dad’s generation did not value their connection with Friends the way my Grandparents did — and my generation sees the connection as primarily historical. Although my father was a Friend, I consider myself convinced.
As I prayed the sinners prayer (repeat after me) at little more than infancy, I tried to follow the rules authority figures gave, I read the scriptures since I could sound out words, and was ‘properly baptized,’ with one exception I was a good fundamentalist. The exception being that like my father I asked questions and sought after knowledge. I wanted to understand instead of simply accepting without question. I continued to pray and to study, but in my mind Religion was religiously following the rules — you showed your devotion to God through your obedience.
In the Friends part of my world, there was this place called Camp Quaker Haven, and I had my first mystical experience at this wonderful place. The first recognizable touch of mysticism was that I was drawn to a quiet place, and instead of swimming, or playing, I opened my Bible to Isiah and started to read. This draw to read the prophets continued, and when it was time for group activities I did not feel peace to put down the Holy Scriptures — so I read until I was finished reading.
After reading about God’s voice coming to the prophets of old — and reading God’s promise to them that the day would come that he would speak to ordinary people — I was ready to hear God’s voice for myself. I remembered this experience when I read Fox’s journal — I heard (with Fox), “Christ can speak to your condition”. (Though, I heard it as “You seek to please me by doing what others tell you, and you are unsatisfied. I came into the world so you may walk with me.”)
As many know, the idea that God actually chooses to connect with humanity, outside the Holy Scriptures is considered “new age,” pagan or demonic by a population of Bible Only Fundamentalist. If given a choice between Jesus as the Word of God and scripture — they choose Scripture as the ONLY word of God (Even Jesus Himself is put below scripture). I had a theological crisis: was my experience a demonic delusion that I experienced the comfort of Christ, or was it real?
In my search, I turned to Theology. I read both volumes of Calvin’s institutes, and I read Robert Barclay’s Apology. (I read other books as well, but these were the ones relevant to my choice). I experienced Jesus as God’s Word, so I chose Barclay, and I asked to join with Friends. I chose to join a society of ordinary people walking with God, and under God’s direction instead of a society based on obeying human rules without question. [obedience is still important to me, but I also question freely].
At times, I have found my association with Friends frustrating. I’ve found myself happily worshiping with Catholic and Orthodox Christians — which asks the question: “Why have I stayed?” A short answer is — I am an ordinary human being, and I feel called to be a minister of the gospel without sacrificing my status as “ordinary”. I need support in this ministry, whatever role it may take, from my faith community. I did consider if I were able to be a priest, or some other clergyman. I am theologically uncomfortable giving other people the means of grace. I did not experience grace when I submitted to speak words, or to water, or to the “sacrament of the word [i.e. sermons], I experienced grace when Jesus invited me to walk with Him, and I continue to experience grace when I am open to experiencing God’s presence in my life. I do not want to risk standing between God and another person. I want to point to Jesus as the giver of grace. With this experience, I could easily become a monk, but I feel called to interact with the world around me.
Another reason I stay is that I am a lover of stories. The stories of Saints excite me. I want to be like them! I am influenced by the stories in scripture, by the stories of the Catholic and Orthodox Saints. The closest Friends have to a list of saints is like those scriptures that most inspire me. It is not kings, or warriors, or great clergy men who inspire me… it is those stories of shepherds, weavers, and farmers who heard God’s voice and lived faithfully. My favorite Quaker “saint” is John Woolman, an example of an ordinary man trying to live faithfully to God, speaking prophetically and trying to speak faithfully to his leading. Woolman’s prophetic voice ended the practice of Slavery among Friends before the American Revolution. I want to be such an ordinary man as John Woolman.
The stories of community are even more powerful than the stories of individuals. When soldiers tore down the meetinghouse, Friends met on the ruins. When rude people entered to whip Friends in worship, they continued to pray, enduring pain instead of leaving the meeting. When all the adults in a meeting were arrested — the adults, like Paul, worshiped together in prison while the children continued to worship together without their parents. The power of a gathered Christian community to endure hostility is something I want to experience. I want to be part of a community that sacrificed and endured in the name of Jesus.
Friends have a future because we have a rich heritage. Friends attract ordinary people who want to live life with Jesus. Our theological understanding invites these ordinary people, and our stories are the type of stories that attract stir up courage and (dare I say) pride. We look at ordinary people doing the extra-ordinary with God’s help, and we have faith that God can help us as well… as long as God speaks to ordinary people, the Friends message has a place in this world.