Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Voluntary Service Among Friends

By Valerie Hurwitz

Noah Baker Merrill, a Friend from Putney Monthly Meeting (New England YM), came to ESR last week and spoke with us at Common Meal. Ostensibly here to speak about the Quaker Voluntary Service program starting in Atlanta this fall, Noah shared that he had been invited to give a prepared message at the FWCC gathering in Kenya next month. He asked what he might say to Friends there and shared the outline of his message as it was taking form within him right now.

Noah spoke of “triangulating on God” as he traveled. Whether visiting Cuba YM, a small unprogrammed worship group in Oregon, or in his home meeting in New England, Noah looks for where God is at work. These are the areas where this is growth, new opportunity, and good news. Noah quoted Bill Taber as saying “we have lost a shared vocabulary for the inner landscape.” For unprogrammed Friends, this means talking about what is going on in the silence of unprogrammed worship. There are three “motions” Noah sees in healthy meetings. He terms them “the motion of prophets”, “the motion of midwives”, and “the motion of thieves.”

The first (prophets) is the ability of people in the meeting to point to the newness of God in that moment, to rediscover the law, and to re-interpret stories for today. The second is that of midwives, those who ask themselves “what does the body need to come fully into life?” Rather than getting stuck in the postmodern idea of distinct and individual journeys, the midwives in our midst understand that a religious/spiritual community is mutual responsible for each other’s liberation. Finally, the motion of thieves points to the need for humility and the understanding that we inherit a tradition from those who went before us. While Noah did not phrase it quite like this, I would point to these three motions as needed for a vital and healthy monthly meeting, yearly meeting, or other organization with a spiritual element to its mission. Meetings that lack one of these elements struggle as a result.

A hushed feeling of worship crept over the group as Noah spoke and when he finally asked us where we saw new life in the Religious Society of Friends, I did not hear a direct answer to his question. There was a feeling of blessing and a scattered vocal response. I have been wondering to myself why exactly that is for the past week. It’s been a busy week (we had 10 prospective students here on Friday and spent half an hour in the basement during the tornado warning, and there were 90+ people here for the Spirituality Gathering on Saturday). ESR was created as a place to give Friends training for ministry and to allow space for Friends from different traditions to meet and “triangulate on God” (among other things). Many of our students come here hoping and planning, or already being, a source of new life in the Religious Society of Friends and wider world.

Although I don’t know that folks here would describe it in the same way, the motions of prophets, midwives, and thieves, the actions that Noah described (re-interpreting stories for today, eldering the meeting, and humbly acknowledging our debts to those who came before us) are familiar to Friends here, and to non-Friends. So, here’s Noah’s question passed on to all of you: Where do you see God at work in the Religious Society of Friends and where is there new life breaking through?

P.S. We shouldn’t neglect Quaker Voluntary Service, which is launching its first service house in Atlanta this summer! Noah spoke of this project as a sign of “new life” within Quakerism and part of a process of reclaiming and making current the Quaker tradition of service. The Board also decided to emphasize the importance of the example of Jesus, which was controversial among some Friends.

Valerie Hurwitz is Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Earlham School of Religion. She lives in Richmond, Indiana and serves as choir director at West Richmond Friends Meeting.

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