Monday, November 18, 2013

More Words Will Not Work

ESR alum and current Richmond First Friends pastor Derek Parker delivered this message during worship there on Sunday, November 3, 2013:

          When I served the Friends meeting in Irvington, I had 3 different occasions to travel to Washington, DC for programs run by the Quaker ministry center named William Penn House.  Each time that I traveled, I traveled overnight by train.  And because I didn’t want to park my car in the somewhat disreputable, downtown, Indianapolis parking garages…  I would park at the Irvington meetinghouse, and call a taxi-cab.  Every time I did this, the same thing happened.
          The cab driver, seeing that he was picking me up in front of a house of worship, would look at the sign in front of the meetinghouse.  And each driver said to me, “So this is a Quaker church.  So what do Quakers believe?”
          This is a common question.  Many of us probably have faced this same question.
          Its not an easy question to answer.  And I wonder if it is perhaps not the most helpful question to ask, but it is the question we often begin with. 
          And how do we answer the question, “What do Quakers believe?”  The diversity of opinion can be staggering.  I’ve joked that if you ask 4 Quakers the question, “What do Quakers believe?”, you will get at least 5 answers.  One person will present one list of beliefs, and somebody else will present another list of beliefs.  If we are lucky, those lists will have some overlap.  Others among us will be even more nuanced and say, “Well on one hand this, but on the other hand that.”   
          Sometimes I’ve been tempted to answer the question by resorting to bibliography.  I’ve wanted to hand the person asking the question, about 20 Pendle Hill Pamphlets, a copy of the Jounral of George Fox, and a few Parker Palmer books.  But that would not be helpful.  Most sincere seekers don’t know where to begin with all those writings, and more casual seekers are demanding an answer that is concise.
          Then there is the historic phenomenon that Friends as a faith community have largely avoided using creeds and written formulas of faith.  In the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican traditions there are creeds named the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed; which consist of lists of things those Christians are supposed to believe. 

For example, the Apostle’s Creed says…

I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord.  He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Those are a lot of words about a lot of beliefs.  And in my opinion not a bad list, but perhaps not the list that every faithful Quaker would write down if asked to speak in our own words.  So our community doesn’t use the Nicene Creed nor the Apostle’s Creed – and so we don’t have such creeds to hand to people who ask us the question.
          What do Quakers believe?  I wonder if that question leaves out something important.
          How a question is asked, can frame the answers, and thus limit our answers.  If somebody asks you the question, “Wouldn’t you be happier with a different job?” … the natural answers are yes and no.  Either “yes” you would be happier with a different job, or “no” you would not be happier with a different job.  Issues around quality of supervision, fairness of compensation, and scheduling are all left off the table because of how the question is asked about your job.  And it then takes a lot of work to move those other issues on to the table.
          What do Quakers believe?  The question is common, but it won’t take us very far.  We need to reach for those things that have been left off the table because of the limitations present in the question we’ve been asked.  We could begin with a belief that God is at work in all people, whether or not we know what that work is.  But then, what do we bring from elsewhere onto the table?

          People of many ages have demanded religious formulas that would make understanding Christianity very easy.  In the time of Paul, the formulas were not always about what one believes, as it was about who one followed as your pastor.  At the church in Corinth some people would say “I am a Christian because I follow Paul”…  “or because I follow Apollos”…  “or because I follow Cephas.”  And Paul told the Corinthians to set aside the formulas that were based on who your pastor was.  Christ was the only pastor that mattered.  Paul then asked people to reach beyond the wisdom of their age, with its focus on who your leader was.  What they needed to reach for was the Spirit that searches everything: that searches the inner thoughts of people, that searches the depths of God, and that searches our relationship with God.  And these things can not be taught by mere human words.  They can only be taught by our first-hand experience of the Spirit.
          Formulas are not enough.  They can be intellectually interesting, but are not compelling across the long run.  They may give us a place to begin, but each belief we begin with needs something more.  It isn’t enough to say we believe in peace, nor to hand somebody a Parker Palmer book.  We could begin there.  But something more is needed.
          BenjaminFranklin once asked Michael Whohlfart (an obscure German Pietist who converted to Quakerism) why his sect did not publish a creed.  Michael replied in words strikingly familiar to modern Quakers…

We are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression.  And we fear that if we should print a confession of faith we would feel ourselves bound by it, and confined to it, and perhaps become unwilling to receive further improvement.

Franklin replied that this degree of spiritual modesty is perhaps “singular” – almost unique - in a world where the wisdom of Franklin’s age demanded that one Christian sect had to be the sole owner of the truth. 
          There is good news here for you and me.  Beliefs matter, even if truth has no singular human owner.  If any of us believe in peace, or God, or forgiveness…  it does make a difference.  But simply creating a list of religious ideas, and saying they are true, is not enough.  No more sufficient than Paul’s Corinthians, who felt satisfied by claiming Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas as their pastor.  They also needed something more.  And that something more is a very good thing.
          Christian faith is not a set of ideas we simply stand on top of.  Christian faith is a response to the experience of the God of Jesus Christ.  We have experiences that inform beliefs.  And from those experiences and beliefs, we respond with the whole of our lives.  And this is the additional very good thing.  Quakers and some others have known that faith is not a belief to stand on top of, but that faith is a spiritual practice that compels us forward as we are moved by the Spirit.
          If again I find myself on a cab ride, and the driver asks me “What do Quakers believe?”  I’m going to do something different than I did in the past.  No nuanced statements about “some say this, and others say that.”  No history lessons or book suggestions – at least not to begin with.  No formulas of beliefs, beyond saying a basic sentence about my belief in God, peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity. 
But I will quickly move onward from my beliefs, to also say this.
          The Quaker experience is that God is at work in every person (Christian or not, Quaker or not).  And so we believe that the most important questions all people should ask are…

·        What is your experience of the Divine?
·        What do you believe about that experience?
·        Based on those experiences, how will you live your life?

To paraphrase Paul…  What human knows what is truly human, except the spirit that is within.  Receive not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Derek is a former geologist, and 2004 ESR graduate.  He previously served Friends meetings in Muncie and Irvington; as well as ministries with the Episcopal Church, Unitarian Universalists, and the United Church of Christ.


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  2. Those seem like very good answers to think about.

    My own suggested answer: First of all, ask God [in that moment] "How can I best tell this person what s/he needs to know?"

    If (as I think) our most important tradition is that God is available for this kind of guidance, this should not only lead to the best way of responding to this person, but serve as an example in a way that no monument of Good Works could equal.

    There's a quote that seems to fit right now:

    " is only to the extent to which our physical presence is the presence of God through us, the presence of Eternity in time through us, that we remain the Church while remaining engaged in action. If our activity in the world becomes a disengagement in relation to God, we fall back into the condition of a human society that has an ideology but no transcendent reality."

    [Anthony Bloom]

    (My previous comment was the same as above, except for one typo... [I'm not claiming that we don't need to also think about what we're saying and how it will be understood! That just shouldn't be our initial focus!])