Who are we?

Does the picture which we paint of ourselves as Quakers actually reflect reality? I suspect that we often think more highly of ourselves than we have reason to. In reality we fall short both as individuals and as a faith community – just like everyone else. Reality is somewhat different from the rhetoric.

But let’s not beat ourselves up about that. We need to recognise our failings – as individuals and as meetings or worship groups, take care of those who have been hurt so that their wounds can heal, forgive ourselves and each other, learn whatever lessons need to be learned (i.e. repent), and do better (i.e. behave more lovingly) in the future.

But the question remains: Who are we?

Last Sunday evening, as three of us were travelling back from a regional meeting north of Duisburg, I asked myself, “Wer sind wir?” (Who are we?). It occurred to me that we might be tempted to exclaim, “Wir sind wer!” (We are Somebody!). Apart from the danger of over-estimating our own importance, we need to know who we are before we can start telling people about ourselves.

At this point I think it is significant to note that George Fox did not go about telling people how wonderful the Religious Society of Friends was. He encouraged/admonished people to turn to their Inward Teacher, the Inward Light of Christ within, to be patterns and examples, and that they would then “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one”. And he encouraged people to meet together to open themselves to the Light within.

At the end of a blogpost entitled “Joy” posted on 21 June 2014 I reproduced a letter from another early Quaker, Isaac Pennington, to Friends in Amersham. We (Quakers) are fond of quoting the first couple of lines of this letter: “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand”. I’ve heard Friends quote this because it has been their experience of the life of their meeting, for which they are thankful. On other occasions, when there has been conflict in a meeting, it has been quoted to remind Friends of the need to be tender with each other. Sadly, it is sometimes quoted to point out the lack of tenderness and a forgiving spirit in a meeting.

In his letter Isaac Pennington encouraged Friends in Amersham: “Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another.” When I feel this spirit, I know that I myself am forgiven. And, knowing this, I’m able to forgive anyone who hurts me. Even when I don’t feel this spirit, I try to avoid laying accusations against anyone, however hurt I may be, because of the likelihood that I’m failing to see the beam in my own eye (Matthew 7.1-5). This needn’t stop me from letting it be known that I’ve been hurt – I find Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as taught by Marshall Rosenberg helpful in this respect. But I do try to avoid making hurtful accusations and to bear in mind that any accusation is likely to be hurtful.

When we are able to walk in the spirit of love and tenderness, the Religious Society of Friends becomes what it is meant to be: a faith community. The New Testament word is “koinonia”, often translated as “fellowship”. The Religious Society of Friends is (or should be, I believe) a very particular kind of faith community, i.e. a peace church, “ekklesia” in Greek. A true Christian church or ekklesia is necessarily a peace church, i.e. a faith community or koinonia which engages in peacemaking both internally and in the wider world. There are other criteria (debatable and debated amongst theologians) which need to be met for a faith community to be a true church or “ekklesia”, but active engagement in peacemaking seems to me to be crucial.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, describes what a peace church should be like:

“If then our common life in Christ (“koinonia”) yields anything to stir the heart, any loving consolation, any sharing of the Spirit, any warmth of affection or compassion, fill up my cup of happiness by thinking and feeling alike, with the same love for one another, the same turn of mind, and a common care for unity. There must be no room for rivalry and personal vanity among you, but you must humbly reckon others better than yourselves. Look to each other’s interest and not merely to your own.

Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your Life in Christ Jesus.”

(Philippians 2.1-5)

This is what I think we should aspire to.

We need, however, to beware of expecting too much from others in our faith community. Whilst we most certainly need to practise loving kindness towards each other in the spirit of love and tenderness, it is a mistake to attempt to do or expect others to do what only the Spirit can do for us. Isaac Pennington writes: “… watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.”

There are times when I fail to watch over my “brothers” and “sisters” as I should (for I am my brothers’ and my sisters’ keeper). I have to wait upon the Lord to preserve me and others from harm. And we all need to wait upon the Lord to help us out of the snare. When we wait upon the Lord and live in the spirit of love and tenderness, the Spirit will guide and strengthen us as we keep going on our spiritual journeys.

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2 thoughts on “Who are we?

  1. Wonderful comments, as always. However, you’ve left out a very important part of the first sentences. Strangely, the commonly quoted version also cuts off this last fourth of the sentence. The important but often-excised part is “… helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting.”
    Waiting for the Lord to give sense helps emphasize that what we humans think is a characteristic of another, may be wrong, and waiting for repentance helps emphasize that Quakers, like all human beings, would do better to ensure they examine themselves honestly and ask for forgiveness when they have hurt someone. Or, as the Lord’s prayer says it, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. Both the honest and humble self-examination, and the forgiving, are essential in any community.

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