On the cusp of the New Year, and just before retiring from his position as Care and Aging Coordinator, George Schaefer shares this powerful perspective on faithfulness among Friends. As one Friend recently said, Quakerism is a 24 hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week “faith” process of exploring the individual relationship with God, or Spirit, and building community with those around us while we try to live “in the Light.” In the work of faithfulness, and across the yearly meeting, George has been helpful and knowledgeable in his support to meetings and individuals. At the end of George’s essay, we have included a beautiful December 19th minute of appreciation from Haddonfield Quarter.
As Friends, we differ from other religious traditions rooted in Christianity in our confidence that spiritual guidance for faithful living comes from a direct and unmediated unfolding of spirit as revealed to our inner consciousness. This experience affects our individual lives and our communal worship. The light in our consciousness, once experienced, can guide us into living a more authentic life. It is the essence of so much historic Quaker doctrine–from continuing revelation to ideas about caring for one another.
Earlier generations of Friends, influenced by biblical language, would have referred to this process as living into perfection. Today, in a more psychologically astute age suspicious of such words, we tend to use the word wholeness when trying to describe this process. (That wholeness involves) the shifting of our awareness from the concerns of the status-seeking and worldly ego to the stirrings and promptings of that which is deepest in us: the spirit, the light, the seed, the truth, presence… that of God.
We use the word authentic to describe the genuine version of something as it connects to its author, its creator. As members of a Friends meeting, we are advised to support each other in living more authentically, or truthfully, to that which is most essential to our being, the light of awareness, the light that enlivens the world.
While faithfulness is being true to a vow, for members of the Religious Society of Friends, it means being faithful (staying in authentic relationship) to that of God within ourselves, in each other, the community of Friends and those we encounter as we walk cheerfully (with faith and hope) through the world.
Faithfulness Then and Now–a Covenant with God
Historically Friends have understood this act of faithfulness to a relationship with Spirit in terms of the covenant made between God and the ancient Israelites. And, as we know from the stories these ancient authors told, staying in right relationship is not always easy. In fact, it is hard. It has its ups and downs; it’s illuminating mountain peaks and its valleys of shadows and grief. It’s an unknown wilderness, and it’s a land of milk and honey.
In many spiritual traditions, the nature of this shifting and often tumultuous relationship is described in terms of the presence and then the (apparent) absence of Spirit. The biblical psalmists like the Sufi poet Rumi express this experience in astounding poetry of heartbreaking despair and longing for the presence of Spirit and then the profound and all-consuming love of knowing God’s presence, the beloved, the guide, tasting the living waters of spiritual renewal and hope.
Being in covenant relationship is very different from being bound to a works contract. It is not like cutting a deal with a promised outcome. It is more like an understanding that as our lives unfold and the reality or truth of our lives emerges from the changing circumstances of the community and the environment, we will depend on Spirit to show us the way forward.
Covenant is a pledge to honor the wisdom revealed through careful spiritual discernment made by ourselves and the community of which we are a part as it emerges in the here and now. It is also a desire to be led into right living by the direction of Spirit and the affirmation that such living is of the highest value, the pearl of great price worth selling everything to obtain.
Spiritual Practice and Mutual Accountability
But this all takes work or faith and practice, as Friends say. For modern liberal Friends, it involves worshiping together without an agenda or program, listening, serving, supporting, and working with one another in ways that are truthful and loving. Friends of early generations would have called this practice a spiritual discipline. And, as we know, an early title for our book of Faith & Practice was the Book of Discipline.
In workshops I have led on the topic of faithfulness and discernment as it relates to the work of establishing ways or structures for resolving conflicts in meeting, I do not use the word discipline. Even the word accountability to describe the process involved in faithfulness is objected to by some Friends. They find its associations with past negative events of expressing differences at school or at work uncomfortable.
Yet, the process of faithfulness that keeps us accountable to one another needs to be understood and clearly articulated if we are to help each other grow into greater wholeness. If the goal of spiritual practice is to grow in character, to share the gifts of the spirit with one another, including the really hard work of love, to which Friends have been called: to create a more just and equitable society by exposing systems of oppression (what the first Friends called the Lamb’s War) we need the support of a community of the faithful to teach us how to be faithfully led by Spirit.
Today, Friends see our practice of faithfulness to Spirit as a process of mutual accountability, of loving one another in the fullest sense: accepting each other’s foibles and diverse spiritual conditions while knowing each other in that which is eternal, cherishing each other in love. But, that hard part of loving, of calling each other into closer relationship with Spirit when we seem to be missing the mark or lost in the wilderness as older Friends may have said (using biblical metaphors to describe spiritual conditions) is essential if we are to live in harmony with one another as a meeting.
Harmony and the Quaker Vision
Friends also have a historic testimony of harmony in addition to the others made popular by the SPICES (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship) acronym.
For Friends, the task of witnessing to this testimony, of calling each other and ourselves into deeper relationship with that which is authentic and true, into greater faithfulness to our vision of the peaceable community, is the hidden source of our spiritual renewal, cohesiveness, and strength.
In my experience, once understood and practiced, faithfulness can continue to inspire hope that the Quaker vision is attainable in our meetings if we respond to each other with faith and in faithfulness.
– George Schaefer, Care & Aging Coordinator
Haddonfield Quarterly Meeting: Minute of Appreciation for George Schaefer
Haddonfield (NJ) Monthly Meeting wishes to minute our deep appreciation for George Schaefer as he retires from his position as Care and Aging Coordinator for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Through the years, George has been an important source of wisdom, compassion and information. He has been there as our Meeting confronted a variety of issues: pastoral care of members, individual retirement and aging concerns, and our need for clarification of community services available to assist our aging members. George has advised and supported our Meeting’s “Aging as Friends” discussion group, which has been helpful to many of us.
We have turned to George knowing that he would generously spend the time to guide us to solutions when possible, and to a loving understanding when there were no solutions. With humor and deep kindness, George has listened deeply and responded to us with love. We are grateful.
– Approved at Haddonfield’s Meeting for Worship for Business on December 19, 2021