Two Friends recently shared their thoughts with PYM. One wrote about what is timeless and true vs. political and divisive. The other wrote of the persistence it takes to access the long view. The news in these final two two stories of 2021 is that there is hope! By listening to diverse voices we maintain Truth within Quaker faith. By doing the work of climbing the stairs we see the far horizon.
These reflections–by Rob Vosburgh and Marguerite Chandler–are presented with thanks to the authors. Their words feel appropriate to this moment because they encompass an understanding of the divisions within our nation, the diversity within our community, and the simplicity of helping a four-year-old grandchild see past the illusion of a fairy tale to witness the beautiful reality of a lighthouse.
On the Timeless Eternal and True
by Rob Vosburgh, West Chester Meeting
Every individual of every generation must determine what is timeless, eternal, and true versus what is ephemeral, fleeting, and false. To my mind, Quaker practice is inseparable from Quaker faith in that it helps us in our individual and collective journeys.
I believe that divine revelation is perpetual and ongoing. I believe that there is that of God in everyone, and that Truth may come from any “corner of the room” and at any time. Quaker process helps me navigate the divides and seemingly irreconcilable schisms between myself as a unique consciousness, other individuals, the body of Quakers, and the Spirit, knowing that the sharing of individual truths benefits the body’s collective search for Truth.
None of us who takes the search for Truth and our commitment to Quakerism seriously should foster, tolerate, or participate in a collective body that does not actively welcome dissenting and diverse perspectives. Views that contradict or challenge the majority or prevailing views are critical to ensuring that the body’s collective understanding is informed. To clarify, I believe the body is made stronger by adopting an affirmative obligation so seek diverse perspectives, not merely a tacit willingness to tolerate diverse perspectives.
An obligation to listen, not to debate competing ideology and politics
I believe that Quakers have an obligation to listen to others who express sincere and honest truths, and likewise we also have an obligation to share our own sincere and honest truths. We ought not to be so certain of others’ errors or our own infallibility that we are deaf to understanding. We are not a debating society, and our practice is not to persuade or cajole others into agreement. Whether the Spirit opens the hearts of people to find a shared sense of Truth is beyond human understanding.
Has there ever been a generation in the history of humanity that didn’t think the succeeding generations were too headstrong, idealistic, and overly zealous in demanding change? Has there ever been a generation in the history of humanity that didn’t think that the preceding generations were too entrenched in inertia, conservative, and stuck in their ways?
I do not know, but I do believe that the Quaker practice of multi-generational worship and the respect for diverse perspectives has permitted the body to avoid drastic pendulum oscillations between competing ideological and political amplitudes. The pendulum analogy shouldn’t be carried too far, however, given our understanding that divine revelation is ongoing and that Truth is not (so far as we humans can understand it) a state of equilibrium or stasis. Simply, I don’t believe that Truth is the average mean between two extremes.
Tensions: Fire is not fought with fire and differences need not be irreconcilable
For hundreds of years, generation after generation, Quakers have sought Truth. Despite the best of intentions—earnest and heartfelt—there have been periods of disunity and schism. Yet, despite these differences, there is something that has kept a body of people wed to the concept of Quakerism. Through grace we can understand that error is neither sin nor a refutation of that which is of God. Quaker practice aspires to foster, and in many cases has fostered, a community susceptible to long term, lasting, and significant change in our community’s understanding of Truth.
Today’s political climate of easy rhetoric and false dichotomies lends itself to division and turpitude. There are those of us who believe that the immediacy of the wrongs in the world demand urgent and immediate remedy. We reject our Quaker practice when we fall into the easy trap of perpetuating these falsities and lending credence to irreconcilable differences. What Quaker practice over centuries has taught me is that fire can’t be fought with fire—there is a different way.
Perhaps it is natural that there is a push and pull tension between more “conservative” and more “progressive” members of our community. It is often frustrating that Truth is elusive, and that the world’s ills are not remedied by drastic and immediate intervention of the Spirit. We might confuse our own zeal and enthusiasms for leadings—and in some case they may, indeed, be leadings of the Spirit. The truth we speak as individual Quakers matters, and it should be heard. However, each of us as individuals should be mindful of invoking the full bearing of the body of the Meeting as having formulated a sense of Truth. It is, I believe, dangerous to our faith and practice and sows confusion among Quakers and those outside of our community about the very essence of Quakerism.
Quakers’ care of secular things can lead to being overwhelmed by a small number of voices
When any one person or one representative group of Quakers claims to wield the authority of our faith tradition for specific and particular political aims, or to engage in political lobbying, I believe this is inconsistent with the tenets of our faith.
For some time, I have grown increasingly aware that Annual Sessions and other facets of our community’s care of secular things are increasingly less reflective of our community’s broad diversity and, rather, are being overwhelmed by a small number of voices.
There is no value in pointing fingers, fashioning alliances, or forging factions. We must all take personal responsibility to be active and engaged members of our Monthly Meetings, Quarterly Meetings, and the Yearly Meeting. Part of taking responsibility is recognizing that no one person, one committee, or one group can or should purport to speak on behalf of “all Quakers.” Another part of taking responsibility is recognizing that each and every one of us should speak the truth as we believe it to be in a forum that permits the body as a whole to navigate and incorporate these various threads into our shared search for Truth. The search for Truth is not served by simply walking away.
— In peace and friendship, Rob Vosburgh, West Chester Monthly Meeting
On The Gifts We Seek
by Marguerite Chandler, Newtown Friends Meeting
Christmas Day is over. We’ve eaten the food and opened the gifts. Family has come and gone—or were not able to come. Now what?
What if there were gifts I could give that would change the world, at least change my world? What if, despite these dark times, I could experience the promise of Christmas: comfort and joy?
Last summer I was visiting my 4-year-old granddaughter. We were walking together, and she saw a lighthouse in the distance. She was convinced, as only a child’s imagination can do, that it was Rapunzel’s tower. She wanted to see it more closely. She wanted to go to the top! We drove to the lighthouse. I paid the admission fee. We went through the gate and walked over to the base of the lighthouse. Then she looked up. It was much, much higher and bigger than she’d anticipated (and the admission fee was much, much more than I’d anticipated). Her enthusiasm dimmed. “No,” she said, “I don’t want to go in.”
Stepping Inside to Seek the Spectacular View
“Let’s at least walk inside,” I suggested. We went into the lighthouse. The view of the small, open, spiral metal staircase looked even more daunting. But I’d already paid the admission fee. “Just take the first step,” I said. She was doubtful. “You go first,” she responded. I walked up a few stairs and looked down on her. “Just take one step,” I repeated. She stood at the bottom for quite a while, looking up at me, undecided.
Then she said, “I’m a little scared, but I’m really brave”—and she took the first step. And then she took the next step and the next. Together we slowly climbed to the top of the lighthouse. The view was spectacular. Getting back down was equally challenging, step by careful step. When we got to the bottom and were sitting outside looking up at the lighthouse again (me, exhausted, tired and grateful for having had the health and strength to do the climb), my granddaughter said with enthusiasm, “Let’s do it again!”
Longing for Peace and Beauty: Hungry to be Seen, Heard, and Loved
I’m convinced that the elusive gifts we seek, generation after generation, are like that climb: longing for peace and beauty in the world, hungry to be seen and heard and loved for who we are, having the courage to take the next right step. I believe there is something each of us can do today to create a more loving, just, and sustainable world.
As I look towards the beginning of this new year, this small child’s words strengthen me: “I’m a little scared, but I’m really brave.”
— Marguerite Chandler, Newtown Friends Meeting
Photo Credit: Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse Photo by Mark König on Unsplash