Every now and then, someone in our Quaker Meeting says, “I’m just a bad Quaker.” If one of us gets caught complicating an issue in Business Meeting, or if someone doesn’t have time to make food for the feed-the-homeless dinner, they might drop their head in defeat and say something about being a bad Quaker.
I’ve also occasionally heard of people who left Quakerism because they felt they couldn’t live up to the Quaker testimonies. “It was just too hard,” they say. “Too much pressure.”
Why does this happen? My theory is that we are forgetting the purpose of the testimonies. The testimonies represent the collective Quaker wisdom about how to live a good and spirit-focused life. Each regional Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in the U.S. has a slightly different list of testimonies, but the standard group are what in Quaker education are called the SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship.
Simplicity means to value spirit over material objects and to keep your life uncluttered by things and too much busyness. Peace is the famous Quaker commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution and Quakers’ refusal to support wars. Integrity means to speak truthfully and follow through with your commitments. Community means to support, aid and respect others in the communities you live in, including the Meeting. Equality means to accept everyone as precious in the eyes of God – all genders, races, economic levels, etc. Stewardship means to care for the earth, the Meeting, one’s town and nation, by giving both your effort and financial support to the degree that you can.
Wow. That is a lot to live up to! Each testimony is both personal and global in scale, so it’s understandable that a person could feel overwhelmed. Being a good Quaker can also sometimes feel like all the fun in life has been sucked away. Does it mean you can’t buy a new dress for a special event? Does it mean you must tell your mother-in-law what you really think? Does it mean you need to spend all your free time trying to correct injustice in the world?
But here is what we must remember: the testimonies are not rules handed down by the patriarchs. (“Unprogrammed” Quakers – those who worship only in silence – don’t have patriarchs or any clergy.) Instead, the testimonies are the collective wisdom and guidance of generations of Quakers sitting in silence and listening to God. And one of the most important principles of Quakerism is that each person listens to their own experience of God. Spiritual nirvana is not the goal: the goal is learning to let down your defenses and put away your ego when you sit in silence and listen to God. Being a good Quaker is not about earning gold stars, and the testimonies are not commandments. Their purpose, in part, is to clear away the debris of everyday business and help us see more clearly the way to live a spirit-centered life.
In my youth I spent a few years in the orbit of a Jesus movement that had many slogans. After I left the group, I forgot most of those bite-sized bits of spiritual wisdom, but one stayed with me: “Please be patient; God is not finished with me yet.”
This is the balm that can help us relax about being good or bad Quakers. Not being able to live up to the high calling of the Quaker testimonies just means you are struggling to follow the path, and all spiritual travelers will tell you they struggle to stay on the path. And, according to Quaker understanding, everyone is building the spiritual path that makes sense to them, that incorporates their experience of God. This is what makes spiritual journeys so interesting.
The testimonies serve best as guidance when they are combined with sitting in silence to hear what God has to say. Sometimes God and the testimonies will lay out a challenge; other times they will combine to light an easier way through difficulties. Quakers often say “the way will open.” This I too find reassuring: the path ahead doesn’t need to be a daunting obstacle course.
Please be patient with me: I’m listening for God to open the way.
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.