Category Archives: Quaker World

What Does Quaker Membership Mean?

Several weeks ago Reno Friends met online for a spiritual discussion about membership, which was something of a rare event. Usually, modern-day Quakers don’t talk much about who’s a member and who’s an “attender.” Many devoted Quakers spend their lives as attenders of Monthly Meetings, volunteering for leadership roles and participating in Silent Worship, Business Meetings and social events, but deciding against the step of membership. In truth, that pretty much describes me: I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting (with varying levels of devotion) since I first went to the Florida Avenue Meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 35 years ago. I’m a really good attender.

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Are Quakers Mystics?

Last month, Reno Friend Doug Smith led a spiritual discussion about Mysticism on Zoom. It was well attended and stimulated a vibrant discussion. One of Doug’s questions was: Do you think Quakerism can be a form of mysticism? Some thought yes and others no. Defining mystics and mysticism is a tricky task, as mystical experiences are often difficult to explain. Here is the Oxford Languages definition of a mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the Absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.

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Quakers, the Bible, and Religious Language (from PYM’s Faith & Practice)

Quakers encourage one another, in John Woolman’s phrase, “to distinguish the language of the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart,” rather than focusing on seeking names for God. The Light of Christ to one may be what another understands as the Inner Light; the Spirit to one may roughly be what another understands by the Christ Spirit. The Eternal, the Divine, and God may mean the same or not, depending on the context, the speaker or the reader. The language used in all Quaker writing (including Faith and Practice) varies with the source of material. Friends should temper their interpretations, knowing that any specific phrase may have different connotations to different Friends. 

In the course of following their spiritual paths, many Friends find great depth of meaning in familiar Christian concepts and language, while others find more universalist language speaks to their condition. Although this phenomenon may seem perplexing to a casual observer, it does not trouble many seasoned Friends who have discovered deep unity with one another in the Spirit. The breadth of Friends’ terminology promotes latitude in expression and appreciation for what may be subtle differences in understanding.

Tell them in the name of God that there is to be no wrangling about words: all that this ever achieves is the destruction of those who are listening.” 2 Timothy 2: 14.

For most Friends, the Judeo-Christian Bible is an interpretation of God’s revelation over many centuries and a rich and sustaining source of inspiration. The Quaker movement began at a time when the Bible had recently come into wide circulation in England. George Fox and other Friends knew the Bible well, studied it earnestly, and quoted it often.

While they affirmed the inspiration of the scriptures, early Friends made a distinction that has remained vital to this day. In Henry Cadbury’s words: “Divine revelation was not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit that had inspired the scriptures in the past could inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Spirit was essential.” Thus, in emphasizing both the power that produced the scriptures and the accessibility of that same power today, Friends have avoided making written records a final or infallible test. Instead, Quakers seek the spirit behind the Bible, both in order to understand its contents and to be led in continual discovery of God’s ways.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from PYM’s Faith and Practice.)

Are Quakers Christians? (From PYM’s Faith & Practice)

Friends are often asked: “Are Quakers Christians?” This is an important question.  Whether one interprets the Quaker movement as a strand within Protestantism or as a third force distinct from both Protestantism and Catholicism, the movement, both in its origin and in the various branches that have evolved, is rooted in Christianity.

Pacific Yearly Meeting includes many people who were not raised in the Religious Society of Friends and among them are some for whom Christianity is not part of their faith experience. There is thus a great variety of religious belief and expression. Many Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends articulate their Quaker faith in Jewish, Universalist, Buddhist, or other terms. Similarly, Friends hold diverse definitions of Christianity, interpreting and reacting to traditional Christian terminology differently. Some do not accept the defining beliefs required by the church of their youth or of current mainstream Christianity. This has been a point of lively discussion in Pacific Yearly Meeting for the past fifty years.

Early Friends considered themselves Christians; they interpreted and justified their unique vision in Biblical and traditional Christian terms. However, from its inception the Quaker movement has offered critiques of many accepted manifestations of Christianity while at the same time empathizing with people of other faiths. We might use the phrase “primitive Christianity” to describe more closely where Friends fit across the Christian spectrum. Primitive Christianity usually refers to those teachings which pre-date Fourth Century Christians, who had been embraced by Constantine and were becoming “established.” These earliest followers of Jesus were radical revolutionaries, representing a “new order” of faithful who lived communally, eschewed violence of all kinds, and practiced simplicity.

For some contemporary Quakers, the concept of the Divine Light Within emerges from the Bible, teachings of Jesus and traditional Christian doctrine; for others, it comes through different sacred sources. Quaker history demonstrates that an excessive reliance on any one perspective, neglecting the essential unity among them, has been needlessly divisive.

In the centuries since its founding, the Religious Society of Friends has embraced a wide variety of beliefs and practices; however, there are important commonalities throughout much of the Society. As Robert Vogel said in 1993, “…[most Quakers adhere to] plainness and devotion to truth, a clear understanding of spirit-led worship, and essential inwardness; the use of queries and advices in framing faith; seeking the sense of the meeting in business sessions; the peace testimony and other social concerns; and the rejection of outward ordinances and sacramental worship.

As the British Yearly Meeting wrote to Lima Meeting in 1987: “We respond (here) in Christian language, but many Quakers would prefer less specifically Christian terminology. We worship, live and work together in unity, however, valuing the variety of expressions of truth which each individual brings.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice.)

 

The Meeting for Worship (from PYM’s Faith & Practice)

The Meeting for Worship is at the core of Quaker practice. There, Friends gather together in expectant silence, waiting upon God. Meeting for Worship is different from solitary prayer. The strength and focus of the community draw one who is distracted back toward the Center. In the embrace of the Meeting, an individual may be more willing to be searched by the Light that exposes weaknesses and shortcomings, and challenges the worshiper to transformation. Together, we can more clearly see Truth; we can better receive and understand continuing revelation.

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Are Quakers Mennonites? Or Amish?

Every so often we get a call at Reno Friends Meeting from someone wondering if the Quakers are Mennonites or perhaps part of the Amish faith. I used to find these questions amusing, as if people assumed we drive buggies, dress in simple clothes or wear colonial-style hats, like the smiling, white-haired guy on the Quaker Oats box. But it turns out the question is not so silly.

With some research, I began to understand the confusion. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish have similar roots. All three groups rose as Protestant religious reformers in Europe and were drawn to America to escape religious persecution. All three put down significant roots in colonial Pennsylvania and later spread into other states. All three are known as peace churches: they practice nonresistance and oppose military service. They all emphasize the importance of community, having often been ostracized in their early years by mainstream society, and they follow a principle of simplicity.

Beyond those similarities, however, is a host of difference. According to Wikipedia, the Mennonites started as an Anabaptist movement in Holland and Germany in the 16th century. The Anabaptists were Protestants who rejected baptism for infants and instead baptized adults once they accepted the faith. Today there are about 1.5 million practicing Mennonites. The Mennonite Church is complex and diverse. Most are moderate theologically and, in most forms of worship and practice, differ very little from other mainstream Protestant congregations. Worship services usually consist of singing, scripture, prayer and a sermon from the pastor. The Mennonites advocate a personal relationship with Christ and a simple life, but do not restrict use of modern technology. Some conservative Mennonites wear plain dress, but many modern Mennonites do not.

The Amish, also an Anabaptist group, share many basic principles with the Mennonites, but split from the Mennonites in 1693 and embraced a more reclusive way of living. They generally reside in closed groups of families living in rural areas. They hold worship services in private homes. They have bishops, ministers and deacons who set rules that cover many aspects of life. There are different strains of Amish, but in the most common membership in the church starts when a child comes of age and is baptized. From then on, a church member shuns outsiders, marries only within their group, and generally rejects new technology and labor-saving devices, most notably cars. They are considered one of the most conservative religious groups in the United States:  they reject birth control and higher education and prohibit women from wearing pants. They number about 225,000 members, most of whom wear plain dress.

Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, diverge from the Mennonites and Amish most fundamentally in their form of worship. Most Quakers Meetings, particularly unprogrammed Quaker Meetings such as Reno Friends, do not have ministers, as they resist having creeds or a church hierarchy. Unprogrammed Quakers also worship in silence, with no sermon or music or liturgy. Individuals occasionally rise to share a message when they feel moved by God. There are some programmed Quaker Meetings, which split off in the nineteenth century and have pastors and programmed services, but they are less common. Quakers do not baptize members or celebrate communion – they consider all moments equally sacred and so do not believe in sacraments. Most Quakers today are tolerant theologically, believing that each person’s personal experience of God is what should direct that person’s faith. There are about 360,000 adult Quakers in the world. In the United States, the Religious Society of Friends is known for its early support of abolition and for its network of top-notch schools and colleges. While there are a few conservative Quakers who wear plain dress, most Quakers wear modern clothing.

As the Protestant reformers discovered, there are many ways to worship God. But after understanding both the Mennonites and Amish better, I am pleased that some of the tenets I admire most about the Quakers – the Peace, Simplicity and Community Testimonies – are shared with these other faiths.  Maybe we’re not that different after all.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting

The Moral Consequences of Climate Change

Climate change is not just about melting ice caps, worsening drought and rising sea levels. It is not just a crisis for plants, animals and the environment they inhabit. It is also a crisis for people. In fact, some people consider climate change as serious a moral issue as an environmental one, and an issue that could have grave consequences for society.

Pope Francis has issued a moral call for action to phase out use of fossil fuels. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the pope’s encyclical warned in 2015. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an alliance of U.S. government agencies that compiles climate science research, the impact of climate change on humans could be profound: homes destroyed by rising waters or severe storms, diseases such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease spreading, crops and potable water lost due to drought, people crippled or killed by increased air pollution. The program, whose work is available at globalchange.gov, points out that those most vulnerable to climate change are the poor, under-educated, those least able to adapt, and people already struggling with high rates of disease, hunger and societal disruption.

In A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, author Stephen M. Gardiner argues that we are failing in three ways to address the ethical dimensions of climate change. First, those living in wealthy countries are passing the impact of environmental degradation on to poorer, weaker nations. Second, we are saddling future generations with our legacy of environmental degradation. And, third, when we ignore the scientific evidence, we deceive ourselves about our responsibility. We must face up to our ethical failure, Gardiner says, and push our leaders and institutions to act before it’s too late.

Starting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, the Reno Friends will meet every other week for five sessions to discuss climate change and its consequences for social justice. Our goal is to find ways that we can do more, individually and together, to address these issues. We will explore impacts of climate change here in our Sierra Nevada, as well as legislative initiatives, how to change our everyday lives, how to protest effectively, and how to address the needs of those in the Reno area hurt by climate disruption.

Please join us if you are interested in reading and learning more about the ethical challenges of climate change or in debating how we, as citizens, might respond. The discussion group will meet on Wednesday evenings starting at 6:30 in the Quaker Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno. In addition to Feb. 22, we will meet March 8 and 22, and April 5 and 19. A reading list will be distributed in advance. You’re welcome to bring light snacks. Please contact me, the clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, at wswallow54 (at) gmail.com, if you are interested in attending.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.

Humility and the Migrant Crisis

The other day I saw a news photo of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of several Muslim refugees from the Middle East. As a Quaker, I had never seen this Maundy Thursday ritual performed. Having priests wash the feet of parishioners is the sort of high-church tradition the seventeenth-century Quakers rejected as obscuring the pure light and direct experience of God.

Nonetheless, I found the image of the 79-year-old pope and the migrants seated above him strangely moving. Washing a stranger’s gritty, smelly, earth-bound feet is a way of saying “let me be your servant,” an expression of deep humility. It was such a relief – after a difficult week of ISIS attacks in Belgium and political grandstanding about migrants – to see a world leader bend his knee to these fellow humans.

While we all understand the need to be on guard for terrorists trying to cross our borders, we also need to remember the power of humility in trying times. Unfortunately, humility is not a trait that gets much respect these days, particularly not in the heat of our current political season. Candidates trumpet their views as if they have the only answers, and followers seem especially inflamed and righteous. It makes me long for middle ground, a place where all of us who want the best for our country and the larger world could come together and listen with open hearts.

As the English Quaker Joseph Jon Gurney said in the early 19th century: “When the pride of the heart is laid low, when the activity of human reasoning is quieted, when the soul is reduced to a state of silent subjection in the presence of its Creator, then this ‘still small voice’ intelligibly heard, and the word of the Lord, as it is inwardly revealed to us, becomes a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths.”

It takes humility to accept that we don’t always know what’s right or how to respond in a difficult situation. Pride and posturing will not help us understand why emigrants have left their homes or what they are seeking, but perhaps humility will. Whether a flood of migrants is part of God’s plan or not, I cannot say. But it’s an opportunity to practice listening humbly to others, and to God. We will need to understand each other better to make progress in this chaotic world.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.