Many years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a prominent Quaker who had studied at several of our Quaker colleges and universities and had written extensively about Quakerism. He was a pre-eminent expert on all-things Quakerism and would tell you so if you talked with him long enough. He could trace his Quaker roots back to the very beginning of our movement. I met him while attending a lecture he was giving to Quaker pastors about the importance of studying Quakerism, which had been his life’s work. He was a robust speaker, one of those people who could read a casserole recipe and make it sound like the Bible. In his lecture, he said we must think of every Quaker meeting as a seminary where people were taught the history and tenets of Quakerism through rigorous lectures by the professor-in-residence, the pastor. I was attending seminary at the time and grew excited at the possibility of replicating that experience in my local meeting. Listening to him speak, I imagined myself standing in the pulpit, in front of a blackboard, wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, delivering one scintillating lecture after another on the mystical delights of Quakerism.

This seems as good a time as any to confess that I actually tried it. Not the blackboard part, but the tweet jacket with leather elbow patches and 45-minute messages. It didn’t end well.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered how Quakerism is best taught. How do we learn Quakerism? Of course, we all learn differently—some of us learn by reading, some by seeing, some by talking, and some of us learn by doing. But after 40 years of observing Quakers in the wild, I’ve come to believe Quakerism isn’t something taught, so much as it is absorbed through osmosis, osmosis being that process of gradual assimilation of ideas and knowledge. The woman who taught me the most about Quakerism was the daughter of the learned scholar I just mentioned. Unlike her father, she had never attended college. She spent her work life driving a school bus for disabled children. But for the nine years I was her pastor, it was like sitting at the feet of Jesus, like a graduate degree in Quakerism. In all the years I was her pastor, I don’t suspect she ever said a hundred words about Quakerism, but her virtue and spirit filled a book.

Many of us grew up in religious traditions that emphasize knowing and believing the right things, the orthodox doctrines, the official creeds, the correct tenets and canons. Recently, I was talking with a man who was trying to discern if Quakers were sufficiently orthodox. His daughter had joined a Quaker meeting, he knew I was a Quaker, so he wanted to make sure being a Quaker wouldn’t ruin his daughter’s chance to go to heaven. He’s a high church guy, does the smells and the bells as we say. Which I’m not denigrating, if that works for him. But he asked me how often Quakers recited the Apostle’s Creed and whether or not we believed it.

I told him I’d never heard the Apostle’s Creed said in a Quaker meeting, so now he’s worried about his daughter. Of course, it is true we do church differently. We’re not a seminary where beliefs must be memorized and affirmed. We are a community, a collection of people who believe if you create a rich and meaningful and compassionate community, then those who participate in that community will soak up those virtues, will marinate in those virtues, and will become who we ought to be through osmosis, through the gradual assimilation of the highest ideals we can imagine. Quakerism is not a religion of the head; it is a religion of the heart. Joining a Quaker meeting isn’t about giving a monosyllabic grunt to an incomprehensible question. It is about our willingness to immerse ourselves in a community that affirms and celebrates our highest and holiest ideals, and to daily soak them up. This is why the Quaker never fully arrives at some state of perfection. Osmosis is a lifelong procedure. We are always growing, always becoming, always yearning. What makes osmosis possible is our permeability, our openness, our porousness, our capacity to be altered.

There was a man in my first meeting who’d begun attending our Quaker meeting under pressure from his wife. While Quaker meetings might not be coercive, spouses can be, and his wife was. She made him come to meeting. He hated it at first. He was the first one out the door every Sunday. But after a while I could sense it was starting to grow on him and after a few years he told me he wanted to join.

He said, “I guess I should tell you I joined the KKK back in the 1930s, when I was young, and I still belong. That’s probably not acceptable here.”

I said, “Let’s talk about that.” So we talked about it.

Afterwards, he decided he was going to track down the man who had signed his membership card in the KKK fifty years ago, and found him still alive, living down in Martinsville, and turned his card in and died a Quaker ten years later. What we asked of that man was to undergo osmosis, to acclimate himself to a new reality, to swim in a new pond. Now if religion is about osmosis, if it is about immersing ourselves in the right kind of virtues, then we need to be clear about those virtues, don’t we, and we have to trust that regular exposure to those virtues will eventually transform us.

Our little pond lost a good one this week, didn’t we? I was having dinner with a friend this past Friday night, and I was telling him about Tom Farrington passing. He said, “I knew Tom. I loved Tom.” He told me everything he knew about Tom, which was interesting, because Tom was a private man, and never bragged on himself, so there were things I didn’t know about Tom, but I’ve been hearing all about him since Wednesday. I just thought he was this nicely dressed, well-mannered man who knew a lot about computers, and had a love-hate relationship with Euchre. But what he was was a man who took osmosis seriously, who had immersed himself in a loving community and was allowing it to transform him.

Friends, religion isn’t about passing a test, so don’t waste your time studying for it. Spend your time osmosing. I don’t think that’s a word, but we’re going to make it one right now. Osmosing, devoting yourself to soaking up and living in the highest ideals you can imagine.