I’ve been out of town these past few weeks, first to Washington State just east of Mount Rainier to meet with a group of pastors. If you ever need to meet with pastors, Mount Rainier is the place to do it. The highest point in Danville is the landfill, and Mount Rainier is a whole lot prettier. Then Joan went with me up to East Lansing, Michigan to the People’s Church, where we met some wonderful folks. Both the Mount Rainier and Michigan groups being religious, and me being a pastor, there was an assumption I’d talk about God. Actually, it was more than an assumption, it said so in the contracts I’d signed. So I spoke about God, though I’m starting to wonder why I’m any more qualified to speak about God than anyone else. Why do people assume pastors know more about God than everyone else? Probably because pastors told them so.
After I had spoken in Michigan, during the question and answer session, a woman asked me what the core belief of Quakerism was, which given the diversity of belief within Quakerism was a fairly daunting question. Especially since there were other Quakers present, members of the Lansing Friends Meeting, so I knew my answer would have to satisfy them or I would be publicly admonished. Not that Lansing Quakers are especially persnickety, but they are Quakers, after all, and we do seem to enjoy correcting one another.
So I thought carefully about all the things I’ve heard Quakers say we believe, and it occurred to me that for people who don’t believe in creeds, we nevertheless have a lot of beliefs, but I girded my loins and said, “Probably our insistence that there is that of God in every person.” As I was saying it, I was glancing at the Lansing Quakers and was relieved when I saw them smile and nod their heads in agreement. Whew!
This happened last Sunday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since, that there is that of God in every person. And it strikes me that the biggest threats to Quakerism have always come not from outside our ranks, but from within our ranks when we have forgotten there was that of God in every person.
I point this out because sometimes when you ask Quakers why there aren’t more Quakers, we’ll say things like, “People today just don’t care for silence,” or “People today don’t want to be pacifists,” or “People today are too materialistic and aren’t interested in simplicity,” which implies the decline of Quakerism is the fault of people who aren’t even Quakers. It would be like my getting a divorce and blaming it on Catholic priests. “Well, those Catholic priests, if they had just married, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
But the biggest threat to Quakerism never came from outside our ranks. It came from those within our ranks who had forgotten there was that of God in every person.
Several centuries ago, when Quakerism was one of America’s largest religions, we had the bright idea that if you were a Quaker and married outside the Religious Society of Friends, you were no longer fit to be a Quaker and were kicked out, or “read out of meeting” as we used to say. We booted out tens of thousands of members for the high crime of marrying a Methodist or Presbyterian. All because we had forgotten there was that of God in Methodists and Presbyterians, too.
Just a handful of years ago, Quakers in Indiana Yearly Meeting in eastern Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio lost half their members when they forgot there was that of God in gay people, too. And before that, entire congregations left our yearly meeting, a yearly meeting they’d belonged to for over a hundred years because they could not believe God was unswervingly committed to the eternal well-being of people who didn’t believe as they did, could not believe God was eternally committed to the very people they had once believed God dwelled in.
There is a spiritual amnesia that undermines our most cherished values, causing us to forget that which we had pledged never to forget.
On the occasion of winning the Whitsett Prize for Christian Ethics, the Baptist writer and preacher, Will Campbell, gave a speech in which he recalled his history with the church. He said, “All institutions, every last single one of them, are evil; self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving; and very early in the life of any institution it will exist for its own self.” He spoke of how institutions eventually and inevitably forsake the values which inspired their founding, and care only for their institutional survival.
The moment a religion forsakes its founding principles to focus on its survival, is the death knell of that religion. We know Quakerism was most vital at its inception, energized by our conviction that there was that of God in all people. Then three tragic things happened simultaneously. We didn’t think they were tragic when they happened. In fact, we perceived them as blessings, but we now realize their detrimental effect on Quakerism. We acquired power, we acquired wealth, and we became determined to preserve our religion by keeping it pure. Those three things—power, wealth, and purity—became more important to us than our revolutionary belief that God was in all people. In caring chiefly for power, wealth, and purity we made our religion all about us, and not about others. The moment that happened we became self-serving, self-preserving, and self-loving. Our true north shifted just far enough so that the further we traveled, the more years we journeyed, the further away we moved from our first objective, our primary calling—to see that of God in others, to love that of God in others, and to speak to that of God in others.
What does this have to do with us? We’ve been spending a great deal of time and energy this past year working to ensure Fairfield’s future; organizing, measuring, quantifying, and discerning our life and future together. I will confess that I’ve been uneasy with this process, and I didn’t understand why until this past week when it occurred to me that we might very well succeed at self-preservation, while forgetting that which should never be forgotten—that there is that of God in all people.
I’m not sure the world needs a safely-preserved Fairfield Friends Meeting. But I am certain the world needs a Fairfield Friends Meeting committed to the radical belief that God is in all people. For our world is always at risk of forgetting that, especially in these fractured, broken days, when people need more than ever to cherish and value the Other.
I have spent much of my life searching out the Me in Others, hoping that by finding the familiar I would never be challenged, never be hurt, never be frightened. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and am now secure, well-preserved, and of little good to this world. I can’t help but wonder what might have been if I had searched out the God in Others, what miracles I might have beheld, what love I might have known, what good I might have done, had I seen that of God in Others, and not just in myself.