Several years ago, a man I know was told he was dying, which of course we all are, but his death was sooner than he had anticipated. Though well-off, he’d always been miserly, to the frustration of his wife who wanted them to travel and see things and visit their children scattered across the country and all those important things that aren’t cheap, but immensely rewarding. Facing death, his priorities changed, and he made a bucket list of things he’d always wanted to do, including buying gifts for his friends and family, home improvements, making sure his wife had a new car, eating out more, going to concerts. Unfortunately, if that’s the right word for it, during the course of more medical tests, it was discovered a mistake had been made, he wasn’t dying, and he went back to being stingy. His wife told me, “We had such fun when we thought he was dying.”

This is not a unique experience. Whenever we think life is about to radically change, we often feel liberated to do things we never would have considered. There are some Bible scholars who believe the Apostle Paul’s openness to female participation in the early church was due to his belief that the world was coming to an end, so he felt freer to rewrite the cultural rules that had heretofore guided him. He wrote about it to the church in Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Like Paul, early Quakers also believed Jesus would soon return and the world as they knew it would be ending. Like Paul, they felt freer to open the gates, welcoming those who had previously not been welcomed, investing power in those who had never held power, especially women and people of color. What we do not know, what we cannot know, is whether early Friends would have been so eager for change if they had thought those changes would be permanent. After all, anyone can be flexible for a little while.

It’s important to note that other people, when they sense their world is ending, do not experience the freedom to rewrite the rules and expand their world, but instead, wanting to be found righteous and faithful to the end, double down on their rules, harden their beliefs, rigidly enforcing their principles all the more. God is watching us! We must stand strong in the face of these temptations.

Whether Friends swung open the gates because of a sincere conviction about the sin of exclusion, or because they thought any changes they made would be temporary, I’m grateful they did what they did. We talked about things the early Friends got wrong, so now, as we consider the things they got right, I would add to that list, their inclusion of those persons the church had never included, their decision to value equality and inclusion over cultural norms and tired traditions.

We continue the Quaker tradition of inclusion in our welcome of people of color. We continue the Quaker tradition of inclusion in our welcome of gay people and trans people. We continue the Quaker tradition of inclusion in our welcome of the elderly as well as the young, in our welcome of the poor as well as the wealthy, of the politically traditional as well as the politically progressive, of dog people and cat people, which might be the most radical inclusion of all.

Too often, when we open the gates wide to everyone, we think we are doing them a favor, and pat ourselves on the back for our broad-mindedness. But here’s the thing, when we include those who have been excluded, we do ourselves a favor. Study after study indicates that more diverse communities enjoy higher rates of creativity, production, and innovation, while communities that remain stubbornly unvaried inevitably stagnate and collapse.

In today’s culture wars, movements for diversity, equality, and inclusion in education and workplaces have been targeted and, in some instances, even forbidden by the legislatures in some of our more benighted states. This is social suicide, for when voices, perspectives, and races other than our own are excluded, tamped down, or silenced, we deny ourselves the creativity, productivity, and innovation that come with variety and diversity. I can’t help but wonder if the explosive growth and vitality of early Friends was due to our robust equality. No group that excludes fifty percent of the world’s population from decision-making can thrive, let alone endure.

A Fairfield story: When this meeting was founded in 1826, it was, like every other Quaker meeting in America, an unprogrammed meeting where Friends gathered in silence. For our first 72 years that was our pattern of worship. In the decades following the Civil War, our church, like many churches, experienced significant growth. It became difficult to assimilate these new Friends into the life of the meeting, to teach them about Quakerism, and to foster their spiritual growth, so we decided the time had come to employ our first pastor.

It was a woman named Sarah Woodard. Our first pastor was a woman, and from what I’ve read, a force of nature. She belonged to the first graduating class of Earlham College in 1847. Not only was she an excellent teacher and speaker, she was also a gifted organizer, who began her ministry at Fairfield at the age of 74. That we continue as a meeting today is due in no small part to her leadership. Last month, when the Southern Baptists gathered for their annual convention and decided God didn’t call women to ministry, I thought immediately of Sarah Woodard and said to myself, “Oh, yes, She does.”

In life, it’s the differences that help us thrive. Quakers inclusion of women transformed early Friends from a regional movement to a global tide in just a few decades. When we stop including, when we close the gate, we start dying. In our own generation, those Quaker meetings who’ve shut out gay people teeter near death, void of spirit and dull of mind.

Open wide the gates, friends. Not just in our meeting, but in your lives. Seek out, befriend, and welcome those who bring with them the gift of difference, the blessing of variety, for we never know whom God will use to lift the veil of tedium that so often engulfs us, we never know whom God will use to break our bonds and set us free.

A quote vaguely related to this theme, for your enjoyment.

On this topic of inclusion, I am reminded of the words of the English actor, Michael Caine, who said, “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”