This happened maybe 30 years ago, when I attended a conference for Quaker pastors down in Orlando. Someone had the bright idea to get all the Quaker pastors in America together and somehow the Evangelical Friends were put in charge, which meant all the speakers were evangelicals who did their best to get us all whipped up so our meetings would grow and Quakerism would be saved. So Joan and I flew down, because who doesn’t like Orlando in the winter. If memory serves me correctly, Joan, being smarter than I, sat by the pool reading books while I attended the meetings. It was the same format every session. We’d listen to a speaker then break into small groups to discuss what had been said. One of the speakers spoke about the importance of confession, so when our small group gathered, one of the pastors, a not very bright man, with his wife seated beside him, confessed to being attracted to a woman in their congregation.

A friend of mine, a fellow pastor also at the conference, was taking notes, and scribbled something on his notepad, then slid it over to me very discreetly. He had written, “I don’t believe I’d have told that.” I was thinking the exact same thing. Too much information. This same friend reads my messages each week and this past week, reacting to my confession of being a functional atheist for much of my adult life, sent me an email saying, “I don’t believe I’d have told that.”

In fact, several people said the same thing to me. One woman wanted to know what I meant by the phrase “functional atheist,” and I told her it meant I had more doubts about God than certainties, more questions than answers.

She asked, “How can you be a pastor if you have doubts and questions?”

That was a great question. In most denominations and religions clergy are expected to deal in certainties, are expected not just to believe in God, but to believe the right things about God and affirm the orthodox teachings of the Church. We’re supposed to hold up our end of things.

Quakers approach faith differently, which is what I want to talk about this morning, as we consider those things the early Quakers got just right. We spent six Sundays thinking about things the early Friends got wrong, so now we’re reflecting on the things they got right, one of which was this: Early Friends never expected someone to believe something they hadn’t personally experienced. At the heart of Quakerism is the belief in the primacy of what George Fox called “knowing experimentally,” by which he meant our ability to have a first-hand experience of the NuFlexne, and that our first-hand experience of God came in its own time, at its own pace, and could never be forced into human constructs or schedules. The Spirit blows where it will.

We did not require one another to believe in someone else’s experience of God or affirm someone else’s revelation. We only invited one another to seek that experience for themselves and to trust their experience with God.

Nor did Quakers insist their leaders have that experience in order to serve, for they knew experiencing God was a lifelong journey, a lifelong quest. What they expected from their leaders was a commitment to the ongoing, unfolding search for Truth. So I was never asked to believe in God. I was only asked to seek God, to seek Truth, which has been the basis of my pastoral ministry, this life-long quest for seeking and discerning what Friends called capital T Truth.

I first experienced this when I was thinking of becoming a pastor. I had been asked by several people at Plainfield Meeting to reflect on whether or not I might be useful in ministry. I had never thought myself useful at anything, so was surprised by their suggestion, but promised to think about it. Around that same time, I became friends with a Quaker pastor named Jim Furbay. Jim was much older than I was, winding down his ministry just as mine was cranking up. He’d been invited to speak at Plainfield Meeting one Sunday and gave this wonderful message, just thoughtful and loving and wise. I was deeply moved by what he had said. It was a clear case of the Buddhist teaching, that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

At the rise of meeting, I thanked him for his talk and asked him how long it had taken him to write it. He said, “All my life, Philip. All my life.”

I’ve revisited that moment many times since. At first, I thought it meant his message had been the summation of everything he’d learned in his 80 odd years. And it was certainly that, but now I think it was more than that, not just a summation of experience and knowledge, but an affirmation of lifelong seeking and the nature of wisdom itself, that we never arrive, we can never set down our bags on Truth’s doorstep and say, “Finally, I’m here.”

I’ve told you before about buying a book when I was a teenager that cost three dollars and was called “God’s Answer for Everything.” Boy, that turned out to be a waste of three dollars.

You know the greatest threat to spiritual growth, don’t you? Certainty. Conviction. Certitude. The setting down of bags on Truth’s doorstep and announcing to the world, “I’ve arrived.”

Doubts and questions are lifelong gifts. They fuel our search for Truth, our quest to understand. Early Friends worried far more about the true believer than the skeptic, and so created a manner of worship that focused less on settled answers and more on honest seeking. Their gift to us was significant, our debt to them considerable. All our lives, all our lives, we engage in this search. All our lives we seek to understand. We feel no need to claim as truth that which we’ve not personally experienced. We want only to be honest and open, seeking the Truth wherever it leads.