This draft pamphlet, though, added "or goodness" as a third option. This was the first time I'd ever seen "goodness" used in this context, although, interestingly, I have seen it again since then on some Quaker blogs.
I've been struggling with my meeting for a couple of years now, and although I have been making efforts to return in recent weeks, have been on hiatus--not attending worship--since May of 09. Every week lately, as I've been trying to return, there has been some barrier to me attending meeting for worship, either at home or at the meetinghouse: I've been sick, the aforementioned patchouli-drenched hippy has sat down near me and I've had to leave the room, I'm so raw that a minor crankiness between me and a beloved Friend has led to a big emotional explosion on my part, or Yehva has fussed so persistently that I've decided to take her home.
I think most of these things would hardly be obstacles if I were more sure about my need and desire to be there. I think it is a sign of how fragile my intention is that a pebble in my path ends up feeling more like a military roadblock, complete with snarling dogs, circling helicopters with searchlights, and sarcastic immigration officers sneering, "And just what brings you to this part of town, girly?"
So, anyway, the committee brings this pamphlet draft that says Quakers believe in "that of God, or Spirit, or goodness, in everyone," and my heart sinks. One of my struggles with Quakerism is what I see as its secularization; I want to be part of a religion, not an affiliation of nice people with good intentions. The person presenting the draft asked the meeting for approval to print the pamphlet, and the immediate response was a number of voices saying, "Go ahead!" and "Good job!" and "Roll the presses!" and such like.
I thought that if it was really OK with my meeting to have a pamphlet published that equated "God" and "goodness," then I was definitely in the wrong place. And I also felt that I did not have it in me to be the lone voice of dissent; I really, in that moment, intended to let them go ahead and publish that pamphlet. And then, I thought, I would go home and write my letter withdrawing my membership.
"I'll stand aside," I said, which, many of you know, is that a Quaker does when she cannot unite with a decision of the meeting but recognizes that the meeting is otherwise in unity.
And the clerk accepted that. She was ready to move on, except that over the next couple of minutes, other people raised concerns as well. I don't remember about what, exactly; not the same as mine, I don't think. The M&O committee felt time pressure; they needed to get a pamphlet approved in time to have it printed for the open house. And the clerk, I think, felt time pressure, too--we used to have business meeting before our 12:30 p.m. meeting for worship, and that created a fixed end time. This was, if I recall correctly, our first business meeting in the new meetinghouse, and our first one on the new schedule: starting business meeting at 12:30 or so, after morning worship and the social hour, with nothing to force an ending on us if we ran long. And we were running long. Oh, so long.
Time pressure has got to be the number one cause of bad practice among Friends.
So, a few people raised concerns, but the clerk tried to move us along. "I heard a lot of approval in the room," she said, "and Su has agreed to stand aside..."
And damn if God didn't give me a word to speak in that moment.
I don't remember it very well--I often find that when what I have said is spirit-led is that I don't remember much of it afterward. But I said, "I may have been hasty," and then I went on to say something about "goodness" being a weak word, a word that seems to me to be almost completely about a human quality. God is not all about goodness, I said. God is a big dark hard mystery that we wrestle with, and it is a disservice to reduce God to this single quality. I said...I don't know what I said. But I was eloquent! Damn. And I felt as I said it that I was saying exactly what I meant, exactly what I needed to say. And I felt that it came inwardly from God.
We went on to have a good discussion. A couple of non-theist Friends spoke, and in hearing them I found raised up in me a concern for non-theist Friends in my meeting. I found myself wondering whether "we believe in that of God in everyone" has become an empty phrase we mouth, if half of us don't even believe in God; I found myself concerned that we were asking non-theist Friends to accommodate themselves too much; I went away musing about why we continue, as our first answer to the question of what Quakers are, to assert a question of belief as a defining thing when Quakers do not in fact share a unifying belief; and then I found myself wondering what, if not a belief in That of God in Everyone, does make us Quakers.
We were eventually able to unify around language for the pamphlet, much to the relief of the M&O committee. The woman who had presented it thanked us, and said, "I move every time we have this conversation," which felt true to me as well. This, to me, is the thing Quakers do better than anybody else I've ever encountered, this deep listening to each other (and, yes, to the Divine), and coming to a decision that respects all those voices. I felt pretty good after that meeting, actually, which was quite a change from "the first thing I'm going to do when I get home is write my anti-membership letter!"
And since then... *sigh.*
Yesterday I was at the meetinghouse for a committee meeting, and I found myself standing on the porch gazing at our sign, which is leaning against the wall there. "Red Cedar Friends Meeting," it says, and then the Quaker testimonies, based on the SPICE acronym: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality.
I have always hated that acronym, without really thinking about why, beyond, "Oh, isn't that adorable, how my whole big messy deep religion can be summed up a cute little five-letter word?" (But I just googled for the SPICE acronym and found that I am not the only Quaker who doesn't love it.)
Yesterday, that word "integrity" really jumped out at me. This is a word we use in place of Truth, as in Publishers of Truth, the term early Quakers used to describe themselves. What truth? God's truth, as revealed to Quakerism's founder, George Fox.
Now, Quakers don't necessarily think there's one Truth for everybody (two people praying about whether they should take a certain action may well get different answers) and we have never claimed to posses the whole Truth. And some of what God revealed to Fox seems downright nutty to us now. But we have believed that seeking the Truth would lead to an increased measure of it, and that as our measures grew, we would find ourselves more and more in accord with each other. (Big generalizations there, many of which could be contested. It will do for now.)
"Integrity," though--there's another one of those human words. For a person to have integrity, her words and actions should be in accord with each other. But integrity does not require a person's words and actions to be in accord with God's will as they understand it.
Truth, on the other hand, calls us to consider not only our own human wishes and actions but God's. A person of integrity is not necessarily a person of God. A good person is not necessarily a person of God.
I want to be a person of God. I want my faith community to aid me in becoming a person of God. I want, in my faith community, to be able to use the word "God" without someone immediately following up with a comment about how uncomfortable they are with that word.
I do not like listing our testimonies as a way of defining ourselves. I don't like the SPICE acronym. And I don't like suggesting that what we strive for is personal integrity rather than Truth. Might as well put up a sign, I thought, reading: "Red Cedar Friends Meeting: We're Nice People."
Now, I recognize first, that this is getting really long and probably nobody is going to read it. But second, I recognize that there is probably no congregation of any religious body anywhere in which everybody is all heated up about discussing God and God's will. When my friend Julie and I were at the Festival of Faith & Writing in April, we both talked about how good it felt to be among people who wanted to wrestle with the questions we like to wrestle with. That festival draws on people from all kinds of Christian denominations, probably most of whom also don't have a whole lot people in their home church who meet their need for questioning and examining every last little thing. If we all had that at home, there'd be no need for the conference.
So I know that it is unreasonable for me to expect my monthly meeting to meet my every religious need, and I don't expect that. And I know that when I speak honestly about my concerns and interests there, I am heard with sympathy and respect. And I take very much to heart Friend Martin Kelly's point in the blog post I linked to above, that "comfort is not necessarily what God has in mind for us," so I wince when I hear myself wanting to be more comfortable in my monthly meeting.
I thought it was time for me to go back to worship, but every time I go to the meetinghouse, there's a pebble in my way that feels like a wall.