Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Forgotten Quaker testimony

In the 1940s, Howard Brinton, one of 20th century Quakerism's leading educators and theologians, summed up the essence of Quakerism by describing it not in terms of beliefs, but of "testimonies." Testimonies are how Quakers put our faith into practice. For Brinton, the defining characteristics of Quaker practice were:

Simplicity - focusing on what is truly important and letting other things fall away.

Peace - seeking justice and healing for all people; taking away the causes of war in the ways we live.

Integrity - living as whole people who act on what we believe, tell the truth, and do what we say we will do.

Community - supporting one another in our faith journeys and in times of joy and sorrow; sharing with and caring for each other.

Equality - treating everyone, everywhere, as equally precious to God, recognizing that everyone has gifts to share.

These testimonies are often summed up with the acronym SPICE. They help guide Quakers in our behavior, though they shouldn't be seen as a set of external principles but rather the expression of an inward experience of God's grace and light. 

I resonate with Brinton's efforts to explain and teach Quakerism through testimonies rather than a creed, but I feel that he has left out some very important testimonies, in fact, the most important testimony of all.

This is the testimony that inspired early Friends to follow the example of Jesus who said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.…" (John 15:13). 

What distinguished early Friends was how deeply they expressed their love for each other by willing to make sacrifices for those who were being persecuted. Some even signed a petition asking to take the place of Friends incarcerated in vile dungeons--which was virtually a death sentence. This act of self-sacrificial love was so powerful that it profoundly influenced a Russian historian named Tatiana Pavlova to become a Quaker. 

Let me then describe some of the ways that I have observed Quakers putting the love testimony into practice. With due respect to Howard Brinton, I am calling these testimonies SCHOOL.

Love-based Quakerism is:

Spirit-led, not rule-bound. I am reminded of the oft quoted epistle of Elders of Balby (1656). After presenting a list of 20 guidelines for Quaker good conduct, they write: “Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” Quakers are at their best when we follow the way of love rather than rules.

Compassionate listening, nonviolent communication. Listening with compassion, not judgment, is one of the best way to express love.

Hospitality. Everywhere we travel, we are welcomed by Friends into their meetings, gatherings and homes. No one is rejected or turned away. 

Open mindedness, openness to the Spirit and to “that of God” in each person. No exceptions.

Open worship in which each person can participate either through prayerful listening or prophetic speech.  No judging. Listening from the heart, based on the conviction that Spirit  speaks in and through each and every worshiper.

Love, the most important but often forgotten testimony, the one that gave Friends their name (see John 15 where  Jesus says that if we practice self-sacrificial love, we are no longer his students or servants, we are his  friends). Love and truth were the “spiritual weapons” that helped the Quaker movement to grow. "Love was the first motion,” according to John Woolman, that led him to write his journal and guided him in his advocacy for the poor and enslaved. He saw “universal love” as the “business” of Quakerism:  “To turn all the  treasures that we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”

No reflection on love would be complete without  considering the words of the apostle Paul, which I have paraphrased with Quakers in mind. 

A Quaker version of 1 Corinthians 13

If I go to meeting for worship and sit for hours in blissful, heavenly silence, but have not love, I have wasted my time.

If I have read Faith and Practice cover-to-cover, and faithfully follow Quaker process, but have not love, I have learned nothing.

If I sacrifice my time serving on committees, and spend countless hours at meetings that would bore most people to death, if I have not love, I have accomplished nothing.

If I go to demonstrations, and fight for justice, and get arrested for my convictions, but have not love, I might as well stay home and watch TV.

Love is patient, kind, forgiving and gracious. Love doesn’t care about rules, or who’s right or wrong; it cares about treating others the way you want to be treated. Love puts up with all things, and is always hopeful. Love never gives up.

Our Quaker testimonies will fade away, because they are partial. Love never dies because it is the fulfillment of everything we seek. When I was a child, I spoke and reasoned and acted as a child. Now that I am an adult, I still feel and act like a child sometimes, but I have moments of maturity and wisdom when I can see myself and others as we truly are. We now see each other through the distorted lens of our egos, but the time will come when we will see each other as radiant spirits of light, yet fully human, made in God’s image, for a purpose greater than we imagine.

Three things really matter and will last forever, faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.

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