Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Can Quaker Faith without Practice Be Spiritually Alive?

Once a year, Quaker Meetings are asked to write “state of the meeting reports,” a practice that Minneapolis Friends describe as follows:

State of Society Reports are a long-standing Quaker custom. They are annual reports written by a monthly meeting (a local congregation) to the yearly meeting (regional group) with which it is affiliated, describing the condition of the monthly meeting — its strengths, challenges, spiritual health; responding to posed queries, offering statistics and practical information

This year, our Quarterly Meeting Ministry and Council Committee requested that monthly meetings submit state of the meeting reports that describe only the "spiritual state of the meeting." They don't want a "laundry list of activities.” While I can understand their dislike of laundry lists (please don’t tell me how many shirts you washed this year!), this request implies that the spiritual life can be separated from the active life.

When I heard this, red flags went up and my immediate response was: Why are we creating a false dichotomy between the spiritual and active life? Faith and practice are two sides of the same coin. If our lives are grounded in the Spirit of Love and Truth, then our actions will flow out of our prayer life and our faithful actions will deepen our prayer life. In other words, the more we are truly faithful to Divine will, the more we will experience (and rejoice in) the Divine Presence.

When we focus only on the inward life, and on our subjective feelings, we run the risk of becoming spiritually narcissistic. This is sometimes called “navel gazing.” When we focus only on activism, we can lose our connection with Divine Love and can become compulsive. Neither approach brings deep joy and peace.

Separating the active and spiritual life is counter to both Christianity and Quakerism. In an epistle that was very popular among early Friends, James says, “Faith without works is dead” and adds that “real religion is about helping the widows and orphans, and staying unspotted by the world” (James 2:14-26). This parallels what Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them (Matt 17: 6)”

Echoing this sentiment, William Penn wrote: “True godliness [a 17th century term we could translated as “spirituality”] does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it.”

Howard Brinton and Rufus Jones championed the idea that Quakerism is a mystical religion and that our unprogrammed Meeting for Worship is the heart of our Quaker practice, yet they were also deeply involved in activism, wholeheartedly supporting the American Friends Service Committee and similar endeavors. Brinton gave the best definition I know of “inner peace”: he said it was listening to the Inward Guide and doing what it dictated. This means putting our faith into practice.

I am pleased to report that the Peace and Social Concerns (PSC) Committee in our Meeting is thriving by putting our faith into practice. I thank God for this Committee since some Meetings are laying down their Peace Committees due to lack of enthusiasm or interest. I believe that a thriving Peace Committee is a sign of spiritual health in a Meeting since the most distinctive feature of Quakerism is our Peace Testimony.

How do I know that PSC Committee is thriving? First, we have a good turnout: eight to ten Friends show up each month. Second, those who attend feel happy and hopeful (unlike some other committees, where members complain of burnout). Third, we are doing good work. I’d like to list what has been deleted from our state of the meeting report.

PSO distributed $11,000 to worthy local causes, and also supports our Quaker organizations like FNCL, FCL-CA, AFSC, etc. Two members of PSC went to FCNL Lobby Day. Two minutes of action seasoned by PSC were approved by business meeting--one calling for the US to welcome Syrian refugees and another in support of the "Facing Climate Change" minute approved by Pacific Yearly Meeting. In response to this minute, Property Committee has decided to take part in Pasadena's Green Power program, which allows customers to purchase 100% renewable energy at a slightly higher cost. PSC is also helping the Meeting to discern priorities for FCNL.

Having accomplished these things, with Divine Assistance and the support of our Meeting,  it is no wonder that the Peace Committee is happy and enthusiastic (a word that literally means “filled with God”). When we work in harmony with each other and with the Divine, we experience what Paul calls the "fruit of the Spirit:  joy, peace, love, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). It is significant that “joy” is listed first.

I hope and pray that all the Friends in our Meeting, as well as all people seeking to live in accordance with Divine Goodness, experience the joy that comes from putting faith into practice.


  1. While SCQM and PYM still have PSOrder committees, our meeting came to unity on the name Peace and Social Concerns several years ago.

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