Messy Simplicity

I’m a Quaker; this is why.

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It should be said much more often than it is that inviting questions when you haven’t worked out the answers yet is a Bad Idea. I learned this the hard way a few years ago, when I said on Facebook “I’m a Quaker; ask me why.” When someone did just that, I tied myself into a Gordian knot of “well, I suppose some people say…” and “I don’t mean you can’t” which confused everyone concerned and in no way answered the question. This week being Quaker Week, I’ve decided to have another go. So, in a slightly more premeditated way, here is my answer: this is why. It’s a different answer to the one I would have given 15 years ago; a different answer, no doubt, to the one I will give in 20 years time; but it is as true as it can be right now.

Lights and darkness, hope but not too much hope. A candle burns in a bedroom window, surrounded by lighted windows and a starry sky. In its reflection, the candle has just been blown out.

Loyalty. The Quaker community has been a constant throughout my life. As I have moved around the country, new Meetings have welcomed me into membership and joined the chaos of my family life. Quakers introduced me to my husband; gave me my first kiss; made me believe that there were others around me who valued me just as I was; gifted me with friends without whom the world would be a darker place and I probably wouldn’t be here at all. There are prophets in this community who dare to say the things no one wants to hear; lone tigers who do terrifying things against everything society and their quieter minds are telling them; people who shape the norm and people who shatter it; people I love and people I honestly can’t really stand. Every one of those people has an equal place and an equal voice and without any one of them, this community would be poorer. They took me in and made me strong enough to take on a world I would often rather avoid. They have loved me and my children, baby-sat for us, driven us around the country to gatherings and weddings and conferences, and quite frankly, have dug themselves far too deep into the centre of my being for me to just get up and walk away.

Challenge. There is beauty and peace in worship that consists mostly of silence. It isn’t easy, though. It’s very hard to hide when all there is is you and a Light that is digging around in all the dark corners you haven’t hoovered for quite some time and were really hoping no one would notice. I frequently go into Meeting with a Big Question I want answered: you know, “what should I be doing with my life?” or “how can I make world peace happen by lunchtime next Tuesday?” I usually come out with no answers at all, but more questions; or answers to questions I hadn’t dared to ask; or instructions that go beyond anything I want to admit to. In decision making I find myself going in the opposite direction to my expectations; in daily life I am suddenly, utterly convinced with no premeditation or control that this is what Needs To Be Done.* And then I have to live with that knowledge, that decision, that call, and try to hold on to that certainty when the clouds of the world roll over those beautiful starry skies and I cannot remember, quite, what it was that I saw there.

Discipleship. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” (Always in a soaring melody, for me, never spoken.) To me, the stripped back act of discipleship, of following the summoning and the footsteps of Jesus, is about talking the talk and walking the walk and living a life that rings true, resonating through my bones and becoming a conduit for a Love far greater than I am. I find the strength to yearn towards this through the stillness of Quaker worship. I’ve tried other styles of worship; I find them moving, energising, interesting, intellectually stimulating, educational, tedious and baffling, but I do not find them to be a way to the still small voice that lies in the midst of chaos and noise and walks the straight path through me. If I spend too long away from that deep pool of stillness I get cranky and lose my way. Much like I do when I haven’t eaten, or haven’t slept. All these things are equally fundamental to my being.

Action. Quaker is a doing word. It is about seeking opportunities to serve our society, making tea and keeping the buildings standing and caring for each others’ health and well-being and taking care of all our resources; it is taking a proactive role in our local communities; it means playing a role in politics, in social witness, in showing how business and ethics can work together to make the world more peaceful, more sustainable, break out of the current mould. It means finding the paths you are meant to get involved in and jumping in with two left feet if that’s the only way to do it, rolling up your sleeves, getting muddy and tired and lost along the way and knowing you are doing it for all the right reasons. It is saying that faith without works or works without faith are both meaningless, as each informs, drives, sustains the other. It is saying that even when these ambitions are achingly out of reach, the very hope of trying is itself an action.

Are Quakers perfect? Of course not. A worshipping community is like any other kind of family. Some are full of light and love and silly in-joke moments. Some are filled with darkness, forbidding silences, fear of crossing the threshold because there is nothing left within them of the goodness they once aspired to. And most are somewhere in the middle, with times of brilliance, and times of apathy, and times when you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, but somehow, everything is just uncomfortably askew. It’s in those trying moments that worship binds us together, striving to live God’s love in a world that really, really needs it. And it’s in the moments that we shake each others’ hands when we disagree, when we agree, when we celebrate and grieve and struggle together, that we are closest to Him.

*This has been, at various points, praying, moving house, teacher training, calling my Mum, and any number of other things at other times.

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