Why I’m a Quaker

I’m a Quaker because Quakers have opened up experiences with God in me that have changed my life. I’m a Friend because Friends, at our best, combine a passionate, alive, and vital experience of God with a fearless engagement of destructive social structures in the hopes that God’s redemptive love might be visible. I’m a Quaker because in worship with the Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting, I have found a sense of home.

I came to George Fox University (then college) clueless about Quakers, unaware that Friends and Quakers were the same thing. Born in a fundamentalist Baptist church, raised until 5th grade in Christian schools, loved by a family who loved Jesus, I chose to go back to church on my own in high school. I attended Valley View Evangelical Church, and found there what I really needed as I was trying to “find myself” in adolescence. I found people who could be themselves, without pretense, without fakery, people who loved me and accepted me… These people attributed that confidence to be themselves to knowing Jesus, to knowing he loved them unconditionally. And, ironically or providentially, it was the people at that Evangelical church who set the waves in motion that led me to George Fox College. Otherwise, I might never have discovered Quakers at all.

I begin with all that because it’s important in understanding me and my perspective on Quakers. I came from an environment where Jesus was a given. Jesus has, for most of my life, been central; what Friends did was make him living and breathing and intimate and challenging and achingly real to me. Among Evangelical Friends, my background makes me a passionate advocate for Quaker distinctives, makes me prickly and contrary when people want to move us more toward generic evangelicalism…because it is in the Quaker way of worship and being, it is in Quaker faith and practice that I have found life. And my background also explains why among unprogrammed Friends I so openly embrace Jesus-centric language and practice, because it is only in identifying the light and the seed and the voice within as Jesus, only in connecting the living voice of God inside me with the Palestinian peasant who lived and died and lives again, that my life truly makes sense.

I remember my first worship experience with Friends, on September 14, 1986 (I know the date cause I journalled about it). I climbed into a tiny Dodge Omni with Kerry Grant, and we meandered out country roads to join the folks at West Chehalem Friends Church for worship. I honestly had a heart pounding moment of thinking that something had drastically gone wrong, that the pastor must have had a heart attack or something, because we finished singing and nothing happened! We just sat there! After 30 agonizing seconds, I finally read the explanation of open worship (what programmed Friends often call traditional Quaker silent waiting) in the bulletin, and then I calmed down.

As time went on in college, I became a regular in worship at Newberg Friends Church. I remember calling home and telling my parents about how my heart moved in amazing ways in worship there. I remember telling them, “These people take seriously what all Christians say they believe…that the Holy Spirit really does speak to us.” It was the rich experience of the living God in worship that drew me back again, and again, and again. Something was deepening inside me, a reality of God that I had never experienced before.

But there was a problem.

I’ve written before that I experienced God’s call to pastoral ministry in high school, and came to George Fox with that as the assumption. Someone I trusted said it’s important for a pastor to have accountability, to be a part of a denominational structure. So I began trying to decide: was it the ECNA church of high school, the people who helped me discern a call to ministry? Or was it Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, where a new experience of God was occurring?

I began a discernment journey in a very non-Quakerly way: I read books and all kinds of stuff and didn’t ask anybody at all to help me with the decision. I read our Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. I read the ECNA’s discipline. The discipline? Yawn. Nothing exciting, nothing bad. (Well, nothing bad at the time. Now I would have conniptions!) Faith and Practice? LOVED social justice. LOVED everything flowing out of a relationship with God where God speaks to everyone. LOVED engagement with society instead of withdrawing to a safe Christian subculture. FREAKED OUT about baptism and communion. Really not so sure about this peace stuff.

So I read more. I read Barclay’s Apology and I read George Fox’s Journal and I read Woolman’s Journal and I read Rich Heritage of Quakerism and A People Called Quakers and Why Friends are Friends and A Family of Friends and pamphlets and booklets and who knows what else.

The clincher for me in saying “I’m a Quaker” was Dick Sartwell. He was pastor of Newberg Friends then, teaching a class called “Why Friends are Friends.” He was saying something I had read before, but for some reason, this time, I got it. Communion for Friends is the intimate, honest experience of the living God. Rather than limit communion with God to an act of breaking bread, Quakers see the “gathered” community, and indeed all of life, as an opportunity to commune with God.

I instantly made a connection. In high school, I loved the communion services at Valley View. They were once a quarter, on Sunday evening. We’d come into the sanctuary, and it would be quiet; just a little music playing. After praying, when we were ready, we could come forward to receive the elements. Then, we could stay as long as we wanted, to pray and be in God’s presence. They were very meaningful experiences to me. And when I sat in class with Dick, I finally made the connection that what I really missed were the times sitting in silence in the pew, that God did really good work in me in those times. That’s what Friends are aiming for in “communion after the manner of Friends.” Something inside clicked, or turned, or shifted… and I was a Quaker.

This is long enough. But now, there’s so much more. So much hope in a deep and rich inner life with God being EXPECTED to live itself out in obedience, EXPECTED to join God’s activity in changing our lonely and broken world. So much vitality if we can stop the separations of Jesus OR Social Action and bring them together in a living, vital, responsive, community way. So much longing to break out of traditions and past baggage and be the people of God, gathered together around Jesus Christ.

That’s (part of) why I’m a Quaker.

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3 thoughts on “Why I’m a Quaker

  1. I recently learned my ancestors were Quaker ministers alongside Penn and others. This only strengthens my sense of Quakerism, but at times I’ve wondered what it feels like to be a “convinced” Quaker. I am definitely convinced, but you know what I mean. I almost desire it because at times it seems the whole bit would be a little more real… more chosen.I appreciate your articulation of the heart of the Friends testimony. The energy and reality behind what you are saying is so true, yet we so often miss it. So often we come together and “go through the motions” of being Quaker and we don’t realize that we must view it as sacred. We must remember that we are peering into the mind and heart of God.I resonate with your desire to keep Christ central to our lives and language. You surpised me, however, that this desire causes you to cling to the Quaker distinctives even more. I’ve never seen it happen that way before. My wife came out of the ECNA church and for that reason constantly is fighting the disctinctives and encouraging a more mainline evangelical look at the Christian life. this is all to say that I am glad to hear that there are others not wanting to stray from our heritage and disctinctives, but who also desire for us to return to a Quakerism as Fox and Woolman saw it; so focused on Christ that the disctinctives flow naturally out of who they felt Christ was calling them and the whole world to be.

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