We have been created with gifts – awareness, comprehension, will, empathy – to do the work of Life. We can play with these gifts – and it is only by playing with them that we learn to use them well – but in play we risk falling into traps of self-indulgence, we risk blunting and distorting the vital purposes of our gifts and our lives.
Religious institutions too often resemble MMORPGs – Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. A group of individuals agrees to support a particular storyline, to play a particular set of roles, and to reap particular rewards. God is raised up as a sort of flag over the whole endeavor, to signify its righteousness, and to signify that disruptors need not apply unless they’re willing to get with the program.
The fundamental genius of the Quaker Way – that we can stop and wait together to listen for Eternal Truth in contemporary time – gives us some protection against the trap of self-satisfaction. Our method of silent waiting worship provides a crucible in which divine insight can flare. Humanity’s tawdry pettiness, our capricious meanness, our willful closed-mindedness, our lying and cheating and stealing and killing – these do not sit easily in our hearts next to the stirrings of Truth. The painful heat of that friction – the chafing of our flesh-and-blood selves against the sacred purposes we were born to – is a necessary suffering in the service of truth, justice, and kindness. But nobody wants to get burned. Like all creatures, Quakers shy away from pain.
No matter how close certain Friends have gotten to the flames of divine inspiration, we have not found our way into that miraculous state where we, as a Religious Society, are perfect. From the outset, Friends’ access to divinity has been erratic, as well as constrained by conventions of the day. George Fox prophesied in 1656 that Friends should “answer that of God in everyone,” then in 1673, he advised slaveholders to treat their charges kindly. By 1700, the Religious Society of Friends had developed an administrative hierarchy that reflected the social order around them, with leadership tending to be men of wealth, men with investments in the slave-based economies of England and her colonies. The few Friends who spoke publicly against slaveholding in those years were disowned for speaking and publishing without permission from Quaker authorities.
However, Friends could not long shut their ears to the cries against slaveholding – not when they also listened in silent worship every week for the living Word of God. By the mid-1700s, in just a few decades, the Society of Friends had mostly rid itself of explicit slaveholding. The wealth of Friends remained based in an economy significantly powered by the labor of slaves, but the blatant hypocrisy of Quakers themselves holding slaves was largely eliminated.
We remain in a similar position today. Friends’ wealth is based in an economy powered by injustices and cruelties. That truth is almost too painful to bear. So we are tempted to play at life, rather than make the frightening commitment to serve it. We are tempted to limit our awareness by withdrawing into comforting diversions; to limit our comprehension by dismissing unfamiliar voices as meaningless; to limit our sense of responsibility by claiming we lack opportunities to act; or to limit our empathy by drawing a clear distinction between “us” and “them.”
The amount of pain on this earth is too much for any one person to bear; too much, even, for the whole Religious Society of Friends. We can bear, though, the pain of incarnation – and the joy of it. We can bear to follow divine instruction one step at a time. We can bear the burden of serving Life if we have friends at hand to catch us and correct us when we stumble.
“And so, in the willingness which God had wrought in me, in [that] day of his power to my soul, I gave [myself] up to be instructed, exercised and led by him, in the waiting for and feeling of his holy seed . . .” (Isaac Penington, 1667). Welcome, Seed of Life. Welcome, sentient gifts of creation. Welcome, Thou, which would guide us.