A Lesson for Three Characters

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Three members of a Quaker meeting answer the question, “Why are you here?” The first says, “To benefit from group meditation, which helps my personal well-being.”  The second says, “To be part of a community that benefits the world.”  The third says, “To seek and serve God.”

As an adult education leader in my meeting, I want to nurture Friends’ spiritual transformation. But people have diverse motives for joining us, and we don’t always share the same theology or the same religious vocabulary.

I am a Christian, yet I can see that other Friends define themselves differently. My responses to these three Friends, with their different motives for attending Quaker meeting, might look like this:

The first, the Growing Individual, wants to find ways to center and develop personally. Welcome Friend, we offer you a space to retire, contemplate, and nourish your own wellbeing. We will accompany you in the struggles of daily life. We welcome your ministry, which helps us nourish our wellbeing, suggests alternative ways to live, and invites us into compassion. Unspoken: And we will tolerate your self-centered navel gazing. 

The second, the Good Person, wants to find a centering community to support their good works.  Welcome Friend, we will support and encourage you in your good works. We will accompany you in the struggles of a life of service for the public good. We welcome your ministry and inspiration to do good works.  Unspoken: And we will try to ignore the guilt trips that underlie your exhortations.

The third, The Mystic, wants to live a life centered on God. Welcome Friend, we will accompany you when you encounter God and are “convicted” and transformed. We will witness your spiritual journey.  We welcome your ministry about your theology. Unspoken: And we will listen to you even though we think you are a little crazy and wish you could be more clear and concrete, using less religious language.

In his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Dallas Willard defines spiritual transformation as a process that gives the human spirit or will a definite character. For Willard, spiritual formation for Christians involves becoming more like Christ inwardly. My approach to religious educations is to explore aspects of spiritual transformation without using language like “the character or nature of Christ,” even though I draw examples from Christian and Quaker history.

I begin by focusing on a theme that seems important to the meeting at the time. Then I tend to bring Friends into traditional Christian or Quaker thought by inviting them in through the back door – using stories, role models, queries, etc.  For example, I might invite Friends into a positive view of the traditional Quaker skill of “eldering” in either of these ways (among others): I might ask, “What is the intention of a loving parent who guides a child?”  Another time, I might start with a query about members’ safety nets, which could lead into a conversation about ways that early Quaker meetings acted as safety nets for members, and then into further conversation about a meeting’s need to discern to whom, when, and how to give support. I might offer a footnote that the eldering process is based on passages in the Bible – for example, Jesus’s eldering of his disciples in Matthew 19.

In this example of an adult education session about eldering, our three Friends will appreciate the message in different ways. The Growing Individual might see that their personal life could be enhanced by the loving concern expressed through eldering. The Good Person might see eldering as a method of grassroots accountability to transform society. And The Mystic might see eldering as a way to be nudged into better obedience to God’s leadings.

When we hold a shared vision of a better way, we can set about learning how to “walk our talk.” Although we might approach our investigation with different sets of thoughts, emotions, social influences, skills, and so on, we can step out of our comfort zones together, make and forgive mistakes, and create new habits. Slowly, together, we can take another step towards Quaker spiritual maturity, toward more Christ-like living.  Whoever we are, we can allow the Inward Christ, “that of God within,” to be a greater part of our character. ~~~

Diane Pasta is a member of Salmon Bay Meeting (NPYM) and lives with her wife in Des Moines, WA.