Western Friend logo

On Alternatives

Mary Klein
On Alternatives (March 2022)

Many of the words I have said, I wish I could unsay. Many of the actions I have taken, I wish I could undo. If wishes were horses, then I would ride into the past to fix the many blunders and cruelties that lie on my conscience. Instead, I walk forward and try to do better.

We are here to protect each other from mistakes that we have known before. We are here to invite each other to co-create conditions for all of our freedom. We are here to meet needs.

The Religious Society of Friends coheres around a central insight, which was advanced in the mid-1600s by George Fox, James Nayer, Margaret Fell, and hundreds of others: Every person can experience “Truth” directly. Early Friends agreed to organize themselves according to a common set of practices – a way of life – to encourage each other to continually turn their attentions back toward that experience of Truth. Most essentially, George Fox said he was “sent to turn people . . . by the grace of God [to the] Truth in the heart . . . that they might know the pure religion, and might visit the fatherless, and widows and strangers.” (circa 1675)  To that end, the Elders at Balby met in 1656 to produce and publish a practical list of points of advice for the organization of Friends meetings. “[These] things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with a measure of the Light, which is pure and holy, may be guided . . .” A significant portion of that document concerns the responsibility of each local meeting “to exhort and admonish” members whom “they find negligent or disorderly,” along with a caution to move slowly (“none suddenly”) in the process of recognizing new members, “lest the Truth suffer.”

“You are known by the company you keep” might be a cliché. Yet I can easily think of ways that I know my own self by the company I keep. The question of “Who’s in and who’s out?” cuts to the heart of identity – for the group and the individual.

I will never shake the hand of George Fox or James Naylor or Margaret Fell. I will never shake the hand of a Friend who was enslaved or forcibly “Christianized” by another Friend. But I walk among the echoes of all those Friends’ lives. The impact of each life radiates outward and all crisscross – like rain on a pond – and it’s almost impossible tell where any particular wavelet is coming from. Not all echoes in the mix are emanating from Friends. This is where our practice of expectant waiting would turn our attentions away from the clamor and towards the Source. “[Dear] friends, look not out into the visible things, for there [are] . . . false voices and visions . . . Therefore, sink down into the sufferings . . .
for there is a vale of tears to pass through. You shall find your wellsprings in [God], where you shall drink of the water of life, and find refreshment, and grow from strength to strength . . .” (Nayler, 1653)

The original organizing principle of the Religious Society of Friends was not that members should seek to be Good People. It was that members should seek the Truth in the heart. This includes facing the painful truth that humans are filled with falsehoods. Margaret Fell, who described herself in her youth as “one that sought . . . to serve God [so] as I might be accepted of Him,” (1690) found herself devastated upon first hearing George Fox preach. “I wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. . . it cut me to the heart. Then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. Then I . . . cried bitterly. I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves. We have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.’” (1694)

The Religious Society of Friends carries a burden of guilt and a burden of glory, both attached to our name. All who would call themselves by that name should be ready to take part in our collective obligation to discover what it means to be true Friends today, especially while the concern spreads more thoroughly among us that it matters that we have been false Friends before.  ~~~

Early Friends Good order group identity

Return to "On Alternatives" issue