Western Friend logo

The “Why” of What We Do

Larry Newton
On Loss (May 2023)
Inward Light

I had an occasion recently to hear some young Friends talk about ministry services they are performing on behalf of Quakers. I have nothing but heartfelt compliments for their generous spirits and their hard work in pursuit of making the world a more humane, just, and merciful place. In light of the significant proportion of their cohort who are NOT volunteering in such efforts, I feel special appreciation that these young people are rising well above what seems to be the present norm of disengagement. For their good and faithful work, I am grateful.

At the same time, as I reflected on these presentations afterward, I was struck that they contained almost no mention of the speakers’ Quaker roots or connections, or ways in which Quaker experiences shaped or sustained their efforts. I assume that such connections exist. Perhaps they were not mentioned because the speakers knew they were talking to a largely Quaker audience.

Nevertheless, absent any explicit mention of Quaker connections, it was all too easy to hear these presentations simply as descriptions of good community service work, quite similar to work done by many social activist groups and civic organizations. Perhaps these presenters missed an opportunity here. Perhaps speaking to a Quaker audience would have been a good chance for them to practice describing the deep Quaker “why” of what they do.

I believe it is important for Friends to articulate how our acts of service draw from our Quaker roots. Quite a lot is at stake here. As Don McCormick wrote in his article “Can Quakerism Survive?” (Friends Journal, February 2018), “I worry that we are in denial about a truth that threatens Quakerism’s survival. . . If membership continues to decrease, Quakerism in the United States will eventually die out. . . Acknowledging and dealing with the real threat to our existence may be so anxiety provoking that we ignore it . . .” If we do not speak our truth as Friends, if we do not claim our identity as Friends, those omissions could be seen by others as forms of denial, or at the least, as attempts to hide or obscure our Quaker identity. We do this at our own peril as a body of faith, hope, love, mercy, and justice.

How might we increase our vocalization of our “why,” of our deepest truths? One way would be for us to practice vocalizing our truths at every opportunity. Quaker history has involved much growth that was spurred by active vocalizing. George Fox spoke early and often! He encouraged people to consider where true peace, true worship, and true community were to be found: within the Religious Society of Friends! He seemed to take every chance he could to educate people as to what Quakers were about and why. He preached that Quaker ways were vital, even if at times the faith could be risky to one’s freedom and personal welfare. That God was at the root of Fox’s preaching cannot be missed.

Doing important work is not enough. Some important works goes off track; some leaders associated with important work go off track. Also, even when important work actually goes well, it is all too easy for observers to form damaging conclusions about it, about why and how it was performed, and about what it delivered for those who did it. Finally, the doers themselves can become lost and disassociated from their truths. To minimize all these risks, vocalization about the why of the doing can be powerful.

Historically, early Christians in Rome did the work of the church while also talking and writing about it, which attracted more and more adherents. Similarly, Quakers in the 17th century not only did important work, they also talked and wrote about it, and they stood out. Today, when Quakers talk about their experiences and ministries, they often sound no different from typical civic-minded volunteers; rarely do they talk of faith.

My deepest hope is that all Quakers, and especially our rising leaders, will always consider the problems of our times in light of our Quaker faith and will explain their actions in terms of why they do them and what deeply sustains them in their efforts. I hope we all become more accustomed to sharing such information frequently.

It is needed.

People all around us are increasingly suffering sadness, isolation, and loss of trust. Ever more people are turning inward in ways that are defensive and that actually make matters worse for themselves, ways that make it harder to resolve their issues. All of us are paying a price for this. But our Quaker faith suggests a way forward toward hope.

Our hope resides in the truth that there is a bit of God in everyone. As we acknowledge and commune with that Truth, it guides our thoughts, imaginations, and our hopes toward life – resulting in actions that can reduce not just the symptoms of decline, but can actually turn decline around.

I know that many members of my own Quaker meeting make a point of talking about our Quaker connections when we are working on volunteer projects in our broader community. We open the door to conversations about what grows us, sustains us, guides us, nurtures us. Some non-Quaker fellow volunteers seem to tune out this kind of talk pretty quickly, but others engage. They ask questions. They want to know more. And now they know there are Quakers in town! And they know they are welcome to be with us!

Spirit is present to teach all of us, to teach us better ways to live, better ways to love, better ways to comprehend the truth of God’s presence, better ways to care and to grow in integrity, equality, peace, and simplicity. The Seed of Truth encourages us all to live in a manner that allows our meetings to sustain themselves and grow, for the sake of fanning the spark of Life, for the sake of hearing the still small Voice, so that it can help us become the part of creation we are meant to be. As we share our faith beyond the walls of our meetings, we spread love and all that love fosters.

Love is not from us; it is through us. Love’s “why” is for healing others and ourselves.  ~~~

Larry Newton first experienced being eldered in Quaker school by his fellow eight-year-olds.  Ever since, he has been learning to attend to the Seed and allowing it to shape his life, for which he is eternally grateful. He has been a psychologist for about forty years and is a member of Flagstaff Monthly Meeting (IMYM).


Return to "On Loss" issue