Through study of the charismatic beginnings of Quakerism, I have received a key to the Quaker spiritual journey that can help us respond to the extraordinary demands of our time and truly become the needed agents of God’s healing we are now called to be. Deep in my heart I know that what I have to share is a gift from God for us; yet I falter when faced with the task of speaking to a divided spiritual family. Quakers today span the Christian theological spectrum, and beyond. We are diverse in belief and practice. Since I moved to Indiana a year ago, I’ve been in the midst of Friends suffering and grieving because of the painful split in Indiana Yearly Meeting (FUM). The split involves different interpretations of scripture, different ideals of the role and authority of the Yearly Meeting, different ideas about the inclusiveness of God’s love.
The diversity and divisions among Friends mirror the condition of humanity. Over a long Thanksgiving holiday, I was acutely aware of how divided my own family is, and my country, as well. Eleven members of the extended Martin family gathered in Virginia to celebrate Thanksgiving early, against the backdrop of the Shenandoah Mountains. After that, about twenty people connected to the Hauger family gathered in western Pennsylvania. Members of the two families came from as far away as New York City and Phoenix, Arizona. Like our nation, we ranged across a spectrum of political and religious beliefs. In the Martin gatherings, our passionate exchanges about the presidential candidates were kept brief because tears came so quickly. Which party was in the majority kept shifting as additional family members arrived. At a meal with mostly Democratic members of the Hauger family, five-year-old Ethan (nicknamed ChiChi) asked incredulously, “Uncle Nate, did you vote for Romney?” On Thanksgiving day, however, Nate was in the majority. That morning we were on a farm where four men dressed in bright orange hunted for pheasants and rabbits, in fields dotted by blue gas wells. I could hear gun shots as I peeled ten pounds of potatoes in the kitchen. In the afternoon, fifteen of us sat down together to share a bountiful meal, preceded by a prayer of thanksgiving.
During the election season, I had been feeling sad about how divided our nation is. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was reminded that the divisions in this country have a long history. One day “Gone With the Wind” played for hours on the television, showing hundreds of wounded soldiers and the burning of Atlanta. Another day several of us watched “Gettysburg,” which vividly depicted scenes from a decisive and very bloody Civil War battle fought on Pennsylvania fields. That film gave voice to the convictions and questions of both Union and Confederate soldiers. Some were motivated by ideals of freedom–for themselves, or for all. Many simply desired to protect the culture and lifestyle dear in their region of the country. A British witness to the conflict was puzzled because the two sides had so much in common–the same language, the same religion, the same songs.
“But different dreams,” he decided.
Even those of us who nominally share the same religion are deeply divided in our theology–as was true in England when Quakerism began. On several mornings during the Thanksgiving holiday, before gathering with others, I sat with a laptop and tried to find the right words to succinctly describe the Quaker spiritual journey, as I’ve come to understand it from the writing and experience of early Friends. During one meal I shared a brief version of this with some family members who listened politely, without comment. They immediately changed the subject. I ask myself: Who cares what I have to say about a life surrendered to the Light of Christ within? How can I describe it in a way that others receive as good news? How can I possibly communicate through all the different beliefs of those who might be reading these words?
I am afraid to offend others, and also afraid to be dismissed, mocked, or condemned. I have named this blog “A Whole Heart” not because my heart is already unified, but because I am learning to become whole-hearted. I am called to be so. I believe that early Friends were able to receive so much power from God in part because of how whole-hearted they were. They, too, lived in a time of deep political and religious divisions. Quakerism emerged during England’s Civil War, a time of disorienting social change, when numerous Christian denominations were each proclaiming to have found the right way to worship God and to organize the church and state.
Here is the first paragraph that I wrote in western Pennsylvania over the Thanksgiving holiday:
Friends today often wonder why contemporary Quakerism lacks the spiritual power manifested at the beginning. Those who became the first Friends were whole-hearted in their desire to know and follow the ways of God. Collectively they were ready to undergo the thorough spiritual transformation that was central to the early Quaker experience. It involved an utter surrender to the Light of Christ within and among them. They died to the selves they had been and were born anew, a rebirth that enabled them to live as sons and daughters of God. If Friends today better understood how God wishes to transform us, we might more fully embrace the divine gift offered in our time, and become more powerful agents of God’s healing of humanity and the planet.
In the next post, God willing, I’ll share ten elements of that spiritual transformation. May we learn together the singleness of eye and wholeness of heart to which we are all called.
(c) 2012 Marcelle Martin