Learning a New Language While Building a House: Reflections on Quaker Heritage Day

Psa. 127:1 Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD guards the city,
the guard keeps watch in vain.

This past weekend my wife and I visited Berkeley California for a gathering called “Quaker Heritage Day.” It’s not unlike any church conference that invites someone to come and speak various messages with worship scattered throughout and a lunch break in the middle. What makes it different is that the main topics being discussed revolve around Quakerism, worship is done through silence, and the people in attendance are from a variety of Christian and non-Christian persuasions within the Friends church.

This was our second time making the trip and we really love Berkeley (and San Francisco). It’s one of those places that feels like you’re in a city with a lot to do but where everyone is laid back and cool. We visited Peets Coffee, ate at some great restaurants, and really enjoyed spending time with Barry and Ali (friends from Fuller).

Brian Drayton @ Quaker Heritage Day

Brian Drayton This year’s speaker was Brian Drayton, Northeast, unprogrammed Friend and Author of On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to read his book before we went, I do have it and plan to read it soon but couldn’t get to it.

I was really excited about the weekend and looked forward to hearing Brian talk, not only because I knew he was an author but because I knew others were pretty excited to hear him as well.

He did three sessions where he spoke about a variety of things ranging from Quaker history to the need for more “vocal ministry,” and prophetic witness among unprogrammed Friends. Emily and I both agree that for us, the best part of QHD was his sharing about Quaker history.

Various Notes On The Presentation

Here is a list of various points made throughout the day that stood out to me as being important or intriguing. After some of the thoughts presented I’ve added my own reflections.

  • We are the “Children of Light” and vocal ministry is a key element, at least for unprogrammed Friends, for maturation of our communities.

    | I would add that we need to re-learn what this “Children of Light” means, and that currently this terminology is somewhat meaningless in our culture. What does it have to do with the mission of the church and how can it present hope for our world? When I hear this term I immediately think of being a community of people who rally around the Kingdom of God.

  • We need to make room for listening and prophetic ministry.
  • The Myth of of the stereotyped Quaker story is that there was a “Golden Age.” Everything we’ve done since then has been downhill. Instead, none of our earlier gifts have been lost, just shaped differently.

    | I think this may have been the single most important thing Brian said all day from my perspective, I would have loved to pick up right here and expound upon these ideas.

  • The major enquires of the early part of the tradition revolved around finding answers to at least these two questions: “What is the nature of our relationship towards God?” and “What is the understanding of our salvation?” These questions were in response to the anxieties of early puritans over the security of their own salvation.
  • The presence and power of sin over an individual’s life was the focus of Quaker preaching of which James Naylor was one of the most important early Friends’ communicators.
  • As time past and only a few of the earliest Quakers were left after the turn of the 17th century new questions arose because of rapidly changing and growing culture Friends found themselves in.

    | Today we face an even more radical transition in our culture.

  • In this “second period” a majority of the meetings took place in specific places like a meeting house, on set days, and tended to focus on faithfulness.
  • Though there are only a few Quaker orators in this period the documents available show that the preaching of doctrines and creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed were the subject of the messages presented. This was done to show how orthodox Quakers really were even though it was often explained in unorthodox ways.

    | I found this point interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easy to downplay the doctrines and creeds when you know what they are and believe them, it’s quite another thing to disregard them when we know very little of the bible, theology or other parts of Church history, or reject it outright. I think the importance of the early context and how it’s shaped our practices is easily forgotten in our current questions.

    Second, It’s also easy to consider movements like the Emerging church who have been branded by many as unorthodox, when in fact they too tie their theology to historic Christianity but often times the way it’s explained is ‘unorthodox’ because of the language, style of presentation and methods used to come to these conclusions are so radically different than what our contemporary culture can deal with.

  • The Enlightenment and Methodism both posed problems for Quakers and caused them to want to focus on specific Christian doctrines, while neglecting others.
  • The power of Quakerism has always come out of an encounter with God, in the silence and inward life the outer is also changed.
  • Something Quakers have always believed is that the very life and death of Jesus Christ is the pattern of how our lives are to be lived if we claim to follow him. The resurrection makes this possible because of God’s Holy Spirit.

    | In light of this, we try to live like Jesus and thus know we may also die like him. A willingness to suffer is an integral part of the Quaker narrative.

  • “I believe Lord, help my unbelief.”

    | As humans in need of God’s redemption we are always in this in-between space, somewhere in the middle of listening and living, orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, faith and doubt, being perfected yet sinning, broken and healed, forgiven and guilty. Here is where God encounters us.

  • One of the most important needs then for the [Christian and] Quaker life is holiness. Being completely available to the Spirit is our first priority.
  • One attender of QHD stood up and said, “The difference between early Quakers and now is one of self-awareness of being and meeting as the church. Whereas now it is based on inclination, affinity, history or any other set of [individualistic] reasons.

    | This is an incredible insight. Especially as I been really interested In MacIntyre’s points about how a tradition progresses. He says that the only way this happens is when adherents of a given tradition become self-aware of their tradition, the needs and weaknesses it has, and set out to move their enquiry forward in some coherent way.

Overall Impression

My overall impression of QHD was pretty good. Especially looking back on my notes I feel like Brian offered some great thoughts. I also really appreciated the silent worship times, because of how crazy my own life has been lately. I needed that extra space to settle.

On the other hand being there made me realize that many of the Questions posed by unprogrammed Friends are not the same questions I have, as someone coming from a “programmed” background. (For those of you not familiar with our in-house lingo, “unprogrammed” meetings don’t have pastors and worship in silence, while “programmed” meetings have pastors, and plan out a worship service.) Not that “unprogrammed” questions aren’t important, they really are but much of what was discussed weren’t things I really connected with.

Going to Berkeley reminded me that a part of being a “convergent friend” is learning a new language, knowing the language of the other is one of our only ways forward. Being exposed to the ideas, hopes, worries and dreams of many of my unprogrammed Friends is an extremely important virtue even if we don’t always connect to the questions. If we find it important to work with God as he “builds the house” we have to be hospitable to one another in this way.

My favorite part of the day was when we meet together in a smaller group at Lisa’s house. There we ate together, shared our stories and our impressions of the days events. In this way I felt most connected with my Quaker brothers and sisters. I don’t care to much for long lectures and presentations, let’s get down to buisness over some pizza and get to know each other – I personally tend to think this is where real things happen. And overall, I feel like that’s just what did happen.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

7 thoughts on “Learning a New Language While Building a House: Reflections on Quaker Heritage Day”

  1. Wess, thanks for this great summary and for adding your comments. I wish I could have been there, buut for now I’ll just have to let QHD give me the hope that a midwestern QHD might take root and grow out here someday. Believe me, I’m just waiting for Way to open and for the opportunity to pop open!

    I’ve begun looking for a quote to open the MfWfB that I will be clerking in a few days, and I might just take an excerpt or two from your post!

    Blessings,
    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  2. Hey Liz,
    It’s always nice to see your name pop up in the ol’ comment box! I’d love to hear about a MidWest QHD – if we end up out there again someday we’ll have to team up with you and do it! You’re welcome to use any of my comments too! Thanks!

  3. Wonderful, meaty post, Wess. Makes me regret even more that I couldn’t be there, but you’ve given me lots to think about.

    You also pushed me over the edge into buying the MacIntyre book, which I’ve been considering for some time. I hadn’t realized how it might fit into my exploration of Quakerism. Thanks!

  4. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for the comment, about MacIntyre I would say go for it. You should start at either 3 Rival versions or After Virtue (After Virtue is his most important work). And I am turning in a paper on tuesday for my PhD seminar where I seek to appropriate MacIntyre for Quakerism – if you want a peek I’d be happy to pass it your way.

  5. Hi Wess, it is interesting that each of us takes away a different experience of the same event. Makes me wonder how many different experiences there were among the first followers of Jesus – no wonder there’s more than one Gospel!

    For me, the history at the beginning was by no means the best part. It was a fine explanation of the history, but I wanted to hear him answer in more detail your question about how to be Quaker in a new culture.

    And the most important thing I am realizing over the last week is that I am learning more from the day as I read the notes that people took – for some reason, I need to read his words more than once, more than twice, to really get the point. Maybe my brain is rustier than I think, but I think there is something deeper going on.

    Oh yeah, and read the book! (It’s in small chunks, and doesn’t have to be read all in a row.) I am very interested in your perspective as a Friend used to programmed worship about his more concrete advice to ministers. Would you think it would be helpful to Friends pastors or Friends with more limited exposure to open worship?

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