Yesterday my co-minister and partner in crime Maggie posted a blog entry entitled “YOU’RE NOT A QUAKER (so please stop calling yourself one)”
The post has provoked some great discussion and obviously real feelings from some of the (many) visitors to the post in the past 24 hours. As you might imagine, some of the reaction is indignance at the suggestion that one Quaker can judge another’s Quaker-y-ness. Didn’t we do away with all those elders and the practice of writing Friends out of Meetings?
Beyond pointing out the obvious (Maggie simply wrote a blog post about her opinion, she can’t kick you out of your Meeting, everybody stay calm), I thought it might be worth posting the story of:
THE TIME WHEN JON WAS OPPRESSIVELY OPPRESSED BY A RESPECTED ELDER IN QUAKERISM WHO ACCUSED JON OF NOT BEING A QUAKER AND THEREBY DESTROYED HIS EXPERIENCE OF THE DIVINE FOREVER.
Just kidding. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Listen in…
Being Cracked Open
In my Sophomore year at Guilford College, I was struggling with a feeling that I didn’t fit in and that I wasn’t happy with or fulfilled by the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. I brought my concern to the director of the program, a man who I respected deeply as a mentor. I suggested that perhaps I should get more involved in the program, perhaps become the clerk. Then i would feel more well-used and could also effect some cultural shifts instead of just complaining about the lack of coherent community in the program.
Instead of encouragement, I was surprised to find that my mentor (who genuinely liked me, by the way; I trusted him to be on my side) was not only not excited about the prospect of me as clerk, but began to question my involvement in the program itself.
At the root of his questioning was my relationship with Quakerism. He distinguished two categories of Quakerism: practicing Quakers and cultural Quakers. Those who are practicing Quakers have a personal relationship with God. Those who are cultural Quakers know the language, the codes of conduct, and all the outward forms of the religion but have not cultivated their own connection to the divine.
…and then he suggested that I was the latter.
Friends, I was floored.
No… I wasn’t floored, I was pissed.
Okay, I was floored AND pissed. This man just had the nerve to tell me… me, Jon Watts, Quaker extraordinaire, camp counselor at Shiloh Quaker Camp for four years, assistant clerk of Baltimore fuckin’ Yearly Meeting Young Friends, who has been a Quaker since the first day of my goddamned life – that I wasn’t a Quaker?!
He needs to get a new job, because that was pretty damn unQuakerly of him.
Not Knowing #1
I left Guilford the following year. It wasn’t until later that I put together the significance of this conversation with my mentor in my decision to leave, but I realized that I had gone to Guilford in large part seeking the same closeness that I had found in my friendships in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends Program, and now The Man In Charge was telling me that I wasn’t going to find it here and that he didn’t condone me cultivating it.
I distinctly remember him saying “Community is very important, Jon, but there is no ‘C’ in ‘QLSP'” (which in fact stands for Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, for those keeping score at home). Part of his analysis of cultural Quakers was that they had left God out of the picture and now worshipped community instead.
In the year that I spent away from Guilford, I don’t remember thinking about that conversation with my mentor once. I most certainly did not go on a ‘quest for God’, whatever that meant (my only context for that particular word, by the way, was crazy right-wing Christians and Monty Python movies).
Not Knowing #2
We live in a culture in which we possess knowledge. We want to corral the truth and contain it for ourselves so that we can say that we own it. Knowledge is a valuable commodity and we are rewarded for being a knower of knowledge. No one is rewarded for not knowing. So poorly judged is a not-knower that it behooves us to make up answers to questions that we don’t know the answers to rather than admit a not knowing (or maybe I’ve just been watching too many of the Republican primary debates).
Such is the environment in which the Truth has been so deliriously shrunk and contained and pinned down until it is just this… a tv ad, a political campaign, a slogan on a sign, a blog post. A collection of symbols that causes your brain to retrieve pre-memorized sounds that represent a one-dimensional concept. God.
But really, your computer screen is made up of a billion particles of stardust which is the stuff of your lungs, the stuff of water, the trees and aurora borealis. The sun is burning it. You drink water that was once drank and urinated by a brontosaurus. The universe is like this. Not some shrunken, disheveled elf on your doorstep knocking loudly until you answer. Not a big imaginary white guy in a cloud, playing us like that sim ants game from the 90’s.
That’s not God. None of that stuff is God. Or rather, it all is. God is the culmination of every. single. thing I just mentioned, including, also, this weird symbol that I just found on my keyboard: ß . Including, also, the word ‘exluding’. Including all the tubes and shit in my television that lit up to display that comic book Monty Python White Guy With a Beard in the Sky to me when I was a kid in a Snuggy, waiting for the pancakes to be done. (is that when I used to watch Monty Python? Hm, probably not I’ll get back to you)
Not Knowing #3
I went back to Guilford. I hadn’t had some big revelation. I didn’t suddenly have a personal relationship with God or even have any clue what that meant. Honestly I kind of just wanted to get my degree and move on. But here’s what had shifted:
I knew that I didn’t know.
All of my knowing that I was a Quaker – heck, all of my knowing what Quakerism was – was flattened by this one mentor-who-seemed-to-care-a-lot-about-me-yet-said-this-really-shitty-thing-that-pissed-me-off. So now I mostly only knew that maybe there were a lot of things about being a Quaker that I didn’t know yet. Like, maybe a whole lot of things. Like, maybe the most important things.
So curiosity got the best of me. I went on a life changing investigation of the early Friends that led me to the life changing experience of writing the album that would change my life. And it changed my life.
“A Few Songs Occasioned” combined all of my seemingly unrelated gifts into one. It launched me on a vocational journey that has been simultaneously heartbreaking and unbelievably miraculous, and most importantly, it baptized me.
It convinced me of Quakerism – a convincement I never would have sought out or welcomed if I had remained stuck in my idea that being born into Quakerism, clerking a committee and playing a lot of Wink was enough make me a Quaker, I guess.
“Birth-right” Friends… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
Once-a-year Gathering-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
Seminarians… maybe you’re not a Quaker!
My-Grandfather-Knew-Rufus-Jones-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!!
I-clerked-such-and-such-high-fallutin-committee-ers… maybe you’re not a Quaker!!!!
(You can yell at me all you want in the comments, but ultimately it’s between you and God. I just wrote a blog post. Talk to God.)
And on a last note:
BAPTISM: YES WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO IT.