Spiritual Comfort Food, Spiritual Nourishment
by Jeffrey Aaron
New Brunswick Meeting, Clerk of NYYM
Guidance from the past is comforting. It lets us feel at ease about ourselves in a world that includes other very different ways. Spiritual “comfort food” includes buying into “group think,” including rules and assumptions. Once we make our commitment, we feel the need to cling to it, even when we may sense that we may need to change. Changing ways can be wrenching. Most denominations have rules, which make changes even more difficult. But even in a denomination that only has guidelines and testimonies, change is still difficult, because our ways reflect our culture.
How does this relate to Friends learning from our history? We must acknowledge that this comfort with current ways is our issue as much as is an issue for others. But we believe in continuing revelation and of discerning by sense of the gathered body. Those are radical ideas that make changes easier for Quakers than for others, yet we are still subject to the same don’t change! mindset from the world at large, where most of us spend most of our lives.
Why is change critical for us now? Because we have to face change or our yearly and local meetings will keep getting smaller and older. We face problems of declining and aging membership, of structural complexity, of financial stress, of reduced volunteerism, of dramatically changing culture. Will Friends be able to change yet remain intact and vital? I believe we will, although some bodies and meetings may not survive.
What we see when we look to the wisdom of past Friends is more encouraging for us than it is for most groups because the great lessons include those two radical Quaker ideas: continuing revelation and change by sense of the meeting.
Many of us would not have been considered acceptable Quakers a hundred years ago. Why? Because we do not wear the right clothing or speak the way we were expected to speak: thee speaks wrong. Because we married “outside the faith”. Because we are gay or otherwise different from previously acceptable standards. Because of non-standard theology. Because we sing and dance in ways that were considered scandalous. You smile? Friends can smile, because Quakers, unlike many others, are flexible enough to make big changes and yet remain Quakers. That fact provides many of us with a love for, and a commitment to our Quakerism.
But our smiles should not mean disdain of ways which may have been appropriate to the times; they should be smiles of appreciation that our faith includes the ability to change. That Friends could say, no, we will no longer require go-to-meeting clothes and strange speech. The fact that most American Friends can proclaim that gay Friends are as worthy of love, respect, and acceptance as anyone else is a blessing. That we struggle to rid ourselves of racism and implicit bias is vital. But what does this mean about our current beliefs and understandings and what new ways we may be facing? Are we still flexible, or do we need the “comfort food” of commitment to current ways? Will we be able to make necessary changes? This year we have a lot on our plate which we cannot ignore: a proposed new concept of membership, the need to create a new yearly meeting structure, a difficult financial situation that requires creative discernment. We must discern carefully together how to proceed if we are to fulfill our hopes and needs.
What we need to overcome these trials is the same commitment that past generations made: to labor together lovingly and openly, being ready to lay aside assumptions in the face of new ways of thinking. If any group can do it, we can. Our wise Friends of the past provided us the ability to succeed by relying on the Spirit that we find alive in each other when we sit quietly with trust and love. Is there a better way? I know of none.