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Why I’m a Quaker

February 27, 2013

IMG_4952I think I’ve always struggled with identity, labels and categories. Who am I? I have wondered. Where do I fit? 

In my twenties, I wondered when I could safely start calling myself a “woman.” It was unclear when the official shift came from “girl.”  Next it was “teacher,” which I adopted quickly because it was my profession. “Writer” was a label I didn’t feel I deserved for a while, but I use it freely now that I have published pieces under my belt. “Mom” is an identity I cultivated when I started this blog.

“Quaker” is not an identity I have been eager to spread in my online presence, even though it is my religion. Going to Quaker meeting and working at a Quaker magazine has become a huge and important part of my life, but I have been shy to fully embrace the label.

A big part of the reason for that is I never identified as a religious person. Growing up without positive role models of faith, organized religion seemed divisive to me, judgmental and harsh. It seemed to be for groups of people who blindly accepted beliefs and rituals handed down to them——or didn’t, but went to church anyway. I always found it ironic when Christians used the name “Jesus” to judge or condemn others, or suggest they had figured out the truth and the rest of us were wandering around in the dark. Organized religion, especially fundamentalist Christianity and Catholicism, has always felt like a patriarchal cult where women were secondary. I often admired people who were able to still have faith despite the setbacks of their church.

Despite my lack of religious upbringing, though, I was always interested in beliefs, in meaning, in answers to the important question, Who am I? I’ve always had a strong moral center and held myself——and others——to high standards of behavior. The reason I was drawn to Quakerism years ago is because it seemed different from organized religion, a safe refuge. I loved the openness to different beliefs and paths, the emphasis on silence, the inherent equality in believing that anyone could be a minister, that we all have a direct connection to God. Quakers were on the right side of history, too: as a group, they were among the first to acknowledge (albeit reluctantly) that women should have the same rights as men, and that slavery was evil.

If you are unfamiliar with some of the basic tenets of Quakerism, here are the three most central to me:

1. There is a spirit within each of us, a piece of God——what many Quakers call “that of God.” (Some use the terms “Light” or “Divine.”) This belief is the most important and most challenging. It means I have to greet “that of God” in every person I come into contact with. It means that I can’t write someone off, or assume that because I disagree with someone, he or she has no value to me. Instead, I am called to see that person as a teacher, as an opportunity for me to grow.

2. Silence is key. I access the divine through silence. Each week at my meetinghouse, I sit with my community and connect to a beauty deep within that flows through all of us. Occasionally, someone will feel called to speak and offer a message. But that ministry gets processed during the silence.

3. Being Quaker means I have a commitment to my community. I’d rather this wasn’t the case. It’s so much easier to go to a quiet meeting, soak in the silence and the calm and occasional messages and leave, never having to offer a thing. But this is where being a member of a Quaker meeting is different than going to a mindfulness retreat, or participating in meditation. Because I am in a community, I have an obligation to offer myself, even when it hurts, and even when it’s hard.

There is more, of course, and Quakers are a lot like Rabbis——get five in a room and they’ll tell you five different stories. The more liberal branches of Quakers I worship with do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, or that you need to read the Bible to know God. They may believe there are lessons in the Bible, but there are also lessons in every person we meet. Quakers are more likely to try to adhere to testimonies——Equality, Integrity, Peace, Stewardship, and Simplicity——than scripture.

Now that I’ve become more immersed in the Quaker world, however, I see that my faith community has flaws. Quakers tend to look like nutty professors and eccentrics, forcefully un-hip. They love acronyms for their smaller organizations within the religion: AFSC, FCNL, FWCC, FLGBTQ, FGC, FUM and the most important one, WTF? In the absence of  a clear Quaker hierarchy, a subtler one develops in which reigns the common religious assumption that men know more about spiritual matters than women. Quakers seem to think they know every other Quaker, which makes the “Society” of Friends feel at times like a country club——and a rich old man’s country club at that. Another problem Quakers have is that, like their forebears, they are too insular, and haven’t fully shaken off the tradition of being closed off from the rest of the culture. Many who talk about Quakerism nowadays are too absorbed in what Quakerism “used to be,” rather than what it is right now. Quakers also need to be reminded of the fact that they are human and can be wrong, just like human beings in every other faith tradition. We are no better than others: we have just chosen this particular path as a way to connect to God. There are, of course, plenty of other ways.

As much as I feel connected to this faith, I know there is a lot of work to do.

The reason I’m writing this here is that my blog is going to change a bit. I still want to connect to my audience of moms and writers, but I also want to share this journey of my spirituality, of what I’m learning and how I’m transforming to become a better person. It’s no coincidence that my journey of writing and creating and my journey of faith are happening at the same time. My desire for art and beauty is inextricable from my desire for something higher and broader, a faith that helps me grow. My belief in a powerful force that flows through all of us comes from the same belief I have in the power of inspiration, of imagination, love and hope.

I’m coming out as Quaker.

 

Where have you found your spiritual home? 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Robin Mohr February 27, 2013 at 9:58 pm

I wouldn’t even have an online life if it wasn’t for Quakers. Facebook? Blog? I can name the Quakers who introduced me to them. And who lived far enough away that connecting online made more sense than hanging out in person. So it’s never been an option for me to not have those identities combined.

I think it’s important that we come out as Quakers and break down the stereotypes that people have. Including that we don’t use electricity…

Robin

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Jana February 28, 2013 at 10:27 am

Thanks, Robin. You’re the one who inspired me to write this. I am uncomfortable with labels because I feel that every person is so much more than a few labels, but I also realize that I can do something to change negative stereotypes and judgments that surround certain labels. Some of my own perceptions about what it means to be a Quaker make me feel separate from it, but I believe there is no “true Quaker.” Anyone devoted to the mission of learning and growing through their faith is trying their best, and I’m glad to have found a community to do it with. Thanks for your positive presence and the work that you do.

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Amy Ward Brimmer February 27, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Congratulations on outing yourself, Jana!
You describe an experience and perspective very similar to mine. I look forward to reading more posts as you share more about your adventure among Friends (and as one).

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Hallie Sawyer February 27, 2013 at 10:58 pm

I’m proud of you for stating what you like and dislike about your religion. I have to admit, I don’t know a thing about what being a Quaker means and I’m so glad you explained it in this post. I think it can be very liberating to acknowledge one’s faith. I grew up Lutheran and still attend a Lutheran church but my childhood experience is very different from now. My church now is more about service and having a purposeful existence with God rather than all ceremony and appearance. I’m not as service-oriented as I should be and that is one of my personal hurdles I’m trying overcome along with being an active participant in my church community. It is easy to attend service and go home (how I grew up) so I have some bad habits to break. Your post makes me realize how much I’m still not getting about being a person of faith. I look forward to reading more of your posts about your faith journey!

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Jana February 28, 2013 at 10:20 am

Thanks for your kind comment, Hallie! I hope you don’t think I “get” something about being a person of faith that you don’t. I can understand something intellectually, but actually doing what needs to be done is the hard part, and I’m still working on that. The other thing I notice is that there’s no formula, even though I really wish there was. So I have to take each day as it comes, and I’m not always so good about remembering that! (Maybe we can help each other through our blogs. :) )

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Laura Gabbard February 28, 2013 at 6:29 am

Wow. So much of what you say about your experience sounds like what I would have said. Your experience seems to mirror my own. I have also found my way to Quakerism. I will be curious to follow you as your journey unfolds.

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Jana February 28, 2013 at 10:18 am

Thanks, Laura! Nice to meet you here.

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denise February 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

I love the way you write about your journey to faith and feel honored to read about it here. I am really intrigued about the Quaker religion–thank you for introducing it to us!
xo

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Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri February 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm

Jana, I love that you are incorporating spirituality into your writing space. I look forward to reading more about your faith and your insights on the discoveries that you make about your religion and yourself.

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Vanessa February 28, 2013 at 10:12 pm

I cannot wait to read about your journey and to grow to know an even deeper part of you.

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Michael Parente March 1, 2013 at 1:22 am

Jana, I applaud you for tackling this most personal and most important of journeys… of faith and of God. Everyone eventually must face it…. and everything you mention is of God — mere humans could never aspire to such heights because of our fallen sinful nature. But one critical attribute you glossed over in your quest is that of “truth”. Regardless of what you or others believe, there is by definition only one truth. You as a writer should appreciate that God chose first to reveal himself by the written word… and that Word became flesh. You can raise doubt about the Bible’s innerancy but you will have to first delve into it. As many have experienced in their own seach (including me), you are in for quite a ride.

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Becca March 1, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Love it. Looking forward to reading more. So much of what you write is so similar to the beliefs I have and the journey I have taken. I’ve found a Lutheran home now, but grew up UCC. But mostly, I believe that we do all have a piece of God inside of us … and that so much of our (and society’s) ills come from feeling separate from that beautiful piece of ourselves. And that so many of our joys come from connecting with that piece inside of ourselves- and then connecting to that piece in others. :)

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Jana March 2, 2013 at 6:50 am

That is beautiful, Becca! I feel that connection, joy, right now. :)

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Heather Caliri March 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

Literally pressed “save” on a blog post that’s very similar to this. Not that I’m Quaker, but a post about deciding to try to share honestly (ie brokenly) about faith and belief and Jesus. And my fear that (coming from a more evangelical background) I’ll end up writing twaddle or creating a Christian ghetto on my blog. But this faith thing, it is saving me, and hearing others write about it honestly is saving me, and I want to join in. And I’m glad you’re joining in too.
The idea of “that of God” is similar to “namaste”, no? I just read an evangelical writer use it for the first time (which surprised me–Hindu ideas being verboten) and I thought, “well, yes, why are we so scared of this idea?” And now I read the same concept here. So I’m raising a glass to “that of God” in you, Jana. Namaste.

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