By Jon Berry
SOMETIMES NOSTALGIA ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK IT WILL BE. Going back to West Richmond Friends Meeting, the sturdy, old church I grew up in, the memory that often comes up first is about the Kinks.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened. My recollection is that my Sunday-school class had been turned over that week to two girls in the high-school group. After finishing the lesson, they decided to spin some of their LPs.
I don’t remember what they played. What I do recall is a room full of 10- and 11-year-old mop-tops bouncing up and down like the kids in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
And I remember what I thought: “These Quakers are cool.” It wasn’t the first time the idea came to me. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Within a few years, it inspired me to don a black armband, skip school, and join a group of Quakers on National Road West to protest the war – no small act in a town that was, and remains, heavily Republican. Over the years, it’s inspired me in other leaps of faith.
And it’s kept me coming back to Quaker meeting. Some people go to their place of worship for the experience’s predictability, the constancy of the rhythms and ritual. I prefer the surprise of the experience.
The open, expansive silence of Quaker worship, in which themes emerge through the collective, mystical grappling of the group, and anyone can speak (or, more accurately, be “spoken through”), is, to me, an adventure. I never know what I’ll find in meeting for worship – within myself (the insights and images that come up, particularly after the initial period of settling down), or within others’ messages (which, amazingly, often synchronize with what’s coming up for me that week). Or the stories I hear before and after meeting.
This surprise-inside has come to be a measuring-stick for me for all spiritual experiences, from visits to other churches and synagogues, to 12-step meetings, workshop retreats, yoga talks, or morning meditation on the train into the city. That may sound a bit unusual. Religion is often portrayed as a force of conservatism, the never changing “rock of ages.”
I side, instead, with the 20th-century Quaker leader Rufus Jones (pictured), who argued for an “open, expectant” religion that would spur “hope and faith and vision,” over “comfortable formulations that seem to ensure safety” and “endeavoring to coin repetitive phrases.”
Experience encouraged me to pay attention at meeting. From Friends, I learned early on that it’s possible to pack up your worldly possessions and go off to China to become an educator, or to Kenya to teach business management to local crafts groups – revelations that encouraged me to envision a larger life than I otherwise might. I still remember one speaker pointing on a world map to where she’d been. I never looked at a map the same way again.
Over time, I’ve come to believe that the most important gift of a spiritual community to its young is the often-surprising stories of "how" people live out their beliefs, more than the “what” of the Bible stories, commandments, etc. When kids in meeting grow up, I hope that the first memory that comes to mind isn’t a detail, like that certain Quaker beliefs spell “SPICES” (simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, stewardship).
I hope, instead, they remember a story of how people put those ideas into practice. Like how Rosa, a woman in our meeting, went to court to try to win the right to not have her tax dollars go to war. Or how Horst, another member, saw a parallel between the Quaker concept of Light and the light he created, in his work as an engineer, in vast, tensile structures like the Denver airport. Or how a college student and adult in our meeting recently flew to Latin America to help facilitate workshops for the Alternatives to Violence Project.
It said a lot to me about the openness of the meeting I grew up in that it trusted the teens enough to let them put on a record. In its own, idiosyncratic way, it created a sense of openness and expectance in the 11-year-old me.
Periodically, religions have back-to-basics turns. It can mean anything from clamping down on “looseness” in vocal ministry to rejecting influences outside the religious tradition in Sunday-school lessons.
But, from my experience, it’s a balancing act. This came home a few years ago when a prolonged wrangle over whether infants should be permitted in meeting for worship was resolved when a beloved older Friend declared that the recent burbling of babies was one of the most life-affirming messages he’d ever heard in meeting.
You never know what will connect with someone. It may be that the shaggy-haired radical preaching peace and love, and making the grown-ups uncomfortable, is carrying an electric guitar and has a beat you can dance to.
This post was set in motion by a “Quaker Dialogue Series” initiated by the First-Day School in my Friends Meeting (Purchase, NY). Over successive Sundays, adults in the meeting were invited to come in to meet with the kids (ages 7-14) and address six questions:
(1) “What was First Day School like when you were a child? (or, for those who came to Quakerism as an adult, “what led you to meeting?”); (2) “What is it about meeting that keeps you coming back?”; (3) “What does being a Quaker mean to you?”; (4) “How does silent worship strengthen your faith?”; (5) “How do you handle feelings or thoughts that may be in conflict with Quaker beliefs?”; (6) “If you have experience with another faith, do you find more similarities or differences between it and Quakerism?”
They’re great questions, not only for breakfast discussions but to just think about on your own. I was the interviewee two weeks ago. As it turned out, I never got to tell the Kinks story. The kids were more interested in my experiences on clearness committees, Quakers’ tradition of assembling a group to ask you questions to discern whether you’re “clear” about a decision you want to make; couples often are asked to go before a clearness committee before marrying. The consensus of the kids was that clearness committees could be useful for family decisions like whether to get a pet and who’d care for the pet. One boy suggested he’d be happy to take care of petting the dog's head, and his sibling could handle the business at the other end.
Also, I believe the Kinks record I heard all those years ago was “The Kinks’ Greatest Hits” (1966, pictured above). I found a copy a few years ago at a tag sale and, have to say, it's still pretty danceable.