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Building Unity Over Time

By Steve Olshewsky

Trusting the sense of the meeting to reveal the will of God is a rather breathtaking proposition and yet it happens on such a regular basis that our faith in the process is deepened over time. This basic practice of trust in God’s guidance is found throughout the history of every Quaker community seeking unity. Being bound together as individuals across geographical and ideological differences over so much time forms a unity comparable to God’s eternal nature.

Friends meetings generally desire that new attenders make themselves at home, join committees and engage in various meeting activities. There seems to be a natural unity in the spirit of a gathered meeting, a spirit aptly described by James Naylor as a feeling of being caught up in a net. In everything we do together, we want to find that of God at work, extending our worship experience to activities outside of worship. In this way, we experience being bound to each other and to Christ by threads of unity that connect us with every new activity we share. These threads eventually entwine and anchor us solidly to our spiritual bedrock as Gulliver was grounded by the Lilliputians.

Oddly, this solidity is often found in and enhanced by the preparation and clean up associated with the coffee and snacks, an activity informally known as the Quaker Eucharist of our second hours. Two women were once washing the dishes of their meeting’s fellowship time, wondering aloud where all the wise old Friends had gone and recounting all the times past when they found beside the sink weighty Friends who always seemed to handle things so expertly. They marveled at how the casual threshing of ideas and opinions and the deep listening skills of a devoted kitchen crew so quickly led to clearness.

Eventually the women looked at each other and realized that they were those resident sages. They had been seekers, they had come to share in the mentoring and had become themselves the chief dishwashers. Each generation of Friends finds its place in unity with those who have gone before and finds itself growing within the preservation of traditions that have molded the meeting, continuing to model the grace of God that holds a particular community of Friends together.

In the 15th chapter of John, Jesus provides a three-part model for the central principle of unity in decision making. John 15:14 states, “Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you.” This gives us a base, a firm starting point. Law professors tell their students they are not in law school to learn the law, but rather to learn how to think like lawyers. Law school curriculum consists of history and rules, yet professors admonish that students are not to learn only the law but also how to think like lawyers. That instruction is designed to prepare future lawyers to be able to adjust to ever-changing legal environments. Similarly, though quoting our sainted forebearers and memorizing scriptures provide an important base, they do not completely equip us to unite
with the infinite potential of the future. Every kitchen has its rules that guide the work to be done.

John 15:15b quotes Jesus as saying, “I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” As we sit in open worship, waiting upon the Lord, listening for the revelations of the Inner Christ, how can we not appreciate all that is revealed in the company of God and these our Friends? Jesus has made us peers amongst ourselves by openly sharing all the personal feelings and thoughts of a divine heart and mind. This verse reminds us that what Jesus shares is what the Father made known to him. What a great pattern for us to follow when loving our neighbors and befriending our enemies by giving of ourselves to all and sundry (James 2:1-9). This is a pattern of invitation, just as the kitchen sages draw us to wisdom and clearness.

“I have chosen you,…that ye should go and bring forth fruit… that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you” (John 15:16). We have been recruited by Christ to take part in an ongoing adventure that promises great rewards. In the acceptance of such an invitation, we are assured of receiving everything we need if we remain actively engaged with our callings. This form of unity brings us into action as part of the flowing stream of continuing revelation and flourishing love. God’s kitchen is always open and there are always sufficient resources for the work to be done.

These three verses in John walk us through a unified plan for being faithfully involved with God’s intentions. Being obedient (v. 14) maintains a solid ground upon which we can build the next step. Sharing openly all that we are creates a true intimacy and bonding in friendships based upon the love and respect that sets the stage for a third step (v. 15). Daring to follow God’s leadings brings these deep relationships into the unfolding glory of the peaceable kingdom (v.16).

In unity with this pattern, we can be true to the spiritual callings that always bear fruit. As we develop our relationship with God through obedience, intimacy and action, we grow more confident in asking our Religious Society to support the ministries chosen for us. Over time, we learn our way around the kitchen until we are comfortable sharing in the preparation and clean-up duties. Eventually, those who taught us leave us able to teach those who follow. Much as God has chosen us to maintain the meetinghouse kitchen, others have chosen to eat there. If we were ever flattered by being asked to serve, how much more flattering must it be to feed others and magnify their services?

The lifeblood of our Religious Society is the unity we foster with the next generation of Friends, the future of our faith. Sitting in certainty about the way things are does not nurture the new ideas that keep us moving in the direction we have always enjoyed walking together. When new leadings are expressed, remember that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You, too? I thought I was the only one’” (C.S. Lewis). Allowing room for new answers makes continuous growth possible and expands the reach of Christ in our world.

Steve Olshewsky is a tax professor and member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting who works for a Peace Tax Fund. This article benefited from comments in a writing class at the Earlham School of Religion for which the author is grateful.

  • Steve Olshewsky

    This may have gotten garbled by the technology:

    Professors tell students they are not in law school to learn the law, but rather to learn how to think like lawyers. Although legal instruction involves a deluge of history and rules, the education is designed to prepare scholars for ever-changing legal environments. So too, quoting our sainted forebears and memorizing scriptures provides an important base yet does not completely equip us to unite with the infinite potential of the future. While it is true that anyone knowing the way it has always been can predict the way it will always be (and even prevent the unity required for new ways to open) we need to open our hearts and minds when seeking God’s will for us as a corporate body.