Quaker Faith & Podcast on Plainness

This is a really good episode. The leveling up/leveling down question, in particular, is important for Quakers to think about—not just with respect to plain speech and dress, but also with respect to the place that Quakers occupy in contemporary (North American and British) society. If we’re mostly white and middle class, then it makes sense to find ways for us to check our privilege, for lack of a better term. But what message does that send to people who are poor or face discrimination due to race, disability, or sexuality? “You, whom society already demeans and effaces, demean and efface yourself some more”—that’s hard to square with the promises of the gospel.

In fact, this speaks to a contradiction in the testimony of plain speech and dress that goes back to the early days of Quakerism. Here’s Robert Barclay:

And if a man be clothed soberly and without superfluity, though they may be finer, than that which his servant is clothed with, we shall not blame him for it: the abstaining from superfluities, which his condition and education have accustomed him to, may be, in him, a greater act of mortification than the abstaining from finer clothes in the servant, who never was accustomed to them.

So we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg and his assistant both wearing t-shirts and jeans, but one of them buys from, say, DKNY or Kenneth Cole, while the other buys from Target or Wal-Mart. This would count as a responsible form of plain dress, per Barclay. But as Mackenzie and Micah point out, this arrangement masks the vast inequality in wealth and power between the two. And though the early Quaker movement was egalitarian in many respects, their radicalism didn’t really extend to overturning the economic structures of English society, in the way that the Diggers, for example, did.

One thing worth reading in this regard is a post by Richard Beck in which he discusses the theological concept of kenosis (or self-emptying) and how it looks different for people at the top of society versus people at the bottom. In short, if kenosis at the top means giving up your privileges and self-importance, then kenosis at the bottom has to mean ridding yourself of the self-loathing that makes you think you deserve to be at the bottom. Otherwise you’re just preaching abuse to the already abused. That awareness of the two different meanings of kenosis is something worth cultivating.

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Good soil

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 7/22/2018.

A sower goes out into a field and scatters seeds. Some of them fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Some fall into thin soil and grow for a bit, but without any roots, they wither in the sun. Some fall and take root among thorns, which smother them and keep them from yielding fruit. And some fall on good soil, where they bloom a hundredfold.

Jesus says that this image illustrates how God’s word is received among different kinds of people. Some can’t or won’t hear the word at all. Some hear it and try to take it heart, but lack follow-through. Some try to listen to it, but are overwhelmed by the pleasures and cares of this world. And some hear it and live it out successfully.

That’s what Jesus says about this image. But what can we say?

I find it important to remember that our concern here should not be for the seed—for the seed of God will flourish where it will, even outside of institutions and churches; even outside the Society of Friends. Rather, our concern should be for the soil—that is, us. Are we fitting vessels for the Holy Spirit?

For many of us, our predicament today seems most like the soil with the thorns: We want to draw closer to God and walk in God’s ways, but there is so much bad news, so many obligations, so many distractions. We can be led astray, sometimes without even knowing it. The founder of our movement, George Fox, once said that “whatever ye are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone.” We can be addicted to many things: not just, say, alcohol or gambling, but ideas, both about the world and about ourselves. I have learned from conversations with LGBTQ Christians, for example, that it is often the most progressive members of the faith than can be the most hurtful on questions of queer identity, because they have imagined themselves to be not only in the right on this matter, but on the right side of history. How, then, could they saying or doing things that alienate queer people?

This, then, is the task: To hold firm and not be deceived, even by our own sense of what is right; to keep the thorns at bay. But unlike other tasks, this is no feat of craft or organization: to be good soil, we need merely to be of service.

"The Parable of the Sower" by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)

“The Parable of the Sower” by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)