I’ve been going to an unprogrammed Quaker meeting for more than twenty years now. I like sitting in the silence in a group of others, waiting. Many Quakers are as Christian now as when Quakerism was formed in the seventeenth century in England, but out here on the west coast of the United States, things have grown a little more ambiguous. I, myself, believe in God, but I am not so sure about the idea that events in the Bible occurred exactly as they are described, especially, but not exclusively, when they are described multiply.
Still, in the years that I spent teaching children in our First Day School, I read a fairly large number of Bible stories to them, along with stories from other traditions. I explained that I didn’t believe that the stories were literally true, but that a lot of people do, and that they had influenced a lot of what we see happening around us. Out of all the stories that we read together, the ones that really captured their imagination at the time and that I suspect they would remember even now, were the stories of the plagues. The group I taught them to consisted mainly of boys, including my own two sons, and I suspect that they enjoyed the list for both its length and its containedness. It went on and on, but it did end. And the plagues had a certain grossness to them: frogs, locusts.
The disasters we keep facing as a country now are striking me in the same way, and though I keep telling myself that I don’t believe in that list, the little superstitious part of me wonders if we are being punished for something. An idea which instantly repels me, because what kind of a monstrous deity would wreak punishment on so many who are already suffering so much? Would take housing and the ability to earn from those who already feel dispossessed in our country? When I say I believe in God, I do not believe in a god who is a white man in white robes with a white beard, pointing his finger at Puerto Rico and saying, “Hurricane, strike!”
I do believe in a God that wells up inside of us when we recognize the image of someone who is suffering as we have suffered and who moves us to alleviate that suffering in any small way that we can. And I know that for myself, and for many people like me, looking at too many of those images will drive us into a dark place where we can’t help ourselves or anyone else.
So I’ve donated money to the best causes I can find, and I go to my Quaker meeting, and sit with other Friends. (Quakers are called Friends, so I could make all sorts of stupid puns about that, but basically we’re the simple, pacifist people who are not the Amish or the Mennonites. We’ve mostly given up our plain clothes and our plain speech, though there are some small pockets of Friends who use them. We don’t avoid technology, but we do avoid violence. And when an unprogrammed Friends’ meeting comes to worship, we sit in silence and wait for God to speak through one of us).
I definitely believe that, in addition to my medication, my times spent in worship over the years has helped me to keep my anxiety and depression in check. And though Martin, my son, finds it hard to sit in Meeting on a regular basis, Friends know about his struggles and pray for him. I always hated the sound of that, “praying for someone.” But I think that that collective holding of someone is actually very powerful, and together with his medications, I believe that it has helped him a great deal. My younger son, Pete, has sometimes claimed not to be Quaker, but as he’s grown closer to adulthood, his attitude has softened.