Who Are We?


To me it seemed an echo of the story of Balaam’s ass. In that story (Numbers 22:22-35), the prophet Balaam of Pethor, summoned by the king of Moab to curse the approaching Israelites, goes riding to meet him – but the ass he’s riding on balks, three times, and three times her master beats her for it. What the ass sees, but Balaam does not, is the angel of the Lord standing in the way with a drawn sword. When at length the angel reveals himself to Balaam also, the angel permits Balaam to continue on his way only on condition that he say to the king “only the word that I shall speak unto thee,” for God’s people are not to be spoken against: Blessed is he that blesseth thee, and cursed is he that curseth thee (Num. 24:9).

What brought that famous quarrel between the ass and her rider to my mind was the tension I felt in the auditorium between those Friends who wanted to move forward and those who weren’t easy to do so. There was an anger in the room that surprised and frightened me, arising as it did at the end of a week of sessions that had felt, at least to me, very sweet and tender.

On Friday, 7/23/2010, a group charged by New York Yearly Meeting “to propose a process to guide the Yearly Meeting in discerning who we are, how we are led and how we support the work of those leadings and needs” (per NYYM Minute 2009-11-36) brought forward a Minute to Develop a Statement of Priorities. It was a thoughtful and well-crafted minute, obviously the product of much deep laboring, and many voices expressed enthusiasm about getting its implementation under way. But those who opposed approval seemed firm in their sense that the minute needed further seasoning. One Friend said that its words seemed those of a corporate business plan. Another spoke of his perception that there was a “disconnect” between the wording of the original charge – “discerning who we are” – and the focus, in the minute, on such things as inclusivity, the budget planning process, and prioritizing our work.

I came to the controversy late. Convalescing from a kidney stone that had disabled me the day before, I’d missed the morning session at which the minute had first been read. At the evening session, when we returned to the matter, I might have just shrugged and let the minute go ahead, except for the impatience toward the opponents of immediate approval that I felt chilling the room. That didn’t seem like evidence of Spirit-led unity forming. Suspecting that there might be something seriously amiss in that “disconnect” the other Friend had pointed out, I called out “No!” when scores of Friends were saying “Approved!” – and then, to my relief, the body agreed to put the matter over to Fall Sessions.

I later thought that the anger and impatience might have been from a desperate anxiety, perhaps over money not coming in from the monthly meetings. But if that were so, why not be open about it?

Clarity as to what might be wrong with the minute dawned on me slowly, and I think it comes down to this: the committee that proposed it had started with a question, “who are we?” that could be taken as either a deep, “philosophical” one about our essential nature, or a sociological one about inclusivity and our decision-making processes – or both. But the committee had evidently moved ahead as if it were only a sociological one, leaving the deeper question disregarded. But we cannot disregard it if we’re to be rightly guided when we set about the practical work – the inclusivity and prioritization. For if we’re creatures capable of sin, folly and good works alike, priding ourselves on setting up a system that increased inclusiveness without filtering out sin and folly would just be another piece of sin and folly.

Who are we Quakers: a people of God – not “people of God,” but a people of God – bound by a covenant with God? If so, then we cannot correctly answer the question of who we are without reference to that covenant, whether or not we still remember or care what it meant to such early Friends as George Fox, Isaac Penington and Francis Howgill, who all wrote about it. We could not, for example, complacently define ourselves as an umbrella group made up of some individuals who recognize a covenant and some individuals who do not, for we’d have no right to say such a thing if it were in defiance of God’s idea of who we are. The best we might do is acknowledge the distress we feel over our inability to reach agreement on such a question with many Friends we love and work with.

Other dimensions of the question “who are we” are suggested by Scripture – and if we’re not comfortable with Judeo-Christian scripture, we’re likely to find many of the same challenges coming out of Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist teachings: Are we essentially strangers and pilgrims here on the earth (Heb. 11:13), best advised (Matt. 6:19-21) not to seek satisfaction from the illusory and perishable? Are we to let our light so shine (Matt. 5:16) that those who see it glorify our Heavenly Parent and not us? Are we called to be saints (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:2, etc.)? to be perfect, like our Heavenly Parent (Matt. 5:48), so that our generosity and forgiveness extend alike to the just and the unjust? Must we refuse to strive (2 Tim.2:24) or resist evil (Matt. 5:39)? Should we be ready to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16)? Are our bodies, minds and lips our own to do as we like with (Ps. 12:4), or are they God’s (Rom. 12:1, 1 Cor. 3:23)? If “we” are their owners, who are “we” – do we know? I’m mindful that Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) taught that the inquiry “Who am I?” could serve others as a path to liberation, as it had done for him: “The mind will subside only by means of the enquiry ‘Who am I?’ The thought ‘Who am I?’, destroying all other thoughts, will itself finally be destroyed like the stick used for stirring the funeral pyre.”

And then there are the questions about who we are, not as Quakers or aspirants to holiness, but simply as human beings: are we essentially sinners in need of repentance and salvation, or perhaps ignorant minds naturally inclined to seek the good, but each in bondage to an ego that sends us off to look for the good in the wrong places? Are human beings, in short, basically OK or basically not OK? Our views on the human condition can’t help but shape our sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate ministry or witness. And on our faith in others’ ability to hear what we say – our assessment of who they are – will depend whether we speak plainly, or in parables, or without opening our mouths at all. George Fox warns us (Epistle 48) “not to suffer your minds to go out to contend with them who are not of the truth, in that which is out of the truth…. For the same mind will boast and get up, which is out of the truth….”

Assessing who we are by noting what we do (or vice versa) is bound to be full of pitfalls. We tend to fret over the effectiveness of what we do, forgetting that the only thing we can control is the rightness of what we do in the light of conscience. The Qur’an, e.g. in 26:89 and 33:5, teaches that God judges us solely by the intentions of our hearts, and the apostle Paul, that “neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). We’re called not to success but only to faithful willingness. And we’re sternly warned not to run when we are not sent (Jeremiah 23:21).

I’ve been writing about the “who we are” question in generalities up to now, but there is one dimension of it that I feel particularly called to point out to NYYM Friends: I mean our two-sidedness. The apostle Paul wrote of our “old man” (Rom. 6:6, Eph. 4:22, Coloss. 3:9), or “the flesh” (Rom. 6:18-19, 7:5-8), which, helplessly addicted to the things that please the body and what we would today call the ego, holds us back from doing the good things we wish we might do, or even actively “grieves, vexes and quenches the Spirit,” as George Fox would put it, while pretending to be doing a good thing. Over against that is the “inward man” or “new creature in Christ” (Romans 7:22, 2 Corinthians 4:16, 5:17, Galatians 6:15, etc.), which has the power to overcome the reluctances and waywardness of the flesh, so that the person is freed at last to accomplish what the Fourth Gospel calls “deeds wrought in God” (John 3:21).

At meeting I’ve seen a lot of behaviors, and heard a lot of messages, that masquerade as acceptable Quakerism, or even Spirit-led Quakerism, but stink of the old man. I myself have been unduly timid in challenging such stuff, and suspect we all have. In part I think we’re inhibited from confronting it by lack of a common vocabulary to describe it. And some of the vocabulary words we had for things of the Spirit have been neutered almost beyond usefulness, like “that of God in every person,” which I think is now widely understood as a property of the individual, though as Lewis Benson cautioned us in his 1970 essay on the phrase,  “we cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources.”  I attribute all this to the ego’s formidable resistances to being dethroned. Is this something we need to face collectively before we’re ready to go on to the matters in the proposed minute? Is that something that an angel with a drawn sword is trying to tell us?

On the answers we give to these questions about who we are – if we’re willing to labor over them – will depend how we see one another, hear one another, and “know one another in the power of an endless life, which doth not change” (George Fox, Epistle 23). From this knowledge will surely grow our understanding of how to proceed in right order with the prioritization of the Yearly Meeting’s work, with reforming its budget process, and becoming more inclusive in our decision-making.

In friendship,


9 Responses to “Who Are We?”

  1. Mia Says:

    John: You make a lot of good points in this, and raise up some things that had not occurred to me in the immediate aftermath of that business session. I still find myself somewhat disappointed that we could not find unity at the time, but it is very clear to me that unity was not to be had that night, and I am easy with the way things went. The anger in the room was disturbing, I agree.

  2. Steven Davison Says:

    I did not attend Yearly Meeting summer sessions this year, so I am left to infer what was going on from your wonderful comments, John. What struck me as someone not at all familiar with this ad hoc committee’s work was how very valuable and truly difficult the charge was. And how it illustrates the disastrous erosion of a living culture of eldership and the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry among us. For the answers to all three parts of the charge are, it would seem to me, already at hand and well-documented.

    Charge one: “who we are”. One would think that the process for discerning who we are as a people would be faithful, waiting worship. What else would we need, as long as we’re still capable of true worship?

    Charge two: “how we are led”. Friends and meetings that are being led already know how they’re being led, so looking to define a process for discerning how we are led indicates—what? that it’s not happening among those looking for a process, or that they don’t recognize it already at work among them, I guess. Maybe the creators of the charge mean something I’m not picking up.

    Charge three: “how to support the work of those leadings.” I would think our established practices would suffice: clearness committees, committees for support and oversight, letters for travel and service in ministry and their endorsement, recording of gifts of the spirit, spiritual friendships and formation fellowships, the School of the Spirit and other spiritual nurture programs—what more could you want? The only thing that Quakers have always lacked in this regard is a clear, effective technology for deepening, like those developed over the past three thousand years in yoga. But Christianity has always been weak in this area and it hasn’t kept generations of Friends from quaking with the spirit even so.

    Of course, many meetings may lack people who are really familiar with these traditions, and here the Yearly Meeting has, perhaps, a calling: programs that could revitalize their practice among the meetings, both local and regional. For I know that the Yearly Meeting is blessed with a lot of people who do know this stuff and have the gift of teaching.

    I wonder—and now I’m really speculating, since I’ve not been active in NYYM for quite a while and didn’t attend these sessions—I wonder, is this the Yearly Meeting worrying about itself here? That is, are its COMMITTEES feeling like they don’t know how they’re led or how to spark some life in them?

    The rich tradition of Quaker ministry just does not apply to committees, unless you turn committees into ad hoc support groups for individual Friends with leadings, and it’s easy to forget in the committee process that ministry is first a call from G*d to the individual, divine mind to human heart. And the only processes that can nurture that spark are spiritual disciplines practiced by individuals and nurtured by meetings (or committees), not better budget planning or strategic planning tools borrowed from business and nonprofit management. In the absence of divine calling (whatever we mean by that) and the abundantly adequate ‘processes’ of traditional Quaker ministry, committees do tend to grab whatever tools and vocabulary the world has to offer to compensate.

    The problem is that committees also tend to siphon off people, money and time to maintain their own lives as committees when Friends who are led into ministry need the attention, resources, prayer and other forms of real nurture. I say: look for those among us who are led and help them. Make sure meetings have the knowledge and resources to nurture ministry effectively. And, if there’s anything left over, give it to Caesar.

  3. Thy Friend John Says:

    Thank you both so much, Mia and Steve! I’m very grateful for your confirmation, Mia, of the anger in the room. I too hope that the minute can go forward easily at Fall Sessions; and now that I’ve rewritten most of the last half of my post and got it so that it satisfies me (I posted it before I’d gotten it completely right out of a sense of its urgency; you both might want to re-read it now), I’m prepared to send it to all the signatories to the minute as a personal appeal. Not that they have to change the minute: just that they consider the importance of listening to the resonances of that great question, WHO ARE WE? and keep their hearts open to whatever God may tell them about who we are.

    Steve, I’m enormously grateful for your wise and clear response to my post and the charge NYYM imposed on itself (Minute 2009-11-36) embedded in it. I’d like to direct the attention of the Liaison Committee Charge Group to it when I write to them, if you don’t object. It seems very important to me that they take in the points you raised.

  4. Joan Cope Savage Says:

    I’d add a rather motherly point of view about what happens when people are given a decision to make at the end of the day or week. The minute was presented as new material in a Friday morning session, without an earlier reading during the week or a read-ahead circulated to monthly meetings in advance of sessions. Although Friends had had a good week at NYYM sessions, most of us were in the mood to wrap up. New material late in a process brings out the usual breadth of very human responses such as ‘Oh just Let them Do It,’ ‘Wait a moment, I need to look this over,” or “What are you asking for?’
    In my opinion, it did not help to carry it over to an evening session, which in sports would have had the ominous name of ‘sudden death overtime.’
    The content of the minute has something to do with the strained conversation, given that “Priorities” is a very loaded word, but some of the dynamic was from the timing of presentation. In some cultures, group decision process is not allowed to continue past night fall, and with good reason, as it avoids making tired, cranky, flawed decisions.

    • Thy Friend John Says:

      Thank you for this, Joan! And you’re absolutely right about the bad timing of the decision — Friday night! “Sudden death overtime” is a new addition to my vocabulary now — it does sound appropriate to the setting we had. I suppose that if we’d been being led to a Spirit-given unity on the minute, something might have lifted our hearts out of our end-of-the-week crankiness, but it didn’t; nonetheless I’m optimistic about the minute going forward in November, especially if we (or the wise Friends we’ve assigned to the job, most of whom I’ve learned to hold in very high esteem, and I expect the others whom I don’t know well are of comparable giftedness) spend four months prayerfully addressing Friends’ objections to it. I’m curious to learn what other Friends’ stops about it were. I hope they take the time and effort to express them.

  5. Steven Davison Says:

    Can I ask what circumstances made the Yearly Meeting feel that they needed such an effort?

  6. Greta Says:

    Thank you for your shared insights. To my mind there are two questions that need to be answered by NYYM (and perhaps many other Quaker bodies) that will ultimately enable Friends to move forward. They do not include questions of priorities or finances or inclusivity. They are not new questions. The first echos John’s: Who are we Quakers? and the second: What is God calling us, as a peculiar people, to do?

  7. Grackle Says:

    I do not know much about any of this. Chirst answered my own questions when I asked out loud. “Who am I?” I was not mindful of Him when I asked, but merely depressed and dejected. I wanted to go back to my youth, my age of innocence, but I couldn’t. I kept asking this quesiton and about a year later, Christ answered it for me.

    I have only one thing to say about this question that you and yours are asking amongst your selves. Perhaps you should ask each other less and put the answering responsibility on He who can fully deliver the best qualified answer.

    All my best to you.

  8. Thy Friend John Says:

    Thank you and God bless you, Grackle! Good answer! I wait to hear whatever new information Jesus Christ might have about who I am, and who we Quakers are; and I pray that He open my ears, and our ears, to hear it.

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