Meeting for Reading is a new column from the Friends General Conference “BookMusings” newsletter. It will review new and forthcoming books intended to nurture spiritual deepening among Friends. The books selected are particularly useful to Meeting book discussion groups.
Seeds that Change the World: Essays on Quakerism, Spirituality, Faith and Culture by Debbie Humphries. Foreword by Diane Randall. QuakerPress, 2018.
By Ellen Michaud
“Quakers today are a pale shadow of who we are called to be,” writes Debbie Humphries. Yet “we are stewards of a powerful tradition…[that] the world desperately needs.” How do we live into that truth?
When travelling minister Debbie Humphries hits the summer walking paths at New England Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions in Vermont, her walk is fast, her smile radiant, her joy in being among Friends abundant.
Striding under the old oaks that line the Castleton University campus green, past white tents set up on the grass for summer sing-a-longs and old friends engaged in conversation, just the sight of her absorbing and reflecting the loving environment in which she walks, gives everyone who sees her a sense that here, in this moment, in the midst of several hundred faithful Friends, all is right with the Quaker world.
Unfortunately—and despite our best intentions—that sense will last about an hour into the first threshing session. Because even with Friends’ dedicated and continuing evolution as a people of faith, we are often a contentious bunch, as evidenced by the number of schisms we’ve experienced over the centuries and into the present day. Re-unification does occur, on occasion, but when push comes to shove, we are perhaps only slightly less likely to take our marbles and go home than the 3 year-old next door.
The result, writes Humphries in Seeds that Change the World, is that “Quakers today are a pale shadow of who we are called to be.”
It’s a startling and devastating observation. But, as a Yale University researcher, observation and analysis is what Humphries is trained to do. And she has closely watched us for decades.
Originally raised in the Mormon tradition, Debbie began worshipping among Friends nearly 30 years ago—first in Cairo, then in North and South America, Europe, and Africa. She became a member of Ithaca Monthly Meeting along the way, and, now, as a member of Hartford Monthly Meeting, she travels in the ministry under their care to meetings across the United States—meetings that define themselves as evangelical, liberal, orthodox, conservative, and mixes of all of the above.
Quaker corporate discernment, with its measured flow and careful listening, allows space for holding paradox and ambiguity. —Debbie Humphries
The theological breadth of her travel in the Quaker world is intentional. “I have been troubled for years by the question of what the Quaker peace testimony stands for when we are unable to get along in our own monthly, quarterly and yearly meeting communities,” she writes in one of 13 essays collected in her book.
The historical splits and divisions in Quakerism are, to me, a painful sign that Quakers are less as a people than we are called to be…People of color, business people, military members, political conservatives, and other groups have sometimes found themselves judged and excluded in Quaker settings. They are living witnesses to the difficulties Friends have had embodying the truths of our tradition.
With Humphries’ astute observations of Friends, Seeds could easily have devolved into a litany of criticism. It does not. Instead Humphries uses her own personal journey of discovery to illuminate the ways in which all of us often stumble on the path to wholeness, clarity and unity, then shares the Quakerly processes—oversight committees, spiritual friends, personal retreats, sitting daily in silence and the like—that she’s consciously put in place to make sure she doesn’t outrun her guide.
Fortunately, she points out, our Quaker tradition
…is grounded in communication with the Divine and holds, in tension with the grace of that communion, the importance of developing and honing skills of tuning, listening, discerning, translating and testing our alignment with the Divine.
At our best, we know that the act of loving another person is more important than what that person believes, and this understanding is integrated into our shared practices…Quaker corporate discernment, with its measured flow and careful listening, allows space for holding paradox and ambiguity.
If we deliberately engage in individual spiritual practices, work to understand the truths we know and identify the lies we live, develop spiritual friendships that nudge us back on the path to which we’re led when we go astray—and if we use our practice of corporate discernment to build the skills of holding paradox, uncertainty and ambiguity together, then, Humphries assures us, we will learn to embrace wholeness in the world and live the questions rather than make the judgments that tear us—and the world—apart.
“We are stewards of a powerful tradition,” she reminds us. “One that the world desperately needs.”
With its 13 essays, each accompanied by thought-provoking queries that offer a springboard into meeting and book group discussions, Seeds that Change the World allows us to look searchingly at who we are, and find ways to not only live into our faith, but to offer it as a gift to the world.
Ellen Michaud is an award-winning author and editor who has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, and Prevention Magazine, where she was the editor-at-large for six years. Her book Blessed: Living a Grateful Life (Readers Digest) was named the #1 Spiritual/Inspirational Book of the Year by USA Book News. Ellen was also the 2012 writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion.