What makes Friends a corrective for culture is exactly this point: Friends were formed in the image of the most original followers of Christ: those disciples that formed the original community around him. There was an attraction that Fox felt to this haggard group of strangers become friends: they were the ones who were so filled with faith from the hearing of the words of God spoken through one who felt himself to be God's son, that they were willing to leave everything behind in order that they might follow him.
There was nothing ordinary or regular about the action on the part of the disciples. There was no reason given, no proof offered as a reason for faith. It was something felt at a pure level of love. Those who were touched by the spirit of the teachings of the young Jesus were never the same again. Often they left their families, their careers, their sense of everything that was secure behind them, and they followed him. No wonder Fox, beleaguered in his seeking, found renewed faith here.
Most of us are not so privileged to have this experience in our lifetime. But this is the experience Fox had as he listened inwardly to the voice of Christ. "There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to your condition." These are the words he heard and spoke to others.
Living one's principles is the hardest thing we do in this world. Often there is nothing in the external world around us that supports us in doing this. I imagine this is how Fox felt. He had traveled around his world, speaking to professors, to pastors, to scholars, to the faithful, and there was none who could speak to his condition. The regular rituals of his families spiritual. practice did not speak to him. I imagine that after such a period of searching, he must have felt close to hopeless. In times I have had like this, I have even questioned (and I know I'm not the only one) whether this life is worth it. In this low time, George Fox heard the voice of Christ, speaking to him personally, and speaking directly to his condition.
He did not remain alone for long. Fox himself was moved by the spirit that directed him, and he could not keep quiet. It did not take long before others were attracted to his message and had begun to gather with him to talk about what was missing in the church of the day. Those who were uncomfortable and disconcerted met to discuss what they felt was needed to re-value the spiritual life of Christians. They became so excited by this discourse that they in turn could not remain silent.
Ever since I realized that this was the time of the Bible first being printed in English and becoming available at least to the wealthy, I have been struck by what a new era dawning this was! No longer was the populace subject to priests and their interpretation of the Word. People now had access to the Bible, and they were relatively free to interpret what the Scripture said to them, if they dared. This is where Fox found his direction. The Bible, and the words of Christ in his heart, did not speak the same message that preachers had tried to teach him; indeed he heard something that might truly be considered heretical.
What was unique about this gathering of seekers was that each brought to the conversation their own leadings. Fox was as interested in hearing what the others were hearing, as he was in communicating his own message. The community that evolved was something new indeed: they were freed from the bondage of strict interpretation by powers above them, to be in intimate conversation with the Christ within.
Have you had moments in your spiritual life where you have exhausted your resources, internal and external. Life is leaving you flat, lacking meaning or direction. There is no good reason you shouldn't follow the common thought on an issue, yet it doesn't feel right. You search for justification and find none. Still their is a nagging feeling inside of you that will not let go and you cannot settle yourself. After a long period of confusion, you begin to feel a stirring and to find a direction out of your conundrum that is creative, if not outrageous, compared to the common thought. Is it a relief? Or is it a point of further confusion?
You must know, as I do, that there are times you have turned inward, and you have "heard" that still small voice, leading you forward in the way you know, without a doubt is the right way. But what about the times that the leading, while intriguing, seems a little outrageous? You may feel frightened, because what you feel led to is outside of your comfort zone.
Quakers live their principals. Not always, not forever, not perfectly, but yes, when we pause to listen, we generally live what we believe. Just how do we do that?
I know of no healthy person who can individually set out to live their beliefs, and have any success at doing so, in a vacuum. I don't think humans are built with the ego strength to do such a thing. Our thoughts can be amazingly creative, but they lack the consistency and clarity to make a real path without one essential ingredient: community. Without the support and challenge of those around us, we are quick to stray from what seemed only a second ago a clear path.
It is the community of Friends that brings our inner leading to be the thing which we live. The voice of God, which we may hear so clearly in that moment, becomes distorted if we leave it to live within our own solitary mind alone. What separates the sage seeker from the solitary psychotic soul, is the willingness to let the leading stand the test of coming before community. Without this seasoning, how can be sure one has not just heard one's own narcissistic yearning?
In a strictly individualistic society, everyone is free to develop their own view of what is "ultimate". The rest of us, who are not such strong leaders, will be led by the charisma of that single leading, if we are not encouraged to question and to challenge. What makes Friends community different, in my experience, is that it is not a community built out of static teachings from a book. The mystery of ongoing revelation is constantly unfolding, and the teachings are constantly evolving. It is the community of seekers that brings wholeness to the experience: no one of us can possibly possess the whole picture. Each of us, listening intently in our times of silent attentiveness, brings to the community table our piece of the puzzle and adds it to the whole.
Accordingly, one of us may possess the gifts for holding together the physical structure of the commmunity, another the teachings, another the creativity to add a process to the information, another a gift for healing and so forth. Individually, the pieces may not even make sense. But if we are willing to worship together, to work together, and to break bread together, we will find that together we form a much stronger and more complete whole.
I may hold a principal that says I should stand for peace. Individually, I may stand for that peace, by holding a sign, by writing a letter, by praying, or by being a conscientious objector. If my government, my neighborhood, or the society continue to tell me that I am unpatriotic, or unfair, or unrealistic, I alone may not stand for long by that belief. However, if in the course of a week, I have a conversation with my friend about my struggle, I may stand a little longer. If in worship, I hear leadings that speak to the heart of why I am for peace, I may feel strengthened. In my prayers, I find myself led to speak to others, and they are strengthened. Perhaps we travel together to a demonstration, or we write letters after worship. We gather with a family whose child is approaching 18 and we talk about what the choices are. Gradually, simply, God gathers us together and strengthens us. The resources God means for me to have to live my path on earth are present in that community.
If my leading is off base, there is a good chance that in worship I will hear leadings, inwardly or from others, that do not support what I think I am to do. Thus I will not go too far down the path without a correction, like using a compass to keep my direction. Gradually, as I am willing to risk sharing my leadings with others, I am offered the direction needed, and I do not feel desperate or lonely on my path. A friend, who knows me well from participation in the meeting, may feel a leading to talk to me about my own direction, or a wiser, more experienced friend may feel called to "elder" me on a topic where I seem off base. It's a simple matter of being a part of the whole.
The outside world, as Knowlton tells us, sees that "Quakers Live their Principals." It could sound like a grand concept. In reality, it is the end result of living one's life in relationship with God, and in relationship with the community that God has called us to be a part of. As we understand that God has brought us together, we do not take either our friendships or our community lightly, and we come to live what we are called to, in faith, and with the support of that gift of community.
Friends live their principles, it is true. As we stand together, as we share a meal, care for each other, push each other to grow, we each find the strength and courage to live what we believe.