Keep Quakers weird

Friendly Reminder: A Weekly Reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

I lived in Oregon for four years and one thing I enjoyed doing was visiting downtown Portland, especially for a book from Powell’s or a donut from Voodoo Donut. One of the prominent signs in the city displays the unofficial motto of the eccentric city: “Keep Portland weird.” This motto represented folks’ love for their city, their commitment to supporting local culture and businesses, and their desire to preserve Portland’s peculiar character.

As a lifelong Christian and Quaker, I’ve seen many problems arise when we try to make our faith mainstream. When we no longer keep our faith and practice “weird.” I understand why we do it. We want to make our faith accessible to others, so we lose the lingo. We want people to feel comfortable joining us in worship, so we reduce or eliminate our time of silent waiting. We want to reach people and help people and grow our meetings. We want to demonstrate that “Far from being merely a historically interesting movement, Quakerism is a live option… a practical alternative for contemporary men and women,” as Elton Trueblood put it.

These changes are understandable, and sometimes necessary. There is no virtue in tradition for tradition’s sake, especially for Friends who have always insisted that ritual and tradition were not the point! But there comes a time when our attempts at relevance make us … irrelevant.

To borrow from Jesus, if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Or, if the Quakers lose their Quakerism…what’s the point of being Quakers? We ought to be who we are, simply and boldly. Not because we are the best, but because we are one expression of spiritual community God has made to heal the world. We are a peculiar people, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

In a world of constant noise, we can be a peculiar people who nurture silence.

In a world of violence, we can be a peculiar people who “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14).

In a world of radical individualism and polarization, we can be a peculiar people who practice communal discernment and listening.

In a world of authoritarian leadership and hierarchy, we can be a peculiar people who value equality and make room for diverse voices.

In a world of “breaking news” and anxious systems, we can be a peculiar people who center down and prioritize the “still, small voice.”

Keep Quakers weird!

Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, writing about preaching and contextual theology, provides a distinction I find helpful in nuancing this discussion. Borrowing from the work of philosopher Paul Tillich, she talks about the difference between true and false “stumbling blocks.” Our commitment to the Gospel means we can’t avoid hard teachings that can be “stumbling blocks” to some—the scandal of the cross, the call to love enemies, forgiveness, etc. But there are also “false stumbling blocks,” ways of talking and relating that are distracting because they don’t match the local culture. Leaders are responsible for removing false stumbling blocks without neglecting the necessary and liberating ones inherent in our prophetic message. This is our challenge as Quaker leaders, as well.

So, let’s keep Quakers weird. But in the right ways. For the right reasons. When we let go of our attachment to both relevance and specialness, we become more relevant and important than we imagined.

Photo credit: Jean Schnell, Framing the Light