Have You Heard About Quaker Spring?

Have you heard about Quaker Spring?

by Deborah Haines, Baltimore Yearly Meeting

This article first appeared in a slightly shorter version on the Earlham School of Religion blog in March 2011

FFor the past four years, Quaker Spring gatherings (formerly called Quaker Camp) have been held for a week every summer in Barnesville, Ohio This year we are trying something a little different. In order to reach out to Friends in New England and New York, we will be gathering on the campus of the Meeting School in Rindge, New Hampshire, from Friday evening June 17 through noon on Wednesday June 22. Everyone is welcome!

So, what is Quaker Spring? It’s an opportunity for Friends to come together in the presence of God, to sit at the feet of the Inward Teacher, to explore the inward landscape, to listen to the winds of the Spirit. We have worship and Bible study in the morning, time in the afternoon for small group conversations (or play, or rest), and evenings devoted to group discernment, focusing on some question or issue that has arisen out of worship. Often there is singing, or dancing, or picnicking. It’s a time to rejoice in God’s goodness, and to “know each other in that which is eternal.”

A new kind of gathering. To some extent Quaker Spring grew out of my personal frustration with the frenetic pace of the Friends General Conference Gathering. I love lots of things about the Gathering, but it is enormously complicated. Organizing and running it involves the work of several staff people, which makes it expensive, and hundreds of volunteers (of whom I am often one), which makes it very busy. The experience of Gathering often leaves me feeling over-scheduled, over-stimulated and generally exhausted. Why do we need all this programming, I said to a group of my spiritual companions at a get-together five or six years ago, when all God requires of us is to be present in love?

So we decided to try something different: a Quaker gathering with no workshops, no plenary speakers, no staff, as little overhead as possible, and lots of time to be present to each other and to God. It would be a simple, inexpensive, informal, worship-centered version of the FGC Gathering, a time to find out what Spirit-led Quakerism is all about.

I think we chose the name “Quaker Camp” primarily because of my fond memories of an opportunity I had years ago to spend a weekend in the woods with a group of Girl Scout leaders. It came at a hard time in my life, and it turned out to be just what I needed. There was really nothing to do all weekend but cook meals and take walks. It was wonderful to be in such a beautiful, peaceful place, with time enough for everything, and time to spare. In getting back to basics, I rediscovered the joy of simply to be alive.

How could we create a Quaker gathering grounded in that same sense of timelessness, peace, and joy? All we needed, really, was a peaceful place that would provide simple, inexpensive accommodations for as many Friends as wanted to come for a week or so. We found such a place in Barnesville, Ohio, where we could worship in the fine old Stillwater meetinghouse of Ohio Yearly Meeting, sleep in the dorms of Olney Friends School or camp on the meetinghouse lawn, eat in the school cafeteria, and take long walks through the woods and pastures.

For the first year, we tried to plan just enough of a daily schedule to provide an underlying rhythm for our time together, and it worked well, although we had to keep reminding ourselves not to fill up the time with worthwhile things. We Quakers tend to be very busy people. We read a lot, and talk a lot, and fall into the habit of looking for inspiration in other people’s words. We wanted to create a framework that would gently remind us to look deeper, and to experience the spaciousness of God’s time.

A new name. After the first couple of Quaker Camps, we decided to change the name of our gathering. The word “camp” seemed to convey to a lot of people the image of a highly programmed children’s activity, which wasn’t what we intended at all (although we welcomed and still welcome children and families). During the deep worship that led up to discerning a new name for our gathering, we found ourselves drawn to a passage from the writings of George Fox. It’s from a piece called “Something Further Concerning Silent Meetings,” and it contains an image that long-ago grabbed at my heart:

For there is the flock lying down at noonday, and the feeding of the bread of life, and drinking of the springs of life, when they do not speak words…

The passage spoke to all of us, and we decided to put it in the flyer to describe what it is we are trying to do at Quaker Spring. There where the flock lies down at noonday is rest for the weary, comfort for the lost and the lonely, nourishment for the faint of heart, living water for the thirsting soul. There is total, trustful dependence, not on our own resources, but on God, for everything we need.

God does the gathering. When I first felt the pull of that image, I thought it was calling me to look for the perfect flock. I suppose I was envisioning a kind of covenant community of the faithful. Maybe I was hoping that Quaker Camp is where I would finally find the flock where I belonged.

But the experience of Quaker Camp and Quaker Spring has helped me to understand that I am not personally called to covenant community (although others may be) because it necessarily involves a measure of judgment contrary to the spirit of Christ as it has been laid on me. I am not permitted to choose who should or should not belong to my flock. My own meeting, fractious as it is, is my beloved flock, and so is Quaker Spring, and so is any other group I find myself worshiping with. God does the gathering. All we have to do (the challenge and the joy) is to stop running around bleating at each other and trying to manage things, and simply settle down in the presence of the living Christ. We can experience that blessed rest anytime, anywhere, if we are willing.

God does the feeding. A few years ago I heard a valued Friend complain that worship in her meeting didn’t “feed her soul.” (I’ve heard the same complaint before and since, of course, but this particular instance laid it on my heart.) I prayed over it and worried about it and eventually reached (was led?) to two conclusions. First, complaining is fundamentally incompatible with worship; and 2) we come to worship not to learn from each other, but to sit at the feet of the Inward Teacher who knows our every need and the deepest longings of our hearts. If we feel that we are not being fed, it may be because we are not faithfully attending to that one true Guide, who is right there among us, holding out to us the Bread of Life. Perhaps the message I am not hearing in my home meeting is the one I would receive from God and offer to others if I were being truly obedient.

These two understandings–that complaining undermines worship, and that we need to attend to the Inward Teacher instead of relying on each other–are deeply woven into the expectations of Quaker Spring. We do not come together to tell each other the truth as we conceive it, but to invite others to discover it for themselves and express it in their own words and images. We do not come together to find a refuge from Quaker meetings that fail to meet our needs or conform to our expectations. We come together simply for the joy of being together in the presence of God.

Christ and the circle of God’s love. Is Quaker Spring a Christian Quaker gathering? Perhaps Christian-Universalist might be better description, although theology is really not the point. To me, Christ is the Word spoken at the moment of creation, the Light that lights everyone coming into the world, the manifestation of God wherever we find it. In my experience, God’s love is infinite and all-inclusive; it is no more possible to step outside the circle of God’s love than it is to step outside the universe. As John Woolman said:

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

For those who have a more exclusive understanding of Christianity, Quaker Spring may be a challenge. We do not draw circles to define who is in and who is out. For some liberal Friends it may be a challenge as well, because the love of Jesus is indisputably and joyfully the foundation stone for many who come.

Quaker Spring is intended for those who are willing to go deeper than words, to set aside judgment for a time, and simply experience God’s mercy. “For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust,” as Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” If perfection consists in blessing the just and unjust equally, what possible excuse can I have for trying to decide who belongs in the flock I find myself at rest with? Why not just come together for a time in contentment and humility, to see what Spirit has to teach us?

God’s invitation to us. So Quaker Spring is open to everyone. Come if you are weary, or thirsty, or lost, or full of the joy of spiritual discovery and longing to share. During this week there will be time enough and time to spare. As Kenyan Friends like to say: God is good (All the time); All the time (God is good).