Ben Pink Dandelion reflects on life as a Quaker, and how it
challenges and affirms
HOW ARE WE CALLED TO LIVE OUR LIVES AS PEOPLE OF FAITH in a
world that besets us with material temptations, yet at the same
time can overwhelm us with humanity's injustices? It is a journey
of continual tension, calling for daily discernment, and may work
best if we can find ourselves part of a spiritual community.
Before I was a Quaker, I was an anarchist. I lived at a peace
camp near Warrington, was an ardent vegan and then fruitarian, had
a brightly-coloured hairstyle and changed my name to protest at the
way the father's name was always passed down and not the mother's.
I was an atheist and all I did was 'for the cause', with little
sense of compassion and empathy for those with different views.
Everything was clear. I was at the centre of my universe.
Think of Quakers and it may conjure up pacifism or prison reform
or perhaps porridge. I started attending Quaker meetings after
realising that the revolution was probably not going to take off in
England. I still wanted to work with a group of people who appeared
to want to change the world. I became an activist Quaker, finding
kindred spirits amongst pacifist Quakers in a leaderless group that
didn't take votes. It felt a little like my anarchist group.
However, a year later, after an experience of being held by God
whilst on a bus journey across America (an unbidden sense of divine
accompaniment that has remained with me ever since), everything
looked different. I began to understand the home I had found as a
peace protester in spiritual and theological terms. Thirty years
on, I am still in the honeymoon period!
The Quaker faith is founded, to my mind, on four key ideas. The
first is that we can encounter God directly without the mediation
of minister or text. Second, because of this, we need to be
committed to discernment, to know when something really is from
God, not just from our imagination. Third, we have developed ways
of worshipping to try and nurture this sense of encounter. For
Quakers in Britain, that means using silence and stillness to
cultivate our experience of God; absence leads to a sense of
presence. Fourth, we are led out into the world to try and change
it. An encounter with God leads to transformation; we are
transformed in order to transform.
This is where it can get difficult. How are we to make the right
choices? How are we to know when to act as prophets or as
reconcilers, as outlaws or citizens? Quakers in Britain today are
strong on the idea of the spiritual life being about seeking. We
are clear we do not have the whole picture about God and have a
strong sense of unfolding revelation. At the same time, eg on
issues of war and equality, we have an historic witness which
continues today. We are probably clearer on ethics than theology.
But in daily life, how are we to live and how are we to decide how
to live? It is almost as if we need a 24-hour discernment group
(what we call a 'clearness committee' in the Quaker tradition).
While we feel we seek the will of God in our worship, it is not
always easy to stay in that place of encounter in everyday life, to
remain as mystics in the midst.
We can try, however. We can become practised at knowing how it
feels when we have been faithful, when we have been rightly led.
For me there is usually a release of energy, a lightening of the
load. Sometimes consequences just fall into place. We know the gift
of the Spirit viscerally.
Sometimes the decision is harder. Here I have found the Amish
test useful: 'does this action build community?' Using that as a
guide, I have come to good choices in which I have been able to set
self aside and put my family or my Meeting or my wider community
first (not buying the classic car that would put us into debt just
because I wanted it). Sharing these dilemmas in our faith
communities is invaluable. Getting to know each other in the things
that are material as well as eternal means we can help each other
along in all our concerns and challenges. Together we can resist
the consumerism that places us in competition with each other or
contributes to climate injustice and hardships faced by those in
What of the world's ills? We are to play our part and not just
sit back. But for me, the clue to getting the balance right between
resistance and burn-out is to focus on the phrase 'our part'. We
are not to save the world alone. We are dispensable, even as we are
precious children of God. We need to do what we can when we can,
but also understand what is ours to do. From 1 Corinthians 12, we
can understand that we all have different Spirit-given gifts. It is
helpful to know what these are and to work with what God has given
us as our unique ministry. For some, it may be to coordinate a
campaign; for someone else, it may be to publicise a meeting or get
the chairs ready. All gifts are equally important. We are all
equally children of the light of Christ, whatever our role and
however public that role may be.
Let's seek God's transformation in our lives so that we can, in
turn, help to transform the world, playing our part, discerning
continually and, ideally, supported by a community who are all
trying to do the same. My experience of an accompanied life means
for me that we can achieve whatever God is calling and leading us
to do. As we lend our hands to God, we are never alone.