SOME YEARS AGO I attended a Quaker conference where a Friend from Evangelical Friends International (EFI) delivered a paper. When he finished, the first question came from a man sitting behind me from Friends United Meeting. ‘What’s all that got to do with Quakerism?’, he asked pointedly. The lecturer was a little shocked and puzzled because, after all, he was talking about the Quaker way—his EFI way.
Later, in conversation with the two Friends it struck me that the ‘mundane’ things we shared were themselves vital to God. They made up important parts of our lives, each of which, after all, was made ‘in God’s image’. If we could communicate successfully on these levels why not more effectively on the inner level?
I guess there are lots of answers to that question but for me one stands out: we often miss something common to us all, a kind of inner voice. We miss it because it’s kind of hidden. Yet we instinctively know it’s there, inherently within and among us. This ‘something’ waits to be unveiled to become our conduit to a greater understanding of each other and, hopefully, unity among us all. So what conduit or inner voice, what ‘something’ am I talking about?
The answer is the ‘Kingdom of God’, and this is how the story goes . . .
George Fox and Friends accused the Church of being ‘in apostasy since the apostles’ days.’ They meant that the Church had not only failed – since the fall of the Temple (c.70 CE) – to live the Kingdom that was within and among ‘all people’, but was still acting contrary to it. The Church had thus robbed the Sermons on the Mount and Plain, and the Beatitudes, of their religious authority and political potency. The inevitable outcome was physical violence on a massive scale. Only now are modern theologians catching up with the Quakers’ accusation which was, in effect, an indictment of the Church with crimes against God and humanity.
The Kingdom was the Quakers’ central and passionate focus as it was for Jesus. It was their inspiration. Of over 800 tracts out of 1,000 published between 1652 (the year of their first known published work) and 1663, a minimum of 90% centred on the Kingdom.
They claimed to have re-discovered it for their own times and for all time. It was their common language in word and deed, and it forged an incredible bond of love among them. I’ve counted 40 alternative names they used for the Kingdom like ‘Covenant of Peace’. James Nayler called it the ‘Garden of God’.
Early Quaker language was fluid; word meanings and even names sometimes flowed into each other. So the following equation helps us better understand the ‘Garden’:
Kingdom (the ‘Garden’ etc.)=the Light=the Christ=the Spirit=Love=the Word=Truth=
the Jesus Way=’Primitive’ Christianity=the Way of the Kingdom
In the ‘Garden’ we can plant seeds, prune this and that, create compost, improve the soils, grow food and enjoy ourselves. We can spread the word about the ‘Garden’ either by letting our lives speak or being vocal about it. In our quiet moments we can wonder mindfully around the ‘Garden’. And in its silence we can think of those we love, past and present, or those we have hurt or who have hurt us. We can forgive and cherish them. And we can give thanks to the still, small Voice that created the ‘Garden’ that we can always improve.
Fretting about the ‘Garden’ is useless. It’ll get messy come what may—that’s life; we get out of synch. Prayerfully we can tidy it up without rushing. Know also that to this ‘Garden’ all may come if they want to share our dreaming, if they wish to be authentically a part of it. Such authenticity is really important if we desire a fruitful and lasting time with them in this ‘Eden’ we share with God. In our welcoming, we will trust and think the best of them, assume they will do the right thing. It is vital to be open and vulnerable in the ‘Garden’.
This is a ‘place’ where worry can be faithlessness but where something is certain—it is a ‘place’ where wonderful work is always done, the active work of spreading peace, equality, justice and compassion, all in an atmosphere of truth and simplicity. This ‘Garden’ is now and not just a future dream.
We can carry the ‘Garden’ around with us in heart and mind as we follow the Jesus Way enunciated on the Mount or Plain. In fact, we can do ourselves a big favour by reading the Sermons in Matthew and Luke. They are the most revolutionary and subversive literature in human history. You see, they and the ‘Garden’ are the Voice of God (as the first Friends said), our Loving Presence. They are the voice of true religion, the voice that resides in the very structures of our humanity. They are the voice that ever speaks to our condition. Therefore such a voice is the voice of true Quakerism as it breaks down the barriers we alone erect between ourselves, and hence between God and ourselves.
This is what, fundamentally, sin is—separation from Love.
The ‘Garden’ also propels us to ask three challenging questions:
‘Who are we?
‘What are we doing?’
‘Where are we going?
It compels us to discuss our commonalities, successes, things we don’t do very well. But also our joys, fears, sorrows, hurts, memories of fun and laughter, triumphs and, importantly, our ideas for the flourishing of our precious Religious Society. And it compels us to reach beyond it to a hurting world.
In tending the ‘Garden’, the Kingdom, we will grow our faith, our discipleship. We will create and enjoy together its ‘pure language of the Spirit’, as early Quaker Richard Farnworth called it, to forge a common prophetic and life-giving endeavour of the Divine Voice. We will be its voice, its seedbed and conduit.