I was a bookworm when I was growing up. Early in my high school years, I met a fictional Quaker character in the pages of the inspirational novel by Catherine Marshall, Christy. Everything I knew about Quakers up until that point had been found in the pages of history textbooks. Catherine Marshall wrote her Quaker character, Alice Henderson, as remarkably warm, wise, nurturing and loving. Dedicated to social justice, she could see beauty even in the lives of people living in harsh conditions. She was one of my favorite fictional characters.
I loved stories about nuns, too, but not being Catholic, I suspect it was mostly because their cool cloisters and limited worldly contacts represented a means of escaping my mother. My mother's Church of Christ faith as she practiced it was designed to leverage and control through shame and guilt. Although the nuns I met in novels dealt with a pretty fair share of guilt, I figured they had been universally blessed by not having to deal with my mother. For that reason alone, their closed world appealed to me.
Ironically, I made my first Quaker contact due to the insistence of my mother. She had given me an ultimatum: a year at Cincinnati Bible College, or take to the street. So I was coerced into meeting my first Quaker, a spiritual companion who has introduced me to more spiritual freedom and showed me more of God's mysterious ways than anyone else in my life.
I didn't hide my unhappiness about being forced to attend Bible College once I got there. Others around me liked to argue with me about how lucky I was to be born into a "good Christian family" and shame me for how little I appreciated it. For the most part the guys on campus had no relationship with me other than as target practice, with me being the bulls eye for their evangelistic efforts. Yet even before I claimed a relationship with Christ, Richard and I had developed a solid, deepening companionship built on mutual respect and equality.
Quakerism is said to be caught, not taught. That means we learn it by example from those who are already experienced in it, not from didactic teaching. Just having close ongoing conversations with a practicing Quaker can provide experiences that can draw a non-Quaker into beginning a spiritual journey. So the Quaker Journey began for me, as it so often does, with the first Quaker I met in real life in the late summer of 1974. His name was Richard Wayne Mullins.
By contrast, the first Quaker Richard himself had met was his mother, Neva Lewis Mullins. Not only did she provide an example to Richard of how Quakers act, think, talk and pray, she also chipped in an entire half of his DNA descending from Quaker forefathers. As Richard noted, "I really think there is a Quaker gene. . . "
The Inner Light
I don't have much to say about Quaker theology, because there is no fixed, standard set of dogma or teachings all Quakers must adhere to. But there are a few beliefs and values Quakers do tend to hold in common. Our primary belief is that God has given every individual a way to experience the presence of divinity in his or her own heart. Quakers call this the Inner Light. Often the Light acts a guide, much as we describe our conscience. We might compare its effect to the beams of a lighthouse, or the glow of a sunrise, or a lamp before our feet.
Not only do we seek to respond to the light within ourselves, we also look to recognize its effects on others. I couldn't see a literal light when Richard was around, but I saw him treat me as an equal and accept me for who I was--which says, metaphorically, he was "seeing the Inner Light" I have been given. Quakers don't wait for others to meet their conditions or "salvation status"--sometimes a foreign concept to Friends--in order to treat them as equals. His openness to me affirmed my own relationship with God well before I ever became conscious of it, or verbalized it.
Quakers refer to this openness to the Light in others as "answering that of God in every man." It is this belief in the Inner Light--the true light which gives light to all mankind--which forms the basis of the equality we share with all humans.
The Inner Light is a pretty subtle thing and our consciousness of it can be impaired by intrusions from the outside world. To counter these distractions, Quakers regularly get together and worship in silence. This corporate practice transforms us as it builds our awareness of the presence of God within all of us as a group. Silent worship is not intended to remain unbroken, however. We also intend to receive and verbalize messages the Inner Light forms in us during these powerful times of silence.
Compared to more elaborate worship forms or rituals, silent worship has the advantage of being very portable and at times we can be fairly spontaneous with it. It requires only two or more Friends gathered together to have a time of silent worship.
My first experience of silent worship occurred early in our friendship. Sitting in silence, I felt what most first-timers feel--uncomfortable. A lot of negative thoughts flew through my head at once and I hadn't any idea how to shed them. I believe this is because I had become dependent on juggling, manipulating and shifting my thoughts in order to block out the light my spirit knew to be true.
Becoming convinced is a process that happens again and again for Quakers on many levels. I became convinced in two major phases. In the first phase, I learned to acknowledge my relationship with God. In the second phase which followed more than thirty years later, I learned to identify the journey God was leading me on as a Quaker one, and as a result to acknowledge that I needed the support and encouragement of Friends along the way.
Back in 1974, I was Richard's first evangelism project. From my perspective he went a little overboard. Because like all of us, he had both a mother and a father--and they came from different faith traditions--he didn't stop at just the Quaker experience with me, but added his father's Church of Christ conversion attempt on top of it. After all, like everyone on campus but me, he was there to learn to take his place in the Church of Christ ministry.
All freshmen were required to take a course called Apologetics--the defense of the faith--so Richard and I were both studying the same materials at the same time. He knew how to attack just as well as I knew how to rebut, so we put each other through a good, energetic rehearsal of all the points. All of this action and counter-action was taking place on the head level, and my heart was left out of it. It wasn't any more personal to me than playing 500 Rummy, and it got me no closer to God than a card game does.
Richard's songwriting by contrast hit me square in the heart, just as he intended.
We had plenty of peaceful and enlightening discussions on other occasions, but The Inner Light didn't come into Richard's escalating attempts at evangelism at all. I wouldn't let it.
Richard had ceased to attempt to convert me in mid-February of 1975. Perhaps because I no longer had Richard around to fight with, one afternoon in early April I was sitting in silence alone in my dorm room when I became conscious that my fight was with God. Becoming conscious of God was a revelation to me. I realized it meant I was no longer agnostic, as I had claimed. And what was my relationship with God? I was fighting him off. The Light revealed God was infinitely bigger than I was, yet he wasn't threatening me. So I dropped my self-defensive weapons and gratefully allowed myself to be enfolded in the relationship. It was a "be still and know that I am God" moment that filled me with peace.
Richard learned from our experience that arguing about God's existence or intention is not effective in bringing a friend closer to God. Even if you could clear those hurdles effectively, your friend could still simply not want a relationship with God. Yearning is a much better starting point for the spiritual journey, and this is what he aimed to stir up in his songwriting. His assumption that his audience already has a relationship with God puts us all on equal status, and his song itself shares an experience of God with us as a free gift. This is a Quaker approach.
The crisis of my more recent convincement came to me eleven years after Richard's untimely death through an after-death experience of his presence. I learned from Richard that God is love, love is measureless and unconditional, and that fighting love is futile--because love is stronger than death.
The details of this event are recorded in Singing from Silence.
Over time, I began to comprehend that finding the light of God while in Richard's presence was significant. I felt I was being called to follow Jesus in a Quaker spiritual journey, just as Richard was. In 2011, my calling to follow a Quaker path was confirmed by Friends who made up my clearness committee for membership in Friends Community Meeting, Cincinnati, where I had attended for several years.
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Here is a sample of Richard's songwriting, with its assumption of the audience's preexisting relationship with God. He is in a moment of transformation in this song, which he writes from first person so we can empathize and share in his experience of God. Convincement is a process that continues and repeats as it deepens our spiritual journey. There are many words or labels for the action of turning toward Jesus. Quakers describe the experience as being convinced.