This year’s Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, the eighth such gathering of women from various branches of Quakerism, carried me several steps further on the path of letting go of the assumptions that distance me from the rich diversity within the Society of Friends. The epistle from the conference (follows this post) expresses well the collective experience of the sixty women who worshipped, discussed, sang, and prayed with a focus on the theme, “Walk With Me: Mentors, Elders, and Friends.” Through my writing, I’m exploring what the conference meant for me.
My introduction to Quakerism nearly thirty years ago was through the unprogrammed tradition. Like so many other convinced Friends, quite soon after attending my first meeting for worship, I had a sense of having found my spiritual home. And, just like many Quakers I’ve met, I was a refugee from a church (Missouri Synod Lutheran for me) that I felt couldn’t tolerate my questions and beliefs about God and faith. For me, the Religious Society of Friends was a place that not only tolerated, but also encouraged my seeking to understand my own spiritual path. A community that didn’t claim to have all the answers and that didn’t require that I adhere to a prescribed set of beliefs “spoke to my condition.” When I discovered there were evangelical Friends with churches and ministers and missionaries, I was surprised. For years I assumed that branch of Quakerism didn’t have anything to do with me or my faith journey.
Slowly, I began to open myself to the possibility that, despite differing forms of worship and beliefs, there was much common ground among these varieties of Friends. Not long after my son participated in the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage in 1998, I started to hear about a group of women from Friends churches and meetings in Portland, OR who were getting together regularly to bridge the differences among them (their history is told eloquently in Pendle Hill Pamphlet #323, “An Experiment in Faith – Quaker Women Transcending Differences,” by Margery Post Abbott). When I learned they had expanded the conversation among women throughout the Pacific Northwest through a Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, I was intrigued, but intimidated. What did I know about theology? I was still brimming with questions about God, Jesus, Spirit, faith, and what I was called to do in life. I assumed that the women who went to this conference had all of the answers and that those from the evangelical branch would try to impose their beliefs on me. But I remained intrigued and grew in openness to the experience as I watched trusted women F/friends venture into this experiment.
Finally, in 2004, I mustered the courage to attend the conference and felt welcomed into a community of faithful, seeking women. I served on the planning committee for the 2006 conference; missed the conference in 2008 due to schedule conflicts; and returned for this year’s gathering June 16-20 (http://pnwquakerwomen.org/wordpress/). At each conference I’ve found a safe haven to explore my own beliefs and to learn from others as they explore theirs. I’ve been especially drawn to the conference’s use of narrative theology, that is, personal stories of faith expressed in reflection papers that participants share with each other, as a way to integrate our experiences and our understanding. Much of my own narrative theology revolves around finding the vocabulary to describe my faith experience; it’s through wrestling with words that I become more clear about what I believe. The conference is a place I can see how some of this faith vocabulary—God, Jesus, calling, ministry, mystery, Spirit—feels on my tongue and reverberates in my ears. The conference is a place I let go of my assumptions of what those words mean to others and where I trust people let go of assumptions of what those words mean to me.
This year, in particular, it didn’t matter to me which tradition the women I met are from, and I didn’t feel a need to name my affiliation when I met someone new. What did matter, and what nourished me, were the many opportunities we had to share the variety of ways in which we experience the presence of God in our lives.
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Blogging experiment update – One woman led a workshop at the conference about blogging, and of course I signed up. I learned a few more “tech-y” things like how to find out how many people visit my blog, and another woman helped me set it up through Google Analytics. I got there by “googling” Google Analytics, and my friend prompted me about how to set it up for my blog; I don’t know how well I would have done on my own, but I think it’s fairly self-explanatory. Now I can monitor how many people visit my blog whether they comment or not. I’m not sure what that will tell me, but I’m curious.