The Odd Man at the Dinner Party

When I first began attending Quaker meeting 16 years ago, I quickly noticed a notable absence. Sunday after Sunday would pass (or First Day after First Day, as the Quakers insisted on calling it) without a mention of Jesus. I mean, Quakers were Christians, weren’t they? It was as if he had dropped down a rabbit hole somewhere in the Quaker past to be replaced by – well, nothing. There was no central figure, no icon, no rallying point. I brought the subject up with the folks that I figured were the “weighty Friends” and received a set of thoroughly unsatisfactory answers, all equally vague and non-committal: “teacher,” “model,” “significant religious figure,” or (my favorite) “metaphor.” No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t flush out anyone who would give the stock answer: “Divine Son of God who was born to a virgin and died on the cross to atone for my sins and then was resurrected from the dead to sit on the right hand of God until such time as he returns to judge the quick and the dead.” I mean, that’s the right answer, isn’t it? The one that, at the very least, would get you a gold star from the sweet Sunday School teacher – or, more to the point, save you from a miserable fiery eternity if you would just sign on to this version of the Christ story. Eternal damnation, fire and brimstone, or its alternative, wafting around forever on a cloud sporting a pair of wings and plucking a harp didn’t appear to be part of the Quaker way.

Frankly, this was a big relief, but I remained disconcerted by the generally Quakerly discomfort with Jesus to whom I took to referring as “the odd man at the Quaker dinner party.” He was there if you looked for him, sitting at the far end of the table, sort of awkwardly squeezed in. Most of the other guests were happy to make small talk with him, but no one really wanted to engage with him in any serious way, particularly since some of the guests were determined to ignore him altogether. Poor Jesus. “I’ll talk to you,” I would squeak inwardly. “I still care.”

Of course, I came to Quakerism fairly unmolested spiritually. Unlike many people who cross the Meetinghouse threshold, I was not a member of the walking wounded who had been chewed up and spat out by their previous faith communities (or at least by those brethren in charge of their previous faith communities). Born with a fairly big “God gene,” I had thus far enjoyed a fairly riveting walk through a number of religious venues – transcendentalism as expressed in “Little Women,” born-again-ism (more than once), transcendental meditation, Mormonism, a brief dabble in Buddhism-lite. All of this my resolutely non-religious family bore with fairly good grace even though I think they found me a little odd and occasionally a real pain in the butt. (“No, I won’t give Grandpa his Scotch at 6 because it goes against my religious principles.”) I enjoyed all of these sortees and came away pretty positive about all of it even if I couldn’t permanently swallow the whole tamale.

By the time I came to Quakerism, I had been off the path for about a decade, getting married, having children, and, shall we say, worshiping at the shrine of Bacchus. But children have a bad habit of getting one thinking about stuff other than the next good time. For reentry into the religious life, I took them to the local Methodist church. Everything a family could want – good people, nice minister who didn’t look as if he was going to demand anything scary, terrific youth program. Except I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t serve up the usual Christian boilerplate to my children and look them in the eye and say, “It’s all true.” So I asked my Quaker friend Catherine to take me to Meeting with her. I loved the idea of Quakers. Peaceful, serene, emanating, no doubt, a faintly ethereal glow powered by all of that brotherly love. Also, unusual and vaguely exotic, which I considered a plus. And if I wanted a spiritual path devoid of Christian boilerplate this was definitely it. So why did I feel so bereft at the absence of Jesus?

Posted by Patricia Barber at Head Upon a Stone.

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