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This year's Quaker Testimony: Truth

Thursday, September 14, 2017
Middle school students in the Meeting Room 

This school year, Friends School chose “Truth” and “Continuing Revelation” as our testimony for the 2017-18 school year. How does this testimony fit into our understanding of the SPICES as Quaker testimonies? Allow me to explain.

I tell this story almost every year when I talk to my third-grade students about Quaker testimonies. The weekend before first grade began for my daughter, Maddy, and her classmates, the families gathered together at a playground. The park was lively that day, with more than a few parties. The Friends School kids were on the structure that spins around, and a smaller child tried to join them. A Friends School student yelled, “Go back to your own party!” and the smaller child sulked away.

Maddy was one of the kids on that structure, and I pulled her aside. I asked her, “How do you think that child felt? What do you think you could have said or done?” Maddy replied, “Well, I whispered to myself, ‘Don’t say that. The kid might cry.’”

It was in this moment that I realized Integrity by itself is not enough. Maddy is (as I also am) called and challenged to couple Integrity with Courage. And so it is also not enough that SPICES (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship) be our only testimonies.

"Truth is rooted in Integrity...It is not to be found in religious textbooks or Quaker books of discipline, but it is grounded in a living faith and experience of the present moment. It is the basis for the Quaker testimonies."

Don’t get me wrong, I love the SPICES. I love how they are compact and succinct. I use them when explaining Quakerism to my chiropractor (or anyone else asking about Quakerism), and I relied on them heavily during my first ten years here at San Francisco Friends School.

But what I have come to understand is that SPICES and Quaker testimonies are not one and the same. There is a story from the Shurangama Sutra, an essential Buddhist text, in which a monk points to the moon and says that you won’t see the moon if you look at the finger. Paul Buckley (to whom I credit the vast majority of the preceeding information), a Quaker historian and theologian, relayed this allegory during a sermon at South Central Yearly Meeting in 2012. He used this metaphor as he speaks about the Quaker Testimonies: the finger being the SPICES, and the moon being the Testimonies.

The SPICES are actually a relatively recent invention. In the early days of Quakerism, testimonies were proscriptive: against tithes, against all swearing, etc. The origins of the SPICES can be found in Howard Brinton’s text, A Guide to Quaker Practice (1943), where Brinton identifies Community, Harmony, Equality and Simplicity as four social testimonies. He continues to clarify that these are “oversimplifications” and are “not all-inclusive.” Peace eventually replaces Harmony in this list.

Fast forward to 48 years later, when Wilmer Cooper authors The Testimony of Integrity in 1991. Cooper writes that the testimonies: “Grow out of our inward religious experience and are intended to give outward expression to the leading of the Spirit of God within...” Cooper emphasizes the unity of the testimonies: Truth is rooted in Integrity and “is not grounded in dogma, creeds, abstract philosophical ideas, or theological affirmations. It is not to be found in religious textbooks or Quaker books of discipline, but it is grounded in a living faith and experience of the present moment. It is the basis for the Quaker testimonies.”

Although not at all Cooper’s intent, the “I” in Integrity makes for a convenient addition to Buckley’s testimonies to create the acronym SPICE.

At this point you may be asking, “If the SPICES aren’t the testimonies, then what ARE the testimonies?” I’m so glad you asked!

Traditionally, Quaker testimonies have the following characteristics:

  1. A testimony is something we are called or led to—not something we choose to do on our own. It arises from a relationship with our Inner Light (in third grade, we call that the "small, still voice" we listen for during Meeting for Worship, our “Inner Teacher”).  
  2. A testimony must be something you can testify to; a public behavior.
  3. A testimony must be representative of our entire community (something that all Quakers generally agree upon).
  4. A testimony must be “a cross to the conscience,” or something that calls on us to act outside our comfort zone.

As we begin our year, searching for Truth and Continuing Revelation, consider your personal testimonies. Paul Buckley, during the same South Central Yearly Meeting, ends his sermon: “Here is the Quaker testimony: God speaks to us all and if we each listen, we can hear what we are being called to do. Every one of us has leadings—some big and some small—we just need to listen carefully, discern as well as we can what that still, small voice is saying in our hearts, test what we think we are hearing with our faith community, and act faithfully.”