"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you". John 15:15
"If you meet me in the road, kill me." Buddha to his disciples
I remember an evening years ago on the porch of my Quaker meeting house in Maryland, discussing Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. A well-respected Quaker said she couldn't decide her opinion of the book. Why not, we asked? She would have to meet Thomas Kelly first, she said, and evaluate the man before she could evaluate his work.
This, I think, lies at the heart at what encourages Quaker "poniness." A Quaker "pony"--pony rhymes with another word--is someone who professes more than he or she possesses, someone who pretends.
Poniness particularly stabs at the heart of Quakerism because we stake so much on integrity. Much of our identity lies in plain speaking and honest acting, saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We strive to be the same inside as out.
But in a faith group that levels hierarchy, that has no paid priesthood and no accepted path to ordination that sets some apart as leaders and sages, we face the same problem as the Friend who didn't know what to think of Thomas Kelly: How do we decide who to emulate? Whose wisdom should we trust and follow? How do we find our elders, mentors, and wise counselors?
In absence of other criteria, it often comes down to personality and presentation. Who presents best as a Quaker? Which person seems like one of us? Who most conforms to our image of what a wise or weighty Quaker should be?
If you have been around Quakers any length of time, you know how a wise, weighty Friend is supposed to look, dress and sound. Weighty Friends speak in a quiet voice, reflecting the peace inside their souls. (How many times do elderly Friends have to ask weighty Friends to speak up?) Weighty Friends are serious and filled with gravitas. They speak slowly. They support the right kind of causes, preferably heavily tilted toward the ecological and social justice. They use the right language of Light, Peace and Love. They clerk Quaker committees. Ideally, they show up to conferences in a Priuses--or having hiked or biked with their tent in tow and wearing all natural fabrics.
Woe to the woman who wears too much makeup. Woe to the man who drives up in a Cadillac or talks too fast. Woe to John Woolman when he showed up in a white hat when white hats were disdained as a worldly fashion statement. His fellow Quakers condemned him on appearances, although he was following the simplicity testimony.
When everything rides on how you outwardly present, the temptation to become a "pony" can become intense.
But how do we discern our mentors and elders if not by how they present--doesn't the mature soul in touch with the Divine Source shine outward like a light? Yes--and so do ponies.
At a conference I recently attended, someone came into a workshop all aglow and announced with great excitement she had just found a new "mentor" to "guide her." The mentor, I thought, looked very much like her. Is she creating an echo chamber, I wondered, surrounding herself with people who mirror back herself? How, after all, at the end of a one-day workshop could she know the soul--really know the soul--of a person she'd just met? Wasn't she responding, however sincerely, to an appearance?
Herein lies the real issue: should we be looking for elders or mentors at all? Some might rise up naturally to fill that role--but should we be seeking these people or trying, self-consciously, to be that person? After all, didn't Jesus himself explicitly shed that role? Didn't he tell his disciples, in plain language, don't look to me as master or mentor, but look to me as a friend? Didn't he say he had already given the disciples-- us-- what they/we needed? Didn't Buddha command his own followers to do essentially what Jesus enacted: If you see me in the road, kill me? Jesus let himself be killed. Buddha commanded, "kill me."
Jesus said treat me as a friend, not a superior. Don't we need to pay attention to what he was trying to communicate?
Both Jesus and Buddha told people to be real. "I have called you friends" is simply a continuation of Jesus' admonition that his disciples not be constantly jockeying for position. To jockey for position almost inevitably leads us to become ponies. Because in the end, humbling as it might be, we're really not better than anyone else.
I admit to a certain weariness in attending Quaker events where people either try to be elders or hunt out elders. We border at times perilously close to a cult of personality. How much desperately needed wisdom and guidance do we miss because we spend too much time evaluating what "we" think of person A, instead of listening to what that person has to say? What if Thomas Kelly actually had been a jerk: Does that mean God couldn't use him as a messenger? Mightn't we have been called on the love him all the more?
The real secret hidden in plain sight is that we all fail and soar at times. No one can possibly be an elder every single of second of his life and nobody who relies wholly on another human can fail to be disappointed.
But we can all be friends.