I collect words. Rather than dolls, coins, stamps or old cars, I gather quotations, descriptions and interesting specimens, delving into their histories when I can, and trying to understand their contemporary uses.
Recently in my reading I came across the sentence, “They were bodacious old men, the lot of them” (in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead). I immediately took to the word bodacious, enjoying the mouth-full-of-pebbles sound it has when said out loud, wondering what “bodacious old men” would be like and if I knew any.
Webster’s to the rescue. I learned that the word combines Latin and Old English roots and probably was a blend of “bold” and “audacious.” Yes, I do know some people like that.
George Fox and other Quaker ancestors come to mind. I love how Fox’s Journal dispels stereotypes of Quakers as silent, passive mystics who wear odd clothes and eat oatmeal. Fox confronted his context full of the energy and prophetic fire of the Spirit. In short, he was bodacious.
Bodacious doesn’t necessarily mean noisy and rude. In its most positive connotation, bodacious Christians are those who have the courage to speak and act, in specific times and places, according to God’s leading.
What are some of the ways contemporary Quakers are (or should be) bodacious? I think of two of our core testimonies: 1) We hold that Jesus as the living Word speaks to us today. (This often, but not always, comes through the Bible, the written word, and is always in accord with biblical teaching.) 2) And we believe that as we follow the Word, God uses us as agents of peace and light in our context.
I teach a doctoral level class to Latin Americans on “Culture, Spirituality and Mission.” (For me, just accepting to teach this class was a risky, bodacious move.) Last year the nine students who gathered in Buenos Aires came from Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Hispanic USA. They also represented as many different denominational traditions.
Class participation is always high and discussions often heated (part of the Latin American learning style). But at one point in last year’s session, I felt the discussion was getting out of hand and decided to introduce the Quaker practice of silence for group discernment. (After all, it was a class on spirituality!) So I called (shouted, actually) the group to order and briefly explained the process.
The reaction was not what I expected. After a short, shocked silence, several students protested with obvious anger. How could I suggest such a thing? Why was I trying to silence them? Was I a facilitator or a dictator? Again I tried to explain, but they weren’t buying it. It became obvious that group silence was not going to work then and there, and we resolved the issue in other ways. Later that day, the Brazilian student, the most passionately expressive of the group, apologized to me for his attitude, at the same time defending the importance of free, heated discussion.
While I agree with him on the value of open expression, including the right to disagree, critique and argue, I also believe that we Friends have certain insights and practices that would be of service to the greater church in learning to listen to God. And I believe there are ways to include God in our discussions, no matter how controversial. (Yearly Meeting sessions are great training grounds!)
This year, as I teach the same course in Lima, I plan to prepare the class ahead of time for the possibility of “a spiritual experiment in group discernment.” Maybe then my call to silence in the middle of conflict will not seem quite so bodacious.
Peace-making in today’s world is a bodacious enterprise, whatever form it takes. It requires humility and the mercy of God. Let us live ever alert to the voice of Jesus in all the contexts and situations in which we find ourselves. And then let us act and speak in ways that are appropriately (sometimes quietly) bold and audacious. For the glory of God and peace on earth.
(First published in Quaker Life, August 2007)