Nurturing ministers: Case study #2

01/07/2019 § 2 Comments

Case Study #1 (here) dealt with an experience of Isaac Alexander, a young minister who was a friend of Samuel Bownas’s.  As we shall see in a future case study, the two young men were friends but also felt themselves close companions in the ministry.

Thus, Samuel took Isaac’s experience of concern and eldering very seriously, as he recounts:

When I heard of this affair, I took it so much to heart that it was almost too much for me, and a concern came upon me to go to London with the like message, but with this caution; first, to advise with some faithful brethren before I delivered it: and I wrote to Isaac to let him know it, which gave him great ease.

Isaac’s vision of a “great mortality” as punishment for the nation’s unfaithfulness reflected a sentiment then growing among Friends that people, especially Friends, were “degenerating” — falling away from the righteousness of former times. Young Friends at this time, indeed, would have had parents or grandparents who’d suffered in the great storms of persecution of the 1660s-1680s.  A few of the First Publishers of Truth would have been known or knowable to Isaac (born 1680) and Samuel (born 1676) — William Dewsbury died in 1688, Fox in 1691, and John Burnyeat and Stephen Crisp about the same time;  George Whitehead and Margaret Fell were still living.

Compared with the heroic age of the movement, Quakers around 1700 were able to drowse if so inclined (and Samuel himself was an example of this in his youth).  Some concerned Friends who saw and deplored this shift in spiritual temper responded with an increasing emphasis on right practice, on community accountability and oversight. Straighten up, Friends, and fly right! *

This call for rigor might well have resonated powerfully with young Friends longing for the experience of the Spirit’s power.  If a respected companion (in this case Isaac)  found their concern crystallizing in a mood of prophetic warning, this might well strike another young Friend  (Samuel) as a fresh realization of the truth of the situation, a truly prophetic challenge.

Samuel was nothing if not level-headed and reflective, however.  He felt the leading strongly enough that he was drawn to move with it.  He wrote to Isaac (who was abiding under the guidance of his meeting, but did not see that he was wrongly led), to let him know that his friend seemed led in a similar way — but mindful of Isaac’s experience, he decided to consult more experienced Friends first, before crying Woe! on London.

Accordingly I went to London, and got sundry brethren together, viz. James Dickinson, John Bowstead, Peter Fearon**, Benjamin Bangs, Robert Haydock, and some others, and gave them a plain and honest account how it came upon me, which was not till after I heard how my dear companion was returned home from Bristol; adding, that I had acquainted Isaac how it was with me, that he might know my sympathy with him.

Often, when Bownas refers to “the brethren,” he means ministers.  This list of advisors is all ministers, and some of them (Dickinson, Fearon) came to Friends and public service during the times of persecution.  They would have had long experience with the challenge of discernment that all Friends know, but which is particularly sharp for the minister.  On the one hand, it is important not to do anything to damage people’s faith in the gospel, by extravagance or the indulging of strictly personal impulses (How often did ministers quote, to themselves or others, passages such as “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran; I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jer 23:21)

On the other hand, a minister must always be ready to be sent on an errand of a different kind than they have been given before, that may be a stretch and a sign of new growth — and discomfort to both the speaker and the hearer may (or may not!) be evidence of Truth striking home.  You have to bear in mind the temptation not to rock the boat, to listen to the voices of ease that “say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.”  (Is. 30).

So these experienced ministers would know the dilemma that Samuel was encountering (self or the Spirit?), and the many possible sources of a message — and would regard it both with rigor and with sympathy, taking care that the young minister’s growth not be harmed by ill-doing or by unfair or harsh rebuke — and also that Friends and society at large not be harmed by a mistaken Cassandra.  The warning Samuel was feeling nudged to give might, of course, be just what is needed, a mark of God’s concern for an erring people.  But how to tell the true from the false leading?

The Friends… found there was a strong sympathy between us, and very justly supposed that to be the moving, if not the only, cause of the concern I was under, and very tenderly advised me to keep it in my own breast till I found how the Lord would order it; for, if he were the author, I should find more of it; if not, it would die of course [i.e. in due course]: but if I found it grew upon me, I should let any of them know it, and they would consider what steps to take in a matter of so great consequence, as going forth in a prophecy of that nature.

The guidance the brethren was designed both to address the question on point (“Shall I go prophecy an impending divine punishment or not?”) and to help Samuel understand some of the dimensions of the challenge of boldness vs. meekness that is the living minister’s lot.  Sympathy between ministers was a well-known phenomenon, and often it was a source of strength and daring, but it could also be a source of mistakes, if the F(f)riends happen to reinforce each others’ wrong ideas.

They brought the leading to the test that Gamaliel recommends in Acts 5:

if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought. But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.

In other words, they recommended watchful patience.  Hugh Barbour, in his tract “Five tests for discerning a true leading” (you can get it here), writes:

Patience. As a second test, elders warned Friends to sit with their leadings for a while in patience. Self-will is impatient of tests. Fox wrote, “Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, keep your minds unto God . . . If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying.”

The story does not end with the giving of advice.  They kept watch with the young minister, so as to support his discernment:

the fatherly kindness they shewed me was very affecting to me, one or other of them making it their business to visit me every day; and, as they said, I found the concern went off, and I became easy without publishing it.

The Quaker journals in many places point out the danger that can come of encouraging a Friend to “come along” faster than they are ready to, to take on more responsibility or status than they have yet grown into (as John Griffith said, the effect on him, in his early ministry was to make him like a tree that grows too much in the crown, with too little in the root).  On the other hand, you don’t want to thwart the work of the Spirit, and harm someone’s service (“A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench.” Is. 42).  So patience and watchfulness are virtues as important for the community as for the individual.  As Lewis Benson wrote, “the work of the ministry is real work” — for the meeting as well as the individual.

It is probably not coincidental that Samuel Bownas, treated with direct and sensitive guidance in his infancy as a minister, carried all his life a tender concern to encourage other ministers, so that their service was as helpful, wholesome, living,  as possible.

I conclude this long meditation with a few lines from William Penn:

my beloved and much honoured brethren in Christ, that are in the exercise of the ministry:  Oh! feel life in your ministry — let life be your commission, your well-spring and treasury… else you well know, there can be no begetting to God, since nothing can quicken or make people alive to God, but the life of God; and it must be a ministry in and from life, that enlivens any people to God. …and Oh! that there were more of such faithful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord! Never more need since the day of God. 


  • * It occurs to me to wonder if this appeal to orthopraxy has anything in common with the widespread idea nowadays (at least among liberal Friends) that it is Quaker practices that are  our unifying characteristic, rather than our faith, in a time of pluralism and confusion. Is this our Stillstand?
  • ** Peter Fearon was the husband of another valued minister, Jane Fearon. She features in the strange episode entitled “A memorable instance of divine guidance and protection,” in which she and James Dickinson (note his presence in Samuel’s story) were nearly captured and cannibalized in the wilds of Scotland.  I will post the story soon, though an exciting version can be found in L. V. Hodgkin’s
    Sparks among the stubble, a companion to her Book of Quaker Saints.

Library: J.W. Rowntree “A study in ecclesiastical polity”

01/03/2019 § 2 Comments

I am starting to add new things to Amor Vincat‘s Library page, and I hope (once again!) that this will become a more regular feature of this blog.  The next several additions will draw from the Victorian Quaker authors that were formative for me, and that I think still offer important food for thought. Here’s one from John Wilhelm Rowntree.

Leading British Friends in the 19th and early 20th centuries took a keen interest in the developments in American Quakerism – the separations of 1827, 1845, and after; the various efforts at re-unification or association such as the Richmond Declaration, the Five Years Meeting, and Friends General Conference; and the evolution of practice going on in most groups.

The new, liberal leaders were aided, and perhaps inspired, by the advent of Rufus Jones, who found a deep kinship with these contemporaries (some of them younger than he).  Jones brought to his British contacts a kindred desire to renew the Quaker voice, and the ministry, for the times (post-Darwin, globalizing, Social Gospel, and so on), fed by his experience in Quaker ecumenism, and his growing study of Christian mysticism and modern psychology (think William James, not Sigmund Freud).   Some of the British Friends of that generation spent considerable time among American Friends, trying (to use John Woolman’s words) to understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them.

John WIlhelm Rowntree (1868-1905) was one of these. His studies of the American scene were shaped by his belief that one of the causes of Quakerism’s decline was the decline of the ministry. In this, he was joined by most of his contemporaries, and some of their elders (such as Rowntree’s uncle, John Stephenson R., from whom we shall hear in future).  He was therefore fascinated by the American experiments with leadership, and the rise of the pastoral system with all its complexities.  In parallel with those experiments, and in part stimulated by them, British Friends were doing their own experiments.  Some of these sound rather like things some modern Friends (for example in New England) are doing for outreach.  (See here and here for example.)

Rowntree in this essay reflects on American developments (around the turn of the last century), on their potential value, and their congruence with his own understand of the Quaker message.  His tone is respectful, sympathetic, open-minded, but judicious.  I encourage you to read it and discuss it — here on the comments, or amongst your friends.

NOTE:  In past Library posts, I have not succeed in inserting a link from this page to the item in question, so please go to my Library, and look for the piece there.

Nurturing ministers, Case study #1

12/28/2018 § 5 Comments

Case Study #1: Isaac Alexander predicts a great mortality

My first case study is drawn from the Journal of Samuel Bownas.  Early in his ministry, which began around 1696, Samuel Bownas developed a strong sense of kinship with Isaac Alexander (1680-1705), who “appeared in the ministry” about the same time as Bownas did.  Bownas’s journal portrays them learning about their work in the ministry, and comparing notes with each other.

In Bownas’s account, early in their ministry, Isaac goes to a “yearly meeting” (see here for some background on this term), and finds himself led to offer challenging ministry. He forthrightly accused them of slackness and unfaithfulness. This message in itself might have been unsettling or irritating, but would not have been unusual, as Friends since the Toleration act (1689) had responded to the (mostly) end of persecution by building lives and doing business, and the militancy of prior years faded.  Isaac, however, felt led to predict that continued unfaithfulness would bring on calamity, and Bristol Friends were taken aback.

Isaac [Alexander] went to Bristol yearly meeting, and was very zealous against unnecessary fashions and superfluities in both sexes; insomuch, that some thought he did, in his words against them, exceed the bounds of modesty:the chief objection was, concerning his prophesying of a great mortality, which the Lord was about to bring as a judgment upon the people, for their pride and wickedness; which he thought it his duty to deliver in their yearly-meeting, as a warning for all to mind their ways, lest being taken unprepared, their  loss should be irreparable: which he did in such strong and positive terms, that Friends were afraid he was too much exalted in himself…

The intensity and certitude with which Isaac spoke moved some elders to wonder about the source of the message, and so they undertook to explore the question with Isaac.  Note that they came to him with an attitude of caution, but also of inqury.  What would that conversation have been like?  I imagine that there would bave been a spoken and an unspoken element.

Aloud, they would be asking him questions about the message itself but even more about how he felt before, during, and after the message.  Was there a moment during the preaching when he felt himself pushing beyond what was given to him?  Did he feel any uneasiness when this material arose?  Was he feeling anger, or disdain, or some other judgmental condition, or did he feel rtuly that he was remaining in the cool stream of divine love which should be present at the heart of a message?  When he sat down, did he feel the reward of peace, or did he rather feel some sense of discomfort or rebuke?  Were his answers open, or defensive?

The unspoken part of the conversation would be a careful feeling after the young man’s condition.  They would probably have felt, as Luke Howard wrote about Job Scott, that a minister, espeially a yonug one, might show

a perceptible excess on the side of the imagination and the feelings [as] had been the case with many good and useful men before him: and such a temperament makes a minister faithful, or courageous and energetic in the discharge of duty‚ but in measure disqualifies him from being a competent judge of doctrine and controversies.

Thus, they may well have felt that Isaac was on the whole a promising young minister, in need not of suppression, but of guidance towards a better understanding, and thus usefulness in the important work of the ministry.   They reached clarity that he was not at that time in a safe condition, and that he had wandered from th e leading which brought him to Bristol .  Accrodingly,  they sent him home, no doubt annotating his travel minute or otherwise communicating with the ministers and elders there about their sense of this painful event:

some of the elders thought proper to converse with, and examine him concerning this extraordinary message which he had delivered ; but what he said to them not being satisfactory, they advised him to proceed no farther on his journey, but to return home; which he did under great trouble…

When he got home, interestingly,  Isaac was not in the dog house.  Having returned to the meeting that had care of him, and that had reognized his gift, he took up his life and work as before.

he was there received in much love and tenderness, and appeared in his gift very excellent, and grew in Divine wisdom and power, being of great service in the ministry wherever he came.—

This was a time when the meetings of ministers (increasingly augmented by the addition of elders) would engage in explicit conversations about the ministry offered in the meeting, based on a spirit of watchfulness for the presence of “life” in what was offered.  This, I think, should be inferred in the background from the next episode in the story. Isaac once again felt a leading to travel in the ministry. He spoke to some of the meeting’s elders.  They cautioned him not to go — not  categorically, but not until they could consult with Friends in Bristol.  They examined Isaac again, and heard how the event felt to him, and then wrote to Bristol:

And he having a concern to visit the churches abroad, and acquainting some of our elders therewith, they thought it not proper for him to go, till something was done to satisfy the Friends of Bristol; and upon their enquiry of Isaac, he gave them a  single and honest account how it was with him at that time, respecting his concern : so Friends took it in hand, and wrote to Bristol, neither  justifying nor condemning him, but recommended charity and tenderness towards him.

They would not have “recommended charity and tenderness” if their experience of him in the meeting since his return from Bristol had caused any uneasiness in their minds.  The Bristol Friends returned a message

that with open arms they could receive him, believing him to  be a sincere young man, who intended very well; and they were glad he took their admonition right, and had owned it had been of service to him.

Bownas’s summary of the event is interesting.  Isaac in retrospect at the time he did not think that he had mistaken his leading, at least not in the sense of putting too much of self or misplaced zeal into the warnings he uttered.  Yet he nevertheless felt that Briston Friends had treated him appropriately, and he felt he had been treated well, and trusted their discernment.   In the event, he was settled more firmly in his gift and service.

Thus ended this affair, and Isaac said he could not think hard of his brethren  in doing what he did, though he could not then see that he had missed his way, in delivering that prophecy: thus shewing forth a lively instance of a warm zeal, tempered with a due regard to the sense and advice of his brethren and elders, and the unity of the church, which doubtless tended to his comfort and preservation.

This story has a sequel, which will be the subject of the next case study.  I will note here a few points of interest in conclusion:

  • Isaac was exercising his gift as openly, and we might say passionately, as he could — perhaps pushing boundaries to explore the extent of his capacities at this time.
  • He was not surprised that the elders of the meeting he was visiting exercised oversight of his ministry. The brief account suggests that they were not censorious, but when something made them uneasy, they felt it their place to inquire more attentively.
  • A point to note here is that in the “apostolie era” of Quakerism, public Friends were considered to be members of the meetings they visited. This notion continued into the era of separations later, and alas was abused in the midst of controversy. In our case, however, Isaac did not object that the elders of Bristol would have the same care of him as would those in his home meeting, and the Bristol elders exercised their responsibility.  Their caution suggested some understanding that a visiting minister might bring messages, or speak in a manner, to which they were unaccustomed and in a way that is part of the “point” or benefit of such visits, when done in the Spirit).
  • The “elders” at this time (around 1700) would not necessarily have been “elders” in the sense we know it (that is, occupying a specific, identified office). Perhaps Bristol minutes could provide guidance on this point, but it is likely that the term still had the connotation of someone “well grown in the truth.”
  • Isaac maintained a sense of freedom to follow his calling — there is no sense from the account that he came home and kept silent. He carried on with a ministry that was not abrogated by one possible mistake — but I think that if he had responded to the Bristol elders with disrespect, or if he had returned and spoken in anger or defensiveness, the meeting would have seriously questioned whether in that condition he could rightly discern his way.

In the next case, we will see how this one event had ripple effects in Samuel Bownas’s growth as a minister.

Nuturing ministers: Case studies, Intro

12/24/2018 § 1 Comment

As I am working on a revision of my book on the Quaker ministry, I am revisiting historical accounts of times when a minister was given guidance (eldering, oversight, nurture, discipline).

As part of that work, I will from time to time post “case studies” on this blog. These case studies will certainly be of use to me, as I think about my project, but they may also be of interest to others — both ministers, and those who have a care for them.

For each study, I will examine (at least) the following questions:
• What happened? That is, the sequence of events, and some context (e.g. locale, relevant historical details, biographical notes, etc.).

• Who was involved? This includes who’s telling the story, as well as who the story’s about.

• What was the issue, problem, or occasion for the interaction?

• Who initiated the nurture or eldering? Did the minister request guidance, was it an action of a meeting or a private exchange? Was the guidance coming from a contemporary or someone younger or older? If guidance came from individuals (as opposed to a meeting deliberation), is the “advisor” identified as a minister, an elder, or other?

• What was the result? How did the minister respond? What form did the resolution take?

• Points ot interest or applicability for our time and practice? This is the whole purpose of the exercise, after all!

This series will be occasional — that is, I will write them up from time to time. I look forward to comments and replies, and also to suggestions for further use (or stories about how you have made use of the material).

Finally, if you have a story you’d like me to reflect on, OR if you would like to write up a case to post here as a guest blogger, please get in touch.

Advent 2: Desires

12/16/2018 § 2 Comments

In these days when fewer and fewer people in our country (and many others) adhere to a religion (I include here people who profess a religion but do not actually practice it), we see a lively “explain religion” industry — what is the function of this strange phenomenon?  Some look as deeply as our genes for the physical origins of the religious impulse;  others do not presume to have found or to seek the God Gene, but rather see religion as wish-fulfillment, as a reflection of our fear of death, as an evolved mechanism for social cohesion, as an unfortunate by-product of the human nervous system, or as the familiar old “god of the gaps” — the mysterious X to which is attributed all the stuff that Science has not yet explained.

No doubt there are many cases in which each of these proposed origin myths  “fits” to one degree or another.  I am not qualified to speak about origins.  All I can say is that they don’t describe my experience — and I assume that this is so for very many people across cultures and religions.  I didn’t go looking for it, nor did anyone ever say to me, when I was a child, “Do this to accomplish these ends” — not even “Do this if you want us to think you are a good boy.”  I was free to practice or not, and my family was no more than nominally religious

My experience derives from my experience of the Presence from early childhood.  It has never come at my instigation.   I can be more or less receptive or available to intimations and sensations of that Presence, and I have learned that it is never far away.  It flows “beneath” daily activities, and through them;  feels like something alive and nourishing, demanding and humble, communicative and (almost) incommunicable.

And my religious practice, at bottom, derives from desire,  the desire to stay in that presence, to learn its lessons for me, and to live them as I can — or to regain that sense of Presence, when it has been lost, when I have allowed myself to push that arresting guest or companion into the background.

So I have come to believe that the desire for this awesome, precious presence, is the most important resource for any seeker who is sometimes a finder.  Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst” for the Living Waters, and I think I know what that means, when I keep “low” enough to hear and feel the Word being spoken inwardly, and outwardly from every face, event, plant, animal, landscape, firmament.

The first Friends, those assertive, strenuous, prophetic, fearless children of the Light whose child I also wish to be, knew the power of the yearning and the longing for the Presence, and the joy when it was felt and known — not as fulfilling some function, but as bread and wine, life-blood, and music.

There is no greater resource for you, friend, that the desire for God, whose satisfaction is available to the least “likely.”  God seeks your hospitality, and the lamp that brings you together in the darkness is your longing for the encounter. Mind the hunger, mind the poverty of spirit, mind the child nature that asks with confidence of the Loving One!


To you people the mighty day of the Lord is coming, and in his power is appearing amongst you, in raising desires in some of you towards his name, which desires cannot be satisfied with any outward observations and traditions of your fathers, but above them does your minds rise, in true hunger and thirst towards the living God, for refreshment from his presence…

that is the living word of God within, that has raised desires in you towards God..wait in the light and power within that hath released the desires, and the Lord will then strengthen and give you power to wait on him in the way of his judgments.

To you tender babes and chilldren of the most high, this is the word of the Lord God in whom desires are raised towards his name: his counsel mind in you, and stand faithful in it, according to his word declared to you… in the light and life lift up your heads, and freely give up sould and body to the Lord…to guide you in perfect obedience to his righteous law, written in the heart.

(William Dewsbury, The Mighty Day of the Lord is coming, in which Christ knocks at the door of the heart..)

Waiting, worship: reflection from the first week of Advent 2018

12/09/2018 § Leave a comment

 I beg you, brethren, through the mercies of God, to present your bodies (your selves) a l living, holy, acceptable sacrifice to God, your reasonable worship [or “Wordly” worship]; and do not be shaped according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind towards discovering [demonstrating, testing out] what is God’s intent, good, pleasing, and perfect. Romans 12:1-2.


Advent is about waiting — the experience of longing and expectation for one whom we may barely know, may not recognize at first, may hesitate to give our hearts to:  Are you he that is to come, or look we for another?

Friends always have known that waiting is at the heart of worship in spirit and truth, and that true worship, the place and moment of encounter, is the foundation of the faithfuless in love that we seek.  What are you waiting for, in waiting worship?  Are you, am I, truly waiting?

It is good to ask sometimes whether our waiting, our praying, is profitable, that is, does it keep us moving forward?  Are we changing, in what we do, how we think, how we suffer and rejoice — and even in how we wait?   After all, worship which is a true encounter with the living God was maybe the single most important witness Friends made, at the beginning.

But what is “forward”? Shall we dare to ask each other, tell each other, what is the aim of all our journeying?  After all, as the Cheshire Cat pointed out, your path depends on your destination, and if you have no aim, any way will work:

Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Without reflecting sometimes on where our seeking tends, what all our waiting is for, we are in danger of aimless motion, or maybe even merely rocking in place, forwards and back, working our way ever deeper into our little hollows and ruts.

We long to invite others to join us (don’t we?), and there is much talk about how to get more effective in sharing “the Quaker way,” but what indeed can we testify to, out of our waiting?  “Way” is ambiguous — it can mean a pathway, or a method, a way of being.  Nowadays, Friends seem more comfortable with talking about their method (praxis), rather than their message.

This is not an idea that is alien to our tradition: Friends preached, in the beginning, that their worship worked, transformed people and through them the world, in contrast to “the world’s worship.”  In the end, it is the effects of our practice that give evidence that we have found something to celebrate, stumbled into a feast to which we can joyfully invite others.  Lacking that, we merely have another lukewarm stone to toss against the cold edifice of a disillusioned, fearful people:

A good man or woman should be ashamed before God and themselves if they realize that God is not in us, that that God the Father is not active in us, but it is rather wretched creatures that act within us, living in us and determining our affections. Thus, King David laments in the psalter, “Tears are my food day and night, while all day long people ask me, ‘Where is your God?'” (Ps.41:3)…. [Ekhart, Book of Divine Consolation].

Yet is “method” meaningful without purpose?  Perhaps “purpose” is not quite right — it smacks too much of the tendency, the temptation,  to dictate to God, to make God in our image, and to worship what will serve our own preferences and what is easy to talk about.

Early monastic writers like John Cassian related practice (askesis) to ultimate purpose (skopos) — if you want to reach a certain goal, some paths head there, and others don’t.  If our aim is a transformed mind (will, purpose, outlook), discovered experimentally as we seek to understand God’s will, that is, the shape we can take in the Divine mind, we will need to be uneasy with the easy, and cultivate a desire to encounter what we do not prefer, maybe cannot well imagine.  Yet this does not mean a random search, a trying of all, or a preference for whatever churns us up  (Lo here! Lo there!).   If our God is one God, then the revelations we have received from before, that have been tested in other lives and times, and borne good fruit, give some orientation for our wandering, can help turn our wandering into pilgrimage, and give some bread for the journey.  Old Simeon, grown aged in waiting for an unknown Reconciler, recognized the child he had been waiting for, once he held him in his arms.

Yet we must not be blind to the strangeness of the message, but recognize the challenge within the invitation:

as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.

And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world: And if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using (James Nayler How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome)

Our worship, our waiting worship, is our message, in the end, since in true worship we have a true encounter with the Living One, whose freedom and whose lawfulness are united in the gospel of love, the gospel of peace.

If we have encountered it in power (even in its smallest first appearance), we have something to proclaim that is the root, and the pith, and the fruit, of all our other “testimonies” or claims to the world’s attention, because we will in our measure have a real story  (the new same old story, as “birth” is old, but each birth is new) to tell — how we have come to our senses and are being worked into a new shape, by a power whose ways are open to all.

By our worship, we testify to the world that we are willing, willing to listen, to be gathered, to be led, willing even to be transformed. If out of that willingness we can say “Yes!” to God’s ceaseless initiative, then whether or not we are graced by the experience of a gathered meeting, we can say, with Thomas Kelly, “It was a good meeting.”  (Thomas Gates, Worship).

What are you waiting for?  What have you found?  What has found you? 

Encouraging emerging ministers

12/02/2018 § Leave a comment

I found the following passage (in the preface to James Dickinson’s Journal) challenging and encouraging on several points.

The ministry, (as Samuel Bownas says) is a birth, and at its birth is tender and vulnerable.  It can be nurtured so as to grow in stature, and the individuality of the person unfold in ways that are beneficial to themselves and to their society — or it can not receive the care and welcome that it needs for its good growth.  The best nurture comes from those who respect the mystery of the individual, while remembering what it is like to be fresh-born, and knowing from their own or others’ experience some (at least) of the elements that should be actively available while the child’s development goes forward towards fulness and freedom.

I would also beseech Friends, when it may please God to raise up and qualify any for the work of the ministry, that they do not slight it, nor despise the instruments who may be so concerned, how mean soever they may appear in the eyes of men,  for it is the Lord’s work, who is able to qualify: but be diligently exercised in your minds, that they may feel the help of your spirits for their strength and encouragement,  for the exercise and concern of the true ministers is of more weight to them than some are aware of.

(John Bell, from his  ‘Testimony’ prefaced to the life of James Dickinson, 1744.)

This would be a good passage for meetings on ministry and counsel, or meetings for business, to think about, meditate upon, and consider in relation to their work of spiritual formation.



Updated admin note and request

11/26/2018 § 5 Comments

I realized this morning that this blog has a lot of stuff in it (88 posts times roughly 1,000 words is almost 90K words). Not all of it is of continuing value, but some might be.
To make it easier to search, for anyone who should happen to want to do that, I have finally categorized the posts.

The categories I have are: Bible comment, Quaker history, ministry, theological, Erasmus, epistles, sermons, Quaker practice, and climate change spirituality.

(If anyone wants to know how I define these, just ask.  The two maybe most opaque are “epistles” and “sermons.”  “Epistles” are public letters written under concern to particular groups.  They may be by myself or by someone else.  “Sermons” are rare, but sort of like epistles– I do not usually remember messages I give in meeting, nor do I try to.  Sometimes a Friend will ask me to write something down;  usually I demur. Occasionally, though, it feels right to do so for them.  Rarely,  the message appears to have possible broader use, and I feel led to write/reconstruct it.  Those are the things that I class as a sermon here. )

My questions to you:
1. If you have suggestions for other categories, send them along!
2. I have started bundling some pieces, as pdf documents on a particular theme. If there’s a category or topic that you’d like to see bundled into a document, perhaps lightly edited to make the joints less obvious, let me know!
3. if there’s a particular theme you’d like to see more of, I will be glad to hear about that as well.

Finally, if there’s someone you think might like to read this blog, please let them know about it!
— brian

Admin note and request for input

11/26/2018 § 4 Comments

I realized this morning that this blog has a lot of stuff in it (88 posts times roughly 1,000 words is almost 90K words). Not all of it is of continuing value, but some might be.
To make it easier to search, for anyone who should happen to want to do that, I have started FINALLY to categorize the posts (not done yet with this pass).

The categories I have started with are: Bible comment, Quaker history, ministry, theological, Erasmus, letters, and climate change spirituality.

My questions to you:
1. If you have suggestions for other cateogories, send them along.
2. I have started bundling some pieces, as pdf documents on a particular theme. If there’s a category or topic that you’d like to see bundled into a document, perhaps lightly edited to make the joints less obvious, let me know!
3. if there’s a particular theme you’d like to see more of, I will be glad to hear about that as well.

Finally, if there’s someone you think might like to read this blog, please let them know about it!
— brian

Reflections on seeing Moloch well-fed these days

11/04/2018 § 8 Comments

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. Deut.30:19

I have been thinking a lot recently about idolatry — about what we focus on, revere, or serve, whether we are aware of it or not.

This reflection has felt more and more urgent as I watch our politlcal leadership — supported by a large proportion of the populace — make one decision after another that is demonstrably contrary to life. I realize that the accumulation, day after day,  is causing me a constant, low-level grief.  Particular instances might be explained by appeals to economic self-interest, or to racial fears, or anxiety about the current Great Enemy (communists, fascists, Democrats, Republicans, drug lords — them).

Yet the pattern that emerges is so consistent, and so consistently death-affirming, that single-issue explanations do not satisfy.  Some deeper systemic “tuning” seems to shape people’s feelings about what constitutes a satisfactory response, an acceptable solution to any particular problem.  This deeper “tuning” is what I mean by focus or loyalty. “Reverence” is reflected sometimes in how people decide that a particular idea, scheme, response, is “serious.”

I reach back, in my reflections, to great idols of the past, images that are sufficiently mythical that they express something deep and persistent in human nature, and their invocation can touch and activate those deep elements.  My search has not been driven by keywords, but by following the scent of evil emitted by three stories in which children’s lives are the offerings.

[1] On August 9th of this year, in Yemen, a busload of about 40 boys, around 10 or 11 years old, was returning from a school field trip.  You can hear the typical cheerful, field-trip hubbub in tweets or messages sent from cell phones on the bus (here is one story).  Even though I can’t understand Arabic, I know that they were laughing, teasing, skylarking with each other, retelling their day’s fun.  Then the bus, clearly marked as such, and moving along a road not adjacent to, say, a military installation, was bombed. On Nagasaki Day. One incident among thousands this year in which mistakes were made, or not.  Regrets are expressed, or not.  The deaths and wounds are counted (well, not the wounds to souls and hearts, and what vessel can measure the spilled joy, the lost innocence, the crushed hopes?).  This is then moved into the box labelled “collateral damage,” or “cost of doing business.”

[2] Last March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not implement a ban on chlorpyrifos, a chemical in the organophosphate group which is among the most heavily used insecticides in the US (see stories here and here.  It has been shown to have neurotoxic effects on children (and farmworkers spraying it) which is not surprising, since chemicals of this group were used in Nazi weapons — the effects on children being life-long, as it induces brain damage in fetuses and small children, which leads to reduced intelligence and impulse control, among other possible consequences. Oh, and it has also been shown to have extensive environmental effects on insects, amphibians, fish, etc. Big agribusiness (in this instance, Dow Chemical) can’t imagine how we could get along without it, as reflected in this press release:

According to Dow AgroSciences, chlorpyrifos is a critical tool for growers of more than
50 different types of crops in the United States. For many important pests, growers face limited or no viable alternatives to chlorpyrifos. When an outbreak of a new pest occurs, growers look to chlorpyrifos as a proven first-line of defense

This from the company that has brought us other chemical weapons, such as napalm and Agent Orange, managed the Rocky Flats nuclear site, and bought the company responsible for the Bhopal disaster- resolving its financial debts, but never its moral ones.

[3]  Recently, the International Panel on Climate Change issued its most recent report (see a NY Times story here, and go to IPCC for the whole report). This is, like all these docments, a pretty conservative one, and climate scientists and journalists have noted important positive feedbacks not included in their projections.  Still, this “cautious” study gives us about 10 years before near catastrophic warming becomes unavoidable.  Yet even if we miss that target, there is much that can be done to limit the damage — It can always get worse!

Not long before, however,  the current administration in Washington, which officially denies the reality of climate change so vehemently that it as expunged the term from government publications wherever possible, issued a draft environmental  impact statement explaining why it will not implement Obama-era mandates controlling vehicle emissions (I quote here from the Science Alert story, where you can find a link to the draft policy:

the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century… But the administration did not offer this dire forecast…as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed….The world would have to make deep cuts in carbon emissions to avoid this drastic warming, the analysis states. And that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

I have lived to see the first wave of measurable, damaging climate change impacts.  I do not expect to live the additional 22 years to see whether these latest predictions are accurate.  I do expect to see this and other environmental processes accelerate their impoverishment of the world — the loss or degredation of soils, desertification, and the entry of more and more species into extinction vortices (in Michael Soulé’s phrase), as populations dwindle, fragment, and become less viable — opening the door to cascades of instability.

The ancient idol most associated with child sacrifice in the Mediterranean region was Moloch (other names were used).  In the Bible, Moloch was a Canaanite idol whose worship included the sacrifice of children by fire, to appease the god’s wrath and seek favor in war or tribulation.  More detailed stories come from Roman propaganda about the Phoenician colony Carthage, the great opponent of early expansionist Rome.  The Romans excelled at painting opponents in the worst possible light, but the reports are circumstantial and made by more than one author:  In times of trouble, the Carthaginian idol was heated by great internal fires, and children were placed on its outstretched arms, to roll downwards into the oven, feeding the god’s insatiable desire, to appease his anger, and entice him to safe the nation.  Contemporary accounts are bolstered by archeological evidence, which shows the bones of children mixed with the bones of animals in the ash-heaps of sacrifice.

Our times are much more refined, of course, and elaborate social structures have developed so that most people can avoid any direct personal responsibility (See Ursula LeGuin’s story “The ones who walk away from Omelas”  here for a mythical account of the truth of the system) .

But surely we are sacrificing our children to some god, some focus of loyalty  — nation, economic system, ideology, whatever — some abstraction, in whose service actual people’s lives are destroyed or blighted.  Is this not idolatry? Is not Moloch fat with our sacrifices?

The Truth in which I try to live, to which I seek to be faithful, from which I try to learn (however I may fall short, Lord, help thou my unbelief!)  says that our greatest calling is service, that anyone is our neighbor, that we should not mistake the kingdoms of this world, and its methods, for his kingdom, nor seek revenge, but bless those who curse us, and pray for those that despitefully use us  — and if faithfulness to the just God of love means sacrifice of some kind, even unto death, then that is the path of freedom.  “Inasmuch as you have done this to these, the least of my brethren, ye do it unto me.”

The elaborate rationalizations for our no-responsibilty death culture includes lots of reasons  why none of the constraints of Christ’s love need to be taken seriously, in contrast to the serious imperatives of money-making, convenience, or the satisfaction of unnatural desires for wealth, power, control, and consumption. Lots of serious people tell us so.  Christ by this reckoning is a fool, and so  are we, if (God willing) we become in truth “Christinanoi” – “little Christs.”

The fire of the Holy Spirit, by which we are to be baptized,  burns us with insight, and tempers us to follow love with more abandon, wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.  It does not smugly gourmandize bodies to feed its servants’ pleasures, waxing fat on tribulation.  From the beginning that Spirit has worked alongside God as a master creator, building and creating with joy in the world and its abundant, diverse inhabitants, encouraging them to thrive in love, and invites us to choose life, not death, even as we confront the challenges of embodied life in a finite world.  God grant us the courage to choose the abundant, celebratory, generous life Christ calls us to, to pray for our share of the Spirit’s Wisdom, and to proclaim it with joy!


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