Yearly Meeting #4: Making testimonies and opening doors

As noted in my last post, the recent gathering of New England  Yearly Meeting adopted two important minutes, on racism and on climate change. (Final minutes only slowly appearing).

Given their histories, these seem to me to be declarations of testimonies by New England Friends.  As a short-hand description, a testimony identifies something that we believe should be characteristic of all practicing Friends in the Yearly Meeting.  This is a big deal, and also represents an important spiritual opportunity for individuals and for meetings.

Why is it a big deal? Well, a testimony in Quakerspeak is different from a concern or leading, which is generally an individual development.  A testimony represents a fundamental discovery about the nature of divine-human relations, which indelibly marks Quaker faith and practice.

Despite a recent tendency to over-simplify (think SPICE), Friends have made a lot of testimonies, “large” and “small” — on oaths, participation in war, the nature of worship, marriage, gambling, ministry, the equality of the sexes, and so on.  These are claims about what Truthful living entails.

Even when we have separated, we have tried to articulate how the new practices of our particular Quaker fragment are somehow consistent with the previous enactments of various testimonies — Think of debates about what it means to be “plain,” or to uphold the Quaker testimonies on worship and the free ministry, or the several successive Quaker orthodoxies about the use of “beverage alcohol. ”

The point is, every Quaker needs to position him/herself in relation to the testimonies, and even in circles where all the theological or doctrinal content has been abandoned, and Quaker identity rests solely on “praxis,” the testimonies one way or another are a major proportion of the praxis that defines one as Quaker.   Most of us are in process, with regard to our realization of particular testimonies, but we recognize that they are in some sense an irreducible part of our agenda for growth as Friends.

The two recent statements by the Yearly Meeting have some important hallmarks of testimonies. Perhaps most important, they are top-down statements of intent or wishful thinking, as minutes, alas, so often are.  This is because they have come to the Yearly Meeting, and been adopted (accompanied by substantive controversy) because many Friends, and many meetings, over a number of years, have been led by a sense of Truth at the heart of these matters, and struggled with them alone and together.  The persistence, or insistence, with which they have seized us is evidence of Life at work (even if we have much to do, to separate that Life from fad, custom, culture, etc.).

Second, they have life because when Friends engage with them, they are challenged, uncomfortable; and recognize that if they stay engaged with them, this engagement will change them in significant ways — spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and practically.

Third, each of them represents a path of growth:  one may start with little things, yet cannot well come to the end of them, as further understanding — and further challenge — become evidence the longer one tries to live the testimony.

Finally, all testimonies (and there they overlap with individual concerns held over time) have the potential for integration — for being for you or me a path towards a fuller faithfulness and understanding of the whole Quaker message, and the spiritual processes involved in being transformed, by the renewing of our mind, so that we bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of the Holy Spirit, as the advice has it.

I will return to this last point in my next post, to explore what I see as one great opportunity  presented by these actions of the Yearly Meeting — two separate actions, but expressions of the One Lord of Life.

 

Yearly Meeting #3: Love and judgment

In his bible-half-hours at New England Yearly Meeting this year, Doug Gwyn often reflected on the role of “crisis” in early Quaker thought and experience, and pointed out that this word in the Greek original, krisis, means “judgment,” the weighing of a case — and the sense of “decisive turning point” derives from this. Mostly his expositions showed Friends (or biblical figures) as they responded (and were tested by) such moments of decision. I was, however, thinking about the other meaning, as we all lived through the exercises of Yearly Meeting. There was much food for reflection.

As reported in a “talking points” message from the clerk, one item of business raised tensions on the floor, as we were asked to continue to work to understand and address the nature and effects of white privilege among us.

Recognizing the urgency of work for racial justice and the ways in which white supremacy affects and is present in our Quaker faith communities, in the coming months the Yearly Meeting will explore concrete steps New England Friends can take to help us more fully realize God’s vision of the Beloved Community… We see that the work of change and recovery from the spiritual disease of systemic racism needs to happen in each of our hearts, within our organizational structures, and in each of our local meetings. 

 

The language of the report and minute that came before us stimulated some pained or even angry reactions and counter-reactions, and there was a lot of pain, shock, and disappointment as we saw and heard how much work in this area remains before us.
Now, there are few things more corrosive to the unity and health of a community than “the judging mind,” that compares and makes distinctions in order to censure and exert control. The evils of this judgmentalism are well known — but there is plenty of evidence that it’s a very common impulse. Jesus warns “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  Paul in Romans eloquently argues that if the members of the church are to be in harmony with the Holy Spirit, they must be tender with each other on matters of conscience, as each one seeks to understand what faithfulness calls for from them at their stage of spiritual growth.  George Fox frequently addresses this human propensity in his epistles (and therefore saw the need for the advice!).  For example, from Epistle 217:

All you that are turned unto this living Way by the Power of the mighty God of heaven and earth, live in Peace one with another and Unity. Do not judge one another for that eats and wears out the good, begets the enmity and hinders growth in Truth.

But that word Truth is a problem:  if there is such a thing, which has such characteristic results in lives attuned to it that we can indeed claim to be following a Way —  how can we avoid judgment?  Yet how can we be loving and still judge?

Love can be construed as excluding judgment, and we often, I think, fall into the idea that if we are to be loving, we must hold that differences must all be treated, well, indifferently, and uncritically (if you will pardon the term).  Yet the metaphor of “light” includes seeing shadows:   this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)

But what kind of standard is the Light?  It is not a rule, but a living experience — a dynamic presence that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end.  Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.

If my love is not of this sort, so that difference, or the experience of being judged by others, or the inward prick of a wounded conscience, rob me of my centeredness in the Pure, I  have yet some ways to go to live in the true Light which is love:

then a fire kindles among you, and you have torment, and your love leaves you; which shows your love is not of God, which loves judgment, where mercy rejoices, whose love has not torment nor fear.  (James Nayler, “Epistle concerning love and judgment” Works iii:750-753). 

In that Light, the first challenge is to see oneself in the things that are eternal, to come out of illusion to a sense of establishment and orientation towards the “pure principle” that Woolman wrote is placed in the human heart, and is to be relied upon as a destination towards unity and freedom.   The journey out of this illusion, towards that establishment, involves an experience of judgment, in which one learns the difference between the living seed and the chaff.  This is not comfortable — indeed it can be costly, and the price needs to be paid more than once!

But at the times when one is established in the knowledge of love, and a sense of some freedom in the Spirit, differences between me and thee are cast in a new light, and the predominant concern is agape, in which judgment is purified of self-serving and fear.   With the beam removed from our own eyes, so that we can bear to see our selves in Truth, we can then be enabled to accept the Witness in another, reach to it in another, and feel where growth can happen, or is inhibited.  As William Dewsbury wrote to Judge Thomas Fell:

Friend, that which calls for purity in thee is dear to me, and with it I suffer, which often secretly groans in thee for deliverance.  And whilst thou lend thy ear to the pure counsel of the holy Seed, thou art almost persuaded to lay thy crown in the dust at the feet of Christ… and to follow him daily in the cross… To the pure light of Christ in thy conscience I speak, which will witness me.

At Yearly Meeting, all this, I think, was in evidence:  Light revealing truth, the Shadow in us reacting with un-comprehension, disbelief, pain;  a movement towards the healing judgment that love makes possible, and indeed demands.  The story is still unfinished, and the work that remains is daunting, but I was reminded that in the Light love=truth=judgment.  KRISIS.

Wherefore, O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you! Where is the poison, there is the antidote; there you want Christ, and there you must find him; and blessed be God, there you may find him. Seek and you shall find, I testify for God. (Penn:  Rise and Progress)

Yearly Meeting #2: Encounter with the suffering seed

Over and over, throughout the week, the following kept returning to me, and I am still not free of it.  In case it may be of service, here it is:

Oh my people, what have I done to you?  Or wherein have I wearied you?  Testify against me!

I have equipped you to see my beauty and feel my presence: I teach you of myself in the beautiful and bountiful earth.  I show myself also in the more intimate wonders of your bodies and your relations. You know love and compassion, and the joy of creativity, the doing and the making, the seeking and discovery.

To help you grow in wisdom, in a world that holds pain, disease, and confusion as well as all the gracious blessings of your lives, I have not ceased to teach you, in language you can hear— in the histories of liberation, in the lives of those who’ve found my light and lived in their measure. My witness has been made through a few in every age and land.  My Torah and  my prophets, too, I offered, and even took upon myself to live a human life, from humble birth through to shameful death, to show how low one has to come to see and accept the whole mystery of life.

You, my friends,  can feel the pain of others, you yearn and work to free your sisters and brothers from fear and oppression, in order that they can share in the promises and fragile blessings of human life. I love the faithfulness you’ve been able to live, and your longing to live more.

In the stillness of my Presence, in the moment of prophetic sight, you can sense, dimly or with terrible clarity, how I, the Seed of life, am kept down in others, and how this burdened Seed is prevented from growing into a comely, fruitful plant, whose leaves are for healing and for joy.

But, Oh my friends, now you are reminded that I am also still oppressed in each of you.  I am groaning within you, and striving to be freed, to have the weight taken off.  You can feel it, feel me calling you again to the tenderness that comes from truth — the truth of my being, and the truth of your condition.   You can see how I, Lord and servant, am oppressed and scorned in others, but my suffering and captivity in your selves dims your sight, dulls your soul’s sight, and hinders your hand from the works of compassion you long to take up passionately.

But I, the Seed Immanuel, am still singing my redemption song.  If not, my Light would not have brought you once again this week to the narrow passage towards more abundant life, brought you to feel again the opening that comes by way of repentance.

You have been led to sit down by the narrow way, and your hearts are smarting with the wounds you’ve taken in the approach to it. In your weariness, though, and with a surprising hint of joy, you can see through to works of reconciliation and creaton.  Feed on that joy as it comes to you, bearing fruit in its right season!

But do not cease sitting at the narrow place.  Keep close always to the gate that bits and presses you to tenderness, keep it present with you, as my Rock followed Moses in Israel’s wanderings.  I have told you in so many ways, this is how I live, I the suffering servant, the Lord of life.  I am free and impossibly wide, but dwell also in the heart of suffering, imprisoned with all my children, and within them, even the least; even in you. Rejoice to accompany me there, in the paradox, as I never cease from accompanying you.

 

Yearly Meeting 2016, #1 (ToC)

Like many others, I left our yearly meeting exhausted and grateful. I have heard repeated inward warnings not to let the flow of days and works sweep away all the lessons and questions from this gathering.  I remember Anne Wilson’s warning to the young, unawakened Samuel Bownas: “Thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?”  I’d like not to deserve the same rebuke!

There  will follow at least three posts:

  1. Encounter with the suffering seed
  2. Love and judgment
  3. The unity of gifts:  White privilege/anti-racism and our climate testimony

 

Building our house in the storm: A letter to New England Friends, Aug.6, 2016

Dear Friends,

We are gathering in Vermont to worship, work, and spend time in companionship.  Yearly Meeting can be such a blessed time for inquiry, growth, and consolation!  In the quiet this morning, I find myself filled with gratitude because of the opportunities we have.

We will say many things about the needs of the world, and the calling we feel to respond, and the leadings we are following, and the evidence that some of us see that we are following our Guide, and the burdens we bear in our journeys.

Surely we can say that God is at work among us, and we are trying, at least, to walk as children of the Light.   In my gratitude this morning, however, one question comes with urgency:  Are we taking care that our meetings are in health?  Are we being faithful to the gifts that are given, to help us all live close to the Wellspring of unity and our pure testimony, not of this concern or that, this “practice” or that, but the essential root, our reason for being a people at all?

All our outward doing, if it is witness — what is it a witness to?  The Quaker claim is that acts of faithfulness speak of the inward life out of which they come.  Recall the time when John Woolman sought to understand the origins of his concern to visit the Indians:

Twelfth of sixth month being the first of the week and a rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.  

If we don’t take the time to  inquire  where our doing comes from, to understand how my concern and your concern are rooted in the gospel life, then we can forget the grounds of our  unity in the Spirit.

We may find substitutes for that dear unity — each with the people whose language and concerns feel most comfortable and exciting— but “issues loyalty” can become a reason to judge each other, a root of division.

My concern this morning is  especially for those who are called to the work of ministry in all its many forms, whose purpose is to build up the community as a vessel of the divine life — in public worship or in private, in prayer or presence, in teaching or in preaching.

The work of the ministry, in all its forms, starts with listening, and waiting to feel where the unity dwells, and what the connections are between some present focus of concern and the whole story we as a people are acting out.

All the issues of our times are urgent, yes, but it is just as urgent that we take care that our worship and our witness are truly what we claim them to be, motions of the Spirit of Love.  This has never happened except when some people (many!) have accepted their share of this work, and taken concrete steps to serve, and to grow in the service.  What is called for from you, Friend?

Haggai was a prophet during the time of Israel’s return from exile, and he was the vehicle for an urgent call, which I feel this morning is renewed to us:

These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai:  “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it…. This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord.  “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.”

Let’s be about the building!  I think it starts with a renewal of our praying, which is the workshop of all ministry:

Wait until we feel we are at the Center, and then in that confidence, ask:  Am I just worshipping myself, or my longings and needs?  We may feel convicted then, but there comes with the judgment the gift of freedom, and an opening to a clearer view of the true Center.  There we can wait in God’s patience and compassion until all our certainties are overturned, and continue seeking until the Love comes which can be felt when certainties are gone, and our notions are taken from us, and we have felt the poverty of our own spirits. Then the blessing comes.

It is in that poverty that we can accept the gift of the common life, the unity that Jesus testified to and prayed for,  just before Gethsemane and the Cross, and renewed again and again thereafter.  You have tasted it, maybe!   Then you know what Paul meant when he wrote (1Cor 2:16): “But we have the mind of Christ.”