From the Quaker toolbox: making a testimony happen

New England Yearly Meeting has asserted two testimonies recently, and I am watching with keen interest how we go about accepting the challenge we’ve given ourselves. We sometimes forget all the tools Friends have used to make this happen.  We have used these tools for centuries.  They are the ways Friends teach, learn, experiment, and realize a testimony (in the sense of “make it real”).

It’s not only “going from words to life.”  “Life,” the living out of the Spirit’s guidance, also tutors us in how to talk about, think about, understand, what we’ve been led to live.  The divine Word is also divine act:  creation’s Let there be!  , now being enacted in the substance of our living: part of the mystery of Incarnation.

As you read this catalog (in the comments, add things I’ve missed!!!), I urge you to remember that “unity” around a testimony is not the same as “unanimity,” because each of us, in grappling with what the testimony means for us,  will bring to it different constraints and resources.  (We are all familiar with this, insofar as we have grappled with our living out of “simplicity” or “peace.”)   These are not methods to force anyone’s conscience! In the Lamb’s War, we are to use the Lamb’s methods.  I will return to this at the end of this post.

A. Meeting actions
1. Minutes. It’s glib to say that “it’s easy to pass a minute.” Anyone with a concern who’s worked to bring it to the meeting for business, and then participated patiently and persistently in the deliberation, debate, revisions, delays, questions, threshing and committee work that likely ensues before the meeting feels easy with the minute — such a Friend will say “What do you mean, ‘easy’?!” But in truth, how often a minute is passed by a meeting, and essentially no measurable change results in the lives of most of the members! Yet a minute can be a powerful starting point, a tool that equips us, gives us a way into the next layers of change and following. You could say that when a meeting has gotten to the point of affirming a statement on a matter, it has undergone something like convincement. How do we move then to conversion, not of “the meeting” in some abstract way, but of the meeting in all its members?
After all, a testimony is a way of saying “We are clear in this matter of what God’s will is for us, and consequently we can say that this should be characteristic of every Friend.”  A minute codifies the understanding thus far, and should begin the work of grounding the witness not only in reason and present circumstance, but also in Friends theology and Scripture.

2. Meeting for business.  In meetings where there are committees, we tend to delegate testimony work to one or another committee (Peace and social concerns, for example) or the Meeting on Ministry and Counsel.  But a testimony is something that bears, to some extent,  on all aspects of our group life and work, so even if it’s in right ordering to ask a particular standing or ad hoc committee to pay special attention to the testimony, all committees ought to explore its implications, from the point of view of the committee’s charge — and this can be a way to bring it “home” to the committee members, too.

But the meeting for business is a time of united worship, where as much of the body as possible is present together, and so the clerk can serve the meeting’s growth by finding room on the agenda for some consideration — even if it’s only a period of focused worship — of the testimony.  This will be increasingly useful if other activities within the meeting are also exploring it in other ways.  No action need be on the agenda, until it arises as a clear leading, and then gets taken into the “seasoning” processes.    When we read the Queries at our meetings for business, we bring forward at least for that time something the Society has agreed is an important challenge, and so with a fresh testimony — the only result may be increased awareness, or some opening to ministry — but the issue is kept alive in the meeting’s mind.

3. Visiting committees.  For most of our history, meetings at every level have felt it important from time to time to ask a few Friends to visit in homes under the weight of some concern.   These visits can be educative in intent — making sure that each member is aware of the meeting’s commitment, and explaining how it came about, etc..  They can be information-gathering:  Do you know about the meeting’s minute?  What issues do you see?  What do you think, what are you doing, what do you hope Friends will do, what might help you address and live into the testimony?

4. Threshing sessions. These seem to me sort of like meeting-sized worship-sharing, in which information can be passed, questions asked, issues raised – but in a spirit of worship.  Meeting  leadership should be present, and in addition to any other role, seek to feel the meeting’s condition, and to be on the lookout for indications that some other more specific work would be helpful (such as something else on this list!).

5. Meeting media — newsletters, announcements, list-servs, websites. Circulate the news until it’s not news to anyone in the  meeting community.

6. Public declarations.  Letters to the editor, to politicians, to area organizations;  websites;  epistles to other meetings, etc.  To quote William Penn, when he was encouraging Friends in the ministry (in Rise and Progress, see the Library on this blog for a copy!):

Your country folks, neighbors, and kindred want to know the Lord and his truth, and to walk in it.  Does nothing lie at your door on their account? 

Being on the lookout for places to announce, articulate, perhaps defend, the testimony will do at least three important things which make for spiritual growth:  First, it will challenge you to understand ever better what it is you’re led to, and why, and what the implications are beyond the nurturing confines of the meeting.  Second, it may provide an occasion for a spiritual opening in any who encounter the declaration.  The prophet’s words are certainly true of our times:   I will send a famine on the land:  not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. (Amos 8:11).  Third, it may make you visible to others, in other communities, who are being led in a similar fashion, and so build a sense of unity between Friends and others.

7. Dedicated worship.  Appoint a public meeting for worship with the specific concern to hold the testimony in prayerful consideration in the divine presence.  The meeting might open with a reading of the key minute, but the whole tone here is not one of information sharing and deliberation, but waiting on the Lord, each in our current condition, with an expectation of guidance, solace, challenge, and accompaniment.

8. Naming and nurturing gifts.  Concerns and testimonies are channeled through individual hearts and minds, and individuals’ “experiments with truth” (as Gandhi would say).  Some Friends may find more laid on them than personal transformation;  part of their faithfulness may require them to travel, or teach, or engage in a visiting ministry, or some other action.  Does your meeting have a practice of noticing, identifying, encouraging, and overseeing gifts in ministry and service?  If not, now’s the time to work one out!  New England Yearly Meeting is rich in meetings and individuals who are experienced with this process, and there are of course a jillion things to read, too.  If you don’t know where to begin, reach out to Yearly Meeting Ministry and Counsel, or the Yearly Meeting secretary, and say “We would like to get ready for when gifts are activated among us — who knows, maybe there are some already present, and we didn’t notice!  Now we want to learn how to notice!”  You will get lots of help! (Penn once again, talking about good and wise people who may be found in meetings — “yet it does not always follow, that they may have the room they deserve in the hearts of the people they live among…”  May this not be true of your meeting!!!)  If your meeting has not yet done this work, Now is the time!  Penn again:  Behold, how white the fields are unto harvest… and how few able and faithful laborers there are to work therein!    This takes work, organization, persistence, hope, and information — and nothing is more urgently needed.

9.  Clearness committees!

B.  Acts of individual concern

  1. Prayer.  Everyone means something different by “prayer.”  Start with your version, and bring the testimony (perhaps in the form of the originating minute) into your prayer intentionally — more than once, but patiently, openly, sweetly, expectantly.  Now would be a good time to ask someone else in your meeting “What do you mean when you say ‘I’ll pray about it,’  or ‘I’ll hold it in the light'””
  2. Talking with your friends.  Just because a meeting for business has threshed an issue, and emitted a minute does not mean that you know what your friends think — or maybe even what you think.  Dialogue and dialect are powerful and free!
  3. Opportunities.  By this I mean “informal periods of worship with another Friend or Friends.”  There are good guides for this practice, ancient among us, and somewhat revived over recent decades.  One simple way to start:   settle into worship for a while (± 20 minutes), and then in the quiet, cleansed atmosphere created by such intimate worship, slowly surface and ask the question, or name the issue,  closest to your heart.
  4. Following leadings in ministry.  Be on the lookout for a sense that a concern has been laid on you.  Hold it steadily in prayer and reflection, until some clarity about the leading, and the first step you should take to follow it.  Then bring it to a discerning Friend or two, and as the way opens, bring it to the meeting for clarity, support, oversight.  Don’t let it go until the leading is definitely taken from you!  Once again,there are plenty of people and books to consult, as you begin and go on in the work, as it is given you to take part.  Your meeting should have resources about this (see A8 above) — if it doesn’t, well, I will repeat myself:  Now is the time!  Behold, how white the fields are unto harvest… and how few able and faithful laborers there are to work therein!    This takes work, organization, persistence, hope, and information — and nothing is more urgently needed.
  5. Seeking to understand how this testimony is rooted in the whole edifice of your faith. Study, think, explore, dream, listen.

    The point, Friends, is that  — in our testimonies of simplicity, abolition, and everything else — we have needed all of these and others I have not added to the list.  “Success” means that every Friend can see the importance of the testimony, and sees that they cannot ignore it.
    To put it in terms of the NEYM Climate Change minute:  Not everyone will be called to make climate change their first priority, to drop everything else to work on that. Jesus did not say “Sell all you have and give it to the poor” to everyone he spoke with! But we have been led as a body to unity, to a unified statement that, to the extent we understand the Divine will for us, this issue must be incorporated into our understanding of the Gospel as held by Friends, and none of us is free to ignore it — just as we accept that it is our responsibility to come to worship with hearts and minds prepared.  What that looks like will vary, and most of us have misgivings that we are not as faithful as we can be;  but that discontent can be a God-sent goad, preserving us from complacency, and keeping the door open to fresh responses to the divine initiatives that may come to us inwardly, or from the witness or words of others.

    The two watchwords on my mind this morning as I write this are:  Behold, I stand at the door and  knock and  to turn ourselves and all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the chief business of our lives.  The listening and the following, the seeing and the turning take preparation of our selves and our beloved communities. We have the resources, we have the Teacher, we have each other— let’s be about the work!

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Letter: Friends, welcome prophets among us in these dark times!

To New England’s Meetings

Dear Friends,
Many of us are feeling under the weight of grief, fear, and anger in the face of national and world events. Many of us are digging deep, to feel where a prophetic response may be: Is there a word from the Lord that Friends are to carry at this time, in deed or in word? Is our spiritual condition healthy, alert, and clear enough to hear and receive such a word?

Here is one thing I know: A prophetic people is one which welcomes the arising of prophecy.  The first motion is, in love, to make room for the leadings, and the people who are led, and give them opportunity to bring what they have been given.  This advice comes from the earliest life of the Christian movement. In the ancient book of advice called the “Didache” or “Teaching of the apostles,” the little fellowships gathered in Christ’s name are admonished to be open to the motion of the Spirit as embodied in traveling ministers: “Let every apostle [one who has been sent] who comes to you be received as the Lord.”  Knowing that we have this treasure in earthen vessels, we are to “try the spirits” and feel where the divine is present when someone feels moved to act or speak under the guiding influence of the Divine Spirit — but we are warned not to quench the Spirit’s motion, but to accept the unexpected activity of that Spirit in our lives as a community as well as individuals:  “The spirit blows where it will, and you hear its sound, but don’t know whence it comes or whither it goes.  So is everyone who is born of the spirit.”
As a people, we have fallen so far into a comfortable and secular mind,  that we think concerns and leadings are somehow a matter personal to the concerned Friend, and our meetings can pick and choose whom to hear, whom to invite and allow to come among us!  That is a way to avoid the uncomfortable evidence that the living God is still working through us, preparing individuals and pushing them or drawing them into service.     It is a way not to change, not to grow, to keep control of our schedules and our attention; to keep ourselves unfree.  We often talk about being “spirit-led,” but as a people how available are we really to that experience?

When we make time for the unexpected, when we accept the opportunities that come to us through Friends who are called to travel to us, and have the encouragement of their meetings to do so, we enable those Friends, and others not yet arisen, to learn better how to watch for, hear, bear, and accomplish their service.  Our meetings  are “schools of the prophets” — or can be if we recognize the opportunities that come our way, accept them with joy, and learn from them — both from the message and from our experience of reception and discernment.

I have known many Friends, newly drawn into service, who have been discouraged by the convention that prophets come to meetings only when meetings issue invitations.  This turns the matter upside down, Friends:  The calling and the service are given through the body, through and out of the common life in the Spirit, and represent an invitation from God to see, to feel, to know, and perhaps to act in fresh ways, in ways renewed by the living water of God’s life that brings these leadings and opportunities to us.

It can be inconvenient for a meeting to make room for such an unplanned, “wildcat” experience of the Spirit.  It may also be that a Friend’s concern, to be brought to a meeting, will require some discernment by the meeting about ways and means.  I can assure you, though, that it is pretty inconvenient for a Friend to have such a concern, to set aside other things, and dare to stand forth, dare to speak for God and for us.  The sense of unreadiness, of unworthiness, of emptiness, is very sharp in such a Friend, and he or she is only too conscious of difficulties for themselves and for those they visit.  Yet the act of faithfulness, however imperfectly accomplished, is a step into greater life, and if it is rooted in love, it is evidence of God’s work and life active among us.  And Friends, there is such a famine among us, and among people in general, for such evidence!

So if a Friend reaches out to your meeting, with an earnest statement that she or he is traveling under concern, with the unity of their meeting (your brothers and sisters!), remember that we can earn a prophet’s reward even by offering a cup of water to a prophet.  Find a way to entertain this Friend, as we are to entertain strangers sent among us, for thereby we may unexpectedly be visited by an angel — not the traveling Friend, but the beloved Spirit, the Shepherd and Teacher, made available in the giving and receiving of spiritual hospitality.  Make room, Friends, light your lamps in welcome, live like people who truly love the Spirit, and who love to see the springs of Life break forth in any!

In Christian love your friend,

Brian Drayton