Nakedness, prophecy, and the Climate Pilgrimage

The Prophetic Climate Action Witness Group (PCAWG) of New England Yearly Meeting is inviting everyone to a Climate Pilgrimage starting July 9, walking across a portion of New Hampshire from one coal-fired power plant to another.  For more details see climatepilgrimage.org.  The invitation says, in part,

We walk praying for clarity, determination and boldness to take the necessary next steps. We walk acknowledging that we do not yet possess the inner resources to live our lives fully into the reality that our understanding of the climate crisis calls us to. We walk creating a community of holy obedience, understanding that we need each other in these challenging times. We walk bringing public focus to the immorality of perpetuating the status quo, and to a genuine hope for a different future.

We walk to build together a beloved community, to see what faith in action looks like. Our hearts are on fire with divine love even though our hands are slow to repent and our feet are slow to change. This is a time for renewal and transformation.

One person who heard of this voiced some disappointment that the “action” was not aligned with a current campaign relating to the Seabrook nuclear power plant — why not march about that?  It’s true, as stated this does not sound much like the sort of clearly  targeted “action” that organizers hope and work for.

When I heard this response (at second hand), I found myself reflecting on the old Quaker practice “going naked as a sign,” a kind of prophetic enactment which the new prophets in England learned of from Isaiah (chapter 20) and found freshly relevant to their times.

This practice, discussed in depth by Kenneth Carroll in “Early Quakers and ‘going naked as a sign,” rose to a peak around 1654, and then again in the late 1650s and early 1660s, before dying away more or less completely.  Some Friends, such as William Simpson, were especially called to this witness.  It was by no means mute, but was accompanied by  powerful testimony to make clear the meaning of the sign.  Simpson wrote, “my body hath been temporally naked in many places in England, as a sign of the nakedness and shame that is coming upon the Church of England who live in oppression and cruelty…a necessity was laid upon me from the Lord God of life and power to be a sign.”

This “sign” was a remarkably compact expression of several important ideas — that God still spoke and called people to a fundamental critique of their times;  that the ears of the many were so filled with the habitual and the conventional that Truth had a hard time gaining entrance;  that to go with a word from the living God, so as to break in to hearts and minds,  contrary to custom and expectation, could not be done only by conventional means, customary channels, the “market place of ideas, ” and all the other ways by which  unruly or inconvenient spirits are regulated.

Moreover, the sign-bearer, the prophet (let us accept it), by accepting the commission, going with a word from the Lord, and calling from outside boundaries, is in that act rejecting the supports and conventions of safety.  The naked prophet has no defense from eyes, much less from weapons (whether physical weapons or the iron of ridicule and scorn).  The prophet has no levers of power, except the life of the Divine One who calls the prophet, and calls us each and all.

Powerless, ridiculous, abandoned in the love of the Word Christ that endlessly creates, re-creates, and illumines, the prophet must persist in the mad realization that the Witness in the sleepers and the scoffers and the spiritually deaf or deformed is in  itself whole and clear, and when it recognizes itself acting in the silly poor prophet, it can stir up the embers of compassion, of inquiry, of paradox — the disconcerting motions of love that can surprise us into renewal.

Those who walk on the climate pilgrimage are walking naked, stripped this time not of their clothes, but of propriety, of the armor of policy, and the pretenses of technique. They, many of them, have technical or political knowledge, scientific or psychological tools which can be serviceable in responding to climate change and the systems that make it roll forward, gaining strength from all our complicities.

But there is a time to set all policy, contrivance, and technology aside for a moment, and think of meanings and foundations.  The Divine One seeking to come to birth and full growth in each and all, comes christened with the sap of growing things, its blood is the life in my blood, its battlements and forests of transformation, its play grounds and flowing thoughts are all around us.  Christ teaches that the human form is adorned and uplifted by its power to embrace our neighbor, by rightly ordered labor, by the opening hand and yielding heart, the mind that seeks for clarity and service, the tongue that speaks truth and praise, asks questions, sings.

But however powerful that life can run, its life is tender, humble even in exaltation, available for service— and so the un-reverent, the scattering, the scornful, the over-reaching, the wayward, the self-serving, the cruel — these strike at that life, wound it, drawing a cry of recognition (I know that darkness, that stupidity, that unseeing, I know it from within!) and a call for healing in truth and long-suffering.When a person walks in such a condition, they are naked indeed.

Sometimes what is needed is a time to be awake, and to awaken others;  then, awakened, strength can be accepted, and we can work and politic and argue and organize — spending heart, soul, strength and mind under the sweet Spirit’s direction.  In such an awakening, the pain of truth, and the delight and joy at the heart of things, are one and the same.

So the naked pilgrims proclaim:   Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness.    In these times, amidst these crises and fears, our seeking will reveal to us the works and words we need for our part in the work of reconciliation in the whole order, among and with the earth and all that lives therein.

 

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Cultivating Gospel Ministry, Part 2

of several parts.  Today, a reading from A.N. Brayshaw’s  The things that are before us (The Swarthmore Lecture 1926) pp. 31-36:

It was John Wilhelm Rowntree who first had the courage to call attention to our weakness:

I think [he wrote] that the state of our meetings generally justifies the belief that our greatest outward need is a ministry– fearless and direct– able to deal with life and its various aspects and presenting… the message of Jesus to the men [sic]* of today. .. [but]we are compelled to review meeting after meeting where the  pulse of spiritual life beats low, where the sense of individual responsibility is week, and prayer apparently no young friend is preparing himself [sic] for the inevitable call to the service of the ministry… We have shown a strange indifference to the responsibility we have voluntarily taken upon us.

… it is not the ministry itself that we have primarily in mind, but the love and devotion and sense of the presence of God with us out of which the call is bound to come….This commendation of ministry is no undervaluing of the silence in our worship, it is no exaltation of the spoken word as the only or as the most important way by which God speaks to man, it is insistence on the word as one of the ways that cannot be left out. And our surrender to the love that the presence of our fellow-worshipers stirs in us makes us able, if not to cast out fear, certainly to overcome it, and we shall no longer hold ourselves excused from the service even in view of the excellence of that which we do elsewhere. Neither more nor less important or valuable than the ministry of those who are giving largely of themselves to it is the occasional and probably short offering of one and another who are not ruling it out of their lives as something unthinkable for them; and when it comes to be seen that the service is not one to be confined to a tiny group but is a concern widespread among all sorts and conditions, the timid are enheartened and dividing walls are cast down. So far as this spirit of sharing the best we have comes to prevail, personal counsel given for the help of the minister will be given in love and received with gratitude, all self– assertiveness put away, and hurtful criticism will not be spoken. I recall certain words suggestive of early days but coming as a refreshing air from the 18th Century, in which the writer gives loving warning:

[I] would 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 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 spirit 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.

The writer of this passage had a clear perception of membership one of another and of its bearing on ministry… I am not, of course, suggesting that anyone should speak words merely in order to make it easy for someone else to do so and for no other reason. I am pointing out that the knowledge of the harm that we may be doing and of the help that we might be giving turns our faces in the direction of the work, giving us encouragement to it and power to come over the fear that would keep us back. “Let it be your joy,” said Fox, “to hear or see the springs of life break forth in any, ” and when we have seen

that God was filling/One more soul to carry Him,

a holy awe at the wonder of His working renders it impossible for any stones of our bringing to make rough His paths.

And to this end we shall know a spiritual alertness. We speak of the danger inherent in the resolve or arrangement to preach a sermon at a particular time in the future for a fixed length of time, and we may fail to understand that our freedom gives no assurance of safety. The fact of our being under no engagement to speak, no one having the right to call us to account if we do not, may breed slackness. Easily may we say we have had no call and fail to consider whether we might not have heard one; the exploitation of Quaker principles in the way of repression has never been a difficult feat. We do well to remember that even if the preaching of certain “paid” ministers is mechanical or superficial, there is many a one who, knowing that a sermon will be required of him, looks forward to it in the spirit of prayer and love for his congregation, of watchfulness over his lower self and of expectation of power, so that when the appointed time comes it is right for him to give his message. Our way of worship and conception of ministry give no excuse for our prayer and love, our watchfulness and expectation being less than his.

*Editing note:  I have inserted [sic] in a few places where male-only language was used in the original.  But I have not been thoroughgoing, because you can eke out Brayshaw’s  imperfections with your own thoughts.

Cultivating Gospel ministry, part 1

Some years ago, I wrote: I am particularly concerned for Friends in unprogrammed meetings who are willing to consider the possibility that the Gospel ministry is for them a central, long-term “concern,” or might become one. Of course, anyone in a meeting for worship is likely at some time or other to be pulled to their feet with a message for the meeting, and this openness is a precious aspect of our practice…However, it has been part of our experience from the beginnings of our movement that for some people, the vocal ministry becomes a concern, which is carried for some length of time, possibly for life, and that the presence of such Friends …is a vital element nourishing the faithfulness of the whole body.

This  understanding was succinctly stated by Robert Barclay, in the Apology:

we do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to the work of the ministry and therefore are fitted of the Lord for that purpose, whose work is more constantly and particularly to instruct, admonish, oversee, and watch over their brethren.

But awareness that someone has received a calling is not the end of the matter, it’s the beginning.

As I have been part of gatherings of Friends who feel themselves “called to ministry” over the past few years, I have been interested, and a little alarmed, to see how few Friends are coming forward with this concern, and gathering to examine how they are “occupying” and growing in the gift and the work. It has occurred to me more recently that perhaps those of us who do carry that concern have not been faithful enough in the work, with the result that (in a time when it is so needed and useful, never more so!)  Friends do not recognize the concern, welcome it, value or encourage it.

It seems to me that Friends who have the concern for Gospel  ministry perhaps have not yet developed the practices of mutual watchfulness and collaboration to cultivate the gift and service, which of old were a core purpose of ministers’ meetings. A  concrete and practical approach to that shared cultivation is an urgent requirement (and one that has been recognized at other times in our history).

As in so many areas of modern Quaker practice, it would be natural to reach for methods from outside our tradition, e.g. techniques of leadership development, or (as some yearly meetings have) the establishment of some specific requirements for study and qualification.   Such tools can be of use, of course, but not until we can get clear about how their use will truly be consonant with our understanding of ministry as a service in which the minister is prepared for that work under the guidance of the Spirit, and exercises it only as led by that same Spirit.   Ever since George Fox saw that being nurtured at divinity school was not what “made” a minister, Friends have been tempted to go back to schools and structures, because the alternative path is hard, and feels like uncharted territory. Indeed, we have to chart it afresh in every era, as the condition of the world changes, and with it the condition of our little Society embedded and witnessing within that world.

Lewis Benson wrote:

The work of the prophetic minister is real work. It involves enriching his mind with the language of prophecy and the imagery of prophecy. It means finding time for the maturing of insights and the quiet prayer and meditation that leads to wisdom. It means meditating on the great themes of the Christian faith. These meditations will later enrich his ministry, but they are not rehearsals of sermons to be given at any particular time or place.

This is concrete and helpful as far as it goes,  but casts the work as an individual labor.   But such an understanding is incomplete.  Learning is a social process, and most kinds of learning involve an interaction between the individual and other learners, all of whom are actively engaged — each at their own level of understanding — with some shared focus on content — a phenomenon to understand, a skill to perfect, a project to carry out.  The diversity of people in the group is an essential resource, as more experienced or skilled members help “newcomers” find their place and grow beyond their entry level — and newer members bring questions and viewpoints that push more experienced ones out of their ruts, keeping the subject matter fresh.  It is a kind of apprenticeship model, rather than a “traditional classroom.”  Such an apprenticeship has been a hallmark of a living Quaker ministry, in the times and places where it has been most healthy and most serviceable to the health and growth of the whole Body of Christ.

In this series of posts, I am going to try to work out some ideas about how ministers could meet for real mutual apprenticeship under the guidance of the Spirit, cultivating heart, soul, strength, and mind, better to understand and faithfully carry the gift that has been given to each.

 It is a living ministry that begets a living people; and by a living ministry at first we were reached and turned to the Truth. It is a living ministry that will still be acceptable to the Church and serviceable to its members.