More from the Quaker toolbox: An educative network for Spirit-led workers

As I have written about in previous blog posts (and elsewhere), I long have felt that Friends are in urgent need of faithful ministers of the Gospel — those with gifts of speaking, preaching, teaching under the guidance of the Spirit.  There certainly is a need for more workers, but we also need have a way to  help the ministers we do have get better at their work — each according to their gift.  Being under some kind of monthly meeting guidance is important, of course, but our tradition offers additional tools, and though in recent posts I’ve done some work on this, here I’d like to conclude (at least for the moment) with a more “toolbox” approach.

This is because I think that the general approach being sketched can well apply to any group seeking to carry out long-term work under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  For example, as I have gotten involved with the Prophetic Climate Action Working Group (PCAWG) in New England Yearly Meeting, I find that I seeing similar at work in our mutual accountability and encouragement.   I haven’t every really tried to articulate the model out of which I am working, and so this piece is an attempt to do that.  So:

Our Quaker toolbox includes what one might call “an educative network for Spirit-led workers.”

I base this  on what I understand of the practice of Friends in the first few years of our movement.  This is not out of antiquarian interest, or nostalgia  for some by-gone “golden era,” but rather because in that practice I see several characteristics that are well-suited to our times.  There are certainly differences, as well, and I do not ignore them.  I see our tradition as a resource, not an idol.  To quote Jaroslav Pelikan (see The vindication of tradition), “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide.”

We should use our tradition discerningly, in the same way that we make use of ministry we hear in a meeting for worship: receive it, hold it in the light, and draw from it in ways that have life.  What does not at present have life for you is not rejected, but rather held respectfully — it may yet be seen as nourishment for another time, or perhaps not.

I also find our tradition important as a counter-balance (not “corrective”) to the many voices I hear (and Friends hear) from our present culture.  We know very well that even as we seek to live by the guidance of the “Pure principle,” we hear many other voices from self and culture proposing, compelling, inviting.  Some of these, if not from God, may nevertheless be useful;  some may be contrary to the life we seek to embody.  I hearken back to the practice and testimony of past Friends as a way to triangulate, and to challenge myself to test whether some alternative I am weighing is more or less consistent with Quaker spiritual commitments.

With that preamble: I suggest some parallels between the current situation of the Quakers I know and that of the first Friends, which I think make the use of the “educative network” idea particularly useful.

  1. First, faith unsettled: there was then, as there is now, a plethora of alternatives, styles, interpretations, vocabularies — from non-theism and atheism, through various kinds of mysticism, skepticism, through a bewildering range of Protestantisms, not to mention Catholicism and so forth;  even in places where Judaism was denigrated (as in much of Europe), there were enthusiasts for the Kabbalah, and the Qur’an was available (at least in part) in translation. The variety was stimulating to some, threatening to others, and paralyzing to yet others.
  2. Missing tradition. The first Friends were gathered to form a people, not born into a pre-existing institution. They were adults, many of them young adults. All had a history of search for an authentic spiritual base and community; most were deeply steeped in the Bible as instruction, and as a narrative in which they participated. In the Quakerism I am most familiar with, in these times, the large majority of Friends are also convinced Friends, which is both a source of strength and also of challenges to the coherence and integrity of the movement’s vision.  Convinced Friends (then and now) have chosen their “family,” and bring with them fresh perspectives and energy;  there is (& was) sometimes also a tendency to see in Quakerism some of what they valued from their prior paths.
  3. Practice emerging or in transformation. The first Friends had no structures, processes, or customs with which to shape the life of the Spirit into human terms (words, lives, decisions, relationships), though the New Testament patterns were important reference points. Modern Friends have abundant resources in this regard, thanks to Quaker history — yet in every generation Friends have to test the continued value of their inheritance, to ensure that we are bringing our lives (individually and corporately) “under the ordering of the Holy Spirit.”  One value of such inherited structures is that they indicate a need or function that followers of the Quaker way at one time found important to address.  Though we may decide that their solution doesn’t work anymore, we do well to understand why the solution was developed, and how it was shaped to hold the Spirit.  This can help us maintain openness to the inward teacher active both then and now, and increase the likelihood that we will follow that guidance faithfully.
  4. Balancing freedom vs. regulation. The first Friends were always tempted on the one hand with Ranterism, and on the other hand with the need for regulation — which can tend in some cases to verge on over-regulation or control.  We must balance the same tendencies.  Our God is a God of order, not confusion, but where God is, there freedom dwells.
  5. Crisis of authority. The commitment to the ultimate authority of the Spirit of Christ shaped the use and interpretation of the Scriptures, and the severe critique of church tradition developed since apostolic times. These days, there is no agreed-upon authority among Friends except the Spirit — with the additional complication that we are not in agreement about what spirit is guiding us, and how it is to be known. Hence, our practices of discernment and shared seeking and accountability are of crucial importance for the health of the spiritual body.

 

A lot of moving pieces!  Those who called themselves the Children of the Light tuned in to a signal amidst the noise, centering on the presence and activity of the light and spirit of Christ, inwardly and in the gathering people.  This growing focus was made possible by the Publishers of Truth and others who came forth in the ministry, who articulated, for the Children, and the world, what was happening, and explained the shapes that faithfulness was taking — in speech, behavior, worship, and more. They also explained (or developed explanations of) the ways in which this new movement was in continuity with prior revelation — one of the major tasks of Barclay’s Apology, for example. Other innovations, such as the growth of some common discipline and organization, both shared in this work, and were (are!) in tension with it, as is probably healthy, if we are indeed to be guided by the Spirit that “bloweth where it listeth.”  The Gospel life is a mysteriously lawful freedom.

 

The first generations of ministers among Friends saw that their model was a radical, new birth from the Spirit.  The wise ones saw that it was real work, and full of real dangers, both to the movement, and to the ministers.  They were shown early on that, when faithful, their efforts were all fruits of the one Spirit, whose servants they were, on behalf of the whole gathering people.  Being public, visible spokespeople on behalf of that Spirit, they had to be on their guard that they do nothing that would harm those who were spiritually young, nor dishonor or tarnish the movement in the eyes of the unconvinced.

They  took seriously this sense of collaboration, in several ways — and it is my opinion that all of these “methods” were needed, and were mutually reinforcing.

  1. They worked together as way opened or as Friends asked. They made plans for campaigns and journeys, they shared writings, they coached each other on the best way to handle opposition and controversy. They drew up schedules and lists to support their work
  2. They held each other in prayer, and in love for the work’s sake.
  3. They wrote to each other. There are quite a few general letters “to Friends in the ministry” from most of the early leaders, and from occasional others over the first two centuries of the movement (Some Friends had a particular tenderness for their fellow servants —e.g.  George Fox, Charles Marshall, Martha Routh, Samuel Bownas).  Additionally, there are many letters between individuals in the ministry — sharing news about what they are doing, places they’re visiting, people they are talking to, challenges and triumphs, sorrows and joys.
  4. Their communications were not just supportive, but also educative. They gave each other advice and warnings, and called on each other for help.
  5. They met as often as they could to share worship and mutual counsel and comfort.
  6. They expected that faithful workers would grow in the gift, through experience and through all this mutual, forthright support. They remarked on individual’s progress and mistakes.
  7. They kept clear before their eyes their service from the Spirit of Christ, for the Body of Christ, in collaboration with other gifts and callings; and remembered that whatever they received was a gift from that Spirit to be husbanded and not possessed.

The office of “elder” was not differentiated in the way it was in the later 1690s or early 1700s, but minsters (who were often called “elders”, a term generally connoting spiritual authority) were alert to receive counsel from those “well grown in the truth.”  At a time when there was no tradition to embody and teach lessons learned and affirmed by the body out of experience with the guidance of the light, Friends worked from that guidance alone.  In the Spirit, scripture’s authority was used for precedent and insight;  and the wisdom of individuals and worshiping groups was evaluated.

Those with gifts of prophecy, teaching, and counsel, trusting that when faithful they were guided by the same life and truth, lived into a shared apprenticeship — mutually accountable for the diverse gifts and operations of the one Spirit.  We can do this too!

 

__________________________

At present, I will not extend this with illustrations or elaborations of these points (if there were sufficient interest, I might try in future).  For those who want to explore this further, I mention a few references.

Journals which bear on this topic:  George Fox, Samuel Bownas, Martha Routh, Catherine Phillips, John Churchman (many others as well).

Other writings (historical or descriptive) (a selection only!)

 Barclay, A. R., ed. Letters, etc., of Early Friends.in Friends Library Vol. 11. London, Darton & Harvey, 1847.

Beamish, Lucia K.  Quaker ministry 1691 to 1834. Privately published

Bownas, Samuel.  A description of the qualifications necessary to a Gospel minister.

Braithwaite, W.C.   The beginnings of Quakerism.

The second period of Quakerism

(The ministers’ collaboration and mutual support a thread throughout these indispensible works)

Doncaster, Phoebe.  John Stephenson Rowntree: his life and work.  See especially his essay “Gospel Ministry  in the Society of Friends.”

Drayton, B.  On living with a concern for Gospel ministry.

Grundy, Marty.  Early Quaker ministry.

Penn, William. The rise and progress of the people called Quakers.

Taber, William P. 1980. The theology of the inward imperative: travelling Quaker ministry of the middle period. Quaker Religious Thought 18(4): 3-19.

Taber, William P. 1985. The Eye of Faith: A history of Ohio Yearly Meeting, Conservative. (Esp.  Ch. 8, “The ministry of the Golden Age.”

 

Cultivating Gospel ministry, pt 5: Helping each other do the work better

That which Friends speak, they must live in; so may they expect that others may come into that which they speak, to live in the same. Then the water of life cometh in; then he that ministreth, drinketh himself, and giveth others to drink.– Fox

To conclude this series:

How can we get better as we carry the concern for gospel ministry?  How can we help each other get better?  For me, the root of an answer has two branches:  first, being explicit about the intent to grow in the work;  second,  recognizing that all callings and services led by the Spirit are one, are different manifestations of the work of Christ in the world.   We are all bound together closely in the common work of the common life.    Just living into these two principles will stimulate possibilities for mutual support —  here, I offer some thoughts of my own.

Courses and study groups and retreats can be helpful.So also are support or oversight committees, a mechanism which more and more meetings are using to support Friends who are engaged in some long-term concern, which have taken a lot of different forms.

But I keep coming back to the way that ministering Friends (starting with the first generation) have felt that their service, to be most faithful, needed to be fed by fellowship with and mutual oversight of each other.  In prior posts I have tried to lay out some rationale for this. In at least 4 of the Quarters of New England, there have in recent years been gatherings of ministering Friends which were first convened by a visiting Friend, and then have felt led to gather again, a few times a year,  each finding a different form and rhythm (here is a report from a recent one).  As one who has attended several such meetings,  I have wondered, How can we take the next step in active, intentional mutual education, so that we all grow in the work intellectually, spiritually, and practically?

We have to keep it simple — make careful use of time and other resources, so that people and meetings are fed and not burdened by too much structure.  Second,  on the other hand, we need to not over-simplify — not underestimate the work we need to do, and not.  Third, there need to be many channels of support and communication, both to the group, and between individuals — emails, phone calls, letters, blogs, mutual prayer — as well as meetings large and small, planned and spontaneous.  Physical meetings  — in called gatherings or simple visits — anchor and feed (and are fed by) the continuing connective tissue of correspondence and communication, so that we maintain and enrich our sense of companionship and mutual care, our presence to each other.

When ministering Friends do gather, I suggest that. after worshiping together,  they take time to explore together a few key questions, which we should be asking ourselves and each other persistently.  I have developed a list which has been serviceable in gatherings of ministering Friends over many years — not that all need to be addressed in every gathering, but all are good to speak about openly from time to time.

A.  What have you been doing, in the line of the ministry?  How would you describe your concern?  How do you relate your concern to the gospel, to the roots of your religious commitment?

B. Have you been faithful? Were there times when you have not been faithful?  What were the issues you faced? What do you have to be grateful for, in this work?

C. How is your devotional life? Have you made changes in it?  Are there ways in which you are struggling?   How does your calling affect the way you spend your prayer time (or not)?   Does your life feel orderly enough that you can maintain the daily watch, or is there work to do there (whether because of personal issues or factors that appear beyond your control)?

D.  What are you reading?  Why?  Are there particular questions, topics, or issues that you are seeking insight into?  What are you finding challenging or valuable?  In what ways are you engaging with the Bible?  Quaker writings?

E. How is your relation with your meeting? (especially if your concern leads you to activities largely out of sight of the meeting).   How does the meeting know about your work in ministry?  How do you report or recount what you are doing?  In what ways does the meeting support or encourage you?

F.  What questions are opening for you?  Growing edges? What do you want to hear about from other Friends? What are you praying about?  What prayer support would you request?

As I say, these have been serviceable.  So, too, are other questions — the recent “Minute of exercise and queries for Ministry and Counsel” of New England Yearly Meeting (a pdf is found here) can also be valuable.

The key requirement is that Friends come to the conversation with an earnest, practical desire to improve and become more useful, more available to any work God may ask of you for the refreshing of the Children of Light.

 

P.S. Please share, either in reply to this blog post or in other ways, your experience of mutual cultivation of the ministry!  I would also be interested to consider guest posts on this topic — let me know if you feel drawn to write something.

P. P.S. I was delighted to come across the minutes of a meeting of just this type, from 1698, reported in A.R. Barclay, Inner life of the Commonwealth, pg. 287.  I wish I could have been there!

Chesterfield meeting of ministers & elders

The 5th day of the Eighth month, 1698.

At our meeting of Friends in the ministry and Elders, in the meeting-house, in Chesterfield, these things following passed:

First, in our waiting upon the Lord, the Lord appeared very sweetly and powerfully amongst us, and in us, to our great comfort. Praises to his name forever.

Secondly, we had a precious time in prayer and supplication to the Lord in a sweet stream and current of Life Eternal.

Thirdly, after prayer, we — every one that had a part in the ministry — declared how it had been with us, as to our faithfulness therein, and where we had found by experience that the enemy had hurt us or overtaken us unawares at times.

Fourthly, the snares, baits, gins, traps, nets, &c of the enemy were spoken of, and laid to plain view; and caution, counsel, and advice in the love of God given freely from him amongst us.

 

Cultivating gospel ministry pt 4: Seeking counsel from other ministers

In this next-to-last piece in this series, I here quote from my book On living with a concern for gospel ministry (ch 16) — where you can find full sources for the quotations herein.  In my next post, I will offer a suggestion for a way that gatherings of ministering Friends might get to practical grips with the work of mutual up-building — a concern that is slowly gaining strength again, here in New England and elsewhere.

 

Seeking counsel from other ministers
It is a matter for gratefulness that Friends have rediscovered the importance of eldership. However, nothing can take the place of the counsel and fellowship that ministers can offer to each other, and there is the greatest need for this kind of mutual cultivation and support. Indeed, the reason this book is being written at all is because such frank interaction among Friends in the ministry is so rare and precious, and this little book can at least offer an echo of it.
When a Friend is young in the concern, there is a lot to learn about knowing when to act or speak, and when to keep waiting. Those who have struggled with the same questions can offer support and advice that is grounded in personal experience. Ann Crowley describes how, while she was accompanying some Friends travelling in the ministry, she began to feel called to appear in the ministry. She held back, however, believing that she might be mistaken, and in any case her companions were more experienced and she should not get in their way. She kept silent, but they also did as well. She felt turmoil in her uncertainty, but
I spent an instructive evening with my companions, who I believe were dipped into a sense of my condition. The next morning … [my] exercise was renewed; but I was still fearful of believing myself called to so great and important work, as to become a minister of the everlasting gospel of peace and reconciliation. (Skidmore 2004)

She came to understand that her companions’ silence was in fact a consequence of hers, that in those meetings she was given some service which would open the way for the others.
This withholding more than was meet, appeared to shut up the way of my dear companions, for public labour. Indeed, I have come to believe … that, in order to know the life and power to arise in our religious assemblies it is highly needful for all the living members of the body, to keep their ranks in righteousness, whether in doing or suffering for the sake of the cause. (Skidmore 2004)

Other challenges arise, however, as one carries the concern for service through the ups and downs of life. In such cases, the sense of kinship and mutual responsibility between ministers can lead to real consolation as well as frank advice. Lydia Lancaster writes to an old friend,
The last time I heard of thee it was a time of great weakness with thee, which took deep hold of my mind. … Maybe we shall see each other at our spring meeting, meanwhile let us be true in our desires for each other, and for Israel, and for the heritage of God everywhere, that Truth may increase, and cover the earth in a more general way to his praise, and the comfort of all his mourners, that they may put on the garments of praise, instead of the spirit of heaviness—so wisheth, so prayeth, thy firm friend and true lover in the covenant of endless life.(Skidmore 2004)

It’s not just at times of struggle and darkness, though, but also times of joy or solid accomplishment, that a word from someone you know to be an experienced colleague can confirm and solidify your experience. A few years ago, I found myself with a message breaking through with a fresh sense of freedom and fearlessness, to speak both more strongly and more tenderly from my inward experience than I had felt able to before. An older Friend said to me in an opportunity later, that he could confirm that he heard something authentic and fresh, and that I was finally “getting somewhere.” Knowing his gift for listening, and his own long history of seeking for faithfulness, I was greatly encouraged—and put more on the watch than ever. When such a Friend says, “Thee was used, today,” it is very meaningful; and it makes one more eager to affirm and encourage others.
But these personal encounters, important though they are, do not exhaust the resources that Quakerism has developed for the support of those carrying the concern for Gospel ministry. A great service of the traditional meetings of ministers and elders was that they provided a regular opportunity for those under the same concern (each according to their own gifts) to speak to and guide each other. Where these meetings exerted control and repression, they were harmful, and no one would wish their return. Yet they had this virtue, that they were an explicit assertion by the Society that ministers sometimes should meet together for support and counsel.
In his article, “Our Quaker ministry twenty years after the cessation of recording,” T. E. Harvey (of London Yearly Meeting) deplores the loss of the chance at yearly meeting for recorded ministers to meet and counsel with each other, which he found a great solace and help in his youth. It may be, however, that some will not have a clear sense of what kinds of advice he might have in mind when he writes:
there are all kinds of simple, practical advice which those who are called to speak in meeting can offer to one another, and which cannot be given in the same way by those who never open their mouths in meeting and do not know from within what it means to do so. (Harvey 1946)

It is also likely that such meetings could arouse concern or fear that they represent a potential “elite” within the larger body. Such fears can only be addressed by the experimental evidence of more humble, courageous, and effective service among those who attend and benefit from such gatherings.
They were occasions in which experienced ministers, with great tenderness, and under the sense of a blessed unity in the love and service of Christ, often gave wise and helpful counsel to their younger brethren. Offerings in the ministry from those whose names were not yet recorded on the list of approved ministers were passed under review, in a confidential and loving spirit; and when occasion seemed to call for it, individuals were deputed to procure interviews with some of these Friends, and to convey to them messages of counsel or encouragement as the case might seem to require. (J.J Dymond)

Perhaps more practical for modern unprogrammed Friends is the notion that ministers (which might mean “anyone who speaks in meeting and feels drawn to the gathering”) should gather together informally from time to time, for mutual support and advice. This kind of gathering is sometimes hard for Friends to organize in their home meeting—perhaps because of embarrassment, or some other sort of inhibition about naming gifts, or causing disagreements or discomfort within the community.

For this reason, a concerned visitor is sometimes better able to help this happen. Sometimes Friends in the ministry were concerned to convene ministers either in their home area, or when travelling. Such episodes are very common in the journals of the Quaker middle period, for such Friends as Scott, Churchman, or Bownas, for whom this was a perennial concern. From more recently, T. Harvey writes:
I can remember attending in London some forty years ago [ca. 1900] the meeting of Recorded Ministers which was held at intervals … that is almost the only gathering of Friends engaged in the service of the Ministry which I can recall from my own personal experience, in spite of the very definite instruction of [London] Yearly Meeting encouraging everywhere this kind of fellowship.

Such gatherings were known from the earliest days of the Quaker movement, and through meetings and correspondence, those Friends who bore some share of the ministry trained, guided, encouraged, and reproved each other, frankly and in love, for the work’s sake. From the nineteenth century, J. J. Dymond recalled the value of such occasions, and urged their renewal in his own day:
if something like the restoration of the “Preachers’ meetings” which existed in the very early days of the Society could be brought about, it would be to me a joyful realization of the desire of many years … it is needless here to describe in detail what should be the duties of such meetings. They would … afford opportunity for united prayer, for considering the needs of the flock, and for taking counsel together in order to the furtherance and efficiency of the work of the Gospel among us. (Dymond 1892)

I can relate the story of a recent, hopeful experiment in this direction, which might help make this whole idea more concrete, more realistic, and less forbidding than it might appear to some readers of this chapter so far. In the 1980s and 1990s in New England, Friends who were travelling in the ministry met together three or four times a year, and communicated also by way of an occasional newsletter. These gatherings were quite informal, typically on a Saturday for a few hours; attendance varied from six or eight, to as many as 15. After some opening worship, we would spend the time it took to tell each other what we had been doing, where we had been going, interesting things we’d noticed at meetings we’d visited. In this way, we all improved our knowledge of events around the yearly meeting, and also became aware of meetings that were particularly in need of visits from Friends.
Many of us attending were not travelling much, or even were only thinking of doing so, and such Friends could hear all the different kinds of intervisitation that were going on, with or without minutes, with or without specific concerns or topics to talk about, and so on. We gave each other advice about travel minutes or questions about reporting to our own meetings, and gave each other feedback, and prayed for each other. We also found partners, made agreements to accompany each other, and shared potluck lunches and the stories of our everyday lives. The meetings faded away when several of the convening Friends were unable to continue scheduling meetings, and putting out newsletters. While they continued, however, they were instructive, refreshing, encouraging, and fun.

Cultivating Gospel Ministry pt 3: Varieties of gifts!

My focus in this series of posts has been specifically on the gifts that Friends traditionally have included under gospel ministry. But although this would seem to limit the discussion to one kind of gift, not speaking of other kinds of service under concern, in this post I want to point out that “gospel ministry” is itself a term covering quite a diversity of gifts and operations under the guidance of the Spirit.

The reason this is important is that if we are aware of this diversity, we will be more likely to see the gifts emerging (in ourselves or others). I suspect that many gifts are overlooked or rejected because they don’t fit people’s preconceptions of what shape a gift in the ministry might take. Moreover, even Friends who have accepted that the ministry is a concern and task laid on them may usefully be aware of these varieties of service, and thus the possibility of some growth in the ministry.  Finally, those who have a care for the ministry in our meetings should sometimes reflect on whether there is a healthy variety of ministry in their meetings, and be open to opportunities to encourage prayerful experimentation.

For the purposes of this discussion, I consider these varieties under two heads:
A. Varieties of voices
B. Varieties of operation

A. Varieties of voices

We are happy to recall that Friends from the beginning welcomed the ministry of women, and were willing to accept the evidence of their discerning hearts that it was authentically led by the Spirit.  We know intellectually that Friends of many conditions came forth in the ministry — but how attentive are we to watch for gifts emerging in young people (James Parnell, for example, did important service as a publisher of truth in his mid-teens), or in people of different classes and degrees of education (butchers, sign-painters, farmers, sailors, blacksmiths, maid- and man-servants, as well as the educated, well-born, or genteel).  And here I would like also to point out that age is no barrier — one can never be too old to take on the work, either, and there are older Friends who have done so — and there may be older Friends among us who are feeling now the pull of  love that is the nub of the matter.  Nor are ethnic, national, racial, or religious backgrounds any predictor of where God will find out messengers and servants.

Indeed, this variety has been in the past, and can be now, a great source of strength, and it gives evidence of the breadth and depth of the Christian life, which is alike for all:  Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise;  God chose what was weak in the world to shame the strong; he chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are nothing, to bring to nothing the things that count in the world’s eyes….Let the one who boasts, boast only in the Lord.  (1Cor.: 26-31)

 

B.  Varieties of operation

It is a mighty thing to be in the work of the ministry of the Lord God, and to go forth in that. It is not as a customary preaching; but it is to bring people to the end of all outward preaching. — Fox

The end of the ministry is not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection. — Penington

Just as the ministry should come in many voices, so also it should take many forms, answering to the many moods and conditions in which people may need encouragement, instruction, or companionship.  No one Friend may be led or prepared (by the Spirit) for all such varieties — remember the facing bench challenge!

I here beg leave to quote from something I once wrote on this subject:

What kinds of things have Friends done, either when travelling or at home? There has always been a wide range of concerns, and gifts for them, and degrees of skill or effectiveness in each.

Preaching in meeting on First days is one gift that actually has historically included several types, often noted in journals or other accounts. For example, some Friends particularly excel at vocal prayer, others at the use of Scriptural material to illuminate some topic. Some say only a few words at a time, and some speak at more length. Some have had much psychological insight, and been gifted at exposing people’s misconceptions, breaking down their sense of self-sufficiency, and opening people to the Light (a “plowing” or “planting” ministry). Some are especially gifted at reaching to those who are young in their spiritual lives, and need encouragement and help in developing and deepening their practice (a “watering ministry”). Some have focused on ethics and social concerns, some on theological or doctrinal topics. There are well-known cases of Friends who have a particular calling to reach out to non-Friends, and rarely speak in their home meeting at all. I can think of one Friend of great gifts of preaching, counsel, and “presence” whose primary calling seems to be to a Latin American yearly meeting, where her gifts are called on intensively, and welcomed gratefully.

Others find that their concern is worked out best in other settings such as in writing, in teaching forums and workshops, in “opportunities,” or in family visits of a more systematic nature. J.B. Braithwaite’s children wrote of their father:

As a minister of the gospel, he saw openings that had never before presented themselves, and the work needing to be done was more than he could cope with … much of his early ministerial work was done among his own people, either in Westmoreland or in London and Middlesex … This work near home was carried on during the ordinary course of life.  Legal work during the week, often with pastoral visits in the evenings; First day spent at some outlying Meeting, with all the spaces between meeting diligently made use of—such is very commonly the arduous life of an earnest Quaker minister.

Understanding the shape of your concern at the present time is part of keeping close to the gift. However, it is also worth asking yourself, is more called for? Have I not seen an opening for service, merely because I did not imagine it to be possible? It seems to me very likely that we do not have all the ministry we need, in all the varied forms that would really cultivate and nourish the life in our meetings, and that many gifts of service and witness remain underused and poorly developed, because there are not enough Friends with the experience, commitment, tact, and imagination to notice, pray for, encourage, and give thanks for their Friends’ gifts and talents. After all, while you or I may have some gift or leading, it is of no effect if it is not received, and as noted above, one of the most important functions of a minister is to be eager to find others getting engaged in their own proper service. Therefore, I recommend to you, reader, that you inquire…. whether there are not other kinds of service that you might render. Remember the old story of the elder who comes to a young Friend and asks him if he might possibly have a calling to the ministry. The younger Friend replies “I have not had that concern.” The older Friend shoots back “But has thee had the concern to have the concern?” “Covet earnestly the best gifts,” and “work while it is day”!

Another quotation from Penn’s Rise and Progress emphasizes alertness for opportunities to serve:

I beseech you that you would not think it sufficient to declare the Word of life in their assemblies, however edifying and comfortable such opportunities may be to you and them; but … to inquire into the state of the several churches you visit; who among them are afflicted or sick, who are tempted, and if any are unfaithful or obstinate; and endeavor to issue those things in the wisdom and power of God … the afflicted will be comforted by you, the tempted strengthened, the sick refreshed, the unfaithful convicted and restored, and such as are obstinate, softened and fitted for reconciliation.

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.

 

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.

The fear of the Lord is our treasure*

Many of us are feeling fatigued and burdened by the condition of the society we live in. On top of many long-standing concerns for justice, peace, and the human impact on the ecosphere, recent events have forced Americans to acknowledge deep truths about our nation which are so distressing as to make one echo George Fox: “They struck at my life.”

I have been meditating for the last couple of weeks on this line from Isaiah 33.6: The fear of the Lord is Zion’s treasure. (NRSV)

My first response was to hear in this a challenging statement of allegiance — as in Ps. 20: Some take pride in horses, and some in chariots, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.  This sounds to me like a call to combat, maintaining the integrity of the Commonwealth of God where it has gained some being in the world, and a reminder that our weapons are spiritual weapons.  It is inspiriting, and I have sometimes taken much encouragement from the Psalm 20 verse.

Yet as a strategy of resistance, it does not today seem hopeful to me, except as a first declaration.  Resistance, if it is founded on self-assertion and rejection, is a recipe for exhaustion when the forces of Unlife are so active in so many shapes, within us, among us, around us in the culture.     You see some moral outrage, and respond — and even as it is beaten back, two more spring up.  As when Hercules fought the Hydra, which kept sprouting heads as each was removed; or struggled with Antaeus, who drew fresh strength from every contact with the earth;  or as when I weed my garden, and pulling up a bunch of grass,see,  alas, a stolon running off into the distance, to sprout again another day… The labor seems relentless and multiplying.  With repetition and fatigue can come an impatience, a brittleness, in which one wishes for some quick end to the struggle — and when it doesn’t come, hopelessness sets in, or anger.  The force of will can be depleted, no matter what one’s capacity for righteous indignation may be.

But there is another way to understand the Treasure of Zion, which is our treasure.  The “fear of the Lord” can of course mean fear as before something dangerous or threatening — but very often it can be understood as “awe,” a being transported out of one’s normal frame of reference.  This awe, indeed, is our treasure:  In that experience we are tendered, made vulnerable and available to growth; and we see our selves in perspective.  It is a condition in which the Light can work upon us, showing us what we are, and where we stand — that is, what we are relying on, at bottom.  This experience can be chastening, humbling, even shocking.  It is natural and easy to rely on someone or something else to be our moral compass or our source of meaning.  We may discover that we have founded our hopes on what amounts to an idol, something that makes a plausible show, but has not the power we have attributed to it — investing it with our selves, and losing to it some part of our individuality and our strength, and in the process looking away from truth.

But the disillusionment that comes through the working of the Light on one who has been caught in a moment of awe/awareness comes with a measure of liberation, and thence some power to live into that freedom — just what has been given, no more (not yet!).  If, in the place of awe, we see the little motion of life for what it is, taste the little savor of blessing that comes with the judgment, we can make way for it to be integrated in us, incarnated in mind, heart, and  habitus; and so we are grown up a little more in the life of Christ.

In a way, the Quaker “method” comes down to this:  To see (feel, sense, know) when we stand at the threshold of awe, unsurprised by its humbleness, its seeming weakness (as it accommodates like a good teacher to our capacity), and to accept that gift with thanksgiving, knowing it to be the place where we can stay in safety, in integrity, and in a hope that is no fixed destination, but a relationship, a process, a living process.  From here, resistance to Unlife comes with love and forgiveness for its agents, even as we see ever more clearly that our safety resides in the keeping to the measure of life we have found, which bears no evil in itself, takes its kingdom with entreaty, and keeps it by lowliness of mind.

The citadel of our establishment, and the treasure within it, which is no cold gem, but a nourishing Seed, are found here in the little sweet flowing of that life: The fear of the Lord, the treasure of Zion — it is our treasure.

* the substance of a message in meeting

Easter: Meditation on two shrines

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in Israel for a professional conference. I was traveling with a colleague who knew the country very well, and suggested that we spend a little time in Jerusalem en route to the meetings. My friend surprised me by hiring an Israeli guide to take us around to some of the principal Christian sights. One stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a site laden with centuries of devotion, credulity,  and conflict.  I was not at all in the spirit of pigrimage as I entered the vast, rambling structure.  I gazed unmoved on the Stone of Unction, and some of the various other minor sights.

We soon came to the stair that takes you up to the top of the traditional site of Calvary — glass along the side gives glimpses of the ledge as you climb.  The masonry pile above us cut off a lot of light, and it was pretty dim by the time we got to the top.  Over the spot where the crucifixion was supposed to have happened, however, there was a blaze of lamps, reflected and tinted by gold, yea, much fine gold — the Greek Orthodox, I believe, have care of this part of the church, and the adornments are rich and, in a sense, passionate.  In the heart of all that blaze, there is a little hole in the glass, big enough to reach a hand in.

Remarkably, we three were alone for a little while up there. My friend, seeing me hanging back, and sensing some inhibition on my part, urged me to go ahead and put  my hand in the hole.  So, quite aware of the unlikelihood that this was the spot, and feeling nothing much but some embarrassement,  I nevertheless set all that aside, and performed the pilgrim’s act, reaching in to the stone, plain bare rock, beneath all the artifice.  With no preliminary indication of any emotion, I burst into tears.   Despite the part of myself that stood aloof, psychologizing, it was a confession that came from someplace deep, the place of inarticulate groaning which the Spirit can interpret for us, up to God, and also to ourselves.  I was shaken, and have often returned to that moment in memory.

My friend remarking on my state, we went downstairs again mostly in silence, and passed into the great open space under the dome, where stands the “Aedicule,” the little structure over the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. Here, one could see all too clearly how fierce devotion can be so married with personal or sectarian identity that what was most striking was the evidence of strife and contention among the various groups seeking honor in overseeing the shrine.    I went inside, and looked around — the putative tomb chamber itself has been protected  by a marble slab from sight and too much contact with hands and feet for many years; access was impossible, and there was nothing to see but what people had constructed there.  I left the Aedicule, and the Church without further edification (so to speak).

Yesterday in meeting I found myself remembering all this, and hearing the warm spring wind outside our meeting room. I thought, How easily we seek the living among the dead! Dry bones crunch under our feet, and we can wield them as weapons, and find ourselves touched, or absorbed, into the carnival atmosphere of the culture of un-life.

And yet: After the tomb was found empty, the Spirit of Christ showed the dynamic and unpredictable personality that Jesus had both shown and taught.  Mary, grieving and longing, did not recognize him upon first encounter, nor did the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus had taught, “Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there will I be in the midst of them,” but several of the reported appearances were not at any obvious gathering — Mary in the garden; two guys walking along the road; disciplines gathered in confusion in the upper room;  Peter and the gang, at loose ends, going fishing;  Paul, riding to Damascus breathing out fire and threatenings against the new movement.

It was a transitional time, a final time of direct apprenticeship, as the incarnation in one personality, Jesus, was attenuated more and more, preparing the vessel of the fellowship to live as the continued incarnation, living in, and living out, the promise of the cross, which is freedom constrained by a love which embraces, underlies, enlivens, all the other, essential, “prophetic” virtues — truth, justice, compassion, mourning, joy, service, humility, patience, courage.  And there is no time or era when the Witness is not present, seeking our hospitality, and inviting us to take on the yoke of reconciliation.

Listening to the weather change outside our meeting room, and reaching in to stir the air in our quiet gathering, I heard again the verse from John’s gospel that so challenges me these days:  “The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it but you don’t know whence it comes, nor whither it goes — everyone who is born of the spirit is like that.”  Peace given in the whirl and motion of created things — not as the world (out there and in ourselves) gives it, or would have us imagine it, airless, still, and constrained.

I do long to ride that living wind; beyond and beneath all that I think and have read, despite my doubts and unfaithfulnesses, and those at large in the world, I know that my redeemer liveth.

The facing bench challenge

In traditional Friends meetinghouses, you will find 2 or 3 (sometimes more) rows of benches facing the majority of the seats in the meeting room. (You can see the facing benches from the Henniker meetinghouse, built 1799,  here). These seats are usually called the”facing benches” or “ministers’ gallery.”   I will briefly remind Dear Reader what they were designed for, but that’s not my main point here.

Backgound.  In Quaker theology, it is the Spirit of Christ that should direct the worship upon any occasion, and that Spirit may direct anyone present to make a vocal contribution — prayer, teaching, preaching, testimony, song — as a service to the worship.  We are advised “Do not assume that vocal ministry will never be your part, ” and this is one (not the only!) reason we are to come to worship with hearts and minds prepared.

But in addition to this precious freedom, Friends have traditionally testified 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 concerned for the Gospel ministry  is a vital element nourishing the faithfulness of the whole body. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, writes:

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.

Such people are expected to consecrate time, effort, and other resources to the work, and to learn over time how to do it more faithfully and well.   When a meeting came to the conclusion that a Friend had this gift, she or he was expected to sit in the ministers’ gallery.    In addition, there are Friends whose gifts are principally those of spiritual nurture, whose work in the worship is to maintain an active, prayerful, watchfulness in the service of the quality of the worship and the ministry.  These Friends, “well grown in the truth” regardless of their age, were termed “elders,” and also expected to sit on the facing benches.  It was part of the orderly holding of worship for Friends with these responsibilities to face the meeting.

In recent decades, the facing benches in most places are no longer “marked” for this function, and indeed Friends prefer their seating to be in circles or hollow squares, so that all the worshipers are facing a common center where no human is.  This trend reflects a typical reluctance to name and nurture those with “chronic” gifts in ministry or eldership.

I note, however, that the gifts keep emerging, and we have such a need for them!

Foreground.  A few years ago, I was at the beautiful old meetinghouse in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  It’s a splendid space, large and light=filled, built during the city’s prosperity as a center of the whale-fishery.  As I often do in empty meeting houses, I went and sat for a few minutes in the ministers’ gallery, picturing the meetinghouse full and centered, in the stream of divine life and instruction.  I realized that the facing benches here could have held dozens of Friends, even allowing for our cultural preferences with regard to”personal space.”   After that, I fell into the habit of computing how many people might’ve sat in the facing benches of the meetinghouses I visit.  Even in our little meetinghouse in Henniker, NH, which has a capacity of perhaps 65, the facing benches could seat close to 20 (and when both men’s and women’s sides were in use, double that).   The facing benches constitute between 5% and 15% of the total seating capacity in most places I’ve seen.

This architectural detail is a reminder that Friends traditionally expected that the gifts of ministry and eldership would be poured out plentifully.  Each person’s gift has a different “shape,” and a meeting’s spiritual work can best be served by this diversity of gifts — and the meetings at their best felt it their duty to see and nurture that diversity.  It was not an exclusive club, any more than there is a limit on musical gifts — the gifts traditionally called ministry and eldership are given to encourage all the many kinds of life in our meetings — and there’s a lot of work to be done.   Can we become less fearful, grudging, parsimonious in our thinking about these matters?

I encourage you, Dear Reader, to reflect on the implications of the facing benches, even if your meeting doesn’t have any, or even has no benches!  Is your meeting (or are you) so shy of seeing and encouraging people’s gifts that many remain under-developed, mis-shapen, or even overlooked?  Can we so learn again to rely on the Spirit’s guidance that we can accept the abundance that is offered us, and welcome it by taking intentional practical steps to  help our many gifted Friends to  nurture, train, and exercise those gifts whole-heartedly?  The fields are white to the harvest, but there are too few hands at work — though the Lord of the harvest keeps sending workers to us.