Fig #2: Blasted fig!

Matt 21: 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

The most important thing that happened to me in high school was that I read the gospels. They were challenging and disturbing and inspiring, and I haven’t gotten over it.  I discovered, too, that reading the gospels was a doorway into a thousand fascinating conversations that have been going on for the past 2,000 years.  Exhilarating.

Later, sometime around my junior year, I came across Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and read it with considerable enjoyment and some disturbance —  Russell’s prose invites to discussion and debate, and his take on religion (though often irritatingly glib) was different from any I’d encountered before.  In the course of the eponymous essay (you can read it here), he comments in passing on the “Jesus blasted the fig” story, and he is not impressed:

This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.

Was this, as Russell suggested, another example of Jesus’ increasingly erratic or deluded self-conception?  Russell got me thinking, but he did not disengage me from the Gospel story.  I did worry about this anecdote, though. It did seem odd, and indeed out of character for Jesus.

After all, one thing that is quite clear from the Gospel record is that Jesus was aware of seasonal and agricultural cycles.  And if nothing else, he knew the Psalms well, and understood that a healthy tree “putteth forth his fruit in his season”  (Ps. 1).  This is not someone who, itinerating across the land,  would imagine, nor expect,  that figs were available when they were not.  I have concluded that the gospel writers quite misinterpreted the whole event.

Others have tried to make sense of this story, in ways that show more ingenuity than insight, as I read them.  William Telford, in expounding this passage,  quotes a scholar as arguing that “In symblic commentary upon the Jewish expectation [of the messianic age’s beginning in springtime, signalled by the fig’s blossoming], Jesus withers the tree, so indicating that the Jewish view of the New Exodus and Messianic Age is not to be.”    Ugh.  Quite aside from the strong supercessionist overtones, this seems to me to be bad exegesis (“not even wrong”), as there is nothing in the text that suggests that Jesus had any such thing in mind.  Telford comments that this among other “solutions” to the problematical fig seem focused on the dogmatic aim of “removing the blot on Jesus’ character.”  I agree.

A quick search of other commentaries produces other examples in which the problem of this blasted fig is solved by attributing to Jesus some intent to comment on the state of the people of Israel.  “What Jesus is doing is pronouncing on the already sealed fate of the nation…he is lamenting over the sorry condition of his nation that is bent on despising God’s gracious purpose and will inevitably suffer for it in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.”   (Ralph Martin)

Now, it seems to me that Martin (and others he refers to) have this much right, that this is a prophetic sign, rather that simple petulance.  Yet it cannot have the kinds of meaning attributed to it — grand statements about the fate of the apostate nation, or what have you.  For one thing, Mark (ch 11) and Matthew (21: 18-22) actually supply comments by Jesus.  The disciplines, at the sight of the tree blasted by a word, are all “Gee whiz, that’s amazing!”, but Jesus says, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,’  it shall be done.  And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

Nothing there about his people not receiving him, nor the fall of Jerusalem.

Yet part of the reason the incident is so puzzling is that the rationale supplied by the narrative is sort of irrelevant.   The teaching on faith that can move a mountain (an example of the rhetorical exaggeration which Jesus often uses) occurs elsewhere in the gospels, unconnected with any fig trees (though in Luke 17:6 the faith is in fact transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea).  As Harvey’s Companion to the New Testament comments, the sayings attached to the blasted fig  “were presumably remembered separately,”  to be deployed by the gospel-writer as seemed best to him, and not originally linked to the fig tree.  (I will return to the mulberry and the fig in my next post.)  In any case, the commenters do not seem to me to “unscrew the inscrutable.”  I don’t know that I can, but I here offer my mite.

A note on the context.  First, I would note that in both Matthew and Mark, this incident occurs just after (in the same chapter as) two other striking events:   the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem,”  and the driving out of the money-changers from the Temple. Both of these public demonstrations are intentionally saturated with symbolic elements — relating to the key concerns of idolatry, the kingship of God, and the way in which Jesus taught the kingdom is to be proclaimed and manifested.  Taken together with these prior events, the fig-tree incident may be seen as a third prophetic sign.

A note on prophetic signs.  The “prophetic signs” of (for example) Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are sometimes interpreted as “nonverbal proclamation,” but they are very often accompanied by words, in which the prophet interprets his action. (See here for an earlier post exploring this a bit more.)  The act gets attention, and grips the imagination;  the preaching then, as it were, enters into the breach that the act has created in the wall of habit.  Jesus understood this and used it powerfully — including in the great prophetic sign of Calvary.

So what? How to take this blasted fig?  The fig tree incident takes place  towards the beginning of the final, intensifying phase of Jesus’ teaching. He has come to Jerusalem in the season leading up to Passover, the festival of liberation, conscious that danger is growing.  These chapters have a compelling narrative momentum, with Jesus driving forward the core of his teachings, his revelation, about the nature of God’s rule, and his radical understanding of the process by which we are to be freed in and through the God who is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, whose fellowship is with the outcast, the unprivileged, and the teachable, compassionate, child-like peacemakers.   An essential characteristic of his teaching is surprise.  All through these final chapters, we hear again and again that God’s time is not our own, that God’s presence offering liberation will come, not when we expect it, but when the Holy One moves.  Keep awake! for you do not know on what day your Lord is to come! (Matt. 24:42, NEV)

The message is epitomized, perhaps, by the parable of the “Wise and foolish virgins” (here, the KJV):

25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 25:2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 25:3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 25:4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 25:5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 25:7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 25:9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 25:10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 25:11 Later,the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!” 25:12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth,  I do not know you!’ 25:13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

This, I take it, is the message of the blasted fig:  Of course, it seems illogical that I should be concerned now to be bearing fruit.  I’m not ready, and I’ve got nothing to offer.  Just wait!  Next week, next month, next year, next life, I’ll have something ready!

Christ, though, is here and at work, and expects us to offer our mite, employ our talents (no matter how poor we think them), to give when asked (just as we are to ask in our turn), to live generously as way opens— generous with our compassion, with our prayer, with our service.  This is, indeed the end times, because for each of us “there is no time but this present. ”  And there is one more fig, which think belongs just here:

Learn a lesson from the fig tree:  When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the every door….But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven;  not even the Son;  only the Father. (Matt. 24:32-36, NEV).

 

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Two Figs: Fig #1

I was reading yet another argument the other day, about biblical teaching on humans and the environment which focused on alternative readings of Genesis 1:26.  This is where God says, “Let’s make a human being in our image and likeness, and let [ humans] [do something] to/for the fish, the birds, etc.”  The key question debated is how to construe the “do something.”  Is it rule over? Lead?  Exercise stewardship? Superintend?  Freely exploit?

Rather than engage with all that yummy philology, I have become interested in what kinds of ecological awareness can be discerned in the bible, including the role of human activity as part of, or in contrast to, what all the other organisms in the world are up to. What is taken for granted?  Is there discernable a theory of the balance of nature (scientifically problematic, but a metaphor that sometimes has the effect of motivating good stewardship)?  Is there a sense of human dependence upon the biosphere’s health and functioning?  Is there a sense of nature’s value, quite aside from human purpose?  That kind of thing.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the first passages that came to mind was the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke xiii:6.  Not the story where Jesus blasts a tree for not having figs when he wants them (I will get to that later, in Fig #2).  This is the one I mean:

6 He spake also this parable; A certain man [someone] had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. 7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? 8 And he answering said unto him, Lord [Sir],  let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. (KJV)

To me, this parable speaks of God’s compassion and patience— but also has something to say about Jesus’ ecological presumptions.

Clearly, the fig tree is being judged by its fruits (Matt. 7:16), and found wanting.  The land-owner thinks the case is clear — time to clear the tree away.  His gardener says, “Well, wait a minute.  Give me time to try some things here. You’re right, we want the figs, so if nothing gives, we’ll take it down. But a little more care could make the difference.”  The owner agrees.  We don’t hear how it turned out!

Now, I found a sermon by Augustine of Hippo that expounds on this parable (you can read it here).  It is a fine example of allegorical exposition (see here for a dense but useful epitome of “senses” of Scripture), in which each participant in the parable (including the dung) is given a spiritual interpretation relating it to the process of salvation.  Augustine seems to equate the owner with Christ, who will come to judge at the End.  The gardener “is every saint who within the Church prays for those who are without the Church.”  The fig tree represents “the sinners, the unbelievers, the unfruitful.”  The digging represents “the teaching [of] lowliness and repentance.”  As for the dung:  “It is filthy, but it produces fruit. The gardener’s filth is the sinner’s sorrows.”

Far be it from me to quibble with the august bishop, but I would take this parable a little differently.  I think the owner is God as Creator, Planter of Gardens, who placed Humans (male and female), along with the other  creatures amidst a teeming land- and sea-scape. Each is created to be generative.  Humans, however,  are asked not only to produce offspring, like all the other species, but also fruits of that part of their nature most akin to God’s — insight, relationship, imagination, compassion, beauty — fruits of thinking, feeling, willing, loving.

This Being (the Greek just says “Someone”) has seen no fruit, and asks the Gardener  to take action.  But the Gardener argues on behalf of the tree — maybe with more care it will respond! — and the Someone yields to his advice.

This is in the fine tradition of Abraham pleading with God for a few just men in Sodom (Gen. 18), and it seems clear to me that the Gardener here is Jesus, that Prophet and more than prophet, who represents himself elsewhere as a shepherd.  Jesus knows the human heart (John 2), and in this case asserts that he has more work to do, opening the soul (soil) up to air, bringing enrichment (derived from the processes of life) to nourish the roots, shoots, leaves, which must flourish before the plant is in condition to bear fruit, and bear it to maturity (until it is “perfect,” teleios, completed, matured.)  The tree must take advantage of the cultivation, which may come through many instruments and sources — the “mulch” that feeds us can be from the work of Christ in us, or in material form — words and deeds, examples and investigations, the stuff of life and social involvement.   The gardener cannot create the fruit, nor even dictate the season of its appearance — the tree must incorporate the resources available to it, and from its own substance, thereby fortified, through quiet even hidden internal process bear what fruit it can.

 

To return to my main focus:  Note here, that Jesus (and his hearers) are acquainted with gardening practice, with the complementary relationship of vegetable life and animal life, each making available required nutrients not otherwise accessible.  The parable also assumes the element of time — plant growth, and agriculture, have their own rhythms, and humans can play a constructive role  — but it must be a collaborative one, indeed a symbiotic one, since for humans to receive the fruit they need, they must ensure the plant’s nourishing, communicating or transacting with it in the ‘language’ it can understand, which we may call chemistry, physics, and biology, but the plant experiences wordlessly, with its whole being.

 

 

Heaven and hell in Quaker preaching

A recent Friends Journal issue (August 2017) has as its theme “The art of dying and the afterlife.”  There were two moving first-person accounts from Friends of their ideas and experiences relating to the afterlife, but the general tenor of the issue is not concerned with that aspect of death and dying.  This is very much in keeping with the modern Quaker narrative, which is that “we don’t pay much attention to that kind of thing. ”  We resonate with the famous story, told in many forms (here quoted from a curious tome,  That unknown country; or, what living men believe concerning punishment after death):

A mediaeval story runs that a venerable bishop met in the streets of the city a woman, with a face of fierce but solemn determination, and a rapid step, bearing in one hand a pan of burning coals and in the other a bucket of water. To the bishop asking her whither she was going she answered, ” With this fire to burn up heaven and with this water to quench hell, that men may learn to serve God for himself alone.”

The FJ issue put me in mind of an incident in my own life from a few years ago.  A member of a local meeting, at an advanced age, though not (as far as I know) in ill health, decided that the time had come for her to withdraw from life.  She adopted the method that Scott Nearing had used, ceasing to eat and then allowing the lack of nourishment to gradually enfeeble herself until death.  The Friend told her family, and her meeting. Although (as I recall) the meeting sought to dissuade her, she was quite clear, and in a sense very positive about the prospect.  She expected to be less and less engaged with people as the process continued, but she invited individuals to come keep her company during the last few weeks.

A friend of ours, not a Quaker but a practitioner of another path, volunteered to take a turn or two sitting with the Friend, and during the same time, expressed a desire to go with Darcy and me to worship at our meeting.  During the trip there, she expressed some strong discomfort with our Friend’s decision to cease living, and wanted to know the Quaker attitude towards such an action.  She also asked what the Quaker doctrine of the afterlife is.  Darcy and I did our best to explain that the Quaker focus is on the quality of the life now, and that the afterlife would take care of itself.  Something like that.

But the query got me wondering:  Is this lack of interest (or belief) in life after death and its nature a modern thing?  A liberal thing? An American thing?  Following my instinct on all such occasions to run ad fontes! (go to the sources! as we used to say in the Renaissance),  decided to explore early Quaker attitudes.  Many are familiar with the beautiful passages on death and the afterlife  in William Penn’s Fruits of solitude (some of which even appears as an epigraph to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).  One can occasionally find statements in controversial tracts, often written to prove Quakers’ essential orthodoxy against hostile accusers.  For example, George Fox the Younger (one of the First Publishers of Truth) writes:   I do steadfastly believe that there is a  glorious state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Immortal Seed, wherein they shall be swallowed up of Life, Glory, and Immortality [and] I do certainly believe that there is a woful [sic] dreadful, horrible state to be entered into after this life, by all them that shall be found in the Seed of the Serpent, wherein they shall be swallowed up of perpetual Torment and Misery, where the Worm dyeth not, but shall gnaw everlastingly, and the Fire goeth not out.   (written from prison in 1661;   In A Collection of the several books and writings…(2nd edition), 1665, pg 197.  The original typography is much more exciting than I can reproduce here.)

But it is often the case that Quaker truth was expressed very differently to those gathered with the Children of Light than it was in controversies with the unsympathetic.   I decided to look at Quaker sermons from the first few generations of Friends (before 1700).  There are more of these, taken down for the most part by anonymous inquirers with the gift of short-hand, than you might think – several by Fox, for example, and at least 32 by Stephen Crisp.  These were all sermons given at Friends’ meetings (most often at Gracechurch Street), and not primarily for “the world.”  This gives some sense, therefore, of how Friends communicated within the fold, so to speak, and where they placed their emphasis

I did a sort of random selection from collections in my possession (references at the end for the curious), looking at 41 pre-1700 sermons by a variety of Friends,  including 5 by Crisp, 9 by Fox, 9 by Penn, and also by Barclay, Dewsbury, Marshall, Stamper, and others. (These collections contained no sermons by women.)

My results:
A. In 27 of these I found references to heaven, eternal life, or the expectation of judgment after death. In short, early Friends could be said to hold to the testimony of the New Testament authors.

B. There is very rare mention of, or warning about, damnation. One example is found in a remarkable wedding sermon by William Penn, delivered Oct 3, 1694:

. We see God’s visible care over all the works of his hands. Here in this world, his goodness is extended to all, both good and bad:  he is kind to the unthankful;  he causeth the sun to rise upon the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust;  but in the other world, there is no shining of the Sun of righteousness upon the wicked and ungodly;  no comforts of the Holy Ghost, no manifestations of love vouchsafed to them;  but there is a revelation of wrath, and the fiery indignation of the Almighty.  (in Harmony pg. 103)

In the sermons there are lots of references to eternal life, or life everlasting, or salvation, but —and this message is familiar to modern Friends — the general tenor of these is such that they are linked rather with the invitation to live NOW under the guidance of the Spirit, in unity with Christ, and with the things making for spiritual death expunged by the inward work of Christ’s spirit and light.  So also did Robert Barclay teach, when he wrote in the Apology about the “day of visitation” that each of us is given — the days of our lives, in which we are to work the works of God, for “the night is coming when no man worketh.”  (John 9:4)

We have become accustomed to talk about the first Friends as being “apocalyptic,” as the first Christians were, living in a high pitch of focus and moral clarity in the expectation of the imminent arrival of the End of the World and the final victory of Christ over death and evil. Large scale.

But just as frequently — and in these sermons, far more frequently — the emphasis is on this “day of visitation,”  for me or you,  our own personal apocalypse.   The point is the reminder that every day we have an opportunity to choose the way of life or the way of death, and (to quote Johnson) “Who knows if Jove, who holds the score, will toss us in a morning more?”   Whether you hold with the traditional view of heaven and hell (I don’t!), the essential Quaker message still carries power: The Spirit says come!  Now is the time to “be found in the Immortal Seed.”  

References
That thy candles may always be burning: Nine pastoral sermons of George Fox. Edited by M. Skinner and G. Stillwell, published by the New Foundation.

The harmony of the living and heavenly doctrine demonstrated in sundry declarations…preached at the Quakers’ meetings in London, by William Penn and others.  New York. 1822, published by Refine Weeks.

The concurrence and unanimity of the people called Quakers as evidenced by some of their sermons. (2010) edited by P. Burnes and THS Wallace.  A New Foundation Publication.  Note that this collection is not the same as the previous one, whose title is perhaps modelled on this, originally published in 1694 by Andrew (and Tace) Sowle.

Scripture truths demonstrated in thirty-two sermons; or declarations of Stephen Crisp. 1787. Philadelphia:  Joseph James.

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An appendix to the foregoing

Some years ago, having agreed to offer some comments on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I had to confront the question of the afterlife, since Paul makes it so important a part of his Gospel message.  I had never been put on the spot about this before, and it caused me some inward labor.  I finally came to a resolution which more or less still speaks my mind:

In a world where power resided in kings and priests, and in their subordinates and hangers-on, Jesus told us that we are all kings, all children of the only king that matters. This kingdom is not exclusive, nor is it rare, or localized.  It is pervasive, like yeast in a loaf, or weedy mustard, and although it is all around us, it is hard to see because we look in the wrong places. You cannot achieve greatness in this kingdom except by service, but laborers who work all day may get no more reward than latecomers who barely break a sweat. Fairness is not a value there.

In fact, the poor, the weak, the sorrowing — their world is where God rules. It is somehow  also inhabited by the merciful, by those who do not claim their rights, by those who seek concord where discord arises when they might avoid it or exploit it to their advantage. This kingdom is full of unsavory characters, and is very near to the land where death and life run side by side, and in fact entering it fully requires you to shed deci­sively the shape of life as common sense has built it up.

Even the inborn structures from which we build society, which can mediate love and right action, have a different meaning in this kingdom; you can’t hold on to father and mother, spouse or children in the same ways, because they, too, are subject to rule by the Father in this king­dom, and we do not own them anymore (as if we ever did).

Yet despite its furtive character, the kingdom may be found, if you seek it, and in it there is great joy, for we find that every loss is recompensed with gain, and all the things that matter to us are restored to us. There is nothing so small that is not price­less, and all is meant for joy. It is true that all the structures that make for security and self-assurance are of no avail in this kingdom, but then in the end they are of no avail in the unredeemed world, either. And in the new world, we can find salvation….  Salvation is not an event, it is a place, it is something that is ever happening anew, and yet it’s a place to reside.  When I find the center, when I am still and open, I find myself in God’s harmony, and since time is not a property of God, when I am there I am adjacent to eternity, and if that is what is waiting for me when my body falls away, I am eager for it, and I know it will seem familiar.

 

 

Seneca, that old Fox

Well, not really, but:   One of  my minor reading hobbies is the letters and essays of Seneca the younger (AD 4-65), a philosopher who has often been seen as one of the pagan proto-Christians (along with, for example, Socrates).   There is something very appealing about the Stoics (and their often limpid, direct prose) — Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and (in some of his moods) Cicero.

Friends might feel some kinship with Seneca because of Letter 51, “On the god within us,” as well as the value he places on retirement and contemplation, plain living, and the cultivation of the soul towards freedom.  Other similiarities may present themselves:

Recently, I was working my way through Letter 33, to which the Loeb edition gives the title “On the futility of learning maxims.”  Seneca is telling his friend Lucilius that it’s too easy for the seeker after wisdom to read and listen to others, and grasp too eagerly at quotable passages from the masters.  This, he holds, can enable someone to avoid daring to speak their own truth — and avoid doing the work of seeking for themselves.

At one point, he says, “Hoc Zenon dixit”;  tu quid?  “Hoc Cleanthes.”  Tu quid?  Quousque sub alio moveris?  Impera et dic, quod memoriae tradatur.”  “‘Zeno said this’ — but what do  you say?*   ‘Cleanthes said this.’  But what can you say?  How long will you march under someone else’s [command]?  Take command yourself, and say something that will be passed on in others’ memory!”

Of course, one is struck by the similarity between this passage and the famous challenge that (in Margaret Fell’s account) Fox issued:”What canst thou say?” — though there is also an important difference:

You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”

Seneca is advocating for someone to speak with integrity from their own experience in the search for wisdom and virtue — and so Fox’s critics understood him, and mocked him by claiming that they could speak of their experiences as well as he.  But George raises the stakes by saying (in effect), “I’m not talking about my experiences, my opinion, my wisdom!  The challenge is, do you wait go as you are sent, as taught by the Light of Christ, speak as you are given by that Spirit?”

Seneca  speaks powerfully on behalf of what Emerson calls ‘self-reliance, ‘  and it is good as far as it goes,  but Friends have experience of a life based on a different reliance.

 

* literally, “You, what?”

 

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.