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.

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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.

 

 

Willson Lectures

I was asked to present the annual Willson Lectures at Earlham School of Religion on March 11th. The general title was “A language for the inward landscape,” but lecture #1 is more specifically “Resources from our tradition,” and #2 is “Our speaking and our identity:  How does a dialogue with traditional Quaker language help us discover our own spiritual identity?”

These talks present further reflections on Quaker spirituality, stimulated by a consideration of Quaker language.
In case they may be useful to any one, I have posted them here, in the Amor vincat library.

 Let this go abroad amongst all the afflicted and wounded in spirit.  A letter from William Dewsbury

Dear child,

Which cries over all the world, and beyond all the pleasures, pomp, and vanity therein, for the enjoyment of the light and countenance of God, fear thou not, neither be thou discouraged, because of the violent assaults of the enemy, who seeks to draw thee into the carnal reasonings of thy spirit, and in it to kindle a fire to thyself, and causes thee to walk in the light of the sparks that thou hast kindled, (and this thou hast at the hand of the Lord in thy going from his counsel) thou lies down in sorrow, few knows thy great distress, but to the Lord it is known, and them that has walked the same paths.

Oh, thou dear and afflicted soul, who lives in the deep sense of the working of the evil one in thy mind, and many times is ready to say, “Never was any like unto me, neither any sorrow like unto my sorrow.”; In this languishing, despairing, mourning of thy soul, all things is made bitter to thee, as the waters of Marah; thus art thou driven from all comfort, as a child without a father, and a desolate widow without a husband, and as a stranger that no eye pitieth… For in thy own sense, and feeling, thou walking in the sparks thou hast kindled, in carnal reasonings, thou discerns not anything but wrath, horror, misery and distress, on every side…
Oh, thou Child of the morning of the pure eternal day of the God of Israel, hearken no longer to the enemy, who saith, “There hath none traveled where thou art, nor none drunk of the cup thou art drinking.”  He is a liar who goes about to destroy thy precious soul!

In the word of the Lord God, I declare unto thee, I [have] drunk the same cup, with my faithful Friends, who are born of the royal Seed, every one in their measure have traveled in the same path, and hath endured the same temptations, and walked in the light of the same sparks, and lain down in sorrow, in the sense of the same misery, as thou mourns under this day.
No longer lend an ear to the enemy, and the thoughts of thy heart. Arise!  Arise, in the light of the covenant, and stay thy heart, and the Lord God he will throw down the enemy of thy peace, destroy the carnal reasonings of thy mind, put out the fire that thou hast kindled, and he will deliver thee forth of the horrible pit, and set thy feet upon the rock of ages, and thou shalt tread down the enemy of thy soul, in the sensible feeling of the [compassionate] love of the Father, who will manifest himself to be a father to the fatherless in thee and a husband to that mournful widow, and a comfort to that immortal Babe that mourn[s] in thee, in the uprightness of thy heart, to do the will of the living God.
So in the power of his might stay thy heart, and tread upon all doubts, fears, despairing thoughts, questionings, reasonings, musings, imaginations, and consultings. Arise over them all in the light of Christ!  He will lead thee into the banqueting-house of the pleasure of our God, where thou shalt sit down with me, and all the redeemed of my Father, who art born of the immortal Seed, and have passed through great tribulations, and washed our garments, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore do we now stand before the throne of God, praising him day and night in his holy temple; and this shall be the portion of thy cup if thou diligently hearken to the counsel of the Lord, which calls thee to trust in him, he will embrace thee in the arm of his love, and thou shalt praise his name forever.
God Almighty in his Light and Life raise up thy Soul, and establish thy heart in his Counsel, steadfastly to wait his Power to lead thee (in the Cross) out of all unbelief, and cause thee to lie down at rest, in obedience to his will, where thou shall drink the cup of the salvation of God forever.
Farewell,
WD
From the Spirit of the Lord, given forth in York Castle [prison]  the 23rd of the 3rd Month, 1661.

BD Note:  Slightly edited for readability

Mystery Babylon

Well, Friends, so many of us are feeling weighed down by recent political events!  We can see so clearly that political = personal.

It’s hard to bear in mind that the challenges we are facing did not arise  from the recent election, though in many ways the new government gives fresh nourishment for fear, anger, grief, discouragement.   I do not wish to dwell there, however, nor do such emotions work well for long as motivation to right action — there is a place for them all, but they are not themselves safe dwellings, nor do they bring health if taken as a steady diet.  They are real, and true, but they are not all the truth, nor the only things to see as real.

Moreover, with all these strong emotions activated, I am tempted focus on one specific crisis, outrage, enormity after another, and grow hyperalert to subtle indications of new bad things taking shape.   I, at least, find that the multitude of things to perceive, evaluate, feel, and try to comprehend (much less act on) just exhausts me.  I feel compelled to seek for some organizing principle, some root cause (or a few root causes), which can be wielded as a tool for understanding and focus.  Better to see a castle (or windmill) to attack, than try to deal with a swarm of hornets.

On the other hand, I do not wish to be seduced into the fallacy of “nothing buttery,” and over-simplification  Reduction of complicated things to their simple elements is a valuable investigative tool, but some truth is lost when you say “well, a bicycle is nothing but metal and rubber,” as you stand amidst the pile of spokes and gears.  The pattern of the thing is true, too, and indeed for some questions, it’s the pattern that matters.

In this mood, I was struck recently by the following passage from Pennington (Works vol. 1, pg. 138):  Babylon is the spiritual fabric of iniquity; the mystical great city of the great king of darkness; built in imitation of Sion, painted just like Sion, that it might be taken for Sion, and be worshipped there, instead of the true, eternal, ever-living God, and King of Sion. 

Penington is of course here speaking of the Babylon of Revelations, which is a mythic embodiment of a corrupt, power-drunk, soul-devouring society.The phrases  “spiritual fabric of iniquity,” and “imitation of Sion” are arresting and provocative: This seems like a powerful restatement of prophetic insight.

“Babylon” has been an important image in prophetic writing since Jeremiah at least. Sometimes, Babylon is portrayed as an unwitting instrument of punishment or judgment, for example ,”I have sent my face against the city [Jerusalem] for evil and not for good,:says the Lord, “and it shall be given into the hands of the king of Babylon and he shall burn it with fire.”(Jer 21:10)

Another layer of meaning underlies the Babylon of Revelations, drawing on the many denunciations of Israel’s “harlotry” that is,  joining in idolatrous worship, with  Babylon as a sort of capitol city of false idols.  While the sexual element in pagan worship was shocking to outsiders (not only Israelites– (Herodotus describes Babylonian ritual sex with much distaste Bk 1 ¶ 199), the  prophets saw clearly that the greatest evil at work here was the running after other gods– so much so that”harlotry” became a sort of  kenning for “idolatry.”  Moreover,  Babylon, the big city full of heady, “earthly delights,” exerted its power through deceit —  drawing the unwary, the un-watchful, away from their allegience to the true God.

In  apocalyptic literature (already in Ezekiel and Daniel) Babylon further became  a “type” of worldly power founded upon the exploitative wealth, human ingenuity secular learning, military prowess, all facilitated by a power-serving bureaucracy. We get its (ahem) apocalyptic apotheosis in the Book of Revelations,where Babylon is the greatest embodiment of worldly empire, only overcome by the Lamb that was slain.

In Quaker rhetoric, Babylon perhaps most often carried this connotation (and this was not only true of Quakers, see for example Bunyan’s The entire book of Antichrist and his ruin, alongside Stephen Crisp’s Short history of a long travel from Babylon to Bethel).  Beyond this, though, Babylon is the personification of a union between church”in its unfaithful role as earthly ruler” and state power.  (See Doug Gwyn’s Apocalypse of the Word, pg. 192 for a pithy accout of George Fox’s usage.) A threat to either is a threat to both, so when Friends (or others) rejected the established church, or choose to “obey God rather than man” and refuse oaths, hat honor, tithes, or war, both halves of the Babylonish power responded with persecution and rage.  The “true church” was in captivity to this Babylonian world-view, and the idolatrous official religion was a principal agent of deceit (do we not know it in our own times?)  — hence the fierce polemics against hireling clergy and the church as outward edifice.

One does not need to reach to Babylonish/Biblical imagery to feel how this same dynamic applies in our times, as I am not the first to note!!  I have elsewhere written reflections on a view of Western culture in which there were historically three (more or less) balanced centers of power, based to an interesting extent on different moral values appropriate to each estate.  These different “moral centers” have now largely collapsed or merged, leading to a hybrid morality that deploys the language and rhetoric of religion (or ethics) in the service of material power (both force and wealth).  We are currently experiencing the judgment, that is, the natural  consequences resulting from the emergence in our own times and terms of the Babylon of the idols.

Pennington’s phrase, ” spiritual fabric of iniquity,” speaks penetratingly about one aspect of this system:   the deceitful fabric is woven of many threads, including economic patterns, systems of thought as justifying oppression, a high valuation of the rule force, and a redefinition of the individual as a citizen-consumer, whose “freedom” is primarily expressed as the ability to choose commodities. In this country, at least, the threads of state power, economic power, and a misunderstanding of the gospel are twisted into a triple–stranded cord of great strength.

Woven into this fabric, we can be cradled drowsy in it, and if we are awakened by some prompting from the Light, in our first awareness we feel how we are constrained — no exit! —  and we mourn at the thought that,  no matter how upright and careful we may be in our personal lives, we uphold and are upheld by, that cloth of iron and tears.  Then we may come feel something of the clinging, hateful burden of sin.

William Dewsbury says, Friends, Babylon is within you and bewitches you through the abundance of her sorceries;…and the beast which all the world wanders after, is your wills, that makes war against the Lamb of God in you.    And here is the essential pivot of the Lamb’s war: we are woven into the fabric of iniquity and it infuses us, intricately connecting to and  drawing sustenance from our fears, compulsions, and wounds, as well as our natural desires for pleasure, relationship, meaning, safety.  Yet this brings the “war” into our own scale and scope, where each of us in our measure can engage with it in terms we understand, with the strength and wisdom that we are given.

Knowing that we are engaged not with a mystical, super-human monster, but merely a pattern woven (over the centuries but renewed in every generation — there’s its Achilles’ heel!) by individual choices, by individual souls, we can discover what is our part in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, accepting that it is a part, accepting also the growth (in capacity, in sorrow, and in joy)  that may come by our keeping low and close to the Guide.   Just as the kingdom, freedom, and peace of God are within, so also is the captivity in Mystery Babylon within.  The journey out of the captivity into the freedom begins as we look where the Light points, and live what we learn.   It is only that apprenticeship, and precisely that, which enables us to bear our witness, and invite, provoke, challenge others to make the same journey.

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Awesome: Psalm 111 and true worship: for ministering Friends gathered in Cambridge, 1/28/17

“The fear of the Lord is the  beginning of wisdom, and they that live by it grow in understanding.” (New English Version).

I. Sometimes it’s good to stop and reach down to the fundamentals.  The word translated as “fear” (yira’ ) can just as well be translated as “awe” — in contrast to “terror” (pachad).  The first has more of a spiritual connotation, the other more a physical one.

I have often thought that we don’t, these days, think enough about the “soul.” Of course, the nature or substance or definition of “soul” is a problem, but then so is “life” itself, as an abstraction or proposition.   Even if “soul” is taken to be a metaphor or a place-holder, however, it is sometimes useful to reflect on what makes for soul health.  For such health is foundational to all our actions as spiritual beings — it affects the quality of our activity, our words, and deeds.

At the very least, it may be permitted to say that the soul is that which is engaged by true worship.  By “engaged,” I mean to include “convicted, enlightened, nudged, reproved, refreshed” and all the other events that may happen when worship is alive and truthful.  By “true worship,” I mean worship in which something happens which relates to inward growth, an encounter with an Other (other-than-our-will)  which begins or nurtures or demands a change first in inward condition, and then in outward behavior.

Jesus was preaching no dualistic doctrine, when he said “Don’t fear those that can kill the body but not the soul;  fear rather Him who can send both body and soul to Gehenna.”  The master who affirmed God’s love for the creation is reiterating here what he said in other terms: Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all the other good things that we need for life will be added thereto, as they are without seeking, for the birds of the air and the grasses of the field.   The child of God is most fully alive when their allegiance is established on that foundation.

For me, at least, the experience of awe is the starting place.  While it is present, it clears away all other engagements, and presentations of self.  It is anything but empty, though it is a state in which the little mills of thought and emotion cease from their grinding for a bit.  As in other centering experiences, thought and emotion can be re-admitted into the inward sanctuary, once it’s been cleared.  But with awe, the fear of the Lord, it is not that my little interior space is re-ordered: I am given to feel and see beyond myself, despite myself.

My earliest memory is one of awe, when I was transported by the sight of barn-swallows wheeling amongst sunbeams pouring through gaps in the roof of a ruinous barn.  Freedom, refreshment, and delight.

II. The second half of the verse from Psalm 111 moves from the intensity of the experience of awe to its extension into the world. The NEV seems understated, when it says that those that live by “it” grow in understanding.  The Septuagint says, “Good understanding [comes to, belongs to] to everyone who practices it (where “it” refers to the wisdom, perhaps insight,  one gains from awe). The Hebrew, I think, says something similar:  that “good understanding [belongs] to all who practice them”  (awe and its consequent wisdom).

Thus, the psalmist, like Jesus, teaches that awe gives rise to wisdom (insight, understanding), as one lives it out in practice.   We are to seek first the kingdom, but we are  known by our fruits of word and deed — this is no purely interior event, but the changed heart brings forth treasures which in their measure change the world.

III.  So here we come back to the importance of seeking “true worship,” worship in truth.  In such worship, the divine Life is known to be at work, and in its tendering effect we have evidence, assurance, that we can grow up further into freedom, freedom in the spirit of Christ, whose law is love, and whose power comes through liberation as we accept the truth of our condition, and the promise that we can walk fully as children of the Light.  As Penington writes:

He that hath the least taste of faith, knows a measure of rest, finding the life working in him, and his soul daily led further and further into life by the working of the life, and the heavy yoke of his own laboring after life taken off his shoulders.  Now here is the truth, here is the life, here is the sabbath, here is the worship  of the soul.  (Works i:36)

I know for sure that at times I worship for myself, and do not  seek to get beyond that.  I may strive for silence, even achieve an inward silence, but it can be no more than a repose that asks for nothing further, a quiet that is not at all expectant.  In itself, this is not bad, and rest of this kind is as necessary to the soul as sleep is to the body. But I must not fool myself:  this is no more than a pre-condition for worship not the thing itself.  How often I sit in meeting with no profit but repose, going from it basically unaltered, and no further along in faithfulness than before — not seeking to feel beyond the “first birth,” in which I am using my own skill and will!   As James Nayler writes of the will-worship Friends testified against  (“A Discovery,” p. 48.):

The first man worships a God at a distance, but knows Him not, nor where He is…and here he has fellowship with men, or with those he calls brethren . . .  And thus in vain does he worship.

True worship, in which I have not only come to rest, but opened longingly towards a power or motion beyond my own, is known by its fruits, a change toward a life more and more freed from bondage:

Before any can rightly worship God, they must wait to know His Spirit, that leads to know Him and His worship, and the matter, and manner; for all who do the same thing only as to the outward performance, do not worship God, because they worship not in the Spirit and power of God Himself . . . the way to be well-pleasing to the Father, is to wait in the light, till you feel something of the Spirit of life, which is in Christ Jesus, moving in you, and then to that join, in its power to worship.

Such worship can disturb one’s comfort, and awaken one to the threatening, risky engagement with the dynamics of struggle, compassion, and witness—the Lamb’s War.

IV.  As a minister, I must be honest about the condition of my worship life, and aware of when it is not true.  For when I am not come to true worship, I have not come to the place of availability, receptive to guidance, and open to those with whom I worship.  Not worshiping in truth, I am not serviceable.

Awe, the fear of the Lord, enables me once again to seek the place which opens to openness. I have known it, and every time I come there again, I must observe, mark taste, feel it, so that when I wander again, I know what to look for, what my soul indeed is hungering for, dull and distracted though it be.

And so I find that, whether I am in that condition or wandering from it, it is good to join with the psalmist and confess my gratitude to God, who knows how I long for the living water, and as long as I do long for it, God points me over and over towards it, directs my feet to the paths of praise.

Inner peace and the right use of media: T. Shillitoe makes me think

Thomas Shillitoe was a prominent British Friend (1754-1836). He was a fascinating blend of Quietist practice and truculent defender of orthodoxy. He traveled extensively in the British Isles and Europe (including Scandinavia and Russia), and was absolutely fearless in his obedience to the least promptings of Truth. When traveling in America during the time of the Great Separation, he was among the most engaged of the British ministers fighting (the word is not too strong) against the views held or attributed to Elias Hicks. Hardly more remarkable than his travels is his documentation of them in a lengthy journal full of detail (perhaps most easily (!) found in the Friends Library, vol. III, pp. 74-486).

In 1820, Thomas Shillitoe wrote a lengthy general epistle to Friends in Great Britain and Ireland.  Among many pieces of advice, he says (on page 178, column b, for those following along at home):  “Endeavor to keep that ear closed, which will be itching to hear the news of the day, and what is going forward in political circles…

Thomas S .was living in a world with a lot fewer “media”— newspapers were about it, in terms of mass communication.  Interestingly, his position on this is not just an elaboration of warnings against the evils of music, theater, and the like.  Thomas knew that sometimes you have to read the newspapers — and that you can get caught up in it:

I have found it one of the many crosses I have had to take up, and avoid reading political publications, and, as much as possible, newspapers… I am well aware that men in trade, and sometimes those who are free from its encumbrances, have occasion to resort to those channels of general information; but when this is my case, I find it safest for me, after I have received information on the subject in question, then to put the paper away from me.   I am aware that it requires firmness so to act, there being something in our nature so anxious to know what is going forward in the world…

Once the information starts to flow, pouring into eyes and ears, it gathers momentum, tickles  our novelty-detectors, triggers our reflexes for pattern-making, and awakens our curiosity.  Maybe reading just one more story, following just one more link, consulting one more pundit or reference — and then I’ll “get it.”  What is it I’m trying to “get”?

There is a real satisfaction, probably deeply seated in us,  that comes from finding the answer to a question, solving a puzzle, hearing the end of a story.  We can get into the habit of reading or listening or watching without a specific question (aside from maybe “What’s happening?”), or intent, driven by the  desire for that sense of fulfillment or completion.  You never can tell when something might come along that’s “important.”  Better check it out…

When is it too much?  How much news or information or narrative or amusement is enough?      From the vantage point of Quaker spirituality, the only answer is:  When your peace is broken.  Shillitoe in his letter does not lay down any rule about what content to avoid, how much time is too much.  His metric is, What does it take to keep my inward peace, stay gathered and near the Guide?

[The practice of stopping when one’s purpose has been achieved] ...is the only way for us experience our minds to be preserved tranquil, amidst all the commotions, all the turnings and overturning, that may be permitted to take place, when the measure of inquiry may be filled up…I have found that, if we suffer our minds to be agitated with political matters,our dependence becomes diverted, by little and little, from the true centre and place of safety, where perfect peace is experienced, though the world and all around us may speak trouble.

This is not a counsel of retreat, though the emphasis on “quiet” can seem so.  I am reminded of a time when I was talking about the spirituality of Woolman’s time to divinity students in Kenya, and one young man said, “All this sounds very good, but with all that waiting, when do they ever do anything?!”  It was important in that conversation to bring our social, connected, bodily selves into the picture:  We can not ever really disconnect, nor cease from acting, as long as we are alive.

Jesus told us not to be anxious about what we will eat or wear.  He did not say “You don’t need to eat, physical things don’t really matter.”  He fed the five thousand, got wine for the wedding feast, healed people of their miseries — he understood Incarnation!!   But we need to take time to live in the New Birth, care for that fragile life, with its gentle imperatives and quiet voice — otherwise, the more familiar native urgencies will overwhelm it.  We can count on our bodies and our emotions to do their work — so there’s really no danger in restraining ourselves for the time it takes to live into the new perspective, the new possibility, of more abundant life.

Penn testified True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it.  The question is, How by yielding to the  Holy Spirit can we so order our lives that we more and more are living in the delight, freedom, integrity, and love to which we are invited to by the Light of Christ?

 

From the Quaker toolbox: making a testimony happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.  Clearness committees!

B.  Acts of individual concern

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

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

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