Eldering Troublesome Ministry

November 9, 2022 § 1 Comment

In this post, I share some thoughts about how to “elder” someone whose ministry has been the cause of someone else leaving the worship or even leaving the meeting. I should add that I have not done the things I suggest below or actually asked the questions I propose. These ideas have come from years—decades—of thinking about the problem and serving on worship and ministry committees facing the problem. I am keen to know what my readers think, so your comments are welcome.

When someone stops coming to worship or even leaves the meeting because they can’t stand someone else’s regular vocal ministry, it’s time to reach out to the person who left with some pastoral care, and it’s time to engage with the vocal minister. The pastoral care should include the promise that the meeting will engage with the minister, or that you already have. So that engagement really needs to happen.

The worship and ministry committee needs to answer some questions for itself first:

  1. How many other people are unhappy with this regular ministry? Has anybody else left the worship over the same issue? Are any members of the committee unhappy?
  2. Why are people unhappy? Is it the content of the messages, the tone of delivery, the frequency of the speaking, or something else, or some combination of these? Alternatively, is it possible that the problem really lies with the person who left?
  3. Gifts for ministry, or not? Does anyone think that the minister does have some gifts and even perhaps a genuine calling to vocal ministry, given that they speak frequently enough to bother some people, and the minister could just use some constructive eldership? (This has been my judgment in a couple of the cases that I’ve experienced.) 

The answer to the first question will calibrate how urgent the problem is and guide how intent the committee should be in working toward an outcome.

The answer to the second and third questions will guide the manner of the intervention.

So—how do you approach a troublesome ministry in as tender and constructive a way as possible? 

Note that I feel we are dealing with a ministry, not the minister. Keeping this in mind will, I hope, help a little to keep the minister from feeling attacked or criticized. But it’s actually what we’re about, anyway. I am asking that we start from a foundation of assuming the Spirit is at work here somehow, or could be, if we focus on that rather than on the person and their behavior. 

So—I would start with some questions:

  1. We notice that you speak quite often in meeting for worship. Do you feel a general calling to speak that goes beyond the prompting to speak at the moment in any given meeting for worship?
    1. If they do feel they have a calling:
      1. Is there any way we can support you in your calling? Do you feel that the meeting should have a role in supporting your ministry in your calling? What do you want our role to be?
      2. How does your calling relate to or spring from the rest of your spiritual life? What is the rest of your spiritual life? Is there any way we can enrich your foundation in the life of the spirit?
      3. How much do you know about the Quaker traditions regarding vocal ministry? Have you read any pamphlets or gone to any workshops or RE programs on vocal ministry? Would you like us to recommend some?
      4. Regarding the three areas of possible contention with their ministry:
        1. Content. So what is it about your message, the themes you keep returning to in your ministry, that draws you? Where do these ideas come from in your past experience? Why do you feel that the meeting needs to keep hearing these ideas?
        2. Tone. What are you feeling when you feel the need to speak? Are you aware that some of us feel uncomfortable with the energy you project when you speak? That’s not your goal, is it?
        3. Frequency. What tests do you use to discern whether you should speak? What factors influence you to speak so often?
    2. If the answer about a calling is no, I don’t feel a calling, or I don’t know, I never thought about it, then:
      1. If the committee thinks that it’s possible that this minister does have a calling, but just needs some help with discernment and guidance:
        1. Well, since you speak fairly often, we think you might have such a calling. Would you like to explore that possibility with us? 
        2. If the answer is no, I don’t want to explore it with you, then ask, Why not?
      2. If the committee doubts that there is a true calling, still, something is going on to lead this person to speak frequently and in the way that they do. So then:
        1. Well, you speak quite frequently in meeting, so why? What is it that does lead you to speak? It seems like something is going on to create this regular pattern besides just a prompting in the moment. We would like to understand your process better.
        2. The committee will probably have to keep asking Spirit-led questions to probe this last aspect of the situation to its source, or to some depth that might lead to an opening. The opening is the goal. And we are aiming with our queries for the same spirit that guides our questions when holding a clearness committee— prayer, deep listening, humble submission to one’s own inner Guide.

At this point, or maybe earlier—somewhere in this conversation—one might think about asking the minister whether they are aware that people have left the meeting for worship because of their ministry. 

The minister is likely to want to know who the people are who left and why. I would not tell them. This is not about the persons; it is about the ministry. And the question of why people might be upset should be asked and answered within the minister, where it could lead to some opening, rather than by the committee, where it’s likely to lead to defensiveness.

Whether or not the minister is aware that people are that upset with their ministry, once you tell them the committee might explore with the minister:

  • How that makes them feel.
  • What about their ministry they think might be the issue (again—not what the committee thinks or what the person(s) who have left think is the issue).
  • Whether it makes them open to some eldership, or makes them willing to consider reexamining their ministry in some other way.

And, somewhere in the conversation, I would add something like this: 

  • Naturally, we are hoping that the person who left will feel safe in coming back at some point, and at the same time we are hoping that we can support your ministry in a way that is Spirit-led on our part and that deepens and enriches your service to the meeting and to the Spirit.
  • For we know that the Holy Spirit is trying to work through you for all our spiritual benefit, and we suspect that you want that, too. So our goal is not to accuse you or correct you, but to find out where the source of your ministry lies and how we might support you as a channel for its manifestation.

Meanwhile, this whole thing is fraught with risk and could go south. At some point in the conversation, the minister might become defensive, feel hurt, and lash out or withdraw, even if you have acted with true tenderness and clarity of mission. And of course, it would not be hard for the committee itself to misstep somehow. And now you have added another hurt person to however many people are upset with this ministry. We are all only human.

This is why so many of our worship and ministry committees fail to act in situations like this. First, you have to come to a clear sense of the committee that such an intervention is necessary and about who should do it and how. Every committee I have knowledge of has struggled to get this kind of clarity and unity. But even when you arrive at some clarity and unity, whatever the committee might do can still make things worse.

Against this risk, we have to weigh the responsibility to protect the meeting for worship and the meeting’s fellowship, on the one hand, and to nurture Spirit-led vocal ministry on the other. My principle is this: As soon as one person has left meeting because of someone else’s behavior, then you might as well have lost the person whose behavior drove them out (assuming that the person who left has good reason). If you lose the frequent, troublesome minister because they feel offended by your outreach, or they stop speaking in meeting, you might get back the person who left—if you’ve acted soon enough. And you would have improved the quality of the worship.

Or the minister might stay, might keep speaking frequently and/or speak in ways that put people off. They might even starting acting out. More people might leave, or at least complain.

That calls for a level of pastoral intervention that lies beyond the scope of this post, which is already very long. And for which I have fewer ideas and less confidence. But I’m going to explore it anyway in a future post. Because we need to work on this.


Silent, Expectant, Waiting Worship

November 8, 2022 § 1 Comment

We worship in silent, expectant waiting.


Why the silence?

To make room for the voice of the Spirit. We remove all the business that other churches fill their services with—hymns, Bible readings, set ritualized speech and behavior, prepared messages—

  • so as not to crowd out or shout over what is usually such a still and small voice within us; 
  • so as to give us time to clear our own minds and hearts enough to have ears that hear;
  • so as not to guide the movement of the Spirit within us and among us with outside direction, but to give it the full freedom it needs and deserves; 
  • and because outward forms, least of all ones that are both habitual and rote, rarely usher in the inward grace that is holy communion.


What do we expect? “Expect” is a strong word, stronger in a way than faith or hope. Perhaps, faith and hope are more apt.

Is it not presumptuous to expect something of the Spirit? We expect something to happen when the laws of nature are involved, when we trust the one who has promised it, or when experience shows us its likelihood. We expect the sun to rise in the morning. But trust is faith. And what is our experience?

For some of us some of the time (most of us most of the time?), our meetings for worship seem a bit bereft of Spirit. We have faith that the Spirit is working within us and among us as we worship. We hope that we sense this movement and heed its message, its direction. But do we expect it?

Or are we like Jacob, willing to wrestle with the Spirit until it gives up its blessing?

Perhaps we expect something of each other. Perhaps we expect Friends to come to meeting for worship prepared, minds and hearts turned already toward the Light and seasoned in its grace from regular and vital personal devotional life. Perhaps we expect Friends to exercise faithful discernment, bringing with them spiritual buckets ready for lowering into the well of Living Water from which they will pour out Spirit-led vocal ministry.

“Expectant” waiting may rather be aspirational. And perhaps questioning the integrity of our expectancy in the context of worship will foster the faith, the hope, and the experience of its fulfillment.


What are we waiting for? 

We are waiting to know the Eternal Presence. We are waiting for continuing revelation, for the love and the healing and forgiveness and strength and guidance and renewal and creativity that is always seeking its way into our hearts and out of our hearts. We are waiting for the true prompting of the Holy Spirit to minister to our fellow worshippers, that still small voice heard and brought forth in faithfulness.

But this “waiting” is not a passive stance in which we fill an interval of time with whatever until the spiritual bus arrives. It is an active attention, like that of a waiter in a fine restaurant, whose eyes are always on his tables and who is poised ready to serve when a glass needs filling with Living Water, or when the food is ready to serve to the diners at the eschatological banquet, not bread alone but every word that flows from the mouth of God. 

Waiting can be even more engaged than such active attention. Waiting can be the wrestling with the angel of the Lord, a mighty struggle to pass through our obstacles and faults and regrets, our wounds, so that we may sink down into the Seed in our depths.

If we listen in the silence with open minds and hearts, if we give our full attention to the movement of the Spirit, if we give ourselves to the inward struggle in the Light, if we come with a bucket ready to lower into the depths, then we can, in fact, expect some revelation of Divine Love. At least that’s my experience.


October 2, 2022 § 3 Comments

In meeting for worship this morning, someone quoted Jesus from Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” He went on to say that, notwithstanding the promise, we often do not get what we ask for, and very often doors remained shut to us, and perhaps that is because we are asking for outward things that are not what would fulfill us. That what we are really asking for are friendship and love. (I am reminded of James 4:3, a favorite of George Fox: “You ask, and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it upon your lusts [unrighteous desires of any kind].”)

From this seed grew a message of my own, from the gospel of John, from which we get our name as the Religious Society of Friends:

You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth, I call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his lord does, but I have called you friends, for all the things that I have heard of my Father I have made known to you. . . . These things I command you, that you love one another.

John 15:14–17

I didn’t say more today—I just quoted the passage—but I have written in the past about how our name is therefore rooted in the commandment of love and in the promise of continuing revelation.

But today I left out verse 16: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever you shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.”

After I had spoken, I realized that I had left verse 16 out—and that I always leave this verse out, or at least that I have never paid much attention to this verse about being chosen and its importance for early Friends. And it was opened to me that this verse was probably at least as important to early friends as the others, maybe—probably, even?—the most important verse of all.

I suspect that this verse was, among others, the foundation upon which they built their sense of themselves as a peculiar people, a people gathered by Christ for a purpose, and that purpose was to bear fruit that lasts. The most concrete and immediate manifestation of this sense of chosenness, this sense of being “ordained,” is vocal ministry, feeling ordained by Christ to proclaim the gospel, not just in meeting for worship, but also in the world—in the steeplehouses and streets, in the courts of the sultan and the pope, in England and the Americas. . . .

Somewhere along the line, we Friends have lost our sense of being chosen and our vision of the fruit we are to bear. Well, “liberal” Friends have, anyway; I don’t know the evangelical branch well enough to know whether they feel chosen anymore, or what their vision of their mission is, beyond, perhaps, winning souls for Christ.

Christ is the key here. To feel truly chosen, someone must have chosen you. Most of us in the liberal branch no longer believe in a Christ who might be choosing us. Now we “feel led.” We use the passive voice to avoid declaring our leader. (Though it must be said that the passive voice is a classic biblical rhetorical device, also: “Your sins are forgiven,” proclaims Jesus (Matthew 9:2); he obviously means forgiven by the Father.)

Now, “vocal ministry” is often expressed as “speaking in meeting,” or “giving a message.” “Vocal ministry” means, etymologically, “spoken service”. Service to whom? There’s a “whom” implicit there. We could say service to the meeting and/or to the other worshippers, and this is certainly true. 

But that is not what we originally meant by vocal ministry. We originally meant service to God, or more specifically, to Christ, who is making know to us all the things he has heard of his Father. 

We’ve switched from Christ to the Holy Spirit, sans the baggage of the Trinity. Now we pray for “Spirit-led” vocal ministry without tying “the Spirit” to the spirit of Christ. 

Well, that actually works for me. I, too, have no direct experience of “the Spirit” as the spirit of the risen Jesus. And I share the modern liberal nervousness about believing we are a “chosen people”. Think of the ramifications.

But this highlights a radical shift in the character of Quakerism as a religion. It used to be about relationship (with Christ). Now it’s about a more vague, diffuse, impersonal spirituality of being led by “the Spirit”. There’s no sentient being on the other side of a relationship. What are the ramifications of that kind of spirituality?

Climate Change, Apocalypticism, and Christian Failure—Part 3: Liberal Inaction

September 17, 2022 § 2 Comments

So conservative Christian doctrine holds that the wilderness is a place of temptation, nature is virtually synonymous with sin, and the Creator, not the creature, is to be worshipped, per Paul; and anyway, it will all be destroyed in an immanent apocalypse, just as is it deserves. “Oh sinner man, where ya gonna run to . . .” goes the African American spiritual—“well, I ran to the forest but the forest was a-burnin’, ran to the forest was a-burnin’ . . ., on that judgment day.”

Meanwhile, the liberal Christian answer—earth stewardship theology—holds that creation is utterly good, per Genesis, and destroying it is a sin. However, the Christian communities who might actually act on their stewardship mandate, who care about climate change and might do something about it, don’t actually care enough to do more than wring their hands, it seems. I think I see several reasons for this.

First, the gospel of Jesus is all about justice for the (human) oppressed, but it has basically nothing to say about justice for animals, plants, ecosystems, the climate, or the planet, at least not in any clear way. And if Jesus doesn’t talk about it, then why should we care so much? Meanwhile, Jesus was himself an apocalyptic, a truth that many liberal Christians choose to ignore. His “Little Apocalypse” in Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke are not as cosmic as Revelation, but they have their share of human suffering and a remnant surviving. Not long before delivering that sermon, he had actually cursed an innocent fig tree.

Second, I think that many liberal Christians may be shy of apocalyptic thinking, even now when the real thing is happening right in front of us, because of a kind of cognitive/theological dissonance—it’s scriptural, yes, so theoretically we should take it seriously, but the fundamentalists take it so far down an unhinged path that it’s nerve-wracking and difficult to talk about it even in a reasonable way, for fear of association, and we don’t like what it says.

Third, this thing is so big. What are you going to do that makes a difference about climate change? Only truly radical transformation will make a difference. And the changes required will have to take place at every level, from the individual household up to meta-national corporations and nation states, which, frankly, isn’t going to happen. Closer to home, that means congregations will have to reimagine themselves as households with their role to play in completely restructuring how we live on this earth. 

All this will require down-sizing sacrifice—our sacrifice, not Christ’s. One of my definitions of “liberal” is a politics that takes its analysis and action up to, but not past, the point at which it threatens its own status quo. Will liberal Christian (or Quaker) communities commit to the sacrifices that will be required of us? I suspect not, not until the apocalypse is upon us and we have no choice, when drought, famine, heat, storms, and war threaten our own status quo.

The modern liberal Christian answer to ecological devastation is earth stewardship theology, the belief that we don’t own creation, God does (“the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”) and we are just his caretakers, that it is a sin to be bad caretakers, and that the proper structure for practicing stewardship is covenant, binding and reciprocal promises and responsibilities between ourselves, our God, and the land we live on. But what are the terms of this covenant, in what ways is it binding, and where do we see it actually happening?

It’s been sixty years since Rachel Carson published Silent Spring and Christian theologians began responding to the crisis she described with their earth stewardship theology. Sixty years and it still hasn’t reached seminary curricula and spiritual formation programs in any meaningful way, or, by consequence, the parish pulpit and congregational practice, let alone our spirituality and forms of worship. 

A final reason for this failure of liberal Christians to deal with climate change in a meaningful way so far, I suspect, is that even liberal Christianity sees itself as a system of belief, rather than as a vehicle for direct experience of God. Christian belief systems are, by definition, built on scripture as foundation, and especially on Christian scripture, and most especially, on Paul. Where is climate change in the Bible and in the Christian message it gives rise to?

The only way to get real about climate change is to refocus on experience rather than belief, letting go of the Bible as the ultimate source of revelation at least enough to experience something else. But what—experience what?

In the next post, I want to look at the nature of Christian religious experience to see what hope might lie there.

Then I want to explore the possible Quaker contributions.

Climate Change, Apocalypticism, and Christian Failure—Part 2: Apoclyptic Narcissism

September 15, 2022 § Leave a comment

I’ve written about this before. Christian apocalypticism poses its own unique threat to the earth, its peoples, and all our fellow creatures.

When you believe that God will destroy a corrupt world as part of his last saving act, as he did in the time of Noah and promises in the book of Revelation, then an earth in destruction can be a good thing, a sign of God’s immanent return in judgmental glory. Furthermore, humans who are destroying the earth can be seen as, in some way, participating in God’s final act of righteousness. And finally, trying to stop the earth’s destruction can be seen as acting against God’s will, and that is Satan’s work.

Religious apocalyptic ideology, especially that based on biblical apocalyptic, like the book of Revelation, is itself the ultimate conspiracy theory, one of the factors cited by Zaleha in his article as contributing to fundamentalist hostility to action on climate change. The ultimate apocalyptic conspirator is the divine who wrote Revelation, and the belief system is so fantastic that to believe in it warps cognitive thinking itself; it infects all the other things you believe or could believe, and it makes lots of room for more thinking along similar lines. It is so rife with vague and esoteric symbology that it invites an unlimited amount of further speculation. And it offers the ultimate incentive: it invites its believers to feel that they have a role to play in the ultimate drama—when the drama is truly cosmic, even the bit parts in the drama are important. And the final curtain call takes place before the audience of the angels and the throne of God himself (sic).

The Revelation script is now two thousand years old and the failure of its fulfillment to date would, you might think, weaken its hold on believers. But apparently not; it never fails to resurface periodically. And now, the apocalyptic threat is all too real. Now believers have real world events to hold onto, regardless of the disconnect between those events and the specific symbolic elements of the myth. First, those symbolic elements have always been subject to adaptive interpretation, as I’ve already noted. But more importantly, they were never the main thing, anyway—it’s the spirit of apocalypticism that really matters, the feeling that you are part of some ultimate inbreaking of God’s presence, and that it’s all about judgment: a planet will die, but you will live on in bliss in a heaven that transcends life on a planet. 

This is the ultimate face of what Zaleha calls “collective narcissism:” the ultimate story is all about us, God’s faithful, and, of course, them, those who face his judgment for their unbelief in the conspiracy theory.

Climate Change, Apocalypticism, and Christian Failure—Part 1

September 15, 2022 § Leave a comment

Climate change clearly poses an apocalyptic threat to human life and civilization, to all of God’s other creatures, and perhaps even to the entire biosphere of planet earth. In their responses to this challenge, Christian communities pose their own threat to our future as a species. Well, “Christian communities” is perhaps too general an indictment. But I have come across a study that describes the threat posed by two such communities in North America and I fear that they do in fact represent a much broader swath of Christendom that we might want to admit. I think—I hope—that Quakers have a role here.

In 2018, Bernard Daley Zaleha published “Dissertation—A Tale of Two Christianities: the Religiopolitical Clash Over Climate Change Within America’s Dominant Religion.” The two communities Zaleha studied were “a fundamentalist confederation of churches,” the Calvary Chapels in Arizona, and “liberal congregations affiliated with The Center of Progressive Christianity,” mostly United Church of Christ and Episcopalian, based in California.

Here’s his summary from the paper’s extract:

I found substantial indifference or outright hostility to environmental concerns and climate mitigation at all of my Calvary Chapel sites, due especially to intense apocalyptic expectation of imminent rapture. Other factors included belief in sovereignty of God (the idea that the Christian God causes and controls all events), a tendency toward collective narcissism, and a susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Progressive congregations were open to environmental concerns, talked about their importance, but ultimately were minimally involved. Social justice issues and the immediate needs of the homeless, immigrants, minority communities, and advocating for LGBTQ equality and against systemic injustice in most cases took precedence.

In the following posts, I want to explore this failure and a possible Quaker contribution in greater detail.

Open Letter to Christian Politicians

August 5, 2022 § 1 Comment

In the Bible study I facilitate on Thursday afternoons, we’ve been looking at the passage about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, and exploring how we might as Friends address spiritually the many ills that beset our wider society. This has been on my mind for a long time, and lately I’ve been trying to take a step beyond just grousing about it and looking for ways to act.

I’m a writer, so my go-to response is to write. I’m working on a number of prophetic “oracles” modeled on those of Jeremiah, Amos, etc., in Hebrew scripture, but also leveraging the formal language of the official oaths our office holders take and the formal language of legislation and the resolutions our legislative bodies pass.

Then this came to me. I’m sharing it here, but I’m discerning where I might send it as an op-ed piece.

“Don’t worry. A Christian politician cannot be racist. . . . Christian values protect us from going too far.”  ~ Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Dallas, August 5, 2022 (today).

This is an open letter to the political leaders of the United States, at all levels of government and in all three branches of government;

and especially to those leaders who bring their Christian faith into their public service;

and most especially to those leaders who carry their Christian faith publicly and seek to embody Christian faith in public policy and legislation.

Some of you really are disciples of Christ, though the egregious ways you violate Christ’s commandment does raise some questions about that;

some of you think of yourselves as Christians, but the egregious ways you violate Christ’s commandment suggest to me that you should rethink that;

and some of you just claim to be Christian for opportunistic and self-serving reasons, and you obviously couldn’t care less about Christ’s commandment. 

So what is Christ’s commandment? Answer: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

Love one another. Love. That is Christ’s commandment.

When you suppress the African American vote—or anyone’s vote; lots of white people live in the places affected by your policies—are you loving your neighbor? Do you love those voters? Do you love African Americans? If you did love African Americans and those other white voters the way Christ commands, what would that love look like in action?

When you deny climate change, suppress alternative energy development, protect greenhouse gas emitters, and resist international efforts to save our planetary home, are you loving your children and your grandchildren and your great-great-great-grandchildren? Do you love your children and grandchildren? I suspect you do. However, if you did love your descendants the way Christ commands, would not your actions and public policies reflect that?

When you resist universal healthcare, refuse to expand medicaid, and mock public health measures designed to protect everyone from a pandemic, are you loving the people who need this care? Do you love folks who are sick or disabled or dying because of your actions? If you did love the sick and dying the way Christ commands, what would that love look like in action and as public policy?

And while we’re at it, since the people who need universal healthcare the most are the poor, when you penalize the poor in every way you can invent, limiting social network programs, fighting living wage requirements, and so on, while you pump wealth into the rich, are you loving the poor, to whom Christ proclaimed the good news of poverty and debt relief as the essence of his ministry as the christ (Luke 4:18–21)? Do you love the poor and disadvantaged, as he did? And if you did love the least of these your brethren, as Christ commands, what would that love look like?

When you guarantee that American mass murderers are the best armed civilian mass murderers in the world, are you loving their victims, are you loving the schoolchildren they murder? Do you love Americans attending Bible study or praying in their synagogues, or our children in their elementary school classrooms, while they bleed out on the floor? Do you love guns more than children? Is your Second Amendment idolatry your plan for fulfilling Jesus’ command to “suffer the little children to come unto me,” with emphasis, of course, on “suffer”? If you really loved these children—your children, for that matter—what would that love look like in action, in legislation, in public policy?

I could go on.

So, what awaits you “Christians” who violate in these egregious ways Christ’s explicit commandment to love? What kind of judgment you are expecting? You are expecting to be judged, right? When is that judgment going to happen? When you die, presumably (hopefully not from gunfire).

Well, then, maybe you have some time left.

Continuing Revelation—Lives lived in prophetic faithfulness

August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment

There’s one more thing to say about testing new leadings. I think the most reliable touchstone for a new revelation may be the lives being lived by those Friends who are already living according to that leading.

I think of Woolman’s refusal to notarize a slaveowner’s slave sale, or Jesus’ refusal to pay the Roman tax or to curse his persecutors.

But the real source of my own championing of this touchstone for new leadings is the lives of the gay and lesbian Friends who were seeking to be married under the care of our meetings in New York Yearly Meeting. No one could deny their love for each other, or the exemplary lives they were living as couples (though I’m sure they had their troubles, as all couples do), and the grace with which they endured all the conflict surrounding their requests, in most cases. 

What more could we want to know about what would happen if we married them? Their lives bore good witness. And then meetings started marrying them, at last, and the sky did not fall, lightning bolts did not strike them down. The “institution of marriage” was expanded, not degraded. Instead, we were blessed by their lives and their loves, as we were being blessed by them before they got married.

New leadings come to us through real people, and these people are our prophets. As Jesus experienced (and Jeremiah and Amos, etc, before him), prophets often have no respect in their home communities. But, when we are lucky, their persistence and faithfulness can overcome our resistance, when we see that their words and deeds, their lives and their example, bear good fruit. For you shall know them by their fruits, said Jesus himself regarding true and false prophets (Matthew 7:15).

Continuing Revelation—The Gathered Meeting

August 1, 2022 § 4 Comments

The fourth traditional touchstone for discernment is the gathered meeting, the testing of a new leading under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a meeting for business with attention to the life of the meeting. This is the ultimate test; ultimately, all our new testimonies are confirmed by meetings for business as the culmination of a Spirit-led process of collective discernment. In theory.

In practice, however, even this touchstone has its problems. Two stand out in particular. The first is that we don’t actually submit some of our most important shifts in faith and practice to a process of collective discernment in the first place; we adopt them in an unself-reflective process that takes place in the meeting’s collective unconscious. The second is that we sometimes (often?) make decisions in meetings that are not gathered in the Holy Spirit, but rather in some other spirit, or even more than one spirit.

Failure to discern at all

Two of the most consequential changes in Quaker faith and practice have never been tested in any meaningful way—the decades-long shift away from Christ-centered and biblically grounded faith in the liberal branch, and a related adoption of the idea of that of God in everyone as a divine spark in the human.

The post-Christian shift

The post-Christian shift has taken place incrementally, meeting by meeting, as meetings brought into their membership folks who weren’t Christians, some of whom have been wounded by their Christian upbringing. Gradually, Christian Friends who really need Christian fellowship leave for someplace they can feel at home.

The meeting only faces the issue directly when it’s time to approve a new book of discipline. By then, divided sensibilities inevitably lead to conflict, and in the lead-up to final decision about the book, more Christian Friends have left. The final decision drives out the last of those for whom Christian fellowship is absolutely essential, but only after a discernment process in which these Friends either withdrew from meaningful participation or were ignored.

The take-away is that collective discernment is our ultimate venue for testing a new leading, but it’s not without its own problems.

That of God in everyone

Meanwhile, the process for adopting a divine spark meaning for the phrase that of God in everyone has not had any meaningful discernment at all. I have yet to hear of any meeting that has put the divine spark theory to a formal test in any kind of discernment process. Lewis Benson postulates that it was AFSC that led the adoption of a divine spark meaning for this phrase and that it spread gradually into meeting usage in the hands of witness-oriented Friends. Seems reasonable to me, especially given Rufus Jones’s role in founding AFSC and in giving us this divine spark interpretation, and the way that AFSC and social activism in the twentieth century attracted so many Friends from secular activist communities for whom Quakerism offers a spiritual grounding for their activism. But the very fact that we don’t really know how we got here with this phrase indicates how utterly lacking in discernment the process has been.

The (un)gathered meeting

While the process of confirming a new leading usually culminates in a meeting for business, it usually includes discernment in other venues in the lead-up: committee meetings, informal discussions, workshops, threshing sessions, and previous business meetings, which all culminates in a business meeting in which the community comes to unity. In theory.

I was present when New York Yearly Meeting approved a new edition of its Faith and Practice, which had been in the works for seventeen years, someone told me—the process started before I became a Friend. I had been actively involved myself for several years by then.

I remember two main issues being the stop for many of the Friends in the yearly meeting: same sex marriage, and as its broader context, a general and to some, a substantial shift away from a Christ-centered and biblical worldview, sensibility, and language.

I was present in the session in which the document was finally approved. I did not at the time feel that it was a meeting gathered in the Spirit, though many others did. Certainly, there was a tremendous release of energy upon approval. Real joy erupted. But we were not in unity of Spirit because I know some Friends disagreed.

Rather, I read the energy in that meeting at the time as spiritual exhaustion, and the release of energy as relief, but also of love for those gay and lesbian Friends whose lives were going to be changed forever by our decision. 

I felt that the clerk had his hands on the wheel, at certain moments in that session. But I suspect that this was not ideological favoritism, but rather perhaps compassion for the body and its years-long struggle, seeing the body’s desire to be released from our travail as the movement of the Spirit. And maybe he was right. 

But we did lose some valuable Friends that day, and many who have stayed still carry scars from the process, from how it went, from how long it took, from some of the things that were said.

The take-away for me is that all of these touchstones are fraught with limitations and are prone to corruption. Maybe corruption is too strong a word. Messiness—I’ll go with messiness. The Spirit moves in mysterious and often unpredictable ways, and humans are involved. So it gets messy.

A second take-away for me is to be wary of too strong an attachment to process. Sometimes you have to follow the love against the apparent requirements of Quaker process. People are more important than righteous, rigid adherence to traditional process.

I think of the mess we can see in the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters over whether to allow Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Years of wrangling that was often bitter and then a final decision made in a meeting for business that nevertheless drove some of the original covenanters out. The book says that meeting was gathered in the Spirit; but it would say that, it had to say that. Was the meeting really gathered? I suspect that it was, but that it was still really messy and painful and not perfect, that for many it was joyful and for some, it was the last straw

Continuing Revelation—Theology and Reason as Discernment Touchstones

July 30, 2022 § 7 Comments

When I first heard these touchstones from Josh Brown back in the late ‘80s, he called this one reason and common sense. Paul Anderson in his essay prefers “theological reflection.” Friend Anderson in his essay focuses on “problems of biblical ignorance and theological inadequacy,” for which “there is no substitute for acquiring the skills and knowledge required for religious leadership.” I would combine these two—(relative) theological sophistication and common sense/reason—into one touchstone for discernment.

The adoption in the liberal branch of the phrase “that of God in everyone” as an essential tenet of (liberal) Quaker faith, meaning by it some kind of divine spark, is a great example of failing to think clearly about “theology,” that is, about what we have to say to people. It’s extremely sloppy theology, as I have said repeatedly in my writing. It’s both historically inaccurate and a doctrinal empty shell; there’s nothing inside it; it’s become an outward form that we use in the most cavalier manner.

Not only that. The general ignorance of what Fox actually meant by this phrase and of the historical source of the “divine spark” interpretation now current among us in the writings of Rufus Jones is also an excellent example of failing to check in with historical tradition as a touchstone for new revelation. Furthermore, this historical obliviousness amounts to a violation of the testimony of integrity—claiming something is ancient tradition from the founding age of the movement when it isn’t.

But back to sloppy theology. I’m not saying that it’s not true that there is that of God in everyone; that discernment has never actually taken place. I’m saying that most of us don’t really know what we mean when we say it. Well, that’s probably not quite right; Friends generally know what they’re trying to say intuitively. But they would be hard pressed to unpack it if asked.

What do we mean by “that of”? What do we mean by “God” when we use this phrase, especially when so many in the liberal branch are either non-theists or have only vague and inarticulate or (as I do) very complicated ideas about “God”? And what does the whole phrase “that of God” mean? 

Most Friends using the phrase have in mind some kind of divine spark or aspect of divinity that inheres in the human. Why do we believe that? How do we know that humans are somehow inherently in some way divine? And how do we know that this divine spark inheres in everyone? On what do we base this principle of faith?

None of this is ever articulated; these questions are rarely asked, let alone answered. Many Friends in the liberal branch seem to have only contempt for “theological reflection” and think it unQuakerly.  They seem to think that because we have no creed we have no doctrine at all (except for the belief in that of God in everyone, of course, and the testimonies). But doctrine—theology—is simply what we have to say, as Quakers, to non-Friends, to our children, and to each other, about who we are and what it means to be a Friend. We do have a doctrine, at least in theory; we do have something to say.

I agree with Paul Anderson that there is no substitute for the skills and knowledge required for Quaker leadership. And because we in the liberal branch do not have trained religious professionals, it’s up to our meetings to impart these skills and this knowledge through religious education, and it’s up to each one of us as individuals to become theologically self-reflective enough to know what we’re talking about because nobody else is going to tell us what to say. We need to acquire this skill and knowledge to a certain measure, both as individuals and as communities, in order to function effectively as Quakers. Otherwise, we’re just making it up. As we have with the phrase “that of God”.

It’s not hard. There are books and pamphlets and videos galore; there’s our yearly meetings’ books of Faith and Practice, at the very least. Otherwise, we end up stammering and answering foolishly or only for ourselves when someone—our children, say—asks us about our faith.

Meanwhile, many in the evangelical branches of Quakerism seem to have abandoned even “continuing illumination” as an element of Quaker faith. They reject any sophisticated theological reflection that deviates from the world’s version of evangelical faith that they have adopted. They do have a creed, which means that they are willing to use a conventional theology adopted from the world to cast the “heretical” and “sacrilegious” from their midst (heresy and sacrilege are Friend Anderson’s words). And they leave to trained religious professionals and to ecclesiastical institutions the power and authority to enforce the creed.

This fear of heresy and sacrilege, when combined with a resistance against new leadings, makes you pick and choose your Bible passages in order to rationalize the exercise of your governing power to police thought and action. With respect to same-sex marriage, for instance, this means heavy reliance on Hebrew scripture, which otherwise, they believe has been superseded by the gospel. We’ll take an unsophisticated reading of  Leviticus on same sex sex as an abomination (Leviticus 20:13), but ignore the injunction to execute someone who curses his or her mother or father (Leviticus 20:9), or to expel a man who sleeps with his wife while she’s having her period (Leviticus 20:18). Is the God who condemns same sex sex in Leviticus the same God who cut a deal with Jephthah for victory over Israel’s enemies and then required that Jephthah ritually sacrifice his own daughter in Judges 11?

In its resistance to some new revelations, the evangelical branch sometimes practices, not sloppy theology, but theology corrupted by social ideology under cover of biblical authority and they often employ reasoning—theological reflection—disingenuously. 

As with the Bible and tradition, theology and reason are important touchstones for testing new revelation, but like the other two, their practice requires greater integrity than we often give it.