What Should We Teach Our Youth?

August 8, 2016 § 4 Comments

In my previous post, I made a case for teaching Quakerism—and I would add the Bible—in our First Day Schools and in our other institutions for youth ministry. Teaching not just Quaker values, but the basic elements of our tradition—what we believe, how we work, and what our experience is of the Divine, as individuals and as a movement.

Most important, though, we should be using our time in First Day School to help young Friends discover what the life of the Spirit means for them. We should be doing this for the adults, too, of course, so this aspect of our religious education can very often be multigenerational. We should be answering that of God in our members of all ages.

This is especially important for us as (non-pastoral) Friends because we have no paid professionals to do it for us, as I had when I was in my Lutheran confirmation classes. Our meetings will be strong in direct proportion to how well equipped our members are to practice their Quakerism, and our youth should not have to play catch-up when they decide to participate in meeting life more fully. Nor—worst case scenario—should we take the chance that their lack of knowledge would prevent them from even trying.

So—what to teach?

First, a plug for the Godly Play and Faith and Play programs. In my previous meeting, a number of parents and Friends concerned for the health of our First Day School program took this training and it completely transformed our youth ministry. Those Friends gained confidence, a sense of direction, and excellent curriculum materials. I didn’t do the training myself, but my sense is that it would be a great framework for pursuing the goals I’m outlining below. I highly recommend it.

I would like to approach the larger question of what to teach our children—and all our members, for that matter—by defining what I think our goals are:

  1. Spiritual formation: awaken our youth to the Light within them. I said in my series on What Is Quakerism For? that I thought the purpose of a Quaker meeting was to bring people to G*d and to bring G*d into the world. For our youth, this means creating a safe, inviting environment in which to explore the Quaker approach to the spiritual life, some exposure to the other paths that we trust besides our own, and especially, to explore their own experience of the Spirit in a Quaker context. In practical terms, I think this could work on three channels:
    1. older Friends telling stories about their own direct experience of the divine;
    2. stories from the Bible and other religious literature of epiphanies, guidance, healing, consciousness raising, witness, etc.; and
    3. discussions that seek to help young people recognize and understand the spiritual experiences they have already had.
    4. None of this requires any curriculum materials or elaborate planning, though number one requires willing adults, number two requires some knowledge of Scripture, or at least, a Bible with a decent concordance, and number three requires a little skill at listening and encouraging young people to open up.
  2. Quaker faith: equip our youth to talk about their faith with confidence. That is, teach the basic elements of Quaker faith. What are they? Very simply:
    1. the Light—everyone can experience G*d directly;
    2. the covered meeting—the meeting can also commune directly with the Divine;
    3. continuing revelation—the Spirit is always there with guidance, insight, healing, forgiveness, personal transformation, and love; and
    4. the testimonial life—that our lives should speak, that we should be guided in our journey through this life by the Light within us, listening always for promptings to leave the world a better place.
    5. You can unpack these four to discuss all the rest of our tradition—why we don’t practice the outward sacraments, why we don’t program our meetings for worship or have priests, why we don’t vote to make decisions, how we feel about the Bible, why we pursue justice, equality, earthcare, etc.
  3. Quaker practice: prepare our youth to practice their Quakerism and participate in meeting life.
    1. Worship. Begin and end each session with some silence. Gradually extend this time, as it seems to work for the youth. Talk about their experience, what’s been going on in their heads during that time and share your own practice and experience in worship, seeking ways to deepen theirs. Encourage their vocal ministry. Take them into the meeting’s worship, eventually and gradually, for more than just a few minutes at the beginning or end, whatever your meeting’s practice has been. At some point, encourage those young Friends who want to to join the meeting in worship instead of attending First Day School. Share the conventions that we use as guides for behavior in meeting for worship.
    2. Business. Explain your meeting’s committee structure (and at some point, regional and yearly meeting structure) and invite committee members to talk about what they do. Explore what the youth’s own business might be. For instance, look at your First Day School room and see what improvements you might make and discuss how you might bring ideas to the property committee. Talk about their ambitions for life as adults and discuss clearness committees. Explain the conventions that guide our practice of meeting for business with a concern for the life of the meeting. Explain what clerks do. Watch for business agenda items that might interest the youth and bring them in for at least that segment of the meeting. Explain both the faith and the practice of what Friends have traditionally called “gospel order”—in this case, how concerns start with an individual, go to the meeting, then to the quarterly meeting, then to the yearly meeting. Always be thinking of how the discussion and the openings in First Day School might come before the meeting as a whole for attention as business.
    3. Ministry. Talk about what “Spirit-led” means. Talk about leadings and especially, the leading to speak in meeting for worship. Bring in Friends who are pursuing leadings to talk about what it’s like. Explore how the youth might feel led in various ways already and help them understand these promptings in the context of our faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Explain why we don’t have a separated ministry and what “releasing into ministry” means, referring to those Friends who serve as pastors and any Friend who receives support from their meeting that allows them to follow their leading. Talk about discernment, clearness committees for discernment, and the other ways we support people with leadings and ministries—minutes of travel and service, endorsement of these minutes, committees for care, support, and oversight. . . .
    4. Pastoral care. Talk about how the members of the meeting try to take care of each other. Though this seems like an extremely delicate matter, seek ways to encourage them to consider coming to the meeting with their own concerns, as long as you are confident that the meeting could respond effectively; some meetings aren’t so good at this. Talk about the life of the community and the meaning of fellowship.
    5. Witness. Emphasize that the heart of the witness life for Friends is being led inwardly by the Light in how we walk through the world. Explore their own impulses to make the world better in their own terms. Present the traditional “testimonies”, not as outward rules for living, but as things Friends have been led by the Spirit to do through history, both inwardly and collectively, so consistently that we now have settled principles that we call testimonies. Tell stories about the origins of our traditional testimonies. For God’s sake, don’t limit their understanding of the testimonies to SPICES. I wouldn’t even bring SPICES up.

This approach involves a lot of talking. In my experience, many Friends think young Friends would rather be doing something than talking. That’s true for some kids, for sure, and especially for younger ones. But in my experience as a First Day School teacher, many kids are ready to do something pretty substantive when they reach middle school, at least.

My confirmation classes as a Lutheran youth began in the summer before (or after—I don’t quite remember) seventh grade. And those classes were purely didactic indoctrination. I loved it. Some of my fellow students didn’t. And to be honest, I was shooting spitballs the next year myself. But I know from personal experience that religious discussion can be very engaging by at least the age of 12 or 13.

The point is that the program should always be looking for opportunities to explore Quakerism at the youths’ own level and to explore the young people’s own emerging spirituality.


Teaching Quakerism to Our Youth

August 3, 2016 § 6 Comments

More than 50 Young Adult Friends attended the annual sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held this year July 27–32 at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.

Their epistle contained a witness about their place in the life of their local meetings and the Yearly Meeting and about the Yearly Meeting more generally.

Many of us seek spiritual community because we need support in our work in the world. For some of us, while we live Quaker faith and practice every day, monthly meetings are not offering the depth and groundedness we are seeking. And so, we are finding meaningful communities outside of traditional Quaker structures, but we’re still searching for ways into our powerful spiritual tradition. We are searching for Truth as early Friends did, making our own spiritual paths. Though some of us are active in monthly and yearly meeting leadership, many find membership inaccessible or undesirable. Our yearly meeting structures exclude those of us who aren’t members or regular attenders—even when we have a calling to service. Young adulthood often entails transience—geographically, financially, and spiritually. This can preclude our membership in a Meeting, even when we feel at home there. YAFs who became members as children can feel trapped in the meeting where they grew up—no longer feeling part of that community, but not connected enough to a new meeting to transfer their membership. Some of these Friends long for direct membership with the yearly meeting.

. . .

Many of us still feel alienated, patronized or unsupported. . . . We have experienced ageism and misogyny this week.  Some YAFs are not able to be present for business sessions because many of them happen during the workweek. Our gifts are essential to our yearly meeting, but we have felt blocked from full participation—discouraged, frustrated, and ignored.

I have heard similar concerns from young adult Friends in New York Yearly Meeting. Feeling invisible, marginalized, and patronized. An inability to relate to the life of their local meetings. Seeking a meaningful entree into the life of the yearly meeting against subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles. Groping toward a Quaker identity without preparation, resources, or support from the wider Quaker community. Turning therefore to each other out of necessity and cobbling together an identity peer-to-peer with whatever is at hand, or just out of thin air. While at the same time older Friends wring their hands over our inability to hold onto our youth when they become young adults.

The primary institution for preparing young people to be active Friends is First Day School. Some yearly meetings also have camps or conference centers with youth programs, and some have youth programs during their sessions. But the most important place for Quaker religious education of our youth is the First Day School room.

But do our local meetings provide any meaningful Quaker religious education for their kids? I suspect that many do not, though they might deny this because their programs are, in fact, pretty good at passing on “Quaker values”.  But there may not be any Quaker or religious content to speak of.

This fits right in with the trend in liberal Quakerism more generally to define Quakerism in terms of culture and values rather than with the content of the tradition. We have become so specifically post-Christian and so generally post-traditional that leaders in these programs often don’t feel safe teaching Quaker tradition and may be uncomfortable with the tradition themselves, especially with its Christian character and biblical language—if they know the tradition at all.

Meanwhile, our children mostly learn their values, not from our youth programs but from their parents. Of course, we don’t want our youth programs to undermine the values we teach our children as parents, so—first, do no harm, I suppose. But most families bring their kids to a religious community, not just to reinforce these values, but to get a religious education, and they turn to us in part because they often don’t feel equipped to pass on a religious education themselves. This is especially true of families who have just joined a meeting.

So lots of our kids graduate from high school and from First Day School knowing basically nothing about Quakerism. Why, then, would they stay? They don’t even have what many of us older Friends had—a tradition that they know . . . and don’t like. Many of us, especially us baby boomers, found Friends because we were so unsatisfied with the traditions we grew up with. But at least we knew what we didn’t like and had some sense of the broader religious landscape. That is actually a gift.

For the purpose of religious education is to awaken a person to the life of the spirit, in the first place, and to provide some context for spiritual formation—for discovering your  identity as a spiritual and/or religious person. And identity requires content, not just values

Furthermore, if you want to participate in the life of a meeting, you have to know how. You need to understand how Quaker process works, and the structures we use to organize our work. You have to understand the dense and opaque Quaker vocabulary—what is FCNL? what does “discernment” mean? what is a clearness committee for membership? what is a gathered meeting?

More importantly, you need to see that something real is happening here. Young people—all people—yearn for real spiritual/religious experience. Are they getting it in First Day School? Do they see the adults around them sharing their own joy and fulfillment in the Spirit? Do they ever hear first-hand what that joy is like? Or do they feel, as one of my own grown sons does, that meeting for worship is “the same blowhards saying the same things each week” and that meeting for business in worship is boring and about matters that don’t really matter?

Most importantly, adult Friends of any age will participate in meeting life in a meaningful way when they have internalized the essentials of Quaker spirituality in terms that work for them. When they are awake to the Light within them, and when its inner guidance gives them direction, meaning, and identity. When they can speak with confidence about their faith to their friends. When they know they will receive the spiritual nurture they need because they have been getting it all along.

We should not make young adults, especially, but anyone new to the meeting, put all this together on their own. The direction our young people take may eventually lead them out of the Quaker community. That’s fine. We still will have done our job and they will be better prepared for whatever path they do take. And if they stay with us, they will step confidently into the life of the Spirit and the life of the meeting as Friends already mature in their tradition.

Our institutions for the religious education of our youth should teach Quakerism.

On Vocal Ministry—A Compendium

July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments

Dear readers

I have created a page for this blog that aggregates the posts I’ve published on vocal ministry in one place. I plan to do some similar organizing for other series in Through the Flaming Sword, now that I’m no longer working full-time.

Here’s the link.


The Practice of Vocal Ministry

July 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

Download this page as a pdf document.

Prompted by recent experience in my own meeting with vocal ministry, I want to share a concise guide to the practice of vocal ministry among Friends, as I understand it. I have ordered these “conventions” chronologically, that is, as they apply during the progress in time of the meeting for worship. These are not hard and fast rules, but rather practices that Friends have found over the centuries to foster a deeper worship experience.

  1. Preparation. Ideally, Friends spend the morning before going to meeting for worship in quietude, rather than exposing themselves to the news, mass media, or anything else that might activate the busybrain. Even better if you can spend some time in spiritual preparation, in meditation, prayer, scripture or spiritual reading, fasting, walking in the woods, listening to music, playing an instrument, or whatever.
  2. The worship starts. We understand the meeting for worship to start when the first person sits in the meeting room and settles in to worship. At this time, conversations or other activities in the meeting room should move out of the meeting room or cease. Very often, these early Friends are spiritually preparing, not only themselves, but also the meeting space, so that others who enter the space immediately feel drawn into the worship.
  3. Arrive on time. Each person entering the meeting space causes at least a little ripple in the energy of the worship. The coming of Friends into the meeting space before the appointed time for worship adds a spirit of welcoming and warmth to those who are already gathered. This spirit continues for a while after the appointed time, too, but eventually this tardiness becomes a disturbance. Latecomers delay the time when those gathered can begin their deepening without this disturbance. If you do arrive late, be as inobtrusive as possible; do not traipse across the whole meeting room to some distant spot. Do not enter during someone’s vocal ministry.
  4. Time before the first vocal ministry. The convention is to leave about twenty minutes before the first vocal ministry. This is even more valuable if tardy Friends have been entering the meeting room during this time. Many traditions agree on twenty minutes as the minimum amount of time it takes for the circulatory and other systems of the body to adjust to deep stillness and for the mind to slow the busybrain enough to find the path into the spiritual depths. In the elder days, Friends called this spiritual space “the silence of all flesh”, understanding “flesh” as the Apostle Paul did in his letters to include, not just the body, but all of the world’s distractions.
  5. Time between messages. Allowing a meaningful time between messages allows those gathered in worship enough time to truly hear a message, to let the Holy Spirit do the inner work that is the Spirit’s intention in the ministry. It also allows anyone who might be feeling some prompting to speak to return their attention from the message to their own discernment, time to settle in with the inspiration, to know it and test it.
  6. We do not speak twice.
  7. Content. We rely on the Holy Spirit to inspire and shape the message. We do not come prepared to give a certain message, or to read a specific text, for instance. We do not enter into dialogue with previous messages or refer to specific previous speakers. This does not mean that themes do not develop in the course of the worship; they often do, and this often brings the meeting into a deep feeling of satisfaction. But direct response to a previous message tends to ignite or reinforce what we call a “popcorn” meeting, in which one message leads, often very quickly, to another and to another in a cascade of dialogue that keeps the messages on the surface of the meeting’s spirit.

Objections to supporting callings to vocal ministry

July 16, 2016 § 1 Comment


A commenter on my most recent post about supporting Friends that feel called into a spoken ministry in their meetings’ worship has shared how he had sought this kind of support and was told he was trying to feed his ego. As I said in my reply, this is exactly the opposite of what the faithful called vocal minister wants from her meeting. We want help in keeping our ego out of our ministry!

However, another commenter expressed some concern that paying this kind of attention to the members’ vocal ministry would drive some Friends away, and I suspect that he is right. It would probably cause conflict in the meeting, even if it didn’t drive people out, because some Friends (many Friends, I suspect) neither understand the religious life in terms of calling and as a path that requires both self-discipline and collective eldership, nor understand the meeting as properly serving in such an eldership role.

This obviously is how I approach the life of the Spirit. I am writing these blog entries because I’m groping for a way to serve both approaches. Or, more accurately, because the hands-off culture of eldership around vocal ministry is virtually the universal default position in our meetings, I want to make some room for those of us who feel called. I want to open the conversation and offer some reasons why meetings should try to minister to their called ministers, to their members who feel led into vocal ministry in particular, but into any ministry—witness, service, pastoral care, administration, whatever.

My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) has in place the kind of infrastructure for eldership that I am talking about, a Gifts and Leadings Committee that “nurtures gifts of the Spirit, supports efforts to discern one’s ministries”. I don’t know my meeting very well yet; I’m too new. Even though my meeting has a committee that is apparently committed to doing just what I’m talking about, nevertheless I sense that there may be the same anxieties about these matter similar to those I’ve encountered in other meetings and that have been expressed by commenters to my blogs on this concern.

So I want to address these objections here. Below is a list of such concerns that I developed initially for an article published in an issue of New York Yearly Meeting’s newsletter Spark whose theme was Recognizing Spiritual Gifts, an article defending the practice of recording gifts in ministry. I have expanded that original list of objections, and I am applying them more broadly to the eldership of vocal ministry, understood in both of its nurture and discipline aspects, not just recording gifts in ministry. Because addressing each of these has made this post extremely long and some readers may not want to deal with the whole thing at once, I made it into a pdf file and offer links to its various sections.
Download Objections-SupportingCallstoVocalMinistry.pdf

Outline of Objections

Here are the objections I’ve heard to proactive and focused attention to those called into vocal ministry:

  • Egotism—You’re just trying to feed your ego.
  • We are all ministers. Some Friends cite the belief that all Friends are ministers (that we “laid down the laity, not the ministry”), so it’s not right to single out individuals for a status that all of us possess.
  • Testimony of equality. Many cite the testimony of equality, fearing that special support for called ministers would confer an exalted status on the person who is called.
  • Fear of hierarchy. In a similar vein, many fear that the practice will lead to a subtle but dangerous form of hierarchy among us.
  • Personal freedom and discipline. Many Friends expect to do more or less whatever they want in their religious lives, as one of the unique gifts of the Quaker way. Often, in fact, they see their meeting as a safe harbor from the kind of wounding they have suffered in their past that took the form of coercion or other outward discipline, and this practice feels the same to them.
  • What good is it? Many Friends, I think, do not see what benefits this kind of support could bring to either the minister or the meeting.
  • Ignorance due to the erosion of tradition. When no one sees a robust culture of eldership around vocal ministry at work, it is easier to fear the unknown than to imagine the blessings.
  • It will drive people away. This kind of practice will feel intrusive to some Friends and they will leave, and some newcomers will go away.
  • What to do. Finally, this post ends with some ideas about what to do in the face of such predictable if not inevitable conflict.



As I said above, the Friends I know who would seek more support from their meeting for their vocal ministry feel that, yes, ego is the problem—exactly. But they want their meeting to help them manage the temptation to egotism, not to feed it.

When you have such a calling, faithful service to the Caller could not be more important to you, or more fraught with personal spiritual risk, as I said in my previous post. When your calling and your fears are not important to your meeting—when your meeting fails to understand both its own traditions and its pastoral responsibilities—your meeting has failed you and failed itself—and failed the Holy Spirit. By “Holy Spirit” I mean whatever Mystery Reality calls forth ministers and ministry and gathers the meeting into holy unity, call it whatever you like.


We are all ministers

Friends are fond of saying that we are all ministers, that we laid down the laity, not the clergy. They then move from this principle to a stand against singling individuals out for special attention to their ministry. If we are all ministers, then why would you do that?

But this does not quite get our tradition right. Yes, we laid down the laity, but, in fact, we are NOT all ministers; we are all POTENTIAL ministers. We are ministers in waiting. We become ministers when we faithfully answer a call to service. Ministry is service—but service to what? In the Quaker tradition, you cannot separate ministry from its call without destroying the very meaning of ministry.

We all experience the Caller differently. For some it is Jesus Christ. For most of us, it is something much less identifiable. Some say ministry comes from within, from “that of God” within us. But the experience of the call, the prompting to rise and speak in meeting for worship, for instance, whatever we call it, comes from something deeper within us than our own egos.

But not necessarily. Much vocal ministry, in fact, seems to come from a rather shallow place. But even that doesn’t mean it isn’t Spirit-led. We know true vocal ministry by its fruits: Does it serve the inner life of even one attender at meeting? (Usually, we can’t know.) Does it serve the collective religious life of the meeting? Does it deepen the silence, the meeting’s sense of gathering in the Spirit, or does it pull us back up toward the surface of our thoughts and feelings?

I am not here concerned with how the meeting might judge these things. I am addressing how the meeting relates to those for whom seeking to come from deeper and deeper depths with their spoken ministry is of utmost importance, and who want help with being as faithful in their service as possible.


The testimony of equality

We are each of us endowed with certain spiritual gifts that comprise for each of us a unique constellation of gifts, which then manifest as ministries that also take unique forms for each of us. So we are are all equal in the fact of our endowment, but the idea of “equality” is irrelevant to our individual needs for the nurture of our unique gifts and the support of our individual ministries.

Every member of the meeting deserves careful spiritual attention, but that attention should be more or less unique, appropriate to our individual callings. The testimony of equality does not demand, as some kind of outward rule, that everyone gets lowest-common-denominator, no-size-fits-anybody treatment because we are all the same. Rather, the testimony of equality requires that our support structures give each minister the support that we each deserve—and out of love, as a sacred collective responsibility, not as an outward rule.

Some Friends need support for their vocal ministry; denying them that support is a form of inequality, unless you deny all Friends support—with their witness callings, and pastoral care callings, and hospitality callings, and teaching callings, and property management callings, etc.—as well. Which is exactly what many meetings do—no call to service gets proper support. This is not the testimony of equality in action, nor is it love for our ministers or for the One Who Calls—whatever you call G*d in your own experience.


Fear of hierarchy

The testimony of equality argument against focused support of any ministry is really a fear of hierarchy dressed up in tradition’s clothing. That’s really what people mean, I think, when they use the equality testimony as an obstacle. Friends tend to fear leadership, and this sometimes drives a passive undermining of our leaders. Many Friends just don’t think we have leaders, even though we all recognize the contributions of Friends that we think of as “weighty”.

Quakerism has gone a long way toward eliminating hierarchies in our structures of governance. This is one of our strengths, one of our more valuable contributions to religious culture and history—and, for that matter, to the wider culture. Having servant clerks rather than presidents, making decisions collectively under the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than by majority rule, meeting for worship in circles (and eliminating those facing benches) rather than all of us facing an elevated dais with an elevated person on it, recognizing that each of us is a potential minister—all these profound reforms of religious practice arise organically from essential principles of Quakerism: that each of us can commune directly with the Divine and that the worshiping community also can find unity, peace, and guidance in the leadership of the Spirit.

We certainly do not want to undermine this genius by elevating someone to a position of power. But giving a vocal minister the support they need does not elevate them to a position of power. To the contrary; ministering to our ministers helps to ensure that G*d remains the source of guidance for our ministers, and it helps to ensure that the meeting retains enough authority over its own worship and fellowship to faithfully nurture it and protect it from such power plays.

Meanwhile, Friends are notoriously bad at dealing with “soft” power, with passive aggressive behavior, with Friends who hold the meeting hostage, saying, if you do “x”, I’ll do (or won’t do) “y”. Human societies can never get rid of the temptation to power. We can only build a fellowship that knows how to deal with it effectively.

Most liberal Quaker meetings I know have to a large degree abrogated the responsibility to protect the fellowship and the worship from destructive behavior. When it happens, they flounder. And we have dismantled the eldership structures we used to use for this.

So it’s ironic that Friends resist providing just such a system of balances for vocal ministry, believing that providing them would foster power plays. This is a weird kind of denial that affirms what we claim to deny—we won’t protect ourselves from you, the called minister, because we’re afraid you might hurt us. That’s nuts. If you’re afraid of people seizing power, take measures to prevent it.


Personal freedom and discipline

Now we are getting close to the core problem, I think. Liberal Quakerism has evolved to the point where many of our members define the Quaker religious space as one in which they can do whatever they want. Many of us come to Friends as refugees from other religious environments in which we were told what to do by religious authorities and we didn’t like what we were being told, and we didn’t like being bossed around, in the first place. Many of us are not so wounded, but we still came here seeking freedom, and we found it.

One Friend I know once described Quakerism as a do-it-yourself religion, by which he meant, not that we each had to do our part because we have no paid professionals, but that each of us is free to believe whatever we want and to craft the kind of religious life we want, independently of any other authority, including the authority of the meeting. Predictably, that Friend consistently ignored some of our traditional, if tacit, agreements as Friends and did what he liked.

Thus some Friends can’t imagine ceding their autonomy over their own vocal ministry to some committee or even to the meeting. And thus we don’t understand why other people would seek to do that. And these Friends would not want to worship in a community that would try to exercise that kind of control.

But this misunderstands the desire of the minister who feels a call, the nature of the call itself, and the true locus of authority in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. It misunderstands the character of “authority” in the traditional Quaker approach to the life of the Spirit.

In our tradition, the Quaker minister does not cede authority over her or his ministry to some committee or to the meeting, but rather we seek to follow the Holy Spirit! In our tradition of Spirit-led ministry, the minister is but a channel, not a source, of the words spoken in meeting for worship. (By this I do not necessarily mean some kind of spiritualist channeling in which you are taken over by the message—though that does happen sometimes—but rather a kind of inner discipline of surrender in which we seek to get our ego out of the way and let the prompting we are feeling take us where it wants us to go.)

In our tradition of vocal ministry, the meeting and its worship and ministry committee do not seek authority for themselves, either. Rather, they recognize the same authority as the minister—G*d, Christ, the Spirit. . . . The committee sees its role, not as an organ of control, but rather as an organ of listening for G*d’s guidance akin to the listening exercised by the minister, but done at the level of the collective community.

We all know the feeling of fulfillment that comes from faithful service in vocal ministry. And most of us know, I hope, the thrilling sense of communion that comes in a covered meeting for worship, when we feel gathered in the Spirit. This is not ego at work. This is not corporate control. The faces of this authority are joy, and peace, and love.

This kind of practice is much more difficult than just listening to some appointed preacher or kneeling at a rail while a man places wafers in your mouth. Like anything else, to get good at this kind of practice—you have to practice. And it helps to have resources, teachers, mentors, and discipline in that practice. So many Friends recognize that a successful athlete must train and practice, a lot, and yet think the life of the Spirit can be deeply fulfilling and transforming just by sitting quietly in a group for an hour a week.


What good is it?

Friends who do not feel a calling to vocal ministry in the way I have been describing can easily imagine the dangers involved, but have a hard time imagining the benefits. Certainly, it won’t benefit them. They are likely to feel that, if they don’t need this kind of attention, then why would someone else? And for the meeting it would just mean more work and potentially, a slippery slope toward authoritarianism.

But I feel that it most certainly would benefit all the meeting’s worshippers, whether they think of their own vocal ministry as a calling or not, because it should deepen the quality of the vocal ministry they receive from their called ministers. That’s why the “called” minister seeks such support—to strengthen their faithfulness, deepen their ministry, and guide them away from such pitfalls as egotism.

Here it’s worth mentioning the very important role that vocal ministry plays in outreach. I think there are three main factors at work in determining whether newcomers come back to a meeting after their first couple of visits: the depth of the silence, an intangible, “transcendental” quality to the worship; the warmth and welcoming atmosphere of the meeting’s fellowship; and the quality of the vocal ministry. Not only is profound vocal ministry more likely to attract newcomers, but it is also more likely to attract a certain kind of newcomer—people who are seeking profound religious experience themselves.

Supporting the people who are speaking in meeting should nurture a virtuous cycle: deeper ministry calls in deeper people who then in turn bring deeper ministry—among other blessings to the meeting.

As for adding work to the handful of Friends who in every meeting are doing more than their share of the work, yes, that’s going to happen if meetings were to take up the practices I’m suggesting. But what are meetings for? Are we not here precisely to support each other in our spiritual lives? And if religious calling—to any form of ministry—is an important part of some Friends’ spiritual lives, as it most certainly is, then how could we deny them, especially when our tradition is especially strong and unique in this very regard? What could be more important than that?


Lack of exposure

I believe that the rather catastrophic erosion of our traditions around leadings and ministry in many of our meetings has created a slippery slope toward weaker meetings, shallower worship, and fear of practices that once made us stronger and deeper.

Friends approach their meetings with their leadings so infrequently now that these Friends now stand out, they attract attention. If it were happening to all of us all the time, we wouldn’t get nervous, we would get to work. If the meeting was practiced in its practice of eldership in both its nurturing of ministry and its protection of the worship, it would feel natural and good to see it happening.

Meanwhile, we don’t really know what to do when someone does have a leading because we have lost the practices that used to be commonplace among us. We don’t know how to form and conduct clearness committees for discerning leadings, we don’t record gifts in ministry, we don’t do much of anything to nurture each other’s gifts and ministries, we often don’t know how to write minutes of travel or service, and when we do, we often don’t know how to treat them. So we fall back into the world’s reactions as shaped by our liberal Quaker culture: Who are they to claim the Spirit’s leading when nobody else is doing it?

Or, more to the point, when I am not having that experience? They are no better a Friend than me!

This, I believe, is a common root of opposition to focused attention on some Friend’s ministry: that many Friends are not having this kind of experience themselves. So it’s easy to wonder whether such experiences might be either bogus self-delusion or a projection of ego; or at least, irrelevant to the wider life of the meeting.

But this lack of experience stands in front of hundreds of years of experience in our movement. I’m not sure when we began to lose this experience of calling to vocal ministry. I would guess that the trend started with the emergence of liberal Quaker culture around the turn of the twentieth century and really gained momentum after World War II.

But a decisive stroke would have fallen when a yearly meeting stopped recording ministers. The only yearly meeting I know well is New York, which still does record ministers—it still has meetings in the programmed, pastoral tradition following the reunion of the Orthodox and Hicksite yearly meetings in 1955. But even in New York Yearly Meeting, only the traditionally Orthodox meetings still record ministers; the liberal meetings do not and many, I think, would never; they just don’t think that way. And many Friends in NYYM bristle quite agitatedly when the practice comes up. So even in a yearly meeting that retains a tradition of recognizing the call to ministry, many Friends feel quite alienated from that experience.


It will drive people away

Friends who feel alienated from the claim to be called into vocal ministry, who are uncomfortable with the prospect of the meeting paying “undue” attention to the meeting’s vocal ministry and to the Friends who claim to be called, these Friends will naturally be concerned about how other Friends will feel. Friends who feel excluded in some way might naturally fear that others will feel that way, also, and they will be right. They also might fear that these practices will make newcomers nervous and drive them away, too—and they probably will be correct in this, also.

Just bringing the subject up causes conflict in a meeting that has Friends who are opposed to the practice, and I would guess that virtually every liberal Quaker meeting does have such Friends, so some level of conflict seems virtually inevitable. Why would you deliberately cause friction in your meeting?

This is a very compelling argument. In my experience, these fears are well grounded. I have seen these conflicts myself. I have seen Friends come to the point of standing in the way over them. It’s easy to imagine some very sensitive or opinionated Friends withdrawing from meeting life if they feel some kind of vocal ministry police state has been established. I suspect also that some newcomers would, in fact, be nervous about such a practice and seek some other religious community, especially since it would be easy to misunderstand what’s going on. Our practice of Spirit-led ministry is subtle, complex, and very different from the practice of most other churches, so it’s hard to explain well and it’s not that easy to understand, in the first place. Many seasoned Friends seem not to understand it.

So why would a meeting try to do such a thing?


The basic question

This gets to our core understanding of the Quaker faith itself. What are we here for?

For me, the essential question is what we mean by G*d or Spirit or the Divine—whatever you want to call it. Is “Spirit-led” just an idea to which we give lip service, or do we actually believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—that Something calls us into service, that Something can lead us, both as individuals through leadings and as a worshiping community in the covered meeting for worship.

If the answer is yes, I have felt the promptings of something that feels like not-myself, that feels bigger or deeper than my self, that somehow transcends my self; and yes, I have experienced a covered meeting in which as a meeting we were gathered into a profound communion of unity and joy in worship—if the answer is yes, then that is what we are trying to be faithful to. That is the Presence we seek. That is the experience that we seek to nurture and protect.

And do we imagine that this will be easy? That it will just come by itself all the time—or any time—without us paying any attention to it at all, either as individuals or as meetings?

The counter-argument is that most Friends who speak in meeting would say they are Spirit-led, and who’s to gainsay them? They might say to me, what you seek is already happening, so why get all complicated and intrusive about it.

Well, I certainly won’t claim that these Friends are not Spirit-led. All I can do is testify to my own experience, that I feel called and I want support, and I don’t want my experience to be gainsaid any more than Friends do who don’t feel called to vocal ministry want me to gainsay their experience.


Where to from here?

This feels like an impasse to me. It’s not very clear how to go forward. I see two things to do.

First, lets start a conversation. Yes, even that will bring conflict. But I refuse to let the fear of conflict quench the spirit of such an important question for our Religious Society. At the very least, we should be able to talk about it in gatherings that do not expect to take any action. Informal gatherings for conversation, gatherings in which we share our personal experience of vocal ministry, religious education programs on our traditions of vocal ministry, all without the expectation of action or change on anybody’s part—these, at least, should be possible. Or have we no courage at all?

Second, those who, like myself, have a concern for their own vocal ministry could meet informally, outside of any established meeting structures, just to think together about what we can do for each other. This would have to be “advertised”, so some Friends might get nervous when they hear that some cabal is forming, but in reality, this would be no different than a group of Friends concerned about fracking or racism or gun violence getting together to see what love could do about those concerns.

Care for vocal ministry is an extremely important part of our shared Quaker tradition, inherently, historically, “theologically”, and experientially. I for one would not deny or abandon such an essential aspect of our faith and practice without at least having some conversations.

Vocal ministry as a calling

July 1, 2016 § 12 Comments

If our meetings and their worship and ministry committees feel that they have no responsibility or role to play in the religious lives of Friends who feel called into vocal ministry, even though these Friends bring their ministry to the meeting regularly, what does that mean? What does it mean if a meeting has so abandoned its traditions as to leave its vocal ministers with no help at all, even when they have a calling that to them is a profound religious responsibility and might be fraught with a sense of great personal spiritual risk?

Recently in meeting for worship, my meeting had quite a bit of vocal ministry, and I myself felt a prompting, but my discernment process took longer than the time for worship allowed.

Two friends spoke who speak fairly often, and I speak fairly often, too, so there might have been three of us frequent speakers if time had allowed. My potential ministry started as a concern about this fact, that I speak fairly often, and so do some others, but also from the fact that I experience my vocal ministry as a calling. Thinking about this situation and my calling, then and since, has prompted this post and some queries.

The essential principle of the Quaker way, which we know from direct experience, is that each one of us can commune directly with the Divine. Flowing organically from this experience is our understanding and practice of Quaker ministry: we know—also experientially—that any one of us may be called into G*d’s service. The quintessential manifestation of Spirit-led service for Friends is our vocal ministry—that any one of us may be prompted by the Spirit to rise and speak in meeting for worship.

For several hundred years, Friends experienced vocal ministry as a calling—not as a series of individual and unrelated events in a person’s worship life, but as a relationship with both Christ and meeting that occupied and transformed one’s whole religious life—and thus one’s relationship with one’s meeting—in profound ways. The ministry that one offered on any given First Day was no isolated event in a random series, but rather a manifestation of these relationships with God and meeting, organically bound to one’s other vocal ministry by the sense of calling, by one’s practice of faithfulness to the call, and by the attention of the meeting.

This is why we had elders—vocal ministers needed ministering to. This is why some older meetinghouses have facing benches—so that the ministers could sit—and stand—where they faced the body so that Christ’s Word could be heard more easily.  Some meetinghouses even have a canopy over the facing benches, often with a plastered curve at the upper corner, to better reflect sound. This is why we have ministry and worship committees.

But most meetings no longer have elders, and leave their vocal ministers to struggle on their own with whatever sense of calling they might have. Most meetings no longer record gifts in ministry, and therefore have lost any direct relationship they might have with emerging ministers and their gifts. Most modern meetinghouses have no facing benches, and the meetings that do usually allow anyone to sit in them, while those who feel led to speak fairly often might be sitting anywhere in the meeting room. Most meetings no longer think of vocal ministry as being prompted by Jesus Christ or even by the Holy Spirit of the Trinity, so vocal ministry is no longer thought of as arising from relationship with either God or even with the meeting, and “faithfulness”, if it figures at all for the minister, is a matter mostly between one’s self and one’s self, not with some “Higher Power”. And most Friends and most meetings no longer think of vocal ministry as a calling.

Meanwhile, some of us find that we are led to speak fairly often. And some of us who are frequent speakers do feel that vocal ministry is for us a calling, and we are left to pursue this calling on our own, without any culture of eldership that could nurture and support our gifts and call.

I feel such a calling, and this raises for me a number of really important questions or concerns, not just for myself, but also for those others in my meeting who feel such a call, for the other frequent speakers who perhaps do not think of their ministry this way, and for the meeting itself as a worshipping body.

I think every meeting—and those Friends who have a concern for their own vocal ministry and/or for the vocal ministry in their meeting in general, especially members of our ministry and worship committees—should ask themselves these questions. These are my questions, in a kind of cascading logic tree:

  1. Is the ministry and worship committee of the meeting—or anybody else, for that matter—paying attention proactively to the meeting’s vocal ministry, so that they notice Friends like myself who are speaking fairly often? By proactive attention I mean that someone on the committee might say, Steven Davison seems to be speaking fairly frequently in meeting for worship—I wonder whether he feels a calling to vocal ministry? And then the committee would discuss the matter.
    1. If the committee is paying this kind of attention, would they then approach me with something like the same question: We notice that you speak fairly often in meeting and we wonder whether you feel a calling to vocal ministry?
      1. If my answer is yes, do they then ask: Is there any way we can support your call? Is there any way that we can help you be faithful to it?
        1. If they offer support, I accept it. And then what forms might this support take? I personally would be interested in participating in a small, informal mutual support/discussion group with a concern for our vocal ministry, a group that would find its own direction as we were led. I might also be interested in a vocal ministry/spiritual journey friend—some individual person to be in touch with more intimately, as the two of us feel led. But another minister with a calling might have other needs or ideas.
        2. If I don’t accept their offer of support, well then, that settles that. The only role the committee might play in the future in my vocal ministry might be to act to protect the worship if my vocal ministry became some kind of obstacle to gathered worship.
      2. Suppose I answered no, I never have thought about my speaking as a calling. I imagine that many of our frequent speakers might say this. Would the committee then ask: Do you think it’s possible that you do have a call? Would you want any help with discerning a possible call—say, a clearness committee, or just someone to talk to about it?
        1. If I said yes, then we’re on to #
        2. If I said no, I don’t want any of your attention, then we’re back to
      3. If it appears that none of the frequent speakers in the meeting have a sense of calling, but the committee feels that this is a meaningful way to approach vocal ministry, would the committee then begin a program of religious education that would introduce the practice and help prepare a religious ecosystem in the meeting that would begin to foster and support callings to vocal ministry?
    2. If the committee is not paying this kind of proactive attention to the meeting’s experience of vocal ministry, then why not?
      1. Is it because no one on the committee considers the possibility that one might be called into vocal ministry (or any other ministry for that matter)? Has the committee ever discussed the matter?
      2. If someone on the committee does feel, as I do, that in fact some of us are called into vocal ministry as a calling, would such a committee member feel free to bring such a practice up to the committee? If not, why not?
      3. Do you imagine that there would there be resistance somewhere in the meeting to the ministry and worship committee proactively practicing this kind of attention and/or providing some eldership to those with a sense of calling?
      4. Has the meeting discussed vocal ministry enough as a body to give the committee some sense of what their practice should or at least could be?
      5. If the committee does not feel free on behalf of the meeting to serve the members who do feel a call to vocal ministry, could they still facilitate or support some more informal form of support?

If the answer to all of these questions is no, the committee and the meeting have no responsibility or role to play in the religious lives of Friends called into vocal ministry, even though they bring that ministry to the meeting regularly, what does that mean? What does it mean if a meeting has so abandoned its traditions as to leave its vocal ministers with no help at all, even when they have a calling that to them is a profound responsibility and is fraught, potentially, with great personal spiritual risk?

Christian Earth Stewardship—A Critique: Principle Five

June 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Principle 5: We have been given dominion over the earth—but we hold that dominion only as stewards of creation.

Therefore, earth stewardship should include concrete communication with God.

The essentials of dominion in stewardship are these:

God has given us lordship over creation as a trust. God still ‘owns’ creation and will hold us accountable for what we do with it. In the meantime, we are its stewards.

It is increasingly clear that we are failing our responsibilities under the agreement. In fact, there actually is no agreement. Our dominion has grown to the point that we now routinely defy the very forces of earth’s gravity and fill the firmament with heavenly bodies of our own making. The Powers of dominion—the corporations and governments—worship their own gods, and these gods—Mammon and the Principalities—mostly laugh at the idea of divinely sanctioned limits to their dominion, if they are aware of them at all.

Even the semi-theocratic administration of George W. Bush gleefully tilled paradise but systematically failed to keep it. Christian earth stewardship is an abject failure and our dominion, in the absence of our stewardship, has run completely amok. Why? What is the problem?

What’s wrong with the Christian theology of dominion that it has allowed, sometimes even encouraged, such idolatry? What’s wrong with Christian stewardship theology that it has so thoroughly failed to catch on, even in seminaries, let alone in the pews, and failed to stop the idolatry of eco-destruction?

The problem with dominion

The theology of dominion comes from the Bible, specifically, from Genesis 1:27-28:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”

And it was so.

Though slightly less familiar, Psalm 8 is more explicit:

Lord, our Master,
how majestic Your name in all the earth!
Whose splendor was told of the heavens.
From the mouth of babes and sucklings
you founded strength
on account of Your foes
to put an end to enemy and avenger.
When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm,
“What is man that You should note him (sic),
and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods,
with glory and grandeur You crown him?
You make him rule over the work of Your hands.
All things You set under his feet.
Sheep and oxen all together,
and also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the sea,
what moves on the paths of the seas.”
Lord, our Master,
how majestic Your name in all the earth!

The writers of both these passages clearly saw dominion as a blessing, a gift, rather than a commandment. Genesis 1:28 is explicit on this point. The fact of our dominion and the sheer scope of our power today has allowed us to see it as an entitlement, even though the ‘fact’ of our ownership of other creatures must have seemed far less established to the Psalmist than it does today. Anyone who deals with farm animals and their predators day in and day out knows just how easy it is for even a docile cow to accidentally maim you for life. Torah covers goring by oxen as both a criminal and a civil matter because oxen are powerful, dangerous and not always submissive to human dominion (Ex. 21:28f).

We’ve already discussed the social and environmental context for which Genesis 1 was written: exiled priests wrote it to encourage a small community of settlers returning from exile in Babylon only to find lions roaming the desolate streets of Jerusalem. The zealots among the settlers (and wouldn’t that be most of them, or they wouldn’t have returned from Babylon to resettle the homeland in the first place?) must have held on to that blessing with a desperate faith in the promise more than with the confident assurance of their real experience. Think of the Jewish settlers of the West Bank today, then infest the city with ghosts and predators roaming ruins and all the good farmland already taken.

The theology of dominion that we take for granted today has resulted from centuries of industrialization, urbanization, and the increasing dominion of the mass-production, mass-consumption society, in which people (especially theologians) have jobs, not farms, and rarely encounter real ‘nature,’ let alone oxen that they or their father have ‘trained’ not to gore the neighbors.

The industrial revolution has turned animals, once our partners in survival, into subjects true and simple. We don’t want them for the work they can do for us anymore. We just want the hamburgers. Modern industrial farming treats them as producers, as living machines to be warehoused and operated. As for predators, the primal fears of the modern agribusiness manager are reserved for the creditors and the viruses; wolves and lions are, practically speaking, no more than metaphors for the bank.

Where in the Bible—or in the real post-industrial world—would today’s Christians find sufficient reason to temper our dominion?

Lynn White, in his landmark indictment of Christianity for causing the environmental crisis, said that the main problem was that Christian theology (that is, biblical theology) desacralized nature while, at the same time, it has promoted dominion. Dominion has played a less important role than he claimed. But desacralization of nature strikes right to the very heart of the matter. The problem with dominion is not so much our power over creation, which industrialization has made a concrete and undeniable reality, but the desacralization that comes with it.

If your religion confers sacred status on the creatures you depend on for survival, as traditional indigenous religions do; and if you experience them as spiritual presences in your life, you will treat them completely differently than if you confer upon them the status of property and experience them as instruments of wealth generation. This desacralization of creation is exactly what the writers of Genesis 1 intended. They blamed the quasi-animist Baal worship and its myths and rites of fertility, in which the people participated in the sacred cycles of the seasons, as the cause of the catastrophes that befell Israel and Judah, and they feared the resumption of such beliefs and practices while under the dominion of Babylon. Clearly, they modeled the creation story of Genesis 1 on Babylon’s own creation myth, Enemu Elish, but in the Babylonian story, the gods create by procreating. The Israelite myth-makers removed the gods, made the creative act the word of God rather than sex (“and Yahweh said, “Let there be…”), and then set humans over it all. No spiritual presences, just animals and plants desacralized. No fertility rituals, just a Sabbath day of rest from work.

Here indeed, lies a huge problem for earth stewards—that nature isn’t sacred; it’s just property. And the only way to temper its mismanagement is stewardship, beliefs and practices designed to make sure that the true owner doesn’t get angry with you over how you managed his (sic) property. So, in practical terms, the problem with dominion is the solution that earth stewards propose—it’s our stewardship.

The problem with stewardship

So what are the guidelines? Where in the Bible are the rules by which God will hold us accountable for our care of creation? Given these principles of earth stewardship, where are the practices of earth stewardship to be found?

Almost without exception, the Bible passages that earth stewardship writers offer us tell us that we should take care of creation, but now how. We could start with Genesis 2:15: “And Yahweh God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Of course, Adam and Eve—that is, we humans—were subsequently cast out of Paradise. Are we still supposed to take care of the cursed, thistle-infested, sweat-soaked earth that our disobedience has bought us, with only women for us men to rule over instead of the whole world? Sounds like a little lashing out at the thistles and the females might be in order. Plus gratitude for any technology that seems to reduce the sweat—gratitude that now borders on worship.

Like Genesis 2:15, virtually every one of the passages listed in my scriptural resource under stewardship sheds some light—and casts a shadow. This is especially true for Christian scripture and even the contributions of Jesus himself. Where earlier prophets, especially Jeremiah, had occasionally condemned bad ‘earth stewardship,’ at least indirectly (Jer 12:4; overgrazing), Jesus never does. All we have is four parables of property stewardship:

  • the parable of the tenants Lk 20:9-18 (Mt 21:32-44; Mk 12:1-11)
  • the parable of the wise servant Lk 12:42-48 (Mt 20:45-51)
  • the parable of the talents Lk 19:12-27 (Mt 25:14-30)
  • the parable of the wasteful manager Lk 16:1-13

On the surface, these parables look promising. They’re about stewardship, the bad stewards get their come-uppance, and so the message is, treat the master’s property right. You cannot serve two masters; it’s either God or your money (Lk 16:13). Except that these parables are not really about property. They use property as a metaphor and they do apply directly to economic justice, to matters concerning debt and the feeding and beating of servants. Mostly, though, they are about “true riches”—the kingdom of heaven. So they only apply to earth stewardship indirectly.

More importantly for us earth stewards, in all these parables, God is an absentee landlord. God comes back to find that [his] stewards have mismanaged [his] estate. To make matters worse, the servants (us) have no idea when he’s coming back. And when the master does come, he punishes. Severely. It is as though, in order to add insult to the injury of a vague timing of the threat—the fact that you don’t really know when the Landlord will show up—the stories make the punishment more extreme. I’m going to make it harder for you to know when I’ll return to judge you, and when I do, you can expect harsh treatment for any mismanagement. Although periodically some apocalyptic movement tries to trim our lamps for us, the fact is that we have been waiting for two thousand years now for the Landlord’s return. By now, the threat seems rather empty, harsh as it is.

These are the crucial flaws of Christian earth stewardship:

First, that God is falsely portrayed as absent.

Second, that the idea of earth stewardship rests on the flimsiest possible biblical pillars and Jesus himself is no real help. Earth stewardship is not integral to the gospel and it’s barely even biblical.

Third, we have no instructions. We had instructions once, but Paul convinced us to throw Torah out. And anyway, those instructions are three thousand years old and assume an agrarian/pastoral economy and a religious culture of animal and vegetable sacrifice.

More to the point, we have no religiously defined and sanctioned way to directly ask the Owner for whom we are stewards, “What do You want from us? What is Your will?” All stewards come up against questions that exceed their knowledge and authority to answer. Some decisions belong in the hands of the owner of the property. What then? We have not even realized that this problem exists.

Finally, even if we knew what to do, even if we had an operating manual for the earth, even if we had a way to ask the Owner for guidance directly when the really big questions come up, no practical way exists to hold ourselves accountable in real life and real time for our treatment of real places. There are no meaningful consequences for bad earth stewardship—except the one imposed by failing ecosystems, by the ‘inivisble hand’ of the Creator, as it were.

In order to succeed, Christian earth stewardship needs four fundamental reforms:

First, a spiritual awakening to the presence of the Creator, and the creative Word, and the Holy Spirit in the landbases and earth systems and creatures on whom we depend as a species—a resacralization of creation in terms that avoid the heresy of nature worship.

Second, a new reading of the gospel—a gospel of the land, a land-based gospel in which our role as stewards is integral, if not central, to our experience of Jesus and his message.

Third, we need instruction from God. We need guidelines for the day-in and day-out of land management. And we need a way to ask God for guidance and permission when the big problems come up, like global warming and species extinction, problems for which our impact on the created systems is so great as to overrule the Creator’s original design. And not just a way to ask; also, a way to receive an answer and test the answer to be sure it is of God.

Finally, once we have an answer, we need processes and institutions for accountability—a way to hold each other accountable for the care of our landbases that actually changes behavior. Do we need laws, courts, prosecutors, and judges, at least for the protection of land in the care of our members and congregations? How else might we bring good gospel order to the matter? We could start with Matthew 18:15-20. Certainly, we also need prophets, a new and creative way to hold the wider culture morally accountable in ways that go beyond the mute and tardy voice of the ballet box. For one thing, election politics only affects government regulation and policy, and the greater power is the economy and the corporate households that make it up.

Earth stewardship instruction

Let me return to the need for instruction, because it is the missing key to earth stewardship. No greater task awaits us as earth stewards than finding a way to reliably commune with our God about how to be faithful in our stewardship. Thankfully, we are not without resources.

Paul alludes to such a process when he discusses the regulation of the gifts of the spirit (1 Cor 14:26-33, esp. vv. 29 & 32). And, of course, ancient Israel had her prophets, court prophets like Nathan and the great independent prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. For both kinds of prophets, processes seem to have existed for dealing with their messages in a formal way in the royal court. We need to restore the lost DNA of the prophetic tradition, and to restore the institution receptors that would allow the prophetic voice to express itself effectively.

In our own time, in two religious communities, these receptors are already (theoretically) active. The Roman Catholic Pope can speak for God to the world and to his own people with prophetic authority. And the Quakers have a tradition of prophetic ministry, though Quakers have lost much of the culture of eldership that nurtured this ministry in centuries past. Many Friends labor creatively to save what’s left of this tradition and adapt it to our modern circumstances, but so far, with limited success.

As for day-to-day guidance, we have the first book of revelation, creation itself, and we are learning the language in which it was written—the earth sciences. The prophetic voice that does command some respect these days among at least some Christians is that of science. Earth stewards must be literate earth scientists.

Not that we should give up the Bible. We can’t ask Christians to give up their Book, even though it weighs especially heavily on our work as earth stewards, with its unscientific creation stories and its relative silence on matters we would love to have real guidance on. So we need creative interpretation of the Bible, or we are lost.

For all that the Chrstian tradition has been interpreting and reinterpreting its own literature for more than three thousand years, still new revelation awaits us. Very, very few trained ecologists have become students of the Bible. I’ve tried, but I am an amateur. I know that ‘adamah’ refers to the red clayey soil that is the only soil in Palestine that needs no fertilizer or reconstitution to be productive farming soil—and that has real theological significance for our understanding of Adam, that is, of ourselves as ‘the human.’ But there is so much more to know! Let’s get to it.

Meanwhile, when we find the Bible in conflict with proven ecological science, as with the creation stories, we simply have to side with the science. Because science, too, is one form of God’s revelation.

We have no theology of land management yet. But we do have the truth about creation, the laws with which it was created and which govern it. The two should be merged. Not just with an imprimatur on ecological principles, but by transforming the way we think about God. We need an understanding of God that is informed by the first revelation of creation, that understands how ecology has already shaped our religious tradition, and that seeks ways to reshape the tradition as new knowledge is revealed.

I propose a great religious-scientific experiment. Let us experiment with ways to hear God’s prophetic voice in a new land-based spirituality. Let us see what an ecological gospel might look like—what a theology built on biblical and scientific revelation might say about caring for creation. And let us test the results on our own property and in the marketplace. Let us refine our approach as the results come in. Let us put our light on a stand so that the whole house may be lit.


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