The Spirit-led Life

January 1, 2018 § 7 Comments

I have a close friend who feels that seeking to live a “Spirit-led life” is inviting delusion. That certainly there is no “Spirit” who might lead us, that there are many such “spirits” who might lead one astray, and that what we’re dealing with here—Spirit, or spirits—are only impulses that come from within ourselves. Some of these impulses can be trusted; some cannot.

I’m reading an article in The Atlantic about Vice President Mike Pence in which a former aid wondered to the author whether Pence’s religiosity might be a rationalization for what he wants to do anyway. I wondered the same thing about George W. Bush. I wonder the same thing about myself.

Friends have a fairly robust framework for “discerning spirits”, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12, for winnowing the true leading from the delusional. At least we do in theory. In the reality of many of our meetings, we are barely holding on to the mindset and the tools we’ve developed for discernment over the centuries. This mindset and these tools serve both personal discernment and corporate discernment.

Regarding personal discernment, the first of these, I think, is regular spiritual practice. It takes regularly setting aside time for turning inward and listening for that voice. Over time, one maps one’s inner landscape, one learns how the spirit moves through that landscape. Deepening techniques help with this a lot.

Then, the “voice” itself. Rarely does one hear an actual voice. I have only done so twice, and one of those times, it was a kind of “language” I could not decipher; the message was the messaging itself, not its content, the establishment of a relationship between myself and that which was offering to lead.

But from then on, for decades now, the “voice” has been “silent”, utterly subjective, internal, devoid of “content”. It feels more like a magnetized needle swinging inside me toward a certain direction for thought, feeling, or action than like a clear command or prompting. It’s perfectly capable of deluding me.

In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works), one has to discern the truth of such inner directing on one’s own, basically moment to moment. In the day to day life, the range for delusion is rather small and the consequences rarely very important. The needle flutters lightly on its pivot and one is hardly conscious of its working.

But often enough the needle gains enough mass to break through everyday consciousness and we find ourselves consciously deciding what to do about something. Here is where a regular devotional life pays off. Here the practice in meeting for worship of discerning whether one has some vocal ministry for the meeting—whether your message is spirit-led—pays off.

My problem is that, in these moments, I almost always forget to employ this discipline. I forget to stop for a moment and go inward before I go forward. I forget to check where I am in my inner landscape, to check my belly (as Bill Taber often recommended) and other physiological signs, and to listen for the voice, to seek the light in my conscience. I let the momentum of my current direction, the forces at work on me from the environment and the people around me, and my fears and desires guide my steps instead.  I follow the surface “spirits” of my conscious and unconscious mind.

Most of the time, that’s okay. I get away with it. I make an okay decision, nothing terrible happens. But I’ve lost the opportunity to go deeper first, to be more fully spirit-led.

That’s everyday life. But sometimes a leading takes on more weight than that. Sometimes one feels led out of the everyday into an uncharted landscape. Sometimes one feels called to new action. Now the possibility of delusion really matters. With these stronger leadings of the Spirit, corporate discernment really matters.

I have had several such leadings and these have evolved into sustained ministries. Very rarely in the evolution or conduct of these ministries have I enjoyed meaningful corporate discernment or support. Well, to be honest, I have allowed my initial disappointments to deter me from seeking further support. Once I was settled in my discernment and after finding that these ministries were not just sustaining themselves but getting deeper and expanding, I felt I was on my way and haven’t sought further support since. But I should have.

One of these ministries is to recover and renew with experimentation the faith and practice of Quaker ministry itself. It’s one of the reasons for this blog and one of this blog’s recurring themes. Many meetings are not well equipped to nurture our members’ leadings and ministries. We have deliberately laid down the traditional culture of eldership that nurtured Quaker ministry for centuries and many meetings have not replaced it with anything else.

Well, we have worship and ministry committees, and we have clearness committees. But in my experience, worship and ministry committees do not necessarily have unity about even the existence of divine leadings, let alone solid knowledge of how to “discern spirits” or how to handle a member’s leading. And many meetings are not clear about how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, either.

We use clearness committees for four different kinds of discernment, and they each are constituted and conducted in different ways. Many Friends are not clear about these differences and many meetings have too little experience with discernment committees to feel confident in their use. (See my post “Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees” for more about the four ways we use clearness committees.)

So some of our meetings need to do a better job of supporting the spirit-led life of their members. Our worship and ministry committees need to gain both clarity and unity about how to support leadings and how to conduct clearness committees for discernment. And I think we need an ongoing conversation in our meetings about what the Spirit-led life is for us and how we might nurture it.

This includes, at the very least, the one thing we all have in common—vocal ministry. What does “Spirit-led vocal ministry” mean? How do we discern whether a message is spirit-led? Or is “Spirit-led” vocal ministry what we’re hoping and aiming for in the first place?


§ 7 Responses to The Spirit-led Life

  • Ellis Hein says:

    ″Spirit,″ ″spiritual,″ and ″spirituality″ are all words that I can’t understand. I can’t take a hold of them and get them to make sense. I think they are often used because they are vague and without definite meaning; as in the statement, ″In the everyday surrender of self to the leadership of the Holy Spirit (whatever that is, however it works)…″ One can use these words without fear of offending someone, or at least with less fear.

    But there is another word that carries definite content, that cannot be molded into a ″whatever that is, however it works″ statement. The word we translate as spirit in scripture can also be, and has been, translated as breath. But now there is something I can grab onto, something that carries its own, certain meaning. ″And God breathed into man the breath of life. And man became a living being…″ There is nothing vague or undefined about the breath or the consequences of breathing this breath. Discernment becomes simple, though not always immediately easy. Those who receive this breath have life; those who do not, reek of the stench of death. Isaiah stated: ″Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of? ″ (Isaiah 2:22) The implied contrast is that God is entirely breath, entirely life. You cannot pinch shut the nostrils and extinguish the breath. This is the being of God. Later on in the book, Isaiah said, ″Wo to the disobedient children who cloth themselves but not with my breath…″ (Isaiah 30:1) We are called to put on life, God’s life, as our garment that removes our nakedness, our death.

    It is with this sense of connection between breath and life that John opens his account of the life of Jesus, ″In the beginning was the word…″ breath formed into intelligible meaning. ″In him was life and the life was the light of men…″ In Chapter 5, Jesus said, ″The hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the son, and those who hear shall live.″ Christendom would make that a statement of what happens at ″the end of the world.″ But look at it in context of Ezekiel 37, the vision of the valley of bones. ″…these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off from our parts’…Thus saith the Lord God; ‘Behold, O my people…ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves…and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my breath in you, and ye shall live…then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it…’ ″

    In Chapter 6, Jesus said, ″Except ye eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, ye have no life in you…″ And later he told the disciples, ″The flesh profits nothing, it is the [breath] that gives life. The words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are [breath], these are life.″ Now we have breath not only intelligible but also personified. It has become something people can see, can hear, can experience within them, and it has also become something people can object to because it now makes demands upon us, perhaps such uncomfortable demands as ″take up your cross and follow me.″ The writer of the book of Hebrews stated repeatedly, ″Today, if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts…″ The urgency of that admonition echos Jesus’ statements above. Hearing his voice is the prerequisite to having life.

    The powers of the day conspired together and crucified Jesus on a Roman cross. We, today, can conspire against Jesus, who comes knocking on the door asking to come in and sup with us. If you would hear his voice and receive life, answer the door. However, if we harden our hearts, blockade the door, and turn from the sound of that knock, we are choosing ″to live″ by the power of death. Our attempts to overcome the breath will be as futile as the crucifixion. For in him is life, which condems death. The life, this life, is the light of men. You can’t follow the light, be filled with the breath, and participate in death. ″And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness can’t overcome it.″

    George Fox stated:
    ″The way to this is Christ, the light, the life, the truth, the saviour, the redeemer, the sanctifier, and the justifier, in and through whose power, light, and life, conversion, regeneration, and translation is known from death to life, from darkness to light, and from the power of satan to God again. These are members of the true church, who know the work of regeneration in the operation and feeling of it . . . ″ (Works of Fox, Vol. I, p. 311)

    Now, this I can understand.

  • Rachel Pia says:

    So, my friend, you have said here & elsewhere that Quakers have laid down the tradition of eldership that nurtures ministry. Yet you know personally Friends with gifts of eldership. We’ve talked about this before, have you asked for the support of individual elders or a support committee for your own work?

    • Well, no, I haven’t. And I shouldn’t really have said that in the first place, at least not that way, since we haven’t totally lost that culture of eldership. That was too sweeping a generalization. My meeting, for instance (Central Philadellphia) has a Gifts and Leadings Committee, so it’s alive and fairly well at Central Philadelphia, I think. So one of these days, I’ll approach them.

      But my meeting seems to me quite extraordinary, in that it has already in place a seasoned and fairly robust infrastructure for the nurture of Quaker ministry. The meeting as a whole seems to be more than usually aware and open to such callings and we have a number of seasoned Friends who know what they’re doing in this regard. My cynicism comes from past experience, but my experience is mostly limited to New York Yearly Meeting and to a much lesser degree, Philadelphia and New England YMs—so I suspect that there are little residual pockets of knowledge and practice elsewhere, too.

  • Greg Robie says:

    “Nothing terrible happens.”

    Nothing could be further from the truth, Steven. Nothing could be a better example of motivated reasoning. In the spirit of GREED-as-go[]d we have rationalized injustice, loved privileged piety, and, in hubris, walked in the name of this “good”. This planet spins around the sun transformed by this go[]d’s limited liability law enabled CapitalismFail’s Anthropocene with its abrupt climate change while we “party on dude!”

    Such is likely why this essay conflates levels of supernatural phenomenon as it does. When ones light is darkness one is really in the dark. There are no so blind as they who will not see. Motivated reasoning can, and does, act as both savior and sycophant. Personally, it can invoke trusted inward whisperings and visions. Socially, and likely thanks to mirror neurons, it manifests itself in what some psyches are predicted to see as apparitions, others, not so much, but no less trusted and followed as real. Trusted and shared stories go along ways toward defining motivated reasoning’s role as either savior or sycophant. And by the walk, not the talk, which role is discernible.


    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

    life is for learning so all my failures must mean that I’m wicked smart


    • treegestalt says:

      The Society of Friends (like any other large body of human beings) truly does seem to be deluded about how the world works, what’s happening there, what part their nation plays in that. But there is a true spiritual Light which continues to lead each of us out of delusion; and overall I couldn’t say we’re following ‘darkness’, merely that we’re still visually challenged in our pursuit of that Light.

      The Light takes people as we are and leads us from there, doesn’t find people at some ideal starting point and raise us in a perfect vertical ascent.

      So, terrible things are done in the world, and Quakers accept them as normal, as most people evidently do (and that’s a sad reflection on a body once founded by people who’d experienced being “in the Truth”) But such things are not caused by anyone’s momentary lapse in attentiveness.

      If we make a mistake, and follow it straight to a wake-up fall… it’s a less-than-pleasant way to learn, but still one form our lessons take. “All things lead to good, for those who love God” — whether or not we quite understand God, or that it’s God we truly love, or how much we are loved.

  • Don Badgley says:

    How difficult we make it for ourselves when we seek to “Name” the unnamable. The instinct to identify, clarify and quantify the Light, and its Source is irresistible. It is part of our language, our religions and our culture and perhaps wired into our genes. It is understandable but, also perhaps an impediment to Oneness.

    My “regular Spiritual practice” is often unsatisfying except when I change the goal, the intention. The confusion seems to arise in the perception that the Source is separate and distinct from our individual being. It must be, right? My being, my physical self, exists within the physical reality of time and space. However, my spiritual self sometimes opens a portal into the infinite, eternal and unchangeable that exists outside of space/time. I will not diminish this by naming it.

    We perceive the Light as inward and as inner. That leads to the sense of separation, of duality. When we seek to unite with that separate reality we remain separate and often confused. So, my goal, the intention of my worship is to unite with that unnamable True Source which is not of this physical universe.

    A simple thought exercise assists me. We are told that the “Light of Christ” came into the world. Friends have named this the Inward Light. In fact, and on the contrary, the world, indeed the entire universe of space/time, came into the Light.

    I begin there and then allow the miracle of awareness to still my inner noise sufficiently to unite with that eternal and unchangeable Source. When that happens for me, albeit rarely, the Experience is unspeakable and Lights my way forward with a new understanding of this brief moment of conscious awareness we call life. In the occasional moments that I Experience Unity, the sense of all pervasive Love fills me. Fear becomes impossible and my confusion is realized as a symptom of my physical human self. We are not called to worship a separate divine being but rather to discover true worship as we enter the Divine Light.

    Perhaps it helps to remember that our founders were not starting a new religion but rather forming a society within the “body of Christ” that simply acknowledged, reached for and then pointed toward the Light that unites all. Jesus pointed in the same direction when he said “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Luke 10:9

    Don Badgley

  • treegestalt says:

    The tradition can look like a technology for keeping the Spirit under control. But that’s a backasswards perspective, isn’t it?

    We’re the ones who need to be guided, not the ones to specify what we’d like guidance to look like. All inspiration is given for our sake, yes, but we are the children, not our divine Parent.

    We’d like, we think, to have scriptures we didn’t need to struggle with, to receive guidance as straightforward as a road map. (But wouldn’t that be frightening? If God were entirely clear & implacable, and might demand literally anything?) Instead we get God as-is, and rather than an Instruction Manual we find Mysteries. Love, for example.

    If vocal ministry is an art form… We are not the artists, no matter how much a work might demand of us. And the object certainly isn’t to produce Perfect Quaker Messages — but to deliver the Divine mail where and when it belongs.

    A Message doesn’t get any truer by being annotated in triplicate. There’s no authentication process that can’t be counterfeited. We need to trust the ultimate source of the Messages and of ourselves. We can self-deceive; we can certainly follow a false trail — but God’s fingers are deep into every bit of what occurs, even our mistakes.

    To have no faith in the Spirit is like having no faith in eyes. There is something called ‘blindsight’, in people whose eyes don’t connect to their visual cortex. Even without seeing, they can find their way through obstacles. (& dodge illusory obstacles, as well.) Mny of us are metaphorically like that, aren’t we?

    I’m sure we’re making mistakes, both in dumping traditions and seeking to revive them. Our best hope in all this is the fact that the direction we’ve taken does have a Director, and leads us into Grace.

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