Covenant Community and God

June 30, 2018 § 3 Comments

In my last post about covenant community (click here to read it), I defined covenant community as a community in which we help each other do our inner work, to become the people the Spirit wants us to be. However, contrary to the quote I offered from Lloyd Lee Wilson*, I think a lot of Friends do, in fact, see meeting rather as a place of shelter from the world than as a spiritual workshop. These Friends aren’t joining because they want help in their spiritual formation. They want community, yes, and a religious identity. And they want support.

But how many of us really want change. Rather, we want a refuge from change, from all the demands for change that beleaguer us. And a lot of us can’t embrace the “vertical” alignment that Wilson feels is essential to covenant community, an intimate relationship, personally and most importantly, collectively, with a God who offers relationship; that is, with Christ.

But can you have covenant community without God (assuming you want it in the first place)? In other words, Is it enough to just have each other?

Think of the question in more familiar terms. We say we conduct our business meetings under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe we just say, the Spirit. But do we really do so? Just what is our faith, our belief, about what we experience when a meeting for business in worship is actually gathered? When suddenly, unexpectedly, even miraculously, our divisions dissolve? When as individuals we find ourselves releasing our own agendas in the swell of a mighty wind of the spirit? When the community sees its way open and clear before it, where once conflict and deep emotions had clouded it?

That Mystery, that Reality, is the anchor of the covenantal community. That is its pole star. That manifestation of Spirit, of God’s wish for us, is, theoretically, available to us, both individually and collectively, in all the other aspects of our personal and community lives. Meeting life as covenant community is the deliberate infusion of that manifestation, that Spirit, into all aspects of the meeting’s life.

The ancient Israelites entered into their covenant with Yahweh because they had collectively experienced the saving and creating power of their God. The disciples of Jesus exulted in the new covenant he offered them because they had experienced the creating power of the Father. The early Friends understood their community to be a new covenant with Christ because they had collectively experienced the unifying and creating power of Christ. Our attenders will seek to enter into the covenant we share when they too experience the gathered meeting for worship.

So a covenant community only exists when the direct experience of the divine exists. We say that this is the hallmark principle of our faith, that we commune directly with God—the Mystery behind our experience—both as individuals and as a community.  We renew the covenant when we gather in worship. We exercise the covenant when we have faith in the promises and faithfully fulfill the responsibilities that define the covenant—that is, when we turn to the Spirit for our collective guidance.

I believe the most important factor in fostering this communion is Friends in the meeting who are mature in the Spirit. Thus spiritual formation of the members is the essential factor in reaping the blessings of the covenant. Thus, becoming a member should be an agreement, an invitation to the meeting on the part of the applicant, to seek help from the meeting with their spiritual formation. And conversely, membership obligates the meeting to answer that of God in its members.

This is a virtuous cycle: A covenantal community nurtures individual spiritual growth. Individual spiritual growth nurtures the gathered meeting, the direct collective communion with God. Direct communion with the Spirit renews the covenant.

Without “God”—without communion, without this alignment toward that Mystery that we sometimes touch in the gathered meeting, without that yearning as impulse and compulsion behind our shared practice, without a shaft that passes power into the community through the hub of the wheel of collective Quaker life along a third dimension, that of the Spirit, the sacred—we just have each other. We just have consensus. We just have group meditation. We just have brainstorming and visioning exercises. We just have a peculiar and quite complicated social nonprofit, however enriching and “effective” it might feel.

But we do have “God”. We do have this mysterious reality. At least some of us do; not everyone has experienced the gathered meeting or met the Spirit in their own inner lives. And that’s what we offer. In theory.

Declaring ourselves a covenant community, acting like a covenant community, means taking responsibility for the faith and the practice that our tradition has built around its experience of this Axis empowering us through the third dimension of spirit, beyond the dimensions of self and community.

And that means turning toward it, personally and collectively, in a life of the Spirit, and bringing those who have not experienced it home to the Light within them and to the Well in our midst.

*  Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, page 71)

§ 3 Responses to Covenant Community and God

  • Thank you, Steve, for this reminder of the priceless covenant that makes us a People of God and not just, well, “people . . . of God, for those who believe in God.” There is a lovely record of Francis Howgill’s receiving an assurance of God’s covenant with Friends in William Sewel’s _History_:

    In this hot time of persecution, Francis Howgill wrote, and gave forth the following paper for the encouragement of his friends:
    The cogitations of my heart have been many, deep, and ponderous some months, weeks and days, concerning this people which the Lord hath raised to bear testimony unto his name, in this the day of his power; and intercession hath been made often for them to the Lord, and a patient waiting to know his mind concerning them for the time to come; which often I received satisfaction in as to myself; but yet something I was drawn by the Lord to wait for, that I might comfort and strengthen his flock by an assured testimony. And while I was waiting out of all visible things, and quite out of the world in my spirit, and my heart upon nothing but the living God, the Lord opened the springs of the great deep, and overflowed my whole heart with light and love; and my eyes were as a fountain, because of tears of joy, because of his heritage, of whom he shewed me, and said unto me in a full, fresh, living power, and a holy, full testimony, so that my heart was ravished there with joy unspeakable, and I was out of the body with God in his heavenly paradise, where I saw and felt things unutterable, and beyond all demonstration or speech.

    At last the life closed with my understanding, and my spirit listened unto him; and the everlasting God said, shall I hide any thing from them that seek my face in righteousness? nay, I will manifest it to them that fear me; I will speak, do thou listen, and publish it among all my people, that they may be comforted, and thou satisfied. And thus said the living God of heaven and earth; upon the 28th of the third month, 1662.

    The sun shall leave its shining brightness, and cease to give light to the world; and the moon shall be altogether darkness, and give no light unto the night; the stars shall cease to know their office, or place; my covenant with day, night, times and seasons, shall sooner come to an end, than the covenant I have made with this people, into which they are entered with me, shall end or be broken. Yea, though the powers of darkness and hell combine against them, and the jaws of death open its mouth, yet will I deliver them, and lead them through all. I will confound their enemies as I did in Jacob, and scatter them as I did in Israel in the days of old. I will take their enemies, I will hurl them hither and thither, as stones hurled in a sling; and the memorial of this nation, which is holy unto me, shall never be rooted out, but shall live through ages, as a cloud of witnesses in generations to come. I have brought them to the birth, yea, I brought them forth; I have swaddled them, and they are mine. I will nourish them, and carry them as on eagles wings; and though clouds gather against them, I will make my way through them; though darkness gather together on a heap, and tempests gender, I will scatter them as with an east wind; and nations shall know they are my inheritance, and they shall know I am the living God, who will plead their cause with all that rise up in opposition against them.

    These words are holy, faithful, eternal, good, and true: blessed are they that hear and believe unto the end; and because of them no strength was left in me for a while; but at last my heart was filled with joy, even as when the ark of God was brought from the house of Obed-Edom, when David danced before it, and Israel shouted for joy.

    From William Sewel: The history of the rise, increase, and progress, of the Christian people called Quakers: with several remarkable occurrences intermixed (1695), Section VII, pages 404-405.

  • Greg Robie says:

    Wilson advocated a three legged stool – if I recall correctly – when discussing the peculiarity of the Quaker way of knowing and experiencing Go[]d. If it isn’t in his book he talked about this at a Powell House retreat he led shortly after his book was published (which was done with the discernment and permission of his Meeting’s elders). The legs are scripture, personal discernment, and corporate discernment. None are infallible. Their interaction is dynamic.

    As I read this post the structural tension of the inherent dynamic relationships is overlooked; simplified away. Isn’t what is outlined simply one of the possible iterations. Relying on the concept of permutations, with three variables there are six possible permutations. Since this essay only indirectly infers scripture, isn’t it a combination more so than a permutation, or becomes one option out of a possible fifteen?

    The corporate Delta brain wave harmonic of the gathered meeting can occur with any of the 15 combinations and/or 6 permutations. The gathered meeting is corporate discernment at its best. But if such unity is experienced short of a it sitting on these three legs, what is built on such un-inclusive discernment – including the concept of “covenanted” going to be less than Go[]d … and, in time, tip over.

    I find it helpful to observe that any social grouping is a covenanted community of sorts. As such it has the means of discernment, and does so. Is the discourse in John’s Gospel from which Friends adopted their name worth considering in the context of this essay and comment? For me it is the fruits that come from any social grouping that can keep it honest regarding any experience of gathered-ness and the group’s efficacy regarding its Go[]d. Isn’t it observable that the Go[]d in whose name we walk is that of CapitalismFail’s GREED-as-go[]d? For me the unfolding Anthropocene and its abrupt climate change indelibly answers this query; is the ‘tip-over’ liberal Quakers have been friends about and helped effect … if not provided key leadership to accomplish experientially.

    sNAILmALEnotHAIL …but pace’n myself

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


  • Andrew says:

    In general I resonate with what you have said here, especially about Meeting not being a ‘shelter’. However I’m uncomfortable about what seems to be an emphasis on spiritual experience as the marker of a living and healthy covenant community.

    The following is all tentative but…. Aside from the dangers of elitism and ‘them and us’ culture that emphasis on experience can create, doesn’t it also seem a long way from the Gospel and the Biblical covenants which focus on how we should live and not on what spiritual experiences we have. Covenantal community surely exists when it lives and acts out of covenantal *promise*? What charisms are gifted to the community by the Spirit are then not the seal of the covenant but graces that flow in the channel of covenantal fidelity? In such a framework those who are not blessed with charisms or mystical experience are not necessarily any less ‘formed’ and may indeed be those who most deeply ‘know’ the saving grace of the New Covenant…

    “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:34

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