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)