January 12, 2015 § 2 Comments
One more joy of the Quaker way—teaching First Day School.
I spent a couple of years teaching teens in my meeting’s First Day School, and I really loved it. There were two of us and my partner was terrific and the kids were great.
Most if not all religious communities teach their tradition to their young, so lots of people have the joy of doing this, not just Friends. And indeed many Quaker meetings either don’t have the kids or don’t have the resources to have a First Day School. In many meetings, the kids’ parents end up teaching First Day School, even if they are new to Friends and don’t actually know the tradition well enough to teach it. And for this and other reasons, many meetings don’t actually teach very much Quakerism in their First Day School, or they stick pretty much to the testimonies and keep a focus on “Quaker values”.
In our class, the focus was on helping these young people recognize their own spiritual experiences and develop their own spiritual lives. Sometimes we offered Quaker faith and practice as a framework for understanding what they shared. And sometimes we started with some aspect of Quaker faith and practice, and invited them to explore it for themselves. And not just Quaker faith and practice, but the Bible also.
We were lucky in that the parents were clear that they wanted substance in their kids’ religious education: they wanted their children to know about Quakerism and know their Bible. But they also did not want “doctrine” in the usual sense, the kind of one-way transfer of theology that many of us had experienced in our own childhood. And these parents wanted their children to be as open to the life of the spirit as they were—without being forced into some kind of spiritual box.
And the kids responded. This ran across the spectrum from really engaged to barely engaged, but they did keep coming—mostly. They are all young adults now, and they are still scattered along this spectrum, in terms of their participation, though I suspect many of them still identity as Quakers, even if they don’t go to meeting.
So, as we knew at the time, our role was not to produce Quakers, but to be midwives to the spiritual paths that they might find on their own, making sure that they knew enough Quakerism to include it in their unfolding if they chose to.
As I have said in an earlier post, teaching Quakerism gives me great joy. Teaching it to young people is quite different and just as joyous. It’s more open-ended. You have to improvise all the time. You have to be attuned to their needs and their moods and whatever may be going on in the world to keep the spirit alive and the material relevant. But when you hit the right chord the energy is so great.
I loved it and I look forward to the next time I feel called to do it.
December 20, 2014 § 3 Comments
In the last post, I talked about how much joy I get from theology, from the study and the sharing of both the faith and the practice of the Quaker way, and from seeking to understand the dynamics of Quaker community. But I also get real joy from taking part in the dynamics of Quaker community, and especially in its discernment processes.
When we are faithful, sometimes we are led by the Spirit, and that gathering brings great joy. I have said this before. But here I am talking about a quieter joy I get from simply participating.
I love participating in Quaker meetings for discernment, whatever forms they take, as long as everyone understands how the process is supposed to work and is committed to following it, and the clerking is at least somewhat effective. We do not often find ourselves in the joyful transcendence of the gathered meeting, but just doing the work gives me a quiet spiritual pleasure.
Even committee meetings. I may be the only Friend I know who enjoys committee meetings, Even when they are not being conducted well, I sometimes enjoy trying to bring them into “gospel order”. Unless the committee is “brainstorming”; I hate brainstorming with a flaming passion, and feel that it is profoundly contrary to the Quaker way.
On the other hand, though, I do have to admit that sometimes “Quaker process” drives me nuts. This happens under several conditions:
- when too many Friends are either ignorant or ignore-ant of how our meetings for discernment work, especially when the clerk lets their behavior prevail;
- when Friends become impatient or lose their faith; and
- when Quaker bureaucracy stands in the way of progress, usually by thwarting some newly emerging ministry.
In this latter case, I say, “To hell with Quaker process when hell is where it takes you.” We sometimes adhere to a process as an outward form when we should rather be heeding the movement of the Spirit.
Moreover, “Quaker process” has been trending secular over the past sixty years or so. The term has a secular ring to it to start with, and I prefer “gospel order”, though some of the traditions of gospel order apply more to our culture of eldership than they do to our processes for discernment. I plan a series of posts on gospel order in the future.
More importantly, however, we have increasingly adopted the world’s ways to do our business (down with brainstorming!) and have increasingly abandoned the core principle of gospel order, that we do our business in worship under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We give lip service to this idea, but in practice, we often act otherwise.
And we increasingly give our commitment and our trust to the process rather than to G*d; we increasingly have made an idol of our process. I suspect that this is because we are so conflicted about G*d. Of course, the very fact that I use an asterisk in the word G*d means that I myself participate in this ambivalence.
Even so, I am clear that a spiritual presence animates our “Quaker process” when we are in the Life, and it awaits us as we work the process even when we are not “in the Life”, and thus our discernment is not merely consensus decision making. Our faith should not be in a process but in the Spirit in which it was revealed to us.
I keep returning to this theme. I think it’s the essential question for modern liberal Friends—just what do Spirit and worship mean? And I will return to it again. But not here. This series is about my joys, not the wrestling match I am having with that angel.
And the faith and practices we call “Quaker process” do give me joy, even as watered-down and bastardized as they are sometimes. Two in particular, are modern innovations of genius—worship sharing, and clearness committees for decision making and for discernment. These processes have at times given me a joy much greater than just a “quiet spiritual pleasure”.
December 12, 2014 § 8 Comments
I know Friends who dislike or distrust “theology”. Many Friends feel that theology only tends to divide us. Very many Friends define their Quakerism in terms of values and practice rather than beliefs or religious “content”. Many Friends believe that our insistence on direct personal experience as the foundation of faith and our historical refusal to have a creed means that beliefs don’t matter much, or, more accurately, that beliefs are a personal matter over which the community has no authority. Many Friends feel that the belief in that of God in everyone plus the testimonies pretty much sums up our theology.
These negative feelings toward theology sometimes translate into a kind of quiet, passive persecution of theologians. Some Friends seem to feel that “intellectualizing” our faith damages it somehow, and that certainly, “intellectualizing” is an inferior expression of faith to that of the witness activist or the mystic, that Friends like me are too much in our heads. Some Friends seem to feel that the life of the mind is somehow not integral to the life of the spirit. I know these things experientially, since I am a Quaker theologian myself and I have occasionally suffered this kind of prejudice.
But I get such joy from the life of the mind. And Quaker theology in particular gives me sublime pleasure. I love reading and learning and thinking and teaching and talking about Quaker tradition and the dynamics of Quaker community life. Likewise for the Bible.
And I love Quaker theologians.
I am in awe of the extraordinary mind of George Fox, even though I sometimes do not quite get what he’s saying, and I know that I miss many of his biblical references, and I don’t share his foundation in the gospel of salvation in Jesus. But his way of thinking about religion is unique in all my experience. Trying to follow his way of thinking does something to my own mind; it forges neural pathways that change the way that I think. The effect reminds me of what it was like reading the radical feminist “theologian” Mary Daly’s book Pure Lust, in which she invents scores of new words and uses new forms of syntax in order to overthrow the dominion of patriarchy in her readers’ consciousness. Except that Fox’s the language seems to come directly out of his own mind as an expression of native genius, whereas Mary Daly deliberately created her new language.
And I love the rest of them, too, those early Friends whom I’ve read. Pennington, in particular, is a wonderful writer with a genius for expressing the mystical dimension of early Quaker experience in a way that’s much more accessible than Fox’s.
But most of all, I love the Quaker theologians alive today. We live in a third golden age of Quaker theology. Not since those first two generations, of Pennington and Howgill and Fox and Fell and Naylor, and of Penn and Barclay; not since the Friends who launched the liberal Quaker movement at the turn of the 20th century, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, Seebohm Rowntree, and others—have Friends followed the Light into the truth with such searching perception and clear articulation as do some of the people writing today—or just yesterday, because I must include Lewis Benson and Bill Taber, who have passed on.
The five that have influenced me the most are John Punshon, Douglas Gwyn, Ben Pink Dandelion, Lloyd Lee Wilson, and Bill Taber. Everything these Friends have written is worth reading.
John Punshon. Punshon’s Portrait In Grey is, of course, the indispensable accessible history of Quakerism. But the little pamphlet Letter to a Universalist is, in my opinion absolute must-read for every Quaker, especially every Friend in the liberal tradition. I would give it to every applicant for membership. And then there’s Encounter with Silence, Alternative Christianity, and Testimony and Tradition.
Douglas Gwyn. I am right now almost finished with Doug Gwyn’s latest book, A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation. This book expresses Quaker faith and practice in a truly fresh and powerful way. And he seeks to ground Quaker faith and practice in a testimony for earthcare—no, that’s not quite right: he seeks to describe how Quaker faith and practice and a sustainable life both grow integrally together out of a grounding in communion with God.
Moreover, one chapter in A Sustainable Life has transformed my personal spiritual life, in a perfect example of how theology and the life of the mind are integral to faith, values, and community life, at least for me. This was a corrective experience for me, a bit of eldering through written ministry. I don’t think I can express it yet in a way that would be concise enough to fit well into this entry, so that will have to wait. But we all have known those moments when you read a passage in a book and something just clicks and you lean back and close your eyes and see the world or your own life in an all new way, for which you are so grateful. Doug Gwyn has done that for me more than once.
Then there’s his Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (1624-1691), which has completely transformed Quaker thought in the modern period about our origins. Not since Rufus Jones a century ago have we had such a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves, and, along with Lewis Benson’s work, Apocalypse of the Word is actually a much-needed partial corrective to the direction Rufus Jones and his contemporaries launched us on.
Gwyn’s The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism could not have been more important to my own writing on Quakers and capitalism, and, once again, it is both a groundbreaking work of history and an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves as a movement.
Ben Pink Dandelion. After reading some essays by Ben Pink Dandelion in a collection with Doug Gwyn and Timothy Peat (Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming), I stumbled upon A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers: The Silent Revolution, which is Dandelion’s sociology doctoral thesis. It’s dense. It has a whole chapter just on methodology. It’s an academic work organized as a thesis with sections given numbers to the third digit; for example: 3.4.1. Vocal Ministry: A Case Study of Attitudes to Belief and Practice. And it’s really expensive. Oy.
But it’s brilliant. This book has been so important to me. I came away understanding how Quaker community works in an all new way. But my feelings go deeper than that. It ignited in me a deep passion for our strengths and a prophetic call to minister to our weaknesses. The truths Dandelion unveils in this book have become an integral part of my own religious calling. I only wish it were more accessible. One day, I plan to condense the insights of this book into entries in this blog, hoping that he finds my presentation faithful to his work.
I just finished reading Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker. This is the most insightful book on the condition of contemporary Quakerism (or liberal Quakerism, at least) that I have ever read. For decades, this man has been holding Quakerism up to the Light and in the light of modern social science, and this book feels like the culmination of all that insight. As seems always to be the case with any such analysis, the analysis is deeper than the solutions. But that’s because solutions are so hard to conceive, let alone implement successfully. Healing and renewing religious community is really, really hard; only G*d can do it, really.
But G*d has only G*d’s prophets to work with. And Dandelion is one of them. I think this book is a major contribution to whatever renewal we will undergo in our own time. It gave me great joy to read this book
Dandelion’s other works are also very good, though some are, like A Sociological Analysis, a bit academic.
Lloyd Lee Wilson. Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order brought us back to an aspect of our tradition that we were about to lose, I think. Though “aspect’ is too weak a word—core would be more like it. What a brilliant work of written ministry this book is! What joy it gave me to learn this material and to fold it into my own Quaker faith and practice.
William Taber. Finally, no one has influenced my understanding and love of the Quaker way more than Bill Taber. I was a resident at Pendle Hill for two terms while he was the Quakerism teacher there (Doug Gwyn was also on the faculty then) and I count those months as one of the greatest blessings of my life. Everything William Taber has written is deep, indispensable reading.
And there are others, of course. Patricia Loring, Sandra Cronk, Rosemary Moore, Howard Brinton, Wilmer Cooper, Alistair Heron, Alan Kolp . . . And my fellow bloggers out there in Quaker cyberspace.
Great religious literature is very often written in response to a crisis in a religious community.’s life For instance, besides the obvious examples of the Hebrew prophets, many of the books in the front of the Hebrew scriptures were put together during the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon and sought to minister to the doubt and despair of the Exiles.
We live in a time of crisis ourselves. And in our own time, a lot of deep spirits with fine minds are responding with wonderful written ministry. What gifts they bring—truly significant contributions to the advance of Quaker culture, and in fact, to the world’s religious literature more broadly.
December 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
One morning during the time I was writing Good News for the Poor: The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God, while I was in the shower thinking about the Last Supper, it dawned on me that there was only one loaf of bread for the meal, and that that single loaf carried a kind of sacramental truth that I had never perceived before, a significance that was both spiritual and economic.
Normally, each of the disciples would have had his own loaf of bread. Diners in Jesus’ world would tear pieces off of their loaf and use them as pincers to pick pieces of meat and vegetables out of the common dish. You can see this at work in the parable of the man with a night visitor who goes to his neighbor to ask for three loaves of bread (Luke 11:5-10), one for his visitor, one for himself, and one for . . . Elijah? his wife? The story doesn’t say; that is not its point.
The fact that Jesus and his disciples had only one loaf at the Last Supper—which clearly was going to be an important meal—meant either that Jesus and his disciples were very poor, which we know in fact they were—we have several stories in which they were going hungry and only a “miracle” intervened; or they were doing without in radical solidarity with the poor—they were poor in the spirit. Or both.
This little opening gave me shivers. It was thrilling. I could hardly wait to tell someone—only there was no one to tell just then. And even when I finally did have someone to share the experience with, it lost a lot in the telling. I couldn’t really share the joy I had had in that moment, even though I still carried much of that joy with me.
For the feelings I had that morning are still with me, still quite vivid when I think about the moment, the opening, the meaning of the thing, the way it laid another stone on the foundation of my understanding of the economics of redemption. Even right now as I write, I am seeing a new thing about that one loaf of bread, how it fulfilled the prophetic promise of the Jubilee that Jesus declared at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4. And right now, the joy is back! But again I am alone, at my desk, on a cloudy morning in the city of Philadelphia. You, my reader, are still in the future, and perhaps somewhere on the other side of the world. I really cannot share this joy with you as I would wish to.
This is the way with the joy of openings, and even of leadings and calls to ministry, to a large degree. These experiences are inward, they are personal, even solitary.
Not so with the gathered meeting for worship. The unique and beautiful thing about the gathered meeting for worship is that you share the joy with others.
I talked about this in my series on the gathered meeting, that the signature characteristic of the gathered meeting is joy:
Each of these aspects of the gathered meeting—energy, presence, and knowledge—inspire joy. The psychic and physical thrill are joyous. The sense of presence—of each other’s presence and the deeper something extra—gladden the heart, awakening a unique kind of love for each other and for G*d. And the knowledge, too, is deeply satisfying—to know that you have found something holy, that is, whole-making, however ineffable, or that, in doing G*d’s business, you share in the community’s communion of unity.
I experienced the gathered meeting most recently, after a long spell without, at New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions this year in July. We had labored through several business sessions over an important set of recommendations for establishing a new direction for the Yearly Meeting that would be more focused on local Friends and local meetings. It got nasty. There were tears, there were accusations and distrust and fear. The committee responsible for the recommendations went back to work and returned with revisions. And suddenly, there we were in the presence of the Holy Spirit. As one Friend after another spoke in unity with the new vision, joy spread like sunlight over a lake at dawn. There were tears. As we left the meetingroom, there were smiles and hugs; there was love all around.
This was not just a shared joy, by which I mean the way you feel when someone you love shares their joy with you, so that you feel some of it, too. This was collective joy. For the unique gift of the gathered meeting is that we feel the joy together in that moment, each of us directly, and we know that others are feeling just as we do ourselves, and we know that they know that we too are feeling this joy, and we know that they know that we know that they know. Oh, what joy this is!
For all the joy I have known in the practice of the Quaker way as an individual, none in my experience matches the collective joy I have known in the gathered meeting.
November 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
In this little series on the joys of the Quaker Way, I have been describing how much joy I have found in the practice of Quaker ministry, from the openings, the leadings, and the ministries that have unfolded since that first opening in Talva Chapin’s living room in 1990.
For me, this process has grown like a tree from that one seed. One opening or leading or ministry has led to another as I followed them up towards the Light.
Thus they all feel to me like one integral whole. The branch that aims toward the east seems to be going in a different direction than the one that aims toward the southwest. But they all spring out of the depths within me, from the Seed planted in the soil of my soul. And they all reach toward the same Light.
This decades-long reaching for the Light, this tree of many branches, this organic synthesis of many promptings of the spirit, produces in me a sense of calling.
- As an opening is momentary and specific and inward;
- as a leading is longer-lasting and still specific but more involved, and outward;
- as a ministry is longer-lasting still and broader yet and both inward and outward;
- so the calling is for the whole lifetime, and of the whole of my spiritual life, and transcendental.
By transcendental, I mean something very hard to express. It doesn’t feel particularly cosmic or absolute, however. It still feels personal and particular to me and to my religious environment. To continue with my metaphor, this transcendent presence is to my spiritual process in ministry much like the local ecosystem is to a tree. There is more to the spiritworld than this little valley where I grow, a whole world—a universe, I suppose.
And maybe some of the birds that come to nest in my tree come from that wider world. But this sense of calling is more intimate than it is cosmic. It is more about the bird than it is about wherever the bird may have came from.
Even so, there is something more to it than just me and my spiritual process and my religious environment. As my frequent readers know, this is my definition of G*d: the Mystery Reality behind or within or beyond our religious experience, whatever that experience is.
I have been recounting my own spiritual and religious experiences. I know that they are real because they have transformed me. I can describe them, up to a certain point. I can craft a clever metaphor. But beyond that point, beyond the images I might use to explain it to you or to myself, lies a Mystery, a transcendence to the Reality. And it calls.
Sometimes the calling actually has a voice and a message, a direct address. But even then, the Voice has never given me a name, as Jesus has to so many Friends I know. I have given it some names, because it does often feel quite personal, and thus, I want a name. And it invites me into a relationship, a covenantal one in which we each make promises, and so it needs a name. I need a name.
But the vast majority of the time, this calling is a sense of calling. This Presence is a sense of presence. This Reality remains a Mystery. All I know is that the ecosystem in which I grow as a spiritual being has soft, indistinct boundaries that lie, for the most part, beyond my ken.
I like to think that the evolutionary processes that carry me and my little ecosystem forward are one with the wider spiritual unfolding of the planet and of the human race. But I can only speculate about that. And I do; it’s fun. I get joy from speculation.
But the deeper joy, the greater joy, the more transforming joy, comes from growing in this little valley called the Quaker way and from trying to make my life an answer to this calling from the Light toward the Light in the Light.
November 22, 2014 § 4 Comments
One more branching—Quakers and capitalism
So I have laid out the general outline of my joyful experience in unfolding of ministry as a Friend. This has followed a pattern:
Openings, the flaring of bright moments of insight that come as gifts of the Holy Spirit, which I experience as moments of joy that are sometimes quite sublime. Furthermore, some of these openings have led to . . .
Leadings, specific tasks laid upon me by G*d that, even when they have become a burden, and sometimes they have, still in their pursuit I have found fulfillment, a sustained joy in knowing what I am to do and joy in the doing of it. And then, blessing upon blessing, sometimes these leadings have given birth to . . .
Ministries, calls to service that are broader in scope, deeper in demand, and longer lasting than individual leadings—and even more fulfilling, more full of the joy of service to the community and to G*d.
There is one more layer to this onion—what I call my calling. But I have one more branch in my personal story to tell, another instance in which a leading and the study it required uncovered a new door into service, a new opening that led to a new leading and then to a new ministry.
The opening. I was rummaging through Pendle Hill’s library—i forget what I was looking for—when I “happened upon” the book of proceedings of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920. This book was in amongst other books related to the other world gatherings. I knew nothing about this first gathering, or any of them, for that matter, so I sat down to read for a while. And here was a new discovery: the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order and accounts of the debates that it evoked at the Conference, plus hints about an even more intense debate at the 1918 London Yearly Meeting sessions.
London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) had convened a Committee on War and the Social Order in 1915 whose charge was to explore the causes of the Great War. It came back to London Yearly Meeting with its final report in 1918, with a thoroughly-thought out critique and the Eight Principles. The Committee blamed the industrial system—capitalism—in part for the war and the first draft of the Eight Principles, which had been watered down in the final draft after they had been sent to the quarterly meetings for consideration, were quite critical of the economic-industrial system of the time. Meanwhile, the Friends receiving the report were captains of industry in the very system being criticized. In a sense, these Friends were criticizing themselves.
The leading. I was hooked. I now wanted to learn everything I could about Quaker attitudes toward the capitalist system, given especially the tremendous wealth of British Friends through the centuries. Soon, I felt led to write a history of Quaker economics—a history of Quaker contributions to capitalist culture, Quaker economic attitudes, and an economic history of the movement. The resulting research and writing became the unfinished book published in installments as the first posts of this blog (available as pdf files from the link in the sidebar to the left labeled Quakers & Capitalism).
It felt so natural. I had already been studying biblical economics for years. Also I worked at the time as the marketing communications person for a high-end speakers bureau that represented many of the most important thought leaders in the business world and many of the world’s first-tier economists. it was my job to know what these people were thinking and writing and saying, and then present it to the business speakers market. So i was learning how the system worked from the inside, while I was simultaneously learning how Jesus had reformed the economic instructions of Torah.
And I discovered that the history itself, of Quakers and capitalism, was not only fascinating but also virtually unknown to Friends. As I like to put it, the industrial revolution would have taken place without Quakers—but it didn’t. Friends developed most of the foundational, indispensable industries, businesses, infrastructure, and financing of the British industrial revolution, and they became fabulously wealthy as a result. Yet almost no Friends I have ever met know much about it. Every time I give a presentation on this material, it blows my audience members’ minds.
The ministry. Then, following the pattern I was used to now, the leading to write this book led to a ministry of teaching about not only our economic history and our contributions to capitalist culture, but also a prophetic ministry of awakening to economic testimony.
We stand in a similar relation to the capitalist system as we do to the prison system—we helped create something that has become a monster. And not only are we nearly oblivious of this relationship; we are weirdly neurotic about it. Our amnesia in this area is very strange for a community so obsessed with its own history, and so proud of it. i feel that the collective consciousness of modern Quakerism is neurotic about money and economics.
My ministry is to explore why this is so and to call Friends to “stand still in the light” until the shadow we live under in this matter burns away, and we come up through the flaming sword into a new relation to money and our economic system, until we are open to G*d’s wish for us regarding the economic system we helped launch.
Meanwhile, however, the openings, the leading to write the book, the ministry of writing and teaching about Quakerism and capitalism—all this has been a ceaseless cascade of passion, discovery—and joy. I thank G*d for it.
November 1, 2014 § 3 Comments
In the course of writing How Long Will the Land Mourn, I ran across a book on the ecology of Palestine and the agricultural practices of the ancient Israelites, which included a description of their agricultural technologies, which were first-of-a-kind revolutionary. This knowledge blew my mind and it connected with some of my previous study to ignite a new ministry founded on a series of ecstatic new openings.
I had already studied the relationship between the religion of ancient Israel in the tribal period and Canaanite religion and mythology. The Canaanites were the indigenous people of Palestine, who spoke and wrote a language very close to ancient Hebrew, but whose religion was a classic Mesopotamian pantheistic “fertility” religion that was focused in its mythos and practice on agriculture, rather than the mostly pastoral tradition that the ancient Israelites brought with them. And it involved a rich religious relationship with the land.
Something clicked when I understood the rudiments of ancient Palestine’s geology, geography, weather, soils, and ecologies. I saw how Canaanite religion had this “earth science” embedded in its DNA. I saw how, under the leadership genius of Moses, an Egyptian court-trained “magician”, the ancient Israelites had adopted and adapted this sacred knowledge of the land to make possible their occupation of the highlands of Palestine as primitive agriculturists. For the highlands of Palestine had been unoccupied for 500 years before the Israelites came—it was just too hard to farm until he showed them how. I saw how this religious “earth science” became part of the DNA of the religion of the Israelites when they finally settled in Israel. I had a glimpse of the very roots of the Judao-Christian tradition—our tradition—in the ecology of the Holy Land.
This launched me into a more thorough and focused study of the origins of ancient Israel and of ecological language in Hebrew scripture. At some point, I began to see this substrate of religious ideas and practice in the gospels, as well, not just in Hebrew scripture. So I refocused my study of the gospels on how Jesus used the landscape of Palestine and what I call spiritual ecology in his own spiritual practice. My questions were these: where did Jesus go in his spiritual practice, what did he do there, and why? The baptism, the testing in the wilderness, the call and teaching of the disciples, the transfiguration, much of his public ministry, many of his “miracles”, the agony in Gethsemane, the ascension—all of these events took place outdoors, mostly in wild places. But not in random places. I believe Jesus chose these places for religious-ecological reasons.
The arc of this learning and understanding and writing has been the most exciting series of openings I have ever had. A lot of it is speculation and I still have a lot of research to do, or redo. But the joy of it has been unparalleled.
This was the breakthrough I had been looking for when I returned to the study of the gospel of Jesus searching the good news about earthcare. But I found, not teachings—I had been looking for teachings—but practice. It was Jesus’ practice that is profoundly revolutionary for us today as earthcare ministers. Jesus had a spiritual relationship with the landscape of his homeland, with the land itself. He modeled for us a form of
- spiritual-religious ecology,
- a land-based spirituality, and
- a religious culture of place.
And he did this because he knew that the land, and especially the wilderness and mountains, were the places in which he was most likely to encounter his Father. Because this had always been the tradition of his people, since even before Moses. Because the Father himself was intimately engaged with the land. A mythologist would probably say that Yahweh was a rain god, among other things—or rather, Elohim was, the other important name for God in ancient Hebrew. But that gets us into an exciting but complex tangent.
Out of these openings, which I plan to share in this blog at some point, grew a fourth ministry, a calling to bring Friends and Christians everywhere back to the model Jesus gave us—to reengage spiritually with our own landscapes, to make the places we live in integral to our religious lives, to develop a new religious culture of place, as he did himself.
This sounds like paganism to some people, I suspect. But there’s a big difference between finding the places where divine revelation is most likely to occur and worshipping in that place—and worshipping the place itself.
Also, for Quakers, the “outwardness” of such a practice is rather foreign to the “inwardness” of traditional Quakerism. Anyone who’s been in a meeting for worship outdoors in a forest knows how difficult it is to center down when the bugs are biting (sooner or later, the gnats always find you), when the seating is primitive and uncomfortable, and when the world around you is so beautifully distracting and often, noisy. Furthermore, at least in my experience, communion with the divine outdoors, especially in the wilderness, invites a much more active participation than just sitting.
I would love to know how Jesus dealt with these things as he and Peter, James, and John centered down before the transfiguration on the mountain; how they centered in prayer on Gethsemane, even “falling asleep” there. Maybe Palestine has fewer bugs.
Anyway, this is my fourth ministry now: writing and speaking and exploring bioregional Quakerism, spiritual reinhabitation of our landbases, spiritual ecology, land-based spirituality, and a Quaker culture of place.
October 31, 2014 § 1 Comment
The first leading spends itself
I spent several years researching and then writing my book on Christian earth stewardship, which I early on entitled How Long Will the Land Mourn, from Jeremiah 12:5. I synthesized the messages of the books I read into what I call the 9-plus principles of Christian earth stewardship *(see below). Then I analyzed the assumptions I saw at work behind the principles and their strengths and weaknesses. The final section of the book is a detailed critique of the principles, and finally, concrete calls for action for each principle based on what we would be doing as congregations if we took real responsibility for these principles and did in our practice what we said we believed in our faith.
The book is virtually complete. But I turned away from it because, near the end, when my critique was fully developed, I decided that Christian earth stewardship was a dead end as a religious ideology that could really ignite and sustain Christian earthcare. I still believe that if even a handful of congregations started living according to these principles, an ecological revolution could begin.
But they won’t. That’s the problem.
There are a number of reasons for this. But one of the most compelling is that earth stewardship as it has been articulated so far is not part of the gospel of Jesus. Ninety percent of earth stewardship theology is based on Hebrew Scripture or, to a lesser extent, the letters of Paul. Jesus barely gets mentioned.
What Christian earth stewardship does, essentially, is make ecological destruction another sin, along with all the others, but one that Jesus never talks about. Jesus has almost nothing to say about the environment and land use. And if Jesus isn’t saying anything, why should we listen? If Jesus isn’t interested, then why should we be? I think this is one of the basic problems for Christians in the pews, for ministers in the pulpits, for professors in the seminaries—the silence of Jesus on earthcare.
Meanwhile, Christian earth stewardship is a patent failure. It’s been around since just after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, and in the fifty years since, it has gained almost no traction. Oh, it might find its way into a sermon around Earth Day. There are courses in some seminaries. Some denominations, including ours, have greened some buildings. But show me one congregation that has any idea where the water comes from that they pour into their babies’ eyes with their baptismal rites, or that knows the working conditions of the vineyard workers or the chemicals used in the viticulture of the wine they celebrate the eucharist with. Are they using herbicides on their church property? Are they growing gardens on their church property? And this is just the easy stuff. You get the idea.
My first leading had led to a dead end.
And yet—there had been so much joy along the way. So many openings, so much immersion in the joy of learning, so much pleasure in thinking creatively about scripture, so much joy in the writing. And I felt I stood at the threshold of something new, if only I would just turn in some other direction. So I sat with it.
The second leading arises
Eventually, it came to me. Because I felt that earth stewardship had to be an integral part of the gospel of Jesus or Christians would never pay much attention to it, I decided that I would start over and begin studying the gospel message itself, on its own terms, without an agenda. If I found something, great; if not, then I would lay the thing down.
I went back to the libraries and started reading commentaries on the gospels. I did not study Paul. I wanted the gospel of Jesus, not the gospel of Paul, and I do believe there is a huge difference. The main one being that jesus radically reformed Torah, but he didn’t throw it out. And as I would learn, this difference makes all the difference in the world, especially when it comes to earthcare. Paul Hellenized the gospel, he urbanized the gospel, and he spiritualized the gospel. What I found was deeply Jewish, grounded in the agrarian economy that Torah was designed for, and eminently concrete, the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.
Then I hit pay dirt! I took a year-long course in The Prophetic Tradition from the School of the Spirit, and on its reading list was a book that changed my life: The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder. Yoder has a chapter on the Jubiliee in the gospel of Luke.
This was it! The gospel of Jesus was at its core economic—it was about relieving the sufferings of the poor. Jesus may have nothing to say about land use, but he was all about land tenure—who gets to own the land. This was a side door into earthcare, admittedly, but the power of the gospel’s economic message overwhelmed my initial intent.
I redoubled my study, teaching myself everything I could learn about the economics of Torah and the Jubilee in particular. Then I returned to the study of the gospels. And there it was: every where I turned in the gospels, I found what I call the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God. Virtually all the famous sayings of Jesus were about economics, in language, in legal intent, in their implications for living in the “kingdom”, if only you knew how to recognize the “technical” legal, or covenantal, language involved. Half of the parables were about economics. Half of the miracles were about economics, especially the healings.
So I started writing a second book. G*d had given me a second major leading. And this one had a much wider scope. This was virtually a new reading of the gospel of Jesus, because it touched upon every aspect of Jesus’ teachings and life. Eventually, there would be chapters on economics, community (sociology), politics, public health, spirituality, and apocalyptic. And all along the way, there were in fact, implications for earthcare. Especially in the area of spirituality, that is, how Jesus conducted his own spiritual life. But more about this in a subsequent posting.
Well, I had thought the joys of research, prayerful thought, and spirit-led writing had been deep and plentiful when studying earth stewardship! This was years of the same, but much more exciting. One near-ecstatic opening after another.
I gave a number of presentations and led some Bible studies on this material, and that, too, was not only very fulfilling for me, but never failed to excite my listeners. Because this stuff is hidden. We were never taught it. But there it is, all over the place. And once you see it, you think, Oh my God, why have we never been told this? It awakens a new respect for Jesus and his gospel in even the least interested people.
Though it does sometimes exercise folks who are very attached to the Jesus they already have. I have learned not to mess with other peoples’ Jesus, if I can help it, but to try to add a new dimension to the traditional gospel, one that I do believe, however, is integral to his teaching and mission.
So the first leading, which had yielded years of immersive, continuous, and occasionally ecstatic, religious joy, now had led me into another leading, with even more to be joyous about and grateful for.
* The Nine-plus Principles of Christian Earth Stewardship
God and creation
1. “The earth is the Lord’s”: God is the sovereign proprietor of creation, not humans.
2. “Behold, it was utterly good”: God’s creation is inherently good.
3. “They worshipped the creature rather than the Creator”: We rightly worship the transcendent Creator, not the creation.
4. “And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands”: Creation glorifies God—therefore so should we in our care for creation.
Humans and creation
5. “Have dominion over every living thing—to work it and take care of it”: We are given dominion over creation, but only in trust as stewards.
5.5 “You have made them a little lower than the gods”: Among the creatures, we humans enjoy the privilege—and responsibility—of God’s special favor.
God and humans vis a vis creation
6. “I am establishing my covenant with you”: Covenant is the rightful context for our earth stewardship.
7. “…therefore the land mourns”: Responsible earth stewardship calls for social justice.
8. “Do not defile the land where you live”: Harming creation is a sin.
9. “The creation waits with eager longing”: The promise of salvation also offers the prophetic promise of a new covenant and a new creation.
October 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Petal by petal, the blossoming
This is how my spiritual life as a Friend had unfolded so far:
- My original opening about creation, the cosmic Christ, and ecological destruction as eco-crucifixion became a leading to write a book of biblical eco-theology.
- This leading led me in turn to understand my more general concern for earthcare in terms of Quaker ministry. My spiritual life had looped back, from general concern for earthcare to specific leading to write about earth stewardship, back to my “concern”, now understood as an earthcare ministry, in the terms of the Quaker tradition of open ministry.
- Furthermore, my leading to write this book matured into a broader ministry of writing, in which this core creative impulse of my life was fused with my core identity as a religious person. God became for me my Muse.
So now I had one opening, one leading, and two ministries.
The birth of a third ministry around Quaker ministry
Because I felt led to write a work of biblical theology, and because I had been hostile to the Bible for so long; and because I now understood this undertaking as a religious calling, I felt I needed religious oversight. Not just support in my ministry, but discipline, accountability to my Guide and to my religious community for my faithfulness in the work.
So I asked my meeting for an oversight committee. They were unable to meet my needs.
I met twice with the Ministry and Counsel committee. The first time, no one seemed to understand what I was doing or what I was asking for. The second time, some members did finally understand, but they did not understand why I would ask for such a thing. “We don’t want to tell you what to think,” one member said. Also: “When you take it to a publisher, you will get the feedback you need from your editor.”
I didn’t want them to tell me what to think. I wanted them to tell me when what I was thinking and saying and writing was out of the Life—that is, born of my ego, or my unconscious hostility to the Christian tradition, or from any source other than the Holy Spirit. And an editor could only give me the world’s advice; God would have nothing to do with it, only the market. And it would have been too late by the time an editor saw my work anyway.
They did not understand how afraid I was. I felt a religious calling. I knew I had stuff inside me that would try to stop or distort or even corrupt the work I felt called to do. To fall into such a state of unfaithfulness would have been the most horrible outcome for me. I have no direct experience of G*d as judge, in the traditional sense of sin, judgment, and salvation; that has always seemed perverse to me. Nevertheless, I did feel under judgment. I did fear failing G*d my Muse. I wanted some protection from myself. And I had a firm commitment to the role of the Quaker community in the discernment and support and yes, oversight, of ministry.
My meeting did not understand what I was doing as ministry. I suspect that they did not understand the faith and practice of Quaker ministry very much at all, but at least they did not know how to apply it to an actual case of a Friend called into ministry.
Thus was born in me a third ministry: to recall, revive, and reform the faith and practice of ministry among Friends. Now, for more than twenty years I have labored to learn the Quaker tradition of ministry; to represent it wherever I worship, especially in meeting for worship with a care for the life of the meeting; to work toward reforming our structures and processes in accordance with this tradition; and, of course, to write about it.
Ministry and earthcare
Moreover, this new ministry has looped back to connect to the original earthcare ministry and the original leading to write about earthcare. I have come to believe that, for earthcare to truly take hold as a leading for the Society of Friends as a communion of worshipping communities, we must relearn and re-embody our tradition of ministry. We must know what it means to be called by G*d, as individuals, and as communities. And we must have eco-ministers, more Friends called to the ministry of earthcare who are mature in the faith and practice of ministry and who are getting the discernment and support they need from their meetings.
For all this to take place, we must relearn the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, so that all our members and attenders are accustomed to think of their work in the world as a calling. So that we all are listening always to hear that call. So that we are living lives that leave us free to answer the call. So that our meetings know how to give our ministers, whatever their call—for not all are called to eco-ministry—the discernment, support, and yes, oversight, that they need to be faithful in their call. And we need meetings that expect that G*d will call them as a community as well, activating us as meetings to protect the gift of creation.
Unfolding summarized—so far
So now, from one opening, I have had one clear leading and now have three ministries:
- The opening: the Logos, the Word, the cosmic Christ in creation, and ecocide as decide; G*d as the Soul of the Earth.
- The leading: to write a book of biblically-based earth stewardship; G*d as Caller.
- The first ministry: to awaken Friends to a concern for earthcare; G*d as Creator/Sustainer.
- The second ministry: writing in general as ministry; G*d as Muse.
- The third ministry: to recover the faith and practice of Quaker ministry among Friends; G*d as Guide and Teacher.
But G*d was not done with me. G*d had more unfolding in store. G*d had more faces to reveal.
October 26, 2014 § 1 Comment
That first leading was to write a book of biblically based eco-theology, about which I knew almost nothing. So I launched into a study of Christian earth stewardship and I followed the trails of biblical references in those books, studying the passages they referred to on their own in Bible commentaries, and then following the trails that this study opened me to.
To kickstart the project, I wrangled the money to go to Pendle Hill for a term in the winter of 1991, and I loved it so much that I wrangled the money to stay for another term. At Pendle Hill, especially in the Quakerism classes I took with Bill Taber and conversations we had, I learned to pursue this leading and the written ministry it led to in the context of the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.
I had been writing already for some time. Even before I became a Quaker, my writing life and my spiritual life had been closely tied, though I was mostly writing fiction and poetry. Then, as a Friend, I wrote the first draft of New York Yearly Meeting’s new Faith and Practice section on earth stewardship and a bunch of other short essays. But I had not yet come to think of this writing in the context of the faith and practice of Quaker ministry in the focused way I found at Pendle Hill.
Now I had a clear direction and I had a framework for understanding what I was doing as part of an ancient tradition.
A few years later, just when I thought I was ready to start writing the book, I heard about and applied for Earlham School of Religion’s Patrick D. Henry Scholarship for Christian Writers. They accepted my proposal and I went to Earlham for a term to begin writing the book.
The scholarship included the tuition for their course on Writing as Ministry plus a residency in D. Elton Trueblood’s library there, a beautiful brick one-story cottage with a huge fireplace and windows all around, a wide ledge above bookcases on all the walls below the windows, and several huge library hall-sized oak tables. For the first time, I could lay all my books and my notes out where I could get at them.
It was heaven. It was pure joy. I spent two months in an ecstatic creative outpouring of material. Only the first term at Pendle Hill had been such a sustained immersion in joyful surrender to G*d’s wish for me.
Thus began in earnest my calling to a ministry of religious writing. Two decades now of Quaker and biblical writing, guided, when I am in the Life, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
My leading had unfolded into ministry. And it has been full of joy, a sustained undercurrent of fulfillment spiced with moments of near-ecstacy when an opening comes from the study, or the words are pouring out of me feeling pure and unbidden for minutes on end, or even days, as it was at Earlham and has been at times since.