Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ministry, humility and community

The ministers we plead for are such as, being holy and humble, contend not for precedency and priority, but rather strive to prefer one another and serve one another in love; neither desire to be distinguished from the rest by their garments and large phylacteries, nor seek the greetings in the marketplaces, nor uppermost rooms at feasts, nor the chief seats in the synagogues; nor yet to be called of men Master, &c. Such were the holy prophets and apostles, as appears from Matt. 23:8-10, and 20:25-27.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII]

Even in their plain garments, it seems clear that there were some ministers in the history of Quakerism who indeed sought the chief seats on the facing bench and the greetings in the market place. The fear that this will happen again is often used as an argument for not recognizing minsters. This is interesting for two reasons. First of all, not many Friends alive today in the liberal tradition, has any direct personal experience of sitting in a meeting for worship and having the recorded ministers and elders sitting in the facing benches overlooking the congregation. It has been my experience that even in meetings that have facing benches in their meetinghouses, it is rare that anyone sits in the upper rows of the facing benches unless space is an issue. The second reason is that refusing to record ministers does not remove the temptation to pride that comes from being recognized as a weighty Friend. What we have removed is the system of accountability that could provide a check for that tendency towards pride.

As I have discussed earlier, a faithful minister will be provided by God many opportunities to work on their pride. A minister such as Barclay describes is one who will strive to be faithful to their Guide and to their gifts. The problem comes from those who may not be so faithful or who, in the course of time, begin to put too much faith in their own powers and not rely wholly on the Lord. Or there are some who might seek to be respected in the meeting, or who feel that the meeting is in great need of their wisdom, and so speak more often or at greater length than they should. In business meetings I often think of these Friends as “Hallmark Friends.” They have a message for every occasion. The problem is that by no longer naming ministers and elders, we have removed the structures that would have provided a check or a guide to those who, for whatever reason, are not being sensitive to their inward guide.

Since we have, for most practical purposes, given up providing outward discipline for those who might not have sufficient inner discipline, Friends from time to time are faced with people who are going off, with no guidance or oversight, speaking for Friends on one subject or another. This is most often seen with Friends with some burning concern. When this happens, Friends on Ministry and Counsel or in a similar position of responsibility are often in a bit of a quandary as to how to proceed. They are often reluctant to say anything except in the most egregious cases because they do not feel that they have the proper authority or standing to speak. This timidness extends as far as an unwillingness or inability to provide guidance to Friends who speak frequently and inappropriately in Meeting for Worship.

The root cause of this problem is that we have lost sight of the fact that one of the principal features of Quakerism is that it is a communal exercise. We respond to an inner prompting to speak or act, but we are also speaking and acting in the context of a community. A message in meeting may be inspired by the Spirit but at the same time it is also drawn out by the quality of the listening for the Friends assembled and worshiping together. When Stephen Grellet spoke in the wilderness there were three parties involved, although Stephen only knew of two. He was there and the Spirit was there. But the other key person was the logger who was listening unseen. His listening ears were also an indispensable part of the story. Elias Hicks notes a number of times when he was unable to speak or unable to speak as well or as fully as he was called to because the listeners, what he called the auditory, was not prepared to hear the message he was carrying.

This idea of a communal spiritual practice is strongly counter-cultural in American society which places an inordinate emphasis on individualism. It stands against the social, economic and political trends which seeks to privatize as much of civic life as possible. But the communal nature of Quaker spirituality also pushes towards humility. It reminds us that we are not the only judge of our spiritual life. It recognizes that we may be wrong and that others may see some things more clearly than we can. It recognizes that we hold our gifts, not as treasures for ourselves, but as stewards for the community. This also puts a burden on the community to receive the gifts that have been given to individuals on behalf of the community. This means recognizing gifts that have been given, drawing them forth, nurturing them and providing guidance and support for the people exercising them. This is true as much for the person whose gift is teaching First Day School or sending get well cards to Friends who are ill as it is for those who are led to become public Friends in one form or another.

Blessings to all,

Will T

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ministry – Is it God or Us?

Barclay continues with his summary of Quaker ministers and ministry:

The ministers we plead for are such as act, move and labour in the work of the ministry, not from their own mere natural strength and ability, but as they are acted, moved, under-propped, assisted and influenced by the Spirit of God, and minister according to the gift received, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God, such were the holy prophets and apostles: 1 Pet. 4:10-11; 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:3-5,13; Acts 2:4; Matt. 10:20; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12; 1 Cor. 13:2.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII]

This is the aspect of ministry that I wrestle with the most. Ministry is supposed to rise from the direct influence of the Spirit of God. It is not to come from our mere natural strength and ability. But the Spirit of God also seems quite happy to make use of our strengths and abilities, under-propping and assisting as needed, so the discernment is always a little tricky. This is where learning the voice of your inward Guide is important.

Speaking in meeting is not being a trance medium where we give up our consciousness so that some other voice can make use of our lungs and vocal chords to give a message and we have no memory later of the message we gave. Likewise it is not a place for delivering an intellectual message suitable for a classroom lecture – although these messages are common enough, especially in meetings near to institutions of higher education.

In some ways, speaking in meeting is the essential mystery of unprogrammed Quakerism. Vocal ministry is what distinguishes Quaker Meeting for Worship from other forms of group meditation. Vocal ministry is also the place where our discernment is honed, our inward ear opened and our voice trained. Our speaking is inspired by the Spirit but the Spirit makes use of our individual experiences, talents, strengths and weaknesses. There is an expression among Friends, “The water always tastes of the pipes.” This means that the messages always carry the flavor of the person giving it. We may try to get ourselves out of the way as much as possible but we never get out of the way entirely. What comes from the Spirit, what comes from us? We may be prompted by the Spirit to stand and speak but we always maintain some degree of control. We are taught that there are things to consider before standing. Has there been enough time since the last speaker? Is it too close to the end of the meeting? Is this message for me or the meeting? We are always there, choosing the time, choosing the words.

The Spirit is supposed to guide our speaking but our motives are not always pure. Speaking can give us attention or validation. It can increase our stature in the community. Of course regularly speaking inappropriately can also reduce our stature in the community. A number of years ago I came to see that what I had thought was the power of the Lord in my speaking was, to some extent, the power of anger I had not dealt with. As I came to terms with that my ministry has taken a gentler tone. I have been wrestling lately with how much of my ministry has been motivated by a desire for attention and validation. In the worship at the recent TMP retreat I was shown the roots of that desire in myself. I am now holding this part of me in prayer so that this desire can be reduced in me and my ministry become more faithful. These difficulties and issues have faced Friends from the very beginning. Samuel Bownas offered advice and counsel on this matter in his 1750 book A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister.

The Spirit is able to make use of even our impure motives. I can see that without the anger and the desire for attention and validation I would never have embarked on the path that has lead me to the public ministry and this blog. It is only by standing and speaking that one begins to learn what is required. It is only by hearing and following the voice of our Guide and the voices that only sound like our Guide that we, in time, learn to know that voice and listen to only it.

The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." (John 10:2-5 NIV)

Faithfulness in our lives and in our ministry is a learned skill and our failures are as an important part of our learning as our successes. Our ministry is inspired by the Holy Spirit. But it is we fallible humans who are inspired. We bring all of ourselves, both our strengths and our weaknesses to the work to which we are called. By being as faithful as we can to the small promptings we increase our capacity to be faithful in larger things. Our continued faithfulness becomes a tool in our continued growth and sanctification.

Blessings to all,

Will T

Thursday, March 20, 2008

TMP, QUIP, visitors and spring

This has been an interesting week. This past weekend I attended the retreat of the FGC Traveling Ministries Program. Working on this series on ministry was a good preparation and while there I have had some insights that will inform what is yet to come. It was a good opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and make some new ones. I had a chance to meet Lucy Duncan who had invited me to attend the Quakers Uniting in Publications (QUIP) annual meeting in April. I will be presenting on a panel on Quaker Blogging with Jez Smith and Robin Mohr. The panel will be moderated by Gil Skidmore. Lucy says that there is still room if you are interested. Details can be found here.

Sometime when I was in Pittsburgh at the TMP retreat this blog had it's 10,000th visitor. Now I keep a counter but I don't know if this is 100 people who have visited 100 times or 10,000 people who never came back. It is probably somewhere in between. So thank you all of you for stopping by and leaving comments from time to time.

Oh, and happy Spring.

Blessings to all.

Will T

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Preparation for the Ministry

The ministers we plead for are such as are acted and led by God's Spirit, and by the Power and operation of his Grace in their hearts are in some measure converted and regenerate, and so are good, holy, and gracious men, such were the holy prophets and apostles, as appears from 1 Tim. 3:2-6; Tit. 1:7-9.
Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII

God does not call the prepared. God prepares the ones God calls. This preparation is not always easy. There must have been Christians already in the Jerusalem Church who would appear to have the credentials to become an apostle to the Gentiles. Instead God prepared Saul. The preparation was not particularly gentle. It involved being struck down on the road to Damascus, being made blind and having to seek help and healing from the very people he had been persecuting. Then once he began his work he faced beatings, stonings, imprisonment, shipwrecks and floggings. He recites the entire list in 2 Corinthians 11:23-30.

I do not think that this aspect of the ministry is fully appreciated by those who fear that naming gifts will set one person above another. I certainly do not claim to have experienced the hardships or difficulties of Paul. But sometimes I have been called to do things that have reminded me of a story told by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said that he had spoken to a man being run out of town on a rail and asked him what he thought about the situation. The man replied, “If it weren't for the honor of it all, I think I would just as soon walk.”

One does not always recognize the preparation when it is happening. I had been reading the Bible and the writings of early Friends because I enjoyed doing it long before I came to realize that, since I had studied all this material which was not accessible or easy for many people, I had an obligation to share what I had learned or else all my study would be just so much self indulgence.

Sometimes the preparation happens as part of being faithful and doing the work to which we are called. The more I have taught about Barclay and the beliefs and lives of early Friends, the more I have been challenged by those very things. When I speak, am I following the guidance of the Spirit? I am often brought up short by the idea that God cannot reside in a place that is impure and unholy. There are times when I can think of no place more impure and unholy than my own heart. But Jesus came to heal the sick and cleanse and purify the unclean and impure and I experience that blessing. There are times when I feel the presence of God so strongly that being anything less than faithful seems an unfathomable choice. There are other times when I deliberately choose to be unfaithful to drive God away. I may talk a good story about living the transformed life but there are times when I say, but not that transformed. I am grateful to never have gotten the same instructions as Lot and his wife or else I would have long ago become a mighty fine pillar of salt. In spite of all that, I feel some improvement in my overall condition and I feel God's continued encouragement. Fortunately the requirement for ministry is a measure of conversion and regeneration and not perfection.

This recognition of our own weakness and fallibility is an important part of the preparation. It promotes humility. It also allows us to talk to people who are also struggling and be able to share something of value. Our experiences of grief and suffering enable us to be compassionate in the face of all of the grief and suffering in the world. If we are called on imitate Christ, our own experiences of pain and suffering opens us to share in some small way in Christ's work of bearing and bearing witness to all the suffering of the world. Christ is pictured as the wounded healer and the suffering servant and we also find that our wounds can be a source of healing to others.

In his introduction Barclay says, “For what I have written comes more from my heart than from my head; what I have heard with the ears of my soul and seen with my inward eyes and my hands have handled of the Word of Life, and what hath been inwardly manifested to me of the things of God, that I do declare.” He is in turn referring back to 1 John 1:1-3. As we have seen earlier, Quakers claimed to have the same prophetic ministry that the apostles had. This apostolic ministry is based on the personal experience of God and Christ. For the apostles, it was direct and outward while Jesus was alive and direct and inward after Pentecost. For everyone since, it has been direct and inward but it is the same personal knowledge of God. It is the same personal teaching and guidance as we learn to follow God's ways and forsake the ways of the world. This teaching and guidance converts and regenerates us. It also gives us our ministry. We can only minister from what we know from our own experience. This includes the pain and desolation that comes as we are transformed but it also includes the joy and peace the comes as well. We get to swim in both the ocean of darkness and the ocean of light and our messages, in season, come from both experiences.

Blessings to all,

Will T

Thursday, March 06, 2008

On Ministries and Ministers

The ministry and ministers we plead for are such as are immediately called and sent forth by Christ and his Spirit unto the work of the ministry, so were the holy apostles and prophets, as appears by these places: Matt. 10:1,5; Eph. 4:11, Heb. 5:4.

Liberal Friends have become uncomfortable with the idea of having ministers. They think that it sets up some sort of hierarchy, that by naming a minster it raises that person up and pushes down the rest. I have a friend who has tried to resolve this issue by talking about ministries and not ministers. But this formulation denies something very fundamental about the way God works. God does nothing in the abstract. God always works in the particular. There is no ministry separate from the minister that embodies that ministry. God does not speak to us in a voice from the clouds. We always hear God in the voice of a person, either in the voice of someone speaking to us, or writing on a page or computer screen. I don't know how it is for others but even when I hear a voice speaking to me internally, it speaks with my accent and my phrasing and my language. The voice sounds much like our own which provides an ongoing opportunity to hone my sense of discernment. God does not call forth a ministry without calling forth the minister. Likewise, a minister is not called without a ministry.

“And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” (Hebrews 5:4) According to Friends tradition, one does not seek to be named a minister but is someone whose gifts are recognized and named by the community. By and large, liberal Friends have abandoned that responsibility and have been hurt by it. The first tentative shoots of a new ministry may cease to grow from lack of nourishment. A person new to the ministry may lack someone to turn to for guidance. Traditionally, the people responsible for recognizing new ministers and encouraging them were the elders. If any role is in lower regard among Friends today than that of minister it is that of elder. The journals of many of Friends ministers record the important work of ministers and elders in helping them get started and grounded in their ministry. Ministers and ministry emerges from the community and the community has a responsibility to nourish and encourage it.

Today, people with a ministry often find themselves in an awkward position. Our Quaker culture says to wait until you are recognized. But then we don't recognize anyone. In this environment it means that people who do come forth are people who are willing to put themselves forward. Sometimes this is the result of God's promptings, sometimes it is their own pride and ego and most of the time it is some mix of the two. The community doesn't have the tools in place to help the minister learn to distinguish between the two and the ministry and the community are both hurt. It is also denied the contribution of those who may not be so assertive.

In my last post on this subject I said that we cannot, in our unbelief, prevent God from raising up ministers. At the same time, we can, and do, hinder the development of those who are being raised up. There are two forces working to do this. The first is American society's increasing emphasis on individualism. The idea that an individual can and should be self-sufficient has a corrosive influence on community. Communities need opportunities to care for their members. Individuals need times of being cared for. A minister grows out of the community and relies on the community for support. While we need prophetic ministry, we need to move beyond the image of the prophet living as a hermit in the desert and coming as an outsider to proclaim a message, usually of doom and misfortune, on the poor, benighted and wayward sinners. God is found where people gather and if prophets speak for God, that is where they will be found as well. This is not to say that a minister does not need to take times of retirement and solitude to nourish themselves and to come to hear the voice of God. After all, Jesus was always going off by himself, often to empty and barren places to pray. But ministers also need the community of their meeting and a community of other ministers to nourish them and help them grow. The meetings need the ministers for the same reasons.

The second way in which we inhibit ministry from arising among us is our insistence on egalitarianism. By egalitarianism, I do not mean our testimony on equality or our insistence that God speaks to all of us without an intermediary. I am having trouble finding the words to describe what I mean so I will use an example from economics and politics. In American civic life everyone is assumed to be middle-class. This is a useful fiction. It makes the poor disappear which eases the conscience of the better off. It also makes the rich disappear so they do not become a target of resentment and people don't notice how the wealthy get that way by extracting wealth from those below them. Anyone, especially a politician, who dares to challenge this assumption and point out the very real class differences in our society is accused of promoting class warfare.

The way this plays out in our meetings is that we say that we cannot single out gifts in vocal ministry because we are all ministers and besides it ignores those who may have other less valued ministries. While it is true that we are all ministers and that in any given meeting for worship, God may use anyone to give a message, it is also true that God does not appear to distribute gifts uniformly. We have no trouble recognizing that some people have been given more or less athletic ability, singing ability or physical beauty. But for some reason we are reluctant to admit that not everyone has the same level of spiritual gifts. And it is not as if, by not recognizing gifts in ministry, we are giving honor to those with less visible gifts. I have not seen any sign that the meetings that are reluctant to recognize and support gifts in the ministry go out of their way to recognize and encourage those Friends whose gifts may lie in any other area either. People whose contribution to the meeting is that they always provide fresh flowers, or see to it that the meeting room is tidy and ready for meeting, or that always clean up after the potlucks are invisible across the board. Insistence that we are all ministers in some way often turns into acting as if none of us are ministers. This is similar to the way in which Quaker insistence that all days are holy seems to have created a situation in which all days are secular.

God does not want us to all be alike or to do the same thing. The image of the Body of Christ captures this. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 explores this issue. We all have a role to play. Gifts are not given equally and not everyone gets the same gifts. We need to recognize and celebrate the diversity of gifts that we have all received and honor them all. If God blesses someone it does not mean that there is less for everyone else. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul explicitly encourages all to seek after the gift of prophecy. If we are all encouraged to this, then there must be enough to go around because God does not set us impossible tasks. God has an abundance of gifts for us. We cannot let our fear of scarcity prevent us from accepting that abundance.

O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Joel 2: 23,24,26,28,29

Blessings to all,

Will T

Saturday, March 01, 2008

True ministry is like that of the apostles and primitive church.

In the final section of the 10'th proposition, Barclay sums up his thoughts on ministry with a summary statement and 5 points. I was going to quote them and then comment on each of the points in one post. When I had gotten onto the third page and had only covered his summary and the first point I realized that this was too much for one post. This will be easier for me to write. I expect it will be easier for you to read, and I hope that it will allow ample time for whatever discussion comes up from this.

This is how Robert Barclay sums up his view of Quaker ministry:

The sum then of what is said is that the ministry that we have pleaded for, and which also the Lord hath raised up among us, is in all its parts like the true ministry of the apostles and primitive Church.

This sets a very high standard for ministry within the Society of Friends, a standard that has not been uniformly attained or maintained. Barclay starts out with the audacious claim that the ministry raised up among the Quakers is equivalent to the ministry of the apostles and the primitive Christian church. A look at the history of the Valiant Sixty (the term used for the first set of people who undertook to preach Quakerism to the world at the beginning of the Quaker movement.) shows that the claim is perhaps not unjustified.

So why is it that we do not see that level of ministry being raised up among Friends today? Sometimes I have thought that somehow we are not faithful enough. If only we did something different, better or were in some way more like early Friends, we would find a radically powerful ministry being raised up among us. But when I stopped and thought about this, I realized that this is, as Barclay says in another place, “a horrid blasphemy against the power of God.” Do we really think that we are so powerful in our unbelief that we can prevent God from raising up the ministry God needs?

So does that mean that God does not need or want to raise up a vibrant prophetic ministry? God has been willing and able to do so in other times and places. It doesn't seem that that the world has reached such a state of blessedness that such a ministry is unneeded.

So maybe we are just looking in the wrong places. God usually raises up prophets from among the marginalized and downtrodden. Have we became so complacent that we are unwilling to admit that we might need to live transformed lives? Do we value our privileges so much that we have become afraid of the ability of the Inner Light to show us our faults and then transform us? Are we afraid that, like the young man who came to Jesus to find out what he must do for eternal life, we will be asked to sell everything and give it to the poor? Instead of raising up Quaker ministers, God turned to the drunks and the addicts to preach a message of a Higher Power, available to everyone, who can do what we cannot do by ourselves, which is to restore us to sanity and transform our lives. God raised up Mohandas Gandhi from out of South Africa to bring a message of peace and freedom to India. God raised up Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to lead their people to freedom. God raised up Friends in Rwanda and Burundi and the Congo to show that the Peace Testimony means forgiving those who had massacred your family and neighbors. God is even now raising up ministers of peace in Kenya to heal and comfort the people there and to show that there is a different way.

God's prophets, including the Valiant Sixty, have come from unexpected places. Moses was a fugitive murderer with a speech impediment. David was a shepherd, Jesus a carpenter. His disciples were fishermen. George Fox was apprenticed to be a shoemaker. Mary Fisher who went and preached to the Sultan of Turkey was a serving maid. God is always raising prophets, just not from the ranks of the comfortable and privileged.

We need to be careful what we ask for. If we want God to raise a prophetic ministry among us and God raises prophets from the downtrodden, what is it that has to happen to us before such a ministry can arise? Who are the marginalized already among us who may be trying to speak to us? Before we get prophetic voices do we need prophetic ears?