Benigno Sanchez-Eppler shares the ways Friends live out our testimonies in the world.
Careful and deliberate discernment held in a manner of unhurried prayer is fine in most instances, but what’s a group if Quakers to do when a fire alarm goes off? Do we sit down in silence, stay centered there some number if minutes, and then open up a period of ministries to reach toward discernment.
Of course we don’t. Who would? Like any group if people in the modern world, we assemble without question and leave the premises. But why? Because of shared language and testimonies.
A ringing bell does not, by itself, constitute a call to action. Power up your time machine and bring your battery-powered alarm system back a few thousand years and set it off. People would look around in confusion (and might be afraid if the alien sound), but they wouldn’t file out of a building. We do it because we’ve been socialized in a language of group warning.
Ever since our schooldays, we have been taught this language: fire alarms, flashing lights, fire pull boxes. We don’t need to discern the situation because we already know what the alarm means: the likelihood of imminent danger.
Our response also needs little discernment. We might think of this as a testimony: a course of action that we’ve realized is so core to our understanding of our relation to the world that it rarely needs to be debated amongst ourselves.
I must have participated in a hundred fire drills in my lifetime, but so far none of the alarms have been fires. But they have served a very real purpose.
When we do media in an advocacy sense, most of our time is spent developing and reinforcing shared language and obvious courses-of-action. We tell stories of previous situations and debate the contours of the testimonies. We’re readying ourselves for when we will be called to action.
Yesterday Friends Journal asked its Facebook and Twitter followers to finish the sentence “Testimonies are important because they are ___.” Here’s a word cloud of their answers. This survey comes from Eric Moon’s article, “Categorically Not the Testimonies,” in the June/July issue.
It sometimes strikes me that the Lord sometimes picks some mightily unlikely messengers. We are all flawed in our ways, true, but it’s easy to think there are those flawed more than ourselves. In part this is the whole beam in the eye problem of perspective we find in Matthew 7. But the parable of the Lost Sheep recorded in Luke 15 suggests that some are more lost than others:
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
One of the best-known examples of the formerly-lost sheep is the apostle Paul of Tarsus. We first learn about him as Saul, a Pharisee who actively persecuted the early church. The story of the the light of heaven interrupting his journey to Damascus is really key to understanding Friends understanding of the Light as judge and instructor (it’s also the source of one of my favorite line in the Johnny Cash oevre “it’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks”!).
But I always wonder what the other Christians made of the post-conversion Paul. We get a little of their reaction from Ananias but I imagine there was lots of talk and anger, jealousy and confusion all swirling with whatever joy they could muster that another soul was saved. A man who had “slaughtered” them was soon to present himself as a major leader, taking sides in the great debates over how Jewish the Christian community needed to be.
How do we react when God uses an unlikely messenger to spread the good news? None of my blog readers are likely to have seen their brethren slaughtered but it’s safe to say we’ve all been wronged and mistreated from time to time. One of the great mysteries I’ve experienced is how God has seemingly used other’s disobedience to do His work. Knowing this requires a scale of love that’s hard to imagine. People do wrong can still be somehow acting of God. People who have done wrong are sometimes especially chosen of God. Heaven rejoices more for that one saved sinner than all the rest of us trying to muddle along in faith. Even secret anger is akin to murder.
We Friends are rightly inspired of 17th Century New Jersey Friend John Woolman’s exceptional compassion and ability to see outside the prejudices of his day, but even this “Quaker saint” considered himself the unlikely messenger, the lost sheep of the Luke story. He wrote of a dream:“Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented [Luk 15:7] and that that language John Woolman is dead meant no more than the death of my own will.”
How do we hold tight to love, even for those we don’t like? When we greet even those who have disappointed us, we need to bear in mind that they might have traveled their own road to Damascus since last we met. They might be one of those God chooses to teach.
(Thanks to Esther Greenleaf Mürer’s Quaker Bible Index for the Woolman connection.)
Over on Tape Flags and First Thoughts, Su Penn has a great post called “Still Thinking About My Quaker Meeting & Me.” She writes about a process of self-identity that her meeting recently went through it and the difficulties she had with the process.
I wondered whether this difficulty has become one of our modern-day stages of developing in the ministry. Both Samuel Bownas (read/buy) and Howard Brinton (buy) identified typical stages that Friends growing in the ministry typically go through. Not everyone experiences Su’s rift between their meeting’s identity and a desire for a God-grounded meeting community, but enough of us have that I don’t think it’s the foibles of particular individuals or monthly meetings. Let me tease out one piece: that of individual and group identities. Much of the discussion in the comments of Su’s post have swirled around radically different conceptions of this.
Many modern Friends have become pretty strict individualists. We spend a lot of time talking about “community” but we aren’t practicing it in the way that Friends have understood it – as a “religious society.” The individualism of our age sees it as rude to state a vision of Friends that leaves out any of our members – even the most heterodox. We are only as united as our most far-flung believer (and every decade the sweep gets larger). The myth of our age is that all religious experiences are equal, both within and outside of particular religious societies, and that it’s intolerant to think of differences as anything more than language.
This is why I cast Su’s issues as being those of a minister. There has always been the need for someone to call us back to the faith. Contrary to modern-day popular opinion, this can be done with great love. It is in fact great love (Quaker Jane) to share the good news of the directly-accessible loving Christ, who loves us so much He wants to show us the way to righteous living. This Quaker idea of righteousness has nothing to do with who you sleep with, the gas mileage of your car or even the “correctness” of your theology. Jesus boiled faithfulness down into two commands: love God with all your might (however much that might be) and love your neighbor as yourself.
A “religious society” is not just a “community.” As a religious society we are called to have a vision that is stronger and bolder than the language or understanding of individual members. We are not a perfect community, but we can be made more perfect if we return to God to the fullness we’ve been given. That is why we’ve come together into a religious society.
“What makes us Friends?” Just following the modern testimonies doesn’t put us very squarely in the Friends tradition – SPICE is just a recipe for respectful living. “What makes us Friends?” Just setting the stopwatch to an hour and sitting quietly doesn’t do it – a worship style is a container at best and false idol at worst. “How do we love God?” “How do we love our neighbor?” “What makes us Friends?” These are the questions of ministry. These are the building blocks of outreach.
I’ve seen nascent ministers (“infant ministers” in the phrasing of Samual Bownas) start asking these questions, flare up on inspired blog posts and then taildive as they meet up with the cold-water reality of a local meeting that is unsupportive or inattentive. Many of them have left our religious society. How do we support them? How do we keep them? Our answers will determine whether our meeting are religious societies or communities.
My response to the excellent Greg Woods' If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish. Greg talks about the over-obsession with Early Friends and the tendency to use them as ways to accuse others of un-Quakerism.
I consciously try not to use early Friends as justification. But I do use them for reference. I think a lot of the problem is we all have stereotypes about them. When I go back and read the old Books of Discipline, I find them much more nuanced and interior-focused than we give them credit for.
Greg mentioned taverns, for example. It's not that earlier Friends thought everyone couldn't handle their liquor. They saw that some people couldn't and that spending a lot of time there tended to affect one's discernment and God-centeredness. They also saw that some people got really messed up by alcohol and eventually came to the conclusion that the safest way to protect the most vulnerable in the spiritual community was to stay out.
The observations and logic are still valid. I've known senior members of past Quaker communities who have had alcohol problems but we don't know how to talk about it because we've decided it's a personal decision.
What I try to do is not focus on the conclusions of early Friends but to drop into the conversations of early Friends. As I said, the old Books of Discipline are surprisingly relevant. And I love Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican who explained Quaker ways in 1700 and talked about the sociology of it more than Friends themselves did. It's a good way of separating out rules from knowledge. When we ground ourselves that way, we can more readily decide which of the classic Quaker testimonies are still relevant. That keeps us a living community testifying to the people of today. For what it's worth, there's quite a bit of mainstream interest in the stodgy traditions most of us have cast off as irrelevant....