The language and testimony of the fire alarm

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. 

Testimonies are important because…


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.

Unlikely Messengers

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.)

Communities vs Religious Societies

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.

communitysocietyI 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.

Early Friends as reference, not justification

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. 

The academic obsession with Quaker history is about 100 years old or so. From the beginning the rise of "Quaker history" has been tied to the arguments of the day. We want to boil "Quakerism" down to it essentials and separate out what is core from what was an artifact of 17th century England. Each branch raises up historians who argue that its churches' focus is the essential of those early Friends.

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....