Have you ever had Holy-Spirit whiplash? Have there been times in your life when you have felt God directing your life down a certain path? Steadily. Unrelentingly. It goes on for months or years until, all of a sudden, the call shifts dramatically. The new sense of direction is clear, and it feels right, but it takes some time to wrap your mind around it.
In the last month or two, I have been experiencing a big shift in God’s call on my life. In late 2005, God set me aside for full-time preparation for ministry. God called me out of my job working at a bank in Wichita and directed me to study at Earlham School of Religion. I did some paid work during the course of my studies, but virtually all of my time and energy was plunged into study, prayer and preparation for ministry.
After completing the MDiv program, God continued to call me into full-time ministry. I spent the spring of 2009 traveling in the Great Plains, ministering among Friends in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. While I hope that there was some benefit to those I visited, this work probably had more to do with my own preparation for ministry than it did with any gift I had to offer. I was out of seminary; but in many ways I was still in school.
In the fall of 2009, I married and moved to the District of Columbia. I also began work for Earlham School of Religion, doing web strategy and outreach to Young Adult Friends. This new job fit very well with my own sense of call, my leading to travel among Friends in a variety of theological and geographical contexts. It was work that called me to venture across the United States, developing networks that would strengthen both ESR and the Religious Society of Friends as a whole.
My role with ESR has dovetailed very well with my own sense of God’s call on my life; and the work has been part-time, allowing me sufficient space to be faithful to a life of dedicated ministry. I have had the best of both worlds – both gainfully employed, and released for gospel ministry.
Apart from my work at ESR, my main focus in the last two years has been the development of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker church in DC. It started out with just Faith and me inviting folks to come and worship with us, and it has blossomed into a small church with four members and around a dozen attenders. With my other “part-time,” I dedicated myself to strengthening and supporting this new community; and it has been a blessing to see our development as a Meeting, especially in the last year.
Given this little bit of history, you can see how it came as a shock to me when I realized recently that God no longer seemed to be calling me to full-time ministry. It was not that God had revoked my calling or spiritual gifts (though these have certainly evolved over the years). It was not that Capitol Hill Friends or the work of tending the flock became any less important to me. If anything, these things have become only more central in my awareness. Yet, in recent months, I have felt God calling me into a new life stage, with its own set of blessings and responsibilities.
Up until now, I have primarily conceived of my call in terms of the itinerant ministry modeled by the early Friends. This sort of ministry – that of Fox and Burroughs, Nayler and Pennington – was not firmly rooted to a specific place. On the contrary, it was a missionary faith in constant motion, publishing the truth far and wide. These Friends preached to all sorts of people in many different lands. They were nothing if not mobile.
In the past few months, however, this vision has come to ring hollow for me. While God may have called me to this sort of itinerant ministry in previous years, I have become convicted that God brought me to DC for a different kind of service. While I have long avoided commitments that would bind me to one place, I now feel compelled to embrace them. Before, I looked down my nose at the stable shepherd in the local church, tending to the day-to-day needs of God’s people. I longed for more exciting work; the fiery preaching of George Fox and the mass conversions of the Valiant Sixty. I thought I was special.
But now, in the spicy-sweet irony that carries the mark of the Holy Spirit, I sense I am being called into the steady endurance that I once despised. Maybe God has decided that it is time for me to grow up – or, at least, to move a little bit further down the path of maturity in Christ. My mind is still reeling from the whiplash, but my heart can sense the truth.
Dear Children of Light,
Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flights from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.
As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month’s experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.
It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was grateful for the time that we were able to share together.
The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it “darby-sheer”) and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.
This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord’s hand was
present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!
While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year’s Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their “natural habitat.” I was also able to visit Ben Gosling – another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting – and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.
Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.
Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more about the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.
The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.
As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa – especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and have a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.
While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.
When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda’s capital felt similar in many ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).
During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda’s apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.
Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls – solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). The properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.
The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.
Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends’ warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda’s apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.
By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, “…you say ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked.”(1)
Guilty as charged. I pray for God’s mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients for any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.
I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have – even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans – and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly – not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.
On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice and hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.
I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ’s call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.
Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of “having enough.” I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.
Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb’s War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.
Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.
Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,
1. Revelation 3:17
Dear Friends of Truth,
Since the fall, I have felt led to focus most of my energy and attention on the work here in DC. This has involved getting more deeply involved in nurturing Capitol Hill Friends, as well as participating in other ministry here in the city, such as Food Not Bombs in Congress Heights. It has also required me to carefully examine any travel that I might think of undertaking, since every day spent on the road is one where I am not building relationships in my local community. For the last six months or so, this new preference for local work over regional or national work has caused me to travel far less than in years past.
However, this month, I have been back on the road, visiting Friends in Richmond, Indiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was called out to Richmond to give a presentation on Earlham School of Religion‘s social media strategy at the Earlham College Board of Trustees meeting. I am part of a team that is collaborating to fashion ESR’s outreach online, including our presence on Facebook, Twitter, and a new blog, Learning and Leading, which we launched in late January. I’m particularly excited about the blog, which has been posting three times a week and which has drawn a significant amount of site traffic in its first month of activity.
The presentation felt like it went well, and after a few days of meetings with friends and colleagues in Richmond, I made my way out to Philadelphia. I think I had forgotten how far Philadelphia was from Richmond! I ended up making the trip in two legs, staying in western Pennsylvania one night, to avoid exhaustion. When I finally arrived in the Philadelphia area, Thomas Swain, clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was kind enough to open his home to me, and I stayed with him for a night. It was wonderful to catch up with Thomas, and I was very pleased that Seth Hinshaw, clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting, was able to join us for the evening, too. Spending the evening with the clerks of two Yearly Meetings – not too bad, I thought!
The next night, I attended the West Philly Worship Group, a Quaker community that has been meeting in the western part of the city for the last two years. The attendership is overwhelmingly made up of twenty-somethings, but there is a significant minority of older folks. The WPWG has become something of an attraction for many young adult Friends, with some Friends moving to Philadelphia, at least in part, to participate in this community. It was good to reconnect with a lot of Friends I knew from various YAF gatherings, as well as meet new Friends and better acquaint myself with how the Spirit of God is at work among the younger echelons of Quakers in Philadelphia.
For the rest of my time in Philadelphia, I stayed with Helene Pollock and her spouse Arlene Kelly, who graciously hosted me in their home in Germantown. The next morning, I joined Helene for a six-AM prayer service at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. I was astonished at the depth and power of the prayer of this little group of perhaps half a dozen prayer warriors. I was also struck by how similar their prayer service was to a Quaker meeting. The power of the Lord was strong among them, and I was blessed to be with them. I needed to take a nap in the mid-morning after getting up so early, but by the late morning Helene and I were in center-city Philadelphia, visiting folks at the Friends Center.
The next day, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Jon Watts. Jon and I have become increasingly good friends over the course of the last few years, and it was wonderful to reconnect with him and get a glimpse into his life in Philadelphia. Jon is a very gifted musician, and he is presently in full-time production of a new album that will focus on the theme of faithfulness and nakedness (!). Jon and I took some time to walk together and share our common struggles as we seek to be faithful to God’s leading in our lives. It is a great challenge to be obedient to the Inward Voice of God rather than the seductive voice of self-will, but with God’s help and the support of Friends, all things are possible.
Later that evening, Helene and Arlene opened their home for a called meeting for worship that included Friends from around the city. We enjoyed good fellowship, and we particularly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit over the dinner table. After the meeting for worship, I was able to share with Friends gathered about my call, the work that Capitol Hill Friends is doing, and the wider movement that we sense is afoot. Then, I invited Friends there to share their own sense of how Jesus is alive and active in Philadelphia. I sensed a great hunger among many of those gathered to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will accompany and guide Friends in Philadelphia, and that God will provide an opening for gathering Friends together in Christ.
The next day, Helene and I made a trip out to New Jersey to visit Martin Kelley and his family. He and his wife Julie have just recently had their third son, Gregory, and it was good to be with them and meet the new addition to their family. Apart from the simple joy of being with Martin, Julie and their kids (and Martin’s mom!), it was a blessing to see Martin and Helene connect. I believe that the most important work of my trip was to make connections between like-minded (and like-hearted) individuals. I trust that God has work for us to do together, and I am excited to see how Christ is gathering his people.
My trip to Philadelphia ended with a Sunday-morning visit to Middletown Friends Meeting. Middletown has a reputation for being one of the more Conservative-leaning Meetings in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and from what I could tell based on one visit, this seems to be the case. It was a blessing to be among them. Following meeting for worship, I made my way over to nearby Pendle Hill, where my wife Faith had spent the weekend at Pendle Hill’s Board meetings. It was nice to be able to spend the car ride home with her after a week and a half apart.
Back on the home-front, things are going well here in DC. Attendance has been lower than normal at Capitol Hill Friends since Christmas, but worship has been good and relationships continue to develop. We are looking at changes to our meeting schedule, as some of our attenders can no longer come on Wednesday evenings. We may soon begin meeting on Sunday evenings. Please keep praying for our worship group, which is still quite embryonic and fragile. Capitol Hill is a hard place to plant a new Meeting – especially one that runs so contrary to the culture of formality, power and status that permeates much of our city.
Above all, please pray that God send more workers into the harvest field. There are so few here who have the time and energy to put into developing Christian community; and, as we all know, community takes an incredible amount of work! Please pray the Holy Spirit to call and release women and men for the service of building up the body of Christ here in DC, and throughout the nation and the world.
Your brother in Jesus our Lord,
When I first became a part of the Religious Society of Friends, I remember wondering whether I was joining a dying tradition. One of the first Quaker elders I encountered after my convincement admitted to me that she did not know whether the Quaker tradition had a future as a living body of believers and practitioners. As a new convert, I believed (and still do believe) that the Friends tradition and community have something unique and precious to offer the world, and so I have spent the last six years steeping myself in both.
On the one hand, I have dedicated myself to disciplined study, both independently and in the form of completing the Master of Divinity program at Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary. I have also invested very deeply in the living community of faith, traveling throughout the United States to visit Quakers from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. My travels among Friends across the continent have deepened my understanding of the state of Quakerism in North America.
I have seen much that gives me cause for alarm. I have encountered deep divisions among Friends – over belief, practice, politics and ideology, as well as over the many mundane matters that have a way of cropping up in our life together in community. I have seen groups of Friends where process and structure are more esteemed than faith and discipleship. I have seen Meetings – of all theological stripes – where the risen presence of Jesus is no longer welcomed and the continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit is resisted.
Meanwhile, the active membership of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States is extremely low. For example, I learned recently that the average Sunday-morning attendance for the one hundred and three local Meetings of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was 2,847 adults and 624 children in April, 2010. This is arguably the largest body of Friends in the United States!
In our Meeting, my wife and I represent one third of the full membership, and our Yearly Meeting probably has an active membership of under two hundred. Most of the Meetings that I have visited in recent years have largely consisted of folks over the age of fifty. Despite recent Young Adult Friends gatherings, the Religious Society of Friends seems to be failing to speak to most Gen-Xers and Millennials.
Despite the decrepitude of the modern-day Religious Society of Friends, I do see signs of hope. There is a movement gathering online, and increasingly in local communities, to bring the best of our rich Quaker heritage to bear on our present-day context. The international (though still mostly American) blogging community that orbits around QuakerQuaker is a major organ of this steadily percolating movement, as Friends are being drawn together from across the historical branches to discover how Christ Jesus is still at work in our midst, gathering a people together in his Spirit. The term “convergent” has emerged as a short-hand for this ongoing conversation about how we can live out our ancient Quaker Christian tradition in a post-modern world.
In recent years, there has been a remarkable emergence of new worship groups and Meetings that embody the creative edge of the Friends tradition: Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon; New City Friends in Detroit; Capitol Hill Friends in DC; a new Hispanic Friends church in Indianapolis; Old Town Friends Fellowship in Baltimore; the West Philly Worship Group in Philadelphia; and the Underground Connection in Fountain City, Indiana – to name a few. Most of these groups are characterized by an openness to experimentation with the wealth of tradition and experience represented by the several branches of Quakerism – especially the Conservative tradition. There is also some openness to learning from and incorporating elements of Protestant and Liturgical traditions.
These are hopeful signs for the future, especially when we remember that the early Quaker movement was a confluence of a variety of Christians streams – especially the Seekers, Independents, and Puritans. Quakerism was born out of a froth of experimentation and the discovery of new life given to previously dead forms through the immediate life and power of the Holy Spirit. We find ourselves once again living in a time when the old forms no longer seem to fit, and we are seeking ways to connect more authentically with Emmanuel.
The big question in my mind is: Will the existing structures of institutional Quakerism cooperate with this fresh movement of the Holy Spirit? Will the old wineskins of our Religious Society humble themselves to be emptied into new vessels – new communities, structures, networks and worship styles? Will this generation pour its resources into the building up of this new movement, or will it resist – vainly struggling to extend the relevance of our arthritic and deadening committee structures, constipated worship styles, and irrelevant organizations?
The winter has been long for Friends in North America. The long night began, perhaps, in the early days of the Quietest period and became acute in the twentieth century. The Religious Society of Friends is now at a point of extremity: Something must change, or our community and tradition will not survive. Will we choose the abundant life we receive when we let go of our own expectations and paradigms? Will we lay down our nets, leaving behind the boats of our forebears to seek another shore, walking humbly beside Jesus?
The winter has been long, and snow still covers the ground. But I see signs of life – little shoots of green poking their way out from beneath the numbing blanket that threatens to smother us. Let us nurture the tender shoots of life that God has planted. As we set aside our own expectations and embrace the infinite love and wisdom of God, we will find our way forward in unity, love and justice.
I was pleased to read this post by Matt Hisrich, published today on Earlham School of Religion‘s blog, Learning and Leading. In his post, Matt observes the historical tension between centralized structures and decentralized models for decision-making and governance. He makes the connection that these tensions are equally present in secular government as they are in Quaker polity. Matt concludes by posing the worthy question:
These are serious questions. We live in a historical moment where centralized authority is increasingly coming under scrutiny. In the United States, and in the wider world, top-down structures of governance are under siege. Everywhere, the mantra seems to be, “down with big government.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this decentralizing impulse goes beyond the secular sphere. In the Christian Church, denominational authority structures are widely questioned. As we move into the post-modern age, Christians no longer want to live under centralized governance structures, but prefer grassroots, congregational polity, where the local church is given primary authority over questions of faith and practice.
Many Meetings in the Liberal-unprogrammed tradition of Friends go so far as to shift authority away from the community entirely. In some modern-day Quaker congregations, the individual is the final authority on almost all matters; the Meeting rarely intervenes in the lives of its members except in the case of gross disruption or criminal behavior.
Michael Sheeran, a Jesuit scholar, wrote an excellent book on the history and present-day practice of Quaker decision-making, Beyond Majority Rule. In detailing the history of Friends business practice, he explains that in the very early Friends movement, most authority for discernment rested with individuals. There was a belief that each person could do a good job – perhaps even an infallible job – of discerning Christ’s word to them. However, after a number of disastrous, public blunders – particularly the Nayler Incident – Friends began to emphasize the importance of corporate discernment. The local church community became the primary authority for discerning God’s will.
Sheeran goes on to detail that, as persecution increased and Friends across England had urgent need to coordinate their response on the national level, authority shifted quickly to a centralized Yearly Meeting structure. Within a few decades, the national body, centralized in London, became the final arbiter of decisions for Friends in Britain.
Friends in America followed London’s lead, and viewed the Yearly Meeting as the highest authority in decision-making. If a local Monthly Meeting was out of unity with a decision of the Yearly Meeting, the “superior body” (the Yearly Meeting) would be authorized to discipline the “subordinate Meeting.” This understanding of church structure and levels of authority seems to have continued until the 20th century, when the more liberal Yearly Meetings began to adopt a congregational polity. The Orthodox and Evangelical Yearly Meetings, however, have largely maintained the older sense of the Yearly Meeting as a centralized authority, governing the faith and practice of its constituent Monthly Meetings.
While Jesus Christ, as we know him through his Holy Spirit, is our ultimate authority as the Church, this does not solve the question of how that sovereign authority is received and interpreted by fallible human beings. What person or group do we ultimately trust to discern Christ’s teaching for us today? For the Ranters of George Fox’s day, the individual was the ultimate judge of God’s will. For some today, it is the local Meeting. For others, the ultimate authority for discerning Christ’s guidance is the Yearly Meeting.
I believe that all sources of discernment – individual, congregational and movement-wide, should be considered and taken seriously. Just as spouses submit to one another in marriage, I believe that we should submit to one another as members of the Body of Christ. Individuals should submit to the discernment of the local church, and the local church should submit to the wider body of Friends to which it belongs. And yet the higher bodies should take seriously the concerns of their constituent individuals and Meetings. When Christ speaks through the individual or through a local Meeting, the wider Church should submit itself to Christ’s ministry.
A healthy community of faith is characterized by ongoing dialogue between its more centralized and the more grassroots levels. If we stop listening to the grassroots, we easily miss out on the fresh, prophetic word that Christ wants to deliver to our often stubborn fellowships. On the other hand, if we do not submit ourselves to the wider body, we easily veer off course into heresy or fanaticism. We must remember that we need each other, that we are not whole until we wait together on Christ to teach us.
That is the heart of authority as understood by Friends: Jesus Christ is present to teach us, today. With Jesus as the living Head of his Church, all of us – individuals, local Meetings, and wider structures, will hold together in him. Even when we become confused and fall into division, if we are steadfast in waiting on him, he will lead us into even greater depths of truth, love and unity.
When we invite Christ into our midst, we can expect to be changed. As we open the door for Jesus to enter in, he transforms us inside and outside; God’s refining fire works for our redemption as individuals and as communities. But that is not the end of the story. Christ’s ministry of reconciliation will not be finished until all of creation has received his love and turned from darkness to light. We as followers of the Way are being refashioned for a purpose: to become partners in Christ’s work of cosmic restoration.
As Christ’s Light cleanses and redeems us inwardly, our outward lives will begin to reflect the radiant joy and peace of God. We become instruments of Christ’s universal ministry of love and peace. The Holy Spirit re-orders our lives and prepares us so that we can be of service in the specific mission that God has for us, both as individuals and as communities.
Faithful in Context
As Jesus’ modern-day disciples, it is not enough for us to know general truth; we must be faithful in applying it to specific contexts. For example, we are all called to worship only God, rejecting anything else that demands our ultimate loyalty. However, Christ guides different communities to engage with their particular contexts in different ways.
Here in Washington, DC, the Quaker Christian community that I am a part of struggles with how to reconcile our faith in Jesus with the idolatrous demands that government, corporations and powerful interests place on us as citizens. In our context, we feel particularly led to wrestle as a community with how we relate to the structures of global power that are based in our city (and where some of us work!). We know that we are called to lead lives of undivided loyalty to God, even as we live and work in the heart of the greatest imperial power the world has ever known.
Other communities are led in different directions to be faithful to the same core commandment. For instance, one Christian community that I was a part of in Richmond, Indiana, placed its focus on reclaiming the things that the wider society threw away. Dumpster diving for food and renovating run-down houses was a large part of what God called us to; this was both a witness to the power of God to overcome the idolatry of materialism, as well as a basis of a new community, gathered in Christ from a wide variety of religious, educational and class backgrounds.
Though the specifics of our calling in Christ may vary from community to community, we can trust that God will always have work for us to do. Wherever two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, not only will he be there among us, but he will also have a mission for us.(1) Christ gathers us not only so that we might find redemption in him as individuals and as a community; he also desires to forge us into a body that can serve the world in his name. There can be no faith without works,(2) and Christ is present with us to guide us in labors of mercy, restoration and justice that demonstrate the power and abiding love of God to the world.
Following Christ’s Lead
As we wait on God as a community, opening ourselves up to whatever the Holy Spirit might ask of us, we will find the particular mission that we are called to, both as individuals and as a wider fellowship. Because of our overwhelming individualism, however, it is often easier for us to act individually than to unite as a community to act on a leading from the Lord.
Sometimes this is appropriate. Some leadings are meant just for the individual. An example of an individual leading is my decision to attend seminary. I felt a firm sense that I should study at Earlham School of Religion, despite the fact that this would interfere with other goals and relationships that I had at the time. Though it demanded personal sacrifice, I yielded to the prompting I felt from God to pursue studies at ESR, and in retrospect I feel certain that this was God’s will for me.
Even this leading was not totally individual – I still needed help in discernment from my church, as well as financial assistance during my time at ESR. However, the decision to attend seminary, and the responsibility to undertake the lifestyle changes necessary to fulfill this leading was ultimately my own. I, personally, had to make the decision and bear most of the burden to carry it out.
Engaging as One Body
There are many times, though, when God desires to use an entire congregation, or even denomination, for a specific purpose. Some leadings are given not primarily to individuals, but to entire communities. As counter-intuitive as it is for us as western people, there are some leadings that only the body of believers can effectively respond to, no matter how passionately some individuals might feel. A good example is the abolition of slavery.
Not so long ago, slavery was regarded in most of the western world as not only legal and socially acceptable, but as ordained of God and authorized by Scripture. There was enormous resistance to any hint of abolition – not only from the slave traders and plantation owners, but from the Church itself. Most Christians – including Quakers – interpreted the Bible as allowing slavery, and this understanding was a powerful roadblock to justice.
There were many individuals who felt the Holy Spirit telling them that slavery was sin. These individuals divested themselves of the slave trade, refusing to participate. But this was not enough. Individual non-participation in the slave trade would not end this great evil that permeated American life. It took decades of painful reflection and discernment, but, thanks to the prophetic witness of some individual Quakers like John Woolman, Friends eventually came to the conclusion that they could not permit slave-holding by any of their members. The Religious Society of Friends banned slavery for its members, almost one hundred years before a catastrophic war would bring an end to the practice throughout the United States.
It is important to note that the first instinct of these individual concerned Friends was not to lobby the government to end slavery. Instead, they brought their sense of conviction to the Yearly Meeting; they sought unity within the Body of Christ for this leading that was far too large for any individual to appropriately address. This was a case where Christ was calling upon the Church as a whole to take a stand.
A Justice-Seeking Church
Today, there are a number of issues that confront us that may only be confronted by communities acting under a sense of divine
leading. Care for the creation is a good example. The global ecological crisis that we are facing, including climate change, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, are a threat to all life and disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized. The systems involved in this crisis involve almost everyone living on earth, and the solutions must be equally far-reaching in their scope. While we are certainly called as individuals to change our lifestyles to confront this systemic sin, individual choices are simply not sufficient to address the problem. Many Christians today are convinced that the Church as a whole must take action in order to avert enormous suffering and irreversible damage to God’s creation.(3)
As we come into real, living relationship with Jesus Christ, our previous sense of boundaries between the self, the Church, and the wider world is bound to change. Christ will not be limited to making demands only on the individual; he wants to reign in the Church as a whole, to guide us as a people. In order to respond to Christ’s calling for us today, we must embrace a radical life of covenant community that listens and obeys together. It is in discovering God’s mission for us as a community that we find our true identity – not merely as individual Christians, but as vital members of the Body of Christ.