Dangerous Theology

This text is based on a presentation originally given at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group Panels in December 2020. The query given to presenters was, “What is a Quaker theology of vocational ministry, and how is it enfleshed/embodied in community?”

Ministry is inherently risky.  The existence of a call to ministry implies potential failure: failure to respond, failure to discern, failure to fulfill.  Ministry also carries with it potential societal and personal consequences, ranging from outright persecution to subtler judgment for counter-cultural words and actions to loss or rearrangement of personal relationships.

Perhaps for this reason, within the Quaker context, we can’t address a theology of ministry while only addressing the minister.  Quakerism is not a faith of the individual but of the community.  In theological and theoretical circles, Friends say that the community, not the individual, has the responsibility for empowering ministry.  The individual may be called, but the community must respond faithfully.

What does this mean?  Consider first the simplest of circumstances: one individual is called to give vocal ministry one time in the context of expectant worship.  What role does the community play in making this ministry possible?  The community is deeply centered in worship, which makes the rising up of vocal ministry more likely; the community has taught the individual how to recognize and discern a call to vocal ministry; the community has created an environment in which the individual knows that, if the ministry is given imperfectly, the minister will not be ridiculed but, instead, appropriately supported and guided; the community has demonstrated its willingness to listen to and respond to well-led ministry, even when it’s challenging; the community may pray silently for the minister who is standing and speaking; and the community has provided the necessary physical support, such as a microphone and sound system.  All of this empowers ministry, making more possible any individual’s faithful response to a call.

But when we are speaking of vocational ministry, the role of the community necessarily grows more complicated.  “Vocational ministry” is either continuous or recurring, consuming a significant portion of the time and energy of the minister.  In the case of vocational ministry, much more is needed to make the ministry possible.  The community still must educate about ministry, refrain from ridicule, support and encourage and guide the minister, accept the fruits of the ministry, and provide appropriate physical and spiritual support.  But “appropriate physical and spiritual support,” in this instance, would likely include clearness committees, travel minutes, recording, logistical assistance, financial support, prayer, spiritual guidance, emotional support, and help with family obligations.  Suddenly, the empowering of ministry is a considerably larger task.

The community is responsible for empowering ministry.  In the context of a covenant community, this makes sense—because ultimately, of course, it is God who empowers ministry, but God generally does this not by invisible miracle but by way of placing the minister within a community, which faithfully fulfills the charge.

This is a dangerous theology.

It is dangerous because ministry is inherently risky, and when Friends say to a minister, “The community is responsible for empowering ministry,” it can cause an individual to commit to the risk, believing that the community will be present to play its role, and often, the community is not there.

It’s obvious how this can damage the minister, but it also damages communities.  It is inevitably damaging to the community because the community is failing to fulfil an expectation that it often did not know existed and that members of the community have never agreed to.  Yes, in theological and theoretical circles, we often say that the community is responsible for empowering ministry.  But among Friends generally, many have never even heard of this concept, and some of those who have heard of it have rejected it explicitly.

Can Friends continue to claim that this is our theology?  If theology, among Friends, is discovered through a process of corporate discernment, and if many of the Friends alive today are not in unity with this idea (that the community is responsible for empowering ministry), then at what point must we admit that this is no longer the sense of the meeting?  It’s certainly true that, historically, this has been our theology, and tradition is the contribution of our ancestors to contemporary corporate discernment.  Still, it’s difficult to argue that any theology is still our collective theology when the majority of Friends have never heard of it and when some who have, have rejected it.

In the twenty-first century, Friends also must question whether such a theology is a reasonable expectation of our communities.  Our spiritual ancestors lived in communities that were mostly self-contained.  Partly because Friends were not accepted in mainstream society, Friends tended to live close together, eat food from one another’s farms, send their children to school together, patronize one another’s businesses, socialize with one another, and marry each other.  

Today, we have non-Quaker neighbors; our children attend school with non-Quakers; we obtain our food and other goods from non-Quakers; we marry non-Quakers; we work for non-Quakers; we have non-Quaker social obligations.  Without judging whether this is a positive or a negative change, it certainly is a change, and we all have obligations to our non-Quaker human connections.  We may see the Friends in our meetings for no more than ninety minutes each week.  Under those conditions, is it reasonable to expect that we will manage to fulfill all of our obligations to our non-Quaker connections and still have sufficient time, energy, and financial resources to take full responsibility for empowering ministry within our Quaker communities?

I don’t believe we have a Quaker theology of vocational ministry.  I do not believe we have done the necessary work of discernment within our communities to know what such a theology, today, would be.

Friends do continue to be called to vocational ministry.  From time to time, a Friend comes to me who is experiencing such a call and asks for my advice, as someone who’s living it.  Here’s what I say:

You will experience extraordinary support and faithfulness from your community, and particularly, from certain individual Friends.  You’ll have much for which to be grateful.  But the community will not take responsibility for ensuring that your needs are met.  You must do so, and doing so is part of the ministry.  You must learn to, first, discern what you need; second, ask for what you need; and thirdly, accept support when it’s given.  You must also learn to recognize the moments when the community is not able to give you what you need, and you will have to find another way.  Obtaining the necessary emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial support for the ministry is not something you must do in addition to the ministry.  It is part of the ministry.  Learn to think of it this way.

I wish that most Quaker communities were ready to discern a theology of ministry, but in my experience, this is not where we are.  Instead, we’re in a place of needing to discern what it means, more generally, to be a thriving, twenty-first century covenant community.  Nearly every Quaker community I know is entangled and bound in the dominant culture and “we’ve always done it this way,” but faithfulness is risky, and the work before us is learning to be faithful communities.  After that, a theology of ministry will come.

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#24)

December 24, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

Santa’s already on his way.  I think of him often throughout the day, but I don’t worry a bit.  He’s very well-practiced.  Mostly, I’m writing letters by the fireside, and in between, I’m knitting some socks.

Most of the elves have nothing to do.  I think a few have started a snowball fight.  Elf Sunkiss and Elf Sweetdew have started preparing our Christmas feast.  Elf Jellyfrost is picking up the train tracks.  Elf Snowfeather is fretting that he might have sent The Secret Garden to a child he’d marked down for Little Lord Fauntleroy, and he’s already scheming how to remedy that next year.  But the rest are all snoozing or snacking.

Except.  Elf Cedarspice—Senior Cartography and Routing Coordinator.  Remember him?  He’s in touch with Santa all through Christmas Eve, monitoring for weather, adjusting the route for passing airplanes, making calculations so that Santa won’t frighten any geese.  He tracks sources of fresh water, in case the reindeer get thirsty, and even helps Santa dodge falling stars.  Every so often, I check on him, but he’s so intent on his maps and mathematics that I’m not certain he knows I’m there.

This will be my last letter of the season, but I’ll put one more surprise in the mail for you tomorrow.  I’m so glad you decided to write to me.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#23)

December 23, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

December 23rd.  You’d think we’d be frantic.  But no—on this, the last day of preparation before Christmas Eve, everyone’s relaxed.  We know we’ve done our very best.  We take the time for the final touches: tighten a ribbon, stitch on a sleigh bell, extra carrots for all the reindeer.  Santa takes a nap.  Elf Snowbeam and his choir and all of our musicians perform slow, calming, familiar songs.  Rudolph washes and dries his nose.

We feel proud and full of love for all the children of the world.  But even more importantly, we know that our little part of Christmas is not the most important at all.  If there were no presents, nothing in the stockings, Christmas would come triumphantly anyway.  That’s the wonder of Christmas, really.  It’s love and friends and family, and singing and hugging and playing, and faith and joy, and we don’t make those things.

Later tonight, we’ll gather around the tree, and we’ll light our candles, and we’ll sing “Stille Nacht.”  And then, Santa will choose just one elf to help him with the final checks of the sleigh, to give pats to each reindeer, and to close his bag, before—in the absolute stillness—midnight turns to early next morning, and he flies away for Christmas Eve.

(Don’t tell.  But he’s choosing Little Elf Willowwisp.)

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#22)

December 22, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

It might be time to tell you one of the North Pole’s greatest secrets.

At one end of the courtyard is a tower twenty elves or so tall.  At the top of the tower is a golden clock that shines like Christmas candlelight.  Like any clock, the arms go around, though unlike most clocks, there aren’t any numbers, for the North Pole’s in every time zone—and also none at all.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we need a few extra hours and minutes to finish our preparations for Christmas.  When that happens, the reindeer fly up to the clock, and they nuzzle the hands—just a little bit—to slow down time.

It’s terribly convenient to be able to do this.  Some years, I’m not sure how else we would make it.  But it does have unfortunate side effects.

Has it ever felt as though the days before Christmas, the days when you’re so excited that you can hardly wait, grow a bit long?  Does it ever seem as though surely there are more than twenty-four hours per day?

Well…sometimes there is.

When our clock slows, yours do, too.  All of them.  It’s the magic, you know.  But I absolutely promise it’s worthwhile.  Play an extra game; have an extra snuggle; make an extra phone call; write an extra card.  Enjoy the long days.  They won’t come again for an entire year.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#21)

December 21, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

Three more days to Christmas Eve.

The reindeer are so excited that they can hardly sleep.  Last night at midnight, Blitzen and Comet woke us all up playing kickball with a potted poinsettia.  Luckily, Elf Flittersong went out to calm them down.

This morning, Elf Jellyfrost laid toy train track across the courtyard from the assembly line to the gift-wrapping department.  Then she placed the toy trains along the track and let them drive themselves over.  They move quite quickly, as long as someone makes the right “chugga-chugga-toot-toot” noises to keep the magic going.

Elf Snowfeather, who helps Santa choose all the right books for all the right children, always has a few that he wants to switch at the very last minute.  He paces back and forth with a clipboard: “Magical realism for Amare…fantasy for Fatoumata…a bathtub book for Nasir…a chapter book for Ana…a chapter book? Or a book of crafts?  Or both?  Or maybe a cookbook!”

 Elf Sunsugar and Elf Sweetdew have the kitchens open eighteen hours a day.  They serve foods that can be eaten at a run: muffins, sandwiches, sushi, boiled eggs.

And Elf Beetledrop’s paintbrush is flying as she touches up the last of the holly.  These are my favorite days of the year!

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#20)

December 20, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

Four days before Christmas Eve.  It’s time for the Carnival of Sweets!

Elf Honeyeyes and Elf Silversprig have charge of the sweets factory.  It makes a little candy year-round, but not much, because most candy doesn’t keep.  So every year, on the 20th of December, hundreds of elves—all of whom have other work for the rest of the year—shift over for a colossal carnival of cooking candies.  

Into the factory go sugar and butter, and cocoa and vanilla and peppermint oil.  In go honey and cream (and cows to help make more cream).  And nuts and maple sugar and fruits of every kind.

And out…well, out come candy canes and peppermint bark and butter toffee and truffles, and chocolate Santas and chocolate kisses and peanut brittle and caramels.  Out comes fudge and gingerbread.  Out comes ribbon candy and marzipan and glazed fruits and nougat and rock candy.  And the chocolate oranges…the chocolate oranges actually roll out the door, three per second!

The sweets factory hums and vibrates with magic.  Imagine a foundation like a chocolate bar, with walls that look like gingerbread and marshmallow-shaped doors and windows.  The smokestacks look like peppermint sticks, and the steam puffing out smells like gumdrops and whistles the tune of “Jingle Bells.”  

Read an extra Christmas story tonight.  We need the magic more than ever.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#19)

December 19, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

Five days!  It’s only five days until Christmas Eve! 

Today, I pulled out Santa’s best suit, cleaning and brushing and mending and polishing.  He saves this suit just especially for Christmas Eve.  Oh, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it, but somehow the pictures never show all the details.

There’s a silver ring from Sweden in the shape of a Yule Goat.  There’s a charm bracelet with three charms: a tiny parol from the Phillipines that really lights up and spins; a fried chicken leg from Japan; and a Pohutukawa from New Zealand.  Santa’s stockings come from Iceland, and one is embroidered with candies while the other has cross-stitched potatoes all around it.  The buttons of his coat are shaped like yams, as the people eat during la ribote in Martinique, and slices of pineapple, like they serve for Christmas dinner in Barbados.  And pinned to Santa’s hat is a tiny gold star from Bethlehem.

Every year, when I assemble all the pieces, I think of all the children all over the world who are growing more excited every day, and I’m so grateful to be a part of all their wonderful traditions.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#18)

December 18, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

What a brave question you asked in your letter today.  Many children wonder whether Santa Claus is real.

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, when Little Elf Willowwisp was even littler, she crept into the sitting room where Santa and I were enjoying a fire.  I’ll never forget how shy she looked, eyes wide, lips a-quivering.  

“Santa?” she said. “I need to talk to you.”

Santa scooped her right up and into his lap and asked her to tell us what the trouble was.

She swallowed hard.  “Well…I don’t believe in children anymore!”

Are you surprised?  This happens sometimes.  After all, most elves have never seen children.  They’ve only heard stories.  It can be hard to believe in something far away that you’ve never seen.

But we must believe.  What would happen if all the elves stopped believing in children?  They wouldn’t make toys; they wouldn’t wrap presents; they wouldn’t sing carols; they wouldn’t load the sleigh. 

And what would happen if children stopped believing in Santa?  They wouldn’t bake him cookies, they wouldn’t send him letters, they wouldn’t hang up their stockings or sing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  We’d never have enough Christmas magic for Santa to fly all around the world.

We need one another.  I believe in you!  And so does Santa, and so do the reindeer and the elves.  And once she was reminded about the magic, Little Elf Willowwisp decided that she believes in you, too.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#17)

December 17, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

Today, I received the letter from Sophia written on green paper with dots of red glitter glue.  I’m sorry to hear that last year’s game of Candyland is missing one of its gingerbread persons.  Was it yellow, green, blue, or red?  I’ll speak with Elf Cleartouch and see whether he can find a spare among the board game supplies.

Which is your favorite of the Candyland characters?  I’m rather fond of Gramma Nutt, as I do like peanut brittle.  Santa’s favorite is Gloppy.

Jacob, I hope you’re still enjoying last year’s game of Twister.  We have a much larger version that we roll out over the courtyard for much of February each year.  Santa’s the official spinner.  All of the elves love to play, but the reindeer almost always win.  They have longer legs!

Santa was mentioning just last night the games he brought to some of your family, back when they were very young.  You might ask your Uncle Michael whether he remembers his game of Operation, or Aunt Jennifer if she still has her edition of Hungry, Hungry Hippos.  Both of those were hand-crafted by Elf Cleartouch!  

In fact, Elf Cleartouch even made your Grandma Susan’s Tiddlywinks.  Ask her whether she ever noticed that one of the yellow tiddlywinks had a chip out of the side.  Elf Cleartouch says that was because Rudolph didn’t know what it was and tried to nibble on it.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus