. . . and Covenant:
Spiritual Gifts and the Beloved Community
(This text was originally given as the Weed Lecture at Beacon Hill Friends House in 2019. You can watch or listen to the lecture here.)
My first career was theatrical stage management. I traveled around the country, doing mostly high-spectacle musical theatre with live animals and pyrotechnics but sometimes also dramatic stage plays. In 2002, I stage managed a new play called Archipelago by LeeAnne Hill Adams, a play about the Russian gulags, and it was surprisingly technical, with live film and green screen technology and a cast of fourteen people playing fifty-some parts. I loved this play, loved the challenge of it, and especially loved the one part when it slowed down, the only piece of a two-hour production when I wasn’t calling a cue every three to five seconds, a monologue spoken by a character called Nina.
The scene came right after a brutal attack. Nadya—who had become Nina’s friend—was near death, and in dying, she asked Nina to tell her about the angels. Nina said, “[They look] like sun when it comes through a crystal. They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When you go to heaven, you’ll see . . . they’ll rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings. How they’ll rejoice to see you, Nadya. Then they’ll carry you through the clouds on their shoulders and place you at God’s feet. And you will live with him forever and be happy.”
Every night, in the middle of this extraordinarily complicated play, there was a moment of stillness with a spotlight and two women and a general hush and Nina promised us, “You will live with him forever and be happy.”
This passage speaks, then and now, to a longing within me, a sense of homecoming to a place where someone rushes about me, clapping their hands, rejoicing to see me and placing me at God’s feet. Do you have this longing?
I became a Quaker on October tenth of two thousand ten—10/10/10—which is lucky because I will never forget the date. I celebrate my Quakerversary every year, in little ways, usually with a Facebook post. It means a lot to me because I looked for my people for so long. I was born into a faith tradition other than Quakerism, although even as a child, I rejected that faith tradition. What I remember finding troublesome was that this religion taught that God spoke to one man at a time—and it was always a man—and that it was that man’s job to tell everyone else what God said. That never sounded right to me. It felt like God, being God, would love everybody, and also surely God is expedient enough to get God’s message across without having to worry about human communications channels. Telling everything to one guy relied upon that guy’s ability to get the message out to everybody on the planet and also to convince everybody to buy into it, and that didn’t seem like the smartest way to do it. Plus, it seemed to me like a lot of religious traditions said that their tradition had the one and only Truth and that everybody else was going to hell. And that can’t be right, I thought, because again, God is God and loves everybody too much to punish someone for being born into a family that’s Hindu and only ever being taught about Hinduism and then choosing to be Hindu. The one pathway business seemed absolutely absurd.
Anyway, I started looking for a faith tradition when I was ten years old, and I knew the whole time that I was looking for a tradition that said “God talks to everybody, and nobody knows the one and only Truth.” It took me seventeen years before I found the Quakers, mostly because Quakers aren’t present enough in theological circles for me to hear about them in my search for a religion. Therefore, like much of the rest of the world, I genuinely believed that Quakers were something like the Amish.
My first Quaker meeting was totally silent, and this was exceptionally annoying because it meant that leaving meeting I knew nothing more than I did when I came. The second week, Rich Accetta-Evans stood up and said, “There is that of God in everyone.” I don’t doubt that he also said a whole bunch of other stuff—and I didn’t know enough then to name what he said as “vocal ministry”—but he said, “There is that of God in everyone,” and that was it; I knew I was home.
Nobody actually rushed about me clapping their hands, but the internal sensation was pretty close.
What I didn’t understand then—what I didn’t have language for—was that my longing wasn’t just to know that God talks to everybody. If that were all I needed, I never would have searched for a people at all. If the message is “God talks to everybody,” then all we have to do is listen to God, and that’s the beginning and the end of our journey. But it turns out, God is trickier than that. God is smarter than that. Yes, God talks to everybody, but God doesn’t tell everybody—or give everybody—exactly the same things. God gives me a piece, and you a piece, and that guy over there a piece, and expects us to learn how to play well together.
This is the beginning of covenant.
The best definition of covenant that I know is that we give ourselves to God and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people. And from there, we are expected to care for this group of people, and this group of people is expected to care for us, and as a whole we are expected to be obedient to the will of God. For some covenant communities, this means the will of God as written in a set of commandments, but in Quakerism, it means the will of God as constantly revealed. Continuing revelation. Figure it out as you go.
Another way that someone once explained covenant to me was that it’s like you’re married to all of the people in your meeting. And let me tell you, when I heard that, I was horrified by some of the people that I’m apparently married to. But this is how it works. My people accepted me on 10/10/10, October the tenth, two thousand and ten, eight years and eight months ago. And I accepted them.
Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting.
New York Quarterly Meeting.
New York Yearly Meeting.
And the entire Religious Society of Friends.
We are in covenant.
LeeAnne Hill Adams said in Archipelago that angels “look like sun when it comes through a crystal.” This is the Religious Society of Friends and all of the covenant communities within it. It’s Light through a prism. We each have the Light within us, but it shines through us differently. We’ve got the red and the orange and the yellow and the green and the blue and the indigo and the violet, of course, and this is beautiful. There are all these gorgeous manifestations of the Light, each one different from each of the others, and unless they all come together, you never see the complete spectrum. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Except in reality, most of the time, it’s actually kind of sweaty and dirty and takes a lot of effort and jostling around and we tend to fight about who’s the yellow and who’s the green and do we really need indigo anyway (and what exactly is indigo?), and we get distracted and knock into one another and fall down and skin our knees.
“They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful . . . they rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings.”
We are not always good at showing our great wings. Now, I know, the passage I’m quoting is about heaven and angels, and nobody ever said we were angels, but—Quakerism tells us that we can build the kingdom of God on Earth right now, that it is, in fact, our obligation to do this, and I think that if God expects us to build the kingdom of God on Earth, then God has probably given us great wings.
So what are those wings?
How are we different?
How does God’s Light manifest in each of us differently?
Some of us are organizers.
Some of us are prayers.
Some of us are workers.
Some of us are carers.
Some of us are innovators.
Some of us are provocateurs.
Some of us are healers.
And some of us have huge capacity to love.
Jan Wood, who is an evangelical Friend, has spent a lot of her life giving workshops on spiritual gifts. She names gifts using Biblical language, and she identifies something like twenty-four of them in total. I want to tell you a few of my favorites.
There’s mercy, the ability and desire to alleviate suffering. That would be my friend Heather, who used to frighten me by inviting hungry men that she met on street corners to have dinner with her at the local fast food restaurant because her compulsion to alleviate their loneliness and hunger outweighed any concern for her own safety.
There’s giving, the desire to pour out resources. That would be my friend Sara, who would rather give anything away than keep it, no matter how much she loves it, because the giving brings her so much joy.
There’s exorcism, the ability to liberate from systemic oppression. That would be Lisa, who can articulate the patterns of systemic oppression and illuminate them in a way that allows a whole people to cooperate in lifting them.
And there’s helps, the ability to provide assistance to those in a leadership role. That would be Joe, who consistently and quietly supports but is almost never noticed himself.
Lloyd Lee Wilson says that there are six steps in the proper use of spiritual gifts within a community, and the first is naming, simply naming a gift we see manifest in a person.
That always brings me to a story from a book by Madeleine L’Engle, a book called A Wind in the Door. There is a scene where the protagonist, Meg, returns to her middle school and faces her old principal, Mr. Jenkins. Except there is not just one Mr. Jenkins. There are three Mr. Jenkinses. One is the real Mr. Jenkins; the other two are fallen angels masquerading as Mr. Jenkins. And there, in the parking lot, Meg is charged with identifying the real one.
One Mr. Jenkins is extremely kind. He’s extending offers of friendship to Meg, and he’s willing to bend over backwards to accommodate her.
Another Mr. Jenkins is strict and outright rude, demanding to be Named as the true Mr. Jenkins and extremely annoyed when Meg doesn’t do so immediately.
And the third Mr. Jenkins is present, engaging with the conversation, but very much who he is, and that’s someone who’s not very warm and fuzzy. This, we’ll come to see, is the real Mr. Jenkins.
It’s worth noting that Meg doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins. He’s demanding and impatient and thoroughly unimaginative, and he’s never been especially kind to Meg’s family. He is not someone that Meg would have chosen to be in relationship with. But this doesn’t matter. Because in that moment, Meg is there, and Mr. Jenkins is there, and therefore, it is Meg’s job to see Mr. Jenkins, really see him.
And she does. She sees him and Names him, with a capital N. “I Name you. I Name you, Mr. Jenkins.” And the fallen angels, the imposters, fly away.
The first time I looked at Jan’s list of spiritual gifts, she Named me. She didn’t even have to point it out to me. It was enough that she wrote it in black and white. “Apostleship: ability and natural authority to care for and lead groups of organizations or communities of faith.”
Up until then, I actually didn’t know that not every Quaker felt a personal responsibility for the entire Religious Society of Friends. In that moment, reading the definition of apostleship, I suddenly knew who I was.
Have you ever had the experience of being Named?
It doesn’t always happen just in the framing of spiritual gifts. We can also be Named when someone sees our condition or when someone recognizes our pain or when someone expresses love for us, us, not some subset of who we are or what we can do for them but our wholeness, that they love our wholeness. That is a powerful Naming. I am talking about that moment when someone says I know who you are.
To be known in this way, I think, is essential to our wellbeing. There is One who always knows us, and that is God. We can go back to the book of Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. God made us and consecrated us and crafted our great wings.
That’s different, though. In my experience, there is a particular sort of loneliness that can only be addressed by another breathing human being. When I am experiencing that sort of loneliness, I am sometimes reassured that God loves me, and therefore I don’t have to be lonely. People say this to me. I’ve occasionally said this to other people. But truthfully, that response is inadequate when we are experiencing the sort of loneliness that needs another being of flesh. Even God explicitly recognizes this. It’s right there in chapter two of Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Which brings us back to covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God gives us, in turn, to a group of people, and one of our responsibilities to one another is to see one another, to Name one another, and to repeatedly drive away loneliness.
This is where we run into the part where covenant is terrible. Don’t get me wrong; I like the good parts. I like the parts where I am Named. I like the parts where I Name other people. I like the parts where people come over to dinner and we laugh and talk and cry. I like it when I am forgiven for my mistakes.
I don’t like it so much when somebody else wants me to come over for dinner and I’m more in the mood to sit at home and watch sitcoms. I don’t like the part where other people make mistakes that hurt me, and then I’m expected to forgive. I don’t like the part where I did something wrong, like, six months ago, and somebody else is still ticked off about it. And I really don’t like the part where somebody is just annoying, like, all the time, and repeatedly does things that get under my skin, but that person is part of my covenant people and I have to keep seeing and engaging with them.
I want to tell you a story about a covenant people that really knew one another. The story I’m about to tell you was frightening to live through but, to this day, is the best example I have ever lived of a group of people who really knew one another’s skills and personalities and spiritual gifts.
In the summer of 2016, my dear friend Gabi Savory Bailey—who even now is only in her early forties—had a heart attack during summer sessions of New York Yearly Meeting. We hold our summer sessions on the shores of Lake George, at a YMCA camp. It’s a large campus, and the various rooms where we hold events are quite spread out. At the center is the Inn, which has a wraparound porch that is the social hub for the whole week, and there are always a couple dozen Friends there, chatting and sitting in rocking chairs and strumming guitars. It’s also important to know that in the summer of 2016, cell phone connectivity was still minimal there. You could only get a reliable signal by standing directly under the flagpole.
Gabi was in the cafeteria when the heart attack happened, which is a very public place. There were a number of witnesses. It was immediately clear that something very serious was happening, and one Friend who was present took off running to the Inn porch, where she shouted, “FIND ALANNA!” Alanna Badgley is a trained paramedic, the only one we have, as far as I know, among those of us who frequently attend summer sessions. With no explanation needed, half a dozen young, fast runners bolted off the porch to a variety of locations, and one of them did, in fact, find Alanna, and bring her back, where she was taken immediately to Gabi’s side.
Another Friend went to find Callie Janoff, because Callie is the person you call in moments of extreme pastoral care emergency. Everyone knew that Callie would be the person that Gabi and her husband Jon would want next to them in the ambulance because Callie is the person that anybody would want next to them in the ambulance. And this Friend who went for Callie, on his way to the committee meeting where he knew that Callie would be, passed Beverly Archibald, who is a powerful pray-er. He grabbed Beverly by the arm and said to her, “Start praying for Gabi. Right now.” And Beverly dropped down on a bench beside the path and began to pray.
Yet another Friend was sent to pull me from the committee meeting that I was clerking. When he arrived, he said, “I don’t know what is happening, but Gabi’s family needs you right now.” So I went. They sent for me because they knew that I had a relationship with Gabi’s two small children and because I am the person who steps in and maintains a sense of normalcy and continuity in times of emergency. This is a role I have fulfilled many times, and people knew it.
This was the best of being a covenant people. There was no question that we would meet the needs of Gabi and Jon and their children. But furthermore, there was no question that Beverly would pray and Callie would ride in the ambulance and I would take the kids. Nobody would have proposed, not for an instant, that Beverly should ride in the ambulance and Callie take the children and I pray, not because we would be incapable of those things but because this would not be the right use of our gifts. On that day, in a time of genuine danger, the pray-ers prayed and the carers cared and the runners ran and the organizers organized and the elders held it all in the Light because we knew one another and we knew our gifts. We had Named each other long before that day.
I travel in the ministry full time. At the end of January of this year, I gave up maintaining a permanent home. I packed a few precious, irreplaceable things into a storage unit and then picked up my backpack and left New York City. Since then, Backpack and I have visited roughly 45 groups of Friends in four different countries, which makes for an average of a new place every 2-3 days, and I had traveled a fair amount even before then. And I can tell you from direct experience that it’s not only individuals that carry particular gifts. Whole meetings carry glorious gifts, gifts that enrich the Religious Society of Friends and, I hope, the entire world.
Maryville Friends in Tennessee are patient and steadfast and loyal. Winchester Friends in Indiana have a gift of prayer. Plainfield Friends in Indiana are hospitable, and they are amazing cooks. Wilmington Friends in Ohio are really, hilariously funny. Mesquakie Friends in Iowa are deeply thoughtful about decolonizing the culture of Christianity. Kalamazoo Friends in Michigan have extraordinary love for their neighborhood community. Quakers in Ireland Yearly Meeting are extremely efficient. Manchester Friends in England work the soil and grow a beautiful garden. Warwick Friends, also in England, talk openly and comfortably about matters related to mental health. Loltuleilei Friends in Kenya have a gift of praise and a gift for helping one another. Belize City Friends are extraordinary in their community development work, making connections between influencers in their city in a way that has led to positive and practical change.
It’s harder to Name one another as communities than it is to Name one another as individuals, just from a purely practical point of view. Many of us rarely see communities of Friends other than our own, so we can’t Name the gifts we see in other groups and, in fact, can’t Name the gifts of our own group because we don’t have anything to compare it to. What’s natural and easy and joyful for us must surely be natural and joyful for everyone—but actually, that’s not the case.
When we do come together with other Friends, Friends from beyond our own local communities, it’s often in one of two contexts: either we are together for business (and this is often intense and sometimes filled with conflict) or we are together for the sake of making-friends-and-building-relationships (and this is often surface level, if for no other reason than the restrictions of time). I would say that neither of these relationships is a wholehearted expression of covenant.
Again, that definition: we give ourselves to God, and God in turn gives us to a group of people.
Our local people.
Our medium-sized gatherings, such as quarterly or area meetings.
Our larger gatherings, such as yearly meetings.
And the entire Religious Society of Friends. We are given to one another in covenant. We are supposed to be building the kingdom of God on Earth.
So how do we do that?
For starters, if we’re a team, if we’re really a covenant people, then we need to know ourselves as that and build genuine relationships with one another. I’m going to neuroscience for a minute here, so stick with me. How many of you have had the experience of being in a meeting for business, or a series of meetings for business, with a group of Quakers, and things get really difficult and heavy because there’s some sort of conflict, and that state goes on for a couple of days or even a week, but then eventually you come to a place where you can agree on something—pass some sort of minute—and the group as a whole goes out feeling relieved, some of you exhausted, some of you weeping, but grateful for having come to unity?
We experience that kind of thing as a time of crisis. And in times of crisis, the human brain releases endorphins, and endorphins increase our tolerance to pain (both physical and psychological) as well as encouraging us to be friendly and helpful in our interactions with one another. And at the moment that the crisis ends and the pain disappears (or lessens), the endorphins don’t immediately vanish. They stick around for as much as a couple of days before gradually ebbing away, which can result in something casually called an “endorphin crash.” When we experience this sort of meeting for business conflict “crisis,” we release all kinds of endorphins, and then at the end, we go and share our final potluck or say our goodbyes, and we’re all still a little bit hung over with endorphins, so we feel especially friendly and helpful and slightly numb, and we feel as though we’ve bonded.
I’m not judging the authenticity of the business meeting crisis. Sometimes, the particular question at hand is a genuine threat to the community and is a genuine emergency. But the thing is, this type of crisis-endorphins-relief cycle is addictive. It’s a dramatic way to bond a group together in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn’t matter so much if we were together every day, all year, visiting one another’s farms and meeting up at the local general store, but we’re not. Especially in the case of regional or yearly meetings, we often only see one another a few times a year or less. Which means that if those fairly infrequent meetings are taken up by crisis enough times, crisis bonding can quickly become our primary way of experiencing being a group. We might even, unconsciously, begin to seek threats in an effort to experience that feeling again. This isn’t healthy, and it isn’t of God.
So: crisis bonding is a thing, connected to endorphins, which seem to be one of three types of chemicals in our brains that encourage group bonding. The two major influencers are endorphins and dopamine; a third, somewhat less important chemical for group social bonds, is oxytocin.
Endorphins, which cause us to feel friendly and helpful, can be triggered by a trauma, but they can also be triggered by exercise, laughter, music, and chocolate.
Dopamine directly influences how strongly we feel linked to those in our social network. When we experience high levels of dopamine (especially over time), we feel more strongly attached to the people we think of as friends. A release of dopamine can be triggered by exercise or music—and, according to one study, by cupcakes.
Oxytocin creates feelings of calm and closeness. It also crystalizes emotional memories, reduces stress, and encourages generosity. The best ways to release oxytocin aren’t super appropriate in public, but laughter, exercise, music, and hugs can all help.
Why am I telling you this? Because it seems to indicate that if we really hope to be bonded together as a community, we need to spend considerably more time with one another, and while we are together, we should indulge in less business and more exercise, laughter, music, hugs, and chocolate cupcakes.
We do sometimes have gatherings like this. Most of you can probably think of a few gatherings of Friends that you’ve been part of that have incorporated these elements. And that’s great. But I’d say that this type of bonding—while it’s really important, and definitely better than crisis bonding—isn’t actually our ultimate goal. It’s not what God asks of us. God asks us to build the kingdom of God on Earth, which is not the same as just being really good friends with one another. If we are building the kingdom of God on Earth, we are moving toward a world where God’s love for all God’s children reigns supreme and each living thing is perceived as having infinite value and—
We all look like sun when it comes through a crystal. We sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see us. Our wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When we glimpse the kingdom of God, we can see . . .
So how do we get from crisis bonding to chocolate cupcakes to the kingdom of God on Earth?
Go back to Naming and Lloyd Lee Wilson. According to Wilson in his book Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, there are six steps to community stewardship of our spiritual gifts, and Naming is only the first. After that is Claiming—the individual’s willingness to accept the spiritual gift as named. And then Consecrating, a worshipful search within ourselves, a rededication to the purpose of God. Then Developing, because spiritual gifts don’t usually appear perfectly formed. Exercising, the actual use of spiritual gifts. And Receiving the Fruits—because the stewardship of a spiritual gift is not complete until the covenant people are willing to receive the ministry born out of it.
I’ve already said quite a lot about Naming.
When I think about Claiming, I think about David and Jeremiah. First, David. I don’t know about you, but for me, the version I heard as a kid went something like this: David was a little shepherd boy, and Goliath was a big scary giant, and there was just no way that David could possibly have killed Goliath. But he had faith, and he went up against the giant with his itty-bitty slingshot, and God empowered him to be victorious.
That’s not actually what the Bible says.
David wasn’t just “a little shepherd boy.” David was prepared to kill Goliath. He had a track record of chasing after lions and bears while watching his flock, striking these beasts with his stones and pulling live sheep from their mouths. Yes, he acknowledged God as the source of his protection. But he also knew what he was capable of because he had done extraordinary things before.
The biggest problem that David had in this situation was that he had to talk everybody into letting him take on Goliath because nobody else believed that the “little shepherd boy” had a chance. David was called, and he knew he was ready and prepared. It was only the people around him who doubted him.
Compare this to Jeremiah, who was also very young when he was called to serve God, but whose reaction was more along the lines of “no no no no no, heck no, God, what are you thinking?” (Okay, what he actually said was, “Alas, sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak, I am too young.” But I suspect he said it in a tone of panic.)
Now, Jeremiah had also been prepared. God had just told him so: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” But Jeremiah’s initial reaction to being called was less “here I am, Lord!” and more “I’m hiding under the table now, Lord.” Can’t we all identify with that?
Do we Claim our gifts like David or like Jeremiah? If you’re anything like me, you do a little of each. The thing is, refusing to Claim our gifts is actually deeply unfaithful. It’s understandable; Claiming a gift is scary, especially if we fear being judged as prideful, or if we fear that we won’t be supported. Once we’ve been through the steps of Naming, Claiming, and Consecrating—once we’ve recognized a gift in ourselves or had it recognized by someone else, and we’ve accepted it, and we’ve held it in prayer and turned it over to God—the next inevitable steps are Developing and Exercising that gift. And we have reason to fear that our covenant people will actually prevent us from doing those things.
Because it’s happened before. We’ve either seen it or experienced it. We, in the Religious Society of Friends—we make each other small.
We try to suppress our great wings.
If a spiritual gift is Named, Claimed, Consecrated, Developed, and Exercised, it tends to evolve into powerful ministry. To Receive powerful ministry is incredibly demanding. When we experience powerful ministry, it is the voice of God. We can be transformed or we can cover our ears. Those are the only choices. And what will it cost us to be transformed? What am I going to be asked to give up? What am I going to be asked to do? Who am I going to be asked to be? Will I be forced to ask for help? Will I still know myself when the transformation is finished? Will all of my relationships be changed?
It is so much safer not to let anything ever get that far. Let’s stay in that place with laughter and hugs and chocolate cupcakes. It’s a good place.
It isn’t the kingdom of God on Earth.
Covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people, for the purpose of raising one another up. Naming gifts. Nurturing ministry. Expecting our carers to care and our pray-ers to pray and our speakers to speak and our prophets to prophesy and our healers to heal and our leaders to lead and holding them accountable if they are not doing it. Holding ourselves accountable if they are not doing it, because the exercise of gifts and ministry is a communal affair.
Holding ourselves accountable. Where are we trying to shut down God’s Light? Go back to George Fox: “The Light is the same in the male and in the female, and it cometh from Christ. Who is it that dare stop Christ’s mouth?”
When I think about our local meetings and churches and our larger geographic organizations, I often think about the difference between Jesus and Paul. Jesus of Nazareth, in his lifetime, told us, “Love one another.” It took him three words to communicate this. After his death, the apostle Paul took 34,408 words to try to explain what “love one another” is actually supposed to mean. It’s not that people are stupid or that Paul was just especially verbose. The difference is that Jesus was starting a movement, and Paul was organizing a church. Jesus was inspiring people as he passed through. Paul was working with a covenant people.
(Covenant: that sweaty, dirty, thoroughly inconvenient thing.)
I want to talk for a minute about institutions. Institutions are essential to support groups of human beings doing particular things. It’s in our nature to require rules and processes and patterns and limits on behavior in order to navigate social interactions and certainly in order to get anything done. Without the institution, we have to start from scratch every time we’re led to do something. Without the institution, nobody pays the electric bill. So we have rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures because these things make it possible for us to discern and do the will of God as a covenant people in an ongoing manner.
Let’s tease that apart for a minute here. Our rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures make it possible for us to discern and do the will of God. Our rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures are not, in themselves, the will of God. They are not the thing. They are how we have agreed to do the thing. That means that we are allowed to change them when they are no longer serving us, when they are restraining rather than supporting our ability to be faithful.
And of course, we have created rules and processes that suit those of us who are generally present. Among Quakers in my part of the world, we have created rules and processes that serve white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, physically abled retired people extremely well. There’s no shame in this. It is normal to have done this, because the vast majority of active Quakers where I come from are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, physically abled retired people. The question comes when we ask whether we are willing to notice the ways in which we have done this and then change it—adapt, so we can serve others.
Do we engage with our behavioral norms with an understanding of how behavioral norms are not uniform across racial groups?
Do we engage with our expectations around food and transportation and registration fees with an understanding that what is minimal for someone who is middle-class may be impossible for others?
Do we engage with our physical facilities with an understanding that our buildings themselves send signals about who is welcome in terms of gender and ability?
Do we engage with our procedures and committee roles with an understanding that working people, especially young working people with families, do not have the same abundance of time as retired people?
It took me years to reach a point of being able to navigate the complicated systems in my local meeting, my yearly meeting, other Friends’ yearly meetings, Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, and Friends World Committee for Consultation, and I quite literally made learning this my full-time job—because I felt led by God to do so. This is not a normal expectation. We have to learn to be flexible and simplify.
The way things are now, when someone’s led to new work on behalf of the body, it often takes weeks, or months, or years to get the pieces into place, not because it actually takes that much time to do the discernment but because the such-and-such committee only meets on second Thursdays, and the other-relevant-committee just met last Monday and won’t meet again for two months…this kind of delay wears on people. Eventually, we decide that the bar is too high. We might not even be conscious of it, but we begin to weigh leadings differently—is this spark that I’m carrying really worth the amount of institutional work it will take? When institutional delay extinguishes one spark, that’s sad. But when it puts out sparks routinely—and it does—that’s a spiritual crisis.
And this phenomenon absolute affects certain groups of people more than others. When we allow that to happen, we are stopping Christ’s mouth.
Covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God gives us in turn to a group of people. And we are charged to build the kingdom of God on Earth.
Making it easier for people to serve on committees won’t build the kingdom of God on Earth. It’s a start—an essential one—but if we hope to go beyond just a really great, inclusive committee system, we have to talk about how we’re enabling ministry.
The institution supports us, makes it possible for the community as a whole to do the will of God. But it’s not, in itself, the will of God. Carrying out the will of God is ministry.
Any one of us could be called into significant ministry at any time, if we’re open to the possibility. We don’t even have to be prepared for it, because the preparation often happens on the fly. All we have to be is open to the possibility. Do we talk about this as a thing that happens? Do we anticipate that we or someone else in our local communities might be led to travel or teach or engage in civil disobedience or adopt some form of radical witness? Do we expect John Woolmans among us? Are we on the alert for modern day Margaret Fells? If we’re not, why not? Do we believe there came a point when God stopped calling us to this sort of thing? We can’t possibly look at the condition of the world and think that God’s work has all been done.
Every day at two o’clock, Michael Wasike appears in the doorway of the church in Samburu, Kenya, with a wheelbarrow of books and two squares of fabric. He ties the fabric into two windows, the two on the mountain side, to block the strongest gales of wind, then silently retrieves a broom. The preschool that meets here in the mornings occasionally leaves behind twigs or rice. He straightens the desks, as well, all twelve, each of which will hold five children, many of which he built himself. He aligns the chairs, erases the blackboard, double-checks the supply of chalk.
One day, he notices a needed repair, and he leaves, returning with a ladder and two small boys. Mostly in silence, they pass him a hammer or a nail, and in exchange he teaches them carpentry and also the value of service. The children depart with the ladder and tools. Michael smiles unhurriedly. He surveys the church; he moves to the wheelbarrow. He sorts the books: grades one, two, three. He sharpens eight pencils. He finds the erasers.
In come two teachers and many children, and Michael leans with his back against the wall. He’s still and silent until he’s needed: to tend a boy who’s injured his arm, to encourage a girl who refuses to speak, to intercede and talk quietly with the big boy who’s walloped a younger child with sticks. The sun sets, and he slips away and returns with the ladder, again, and a wire and bulb, which he hangs over a beam to provide some feeble light. He gathers the children at the end of school for a Bible story. Remember David, he tells them, who started as a humble shepherd boy and finished as a king.
That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.
At William Penn Primary School in Horsham, England, eleven-year-old Judith is a trained peer counselor who guides other children through the process of finding a just solution to conflicts on the playground. The school’s seventy-five pupils are all released for recess at the same time, from the four-year-olds to the twelve-year-olds, and they invent infinite games to provide excuses to run back and forth while a group of eight- and nine-year-olds assembles to practice the maypole dance.
Three children pull Judith away from kicking a football. One is crying. There’s been a disagreement about using the swing.
“What happened?” Judith asks, and then, “How were each of you feeling?” When they need it, she guides them to feeling words: angry, lonely, envious, betrayed.
“What needs to happen to make it right?” The children generate their own solution and dash back to the swings. Judith lines up to return to fifth grade math.
That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.
At two-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon, I’m halfway between nowhere and North Carolina. My bus pulls over on the side of the highway. This is sometimes an indication of calamity and sometimes an indication that the driver needs to pee. He disembarks—not a promising sign—and reboards barking orders: EVERYONE OFF, IMMEDIATELY!
When all of us are off and well clear, a few minutes pass, and then the driver makes an announcement only audible to the six people nearest him, but through the crowd like a game of telephone, we learn that our fuel is leaking. We’ll be here for awhile. It’s not a bad side of the road, as roadsides go, wide and well back from traffic and reasonably clean. So, once I’m sure an explosion’s unlikely, I lay down and go to sleep. Many others do the same.
An hour later, I’ve finished my nap and have stretched out on my back to watch the sky. Two passengers hitchhike. The police appear, and I watch them curiously, wondering how they intend to be helpful; they firmly request that we not litter, get back in their cars, and drive away. Another hour passes by. It’s now four-thirty.
It’s also getting hot. At first, this experience was odd but not unpleasant. Now, it’s becoming uncomfortable, and our spirits are not lifted when the driver announces that the company won’t send a new bus until they’re sure they can’t fix this one, but the mechanic has not yet appeared, and when he does appear, if he can’t fix the bus, it will take at least an hour after that to get a new one. Among us are a toddler and two women who are fairly elderly. They’re being good sports, but there’s an end to their physical capacity.
That’s when Lucy pulls over.
At first I’m confused. Who is this person? She pulls over, and she opens up her backseat, and she’s unloading granola bars and bags of chips and two dozen bottles of water. Did she happen to be coming from a grocery store? No—she passed us, took the next exit, went shopping, and then returned to make her delivery. We thank her in at least three languages. She disappears as suddenly as she came.
After Lucy leaves, the mechanic arrives. He can fix the bus but didn’t bring the parts he needs. Which means the bus is “fixable” and the company won’t be sending a new one. The granola bars have taken off the edge, but it’s a whole new thing when Lucy comes back, this time with two dozen pepperoni pizzas!
We spread out across the grass and feast, plumbers and computer programmers, toddlers and grandfathers, Puerto Rican and Korean, hip hop and jazz. I take Lucy aside and ask her who she is and why she did this.
“I believe that when people don’t get enough kindness, what they’re left with is fear, and fear becomes hate. So when I get the chance, I put kindness in the world.”
That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.
Do you hear in Michael’s story his gift of service?
Do you hear in Judith’s story her gift of healing?
Do you hear in Lucy’s story her gifts of mercy and prophesy?
And each minister needs the support and the guidance of a group of people. Michael has his home church in Kenya, plus the church that he serves as a missionary. Judith has a staff of teachers and her classmates and a Quaker board of governors. And Lucy—I don’t know who Lucy has, but I hope she has her own covenant people.
Sometimes, when I travel among Friends, I get questions about ministry. I find that talking about ministry is part of the ministry. There is a sacred practice reemerging among us, and we, collectively, don’t always know how to respond. We have a lot of old tools to fall back on: travel minutes, recording in the ministry, an understanding of ministers and elders. We have newer traditions that are working well in some cases: anchor committees, faithfulness groups, retreat centers, courses of study. None of us is quite sure how all of this works in the 21st century.
What’s especially interesting to me is that more than half of the questions I hear aren’t really questions about travel in the ministry, at least insofar as they’re not questions about the minister. They’re really questions for my meeting. “How did Fifteenth Street write your travel minute? How do they stay in touch with you? Do they offer financial support? What kinds of questions did they ask when you started talking about this? Do they ask you to report to them? Do you have a clearness committee there? What exactly is a support committee? Have they talked about recording you in the ministry? Is all of this stuff written down somewhere?”
Friends, I ask you, if your meeting is engaged in supporting ministry, if you’re working on this in any way as a living tradition, even if you’re doing it haltingly, even if you think you’re doing it badly, please reach out to other meetings who are also stumbling through it. You do not have to figure this out by yourselves. This is why we are placed in a covenant people, why the whole Religious Society of Friends is a covenant people. We have lessons to learn from one another.
And not just about ministry. If you’re working on loving your neighborhood community, please reach out to Kalamazoo. If you’re working on gardening, talk to Manchester. If you’re experiencing a shortage of humor, send a line to your Friends in Wilmington. This is why we have each other. And it’s easier than ever before. We have so many ways to communicate.
Not long ago, I was traveling in Britain Yearly Meeting, and I took a photograph of a cool activity that I discovered on a bulletin board at a Quaker school there. Three weeks later, a Friend working on the children’s program at Britain Yearly Meeting—a Friend that I had literally never met—said “thanks for posting that on Instagram; I adapted it for our opening worship with the kids.” I don’t even know how she saw it. Did somebody share it?
During the same time period, a seventeen-year-old in Philadelphia wrote to me and asked whether she might volunteer at Ramallah Friends School in Palestine. Among other things, she said that her parents were nervous and wondered whether there was a book they could read, something that would tell them what the school was really like. I knew exactly the title that she needed, and I posted a query on Facebook with an image of the book and asking whether anyone in Philly had a copy they could lend. It took about twenty minutes, and again, the Friend who came through was a Friend I’d never met.
But also in the last three weeks, I met a woman who told me a story about the one and only Quaker meeting she had ever attended. When I first walked into the room with her, she was talking so fast that her words were spilling one over the other. She couldn’t stop talking. She couldn’t leave any space. So I listened. I just listened. And eventually, she told me about that Quaker meeting, where she got up and went to coffee hour and several different Friends said things to her that were deeply hurtful. And she never went back.
She had to tell me this story about three times before she was able to stop, to make space for an answer. She had been carrying this for years.
I apologized. Because the people who hurt her—they were my people, and I’m responsible for them.
This is also covenant.
Sometimes I feel like we’re all, collectively, standing in the parking lot with the three Mr. Jenkinses. There’s the real Mr. Jenkins, and then there are these multiples, these imposters. There’s the one that’s nice and friendly and accommodating and all chocolate cupcakes. There’s another that’s rules and processes and totally unyielding. And there’s the third that’s genuine, present, not simple, often unpleasant, and absolutely solid and real.
Which Mr. Jenkins will we Name?
Which Religious Society of Friends will we Name?
Some of us came into Quakerism without any understanding of covenant. We had no idea. Nobody told us this. And it’s not necessarily what everybody wants. Let’s be fair about this; we do not, as a practice, throughout the Religious Society of Friends, have a conversation about covenant people and the reality of that experience with those who come along to enter our fellowship. So when we begin to explore the idea, it feels to many among us like shifting sands.
Are we a community that’s just warm and fuzzy? Music. Laughter. Cupcakes. Getting together once a week or a little more frequently, enjoying the community, feeling very safe. Never delving too far into spiritual gifts or ministry or transformation. That’s too much. We don’t really need all that.
Or are we the type of community that’s rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures? Totally unyielding, with absolute clarity about what we can expect. This committee meets on second Tuesdays. That handbook page will be altered six months from now, after its second reading, provided the semicolon is in the right place. And occasional crisis bonding. But if we lean on Quaker process, we know we’ll get through it.
Is this who we are? Are we warm and fuzzy and safe? Are we methodical and rule-bound and predictable? Or are we the third Mr. Jenkins—the one that’s not always necessarily likeable, that’s fully present, that’s genuine, that’s a real relationship, even if it’s not always one we enjoy?
Are we ready to Name ourselves as a covenant people? That particular existence—that relationship with God—is our greatest collective gift. Will we Claim it? Will we Consecrate ourselves, rededicate ourselves, to the will of God? Will we Develop our being as a covenant people? Will we Exercise the gift, returning to the commitment, the communal discernment, the faithfulness, again and again?
And will we Receive the fruits of this? Will we pray that all creation can Receive those fruits?
“[They look] like sun when it comes through a crystal. They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When you get to heaven, you’ll see . . .”
One night, in that favorite moment of mine in Archipelago, back in 2002, the lights had just dimmed around Nina and Nadya, and Nina had just begun these beautiful words. I heard music. My first thought was that something was happening in another theatre. There were five theatres in the building, and sometimes we had bleed-through. I got on the radio to my house manager. “Do you hear that music?” I asked him. “Is there a choral concert happening upstairs?”
He assured me that he didn’t hear anything, but the music got louder. It was singing, what sounded like hundreds of voices. How could he not hear this music? Through my headset, I asked the sound technician, who was sitting in the audience. “That music,” I said. “Is it bleeding through to the theatre? Do you hear it? Is the audience hearing it?”
And first the sound technician, then the light board operator, then the crew backstage assured me: no music. Nobody heard any music.
Nobody heard it but me.
Angels. That’s what I know it was. It was God saying, “I’m here. Pay attention. I’m speaking.”
“When you go to heaven, you’ll see . . . they’ll rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings. How they’ll rejoice to see you. Then they’ll carry you through the clouds on their shoulders and place you at God’s feet. And you will live with him forever and be happy.”
God is here. We are at God’s feet. So what are we going to do next?