Category Archives: Message Transcripts

Stretch

This is the full text of the Carey Lecture offered to Baltimore Yearly Meeting on August 6, 2022. Because it was an hour-long lecture, it’s nearly 8500 words. A video recording may be available in the future, and if so, I’ll link to it here as well.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I spent seven months in a cat’s apartment. Her person was stranded in Europe, and I needed a place to be, so I wound up moving in with this cat in the West Village of New York City.

Because I knew I’d be there for several months, I retrieved my giant teddy bear from my storage unit. Isaiah is about as tall as me. He’s soft and squishy and a lovely companion but lives in a storage unit by Columbus Circle because I don’t have a permanent home anymore. I’m on the road full-time traveling in ministry, and a five-foot teddy bear is not suited to a nomadic lifestyle.

Juniper the cat loved Isaiah the teddy bear, and Isaiah might have also been fond of Juniper. They snuggled a lot. Isaiah spent nearly all his time lying in bed, and I would often find Juniper with him, massaging his arms and his tummy with her little claws. Sharp little claws. Then she would snuggle down in his armpit for a nap. It was the kind of sweet that might require insulin.

One day, I made the bed with Isaiah under the covers rather than over. Teddy bear on the bottom, sheet on top, blanket over that. I’m sure that he was very warm, but Juniper did not approve of this arrangement. I know because she pestered me endlessly. I was trying to work on my laptop, and Junie was tugging at my pantleg, jumping on the desk, sitting on the keyboard, meowing, howling, butting her head directly into my chin. I finally got up to see what the problem was. I followed her into the bedroom, where she hopped on the bed, poked at the blanket, and turned around to stare at me accusingly.

What I find interesting about this story is that Juniper could have just laid down on top of the blankets. Isaiah, underneath, would not have been any less soft. But she would not permit anything to come in between them. Nothing would do but direct contact, literal pressing into one another, changing the shape of each other’s bodies.

That’s committed relationship.

The world is desperate for committed, vulnerable relationship. This is the first step in transforming humanity—especially committed, vulnerable relationship across big differences, much wider than the gulf between a kitty cat and a teddy bear. It’s the way in which hearts are changed.

But despite the fact that we live in a world that desperately needs committed, vulnerable relationship, that kind of commitment isn’t encouraged. Instead, what I see is a lot of encouragement to cut ties, move on, decline to be harmed, decline to waste time. If a relationship is painful, why stay? Better to walk away. We don’t owe anybody anything.

Before I go on, I want to be very clear: sometimes, to sever relationship is a genuinely Godly response. When a relationship is abusive—that is, when a power differential exists and the person with more power is using that power for continuous or repeated harm—then yes, the person with less power is rightly led to walk away. And the rest of us, those who are bystanders, should be intervening.

But most relationships, even if they are painful, are not abusive. And there are very real implications to regularly cutting ties and walking away. 

The 21st century makes it relatively easy to separate ourselves from painful relationships. Unlike our ancestors, many of us will move from one town to another multiple times. This makes our networks of human relationships wider than our ancestors’ were, although shallower. I know so many people that it’s very easy not to engage with some of them. If somebody bothers me, I can often just let the relationship die. 

Electronic communities also make this easy. On the internet, we can literally choose to be in relationship with any of the world’s eight billion people. We could choose to associate with some of those eight billion people who are very different from us—who make us feel uncomfortable—but we generally don’t. We often look for online communities with whom we feel affinity—either people we like or people with whom we can share our commonly held anger about something. Generally speaking, people use the internet more often to vent fury about or to someone than to engage directly in vulnerable relationship with the person or people with whom we feel discomfort. We want to put blankets between ourselves and the teddy bear.

Even if we stay in one place and never move, chances are good we can avoid uncomfortable relationships. Most people in the 21st century live in places where the people directly around them more or less share similar perspectives on the world. We might dislike someone in our community because they’re passive-aggressive or because they repeatedly leave dirty dishes in the kitchen, but even then, we’re likely similar in a lot of ways politically and culturally, which means we reinforce one another’s preconceptions much more than we challenge one another’s assumptions.

Why does this matter? Why do I say the world is desperate for committed relationship? Because engaging in uncomfortable relationships is how we change. And it is not possible to grow without change. If we do not engage in difficult relationships, if we do not allow ourselves to be uncomfortable, we stagnate. We grow when we commit to relationships with people who provoke us, challenge us, require more of us. Sometimes they do this by poking us repeatedly with their sharp kitty claws. This is not pleasant, but it is an opportunity for change.

One more thing: even when we do commit to being in relationship across differences, like by joining a club or inviting an uncle with uncomfortable ideologies to dinner, it is possible to be in the presence of another person without being vulnerable to growth and change, which is also putting a blanket between the cat and the teddy bear. It is possible to put up our shields of indifference or anger, to simply decide that we will not be changed by this encounter, and when we do that, we generally are not changed. And neither is the person with whom we are engaging. Relationship without vulnerability is not genuine relationship. We can’t quite touch each another.

A lot of times, when I talk with groups about engaging vulnerably across differences, people hear this like I’m suggesting that we should spend more time talking with interesting, diverse people whose ideas we respect. And that’s a fantastic thing to do, but it’s not the entirety of what I’m talking about. I’m also talking about engaging with people we struggle to respect, with people whose ideas or behaviors we find distressing.

I’m talking about people like Joe. I met Joe years ago at a Friends’ gathering, and we were in a small group together. When I shared with the group my discernment about being called into ministry, his initial response was to say, jovially, “I kind of want to slap you upside the head. You’re a pretty girl; you’re gonna want to get married in a few years. You don’t need to worry about all this.” Yes—this was a Quaker gathering. I haven’t met very many Quakers who would say that, but they’re not non-existent.

Sometimes people say painful or challenging things to us that are right. Sometimes people say painful things to us that are wrong. In Joe’s case, he was wrong. What he said was distressing. And some of my perspectives were painful and distressing to him. For example, the way I talked about the Bible as a flawed human record of a community’s best efforts at relationship with God. The way I insisted that non-Christians have just as much connection to God as Christians do, that we have to make space for multiple vocabularies when engaging with the divine. I know that distressed him. But he didn’t leave the group. And neither did I. By the end of the week, I had learned something from Joe’s absolute faith and his persistence in relationship with Christ. And I hope very much that he had learned something from me.

I’m grateful for what Friend Amanda Kemp says about this kind of encounter. To be clear, when she talks about holding space for transformation, she is specifically talking about conversations about race. She says the first thing we can do, when we are in a one-on-one situation and someone says something that is really wrong and harmful, is to check in with ourselves: are we tired, hungry, hurt? If so, now is not the time for this conversation. That doesn’t mean it’s never the time for the conversation, that we should never again speak to this person; it just means not now. 

Or are we stable, grounded? If so, we can set the intention of showing unconditional love to the person. Ask a question, or just make eye contact. Listen. Then, after you’ve listened, projecting unconditional love—just ask: “Would you like to hear what it’s like for me?” The person-to-person connection in the presence of unconditional love—that is making space for transformation.

We do not have to do this every time. It’s okay to step away in moments when we’re not grounded enough to do it. But we can’t walk away forever.

When I was growing up, my parents explicitly told me to resist engaging with people whose behaviors or ideas were different from ours. They called these people “bad influences.” Avoiding bad influences makes a certain amount of sense when we’re talking about a child. Children often can’t set reasonable boundaries in difficult relationships and are therefore inherently in more danger. But I see so many adults who practice the same kind of avoidance. We can explain our avoidance behaviors really well as something that sounds virtuous.

Those of us who come from a conservative culture may recognize this narrative: 

“We protect ourselves and our children from ungodly influences because ungodly influences are dangerous. People who aren’t part of our group may or may not be bad people, but they are certainly under the influence of evil, and God calls us not to expose ourselves to that evil, which may hurt us or lead us astray. We can be polite, and we can certainly testify to the truth about God that we know, but ultimately, we keep ourselves separate in order to maintain our purity before God. God has called us to be in the world, not of the world.”

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Those of us who come from a liberal culture similarly separate ourselves from the broader world when we use specialized vocabularies and concepts drawn from academia as the only acceptable way to address racism and other forms of real and serious discrimination. From the inside, we may not realize the degree to which we become bubble cultures, but the effect is similar to the effect of in-the-world-not-of-the-world: we are keeping away, or pushing away, outsiders rather than making space for transformation.

Publicly articulating either of these narratives—and both conservative and liberal communities do make these narratives very clear to those outside their communities—preemptively prevents anyone even somewhat not-like-us from expecting to be received into vulnerable mutual relationship. It pre-signals our intention not to be changed by the other and makes it clear that the other must change to be more like us before they can engage meaningfully with us…which, of course, prevents most change.

And all of us, regardless of background, may recognize this narrative:

“Engaging with the other is a fundamental threat. If we do—that is, if we listen deeply, commit to staying connected, compromise publicly, or empathize—then we are implying that we endorse the other’s point of view, and in fact, that point of view is deeply wrong and inherently harmful, and therefore, we cannot engage in vulnerable relationship, because if we do so, we will be complicit in their wrongdoing.”

I’ll say again—that last narrative, about not compromising our values by engaging in relationship, is one that I’ve heard articulated by people from wildly different theological, cultural, and sociological points of view. Sometimes this narrative comes from a genuine desire not to signal approval of things that are wrong. This is not an unwarranted concern. Despite the fact that most issues are enormously complex, we live in a sound-bite world that tends to judge people’s positions on the first four words that come out of their mouths, to say nothing of taking quotes out of context. So we know that anytime we acknowledge complexity and try to work through it, we’re risking some of our listeners curtailing what we’ve said and then making inaccurate judgments based on the abbreviated version.

To make this even more complicated, we often fear that if we do appear to signal approval of things that are wrong, our own community will disapprove of us, judge us, berate us, and possibly even ostracize us. This also is not an unwarranted fear. It happens. It happens because our society conditions people to push away anyone who makes us uncomfortable. And we know this, so we don’t want to risk becoming the uncomfortable person around people we love.

 But when we accept these narratives—when we deliberately refuse to commit to vulnerable relationships with the other, whoever that may be, no matter what our reason is—we eliminate all hope for actual change. There will be no change in us, no change in the other, no change in the wider community, and no change in the world.

Sometimes, refusing to engage in vulnerable relationship, becoming absolutists, declining to bend can bring what temporarily seems like success. We can change laws. We can change social norms. We can force people into particular behaviors or scare people into not expressing certain ideas. But I don’t believe that’s God’s way.

Actual change means changing hearts. It means transformation in the presence of God. And God is not force, nor refusal to engage. The God I know is love. 

When I look back at the times when my heart was changed—and this is something that has happened a lot in my lifetime—I can trace every change to demonstrations of love. Love is not the same thing as niceness; sometimes love means speaking hard truth. But always, I have been changed by love. I have never had a significant change of heart because somebody punished me, nor because somebody refused to speak to me, nor because somebody logically explained to me exactly why my deepest-held beliefs were wrong. Have you? I changed because people I encountered, people who I’d been taught to identify as other, one way or another showed me love. No single act of love was so world-shattering as to cause an immediate change of heart. That works in storybooks, but not very often in real life. No—the actual changes of heart, the kinds of transformations that are of God, have always come because of an accumulation of many small demonstrations of love.

But if that’s true—if genuine changes of heart take time, require the accumulation of many small demonstrations of love—then we are unlikely to ever see the moment in which they take place. We are unlikely to have a single interaction with someone in which we choose to demonstrate love, rather than refuse to engage, and immediately see the fruits of that choice. This only works if we have faith that God’s way of love will ultimately be effective, because frankly, we will rarely be rewarded by the opportunity to witness its effectiveness. We can only keep our hearts open and keep choosing vulnerable relationship.

This is why I say that I hope Joe learned something from me. I know I learned something from him. But real transformation takes a long time. I wouldn’t have had much chance of seeing it in the course of the four days we were together.

And that’s individual change. How much longer does change take on the scale of whole societies? There is a reason why the most significant societal changes in the history of the world—the kinds of changes that have to do with peace and equality and justice—have taken decades if not centuries. It’s because, if we’re talking about Godly transformation of a whole community, we can’t just change laws. We have to change hearts.

Changing laws is important. Sometimes, changing a law has the immediate effect of stopping systemic harm. That’s very much of God. But ultimately, changing laws isn’t enough. If we haven’t changed hearts, the law will change back again. And the only way to change hearts is slowly, one heart at a time, in the context of loving, vulnerable, often painful relationship. Leaders of movements can speak and act prophetically, can encourage and empower believers, can build networks, can articulate the exact change needed, but with a few exceptions, leaders of movements do not, themselves, change massive numbers of individual hearts. This is one reason why many leaders of movements and many prophets don’t live to see the fruits of their faithfulness. Because transforming massive numbers of hearts takes a really, really, really long time—the cumulative result of many small acts of love in the context of committed and often painful relationship.

Many Quaker communities (and probably others too, but I’ve witnessed this among Quakers) have found ways to trick ourselves into feeling as though we’ve experienced really big community transformation. We do it by passing a minute. We get a group of people together, often but not always at a yearly meeting gathering, and we take up a concern that we feel genuinely led to hold in worship. But we know we have a time frame: beginning to end, this is going to take a week. Or three days. Whatever might be the length of our sessions. We take up the concern, we hold it in worship, we engage with one another in vulnerable relationship, we become awash in emotions and stress hormones, and right at the last minute, we find ourselves able to approve a minute. This has a predictable response: the abrupt resolution of stress triggers a cascade of brain chemicals that not only brings euphoria but also a feeling of group bonding. We’ve done something. Our community has been transformed.

But have we, though?

What community has been transformed? The community of people who came to sessions? Isn’t the point of a yearly meeting to engage in corporate discernment as an entire yearly meeting community? And what do we mean by transformed? Did we actually change anything when we passed this minute? Will it alter our behavior in the future? Will it cause any transformation in the world?

There are times when we take up a difficult concern and don’t successfully pass the minute by the end of the week. Then we have to figure out some kind of messy way forward instead, like asking local meetings or committees to continue the work. This absolutely does not feel as good. But it’s probably more real. Is God calling us to pass a minute? Or is God calling us all to be transformed in our hearts? Because the second thing takes more than a week, especially when the whole community isn’t present.

Working toward legitimate change, not false change, can be incredibly discouraging. How can we possibly stay motivated to engage in something when we almost never see the results? There’s nothing wrong with needing motivation. We are human beings. We crave to see change more immediately. We can deal with this by celebrating the smaller, but legitimate, successes. “We have affirmed a need to continue engaging with this concern” is a legitimate success, as long as we mean it and we follow through. We also need sources of group bonding that are not based in passing the big minute. You know what else triggers group bonding chemicals in our brains? Laughter, physical exertion, hugging, and chocolate cupcakes. All very important to ongoing committed relationships—every bit as important as intentional vulnerability.

So. First piece of tonight’s lecture: the world needs genuine commitment to vulnerable relationship across differences, because this is what leads to transformation.

Second piece: the world is in desperate need of deep listening to God. We face problems that cannot be solved by human wisdom. If they could be, we’d have solved them by now. Our most brilliant thinkers, and our most loving healers, have spent centuries considering racism, warfare, hunger, justice, poverty. Now we face climate change too. 

We know some solutions to these problems. We know them because there have always been faithful people—deep listeners to Spirit from many religious traditions and none, who have used their gifts from God to develop innovative solutions. But we haven’t managed to implement most of these solutions. Somehow, we can’t make people see the answers, can’t make people want to act. Not enough people, and not people who have enough power. Our knowledge and processes simply haven’t been sufficient so far.

What does it mean to listen deeply to God? Quakers have a unique understanding of this. We believe that the deepest listening requires community. We can listen alone, but we hear better together. Friends know experimentally that relying entirely on one’s internal connection to Spirit, that of God in our beings, can lead us astray. What I hear from God I hear imperfectly. I hear it through my ego, through my limited experience. I interpret divine promptings using the language I have and the culture that has shaped me. That’s never the wholeness of God.

This is one reason why corporate discernment matters so much. It’s because the community can challenge our preconceptions, can open us up a little bit more, can get closer to the wholeness of what God is expressing. The community can hold me accountable when my ego is shouting more loudly than Spirit. The community can stop me from outrunning my Guide. That more clear listening to God is the first reason why Friends engaged in the corporate discernment historically, and it’s the reason I hear Friends discuss most often. But it’s not the only reason we need corporate discernment.

Here’s the other reason: people who have not engaged in the discernment over a particular concern are often not able to accept the results. Suppose that one Friend in my meeting was absent on Sunday. Let’s call her Lucia. In Lucia’s absence, the meeting engaged in some tricky discernment during business meeting. We spent nearly two hours in deep worship, listening hard to God and to each other, and in the process of doing so, we moved quite a distance from what we originally believed the way forward would be. Having come to clarity, the meeting is now prepared to act.

Lucia, however, is not. It’s possible that we would have come to a different conclusion had Lucia been present—maybe she would have brought something to the discernment that no one else could—but let’s assume for the moment that that’s not the case. If Lucia had been in the room, we would have come to the exact same conclusion. But Lucia did not come with us on the journey. We know that discernment, that Quakerism itself, is a deeply experimental practice. Lucia does not know, the way the rest of us do, that this unexpected way forward is correct. Because she wasn’t present for the formative experiences that opened us to it.

This is a mirror of what I was talking about before. Transformation comes from the accumulation of many demonstrations of love. Corporate discernment is one form of that. Each act of speaking and listening is, in itself, a demonstration of love; the accumulation of those leads to transformation during the process of listening to God.

Think of what happens when we identify a difficult concern, ask a committee to discern on our behalf, and then don’t hear from that committee for a whole year, at the end of which it reports back. How easily do we accept the group’s recommendations? It’s not about whether the committee was or wasn’t faithful. It’s about the fact that the act of corporate discernment provides, in and of itself, the necessary preparation and transformation that readies us to accept the results.

God’s way forward—God’s solution to a problem—might or might not be supportable by logic, but logic in itself is generally not sufficient to make it obvious or acceptable. This is part of the difference between human knowledge and wisdom received from the divine. God makes things known in a way that engages our brains, hearts, and bodies. The act of discernment can’t be skipped if we expect to fully understand the answer. Christ has come to teach His people for Himself. He has not come to teach some other group of people who will then let us know what Christ has said.

We face problems that cannot be solved by human wisdom. And God’s wisdom is only fully accessible if we listen deeply as a community. We Quakers cannot go out tomorrow and convince the whole world to participate in corporate discernment with us, and we shouldn’t, but we can and must commit to doing it ourselves.

Corporate discernment is a miracle every time it happens. I remember my first ever Quaker business meeting, when I made the mistake of sitting in a corner from which I could not easily escape. There was something contentious on the agenda, and people were shouting and bursting into tears. I wanted nothing more in the world than to be somewhere else than in that room as the meeting went into hour three, but I couldn’t leave without climbing over at least twelve people. Eventually, the group did come to a resolution, and I watched mouth agape when—after the requisite end-of-gathering announcements—two people from opposite sides of the issue stood up and hugged one another. I had no experience with that kind of relationship. I did not understand it. I did not know yet what God can do.

But miraculous as it is, this kind of corporate discernment in a local meeting, it’s not the fulness of what corporate discernment can be. Friends have also organized ourselves into larger groups, such as quarterly and yearly meetings, for a reason. It’s because we are called to stretch for more. We are called to stretch for corporate discernment with people we do not even know.

As I’ve already said, genuine corporate discernment in a group as large as a yearly meeting takes a lot of time. The most serious, most prophetic changes can take years or decades, however long it takes for the communal heart of our group to transform. When it takes that long and the harm of delayed transformation is real, it can be almost impossible to keep trusting each other. And corporate discernment requires trust in the community.

Trust is essential because we do not seek consensus. We seek sense of the meeting, which is a different thing. If we legitimately believe that we’re called to corporate discernment because the community’s deep listening prevents the individual from going astray, then we are affirming that we trust the community’s discernment over our own. We are deciding to trust the community’s discernment over our own. 

If the group seeks consensus, that means we won’t move forward until everyone believes that the decision we have identified is correct. Consensus does not require much trust, just patience. The community seeking consensus will never do something with which I do not agree. I will never be asked to affirm anything not in harmony with my individual judgment of what’s best.

Sense of the meeting is quite a different thing. When we are finding the sense of the meeting, we are each responsible for articulating what God has given us: here is how I understand God’s will, here is how you understand God’s will, here is how a third Friend understands God’s will, and so forth. Then we all step back and look at the pieces. Sometimes the pieces fit together in a way that points to a decision with which I do not agree. But if we are finding sense of the meeting, then it’s my responsibility to affirm the sense of the meeting even when I don’t believe it’s right. Because I trust the community’s discernment over my own.

When my individual discernment differs from what other people are expressing as theirs, four things need to happen:

First, I must articulate my individual discernment. I have to speak up. That is my responsibility. If I keep it to myself, I am not being faithful. The community needs my piece. The community needs everybody’s piece.

Second, the community must listen to me. That is the community’s responsibility. Not just listen meaning they have to be quiet while I talk but listen meaning they need to deeply consider what I’ve said. Not be dismissive, not be impatient because my ministry is inconvenient or because I am historically unlikeable, but actually listen. Engage vulnerably. Be willing to be changed. No blanket between the cat and the teddy bear.

Third, I must affirm the sense of the meeting once it is clear. Sense of the meeting is not majority rule; we don’t go with the thing that the most people said. Sense of the meeting is stepping back and looking at everybody’s piece and seeing which direction they, together, are pointing. Sometimes, when we do that, it becomes obvious that the thing only one person said is actually the right way forward. Other times, the sense of the meeting really is what the most people said. And still other times, it’s something nobody thought to articulate in the beginning. But eventually, sense of the meeting becomes clear. This clarity happens in God’s time, which is sometimes slow but is not always slow. But when it becomes clear, I must affirm it. Even if my individual discernment still tells me it’s wrong. That’s the difference between sense of the meeting and consensus.

And fourth, we all—the community and me—must remain open to the possibility that there is still continuing revelation to come. The question at hand may or may not be resolved once and for all. But I will continue to affirm the sense of the meeting until I am absolutely certain God’s asking me to do otherwise. And in the meantime, if we have genuinely erred in discernment, chances are good that someone else will be led to ask the question again.

If any one of these four steps does not happen—if I do not speak, if the community does not listen, if I do not affirm and uphold sense of the meeting, or if we are not collectively committed to the possibility of continuing revelation—then there has been a rupture in trust. And corporate discernment requires trust. 

A rupture in trust requires transparent healing. Among Friends, unaddressed ruptures in trust is what leads to groups splitting and individuals leaving. To be clear, individual Friends sometimes leave our community for other reasons, even perfectly good, Spirit-led reasons, like a call to another path. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it does not indicate anybody’s failure. But when someone leaves, or when a group splits, because of a rupture in trust, that is a community failure. 

The failure is not the rupture itself. We are imperfect people. Ruptures in trust are always going to happen. The failure is refusing to address it and heal it. A mistake is just a mistake; refusal to address it is unfaithful.

What does it look like to heal a rupture in trust? It looks like communicating, naming what happened, and being willing to engage vulnerably. It looks like repentance: asking God to search us with God’s Light, accepting what we are shown about our shortcomings, asking God for help in changing, and directly addressing the harm we’ve caused. 

Going back, summing up. I’ve tried to articulate two big pieces so far. First piece: the world needs genuine commitment to vulnerable relationship across differences, because this is what leads to transformation. Second piece: the world is in desperate need of deep listening to God, and Friends understand that deep listening to God implies community, more specifically sense of the meeting, which requires trust.

Here’s the question that leads me to: why do we Friends consistently act like the call to corporate discernment stops when we get to the level of yearly meetings? Why are we not discerning the will of God across the entire Religious Society of Friends?

We Friends divided ourselves into yearly meetings because it was sensible to do so. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, we couldn’t communicate with any kind of frequency across long distances. Understanding the importance of corporate discernment, especially in groups larger than the local meeting, Friends divided themselves into geographically-defined yearly meeting communities. But I don’t believe this was ever intended to establish us as subcommunities that were essentially separate for the purpose of discerning God’s call. I don’t believe Friends anticipated that functioning separately would cause our yearly meetings to drift further and further apart theologically and culturally.

But this has happened, almost inevitably, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, our yearly meetings tend to be culturally distinct from one another. And the ways in which we hear God’s call is always influenced by our culture. For another, each genuine process of corporate discernment takes us through a community transformation. And if each yearly meeting has different community transformations, then over time, we will become progressively more distinct from one another.

There is nothing explicitly stopping us from engaging in corporate discernment across yearly meetings except that we’ve set up systems that don’t assume we’re going to. We don’t generally send minutes to other yearly meetings to ask for their continued discernment; once we affirm something as a yearly meeting, we stop. We don’t assume that part of our corporate discernment process about really important things—the kinds of things that impact all of humanity and sometimes all of God’s creation—will be sitting in worship with Friends from other branches of Quakerism. And many of us would not be sure we’d want to.

Today, in the twenty-first century, the yearly meetings of the Religious Society of Friends are so radically different from one another that we find ourselves in familiar societal patterns, the same societal patterns that are ripping apart humanity more generally. It’s all the ways we are tempted to resist the other: declining to engage in painful relationships, engaging but refusing to be vulnerable, and prioritizing ideological purity over making space for transformation. Theologically and culturally liberal meetings and theologically and culturally conservative meetings and even theologically and culturally moderate meetings—we have some of those—aren’t even sure that we want to talk to each other or share the same denominational name. Can we imagine a world in which we are prepared to trust the discernment of the whole Religious Society of Friends over the discernment of our own yearly meeting? What would the sense of the meeting of the entire Religious Society of Friends even be like? If we collectively decided to ask, “What is God’s call for us as an entire Religious Society,” what would the answer be?

In not doing this, we’re missing an enormous opportunity. We’re missing the experience of Godly transformation across differences, and we’re missing the numbers of people needed to act together to impact the world. Each of our yearly meetings by itself is so tiny. Not so when we look at all Friends, everywhere.

If we tried this—if we really committed to corporate discernment to find God’s call for us as an entire people—that would be a demonstration of building the kingdom of God on earth. Because the Religious Society of Friends, taken as a whole, is almost as diverse as the entire human population of this planet.

Today, there are a total of about 400,000 Friends in eighty-seven countries, probably a little more than that. We exist on every continent except Antarctica. About 90% of us worship in pastoral, programmed meetings, with songs and Scripture and prepared messages, often but not always incorporating silent, expectant worship. But the other 10% of us only practice silent, expectant worship. Close to 95% of us are Christian, though that 95% would not have agreement on the definition of the word Christian, nor a unform understanding of what it means to follow Christ. About 5-6% of us would describe ourselves as non-Christian, and that 5-6% would not have any agreement on a label to describe themselves collectively. There are Quakers of every race and many more Quakers of color than white Quakers. A plurality, if not a majority, of Friends are African, although within Africa, Friends are most likely to describe themselves using their national or tribal descriptors, not “African” in general. We worship in literally dozens of languages, and our cultures are so different from one another that we don’t even think the same way, even when we do share a language or have the benefit of translators.

The majority of Quakers are poor. A significant number of us are so poor that we are food insecure. Others of us are so wealthy that we wonder what we will do with all our money. Many of us live in places where there is enough violence that we have a good chance of encountering it personally; we or someone in our family is likely to be either a victim or a perpetrator of armed violence. Other Friends cannot imagine living in a society with guns. Some of us travel frequently, even across national boundaries, while others will never be able to do so for either political or economic reasons, and still others choose not to do so for cultural reasons. 

And within the context of Quakerism, we have an internal history of colonialism and imperialism. Some Quakers’ ancestors colonized or enslaved other Quakers’ ancestors. There are even significant numbers of Friends who had ancestors who were once colonized and later, a few generations down the line, colonized other Friends’ ancestors elsewhere.

If it weren’t for God, I would say that this group of people I’ve just described cannot possibly come to a sense of the meeting of God’s call for them. It’s a problem that can’t be solved by human wisdom. But we can come to a sense of the meeting—all of us, all the way around the world—and I know this experimentally, because we already have. Every Quaker community I have ever encountered affirms the innate value of every human being. Every Quaker community I have ever encountered shows evidence of testimonies of peace, justice, integrity, and equality. We are not in agreement about what these testimonies look like, how we live them in the world, but we affirm that peace, justice, integrity, and equality are of God. 

It’s a start. It’s a pretty good start.

Friends also agree that if we commit ourselves to God and listen deeply, we’ll be led. And we know that listening deeply presupposes listening in community. And being led—going through the process of corporate discernment—transforms our hearts. Individual hearts, and the collective hearts of communities. 

We also agree, or almost all of us do, that we belong to the same Religious Society and have a shared history. Most of us name ourselves as a people. Some of us believe we’re a covenant people. Traveling in the ministry has shown me that this gets us a seat at the table. Two Friends who are strangers will almost always be open to talking with each other, no matter how significant their differences may be.

Just talking, just treating each other with basic respect, is a step in the right direction. But it’s not the same as committing to corporate discernment in community. Many of us, maybe even most of us, are not prepared to do that in any genuine way. Corporate discernment requires trusting the community’s discernment more than our own. It requires vulnerability. It can’t be done in the absence of trust.

The Religious Society of Friends has a history of unaddressed, unhealed ruptures in trust.

We have a history of individuals or groups who did not speak when God prompted them to speak, who did not give their piece over to the community, who did not share what the Holy Spirit was giving them to help us find the truth, who chose instead to keep quiet out of fear or disapprove of the rest of us silently.

We have a history of communities who ignored, belittled, ridiculed, persecuted, or read out of meeting our dissenters when they did speak up. 

We have a history of individuals who refused to affirm the sense of the meeting even when it became clear, either leaving the community or standing in the way or pretending to approve and then behaving resentfully.

We have a history of communities that closed themselves to the possibility of continuing revelation, who refused to consider the possibility of being called to something new, who did not want to open up the hard questions yet again.

The first step to healing these ruptures is acknowledging that they happened. When have we refused to speak or refused to listen? When have we refused to affirm and uphold the sense of the meeting? When have we refused to remain open to continuing revelation? If we’re not sure, there are several good ways to find out. One is to place ourselves in God’s hands and ask God to search us and show us where we’ve failed. Another is to listen to people who tell us they’ve been hurt—and they do not always tell us with words. Another is to speak up when we ourselves have experienced a rupture in trust or when we’ve been part of causing one.

Then we repent. We express our sorrow to God. We affirm our intention not to repeat the same mistakes, and we act to heal the harm we have caused.

 Part of the healing process is to re-commit to our people. Refuse to be tempted by purity narratives that encourage us to turn away from each other and make us afraid to say what we believe to be true. Instead, insist on connection. No blanket between the cat and the teddy bear. No shields between us.

Next, default to empathy and demonstrate love. Truth—with love. As Amanda Kemp says, make space for transformation. God is love. The changing of hearts is most often the cumulative result of many unexpected acts of love. No group of Friends anywhere in the world, including ourselves, will change because someone punishes them, or refuses to speak them, or explains logically why they’re wrong. We change and grow because we and others are willing to engage vulnerably.

We also have some learning to do, if we’re going to reach for sense of the meeting among Friends all the way around the world. Cultural differences can’t be ignored. Some cultures build trust by working together while others build trust by talking about their families over cups of tea. Some cultures express disapproval by shouting harsh words while others express the same degree of disapproval with silence. Some cultures place the most important points of a speech at the beginning, others at the end, and others only imply the most important points and don’t say them at all. The Religious Society of Friends is a radically cross-cultural people. If we don’t learn about each other, we will absolutely misinterpret each other.

And lastly: assume that corporate discernment is the way forward. Decide to believe it is possible. Because we don’t have to be able to do it. Ultimately, God is the one Who does it.

What would it look like—the idea of committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends?

It would not look like jumping straight into worldwide Zoom meetings for corporate discernment. While it’s true that most Friends in most parts of the world have at least some access to international electronic connections, there is no single accessible electronic platform for everyone. Also, jumping straight into worldwide corporate discernment would mean skipping over healing. That’s literally not possible. We can’t do meaningful corporate discernment without also doing meaningful healing, which includes the practice of repentance.

It wouldn’t look like cross-cultural engagement in ways that feel glamorous or fascinating. A lot of Friends really enjoy connecting across wide cultural differences. But we need to remember that it’s just as important to engage with people from other meetings that are more similar to our own culturally but still very different in belief and practice. This is often harder to do because we do not have the distraction or pull of a culture we find exotic.

Committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends would not look like replicating white European and North American-designed systems in larger scale. Corporate discernment—the practice of listening deeply to God’s call in community—is valued throughout the Quaker world. But the specific procedures that support those practices are not universal. Corporate discernment happens radically differently from one country and culture to the next. I have been in international, cross-cultural corporate discernment situations in which we realized we had no common practices at all around clerking, recording minutes, discerning, deciding who would speak and when and for how long, or even deciding who would decide who would speak and when and for how long. This is to say nothing of literal translation from one language to another. Finding the ways of doing this in cross-cultural settings, cross-yearly meeting settings of any kind, is an act of faith, and it isn’t easy.

Committing to finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends would not look like repeating patterns of colonization. It would not look like any one group telling any other group what to do, and it especially would not look like people with colonizing ancestors giving orders to people with colonized ancestors.

It also would not look like majority rule, because sense of the meeting is not majority rule. It would not be simplified or abbreviated by leaving out people with inconvenient ministry. 

And it would not look like laying everything else aside in order to focus on this. Finding sense of the meeting for God’s call for the whole Religious Society of Friends is the sort of task that is so big it could easily take all of our energy, and we still couldn’t finish it—because it’s not the sort of task that you ever finish. Does any group of people ever finish finding God’s will for the community? Not in my experience. So it wouldn’t mean stopping all of our other faithful work…though there are certainly some less-faithful things it would be nice if we could stop doing.

What would it look like, then? What is the call for us, as individual Friends and as a whole Society?

Take existing opportunities to know each other across yearly meeting boundaries. Go ahead and register for that free hour-long international conversation that somebody invited you to. You’re unlikely to solve any problems of the world in that hour, but it’s a forum in which you can hold space for transformation.

Create more opportunities to know Friends who make us uncomfortable. Create such opportunities in many different ways so at least some will be accessible to everybody.

Emphasize travel in ministry, which was originally the circulatory system intended to keep yearly meetings from drifting apart. It was the way in which ideas were brought from one group to another so that we could engage in corporate discernment in multiple yearly meetings over the same transformative concerns.

Work together with Friends from other cultures and other parts of the world on projects where you already have agreement: care for families, love through bereavement, stewarding creation, education for all.

Refuse to withdraw from corporate discernment. When there have been ruptures in trust, we can name the ruptures in trust but refuse to give up. Commit to mutual vulnerability whenever possible.

Celebrate small successes to maintain our joy.

Be wary of false victories, the ways in which we sometimes convince ourselves that transformation has happened when, really, nobody’s heart has been changed. Remember that corporate discernment is a process and that the act of being part of that process is the very thing that prepares us to accept the results.

Recognize and resist the lies that tell us to disengage, to put up the shields, to become invulnerable. The lies that tell us the best way forward is to refuse to listen, to refuse to engage, to refuse to compromise, to become absolutists. These are lies, and they’re dangerous lies, because believing them directly prevents growth and transformation—our own, and everyone else’s, as well. 

We can practice engaging in vulnerable relationship every day, with Quakers and non-Quakers alike. But if we believe in the transformative power of corporate discernment, if we believe that listening to God across differences can change us, then we are also called to commit to finding sense of the meeting across the entire Religious Society of Friends. It’s not a modest call. But God will show us how to do it.

What will happen if we do? For one thing, we’ll be transformed. That’s what genuine corporate discernment does. It prepares us, often over a long period of time, for the acceptance of a way forward that we weren’t expecting and that we could not have possibly understood before we started. We become new people, a new community, the kind of community that’s capable of stepping forward into what God is asking us to do.

I do not know if, should we make this commitment, God will show us Friends how to solve racism and warfare and colonialism and poverty and climate change for the entire world. I kind of hope so. But I do know that if we make this commitment, God can show the world, through us—the 400,000 extraordinarily diverse people that we are—that it is possible to solve these beyond-human-wisdom problems. Ultimately, that was among the early insights of Quakerism, the fact that the world is not hopelessly broken. We do not have to wait for Jesus’s Second Coming to overcome the Fall in the Garden of Eden and rescue us from our utter depravity. If we are faithful, we can experience the kingdom of God—now. 

Sanctuary

This plenary message to New York Yearly Meeting, given in July of 2021, is also available for viewing on YouTube.

When I was little, I went to church with my family every Sunday, and in our church we had a room called the sanctuary.  This was the place where services were held.  The sanctuary had rules we had to abide by.  They weren’t written down anywhere.  But what we were told was that, in the sanctuary, we had to be “reverent,” and over time, we figured out what that meant.

Rule #1: No making noise, and if someone was funny, don’t laugh very hard.

Rule #2: No sitting on the floor, even though the benches were extremely uncomfortable.

Rule #3: Very little kids could play with quiet toys during worship, but as soon as you were about six years old, you were expected to “know better” and be still and listen.  That meant listening to a bunch of old people—these days, I would call them “adults,” but back then they were old people—drone on and on about how we’re all supposed to behave in everyday life.  Which I felt like I already knew, because the church of my childhood didn’t leave any doubts about dos and don’ts.  We never heard anyone tell us anything we didn’t pretty much know before because there wasn’t any space for questioning or creativity about the rules.

Rule #4: You had to wear your nicest clothes, which for me as a child included petticoats and dresses and itchy tights.  If your clothes were too stylish, they were probably inappropriate for the sanctuary.

Rule #5: Pianos and organs were allowed in the sanctuary, as were string instruments and woodwinds, with the exception of saxophones.  But there were no brass instruments and no percussion because these were too loud and might encourage us to—I’m not sure exactly what.  But when I was a kid, I definitely had the impression that they weren’t allowed because they might be too much fun.  In the sanctuary, we weren’t allowed to have any fun.

Years later, my friend Kathleen, who grew up in the same tradition that I did, told me that when she was little, she eventually decided there were two people named God.  One of them was the God her parents told her about at home, who loved her and knew her name and wanted her to be happy.  The other was the God who lived at church, who wanted her to be quiet and sit still and wear stupid dresses.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sanctuary.  That room of my childhood is the first place I learned the word.  It didn’t seem to have much to do with God.  And then, later, I learned about sanctuary in another sense, and while I don’t remember my first exposure to it, I remember pretty vividly the scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame—the Disney cartoon version—where Quasimodo carries Esmerelda up the bell tower and holds her in the air shouting, “Sanctuary!  Sanctuary!  Sanctuary!”

This idea really intrigued me, the idea that there could be places on earth—churches, specifically—where all you had to do was get inside and call out “Sanctuary!” and suddenly the police couldn’t arrest you.  It was like the adults of the world had somehow agreed on a universal olly-olly-oxen-free.  

But of course, it’s more complicated than that.  Not every government respects sanctuary, and places that do have sanctuary don’t all do it the same way.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how long a person can stay in sanctuary.  In medieval England, sanctuary only lasted forty days, but while you were in sanctuary, you could negotiate with the English legal system and ask to be sent into exile rather than imprisoned or executed.  Medieval Catholics eventually restricted sanctuary to only people accused of certain kinds of crimes.  In many places, sanctuary has come with rules about what the person entering was allowed to bring with them—for example, again in Europe, no bow and arrow.  And in the Netherlands, where sanctuary still operates today, it only applies while a religious ceremony is actively being conducted, which is why a Dutch church in 2018 drew on the help of every clergy person in the area to keep a worship service going continuously for ninety-six days in order to protect a family seeking asylum.

Generally speaking, the concept is that the law of the land stops at the doors of the church, because inside the church—inside the sanctuary—the law of God prevails.  Isn’t that a funny thought?  That the law of God only triumphs in particular geographic areas?  Or in the Netherlands, only at certain times or under certain conditions?  Also, sanctuary sometimes works—not always—in places where nothing about it is codified into law.  There have been innumerable examples of times, throughout history, when a person has claimed sanctuary in a church without any legal right to do so, but this sanctuary has been respected anyway.  Whether that’s a matter of custom, concern for public perception, or moral conscience on the part of individuals working in the legal system, in that way, sanctuary does function a little bit like olly-olly-oxen-free.

Christians were not the first to come up with the idea of sanctuary.  In the Torah, we read about sanctuary cities, specific places where a person could flee if they had accidentally killed another person.  As long as the person stayed in the sanctuary city, no one could harm them, which was significant because at the time, it was considered just for the victim’s family members to take the life of the killer in exchange for the life of their loved one.  Temples built for Greek and Roman gods also provided sanctuary for people being pursued, and anthropologists have found evidence of sanctuaries, either buildings or particular locations, in the Bedouin tradition and in the traditions of many indigenous peoples in the Americas.  The idea of providing a place of refuge for the threatened seems to be deeply and universally embedded in human consciousness.  We have this idea that a person, any living being, that is running and scared should have a guaranteed safe place to go.  No matter who they are.  No matter what they’ve done.

But.

This idea that the law of the land stops at the door of the church, because inside the sanctuary, the law of God prevails.  I’m not so sure about that one.  One thing I found in my reading was that Christian churches didn’t start providing sanctuary until they realized that Greek and Roman temples were doing so, and they started providing their own sanctuary more or less as a form of competition.  “You don’t want to take sanctuary with Zeus or Athena.  Come over here!  Take sanctuary with Jesus!”  What is that about?  If sanctuary is just about saving a life, then why is the early Christian church concerned about where a person takes sanctuary?  Why exactly have so many pursuits stopped at the doorway of a church?  Is it because God is inside the church?  Isn’t God also outside the church?

I think what’s really happening is a different thing.  I think inside a physical sanctuary, we haven’t moved from earthly law to divine law.  I think we’ve moved to a different earthly law.  In the case of medieval Christian sanctuaries, the law of the land stopped at the door of the church because, inside, the law of the church prevailed.  This was a power struggle between secular and religious authorities, not a refuge where the law of God reigned supreme.  And the law of the church said things like “limited to forty days” or “only for certain kinds of crimes” or “no bringing in your bow and arrow.”  The law of the church, when I was little, said “no noise, no sitting on the floor, no toys, no jeans, no drums, no fun.”  This is what my friend Kathleen was identifying: one God who loved her and wanted her to be happy, and another God—the church law God—who wanted her to be quiet and still.

And here’s the other thing about a sanctuary: once you go inside, you’re trapped.  It might be a safe place, relatively speaking, but the minute you place a toe outside, the promise of safety goes away.  You are trapped by the physical boundaries of the sanctuary.  You have given up the freedom to explore.  Choosing sanctuary in this sense might be the best choice available to you.  A being in genuine danger of their life must be hugely relieved to enter a sanctuary.  But no matter how much better it is inside than outside, a physical sanctuary to which one flees is still a form of imprisonment.

The theme of this week is becoming sanctuary.

That is a very different thing.  If a physical, geographic sanctuary is a form of imprisonment, a human sanctuary, either embodied in an individual or in a community, is a moveable feast.  It can be granted anywhere, anytime, to any person.  It is, in a sense, invisible and intangible, but it can be gloriously available.

What does it mean—to bebecome, sanctuary?

First off—it’s about embodying God’s law, not church law.  Just like in physical sanctuaries, it is so incredibly easy to mix up God’s law with church law, or with other versions of human law.  It is so incredibly easy to find ourselves saying, “I rejoice in you except if…  I will always love you except if…  We honor that of God in you but only as long as…

Those provisos, those except ifs and only as long as-es, are the places where we start creeping into some kind of modified human law rather than resting in the overwhelming presence of God.  To do this is profoundly human, so we naturally find ourselves doing this sometimes.  But we can be something else.  We can reach for real, divine sanctuary.

Grace.  When Kelly Kellum became general secretary of Friends United Meeting, he brought into the FUM offices the phrase, “We all live by grace.”  When somebody on the team screws up—misses a deadline, forgets to do something, knocks over a glass of iced tea on the stack of agendas, Kelly says, “We all live by grace.”  I’ve seen this in action.  It often draws laughter, but it also diffuses the situation.  Everybody in the room has heard the phrase applied to their own mistakes: “We all live by grace.”  Everybody in the room is reminded that we all make mistakes, that we all rely on the forgiveness of God and our fellow human beings, and there’s this moment in which everybody relaxes, and while there might still be a problem, something that actually needs to be solved, the feelings of guilt and recrimination aren’t there.  “We all live by grace.”  This is embodying sanctuary.

Mercy.  There’s a Quaker boarding school in Britain with a small percentage of students from other countries, some of whom are still learning English.  Their reading ability often lags several grade levels below their peers’.  So the school librarian keeps two special shelves of books, carefully chosen, that are interesting to teenagers but written at a level accessible to struggling readers.  These shelves are completely unmarked and unobtrusive.  When she encounters a student who might benefit, the librarian says, “Let me show you a place where I keep some of my favorite books.  I think you might like them.”  And so they have books they can read.  They can go to the library like any other student and find a book to read for pleasure—and their peers don’t know, so there’s no risk of embarrassment.  This is embodying sanctuary.

There’s a Friend in Kenya who I won’t name in this story, and you’ll see why in a minute.  She told me once about being awakened in the middle of the night by a call to her cell phone.  At the other end was a voice that said, “We are Ugandans.  We are fleeing our country.  If you do not help us, we may be killed by morning.”  She did not know these men.  She did not know how they had obtained her phone number.  But she did know that Ugandans accused of homosexuality were subject to death.  She made arrangements to meet them and hide them and found a safe place for them to go next, and she did this at risk to herself, knowing that if she were discovered, she would at least experience severe social consequences in her own community.  This is embodying sanctuary.

There’s a rural meeting outside Belfast that had the same caretaker for sixty years.  She lived on the meetinghouse grounds and cared for the buildings and property from 1955 until 2015.  When she finally, in her eighties, could not physically do the work anymore, she moved a half-hour’s drive away to a home for the aging.  The meeting hired a new caretaker but added into its weekly division of tasks, every week without exception, someone to fetch Susan and bring her to meeting and someone else to give her lunch and then drive her back.  It is not a large meeting.  This is done without fuss.  Of course they will care for Susan.  This is embodying sanctuary.

Ever since I first read the theme of our summer sessions, there’s been something that’s been bothering me, which is the phrase “where Spirit can dwell.”  Becoming a sanctuary where Spirit can dwell.  My experience tells me that Spirit can dwell wherever Spirit pleases.  There is nothing you or I must do to make it possible for God to come among us.  God comes where God comes.  Still, there are times when God will wait patiently and allow us the choice: do we choose to invite God into our presence?  Do we choose to prepare ourselves in such a way that we are ready and obviously willing to listen?  This is central to our ability to extend divine sanctuary.  

We prepare ourselves in many ways.  Some of us read Scripture.  Some sing.  Some walk.  Some go out into nature and commune with birds and trees.  Some align our bodies with the flow of energy.  I remember, as a person with a preference for rational things, the first time someone told me to open the crown of my head, feel Spirit flowing through, down my spine, out my palms, and through the soles of my feet.  But I tried it.  My elders told me to.  And over time, with practice, I discovered I could connect with God in this way and that I could extend that presence and energy beyond myself to those around me.  And they notice.  A couple of weeks ago, I heard a Baptist preacher call this “angel energy.”  Whatever we need to do to prepare ourselves to receive God and then extend God’s presence to those around us—this is embodying sanctuary.

We can do that—embody sanctuary—in difficult times and in difficult conversations.  Dr. Amanda Kemp, who is a Friend of color from New England, talks about being present with, and trading perspectives with, people who are actively expressing racist ideas.  She says you need to check in with yourself first, make sure it’s the right time and you’re ready, make sure you’re grounded and strong, and then you can listen—really listen—to the person standing across from you, you can be that presence for them, and then ask, when they’re through, “Are you interested in hearing what my experience is like?”  This is embodying sanctuary.

We also become sanctuary in meetings for worship.  This is the point: collective alignment to the divine will of God.  Early Friends said that in meetings for worship we could experience communion, that we didn’t need the physical sacrament of consuming the bread and wine—Christ’s body and blood—because worship was, in itself, sacramental.  We know the experience of a gathered meeting.  We feel it.  We feel the thrumming presence of God and the communal heartbeat of a people aligned with Spirit.

True sanctuary is always divine.  It is not always calm, and it certainly isn’t always pleasant.  I can never think of sanctuary without the story of Jesus in the temple.  “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves.  And He declared to them, ‘It is written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’’”

Or the day Margaret Fell became convinced, as she listened to Fox’s ministry.  “I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, ‘The scriptures were the prophets’ words, and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord,’ and said, ‘Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.’”

Or Samuel Bownas, who tells this story: “On first days I frequented meetings, and the greater part of my time I slept, but took no account of teaching, nor received any other benefit . . . thus I went on for near three years; but one first day, being at meeting, a young woman, named Anne Wilson, was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing my eye upon her, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power: ‘A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming. What wilt thou do in the end?”  This was so pat to my then condition, that, like Saul, I was smitten to the ground, as it might be said, but turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it?  And a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, Look unto me and I will help thee! and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears.”

Have you been searched by the Light?

Spirit, God, does comfort sometimes.  But Spirit also searches us.  The experience of being searched by the Light is often not a pleasant one.  If we align, individually or communally, to the Light, we find our faults illuminated.  We are called to repentance.  Our hearts are broken because they must be broken open.  When we truly embody sanctuary, we transform.  We grow.  We can do nothing less in the power of God.  To suggest that becoming sanctuary is always comforting, always safe, to suggest that being aligned with the purpose of God causes us to be well-behaved in society, is to—as Jeremiah said—say “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Church law may tell us to be quiet, to be orderly, not to bother anybody, but God’s law does not.  If we embody true divine sanctuary, we may be called upon to stand up and shout and throw the money changers out of the temples.

But not before we repent.

We don’t talk about repentance much.  I really don’t know why, but maybe it’s because it has fallen out of fashion to talk about sin.  All the word “sin” really means, by the way, is being out of alignment with the divine will.  It means we’ve fallen short, which we do.  To recognize that we have sinned is what happens when we are searched and convicted by the Light, as Samuel Bownas was and as Margaret Fell was.  It’s the moment when we recognize that there are some serious moneychangers inside our own personal sanctuary.  

I’m not super clear on whether God requires repentance, but experience tells me that humans need it.  We need a simple, clear process by which we recognize our mistakes, apologize sincerely, and resolve not to repeat what we’ve done.  Repentance is more or less the same process we go through when we need to repair a relationship with another human being, but this is about realigning ourselves in right relationship with God.  Again, it’s not because God needs the process of repentance in order to love and forgive us.  God does not.  It’s because there’s something deeply necessary for us, in that moment when our heart breaks open, when we see where we have sinned.  We have not been in alignment with God’s will.  We humans need something we can do to help us get through that.  Repentance heals the way we relate with God and also the broken heartedness we have experienced.  It brings us a little closer to embodying divine sanctuary.

Grace.  Mercy.  Unconditional love.  And yes—prophetic speaking of truth.  All of those fall under the umbrella of embodying genuine divine sanctuary.  If we are nothing but gentle all the time, if we are silent and well-behaved in the face of extraordinary and harmful injustice, then we are embodying some set of human rules, not divine law—again, Jeremiah’s “peace, peace, where there is no peace.”  

To embody divine law for one another, to be sanctuary, will often mean we must speak out.  Like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, we will be compelled to speak on behalf of the humanity of all people and the holiness of every living thing.  We will speak prophetically about racism, economic injustice, climate justice.  We will say no to behaviors that harm.  We will speak and act, possibly with tremendous passion, on matters interpersonal, local, national, and global.  Divine sanctuary is not about “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Divine sanctuary brings divine justice.  If we embody divine sanctuary, we can settle for nothing less.

But divine justice includes mercy and unconditional love and grace.

When we speak up for divine justice, when we act prophetically, it is never without remembering that the person doing wrong—no matter who they are—no matter who they are—is a child of God deserving of mercy and unconditional love and grace.  I may stand in front of you, toe to toe, and denounce your behavior and insist that you change, but if I truly embody divine sanctuary, I will never cease in all of that expecting to see the spark of God inside you.  I will never forget that you are my sibling, no matter who you are.

When we show love to those we know to be desperately wrong, that’s not just about demonstrating our virtue.  It’s not the sort of thing you do only because it’s something you’re supposed to do.  Loving your enemy also works.  I say this as a person who’s changed a lot over time, who grew up in a part of the country where I learned that certain groups of people were just plain bad people, that they were my enemies, people to fear.  I didn’t grow past that because of a logical argument, and I didn’t grow past that because somebody shouted at me or scolded me or demanded I change.  I grew because of an accumulation of many surprising acts of love: the gift of a sandwich, a word of kindness, a time when someone could have judged me harshly and didn’t.  One such act has never been enough, for me, to overcome a lifetime of conditioning, of being taught, “That person is someone to fear.”  But little acts of love, over time, have helped me grow and learn quite a lot.  What changed mewas all the times when someone I feared embodied divine sanctuary.

I want to read a story from the book of Judges.

Jephthah then gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim.  And the men of Gilead struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are fugitives in Ephraim, living in the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh.”

(In other words: the Gileadites were living on land that the Ephraimites had claimed.  The Ephraimites were persecuting them for it, and now the Gileadites were fighting back.)

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a fugitive from Ephraim would say, “Let me cross over,” the Gileadites would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”

(In other words, the Gileadites had decided not to allow the Ephraimites to cross the Jordan River.  But they couldn’t recognize the Ephraimites on sight, so they had to check the identity of each person trying come through.)

If he answered “No,” they told him, “Please say Shibboleth.”

If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce it correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.  So at that time 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.

The Gileadites were checking for an accent.  If you could say “shibboleth” the way the Gileadites did, then you were safe.  Sanctuary. But if you couldn’t, if you pronounced it “sibboleth,” like an Ephraimite, you were murdered immediately. 

Because of this story, the word “shibboleth” actually entered English vocabulary.  A shibboleth is a signifier.  It’s a way that we figure out very quickly who we believe somebody to be: are you a welcome Gileadite, or are you a dangerous Ephraimite?  When we engage with someone, we often listen for shibboleths.  Do they use the right phrases?  Display the right memes or bumper stickers?  Drive the right cars?  Wear the right shoes?  Do they bring the right food to the potluck?

We do this.  This community, New York Yearly Meeting.  We do this.  We do this to each other.

It’s one thing to expect one another to change, to have those moments of broken heartedness, to be present for one another in the moments when the Spirit of God is throwing the moneychangers out of our sanctuaries.  To know that we all need repentance.  To hold hands through that.  Sometimes to speak prophetic truth to one another.  To know that we have been exclusive.  Racist.  Homophobic.  Chauvinist.  Ablest.  Destructive.  We have fallen short, individually and collectively.  We have sinned.  I am so grateful that we know this and are working toward being better.

But it’s another thing when we allow the process of being searched by the Light, of broken heartedness, of repentance, and of genuine change of heart to be replaced by a set of shibboleths: right words, right clothes, right cars, right foods.  None of those outward signifiers is bad, but as Margaret Fell would say, if we require them of one another and of those entering our communities—if it becomes about the shibboleth and not about the change of heart—then that is a silly, poor gospel.

Sometimes, we withhold sanctuary based on someone’s failure to say shibboleth.  I see Friends in New York Yearly Meeting do this with Quaker jargon.  I see us do it with political and sociological language connected to liberalism.  I see us do it with whether people own either a hybrid or an electric car.  I see us do it with whether people eat vegan and unprocessed foods.  I see us do it with the strategies that people use to raise their children.  I see us do it with what someone shares on Facebook.  We look for shibboleths, and either explicitly or implicitly, we make clear that those who don’t say shibboleth will not receive our love, our mercy, our grace.

Just to be really clear here: when we have taken the time to know someone well, when we have worshipped with them, listened to them, learned what’s in their heart, and when we have a divine leading to engage with them, we might say—as John Woolman did when sitting with enslavers—“Friend, I am concerned for thee.”  We speak the truth within divine sanctuary.  We don’t subscribe to “peace, peace, when there is no peace.”  Truth telling, coming from a place of love and relationship, is a part of divine sanctuary.  

In contrast, to shibboleth is to make a judgment about someone based solely on outward signifiers and then to refuse to extend divine sanctuary to that person.  If you do not say shibboleth, I do not extend to you mercy and grace.

That’s not sanctuary.  A sanctuary welcomes in everyone, including—perhaps especially—those who’ve done wrong.  That’s the entire point.

If I place any conditions around my willingness to embody sanctuary for you—when I require that you behave or speak in some specific way, or else I will not grant you mercy and grace—then I am building a barrier around the sanctuary I have tried to embody.  Suddenly, just as there is in a physical sanctuary, there is an inside and an outside.  And this is a real problem, because as long as sanctuary is conditional, those who want to stay in are imprisoned.  Suddenly, there are boundaries on what you can do or say, and if you make a mistake, you find yourself on the outside.  

Not on the outside of God’s love.  That’s not possible.  But on the outside of what someone is calling a sanctuary.

If the sanctuary we embody is really divine sanctuary, nobody can ever be kicked out.  This is both glorious and terrible news.  I can never refuse you mercy and grace.  No matter what you’ve done, I hold open for you the possibility of repentance.  Remember, that is different from saying I have to accept everything you do.  This does not mean that I can’t say “no” or “stop.”  Prophetic truth-telling and protection of the vulnerable will sometimes require that I say “no” or “stop.”  But I do it knowing you are still a child of God fully worthy of unconditional love.  I do it in the context of relationship.  I do it because I love you, not because I want to condemn you.  I do it in the hope that you may be searched by divine Light, which will break your heart open and change you.  And I don’t do it because you didn’t say shibboleth.

Let’s remember, too, that we are inside our own sanctuaries.  If we start dividing the world into those worthy of sanctuary and those unworthy, we are ourselves in danger of becoming unworthy.  We might violate our community’s shibboleths and find ourselves outside the sanctuary.  Maybe you’re even afraid that you might place yourselfoutside the sanctuary, that there are certain things you could say or do or think or feel that would cause you to believe you are unworthy of love and mercy and grace.

You are worthy of love and mercy and grace.  You cannot earn it, and you cannot un-earn it.  We are all worthy of divine sanctuary.  Not “peace, peace, when there is no peace,” but a sanctuary without walls where truth comes with love and no sin is without the accompanying promise of the availability of repentance.

There is nothing anyone can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing our enemies can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing our friends can do that makes them unworthy of divine sanctuary.

There is nothing you can do that makes you unworthy of divine sanctuary.

It is so tempting to look at this world and think that the pathway to the Kingdom of God on Earth is to win.  It is so tempting to identify sides, those who are with us and those who are against us, to believe that we can rearrange the power dynamics so that the “good” side, the “right” side, has the power, and then everything will be all right.  Not that we think that’s going to be easy.  But it’s tempting to believe that this is the right strategy.  We will just overpower the wrong, at the ballot box, by protesting, with emails to our representatives.  There’s nothing wrong with using any of those pathways, especially to speak prophetic truth, but these techniques will never get us all the way to the Kingdom of God on Earth.

Friends’ experience tells us that the divine Light changes hearts.  We are searched by it; we are convicted by it; we are brought to repentance by it.  It is not our job to overpower our enemies, to win so that we can establish a different system of human laws.  It’s our job to love our enemies, to extend divine sanctuary to them, and to our neighbors, too.  In the end, it is Spirit that makes the change, and what we can do is hold open that possibility for everyone by modeling mercy, grace, and prophetic truth accompanied by unconditional love.  We can invite the world to transformational repentance, one person at a time, by extending to everyone divine sanctuary, where Spirit dwells.

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.

…and Covenant

. . . 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.

To share.

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?”

We do.

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.

Covenant.

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?

Come and See

This message was originally written for FWCC’s Section of the Americas meeting, March 21-24, 2019.  The theme of the gathering was “Come and See.”

 

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”

 

I wanted to see the context of the phrase “come and see.” “Come and see” can mean almost anything. I considered lots of ways of thinking about that phrase as I prepared this message, but in the end, I was surprised to discover that in the original passage, it’s not “come and see” that jumps out to me.

It’s the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That question sounds so familiar. When I used to work in the field of education, I taught in kindergarten and first grade and second grade classrooms in the South Bronx. The South Bronx is a neighborhood in New York City. Two hundred and thirteen thousand people live there. Ninety percent of them are people of color. Forty-seven percent are legally defined as poor. There’s graffiti everywhere. Police officers with guns walk the hallways of the schools.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

I met a kindergarten child named Smerling. She spoke only Spanish, and her parents spoke only Spanish, and this is very difficult in a school system that teaches in English. Smerling also was not naturally bright. Many of her classmates, even those who also spoke Spanish, appeared to learn to read and write and do math much more quickly.

There was something special about Smerling, though. This little girl tried. She demonstrated persistence. Tenacity. Even at the age of five, she listened to every word her teachers said. She also always finished her homework, which was quite a remarkable thing, since the instructions were written in English. I asked another teacher once how Smerling managed this. She told me that Smerling’s mother and father took her homework to a neighbor every day, asked the neighbor to translate the instructions, and then sat down beside their child and offered all the help they could until the work was complete.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

Last year, I traveled to Kenya to visit with Friends. We were driving along in a car in a region with no paved streets when I saw an image that seemed familiar to me. It was a very small child, a boy, I think, wearing nothing but a long T-shirt, and that had a rip near the collar. He was squatting in a field of dirt and playing with some sort of scrap of metal. He looked up at our car wistfully.

This is the sort of image that we see on television sometimes. Organizations that are raising money show us pictures of children like him and tell us about the desperation of this child and how we must have pity and send him money. But these pictures on television are deliberately zoomed in to show only the child. They give the idea that the child is doomed and helpless. They do not show the entire image. When you look more widely, you see that the child has a mother doing laundry and a baby sister toddling around and an older brother driving the cows home and an entire community around him that is hospitable and loving.

When you really see the people of Kenya, you see faith and solidarity and selflessness and cooperation. I remember most fondly how, when one woman in the village needs to clean her house, the women of all the surrounding houses show up to help scour the floors and shake out the mats and clear the cobwebs. When someone is sick, every neighbor stops by. The people I met pray together every day.

How much my people could learn from them . . .

Can anything good come out of Kenya?

I now travel in the ministry full-time, and I hear versions of this question all the time. Can anything good come out of Palestine? Can anything good come out of Tanzania? Can anything good come out of New York Yearly Meeting? Can anything good come out of evangelicals? Can anything good come out of Facebook? Can anything good come out of rich people? Can anything good come out of police officers? Can anything good come out of Bible-thumpers? Can anything good come out of atheists?

The answer is always yes.

Everywhere I go, I meet someone who’s afraid of somebody else, and I find that almost always, the person we’re afraid of is the person we’ve never met. In most cases, it’s hard to fear someone—to doubt the possibility of good in someone—once you’ve sat down to dinner with them. Can anything good come from that other place?

Come and see.

I don’t feel critical of anyone who fears, or even hates, the unfamiliar. It’s extremely difficult to widen our perspective beyond what we have been shown and taught. I grew up in rural Illinois. Illinois is a state in the middle of this country that has a few cities but mostly just fields and fields of corn. Only one thousand people lived in the town where I spent my first ten years. Almost every one of us was white. Almost every one of us was Christian. There were two Jewish children in school and one Muslim child, and everyone knew exactly who they were. We also came from families that looked alike. A mother and a father. The mother mostly stayed at home or worked a part-time job. The father probably went to an office every day. Each family had two or three children and a dog. We knew what our futures would look like: we would grow up, graduate from high school, attend college, marry, have two or three children and a dog, and replicate our parents’ lives.

My mother grew up this way. My father grew up this way. My grandparents even grew up this way.

Because we had only one model for life, we could not imagine what it might be like to come from the South Bronx or from Kenya or from elsewhere overseas, or to be something other than Christian, or to have a different kind of family, or to not go to college, or to work outside an office or at a time other than nine to five Monday through Friday. What we saw and read about other types of lives was not very complimentary. Sadly, most people are more likely to watch a television program or read a book that tells about strange and scary things, and the people who make television programs and write books know this, so they rarely produce programs and books about nice, normal, good people who are hospitable and hard-working and kind to their neighbors. Doing anything other than reproducing the lives of our parents felt unsafe.

I want to say a word about safety.

A very dear friend of mine once said something to me quite unexpectedly. We were talking rather casually about nothing in particular when she announced, very intensely, “I will not pray for you to be safe. To be safe means to be inside a box, and I need you to grow bigger and taller than the box. Instead, I will pray that you have all that you need to be nourished and to grow. But not that you’ll be safe.”

Just to make this clear, I hadn’t actually asked her to pray that I’d be safe, but I have to say that up until that point, I’d been a big fan of safety. Not getting hurt is generally preferable to getting hurt. To wish for safety, I think, is a pretty normal thing. But she was right. If we encase ourselves in anything, either physical or metaphorical, that will keep all the potentially harmful things out, by definition we are also restricting ourselves to a limited area. We are preventing growth.

Just as we do this individually, we tend to do this collectively. Some new idea, new person, new invitation, new opportunity comes to our faith community and we might react as though it’s dangerous even when it’s a blessing. Change of any kind can feel like a threat to safety. Anything not-like-us can feel like a threat to safety. And yet, God doesn’t call us to be safe. God calls us to grow.

If you’ve made it as far as this room, you’ve already answered God’s call to “come and see.” And though this is a bit of a strange thought, when we go home to our local faith communities, we will all be just a little bit scary. At least some of you in this room will have heard the question from time to time: “Can anything good come out of FWCC?”

What we experience here, being with God in the presence of other types of Friends, other languages, other cultures, other perspectives, other races . . . we are stretched. And when we go home, we bring bits of that other-ness with us. We are not quite the same people that we were when we left. We’ve accepted God’s invitation to change.

God’s invitation doesn’t feel safe. And it’s not. When God invites us to “come and see,” that doesn’t come with a description of what it is we’re about to experience. If we knew all the details ahead of time, I have no doubt that we would all say no. We are changed, step by step, along the way, and in this way, we are able to be ready for the next change. I can testify from my own experience that this is true. The person I was in 2010, when I became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting, would not have recognized me. She would have been deeply frightened at the idea of becoming me. She would have chosen a smaller life. A safer life.

The world around us, especially the media, reinforces the idea that everything outside of our own little box is unsafe. What we’re told is incomplete, like the image of the little boy in Kenya that cuts out his community. But I have to acknowledge that there’s some truth to the idea, that there are times when travel in the ministry is physically or spiritually dangerous, that following God’s path to new jobs or new relationships or forgiveness all comes with the risk of being hurt.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Yes.

Can anything harmful come out of Nazareth?

Of course.

I think that the important thing is not to expect to be safe. God does not promise us that we’ll be safe. God’s invitation is to “come and see.” When we stop trying to protect ourselves, when we stop asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” in a defensive way, as a reason not to go there, or as justification for not meeting a Nazarene, then we can really follow God’s leadings.

What did come out of Nazareth that day?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they should be called the children of God. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Forgive others their trespasses. Judge not, that you be not judged. Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is really good stuff. And it turned the tables on traditional teachings—flipped everything over, just like Jesus later did in the temple—and it shook things up and frightened people. The message Jesus brought was anything but safe. It was a call to grow.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”