October 14, 2005

Exercised by the Spirit

Dear readers, dear Friends.

I have been reluctant to write another post for The Good Raised Up, and it has taken me some time to articulate why. But when I spoke with my partner the other morning about all the stress I have in my life and shared that I have felt the tickle of the Spirit asking me to write, I said:

I feel as though I am being asked to write about how I am being exercised by the Spirit, but I don't want to say too much because of the people involved in the situation, so I haven't written anything. And I need to.
I don't know for sure that what I've been experiencing is in fact me being "exercised by the Spirit," but it's language that speaks to my condition.

I first came across that phrase, I think, when I was reading a little John Woolman. I haven't heard Friends in the monthly or yearly meeting--or anywhere, actually--use that phrase. But it certainly feels like I am being stretched, like I am being asked to do things with my spiritual life, with my faith, with my being, in ways that I haven't moved, practiced, stretched, or "been" before. And I feel a bit heart-sore as a result.

It's a soreness like the day after I've started a new fitness workout, and my body is so sore I just want to stay in bed or get a massage or take a long, hot bath... and certainly, absolutely, not have to move my body again, at all, for at least, say, about 60-90 days.

But I have to roll out of bed and get busy doing God's work again--being faithful--no matter how sore I feel. And I moan and groan at first, and the soreness catches me at unexpected times, like when I reach for a book on the shelf or when I go up a flight of stairs or when I pick up the cat (he is, after all, 16 pounds).

So. What's been going on with me that I can share here; what does God ask me to share; what does God ask me not to share...?

My recent "exercise of the Spirit" has revolved around the question
"How might I be faithful to the True Authority and not fall sway to an individual's worldly authority?"
My heart still aches over that one, given the details of who has been involved and what reactions I have been met with when I have said to a Friend, "But God does not ask me to do this thing you ask of me..."

And so I found myself drawing on a number of resources and individuals for G/guidance and support:

  • Among Friends, there is a tradition of coming together as a group to seek Divine Guidance, to test a leading, to weigh a decision, to hold a concern and discern the way forward.

    I have understood this practice to be based in the belief that no single individual knows the Truth; that God is still speaking to us and that if we quiet ourselves enough, we will understand more clearly what that still, small voice is saying; that many individuals are needed to test how pieces might fit together and see if they are consistent with the Truth, in part by testing if those pieces are consistent with Scripture, with tradition, with experience, and with each other; that by seeking right action together, as a body, there is accountability to the group (and to the historical practices of Friends) and therefore, supposedly, less chance that an individual will take her or his own good "imaginations," run with them, and possibly spoil the reputation of Friends, a la James Naylor.

    I have had to slow myself down, to listen to the discernment of other Friends, to weigh with them a variety of options, and to seek the way forward as best as possible.

  • Scripture, of all things (highly unusual for me), has helped me:
    If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

    Matthew 18:15-17
  • Well, I have learned that such actions are not always well-met. I now must trust within myself and with my God that I am doing the best I can in very difficult circumstances. And I am being Asked to trust that the other Friend is doing likewise...

    My guess is there is more for Scripture to show me; there is more Scripture for me to be opened to, but this is the passage I know and this is what came to me.

  • Isaac Penington has this to say about the historical practice of corporate worship and of the experience of a certain form of "exercise" before the Lord.
    Our worship is a deep exercise of our spirits before the Lord, which doth not consist in an exercising the natural part or natural mind, either to hear or speak words, or in praying according to what we, of ourselves, can apprehend or comprehend concerning our needs; but we wait, in silence of the fleshly part, to hear with the new ear, what God shall please to speak inwardly in our own hearts; or outwardly through others, who speak with the new tongue, which he unlooseth, and teacheth to speak; and we pray in the Spirit, and with the new understanding, as God pleaseth to quicken, draw forth, and open our hearts towards himself.
  • And yet what does this practice mean when Friends do not value the group experience of shared waiting worship and shared listening? I am at a loss as to how to move through this "exercise"!

  • There is also the tradition of corporate seeking, of listening together for the movement of the Spirit:
    We often struggle to differentiate between God's voice and our own. A group that listens well can receive our thoughts and our emotions and assist us to sift them for the presence of God. Perhaps that's a vital part of the process that we have lost as we have moved away from the regular practice of "threshing meetings." It was at such meetings where people could come together and without the pressure to make a decision, share their thoughts and questions and opinions, gain information regarding the facts of the situation, and get a sense of where other people were coming from. Time was then spent over the course of the week, carefully holding this awareness in a prayerful attentiveness to the fullness of the issues involved.

    Bruce Bishop
  • I suppose in every Quaker community, there are a handful of individuals who do not understand what it means to engage in corporate listening, let alone what it means to yield to what the body as a whole has discerned. After all, I was that sort of new Friend once.

    When I remember myself as an inexperienced Friend, a sense of compassion and concern is restored within me for the Friend with whom I am journeying right now. And it is thoughts like these that illuminate the question I have been carrying since starting this Quaker blog:
    How do we convey our faith, how do we talk about our practices with one another?
    Not just me; not just Robin M. or Barry or Quakerism 101 teachers, but our meetings as a whole.

    Well, I began this post when I was in the midst of the exercise, and now the exercise seems to be almost over. My concerns have been shared with Friends within the appropriate committee and I am feeling a bit unburdened.

    I am grateful for those Friends and non-Friends from whom I have drawn support over the past 2-1/2 weeks. Friends have gently weighed, threshed, and tested options with me, options that would demonstrate care and respect for those involved. When I lamented to one Friend that I did not see an easy or "clean" way to resolve the concern that I am facing, she gently reminded me:
    There may be no way for this to be easy, so at least you can be faithful.
    Despite the soreness, I sense that there is something deep within me, alongside my sore heart, that is healing. And also despite the soreness, or maybe because of it, there is another something within me that seems to be growing and... maturing, ripening.

    Maybe it's my heart muscle.

    . . . . . . . . . . . .

    This was not an easy post to write, given the nature of the concern; yet I felt the call to bring forward what I could. I don't even know if there is enough "meat" left on the "bones" of this post--bones I have picked over quite a bit in the past 48 hours or so.

    [UPDATE: For another, more detailed pass at describing this experience, see my lengthy remarks in the comments section.]

    Thanks for reading me.



    Joe G. said...

    FYI: I think there is more than enough "meat" on this post's "bones" to chew on for awhile. :)

    Are you being lead to say "no" when others might expect you to say "yes"? One of the verses that Friends used to explain the reason for avoiding oaths was the teaching of Jesus where he instructed his followers to let their "yeas" be "yeas" and their "nays" be "nays".

    I wonder if you feel that the motivation of those that are asking something of you tend to comes more from it seeming "reasonable" or that it "makes sense" versus the leading of God through the community to thee and them.

    Well, that's what I get from merely nibbling while working here at school.

    PS: Understood if you prefer to not elaborate anymore than you have given concerns for confidentiality.

    ef (Pam) said...

    Liz -

    I feel like I'm trying to guess at what you're talking about, which is distracting to me, but I think in general if we can leave out the details, we can see the process more clearly.

    It seems that you have done a lot of good, and hard, work.

    I am reminded of a conversation we had in your car once (going where I cant' quite remember) in which I talked of how often "holding people in the light" felt less like a warm, nurturing hearthfire or grow-light, and more like a trial-by-fire, something almost violent (though passionate might be a better word.

    Sometimes we are granted a warm, comforting light that nurtures that of God in us, and sometimes a fire that burns away that which is not.

    Both are blessings.

    Thank you for sharing this part of your journey with us.


    Liz Opp said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Joe G. said...

    I realize that I'm getting your side of the story, but based on what little you wrote, it seems as if the "convener" (the term kind of grates on me - why not clerk - it's used a lot in Meeting these days - OK, my issue) was treating the process more like a secular matter. So this is what needs to be done, and this is how best to do so...And God is where in all of this? Maybe not in the details, I guess. ;)

    It also seems like, as you previously wrote, the whole sense of what a committee "does" or even "doesn't" do was different between thee and the other person.

    Maybe it's the secularism that has krept in that bugs me, too. Omigod, I am writing like a right-wing nut! :)

    By the way, your response, Liz, was a whole other post. You could have used that as another post - a kind of "part 2". Not very effecient, Friend...{ahem}

    Liz Opp said...

    Hey, Beppe, you read my mind on a few things. Yes, my lengthy comment could have been a separate post but I didn't want to give it that much "attention." (I don't have THAT much distance from the situation yet...)

    Something I feel easier with, though, is to put a note at the bottom of the original post, directing readers to the "Part 2" portion of the story, embedded in the comments.

    And yes, I intentionally use the word "convener" because I reserve the word "clerk" to mean a Friend who presides over a meeting and who, in doing so, listens for the Spirit and tests the sense of the meeting or group. ...Not something this particular Friend had a gift for or understanding of, it seems.

    It's hard to find the balance between sharing my experience and being respectful of the other people involved... That's the balance I am hoping to strike here, for the sake of lifting up the concerns I wrestle with.


    Anonymous said...

    Just to comment on the most trivial part of this, according to usage in my meeting or at least in my understanding, a clerk serves a standing committee or Meeting and a convenor serves a temporary or short term group.

    Liz Opp said...


    About a half-dozen readers have helped me reconsider an extended comment that I had made here and have now removed. Granted, it is a no-no in the blogging world to remove a post (or a lengthy comment?), but I haven’t known Quakers to bow automatically to external authority or to conform unthinkingly to group norms.

    I undertook this reconsideration because of a concern raised by a reader about the nature of my original comment. It felt important enough for me to do some checks with other Friends.

    About half the Friends I contacted did not share the first Friend’s concern. Which means that half of them did, though apparently not as intensely.

    One of the touchstones I use in my life these days is “What does it mean, in this circumstance, to do the right thing right?”

    I feel a sense of opening, not when I consider removing the comment, but when I consider rewriting it. So I have, below.


    . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Here are the key questions that the past month has raised for me.

    Among Friends, who has authority; who gives it, and who is or isn't supposed to listen to it? Who gets to decide what a Friendly process should or shouldn’t look like?

    What does silence around letting certain Quaker practices fall away say to other Friends about the place of traditional methods, methods that are based on why we worship together and test our leadings with one another in the first place?

    Is the use of efficient practices going to replace Spirit-led corporate practices, with very few Friends blinking an eye? And who says Spirit-led corporate practices won’t be efficient in the long run?

    Around the question of accountability, who gets to say if something is or isn't in keeping with Quaker practices? and what happens if a Friend or Friends’ group no longer seems to be “minding the Light”?

    What is the responsibility of an individual committee member to a committee; an individual Friend to her meeting?

    . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    On a different note, a theme that has more recently emerged for me is how Quakers are like family, which in this case, other questions arise:

    How much do we make the troubles of our family public, and with what intention? How much “laundry” can be “aired” before others in the metaphorical family get upset and say we have crossed a line or violated part of the family’s trust? When do we keep difficulties among ourselves and when do we refuse to keep silent?

    Thanks to everyone--you've got me thinking and wondering and chewing on some important questions.


    LF said...

    Reading this post well after the fact, I am moved to ask a slightly wry question:

    ...if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. [from Matthew 18:17]

    So ... anyone remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors? I am never sure whether "Matthew" is engaging in an irony here. I suspect the irony is unintended.

    That said, Pam's comment about "holding someone in the Light" potentially not being entirely gentle is instructive.

    Boundaries and compassion. But how? Now I must go back to mulling that one over, because it is very much my issue at the moment.

    Thanks for being there and writing this.


    Liz Opp said...

    LF, thanks for stopping by. It's always good for me to get a comment months after the original post because then it prompts me to re-read what I had written, to see what I have learned since then...

    Your comments also cause me to pause and reflect further. And, given I am hardly familiar with Scripture, you prompted me to look there to discover how Jesus did treat tax collectors and sinners:

    10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

    12 On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
    (Matthew 9:10-13)

    LF, there is no time limit for adding comments. Thanks for taking the time to do so!