December 5, 2007

Guest piece:
What might an early Friend have said...?

Friend and fellow blogger Marshall Massey sent me a lengthy email in response to my earlier post about a set of queries that were shared at the November 2007 FGC consultation. His replies, offered from the perspective of "an eighteenth-century Quaker minister," struck a chord with me.

Even though I have shared with him my own take on the role of a human community within a Quaker meeting as that role relates to these questions, I find Marshall's words--and those of a hypothetical early Quaker minister--valuable enough that I don't wish to have them buried within a comment or isolated in an email.

Through no fault of his own, Marshall's "relationship" to Blogger seems to have changed, in that Blogger doesn't seem to allow him to participate as he once had. With his permission, then, I am posting his comments in this guest piece. --Liz

Most of the questions on the list you posted seem to me to be grounded in an idea that gospel ministry is something I decide to do in my own way, according to my own program and agenda.

This is different from the traditional Quaker understanding. Traditionally, Friends have regarded gospel ministry as being what happens when the Holy Spirit decides to use someone according to Its plans, not his.

I can imagine a dialogue between the author of the questions you posted, and an eighteenth-century Quaker minister:

AUTHOR: How do we let our Light shine without our fire consuming those we are trying to warm?
EARLY MINISTER: If thee is doing the letting and the trying, thee is not acting in the gospel ministry! Gospel ministry does not begin until thee is able to honestly say to God: God, use me as thou pleasest, I do not resist thee longer.
AUTHOR: Who elders the ministers? Who elders the elders?
EARLY MINISTER: Why does thee think that the eldering has to be done by humans? It is Christ our Lord who does all the eldering, anyway; the humans who seem to thee to do it are just his instruments. Hast thee not felt Christ in thy heart and conscience, reproving thee for the wrongs thee hast done, the ways in which thee has crucified him afresh? We choose our ministers and elders in accordance with the signs we are given that they are listening very carefully to Christ and actually hearing him; and when we, or they, see that they are no longer hearing him daily, they step down from their positions, or are asked to step down. This is of course not a complete guarantee that things will never go wrong — does not the Psalmist say, put not thy trust in men? — but if thee cannot ground thy trust in Christ, what can thee ground thy trust in?
AUTHOR: How do we discern the ministry we are called to? How do we discern if we are still called? How do we discern if we are called to travel in the ministry... or if we are to stay in our meeting?
EARLY MINISTER: When thee experiences the sense of being drawn or led to minister at a particular place and time (we Friends do not speak of "callings to the ministry", since callings are understood to be for one's whole life, and we do not believe that this is the way the Holy Spirit operates) — that sense of being drawn or led, is itself the discernment. Why should there be anything more?
AUTHOR: If we are called to travel, how do we discern a companion?
EARLY MINISTER: If God wants thee to have a companion, God will raise up a companion for thee. The companion will know she is called to be thy companion because she will feel the leading in her heart and conscience, just as thee feels thy leading in thine own.

Just speaking personally, Liz, it seems to me that the answers to all these questions become fairly obvious, once we understand that it is God who is in charge and not ourselves!

All the best,


Martin Kelley said...

Thanks Marshall and your channeled "Early Minister" (and thanks Liz for smuggling this across whatever Blogger firewall Marshall's stuck behind).

This is very helpful. The trend toward Conservativish language among FGC Friends is still often me-centric--I'm speaking for myself as much as anyone. I often have to stop and reorient myself by asking who's in charge.

I've found that we often want answers before they've been given. What's our policy for choosing a traveling companion? What program will we implement to make sure the policy's being followed? It's like we're insuring ourselves against the possibility that the Holy Spirit might not deliver the goods when we need them. The problem of course is that once we have the answers we move on them. How's that adage goes: every problem looks like a nail when you're a hammer? We loose the immediacy that's the heart of the Quaker process and we threaten to bulldoze our ways through things. Friend Early Minister is reminding us that we can let go of these anxieties and this need for leader-driven insurance.

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

Anonymous said...


It seems to me you are not giving Liz enough credit here. I don't think she is thinking legalistically as your phrase "What's or policy" suggests. Nor do I think she is trying to substitute human judgment for the leadings of the Spirit. What I think she is getting at is that we need to use discernment to distinguish between our own subjective feelings and the real truth about what God is telling us. A big part of the discernment process goes on within the individual but if we reject the resources offered by the spiritual community we make too many mistakes. I think Liz is feeling her way forward about how to best make use of the community in this discernment process.
And in my opinion she's right on target in doing so.

Allison said...

"EARLY MINISTER: If God wants thee to have a companion, God will raise up a companion for thee. The companion will know she is called to be thy companion because she will feel the leading in her heart and conscience, just as thee feels thy leading in thine own."

This is so synchronous. I was just thinking today how I don't like the word "boyfriend" (too gender specific, too possessive) but I do like the word "companion." And my current companion and I have felt a spiritual connection and even the hand of (dare I say it?) God in the way we came to know each other. Of course, I don't know how long it will last, but when I have doubts about the relationship due to my fears, I am reminded by some not-so-subtle clues the universe gave me to show me it was alright to proceed.

Robin M. said...

I think it's important to remember that Liz didn't make up these queries, she was just reporting what she read.

At the same time that we should give all credit to God, Samuel Bownas (an early minister himself) wrote a book in 1750 about how we human beings can help or hinder the work of the Holy Spirit.

I think it is right that we examine how we personally are following, outrunning, or falling behind our Guide.

I think these queries were intended to help Friends to learn from the experience of more seasoned ministers. Many young Friends have been helped by a word or question from an elder Friend, hearing in those words the ring of Truth, the Voice of the Master.

Bill Samuel said...

I'm recalling an occasion a long time ago when I felt a leading to travel in the ministry. I confirmed this leading in midweek worship on a Thursday evening, and I would need to leave on a Saturday morning.

I felt the Lord guiding me to a particular companion for this travel. As far as I knew, he had no fixed address, so how to contact him was not obvious. I posted a notice on a bulletin board at a place I knew he sometimes went. He called me the next day, and was clear to be my companion for the journey. It proved incalculably valuable to me to have that companion.

This is just an example of how the Lord works.

Martin Kelley said...

@Richard: just a clarification that I wasn't critiquing Liz, not in the least. She was reporting the queries from an FGC-sponsored gathering and to my ear they sound like they were faithfully recorded. I'm glad she shared these and I'm glad she lifted up Marshall's responses, which I think turn around the original queries in an interesting way.

I do think it's part of the liberal Quaker culture to want to create contingencies and pre-set roles, which is why I find the reminder that Christ will lead us at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner to be refreshing, if obvious.

Liz Opp said...


Thanks to each of you for replying to this guest piece and the queries that sparked it. I had wanted to give space for other responses--and then of course I got busy with all sorts of other things and forgot to have another look-see!

Martin -

I didn't take your comment personally, and I had a similar reaction to Marshall's response as you did: that Conservative-leaning Friends such as myself (and likely Friends from across the branches) can easily fall back into "me" language as we wrestle with important parts of our faith.

There is, of course, the paradox of being part of a covenant community that is focused on serving God but is made up of flawed human beings.

Richard -

As I've written to you elsewhere, I am indeed "feeling my way forward" to find the balance between seeking God's guidance and testing with our human communities what it is we understand to have been given.

For some Friends, that balance will tilt away from the use of any corporate discernment process. For others, the balance will tilt heavily toward it, foregoing or forgetting God's place in the process... which should be at the center.

Allison -

I am glad to know you are paying attention to things that appear synchronous... and to the clues that you receive that indicate it is "alright to proceed."

Robin -

Thanks for the reminder of the important words and advices provided by Friend Samuel Bownas!

As an aside, I learned later that the planning committee had apparently created these particular queries with the hope that the resource people would address them directly over the course of the weekend. We all know that Friends who know to wait on the Lord are unlikely going to be given answers to THOSE questions!

Bill -

Thanks for lifting up this personal example of how the Spirit works. It takes the theoretical or abstract and gives it a physicality that is helpful to many of us.