August 14, 2009

Going from meeting as we have come to it

In recent days, one of my Quaker "buttons" has gotten pushed a few times, so I thought I'd pay attention to it and write about it.

It's the one about to what extent we listen deeply to another Friend's spoken message, whether given during worship, during a committee meeting, or over a potluck meal. How often do we ask ourselves if a particular minister is embodying the voice of God that says:

"You, in the corner: This message is for you."
A few weeks ago, during the part of our worship where "messages that didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry" are welcome, I found myself rising to speak to the metaphor of babies in the river and how that relates to social change. I didn't know that I would be moved to tears as I was telling the story. Clearly, though, Something had been working on me during worship.

When worship ended, a number of people approached me to "thank" me for what I had shared. Most of them took time to affirm me for the good work I was already doing and told me not be hard on myself for not doing more.

As I recall, only one Friend mentioned that the message I offered that day had given her something to think about. And she is already in her 80s, has worked in the Congo, and has been a long-time war-tax resister.

I had already begun wrestling with the question if I'm called to "go upriver" or if I'm called to "pull out the babies" (see the above link), but I left that Meeting for Worship wondering how many worshipers would consider what Light may be in that story for them to wrestle with. I felt disconnected from all but that one person who had approached me after worship. Why?

And then I realized that I worry about and am anguished by the possibility that many Friends who worship in the unprogrammed tradition--many, not all--seem to keep themselves an arm's length away from considering the question, "What Light or Truth might be in that Friend's message for me?"

These days, it's unlikely that we're going to have the experience that Anne Wilson and Samuel Bownas had, when she arose during worship and spoke plainly.

Here's what Samuel writes:
...fixing her eye upon me, 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, and goes from it as thou came to it but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?"
In Samuel's case, he was able to listen to the message--if not right away, then at some point later--and not blame the messenger-minister for literally singling him out (if not right away, then at some point later!). He was able to allow the Light to work on him inwardly and over time, and ultimately he grew into his own measure of Light.

But as Liz Gates asks in remarks she made in 2005:
How many of us sit on the bench next to Samuel, comfortable and quiet?
Indeed: How many of us would think that the message Anne gave was only for Samuel, since she pointed directly to him?

Sometimes I fear that we don't listen deeply to a message from a minister because we really don't want to be changed, challenged, or exercised spiritually.

Or if we do open ourselves to the possibility of growth and change, so often it's got to be on our own terms--during summer vacation, or after the baby comes, or after I get done with painting the house.

Have we lost the discipline of coming to waiting worship, expecting we could be changed?



Mark Wutka said...

Hi Liz,
I know we usually focus on what was said, but I think it is also important to note that Anne Wilson uttered those words with much power. Is what is spoken in meeting coming from God? Does it actually answer the witness of God in us?

Also, I just wanted to add what Bownas wrote of his experience of that message. He wrote:

"This was so suited to my condition, that, like Saul, I was smitten to the ground, but turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it? And a voice spoke in my heart, saying, Look unto me, and I will help thee; and I found much comfort, which made me shed abundance of tears."

Also, he writes of the meeting the next week: "When the time of meeting came, my mind was soon fixed and staid upon God, and I found an uncommon enjoyment that gave me great satisfaction, my understanding being opened, and all the faculties of my mind so quick, that I seemed another man."

Then he goes on to talk about his understanding being opened, including the nature of how Friends' ministry works, which he now had direct experience of:

"A divine and spiritual sweetness abiding with me night and day, for some time, I began to see and understand the Scriptures, and the nature of preaching the doctrine of the Gospel in the power and spirit, plainly seeing a difference between a preacher of the letter and of the spirit, which till then I was wholly ignorant of, not having before that, the least degree that I could perceive of Divine understanding. But upon looking back and considering what I had heard such and such Friends preach, which at that time I did not understand, I now understood it clearly, which was a plain demonstration to me, that all saving knowledge is from Divine light, which we cannot comprehend, until we are assisted do to do by a visitation from heaven."

I think the expectation of being changed should also go hand-in-hand with the expectation of the Divine Source of the messages and the Source of the change wrought upon our hearts. Thanks for sharing this, and for the inspiration to go back and read that part of Bownas' Journal again!
With love,

Martin Kelley said...

The Anne Wilson story has become well-known to a new generation of Friends because of the republication of Bownas' "Description of the Qualifications...," which serves as a kind of ministry handbook.

But if you can get your hands on a copy of Bownas' journal, I highly recommend it. One piece that struck me is that (which might be in Descriptions too) is that Bownas was dragged around the jails as a kid by his mother who was attending to Quaker prisoners. He saw a very raw and strong testimony to Friends beliefs all growing up, so Wilson's visit was more the spark that ignited the already-filled powderkeg.

The later parts of his journal are filled with his visits and what's so funny is that if you read between the lines you realize how little things change. Change the language a little and the modes of transport a lot, and you'll see someone remarkably contemporary. The minister's task of calling people out of their needs to focus on God's direction is a role for each generation.

Mark Wutka said...

It's funny that you mentioned the prison visits with his mother. He said of one visit "I observed, though very young, how tender and broken they were; and I was very inquisitive of my mother, why they cried so much, and thee too, said I, why did thee? She told me that I could not understand the reason of it then, but when I grew up more to man's estate I might."

I bring that up, because when I posted those quotes from his journal, I had skipped over sentence (this was right after he shed abundance of tears): "Then I remembered what my mother told me some years before, that when I grew up more to man's estate, I should know the reason of that tenderness and weeping, which I now did to purpose."

Bownas' Journal is available at Google Books and is also part of Volume 3 of the Friends' Library.

Raye said...


That term thee used - at arm's length - comes to me often, when I am in some circles.

I wish I could communicate that those times I finally relent, and allow the Lord to work in me, there is a deep strength that is difficult to describe that rises up within me.

Thanks for pointing out these things to all of us.

Liz Opp said...

Mark -

In your first comment, you write in part: ...the expectation of being changed should also go hand-in-hand with the expectation of the Divine Source of the messages and the Source of the change wrought upon our hearts.

I agree, and I also would say that a great many Friends who are being impacted mightily (and probably unknowingly) by the secular world might in fact be keeping the Divine Source at arm's length, which in turn keeps ministry from reaching them more deeply.

My initial reaction to your comment--as well as to Martin's--was something like, "Wow, guys, this is a great example of what i just wrote about! Rather than share how this particular concern is impacting you personally as a Friend--in essence, "sitting on the bench next to Samuel"--you've simply elaborated more on Samuel's own transformation."

At the same time, I recognize that we are all of a piece; the ministry we are given to say and the ministry we receive from the others is all part of the Tapestry, and it is up to us to consider the Loom and our own particular thread or skein that has been given to us for our care.

And of course over the years, I have come to know you and Martin as Friends who wrestle deeply with the exercise of the Spirit.

Martin -

You write about Samuel Bownas' journal, Change the language a little and the modes of transport a lot, and you'll see someone remarkably contemporary. The minister's task of calling people out of their needs to focus on God's direction is a role for each generation.

Is this supposed to be reassuring?!? smile

Actually, I do find some comfort, knowing that we 21st Century Friends are not unique in our struggles with faithfulness, obedience, discipline, etc. And too often I am guilty of twisting my own experience of being transformed and making it into an unspoken demand or expectation that "so should you [be transformed]!"

I have so much more to learn and to give over...

Raye -

Thanks for stopping by and adding a bit of your own experience. As I allude to above, I too must think more on the speck in my own eye...


Mark Wutka said...

Do you think maybe you are getting attached to the results of ministry? We don't necessarily know whether we have reached someone or not. Just because someone doesn't tell you how they were affected doesn't mean they weren't. Sometimes it takes a while to sink in, and sometimes it never does. I notice that after his awakening, Bownas was able to look back on things that he had heard with a new-found understanding.

It is important that we remain faithful to our leadings. The measure of your faithfulness is not whether someone reacted in a way you expect.

With love,

Rich in Brooklyn said...

Liz, I'm glad you posted this because the concern you raised - that we be open to the possibility that a given message is meant for us - is a very valid one.

Still, I also want to second what Mark said in his last comment: we don't necessarily know whether we've reached someone or not. Perhaps it's best not to focus our worries on what someone does or doesn't say to us after we give ministry.

And - by the way - I notice that you said you gave this message "during the part of our worship where 'messages that didn't rise to the level of vocal ministry' are welcome". Does this imply that you didn't think your message "rose to the level of vocal ministry"? If so, does that mean you don't think it came from God? And if you did not offer it as a message from God, was it appropriate to expect that it would be received as one?

Despite Bownas' appreciation of it, I've always thought that may be Anne Wilson was a tad too sure her message was from God and for Samuel. But perhaps the ministers of today go too far the other way, and are too diffident about affirming the divine origin of messages.
- - Rich

RichardM said...

One of the main obstacles facing people today is that very often they come to meeting feeling that they do not need to change. They are proud of their good education and their liberal political views and think that it is other people (Sarah Palin?) who need to change. Modern Quakers too often fail to recognize their own pride as the barrier to spiritual life that it is. The Spirit cannot flow into a mind that is full of itself. "Make me little. Make me low. Make me humble. And keep me so." This was a favorite saying of beloved elder Janie Sams. It represents a wisdom people need right now.

Liz Opp said...

Mark and Rich -

Thanks so much for making explicit an "advice" that I had earlier considered but hadn't sat with long enough! A part of my musings as I had been crafting this post was in fact that I cannot know where the seeds of any ministry I have been given might go, nor whether or not they might take root...

And though I find a fair amount of Power and Spirit within the messages that are brought forward in that latter bit of the worship hour, more likely what I forget to do if I offer something then is that I forget to "release" my own "investment" in the message and its possible impact on others. I'm more likely to do this self-check inwardly prior to speaking out of the silence of true waiting worship.

I hope that makes sense. And thanks so much for your open counsel.

Richard M -

I appreciate the connection you make between my own concern and what it means to be low, humble.

When I first read Samuel Bownas' On the Qualifications..., I remember being struck by his use of the word "meek."

In part, that was because I hadn't met many Friends who I would consider as meek at that point; and in part because, in fact, that concept was never spoken about among my extended Jewish family, best as I can recall. Neither was pride but most folks of my parents' generation that I was exposed to--and my own peer group--seemed to know a LOT about acting and being entitled to any number of things.

I know I myself must stay aware of my own pride and invite God in to help keep me low. I pray my lessons in this particular School of the Spirit be gentle and long-lasting.


cubbie said...

quakerism was so transformative for me in the first two years... and now i'm just living. and i know there are parts of me that still need transformation, but... i'm in this funny coasting place. i THINK i'm being faithful, but i don't see much new going on. which might be fine. but i am also having a hard time truly listening to ministry lately, too, i think.