May 20, 2010

Fear in the face of God's bidding

A few days ago, I offered the second in a series of workshops intended to raise seed money for bringing "bigger and better" workshops to the midwestern part of the U.S. The first workshop generated some new thinking and new materials for me, and the comments from participants were very encouraging.

I called the second workshop Fear Factor: Getting Out of Our Own Way. In hindsight, if I had it all over to do again, I'd change the title of the workshop to Fear in the Face of God's Bidding, because that's what the meat of my remarks were about.

I started the workshop last Saturday with the premise that there are a few basic reasons why we get in our own way--out of pride, ego, a fear of losing control; shame, fear of being successful, etc. From there, I had us consider a few questions:

1. What keeps us in our own way? What are the fears that keep us from surrendering to God's guidance?

2. How do we get out of own way? What do we have to do and how do we go about doing it?

3. Once we get out of our own way, where are we headed?

We did a bit of sharing about our own stories, about how fear has impacted our ability to be faithful. Since each participant was in a different place in her or his understanding and practice of what it means to be faithful, I was challenged to find a way to move us through the material at a pace everyone could appreciate.

It seemed as though what Friends appreciated the most were the long quotations that I shared, including the dreams that impacted early Quaker David Ferris. I lifted him up in particular because he's a wonderful example of what it's like to resist God's call! We modern Friends need more examples of what it's like to be a flawed vessel--and the story of James Nayler is a bit over the top, whereas David Ferris' experience is more akin to what many of us experience. At one point, for example, there is a reference to his being given a message to share in worship and his reluctance to give it because "a man of some note was sitting before me, which increased my reluctance to speak. I supposed he would not be present at the next meeting [for worship]..." (p. 51) How many of us convince ourselves not to share a message at worship "just because"?!

In addition to Ferris, I shared George Fox's Epistle X (at the end of this post), especially to point out that his instruction relates closely to how we get out of our own way. After some discussion and reflection on what it means to "stand still in the Light and submit to it" as well as times when the Light can be piercing and not just comforting, I gave us some time to think of what "trouble" it is that sometimes visits us--fear of letting go, the temptation to blame or shame another, the cruel self-talk and unhelpful second-guessing we engage in--and then I asked us to spend some time holding ourselves in the Light.

The quality of stillness and warmth in the room during and just after that exercise was palpable. After several minutes, it took quite a few verbal prompts from me to get the participants fully present once again. Such a simple activity that can restore us to God's love and grace, yet we partake of it so seldom!

We then spent a few minutes talking about "where we're headed" once we get out of our way and how the two questions--How do we get out out of our own way? and Where are we headed?--can be interrelated. We agreed that we're headed out of our own way and into God's Way, into the Stream, into Gospel Order. But then we had to answer for ourselves what we meant by that.

In particular, we spent time talking about Gospel Order and why contemporary Liberal Friends have, in a way, forsaken it, due to America's love of individualism, capitalism, consumerism, and more.

What surprised me the most, though, was the conversation that emerged when I shared a bit of Margaret Fell's writing. Friends especially liked the last two phrases of this excerpt:

…[If] thou wait in the Light of God in thee and be obedient to it, when it checks and calls and crosses thy own fleshly will, which is an enemy to it, and be low and watchful, and mind that which keeps thy peace, and it will show thee what brings trouble. And it will let thee see the truth of these things which thou never saw, and it will come near to thee in judgment, and raise up the witness in thee. . . And it will lead thee to another kingdom which is not of this world, which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. And then thou wilt see the vanity, and emptiness of these vanishing things, which all the world is busying themselves about.(p. 11, emphasis added)
The most senior Friend among our small group remarked how surprised she was that "even back then," Quakers were concerned about the petty, insignificant things that they and others were busying themselves with. They maybe didn't have iPods and smart phones, but they still had to make choices about how to live their lives as faithful servants.

It wasn't easy work back then and it isn't easy work for any of us now.

At the end of our time together, I summarized the four responses we had talked about, regarding the fear to do God's bidding:

1. We could take the long way around the fear, as modeled by David Ferris' 15-20 year journey to be faithful to God's call.

2. We could take the hard way, as in "The only way out is through"--what Marty Grundy points out that early Friends called the "refiner's fire."

3. We could engage in a slower, perhaps more gentle way of coping with our fear and resistance by acknowledging if we aren't willing to be faithful just yet, perhaps we could be willing to be willing to yield, in time.

4. Or we could take what I think of as the most loving way through the fear: To hold ourselves in the Light, open ourselves to God's Love, and wait for mercy to come in.



George Fox's Epistle X. (10) To Friends, to stand still in trouble, and see the strength of the Lord
    Friends, Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc., then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation. Then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here ye learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.


Mary Ellen said...

Liz, I'm glad you shared this synopsis for those of us unable to attend the workshop. Very useful!

Lawrence said...

Thank you! Your post reminded me of some of the words to Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Calling"

Genius or Jesus, maybe he's seen us
But who would believe us
I can't really say
Whatever the calling, the stumbling or falling
You follow it knowing
There's no other way, there's no other way

There are zealots and preachers
And readers of dreams
The righteous yell loudest
And the saved rise to sing
The lonely and lost are just waiting to hear
Any moment their purpose
Will be perfectly clear

And then life would mean more
Than their name on their door
And that far distant shore that's so near
They'd hear the calling
And stumbling and falling
They'd follow it knowing
There's nothing to fear
Nothing to fear

Anonymous said...

Oh, boy, is this speaking to my condition today...thank you so much!


Liz Opp said...

Mary Ellen and Mia --

Thanks for taking the time to comment, as always. Even though this wasn't as substantive a post as others, it's helpful to me to know that maybe a few readers at least took away something of import from the post.

Lawrence --

Thanks for these verses. I like it when contemporary writings reflect earlier writings, regardless of the faith tradition or personalities from where they originate.


Mary Elizabeth Bullock-Rest said...

I appreciate your post, Liz. Margaret Fell's quote, which I had read previously, reminds me that human beings seem to get their own way in similar ways, irrespective of century and culture. And the ways out are similar too. I take comfort in knowing I am not alone on this journey.