Sunday, November 26, 2006

Samuel Caldwell Revisited

About 8 years ago, on a monday night in Philadelphia, Samuel Caldwell spoke about Quaker Faith vs. Quaker Culture, and had some pretty harsh words about the culture of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Parts of his speech came to mind this morning as I sat through a popcorn-ish meeting full of political messages about Palestine.

Caldwell opened with the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (NET Bible)

The part of Caldwell's lecture that has always stuck with me is the notion that Liberal Friends (Caldwell limited it to PYM) have become the unfaithful servant in this parable. Caldwell suggests that PYM has taken its one talent - Quaker Faith - and buried it inside Quaker Culture. I propose something a little more radical - that Liberal Friends have taken the Quaker faith that was a revival of early Christianity, and buried it within a new definition of faith that does not yield additional talents. Modern Liberal Quakerism has become a faith that is kept within, it offers others the fruits of that faith, but fails to offer the faith itself.

The statement this morning that set me off was yet another use of "that of God in everyone" as a reason why we treat people the way we do. According to Lewis Benson, George Fox's use of the phrase "that of God in everyone" was not used as a theological statement that justified the peace and equality testimonies, but it was something of God in man that shows him what is evil and also that it was the witness of God in man [that] teaches us how to use, and not to misuse our natural environment. According to Benson, the phrase had disappeared from usage until Rufus Jones revived it in the early twentieth century, giving it a new interpretation as a theological justification for some of the testimonies. This new justification, I believe, is an example of burying the one talent in the ground. It means that we no longer look at "that of God" as something that is awakened and answered in others, bringing them into a right relationship with God, but is merely a philosophical reason why we act the way we do.

The second way we bury the one talent lies in the statement that "Quakers don't proselytize". This statement is not true, Liberal Quakers certainly do proselytize, often quite vocally. The difference is that instead of proselytizing about the spirit of Christ within them, Liberal Quakers tend to proselytize about the fruits of that spirit - opposition to war, equality, simplicity. If proselytizing about one's faith is considered bad, is it not worse to try to convert people to a viewpoint that is ostensibly achieved by the spirit of Christ working upon our hearts, especially when we seem to expect people to get to that same viewpoint without Christ?

The third way we bury this talent is in our individualism. Sometimes, it feels to me like Liberal Quakers act like a herd of cats - everyone goes in their own direction, following whatever path they want to. This course is often justified by the famous quote "what canst thou say?" The community aspect of Quakerism has been watered down in that meetings seem to be reluctant to accept responsibility for the spiritual health of its members - it is something left to the individuals. If you read the full quote, George Fox said You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? It was not a call to do and say what you want, but to follow the guidance of God. The call of cross is not one of individualism but one of submission to God - to walk in the Light is to follow God's leadings and not our own. Our community should act as a guide to help us discern true leadings from our own individual wants and desires. Another aspect of this individualism is in the idea that Quaker business is conducted by consensus (I heard this several times this morning). We are supposed to be following God's will, and business meetings are for discerning that will corporately and acting upon it. When we take God out of the equation, we are left with individual ego's trying to make decisions that don't make anyone mad. Allowing our faith to be shut up in individuals and not truly shared corporately is yet another way we bury it.

Finally, we bury our talent when we give up our waiting worship to politics and individual crusades. I hear so many people speaking about various political issues, and it is extremely rare that anyone stands up and talks about listening to the still, small voice within. I almost seems like we have lost the ability to truly minister to one another, and to truly answer that of God in one another. Instead of paying attention to the vine and whether the roots are healthy, we focus solely on the fruit. Going back to "what canst thou say", when we rise to speak in meeting, we should take extra care to insure that what we speak is "inwardly from God". It is not enough to say "God wants us to be peaceful, so if I say something about peace it is from God." To close the ear of the soul to the whispers of that inner voice is to bury the talent deep in the soil where it does no good.

Timothy Travis posted a thought-provoking response to this on his blog.


  1. Mark,

    I'm sorry that you were not fed by that worship. I attended a meeting recently that had a lot of pretty weak vocal ministry. There were a couple of guests there including one from a programmed meeting who had never experienced an unprogrammed meeting before. I thought that he probably walked away with a pretty low opinion of unprogrammed worship.

    I hope you have a ministry and counsel committee that can address these problems. Are there like-minded Friends in the meeting with whom you can talk? If so, you really need to talk with them.

  2. Friend Mark,

    It seems to me that Liberal Friends have taken that one talent, given half to the poor, and invested the other half in a new spiritual venture that might not much resemble 17th century Puritanism but which nonetheless tries to preserve the essence of Christianity and Quakerism without falling prey to the evils of tribalism.

    Is our tree bearing fruit? From my little corner of the world, I'd say "Yes," and would love to figure out how we can care for our orchard to yield more and better fruit.

    I don't think that shallow ministry and laziness are unique to liberal Friends. Idolatry is a human sin, and it's very easy to substitute the symbol for the thing itself. Living a Spirit-led life is not easy, and we face the constant temptation of following masters that require less of us.

    We have Meetings, I think, so that we can help one another deepen when we go shallow. We have Meetings so that we can labor with one another when we go astray, and to help one another back to the substance and the Light when we get caught in the shallow and worldly.

    If your Meeting is going shallow, what are you doing to bring your Friends back to the substance? How are you laboring with them to move your Meeting back into the Light?

    My small bit of light on this matter is that tending my own worship and praying to be led by the Spirit (instead of reacting to someone else's words in worship) helps bring the whole Meeting back where it belongs.

    Holding your Meeting in the Light and praying that it finds its center again soon,


  3. Richard, our Ministry&Worship committee has tried to address this before. I know they occasionally speak to individuals, and also schedule forums. Unfortunately, as far as the forums go, they are usually attended by the same small core of people that attends business meeting, and constitutes maybe 1/3 of a typical meeting for worship (that 1/3 is still a lot of people, though, maybe 25-35).

    Liz, your description of the Divine Principle resonates with me, that is the understanding I get from reading early Quaker works and also the bible. While I understand the importance of being able to sit with Friends who hold a different understanding, I worry that if left unchecked, it becomes like that game where you whisper a phrase from person to person and when it gets all the way around the circle it is something completely different. We should be able to articulate some common understanding, and also tolerate people who point out that the common understanding has strayed.

    Heather, thank you for the reminder about holding the meeting in the Light. I used to do that all the time and I have fallen away from it. I think your description of what Liberal Friends have done with their talent perfectly illustrates my point. Giving half to the poor, that's a fine sentiment, and maybe that was that the master had intended, perhaps not. Investing the other half in a new "venture", if it yields additional talents, that's great. You speak of it yielding much fruit, which, as I mentioned, Liberal Friends like to focus on. Is the orchard growing at all? If you want more fruit, why not plant more trees? That is what "answering that of God in every one is about, it isn't about handing them an apple, it's about watering that Divine Seed within them, so it in turn will yield fruit. Also, I have to ask if you mentioned "tribalism" because you took my posting to be an argument that what Quakerism needs is to be more Christian. Yes, I use Christian language, and I would find it offensive if you are suggesting that I shouldn't, and my mention of early Quakerism being a revival of early Christianity probably helps that impression, but that is not what I was talking about. It has more to do with a Spirit-led life, individually and communally, not a fruit-led life.

    With love,

  4. Mark,
    I apreciated your heartfelt comments. I too go to a liberal meeting and it seems that most of the people there look towards the fruit of the vine rather than tending the roots. My meeting is very big on social justice--which I deeply appreciate. But they don't talk too much about what the spirit (God) is doing in their lives. They do good works but they don't talk about the spirit that motivates them to do good works. I find that rather frustrating.
    I sometimes wish I could attend a Conservative Friends meeting to see how they are different from a FGC meeting. (But there are no Conservative Friends in my area.)
    As another person said just hold your meeting in the Light and pray for a change. I wish you the best.

  5. Another wonderful post! It seems that there are extremes on both sides of the aisle. The liberal Quakers and other liberal religionists are oft given to focus on the fruits and not the Vine.

    On the other hand, many Christians, especially in the evangelical community, focus only on the Vine. Went to the steeplehouse with my folks for thier Thanksgiving day service. I heard a lot about God and the "perverts" (I suppose they include me in this statement) that are ruining our nation. Not a word about feeding the poor, working for peace and justice or bringing our lives into alignment with Jesus' teachings.

    Seems to me, if we really want to return to primitive Christianity and promulgate the Kingdom of God, then we must live close to the Vine and we must also be bearers of the fruits of the Vine. Perhaps that is the narrow road of which Jesus speaks.

    The amazing thing is that I can see both extremes seeking to come to a more balanced approach. There are Friends, like yourself and many others in liberal Meetings, that have reclaimed their roots in Christianity and seek to live thier lives with a constant ear toward that Still Small Voice.

    I can also see our evangelical sisters and brothers who are focusing more on the fruits of the Vine. Folks like Brian McLauren, Tony Compolo and Jim Wallis are bringing evangelical Christianity back to a place orthopraxis...acting out thier beliefs rather than just continually coming up with "Statements of Belief".

    What I guess I am saying, Mark, is that you are part of a move of the Spirit. Even though you might not get as spiritually fed in your Meeting as you might like, you are there as a witness. While there, be thankful for the fruits (pun somewhat intended) you see in the Meeting, but also be faithful to proclaim the Good News of God's loving Voice.

    If there comes a time when the Spirit says, "move on"...OBEY! "To obey is better than sacrifice."

    I love you, my brother and am proud of your willingness to be in the center of God's will.

    God's peace,

  6. Excellent comment Quakerboy! You really hit the nail on the head! It is essential that we look to BOTH the vine and the fruit to become what Jesus intended. As the Apostle James said, "Faith without works is dead."
    I also really liked your comment to Mark about how he is to be part of the move of the spirit in his meeting. That he is to be the witness. Hopefully he can be used by the spirit to change things for the better in his meeting. Once again--excellent post!

  7. Dear Mark,

    I love the idea of planting more trees and of watering that Divine Seed in people. Watering that Divine Seed seems to me the deepest purpose of our Meetings. We join together in corporate worship so we can nurture that Divine Seed in each of our hearts.

    I found the parable of the talent a bit ironic as a metaphor for a Spirit-led life. A Spirit-led individual might not carefully invest the talent, but rather spend it where it can do the most good. Or give it to the poor or use it build a clinic in Malawi or to support peace work in Palestine.

    This discussion brings up many thoughts for me. It recalls Calvin's critique of the church and his insistence that justification (salvation) is by faith alone. For most Christians, I think that faith and good works go hand in hand. I am not sure that either alone can be sufficient.

    I have also been thinking about the folks in my Meeting who are nervous about the very idea of being Spirit-led. My Friends bear many wounds, some of which were inflicted in the name of religion. To help the Seed in their hearts grow requires much patience and tenderness on the part of the Meeting. Sometimes, all we can do is hand these folks apples; they might not be ready to let trees grow in their hearts.

    How do we answer that of God in hearts that are bruised and damaged? How do we reach those who are suspicious of religion but who nonetheless yearn for the Divine Seed in their lives?

    I have a certain (perhaps foolish) faith in Meeting for Worship. If we tend our corporate worship, I think that God can work directly on the hearts of Friends.

    I also think that my Meeting is in a very different place than yours. We are in a fallow period in terms of social and political action. The Meeting's attention is more taken with spiritual nurturance, the depth of our worship, and the care of our community. There is some criticism that we are too focused on the care of the trees and not enough focused on packaging the fruits.

    If we are joined in the Spirit, it doesn't matter to me what words you use. Several of my dearest Friends minister exclusively in Christian terms. As long as their ministry follows the prompting of the Spirit, I find their words deeply moving.

    With love,


  8. Heather,
    We have a pretty large meeting and there are groups that meet almost every night. I started the monthly Meeting for Healing 2 years ago, and last year we added the Meeting for Peace. I used to attend the bible study group regularly, too, but my work schedule has made that harder lately. There is also a spiritual nurture group that meets bi-weekly. About half the time it meets at the same time as Meeting for Healing. I have to be wary of trying to add more things, though. I am right on the cusp of being over-committed.

    I hope your Meeting for Healing goes well!

    With love,

  9. Dearest Mark,

    I, of course, share your concerns. I don't know what the Spirit intends for you here, but I believe we were planted here for a reason.

    I know that when the rambling messages that don't appear to be Spirit-led pop up in our meeting, there is a tendancy to freeze up inside spiritually. I fight this myself and have not won yet. I believe we need to get past this and let God speak to us through this. We still need to listen and open our hearts.

    At those times I think we need to learn to look for God in the speaker and try to answer to something within them. I have no idea what that is but I do know that I can only find it by listening to God and trying to eliminate the frustrations within myself.

    Right now I feel I am called to "bloom where I'm planted."

  10. My Dearest Cecilia,
    I don't know why God has blessed me with such a loving, faithful, and patient wife, but I am very grateful. I am trying to be more patient. I don't often come away from meeting feeling spiritually nourished, and lately I have been trying to take the attitude that I'm being a little selfish. I do wonder why I'm there, though, since God apparently doesn't want me to open my mouth.
    With love,