Tuesday, June 22, 2010

My Spiritual Journey, Part 3

This is the final part of my spiritual journey as presented to Atlanta Friends Meeting in 2008. You can also read part 1 and part 2.

So, the next year blogging started to get real popular and I started reading various Quaker blogs. This was around 2005, and I actually started my own blog, that I've slowed down on a bit, but it's called "The Ear of the Soul", that phrase comes from a quote from Meister Eckhart, a famous Christian mystic.. No! John of the Cross, another famous Christian mystic, or Juan de la Cruz he would be in Spanish. And it was very interesting. I can look at some of the things I said when I started and how I changed, and a lot of the people in the blogosphere had an effect on that. Having discussions with people, one of the nice things about blogging is actually people getting out and talking about their faith that we probably don't do here as much, and actually the blogging is a good way to do it, because everybody's on their own schedule. If you're busy this week, you come back to it next week. And plus, you've got a record of it, you can go back and read what somebody was saying two years ago.

And sometime, it was in 2006, I don't remember when the Gwinnett Worship Group started, but early on when it started, they only had a couple people going, didn't have any women attending, which can I guess be uncomfortable if a woman comes in and it's all guys. So, we started visiting occasionally, and the meeting started to grow. It was going pretty well, and Lloyd Lee Wilson, my plain Friend, came to visit, basically a traveling in the ministry kind of thing. He just came and sat in worship, and then would occasionally talk about things. And he talked about the yearly meeting, and the purpose of the yearly meeting, and he talked about how the worship at the end of the yearly meeting was sort of his liturgical.. the liturgical highpoint of his year, and he spoke very glowingly of his yearly meeting. So Ceal and I said "we really need to go there".

So, we went. They meet in July.. the second fourth day of seventh month is when they start. They're very big on numbering the days, the months. And I really felt at home there in a way that was different from our meeting, because.. let me explain one thing. For those of you who aren't familiar with conservative Friends, the word conservative doesn't have to do with political affiliation, and in fact North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative passed a torture minute the year before SAYMA did. It has to do with them feeling they are conserving the old Quaker traditions, so they are also unprogrammed like we are. They are more explicitly Christian than we are, they're very open in talking about that, but I think a lot more of their strength is not that, it's that they are much more.. they talk much more about how the Spirit works in us, and in the meeting, and maybe have a little more, they're a little more openly dedicated to that. One of the things I like, I'm the recording clerk for the Retreat Committee, and I'm starting to put "If consistent with Divine will" at the end, whenever they say "We purpose to meet on such-and-such a day.. if consistent with Divine will", you know, it's that acknowledgement that "yeah, this is where I want to go, but at some point I may be led to do something different." It's something they keep in mind a lot. But it's also that I felt that I could speak the language that I was most comfortable with and not have to worry so much about upsetting people. And, you know, I.. there's different ways to have a yearly meeting. The thing that I learned from the yearly meeting conservative is that it can be quite a benefit to have a shared faith tradition that people can speak to each other with. People can quote the bible and it means something to a lot of people and you understand where they're going, where when you have more of a mix that's a lot more difficult. But, don't necessarily get.. some people feel less comfortable with that. Having a meeting like this, and a yearly meeting like ours, is just a different way of approaching it, it has different strengths and weaknesses.

Also, while I was there, the Saturday night program was reading the book of Mark as sort of a dramatic presentation. There were 12 or 13 people, several people had different parts to read, and I volunteered. I said "Hey, I'll participate." And I think I had Peter, but the thing that I always laughed about was that there are several places in the book of Mark where evil spirits speak. They gave the guy from the liberal meeting all the evil spirits. Also, we had a little discussion about where the person reading God would sit. They wanted God way up at the top, and I said "I can understand that, God sitting up high, but on the other hand, if God can't get front row center, who can?" Lloyd Lee laughed and said "Thee has a future as a theologian."

So, Ceal and I like to visit meetings when we travel. If you're not familiar with it, quakerfinder.org is really great. If you're going somewhere just type it in. We've been to meetings in Dallas. Dover, New Hampshire was one of my favorites. The day we went there there was an old guy named Silas who.. he's written a book on meeting houses of New England. He's since died, but he had been very ill and been away from meeting for months and this was his first day back, and they were all just lined up to say "Hi" to him. It was wonderful, and he sat with us and talked a lot to us. But, as we visited, I noticed I was speaking a lot in meetings, but not here. And that always bothered me, and I wondered "why am I not speaking here?" Cause I never felt like I had a message, you know, it's not like I was "Oh, I can't say anything here." And I had a lot of discussions with Ceal about that.

While were visiting the North Carolina Yearly Meeting in 2007, there was an announcement about this consultation on Gospel Ministry that FGC Traveling Ministries was having, and I felt like I needed to be there. But to go, your meeting had to recommend you. And I thought "Why is my meeting going to recommend me? I never speak there." And I can't. I can't make myself speak. That's not the way ministry works. I can't fake it. I mean, I could fake it, I don't want to fake it. And so I remember sitting in meeting one day wrestling with this, and I'm pretty sure it was July 29, 2007. I went back and looked it up, because that was the day of the women's retreat and Ceal was there. And I was just wrestling with that and it seemed like a lot of things were falling away, and I don't even precisely know what. But then a message came to me, and I felt "I am going to stand and speak, and I'm not going to worry about what anybody may think." Like most of the things I say in meeting, I can't tell you what I said. I don't remember. But, it just felt like something.. you know, a block was removed, because since then I haven't had any problem. And the other difficulty I had with that was, I feel like it is important for a meeting to be able to look and identify gifts and call gifts out, and I didn't feel so comfortable with saying "hey! I want to go to this Traveling Ministries thing. Could somebody consider that?" But, I exchanged several e-mails with Mary Ann and said "Look, this is my situation. I hate to even say anything but if anybody is considering, could you consider me?" She ended up talking to SAYMA Ministry & Nurture and between SAYMA Ministry & Nurture and Atlanta, Atlanta set up a clearness committee for me which was really great, and they ended up recommending me to go. And it was great. The thing I mentioned about people having a shared tradition, there was a point during that consultation where somebody was talking about how difficult it was dealing with his own meeting, that his own meeting didn't give him any support. He felt really bad about this. Somebody else stood up and said "I feel led to read a verse from the bible." And it started out "Jesus went back to his hometown…" and all of a sudden you could feel everybody "Oh! I know where this is going!" and then we could all feel that we all felt that, and we laughed. It's like you don't even have to continue, cause it was the thing about "a prophet is not without honor except in his own hometown." And I got to meet some.. one of the people I really wanted to meet was Brian Drayton, who wrote "On Living With a Concern for Gospel Ministry", and I ended up in his small group. And I had a really good time. I met a lot of people, but the thing.. I'm not sure that the conference itself was the most important thing as far as where I am today. I think the process I went through sitting in meeting and actually just being changed like that was part of it. The clearness committee helped me a lot, and as a result I have an anchor committee or care committee that Bill is.. Bill [Holland, Atlanta Friends] and Daphne [Clement, AFM] and Hannah MacDermott are all on. And that's the kind of committee you want, with those people on it. But they help me a lot, help me stay grounded and a lot of the meeting is like a clearness committee, and they're really good at helping me see things. So that was one of the best benefits.

And since then I've been spending a lot of time in early Quaker writings. I've done a lot with Fox's epistles. I was in the process of trying to make a version of Fox's epistles where all the bible references were in bold and all the actual scripture references were out on the right. Fox, when he used the bible, he didn't say "as it says in blah blah blah", he just used words and phrases from all over the bible, so it's very interesting to actually go and look up the context. And I ended up doing a workshop on that at SAYMA this year, which was very well attended. There were 46 people and SAYMA has about 200 adults attending. There were 5 young Friends, too, so it went really well. And I'm involved in a lot of things. I'm very involved with SAYF, we do prison visitation once a month, I'm on the retreat committee, I'm involved with SAYMA, I'm on the SAYMA nominating committee.. be careful.. but, it feels like there's something more I'm supposed to do and I don't know what it is yet, but I feel an urge to prepare myself. I spend a lot of time reading the bible. I'm kind of a geek. I got into Nascar in the mid-90's and to give you an example of what a geek I am, Ceal caught me reading a book on thermodynamics cause I was reading about engines, and she said "You know, a typical Nascar fan does not read books on thermodynamics." I've never heard any announcers on a Nascar race.. So.. being a geek, I started learning Greek, and part of my thought behind that was "I want to see what the bible really says", and you know over time, I've come to see that it mostly says what it says in English. Part of the thing with, you know, if you really want to understand it in Greek, you have to understand the culture, the thought, you have to put your whole mind back to two thousand years ago, because we've had a lot go on. In things I've read, the Enlightenment really affects our thought process. The idea that religion and politics are separate, that's not something that was in Jesus' time. So, I actually trust English translations more, and I'm more willing to wrestle with "they say what they say."

Also, early on I would just read the synoptic gospels, that's what I was comfortable with, occasionally ventured into John, and other than the love chapter, wouldn't touch Paul. What I've found over time is that if I am willing to let go of fear, or my desire to have it say what I want it to say, and just accept it for what it is, I learn a lot more. And, I can now.. I love reading Paul, especially because I feel a lot.. there's a lot of reading Paul..I can.. you know, from a Quaker standpoint I can see where he is. My favorite verse in the bible is Galatians 5:22-23, "The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, patience, peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control." If I.. those to me are a touchstone, that if we are not feeling those things, we're not in touch with the Spirit.

The last thing I wanted to talk about was my understanding of Quakerism, and I want to do it in terms of the phrase "that of God in every person", and the reason is because from my standpoint, there are some contrasts with how we often use that phrase. And I think it will illustrate where I am. First of all, just saying "we believe there is that of God in every person", that's definitely original Quaker theology, you know, that was.. George Fox was all about that. But, to just say that doesn't, to me, go far enough. Because we're an experiential faith, and saying "we believe X" doesn't really speak to the experience itself. And, along the same lines, we say "we try to see that of God" in other people, and to me that is a noble idea, and a lot of times it's a good fallback. If I can't do anything else I'll try to do that, but I think what we miss when we say that as describing what Quakerism is, is that it doesn't talk about "that of God" in our own hearts. Because that is ultimately what transforms us. And it transforms us in a way that we love all of creation like God does. And it's really not just other people, that's all of creation. And I don't think everybody gets that with the looking. And then, also, "that of God" in every person means that everybody has the potential for that same transformation. And that, when Fox talked about answering that of God in other people, it was the idea that by what we say and what we do, we can awaken people to that of God in themselves, so that they also can be transformed. And looking back on my life, that's the one thing I know I can speak to, is that I have been, and I am still being transformed.

This ends the presentation I gave to Atlanta Friends Meeting, but there's a follow-up.


  1. I’ve been enjoying your account of your journey a great deal, and want to thank you for sharing it.

    I also thought you might like to know that the business about adding “if consistent with Divine Will” is grounded in a Biblical injunction, in James 4:13-15: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life?  It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’”

    Thus the addition, “if consistent with Divine Will” was not intended, originally, as a reminder to ourselves that God may tell us to do something different; rather, it was meant to be a reminder to ourselves that we continue to live and breathe only by God’s sufferance.

  2. This is so near my own experience that it is kinda freaky! Except for the part where you are/were with Conservative Quakers. I am with only Liberal Quakers. My background is very similar to yours with Charismatic/Pentecostal beginnings. I too have read much of George Fox (before ever checking out a meeting) and am continually blown away by all the Scripture references (even if not quoted chapter and verse). I believe Fox was a true Prophet in the OT sense that he was calling the church back to its roots. The Inner Light always made a lot of sense to me as the Holy Spirit coming from a Charismatic background being the ultimate guide. I got to my first meeting experience and was like ... uh what? These folks do not view it this way at all. Many do not even believe in God at all???? I was half expecting that from having read websites about Quakers, and the different kinds, and what kind were in my area, but I was still taken aback after having read the founder extensively. The evangelical church in America is so fouled up its maddening. But I love Jesus and would love to be near people (as it seems you are) that are more early church types (like I believe early Quakers were).

  3. My folks were both from staunchly Catholic backgrounds. My mom went to school at Duquesne U. in Pittsburgh, PA where there was at the time a Charismatic Renewal happening in the Roman Catholic Church in which she became involved. My dad became part of the Jesus Movement (hippie Christians). They ran in the same circles (bible studies, prayer meetings, social outreach, etc). When they had me and got married, they were apart of a group of people who got together regularly - a very early church type setting. I remember that very fondly growing up in a very loving very non-institutional church setting in the parks and homes of the participants, no clergy, no church gov't, and loads of outreach to the poor, marginalized and oppressed people of Pittsburgh. This is where I come from. People who love Jesus, love each other, and love on the people in the wider community. This lasted for quite a while before some began attending "normal" churches. We went to an A/G church for a little while before we moved out of the state due to the steel mills closing down and the economy tanking in Pittsburgh. In our new state we went to a non-denom church for a while, graduated HS and University, got married, and eventually moved out of state again to help a friend at a foursquare church. Then after experiencing the institutional church, much reading, much listening, and growing, my wife and I decided to move beyond the institutional church.

  4. So,I have some experience in an early church setting and an institutional church setting. I greatly prefer the early church setting which I believe the Quakers more closely practice than any others. I just wish more of them, in my location at least, actually knew the reason why the practices are the way they are and why Fox and the Quaker founders initiated this movement -> Jesus.

    I believe God still talks to people. That is all I really have in common with the wider Pentecostal movement.

    The interaction with God is the important part. I do NOT care if it is understood as Fox did as Christ speaking to his condition, or as the Pentecostal understanding of the Holy Spirit, or just plain old God (the Father) speaking to your heart. I DO care though whether Jesus is viewed as God or not. I'm not necessarily wrapped up in the trinity. I don't care about the theology behind that issue. --But I do care about Jesus-- I view him as the end all and be all. This is definitely difficult to find common fellowship on with other Quakers where I am. I don't care about church gov't, eschatology, creation debates or really anything else. People can be at wide variance on all that, and I could still have very meaningful relationship and community formed with people. Christ is the center for me, and it would be nice to at least have some subsection or group amongst Quakers to relate to in this way. The general evangelical church (pentecostal or not) has this central understanding of Jesus as the Christ, but of course they are not practicing the early church model as the Quakers are - egalitarian, peaceful, simple, grace-giving for difference of opinion. I like the gracefulness the most I think, except I believe there needs to be one thing that binds the group together. I believe the life and teachings of Christ was this central point of commonality in the past for the original Quakers. The practices continue that emanated from the early understanding, but the reason for them existing in the first place - Jesus - is missing. Now it seems there is an aimless graceful community bound by nothing other than their gracefulness. There are Buddhists, Athiest, Pagans, and Jesus-less Christians (if that is such a thing) all coming to our meeting and happy to remain graceful to each other on their difference of opinion on everything. I like the gracefulness on every issue, but one point has has to be common. I mean is this a "religious" society of friends or not? Doesn't a spiritual focus imply a spirit? I would think that this is something that is rather crucial to agree on. And I don't even think it needs to be everyone who comes. I think its great that there are those who are not Jesus followers wondering around with the rest of us on a regular basis. But I do think it should be central at least among the membership (maybe as a goal for people who just aren't there yet).

    Am I crazy? What is the purpose of a Quaker meeting if not to listen to God? Doesn't it matter that the god in question be agreed upon even if nothing else is agreed upon?

    Sorry for the length. I just got into a groove.

  5. YellowDart, Thank you very much for sharing your experience and understandings. It sounds like you would feel quite at home among Conservative Friends. Ohio Yearly Meeting publishes a newsletter called The Conservative Friend that might interest you and help you connect with other Conservative Friends.

    As I read your expression of how you feel about Jesus, I may not be quite in the same place as you. For me, the most important thing is not the understand of Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), but in the recognition and resonance with the Inward Teacher, the recognition that was we read of Jesus saying and doing is what the Inward Teacher is telling us. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. If it is just saying that you have to believe a particular thing about Jesus that is not connected to the experience of Jesus, I think that it becomes possible to profess that understanding without having that experience.
    With love,

  6. YellowDart, there are times when I feel the same frustration that you do, and I think that finding Conservative Friends was a huge help for me. I was wondering if you could share about what general region of the country you are in, perhaps there is a Conservative meeting or worship group close enough that you might occasionally get to visit.
    With love,