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When It Became Clear, and Why

Posted on Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 07:23AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments3 Comments

It’s time to resume that exploration of how we know when we’re led.

Let me speak a bit of my own present case.

I was invited to address this summer’s (2006) sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, as one of its keynote speakers, about a year ago. I felt clear to accept the invitation almost immediately. But for months after I accepted, I wasn’t clear at all about what God might wish me to say. I groped and pondered for inspiration, but remained utterly empty.

And then, in October of last year, what seemed like a leading came to me: that I must walk from my home in Omaha, Nebraska, to Baltimore’s sessions in Harrisonburg, Virginia, before giving my talk, as a form of spiritual preparation. I felt clear that, in the course of the walk, I’d be opened to the words that would be needed.

This sense of leading came out of the blue — I had had no previous intimation of it. And it terrified me. The length of the walk, the arduousness of it, the risks, the costs, the inevitable privations, the fact that I’d lose my job, all felt overwhelming. Moreover the theatrical element in it led me to mistrust it as a possibly lunatic urge.

I turned to my monthly meeting for clearness. And the meeting and I struggled together over the question of how one distinguishes between a genuine leading and a pseudo-leading.

There are tests of leadings, which have been known to Friends for many generations:

  1. Is the leading consistent with Christ’s teachings, with the manner he used in dealing with others in the course of his life, and with the values we find embodied in his teachings and life? A genuine leading will be consistent with these things, though the consistency may be hard to recognize at first, as the leadings given early Friends to preach to the public were sometimes hard for their listeners to recognize as Christian. A false leading may be clearly inconsistent, or may only seem to be consistent.

  2. What sort of fruits does the leading seem likely to bear? Are they thoroughly good? A genuine leading won’t bear fruits that aren’t thoroughly good, because God does not will anything that is not thoroughly good. (Of course, a genuine leading might bear fruits that seem crazy at first, but lead to good fruits in the end. One thinks of Stephen Grellet preaching to the deserted lumber camp, seeing no sense in doing so, and a person coming up to him years later, saying he’d heard from back in the woods where Grellet couldn’t see him, and had been converted.)

  3. Does the leading indulge the person’s own desires or ambitions? Or is it a cross to those things? A genuine leading won’t indulge desire or self-will — though it may be consistent with the higher hopes and wishes of the person given the leading — and it may cross (that is, contradict) the person’s desires and will utterly. A false leading may clearly indulge desires or self-will, or may only seem to cross them.

If these tests seem difficult to apply, it’s because they truly are. Easy judgments of other people’s leadings are frequently wrong; I have been wrong about others’ leadings at times, and others have been wrong about mine.

So my monthly meeting had its work cut out for it.

We spent five weeks of labor on the question of whether my leading was genuine. During that time, my meeting found some potential pitfalls — things that I definitely needed to watch out for in myself, and be careful of, should I proceed; but it found no evidence that I’d actually fallen into any of those pitfalls. And in the end, while the meeting felt that my leading passed all the tests listed above, we all realized that this still wasn’t enough: for we saw that my sense of leading might pass all these outward tests, so far as we could determine, and yet still be inwardly from myself rather than from God.

This recognition — that the outward tests were not enough — brought us to a standstill, and at this point we floundered, although we were still talking.

But I then felt moved to say, “Let’s go back to the beginning. Let me talk about the context in which I felt this leading.” And I began to say a few sentences about the context — and people started hearing something, and suddenly, very quickly, one after another, they said words to the effect of yes, this leading is real.

What was it that suddenly convinced them? In the space of those few sentences, I had apparently allowed a bit of the same thing I myself had felt, when the sense of leading came to me, to come through and be visible to others more clearly. The meeting could now feel God’s direction behind the leading, the same direction that I had felt previously.

Unfortunately, that is still a rather unsatisfactory answer, because it begs the question of how we recognize God’s direction. How did we know that what we were encountering was God?

How could we know?

How could anyone know?

I’ve been thinking hard of late about how to answer such questions, you see. And the answer lies, I now think, in how we listen to God.

We Friends find God in the place of conscience, as the Voice that teaches us right from wrong, good from bad, kind from unkind, upward from downward: the Voice that, at the rawest beginning of our spiritual journey, condemns us when we we have done something egregiously wrong, or approves and gives us a sense of peace when we have done something selflessly right at cost to ourselves.

This bare beginning experience of being condemned and approved is merely a seed of something much more wonderful. If we cultivate our sensitivity to that Voice, by listening for it and keeping faith with it when it comes to us, our sensitivity can become great enough in that we start intuiting right and wrong ways forward even in muddled situations, even without knowing why they are right or wrong. Thus, again, the case of Stephen Grellet in the lumber camp, and many other stories of like character in our Society’s history.

I believe that this was what was involved when my meeting gave its approval to my sense of leading. We knew the leading was genuine because, at some level, we could finally feel it came from the same Voice that teaches us right from wrong, upward from downward. We had had trouble seeing that it was genuine because our powers of discernment are modest. But I think we had a little divine help there at the end.

What this says to me is that leadings are neither so extraordinary, nor so mysterious, as what we sometimes make them out to be. Every time we know that a given course of action would be wrong, or that a given course of action is really what’s needed to make things better, that’s a leading. We go through life constantly being handed leadings, if only we are willing to notice the fact. Leadings are not something that only great saints get; they are actually just about as natural as breathing is.

It’s just that leadings aren’t normally so all-fired dramatic.

And thank Heaven for that! — for we generally need the consolations of undramatic lives.

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Reader Comments (3)

Mmmmm. Good stuff. Thanks for taking the time to share it. …Is there a map on the internet yet for those of us who want to to follow your trek?

-- comment posted by Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
April 30, 2006 at 2:49 p.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 10:25AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Hi, Liz! There is now a thumbnail map of the overall journey, on the curving shape of the Earth, at http://www.earthwitness.org/492.html.

I’ll be posting a close-up map of the first few days of my journey very soon.

-- comment posted by Marshall
May 9, 2006 at 10:23 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 10:27AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Not hard — easy to explain [laughter abounds].

Let us recall that the Universe is not separated at all. There is no Divine Will out there, while we are here. In the holographic Universe that is the entire mind of God, we are a “part” but as we will recall, every piece of a hologram holds the entire hologram. So if you have a holographic plate that was made of an image of an apple, for example, and you shine a light through the plate, the apple will appear to be there in 3D before your eyes. If however you break off the smallest piece of the plate, and shine the light through it, it too will show the ENTIRE apple. Not with the same fidelity as the original, but the whole apple nonetheless [the apple will appear somewhat blurry depending on how small was the piece you broke off]. So is it with us in the mind of the Divine.

So what is the whole Universe thinking? What is the Divine Will? Not hard — we are an integral part [and replica of the whole, containing all of it , thusly made, if I may coin a phrase, in the image of God], but as a part, faithful to the whole [but with less fidelity — often by a long shot]. So the task is to perceive what we already know. We have no place to go to find out. No one we need ask. We hold the answer — we are the answer to the question. So why is it that we can’t seem to “hear” it? Ah, all that static we conjure up, all that buzz. Yet, when we perceive the answer and do so with fidelity, it not only rings true but it IS true in every single solitary spec of the entire Universe. Thus Friends know and the knowing is sooo gratifying. It literally “rings” true.

-- comment posted by Steve Evans, http://sevansgsm-usa.com/
May 12, 2006 at 9:37 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 10:28AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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