« A Crossing Between Worlds | Main | Report from (Xenia and) Jamestown »

Corporate Practice and the “Word”

Posted on Tuesday, July 11, 2006 at 11:49AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments1 Comment

Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson wrote in one of his essays that “the solitary Quaker is an oxymoron.”

This is not (so far as I know) an official position of any body of Friends anywhere. Nor is it something that Friends went out of their way to say to me in the communities where I learned my Quakerism, way back when.

But in the past twelve years, I’ve come to think that it holds truth. After all, most of the things that have made Friends distinctively Friends, and continue to define what Quakerism is today — from our corporate practices of worship and discernment, and our corporate experience of the Presence in the Midst, to our testimonies of harmony and reconciliation, equality, mutual aid and willing accountability to one another — are things that one Friend cannot manifest alone. She or he needs to interact with other Friends who are moved by the same Spirit in order for them to happen. And our testimonies define us as Friends — so if we cannot manifest them alone, how can we show when we’re alone that we are Friends? At the very least, it’s going to be hard to do.

Take our peace testimony as an example. One pacifist alone cannot do much more than refuse to be violent or to be provoked by violence. And even her refusal to be violent can come across as contrarian rather than as truly peaceable (harmonious).

But a community of pacifists can model a way of life together in which violence is left entirely behind: they can demonstrate with their daily lives how problems can be worked through, how people of differing views can get past misunderstandings and ultimately be reconciled, how forgiveness works, how people can build up mutual trust and closeness and supportiveness amongst themselves to a degree where it becomes very hard to feel alienated from or angry at any other community member.

“By this the world will know you are my disciples,” said Christ, “if you (he used the plural “you”) have love for one another.” The plural “you” in this context suggests it was not just one-sided love, but a corporate practice involving the whole community and drawing it together, that Christ was calling for. (John 13:34-35) And that is how Paul, too, must surely have understood it, judging by his famous words to the Galatians — “Bear one another’s burdens, and thus you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Now, I did not grow up a Friend. I grew up in a household that was secularized and very individualistic, and did not come to Friends until I was twenty. I had no rôle models, when I was a child, of people working closely together as community members. Thus, coming to recognize the communitarian nature of the Quaker path, and the Christian path in general, was a hard, slow journey for me — and as I said at the beginning of this essay, it has only been in the last dozen years that I feel I have begun to really understand it.

And this fact — that I have come to the communitarian understanding so late, and as an initially uncomprehending outsider — has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s been a blessing, because I’ve been forced to think slowly and attentively about the basics, and that is great training! But it’s been a curse, because — being such a raw beginner — I’ve managed to make every sort of mistake along the way, usually many more times than once, and sometimes in very public ways.

This journey across the country has been a real challenge to me, not only to deepen my understanding of the communitarian nature of Quakerism, but also, and more importantly, to really put it into practice. Submitting my leading to the community was hard for me — and the members of my meeting have told me that I still sounded a bit too much like I knew the answers already! Asking for money and guidance from Friends to make the journey possible was hard for me; I was mortally embarrassed about not being able to do all that on my own. Approaching my visits with Friends communities, not as opportunities to speak on the environmental matters I care so deeply about, but as times to be silent and let the Friends I was visiting instruct me, was hard for me, and still remains hard: I have to still my own urges to speak, and relax my grip on my opinions. But all these things were part of the leading I was given, and so I have struggled — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to overcome these bad habits of mine and be faithful.

And the reward, on the occasions when I have succeeded to some small extent in following that leading, has been that I have begun to feel like Christ’s disciple, and like an actual member of the Society of Friends, on levels I’d hardly even glimpsed before this journey began. And when I have fallen short of good communitarian practice, at various points in this journey, I have felt myself cheating myself of that reward.

In my last posting in this thread, Ministry and the “Word”, I brought up the ancient philosopher Herakleitos’s teachings concerning the Logos — the “Word” — and suggested that it was these teachings the evangelist John had in mind when he wrote in his Gospel of the Word that was in the Beginning.

This idea that it was Herakleitos’s Logos that John was talking about — and also that this was what Luke was talking about, when he identified the Seed with the Logos — is particularly interesting to me because Herakleitos focused on things that only come into existence synergetically — things that cannot be manifested by one being or creature alone. He spoke of lyres — stringed instruments like harps — and bows, that need both a stick and a string, working together in just the right way, in order to come into existence. A lyre or a bow, Herakleitos said, need both a tension between its parts — a tension between stick and string — and a harmony of those parts.

Reading Herakleitos prepared me to see that this is how Christian reconciliation is, likewise — and how the Quaker testimony of community is as well. Neither reconciliation nor community happens unless there are two or more people involved. And they don’t happen unless there are both a tension and a harmony involved. It’s by the bringing of the tension into harmony that we know Christ, the Logos, the One who Reconciles, is manifesting among us. It’s by the arising of that harmony where only tension was before — or by the persistence of that harmony when tensions have arisen — that we know a Friends community is present.

Christ made the point in Matthew 18, the “Quaker Gospel Order chapter”. He said that two or more believers, gathered in his name, would be capable of experiencing and manifesting him in ways that would be very special. (Matthew 18:19-20) And he said this in the context of a larger teaching on reconciliation and forgiveness.

Rufus Jones, the Quaker historian and reformer, wrote of a very down-to-earth childhood experience he had, that brought this same truth home to him:

I went out one morning in early winter to feed our cattle and horses in the barn, and found to my horror that a fearful storm in the night had blown the barn down with almost everything we possessed in it. It was such a wreck as I had never seen. I can remember now the way I felt as I ran through the neighborhood to call the men together to see if we could save anything. The news went fast, and before the day was over men from near and far gathered in our yard. They were all hard-working people like ourselves, with little wealth beyond their own strong hands. But before they separated they had decided to go to work at once and replace what the storm had destroyed. The entire neighborhood went to work, and a new structure rose where the ruin had been.

It was a simple deed, which perhaps many towns could parallel, but it affected me in a strange way. I saw, as I had not seen before, that the religion of these men was not merely an affair of the meetinghouse; not merely a way to get to heaven. It was something which made them thoughtful of others and ready to sacrifice for others. I saw how it worked itself out in practical deeds of kindness and righteousness. During those days that I worked in the cold of a Maine winter, among those men with their rough clothes and hard hands, I was helping build more than a barn; I was forming a wider view of the religion which such men as these were living by. (Jones, Finding the Trail of Life [Macmillan, 1926, 1954])

Of course, this isn’t just how fallen barns are dealt with amongst the faithful; it’s also how new truths are uncovered. We Friends are not a people who rely on some one person bringing truths to everyone else and straightening everyone else out. We’re a people who believe in the truths that people find together — truths that are often discovered only when we compare our different opinions on some matter we disagree about, and find that our different views are fusing into some sort of larger whole synergetically.

It’s by finding truths together, rather than looking to one leader to straighten everybody else out, that we manifest the Kingdom in which God’s will, rather than some individual human’s will, is what winds up getting done.

Herakleitos also wrote of the importance of the shared wisdom (“common sense” in its original meaning) by which a community orders itself:

People should speak with intelligence, and hold fast to that (wisdom) that is common to all — as a city holds fast to its law, and even more strongly still. For all human laws are nourished by the Divine law….

And here I think we can glimpse how he might have seen the shared wisdom of communities emerging out of the interaction between different viewpoints in the community, pulling against the commitment of community members to one another, in the same way that the music of a lyre emerges out of the interaction between the two places where the stick is tied to the string, pulling against the fact that the stick and string are bound together. It’s a process I’ve seen a number of times in Friends communities I’ve been a part of.

I am fascinated by this synthetic, synergetic aspect of the Logos — not least, because it gives me hope for what Friends can do in response to environmental issues. It tells me that the Truth of our Gospel is not static, but innately creative, always ready to respond to each new challenge.

But this raises an interesting question (at least, for me): what is the rôle of a Quaker minister in this process? What does (or should) it mean in this context for a Friend to “preach the Word”?

I suppose one could write books and books about the answer to that question. But I’m presently thinking that a short answer might be good enough. And my own short answer would be: we find ourselves called as Friends to an understanding of ministry, and of preaching, that leaves all individual heroism behind.

A Quaker minister cannot simply regard him/herself as enlightened and the people he (she) approaches as ignorant; she or he cannot approach them as one Bringing Light to the Masses. Quaker ministry is a whole different process from that: a process in which the minister, much like a clerk or an elder, seeks to be a co-facilitator, with the Spirit, of a synergetic process. What the minister says, what she preaches, should ideally be something like a seed crystal, or maybe even just a gardener’s gentle nudge to the receptive soil of her hearer’s mind, rather than just being a message declared in a vacuum.

— Of course, these are ideals, and real life isn’t always hospitable to ideals. Real life — as I’ve seen again and again on my journey — is often messy and full of surprises. And realizing ideals in a messy, unpredictable situation can be quite an overwhelming challenge. Sometimes the seed does fall on stony ground, and the results of that can be unattractive. Sometimes the minister, caught in his or her own weaknesses, expresses something unhelpful out of his or her own mind, rather than conveying the true seed. Sometimes the minister gives the soil a gentle nudge, and hurts some tender plant, to her own and everyone else’s dismay.

Good Herakleitean ministry is a high art. I suspect that even the gifted John Woolman may often have found it hard to do rightly.

But I’m coming to think that, nevertheless, the minister needs to understand that this is her or his ideal rôle — and the community in which her or his ministry is expressed, needs to have such an understanding, too. For the minister cannot serve and facilitate unless the community is ready to receive her or him as a servant-facilitator. A community that expects her or him to be a charismatic leader and preacher instead, and expects it so strenuously that it fails to understand and coöperate with what the minister is actually called to do, can deprive itself of the very thing that is most valuable and important about our Quaker process.

Ultimately, I think, it’s like all the other Friends testimonies I mentioned earlier — harmony and reconciliation, mutual accountability and so forth. It can’t be very well manifested by one Friend alone. The very idea of a solitary Friend doing it is oxymoronic. It needs a collaborative relationship, a readiness on all sides to engage in teamwork.

ew tiny.png

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (1)


I like how you connect your examination of the minister’s role within the community back to your opening point from Lloyd Lee Wilson about Quakers needing community.

Meanwhile, here’s a tangent. You wrote: “We Friends are not a people who rely on some one person bringing truths to everyone else and straightening everyone else out. We’re a people who believe in the truths that people find together — truths that are often discovered only when we compare our different opinions on some matter we disagree about, and find that our different views are fusing into some sort of larger whole synergetically.”

To which I say: This describes what I understand “convergence of Friends” to mean. That Friends with different opinions are trying to share their truths with each other.

The “convergence” that I’m seeing is a willingness of Friends with different understandings and opinions to engage each other in conversation. For me, even to reach that willingness has been a big step forward, into the unknown and also into faithfulness.

-- comment posted by Chris M., http://chrismsf.blogspot.com/
July 27th, 2006 at 8:09 p.m.
Sep 4, 2006 at 08:42AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>