2016-06-30
Reprinted with permission from Quaker Life magazine.

The dates on the two pieces of paper do not move or change. I look with growing horror as I realize I have double-booked myself. I had told Friends that I would visit with Austin Meeting in Texas for two weeks and, during that same time, that I would attend a committee meeting in Chicago, which I clerk. Was there a message here from either God or my subconscious that I am doing too much?

The situation is a second chance for me to experience some of the implications of being part of the Body of Christ, and willingly subject myself to Christ, its head. These are familiar words. But how in the actual events of daily life does it function?

Quakerism was not a self-realization movement--the point of the transformation was to be a part of the Body, gathered under Christ's leadership.

Friends seem to have developed a somewhat casual concept of their relationship to the church. We tend to look upon the meeting as the place in which we can find personal spiritual growth, and confirmation and support for our social action. But this is not how we started.

Early Friends experienced that they were a people gathered by God to demonstrate living in the Kingdom. All of them felt inward conviction when the Light illuminated their sins, showed them their Savior, and also empowered them to become transformed. But Quakerism was not a self-realization movement, or an opportunity for individualism. The point of the transformation was to be a part of the Body, gathered under Christ's leadership. The point was to show the world how people live together in love, in direct contrast in very specific ways to the dominant culture surrounding them.

One became a Friend, in those tumultuous days of the 17th century, first by experiencing the reality of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection inwardly, and then by radically changing one's lifestyle so as to be part of the Body that was a corporate witness to a countercultural way of life guided and empowered by Christ. Friends felt called to live as if the Kingdom was indeed among them, at hand, within--as Jesus had stated.

Friends understood outward behavior to be a reflection of their inward relationship with Christ. One way of looking at the subsequent history of Quakerism is to trace our waxing and waning understanding of our corporateness in contrast to our individualism. Early Friends for the most part experienced it as a healthy tension. But they had to keep working to keep the two in balance.

Quakerism at its best embraces the paradoxes that surround human efforts to comprehend the Divine. The paradox or balance specifically at play in my double-booking incident is the relationship between the individual and the group. At one extreme, the body dictates rules that can squelch the Spirit. At the other extreme, the individual does his or her own thing, heedless of the larger group. At different times in our history, these have not been in balance and one side or the other has taken too much control.

Ben Richmond has suggested that a possible way toward reclaiming corporate witness might be through voluntary individual submission to corporate discernment. Could my dilemma of double booking be used by God to teach us something about this?

Shortly after I discovered my mistake, there happened to be a larger gathering at which were present virtually all the members of the committee that would be meeting in Chicago. It was the only possible opportunity that I could see to try to work out a solution. I asked the committee members to meet with me over lunch, and confessed my action. They were unmoved. I was unwilling to make the decision on my own, and unhappy with the way Friends were leaning.

I told them that I would submit to their will in the matter. Some were uncomfortable with this, I think, hoping that I would decide for myself to come to the meeting. But it seemed important that the group needed to discern what God wanted for it--not for me as an individual. I found that looking at the situation as an opportunity for me to surrender to God made it possible for me to say yes to whatever the humans did in God's name.

The meeting needs to understand the weight of its responsibility for the spiritual formation of its members.

By the time we had finished eating it was clear even to me that I needed to be present at the meeting in Chicago. Although not thrilled with the prospect of a fairly exhausting travel schedule, I was glad that we had been able to come to unity. But what had we really done? Did I remove myself too much, taking the easy way out of having the group discern rather than accepting the responsibility myself? Was our process one of consensus rather than genuine Spirit-led discernment? Do we know ourselves as the Body, and therefore are enabled to make demands upon each other for the good of the whole? Or were we only dressing up in Quaker words and customs and playing at being Friends? Hugh Barbour has asked how the group can reach a state of spiritual unity that allows the life of the meeting to redirect our individual lives. This is only the beginning of opening ourselves to be taught by Christ how he wants us to be as a corporate Body, gathered in his name.

There are several parts that we Friends need to learn. One lesson is what it feels like, at a gut level, to know one is part of a larger group, the members of which have the intention of submitting to God's will. It is one thing to do this work of repentance and surrender individually. It is another thing altogether to experience submission and obedience as a group. This has been a major part of our Quaker heritage.

Another lesson is to put ourselves under the discipline of the body. We need to learn to trust our frail fellow humans that together we can discern God's will for the group. At some point, we each need to surrender to that inward, divine leadership as it is expressed through the sense of the meeting. This is a major leap of faith; as I look around at the members of my own Monthly Meeting, or the committee which I clerk, some of these Friends are people whom it would not have occurred to me to include in the blessed community! Can I trust major decisions in my life to these groups?

Finally, the meeting, the body, needs to understand the weight of its responsibility for the spiritual formation of its members. We need to find the delicate balance between essential individual inner work and the role of the group in encouraging and admonishing this work. We need to learn the balance between individual and group discipline--from that root word, disciple, or one who learns at the feet of the Teacher. Together we must be open to Christ again teaching us how to be a gathered people, a countercultural demonstration model of living with love and courage in the Kingdom, right here and now.

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