Living Prophetic Witness - December 2008
“The prophets point us to what is ahead – the fulfillment of God’s dream for creation. And they invite us not simply to wait but to begin enacting that dream – now.” - Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw in Jesus for President
In the Spring, I had the privilege of taking an Alternative Seminary class with Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw on their book Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. The Alternative Seminary is a fairly informal “program of biblical and theological study and reflection designed to foster an authentic biblical witness in the modern world.” The participants of the class included members of Shane and Chris’ communities, a few other people engaged in intentional faith and witness communities, and about six Quakers.
The book focuses on Jesus’ relationship with Empire and the radical witness of his life, lived as a witness against Empire, and for a world transformed, renewed through small acts of love and daily manifestations of God’s way. Shane and Chris’ book is a recollection of the true challenge of Jesus’ witness, wherein the Kingdom of God is embodied in small acts of love of one’s enemy, offering hospitality to the poor, the prisoner, the stranger, and resistance to the grand schemes and human hells created on earth. Shane and Chris are both trying to live out the witness they speak of in the book in communities in poor neighborhoods, experimenting with homegrown alternative energy and alternative economics, planting organic gardens, offering after school programs for children, and living as faithfully as they can in responsive, loving community – the mission of their organization, ‘the Simple Way’ is “To love God. To love people. To follow Jesus.”
I’m sure that their community is as full of the foibles and struggles of humanity as any community, and yet I felt a deep challenge and invitation to transformation out of their witness – “What would a Quaker version of such witness look like? How would I consider such a call, with others?”
For some time after the class I was deeply unsettled, in the way that I’ve experienced several times in my life, when God is working on me, gestating, calling me to a new vision and new work. I wondered if I were called back to the work I had started out in – as a teacher in an inner city school, or to figure out some grand scheme for living such witness that I could propose to my meeting. But the message I received was to wait.
After living with the confusion for a couple months, I had two visions of God: one was of the earth floating on an ocean of God’s love, an ocean full of tears of sorrow for the world and tears of joy, and that God could hold all of the joy and all of the sorrow and it wasn’t up to me to hold it all, but to live only my part. The other vision was of a tree growing in a Quaker graveyard, with roots stretching deeply into the earth, reaching to the source, siphoning the richness of that source into the branches of that tree and out to the leaves and the fruit. I saw myself with a group of Friends encircled around the tree in a dance, holding onto one another, widening the circle, singing and turning round that tree, turning ‘round right’ and taking flight, changing into our true form.
I became clear – to begin closer to home, with how I live with my partner, my son, with my meeting, with my neighbors, and with my co-workers, on the plot of earth on which I’m planted. I am invited to let God continue the work of inward re-patterning, helping me to love more fully, helping me to be a vessel for God’s work, challenging me to see the obstructions in my own vision. That work is right in front of me, and if I can be faithful, listening to the ‘still, small voice’ throughout my days, if I take the small steps, paying attention, the path will emerge, the pattern will show itself, and I will be able to hear the Inward Teacher through the many teachers I encounter every day.
I realized that the idea of a grand scheme, a grand plan, is a temptation. God is the carrier of the plan and my call is to walk faithfully the small steps God puts in front of me and discern which ideas that I have arise from a deeper source and which are distractions, and often to let my ideas go and to hear God’s call in someone else’s vision. Opportunities to turn my life more fully in the direction of God’s vision happen every day, in moments with my family, with co-workers, and in work with other people, which is much bigger than we are. If I’m truly faithful, I will be called into places that are risky, uncomfortable, disquieting, that will demand that I examine some of the core assumptions out of which I operate. What will be required will often be quite difficult, but step by step I’ll be shown the way, sometimes by heading the wrong way. I want to be clear – this wasn’t a resolution of complacency, but rather a challenge to begin right away with the work, and that if I can take the risks of faith, in the midst of community, that together we might have a sense of how we can live the dance of Love.
The concept of re-joining faith with action, of action arising from faith and faith being honed and refined in action within community is a familiar Quaker idea, but often even we split the two. We define meetings as either activist or ‘deeply spiritual’, when such distinctions are illusions. Action is rightly ordered when it arises from a deep sense of Spirit, and faith, too, must be grounded and tested in witness. The recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Witness as Sacrament by Daniel Snyder explores the inextricable interaction of prayer and witness. He addresses the question, “What happens when we understand prayer as a kind of ‘inward activism’ and political witness to Friends testimonies as a kind of ‘outward prayer’?” As I read this pamphlet, I felt the Spirit strongly in Snyder’s words. He says, “Our peacemaking is not merely our activity in the world, the things we do to promote justice and peace, it is, even more, a way of being, a mutual infusion of self and world….Such a life is simple, clear, courageous, and deeply loving, for it is a life lived out of a wider vision, a life that sees to a farther horizon than our own limited perspectives would allow, a life that is continually refreshed by the hidden Springs of Love.”
John Woolman’s life offers an extraordinary pattern and example for a life lived close to the source, committed to community and allowing the Light of God to shine in every corner of his soul, sensing the source of Love and responding to its exacting and refining demands. Thomas Slaughter has written a love poem of a biography of Woolman’s life, The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. In his book, Slaughter looks ‘behind and beyond’ Woolman’s journal to uncover the sources of Woolman’s spiritual power. This extraordinary book is a worthy companion to Woolman’s Journal, and provides deep and rich insight into the exemplary Quaker prophet. “Thomas Slaughter has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of rescuing a saint—here an Abolitionist Quaker saint—entombed merely in fame. This discerning, poetic biography discloses a Woolman far more powerful, both personally and morally, than even his famous Journal revealed. Few histories are more quietly riveting, more piercingly compelling. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman is an amazing reconstruction of a daring human life.” —Jon Butler, Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University
The writing of Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice has been a long exercise in faithfulness in response to huge resistance and many obstacles. The authors, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye have taken a huge risk in being willing to explore our assumptions about ourselves through exposing the full contradictions in our history, and seeing openings for moving forward toward an inclusive future. I still hear Friends react with surprise when it is said that Quakers were slaveholders and I still hear Friends say, “People of color wouldn’t be attracted to ‘our’ mode of worship – they need music and ritual.” I often hear Friends speak about how “we” were leaders in the Underground Railroad and ceased holding slaves early, so how could “we” be racists? Stories of exceptional faithfulness despite resistance – the stories of John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Bayard Rustin, and others – are, yes, a part of our past and our identity, but until we recognize the insidiousness of racism among us and that we hold attitudes that result in behaviors that exclude and render Friends of Color and others invisible, we will not be able to become fully whole. Fit for Freedom, not for Friendship offers a daring opportunity to examine our past and our assumptions, and break free from them to invite the full richness of humanity and experience into our meeting houses.
We are offering both the hardcover and paperback editions at a discounted price through January 15th, and if you order 10 or more copies, you will receive a 20% discount. When you order, you will notice it says ‘out of stock’ next to the buy button. That’s because the official publication date is February 5th. We will send it to you and charge your card as soon as we have it.
This summer I had the opportunity to hear Leah Green of the Compassionate Listening Project speak at Intermountain Yearly Meeting about her work making safe spaces for hard stories to be told, with an intention of moving towards reconciliation. Much of the projects’ work has occurred in the Middle East. The project has brought trained listeners that were considered neutral to hear the stories of Palestinians and Israelis. The first step in the process is to make space for the participants’ painful stories to be told. Then when the storytellers feel their stories have been heard and received in a deep way, the Israeli and Palestinian participants are brought together to tell their stories to one another. Leah told inspiring stories of deep movement of recognition, acknowledgement and transformation happening in those sessions and the healing that occurred. Quaker Jean Knudson, in the book Compassionate Listening and other writings says, “To reconcile, we must realize that both sides to any violence are wounded, and their wounds are unhealed. From my study of post-traumatic stress disorder in Holocaust victims and Vietnam Veterans, I am persuaded that a great source of violence is our unhealed wounds.” Leah Green’s work was hugely influenced by Jean Knudson’s work and writings. Jean explores this dynamic of putting love at the center of peacemaking deeply and perceptively in this collection of her writings. One Friend ministered at the end of those sessions that she, in listening to Leah’s stories, had been able to see that often the wounds she inflicted arose from insisting on being heard, rather than being willing to listen. What a transformed world we would have if we could open our hearts and hear one another’s stories fully, without judgment.
It seems to me that our capacity for peacemaking and faithfulness rests with our ability to accompany one another in telling our stories – of pain, of joy, of breakthrough, and of the work of the Inward Teacher in our lives. These books offer a window onto the movement of the Spirit within a few Friends and in relationship with one another. In my experience, this is where the inward movement of the Spirit becomes visible – in our day to day work of loving one another and being willing to sit in the fire and be transformed.
'Book Musings' reflects the individual views of the author and does not claim to represent the diversity of views among Friends.
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