Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition
[The message I gave out of worship at Guilford College on April 4, 2019, as the JM Ward Distinguished Quaker Visitor.]
At Freedom Friends, we always start with gratitude, and I am feeling so grateful today. I am grateful to Wess Daniels, for inviting me to be here. I am grateful to Deborah Shaw, for serving as my elder. I am grateful for the students here, and everyone holding this worship, near and far.
My message tonight is called Quakers and the Prophetic Tradition. When Quakers talk about the prophetic tradition, we tend to go back to early Friends, but I am going to go back to Jeremiah. I’m a preacher, so you knew there was going to be some Bible in here! And actually, there will be a lot. Our scripture is Jeremiah 1:4-10.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am too young.” 7 But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am too young’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to uproot and tear down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
What does it mean to be a prophet? I think Jeremiah wouldn’t recommend it. Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile. This was a time of absolute crisis for the Jewish people, leading them to question their own existence and the existence of God. Who were they if they did not have their land? Where was God when the temple was destroyed? How could they worship?
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet, and it’s possible that I over-relate to this. I laugh easily, as you can see, and I cry easily. The role of the prophet is to speak truth, and speaking truth can be so painful—both to see it and because people don’t want to hear it. And yet, 1 Corinthians 14:1 instructs us: Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. (Thanks, Paul!) Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it! It doesn’t always end well.
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.
I thought about calling this talk “Reflections from a Not-So-Young Adult Friend.” Ten years ago, a Weighty Friend said to me, “In 15 years the Religious Society of Friends will be on thy shoulders.” Ten years goes by much faster than I could have imagined then. In another five years, will the Religious Society of Friends be on my shoulders? Sometimes it feels like the Religious Society of Friends is on my shoulders now! And sometimes I seriously question whether I have it in me to stay.
Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am too young.
This is Jeremiah resisting the call, part of the classic prophetic call narrative. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I relate to this feeling. I am an unlikely preacher. I grew up in Alaska, in a tradition where women did not preach (I did not see a woman preach in my home church until I was in my 30s). Then I became a Friend and spent most of my time in unprogrammed meetings where there is no preaching. And yet, I am called to preach. Now I teach preaching—I teach Methodists and Lutherans how to preach.
None of us are as young as we used to be. There has been a lot of talk about the aging of Christian denominations, and Quakers are one of the oldest. According to a Pew study that came out a few years ago, the average age of Friends in the US is 59. This has real ramifications for how we communicate with each other and understand each other.
Around the time I had that encounter with the Weighty Friend—about 10 years ago—I was traveling quite a bit among Friends. I was co-clerk of the Pacific Northwest Quaker Theology Conference, which led to travel in that area, and I was in the School of the Spirit here in North Carolina, so I was coming to North Carolina at least four times a year.
Something I would hear all the time from older Friends when I was traveling was, “How do you young people all know each other?” They would be surprised when I came to their meeting that I seemed to already know a lot of the Friends my age. They thought maybe we knew each other from Young Adult Friends conferences, but that wasn’t it. What they could not see was how tightly connected we all were on social media.
As the (relatively few) young people in a small denomination, we sought each other out and stayed in touch online: through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We would follow each other’s lives and ministries online and offer support and guidance to each other through comments, emails, and texts—and we still do! But at the time, this was invisible to the generation above us.
Explore vs. Exploit
My partner Troy does user research: he watches how people interact with software. He introduced me to the idea of “explore vs. exploit.” This is a concept that helped me frame some of what I am seeing in the Religious Society of Friends right now. Explore vs. exploit is a tension that we feel throughout our lives: do we want to spend our time exploring new things? Or do we want to enjoy the things we have? (Exploit sounds pretty negative, so I tend to think of it as enjoy.)
Here is an example of this tension: when I pick a book to read, should I read something new or re-read a book that I know I enjoy? I am torn between wanting to explore a new thing and wanting to exploit (or enjoy) something I already have. This balance tends to shift over the course of our lifetimes. When we are young, we want to explore: go to school, travel, try different jobs or food or partners. But as we get older, we shift to wanting to enjoy the things we have: settle into a satisfying career, spend time with our families, or rest.
Earlier, I was talking about how other Young Adult Friends and I used blogs and social media to connect. This was a time of great exploration. We would read each other’s blogs and comment on them, and sometimes meet in person. This is how I met Wess. We read each other’s blogs, and then he, Martin Kelly, and Robin Mohr were leading a workshop on Convergent Friends that I went to. We didn’t know each other in person before that, but then we met, and we have all been important in each other’s lives and ministries since then.
Going back to this idea of explore vs. exploit: Now I find the idea of learning a new kind of social media kind of exhausting. I am not on Instagram and I know I should be because that’s what people who are younger than me are using to communicate and organize. But I know how to use Facebook and Twitter—I am good at them—and I want to exploit those instead of exploring another social media platform. So, you can see the tension.
Prophetic vs. Comfort
Prophets live places of tension, too: the place between God and people, the space between where we are now and where we want to be. I see this as the tension between prophetic and comfort—being prophetic is at best uneasy and sometimes outright dangerous. So, there is a natural tendency to crave comfort instead.
Sometimes the comfort comes from knowing that we have already tried a thing, and how that played out. This is a kind of wisdom! As people get older, they have had more experiences and tend to see things over and over. But this can also lead to a kind of rigidity, especially in groups. This is what leads to the answer, “we already tried that 30 years ago,” or simply, “we don’t do that.”
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
What does it mean when God says “I am with you to deliver you”? How did God deliver Jeremiah? Not in the ways that Jeremiah might have hoped. God didn’t stop the defeat and exile or even protect Jeremiah physically. Jeremiah is thrown into an empty well at one point (Jeremiah 38:1-6), and we don’t know how he died or what happened at the end of his life.
Jeremiah says to God, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.” (Jeremiah 20:7). This is strong language—Jeremiah is angry with God for giving him this call. He says, “If I say, ‘I will not mention God, or speak any more in God’s name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9).
So how exactly did God deliver Jeremiah? The part of this verse that I cling to is when God says, “I am with you and I will deliver you.” I think this is the answer: bad things happened to Jeremiah AND God was with him.
Then the Lord reached out and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
This is the calling of a prophet—God literally puts words in Jeremiah’s mouth. And we are here to talk about Quakers and the prophetic tradition—God’s call on us. We Friends are proud of our prophetic tradition, and there are things to be proud of! Friends in the past have followed the Spirit to do incredible things. But what do Friends have to say now? What is our prophetic message? It’s not what we think it is.
When we talk about being prophetic, we often go immediately to social justice—we point to our work in abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, and so on. The problem with us thinking that social justice is our prophetic witness is that other denominations are doing this better than we are. You know why? Because they have better funding, are bigger, and have better organization than we do.
I want you to hear me clearly: I am not saying to not work for social justice. This is what the prophets call all of us to in the Christian and Jewish traditions: to protect the most vulnerable in our society. What I am saying is that social justice is not the thing that makes us unique, it is not the charism of the Religious Society of Friends. And by charism, I mean our spiritual gift.
What Friends really have to offer is silence, deep listening for the voice of God, and community discernment practices. I speak, preach, and lead workshops for Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists, and this is what they want to learn from us. This deep listening is our charism—it is our spiritual gift. But we have to get serious about doing these within our own communities. When do we placate instead of doing deep listening? When do we just wait for something uncomfortable to go away?
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
This is why people don’t like prophets: they point to destruction and chaos. After the passage I read, comes another one that is much less well known:
The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you see?” “I see a pot that is boiling,” I answered. “It is tilting toward us from the north.” 14 The Lord said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land. 15 I am about to summon all the peoples of the northern kingdoms,” declares the Lord. Jeremiah 1:13-15.
This is the destruction that Jeremiah sees, the destruction that is coming.
I really struggled with this idea of being called to uproot and to tear down, and it made me wonder: Why do we uproot and tear down? Because things are broken or in the way, things aren’t working. We uproot the weeds that have grown up around our precious plants, we tear down buildings that are condemned.
What are the structures that aren’t working for us as Friends? What is broken? I could name a lot of things here, and you probably can too, but I am going to focus on one: recording. If you follow me on social media, you know that this is something that has been on my mind and heart lately: our system of recording ministers in the Religious Society of Friends. My meeting recorded me as a minister in June of 2013, nearly six years ago now, and my recording ended three days ago. So, you can understand why this would be on my mind right now.
Let’s take a step back and talk about what recording is. Friends believe that everyone has direct access to God, and God can speak to and through anyone—that’s why we listen together. And we recognize that there are some people who are called to sustained public ministry: to travel, to preach, to teach, and so on.
Friends have traditionally held that these are gifts of the Spirit—God gives them to individuals for the good of the community. Essentially, only God ordains. That’s what it says on my recording certificate, that I am “ordained of God.” It has been our practice, when we see the fruit of sustained public ministry in an individual, to record that person as a minister. That seems pretty straightforward, right? But we have twisted it, in so many ways.
On one extreme (and this tends to happen in unprogrammed Friends), yearly meetings have gotten rid of recording altogether. Now, I have heard a lot of arguments against Quakers recording, and some are better than others (for example, there are some good historical reasons to not record). But far too often, these arguments boil down to: “You think you're better than us? Quakers are all equal!” No, I don’t think I’m better than other Quakers. Much of the time, I think I am worse. But my meeting and I discerned that I have a call from God to sustained public ministry, which requires ongoing support and accountability.
We all know how terribly wrong things can go when ministers get isolated and ungrounded. One of my students recently referred to this as “getting high on their own supply.” We see this all over the news these days, including stories about ministers sexually violating children. No one should experience that kind of harm. The recording process is a way for meetings to celebrate gifts of ministry and balance the potential risks of that ministry.
The “Quakers are all equal” part is a deep misunderstanding of the Quaker testimony of equality and of scripture. We are all equal in the sight of God, but God gives us different gifts for the benefit of the community. We see this in 1 Corinthians 12—in the whole chapter, but especially verses 4-11:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
We have all of these gifts in our meetings! And we are so much stronger and happier when we name them and encourage people to use them for the good of the community!
I talked about how Friends have twisted the tradition of recording by not doing it, but there is another extreme. In some yearly meetings (and this tends to be more on the programmed side), the recording process has become political and exclusive. God can call anyone to ministry, right? So why are there yearly meetings who will not record women? Or places that say gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other queer people cannot be ministers? Who are we to tell God who God can call to ministry?
Given all of this, I am an extremely unlikely person to be recorded as a minister: I am a woman and I am queer. Even if I happened to be in a yearly meeting that still records, those two parts of my identity would disqualify me from recording in most of the Quaker world. But somehow, I stumbled into Friends in one tiny Quaker church that saw no problem with recording a queer woman: Freedom Friends Church.
This was a church that celebrated me and my gifts. It was not a problem that I was a woman. When I came out as queer, they supported me. And they watched me as I grew in ministry and eventually recorded me as a minister. My recording process was not smooth—but it wasn’t impossible. I felt a call to sustained public ministry, and my meeting saw that and recorded it.
So why did my recording go away on Monday? Because Freedom Friends Church has discerned that it will go to being a worship group instead of a monthly meeting. The meeting has given away all of its money, which is such a beautiful witness, and it will no longer hold memberships or recordings. So, it’s not because of anything I did—I still feel the call to ministry just as strongly as I ever did—the place that held the recording is no longer able to do that.
I live in Atlanta now, and the yearly meeting there does not record. What happens to my recording? Does it still exist, somewhere out there? I have no question that I am still a minister, but I think our system of recording is broken. There is no one to catch my recording, to carry it when my home meeting no longer can.
I am not alone in this—it is an issue for people who have been recorded but then move away from their monthly or yearly meeting. Because we organize geographically, if a minister moves to a location where a meeting cannot or will not record, the recording goes away. I have talked about this with a number of people who were at one point recorded, and there is a real sense of loss and grief.
If you know me at all, you probably know that I have a special concern for women in ministry. That is one of the reasons it is hard for me to hear people using the testimony of equality as a reason to not record ministers. I get especially upset because this has a disproportionate impact on women in ministry (disproportionate impact is a legal term that I use in my work as a lawyer).
This is what I mean by disproportionate impact. Things have changed a lot in the world over the past few decades, but the vast majority of ministers in all denominations are men. Women are lead pastors in 10% of churches in the United States. To say that we treat men and women the same (and that this is equality) is disingenuous. Women don’t live in a perfect Quaker bubble—we live in the world. This is a world that is still saying, in so many places, that women cannot be ministers. And yet, God is calling women to ministry. God is calling so many women to ministry!
There are incredible women in the Religious Society of Friends who are doing powerful ministry, both within Friends and in the larger world. I know because I am friends with them! And I have had so many heartbreaking conversations with them where they tell me about their meetings failing to notice or appreciate their gifts. These women hold up this precious gift of ministry that God has given them for the community, and the community doesn’t seem to care. The meeting says, “Quakers don’t record” and moves on. Or worse, the meeting says nothing.
We are losing these women. And we can’t afford to. They are leaving the Religious Society of Friends and going to other denominations and religions—UCC churches, UU churches, Jewish congregations, and so many other places—communities that recognize and support their gifts of ministry. Our system of recording is broken, and it is something that I want to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
After all this tearing down and destruction, there are these two small words: to build and to plant. Everyone says they want to grow; I hear this from churches and meetings all over. But growth is hard! One of my favorite authors, Gail Godwin, talks about this in her book, Evensong. This is a book I read about once a year. Godwin says that people want growth,
“As if growth were always a happy, shapely matter: leaves unfurling, blossoms opening, hearts and minds joyously stretching toward more light. Whereas the fact of the matter was, when we asked for growth we were asking for a mess. Exploding tempers, privately nursed little petri dishes of resentment, insecure stumblings into dangerous new places.” (355)
If we want the Religious Society of Friends to be prophetic—and that’s a big if—we are going to have to get a lot more willing to sit with discomfort. Instead of saying “that’s not how we do things,” what if we nurtured new ideas? Too often, when there is a challenging leading, we just wait for it (and the people with the leading) to go away. And this is part of our tradition as Friends! Everyone wants to claim John Woolman, but his meeting didn’t want him or his message. Really, we have let individuals go ahead, and then we take the credit.
But we have these deep discernment practices. We know how to listen for the voice of God, how to sit with discomfort and wrestle in love. What if we take our old practices and try to reimagine them? Give them new life? When someone comes with a strong leading (or even a hope) can we listen together? Or will we say, “we don’t do things that way” or “we tried that before and it didn’t work.”
The Religious Society of Friends is so much bigger and more diverse than our individual meetings. God has blessed us with a prophetic call and a deep listening that the world desperately needs. Our gift is that we listen for the voice of God together—what could be more powerful than that?
And we have work to do to live into this prophetic call. How can we connect across geographical and theological boundaries to support gifts of ministry that God has given us? How can we go deeper, listen better, and live with more integrity? I believe that we can, with God’s help.