A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Way Closing

Quakers often talk about God leading us to take on some task. When some coincidence occurs that makes it possible to actually start the work we say that Way opened. The flip side of this experience is Way closing. Since I just had such an experience a few minutes ago it seems appropriate to share it.

For the past few years I have been speaking at the graduation ceremonies which we hold for our philosophy majors. It felt right to start doing this, has felt right to continue doing it but recently I began to feel that I should lay it down (at least for now.) I had been pondering just how I would tell my chair that I didn’t want to do this anymore, and thinking to myself that I’d really have to do it one more time until I could work something out. Then I get an email from my chair telling me that someone else had come to him and volunteered to do the talk. I smiled as I read the tone that suggested he was a bit concerned that I would be hurt or offended that someone else was taking over the job.

Real leadings are specific and respect our very finite capacities in a very large world. I don’t think that any of us are lead to reverse global warming, end war, create social justice or anything so big as that. Instead we are lead to do our own little part. And when we have done what we are called to do it is nice to get closure. Having an opportunity to serve suddenly open and then a month, a year or a decade later having it close again just as suddenly provides a reassuring sense of “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

I have observed that too many Quakers wander around with a sense of guilt that they have not done enough. As Christians we are not supposed to feel that way. We are supposed to feel utterly free in our obedience. Our yoke is supposed to feel light. If the yoke feels hard and the burden heavy this might be because it’s one you have picked up at your own discretion and not at the prompting of the Spirit. Such guilt feelings can drive these Friends into badgering and hectoring others with calls that they should “do more.” When Friends feel the urge to nag other Friends in this manner they should pause and reflect and seek the guidance of weighty Friends about whether it is a genuine prophetic call to witness to a stiff-necked people or whether it is only a bit of well-intentioned do-goodery.

I am suffering from a cold at the moment, exams are looming and I am feeling delighted to have this particular little duty gently lifted from my shoulders. I know that some time in the near future Way will open again and I will see some new job with my name on it. But right now I feel like a little celebration.


Blogger Chris M. said...

Thank you for this, Richard. Given that I just went to my last board meeting with the Friends Committee on Legislation of California this past weekend, it resonates for me! It is time for me to give that work up. I did volunteer to fill in as recording clerk, so I still have to get the minutes out. But I was so energized by being done that I typed up the 3 pages of action minutes within about 36 hours!

-- Chris M.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Bathurst said...

I hope you will still wear your silly robes for graduation, even if you don't have to make the speech.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

I am mindful that the prophets of ancient Israel did a lot of "badgering and hectoring others with calls that they should 'do more.'" So did John the Baptist. So did George Fox and the Valiant Sixty. So did Christ himself.

I am sure you didn't mean to imply that "feeling guilty" is the only reason why people do this!

I would also note that, while Friends have always used the term "leading" to refer to something very specific, just as you say, they have also used the phrase "being (or laboring) under a concern" to refer to the way in which work on a big issue, like global warming or war, may be imposed on a Friend by the Spirit. Thus, for example, Friends say that John Woolman "labored under a concern for slavery".

As I have pointed out elsewhere, this language of "being under a concern" is closely related to the Old Testament custom of speaking of a prophetic call as a "burden". And yes, a legitimate prophetic "burden" can feel heavy. A few of the Old Testament prophets complained of the difficulty of theirs, Jonah fled from his across the sea, Peter shied away from the costs of his, and Christ referred to the unpleasant costs of his when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I think that when Christ spoke of his yoke being easy and his burden light, he was not speaking of the burden of concern, but of a different matter, the burden of discipleship. The burden of discipleship, a light one, is intended for all; the burden of concern, for reasons I do not claim to understand, seems given only to a minority.

I have been under a concern for the destruction of the natural world for more than twenty years. There is nothing grandiose about it, nothing to suggest that it makes me any better than the people who are not so burdened. It seems to me to be just part of what is served up to me on my personal plate, so to speak, like the bills on my dining room table or the chronic pain in my joints.

Other people, who are spared the burden of concern, have burdens of other sorts to contend with, some of them (like MS, or life in desperate poverty) vastly more taxing than mine. If being under a burden is a form of greatness, then they are far greater than I.

The burden I labor under drives me to watch and pray for practical, constructive, problem-solving actions I can engage in, as a way of relieving the weight of it. It stays with me and does not let me go. But it does not feel evil in its effects on me; it feels like an assignment, a tough one but a good one, carrying with it a palpable gift of God's love.

Many Friends I know have found themselves under similar concerns. So have many non-Friends. It may be that you yourself are under some sort of concern, but have simply not thought to mention it in this essay you've written on leadings. I would not be surprised if that is the case.

I can think of no reason to imagine that such concerns are not legitimately from God.

5:28 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I still check out your blog from time to time but you have been pretty busy it seems. Maybe we will hear more from you now.


Silly robes indeed. That's my academic finery you are ridiculing! I think I look grand in them.


After I wrote this piece I got to thinking, as a philospher might, "ah yes, but on the other hand..." I got to thinking about times when my burden felt heavy. There have been plenty of those particularly when the children were small and in need of lots of care and career pressures were intense. But in reflecting on it I think I made the burden greater than it needed to be because my ego was about ten sizes too large at the time. Upon deeper reflection I find that I still hold to the basic idea of my essay--that when we follow genuine leadings the burden feels light. I know that there are those who have spoken of laboring under a concern. My understanding of this is that when the Spirit calls you to do something you will feel burdened up to the time you start to do it. When Jonah was fleeing he felt burdened, not when he was speaking the message given. For example, if you are lead to speak to a certain person and dread doing so you will feel heavy up to the moment you actually speak up. Obedience, in my experience, makes the burden feel light.

I would take mild exception to your claim that Christ hectored and badgered people. Christ, especially in Mark's gospel, is a guy with a fiery temper who doesn't mince words. But he doesn't nag. He says what he's got to say and then stands back and waits for the other person's reaction.

And I maintain that much of the burdensomeness Friends feel would be lightened if they formed clearness committees to ask for a clarification of their leadings or if they just had more chars with weighty Friends over breakfast after Meeting.

A final qualification, also missing from the original essay, is that there isn't always a clear distinction between a genuine leading and a mere personal whim. There are genuine leadings that are all tangled up in personal egos. I do think that humility is a virtue that is of paramount importance and one that is not even recognized much anymore. I see the course of my spiritual journey as one marked by the slow realization that I've got to set my ego aside and learn the value of humble service.

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey said...

Richard, many thanks for a rich and thoughtful reply to my earlier comment.

You write, "Upon deeper reflection I find that I still hold to the basic idea of my essay--that when we follow genuine leadings the burden feels light." So let me ask you: What, in your estimation, was Christ's condition when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, in his grief, that "if possible, let this cup be taken from me"? Was this weighed-down condition due to the fact that he was not following a genuine leading? Or was he just play-acting at grief and weightedness?

There is nothing I can find in the book of Jonah to suggest that, when he walked through the streets of Nineveh delivering his message, he did not feel weighed down by it. Maybe he did, maybe he did not, but the book doesn't say. You are inclined to think he did not. I am inclined to think (based on my own experience) that, while he may not have paid attention to the weight of it in focusing on the task of delivering it, he almost certainly felt very drained at the end, and this would be a measure that the weight continued to be a weight. I don't see any way of settling this issue.

Did Christ hector and badger people? It is clear that he confronted adversaries among the Pharisees and scribes on more than one occasion; probably he confronted them on multiple occasions. Did he confront the same adversaries more than once? There could not have been that many Pharisees given to street arguments with prophet-reformers in Judæa in those days, so I would guess that he did. And if he did, then surely they felt hectored by his seemingly endless attacks on their approach to religion, and badgered by his persistence in embarrassing them again and again.

I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say that "there are genuine leadings that are all tangled up in personal egos." It is a major problem. I would like to meet a Friend some time, with or without a genuine leading, who is free of personal ego!

4:45 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


You write "I would like to meet a Friend some time, with or without a genuine leading, who is free of personal ego."

The weighty Friends I have met in North Carolina conservative come closer to this description than I would have thought possible. Seeing them is what made me painfully aware of the size of my own ego. I'm sure that there are people who are just as spiritually mature in other places, it's just that this is my spiritual home and I know these folks well enough to testify to their small egos.

Concerning the evidence of lightness and heaviness in scripture a few comments. I don't think Jonah was a real person. I think that is part of the debate internal to Jewish tradition over prophecy and God's univerality. So while Jonah is a figure for someone who resists a leading, he's not a real person. I think that the story of Jesus' suffering before he died is probably based on real events (though it's hard to say at this distance.) No, I don't think he was merely pretending. I think that he was still at that point in which his humanity was resisting what he was called to do. He hadn't yet fully accepted this command.

I still don't think Jesus badgered people. My impression is that what he said to people was very carefully tailored to the particular audience. He could discern the spirit of the woman at the well and knew exactly what to say to her. He could discern the spirit of the rich young man and knew exactly what to say to him. Jesus responds to each of the people who come to him in a unique individual way. Those who badger and hector are insensitive to the differences in the people they are talking to. They cannot discern particular spirits and so give a "one size fits all" speech on their favorite topic. The Spirit is always discerning of individual differences.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hi Richard--

Your post rings very true for me: Just as a leading to take up something may start as a persistent nudge that grows in a sense of rightness as we pay attention to it, the same may be said about a leading to lay a thing down.

And like you--and apparently Marshall as well--I have been wondering about the image and metaphor about the yoke:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

And I'll offer where it is that I currently come to, with this verse (NOTE: in no way do I consider myself Biblically literate. I am one of "those" illiterate Friends...):

I focus on the first two sentences, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me..."

I take this to mean that if I am weary, it may be that I have been putting too much energy into doing something for the sake of my own ego, rather than by the bidding of the Spirit. So that's akin to what you have said, Richard.

I also understand this verse to say that when I yield to the guidance of the Spirit, it is no guarantee that my work is done. It may mean I am to pay more attention to listening to the Guide while carrying out the work. It may mean that I have more learning to do about what the nature of God's work is for me to shoulder.

"Learn from me..." But learn while also coming under the weight of the yoke. Rest and refresh yourself but do not assume you are released.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

2:58 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


While I read through the New Testament end to end as a teenager I hardly looked at it for the next twenty years. Louise Wilson of our Yearly Meeting changed that for me with a little presentation on what I believe she called "praying the gospel" which involved reading some story, pausing to center down, and then placing yourself as one of the characters in the story. Starting to see these stories from the inside got me interested in the Bible again.

Don't be so apologetic about your reading of that text. It sounds good to me. This is all ties up with my reading of the traditional doctrine of justification by faith. I read this in a Quakerly way as faith = listening to the Spirit and obeying. Faith, in this sense, provides the key to changing our lives and being "born again." For me the experience of listening and obeying is one of putting down the self-imposed worldly burdens and taking on the tasks imposed by the Spirit. Choosing to do what I should be doing, instead of following the desires of the old self, feels liberating. This is not to say that obeying is a piece of cake. It's not. Often it pushes you to the limits, but there is a feeling of having a spiritual wind at your back pushing you forward instead of in your face telling you to turn back. At least that's how it feels to me.

I've been trying to encourage everyone to share their own experiences of being faithful. I find that much more interesting and uplifting than people sharing their theories and thoughts about it. The best way I know is to try to describe my own experiences and hope others will do likewise.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Richard.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

7:59 PM  
Blogger david said...

Do read Jonah. It really is a funny little read and the reason his burden was so heavy was he was a cowardly vindictive self-centred twerp. Kind of like Jesus' disciples in the gosple of Mark come to think of it.

3:37 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I agree that the book of Jonah is funny. I think it is meant to be, in part at least, a spoof of the prophetic literature. That's the main reason I think that the character of Jonah isn't based on a real person.

In general the Bible is a fascinating book for me now. Reading it as I do with the belief that the text is not infallible but is a source that reflects the human biases and limitations of its authors as well as containing sparks of divine inspiration makes it all the more exciting to me.

6:04 AM  
Blogger Dave Carl said...


I agree that recognizing the human frailties and limitations of the Bible's author's makes it that much more inspiring to me. When we find "jewels" in the writings of "people like us" -- well, its just easier to relate.

Dave Carl

12:35 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Dave Carl,

Yes, for those of us who recognize our own frailties and limitations seeing these in Biblical authors allows us to relate. I've pondered what seems to me to be the odd need to think that the Bible is somehow perfect. I think the ultimate source of this is that people do not like to face up to the fact that an essential part of the human condition is our insecurity--we don't know and can't know for certain any truth that really matters to us. We must live in these conditions of uncertainty. Those who try to make the Bible a source of infallible knowledge are exhibiting what the existentials used to call bad faith. That is to say they are kidding themselves into believing that by picking up this book they can escape the human condition and simply KNOW. Then to top it off they call their bad faith simply "faith" and suggest that their cowardice is a good thing.

6:08 AM  

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