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.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pushed or Pulled?

What do leadings feel like? Quakers talk a lot about being led or following leadings. What does this feel like? How do you recognize the experience? How do I distinguish an idea whose source is genuinely divine from my own thoughts and opinions?

Not all leadings feel the same. I suppose one could even claim that each one is unique, but it is not much help to people to say that. So being a philosopher I will find a distinction. I find that I experience two general classes of leadings: pushes and pulls. Judging both from my own experience and from the writings of other Friends pushes seem to be more common. Pushes are felt as imperatives to do something that may or may not make rational sense. One feels impelled to do this thing come what may. There is a restless uncomfortable feeling that comes from not doing it and a sense of ease and relief from being obedient. The internal drive gives one the strength to go forward in the face of obstacles and to speak with conviction in urging others to join in with carrying out the mission.

My wife has frequent push experiences and I’ve learned to just go along with them even when they don’t seem to make much sense. I remember once taking a van full of teenagers to the state chess championship. We had arrived at the outskirts of Charlotte but were still pretty far from the hotel when we got caught in rush hour traffic. I was pretty glazed after a four hour drive from the eastern part of the state where we live. Suddenly my wife urgently told me to pull off the highway and take the next exit. We found ourselves in a seedy section of town. I was totally lost but she was still telling me where to go. We found ourselves at a dingy Ethiopian restaurant/pizzeria and stopped for dinner. My wife struck up a conversation with the owner who had emigrated from Ethiopia a few years ago. He lamented that he knew he had a cousin in North Carolina somewhere but he hadn’t been able to find him. My wife mentioned that her boss was Ethiopian. The coincidence turned a little amazing when it gradually became clear that her boss was his cousin’s wife. My wife quickly gave him his cousin’s phone number much to his joy and amazement. And I could finally see the reason why I had to get off the highway at just that point in time.

Recently I had one of the pull type experiences. Perhaps you heard on NPR about the controversy which took place in our town over the renaming of Martin Luther King Boulevard. The west side of Greenville is mostly black and the east side is mostly white. A few years back the city council had named the western half of 5th Street “Martin Luther King Boulevard.” Some local activists thought that the eastern half of 5th Street should be renamed as well, but the white community living along 5th Street objected. The city council responded by rescinding the name “Martin Luther King Boulevard” from west 5th Street and instead naming a stretch of highway outside of the city as the new “Martin Luther King Boulevard.” This decision was much resented by the black community and the controversy got bitter and generally worsened race relations in Greenville.

Since we are about to elect a new city council I arranged a lunch meeting with the councilman from my district to discuss what could be done to improve racial relations when a new city council is seated this Fall. Larry mentioned that the city had just purchased a large property over on the west side of town and was planning to develop it into a place to serve the needs of the community there. I said that it would be a good idea not to stereotype black teens and assume they are only interested in activities like basketball. I suggested a chess program.

I didn’t feel any inner push to bring the topic up. I play chess every Wednesday night with a racially mixed group at the Barnes and Noble. I also coach chess at one of the local high schools, so the idea just naturally occurred to me. I felt no push to bring it up and didn’t speak with any real conviction. I was very casual about it. But Larry’s enthusiastic reaction both surprised me and pulled me in. I had no previous knowledge that the city had purchased the property in question and was looking for programs to fill it, so I had given no prior thought to what a chess program there would look like. But as Larry encouraged me to talk I found myself filling out reasonable sounding details off the cuff. In the end Larry promised that the city would come up with some money for such a program and told me he would put me in touch with the assistant city manager to develop more detailed plans. I’ve since talked to several other people about the idea.

In this case the leading has been overwhelmingly a pull type experience. As I mention the idea to people I can see “that of God” in them responding positively to it. I see a light in their eyes and a note of optimism in their voices as they offer encouragement and promise to help make this happen. This has definitely not been something I planned. As a matter of fact I felt like I already had plenty to do right now and have no time to take on any new projects. But this plan, not of my making, is pulling me forward despite all that. It is a leading and I need to obey it though the leading seems to be centered outside of me in external events and not welling up from inside of me as an internal push. But no matter. Whether pushed or pulled a leading is a leading and obedience is the only thing required. So for now I can report that I have been faithful.

What of other Friends? I believe push experiences are pretty common but how many of you have had leading of the pull variety. I would like to hear other Friends’ stories.


Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks for sharing these experiences, Richard. They do ring true, though I have never used the words pushed and pulled. I sometimes talk about discernment as listening for inward signs and for outer signs (way openning). I find one way to test a leading is to see if the inward movement seems to match how God is working in people or circumstances around me. Although I think a leading can start either way, by an inward prompting or by outward circumstances, they should line up in the end.

I'm not sure which is more common, but I think in the past I was more likely to trust nudges that I felt myself, though as I get older I am more likely to see God pulling me through the requests of other people and be willing to respond to them.

11:24 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


As I tried to tried to introspect the nature of this recent experience I'd say you have a point. It's really a matter of emphasis. This recent experience has been and continues to be 90% pull. But there is that little push. Initially I felt a push to contact Larry about the race issue. It was in following that push that I got into the situation in which I started to feel the pull in an unexpected direction.

You are also right that the inner push and the outwart "way opening" need to line up in the end. Also along the way we should get confirmation from the reaction of weighty Friends who give us their quiet approval as confirmation of the leading.

An update: I called the individual in charge of the center and spoke with her. She said she had just gotten out of a meeting with someone trying to set up a youth program and they wanted to have chess as part of it and weren't sure who could help them out with this. She was excited by the "coincidence" of my calling her this morning. Of course I don't think it's a coincidence at all.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Nancy A said...

The push and pull imagery is really apt.

I was "taught" by Quaker elders that a leading to speak in meeting is generally accompanied by quaking (hence the name Quaker). One should not feel calm. One should have the distinct sense that a helmet would be in order, since the universe was about to come crashing down. They taught that one had to rise and then pause before speaking, to give the Spirit one last chance to withdraw the leading.

I kind of liked that too.

But that's just a Quaker type of leading. There are many types, as I've come to understand.

There is the Harry Potter leading, as one visitor to my blog pointed out. When Harry understood what he was called to do, he just understood--and then followed. He didn't question it any further.

1:42 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Off-topic--so feel free to move or remove; I must have your email address somewhere but dunno...

I wanted to bring up an earlier post of yours, where you were describing "sacrifice" as a sort of primitive, unenlightened form of religious practice, the sort of thing Christianity was supposed to supercede... From a little bit I just found in JD Crossan's _God and Empire_(pg 138-140.): "These elements of the gift & the meal came together in animal sacrifice... If by gift, the animal was totally destroyed... If by meal, the animal was transfered to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God...
"Sacrificial offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer... Likewise, sacrificial offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction... We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we should neither caricature it nor libel it." If, as I think, Christians have been getting the point of Jesus' life & death wrong for a very long time, such considerations are worth considering--& anyway, I hope you will find the rest of this book as interesting as I do, so far(?)

5:20 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


Leadings to speak are indeed leadings but I don't have such leadings and so have little to say about them. I do however consider leadings to do more common and more important generally than leadings to speak. Lots of these leadings to do are of your "Harry Potter type" in which the person getting the leading doesn't feel internal resistence, they are just ready to obey and they do. I'd call them "smooth" leadings. There are also "rough" leadings in which we don't like what we are being told and so want to resist the leading.


I don't find Crossan's brief for animal sacrifice very convincing. First, nobody I know of ever suggesting they wanted the animals to feel pain. That's a blatant strawman fallacy. The substitutional atonement theory of animal sacrifice is also a bit of a stretch. I certainly didn't suggest that that is what ancient Jews were thinking most of the time. So in my case at least that's a strawman too. No, my objection really mirrors Socrates' objection to Euthyphro. I think the ancient believed, like Euthyphro did, that animal sacrifice was a kind of trading skill between gods and men. They thought that the gods wanted dead animals and that we could please the gods by giving them what they want and in return they would give us what we want--regular rainfall, fertile flocks of sheep, protection from the Assyrians, etc. And that to my mind is a very crude picture of the divine that the human race has thankfully outgrown. Well, . . . maybe we aren't really any better but at least this error no longer appeals to us.

8:01 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

If you're okay with this issue in this place, okay, thanks! ... But let's try this again. While I myself like dead animals, particularly with potatos and cole slaw, I think everyone, including some of the Jewish prophets, agrees that animal sacrifice--aside from its functions in an anthropologist's context, ie limiting & equitably distributing the consumption of meat--is less than an ideal form of worship.

The historically commonplace view of Jesus' death was as a substitute for such sacrifices--But that would imply a belief that such sacrifices were an effective & necessary transaction between human and God, else why provide a substitute?

Jesus' suffering was seen as an essential element of this transaction; it was "heretical" to suggest that as a divine being he hadn't needed to suffer the pain of crucifixion. Jesus was seen as a substitute for [the animal for] the sinner, receiving the sinner's punishment, although the sacrificial animal had not previously been thought of as being punished in the sinner's stead. The closest to that was probably the idea of the scapegoat--a vehicle for removing the sins of the community (but not one needing to suffer punishment for them!)

So we have this notion at the core of our given, traditional formulation of Christianity, which is to my mind more savage than the old time any-excuse-for-a-barbeque religious ideas it professed to replace. I've found that notion a real obstacle to recognizing the value of Christianity, & I know I'm not alone in this. So. Should we simply say that Jesus' death was less significant than his life? Or if the form of that death served God's purpose... How?

7:50 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Anyway. Leadings...

A leading feels like the truth.

"How do I distinguish an idea whose source is genuinely divine from my own thoughts and opinions?" Guess what! You can't.

Does this imply that "a leading" and "my own thoughts and opinions" are identical, that we can get rid of the distinction? No, it implies exactly what it says. To distinguish a person's leading from his own idea is an act of discernment; that is, it demands that we know whether God in fact provoked the idea as a communication to the person. How? God has to tell us!

Infinite regress time.... Or, we might rather admit that we simply know that God told us! Without our being able to prove that this is the case! Whether we quake, or feel warmth in our tummies, or not-- whether or not the experience satisfies any given human test is irrelevant.

This isn't philosophically satisfying at all! It has all the exasperating qualities of a child's explanation: "Because!"

It reminds me of the "Clearness committee" my wife & I formed in the car driving to a demonstration that we knew God had trapped us into organizing... "Does God want you to do it?" Anne asked me. And then, "Does the Devil want you to do it?" Yes to both! Except the Devil, I said, wanted me to enjoy it too much! Results? Not much--All I can say is that we got a chance to tell the truth about a festering injustice--and it cost us some court time plus two years probation. The homeless people who demonstrated with us--who'd been escalating full-tilt towards "taking over" a privately-owned building & potentially having a serious hassle with the police--behaved with perfect peacefulness & decorum, and not being the 'ringleaders,' got off unscathed. Maybe even justly proud of themselves... How do I know we were called to do this? I just know. Nobody ever promised I couldn't be wrong!

9:25 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


The two issues of whether or not killing animals was a legitimate form of worship and whether or not Jesus was a sort of sacrificial Lamb of God are distinct though historically connected.

The first issue is no longer a live issue for modern people. We just wouldn't consider doing this. Still I think it matters insofar as we take a stance on progressive revelation. By "progressive revelation" do we mean only that new revelations can be added to the old but that nothing which was once seen as authentic and true could now be seen as false? This is a fairly common conservative view of progressive revelation. I take a more radical view of progressive revelation. Since we are human we are fallible, including being fallible in our understanding of God. This fallibility applies to people in the past. The intelligent (IMHO) response to human fallibility is to adopt quality control measures to detect and minimize error (it cannot be infallibly eliminated). I think we can now see that animal sacrifice was a barbaric misreading of the nature of God. Our ancestors were simply wrong about this.

Ditto the substitutional atonement theory of Jesus' death. Paul wrote letters in which he gets carried away by his rhetorical flights of fancy. It is not a clearly and carefully worked out theology. He came up with this substitutional atonement theory because it connected with Jewish tradition and served to make sense (to people who thought this way) of the puzzle of Jesus' death. But it is based on the same barbaric and false concept of God and has no roots in Jesus' teachings about the Father. Many modern liberal theologians reject the substitutional atonement idea. I disagree that it is at the core of Christian teaching. It would better be read as a traditional heresy. It is a mistake that we need to clearly recognize as a mistake and reject without qualms.

Concerning the authenticity of leadings I disagree with your attempt to make our discernment entirely subjective. Besides the subjective "feeling really sure" criterion we have two ways of crosschecking that do not depend on my personal impressions. First, I can look for confirmation in "Way Opening" phenomena over which I have no control. This is similar to scientific method where the theory has to have confirmation in future experiences and not just retroactively make sense of past experiences. The other is to seek confirmation in the experience of weighty Friends. Again this is like science in that one scientists judgement ultimately counts for little, the confirmation from the rest of the community is crucial to a belief making it into the collective body of scientific knowledge.

Now having made the comparison with science I do want to emphasize that the fuzziness of religious experiences keeps it from having the nice crisp status of scientific knowledge. God means to keep us in a state of seeing "as in a glass darkly" while we are here. So reminders about our fallibility are even more appropriate when we come to religion than they are in science.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Interesting topic once again, Richard. smile

In my own experience, I would say that the times when a leading has come to me as a "push," the leading has been of a very time-sensitive nature: "Hurry, there isn't much time," so God pushes me to the thing or the place where I am needed.

My very first clear leading of this "push" type was eight years ago, when I was visiting my sweetie in her city on a weekend when the yearly meeting was also having its annual sessions--just under an hour away at the time.

She and I hadn't made plans to attend--I had barely heard of "yearly meeting" at that point--but on the Saturday of that weekend, I was awoken very early and with the instant understanding that I was to get to those sessions, with or without my partner.

About 90 minutes later, I was there, in a gym, watching all sorts of people I didn't know, playing any number of interactive, noncompetitive games.

To make a long story short, I ended up connecting with a very tender-hearted 5-year-old, who is now 13. We have an important connection as a result of the 30 minutes we spent at that yearly meeting session. (By the way, I went home immediately after the games ended, feeling completely released of my "obligation" to have been there.)

Most of the other times, though, the leadings I have received have felt more like inward nudges, pokes, and pulls--many of which have had the outward "affirmations" that have already been addressed.

Of late, I find that one question I am beginning to hold for myself, whether I am testing a leading to offer vocal ministry or if as I am moving forward with testing with others an activity for the meeting, is:

If someone asks me later today if I have been faithful, how would I answer that question if I did or didn't follow this...?

Hmm. Maybe it's because I think of myself as "following" that I also consider my experiences of leadings as pulls rather than pushes....

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

10:06 AM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I think I will write a follow up post on this. I like your story. It seems to me that we are sharing enough language that we understand each others spiritual experiences. You need language to share the experiences and you need to share the experiences in order to lift each other up.

1:47 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

Aside from our not being able to produce a note from God, two other factors work against leadings being objectively knowable. While a person can ask worthy friends to confirm or deny his leading, he is still left with the responsibility of responding, rightly or wrongly, as best he can. And we are not dealing, as in a scientific context, with repeatable conditions. We may have the facts & know the sort of physical causes we'd expect to accompany them, but what's at issue is whether all that was arranged, this time, by divine purpose. So we can't know for someone else whether "way opened" for him, or he fallaciously read something into coincidential events.

Some of Richard Adams' characters (in _Shardik_) were discussing this, in the wake of a leading that first devastated their lives, then took them, at long last, to the kind of service they now knew God wanted of them. They'd been talking about this with a skeptic who didn't have a clue what they meant... and they told him it was like listening to music. A cat, they said, would hear notes, but only a human being would recognize the pattern the notes had come from.

[Apropos that... We inherited my wife's ex-husband's subsequent- wife's cat. The wife had played cello in an orchestra. My stepson was in the store, listening to a classical station, when they started to play one of her favorite pieces. He said the cat leaped to his feet & stared at the speakers. So much for conjectures on cat-experience...]

And now Anne & I have been given a "push." Nuff time on our butts; this morning we were given 3 months to find a new niche. But as you say, this too is a way that leadings happen.

3:43 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


I am quite sure that some cats can hear music. We had a cat once and my wife took to whistling the Toreador from Carmen when she fed the cat. One day Carmen was on the radio and sure enough the cat ran to the kitchen expecting to be fed when the Toreador was sung.

About confirmation of leadings I not saying proof. I'm saying we can get confirmation. And of course the responsibility is ultimately with the individual. But we don't have to rely solely on our own subjective feelings. The more objective judgement of others and the existence of synchronicities provide relevant evidence short of proof.

9:16 AM  

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