Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quaker business and the silence of God

After years of sitting through Quaker business meetings Latin American style, I am currently experiencing the practices, policies and quirks of doing things in the older traditional Quaker way, US style (and, presumably, European as well). For the most part, I’m drawn to what I see—the focus on waiting on God and seeking God’s will, on genuinely listening to each other, even all the language and formalities that at times seem so, well, old-fashioned. And the time all this can take. There’s a sweet seriousness about it that I sense pleases God.

But it doesn’t always work as smoothly as it’s supposed to.

I’m currently an elder in my congregation. A year ago in the midst of a budget crunch, the congregation gave the elders the task of coming up with some creative alternatives for the configuration of our pastoral team. This deepened into a visioning process that involved the whole congregation asking such questions as who are we and why has God placed us in this particular place at this specific time. The focus on the calling, as well as on the needs of the church, was to guide us elders to a proposal for our pastoral team.

So we have been meeting regularly for over a year now, usually with our three pastors, occasionally without them. Without going into the particulars that have made this into such a complex task, let me just say that it’s proved to be daunting. When we finally presented a proposal to the October business meeting, I was tempted to jokingly label it “Revision #467.” And now we see that our church body is finding it just as frustrating. After three business meetings (and more revisions) it seems like we are making little headway to a contented “sense of the meeting,” other than “this is really hard.”

I believe that God speaks to his people, that he reveals his will. And I know that this sometimes takes time, especially as we emphasize the community nature of discernment. During the year I’ve occasionally taken God to task, saying, “OK. So what is it? Tell us. Show us your plan. It’s time.” But for some reason, God is not speaking clearly to us, at least in terms of a plan for the pastoral team configuration. This has not been easy for the congregation, the elders, and, particularly, for the three dear people that have served us well as our released pastors. So, why the silence on God’s part?

But even in the middle of all this, I’ve sensed the presence of God. While silent, God has not been absent. A few months into the process I began to wonder if God might be telling us that the particulars of the plan were not as important as the process, that he wanted us to use our minds, to listen well, to treat each other kindly, and to take the time necessary.

Then one night I had a dream. (Let me say here that my life among Latin American Friends has helped me be open to dreams as one of the ways God speaks to us. If the dream is of a certain quality and if it stays with me in detail after I wake up, I pay attention.) In the dream I entered the sanctuary at the end of a Sunday morning worship service. People remained in the room, some seated, some standing in small groups, quietly talking or just holding the silence together. No one seemed in a hurry to leave. I asked a friend what was going on, and he replied that the Spirit of God had been so present to the body that they all wanted to stay awhile and bask in the love and warmth. Our pastors were part of the congregation; it was not evident which one had been leading the meeting.

I sense that the Spirit wants to bless us, move among us, and use us in greater measure. And I sense that this does not depend on the configuration of the pastoral team, as important as that is. When I shared this in the business meeting, there was agreement and encouragement. I sense consensus in that basic Quaker (and Christian) value—that there is One, Christ Jesus, who can meet our need, that Jesus is among us to be our pastor and teacher, that he wants us to deepen in this reality. And I sense consensus that we are a community, the people of God in this place, and that it matters that we continue to listen to each other, to treat each other kindly, and to take the time to work out whatever plan we come up with. We may never agree on all the details, and that may not be so important. We may all have to give and take some, to practice mutual submission, to lay down personal preferences. Uniformity on details is not what Quaker practice is all about. At least not always.

It probably won’t happen in this situation. I certainly wish for a speedy end to this continuing saga. On a certain level I would still like for God to just give us The Plan. Maybe another dream, with the actual blueprint? But no. That’s not going to happen. In some mysterious way, what is really happening among us is probably deeper and better than we could imagine.

Yesterday as I was praying (pleading, actually), three metaphors came to mind, coming from three poems that have ministered to me many times. I won’t quote the poems here (maybe in another blog), but the metaphors alone are apt. One is Arthur Robert’s poem, “Our Winter Is a Foggy Drive.” Another is William Stafford’s “Travelling through the Dark.” And finally, a poem I wrote about being stuck in a river, entitled “From Bolivian Mud.” They all speak of slowly working (or driving) our way through difficult circumstances where the silence of God is the loudest sound around.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, your people. Show us the way. Amen


  1. Why do some of us have to live most of our life before we get a clue about certain things? That's just our life!

    What I've found with some personal questions about God... was that God's answer was to grow me up into being a different person. And this, as you've been discovering, has been God's plan for your group.

    I have a lot of frustration with my own Meeting. Your post here has helped shed some light on that...

  2. A few years after I retired, I asked God what He wanted me to do with my life. Did He want me to work at a soup kitchen? Did He want me to teach? Dozens of suggestions, none of which felt right, all of which the answer was, "Sure, whatever, it doesn't matter."

    This got me frustrated and angry. "What do you mean it doesn't matter? How could what I do with my life not matter?"

    The answer was, "It doesn't matter what you DO. Just BE loving."

    This sounds similar to what is happening with your meeting.

  3. Like "Anonymous" above (Dec 13, 9:28), I've generally found God annoyingly quiet when it comes to planning and bureaucracy, but much more engaged and loquacious when it comes to living and engaging. This seems to be highly suggestive of Freinds' testimony to simplicity, especially simplicity in worship.