Thursday, August 07, 2008

How far am I willing to go?

I had a good conversation recently with a f/Friend. It started out extremely intensely, since I found myself defending the idea that Quakerism needed to be grounded in a sense of Scripture being a checking authority in discerning the will of God. I believe that this is true, but as I argued the point I felt convicted of my own failure to live up to the life that Christ Jesus calls me to with the example of his life and teachings. For all I could say about the need for scriptural authority in the Religious Society of Friends, I cannot escape the fact that my own life does not conform to the life of Christ.

I act out of ego - out of desire and fear - so very often, and it is relatively rare that I act out of agape-love. And there is so much of my life that I hold back from God. I shy away from the cross. I expect that I should be able to be a suffering servant without having to suffer for it! I expect that I should be able to say to my Lord: "Yes, Lord! I hand my life over to you - just as long as I have health insurance and food to eat." I don't want to face the fact that God offers the ministers of God the same health insurance that is offered to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

I feel released. I feel clear in abandoning expectation of anything, even necessities. Maybe it serves God's will in my life that I go without healthcare. Maybe God is glorified best in my life when I give up all semblance of control, all wealth, all security. My f/Friend spoke of his experience as the son of two missionaries and remarked on how they lived in great poverty, practically begging from the religious community they served. He related this to the tendency for men and women of God to live like beggars. Consider Francis and the true monastics, Rumi, the Buddha and his monastics. Perhaps the path that God has called me to is that of being a beggar, renouncing all semblance of self-sufficiency.

Am I truly willing to die for my faith? Am I willing to be homeless, without healthcare, literally begging for my daily bread, if that's what God is calling me to? I must cease fretting so much about how I am to do God's will and simply do it. Thy will be done, Lord God - even if it means humiliation and death. And this means not resenting others who are making different choices. If I am truly grounded in God's call for me and truly given over to follow that call, whatever be the consequences, the I have no reason to be upset with anyone. That's not to say that I should let sinful behavior off the hook - but speaking to it should never be about me. My only motivation should be Christ-like care and compassion for my fellow beings.

It is time for me to let go of everything but God, walking in the footsteps of Jesus, seeking no vindication but that of my Parent in Heaven. Come what may, no matter what others think, I pray that I might be faithful to God, walking in the Way of God's son, Jesus Christ.


Martin Kelley said...

It's a hard call. I've been out chasing leadings most of my adult life, more or less ignoring any smart career moves that might present themselves (even my Quaker career would have benefited from being less led and more strategic).

That's all fine and great but here I am 41 years old with two kids, no health insurance, rotting teeth and twenty-nine cents in my bank account (I wish I were being metaphorical). Any sense of pride I might feel for twenty years of do-gooder activism and ministry kind of goes out the window when I'm digging in the couch looking for enough loose change to buy a cup of coffee at the local convenience store.

I don't want to be a wet blanket but those individual sacrifices were usually made in the context of strong community support. The missionaries were usually respected and prayed over and I assume the community presented them with jobs and opportunities after their service was up. Didn't Gandhi say something to the effect that it took a lot of rich people to keep him in voluntary poverty? Sure, some of the big time martyrs died for it all but at least their sacrificed is remembered, it's not like "hey I wonder what ever happened to so-and-so."

There may be pockets of Quakerland where there are strong communities, where the group takes its duties towards gospel order seriously and takes care of those who go out on the limb in ministry. The whole structure of Quakerism originally started to support those suffering for the faith. But I don't see this infrastructure and--even more--this consciousness in our meetings today. I wonder if the work of our generation is less producing the next great John Woolman as it is (re)producing the strong Quaker communities of accountability that could give rise to and support and hold accountable someone like him.

I guess I'm saying it's less about heroic acts of individual sacrifice and more about corporate acts of real religious witness.

Anonymous said...

Hey Micah – Sorry in advance – this is a long reply!

As the f/Friend who’s parents were missionaries for a time (and later gave their lives over to the church in other ways, including pastoring), I feel like I ought to speak up here. By upper middle-class Quaker standards, we might be considered to have been living in severe poverty – by the standards of most of the working class churches my parents visited, we were just poor.

But I wasn’t actually advocating the idea of putting oneself in a position of living a life of extreme poverty. There are definitely some who are called to that life, and it’s a serious and often painful calling. My parents chose to leave their financial and physical well-being “up to God”, but they also had four children to provide for.

As adults, we four children are now paying for those choices, emotionally and financially (where able). My parents have grown old and are not able to adequately provide for themselves (housing, health, etc.) – not planning for retirement or ageing-related health can create a serious burden for those who have chosen to leave everything “up to God”, and for their families.

Did God truly call them to those choices – perhaps. But those choices have also had serious consequences. My mom often struggled with this way of life (as an Evangelical-fundamentalist housewife, she was kind of “along for the ride”). I remember in high School she often urged me to “learn a trade”. At the time I thought she was crazy. I now understand that this came from a real concern arising out of being poor & feeling dependent on others for most of her life.

In communicating about this with my sister about some of these concerns for our family, I reminded her of the story of the man sitting on a roof during a flood. He prays to God to save him. In turn, a rowboat, the coast guard and a helicopter appear, and each time, the man on the roof turns them away, "No thanks - I'm waiting for God to save me..." The man eventually drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, "So why didn't you save me? I asked you three times?"
God replies, "Wadd'ya want? I sent you a rowboat, the Coast Guard and a helicopter!"
Sometimes I now wonder if planning for old age & the eventuality of sickness & decline aren’t versions of God’s “rowboats”.

Certainly early Friends supported one another in times of great constraint – my understanding was that the “Meeting for Sufferings” was set up to help provide for Friends who had financially suffered because of persecution. And certainly, meetings and individual Friends often provided Friends traveling in the ministry with financial or other forms of help (plowing the fields when a farmer was away on travels, etc.).

However, there was also an expectation/understanding that ministers would find a way to earn a competency, whether by trade or skill. And while ministers were often offered help with expenses, it seems that many chose to provide for themselves when traveling.

Samuel Bownas (“Descriptions of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister”) was apparently a very skillful merchant. His “Descriptions of the Qualifications…” provides some very helpful advice to other ministers in business and trade (mainly, to do business with integrity & not overreach or get into debt). Woolman also earned a living through trade, and he often paid for his own hospitality as part of his own leading. (When staying in slave-owners homes, he was very careful to pay for his stay himself.)

I am currently working for FGC, and while this often feels like ministry, my work is mainly administrative or retail-oriented. Much of our work is “chopping the wood” in service to monthly and yearly meetings. I spent 18 years before this working in retail, which I’m grateful for in learning some skills in customer service and management.

In my own meeting, Friends have worked to create some very wise and helpful guidelines for supporting Friends in ministry. Some of our questions in the clearness process include, along with the nature of the call, ways in which the person already feels clear, potential benefits of the proposed ministry:
d. Readiness to undertake the ministry: Is the person prepared to undertake this ministry at this time? How does it fit into other obligations such as family, work, or community? Does the person have the skills and resources to carry out this call? What steps might be taken to become better prepared for undertaking the ministry? What are the risks and how will they be borne?
e. Financial readiness: How will the person support him- or herself while carrying out this ministry? Is she or he prepared to go forward even if the level of funds available may require living on significantly reduced means?
f. Rightness of seeking support: Is it appropriate to ask others to join in this ministry by providing spiritual, practical, or financial support? Sometimes there may be clearness that this is something the individual is called to bear alone. In exploring whether there is a role for the meeting, is the person prepared to engage prayerfully with others without resentment and disruption of his or her relationship to the meeting community?
g. Adequacy of support: Does the work require more financial or practical resources than the individual can reasonably carry alone? Is the needed financial or practical support available? If not, can the ministry be carried forward faithfully in a less demanding form and/or is it rightly ordered to wait until way more fully opens?

These seem like really good questions to ask oneself when following a leading, “Am I truly ready? Have I been faithful in attending to *all* the steps God requires of me? Is there more that God is asking of me in terms of preparing myself for the ministry? Might God be asking me to wait?”

So, while I don’t have any specific advice for you in terms of whether God is calling you to live in total poverty – you must listen for God’s leading as best you can, Micah. To live that life and leading as Jesus did certainly requires a deep faith and trust. But I would caution you to think in the long term about what this might mean for you (and your eventual family, if God calls you to that as well), and whether God is asking for *other* kinds of preparation for the ministry as well.

I would agree with Martin that meetings are often not in a place where they are able, perhaps willing, or even know how to support ministry in the full sense. However, I would also put it out there that there has also existed for Friends an expectation that we find ways of providing for ourselves. (A good example, to me, is the Simple Way community here in Philadelphia – while they are committed to living with simplicity & exist in many ways as an organization on the charity of others, there is also an expectation that house-members will find some part-time work to help share in the expenses of the household.)

And I guess there is another aspect to this – living without healthcare puts one in the same position as millions of other folks living in this country (and most of the world) – and hopefully in sympathy with the poor. I count myself very lucky to have begun to receive healthcare as a young adult just before my heart condition was diagnosed. I would probably not be here writing this if it were not for that miracle!

In God’s Love and Care, Eric

Carolyn H said...

Martin raises a good point here about Friends and money--that corporate meeting support of ministries and leadings is part of our tradition. I see meetings where it is still part of the culture.

It's important to recognize, however, that the discernment process leading to that kind of comprehensive financial and practical support is a serious corporate undertaking of both the meeting body and the individual. It involves forming a clearness committee to examine the leading with the individual. It involves a committee--not an individual--representing that leading to the business meeting and asking for support. There is often threshing and prolonged examination of whether the ministry is something the meeting is corporately led by the Spirit to add into its budget and support committee structure.

My reading of the history of Friends and their money leads me to different conclusions than those represented in the Post. George Fox did not die a poor man. The Friends who came to Pennsylvania to live in the power of the Quaker message did so in full expectation that they would be able to build successful farming communities that would provide financially for their families and support their meetings as well. John Woolman was a successful businessman who limited his business so that his time was freed for ministry. Having a 'competency' that funded was one's living expenses and permitted time and money to carry out ministry has long been normative in Friends' practice and remains alive today to a very wide extent.

I don't believe it serves our Society for Quakers to present our faith as one that ideally demands us to live without the benefits of society--such as health insurance and enough money to provide for our own needs--that we want for all people. Rather, I believe it is just as Quakerly to follow the example of the Friends who settled the Delaware River Valley and to be practical as well as faithful--to seek to provide ourselves and our families, as best we can, with the financial resources it takes to provide for a simple but adequate life for ourselves and our meetings. We then of course also have the responsibility to be generous in our giving and in our other actions to create a more just world. And, closer to home, we have the responsibility in our meetings to help Friends who are struggling with financial or employment issues. I'm not talking about direct assistance, but rather offers of clearness, listening, helping to seek out solutions and possibilities, emotional and spiritual support.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Micah!

Another good posting! It's a pleasure to follow your thoughts in this manner.

I'd like to offer a further counterpoint to your argument in this particular posting, if I may.

I suppose it doesn't hurt to remember that, while Christ was apparently homeless, a gleaner, and often hungry, there is no evidence he was ever a beggar. And Paul, who called on his readers to "imitate me as I imitate Christ", earned his living on his travels insofar as he possibly could, desiring not to make himself a burden on his hearers.

While Gautama sent out his followers into the world two-by-two, to preach the Dharma and live by begging, this worked because the pattern of holy men begging was already an accepted one in India. When Buddhist missionaries came to China, they rapidly discovered that it was not an accepted pattern there. Thus they established monasteries where the monks could support themselves, and while they still sent the monks into the world to beg, they developed a ritualized way of begging that did not corner or pressure anyone to give.

Begging is as ill-regarded in the modern West as in China; we are raised to view beggars as incompetents deserving of charity, rather than as holy people under vows. This preconception, on our part, hinders the preaching of beggars, and hinders their ability to work freely. Bernie Glassman, the Jewish Zen master in New York City, has been challenging this preconception in that place, but I haven't heard that he has made any real headway.

And we do have the example of Paul to consider, an example that Friends have historically taken with utmost seriousness. We also have the examples of the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Hutterites, people of piety and peace whose lives preach powerfully, not as beggars, but as people who visibly support themselves in exceptionally righteous ways.

When Ian Bedloe, the protagonist of Anne Tyler's novel Saint Maybe, finds himself called to live a life of holy sacrifice, he drops out of college and is led to learn cabinetry — the sort of skill that a person could presumably support himself by anywhere, even on short notice. As it turns out, he never needs to travel in the gospel ministry, but he does have the skill should he be called. Carolyn H. reminds us that Woolman's tailoring served a similar purpose: I note that when Woolman traveled to England in the ministry, he promised Friends there to support himself by his tailoring skills.

I am certainly not saying that I think you have to follow Paul's example. But I'd urge you to at least consider the possibility, bearing in mind that there are skills (like cabinetry) that make it possible even now.

Does the voice of Christ really urge you to make yourself a deliberate burden on your hearers? Maybe so, but this is something I'd think about carefully.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

According to the gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "If you bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will save you; if you do not bring forth that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you." Elsewhere, we are told we are made in the image of God. In my opinion, that Godness is what we are to bring forth. My experience is that faith begets faith and we approach its fullness circuitously.

When I am frightened, when my ego-self feels threatened, I live out of scarcity. There, things like health insurance, a place to lay my head, food for my belly, and being loved are of paramount importance. And, when I live with My Beloved at my center, these things fade and cease to be in the forefront. But, they remain and may as long as I live in this body sack.

It has been about a month since I sat with a friend following meeting for worship and had a conversation similar to that which is occuring on this post (including even the lilies of the field and the story of the boat and helicopter). The questions stay with me.

Just this morning, the faith community of which I am a member read the account of feeding the 5,000 in Mark and noted that Jesus taught them AND fed them. Only when the two are diametrically opposed, when rendering unto Caesar robs God, are we at a choice-point that tests our faith. And that is where true discipleship begins.

My experience, limited as it is, is that choosing God has rewards that far exceed anything this material world can offer. So, I engage with Friends in conversations about Sabbath-jubilee, about falling into the arms of our living God and discovering the abundance there. There, I know, "I am the Lord thy God who has brought you out of slavery." Yet, at times, I cry from fear of some scarcity, I wonder if the cup might be taken from me. Most often, I find comfort in the arms of God or the arms of the faith community which I embrace and which embraces me. The abundance is inconceivable without the scarcity and vice versa, aren't they?
How do we embrace "BOTH AND" fully?

When anyone has the final answer, please inform me. In the meantime, God willing, I'll live falteringly into an answer-in-progress.
In faith - Friend Viv

Promise said...

Micah -

The earthly ministry of Jesus is not something we can live up to. That's why we accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord - because we need grace. God doesn't ask us to "walk in the way of Christ," he offers us his grace freely.

I hope you don't mind my comments. I know I am stranger to you, but I am a Friend in Christ and I was moved to write.


christina said...

I recently read a piece by an Anglican man who is asking similar questions about being a fool for Christ, intentionally giving up material possessions and money. He has questions about taking a vow of poverty in his work with orphans around the world. Interestingly, the vow is not necessarily to be more poor than he already is. It is partly so other people will believe he truly is without a cushion of resources so they will stop expecting him to dip into some secret stash of funds he must have. He's talking about a vow of poverty as a declaration of what is, not a commitment to what is not yet the case.

The article:

I think this man, Jim Luce, would like to hear from people dealing with the same questions. Would anyone like to track him down and see how he is doing? Read the artice he wrote, and then decide.