Testing Leadings (Part 1)
1) How do contemporary Friends discern the value of an individual's leading?Since this post had discussed a Friend's "prophecy" that the town of Farmington Maine will become the New Jerusalem in June 2006, I assume that the questions are prompted by doubts (which I certainly share) about that prophecy and about the Friend's leading to proclaim it. They apply, however, much more broadly than that: to anything that any Friend may feel to be a leading. Some examples that come to mind (in no logical order) are:
2) How do comtemporary Friends discern whether a leading may be the product of mental illness?
3) How to contemporary Friends do either when an individual is not part of a monthly/quarterly/yearly meeting structure or subject to its discipline?
- leadings to get married
- leadings to speak in meeting
- leadings to travel in the ministry
- leadings to engage in public witness
- leadings to publish blogs
- leadings to change one's place of employment
I'd like to comment at length on these issues, not because I possess an authoritative position on them, but because I feel a need to think about them "out loud".
A "leading", as Friends have usually used that term, is an internal sense that God's Spirit is pulling or tugging or pushing at you to do some particular thing. It's a concept that I think overlaps with "concern", the major difference being that a "concern" may not be a single action or short-term project but a focus of one's energies and commitment over a long period of time. I imagine that our Friend Tom Fox (who is still in my prayers and constantly on my mind) is an example of someone acting under both a concern and a leading (a concern for peace, nonviolence, and justice particularly in the Middle East; a leading to undertake the specific job that he was doing when captured by the Swords of Righteousness Brigade).
The large place that leadings have among Friends is in my opinion one of the most distinguishing marks of Quaker spirituality (not that non-Friends don't have leadings, of course, but we Friends expect them, wait for them, talk about them, respect them and tend to take them very seriously). We want any messages given in meeting to be under the leading of the Holy Spirit. We think that important life-decisions should be based on leadings. If there is a conflict between the two, we value leadings of the Spirit much more highly than any thought-out plans or life-strategies based on "worldly wisdom".
If it truly is a tug from God, of course, a leading is completely reliable and authoritative. We really have no business saying "no" when God says "go". The problem is that none of us are infallible discerners of when it is that God is nudging us and when it is that we are nudging ourselves. It is very very easy to be self-deceived or deluded. What is the solution of this problem?
The anonymous commenter focuses in his or her questions on how contemporary Friends - apparently as a group - can judge the value or even the sanity of an individual Friends' leading. This is important and I want to address it. But there will also be many cases when an individual's leading doesn't even rise to the group's attention. Many years ago an employer asked me to do something that troubled my conscience. I thought I felt led to decline, but the question was not clear cut. Was that nudge I felt from the Lord or from my own fantasies of radical purity? If the issue should become serious enough to threaten my job (as it initially appeared to be), where did my responsibility to my wife and then-infant son fit in? There wasn't time to call a clearness committee. I needed to do some heavy discernment on my own and on the spot. But not completely on my own. I could bring the question back to God himself. It doesn't take long to utter a silent prayer. In this case, I had some time over lunch hour to center down and listen. This might seem like a circular procedure: How do I know whether I'm hearing God rightly? - why just ask God. But it is not completely circular. Particularly not if some kind of silent worship or prayer is a regular part of one's life. I believe it's possible to learn to "recognize" God's voice by listening to it regularly. Jesus said "My sheep know my voice". And while praying and listening, one can of course also feel for the quality of the response the leading evokes in oneself. Does it fill one with self-importance and self-righteousness? That's a bad sign. Does it let one off the hook from some other more mundane responsibility? That could be a warning. Finally, is the content of the leading compatible with past leadings, with Christian morality, with the testimonies of Friends? All of this can be considered by the individual in communion with God even when there is no time or opportunity to call upon others for advice. (The end of the story about my little moral dilemna may seem anti-climactic. I felt clear after praying about it to decline the task my supervisor had assigned. She, in the meantime, had consulted with her own manager and decided to withdraw her ultimatum about continued employment. No heroism was required.)
That said, there are clearly times when the individual needs to turn to other Friends for help in discernment. There are even times when it is the Friends' community that has a need to join in the discernment process even if the individual hasn't seen that need. At times, after all, the integrity and public reputation of Friends as a body are on the line. James Nayler's unfortunate procession in to Bristol comes to mind as an example of this.
When should the individual bring a leading to others for discernment? When do those "others" need to be acting officially on behalf of a Friends Meeting, as opposed to being a group of the individual's buddies? I'd like to consider these questions one at a time.
When should the individual bring a leading to others for discernment?
I will start by saying "not always". This may seem obvious, but I mention it because I have occasionally heard some Friends speak as if it is somehow scandalous to follow a leading without convening a group to labor over it first. I think this attitude is based on an excessive anxiety that someone somewhere will misunderstand the Lord, and usually it comes up when someone is upset at something that another Friend has done. I think it's better in many cases to trust that folks who turn to God and Christ for guidance will indeed find guidance clear enough to act on. And when A Friend does lose the way he or she may find that the corrective insight needed can also come from individual searching and waiting and prayer. I like the advice from the elders at Balby that says "none to be busy bodies in other's matters".
While the chief danger of our individualistic age is that we ignore corporate testimonies, corporate guidance, and corporate discipline, the opposite danger still exists also: that some of us may avoid personal discernment and personal responsibility by offloading all decisions to a group. This, by the way, would apply not only to leadings, but to small personal decisions of all kinds.
That said, there are certainly times when an individual is well-advised to seek out others to aid in discernment. It makes a difference how eventful the decision in question is, how clear or unclear one already feels about a nudge that might be a leading, how novel the leading is in comparison to past leadings and testimonies of Friends, and how much the action being considered has an impact on others.
I would say, then, that if I feel I am moved to do something relatively routine and unambiguously consistent with Friends tradition and Christian ethics, then I should feel free to do so without laboring about it with a group of Friends. If I felt moved to visit someone in the hospital or in jail, for example, or to call an old acquaintance, or to write my Congressman and urge opposition to the war these would not be the kinds of leadings that needed to be checked unless for some reason I felt internally unclear about them.
Similarly, if I take a relatively controversial stand on the strength of a leading, but do so without implicating my Meeting then it may not be necessary to seek out confirmation from others. This would depend, of course, on how inwardly clear I felt about it. I once knew of a Friend who was active in the so-called "right to life" (anti-abortion) movement. Most other Friends I know, including me, had reservations about the rightness of this cause. But there is no generally accepted "testimony" in favor of reproductive rights, and the Friend herself was absolutely convinced of her stand. She felt no need to consult us about it and I don't fault her for that. I think, however, that if I personally found most members of my Meeting were opposed to a stand I took I would be more inclined to question it and more inclined to feel the need for prayerful reflection about it with them.
If, on the other hand, a Friend takes a public position that is at odds with our testimony and tradition it seems to me that he or she really should gather with some others to seek clearness about it. Likewise, if a Friend does something publicly in the name of Friends that goes beyond our corporate discernment to date he or she should make an effort to test that leading with other Friends to see if they are in unity with it or at least easy with it. During the Viet Nam war, some Friends including me decided to move beyond the traditional Friends' position of conscientious objection within the legal parametes of the draft system and to refuse any kind of cooperation at all with conscription. In such cases, many of us first sought long and hard about it and involved other Friends in our discernment process.
When do those "others" need to be acting officially on behalf of a Friends Meeting or other Friends' body, as opposed to being a group of the individual's buddies?
I would say that this is almost always preferable. If there isn't time to "go through channels", of course, then there isn't time. But I think the temptation to choose one's clearness committee oneself should be avoided whenever possible. It's too easy to choose people who are already known to be sympathetic with your concern, or to be fans of the person seeking clearness. What is needed are people who are willing to probe and question. A Friends meeting that contains a variety of people with different perspectives is more likely to select a varied clearness committee than the person seeking clearness would have selected on her own or his own.
If the leading is to do something on behalf of Friends, or serve as a public spokesperson for Friends, then it is even more important to seek clearness from a body appointed by the meeting.
Well, I see that I have gone on a tad long about all this and I still haven't completley answered the anonymous commenter's 1st question, much less even started on the 2nd and third questions: discerning when a purported leading is the product of mental illness, and how to judge leadings if the Friend is not part of a meeting. So there will have to be a Part 2.
Labels: Testing Leadings