Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Testing Leadings (Part 1)

In a response to my recent post "A Kinder Gentler Apocalypse" an anonymous commenter asked three important questions:
1) How do contemporary Friends discern the value of an individual's leading?
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?
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:
  • 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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said! You should consider publishing this in some sort of pamphlet for MM's to use.

Friendship MM
Greensboro, NC

8:35 AM, December 17, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

I think one should also pause at the point that one is so gripped by emotion that the good order of a meeting for worship with a concern for business is disrupted. I think that most Friends know when they are on the verge of such an outburst and should seek clearness rather than using emotion to make a point, knowing that the object of the point is to stop the forward motion of the meeting towards unity.
It is a matter of simple self control. When these folks are on a jury or any of the other many places where they are expected to act like grownups in control of their emotions, they do.
THis is not a condemnation of the spirit behind the emotion, but a reminder that it is counter to our traditions, counter to coming to unity, and if one is about to blow... sit on your hands and seek help from others to come to clearness.

11:21 AM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

Well, I feel most Friends would be very comfortable with this, so they would be unlikely to suggest another point of view. But my own point of view is so offbeat and likely to be novel, so I'll mention it.

I simply don't look to God to give me such a quick turn-around on problems. Since I don't view God as a person (even a Big Person), I don't expect to feel protected or even helped on that scale of time. I expect to tough things out on my own, and I have to be prepared to make mistakes and to fail. Indeed, I've done a lot of toughing out alone, I have made a lot of mistakes, and I have often failed. My own philosophy is self-reliant.

"As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action." -- Emerson

I feel that God's time takes longer than this. Years, at the least. And correspondingly, my own perspective of a leading is that it must be manifested over years in order to prove itself.

Whether Friends rally behind a leading and take it under their care is another matter altogether. There is no unfortunately guarantee that they will rise to the occasion.

I feel very sure that it is the leading which makes the Quaker, and not the other way around.

-- Mitch

8:19 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Many thanks to Lorcan, Craig and Mitch for their responses.

Mitch's position may seem quite different than my own, but I see some truth in what he says (or what I think he's saying, anyway). Like Mitch, I think there is a legitimate place for making our own decisions and taking responsibility for them - without benefit of any obvious leadings at all. Unlike Mitch, I do think (and have experienced) that a "quick turnaround" on a request to the Lord for guidance is possible. But I also believe that we creatures God has made, with powers of reason and observation that we were born with, can make many decisions using those natural gifts and powers. When we can do so this is in no way unChristian or unspiritual. For the same reason, I think there is a place in each Friend's daily prayer life for spontaneous prayers that arise from our a human sense of need rather than from a direct leading to pray.

In practice, I think most Friends also believe this. But the official works of Quaker theology, beginning with Barclay, often seem to be taking a harder line against anything that comes from "the creature", especially in worship. And occasionally that theology is applied with what I consider an excessive literalness. The attempt of the crew of the Woodhouse to navigate by the spirit instead of map, compass and stars is a heroic but (as I see it) literally "mis-guided" case in point.

- - Rich

9:29 AM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Amanda said...

I found this post very useful, Rich. I'm going to spend some time with it. I especially am interested in the consideration of the role mental illness may sometimes play in any "religious experience", leading, or whatever. I've witnessed, in several meetings, the worry and discomfort that arises from the advent of someone who seems obviously deranged. How do we give someone who seems raving mad the spiritual dignity they deserve, while still being able to say "Okay, from where I'm standing, this seems inappropriate and likely to be stemming from a mental problem, and so I'll take what they say with a grain of salt/take the appropriate steps to protect myself/etcetera."

I mean, most of the saints would be put away in no uncertain terms, if they showed up today acting the way they did in their time...

3:52 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Contemplative Activist said...

That is an interesting point Amanda.

I find it a really tricky area. For one thing, I don't want to disrespect or discredit the religious experiences of people with mental illnesses. Indeed, if we are open we may be able to learn a great deal from them - and in understanding their spirituality/religion be able to utilise it to relieve distress.

I am sure I have read that people with mental illnesses who are also religious have a higher rate of recovery than those who are not. I know for sure the recovery rate from schizophrenia is very high in India and other countries where religion, particularly spiritual experience, is valued. By contrast the UK has a pretty low one and Denmark, even lower again. I don't have the stats to hand, but they were striking.

Anyway, that's probably another post. But I think how we understand and interpret the spiritual experiences of mental illness is a very tricky and very important thing to think about.

1:34 PM, December 20, 2005  
Blogger Joel said...

The other night, I was in my support group for mood disorder sufferers (DBSA) listening as a schizoaffective who hasn't been taking his meds described how Satan was making him hurt. I thought "I have been in that place."

In 1992, under the care of Palo Alto Meeting, I went to former Yugoslavia. I believed I had a leading and so did my clearness committee.

That experience plus the months of public speaking and scrutiny from Quakers on an email list broke me. Late in 1993, I sought the help of a psychiatrist. Early in 1994, I was put on Prozac for Major Depression. In January of this year, after more than a decade of denial and subterfuge on my part, I was rediagnosed as Bipolar. The meds work better than any I have taken before.

I think MMs should be very very careful about leadings, especially when they involve travel overseas. We have seen in recent days how a lack of medication, shifts between time zones, and loss of sleep led to the tragic shooting of a man at the Miami airport. (See my blog for my views on this incident.)

It is my experience that many people who think they have leadings exhibit symptoms of mood disorders. The signs include combativeness, irritability, religiosity, recklessness, and grandiosity. They may be very excited and euphoric about the Spirit coming into their lives. They talk and talk about it. And I was no different.

When someone talks about hearing the angels speak, MMs should be careful. The Clearness Process should focus on the person. At least one member should be a mental health professional if it is possible, especially when the ambition is large and involves taking risk-taking.

Meetings should learn about mood disorders. Perhaps the reason why the person wants so desperately to follow the Spirit is because they are bored or feel ostracized in some way. I know this feeling, too. After I was diagnosed, I sought the help of the Orange County MM. One influential member of that meeting told me that he was sixty years old and that, in comparison, I had no reason to feel depressed. Later the Meeting turned my request for assistance down.

It can be awkward for the sufferer to address such ignorant and abusive behavior in a MM. More than a few bipolars -- including myself -- have simply left MMs rather than deal with the stigma. It is ironic that Quakers fail in this. They need to listen more to those of us who have been through the cycles and survived, methinks, so they can support the sufferer before s/he sets off on an adventure that could worsen her/his condition or cost her/him her/his life.

Quaker Meetings have had a historic testimony in support of the mentally ill. When I hear of or run into stigmatizing or codependent behaviors, I sigh. I have forgiven Palo Alto Meeting -- key members have listened to my experience and granted me considerable "after the fact" support. OC Meeting is quite another matter. There is a door, but I have not yet found the key. Perhaps it is EXIT only and I am on the outside. If so, I need to keep walking.

5:20 PM, December 22, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Many thanks to all Amanda, CA, and especially to Joel for your comments on the relationship of "leadings" to mental illness. I still haven't written out my own thoughts on this topic, but I will definitely consider yours when I do.

One initial observation is that our Meetings should do whatever we can to help Friends who suffer from mental illness whether or not they come to us for clearness about leadings. A sufferer whose pain is silent and unobtrusive is just as worthy of comfort as one who speaks up and demands attention. Of course, most of us (I include myself) are pretty clueless about how and when to be helpful in either case.

Another observation is that having a mental illness doesn't disqualify one from spiritual insights and leadings. Amanda pointed out that those called "saints" might be diagnosed as mentally ill if they were around today (and I would add that they might in fact have been so). The same could be said about George Fox, and has already often been said about James Nayler. In such cases it is not necessary to deny or romanticize the illness in order to accept the insight, and it is not necessary to reject the insights or visions in order to understand the illness.

4:33 PM, December 23, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Thanks for this post. It nicely reflects other writings about leadings and how Friends go about testing them among ourselves and with one another.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

11:39 PM, December 23, 2005  

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