Learning to listen to and be obedient to God's leading of our life is how I would describe the foundation of Quakerism. This happens together as well as individually, but the skill and discipline of listening individually is necessary to build any practice of group discernment.
As Friend Walter Hjelt Sullivan put it in this video, it is the "core technology of Quakerism".
Within the past year I began to pursue a leading to spend several months living, learning, and serving among Friends in Cuba.
As I've shared this leading with others, it has at times been met with good-natured sarcasm..."oh I think I am led to do that as well!", folks have chuckled.
While I felt these comments were meant as friendly humor, I think they also reveal an underlying truth that is real and serious: People, even many Quakers, are skeptical of and confused about how leadings are discerned.
Non-Friends are often more blunt about their misgivings. I have heard folks complain of how narcissistic--even dangerous-- it is for religious people to have faith that God is speaking to them.
Across the spectrum, the discernment and holy trust that is the bedrock of our faith tradition feels to us like an unattainable fantasy, and a liability/threat.
In this day and age, people of conscience cannot be naive to the dangers of "leadings", as maybe early Friends could be. We can see the collateral damage of selfish desires couched in religious justifications throughout human history. We are rightfully distressed by the idea of "manifest destiny" that resulted in atrocious actions of genocide, enslavement of people, and colonization of our world. We recognize similar beliefs that support ongoing military actions that continue to destroy and traumatize. We are rightfully put off by the unchecked privilege of people who seem to act on every material desire and attribute these comforts to supernatural intervention, calling them "God's blessings".
As a result of these observations, our culture has become one oriented around scientific methodology. We expect actions to be objective, measurable, and replicable. This has offered transparency and accountability to offset some of the risks inherent when flawed people attempt to find and act on the truth.
But it has not made our spiritual lives vibrant, and it has not transformed sin in our world.
Science of course has a limited sphere of utility, and holy leadings are not objective, measurable, or replicable, so as contemporary Friends we often hold confusing and conflicted beliefs. So, why then, do we persist in them?
While science has made many great contributions to our world, we live in an age of profound spiritual disempowerment.
I can tell you that for me personally, distrust and confusion about God's leadings kept me for many years from becoming the person that God called me to be, and from experiencing God's vibrant presence in a real and consistent way. I don't think I am alone in that experience.
Despite its excellent resumé and stunning objectivity, science did not make me more faithful, joyful, peaceful, humble, courageous, holy, more available to others, or strong in expressing and applying my own gifts.
Only God could do that.
By what method can I trust a God who is not objective, measurable or replicable?
It has been through Friends guidance and involvement in my discernment that I have been on this journey of reclaiming my inner authority and take the steps of faithfulness in a way that I haven't before. I trust that this trip is an expression of that faithfulness, and I trust that deeply enough that I am not put off by the gentle jibes. I don't think I would even be put off by a direct challenge. Beneath the joking, I can imagine a plain-speaking Friend asking me the righteous question, "How did thee test this leading?"
I can remember a time in my life when the gentlest joke about a leading would have sent me into a whirlwind of my own distress and doubt.
I met with many fears, distractions, and problems during the course of pursuing this trip to Cuba. These are normal of course (even though I think mine are extra special difficult) but what was not normal for most of my life was having a way to persist in pursuing a leading even so. This has been from the very beginning, even from the time of starting to imagine that this is something I would do. What helped was being patient in worship and having spiritual care and accompaniment to ground me there and hold me accountable.
Here are a few snippets about how that process looked for me:
- The practical need to speak Spanish has been presenting for a long time in my life. Now, my primary work is in a bilingual community. It seems clear again and again that speaking Spanish is one of the most important skills I could develop to deepen this ministry.
Very often a leading is also a practical service, or something that resolves practical problems. God wants to be in our daily lives and problems.
- My wider community's discernment during a visioning conversation a year and a half ago confirmed that this is not only my conviction, but where God is leading us together.
The community expressed the primary developing identity of our church as being bilingual and bicultural in all that we do. Since my primary commitment in life is to this community, this gives my leading significantly more weight. I can trust that the discernment of others who I respect is supporting my leading, so it is not just about me, nor is it simply what makes sense in a practical sense. Its what God is doing among us.
- I asked every English-speaker I know who has learned Spanish how they did it, to see what might rise. Almost every single person said that the only way to really learn is to spend significant time living in a Spanish-speaking culture. Here is where I had a lot of discomfort as the increasing weight of this leading came to bear with my fears/distractions/limitations. As a low-income single parent and working pastor, I could not imagine being able to do this in my life. I cant leave my kids. I can't get time off work. I can't afford a big trip.
This kind of inner conflict often feels like anxiety. What God wants and how I operate are duking it out. And I have real barriers to being able to easily act on this!
I've learned to be patient with this anxiety. To not give in to the temptation to disengage from it, but instead pay special attention, and be open to not knowing how it will be resolved. Part of a life of obedience and trusting God is being open to leadings without knowing how.
In the meantime I enrolled in Spanish classes at the community college, even though people told me that is not the best way to learn. I saw this as the way to make Spanish study a big part of my life. Getting started is a really good way to test a leading. I saw myself doing this for a year, and then deciding what would be next.
Learning a language makes me feel vulnerable, humble, and alive. It reminds me of being a little kid again. It is embarrassing and hard and confusing. Its also fun. I can see some of the spiritual gifts of this and how it relates to my own journey as a minister, to the spiritual condition of my faith community.
- Also, the anxiety that rises when we take steps of faithfulness is no joke. I enlisted spiritual care.
Many times during this year my ministry care and oversight committee and others I rely on for spiritual care have helped, when I was unable to help myself or ask for help. They helped me to not lose the plot, and they helped make things happen when that's what was needed. Ministry is bigger than any one person. "Ministry is a team sport." says one of my spiritual elders. So I had trusted people who regularly helped get things unstuck every time they got stuck.
One of those people was my colleague Ken Comfort who first said to me that he thought I was led to go to Cuba. I trusted his leading for me about this! And had other confirmation that this was right. This is just one of the interesting and exciting things that happens when we let other people into our discernment.Through all this process, all uncertainty in me was not abated. I continue to return to prayer, bringing my insecurities and asking God's grace. Until yesterday, I continued to (daily! I'm serious.) call on my spiritual support people to help me stay grounded in faithfulness, which to me means staying wise to Truth, and obedient to the most holy action I can see at this time.
- Some of the specific fears and barriers I experienced were around self-sufficiency. I didn't have the money to fund this trip alone.
I was afraid to ask for financial support. I was afraid of not succeeding in fundraising the money I needed. I had to take the risk of trusting because it is not feasible to fundraise for such a trip without making a lot of arrangements and telling everyone you're doing it before you have the money.
I was also afraid of receiving that support. I was afraid of being self-indulgent. I was afraid of it being about me. I feared that if I found out that God will provide, it might be a slippery slope before I was on television, talking about how God gave me a trip to Cuba and he wants that for you too!
There is a lot there, but suffice to say, it has been good to follow my leading in the face of barriers and fear.
- Testing the leading in the context of Jesus- every time I hit a wall in this process, I asked myself if it was of God or not. I tested my worries, fears, limitations, and stops against what I know of the character and values of God in Christ. Having a deep sense of who God is for me helped me understand which fears were wisdom and which I needed to ignore, which barriers were signs to back off or change direction and which were problems to be solved.
- At this time, as I embark on this trip, I see it as being for me about trusting God to fully provide the guidance and resources needed for whatever I need to do.
I feel that the call on me during this trip is to be trusting God enough that I am present in the moment. I feel led to let go of the expectations I developed in anticipation over the past year, and let God lead.
I look forward to sharing after the trip what God as assured me of, and what has been surprising.
Thanks to folks at Pickett Endowment and others who are supporting me, as I share this mid-process report. Its hard to share unfinished work in the exact same way it is hard to trust a leading when you don't know the outcome. My hope is that it might encourage others in their miraculous-but-imprecise-and-somewhat-risky art of discernment and trusting God.