As many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God. Romans 8:14
In the late 1980s, young urban professionals Scott and Mary Ann Savage experienced an unexpected call. In the midst of a booming material culture, they were uneasy with their lengthy commutes, hurried lives, and impact on the environment. They began to long for a simpler way of life. A spiritual hunger grew as well, which caused them to read about the plain communities around them in Ohio. During the home birth of their first child in 1991, they unexpectedly felt the presence of God. Mary Ann quit her job in order to be a stay-at-home mom, and nearby Amish people taught them how to simplify their lives. They found spiritual community among Conservative Friends, who believe that, with the assistance of Scripture and fellow believers, God’s leadings can be found in one’s heart.
Scott and Mary Ann received a leading to move to a farm without electricity. There they learned to grow and can fruits and vegetables, feed livestock, and use a horse and buggy to get around. More children were born. Although the work was hard, they experienced joys they had not known before. In his book A Plain Life, Scott Savage tells the story of the transformation of their lives as they followed the call to a simple life, in touch with God, community, and the earth.
Most of the book describes the unfolding of a particular leading Scott received to make a hundred-mile walk to Ohio’s state capital to give up his drivers’ license. This leading, he wrote, was a “necessary thing blossoming in my heart as a directive from God.” (19) Although they had already given up their car, Scott had been renting vehicles and traveling a great deal. He spoke with other Friends to test the clearness of his leading to give up his driver’s license. “I … found myself describing it as a needed step in pulling away from the freedom and mobility many people hold up as great achievements in modern life. I had come to see the car and what it represented as paradoxically oppressive, not only to myself, but also to the larger society…and the planet that was choking on its fumes.” (19) The Friends he spoke with had not, themselves, been led to give up their cars, but they sensed that his leading was truly from God.
Quakers today use three related words to describe being led by God’s spirit. Only rare people are acutely sensitive to all the suffering and injustice in the world. Instead, an individual or community often becomes especially sensitive to one or a few of the worlds’ needs. We speak of this as coming under the weight of a particular concern. A person or group carrying a concern is then prompted to undertake specific actions to address the issue. If a task is God-given, we speak of it as a leading. The word call is used to describe a God-given task that demands effort and attention over a long period of time. During the course of following a call, one may receive and carry out a great number of leadings.
In her recent Friends Journal article, “Africa, Appalachia, and Arrest”, Eileen Flanagan describes how, after twenty years of mild efforts to live in earth-friendly ways, a shift happened. Suddenly she felt under the weight of a concern about climate change. She became active with the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) as they protested PNC Bank’s financial support of mountaintop removal in Appalachia. A phone call from a friend in Botswana, where she had served as a Peace Corps volunteer, made her aware of the devastating impact of climate change on her friends there. With support from her Quaker community, she followed a leading to travel to Africa; there she saw how rising temperatures and water shortages will have a harsher effect on the poorest people.
Eileen realized that her efforts to reduce her personal and family energy consumption are not enough. “What the world’s hungry need,” she wrote, “are big changes from big institutions and people bold enough to call for them.” She became more sensitive to the great hazards of our culture’s current push to extreme extraction practices like mountaintop removal, and to the devastating environment effect of burning dirtier fuels, such as tar sands oil, instead of developing clean energy technology. A deeper level of commitment was born.
“I came home feeling that I was being led to show more courage, act more boldly, and more publicly in my leading to work for climate justice.” Next Eileen felt nudged by the Spirit to represent EQAT when representatives of organizations across the country participated in a protest at the White House, in an effort to persuade President Obama to veto the Keystone XL pipeline. Handcuffing herself to the White House fence and going to jail, along with fifty other activists, was a joyful experience. What followed were many opportunities to speak with the press about the concern God has placed upon her.
It can be difficult to know for sure when a prompting to action comes from God or from another source. We are motivated by a multitude of impulses and beliefs, many of them unconscious and some deeply embedded by our culture and upbringing. Quakers therefore test their leadings with others. If a leading comes from God and not from a merely internal motivation, others who are attuned to the Spirit can also sense its source. An important question in discerning a leading is to ask if it leads to the fruits of the Spirit named in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Does the leading fulfill God’s purposes, rather than the desires of the ego?
Quakers today often use a prayerful communal process called the clearness committee to help us discern our leadings clearly. Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, which is Eileen Flanagan’s Quaker meeting, as well as my own, has encouraged and supported many members in discerning and following our calls and leadings, appointing not only clearness committees, but also oversight committees for those called to some form of ministry or witness. Some Friends take part in peer groups, mutual spiritual accountability groups that help one another with ongoing discernment as a call or leading develops over time.
Several readers of this blog wrote to share their experiences of leadings. After the violent gun deaths of children and teachers at Sandy Hook school, Phil Swank felt emotional and spiritual despair, which he eventually understood to be a prompting of the Holy Spirit to witness to his concern about gun violence in America. He spoke about this during a worship service in the church he was attending, then wrote to his pastor and denominational leadership.
“All of my inquiries were ignored or rebuffed with a concern that any federal policy actions might interfere with 2nd amendments rights,” he wrote. “I pulled out an old, tucked-away copy of Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and had a re-opening of the spirit that gave me the yearning to live the Quaker Testimonies.” He received the strength to leave his comfortable mainline church and to “seek fellowship” with Friends. He wrote: “God now has me on a better path of Truth as I live with renewed sense of integrity, peace, simplicity, care for the earth, concern for equality and the fruits of community.” May he find encouragement among Friends to follow the leadings of God’s Spirit, and may his passionate conviction be a source of light for the members of the Quaker meeting he now attends.
Bill Samuel shared an experience he had a few decades ago after he was invited to travel to a gathering at a distant Quaker meeting. As he pondered this invitation, he felt led to attend, but did not know the purpose. During a meeting for worship he sought further clarity and felt confirmed in his leading. He also sensed that a particular person, who did not have a permanent address, was to be his traveling companion. A tenuous train of events led to an opportunity for timely communication with this person, who felt clear to accompany him. As it turned out, this companion was of much assistance in the experience that unfolded. Only after faithfully attending the gathering and speaking as prompted during the called meeting for worship did Bill understand the purpose for which he and his companion had been led to attend. He wrote, “From my experiences, I had a perspective on the matter underlying the called meeting (a Friend imprisoned for conscience) that no one local had and that the Friends gathered much needed. I was able to share with them … a sense of God’s victory in the situation which they had not had.”
For Bill, the experience of discerning and following this leading confirmed some understandings Quakers have held about the nature of faithfulness to God’s promptings: “One is that you may not understand why you are called to something, but that does not relieve you of the need to follow the leading. In fact, that produces greater reliance on Divine guidance as you can not accomplish the purpose through your own will, because you do not know the purpose. Secondly, it confirmed the wisdom that generally someone traveling in the ministry should have a traveling companion as an aid to their faithfulness. I certainly felt the value of this quite strongly in this instance.”
Leadings of the Spirit: How have you been led by the Spirit to undertake a particular action, big or small? How did you know you were experiencing a leading from God and not being motivated by something else? If you followed your leading, what were the fruits? Has following a leading led you into an experience of suffering or sacrifice, or what early Friends spoke of as a “cross” to your own will? Have you found spiritual joy or power given you to help you follow a difficult leading?
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The next post will describe early Friends’ experience of Living in the Cross.
c) 2013 Marcelle Martin