For more than two and a half decades, I’ve held the intention of following God’s purpose–or will–for my life. And all of that time, I’ve struggled with a strong desire to do things my own way. When confronted with the need to make a decision or confront a problem, my first instincts are usually to worry, plan, and act on my own. I’ll listen for guidance for a short while, but if it doesn’t come immediately, my spinning mind puts itself in charge of the task. So many of the spiritual lessons I’ve received have been about learning to trust and listen patiently for guidance, then allowing the Spirit to work in and through me and others. Possibly the most important thing I’ve learned by carefully studying the writing of early Friends is how they distinguished between doing things in “one’s own will”–even things that seemed very good or wise–and allowing the Spirit of Christ within to be the initiator of their actions.
I receive lessons about this in every area of my life. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot to unlearn.
For me, every opportunity to write or teach about the spiritual life, or to facilitate a meeting for healing or a weekend retreat, is always an occasion for more noticing about how fearful and willful I still am, how much I like to be in control and meet the expectations of others, and how difficult it is for me to deep-down trust God to guide and lead me into action.
This struggle has continued as I’ve approached facilitating another fall weekend at Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio. In 2013 and 2014 I led weekends there based on the material I’ve collected about ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey. During the November 2013 weekend, we ran through all ten elements both as experienced by early Friends and as we have been aware of them in our own lives. It was an interesting weekend, but pretty intense. The Friends Center Committee thought that it would be fruitful for Friends to take more time and explore just a few elements in one weekend, in more depth. They invited me to return the next fall.
So last year we explored the three elements of Openings, the Refiner’s Fire, and Community. It was a better pace. We had more time to receive the profound teachings that are transmitted when we sit with certain very potent passages by early Friends and tell each other what we receive. We also took time to share the wonderful, painful, healing, challenging, and joyful ways that the Light of Christ has been at work within us and our lives.
In January of this year, Katharine Jacobsen, on behalf for the Friends Center Committee, asked if I was feeling a leading to facilitate another weekend in fall 2015. They had more possible offerings this coming year than usual, she added. At the time she asked, I knew my life was going to be busy this year. Perhaps I didn’t need to travel to Friends Center in fall 2015. And besides, I told myself, maybe Friends wouldn’t be interested in coming back for more so soon. I communicated my thoughts on this.
Katharine is an elder among Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting. She has been a friend, mentor, and elder for me. She responded with a brief statement, so mildly phrased that the gentle rebuke could easily have been missed:
“The Friends Center Committee, working as it does through prayer, would like to know more about how you are led in regard to a theme for FC in 2015-2016.”
Ah…. They work through prayer. They weren’t asking for my first thoughts or my worries about coming back so soon. She asked me how I was led.
I took time to pray about it. When I did, I sensed a focus on being faithful. A question came to me with a lot of energy. So much energy it was almost intimidating, because of what it might ask of me and what God might bring forth.
What does faithfulness require?
I felt something stirring in me, like a bright light in my heart and belly. I felt the presence of the Light of Christ, ready to teach me something more about what faithfulness requires. I felt that this Light connected me with the planning committee at Friends Center.
So I wrote back to Katharine about what I experienced when I prayed about it. After they prayed some more, the committee scheduled a weekend on the topic of Faithfulness for the middle of November 2015.
As the time gets closer, I find myself called to deeper and deeper listening, as the most important form of preparation.
When I speak or write about the importance of worship, prayer, and discernment, I am always reminded of my own difficulties with taking the time to truly listen and wait upon guidance, especially when I’m impatient or anxious to get something done. Friends who feel a strong call to social action sometimes see waiting and listening as avoidance of the risks inherent in action. I was very glad recently, therefore, to read a 2013 Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Nonviolent Direct Action as Spiritual Path, by long-time Quaker activist Richard K. Taylor, in which he shows that his faith and continuing prayer were essential to him as he participated in sometimes dangerous acts of witness and protest during the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War.
One of Taylor’s many remarkable stories stays with me. He writes that a number of the large, peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C. against U.S. involvement in the Viet Nam War were marred by what happened after most of the protesters went home. Many times fringe groups stayed behind and expressed their anger about the war through acts of violence in the streets.
After one large demonstration, there were reports of people throwing rocks near the White House, breaking glass, and of policemen firing tear gas. A few hundred Quakers gathered at the Friends Meeting of Washington, where they sought inwardly for guidance about how to be a peaceful presence in the midst of chaotic violence. They felt led to walk peacefully toward the White House and to keep listening for the still, small voice of God. As they neared the commotion, they saw running figures illuminated by police searchlights and clouds of tear gas. They began to cough.
A policeman stopped them at a corner near the White House and ordered them to turn back. He said that if they stepped off the sidewalk, he would club them or use tear gas. The Quakers decided it was time to listen for more guidance, Taylor wrote:
We gulped, but replied as calmly as we could manage, “We’re Quakers. We’re trying to follow God’s Spirit. We’re going to sit here on the sidewalk in silent prayer and consult with God about what to do.” (18)
They had an impromptu meeting for worship on the sidewalk, a “deep, deep silent worship.” A few people heard the quiet inner voice of the divine presence and offered messages aloud. Some felt called to continue forward and others to turn back. One voice said that each should follow the call they felt, without judging the choices of the others.
Feeling called to go forward, Robert Taylor and his wife Phyllis stood with the group who remained on the corner. They told the policeman they knew he’d been having a difficult night, but they felt they had received God’s guidance to keep going. The policeman said he would club them or use tear gas if they stepped into the street. They felt shaky, but an inner peace enabled them to step off the curb. The policeman surprised them by waving them on. These Friends spent the rest of the night quietly circling the White House. Some of the violent protesters joined them. During this walking vigil, a young man pulled a gun out of his pocket and showed it to Taylor, saying, “I planned to use this tonight, but I’m glad I ran into you all and found an alternative.” (19)
We Do Things By Prayer: Have you, too, struggled with quieting your thoughts, reactions, fears, and worries long enough to listen for how God is really leading you? Have you discovered that you are being led in surprising ways?
© 2015 Marcelle Martin
Marcelle – How refreshing to read a self-proclaimed, “spiritual director” confess, ” my first instincts are usually to worry, plan, and act on my own.” My religious roots are in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting but I’ve been blessed to find myself among those Ohio Friends who, “do things through prayer.”
It’s not just in the big things like confronting tear gas or leading a workshop. Once, while traveling to a gathering out of state with a life long member of Ohio Yearly Meeting, we stopped for gas and the Friend asked me who I thought should take over the driving. As I was wondering if he was expecting me to volunteer, he suggested we pray about it. Until that moment it had never occurred to me to ask God’s guidance regarding something so mundane; for him it was just a way of life and a matter of course.
I stopped thinking about it and settled into worship, standing there by the gas pump, and knew instantly in my heart that I was to drive. As I looked up at him without either of us speaking he smiled and handed me the keys.
While I wish I could say I learned that day to always seek the Lord’s guidance, my instincts are still more like yours. Still, when I remember to do so life flows with God’s grace whatever I decide, and the more I practice in the little things the easier it becomes to trust that I’m being guided whether I think I’m listening or not.
Blessings on your journey to Barnesville – David Male
David, thanks for sharing this example of living by guidance in daily life!
Dear Marcelle, you never fail to stir my heart. Thank you.
My own piece on this… is too long & perhaps too strange to be an appropriate comment, though it does fit with what’s been said here: http://apoetictheology.blogspot.com/2017/02/seeking-gods-guidance.html
Praying first — rather than thinking-about, then not praying at all — is an improvement on our usual decision-making. But we’re no more supposed to let our thinking atrophy, than we’re meant to sit in the desert looking up open-moved like little birds: “Manna! Manna!” In some odd sense what we do “in our own will” is still done by God.
Anne & I were walking through a nearby, more respectable neighborhood. From an upstairs window across the street we could hear a man loudly abusing someone. “You’re dead!” etc. It was relentless. Picturing some woman sitting there immobilized under all this, feeling the murderous rage in the voice & threats, I felt “Someone has to break this up!” So I walked back & across the street, stood under the window and said, “Hello? You can’t go on doing this!”
Soon it was me in this very one-sided conversation. “You aren’t from around here!”
“No, but here I am.” I didn’t get to say much more. He retreated from the window; and a moment or so later I saw a young woman walking rapidly down the back stairs & driving off.
I stopped to talk to the downstairs neighborhood, who had now come out of his door. “That guy’s not in good shape. We ought to be praying for him,” I said. About that time, said guy came down his stairs carrying a large kitchen knife, and yelling. More neighbors came out.
Times like that provide great motivation for prayer. One very much wants a little coaching from a Higher Vantage. I’d been asking for this, aware of that need, from the beginning of all this.
It was not physically possible to talk back against the flow of abuse. But it had become increasingly clear that he didn’t want to attack anybody; he’d simply lost control of his relationship and had been desperately trying all the wrong things to reestablish it. I could feel this as if I were him, was entirely sorry for him.
But this could clearly end up with a big puddle of me on the sidewalk. Anne wouldn’t like that. I wouldn’t have liked that. Was I going to talk him down? Not likely, not necessary. He raised the knife; I shrugged. I turned away and walked back to Anne. We held hands & went on past the neighbors. He continued yelling.
We turned the nearest corner so he wouldn’t follow, circled around towards our destination, and as we reached the corner a block away we saw a police car coming very fast. It reached the street, turned the wrong way, did a sudden u-turn back towards his place.
It felt very good to have been used this way. I was sad for him, of course. All I know about how that turned out was that the stairs were down & the windows boarded up a day or so later.
All right, we can get guided into things we never would have expected. Is that the point?
Or does prayer “work” because hoping and finding that it does work — helps to lead us back toward God?
Thanks for sharing your vivid story, Forest. I think prayer “works” for multiple reasons, including the way it helps us turn back toward God, again and again.
What I heard at Marsha Praeger’s Jewish Renewal synagogue when Anne & I used to drive there from Pendle Hill: God ‘commands’ things, not because God needs them, but because we do.
It sounds pretty bad, if we think God wouldn’t heal someone because no one had prayed for him. What if this is because it would be worse for the person praying, if everyone were healthy but no one remembered to pray? How much suffering would result from us-all losing touch so badly?