In 2008, one of our former ministers, Dan Kasztelan, wrote a booklet entitled Living with the Body of Christ: A Field Guide to Quaker Process. To share this valuable information about how Friends make decisions during monthly meeting, sections of this booklet are being posted via the online Traveling Friend. This is the fourth installment of an eight-part series. You can read the entire booklet, complete with recommendations for further reading and end notes, by clicking here.
Almost from the beginning of my time as a Quaker, I have been interested in the difference between madness and prophecy, between revelation and ego. (By prophecy here, and throughout, I don’t mean the intention or ability to predict the future. I mean the intention to call the listener, individually and in community, to a radically different way of living in the present. This was the intention of the biblical prophets, from Amos and Isaiah to Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It was also the intention of early Friends, from George Fox to John Woolman to Lucretia Mott to Thomas Kelly.)
I'm interested in this not as a purely intellectual challenge, but because it seems such a crucial difference to a people who give individual leading as much weight as Friends do. We give individual leading a great deal of power, and yet we want to make sure—both as individuals and as the beloved community—that we are ultimately led by God, not by persons. So when we listen to the words that are spoken in our business meetings, we listen closely for the Spirit within them. And if we cannot hear the Spirit, we ask ourselves whether it’s on account of our own deafness, or whether it’s the speaker’s deafness.
This is never an easy question to answer. The Spirit doesn’t speak as loudly on questions of carpeting and landscaping, I think, as on questions involving ministry or outreach. But even more difficult are the questions that involve change and security. Should we undertake serious participation in an urban ministry project? Should we radically change our form of worship? Should we sell the meetinghouse to the local preservation group which wants to use it as a museum? These are the types of questions where it can become extremely difficult to even know how to listen to the strong voices we hear.
I once belonged to a Meeting which was offered a great deal of prophetic ministry by a few of its members. I believe some of that prophecy was really led by God. Some of it was led by ego or madness. Sometimes it was awfully hard to tell which was which. So when I went off to seminary and had time to think about it, I set myself the task of figuring out how I might tell the difference between madness and prophecy. I thought that listening with certain queries in mind might serve the process of discernment. I tried to incorporate the models of revelation and of prophecy that I encountered in my studies, and what I knew of the way discernment has been practiced in our Quaker history. Eventually I came up with a set of queries that I could ask myself as I listened to a prophetic message, to help me discern how it matched up with Truth. In case these queries might be as useful to anyone else as they have been to me, I offer them here.
Queries for Listening to Prophetic Messages, Leadings, and Concerns
- Does this message have resonance with our history; does it reflect who we have been?
- Are we being asked to change our direction, to become a new community? If so, what kind of relation does this new community bear to our present and to our past?
- Is this message consistent with the writings and teachings of our faith, as we know that teaching by the Spirit?
- Is the Friend who brings this message willing to speak on behalf of the community to God, as well as on behalf of God to the community?
- Is this Friend in continuing conversation with God about this message or leading, based on the response of the community? Is this Friend open to the possibility that the message might change?
- Would this action foster the spiritual growth of the Meeting and its members?
- Have we appealed and submitted to the authority of Truth in our consideration of this concern?
- Do I feel that God is speaking to or moving in me through this message? If so, in what way?
- What evidence does this Friend give of the Spirit/Teacher/Guide at work in herself or himself? Is this the cross, and is this Friend prepared to bear it?