Simplicity is a reoccurring theme in scripture. My personal model of simplicity is found in the sermon on the mount where Jesus tells the listeners: “No one can serve two masters, you cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) Peter builds further on this idea, telling the religious leaders of his time that he must obey God rather than men. Simplicity is knowing who you serve, and being obedient to that.
This kind of simplicity is an important part of the holy story of the Israelites. When the Israelites were in Egypt, there were slaves, and they were surrounded by the gods of the Egyptians. God lead them into the wilderness, and commanded them to have no other gods. When the Israel went into the land of Canaan, they were again surrounded by the gods of the Canaanites and the Philistines.
Throughout the history of Israel, they have been surrounded by other gods, and from time to time they would fall away and worship one or another. They people of Israel would end up worshiping these other gods such as Dagon, the god of a successful grain harvest. Joshua 24 tells the story, as Joshua tells the people of Israel about how God took them out of Egypt, where their ancestors worshiped the gods of the Egyptians, and now after seeing God’s power, and seeing so many peoples falling before them, they were worshiping the gods of the Amorites. Joshua’s advice was: “Choose today who you will worship”, and Joshua chose the God of Israel over the gods of the sky, fertility, and harvests for himself.
Jesus expands on this, equating the accumulation of wealth to the service of another master. The suggestion is that people’s devotion to the bank account becomes a kind of idol worship. A theme in Jesus’ teaching calls us put aside our sense of security found in possessing wealth, recognizing that owning things is not nearly as safe nor secure as we believe it is. The power we assign to wealth is the power of a false god, whether we give the wealth gods names, or ascribe the wealth itself great power, we are worshiping an idol.
Biblical simplicity is then about having no other gods, nor serving any other power, whether political or sociological. It is very difficult to follow this model of simplicity in our culture, just as it was difficult for the people of Israel. Our story is the same, God calls us out of slavery to the false gods, and those who worship them, but we still live in a culture surrounded by them. Giving up these gods makes us alien to the culture we grew up in. Biblical simplicity asks to choose — are we citizens of heaven or of earth?
I grew up with the ‘testimony of simplicity’ more than any of the others. The Quakers I grew up with were deeply influenced by the holiness movement and they saw Quakerism through the lens of Holiness theology. Simplicity is a rather important part of that theology, in that it is the act of putting aside those things that are worldly. Unfortunately, I experienced simplicity as mostly a set of rules. Fortunately they were not as harsh as the rules endured by my ancestors.
The simplicity of my youth was a mix of frugality and avoiding worldly influences. Living the simple life was partially about cutting costs, whether it was finding inexpensive solution, or discerning the difference between a need and a want, and it was partially about avoiding falling under the influence of popular culture.
Frugality and critical reflection about popular culture have served me well, but over time I have come to feel that these are not quite the same as simplicity. As I grew up, complexity introduced itself into my life. I have been surrounded by people who make various demands from me. I recognize that no matter how hard I try I cannot meet the demands of everyone. As Jesus tells me on the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters.”
Over time simplicity has become the process of asking the question: “What is my priority?” After I have identified what comes first, I start planning life around meeting that goal. This goal has been at times education, or paying off debt, or an attempt at ministry, or building a relationship. Priorities are far from simple, because having an unbalanced life works against the priority, however it is easy to forget which is the priority, and which are means to that end.
This new realization has brought new life to the frugality of my youth. A lack of goals makes it difficult to accept frugality. Popular culture, at its worst, can be a weak attempt to relieve boredom. The focus of a clear goal makes it clear what I am sacrificing for, and does much to prevent boredom. Over time, simplicity has moved from rules to follow, which have very little relevance in my life to a way of life that makes it possible to move forward.
Unfortunately, this ideal does not always seem to work out very well. Sometimes life feels like every goal I work for was chosen by another person, and that there is no room beyond meeting the demands of others. At those times my priorities are placed on the back burner. Simplicity might be a good ideal, but without the agency to make one’s own choices, finding that one thing can feel like an unreachable luxury.
On several occasions, Karla has asked me to write something about the “Quaker Testimonies.” My initial response is to point out that I have, both before I started blogging, and when I taught a Sunday School class based on the Queries. She then lets me know that she wants me to write on SPICE, as opposed to the Advices and Queries.
My personal experience with Friends does not really include SPICE, but it is filled with a knowledge of testimonies. My home church was rather strict in encouraging us to follow them when I was a child. My father was a conscientious objector. I know the social testimonies well.
One thing I know is that the testimonies tend to be very negative, and rather specific. The tend to be rules that are to be followed, the majority of which come up to “Don’t do this.” This has the advantage of being practical, and somewhat easy to understand — but it is not exactly the most attractive way of putting forward what your group is about.
One of my complains about SPICE has always been that even though it sounds nice, it really does not say anything without a great deal of commentary. What does Simplicity mean? When we speak of Peace, what role does the individual have? Is this inner peace, or peace within the community? What is Integrity? What is the role and the purpose of community? What does Equality even mean — do we start chopping off heads to get it, like they did in the French revolution?
Another thing I disliked about SPICE is that accepting it is accepting a definition offered by the ‘other side’ of a very old split. Its a 20th century rethinking of 19th century testimonies. While SPICE addresses these testimonies before they diverged very far, there is a part of me that would prefer to use “my side’s” efforts at coming up with a contemporary take on “Testimonies.”
Pushing past my sectarian pride, I do have to admit that SPICE was a pretty good summary. The Advices and Queries can be put into these buckets without too much difficulty. Spice provides a positive and attractive framework, which can be used both when observing ‘rules’, and when evaluating whether or not the rules are still appropriate at this time. It seems that it is something that deserves my consideration.
Over the next few months, I plan to meditation on “What is Christian’s call Simplicity?”, “What is the Christian call of peace?”, “What is the Christian’s call to integrity?”, What is the Christian’s call to community?” ”What is the Christian’s call to equality?” in the same way that I meditated on concepts such as ‘What does it mean to be called.”
Friends Memorial has been in a transitional period. Working with them, and including my sense of calling has been both challenging, and again an exercise in simplicity. The biggest challenge I have faced is that I wrote my job description with little input from the community. While this has given me a great deal of freedom, many people who could have used me as a resource did not. Too often, I spent my office hours doing homework, while someone else unknown to me was working on a project alone, in frustration.
What Muncie did communicate to me was their desire to become more active in the Friends community, they also expressed a desire to find ways to encourage and help smaller meetings. I found much meaning in these community calls, as I was able to put together a wider Friends learning opportunity, and currently I am involved in a project that might be helpful to both smaller meetings, and to those who feel called to vocal ministry, but have trouble finding a space to exercise that calling. My time at Muncie has been filled pursuing one or another of these projects. Not only have I had a chance to work on a proposal, but I have also on one occasion provided pulpit supply at a smaller meeting.
There have been opportunities to preach, an opportunity to design and teach a Sunday school class, and diverse “pastoral care” opportunities. I freely admit, I am much more in my element planning or setting up an event, organizing resources, or writing a sermon or study material than I am in a pastoral care opportunity. I like to think I’m a good listener, and I know people will talk to me when they are “down,” but reaction to pastoral care events is different than working on a project or an event. After an event, I can see what went well — after someone comes to me with personal problems, I worry about what might have gone badly. However, there is something fulfilling about the opportunity to share the hard parts of people’s life. I would miss those opportunities if they never happened — one might say, I take this pastoral role very seriously. I know I do not have the emotional energy to fill it constantly, as a chaplain would, yet, I feel drawn to listen when I can.
Most of all, Friends memorial has been an opportunity to try on the pastoral shirt again. It has also been a chance to re-evaluate the assumptions that I held ten years ago, and to recognize that the elements of pastoral ministry that I had rejected were not as definitive as I once thought they were. I experienced Muncie as an invitation to reclaim vocation.
Postscript: My final sermon at Friends Memorial was on vocation. Consider this sermon a companion to my extended meditation on what it means to be called.
The idea of calling and pastoral ministry is challenging for me, because in many ways the term pastoral ministry is an amalgamation of many different roles. While there are many books on the nature of a pastoral call, and what the limits should be, I believe that we need to be careful not to be too limiting. Different communities have different needs, and there is also a variation within the exact call and gifts. I recognize that a calling to pastoral ministry is attempting to live out a personal calling while meeting the needs and expectations of the community.
As, I believe that there is both a variation of personal calling, and community needs, I’m afraid the best I can do is speak of my own understanding of calling, based on several years of wrestling with the idea.
My experience of calling within a community is one to invite others to explore their relationship with God more deeply, and to smooth barriers for others who are called. I feel a true sense of fulfillment when I see other people doing something that they feel passionate about. I love seeing things work out smoothly and recognize that often, people are inactive because it is too much trouble to start or maintain a mission.
While I enjoy preaching, and have a long standing calling to preach to diverse communities, my pastoral calling to a local community is more one of bridge building than of preaching. I want to connect the people in the community with opportunities for growth and service. I feel called to create space for obedience, and to integrate the smaller communities into a wider community.
As far as there is a difference, I prefer teaching to preaching. When I speak, something in me hopes that the hearers learn something. I hope that this something will be added to the hearer’s toolbox. I feel uncomfortable with trying to convince the people to take an action, out of faith that my understanding of God’s will is better than their own — in stead, I feel a calling to help equip people with the tools they need to make sense out of the competing voices, several of which appeal to the hearer’s Faith.
Perhaps the best way of putting this is that I am drawn to helping people mature. Much of my fear of pastoral ministry has been based on a model that expects the pastor to believe rightly for the congregation, to pray for them, and to tell them what this means. It is a model that transfers the struggle of growing into maturity upon a single person. My understanding of calling is to help the community to grow mature in their Faith. I do not hope to stand above the congregation, but instead to work to let the people grow as well as they can. I feel called not so much to lead, but to create peers.
Our culture is rather divided on the idea of vocation. In once sense, the word has been made meaningless by a unholy mixture of the idea that we are all called to something, and functional Deism that assumes that no one is called to anything. It has been said: “If you talk to God, you are praying, if God talks back, you are schizophrenic.” We live in a world where “vocation” often means nothing other than “occupation.”
This secular culture is challenged by a subset of the religious culture that very often claims vocation with certainty. There are people who say: “God told me to”, with the apparent goal of borrowing authority from God. This counter-cultural group, unfortunately can become a parody of itself when prophetic messages, spoken with the assurance that it comes from the mouth of God, proves to be wishful thinking. We live in a culture that tends to these extremes.
This creates a situation where society no longer takes the concept of vocation seriously. People either are too skeptical of the concept to entertain the idea of a calling, or they have overused the term to the point of using God to increase their own authority. We are in a culture where the concept of vocation is abused, or ignored, as opposed to examined and discerned.
The idea of vocation is further muddied by ideas such as “real Job”, which imply that the work some people do is invalid, even if it is necessary and fulfilling to that person, and the concept of hobbies, or doing that thing that you are passionate about only within the context of leisure time. The idea of vocation is complicated by a world that makes value judgments against anyone who might follow it one.
We have produced a culture of prejudice, snap judgments, and a need to be “successful”. The idea of vocation is one of slow discernment, accepting a diversity of calls and gifts, and a recognition that obedience is more important than success. The idea of vocation is that there is a God who’s values and purposes transcend what we see or understand. Vocation is counter-cultural because it means that we are not equipped to create our Utopia without God.
Friends, Catholics, and others are in a place to redeem the idea of vocation. As we stand against the extremes of culture, and take vocation and discernment seriously, we can help others recognize that God is active in our lives, and is something more than a tool to help people get their way or to win an argument. Our wide culture struggles between embedded theologies that jump to one extreme or the other. How could we address this issue, and give vocation the attention it deserves, while addressing the complex nature of rightly hearing God?
Friends have a history of recognizing that there are both calls and gifts for the moment, and that there are life long vocations. The traditional model of Friends ministry both recognizes those called and gifted for lifelong service while leaving a space open for the short term, or even momentary calling.
The whole concept of waiting worship is a recognition that there is a vocation of the moment. Friends believe that God can, and does, give prophetic messages. There is the belief that those who speak should be called to vocal ministry in that time and space. This act of deliberately making space for a calling to give a single message is a system that recognizes that there are times when a person is called to minister in a very specific time and place, and this space allows for obedience to this call.
There is also a belief that there may be a calling to spread the message beyond saying a few words in a person’s own meeting for worship. There is a long tradition of traveling minutes, where a person would travel under a concern, knowing what he or she would say while traveling in the ministry. This is a recognition that some people are called to an extended, but temporary ministry. It is possible to be called to a people or to a message for a brief time.
While, most likely, the practice of recording ministers was to comply with the Toleration act of 1689, which required preachers to somehow be licensed, the nature of recording shows a view that some people have a lifelong gift and calling to a specific type of ministry.
Throughout what is known as the age of Quietism, not only were vocal ministers recorded, but the offices of elder and overseer were lifelong appointments. Even Clerks might serve for the rest of their lives. There was a real sense that the was a vocation of keeping a well ordered society. Administrative and judicial roles were just as much a life-long vocation as perpetual vocal ministry.
When Friends explore the idea of calling, there is a procedure, both for the individual and for the larger community. For the individual, there are functions such as clearness committees to help the individual test whether it is a personal notion or a real calling. In the sense of the wider community, at the lowest level, the Monthly meeting appoints clerks, elders, and in some places there are still overseers. The Monthly meeting also writes traveling minutes for those they discern should travel in the ministry.
Those who should be recognized by the wider society are identified by Monthly meetings, and the name is passed up for further discernment to see if recognition is warranted by the larger body. While there are informal structures to allow people to follow the call of a single moment, there are formal structures to carefully discern whether or not to record and support a life-long calling.