12 September 2008

Is it really Quakerly to Go Slow?

Is it really Quakerly to go slow? Is deliberate slowness in our actions a submission, an acknowledgement that we seek to follow God in our decision-making so sincerely that we will postpone action of which we are unsure? To wait expectantly until our path is made clear before we go ahead?

Maybe sometimes it is, and maybe sometimes it isn't. Sometimes I think we go slowly because we have enshrined going slow as matter of human doctrine, not as divine direction. We have created a "Quaker style" that we are comfortable with, in the same way that the Orthodox Churches are known for "smells and bells," or the Epsicopalians for processions. But does our slowness come from God, or from our own preferences for an identifiable "tradition?" Jesus criticized the Pharisees repeatedly for substituting their human traditions for the commands of God. Does Scripture say to go slow?

God is written to have made the universe in six days.

The founding members of our Society never had anything to say about slowness being close to Godliness. In fact, they tended to act quickly, even on leadings whose means and ends were unclear. One early critic of the Friends wrote of a visit by George Fox, who knocked on the door one evening with a companion and was invited in. His host asked for the reason for the visit, and reported that Fox said he didn't know, that he came to deliver a message but didn't know what it was. After more conversation of equal confusion, George excused himself and left, leaving his amused host alone to write for posterity about the visit from the half-crazed Quaker.

I like this story, because it points out that Fox was willing to step out and act immediately upon leadings whose ends he was unable to see. George didn't know what he was supposed to say to that country gentleman, but he went anyway and knocked on the door. And ultimately, it seems that George was not intended to deliver a message at all, at least in the way he expected. One was not forthcoming, anyway.

George acted immediately on a half-baked leading, because he trusted in God to make it clear as he went along, if that was the plan. Slowness, and quiet feeling for the right way to go forward was not part of George's style. When God said "Jump," George Fox jumped.

Is that what we do?

Or do we sit quietly and wait, and let our fires go out, reassuring ourselves that going slow is always better than going rapidly? Is slowness a tradition, a "Quaker process" that we have invented all on our own? Is it possible that God sometimes wants us to jump, and right now? I'm not talking about jumping out far ahead of our corporate body here, and striking out on our own like some modern-day John Perrot. I'm talking about moving ahead on a leading where the initial impetus is clear, but where the ultimate direction and goal is obscure. A situation where being responsive to the leading requires simply moving forward on it in faith. Like George, who knew he was to deliver a message, but didn't have a clue as to what it was supposed to be.

Perhaps that message is only just now being delivered to its intended recipient.

To you?


Martin Kelley said...

I've never understood the love of slowness either. I'll backtrack: I understand that patience can be a good discernment tool. We're at the mall, we something "WE MUST HAVE NOW" but instead of just getting it we promise ourselves to come back tomorrow, at which time it doesn't seem quite as important as, say, making sure the mortgage gets paid.

That said, God certainly gives us messages immediately. And good ministry is rightly delivered in "real time" from the Holy Spirit. We trust that our level of discernment is attuned well enough that we don't have to wait to deliver the message next week (at which point it'd be stale anyway). I think we get lots of messages to jump and jump now. Putting off the act by appealing to waiting can be just as disobedient as outrunning the guide.

I've seen meetings with a clear course of action just diddle it away in waiting and endless meetings till the opportunity was gone and suffer as a result. The energy and enthusiasm of members just takes a bit hit, even if no one connects it to the path not taken. It's sad, really.

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

I appreciate this post!

I see nothing Holy about being ponderous.

Freedom Friends Church
(freedomfriends.org)tends to have swift business meetings because when we taught Quaker process we did not hold up slow as a virtue. We season things over if they are not clear, but we don't belabor things.

We had a Quaker visitor who brought some very nice ministry but delivered it in that 'slow speach' style that you hear in some meetings. One of our new Quakers spoke to me afterwards and reaffirmed how pleased she was with our inclusiveness of those with cognitive disabilities!

kevin roberts said...

Hi Martin-

Who was it I was talking to the other day about the Quakers God told to "Get off the sinking ship!"

They waited and waited to be told whether to use the lifeboats or to just depend on their lifejackets, and they all drowned.

Dither, dither, dither.

kevin roberts said...

Hi Peg-

We still have some very old mininsters who do the old Sing-Song ministry, but I think they learned it from Noah, and I don't mean Webster.

Why have we chosen sllllooooowwww as the default in so many public ways? I understand the need for unity, but some things are so obvious that seeking greater clarity isn't necessary.

My meeting house property needs some new trees. Nobody's planted any in at least 150 years, and they're getting sort of ragged. I recently suggested digging up some tulip poplar seedlings and planting them near the old ones that are about to fall down. They'd be huge in a hundred years, and would last another hundred after that. A ten-minute job. One tree planter I asked for help--to involve her in a minor project--told me, "We'll have to get permission first ..."

Phooey. I'll plant them myself by the dark of night. (The same way I fix the electrical wiring when nobody's looking.)

cath said...

I tend to be a pretty fast acting person. Someteimes I verbally comment/reply to email/leave a voice mail quickly and later on think of something I would have added if I'd gone slower so I verbalize/reply/leave voice mail again. In fact, I've been teased about this. Most of my friends know that when they get a voice mail from me, it will be followed by another. "P.S." must be my middle name. :)

When it comes to slowness, I see personalities in the mix as well as Quaker tradition and culture. I like that mix. Seriously, if we all slowed down to the same rate, we'd be moribund by now. :)

There seem to be times when going slowly is exactly what is needed for a certain decision, discernment, task to be completed.

And sometimes going slowly just takes all the passion away.

So I guess I fall in the middle of this question. I would hope that no one feels left out because the conversation or Meeting for Business was hurried. And at the same time, I would hope that no tulip trees die a-borning because no one could decide to get them planted. :)

I agree wholeheartedly with Martin Kelley about shopping. Advertising and marketing are geared to create a need that isn't always a need and an urgency that isn't always an urgency. Entering a mall can be a real test of will.

My hope in my own life is that there is enough time and space for the Spirit to get a word in edgewise and then enough time and space for me to do whatever I've been prompted to do--even if that means going back and re-doing something....

...like the time I switched gears in graduate school. Lost money, time and credits following that insight, but I have never been sorry.

My prayer is often: Allow me to see the opening and know the moment I must step through.


kevin roberts said...

Hello Cath-

You're right.

You have to have both slow and fast Friends, or you are not in harmony. If I tried to enter a car race with a team made up of only mechanics, the car wouldn't move until I put in a driver. And if I had only drivers, the car wouldn't leave the first pit stop.

Fast is not better than slow, just another part of the larger whole. My concern is with people who always toggle to slow--they will always be unfaithful if God says to go faster.

You touched the answer:

"My prayer is often: Allow me to see the opening and know the moment I must step through."

Tom said...

I remember clearly when I applied for a job with a Friends school. There was a real need for the position to be filled ASAP. I applied to the Board with the required resume and recommendations. I was told the process was to meet with the personnel committee and they would report back to the Board Meeting. I fulfilled all the requirements due to a very cooperative Personnel Committee that gave me a very high recommendation for employment which was reported to the Board at the next Board Meeting. Due to the shortage of time the Board then agreed to a specially called meeting to consider a "Second Reading" of the Personnel Committee's reading. At that meeting the Clerk of the Board stated that all were in unity in agreement with the recommendation and that she agreed that my hiring was in the best interest of the school.

However, the Clerk said she was resigning because the Board "had not followed Quaker procedure by hurrying the process along." The Recording Clerk and Treasurer then resigned as well saying that if the Clerk resigned they felt they should resign as well.

Needless to say, the following year or two presented some "interesting" Board interactions with my employment, but all Board members stated that my employment was the "best for the school."
!) If ALL are in agreement that the action to be taken is the best outcome, isn't that "Quaker Process?" 2) Does every step in the process require WAITING even though ALL are in agreement that the BEST and PROPER action is being done?

I strongly agree that "minority" opinions must be carefully weighed and often time is required for a "deep listening."

kevin roberts said...

Hi Tom--

First, of all, "Yes."

Second, "Well, maybe..."

Did you ever read the play, "Twelve Angry Men?" A jury was convened to consider the fate of an accused murderer. He was obviously guilty, and everybody agreed (apparently) and was ready to condemn and go home. One juror said, "Wait a minute. Don't you think we should maybe talk about it a while?" Eventually, due to the conversation about an "obvious" decision, everybody changed their minds and acquitted the defendant.

At first, this seems to be an argument to "Go slow..." But it's not--it's an argument to "Apply the necessary discernment that the decision merits, and move on to the appropriate course of action."

In your case, the process was adequately addressed by the application procedure, the special meeting, and the observation by the Clerk that unity had indeed been achieved. What the Clerk wanted was a mindless adherence to a form, to the process, not the question, and the Clerk was mistaken. Quaker process is the action of achieving unity, with appropriate checks against haste, not the achievement of slow motion. Slowness is just a rule, not a reason.

I'm glad the people entrusted with actually implementing the decision acted in faith that they were being led correctly.

Raye said...

Tulip poplar - excellent choice! Any thoughts on walnut? No, they would be too messy. Perhaps a few hazelnuts around the edges. Thanks for thinking ahead.

Shawna said...

Hi Raye--

The tulip poplars are nice because they are so big--at 200 feet they're the largest deciduous tree in North America. Terrific shade trees, and beautiful. I'm going to plant some here at the house, but it will be 150 years before they'll be worth much for shade. And also, there are lots of seedlings around the meeting house anyway, from the old trees that are there now. Also hard rock maples, unless the weedeater people have gotten there first. Walnuts would be good, too, especially thin-shell edible types.

I don't mind messy--I want to put sheep back in the graveyard, too, and quit mowing it.

I'm actually not Shawna, by the way. I'm just signed in on her account.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Kevin,

You write, "The founding members of our Society never had anything to say about slowness being close to Godliness."

Actually, this is not true.

Here is a general letter to Friends written in 1653 by William Dewsbury, and subscribed and endorsed by George Fox, aimed at establishing a body of elders among Friends: "...If any root of bitterness spring up in any, which causeth strife in their minds one against another, as soon as you know of it, call such before you and examine the matter strictly.... But if the cause be hard for you to discern, and the measure you are grown to cannot discern betwixt the parties, I charge you ... not to be hasty in the cause before you, to order it in your doubtful and dark minds: 'for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.' But send for some who are more grown in discerning, to judge the cause and end it in righteousness. Then will deceit be judged, and strife kept out, and the innocent set free to serve the Lord: and your union will be in Christ Jesus...."

From Isaac Penington's essay, An Examination of the Grounds or Causes which are said to induce the Court of Boston, in New England, to make that order or law of banishment upon pain of death against the Quakers, written in 1659 or 1660: "...Saith the apostle ... be not forward, be not hasty; wait for the leading, wait for the manifestation of the Spirit. ...Be tender also of thy brother's conscience, and be not an instrument to draw him into any thing which the Lord leads him not into; but rejoice if thou find him in simplicity of heart startling at any thing; for if he abide here faithful, his guide will in due season appear to him, and clear up his way before him; but if he be too hasty, he may follow a wrong guide, and that guide will never lead him aright towards the kingdom, but entangle him further and further from it."

An excerpt from a general letter by Alexander Parker, dated 1660: "...All who speak of the movings of the Lord, I lay it as a charge upon you, to beware of abusing the power of God, in acting a wrong thing under pretence of being moved of the Lord.... Therefore, let every one patiently wait, and not be hasty to run in the dark; but keep low in the true fear, that the understanding may be opened to know the mind of the Spirit; and then as the Spirit moves and leads, it is good to follow its leadings...."

Stephen Crisp, writing in 1663: "...Let none be hasty to utter words, though manifest in the light in which ye wait upon the Lord; but still wait in silence, to know the power working in you to bring forth the words, in the ministration of the eternal word of life to answer the life in all.

George Fox, in a letter to Friends in America written in 1679: "...Let truth and goodness be cherished in all; and let all harshness, and bitterness, and revilings be kept down by the truth, that it may have its passage through you all, and in it you may bear one another's weakness and infirmities, and so fulfill the law of Christ; keeping down revenge, hastiness or passion, as knowing vengeance is the Lord's...."

Thomas Wilson, in a general letter to Friends in Philadelphia dated 1692: "All your safety is, and will be, to keep inward to the Lord, that he may be your teacher, your own spirits being silenced, waiting with delight to hear what he speaks. ...But those that run into a passionate, hasty spirit, go out of the wisdom which is from above, into that which is from below, and the wrath of man cannot work the righteousness of God."

I could cite further examples, but these are plenty!

All the best,
Marshall Massey

kevin roberts said...

Good to hear from you, Marshall. Your point is well made, but you should also include William Penn:

Wherefore, brethren, let us be careful neither to out-go our Guide, nor yet loiter behind him; since he that makes haste, may miss his way, and he that stays behind, lose his Guide.

My caution is against loitering out of creaturely fear of misunderstanding a call.

The examples you give are all important, in that they exhort Friends to guard against hastiness, which is the common word in each of them. I too caution against hastiness, but hastiness is not the same as promptness. The student who confuses promptness with hastiness will miss the school bus every day.

The sickness that I see in many groups of Friends, especially my own, is to stand so firmly against haste that they swing to unfaithfulness and stand in the other extreme. Jesus also criticized those that dithered and demanded perfect clearness:

A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.

As I see it, the phrase "Waiting on the Lord," is too often translated as "delaying on the Lord," rather than it's equally important 17th century meaning of "Attending to the Lord's commands." A faithful servant who "waits upon his Lord" jumps to service when he understands the command he has been given, and does not delay or put off obedience on the off-chance he has mis-heard the order.

Where my Conservative meeting misses the mark while waiting is to repeatedly set matters aside if the call is not clear, rather than treat the lack of clearness as a sign that God is asking us to labor together in order to understand him better.

As a result, God is turning to more responsive tools in my neighborhood. The Holy Spirit is blowing elsewhere, where the boat's crew has felt the wind and has raised the sails to catch it.

Marshall Massey said...

Yes, you are quoting William Penn from his essay A brief account of the rise and progress of the people called Quakers

My intention was not to deny that you caution against hastiness (I thought you wrote a nicely balanced essay in that regard), but merely to address the one point in your essay where it seemed to me that you seemed to deny an important part of the early Friends' teaching.

I don't personally think Christ was criticizing the Pharisees and Sadducees for "dithering and demanding perfect clearness" in Matthew 16:4. I think he was pointing to the fact that their efforts to make a mere circus spectacle out of his spiritual works were both wicked in and of themselves, and an adulteration of true worship with worldly game-playing. Thus his description of them as "a wicked and adulterous generation". A sign, of the sort they were asking for, would be wasted on such people, because they were not sincerely wanting to do what the sign would have demanded of them in any case.

I wholeheartedly agree that "A faithful servant who 'waits upon his Lord' jumps to service when he understands the command he has been given, and does not delay or put off obedience on the off-chance he has mis-heard the order." But "when he understands" is quite a crucial provision here: those who jump to service before they understand are acting hastily in precisely the manner that some of those quotes I supplied were referring to.

I will not presume either to condemn or to defend your meeting. I don't know your meeting! But I will note that, in my own experience, there have been several times when a meeting I was part of postponed a decision on a crucial matter, and chose not to labor together on it in the interim, because, in the judgment of the weightier Friends present, laboring would generate more heat than light. In those instances, the sense of the weighty Friends present was that what was needed was a time of calming down and allowing God Himself to labor with everyone.

I am willing to believe that the situations I am referring to were quite different from the situation that inspired your essay. But I still think the ones I am referring to are worth mentioning as evidence that, sometimes, even waiting without laboring can be a good thing.

kevin roberts said...

You have it right, Marshall- (at least, I think so).

A congregation that always says "Stop," will be unfaithful every time God says "Go."

And one that always says "Go," will be unfaithful every time God says "Stop."

The key is to listen for what it is God would have us do--Go, or Stop--and to do that, rather than to assume that our favorite answer will always be the right one.

A meeting needs both Slow and Fast Friends, or it will be out of harmony.