Thursday, July 24, 2014

Prophecy and Quaker discernment: a biblical perspective

"In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men [and women] will see visions, your old men [and women] will dream dreams. Even on my servants/slaves, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophesy.” Acts 2:17 and Joel 2:28. (In Greek, the collective plural is masculine even though it can include women and men, so it makes sense in this context to translate it inclusively, since that it clearly the intent of this passage.)

The theme of this year's Pacific Yearly Meeting was "Prophecy and Youth"--topics dear to my heart.  Prophecy was brought up because for the past few years our YM has been struggling over the question: do we as a Yearly Meeting still have the authority and/or leading to speak out on social issues, or should be follow the example of College Park Quarterly and cease to consider what are called "minutes of conscience." The bigger question is: does our Yearly Meeting have a prophetic role to play?
Our keynote speaker was Jonathan Vogel-Borne, former general secretary of New England Yearly Meeting, who has taken a keen interest in prophetic ministry and led a workshop on this topic at the Friends General Conference's annual gathering. He called to our attention the biblical passages that inspired early Friends to believe that the prophetic spirit continues to be “poured out” among us, when we open ourselves to the Spirit of God.
Marge Abbot has also become interested in the prophetic aspects of Quakerism and provides an excellent “Theological Perspective on Quaker Lobbying” that helps explain why “speaking truth to power” is part of our Quaker DNA. Her work makes it clear that Quakerism is a prophetic as well as mystic religion.
I realize that many Friends are not Christians, or even theists. But I hope that this reflection will help them as well as believing Quakers understand what is meant by “prophesy” and how how it relates to our collective work/calling as Friends.
Just to be clear about what prophets do: inspired by God, they challenge/warn their religious community to live up to its highest ideals (aka the "will of God") and 2) the challenge leaders to live up their highest ideals. (This is sometimes called “speaking truth to power.”)
What does it mean to be “inspired by God”? It means that we have taken time to be silent, reflect deeply and listen to the “still, small voice” that is within each of us. We can do this both individually and corporately.
Laura Magnani, whose work on prison reform I consider deeply prophetic, was part of a panel on this theme and asked a very important question. What does it mean to be a corporate body?
My response to that question is that Friends involved in peace and justice work often feel disengaged from the corporate body. What I have observed in my many years as Peace Committee clerk is that many Friends have individual callings to work on this or that cause,  and are not aware of how our Quaker practices and process helps us to become interconnected as a religious community. That’s why as clerk of SCQM peace committee, I encourage Friends with concerns to go to their Meeting and seek discernment and support. That’s how we become a corporate body, rather than simply a gathering of individuals (a "beloved community" rather than a collection of Don Quixotes).
The apostle Paul makes clear that within the body of Christ (what Martin Luther King calls “the beloved community”) there are many different spiritual gifts. And all these gifts need to be nurtured:
A body is made up of many parts, and each of them as its own use. That’s how it is with us. There are many of us, but we each are part of the body of Christ, as well as part of one another. God also has given different gifts to use. If we can prophesy, we should do it according to the amount of faith we have been given. If we can encourage others, we should encourage them. If we can give, we should be generous. If we are leaders, we should do our best. …”  (Romans 12: 4-8)
This is a good description of how a Quaker body such as a Yearly Meeting functions at its best. Each committee has a gift as well as task to perform. And the body needs to affirm each gift, each function, in order to be whole. A Quaker community without a prophetic voice is not complete, just as a body without a mouth or heart is not complete.
Paul also gave good advice about the discernment process: “Do not crush the spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets. Test everything: hold fast to what is good, let go of what is evil.” (I Thess. 5:21).
This passage describes the discernment process that Friends are called to follow. We are asked to be tender towards those who are called to prophetic ministry (and not be like the hard-hearted ones who put the prophets to death, or dismissed them with harsh words). We  are called to “test everything.” That means we need to  bring prophetic ministry before the body so that it can discern whether or not it  comes  from Spirit and whether or not it is beneficial.
Paul goes on to say if we follow this practice: “The God of peace will sanctify us through and through.” I am  confident that Spirit will bless our Yearly Meeting if we follow Paul’s advice.
 As Friends, we are advised to have faith that Spirit will work through us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and [God] will do this.” I know this is true since I have experienced it many times in my monthly meeting, as well as in other Quaker bodies, like FCNL, where hundreds of Friends gather together and come to unity on matters of policy relating to justice and peace. If we trust in and listen to Spirit, we will be enabled to speak prophetically!


  1. Great essay, Anthony. May I copy it ans send to Friends not on FB?

    (written from Honduras) Paz--Val Liveoak

  2. Please feel free to use this or anything else you find on my blog, as long as you credit me. I'm very pleased you want to share this. I am hoping that Jill and I will get to visit Honduras, maybe next spring. Let's stay in touch. Paz and Amistad, Antonio

  3. The true prophet speaks to hearts, not issues; and asks the person to change as the only real way for situations to change.

    1. I am not sure what you mean by "true" prophets, but your definition doesn't fit with the Hebrew prophets, nor with Jesus. The Hebrew prophets spoke to communities and leaders, not to individuals. Their purpose was to change behavior, not simply hearts. And they were often very specific in addressing current political problems. Today's prophets include Martin Luther King, who was concerned with changing hearts and minds, and also policies. But I agree with you that individuals need to change, but that's not the only way to change. The Civil RIghts Act caused a lot of people to change their behavior, and that led to a change of heart. I think we need to be cautious about using words like "the only real way" and the "true" anything. Life is much more complex than you imply.

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  5. And the word is "Prophecy", unless you meant to make this whole thing about action-verbs, like "prophesy"?!

  6. Just to ask a few queries:

    How do you feel about your personal use of fossil fuels? Do you find yourself avoiding them as much as possible?

    Should Friends work together to allow each other to get further away from fossil fuels?

    Should Friends help to resolve climate change?

    --Paul Klinkman

  7. Thanks for your queries. I have just installed solar panels and a grey water system and reduced my lawn watering by half. I became a vegetarian in part to reduce my carbon footprint and ride a bike whenever I can. But I still have a much larger carbon footprint than most inhabitants on this planet because of being a privileged American. I think all of us should do what we can to help prevent further global warming. We owe it to future generations, and to all life on this beautiful planet. Keep asking those prophetic questions!

  8. I also look forward to stronger prophetic voices coming from Friends, but I don't find that the statements of meetings on political and social issues of the day very prophetic. Nor do they encourage prophetic witness by Friends.

    It's too easy to labor together to write a finely crafted minute which expresses the minimum we can say in unity, then rest on that. But who will read the minute? Other Friends? Fellow travelers who already agree with us?

    Don't we meet our political ends more effectively through writing individual letters, making visits and taking other measures to build relationships with legislators and government officials?

    I'm not inspired by statements from meetings and yearly meetings. Rather than sit in deliberations over them, I tend to retire in prayer or letter writing about the issue.

    I think a traveling ministry would build awareness and invite concern among Friends more than a minute that we send to each other.

    If it's *public* awareness we wish to raise, then can't that be done more effectively by actions that portray simple Truth in juxtaposition to complex power? Can these actions be taken by a group of Friends? Would they be? (I think of those who are proclaiming on the streets, "My hands are up! Please don't shoot!")

    Perhaps we'd be better served by nurturing the prophets and public witnesses among us, recognizing their voices and taking them under the care of our meetings with an encouraging network of elders.

    There is not a thing wrong with political and social statements from Friends meetings. But I'm not sure we should feel any better when we finish them.