Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 18, 2018, by Bruce Neumann, Rising Clerk of New England Yearly Meeting
I’ve been thinking lately about continuing revelation.
This is one of our basic Quaker tenets, that while there is only one TRUTH, our understanding of it is incomplete. And that we expect to see a little more of that TRUTH from time to time, whether through sudden insight during meeting for worship or personal prayer, or whether dragged kicking and screaming over a period of time in business meeting. The revelation can be a relatively small or personal thing, like William Penn asking whether he needed to abandon his sword, and George saying, “wear it as long as you can.” Presumably Penn woke up one morning and felt or saw the change in himself and put the sword in the closet. I also remember marvelling at a story in “Lighting Candles in The Dark” about a Quaker who was in the English navy and came to the truth that he could no longer fight. The peace testimony seems such a basic part of Quakerism, yet it was not fully understood in the earliest days of the movement.
This reflection on continuing revelation was initiated by an activity at a recent Salem Quarter meeting. In groups of 3, we were asked to reflect on various passages. My group was given a Woolman quote. I actually don’t remember what it was, but I jumped to thinking about Woolman’s concern, not just for slaves, but also for the spiritual health of slave owners. It’s easy from the moral high ground of our current vantage to be dismissive of slave owning Quakers. Yet I know all too well that I have my own blind spots and areas of my life that I choose to not look at too closely. There is a way in which I can relate to the slave owners saying, “Wait, WHAT? You’re telling me that this essential part of my daily life is wrong?” I imagine that this was a slow process for them: coming to understand the issue, coming to terms with the effect that change would have, and living into the new personal reality, like cooking and cleaning, and less profit on their business.
The query that came to me a couple of weeks ago in that Salem Quarter workshop is “How is my spiritual life a prisoner of comfort and profit?” Or “What are the behaviours and practices in my life, which stunt my spiritual growth, keep me from greater oneness with God, and from doing all I can to build the kingdom of heaven on earth?”
There are three areas that come to mind which I feel unsettled about, where I feel in need of continuing revelation to provide some clarity.
1). My wife and I have been saving for years, hoping to have a reasonably secure and comfortable retirement, but I hear the echo of Jesus’ words whispering in my ear “where your treasure is, there is your heart.” While I can argue that we give money away every year, and do a lot of work for good causes, and say that we’re not overly attached to this retirement fund, I also know that the idea of giving it all away makes me feel incredibly anxious, so I think perhaps my heart IS where my treasure is. It seems that my faith is not strong enough to believe that God and social security will be enough.
2) Most of us are committed on some level to working for the health of our planet. And yet I suspect that we are not consistent in our approach. I drive a hybrid, but am flying to San Diego for a wedding in June – in a few hours of plane travel I will use up all the gains I made over the year with my car. And I use – most of the time – reusable shopping bags, but If I need a new phone or tablet, do I use as much thought about the impact on the earth?
3) Finally, with minimal awareness, I benefit every day from institutionalized white supremacy. I had no trouble getting college loans years ago, Pat and I had no trouble getting a mortgage for our house, or any challenge from our prospective neighbours. When I get stopped by a cop I am embarrassed, but I do not fear for my life. I am not followed if I go into a nice department store. If I was guilty of some minor crime like possession of drugs (pretty unlikely for me) I could probably avoid going to prison. While I can say the words “I’m not a racist”, and can say that I had no part in setting up these systems of oppression, is my conscience clear? Would Jesus be content with the little things I do?
And these are just three things that I can see into, if through a glass darkly. Are there other things that I have no clue about? 30 years ago many of us were only beginning to understand the impact of our behaviours on the planet. Even 10 years ago, while I understood that people of color had a hard time, I was not clued into my tacit participation in a system of oppression.
So, again, my query is:
What are the behaviours and practices in my life, which stunt my spiritual growth, keep me from greater oneness with God, and from doing all I can to build the kingdom of heaven on earth?