Message given @ Durham Friends Meeting, Sept. 17, 2023
“I am a special agent of God.” True statement.
How about you? Would you say, “I am a special agent of God?” True or false?
I have to say True. I am a special agent of God.
September 1964: that’s when I encountered that question. It was an item on a psychological test administered to all the members of my entering class at Haverford College. It had a powerful effect on me: not just in the sense that I still remember it nearly 60 years later, but in the sense that it made me think – and still has that effect.
I am a special agent of God. True or false?
That question came at me when I was in a difficult place in my religious life, as so many young people are when they are just about college age. Did I believe or did I not? If I did believe, what was it I believed? I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I was in a muddle.
But this item came at me from an unusual direction. “I am a special agent of God.” True or false? I was pretty sure as I read it that the answer was “true,” for me. And I was just as sure that answering “true” was the crazy answer on this test. That’s why it has stayed on my mind all these years. True, and crazy.
All of us in that entering class took a bunch of tests that first week. Some of them were placement tests, like the one I took that showed I hadn’t learned enough in high school French to take second year French at this college. But other tests were psychological tests of a sort I’d never taken before.
I learned from the sheet on which I was writing answers, true or false in response to each of dozens and dozens of statements (over 500 actually), that this was called the MMPI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Or I know I know it’s also called the ‘Mini Multi.’ It’s still used, still “the most common psychometric test devised to assess personality traits and psychopathology.”
Taking the test that day, I remember there were involuntary giggles around the room as one and another of us came to various statements we should mark true or false. I remember only one other specific statement from that day. “I have black, tarry bowel movements.” True or false? It’s one of the ones that made me laugh involuntarily. Not because there’s anything so shocking about that item; it’s just such a strange thing to be asked. I’d certainly never been asked before, whether “I have black, tarry bowel movements.”
Decades later, when I became more interested in psychological tests, I learned that the MMPI can be helpful in diagnosing such things as depression, hysteria, paranoia, psychopathic deviance and hypochondriasis. (That last one means “excessive concern with bodily functions.” That’s why that item “I have black, tarry bowel movements,” is on the MMPI.) I learned the MMPI was developed by faculty members at the University of Minnesota in the 1940s.
Some other statements I now know are on the MMPI, true or false to each of these:
- I feel uneasy indoors.
- I am sure I get a raw deal from life.
- I believe that I am being followed.
- People say insulting and vulgar things about me.
I’m pretty sure I answered false to each of these.
But I didn’t need to know any of this about the MMPI to realize that that this test was trying to sort us out psychologically – even to find out if any of us were mentally disturbed or “crazy” as we would have put it in 1964. All of us taking the test realized this. That’s probably why all of us laughed at one or another of the items. Could you really imagine anyone answering “true” to this or that statement? But I guess people do.
So there was that item: “I am a special agent of God.” True or false? As I’ve said, I was pretty sure that the answer was “true,” for me. And I was just as sure that answering “true” was the crazy answer on this test.
That day, I thought about it for a bit. Did I really think I was a special agent of God? And if so, did I want to say that on this test? Who knew what would happen next? Would I be carted off in a strait jacket? Ushered off the grounds? Those didn’t seem likely, especially for only one crazy person response, so I marked it true. And it has stayed with me, kind of a marked man.
Am I a special agent of God? What does that even mean? What makes me think so?
I wasn’t a Quaker then. I don’t think I’d yet encountered the idea that God can and will speak to us in the here and now, often in the silence of gathered worship. But it seemed right to me, even then, that in being given the gift of life, I had been given directions of a sort. That there were expectations – sacred ones – about what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. Didn’t those directions or expectations make me an ‘agent’ of God? I wouldn’t have put it that way without the prompt. But when faced with the statement “I am a special agent of God,” wasn’t the best answer – the honest answer – True?
How about the “special” part? Why a special agent? We all don’t seem to be given exactly the same directions or expectations. There seemed to be lots of difference, lots of individuality, among humans. I don’t think I would have picked the word “special.” That sounded then, and now, much too much like I thought I was better than others, and I was pretty sure that wasn’t so. I might have said “particular,” as in “I am a particular agent of God. And perhaps “special” meant something like “beloved” or “loved by.” But who was I to quibble? There was the statement: “I am a special agent of God.” True or false?
True, I think. What do I mean by that?
It means I try to take direction. I have a handler. I try to do what God tells me to do, on those rare occasions when I’m given any guidance at all. (But isn’t that true of other special agents: they don’t hear from their handler for long stretches?)
It means I feel like I’m accountable. Someone’s watching to see whether I do what I’m told. That someone watching me cares for me, but also has pretty high expectations. It means I submit my will to the will of my handler – and my handler is God.
And it means I hear voices. Or at least I try to. That’s the crazy-sounding part. To admit you hear voices.
“I am a special agent of God.” True or false? I still think it’s true. I think each of you are special agents of God, too. It may not be much of a belief to one as muddled as I was then and now. But it’s a beginning.
I am a special agent of God. And you are a special agent of God. Others may think us crazy, but it’s a good kind of crazy.