Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (Matt.10:16)
In recent days I’ve been struggling with a challenging personal relationship with a close family member. As I’ve weighed the choices I have to make and how best to convey my loving intentions, I’ve found myself caught in the dilemma of needing to stay fully present to a situation that also requires completely letting go. I find this to be a most difficult thing to do: to balance giving my most nurturing, selfless love and maintaining reasonable, appropriate boundaries for myself without inflicting pain on the other party. One reason it’s so challenging is that the landscape of the relationship is always shifting. An astute friend in whom I confided, commented that my dilemma would require the wisdom of a serpent and the innocence of a dove. Her comment led me to reflect on the biblical passage above from the book of Matthew.
As I sat in meeting for worship this week, listening to Friends struggle with how we collectively can remain harmless yet still be effective in our efforts to mend what’s wrong in the world, it occurred to me that my personal dilemma is quite similar to one that grips many Friends. How do we stay present to the pain and suffering in the world without becoming numb, overwhelmed, depressed, or defeated? How do we stay present without losing ourselves in this pain and suffering? How do we, as Friends, avoid taking sides so that we can remain open to that of God in every adversary, every oppressor, every human who commits atrocious behaviors, yet still is a child of God? Where do we find the wisdom and strength for this? More importantly, what can we offer the world as our particular wisdom about how effectively to mediate terrible and violent conflicts, or situations that could become that way, without violent interventions?
The tenth chapter of Matthew in which Jesus charges his disciples for their work in the world offers relevant advice for consideration. With apology for my lack of biblical scholarship, I offer my personal interpretation of the guidance given: Begin your work with our own people. Don’t fret about funding, your work will be worthy of recompense. Both physical sustenance and the right words for the work that you do will be provided by the Spirit. Don’t linger or trouble yourself over outcomes; some people will receive your work well, others will not. The outcomes are in the hands of the Spirit; you are not to be troubled by them. But have no illusions, you will be despised and denounced for your efforts to speak Truth. You will need to be both very wise and very harmless in doing this work. Do not fear others, no matter how threatening they may be. Follow the guidance of Spirit in all things. Know you are very precious in the sight of God. Know, too, that you may be called to sacrifice all for the sake of this work. In learning to focus not on yourself but on God’s calling, you will find your life. And therein will be your reward.
Are we Friends becoming too focused on outcomes instead of God’s guidance? Do we trust enough in Spirit and follow the guidance we are given, or are we pushing our own agendas—our personal visions of the peaceable kingdom? That brings me to the themes in this issue, and in particular, to Anthony Prete’s plenary address at the Friends General Conference Gathering on "Shalom: Much More than Just ‘Peace’" (p.6), in which he takes up closely related queries. Anthony Prete is a biblical scholar, and I commend his examination and interpretation of the word "shalom" to you.