The clearness committee settled into a hopeful silence. There were only three of them, deliberately a small group. They didn’t want Jeremiah to feel overwhelmed. After all, in an unusual move they had summoned him, having given up waiting for him to invite their guidance. So many people in the meeting asked that something be done that Ministry and Counsel had finally asked for three volunteers to meet with him to fix the increasingly awkward situation.
Jeremiah had grown up in the meeting, the happy cherished son of weighty, wealthy members. He had even gone to Earlham so he was well-educated and had a deep knowledge of the ways of Friends. Now, however, he was different— critical, judgmental, and often angry or sad. Maybe it was the theater course he took that led him to the strange street corner performances he seemed moved to offer—burying linen belts and breaking clay pots and speaking with certainty about what God wants. All in all, it seemed to many, his return to the town had become embarrassing to the meeting. Perhaps he was suffering some form of mental illness and could be helped.
Jeremiah was puzzled about being summoned to the clearness committee meeting. It had been a strong request from meeting elders, even if it was cloaked in the words of gentle invitation. As he settled into the silence he was grateful, however, finally to have a chance to discuss the agonizing burden of being commanded by God to do things he wasn’t good at and really didn’t want to do.
The silence was deep and long. Anna, a retired nurse, spoke first.
"Jeremiah, thank you so much for meeting with us tonight. You may be puzzled about why we wanted this time with you, so let me explain. We’ve known you all your life. You grew up among us and we loved you, loved your smile, your ready laugh, and admired how seriously you participated in the meeting.
"Since you have been back it seems something has changed," she continued. "You speak often in meeting and your messages frequently seem angry and critical. You stay away from potluck, Friendly dinners, and all our celebrations. And now George tells us that you not only are standing on the street corner preaching, but have created a website with nothing but criticism of other meetings and churches. Could you tell us a little about what happened?"
Jeremiah slowly raised his head and looked at the people in the circle. He cherished them. Anna had been his First-day school teacher when he was an awkward middle school student. Ron was his family’s doctor and had been kindly direct about things when his mother was dying. Mary Ellen was just a little older than he was. He’d had a crush on her in his high school years and still thought of her as exactly the kind of woman he would like to marry, had God not commanded him to stay single. There was a peacefulness about her that continued to draw him to her. He hoped he could make them understand.
"It’s about God," Jeremiah began hesitantly. "Several years ago God spoke to me, telling me this speaking out is what God wanted me to do—actually what I was created to do. It felt like a command to the deepest place in me.
"You know me, I was never good at public speaking—hated it in fact. Even after theater classes at Earlham I couldn’t imagine standing in front of people claiming to speak for God. I argued, but the word of the Lord never went away. I was afraid, but God promised to protect me."
Ron interrupted, "Jeremiah, before you go on, tell us a little about exactly how God spoke to you. Was it like a dream? Was it in meeting? Were there others around?"
There was a time of quiet as Jeremiah struggled with how to respond. How does anyone know that it is God speaking? It certainly isn’t an audible experience that might be heard by others. Yet it wasn’t a dream either. Hearing the words of God was the deepest, most real thing that had ever happened to him.
"Anna," he began, "remember years ago when you were teaching us about meeting for worship? I asked how people knew when to rise to offer a message. You replied that they just knew. For most, you said, even their bodies knew, their hearts beat faster and their chests felt full. They knew God wanted their words spoken for all to hear."
"I remember," Anna acknowledged. It was always hard to help middleschoolers understand the rich currents in meeting for worship that were more felt than seen. Finally she had begun simply resorting to the authority of experiential knowing, speaking of love for family and pets as other examples of heart-knowing as distinct from headknowing. Even this didn’t explain Friends’ experiences, but it was as close as she could come.
Jeremiah continued, "Well, that’s how it happened. I just knew that my life had to be about calling all people to remember what God has promised and what their responsibilities were as God’s people. But I didn’t like it. I wanted a regular life—a family, an honest job that helped the community, and respect from my friends.
"So I argued with God at first. I kept trying to ignore the command to speak. I knew I’d be embarrassed and wouldn’t be understood." He sighed deeply.
"I’m sorry I’ve made an issue for the meeting. I know how much we value quiet care for one another and a peaceful presence among others. I just can’t help it."
Ron thought this as good a time as any to raise the issue of Jeremiah’s mental state. Carefully he began, "Jeremiah, have you heard other voices that tell you what to do? Voices that don’t seem to come from God?"
Jeremiah smiled, "No, Ron. No other voices. I’m not crazy, just called."
Mary Ellen entered the conversation, "Jeremiah, what exactly are you called to do? Whatever it is doesn’t seem to be making you happy or peaceful. So often in our tradition we recognize that people are well led because they are joyful, full of energy, and deeply calm as they go about their vocation." Mary Ellen herself felt this way about following a clear leading to marry Ed and to make a happy, simple home for them and for their children.
"I wish God had folded that into my call," Jeremiah replied wistfully. He also wished God had called him to make that happy home with Mary Ellen, but that’s not the way it had worked out.
"You taught me to say what God tells me, and to say it loudly and clearly so people can hear. Our Quaker stories are full of adventures of people who went where they were sent, whether it made sense to others or not. I didn’t want to be that kind of radical person, but I can’t seem to do otherwise."
His voice rose. "Look at what’s happening in Chicago! People are killing each other and hurting even their own children! Sick people can’t get medicine because they are poor. People try to protect their own money instead of sharing with those who are out of work. People watch television or play computer games instead of visiting with the lonely. This is a rich city, and we let people sleep on the streets simply because they can’t get jobs."
His chest heaved. "You taught me that there is that of God in every single person, bar none. How can this be the right way to live? I know lots of ministers and politicians say it’s gradually getting better. But what about the person who dies today because her cancer wasn’t treated soon enough? What about the girl who is shot simply because she lives in a dangerous neighborhood? What’s ‘gradually getting better’ going to do for them?"
Jeremiah realized his voice had risen and he was practically shouting at these dear, peaceful people who only wanted to help, who only wanted to restore him to a harmonious place in the community. He loved them and wanted so much to be both known and loved by them. It wasn’t enough just to be loved if they didn’t understand him.
After the stunned silence became full again, full of the Presence, Anna asked that Jeremiah leave the room for a few minutes so the committee could confer among themselves. Jeremiah knew that successful clearness committee meetings resulted in the way forward becoming apparent to all, and that such clarity was a gift of the Spirit. He was clear about his path and not afraid, but he hated the thought of losing the support of this dear community that had meant so much to him through the years. He went quietly upstairs to the meeting room.
Anna, Ron, and Mary Ellen sat in silence, no one knowing quite how to proceed. They had been asked to stop Jeremiah’s embarrassing public behavior. It called attention to Friends in a negative way. People were fond, or at least tolerant, of the customary Quaker Friday antiwar vigil in the park, but this was different. Jeremiah was being critical of spiritual and political leaders by name, was warning of dire events to come, and was claiming to be speaking for God. It was just plain presumptuous or even crazy, or would certainly seem so to the community.
On the other hand, Jeremiah had taken seriously what they had taught him. They had taught him to listen deeply for God’s leadings, to speak truth as he came to know it, to act out of that truth, and not to be afraid. Certainly that was what he understood himself to be doing. The committee sat and sat, silently praying for guidance.
Jeremiah sat upstairs, knowing what lay ahead. He wouldn’t be successful; things would get a lot worse before the people returned to live as God invited, with justice, mercy, and compassion. That they would eventually do so he didn’t doubt, but he wished so passionately he could find ways to prevent all the suffering that would take place between now and then. And he hated being misunderstood. Maybe he should stop being a prophet. Maybe he should run for office, or start a nonprofit that could do some good. A non-prophet running a nonprofit—that had a real ring to it. Even if he couldn’t radically reverse the tides of idolatry and false murmurings of peace, peace when there was no peace, at least something respectable and helpful would have happened.
Finally he heard a beckoning voice: "Jeremiah, would you come here?"