Being Called to the Faith of Jesus

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I recently read Rooted in Christianity, Open to New Light by Timothy Ashworth and Alex Wildwood; it’s a book on spiritual diversity among British Friends. One passage by Ashworth struck me as if it were written specifically for me. He quotes a passage from Paul where the apostle writes about being guided by a living faith. According to Paul, a living faith is “faith in Jesus.” However, Ashworth, a biblical scholar, believes this is very likely a mistranslation: instead of having “faith in Jesus,” we are called to have the “faith of Jesus.”

This is a great relief for me, because if that’s what Paul meant to say (and there is strong scholarly support for it), then faith is not about having notions about Jesus or his role in salvation but about having the same kind of faith Jesus had.

What kind of faith was that? From what I gather from the gospels, his faith was one of total trust in the one he called “Father,” an intimacy with a living Spirit who called him to act and not be afraid. That not-being-afraid didn’t always work of course; from the story of Jesus the night before his crucifixion, we know he was petrified of what was awaiting him.

So, are we called to live that kind of faith? I believe we are, or perhaps I should say, I believe I am. I am called to a life similar to the trusting and faith-inspired life that Jesus led.

I have not been a stranger to Jesus’s life. I grew up in a large family where the Bible was read at the end of every meal. For 18 years I heard the stories of the Old Testament, the gospels, and the things Paul wanted his followers to know. They were read but never commented on, which made those words all the more powerful to me. As a young adult, I pretty well could recite all of Jesus’s sayings. They had become part of my spiritual DNA, so to speak.

But when I was in my mid-20s, I went through a crisis of faith. I lost the faith I had been brought up in, a faith I had loved deeply and which had given me some incredible mystical experiences. But while my belief in Jesus as a savior who died for my sins evaporated, and though for decades I didn’t even want to read about Jesus, it was impossible not to do what he had encouraged us to do. Is someone hungry? You feed him. Is someone in prison? You go visit her.

I grieved for that lost faith and the church community I had been part of. Then I went to Quaker meeting, or rather John, my husband, and our children liked to go to Quaker meeting, and I didn’t want them to go without me. I was in my mid-30s by then. I was determined not to be roped into a faith that I would come to love and would have to give up again. One such a divorce in a lifetime was enough for me.

Well, it took years, but I finally realized that God—the Spirit I had known so well during my early years—did not care about dogma, or about belief-in. That Spirit was still caring and loving and encouraging me, and I found that Spirit in Quaker meeting. A very important part of my life was given back to me. It took a long time, but I was ready to commit myself to the Religious Society of Friends.

Well, it took years, but I finally realized that God—the Spirit I had known so well during my early years—did not care about dogma, or about belief-in. That Spirit was still caring and loving and encouraging me, and I found that Spirit in Quaker meeting. A very important part of my life was given back to me.

I went to my first yearly meeting session seven years after first walking into the meetinghouse in Nashville, Tennessee. It was a cornucopia of new experiences: some confusing, many wonderfully positive. I remember clearly Bob Barrus from Celo (N.C.) Meeting talking about the importance of being obedient to the Spirit. Obedience? It was a word I hadn’t heard in Quaker worship before. I knew I had to be open to the Spirit, but this Friend talked about being obedient. I wasn’t sold on it. I would rather be a strong, independent Quaker woman, not some docile follower. But sometimes the unconscious knows what the conscious isn’t yet ready to accept.

One thing I was sure of: I was deeply grateful for what the Society of Friends had given me. My deepest wish was to care for that Religious Society. Without identifying it as a Spirit-led call, I knew I wanted to follow and be obedient to it.

We moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and in 1988 my yearly meeting appointed me as a representative to Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). Here I met people who encouraged me to deepen my faith and not be afraid of the old religious text that had nurtured my young soul. I decided to read the Bible the way I read Pendle Hill pamphlets: texts that are important, often nurturing, sometimes inspiring, even precious, but not the infallible truth.

One day, at a conference at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, a young woman from a more Evangelical meeting denied that my experience of God was as valid as hers. I burst out in tears. How could a fellow Friend deny the validity of my faith, a faith that had become so centrally important to me? I had come face to face with a deep rift in the Society of Friends. More than ever, I wanted to contribute to the healing of this rift, even if in some small way. FWCC was the right place for me! As a regional clerk, I tried to organize a regional conference that would include Friends from my own South Central Yearly Meeting (SCYM) and Friends from Mid-America Yearly Meeting. I was not fully aware of the difficult relationships that existed at the time between these Liberal and Evangelical Friends and did not succeed in organizing a conference.

Then Friends in FWCC and SCYM encouraged me to bring together women from the Evangelical, Liberal, and Pastoral meetings in our section of the country. I never doubted this was a leading I had to obey, although I did test it with a clearness committee.

When nine of us met together for the first time to plan a conference—three women from South Central, three from Great Plains (a yearly meeting affiliated with Friends United Meeting), and three from Mid-America, I knew it was a moment of historical significance. We were pioneers. From 1999 through 2011, we had Quaker Women’s Conferences on Faith and Spirituality every other year.

They were wonderful and created deep friendships across our dividing lines. It wasn’t always easy, especially in the beginning; there were misunderstandings and some small conflicts but also new understandings. And while we have not had any conferences in recent years, the spirit of friendship and of sharing our lives is very much alive (especially in Oklahoma, a state that has three branches of Friends).

Now, after a long life, I believe I may say that I have tried, if not always succeeded, to be obedient to the call to have the faith of Jesus.

Another call came in early 2001. From 1998 to 2001, John and I lived in the Netherlands. One of the members of the meeting we attended was the editor and publisher of the monthly publication of Netherlands Yearly Meeting called Circle of Friends. How nice it would be, I thought, to have something similar in Arkansas. Netherlands Yearly Meeting has about 80 members, just a little more than we have in Arkansas. I have always loved words. I have read Friends Journal since the mid-1970s and kept every single issue, as well as all the pamphlets of Wider Quaker Fellowship, Pendle Hill, and Friends General Conference. It would be lovely to publish a magazine with reprints of the best Quaker writings, build community by running interviews, and publish the personal writings of Friends in Arkansas.

I took the idea to Arkansas/Oklahoma Quarterly Meeting, and Friends liked it. I asked my monthly meeting if they would be willing to support it, and they said yes. The only thing I didn’t do was ask the Spirit if I was really called to do this work. I wanted to do it so badly that I was afraid that if I took the time to sit and wait, the answer would be no. I was almost finished with the first issue when I knew that I could not proceed. I had been a Friend too long to not know better. That Sunday I was one of a few people in worship. I believe it was another quarterly meeting weekend, and I had decided to go to the meetinghouse in case anyone showed up. There was one attender with his 12-year-old son, David, and we decided to have worship for as long as David seemed comfortable. David surprised me. I had expected 15 maybe 20 minutes, but David was deep in silence, and I decided to give myself over and join him. It was in that meeting that I finally brought my concern about the magazine to the surface: my deep wish for it to be a Spirit-led project and how uncomfortable I was to have barged ahead. It is hard to describe what happened (or maybe I feel a bit shy to describe what happened), but at the end of the hour, I knew I could go ahead.

I decided to call the magazine The Carillon. A carillon is a set of bells of different sizes that, when struck, produce different tones. When played, they create a beautiful symphony of different sounds. Most Friends in Arkansas are fairly Liberal, but I know some of them are Christian and hold more orthodox beliefs. I wanted those different Quaker voices to be found in the magazine.

Producing The Carillon has been a great school of patience and trust for me: trust in the Spirit. I am very dependent on authors and publishers answering on time, which requires patience. And if I ever was worried about not having enough good material, I quickly learned that if I set aside the time and planned carefully, all would fall into place. Do I have a sense that there is some cooperation from the Spirit? Yes, I do, but no, I am not going to create a theology based on that sense.

One of the first lessons I learned after I started attending meeting 45 years ago was “the Spirit brings together.” With The Carillon, I have experienced that over and over again.

Now, after a long life, I believe I may say that I have tried, if not always succeeded, to be obedient to the call to have the faith of Jesus.

Tina Coffin

Tina Coffin is a member of Little Rock (Ark.) Meeting and editor of The Carillon, a monthly magazine for Quakers in Arkansas. She grew up in the Netherlands and taught at International Quaker School Beverweerd, where she met her husband, John. They moved to Nashville, Tenn., with their family in 1969 and joined the Religious Society of Friends. This article is based on a talk given at South Central Yearly Meeting’s 2016 annual sessions.

1 thought on “Being Called to the Faith of Jesus

  1. Thank you for the re-translation, of “faith in” to “faith of.” In the gospels we read of Jesus going off by himself when things got heavy, laying it out before God, and listening for guidance. That might be our first answer to the question, what would Jesus do? I’m still putting too much energy into trying to figure it out for myself, but I understand that more of Jesus’ kind of faith could relieve me of a lot of uncertainty.

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