A Message to the World Conference of Friends
In 1696, in the second generation of the Religious Society of Friends in England, a young woman named Anne Wilson rose in the power of the Spirit in meeting for worship. Amidst the Friends present, she pointed directly at a young man whom she had never met. This is what she said:
“A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming—What wilt thou do in the end?”
Until that point, most of the young man’s time attending meeting for worship had been spent finding new ways to sleep. But now his heart was broken open. Samuel Bownas left meeting for worship that day in tender tears, and his life began to change. He became one of the most active travelers in ministry among the Friends of his time. His lifetime of faithful service would anoint and inspire generations of Quaker ministers before his death, and his foundational book, A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister, would help encourage, guide, and instruct Friends for hundreds of years, connecting us in a living stream from that meeting for worship to ours today.
Something happened in that meeting for worship—something vital. Something that mattered. Anne Wilson’s ministry to Samuel Bownas opened a new channel in young Samuel’s heart, and the Holy Spirit flowed in. Through an encounter with the challenge of the living Word among us, Samuel Bownas’s life began to be changed. And through that encounter, our life as the People of God called Friends was transformed. Is there an Anne Wilson with us today? Is there a Samuel Bownas among us?
Moments like the one in this story are the heartbeat of the Body we are together—each one brings fresh nourishment that we deeply need. Without this rhythm of faithfulness helping the Spirit to work in one heart, and another, and another, our corporate life would wither.
God breaks into our lives with a challenging message. The faithfulness of the messenger helps free us to grow into love’s invitation for our lives. By seeing clearly how we are not yet who God created us to be, we are broken open. The vulnerability we feel with this opening becomes the channel for new life. And we come more fully alive to the Kingdom of God.
Now I want to share another story about a moment like this. This one is a little different, and a little more complex.
When the Word of the Lord first called Elijah to be a prophet, the work was clear. The People had placed their faith in power hungry rulers who had no more wisdom than the empty idols they served. To a people held captive to a hollow way of living, the Giver of Life sent an invitation. Into this desolation, a message was given that would reopen the door to relationship with what is most deeply real.
The prophet Elijah began calling the People back to God, to recognize the face of the living one at the heart of creation. Living water began to flow in powerful ways.
The sick were healed. Women unable to conceive children bore sons and daughters. Those left for dead were revived. And though controversy, persecution, and resistance surrounded the prophet’s work, conflict made clear the choice that the People had to make—a choice between spiritual Life and Death—which meant life and death for the world.
Then Elijah outran his Guide. After helping the People see clearly the difference between what was alive and what was not, he didn’t trust the Spirit to work. God had turned a corner, but the prophet kept running in another direction. Friends, what does it take in our lives, when we’re running fast toward what seems like so much good work, for us to remember to stop and wait, to stay deeply connected to our Guide? Where have we gone beyond what God asks of us and continued in our own striving and pride?
Elijah ordered the People to take the false leaders captive, to bind them, and to murder them.
Far from that faithful moment when he and the People had felt the Living Stream flowing through them, when the rulers learned what Elijah had done, they swore to kill him. Now he was on the run, alone. He isolated himself. Where, Friends, have we felt this?
At the edge of the wilderness, he came to what seemed the end of his life, under a twisted little tree surrounded by the desert. And there, he fell asleep.
Suddenly an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up and ate, and then went with the strength of that food—40 days and 40 nights—into the heart of the wilderness.
The angel sent him on a journey back to the Beginning, back to the place where the People of Israel became a people. Elijah traveled to Mount Sinai, to the place where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Elijah took refuge in a cave on the mountainside, and night fell. A whirlwind, earthquake, and fire surrounded the mountain and passed away. And then a deep silence fell.
In that stillness, Elijah, wrapping his cloak over his eyes, exposed and vulnerable, went to the mouth of the cave.
Then there came a still, small voice: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“I have been zealous for the Lord.”
“Go home, Elijah. Return to the work I have for you.”
Elijah began the long journey home. Something had happened. Something vital. Something that mattered.
As he returned from the wilderness, even though so much on the outside seemed the same, Elijah had changed. Children could tell he’d been in the wilderness. Others saw his sunburned skin shining with the holy saltiness of the desert.
All this time, Elijah had believed he was working alone. But moving with a changed heart, Elijah recognized that scattered among the wider people—seemingly everywhere he turned—were those who had also heard the call to the living God.
On his way home, Elijah called Elisha, who became his companion in ministry and his successor as a prophet. Elijah anointed the next generation. Together they set in motion a movement of Spirit-led prophets, some of whom practiced very differently, some of whom he would never meet. Faithfulness and openness to new ways brought generations into the living prophetic stream, a stream that sustained the People no matter how far from home they found themselves, no matter how scattered they became, no matter how much they suffered.
Elijah’s story is the story of a moment—like Samuel’s, like Anne’s. God broke in with a challenge for the prophet to see his spiritual condition more clearly. Seeing opened the prophet’s heart to being changed and made new. And through the change in the prophet’s heart, all of us who choose to live in this same Living Stream are also changed.
As in the story of Anne and Samuel, in the wilderness Elijah was shown clearly how far he was from whom God invited him to be. Seeing our spiritual condition clearly can be deeply painful. It can leave us angry, confused, despairing of hope. But this is what the Light does in moments like these. In describing the liberating work of the eternal Light, our movement’s midwife Margaret Fell used these words: “It will rip you up and lay you open.”
Maybe we can understand Samuel Bownas’ tears, Elijah’s crying out in the desert. Do we really want to invite this Light to work in us? Do we truly choose to become the children of this Light? It is through being helped to see with eyes unclouded, through our hearts breaking open, that transformation happens.
What if the Prophet in Elijah’s story wasn’t a person? What if, instead, the Prophet was a People? What if, instead of this life-giving Word coming to an individual, the animating message came to a great People to be gathered? Because the People of God called Friends has always been invited to be a prophetic People, to allow not just the words that one or two of us speak but the lives that all of us live to be a sign of God in the world.
From the beginning, it was the witness of changed and liberated lives that shook the foundations of the established social, economic, and religious order of England. The Religious Society of Friends is about nothing if it’s not about transformation. Helping each other open to the living Christ among us, allowing ourselves to be searched by the Light at work within us, humbling ourselves to be taught by the Inward Teacher, trusting that surrendering to the Refiner’s fire, we can be given new hearts. And it is and always has been through these new hearts that we are made channels for the motion of universal love.
In the beginning of our movement, in a time crying out for hope, Friends’ faithfulness offered an invitation for the world to turn back to what was most deeply real and alive, to be set free from the false idols of violence, ignorance, and empty religion. Living water poured in. There were great meetings, and many were convinced. The prison cells of England became nurseries for a prophetic People. There were signs and healings, and those left for dead were not just revived, but were welcomed to a new society where all could be sons and daughters of God, where Christ Jesus has came to teach his People himself. And even though controversy, persecution, and resistance surrounded their work, Friends lived the truth of the Resurrection, the triumph of Love over Death. And a beautiful new part of the oldest and greatest story of love began to be told.
I do believe that the living Spirit has always been at work among Friends. The faithfulness of many who came before us kept the fires burning and brought us here. The transformed lives of our spiritual ancestors remain lighthouses for us. And they are a cloud of witnesses hovering around us here.
But especially in light of those transformed lives, we need to be honest that, like Elijah, our prophetic People outran our Guide. Perhaps because we had felt the intoxicating power of being God’s instruments of liberation and love, we thought we didn’t need to keep listening. Maybe we thought if we were only zealous enough, we could do it on our own.
As in the story of Elijah, the work of the Spirit turned a corner, but we kept going in the directions we chose. Through pride, rancor, and schism, the unity of our corporate life was torn apart. We became a shell and a shadow of who God invites us to be. We forgot that it was the Pharisees, and not Jesus, who taught that purity was more important than living faithfully in Love.
Then we grew more zealous. We replaced reliance on the Holy Spirit with hollow gods of rigid doctrine or intellectual notions. But the still, small voice of the Living Christ is not found in either of these.
The scars of the separations among us are deep and lasting. In our confusion, we have murdered the Life we were invited to live in together. Our spiritual ancestors did this, and in places we repeat their sins today. Do we know one of these places? Very little stirs us up or holds our attention longer than our internal conflicts. The discordant, shattered body of Friends does not bear witness that we know the peace the world cannot give. What we do unto the least of these our brethren, we do unto the One whose Friends our ancestors call us to be.
While we challenge other false gods—powers of violence, greed, and prejudice—we’ve been taken captive by our own idols. We’ve begun worshipping our wounds, our dysfunctions, our Quaker process, and styles of worship as if they were what define us. A huge portion of our God-given energy is wasted by focusing on where the Life is not, distracting us from living where the Life is.
In places, we have embraced an unspoken article of faith that because we call ourselves Quakers we have innate wisdom or power to heal, to save, to bring peace and justice into this wounded world. For a long time now, instead of allowing the Spirit to make us instruments of radical Love today, we have been living on the reputation of some in our past. With vital exceptions, the deep tradition of Friends’ Spirit-led service seems to a rising generation like another museum exhibit about who the Quakers were.
So while we can feel the Spirit has not been taken fully from us, and while there are reasons for hope, in my travels in the ministry I’ve met many among us—in North America and beyond—who feel like Elijah: alone, fleeing to the edge of all we know, wondering whether we might soon reach the end of the Story of the prophetic People called Friends.
Brokenness is not the end of God’s story—and it’s not the end of ours. But it is our moment to fall to our knees under that solitary tree in the desert, to meet with the angel, and to be given the bread and water we need to survive the journey into the wilderness.
Are we willing to come into the Presence with all of our vulnerability and brokenness? How can we invite one another to the mountain where we are changed?
If ever the world needed the authentic, life-giving challenge that animated our spiritual ancestors, it needs it now. If ever people needed prophets to call us home to the humble, world-transforming power of the Love who casts out Fear, and to this Love’s availability and liberating grace in every heart, we need it today.
But this Love can’t just be told about in stories. This Love needs to be lived in lives. There is no other Religious Society of Friends, no other Friends Church in which we can live the message for which this prophetic People is still being gathered. The work is for each of us, for all of us, together. And we have no time but this present time in which to be faithful.