by Jan Hoffman
When I think of leadings, I think not so much of what I have done outwardly, but on the inward process of discernment by which I try to be faithful to my Inner Teacher. The reason I want to be more faithful is because nothing else gives me such a deep sense of joy in being alive, of having integrity in the deepest sense. Integrity for me means my outward actions line up (like a plumb line) to God who is present in my deepest Center. Paradoxically, this sense of unity with the God in me also connects me to the Life at work in all of creation, including other people trying to be faithful, whether or not I agree with their theology or their actions.
How do we listen to our many inner voices and discern which is God’s voice? in Cry Pain, Cry Hope, Elizabeth O’Connor says, “One of the ways we know the call to be God’s call is when a feeling of awe-filled dread is combined with one of being companioned.” I have a keen sense that I am totally incapable of doing whatever it is I’m being asked to do, yet also feel that God is drawing me into Life and will be with me, guiding and supporting me. In fact, I have learned that unless I do come to the deep affirmation that I (the ego I) can’t do it, God cannot work through me.
What I have just described is a “large leading.” It’s important to add immediately that there are both large and small leadings and they belong together; one is not more important than the other. Faithfulness in small things (like daily prayer) nurtures an openness to a larger call. And when a larger call is clear, further discernment of smaller leadings will be required to live out that larger leading. This is where a faith community comes in. Even if I am clear on a given call, I need help in discerning and acting on the ways to carry it out. Sometimes this may mean people praying for my capacity to be faithful and sometimes it may mean finding a place for me to retreat or taking me to the airport.
It may mean that I need to find an elder or a group of elders to meet with me. I regret that “eldering” is often synonymous with ways to tell people they are speaking or behaving inappropriately. As I have felt my own inadequacy and lack of courage facing a variety of calls, I have discovered the dynamic power of the Quaker minister-elder combination. As I understand it, the minister is the one with the message and the elder is the one who helps draw out that message. “The message” need not be a spoken message to a group, but can be a particular peace witness, a call to respond to AIDS in our communities, or helping to create a program where the Spirit can come alive in a workshop.
I know also that we each can be both minister and elder, though not at the same time. We may have the beginnings of a leading (a ministry) in us that need to be called out. To help us discover what it is, we may ask for a clearness committee–which I see as a group of elders, drawing us out. Or we may be called to be an elder, either responding to a person testing a leading or perceiving a gift in another that we feel led to draw out. This means that my faithfulness to a leading may be in supporting your leading. I often remember Mary Cosby saying, “I am a leader in my gift, a follower in yours.”
Let me illustrate these points from my experience. When I sat with the Clerks’ Nominating Committee after being asked to serve as Clerk of New England Yearly Meeting, I felt they called out something deep within me and responded, “Yes.” This initial clarity required many smaller leadings to faithfully live it. As a Yearly Meeting Clerk, I felt an eldering dynamic was at work; my focus needed to be on drawing out the various ministries in the Yearly Meeting between sessions and the Yearly Meeting’s corporate message at sessions. My task was to look for leadings that focused on the whole, that helped make people aware of how their particular piece fit into the whole. I did not have “a message” for the Yearly Meeting; rather, my focus was to draw out its “message.”
In order to make my “eldering channel” as clear as possible for the Yearly Meeting sessions, I felt I needed to take a retreat equal to the duration of Yearly Meeting–five days. What did I “do” on those retreats? On the first day, I took a final look at the agenda as set thus far, wrote questions for the pre-Yearly Meeting meeting with other clerks and then let it go entirely. I set myself a discipline of thinking no more about the agenda. I ate very simply. I slept a lot. I prayed, read Psalms, gathered flowers, watched water or mountains or candles burning at night. I did physical labor of some kind, like freeing an ash grove of Virginia creeper or weeding a patch of stones to reveal a wonderful stone wall. (Later that night as I watched a candle I had set out on those stones, a mouse stuck its head out of one of the stones in the wall and watched it with me.) A quote from Avery Brooke expresses what I think this activity was for: “to occupy the foreground of the mind and leave the deeper reaches open.”
In contrast, when I’m asked to speak, my focus is on whether I have a message. I usually ask God, “Do you have a message for me to give here?” If the answer is yes, I say yes. Then the “little leadings” begin. As things occur–readings, clippings–I drop them into a folder. I need to discern whether I’m to ask a particular person to serve as my elder or if I’m to look for elder(s) when I arrive where I am to speak. I also take a retreat before I give a talk, but here the focus is not just on clearing the channel in me, but on a more receptive listening, asking God, “What do you want me to say?”
Once I arrive at the place where I’m to speak, there are more “little leadings.” For the meal before I speak, am I to eat by myself, away from the group entirely? Am I to eat in a dining hall with specific people? I ask God or my elder these questions. I need to meet with the person who will introduce me. I try to convey that the facts of my life are not important, but that their gift (to me and to the group) can be to create a (spiritual) space I can speak into. They can invite people to draw out my message. Are there to be people behind me and/or in the body of the meeting praying for faithfulness in me and in the listeners? I am always sustained by prayers of those in other places who have promised to pray for me.
The big clarities are usually easy for me; the small ones give me more trouble. I hear many inner voices debating what I should do or telling me I can’t possibly do it. I often use the advice in a Patricia McKernon song: “Be still and listen, ’til only one voice can be heard.” For me, this matter of inner voices is a complicated reality.
When I first began speaking under obedience, as I prepared to speak, I would open up “the place of Truth” in me. Many things came out of that place of Truth and I would keep what I perceived was the message and push aside what I knew was not the message. (I didn’t know what it was; I just knew it was not the message.) After I had finished delivering my message, this “not the message” stuff would come back to attack me, and I would crumble. I am grateful for the people God sent to care for me each time this happened. I began therapy, and as it progressed, I found that when I opened the place of Truth to receive a message, I could name what was not the message and place it in my therapist’s office to address later. When I did this as the message was rising up, once I had delivered the message, I felt totally clear–no more attacks.
My learning from this has been that there is a complex range of things that prevent us from hearing the One Voice. Sometimes it is our own ego or our cultural conditioning or just laziness. For these, friends and elders can help us. But sometimes it can be deeper realities which need professional help–which those same elders may help us to find. (It was a support committee for me as Yearly Meeting Clerk who helped me see my need for professional help and helped me through the search for a therapist who understood spiritual leadings.)
One final word: We cannot judge the results of our leadings by outward “success.” For me, we’re not called to be successful, but faithful. I hope what I have written above does not sound like I have always been faithful in my leadings. Sometimes I have heard an inner voice say, “You were faithful.” This brings a joy deeper than any distress at negative comments about what I have done or said. Sometimes that inner voice says, “You were not faithful.” This brings a pain deeper than any pleasure from someone saying “Your words were very helpful to me.” But even in unfaithfulness, God is with me, teaching me, fitting me to be more faithful in the future. In both cases, I feel the Presence in which I know I will find my life’s deepest integrity.
Originally published in Friendly Woman, Fall 1992.