Lessons from the 6th World Conference of Friends: Spiritual Humility, Spiritual Gifts

Let me tell you about the Young Friends Epistle. The Epistle That Wasn't. The Zombie Epistle (there was substance, but no life).

The Young Friends at the World Conference (Young Adult Friends, for you NEYMers) were invited by the larger gathering to write an epistle. In response, we formed a small committee to write the thing and bring it back to our business meeting for revision and approval. I offered to record for that business session. When the epistle arrived, it was clear that the meeting wanted something more substantial than the letter we had been presented with. During the first business session we sat for four hours. There was some real worship with moving ministry arising out of it, and we felt we were very close to unity. 
Young (Adult) Friends at the
World Conference

During the second session we sat for two hours and fell apart. We were not in worship; we argued; at the last minute (when I thought we were close to approval despite it all) there was a sudden wall of resistance and we agreed not to have an epistle at all (I can't say we were "clear," because at that point there was not any gathered sense of the meeting). 

Those are the facts, more or less.

After it was obvious that we were Done Writing An Epistle, I felt all sorts of things. Relief, primarily: recording can be arduous at the best of times, and this was some of the most difficult recording I have ever done. Then, sadness. Pain. A sense of "What-could-I-have-done-better?" A desire to move on, accept that it wasn't going to happen,  let it go --- and simultaneously, a desire to hold on, to not let all of that work and worship and striving be wasted.

After that last painful business session, part of me wanted to scream, but my task was to say, "I was faithful to the Spirit; this much I know is true. Now my role is done; now I must step away."

On the last epistle I was exercised to help write, we had come to an easy unity. Therefore I had not noticed how I stepped away. I had done so seamlessly, painlessly, because the work came to its natural fulfillment. On this epistle, the work was cut off. Stepping away was hard and painful and I didn't do it perfectly --- but I did it. Because it was hard, I noticed it. Because I noticed it, I have been able to see my struggle of letting go as part of the ministry --- not a sad, amputated stump.

The exercise of many gifts --- of any creative gift --- requires an act of stepping away. Learning to step away is what releases the poem or the painting or the epistle into the world, to have life independently of its creator. Quakers talk about "laying down" a ministry. I've learned that each act of ministry must be "laid down," or it never takes root. 

I have sometimes thought that spiritual humility required downplaying my ministry. I have been wrong; that is a form of pride. Acknowledging one has a gift, faithfully using it, laying it down as called, and being clear that the fruits of that gift are not from oneself, but from God --- that takes much more humility than downplaying a gift or keeping it under a bushel.  Granted, if one does the latter, one never has to grapple with these issues!

(My favorite bit ever written about spiritual pride comes from The Screwtape Letters, where one demon is giving advice to another demon on temptation: "Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility.  Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By jove! I'm being humble,' and almost immediately pride --- pride at his own humility --- will appear.  If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of the attempt --- and so on, through as many stages as you please.  But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion, in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed.")

Another thing.

Honestly, in my struggle to be humble (which plays out very much like the scenario above!), I tell myself all sorts of really crazy things.  Here's one of my favorites: "This is not you, but God through you.  Therefore, you shouldn't feel pleasure when things go well or pain when they don't. That's just ego." 

You have no idea.  Just read it. 
Oh, dear.  Other than the first sentence, it's not true, of course, but it's an easy pit to fall into. (Another Screwtape quote, while I'm at it: "[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. [God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents - or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.") 

After the business with the YF epistle, I was scolding myself along those lines.  I stopped only when a helpful friend said words to this effect: "Of course it's all right to feel pain when a gift is thwarted; it's God's will that our gifts be used. We humans refuse to do God's will all the time, in worse ways than this --- how do you think God feels?"

Right. That's the whole point of the parable of the talents, isn't it? (Matthew 25:14-30)
“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’  His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’  He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.' "
Lesson learned. It was acceptable for me to feel pain. And yet. Ultimately, at bottom --- forget the talents, the gifts, the ministry, the service --- our one task is humble obedience.  

I leave you with Milton.  As he went blind, he had to consider that he might be forever unable to exercise his formidable talents (such was not the case). 
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.