“The Spirit Knows No Camps:” Message given to NEYM Sessions, 8-5-12

Excerpt from a message given by Jocelyn Burnell, Britain Yearly meeting, to the World Conference of Friends in Nakuru, Kenya:

“In the Old Testament there is only a little talk of personal salvation and a lot of concern about the salvation of the community—the Tribes of Israel—the salvation of people collectively . . . Once a year the High Priest, in fear and trembling, entered the Holy of Holies to ask for absolution for the sins of his tribe. He was not sure he was going to come out alive, and nobody else could enter the Holy of Holies to help him. So he left a corner of his shawl trailing out through the door, so that if he died his body could be retrieved by people outside the Holy of Holies pulling on that corner of the shawl.

He usually did come out alive, and then as described in Leviticus (16, verses 21–22:) “And Aaron [who was the High priest] shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. And the goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” . . .

. . . Being able to get rid of sins like that sounds great, but I wonder . . . just as I have learnt (along with others in the West) that you cannot throw rubbish away, because there is no away, I wonder if you can erase sin so simply? I suspect it may come back to you! So if the world body of Friends, if our community is saved, what does it mean? And what are the marks of a community that is saved? I think it means the following: We are united with God; we work in God's strength; We listen to God and follow God's promptings; We listen to each other, for God's promptings may come through other people; We respect the diversity amongst us: not everyone has the same gifts or the same callings and we know there are many ways to God.”

I’ve spent a long time thinking about that high priest entering the Holy of Holies alone. How frightening it must have been to encounter God behind the veil, alone, carrying that responsibility for the whole community—and yet what a temptation into pride! How flattering and how exciting, to be the privileged one, the one nearest God. 

Since the World Conference, I have started to think that we, liberal unprogrammed Friends, might be that prideful Levitical priest.

Most of us like to talk about how there are many ways to God. I do too, but for many years I didn’t believe it, not in my heart of hearts. I really believed that anyone who agreed with me about the many ways to God was probably spiritually profound, and anyone who disagreed with me had no idea what they were talking about. 

I no longer believe this. In Kenya, though, where many Friends do believe there is only one way to God, I felt this conflict rising in me again.

There was a moment at the World Conference when an unknown friend did something that hurt many other friends—they took down the epistle from the Committee for GLBTQ concerns from where it was posted on the auditorium wall. Another friend, a friend who looks and believes very much like us, stood up and spoke passionately about how this was an act of violence and hatred.

Yes, that was the way she experienced that act. That was the way I experienced that act. And that was the way many of us Westerners responded to that act.

We never found out who tore down the epistle, but later we did find out that many Kenyan friends had a very real fear that the government would violently persecute them if the government thought they supported gay rights. When I learned this, I no longer saw an act of hatred and violence—I saw an act of fear and self-protection. But we, all of us spiritually profound liberal Friends, hadn’t listened before we spoke. Instead, we spoke from our own place of immense privilege and pride—and we were wrong.

This moment was not the only time I heard someone, often a liberal friend, speaking in a way that was true for them—but the words seemed to come not from the Divine Spirit, but instead from a prideful, unreflecting certainty that our way of looking at things was absolutely the truth—that ours was the only path to God.

We have conflated the Inward Light with our own virtue. We have believed that if we look hard enough inside ourselves, we can find all we need to know about God and the Will of God.

We cannot. Trying to do so, trying to find God only in ourselves, leads to some very scrunched and tiny thinking. But the Inward Light isn’t our own conscience or our will. We don’t emit that Light but rather are enlightened by it. We at best reflect it; we certainly don’t own it.

As Quakers, we must believe that the veil is torn. All may enter the Holy of Holies. All may encounter the living Voice of God.
There are other places besides our own souls that we can and must be able to recognise the Light of God, and one of those other places is within people so far removed from everything we believe that I have heard some of us reluctant to even share the name Quaker with them.

It seems that even with all of our silence, we have forgotten how to listen.

One of the prompts I was given for this reflection was, “What gifts does New England Yearly Meeting have to share, and how will we share them?”

New England Yearly Meeting has been given gifts of the spirit, just as each individual is given gifts of the spirit. For instance, I deeply believe that our clarity around GLBTQ rights is such a gift. I believe similarly that our concern for climate change and our commitment to silent, waiting worship are also gifts.

We are given gifts of knowledge and clarity as concerns to be faithfully carried, not as banners to rally around, not as lessons to instill into others, and certainly not as achievements to take pride in. Who are we to be proud of what God has freely given?

So, then, we have a choice: will we continue to approach the world as if we were the proud Levitical priest, alone able to enter the Holy of Holies, burdened with the responsibility of bringing the knowledge of God to all the lost people who disagree with us?

Or will we enter the great gift of our silence and listen deeply—together with our one-time enemies—trusting that the truth will be revealed—knowing that only by a willingness to come together in the Spirit of Love can we ever change hearts or minds?

Which way lies the Kingdom of God?

Returning to Jocelyn’s words, in order to live into the Kingdom of God on Earth—that is, in order to find community salvation—we must listen to God and follow God's promptings—but also listen to each other, across all boundaries of belief, knowing that God's promptings may come through other people, and that there are many ways to God—ways to God for people who are not the priest, for people who are not even part of our camp.

The Spirit knows no camps. 

Let us, then, leave ours. As we encounter others in the world outside of New England Yearly Meeting, or others who believe differently within it, let us let go of all the things that we believe make us special. Let us leave them behind within the camp walls. Instead, let us all take up our burdens together—our gifts and messages, for these can be burdens, but also our pain, our broken-ness, our mistakes—let us take these things, and go outside our little camp, and freely encounter the rich Spirit that is there, poured out on all. For everything we make behind walls, anything we try to make ours, and ours alone, is temporary and will pass—but in the fulness of the Spirit, we can build a lasting kingdom together.