The workings of the Spirit in our lives are not always fast. They do not seem to come neatly wrapped in a taped, tied box. Much of this perceived slowness is our own doing. A tree in the shade grows more slowly than one with all the light it can use. We can trim that shade, give the tree room to grow. The same is true in our lives. We make time for the things we think are important. By trimming the shade cast by our over-filled lives, shade that interferes with our spiritual growth, amazing things are possible.
There is something in our makeup that encourages us to see reasons why something can’t be, and certainly it’s important to think about obstacles, no matter what you’ve a mind to do. How often are we like Moses protesting that he’s not articulate, the people will never believe him, yet as Friends say, “way opens.” Too often we fail to switch gears to seek conditions essential to success or see what’s right in front of us. Have you ever stood in front of the refrigerator and said “honey, I don’t see it?” only to have your other come and say “It’s right here.”
Much of our world today deemphasizes the importance of Spirit in our lives. We are masters of our own destiny, we’re told. Happiness can be purchased at the nearest store. We cannot serve two masters, we’re told. Happiness isn’t at the store. It’s all around us, manifested in the way we choose to live our lives. This much I learned through listening, attention, and worship.
One of the things that I most appreciate about Quakerism is the teaching that God is available to us, always. If we are faithful and attentive, the lessons and opportunities for learning are endless. I read. I participated in study groups. In order for the process to go deeper, I needed more structure, direction, and guidance than I mustered on my own.
The meeting bulletin had a notice in it: ESR Traveling Ministries. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Arch St. Meetinghouse. Arch Street is most of four hours from home. On a busy Saturday. I attended. I came away feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, enlightened, informed, and ready to take on the world (so to speak). I also felt “gee, I’d like to learn more about that.” Over the next few years, I attended several other Traveling Ministries programs at Arch Street. I always felt energized and wanted to know more. Without structure, resources, and deadlines, follow-up was scant. Still, the desire to know more was there.
I helped the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Ministry & Pastoral Care Committee organize a Traveling Ministries program near DC. The desire had grown to a nudging. The voice told me “this is something you need to pursue.” My logical brain told me the idea of formal schooling in matters of the Spirit was nuts. I had an hourly job that paid poorly, gave one week of vacation a year, and left me exhausted at the end of the day. Unprogramed meetings don’t have pastors: all worshipers are ministers. I didn’t want to be a pastor. ESR was most of an eight hour drive from home. It sounds a little like Moses.
That August, ESR had an inquirer’s weekend. The leadership conference was that weekend; its topic: "What is Quaker Leadership?," a particular interest of mine. I had quit the hourly job. People started calling me to do tree trimming and forestry work. That’s what I did before I had to take the hourly job. Way truly opened. Judy & I attended the open house and conference. We left knowing that I needed to take classes at ESR. We still weren’t sure how that was going to happen. Distance learning was scary. I’m no technophile. It’s been thirty years since I was at school as a student. Perhaps I’ve forgotten how to learn. Where’s the time for study? The Moses in me took over: no way this’ll work. Still, I met with a committee for clearness. The importance of faithfully following the leading and, the nudging reasserted themselves. I enrolled and signed up for Old Testament History and Literature as an occasional Access student. I found myself amongst others who hungered for understanding of God and ways to live into Jesus’ promises. The class fed me in ways I didn’t know were possible. It was exciting. The doors and windows of my experienced faith were thrown open. Twenty years of vocal ministry was affirmed and deepened. Friends in my home meeting (State College PA) commented on the spring in my step, the new liveliness and joy that infused my person and spoken ministry. “Well,” I said to my Moses, “the obstacles raised were straw giants. This is good.” “Not so fast,” said Moses, “What about intensives? Two weeks off work when self-employed means two weeks without pay. No work, no pay. You know that. Then there’s two weeks away from your wife and lover, Judy. Hmmm? How’s that going to work?” I registered for a writing class.
Way opened. I rediscovered my love of writing. (The product of that class, “Pigs,” is posted on the blog www.martinstrees.wordpress.com ) We juggled the bills. They got paid. I made friends among the other access and residential students. While I missed my family, the two weeks zoomed by. Back home, I updated my clearness (now support, also) committee. They sensed my energy and excitement about my learning and work at ESR. “Should I become a degree-seeking student,” I queried. We sat with it. They queried me back. I wanted to be sure I was in it for the long haul, and for the right reasons. No reasons not to become degree-seeking surfaced. Neither did clearness to proceed.
The following spring I took Spiritual Formation and Public Ministry. The online class is largely about being a pastor. Not, I thought, where this unprogramed Friend is headed. I mentioned in discussion on the class forum, the dream of writing as a way to ease popular misunderstanding of loggers and their work. An invitation to give a sermon on the theology of a Quaker logger was proffered. At first I declined. How can an unprogramed Friend deliver a prepared message in the Spirit in which it was given? Moses reminded me that I had no plans to be a preacher, pastor, or any such thing. Ah, said Spirit, “You are here to enlarge your understanding of My ways. This is an opportunity to try a new type of ministry.” I accepted. Friends welcomed Spirit’s offering, given through me.
The 3 spiritual formation classes required substantial reflection. I had recognized that the structure ESR provided in the form of focused classes and deadlines was helpful to me. When I took the third class, Discernment of Gifts & Call for Ministry, one of the personality profile tools indicated that having goals is good for my type of character. Changing my status from occasional to degree-seeking serves that purpose. As an additional part of that class, we were required to convene a committee for clearness. That was done. There were no reasons against becoming degree-seeking, and a strong one for it.
This is far from the end of the story. It is only a milepost. There will be more to tell.