The final chapter of the New Testament returns to an expression of Seed – in a multiplicity of varieties, at that:
and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits … and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse … Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have a right to the tree of life …
In a flash, the Bible leaps from the Garden of Eden to the end of Revelation through the imagery of two trees and their fruit filled with seeds.
Seed opens silently, usually unseen, over a period. In the stillness, it can be felt as sprouting, perhaps repeatedly, like a burning bush without extinction. Seed can be the gift of life itself. If you enter into that Seed, you may find a place of calm, patience, nourishment, protection. The Seed itself miraculously expands, surrounding your physical body. From this perspective, I keep coming back to Meeting for Worship to continue this growth and awareness.
Traditionally, Quaker meetings recognized and nurtured individuals who had spiritual gifts as ministers, elders, or overseers. These roles could be filled by men or women, and their service extended over the entire congregation.
A person who offered vocal ministry during worship might be designated as a minister, if the messages were considered theologically sound. Because a minute would be drafted and approved in the meeting’s records, the individual would be known as a recorded minister.
Elders were those who held the ministers and ministry in prayer through the service. In other traditions, they might be called bishops, except that in Friends meetings, they function within the congregation, rather than over it.
Overseers were individuals who were skilled in sensing the needs of others and in knowing how to respond. They were the ones who could transform the meeting for worship into a community of faith or a people of God.
Above the coffee pots in our meetinghouse sits this painting, originally used as an illustration in an edition of John Greenleaf Whittier’s collected poems.
The particular poem is “How the Women Went from Dover,” telling how three Quaker women came to town in 1662, preaching and teaching until they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to cruel punishment. It was the start of our Friends Meeting, the fifth oldest congregation in the state. Despite continuing persecution, nearly a third of the population became Quaker.
Jim Wallis, the evangelical editor of Sojourner, sees social action arising from our faith as an imperative. In a similar vein, one might see how central the Peace Testimony is in the teachings of Jesus, and how hollow the Christian message is without it. One lights up the other when the culture and faith move together.
Using the language that’s come to represent my experience, this is what happens with Christ amongst us. How do you express it?
When we have a particularly gathered meeting for worship, with deep sustained silence and few vocal messages, I often feel somehow akin to a plant basking in sunlight. There’s a renewed patience and calm, a balance and flow, a receptivity and a radiance from within. My week, however troubling, recovers a moment of high summer.
For early Friends, this Light was never an Inner Light – the modern idea of something akin to a candle of conscience within each person. Instead, the Light is instead a powerful beacon that burns into our darkest recesses, if we would allow it, and probes and transforms us – and rarely for early Friends was the process comforting.
As Margaret Fell wrote in 1656,
Let the eternal Light search you, and try you for the good of your souls for this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodgeth in you the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier of will make manifest. Therefore all to this come and by this be searched and judged and led and guided, for to this you must stand or fall …
This is Christ coming into a person’s very being – and reconstructing the individual.