Years ago, we elders had three great candidates for leadership development, and we could choose only two to send to the program. After we agonized for a while, I said, “Let’s cast lots and trust that God will make things ok.” We did, and no one felt happy with it. We continued to talk over the merits of each individual.
In a recent conversation with someone about a troubling and contentious issue we were facing, that person said, “Why not just cast lots? That’s what they did in the Bible,” Who can argue with that kind of exegesis? I said, “You go first, and let me know how it turns out.” She said, “I think you need to take it more seriously than you’re doing.”
So I cast lots, and I didn’t like how it came out, so I did 2 out of 3, then 3 out of 5, and so on, until I gave up. Did God reveal anything to me through that? I don’t know, but it settled nothing in my spirit. What I did learn was what I have faith in.
Because Jesus promised to send us the Spirit of truth who will lead us into all truth, and that truth will set us free, Jesus expects us to use discernment for how we can move ahead, rather than allowing us the comfort and safety of either laws or “lots.”
Discernment among Friends is both individual and congregational. At 23, John Woolman (1720-1772) felt called into traveling ministry among Friends. For each journey he placed his sense of call before his local meeting to see if Friends were in unity with it. Later, he wrote his thoughts about slavery down, showed them to his father, then set them aside until his 33rd year. Finally, “the publication of it rested weightily upon me, and this year I offered it to the revisal of my friends, who…directed a number of copies thereof to be published and dispersed amongst members of our Society” (ch. 3). It was authorized and sent out by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.
Individually, Woolman discerned early in his life that he could not be a part of any behavior that depended on or condoned the enslavement of other human beings. This arose partly from his inherent gentleness, but also from his belief that the Spirit sent by Jesus guides us to everyday behavior that serves a coherent larger vision of truth, namely that Christians ought not own or trade slaves, that slavery itself is evil.
On his journeys, he spoke or not as he felt led in each meeting. He found himself ill at ease when hosted by slave-owning families. He “frequently had conversation with [the slave owners] in private” about the heavy burdens they placed on their slaves (Journal of John Woolman, ch. 2). He also declined to write wills in which slaves were part of the inheritance (ch. 3), though it pained him to go against the wishes of older Friends he respected. Sometimes they changed their wishes and made provision to set their slaves free.
Woolman’s gentleness meant that he was careful about relationships when he spoke his convictions. He took a great deal of care when speaking to those older than he, even when he was explaining why he could not write their wills because of the slaves. He was humble enough to submit his leadings to his local congregation and to his yearly meeting.
The thing about discernment is that each of us must listen for the overarching principle. I am responsible to behave daily in line with that principle. If I have the light someone else needs, respect and humility and love need to characterize my interactions with that person. And when someone else has light I need, it will be easier to listen if gentleness governs how they communicate that light.
Woolman also discovered that folks needed time to hear God’s spirit themselves. I want our yearly meeting members to give each other time. We are trying to be faithful to share what God has given each of us as truth, and we do not agree with each other. However, if we speak our truth to each other humbly, gently, respectfully, and lovingly, we may find God making a way forward for us together.