Meeting for Reading is a column that offers reviews of new and forthcoming books intended to nurture spiritual deepening among Friends. The books selected are particularly useful to Meeting book discussion groups.
“No matter what part of the Quaker world in which you’ve chosen to live, God calls everyone to something.” —Jay Marshall
Reviewed by Ellen Michaud
The toughest task for anyone who travels the world under the Quaker banner is often figuring out whether or not we’ve been led to tackle one particular piece of work or another.
At age 11, for example, as sun streamed through the high windows of an old stone church in Pennsylvania, I stood alone and sensed the Light within. I felt a gentle love, a blooming joy—and an awareness that something was expected of me. But I couldn’t figure out what, and throughout my late teens communion with the Divine eventually contained the exasperated plea, “Lord, can’t you just hit me in the head with a 2x4 and tell me what you want? Cut me a break!”
Clearly, I was not ready for whatever that might be.
But as I matured in both faith and life and moved into my twenties, I came to understand that discovering and following a leading is an extraordinary experience of love, frustration, challenge, exasperation, hard work, walking through the dark, sometimes confronting evil, and—ultimately—finding deep joy.It’s been a journey for which I am grateful. But it’s also been a journey that might have been easier had I been able to frame my longing for direction as the formation of a leading early on. I could have held it, studied it, explored it, poked it, and talked about it with mature Friends. I could have opened myself more to others and listened more. I could have developed a vocabulary with which to ask questions and develop my thoughts.
“God calls everyone to something.”
The argument can be made that my leading was revealed in God’s time and not mine. As I’ve travelled to Friends’ meetings and churches on both coasts and the great Midwest, the experience has made me wonder if I remained unaware of my leading for so long simply because Friends rarely openly talked about them. And no one mentioned—not once—how leadings were revealed to them or tested.
Why were Friends so reticent? I’ve never found the answer. But I wonder if it’s simply that so many of us are too self-conscious to share our leadings publicly with one another. Are leadings too personal? Or, perhaps, are we afraid Friends will think we’re boasting about our own consequence within the world of Friends?
I simply don't know. But I am sure that, whatever the cause, all of us will be more open to recognizing and sharing our leadings as we begin to read and discuss When the Spirit Calls, a new book by Jay Marshall, dean emeritus of Earlham School of Religion.
Jay is a joyful, loving man who emerged from the farms and woods of North Carolina to pick up an undergraduate degree from Guilford, a PhD from Duke University’s School of Divinity, and tend a church as its pastor for 10 years. He loved the work, loved the people, and could ask for no more in life.
But eventually he was recruited as Earlham’s dean to lead a small, dedicated group of scholars and professors in Indiana and shape an academic environment that has since consistently been named one of the Top 10 Seminaries to Change the World---right along with Duke, Columbia, Yale, Emory, Howard, Union Theological and similar schools.
Now retired from Earlham, Jay has been travelling the world, visiting meetings around the globe with his wife Judi, launching an online blog, exploring hamburger joints with old friends, and writing When the Spirit Calls, a book that was published just a few weeks ago by QuakerPress.
The book, Jay writes, “…urges a radical shift in our understanding of ministry, of our perception of our place in the world, and the contributions we make to it. No matter what part of the Quaker world in which you’ve chosen to live,” he adds, “God calls everyone to something.”
How do we know when we’ve been called? “In the circles that have influenced me,” Jay writes, “a call is used to describe what occurs when we sense an inner stirring that creates curiosity or restlessness. [The] stirring is interpreted as coming from God…[as] a summons to listen, and, perhaps, an invitation to undertake something new.”
As Jay has experienced it, a call begins with an “…interrupting nudge that seeks attention,” and continues, as he explains in his often-humorous style, “…much like a smoke alarm in need of a fresh battery. The call repeatedly chirps until we finally address it.”
But if hearing a call is sometimes difficult despite its repeated chirps, discerning how we’re to respond to that call may be even more challenging.
“Discernment under the guidance of the Spirit can slow and season a decision, making sure that we hold the issue in prayer, in the Light, before the Lord, prior to coming to a conclusion,” writes Jay. “Discernment in this way often helps us see things in a manner we might have otherwise missed. [It’s] a useful tool for determining how to live attuned to the call and the leadings of God. It is essential practice for recognizing the next step in life and in ministry.”
What keeps us moving through it, Jay suggests, is that we’re not alone. “We discover that we live with a sense of accompaniment by the Divine and being rooted in the Spirit, centered and prepared for what awaits us every day.
“When God lays a call on our hearts, it seldom disappears until we address it adequately,” Jay explains. “It burns like a blazing fire. Like smoldering embers, it refuses to die easily and sears a permanent mark on our hearts. The call weighs on the conscience, like a burden carried without the option of delegating it to anyone else.
“When considered and responded to with appropriate discernment, the call settles into the depths of our being and begins to shape how we order our lives and devote our energy. It invigorates us because faithfulness to calls and leadings creates some of the most authentic moments we will ever know. They induce the kind of rejuvenation that is inevitable when our values, heart, and faith, are in alignment, attuned with the purposes of the Divine."
“In its simplest explanation, that is what faithful living is; in its more intense or complex manifestations, this is ministry at its finest.”
When the Spirit Calls includes study questions after every chapter for book discussion groups.
Ellen Michaud is an award-winning author, editor, and workshop leader who has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, Guideposts, and Prevention Magazine, where she was the editor-at-large for six years. Her book Blessed: Living a Grateful Life (Readers Digest) was named the #1 Spiritual/Inspirational Book of the Year by USA Book News. Ellen is a graduate of the School of the Spirit’s program on contemplative living and prayer. She was also the 2012 writer-in-residence at Earlham School of Religion.