The subject line of a recent e-mail from my friend, Jon Watts, caught my attention: Can I Continue to Be A Musician?
This Quaker singer and songwriter explained he’s at a crossroads after four years of ministry through music and the success of his latest album, “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness.” Even more than any of his previous works, Jon’s latest explores faithful Quaker practice and serious transformation. He’s had great turnouts at concerts and good sales of his music. Equally gratifying for him is hearing that the music and words are affecting the way that Friends think about their faith, culture, and identity.
But, while spiritually nourishing, Jon’s music making is not financially sustainable. He’s given up his apartment, his car, his health insurance. He figures he has enough money to get through the autumn, but he needs to make some choices about the future.
“As a Quaker,” Jon wrote, “I’m trying to make this decision in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, the way forward that I can’t arrive at just through reasoning.”
Quakers’ term for this way of deciding is spiritual discernment, a practice grounded in the central Quaker belief that the experience and guidance of God is available to every person, that each of us has an “Inner Teacher” who can lead us to the answers we seek. As Patricia Loring wrote in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment, it’s how we “…discriminate the course to which we are personally led by God from our other impulses.”
Jon and I learned a lot about spiritual discernment in Marcelle Martin’s 2007 Pendle Hill course, “Discerning Your Call.” In addition to reading Loring’s pamphlet and Callings by Gregg Levoy, we practiced discernment with clearness committees.
Clearness Committees are a long held Quaker practice in which a group of Friends meets with a person confronting a dilemma in life. In the Pendle Hill class, many of us were seeking clarity about work. Other times the process is used for those facing marriage/divorce adjustments or decisions, family/parenting difficulties or other major life changes. I’ve requested Clearness Committees over the years when my family contemplated moves and when I considered applying for graduate studies in writing. I’ve also served on committees with Friends seeking clarity about work and calling.
Here’s how they operate in many Quaker meetings.
The person with a concern (focus person) will request formation of a Clearness Committee, usually under the direction of a committee in the Meeting. The focus person gives the committee a written description of the issue needing discernment, and together they identify a small group of people who might best work with the focus person to access that Inner Teacher. They all meet, usually several times, to discern together. Unlike many decision-making processes, though, the central role of the Clearness Committee is to ask questions of the focus person. Their job is not to give answers.
Suzanne Farnham’s book, Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community, gives helpful direction about such evoking questions, questions that only the focus person can know the answers to. Some examples include:
What hints, messages, or signs have you received about this?
Where do you sense the most Life, or Spirit?
When you imagine God looking at you and your choices, how do you imagine God seeing or responding to them?
The “listening hearts” role of the committee is most powerful when committee members set aside personal opinions and listen deeply to the focus person’s responses.
At least, that’s how Clearness Committees typically operate. But Jon is using contemporary tools for his discernment process and is creating a virtual Clearness Committee. A big one. Perhaps The Largest Clearness Committee in the History of Quakerism.
I can just picture Friends dismissing Jon’s approach to this valued Quaker process. Until a couple of years ago, I would have, too. But, as I wrote in one of my first blog posts (I'm Not a Birthright Blogger), I’ve been convinced that this electronic media age offers some tools to nurture and connect us in our spiritual journeys.
Before you write off Jon’s invitation, take a look at his State of the Art Report. It’s a fine example of that important first step in the discernment process.
I’m going to accept Jon’s invitation. I look forward to trying it and hearing how it works for him. I expect I’ll learn some new ways to listen.