It was my birthday this past week. I turned 63 and thought it important to have a little preventative maintenance done on my chassis, so Monday had my teeth cleaned, Tuesday had six pre-cancerous lesions frozen off, fasted on Wednesday, in preparation for a colonoscopy on Thursday, which did not begin well when I received word that the procedure would be done by a visiting gastroenterologist from Minnesota. Apparently, this is a thing now, done to lessen the chances of having your colonoscopy done by someone you might later see at the grocery store.

The traveling doctor walked into my room reading my chart from my last colonoscopy five years ago.

Looks like they found some scary polyps the last time you were here,” which was news to me. I would have remembered that and worked it into conversations. A missed opportunity for a hypochondriac. As you can imagine, news of my almost cancer was somewhat alarming, so alarming I forgot to tell my classic colonoscopy joke about finding my father’s boot from 1977. Fortunately, the traveling doctor said everything was fine, that my colon was perfect. I have never in all my life been so proud of an internal organ.

So that was my week. How was yours?

On a higher note, you’ll remember last week we talked about osmosis, about the gradual assimilation of the highest ideals we can imagine, and how Quakerism for me has always been a community in which one soaks up the virtues we treasure, like compassion, mercy, generosity, thoughtfulness, and kindness. I love the sound of those words, and the goodwill they conjure up, don’t you?

I promised last week we’d be thinking about the key features of Quakerism, the qualities that make us Quakers. We are now entering the treacherous landscape of theology, where one misstep can prove disastrous, so it behooves us to heed the protocol, to ask the questions in the right order, the first question being, How are God’s preferences known? How do we know God’s will? If that isn’t our first question, it should definitely be our second. The Baptists down the road would say, “That’s easy, God’s will is revealed in the Bible.” The Catholics would remind that before the Bible reached its current form, we had Church tradition. Joel Osteen would say we know something is God’s will if it makes us rich and happy.

The reason we begin with the question of knowing God’s will is because the discernment of God’s will and human power are closely related. Whoever has the authority to tell us God’s will ends up with all the cards, or in the case of Joel Osteen, a 17,000 square foot home. (Like a man with six motorcycles has room to talk.)

Think about it: whenever someone claims to be the authoritative source of divine will, it is always a grab for power, control, or wealth. The abuse of that power gave birth to Quakerism, which was an energetic rejection of ecclesiastical, hierarchical authority in order to embrace what I will call the democratic discernment of God’s will. We believe God’s will is not known through a book or a person or a church hierarchy, but is instead known through democratic discernment, a process of careful listening involving all the community, a process in which everyone participates, in which all perspectives are heard, weighed, and considered.

Who holds the power in democratic discernment? Where does it rest? Not with one person, or a hierarchy, or even a book. It rests with the community, with the meeting. When I pastored up in the city, a woman began attending who’d become a Christian as an adult, attending an evangelical church led by a charismatic minister. She wanted to start a children’s program and came to me wanting my permission to start it.

I said, “That’s not my call. In a Quaker meeting, decisions are made by the congregation, not by the pastor.”

She said, “In my old church, the pastor was in charge. Why aren’t you in charge?”

I explained to her that Quakers believed God’s will was known through the gathered community. I didn’t use the term democratic discernment, but that’s what I meant.

We don’t concentrate the power of the meeting in the hands of one person or one position or one committee. We invite one another into a relationship, and in the context of that relationship, we discern together our way forward. When I was a kid, my dad was a thus-sayeth-the-Lord kind of parent. He told us what to do and we did it, whether we liked it or not. Part of that was a safeguard against chaos. When you have five kids in six years, some order is necessary. But I’ll never forget him calling us into the front parlor one evening, to tell us he’d been offered a significant job promotion that would require our moving out of state. He said, “This involves all of us, so we’ll make the decision together. I want to know what you think.” We stared at one another, wondering who had kidnapped our father. And who was this man who looked just like him?

After the shock wore off, we discussed it, going around the circle, each of us talking. None of us kids wanted to move. We had our friends, living in a town we all loved. It was obvious my dad wanted that job, he kept mentioning how nice it would be to have more money, how we could do more things, how he could pay for our college, so I kept waiting for him to say, “I don’t care what you think. We’re moving anyway. Pack your bags.” But he didn’t. He sat there like a Quaker clerk and said, “I have the sense you want to stay.” Though it wasn’t a Quaker meeting, when I look back on it now, it might have been my first experience with democratic discernment. I remember feeling empowered and included, an important part of something larger than myself.

Friends, you and I live in a culture that has vested great power, some would say overwhelming power, in the hands of a few corporations, politicians, oligarchs, and technology titans. Ours is a gilded age, where the few rule the many. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t feel powerless, and I’m a white guy. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a person of color or a woman. In times like these, it is imperative for Friends to model a way of living together that cares for and listens to everyone, that includes all people, and not just a privileged few.

We can’t wait for democratic discernment to trickle down, settling for crumbs of power the highest and mightiest toss our way. It is time we not only model the soaring possibilities of cooperative community, it is time we insist on it, and work on it, for all people, leaving no one behind, no one stranded, broken and bleeding, on the roadside. In this sense, democratic discernment is the highest aim of Jesus, whom God anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, whom God sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, who God commissioned to set the oppressed free.

When God sets a table, there is a seat for everyone. No one chair is higher than any other. No portion larger or more magnificent. We dine at the table as equals. Just as there is no low seat, so too is there no seat of honor. Equal stature, equal voices, equal power, equal people. Everyone together, partaking.