by Eric Muhr

The Nursery of Truth (John 15)

From the very beginning of the Quaker movement, Friends have liked asking questions. Part of this is because they got rid of the creeds, and something need to take their place.

So they used queries.

We could have t-shirts made up that says something like “The church of questions.”

(Q:) What do you think of that? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

It’s like being in a classroom within one of those really annoying teachers and you raise hand to ask a question “Professor, what is Paul’s anthropology?” And the professor responds back, “Well Johnny, what do you think it is?”

It’s hard to get answers out of someone like that.

George Fox was famous for saying, “the apostles say this, and the priest say that, but what canst thou say?”

For Quakers, the purpose of queries is to help spur on the growth of truth in our lives and meetings.

This is why queries, at least as they function now, are open-ended spiritual questions.

I like Parker Palmer’s definition of this kind of question:

An open question is one that expands rather than restricts your arena for exploration.

This is different from how we normally ask questions. “Don, why on earth would you ever do…? Is not an open question.” When I ask questions like this I’m not really interested in Don’s answer. I’m interested in making a statement posed as a question.

So Queries are questions I don’t know the answer to in advance. They’re meant to stir hunger for truth and reflection of the movement of the Spirit in our lives.

We have a whole list of queries from our yearly meeting. Here is one:

Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values? (Query 13)

And do you know what the first query to ever be recorded among Friends was?

“How does truth prosper with thee?”

This is the query that was sent out to Friends meetings all over and each meeting was expected to have a response, write it down as a community and send it back to the yearly meeting.

Truth is an essential thread to the Friends. Early on we called ourselves “Friends of Truth” and “Publishers of Truth” and Quaker author Rex Ambler writes that,

“It is quite surprising how much of Quaker life and thought becomes clear when understood as devotion to truth.”

Devotion to truth? That sounds really boring and out-dated, It’s almost as bad as still having a personal profile on myspace. What does this have to do with us anyway?

“How does truth prosper with thee?”

If we are to encourage transformation this year, I think we will need to continue to explore what this means for us in today’s world.

The Vine

In John 15, Jesus’ image of the vine gives us some idea of how truth prospers.

Here, we get a picture of a nursery of truth. We’re shown here that truth is relational, it’s connectional, truth is about “abiding.”

In fact, a little Quaker trivia for you, this is the biblical passage where our church first got its name, “Friends.”

“You are my friends if you do what I command. I know no longer call you servants…but I have called you friends, because I have made known everything to you that I have heard from my father.”

First, one of the things I see about the prospering of truth in this passage is that it is that it is something we do.

You are my friends when you do what I teach. When you befriend the truth I have given you.

It’s like a story I once heard (from Anthony De Mello):

A man asked a teacher to take him on as a disciple.

“If what you seek is Truth,” said the teacher, “there are requirements to be fulfilled and duties to be discharged.”

“What are these?” The man asked.

“You will have to draw water and hope wood and do housecleaning and cooking.”

“I am in search of Truth, not employment,” Said the man as he walked away.

Truth is lived. It is something we do. It is something we experience as we seek to live lives truthfully.

As aside – it’s important to remember that all the “yous” here are not “you!” but “ya’ll.” And that of course makes a difference. Because if it is saying,

“Ron you’re a vine, I prune you, I brought you into this world and I can take you out, or even that I have made everything know to you, it becomes really individualized.”

But if it says Camas Friends is a branch, or some other community or whole group of people are being talked to then this actually shifts how we hear it.

I have made known to you everything I have heard from the father. Well what if in this community, our collective intelligence and our collective gifts we actually do know and have everything we need?

The weight is then on the whole community to share the load, to share the work, the resources, and to genuinely be connected to one another in care-taking ways because there will come times in this community when people are hurting, sick, isolated and need others to help care for them.

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Another thing about the prospering of truth here is this word “abide.” Which I mostly keep thinking about the Big Lebowski (Stan’s favorite movie) and “The Dude Abides” but I’m going to refrain from any more references to that at this point.

Abide is repeated 9 times in this passage.

It means dwell, rest, settle into.

“Come and settle in me. Stop your restless wandering, your endless seeking for the next big thing, your tireless pursuit of those things in life that are so fleeting and settle in me.”

This idea of settling, resting, relaxing into Jesus, is connected to the image of the vineyard. Faith is about relaxing into God, it is about exhaling and letting go so that we can be fully present before God.

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Vines are prominent in biblical literature appearing something like 200 times in the bible.

Often in the OT, Israel is described as a vine and sometimes that vine is bearing fruit, and sometimes it needs pruned. But in either case, that community is constantly being measured by its fruitfulness, by what it does.

Think about all the vineyards in wine country here. They took a long time to develop and cultivate those vines. And the Vinegrowers, once they plant their vineyards, settle into that place. They’re invested there. They know that the fruit from these vines will take a long time to cultivate, but that eventually fruit will come and it will be a source of life, and celebration, and joy for many.

One of the things I learned this week was that, “Villages in France and Italy measure their longevity by the age of they vines” (WHB).

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who settle into me and I in them bear much fruit”

Finally, one last piece we can take from this about the prospering of truth is pruning. In order for things to grow there must be some constraints put in place.

In a recent interview with the Unmistakable Creative, Mike Rohde (@rohdedesign) discussed being in Art school and drawing live pictures. He talked about the importance of constraints for artists and how the teacher gave them 5 mins. do to their live drawing. When they were done the teacher told them to do it again, this time in 3 mins. And they worked their way down to doing the live drawing in 30 secs. Mike talked about how the 30 drawings looked just as good, if not better, than the 5 min. ones. Constraints can actually help because they limit our options, help us focus, and draw out different abilities.

Early Quaker James Nayler (1661) says something similar but in relation to this biblical text (ht Noah Merrill @anendlesslife):

And as you mind only to feed on the Plant of life, you will come to know the work of the Father in His vineyard, and who the faithful laborer is, and what must be his work; and the slothful servant, and what his work brings forth; and the cause why the field of the sluggard is over-grown with evil fruits, and why his vineyard brings not fruit to perfection.

For you will find many plants besides the tree of life, all which seek to be fed and strengthened in the mind and affections, and many grown trees tall and strong, who have got fast rooting, spread and bring forth abundantly after their several kinds; and all these present themselves to the eye of the mind, to be fed…

So the work of him that is faithful is to number these to the ax, and to the fire, and not to suffer these any place in the mind, how strongly soever they tempt, and try every way to spread root to keep life; that so through the death of these, the vine may grow alone in the clean affections, and holy mind, and honest chaste heart, which is the good ground, and where the pure Plant will bring forth of itself in all, where it is not cumbered with that which is contrary to it; which contrary fruits all that mind the light may see…

We actually need pruning. We need constraints to help us improve in our work. Truth grows through pruning, refining, and being challenged.

The Nursery of Truth

I want to go back to the early Friends. They believed that truth could grow and prosper, but that it was something we do, we live out, it’s something we have to settle into, and it’s something that our lives, like the vine branches, need pruning.

One of the ways they did this was by having what they called a nursery of truth.

The Nursery of Truth was what they called the Island of Barbados. This is where early Friends, especially many women who made up a majority of missionaries back then, went to train before they came to the colonies.

I love the image of the Nursery of Truth. A place where truth is nurtured, pruned, and cultivated. A place where people learn how to help truth prosper, where they develop a taste for truth, and learn how to communicate that with others.

Then it dawned on me. Today, there are many nurseries of truth. And you, Camas Friends are one of them.

You are a nursery of truth.

You are a place where people can nurture, practice and be pruned in pursuit of truth.

And if this really is how we see what we’re doing here, as a nursery of truth how does that shift or shape how you understand what you’re doing here? You involvement and commitment? What you’re able to hear? What you do for one another? What you say to one another?

You are the branches in Christ, who are called to relax into God, to remain and settle into your relationship with God and let them develop and cultivate over time like a vineyard.

You are the friends of Jesus called to live your lives in devotion to truth.

And you are the community through which transformation can and will indeed come if we allow ourselves to be shaped, formed, and yes, pruned by the Divine vinegrower in our midst.

So let me end as I began. With some questions:

  • How is truth prospering in ya’lls relationship with God?

  • And What needs pruned? What needs cut back because it’s not bearing fruit any longer? Or is sapping nutrients?

  • How does truth prosper with thee?


Flickr Credit – Eric Muhr & Viña Caliterra

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

3 thoughts on “The Nursery of Truth (John 15)”

  1. Historical Dictionary of Quakerism gives a somewhat different answer to the question,’What was the earliest query [or queries]?’ — namely, “How does Truth prosper among you?” and (2nd) “What ministering Friends have died in the past year?” — i.e., a more community-oriented approach than the individual-oriented approach in the quoted query you used! Blessings! Vail

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