Ken Comfort’s Triennial Address

In June 2007, Ken Comfort was a plenary speaker at the 2007 World Gathering of Friends in Dublin, Ireland. The following is his address to representatives of Friends around the globe:

Good morning! My name is Ken Comfort. I am a “Birthright Friend” with a long family history that stretches down through time originating in England and Ireland, immigrating to the colonies then across the expanse of the frontier known as the United States of America. My family has almost always been Quaker. I need to tell you that I am also a “Convinced Friend”. If we are born into, or convinced, each of us comes to understand and believe in the truth that the Spirit writes on our hearts. I am recorded in Northwest Yearly Meeting as a minister of the gospel. I have been released by the meeting known as Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon to minister among them. I want to be sensitive this morning to those who are questioning the place of people like myself who are released to minister in pastoral Yearly Meetings. I assure you that I truly believe that Christ is the True Shepherd and our True High Priest. The gifts He gives are not meant to be lorded over anyone else but to be used in conjunction with the gifts that each one of us possess. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:29, “When one speaks, others need to weigh what is being said, because prophets are subject to the gathered body and are not exalted over it.” Hold these words in the Light and weigh them according to what the Spirit is saying to us as a gathered body.

Isn’t this great to be here representing so many Yearly Meetings and so many countries from around the world! I have dreamed of being part of a gathering like this for many years. We are a great number here in Ireland and yet we represent so many more people who make up the Society of Friends in the places we come from. George Fox’s vision of a great people to be gathered continues to come true. It is meetings like this that help us focus on the task at hand of gathering more people into the Light of Christ. Christ has given us a great light to be shown; we are called to be torchbearers of Christ’s truth to all people in all nations. Christ’s message is simple: He is sufficient to speak to our condition; to bring all people out of darkness and into glorious life-giving light.  Our faith, the Friends faith, is so simple, yet so profound. Christ is our High Priest; He is our Shepherd and the Savior of our souls.  He alone brings us into relationship with our Creator. There is no other mediator or sacrament needed to merit or maintain God’s love or His redemption. Christ continues to welcome all into His holiness. He continues to teach and to empower people with spiritual gifts so that God’s kingdom on earth will continue to grow – that people everywhere would be unified in the task of proclaiming God’s message in whatever way possible so that others will come to believe and trust in God who loves all humanity equally. Christ empowers us to love as God loves, to bring peace as God is peace, to care for humanity as God cares for humanity, to administrate the creation as God intended it to be and not to exploit any of it for our own greed. We are a body made up of many parts that is designed to minister in Christ’s name and in His power to care for the needs of the world.

It is love, then, that you should strive for. Set your hearts on spiritual gifts, especially the gift of proclaiming God’s message. 1 Corinthians 14:1

Love proclaims God’s message. I once lived among a people group who did not have a word for true forgiveness or for reconciliation. The ideas behind those words were as foreign to the Aymara people as if I were to talk to you in their language. Love was not an idea or an emotion that was expressed very well.  Even the word “friend” meant traitor. A friend was someone who knew things about you that they could hold against you or use against you to gain advantage. Imagine their understanding of John 15:14 that gives us our Friends name; “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” This people group believed that there was only so much good in the world, and it was a scramble to get what you could for yourself. Sharing, giving, caring always had an ulterior motive of what one could get back for their own benefit. Unity was not something that people strived for because of love for each other. The idea of community was a means to survival in the harsh environment of the Andes, but the concept behind the word community was control because of distrust of each other. Community rules brought everyone to the same level and provided little room for personal advancement.

It was only through the transformation of God’s love in the heart of the people that brought about change. God’s Light penetrated the darkness of the human soul. Today in Bolivia and Peru there are over 40,000 Friends who walk in the light. To be a Friend of Christ brings peace and liberty to share freely about the unending love of God that is available to all. It also witnesses to the change of attitude of those in Christ to live “not as the world lives” in fear and greed but in freedom and love for each other. People like Noe, who as a 16 year old felt compassion for the families of his classmates and would walk for two hours to go and share the source of all things good in their remote villages. Juan was another who was ridiculed because he didn’t have children and he had epilepsy. He would leave his community every Sunday after meeting to go and share the Good News with his “rival” neighboring villages. Juan brought the Light of Christ to so many people that he is no longer ridiculed but he is seen as one who truly cares for all people. Ruth’s spiritual gifts were recognized even though she was an unmarried woman. She pastored a Friends Church in a male-dominant society that looked down on unmarried people but especially women.  The list is so extensive of people like this that it is impossible to tell you all of their stories. Friends scattered through the Andesare witnesses to the power of the Spirit moving and breaking the social norms so that God’s message is proclaimed.  People are responding to the Light and living in unity through the Spirit because of what Christ has done in them.

Paul of Tarsus, who wrote the Corinthian letters to his friends, considered unity through love and the proclamation of God’s message as the most important activity for the people of God. Yet the picture that Paul paints in the whole of First Corinthians is not of a people waiting on God and listening to the Spirit.  This group of believers was divided over a long list of issues.  See if these issues ring true today. They were arguing if Paul was really a true apostle since he wasn’t part of the original group of disciples who ministered with Jesus. There were discussions about what constituted “true or essential religious practices” that would identify them as followers of Christ.  People were not in agreement about the covenant of marriage, and some were consenting to an interpersonal relationship that had unchurched people in the city wondering about its correctness.  Members of the church were dragging others into court to prove their rights over one another.  There were some who did not share their food at meal time forcing those who had no food to watch and go hungry while the weekly banquets continued. To top off the list of divisions, people lorded their spiritual abilities over others in the body and considered themselves more important than anyone else.  It is plain to see that the communion of the body of Christ was broken in the meeting at Corinth and that the testimony of love and unity had lost its power.  All of this confusion had derailed the lived out proclamation of the message of Christ’s power to save and transform as the premier activity of that body.  Disunity of purpose between the members had dissolved the message of Christ’s love for humanity.

For this reason Paul describes the cooperation of the body in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, the definition of love in chapter 13 and makes proclamation through diversity the highest aim of everyone.  Love for others seeks what is right and true. Love unites people and seeks the best for every individual.   Love for Christ and for each other is the basis for maintaining unity within the body of believers.  But love in action is the greatest witness of the power of God to bring about blessing for humanity.  Unity of diverse people is the greatest testimony of the power and the love of God to change lives.

A few months ago I learned a South African Word:  UBUNTU. Desmond Tutu defined the concept behind the word. “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others and does not feel threatened that others are able and good. He or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs to the greater whole.” Everyone needs each other and is dependant on each other, no matter what their rank or status.

1. Paul Writes: “It is Love we should strive for.” Love is not a natural response of the human heart. Face it- the problems in the world are caused by of a lack of love for each other. The Gospel writers tell us that true love comes from God, and we respond to that love.  God’s love transforms our natural self and makes us into a whole new being. We learn that love and apply it to the situations in which we live. Love for our neighbor and for each other is a Spirit event.   Because of the transformational love of God at work in us, we work together for God’s glory. We work and speak for peace, human rights, equality of all people, care of the earth and care for each other. The central theme of all these issues is the love of God that flows through those who make their lives available to God’s transforming power and love. We have seen in Portland among the children and I’m sure that you have observed as well that prejudice is a learned response.  Children are not prejudiced in their early years. They learn and become prejudiced from the attitudes of others. It takes divine love to transform hate into the opposite emotion. War and violence are a natural response to settle disputes. The way of love transforms all natural humanistic reactions into supernatural responses of seeking peace, forgiveness and blessing.

Love speaks of God’s intentions for the world.  Love seeks what is best for all people not just a select few.  Speaking out about the values of God’s kingdom brings about change so that God’s justice and mercy can prevail in society.  Loving all people as God loves is the ultimate aim. God so loves the world that He sent His Son to show us that love – to bring us into relationship with Him so that we can model this love to each other. Our unity is founded in the love of Christ that flows among us.

Early Friends could not hold back from loving all people because of the transformation that comes through Christ. Love sent people across the seas into unknown places to bring Christ’s light and love into a world filled with darkness and hate.  Our forbearers sold themselves into slavery to free slaves, they traded places with each other in prison to care for their ailing members, they visited and witnessed to authorities of many nations with the goal of communicating God’s will for humanity. The powerful witness of early Friends to the power of God humbly brought people to their knees.  Lives changed and history changed because of the unity of purpose through Christ that compelled early Friends to love and care for all people.

Tatiana was a history professor in Moscow. When she read about the convictions of the early Friends she was moved to discover the same faith that gave people their boldness to stand for truth. She ingeniously gathered others to join her in worship calling them to a new and dynamic relationship with God through Christ’s present Spirit.

Christ said that “He could do nothing outside of the will of His Father.”  Christ showed this love and unity with the will of God in all He did.  We too can walk and live in this way. We do not walk in the Light only for our own benefit but to become disciples of Jesus and to witness to the world about the true Kingdom of God.  We have been brought into life with Christ in order to live in ways that contrast with the world’s ways.  We can live, work, exist and minister together into the world because we love Christ.

Just as all cells and organs work together to maintain life in a body, God made it possible through the life and death of Christ to transform us into cells and organs of his new body. We work together with all of our gifts and abilities to give witness to God’s redeeming love. No one is any more important than anyone else but divine love moves us to build each other up and to persevere in the task that we have been given.

2. God did not bless us with spiritual gifts for our own benefit. The purpose of the Spirit’s blessing was and is to empower individuals to work collectively as witnesses of the Kingdom.  God wants us to care for all individuals and to bring people into faith in Him, to live in His ways and to be holy. This is the covenant that God intends to have with His creation.

It is through the gifting of the Holy Spirit that the body of believers is enabled to minister in the power of God.  Early Friends realized this from the beginning. We continue to realize today that the goal of love and proclaiming God’s message was and is to transform the world.  Jesus said, “See I am making all things new.”  God touches the world when the faithful speak truth, proclaim good news, identify with pain, build community, share resources, grant forgiveness, give mercy, and care for the less fortunate just as Jesus would do.  The goal is ministry in Jesus name through the power of His love.

The spiritual gifts are meant to be utilized for the building up of the body.  Some of us have gifts that help people with spiritual needs; some have gifts to live bold lives meeting physical needs; others are better equipped to explain faith issues; everyone must desire unity of purpose so that Christ’s message will be expressed in all of its fullness to all people.  Together we reach out to those around us in a spirit of love, actively letting our lives speak of the hope that is in us.

The gathering of the faithful is to be a continuation of Christ’s blessing in the world.  We are called to live a life that brings the creation back into God’s intended order, a life that forgives and gives grace, a life that speaks truth without fear, a life that proclaims the work of Christ for salvation and an ongoing relationship of God with humanity.

We understand that the Spirit of God is already present and at work in the culture where we live. We are called to partner and to bring witness to the Spirit’s moving.  We are to be bold about what God wants to do to bring wholeness to people’s lives.  Christ did this for us when He became human in order to show us the love of God.

The Spirit comes with power to mend the fallen creation and to make all things new.  The Spirit is present so that the world might be touched by God’s divine grace.  The body of Christ, made up of all its parts is placed as the witness and the conduit of God’s blessing to the world.  We can’t help but declare God’s mighty deeds though our attitudes, our actions, and our words as we live out the values of the Kingdom every day through the diversity of ways that the Spirit has gifted us.

3. Proclamation rises from our encounter with God. Proclaiming God’s message is the natural and spontaneous result of being blessed by God’s Spirit.  God speaks through those who are listening to His truth and righteousness. [Jesus said], “It is not you who speak but the Spirit of your Heavenly Father speaking through you (Matthew 10:20).”  God gives the words needed for any given moment. They are words that speak to the heart.  Prophetic words are inspired words designed to build up, to encourage and to console those who hear.  They can also be words that challenge, correct and question motives. Our role is to corporately wait on God and listen to the Spirit. Once we have heard the Spirit speak, we cannot stay quiet any longer. What the Spirit says must become action.

Rather than focus on our peculiarities or our differences, we are called as individuals and as a collective people to be a living witness of the love of God.  We are called to be expectant of a new ordering of creation values that are not based on pride, ego, fear, or greed but on unity within theKingdom of God.  All people are to be seen in their true potential to live in harmony with their Creator. This is the vision of Isaiah when he declared that the lion and the lamb lay down together. The peaceable kingdom is possible because we live in harmony with God’s unifying Spirit and don’t react against it.  We are called to be co-laborers of Christ to minister in situations where healing brings wholeness and restoration, where critical attitudes and destructive ways of living are left behind.  We are called to speak God’s love into unjust situations so that the power of Christ can make all things new.  Our collective witness communicates the goal of equality of all through compassion and grace.  This is the goal of love.  People want to become participants of communities like this.  The proclamation of Christ’s gospel is to invite people to become a part of God’s new community and to live in relationship with the Spirit not against it.

We are invited to explore and rediscover our identity and our vocation in light of what it means to be Jesus’ sent people. We are a people who know what it is to live with the expectation that the Holy Spirit can use any of us at any instant to bring blessing and witness to others.  We are to be ready to be Christ’s people in every situation and place.  We have the responsibility to bring people to God, and there is a place for every Friend to exercise his or her gift and testimony.

“The way of Jesus” radically transforms our existence to one wholly focused on sacrificially living for Him and for others. This is truly the very nature of being a friend of Jesus and a friend of humanity.  We are to take up our own cross in the ministry of uniting people to God so that they can also live in the power of His resurrection.

Jesus told us to go into all the world to be His ambassadors. The power of our worship is meant to hear Christ teach His people Himself so that we can respond to the needs of the world in power and in truth.  Our worship does not end at the rise of the meeting. All week long we are to be in the service of our Lord.  Have we let our proclamation grow quiet? Are we known more for the silence of our meetings than for the power of the Truth that we stand for?  Are we more interested in protecting our identity as a Society than in going to communicate Christ’s love for all humanity by meeting people’s needs? Are we questioning how our collective witness can proclaim God’s love to those around the world?  We must remember that we have been given a mandate to love and to serve in order to transform the world.

We do not lose confidence in the power of the Gospel.   We are to faithfully proclaim Christ’s message of redemption through word and deed. Our words share the hope that we have in Christ, but words alone are not sufficient. How the gospel is lived out in our neighborhood and in our city is as important as what we say. We live as models of peace, restoration, unity and love.

We are a connectional people on a mission together. Love for God and love for others seeks to put the well-being of our neighbors over our own. We are witnesses of integrity, morality, good character, good conduct, compassion, and love for “the least of these.”  We are representatives of Jesus Christ and will do nothing to dishonor His name.

We are to be a people where men, women, and children gather to grow in authentic fellowship and transforming discipleship. As we grow, issues of mercy, justice, and humility are shared. Truth is sought in the person of Jesus Christ. Diversity and multi-ethnicity are embraced.  Sharing the love of Christ with all people is the great cause.  We believe in a gospel of hope. It causes us to look forward, to anticipate and to expect the fulfillment of what only God can do and of what God will do in and through us. So we ask the question: What is God wanting us to do and to say to continue the ministry of Christ within our present community and global context?

In a time when persecution could have erased the powerful message of Friends through the imprisonment and threat on the lives of the faithful, George Fox called Friends to unity for the Gospel’s sake.  From a cold prison tower, soaked to the skin in the middle of winter, Fox wrote his own rendition of Jesus’ words, “to go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Matthew 28:18-20).  Cold and wet, he knew that his human life could easily come to an end but he also knew that God’s message was more powerful than what could be contained in a prison cell.  Fox wrote:

“Let all nations hear the Word by sound or writing.  Spare no place, spare not tongue or pen; but be obedient to the Lord God, be valiant for the truth upon the earth; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you go; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them.  Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”  George Fox, 1656

Soon there were thousands who were living and speaking out boldly about Christ’s truth through the power of the Spirit.  Thousands were put in prison but thousands more responded to the brave witness to the unity of the faithful.  The message prevailed, and we are here today because of it.

George Fox called upon Friends to “answer that of God in every one.” We believe that God’s Light is available to all people and that any individual can respond to the Light.  The Light shines inwardly to awaken the Seed of Christ that is found in every person.  In the Light, the Seed of the Word germinates, setting down its roots, and grows to maturity producing identifiable fruit of the Spirit. Without the Light shining into the life of the individual, the Seed lays dormant.

Early Friends were fully convinced that their message in its totality was God’s good news for all of humanity’s conditions.  If we believe that the message of Friends is only based on ethical issues, we have no message.  The Spirit gives us a message that unifies the world to God.  The message that the Spirit empowers through the gifting of all people proclaims hope to a world that is imprisoned by sin, sorrow and suffering.  We have the Good News for all people. We must be confident in the divine power of the Gospel to help people out of their cynicism, out of their hopelessness, out of their disgrace, and out of their insensitivity, lifting them into a new day of truth, mutual trust, decency and hope.

Early Friends knew that they had been empowered through whatever gift the Spirit had given them to communicate the love of God for a world in desperate need for hope.  These dedicated men and women spoke and lived in holy expectation that God would work through and bless their efforts.  The results were to honor and prove God’s love.    This response led early Friends to consider all people as equals.  This view was the foundation of William Penn’s treatment of the Native Americans, John Woolman and Antony Benezet’s concern for slaves, Mary Fisher’s concern for the Turkish sultan, Steven Grellet’s ministry to the Czar and the Pope, Elizabeth Fry’s concern for the prisoners of Newgate Prison, and the list continues.  Literally millions upon millions of people have been impacted by the testimony of Friends over the last three and a half centuries. Governments have been called to account, people have been restored, and lives have been changed because the Light of Christ has penetrated the darkness.

Can we learn from the past?  This is not a calling for a few but for all.  What is the Spirit saying to us today? Our present calling is a continuation of what our predecessors heard the Spirit say as they moved to transform their world. We also have to be in tune with what the Spirit continues to speak to us about who we are in Christ today.   Ours is not a religion of the history book so much as a life of faith and love for God that is lived in the world today.

We believe that God’s Spirit who spoke in ages past continues to speak today.  God’s Word continues to bring about healing for the nations.  We are the current communicators of these truths, gifted and empowered by God to let our lives speak through our unified actions.   We are called to be instruments to hear and speak God’s Word into all situations.

Do we love? Do we love one another in the things that are eternal? Do we love each other in the things that are temporal? Do we use our God given abilities or our spiritual gifts to work and act in unity? Are we a proclamational people?  We do not exist as a society for ourselves alone but also for the blessing of world.  Our task is to hear Christ, our present teacher and to proclaim His truths to all as we work for his peace and the restoration of all things.  We do not exist to isolate ourselves from each other or from those who do not think like us. We are a consecrated people spread throughout the world to scatter the seed of the Gospel, to water, to cultivate and harvest as the Lord wills.

Friends we are called to continue in unity for the purpose of proclaiming God’s message. Listen to Christ’s prayer for us:

John 17:6 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I have been glorified in them… 11 so that they may be one, as we are one…

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.