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Dead Reckoning

By Randy Quate

In the days of seafaring, long before today’s technology, the captains of ships that sailed the world were able to navigate the unpredictable and sometimes vicious sea with no radar, satellites or radios. These men could chart a course and find their way to a chosen port anywhere in the world. How did they do this?

They did it primarily through a practice called”dead reckoning.” Dead reckoning is the ability to discern the atmosphere and conditions that surround the ship so that a course can be maintained and storms can be anticipated and weathered. An alert captain could literally feel the disposition of the sea in his body.

The stars and moon were used for positioning and navigation. The movement of the clouds, the behavior of the birds and even the condition of the fish that were caught were all filled with information to discerning eyes and ears. The smell of the water and the wind could alert an experienced sailor to the mood of creation. A friend of mine who was a commercial fisherman in the North Atlantic says that captains still use dead reckoning, even with the advanced ships of today.

As we voyage together as Friends in this rapidly changing and often turbulent time in history, are we able to read the sea around us?

George Fox and early Friends were gifted with a type of spiritual dead reckoning. These Quakers were able to discern the times and the needs of the people during a stormy period of religious and political upheaval. It was this awareness that made Friends so effective in the first century of their existence.

Without such discernment, the sparks of renewal can be stifled and even quenched. So, what are some of the arenas where Friends desperately need spiritual dead reckoning today in order to experience revitalization?

I would suggest three such areas that the majority of Friends are facing at some level: a generational divide, the worship question and our community’s condition.

A Generational Divide

Daniel Thames, one of our pastors here in North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM, recently developed a presentation on the different generations in our population. His description of the Builders, Boomers, Busters and Bridgers showed the great chasm of difference in experience, perspective, lifestyle and values between each group. It was eye-opening information to those in attendance, but more concerning to me is how late in the game we are coming to this understanding.

The contributions of Builders and Boomers to individual Friends meetings throughout the country has been and continues to be amazing, but the graying of Quakerism in so many areas should give us a sense of urgency. Are youth and young adults being drawn to our meetings? Are we even retaining the ones who grow up under our steeple-less roofs? While we know we will lose their presence to college and other relocation situations, we must still be attentive to a culture of youth who are very different from their grandparents. Are they being invited to serve and to lead in our meetings? Do we know what speaks to them in our preaching and music, and what doesn’t? We need to have these conversations — the sooner the better.

The Worship Question

While in Chicago I attended a (non-Quaker) church that had vibrant worship music. I remember how distractions and concerns faded away from my soul as we sang. The problem for me came as the worship music was winding down. While I was entering a state of centering, the pastor began to speak. I have often wondered what it would be like to have such intimate worship singing and then settle into that place of Holy Expectancy, better prepared to wait and listen.

A little worship tinkering will not bring renewal, but if our open worship is meant to be participatory so should our singing. In the programmed and semi-programmed context in which I have ministered, congregational singing can often feel perfunctory. But revitalization manifests itself in participation, and every aspect of true worship requires such.

The Quaker approach to worship is one of the core practices that Friends offer the rest of Christendom. However, more than any other generation of Quakers, we need help to prepare ourselves to enter the silence. In these days of iPhones, iPods and iPads, we can end up with iSpirits and iMinds. Believers have always had to deal with distractions, but the distractions of today are on steroids. I want to suggest that many people in this era, Quakers included, need more assistance getting into a true listening posture than our Friends did in a bygone time.

Oh, how we need brave leaders in our meetings who are not afraid of spiritual passion, and will discern the way to aid fellow Friends to become fully present in God’s Presence!

Our Community’s Condition

Every Friends meeting is located in a community of people. Whether it is rural, suburban or urban, there is a context in which we live. How well do we know our communities? Do we know the needs that exist there?

I know of one meeting who did a demographic study of a 12-mile radius from their meetinghouse. The results stunned them in many categories. First of all, these rural Friends were surprised by how many people lived nearby. They also learned that there were certain life situations present in numbers that were higher than the national average. One was the population of single parents. Information like that started a whole new discussion about outreach. Every Friends meeting should have a signature ministry in the community where they are planted, but they cannot adequately address such a need if they don’t know who lives next door.

Revitalization will come to those who anticipate it, and who also have a firm awareness of their surroundings. Discernment and obedient action are essential to a new movement among Friends. Let’s pray that we will develop a spiritual dead reckoning, like those of the tribe of Issachar who “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” (1 Chronicles 12:32)


Randy Quate is superintendent of North Carolina Yearly Meeting- FUM. He lives in Archdale, North Carolina, with his wife, LeAnne, and daughters, Ragan and Haley.