A couple of weeks ago, Cliff Loesch of University Friends and I traveled together to Richmond, Indiana for the Friends United Meeting (FUM) General Board meetings. We gathered together with representatives from yearly meetings and associations from across the United States and Canada to do the business of FUM and to share in fellowship and deep listening to the voice of our Teacher, Jesus Christ. The present situation of FUM is not an easy one. There are forces on all sides that seek to divide the body based on longstanding cultural, theological and historical differences and disagreements.
Despite our divisions and suspicions, the Spirit of Christ was present with us; God brought our doubts and fears into the light of day and held them before us to be examined. As we waited on God together in open worship, it was clear how deep the hurts and fears were among many of us. Judging by human standards, it would be easy to believe that our wounds could never be healed. But the mind of Christ in me knew better. As we un-bandaged our wounded hearts in the light of Christ and were held in the revealing, healing and purifying light of God, I saw that God could redeem even us. God wants to use us in ways that we have yet to imagine. But we must let go of our fear.
Early on in the long weekend, I had the privilege of talking with John Smallwood of Baltimore Yearly Meeting. John is a passionate evangelist for Jesus Christ; he is also a man who has a lot to teach me about how fear and judgment of others separate us from God. At one point, John asked me what I thought the cause of sin was. I gave him some sort of seminary answer, but he told me I was making it too complicated. Fear, he said. Fear is the cause of sin. The instinct to self-preservation, he told me, brings us to “defend” ourselves from God. In seeking to preserve ourselves, our own will, our own way, we cut ourselves off from God’s self, God’s will, God’s way.
This really convicted me. I saw more clearly how my own fear of truth caused me to judge others. While I like to believe that I judge others out of a sense of truth and righteousness, I see more clearly now that when I judge others I am in fact setting up barriers between myself and that person, because I am afraid that I might be overcome by that person – I am afraid that person will undermine the things that I hold to be true. But this betrays the fact that I do not really trust God as sovereign; I do not really believe that the power of the Lord is over all. If I did, I would fear no man or woman, because the Truth stands on its own. I don’t need to defend it. Anything that I must defend is probably from me, not from God. I must surrender everything I have, laying all at Jesus’ feet – including my beliefs, my way of life, my most cherished dreams. If all I seek is to serve Christ and his kingdom, I need not fear anyone, ever. And I need not judge others: God is the one and only Judge. Judging isn’t my job. My job is to focus on nothing but being loving and truthful with every single person who enters my life.
In the book of Matthew, when Jesus is depicted as returning to judge the world, the men and women of the world are not judged based on whether they were members of the right church or associated with the right kind of people. On the contrary, the world is judged based on whether we display loving-kindness towards the hungry, the foreigner and the prisoner, towards the disadvantaged, towards those whom our society frequently judges and excludes (Matthew 25:31-46). Thanks to John Smallwood’s ministry to me, I was reminded of my own fear and defensiveness towards others, and of my need for forgiveness and God’s grace in helping me love others, not condemning them. And in seeing my own need for letting go of fear and judgment, I felt also the need for Friends in FUM to open ourselves to those whom we fear. We must risk being hurt. We must risk being changed. We must risk these things knowing that God will not lead us astray, no matter how much we open ourselves to those who we consider to have wrong ways of believing and behaving. On the contrary, we will only be led astray if we wall ourselves off from the Seed of Christ that is present in all people, crying out for liberation.
We must be about our Father’s work: the work of life-giving, joy-inspiring liberation. This is the God who sets the captives free! This is the Savior who lays his life down for his friends! Can we still be so concerned about keeping those we disagree with at a distance when we remember that the tomb is empty, that our Savior lives, that we are reconciled to God and to one another if only we will heed the oft-repeated angelic instruction: “be not afraid”? If all of us can trust the Truth to defend itself - knowing that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever - we can be liberated from the self-imposed burden of judgment. We can be freed to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to share in communion with our brothers and sisters in faith. Will we dare to lay down all our defenses at Jesus’ feet? Will we risk reckless engagement with our brothers and sisters? This is my prayer for Friends United Meeting, for the entire Church, and for the whole of creation.
This, I believe, is the only way forward for Friends United Meeting. So long as we shout at each other, issuing statements from our high walls and fortifications, seeking to defend ourselves from others, we shout down God; we wall ourselves off from Christ. Only by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, trusting in God to be our only Fortress and Pillar, can we find the Truth together. That is where unity is. That is where love is. That is where the future of Friends United Meeting lies. Do we have the courage to take up the cross?
As a final note, I should mention the more mundane – but very serious - details of life in community: Friends United Meeting is not only a fellowship of Friends across the world, but also an organization that oversees Friends programs around the globe. Just as the fellowship of Friends in FUM is struggling, FUM as an organization is also in dire shape. At our meetings this month, the General Board approved to cut another $18,000 from the last five months of this fiscal year; we don’t know where the money will be cut from yet, but it’s simply not there to spend! At this point FUM is hard-pressed to keep up the skeleton crew in Richmond and the programs that Friends oversee in Kenya, Palestine, Jamaica, and Belize. This is a time of financial constriction for virtually everyone, but FUM had been experiencing severe financial problems before the economy fell through. This present global economic predicament comes at an especially bad time for Friends United Meeting. Please pray for FUM, and consider a donation to FUM’s General Fund.