Saturday, October 23, 2010

Missional Quaker Faith: Following Jesus

This essay will be the simplest of all that follow. It may also be the most important. In considering what a truly missional Quaker movement might look like, it is essential that we clarify what is at the center of our life together. As the title of this essay suggests, I believe that the heart and soul of any faithful missional community must be a shared commitment to following Jesus.

It is easy for us to serve many things besides Jesus. Even as communities whose primary purpose is to follow him, we have the tendency to elevate secondary elements above the Lord himself. From the color of the carpets in the building where we meet, to our styles of worship and the names of our committees, we are very good at latching onto things that should be secondary.

As we develop missional Quaker communities, however, we must not fall into these traps. If Jesus is not at the center of our lifePlenary sessions at TRANSFORM in DC together, we have turned our undivided attention - our worship - away from God. No matter how noble or important we may convince ourselves that any other priority is, if it takes the place of following Jesus, we are in great spiritual danger as a community. Across the Religious Society of Friends in North America, our local churches and wider fellowships have spent decades arguing about interpretations of the atonement, the nature of Christ's divinity, and homosexuality. Yearly Meetings have dissipated untold energy fighting over matters that, while important, can ultimately be distractions from the hard work of taking up our cross and following Jesus.(1)

How do we keep our eyes on Jesus? How do we make sure that we are following him and not our own false certainties? There are no easy answers. It is hard not to get caught up in ideology, because ideas really do matter. I would not be writing these essays if I thought otherwise. But there is always the temptation to prioritize ideas over relationship, and when we are primarily focused on being right, our relationship with God is the first thing to go out the window. We stop paying attention. We stop listening.

Probably the biggest single factor that plays into whether we cling to God or to idols of our own making is the depth of our prayer life. If we are to keep our focus where it belongs, it is crucial that we take seriously the importance of prayer, both individually and in community.

We pray when we remember God throughout the day, whispering inwardly, "I love you." We pray when we wait in stillness, allowingFriends Meetinghouse at Osmotherley, England God to speak to our soul and show us our inward condition. We pray when we speak aloud words meant to draw us and others closer to God, acknowledging God's presence and power. There are so many ways to pray, and all forms of prayer are beneficial, so long as they are prayed in the name of Christ.

Of course, merely outwardly concluding our prayers with a perfunctory, "in Jesus' name" does not assure that our prayers will be rightly directed. We must be in him, and he in us, if we are to pray in the right spirit. Our prayers must be offered in unguarded love, humility and honesty. We must pray as we are, rather than as we wish we were. By making ourselves vulnerable to Christ, he will shine his Light in our hearts and transform us bit by bit, remaking us in his image.

When this happens, all of our self-assuredness melts away, and we find not only intimacy with God, but with our brothers and sistersChristy and Liz at the World Gathering of Young Friends as well. Our commitment to putting Jesus first has the power to transform community, because when we open our hearts to him, we begin to see how he is at work in others, too. Suddenly, we are able to see others in the Light of Christ. Now, even if we still have profound disagreements, we can see how Jesus is present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, and we can commit to partnering with Christ's work in them.

Submission to Christ is transformative, even when others in the community are not yet hearing his voice clearly. If our lives are filled with his Spirit, we will answer the the inward Witness in their hearts. Truth recognizes truth. When we demonstrate Christ's love and forgiveness in our own lives, we can help to ground the community in the Spirit and reframe our life together. His peace can shine through us.

But we will not find this inward peace and centeredness in Christ without any effort on our part. While God's Spirit is a gift that we cannot earn or achieve ourselves, we will not receive it without a change in our habits and mindset. If we are to be united and effective as a missional community, we must set aside time in our daily lives to ground ourselves in prayer. Only by spending time with Jesus can we become like him.

The mission of the Church is that we all be re-clothed in the peace and righteousness of Christ. In our prayer, both as individuals andRenaissance House, Richmond, Indiana as a community, we are drawn deeper into his perfect life; he woos us, consoles us, challenges us and heals us. It is by this ongoing, repeated action of entering into the divine presence that we may keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, not being distracted by the self-deception that constantly threatens to draw us away from God.

We put Jesus at the center of our life as a community when all of our decisions are held in his Light. We truly accept him as Lord of our lives when we seek to do not what we desire, but instead what he is calling us to. The most important question that we can ask on an ongoing basis is: what is Christ calling us to do and be now?

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1. Please don't misunderstand me; I think that these issues are deeply important. But following Jesus must precede any solution to the difficulties that they present.

Resources for further study:
Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992.

5 comments:

Raye said...

Micah,

The times that I have felt that my meeting has missed it, when I have missed it, I can see that what was mainly missing was Jesus Christ. Arguments and positions have wasted our energy, as have apparently well-intentioned programs and projects. When Christ has been central, there indeed has been transformation and quickening, and the awareness of loving and being loved.

In those latter conditions, the less easy things necessary to doing the Lord's work have been made manageable. Inner and outer resources have been provided.

Pat Pope said...

Preach it, brother!

Bill Samuel said...

Micah, what you say here is of critical importance. As I was reading through it, I kept thinking of what Thomas Kelly wrote, and then I came to the end and found you cited him for further reading! Kelly does delve deeply into critical parts of what you are writing about.

I have personally experienced the huge difference in the bonds in communities based on Jesus Christ, and those which are not. Those communities which really have Christ at the center are able to transcend many of the barriers that commonly exist between people, and reach deeper.

Friends who seek to keep the center in Jesus Christ will have to face the reality that many bodies of Friends do not have that center. This is true both of bodies that are publicly ambivalent about Christ, and those that loudly proclaim their Christianity.

There are so many ways to focus on something other than Christ. You can do it by openly denying the claims of Christ, by emphasizing doctrines about Christ rather than the living Christ, by being fixated on certain practices rather than on the spirit of Christ which ostensibly originally led Friends to them, by giving improper authority to human leaders, etc., etc.

There are meetings/churches which are so focused on something else than Christ himself that it is probably pointless to work within them to make them missional Christian communities. There are others where there are different centers competing, and one of them is Christ, and some of them may be moved in that direction. There are still others which essentially grasp the missional call.

If you feel the call, you should probably not commit to a community which is definitely committed to another center unless you have a very clear call from the Lord to do so. Micah, I note that you have located in an area with a number of Friends meetings and did not commit to any of them, but started a new group. This may have been well led, since none of the local meetings seems to me promising to become a missional Christian community, albeit they are full of good people trying to do good things.

Micah Bales said...

@Raye Thanks for thy comment. It is sometimes hard to articulate why Jesus must be at the center of our life as a community, but it is starkly clear when he is not!

@Pat Thanks! :)

@Bill I'm glad that my choice of further reading meshed well with your sense of the essay. Thomas Kelly's Testament of Devotion has certainly influenced me a great deal.

I think you're right to point out that it is just as easy for ardently Christian groups to fail to put Jesus at the center as it is for groups that shy away from the historic tradition of Christianity. Jesus is a person, not a position, and we are all capable of neglecting Christ if we are not firmly rooted in our practice of waiting on him in everything.

I agree with you that the DC area is blessed with many good people, seeking to know and follow God's will. I pray that Christ will continue to gather his people together, knitting us into a Body that will serve to make his love known to the world.

Jeremy Mottu said...

Micah and Bill Samuel,
I read what you wrote with great
interest. Obviously, Bill is reflecting his bad experience, some
years ago, in trying to promote
Christian life in Baltimore Y.M.
Because of his bad experience, he
clearly has a right to his opinion.
But I have another opinion, also
based on my experience. I grew up in New York Yearly Meeting in the
Forties and Fifties. The two
yearly meetings were re-united in 1955. The Orthodox Friends, I
would say, were Christ-centered.
The FGC Friends were Light-centered. I think it was clear
to most of us that these phrases mean the same thing. Any Friend
who did not understand this right away would come to understand it
after a little explanation.
My own meeting was Ridgewood meeting in northern New Jersey.
Delbert and Ruth Hinshaw Replogle,
evangelical Friends from Washington
state and Oregon, had founded it
in 1939. No Friends meeting had
ever existed in that area before.
We had Friends from every Quaker
background conceivable in the
meeting: FGC, Five Years Meeting,
Conservative, and evangelical We
also had a majority, I would say,
of convinced Friends. For more
than 20 years the meeting was a
spectacular success, though now
it is a small and struggling
meeting, for reasons having little
or nothing to do with its origins.
At any rate, lliterally hundreds
of people learned to be Friends
in that meeting, and a number are still Friends to this day.
So I suggest that no one decide
ahead of time that a good united
"ecumenical" Friends meeting is
impossible. It is possible, and
I have seen it, in many places in
New York Yearly Meeting during the
Forties and Fifties. I agree that
such a project would be much harder now, because "liberal" Friends have become much more
intransigent. Unfortunately, every segment of the Religious
Society of Friends in North America
seems to have settled on notional
religion. But I see little good
future for Friends unless we don't
stop this, and preach and practice
spiritual religion in our entire
Society. Yes, this means preaching
and practicing the Light of Christ Within, by whatever name we call it. Without the Light Within, we
are lost; we are an incoherent
religion; we will not survive.
So I urge you, Micah, not
to give up altogether, but to
consider continuing in the very
difficult task of preaching
Christ to secular Friends who
think that they have no need of
him any more.
Jeremy Mott