Friday, February 04, 2011

A Mighty Fortress Is Our Meeting

I was speaking with a friend recently about the spiritual state of his Meeting. The Meeting in question probably has an average attendance of seventy five, and benefits from an excellent meetinghouse, moderately populated children's program, and a fairly solid level of engagement - both practical and financial - from the congregation. As a community, the Meeting is doing pretty well. Yet, my friend was concerned: Community is good and worth developing, but how do we move beyond mere human community and into a shared relationship with God?

In many congregations, human community often becomes the focus rather than shared commitment to discipleship and mission. RatherFriends at Heartland Meeting House than challenging one another, we often focus primarily on giving one another warm fuzzies and a place to fit in. Rather than reaching out to the world, it is tempting to place our emphasis on fulfilling the desires of the already-established community. If we succumb to this temptation, the Meeting can become primarily a place of refuge from the world, and even from the challenging face of God.

In examining the spiritual state of his Meeting, my friend observed interesting parallels between the youth programs in his Yearly Meeting and the state of the adult community. He remembered the way in which his children began to distance themselves from their Quaker youth group - and from Quakerism - as they grew more secure and comfortable in their schools and social lives. The kids who remained part of the Meeting's youth group tended to be ones who struggled to find their place in other areas of their lives. They felt like outsiders at school, and the Quaker youth programs and camps were the place where they felt most accepted and cared for. As the children of the Meeting grew older, the youth group became increasingly a collection of young people who did not fit in anywhere else.

What this meant was that the youth group became the primary community and social bond for these young people. They might notFriends at Illinois Yearly Meeting fit in at school or at home, but they could feel sure that at least their fellow Quaker youth would be on their side. This environment of affirmation and nurture is clearly very important, and those who participate in it surely benefit in a variety of ways. However, there may be unintended consequences that arise from youth programs that focus primarily on social circles and belonging. Through a set of shared rituals - jazz hands, cuddle puddles, and wink - and shared cultural assumptions and behaviors, the primary purpose of the Quaker youth community becomes about supporting "people like us." In the extreme, Quakerism boils down to being "a place for good people like us."

In my friend's experience, this in-group dynamic is not limited to the youth. On the contrary, he saw the way that adult religious communities can be formed primarily around human needs for social and emotional security, rather than out of a corporate commitment to discipleship and mission in the world. My friend saw that there could be a pervasive "tribal" ethos in the adult Meeting. Just like the youth group, the adult Meeting saw itself as being made up of "good people" who provide a refuge for others who do not fit into the surrounding culture. Politically liberal folks with a transcendentalist spiritual bent; folks with a focus on eco-justice; pacifists; and individuals that, for whatever reason, do not fit in anywhere else. They can find a place in the Meeting Tribe.

None of this is bad, per se. People need a community where they feel accepted and loved for who they are, and the Church hasHanging out on the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage always been such a place for those who are the most marginalized in the cultures where we have found ourselves. And yet, having a community that is primarily predicated on acceptance of others based on tribal values - shared rituals, assumptions and life experience - can pose a great spiritual danger: The community can become more about providing comfort and security than about growing in holiness and service to Christ; it can become more focused on nurturing our peculiar habits and assumptions than it is on risking the safety of the status quo in order to lead lives of service to our neighbors who do not share our tribal affinities.

How can we strike an appropriate balance between our comforting affinity groups and the challenging fellowship that God calls us into with our dissimilar neighbors? How can we tell the difference between the universally relevant Tradition, which we have received from God, and those habits and customs that are based more in the peculiarity of our tribe than in Christ's continuing revelation? What would it take for us to become a people who, rather than treating our communities as retreats from the world, insteadGreat Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008 treated them as centers for mutual support and renewal, training and equipping us to do the work of God together in our broken world? What would it be like if we threw wide the doors of our Meetings to anyone, regardless of their ideological and political views, socio-economic status, reading ability, fashion habits and food preferences?
What would it take for us to live our lives in the vibrant fellowship that God offers, rather than being content with our broken cisterns? Come, taste and see that the Lord is good! We are blessed when we take refuge in the shadow of God's wings.(1)
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1. see Psalm 34:8

11 comments:

Pat Pope said...

"Rather than challenging one another, we often focus primarily on giving one another warm fuzzies and a place to fit in...a great spiritual danger: The community can become more about providing comfort and security than about growing in holiness and service to Christ; it can become more focused on nurturing our peculiar habits and assumptions than it is on risking the safety of the status quo in order to lead lives of service to our neighbors who do not share our tribal affinities."

We can always tell when our meeting has dissolved into this type of behavior based on how it responds to those who are different that enter its meeting and who dare to bring different ideas and practices to the table.

Your Theatre Critic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Your Theatre Critic said...

Disagree. Maybe??? I think the "warm fuzzies and a place to fit it" describes exactly what stifles the Spirit of God's workings. We're too concerned that we must accept other's different and (dare I say the Truth?) erroneous ideas and practices that we end up patronizing them, misleading them that there is no real need to listen for God to lead them to change or open themselves up to something they are seeking...after all, they are "cool just like they are, huh?" attitude. At times, WE need to challenge THEM...in love, to know that there IS a Way. We must treat with love, but we needn't feel any obligation to embrace difference just for difference's sake...this ignores the distinct possibility that, though not perfect, we may actually be right about some things!

Comrade Kevin said...

I find that external factors make a huge impact. Where I grew up, in Alabama, the liberal unprogrammed Meeting in which I became Convinced took on a similar fortress dynamic. It was considered a respite, a blue oasis if you will, from the predominate conservative Christianity of the state and region.

It was a place to not be questioned, second-guessed, misunderstood, or otherwise meant to feel out of step. Introducing elements of spirituality, to say nothing of Christianity, were often viewed by some with suspicion, particularly by those who had come from negative religious (usually Christian) experiences.

And I see the same thing within my current Meeting.

My experience has been that a hard sell approach usually backfires. It's never fair to have to contend with other peoples' damage, but one ought to also concede from whence it came. Building trust with the naturally suspicious is an exercise in patience, love, and incrementalism.

And sometimes, the best one ever can do is carve out a particular, individual path. Some people will be malleable and some will be resistant, regardless. I'd never presume to speak for God's true intentions in these circumstances. Deriving the meaning between success and failure is a dicey proposition when viewed through human eyes.

And, on that note, there's a part of me that often returns to this passage of scripture.

Then Job replied to the LORD: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?' It is I--and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me.

Jeffrey Hipp said...

Dearest Micah,

Thank you for this. I've recorded below (as best as I am able) a message I offered to Fresh Pond Friends Meeting this past Sunday. I think your post opened my heart to receiving this little piece of the Word:

------

My heart today is filled with images of hopeful expectation for Spring. I think of the ivy that will awaken this March on the old red brick walls of our city's venerable institutions. The captivating way it sways when caught in a breeze — so full of life — in the midst of a city awakening from Winter's slumber. For me, it is the sign that springtime in Boston is here.

And I'm thinking about an ancient spiritual metaphor involving vines — the scriptural one from John's Gospel, in which we are branches of the one common Vine — our connection to the Source of Life. The Vine gives us our nourishment, and through that: strength, by which we, the branches help the Vine to stretch up to incredible heights, over seemingly unsurmountable obstacles.

Some vines bear fruit. And if you are a little branch, thinking about bearing the weight of that fruit is a scary thing. But our branches overlap and are interconnected, and as we draw our strength from the Vine, we share it to help one another carry the weight of the fruit we are called offer the world.

There's one thing that Jesus implies that I somewhat disagree with — that a branch that doesn't bear fruit withers. In my experience, it's pretty easy just to be a branch, hanging out on a wall. That's where I feel like, we, the Religious Society of Friends, are often at. We're really good at overlapping, connecting, and giving one another the strength the hold onto that wall which sometimes feels so hard,and unforgiving, and cold. Sometimes we feel like that's all we have to do.

But we're meant to bear fruit. We must learn to encourage one another in that, to challenge one another in that, and confess to one another when we recognize that we aren't bearing the fruit that God calls us to bear.

As I sit here in this precious worship, I sense our connection that true Vine, and I sense the strength of our branches. Friends, we are strong enough to bear fruit.

You are strong enough to bear fruit.

Anonymous said...

Language is a funny matter - does it capture or guide? Or simply record data?
Can it be distilled to point? and left at that?
Really?
The Holy Spirit.

Micah Bales said...

@ Pat Thanks, Pat. It sure is easy for us to slip into protection of our "safe space" - but we need to live dangerously, walking in the footsteps of Jesus!

@Critic You're right that our communities need to be places where we can challenge one another in love, and not merely support one another in our assumptions. This takes a lot of trust, and we can only get there by relying on Christ's presence in our midst.

@Kevin You're right that building trust takes time, and we certainly can't do it under our own power, but with God, all things are possible. It is my hope that we can wait on the Holy Spirit together and seek Christ's presence in our midst. He will bind up every wound.

@Jeff Thanks for sharing this, Jeff. I'm really glad to hear from you, and it's wonderful to know that my writing might sometimes have an impact that extends beyond the internet!

Do you really disagree with Jesus that branches that are not connected to the True Vine wither? It has been my experience that we do wither, and we are withering, when we do not ground ourselves in Christ Jesus.

@Anonymous Not quite sure what you're getting at. Also not sure if you meant to identify yourself as being the Holy Spirit. I hope not.

Anonymous said...

My apologies as anonymous:

It is all Holy Spirit.
I bow out respectful of your endeavor.

Jeffrey Hipp said...

@Micah

I was surprised, too, with the wording that came to me. I'm trying to trust more and pre-script less when it comes to vocal ministry, and that sometimes takes me in surprising directions — both divinely led and otherwise.

In truth I don't disagree with what Jesus says, rather with the easy false dichotomy we can insert into the parable of the vine and branches — that if we don't seem to be withering, we must be bearing fruit. It's easy for congregations to feel like their community is strong — it may even be growing — even if it isn't bearing fruit.

The fruit isn't grown by numbers, nor in how much comfort and nurture a community offers, but — as your elucidate — by discipleship. God-willing, that discipleship leads to a nurturing community and maybe even increased numbers, but cart < horse!

Jeffrey Hipp said...

@Micah.

It looks like my second response didn't successfully post. Bother!

A much redacted version of it is I don't disagree with Jesus, rather with the false dichotomy that we often read *into* the parable of the vine and branches — that if we don't seem to be withering, we must be bearing fruit.

Diane said...

I very much "hear this," and while supporting, as I always have, Quakerism becoming less of a clique, I would say the following:

1. Our larger society is increasingly warped: people need a place apart that reflects their values. Despite the implication that Quakerism is filled with the socially awkward, the people who change the world aren't going to be those who to conform to it.
2. People can't go out and make disciples if they are not getting the support and nurture they need from their spiritual communities. I think of how eagerly people like William Caton and Katherine Cheevers and Sarah Evans, preaching and imprisoned in foreign countries, looked forward to being with Fox again and having his support.

That being said, Quakers need to keep examining the values they are expressing in their meetings:
First, cliqueism and turning inward are unfortunately manifestations of an increasingly crony-based culture, and perhaps so are some of the other values of the group.
Second, are the warm fuzzies leading us back out to change the world in our small ways? I think in many ways yes, but that we have to keep asking that question.
Third, how we are judging people who want to enter our group? On the basis of how they fit in? Or on the basis of what we can learn from them? Too often, Quakers are quick to TEACH but deaf to learning.