Friday, June 27, 2008

Now, to FGC Gathering

Until a couple of days ago, I did not think that I was going to Friends General Conference Gathering, being held this year at Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While having planned on attending when I originally considered my plans for the summer, a couple of months ago I came to the conclusion that FGC was an event that I would need to cut in order to have enough energy to undertake the rest of my intervisitation. However, in the latter part of this week, as I have considered what I felt led to be doing with my time in between Quaker Camp and FUM Triennial, I realized that I was feeling very drawn to travel among Friends in liberal-unprogrammed meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region. When I considered traveling among East Coast meetings this coming week, I realized that most folks whom I knew in those meetings would be at FGC Gathering. I also realized I had the money to attend the gathering, if I so chose, thanks to a grant from the Pickett Endowment. Critically, I felt inwardly at peace when I gave over to changing plans and attending the gathering.

So, having a probable leading to attend FGC Gathering, two questions remained: "Do I really have the energy to attend this event?" and "Is it still possible for me to register?" After some introspection and investigation, I have concluded that the answer to both is, "yes."

See you at FGC, God willing.

Quaker Camp at Barnsville, 2008

This week has been the second year of Quaker Camp, which first took place last year as a part of a reunion of Young Friends of North America participants. This year, the gathering has been much smaller, involving probably around thirty people at any given time, with a number of folks only participating for a part of the weekend. The flavor and energy of the gathering has been very different from the previous one, both in terms of overall numbers, and also in terms of Young Adult Friends participation, which has been significantly less this year. While smaller and less vital than last year, this week has been a space for interaction across generations and traditions and has served as a point of contact between the surging Young Adult Friends movement and older Friends from the Conservative and liberal-unprogrammed traditions.

Beginning Sunday evening, immediately following the Gathering of Conservative Friends, and running until Saturday morning, Quaker Camp has been a place for Friends of a variety of backgrounds to come together, share fellowship, wait on God, and create a space for intergenerational community. We have met together in a large swath of "unprogrammed time," where we have felt free to experiment with different forms of study, prayer, business, worship, and song. Folks have come for a variety of reasons: Some came to recapture the life and energy that they once experienced as part of the Young Friends of North America. Others came to explore the modern-day witness of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting. Still others came to participate in the ongoing movement of Young Adult Friends and to share fellowship with older Friends. What we have found together is a sense of mutual sharing, deep listening, and freedom for experimentation and risk-taking as an cross-branch, intergenerational community.

The week has certainly had its ups and downs, sometimes feeling overburdened with introspection and personal struggles being elevated to the level of collective agenda. Nevertheless, as the week has gone on, things seem to have gelled to a great extent. Instead of being a rattling of separate individuals, we have come to share a greater sense of unity and corporateness.

It has been a blessing to spend some quality time with Friends from Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and get a sense of who they are, and simply appreciating that. I feel that I have a great deal to learn from Friends in the Conservative tradition and hope that I might be able to offer something of myself and my tradition to them, as well. I was delighted and surprised, for example, at the response I received this morning when I suggested that we could have some programmed worship and praise for tonight's evening program: A Friend from Stillwater Meeting expressed that she thought that having programmed worship would be in good order, just what Friends needed at this moment! I am excited and humbled by the open-mindedness and adaptability of some Conservative Friends, even as they are firm in their own tradition. I believe that this is exactly what we need from all Friends.

This week has also been a good opportunity for me to talk with past YFNA participants, interviewing some of them as a part of an historical investigation I am planning to undertake this fall. I am continually educated by my conversations with older Friends who were involved in the Young Friends of North America in their youth. I find great inspiration and great lessons (both positive and negative) in their life experience and experiments with Truth. I have also appreciated the perspective which many Friends bring to their youthful adventures, often able to make distinctions between experiences that might be worth emulating today, and others which should be studied with an eye toward avoiding pitfalls that have the potential to do deep harm to individuals and communities. I hope that Young Adult Friends today can be in conversation with older Friends and be open to hearing and taking seriously their experience, so that we might benefit from the hard-won lessons of their generation.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ohio Yearly Meeting's Conservative Friends Gathering

This weekend, Friday evening through Sunday morning (or Sixth Day through First Day, in the local parlance), I attended the Gathering of Conservative Friends, hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), at Olney Friends School and Stillwater Monthly Meeting's meetinghouse. This was my first experience of any gathering of Conservative Friends, having previously only met Conservative Friends individually. It was a new experience to be around Friends at this gathering, who had travelled from all over North America (and one family from Finland!) to be together with other Conservative Friends. This largely seems to have been an opportunity for isolated Conservative Quakers to come together and share fellowship with other like-minded individuals.

Many of those in attendance this weekend were not full members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, but instead were what are referred to as "affiliate" members. As I understood it, this particular gathering was representative of only a certain stream of one Conservative yearly meeting, primarily seeming to be made up of affiliate members of OYM and those full members who support this growing way in which OYM is reaching out to the wider world, encouraging those who would like to take part in their unique brand of Christian Quakerism. Many of these Friends wore "plain dress" and employed "plain speech" (thee knows what that means, doesn't thee?). I felt myself to be in a very different cultural zone from any other Quaker event I had ever attended.

An overarching theme of the weekend gathering was a sense of isolation on the part of many of those attending the event. Many affiliate members came to this gathering as one of their few face-to-face opportunities for corporate worship and fellowship with other like-minded Friends for the whole year. Some of these Friends are geographically isolated from Friends altogether, while others have found themselves to be so out of unity with the local meetings in their area that they have withdrawn, in some cases forming new Christian Friends worship groups. There was a gnawing hunger for connection and community, and also sadness that Conservative Quakerism is such a small community, both geographically and numerically.

It seemed apparent that Friends at this gathering were not representative of Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. While attended by many affiliate members, there were relatively few full members present. I am interested in coming to know OYM Friends more deeply, and I hope that some day soon I might be able to visit OYM's regular annual sessions. I am looking forward to meeting with other kinds of Conservative Friends, in general. It will be enlightening, I am sure, to visit Friends at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) next month, and I am hopeful that I might be able to visit at least a half-day of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s annual sessions while I am nearby for FUM Triennial.

This trip helped me see how Conservative Quakerism is one branch among the others, and that it has its own glories and failings, just like the other branches do. I think that, previously, I had held Conservative Quakerism with a special, somewhat unrealistic regard, imagining it to be the "purest" form of Quakerism that we had left. I believe, now, that all of our branches of Friends, even the Conservative one, preserve particular elements of the Friends tradition and fail to encompass others. Conservative Friends seem to preserve to a greater degree the tradition developed during the Quietist period. I am no longer convinced, though, that Conservative Quakerism should be considered more "pure" or traditional than evangelical or liberal Quakerism. Now, I see that all Quakers, even Conservative Friends, are just human beings, and that we all have blindspots. This initial brush with Conservative Friends has confirmed my own identity as a Gurneyite-rooted, convergent Friend.

Friday, June 20, 2008

On to Barnesville!

On Wednesday evening, the 18th, Andrew and I made our way to Cancun, the (in)famous resort city best known for Spring Break debauchery. In addition to being a hotspot for big-dollar beach tourism, it is also the site of the principal airport in the region, where Andrew and I were flying out from. We made the best of it, linking up with some other backpackers who were looking to do their business (either arriving or exiting via the airport) and get out of Dodge. We went out on Wednesday night to the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) and sat on the beach together for a few hours, which was enough for me. There was no denying that the beach was beautiful, though the sand was course and rough on the feet and ended as it reached the water. It seemed somewhat dangerous to spend much time in the water, given that, in the water, just beyond the sand, was irregular, slightly jagged stone. We had a good time, though. Good company is good company, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The whole scene in Cancun was bizarre: Huge highrise hotels, massive chain restaurants from the US and elsewhere, enormous shopping centers, and nightclubs on every side. Teenagers, barely out of high school, if that old, roamed the streets, and the public bus system, with beer in their hands, wearing what looked like prom dresses (for the girls) and polo gear (for the boys). It seems that many parents give their children a trip to Cancun as a high school graduation gift. There were adults there, too - many of them bringing their children. Cancun is certainly a place where reality takes a vacation.

We went to the aiport as soon as we got up the next morning, not really wanting to hang around any more than necessary in the city, but we found that the airport was even stranger - and more expensive! We were greeted by six-dollar bottles of water in a facility where there were no drinking fountains, not to mention what we paid for breakfast. Andrew and I had the distinct sense of being fish in a barrel. I think we'll need a pretty good reason if we decide to fly via Cancun again; and we certainly won't plan on hanging out at the airport before our flight.

We flew back to the United States - me to Pittsburg and Andrew to Wichita - parting ways in Dallas. The whole Dallas airport was backed up, so both of our flights were delayed, and I got in to Pittsburg at about 12.30am. I was supposed to meet up with folks at the airport, but I didn't know what they looked like, and we were not able to link up (I did find out this morning that they were there, and I feel awful that they drove up to give me a ride only for us to fail to connect). I eventually gave up and took a cab to a hotel near the airport. I'll be hitching a ride with a carload of folks coming from Eastern Pennsylvania this afternoon, with whom I will make the hour and a half ride from Pittsburg to Barnsville, Ohio, where I will be attending the Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering of Conservative Friends this weekend, followed by Quaker Camp the following week. I am excited to meet with Conservative Friends at Barnsville, and am looking foward to the second year of Quaker Camp.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Yucatán, idleness and Quaker Monasticism

Since my last post, Andrew and I have gone from Mexico City to Xalapa, Ver., to Veracruz, Ver., and are now in Mérida, Yucatán. Ever since leaving Xalapa, the weather has been steamy, and these boys from Kansas are scrambling to adapt to the heat and humidity of the region. We've seen some concerts - Spanish-language hip-hop, Veracruz folk music, Cuban bands, serenades on classic guitar - walked on some beaches, visited some cafés. Muy tranquilo. Today, we are headed out to Chichen Itzá, to see some of the more impressive Mayan ruins that are to be seen here in Mexico. My main concern is to avoid getting too sunburned. I am unsure as to how successful I will be, after this afternoon.

This trip has been very relaxed, mostly just Andrew and me hanging out with Mexico as a background, and it has given me opporunity to do some thinking. I have been reflecting a lot on my own spiritual life and how connected it is to community and place. I am seeing in very concrete ways how much community and place impact my spirituality in the way that I feel spiritually off-balance traveling here in Mexico. Being here, largely disconnected from Friends and all of my familiar patterns of life, it is far more difficult to keep myself oriented towards God. I am more easily distracted, most easily confused. This trip has convinced me that, at least for the time being, travel for pleasure is not an activity that I should be engaged in. To be here in a foreign land without a sense of mission, without work to do, is dangerous idleness. In the future, I hope to be more conscientious about bringing all of my plans before God and listening very carefully before I commit, rather than assuming that I know the answer already. Just because a plan seems good and logical to me does not mean that that is how God wants to use me.

With all of this travel, I have also had the chance to think a bit about the Quaker tradition and how it relates to forming or joining more intentional community. I identify with the convergent tendency, wanting to move forward in radical, unexpected ways, but not at the expense of the important "check" of our tradition as the Quaker branch of Christianity. The place that this seems to become most difficult is in forming or joining intentional or new monastic communities that are composed of various types of Christians. Straight "emergent" makes sense when dealing with a bunch of people from different Christian backgrounds. It seems like in that case, you're just looking for the lowest common denominator, so that everyone can be included. Unfortunately, it seems that in many if not most neo-monastic communities, the lowest common denominator is not, in fact, very congenial to Friends who want to remain in the Friends tradition. "Basic Christianity" almost always seems to include bread and wine communion and water baptism, as well as extensive spoken liturgy. Where waiting worship might come in here, I'm not sure; but there doesn't seem to be much reference to it.

This is only a problem because we Quakers are such a small group, and, on top of that, a group that teeters between a significant minority that does not strongly identify with Christianity and another that does not strongly identify with the Quaker stream, often prefering to "just be Christian" (that is, Protestant). What I am personally hoping for, as a Friend of convergent orientation, is to see explicitly Quaker intentional and neo-monastic communities grow and show what a new Quaker monasticism could look like. The question for me is: will Quakers come to the banquet, or will we need to call in anyone and everyone, accepting the change (dilution?) of our corporate witness as Friends as our makeup becomes much more Protestant in flavor?

Do you feel led to more radical, intentional Quaker community? Let's talk.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

GPYM, and visiting Friends in Mexico City

I have shared Great Plains Yearly Meeting's (GPYM) epistle, below, which communicates the corporate sense of the sessions. For me personally, there was a lot to chew on this year. I gave a number of reports, lead a Bible study/worship service, and I brought my concern to travel among Friends in the Great Plains region in the coming year.

I explained that, this coming year, beginning in February, 2009, it is my intention to return to the Great Plains and intensify the ministry of intervisitation that I began during the past year. I plan to spend time with each monthly meeting in the yearly meeting, coming to deepen my relationship with each congregation and seeking to be of service in building up the Body of Christ in our local meetings and communities. Additionally, I will aim to be of service to our neighbors in Manhattan, Lawrence and Topeka, encouraging them in their journey and seeking increased fellowship and cooperation between these meetings and Great Plains Yearly Meeting. Finally, I plan to look for ways to lend encouragement and support to isolated Friends in Kearney, Nebraska, Great Bend, Kansas, and elsewhere, helping them to find the material, human and spiritual resources they need to thrive. The needs of Friends will vary from place to place, but I hope that some of the fruits of my ministry might be: the strengthening of the existing meetings of GPYM; a greater focus on intervisitation in GPYM; encouragement for the pastoral leadership in our pastoral meetings; increased outreach in local communities; a focus on encouraging youth and a new generation of leadership; encouraging the growth of new meetings where there have not been any before; and outreach to other meetings in the region.

I was grateful that Great Plains Yearly Meeting did unite with me in this concern, providing me with a travel minute, an oversight committee, and some material support. My plan is to return in February of this coming year, to purchase a touring bicycle and a tent, and, once the weather permits, to begin to travel around the region, seeking to be of service to Friends across the Great Plains (Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, principally). I am praying that God will provide me with a traveling companion for this work, who would be willing to consider a long-term commitment (I plan to carry on this work for at least six months). In addition to a long-term traveling companion, I am also hopeful that Friends from Great Plains Yearly Meeting might join with me in traveling to different monthly meetings and worship groups to provide support in whatever way is most helpful to that group of Friends. Even if a Friend were able to drive up for a day or two to join me where I was at, that would be wonderful, and it is precisely in this way that I hope that my ongoing intervisitation might serve to encourage others in the yearly meeting and region to undertake intervisitation themselves, if only for a day or two.

Following Great Plains Yearly Meeting, I made my way yesterday to Mexico City, to link up with my brother who had been studying nearby in a Spanish language school for the past month. For the past few days, he has been staying at the Casa de los Amigos, the Friends house in Mexico City where I was once a volunteer. It was great to see my brother, and David Johns from the Earlham School of Religion, who came to meet me at the airport and accompany me back to the Casa. David is spending several months this summer as the Friend in Residence at the Casa, as well as taking some time to visit Friends in other parts of Latin America (Honduras and Guatemala, as I recall). I am glad that he is here, deepening his relationship with Friends in the Spanish speaking world. It seems clear to me that God has a special call for him as an ambassador, a bridge person between Friends in different parts of the Americas.

It was a blessing to have a called meeting for worship with a few Friends this morning. We came together in the beautiful space where the Friends of Mexico City Monthly Meeting meet, on the third floor of the Casa, in what used to be the art studio of the famous Mexican muralist, José Clemente Orozco. It was lovely to share communion with Friends here in that tall-ceilinged, beautifully-lit meeting room. We had a very peaceful time of worship.

I felt particularly blessed to have the chance to catch up a little bit with Nico and Jill, who are serving as house managers here at the Casa. We were able to talk for a while, while Nico and Jill played with their beautiful infant daughter. It seemed to me from our conversation that there is energy here for involvement in the Young Adult Friends movement. I wondered aloud with them whether that might be true in other meetings here in Mexico, for example in Ciudad Victoria, Monterrey, and perhaps in Evangelical churches here in the Valley of Mexico and in other parts of the country. I hope that Young Adult Friends in Mexico are able to come together, and I look forward to being supportive of that movement in any way that I can, knowing that it is ultimately up to Mexican Friends to decide whether they want to make this movement their own.

I am worried about my brother, who is quite sick at the moment. It seems it was something he ate or drank. We were planning on heading out to Cuernavaca tomorrow, but it looks like we'll stay another night at the Casa. Andrew's in no condition to travel. I would appreciate prayers for his health and for safe travels for us as we explore Central Mexico and the Yucatan together.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Epistle from Great Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008

8th, Sixth Month, 2008

Epistle from Great Plains Yearly Meeting (formerly Nebraska Yearly Meeting)

To all Friends everywhere,

We send greetings to Friends in all parts of the world from Central City, Nebraska, which to some of us feels like holy ground. In the shadow of the stately Old Main, which was the center of Nebraska Central College, a small Quaker educational institution of a century ago, we gathered together as a yearly meeting. This beautiful campus is now the site of Nebraska Christian School, which has grown out of the heritage of Quakerism into a thriving institution where young people still learn and grow.

The theme of our time together was, "Looking to the future while sharing in the joy." We were privileged to have Paul Lacey of Earlham College and the American Friends Service Committee among us, who shared with the gathered body his own reflections on the meaning of joy. We as a yearly meeting considered what joy means to us as a small, sometimes weary fellowship of Friends on the prairie. We were asked to consider the passage from 2 John:12, "...but I hope to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete." We reflected together on ways that we can be more connected as a community, striving to be with one another and see each other face to face on a more regular basis. We were blessed to have among us Mary Ellen McNish and Sonia Tumna of AFSC, Joe Volk of FCNL, Margaret Fraser of FWCC, Sylvia Graves of FUM, Michael Wajda of FGC, Margaret Stoltzfus of Iowa Yearly Meeting, Richard Sours of William Penn University, Rod Zwerner of Quaker Earthcare Witness and Maria Bradley and Linda Coates of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

As we explored the history of our yearly meeting in this our one hundredth year, there was a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude for those Friends who worked so diligently and faithfully in the past to keep our hopes and dreams and searchings alive and well. We have been grateful for the labor of Ron Mattson of Central City Monthly Meeting in reminding us of our unique history and hertiage as a yearly meeting, as well as our deep roots in the Quaker and Christian tradition. How awesome to consider this glorious past! And how important to consider our own place in this present day, in the midst of a still beautiful world, but a world beset by challenges the likes of which it has never seen before. We considered our unique historical circumstance in a spirit of joy and grateful fellowship.

During our time together, we had ever in front of us the challenge of the present moment, and what God is calling us to in this new century for Friends on the Great Plains. We feel a sense of urgency, a sense of God's call to reach out to a world in pain. At the same time, we are aware of our own inability to do anything under our own power, dependent as we are on the power of the Holy Spirit not only to show us way forward, but to prepare and empower us as individuals and as fellowships to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This year, Friends at Great Plains Yearly Meeting have felt moved to deepen our commitment to participation in the wider Religious Society of Friends. At the same time, we seek to be more intentional in tending our own fragile fellowship, reaching out to one another and building each other up. We desire to be with one another, to see each other face to face as we seek to live the Kingdom here on the Great Plains.

We pray that Friends will experience the loving presence of the One who is above all names.

In friendship,

Friends assembled at Great Plains Yearly Meeting's centennial celebration

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

True Evangelism is Inseparable from a Life Lived Faithfully

I believe that the Truth is far bigger than any human set of ideas about the Truth, any faith community, any tradition, any religious institution. While I believe that anyone who actually denies Jesus (the Messiah) has got it wrong, it seems undeniable to me that many people from non-Christian faiths are further along in the service of our Father, greater in the Kingdom of Heaven, than most who profess to be Christians. I believe that the Spirit that was made visible to us in Jesus, and which speaks to us and wants to live in us today, speaks to all men and women in their hearts and offers to all the chance to turn their lives over to the Living Christ and become servants in the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that this offer is limited by the religious beliefs that a person professes.

Certainly, religious beliefs can be useful, but faith is the key. Faith means putting our trust in God, granting the Living Spirit of Christ absolute sovereignty in our lives. We can talk until we are blue in the face about the meaning of the atonement or how we asked Jesus into our hearts, but if we are not living lives that bear fruit of repentance - if we are not walking as children of light - our beliefs are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, considering that there are people who do not think that they believe in God who in fact obey God. (See Matthew 21:28-32.) The primary question, it seems to me, ought to be: Are we living our lives unreservedly in the hands of God? Most Christians' lives give testimony to the fact that we have not made the decision to go all the way for Christ, even while some non-Christians clearly have.

I believe it was Thomas Kelly who wrote that many are willing to go halfway for God - they are willing to make sacrifices, change careers, do good in the world. But most men and women are unwilling to go the other half, which consists in surrendering everything, our very selfhood: dying to the self. Now, I think that it is arguable as to whether most professing Christians even go much of the first half. But it seems self evident that very few people, of any faith, go the second half. The state of our world testifies to our massive failure in this regard!

So, I do believe that people of different beliefs can enter the Kingdom of God, while most Christians seem to refuse to. This has presented difficulties for me, lots of material for wrestling, as I have considered how my own personal identity relates to my work in the world. Is a part of "dying to self" giving up any particular set of religious beliefs? Does being present to God in every moment require a relinquishment of all ideas, as Zen Buddhism would hold? I'm not sure. But I think that a lot of my wrestling has to do with the fact that I am not yet fully embedded in a covenantal religious community, a church in the first century sense of the term. I refer not to a meeting/church community, which I do have, but to a more tightly knit brotherhood/sisterhood.

I long to come together with other valiant ministers who share my call to be a city on a hill, a light that cannot be hidden, calling out to the Seed of God in all people, incarnating Christ among the poor and witnessing to the living presence of Christ already in and among the marginalized and dispossessed. I think my questions about identity - for instance, why be a Friend when I could "just be a Christian," or why be a Christian when I could just be a child of God? - might diminish once I come into covenant community with other soldiers in the Lamb's war who are heeding the call to give everything, their whole lives, their very souls, to God's struggle to liberate all life from the bondage we find ourselves enmeshed in.

I am fairly clear that the next step for me is to head back to Great Plains Yearly Meeting and begin carrying out traveling ministry in the Great Plains region, visiting widely dispersed meetings and hopefully meeting a lot of new friends along the way. I hope that as I undertake this mission that God will raise up other valiant Friends who will feel the call to labor alongside me. I am praying to the Father for more laborers for the field, as well as companions with whom to share our journeys, our struggles, our hope, and Communion.

For as much thinking as I have done about "evangelism" in the past year or so, I've about come to the conclusion that the ultimate point is simply to be what God created me to be, and to come together with others who are also heeding that fundamental call. Evangelism is inseparable from a life lived in faith. Those of us who make the choice to live up to the hope that is in us will so shine before others that they will see how our lives glow with the Spirit of Jesus, and they will give praise to God. And maybe some of them will get the courage to let the Light shine through their lives, either working alongside us, as the disciples who set down their nets and followed Jesus, or within the communities where they came from, as with the healed demoniac whom Jesus sent back to testify to his own people.