Friday, February 25, 2011

George Fox Did Not Die For Our Sins

This Wednesday at Capitol Hill Friends, we examined the third chapter of Paul's first letter to the Church in Corinth. In this letter, Paul writes to a local Meeting that has become divided based on allegiance to human leadership. The Meeting is splitting into factions, with some preferring Apollos and other claiming Paul as their leader. Paul writes to tell them that they are missing the point. He explains that he and Apollos are only servants of the greatWashington Monument at Dusk Master, Jesus Christ, and that all devotion should ultimately be directed to him, and not to any earthly leader.

Paul goes on to use a variety of metaphors to put in perspective the work that he and Apollos have been doing in Corinth. As servants of God, he explains, he and Apollos have acted as gardeners, each with his own particular task - one plants and another waters. Crucially, however, Paul points out that it is ultimately God who gives life and growth.

Another image that Paul uses to describe his and Apollos' relationship to the Church is that of being construction workers. He writes about the ways in which he and other workers can build upon God's foundation. Construction workers can do better or poorer jobs, depending on their skills and faithfulness. Nevertheless, Paul insists that there is only one Foundation upon which anything enduring can be built: "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."(1)

Needless to say, a lot has changed since Paul's first-century context. Thousands of years of accumulated tradition have transformed the Church from a small, radical, adaptive body of believers scattered throughout the Roman Empire into a worldwide family of faith, encompassing thousands of independent sub-traditions. Even in the first century, Paul already saw the ways that human leaders and traditions could obscure the gospel foundation. Today, we have twenty centuries of "construction work" to siftQuaker Writings through as we seek to be faithful to Christ in our midst.

For Quakers, George Fox was the most important builder since Paul. Fox's legacy is immense: his writings, apostolic ministry and role in the development of Friends polity have had an enduring impact on the way Quakers have understood and organized themselves for the last three hundred and fifty years. Furthermore, George Fox represents far more than his own personal ministry. Fox blessed the systematic theology of Robert Barclay, the evangelical fervor of the Valiant Sixty, and William Penn's "Holy Experiment" in America. George Fox represents the rich heritage that Friends share as a unique stream in the Christian tradition.

George Fox, and all he stands for, means so much to Friends today. He and his fellow apostles were faithful servants of Christ in their own time and place, and they left us with a rich tradition that has helped many individuals and communities come into deeper relationship with Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, the fact remains thatFriends Meeting House George Fox and the Valiant Sixty are dead. Their time and service has come to an end.

If we are to honor the faith of George Fox and the early Friends, we must continue to listen to the ways in which Christ is leading us today. Parroting old Quaker clichés and sitting together in lifeless silence will not cut it. Faithful Christian life and witness will look different today than it did in 17th-century England - or 20th-century America, for that matter. If we are to be true to the faith of the early Friends, we may be required to "betray" them in order to follow Jesus.(2) Just as Jesus guided our spiritual ancestors, he continues to teach us today. In the end, he must be the foundation of everything that we do.

Like the early Friends, we must be willing to let go of anything that gets in the way of us following Jesus as a community in our presentLangley Hill Friends Meeting context. All of our human traditions - our ways of speaking, songs, church structures, dress and business process - must be submitted to Christ so that he can lead us in his eternal, yet always new Way.

What are the ways in which we are being called to lay down the human traditions that served our ancestors well but are no longer relevant to our present context? What are the ways that old structures and habits get in the way of us living out the love, life and power of Jesus Christ in our communities? How can we tell the difference between a dead form and a useful tradition that God is calling us to maintain and use faithfully in our generation? How can we be faithful to Christ's ongoing guidance, fulfilling the law through obedience to the living Spirit of God?


1. 1 Corinthians 3:11
2. An excellent piece that develops this idea is "A Faithful Betrayal?" by Wess Daniels in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of Quaker Life

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

There is Power in the Name

In June of 2008, I attended the General Gathering of Conservative Friends in Barnesville, Ohio. This gathering, sponsored by Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, was one of my first interactions with the Conservative Quaker stream. Though I learned much and saw many Ohio Yearly Meeting Sessions, 2009new things at this gathering, there is one moment that stands out for me most vividly:
During one of the meetings for worship, a minister knelt down and delivered a vocal prayer. She declared that, "there is power in the name of Jesus - not the word, but the Name." This immediately struck me as a deep teaching, and it is one that has stayed with me ever since. The longer that I have allowed this teaching to season and work on my heart, the deeper its significance has become in my own walk with Christ.

Many today have come to believe that Jesus is merely a historical figure - a time-bound prophet, like Moses or John the Baptist. Many good people today believe that "Christ" is just a word, a label for God that can be comfortably interchanged with any other. But I have been convinced - and my conviction grows daily - Convergent Friends Gathering, 2008that the name of Jesus the Messiah is indeed the Name above every name.(1)

His name is not, of course, the word itself. The word for "Jesus" varies depending on the language; and in some cultures, many people today are named "Jesus." The name of Jesus is not the word itself, but the one to whom it refers: Jesus of Nazareth, the living Word of God. There is power in his name as we abide in him - in the living reality of Jesus, who once walked among us as the Word made flesh, suffered and died for our sakes, and who now lives within the hearts of those who accept him and allow him to transform our lives.

This past week, as I traveled among Friends in Philadelphia, the reality of the power of Jesus’ name has been especially alive to me. I have seen vivid examples of the difference it makes whether our meetings together are explicitly gathered in his name. I have also seen that the spiritual forces of darkness are desperate to discourage us from naming our submission to Christ as a community. As wellCenter City Philadelphia they should be. When we gather together in Jesus' name, we are knitted together in his love, mercy and power. He gives us strength, comfort and courage for the work of the Kingdom. He casts out all fear.

When we fail to invite Jesus to come into our midst and gather us as a community, we risk losing the opportunity to be united in his presence. Jesus said he would always be with us(2), but this promise is not unconditional. It is when two or three are gathered together in his name, that Jesus promises to be present in our midst.(3) If we earnestly seek together the God and Father of our Lord Jesus, he will gather and teach us. But we must invite him in.

I must emphasize again that the power I describe does not come from the word "Jesus." We can say, "Lord, Lord," all day long, and yet if we are not living in humble submission to Christ's living teaching and presence in our hearts, we put on a form of godliness while denying the living power of the Spirit.(4) Nevertheless, we must remember the importance of explicitly acknowledging Jesus inQuaker Camp, 2007 our gatherings. This reminder is especially crucial for Friends, whose default is to remain silent.

Often our silence does us credit, enabling us to avoid the profusion of empty words that so often characterizes the worship life of the wider Church. However, sometimes we remain silent when we should speak. We should take care that we never avoid speaking the name of Jesus in our gatherings. If we are ashamed of him, he will be ashamed of us.(5)

When we are deeply in love, it takes great effort not to say the name of the beloved. We want to repeat it - to shout it from the rooftops. We want to share the joy of our love with everyone we meet. Do we love Jesus this way? Do we want to share the beauty of the love we have found in him? Do we want to rejoice in his name in our gatherings as Friends? If we truly love Jesus, if we desireGreat Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008 his presence with us in our life together as a community, let us be unafraid to invite him into our gatherings.

There is power in the name of Jesus - not in the word, but in the Name. The forces of darkness shriek and rage against his life and presence; they seek to convince us to refrain from mentioning his name, whispering that we should be "respectable" and "broad-minded." Despite all of the obstacles that we face, let us never be ashamed of his name, his life, his beautiful presence that lives among us. He loves us as an older brother cherishes and guards his sisters and brothers from those who seek to harm them. Let us confess our love for him without shame and without guile.

Come, Lord Jesus! You are our Life, our Truth, our Beauty and our Safety. We invite you to enter into our hearts and our communities. Stay with us this night, dear Lord. You are radiant!


1. Philippians 2:9
2. Matthew 28:20
3. Matthew 18:20
4. 2 Timothy 3:5
5. Mark 8:38

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Grass Grows Beneath the Snow

When I first became a part of the Religious Society of Friends, I remember wondering whether I was joining a dying tradition. One of the first Quaker elders I encountered after my convincement admitted to me that she did not know whether the Quaker tradition had a future as a living body of believers and practitioners. As a new convert, I believed (and still do believe) that the Friends tradition and community have something unique and precious to offer the world, and so I have spent the last six years steeping myself in both.

On the one hand, I have dedicated myself to disciplined study, both independently and in the form of completing the Master of Divinity program at Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary. I have also invested very deeply in the living community of faith, traveling Trees in Winterthroughout the United States to visit Quakers from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts. My travels among Friends across the continent have deepened my understanding of the state of Quakerism in North America.

I have seen much that gives me cause for alarm. I have encountered deep divisions among Friends - over belief, practice, politics and ideology, as well as over the many mundane matters that have a way of cropping up in our life together in community. I have seen groups of Friends where process and structure are more esteemed than faith and discipleship. I have seen Meetings - of all theological stripes - where the risen presence of Jesus is no longer welcomed and the continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit is resisted.

Meanwhile, the active membership of the Religious Society of Friends in the United States is extremely low. For example, I learned recently that the average Sunday-morning attendance for the oneFallen Sapling hundred and three local Meetings of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was 2,847 adults and 624 children in April, 2010. This is arguably the largest body of Friends in the United States!

In our Meeting, my wife and I represent one third of the full membership, and our Yearly Meeting probably has an active membership of under two hundred. Most of the Meetings that I have visited in recent years have largely consisted of folks over the age of fifty. Despite recent Young Adult Friends gatherings, the Religious Society of Friends seems to be failing to speak to most Gen-Xers and Millennials.

Despite the decrepitude of the modern-day Religious Society of Friends, I do see signs of hope. There is a movement gatheringThe Grass Grows Beneath the Snow online, and increasingly in local communities, to bring the best of our rich Quaker heritage to bear on our present-day context. The international (though still mostly American) blogging community that orbits around QuakerQuaker is a major organ of this steadily percolating movement, as Friends are being drawn together from across the historical branches to discover how Christ Jesus is still at work in our midst, gathering a people together in his Spirit. The term "convergent" has emerged as a short-hand for this ongoing conversation about how we can live out our ancient Quaker Christian tradition in a post-modern world.

In recent years, there has been a remarkable emergence of new worship groups and Meetings that embody the creative edge of the Friends tradition: Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon; New City Friends in Detroit; Capitol Hill Friends in DC; a new Hispanic Friends church in Indianapolis; Old Town Friends Fellowship in Baltimore; the West Philly Worship Group in Philadelphia; and the Underground Connection in Fountain City, Indiana - to name a few. Most of these groups are characterized by an openness to experimentation with the wealth of tradition and experience represented by the several branches of Emerging from the IceQuakerism - especially the Conservative tradition. There is also some openness to learning from and incorporating elements of Protestant and Liturgical traditions.

These are hopeful signs for the future, especially when we remember that the early Quaker movement was a confluence of a variety of Christians streams - especially the Seekers, Independents, and Puritans. Quakerism was born out of a froth of experimentation and the discovery of new life given to previously dead forms through the immediate life and power of the Holy Spirit. We find ourselves once again living in a time when the old forms no longer seem to fit, and we are seeking ways to connect more authentically with Emmanuel.

The big question in my mind is: Will the existing structures of institutional Quakerism cooperate with this fresh movement of theGrowth in Winter Holy Spirit? Will the old wineskins of our Religious Society humble themselves to be emptied into new vessels - new communities, structures, networks and worship styles? Will this generation pour its resources into the building up of this new movement, or will it resist - vainly struggling to extend the relevance of our arthritic and deadening committee structures, constipated worship styles, and irrelevant organizations?

The winter has been long for Friends in North America. The long night began, perhaps, in the early days of the Quietest period and became acute in the twentieth century. The Religious Society of Friends is now at a point of extremity: Something must change, or our community and tradition will not survive. Will we choose the abundantTender Shoot life we receive when we let go of our own expectations and paradigms? Will we lay down our nets, leaving behind the boats of our forebears to seek another shore, walking humbly beside Jesus?

The winter has been long, and snow still covers the ground. But I see signs of life - little shoots of green poking their way out from beneath the numbing blanket that threatens to smother us. Let us nurture the tender shoots of life that God has planted. As we set aside our own expectations and embrace the infinite love and wisdom of God, we will find our way forward in unity, love and justice.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sight for the Blind

Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we? Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." - John 9:39-41

One of the reasons that Jesus was killed was because of the way he confronted the religious establishment of his day. He broke the rules in all sorts of ways: healing on the Sabbath,Church building in Wichita disrupting the business of the Temple, challenging the teaching of the priests and scribes, and teaching with an authority grounded in the Spirit, rather than based on an appeal to texts or human leaders. The Pharisees and Jewish religious elites were furious - this man was clearly flouting God's law!

And yet, though at first glance Jesus seems like a Jewish heretic, everything that he does upholds the spirit of the law of Moses. God gave the law to the Jews in order to bring healing, reconciliation, and more abundant life to the people of Israel. It was given to heal the rift that had developed between God and humanity. It was given as a means to guide the people in the path of holiness and re-union with God.

Yet, the outward law of Moses never accomplished these goals. The people were too hard-hearted and self-centered to fully embrace the spirit of the law. Instead of being humbled by the covenant relationship that God called them to, they became puffedNotre Dame Cathedral in Paris up with false religiosity and rule-following. At the time of Jesus' ministry, false religious piety had largely taken the place of humble submission to God's will, love, and compassion for the poor and marginalized.

Despite the bad rap that they get in the gospel narratives, the Pharisees were actually a religious movement that sought to resist the dead formalism of much of Jewish religion at that time. They stood in direct opposition to the elite priestly caste - the Sadduccees - who maintained the Temple cult of animal sacrifice, even at the cost of actively collaborating with the Roman occupation of Judea. The Pharisees had much in common with the Protestant reformers: They sought to bring the Jewish religion back to its roots, grounding it in what they saw as the clear meaning of Scripture; they insisted that Jews lead lives of purity and holiness; and they viewed compromise as unacceptable, believing that everyone was responsible to know and follow the rules.

Despite all the things the Pharisees got right in their move away from the empty formalism of the Temple, Jesus revealed that the Pharisees still missed the mark. The Pharisees rejected empty ritual and human tradition, but they replaced it with a legalistic reading of theInterior - Nortre Dame Cathedral in Paris Scriptures that reduced humanity's relationship with God to following a set of dietary and behavioral rules. Jesus revealed that strict, rule-following adherence to Scripture is just as idolatrous as the compromised ritualism of religious ceremony.

A good example of this theme is in the ninth chapter of John, where Jesus heals a man who was born blind. When the man returns home with vision intact, it naturally raises a stir in his community. Soon, the local Pharisees investigate, interrogating the man and his family, trying to learn the truth of the matter. What they learn distresses them greatly: Jesus healed this man's sight on the Sabbath - a day when all work is strictly forbidden by Jewish law. Presumably healing a blind man counts as working!

The Pharisees insisted that Jesus could not have possibly performed this miracle, as he was clearly a sinner, having broken the Sabbath. The man who was healed could only reply, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."(1) Finally, when the healed man refused to go along with their hostile questioning, the Pharisees Cross and TV Tower in Richmond, Indianaraged at him: "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us? And they drove him out."(2)

This was another way that Jesus challenged the authority and worldview of the Bible-believing Pharisees: In their interpretation of the Torah, the scribes believed that all misfortune was caused by sin. For this reason, Jesus' disciples ask him whether the man's blindness was caused by the man's sin, or by the sin of his parents. Clearly, someone must have done something wrong in order for someone to be born blind! Jesus' answer is remarkable: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."(3) Jesus turned the Bible-believer's world upside down, teaching that God is not limited by human standards and limitations - God's glory is revealed in weakness!

Jesus reveals the damage done when we limit God to our human worldviews. Our self-satisfied beliefs about who God is and our easy answers about moral cause-and-effect separate us from God. Our human sight makes us blind to the reality of what God is doing in the world. Jesus calls us to gouge out our human eyes, recognizing our own spiritual blindness whenever we rely on our own understanding rather than on God's wisdom. By Council House Meeting House, Oklahomaassuming that we have the answers, by relying on our human sight, we blind ourselves to the workings of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

Jesus calls us to loosen our grip on our own understanding, accepting that we do not see clearly and need to be led by God. Jesus invites us to confess our blindness and lack of understanding, so that we may say with the man who was healed, "I do not know... One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see."(1)

Let us approach Jesus and allow him to heal our distorted vision. Instead of seeking to achieve certainty, let us seek to abide in living relationship with Jesus. Instead of devising human teachings that give us the illusion of spiritual maturity through rule-following, let us humble ourselves and become like children, learning love and compassion at Jesus' feet.


1. John 9:25
2. v. 34
3. v. 3

Friday, February 11, 2011

Counting the Cost of a New Valiant Sixty

I was pleased to read the latest post on Earlham School of Religion's blog, Learning and Leading, which featured an essay by a newly-convinced Friend in Spain. Luís Pizarro describes his convincement into the Conservative Quaker tradition, and the challenges he faces as he attempts to foster a new Friends Meeting in his home city of Seville. Luís shares his experience of being an isolated Friend in a country largely lacking Quaker Christian witness, and how he faces a western European culture that is intensely secular, and often hostile to Christianity.

Luís touches me with his willingness to let his life preach, becoming a visible witness to the presence of the Risen Lord in Spain. HeChurch building courageously holds out the possibility of intimate relationship with Jesus, inviting his fellow countrymen and countrywomen into the intimacy with Jesus that he has experienced. So far, Luís is probably the only Quaker in Seville, but through God's sustaining and empowering Spirit, it is my prayer that there will one day be a thriving Conservative Quaker Meeting there. Indeed, I pray that Luís' courage and faithfulness to the Holy Spirit's work in his life might open the door for the development of a new Yearly Meeting in Spain. One day, there may be a Spain Yearly Meeting that can look back to these days, in the second decade of the twenty-first century and say: "This is how it all began, with one man's courage and faithful witness."

Of course, Luís' courageous witness is not enough. As he himself states in his blog post, he needs our support. He looks in particular to Quaker Christians in the United States to extend him the hand of friendship, encouragement, and teaching. Luís has been convinced of the truth of Friends' testimony of the Resurrected Jesus, but his only connection to his brothers and sisters in Christ abroad thus far has been through literature and personal contact through email and Skype. Luís, and the Meeting that we pray will begin to grow in Seville, needs ongoing connection with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Friends in Spain need our prayers, correspondence, counsel, visitation, and practical support.

Luís is an outstanding example of the ways in which Jesus Christ is raising up testimony of his continuing life and presence throughout the world. Fortunately, however, Luís is by no means unique. There are men and women across the United States and throughout the world who are discovering Christ's inward voice and are being drawn to unite with the testimony of the Friends tradition. Jesus is raising up his witnesses in Spain, the UK and Brazil. He is raising up modern-day prophets and apostles in Atlanta, Detroit, DC,New City Friends in Detroit Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere. How are we as Quaker Christians in the United States called to nurture the new signs of life that are emerging in our cities, as well as across seas and mountains, beyond Quakerism's historical geographical and cultural boundaries?

There are millions of women and men who are discovering the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in their lives and are looking for the next steps in their relationship with him. Their encounter with Christ leads them to seek community with others who are walking in the Way. What is our role as Quaker Christians in providing eldership and oversight for these individuals and new worship groups? How can we be more intentional about releasing the gifts of ministry, eldership, oversight and apostleship that are present within the Religious Society of Friends, commissioning a new Valiant Sixty to carry the good news of Christ's gospel - his living presence - out into a world that his hungering to hear his word?

Unlike the original Valiant Sixty, this new generation of Quaker apostles cannot be satisfied with preaching the message andTenleytown, DC moving on. The old method of "setting a fire and leaving it burning" never did work, and we must recognize the need for ongoing discipleship, support, and care for new Christians and emerging fellowships. How can we provide the nurture, teaching, practical support, and modeling that new Friends and new Meetings need in order to grow to maturity in Christ? Are we ready to release the the resources - human, financial and spiritual - that will be needed to equip a new Valiant Sixty? Are we ready to outfit and support dozens, even hundreds of gospel laborers to work in the fields for months, years, or decades at a time? Are we ready to invest our lives and resources into the work of proclaiming Christ's love and building up his Body, the Church?

As we are faithful to the call to go into all the world, proclaiming and embodying the gospel of Christ's living presence, we can be sureCapitol Hill Friends visit Rockingham that we will not only enrich the lives of those whom we visit - we will also find our own lives changed and faith strengthened by our encounter with Christ in others. Luís and Friends in Spain surely have a great deal to teach those of us in the United States that have taken our relatively religious culture for granted. When we respond faithfully to God's call, we can be sure that our lives and worldview will be turned upside down.

Jesus warned us to count the cost before setting out on a journey with him.(1) He knew that walking in his way would cost us everything - our very lives! We must be ready to sacrifice in order to support our brothers and sisters who are crying out for the living witness of the Church in our suffering world. The harvest is plentiful, but we will never see it unless we commit ourselves completely to serving Jesus and modeling the tradition in which we experience him as a community. Are you ready? Will you join us?


1. Luke 14:28-33

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Preparing for the Harvest

I am encouraged to see a number of signs that unprogrammed Friends are developing a renewed focus on evangelism. LiberalFriends at Rockingham Monthly Meeting Friends in the US and UK are developing the Quaker Quest program as a pathway to numerical and spiritual growth, and Conservative Friends are also increasingly emphasizing outreach. In the last few years, all of the Conservative Yearly Meetings reported the addition of new Monthly Meetings. Ohio Yearly Meeting has been particularly active in outreach, nurturing several worship groups in the United States, Britain, Greece and Spain, as well as maintaining a network of affiliated and sympathetic Friends across the globe. As one of the smaller Yearly Meetings in the United States, Ohio Yearly Meeting has a disproportionate impact on missions.

Among Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, there is a palpable enthusiasm for the work of evangelism. Working side by side with other Quaker Christian groups, I believe that we are poised for growth in the twenty-first century. I see no reason why the coming decades should not see the emergence of many new Meetings - even new Yearly Meetings - in the Conservative stream.

Given present size of my own Yearly Meeting, such high levels of growth could be overwhelming. Ohio Yearly Meeting probably has anFriends in the woods active membership of fewer than two hundred people. Adding a just a half-dozen new Meetings in the coming decades could bring about revolutionary changes in our small community, as newcomers quickly outnumber those who have been part of the Yearly Meeting for decades and generations. This is particularly true if the emerging Meetings are made up of Friends who are new to the Conservative Quaker tradition.

This would not be without precedent. The revivalist frenzy of the late nineteenth century was characterized by meteoric growth, with Yearly Meetings bringing in tens of thousands of new converts in a matter of years. Immediately, Friends were forced to consider how to integrate so many new Quakers into the fellowship. They found that the tried and true "education by osmosis" no longer worked in a context where most of the community was not raised in a sectarian Quaker community. One result of the search for new ways of transmitting our faith was the pastoral system, which has revolutionized Quakerism and now represents the overwhelming majority of Friends worldwide.

More recently, we have the example of the New Meetings Movement, when Friends were overwhelmed by the growth of new Meetings inFriends at Illinois Yearly Meeting college towns across the United States. Throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, new Meetings flourished across the Mid-west and West, while the traditional centers of American Quakerism (e.g. Philadelphia YM, Indiana YM) imploded. Even as the traditional Hicksite and Gurneyite Yearly Meetings saw their membership plummeting, new unprogrammed Yearly Meetings sprang into existence where there were none before. This resulted in a situation where local Meetings, and even Yearly Meetings, developed where there was virtually no seasoned ministry, eldership or oversight. New Meetings Movement Quakerism emerged as an individualistic faith, and connections with the past were tenuous. In many places, the New Meetings Movement has left a legacy of rootlessness and disconnection from many of the basic beliefs and practices of the Quaker tradition.

In both the revivalism of the late 1800s and the New Meetings Movement of the mid-1900s, we see cases in which growth outran the capacity of seasoned ministry, eldership and oversight to care for newly convinced Friends and Meetings. As a result, the tradition was radically, decisively altered in very short periods of time. This change often came less out of deep reflection and spiritual unity than it did out of an urgency to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. Above all, both cases demonstrate a failure on the part of Friends to prepare in advance for growth.

Precisely because I see the potential for such rapid growth in the coming decades, I believe that we must take care to prepareQuaker Youth Pilgrimage at Camas Friends Meeting ourselves not only to fan the flames of a new revival, but to provide the grounded leadership and example that will be needed in order to sustain the movement, connecting us through teaching and example to the tradition of the early Friends and the early Christian Church. Above all, it is critical that we prepare ourselves now for the coming growth. If we wait until explosive growth is upon us, it will be too late to develop our response.

I believe that it is crucial that we begin to operate under the assumption that Christ is already gathering a great people, and that we need to prepare ourselves and our communities to participate in that gathering work. I am convinced that we need everyone in our Meetings and worship groups to take seriously our responsibility to prepare the way of the Lord, throwing ourselves into the work of discipleship and evangelism, and steeping ourselves in the tradition so that we are capable of demonstrating it to those whom the Lord draws into our small order of the Universal Church. It is crucial that we lead lives that model the life of Christ as it is being revealed to us within the Quaker stream of the Christian tradition.

We need all hands on deck. We need to demonstrate with our time, energy and financial resources the priority that we place on sharingFriends at Ohio Yearly Meeting, 2009 the good news of Jesus Christ, inviting others into the tradition and community of Friends. What would it look like if building up the Body of Christ were truly our first priority? How would our lives change if we truly believed that God was about to send thousands of people to us, seeking to be welcomed into a community where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as our present Teacher, Guide and Lord?
I pray that you will join with me in building our house upon the rock, so that when the flood comes, we will be ready to offer refuge to others rather than being swept away ourselves.


*While there are several ways of defining Conservative Quakerism, I use the term to refer to Friends who see the Quaker practices of waiting worship and Spirit-led decision-making as central to their life of faith as a Meeting. Conservative Friends hold that faith in Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Christian tradition are essential for the Meeting community as a whole. Conservative Friends see common Christian faith – not only common worship and decision-making practice – as being the basis for membership in the Meeting.

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)
1. see Psalm 34:8

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Discernment and Service - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #27

Dear Friends,

The last month has felt very full: of work, possibility, discernment and, ultimately, waiting. Early in the month, Faith and I traveled toStillwater Meeting House Barnesville, Ohio to attend Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, of which Rockingham is a constituent Monthly Meeting. Our time together was quite eventful. To begin with, Keystone Meeting announced their appointment of an elder and overseer. They also brought two names to be considered for recording as gospel ministers. These two names were approved with joy, and there was a general sense of gratitude for the spiritual gifts that are present and being recognized among Friends in central Pennsylvania.

In addition to the recording of ministers and the recognition of eldership and oversight, still more signs of life were in evidence fromStillwater Meeting House Porch Keystone Friends as one of their recorded ministers brought a minute of travel to be endorsed by the Quarter. This Friend will, God willing, be making a number of trips in gospel ministry among Friends in the United States. It was encouraging to see how God is raising up ministers and guiding them to encourage and bind together the body of Quaker Christians.

I also had business to lay before the Quarterly Meeting. For some months, I had been praying about the possibility of travel to the United Kingdom and Spain. My sense was to visit the developing networks of Quaker Christians in the UK and on the continent of Europe, to encourage them in their walk with Christ and see how we might labor together in extending and strengthening Christ's Reign in both Europe and North America. For a time, it seemed clear that the time had come for me undertake these travels, to continue the process of developing a transatlantic body of Quaker Christians.

For a variety of reasons, however, my sense of clarity about such travels had diminished over the course of the month of December,Barnesville, Ohio and by the time I arrived at Stillwater Quarterly Meeting, I was quite unsure in my sense of leading. With the encouragement of Friends from Rockingham, I presented the travel minute from my Monthly Meeting, along with a detailed explanation of the history and current state of my concern.

The response of Friends was remarkable. They were very generous in affirming me and my desire to be faithful in the work that God calls me to, and they took responsibility for the concern, embracing it as work of the Quarter. The sense of the meeting was to appoint a committee to pray with me and assist me in my ongoing discernment. The Quarterly Meeting clerk was instructed to hold my travel minute, and was authorized to endorse it at such a time as way opened for me to travel. I felt so blessed by the way that Friends showed love for me, and I was very grateful for their readiness to pray with me and participate in my ongoing discernment. I am painfully aware of how rare this sort of care and oversight is, and I was deeply moved to experience Friends' loving concern.

Even as I continue to pray about God's will for my role in the labor in Europe, I feel very clear that Christ is calling me into ever deeperBarnesville, Ohio work here in Washington, DC. This month has been one of great intensity in the process of developing covenanted community among Friends in the DC area. I have spent much of my time meeting with Friends, learning more about their lives and struggles, and listening together with them to how we are being called to strengthen our Christian commitment as a fellowship. This is a slow process, based as it is in the subtle and delicate work of developing trust and human relationships. It is exhausting work - who ever knew that Christian community would be so much effort! But it is nourishing, healthy, blessed work. It is my conviction that we will find our true purpose as a people as we cultivate our relationships in Christ, inviting him into our midst and loving one another in his Spirit.

My work in DC has not been limited to the small Christian Quaker fellowship that is budding on Capitol Hill. For some months now, I have also been intentional about getting more involved in the wider community. One of the most significant relationships that I have developed this winter has been with a group of seekers in the Congress Heights neighborhood of southeast DC. They are four twenty-somethings who live together in a neighborhood that conventional DC wisdom says is off-limits to middle class white people. As they share life together, they also share a vision of being good citizens and neighbors in Congress Heights, and they actively seek ways that they can reach out and get involved.

One of the ways that they connect with their community is by holding an ecumenical Bible study, which rotates between theirWooden Door, Washington, DC house and the home of a neighbor two doors down. The composition of the study group is eclectic, with about half of the attenders being spiritual seekers who are wrestling with their relationship to Christianity and the Bible; the other half are members of an interracial, quasi-fundamentalist Churches of Christ congregation. It makes for interesting conversations. I have been attending this Bible study for a few months now, and it has given me the chance to connect more deeply with this community, and with the Congress Heights neighborhood in general.

As an attender of the Bible study, I was around when folks at the community house started talking about forming a new chapter of Food Not Bombs in Congress Heights, and I have had the opportunity to take part in the development of this new project. Food Not Bombs is a simple idea: Our group recovers food that would otherwise have gone to waste; we use this food to prepare healthy, vegetarian meals; and we serve this food without charge, on the street, to anyone who wants it. Very simple, yet also very radical.

Our first time serving food was two weeks ago, and so far our experience has been very good. We serve lunch at a park on theEast Capitol Street, Washington, DC corner of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a liquor store on one side and a gas station on the other. The blessings of this work are many. Just in the first two weeks, I feel like we have been able to connect quite a bit with people out on the street, mostly poor and homeless folks - but also, to some extent, with non-poor people who are passing by. It has been great to break down the ordinary barriers that keep people separate in our city - fear, pride, self-sufficiency, concern about appearances; we seek to set these aside in doing Food Not Bombs. Truly, there is not much self-importance left when we are hawking fried apples, soup and salad to passing teenagers!

But perhaps the biggest blessing so far is the way in which this project has drawn together and bonded those of us who are participating in the preparation and serving of food. Folks from the house in Congress Heights, a number of us from the William Penn House, and several others have come together to do this work, and it is wonderful to see our communities being knitted together in shared service. In some ways, this form of bonding is more significant than shared worship: We are engaged in the Lord's service together in a very tangible way, and it is amazing to watch the way eyes are opened and hearts expanded as we participate in this labor of reconciliation, showing love and making ourselves vulnerable to others in a very gritty, material, visceral way.

The outreach in Congress Heights is significant, and I feel theWilliam Penn House Lord's hand in it. I am grateful that God has brought us together in this way and permitted me to participate in this worthy work. I ask that you continue to pray for the mission here in DC: that our faith and resolve be strengthened as we walk ever more deeply into Christ's Kingdom, with his living presence within us and among us. For myself in particular, I ask that you pray that God keep me clear in what work is mine to do and what is to be set aside. Finally, please pray that the Lord raise up more workers. Truly, the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few!

Yours in the love and justice of Christ Jesus,

Micah Bales