Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Desperate and Broken-Hearted

As part of our gatherings at Capitol Hill Friends, we share a meal and read and discuss Scripture. This Sunday, we read the fourth chapter of John, which features the iconic story of Jesus speaking with the woman Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Wellat the well. It also includes a brief story about a royal official who comes to Jesus seeking healing for his son who is gravely ill.

Superficially, the Samaritan woman and the royal official have virtually nothing in common. The woman is about as low as someone could be in the Jewish worldview. The very fact that she is a Samaritan should make her out-of-bounds for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is a Jew, and Jews do not associate with Samaritans, who are considered essentially "untouchable."

Besides the fact of her being a member of an untouchable, outsider group, the Samaritan woman is a woman. Strike two. Women have no status in the ancient near-East, and it is scandalous that Jesus would approach her and speak to her in public. And if that is not enough, it turns out that this particular woman has been married five times, and she is presently living with a man she is not married to. Despite all of these barriers, Jesus approaches her and reveals his true identity to her. He changes her life, making her the first apostle of the Good News to the Samaritan people.

The royal official, on the other hand, is close to the top of the social pyramid of his day. Presumably he was the equivalent of a presidential adviser or diplomat. He had all kinds of connections to call on and commanded great respect. Nonetheless, he could notCapitol Hill Friends save his boy. His son was so ill that this wealthy, powerful, well-connected man approached an itinerant rabbi, begging him for help.

While it was Jesus who took the initiative in speaking with the woman at the well, the case of the royal official is different. In the former case, Jesus is the person with higher status, and he humbles himself to speak with the woman at the well. In the case of the royal official, however, Jesus has lower status. In his desperation to save his son's life, the royal official must humble himself to ask for Jesus' help.

The circumstances of the woman at the well and the royal official are vastly different, but their spiritual condition is the same. Both of them, high and low in the eyes of their society, are broken-hearted. Each of them knows that they are unable to meet the demands of this life on their own, and they find that Jesus is the one who can speak to their condition. Jesus knows them and loves them. He reveals God's love. Jesus can do this because these individuals are desperate for what Jesus has to offer.

In The Message paraphrase of the Scriptures, Matthew 5:3 is rendered, "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and his rule." During our discussion of Scripture at Capitol Hill Friends, we realized that we are a Friends at Lunchcommunity of people at the end of their rope. Capitol Hill Friends is a place for the broken, the wounded, the screwed up, the desperate.

Capitol Hill Friends is a place for folks who are on the margins in a variety of ways. We sense that business as usual is not working in our lives. We know that we cannot make it alone, and so we reach out to God and to one another. We are learning that we cannot make it on our own, that we are dependent on Jesus and his Holy Spirit to guide us and fill us with his strength.

It is by imitating the humble brokenness of our crucified Savior that we find true strength. It is in opening up and making ourselves vulnerable that we discover God's love for us. God yearns to draw us close and heal us, if only we will accept this love. God's heart is broken for us. And as we turn to embrace him, we realize that God was there all along. Long before we realized our need of him, Jesus was desperate for us. He died for us.

We are waking up to our own desperate need of God's mercy. No longer acting as if we ourselves could save the world, we are catching glimpses of the boundless love that God has for us. As the Holy Spirit comes among us, we sense in our hearts the way Christ loves us. We experience the way he lays his life down for us, and we hear him calling us to Downtown DC at Nightfollow him. Like Simon and Andrew, we are called to lay down our nets and join the Master in becoming fishers of people.(1)

We stand on the edge of a great decision as a community. Will we own up to our woundedness, presenting ourselves to Jesus for healing? Will we commit ourselves to the work of embodying the Reign of God, here in Washington, DC? Will we embrace Christ's call to boldness, inviting others to join us as his disciples? Will we let God transform our desperate hearts, making us people who yearn for the restoration and reconciliation of all people in Christ?


1. Mark 1:17

Friday, March 25, 2011

Primitive Christianity Revised?

For most Christians, there is an assumption that the faith and practice of the early Church bears a certain special authority. Some communions express this in doctrines of "apostolic succession," in which the modern-day Church receives its spiritual authority as an inheritance, passed down from the first-century apostles to the present-day church leadership. In other denominations, the canonical Scriptures are understood as bearing this fundamental authority. The Scriptures transmit the story of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they also provide us with a glimpse into the life of the early Church. The early Church, as we encounter it in Scripture, serves as a model for us today.

The Religious Society of Friends also gives priority to the early Church. The first-generation of Quaker preachers and evangelists understood themselves as a re-emergence of the true, spiritual Church of Christ. One of the principal slogans of the early Quaker movement was "primitive Christianity revived." Early Friends claimed that the Church had fallen into apostasy in the centuries since theClement of Alexandria events detailed in the Book of Acts, and they believed that the new Quaker movement represented not a new sect, but a rebirth of the first-century Church.

The interesting thing is, in many matters of practice, the Quaker movement diverged from the pre-Constantinian Church. The early Church practiced water baptism, for instance. And the Lord's Supper. Within the first few generations of the Christian faith, there were clear hierarchical lines of authority established within the Church spreading throughout the Roman Empire. There were priests and bishops, very similar in their function to the priests and bishops in the Eastern Orthodox communion today.

The Friends movement denied the legitimacy of a human priesthood, calling it a blasphemy against the true and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. The early Quakers rejected water baptism, claiming that it was a Jewish rite that no longer applies to those who are in Christ.

Similarly, Friends eschewed the ritual of bread and wine that is so central to most Christians. Jesus, they claimed, never meant to institute a perpetual ceremony for the Church to observe. While the early Friends movement undoubtedly bore the marks of spiritual anointing and apostolic authority, there were many differences between their practices and those of the primitive Christianity that they felt they embodied.

As a twenty-first century Christian in the Quaker tradition, this leads me to wonder about how we as a Church are to relate to our spiritual ancestors - whether they be the early Quakers, the Doctors of the early Church, the Apostle Paul, or the Twelve Apostles or the first-century Church in Jerusalem. How do we makeThe Church Fathers sense of the differences in theology and practice among them? How do we decide who our ultimate guide should be?

If our object is to preserve undefiled the faith and practice of our spiritual forebears, we must first decide which ancestors have primacy. As Quakers, do we privilege the early Friends over the Doctors of the early Church? On what basis? And if we choose to privilege the more universally recognized teachings of the Doctors, how do we make sense of our own tradition as Friends, which certainly differs with the understandings of the early Church on several points?

Most of the denominations that have emerged out of the Protestant Reformation base their faith and practice on a particular interpretation of Scripture. The justification for everything they do is "the clear teachings of Scripture." Scripture trumps the teachings of the early Church - and certainly the teachings of the medieval Roman Church. For most Protestants, Scripture is the foundational bedrock where Christians can go to test all doctrines. Given the plethora of Protestant denominations today, it is clear that this did not provide a complete solution to the question of authority. Ultimately, each denomination stands on its own particular interpretation of what the Scriptures "really mean."

In many ways, Quakers are no different. We have particular passages that we like to harp on. The early Friends focused a lot on the book of James, Hebrews, John and Revelation. Our reading of Scripture is certainly particular, biased, sectarian. We have this in common with the Protestant denominations. The difference, though, is that Friends have always believed - at least in theory -Polycarp of Smyrna that Jesus Christ is literally present with us in the present day. The foundation of our faith as Friends is not the example of the early Church, the early Friends, or even the Scriptures. It is Jesus himself. Here. With us.

Our experience has been that of Paul, who wrote that, "no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ."(1) The early Church, the Roman and Eastern communions, the Protestant reformers, early Quakers, Methodists and Pentecostals have all built upon that true Foundation. There have been many times that we have gotten it right, and plenty of others when we have messed up and missed the whole point. Jesus Christ, resurrected and present with us today, is infallible; we, his Church, are not.

Sometimes our spiritual ancestors screwed up. Think of slavery. Or the subjugation of women. Despite our failings, however, I believe that our spiritual ancestors have - by the grace of God - gotten more right than we could reasonably expect. We look back to them because they provide such a good example to us. We look back to their discernment, their sense of Christ's presence, the truth that was revealed to them, and we learn a lot. We do not always have to re-invent the wheel.

At the same time, even when the early Church and other spiritual ancestors have gotten it right, context matters. Things that were right for a particular time period may not be universally applicable. For example, I think about the early Quaker rejection of instrumental music, congregational singing, art and literature. I believe I understand why they stood against these things, given the corruption they saw in the institutional Church at that time. Music Clement of Romeand visual art were a big part of the culture of entertainment-oriented church services. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the early Friends' rejection of these things is a universal truth for all times and places.

We face new challenges today. While some of the concerns of our spiritual forebears may no longer be applicable, we are confronted with so many issues that they could not have foreseen. Cars and cell phones, the internet and television, automobiles and air travel. We have a great deal of discernment to do as Christ's Body, and we are not going to get clear answers from our ancestors. Not even from the Bible. But we do not have to let this deter us from embracing these challenges. Jesus is still here with us, and he will show us how we are to live.

How might Jesus be calling us to live out "primitive Christianity revised"? How might the Spirit be upon us to re-think some of the old assumptions that were born of another era? Where are we now? How are we called to faithfully re-mix the gospel for our own era and cultural context? What does the love, mercy and justice of Jesus look like today, in twenty-first century America?


1. 1 Corinthians 3:11

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ministers and Elders Retreat in Barnesville

This weekend, Faith and I traveled out to southeastern Ohio to attend a retreat for Friends with a call to gospel ministry or eldership. The retreat was held at the Friends Center of Ohio Yearly Meeting, near Stillwater Meeting House.

Our facilitators for the weekend were Brian Drayton and Jan Hoffman, both ministers from New England Yearly Meeting, and Eric and SusanSusan Smith, an elder from Ohio Yearly Meeting. I really appreciated their work in helping us reflect on the distinctions between ministry and eldership. I was especially glad for their willingness to examine how these mysterious gifts manifest uniquely in each person. For the most part, we stayed away from one-size-fits-all definitions and sought to understand how God's gifts were at work in each of our lives.

Besides our leaders, there were twenty of us in attendance - the maximum capacity for Friends Center. Six attenders were from Ohio Yearly Meeting, four from New England Yearly Meeting and three from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The rest of us came from Baltimore, Illinois, Western, New York, Canadian and Pacific Yearly Meetings, as well as a Friend from Alaska Friends Noah and JimConference. There was a wide range of experience represented. Some of us were seasoned Friends with decades of ministry/eldership experience, while others of us were still still emerging in our gifts. Some attended as a part of the process of discernment of calling and gifting.

I felt blessed to gather with Friends from a wide range of Yearly Meeting backgrounds under the explicitly Christian auspices of Ohio Yearly Meeting. While there were certainly a variety of perspectives and understandings present, it felt like we were brought together in Christ Jesus. Over the course of the weekend, we received God's word in our hearts and heard substantial, grounded vocal ministry. We were strengthened and deepened in our common walk of Christian discipleship. We received wisdom and teaching as we continue to seek God's purpose for our lives.

In our meeting for worship on Saturday evening, I felt that the word of the Lord to the group was that we are called to theBrian and Elaine baptism of fire that John the Baptist proclaimed and that Jesus offers us. We were reminded that we are born of water and given spirit/breath by our Creator. After these baptisms of water and spirit comes the baptism of fire, which is a spiritual circumcision. The baptism of fire is a cutting, a stripping down and cleansing of all rebellion and ungodliness. It is a baptism into holiness.

While we were called to pass through the crucible of inward spiritual baptism and crucifixion of self-will, we were also reminded that dying to self is the beginning of new life in Christ. We were exhorted to rememberJoe and Cathy that the good news of Jesus Christ is not the fire, but the life, joy and peace that lies beyond it. As ministers and elders, we are called to act as midwives to the birthing of new, everlasting life in the Spirit.

I was grateful to have the opportunity to be present at this gathering of Friends. Over the course of the weekend, the Holy Spirit worked on my heart, bringing me to a clearer understanding of my own spiritual condition. In particular, I became even more aware of my own need to be humbled and yielded to Christ's lordship. I was shown that I am called to greater singleness of purpose in my life.

For years, I have run myself ragged, seeking to accomplish more, do more, be more. But this weekend the Lord deepened my understanding of what Christ asks of me. I saw that God desires not achievement but submission. The Spirit calls me to not greatness but yieldedness. To walk in the way of Jesus is to embrace not human honor and glory but anonymous love and self-sacrifice. I am convicted that my anxiety is a sign of my sin, not of Jan Hoffmanmy diligence. I am called to simple, childlike trust. Worry is not a part of God's plan for me, because the power of the Lord is indeed over all.

I am grateful for the work of the organizers this weekend, and for all of the ministers and elders who traveled to be with us. I give thanks for the powerful ways that God has moved among us, and for Jesus' resurrected presence in our midst. He continues to teach us, and I pray for the grace to yield to his instruction. I can trust his word to me. I know he loves me. My only job is to love him back, and share that love with others.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Toward a Christian Response to the Crisis in Libya

Peace requires justice. Justice requires law. Law requires government. Not only within nations, but also between nations. - William Penn, 1693 (As paraphrased by Paulette Meier in Timeless Quaker Wisdom)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. ... But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. - Romans 13:1, 4

Along with millions of others around the world, I have watched with great sadness and outrage as peaceful demonstrations in Libya have been brutally suppressed by the autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Out of the brutality of Gaddafi's security forces has emerged what is probably best described as a civil war, with Muammar GaddafiGaddafi's strongholds in the west of Libya squaring off with rebels, primarily in the eastern half of the country.

As the atrocious behavior of the reigning government in Libya has escalated, many around the world have called for military action to halt the violence and assist the rebels in removing Gaddafi from power. On the twelfth of March, the Arab League approved a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. According to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this caused a "sea change" in international opinion. Yesterday evening, the United Nations Security Council joined the Arab league, voting to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

As crushing violence continues across Libya, many have written in favor of a no-fly zone, while many others have opposed it for a variety of reasons. Both sides have rational bases for their positions, but I have not yet been exposed to a conversation about this crisis from a Christian perspective - particularly not from a perspective that holds war-making to be contrary to the Spirit and teachings of Christ.

I have sought such a perspective, because I am deeply concerned about the situation in Libya, and as a citizen of the United States I am - in at least a very small degree - a shareholder in the most Gaddafi's forcespowerful military apparatus the world has ever known. As a citizen of this democratic state, I also theoretically have a small amount of authority in determining how this military force is - or is not - employed. In short, as a citizen, I feel a responsibility to to give broad guidance to my elected representatives in the hope that they will direct our military forces to act with wisdom and justice.

As a disciple of the Crucified Savior, I am skeptical of the very idea of military intervention. If I had my way, I would like to see the military budget entirely eliminated. I believe that Christ would be more glorified by a nation dedicated to peace-making and humanitarian efforts rather than the accumulation of military might and imperial ambitions. The very fact that we have a military force ready to project US power in North Africa does not reflect my highest ideals as a Christian citizen of the United States.

Nevertheless, those forces are there. They are equipped and prepared for most USS Theodore Roosevelteventualities, and they stand ready for orders from the president. A president who, at least in theory, is in some small measure answerable to me. As a Christian who believes that it is important to participate fully in our democratic society, this presents a great dilemma. I am opposed to the very existence of our military structures and hardware, yet I am responsible in some degree for their use (or non-use).

In my search for a Christian response to this crisis, I went where I often go when I need to become better informed on an issue: Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL is the Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, and by and large they represent my values.Friends Committee on National Legislation I can normally expect them to provide me with a well-informed, spiritually grounded and compassionate analysis of a given issue. In this particular case, however, I was disappointed. The statement that FCNL issued on their official blog amounted to little more than shrilly repeating their slogan, "war is not the answer." The author of the post seemed to reason that the use of force is universally wrong and that the United States has no authority to use its military might to impose order in other countries. To impose a no-fly zone would be to "attack Libya," pure and simple.

I do not think it is that simple. Most Christians I know - many of whom are Quakers - reject violence on general principle. Nevertheless, almost all of them still recognize the legitimacy of an armed police force in our cities and towns. While this might not be the method we would prefer to maintain an ordered society, most of us see armed law enforcement as a sad necessity. Even if we ourselves do not feel it is right to personally carry weapons and enforce order through the threat (or use) of violence, most of us would call the police if we felt threatened.

And yet, for many of us who are willing to lean on the violence of the police for our own protection, there is a reticence to take this logic to its international conclusion. Is international policing F16 Fighter Jetspossible? If so, it would look a lot like war - just like intra-national police forces often look a lot like military units when they fight against organized crime. Where is the line between the legitimate authority of law-enforcement and the illegitimate use of violence by the state? I do not feel like we have a clear sense of this as Christians in the pacifist tradition.

I know that there are some Christians who do not believe that it is our role to involve ourselves in the political process. I also recognize that there are some Christians who truly are ready to die - and watch their neighbors die - before calling on armed authorities to impose order by force. This essay is not directed at these brothers and sisters.

At present, I write primarily to the majority of us who do feel called to engage in the political process. We feel responsible for the decisions of our policy-makers, and we are willing to avail ourselves of the sword that the governing authorities wield, even if we do not feel clear to wield it ourselves. How are we to weigh these issues?

It is not enough to simply say that we are against war. First, I believe we must get clear on what we actually believe constitutes "war," as opposed to a legitimate police function on the international level. I also believe that, if we are to oppose the use of force, we have a responsibility to propose - and demonstrate - alternative solutions to violent intervention. If we cannot offer such solutions, how can we reasonably deny the imperfect means of others who desire to halt the bloodbath in North Africa?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Living As If

[People] are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? The answer is the same as before. Act as if you did. Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'if I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it. - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg. 132

In the past few days, I have been reading C.S. Lewis, and these lines really stuck out for me, because they uncover a real difference in emphasis between my own background as a Quaker and Lewis' heritage as an Anglican. One of the distinguishing marks of the Friends tradition is a strong - almost bull-headed - emphasis on inward, spiritual experience. The Quaker focus on the primacy of theC.S. Lewis reading Spirit has often bordered on Gnosticism. That is to say, the spiritual nature of the world has been so emphasized that at times it has been a temptation for Friends to deny the goodness and reality of God's physical creation.

This is an understandable slant for Friends, who found themselves up against a seventeenth-century religious establishment that placed all of its emphasis on ritual, written statements of belief and submission to human authorities. If the Church of England was as corrupt as the early Friends made it out to be (and I believe that it was), the Valiant Sixty were right to denounce the empty formalism of the state Church.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether some baby got thrown out with all of that bathwater. Have Friends gone too far in stripping the Christian religion down to its essence? Are some of these outward forms, if not necessary, at least helpful in the development of inward spirituality and Christ-like living?

Lewis sure seemed to think so. His suggestion that, to put it rather crudely, "we've got to fake it to make it," probably makes old George Fox spin in his grave. On the contrary, the traditional Quaker position would be that we should never try to substitute the inward motions of the Holy Spirit with "outward forms." If we do not feel the immediate presence of Christ, then we should wait inGeorge Fox stillness until we do. Then, out of that sense of presence and power, we must allow God to move us to whatever action it is we are to take.

I want to confess: This quietist party line has not been consistently true in my own experience. Most of the time, I experience God as leaving me plenty of room to be self-starting. It is true that there are many times when God intervenes clearly in my life and shows me in a variety of ways how I am to move forward. But it is also true that there are many other times when I do not experience God's immediate presence in a palpable way. Yet, even in these times, I am often required to make decisions. In such cases, I do my best to make a faithful decision, based on my prior experience of God. Relying on my present level of understanding of God's character and will for my life, I chart my course and pray that God will correct me as soon as possible if I am wrong. And God has a tendency to do just that!

My need for trust - faith - without the benefit of an immediate sense of God's presence is most clear in times of spiritual crisis. There are times when the darkness in my life is thick and almost overwhelming. Much of the holiness that I have experienced seems overshadowed and God feels distant. I have two choices in times like these. I can make the decision to despair, surrendering myself to the darkness and cursing God, or I can choose to respond in faith. If I respond in faith, I must respond as if. In times when God seems so far away and evil seems so much more real, I must persevere in willful confidence that the power of the Lord is indeed over all - even if my immediate experience indicates the opposite.

Even in less extreme cases, I believe that there is an argument to be made for living as if. On a day to day, week to week basis, I do not always feel God's presence with me. There are many moments,Darkness in the Metro not just in times of intense crisis, when I must rely on previous experiences of God's power and love and carry on in trust that God is still present, even if I do not feel particularly in touch with the Spirit that day.

It has been my experience that the Light of Christ is a refiner's fire, purifying us and changing our very natures. Over time, as we yield ourselves to the working of the Spirit in our lives, Christ transforms our natures, restoring our personalities to the state that God intended. As this process moves along, is it possible that God gives us opportunities to exercise the increasingly redeemed natures that are being re-created within us? It seems from my experience of this process that God periodically removes our training wheels. God gives us the freedom to experience the full possibilities of life in Christ.

This makes sense, doesn't it? As Christians, we believe that God desires us to freely choose relationship with God. It seems that the Lord is truly pleased with our free choice to love God and to imitate his Son, Jesus. It would be very difficult for us to freely choose to love the Lord if the Spirit were constantly overriding our faculties with states of ecstasy and connection, just as it would be very difficult for a child to truly love their parents if they were smothered with gifts and attention morning, noon and night. It seems that God gives us space so that we can love God for who God truly is, not merely for the gifts that God bestows.

While all of this seems very clear to me, I recognize that it presents some complications for Friends. Our emphasis has always been on complete submission to the Spirit. Indeed, at certain points in our history it seems that Friends felt they needed an inward motion of the Spirit to go to the outhouse! I will admit that I doSeth Hinshaw displaying an old Quaker text not have that kind of relationship with God. While God is very active and present in my life, there are many times when I simply do not feel the Spirit's presence. What am I to do in these times?

Is it sometimes appropriate to live "as if" we loved God? As if we felt his presence? As if we believed the teaching and example of Jesus as we find it in the Scriptures? The very thought of putting belief first and finding inward experience afterward is, at least at first glance, an affront to traditional Friends doctrine. But what is that to us? Are we looking for Truth, or will we only accept the opinions of our Quaker ancestors? What canst thou say?

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Quaker Charism

Within the Roman Catholic tradition, there are a number of monastic orders that maintain a certain level of autonomy and distinctness from the wider Church. Each of these orders has a particular sense of call and a special gift that they lift up for the wider Body. This special purpose, the particular giftedness and mission of the smaller order within the Body, is called a charism. Some orders focus on teaching, others on missionary work, still others on dedicated prayer; whatever their particular call as a community might be, it is this charism that justifies their existence as a semi-autonomous order within the Church.

I have long felt that the Religious Society of Friends is, in effect, a sort of religious order within the wider Christian Church. Believing that this is so, I am led to ask: What is our charism as a community? What is it that justifies the separate existence of the Quaker Church? If we are ultimately merely a subset of the worldwide orthodox Christian Church, what reasons can we offer for existing as a distinct society - an order - within the wider body? To put it another way: What are Friends United Meeting Triennial, 2008the special gifts that we bring to the wider Body? What is our particular mission as a people within the universal Church?

I would argue that our most essential calling as a people is to lift up a compelling witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is indeed risen from the dead. In our experience, this is not a figure of speech nor merely a fact that will only become truly relevant at some point in the future, when Jesus returns. We believe and we testify to our experience that Jesus has returned in a very important sense. He is available to us now, as he promised, whenever two or three are gathered together in his name.(1) The most basic mission of the Religious Society of Friends is to proclaim and make visible the fact that Jesus Christ is here, now, teaching and leading us himself.

Flowing out of this experience of Christ's literal presence in the midst of the community, Friends have developed certain beliefs and practices that make us unique, distinct from the rest of the Christian Church. Because of our faith that the Holy Spirit will lead us in our life together as a community, we seek to submit ourselves to its guidance in all things. Rather than attempting to interpret the Bible like a legal code, we seek to allow the very Spirit that inspired the Scriptures to inspire us as well, so that we can understand the trueGreat Plains Yearly Meeting, 2008 meaning of the holy texts. We wait on Christ, trusting him to open the Scriptures to us, just as he did for the early Church.(2)

This direct reliance on the Holy Spirit for direction not only gives Friends a distinctive relationship with the Bible, it also changes how we understand human authority. For much of the Christian Church, a human system of government is set up as the ultimate authority for the community. Whether it is a hierarchy of bishops and priests, bodies of elected representatives, or simple voting at the congregational level, most of the Church operates essentially under human control.

Truth be told, much of the time Quaker churches and institutions make their decisions with same degree of functional atheism as within the wider Church. However, at the core of our tradition is a practice of inward listening and trust in the living presence of Christ to guide us as a community. Out of our testimony that Christ is literally here, the functional Head of his Church today, we have developed a method of decision-making that involves group discernment of God's will. Rather than relying on human hierarchies or political-style voting, our charism expresses itself in a practice of voteless decision-making, where all the members come togetherGreat Plains Yearly Meeting, 2007 - Group Photo and are (more often that one would guess) brought into clarity and unity by the present Spirit of Christ.

The discernment of God's will by the entire membership of the Church, waiting to be brought into unity by the Holy Spirit, is one of the most profound characteristics of the Religious Society of Friends that justifies its autonomous existence within the wider Church. We believe that this is a practice that the entire Church should adopt, and the best way we can witness to this super-human way of being guided directly by God is to continue to practice it as a distinct community.

Out of this process of waiting together as a community for the guidance of Christ's risen presence and power, a number of other distinctive beliefs and practices have emerged. Once again, we believe that these beliefs and practices are fundamentally faithful to the Truth of the gospel, and we feel that we are justified in remaining a distinct community Jay Marshall with Friends in Mexicowithin the wider Church so that we might continue to witness to the truth that has been revealed to us.

One part of our particular mission as Friends is to witness to the primacy of the spiritual reality of the gospel over the formal ritualism that so often threatens to choke out the Seed of Christ. Because we believe that the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit is so important, we feel led to refrain from participating in the outward ritual of water baptism. Similarly, because we feel that communion with Christ is fundamentally a spiritual reality, we refrain from conducting the ritual of the Lord's Supper within our community. Instead, we receive communion with Christ through a form of sacramental silence and prophecy.

Most Christian bodies believe that water baptism and the Lord's Supper are essential for salvation, and we know that many will be worried for the state of our souls. Yet it is precisely for this reason that it is so important that we maintain our witness in this regard. While we do not believe these traditional Christian rituals are wrong per se, it is our fervent belief that Jesus Christ desires lives of holiness and love, not religious ritual. We pray that, through ourTyler Hampton at Freedom Friends Church abstention from these forms (and, admittedly, adoption of different forms) we might help to reveal the truth that God is truly sovereign and that we cannot control God through ritual.

There are a number of other distinctive beliefs and practices that form part of the Quaker charism: Acknowledgment of the spiritual equality and ministry of women and men; denying participation in war and preparation for war; care for the Creation; refusal to swear oaths, and a general intensity in our call to be truthful at all times. All of these beliefs and practices are rooted in our experience with the risen Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. In our desire to be faithful to him, we feel called to remain a distinct society - an autonomous order within the wider Church - until such a time as our faith and practice is fully integrated into the entire Body.

For Friends: What is your response to this? Does this resonate with your sense of our charism, our mission as a community? For Friends and others: How does this relate to you and your faith community? How do we maintain a distinct witness in a culture that is both intensely sub-divided and yet skeptical of commitment to any one path? How do we affirm our distinctive call as a community while staying engaged with the wider Body of Christ?


1. Matthew 18: 20
2. Luke 24:32

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Universalism: Gateway Drug?

I have really appreciated the lively discussion that has taken place in the comments on my last post, Is Universalism Heresy? I am wrestling with these questions along with you, and I don't pretend to have a clear-cut answer to offer. Questions about salvation lead to questions regarding the atonement, which in turn lead to questions about the nature of God. Deep, hard questions that have remained open talking points within the orthodox Christian Church for two thousand years.

To be sure, the Church has agreed on some basic facts, including that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God and that his atoning life, death and resurrection bring about a reconciliation between humanity and God. We affirm the lordship andChrist Carrying the Cross - El Greco majesty of Jesus, and we give thanks for the great things God has done through the faithfulness and self-sacrifice of Jesus. There are basic truths that we as Christ's Church have been able to agree on since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Yet, while we affirm these truths, the "hows" and "whys" of these truths have continued to elude firm conclusions over the course of centuries. How - exactly - does Christ's atonement work? What - precisely - happens after we die? How does humanity's free will interact with God's sovereignty? Men and women of greater faith and intellect than me have not been able to come to final conclusions on these questions, and I do not pretend to offer authoritative answers where the great Doctors of the Church have been unable to reach a final verdict.

However, the fact that there are a variety of orthodox understandings of the faith does not mean that we do not have preferences. Even within the bounds of orthodoxy, we can observe that certain ideas - while not necessarily heretical - can have positive or negative effects on those who believe them. For example, the substitutionary atonement model for understanding Christ's sacrifice on the cross falls well within the orthodoxy of the Church. There is clear scriptural support for this perspective, and Christ Crucified - Diego Velázquezgenerations of Christians have understood God's grace through this lens. Despite the validity of this way of viewing the atonement, however, it also presents us with challenges.

One major problem is that some versions of the substitutionary atonement model understand Jesus as enduring God's wrath, taking the punishment that God the Father would have otherwise poured out on us. This is a very disturbing image, reminiscent of the domestic abuse that takes place in many families. If we are to take this model of the atonement seriously, we must wrestle with its shadow side, which, left unexamined, could validate an image of God as abusive Father and Husband.

On the other hand, there are many other orthodox perspectives of the atonement. One that is a favorite among liberal, orthodox Christians is the moral influence model. This model, which finds ample support in the early Church, understands Jesus' atoning work as being primarily about the example of love and self-sacrifice that he set for us. Just like the substitutionary model, there are attractive aspects to this theory. However, the moral influence theory also has its shadow side: If this is the only lens we bring to our understanding of the meaning of Christ's work, we are at risk
Sermon on the Mount - Carl Bloch of downplaying or ignoring the spiritual reality of his suffering and death on the cross. It is not enough to simply follow the teachings of Jesus - we must also be baptized into his suffering and death.

With all of the various orthodox models for understanding the atonement (and there are many), I would argue that we cannot choose just one. In fact, I would urge you to consider that it is the atonement itself that is the foundation of our faith as Christians, not theories about how it works. These theories are valuable as we seek greater understanding of the faith that we have received through Christ's life, death and resurrection; but theories cannot replace the wordless reality that is the living power and presence of the Holy Spirit. When we begin to battle over which theory of the atonement is the right one, we have already missed the point.

You might be wondering at this point why I am giving such a detailed treatment of atonement theory in a post that is ostensibly about Christian Universalism. My reason is this: I believe that Universalism is a model for understanding the purpose and effects of the atonement, and I suspect that Universalism falls within orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, it clearly has a rather sizable dark side that can be a threat to the integrity of our faith. Even if Universalism is not heretical per The Last Supper - Dalise, is it possible that it represents the edge of one slippery slope into beliefs that undermine the foundations of our faith?

Some folks I respect seem to think so. My good Friend, Scott Wells, who is himself a Universalist Christian minister, pointed out in a recent blog post that Universalism seems to often be a stepping stone into more troubling doctrines. He even referred to Christian Universalism as a "gateway doctrine," leading to, "more eccentric and esoteric forms of belief." Many of us are aware of church leaders who began to profess Christian Universalism, but soon drifted away from orthodox Christianity entirely. Is this an inevitable effect of accepting Christian Universalism? I do not believe so, since my friend Scott is still an orthodox Christian, despite having been a Universalist minister for many years.

As I continue to wrestle with these questions, I invite you to reflect along with me: Does Christian Universalism present an opening to truly heretical doctrines? If so, how can we guard against the tendency towards heresy while still affirming and embracing the universalist perspectives that have always been active within the orthodox Church?

Friday, March 04, 2011

Is Universalism Heresy?

The internet is abuzz with news of Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which it appears that Bell will refute traditional Calvinist teachings on heaven and hell. Based on a recently released Love Winspromotional video for the book, it seems fair to conclude that Bell probably doesn't believe that God has preordained the damnation of billions of non-Christians. By Calvinist standards, this would make him a universalist - and many big names in neo-Calvinism are ready to cast him into outer darkness.(1)

But before we start talking about what it would mean for Rob Bell to be a universalist, we need to take a step back. Definitions. What is Christian Universalism? Among Quakers, "universalism" is often used to mean a belief in the transcendental equivalence of all religions: "All roads lead to the top of the mountain." Radical universalism, as is sometimes found among the Liberal branch(2) of the Quaker denominational family, rests on the premise that all religious perspectives are simultaneously valid and yet incomplete. There is a general sense that human beings are innately good, and that all religions present legitimate paths to enlightenment and/or the Divine.

Christian Universalism is another animal altogether. Unlike the transcendentalist universalism of some Liberal Friends, Christian Universalism does not deny the lordship and divinity of Christ. Instead, the Christian universalist asserts that the love and mercy of Jesus will eventually transform and redeem all people, even if this process takes longer than our earthly lifespans. Christian Universalism is the conviction that the love of Christ will eventually overcome all rebellion, hatred and selfishness. This perspective cannot conceive of Christ's final Rob Bell - credit Gaylene Tretheweyvictory as including even one person writhing in eternal torment, alienated from God.

In the mind of the Christian universalist, the existence of eternal separation from God would represent a less-than-complete victory of the Lamb. Christian Universalism looks forward to the complete reconciliation of all things and all people to God through Jesus Christ - even if it takes a very long time. There are a variety of nuanced Christian Universalist perspectives, as a little bit of research will reveal.(3) But the basic idea is simple: The eternal alienation of anyone from God would represent a less-than-complete victory for the love and self-sacrifice of Jesus.

With this very brief explanation in mind, I want to examine a question that has been on my mind for quite some time, long before Rob Bell announced his new book. The question is: Is Christian Universalism heretical?

Most of us haven't been called to read lengthy volumes on Church history and theology, so definitions are once again in order. In popular usage, "heresy" is often used as a shorthand for teachings that religious authorities consider wrong. However, when I ask whether Rob Bell is heretical for (possibly) holding Christian universalist views, I am not simply asking whether he holds erroneous views. I am asking if Christian Universalism fundamentally undermines the Christian faith.

This is a live question for me, because - truth be told - I like the idea of Christian Universalism. While I believe that God has given human beings the free will to accept or reject God's love, it is horrible for me to contemplate any of God's children being eternally separated from right relationship with their Creator. I know from personal The Last Judgmentexperience that hell exists in this life, and it may well exist in the afterlife, too.

But eternal hell? That is a tough pill for me to swallow. In fact, it is precisely the majority of the Church's teaching on damnation that led me to reject Christianity as a teenager. I was terrified of dying in sin and being condemned to eternal, unimaginable punishment. One thing I can certainly agree with Rob Bell on: No one should be told that the Good News is that "Jesus died to save us from God."

And yet, I still ask the question: Is Christian Universalism heretical? Does the insistence that God will save every person - whether they like it or not - undermine the Christian faith? As we think about this question together, let me share some major heresies that confronted the early Church. One, called Arianism, was the idea that Jesus is a creation of God - not God himself. Another, called Docetism, claimed that Jesus was not human at all, his apparently human form being a mere garment that concealed his deity. Another early heresy was Modalism, which held that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three different "modes" in which God operates. Opposite this, there were a number of thinkers who were accusedEcumenical Church Council of "Tritheism," or the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually three separate deities.

Heresies often come in pairs, each one making a diametrically opposed claim to the other. One thing that these heresies have in common is that they break the dynamic tension that is present in our faith. Is Jesus human or divine? Is reality material or spiritual? Is salvation through works or grace? Is God One or Three? At the end of the day, we must accept both as being somehow simultaneously true. Faced with paradox, the orthodox Christian must humbly confess, "I do not understand, but I affirm the God of these mysteries!"

Does Christian Universalism break the paradox? Does it violate the mystery? Does it impose human understanding on that which we are unable to comprehend? I pray that the Holy Spirit will tender the teachers and theologians of the Church to hear clearly the voice of Christ in our midst, and to respond with humility, patience and love.


1. For more on this, read: Thoughts About Rob Bell, John Piper and Justin Taylor

2. For more information about the family of churches and faith communities that have emerged from the early Friends, take a look at the Brief Introduction to Quakerism on QuakerMaps.com

3. In fact, the teachings of the early Friends could be considered Christian Universalist in the broadest possible sense: George Fox and the Valiant Sixty believed that Jesus Christ was universally available to all people, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the early Friends did believe that some would reject Christ's "day of visitation" and suffer spiritual death as a result.


For further reading:

Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context - Christianity Today

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Richmond, Philadelphia and DC - Micah's Ministry Newsletter #28

Dear Friends of Truth,

Since the fall, I have felt led to focus most of my energy and attention on the work here in DC. This has involved getting more deeply involved in nurturing Capitol Hill Friends, as well as participating in other ministry here in the city, such as Food Not Bombs in Congress Heights. It has also required me to carefully examine any travel that I might think of undertaking, since every day spent on the road is one where I am not building relationships in my local community. For the last six months or so, this new preference for local work over regional or national work has caused me to travel far less than in years past.

However, this month, I have been back on the road, visiting Friends in Richmond,Earlham School of Religion Indiana and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was called out to Richmond to give a presentation on Earlham School of Religion's social media strategy at the Earlham College Board of Trustees meeting. I am part of a team that is collaborating to fashion ESR's outreach online, including our presence on Facebook, Twitter, and a new blog, Learning and Leading, which we launched in late January. I'm particularly excited about the blog, which has been posting three times a week and which has drawn a significant amount of site traffic in its first month of activity.

The presentation felt like it went well, and after a few days of meetings with friends and colleagues in Richmond, I made my way out to Philadelphia. I think I had forgotten how far Philadelphia was from Richmond! I ended up making the trip in two legs, staying in western Pennsylvania one night, to avoid exhaustion. When I finally arrived in the Philadelphia area, Thomas Swain, clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was kind enough to open his home to me, and I stayed with him for a night. It was wonderful to catch up with Thomas, and I was very pleased that Seth Hinshaw, clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting,ESR was able to join us for the evening, too. Spending the evening with the clerks of two Yearly Meetings - not too bad, I thought!

The next night, I attended the West Philly Worship Group, a Quaker community that has been meeting in the western part of the city for the last two years. The attendership is overwhelmingly made up of twenty-somethings, but there is a significant minority of older folks. The WPWG has become something of an attraction for many young adult Friends, with some Friends moving to Philadelphia, at least in part, to participate in this community. It was good to reconnect with a lot of Friends I knew from various YAF gatherings, as well as meet new Friends and better acquaint myself with how the Spirit of God is at work among the younger echelons of Quakers in Philadelphia.

For the rest of my time in Philadelphia, I stayed with Helene Pollock and her spouse Arlene Kelly, who graciously hosted me in their home in Germantown. The next morning, I joined Helene for a six-AM prayer service at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. I was astonished at the depth and power of the prayer of this little group of perhaps half a dozen prayerCenter-city Philadelphia warriors. I was also struck by how similar their prayer service was to a Quaker meeting. The power of the Lord was strong among them, and I was blessed to be with them. I needed to take a nap in the mid-morning after getting up so early, but by the late morning Helene and I were in center-city Philadelphia, visiting folks at the Friends Center.

The next day, I spent a lot of time hanging out with Jon Watts. Jon and I have become increasingly good friends over the course of the last few years, and it was wonderful to reconnect with him and get a glimpse into his life in Philadelphia. Jon is a very gifted musician, and he is presently in full-time production of a new album that will focus on the theme of faithfulness and nakedness (!). Jon and I took some time to walk together and share our common struggles as we seek to be faithful to God's leading in our lives. It is a great challenge to be obedient to the Inward Voice of God rather than the seductive voice of self-will, but with God's help and the support of Friends, all things are possible.

Later that evening, Helene and Arlene opened their home for a called meeting for worship that included Friends from around the city. We enjoyed good fellowship, and we particularly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit over the dinner table. After the meeting for worship, I was able to share with Friends gathered about my call, the work that Capitol Hill Friends is doing, and the wider movement that we sense is afoot. Then, I invited Friends there to share their own sense of how Jesus is alive and active in Philadelphia. I sensed a greatPhiladelphia hunger among many of those gathered to go deeper in their walk with Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will accompany and guide Friends in Philadelphia, and that God will provide an opening for gathering Friends together in Christ.

The next day, Helene and I made a trip out to New Jersey to visit Martin Kelley and his family. He and his wife Julie have just recently had their third son, Gregory, and it was good to be with them and meet the new addition to their family. Apart from the simple joy of being with Martin, Julie and their kids (and Martin's mom!), it was a blessing to see Martin and Helene connect. I believe that the most important work of my trip was to make connections between like-minded (and like-hearted) individuals. I trust that God has work for us to do together, and I am excited to see how Christ is gathering his people.

My trip to Philadelphia ended with a Sunday-morning visit to Middletown Friends Meeting. Middletown has a reputation for being one of the more Conservative-leaning Meetings in Philadelphia YearlyPhiladelphia Meeting, and from what I could tell based on one visit, this seems to be the case. It was a blessing to be among them. Following meeting for worship, I made my way over to nearby Pendle Hill, where my wife Faith had spent the weekend at Pendle Hill's Board meetings. It was nice to be able to spend the car ride home with her after a week and a half apart.

Back on the home-front, things are going well here in DC. Attendance has been lower than normal at Capitol Hill Friends since Christmas, but worship has been good and relationships continue to develop. We are looking at changes to our meeting schedule, as some of our attenders can no longer come on Wednesday evenings. We may soon begin meeting on Sunday evenings. Please keep praying for our worship group, which is still quite embryonic and fragile. Capitol Hill is a hard place to plant a new Meeting - especially one that runs so contrary to the culture of formality, power and status that permeates much of our city.

Above all, please pray that God send more workers into the harvest field. There are so few here who have the time and energy to put into developing Christian community; and, as we all know, community takes an incredible amount of work! Please pray the Holy Spirit to call and release women and men for the service of building up the body of Christ here in DC, and throughout the nation and the world.

Your brother in Jesus our Lord,

Micah Bales