Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Our Tent of Dreams

Bowing to intense pressure from Republican members of Congress, the United States Park Police agreed to begin enforcing park regulations that prohibit Occupy DC demonstrators from sleeping on park grounds. Park Police announced that they would begin enforcing the no-sleeping statutes at noon on Monday, January 30th. Tents would still be allowed as acts of political speech, but sleeping in the park would be curtailed. 

At McPherson Square, the site of the original Occupy DC encampment, hundreds of occupiers - along with roughly equal numbers of press - gathered Monday morning in anticipation of the noon deadline. I arrived with concerns that things might get out of control, with folks feeling like they needed to defend their homes from the police. I was relieved to find that the atmosphere in the park was up-beat, even festive. 

As I walked through the crowd, I encountered dozens of people that I had not seen in weeks, even months. It felt like a family reunion, with most of the folks who had been involved since the early days showing up to bear witness to what might be the last day of the encampment at McPherson Square. It was beautiful to see all these people whom I had come to know and love over the course of the last four months, to be gathered together in support of this movement that we had helped to birth.

At noon, as we awaited the arrival of the Park Police, a number of occupiers erected an enormous, improvised tent structure over the statue of General McPherson. This expansive, beautiful, blue tarp was covered in hand-made artwork, and bore the words, "Tent of Dreams," written out in enormous letters. We were all entranced as the canopy went up. It was billowing and gorgeous. Somehow, in that moment, it captured the spirit of our movement; our shared desire to be a society that can dream big, and that has the courage to pursue those dreams with daring grassroots action.

The Occupy movement is not about a park. It is not about camping. It is not even about protest, per se. The core of this movement is our shared faith that ordinary people are capable of actively shaping the policies that govern our future, participating in the decisions that affect our lives. The Occupy movement is about dreaming big, and then taking on the practical work of turning those dreams into reality. We - the ordinary, working-class people of this nation - have both the capacity and the moral obligation to make our voices heard in a political process that presently serves overwhelmingly the interests of billionaires and huge corporations. Together, we are strong, if we choose to be.

How can we live into the dream that this park and this tent represent? How can we reclaim our public spaces as centers of common discourse, decision-making and empowerment? How can we invest in our local communities - our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and places of worship? What would it look like to have a society where ordinary people were empowered to take responsibility for making the decisions that directly impact their lives? Do we dare to dream of a future in which all of us have a voice in our democratic institutions?

Somehow, on this Monday afternoon in late January, we got another small glimpse of what that might look like. Let's hold that thought.

Friday, January 27, 2012

You Were Made for Beauty, Not Profit

I believe that God created the universe out of sheer creativity and love, as an expression of God's very nature. I believe that God loves the Creation like a parent loves a child. I do not believe that God created the universe in order to get some sort of utilitarian benefit out of us. God did not create us as a means to an end. Just like a good parent chooses to have a child for the sheer joy of expressing love and caring for another life, God created us as nothing less than an expression of overflowing imagination and delight. And I believe that God's relationship with us is the surest guide to how we should relate with one another.

If taken seriously, these beliefs have radical implications for the way I think about my life and how I relate to others. If I truly believe in and seek to imitate the unconditional love of God, I can no longer relate to my fellow beings as means to an end. I can no longer see my fellow creatures in utilitarian terms, as if they existed in order to benefit me. If I am to see through the eyes of God, I must regard each person as a masterpiece work of art, and a beloved friend.

Works of art and friends are not governed by capitalist ideas of value and utility. Real love is not based in cost/benefit analysis. Love does not look to strike a bargain or get the advantage. Rather, love sees the beauty of our fellow creatures and values them for who they are, not what benefits, economic or otherwise, they can provide us with. When we see through the eyes of God, we discover a world of innate value; a world in which each one of us is unconditionally loved.

Many of us do believe these things, in theory. And, at our best, we apply this worldview within our immediate family, and to our circle of closest friends. Yet few of us dare to look at the entire Creation through this God's-eye lens. In fact, the few of us who come close to truly seeing the world this way probably seem absolutely crazy!

This is not surprising. For a very long time, human society has been headed on a trajectory away from the cohesion of love and towards a worship of the "useful." Human communities have become atomized, with each individual pushed in a myriad of ways to put themselves first. Other groups and other people are seen in terms of the economic and social benefits that can be extracted from them. The ancient practice of chattel slavery, elevated to a global scale during the European colonization of the Americas, is the prime example of this trend. A slave is an individual who has been completely removed from all human community and who, as a result, becomes an object - property of other human beings.

While chattel slavery is now formally illegal, the spirit of slavery lives on. Though the worst abuses of slavery are mostly a thing of the past - at least in the United States - billions of us continue to think of ourselves in terms of our own utility to others. My generation has come to think of ourselves as eternal freelance agents, selling our skills to the highest bidder. We are taught that we must "brand" ourselves; in order to succeed, we must "market" ourselves to potential employers. We meticulously craft our resumés and online profiles to maximize our appearance of professionalism, profitability and utility. Our anxiety and self-doubt is palpable.

We have been encouraged to forget our true nature as children of the living God. Instead, we exchange the truth about God - and about ourselves - for a lie; we worship and serve created things, rather than our Creator.(1) We have been fooled into thinking that our true value comes from what we can do, who we impress or what we can buy. We have forgotten that our true worth lies in our identity as creations of a joyous God, who pours out blessings for the sheer beauty of it.

I believe that if we want to discover real freedom, we need to reexamine our ideas about value altogether. What is the source of our worth as human beings? What is our purpose in this life? Is it to generate profits for the powerful people and institutions that govern our world? Is it to drive the engines of economic growth and technological progress? Or were we created for something far more sublime? Can we imagine the possibility that our value is more akin to a beautiful painting by Monet, rather than to the value of pig iron or a photocopier? Are we able to accept our own unconditional beauty and worth, as children of God?


1. Romans 1:25

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Opening Up the Occupy Movement

Just before Christmas, I wrote a post about what the second phase of the Occupy movement might look like. Moving beyond camping, I suggested that we focus our energy and resources on developing local assemblies - in neighborhoods, workplaces and other pre-existing communities. I encouraged occupiers to redouble our efforts to find ways to collaborate with existing organizations, including labor unions, civic organizations and faith groups. Rather than glorifying some radical camping vanguard, I proposed that we place our focus on developing stable, rooted networks that could endure in the ongoing struggle for economic justice and democratic reform in the United States.

A month later, it is even more clear to me that the Occupy movement must develop a robust strategy for promoting new bases of popular power to confront the injustices that are resulting from a corporate take-over of our economic life, public discourse and government. This will not happen if we continue to place our focus on maintaining a camping presence in public parks, an effort which drains our attention and resources as we struggle to combat drunkenness, abusive behavior and interpersonal squabbles which are magnified by the trials of full-time winter camping.

The most troubling aspect of pouring our time and energy into the drama of public encampments is that it has the effect of narrowing the movement. The longer we relate to Occupy as a camping phenomenon, the more we restrict the movement to the tiny minority who are able and willing to spend their days and nights in freezing public parks. While the act of physically reclaiming public space was a radical act in September and October, it has since become an elitist exercise, alienating most Americans from any sense that they, too, could be part of the movement.

The time has come for us to open this movement to everyone who feels that there is something wrong with a society in which corporations and the super-rich have more voice than ordinary people, and in which bankers and oil tycoons are being subsidized while millions of working class people struggle to provide for their families. The time has come to make the transition from being a movement primarily based in symbolic theater to being one that develops sustainable networks of popular power.

For the last seventy five years, the voice of ordinary Americans has been increasingly overwhelmed by the dominance of corporate wealth. Labor unions have been eviscerated, and neighborhoods have in many cases simply become places where workers are housed, rather than communities that can stand together for their shared needs and concerns. Our civil society has become a hollow satellite, orbiting obligingly around the black hole of corporate power. For generations, the ability of ordinary working people to have a voice in the direction of their neighborhoods, towns and nation has been gradually usurped by organized corporate interests. It is time to reclaim our voice.

We can do this by taking the principles at the heart of the Occupy movement and applying them to our local communities. We can adapt consensus decision-making to our neighborhoods, paring our assemblies with potlucks, barbeques and block parties. We can organize our offices and faith communities. We can break out of the false separation of home, work and religious life, inviting all realms of our existence to be transformed by the struggle for justice and truth. And in this struggle, we will find not only the economic integrity that we so desperately need; we will find also the real human community that we have been longing for. In our work for a more just social order, we will discover a more intimately connected common life.

Where do you see possible connecting points between the communities and organizations where you are already involved, and the struggle for economic justice? What are ways that we can integrate the whole of our lives - home, work, school and religious life - with our calling to be peacemakers and truth-speakers? How can we open the Occupy movement up to every man, woman and child who seeks an Earth restored?

Friday, January 20, 2012

When The Atheists Are Right

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these [children's] philosophies - these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.  - C.S. Lewis

I recently came across an interesting video out of Cambridge, England, in which four men - two atheists and two Christian apologists - debated whether belief in God was delusional. Some of the debaters points were more convincing than others, but I actually found that I had more to learn from the atheists' arguments than from that of the Christians.

In particular, I was struck by an argument made by one of the atheist apologists, that God is clearly a delusion because the human conception of God is precisely what one would expect from humans. He argues that one, "reason why we should consider gods to be delusions is that there is nothing particularly surprising about them. ...But, in fact, gods tend to be suspiciously like us." He cites the ancient philosopher Xenophenes, who said, "If cattle and lions and horses had hands and could paint... horses would depict their gods as horses, and cattle would depict their gods as cattle, and lions would depict their gods as lions." "Our gods," he concludes, "reflect our prejudices and our environments... gods are a delusion rather than a reality. We make them in our own image."

I could not help but confess that this atheist philosopher had hit the nail on the head. The gods that most of us believe in most of the time are a delusion, a fantasy that we create in order to provide our lives with a coherent framework that our minds can accept. We want simple answers - definite rules and order - and we are eager to fit God into logical paradigms and human categories that will render our lives orderly, reasonable.

This is a constant theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God appears to the people in incomprehensible glory. When God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, he never even directly saw God; yet his face was so transformed by the experience that he had to cover his face with a veil, because the people refused to come anywhere near him while he was glowing with the radiance of this overpowering God.(1) Just like the ancient Hebrews, we normally prefer to keep the mystery and power of God veiled away and hidden. It is too awesome and terrifying for us. We do not really want the upheaval - even terror - that would come if we received God as he truly is.

Instead, we prefer to fashion domesticated gods, deities who are a bit more down-to-earth. We want a god that we can fit into our lives and worldview. Our spiritual ancestors accomplished this by making a golden calf, a god of wealth and fertility who would fit neatly into their mentality as nomadic herders. Today, we have so many ways to make a neat and tidy god that fits within the bounds of our human understanding. For those who fear chaos, God becomes a wrathful rule-giver, while those of us who have been wounded by doctrinaire religion imagine God as a fawning parent who never disciplines us. The rich and powerful envision God as one who blesses the status quo, while the poor and oppressed are encouraged to worship a god of wealth and security, who will bring them prosperity if they have faith.

I confess that I have created false gods to justify my own worldview and selfish behaviors. I have bowed down before images of my own creation, images of God that strengthen my own self-righteousness and condemn those things that I find threatening. When atheists accuse Christians of being deluded, of creating God in our own image, I stand convicted.

However, I know that my feeble images of God are not all there is. Despite my human weakness and refusal to receive the Truth, the Truth is alive and active in the world. My purpose as a follower of Jesus is to surrender myself more each day to the Reality that overwhelms my narrow little truth claims and brings me further into line with the love, life and power of God. I find strength for this journey in the person of Jesus Christ, who stands in stark contrast to all the false gods of the world. He is nothing like what we expected God to be, yet he stands at the door and knocks, inviting us into the power and unspeakable mystery that brings life and wholeness.


1. Exodus 34:29-35
2. Exodus 32:1-8

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Just Keep Your Eyes on Me

Over time, I have become aware of certain characteristic signs of God's presence. There are familiar ways that God touches and leads me. I find the Lord in an unexpected sense of awe and wonder. He is present in love for others, even enemies; a love that flows through me, but which is not mine. The Spirit makes its presence known through inward nudges, calling me to do things that scare me or that go against the grain. As my relationship with Jesus has deepened, I have come to recognize his voice. He has a certain way of doing things.

Recently, I have become particularly conscious of the ways in which Jesus calls me into places that make me feel out of control. I find that Jesus does not want me simply to believe things about him, or even to superficially accept his leadership in my life. He wants me to trust him completely. In practical terms, this means letting go of anything that gives me the illusion of control - whether over the world, other people, or even my own life. His will, presence and love must increase, and my own willfulness must give way.(1)

God gives me all sorts of opportunities to lose control. In recent months, God has shaken up my life in so many ways. My living situation and sense of place have undergone a radical shift. My call to ministry has been turned inside out and given new shape. My livelihood is in transition. Not to mention the out of control feeling that comes with having my time, energy and sense of identity is split between two different churches.

Who am I, after all? What is my role? Where do I fit in? Just keep your eyes on me, says Jesus. You are my beloved friend, and your role is to do whatsoever I command you.(2)

This is the hardest thing he could ask of me. The truth is, my eyes dart in all directions, and my ambition is to do all sorts of things - and not necessarily the specific things that God created me to accomplish. Rather than place all my trust in God, it feels less scary to try to impose my own sense of order on life.

But this false order cannot hold. A self-willed life is a constant race to keep a lid on the true depth and complexity of existence. I cannot hold the anxiety and doubt at bay without twisting my own spirit in the process. The truth about this life is far too mysterious and wonderful for me. I need Jesus to guide me through it.


1. I am reminded of the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30.
2. See John 15:14

Friday, January 13, 2012

Abolishing the Laity

One peculiar feature of the Quaker tradition is our insistence on the role that each individual has in the discernment of the Holy Spirit's will for the community. The entire membership of the church is called upon to exercise the authority that in many Christian traditions is held by a small group of ordained leaders. Quakers reject the clergy-laity distinction as unscriptural and spiritually damaging. All of us are called to be fully invested and involved in the life of Christ's Body. Each one of us has a special and equally valuable role to play in the life of the community.

I think that Friends sometimes fail to recognize what an awesome responsibility is implied by our understanding of spiritual equality. We can be glib in our assertion that every believer is called to a particular ministry. Yet this insistence that all Christians are called to some form of ministry and leadership is deeply radical - and at odds with the way that most of the Church does business.

The Friends tradition demands a great deal from the average member. Each of us is called to be a leader. Depending on our spiritual gifts each of us will provide leadership in different areas of our life together. Some are called and gifted to focus on pastoral care and counseling. Others for evangelism. Some teach, and others give vocal ministry in the meeting for worship. Everyone has a part to play, and many of us have more than one role that we are gifted for.

While we are leaders in a variety of areas, the Friends tradition does not acknowledge a special class of Christian, set apart from the rest of the body. Rather, we are all set apart for the Lord's work. In this, the testimony of Scripture is proven true: We are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light."(1) Every Christian is called to a life of holiness and commitment that outshines the superficial purity of religious officialdom.

As followers of Jesus, we are all called to holiness; to leadership; to lives totally devoted to God's service. We are also invited to participate in the decision-making of the Church. Gathered together in the Spirit, our lives - as individuals and as congregations - come to reflect God's will and character.

How does this affect our understanding of membership? Perhaps the top-down leadership model of many denominations lets the bulk of the membership off the hook. There may be a different standard for ordained clergy than for the average woman or man in the pew. As Friends, however, we have no such release valve. The entire weight of Jesus' call falls on each and every one of us, with all of its ecstasy and agony. We are left with only the tender care of the Holy Spirit and the loving arms of our community to sustain us in the Way.

How do we empower each sister and brother to live fully into the leadership that God is calling them to? How do we hold one another accountable as fellow learners in the school of the Spirit? How do we show the unconditional love of Christ Jesus, even while upholding the integrity of the community?


1. 1 Peter 2:9

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

States and Conditions

I first became a Quaker because of my own personal experience of God. I knew many people who talked about God, but I was always a doubting Thomas - I needed to see and touch for myself before I could believe. And God, with great mercy, granted me this. God showed up in my life, demonstrating love and power in ways that I could no longer deny.

Early on in my journey as a Friend, I had several opportunities to witness God's life and power in the midst of Quaker gatherings, especially gatherings of young adults. In several intense episodes over the course of a few years, I experienced the explosive power of God. Tent revival stuff: Ecstatic states, visions, and times when there was no doubt that the Spirit was speaking directly to us as a community. The Book of Acts came to seem familiar.

Young Adult Friends Gathering at Burlington, NJ - 2007

With such experiences, it would be easy to become a "God-addict." In truth, one major dynamic of my early development as a Quaker was a search for "peak experiences." I wanted to feel up. I wanted to experience God's presence and power; the ecstasy of communion and the assurance of salvation. My faith in God rested primarily on the euphoria of the Spirit's presence.

The truth is, my faith was weak. Rather than being based in a profound trust of my Creator, my faith was built on the shaky foundation of psychological and emotional states. When I felt connected, when the movement of the Holy Spirit was readily apparent to me, it was easy to believe. But things felt very different when the euphoria faded. In the face of the humdrum of everyday life - not to mention the times of darkness, when God seemed distant from me - it was easy to question all of my previous experience of God. Was that all God was? A fleeting rush of hormones?

A major area of growth for my life as a Christian is realizing that God is present in all my states. Just as the Word is alive and active in those moments of ecstatic communion with Christ, the Word abides within us in times of darkness and suffering. God's shepherding presence is not limited to the times when we feel good. The Holy Spirit transcends human emotional states.

In the Quaker tradition, the role of gospel ministers is to speak to the "states and conditions" of our fellow women and men. God is not dependent upon our psychological or emotional states; rather, the Spirit speaks to us in our states and conditions. Whether through the Spirit-led ministry of our brothers and sisters, or through the inward voice of God in our hearts, Christ stands at the door and knocks in whatever condition we are found.

It is definitely easier for me to recognize the voice of God when I am in a positive state of being. Nevertheless, as I seek to grow in faith, I feel called to rely more on Christ and less on my own personal states. Rather than insisting that God provide me with euphoric experiences, I feel that God is inviting me into a deeper, healthier relationship.

I believe that a truly mature relationship with Christ is one in which we can sense God's Word in all of our states and conditions. I am learning to simply be present with reality as it is, allowing Christ to reveal himself not only in the bread and wine, but also in the cross and crown of thorns. If God was present with Jesus in his greatest suffering, surely the Spirit will remain with me in my daily cycles of joy and sadness, depth and shallowness.

Planning Committee - Young Adult Friends Gathering - 2008

Friday, January 06, 2012

Success and Vulnerability

The truth about myself is often hard to see. It is easy to overlook my own brokenness precisely because it is such a part of who I am. I have grown accustomed to it. The log in my own eye seems normal, which makes it far easier to play doctor to others than to examine my own wounds.

In my experience, one of the main things that the Holy Spirit does is to uncover the hidden wounds that have become so normal to me. The Spirit reveals that which is buried under the surface, shining light in the darkness. It exposes the truth, and offers me the chance to embrace it, though it is often painful.

In recent days, God has been revealing my own hidden selfishness. The Spirit has drawn my attention time and again to the many ways in which I put myself first. My self-centered way of living is so normal that, without God's help, I would never have noticed it.

It is easy to assume that my life and my needs are at the center. I have been brought up in a society that encourages me to conceive of myself as the protagonist in an epic story. Since I am the "main character," it is easy to assume that what is best for me is best in general. And as a Christian, it is easy to confuse my own preferences for God's will.

This false worldview is hard to break through. Mainstream American society is built around the idea of the autonomous, self-sufficient individual. Nowhere is this more true than the labor market. Today, it is widely assumed and understood that each person must operate as a free agent, without ultimate loyalty to any party or organization. We are encouraged to think of employment as a transaction, to calculate what we are "worth" to a prospective employer in dollar terms, and to justify ourselves as commodities.

In this environment, we are encouraged to be self-focused, because it can make the difference between a good-paying job and unemployment. When we interview, we present ourselves in the most positive terms possible. We play up the best parts of ourselves, because we fear that revealing any weakness might cost us the job. And, most of the time, we are probably right. Success, in the world's terms, depends on self-promotion. We learn to fight for our own advancement, rather than seeking out the good of the organization and society as a whole.

I feel convicted of the ways in which I personally play into this dynamic. The path of self-promotion feels safer. It is easier to clothe myself in human strength, attempting to impress others with my embellished accomplishments. Yet, I feel God challenging me to live in a way that lays bare my own fragile humanity. I feel called to seek the truth recklessly, and to lead a life of simple trust and vulnerability.

What would it be like if I were to shed all fear of my fellow men and women? What if, instead of calculating how others might help or hinder my own ambitions, I opened my eyes to God's incredible love for them - and acted on that?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Where Is Home?

In the years since I moved from Kansas to Washington, DC, there has been a slow transition taking place within me. For quite some time after arriving in DC, I thought of myself as a Kansan temporarily living in DC. As time went on, however, I came to feel increasingly integrated into life in DC. My center of balance began to tip.

I became aware of this tipping during a visit to Wichita in May of 2011. While there, I was surprised to encounter within myself a sense of alienation from the way of life in Kansas. I was used to DC's high-pressure, accelerated lifestyle, and after almost two years away from Kansas, my hometown of Wichita seemed sleepy, mellow and unambitious. "Why is everyone so slow?" I wondered. A Wichitan might ask, "why are you in such a rush?"

Since that trip, I have continued to change, imbibing more of DC's pace and mannerisms. Returning to Kansas for Christmas this year, there is no doubt in my mind that DC is now more home to me than Wichita. This is huge. Three years ago, I never would have fathomed this happening. Once a Kansan, always a Kansan - I thought. Yet, somehow in the course of just a few years, DC has become primary.

How do I explain this? What makes a place home? Is it the place where you grew up? Is it where you keep your stuff? Maybe it is proximity to satisfying work or recreation? Or is it the presence of family and friends?

All of these things are important as components of what makes a place home, but the core is something more subtle. For me, the essential question that determines where I call home is, "Where is God calling you to serve?" Only this question - and the answer that I find in the Spirit's call on my life - has the power to transform me into someone who is at home in Washington, DC.

Jesus Christ has called me here, and he walks ahead of me in the way. The Spirit gives me breath to say to him, like Ruth before me, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay."(1) He himself becomes my home, and his word becomes my residency. I will be at home wherever he plants me, though it takes years to adapt.


1. Ruth 1:16