Friday, July 06, 2012

Burn Down the Meeting House

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.- Luke 12:32-34

A friend of mine recently suggested that perhaps the best thing that twentysomething Quakers could do would be to burn down a Yearly Meeting meetinghouse. What would happen if the young adults of the Yearly Meeting were to show up one evening with torches and openly burn that ancient, venerable, valuable piece of real estate to the ground?

Of course, the most biblical thing to do might be to sell the meetinghouse and give to the poor. If we had it in us to do such a thing, this would certainly be a powerful witness. But can you imagine an entire Yearly Meeting finding unity to sell the community's flagship real estate investment? I can already hear the objections. We would be admonished to be more responsible, more realistic. We would be reminded of the building's substantial history and the role that the property plays in outreach.

It is hard to imagine a Yearly Meeting selling one of its most visible symbols of establishment. I have an easier time imagining the twentysomethings of the community banding together to bear prophetic witness to the wider body. The Yearly Meeting as a whole may not be ready to release the dead weight of the past - the fear of losing money, status and security - but younger generations might call for a break with stagnation and decline. What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?

It would probably be premature for Friends of my generation to start burning down meetinghouses. As powerful as this sign might be, it would be an act of desperation rather than a first step on the path of prophetic engagement. What might these first steps look like? How could twentysomething Quakers serve a wake-up call to their Yearly Meetings in a way that older Friends can hear?

The image of burning down a meetinghouse is a powerful one, spurring me to think about what might happen if twentysomething Quakers decided that we were done sitting at the kids' table. Rather than waiting around for older generations to invite us into responsibility and leadership, the image of burning down the meetinghouse represents younger Quakers rising out of the silence and declaring God's truth as we have experienced it. Even when it makes the gray-hairs uncomfortable.

One thing is clear: The status quo has been failing us for decades, perhaps even generations. We find ourselves today in the midst of the greatest economic, technological, cultural and religious transition in human history - a momentous shift that virtually the entire world is participating in. This generation faces a stark choice. One option is to continue on as we have for many years, warming ourselves by the dying embers of an ancient tradition. We can huddle together in our creaky, historic buildings, drafting minutes and sinking deeper into irrelevance as our young people drift away to other communities that can provide a more satisfying framework of meaning. We can choose comfort over challenge, anesthetized death over the messy and sometimes painful business of life. This is what the meetinghouse represents.

Or we can change our minds. We can turn back to the same God who taught our ancestors how to lead lives of radical faithfulness. We can embrace the exhiliration and the riskiness that comes when we choose to walk beside Jesus on the water. This will mean venturing out from the safety of the meetinghouse - all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends. The community that arises from the ashes of the meetinghouse will have the clear-eyed aspect of a person who has given up everything to fully invest in the present moment, walking in faith with our ever-present Guide. Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God.

What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation? How can we invite our entire religious community, young and old, into a shared journey of radical transformation and openness to the new thing that God is doing in our time and place? What in us needs to die in order for new life to grow?


Anonymous said...

Why don't you lead by example and sell YOUR house and give the money to the poor.

Martin Kelley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Kelley said...

Good post but I wonder if it's almost of another era? With the mass retirements I think it's more like we're being tossed the keys to dusty meetinghouses as the older Friends pack the UHauls and leave. At this point the question becomes: do we want these meetinghouses—and the metaphors they represent. Do they serve the Living Spirit? Are they the right size? On the right street corners? It'd be easy to expend our energies turning them into museums to a bygone era.

ps: was that KR who told you to burn the meetinghouse?

Faith said...

I hope that there will be someone there to catch the metaphorical keys when the time comes. It seems like we're loosing young people pretty fast, and it would be unfortunate if the good and wise things the older generations have get lost in the transition out of the old and into the new. Those things that are worth keeping are held in tension with those things that weigh us down. Building and property are one example of a possible ensnarement. Worship of tradition, pride in being good Quakers and resentment and dysfunction can also be inherited.

The discernment that we need to do around what is salvageable and what needs to go up in the bonfire is, of course, not an end in and of itself. The goal is to be freed to do the work that God calls us to. Sometimes that will mean having a building (or a home) and sometimes it will not. The prophetic and radical faithfulness and surrender of all we hold dear to be used in God's cause are the key.

forrest said...

"House church" once or more a week, in small groups. Meeting House for larger gatherings, & to rent out to or make available for compatible organizations?

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Burning down the meetinghouse will do no good if we cannot preach the Gospel effectively, by word and deed.

Linda Jenkins said...

When I read the heading I thought "WHAHOO! Let's go!" I am 63 so I grieve to be excluded from your call. Christ lived and taught and witnessed in community. He calls us to property-less community. A deceased "birth-right Friend" (an oxymoron in my opinion, though maybe that's sour grapes talking-I'm a convinced Friend) & mentor of mine used to say ' Friends started out to do good and ended up doing well.' Our North American Quaker community holds some amazingly primo real estate, individually and corporately. We are embedded in the dominant culture. I don't see how we can be surprised that we don't live prophetically. I long to be part of a
residential community that is situated in the middle of "the least of these", shared by people without regard for age, gender self- identification, race, sexual orientation,
or other such characteristics, but what the defining one is the call to ministry with (not to) the least of these.

I'm so grateful for your blog-post, Micah!

Micah Bales said...

I can see how this post might have come across as being exclusionary of older Friends, but that was not my intention. On the contrary, I believe that older Friends have a vital role to play if we are to move forward as a community.

Younger Friends desperately need the wisdom, counsel and lived example that more experienced Friends have to offer. In many ways, it is up to older Friends to determine how - and whether - our religious community is to survive. Will seasoned Friends step forward in concrete ways to release and empower the next generation of Quaker leadership? We cannot do this without you!

I have seen a number of commenters (both here and on Facebook) get stuck on the idea of whether we should literally burn down our meetinghouses - or give up all our worldly possessions, for that matter. The purpose of my post was not to lay out a universal prescription for renewal among Friends; rather, I hoped to encourage a conversation about what it might take for us as a community to awaken from the fitful slumber of comfort and to embrace the fullness of the gospel.

I feel blessed to see this conversation unfold.

Scott King said...

It's a real blessing from God that twenty-somethings in their lack of wisdom and discernment which come with some age (at least in many areas) aren't in charge I guess...thy post, even though I catch that thee was not being anti-older Friends...lacks a true acknowledgement that God places gifts of wisdom and discernment along with the additional years of life experience in older Friends that these younger Friends desperately need to hear and LISTEN to right now if we ARE to have a future.

Tearing down things just because they don't quite fit perfectly into the young heart's zeal and well-meaning fire for change and helping society and the world will not work. It never has for generations after generations...meaning the world is still the world...

Personally, the violence and disrespect involved in even using the image and metaphor of burning down anyone's meetinghouse is offensive and inappropriate indeed. Perhaps that is why the early Friends didn't ever talk about burning down the steeplehouses of the church of england, huh?

I'm just saying...radicalism and anarchism without wisdom and guidance from elders and openness to counsel from older Friends is no more admirable nor profitable than the old "unmovable" Friend who no longer listens to the Holy Spirit speak through younger Friends when they point us back to the scriptures and to listening to the Holy Spirit. Both are sad and are now hurting our Society.

broschultz said...

The thought of selling the meeting house to follow Him appears to be presenting itself to many Quakers. It might take time and it might take different forms but It might be phophetic.

Ashley W said...

For Micah: Even as a metaphor, proposing burning down the meetinghouse seems a little like setting up a straw man. I know you aren't suggesting burning down the William Penn House, where your meeting meets! And, for me, burning down the meetinghouse would just get my meeting in trouble with our landlord and the other people who rent the building. But I suspect that you had a particular audience (and meetinghouse) in mind when you wrote this.

To those who are celebrating that twentysomethings are not in charge: You know, some are. I became clerk of my monthly meeting and yearly meeting when I was 29. I was also clerk of the planning committee for the Quaker Women's Theology Conference and on a steering committee for a year of discernment when I was 26. I felt clearly called by God to each of those tasks, and that call was affirmed by others. Rather than make sweeping statements about who has wisdom and discernment based on age, we need to pay attention to the gifts that God has given us through the people in our meetings and, yes, listen for what God is calling us to.

Anonymous said...

George Fox was a twenty-something when he began the ministry that became the Religious Society of Friends and he certainly advocated standing in the Light to be purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Diane Benton, Oklahoma City (a seventy-something)

Anonymous said...

I wish we wouldn't stereotype people by age. There are young wise people and old foolish people, too. We are only on this earth for a mere 70 to 80 or so years and are all pretty young in the scheme of things. Older people may be a bit slower at processing information and at moving physically than young people, but all age groups have much in common.

Mark Russ said...

Thanks for your post. I'm another twenty-something who occasionally says burn down the meeting houses!

I was co-Clerk of my local meeting for a year and the amount of time we spent on the building nearly finished me off. I came to the conclusion that the strength of relationship within the meeting wasn't there to support the amount of time and energy we were expending on the building. If we got rid of the building, would the meeting still exist? A friend of mine put it this way: "If you were considering owning property with someone, what sort of relationship would you expect to have with them. A pretty close one!"

Either the building is upheld by a community of love and mutual care, or it becomes a burden and an obstacle.

In my experience, getting into each others homes is very important for developing close relationships, providing opportunities for study and prayer and allowing each other to practise hospitality. I would love to see the development of a Quaker house church movement in Britain.

Steve Olshewsky said...

Ignoring the metaphoring, this is an unusual tone in scripture. Not a promise (if you do this with your money, then that will happen). Rather a natural law (where this is, that also).

Again, not that the money follows the heart, but that the heart can be led by the purse strings.

So we can animate anything we choose.

"For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." - Luke 12:34 & Matthew 6:21

Crystal said...

Hi Micah,

It's making me chuckle that your preceding post mentions a new job and this one provacatively contemplates burning the Meetinghouse down! It certainly commands attention! Let's just take care not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, 'k?

For myself, as an almost-40 Attender with a child, I'd rather see Meetinghouses used more -- more pancake breakfasts (at 9 am and at noon), dance parties, birthday parties, children's games during parent date nights, and such. I do enjoy the serious events too, but sometimes I feel like there isn't enough joy and *life*.

Tho' adding more work doesn't seem fair or even possible when folks are working so hard just to do what they already do.... I'm grateful that so many have hung on to as much as they can just to have *something* to pass on.

It's my impression that some things are tougher -- or at least feel tougher -- now than they used to be, in part because the promises that were made to us as young people haven't come true. For example, I never thought that earning a Master's degree at Johns Hopkins in a STEM field would result in a barely-above-$10-an-hour job plus working over 3,000 hours per year. It's hard for me just to get to MfW, nevermind organizing events and helping do stuff.

Which reminds me, if I don't leave in the next 40 minutes, I'll miss MfW today. "See" you at the Meetinghouse! Please, no torches today! :P

Carl Williams said...

I feel as though the spirit spoke through thee, Friend.

“I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” We Friends have many tools that help bring the experience of God closer, and these same tools help us be God's hands and feet, eyes and voice in the world. They are at our disposal, ready to use—our meetinghouses, our process, our traditions, our testimony among them. And I do love these, but there are only tools, and each one is also a trap. It’s only a few easy steps for the tools waiting in our Friendly toolbox ready to use to become our gods and for us, in setting them up high and worshipping them to loose sight of their purpose. When that happens it may be time to burn our meetinghouses, at least metaphorically, to make a burnt offering and get our selves and our beloved community in right, gospel order. Blessings.

MelissatheRagamuffin said...

I can't find one single instance in scripture of Jesus saying, "You see this temple here! We should burn it down.... We should sell it (and all the gold in it) and give it to the poor." Nope. It just didn't happen. Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple, but I promise you the Romans didn't give any of the plunder to the poor.

Actually, the only instance in scripture I can find of someone saying, "That could have been sold! The money could have gone to the poor!" was Judas Iscariot.

Faith said...

Jesus does seem to call on his disciples and the rich in general to participate in a cleansing and prophetic process of selling processions that take the place of God and giving the money to the poor. The most famous example is the rich young ruler (“You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor,and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”) But there are other examples like the passage Micah quotes at the beginning of the post.

The question for us today, of course, is how do we apply this teaching? What things are we putting before God that we need to surrender? Wealth? A building? Tradition? Ego? Our nice American lifestyle? The respect of our peers? What are we being called to as acts of radical faithfulness and surrender?

Mackenzie said...

I think Micah has a point about the meetinghouses not necessarily serving the work of the Meeting.

I go to a Meeting that has a big old meetinghouse, large campus, and several extra buildings in an upper-crust or at least trendy part of the city. It wasn't a wealthy part of town when it was built, but now the likelihood of someone wandering by and stopping in is limited to people with a taste for nice restaurants and expensive shoe stores.

The meeting room is larger than needed for how few people show up weekly (about 70 on a "good" day, while the room can hold about 250). The campus is larger than the participants are willing to put in the sweat equity to maintain. You'd think working together to maintain it would go under the category of building community, which our First Day School claims is a testimony. Instead, the budget must be ever-expanded to hire someone else to fix things up, rather than have anyone get their hands dirty. Never mind that the meeting is running on endowments from long-dead Friends as it is. So much paid maintenance puts a strain on the budget, making for persistent calls for more money.

As far as doing the work Jesus commands Friends (and all Christians) to do, the meeting's campus is rarely used for service, at least by the meeting. There's a project that lasts 2 days in December. The rest of the service has been outsourced to the non-profits that rent parts of the campus.

I don't think meetinghouses should be a means to outsource the work we're called to do or a means to make us feel important because we have a building that's older than its members and worth a million dollars (or whatever monetary value it has). Sometimes I think house churches are more appropriate to the calling and humble nature.

George Fox may not have called for burning down the steeplehouses, but boycotting them sure did seem to be on his mind.

Anonymous said...
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MelissatheRagamuffin said...

I think something to remember is when Jesus told the rich ruler he was telling an individual to sell his possessions. He didn't tell him to go around burning down things belonged to someone else. While yearly and monthly meetings might hold the title to the meeting houses in reality they are supposed to belong to the Lord. What does he want us to be doing with the facilities we have? Does he want us to sell the property in favor of something less costly to maintain? Does he want us to actually put the building(s) to use, and not just have the buildings sitting empty 5-6 days a week. In Harrisonburg several churches, the mosque, the synagogue (I think) use their buildings to host the Harrisonburg Area Thermal Shelter during the coldest months of the year when all the other shelter beds are full. That's something that couldn't happen if they didn't have buildings to do it in. Some of the churches in the downtown area put their buildings to almost constant use between allowing groups such as AA/NA to use their buildings, hosting soup kitches, food pantries, and other outreaches - all of which would not be possible if they didn't have those buildings. All of these churches having a centralized location (even if it's just a vacant store front) allows them to do things they couldn't do if they were meeting in homes. It lets visitors know where to go if they want to worship there. People also know where to go if they're looking for help.

fighoneymint said...

As a lifelong Quaker and traveler and researcher amongst Friends, I have been in many a Quaker meeting for business in which it felt like the building structure was the most tangible object of worship. It dominated so much of the energy--spiritual, physical, financial and mental--of the gathered body. It does make one have to question our attachments and why, and at what cost? Would we exist without our building and history? Would we be as relevant as we would like to believe we are?

Anonymous said...

I disagree. I do not disagree only with the act but also with the symbolism behind it.

First of all burning property that others may value is an act of violence which I do not feel is in unity with our Peace Testimony. On the other hand I am opposed to the the radical idea behind it, of violently separating from the past.

In the article I read, "We can huddle together in our creaky, historic buildings, drafting minutes..." but the minutes drafted is the life of the Meeting written down for future generations to read and profit from. We also read, "This will mean venturing out from the safety of the meetinghouse - all of the beliefs, processes and possessions that we cling to for our sense of identity as Friends" What exactly is meant by this? Our Faith should be the same as that of Early Friends, only then will it be Primitive Christianity Revived, the Truth doesn't change, Christ the same yesterday, today and for ever.

We read, "Burning down the meetinghouse is a metaphor for the true freedom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God" but in the case of historic Quakerism these things are not put before God but came out of the Light, came out of Christ leading His people, renouncing it would be renouncing Christ!

We read, "What would it look like for younger Friends to take responsibility for leadership within our Yearly Meetings, not waiting for permission or validation?" I think that would be out of Gospel Order. I am not sure but I feel it. I think that Early Friends were wise to have weighty Friends to advice them... What is meant by, "not waiting for permission or validation"? Is this Quaker? Shouldn't we all wait in the Light together? Shouldn't we work as a community, as a Church?

Mackenzie said...

Themistoklis Papaioannou said...

"but in the case of historic Quakerism these things are not put before God but came out of the Light"

I think Micah's point is that the way we operate today is not historic Quakerism. Having buildings without ostentatious steeples may have come out of the Light, but that doesn't mean focusing on real estate instead of God is of the Light!

Mackenzie said...

Hey Martin,
I'm not sure about that "pack the UHauls and leave." I get the impression there's some older Friends who'd sooner die than leave their committee spots.

Then again, with the number of folks on 3+ committees for years at a time, maybe they really will burn out first...

Crystal said...

I've been following the comments and I wanted to mention that I too was initially shocked by the thought of burning down Meetinghouses. However, it was a good shock, for me at least. It made me think and what finally came out was that I love the PEOPLE in my Meeting and NYYM. I probably wouldn't have met them though, if we didn't have a PLACE to meet.

It also made me appreciate the hard work and dedication of the folks who keep the lights on, make sure the roof gets repaired, vet the groups that are allowed to use the building, hire a childcare person even if no children come for weeks and weeks, and reliably show up every Sunday at the right time to unlock the door. That is faith in action too.

Yes there are times when I'd like everyone to get up and march to the Capital to yell at so-and-so, but yelling almost never persuades anyone. As I understand it, the Quaker way is more like water on a rock; slow, seemingly far too gentle, but very effective in the long term.

We need fire too, but we should use it judiciously. For example, what is today's equivalent of hiding escaping slaves? What is today's equivalent of going into other people's churches and telling them they're wrong? If people did that today, would we want them to say that they are Quakers? Or would we distance ourselves from them? Would George Fox truly be welcome as a Friend today?

Micah Bales said...

Themis - I really appreciate your critiques of my post. Thank you for your willingness to engage with what I wrote, rather than having a panic attack about the imagery I employed. While you and I have different perspectives, your criticism presents an opening to dialogue, rather than name-calling or shaming.

I think you're absolutely right that the image of burning down someone else's meetinghouse is not a good one, and would be out of line with our testimony against violent conflict. I think I could have done a better job of making clear that I imagined this prophetic act as arising out of the community itself, rather than as outsiders coming in and burning down someone else's house of worship.

When I wrote this piece, I was imagining the act of burning down a meetinghouse as a corporate act of surrender to God, as a Yearly Meeting giving up its self-sufficiency and certainty in the same way that Jesus asked the rich young man to abandon everything and follow him. I would never want to see Friends engage in any act that had the effect of threatening or bullying others. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to further clarify that.

The question that remains for me is, how can Friends corporately - not only individually - surrender our shared life to God, casting down all those things that we put in the place of direct reliance on the Holy Spirit?

You and I are in fundamental agreement, in the sense that we both want to see Friends be faithful to the immediate guidance of Jesus Christ within. The question, as always, is how we can do that - not only as individuals, but also as a corporate body. You expressed your opinion that younger Friends acting without permission from older Friends would be "out of Gospel Order." You ask, "Shouldn't we all wait in the Light together? Shouldn't we work as a community, as a Church?"

Yes, we should. This is a very legitimate critique of my post, one which cuts to the heart of what I was wrestling with. I feel that there is a tension between the faithfulness of the individual or smaller group within the Church, and the faithfulness of the Church as a whole. I struggle with how to know when it is time for the prophetic voice of an individual or smaller group within the body to take precedence over "stuck-ness" of the body as a whole. Does there come a time when we can no longer wait together with those who are not listening? Does there come a time when the urgency of Christ's leading is too great to wait any longer?

These are important questions, and not ones easily answered - especially not out of context! I think that this essay, which you have legitimately critiqued, leans on the side of action. I would like to see Friends do something positive, to live out Christ's leading for us in the world, even if it ruffles some feathers.

I'm glad to be a part of the same Body with you, Themis. Blessings to you in our Lord Jesus.

Matericia said...

Here is a Thank You note for the use of the parking lot of Friends Yearly Meeting in Philadelphia. (written with Sharpie on cardboard, of course) The spirit that enlightened the early Friends is alive and kicking! Cheers! Tricia
Dearest Quaker Friends, Thank you for harboring us in a safe place in your parking lot. We appreciate it, in solidarity—the 99% (7/4/2012)

Much love and respect from Occupy Buffalo.

God Bless. Thank-you. Patch from Occupy Fresno, CA.

Hip hip Jose from Buffalo love you all.

Thank you so much. It has been a realization to be back in a camp filled with Solidarity from you to the Occupiers. What you’ve done has been truly lifting. Thank you. O.D.C. 7/4/12

Peace not Battle—Occupy the Roads.

Quakers thank you for allowing us to occupy this space to express our freedom of speech and expression. All states coming together for a common cause was a great experience. Sincerely yours, Occupy Philly, Michael Miller, Port Richmond.

I’m so grateful that you opened your hearts and your space to us. (catastrophe averted!) I want to be a Quaker. Love and Peace, Barbara.

Thank you kindly for having us. [heart]. Much love, much peace, Lorena, OWS.

I learned consensus process and independent spirituality from Quakers. Thanks for one more wonderful gift! –Rob K.

Mia said...

Friend Micah: You don't know me, but I have been following your blog for awhile, and lately, you have been speaking many of the truths that I am wrestling with as well. But somehow whenever I try to state them, they come out as the half-crazy rantings of a 40-something over-committed Quaker-mother-person who works to provide for their family, whereas when you say them, they make much more sense, and are deeper in Spirit!

Like others here, I had simultaneous feelings of elation and fear at the image of burning down the structure on which we stand. I don't feel there is one clear path; rather, there is room for each.

I have sat in business sessions where we painstakingly wordsmithed some minute or other that no one can remember the purpose of, other than that it made us late for lunch. I've also witnessed care and precision that comes with taking extra time for prayer and discernment, and the minutes that have come from that. Time and again it comes back to process, accountability and trust. Are we willing to remove the log from our own eye, and see our own (or our meeting's) shortcomings, and love them even as we see them no longer fitting what we (or our meetings) need?

Your questions about whether and when action is justified, versus when waiting and "stuck-ness" are called for, resonate with me as well, but on a much more personal level, so I won't clutter this comment with my own personal backstory. Suffice it to say, these are queries that I wrestle with A LOT.

Thank you for your faithfulness, and your keen words, which speak so clearly to my condition.

In faith,


Micah Bales said...

I hope that everyone who has been involved in this conversation will consider reading - and commenting on - today's post, which can be considered a follow-up to this one.

kevin roberts said...

One thing is clear: The status quo has been failing us for decades, perhaps even generations.

yes, micah.

burn it down.

John George Archer said...

Do not destroy property, cash it in! But you must sell it to the highest bidder. Do it with great fanfare. Then feed and cover the poor quietly with the proceeds.

Quakers must sell the dead wood, plant the new seed. Or, die lost.

Sell all of it now, maybe celebrate it with a (modest) fireworks display.

John George Archer said...

Sell it, don't burn it.

Sure, make great fanfare of the sale, but hand the proceeds to the unfed and the uncovered, quietly.

Sell the dead wood, plant the new seed.

Are we hypocrites? Burn your cobwebbed faith instead, not a house down. Sell it now.

John George Archer said...

I hope my comment wasn't removed. And was merely not up-loaded properly...

In a nutshell, burning anything isn't Quaker. Sell the assets.Get to the streets.

A Quaker does not hang around Quakers. Lest they practise Quakerism.

Like your provocative tone.