Monday, July 09, 2012

Together in the Truth

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. - Hebrews 12:28-29

In my last post, I imagined what it might mean for a whole community to respond to Jesus' challenge to us as his disciples: to follow him without reservation and without safety net. I used the image of burning down a meetinghouse as a metaphor for what it might look like for us to surrender to God as a community, to lay down all of those things that get in the way of child-like faith. It turns out that this was really shocking imagery for some of my readers, and I got a lot of pushback from commenters here on the blog and on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that many people got so stuck on the image of a burning meetinghouse that they could not see through to the underlying message of renewal.

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the image of a torched meetinghouse upset some members of my online community. Despite our insistence to the contrary, we Quakers are just as attached to our "stuff" - buildings, rituals, procedures and endowments - as any other religious group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God. That function would not be served by constantly calling every aspect of the community's life into question. Stability and unity within the Church are helpful.

All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart, and unity degenerates into group-think. In our desire to maintain a conflict-free community, we may come to value conformity over prophetic witness. Our tendency can be to freeze the community at a particular point in time - whether past or future - and to seek to maintain that "perfect" moment indefinitely. But a living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.

Life depends on a vibrant dynamic between stability and change, the new and the old, creation and destruction. Neither a constant turmoil, nor frozen "perfection" present fertile soil for the work of the Spirit. How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God's call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?

Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body. That being said, I do believe there are steps we can take to encourage the stable flexibility that our communities need if they are to be places where we grow together in maturity and love. One of these steps is to consider the generational dynamics that are at play in our religious society.

I write from my perspective as a 29-year-old man - a Millennial - who is pretty close to aging out of the "young adult" category. I speak out of almost a decade of experience of being a twentysomething among Friends - first as a seeker; then as a new member of a small Quaker Meeting in Kansas; later as a seminarian at ESR; and finally as a Friend doing ministry in the wider world. I have watched for years as so many in my generation have fallen away from Quakerism, sometimes to join another religious community, but usually drifting into the wider, secular culture. I carry a concern for these younger Friends who have not found a place within their religious community, and I have opinions about how we might change to become more relevant to our present context.

This is a place where I get into trouble a lot. Many folks - especially those of older generations - get very defensive when I start talking about generational challenges. And, it is true, I probably go a little too hard on the Boomer generation at times. I am sorry about that. But I would like to encourage Friends to keep things in perspective. Adult Friends under the age of 40 are an incredibly small minority in our communities here in North America. When I first became a Quaker, I was the only person under fifty in my Meeting, and was one of only two young adults who were active in my Yearly Meeting. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, where I am currently a member, I can identify only perhaps half a dozen Friends under the age of 40 who are active in the life of the Yearly Meeting.

I realize that I can come across to some older folks as an "angry young man" who blames all the challenges facing Friends on older generations. But take a moment to see the world from my vantage point. In my life in Washington, DC, I am surrounded by adults in their twenties and thirties. We are young professionals, activists, writers and intellectuals. We are energetic, earnest and hard at work throughout the city.

Yet, when I participate my Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker groups, my peers are nowhere to be found. I am surrounded by people who are decades older than me, with very different life experiences, assumptions and worldviews. I am too young to clearly remember when the Berlin wall came down, yet most of my brothers and sisters in the Quaker community had their worldviews shaped in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War! I love my older Friends, and I lean on a number of them for eldership, support and counsel. But, over time, it can also be alienating to be a part of a community where my different life experience is often unrecognized.

So, I apologize for anything I have written or said that has made my older Friends feel attacked or devalued. While at times I may say some things that feel like insults to our older members, I hope you will hear where my concern really lies: not in tearing down older Friends, but in lifting up the particular gifts, experience and concerns of younger Quakers. How can our religious community value and empower the gifts and ministries of younger Friends? How can all of us come together in the Truth?

Our God is indeed a consuming fire, and all of us - young and old - have dross to be melted away as we wait in that refining Presence. How must we change so that we can wait together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit? If all our forms and structures and buildings and finances are tools that God has given us for blessing the world, what does it look like for us to faithfully exercise those tools, those gifts? And how do we avoid making the tools and gifts our focus, rather than God? How can we live into these questions together, as an intergenerational community?


Christine Manville Greenland said...

Micah --

I did not respond because I was quite tired; travels in ministry and all that.

One meetinghouse heated in winter with a wood stove, erupted in flame about a year ago... during meeting. Friends and the books and benches were quickly removed from the meetinghouse...

Friends who had considerable disagreements in the past came together -- with the help of a hospitable worship group nearby. I've not visited recently, but I understand that many Friends have lovingly come together.

We cling fast to things that we think give us meaning.

During worship last week about the seasons of life (Ecclesiastes 3), I realized that what I need to do is to discard "stuff"... If the meetinghouse is little more than "historic", there is danger than Friends are more attached to their history than they are living here and now. The same might be said for "historic" testimonies -- peace for example.

To live authentic lives with integrity, we need to consider what our faith would look like if we were to sell all, give to the poor, and be true disciples... Just saying that makes many Friends nervous,as it does me.

julielizabet said...

Micah, we definitely should talk. I was called an "angry young woman" in Quaker circles more than once, and I assure you this is far worse than being an "angry young man." In addition to my experiences with Quakers, St. Mary's has been an interesting experience with the balance between stability and change...or, more to the point, PERCEIVED stability and change. Julie

Elizabeth Saunders said...

"Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body."

I love that you don't have "all the answers," yet you have valuable contributions and insights. You are truly living in community.

Anonymous said...

I have seen "building worship" stunt the growth of a Christian community. So I could see the usefulness of the burning meeting house as a point from which to begin to lay open some of the layers of distraction we, many of us, use to avoid following the Lord's call to a more intimate relationship with Him.

Perhaps it would have been more helpful had I written a response to the previous post. It would have been something like:

Having recently entered the junior-senior-citizen bracket, I am not so far away from the frustrations of being the "kid."

Perhaps that is why I am thrilled when someone decades my junior speaks to me about things that matter - that eternally matter.

This is from the OYM Minutes 2009

"Ohio Yearly Meeting Young Friends 2009
This week our time was spent in theological reflection, prayer, and sharing
our faith journeys.
We felt led to spend some time in intercessory prayer. As we waited on
the Lord for guidance, these were the concerns that arose—that Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends

• Shed unnecessary burdens
• Become willing to lay down our lives—figuratively and literally—for our
Friend, Christ
• Have permeable relationships, with flow from younger to older, and older
to younger
• Become avid students of all that our Teacher, Jesus Christ, is teaching us
• Become stronger, so we can encourage and strengthen and help each
other grow and mature
• Wake up to spiritual reality: recognize both stumbling blocks and ways to
avoid and correct them

We ask that Friends join us in praying for our Yearly Meeting."

Raye Hodgson

Brent Bill said...

Well put, Micah. I notice (even w/ my old eyes) the generational gap of which you speak. I would hope you could speak/write about how we can encourage young adults to participate in the life of Quakerism -- as a movement, not an institution. To paraphrase the great theologian Groucho Marx, "Quakerism today is a wonderful institution ... but who wants to live in an institution?"

I would love to see younger adults (younger than me!) worship with us -- or start new groups in our area. I do think there's value in intergenerational worship and service... so would hope young adults would be attracted to some of our Meetings. That's one reason ours (West Newton outside Indianapolis) is worship focused and open. The work that needs to be done is done by us all instead of by Faith & Practice ordained committees. We try to be "light on our spiritual feet" and responsive to the Spirit.

Thanks again for these good thoughts!

Susan said...

I appreciate this post, Micah, not only for thy apology to me, one those of who felt attacked and wounded, but also for several threads of thy message here, namely: An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God. (Amen, brother!) All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart. (May we be willing to see and amend our own conditions.) Living communities change and grow. (Yes, in healthy, God-given ways and not as cancers.) How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God's call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?

Those are good questions, Micah. (The “new” teaching may be only new to us at the moment, a reminder of an aspect of Truth that we have forgotten; it may be something we have never before considered.) I wish we had had those questions to search from recently at QuakerSpring. Maybe we can embrace them in our second Ministry and Oversight session at yearly meeting. We in Ohio Yearly Meeting have fairly frequent experience of waiting together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit. We need to be more nimble about putting what we agree that we have learned into action.

Unknown said...

How many of those Young Friends that were in attendance and active in OYM have continued to be so the last could of years and will be in attendance next month?

Having high school students involved is great but what is gained by the yearly meeting if they are lost in college?

Robyn said...

No apology necessary for clearly expressing your experience.
I hear you.
At minimum, I would like a faith community that is willing to stand with me, stand together, even if our small t truths differ.

Unknown said...

Words, at best, are imprecise vehicles for expressing thoughts. Lily, I don’t know you so I may not be hearing what you mean. I am responding to the words as I interpreted them.

My question would be what didn’t the high schoolers gain if they became lost in college? Wouldn’t whatever challenges or wisdom they brought to YM while they were there remain even if they later leave?

Scott King- Atlanta GA said...

This is Scott. To quote what you wrote,. I am asking that you consider that "different life experiences, assumptions, and worldviews" may actually have been formed through years of being believers and following God's Holy Spirit. Yours may be new but that does NOT make them automatically correct. Saying you're sorry that your words and actions offended and received criticism is quite separate from saying that you chose wrong words and lacked gentler wisdom necessary to minister. Harsh words can be of God, but not to bring attention to the messenger! I don't see you asking for forgiveness for any wrong on your part ever... Just always surprise and dismay and disdain that others don't "get you" nor feel that you ways move in the Spirit and not your flesh like we all sometimes do. Experiences, assumptions, and worldviews all come and go and change. The Fruits of the Spirit are eternal and always true.
I and others are not your enemy whether you see that or not!----Scott