I spent most of this past weekend with young adult Friends from Baltimore Yearly Meeting and also had the privilege to attend a Quarterly Meeting within Baltimore YM, where Silvia Graves, the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, spoke. The conversations with young adult Friends before that meeting, the conversations with older Friends at the QM and more conversations with young adult Friends later on today often returned to the question of FUM, and, implicitly, its current institutional stance on homosexuality. Saturday evening, other young adult Friends and I attended a gay pride parade near my home in Washington, DC, and I experienced what I felt was an opening from the Lord.
Watching the parade, I saw several local Christian groups – Episcopals, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarian Universalists, and others – going along in the procession. Sitting there, I felt a movement of the Spirit, and as I bowed interiorly, I was struck – again and again and again – with a two-second soundbite from Deborah Saunder’s first sermon at the World Gathering of Young Friends. She had been mocking us young Friends for being so unfocused in our faith journey, and she suddenly became deathly serious: “You’d better get clear,” she warned us. This memory, this soundbite of Deborah Saunders saying, “you’d better get clear,” repeated in my mind as if fired by an automatic weapon.
You’d better get clear. Accompanying this message was a great sense of compassion for all of the people I saw before me at this parade, reveling in their sexuality and identity as legitimate human beings. I was struck with the sense that the Church was losing these people. At the recent FUM board meeting in Kenya, as Friends were engaged in debate as to whether or not to re-affirm the Richmond Declaration of Faith, a Kenyan Friend reportedly admonished the board members, saying, “my people are perishing while you squabble.” This is no less true in North America than it is in Africa.
While we, the Church, bicker about the very existence of homosexuality, we fail to address the terrible brokenness and unfaithfulness that so many of us find ourselves caught up in with regards to our own sexuality. While we squabble, many Friends deny homosexuals the covenant of marriage. While we scream back and forth about how right or wrong homosexuality is, we seem to be ignoring the lack of integrity with which we carry out our heterosexual liaisons. While we bicker about whether or not to “accept” homosexuality, we avoid doing the important work of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to those whose sexual orientation is not our own, yet who want to live the fullness of the Christian life.
We’d better get clear. I am increasingly aware of how the question of homosexuality in the Church is allowing Friends to ignore so many other more substantive questions that face us as a community. It is a lot easier to focus on nailing down points of doctrine – be it liberal or orthodox doctrine – than it is to take a real look at whether we ourselves are glorifying God with our sexuality. Are we all, hetero- or homosexual, living out our God-given sexuality with integrity and submission to the yoke of Christ? Are we all, gay or straight, engaged in wholesome, committed, honest relationships with others? Do Friends respect the sanctity of the God-given bond of marriage? Perhaps once we get the log out of our own eye, we might see where the root of our struggles as a Church lies.
We’d better get clear.
I visited a Friend’s home recently, and had a wonderful evening drinking tea and talking about, well, everything. In addition to the pleasure of sharing her company and that of other friends, her home itself was a blessing. During the entire evening, I was struck by the simple beauty of her living space. And there was an abundance there; her apartment wanted for nothing. And there was a sense of safety there; I felt enveloped and comforted by the interior space that my friend had crafted. I felt very at home in my friend’s home.
My friend had commented before I came over that she struggled with the testimony of simplicity, and during our time together at her apartment, she mentioned it again. She indicated that, having seen her home, we could now see for ourselves how she struggled with simplicity. I looked around again, bathing in the joy I found in her well apportioned home, and replied that I hoped that I could someday live in such a beautiful place.
I, myself, have pushed myself to “simplify,” in terms of my physical possessions, for quite some time. It came to the point where I even began giving away some of my books, not buying new clothing, questioning myself and holding myself accountable for every purchase. I have pared down my possessions to a small wardrobe, a computer and ipod (I really question myself on the ipod) and my books and notebooks. Apart from a few small miscellaneous objects, that’s it. Clothes, books, music and computer. I look around the small room where I live, and I realize that I haven’t even bothered to decorate; my walls are bare.
Seeing the contrast between my home and my friend’s, it’s clear that my material life is far more sparse than hers. She has far more possessions, more room and more beauty in her living space than I do. But, instead of feeling any sense that she was living decadently or wasting resources or being self-absorbed, I felt very pleased at what she had created. I appreciated the beauty that she had wrought in her interior space. And, when I saw the beauty of her home and saw that “it was good,” it freed me from the shame I had been living in for so long. I had seen every “unnecessary” object as a burden and a sin for myself – an obscenity in a world wracked with abject poverty. However, seeing the goodness and beauty of my friend’s abundance, I was able to release myself to live abundantly, as well.
I was able to see that my friend’s attention to detail and appreciation for material beauty was good and wholesome – at least in the unidolatrous way that I saw her expressing it in her home. In recognizing that goodness in the life of another, I was able to find release to feel worthy of having my own needs met. It’s easy for me, when praying for my daily bread, to feel ashamed for having more than the bare necessities. But humans live on more than bread alone, on more than the bare essentials for sustaining biological function! Human needs include beauty, the feeling of safety and prepared sacred spaces. I am indebted to my friend for helping me to see that I am worthy of beauty and abundance – we all are.
Simplicity is not about reducing life, not merely about removing luxuries, “creaturely” pleasures and joys. Certainly, there is a place for this, but this is not at the root. The core of simplicity is knowing our need and accepting our provision as a pure gift from God. And, just as we should not seek more than our needs call for, neither should we seek to deprive ourselves of the daily bread – physical, emotional and spiritual – that God grants us. Simplicity calls for discernment and trust in God that the Spirit will provide for our needs.
We need neither to seek riches nor poverty, but instead to seek the will of the Lord in all things. I am reminded of Margaret Fell, who it is said refused to stop wearing bright colors, even as many Friends began to insist on a somber wardrobe as an outward form of simplicity. We Children of the Light are not called to drabness, but instead to the colorful and joyful living of the Kingdom of Heaven.
As citizens of the New Jerusalem, we are called to be as little children, accepting joyfully the gifts of our Mother in heaven, but also being actively willing to share our gifts with our brothers and sisters. Let us not seek to escape the beauty and wealth of this world, but instead recognize the immense abundance that we have in Christ and be fearless in sharing that which we do have and seeking that all know that full and abundant life that we have found – both materially and spiritually. Let us know that, while there is immense injustice in the world and while we are called to share what we have with our brothers and sisters, we too are worthy of our daily bread.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
This weekend, in Burlington, New Jersey, I knew with certainty for the first time that I had been a part of a “covered meeting,” a meeting where not only did the Holy Spirit speak to me, but to all of us as a body. We were covered in the Holy Spirit, bonded together in Love, a gathered people under the headship of the Spirit of Christ. We were broken, tender, and open to the ministry of the Lord. And the underlying message that the Inward Teacher had for us was simple yet profound: We start with love. Often Friends, reaching across the divides of differences in theology, culture and ways of viewing the world, wonder what it is that makes us all Friends. “Why are we called to be together?”, we ask. This weekend, I felt that we were given the answer: We are called together because of our love for one another.
I had come to the gathering with a strong concern for the importance of the biblical witness and the Christian tradition as a foundational part of the Quaker heritage, and I found that I still had that concern when I left. However, the reasoning behind and the context of my concern had been clarified. The reason that I wrestled with my community, was because I love them. I don’t simply care about the institution of the Religious Society of Friends, nor merely about some abstract ideal of Truth. No, while these things are important to me, I found this weekend that the core reason for my concernedness and continued wrestling within the Society of Friends is my love for other Friends as individuals, as well as love for Friends as a corporate body. I found my love for God expressed so beautifully in my love for them, both as individuals and as a corporate body.
This weekend, I came to know what George Fox referred to when he said that he had seen a “people to be gathered.” We are that people, and we are gathered in the name of the Spirit of God. We are gathered together in the love of God, an openness to the penetrating power of the Light and the tenderness to expose ourselves not just to the Holy Spirit, but to one another as well. And I came to find once again how much I need the ministry of my community and how my own vulnerability is essential for my growth as a child of God and for the proper functioning of my religious community. I knew this intellectually beforehand, but this gathering has helped me to gain a better heart-knowledge, recognizing experientially that I am desperately in need of help from the Spirit of God speaking through my brothers and sisters. In submitting to my brothers and sisters in love, I submit to God.
We have come away from this gathering with renewed hope and energy. The Lord has spoken to us. We are the Children of the Light. We are called together to be in loving relationship with one another, attending to one another in our brokenness and vulnerability, just as we attend to the Inward Teacher who guides us as a people. We are the tender Children of God. I am overcome by the experience of the boundless love that flows between us, through us and from us, with its source in the Love of God. We have been overcome by the Love that is forever. Let us magnify it and proclaim it everywhere. We have the hope of glory, the hope of salvation for our people. We have seen the loving-kindness of the Lord and we proclaim it to all who would listen and believe. In tender brokenness, in vulnerability and weakness we find eachother in the Life and Power of the Holy Spirit.
Praise God, who has shown us the living waters of salvation, whose source is simplicity itself: The Spirit of God has always been with us, the tender Love that has pressed at the gates of our hearts from our earliest days. We must have the courage to be simple, yes, to be as little children and accept this simple but infinitely powerful Love that God is and that God pours out onto those who are tender to it and open to receiving it. This weekend, we opened ourselves to the loving mercy of the Spirit of God, and we were penetrated, comforted and united, gathered around the well of the eternal Spring of Life. If we stay low to the ground, if we stay vulnerable and tender to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, there is no limit to how God can act through us. The ministry of young Friends, the ministry of these valiant Quaker men and women, will shake the countryside for miles around.
But we must start with love.
We cannot understand our calling as a community to be a spiritual army, following the Lamb wherever he goes, until we recognize the forces of rebellion and lust that assail us and the world we live in. How are we to witness the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven throughout the earth if we cannot see that the outward wars that rage amongst the nations find their origins in the lusts that reside within our own hearts? What are the things that we chase after that keep us from being entirely obedient to the Spirit of Christ? What are the things that we believe we love or need, but which are actually addictions that separate us from God, that keep us from being obedient? Is there anything that you would not be willing to give up if the Holy Spirit demanded it of you? Where does the spirit of lust and rebellion have a foothold in your heart? Are we ready to come together as a community and declare war upon this darkness that we find in our hearts, as well as in our interactions together and with society more generally? Is the time yet come for us to bind together our whips and to clear the temple of our hearts?