Archive for 2008 – Page 3

Friends General Conference, Reflections

Now that I have made my way to a place where I have enough free time and access to a computer, I’ll describe my experience at FGC Gathering this past week. As I indicated in my last email, the week was a difficult one for me, and took a lot of adjustment on my part. However, as the days went by, I was able to adapt myself more and more to the way of life and schedule at FGC Gathering, so that by the end I felt more or less comfortable. Of course, then it was time to leave.

I think that I was expecting FGC Gathering to be more like a yearly meeting session than anything else; but, in fact, it was far closer to being a festival, concert, or summer camp for adults and families. Coming to this gathering, I felt that my role was to be an observer, to rest in God and seek to understand a different culture. I found soon that simply being at FGC Gathering as an observer took a great deal of energy, and that, though I felt that I did very little, I was very drained by dinnertime each evening. At many times the gathering felt centerless, with many different individuals and groups involved in their own activities. At times it seemed that the overall energy of the gathering was one of “anything goes,” a release from all inhibitions that had to be borne during the rest of the year.

I had hoped to be quite involved in the Young Adult Friends community at FGC Gathering, but to my chagrin almost all YAF events were scheduled for 9:15pm or later, with their business meetings regularly going well past midnight. Since I go to bed closer to “Quaker midnight,” I felt unable to take much part in that community. Instead, I spent most of my time mingling with older folks, which was just fine – but I had wanted to make more of a connection with younger Friends there, as well. I was able to make a connection with a few wonderful individual YAFs, but being a part of the group as a whole seemed out of reach.

During FGC Gathering I spent a lot of time observing and ruminating on the work that the Holy Spirit is doing among Friends in preparing us to be the Body of Christ in the world. I noticed several hopeful movements of the Spirit at work in the liberal-unprogrammed branch that are emerging or becoming strengthened at this time. In terms of Friends General Conference as an organization, the two most inspiring initiatives now underway are the Traveling Ministries Program and the nascent Quaker Quest program. I see these two initiatives as representing the future of Quakerism – at least in its unprogrammed variety – two sides of what is happening as God seeks to enliven, renew, reignite this generation of the Religious Society of Friends.

FGC’s fundraising campaign that is underway is called “Stoking the Spiritual Fires of Quakerism,” and I am pleased to see the idea of “being on fire” become in-vogue. Imagine that: Taking our faith seriously! The Quaker Quest program seems incredibly promising as a tool for evangelism/outreach, but also for inreach. As meetings undertake this program, I believe that we will become clearer about who we are as Friends, what we believe, how we should be living in the world. At the same time that Quaker Quest begins to take root and quite possibly transform our meetings both in terms of spiritual depth and numerically, it seems clear to me that it is imperative that we prepare ourselves as a religious community for a potential influx of newly convinced Friends, on a scale that we have not seen since the mid nineteenth century.

I see the Traveling Ministries Program as a key part of this preparation, helping to energize, connect, encourage and organize our ministers and elders, both young and old in Christ. I believe that our traveling Friends will become an increasingly important force in the Religious Society as God seeks to bring us into greater levels of faithfulness as a body. As Quaker Quest serves as a tool for God to enrich and expand our local meetings, God willing, the Traveling Ministries Program may serve to connect these meetings to the wider Religious Society of Friends, both grounding the local meeting in the wider body and tradition, as well as encouraging the flow of vitality and groundedness to other, less healthy areas of our community, and to the wider Church.

In this vein, another program that seems very promising which is emerging out of the East Coast stream of unprogrammed Quakerism is the School of the Spirit. This ministry has been at work since 1990, “helping all who wish to be more faithful listeners and responders to the inward work of Christ.” Until recently, the sole program of the School of the Spirit had been, “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer,” which serves to guide and nurture the emerging gifts of eldership within our Religious Society. This coming year will be the first in a (hopefully) ongoing program entitled, “The Way of Ministry,” which will serve a similar purpose for those called to Gospel, prophetic, traveling, teaching, or other kinds of ministry grounded within the meeting community, but often reaching out to the wider world.

The School of the Spirit seems very promising to me for a number of reasons: First, it appears to offer the kind of oversight and nurture that many monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings seem unable or unwilling to provide at the present time. Second, it seeks to encourage a grounded, caring fellowship of ministers and elders who support one another in their labors, providing nurture and guidance. Finally, and what is potentially most exciting about this program, the School of the Spirit is committed to the active participation of local meetings in the ministry of its students.

The School of the Spirit sees ministry of all kinds in the context of a corporate body – the local, quarterly and yearly meeting – and strives to involve these bodies to as great an extent as possible. They hold that it is essential that our meetings recognize the spiritual gifts and callings of their membership as not only being a call for that individual, but also for the body as a whole. Spiritual gifts are a gift from God to the body, held in trust by an individual; and calls from God, if true leadings, are not merely for the individual, but are in fact to some degree a call for the entire body, to be supported materially, encouraged, and overseen by the church community.

I am excited to see how these programs, along with many other smaller-scale initiatives that are blooming at present all over the Quaker landscape, will serve to enliven, enrich, and make more useful for God’s service the Religious Society of Friends in this new century. At FGC Gathering, I was surprised and pleased to notice that many Friends are becoming enthusiastic about outreach. During one night’s plenary session, when Peterson Toscano remarked during his presentation that he thought outreach was crucial, many in the audience began to cheer and clap spontaneously. This is an exciting day, when Friends in the unprogrammed branches are getting fired up about sharing their faith, inviting others into our meetings.

This has been a very difficult week for me, but I am glad that I was able to be at FGC Gathering. I feel that I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of FGC at this gathering, and I am encouraged that the Ocean of Light is overcoming the Ocean of Darkness. The grass is growing up from underneath the blanket of snow that has kept us “safe,” hidden, for so long. Praise God. I pray that I was well used this past week, that the Seed of God was encouraged.

Early report from FGC

I must keep this entry brief, as there are two public computers for the entirety of this gathering, which hosts around 1,500 people. Consider this a preliminary report, to be amplified later:

I have spent most of my time at FGC Gathering attending extended worship (around 2 hours) after breakfast, learning about the Quaker Quest program in the afternoon, usually catching a nap, and then attending a plenary session in the evening. I have not had the opportunity to spend much time with Young Adult Friends here, as their schedule mostly takes place after nine ‘o clock at night. As I go to bed around ten, this has been unworkable for me. I have been doing my best to rest, take time for myself, and save energy for the rest of my summer ahead. My success has been limited.

My time thus far at FGC Gathering has been intense and, honestly, rather difficult for me. I’ve been experiencing a level of culture shock that I hadn’t really anticipated, given that I had enjoyed my time in FGC-affiliated monthly and yearly meetings, previously. I have been reflecting a great deal on the cultural differences between my region of the Religious Society of Friends and the parts of the Religious Society represented here at FGC Gathering. I realize that some of this must have to do with my own personality, as well.

More to come.

Now, to FGC Gathering

Until a couple of days ago, I did not think that I was going to Friends General Conference Gathering, being held this year at Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While having planned on attending when I originally considered my plans for the summer, a couple of months ago I came to the conclusion that FGC was an event that I would need to cut in order to have enough energy to undertake the rest of my intervisitation. However, in the latter part of this week, as I have considered what I felt led to be doing with my time in between Quaker Camp and FUM Triennial, I realized that I was feeling very drawn to travel among Friends in liberal-unprogrammed meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region. When I considered traveling among East Coast meetings this coming week, I realized that most folks whom I knew in those meetings would be at FGC Gathering. I also realized I had the money to attend the gathering, if I so chose, thanks to a grant from the Pickett Endowment. Critically, I felt inwardly at peace when I gave over to changing plans and attending the gathering.

So, having a probable leading to attend FGC Gathering, two questions remained: “Do I really have the energy to attend this event?” and “Is it still possible for me to register?” After some introspection and investigation, I have concluded that the answer to both is, “yes.”

See you at FGC, God willing.

Quaker Camp at Barnsville, 2008

This week has been the second year of Quaker Camp, which first took place last year as a part of a reunion of Young Friends of North America participants. This year, the gathering has been much smaller, involving probably around thirty people at any given time, with a number of folks only participating for a part of the weekend. The flavor and energy of the gathering has been very different from the previous one, both in terms of overall numbers, and also in terms of Young Adult Friends participation, which has been significantly less this year. While smaller and less vital than last year, this week has been a space for interaction across generations and traditions and has served as a point of contact between the surging Young Adult Friends movement and older Friends from the Conservative and liberal-unprogrammed traditions.

Beginning Sunday evening, immediately following the Gathering of Conservative Friends, and running until Saturday morning, Quaker Camp has been a place for Friends of a variety of backgrounds to come together, share fellowship, wait on God, and create a space for intergenerational community. We have met together in a large swath of “unprogrammed time,” where we have felt free to experiment with different forms of study, prayer, business, worship, and song. Folks have come for a variety of reasons: Some came to recapture the life and energy that they once experienced as part of the Young Friends of North America. Others came to explore the modern-day witness of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting. Still others came to participate in the ongoing movement of Young Adult Friends and to share fellowship with older Friends. What we have found together is a sense of mutual sharing, deep listening, and freedom for experimentation and risk-taking as an cross-branch, intergenerational community.

The week has certainly had its ups and downs, sometimes feeling overburdened with introspection and personal struggles being elevated to the level of collective agenda. Nevertheless, as the week has gone on, things seem to have gelled to a great extent. Instead of being a rattling of separate individuals, we have come to share a greater sense of unity and corporateness.

It has been a blessing to spend some quality time with Friends from Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and get a sense of who they are, and simply appreciating that. I feel that I have a great deal to learn from Friends in the Conservative tradition and hope that I might be able to offer something of myself and my tradition to them, as well. I was delighted and surprised, for example, at the response I received this morning when I suggested that we could have some programmed worship and praise for tonight’s evening program: A Friend from Stillwater Meeting expressed that she thought that having programmed worship would be in good order, just what Friends needed at this moment! I am excited and humbled by the open-mindedness and adaptability of some Conservative Friends, even as they are firm in their own tradition. I believe that this is exactly what we need from all Friends.

This week has also been a good opportunity for me to talk with past YFNA participants, interviewing some of them as a part of an historical investigation I am planning to undertake this fall. I am continually educated by my conversations with older Friends who were involved in the Young Friends of North America in their youth. I find great inspiration and great lessons (both positive and negative) in their life experience and experiments with Truth. I have also appreciated the perspective which many Friends bring to their youthful adventures, often able to make distinctions between experiences that might be worth emulating today, and others which should be studied with an eye toward avoiding pitfalls that have the potential to do deep harm to individuals and communities. I hope that Young Adult Friends today can be in conversation with older Friends and be open to hearing and taking seriously their experience, so that we might benefit from the hard-won lessons of their generation.

Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Conservative Friends Gathering

This weekend, Friday evening through Sunday morning (or Sixth Day through First Day, in the local parlance), I attended the Gathering of Conservative Friends, hosted by Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), at Olney Friends School and Stillwater Monthly Meeting’s meetinghouse. This was my first experience of any gathering of Conservative Friends, having previously only met Conservative Friends individually. It was a new experience to be around Friends at this gathering, who had travelled from all over North America (and one family from Finland!) to be together with other Conservative Friends. This largely seems to have been an opportunity for isolated Conservative Quakers to come together and share fellowship with other like-minded individuals.

Many of those in attendance this weekend were not full members of Ohio Yearly Meeting, but instead were what are referred to as “affiliate” members. As I understood it, this particular gathering was representative of only a certain stream of one Conservative yearly meeting, primarily seeming to be made up of affiliate members of OYM and those full members who support this growing way in which OYM is reaching out to the wider world, encouraging those who would like to take part in their unique brand of Christian Quakerism. Many of these Friends wore “plain dress” and employed “plain speech” (thee knows what that means, doesn’t thee?). I felt myself to be in a very different cultural zone from any other Quaker event I had ever attended.

An overarching theme of the weekend gathering was a sense of isolation on the part of many of those attending the event. Many affiliate members came to this gathering as one of their few face-to-face opportunities for corporate worship and fellowship with other like-minded Friends for the whole year. Some of these Friends are geographically isolated from Friends altogether, while others have found themselves to be so out of unity with the local meetings in their area that they have withdrawn, in some cases forming new Christian Friends worship groups. There was a gnawing hunger for connection and community, and also sadness that Conservative Quakerism is such a small community, both geographically and numerically.

It seemed apparent that Friends at this gathering were not representative of Ohio Yearly Meeting as a whole. While attended by many affiliate members, there were relatively few full members present. I am interested in coming to know OYM Friends more deeply, and I hope that some day soon I might be able to visit OYM’s regular annual sessions. I am looking forward to meeting with other kinds of Conservative Friends, in general. It will be enlightening, I am sure, to visit Friends at Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) next month, and I am hopeful that I might be able to visit at least a half-day of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative)’s annual sessions while I am nearby for FUM Triennial.

This trip helped me see how Conservative Quakerism is one branch among the others, and that it has its own glories and failings, just like the other branches do. I think that, previously, I had held Conservative Quakerism with a special, somewhat unrealistic regard, imagining it to be the “purest” form of Quakerism that we had left. I believe, now, that all of our branches of Friends, even the Conservative one, preserve particular elements of the Friends tradition and fail to encompass others. Conservative Friends seem to preserve to a greater degree the tradition developed during the Quietist period. I am no longer convinced, though, that Conservative Quakerism should be considered more “pure” or traditional than evangelical or liberal Quakerism. Now, I see that all Quakers, even Conservative Friends, are just human beings, and that we all have blindspots. This initial brush with Conservative Friends has confirmed my own identity as a Gurneyite-rooted, convergent Friend.

On to Barnesville!

On Wednesday evening, the 18th, Andrew and I made our way to Cancun, the (in)famous resort city best known for Spring Break debauchery. In addition to being a hotspot for big-dollar beach tourism, it is also the site of the principal airport in the region, where Andrew and I were flying out from. We made the best of it, linking up with some other backpackers who were looking to do their business (either arriving or exiting via the airport) and get out of Dodge. We went out on Wednesday night to the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) and sat on the beach together for a few hours, which was enough for me. There was no denying that the beach was beautiful, though the sand was course and rough on the feet and ended as it reached the water. It seemed somewhat dangerous to spend much time in the water, given that, in the water, just beyond the sand, was irregular, slightly jagged stone. We had a good time, though. Good company is good company, even in the strangest of circumstances.

The whole scene in Cancun was bizarre: Huge highrise hotels, massive chain restaurants from the US and elsewhere, enormous shopping centers, and nightclubs on every side. Teenagers, barely out of high school, if that old, roamed the streets, and the public bus system, with beer in their hands, wearing what looked like prom dresses (for the girls) and polo gear (for the boys). It seems that many parents give their children a trip to Cancun as a high school graduation gift. There were adults there, too – many of them bringing their children. Cancun is certainly a place where reality takes a vacation.

We went to the aiport as soon as we got up the next morning, not really wanting to hang around any more than necessary in the city, but we found that the airport was even stranger – and more expensive! We were greeted by six-dollar bottles of water in a facility where there were no drinking fountains, not to mention what we paid for breakfast. Andrew and I had the distinct sense of being fish in a barrel. I think we’ll need a pretty good reason if we decide to fly via Cancun again; and we certainly won’t plan on hanging out at the airport before our flight.

We flew back to the United States – me to Pittsburg and Andrew to Wichita – parting ways in Dallas. The whole Dallas airport was backed up, so both of our flights were delayed, and I got in to Pittsburg at about 12.30am. I was supposed to meet up with folks at the airport, but I didn’t know what they looked like, and we were not able to link up (I did find out this morning that they were there, and I feel awful that they drove up to give me a ride only for us to fail to connect). I eventually gave up and took a cab to a hotel near the airport. I’ll be hitching a ride with a carload of folks coming from Eastern Pennsylvania this afternoon, with whom I will make the hour and a half ride from Pittsburg to Barnsville, Ohio, where I will be attending the Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering of Conservative Friends this weekend, followed by Quaker Camp the following week. I am excited to meet with Conservative Friends at Barnsville, and am looking foward to the second year of Quaker Camp.

Yucatán, idleness and Quaker Monasticism

Since my last post, Andrew and I have gone from Mexico City to Xalapa, Ver., to Veracruz, Ver., and are now in Mérida, Yucatán. Ever since leaving Xalapa, the weather has been steamy, and these boys from Kansas are scrambling to adapt to the heat and humidity of the region. We’ve seen some concerts – Spanish-language hip-hop, Veracruz folk music, Cuban bands, serenades on classic guitar – walked on some beaches, visited some cafés. Muy tranquilo. Today, we are headed out to Chichen Itzá, to see some of the more impressive Mayan ruins that are to be seen here in Mexico. My main concern is to avoid getting too sunburned. I am unsure as to how successful I will be, after this afternoon.

This trip has been very relaxed, mostly just Andrew and me hanging out with Mexico as a background, and it has given me opporunity to do some thinking. I have been reflecting a lot on my own spiritual life and how connected it is to community and place. I am seeing in very concrete ways how much community and place impact my spirituality in the way that I feel spiritually off-balance traveling here in Mexico. Being here, largely disconnected from Friends and all of my familiar patterns of life, it is far more difficult to keep myself oriented towards God. I am more easily distracted, most easily confused. This trip has convinced me that, at least for the time being, travel for pleasure is not an activity that I should be engaged in. To be here in a foreign land without a sense of mission, without work to do, is dangerous idleness. In the future, I hope to be more conscientious about bringing all of my plans before God and listening very carefully before I commit, rather than assuming that I know the answer already. Just because a plan seems good and logical to me does not mean that that is how God wants to use me.

With all of this travel, I have also had the chance to think a bit about the Quaker tradition and how it relates to forming or joining more intentional community. I identify with the convergent tendency, wanting to move forward in radical, unexpected ways, but not at the expense of the important “check” of our tradition as the Quaker branch of Christianity. The place that this seems to become most difficult is in forming or joining intentional or new monastic communities that are composed of various types of Christians. Straight “emergent” makes sense when dealing with a bunch of people from different Christian backgrounds. It seems like in that case, you’re just looking for the lowest common denominator, so that everyone can be included. Unfortunately, it seems that in many if not most neo-monastic communities, the lowest common denominator is not, in fact, very congenial to Friends who want to remain in the Friends tradition. “Basic Christianity” almost always seems to include bread and wine communion and water baptism, as well as extensive spoken liturgy. Where waiting worship might come in here, I’m not sure; but there doesn’t seem to be much reference to it.

This is only a problem because we Quakers are such a small group, and, on top of that, a group that teeters between a significant minority that does not strongly identify with Christianity and another that does not strongly identify with the Quaker stream, often prefering to “just be Christian” (that is, Protestant). What I am personally hoping for, as a Friend of convergent orientation, is to see explicitly Quaker intentional and neo-monastic communities grow and show what a new Quaker monasticism could look like. The question for me is: will Quakers come to the banquet, or will we need to call in anyone and everyone, accepting the change (dilution?) of our corporate witness as Friends as our makeup becomes much more Protestant in flavor?

Do you feel led to more radical, intentional Quaker community? Let’s talk.