Have you ever had Holy-Spirit whiplash? Have there been times in your life when you have felt God directing your life down a certain path? Steadily. Unrelentingly. It goes on for months or years until, all of a sudden, the call shifts dramatically. The new sense of direction is clear, and it feels right, but it takes some time to wrap your mind around it.
In the last month or two, I have been experiencing a big shift in God’s call on my life. In late 2005, God set me aside for full-time preparation for ministry. God called me out of my job working at a bank in Wichita and directed me to study at Earlham School of Religion. I did some paid work during the course of my studies, but virtually all of my time and energy was plunged into study, prayer and preparation for ministry.
After completing the MDiv program, God continued to call me into full-time ministry. I spent the spring of 2009 traveling in the Great Plains, ministering among Friends in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. While I hope that there was some benefit to those I visited, this work probably had more to do with my own preparation for ministry than it did with any gift I had to offer. I was out of seminary; but in many ways I was still in school.
In the fall of 2009, I married and moved to the District of Columbia. I also began work for Earlham School of Religion, doing web strategy and outreach to Young Adult Friends. This new job fit very well with my own sense of call, my leading to travel among Friends in a variety of theological and geographical contexts. It was work that called me to venture across the United States, developing networks that would strengthen both ESR and the Religious Society of Friends as a whole.
My role with ESR has dovetailed very well with my own sense of God’s call on my life; and the work has been part-time, allowing me sufficient space to be faithful to a life of dedicated ministry. I have had the best of both worlds – both gainfully employed, and released for gospel ministry.
Apart from my work at ESR, my main focus in the last two years has been the development of Capitol Hill Friends, a new Quaker church in DC. It started out with just Faith and me inviting folks to come and worship with us, and it has blossomed into a small church with four members and around a dozen attenders. With my other “part-time,” I dedicated myself to strengthening and supporting this new community; and it has been a blessing to see our development as a Meeting, especially in the last year.
Given this little bit of history, you can see how it came as a shock to me when I realized recently that God no longer seemed to be calling me to full-time ministry. It was not that God had revoked my calling or spiritual gifts (though these have certainly evolved over the years). It was not that Capitol Hill Friends or the work of tending the flock became any less important to me. If anything, these things have become only more central in my awareness. Yet, in recent months, I have felt God calling me into a new life stage, with its own set of blessings and responsibilities.
Up until now, I have primarily conceived of my call in terms of the itinerant ministry modeled by the early Friends. This sort of ministry – that of Fox and Burroughs, Nayler and Pennington – was not firmly rooted to a specific place. On the contrary, it was a missionary faith in constant motion, publishing the truth far and wide. These Friends preached to all sorts of people in many different lands. They were nothing if not mobile.
In the past few months, however, this vision has come to ring hollow for me. While God may have called me to this sort of itinerant ministry in previous years, I have become convicted that God brought me to DC for a different kind of service. While I have long avoided commitments that would bind me to one place, I now feel compelled to embrace them. Before, I looked down my nose at the stable shepherd in the local church, tending to the day-to-day needs of God’s people. I longed for more exciting work; the fiery preaching of George Fox and the mass conversions of the Valiant Sixty. I thought I was special.
But now, in the spicy-sweet irony that carries the mark of the Holy Spirit, I sense I am being called into the steady endurance that I once despised. Maybe God has decided that it is time for me to grow up – or, at least, to move a little bit further down the path of maturity in Christ. My mind is still reeling from the whiplash, but my heart can sense the truth.
This evening, I read an essay in Friends Journal entitled, “I Beg Your Forgiveness,” by Eden Grace, a seasoned Quaker missionary in East Africa. Eden explained that she felt prompted to ask forgiveness on behalf of her people – Christians – for the ways in which we have not lived up to the faith that we profess. She faulted the Church for our judgmental attitudes, spiritual pride and failure to act for justice. She concludes her essay with these words: “On behalf of myself and my people, I beg your forgiveness.”
Since the eviction of most of the major Occupy camp sites, including the original Occupy Wall Street encampment in lower Manhattan, many of the most cogent thinkers within the movement have come to the conclusion that the original manifestation of the Occupy movement – sleeping in public spaces, maintaining encampments twenty-four hours a day – is increasingly nonviable. In the month since the eviction of Occupy Wall Street, along with many other sites around the country, this sort of 24/7 camping has become impossible in most locales.
One city that still stands as an exception to this trend is Washington, DC. Occupy DC is one of the few major occupations that has been allowed to maintain a public camping presence. In some ways, this has been a real blessing. We have not suffered the trauma that many of our brothers and sisters in other cities have been forced to endure. Police violence has been almost completely absent.
Nevertheless, there are downsides to the relative ease with which we have been able to camp in McPherson Square. As many predicted in the first weeks of the Occupation, the lifestyle of urban camping has at times threatened to overshadow our real mission as a movement: challenging corporate power and preeminence in our political discourse. At times, internal camp politics has been a barrier to moving forward as a cohesive movement for change.
To mention just a small example of this, we in DC have had to struggle with our relationship to our city’s pre-existing homeless population. Does our mission include providing social services to those with the most desperate needs – both material and, often, psychological? Or does our inexpert attempt to play social worker distract from our core mission, to address the roots of systemic injustice? Trying to deal with everything, we have often failed to accomplish much of anything.
Even in DC, where authorities still allow us to camp out, many of us have come to the conclusion that this form of protest no longer advances our primary goals as a popular force for justice. Outdoor camping as a form of protest was incredibly effective in the early days of the movement; but many of us – even here in DC – believe the time has come for a new strategy.
What might this be? How do we translate our initial surge of energy, fueled by inchoate indignation, into a sustainable movement for broad political reform? How can we promote a national paradigm shift away from greed and towards a love-based economy? So far, we have only identified the problem. We have not yet clearly demonstrated solutions.
One possible way forward would be to focus our efforts on establishing local general assemblies. Rather than seeing the General Assembly as an event that only takes place in a single park in each city, what if every neighborhood had its own general assembly? What might it look like to have workplace general assemblies? Whatever the specifics, it is clearly crucial that the Occupy movement transcend the relatively small numbers that are presently gathering in parks, bars and coffeeshops.
Though we seek to give voice to the outrage of the 99% of Americans who are left without a say in how our country operates, we have by no means become as broad-based as we ought to be. If the movement is to grow and gain momentum, it will need to open its embrace to the whole of the 99% – not just those who have the time, energy and physical stamina to spend their days in frost-bitten parks. We young radicals have done our job, and done it well. But the needs of the movement are evolving. It is no longer enough to be enthusiastic and vigorous. We must be strategic, working alongside the millions of women and men who quietly support us but have no interest in playing fort.
This will mean reaching out to individuals and institutions that seem decidedly non-revolutionary. Labor unions; civic organizations; all manner of non-profits; faith-based groups; and neighborhood associations – we must reach out to any group that is willing to walk with us as we take the next steps towards greater political transparency, economic justice, and peace. In this process, we must be willing to be changed. Rather than striking a belligerent pose while our movement falls to pieces, we must be willing to adapt and grow as the movement expands. This will call for us to operate at our best, bravest and most creative.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ – Exodus 32:7-8
Yesterday morning, I helped deliver a golden calf to Congress. Starting off at the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square, we bore a shining paper-maché bull approximately two miles to the US Capitol Building as a sign of our spiritual condition as a nation that worships greed rather than God; a society that values profits over people. This demonstration brought together people of faith – especially Christians and Jews – who bore witness against the unjust economic systems that have taken root in our nation.
The image of the golden calf is an ancient one, shared by the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It represents the fearful worship of money; the denial of God in the rush for man-made security and prosperity. Human society is always a struggle between our tendency to worship the golden calf of our own frightened selfishness and our true calling as children of the God of mercy, justice and truth.
Unfortunately, our nation is caught in a downward spiral of Wealth-worship. We live in a country where billionaires and giant corporations pay little or no taxes; yet this same nation is cutting social services for the mentally ill, homeless, disabled, and working poor. We live in a society where working families are being evicted from their homes while the banks that dreamed up their bad loans have been rewarded – bailed out from a mess that the poor and middle classes have been left to clean up.
Today, as we stood before the halls of power in the wealthiest country in human history, we proclaimed God’s righteous anger; anger against an economy and government that oppresses the poor so that the rich can inflate their already obscene wealth. We sought to remind lawmakers of God’s judgment against those who abuse their positions of authority, abandoning the most vulnerable in our society and instead taking sides with those who have the most.
For me, this public witness was an outgrowth of my faith in the Lord Jesus, who began his ministry with a sermon from the sixty-first chapter of the prophet Isaiah. As we stood before the Capitol Building in prayer for our nation, I read aloud a portion of that passage of Scripture:
The last few months have been jam-packed: Full of tasks to be accomplished. Full of worry. Full of demands, deadlines and stress. My life has been so overloaded that oftentimes there has been little room for contemplation. Even when I have taken time to pray, my heart has often not been engaged. I know intellectually that God is always present with me; but at times it has been a challenge to experience it viscerally.
Last month, it felt like my life was about to explode with the intensity of my involvement in Occupy DC. This month, I have been intentional about taking a step back from the Occupation, no longer spending most of my time out at the encampment. Yet, the feverish pace of my life has not diminished one bit. If anything, it has sped up. There was plenty of work to fill the void.
To begin with, I took several long trips this month, including to participate in a gathering held in Detroit. This was an opportunity for Capitol Hill Friends to gather together with our sister church – New City Friends – and consider our way forward as a fellowship. Friends in Detroit were wonderful hosts, and it was a blessing to get to know the newest members of their group, as well as some Friends from the wider region who joined us for the retreat.
It feels like our little network – which includes Capitol Hill Friends and New City Friends – is growing in depth and unity in the Spirit. We sense something new happening in our midst as the Spirit of Jesus gathers us and shows us how to walk. As a sign of this deepened sense of commitment and shared purpose, we agreed to begin holding regular gatherings. We will meet two times in the coming year, once in April and again in September. Please pray for us as we seek God’s guidance as an emerging expression of God’s people.
Back in DC, our life as a church has also shown signs of development. In addition to worship, Capitol Hill Friends has been meeting regularly to conduct business and to pray together about how God wants to use us here in our city. We are growing closer together as we seek the Lord’s will, and we are being given some weighty discernment to do together.
This past Saturday, Capitol Hill Friends sponsored a contemplative Advent retreat. The goal of this event was to create a space for reflection and contemplation, for grounding ourselves in Christ’s love in the midst of a hectic holiday season. The retreat went all day, and concluded with a meeting of Capitol Hill Friends in the evening. We were pleased that some folks who have not been involved with our Meeting were able to attend the retreat. We benefited very much from their participation, and we hope they will continue to take part in our community.
We at Capitol Hill Friends continue to reach out to friends, co-workers and neighbors, inviting them into our lives. We hope to provide an ongoing invitation to a life of deeper listening, love, and faithfulness in community. This invitation is desperately needed in our city, where so many are over-burdened with work, anxiety, and a busyness that tends to stifle the inward life. As a Quaker church on Capitol Hill, we seek to hold a space where all who are weary can come and take up the easy yoke of Jesus.
This is something that I need, too! I have been frequently overwhelmed in recent months, and I feel the call to slow down and be truly present with the people who surround me. I sense God nudging me to settle, to become a steady, grounded presence with those who are rushed and uprooted, carried along by the streams of frenetic energy that flow so freely in Washington. I recognize that I, too, am often caught up in this frenzy. I pray for Jesus to liberate me more fully from the heaviness of self-centered living, so that I may be more present to the suffering of others.
One reason that I have been feeling so burdened lately is that Faith and I have been looking for a house. For a little more than two years, we have lived together in a room on the top floor of the William Penn House. In recent months, we have felt called to settle down in the city – and a part of that is looking for a more permanent residence. This month, we have spent a large amount of time and energy searching for a home that we could afford and which would meet our needs. In a housing market like the one we have in the DC metro area, this was no small task. This process of house hunting has been fascinating, educational, and thoroughly stressful.
Fortunately, it seems we may be nearing the end of the ordeal. As of yesterday, we have a ratified contract on a house here in DC. While nothing will be certain until we close on the property, it looks likely that we have found the house that we will be living in for the foreseeable future. It will be a great relief to complete this process, and a real joy to finally be rooted here in our adoptive city.
I am grateful for all of you who hold me, Faith, and Capitol Hill Friends in your prayers. We give praise to God for you and the support that you provide us. Please continue to hold us in prayer as we look forward to a new year of labor for Christ’s kingdom. May his peace be with your spirit.
In love and friendship,