Archive for May 2012 – Page 2

What If Quakerism Were A Movement Again?

Though it is sometimes hard to believe, the Quaker community began as a radical, free-form network that gave great autonomy to individual ministers. It was intensely focused on the mission of spreading the gospel message throughout England, Europe, the Americas, and beyond. Friends emphasized the transforming power of Jesus Christ within us and among us, and the organizing principles of the early movement reflected this priority. Though Friends would eventually congeal into settled communities under the watchful eyes of duly appointed ministers, elders and overseers, the first decades of the Quaker movement were explosive and fluid.

In this very early period, the basic unit of Quaker organization was the traveling ministry team – itinerant gospel preachers who went from village to village, preaching the good news wherever they could find an audience. They were often beaten, jailed and stripped of their possessions – and with good reason! These early evangelists were often quite disruptive, performing shocking prophetic signs, including walking naked through the streets. Quaker preachers often appeared at government-run worship services and contradicted the sermons of the local priest.

The early Friends were more a grassroots movement than an established religious tradition, spreading through the power of the message these itinerant prophets proclaimed. Friends eschewed hierarchical styles of organization, and rejected the fixed ceremonies of the establishment church. Though Quakers sometimes had to clarify that someone was not a Friend, early on there was no fixed membership. People knew who the Friends were simply by the way they acted and spoke. Being a Quaker was enormously risky, because the price of belonging was to take a public stand against the idolatry of the false religious systems of the day.

Within a few decades, much of this initial fire and fluidity had dissipated. In the face of repeated waves of state persecution – fines, confiscations of property, beatings, imprisonments and worse – Friends banded together in tight-knit communities where they could provide for one another, especially for the families of those in prison. In the context of increasingly intense pressure by the restored British monarchy, George Fox spent years helping Friends develop a highly structured organization. These structures helped to shield Quakers from the worst of the persecution, deflecting public criticism and facilitating mutual aid. As Friends developed these structures, there was an inevitable centralization of authority – first in the area gathering of Friends (the Monthly Meeting), and finally in the national gathering based in London (the Yearly Meeting).

These structures probably saved the Quaker community from annihilation. Thanks to an increasingly centralized governance structure based in London, Friends were able to effectively lobby the government for toleration. The deepening authority of the area gatherings (Monthly Meetings) allowed Friends to keep a tight lead on those individuals who might get the whole community into trouble. When necessary, such individuals were publicly denounced as provocateurs. This process, called “disownment,” drew a clear line between those who were abiding by the norms of the Quaker community, and those who were dangerous renegades.

All of this made sense at the time. People were getting killed as the result of the silly actions of a few, and it was only prudent to batton down the hatches and distance the community from the dangerous activities of the more radical fringe. If Fox and his lieutenants had not succeeded in developing a more tightly structured organization for the movement, Friends very well might have been entirely suppressed. Nevertheless, these adaptations did not come without a price.

Just like the early Christian Church, the initial years of the Quaker movement were characterized by an expectation of the imminent culmination of history. Friends experienced the risen presence of Jesus, and they were sure that the end of history was just around the corner. The Kingdom was come! There was nothing left to do but proclaim it and invite others into it before the time of decision finally came to a close. This apocalyptic vision could not survive the transition from free-wheeling movement to established sect. Just like the first-century Church, the Quaker movement hardened and consolidated; it became an institution to be preserved, rather than a message to be proclaimed with abandon.

What would happen if we once again became a movement that placed all its focus on the transforming power of the gospel message? How would our present structures and assumptions change to reflect this passionate embrace of Christ’s mission? What would melt away, and what would remain essential? What would be open to compromise, and what would emerge as the rock-solid foundations of our faith? What would happen if Quakerism once again became a radical, apocalyptic movement? Not a sect – not a structure to be preserved, nor an organization to be sustained – but a real movement rallying around a living experience of the Risen Lord Jesus?

I am convinced that we are living in an historical moment that demands movement rather than monument; message rather than creed; and full-bodied engagement rather than circumscribed ritual. I do not know what the next steps will look like, but I pray for courage to lay all things – structures, communities, rituals, organizations and identity – at Jesus’ feet. Without a doubt, he is here to teach us and lead us himself, if we dare to be his disciples.

A Baptism of Humility

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:2-6

Last Friday, I had the privilege to speak on a panel at Virginia Theological Seminary – the largest Episcopal seminary in North America. The panel discussion was entitled, “Occupy Faith: Leadership for the 100%,” and included three other panelists – all distinguished members of the Episcopal Church: George Packard, a retired bishop and Occupy activist; Jim Cooper, the rector of Trinity Wall Street; and Barney Hawkins, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement of VTS. It was humbling to be invited to speak with these respected leaders within the Episcopal Church, and I was grateful for the opportunity to observe another Christian community wrestle with the challenge and opportunity that the Occupy movement represents for us as followers of Jesus.

Occupy provides an opening to reexamine the basic teachings of Jesus, rediscovering the radical call to economic justice and self-sacrificial love that is at the heart of the gospel. Too often, we ignore the radical implications of Jesus’ message, preferring to focus on esoteric theology or narratives of personal fulfillment. Whether consciously or not, we distract ourselves. We would prefer almost anything to a Savior who calls us to abandon all worldly security, following him with single-minded passion and reckless abandon.

So often, we Christians flee from who Jesus really is. He loves us deeply, and he walks alongside us in the way; all of this is true. But his is no cheap grace. Following Jesus does not mean security in any normal sense. Rather, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is an invitation into a world turned upside down – a world in which our old ideas of security and success no longer apply. As we discover who Jesus is, and begin to grow more like him, we discover that our wealth, status and privilege are all stumbling blocks that get in the way of real love. We begin to see that, if we want to be like Jesus, we must imitate his humility.

I saw a glimpse of this kind of humility on Friday afternoon. I watched two men who have been on opposite sides of an ideological battle stand together and celebrate the Eucharist – the Episcopalian rite of reconciliation and communion in Christ. Despite their serious public disagreements – even legal disputes – these two Church leaders were able to re-affirm their bonded relationship as followers of Jesus. I pray that these two leaders might receive the full spiritual meaning of this ritual, and that God will strengthen them to serve together as examples of humility and mutual submission to Jesus Christ.

As Christians, we can never allow our own ideas to be at the center. When we open ourselves to the living work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, we find that all of our competing agendas are relativized. We have ceased to insist on getting our own way, instead praying as one Body, “not our will, Lord, but thy will.” When we are baptized into this kind of corporate humility, Christ leads us into the radical, surprising life of service that has been waiting for us all along.

None of this is simple. It often seems impossible for us to drop our baggage and simply wait together on the Spirit to guide us. And yet, what is impossible for men and women is possible for God. Can we bring ourselves to pray for this baptism of humility? Will we ask God to humble us and bring us into unity, transforming us into the people that we were created to be? Are we ready for real change – not just for others, but for ourselves as well?