We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
– Romans 8:22-23
God continues to surprise me. All the Holy Spirit has to do is blow through, and I am back to square one; the sand castles that I have built are swept away by the tide, and I am left without fortifications before God. I suppose it could be frustrating to realize that most of the things I had been worrying about for months do not really matter. But all I feel is joy.
I see with stunning clarity that God is not like me at all. Though I am characterized by grasping and self-centeredness, God’s character is one of self-giving, healing and mercy. God’s presence is power to receive forgiveness, and to be remade in the image of Christ.
This presence and power was very much in evidence this past week at the sixth annual gathering of QuakerSpringin Barnesville, Ohio. QuakerSpring is a unique, Spirit-led retreat that was conceived as an alternative to the frantic programming of some other Quaker gatherings. Rather than planning the schedule ahead of time, each day’s agenda is set out according to the group’s sense of the Spirit’s leading.Rooted in deep worship and shared discernment, QuakerSpring unfolds according to the community’s sense of God’s call.
I was surprised by the spiritual intensity we experienced this year. There was a palpable sense of connection to God, but also an awareness of spiritual darkness. At the heart of our time together was a deep sense of our human brokeness, and of Christ’s presence within, calling us to deeper faithfulness. Our spiritual burdens felt like a heavy weight, but as we sat together in Christ’s presence, much of this darkness was revealed, brought into the light, and purified in the Refiner’s Fire. Both individually and as a group, we experienced real transformation.
During QuakerSpring, I personally became more aware of the burdens I had been carrying. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with a spirit of anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I was so caught up in worry about the future that I had lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ.
Fortunately, an elder was able to name what was happening. She expressed her sense that the Adversary was loose in our midst. When she said this, I knew immediately that it was true. I perceived the spirit of confusion and anxiety for what it was – a spirit that was not from God – and I felt an immediate release. In what felt like a miraculous moment of spiritual house-cleaning, the darkness, confusion and anxiety cleared out of me. I give praise to God for using this elder to name what was happening, and to reveal the dynamics at play that were keeping me in bondage.
One thing that struck me this week was the prominence of what I would describe as almost “charismatic” expressions of faith. The reality of darkness and evil emerged as major themes of our worship and conversation. At the same time, there was a deep sense of Christ’s inward power that is breaking out of forms and structures and transforming us in ways that we could never have predicted. God is doing a new thing, though it is still unclear what this new creation will look like.
As someone who has been involved in QuakerSpring since the first gathering in 2007, this year felt like a turning point. I have always valued QuakerSpring as a chance to rest in the Spirit and grow in community. I saw QuakerSpring as a vacation from the hard work of ministry in the wider world. This year, however, I had a growing sense that God has a broader purpose for this gathering. What if QuakerSpring is more than a spiritual refuge? What if God is using QuakerSpring as an engine of renewal and rebirth for the Religious Society of Friends?
Everything in the Religious Society of Friends seems to be falling apart right now. Yearly Meetings are splitting, and old venerable institutions are in decline. Many of our Meetings are in states of crisis, and there is a general sense that we don’t really know what to do. We are at a loss for how to respond to our present circumstances. At QuakerSpring, I experience a community that is grounded in the Spirit, listening and seeking to be obedient to the voice of Jesus Christ within. This is the kind of community that I want to be a part of. It is a kind of Quakerism that could truly be relevant for 21st-century post-modern America.
QuakerSpring represents the unique meeting of Christian (or Christian-curious) Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends who seek a more vibrant and flexible Christian faith. I learned in high school biology that hybrids are often much stronger than “pure breeds.” Could this new community – this mutt of branch lineages united in the Spirit of Christ – find a voice and a witness that speaks to the needs of modern-day North America? How is God teaching us to contextualize the truth that early Friends re-discovered in our own – dramatically different – context? How might we move forward with our Guide?
There are no easy answers. While many of us wish there were some sort of “technical” solution for the challenges facing the Religious Society of Friends today, I am convinced that there is no quick fix that will produce faithfulness and awareness of God’s presence and power. Rather than developing a technique or a process, God is gathering a people.
QuakerSpring is not an abstract model or process that can simply be exported. This is not something that we can manage or control. Rather, QuakerSpring is apeople who are being knitted together in God’s love and power. Based on my experience of QuakerSpring, I am more convinced than ever that rebirth within the Church will not be the result of our human plans and strategies. There is a new creation that we can sense, and Christ himself is creating it.
Have you experienced the Spirit drawing a new community together? What does it feel like on the growing edge of a faith tradition? Where is the intersection between what God is doing in each of us individually, and the ways that God is at work in the Body as a whole? How do we give this new creation space to breathe and develop, avoiding the temptation to suffocate it with our own ideas and agendas?
Sing and rejoice ye children of the day and the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt: and the Truth doth flourish as the rose, and lilies do grow among the thorns and the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play.
– George Fox