Archive for April 2013

Apocalypse Now!

What comes into your mind when you hear the word apocalypse? Most of us think of us think of the total destruction of the world, or at least life as we know it. Think zombies roaming the streets, feasting on brains. On the other hand, my sarcastic generation is doing a pretty good job of using apocalypse as a silly word. I remember a few years ago when we had a large winter storm here in Washington, DC; it was instantly dubbed Snowpocalypse!

The English word apocalypse derives from the ancient Greek apocalupsis, which is the original title for the infamous Book of Revelation. Revelation involves a lot of fire, smoke, battles and things generally blowing up, so it’s understandable that today we would associate apocalypse with end-times battles. However, the word apocalypse contains a much deeper meaning. Far more profound than the long-awaited zombie hordes – or even the end-times prophecies of some churchgoers – this ancient, misunderstood word is an essential tool for comprehending the world we live in.

Apocalupsis is a term that means unveiling – as in setting aside a covering to discover what lies underneath. At the most basic level, the Book of Revelation is about removing the blindfold that the Powers have pulled over our eyes, allowing us to see the world as it really is. Revelation is about unveiling Empire, exposing the ways in which powerful interests destroy the earth and enslave other human beings to promote their own luxury and power. Despite its reputation, Revelation is not about a future-oriented, earth-hating vision of universal destruction. On the contrary, it is a vision of a new creation and universal restoration – the world finally set right and edenic harmony restored in the midst of the city.

OK – great, you may be saying. Nice to know, but how is this relevant to me?

Fair question. It’s true that the Book of Revelation was written almost 2,000 years ago. Those were the days of the Roman Empire – think Ben Hur and Spartacus. For sure, things have changed a lot since then.

Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Romans had their legions, roads and sea routes; today’s empires have nuclear arsenals, superhighways and airports. The technology has changed, but the nuts and bolts of Empire have remained pretty constant: A world order enforced through continuous military intervention and occupation; systems of patronage and domination; the worship of wealth and stark income inequality; and widespread slavery. Today’s global economic Empire does these things far more efficiently than Rome ever dreamed.

Here’s a quick example: Just yesterday, I felt like Revelation was jumping off the page when I read an article in the Washington Post about the ongoing maneuvers around the federal sequestration. For those who aren’t following this story, the bottom line is: While social services for the poorest, most vulnerable of our people are being slashed, Congress is rushing to make sure that budget cuts do not cause flight delays at airports. Sparing the overwhelmingly middle- and upper-class citizens the inconvenience of a flight delay is a top priority. Keeping 70,000 low-income children in Head Start? Providing education to children with special needs? Funding global humanitarian assistance, health programs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Not so much.

As I was reading about this whole situation, my mind was drawn to Revelation 6:5-6:

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When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wage, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wage, but do not harm the oil and wine!”

OK, yeah; that was a little weird. But if you’re still reading, let me explain. The rider on the black horse, with the scales in his hands, represents the imperial economic system, which consists of ensuring access to luxury goods for the rich, while turning a blind eye to the high price of basic necessities for the poor. In the ancient world, wheat and barley were basic necessities for working class folks – bread and milk, rice and beans. Oil and wine were – well, things haven’t changed that much. These are still luxury goods, things that the poor can survive without, but which are held in high esteem by the wealthy.

If John were writing his apocalypse today, he might have the voice say, Pick between paying the rent and buying school supplies for your kids, but make sure the airplanes run on time!

Our job, as followers of Jesus and readers of John’s apocalypse, is to see through all the respectable talk and recognize the obscenity of this situation: Families are going hungry, children are denied a good education, and unemployment is depriving millions of their dignity, but the priorities of our society remain focused on the amenities of the most privileged.

Now more than ever, we need help taking the blinders off, to see that the peace and security that today’s global Empire offers us is built on the backs of the poorest, weakest and most marginalized people. We need the prophetic witness to remind us that our careless consumption and luxury come with a price – though it is usually the most vulnerable who pay it. The Apocalypse of John is relevant, now more than ever, as Christ calls us to live as his people in the midst of Empire.

 

We Can’t Have It All

As anyone who has lived here for very long can tell you, DC is a very intense place. It is a city full of passionate people – big-picture idealists who are intent on making a lasting impact on our society, culture and government. Thousands of people move here every month for jobs at non-profits, think tanks, government agencies, lobbyist groups and educational institutions. The focus of the city is on high-level policy, and many of us seem to live in real-time sync with the political theater of Capitol Hill and the behind-the-scenes machinations of K Street.

In my experience, Washington is a place where the line between work and personal life is often virtually non-existent. This is a city where the office never sleeps. 60-hour work weeks seem to be the norm, and I have no doubt that much higher hour counts are common. And in the age of smart phones and wireless internet, many of us never truly unplug. It is easy for our job descriptions to creep into every area of life and every waking moment; but if we love our work, what’s the problem?

When I was a kid, my father often repeated a phrase that his own father had repeated to him: You can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want. I have never seen this truth play out more clearly than here in Washington. Many of my friends and neighbors have resolved to be the best in their profession – whatever the field – and they are putting in the effort to make that happen. 60 hours, 80 hours a week – every waking hour, if that’s what it takes. Get ‘er done. It’s not just a job, not even a career – it’s a cause.

And that’s great. A lot of folks here are developing experience, skills and résumés that are simply outstanding. Washingtonians are racking up a lot of wins. Some of the more lucky professionals here are achieving exactly what they set out to accomplish. This town is a great place to excel.

Still, we can’t have everything we want. There is a cost to this intense focus on our professional lives. There is so much more to our lives than work: Most of us want to live in a thriving neighborhood, to have a strong network of friends, a healthy marriage, and time for leisure and recreation. We want to live in a world of depth and meaning. We long for a life that is worth all the hard work we put into it. Yet, when we’re working 60-80 hours every week, it gets a lot harder to enjoy the fruit of our labor. And building real, sustainable community is almost impossible.

This represents both a major challenge and a calling for us as Capitol Hill Friends: In a culture of busyness, stress and overburdened lives, how can we become a community that provides a fresh perspective on what our deepest priorities could be? What would it look like to lead holistic lives, taking the development of healthy community just as seriously as polishing a stunning résumé? What would happen if we shifted our priorities to people rather than abstract causes, to Christ’s mission for us rather than mere work?

Leaders: Can We Grow Our Own?

As a new Quaker, whenever I had a question about my faith, more experienced Friends at my Meeting would recommend a book or pamphlet I should read. I was inspired by stories about the profound awakenings and prophetic ministry of my spiritual ancestors, and over time I came to trust my sense of spiritual intuition, developing an increasingly deep relationship with God. I grew a lot just by waiting in the silence and listening for the inward voice of the Spirit.

Yet at the same time, I felt something was missing. There was this yearning that could not be filled by pamphlets, nor even the weekly training of silent worship. What could answer this aching need to lead a life of faithfulness like the ones I read about? What did I have to do to live in the light, life and power that I saw glimmers of in worship?

For many years, I sought this something more outside of my local community. I traveled to an international Quaker gathering and visited a wide variety of Yearly Meetings and Quaker conferences. I even organized some of them. Not to mention that I spent several years away from my Meeting, studying at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.

I benefited immensely from these experiences. The opportunity to attend seminary, in particular, was a transformational undertaking. With each Friends gathering I attended, I felt that I was rediscovering and integrating a bit more of the living tradition of Quakerism that is scattered across our communities in North America. In many ways, the only way to get the kind of training I needed was to leave my local community.

I know that there must be many folks who became Quakers and developed into fully-grown leaders without needing to spend much time away from their local church. Nevertheless, it is my observation that many of the outstanding Quaker ministers today have felt it necessary to spend a huge amount of time moving around in seminary-like environments – whether literally at a seminary, in programs like School of the Spirit, or at gatherings, consultations and conferences. For most of us – my 20-something self included – the local church environment is experienced as being inadequate for preparing and equipping new leaders for the work that God is calling them to.

This is new. For most of our history, Friends have trained up our leaders within the local church. It was generally only once a minister was already well-prepared that she was encouraged to venture beyond her home Meeting. In contrast to those Christian communities that called seminary-trained pastors from beyond the local congregation, Friends have traditionally expected that the gifts a community needed would arise within that community. Our leaders have been home-grown, raised up from the grassroots.

Today, this may not be realistic for many of our congregations. The Quaker community faces immense cultural and demographic challenges, and many local groups may no longer have the internal resources to cultivate their own leaders. In my personal case, I do believe that going to seminary and traveling widely among Friends was probably the best way for me to get the education I needed to learn what our tradition is really about. I am thankful that these resources were available for me.

But should my path be the norm? Should our most passionate, inspired new leaders feel like the only way for them to grow is to leave the local community? Might there be a way that our local communities could provide a path for leadership development, spiritual gift assessment, and discernment around how Jesus is calling us to become living members of his body, right where we are? What if sending one of our leaders to seminary was seen as a culmination of a process of local development? What if our seminarians were expected to come back prepared to equip others with the education they received?

Could our local fellowships become places where the gifts that God plants find water and encouragement to grow?

 

What Am I Supposed To Call God?

When I was a student at Earlham School of Religion, school policy was that in our written and oral contributions to our classes, worship and community life, we should do our best to use gender-inclusive language for God. In practical terms, this meant avoiding the personal pronoun he, usually simply replacing it with the word God. This language switch could get a little bit tricky, since standard English has some serious limitations when it comes to expressing a non-gendered personal entity. I remember that quite frequently I ended up writing and saying godself – as in, “God is gathering a people to godself.” Not exactly the most accessible language!

Don’t get me wrong; I am clear in my own mind that God is neither exclusively male nor female, and I have no desire to promote a worldview in which God’s feminine qualities are denigrated or ignored. While I was a student at ESR, and for years afterwards, I embraced gender-inclusive language wholeheartedly. In fact, hearing other Christians refer to God as he really bothered me.

Over time, however, I have begun to encounter serious problems with some of the attempts to make my language around God gender-neutral. The most obvious, of course, is the simple dilemma of using the English language in a way that sounds deeply unnatural to most folks. The word godself is a seminary invention if there ever was one, and there seems little likelihood that this well-intentioned stopgap is going to catch on any time soon.

But the fact that gender-inclusive language is often inaccessible, and sometimes even off-putting, is overshadowed by another problem that I have noticed in recent years. In my own experience, the use of gender-inclusive language has the overall effect of steering me away from talking about God in personal terms. When I avoid gendered terms for God Creator or the Holy Spirit, I find that my language often veers into the non-personal. I have even found myself referring to the Holy Spirit as it sometimes, even though the Spirit is a deeply personal presence in my life.

I do not experience God as an it, but rather as a living personality with whom I am in loving relationship. This experience, combined with my commitment to use gender-inclusive language, has often led me to emphasize Jesus far more strongly than I do God Creator and the Holy Spirit, because at least with Jesus I can use the personal pronoun he.

This seems ironic, since gender-inclusive language is intended to liberate us from bondage to limited and potentially oppressive ways of understanding God. Yet my attempts to be faithfully gender-inclusive have often felt constrictive, possibly even damaging to my relationship with God.

I am not yet sure what the solution is, but the type of gender-inclusive language that I learned in seminary is not working for me. I want to call God he – not because I believe that God Creator has a penis, but because I experience God as a creative, loving, unpredictable being who acts in ways I can only describe as personal.

What is your experience with this? Are you a proponent (like I am) of a gender-inclusive understanding of God? Have you encountered any of the difficulties that I have just described? Have you encountered any good solutions? How can we talk faithfully about God, neither marginalizing the feminine experience of God, nor denying God’s amazing, personal presence in our lives?

 

The Last Quaker Standing

Not too long after becoming a Quaker, I remember hearing an inspiring story. I was told that there was once a Friends Meeting that had at once been a vibrant community. The meetinghouse was built to hold several hundred people, and at some point – perhaps a hundred years ago – it had been filled to overflowing.

But times changed. For a variety of reasons, the community shrank dramatically, and by the turn of this century, there were only a few elderly members left. Finally, even these last few members died or moved away to retirement communities, leaving only a single old man as an active member!

Not so inspiring, huh? But wait – there’s more! While most people would have given up and found somewhere else to worship, the last remaining member of this Meeting made a different choice. Rather than joining some other community, he just kept on attending, all by himself. Each week, he drove down to the meetinghouse, opened up the doors and sat for an hour of silent worship. Alone.

Here’s the inspiring part: After a while, things began to change. Week after week, the last elderly member of this Friends Meeting sat alone on the facing bench, holding a silent vigil, but one Sunday morning, a young family arrived. They appreciated the hour of silence, a respite from their busy lives. To the old man’s surprise, the family came back the next week. And the next. Somehow the word seemed to get out about this little meetinghouse and its unique style of silent worship. Soon, there were several families and individuals attending.

The triumphant conclusion of the story, as I remember it, is this: Today, the meeting has thirty or forty attenders, and is an active part of the Yearly Meeting.

I don’t know how this story strikes you, but when it was first told to me, I found it encouraging. All around me, I saw Quaker churches dwindling down to fewer than a dozen participants, low on energy, enthusiasm and hope. But that did not have to be the end! This story taught me that one faithful person, resolute in trust and commitment, could hold the space and encourage the restoration of the community.

This story especially encouraged me because it fit into the narrative that I was already learning as a new Quaker. The idea of the Religious Society of Friends as being a faithful remnant is widespread, especially among the more traditionalist Friends that I was running with. In the faithful remnant conception, our job is to remain true to the tradition, even if it means apparent decline. If our communities are struggling, it must be a problem with our faith – or, more likely, with the world! – certainly not with our traditions.

I have heard the story of the old man and the meetinghouse on several occasions, in slightly different forms, and I have come to wonder to what extent this story is based in fact. Does it simply reflect the collective wish-fulfillment of an entire extended community that has not experienced real growth in centuries? Whether or not it is based in fact, I am increasingly convinced that this story is a false one, and that the remnant theory is holding us back from the becoming the people that God is calling us to be.

The reality is, for every church that experiences revival after dwindling down to a handful of members, many more congregations simply die off. I watched this happen before my eyes during the three years I lived in Indiana. Friends churches were dropping like flies in the summer heat. Across the developed world, most of our congregations are caught in a death-spiral of declining participation and a sense of stuck-ness that we seem unable to pull ourselves out of.

In times like these, one stubborn old man opening up the meetinghouse is the last thing we need! Even less do we need fading communities of entrenched Quakers who value the imagined glories of ancient Quakerism more than the new and living opportunities that God is calling us to in this very moment.

To be clear, I am not equating numerical growth with faithfulness. The size of our communities will vary, and some communities are undoubtedly intended to be smaller than others. But no one I know believes that most of our Quaker communities today are in a healthy place. We could become small and fruitful – but God does indeed expect us to bear fruit!

I do not say any of this out of disdain for the many thousands who are stuck in this place; I am, myself, a recovering stubborn Quaker. What I needed – and what I believe many of us still need – is a wake-up call. Our dogged commitment to the old forms and specialized vocabularies of sectarian Quakerism is not serving us well – and it serves our neighbors even less.

Our world is crying out for us to emerge from the meetinghouse and engage with our towns and cities as they are, not as we wish they were. If we are to be disciples of Jesus – imitating his love, grace and truth – we have to go where the people are, especially those people who are least likely to feel welcomed by our pious forms and churchy words.

How do we change the story? What if we imagine instead that the old man shuts the doors of the meetinghouse and goes to join a neighboring church that is engaged in ministry to the poor? Or maybe he doesn’t leave at all – but he starts reaching out to his neighbors proactively, seeing what the real needs are in his community. Perhaps the Quaker Meeting becomes something very different than he ever imagined it could be.

There are probably hundreds of alternative scenarios in which the lone member of this imaginary Friends Meeting goes out into the world to bless others and make disciples. All of these scenarios require radical change on the part of this last Quaker standing. And this is good news.

Can Quakers Become A Mass Movement?

I was talking recently with a friend about the possibilities for growth and outreach at Capitol Hill Friends, and he made a comment that struck me. He said that he did not view Quakerism as having much potential for being a mass movement, since it can be such a demanding, austere path. It was his opinion that many of the core disciplines of the Quaker path – such as silence, waiting, and group discernment – are simply not accessible to most people in our culture.

Is this true?

Without a doubt, the simple commitment to follow Jesus runs counter to many of the assumptions of mainstream society. In many ways, it is a hard thing to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen in Empire. Yet, many churches are growing today; a community of 150 people is not generally considered to be extravagantly large. Being a Christian is deeply challenging, but I know that there are many people in our city who would prefer a purposeful life of challenge to the meaningless rat race of consumer society.

All that being said, there is a certain reality to the claim that the Quaker path is simply not appealing to most people. The truth is, Quakerism has not been a mass movement for centuries. Based in my own personal experience, I would say that most North American Quaker congregations today have fewer than 50 active participants, and many – probably a majority – have far fewer than that.

In the Yearly Meeting (regional association) where I first became a Quaker, there was one church with a regular attendance of about 120. Every other congregation had fewer than 15 people on a Sunday morning. In another Yearly Meeting that I have been a part of, the largest congregation numbered perhaps several dozen on a Sunday morning. This made it abnormally large, since every other group in the Yearly Meeting had fewer than 10 people present at their worship! These are, perhaps, extreme cases, but they are my experience of the Quaker community at this point in time.

When I reflect on the demographic status of many parts of the Quaker community, it is understandable why my friend would conclude that Capitol Hill Friends could not reasonably expect to draw great numbers. It is demonstrably true that most Quaker communities do not attract many people. But why?

Is it because our tradition asks so much that only a sturdy few can take up the challenge? I cannot believe that. Though the gospel message can seem daunting, it is also good news for those who are suffering. Most of us struggle in so many ways, and there must be millions of Americans whose hearts would leap for joy if they received the good news of Jesus in a way that made sense to them. 

Are there aspects of our religious tradition that actually bar the way for those who are seeking God? Are there unquestioned habits and assumptions in our life as a community that keep others out? Has preserving a set of cultural distinctives become more important than inviting our friends, neighbors and co-workers into the life of God’s kingdom?

What would happen if we defied the assumption that our communities are only for a special few? How might our ways of engaging with the world change if we came to believe that the gospel is good news for the whole world? What traditions are we being called on to discard, modify or re-mix so that we become once again a mass movement that blesses the world?

Friends of Jesus in Barnesville

This past weekend, Friends from across the United States gathered in Barnesville, Ohio, which has been a key site of Quaker activity for well over a century. Much more recently, this little Appalachian town has become a meeting place for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

The event this weekend was our Spring Gathering, one of two regular get-togethers that FOJF puts on each year as we explore what it means to be a community gathered by the Holy Spirit. We had folks make the drive from Detroit, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Jersey, NYC, New England and St. Louis – and one Friend even flew in from Seattle! It was inspiring to hear what is happening in the communities that are organizing themselves in many of these cities, as well as a new virtual group that has begun to meet via Google Hangout.

The theme for this gathering was John 11:14-26, particularly Jesus’ declaration, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This scriptural focus was helpful for us as we listened together for where the Christ’s life is emerging in our life together. All of us face great challenges to living as children of light in a world that so often embraces the darkness, yet we found courage and strength in one another, and the ways in which the Spirit is preparing us for the work of love, justice and compassion.

The sense of our gathering was summed up quite well in an epistle (a spiritual letter) that was approved by those present, as well as our minutes of exercise (a document of spiritual insights). I encourage you to read and share these documents with those who have affinity with the mission and vision of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

For my own part, I feel deeply encouraged by the many passionate, faithful people that the Spirit is calling into the work of being and making disciples to Jesus. In a culture that often values wealth and social status above all else, I am inspired to be in community with women and men who are staking their lives on the gospel message that we have heard and experienced. I feel so grateful for the growth of Christ’s body that we are witnessing today, and I am thankful for the care and safety that I feel as a part of this new community.

Probably the most important lesson that I took away from this weekend is how much I really do rely on the gifts and ministry of others. The journey of discipleship is not something that I can carry by myself. I need my brothers and sisters to walk with me, guiding and correcting me at times, comforting and supporting me at others. I give thanks to God for the love, wisdom and courage that I see in those whom God is gathering in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

It is my prayer that God will continue to gather this community, adding to our numbers, spiritual depth and love for one another. For those who are reading this message, I hope that you will feel invited to participate in this new movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps joining us at our next gathering in the fall.

In the meantime, connect with us online – at our Facebook page, discussion group or on our website. There is a place for you in this community!