Archive for July 2013 – Page 2

Who Are My People?

I recently spent almost a week in western Massachusetts at a gathering called Quaker Spring. Quaker Spring was conceived as an entirely unprogrammed gathering, where our whole agenda would be Spirit-led, each day’s program being composed in the morning by a small steering group, aptly named the listening committee. The concept of the gathering is to listen together to how Christ is leading us, and how we might best respond as a gathered community.

This year, I found the community part a bit complicated. Normally, Quaker Spring is held on the campus of the Olney Friends School in Barnesville, Ohio. Rooted in that location, it has tended to attract a pretty wide range of Friends, both geographically and theologically. This broadness of background and experience has been a real strength, giving us a lot of perspectives from which to approach our shared quest to be faithful listeners and followers of Christ Jesus.

In 2011, Quaker Spring migrated for the first time to New England. We hoped that trying out a new location would draw in a lot of new Friends who might not otherwise travel all the way to Ohio. I was unable to attend that year, but I heard from many that the gathering was truly blessed. This year was my very first time in New England, except for a few visits to the city of Boston, and I was looking forward to getting an introduction to that part of the country.

I got a bit more of an introduction than I bargained for. While I’m not sure about the exact statistics, anecdotally I’d say that this year upwards of 80% of us were from New England Yearly Meeting. This introduced a dynamic that I had not experienced at Quaker Spring before. Informal conversations would often turn to committee work going on in New England Yearly Meeting, and many times the themes that emerged in our larger assemblies spoke most directly to the concerns of liberal Friends in the Northeast. Given the composition of the gathering, this was completely normal and understandable. But I found this pattern challenging.

At other Quaker Spring gatherings, I had always felt like I was part of a motley crew of spiritual misfits, finding our way together. I might not have been normal, but nobody was! This year, however, I often felt out of place. I knew many of those in attendance, including quite a few whom I consider personal friends, and yet I felt isolated, marginal and unneeded. Superfluous was the word that came most easily to me at one point, when trying to express how I was feeling. While I was genuinely glad for the opportunity that this gathering provided for so many Friends from the Northeastern US to gather and listen to Christ together, something was holding me back from participating fully.

Having had this experience, I was touched to read a blog post from another Quaker Spring participant, Joanna Hoyt, describing her own struggle to fit in – not just at Quaker Spring, but in the Religious Society of Friends in general. She reflects on the questions that had been occupying her thoughts: Who are my people? Where do I belong? Where am I accepted? What practices can I accept? After her experience at Quaker Spring, she concludes that these may not be the right questions at all. Instead, she feels drawn into the living experience of God in community, showing love and listening deeply to others.

I feel grateful for Joanna’s reflections. They help me to clarify at least part of what I was struggling with during my time at Quaker Spring. The question I was asking myself at Quaker Spring this year – Is this my people? – was not the real question. Rather, the deeper question was: With whom is God calling me to dwell?

This feeling of being superfluous, of being out of place at Quaker Spring, was accompanied by an intense drawing to return home to Washington, DC. I could feel it, deep in my bones, that the work God has for me is found in the daily relationships and spiritual community that I am developing in my neighborhood, city and region. I have no doubt that God used this year’s Quaker Spring to advance his purposes in the lives of many, but I was being called elsewhere.

So, it seems I got the question wrong, too. Rather than wondering who my people are, there might be different, more edifying questions to consider: Who am I called to serve? Who is God sending me to dwell with? How is God placing me in relationship with others, and how can I open myself to being changed by those relationships? Rather than agonizing over who my people are, perhaps a better question is, Whose people am I?

Ethnic Quakerism, Universal Messiah

I visited a friend’s synagogue this Saturday. She was delivering the Jewish equivalent of a sermon as part of the service that morning, and she invited me to attend. I’m glad I did. I had never participated in a Jewish religious service before, and it was an eye-opening experience for me as a Christian to be in the midst of the people from whom my Messiah emerged.

Before I say more, I feel I need to acknowledge that I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to modern Judaism. Like many Christians, I’ve read the Old Testament – the Torah, Writings and Prophets – as an integral part of my Christian faith, but my tradition has radically reinterpreted the ancient Hebrew scriptures. To read the Torah as a practitioner of Judaism must be a very different thing from my own experience of the text as a follower of Jesus Messiah.

That being said, from my perspective as a Christian, attending this Jewish service made me feel in touch with the Old Testament heritage in an entirely different way than I had experienced before. In a Christian context, we talk about Israel all the time, but we generally mean it in a universal, spiritual sense. For Christians, Israel is the historical and present-day community of those who have put their trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Since the coming of Messiah Jesus, the concept of Israel has been expanded to include all people, regardless of ethnic background, who place their trust in Jesus and live in the power of his resurrection.

For those gathered for worship at the synagogue this weekend, the idea of Israel seemed much more specific. When they prayed for Israel, they seemed to be praying for the ethnically/religiously Jewish people in diaspora and for the modern-day state of Israel. The service included a prayer thanking God for “making me a Jew.” I took this prayer as literal, as in, “thank you, God, for creating me as a member of this holy ethnic group.” This is a far cry from the spiritualized conceptions that I as a Christian have about what Israel means.

This is challenging for me. The Christian tradition emphasizes the universal, multi-ethnic gospel – a revolutionary message that invites people from all languages, cultures and ethnicities to participate as members of the same body in Messiah. As a Quaker, I belong to a subset of Christianity that especially emphasizes the universal saving light of Jesus, God’s power to draw people from any background into the spiritual Israel. For me as a Christian, and especially as a Quaker, it is the living presence of Jesus Messiah within each person, not cultural/ethnic/religious heritage, that makes positive transformation possible.

My very brief encounter with Judaism leads me to wonder what role historical, cultural and ethnic specificity has to play in God’s plan of cosmic redemption. Does God want to act through specific ethnic groups, traditions and nations in particular ways? Do the Jewish people have a different calling in Messiah than, say, the Osage, Welsh or Bantu? What is the value of emphasizing a particular ethnic heritage in our religious life? What are the dangers?

This is all very alive to me right now, since I am increasingly aware of the extent to which Quakerism is itself an ethnic heritage. Jews have been around a lot longer than Quakers, yet Friends take part in many of the same culturally-specific religious practices that Jews do. We retell the stories of our history. We remind ourselves why we do things differently from the peoples around us. We rehearse again and again God’s special purpose for us as a community, a faithful remnant in a world that is often hostile to the witness that God has called us to uphold.

Is there value in preserving the ethnic community of Quakerism? Is there something specific that God wants to do through us that would not be possible if we were simply absorbed into the wider culture? Can we embrace this ethnic specificity while at the same time being radically open to those around us? How can we as Quakers invite others to experience the good news of Jesus without letting Quakerism present a stumbling block? Is it possible to be both a peculiar people as well as an open, inclusive, invitational one?

It feels like there must be a balance in here somewhere. Through the experience of the Hebrew people, culminating in Jesus, we have seen that God loves to use very specific and particular people and communities to bless the world. How can we as Friends be a blessing, neither renouncing the unique heritage that God has given us, nor clinging so tightly to our ways that we fail to allow the whole world to be blessed through us?