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Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear – And Fills Us With Boldness

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/22/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Acts 4:23-35. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)

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Perfect love casts out all fear. There is no fear in love.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be present with us. We are freed from our self-consciousness, the awareness of our own nakedness that we picked up after the Fall. We’re liberated from the need to hide from ourselves, from others, from God.

The presence of the Holy Spirit drives out all fear of people. Fear of our bosses at work. Fear of what our friends, family, and co-workers think of us. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of giving up our sense of control over our own lives: Money. Career. Religion. Identity.

The Holy Spirit liberates us from all these things. Perfect love casts out all fear.

And that’s a good thing. It’s a critical thing. Because the life that God is calling us to is terrifying as long as we are living in the mindset of this world. Middle class consumerism. The endless quest for security and status. The desire to be a real adult. Affluent. Self-sufficient. Autonomous.

It’s a good thing that the Holy Spirit frees us from all fear. Because the kingdom of God has no space for successful, autonomous adults. When the disciples asked Jesus, “Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responded, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Little children are special, because they haven’t learned to be truly afraid yet. They haven’t developed the kind of ego that comes with growing up. They haven’t absorbed the lesson that this world teaches us: that we have to be self-supporting, independent, in control. Little kids know they aren’t in control, even if they hate it sometimes. They rely on us adults for everything.

That’s what it means for the Holy Spirit to be with us. It means we can rely on our heavenly Father. We can trust God to be a mother to us. We can let go of our fear, because our God is the “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them.” Despite all appearances. Despite the threats, and shaming, and violence that our society shows to those who refuse to conform, we know that our God is the lord and sovereign of history. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we know in our bones that “he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

In our reading from Luke this morning, we get a window into what life was like in the first days of the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is in the days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. After the gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were busy preaching the word of God to a growing community of disciples.

It says that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit filled them with love and cast out their fear. They preached the good news of Jesus and his kingdom in public – on the streets, and even in the Temple itself. They performed miracles. They healed the sick and cast out unclean spirits, just like Jesus did.

It says that the apostles drew so much attention to themselves that the authorities started going after them in the same way they went after Jesus. They hauled the apostles in front of religious tribunals. The religious leaders demanded that they cease speaking, healing, and teaching in the name of Jesus.

Most people would have been afraid. I mean, you saw what they did to the last guy that talked this way: They handed him over to the Romans to be nailed to a cross! But the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they weren’t afraid of human authorities, no matter how dangerous.

So when the high priest and the religious leaders demanded that the disciples keep quiet about Jesus, Peter and John answered this way: “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Despite their defiance, the religious leaders were afraid of the crowds. The crowds had seen the signs and wonders that the apostles were performing, and believed. So they let them go.

And when all the brothers and sisters heard what had happened. When they heard that Peter and John had stood up to the authorities and walked away with their lives, they praised God. They said, “Look at this, y’all: We live in a city where we’ve got guys like Herod and Pilate, who were quite happy to murder Jesus. We see their threats. But thanks to you, God, we’re not afraid of them. We know who is really in control of history. We trust you, no matter what happens.”

They were filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had filled them with love and power. The Spirit cast out all fear. All that the disciples asked God for was boldness. To preach the good news of Jesus. To share the victory announcement of God’s kingdom. To heal the sick, raise the dead, set the oppressed free, and proclaim good news to the poor. “Grant us to speak your word with all boldness, God.”

And it says that when the brothers and sisters had finished praying together, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”

Freed from fear by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the word of God with boldness. And the very earth was shaken.

Other things were shaken. Social structures. Hierarchies between men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek. All the old assumptions were rattled. Everything they thought they knew was leveled in the light of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit broke down the feeling of separateness among the disciples. They truly became one body, a spiritual unity in Jesus. They had become something greater than merely a collection of the individuals. They had become the church, the family of God.

This had radical economic implications. When you’re a family, the strictness of private property breaks down. We think less about what’s mine and what’s yours. We think more about what each of us can give, and how to meet the needs of each person.

With this outpouring of boldness from the Holy Spirit, we see the emergence of this spiritual family among the believers in Jerusalem. It says that all of the believers, “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions. … Everything they owned was held in common.”

In the early days of the church, there were no poor Christians. That’s because there were no rich Christians, either. Everyone who had possessions brought what they had and shared with everyone else, as they had need.

The first disciples in Jerusalem could do this, because they had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Their fear had been cast out. They were filled with boldness, not only to share the good news of the kingdom, but to dwell in it. They had become citizens of the kingdom of God. Whenever that citizenship conflicted with their loyalty to biological family, to religious identity, to governments – whenever those institutions told them that they had to live in fear, they chose instead to live in the kingdom of God. They chose to walk in the fearless way of Jesus.

Do we want that? Do we want to experience the love and boldness and power of the apostles?

Just before his famous vision on Pendle Hill in the 1650s, early Quaker minister George Fox writes in his Journal,

“The Lord had said unto me that if but one man or woman were raised by His power to stand and live in the same Spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the Scriptures, that man or woman would shake all the country in their profession for ten miles around.”

George Fox had read the Book of Acts a few times. He knew that the presence of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by power. By boldness. By a conviction that transforms lives. He saw that if even one person is fully gripped by that life and power, it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands – to shake all the country for ten miles around.

Do we want that? Do we want to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Do we want to be so audacious, so full of the Holy Spirit and fire, that we shake the whole East Bay?

Do we want to be so overwhelmed by the love and fearless power of God that our neighbors, our co-workers, and our government can’t help but take notice? Are we ready to have our fear cast out? Are we prepared to become a family in Jesus, to surrender control and truly become one body in him?

Do we want to be set ablaze with the fire of God? Do we aspire to become more like the apostolic church that we read about in the Book of Acts and in the writings of early Friends? Or is our spiritual condition better described by this poem from Wilbur Rees:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Do we want three dollars worth of God, or do we want the kingdom?

And if we do, how do we need to change – both as individuals and as a church community? What do we need to let go, so that our hands are free and ready to heal? Where do we need to be so that our lives can be vessels for the signs and wonders of God’s kingdom?

God showed George Fox that if even one man or woman were raised up in the same power that the prophets and apostles were in, their presence would shake the countryside for ten miles around. Are you ready to be that one? Are we ready to be those ones? 

Are we ready to claim our citizenship in the kingdom of God? To preach the word with boldness? To live as God’s little children – without fear, without shame, and without regret?

Quakers Don’t Baptize with Water – Should We?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/13/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

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Who here has been baptized with water? Sprinkled, dunked, infant or adult – it doesn’t matter. Can I see a show of hands?

It’s interesting. I think a lot of us have been immersed in water as a part of a Christian ceremony. A demonstration of faith, of our intention to follow Jesus as part of the Christian community.

I say it’s interesting, because the Quaker tradition takes a pretty low view of water baptism. For most of Christian history – and certainly in the time of the early Quakers, back in 1650s England – water baptism had been weaponized. The government-sponsored churches claimed that being sprinkled with water – usually as an infant – was required for salvation. If you hadn’t been sprinkled, you weren’t right with God. It was a power play, a way to enforce the power of the government church’s hierarchy. The early Quakers saw right through it.

Quakers were unique in that they completely abandoned water baptism. There were a lot of really radical movements in England and on the continent of Europe, and they fought endlessly about when and how baptism should be practiced. I mean, people were killed over this stuff! But practically nobody did away with the practice of water baptism entirely.

The Puritans were ferocious in their critique of the liturgy and structure of the state church of England, but they upheld the establishment church’s view on infant baptism. Baptists and Anabaptists went further, rejecting infant baptism. Different groups had different styles of baptism they preferred, but they agreed on one thing: Only adults could make a conscious decision to follow Jesus, and so only adults could meaningfully make a public commitment through baptism.

The Baptists and Anabaptists were considered extremists, and were often persecuted for their faith. But starting in the 1650s, Quakers took things even further. The basic problem for Quakers wasn’t the way baptism was being practiced – it was that it was being practiced at all. For the early Friends, it was self-evident that John’s baptism – a ritual baptism with water – is superseded by the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.

The Quaker movement holds up the centrality of spiritual baptism as the “one baptism” mentioned in chapter four of the letter to the Ephesians. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and that baptism is the spiritual transformation that Jesus pours out onto us, enabling us to follow him and become children of light.

It’s easy to look for other baptisms – other ways to feel assured that we are in right relationship with God. We humans are really good at this. Circumcision, water baptism, nazarite vows, holy pilgrimages – we have endless ways to express our desire to come closer to God. But ultimately, all of these rituals are means to an end, a pointer to what is truly essential. We kneel, we bow, we sit in silence in order to invite the Holy Spirit to descend on us. We engage in ritual as a gesture of surrender and invitation. It’s a way to welcome the living Jesus, asking him to come and show us how to be disciples.

Our tendency to look for ways to welcome God is natural, and often beneficial. I think it’s a good thing that we’re gathered here this morning to practice the ritual of Sunday worship. This practice helps draw us together and strengthen us as a community in Jesus.

Unfortunately, our rituals can easily become the focus, the center – an end, rather than the means. It’s easy to get fixated on certain ways of welcoming God, while neglecting others. For example, when is the last time you were anointed with oil? There are many biblical references to recommend anointing with oil – and this is still considered a sacrament in many churches. But most Christians have never been anointed with oil. It’s certainly not seen as a requirement.

For some reason, baptism with water became one of the mandatory Christian rituals. It’s the initiation rite. Like circumcision. The thing you’ve just got to do if you want to be considered part of the club. For thousands of years, the institutional church has used water baptism as a gatekeeper device. Do this ritual. Do it in the way we tell you to do it. Do it under our authority. Or you’re going to hell.

I’ve been baptized with water. I was twelve years old, and beginning to hit the emotional hurricane of adolescence. As a young child, I had had a deep faith in God. But now as I reached the “age of reason,” I felt increasingly angsty. I had attended some Evangelical church summer camps, and they put the fear of God into me. I remember that they told me that the Devil ruled the world, and so I asked my camp counselor, “Do you think he controls the moon, too – or does that still belong to God?”

Anyway, I was very afraid of going to hell. I had no sense of assurance, no way to know if I was right with God. And so, in my fear, I asked my mom to baptize me in the pool in our pool in the back yard. I still remember going down into the water. I remember coming up. And I remember feeling so disappointed. I felt nothing. Nothing had changed. The heavens didn’t open. And I was still afraid.

It wasn’t until years later that I experienced true baptism – the “one baptism” that the letter to the Ephesians tells us about. When the baptism of the Holy Spirit came, I received it without ritual, without witnesses, and without explanation. There was no earthquake, wind, or fire. Just a still, small voice. The living presence of God.

So I can relate to the Samaritan Christians that we read about in Acts. It says that the apostles in Jerusalem had heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, and so they sent Peter and John down to visit them. And on their visit, Peter and John prayed for the community of Jesus followers in Samaria, and they laid hands on them. And it says that then they received the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is important. It says that then, when Peter and John laid hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit. It also says that they had already been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. These folks had already received water baptism, but they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They knew about God. They wanted to be friends of Jesus. They longed for him. But the Spirit hadn’t come to them yet, hadn’t filled them yet.

I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to go for years, longing to really know Jesus. Not just words about Jesus. Not just an ideology about Jesus, not just a religion. But to be intimately connected with him. To be one with him, and with his father. To be united with him in love and joy.

That was John’s whole life, his whole ministry. It was a ministry of expectation and preparation. It wasn’t about the water baptism. That was just a familiar ritual to help people focus. The ministry of John wasn’t about baptizing with water – it was about preparing to the people to receive the Messiah.

John himself says:

I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will immerse you into his life, presence, and awesome power. He will fill you with his joy and cover you with his forgiveness. This is the one baptism of our Messiah Jesus. This is the true baptism that John pointed to. This is the substance; everything else is just a shadow.

John’s ministry was a prophetic ministry. A ministry that pointed toward the kingdom of God, toward the dawn that was about to break on the horizon. Jesus is the day star, and the Holy Spirit is the sunrise.

This is the daybreak that Jesus encountered when he came up from the waters of the Jordan. When he saw the sky ripped open, and the dove descending. This was the fulfillment of John’s ministry, the end of John’s baptism, when Jesus heard those words: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Remember the criminal who was crucified beside Jesus. A man who was condemned as a murderer. A man who had no water for baptism. A man who became a friend of Jesus, to whom Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The heart of the Christian faith is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence is one that drives out all fear. Our inheritance is not ritual as a ticket to heaven, but the unearned grace of God. This grace is the baptism that fills us with power, assurance, and a strength to live boldly as children of light in a world that is often very dark. As the prophet Isaiah writes, this is God’s promise to us:

Thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

Related Posts:

Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

God Doesn’t Need Your Religion – Love Is All That Matters

God’s Strength is in Weakness. Could My Success Be in Failure?

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/20/18, at the Berkeley Friends Church in Berkeley, California. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Pentecost Sunday. It’s a big day. The birthday of the church. The day when we remember how the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, came and moved across the face of the waters once again, transforming confusion and mourning into rejoicing, power, and boldness. This is a day that reminds us that the resurrection is real. The kingdom of God has come near, and Christ is come to teach his people himself.

We need this life that comes from God. We need the Spirit to breathe in us, transforming our dry bones and making us a people of praise, of love, of justice. The Christian life is impossible without the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who lives in us and reminds us of everything that Jesus has taught us. This is the Spirit that, as Jesus promised, leads us into all truth.

The triumph and salvation of Pentecost is foreshadowed the Lord’s promise to Ezekiel, that God would soon redeem his people Israel out of the land of Babylon and return them to Jerusalem. God promised to rebuild the fallen city and make Israel a holy nation once again. By the power of the Spirit, Israel would become a nation that displayed the character of God – love, mercy, and justice.

The fact of the resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit is greater than the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s greater than the rebuilding of the Temple and the law of Moses observed. At Pentecost, we get a glimpse into some of the “even greater things” that Jesus promised we would do in his name and by his Spirit.

2,000 year ago, in the streets of Roman-occupied Jerusalem, we witness the loving action of God to redeem the whole world – starting with the children of Israel and extending to all the peoples of the earth. God would leave no one behind this time. Those who had been lost in spiritual darkness, outside the household of faith, are welcomed in. People of every tongue, race, and tribe. Jew and Greek. Male and female. Clean and unclean.

Many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last. The arrival of the Holy Spirit comes as a surprise to those who thought that the kingdom of God was only for them, those who thought they could control the word of God, and draw human boundaries around God’s grace. All our religious bigotry and fearful self-protection is challenged by God’s universal love and inconvenient grace.

Pentecost is a day of royal power. It is about the establishment of a kingdom. Our king is the broken and crucified one, Jesus. Through his death and resurrection, he has conquered the powers of darkness and death. He has overcome hatred and fear. He has established a whole new social reality.

This isn’t some other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky promise. The kingdom of God isn’t merely about going heaven after we die. On the day of Pentecost, we discover heaven for ourselves. It’s a physical reality. It’s about life in community and our shared journey with Jesus. The kingdom of God shapes us and transforms our whole existence. The kingdom of God makes us inconvenient to the powers and principalities that govern our world.

God’s empire stands in stark contrast to the rule of Caesar and Herod. The mainstream culture of the ancient world was one of domination and submission, patron and client, honor and shame. But through the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God revealed another way. A new community. A culture based on love, where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. A world where the mighty are brought low and the humble are raised up. On the day of Pentecost, the spirit of love is revealed to be lord of all, and the crucified one reigns as king.

A new world, new community, new culture – the reign of God. I get excited just thinking about it. Yet, like so many parts of the Bible, the day of Pentecost is often taken out of context, proof-texted, and turned into a mandate for triumphalist ideologies that see the gospel as just another way of exercising control over the people and cultures of the world. Along with a few other passages – like the Great Commission, for example – Pentecost is often used to fuel a vision that is primarily about church growth, organizational replication, and success in the eyes of the world.

I’ve been down this path. I have been deceived by the idol of success.

My wife, Faith, and I met planning the Young Adult Friends gathering held at Earlham School of Religion in the spring of 2008. She was living out in Washington, DC, at the time – working at the William Penn House. I was a student at ESR, in my second year as a Master of Divinity student. The planning committee asked the two of us to serve as co-clerks. They told us that by appointing us clerks, they hoped that I would speak less and Faith would speak more.

I think we did a pretty good job as co-clerks. But, you know, good clerking requires a lot of planning, prayer, and deliberation. And well, those clerking calls just started getting longer and longer, and more focused on personal matters rather than strictly business. We hit it off. By that summer, we were formally “seeing” each other, and over Christmas we got engaged.

After Faith and I got married in September of 2009, I moved out East to live with her in DC. I had recently started working for Earlham School of Religion doing outreach to young adults, but location was flexible.

When I got to DC, I was on fire for the gospel. I had only become a Christian a few years before, coming out of a profound experience of God’s presence at the World Gathering of Young Friends in England. Wherever I went, I was seeking ways for God to use me in sharing the good news, building up the church. During seminary, I had traveled widely among Friends, and so when I arrived in DC I continued that pattern, visiting a number of meetings in the Mid-Atlantic region.

As I got to know Friends in the DC area better, I became very aware of the fact that there was no local Friends meeting that was corporately Christian. That is to say, there were individual Christian Quakers in the area, but there was no organized group that could say that their shared mission was to follow Jesus.

This was a problem for Faith and me. As much as she and I loved Quakers, it was important for us to be part of a clearly Christian community, and there really wasn’t one available to us in the existing DC Quaker scene. So, in my mind, we had a choice: We could either attend a non-Quaker church, or we could try to start a new Quaker meeting, one rooted in a desire to follow the risen Jesus.

Faith and I talked it over, and we decided to start holding meeting for worship in the William Penn House, where we were living. As we were looking around in the Quaker world for models of how to start a new meeting, the common wisdom seemed to be that the way to do such a thing was just to start holding worship, invite people, and see who showed up. So that’s what we did. We had a Field of Dreams mentality: “If you build it, they will come.”

And, you know, things went really well for a while. We started small, but soon we had a solid group showing up – reading the scriptures together, singing, and practicing waiting worship. Our gatherings were small, but God’s power was there. It’s amazing to think back on how consistently God showed up. The Holy Spirit was present, teaching us and strengthening us to become more fully disciples of Jesus.

But planting a new Quaker church is harder than Faith and I ever imagined. Holding worship was relatively easy, but establishing a new community that could sustain itself over the long term was another story. Over the course of the five years that Capitol Hill Friends was meeting, our attendance varied quite a bit – between two and twenty, but probably averaging more like half a dozen. Yet the core of committed people, the folks who took a personal responsibility for the meeting, never expanded beyond Faith, me, and one other person.

Now, I was only working part-time for Quaker institutions during this time, so I was able to dedicate a lot of my energy to writing, outreach, and pastoral care of people who attended the group. I did everything I knew how to encourage our attenders, build community, and invite all of us to go deeper. Yet, despite the powerful worship, despite the transformation that we could see happening in people’s lives as a result of our fellowship, people rarely stuck with the group for longer than six months. They came, they had a powerful experience of God, and then they left.

We went through several of these cycles – gathering a core group of attenders, nurturing them, inviting them into the mission of growing a new meeting, and then watching attendance drop off. It was really demoralizing, and it was hard not to take it personally. Eventually, Faith and I decided that we needed to take a break. We stopped holding regular worship at our house, and eventually started attending a local Church of the Brethren congregation where we’ve found opportunities for ministry.

How does all of this relate to Pentecost? Well, you see, as an ambitious, fired-up young follower of Jesus, I looked to Pentecost as one of the key texts that told me what a “successful,” faithful church should look like. I read about the Holy Spirit coming with obvious displays of power, an effect so intense that the neighbors all assumed that people at the prayer meeting were drunk! Peter is preaching to masses of people in the streets of Jerusalem, exhorting them to repent and turn to Jesus. Thousands of people are brought into the way of Jesus on a single day.

Vitality. Conviction. Spiritual power. Numerical growth. These are some of the marks of the New Testament church that I learned from Acts 2. And in the context of my own failure to gather even a small community that could cohere without my constant encouragement, I couldn’t help but wonder – what am I doing wrong? Where am I being unfaithful? Why isn’t God blessing my work, the work that I truly believed that God had called me and prepared me to do?

I still feel sad about how things went – or didn’t go – with Capitol Hill Friends. I wish there were a Quaker church in Washington, DC, and I don’t know why there isn’t. But even in this failure, there have been blessings. Our ministry during those years had a big impact – some of which we are aware of, and much of which we will probably never know. And it had a big impact on me. I’ve gotten to know God in ways I never expected – and, frankly, never wanted to learn. But I needed to learn. I needed to learn what it looks like to follow Jesus in the midst of failure, to trust Jesus like he trusted his Father.

That’s the perspective I was often missing in my church-planting ministry with Capitol Hill Friends. I was so focused on the success of this new Quaker community that I didn’t want to see the whole picture of the early church. The glory of Pentecost was only possible in the context of failure. The joy of the resurrection is impossible without the suffering and loss of the cross. And, as we see very soon as we continue reading the Book of Acts, the health and growth of the church is only possible through the “failure” of the apostles’ vision of what the Christian community ought to be.

One of my mistakes was reading Pentecost as a story about how the church ought to be, rather than a story about who God is. The transforming power of Pentecost is not an outcome to be achieved. It’s not a reward for good behavior or hard work. The coming of the Spirit happens amid failure, pain, and loss. Like the disciples experienced on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus often appears to us in our confusion and mourning. He is present with us because we need him, not because we are doing well.

Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones speaks directly into this experience. Ezekiel encounters God in the context of national failure, the humiliation of exile, and the longing for restoration. Ezekiel has no power to restore the fortunes of his people, but in the midst of his sorrow, the Spirit of God comes to him.

What’s interesting here is the interplay between God and Ezekiel. It’s the same as that between God and Peter. God is the life and power. God gives the Spirit. But God also asks for our cooperation. Just like Peter, who preached before huge crowds and kindled the faith of thousands, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy in the presence of the Spirit. It is through the act of prophesy that the dry bones come to life, filled with the breath of God.

This was the heart of the early Quaker movement, too. The first Quakers knew the importance of prophesy. The word of God is alive and active. It wants to be spoken and enacted in our lives. To speak the words of the Spirit is to cooperate with the healing and transforming power of God. To speak truth into the world, especially out of a position of weakness and risk, is to walk in the way of Jesus, who spoke the truth in love, right up until they nailed him to a cross.

Our failures along the way are painful, but they don’t have to dismay us. If we aren’t as big or successful as we think a Pentecost church ought to be. We shouldn’t be shocked if our ideas, rooted in the gospel of Jesus, don’t carry much weight in the debates of this age. We shouldn’t lose heart if our trust in God looks like foolishness and failure in the eyes of the world. We don’t need to be discouraged, because we know that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. We have seen how the light of Jesus breaks into this world through the cracks of failure.

The challenge of failure never ends. As we read in scripture, and experience in our own lives, God is continually breaking through our false strength in order to reveal the true life and power of the Spirit. Pentecost isn’t the end of the story. Through the power of the Spirit, Peter and the early church are continuously challenged in their beliefs about who belongs in the church. The Jewish disciples are shocked to realize that that God is welcoming all nations into the body of Christ. For people like Peter, who had scrupulously observed the law of Moses from his youth, this must have felt like a great failure, the loss of a certainty he had held precious.

For us here today, we face a similar challenge. God has changed the playbook once again. The Holy Spirit is doing a new thing in our rapidly shifting culture. Those of us who are faithful to the letter of the law – like Peter was – may have a tough time keeping up. The growth of God’s kingdom may feel like failure to us.

Fortunately, we are not left without a witness. The scriptures are full of stories about what it looks like to follow God even in the midst of radical, uncomfortable change. The Spirit is present with us, guiding us into all truth, even in times of challenge and confusion. The story of the church did not end with the writing of the scriptures. It didn’t end with the early Quakers. Jesus is alive. He’s here to teach us and lead us. Are we listening?

Like the people of ancient Israel, we look at our weakness and are tempted to despair: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” But God responds with the spirit of Pentecost. He says, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people… I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.”

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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

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Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Ten years ago, I lived as part of a “new monastic” community in Richmond, Indiana. It was a community steeped in prayer. We prayed together three or four times a day, using a liturgy based out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

As a Quaker, the Episcopal liturgy was a very different experience from the style of worship and prayer that I had been exposed to. Quakerism taught me that prayer should be spontaneous, “Spirit-led.” Anything I did should be rooted in a palpable sense of God’s guidance in that moment.

But as part of the Renaissance House community, I discovered that there is real power in a set liturgy. I prayed the same words, every day, in community, for months. I got to the point where I could speak through the prayers without really thinking about it. I memorized the words, and they became a part of me.

This was very different from the extemporaneous prayer and silent worship I was taught to seek in the Quaker tradition. Still, it was very effective and compelling in its own way. In the brief time that I practiced it, I found the liturgy molding me. I felt invited into a space of prayer and devotion to God in a way I had never experienced before.

I’ve recently begun praying the liturgy again. Using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a template and guide, I’ve put together my own prayer book. I’m experimenting, tweaking the liturgy, finding what works best for me. I’m using the liturgy four times a day – at waking, midday, evening, and before bed. The prayers includes psalms, prayers, music, creeds, and responsive readings.

The Quaker tradition has taught me to be skeptical of rote prayers. Empty words, spoken without conviction or understanding are dangerous. Rather than fostering devotion, such compulsive religious habits get in the way of relationship with God.

But at this time in my life, I’m finding the liturgy to be a welcome aid in my desire to seek after God, to live in his presence. Especially now, as I inhabit the life of a husband, father, and full-time tradesman. I am re-discovering the power of liturgy to shape my life and open a space for prayer. The liturgy serves as a default, a routine that I can rest in while I seek deeper inspiration. If I don’t feel particularly inspired today, this week, or this month – I can keep praying anyway.

I’m amazed by how often God shows up in the liturgy. Sometimes when I’m simply reading through the prayers, joy bubbles up within me. The liturgy allows for silence, or freestyle intercessory prayer and thanksgiving. I find myself opening up to God in ways that I simply wouldn’t have without the default script of the liturgy.

At this stage in my life, I’m far busier than I would like to be. In this context, the liturgy is amazing. It holds open space in my life where prayer is automatic, regardless of how tired I am or how uninspired I’m feeling. It provides opportunities each day to stand before God. If I’m not feeling enthusiastic, I can examine myself and ask why not. Or I can just accept it. I can thank God for the grace he gives me to keep praying, in season and out of season. The liturgy helps me show up for relationship with God, regardless of my subjective feelings.

To my Quaker friends, this may all sound crazy. Maybe even heretical. But for me, at this point in my journey, it’s the power of God. Thanks be to God.

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Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?
This past weekend, I was up in New York City visiting an old friend and mentor, David McReynolds. Back in 2000, I did my teenage best to support him in his campaign for president. I’ve always seen David as an example of courageous thought and action, coupled with a gentleness that is often lost among activists.

On Saturday, I met David at his apartment in lower Manhattan. We drank seltzer water and he introduced me to his cat, Shaman. Then, we went out for a late lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. A nice afternoon.

Shortly before I left to catch my train, our conversation touched briefly on Quakers. David said something that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days. If he were going to convert, David said, he would more likely become a Roman Catholic than a Quaker. His reason for this? Your average Catholic tends to have a deep sense of human sinfulness and each person’s need for Jesus and the Church. There’s a built-in humility there. We Quakers tend to be pretty satisfied with ourselves.

There might have been a time in my life when this observation would have rubbed me the wrong way. But coming from David, who identifies as an Atheist, it resonated.

David is quick to add that not all Catholics are burdened by guilt, and he’s known Quakers who lived saintly lives. Still, I think he’s onto something here. I’ve recently been re-engaging with the liturgical and monastic Christian traditions. I’ve been impressed with the degree to which a sense of personal unworthiness and repentance is at the heart of monastic practice.

At the same time, I’ve felt convicted about how much confidence I have had in my own ability to know and follow God. In retrospect, I have often been confused, frightened, self-centered, and adrift. These days, I’m more skeptical about my own ability to know the will of God with a great deal of certainty. This puts me at odds with much of the Quaker community. Modern-day Quakers tend to view following God as a fairly straightforward process, and human nature as basically good.

To be clear, I am not saying that the root of Quaker tradition views human beings this way. Early Quakers were skeptical of humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Rather than viewing people as naturally good, they relied on the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to correct and guide us. The bulk of Quakers throughout history viewed humanity as basically lost – if not depraved.

But there’s a gap between what the tradition has been and what the community now believes, in practice, today. In my experience, most of us Quakers – myself included – have a tendency to be pretty proud of ourselves. We’re proud that we have affirmed women in ministry for three and a half centuries. We’re proud that we renounced slavery a century earlier than the United States did. We’re proud of the work that our ancestors did in the civil rights and the peace movements. We think we’re pretty special. The world could learn a thing or two from us.

The issue is clouded because, as a matter of fact, Quakers have had an outsized impact on American history and culture. The Quaker community has been unique and important. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, this history of spiritual leadership has congealed into something far less attractive. We’ve developed a certain spiritual pride – a sense that we know better than those around us. We’ve come to believe that we’re good people.

The problem with this is, we’re not. I’m certainly not. The Quaker tradition is beautiful in many ways, silly in others. But in no way has it produced a community of perfect people. Quakers today are no better – or worse – than our Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Atheist neighbors. We may still be a peculiar people, but we are not a special people. Our human nature is as fallen and in need of God’s grace as anyone else’s.

To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.

I’m grateful for the faithfulness of past generations of Quakers. But I’m also convinced that it’s spiritually damaging for me to continue claiming their work as my own. I’m not a special person. I’ve not risen above my need for a savior. I am a poor sinner, at least as much in need of God’s grace as anyone else.

There are dangers here. It’s possible to embrace sin, seeing it as reality rather than a barrier that God can overcome. Many Christian groups have fallen into this trap. But the delusion that I and many other Quakers have fallen into is also problematic. The idea that sin is already defeated, or doesn’t even exist. The myth of “nice people like us.” At this point in my life, it seems safer to err on the side of over-questioning my own experience and motivations. Assuming the goodness of my thoughts and actions is dangerous.

My conversation with David was a reminder. The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful. People can see right through the false piety of Quaker self-satisfaction. But the humility of the God-yielded sinner is magnetic, even for those who are not yet ready to believe.

This dying world doesn’t need perfect people. It needs broken people who are able to confess their own thirst for living water. And invite others to join them in seeking it.

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