I am in Barnesville this week for the annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting. I have been looking forward to being at OYM sessions for about a year and a half. I was unable to attend last year, because I was serving as one of the leaders of the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. This is my first time attending OYM as a member, and it feels very good to be here.
This past week, I visited Friends at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), held this year at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. This gathering was a blessed time to share worship and fellowship with Friends from across the South and experience the active movement and teaching of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
I had originally planned to attend the Friends United Meeting Triennial (which, interestingly enough, will be held in Wilmington, Ohio next week!). However, as I began to solidify my summer travel plans, it became clear that God was not calling me to attend the Triennial. As much as I personally thought I should be there, there was a heaviness in the idea of making the trip. My sense that God was calling me to lay that trip aside was confirmed by the lightness and peace I felt when I gave up and cancelled my plans.
At first, I thought that the Lord had simply asked me to cancel the trip to the FUM Triennial. Soon, however, I felt clear that I was being asked to undertake another trip instead. I experienced the Lord drawing my heart to Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Though I had not previously considered a visit to North Carolina, the call felt clear and grounded in the love of Christ.
I approached my Monthly Meeting and requested release to travel on this concern. This was granted, as well as being endorsed by my Quarterly Meeting. With the blessing of these Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, I undertook the journey as a labor of gospel love.
I am so glad that I yielded to the Lord’s guidance in this matter. My time among Friends in North Carolina was blessed with a deep sense of Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus was present, teaching his people, and I was blessed to take part in the labor.
I also learned a great deal about our spiritual cousins in NCYMc. I saw that we hold many things in common. While we do our business in slightly different ways and have developed slightly different structures, Friends in Ohio and North Carolina are strikingly similar in the way we operate. In both bodies, there is a strong emphasis on expectant waiting and reliance on the present-moment guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Historically speaking, it makes sense that Friends in North Carolina would share many similarities with Friends in my Yearly Meeting. Ohio Yearly Meeting has a long history of relationship with Iowa and North Carolina Yearly Meetings (Conservative). In 1912, the Conservative Yearly Meetings issued a joint statement of faith, and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a rich culture of intervisitation and exchange of ministers between the bodies of Conservative Friends in North America. However, in recent decades, there has been a marked decline in the traveling ministry between the Conservative Yearly Meetings.
In many ways, the living connections between our Yearly Meetings are in danger of being lost. Ever since the emergence of the Conservative Friends tradition, the primary way that we have recognized one another is through the formal exchange of epistles. In continuance of this tradition, the Yearly Meetings in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio all exchange personalized epistles with one another. Yet, the organic and relational connections between our bodies have become so tenuous that it is no longer clear to many Friends why these epistles are exchanged. One well-meaning Friend in North Carolina last week posed the question of whether NCYMc should adopt the practice of composing only one epistle – “to all Friends everywhere.”
This Friend was not trying to make a negative statement about Friends in Iowa and Ohio. She simply did not understand the deep historical connection between our Yearly Meetings. There were plenty of Friends present, of course, who had more background knowledge, and it was soon explained why the personalized epistles are important. The three Conservative Yearly Meetings will, I suspect, continue to formally correspond for the foreseeable future. But the fact that this question could even be asked speaks to the lack of spiritual and relational unity among Friends in the Conservative tradition.
This trip convinced me that, if we continue down the course we are on as Conservative Friends, our exchange of epistles will soon be a formality – a fiction that masks a lack of real community. I do not believe it is too late to revitalize these relationships, but it will not happen without care and effort on the part of concerned Friends.
Christ calls us into unity with one another, and I pray that Friends in the Conservative tradition will consider how it is the Lord might be calling us to reach out. I believe that Jesus has a purpose for us as a wider body of Conservative Friends. If we are willing to submit ourselves to one another in his Holy Spirit, I do believe that God could use our witness in fresh and powerful ways.
We were reminded in our worship last week that we are the temple of the living God(1). Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was purified by fire from on high(2), we, too, must be purified and made ready for the work that God has for us. If we will open ourselves to this Fire, the Holy Spirit will heal the pain and indifference that divide us, drawing us together to be a light to the world.
1. 1 Corinthians 3:16
2. 2 Chronicles 7:1
This week I am visiting the sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), sister body to my own Ohio Yearly Meeting. During my brief time among Friends here in North Carolina, I have noticed that one area of commonality between our groups is our sense of corporate witness. Friends in both OYM and NCYMc understand our faith as being not merely a matter of individual conscience, but instead a question of corporate commitment, faith and practice.
This was made clear during the business sessions this morning, when Friends here in North Carolina considered the question of their Yearly Meeting’s presence on Facebook. It turned out that an individual, years ago, had created a Facebook group for NCYMc, which most members of the Yearly Meeting had never heard about. This revelation presented an opportunity for Friends to consider how they as a Yearly Meeting might relate to this new form of communications technology.
Many Friends wondered whether this Facebook page might be misconstrued as being an official expression of the Yearly Meeting, and they discussed how the page might be brought under the administration of the Yearly Meeting as a body. Friends hoped that NCYMc could find a way to administer the page in a manner that would positively affect the visibility of the Yearly Meeting. At the same time, Friends wanted to ensure that the message presented on Facebook would reflect the sense of the body.
There were also questions about the open commenting feature on the group. How would these comments reflect on the Yearly Meeting? While many Friends felt that it was not in right order to restrict public statements by individual Friends, they wondered how care and oversight might be extended to the Facebook group. In the future, might the elders of the Yearly Meeting be charged with administering the body’s Facebook presence?
I am heartened to see that Conservative Friends in Ohio and North Carolina(1) Yearly Meetings share the conviction that our Christian faith as Friends is not merely a matter of personal experience and expression. As Friends in North Carolina minuted today, “ours is an experience of a faith community, not an individual.” This is a belief and a way of life that I believe Conservative Friends hold in common.
Customs and technology change, but Friends here in North Carolina seem convinced that discernment and action based in community are worth conserving, despite the pressures of Western individualism. The new power that the internet grants for individuals to express themselves does not mean that we as Friends should abandon our tradition of waiting together as a community to find and act on the will of God. Conservative Friends are embracing new opportunities, but with a cautious eye towards preserving the unity and integrity of Christ’s body. I give thanks to God for this witness.
1. Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) may share this as well, but I do not feel as qualified to speak about them, as I have not visited them in some time.
Dear Children of Light,
Air travel is an amazing thing, and it took me only about forty-eight hours to get from Gisenyi, Rwanda back to my home in Washington, DC. The ride from Gisenyi to Kigali, and the flights from Kigali to Nairobi to London to Washington were very tiring, however. By the time I arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I was ready to sleep for a week. Nevertheless, in the couple of days since I have been home, I have been trying to maintain a regular schedule so as to re-adjust to the US Eastern time zone.
As I sit down to write this letter, I am still loopy from jetlag. I am also feeling rather intimidated at the prospect of encapsulating this month’s experiences into a brief missive. So much has happened in the last three weeks. I hope you will forgive me for being a little longer than usual.
It started in England. On 10 June, I arrived in London and spent the night with Friends in Greenwich. I stayed with Simon Watson and his family. I was grateful for the generosity of their hospitality, as they were kind enough to host me for several nights during my trip. I sense that my visit was encouraging for Simon, and I was grateful for the time that we were able to share together.
The next day, I took the train up to Derbyshire (the English pronounce it “darby-sheer”) and visited Friends connected with the Ripley Quaker Meeting, which meets weekly at a local community center. It was a blessing to be with these faithful Friends. I had connected with many of them already through Facebook and Skype, but it was a real gift to spend time in the home of the Lomax family, and to see them face-to-face for the first time. On Sunday morning, we had a favored meeting for worship, with the power of the Lord Jesus being felt clearly in our midst.
This is the way I would describe the whole of my time in England: covered with a profound sense of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. I had many doubts about taking this trip, primarily due to concerns about the ecological damage caused by air travel. Nevertheless, I could not deny the way the Lord’s hand was
present in my visits among Friends in the UK. Where the Lord sends his servants, he makes the rocky paths smooth and the way straight!
While in England, I was able to link up with the two British leaders from last Year’s Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, as well as several of the pilgrims who live in the London area. It was great to catch up with these Friends and see them in their “natural habitat.” I was also able to visit Ben Gosling – another affiliate of Rockingham Meeting – and his wife Libertad at their home in Lavenham (in Suffolk). It was lovely to spend time with these Friends, and to get a tour of the historic village they live in, which preserves many buildings from the medieval period.
Overall, I believe that my travels in the United Kingdom were a blessing, both to me and to those whom I was able to visit. For my own part, I feel better informed about the situation that our affiliates in England are facing at this time. The last years have been very hard for the community of Conservative Friends in the UK, and I feel great sympathy for them as they struggle to be faithful in trying circumstances. More than sympathy, I feel conviction that I must examine how God might be calling me to lend support and encouragement to British Conservative Quakers. I sense that this may be a question that Friends in my Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting may wish to continue to consider together.
Feeling very blessed by the opportunities the Lord had opened for me in England, I took my leave of British Friends to continue on to Africa. Earlham School of Religion, where I work as Coordinator of Young Adult Engagement, was holding a faculty retreat in Kenya and Rwanda. As member of the administrative faculty, I was invited to participate. In addition to the opportunity to spend more time with my colleagues at ESR, I was grateful for the chance to become acquainted with Friends in East Africa. Kenya is home to the largest population of Friends in the world, and I was excited to learn more about the breadth and diversity of cultural expressions that exist in the modern-day Friends Church.
The first few days of the trip were not business-like at all. We flew into Nairobi and, after a night at the Mennonite Guest House, rode down to the Masai Mara game reserve to spend a couple of days on safari. The safari was a good way to begin the trip, and it was impressive to observe in their native habitat so many animals that I had only ever seen in zoos. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, hippos, and many other species were present in abundance. I took lots of pictures.
As fun as all this was, my own personal priority was to connect with the people of East Africa – especially Quakers. I was elated when we flew out to Kisumu (Western Kenya) and began to visit Friends there. They were not hard to find. In Western Kenya, Quakers are the largest single denomination and have a larger membership than all the Yearly Meetings in North America put together. It was quite an experience to be in a place where the Quaker Church is normative.
While in the area, we visited several important locations. We were able to see the famous Kaimosi Hospital, which I had been hearing about for years as a member of the Friends United Meeting General Board. We also spent several days at Friends Theological College, which is the single most important center of theological education for Friends in East Africa. I greatly enjoyed my time at the school and would like to return some day, as the Lord permits. I was particularly impacted by a visit the house where the first Friends missionaries to Kenya came and began preaching the gospel in 1902. It was amazing and inspiring to stand in the historical epicenter of African Quakerism.
When we had completed our visits in Western Kenya, we flew to Kigali, Rwanda. Rwanda surprised me with how different it felt from Kenya. In Kenya, there were unavoidable signs of intense poverty everywhere; in Rwanda, however, it was a little bit less obvious. The city of Kigali, in particular, felt very developed. Clean, orderly, and apparently relatively prosperous, Rwanda’s capital felt similar in many ways to what I had experienced in the urban areas of Mexico (which is quite a developed country by world standards).
During the week we spent in Rwanda, however, I began to learn about the dark side of Rwanda’s apparent prosperity. When I started asking prying questions about the government, I learned that all is not as idyllic as is immediately apparent. One citizen informed me that she felt afraid to make any statement about the government that might be considered negative. However, because we were not in the company of other Rwandans, she helped explain why things look so nice in the cities and along the major roads in the countryside.
Apparently, the Rwandan government requires that buildings be made in a certain style using certain materials. Tile roofs, brick and cement walls – solid, high-quality construction. Expensive construction. I learned that apparently the government not only requires this for new construction, but also has an active program that requires homeowners to upgrade their houses to the new code, especially if their homes are along major thoroughfares that might be seen by tourists. I was told that those who are unable to upgrade their houses to meet government criteria are evicted and have their land confiscated (frequently without any compensation). The properties are re-sold to those who can afford to improve the land.
The strong hand of the Rwandan government is felt in the life of the Church, as well. Rwanda Yearly Meeting is perhaps the only Friends body in the world that requires water baptism for membership. They do this because the central government will not recognize (or, it seems, tolerate) any church that does not meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is performing water baptism. As an outsider, and a very uninformed one at that, it would have felt wrong to criticize the Friends Church in Rwanda for ceding Friends testimony on this point. However, it is clear that religious freedom is limited in Rwanda in ways that I find difficult to accept.
Our time with the brothers and sisters in Rwanda Yearly Meeting was lovely. They are an amazing group of Friends, who in only a couple of decades have developed a network of sixty churches across Rwanda, as well as an impressive system of schools and programs to give relief to widows and orphans. We were blessed and humbled by Friends’ warm hospitality to us. Despite Rwanda’s apparent national wealth in comparison to Kenya, it is clear that the common people of Rwanda still live in extreme poverty by most standards. In spite of this, we were welcomed with open arms and treated to lavish hospitality. It was a humbling experience to see Friends in Rwanda minister to us out of their material poverty.
By the end of this trip, I was coming to see that it was I who was impoverished. I have had the luxury of so many material and educational advantages by virtue of my family of birth and country of origin. I live at a standard that would be almost unbelievable to most people in East Africa. And yet, I see that I and the society that I live in are poor in the things that matter most. I see more clearly than ever that my own spiritual condition has been that of the church at Laodicea, of which Jesus said, “…you say ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor blind and naked.”(1)
Guilty as charged. I pray for God’s mercy, knowing that I have lived so long in material comfort and luxury that I have become blinded to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Living in urban North America, it is hard to conceive of what material wealth truly is. Material wealth is having running water and electricity. It is having an educational system that is available to all. It is eating protein every day and having access to a variety of foods. Being rich is owning a cookbook and being able to purchase the ingredients for any recipe. I have often failed to realize what amazing blessings these truly are. These are things that should not be taken for granted.
I have also seen more clearly what spiritual wealth is. Spiritual wealth is cooking up the best food that you have – even if it is just feed corn, casava bread, rice and beans – and serving it to guests who have traveled from far away to see you. It is only the spiritually wealthy who can show true love by giving generously, wrecklessly – not out of their own abundance, but out of poverty. True, spiritual wealth is welcoming guests, caring for orphans and widows, and seeing that the next generation gets a decent education.
On this trip, I saw the face of Jesus Christ in his Church. I saw the way that our brothers and sisters in East Africa love the Lord, not just through words and easy gestures, but through self-sacrifice and hospitality that costs something. I saw the radiant joy that comes from holding nothing back, from acknowledging that life is a gift from God that we can never own, only hold in trust.
I have seen so much in the past weeks that has convicted me of my own spiritual shallowness and of the failure of the North American Church to take seriously Christ’s call to take up the cross. I am still processing these experiences. I am unsure of where this all leads. One thing is for certain: I am a lot less far along in my walk with the Lord than I would prefer to imagine.
Yet, I also feel a great sense of hope. Among Friends in East Africa, I have seen that the yoke of our Lord Jesus is truly easy, his burden light. If only we here in the North American Church would surrender our own privilege and sense of control, we could share in the easy burden of Jesus. I see more clearly now that I must lay down the burden of control, of self-protection, and of “having enough.” I want to follow Jesus, and now more than ever I see that I cannot serve two masters.
Clearly, though this letter has been much longer than usual, there is a lot left to process. I do suspect that I will do a lot of this processing in the coming weeks on my blog, The Lamb’s War. I encourage you to subscribe to my blog if you have not already, or just check in from time to time. These experiences will definitely take some time to sort through, and I would welcome your accompaniment on this journey.
Thank you so much for all your prayers as I have been traveling. I have felt safe in my journeys, knowing that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ watches over me and has a plan for my life. I am unutterably grateful for the way God has provided for me thus far, and for the way God continues to teach and guide me. I pray that each of you may experience this same blessing.
Blessings and peace to you in the Lord Jesus,
1. Revelation 3:17
I recently received an email from an American Quaker who had read my recent post, Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ? They wrote:
“I am totally in agreement with what you advocate — and my behaviors as minister among Friends are strictly Lone Ranger-mode. It’s not only my culture, it’s how I survived childhood. Those habits are deep in my cells and tissues. From your experience getting re-enculturated among Ohio Conservative Friends, can you suggest how one can change the freelance ministry culture when one is within the culture?”
Here is my response, which I post with my correspondent’s permission:
I’m particularly pleased to hear how helpful my post on freelance ministry vs. the Body of Christ was for you. This reality of “body-ness” is really changing the way that I live and grow in Christ, and I am eager to share my experience in this regard with others. It is such a treasure, and I want to do everything I can to help others live into this reality.
Unfortunately, as we both know, such a way of life is not something we can achieve on our own. I mean this not only in the sense that this is work that God must do within us, rather than something we do ourselves; this is certainly true, but it is even harder than that. Living in the Body of Christ depends on other people and their response to the call of Christ’s Holy Spirit to live as members of the True Vine. We cannot live in the Body of Christ without other disciples of Jesus who are also willing to take his yoke upon them. We can take first steps in faith, but ultimately we rely on the faithful steps of others.
I have been thinking about your question a lot during this past week: What can you do where you are? How can you become an agent for change within a freelance ministry culture? This is a hard question, and one that I have dealt with in the past as a member of another Yearly Meeting before joining Ohio Yearly Meeting.
To provide a direct answer, I must begin by asking more questions. First of all, are there committed, Spirit-led Christians within your Meeting? Your Yearly Meeting? Your wider circle of Christian fellowship? Consider unilaterally submitting yourself to their care and oversight. Allow some disciples of Jesus whom you trust – women and men of spiritual maturity and depth of Christian commitment – to serve as your spiritual elders. Communicate with them regularly, and be open to changing your plans and even beliefs based on their guidance and the inward prompting of Jesus in your heart. These relationships will provide the fundamental support for your ongoing ministry, which will almost certainly be fiercely challenged as time goes on. Make sure that these relationships are strong before venturing out.
Now, more questions: Do you sense that you are being called to the work of nurturing the development of the Body of Christ within your local Meeting? Do you sense that there is an opening for you to begin enfleshing the Body of Christ in your local Meeting? If so, you might consider approaching your Meeting’s Ministry and Oversight (aka Ministry and Counsel or Ministry and Worship). You could lay your concern before them, asking them to consider how they might be called to begin (or deepen) a life of accountability and mutual submission within M&O and in the Meeting as a whole. Be ready to submit yourself to these Friends, too, if they respond in faith to the Holy Spirit. Be ready to be challenged and changed as the Meeting is challenged and changed. This is a time when you will need to rely heavily on your core of elders who can support you and serve as a check to the feedback you receive from your Meeting.
If you do indeed feel called of the Lord to this work, remember that prophetic engagement with the Meeting is a ministry that may take many years to bear any discernible fruit. And you might never see results. I encourage you to be sure of your leading and your motivations before engaging in this work. I also encourage you to regularly ask yourself what Christ is calling you to now.
Another thing to listen for is whether God is calling you to engage in this kind of ministry in your current Meeting. In my own case, I was called to this work for a season. However, God eventually called me out of my previous Monthly and Yearly Meeting and transplanted me into Ohio Yearly Meeting. While I would by no means insist that it is right for you to leave your Meeting, I encourage you to be open to that possibility. In my own experience, I was called out in order to be involved in the development of a new community.
Finally, I would encourage you to seek out opportunities to imbibe the community life of Friends groups that place more emphasis on corporate submission to Jesus Christ. Consider joining us for Ohio Yearly Meeting, which takes place in Barnesville, Ohio, August 8-13. Also, you could attend Stillwater Quarterly Meeting or some of OYM’s Monthly Meetings. And you would of course be a very welcome visitor at Rockingham Meeting and Capitol Hill Friends!
Also, while I do not have much personal experience of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), I have heard that their Yearly Meeting sessions are quite edifying. That might also be another gathering worth attending. I especially encourage you to attend the gatherings of covenanted communities (worship groups, Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings). These are places where you can really experience the mutual submission in Christ that is so essential for a community that seeks to live as Christ’s Body in the world.
And, of course, I would be happy to correspond with you in the months and years to come. I pray that we may support one another as we seek to be disciples of the Master, gathered together in him.
I am your friend in the Lord Jesus Christ,