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.
I was speaking with a friend recently about the spiritual state of his Meeting. The Meeting in question probably has an average attendance of seventy five, and benefits from an excellent meetinghouse, moderately populated children’s program, and a fairly solid level of engagement – both practical and financial – from the congregation. As a community, the Meeting is doing pretty well. Yet, my friend was concerned: Community is good and worth developing, but how do we move beyond mere human community and into a shared relationship with God?
In many congregations, human community often becomes the focus rather than shared commitment to discipleship and mission. Rather than challenging one another, we often focus primarily on giving one another warm fuzzies and a place to fit in. Rather than reaching out to the world, it is tempting to place our emphasis on fulfilling the desires of the already-established community. If we succumb to this temptation, the Meeting can become primarily a place of refuge from the world, and even from the challenging face of God.
In examining the spiritual state of his Meeting, my friend observed interesting parallels between the youth programs in his Yearly Meeting and the state of the adult community. He remembered the way in which his children began to distance themselves from their Quaker youth group – and from Quakerism – as they grew more secure and comfortable in their schools and social lives. The kids who remained part of the Meeting’s youth group tended to be ones who struggled to find their place in other areas of their lives. They felt like outsiders at school, and the Quaker youth programs and camps were the place where they felt most accepted and cared for. As the children of the Meeting grew older, the youth group became increasingly a collection of young people who did not fit in anywhere else.
What this meant was that the youth group became the primary community and social bond for these young people. They might not fit in at school or at home, but they could feel sure that at least their fellow Quaker youth would be on their side. This environment of affirmation and nurture is clearly very important, and those who participate in it surely benefit in a variety of ways. However, there may be unintended consequences that arise from youth programs that focus primarily on social circles and belonging. Through a set of shared rituals – jazz hands, cuddle puddles, and wink – and shared cultural assumptions and behaviors, the primary purpose of the Quaker youth community becomes about supporting “people like us.” In the extreme, Quakerism boils down to being “a place for good people like us.”
In my friend’s experience, this in-group dynamic is not limited to the youth. On the contrary, he saw the way that adult religious communities can be formed primarily around human needs for social and emotional security, rather than out of a corporate commitment to discipleship and mission in the world. My friend saw that there could be a pervasive “tribal” ethos in the adult Meeting. Just like the youth group, the adult Meeting saw itself as being made up of “good people” who provide a refuge for others who do not fit into the surrounding culture. Politically liberal folks with a transcendentalist spiritual bent; folks with a focus on eco-justice; pacifists; and individuals that, for whatever reason, do not fit in anywhere else. They can find a place in the Meeting Tribe.
None of this is bad, per se. People need a community where they feel accepted and loved for who they are, and the Church has always been such a place for those who are the most marginalized in the cultures where we have found ourselves. And yet, having a community that is primarily predicated on acceptance of others based on tribal values – shared rituals, assumptions and life experience – can pose a great spiritual danger: The community can become more about providing comfort and security than about growing in holiness and service to Christ; it can become more focused on nurturing our peculiar habits and assumptions than it is on risking the safety of the status quo in order to lead lives of service to our neighbors who do not share our tribal affinities.
How can we strike an appropriate balance between our comforting affinity groups and the challenging fellowship that God calls us into with our dissimilar neighbors? How can we tell the difference between the universally relevant Tradition, which we have received from God, and those habits and customs that are based more in the peculiarity of our tribe than in Christ’s continuing revelation? What would it take for us to become a people who, rather than treating our communities as retreats from the world, instead treated them as centers for mutual support and renewal, training and equipping us to do the work of God together in our broken world? What would it be like if we threw wide the doors of our Meetings to anyone, regardless of their ideological and political views, socio-economic status, reading ability, fashion habits and food preferences?
What would it take for us to live our lives in the vibrant fellowship that God offers, rather than being content with our broken cisterns? Come, taste and see that the Lord is good! We are blessed when we take refuge in the shadow of God’s wings.(1)
1. see Psalm 34:8
The Search for Depth and Meaning
There is a hunger in western society today for a sense of purpose and belonging that goes deeper than the daily grind. We live in a world that is overwhelmingly focused on profit and appearance rather than service and substance. While some of us are fortunate to have paid work that to some degree satisfies our need for meaningful labor and community, there are many others for whom their professional life is mostly a burden to be endured – a transaction of time and energy for a paycheck.
Even for many of those with a satisfying professional life, something is still missing. Despite financial success and career advancement, there remains a subtle emptiness in our lives that we cannot shake. We attempt to address this void in a variety of ways: Volunteering at charitable organizations; taking up hobbies; or numbing out with television, music, internet, shopping, alcohol and drugs. In a world where we are consistently told that we are responsible for our own happiness, we find that we are incapable of producing purpose. The depth of life that our hearts desire remains out of reach.
The Myth of the Rugged Individual
The myth many of us have been raised with is: “If you are smart and hard-working, you can have anything you want. It’s up to you.” Despite the optimism of this creed, many of us have found that our new national myth is false on multiple counts. To begin with, no matter how much we have educated ourselves and no matter how hard we have worked, real depth of purpose eludes us. The Western dream of endless prosperity and opportunity is revealed to be shallow and selfish; we are spiritual orphans listening to ipods in air-conditioned offices. We can have anything we want, perhaps, if all we want is soul-numbing entertainment.
Furthermore, we discover that we as individuals are not capable of accomplishing anything. We depend upon a web of interconnected relationships and social conditions, many of which are harmful and hold us back from growing to our fullest potential. Though we were brought up to believe that our destiny depended primarily on our own personal decisions, we come to see that our decisions are only a small piece of the overall picture. We cannot exist – much less achieve our goals – except in the context of community.
And some communities are more conducive to peace and fulfillment than others. Most of the subcultures in our society focus on goals other than serving God and neighbor. In many of our offices and barracks, schools and nonprofits, competition and self-interest are valued above compassion and self-sacrifice. Nation-states demand loyalty and support even as they routinely harm others in the pursuit of greater wealth and power – developing horrible weapons and dominating neighbors. We abuse the earth, hideously disfiguring God’s creation, all in the name of “growth and development.” Clearly, there are many human communities today whose ends and means are starkly at odds with the Reign of Christ.
But there is an alternative. There is a community in which each person can find the deepest wholeness and purpose, in which the human family as a whole can experience love and peace, showing respect for God’s creation in all its grandeur and beauty. The Church – the community of those who follow Jesus and participate in his life, death and resurrection – is this community. When we live in Christ, we find that our entire worldview shifts; instead of having our character and destiny dictated by the prevailing human culture, we are transformed by the living presence of Christ in the community of his friends. We participate in him, and his life becomes the setting for our own. In him alone we find true freedom, experiencing the depth and purpose that we have longed for all our lives.
Emigrating to the Kingdom of God
Think about it this way: If a person relocates to a foreign country, they are not simply changing locations – they are fundamentally altering their entire frame of reference. This change may not be clear at first, and the emigrant may cling for a long time to the way of life left behind in their home country; they may continue to eat their country’s food, speak their native language, and relate to others as they would in their home environment. However, over time, the emigrant slowly but surely absorbs the local culture of the country to which they have relocated.
Over the course of months and years, the emigrant’s life is reoriented around the language, assumptions and way of life of their adopted country. Eventually, when the emigrant returns to their country of origin for a visit, they feel out of place in the land they used to call home. Their transition into a new frame of reference is complete – they are now more adapted to their new country than they are to their homeland.
When we commit to following the guidance of Christ’s Spirit over all else, we have effectively emigrated. We were once members of the dominant society, but when we began to follow Jesus we forfeited citizenship in our earthly nations. Our process of growth in Christ is one of naturalization into the Church. As we are reoriented to the language, assumptions and way of life of our new community in Christ, we are transformed – not merely by our conscious, personal choice, but by our ongoing participation in the Church.
Making it Through Customs: Membership, Covenant and Engagement
In the essays that follow, we will explore what it looks like for us to change our spiritual nationality. We will consider the role of the individual, the Church, and the wider society as we transition away from being primarily participants in the dominant culture, becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God. We will examine the concepts of membership, covenant and engagement, looking at the ways in which individuals are nurtured and sustained by the community of disciples. Then, we will consider the role of communal decision-making, and how discernment takes place at all levels of the Church. Finally, we will look at the fruits of corporate discernment: the shared work that we as the Church undertake to make the love of Jesus visible to everyone.
As we explore the meaning of membership, covenant and engagement, we discover the way that Jesus is alive and active, showing love and mercy to the individual, the community of faith, and the world as a whole.
As we seek to understand what it means to be the Church in our post-modern, post-Christendom society, engagement is a key concept. How do we interact with the wider society? How do we show Christ’s love to the world, while taking care to not get caught up in the world’s way of doing things?
Engagement is about thinking like missionaries. To engage the dominant culture as sympathetic outsiders, we must learn its myths, assumptions, language and values. Our ultimate goal is to transmit the radical message of Jesus and his living presence with us today, seeking to inspire and empower indigenous forms of Christianity and local leaders to express the Gospel in their own particular contexts.
Obviously, to truly engage with the wider culture, major changes will be required of us. If we are to be missionaries to the West, we first must admit that we as Friends do not have all of the answers. We must admit that we need the Gospel to be shared with us; that we have still not quite understood it.
As we recognize how we have failed to live fully into the Way of Jesus, we begin to seek relationship with those around us, not only to invite them into the Kingdom-life, but also to discover what new lessons Christ wants to teach us through people whose lives are very different from our own.
The Church as Sanctuary… Or Launch Pad?
What is the role of the Church in all this? Some of the missional literature seems to suggest that the traditional congregational model is no longer adequate as the basis for fostering and sustaining Christ’s Reign. And, certainly, they are right that we miss the point if we think attendance at our worship services is the only measure of growth in faithfulness and spiritual maturity. As the rise of “prosperity gospel” mega-churches makes clear, attendance numbers are no sure sign of spiritual depth or changed lives. Nevertheless, gathering together for worship as a community is critical to the depth and stability of a Christian community.
On the one hand, we have the missional imperative to get out of the “Quaker ghetto” and share our lives with our non-Christian neighbors. We do no one any good by hiding our light under a bushel and retreating from the world. On the other hand, we benefit greatly from times of fellowship, worship, and shared life with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We gain strength through our regular connection with other believers, and our relationship with God is deepened when we wait on the Lord together. How are we to balance our need for nurturing relationships within the Church and Christ’s call for us to be present in our neighborhoods, workplaces and public gatherings?
This is not merely a theoretical question. Each of us has only so much time and energy. How do we balance time within the established community and time spent as Christian examples in other communities? As we strike this balance as individuals, it is important that we focus on existing relationships. It would be easy for us to exhaust ourselves by trying to make a whole slew of new friends in new communities. But, for most of us, this is probably not necessary. Most of us have regular contacts with folks who might like to go deeper in their relationship with God – whether at work; in a club or association we participate in; or just by way of time-tested friendships and family relationships. Each of us probably knows a few people who we could reach out to in friendship, seeking to make Christ’s love visible in their lives.
As communities, we need to look for these same kinds of relationships. What are the communities or organizations in proximity to us that we could reach out to as a Meeting? While individual connections to our neighbors in the wider culture are an important part of the Church’s work in the world, there is nothing quite like uniting around a shared project. When the Meeting can commit itself to a specific form of service – whether it is cleaning up a neighborhood, volunteering at a charity, or opening our homes to refugees – the witness of Christ shines even more clearly than it does when an individual acts alone. The world can see the good work that we do together, and because the work is done as a church, it is even easier for us to give the glory to Jesus. This builds the Kingdom.
Engagement as Corporate Practice
Christian engagement, serving as missionaries in a broken world, is most powerful when done as a corporate expression of faith. When we as the Church come together and discern the specific work that God is calling us to, the Holy Spirit empowers and strengthens us for that mission. If we are to grow spiritually as a people, we must gather together to hear Christ’s guidance.
The process of engagement begins when we look inward to receive Christ’s guidance in our hearts. Next, we let Christ change our character and lifestyle, living into God’s will for us. Then, we move outward, to share our lives with others in obedience to Jesus. And finally, we again look inward to see whether we have heard and responded correctly, and to discover what further guidance God has for us. This cycle is just as true for our Meetings as it is for individuals. And, just as individual men and women are transformed and remade in Christ’s image as they pass through these steps, so, too, are communities.
The Church is where we come to be refined through deep listening, faithful action, and submission to one another in Christ. As we discover our true nature as members of Christ Jesus, we come to realize our spiritual unity with the rest of the Church, and we learn that our salvation is inevitably bound up in the lives of others. We are one in Christ Jesus.
Each local Meeting of the Church has to determine the right balance between outward engagement and inward reflection. Some churches are more naturally inclined to a spirituality of action, while others lean more contemplative. But all of us must wrestle with how we are to live out God’s call in community. As we listen and discern God’s will together, we will be transformed into a body that is a force for righteousness, justice and reconciliation in the world.
Our encounter with Jesus changes everything. When Jesus approached Simon, Andrew, James and John while they were working as fishermen by the sea, his call to them was so compelling that they immediately left behind everything that they had known – family, profession, security – and followed Jesus.(1) When we experience Jesus’ presence and hear his gentle but firm invitation to come and follow him, we are challenged to radically change our lives – both in the outward details as well as in our inward motivations.
In our life together as a community of disciples, we come together to follow Jesus and to practice deep listening to how the Spirit is guiding us in this present day. As we listen for God’s guidance in stillness and song, in rest and in work, we are drawn deeper together as a human fellowship that is rooted in love and obedience to the Spirit. It is in this context of love and trust that we are able to lean on one another as we walk together in the Way of Truth.
Ultimately, though, this loving community is only a small haven within a wider culture that is dedicated to the pursuit and protection of money, power and self-interest. It is in this wider world that most of us live the greater part of our existence, and it is to our hurting world that Jesus is extending his healing hand. Jesus knows the pain of this world better than any of us, and he knows what it is like to be excluded from polite society for loving those who are viewed as too sinful to have a part in mainstream society. He hung out with tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes, as well as with zealots, pharisees and desert mystics.
Jesus embodied God’s love to those who the culture of the time had deemed unlovable. He was scandalous in sharing his presence with those who were not even allowed to enter the Temple – the center of social, religious and economic life in his time and place. Jesus summed up his generation’s judgment of him like this: “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”(2) Today, we might well say of him, “a friend of Muslims and atheists.” Jesus shows mercy to those who are open to receiving it; and if those our society regards as “successful” are not ready to hear the Good News, he will share it with those whom the wider culture has cast out.(3)
We are called to embody the reckless, socially unacceptable love that Jesus shows us. We are called to love not only to those who appear to be doing well in the current social order, but also those who have been rejected by mainstream society. We are called to show Christ’s love to the poor, the uneducated, the physically and mentally disabled. We are called to love those whom our culture excludes. We are called to demonstrate our love in acts as tangible as washing feet and breaking bread.
If we truly wish to follow Jesus, our daily habits, patterns of consumption, and social relationships must change. As we struggle to embody the Gospel in our daily lives, we are challenged to open ourselves to people that we never would have associated with before. We are forced to get out of our comfort zones. Embracing the radical hospitality of Jesus means being confronted by our own routines of exclusion and self-centeredness.
We should be horrified that the modern-day Church tends to exclude the very people that Jesus commands us to embrace. How often have our churches treated the poor as a problem to be fixed, rather than as brothers and sisters to be embraced, loved? How many of us have treated our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters like the Pharisees treated lepers? How many people have we sent screaming into atheism and New Age religions through our legalism and scorn for those who do not fit into our boxes? How many of us, still within the Church, live in fear of being excluded if our fellow Christians were to learn who we really are?
Rather than relating to our Christian communities as fortresses to be walled off and defended against ungodly intrusion, I believe that Christ is calling us to use our communities as a base from which to reach out to the wider world. The mission of the Church is the same as that of Jesus Christ: to save the world, not to condemn it.(4) While we as followers of Jesus must be clear about our commitment to be obedient to Jesus as we know him in Scripture and in his present Spirit among us, our purpose is to call others to wholeness.
To live into Christ’s mission of redemption, we will need to make substantial changes to our own lives, giving Jesus our house, job and bank account, not just our heart. Many of us who belong to privileged classes in our culture may be called to change our lifestyles, work, and living arrangements in order to do justice and live at peace with all people. Jesus’ love is not about charity; it is not about sharing with those “less fortunate than us.” On the contrary, when Christ is in us we see that we are just as deeply in need of God’s mercy and transformation as anyone else, regardless of where we fall in the world’s social hierarchy. The Spirit of Christ leads us into a life of self-emptying and service to others, in imitation of our Lord.(5)
A good outward measuring stick for communities that seek to live out Christ’s mission in the world is the Twelve Marks of the New Monasticism. These marks, including, “relocation to the abandoned places of Empire,” and, “sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us,” present a challenge to the prevailing culture in North America. In a society that consistently encourages us to enlarge ourselves, improve ourselves, promote ourselves, we are being called by Jesus to surrender ourselves, to die to self. As we meditate on the life, teachings, death and resurrection of our Lord, and as we listen to how his Spirit is guiding us today, it is clear that our lives must be radically changed in things as practical as where we live, who we buy our groceries from, and who we have over for dinner.
We will discover who we are in Christ when we commit to changing our lives in order to share the Gospel with all people – especially those on society’s margins. The kind of sharing that we are called to goes far beyond putting a Jesus fish on our bumper or even delivering a sermon. When we are in Christ, we are called to let our very lives preach. It is through the way that we live, and the love that we show for others, that the world will come to know Jesus.
1. See Mark 1
2. Luke 7:34
3. Luke 14:15-23
4. See John 3:17
5. See Philippians 2:5-11
Resources for Further Study:
This Ash Wednesday, a few friends and I got together to observe the beginning of Lent. We shared a meal, and then we read the lectionary scripture for the day and settled into waiting worship. After worship had broken, we walked together over to St. Mark’s Episcopal church to attend their service. For me, the Episcopal service was at once foreign and familiar.
Several years ago, while in seminary at Earlham School of Religion, I lived as part of a new monastic community called Renaissance House. We lived together in a big, dilapidated mansion in the once-prosperous Starr District of Richmond, Indiana. We hosted public dinners three times a week where all were invited, and which were frequented by the mentally ill, the very poor, college professors, entrepreneurs, drug addicts, seminary and college students, and neighborhood kids. We lived off the land, dumpster diving for food and foraging for wasted wood and fallen trees to heat the house. We prayed together as a community four times a day.
As we explored what it meant to be a worshipping community, we visited a nearby Roman Catholic monastic community, the Sisters of St. Francis, in Oldenburg, Indiana. One of the surprising things we learned was that we at Renaissance House did a lot more corporate prayer than the “real” monastics did. We gathered for worship before breakfast (Matins), at noon (Sext), before dinner (Vespers) and in the late evening before bed (Compline). We prayed liturgy out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we sang, and we read the Scriptures aloud.
Because I had come to Christianity in the Quaker tradition, this form of worship was new and somewhat strange for me. I did not know quite what to make of spoken liturgy, especially because the Friends tradition that I was being steeped in put a high value on extemporaneous, “Spirit-led” prayer and vocal ministry. To have our prayers “scripted” seemed questionable. Despite my reservations about the details of our worship, I felt very committed to the worshipping community at Renaissance House. I believed in our way of life as a Christian brotherhood. I believed that our ministry to the neighborhood and wider community was meaningful; that we were truly “being the Church” in that time and place.
My experience at St. Mark’s this Wednesday surprised me. First of all, it became clear to me that Renaissance House was an Episcopal-inspired new monastic community. Having the chance to participate in a more formal Episcopalian service, I saw how almost all of our practice at Renaissance House was based in that tradition. Second of all, and far more shocking to me, I realized that I missed the liturgy. I missed the corporate recitation of the Psalms. I missed the congregational call and response. I missed the corporate confession of past failure, and repentance from sin. I missed the discomfort of being asked to say things that I would not normally say.
Recognizing that spoken liturgy has meaning for me, I feel the need to reflect on how this relates to my distinctively Quaker interpretation of my faith. I know that the early Friends rejected precisely the form of worship that I am now finding compelling. And I feel like I understand why they did. When the Quaker movement was emerging in the middle of the 17th century, the Church of England (now known as Episcopalian in the United States) was an oppressive force that demanded submission to an array of priestly codes, and which made the Gospel something that had to be mediated through educated, humanly authorized clergy. I affirm the early Friends’ rejection of human-based authority and the idolatry of Scripture and ritual.
But the early Friends did not merely leave the “apostate” Church of England and take up a revised liturgy on their own. They did away with the liturgy, with pre-arranged congregational singing, Scripture-reading and prepared sermons. They insisted that for worship to be conducted “in Spirit and in Truth,” there could be no pre-arrangement. True worship was when God was waited upon and women and men preached out of a sense of immediate leading by the Holy Spirit. The liturgy was a dead letter imposed by the human mind, but the Spirit gave life.
I think that this may have been the right answer for the early Friends. This first generation of Quakers had been filled to the brim with ceremony, liturgy, singing and Scripture. From their earliest childhood, the tradition of the Church was inculcated in them. The liturgy was practically in their DNA! The early Friends already knew the Scriptures, the creeds and the hymns of the Church by heart before they broke away from the deadening ritual and hierarchy that fallen humans had employed to take the Gospel captive. The early Friends rejected the abuses of Scripture, music and liturgy – but they retained full knowledge and use of them as they gathered to wait on the Lord.
More recent generations of Friends have not been as fortunate. We have been raised without as rich a sense of the tradition of the Church: without a corporate knowledge of our hymns; and without a regular corporate confession of our faith, our recognition of sin, and repentance. Many of us have lost even a basic awareness of the Scriptures.
Given our present context and condition, I wonder whether some form of liturgy might not be a good thing for Friends. What is the balance between us waiting on Christ to lead us in every step and us taking initiative to respond to Christ’s call? What would be a Quaker way of doing liturgy?