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In the Midst of Fear, Hold America in the Light

In the Midst of Fear, Hold America in the Light
This election has stretched on – like a long, sweaty, sleepless night. It’s hard to believe that daybreak is finally about to arrive. Votes will be counted. Winners will be declared. And millions of us will be struck by the terror of loss.

Our nation is in a media-induced panic. It’s growing stronger every day, every hour as this contest reaches its conclusion. Thousands of professional propagandists are spending millions of dollars to get just a few more of us frightened enough to vote for their candidate – or against their opponent.

We are in a dark place as a nation. The whole world is watching, astonished to see America coming apart at the seams. It’s been a long time since our democracy has seemed so shaken.

This frenzied atmosphere is a challenge for those of us who would like to be friends of Jesus. It’s hard to live amidst such fear, vitriol, and uncertainty and not be caught up in it ourselves. Yet it is through us that God wants to bless the world – to shine light in the midst of darkness. Groundedness in the face of chaos. Love that tackles hate in a bear hug and refuses let go.

We are children of the light. That’s who we’re called to be in this season. God’s love is no less real today than it was yesterday. It’s a life and power that wants to flow through us, lighting up everyone around us. In the midst of pervasive fear, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is pouring out joy. Do you hear it?

Why do we look for the living among the dead? Why do you and I fret over the power struggles of this fallen and broken society? We are called to so much more. Jesus has given us authority to give so much more. Will you open up your clinched fists so that your hands can serve? Will you un-clinch your jaw so that your mouth can speak the good news? Jesus is Lord – and the rulers and powers of this world are not.

As millions of us head to the polls, you and I are invited into an even deeper level of participation in the struggle for the soul of this nation. Our truest vote is our growing commitment to live in the love and justice of Jesus, who takes away all occasion for wars and striving and contention.

This is bigger than an election. Our calling is to participate in the restoration of the whole cosmos. In a society where the world of ideas seems to be shrinking by the day, God offers us a canvas of pure imagination where our love can paint until every square inch is full of color. Do we dare?

It seems so dark right now. But that’s just because we still aren’t awake to our purpose. We are the children of the light. And the world needs us.

Related Posts:

As The Election Looms – God, Be Merciful To Us

In this Election, Our Real Enemy is Fear

Why the Church is like the DMV


Do you enjoy visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles? It doesn’t matter. No one expects you to enjoy it. But you will show up if you want to drive a car or get a photo ID. The service may be lousy and the staff surly, but there’s really no alternative. You’ll take a number, stand in line, do the eye exam, and pay your fees.

Once upon a time, the church was just like the DMV. Church was a utility, an indispensable requirement for citizenship in western civilization. It wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but it didn’t have to be. You were required by both law and custom to show up and pay your dues, so you did. You listened to the priest, stood in line, took your wafer, and paid your tithes.

Church doesn’t work like that anymore. (Thank God!) These days, churches are luxury items – like a trip to Starbucks – rather than a necessity – like a visit to the DMV. If you enjoy the church community, the rituals, and the doctrine being taught by the leaders, you might come back next week. If not, there are plenty of other options out there – including a nice stroll with your dog on a Sunday morning.

In today’s church world, it’s a buyer’s market. There’s no shortage of congregations in your town that are doing everything in their power to make your visit an inviting, welcoming, and fun experience. A lot of thought is put into greeters, child care, music, and sermons. The coffee is often good.

Some churches are still acting as if they were the DMV, though. Churches that stick to the old ways of doing things, who don’t give much thought to welcoming visitors and speaking to their spiritual condition. Most of these groups are dying out. They’ve got nothing going for them but inertia.

Are these really the only two options, though? Starbucks or the DMV? For over a thousand years, the church was basically an appendage of civil government. I definitely don’t want to go back to that reality. But neither am I thrilled with the current trend towards consumer Christianity. What’s the point of being part of a church that only exists to sing praise songs, drink good coffee, and promote a Christian lifestyle that looks a whole lot like middle class individualism?

I want to be part of a church that is simultaneous voluntary and demanding. I want a fellowship that challenges my individualism, but also overthrows conformity to the status quo. I want to be part of a movement that asks everything from me, that doesn’t let me off easy – but also one that leads by example and never forces me to go farther than I am ready for. Does this church exist?

I have caught glimpses of it at various points in my journey. I read about it in the New Testament. It’s the radical fellowship that deeply challenges the ways of the world, yet never assumes the right to force a conversion. It’s a community that loves everyone with incredible passion, but stubbornly refuses to pander in exchange for acceptance.

Have you experienced this kind of community? What is holding you back from living more fully in it? How can we become the free-spirited church that embodies the way of Jesus?

Related Posts:

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

What Happens When Radicals Fall in Love?

3 Reasons Pope Francis’ Visit Could Change America

3 Reasons Pope Francis' Visit Could Change America

Pope Francis will be arriving in Washington, DC tomorrow, and we locals are getting ready for a huge celebration. Public officials have warned us to avoid travel for the next few days. We’re expecting the roads and public transportation to be flooded with thousands of pilgrims making their way to see the head of the world’s largest Christian communion. It’s gonna be a beautiful mess!

Francis’ visit to the United States will be an enormous spectacle. I have no doubt that many will find it inspiring and uplifting. But what’s the ultimate impact? Could Francis’ time in the US make waves that go beyond traffic delays and photo ops?

Here are three reasons that the Pope’s arrival could mark a tipping point for American culture:

1. The Pope inspires us to move beyond the culture wars. If you’re like most Americans, you’re exhausted from the endless ideological battles that have consumed our country in recent decades. So often in these battles, Christianity has been used as a weapon to attack others and score political points. It’s no wonder that millions of Americans have given up on organized religion altogether. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being manipulated for political advantage.

And yet, most of us are still hungry for something that goes deeper than the numbing consumerism that we are constantly being sold. We’re disgusted by the right-wing, imperial Christianity that justifies foreign wars and domestic discrimination, but we long for the heart of love that we once found in Jesus. We are hungry for the genuine gospel of peace, reconciliation, and justice.

The good news that Francis preaches cuts through the hypocrisy of American political discourse. Francis reminds us that, in Jesus, it is possible to work for the protection of all life – including the unborn threatened by abortion, the natural world threatened by climate change, and the poor who are being crushed by ever-widening income inequality and economic injustice. Pope Francis breaks down the Republican/Democrat binary, holding out a vision of the Reign of God that challenges all political ideologies.

2. Francis is unifying the Christian community. Just as the gospel message dissolves the hostility of the political culture wars, it also has the power to overcome divisions within the church. For hundreds of years, the Christian world has been divided between different Christian denominations, each one claiming to be the one and only true church. The emergence of Pope Francis, with his broad-minded ecumenism rooted in an evangelical mission, encourages us to reevaluate the sectarianism of centuries past.

This doesn’t mean we all become the same. There are important reasons that I am not a Catholic, and that the Pope is not a Quaker. But our differences are relativized in the light of our shared experience of Jesus Christ in our lives. The barriers between us are broken down by a common recognition of the challenges that face us as a species, and the extraordinary measures that we must take together to avert ecological catastrophe and economic atrocity. Our shared calling as disciples of Jesus and heirs of the Reign of God is so much greater than the many ways that we are different from one another. What would it look like if we committed ourselves to working together in all those areas where we are already of one heart and mind?

3. He builds bridges with skeptics. Pope Francis has shown himself to be a universal Christian leader, with relevance far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic fellowship. His compassion and demonstrated love for the marginalized speaks to the heart of the spiritual-but-not-religious, agnostics, and the countless other Americans who want something deeper, but cannot in good conscience accept the Christianity presented to them by mainstream Evangelicalism.

Most of these folks are probably never going to become Catholics, but that’s not the point. Francis is a major Christian leader who is showing himself to be a compassionate, principled human being. It’s sad to say, but for many Americans, that’s something new.

For an historically Protestant nation that is increasingly fed up with George Bush Evangelicalism, Pope Francis’ visit is an opportunity to present an alternative vision for what life with Jesus can look like. This pope is connecting with millions of Americans who don’t consider themselves Christians, but who find themselves resonating with the simple, radical faith of Jesus.

This is an exciting moment. I’m looking forward to welcoming Pope Francis to my city and nation. I feel hopeful about the kind of positive change that his visit could bring about in the spiritual life of our country.

What are ways that we can amplify the volume of the gospel message that Pope Francis is bringing to our national stage? How are we, as followers of Jesus, preparing ourselves to reap the harvest of this visit, as thousands – perhaps millions – are brought into a new awareness of what a radiant, loving, faithful life in Jesus can look like?

I’d love to discuss these questions with you in the comments below.

Related Posts:

Why Pope Francis’ Climate Encyclical Matters

Pope Francis: A Social Justice Pope?

Are Quakers Already Dead?

Are Quakers Already Dead?

We Quakers think a lot about our own demise. I’ve lost count of how many events, conferences, books, and lectures have essentially centered around the question, Will Quakerism survive?

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that I believe this is the wrong question. The ultimate fate of Quakerism is not nearly so important to me as whether we are ignited by a living movement of the Holy Spirit today, in our own time and place. Labels and Quaker brand loyalty aren’t worth much if we aren’t willing to follow Jesus – wherever he leads.

It concerns me, how frequently this conversation comes up in the Quaker community. The question of denominational survival is a major preoccupation among Friends. Maybe even an obsession. We demonstrate an almost morbid fascination with our own impending doom.

A friend of mine recently suggested that what is missing in modern day Quakerism is a triumphant, victorious spirit. He suggested that, in many cases, we as Friends have already accepted defeat. We’ve assumed failure as an inevitability. We’re so busy contemplating Quaker doomsday that we fail to see the incredible abundance and possibility of the moment we live in.

I’m convinced that we’re not dead yet. God has important work for us to do – not just back in the 1650s, not only during the Civil War or Vietnam, but right now. We are alive now for a reason.

What would happen if we located ourselves, not at the end of a long line of historical events, but at the beginning? Rather than maintaining the legacy of people who lived and died hundreds of years ago, what if we used all that raw material – theology, meeting houses, writings, endowments, faith and practice – to launch a whole new God movement in our time, place, and culture?

What if we refuse to rest on our ancestors’ laurels? What would it mean to accept the challenge of radical discipleship here, now?

We’re only dead if we refuse to try.

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Is it Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?

What If I Really Lived Right Now?

Is It Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?

Is It Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?

I’ve been deeply embedded in the Quaker Industrial Complex for a long time. I’ve been one of those professional Quakers. I first became a Christian while studying at a Quaker seminary, and subsequently worked for years in official Quaker circles – at Earlham School of Religion, and later at Friends United Meeting. I’ve lived, breathed, and dreamed Quakerism.

During this time, I’ve spent lots of time visiting local Quaker congregations, gatherings, and regional bodies. Often during these visits, Quaker leaders would tell me what they were most worried about. Some of these concerns were very specific to a particular group or situation, but others were more universal.

This Is My Concern, Dude

One of the most regular and consistent laments that I’ve heard from Quaker leaders is that the rank and file in their congregations don’t see the purpose of the yearly meeting* structures. They say things like this:

We can’t figure out how to help our people understand how important the Yearly Meeting really is. People ask us, What does the Yearly Meeting do for me?, but they’re missing the entire point! The Yearly Meeting is about being body. It’s not about what the Yearly Meeting provides for the local churches; it’s how we’re called together as a people, the shared experience we have of God when we’re together. After all, how are we supposed to do the work of the church if we don’t gather and support one another?

I’ve heard words like these so many times I’ve lost count. What’s more, I’ve said words like these on numerous occasions. As a person so dedicated to institutional Quakerism, the idea that many of our members no longer find the Yearly Meeting necessary was really threatening to me. After all, what is the Quaker community without our wider fellowship? How can we even exist without the Yearly Meeting?

Another Way?

Despite my misgivings, I’ve recently begun to wonder whether those naysayers might actually be right. Is there something fundamentally unhelpful about the Yearly Meeting system as it presently exists? What if the best thing that could happen would be for us to release our institutional structures altogether, opening ourselves to a more organic, responsive way of being Christ’s body?

In order to really consider these questions, it’s been helpful to take a step back from the Quaker bubble for a little bit. For the past couple of years, I haven’t been actively participating in a traditional Yearly Meeting. Instead, I’ve been part of a new, missional Quaker network called the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

At first, we thought of ourselves as a sort of proto-Yearly-Meeting. We figured that our local missional communities were essentially Monthly Meetings, and that our Fall and Spring gatherings were more or less our Yearly Meeting (bi)annual sessions.

But as time has gone on, it’s become clear that we’re not a Yearly Meeting, and probably never will be. Instead, we’re finding something new and different, something born into the challenges that the church is facing in our present world.

As members and leaders in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we take seriously the question, How does our community sustain and propel us in the mission where Christ has called us? Our fellowship does not exist for its own sake, but for the purpose of making disciples and demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ for our neighbors. The structures of the Fellowship are exist for this purpose, and they evolve as the Spirit leads us.

A New Kind of Community

This openness to Christ’s ongoing direction is creating a network of disciples that looks quite different than what we had experienced before. Here are some key characteristics we’re finding that make the Friends of Jesus Fellowship a truly vibrant community:

1. We empower individual leaders to operate in their gifts and unlock their potential as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. By emphasizing the giftedness and unique calling of each person, we come together as a body with all parts working together in harmony.

2. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is rooted in spiritual affinity and shared calling by Christ. The Fellowship is most strongly based in the eastern half of the United States, but we are not necessarily limited by geography. We have friends and co-workers scattered from Berkeley to Baltimore, from Madrid to Moscow.

3. Our membership is based on shared commitment and mutual accountability. We are members of one another because we have come together as disciples, followers of Jesus who are engaged together in learning from Jesus himself. Becoming a Friend of Jesus isn’t a matter of clearness committees and paperwork. We’re not a club to be joined primarily for a sense of identity and belonging. It’s about doing the work, showing ourselves to be friends of Jesus by our love for one another.

4. Rather than preserving an institution, we are focused on igniting a movement. In place of nostalgia for the past – even the admittedly glorious past of the early Quaker movement – we are inspired by a vision for the new things that God wants to do right here, right now.

It’s not that we don’t need institutions. We definitely do, and we are actively developing appropriate structures under the guidance of the Spirit. Still, we know that our institutions are means, not ends. No matter how efficient our structures and procedures are, their purpose is always to move us forward together in the dynamic mission of Jesus and his reign.

Freedom from the Quaker Law

As a recovering Quaker process junkie, this is all very new, disturbing, and refreshing! I have some sense of how Paul must have felt when he was released from the deadening straight jacket of the Law. This is what gospel freedom feels like: It’s the end of all the shoulds of religious observance, an invitation to a life of deep relationship with Jesus and his friends.

As part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, God is introducing me to a whole new way of being a follower of Jesus. Rather than seeking to defend the Quaker tradition and my insider bona fides, I am discovering a way of ministry that goes far beyond anything that Quaker tribalism could offer.

For all my friends who remain faithfully serving within a traditional Quaker context, I know this essay might feel like an attack. I hope you’ll believe me when I say it’s not. I have been among the fiercest Quaker loyalists, defending tooth and nail what I considered a traditional Quaker vision of gospel order. I still value this tradition, even as I join with a community that is radically re-mixing it in order to be faithful to where the Spirit is leading us today.

Whether you’re a Quaker insider or have never heard of a Yearly Meeting before reading this post, I want to invite you into something bigger. Something deeper. Something more beautiful than any human structure.

What would it look like for us to let go of the traditional Yearly Meeting altogether? What discoveries might we make if we started fresh, rooting community in our 21st-century context? What kind of power could we unlock?

I think we’re in for some beautiful surprises.

*For my non-Quaker readers: A Yearly Meeting is a regionally and theologically defined association of local congregations. It is the highest decision-making body that Quakers have, and is roughly equivalent to a diocese, district, or conference in other denominations.

Related Posts:

Get Your Hand Out of that Pickle Jar!

Burn Down the Meeting House

It’s the End of Church (As We Know It)

It's the End of Church (As We Know It)

So we’re in this situation:

For hundreds of years, the Christian community has gathered together on Sunday mornings. Bright and early, we come together for service at a designated building. We hear a sermon. We sing songs. We show up to be seen, to connect.

These days, though, fewer and fewer of us are showing up.

I’ll spare you the statistics. You’ve heard them before. More importantly,  you’ve witnessed the change yourself. In the last fifty years, most of our congregations have hollowed out.

Maybe you’ve become a statistic yourself. At a certain point, coming to a building on Sunday morning no longer felt like an authentic, sustaining ritual for you. The draw of the community was overwhelmed by the demands of the week – of family and friends and work. Choosing between another weekend activity and a chance to rest, you chose sanity.

Or perhaps it was worse than that. Rather than withdrawing out of exhaustion, maybe you felt pushed out. Church politics and infighting added nothing to your life, just bitterness. The church’s rejection of gays, its embrace of nationalism and war, the suppression of women, and our apparent concern for individual prosperity over care for the poor. Stuff like that adds up.

There have been so many reasons to check out. So many reasons to find something better to do on Sunday mornings, even if it’s just to rest up for another work week.

Maybe you’re one of those who have been left sitting in the pews. So many others have dropped out, one by one, but you’ve hung in there. Sure, the church has its problems, but you still believe. You’re still committed to this group of people. You hold out hope that the Holy Spirit can still do something incredible with us, as short-sighted as we can be.

Broken as we are, all things are possible with God.

Still. Something has to change. The church as we’ve known it for the last several hundred years is less relevant every day. The Sunday morning show is dying. A new generation is emerging that demands something deeper. We long for a faith that can speak to the struggles and pain, joy and hope that we find in our everyday lives. We’re waiting, hungry for a Christianity that speaks to the mystery we find in the streets and the schools, the office and the coffee shop.

There is so much yearning in our culture for exactly the life and power that the gospel offers. There is an openness to a movement of the Holy Spirit, the real abundant life that we find in community around the dinner table with Jesus. We can emerge together with power, like those first Christians we read about in the book of Acts.

Or, we can choose to believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. 

Many of us are still so identified with the dying forms of the 20th century church that we are convinced that the church is moribund. We fail to see the reality that is right in front of our faces: The harvest is plentiful! We are ready for a re-imagined community, to become friends of Jesus in our post-modern world!

Which story will we choose to live in?

As long as we measure ourselves by 20th-century standards of how the church is supposed to look and behave, our story will be one of defensiveness and decline. We’ll just keep building our walls higher, digger our trenches deeper, wondering why no one wants to come join our Sunday-morning club. This is a sad, disheartening path, and I’ve walked it far too long. I’m ready for a more life-giving vision of what we could be as followers of Jesus.

It’s risky, of course, to push away from the shores of the known, out into the open waters of possibility. Who knows? Maybe we’ll sail over the edge of the world!

But from where I’m sitting, the risk of discovery seems like a better bet than the sad certainty of decline by attrition. It certainly sounds like more fun!

The call to discipleship is more beautiful than the story of church growth that has so captivated us in recent decades. What is it that really inspires us? Is it growing church membership? Planning the Sunday morning show? Bigger buildings, larger parking lots? Does the 20th-century model of church growth set your heart on fire?

For me and my partners in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, Jesus’ invitation is to something far more meaningful than promoting the Sunday club and building it bigger. What would it look like to respond like the apostles did? What would it be like to truly make disciples in the way of Jesus? How will our lives need to change in order to respond to the radical demands of the in-breaking reign of God?

One thing is for sure: It won’t look like church as usual. 

Related Posts:

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

Burn Down the Meeting House

Let the Big Trees Fall

Have you ever wondered where forests come from? If you’ve ever taken a hike in a wooded area, it’s probably struck you what a diverse environment the forest is. There are all sorts animals, birds, plants large and small. A wondrous diversity of creatures co-exist in apparent balance and harmony.

But how did forests come into existence in the first place?

Scientists have studied the process of ecosystem formation and have extensive theories about how all sorts of environments come into being. There seems to be an orderly process of development that has some common characteristics no matter what kind of environment we’re talking about. Given the right conditions, ecosystems tend to develop greater complexity and variety over time.

For example: Let’s say that a glacier has just receded, leaving exposed a terrain of totally bare rock. There are very few forms of life that can survive in such an environment, but there are a few – maybe some kind of moss or algae. These “pioneer species” start growing on the bare rock. And that might be all there is for a while. But as these hardy little organisms grow and die, they begin to build up a layer of organic matter. Dirt.

Eventually, there’s enough dirt that some grasses can take root. Once the grass has lived and died a few million times, perhaps there will be enough soil for shrubs, and other, larger plants. If enough time passes and the conditions are right for it, there will eventually be soil that is rich and thick enough to support even the largest trees – not to mention a variety of insects, rodents, and larger animals.

OK, are you still with me? I don’t normally give science lessons – mostly because I’m not a trained scientist – but I have a purpose in telling this story of ecosystem development. The emergence of ecosystems provides an excellent model for how we can understand the growth of human systems – culture, government, and technology.

I even think it can provide some insight into how the church functions. What is the church, after all, but an interrelated web of relationships, held together by a common commitment to walking in the way of Jesus?

The Christian ecosystem has been around for a long time, so it’s gotten pretty complex and robust. The apostles and martyrs acted like moss and algae, dying again and again in order to make space for a community of greater depth and complexity. Through centuries of struggle, patient endurance, and courage, we’ve developed into an old-growth forest with towering, ancient trees.

This maturity has advantages. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the church produced a wealth of colleges and seminaries, charitable organizations and missionary societies, and all sorts of movements for social change, such as the abolition of slavery. The sheer size and complexity of the Christian community has given us power to profoundly impact our society.

Yet, there’s a shadow side to ecosystems that reach late-stage maturity. All those big trees cast a lot of shade. In particularly dense areas, the forest floor might be dimmed to twilight even in the middle of the day. When the largest trees become predominant, they have the tendency to destroy the conditions where earlier, smaller forms of life have flourished. All those grasses and shrubs that helped to pave the way for the great cedars have their growth stunted by the penumbra of the wooded canopy.

Prophetic movements within the church have always been critical of the hubris of the big trees – the largest church institutions, often directly connected with systems of political, economic, and cultural power. Radical movements like the Franciscans, Anabaptists, Quakers, and Pentecostals punch a hole through the canopy to let some light shine in. These movements reclaim some space for the tiny, the simple, the unadorned creatures of the forest floor.

We live in a time today when many of the ancient trees of the Christian forest are teetering. Denominations are breaking apart. Established ways of doing things are coming into question. Parachurch organizations struggle to articulate their mission and purpose in a rapidly changing world. For many in the church, this is a profoundly scary time. It is a time of diminishment in many ways – of the Christian community’s social standing, prestige, and directive influence over our culture.

For those of us in the prophetic stream, however, this is a moment to rejoice. After centuries of punching holes in the canopy to let the light shine in, it seems that the great trees may fall down altogether. This is a new day, the first opportunity for uncut brightness in centuries. As the trees of the Christendom church begin to tremble and collapse, we are on the verge of a new era of crabgrass Christianity.

Much of the Christian world is in mourning over the state of the trees; we fret over the downgraded status and political influence of the Western church. But what would happen if, instead of looking up with fearful eyes to the trembling canopy, we directed our gaze to the grassroots that are suddenly being flooded with light for the first time in God knows how long? What are the new opportunities that await us in this new day of sunlight?

Related Posts:

Burn Down the Meeting House

A Burning Fire