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We’ll Need More Than Church Signs

During my morning walk today, I must have passed at least half a dozen church buildings, each one with its own sign facing the road. Most of these were the backlit type with replaceable plexiglass letters that could be rearranged to spell out a new message each week. It was interesting to read each sign as I passed. I felt like it gave me a glimpse into the character of each congregation – or at least of the person who was in charge of updating the message!

There was a pretty wide range of expressions on these signs, both in length and tone. One simply said, GOD CARES. Another warned that SECRET SINS ARE ONLY SECRET TEMPORARILY. The longest of the messages I saw was triumphal: THE HISTORY OF TOMORROW HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN: EVERY KNEE MUST BOW AT THE NAME OF JESUS.

Passing each of the buildings and their signs, I felt uneasy, though at first I had a hard time figuring out why. After all, I didn’t disagree with any of the statements I read. I, too, believe that God cares deeply about us, that secret wrongdoing will be brought to light, and that Jesus has overcome the world. So why did these signs leave me feeling cold – even skeptical?

One of the key discoveries of the Quaker movement is that it is not enough to say the right words and believe the right doctrines. A statement can be true, yet spoken in a way that does not give life. The church signs I observed this morning were filled with insider-language, veiled threats and even statements that could be interpreted as self-congratulatory. These were messages designed – whether intentionally or not – primarily for the benefit of those who already believe, rather than as a genuine form of outreach to a world that does not follow Jesus.

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Unfortunately, even if the messages displayed on these signs were pitch-perfect to the experience and needs of those outside the Church, the very format of church signs may be problematic. Take, for example, the sign that I considered the most accessible: GOD CARES.

This is a message that our hurting, lonely world needs to hear. Yet, we increasingly live in an age that does not take these kind of statements very seriously. After all, what does it mean that God cares? Who is God? What does it mean to care? A simple statement like God cares actually carries a huge number of hidden assumptions. In a society like ours, where universal understandings about religious truth are increasingly a thing of the past, such a statement demands a conversation.

This is challenging, of course, because conversation takes a lot more time and energy than simply putting up a pithy statement on a church sign. It also requires vulnerability. Conversations are two-way streets, and when we authentically engage with the world around us, we have to expect that our own worldview will be changed. Just because Jesus Christ is the Truth doesn’t mean that all of our beliefs are! Are we willing to do the kind of honest searching that real conversation will demand of us?

What are ways that we can be engaging in genuine conversations with our neighbors, friends and co-workers? What does it look like for us to be open to the truth that the Holy Spirit is revealing to those who have not yet chosen to follow Jesus? Are we ready to have our lives, our communities, and the Church as a whole changed by the experience, needs and insights of the world that God so loves? One thing is for sure: We’ll need more than church signs.

Getting Off The Treadmill

My life can get pretty over-scheduled. From the moment I wake up until late in the evening, many days it seems that there’s no real end to my personal work treadmill. If I’m lucky, there are at least pauses along the way for me to catch my breath.

This has become the new normal. Many of us live at 110%, constantly connected to work through smartphones and computers. The line between personal life and work has become blurred beyond the point of recognition. Just getting through the day without going totally crazy can seem like a real accomplishment.

As if this weren’t enough, Holy Spirit calls us to serve our neighbors in ways that stretch us and take us outside of our comfort zones. Loving Jesus means demonstrating his love for people – often people who, quite frankly, wouldn’t be my first pick if I were doing the choosing.

Living into this calling is hard enough when I’m fully rested and have a lot of time on my hands, much less at the end of a long day at work when all I want to do is go home, eat some ice cream and watch Netflix. After spending my day at 110%, where can I find the strength and energy to linger at the fence, talking to my next door neighbor? Where do I find the motivation to invite co-workers out to dinner, or to mentor someone in their walk with Christ? What could motivate me to sacrifice my precious me time and instead focus on the needs of others?

In my own life, I’m discovering that if I really want to follow Jesus, I may have to reevaluate my 110% lifestyle. When I am so keyed into the very important things that I am up to, it is hard for me to switch gears and stay open to the unexpected opportunities that the Holy Spirit offers throughout the week. The wind doesn’t blow through a house with closed windows; in the same way, I have a much harder time experiencing and responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit when my life is completely locked down with a full agenda of pre-determined commitments and projects.

How can I leave space in my life for those unscheduled moments of connection and service? What would it look like if I lived my life at, say, 80%? What kind of changes might start to happen my life if I was more intentional about leaving an open space for the Holy Spirit to move and play? This might involve making less money, slowing down my career. It’s not called sacrifice for nothing!

But I wonder, what kind of joy might I experience if I began to step off of the accomplishment treadmill? What relief might I find in leaving space for God to order my days, rather than the demands of all my self-driven projects? How might it feel to re-focus my life around human relationships, caring for others who are struggling just like I am?

Ethnic Quakerism, Universal Messiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gospel For Hungry People

This Sunday at Capitol Hill Friends, we looked at Luke 10:1-24, the story of when Jesus sends out 72 of his disciples to go ahead of him into Samaria and share the good news: The kingdom of God has come near to you.

Jesus sends his followers out in utter vulnerability. He instructs them to take nothing with them for the journey – no money, no supplies, not even shoes! We know from the previous chapter that Samaria is not a safe place for the Jewish disciples. Rejection – possibly even violence – is a realistic expectation for these missionaries being sent into cross-cultural ministry. Jesus sends them out in pairs, so at least they have each other, but they’re basically defenseless.

As disciples of Jesus who find ourselves called to live in the midst of Empire, there is a great temptation to look for ways to protect ourselves. We live in a culture that is constantly retelling the story of domination: Money makes the world go ’round. Might makes right. You get what you deserve. It is an enormous challenge to remain open, to see the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst. And even when we can see it, the way of peace that we find ourselves called into by Jesus is so intensely counter-cultural that we have to wonder: Does following Jesus mean becoming a social outcast?

If Luke’s story is any indication, walking with Jesus will not make us popular. Our society’s mainstream is defined by those in the center – those who possess the most money, social influence and intelligence. These are the somebodys who run governments, direct economies, lead educational institutions and program the computers. Most of us want to be these people – to feel important and respected by the culture we live in.

Yet as followers of Jesus, we are called to move away from the shiny, important center and instead to inhabit the margins of our society. Our God scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He fills the poor with good things but sends the rich away empty. We follow the homeless Messiah who was born in a barn with animals and was rejected and murdered by all the important people of his day. We worship the God who pronounces woe to the rich, self-satisfied mockers who live at the center, but who announces blessing on the poor, hungry and those who mourn.

One of us at Capitol Hill Friends recently asked if our community is destined to be a fringe group, or whether there is a way for us to communicate the good news in a manner that appeals to the broader society. I think that this is a very good question, because there is a real tension about this in Scripture.

On the one hand, Jesus says clearly that his way is a narrow path that few will choose to walk in. Jesus models a hard-core prophetic ministry that few of us have the stomach for. On the other hand, Jesus calls us to share the good news with the whole world. He commands us to make disciples of all nations and to invite others to participate in the community that the Holy Spirit gathers in his name. So, which is it? Is the kingdom for a few, or for many?

The upside-down kingdom of Jesus is hard for a lot of folks to accept, especially those of us who who identify more with the prestigious center of our culture. Yet, despite the barriers that hold us back from accepting Jesus’ counter-cultural message, all things are possible with God. Even in the face of our natural tendency to shy away from his disorienting challenge, the Holy Spirit is working on our hearts and changing our lives.

As a community gathered around the radical teaching of Jesus, is Capitol Hill Friends ever going to be mainstream? From the perspective of the prestigious center, the answer is clearly no! As friends of the crucified Messiah, we are called into the margins and abandoned places where Jesus heals the sick, casts out demons and teaches the people. As followers in his way of gospel nonviolence, we are inevitably led to join him outside the gates of the city.

As friends of Jesus, we will necessarily be marginal from the perspective of the big shots in our society. Many respectable, mainstream people will consider us fringe. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we cannot have a big impact. The early Church in Jerusalem was a group on the margins – and it was also a thriving community of many thousands of people!

Then again, numerical growth is out of the question for a radical group like ours if we choose to play into the narrative of the mainstream culture. The good news of Jesus usually doesn’t sound very appealing to those in the center. But, to those on the margins, it is a breath of fresh air! How can we take this message to those who are ready to hear it?

We encounter hungry people everywhere we go. In every neighborhood and workplace, in every classroom and restaurant, there are those who are aching for the love, justice and power that Jesus offers us. Are we awake to it? How can we become more attentive to the signs of spiritual hunger and curiosity in those that we meet? How can we demonstrate the inexplicable love of Jesus to those around us, inviting them to come and see? What would it look like for us to get out of our comfort zone and take the good news to those who are ready to receive it?

 

Are You Lonely?

I recently read a post by Suzannah Paul, in which she reflects on her own experience of living in a culture of isolation. She describes the present era as one in which our common experience is intense loneliness, where genuine community seems always out of reach. Of course, most of us have become quite adept at hiding our anguish. Judging by photos on Facebook, one would imagine that almost everyone has dazzling social lives! The illusion that everyone else is doing great only intensifies the alienation we feel. Paul writes:

I suspect that there’s more of us [lonely, isolated folks] than we realize. Digital connection bridges some divides while camouflaging–and widening–others. Is loneliness the ironic, invisible thread connecting so many?

In my city, we are constantly surrounded by people, and yet the social emptiness can be almost palpable. Most of us self-medicate, in one way or another – typically with a burnout-enducing cycle of overwork and substance abuse. It doesn’t help that many DC residents are transient professionals who expect to be in the region for only a few years. Why bother putting down roots if they’ll all be ripped up the next time you switch jobs?

Suzannah Paul’s description of kids in her youth group sounds pretty familiar:

Getting [them] to come to stuff is harder than it used to be… They keep their options open, never committing; they’re averse to taking social risks.

In our city, social interactions are often transactional; even our friendships can come to feel like thinly veiled commerce. At the end of the day, what does it matter whether we are trading in money, influence, pleasure, or even the illusion of genuine care and friendship? Business is business. There will be time for real friends after the next move – right?

In a society where so often we are judged by our résumés, productivity, and reputation, unconditional love is unspeakably precious. Our hearts yearn for an experience of the economy of love that real community makes possible. Yet, this kind of love is impossible as long as we stay locked into the race for personal excellence. So long as we are held captive to the fear of missing out – of being left behind – we will never be able to truly meet one another. Real friendship is impossible as long as we relate to others as obstacles to be overcome or resources to be marshaled on the way to success. Could we discover a way life that is less about winning and more about giving?

I believe that answering this question – not just with words, but with lives of love, presence and generosity – lies at the heart of our mission as a community gathered in Jesus. How can we be truly present to those around us? What would it look like to step off of the success treadmill and embrace a life of service to others? How can we become agents of the kingdom where loneliness will be no more?

If we are to live fully into these questions, we will be forced to accept that we can no longer keep our options open. To live in love means to embrace limitation, to be made vulnerable, to take risks. Suzannah Paul writes that everyone long[s] for someone to reach back. Rather than waiting for others to reach out first, what if God is calling us to preemptively engage others with love and presence? What if, instead of looking to have our own loneliness cured, we focused on speaking to that same loneliness in the heart of another?

When we live into this kind of love and presence for others, we can be sure that we will no longer be alone: Christ will be in the midst with us.

 

Disciples Beyond the Classroom

By the end of my first semester in college, I was convinced that learning a foreign language was out of my reach. Though I had done alright in high school, my first college-level Spanish course knocked me flat. It got so bad, in fact, that I ended up taking it pass/fail, and I barely squeaked by with credit. Clearly, I was no good at learning languages!

The following year, however, I spent seven months living and studying in Mexico. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, exposing me to a culture totally distinct from my own. I fell in love with the people, places and heritage of Mexico, and I will always carry them with me.

Not to mention that my Spanish language proficiency improved dramatically. My semester abroad began with several weeks of intensive language instruction to bring me up to a passable conversational level, and for most of my seven months abroad I spoke almost exclusively in Spanish. By the time I returned for the fall semester in Kansas, I was ready to take – and pass! – Spanish literature classes. I realized that I was actually quite good at learning languages!

So what changed? When I finally did succeed in gaining Spanish-language competency, it was because I was operating in my native learning style. I am a kinesthetic learner, but almost all of the classroom methods of instruction were oriented towards audio/visual. The vocabulary sheets and recorded conversations seemed to work great for some people, but not for me. I needed to connect with real human interactions, real relationships, if I wanted to effectively learn how to speak and comprehend. I had to get out of the classroom, to be put in a situation where I could just do it.

Many times, our church communities feel a lot like the classroom. We get our audio/visual presentations, study written materials and cultivate our knowledge of Bible facts. Our eyes and ears are filled with all sorts of good things. But, for kinesthetic learners like me, it is the doing that really drives the message home.

I have read the books and pamphlets; I have heard the sermons and sung the hymns. These resources have enriched me and given me lots of food for thought, yet at the end of the day I sometimes still feel like an undergraduate who has emerged with his BA only to find that he has no practical skills or experience that apply to a career.

Do our Christian communities, with our classroom-style ways, risk similar irrelevance? Are we preparing one another for careers as disciples to Jesus? After years of Sunday School, are we any better equipped to make disciples and share the good news of Christ’s kingdom? Or have we just become better-versed in how to do church?

What are ways that we can equip one another to live as disciples and engage in the practical work of the gospel in our cities and towns? How can we get outside our comfort zone and embrace the immersion experience – the real-life baptism – that our faith demands of us?

The Last Quaker Standing

Not too long after becoming a Quaker, I remember hearing an inspiring story. I was told that there was once a Friends Meeting that had at once been a vibrant community. The meetinghouse was built to hold several hundred people, and at some point – perhaps a hundred years ago – it had been filled to overflowing.

But times changed. For a variety of reasons, the community shrank dramatically, and by the turn of this century, there were only a few elderly members left. Finally, even these last few members died or moved away to retirement communities, leaving only a single old man as an active member!

Not so inspiring, huh? But wait – there’s more! While most people would have given up and found somewhere else to worship, the last remaining member of this Meeting made a different choice. Rather than joining some other community, he just kept on attending, all by himself. Each week, he drove down to the meetinghouse, opened up the doors and sat for an hour of silent worship. Alone.

Here’s the inspiring part: After a while, things began to change. Week after week, the last elderly member of this Friends Meeting sat alone on the facing bench, holding a silent vigil, but one Sunday morning, a young family arrived. They appreciated the hour of silence, a respite from their busy lives. To the old man’s surprise, the family came back the next week. And the next. Somehow the word seemed to get out about this little meetinghouse and its unique style of silent worship. Soon, there were several families and individuals attending.

The triumphant conclusion of the story, as I remember it, is this: Today, the meeting has thirty or forty attenders, and is an active part of the Yearly Meeting.

I don’t know how this story strikes you, but when it was first told to me, I found it encouraging. All around me, I saw Quaker churches dwindling down to fewer than a dozen participants, low on energy, enthusiasm and hope. But that did not have to be the end! This story taught me that one faithful person, resolute in trust and commitment, could hold the space and encourage the restoration of the community.

This story especially encouraged me because it fit into the narrative that I was already learning as a new Quaker. The idea of the Religious Society of Friends as being a faithful remnant is widespread, especially among the more traditionalist Friends that I was running with. In the faithful remnant conception, our job is to remain true to the tradition, even if it means apparent decline. If our communities are struggling, it must be a problem with our faith – or, more likely, with the world! – certainly not with our traditions.

I have heard the story of the old man and the meetinghouse on several occasions, in slightly different forms, and I have come to wonder to what extent this story is based in fact. Does it simply reflect the collective wish-fulfillment of an entire extended community that has not experienced real growth in centuries? Whether or not it is based in fact, I am increasingly convinced that this story is a false one, and that the remnant theory is holding us back from the becoming the people that God is calling us to be.

The reality is, for every church that experiences revival after dwindling down to a handful of members, many more congregations simply die off. I watched this happen before my eyes during the three years I lived in Indiana. Friends churches were dropping like flies in the summer heat. Across the developed world, most of our congregations are caught in a death-spiral of declining participation and a sense of stuck-ness that we seem unable to pull ourselves out of.

In times like these, one stubborn old man opening up the meetinghouse is the last thing we need! Even less do we need fading communities of entrenched Quakers who value the imagined glories of ancient Quakerism more than the new and living opportunities that God is calling us to in this very moment.

To be clear, I am not equating numerical growth with faithfulness. The size of our communities will vary, and some communities are undoubtedly intended to be smaller than others. But no one I know believes that most of our Quaker communities today are in a healthy place. We could become small and fruitful – but God does indeed expect us to bear fruit!

I do not say any of this out of disdain for the many thousands who are stuck in this place; I am, myself, a recovering stubborn Quaker. What I needed – and what I believe many of us still need – is a wake-up call. Our dogged commitment to the old forms and specialized vocabularies of sectarian Quakerism is not serving us well – and it serves our neighbors even less.

Our world is crying out for us to emerge from the meetinghouse and engage with our towns and cities as they are, not as we wish they were. If we are to be disciples of Jesus – imitating his love, grace and truth – we have to go where the people are, especially those people who are least likely to feel welcomed by our pious forms and churchy words.

How do we change the story? What if we imagine instead that the old man shuts the doors of the meetinghouse and goes to join a neighboring church that is engaged in ministry to the poor? Or maybe he doesn’t leave at all – but he starts reaching out to his neighbors proactively, seeing what the real needs are in his community. Perhaps the Quaker Meeting becomes something very different than he ever imagined it could be.

There are probably hundreds of alternative scenarios in which the lone member of this imaginary Friends Meeting goes out into the world to bless others and make disciples. All of these scenarios require radical change on the part of this last Quaker standing. And this is good news.