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What Does Solidarity Mean?

What Does Solidarity Mean?

I grew up with a weird mix of influences. My parents were pastors of an Evangelical Friends Church in Wichita, Kansas. They were also radical social justice activists who were getting into all sorts of trouble with mainstream Christian culture. In the early 90s, they were taking me along to gay pride rallies. They trespassed at the local Air Force Base and stood on railroad tracks to block the transport of nuclear weapons. They involved me in creative protests at stores selling violent toys. My parents taught me that it was the duty of Christians to disobey unjust laws and reject violence – whether by individuals or the state.

My family straddled two worlds that are often kept apart: Biblically-based Christian discipleship, and radical movements for social transformation. It wasn’t until later that I would understand just how unusual, and amazing, this early training was. I got exposed to the nonviolent principles of Gandhi and King, as well as to a variety of other radical ideologies not explicitly based in the gospel. I absorbed all of this side by side with a reading of the Bible that emphasized God’s love for the poor and Jesus’ invitation to participate in a new social, political, and economic order.

Growing up in this milieu, I heard the word “solidarity” a lot. To be honest, I never quite figured out what it meant. It was a nice word to throw into an email to make myself sound a little more radical, but my understanding never went much beyond that. “Solidarity” was an insider word that helped signal that I was part of the movement.

The first time I truly began to grasp the meaning of the word “solidarity” was during the Occupy movement. Thousands of like-hearted people were coming together to make immediate, concrete change in our society. This was a new experience for me, on a whole new order of magnitude from the what I had seen before. It opened my eyes to what solidarity could mean in practice.

Suddenly, I was part of a community so much bigger than myself, a movement whose total focus was the transformation of the world, now. We made decisions together, we prepared food and tried to stay warm. When the police attacked, we all felt it. We were so identified with one another than an assault on another occupier felt like a personal slap in the face. “Solidarity” wasn’t just some convenient movement word anymore; it had taken on flesh and bone. We were ready to suffer and sacrifice for one another. We believed we could change the world through our endurance. And we did.

I find it striking how this experience of solidarity parallels with the story of the early church and other movements of the Holy Spirit. Solidarity corresponds to that sense of being “one body” that Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians. Communities gathered together by the Holy Spirit experience this kind of organic unity: a readiness to prioritize love for one another over personal fear and ambition.

For the thousands of us forever changed by our experiences in the Occupy movement, we know that solidarity is a key ingredient. It’s like salt, without which our lives have very little flavor. Yet solidarity is such a rare thing for many of us. It’s a reality that is lacking almost completely from middle-class American culture. We’re individuals. We don’t rely on one another. We’re not knit together as one fabric.

And why should we be? We don’t share one mission. Each of us looks out for our own interests – our careers and families, dreams for the future conceived of in personal rather than collective terms. At times it seems that there is nothing uniting us but shared consumption. But in the words of Charles Eisenstein: “Joint consumption doesn’t create intimacy. Only joint creativity and gifts create intimacy and connection.”

It’s time to break out of this middle class trap of fear and consumptive materialism. We’re invited to experience solidarity, which breaks down the barriers between us and creates genuine community. When we become friends of Jesus, we discover the true meaning of unity. Based in shared mission, gifts, and care for one another, we are drawn together as one body in his Spirit. Living as members of one another, we can discover a life that goes beyond the hungry selfishness of consumerism.

Are you ready to open yourself to this journey of discipleship together with me? The Holy Spirit is present to break your shackles and fill you with life. You have nothing to lose but your fear.

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Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

The Beginning is Near: Occupy DC 4 Years Later

Take a Break for Beauty

Take a Break for Beauty

There’s a reason that all the most important American holidays are towards the end of the year. The light is growing dimmer, our skies are overcast, and the leaves are falling off the trees. Everything seems to conspire to make these days dreary and devoid of color. And we’re not even to winter yet. We need all the encouragement we can get. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas – our celebrations get bigger as we move into the darkest days of the year.

Here where I live, it’s been raining, misting, and spritzing for the last several days. A cold drizzle to accent the mid-afternoon twilight. Lethargic from the weather and unable to concentrate on my work, I decided to take a little break. I went for a walk in a part of town I’m less familiar with. I decided to get outside and see what I could see, rain or no rain.

I was well-rewarded. Just a few minutes into my walk, I took a random turn down a dead-end street and found myself at the entrance to a wooded nature trail I didn’t even know existed.

Setting foot on that path, something shifted inside me. The soggy leaves squished under my feet and raindrops splashed me from treetops. The air had changed. The sights, sounds, and smells of the city were suddenly far away. I was enveloped by a sense of peace and presence.

There was life here.

The dim, inanimate world that I had inhabited just a few minutes ago had been transformed. The rocks and moss under my feet seemed to breathe beneath me. The trees welcomed me into their forest. In a flash, the world had been re-enchanted. The land was alive, and I was a part of it.

I would have lingered there on the trail as long as daylight remained, but I had to return to work. Still, the sensation of aliveness remained with me for the rest of the day. When the darkness seemed too much to bear, all I had to do was remember myself standing on that wooded path, flanked by the mossy trees. I was rooted again in a community of living beings that thrives even in the short, dim, rainy days of late fall.

I’m grateful that I took the time to go exploring. I’m glad I took a break for beauty. There’s so much more to this existence than meets the eye. Life is here, all around us, if we’re willing to see it.

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I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

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A Baptism of Humility

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Is John Boehner Right? Are There False Prophets in Congress?

Is Boehner Right? Are There False Prophets in Congress?

Just a day after welcoming Pope Francis, House Majority Leader John Boehner announced that he will step down from his role in Congress at the end of October. It’s a startling announcement that has caught almost everyone in Washington off-guard. Boehner’s resignation is being widely interpreted as a sign of just how irrational and divisive American politics has become.

This weekend, Boehner was making the rounds of TV news, explaining the current situation in Congress. He talked about how he plans to spend his last month in office, now freed of any need to protect himself politically. With nothing to fear at this point from far-right challengers, Boehner painted a dire picture of the spiritual state of the 114th Congress.

Boehner is engaging with this whole situation on a spiritual level. I was really struck by an interview that Boehner did with Face the Nation this Sunday morning, where he referenced the Bible, and referred to some of his fellow House members as false prophets. Check it out:

What Boehner is basically saying is that some Republicans are willing to say virtually anything to play to their far-right base. Despite the fact that they are clearly not going to be able to repeal Obamacare, or defund Planned Parenthood, for example, they’re publicly committed to doing just that. And they’re willing to shut down the federal government for prolonged periods, doing potentially huge damage to the US economy and reputation.

As I watched this video, I had several questions. First of all: How do we know the difference between false prophets and true ones? Prophets are uncompromising figures, and they’re often considered unrealistic. So how can we tell when someone has crossed the line from boldly challenging the status quo, to being a person who intentionally distorts reality and gains power through empty promises?

Another question: How much compromise should we want from our elected officials? For me personally, I’m happy when I see politicians who stand on principle and don’t back down from doing what is right, even when there are political costs. But there’s definitely a distinction between working strategically for justice and simply being obstructionist in order to create a self-serving spectacle. How can we tell which is happening?

And finally: Where is God in all of this? Clearly John Boehner feels that he’s been through some pretty significant spiritual discernment on this whole question, and he’s decided to walk away from the mess in Congress. Where does that leave us? What responsibility do you and I have to engage in the increasingly bogged-down world of US politics? What are other ways that we might find God calling us to make a positive impact in a world that is desperately in need of change? How can we find a path beyond the culture wars, coming to unity rather than compromise?

I the video below, I have a conversation with Nathan Hosler of the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness. During our talk, we consider what it means to be friends of Jesus in a society where false prophets hold positions of power and influence. We explore what each of us can do to be truthful and loving in the midst of a society that has largely lost its moral compass.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions, and whatever other reactions John Boehner’s resignation elicits for you. Please share in the comments below!

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6 Ways to Tell if God is Speaking to You

Not Sure If I'm Thinking Or If God is Talking to Me

Don’t know how to tell if God is talking to you? It’s a common problem.

When I was a kid, folks at church taught me that God speaks to each one of us. I learned about Moses talking with the Burning Bush, and Paul’s blinding encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. These stories were inspiring, but they seemed so different from anything in my experience. I never heard voices, saw lights, or witnessed shrubberies bursting into flame and giving me terrifying instructions. (If I had, I’m sure my parents would have taken me to the psychiatrist immediately.)

It took me a long time to understand that God can speak in many ways, many of them far less flashy than the miracles recorded in the Bible. For me, I know God best through a deep intuitive knowing. A sense of truth and rightness beyond words. Still, that’s pretty subjective. It’s often hard to know for sure when I’m receiving a message from God, and when I’m lending way too much credence to my own personal feels.

In this post, I’ll lay out some time-tested criteria that Quakers and other Christians use to gain a better sense of whether a message in our lives is coming from God, or another source.

Moral Purity

The first test is that of moral purity. To carry out this test, just ask yourself honestly: This thing that you think God is telling you to do – would a kind, loving, fair person do that thing? If the answer is no, the message you’re sensing may not be from a divine source.

Patience

If the leading you’re sensing is morally upright, that’s a positive sign. Still, even good things can be twisted if not done for the right reasons. Another way to get a sense of whether the leading is from God is to see whether it is patient. Urgency is often a sign of the ego, rather than divine calling. Ask yourself: Do I have to act on this concern right now? Is it possible for me to wait? Will this leading still be valid in a day, a week, a month?

Consistency with the Bible

A third way to test a leading is to examine it in light of Scripture. Does your sense of God’s call mesh with the broad witness of the Bible? This is a complicated matter, because the Bible does not set out detailed instructions on every possible matter of discernment. Nevertheless, it’s good to check whether the leading seems consistent with the general thrust of the biblical witness. For example, leaving your spouse for another romantic partner might seem like a good idea, but a quick examination of the Gospels reveals that Jesus expressly spoke against this.

Resonance with Tradition

Of course, the Bible is best read and discerned together in community. The church community has produced tradition that can be helpful in evaluating possible divine promptings. It’s good practice to ask: How has your community handled this kind of leading before? Is this the kind of action that other respected members of the community – past or present – have engaged in? Just because a leading deviates sharply from the past practice of the community does not mean that it is wrong, but it is definitely a good reason to proceed with care.

Unity

Another very helpful test of a leading can be to share it with your community in Christ. Let them bring their discernment to the matter. This can be especially helpful with big leadings that tend to impact the community as a whole. Willingness to submit your leading to the discernment of the church is a sign of patience, which bodes well for the authenticity of the message.

The Cross

One other traditional test for possible divine leadings is whether it crosses our own will. That is, does this leading go against the grain of your personality? Is it something you would like to do for your own reasons, or does it actively contradict your self-will? A leading that calls you to confront your fears and engage with people and situations you would normally avoid is more likely to be genuine.

No Guarantees!

I’ve found these tests for useful in my own discernment, but there is no silver bullet. All of them can be gamed by the ego, whether the individual’s or the community’s. However, by taking the time to test our sense of God’s leading in these ways, it’s more likely that we’ll hear and respond in a way that brings us closer to God and blesses our life together.

How about you? What ways have you found to tell the difference between your own ego and the will of God?

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It’s All About Discipleship

This past weekend I was up in Philadelphia for an East Coast Gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. The gathering was an excellent opportunity for me to deepen relationships with local leaders in Philadelphia. It also turned out to be a chance to clarify our core mission and values as a fellowship.

Early in our time together, Hoot Williams had all of us fill out a values audit. There were about thirty values for us to select from – things like justice for the poor, community, equality, and strong families. Each of us was asked to rank our top twelve personal values, and then to share which values emerged as our personal top five.

As a last step in this process, we went around again and took note of which values showed up the most in our personal top fives. It was amazing how much overlap there was for most of us, and it was pretty easy to determine which values were the group’s top five. Here’s the list we came up with:

  • 1. Discipleship/Servant-Leadership
  • 2. Creativity & Innovation
  • 3. Community
  • 4. Outreach/Evangelism
  • 5. “All People Matter to God”/Equality

If we had made a top six list, worship would have certainly been there, too.

Simply taking a look at these values was very enlightening for those of us present. It said a lot about our community that we made the choices that we did, and we felt a strong sense of unity around the values that God is calling us to live into together.

Over the course of the day, that sense of unity only deepened. By our last session, we were realizing that while each of these values are important to us, the value of discipleship is probably most core to who we are and the way we are called to be Friends of Jesus. In our commitment to creativity & innovation, our times of community, our efforts at outreach, and in our witness that all people matter to God, our objective is always to bring people into a relationship of practical discipleship to Jesus.

In all of our activities, we seek to be and make disciples who have the nuts-and-bolts training and encouragement to make the kingdom of God visible – showing God’s love to others, working for justice, and equipping others to walk in this way of Jesus. We share a strong sense that everything we do as a community ultimately points back to the path of discipleship.

What are your personal core values, and those of the communities you belong to? Is the work of making and sending disciples central to the mission of your church? If not, what is? And if so, how are you acting as a community to nurture the path of discipleship, teaching one another how to be friends of Jesus in all aspects of life?

Community: What is the Point?

Quaker musician and minister Jon Wattspublished another provocative blog post on Friday, entitled Support A Minister. Sell Your Meetinghouse. In his characteristically passionate style, Jon is calling on the Quaker community to step up to the plate and support the ministry that God is raising up in our midst. He insists that genuine, Spirit-led ministry requires real commitment, not just on the part of the minister, but also from the wider community.

For many Quakers, the idea that we should financially support ministry is a radical concept. The truth is, we often struggle with providing even basic counsel and spiritual care for our budding young ministers. Rising generations have a deep need for mentoring, love and guidance – a need that often goes unmet for a variety of reasons.
In some cases, our communities may not have the spiritual depth to provide this kind of care. Other times, we might shy away from providing explicit guidance for the lives of others, fearing the appearance of hierarchy or rigid dogma. So often, our capacity to guide and care for the emerging gifts in our midst is simply overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
If providing basic spiritual care and oversight for ministry is often challenging for us, providing financial support can be even harder. We are caught in the economic stranglehold of the Great Recession, and most of us are looking for ways to reduce costs and hold on to the little bit we have left. Even in more prosperous times, financial support for ministry could be a hard sell. Now is a particularly unfavorable moment to make a pitch for financially released ministry.
Yet the crisis facing the Quaker community today is not primarily financial. As a group, North American Quakers have all the money we need. Scarcity – at least for the time being – is not the issue. The real question facing us has to do with what it means to be a community in the 21st century.
For Quakers, the definition of community has been unraveling for at least 150 years. At one time, Friends lived under a tight code of community discipline, similar in many ways to the modern-day practices of the Amish or Conservative Mennonites. Being a member of a Quaker Meeting meant submitting to a strict code of dress, behavior and speech. It also meant participation in an intense form of solidarity with the other members of the community. If the Meeting determined that a minister had been led by God to travel in the service of the gospel, Friends would financially support that minister and her family for the duration of her travels. Ministerial trips frequently lasted for months – even years.

Our way of life has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. At this point, “community” is a vague term that can mean almost anything, and even the most traditionalist Friends come nowhere close to the level of shared commitment, discipline and solidarity that once characterized our Meetings. Indeed, the basis of our congregations has become so weakened that in many places the very idea of formal membership is being challenged. What is the point of formally joining a Quaker Meeting?

This is a legitimate question. In most cases, our communities are a pale reflection of the robust network of relationships, mutual support and obligations that once characterized our fellowships. When formal membership no longer represents significant commitment, it is quite reasonable to ask: What is the point?

I think that we as Friends would do well to sit with this question, without seeking to answer it too quickly, because it strikes to the heart of our shared crisis today. Clearly, the structures of historic Quakerism do not work the way they once did. The Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meeting no longer have the same power to draw us in and command our attention. Why is this?

Jon Watts writes about the ministry of prophetic music, saying, “I want to say that I don’t see it as myministry. It is yours. You tell me what to do with it.” Who is Jon talking to? Who is the community that Jon is seeking to be accountable to? As best I can tell, Jon is speaking to “all Friends everywhere.” In his desire to be faithful, answerable and supported, Jon has reached out to everyone.
But “everyone” is not a community, in concrete terms. In the Quaker tradition, members of communities make concrete commitments to one another, and stick to them even when it is uncomfortable; even when there is fierce disagreement. Members of Christian communities love one another, not merely because of momentary passion, but because we sense that God has knit us together into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We become a body. The body of Christ.

We all long for this. Our hearts ache for this true community – the fellowship we find when we are drawn together into something bigger than ourselves. This experience of unity, love and shared purpose in the Spirit is the basis for all support, shared discernment and accountability. It is the foundation upon which sustainable ministry is built.

Do our centuries-old systems of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings still serve as useful containers for this experience? Is formal membership, as it functions in many of our local congregations today, an aid or a hindrance to the uniting power of the Holy Spirit? Do the ways that we gather together amplify the voice of Christ within, or do our inherited forms threaten to block the continuing revelation of Jesus?

Jon Watts suggests that we should sell our meetinghouses and use the proceeds to support Spirit-led ministry. That is an exciting idea. But we may need to go even further. What would it look like to re-imagine our formal structures as Friends? What would a 21st-century understanding of membership look like? Of gospel ministry and eldership? Of mutual support and accountability under the direct leadership of Christ?

What if selling the meetinghouse is just the beginning?