Archive for March 2013

Supreme Court Debates Same-Sex Marriage – Should We?

I was raised in a household that was openly affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folks long before that was commonplace in American society. In the early 1990s, I joined my parents in gay rights rallies and parades in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up with GLBT folks in my community, and my parents encouraged me to watch movies and read books about the devastation that was being caused by a deadly combination of a virulent AIDS virus, and an equally virulent homophobia that permeated much of our culture. I was raised to be an ally.

Marriage equality has always been a no-brainer for me. As a child, I got to see my father and another important leader in my church have their ministerial credentials revoked by the Quaker Church because of their openly expressed conviction that gay relationships were not inherently sinful. The fact that they came to this conclusion out of a process of prayer and serious engagement with what the Bible says (and does not say) about homosexuality did not seem to matter. They were run out of my childhood church like heretics.

So why do I feel so conflicted about the current debate happening at (and outside of) the Supreme court?

We have clearly reached a tipping point in our country. There is little doubt that, sooner or later, gay marriage will be the law of the land. Just as surely as “states’ rights” ultimately could not trump the civil rights of black citizens in the 50’s and 60’s, the vigorous objections of a religious minority cannot long hold back the recognition by most Americans that gay folk deserve the same fair treatment that heterosexuals are entitled to. I should be overjoyed – and many ways I am! – so why do I feel so uneasy?

I feel all churned up inside, and I feel pain when I see pictures, read articles or hear stories about the debates happening in and around the US Supreme Court this week. The court may soon make a ruling that could have a profound impact on the rights of LGBT folks in this country, ensuring that all spouses enjoy the same protections under the law. And that would be wonderful! So, why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

I think the reason I feel so disturbed is because I can see myself in both sides of this argument. I am overjoyed that my gay brothers and sisters may soon be afforded full protection under the law, freedom to live their lives in peace and build healthy families. I think of my friends who have suffered from the lack of societal recognition and legal protection that my wife and I enjoy. I want them to be embraced and respected by civil society.

At the same time, I recoil from the rights language that so many advocates of gay equality have chosen to embrace. Though some of us have certainly chosen to make a moral argument for gay liberation, the overall conversation – especially from the liberation side – has mostly been cast in terms of legalities and appeals to human reason. The wisdom of this world.

While I profoundly disagree with the conclusions, reasoning and underlying assumptions of those who oppose marriage equality, I cannot help but feel that they, too, bring an important perspective that is being lost. I hear the voices that are crying out today – “But what about righteousness?” – and I know in my heart that this is the right question.

I believe that God creates people with gay orientation for a reason. I am convicted that God loves and blesses gay people and gay marriages. But if the best we can do as the Church is to back up some secular agenda (whether pro- or anti-gay equality), speaking in rights language and arguing legalities, we fall short of the Kingdom of God. I wonder what our country would look like if all of us – regardless of our beliefs surrounding gay marriage – would seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.

What if we as a nation humbled ourselves to seek God’s way? I am convinced that we would find ourselves drawn into a society where steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. If we opened ourselves to seeking the love and truth of Jesus, I feel certain that not only would we affirm marriage equality, we would also affirm the basic moral impulses that currently lead some to conclude that homosexuality is wrong. Can we imagine a society in which we would have the courage to lay down our need to be right in order to seek God’s righteousness?

All of this is not to say that there is not a struggle ahead. In any movement for justice there will be struggle, and we have an obligation to participate. As followers of Jesus Christ, we must lend our prophetic voice to the call for gay liberation. But can we do this from a posture of firm, unyielding love and a humble seeking after God’s will for our society? What would that look like? If anything, I suspect it would look a lot more creative than the public debate we are witnessing now.

Pastor? Community Organizer!

As long as I have been a Christian, I have been skeptical of the pastoral system. Though I am not critical of pastors themselves, I do have a fair amount of discomfort with the idea that one person should be singled out as “the minister,” with the rest of the church relegated to support roles. You could say that I am especially committed to the concept of the priesthood of all believers, the responsibility that each one of us has for living as disciples of Jesus.

Though there are certainly dangers in the single-pastor model, I have also observed that when leadership is everyone’s job, it often becomes no one’s job. In my experience, a lack of explicitly recognized leadership can be a mask for hidden and informal structures that, when dysfunctional, cannot be questioned. It is extremely difficult to critique faulty leadership in a community that does not admit to having leaders! I have been part of communities where the refusal or inability to recognize and empower Spirit-led leadership has resulted in conflict, dysfunction and stagnation.

In spite of the risks that I see in the traditional pastoral model, I cannot deny the advantages of designating particular individuals as leaders within the community. At the same time, the single-pastor pattern of many churches just does not seem to work very well in our present situation, if it ever did. The work of the church is simply too great a burden for any one person to carry.

I am increasingly convinced that we need a way forward that is trapped neither in the informal power structures that can suffocate and stagnate our communities, nor in a pastoral system in which all responsibility and decision-making is vested in one person. What might an alternative model look like?

What if we expanded the idea of what it means to be a pastor? In your typical Christian community, it is often expected that perhaps one person out of 100 will be a pastor. What would happen if we expected that number to be more like one in 10?

This is the basic idea of the cell church model that Capitol Hill Friends is experimenting with. Each small group has a leader who functions as a pastor for the 6-12 people in that group, working alongside an apprentice leader and another person designated as the group’s host. The small group leader’s main jobs are to care for the members of the group, encourage each person to develop their spiritual gifts, and to provide mentoring and training to an apprentice leader, who is preparing to become a leader of her own small group.

Operating under this sort of cell church model, a church of 100 people should have 10 pastors, 10 pastors in training, and 10 people who take responsibility for coordinating logistics. Of course, you may ask, what about the other 70 people? Are they just spectators?

No way! Consider the power of having 30% of our community consistently focusing their attention on identifying, encouraging and releasing the spiritual gifts of each individual under their care. With this encouragement, we can expect to see the development of a variety of gifts – evangelism, prayer, practical helps, administration, teaching, music and prophetic (justice-oriented) ministry, among others. In this model, the role of the leaders, apprentice leaders and hosts is primarily to equip the whole community to operate in their gifts, each one carrying out a particular function as God directs.

In effect, the small group leaders take on the role of community organizers. Their job is to help the whole congregation to discover how to work all by itself under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Rather than expecting a single pastor to take all the initiative, the leaders of each small group encourage every individual to find her place in the body. In this way, small group leaders help to create an environment where truly congregation-led leadership can happen.

What has been your own experience? Has your community operated more in a single-leader model, an informal leadership style, or perhaps in some other model? Have you noticed what gives some communities healthier leadership dynamics than others? What patterns do you see? How would you like to see our communities handle leadership going forward?

A Church In Recovery

I just read a really solid blog post from James Tower, a seminary student at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Oregon. He writes about his lifelong experience of recovery from addiction, and gives us a glimpse into his journey through Alcoholics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery (Rick Warren’s version of AA), and the Quaker Church. He takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of both AA and the Christian Church, and he provides some perspective on how we as followers of Jesus could learn from the guiding principles of the recovery community.

For me, Jame’s post comes as a lighting strike. Just a couple days ago, I had a long conversation with folks from Capitol Hill Friends about AA and how we might incorporate some of its principles into our life together. We felt that the 12 Steps of AA were deeply resonant the Christian faith, encouraging real confession and practical transformation. I began to think about what it might look like to use the 12 Steps as a basis for our group’s curriculum. I wondered if there was a way to bring the powerful principles of AA back into the Church.

How amazing that less than 48 hours later Jame’s post shows up in my RSS reader! Just as I begin consider what it might look like to engage with AA principles from an explicitly Christ-centered perspective, I am handed this seasoned set of reflections grounded in an experience of both the recovery community and the Quaker Church.

I will not try to re-hash Jame’s post here. I encourage you to read it for yourself. Having read it, I would like us to engage in a conversation about how we might move forward together as a people in recovery, with Jesus as our Higher Power. Could we come to a place where we recognize the need of every person to be freed from addiction, “turning our lives and wills over to the care of God”? Could we have the courage to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” and “admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”? What power might be released into our lives if we “humbly asked God to remove all our shortcomings” and “made direct amends [to those whom we have harmed] whenever possible.”?

What a compelling and life-giving gospel that would be! Of course we would want to “carry this message to others and practice these principles in all our affairs”!

Get Out Of The Way!

In the Quaker tradition, knowing when and whether to speak during worship is an important practice. Sometimes, for example, as I wait in silent worship, a good idea comes to me. It might be a great thought, but if it is not something that God is calling on me to share with the group, I need to let it go and leave space for someone else who is inspired by God to speak.

We all mess up sometimes, of course, and occasionally a person will rise and speak when they really should have remained silent. Usually, this poorly-discerned contribution in worship is not particularly harmful. A spiritually grounded group of worshipers can handle unhelpful speaking quite well, without it unduly affecting the quality of the worship.

The most important reason that we must have discernment when speaking is not the risk that our speaking might upset the group; instead, it is because our poorly-timed words might get in the way of the true message that God wants us to hear. For example, there have been times that I have had a clear message from the Lord to share, yet just as I was about to deliver it, another individual stood up and shared a good idea. Though it was certainly not their intention, they unknowingly blocked the work of the Spirit in the group.

In the old days, Friends called this phenomenon damaging another’s service. The greatest risk in ministry is not that we will say the wrong thing, but instead that we might prevent another person from delivering the inspired, God-breathed message for that particular moment.

The traditional Quaker meeting for worship is sort of like a spiritual fire drill. It is a rehearsal in discernment, learning when to speak and when to be silent; when to act and when to be still. These same principles of discernment apply in the rest of our lives, in the work that we do out in the world and in the roles and relationships that we live in. Do I take care to be discerning about how both my action and lack of action impacts the life of my community?

Am I damaging another’s service by taking on tasks that are not mine to do? Do I block the work of the Holy Spirit by interjecting my own ideas when it would be better to listen?

Pope Francis: A Social Justice Pope?

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that we are observing a pivotal moment in church history. Benedict has self-consciously acted as a transitional pope, living to see his own successor. And for the last few weeks I and millions of others have wondered: Where does this transition lead?
That is still an open question, but the answer began to take shape yesterday when the assembled cardinals emerged to announce,habemus papam. The newest pope is Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

The new pontiff is a groundbreaking figure. He is the first pope from the New World, and the first in a millennium to be born outside of Europe. He is also the first man from the Jesuit order to be elected to the papacy. Finally, he is one of the few popes in recent centuries to take a totally new name:Francis.

This name captures my attention the most. Bergoglio is a deeply conservative leader, doctrinally speaking. He has stood resolutely against any liberalization of abortion laws in his native Argentina, and he has spoken out against gay relationships. As a cardinal appointed by Pope John Paul II, none of this is very surprising. Neither John Paul nor Benedict were in the habit of appointing progressive cardinals.

What is intriguing is that Bergoglio has a reputation for being concerned with social justice. The journalistic coverage so far has told a story of a cardinal who has forgone many of the privileges associated with his rank in the church hierarchy. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he reportedly chose a modest apartment rather than the palatial quarters to which he was entitled. It is said that he cooks for himself, though it is normal for a man of his station to have a private chef. Rather than taking a chauffeured car, it is said that he regularly rides public transport.

And he has chosen the name Francis, naming himself after a man who embraced total poverty, living in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and outcast; a man who sought a fraternal relationship with all of creation and, it is said, bore the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion in his own body. This is a startlingly radical name for a pope!

At this stage, it is hard to know what, precisely this name might signal. Does Bergoglio aspire to lead his church into an imitation of Francis’ radical poverty and submission to Christ’s suffering? Is the new pope as concerned with communion and care for the creation as Francis of Assisi? Could Pope Francis be a pivotal figure in the history of the Church, helping to guide the Church to an understanding of our faith that is more deeply rooted in dedication to social and environmental justice?

The very fact that Bergoglio is doctrinally conservative could make him the right man to lead this transition. In this deeply divided age, liberals are not expected to care about personal morality and conservatives are not expected to concern themselves with social justice and environmental stewardship. But what if this pope has the courage and faith to embrace both concerns at once? What a powerful leader he might be!

As Pope Francis ascends to the papacy, I dare to hope for a man who will unite many of the warring tendencies within the Roman Catholic Church. I pray for a man who can, with humility, tenderness and love, uphold the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life, the obscenity of war and the importance of personal holiness. At the same time, I dare to dream that this pope might also use all of the power and influence at his disposal to make the Church a prophetic voice in an age of global empire, standing firm against the powers of economic injustice, militarism and environmental destruction.

So much remains to be seen, and I am aware that in a year’s time I may look back at this blog post and grimace. But for the time being, it feels right to nurture hope. I will pray for this new pope, that he will live up to his namesake and bear the marks of Christ’s suffering poor in his body. And I will pray that we will have the courage to join him in bearing that burden.

God Is More Than A Feeling

Quakers sometimes have a tough time knowing what to do with emotions. For most of our history, we have been highly suspicious of anything resembling emotionalism. Still today, when we make decisions together, the presence of strong emotions is sometimes taken as a signal that we are not yet fully submitted to Christ’s will.

Our ingrained reticence towards emotion may seem surprising, since Quakerism is among the more experientially-oriented expressions of the Christian tradition. At the core of the Quaker movement is a conviction that the only solid basis of mature Christian faith is a lived relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is through a direct encounter with the risen presence of Jesus that we come to understand the meaning of the Scriptures and tradition that have been handed down to us from previous generations of disciples. For Friends, to be a Christian is to literally become a follower of Jesus – experiencing him as Teacher in our daily lives.

But what does experience mean? It is easy to imagine that Friends’ emphasis on experiential faith would lead to emotionalism. When we talk about having an experience of Jesus, we might mean having an emotional response to a sermon, a Scripture reading, or another – perhaps more mundane – event in our lives. Experience might just a code word for the human emotional response.

But in reality, emotionalism is generally frowned upon in Quaker circles – especially in our decision-making process. When we gather in meetings for worship and business, our goal is to set aside all personal opinions, emotions and desires, and to allow the Holy Spirit to move and guide us.

So how do we experience this presence of the Holy Spirit without emotionalism? Certainly, we can experience God through emotional responses. We can also have an encounter with the Spirit through an intellectualeureka moment. And there are times when we experience the presence of Christ in our very bodies – in a sensation of physical oneness with him that transcends emotions or conscious thought. All of these are ways to encounter the present guidance and love of Jesus.

But to locate God in any of these – thoughts, emotions or sensory experience – would be a mistake. Though we experience God through our emotions, God is not a feeling. We encounter Jesus in our minds, but he is not an intellectual idea. The Holy Spirit is not material, but when we dwell together in love and truth, she finds concrete expression in our bodies.

For centuries, Quakers have been on a trajectory of stripping away everything that is not God, and at this point we tend to be cautious about all outward expressions. We have surrendered emotions, intellect and the sensory experience of the body, all in the pursuit of the essential, spiritual encounter with Jesus – beyond words, beyond feelings, beyond flesh and blood. For 350 years, Friends have pursued the via negativa, saying “not this” countless times.

It may be that we have gone too far. We have discovered that God is not in the wind, not in the earthquake, nor in the fire – but are we alert to the ways in which God speaks to us through body, mind, soul and spirit? Are we receptive to how Christ wants to be enfleshed, re-minded and emotionally felt in our lives? Having walked the path of negation for so long, are we able to embrace the continuing incarnation of Jesus through his Holy Spirit? Are we ready to be his body, with all faculties intact – brain, heart, hands and feet?

Learning to Shine

Gathered in the heart of the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever known, Capitol Hill Friends is a community rooted in a unique time and place in history. Many of us work for governments, non-profits, and other institutions that seek to influence the course of national and international events. All of us live within a cultural space where busyness is touted as a virtue, overwork is the norm, and transience is a fact of life. I often refer to our environment here in DC as being a pressure cooker, and the description seems accurate to our experience. Whenever I describe our city this way, my friends and neighbors nod their heads in agreement.

Over the long-term, many of us cannot withstand the pressure. There are many reasons people leave the DC area, but the unrelenting intensity of our city has to be a factor. To live in Washington is to partake in an atmosphere of driven ambition, power games and unrelenting busyness. This is true regardless of your job is or your general attitude towards life.The heartbeat of Empire resounds, and it is nearly impossible to avoid being infused with some of its rhythm.

In this context, we at Capitol Hill Friends have a special role to play. We dwell in the epicenter of power, but we feel an invitation to focus on the margins. We are hearing the cry of those who are buckling under the stress of this unsustainable way of life. We are responding to the longing of those who want justice but are often forced to settle for expedience. We are creating a space for transformation – open ground where we can gather together in the name of Jesus.

As unlikely as it may seem, I sense that our calling is to carve out a space of refuge in the heart of Empire. We are called to create and expand a dynamic, life-giving, encouraging environment where we can grow together and slowly break the habits of our over-burdened, anxiety-filled lives. In a city that can often be filled with so much darkness, we are called to be light.

It only takes a little bit of light to push back the darkness, and as we help others to shine, the radius of our radiance will only grow wider. What does it look like to become a community where we equip one another to shine? How can we inspire hope, joy and peace in one another? Are there ways that we can be training so that the peace and love that we have experienced together becomes infectious? How can we spread the light of Christ throughout our families, social circles, workplaces and neighborhoods?