Archive for August 2015

Should the Church Embrace Individualism?

When I was in seminary, community was the thing. We were taught how to use models of group discernment to help us make important life decisions. We had a student government, run on Quaker principles, that was supposed to help us work together as a community. We had shared worship that was meant to draw us into a corporate relationship with God.

Despite all these good intentions, my experience of seminary was largely an individual one. I was on my journey, and others were on their own. I made friends and shared great experiences with others, but the reality was that my fellow students and I were generally only going to be around for a few years. Once we were done earning our degree, we’d be off to some other part of the world.

It was hard to build really strong community in such circumstances. Despite all our ideals about communal decision-making and discernment, there’s only so far you can go when you know that nobody is going to be around three years from now.

Fast forward to my present ministry context: Washington, DC. In many ways, it’s not so different from seminary. I know lots of wonderful people, and we have a good time together. I learn a lot from my friends here, and we support one another as best we’re able. But in the end, we’re all on our own journeys. Some of us will be here a long time; others will be moving on in just a few short years. It’s not always clear who will fall into which category. 

Life is in a state of near-constant flux. At any given moment, some of our friends may be leaving the city. At the same time, new and wonderful people will emerge to take their place. Our city is an amazing environment for networking, for making new friends.

Forming community that transcends our individual choices is tougher. What does it look like to bind ourselves together in community when we’re so focused on maximizing our own personal dreams – career, family, life’s work?

These are worthy goals that we’re pursuing. We’ve got jobs we love, children we adore, hopes that we nurture, and ambitions that excite us. It makes me wonder, is it possible that my desire for committed, intentional community has been misguided all along? What if we’d be better off encouraging each individual (or family) to follow God’s call for them? Would we be more faithful if the church embraced individualism?

Even if this kind of radical individualism isn’t the best path to enlightenment, it surely is more in keeping with the spirit of our age. When I look at the movements and networks that are growing and thriving, it is those that allow individuals to take autonomous action to improve their lives, and the lives of others. Most successful movements in our time are those that invite you to come, just as you are, and participate in your own way. No strings attached.

At least not at first.

While I can’t imagine that Christ is truly calling the church to embrace individualism, neither can I believe that our present situation calls for the same type of community that was life-giving in centuries past. Electronic communication and rapid transit have fundamentally altered our reality. The world has changed. What does the faithful church of Jesus Christ look like in these new circumstances? What does it look like to be the body of Christ in such a mobile, fluid, creative, and exhausting age?

Our answer to this question will be crucial for the development of a living faith in our time. Have you found part of the answer? Please share.

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Do We Really Want Community?

Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ?

Can Unity Come Through Grief?

Last week, a young man was shot to death right across the street from us. The murder took place in broad daylight, right in front of a Catholic church.

This hit pretty close to home. Literally. You could look out our front window and see the murder scene, right in front of a statue of the virgin Mary. It was pretty traumatic for our family.

We were glad when we learned that there would be an ecumenical prayer service at the church, to lift up the family of the victim, and to gather as God’s people in the midst of tragedy.

The worship service was deeply moving. Both the music and the silence were powerful, and I was struck to heart by the words delivered by the mother of the young man who lost his life just a week ago.

In the face of this tragic loss in our community, we gathered from different denominations and backgrounds – Catholic, Protestant, and at least one Jewish friend that we’re aware of. We sang, There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.

With tears in my eyes, I got a better sense of what the power of Jesus really looks like. I saw his people gathered in his broken body and living spirit. I saw a community coming together from across tribes and denominations, brought together by the broken peace of our neighborhood. I witnessed God’s power made perfect in weakness.

The Holy Spirit came descended on us, meeting us in our sorrow and anxiety. For a moment in time, we were undeniably one body in Jesus together. We got a fresh glimpse of what the body of Christ could look like, breaking down barriers of race and denomination. I saw again the dynamic potential of the church to be a force for justice and peace, rooted in the cross of Jesus. Something is moving.

Whatever this thing is, I want to be part of it. Whatever God is up to, I want him to send me.

I hear the chains falling.

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The Fine Art of Knowing When to Fold ‘Em

I’ve never been very good at poker. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a particularly strong poker face. I’m pretty easy to read. But that’s not my main problem.

My lack of success in poker has more to do with strategy than it does with appearances. To play poker well, you have to have a firm grasp of the numbers. Probabilities.

Most of the time, you’re not really going on feel or intuition. It’s about the math. Do you have a hand that, in this situation, is likely to yield good results? If so, you raise the stakes. If not, you fold.

Gut feelings and luck have nothing to do with it.

As a highly intuitive person, this is a big challenge for me. When I’m dealt a hand that’s marginal, I’m liable to make my decisions based on how I feel about the situation, rather than taking a truly disciplined look at the facts.

Fortunately for me, life isn’t like poker. Relying on intuition frequently pays off well for me. Real life involves a lot more than mathematical probabilities. My tendency to listen to my feelings and intuition frees me take risks on situations and relationships that, at first glance, don’t look so promising. It means freedom to try new things, even if the payoff is unclear.

Sometimes, though, I need a reality check. When I’ve been hitting my head against a wall, trying the same thing over and over. When I’ve gone down a particular rabbit hole just a little too deep. When I’ve convinced myself that I know the right course of action, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I need to check the numbers, to think again.

Knowing when to fold ’em is tough, especially when I’m emotionally invested in the outcomes. But it pays to take a step back and reevaluate my assumptions. The next hand I’m dealt may be a whole lot better.

How about you? Do you live your life by the book, or do you shoot from the hip? How do you know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em?

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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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How to Be True in a Conformist World

As a Quaker, I’ve often been told that I’m supposed to be in the world, but not of it. I always thought I knew what that meant. But lately I’m not so sure.

My life has been getting a lot more worldly lately. There’s a career that demands attention, a house that requires maintenance, and a 4-month-old baby who doesn’t seem to understand my need for peace and quiet!

The work that I fill my days with is wonderful, but it’s very different from the dedicated, full-time gospel ministry I envisioned for myself even a few years ago. I’m finding dynamic collaboration with an incredible diversity of people that I simply wasn’t encountering before, back when I lived almost entirely within the Quaker bubble. I’m expanding my horizons and building new relationships.

I still have a lot to learn about how to lead this new lifestyle faithfully. The values of the Quaker/Christian community are different from those of the wider culture. Some of these differences are really excellent. For example, I’m learning how to speak plainly about my values and experience, without resorting to Quaker jargon!

Still, it’s easy for me to get caught up in a whole new set of assumptions, the popular wisdom that’s all around me. The wider culture has its own ideas about what and who is valuable, what integrity consists of, and how the game is played. It’s easy to unquestioningly conform to these assumptions. I can get so scared of not fitting in that I forget who I am as a friend of Jesus.

Taken as a whole, though, I think that my ministry is benefiting from my full engagement with the surrounding culture. I’m grateful for the opportunity to escape the Quaker bubble and get a new vantage point. I’m seeing how many of the assumptions of the Quaker community were trapping me before. The church can be its own special kind of echo chamber.

Now more than ever, I want to recommit myself to non-conformity to any human set of assumptions, whether religious or secular. I want to choose life – the unbounded, abundant life that refuses to conform to anything but the character of Jesus Christ. I want to be fully human, not a cookie cutter replica of a good Quaker, a good communications professional, or any other box that I’m tempted to put myself into.

I’m not sure what this means yet. It seems really hard to stay unconformed, to be in the world but not of it. I think it’s going to involve approaching each day and situation with a commitment to faithfulness. I will commute, change diapers, prepare sermons, work my job, and celebrate with my friends in the way of Jesus.

Somehow, in the midst of all this confusion, I’m hearing an invitation to be fully human. How about you?

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What If I Really Lived Right Now?

I don’t know why it’s so tough to live in the present moment. Amazing things are happening every second. But for some reason, all my mind wants to do is run away. To the past or the future, it hardly matters. I’ll daydream about almost anything that isn’t right now.

This is a big problem with my religion, too. It’s easy for me to get fixated on a faith that promises me wondrous things just around the corner. Just over that next sand dune is an oasis. Can’t you smell it? Or just as easily I can retreat into the past. Early Quakers, the early church, the early years of Metallica (before they sold out) – heck, just about anything early sounds pretty good!

But what about right now

When Jesus approached his first disciples, when he told them to abandon their families and livelihoods to follow him, I’ll bet their minds went straight to the future. Where will we sleep? What will we eat? What will people think of us? And probably to the past, as well. This fishing boat has been in our family for generations. Who are we to abandon this rich heritage?

But they didn’t fall into the escapist trap. They responded without hesitation to the beauty and power that stood right before them. The Scripture says that immediately they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. They were in the zone, in the moment, fully centered in right now with Jesus. 

You’ve had moments like these. Those times when it’s all so clear; nothing else matters. You’re alive and breathing, and that’s enough. You see the light, the smells and the sounds and the people all around you – it’s amazing, totally captivating.

Fear can’t touch this kind of awareness. Fear lives in the past and the future, but Jesus is here right now. He’s standing on the beach, asking each of us whether we’ll drop our nets – our future worries and nostalgic clinging – and follow him. Right now.

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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.

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