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Should We Give Up God For Lent?

Note: For the latest in this conversation, check out my reply to Peter Rollins’ response to this piece, The Radical Within.

Some people give up chocolate, coffee or movies for Lent, but Peter Rollins has a slightly more radical proposal: Why not try giving up God?

Peter Rollins argues that real spiritual courage involves fully experiencing the absence of God. He warns that, as long as we allow ourselves to believe in a personal God who intervenes in history for the sake of love, we risk constructing a false god in our own image. Far too often, he says, our belief is in a super-hero God who serves as a crutch for our own inability to cope with reality.

As an alternative to this fairy-tale God, Rollins encourages us to embrace Jesus’ felt sense of abandonment on the cross, presumably on an ongoing basis. His message seems to be that truly daring and courageous Christians aren’t afraid to abandon belief in God and experience the desolation of atheism. To promote this message of radical doubt, Rollins has developed an annual campaign: Atheism For Lent.

I have been following Peter Rollins’ ministry for some time now. Many people I respect find his writings deeply inspirational. This has encouraged me to take his message seriously. I have heard him speak in person, read his book and followed his online campaigns over the last couple of years. After extended consideration, I now want to outline some serious problems I see with the gospel he is preaching.

The Mystique of Elitism

As far as I am aware, Rollins has never laid out exactly who his target audience is, but my observation is that most people who are engaging with his message are either seminary trained or have a serious commitment to theological study. This is not surprising, given Peter’s language and style of presentation. Of all the popular Christian thinkers I know, Peter Rollins is one of the most avant gardeand edgy. His mystique is the promise of something new and unique in the 1st-world Evangelical/Protestant experience.

I wonder about the implications of this mystique. When I read Peter Rollins, and when I follow the commenters on his social media offerings, I cannot help but notice a theme of intellectual elitism and a fascination with secret knowledge. Ordinary Christians believe in a fairy-tale God-in-the-sky, but we know the truth. Most believers use God as a crutch, but we see clearly and cast aside our beliefs with courage. Most people who read the Bible think it is a story about God blessing the world, but weknow that it is actually a story about radical doubt and abandonment by God.

I encourage my friends who are big fans of Rollins to take a serious look at what attracts them to his teachings. There is good stuff there; I do not deny it. The dark night of the soul can be just what the doctor ordered at certain points in our lives. But how does this special knowledgeaffect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?

Injustice and Intellectualism

Something else I find troubling is how little Peter Rollins speaks about the need for social transformation, peacemaking and justice in our world. Instead, he emphasizes the personal experience and condition of individuals. He preaches individual salvation through an embrace of radical doubt. As Rollins presents it, the way forward is through each individual’s decision to embrace a reality in which God is mute and uninvolved with the creation.

This sounds oddly familiar. Despite the fact that Rollins is superficially at odds with mainstream Evangelicalism, his message is one that bears great resemblance to the personal salvationnarrative that is so central to Evangelical churches. Whether it is accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savioror accepting the godless doubt of existential atheism, the major push is personal transformation via intellectual belief. The very fact that Rollins can ask us to give up God for lent suggests that he thinks that faith in an active, personal God is a preference, a chosen belief system, rather than a conviction that grows out of long experience and relationship with the Holy Spirit.

For those of us who really have experienced a living and powerful God – a God who intervenes in history and shows us God’s true character in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus – these intellectual games do not cut the mustard. Whether offered to us by mainstream Evangelicalism or the avant gardeof Peter Rollins, these head trips do not offer the whole wheat bread of life that we need to survive, thrive and bring healing to this broken world.

Safe Games for Comfortable People

I have a friend who spent years in the L’Arche Community, living alongside individuals with severe physical and intellectual disabilities. He is also an erudite and astute theologian, and we got to talking about Rollins’ Atheism for Lent campaign. At one point in our conversation he looked at me and said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.”


This statement drove home for me how irrelevant much of Peter Rollins’ message is to those who are the most marginalized in our society. To those who are struggling under the burden of grinding poverty, long-term unemployment or broken homes, is atheism the answer? For the defrauded migrant worker, for the dispossessed Palestinian refugee, for those who are imprisoned for conscience – would Rollins prescribe atheism?

In my experience, a godless worldview (whether it takes the form of explicit non-belief or functional atheism) is most attractive to those who enjoy privileged positions in society. Rich and middle class people have the luxury of doubting God. But for those who face oppression, injustice and persecution, the reality of God’s leadership and presence is absolutely essential for survival. While Peter Rollins purports to preach a hard-core gospel of existential doubt, he has little to offer those who are daily experiencing the reality of Christ’s suffering.

We Really Do Need God

Tearing down false images of God is an important task, but this cannot be the end of the story. God does not leave Job sitting on ashes and picking at his sores. After the night must come the dawn. Unfortunately, Rollins seems unwilling to engage in the process of developing an alternative vision. Rather than offering a positive understanding of who God is, he seems solely interested open-ended deconstruction.

Leading people into darkness and doubt and leaving them there is simply irresponsible. We live in a deeply broken world that is in more need than ever of the redemptive power of God’s living Spirit. How can someone ask me to give up God for Lent? I might as well give up breathing! How can we give up God for almost six weeks? How would we sustain our struggle for justice, truth, mercy and genuine love? What could be the possible benefit of denying this healing, life-giving power for forty days? We live in a world desperately in need of God’s presence and intervention. Will we dare to believe?

Prayer Without Ceasing

Two friends recently passed along this article from the New York Times, which describes a charismatic megachurch in whose focal point is a chain of prayer, praise and worship that has been unbroken since 1999. At their meeting place in Kansas City, Missouri, the International House of Prayer has maintained Prayer Room at International House of Prayerongoing worship services, day and night, for more than a decade. They intend to keep it up until Kingdom come.

As my friend Martin Kelley points out, perpetual adoration has been practiced by Roman Catholics for centuries. Indeed, continual prayer has been a feature of many Christian movements throughout the history of the Church. In particular, it has been a staple of Christian monasticism. The International House of Prayer, however, is anything but monastic in character.

Something I like about International House of Prayer is its outward focus. IHOP is not primarily a contemplative community, but is oriented toward mission to the wider world. Even if I am uncomfortable with some of the directions that this mission takes, I do appreciate that it sees the fruit of prayer as being a sent into the world. IHOP embraces a view of prayer and holiness that changes both the individual and the Church, equipping women and men for ministry. IHOPInternational House of Prayer - Kansas City does not see prayer as primarily a private practice. Instead, prayer is seen as a springboard into Spirit-led action for Christ’s Kingdom in the world.

I will confess that I am very skeptical of the ideological basis of IHOP. At the core of the movement lies a fundamentalist, even “dominionist“(1) worldview, with an intense focus on the “end-times.” The major reason given for this movement of prayer and worship is to “hasten” the Lord’s coming, to usher in the visible return of Jesus Christ to the earth and to establish a visible Kingdom of God.

I myself do long for a final consummation of history and the final victory of the Lamb over the powers of sin and death. I do believe that God is raising Jesus up so that, “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”(2) However, I tend to view this process as inward and spiritual. Rather than primarily awaiting the visible return of the Lord, my hope and experience is mainly of Christ’s inward revelation and presence, here and now.

Besides the hyper-literalist reading of the apocalyptic portions of Scripture endorsed by IHOP, I am also hesitant about their focus on emotion. God can certainly speak to us through our emotions, but Worship Service at International House of Prayerthese feelings should not be confused for the Holy Spirit. While the emotional highs induced by skillful preaching and beautiful music can be conducive to deepened faith, they should not themselves be confused for faith or the movement of the Holy Spirit.

The presence of God humbles the proud and gives comfort to the oppressed. The movement of the Holy Spirit inspires humble courage, not bravado. As Christ’s presence purifies us and draws us deeper into the Kingdom life, we find ourselves not rising higher on the wings of emotion, but instead plunging deeper into the tender, unselfconscious love of our Risen Lord.

Recently, I have been reading “Come Be My Light,” a spiritual biography of Mary Teresa of Calcutta, including many personal letters between her and her confessor. The depth and humility ofMary Teresa of Calcutta Teresa’s prayer life has challenged me to re-evaluate my own minor efforts at maintaining a connection and conversation with the Lord. Teresa’s life was bathed in prayer, and it is clear that this prayer was the foundation of her life and ministry.

I am particularly impressed at the way that Teresa’s deep devotional life led her neither to set herself above others, nor to cut herself off from the suffering of the world. Instead, she was led to such a deep engagement with suffering that she seems to have shared in Jesus’ thirst(3), and his sense of abandonment by God on the cross(4). For Teresa, rather than serving as a form of escape or emotional catharsis, prayer allowed her to venture more deeply into the suffering of her crucified savior. From this profound, first-hand knowledge of Christ’s suffering, Teresa could embrace the poor, sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta. Intimacy with the Tortured Savior gave her intimacy with the tortured lives of the poor and oppressed.

True prayer is done in the power and humility of Jesus’ cross. The purpose of prayer is not to exalt us, but to humble, purify and prepare us for lives of servanthood and friendship with those who are poor – either spiritually or materially. As disciples of the CrucifiedPrayer Room in Kigali, Rwanda Yearly Meeting Messiah, prayer empowers us to embrace the suffering of Christ’s body.

The life of prayer and holiness that we are called to as God’s people is not a matter of establishing Christ’s outward rule over the earth. Instead, we are to be inwardly transformed, letting Jesus Christ live fully in us. If we open ourselves to him, he will shine through. Through unceasing prayer, we can become his body. Through our humble lives of self-sacrifice, suffering and service, the Word can once again become flesh. Jesus returns to reign each day in the lives of those who truly love him. As friends of Jesus, let us embrace the mission to which we are called, “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”(5)

1. For IHOP’s explanation of their “Dominion Theology,” among other things, click here and scroll down.
2. Philippians 2:10-11
3. See John 19:28
4. See Matthew 27:46
5. Colossians 1:24

The Universal Light of Christ

I recently came across this video by David Platt, pastor of Brook Hills Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In it, Platt explains why he believes that the 597 million people in northern India who are not Evangelical Christians face eternal torment in hell. Referencing the recent debate around Rob Bell’s new book, he speaks about what he sees as the dangers of universalism.

This video saddens me, because I realize that millions of Christians in the United States share Platt’s worldview – one in which God created a world where millions of people would die without ever having the chance to be in relationship with God – and who would be punished for their misfortune by eternal misery in hell. Because this worldview is so prevalent among Christians in my country, I felt moved to create a video response. In it, I attempt to explain my faith that the saving presence of Jesus Christ is available to all people, even those who have not had the opportunity – for whatever reason – to accept the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

(PS: I know some folks will not want to spend their precious internet time watching me blab. For those who are more textually inclined, I’ve transcribed the video, below.)

Transcript:

I just got done watching a video made by a pastor in Alabama named David Platt. And in the video, he’s standing in India, and he’s responding, essentially, to Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, and the charges of universalism that have been leveled at Rob Bell – which, based on reviews of the book that are coming out now, and based on what I have read of it so far – I just got it – it doesn’t seem to be the case. It doesn’t seem that he’s a universalist in the true sense.

But, regardless, I watched this video and there were several different points he made that I feel strong issues with. I guess my initial reaction to the video is a sense of sadness and even shame, because I recognize that David Platt is my brother in Christ. He and I both serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, I have to take responsibility for him and for what he is preaching, in a certain sense, because we are both trying to serve Jesus Christ as we understand him, and I take responsibility for him as my brother in Christ. So, I feel sad, not only for what he is preaching, but for how it reflects on the Body of Christ, which I believe is God’s presence in the world.

To begin with, he starts out his video essentially saying, “if you’re not an Evangelical Christian, you don’t have Christ.” That needs to be wrestled with a little bit. What does it mean to “have Christ”? As a Friend – as a Quaker – I believe that all people have access to Christ. Maybe David would agree with that, that all people have access to Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ has saving power in the lives of all people who accept that saving power, even if they do not know the gospel story.

David in his video puts great emphasis on the gospel story, on getting these stories – the biblical stories and the biblical commandments – to the people of northern India. And I think the stories are really important. Those stories are so foundational for me, and so much of what I know about Jesus I understand through my experience of him speaking to me through the Scripture, and in community around the Scripture. So, the Scripture is amazingly important to me.

But the concept that people don’t have Christ unless they have had the Scriptures delivered to them is just incredible to me, because all things hold together in Christ. Christ is in all and through all and creates all. All things were created through Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And so, the concept that people who haven’t – for historical, or cultural, or whatever reasons – received the gospel story, that they would all be condemned to eternal separation from God is just dumfounding to me. Because, Jesus Christ is there with them, whether or not they have heard that story. And I believe that it is possible to accept his lordship in their lives without actually realizing on an intellectual level what, exactly, that means historically, in terms of Jesus’ historical incarnation and coming into the world.

Another thing in David’s video that really disturbed me was his amazing presumption. He seemed to think that we as orthodox Christians can know who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. I think that’s blasphemous. It is not our place as Christians to determine who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. We are not the judge of that. For us to put ourselves in the seat of judgment is to set ourselves in the place of God. I hope that David will reconsider his apparent attitude of sitting in that seat of judgment, feeling like he knows – and we know as Christians – who is going where. I hope we as a Church can repent of that, because I believe it’s a sin.

Another thing that he says in his video that I felt was wrong was that he says, “…If we believe everyone is going to be OK in the end, then we are free to lead our lives however we want. We can sit back as easy-going Christians in comfortable churches, because, in the end, all of these masses are going to be OK.” I don’t think there’s a necessary correlation between belief in damnation of all those who have not heard the story and an apathy that David assumes, that if someone were a universalist – or simply didn’t believe that every person that didn’t hear the gospel story during their lifetime was damned – I don’t think that there’s necessarily going to be an apathy about missions.

I don’t believe that all people who have not heard the story are damned. I believe that Christ can work in their hearts, even in the absence of the Scriptures. So that’s where I’m coming from. But my entire life is devoted to mission. I want people to hear the story, to accept Jesus, not only in a vague spiritual sense, but in a real, intellectually satisfying sense, where they know – both with their hearts and with their heads – that Jesus is Lord, and they can confess that. That’s what I desire for all people.

But I desire this in a context of believing that people can be saved in spite of their lack of intellectual understanding of who Jesus is. So I would just like to challenge David a little bit on that concept, that if we believed that people weren’t necessarily going to be damned for not intellectually accepting certain ideas about Jesus that we would just give up on mission and go sit in our easy chairs and drink a beer. I don’t think that’s how things play out.

I think that many of us are motivated far more by love for others and wanting to see the redemption in their lives now, rather than a sense of, “all these people are going to hell and I’ve got to save them from that.”
Finally, there was one other thing in the video that disturbed me. David said that his response is the only one possible for those of us who really believe in the Bible. What really caught my eye was “believe in the Bible.” And we hear Christians today talking a lot about believing in the Bible, being “Bible-believing Christians.” That’s kind of a phrase: “Bible-believing Christians.”

I trust the Scriptures. I believe the Scriptures have great authority, and they are extremely important in my walk with the Lord. But, ultimately, I believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and he is sovereign over all things – over heaven and earth and that which is under the earth, and over the Bible. Jesus Christ is Lord and Sovereign over the Scriptures themselves, and he is the one who we must go to to be able to understand the Scriptures.

I don’t think the Scriptures themselves – without the Spirit, without Jesus Christ – have any power. I believe it is only as we listen to Jesus Christ as he is present with us today, through the power of his Holy Spirit, that we can understand the Scriptures and truly follow him. And I believe that if we get up into our own intellectual understandings and don’t rely on the Spirit, we will misinterpret the Scriptures. We will interpret them as human beings, rather than as sons and daughters of God.

I believe that many of the ideas that David Platt is promoting are reflective of a human understanding of the Scriptures, a human analysis of the Scriptures that does not rely sufficiently on the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

TransFORM East Coast Gathering in DC

I had the opportunity this weekend to participate in a gathering of emergent church leaders TransFORM East Coast Gathering in DC– folks who are involved in or seek to be involved in planting missional, emergent faith communities rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus.  I was able to hear speakers such as Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Kathy Escobar and Anthony Smith. I also attended workshops on Christian ecology; turning Jesus’ teachings into living practice as a community; developing new Christian communities alongside more traditional congregations; and a discussion on the way forward for Christians who are neither willing to exclude queer folk from the Church, nor downplay our respect for Scripture. Finally, and most importantly, I was privileged to connect with folks from all over the country, including quite a few from my neck of the woods.

The most spiritually-charged and powerful moment for me this weekend was Friday evening, when we gathered to hear Peter Peter RollinsCollins preach.  He spoke to us about the importance of doubt in our walk with God. Rollins observed that Christ himself cried out in doubt on the cross, and he emphasized the need to release our comforting beliefs and sense of identity, because they in fact separate us from God. God is Truth, not our limited and self-serving conceptions; the Truth – as terrifying and incomprehensible as it can be – must be a the center of our life in Christ. To place our own beliefs and desires at the center is to replace God with an idol, and to dodge the suffering of the cross, which we as Christians are called to bear with our Lord.

Peter Rollins believes that our worship together should reflect the “dark nights of the soul” – our times of spiritual despair, doubt, and sense of separation from God. Our corporate worship can tend to focus exclusively on our experiences of assurance and connection with God; but Rollins encouraged us to consider the role that acknowledgement of suffering, darkness and doubt might play in our shared life as church communities.

To give us a taste of what this might look like, Rollins asked Vince Anderson and Amy Moffitt to perform a song from the Ikon communityMusic in Ireland, where Rollins serves. It was a hymn of darkness, despair, loss and doubt. To be honest, it made me feel very uncomfortable. As the hymn came to a close, though, something remarkable happened. The Holy Spirit descended on us, and the entire gathered assembly was still and silent, hushed with awe. This was a clapping group, which normally gave applause after every event – but after this hymn, no one moved.

The awed silence was broken after a short while by the facilitator, wanting to move us along in our evening program. I felt grieved that the work of the Holy Spirit was being brushed aside. Others certainly felt this way, too. A man rose from the audience, interrupting our facilitator, “Thy kingdom came!” I heard voices say, “Amen!” The man continued to address the facilitator, “can we acknowledge the grace of God among us for a moment?” After perhaps a minute more of silent reverence before God, the facilitator again took up the schedule.

When we were dismissed a few minutes later, a young woman rose from the audience, interrupting folks as they greeted oneTransform another. She invited anyone who wanted to pray to join her at the front of the sanctuary where we were gathered. Faith and I immediately rose and followed her to the raised area at the front of the room. Five of us gathered in a circle while the rest of the group socialized and made their way out of the building. We took turns praying aloud as we were led. Praying for the gathering; that God to continue to pour out the Holy Spirit on us; asking forgiveness for the way in which we had turned away God’s presence from our midst. I feel so grateful for the way in which a few of us were drawn together in the Spirit in that moment to cry out to God and intercede for the Church.

I am in awe of how I see God at work in the wider Church, despite our failure to fully embrace the Spirit’s work in our midst.  I feel grateful for the connections that I have made this weekend with other followers of Jesus, both here in the DC area and acrossBrian McLaren addresses us North America. I had never been exposed to the emergent church movement before, having focused almost all of my attention on the Quaker community in the years since I became a Christian. As a result of this gathering, I feel energized to engage with emergent Protestants; both to learn from them and their experiences as disciples, and also to share with them the rich heritage of Quakerism, which informs my own walk with Christ. Together, I believe we can grow into more faithful friends of Jesus.

A few relevant links:

Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #8

Dear brothers and sisters in Truth,

My travels among Friends this summer are now underway as Faith and I visit Eastern Region Yearly Meeting at their annual sessions in Canton, Ohio. It might be fair to say that Eastern Region Yearly Meeting is the flagship of Evangelical Friends Church in North America. Eastern Region (formerly Ohio Yearly Meeting [Damascus]) was the only one of the Orthodox Yearly Meetings to decline membership in the Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) when it was formed in 1902. Eastern Region felt that FYM’s statements of faith were not sufficently Evangelical. They were certainly uncomfortable with some aspects of FYM’s corporate statement of faith – the Richmond Declaration – which denied the use of outward signs of sacrament, such as water baptism and bread and wine communion. Since the late 19th century, Eastern Region has held that there should be “freedom of conscience” with regard to outward signs of sacrament. Since the 19th century, some churches in Eastern Region have celebrated these rituals, but they are optional: No one is required to be baptized with water or partake in bread and wine communion in order to be a member of the Friends Church.

Over time, a number of other North American Yearly Meetings became disaffected with the insufficiently Evangelical stance of the Five Years Meeting. Oregon (now Northwest) Yearly Meeting broke away from FYM in the 1926 after FYM would not acknowledge the Richmond Declaration as a creed. Kansas (now Mid-America) Yearly Meeting withdrew in 1937, and most of Nebraska Yearly Meeting‘s monthly meetings withdrew and formed Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting in 1957. Evangelical Friends Alliance (now Evangelical Friends Church) was formed in 1965, and Evangelical Friends Church in North America now includes Southwest Yearly Meeting (formerly California) and Alaska Yearly Meeting.

But Eastern Region is the original. Here, ever since the Revival experience of the mid-1800s, Friends have greatly emphasized the tradition of Evangelical Protestantism, often at the expense of Friends heritage. The attitude among Friends in Eastern Region might be described as: “hold onto what is essential, jettison everything else.” And for most Friends in Eastern Region, what is essential is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, fidelity to the Bible as the Word of God, and an actively missional stance in the wider world (see Matthew 28:19-20). And, by and large, the Evangelical Protestant tradition has all of these things.

The Friends tradition, except as it directly supports these three emphases, is not seen by most Friends in Eastern Region as being necessary. It is worth noting that the Friends tradition is often referred to as “Friends distinctives” by members of Evangelical Friends Church: They are the things that make Friends “distinctive” from other Evangelical Protestants. But the Evangelical Protestant tradition – the story of Luther and Wesley – is normative. As a Yearly Meeting, Eastern Region is Protestant first, Quaker second – if at all. It is worth noting that most Friends here do not identify as “Quaker,” as that word is associated with liberal, non-Bible-based Friends branches. Friends here are very careful to distinguish between the Friends Church and Quakers.

Attending Eastern Region Yearly Meeting has been a “cultural experience” for me on a variety of levels. The first worship service I attended was a three-and-a-half-hour-long Spanish-language service. There were around 200 Spanish-speaking Friends in attendence to hear many individuals and groups perform music, to sing congregationally, and to hear a number of speakers, including a guest preacher who spoke for around an hour. He was an impressive orator who alternated between stand-up comedy and fire-and-brimstone screaming. Just when I thought I couldn’t take any more warning and judgment, he made us laugh. I enjoyed seeing the vibrancy of the Spanish-language Friends at Eastern Region, though I was a bit concerned at how segregated the Spanish-language and English-language sub-Yearly Meetings were. Most of the Spanish-speakers only stayed for the weekend, leaving the English-speakers to do Eastern Region’s business on Monday and Tuesday. It was as if there were two Yearly Meetings, and the English-language Yearly Meeting was where the business was done.

The English-language portion of the Yearly Meeting was just as much a cultural experience. The worship services were made up of three primary elements: Congregational singing; performing artists (from Hungarian Gypsy musicians to a teeny-bop Christian rock band); and preaching. Friends applauded after most of the songs and sermons, and there were rarely even a few seconds of silence between events. I had difficulty with how prepared and managed everything felt; and the congregational singing and preaching was often triumphalist in nature.

Another challenge for me was the almost exclusively male leadership of the Yearly Meeting. Eastern Region has no female senior pastors. One younger Friend who I spoke to said that she had female Friends who had left the Friends Church to join the Mennonites in order to be able to engage in pastoral ministry. They did not feel that they could do so in Eastern Region. It was noteworthy that this year the Yearly Meeting recorded one of their long-time missionaries as a minister of the gospel – but not his wife, who has been co-missionary with him for decades. No one publicly questioned why this should be so. Throughout the time here at Yearly Meeting, I have heard statements that underscored the role of women in Eastern Region: For example, when one leader prayed that God would, “raise up new missionaries and missionaries’ wives.”

Another thing that I must mention is that Eastern Region Friends vote. I had known this before I arrived, but knowing that Friends in this Yearly Meeting vote could not entirely prevent me from having my breath taken away when I first witnessed it. Most of Eastern Region’s business is done without discussion: A report is presented and approved (they say “favor” to indicate approval). However, a vote is taken on “motions” – that is, on any action item.

Voting seems to be especially important for cases when there is a question from the floor about the decisions that the leadership has presented to the body. The only vote where I heard any “noes” came after one individual questioned whether it was in right order to freeze for the coming year the Yearly Meeting’s “minimum wage” for pastoral ministers. After this man had spoken, the clerk called for a vote on the matter without hearing further discussion. The vote was taken by voice, and I would guess that it passed by a margin of at least ten to one. It seems that voting in this particular case served the function of allowing some Friends to “stand aside” on the decision. But I was disturbed that no time was given to discernment of the matter; Friends were not encouraged to wait on God to provide further guidance. There was a schedule, and Friends intended to get on with it – so a quick vote took care of the voice of dissention.

Eastern Region had its good points, of course. I was impressed with the fact that the Yearly Meeting took half a day to do service projects in the community. I went with a team of Friends that weeded the grounds of a local Jewish community center, and a dozen other teams served the local community in many other ways. One team visited a man in very poor health and cleaned up his yard. Another team visited the local fire station that had just lost a fireman and cleaned their vehicles and prayed with them. Yet another team worked with children. I thought that many Friends could learn from Eastern Region’s very practical service orientation.

I was also deeply impressed by Eastern Region’s cross-cultural emphasis. While I am concerned by the de facto segregation of the Spanish-speaking and English-speaking sections of the Yearly Meeting, I am very excited about the development of that relationship. Eastern Region also has a Chinese-language congregation, and “ethnic ministry” is a stated emphasis of the Yearly Meeting. I am excited to see how greater partnership might develop between Friends of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Eastern Region bears witness to Friends’ Testimony of Unity: to the power of Christ’s Spirit to unite us across cultural, class, and linguistic barriers.

The emphasis at Eastern Region is on church-growth, foreign missions, and Evangelical Protestant theology based in the authority of Scripture as the Word of God. I did not detect much interest in engaging with other (non-Evangelical) Friends. Nevertheless, I believe that Friends would do well to reach out to Eastern Region Yearly Meeting, inviting them to share fellowship with the wider Religious Society of Friends. Despite our doctrinal differences, we are all children of one Heavenly Father, and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. I pray that the Holy Spirit will permeate all of the churches of Eastern Region Yearly Meeting and that Friends will be responsive to the Inward Light of Christ as it seeks to lead them in His Way.

This coming week, Faith and I will be visiting Northwest Yearly Meeting, also a part of Evangelical Friends Church. I was blessed to visit Northwest Yearly Meeting last year, along with Tyler Hampton, and I am looking forward to being among Friends there again.

I pray that the Spirit of Christ is richly dwelling in each of you, leading you in the way of truth and mercy, justice and love.

Your friend in the Way of Jesus,

Micah Bales

Shane Claiborne comes to Wichita

The Church in Wichita was honored to receive Shane Claiborne, a fellow laborer from Philadelphia, who is a prominent voice in the New Monastic movement and an inspiration for many people – especially young Evangelical Christians – who are tired of “business as usual” in the Church and who long for a more radical call to discipleship in the Way of Jesus. Claiborne came to Wichita as a part of a larger speaking tour, during which he visited several Kansas communities. In Wichita, he spoke at Eastminster Presbyterian Church to a largely Evangelical audience. Claiborne preaches a message of unity within the church and between Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and other branches of Christianity. He says that he and those in his community seek a renewal in the Church, not a continuation of the centuries of divisions that created the modern face of the Western church.

Claiborne especially highlighted the obligation of Christians (or “Christ-followers”) to work for social justice. He says that, “one of the signs of the early Church was ending poverty” (see Acts 4:34). Claiborne’s inclusive message stresses the importance of working with those whom we do not fully agree with – theologically or otherwise – so that together we might be about the work of the Kingdom of God. Hospitality to our brothers and sisters is critical to Claiborne’s understanding of the gospel. In particular, Claiborne preaches a Christ-like solidarity with those who are most shunned and despised by our society, such as the homeless, the addict, the physically and mentally infirm, and the poor. It is not enough to give charity, we must be an incarnational community; we are called to live and work among the poor. Flowing naturally from this loving concern for all of God’s children, Claiborne was explicit that the Way of Jesus is the way of nonviolence: War and oppression are incompatible with the Christian life.

I was impressed with Claiborne’s message, especially in that he combined a fidelity to orthodoxy (right belief) with a commitment to orthopraxy (right practice). Claiborne affirms the creeds of Roman and Protestant Christianity, but he insists that mere belief in Christ is not sufficient – we must strive to be like Christ in our lives. Love, mercy and humility are the key ingredients of our walk in the Way of Jesus; if our way of living does not give testimony to our belief in the person of Jesus, our intellectual assent to church doctrine is meaningless. As Claiborne put it: “You can have all the right answers and still be mean.”

One disappointment that I had with Claiborne’s presentation that day was that he did not explicitly direct his hearers to the Inward Teacher, Christ in us. During the question-and-answer session, several individuals stood and asked questions of Claiborne: they wanted to know how they were to live this radical life of discipleship that Claiborne had been talking about. It felt like they were looking for a technique, a set of steps to follow, a rule to walk by. Claiborne did well in that he did not claim to have the answers; he made it clear that he was living out of his own experience and in his own context and that each of us must determine what is right in our own situation. But I wish that he had taken it a step further, directing his audience to seek guidance from the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst and in our hearts. I wish he had said, “I can’t tell you what the next step is for you – but Jesus Christ can, and he’s ready to lead you if you get still and listen within your heart for his voice.” It is clear to me that Claiborne himself practices this inward listening; it was implicit in everything he said. I just wish he had made it explicit for his audience, many of whom may never have heard of such a concept.