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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.

Pope Benedict XVI Resigns: What Does It Mean?

I could not quite believe my eyes this morning when a New York Times alert flashed across my phone: “Pope Benedict Resigns.” This is probably the biggest single news item in the worldwide Christian Church in my lifetime. The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion of my brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic community is doing something that has no real precedent. While it is true that there was a pope who resigned back in 1415, that resignation came amidst one of the greatest scandals in Church history, with three different popes vying for control!

This resignation is clearly different. Though Benedict has certainly been a controversial pope, presiding over an increasingly firm turn to the theological right, he has not been personally embroiled in scandal to the same degree. Certainly nothing that would indicate that he should resign from an office that until now has essentially been considered unresignable.
And yet, here we are. Benedict has announced his retirement from the papacy on the basis of his advanced age and his own personal judgment that he is no longer able to fulfill the role of spiritual fatherto the Roman Catholic community. Declaring his retirement date as 28 February, 2013, Benedict is giving a little more than two weeks notice. Assemble the cardinals: It is time to select a new pope!

I am sure that there will be a great variety of reactions to Benedict’s resignation. Some – especially among the Roman Catholic community’s progressive wing – will cheer. Some will be appalled, and many others will be confused. I understand all of these reactions, but I have a different one. I feel awed and grateful.

In this unexpected act, I feel like I am catching a glimpse – perhaps for the first time – into the real character of this pope. This is a spiritual leader who has the humility to set aside his official authority and admit that he no longer has the strength or the divine calling to serve as the apostolic guardian of more than a billion souls. That takes some guts!

I cannot see into Benedict’s heart, and I am in no position to judge him. Nevertheless, I must say that I am deeply impressed by this act. It inspires me to be more willing to reevaluate my own spiritual gifts and sense of divine calling. Benedict’s resignation reminds me that I must be open to laying aside even the most importantwork that I do in order to be faithful to the One who calls me. By laying down the splendor, power and authority of the papacy, Benedict challenges me to follow his example, releasing my own privileges and reputation in order to become a more faithful, loving servant to the whole body of Christ.

In this one decision, Benedict reveals himself to be truly apostolic. As he lays down all his worldly crowns and honors at the feet of Jesus, he can say with integrity, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.“-

For another Quaker’s reaction to Benedict’s announcement, check out Dan Randazzo’s blog, A Closeted Radical.

Who Needs Religion, Anyway?

In the Quaker community, we engage in regular hand-wringing about why younger generations are largely disengaged from our congregations. Generation X mostly dropped out of the Quaker Church a long time ago without anyone making too much of a fuss; there were still enough solid older Friends to keep the torch aloft. But in the last decade, the problem has grown only worse. Not only are younger people mostly not joining Quaker congregations, but the older generations that have been the spiritual and financial foundation of our communities for decades are actively dying off. As these demographic realities become too fearsome to ignore, we are waking up to the massive decline of the 20th-century Quaker model. Something is broken and we do not know how to fix it. And if we continue this way much longer, we will not survive as a living faith tradition.

Quakers are not alone in this. Virtually all of the “mainline” religious traditions in the United States have been suffering serious decline in the last two generations. We used to live in a society where practically everyone belonged to a Christian denomination as part of their cultural identity. There were Methodist families and Lutheran families, Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Besides the standard flavors of Protestant, there was also a visible (if marginalized) minority of Roman Catholics and Jews. Denominational and religious identities were to a great extent heritage markers. You were a Lutheran because your family was Lutheran; Quaker children were born to Quaker families. Going to church on Sundays was the norm, an unquestioned ritual of an all-American lifestyle.

That world is gone now. Most of the United States has exited the cultural Christianity that had been the norm since its founding. Despite the attempts of some politicians and religious leaders to roll back the clock, America no longer even pretends to operate based on “Christian values.” The point of reference is the State, the Market and the American Dream – not any particular ideas about Jesus Christ or the nature of God. While the United States is not a secular society like much of Europe has become, we are increasingly living in a post-Christian, pluri-religious society in which each individual is expected and encouraged to make up their own mind on the subject of religion.

Faith has become a matter of personal preference and individual identity. Religion is increasingly viewed as a form of self-expression – like tastes in music, art or fashion – or as one of many options for personal enrichment and relaxation – like yoga, meditation or membership at a gym. For many of us, our spirituality is primarily focused on helping us to interact with and get along better in a pluralistic society that is focused on the pursuit of wealth, status and personal achievement.

When viewed in this light, the “spiritual-but-not-religious” phenomenon makes a lot of sense. “Spirituality” has become code for the benefits that faith has for the individual: reduced anxiety, wisdom, centeredness and expanded awareness. “Religion,” on the other hand, represents those aspects of faith that make demands on the individual and require wrestling with a community that may not always affirm and de-stress us.

In this environment, it is not surprising that the phrase “church shopping” has become a part of our lexicon. Faith communities easily become just one more consumer choice, with individuals picking and choosing based on where they feel most “fed” – where they get the most benefits for themselves and their families. It is also not surprising that many churches have succumbed to a strange sort of religious capitalism, explicitly viewing their congregations like businesses, competing for “market share” in a voracious consumer religion market. In retrospect, the rise of the mega church – the big box store of American religion – was virtually guaranteed.

It would be easy to decry the changes that we have witnessed in American culture over the last 75 years, and I will admit that I have sometimes longed for an imagined past. I dream of an era when finding genuine Christian fellowship was easier, a society that was more focused on the community as a whole, rather than mostly on the particular desires of each individual. Sometimes I am tempted to long for the days of cultural Christianity.
But I do believe that these yearnings are a temptation. I see all around me the consequences of yielding to it: Individuals and congregations that obstinately ignore the wider culture, opting out entirely rather than risking “infection” by the world. Many Christian communities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch with the real conditions and concerns of their neighbors. We can and do become so caught up in recreating a perfect miniature replica of an imagined “Christian nation” that we make ourselves useless in communicating the gospel in the context of post-modern America.
I see this in our North American Quaker community, which has imploded over the last 50 years and which is poised to enter into catastrophic decline as the Boomer generation moves into elderhood. We have not yet discerned a way out of the cycle of decay and irrelevance that is striking almost all traditional religious groups today. Instead, we habitually shift the blame onto others. “Quakerism is a challenging path; it is not for everyone,” we tell ourselves with a strange mixture of resignation and self-congratulation.

Many of us have convinced ourselves that our decline as a religious community is primarily due to a failure on the part of the wider culture. They have failed to understand us! This is the way religious movements end: With us – the religious insiders – dismissing and feeling superior to those on the outside – the very people that Jesus teaches us to seek out!

I long to be part of a community that is radically engaged with our pluralistic, post-Christian society, ready to speak the truth in love while at the same time listening deeply and understanding the concerns and conditions of our historical moment. I want to break the artifacts of our faith out of their display cases and see how we can adapt them to our present circumstances.

I am grateful that our spiritual ancestors were able to find a living relationship with Jesus Christ in centuries past – but we cannot benefit from their example by simply mimicking them and repeating their words by rote. What we need now are not the forms of the past – all our structures, processes, vestments, liturgies and worship styles. We need the Spirit that inspired them in the first place! All of our time-tested religious traditions are useful when they teach us to walk more faithfully in the Spirit’s teaching – but they cannot substitute for the living presence of the Holy Spirit here and now.

What does it look like to radically engage with our surrounding culture, neither condemning the world nor accepting wholesale its assumptions? How can we discern when we are being called to adapt our religious practice to better share the good news of Jesus in this new culture that we live in? How can we honor the Spirit that inspired our religious forebears while avoiding the false safety of human absolutes that keep us cut off from the living work of Christ in our midst? What would it mean for us to lay everything at Jesus’ feet, allowing him to guide us in what we picked back up?

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

What is Happening Here?

Yesterday, the March for Life descended on my neighborhood. Living just blocks from the Capitol Building, we see a lot of protestsRoman Catholic demonstrators with image of Mary come through, and we generally do not pay much attention to any of them. However, I did take notice of the March for Life. It is a Roman Catholic youth rally that takes place every year around this time, which buses in thousands of children – mostly high school and middle school aged – to protest the continued legality of abortion in the United States. The stated goal of this rally is to end all access to abortion, regardless of circumstances. The March for Life defines human life as beginning at fertilization of the egg by sperm.

I remembered that last year’s march had been quite a spectacle, with high schoolers running amok and Roman Catholic priests and monks clogging the streets, temporarily turning the capitol grounds into a carnival of Roman religiosity. I have been getting into photography lately, and it seemed like a good opportunity to take a few photographs. So, with the motivation of capturing some interesting moments on film, I spent an hour and a half observing the 2010 March for Life.

The epicenter of the demonstration was in front of the Supreme Court, where in 1973 the Roe vs Wade decision greatly easedDemonstrators Kneeling restrictions on abortions in the United States. There, Roman Catholic youth and clergy gathered, chanting prayers, lifting up images of Mary, and a variety of anti-abortion placards. While I was present, there were only a few hundred anti-abortion protesters stationed there. The rest of the many thousands of Roman Catholic youth were still rallying on the Mall, on the opposite side of the Capitol Building. Soon, they would march en masse to the Supreme Court.

In the face of the overwhelming numbers of Roman Catholic youth and clergy, a few dozen counter-protesters also gathered in front of the seat of the nation’s highest judicial authority. Most of them seemed to be college-age, some of them holding iconic NOW “Keep Abortion Legal” signs, others holding hand-made signs identifying themselves as political radicals.

For my part, I was just there to capture images, not wade into the intense feelings of the demonstrators. This was naïve on my part.Protesters Talking Despite my task-oriented mindset, I could not help but be affected by what I witnessed through the viewfinder of my camera. More important than what I saw was what I felt: The air was charged with conflict, energy, youthful enthusiasm and braggadocio. I myself did not know how to feel. Several times I prayed, asking the Lord, “What is happening here?” What did all this mean?

I still do not fully understand what I experienced yesterday – watching hyped-up young people chant slogans and prayers, with little distinction made between the two. I felt the shock of hearing the name of my Lord and Savior being used by so many people as a battle cry, as a talisman to be brandished at those on the other side of a contentious public policy issue. I saw thousands upon thousands of those who claim to be serving the One whom I serve relating in a way that felt so alien to the self-sacrificial way of Jesus.

Protests are often like this. I myself have participated in a numberDemonstrators Arguing of demonstrations during my lifetime that have been possessed of a self-righteous spirit – an assurance that we were right, and “they” were deluded and evil. I am no longer convinced that these types of events, and the spiritual condition that they flow out of, are grounded in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Granted that abortion is a symptom of the sin and self-destructive brokenness of our age, how are we called to address the groaning creation that cries out for redemption? How are we as disciples of the Lord Jesus to live out our call to be salt and light in the world, bringing healing to the nations? How can we be a source of comfort to a world that is suffering in slavery to sin? How can we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as it reveals our fallen condition and calls us to more radiant and abundant life in Christ?

As we consider these questions, it is important to remember that one of the most ancient names for Satan is the Accuser. One of theChildren with anti-abortion placards primary traits of the forces of darkness is that they seek to condemn us in our sin, rather than liberating us from it. We must take care to recognize the insidious spirit of the Accuser when it emerges: It is the voice of judgment and condemnation, damning others in their sins, rather than loving them and seeking their redemption in Christ. When we stand as witnesses for righteousness, I pray that we might speak and act under the guidance of the cleansing and liberating Spirit of Jesus.

The Word is Near to You

But what [do the Scriptures] say? “The word is near to you, on your lips and in your heart.” – Romans 10:8

Last night I attended a Bible study in Congress Heights. Those in attendance were from different Christian backgrounds. Besides me, there was a Methodist, a person who grew up in Baltimore Yearly Meeting and is now attending a Roman Catholic church, as well as several people who are members of a local Churches of Christ congregation, including their pastor. This evening, the pastor was leading our Bible study.

At the previous Bible study, I had gotten into a fairly lively discussion with the pastor about the role of Scripture in relation toMy Bible the role of the Holy Spirit, the scriptural basis of women in ministry, and other rather intense topics that should not be discussed over dinner. So, I braced myself when the pastor announced that our study that evening would be on the authority of Scripture.

He guided us through about a dozen Bible verses from the New Testament, explaining the scriptural basis for the supremacy of the Bible as the rule for Christian life. In his understanding, the Bible – the Old and New Testaments together – is the written Word of God. As a Quaker, my understanding of the role of Scripture is different from his, and I struggled with how to engage with his (and his fellow churchgoers’) understanding of the Bible.

In my reading of Scripture, I see the term “word of God” used in two ways. First, it is used as a name for the Son of God, JesusImage of Jesus Christ on Reformation Lutheran church building, Capitol Hill, DC Christ, who is the creative force behind the universe (For examples, see Revelation 19:13; John 1; 1 John 1:1-3). Most Christians – including my brothers and sisters at the Bible study – would not deny that Jesus is the Word of God. They can read the plain meaning of Scripture just as easily as I can, and it’s hard to deny the textual evidence for giving this title to Jesus, the creative power behind all of creation.

But there is indeed another sense in which the term “word” is used in Scripture. The Word of God can, without a doubt, mean Jesus; but it is also used to mean the commands and teaching of God. A prime example of this usage of “the word” is found in the Torah, one of the foundational texts of Judaism (and, by extension, Christianity):

Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

In this passage, Moses explains that the commands that the Hebrews have received from God are not simply a code ofHebrew Scriptures regulations that are written down on scrolls. On the contrary, God’s law and teaching are available to every person and every community. The teaching of God is not a once-and-for-all event; instead, God continues to guide each one of us through the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our midst as the Church. The Word of God never changes – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8) – but we, God’s people, do change. Our needs change; our context changes; our challenges are different from day to day. God, in great mercy and compassion, continues to walk beside us and show us how to live in our present context.

The apostle Paul remarked on this phenomenon of Christ’s direct guidance within the human heart, pointing out that following God is possible without having any knowledge of the Scriptures or of the Christian tradition. He explained, “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Though the Scriptures and the Judeo-Christian tradition are of great help in walking in the Way of Jesus, the ultimate foundation of our faith and life in Christ is our inward experience of Christ’s presence, God’s law written on our hearts.

I was saddened to hear one of the members of our Bible study say that she was envious of the people she read about in the OldEden Testament, who had full access to God. Adam and Eve walked and talked with God in Eden, and Abraham and Moses had regular conversations with the Almighty. She wished she had a similar “direct line” to God. How I longed for her to experience the living presence of God today, and that continual, personal relationship that each of us can have with our Creator! I wondered whether her church’s teaching that the Bible is the “written Word of God,” presented a stumbling block to her having that kind of intimate, direct relationship with Christ. How could it not be a barrier to have your religious community tell you time and time again that all connection with God must be mediated through the Scriptures?

I struggle with how to communicate the centrality of Christ’s inward presence with my non-Quaker brothers and sisters. The Scriptures are very precious to me, and I would never want to denigrate their usefulness in helping us grow in our relationship with Jesus. Nevertheless, I question this over-emphasis on the perfection, completeness and God-like authority of the Scriptures. I fear that many of my brothers and sisters risk losing sight of the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, and substituting a dead letter – “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).

I pray that we discover the living, inward presence of Christ, so that we can say with Paul: “…I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is theLiving the Word power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16). The true gospel is not merely the words that have been written under divine inspiration; Jesus and his gospel cannot be fully captured by any text (see John 21:25).

Rather than seeking to assure ourselves that we have pinned Christ down, let us humbly confess that we understand now only in part, but that as we continue to be led by the Holy Spirit we will be brought into the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that the eternal, living gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ may come to you, “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction…” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

Missional Quaker Faith: Deep Listening

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” – Mark 9:7

When Jesus is at the center of our life as a community, he enters into our midst and serves as our Leader. He sends the Holy Spirit to console and guide us, and through his Light he purifies us and prepares us for our mission as his Body. Through dedicated prayer, we are empowered to keep our eyes on the Lord, not being drawn away by the multitude of things that seek to distract us from the Life.

As we grow deeper in our relationship with God, we will encounter Jesus in a variety of ways. When Christians think about where theyYoungins on the porch at Illinois Yearly Meeting meet and learn from Jesus Christ, probably the most common first answer is, “in the Bible.” And indeed, the Scriptures are an important way we learn about Jesus and his ministry of reconciliation. But there are many other ways we come to know Jesus. We come to know who the Lord is through his presence within us, in our hearts; we also encounter Christ in our life as a community; and we meet him in our interactions with the stranger.

In all of the ways that we encounter the Risen Lord, it is crucial that we listen to him. Christ is present with us, ready to guide us in all of our decisions. He is not merely an historical figure, nor a distant Monarch far away in heaven; he still dwells among us through the Holy Spirit. If we choose to open ourselves to how he is speaking today, he will knit us together in unity and empower us to do his work in the world.

Jesus in Scripture

One of the most important ways that we come to recognize the voice of Jesus when he speaks to us today is through study of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. As the author of Hebrews assures us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever”(1), and we can trust the words and actions ascribed to Jesus by Scripture as a guide to recognizing his ongoing character today.

A healthy respect for the authority of Scripture is essential to the authenticity of a missional Quaker community. The Hebrew and Sarah Hoggatt speaks to the 2010 Quaker Youth PilgrimageGreek Scriptures are a record of God’s relationship with humanity, told primarily from the perspective of the Hebrew people. Studying the Bible is probably the most important way in which the average Christian maintains a relationship with the hundreds of generations that have come before us in the faith. We learn from their experience, which acts as a counterweight to our own subjectivity. If we believe that Christ is leading us in a way that runs contrary to his character as we know it in Scripture, we should carefully re-examine our experience and consider whether it is our interpretation of Scripture that is faulty, or our perception of our experience itself.

In addition to their role as a check on our discernment, the writings of the Old and New Testaments can serve as vessels for God to speak to us in fresh ways. Just as the disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus, we find that the Lord is present with us as we encounter the Scriptures. He opens them to us, revealing within our hearts the truth that God desires to communicate to us through the text.(2) When we read the Bible, whether alone or in community, we must take care to be open to Christ’s presence within us. He walks alongside us, ready to make clear the texts that, if read without the aid of the Holy Spirit, would either confuse us or lead us to wrong conclusions.

In our reading of Scripture, we must be always turned inward, listening for the Word of God in our hearts. The Bible itself is notPaul Buckley teaching at Illinois YM the Word of God, and never refers to itself as such; that title is reserved for Christ alone.(3) This is not theological hair-splitting – it is a key point of our faith as Friends: Because we honor Christ as the Word of God, we recognize that all writings about him, no matter how authoritative and inspired, cannot stand in his place. As we read Scripture, we seek the guidance of the Word-become-flesh, which will allow us to make sense of the Scriptures that the Word has inspired.

The way that we receive guidance from the Bible is not primarily through intellectual analysis (though God desires us to use our intellects to glorify God). Instead, when we consult the Scriptures we are reminded of how the Spirit has spoken to Israel in days past, and we hear how we are being called to faithfulness in our own time and circumstances. We trust that, just as Christ was present with ancient Israel and with the first apostles, so he will be faithful in shepherding us, leading us in his Way.

Jesus Within

The Lord walked with the first man and woman in the garden, and he spoke to Moses out of the burning bush; he made himself known to his disciples on the day of Pentecost, and he blind-sided Saul on the road to Damascus. God has always been consistent in initiating relationship with those who seek to be made whole; and the Spirit has a proven track record of doggedly pursuing those who resist the Truth. Each of us is given regular opportunities to open ourselves to Christ and his power. He is always standing at the door knocking, waiting for us to let him into our hearts.(4)

Thomas Kelly wrote that, “deep within us all, there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a Quaker Camp at Barnesville, 2007speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”(5) Each of us is capable of having a personal relationship with Christ, and we are called to open wide the doors of our hearts and be filled by his presence. We are meant to be dwelling places for the Living God, and we are called upon to be transformed into suitable vessels for God’s Spirit.

This process of being in-breathed by the Spirit of Christ involves two things happening simultaneously: First, we are shown our own condition; second, we are shown God’s will for us. The contrast between these two revelations is the impetus for divine transformation. When we allow Christ to shine his Light on us, we see our selfishness, our corrupt motivations, our rebellion against God, and our failure to love our fellow human beings or even ourselves. At the same time, we see the person that God is calling us to be: selflessly devoted to God and our fellow women and men, using the gifts that God has granted us to give joy to others and strengthen them in their own walk with Christ.

As painful as it is to see ourselves as we truly are, we are also empowered to live into God’s vision for who we are meant to be.George serving as clerk for the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage Step by step, the Refiner’s Fire can remake us, unleashing the power and beauty of God’s original intention for our lives. Many of these steps will be inward changes of heart: We will be called to love instead of hate; bless instead of curse; share instead of hoard. As we submit to the Light, we will find our character being slowly redeemed.

In the midst of this overall reorientation of our character, we will often find that God is calling us to change major aspects of our outward lives. We may be asked to change professions, for example; or move to another city; or take out the garbage without being asked. In big ways and in small ways, God calls us to implement practical changes in our lives that will enable us to better live out our new-found character and purpose as friends of Jesus.
It is essential for our development as disciples that we be obedient in small things, so that we will be ready when God has greater challenges for us. If we are faithful in listening and submitting to the still, small voice within our hearts, Christ will prepare us for the role that we have to play in the wider community.

Jesus in the Midst

The presence of Jesus in our Christian communities is deeply affected by the devotion, prayer and inward transformation of their individual members. But while the faithfulness of individuals is critical to Christ’s work in the Church, the way we experience him when we gather together in his name is more than the sum of the individual prayer lives of those gathered. When two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is indeed in our midst, and we receive his Spirit not merely as individuals, but as a gathered meeting.

When we invite Jesus into our meetings, we do so literally. We invite him in to set the agenda and guide us as a people. In a FUM Triennial 2008certain sense, Friends concur with the Roman Catholic teaching about the nature of Christ’s presence in Communion. We also believe in the real presence, that Jesus is literally made flesh and blood when we gather together in his name and open ourselves to his power. Unlike the Roman Church, we do not locate Christ’s presence in wine and bread; instead, we experience Christ’s presence as we ourselves become his flesh and blood and he becomes our spiritual food and drink.

In our gathered meetings where we have laid aside our own priorities and agendas, we abide in him and he abides in us.(6) When this spiritual unity occurs, we literally become the Body of Christ, the real presence of Jesus in the world. Just as Christ lays bare and transforms the individual heart, he also works in the lives of communities that submit themselves to his healing Light. If we open ourselves to him, he is able to energize and empower us as his Church, to do his work in the world.

But, just as in the case of our personal relationships with Jesus, such depths of intimacy and transformation can only come about2005 World Gathering of Young Friends when we come before God in humility, acknowledgment of our own brokenness, and repentance. This kind of surrender is impossible enough for a single person to accomplish on their own; for groups of dozens, hundreds, and thousands, it is surely inconceivable. But through God’s power, we can indeed triumph over sin and death, not only as atomized individuals, but also as the Church. This is one of the greatest demonstrations of God’s power and mercy: when entire communities are brought to repentance and spurred to lead lives that glorify God, demonstrating God’s love to others.

Jesus in the Stranger

But demonstrating God’s love to others is hard. We are able to love our friends, our family, and people that we generally agree withMeeting new folks in England without too much trouble. These loving relationships are relatively easy, because they do not challenge the underlying assumptions of our lives. We can love those who love us, those who confirm our own worldview, with our own human love. But we need the power of God’s love within us to reach beyond our comfort zone, even embracing those who threaten us.

If we wish to live out Jesus’ mission for us in the wider world, we will need to go further than our own narrow human love and experiment with the risky love of God. This will mean reaching out to people we don’t know, communities we are not comfortable in. With God’s help, we will be called into relationship with a motley assortment of people that we would never have become friends with otherwise. And we will discover that they are the Church of Jesus Christ.

This is perhaps the most difficult lesson for us to learn: We do not have all theJennie and Dorlan at Earlham School of Religion's 50th Anniversary Celebration in Wichita, KS answers. Not even most of them. If we approach the Kingdom-life as a matter of bringing others into the glory of our own perfection, we’re going to be disappointed. God has a lot of work yet still to do with each one of us, even those of us who have been serving Jesus for a long time. And God can speak through anyone.

The really sneaky thing about Jesus is that he shows up in the places where common sense least expects him. We find him among the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill. We are confronted by him among religious and cultural minorities. We see his light shining in gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. We see evidence of his power among women and teenagers, old men and infants. The moment we are tempted to write anyone off as outside of Christ’s mercy, we are dumbfounded by the way he is so clearly alive and at work in the most fantastically diverse assortment of people.

If we are to be a missional community of Jesus’ friends, we have to learn that Jesus is friends with all sorts of people that we wouldDown time during the 2010 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage never normally hang out with. Just as Jesus had mercy on us while we were still in darkness, Jesus is at work in all people; his Seed is present in every heart, working for our salvation. We do not need to “take Christ” out to the people – he is already among them, teaching them inwardly. Our role as Jesus’ disciples is to answer the Seed of God in all people, encouraging it to grow and blossom into fully transformed, Christ-like lives.

And we will be changed by the encounter. We must recognize that mission is not about imprinting our character onto others; it is about sustaining a space where the character of Jesus Christ can come to full bloom in each of us. By holding this space, and inviting others to hold it with us, we will come away remade in unpredictable, surprising ways. And we may find in the end that those we were sent to minister to were in fact the face of Christ to us. We must be ready to change in response to our encounter with Christ in others. We must be willing to change our course not because it is our natural inclination, but because we have submitted to the Truth as he speaks to us in the life of the stranger.

Jesus: The Head of the Church

To conclude this essay, I would like to make a few observations about how this practice of listening, both on our own and in ourNorth American Friends meet at World Gathering of Young Friends meetings, informs the way we operate and make decisions as church communities. Because we believe that Jesus Christ is literally present with us, Friends view the primary role of the Church as being a community that discerns together how Jesus is directing us. And because we believe that Christ is present in every heart, as well as with the group as a whole, we see the responsibility for discernment as falling to the entire Church, not a small group of leaders.

Thus, our way of discerning God’s will for the group is tightly linked with our theology. We must be ready to encounter the presence of Christ in every person, and we must be ready to hear God’s wisdom from the most unlikely of places. This does not mean there is no place for leadership among Friends – on the contrary, our communities do well to empower dynamic, Spirit-led leadership. But ultimately, we are all accountable to our one true Head, Jesus Christ. We wait on him together as a community, laying aside our own opinions of how things should be done and seeking his will for us as the Church.

We have not found voting or parliamentary procedure to be an aid in hearing the voice of the Spirit. Heated debates and proceduralFestival of Friends in Indianapolis maneuvers tend to lead us deeper into self and further away from God. Even when we hold the correct opinion, our anger does not produce God’s righteousness (7), and subduing dissent through majority rule does not assure that we are following Jesus. Often, we have found that the will of God emerges as an alternative that none of the individuals involved had previously considered.

Unlike most other organizations in the world, Friends have found it not only possible but practical to wait together on God until we are drawn into substantial unity as a group. Generally, this results in unanimity – though unanimity is not our goal. We seek to recognize together the will of God and commit to enacting it as a community, even if what we hear is not what we would have chosen ourselves. Old Friends called this, “living in the cross.”

1. Hebrews 13:8
2. See Luke 24:13-32.
3. For a couple of examples, see John 1 and Revelation 19:11-16
4. See Revelation 3:20
5. Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Harper Collins Publishers, 1992, pg. 3.
6. See John 15:4
7. See James 1:20

Resources for Further Study:
Marshall Massey, Why We Practice Corporate Discernment, (accessed 10/23/10)
Michael J. Sheeran, Beyond Majority Rule, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1983.
Paul Lacey, The Authority of our Meetings is the Power of God, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #365, 2003.