Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. – John 12:24-25
Great Plains Yearly Meeting has been thinking about dying for a long time. Back in 2001, Great Plains – a fellowship of Quakers in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma – had dwindled to only five local congregations, and Friends considered seriously whether GPYM’s time was up. Yet, for some reason – whether a nudge from the Spirit or the lure of nostalgia (perhaps a bit of both) – Friends re-committed themselves to existence as a Yearly Meeting.
Over the nine years that I have attended GPYM, I have watched Friends wrestle with what continued existence would mean. Is GPYM primarily a family reunion – an assembly of “good people” who like one another? Does the Yearly Meeting primarily exist as a connection with Quaker institutions on the East Coast? Does GPYM have something unique to say to its own context in the American heartland? Could the Yearly Meeting be a base community for a shared life of radical discipleship and loving action for liberation and justice in the Great Plains region?
During my time attending Great Plains, it has seemed like the default mode for GPYM is to operate as a place of comfort, security and self-affirmation. The Yearly Meeting provides a sense of identity and connection with the wider Quaker world, a touchstone in a region with few Friends of like mind. Often, the posture of folks in Great Plains Yearly Meeting has been fatalistic – resigned to the sleepy decline of our Christian fellowship.
But we were not left without a witness. Over time, I have seen God prodding Friends to choose a path of renewed life and vitality as Christ’s Church. God has raised up a number of prophetic ministers who have called the Yearly Meeting to a deeper engagement with our shared experience of Jesus Christ, and his call to be salt and light in the world. These prophets have not always been well-received, but their ministry has had a clear effect over the long haul.
This year, the clerk of the Yearly Meeting brought a proposal that she be financially released (Quakerese for “hired”) for part-time service to the Yearly Meeting. She explained that she felt called to dedicate a substantial portion of her time to nurturing Meetings throughout the region and helping to spur the development of new leadership that could help to sustain the work of the Yearly Meeting in the years ahead.
In 2009, after a season of traveling ministry among Friends in the Great Plains region, I had laid a similar concern before Great Plains Yearly Meeting. At that time, however, Friends were not ready to provide support for such an out-of-the-box proposal. GPYM’s Ministry and Counsel minuted, “Our Yearly Meeting simply is not yet at a place where we can corporately affirm an apostolic ministry” (M&C 09-17). Three years later, however, the ground seems to have been cleared enough that Friends are seriously considering supporting just such an apostolic call.
Jesus teaches us that the way to everlasting life is through apparent death, and that by clinging to what we already have, we deny ourselves the riches that are to come. Have we reached a place where we are ready to die to our comfort and nostalgia – to bury that which once was so that we can reap that which God is bringing into being? What does it look like for the Church to die to itself, and to be raised again, clothed in Jesus Christ? Are we willing to let go of the dirty rags that we cling to in order to put on the fine linen of Christ’s wedding banquet? Can we embrace the self-death that leads to overflowing life in the Spirit?
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. … – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44