Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. – Hebrews 12:28-29
In my last post, I imagined what it might mean for a whole community to respond to Jesus’ challenge to us as his disciples: to follow him without reservation and without safety net. I used the image of burning down a meetinghouse as a metaphor for what it might look like for us to surrender to God as a community, to lay down all of those things that get in the way of child-like faith. It turns out that this was really shocking imagery for some of my readers, and I got a lot of pushback from commenters here on the blog and on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that many people got so stuck on the image of a burning meetinghouse that they could not see through to the underlying message of renewal.
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the image of a torched meetinghouse upset some members of my online community. Despite our insistence to the contrary, we Quakers are just as attached to our “stuff” – buildings, rituals, procedures and endowments – as any other religious group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God.That function would not be served by constantly calling every aspect of the community’s life into question. Stability and unity within the Church are helpful.
All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart, and unity degenerates into group-think. In our desire to maintain a conflict-free community, we may come to value conformity over prophetic witness. Our tendency can be to freeze the community at a particular point in time – whether past or future – and to seek to maintain that “perfect” moment indefinitely. But a living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.
Life depends on a vibrant dynamic between stability and change, the new and the old, creation and destruction. Neither a constant turmoil, nor frozen “perfection” present fertile soil for the work of the Spirit. How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God’s call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?
Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body. That being said, I do believe there are steps we can take to encourage the stable flexibility that our communities need if they are to be places where we grow together in maturity and love. One of these steps is to consider the generational dynamics that are at play in our religious society.
I write from my perspective as a 29-year-old man – a Millennial– who is pretty close to aging out of the “young adult” category. I speak out of almost a decade of experience of being a twentysomething among Friends – first as a seeker; then as a new member of a small Quaker Meeting in Kansas; later as a seminarian at ESR; and finally as a Friend doing ministry in the wider world. I have watched for years as so many in my generation have fallen away from Quakerism, sometimes to join another religious community, but usually drifting into the wider, secular culture. I carry a concern for these younger Friends who have not found a place within their religious community, and I have opinions about how we might change to become more relevant to our present context.
This is a place where I get into trouble a lot. Many folks – especially those of older generations – get very defensive when I start talking about generational challenges. And, it is true, I probably go a little too hard on the Boomer generation at times. I am sorry about that. But I would like to encourage Friends to keep things in perspective. Adult Friends under the age of 40 are an incredibly small minority in our communities here in North America.When I first became a Quaker, I was the only person under fifty in my Meeting, and was one of only twoyoung adults who were active in my Yearly Meeting. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, where I am currently a member, I can identify only perhaps half a dozen Friends under the age of 40 who are active in the life of the Yearly Meeting.
I realize that I can come across to some older folks as an “angry young man” who blames all the challenges facing Friends on older generations. But take a moment to see the world from my vantage point. In my life in Washington, DC, I am surrounded by adults in their twenties and thirties. We are young professionals, activists, writers and intellectuals. We are energetic, earnest and hard at work throughout the city.
Yet, when I participate my Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker groups, my peers are nowhere to be found. I am surrounded by people who are decades older than me, with very different life experiences, assumptions and worldviews. I am too young to clearly remember when the Berlin wall came down, yet most of my brothers and sisters in the Quaker community had their worldviews shaped in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War! I love my older Friends, and I lean on a number of them for eldership, support and counsel. But, over time, it can also be alienating to be a part of a community where my different life experience is often unrecognized.
So, I apologize for anything I have written or said that has made my older Friends feel attacked or devalued. While at times I may say some things that feel like insults to our older members,I hope you will hear where my concern really lies: not in tearing down older Friends, but in lifting up the particular gifts, experience and concerns of younger Quakers. How can our religious community value and empower the gifts and ministries of younger Friends? How can all of us come together in the Truth?
Our God is indeed a consuming fire, and all of us – young and old – have dross to be melted away as we wait in that refining Presence. How must we change so that we can wait together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit? If all our forms and structures and buildings and finances are tools that God has given us for blessing the world, what does it look like for us to faithfully exercise those tools, those gifts? And how do we avoid making the tools and gifts our focus, rather than God? How can we live into these questions together, as an intergenerational community?