Friday, July 21, 2006

Building Walls and Drawing Lines

It seems like a good percentage of the Quaker-blogosphere has been dedicated in one way or another to the issue of building walls - who is a Quaker, who isn't, do you have to believe this or that. The words "inclusive", "exclusive" and "tribal" seem to get thrown around a bit. This is often a very painful subject for people, and I think one of the driving issues is that people fear that a wall is being built, and that they will be left outside it. That is not my intention here.

Often in these discussions, people talk of building a wall, or drawing a line - those on one side are "in" and those on the other are "out". The thing is, there is a difference between walls and lines. Walls keep people out, lines do not. What lines frequently do is help you know where you are and what to expect. When you're driving down the highway, the lines give you guidance as to the direction you are going, and also where to expect other cars to be. I don't even want to think about what rush hour in Atlanta would be like if we erased all the lines on I-285.

What I would hope we have within the global Quaker community is more like a highway with different lanes. There are lanes for Christ-oriented people, some who prefer having a minister, some who prefer the older tradition, and lanes for people who may or may not be Christ-oriented but want a diverse, even eclectic community. We are all (hopefully) heading in the same direction, but we take different ways to get there. We look over at the other lanes and see how things are going there, sometimes we even decide to change lanes.

My hope is that we can all find a lane where we can get to where we are all going without giving other drivers the finger.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A little more about my experience at the NCYM-C gathering

I feel like I went off on a tangent before with respect to some similarities between my experience among Conservative Friends and what I read about the Convergent Friends. I would like to just share some more of my experiences, without getting into schisms and such. I have felt a little uneasy that I have been allowing myself to be pulled away from something precious into something that distracts me.

The opening worship was rather quiet, but there was a depth and a seriousness to the messages. After dinner was the meeting for the committee on Ministry and Oversight, to which everyone was invited. Ceal and I were seated next to Louise Wilson, who is a recorded minister from Virginia Beach Friends Meeting. It was a delight getting to know her. Sometimes she is very deep, other times just funny and makes effective use of a mischievous smile. We were talking about simplicity and how hard it can be to give some things up. She said that looking back over her life, she has been amazed at how things just seem to fall away. It reminded me of the possibly apocryphal story about William Penn being told to wear his sword "as long as thee can". To me, that isn't saying that it is okay NOT to simplify, but that as I come into a closer relationship with God, those extraneous things will fall away on their own.

I ended up volunteering to be a reader for the 7th Night program, which was the Gospel of Mark in 9 Voices. There were 2 narrators who read everything that wasn't a direct quote, one person reading all of Jesus' lines, and then everything else went to the other 6 people. I was one of the other 6, and we were scattered throughout the audience on 7th day. When we were first deciding where everyone would be seated, it was suggested that the person reading God be placed on the top row. For some reason there are times when I can't help making a joke, and I said that while I liked that idea, I might also suggest the middle of the front row, because if God can't get tickets for front row, center, who can? Lloyd Lee laughed and said "Thee has a future as a theologian". There's a scary thought! I thought everyone did a great job, especially Tommy Gipson, who read Jesus. Now, I'm sure it was just a coincidence, but I couldn't help noticing that they had the visitor from the Liberal Friends (i.e. me) read every one of the unclean spirits. I AM LEGION!!!

When we were at SAYMA, we saw our f/Friend Deborah Fisch and we joked that we were coming to the NCYM-C gathering to heckle her - she was the keynote speaker. Deborah laughed, and then said "Well, maybe you could be on my support committee". That was a new one for me, and we were quite happy to have been asked. For me, being on the committee was like doing a meeting for healing, and it turned out I really needed to do this - not necessarily for Deborah, but for me. We met about 30 minutes before Deborah's talk and held her in the light, prayed, offered some vocal ministry and song. Then we held her in the light through her talk. That opened something in me, as it does sometimes in meeting for healing and it affected me for the rest of my time there - it is difficult to describe, but I do get a sense of being "in the Spirit" at various times and at various intensities, and I felt that way much more frequently afterwards. If you ever get a chance to hear Deborah Fisch speak, go! She had so much to share and I think everyone there was deeply and personally touched by her words. One thing she said that I heard repeated a lot afterwards is that there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more than you are right now, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less than you are right now. Deborah also spoke quite a bit about 1 Corinthians 12, which I blogged about just two weeks ago. Of course, Deborah is much more insightful than I am.

The closing worship was just incredible. Deep, moving messages. I was even given a brief message, which is quite rare (the message part is rare, they have all been brief). It was an interesting experience in that the message had been trying to get my attention, like it was tapping on my head or something (dink, dink). But I figured it was just a random thought. So finally, I said "God, if this is really a message, let me know." I don't really remember how it became so clear, but a minute later I was on my feet. Sometimes I wonder whether God doesn't need me to speak much, or if I am just not a good listener. But then, there are other ways to minister to people than just speaking in meeting. Maybe that's what I am meant to do.

The day after I got home, I typed in a 2-page document that was from an earlier meeting of Ministry and Oversight discussing what is the core of being a Conservative Friend. I sent it to the Gwinnett Friends Preparative Meeting where I have been worshipping a good bit lately. As I was typing it in, I got to the list names of those present at the meeting, most of whom I had just met. Each familiar name brought a little bubble of joy, and I long to see these people again and worship with them.

Update (8/1/2006):
The summary of what it means to be a Conservative Friend, answering the query: The “fabric” of Conservative Friends is made of many threads. Name the threads that make up the “religious” part of the Religious Society of Friends. Which of these thread(s) seem essential to our identity as Conservative friends? Which thread(s) are essential to the manner in which we practice our faith? is now available online!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


We had an interesting bible study at NCYM-C. We discussed 3 parts of Deuteronomy and a section of 1 Corinthians 11. Bob Gosney, who led the bible study, said that he had intentionally chosen very difficult passages. The passages from Deuteronomy had to do with reciting Israel's history as something of a ritual, and the latter part of 1 Corinthians talks about communion. Bob jokingly said we were dealing with "3 Rituals and a Sacrament". I had a rather odd way of looking at a section of 1 Corinthians 11 and I wanted to share. Here is the passage (1 Corinthians 11:27-32):

For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup. For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead. But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world. (NET Bible)

This is probably one of those passages that Quakers hurry past, especially with the blood drinking and all, but I think deep down, there is some relation to our practice. I think the key to looking at this section is in the word "judgment". Most of the time, we hear "judgment" used as one of those "end times" things where all the bad people go to Hell and all. But in this case, "judgment" is used in the present tense, as is the word translated as "are disciplined".

Now, although liberal Quakers don't talk about it much, there is a judging aspect of the inner Light that illuminates some of the dark sections of our soul. It can be a painful process, and I think this is really what Paul is talking about. It isn't that if you do this wrong you are going to Hell, but that if you do it wrong, the Holy Spirit is going to let you know about it. Sometimes we may speak in meeting and afterwards have a squirmy, uneasy feeling that we strayed from our guide. I think this is an aspect of that judgment and it isn't meant as punishment but a correction. It seems that Paul is exhorting us to pay attention and follow the inner promptings of the Spirit - not necessarily in following a ritual, but in everything that we do. And if we act against those promptings, God will let us know.

Worshipping Among Conservative Friends

Ceal and I visited the 309th Annual Gathering of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends Conservative last week, and it was a wonderful, liberating experience. So many of my conversations with Friends revolved around either our personal spiritual lives, or the spiritual lives of our meetings. I found the Meetings for Worship to be very enriching and refreshingly devoid of political messages, and the Meetings for Worship with attention to business were also enriching. As one would hope with any gathering of Friends, it was a beautiful group of loving, welcoming, and nurturing people who made me feel at home immediately.

The thing I found liberating is that we all were speaking roughly the same language, so we could all speak openly about our experience in a deep way, instead of trying to translate it into vague, generic terms. We were able to sidestep all the discussion about tribalism, and "how do you define Quakerism" and discuss our life in the Spirit. After reading some of the comments about the gathering of Convergent Friends, I suspect many people had a similar experience there. LizOpp said this about the Convergent Friends gathering:

Convergent Friends seem to hone one other. We connect with one another around our common hunger and desire to delve more deeply into Quakerism, and the commonality is what carries us into the life of the Spirit, into the Stream. We move beyond words, beyond judgment...

The part about "hone one [an]other" really resonated with me, because I felt that so strongly at NCYM-C. That's really a key function of the community. That's why there are advices and queries, and why the NC conservative meetings labor to answer one of the queries as a community at every business meeting, and then read those answers at the yearly meeting. It is part of the process of honing.

I'm not saying that I think that liberal Friends need to become conservative Friends, but it does point out to me something that I think liberal Friends need to at least acknowledge: The more diverse people are in their spiritual experiences, the more difficult it is to convey them to other people in a deep, meaningful way.

I think the reason you see people coming to a Convergent Friends gathering and suddenly being excited and liberated while talking about Christ is because they have suddenly found a place where they can just let go and not worry about offending someone because they have different beliefs. If those conversations are anything like the ones I had at NCYM-C, they have absolutely nothing to do with excluding people or suggesting that other people's beliefs are somehow wrong. They have everything to do with trying to be a faithful servant to God.

It is much easier to just label these as tribal, or exclusive, or say that they really don't understand anything about Jesus, than it is to admit that they are excited because they have found something that had been missing from their spiritual life.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Acknowledging the Gifts of the Spirit

I participated in a Friendly Bible Study yesterday that discussed Matthew 9:14-26, which includes Jesus healing a woman with a hemorrhage and also raising a young girl from the dead. I had felt that one of the points of this section was that Jesus healed people. I was a little surprised that more than half of the group was uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus healing people, and less comfortable with the idea that any of us might be able to do the same. Some expressed difficulty with the idea that some people are healed and not others, and that it made God seem arbitrary or capricious. This was not really new to me, I have heard those comments before, but I think I was struck by the fact that the majority of this small group felt that way. Since then I have been reflecting on the possibility that the majority of (Liberal?) Quakers also feel this way.

It is interesting to apply this same line of thought to vocal ministry. Why does God speak through some people more than others, some never at all? Why can't God just speak directly to people? Doesn't that make God seem arbitrary or capricious as well? Why does God need or want our participation in getting her message out? If we can accept the idea that God may speak through us at times, why is it not possible that God may use us in other ways as well?

I specifically mention vocal ministry because I think that it is one (or maybe a combination of several) of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in 1st Corinthians 12 (7-11):

To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. (NET Bible)

So for Paul and the early Christians, healing wasn't just something Jesus did, some of them were also able to do it. They also recognized various other gifts amongst each other. I quoted this passage a few months ago when I was talking about speaking in tongues, and I was led to read it yesterday morning before Meeting for Worship. What stood out to me more yesterday was the passage that follows (12-26):

For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. If they were all the same member, where would the body be? So now there are many members, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.

Not only is it important to recognize that there are different kinds of gifts beyond just vocal ministry, but that we don't all have the same gifts. I think that has fallen away somewhat within Liberal Quakerism from what I can see. It seems like we are hesitant to acknowledge a gift or try to nurture it because we feel like it creates an inequality. We don't really have recognized "elders" so much as people we privately consider "weighty Friends", and recorded ministers seem rare. I think the community and God would be better served if we were to acknowledge and nurture the various gifts within in the community. Recognizing that someone has a particular gift doesn't mean that other people aren't also given that gift from time to time, and it isn't necessarily permanent - someone may lose their gift. The recognition is more of the community taking responsibility for that gift - the individual for the exercise of the gift, and the others for the care and nurture of the individual. While the idea of having recorded ministers and elders seems like it sets up some kind of hierarchy, I think Paul's description of the Church as a body casts the idea of recognized gifts into a more egalitarian light. Not everyone can be the eye, and while the eye is important, it needs the protection of the eyelid. While the eyelid isn't a glamorous job, the eye may soon be unable to function without it - everyone is important, no matter what they do.