Saturday, December 31, 2011

Primitive Christianity Revived - But Not By Us.

I think it's safe to say that if George Fox or William Penn came to my house looking to see how their vision of Quakerism as primitive Christianity revived was progressing, they would be pretty disappointed. They would find a well-intentioned, averagely good person who is completely committed to recreating the Kingdom of God on earth, as long as it doesn't impinge too much on her comfortable life style, status in the community or retirement plans. She believes fervently that the world's resources should be shared more equitably and is happy to give a few bucks here and there to show that she is willing, if not 100% committed. And she loves the idea of offering hospitality to strangers, as long as it doesn't mean actually putting them up in her own home unless they meet certain standards of cleanliness, sanity and general all-round acceptability.

If George and William accompanied me to meeting on First Day, they would find a meetinghouse full of Quakers pretty much like me: earnest, sincere seekers, engaged in lots of good works, but, nevertheless, rather modest in our aspirations for the establishment of the Kingdom and privately fearful that God may ask us to step out of our comfort zone. I suspect this would be the case regardless of the flavor of Friends meeting in question. Certainly there are individual Quakers here and there who have stepped out more radically in the direction of replacing the established order with what early Friends described as Gospel Order, but as a body have we settled for something less? Community is supposedly one of the traditional Quaker testimonies, but, if we are honest, most of us are really talking about a community of People Like Us. Sure, we engage in sorties that bring us into contact with non-PLUs - to juvenile detention centers, soup kitchens, food banks, even trips to minister to the distant poor - but then we retreat to our comfortable Quaker silos where we send up fervent prayers of gratitude that our lives are not like theirs. Even our meetings (and I speak as a liberal Friend here) are remarkably homogeneous - overwhelmingly white, college-educated and with above average incomes.

In working together to reestablish Gospel Order, early Friends had a shared community focus that has been fundamentally lost as we have each settled into following our individual "leadings." Essentially, they understood Gospel Order as the way God intended the world to be, in which every part of creation existed in right relationship with every other part. Friends believed that the role of Jesus Christ and the gospel that he preached was to restore that relationship. His teachings provided the blueprint. In seeking to restore primitive Christianity, early Friends were attempting, through the direct intercession of and empowerment by the Christ Within, to literally upend the status quo and reestablish Gospel Order on earth by a radical adherence to those teachings. This meant a total reordering of their lives and relationships with each other and with all those in the prevailing social structure, regardless of who they might be, king or servant. They sought a revolution in the world by first undergoing a revolution within themselves.

Today, Friends, like the majority of Christians, tend to perceive Jesus's teachings as more of an ideal than a serious challenge. By placing not just primary, but, in many cases, total reliance on the inner Light, we liberal Quakers, in particular, give ourselves implicit permission to follow only leadings with which we are comfortable. If I am 100% honest, I have to admit that I have a lot of trouble distinguishing a true leading from a really good idea or a personal enthusiasm. And I am adept at consigning what could easily be a call to greater faithfulness (for example, by embracing a difficult and isolated neighbor with a drinking problem) to that convenient box at the back of my head labeled "Leadings That Need More Seasoning" (and which probably will never be seasoned enough). Early Quakers, by balancing the inward Light (rather than the more modern and more easily-digestible inner Light) with Scripture and stronger group discernment, were not only challenged much more rigorously that we modern Friends are, but worked together much more effectively towards achieving that shared vision of Gospel Order. Granted, over time group discernment in the Society of Friends degenerated into an authoritarianism that had more to do with established power structures than a gathered people working together to establish God's Kingdom on earth, but I can't help wondering if we haven't thrown the baby out with the bath water by placing total authority in the inner Light and not taking seriously the challenges of the gospel.

The good news is that should Fox and Penn find themselves transported to 21st century America, they would find people sincerely committed to reviving primitive Christianity, but they would have to look outside the Religious Society of Friends. Across the country there is a grassroots revolution taking place within Christianity, driven in large part by young Christians who are throwing off their denominational shackles (be they Catholic, Protestant, evangelical or mainstream) to form intentional communities based on radical discipleship of the gospel of Jesus. Dubbed "the new monasticism" and "the emergent church," these ecumenical communities are frequently located in some of our country's poorest neighborhoods and rural areas. Members of these communities are not "missionaries" parachuting in to "do good works" or "save souls," but are believers who are working towards, in Quaker terms, Gospel Order, with a view to creating a society built on love and genuine care, rather than power and division. Tired of the cultural and political wars of their parents, these young people are putting aside theological disputes over issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and are following the example not just of Jesus and early Christians, but also of more modern communities such as the Catholic Workers movement, the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, and Koinonia Farm in Georgia. Rather than writing checks and volunteering a couple of times a month (or a year), they are, instead, practicing radical hospitality and a reordering of relationships, in which all, rich and poor, gay and straight, stable and mentally ill, addicted and clean, share together equally in God's bounty.

Put in the context of 17th century England, this description of the new monasticism by Jonathan R. Wilson, a professor of theology from Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, could be about the early Quaker movement: "Today in North America and the larger sphere of Western European culture, faithfulness to the gospel is in danger. As our culture's project desperately works to maintain control despite its looming death, the 'living arrangement' worked out by the church and the culture is collapsing. Many parts of the church are sinking with the culture and doing so without any resistance. The call for a new monasticism is the work of God's Spirit calling us to renewed understanding of the gospel and faithful witness to it..."

As Shane Claiborne, a founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, put it, "The great tragedy is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians do not know the poor...Layers of insulation separate the rich and poor from truly encountering one another. There are the obvious ones like picket fences and SUVs, and there are the more subtle ones like charity. Tithes, tax-exempt donations and short-term mission trips, while they accomplish some good, can also function as outlets that allow us to appease our consciences and still retain a safe distance from the poor. It is much more comfortable to de-personalize the poor so that we do not feel responsible for the catastrophic human failure that someone is on the street while people have spare bedrooms in their homes...Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He is seeking concrete actions of love: 'you fed visited welcomed me clothed me...' When the church becomes a place of brokerage rather than an organic community, she ceases to be alive. Brokerage turns the church into an organization rather than a new family of rebirth...She becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get fed), but no one leaves transformed - no new community is formed."

I think most of us can agree, whether we are Occupiers or Tea Party-ers or a member of the unaligned but no less anxious millions, that something is fundamentally broken in our social, economic and political structures. The need to restore Gospel Order - to bring humanity into right relationship with each other, with God and with all of creation - is no less urgent today than it was in the 17th century; indeed it could be argued that we have never been more in need of it. As individuals, are we prepared, in Gandhi's words, "to be the change we want to see in the world"? And as a faith community, can we Friends leave behind some of our hang ups about Christians and other religious groups to work with them towards a shared vision of a more just and loving society?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Convincement" or "Uncertainment" - a Liberal Friend's dilemma

While I could never be mistaken for a fundamentalist, I have a childish yearning for a completely literal burning bush-type experience, or perhaps one day, while driving to New York, (Damascus not being handy), I suddenly find myself being yanked from my car and cast down upon the side of the interstate and a voice tells me in no uncertain terms that this is Jesus speaking and you, Patricia, had better take heed! Now that's the sort of experience that leaves no room for doubt. Why is it that we live in an age when God seems to favor the "still small voice" over the Cecil B. DeMille announcement? Quakers are particularly fond of this method of revelation and even eschew the word "conversion" in favor of  "convincement," as if conversion is way too melodramatic for a peculiar people who appear to be too pig-headed to be anything other than talked into belief once all the pros and cons have been carefully weighed. Of course, this is a very 21st century definition of the verb "to convince." Even a cursory study of the convincement accounts of early Friends offers ample evidence that it was an entirely dramatic experience. Here's a sample from Francis Howgill:

My eyes were opened, and all the things that I had ever done were brought to remembrance and the ark of the testament was opened, and there was thunder and lightning and great hail. And then the trumpet of the Lord was sounded, and then nothing but war and rumor of war, and the dreadful power of the Lord fell on me: plague, and pestilence, and famine, and earthquake, and fear and terror, for the sights I saw with my eyes: and that which I heard with my ears, sorrow and pain...And all that ever I had done was judged and condemned, all things were accursed...And as I bore the indignation of the Lord, something rejoiced, the serpent's head began to be bruised...And as I did give up all to judgement, the captive came forth out of prison and rejoiced, and my heart was filled with joy...Then I saw the cross of Christ, and stood in it, and the enmity slain on it. And the new man was made...the holy law of God was revealed unto me and written on my heart.

Now, here's the kind of experience that made things happen! By 1662, a decade after George Fox and the early Seekers were "gathered" as a people, about 80,000 had been "convinced" - close to 1% of the population of Britain at that time. Three hundred and forty-nine years later, that number has dwindled to about 12,000 Friends in the UK, with around 180,000 in the Americas and 380,000 worldwide. For purposes of comparison, I offer the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints which has been around for 200 years less. In 1862, there were about 69,000 Mormons. Today, there are more than 14 million. Are they more convinced than we are? Looking at the numbers, they certainly seem to be.

Actually, going out and telling people that you have found something spectacularly wonderful seems to work for Quakers, too. Of the 380,000 Friends worldwide, a whopping 84% are affiliated with or reflect more evangelical branches of Quakerism. A paltry 15.7% make up the liberal, unprogrammed universe, with Conservative Friends flickering away valiantly at 0.4%. As one liberal Friend once said, "We don't just hide our light under a bushel basket. We hide the bushel basket under another bushel basket!" This is, after all, our little secret.

Which brings me to the question: what is it that we in the liberal branch of Quakerism are "convinced" of? And if we are so "convinced," why are we so shy about telling other people about it? Perhaps in the spirit of "let your yay be yay and your nay be nay," we should more truthfully call it "uncertainment" rather than "convincement." Recently, in my meeting the Friend on facing bench invited visitors to sign the guest book, adding impulsively and with the best of intentions, "And, don't worry, we won't try to contact you." I guess to "silent worship" we need to add "silent outreach." Mention the word "proselytize" to a liberal Friend and you get about the same reaction as "Beelzebub" or "Harry Potter" elicits in some other faith traditions. Yet I can't help feeling that we have perhaps retreated a little too far in the direction of modesty when expressing our liberal Quaker beliefs. We love the phrase "let your life speak" partly because it lets us off the hook in terms of verbally sharing something that many of us consider central to our lives. If we practice our faith in our daily lives, we don't actually need to share what motivates us because we'll "convince" people by some vague process of osmosis. Or maybe not. And do we care? Quaker Quest was started in Britain in large part because of the realization that unless something was done and done soon, the Religious Society of Friends was on the road to extinction in the country of its birth (some predictions have it at about 2037). Surely if we are convinced of something we should practice articulating it so that we can share it with others. For many liberal meetings outreach is done almost by default; if you happen to cross our threshold we'll do our best not to scare you off. Perhaps we need to have a small sign on each pew: Only the most determined need apply. I know from experience that many liberal Friends are people who are thoroughly "convinced," although frequently we transmit uncertainty. Surely in this troubled world we need to find a way to joyfully articulate what we are convinced about, what inspires us about the Quaker way and what excites us about the journey.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part III

Teaching First Day School in a liberal unprogrammed Friends meeting is a strange and wonderful business. Somehow you have to transmit whatever it is that is going on mostly in silence among the adults in the next room, without any hint of indoctrination and ever aware that what might be your Truth may very well not be Truth as experienced by the parents of the tender minds under your care. Teaching the Bible is this experience on steriods. You soon find yourself navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, your sails flapping ineffectually before the feeble winds of your own insecurity. This has led to some of my most distressing episodes as an FDS teacher and some of the funniest.

On one never to be forgotten Sunday at a time when I was the Religious Education clerk, I was waylaid by an irate mother who accused a teacher (not me, thank heavens) of brainwashing her children with a fundamentalist version of a Bible story. Further investigation revealed that all the hapless teacher had done was read the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, leaving the kids to decided for themselves on the story's "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert would say. No amount of pouring oil on troubled waters would calm the mother and, as a result, we lost that family and the FDS teacher refused to ever teach again (not an insignificant loss, as any RE clerk will tell you).

On a more amusing note, I was (nervously) reading a Bible story to the children one First Day when I came across the word "sinner." Aware that most of my charges had probably never heard of a "sinner" before or even "sin" (such an uncomfortable concept for us post-Modern Quakers), I felt obliged to pause to ask the children, "Does anyone know what a sinner is?" There followed an impressive silence. Eventually, one brave fellow decided to hazard a guess. "Is it someone who goes to a synagogue?" he asked. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! We FDS teachers have to take our teachable moments where we can find them. "Indeed!" I replied. "They can also be found in churches and temples and mosques, and even (dramatic pause) at Quaker meetings!"

Given the terror of parental wrath and the glorious tabula rasa that is most of our liberal Quaker youth with regard to the Bible, the subject of Jesus is usually approached occasionally, selectively, and with great delicacy. To stay on the safe side, we tend to avoid the miracles, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the virgin birth (except at Christmas where it occupies a special place next to Santa, elves and other seasonal magic). What that leaves us with are the parables. Blessed relief, since they can be presented rather like queries and are wonderfully open to interpretation. Perfect for avoiding trouble. It is entirely possible for a child to go through all of FDS in a liberal Friends meeting - from kindergarten through high school - with only a nodding acquaintance with Jesus. Or - even worse - what they do know is invariably heavily colored by negative perceptions gleaned from the shriller quarters of the fundamentalist universe. I should know. While I was wrestling with what I could "safely" tell my children about Jesus (and my husband, an Episcopalian, was having his own struggles on this question), they had the temerity to grow up Jesus-less. Oh, the irony! I had decided not to raise them in the nice, local Methodist church because I couldn't bring myself to present the Christian doctrine as the unvarnished truth, and now 16 years later I am regretting that I managed to leave them almost totally in the dark on a subject that has come to occupy the central place in my spiritual life. Dear Lord, can we please do a make-up?

Because here's the amazing thing. I have (finally) met Jesus again, not as a TV dinner precooked and semi-digested by someone else (please see The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part II), and not as some intellectual exercise, sanitized for college grads who don't want to look like idiots or be associated with "them." But, in the words of George Fox, as "the Christ Within." As the living Teacher who opened up the  minds and hearts of the first Quakers, as well as many others before and after Fox, including non-Quakers. And this Christ Within continues to do so, bringing transformation and a new way of experiencing life and experiencing it more abundantly. This Christ is not a metaphor or just some super-charged ethical teacher or (to me, at least) an unintelligible cosmic sacrifice necessary for my entry into heaven, or any of the other definitions that include some and exclude many. No, the Christ Within that I have come to know is not separate from Jesus of Nazareth, neither is this Christ Within exclusive to Jesus of Nazareth. This Christ Within is available to all. But I do not believe I could have come to know the Christ Within without the historical Jesus. And I would not have come to know and love this Christ Within, this Jesus, without stopping to drink from the living waters that flow through many Christian traditions - Catholic, Protestant, Quaker. I cannot comment on non-Christian paths because they are outside my experience, but I do know that I have met people of faith from outside Christianity who live lives of godliness and who are clearly powered by the same Spirit of love and transformation that was epitomized in the life and teachings of a man who lived 2,000 years ago in Galilee. As John Woolman discovered in the mid-18th century in his contacts with Native Americans: "I believed some of them were measurably acquainted with that divine Power which subjects the rough and forward Will of the Creature." Jesus, the Christ Within, God, the Divine, is bigger than our definitions, far larger than our self-imposed fortresses, beyond the limits of our human minds, yet miraculously accessible to us all, a promise of a rich life beyond our wildest imaginings.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Odd Man at the Dinner Party Part II

While walking the dog today I came up with my theory of belief as a TV dinner. Just about every religious faith has one and, certainly, every Christian denomination. The Catholics have a very sumptuous, multi-compartment meal, with a good hunk of meat and lots of really delicious sides, beautifully presented. There are some difficult-to-eat veggies there, too, but the cook in Rome is willing to turn a blind eye if you want to shove some of them under the mashed potatoes. The Baptists' TV dinner is a lot simpler. You definitely know what you're getting and there's no hiding the stuff that might be less than palatable. You have to eat it all. Various other denominations all have their versions of this meal; some have more meat, some more veggies. One denomination favors the carrots over the peas. Another presents it all as dessert, teeth-achingly sweet and fluffy. And before anyone gets on my case for dissing other faith communities, I'm not. For many, many people the TV dinner of their choice really works for them and gives them the sustenance they need to hear God, which is really what it's all about. The odd thing is that in Christianity all of these meals are called the same thing: Jesus. How he is consumed pretty much determines where you go to eat on Sunday.

Most of us grew up with one TV dinner or another, so it's not surprising that when we first turned up at Quaker meeting (assuming it was a liberal unprogrammed one) we soon began to look for the Quaker brand TV dinner. Our tummies were rumbling and we wanted to eat!  But instead of being served a nice tidy container of Quaker Jesus, we were cheerfully told that there was no TV dinner. Instead we had to go to the kitchen and forage for ourselves - pull the ingredients we liked out of the pantry and fridge and cook up our own dinner. If we didn't like veggies, then we didn't have to eat them! Not only that, the cupboards were filled with all sorts of exotic ingredients we never got in our old TV dinners. If you wanted a pinch of Buddhism, then mix it on in. Some Pagan granola? Don't hold back! And if you didn't want any Jesus (maybe he looked a little stale to you), well, you could just leave him on the shelf. You quickly discovered that, in fact, the Quaker meal was not called Jesus at all. You'd cooked up something completely different, customized to your diet preferences. Best of all, as time went on you could drop some ingredients and mix in others so that you could keep it palatable and sustaining as your tastes changed. I'm not knocking this, either. For some of us, it was the only way we could hang in there at all. Our old TV dinners had given us severe indigestion and we'd even perhaps developed some severe allergies, so being able to customize our own individual meals was the only way we could stop ourselves from starving.

While I had come to Quakerism only mildly dyspeptic (rather than covered with hives), I did realize that I would have to fast for a while. One day, early in my Quaker career, I was discussing my on-again, off-again relationship with Jesus with a wise old matriarch at my meeting. Although she had spent the last 60 or so years as a Quaker, she had been born a Baptist and she totally understood my confusion. "You have to go through a period of unlearning," she advised, nodding sagely. At first I wasn't sure what she meant, but the truth of her words slowly dawned on me. Never underestimate the power of those gentle Sunday School teachers from yesteryear to engrave certain images and ideas about Jesus on your young psyches. As a young child I would put myself to sleep by describing in my head the sheer perfection of Jesus, starting with his hair (as shiny as the sun, as soft as lamb's fleece, as golden as, well, gold) and moving downwards towards his toes (although thankfully I was always asleep before I got that far because Lord knows what superlatives my feverish brain would have conjured about the divine end points.) It's no wonder I had to scrub the old hard drive clean. Turns out there was a lot to unload: the blue-eyed Caucasian glowing ethereally from church hall pictures worldwide (even in places where the congregation wasn't Caucasian); the Jesus who wept every time I took his name in vain; bipolar Jesus who one minute represented all that was loving and kind and the next was threatening hell and damnation; Jesus the nitpicker, constantly pointing out where I could do better; Jesus the Jewish mother, finding ever new ways to make me feel guilty. And on and on and on. I was amazed at how much Jesus freight I had. But I kept diligently sloughing it off because I could not quell my desire to, in the words of Marcus Borg, "meet Jesus again for the first time." Turns out, a liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting is a fabulous place to do this because there is no one trying to replace your old version of Jesus with their new one. There's no Quaker Bill Gates with Jesus 2.0 pushing you to update. It's just you and Jesus working away together in complete obscurity, free from interference or even curiosity.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Odd Man at the Dinner Party

When I first began attending Quaker meeting 16 years ago, I quickly noticed a notable absence. Sunday after Sunday would pass (or First Day after First Day, as the Quakers insisted on calling it) without a mention of Jesus. I mean, Quakers were Christians, weren't they? It was as if he had dropped down a rabbit hole somewhere in the Quaker past to be replaced by - well, nothing. There was no central figure, no icon, no rallying point. I brought the subject up with the folks that I figured were the "weighty Friends" and received a set of thoroughly unsatisfactory answers, all equally vague and non-committal: "teacher," "model," "significant religious figure," or (my favorite) "metaphor." No matter how hard I tried I couldn't flush out anyone who would give the stock answer: "Divine Son of God who was born to a virgin and died on the cross to atone for my sins and then was resurrected from the dead to sit on the right hand of God until such time as he returns to judge the quick and the dead." I mean, that's the right answer, isn't it? The one that, at the very least, would get you a gold star from the sweet Sunday School teacher - or, more to the point, save you from a miserable fiery eternity if you would just sign on to this version of the Christ story. Eternal damnation, fire and brimstone, or its alternative, wafting around forever on a cloud sporting a pair of wings and plucking a harp didn't appear to be part of the Quaker way.

Frankly, this was a big relief, but I remained disconcerted by the generally Quakerly discomfort with Jesus to whom I took to referring as "the odd man at the Quaker dinner party." He was there if you looked for him, sitting at the far end of the table, sort of awkwardly squeezed in. Most of the other guests were happy to make small talk with him, but no one really wanted to engage with him in any serious way, particularly since some of the guests were determined to ignore him altogether. Poor Jesus. "I'll talk to you," I would squeak inwardly. "I still care."

Of course, I came to Quakerism fairly unmolested spiritually. Unlike many people who cross the Meetinghouse threshold, I was not a member of the walking wounded who had been chewed up and spat out by their previous faith communities (or at least by those brethren in charge of their previous faith communities). Born with a fairly big "God gene," I had thus far enjoyed a fairly riveting walk through a number of religious venues - transcendentalism as expressed in "Little Women," born-again-ism (more than once), transcendental meditation, Mormonism, a brief dabble in Buddhism-lite. All of this my resolutely non-religious family bore with fairly good grace even though I think they found me a little odd and occasionally a real pain in the butt. ("No, I won't give Grandpa his Scotch at 6 because it goes against my religious principles.") I enjoyed all of these sortees and came away pretty positive about all of it even if I couldn't permanently swallow the whole tamale.

By the time I came to Quakerism, I had been off the path for about a decade, getting married, having children, and, shall we say, worshiping at the shrine of Bacchus. But children have a bad habit of getting one thinking about stuff other than the next good time. For reentry into the religious life, I took them to the local Methodist church. Everything a family could want - good people, nice minister who didn't look as if he was going to demand anything scary, terrific youth program. Except I just couldn't do it. I couldn't serve up the usual Christian boilerplate to my children and look them in the eye and say, "It's all true." So I asked my Quaker friend Catherine to take me to Meeting with her. I loved the idea of Quakers. Peaceful, serene, emanating, no doubt, a faintly ethereal glow powered by all of that brotherly love. Also, unusual and vaguely exotic, which I considered a plus. And if I wanted a spiritual path devoid of Christian boilerplate this was definitely it. So why did I feel so bereft at the absence of Jesus?