Thursday, September 27, 2012

Liberal Friends - the Lake Wobegon of Quakerism

I have just returned from a retreat at Pendle Hill where we spent a lot of time identifying our own and each other’s gifts with a view to living lives more faithful to the leadings of the Spirit. There was much deep listening and reflection, and I think that most of us left with the wind under our tails, filled with good resolutions to put our gifts to work in our meetings and our world.

Predictably, Reality was awaiting my return, eager to disabuse me of any elevated notions I may have acquired in the rarefied atmosphere of Pendle Hill. It wasn’t only reality in the form of laundry and bills and the annoying persistence of my own bad habits; it was also the ubiquitous nature of the Lake Wobegon effect that is part of liberal Quakerism, where everyone is “above average” and where gifts are routinely allowed to gather dust on the shelf. To be more explicit, in our rejection of the hierarchies that developed in the Religious Society of Friends around recorded ministers and appointed elders and overseers, we’ve rather thrown the baby out with the bath water. Any naming or nurturing of gifts has become occasional and incidental rather than an intentional part of the spiritual life of the meeting community.

Which is not to say that liberal Quakers do not have good reason to balk at anything that might set an individual apart. The shadow of the Great Separation still looms over us, even though it happened almost 200 years ago. Within a decade or so of the founding of Quakerism, George Fox and other early leaders found it necessary to “herd the cats” by creating structures to impose some sort of orthodoxy. And just as well they did, because it is highly doubtful that Quakerism would have survived without some grownups in charge. But, with organization comes hierarchy, and with hierarchy comes exclusivity. The next thing you know, the elders are at the door looking for red petticoats and spinets. When the Great Separation finally erupted in the late 1820s, it was in large part a revolt against the authority of the wealthy and prestigious elders of Philadelphia.

So where are we, the spiritual descendents of the Hicksite rebels, today? Are liberal Friends co-existing happily in Lake Wobegon where all are equal and “above average”? Not really. Wherever humans gather, hierarchies develop, even if they are implicit rather than explicit. All the way from the monthly meeting level up to yearly meetings, there are folks in liberal Friends organizations who are clearly in charge, whose word carries more weight, who control much of what happens in the community, who are, in some cases, members of an entrenched elite. The vast majority of these folks are committed and Spirit-filled Friends with no ulterior agendas, who have reached their positions of authority by virtue of their commitment and, yes, their gifts. But in making the process implicit rather than explicit we have also lost the accountability that accompanies the kind of formal naming of gifts that is still practiced today by conservative Friends.

I have had numerous conversations with our conservative brethren about the appointment of elders and the naming of ministers and, in theory at least, it sounds very good. There is a stated understanding that the gifts of eldering and vocal ministry belong to the meeting, rather than to the individual, and should be used for the spiritual edification of all. As such, the meeting is responsible both for nurturing the gift and for ensuring that the individual who is the steward of the gift exercises it under the guidance of the Spirit, rather than their own egos. Having never been a member of a Conservative meeting, I have no idea how this works in practice. I suspect imperfectly, since it still involves members of the human race.

While there has been a wary revisiting of the idea of recording ministers in recent years among liberal Friends, I don’t see any real momentum towards it happening and, all things considered, I’m not sure it would be the best thing for us. Unless we can also resurrect the structures and culture of accountability that must accompany such a practice, the perils are legion. Rather than trying to resurrect the past, perhaps liberal Friends should build on what is best about the tradition that we have established. Our openness to diversity in how each of us expresses our relationship to the Divine is easily translatable to an openness to the many gifts with which we are endowed and which should be placed equally at the disposal of the Spirit for the building up of our faith communities and the world.

Traditionally, Friends have identified vocal ministry and eldership as the primary corporate gifts, but I believe that any true gift of the Spirit, be it ”public”, such as vocal ministry, or more private, such as the ability to be a loving presence, can and should be identified and acknowledged in some way. The benefit of bringing the gift to the attention of the meeting and to the bearer of the gift is that it places a responsibility to nurture the gift on both the meeting and the bearer. Sometimes, too, people are unaware of their own gifts and it takes someone else to point them out. And once the gift has been acknowledged, it can be held in trust by the meeting community.

The closest we have come to naming gifts in liberal Quakerism is through our Nominating Committees. The ideal is that the committee recognizes the gifts of each person and then, after much prayer and discernment, places them in the position or committee where their gifts can be most usefully deployed. This hardly ever happens. People usually end up on the committees in which they are most interested or where they have been since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Nominating conversations are often little more than hasty phone exchanges. We struggle over the issue of term limits versus acceding to a person’s “call” to be on a committee indefinitely, even if “call” could be more accurately described as “habit” or “comfort”.

Somewhere in all of this, the Spirit is lost and gifts play no role in the conversation. It also presupposes that almost all gifts can only be nurtured and recognized in a committee setting. This essentially leaves those not able or willing to do committee work on the outside, relegated to Quaker limbo, the Undead or at least the unacknowledged.

The questions I am left asking are: How can we do this better? How can we develop the close relationships that allow us to discern each other’s gifts, to nurture them and exercise them, and to enjoy their fruits in community? How can we all come to that deep place where we truly understand, in the words of the apostle Paul, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” ? (1 Cor 12:4-8)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why I Keep Coming Back

My husband, the senior warden at the local Episcopal church, enjoys twitting me on certain aspects of Quakerism. Why, he asks, drive an hour and a half round trip to sit in silence for one hour? Surely, if Quakers care so much for the planet and value simplicity, they should foreswear the consumption of fossil fuels to get to meeting, and instead hold virtual Meetings for Worship where each of us stay home and quietly meditate in front of our computers, using Skype if we feel moved by the Spirit to share. In my ongoing effort at pretending to be a good Quaker, I take this in good part and refrain from suggesting that Episcopalians could just as easily stay home, read the service from the Book of Common Prayer, and listen to the sermon and sing along with the hymns on YouTube. They wouldn't even need Skype since spontaneous sharing is not a noticeable feature of the Episcopal Mass. No, such a thought has never crossed my mind.

Yet, on a perfect Spring day such as we had this past First Day, with God obviously and extravagantly present right here in my garden, the temptation to conduct my own private "Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Plants in Dire Need of Transplanting" was very strong. But, as usual, I found myself in my car (a VW Jetta TDI, 40 miles to the gallon) making the 45-minute drive to meeting where I sat with the good Friends of Goose Creek for the requisite hour, and once more drank deeply from the living waters that flow through Meeting for Worship.

Inside the meetinghouse, the deep silence of the adults was accompanied by the sound of the birds singing and the laughter and voices of the children playing outside. I could feel us being lifted and embraced by the Spirit, and I marveled at how we were all gathered in the great wheel of life where our own individual boundaries have no meaning and where life and death merge seamlessly. The silence was broken just once by an older Friend who spoke quietly and simply about how, even as we struggle to make sense of our individual lives, God is there to guide us in green pastures and beside still waters. Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

After the close of Meeting for Worship, I was moved to share a little of what I had experienced in that hour. Goose Creek is an old meeting and I spoke about how Friends have sat in silent worship there for more than 200 years, each generation listening to the laughter of its children. I mentioned some of the dear old Friends who were gone from our midst, but who were once the children laughing outside, bringing energy and joy to our little community. Then, in one of those moments that occur with such amazing frequency at Quaker meeting that I can not doubt that the Spirit is present among us, I was passed a card to read that came from a beautiful arrangement of peonies on the fireplace mantel. The flowers had been placed there in memory of a member of our meeting who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this week. Emily the child once laughed and played, she grew to become an integral part of the meeting, and when she passed away at the age of 97, she was buried in the burial ground across the road from our meetinghouse. The tangible presence of all the generations of Friends old and young, living and dead, pressed in upon us.

As we moved on to sharing joys and concerns, a much-loved Friend stood and revealed that he had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Just as we were about to hold him in the Light, the children - about 20 strong - burst through the door, filled with energy and health and high spirits. We paused as they joined their parents and then, sensing the presence of the Spirit, they, too, entered into that sacred space where we are palpably in the presence of the Divine, their gloriously bright flames of Life and Love turbocharging the healing power of our prayers. Together, the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, the living and the dead, became One.

As I drove the 45 minutes back from meeting, I carried with me that which I had experienced in the silence and after. My husband returned from his Mass, uplifted by the words of his priest and enriched by the power and beauty of the liturgy. In the cool of my garden, I weeded and dug and transplanted with God. To myself, I sang the words of the great medieval mystic Juliana of Norwich: "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In the Land of Saturday

For the past month or so I have been stranded in a foreign country, one which I have visited before but which nevertheless remains disorienting and peculiarly impermeable to my best efforts at achieving ease and familiarity. It is the country of loss, where I, exiled among the living, struggle ineffectually to mentally and emotionally process the death of a beloved member of my most intimate circle. This time it is the death of my American mom, the person who more than 30 years ago gave me my life in this country and who continued to both bless my life and that of my family, and profoundly influence who I have become as an adult. She was 91, so it could hardly be said that her passing was unexpected, yet it has left me floundering in the unfamiliar terrain of a world suddenly without her. That "withoutness" is what loss is all about, made all the more poignant by the fact that I took the life "with" so much for granted. Ironically, only Death has the power to make most of us see how much of ourselves was validated by the presence of the one we are now without.

At this point, if I were following the formula of so much spiritual "grief" writing, I would begin to recount how during this dark period I have felt lifted and buoyed by God and how grateful I am that I am a person of faith and how awful it would be to go through this without the Great Comforter, yada yada yada. But the truth is that not in a good long time have I felt the essentially theoretical nature of God so acutely. During the time that I sat by Virginia's side and following her death, my occasional attempts at prayer have felt as dry as dust. Seeing her treasured possessions being dispersed and offloaded on an estate warehouse have reminded me of the briefness of our tenure on this earth, and throwing out old photos of her long dead relatives, now nameless and forgotten, made me feel the fruitlessness and pathos of our own individual strivings. Vanity, vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

It seems apposite that I am writing this on Easter Saturday. It was Cornel West, I think, who referred to himself as a "Saturday Christian" - one who has embraced the life and death of Christ, but who has yet to experience the joy and certainty of the Resurrection. To lose someone close is to be thrust into the land of Saturday. The easy platitudes and feel good emollients of our day-to-day spiritual lives and practices are revealed exactly for what they are - superficial, all-too-human ways to give our lives meaning and convince ourselves of our own importance. One day in the future someone will have the task of erasing us from the temporal world (we'll go out in boxes for resale and garbage bags for incineration), and as we sit here in Saturday we wonder if "eternal" refers to life or oblivion.

Interestingly, Jesus talked a lot about loss as a necessary prerequisite to gaining life:

"Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it. Anyone who loses her life will find it. What gain is there if you win the whole world and lose your very self? What can you offer in exchange for your one life?" - Matthew 16:25-26.

What, indeed? In the land of Saturday, these are the sorts of questions that try a woman's soul. One has to live out the awful truth that suffering and loss are not only inevitable but also necessary. Even as I grope around in the darkness of my grief, I am aware that without the certainty of loss, the sure knowledge of life's finite nature, I could never experience love so acutely. I could never savor so intensely sitting outside on a sunny spring day, as I did today, drinking coffee with a good friend watching my human and canine neighbors living in the now of Easter Saturday. For the land of Saturday is not without its consolations. It's the place where we are necessarily naked, stripped temporarily of the illusions that make "normal" life possible and even palatable. We are held suspended in the universal, between our own parochial pasts and our utterly unknowable futures. For a brief time, we live viscerally in the knowledge that the only life we have is what we are living now, and now, and now.

Living always in the land of Saturday is only for the most evolved souls, I think. Personally, I look forward to tomorrow, to the Resurrection, when I can gather my individual self together again and continue on the journey with my ruck sack packed with my own personal "stuff" - the illusions, the good intentions, the failings, the gifts - that make me, me. Fortunately, even from the lonely, prayerless perspective of Saturday, I have enough faith to believe that when I get to tomorrow I won't have to carry that ruck sack alone.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Will the Real Quakers Stand Up? Not All at Once, Please.

I was visiting a conservative meeting recently and fell into conversation with a young man who is a member there. He told me that in his opinion liberal Quakerism is, in fact, a new religion started in the 1960s. He being young and me being older (the sun is past the yardarm if not entirely sinking below the horizon), I merely smiled politely and let it go. It was not that I felt rather condescendingly that I could privately disagree but use my correspondingly larger quotient of wisdom to allow him to continue in his folly. Neither was it that I was just too ancient to pick up the gauntlet. The truth is, I could see his point of view, even as I disagreed with it.

Because, from where I'm sitting, it seems as if we can all claim to be the "true" heirs of George Fox and the early Friends - liberal Quakers, conservative Quakers, evangelical Quakers, programmed Quakers, unprogrammed Quakers, even nontheist Quakers and those who feel greater kinship with crystals than with crosses. We've all held fast to different pieces of the Truth as articulated by Fox et al, and added bits that align with our times, our family histories, our personal preferences, our educational backgrounds, our previous religious experiences and, yes, our prejudices. The bits that make us uncomfortable, we've deleted from our personal journey. After all, as someone once said about the Bible, that's why God invented highlighters. And that's what happens when you practice a living religion. Even as I write this I can anticipate the howls from various quarters of the Quaker universe. Am I saying that "anything goes"? Actually I'm not. I draw the line at goat sacrifice (just kidding...)

For almost 200 years, we've been squabbling about who the real Quakers are. We've all headed off in high dudgeon to our various fortresses, currently named FGC, FUM, EFI and (Conservative), from which we occasionally sally forth to mingle with Them. Shell-shocked liberal Friends return from programmed evangelical meetings, aghast at the lack of silence, the distinct odor of doctrine and the presence of the "hireling priest." Christian pastoral Friends swim out of the fug of a liberal Quaker meeting determined never ever again to hug a tree or at least not talk about it in public. Conservative Friends stay home in the quiet certainty that they, remnant though they may be, are the only ones that George and Margaret and James and Isaac would recognize if they were suddenly reincarnated into the 21st century. Such is the state of brotherly love in the Religious Society of Friends and Embarrassing Acquaintances.

In 14 or so years, we will be entering our third century of disagreement. Perhaps it would be better if we all agreed to lay down the terms "Quaker" and "Friend," and renamed our various branches to make the split irrevocable. No? I thought not. Can it be that we're not quite ready to vote ourselves or our dissenting brethren off the island? Can it be that there is a fragile "enough" to keep us at least working towards some sort of unity? It has only been in recent years that I have ventured out of my own meeting let alone into the larger non-liberal Friends universe, but my experiences have given me real hope that we can all co-exist under the very large canopy of the Quaker tree. We are never going to agree on everything and we will probably continue to disagree quite emphatically on some things, but I think we can all identify with the sincere seeking that was at the heart of the experience of many early Friends and continues to define Quakers across the spectrum. Every single one of us is flawed and comes to the journey with a lot of man-made "stuff." We should be, in Jesus's words, "as little children," and, as such, we should not presume to "know better" on other people's behalf.

I identify myself as a Christian who rejoices in the strong Christian testimony of the majority of the Friends universe. But I also rejoice in the liberal Quaker tradition that is great-hearted enough to allow entry into Quaker practice for those to whom the traditional Christian message is inaccessible or who are led to express their journey in non-traditional ways. It has also been within the freedom of the liberal tradition that my understanding of Christ's life and witness has grown and deepened in ways that might not have been possible in a more doctrinaire setting. I have shared deeply spiritual experiences with nontheist Friends and find my soul expanding with joy and gratitude in my liberal meeting peopled with tree huggers and peaceniks, Democrats and Republicans (yes, we have a few!) and Libertarians, Christians and New Agers. When I spend time with Conservative Friends I love their adherence to traditional Friends structures and ways and their quiet determination to keep the Bible as a central part of their journey. I haven't spent much time with pastoral or evangelical Friends (a lack resulting from geography rather than preference), but I admire the joy and fervor of their desire to share their faith, and I recognize the very real benefits of pastoral meetings (because, after all, sometimes we unprogrammed Friends get the ministry we pay for).

If George Fox came back today, I doubt he would recognize any of us as Quakers. It would be very odd if he did because the genius of what he and the seekers of the 17th century discovered was that humanity's search for God is not something carved in stone, unchangeable and frozen in time. The Divine, Fox discovered, "did not dwell in temples which men had commanded and set up, but in people's hearts." Those temples are not only ones made of bricks and mortar, but also ones made of our mental constructs. By squeezing our faith into our own particular Quaker "temples" we take something that is as large as God and make it as small as ourselves. Is that really what we want?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This Life or the Afterlife

A good friend of mine posted a blog a couple of days ago in which he floated the idea that to achieve an afterlife you have to "nurture and exercise your potential immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body," in much the same way that you have to make the effort to learn algebra in order to solve quadratic equations. ( In short, an afterlife doesn't just happen, you have to work at it. The souls of atheists would become extinct at death (epic fail on the final exam), and so, presumably, would those erstwhile slackers who undergo deathbed conversions (only to realize at the last minute that they really should have attended class). Neither, according to my friend's theory, would people who have merely lived good lives - but never actively exercised their "God muscle" - get a free pass when they shuffled off their mortal coils. Folks, however, who had done the necessary "soul work" would "graduate" to Whatever Comes Next.

It's an intriguing idea that pretty much trashes some of Christianity's most fiercely-held doctrines, from the predestination of the Calvinists to the John 3:16 formulic approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Extreme Unction-get-out-of-jail-free pass of the Catholics. For Quakers, however, it's not an entirely unreasonable theory. For starters, unlike most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, we spend very little time either imagining or worrying about the afterlife. We're much more concerned with what is happening in the here and now and tend to work very earnestly towards achieving the peaceable kingdom in this life. We're reluctant to define "God" but strive very hard to be in His/Her/Its presence. Most Quakers of my acquaintance cheerfully acknowledge that they just don't know what happens next. No seventy-seven virgins for us or Pearly Gates, or, for that matter, hellfire and brimstone. Personally, the furthest I am prepared to go is to claim that whatever the afterlife consists of is utterly beyond the very limited comprehension of our earthbound selves, but that there is a "rightness" about it that totally transcends the picayune worries and concerns and preoccupations of our individual pre-death selves. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if in my current very limited human state I could imagine anything close to whatever it is.

Interestingly, I believe this seemingly feckless disregard as to the final landing place of one's soul is not a modern outcome of the secularization of liberal Quakerism, but has its roots, ironically, in the apocalyptic beliefs of early Friends. When George Fox had his revelation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," it meant much more than that people could dispense with priests and doctrine, because humanity now had the ability to interface directly and unmediated with the Divine. Fox and the early Quakers believed they were experiencing the unfolding of the Second Coming and the thousand year reign of Christ was at hand, with themselves as the vanguard. With enviable fervor, they set about establishing, quite literally, "the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," and it was in this extremely fertile growing medium that Quaker testimonies began to take root. Practice - living the "Kingdom life" - superseded what they saw as the now redundant doctrine and ritual, much of which was done "in remembrance" of Christ, because Christ was now with them.

Of course, as time passed, early Friends had to readjust their expectations regarding the end times, but the essential idea that we are called to help establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remains to this day. While our language and descriptors may have changed, and while some modern Quakers may be uncomfortable with the Biblical language implied by "the Kingdom of Heaven," the concept runs like a golden thread throughout the 350 years of Quaker history. Even after Friends embraced a more mystical interpretation of "Christ among us," they sought (admittedly in their flawed human way) to make Quaker meetings and communities templates for the Kingdom of Heaven. The most ambitious of these projects was William Penn's Holy Experiment - the founding of Pennsylvania - in which Friends succeeded to a remarkable degree (at least in Penn's lifetime) in establishing a peaceable kingdom. Yes, it was far from the ideal Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but it was a brave attempt.

I think this visceral belief in the presence of Christ in the here and now, whether an individual Friend uses traditional Christian language or not, remains at the very heart of the Quaker experience. We do not live in a state of anticipation of either reward or punishment. We do not imagine some eventual day of reckoning. We accept the mystery that is our existence and our relationship with the Divine, and are content to know that living the faithful life while we are on this earth brings its own reward. Perhaps, as my friend surmises, our efforts in the here and now will qualify us for the afterlife, but isn't it a relief to simply greet each day as a new opportunity to live a with God life? Whatever happens after death is as it should be.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On Stilling the Howler Monkeys

For my first 15 1/2 years at Quaker meeting, I endeavored mightily in silent worship to suck the incessant internal chatter out of my head in order to create that perfect "vacuum" that God, presumably, was eagerly waiting to fill. I tried all the usual techniques - mantras, short prayers, visualizations (candles, light, waterfalls), stern imprecations ("Shut up, brain!"), pep talks, etc etc etc. Needless to say, very little of this was particularly effective. The howler monkeys in my head continued to swing from tree to tree, cackling rudely at my efforts. Occasionally, I would crack an eyelid to see how everyone else was doing (hard to tell from the poker faces arranged in the pews) and also to sneak a peek at the clock tick-tocking on the meetinghouse wall. If no one offered any vocal ministry, I would feel anxious on behalf of visitors, and would begin in unQuakerly fashion to anticipate with irritation the person who at rise of meeting would feel moved to share how much he or she "loved the silence." Because, chances are, I hadn't loved the silence. Over the years, I've been bored by it, oppressed by it, longed for someone to break it and felt envious of those souls who were clearly snoring through it.

Fortunately, in the midst of all this internal struggle, God saw fit on occasion to shove me and my ego aside to let me know that He/She hadn't given up on me yet. And, fortunately, such is the nature of God that a very little bit goes a very long way. Every now and then I would receive intimations of the extraordinary power for transformation - indeed, "resurrection" - that is both the challenge and promise of a life of faith. Everything that happens in church or temple or mosque or synagogue or Quaker meeting - or any other venue where we humans conduct our spiritual lives - is either explicitly or implicitly aimed at achieving that transformation. To get there, we need to learn to see the world and ourselves anew: "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks in his cavern." (William Blake)

It has only been in the past year that it has truly dawned on me that silent worship should not be a passive weekly process, but one fed by active daily engagement with the Divine. This requires not an emptying of the mind to allow God in, but a focusing towards that which is already there. Over the years, like all good Quakers, I have talked about "the Christ Within" and "that of God in everyone," but in my silent worship I have subconsciously worked on the assumption that God is "out there" somewhere, fighting for an opportunity to squeeze into my cluttered and overactive brain. During the week, I kept God on the boundaries of my "real" life and I would arrive at Quaker meeting on Sunday hoping that I could perhaps conjure the Divine promptly between 9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Is it any wonder the howler monkeys were laughing?

Earlier generations of Quakers understood better than we modern Friends the need to totally integrate the spiritual life with the rest of life. "Profession of truth, without the life and power, is but a slippery place, which men may easily slide from," was Isaac Penington's rather pointed observation. Meeting for Worship was firmly rooted in the daily lives of Friends; what happened in worship on First Day was a direct outcome of faithfulness the rest of the week. It was not merely a nice quiet weekly break from the busy-ness of daily life, neither was it just a place for the family to go on Sunday that enabled parents to check the mental "spiritual life" box located somewhere after "academic achievement" and "healthy eating habits." I think one reason why modern unprogrammed Friends meetings have struggled to grow is that silent worship demands so much more of people than programmed church services that provide an external focus. In times past, to become a Quaker meant a radical reordering of one's whole life and adherence to an explicit Discipline that was designed to create the conditions earlier Quakers felt were necessary to nurture a deep, life-changing relationship with the Divine. Inevitably, official Disciplines fell out of favor as they became more a means of control than a structure to support spiritual growth. And as Quakers ceased to maintain their "peculiar" identity and adopted the habits and mores of "the world," the compartmentalization of "spiritual life" and "daily life" became complete.

Modern Quakers take great pride in being "doers." If we are not careful, Meeting for Worship can became the space between committee meetings. In the words of Thomas Merton: "...if prayer, meditation and contemplation were once taken for granted as central realities in human life everywhere, they are so no longer. They are regarded, even by believers, as somehow marginal and secondary: what counts is getting things done." There is nothing wrong with 'getting things done," but if the doing crowds out the deep prayer and meditation that lies at the heart of any spiritual path, we soon find ourselves and our egos back in the driving seat with God once more pushed to the boundaries.

In today's Religious Society of Friends we no longer need fear a visit from grim-faced Elders come to point out the error of our ways, and to that I think we can all shout, "Hallejulah!" However, we are called to impose our own Discipline on ourselves and our lives. Over the years, I have been deeply privileged to meet great souls - both within Quakerism and without - who have truly integrated the Spirit into all aspects of their lives. They are not exempt from the troubles of life, but they are able to perceive the daily through the eyes of the eternal. They may not be "doing" the most, but they bring a peculiar grace to everything they do. This is what integrity means - not just speaking the truth but living the Truth, acquiring the daily habits and practices that create the necessary space for the Divine to be present and visible in us.

Since trying to live more faithfully by incorporating prayer, meditation and certain habits of thought into my daily life - in the words of George Fox, to keep close to that which is pure within me, which leads me up to God - my experience at Meeting for Worship has been qualitatively different. The howler monkeys are still there, of course - they are not easily dismissed - but they are now usually just squatting on the branches of my peripheral consciousness, rather than demanding center stage. By turning my mind and heart daily to that Divine Center, God is able to show me the parts of my life - those habits, resentments, prejudices and ego-centered ambitions - that are acting as "stops" to my ability to experience that abundant and Spirit-filled life that is the reward of faithfulness. Progress is slow, but I am increasingly aware that I live what Ben Pink Dandelion describes as "an accompanied life," and that when I sit in Meeting for Worship I don't have to go looking for God.

As Thomas Kelly so beautifully expressed it, "Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it...Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all."

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?