15 July 2004

Idealism and reality

One of my overseas pen pals confessed to feeling totally clueless about her future - not an easy feeling when living in a society that values productivity above just about all else. Our exchange reminded me of a wonderful book I read over twenty years ago in which the author wondered how religious people could discuss divine mysteries with such authority. In a reply that I wrote while still traveling, I mentioned that book.
To my delight, when at home again, I searched our shelves and found the book - Peace Is our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement by Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB. The book was published as part of the commemoration of the Benedictines' 1500th anniversary in 1980, and is a cool drink of thoughtful idealism. The author leaves her Erie, Pennsylvania, Benedictine community and peace work to travel among monastic communities and thinkers, gathering their thoughts on the monastic movement and the possibilities of a mutually beneficial relationship to peace and justice work. Many years later after reading her book, I realize there are parallels with my own search for relationships between evangelism and the Friends testimonies. Among those she interviews are Basil Pennington, a direct descendent of founding-generation Friend Isaac Penington and a teacher of "centering prayer"; Thich Nhat Hanh; George MacLeod of Iona; and Jim Forest. Upon returning home, she rethinks her experiences with her own community in light of what she's learned.
The tone and transparency of this book reach me as much as the content. Here is an example, from the part where Kownacki is commenting on a conference she's attending on Thomas Merton entitled "Contemplation and Modern Society." This was in fact the section I was remembering when I wrote to my friend. The author writes,  
"... I have to be careful not to lose my balance with all these high-powered people talking about such deep and mystical material. I started thinking that all this peace and justice stuff about feeding the hungry and turning swords into plowshares is somehow inferior and on a lower human level than contemplation. What's vital to human life is finding a spiritual mid-wife or father. 
"... Building a world of peace should be more complex than learning to pray. Yet the [earlier] Pax Christi conference was more intelligible than this one. I don't understand the titles of a few of the lectures, sometimes the lectures themselves are incomprehensible and so are most of the questions after the talk. I have to keep pinching myself to remember that Jesus gave the words of life to peasants. 
"... It always amazes me that when speakers make statements about God, evil, hell, etc., people around me nod their heads and smile knowingly. Sometimes they say, 'exactly,' or 'absolutely' or 'that's right.' My tongue cleaves to my palate. How do they know?"

Speaking of my "Evangelism and the Friends Testimonies" project, I am participating in a series of real-life forums (not just the online forum that is the primary product of my project!) at Reedwood Friends Church. On my first Sunday back from England, I gave a summary of what I'd been up to with my project. Last Sunday, Ron Stansell of George Fox University gave an overview of evangelism using a case study from recent Quaker experience in India. This Sunday I'm going to address the touchy subject of "evangelism in the teachable moment," what might otherwise be termed "crisis evangelism." (Personal experiences welcome!)
One of the things that makes this subject "touchy" is the event that is, for many of us, a premiere example of a "teachable moment" in the USA: September 11, 2001. The events of that day had an impact on the attendance and the Christian education program of Reedwood Friends, and probably of many other faith communities, that continues to this day. I don't personally observe that this impact has always been rightly appropriated, but we ought to be considering what major crises, disasters and paradigm shifts in public consciousness can mean for evangelism with integrity.
Future sessions of Reedwood's forum will include George Fox University's medieval historian Caitlin Corning (a wonderful speaker) on the history of evangelism, hospital chaplain Margaret Wallace on evangelism in a vocational context, and Yearly Meeting clerk (and former Sen. Hatfield staffer) Lon Fendall on private faith in public life. I'm scheduled for a session looking at Michael Simpson's book Permission Evangelism: When to Talk, When to Walk.

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