23 November 2006

Where our hearts are, and who cares?

Some theological debates are worth having.
For example, Protestants are rightly proud of the principle that we are saved by faith, not by works. (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrews 11.) Others counter that genuine discipleship requires action as well as belief because "faith without works is dead" (James 2:14-20; 1 John 3:17-18; Matthew 25:32-40).

Friends are among those who say that both sides are correct. There are two different definitions of "works" at play (sorry!) here. We cannot reach our full stature in Christ with pious practices, ceremonies, or self-enhancing efforts. The letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews make it clear that the sacrificial system had its chance, and simply didn't get us where we want to go. The only law we now require is the one that God is ready to write on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34, echoed in Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16).

However, our faith is communal, not merely individual, and we are helping each other live in that unguarded covenantal closeness to God, guided by the laws written on our hearts, that is the essence of Quaker faith (and not Quaker only!). Therefore, we (ideally) don't just stay in our separate orbits. We rightly ask each other whether "God's laws on our hearts" is a reality for you, for me; and whether we are in touch with our hearts or are perhaps numb from addiction or fear or injury. The question, "How is our faith bearing fruit?", is not a denial of the primacy of faith, it is an invitation to go deeper in faith, to put more life-weight on it.

We don't expect each of us to be identically gifted in biblical insight, or in intercessory prayer, or in prophetic civil disobedience ... or, for that matter, in spiritual maturity and confidence. That's why it is all the more important that we lower the barriers of autonomy and learn to ask each other, tenderly, even with tears, about where our hearts are. The point is not a sudden and dramatic restoration of the whole Friends Church (aka Religious Society of Friends). The point is to begin where we are, building a community of love one relationship at a time.

How do our structures serve us in this task? Many of our churches and meetings have elders or the equivalent, and I've appreciated the discussions of eldering that have appeared in our blog community (for example, Marshall Massey's survey and the comments that followed; and also see the comments on this item on Mark Wutka's blog). Although I do think that some spiritual gifts lend themselves to eldering more than others do, I also think Marshall's cautions about exalting the elders is a good one, especially since the main obstacle to eldering has almost nothing to do with gifts. It has to do with interpersonal barriers of almost pathological individualism. More than once, I've heard from those who've been approached to serve on elders or on a meeting of ministry and counsel, "Who am I to talk to someone else about their private life?"

The reason I appreciate Marshall's unromanticizing of elders is that the correct answer to this question applies to all of us, not just to the person who uses genuine or false modesty to avoid service as an elder. "Who are you? You are a brother or sister in discipleship. I need you to listen to me and talk to me. I need to be able to tell my beloved community—but sometimes not to everyone—how my heart is doing. I need you to dare to respond to me, even taking the risk of being wrong, which isn't the end of the world, because we already have a commitment to each other's well-being."

Among Friends, neither elders nor pastors enjoy exalted status.
They exercise functional leadership, not leadership by virtue of status, and if their roles are not functional in a given situation (such as a tiny meeting where it truly works to have the roles carried out informally), filling these "offices" should not be a priority. But communities that may have become complacent and ingrown sometimes overlook one important aspect of those roles: the ministry of providing access. Having a designated pastor is one way that the meeting serves newcomers, the wider community, and those who don't participate in the tacit networks of long-time members, to help put them in touch with the resources they need. This is true whether the "resource" is instruction, access to the pulpit to follow a prophetic leading, referral to others who are more able to meet a particular need, sources of food or clothing for people whose paycheck or welfare check didn't last the month, or pastoral care and counseling. I'm not arguing that the pastor should be the only or even the prime contact person for any of these situations, but by liberating someone for pastoral service, the meeting is making that access far more consistent. In any case, when nobody has a specific concern for the ministry of access, the community probably might as well be dead to the world.

A pastor of a rural Friends meeting once told me about a woman in his community whose husband was abusing her. The local sheriff was a friend of her husband's. She went to the pastor for help because he was a visible access point for ministry. It was not a spiritually exalted role, but was nevertheless lifegiving in that specific situation.

Likewise, elders are also points of access. Some of us are comfortable confiding in just about anyone, or have good intuition about whom to approach. But the meeting that publishes a list of elders is, in effect, saying that "these people have committed themselves to be accessible for concerns about individual or corporate spiritual health." They may not be any more spiritual than the rest of us, but they've agreed to be more visible simply to provide that access. They've also agreed to a discipline of confidentiality. And, while we should all be willing to intervene when we see a brother or sister apparently suffering from heartsickness, and our structures may provide other roles, committees, and individuals to do those things often done by pastors and elders, I think it's helpful and maybe even urgent for the meeting to let its members and attenders know that some Friends have a specific commitment to accompany those in distress. And that access to that accompaniment doesn't depend on being socially connected.

Reedwood Friends Church makes this "access" a regular feature of meeting for worship. In the printed bulletin, and sometimes in the announcements at the end of meeting for worship, we are told that anyone who wishes to speak with an elder can go to a particular spot, and the elders take turns being present at that place for a period of time after the close of worship.

Sometimes I wonder whether, in our nice, congenial, and dysfunctionally private existences as Friends meetings and churches,
there aren't people living the sort of tortured realities that Ted Haggard was apparently living during his leadership at New Life in Colorado Springs. (Background: read his PDF letter of confession and apology.) Given the choice offered by our culture—self-gratification with whatever rationalization numbs the conscience; or uncreative suppression of sexuality, with whatever secret compromises enable public compliance—our churches need to do a lot better at providing safe eldership to the anonymous brother or sister and the celebrity alike. I've seen more than one Friends meeting deal with "outreach" issues of addiction and abuse with theoretical correctness but with an assumption that this concern serves outsiders, not anyone inside the church. Wrong!

One of the worst consequences of not being deliberate, thoughtful, and explicit in providing for human hearts in distress, is that when distressed people come to our meetings, they exercise (without any malevolent intent) a disproportionate influence on us nice people. When someone comes to my meeting and says, "There's too much Christ language, too much salvation language" (yes, it does happen even in a member church of Evangelical Friends International!), our options should not be limited to those polarized twins, abject codependence or defensiveness.

Of course, we should check to see whether our faith language has become formulaic; we owe that to ourselves as well as to newcomers. But we can also ask whether the allergic reaction to Christian language is the symptom of a wound that deserves tender attention. We're not just moderately Christian, subject to political negotiations about how much language to use and to balance out with other constructions; we're Friends of Christ, and those with the least commitment to the future of this precious friendship don't get veto power over how we express it and embody it. But they are entitled to our genuine, active, painstaking love, a love that at times dares to ask, "How's it going with your heart?"

An irony:
American churches that stress the importance of faith over works (often those tending toward legalism or doctrinal purity) have a skewed definition of works. They minimize "works" of justice and mercy, but often seem to value the "works" of formalism: using the right words, observing the behavioral rules of the holiness culture, and so on. Now, it's a bit easy to make fun of these double standards, but I'm not sure I'm totally sold on the opposite approach—serene ignorance of the cleverness of sin and addiction. To risk an oversimplification, both groups need to grapple with the messy reality of being embodied believers. Maybe a greater effort at dialogue would help.

A tangent: What does it mean to use Scripture verses the way I used them in the first paragraphs of this post? Last week I criticized the "Pokemon-card methodology" of biblical interpretation. I do not use verses of this beloved text as power cards to trump opposition, but as a sign that I've looked for evidence that my thinking is in resonance with the foundational document of our faith community, and to open up a dialogue with anyone who cares as much about that document but sees it pointing a different direction. In the eternal dimension of God's commonwealth, I cherish the "elders," the ancient ministry and counsel, whose words were collected by the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in forming the Bible.

Righteous links:

I've criticized the American media's almost unrelieved negativity about Russia more than once, and Konstantin's Russian Blog has sometimes been my ally in this effort; he keeps finding awkward instances of double standards. He's found two allies of his own recently: N. Petro's article, "Sticking it up Vladimir the Impaler," and Mark Ames's article, "Where is America's Politkovskaya?" In both cases, I'm linking to Konstantin's own blog rather than the sources because I also recommend reading the comments on his blog.

The OOZEletter also gets a pair of links for their latest issue. Last week I gave my own thoughts on Saddam's impending date with the gallows; here's OOZE's take: "Jesus Says about Saddam: 'Hang Him! Hang Him High!'" ... and a reflection on Ted Haggard: "God's Heroes: Speaking Out about Ted Haggard."

Civil Justice: I've appreciated watching the development of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation's campaign to promote "fair play" as the foundational value of our civil court system (helping citizens deal with pressures to reduce the independence of the judiciary through such alarmist pitches as tort "reform").

While we're on the subject of the Bible, I'm grateful to Paul at Shower of Blessings for telling us about Slate's "Blogging the Bible" feature.

A couple of weeks ago, I was worried about the music clips disappearing from Youtube and similar services. Blues are rare enough as it is! But in the last few weeks, a whole crop of new blues clips has blossomed on Youtube. [However, many have been removed since--hence the substitution, below, that I made in April 2009.] Here's just one, by a man whose music and presentation both move me very much, Otis Spann. He and Albert King were the first two blues musicians I ever heard--thanks to the legendary 1960's radio personality on WCFL Chicago, Ron Britain. As I said some time back, for decades I listened with admiration to Otis Spann's music without ever knowing what he looked like when performing:


Anonymous said...

Dear Johan --

Many thanks for the kind words you gave to all sides in the debate on eldering. I especially appreciate the way you have taken my own thinking one important step further, turning it into a question about how we -- every one of us -- make ourselves present to one another. The rôles you explicitly assign to pastor and elder, we in our tiny Conservative meeting here in Omaha give informally to our seasoned Friends. But I wholeheartedly agree with you: they are rôles that must be made available to those who might be seeking them -- for the good of the wounded, the good of the Quaker community, the good of the larger community, and our own good as those who might be required to fill them!

On the ancient faith vs. works debate, it may be that modern Friends are among those who say that both sides are correct. But I haven't yet come across ancient Friends who said that. (It really wasn't their style to say, placatingly, "Both of you are right!") When pressed on the matter (as in Barclay's Apology, Prop. VII, §9) they would repeat James's assertion that faith without works is dead. But when simply speaking from experience and conviction, without reference to the demands of others that they be orthodox, their position seems to have been that the key is neither intellectual faith, emotional faith, nor works, but the experience of the inward Guide, and obedience to what that Guide requires of one. Here was "faith" reinterpreted as "faithfulness" -- pistis as fidelitas.

Anonymous said...

In the Spiritual Nurturer Program, we were taught that the primary role of elder was spiritual nurturer. I can see that shining forth in a number of the quotes from early Friends that Marshall uses in his long blog essay.

Today I wonder if there is so much confusion about the term elder that it might just be better to use the terminology of spiritual nurture. This should involve some accountability, but it does not have the disciplinarian connotation that elder has come to have in many minds.

Marshall seeks, as is his custom, to draw sharp lines. But I wonder if that is necessarily helpful as we look at how the Spirit can guide us today, rather than argue about history as if we were meant to ape the institutional mechanisms of our forbears.

I think there is value both in recognizing certain people as being particularly equipped to perform well certain types of spiritual nurture, and that we should all be providing nurture to each other. In the spiritual direction models current today, there is the spiritual director model and the group spiritual direction model. The best observers don't view this as either/or.

Increasingly Friends have become involved in the larger community's approaches towards spiritual nurture and spiritual direction. I think this is healthy.

Anonymous said...

It is not only "works" that has two meanings; "faith" in the NT certainly has at least two meanings: For Paul, "faith" means "deep trust" or even "trusting faithfulness"; for James, "faith" means simply "intellectual belief" -- no wonder he says that faith without works is dead!


Johan Maurer said...

Whatever definition of "faith" you prefer, the reality of faith can be seen as both internal (an individualistic interpretation, touching on the soul's health or perhaps eternal destiny) and as touching the life of the whole community. In the second case, I doubt either kind of faith carries power to build up the community without some sense of mutual service and support.

Paul L said...

Johan -- On a different tack: Thank you for linking to Ted Haggard's letter. I appreciate your concern for Friends in our meetings who feel that they must live secret lives.

But I was struck by another aspect of the letter. I was surprised at its authentic tone. It sounded to me exactly like such a letter should sound. His confession was unqualified and not in the least self-justifying. It seemed to recognize the depth of the disappointment his conduct had caused. In short, I was moved by it and could feel compassion for him as I hadn't previously.

The problem, though, is that he apparently believes that his sin was being homosexual instead of a hypocrite, or, more deeply, his failure to accept his sexuality as a God-given gift that he shares with millions whom he has actively persecuted. He shows no sign of repenting the injuries he has inflicted on gay people.

I can imagine this story could end in a Saul of Tarsus kind of conversion, something like David Brock or Mel White.

Unfortunately, the bunch he's getting counseling from is unlikely to turn him round in that direction. He needs our prayers.

Johan Maurer said...

See Jon Pahl's brief essay "Ted Haggard's 'Sin'"--published in Martin Marty's "Sightings" series.

cubbie said...

wow! this post touched me in a lot of different places (in the post and in me). there's a lot for me to think about from it, and i plan to. right now, the only thing i think i could add... not to the post, but... in terms of adding rather than rambling with no point or something... is when i read this part: ". But we can also ask whether the allergic reaction to Christian language is the symptom of a wound that deserves tender attention." i thought so much about symptoms and causes and how so much of what our culture does is about symptoms. and i think our symptoms are easier to touch... and easier to have touched. and so my first thought was "how can that wound be touched?" if it is the cause of the allergy-- and then i started thinking about reactions to attempts to touch the wound and how... we americans today don't do that. have people ever?