21 April 2011

Holy days

I never claimed to be consistent. I'm a non-liturgical Christian who absolutely loves Easter. Theoretically, we Friends don't promote or rely on holy days, but I'm sorry, I can't remember everything all at once, all the time. I need to focus at least annually on our Lord's agony and execution and resurrection in all of its raw reality. I don't need to understand it, I certainly don't want it made pretty for me--I just want to make that mental and spiritual Calvary walk yet again, and thank God with all my heart for the way it turned out.

Why were we so ready to lynch God?! What was it about Jesus son of Mary, about his unlicensed healings, his releasing people from the power of sin, the extraordinary freedom he claimed to cross lines, his constant confrontations with hypocrisy, and the fresh hope he kindled in so many (I know this fresh hope!!!) that seemingly required his elimination?
Jesus, you knew full well what we are capable of, but you didn't call your army of angels; you put yourself into our merciless hands and we tortured you to death. Though you forgave us, you died without any illusion that this sacrifice would make us magically into nice people. ("If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Luke 16:19-31.) And, indeed, we are not, as a species, all that nice--we're armed to the teeth, fond of trashing the planet, looking for every possible way to feel superior to others; even those of us who acknowledge you as our Lord and our Saviour often seem more concerned about one-upping each other than making your promises real to the rest of the world.
You asked us to take up our crosses and follow you. If you don't mind, I'd rather follow you without taking that first part too literally. Actually, maybe that's why looking at you and your cross at this time of year is so important to me--then I can't just leave the cross out of the picture. We sure know how to use it on others--even now, we're playing God in Libya and God knows where else. This is my desperate desire, for myself and for this humanity you love so much--each time a Christian takes up the cross, maybe he or she is removing it from the satanic stockpile of crosses intended for new victims. I can't possibly take up my cross alone--even if it would me look more admirable, more spiritually mature, more like the disciple I wish I were. I need your company. I need to see the holes in your hands, please--not because I don't believe you, but because I need to stop spiritualizing Easter and find the courage to experience it for myself.

Speaking of one-upping, please permit me a curmudgeonly moment. Friends harping on our lack of holy days gets a bit old. It would be different if we Friends were noticeably more powerful in our discipleship than other Christians who are hopelessly stuck in their old ceremonial ways, who never think about the birth of faith at other times than Christmas or about the Resurrection at any other time than Easter.** We superior Friends think about all these things all the time, which is why we remain at a microscopic size globally, and see our best ideas improved upon by others while we remain so remarkably self-absorbed.

OK, OK, so that last part was a bit negative! ... There is much going on in the Quaker world that is itself remarkable--for example, take a look at the amazing ministries of Friends House Moscow. (And send a donation!)

** N.B. I don't actually believe this!

Liturgical calendars and icons are channels used by many Christians to convey important teachings and disciplines in an accessible and reliable way. Without denying this, Friends rightly teach that no symbolic system can adequately communicate the immediacy of the Gospel, and in the absence of this immediacy, symbols can end up becoming the center of the religious life, instead of the Reality they're supposed to point to.

The main problem that I have with symbolic systems is NOT their communication function. All faith communities need to communicate their core beliefs, and they need a range of vocabularies and channels to reach all kinds of personalities. We Friends sometimes seem peculiarly addicted to vagueness, but we too must communicate! Here's my problem: we humans are so often tempted to give the symbol systems, and, more particularly, the people authorized to manage those systems, more power than they deserve. For example, communion is an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful channel--but once we put all our emotional eggs into that basket, the power to take the basket away from us, to exclude us from that channel because we don't measure up to the management's standards, is not always a Godly power.

It's the old story of "turtles all the way down" (a story I first heard from John Yungblut), but my version has "politics all the way down." Christ came to make us free!!--you may freely partake of calendars and symbols to help bring you closer to God, but don't let the symbol-managers get in the way. God has already done the crucial work to come close to you, very close: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

This doesn't mean that the community has no authority at all--it simply doesn't have the right to use the power of religious language to satisfy political agendas, and we must have the freedom to discern when that illegitimate jump is happening. For example, my part of the Quaker world esteems the Richmond Declaration of Faith. We are right to ask you to study and consider that document seriously if you want to be a member of our community. We would be going too far if we made you memorize every doctrine in that document and accept it without question, upon pain of being rejected. The life of faith in community is a dialogue based on mutual respect--and without power-plays.

During my years with Friends World Committee for Consultation, I observed a couple of different yearly meetings as they tried to put together new books of Christian discipline. Their Faith and Practice revision committees, in the process of submitting drafts to the larger community, kept running into an interesting phenomenon: any "advice" that made someone in the body uncomfortable was likely to be vetoed. These new books of discipline were in constant danger of becoming books of history and Quaker platitudes rather than genuine calls to a higher standard of discipleship. But truth compels me to ask an awkward question about the Faith and Practice books of previous generations: were their readers better able to submit to the authority of the group, or were some of them simply able to tolerate a larger gap between the written principles and their private behavior?

Chris Heuertz makes some important connections: "The war, the wall, and the well"--three interconnected sins, or to put it another way, three large crosses.

Nancy Thomas, "Toward a Quaker Missiology." "A hour’s reflection on George Fox’s advice to colonizing farmers in the 17th century, corroborated by many other documents, yields the following Quakerly missiological principles...." (Go read them!)

Don Miller: "How Christ built an army without weapons."

"Why I pray we [Americans] don't have a Christian candidate for 2012."

"Carolyn Arends contemplates her own death, and yours."

As an American who has experienced evangelical culture on both sides of the U.S./Canada border, I found this article very interesting: "Cross-border evangelicals: Americans and Canadians."

Two Russia-related links this week: "Alaska-Chukotka: when cousins reunite" and "2012: The apocalyptic return of Russian political humor."

Friday P.S. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on critics and defenders of Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea).

"Dark was the night, cold was the ground"--

1 comment:

Outdoor Fire Pit Guy said...

Very interesting viewpoint on the christian faith. I don't see all christians just focused on the two ceremonial holidays (easter and christmas) to support their faith, but I will agree there are a lot that do.