17 May 2012

Signs, part four: revival

(Part one, part two, part three)

Fritz Eichenberg, Return of the Peaceable Kingdom (commissioned by
Fred Boots/Friends United Meeting for the Quaker Hill Bookstore, 1983)
Just a few more thoughts before I leave the theme of "signs." Last week I was struck by the Quaker testimonies--peace and the equality of men and women in ministry, for example--as signs and wonders of the kind that would confirm the apostles' preaching.

On reflection, this seems true but very theoretical. How do we see demonstrations of God's power actually working to give people new hope and open doors to Christian community? There are a couple of sides to this question: How do the Gospel works of peace become visible to the world; and are we prepared to receive those who might want to know more, and even to join with us in learning to live this new way?

I've written before about the time I visited two Friends churches on the same morning--the early service of a megachurch (by Quaker standards!) and, later, the main service of another church not far away. The first church service was full of men and microphones and compulsory cheerfulness and self-promoting announcements, according to my admittedly jaundiced memories of the morning. I couldn't see any references to Friends discipleship. (I'm reminding myself, however, that some Friends meetings deliberately prefer to reserve the "distinctives" for teaching and discussion within smaller groups. They would say that they don't neglect Quaker discipleship at all, but want to keep the funnel as wide as possible in the public meeting, not wanting to narrow it with anything that smells sectarian.)

The second meeting was so different--to my utter relief. Here men and women were sharing the worship leadership; they encouraged us to look toward God and not toward themselves or the institution. Most important, I could breathe; I sensed that, here, the Holy Spirit could get a word in edgewise, at least! The public could see the testimonies in action.

Here's another example--a sign that took place, not in a church, but in a military office. Last week we received this example of the conscription counseling that we Friends support in Russia. (Some details have been obscured for privacy's sake.) A young married man is telling how he would have been press-ganged into the army but for the intervention of counselors we support:
…they called me to the procurator’s office to hand in copies of documents (driver’s licence and identity card). After the copies were made, men from the Army Recruiting Office came and forcibly put me into a car and took me off to the clinic to take x-rays. Then they took me to the Recruiting Office and from there sent me to [the city].

…the senior commander L. handed me an army identity card and announced that tomorrow I would be sent off to the army.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. That morning, leaving the house, I had said to my pregnant wife that I wouldn’t be long, but now all my thoughts were turned upside down.

I shouted at L, demanding to know how it was possible to take someone into the army without a call-up commission and call-up paper? He did not answer…

I spent that night in the barracks…At 14.00 they took me out under guard to meet “customers” of the military unit to which I was assigned. The commander of the unit gave me half an hour to say goodbye to my relatives, and when I returned I would have to change into military uniform and have my head shaved.

At the Draft Checkpoint I saw my brother and mother. We just sat in silence, because we didn’t see any way out of the situation.

My wife rang my brother, and said that she had found the telephone number of some people who would be able to help us. These people were [Friends-supported draft counselors] Nina and Herman.

I immediately rang that number, briefly explained the situation and 15 minutes later we were already writing a notice of appeal to the Draft Commission ... together with Nina and Herman.

I was filled with emotion, I trusted these people completely, and have not regretted this for a moment. Nina firmly defended my rights in the office of the deputy of the Army Recruiting Office G. He was unable in any way to justify the actions of his colleagues and gave in and let me go. I couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible!

Five minutes later we were outside the Draft Checkpoint! I was full of joy and could not believe what had happened. I rang my wife, said that I was definitely coming that day! I was overcome with emotion!

All the words of thanks could not express my gratefulness.
This story is not over--the young man's request for civilian alternative service is still on appeal. But can anyone doubt that there are signs and wonders going on?

What can the Quaker community do to support those whose outreach and evangelism is accompanied by God's confirming acts? Often the word "support" leads to a request for money or volunteers, and those are hugely important. But what we need most of all is revival! We need Friends and meetings whose normal state is a readiness to see God at work. We need communities who not only affirm the principles and theories of Friends testimonies, but who are ready to receive those who hear, see, and are convinced! What good is it for our gifted Quaker communicators to describe our discipleship in glowing terms if they have nowhere to send their audiences because there are too few communities actually confirming these descriptions in real life?

I'm normally suspicious of calls to spiritual athleticism. We don't need hype and drama, but we do need people who come to meeting--and leave meeting--expecting miracles. We need hidden barriers torn down--especially the attitude that only people with refined tastes and long attention spans and a reassuring lack of enthusiasm (or whatever our local prejudices might be!!) can be Friends. On the one hand, I feel utterly frustrated sometimes by how tiny our vision is of what Friends could be in this world, of what delicious community we could provide for people who need a church based on abundant grace, not rules and power games. On the other hand, we have a hugely important resource that I see everywhere among Friends--big hearts! Again: On the one hand--we might still degenerate into widely-scattered little tribes of spiritual elitists. On the other hand, every one of those little tribes is a potential seed for a reborn movement of integrated evangelism and social justice.

What might be the catalytic element that decides the issue, that invites revival rather than decomposition? Maybe we need to ask for a new conversion, a new experience of crossing over into the risky territory of true faith, knowing that without the "protection" of violence and social status, we may lose our lives. I don't have the right to point at any individual and say that "you! to grow spiritually, you need a fresh experience of yielding, of conversion" (though I've said these words to myself) but I'm pretty sure that as a Friends Church, a Religious Society of Friends, that's what we need. And when even a small proportion of us pray our way into this riskier territory, and clear the path for our neighbors as well, there will be signs and wonders and growth.

If you're an American voter, please read this and act. I'm sorry that I'm too far away to take FCNL's advice and schedule a meeting with a member of Congress. Bring a Bible--it would be impossible to turn more than a few pages without finding a teaching relevant to this conversation.

Atlantic interview with Marilynne Robinson. (Thanks to this Immanent Frame post for the link.)

"More on students and God" and Contemplative Scholar's "audacious hope."

Moscow--Tikhon Dzyadko on strategic strolling and the ethics of journalism.

Some memories of Pinetop Perkins...

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