10 May 2012

Signs, part three

(part one, part two, part four)

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826)
It would be great if our Friends meetings and churches could improve access to our faith communities through clear signs (in the literal sense). It would also be good if we provided visitors, once they've found us, with straightforward language to help them understand what we're doing when we gather. But today I'm thinking of "signs" in a different sense: the evidence that we gather and act in submission to the Holy Spirit.

The use of "signs" in this sense appears in the Bible in several places--prominently in Mark 16:20 (a verse that doesn't appear in all early manuscripts). Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (New International Version; context.)

John Wimber, a Quaker pastor who went on to become one of the foundational figures in the Vineyard movement, asserted that supernatural signs and wonders would or should accompany authentic Christian ministry. I don't doubt that miraculous signs can happen, but I see Mark's teaching as being just as directly relevant to those aspects of Friends faith and practice that bear the undramatic label "testimonies"--a label that has the twin deficiencies of being in-group jargon and so tame that it conceals the "sign" qualities of Quaker discipleship.

The peace testimony--a life lived in obedience to the Prince of Peace and in defiance of the massive historical reliance of peoples and nations everywhere on violence--is to me a confirming sign of the reality of the Gospel. We don't practice nonviolence just because we're nice people or clever people, nor do we practice it because we don't believe evil should be confronted. I'm passionate about upholding this testimony because it is evidence that we've put our trust in the promises of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. We have not become Christians to make our lives convenient for the principalities and powers of this world, but to keep company with Jesus and with all those who believe what he says. I have no use for a cerebral, miracle-free faith, but the daily walk of peace is actually a daily miracle.

We practice simplicity because it is likewise an evidence of the reality of the Gospel. In the early years of our marriage, the money for our food and rent was cobbled together through a variety of low-paying jobs, some of them very temporary, but Judy and I realized in prayer that we were being taught to rely on daily bread rather than long-term security. I am a natural worrier; without that confirming "sign" I can't imagine the stresses I'd have endured. Not that I've always remembered this lesson, but the experience of learning it remains vivid today.

The role of the church in maintaining the testimonies of peace and simplicity was driven home when our meeting (First Friends Meeting, Richmond, Indiana, USA, at the time) adopted a policy that the church would support members whose refusal to pay the military portion of their taxes led to prosecution and seizure of money or assets. The whole church was saying that we've reoriented ourselves to a perspective in which Caesar no longer dictates what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. How can this rejection of conventional wisdom in favor of the reality of the Gospel be seen as anything other than a sign? Has your church made and announced this choice as well?

The equality of men and women in leadership and ministry is also a sign! It flies in the face of centuries of behavior in both worldly systems and the worldly captivity of the church. With the weight of all that oppressive practice on us, we demonstrate our faith that the Holy Spirit is fully capable of appointing and equipping leaders--and therefore why would we strain the Spirit's witness to satisfy those who cling to privilege?

Sometimes it appears to me that the Friends movement is in danger of growing timid and tired because we've reduced our testimonies to lists and forgotten their miraculous dimension. I remember that there was an elderly Friend at our meeting in Richmond who frequently challenged our complacency. One time she got up and asked the whole church, "When was the last time you led someone to Christ? When was the last time you counseled a conscientious objector?" She didn't get an answer, but even in that awkward moment I rejoiced that someone was prophetically connecting the dots: peace isn't just a teaching, it's a sign.

George Packard, the "People's Bishop." Based on this article, I can't claim that Packard is a perfect example of a sign-bearing evangelist in the sense I mean, but it's worth thinking about.

"What if Quakerism were a movement again?"

"The Higgs Boson, aka the God Particle, Explained with Animation."

"How to make money online": "The first step is to stop googling things like, 'how to make money online.'"

1 John 4: "A New Love Chapter?"

And Kim Wilson brings the dessert:

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