14 July 2016

Faith, commitment, and aspiration (repost)

I originally posted this on March 14, 2013. Now that North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (FUM) seems to be shuffling toward a similar arrangement as Friends in Indiana, and my own dear Northwest Yearly Meeting gathers shortly to reconsider the cost and value of unity, I felt led to repost these modest thoughts. [UPDATE: Northwest Yearly Meeting 2016. Restructure 2017.]

Why bother even writing about denominational politics when there are so many fresh wounds in our human family? Answer: it is precisely those wounds that demand our urgent attention, our unity, our undistracted rededication to the kind of prophetic evangelism that confronts violence, racism, and elitism in the name of Jesus. 

I've not written about the schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends.

I was present at the adoption of the 1982 minute on homosexuality; I was a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting for nearly twenty years; I was recorded as a minister by that yearly meeting; I've been following the breakup story since it became public; and still I find myself without words. 

(Lucky for you!)

And I won't start now. The story is too huge, and too petty. Too tragic, and too trivial. And in the midst of everything else, there's my total certainty that anything I say will be misunderstood.

Instead, I am thinking about what drives Christians apart --particularly my tribe, the Quakers. I used to think (and still do, somewhat, despite Indiana's sobering reality check) that Quaker unity is a matter of depth. We are at our most united, across our divisions, when we remember that we were gathered in God's power -- once upon a time in the 1652 era, and at every occasion since when we truly yielded to God. On the other hand, our divisions are most obvious when we look at our favorite parochial counterfeits -- one group hiding in silence, another in flavor-of-the-month evangelicalism, another in affluent inner-flashlight individualism, just to risk a few caricatures. In hyping our own group's specialness, we often resort to selective applications of beautiful antiquarian flourishes from early Friends -- and hide the extent to which our wider contexts, the surrounding mass cultures, have distorted us practically to the breaking point.

Our politics are equally ugly. Maybe this is what has truly broken my heart. To be sure that our special group isn't contaminated, evangelical Friends are fond of beating the unity drum by quoting Scripture and invoking the presence of the Holy Spirit, but are those who question the application or invocation, or who call for a season of discernment, listened to? Isn't such questioning often labeled as evidence of contamination? (And consider the source!--someone from X College!) When contamination control becomes our definition of finding unity, then politics based on whisper campaigns, parking-lot understandings, enemy lists, venomous labeling of the "other" becomes normal. But does the Holy Spirit truly bless these scenes? I believe that when we use Holy Spirit language to deodorize our politics, we're in real danger of committing the unforgivable sin. It's not that I believe we don't need to discern error (yes, error exists!!) but no theological or political formula can ever replace daily actual real-time discernment and real-life eldership.

Liberal Friends do the same sort of thing, just with a different set of signals. I have watched several yearly meetings grapple with the challenging task of revising books of discipline, and it has sometimes looked to me like a process of finding the lowest common denominator. Whether it is doctrinal content or sexual ethics or yearly meeting authority, don't include anything that makes anyone squirm. Early Friends knew that "... it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." [2 Corinthians 1:22; "He"/"his" per NIV translation; God is not male. And also see the great news in Ephesians 1:13-14.] I believe that Friends can continue to live by and experience this "guarantee" -- but do we teach and believe this? Is trust in God (rather than hierarchy, politics, violence, wealth, social distinctions, intellectual cleverness) still our central testimony?

Let's be honest: no Quaker group, probably no Christian group lives up to our full potential. Many of us love to sing Frances Ridley Havergal's hymns; one of my favorites is the very Quakerly "Lord, speak to me that I may speak / In living echoes of Thy tone...." But when I sing another of my favorites, "Take my life and let it be," I always come to a screeching halt (so to speak) at the line, "Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold." I would withhold quite a bit, actually! What would I need to do to be able to sing that line without blushing?

On the other hand, I have truly tried to "lay down my sword and shield down by the Riverside" of baptism. (Notes on baptism--#1; #2.) My understanding is that, once we've been in that river, Jesus has taken the choice to kill away from us. I cannot understand how Christianity and military service can be reconciled. We Friends, in the words of the Richmond Declaration of Faith, "... feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, 'Love your enemies.' (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27) In enjoining this love, and the forgiveness of injuries, He who has brought us to Himself has not prescribed ... precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them."

So this aspiration ranks very high with me, but perhaps a total God-centered financial stewardship has conveniently been ranked a bit lower. However, maybe other disciples, even ones more mature than I am, have reversed these priorities.

So: do some of our divisions arise from our different aspirations and priorities? Maybe we could have a humbler and more productive conversation about spiritual unity and divisions if we acknowledged our (perhaps subconscious) prioritizations, aspirations, and even our failures. Especially our failures to trust.

Back to 2016 ...

Just a week ago: Nekima Levy-Pounds addresses a plenary session of Friends General Conference. (Her address begins at 18:00.)

Kendra Weddle Irons gives a response to Dallas. "Have you noticed the one constant that lies at the heart of the violence we continue to witness?" Fair or not?

Women in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine break the oppressive silence on sexual violence. Natalia Antonova; RFERL.

Forum 18 examines new legislation with huge implications for evangelism and house churches in Russia. Christianity Today's background piece, Russia: The Other Christian Nation.

Betsy Mikel on the nourishing benefits of silence. (Thanks to Bill Smith for the link.)

Face to Face: Vail Palmer's book on early Quaker encounters with the Bible is on the press.

"I'm going to thank God for giving me a vision." A voice from my Chicago childhood comes back to help me now.

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