01 March 2018

Decline and persistence, part two

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends -- quarterly gathering last month at Camas Friends Church, Camas, Washington, USA, approving by-laws and recording its first four member churches.
Last week, when I considered Quakers' decline and persistence, I was determined not to hold back on our symptoms of weakness and mortality. This week I'm thinking less about decline and more about what a worthwhile future might involve. In no special order ...
  • Is there a live urgency for our continued existence? That is, are there actual people ready to say right now that, in Hugh Doncaster's words from the World Conference of Friends in 1967, "The world is dying for lack of Quakerism in action"? Are you one of those people? If so, are you also in a fellowship that will pray for you, discern with you, ensure that your passion is linked to kindness? ... Because maybe the only way we keep passion from curdling into sectarianism is by constant conversation with other discerners. If you have this burning concern, all the conventional wisdom about Friends' decline finds a new perspective. It's information, a reality check, but not God's veto on a more creative use of our resources and relationships.
  • Our most dramatic public distinctive may be the practice of waiting worship, in silent expectation that the Holy Spirit is trustworthy to guide our public meetings rather than relying on a minister and a planned program. In recent years, some of our growing congregations have still been practicing this most ancient form of Quaker worship -- but do we still gather with that same striking expectation? Almost everything else we do in public worship is done by other Christians as well, but this raw liturgical trust is practically unique to Friends. It is a precious witness to the world that we gather to meet the living God together ... but do we? And are we able to articulate why we worship this way to our internal and external audiences? -- "This is how our family of faith was formed, by giving up the hierarchies and the furniture and daring to put all our eggs in the Gospel basket!" Without that clearly expressed expectation, we risk appearing to be a closed group of advanced adepts rather than ordinary people no better than our neighbors, engaging in a practice that is accessible to anyone. (Remembering our Moscow experience.)
  • Those of us who have adopted various forms of programming -- sermons, singing, "special" music, a collection, children's stories -- are not off the hook. Do we still preserve the blessedly vulnerable space for the Holy Spirit to intervene through anyone present, no matter how new, young, or untutored in Quaker folkways? (I've spent most of my adult years in Friends meetings where the time for silent waiting might be reduced to just five or ten minutes, but I also confess that, more than once, I've taken so much time sermonizing that there was no time left for silence.) Do we really want to argue that our own arrangements, as worthwhile as they might be, actually outrank listening to God?
  • Over and over, as I've talked with adult newcomers to Friends about their first experiences among us, they mention a quality of grace, a refreshing freedom from judgment, that let them know intuitively that they are in a safe place. This is just as true among pastoral, programmed meetings as among unprogrammed Friends. Have you felt this quality? Maybe you've been part of the welcoming community, and didn't even know what a gift you gave to someone new. I think this precious reality is worth deliberately cherishing. In Russia, many of the young people we talked to about church as a concept said that they associated that word "church" with being judged. I'm not arguing that Friends meetings are unique in having this grace, but I do believe that our lack of authoritarian patterns is an important factor.
  • It's all based on our most basic testimony, trust. In an age of information wars and power plays, we can build something truly great together: a trustworthy church. If there are non-Quaker churches that are also trustworthy, so much the better: that's not competition, that's fellowship! But evidence (#ChurchToo) suggests that there is still a crying need for places that are intelligently trustworthy. (And intelligence is needed! Churches are by their very nature open places, where wounded and angry people may walk right in. Safety requires prayer and policies! Yes, there will always be risks, but shaming and isolation should never be among them.)
  • Rick Warren told the (U.S.) National Religious Broadcasters a couple of days ago that revival will never happen in the USA if the church doesn't confront racism. Friends theology strips away all irrelevant social distinctions, giving us the potential for radical hospitality, but that requires us to neutralize elitist signals of all kinds with a hunger to taste heaven's diversity here and now. If it takes a whole new conversion to give us the necessary freedom and emotional range in place of old class anxieties, so be it. I'm convinced that guilt and self-flagellation and buying friendship through arms-length service are weak responses in comparison with an invitation to meet  at the feet of Jesus -- introverts and extroverts of all colors and cultures ready to learn together what it means to live in Gospel freedom. I've seen glimpses of this among Friends, so you can't tell me it's impossible.
  • Concerning the discipleship markers known as the Friends testimonies -- peace, equality, simplicity, prayer-based group decisionmaking: I hope that they will never weaken, but I'm tired of hearing them framed as social or political distinctives. They are nothing short of miracles, signs and wonders of that freedom we're promised in Christ. They are as evangelistic as they are ethical.
  • Finally: listening to the 28th episode of Quaker Faith and Podcast, "Traveling in Ministry," led me to think about what role traveling ministers can play in stirring us up to a more dynamic stewardship of our Quaker identity and resources. When I was in Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in Boston, we were lucky to have more than our share of traveling ministers. Peter Crysdale and Ralph Greene, pastors in New England Yearly Meeting, had an infectious enthusiasm about their Quaker faith, and I learned from them that it's perfectly acceptable to be passionate about being a Friend. Subdued moderation wasn't the only game in town! And Ann and Jim Lenhart of Celo, North Carolina, confronted me directly with their sense that I was to have a public ministry. Who might be waiting somewhere for your affirmation?
A few weeks ago, Judy and I visited Metolius Friends Church near Madras, Oregon. We remembered that on our previous visits, years ago, we had a definite sense of that grace I was trying to describe earlier. This time, almost the first thing that we saw entering the meetinghouse was a placard, "Let everything be done in LOVE." The pastor was new; we had not met him before, but he too seemed to embody this quality. He led the whole meeting for worship holding his completely unanxious young child in one arm, gesturing and handling papers with his free hand.

One more thing about that visit: I hope it's not too indiscreet to say that we had pro-Trump and anti-Trump people at our table, getting along together in a way that we don't often see these days. Needless to say, we can't wait for our next trip to Metolius!

Chuck Fager's question: Does Scott Miller have the answer to American Quakers' decline? (With interesting links to some nineteenth-century British writers concerned about the Quaker prospects of their era.)

Roger E. Olson wonders whether you would be mad if God saved everyone.

Michael Lind links Brexit and Trump's election to the new class war.
None of the dominant political ideologies of the West can explain the new class war, because all of them pretend that persisting social classes no longer exist in the West. Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Unable to acknowledge the existence of social class, much less to candidly discuss class conflicts, neoliberals can only attribute populism to bigotry or irrationality.
Miriam Elder and Charlie Warzel advise us not to blame Russian bots for everything.
It is true that bots are a serious problem. It is also true that the bot problem is exaggerated. It is true that Russian bots are a conspiracy theory that provides a tidy explanation for complicated developments. It is also true that Russian influence efforts may be happening before our eyes without us really knowing the full scope in the moment.
Russian political and security experts interpret Putin's state-of-the-nation speech.

Dark matter and the earliest stars: Sean Carroll considers the possible implications. (Thanks to www.3quarksdaily.com for the link.)

In memory of Terry Evans (1937-2018).

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