24 January 2019

What is our vocation? (Twelve years later)

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About twelve years ago I wrote a blog post on things that I appreciated about being a Friend. Somewhere in there I asked,
So what is our vocation among the larger body of Christians? We are called to shape a community around the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. Our central testimony is trust in the promises and power of God, freeing us from the endless searches for control, security, and wealth. Trust is our central testimony; all the others spring from it. With trust in the promises and mandates that Jesus made in person to our family 2000 years ago and confirms daily, we can lay down our dependence on weapons, false social distinctions, and affluence.

Three factors (at least) weaken us in our contemporary realization of this calling: not enough of us know our own spiritual gifts and how they mesh together in the community; we pay far too little attention to making our communities accessible to those who would find spiritual liberation among us; and too often we cover up the weaknesses caused by these failures by the usual counterfeits: legalism (either a Christian legalism or an absurdly thorough mastery of Quaker trivia); lame imitation of "successful" models outside Friends; uncritical sentimentality; a social quakerism devoid of belief in the power of God -- what Parker Palmer called functional atheism.
Twelve years later, do I stand by this diagnosis of our weaknesses? I've become far more optimistic, actually. The first and third points (lack of knowledge of spiritual gifts, and the counterfeits we employ to distract ourselves) are being addressed by a new generation of Friends. Many of these Friends cross the lines of Quaker divisions far more easily than we did decades ago when I first jointed the Friends World Committee staff, where crossing those lines, sometimes slipping past the gatekeepers, was my job. I dare to hope that these Friends are remixing the creative elements of our legacy (to use Wess Daniels's verb) to good effect, and questioning some of the old cliches and assumptions.

As for the remaining weakness, making our communities accessible: Instead of addressing this with a tone of discontent, I'd like to be encouraging. I think we are becoming more aware of our spiritual gifts and how they strengthen each other, and we also seem to be loosening up the old false polarities of salvation-first vs Quaker distinctives. These developments free us to look directly at the task of becoming more accessible and welcoming.

(By the way, I don't mean to set up a generational comparison -- the renewal I see crosses those lines, too. For example, I love the mutual encouragement I see in our new yearly meeting, Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.)

Here are some aspects of the task that seem very realistic to me. You can add more, or challenge me on what I'm listing.

The freedom to explore spiritual gifts unleashes the gift of evangelism. I'm still convinced that most -- maybe all -- Friends meetings and churches have people with this gift, no matter how alien the word is to the local subculture. We just need to liberate, encourage, and if necessary train these Friends instead of marginalizing them or being totally unaware of them. It's correct that we Friends don't "proselytize" but we still need to communicate our faith. The concern is to communicate with integrity.

The Friends testimonies work together. At the center of Friends discipleship is trust in God. (Elsewhere I've argued that "trust" is the first testimony.) That trust allows us to experiment with letting Jesus be at the center of our church governance and discipleship, rather than a fearful reliance on status and coercion. Evangelism involves not only a winsome and honest expression of faith, but also an invitation to experience a community formed by that faith, so proclamation and witness reinforce each other.

(NOTE: I'm not asserting Quaker exceptionalism; we retreat to those fallbacks far too often ourselves; and other churches have produced amazing legacies of faithful witness. We just have fewer excuses for wriggling out of our own claims.)

(Related post: Division of labor, part two, on what this collaboration might look like.)

A community empowered by spiritual gifts is not culturally narrow. This assertion is backed by vast hopes and very little experience. Many Friends meetings and churches yearn for cultural and racial diversity, but seem to be stuck arguing about theoretical ideals rather than choosing to examine hurdles: location, unintended or unexamined "we-they" messages (no matter how benevolent or progressive the intention), and a tendency to see non-members as objects of service rather than co-equal participants already part of "us" in God's story. But most of all, I believe that spiritual power unites while cerebral analysis divides.

Russian translation of Christ in Catastrophe
by Emil Fuchs. Very relevant.
Let empathy and creativity loose in new ways!  A decade ago, I became involved in choosing Quaker literature for translation into Russian, and our committee did some marketing research into other Christian publishers' priorities, and the apparent demands of the market. One thing I noticed early on: much religious publishing begins by prioritizing the audience, not the church organization behind the publication. Some books address addiction, some address loneliness or financial stress or raising children, some directly address spiritual hunger, and some simply aim to deliver an entertaining read. Whatever the specific issue in the reader's life, the writer and publisher bring biblical or theological or devotional insights to bear on that issue.

In contrast, so much Quaker literature seems to be concerned with delivering nuggets of Quaker goodness -- our history, our testimonies, our famous ancestors, our social justice arguments, our "wisdom." Much of that stuff is wonderful, but maybe we can become more audience-centric, addressing actual life situations of our readers.

What have I left out? And am I right to feel hopeful?

Nancy Thomas continues her series on Bolivian Quaker history. Catch up on her blog, mil gracias.

Nadia Bolz-Weber on talking to our children about sex without shame.

Kirill Medvedev on the anti-fascist legacy of Stanislav Markelov, ten years after his death.

Palestinians, Israelis, and others protest an apartheid-style highway and its implications for the future.

The atomic scientists' Doomsday Clock and a new abnormal.

Blues singer and guitarist Mike Ledbetter leaves us, dying at age 33.


Anonymous said...

Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on the status of "social quakerism devoid of belief in the power of God -- what Parker Palmer called functional atheism." As someone who grew up in an evangelical yearly meeting and has been one of the "boundary crossers" you discuss in your post, weak Christianity, if not functional atheism, among liberal Friends continues to be discouraging and difficult to me, even as I continue to appreciate so much of what liberal Friends bring to the table.

Johan Maurer said...

"Weak Christianity" ... Very good questions.

A few years ago I played with some diagrams (inspired by Natural Church Development) to help understand why movements decay into one or another type of formalism. Here are a couple of attempts. It's an ironic decay for Christians to permit, since we have in Jesus a founder/messiah who is eternally faithful and who can therefore get us off the cycle of enthusiasm -> consolidation (institutionalization) -> plateau -> decay (fragmentation) -> yet another messiah/hero/reformer. In the case of Friends, we have seen so many of our ancestors and maybe some of our contemporaries trying to preserve the forms and losing touch with the "why."

When the light goes out, liberal and evangelical Friends have different ways of faking it, choosing different cliches and fragments from Quaker heritage (or generic evangelicalism) to keep the show going.

In the liberals' defense, some of those forms or outward expressions they prefer are themselves of huge value in a hurting world: pursuit of justice, equality, peace, simplicity, and decisionmaking based on group discernment. As the voices of teachers and elders have weakened, we've forgotten to ask "why" and to turn to the One who can remind us that all those forms are actually ways we've learned to live with Jesus at the center.

My best understanding of Quaker faith and practice is that we're people who gather around Jesus and who are learning to live with him at the center, and who are helping each other learn these things -- including their ethical and prophetic consequences. Of course I know that there are other understandings of Quakerism out there, but that Christ-centered understanding is where I choose to make my home, to be vulnerable and accountable in that home, and to make it more accessible.

Beyond that closest circle, I cherish my ties with all those who care about peace and about breaking bondages, even as I realize that they and I might not have the same attachment to the central "why" question of the Christian movement. I'll probably always be curious about how (if they're Quakers) their line of descent from Fox and the founding generation changed from a Quakerism that intensified the Christian message to one that relativized it.

Maybe "weak Christianity" has been a kind of inoculation that has actually repelled potential Christians. (I first heard this idea from Andrew Towl of Cambridge Meeting in New England Yearly Meeting.) Maybe some of those who collaborate with us, and who had never before experienced a humane Spirit-filled version of "strong" Christianity, will be able to reverse that inoculation!

Well, these disorganized thoughts are a start, I hope. Thank you!