27 May 2021

"The church is like a ... "


Today I want to propose three metaphors for the church, and explain why they appeal to me:


... But first, some context: 

During our Russia years, we often found it difficult to convey what the word "church" meant to us. This was true among our students, and also among some of the attenders of our Quaker meeting. Many were generations removed from traditional parish involvements. Instead, sometimes the most obvious models were discussion groupspeer support groups, and self-help or self-improvement groups.

When western Quakers first came to Elektrostal, one of the earliest local participants in the new meeting thought at first that the visitors were bringing a new self-help practice, a sort of western version of Transcendental Meditation. It did not help matters that these were precisely the years that, with the Iron Curtain newly lifted, Russians were flooded by New Age and self-help celebrities and books of varying quality and integrity. In today's Russia, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that it is easy to forget how diverting those ideas seemed at the time.

The fact that the new Quaker visitors were English speakers was in itself an attraction; some of the early participants in Moscow and Elektrostal were eager to learn and practice their English. This doesn't of course mean that they had no interest in the spiritual dimension of these new ideas -- it's always possible to have more than one motive to participate in anything -- but it's worth noting that several early participants now live in English-speaking countries.

Another observation from those early years: almost no families or married couples participated. There may be as many reasons for this as there were individual participants, but it reinforces for me the sense that people did not see the new meetings as communities with cross-generational dimensions -- communities within which one might be born, married, and buried. It wasn't until we had been in Russia for several years that I began noticing another disconnect: some Russian participants in the Quaker community felt that their Quakerism was a way of expressing their interest in social justice or ethics, while their souls remained in the care of their Russian Orthodox (or, in one case, Baptist) connections. (I first wrote about this here: More thoughts on the hyphen within.)

Back in the mid-1970's, Avery Dulles wrote the first version of his book Models of the Church. The "models" he describes are helpful and evocative, and together they build up a sense of the inclusivity and continuity of the Body of Christ. However, the language of these models might be a bit dense and abstract for those who have never connected with church as we understand it. My own most basic understanding of church in a Quaker context is this: a church is a group of people who gather around Jesus, learning (and helping each other learn) what it means to live with him at the center of our lives, including the ethical consequences. My three metaphors are intended to illustrate what this might mean in real life.

Incubator. When I was a brand new Christian (age 21), getting to know my very first church, I was fortunate that this congregation, Ottawa Friends Meeting, was full of wonderful encouragers. I've written about some of them (Deborah Haight; Anne Thomas) but it was true of the body as a whole as well. I don't know who exactly noticed that I had the temperament of an evangelist and had cross-cultural interests, but Ottawa Friends soon put me on their outreach committee and, later, proposed me for Canadian Yearly Meeting's Foreign Missionary Board. (Canadian Friends no longer supported missionaries, so this board disbursed endowment earnings to support international concerns.)

There's more. Elizabeth Oxlade, editor of the Canadian Friend, recruited me to help with her publication. After I spent a summer in Mendenhall, Mississippi, with John Perkins and the Voice of Calvary organization, Ottawa Friends helped me raise money for VOC. When Friends World Committee for Consultation met in Hamilton, Ontario, the meeting sent me as an observer -- a formative experience for a very new Friend, and one that had a fateful influence on my life. (To sum it up briefly: I eventually served on FWCC's staff for ten years.) Maybe there's a better word than "incubator" to tag this function of noticing new or young people and giving them the support and encouragement they need to try out their spiritual gifts, but in any case, that's what Ottawa Friends did for me.

What is your meeting or church doing to notice and nurture the spiritual gifts of people who maybe haven't been noticed up to now?

Laboratory. Once upon a time, when I was the new general secretary of Friends United Meeting, I went to the Lilly Endowment and tried to argue that they should give us grants to study certain trends in American Christianity, because we Friends were small-scale enough to do detailed research economically. I had in mind the liberal-evangelical divides, the controversies over same-sex relationships, and the increasing obsolescence of the traditional denomination.

This last area of course was of immediate interest to me as a denominational bureaucrat with an increasingly restless constituency. The liberal wing and the evangelical wing of FUM both had lots of people who wanted to break ties with us. Our stress points mirrored those of much larger denominations, but surely it would be easier to study us instead of denominations ten or a hundred times larger.

(Parenthetically, the Lilly Endowment's Craig Dykstra was proposing an interesting way of understanding those stresses. He traced the evolution of denominations in the USA more or less as follows:

  • the early federal model -- parallel to the new country's federal structure;
  • the corporate model, with departments for all the activities a self-respecting denomination would have, and a corresponding management structure
  • finally, the licensing and regulatory functions that might give a denomination reason to exist when the previous conceits lose their appeal.)

The church-as-laboratory is a place where we can experiment with setting love and mercy and grace as top priorities, where we dare to test the ability of (for example) liberals and evangelicals to challenge each other lovingly, where rural and urban people learn to spot cultural tensions hiding behind theological labels, where we learn what happens when we take risks -- such as not paying military taxes.

In our laboratories of love, success is not always guaranteed. In the tensions around same-sex marriages, Northwest Yearly Meeting seemed to defy the odds for years, until it didn't

Observatory. The church is (potentially) a unique institution in our society. Our unity as participants in this institution is -- or should be -- based before all else around our relationship with God. All of the categories and labels that determine our other social and economic connections, fade in importance compared to the faith that brings us together in church. This unusual connection point gives us a platform to observe the forces at play in the world. As we pray together, discern together, and compare notes together, maybe we can see things differently -- with some chance to set aside our human biases in favor of learning what blesses or breaks the heart of God.

My first explicit experience of church as observatory came in February and March 2014. In the post "The zombies are coming out," I described the discussion our Moscow Quaker meeting had on February 23, the day Ukraine's political crisis came to a head. In retrospect, my mild description of our discussion wasn't completely candid about how lively, even heated, that discussion became at times. Meeting for business was scheduled for one week later, March 1, and we realized we Moscow Friends should somehow have something to share with the worldwide Quaker community. This led to our agreement to form a prayerful observatory, to pay careful attention to the course of events in Ukraine and Ukrainian-Russian relations in the days that followed, and to come prepared in a week to compare observations and see if we could say anything in one voice.

I was presiding clerk of Moscow Friends at the time. Despite my so-called faith, I approached that meeting for business with some dread. However, love prevailed: in the end, we were able to approve a statement in that meeting -- and another a week later.

The concept of church as observatory could easily become misused to imply that the church should become some sort of political watchdog. Our "telescope" is the discernment of the whole group, watching not just the news of the day, or the events that match our passing political fascinations, but the activities of the principalities and powers and evil in high places -- and the complicity of the church. There are certainly seasons of special focus, such as the church's role in casting out white nationalism, but we always remember that "... we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer." (2 Corinthians 5:16; context.)

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of these metaphors? What other metaphors help you make the meaning of "church" more alive and accessible to non-churchy audiences?

Part two: Lifeboat, garden, and portico.

Jinan Bastaki on the history of South African apartheid ... and its relevance for Israel and Palestine today.

The UN's emergency plan for Palestinian recovery.

The Ryanair/Minsk scandal and the ensuing disinformation campaign.

Paul Parker marks a decade as Britain Yearly Meeting's senior staff member.

If I were in my beloved Chicago, I'd be going here. (Chicago Reader coverage of the Vivian Maier exhibition.)

Screenshot from Muscle Shoals.
Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins died last Friday. National Public Radio's obituary includes a few samples of his work. Washington Post's obituary. At this point in the documentary Muscle Shoals, we hear Wilson Pickett describe Roger Hawkins, and Jerry Wexler tells Roger what he thinks of him. A Hawkins sampler.

Sonic the Hedgehog turns 30. (Technically, his first appearance was actually 30 years ago in February. Why am I mentioning this? Some context here, on Sonic's 15th -- scroll down.)

Nancy Thomas apologizes for taking Sam Hill's name in vain.

In case you think I'm taking myself too seriously, this ought to be reassuring. Mark Hummel and Jason Ricci -- "Just Your Fool."

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