28 April 2022

The Quaker high-wire act (and the Atlantic Ocean again)

Wonder of the Seas: our position this morning.

Still on the open ocean. What a difference a week makes, at average speed of about 20 knots. The zigzag in our course was the result of responding to a medical emergency yesteerday, during which a Portuguese helicopter airlifted a passenger to a hospital on land. We will be approaching Gibraltar in about 32 hours.

Years ago, at the All-Kentucky Gathering of Friends, I remember being asked how I, an apparently intelligent person, could call myself a Christian. (I mentioned this incident in a post entitled Risk and resurrection.) I was a staff member of Friends World Committee for Consultation at the time, and my service included two contrasting expectations: courteous and empathetic outreach to the full spectrum of Quakers I met in the course of my travels, and honest expression of my own testimony. In those days, most corners of my Quaker world either strongly identified as Christian, or were places in which Christians were a (sometimes defensive) minority.

My current spiritual home is Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends, though I also continue to be a member of Moscow Meeting in Russia. SCYMF and my home meeting, Camas Friends Church, describe their values as Christ-centered, Quaker, and welcoming all sexual identities on an equal basis. There are probably many in the Christian world that would see tensions within that set of values, but many of us say that they are mutually reinforcing.

One of our challenges as a young yearly meeting is, as I see it (and I have no official voice!), to balance two qualities: solidity without false certainty.

By "solidity" I mean a continuity of vision and purpose, a trustworthy teaching voice, and the stability needed for a Christian community to go beyond existence today as congenial affinity group, but instead also to be a place where people are born and die, come to faith, become leaders by a transparent process according to their gifts (without irrelevant criteria getting in the way), and wish the best for each other even in conflict. "Solidity" as a Quaker group means to me to be grounded in the essential Quaker agenda: "What does God want to say and do through us?"

Here's the high-wire act: doing all this without resorting to false certainty. I have my own sense of security in my experience as a disciple of Jesus -- 48 years of counting on the trustworthiness of Jesus, and recognizing that the Quaker testimonies match my experience of the signs and wonders empowered by the Holy Spirit. However, my understanding is not, and cannot be, any organization's official template. My influence on others is completely dependent on my own trustworthiness and the integrity of my relationships with others, and even that does not guarantee any particular outcome of our conversations. Change is possible in either direction, but not because we are trying to fit into an external mold.

To tell the truth, there is no corner of Christianity where "certainty" truly guarantees anything other than a motivation to conform and be accepted. In more authoritarian circles, people who are feeling a need to "deconstruct" their faith either have to hide or leave. (Tell me if I'm wrong about any particular group; I'd be glad to hear their story.) I hope that Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting and Camas Friends Church are places where people who can no longer accept their earlier certainties know that they will be given just as much love and support during this process as they were and will be in seasons of greater confidence.

I find much value in doctrines as important attempts to express urgent spiritual insights and make them public and communicable. To the extent that we Quakers have doctrines, such as those expressed by Robert Barclay and other gifted Quaker theologians, I think that these expressions should be considered and meditated upon by anyone wanting to know about our community and its history. But let's be honest -- there is probably no Friends meeting or church that exactly conforms to those doctrines, and that is not surprising. Practically nobody comes to faith along the same paths as those early Friends. Their faithfulness -- evidenced in the staying power of the movement they began -- earns them the right to be taken seriously, but not to be followed uncritically.

Some Christians see the Bible as a guarantor of right doctrine. The Bible is a unique testimony to God's relationship to Creation and to all of God's creatures, but the Bible itself neither has nor claims to have any magical ability to provide its own interpretive keys. As soon as someone insists on providing and imposing such a key, we have another example of false certainty.

People of faith are always on a high wire. There's no aspect of faith that doesn't involve the risk that our prayerful discernment, necessary as it is, might be in error. What I love about Camas Friends, our yearly meeting, and similar trustworthy Christian communities is that, if I fall, my friends will catch me in our net. And at another time and place, I will return the favor.

Somewhat to my surprise, I've not written anything about Ukraine today. The war is still what I'm thinking and praying about more than anything else. I was glad that the rather thin Internet service on this ship made it possible to join the Tuesday meetings for worship with a concern for Ukraine, under the care of Friends World Committee's European and Middle East Section.

Thinking about Jesus in the shadow of the Russian Easter offensive: Is death the point?

Russia's fascist "background noise" (a look back eight years ago).

David Hadley Fink: the Quaker peace testimony has never been rescinded....

I need some blues dessert. Nothing less than high-voltage Albert Collins will do.

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