Thursday, June 28, 2007

Promises, Promises, Promises

It occurred to me in the midst of prayers last evening how thankful I am for the relationships that I enjoy in my life. Particularly the relationship that continues to develop between the Creator and myself. Things have not been going smoothly over the past few weeks, and at points I have felt overwhelmed by the obstacles that have appeared. Years ago, of course, I would have simply ignored them and drank more whiskey, made things worse for everyone, and blamed everyone else for my troubles. But now, I pray - and last night, it came to me that God was not looking for me to pray for a way out of, or around, the problems that are present in my life. He was just asking me to be present.

So I didn't pray for magical intervention and deliverance from the difficulties of life. I did experience, in the fullness of God's presence, a joyfulness at one in the morning, because God was there for me. I knew that despite the fact of failures, tragedies, and bad choices, I was loved. And accepting that I was loved, and valued, and wanted by a Loving Spirit, makes it possible for me to enjoy the fruits of other relationships that help me get through the pissy parts of life. Because of that sense of pure lovingkindness that I experience with YHWH, I can truly love and receive love from others in my life. I can love my wife and children, and I can love the stranger and see God reflected through her.

The funny thing is, there would not seem for most to be much deliverance in this experience. My problems are still real, and they will not go away because God loves me. Also, the wars of the world still rage on, people still starve, and young people are still being murdered and imprisoned in our nation's cities. Sometimes, it really doesn't seem like the God that is revealed by Jesus does a damn thing for anyone. Jesus goes to the cross, the disciples are mostly martyred, and I can't buy any food.

But I don't really think this is God's problem. I certainly don't follow the script of Job, and I am not prepared to blame God for not acting in my life according to the dictates of my own preferences or will. Indeed, God doesn't promise us much of anything, other than we are saved as a people from our rejection of God's will by the ministry of Jesus. It is Jesus who welcomes us into a narrative that reminds us that salvation comes not through liberal democracy, freedom fighting, or free markets, but through a community of servants who act as a reflection of a reality that exposes the world's offer of freedom as a lie. YHWH is a God of love, peace, and justice, and YHWH expects that the people of God will strive to live such a life. But there is no promise that it will be easy, and there is no promise of individual success. There is only a promise (or hope?) of relationship between the Creator and the creature, and between the created in the context of the Church. Our salvation may be that we never have to go through our difficult times alone.

I know this doesn't seem fair, especially if your getting the crappy end of the stick. What the hell does relationship do for you if your losing your house? Or have lost your husband, or have been imprisoned unjustly. I can't even try to answer questions of theodicy, so I 'll spare you. But I will once again state that if your faith community is not helping you find food and shelter while your at rock bottom, then you need a new community. And if your church is not walking down the lonely path of loss when your husband is gone, then you need a new church. And if you are not exhorting your fellow worshippers to labor intensely in order to liberate the oppressed, you are inviting similar circumstances into your own life.

It is because we know that life isn't fair that we pull together in communities that offer themselves as salve for the wounds of life. We offer relationship, because it is relationship alone that offers the hope we need as a people of peace and justice to make the changes necessary to reflect God's intentions. The problem so many believers have today is that they have been sold a bill of goods by preachers who tell them that God exists to underwrite our American lifestyles, profit margins, and foreign policy. If your not a member of the middle-class, then you must not have the faith required by God to be blessed with a Cadillac.

Believe it or not, I saw a Cadillac in West Alexandria, OH with a vanity plate that read "askd rcvd." It's theology like that that drive people to blame God for injustice, and not their own apostate churches. But what is truly amazing, is how quickly I have turned a gentle musing about prayer and love into a rant about socio-economic injustice. Who says there is no such thing as sin.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A few thoughts on the 17th century

I'm certainly no historian, and I am well aware of the dangers of trying to draw conclusions from a few weeks of research on any topic, but something has struck me about early Quakerism and continuity. Many of you probably understand this, but it is simply amazing to me that the Society of Friends still exists. Not because of any recent problems in our denomination (though I've had plenty to say about that), but because of the odds of any religious sect of the mid 17th century struggling through the treacherous political and religious environment of the English Civil War and restoration.

The more I learn about the peculiarities of early Friends, the more it seems that those earliest pioneers were not so unique. Many of the peculiarities that we cite today as uniquely Quakerly, such as women ministers, refusal to tithe, simplicity or plainness in speech and dress, and the prioritizing of social justice issues, were common to various sects throughout 17th century England. In fact, the critique of ceremony, rites, and outwardly lavish worship services, and a professional clerical class were founded in the work of Wycliffe in the 14th Century. Some of the seemingly peculiar Quaker tenets were simply common to a variety of radical, and not so radical English religious and political movements.

Yet, with the exception of more mainstream expressions of Protestantism like Presbyterianism, which was well established in Scotland and on the Continent, and Puritanism, which had a great military leader and had its roots in the Tyndale/Lollard movement inspired by Wycliffes's work, only the Religious Society of Friends and Baptists made it through the toughest times of this radical era.

Persecution, infighting, (and in the case of the Levellers and outright extermination) and apocalyptic burnout were the demise of movements like the Seekers, the Family of Love, and the Fifth Monarchists. But Quakers and Baptists made it through, and I think there might be two reasons, though academically trained Friends' Historians might disagree.

For one, the Baptists and Quakers organized and developed structure. As much as I have railed against the work of modern Yearly Meetings in the past, I remain convinced that the support and discipline of the organized ecclesiastical structure of early Friends pushed them through to the point of taking advantage of their extraordinary growth during more apocalyptic inclined times. Friends had staying power because, at some point, they invested in a future and stability instead of maintaining apocalyptic theology as their source of fuel.

Secondly, Friends insisted on worshipping publicly, even when it was illegal, and dangerous, and there was the threat of violence. We have all heard the stories of the meeting that was kept alive by the children of imprisoned Friends during the worst times of persecution. Friends worshipped publicly, because they sought to prove that they were not among those who sought to overthrow the existing order, per say, but to be numbered among the righteous, who could do nothing else than to practice their conscience driven theology publicly as a witness to the desire of God. Friends insistence on worshipping in public despite persecution was a source of much support, not only from sympathisers, but from opponents as well.

What does this mean for contemporary Friends? I suppose that we might take a look at our public witness, what we say to the world as Friends, and declare ourselves committed not only to the idea of peace, but to publicly providing examples of what our vision of peace in a broken world looks like. I think we might also look to our Yearly Meetings to be more active in the maintaining the spiritual health Monthly Meeting, and commit to forging new commitments to statements of unity or commonality that we might use to make our witness more visible.

In the end, it all has to be Spirit driven, and I pray that we all receive a healthy dose of the Spirit.

Friday, June 22, 2007


My son Dylan sneezed today and I said "Bless you." He replied, "No dad, you mean bless my community."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Don't put God in a box

I am having a difficult time finding ways to respond to the already worn phrase "you can't put God in a box!" As soon as someone suggests that I am putting God in a box, I am fully aware that they are gauging my Fowler stage at a level that is far below their own familiarity with stage six, or even seven. You can tell a person who has reached stage six, or even seven, on the Fowler gauge because they always spend more energy on denying their superiority than they do on reflecting a God that actually has personality. But, I digress. It may be that anyone who has had a definite, if not defining, experience of God in a manner that allows for intimate relationship with the Creator is just plain spiritually immature. Who are we to say that God is a God of Peace and Justice.

I believe that God has been revealed in specific ways, most specifically as a God of peace and justice. So when I say that, along with suggesting that God has created humanity for relationship, and is best reflected in a community that is dedicated to witness to peace and justice, am I putting God in a box? How can I make a claim that God wills peace for humanity if I do not believe this has been expressly revealed by the Creator? Of course, many would suggest that God does not will anything. Heaven forbid those radical peacemongers go around inspired by some delusion that they know what God is thinking.

Of course, there are plenty of people who are very comfortable going to church on Sundays who feel that it is indeed they that know the will of god, and not those other apostates. That is fine. Let the guide to discerning revelation be non-coercive expression of such revelation by a voluntary community of believers. God's will is might be known by the fruit that a community produces. Hatred might be a product of failed theology, but love is the measure of God's will. And it is my intention to limit the possibilities of God's will to those that reveal a god of Peace and Justice. Even if that puts God in a box.

If we don't believe that God has somehow defined the divine self for the purpose of strengthened relationship with creation, or revealed the divine self in specific ways, such as the ancient narrative of chosen, and fallen, individuals and prophets, then we are never to understand who we are. We are not only defined by our God, but we only know ourselves in relationship with God.

But what does any of this have to do with Fowler stages. Most sixes and sevens feel that universals and "enlightened" sensibilities are the mature path to tolerance and peace. That may be true in one sense, but there is another sense of universalism (not salvation theories) that concerns me. Once a majority has decided upon the universal, who will listen to the prophets? Will there even be a need for prophets? Because without distinctives and peculiarities, we become one big homogeneous faith community that thrives upon the co-opting of heresies as a means of unity, without the valuable and challenging growth that comes from ecclesiastical diversity. Trust me, the call for diversity that is on the lips of so many is simply an insistence that everyone evolve into a corporate reflection of a more marketable god. Someone easier to be in relationship with, who will underwrite our spiritual picking and choosing so that we are wrapping God into a nice package... sort of a gift to ourselves.

Friday, June 15, 2007

musings about grace

I was talking with some friends a few days ago about the idea a individuals being blessed, or someone personally receiving God's grace as a gift solely intended for that person. It is an unwelcome idea that there is a God who acts in day-to-day activities, bestowing blessings on nice middle-class westerners, but overlooking those poor Nicaraguan papists or Haitian pagans.
Did slave owners believe they were blessed by God when they reaped profits from the slave economy. Do American fundamentalists believe they are blessed because they believe in a six-day creation epic and others might be cast into a fiery Hell because of their faith in science.

I think that God has blessed the whole world, and that the distribution of Grace has been once-and-for-all event, through the fulfillment of covenant in the life of Jesus. However, just as YHWH had hoped to bless the nations through Israel, and just as Jesus called together groups of followers to usher in the realm of God, so God has chosen the Body of Christ as the corporate vehicle for the dissemination of God's blessings and grace. According to my account, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the every nation being blessed, and every person experiencing God's loving grace, is the Church! It is the fault of the Western world that God's blessing and grace has been hoarded and manipulated and defended militarily at the expense of the poor and oppressed. Salvation comes not through some magic incantation memorized from Romans (10:9-10), but through the work of the Church.

Am I suggesting that there is no salvation outside of the Church? No, I am suggesting that as long as the Church remains patently unfaithful to the example of Christ, the world cannot know an alternative to violence through which to experience, or share, blessing and grace. Even those preaching peace politically or ecumenically, can not do so truthfully unless they do so from a position of powerlessness. Political power does not bring salvation, any more than war is a means to justice. Only through the non-coercive work of a community of faith can God's love be truly reflected. Upon the world's recognition of such a loving response to fear and injustice, Salvation becomes not an idea, but a hope for everyone who chooses to participate, regardless of the path they choose.

It is through community that blessings are known, because blessings are the product of relationship. Not only with God, but between Friends, and especially with enemies. People know love and become whole, not because God has decided to bless them over another. People know love and wholeness because they experience it through relationship with others.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

theology of suffering?

I've been thinking about the place of self-sacrifice and suffering in Quakerism, and I'd like to share some of those thoughts. Early Friends sacrificed a great deal in terms of personal liberty, economic stability, and their physical safety and well-being. If you wanted to be a Friend in the mid 17th century, it was going to cost you. We have all heard or read the stories of the brutal oppression of those who called themselves Friends.

Yet, similarly to Anabaptist thinking, Friends may have expected the persecution because they knew that the darkness would persecute God's "Children of the Light." Of course the Quakers of the past participated in the legal process to try and end persecution, whereas Mennonites did not, but few Friends of that era express surprised that they were being attacked violently, legally and theologically by most of their contemporaries.

I believe that those Friends remained faithful despite the persecution because they knew in their souls that they were being obedient to the very Christ within, or the will of God as expressed through the Light of Christ. Once one was privy to such religious truth, one became willing to suffer in order to remain faithful to the truth. In fact, one went on specific missions to preach the truth in spite of the suffering that would result. George Fox held a Meeting for Worship in prison while he was at liberty after the 2nd Conventicles Act, lamenting that he hated prison meetings because if he was going to be arrested, he'd rather it happen in public.

Without such sacrifice, which I believe is an integral part of the Christian-Quaker spiritual narrative, there would be no community of truth with the willingness to offer real alternatives to the violence of empire, economies, and cultures. However, the very suggestion that suffering is a necessary aspect of any spiritual truth is unquestionably dangerous. Haven't enough women, slaves, and oppressed peoples everywhere been told that suffering is the proper response to sexism, injustice and powerlessness. How many housewives have suffered through abusive relationships for the "good of the marriage" or the "sake of the children?" How many victims of empire were told that part of their colonized status was to accept their new Christian role as servants to their masters?

In light of this truth about the way theologies of sacrifice have been used to inflict suffering upon those the church was intended to liberate, how can I ask others to sustain such a spiritual path. I believe, first, that self-sacrifice or suffering must be intentional. It must by well founded in healthy emotional and psychological states, by persons who are not already victims of oppression. Secondly, such intentional sacrifice and suffering must be borne by communities, and not individuals. Without communities of peace that are intent on liberating others from bondage to church or state (or enlightenment rationality or the current relativism), individuals will suffer alone, and that is a state of being that cries out injustice. But, sacrifice we must, if we are to leave a legacy that grows into a strong public witness for peace. If we sacrifice together, as communities of faith, we might suffer, but we will suffer with dignity. Remember, God works through us when we are weakest, when we are most Creator-reliant and committed in our faith.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Roosters, The true test of the non-violent Friend

I've often said that I am not a pacifist at heart, nor am I intuitively pacifist, nor am I a very good pacifist. But I do try, because that is the example of Jesus, and I believe that non-violence is God's desire for humanity. If you'll allow me to say as much, pacifism is God's will. But I believe that it is nearly impossible for an individual to successfully respond to evil (or even just really mean people) in a non-violent manner, simply because it is God's will. I am convinced that it takes a community of folks that support and carry on the non-violent tradition, in order for anyone of us to fully commit to the non-violent vision of Jesus.

I worked for three years at an inner-city mission, and I first believed that I was going to instill non-violence as a value at this mission. I quickly found, that without a community of peers to reinforce non-violence as a commitment, or to lend support to non-violence as a means of conflict response, I soon forgot what it meant to value non-violence as a means to achieving justice.

I would talk to folks at meeting, but many of them were unfamiliar with the ongoing level of violence that I was dealing with, and I felt, perhaps totally incorrectly, that Friends had no experience of the level of violence that I was experiencing. I was totally conflicted in my relationship with many of the men I served, because I was failing to maintain standards of communication that were reflective of the manner of Jesus. I really felt like a failure.

Then, when a time came when I had to physically coerce a man to prevent him from doing great physical harm to another, I was even less prepared to deal with the propriety of my response. i had lost the ability to respond to violence with integrity, because I had lost sight of the story which informs my ability to act in any other way than that which is generally deemed acceptable to the world.

It was not the fact that I needed to physically restrain another person. That was a necessary act. But the anger, and lack of respect that I had for that person at the moment of conflict, could have easily ended in a less favorable manner than it did, because I was prepared to escalate. My inner-city alter-ego had won the day.

I believe that I lost sight of that vision that Friends claim as their heritage, which identifies us as a peculiar people who do not use violence as a means to an end, because we a part of different story than the one that so many others have accepted violence as the appropriate response to fear. I am convinced that the most necessary aspect of non-violence is that of maintaining a community of people who act regularly to inform one another that we are a people who only know one response to fear. A people who have forgotten what it means to commit violence, and have raised children who have never known that violence was once acceptable.

Now, I am surrounded by pacifists, many who have never been confronted with the violence that so many struggle with every day. It will be easy for me to forget that responding to fear with love is laborious, and can never be truly accomplished without the experience that sometimes, the bad guys win, and we are called to sacrifice as a reflection of God's love, and not God's strength.

Regardless of who I am, or who I'd like to be however, reality is always lurking around the corner at my family farm. We have roosters, and it seems that roosters have been created for no other purpose than to test my commitment to peace. Roosters are always on the attack, and while they don't much mess with me because I wear steel-toed boots, they are always messing with the kids. As a family, we had the kids carry rooster sticks to ward off any attacks, but more often than not, it was one of my boots that drove the rooster off. It seems that god is always reminding me that, while I claim to be a pacifist, I am more of a sinner, and I need to constantly remember both.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Why I Love my Friends

I should provide everyone with some background concerning my journey along the Friendly path. It's really quite amazing that I bring such a heaping helping of Christocentricity to the FGC potluck. When I first came to the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting, I made it very clear to everyone that I was a non-believer. This was quite acceptable to all of those great folks that I latched onto early on in my experience. As most of you who read this blog can tell, I am not your typical reserved, or "seasoned," Friendly presence. My seminary peers will tell you in no uncertain terms that I am conversationally challenged when engaged in certain subject matter. (But I do try to listen.)

Anyway, It was only due to the great patience shown by GR Friends (especially during Meeting for Business or during committee meetings), that I ever enjoyed the opportunity to mature - not so much as a Quaker - as a person. My spiritual journey, and my relationship with YHWH, would have never left the starting point if not for the nurture of some very open-minded and tolerant folks. I am joyfully indebted to those seasoned "elders" of the GR Friends Meeting who walked with me as I recovered from alcohol abuse and mental illness and received a faith that has brought with it new possibilities.

It is not my suggestion that Friends look to abort such faith experiences such as mine by declaring ourselves so Christ-centered so as to limit faith commitments to Quakerism. Yet, I am suggesting that Friends retain our historical identity as a Christian community, and that we publicly state as much in our faith and practice. I do not see how such a commitment would drive others away, or make experiences like mine an impossibility. I would think that it is easier for people to build stronger spiritual ties with a faith that retains an consistent message, than one who is losing its common language.

In the end, It might be simpler to say that I have some ideas about the future of Quakerism as a whole, because ESR is an international group of students that have an interest, not only in the future of Friends, but in theology and faith in general. These are probably not the discussions that my meeting at home are particularly interested in engaging in. I think they are more vested in peacemaking, community building, and faith exploration between friends. And in the end, that is where I want to be.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

lions, tigers, and nontheist quakers -Oh My!

As you can tell, it is a very slow day at work. While taking a break from reading work-related literature, I found myself staring at various items concerning the idea of "Convergent Friends." Indeed, the blog of my fellow GR Friends member Kim states that she is a convergent Friend. Since I am sojourning at Earlham School of Religion, I have not been dutiful in keeping up with Kim's theology, and I can't quite get a grasp yet what convergent friends represent. Through some research, however, I came across a "mythbusters" page and two of the things that caught my eye were 1) the idea that liberal, conservative and evangelical Friends could reach unity, and 2) the accusation that non-theist Friends were somehow unwelcome in convergent Friends circles.

Now, I want to make it perfectly clear, again, that I know nothing about the Convergent Friends "movement," and that the opinions expressed in this blog are not in anyway a comment on any such movement. I was simply intrigued by the two thoughts mentioned above.

As for non-theist Friends, and we were just talking about this a few weeks ago at ESR, I simply don't know why they would call themselves Quakers. Of course, it seems that anyone these days can apply the Friends label to themselves, and indeed, claim faithfulness to the ongoing Quaker narrative that began in the 1640's. Yet, I somehow don't see how non-theism and Quakerism can be appropriately aligned withing the context of a "Religious Society."

Does this mean that non-theists should be rooted out and burned at the stake? No, though the idea of persecution might provide a focus for Quakers to unify around. I do think, however, that it is important that Friends resist the continuing trend toward accommodating non-theist and pluralist or sychronist views by altering the language of our faith to reflect such attitudes among worshippers. I firmly believe that if we lose sight of our Christ-centeredness, our firm rootedness in the early Friends belief in the saving work of God through Jesus Christ, then we will lose our identity as Quakers as well. Without the language of Jesus Christ, as expressed by early Friends, we will become a people without a history.

This denial of history, the denial of responsibility for, or the our benefit from, our past as a people, is troubling. We do as much, especially by erasing from the Christ language of early Friends while retaining other peculiarities that we find more comfortable, such as waiting worship. A denial of Christ-centerdness is a denial of our family, and while we can certainly change our supposed destiny, we should never distance ourselves from roots.

An example of such distancing is found in the modern way in which many European-Americans deny any complicity with the institution of slavery. "I never owned any slaves" is the popular modern refrain. The fact is, however, that many white folks continue to benefit from years of the suppression of economic and social opportunities for a people who built much of this nation without proper compensation. To deny our complicity in fact is a denial of responsibility to redeem and reconcile relationships that were expressions of racial dominance and injustice.

Many Friends come to Quakerism as "refugees" from Christianity, and I can understand that many have been hurt by the tradition. I also understand that Christianity is responsible for underwriting unjust and oppressive relationships throughout history. Both early and contemporary Friends try to address such issues. But if we lose our history in the process of reconciliation, we forget all of the harm of the past. The past cannot be rejected in favor of something more palatable for the future. If we forget our role as the oppressor, we are doomed to allow it to happen again.

George Fox and his cronies saw real problems in the Christian Church, and sought to correct them. They did not, however, throw out the narrative that gave them their identity. they worked within the narrative to offer an alternative to the apostasy that had overrun established religion. They new who they were, and they operated within the framework of an ongoing identity that gave them an accountability to the tradition.

Oh my goodness, I'm rambling, What in the world does all of this have to do with non-theist Friends. Paul Buckley stated in class that it is one thing to accept a fish out of water. but if that fish is smart, he or she will flood the environment for its own benefit, at a great cost to those who cannot otherwise thrive.

Another day in the life

The situation my 15 year-old son has gotten himself into should inspire plenty of confused journaling, if not a superb plot for popular teen literature. Imagine this. Mom is cleaning the room of her guitar playing son, and finds much evidence that guitar playing son is journeying down a wayward path. A path that goes beyond simply taking the guitar away for the weekend. So, this concerned mother calls the father of the young man cited above and suggests that maybe a summer spent on the farm might be a good idea. So - we have an inner-city Detroit youth who enjoys rule-breaking, being sent to an Ohio farm to straighten himself up and redeem himself. But wait, there is plenty more...

No only is this youngster being sent to an Ohio farm, but his father and step-family are plain Quakers. No TV, no video games, no stereo, and no Internet in the home. Better yet, the house that he will be moving to is only 1000 square feet. The inner-city youth will have to keep his belongings, including his guitar and amp, out in the shed adjacent to the house. I have already envisioned this self-described anarchist sitting outdoors with his electric guitar playing before and audience of our 40 chickens. I think all involved will be amused, except perhaps the lad from Detroit. Did I mention no game-boys?

Anyway, this is all in the planning stage, but I am hoping that all the plans that are falling into place will be set into motion. I am looking forward to one terrific summer.