Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Refusing to feel marginalized among Friends

My God, My God – Why hast thou made me so different!
To begin with, I have never felt a love like I feel from the Creator God. I have never felt drawn to be close to anyone in a healthy way until I could accept that I was loved. YHWH’s love for me made it possible for me to love others, even my enemies. I know YHWH and the divine desire for my life because of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who I deem as being the person in history through whom salvation comes. I believe this salvation is universal.
To share this in a liberal meeting might mean spiritual marginalization. It’s not that folks won’t accept me for where I am at spiritually (at least most folks will), but that, because I have found a path for myself, and am able to express it in meaningful ways through the use of a specific language, I feel that I am suspect in the eyes of most “seekers.” How often have I heard it said that “there are many paths to the divine.” That may be true, but is that an appropriate response to someone whose life has been saved, and changed dramatically, through the experience of divine particularity? Where is it that I get support for my particularity in the FGC expression of Quakerism? Where do I find a place in the context of the Religious Society of Friends where I feel like I am worshipping the same God as others in the sense of a truly gathered meeting?
I found support for my particularity in Conservative Friends, and my family travels the width of the state of Michigan once a month to participate in worship in the name of the Christ, Jesus. Our family’s leading to dress plain, and make specific use of the biblical narrative, in coordination with Christ-centered waiting worship, is buoyed by our relationship with Crossroads Meeting in Flint, where we are affiliate members in Ohio Yearly Meeting.
However, I am feeling like I exist on the fringes of Conservative Friends because, as I presented at Yearly Meeting this year, I do not believe in the blood atonement. I am not a believer in a virgin birth (I do believe firmly in resurrection), or am I a believer in the infallibility of the Scriptures. In fact, while I have a deep and abiding love for Scripture, I am often the recipient of leadings by the Holy Spirit that stand in firm contrast with parts of Scripture. Am I alone among Conservative Friends in an understanding that Paul did not write many of the letters attributed to him, or that I can disagree with Pauline theology even though I value it, or that, in fact, Paul was just wrong about some things? When I presented at Ohio Yearly Meeting, someone immediately spoke aloud that my theology resembled that of Elias Hicks. I wonder what Conservative Friends think of my support of same-sex marriage. I must admit, I haven’t brought it up.
Of course, I am not Elias Hicks, but I deeply value the relationships that I have forged within my Hicksite meeting in Grand Rapids, where my family has full membership. Regardless of our differences, I know that I can contribute to the health and direction of the meeting, and that it has been one of the most valued spiritual relationships of our lives. I also enjoy that it allows me an opportunity to explore theological leanings without perceived burdens.
On the other hand, I value the community of eldering that exists in Ohio Yearly Meeting – the stability of knowing that the biblical narrative is being lived out in the manner of Friends as it has been for a few hundred years – with Jesus at the core.
As I began to write this, I felt like I was on the margins of both groups of Friends, but now that I think of it, I may have the best of the spiritual world at my fingertips. Perhaps God has brought me to a space in the middle because I can learn valuable spiritual truths from both groups. Perhaps I can serve as a reminder to Friends of one persuasion that the biblical narrative is a valuable asset to our community, and to Friends of another persuasion, that the roots of apostasy were laid in the First Century, and remind Christ-centered Friends that the “doctrines of men” are just that. The Bible informs our faith, but the Holy Spirit waters our spiritual seeds. Blood atonement, and indeed, all of Christendom, might be at the end of their long run.
In the words of some Friends, I am a (Quaker), not a Christian – But I am thoroughly Christ-centered, believing in the salvific work of YHWH through the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and if the middle is where I must be, than I guess I will just have to continue to reap the blessings.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Unapologetically messianic: Every day is the day the world calls Easter

There is not really a need to offer a Bible verse concerning incarnation or the resurrection. It’s my guess that most of us are familiar enough with the story. The story is the reason that there are more of us in the church or meeting house on Easter Morning than on most other Sundays. The Resurrection Story - a story of the God of Abraham and Sarah; the God of Ruth and Isaiah, acting in history to liberate a faithful servant from the bonds of death.
It is a story of creation’s liberation from the oppression of those who would wield dominance over creation. It is also the story of our own liberation - a rescue from bondage to those forces that so often lay claim to our allegiances that should be entirely reserved for the God of Peace. The story is an ancient one. Its beginnings are remembered because it has been told and retold over thousands of years.
Once upon a time, there were a people held in bondage by a great nation. They were held as slaves, and they cried out for their release from a ruler who made claims that he was a god himself. This ruler had priests that supported his claims. The people of his nation lent their loyalties to his grandeur, identifying the divinity of the Pharaoh of Egypt as, if you‘ll excuse the expression, the Gospel truth.
It was the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt - slaves to Pharaoh’s empire, the mightiest force in the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond. The God of all Creation, however, heard the cries of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. YHWH hears the cries of slaves. It was YHWH who delivered the Hebrews from the grasp of Pharaoh and lead them out of Egypt, taking the form of fire, and a pillar of cloud. This people of YHWH did not need to fight for their release from captivity. The God of Moses destroyed Pharaoh’s military strength, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds any threat to the Hebrews that Pharaoh’s empire could muster.
Oh, how thankful was Israel. In commemoration of this liberating act of God, the Hebrews established a celebration. This feast, called Passover, is an annual remembrance of the Story. This celebration of the liberating act of the God of Moses and Miriam, who rescued a people from empire, has been celebrated every since by people close to YHWH’s heart. It is a time for worship, praise, and great Joy over the Story that recalls the great actions of a God who rolls up the divine sleeves and rescues the poor, the marginalized, and even lowly slaves from oppression.
It was during just such a celebration of Passover, - possibly some 1200 years after the fact, and nearly 2000 years ago - that a startling new development was introduced to the plot of this biblical Story. It would still be a story of liberation, a story of joy and an occasion for worship. But events in Jerusalem in the first-century of what became the Common Era demanded a new twist. In fact, any number of Yahwists were looking at a variety of ways to prompt another rescue on behalf of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who were again under the dominating thumb of an empire.
This time, that empire was Roman instead of Egyptian. It was Caesar claiming godlike status instead of Pharaoh. And this time, it was personal. Israel was been economically and politically dominated on its own turf, the Promised Land of Israel had become known as Palestine. It is mostly on Easter that we remember the old liberating Story. However, this time the leader of Israel was not the Moses of old, but as his disciple Matthew tells in a story of his own, a new Moses. A Messiah who is known to all of us by the name of Jesus.
Jesus was a celebrant of the ancient Story. As a first-century Galilean, the Story was his story. It was the story of his family and his people. And the followers of Jesus realized that the Story was not just for the people of Abraham and Sarah, but for the whole world. So, for all involved, obedience to the God of Israel was the only way that liberation would visit humanity. Obedience was the way of Salvation.
While other would be Judean leaders - would-be messiahs – that believed, indeed, they knew in their hearts, that a warrior God who had already defeated the likes of Pharaoh, and other rulers, would act in history and defeat the pagan oppressors once and for all. God would finally establish the reign of YHWH as an unquestioned force that the world would reckon with, through the ruling kingdom of Israel. There was to be a holy war, believed so many Judeans, and the enemies of YHWH were going to pay a price.
But Jesus was different. He certainly preached the kingdom of God. But the kingdom preached by Jesus to his disciples meant reflecting the love of God, and the Creator’s concern for the faithful pursuit of justice, peace, and grace. This was not, according to the Messiah, achieved through holy war, but instead, through the faithful expression of YHWH’s love for even the enemies of God’s people. The liberating God of Moses and Miriam would bring salvation to the entire world, not by destroying armies with one fell swoop of the divine hand, but through the love of the faithful servants of God’s creation.
It was the familiar story – with a twist.
While the God of all Creation, Jesus, and the apostle Paul all speak about liberating creation from empire, the Bible also brings witness to specific ways that the loving justice of YHWH is reflected upon a world groaning for freedom. Loving your neighbor, even the hated Samaritan, as you love yourself. Or throwing away privilege and giving substantially, if not everything, to the poor. How about forgiving your enemies seventy times over. The Scriptures abound with stories of loving grace and forgiveness. Yet, stories are simply stories if they are not acted out in a manner that proves their credibility.
About thirteen years ago, in the Michigan town of Ann Arbor, there was an individual who made credible the story of Jesus.. The Ku Klux Klan came to Ann Arbor one June day in 1996. In fact, the Klan marched every June in Ann Arbor for a number of years. They may in fact still do just that. But thirteen years ago, and not atypically, the Klan march was challenged by a ferocious crowd of counter-protesters. Just as typically, an entire area of the city was witness to brick and bottle throwing outrage - all aimed at the parading white supremacists.
The Klan continued to march, and the counter protesters rage grew thicker with every racist slogan that emanated from the mouths of their enemy. Police were outnumbered, and things were about to turn violent. They did turn violent. The crowd raged at the Klan, and broke through the police protection that was provided for the demonstrating organization. Klan members were separated from one another, and it was quickly an event that could only be described as every Klan member for his and herself. Groups of enraged protesters isolated individuals and harassed them. In one instance, a group of protesters encircled a tattooed man wearing a clothing that identified him as an enemy, and began kicking and punching him.
Out of this chaos, the messiah appeared.
She was wearing denim shorts and a white t-shirt. She only 18 years old, and she was an African-American. Our modern day messiah’s name was Keshia Thomas.
Originally there to protest the racist enemy known as the Klan, she saw an image-bearer of God cowering on the cement and under brutal attack. Keshia Thomas sacrificed her own body, covering and protecting the a white man she had moments before demanded justice from, and shown anger toward.
Our messiah would have never received a just hearing from Albert McKeel had she engaged him through violence. Only through reflecting the love that God has for every person, even the enemy, could she radically alter the hatred that McKeel may have had harbored against African-Americans and other people of color or faith.
McKeel was radically changed, as the two consequently appeared together in public as an example of redeemed human relationships. When Keshia Thomas sacrificed herself for the love of her enemy, she brought salvation not only to herself, but to her enemy as well. They were liberated from oppressive rage, and hatred, and brought into right relationship with one another.
I have no idea if either Keshia Thomas of Albert McKeel were followers of the one true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But I do know that this is the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus was preaching, that God intends, and that Christendom is lacking. This is the way that followers of Christ Jesus change the world, and love of enemies is how YHWH intends for Creation to be liberated from the bonds of injustice, of inhumanity, and from empire making claims about its own authority to rule creation.
And for resurrection? Remember the Story? A story of liberation from oppressive and degrading powers of domination. A story of liberation from those who would stake a claim to be held high as gods, such as Pharaoh, or Caesar. They nailed this messianic claimant to a cross. Executed him as an enemy of the state. Jesus was laid to waste just like any number of failed revolutionaries on either side of his own crucifixion.
Yet, it is in the ministry, the obedient reflection of God’s love toward every person, and the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus in staying faithful to YHWH, that salvation is brought to all of creation. How do we know this? Because the Sovereign God of the Universe acted in history one First Day morning and raised Jesus from the dead.
God rewarded Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness, and overturned all of the evil that empire could heap upon him. That is the Story of God’s liberating all of creation. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and his liberation from the bonds of death, foreshadows the reward of our own faithfulness. A faith placed not upon the god of empire that promises our salvation through economic justification but to the One True God who resurrects the dead.
That First Day resurrection is the reminder that all of God’s faithful will someday be rewarded. In fact, both friend and foe, through the work of the Christ, will enjoy the salvation that God intends for all creation. Yet, the resurrection is also a reminder that the work of Jesus must continue, through the work of those like Keshia Thomas, or the work of one’s meeting or congregation, or the work of the believer’s church as a whole. Because there can be no salvation - none of the universal redemption such as my Quaker faith is so fond of - without the continuous striving for justice, equality, and peace.
Followers of Jesus are called - indeed, commanded - to challenge the oppressive tactics of those intending to dominate creation, whether they be the Klan, or the presidents, prime ministers, and violent radicals of any faith or nation. We are commanded, however, to do so by reflecting the love that God has for every inch of creation. A love offered for every nation, for every person, and especially for every enemy.