I had a great time in Boston, especially since I got to see some old f/Friends and make new friends. There were several people there who I had met at the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005, so it was great to be able to connect with them and introduce them to my wee one, Espen (who's almost 4 months old now, by the way!).
I enjoyed getting a taste of New England Yearly Meeting. It seems like Northwest and New England YMs have had a lot of good interaction over the years, and seem to be coming to a similar place from opposite sides. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but it seems like NEYM is coming from the liberal side, staying focused on social justice issues, and becoming more Christ-centered, and NWYM is coming from the evangelical side, staying Christ-centered and becoming more social justice oriented and refocusing on our Quaker heritage. It seems like we're meeting somewhere in the middle ("converging," if you will, for all of you out there who talk about Convergent Friends). Maybe not everyone from each of your YMs would be excited about this description, but many of us are excited to work together and listen and learn from one another.
I was a little bit nervous about going to Beacon Hill and talking a lot about Jesus and how following our calling means focusing on him. I thought it might be a little stronger language than most people there would be willing to hear. But it seemed like everyone present was really open to hearing Christ language and many would probably describe themselves as trying to follow Christ themselves. One person asked me in the question and answer time, "Did you consciously modify your language for us, or is that how you would talk at home? Because how you talked about things wasn't so different from how we would state things." That was encouraging to hear (although maybe they shouldn't have flown me all the way out there to tell them what they already know!).
I think it was helpful for people to hear what I had to say coming from someone from an evangelical YM, though, even if (perhaps especially if) it's not anything they don't already hear in their own YM. It seemed like one of the best things was just to realize that we're more similar than we are dissimilar. There are still, of course, things that our YMs would disagree about, but it's encouraging to know that there are kindred spirits working on the same questions and problems all over the Society of Friends.
If you want to read what I said, I've copied it below. I decided to write it all out and basically read it there, because I feel like I'm more courageous in writing than in just speaking extemporaneously, especially at something like that where I probably would have toned down the Christ language if I hadn't been reading it. It took about 45 minutes to read out loud, so it's rather long, but if you're interested go ahead and read it. At the end we broke into small groups and pondered some queries, then came back together and talked about what we'd talked about, and then there was time for questions, a lot of which were questions about what evangelical Friends believe and that sort of thing. It was a great time to be able to meet people and share my heart with them. I think it would be interesting to give the same talk in Northwest Yearly Meeting sometime. Anyway, here's approximately what I said:
I’m excited to be given the chance to come share my heart, my passion, and my sense of calling with you today. I hope you can receive the words I speak with the knowledge of my complete intention to be brutally honest with you and with myself about the message I felt led to share today. I hope, also, that you will be able to listen beyond the words I use and the language that may or may not be your preference, and hear the power of the Spirit behind the words, without which all these words are meaningless.
I’ll start off by telling you a little about myself and my experience among Friends. I’ll talk a little bit about the idea of “calling” in general, and specifically about my personal calling and how that connects to the Religious Society of Friends overall. At the end I will ask for you to get in small groups and talk about some queries around what you sense Friends are called to together in our time.
As has been said, I grew up in Northwest Yearly Meeting, which is an Evangelical Yearly Meeting made up of about 70 churches/meetings in
When I was a kid my family went to a meeting they started with some of their friends. We went there until I was about ten or eleven, when we started going to
When I was twelve, my dad decided he no longer believed in God, and my parents got divorced. So at that point I had a lot of thinking to do. I spent a lot of time wondering if I believed the stuff about faith and God and Jesus and everything that my dad had taught me, and that he now no longer believed himself.
Although at that point I don’t think I’d ever really heard George Fox’s convincement experience, I had an experience similar to his in eighth grade. I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back I noticed that God became my constant friend and confidante. I asked God, “Are you there?” and God said, “Yes.” This wasn’t a particular experience, or a voice speaking out loud, but a sense of Presence that I felt with me through these difficult years of questioning, and pain from the break-up of my family and belief structure. As I came to this sense that God did indeed exist, I also received the sense that this God was the one spoken of in the Bible, and that Jesus was who the Bible says he is: in some inexplicable way, Jesus is the incarnation of God and incredibly important to our faith. As George Fox put it, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to my condition.”
I continued involvement in Yearly Meeting activities throughout high school and into adulthood. I went to
Right now I live in
I do know, however, that my calling will include some sort of ministry among Friends, because I have a deep burden for drawing Friends together across our many divisions. I’m sure many of you have thought about the fact that it’s pretty hypocritical for us to call the world toward peace and reconciliation when we can’t even get along with those closest to us on the denominational family tree! It seems to me that we as Friends have mostly lost our prophetic voice, and I think it is largely because of this division—or at least they are two symptoms of the same problem. We can’t speak Truth to others when we won’t listen to it ourselves.
To me this desire to draw Friends together feels like a calling. It’s not a calling that only I feel, fortunately—in the last several years I’ve met many other Friends with this desire, and there is good work already being done through Friends World Committee for Consultation, through the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005, through online conversations, and I’m sure through other means and individual connections.
This feels like a calling to me because it’s something that keeps coming up—it won’t go away. When I think of it, a mixture of joy and fear swirls in my chest. I get really excited and passionate. I have tons of desires and thoughts and ideas around it. I also get really discouraged, because it seems so big and so impossible. How can we ever learn to get along again? How can I even imagine people might change their ways and come together in unity? In some ways it feels presumptuous of me to tell people they need to change. But I know we as a Society of Friends need to recover our prophetic witness to the world, and in order for this to happen we need to listen to the prophetic voice rising from within. So although I don’t think of myself necessarily as a prophet, I think I am learning to hear the deep stirrings of the Spirit in our midst, stirrings that come from Friends with a profound spiritual hunger for Truth, for the joy and conviction of our predecessors, and for unity.
So I encourage us to listen to the Spirit and be willing to change. Let me say that again: I encourage us to listen to the Spirit, and be willing to change.
This is scary and takes forever. It’s much easier to just stay how we are, to keep doing things as we’ve always done them. And yet, to do things as we’ve “always” done them is to listen to the Spirit and to do what we hear. This doesn’t “always” look the same with each passing generation. In fact, I think we’re called to new things as the world around us changes. We have won some battles in the past and we no longer have to deal with legal slavery in this country, or for the right for women to vote. But these issues and others are still ongoing needs in our world in different ways: now although slavery isn’t legal, racism is still entrenched in our society, and the ability to earn a living wage is not available to all
I want to remind all Quakers of our shared roots. We’re a passionate movement based on following God completely and unreservedly. Originally our denomination was strongly based in Christ and the Bible. Quakers have always been inclusive and accepting, but also brooking no compromise. I love and am so proud of our history, but it seems like we’ve lost our focus. The focus of early Friends was on following Jesus Christ, their Inner Light and Present Teacher, and out of listening to Christ flowed their concerns for social justice, simplicity, equality, integrity, and all the things which have come to be known as our “distinctives.”
Friends did not create logical doctrines and proceed to legalistically follow those things. Instead they read the Bible with the Spirit of God, and lived out their lives in radical obedience to that Spirit. Do we still do this today? Generally I’ve seen Friends of different branches mostly living out our traditional forms of worship and testimonies because we’ve always done it that way. And yes, we do this because we definitely believe what we’re doing is right—we believe Friends are right that we should live peaceably with all, that we should not do the physical sacraments as a testimony to the fact that it’s the Spirit that matters instead of the physical act. But now we tend to just practice the forms of our beliefs instead of truly listening to Christ and acting on what we hear. We live peaceably by putting bumper stickers against war on our gas-guzzling cars. We wouldn’t be caught dead having physical sacraments in our meetings for worship, but we forget that all of life is a sacrament. Friends shouldn’t necessarily have to go to jail for our convictions anymore, but we should be willing to do so. If we don’t agree with the status quo, we should make stands on issues we believe in that might upset “the powers that be” enough to put us in jail! How many Friends do you know who have gone to jail recently for standing up for their beliefs?
Both sides of our Quaker divide need to change. I’ve noticed my Yearly Meeting worrying about “yoking ourselves with unbelievers,” and effectively pulling ourselves away from anyone who doesn’t profess Christ. But Jesus spent all his free time with those who were not religiously pure! How can Evangelicals think they deserve their name if they’re not willing to spend time with those who aren’t Christians? Who exactly are they evangelizing to, anyway? And how did Jesus evangelize? His mission statement came from Isaiah 61:1-2, and he read it in Luke 4:18-19:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because I have been anointed
to bring good news to the poor.
I have been sent to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Bringing good news—or evangelizing—happens through acting toward the poor in ways that release from captivity, give sight, free people from oppression, and proclaim God’s favor on them in physical, tangible ways. That means doing something besides going to church on Sunday. Evangelical Friends need to remember this mission statement, which early Friends knew so well.
Early Friends were passionate and "evangelical" (although it wasn’t called that at the time) because they were so excited about the Truth they'd found that they couldn't keep quiet about it. This Truth was that Jesus Christ was present and speaking directly to them, and out of this flowed their actions. This Truth was that Christ spoke a message of hope for this world, not just “pie in the sky by and by.” This Truth was that the God of the universe cared about the plight of all of us insignificant humans, and that our way to show love back to God is to love others around us.
Liberal Friends also need to change. You know what? I love the idea of being inclusive of everyone, but “inclusive” doesn’t have to mean “having no beliefs.” I hope we can truly love everyone. I hope everyone can feel welcome in our communities. But part of what attracted people to Friends in the early days was their uncompromising commitment to their faith. The early Friends lived out their belief in Jesus with so much integrity that no one could ignore it. They were Publishers of Truth, and that Truth was the joy and life-giving power they had found in Jesus Christ. This isn’t to negate anyone else’s spiritual experience or to speak against where others are at on the path, but I think as Friends we need to be willing and able to stand up for Truth no matter how unpopular it is. We can love and accept those who do not profess Christ, but we need to be willing to take a stand for Truth as we see it, and not give in to the relativism of our day.
For both these sides, these changes mean a new orientation toward the Bible. Early Friends had a profound knowledge of the Bible and used it in their preaching and writing. They were completely focused on Jesus as the Christ, who is a part of God, who gave them life and hope. But Christ also called them to social justice actions—not just for the sake of social justice, but because living out the truth they'd found required obedience to the whole gospel message. The “good news” Evangelicals talk about is not only that Jesus is the Christ, but that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gives us hope. It’s that Jesus lived a life of marginalization, of advocacy for the poor and outcasts, and called his followers to do the same. Evangelicals (or anyone else for that matter) cannot follow a poor and marginalized Christ from a position of security and centrality and power.
The whole Bible is a story of liberation of oppressed peoples. I think early Friends noticed this, although perhaps they didn’t say it that way. But throughout the biblical record, God is constantly on the side of the oppressed and marginalized. God released the Israelites from slavery under
Here’s what he said:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, the merciful, those who are persecuted—these are not generally seen as the cream of the crop! But Jesus said it is these who are blessed by God.
Jesus also said that it’s very difficult for rich people to enter the
We as Friends have a rich heritage, which I’m very proud of. People hear the name Quaker and have good things to say. But this didn’t happen through Quakers sitting around being nice people. This mostly happened because Quakers were willing to take a stand when they saw injustice occurring. At the time they weren’t very popular, but looking back, people realize how right they were, and how noble it was that they were willing to be persecuted in order to bring those injustices to light. It seems like today we’re afraid to rock the boat. We like our nice reputation. We like it that people think favorably of us. We like it that we appear just like everyone else, except we’re better because we’re anti-war.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time—the fact that we just rest on our laurels, proud of our heritage, and yet afraid to really take a stand for anything now. I truly want to follow God’s call in whatever way it leads, but I’m also completely scared of doing so. It’s easy for me to stand here and bewail the ways of Friends today, but I’m as guilty as the next person of all of these things—and perhaps even more, because I talk about it and yet don’t do much differently. My husband and I have been talking recently about how to get past this seeming barrier between thinking and talking about what we know is true and right and that we should be doing, and actually doing those things. How do we get into a space where we really are willing to risk our security, our lives, our respectability, for the Truth we profess?
It’s easy to get discouraged, because we seem to be making so little progress, because we all say, “I’m just one person,” because we see so many problems that we don’t know where to begin.
But this topic of “calling” that you’ve been focusing on in this speaker series is really what’s important, I think. We don’t need to get overwhelmed, we don’t need to worry about the amount of progress we’re making, we simply need to focus on what it is that each of us is called to, and then do it. Fredrich Beuchner suggests that our calling is where our greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect. Let me say that again, and I’ll pause for a bit and let you think about what your greatest passion is: Your calling is where your greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect.
What is your greatest passion? What is the place in your life where you notice the most energy and joy and vibrancy when you do it? Where in your life does the creativity flow? When do you notice the presence of the Spirit?
For me this happens in situations like this, and when I write, when I feel like I am working to translate the sense of the Spirit I’m hearing or feeling into words that others can hear and understand. It also happens when I have conversations with people about the things in their life that give them joy and energy, when I can name that as the work of the Spirit in their lives. I get so excited when I hear the amazing and creative ways that God works through each of our personalities and individual circumstances to speak directly to our condition, and the condition of those around us. And this also happens when I say “yes” to following God in risky ways that are outside my comfort zone by serving others in unusual ways.
It’s hard to figure out where the world’s greatest need lines up with our own passions. As I see it, following our calling involves at least a few steps. The first and most important step is listening. We can’t hear the voice of God without listening. We also need to listen to the places of need in the world around us. This will look different for different people. For some, maybe there will be a physical voice from heaven, booming down in the middle of meeting for worship, “Your calling is…” But most of us aren’t that lucky! For some of us, maybe this listening is talking to F/friend about our spiritual lives and what we’re feeling drawn to. For some maybe it’s just taking some time each day to sit in silence. For some maybe it’s trying different things and being attentive to when we feel the most energy and passion.
For me, I need to take time in silence, on my own, to just sit and apparently do nothing. Although I don’t specifically hear God during this time, I’m creating space for God to work on me when I’m not focusing on anything else. Something internal happens in this time that doesn’t happen in the busier parts of everyday life.
I also meet with a “spiritual friend” on a regular basis. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, and try to listen together and for one another to the places where we notice energy and joy, and places that seem draining or desolate, or we attend to the patterns of joy or fear that keep coming up.
Second, I believe we need to refocus ourselves on the foundation of the hope we have, who is Jesus Christ. I think we will not regain our prophetic voice to the world unless we are able to focus on Christ together, without giving in to our culture’s relativism. Hopefully we can bring the message of Christ in fresh and new ways that connect with our culture and that are not damaging (as some Christian evangelism has been in the past), but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water—throw Jesus out just because some of his self-named representatives have not followed his ways! Hopefully we can see that God is at work in the lives of every person—they all have a spark of the Inner Light—but in order to fan the flame we need to focus on Jesus and the way he calls us to live. He calls us to releasing captives, helping the blind see, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s favor to the poor in tangible ways. Again, we need to listen to God in order to know how to do these things.
A third step in living out our calling is being involved in community, and creating space to listen together. Something I noticed when reading George Fox’s Journal lately was that Friends didn’t come together just to meet in silence. They came together to listen to the Spirit, and then they went out and did what they heard. Silence wasn’t an end in itself, a quiet space in the midst of a busy schedule. It was a time of “holy expectancy,” as Thomas Kelley later put it, where they expected to hear the voice of God and to be called to action. We still have this chance, and unprogrammed meetings for worship are a perfect place for this to happen, if we still have this holy expectancy. Do we really expect that God’s going to show up to our meetings? Do we really expect that we’ll be changed each time we meet together, that we’ll be challenged to follow in deeper ways? When we meet together, do we listen for what we’re called to together? Do we act on what we hear?
A fourth step is having the humility to lay down our own thoughts and desires, even our own sense of leading, to listen together as a community. We have to be willing to hear a fuller picture of God’s will through others, and to notice when our own sense is incorrect, biased, or just needs a bit of tweaking. I love meetings for clearness because of this. I have never been part of a meeting for clearness where the outcome was exactly the same as one of the options the individual or couple came to the meeting with. To me this is incredibly exciting, because through each other we can hear and understand God more fully than we can alone. Through groups God is able to communicate with us in more creative ways, ways that draw us outside the boundaries of our own thinking into something unique and transformative.
I believe that in order to truly follow our callings, we need each other. It’s incredibly hard to be counter-cultural by ourselves, and counter-cultural is what God tends to call people to. This isn’t just for the sake of being counter-cultural or different, but because the culture in which we live is not living as God would have us live. Societies usually end up being fairly self-centered and hierarchical, and God calls us away from these things, and calls us to love for others—even enemies—and treating each one with dignity and respect. In order to do this we need to build strong communities: communities where those who are drawn in feel they are supported and cared about, and where there is a counter-culture for doing what is right and good no matter what the cost.
I recently led a class on the Valiant 60, the sixty or so people who went out into England and the rest of the world spreading the good news of the joy and hope they’d found in Christ through the Society of Friends. I was wondering who today is in that Valiant 60. Are we as Friends listening in such a way that individuals like the Valiant 60 would actually go and preach this good news if that’s what they felt called to do? A person in the class commented that we can’t all be the Valiant 60, and conjectured that there was probably also the “Boring 600” at the time, those who supported the Valiant 60 by taking them meals in jail, taking care of their children and families while they were gone on trips, and generally leading normal lives in order to support those who were called out.
This is true, we do need both. But we still need people to be the “Valiant 60,” those called out to do God’s work in public ways, and we also need the “Boring 600,” people who sense that same vision and are willing to support it in sacrificial ways. In order for this to happen, we need to listen, together, to Christ. Perhaps if we had do we could follow alone, but it seems to me that God encourages us to work in communities. George Fox had his experience of God saying, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition,” but then he had a vision of a “great people to be gathered”—he wasn’t supposed to keep this profound experience to himself. He was supposed to go find a community of like-minded people who would work with him to bring this joyful message to the world. Even Jesus, the very Son of God, didn’t try to be faithful to God’s plan alone. He gathered a group of intimate disciples around him, and there was a large group of other disciples who followed him around, listened to him, took care of his needs, and ministered as they were directed. The night he was arrested he went to a mountain to pray, and asked along a few of his disciples to come pray with him as he sought God’s direction. Even Jesus Christ listened in community and then went out and acted.
So what are we listening for?
First I think we need to listen for ways to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters in the Quaker family, and in the wider Christian community. Where are places that we agree? What are the underlying issues that cause us to disagree on various issues? How can we be inclusive and loving without being watered down? How can we be sure of our convictions without being legalistic or fundamentalist? Hoe are we called to speak a prophetic word to one another? What prophetic words do we need to humble ourselves and hear?
Next we need to listen for how we’re called to follow Christ in ways that go against our culture. What injustices do we see? Which ones keep coming to the forefront of our thoughts and consciences? Which ones do we as a community have passion and energy around? For which ones do we have simple, effective steps that would begin to address the issue? What Truth do we feel so powerfully that we cannot keep it inside, but must publish it to the world? Where do we feel passion without cynicism, desire for justice without self-righteousness, energy for action on behalf of others without condescension?
We also need to be willing to give up our sense of entitlement to security. If we truly want God in control of our lives, we have to give up on the idea that we know what that life should look like. It is unlikely that we can follow God fully and still look like relatively normal middle class Americans. Are we willing to follow God for real—even in ways that don’t look rational to our culture, even in ways that disrupt our comfortable life, even in ways that force us to give up to God the security, freedom and independence we’ve come to see as our right?
On top of this I think we also need to allow ourselves to dream. What would the
Our history shows us that our small denomination has an immense power for good. We are a tiny group of people who have changed the shape of the world, not because we’re amazing people, but because we listen to God well.
Listening to God well is scary, because it requires transformation. When we encounter the Divine there is always change: we either change to resemble Christ more fully, or we change by walking away. Truly listening requires us to notice the places where we need work, and showing that we’re truly listening requires that we do something to change those things. Listening to God requires humility, recognizing we’ve all been going our own ways, not really following the path God would have us follow, for a long time. All branches of Friends need to change, need to listen to the prophetic voice rising from amongst ourselves, and have the humility to allow that prophetic voice to change us, to call us outside of our own self-propagation and self-centeredness as a denomination, to be willing to do the work of God whatever that work is, even if it doesn’t fit with the sense of self we’ve built.
Listening to God also takes courage. It takes courage to stand up against the status quo, against the unspoken power structures we’ve set up in our meetings and yearly meetings, and to hand the power back to God. It takes courage to say, “I choose to follow God. Who’s with me?” because what if no one’s with you?
This is where the “fear” part comes in for me—I told you this sense of calling is a mixture of joy and fear swirling inside me. I have this sense of calling, but honestly I'm scared to do anything about it. It might require me to not be liked in my "home town" of Quakerism if I speak up the prophetic witness I hear. I want people to like me, and I want to be able to continue ministering within my spiritual family. I don't want to challenge people beyond what they can bear, and I don't really want to change and not be able to live at the comfortable level I'm accustomed to. But in order to live out my sense of calling with integrity, I'm going to have to start speaking difficult messages, and not only speaking them but especially enacting them myself.
I need a community to journey with me in this process. I want to say, “I’m going to follow God. Who’s with me?” and for the entire Religious Society of Friends to jump on board with Christ at the helm. I have the deep, intuitive sense that I need to stay focused on Christ and the Bible in order to do this. I need to be willing to let go of my own expectations and desire to be liked or approved of by others, and be willing to focus only on what God is calling me to, and how to live that out in the healthiest, most complete way possible.
I'm also afraid because I hardly know where to start, except by speaking about how I'm feeling at places like this.
But there’s also an incredible sense of joy. I get so excited thinking about the possibilities of what we could do together! I get so excited about the idea of following God truly, not compromising by saying, “Well, I’m an American, I have no choice but to take up too many resources,” or that sort of thing. I get so excited thinking about living in a time of passion and energy like that of George Fox and the Valiant 60, or like the 19th century with the abolition and women’s rights movements. I get so excited thinking about us coming together as a community and living rightly. I know I can’t do this on my own—we need each other in order to follow God fully. So how are we feeling led together?
I’d like us to break into small groups of 4-6 and share around some queries. This will look something like worship sharing at first: take about 5 minutes in silence to center on the queries, then let everyone who would like to, share about what they’re hearing or noticing without anyone responding to others’ sharing. When everyone has had a chance to share, think about what patterns you notice, or what points of energy and passion you notice rising in yourself as you all shared. I’d encourage you to get in groups with people you don’t know very well, rather than the people you came with.
What do you sense God is calling the Society of Friends to focus on in the next 100 years?
Where in your life do you notice places of resistance to living out your calling more completely?
Are you willing to let go of traditional Friends practices and forms in order to follow a prophetic new calling as a Society? What might this look like in your own life?
How do you feel called to hold the tension between being both inclusive and firm in your convictions about Truth?