Monday, August 23, 2010

"A Year of Peace" by Tony Lowe

I was very glad to hear that NCYM-FUM decided to make peace our theme for 2010. For a religious group that is supposed to be about peace and reconciliation, we Quakers have a very clouded history, marked with bitter divisions and splits. And each time this has happened, we have lost something of who we are. We have become evangelical/social justice or programmed/unprogrammed Friends, and then had the audacity to act like our particular group is the only one upon whom the mantle of early Quakerism fell, that we are the only “real Quakers” and all other groups who claim the same name have no right to use it.. The truth is all of us together are the bearers of that mantle, but none of us have an exclusive right to its use. Since our beginning, all our various branches have incorporated ideas and practices into our own faith tradition that we have borrowed from others. And we have all found the place under the mantle that is most comfortable for us, whether it is working for peace and social justice or feeding the hungry or preaching the gospel message. All of these are part of the message and ministry that came out of the Friends movement. We often fail to see or even choose not to see the good Friends groups other than our own are doing. And that’s because we tend to focus on one part of the Quaker message, sometimes to the point of ignoring other parts.. But that does not makes us more right, or better Quakers than another group who has a different emphasis. As Paul told the church at Corinth, the body has many parts, the foot and the hand both belong to that body but they function in different ways. So it is with the Society of Friends.

Our own attitudes may be our worst enemy since they negatively impact both our integrity and our credibility. It is very difficult for people outside the Society of Friends to accept all our talk about the possibilities for peace and reconciliation throughout the world when we are not able to practice it effectively among ourselves. No matter how “right” someone believes they are theologically or in terms of their understanding of who Friends are, when it leads to drawing lines in the sand and further division, the entire Society of Friends suffers as does our witness to the world as reconcilers and peace makers.

There is also the very practical consideration of finances. Due to the current economic crisis, Quaker organizations everywhere are cutting staff and diminishing both the number and scope of the programs they offer. This is exacerbated by Friends’ refusal to support the efforts of other Quaker groups with whom they have differences over social or theological issues. How many once strong Quaker organizations will become victims of our inability to work together?

In the last two or three years, there have been folks from all across Quakerism who have been very actively involved with convergent/emergent Friends. During the FUM triennial sessions in High Point, almost 50 Quakers from seven or eight Yearly Meetings gathered for an afternoon discussion about convergent Friends. These Friends were from a variety of Yearly Meetings -Baltimore, North Carolina, Iowa, New England, Wilmington, and Great Britain to name some of them. There was even a couple who were affiliated with Evangelical Friends. All these folks gathered for one reason. They were tired of hearing about our differences and all the things that separate us and wanted instead to explore how our common heritage as Quakers might provide opportunities for us to learn from one another, to celebrate those beliefs and practices around which we can unite, and develop mutual respect and appreciation for one another’s differences. This was of course the same triennial session in which one of our speakers, a highly respected and weighty Friend with many years of knowledge and experience with Quakers, said point blank that if Friends were going to have a future, Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference should plan some joint sessions.

Maybe the time has come for us all to follow the example of convergent Friends and focus on those things around which we can find unity rather than those which divide us. One thing that unites us is that we all still believe there is a great work in the world to be done by Friends. But can we not accomplish more working together than any one group of us can on our own? So, if we are going to make this a year of peace, we must commit ourselves to the hard work of making peace, not just in the world, but among ourselves. As the song says, “let peace begin with me.” In this year of peace, let us all work together for peace and reconciliation, for unity and tolerance, and for mutual respect and understanding among Friends everywhere

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Where I'm Coming From" by Tony

I was holding the door open at Jam’s Deli in Greensboro waiting for my daughter Ruth who had gotten us refills to go on our drinks when I became aware of Judy Collins’ sweet, clear voice singing one of my all time favorite songs

But now my friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
But something’s lost and something’s gained
In living every day

I chuckled to myself as I was driving away at the irony of hearing that old song when earlier that day I had received an e-mail from a good friend (Friend) who said he no longer felt like he understood where I was coming from. Funny how some songs can just seem to come to life in your own experience. Suddenly I had this flash back to our Wednesday night fellowship group where we are reading and discussing Brent Bill’s book The Sacred Compass, and I heard myself saying that one of the ways that God speaks to us might be a song we hear on the radio. That’s what the man said. That’s what I said. Be open to the possibility that God may be speaking to you anytime, anywhere, even through a song on the radio. Having been ever so gently smacked up side the head, I began to ponder this (actually I was just sort of thinking about it, but ponder sounds a lot deeper and heavier).

Yes, I have changed, or to phrase it more accurately I am being changed, and as result I am coming from a different place these days. I’m a little scared to name it because it sounds way too weighty and spiritual for somebody like me. So what I need to say is that it’s a place I’m hopefully moving toward, or on a journey to, and not some place I’ve taken up residence yet. The particular address is the center, that place where God’s love flows freely in all directions and to all. I heard a story a couple of years ago about some college kids in a city up North where a debate about gay rights was raging in the state legislature in the dead of winter. The snowy streets were filled with demonstrators both for and against the issue. Braving the icy cold, these college folks set up booth in the middle of the crowd and served hot coffee and donuts to all. Continuously asked why they were there and who they were supporting, they replied, “we’re here representing Jesus. He loves people regardless of which side they are on.” To me, that’s what coming from the center means.

It’s not an easy place to be. People on both sides are often disappointed or angry or no longer even consider you a friend because they perceive you are not in total agreement with them, or don’t understand why you have to look at issues from more than one side. It’s not an easy place to be because it demands that you act and speak from a place of love. This is how I know that I am being changed rather than changing myself, because I couldn’t do this in a million years. Some folks who know me well still raise their eyebrows or look at me a little funny when I talk about coming from a place of love because they know I am often insensitive, irritable, arrogant and stubborn (as one TV character used to say to another, “and those are your good points.”) This week I’m sure I raised some people’s hackles because I didn’t think everyone’s voice was being given equal weight in a committee decision.

But the good news is that God can and does break through all that from time to time, hopefully more often these days, and helps me see how much people need and want to be loved regardless of where they’re coming from or what their particular issues might be. And nobody does that like Jesus - Samaritan prostitutes, crooked tax collectors, convicted felons, and yes, even me. Early Quakers understood that principle which is how the phrase “let us see what love can do” became a part of our phraseology. If only it could be a part of our reality. For an organization that claims peace as one of its basic beliefs, we Quakers seem to have done an inordinate amount of fighting and splitting up among ourselves.

This morning I was reading the story of a paralyzed man Jesus healed and then told to take up his bed and walk. It happened to be on the Sabbath so the religious authorities rather than rejoicing because the man had been healed, were angry because one of their rules had been broken. They might not have ever even known about it had not Jesus told the man to carry his bedroll, so we might wonder why Jesus seemed to purposely attract their attention to what he had done, knowing it was going to create controversy. Maybe it was to remind them it was he who created the Sabbath in the first place, or maybe it was to show them that love and love alone was at the very center of God’s nature and that He always acts in love whether or not it was within the framework of their ideas of religion.

And there it is, the place I’m talking about, the place I want to take up residency, a place where everything is seen through the incredible lens of the love of God rather than the human constructs of religion. It’s a strange journey this one, to a place that I’m both coming from and moving toward all at the same time, which is impossible to do anywhere but in the all encompassing love of God.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Orthodoxy - The Spirit of Elias is Upon Me" by Tony

When I look at the history of the Society of Friends, I am always bothered by the great What If. What if Friends in 1827 had said ok, we have two somewhat different understandings of the basis of Quaker spirituality, so let’s find a way to continue to work together so that our witness to the Kingdom of God among us won’t be divided or compromised by our differences? What if the Wilburites and Gurneyites had been able to say, different strokes for different folks. You do worship in the way that seems most meaningful to you and we’ll do the same and we’ll respect and honor one another’s choices. Or what if (should I tremble to say this) the planners of the Richmond Conference had invited all Yearly Meetings and Friends groups to send delegates and not just those whom they considered to be “orthodox”? Who actually gave them the right to decide who was orthodox and who was not? It might even be said that the Richmond Conference and its aftermath was the real beginning of organized exclusion among Friends.

Historical accounts that I have read of the first separation suggest that the number of Friends who aligned themselves with Elias Hicks was not as much a statement of agreement with his doctrine as a protest against the efforts of those Friends who attempted to deny him the right to speak. While the motivation of those in power was no do a desire to protect Friends from what they regarded as false doctrine, the clear message that came out of the incident was that the larger body of Friends preferred weighing the speaker’s words and discerning truth for themselves rather than allowing others no matter how well intentioned to make that decision for them.

A couple of years ago I was working on co-ordinating a yearly meeting wide study of the NCYM-FUM Faith and Practice, which involved basically putting together a road show to go into each quarter and do a series of sessions on topics like Quaker history, theology, structure and organization, testimonies, etc. This also meant finding knowledgeable individuals in each of these areas to lead the discussions. I was amazed at how quickly I received lists from several quarters of who was and was not acceptable to them as session leaders. Most of the negatives were directed towards Guilford College, that bastion (or bastardization as a number of Friends seem to see it) of Quaker education and values.

I had some problems with this because one of the individuals on the don’t send list who shall remain nameless was a long-bearded, straw hat wearing, bicycle pumping fellow who along with the other classes he teaches at the aforementioned institution, offers one on the Biblical basis of the Quaker testimonies and over the years has introduced countless students from other Friends’ traditions who have never used one before to the Bible. And I am personally acquainted with some totally awesome YAFs who came to faith in Christ during their time at Guilford and are doing some amazing things now. Isn’t this what “orthodox”Friends are supposed to want to happen?

I also found it pretty strange that perceived problems with someone’s theology rendered years of training and education in the ways of Friends of no value, that an individual’s knowledge of Quaker history or organization and structure was only acceptable if their theology was “correct.” With the advice and consent of two weighty Friends in one of the anti-Guilford quarters, I did not make a substitution as requested by the “leadership” of the quarterly meeting but had the individual in question lead the session on testimonies. We had the folks who attended each session fill out an evaluation after it was over. This session received the highest rating of all those done in that quarter.

This year our Yearly Meeting at the urging of some brave souls has adopted Peace as its theme. I say brave souls because in a number of our meetings those American flags are prominently displayed at the front of the meeting house and I have seen a numbers of signs outside meetings saying “support out troops.” Peace of course is not just about the cessation of war, and some of the folks on our planning committee suggested some workshops at our annual sessions on things like Alternatives to Violence and Conflict Resolution in Meetings (what a thought -that we might have to learn to live peaceably with one another before the world will take seriously our peace testimony). Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly in all this talk of peace, a conflict arose because the leadership insisted that expertise and experience in peace work was not the criteria for determining who should be asked to facilitate the workshops, but whether or not individuals were “orthodox” in their theology.

However, don’t give us all the credit for this step back into our less than glorious past. Throughout Quakerdom there are those on the right who are afraid of what might happen if what might happen if their members are exposed to those on the left, and those on the left who are afraid to be exposed to those on the right, and programed Friends who don’t want their members exposed to unprogramed Friends, and vice versa, and Christ centered Friends who want nothing to do with other traditions, and non-Christ centered Friends with the same attitude. What if, instead of continuing the tradition of trying to shut out different voices begun by the clamor over Friend Elias back in 1827, we tried welcoming those with a different point of view and trusted the Spirit within instead of our own selves to guide us into Truth?
What if, as my friend Betsy Blake suggested in her video, we could all be Friends?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Exploring the Meaning and Purpose of Quaker Structure" by Scott

I have been exploring and mulling over in my mind the purpose and intent of Quaker structure. Years ago when I worked in a Yearly Meeting office the Superintendent I served with had a great way of looking at it. He would say, "The Yearly Meeting serves the local meeting, the local meeting does not serve the Yearly Meeting." I often think about that because my experience is that Yearly Meeting structures and often international Quaker organizations often seem set up for the local meeting to serve them.

This is not to say that Yearly Meeting offices and international offices don't have a purpose or place. But could it be said that a huge paradigm shift needs to take place and we might need to reimagine the whole set up? What would it look like if rather then the Yearly Meeting structures being set up that all the local meeting energy was flowing towards the Yearly Meeting programming the energy and resources flowed from the Yearly Meeting to the local meeting? (I would like to add to that the idea that rather then sending the Yearly Meeting's "Askings" or "Assessments" the Yearly Meetings sent money to the local meetings - but that's another post).

I recognize that at some point early Friends established structure and organization. My sense, though, is that their vision was that the structure would serve the vision and mission and not that the mission was to serve the structure. Quakers often seem in survival mode these days and in that mode there is a scrambling for resources and a piece of the pie. In that mode, immense pressure is put on local meetings to make sure that the Yearly Meetings survive.

What if the structure of Yearly Meetings in their present form are not meant to stay that way? In other words, can local meetings survive if there were Yearly Meeting offices? Could local meetings still minister and function if there were no Yearly Meeting committees? Could local meetings continue to thrive if there were no Yearly Meeting programs? My sense is they could. To be sure, there would still be some things that Yearly Meetings structures would and should need to provide but have the layers of what Yearly Meeting structures off have become so heavy and thick that it's weighing down the mission of what Friends need to be about?

I'm exploring this...and certainly don't have all the answers. All I know is that the life blood of Friends is the local meeting if there are no local meetings there are no Yearly Meetings and international organizations. It would seem that the thriving and flourishing of the local meeting would be of prime importance.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"Blue Bird Houses and the Beauty of Diversity" by Tony

One of the most important things I do every year is put up houses in which beautiful mountain bluebirds nest. These are amazing creatures, no artist could ever come close to the incredible shade of blue of their wings. And when I see that a pair has nested in one of our houses, I am excited because I know that those eggs will hatch eventually and more of those glorious creatures will fly out into the world. And I know that we have been a part of making that happen and the world is a better place and a more beautiful place because they are there.
As I thought about this, it struck me that our meeting is a bluebird house of sorts as well, that people come in looking for a safe space to nest, to grow spiritually and move toward becoming who God wants them to be. Some remain with us for a long time, some sojourn for a spell and move on, but hopefully the results are the same -the world is a better and more beautiful place because the light of God’s love is shining out through them.

As I was sitting on my deck feeling very poetic and sort of other wordly about this, a bird flew overhead and plop -right on the deck rail a big old mess of bird droppings - yep, that happens too. It’s one of the prices you pay for having birds around, along with all the sunflower hulls and thistle and chaff that gets left all around the feeders. Birds make a mess and sometimes the beauty can lost as least for a while in the clean up process. But that’s not unique to birds either. We don’t get perfect people in our fellowship. We get the bruised, the broken, the walking wounded who more than anything else need to know that they are loved unconditionally by the One who made them. They come with a lot of baggage to unload, past hurts and problems that have to be opened gently to let the healing in. It’s a messy process and sometimes there’s a lot of chaff and droppings to be cleaned up with people as well and we can lose sight of the new creature that’s emerging. It’s a dirty job sometimes, but isn’t that what ministry really is?

When I shared these thoughts with our fellowship, one individual quickly said, “what if you get goldfinches in your bluebird house or cardinals? Do you chase them out to make room for the bluebirds, or do you let them stay?” The answer is we let them stay. As beautiful as the bluebirds are, their color is made more vivid by seeing birds of red and yellow and brown and black and white in the yard with them. I am blessed to live in a place that attracts such a variety of birds and celebrate whatever inhabitants God provides for our bird houses, both the physical and spiritual ones.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"The Ministry Among Us" (Tony's response regarding Scott's Open Worship post)

I wonder how many pastoral ministers would make the same confession I did on Scott’s recent post about open worship – there have been times in my ministry when I have given a message when I have not received one because it was expected of me ( part of what I’m supposed to do as a released Friend for pastoral ministry). The sad part is after awhile you can do it without anybody even noticing. In fact, in my own experience, most of the same folks will say “good message today” on their way out the door. If I said I don’t have a message today, people would wonder what I’d been doing all week that I didn’t get around to what they see as my major responsibility, and maybe even start to question whether they should be looking for another minister.

But I look back at dear old George who on more than one occasion when invited to speak at a particular time and place showed up but never opened his mouth because God did not give him anything to speak for that place and time. And if it happened to someone as deeply spiritual and as in tune with God as George Fox, it’s bound to happen to someone like me. So it troubles me that we’ve somehow gotten the ministry into a place where it’s not ok to say that. What does it say about our belief that all are ministers and have an equal responsibility to listen for God’s message? And even if no one offers vocal ministry in the meeting, does that diminish our worship experience?

Maybe what I should say is sometimes I have a message, or a part of a message, but I don’t have THE message this week. I remember the days in my home meeting before I was a recorded minister when messages came to me during open worship, those times when your heart starts pounding and you get all shaky and your knees feel weak, but no matter how hard you fight it you have no choice but to stand and deliver that which you have received.
That still happens to me, sometimes during sermon preparation and sometimes even during delivery, but I get excited seeing it happen to someone else during our open worship time because it’s a visual reminder that the risen Christ is among us. It’s also to me much more of an affirmation of a real worship service than the comments made on the way out the door. More and more I’m coming to see my role as a worship facilitator, creating an environment and space where the Spirit of Christ and the gathered body can interact. I guess the reason I’m actually in the ministry is because I love the idea that God can use my feeble attempts to be faithful to Him as a springboard to propel others into His presence.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

"Unapologetically Christian vs Christ-Centered" by Tony

One of the concerns I came away from the YAF gathering in Wichita with is the use of the phrases Christ-centered and unapologetically Christian. While some folks seem comfortable using these terms interchangeably, to me there is a significant difference. Christ-centered is a statement of where I am but it does not require or even suggest that anyone else needs to be at the same place, so it feels more open to the kind of theological hospitality that is characteristic of convergent Friends. For me, it is a place of openness that invites people into conversation about what that means. To be unapologetically anything is the language of presupposed confrontation, i.e. I have drawn a line in the sand and I will not back down even if you demand it of me. It feels like the language of walls rather than bridges and seems to invite others to build their own walls as well (what if the next group to host a YAF event decides they need to be unapologetically non-Christian ?). And there it seems you have the history of Friends to date. So why would we need or want gatherings or events that only add another row of stones to the wall rather than seeking to remove one?

I am not unapologetically Christian. When you look at Christianity’s track record, it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone would not feel the need to be extremely apologetic for the persecutions and gross injustices that have been inflicted on the world by those who have called themselves Christians. Not only does the word Christian carry all this baggage from the past, but in the present it has come to be associated with a set of theological, political, and social stances that I do not always find to be reflective of my own understanding and experience of what it means to follow Jesus. This is why I am more comfortable describing myself as being Christ-centered or as being a follower of Jesus, or a disciple, not in the exclusive sense of being some spiritual guru, but in the true meaning of the word which is simply a learner.

If there is hope for a future for Friends marked by anything other than the same divisions and resentments we have nurtured in the past, we have to find a non-confrontational way of being with one another and listening to one another. And the key word here is find. In order to find something, we have to actively engage ourselves in the act of looking for it, as the Scripture says, “seek and you will find.” It will not just happen but requires an intentional atmosphere of openness and hospitality to and for one another. Not just YAFs, but all of us need to work to create that kind of space in all our gatherings.