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.