April 1, 2017 § 4 Comments
One of the most evil things the Scary Clown has promised to do as president is to reinstate torture as a weapon of the state in its “homeland security” arsenal. The last president to do that, and his evil architect vice president, were both Christians. It was this insane contradiction that prompted me to start my first blog, BibleMonster.
For arguably, the most famous person to be tortured to death by an imperial power as a religious insurrectionist was Jesus. The charge for which he was crucified, which was nailed onto the cross over his head, was “King of the Jews”. The soldiers were surely laughing with sarcasm when they posted those charges, but the state took them deadly seriously, nonetheless.
For in fact those charges were true. Jesus was in insurrectionist.
He had started the week with a royal procession into the city, deliberately invoking salvationist and apocalyptic oracles from the prophet Zechariah, assuming royal accoutrements that invoked the monarchy of King David that was both idealized and rife with prophecies about return, and bringing with him a jubilant mob. Then the very next thing he does is raid the national currency exchange. He then spends the next several days leading up to the Passover feast publicly assaulting Rome and its Quisling government in Jerusalem with stories and provocative legal interpretations, then hiding away so successfully in the woods on Mount Olivet that the authorities needed an informer to find him. All this under the very noses of the Roman legionaries, who had built a fort abutting the temple precinct walls overlooking the very courts in which Jesus was staging his insurrection.
And those soldiers were not alone. The Passover season was always a time of civil and political unrest in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, so the Romans reinforced the Jerusalem legion by bringing in the Syrian legion for the duration of the holiday. For Passover was, after all, the thanksgiving celebration of a people who had been formed as a people in the crucible of divine deliverance from slavery to empire.
The intervening millennium had not diminished the people’s memory of Egyptian slavery, or the Passover and Exodus one bit. Nor was Egypt the only empire that Yahweh had delivered them from. Jesus and his listeners remembered deliverance from Babylon some 600 years later. And just 200 years before their own time under the Maccabees, God had delivered the people from the Seleucids, the descendants of the Macedonian general who inherited the Persian Empire when Alexander the Great died. Judaism was at its core, among other things, a religion about deliverance from empire.
And here came another prophet modeling himself after that first one, Moses, a man named after the conqueror of Palestine, Joshua, whose very name was a battle cry, and deliberately taking on the mantle of their most successful and imperial king, David. Some of the people in the streets actually called him Son of David.
Jesus’s ministry was book-ended by trials. It began with his trial by the Satan in the wilderness after his baptism, and it ended with his trial before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. This has special resonance because Judaism as a religion is, at its core, a legal system. It is all about justice and, therefore, about judgment.
Jesus pronounces judgment on the temple-state on his way to the city at the beginning of that fateful week when he curses the fig tree for failing to bear fruit. He condemns the temple-state and the Romans with his teachings in the temple courts. He replaces the temple-state’s central religious institutions at the Last Supper. He goes out of his way to fulfill several apocalyptic prophecies in Zechariah. And he camps out on the very mountain that the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah say will be the first place to which Yahweh returns when he delivers his people the next time. That is—for Jesus—this time.
This apocalyptic expectation is a difficulty for us today that we’ll have to deal with, because it’s apparently central to Jesus’s mission in this week. But it’s worth remembering that for Jesus and his followers, that expectation was grounded in a thirteen-hundred-year-long history of prior promises of deliverance from empire—and real fulfillments. Jesus had several reasons for quoting Jeremiah in the so-called “cleansing of the temple”.
But before we get to apocalypse, I want to explore some of the events of Passion Week for their meaning in their own time and for their relevance for us today, revisiting some of the posts from a previous series. Below are links to the posts in that original series, for readers who may have found this blog after they were first published in 2016 and not know about them. Here are links to those posts, one for each day of the week, plus a couple of afterthoughts:
March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
Why would an attender apply for membership in a Quaker meeting?
In a lot of meetings I know, the only thing it gets you, really, is the privilege of serving on some new committees and maybe some more deeply internalized sense of responsibility to attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship, and to support the meeting financially. In a word, you’re signing up for responsibility. Not to denigrate the quite wonderful sense of belonging that membership brings for most of us, I suspect.
So we may be fairly clear about the member’s responsibilities to the meeting (or not). But what is the responsibility of the meeting to the member? This is what I want to focus on.
I think our meetings pay too little attention to their side of the covenant with members, to what they owe the members, beyond providing a roof for meeting for worship and some coffee afterwards. What does the member get out of the deal that is different from being just a faithful attender?
I think we can name with some confidence three things that meetings try to offer. I would then add a fourth, one that I think is extremely important, but I’m not so confident that we have this one covered. Meetings offer members:
- communion, that is, meeting for worship, the regular opportunity to share the presence of the Spirit;
- community, f/Friendship in the Spirit, which includes
- pastoral care; and (in my understanding)
- spiritual nurture—active, proactive, even focused nurture of spiritual gifts, opportunities for personal spiritual exploration and formation, and discernment and support of leadings and ministries.
The first three we take seriously already, though it’s not always so easy to do well. Most meetings have committees dedicated to this work and they try hard. But for all intents and purposes, we offer worship, community, and pastoral care equally to both attenders and members. Nothing here changes with the status of meeting membership.
The fourth service is the only one that we would not necessarily give to attenders in the ways that I personally desire from covenantal community—that is, meaningful engagement in one another’s spiritual/religious lives. And for me, this is one of the central missions of a Quaker meeting, one of its main reasons for existing.
For me, covenantal community means that the community is willing to engage with me, actively and proactively, in the nurture of my spiritual gifts, the support of my leadings and ministry (including my vocal ministry), and in the formation and nurture of my spiritual life in general.
It’s the proactive part that differentiates membership from “attender-ship”. I think we would not presume to get intimately involved in someone’s spiritual life without her or his express wish. Thus, the difference between being an attender and being a member is that you invite the meeting into your spiritual life, recognizing that, in the Quaker way, the spiritual life only fully flourishes in the embrace of community.
This applies to both aspects of eldership, both positive spiritual nurture and accountability. Put another way, we promise to protect the meeting’s worship and its fellowship on behalf of all its members and attenders, so that all can feel welcome, spiritually nurtured, and safe in our community. In essence, we notify members that we will hold them accountable for their negative behavior. In practical terms, this means we bring up our commitment to protect the worship and the fellowship in our clearness committees for membership.
For it’s in the clearness committee that the rubber hits the road. It is here that we ask an applicant what their spiritual life consists of and just how involved we can get in helping them put it together and deepen it. Many people come to us without a very clear idea yet of what the life of the spirit means or consists of for them. Do they want help in exploring and clarifying that? For those who are already on a fairly clear path, how can we help?
The one area that obtains for all applicants in this regard is vocal ministry. Our clearness committees should ask what the applicant thinks and feels about vocal ministry—their own in particular, and vocal ministry in general. Do they welcome our attention, support, and even correction in their vocal ministry? Do they consider it a sacred calling that deserves and even needs the community’s involvement?
All this presupposes, however, that the meeting is actually going to engage with members in the ways I’m talking about and that it is equipped to be of service in these ways. I don’t think I’ve ever known a meeting that is clear about its role in members’ spiritual lives or prepared to be proactive in the ways I’m talking about. Even my own meeting is hesitant and it has a Gifts and Leadings Committee specifically charged with with this role. Many also do not have seasoned Friends who could be good resources and mentors to others in their spiritual lives and who are also willing to serve in this way.
So, for a meeting to offer something substantive and distinguishing to attenders considering membership, the meeting must have a rather deep conversation about its mission, about its role in members’ lives. It needs to be clear with its membership care and clearness committees about what it expects of them. And it needs to be prepared to deliver on its promises if it’s going to make any in the first place.
If it does not have the spiritual and human resources to nurture its members’ spiritual lives, it needs to reach out to other meetings and to the wider Quaker network. Can it bring people in? Can it help to send members to nearby retreat centers? Can it at least hold viewings and discussion of the many great videos now available on QuakerSpeak.org, or discussion groups on Quaker readings, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, its Faith and Practice?
This, in my opinion, is an essential calling of a Quaker meeting and what we owe our members.
March 15, 2017 § 1 Comment
In 2015, I published a few posts on the phrase that of God in every person, and I took a look at those posts, now that I find myself returning to the subject.
Here’s a link to an aggregation of all the posts with the category “that of God”, for readers who are interested in what I wrote back then. The posts appear in reverse chronological order, so scroll to the bottom to read them in the order I wrote them. Several reiterate (or more accurately, “pro”-iterate, since they came first) the points I covered in my post quoting Lewis Benson. These posts also have a very lively conversation in the comments.
I want to bring readers’ attention to one post in particular: “That of God”—What Next? I am still very interested in the question, what next? So, since we’re not turning this train around; since liberal Friends DO believe in that of God in everyone, never mind the historical amnesia involved, the sloppy theology, and the distortion of our tradition, how do we justify and explain this belief? Where’s the evidence for this continuing revelation? The link directly above explores these questions in a little depth.
March 15, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lewis Benson on “That of God”
My post about “that of God” and the soul prompted a fair amount of comment and some interest in Lewis Benson’s essay on the phrase, so I thought I would digest its key points here.
In 1970, Lewis Benson published an essay in Quaker Religious Thought (Vol. XII, No. 2) titled “That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?” He hoped, I think, that this essay would reverse the trend among liberal Friends toward using the phrase as the foundation for their Quakerism, since he felt that “when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men.” (Benson consistently uses “men” to stand in for all people in this essay; I do not change his usage in my quotes below.)
It didn’t work. His opening sentences are at least as true today as they were in 1970: “The phrase “that of God in every man” has been widely used in the twentieth century as an expression which signifies the central truth of the Quaker message. Many present-day Quakers, when asked what the Quakers believe, are likely to reply: ‘They believe that there is that of God in every man’.”
Probably no one knew the work and thought of George Fox better than Lewis Benson. He prepared a massive concordance of Fox’s works and if you look “that of God” up, as I have done, you find more than 700 entries, counting all its cognates, and there are many of those; Benson lists a few in his essay. I am persuaded by Benson’s historical analysis and his critique, and by aspects of his discussion of its implications, and I have taken up his crusade, though for different reasons and with different goals. I feel that his essay is essential reading for any Friend in the liberal tradition. (You can download a pdf file at http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/qrt/topdownloads.html.)
So here are what I think are Benson’s salient points.
How Fox used the phrase “that of God”
Benson: “This phrase belongs to his [Fox’s] pastoral vocabulary rather than to his doctrinal vocabulary.
Two salient facts point to an understanding of what Fox means by “that of God in every man”: first, it is not used by Fox to designate the central truth that he is proclaiming; and, second, it is used most frequently to refer to the response that Friends were trying to evoke by word and deed.”
Where Fox got the phrase and the concept
Benson and others agree that Fox got the idea from Romans 1:19: “[Because] that which may be known of God is manifest in them [shown to them]; for God hath showed it unto them.” The context of this declaration in Benson’s essay suggests that this latter clause echoes John 1:9, which was a key passage for Friends: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”
Romans 1:9 does not use the phrase “that of God”, but Benson quotes Fox showing how Fox connected the idea with the phrase: “That Fox saw ‘that of God in every man’ in the context of Romans 1 is evident from the following passage written in 1658: ‘So that which may be known of God is manifest within people, wjhich God hath showed unto them . . . and to that of God in them all must they come before they do hold the truth in righteousness, or retain God in their knowledge, or retain his covenant of light . . . ”
What did Fox mean by “that of God”
The phrase “that of God” is not an idea about human nature “but points to the work of God in Christ,” as Francis Hall puts it in his comment after Benson’s essay.
Benson elaborates: “The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. We cannot produce the equivalent of this voice and this wisdom from our human resources. It must be heard and received. There is a hunger in every man for this voice and this wisdom—a need to be taught what is right by the Creator. In every man there is a witness for God that summons him to remember the Creator. This is ‘that of God in every man.’ It is not an organ, or faculty, or gland. It is a hunger and thirst that God has put in man.” (emphasis mine)
That of God is not a divine spark inherent in the human, some aspect of the divine in which the human partakes, as we modern liberal Friends tend to believe. Rather, that of God is a yearning for God and for God’s teaching and guidance that was put there as a kind of receptor for the gospel, for God’s wisdom, put there by God.
“Answering” that of God
Benson: “The verbs that Fox usually links with ‘that of God’ are ‘answer’ and ‘reach.’ The goal of Quaker preaching, either by word or deed, is to reach or answer something in all men. Fox says, “it is the light that makes manifest to a man when he is convinced: it answers to something, and reaches to something in their particulars.’ “Answering that of God” is not recognizing the divine spark in others, but rather offering ministry that satisfies the yearning in us for God’s truth.
In the famous pastoral epistle that we quote all the time as our source for the phrase, we “will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.” “Cheerfully” here does not mean in a lighthearted mood, but rather so as to cheer in a sense mostly lost to us since the 17th century, that is to spiritually uplift—to be a blessing. It’s also notable that Fox uses “world”, not “earth”, as many liberal Friends today often misquote him. “The world” comes from John’s gospel and stands for the world as it rejected Christ: “That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” (John 1:9–10)
That which does the answering
Fox: “There is something in man . . . that answers the power which is the gospel.” Benson: “That of God in the conscience is not conscience itself, but the word by which all things, including conscience, were created.” This “word”, of course, is Christ the Word, John 1:3: “All things were made by him; and without hem was not any thing made that was made”.
The twentieth century usage
Benson: “Between 1700 and 1900 “that of God in every man” virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary . . . How did this long-forgotten phrase get into the spotlight and stay in the spotlight?” What happened that modern liberal Friends have turned this phrase on its head and then made it the one slender pillar upon which all Quaker tradition was to balance?
Benson’s answer: “The earliest instance of the revived use of “that of God” that I have been able to discover is found in Rufus Jones’ “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903, in which he expresses his opinion that the “larger truth” implicit in Fox’s early experiences is the discovery that there is a ‘universal principle, that the Spirit of God reaches in every man.’ He then adds: ‘To all sorts and conditions of men, Fox continually makes appeal to ‘that of God’ in them or to ‘the principle of God within man’ . . . In every instance he means that the Divine Being operates directly on the human life.’ In the following year he [Jones] wrote: ‘What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, “Something of God” in the human soul.’ As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase ‘that of God in every man’ began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new ‘interpretation’ made ‘that of God in man’ the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.”
Benson notes that in the last few weeks of his life, Jones began to have doubts about what he had done. It was only at this late time in his career that Jones actually began to systematically study what Fox meant by the phrase. Meanwhile, Jones had been propagating his misinterpretation for 45 years.
In his failure to actually study the material he was interpreting, Jones prefigured our own practice. Most Friends use the phrase glibly, having read very little Fox, if any, who are ignorant of Benson’s essay, and haven’t thought through what either Fox or they themselves mean by the phrase beyond the divine spark idea.
The idea spreads
Benson believes that the AFSC is responsible for bringing this understanding of the phrase into common usage. “A major contributing factor in the dissemination of this idea has been the torrent of promotional literature and other publications that flows from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service committee. . . . by frequently reminding us that its central motivating principle is ‘that of God in every man,’ [the Service Committee] has exerted a much greater influence on Quaker faith and thought than anything emanating from the Society itself.” This jives with my sense that you are most likely to see the phrase invoked as the foundation for the peace testimony and our other social testimonies, a topic which Benson takes up at length.
“That of God” and membership
But the phrase has come to dominate our thinking about more than our social witness. Benson: “Among Quakers today there is a widespread belief that the central truth of Quakerism is a principle that is not solely derived from the Christian revelation. . . . for a considerable number of Friends ‘that of God in every man’ is the symbol of a principle that transcends and comprehends Christianity. We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in ‘that of God in every man,’ which has been called ‘the Quakers’ creed,’ a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain . . . there is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.”
My own meeting (Central Philadelphia) does not use the phrase in this way as a credal test in its membership process, but its membership documents are, in fact, full of the claim that our faith rests on the belief in that of God in everyone.
Comments by T. Canby Jones and Francis B. Hall
The Quaker Religious Thought issue with Benson’s essay also includes two comments by these two Quaker thinkers. Jones points out that it’s really hard to distinguish in Fox’s thinking between the Light and “that of God in everyone”. They have the same source, they work in the same ways. Fox was famously unsystematic in his thinking, and Jones confesses to still being “all hung up” on this distinction, even though he dwelt on the question for pages in his doctoral dissertation. “I can hear Fox laughing,” he says.
I agree with Jones about this. I find it quite hard to follow Fox’s thinking a lot of the time. But I also agree with Benson about almost all of his points. We misuse the phrase “that of God” these days in ways that do violence to our tradition and to the testimony of integrity. We have narrowed our belief system down to this one principle and ravaged an ancient and rich tradition in the process. We have forgotten where our “modern” interpretation came from, and when, and we have falsely retrojected it onto our prophetic founder, who, it seems, never meant by it anything like what we mean by it.
But, as my Friend Don Badgley often points out, it’s not what we believe that matters so much as what we have experienced. “Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light?” Whatever “that of God” within us is, a divine spark or an inward yearning for Truth, is it connecting? Are we answering the knock on our heart’s door? Are we rising to face and follow the light, in spirit and in truth?
But while direct experience of the Christ (and I will leave open for now the question of what and/or who the Christ is) may be the main question, the way that we present our beliefs still matters. The way we answer questions about our faith from the public, from newcomers, and from our children. What we say matters. As Fox put it, “What thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
March 6, 2017 § 24 Comments
Traditional Christianity believes that humans have an immortal soul that is our identity before God, that God judges us (our soul) on the scales of our sinfulness and our faith, and that the soul suffers an ultimate and eternal fate based on that judgment. In this tradition, the soul is a spirit-reality that is separate from the body, which has somehow been “poured” into the body as a vessel. In life, the soul is capable of learning and of making moral choices, and it continues to exist after death, retaining consciousness, memory, and identity. In the afterlife, it is still capable of joy and of suffering.
Liberal Quakerism has pretty much rejected this paradigm with its obsession with sin and a judging God and we have jettisoned the soul along with it.
But it seems the liberal Quaker impulse still wants to retain some kind of transcendentalism that would elevate the human above the mere material. Without belief in a soul and a deity—or something equivalent—we would be a secular humanist society rather than a religion. A lot of us are actually quite uncomfortable with Quakerism as a “religion” and do think of us as a humanist society. But enough of us have enough of a “mystical” temperament to want some transcendentalism in our faith. And some of us have had actual mystical experiences that demand something more from Quakerism than soul-less humans and a secular humanist society.
I think that this is where Rufus Jones was coming from. Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus was liberal Quaker “theology” born.
To satisfy this impulse to the transcendental that some of us feel, we liberal Friends have run with this idea. I think we have seized upon “that of God in everyone” partly as a replacement for the metaphysics of the soul and the sin-salvation paradigm it undergirds. We understand this “that of God” implicitly as a kind of divine spark, or at least as some aspect of the human that is capable of apprehending a spiritual reality, which was previously the function and demesne of the soul. We have replaced belief in a soul with belief in “that of God in everyone”.
We also have replaced the theology of sin, judgment, and salvation through Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross with an extremely simple theology that posits “that of God in everyone” as the source of our “mystical” experience, our testimonies, and just about everything else.
Both the soul and “that of God” are metaphysical speculations about the nature of the human. So far, liberal Friends have done little to elaborate on this speculation. Lots of questions remain unanswered. Where does the soul/that of God come from? The syntax of the phrase “that of God” suggests it comes from God, but we have done almost nothing to define the God that “that of God” is “that” of. We just glibly avoid the traditional theistic, supreme being definition.
And what about the afterlife? The primary and ultimate purpose of the soul, after all, is to give us a vehicle for life after death. Liberal Friends don’t talk much about the afterlife. I suspect that we don’t even think about it much. I think about death a lot, but not too much about life after death.
This is a natural consequence, I think, of our focus on direct, immediate experience of the Spirit. When what really matters is happening right here, in this life, in this body and mind, in this meeting for worship, in this moment, why fuss too much about the life after this body and life pass away?
“That of God” connects us to both the communion of the present and to a “Presence” that deserves a capital “P” but not much more detail than that. This connection partakes of the transcendental, if not of the eternal, much as the soul does. Did. It doesn’t get us to heaven, but it gets us somewhere in that direction. And it doesn’t get us to hell.
For another advantage of the soul cum that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark?
This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is. Venture into the swamps of metaphysical speculation and you might just end up in hell. It’s going to be wet and nasty, for sure.
March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
I want to direct my readers’ attention to this post and upcoming series from Joshua Brown in his blog arewefriends.
February 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
- Dedicate a committee to pastoral care.
- Develop a care list of members and attenders for each member of the committee.
- Ask the members how you’re doing and what they need.
- If possible, dedicate resources to helping members in material need.
A pastoral care committee
Central Philadelphia Meeting has a Membership Care committee charged with pastoral care of members. I know meetings that combine pastoral care and care of ministry and worship in one committee, and I think this might make sense for small meetings. But in medium and large sized meetings, I suspect that the pastoral care concerns will tend to take priority on the committee’s agenda and thus will tend to squeeze out attention to worship and ministry. Both roles are important and deserve our full attention.
It’s true that pastoral matters almost always have a spiritual dimension and spiritual matters can have a pastoral dimension, so these committees need to talk to each other when appropriate and keep the other dimension in mind when doing their own work. But that seems easier to me than trying to charge one committee with these two very important roles when you have only so much time in committee meetings.
I think it is very useful for each member and attender to have a Friend who checks in on them every once in a while, providing an opening and invitation to come forward with any concerns they might have, something they might not do on their own if the meeting did not provide the opportunity. Members should not have to struggle against obstacles if they need to seek help from the meeting; it’s hard enough to seek help. They shouldn’t have to figure out whom to approach. They should feel like they know at least one person, if only slightly, who has already declared their willingness to listen. And everybody should enjoy some contact from the meeting, so that we all feel known and included, and so the meeting is in a better position to serve its members and the Spirit in this important way.
Over the past year, Central Philadelphia Meeting has held a series of potlucks to explore pastoral care in the meeting, asking what Friends’ experience has been and asking for ideas and feedback to the Membership Care Committee. This effort has grounded the work of the committee in a new and good way. I think our meetings need to be more deliberate than we usually are in sounding the life of the meeting in a number of areas—quality of worship and vocal ministry; openness and friendliness of the community to newcomers, children, families, and young adults, people of color, conservatives, and Christ-centered Friends;; support of leadings and ministries; spiritual formation in general; and the meeting’s witness life. The culture of silence that so often prevails in a Quaker meeting can mask discontent that should be more forthrightly addressed. I think we should periodically and proactively seek out the spiritual condition of the meeting in these various areas. Even an anonymous survey would be a help, though potlucks do a great job of building the very community you’re trying to sound out.
Central Philadelphia Meeting has a Meeting Community Assistance Fund Committee that responds to material needs of the members. Obviously, the meeting has some resources for this ministry, as well. The meeting is truly blessed in this way. Many meetings have no reserves that could be available to help members who face some financial emergency. This is an extremely delicate matter and requires the highest degree of discernment. But I think it should be central to a meeting’s mission.
My model is Jesus and the early church. When Jesus declared himself the christ in Luke 4:18, he defined his “christ-hood” in terms of “good news to the poor”. When the post-resurrection church was born in the Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11), the very first thing they did was fulfill Jesus’ promise of debt relief for the poor by setting up a welfare system. The heart of that system was that members who had surplus wealth made those resources available to the community for poor relief. The positive example was Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37); the negative example was Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5: 1-11). And this was a community that was almost by definition already really poor to start with.
The question is, do we know who might be sitting on the bench next to us that is suffering under a crushing burden of debt or struggling to meet their basic needs? And if we did know, what would we do about it?
So how might small meetings and meetings with no reserves try to follow in the early Christian example? This is one of the roles that regional and yearly meetings should serve. How can we expand our pool of resources to meet this potential need? And money is not the only option. Pastoral care committees should research the resources available outside even the wider Quaker community. What programs are available from local and state governments and from other charity organizations? Our committees should keep a portfolio of such resources, so that, even if the meeting can’t be of direct financial assistance, at least we can help steer Friends toward the resources they need.