Membership — in a Yearly Meeting?

July 31, 2018 § 6 Comments

A young adult f/Friend that I know and some of her friends (not sure how many of them have the capital F) are considering asking New York Yearly Meeting to give them membership. (Technically in my friend’s case, I suppose, she would be asking for a transfer of membership, since she’s already a member of a monthly meeting by birth.)

My initial reaction was negative. But then I began thinking about it and now I’m not so sure.

From the point of view of her monthly meeting, on the surface it looks like a loss. But in fact, they have already lost her. So that’s a “0”.

From the point of view of the yearly meeting, it would essentially be recording what is already a reality, that she treats the yearly meeting as a surrogate meeting already, and is quite active in its life. In addition, it would theoretically cement deeper relationships with the other young adult friends in her cohort and support an aspect of yearly meeting life that it’s always struggled with, the place and engagement of its young adults. So I’ll call that a “+1”.

On the other hand, the yearly meeting is ill equipped to provide her with most of the “services” that monthly meetings provide. This gets to the third part of the relationship, benefits and costs to the Friend herself. So far, she has apparently not yet felt the need for the monthly meeting services I am referring to, by which I mean:

  • pastoral care, including the care of a meeting for marriage, the conduct of a memorial meeting when she dies, and conduct of a clearness committee for solving a personal problem;
  • spiritual formation and support, including regular worship, regular religious education, and discernment and support for a leading or ministry; and finally,
  • the unique fellowship one gets from the more intimate community life of a local meeting.

To be fair, the yearly meeting does dedicate some time at each of its sessions to memorialize deceased members who have been an important part of the life of the yearly meeting, so I bet she would get that; and anyway, she won’t be around to know. And the yearly meeting does enjoy truly deep fellowship—lots of Friends who know each other well and love each other well. This, I suspect, is the reason she thinks of the yearly meeting as her surrogate meeting. So that’s a “+1”.

Furthermore, the yearly meeting could take on many of these other roles. But its resources—especially its human resources—are already stretched almost to the breaking point. I imagine that it would decline to take them on, and rightly so, in my opinion. But apparently, this Friend does not want or need those things.

For my part, without meaningful pastoral care, regular worship, spiritual nurture, and a fellowship that goes deeper than just three annual meetings could provide, what does “membership” mean? All that’s left is Quaker identity and a sense of belonging to the unique spiritual community that is New York Yearly Meeting. To me, that’s a half-baked Quaker life.

On the other hand, all the renewal movements in Quaker history have been youth movements, and their innovations have been resisted by their elders every time, and usually wrong-headedly. Fox and his cohort were themselves young adults when they got started. So were the Friends who began experimenting with programmed worship. So were the Friends who gave birth to the liberal Quaker movement around the turn of the twentieth century.

Those were all resistance movements. Those young people were unsatisfied with the status quo, couldn’t get a meaningful response to their concerns from their elders, and took matters into their own hands.

So in my next post, I want to look more carefully at what today’s young adult Friends might find so unsatisfying, think about whether this membership in a yearly meeting solves the problem, and whether something else might. Now it’s extremely presumptuous for me to speak for them, so this will just be speculation on my part, and I expect I’ll be wrong about some of it. But maybe it will spark a conversation.


Be Careful What You Ask For

July 20, 2018 § 5 Comments

Donald Trump’s movement is, in many regards, an apocalyptic movement. Theologian Adela Yarbro Collins describes apocalyptic faith this way:

“apocalyptic faith often correlates with marginality, cognitive dissonance, and relative deprivation. ‘Marginality’ is a sociological term referring to the social status of an individual or group as anomalous, peripheral, or alien. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ refers to a state of mind that arises when there is significant disparity between expectations and reality. . . . ‘Relative deprivation’ identifies the self-understanding of those whose expectations or perceived needs are not being satisfied.”

The folks who voted for Trump, the marginalized white working class and white evangelicals of all classes, have been left behind by an economy that once offered ladders to a better economic future. They have been abandoned by political institutions and structures that once represented their interests, most importantly, the Democratic party. And/or they are held in contempt (they’re deplorables) by Americans who have rejected many of their value-defining institutions, like church, and their culture-defining, or tribe-defining, social practices and signifiers—they are “latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing” people whose kids play soccer instead of football and baseball.

Apocalyptic faith believes things are so bad that only a supernal* intervention can bring deliverance. Usually, this means God. In practice, though—that is, in the face of these oppressive forces and institutions in the real world—the extra-worldly intervention needs human agents. It needs prophets and messiahs. For the Trump movement, the prophets are the right-wing media; the messiah is, of course, Trump himself.

This helps explain why many evangelicals voted for Trump in spite of his obvious faithlessness and corrupt character—he’s not the one who is acting, really; it’s God. And God can use a broken tool, even a pagan one, just like he used the Persian emperor Cyrus to release the Israelites from captivity in Babylon. And anyway, we’re all sinners. And even Jesus was broken—though he took on human brokenness deliberately in order to save us.

The thing about apocalyptics is that they don’t give up their worldview, even when—as inevitably happens—it has demonstrably failed to deliver them. This means that when the corrupt world is not overturned as expected, apocalyptics often go ballistic. This is because you become apocalyptic in the first place when you already think things are as bad as they can get and are completely out of your control. You already feel desperate and helpless—though you still have your anger. The messiah is your last hope. When he (always a “he”) fails, that anger, coupled with utter despair, flares out in violence.

David Koresh (“Koresh” is the Hebrew transliteration of “Cyrus”) and his Branch Davidians are a prime, relatively modern example. But post-Pauline apocalyptic Christianity is itself the paradigmatic example—marginalized Christians have been expecting the apocalypse any minute now off and on for 2,000 years.

Thus, when Trump fails and is dethroned—when he has been crucified—his “base” may explode. The prophets will rage against their scapegoats. The messiah may try to take down as much of the temple as he can, Samson and Delilah style. The racists may lash out (even more) against black and brown people. The xenophobes may unleash mob violence against immigrants and especially, against Muslims. The Christians may hunt down their usual target, the Jews. The gun nuts may start shooting. The global warming deniers may start setting forest fires. The militia types may target federal buildings.

I’m just sayin’. I’m a little worried that we may regret it if we get what we’re asking for here—Trump’s spectacular and rightly-deserved come-uppins.


* Supernal: being or coming from on high.

Worship Sharing and Vocal Ministry

July 9, 2018 § 13 Comments

Yesterday, my meeting got a lot of personal sharing and basically no vocal ministry. My judgment, of course, though I know I am not alone in feeling this way. It wasn’t really a meeting for worship as much as a large worship sharing session. This is a decades-long trend among liberal Friends.

What is the difference between worship sharing and vocal ministry? How might meetings and worship and ministry committees in particular make the distinction between these two kinds of spoken message more clear, for they are clearly somewhat confused in the minds of many of our worshippers?

Worship sharing is sharing; vocal ministry is ministry; that is, it is service, which is the root meaning of “ministry”. Traditionally, vocal ministry is service to God, or the Spirit, if you will. But also service to each other, and to the worshipping community. I’ll talk about what I mean by “service” shortly. But back to the difference between the two.

Worship sharing starts with an “I” statement by definition. In meeting for worship, it usually stays with I until it ends. While it comes from one’s self and is about one’s self, worship sharing nevertheless does foster a “We”. This We is a community more deeply bonded through a shared understanding of the “I” who has spoken. Worship sharing builds community.

Vocal ministry starts with “You” and it stays with You until it ends. While the message may pick up personal elements along the way, from its initial impulse to its final words, it has a direction out from the self toward one’s fellow worshippers and/or toward the community as a gathered body. It, too, fosters a We, but this We is a community more deeply bonded through a deeper experience of the Spirit. Vocal ministry answers that of God in one’s fellow worshippers. It brings spiritual blessing to the community.

The language of the message carries practical indicators of which kind of message it is. A worship sharing message virtually always starts with the pronoun “I” and it doesn’t lose this first person singular perspective until, perhaps, the very end. For such a message often comes with a lesson of some kind at the end, and it is this lesson that I suspect feels to the speaker like a potential blessing that would qualify it as vocal ministry.

Very often, if we had just heard the lesson without its personal and often anecdotal preamble, it would have felt much more like Spirit-led vocal ministry. So why quibble about it? Because, by the time we get the lesson, it is so saturated with “I” that it has trouble lifting off the ground to transform the We. Our consciousness has been so deeply drawn into personality that it hinders the transpersonal character we hope for in vocal ministry.

More importantly, though, the worship sharing message has no real direction toward the We. It is self-reflective. It projects a mirror out from the self to show us more of the self. Even the lesson at the end is often just a final reflection of a personal take-away, a sharing of what the I got out of the experience recounted, offered in the hope that it will be inspiring to others, as well. Which it often is. We listeners often can take something away from the account for our selves. That’s the power of worship sharing. But that doesn’t make it vocal ministry, in the traditional mold.

Vocal ministry will certainly pick up elements from the I, from the personality of the speaker and/or from their experience, but it starts somewhere else and its going somewhere else. It starts from an inward depth, a motion whose roots run deeper than mental reflection on an event, which is the form most of this sharing takes, or from mental musings. Reflections and musings live in everyday consciousness. You don’t have to go deep to get them.

More importantly, though, vocal ministry doesn’t stop moving. It rises up from somewhere deeper within us than everyday consciousness, it may pick up some of the I on the way, but it’s headed out and it doesn’t look back.

It’s a service. We have been waiting, as a waiter waits in a restaurant until a patron needs water or their food, and when it’s ready, we bring it to them. And while we are serving, our focus is entirely on those whom we serve.

We meet their needs, we answer that of God within them, in our own style, of course. But our job is to feed the sheep, to deliver the bread of life, to offer living water. Not to share an anecdote and the nugget we took away from its experience.

The Purpose of Vocal Ministry

July 2, 2018 § 5 Comments

What is the purpose of vocal ministry? What are we trying to do when we stand up to speak in meeting for worship?

George Fox answered this questions some 350 years ago in a letter that is now famous amongst us for its use of the phrase “that of God in every one”.

This letter was not a doctrinal document. He wasn’t trying to explain how we should believe. It was a pastoral epistle. He was tying to describe how we should behave. In particular, he was addressing those Friends who were speaking in public; he was talking about vocal ministers and their ministry.

In that letter he says, “Ministers of the spirit must minister to the spirit that is transgressed and in prison, which hath been in captivity in every one.” He would soon equate this captive spirit with “that of God in every one”.

A few lines later, he gets into the part most of us are familiar with, though we don’t often hear it in full: “And this is the word of the Lord to you all and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God [invoking the kind of language used by the Hebrew prophets to begin an oracle; see Jeremiah 2:1, Ezekiel 15:1, Hosea 4:1, Amos 3:1, etc.]: be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, nations, islands, wherever you come; that your carriage and life my preach among all sorts of people, and to them. Then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one; whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you. Then to the Lord God you will be a sweet savour and a blessing.” (Journal of George Fox, Nickalls edition, p. 263)

Then we will “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in every one” . . . “Cheerfully” here does not mean in a good mood. Fox is using an older and deeper meaning for cheer that we no longer use: for him, to cheer means to lift up in the spirit, to bring blessings to.

And the “world” over which we will walk (not “the earth”, as we often hear it misquoted) is the “world” of the gospel of John: “That was the true light which lighteth every one who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew (recognized) him not.” (John 1:9–10) “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The world resists the Word. The world is all the forces in the world that resist the truth, resist the gospel, resist inner transformation.

“Then you will walk cheerfully over the world” means, then you will overcome the forces that resist transformation in God’s spirit by answering that of God in every one, by lifting them up, by leading them out into the light, by being a blessing unto them.

Fox is saying that there is a witness of God, a spirit in each of us that is in captivity, and that spirit cries out. It cries out for God, for liberation, for wholeness and fulfillment in the Spirit. And the purpose of ministry, both of word and deed, is to answer that cry. The purpose of vocal ministry is to lead the captive spirit within each of us out of the darkness and into the light.

Covenant Community and God

June 30, 2018 § 3 Comments

In my last post about covenant community (click here to read it), I defined covenant community as a community in which we help each other do our inner work, to become the people the Spirit wants us to be. However, contrary to the quote I offered from Lloyd Lee Wilson*, I think a lot of Friends do, in fact, see meeting rather as a place of shelter from the world than as a spiritual workshop. These Friends aren’t joining because they want help in their spiritual formation. They want community, yes, and a religious identity. And they want support.

But how many of us really want change. Rather, we want a refuge from change, from all the demands for change that beleaguer us. And a lot of us can’t embrace the “vertical” alignment that Wilson feels is essential to covenant community, an intimate relationship, personally and most importantly, collectively, with a God who offers relationship; that is, with Christ.

But can you have covenant community without God (assuming you want it in the first place)? In other words, Is it enough to just have each other?

Think of the question in more familiar terms. We say we conduct our business meetings under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe we just say, the Spirit. But do we really do so? Just what is our faith, our belief, about what we experience when a meeting for business in worship is actually gathered? When suddenly, unexpectedly, even miraculously, our divisions dissolve? When as individuals we find ourselves releasing our own agendas in the swell of a mighty wind of the spirit? When the community sees its way open and clear before it, where once conflict and deep emotions had clouded it?

That Mystery, that Reality, is the anchor of the covenantal community. That is its pole star. That manifestation of Spirit, of God’s wish for us, is, theoretically, available to us, both individually and collectively, in all the other aspects of our personal and community lives. Meeting life as covenant community is the deliberate infusion of that manifestation, that Spirit, into all aspects of the meeting’s life.

The ancient Israelites entered into their covenant with Yahweh because they had collectively experienced the saving and creating power of their God. The disciples of Jesus exulted in the new covenant he offered them because they had experienced the creating power of the Father. The early Friends understood their community to be a new covenant with Christ because they had collectively experienced the unifying and creating power of Christ. Our attenders will seek to enter into the covenant we share when they too experience the gathered meeting for worship.

So a covenant community only exists when the direct experience of the divine exists. We say that this is the hallmark principle of our faith, that we commune directly with God—the Mystery behind our experience—both as individuals and as a community.  We renew the covenant when we gather in worship. We exercise the covenant when we have faith in the promises and faithfully fulfill the responsibilities that define the covenant—that is, when we turn to the Spirit for our collective guidance.

I believe the most important factor in fostering this communion is Friends in the meeting who are mature in the Spirit. Thus spiritual formation of the members is the essential factor in reaping the blessings of the covenant. Thus, becoming a member should be an agreement, an invitation to the meeting on the part of the applicant, to seek help from the meeting with their spiritual formation. And conversely, membership obligates the meeting to answer that of God in its members.

This is a virtuous cycle: A covenantal community nurtures individual spiritual growth. Individual spiritual growth nurtures the gathered meeting, the direct collective communion with God. Direct communion with the Spirit renews the covenant.

Without “God”—without communion, without this alignment toward that Mystery that we sometimes touch in the gathered meeting, without that yearning as impulse and compulsion behind our shared practice, without a shaft that passes power into the community through the hub of the wheel of collective Quaker life along a third dimension, that of the Spirit, the sacred—we just have each other. We just have consensus. We just have group meditation. We just have brainstorming and visioning exercises. We just have a peculiar and quite complicated social nonprofit, however enriching and “effective” it might feel.

But we do have “God”. We do have this mysterious reality. At least some of us do; not everyone has experienced the gathered meeting or met the Spirit in their own inner lives. And that’s what we offer. In theory.

Declaring ourselves a covenant community, acting like a covenant community, means taking responsibility for the faith and the practice that our tradition has built around its experience of this Axis empowering us through the third dimension of spirit, beyond the dimensions of self and community.

And that means turning toward it, personally and collectively, in a life of the Spirit, and bringing those who have not experienced it home to the Light within them and to the Well in our midst.

*  Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, page 71)

The Spirit

June 30, 2018 § 1 Comment

I have been reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and the book really speaks to me. One of the reasons is that he begins with his own personal journey as a religious person, and my story mirrors his quite closely. Also, the “theology” that follows this autobiographical chapter retains this personal feel and is quite accessible. I’m used to reading dense theology and detailed biblical commentary, but it’s refreshing to read something so direct and yet so full of truth.

Borg’s book also builds an elegant bridge between our root Christian tradition and the religious sensibilities that now characterize the liberal Quaker movement. He offers an understanding of God, Jesus, and the religious life (he calls it the Christian life) that I think would appeal to many of us. Not, perhaps, to the dedicated non-theists among us, though his understanding does not require a traditionally theistic faith. The book’s Christian language may be off-putting to some, if they’ve come to experience it as toxic, but the ideas—the ideas speak to me, just as Borg’s personal story does. This book is for those of us who are not willing to jettison the core of the Quaker tradition, as non-theists must, but who still can’t buy the traditional theistic understanding of God that dominated our tradition until the maturing of the modern liberal Quaker movement.

In his initial broad outline of who Borg thinks the pre-Easter Jesus is, the Jesus we can glimpse from the gospels who is still unburdened by what the tradition has subsequently added or reinterpreted, he defines “the Spirit” in a way that I suspect might resonate with many liberal Friends.

First, he describes Jesus as a “spirit person”, “a ‘mediator of the sacred,’ one of those persons in human history to whom the Spirit was an experiential reality.” (p 33) Then, in a note, he talks about “Spirit”:

I use the phrase the Spirit in as generic a sense as possible, and not the specifically Christian sense of the (Holy) Spirit. By the Spirit I mean the sacred, understood as that nonmaterial reality or presence that is experienced in extraordinary moments. Religious traditions name it various ways. In Christian terms, Spirit is synonymous with God, so long as God is understood as an experiential reality and not as a distant being. (p. 42, note 26)

Borg goes on to talk about the implications of such a view for the Christian life: “It shifts the focus of the Christian life from believing in Jesus or believing in God to being in relationship to the same Spirit that Jesus knew.” (p. 39)

God as an experiential reality rather than as a distant being—to me, that is simple and elegant, and, for me, it’s true. My own definition of God for a long time has been the Mystery Reality behind our religious and spiritual experience—whatever that experience is. It’s real; we know it is real because the experience has changed us for the better. But it’s also mysterious. It transcends normal experience, normal consciousness.

And it’s transpersonal—it comes to us from beyond the boundaries of the self. At least it does sometimes, for example, in the gathered meeting, which has a psychic dimension of communion with the other worshippers. That dimension, that medium for the communion between the worshippers, that transcendental, transpersonal sharing of consciousness that takes place in the gathered meeting, is the sacred, the Spirit, for me. It’s not a distant being; it’s an experiential reality.

Many spiritual and religious experiences are solitary experiences, utterly internal and subjective, and so perhaps merely projections of our own inner workings, our subconscious minds, if you will. But we should not say “merely”. For there is nothing “mere” about it. These solitary experiences are also mysterious and real, and for the same reasons that the collective experience of the gathered meeting is real and mysterious. To say that the same Spirit we encounter in the gathered meeting is also that which we experience in these solitary experiences is a statement of faith; or more accurately, it testifies to a feeling of inward—and therefore unverifiable—knowledge.

Finding the Quaker path has integrated these two levels of experience in my life—my personal spiritual experiences, many of which have taken place outside the Quaker tradition, and the shared experience of Quaker community. The Quaker faith has given me a way to understand both in common terms. Quaker faith offers a common framework for meaning between my personal experience and our collective experience. And Quaker practice, especially, of course, the meeting for worship, has given me a way to renew that experience, to return to that dimension where the sacred mystery waits, waiting for me and for us to wash in its baptism again.

Meeting as Covenant Community

June 23, 2018 § 10 Comments

My meeting is reconsidering what it means to be a member and I’ve been working with a committee that is preparing a draft of a new document that lays out the meaning of membership for newcomers and people considering membership.

The old document presents membership in terms of “covenant community”, which works very well for me. I seek a covenant community in my membership and I have thought about membership as covenant for a while. I want to dedicate a couple of posts to my thoughts on this subject. I want to do several things:

  • First, I want to be clear about what “covenant” and “covenant community” mean.
  • Then I want to explore how the truth of this approach to membership prospers in our meetings.
  • And I offer a metaphor for covenant community that seeks to express it in a way that works even for Friends who are post-Christian and not theistic in their spiritual outlook.

What do “covenant” and “covenant community” mean?

For an in-depth discussion of the meaning of covenant community, you can’t do better than the chapter on The Meeting as Covenant Community in Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I hope my readers have access to this wonderful resource. But let me offer my own take on this.

A religious covenant is a set of mutual agreements or promises regarding privileges and responsibilities between individual covenanters and their religious community, with God as the anchoring third party. So, at least in theory and technically speaking, a (religious) covenant has three nodes of relationship, and the relationships are reciprocal. The nodes are the member, the community, and God.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson puts it, this anchoring of the covenant in God is essential and changes the character of the community utterly. This is what makes a covenantal community uniquely valuable. To quote him:

Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (page 71)

The purpose of a covenant community is to provide a home for this transforming work. That means that joining a meeting that is a covenant community invites radical engagement with our spiritual lives on the part of our fellow members, who are to be the vehicles for God’s transforming work. We will discern together what transformation means and how we will go about it. We will work with each other to achieve it. We will be disciples together in a discipline of seeking and living into God’s will for us, in a relationship of mutual engagement with our fellow covenanters. Or, if you will, we will seek to realize our real and higher selves with each other’s help.

This requires a level of attention to each other, in both our outer and inner lives, that goes far beyond what most folks are expecting from their meeting. Many Friends would not see the purpose of religion to be diving into a spiritual crucible or the purpose of a meeting to be managing the crucible’s controls.

Thus I suspect that most liberal Quaker meetings would be at least a little uncomfortable thinking of their meeting as a covenant community. (In fact, I suspect that many meetings wouldn’t even really know what I’m talking about.) And that most meetings couldn’t function as covenant communities, even if the language wasn’t off-putting. Because we’re talking about something that goes much deeper than the words.

Some Friends in my meeting are uncomfortable with those words. And we tend to “honor’ these discomforts by avoiding them, so our little committee feels some pressure to drop the words. But what about the concept or understanding of meeting life as a covenant? Do we keep that understanding and use language to express it that won’t trigger uncomfortable reactions? Or does their discomfort go deeper than just some uncomfortable associations with the words as evocative, perhaps, of a religiosity that now longer works for them? Do they intuitively sense the fire in the crucible, the challenge of change, to both themselves and the community, that embracing transformation entails?

This kind of proactive, mutual engagement with each other in our spiritual formation is what I mean by covenant community. It’s something you would only presume to get into with fellow members; not with attenders. That is, you would only get this spiritually intimate with people who had also agreed that that is what they want from their meeting. They, like you, would have bought into the covenant and welcomed the attention by becoming members.

But is that ever what we offer people in our clearness committees for membership?

What about your meeting? Does it use covenant in this way as its understanding of the meaning of membership? If not, could it? Do you?