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?

What is the Religious Society for? — Fellowship

January 1, 2014 § 7 Comments

To celebrate and share our joy in G*d’s work and love.

The Religious Society of Friends has taken its name from Jesus’ discourse on love and obedience in John 14 and 15:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9–17)

One of the things I love most about my meeting (Yardley, Pennsylvania; PhYM) is that we do a pretty good job of living up to this commandment. There have been some difficulties, yes. There inevitably are. What human community has not known conflict? But our love for each other has almost always returned us to a measure of wholeness.

This kind of faithfulness is not just born of sentiment. It takes will.

For Jesus and his listeners, “love” was a “technical” legal term, if you will—a word given its meaning by the covenant between “the Father” and Israel in Jesus’ tradition. It is not so much an emotion as it is an action, an act of will. It is not a sentiment, or a feeling, per se, something that happens between people as a matter of “chemistry” spontaneously, but rather a law, a commandment, something we are ordered to do:

You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

The structure of the book of Deuteronomy and of the covenant laid out in that book are based directly on Assyrian vassal treat formulary. An example exists of such a vassal treaty between the Assyrian king (I don’t remember which one for sure, though what comes to mind is Assurbanipal) and his vassal kings. It has this exact phrase in it, though, of course, the “lord” is the Assyrian king. The book of Deuteronomy was written (or discovered, as it claims) in the shadow of the Assyrian threat to Judah after the Assyrian empire had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah was Assyria’s vassal, paying tribute to buy its peace.

In both Deuteronomy and the Assyrian vassal treaty it has redefined, love and the three terms of the covenant commandment have specific legal meanings.

Love: To “love” means to follow the terms of the covenant assiduously—to follow the law, not just in the “letter” but in the spirit, to follow the covenant with joy, eagerness, and steadfastness.

The heart. We get our anthropology of the body and its parts’ roles in the human condition from the Greeks, for whom the heart was the house of the emotions, and of love, in particular. But the Semitic anthropology of ancient Israel, of Jesus and his listeners, locates human will in the heart; the emotions are in the gut, if I remember correctly. Thus to command love with all one’s heart means, in the covenantal context, to follow the law with all one’s diligence and intention, joyfully and without hesitation or restraint. It means specifically, to study the law—to know it inside out. This is why Luke breaks the traditional triad by adding oddly the fourth term of “all your mind”—he knows that his Greek-speaking readers will think in terms of Greek anthropology and not get that this commandment means study of the gospel.

The soul. Again, we get our concept of the “soul” from the Greeks, who conceived it as something separate from the body and as being poured, if you will, into the body as into a vessel. The soul is spiritual and eternal, while the body is physical and mortal. But for Jesus and his listeners, the soul was inseparable from the body and it encompassed more than just the mortal frame, but all of one’s life. It meant one’s life. “All your soul” meant all aspects of your life, all your energy and activity and everything involved in living in this world—being willing to “lay down one’s life”.

Strength. Originally, in the Assyrian vassal treaty and in Deuteronomy, “strength” meant specifically, military support—being willing to muster the men of fighting age in your mispaha, or family group, the basic fighting unit in ancient Israel, in answer to the call to arms by your lord. In ancient Israel, the “Lord” was Yahweh, of course, and this meant answering a call to help defend one of the tribes of Israel against some aggression. By the time of Deuteronomy, Judah was a nation state with a more or less standing army and so this meant that each tribe had responsibility for providing men and material support at the ready, under command of the king. We see the ancient sacred war process at work quite clearly in the book of Judges, a book assembled by the so-called “Deuteronomic school” of ancient Israel, a group that maintained the worldview we see in Deuteronomy for several centuries after it was written.

By the time at least of the Dead Sea Scrolls (beginning around 160 BCE), and probably from the time of Deuteronomy itself, “strength” meant all your worldly assets, and included specifically, your wealth; that is, the yield of your fields and folds and/or your money. For one of the book of Deuteronomy’s innovations over the covenant defined in Exodus is that, by this time, Israel and Judah had fairly well-developed urban market economies and the book defines cultic responsibilities to the temple in monetary terms, as well as in terms of grain and animals.

Jesus. So when Jesus commands his disciples to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, his listeners heard:

Follow my gospel with all your will and intention and mindful study, with all of your life in all its aspects, and with all the treasure you have in this world.

I doubt that early Friends knew all of this, at least in these terms. Modern biblical scholarship would not be born for another two hundred years. But they obviously intuited it, as they did so often, reaching past the surface to the heart of scripture.

What I’m getting at (and I had not originally intended to pursue this angle in such detail) is that love—divine, or spirit-led love—is something you do, not just something you feel. You follow Jesus’ commandments—you follow the gospel of love—precisely when you don’t want to, when the feelings you have are anger, hate, jealousy, fear, resistance. This is a commandment to stay at the table of fellowship precisely when you least want to.

And if we do, if we are steadfast in our love, “[Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of love and truth. . . .  the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:15–17, 26)

This, I believe, is part of the biblical foundation for the meaning of “Friends” in our name. This is the foundation of our fellowship, and the promise of divine guidance in our work, our meetings for business in worship. The key to both is to worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) and to love one another.

Well—. I had more to say about fellowship in this post, but it’s already really long, so it will have to wait.

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