Archive for the 'Spiritual issues' Category

Answering

One of the most popular phrases in the Quaker grab bag is “answering that of God in everyone”. It dates back to George Fox and the first generation of Friends in the 1650’s. The idea is that wherever we go, we have opportunities to speak to people and listen to their hearts. Whatever our differences, we will find something in common – a spark of God – which is similar to the fire in our own hearts.

Last month I had several experiences of this. The first was when I found a serious leak in one of the drain lines in the basement at the parsonage. Somehow, when the building was being renovated last year, one of the workers must have cut off the line and instead of closing up the cutoff end, just left it and went on to some other task. Every time we took a shower, the water was coming out in a little waterfall down in the crawl space.

I called the plumber and he came the next day. It wasn’t a difficult repair, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I sat on the basement steps and talked with him while he fixed the drain. He knew that I’m a Quaker pastor, and he talked about a conflict which had left him deeply shaken – so much so that while he still believed in God, he could no longer pray or go to his church.

He talked, and I listened. I said a few things which seemed to help. He asked me to pray for him, so we prayed together down in the basement – maybe that’s where the best prayers need to take place. When he left, his heart seemed a lot lighter. I want to call him in a few days and see how he’s doing.

Last Sunday morning, my wife called me just before Sunday School was about to start. She said she thought she saw someone standing under the tree in our back yard. Our neighborhood has a lot of good people in it, but it also has a lot of crime and other bad things, so she didn’t want to check it out herself.

I walked over, and saw a woman huddled down on the ground under our tree. Many of the families in our neighborhood are immigrants from Pakistan, who came here to work in the factories in our area. This woman was dressed in traditional clothing, and she was crying uncontrollably – the kind of wracking, heart-stopping grief that you read about but seldom see.

I walked up slowly, and got down on the ground a few feet away. I didn’t want her to be scared, and most Muslim women in this area are careful not to speak to men. I spoke as gently as I could and said, “My sister, what is the matter? Can I help?”

She shook her head and kept crying. After a minute, she said, “My English not so good. I cannot explain.”

I said, “Is someone ill? Has someone died?”

She sobbed some more and said, “No. It is my oldest son. He. . .it is not good with him. He is smoking.”

I asked, “Is it tobacco? Or something else? Is it drugs?” She nodded hard. Her son, in his 20’s, has started using drugs, and she was heartbroken.

I couldn’t help much because of the language barrier, but I said that God is merciful (one of the shared beliefs in both Christianity and Islam), and perhaps God will help. She clung to that like a life preserver and said, “Pray for me.”

People in our community are often afraid of our Pakistani neighbors, but when I told folks at meeting for worship that morning, they all agreed to pray. Another opportunity, another opening.

After meeting was over, I went out to see if she was still there, and she had gone. But two people came strolling out of the meeting cemetery, looking around with interest. I walked up to them and introduced myself. One was a middle-aged African-American woman who said she lived just down the street, and the other was a friend of hers from Connecticut who was visiting. They had seen the old buildings and wanted to know what went on here.

I gave them the two-minute elevator speech about Friends that I’ve given so many times, and they asked more questions. I offered to give them a tour of the meetinghouse, and they were excited – neither of them had ever been in a Quaker place of worship. They asked more and more questions – about the Underground Railroad, about women’s rights, about discernment and Quaker migrations and peace and quiet prayer. Not bad for a casual encounter.

One way for Friends to grow again is for us to be more open to the opportunities to reach out and listen, to be ready and willing to pray, to have prepared ourselves with basic information for people who want to know about us, to share the love of God on a simple human level.

As George put it so well, so many years ago:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

P.S. – the plumber never sent me a bill.

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Looking backward

Years ago, I was hosting a fellow Quaker pastor from Kenya for a week. He was here in the U.S. to study, and while he was on fall break he wanted to visit a local meeting. We drove around to see the sights in our area, and stopped at an historic Quaker meetinghouse in the upper Hudson valley.

The meetinghouse was closed, but we peered in the window and walked round the cemetery, which dated back to the late 1700’s. My friend from Kenya was very impressed, and asked how many members the meeting had. I told him about 25.

He thought a minute, and then in a half-joking/half-serious voice he said, “This is the problem with Quakers here in the United States. Too many of your members are under the ground, and not enough of them are above the ground!”

We laughed and moved on, but he had a real point. Quakers have a rich, fascinating and prophetic past – but on the whole we are not very actively involved with our future. We are the heirs and custodians of an enormous heritage of Quaker literature, buildings, spiritual struggle and historic witness, but we are investing less and less in the needs and interests of the next generation or even in the generation around us.

Too many of our meetings are weighed down with the financial care and historic responsibility for older meetinghouses, which we love but which are often the wrong size or the wrong configuration for our needs.

As an example, a Quaker meeting I knew in Indiana spent years maintaining an enormous meetinghouse which was capable of holding over 1,000 people, when their regular Sunday worship attendance was close to 100. The problem solved itself eventually when the city building inspector discovered that a roof leak had caused the wooden beams spanning the worship room to rot. It was the last straw – fixing the roof would have cost well over $250,000.

Even then, the meeting wrestled for quite a while before deciding to let the old historic building go. They tore it down, sold the land, and worked together to build a much better building with room for growth but much more appropriate for their needs.

I’ve known dozens of meetings which insist on keeping their “historic” Quaker benches for worship, even though everyone in the meeting acknowledges how uncomfortable they are. And I’ve known even more meetings which keep their benches bolted firmly to the floor in configurations which may have fit worship in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but which don’t fit the way a younger generation would like to sit and worship together today.

One of my first moves at any new meeting I go to is to clear out as much junk as possible. At Adirondack Friends, I found a 15′ x 15′ room stacked right to the ceiling with generations of broken furniture, worn-out toys, discarded curriculum materials and office equipment that didn’t work. At West Richmond Friends, more than half of the books in the meeting library hadn’t been taken out and read since the Eisenhower administration – I recruited two new librarians and we threw them out mercilessly. Here at Springfield Friends, I took more than 60 boxes of old bills, check registers, receipts, committee minutes and other useless paper to be shredded. Not once has anyone ever wished that we had kept any of this stuff. It’s one thing to guard the treasures of the past, and it’s another thing to be a pack rat. Hoarding is a disease, and Quakers are all too vulnerable to it.

Just as stifling as the outward, physical baggage and historic refuse we so lovingly maintain is the inward, spiritual and mental junk we cling to. There’s an old bittersweet joke that the Seven Last Words of the Church are, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.” Are we afraid to try new ideas, experiment with new approaches, or strike out in new directions? Those “early Friends” who we admire so much were much more willing than we are to try something new.

One of the situations which makes me weep is when Friends divide and cast each other out rather than listen to each others’ point of view, and agree to work and worship together (a frequent subject of posts here on this blog.) But another situation which raises my blood pressure is that when Friends have divided our old yearly meetings, we rush to re-create the same structures which were already falling down of their own weight. I’ve personally seen this as Indiana Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting divided, and I’m sure it’s happened in other places as well.

I think there must be dent marks on the pew from banging my head, as well-meaning Friends have insisted that we have the same committees, the same Faith and Practice which almost no one ever read before, the same appointments to the same Quaker organizations, the same funding patterns, and worst of all, the same kind of energy-draining, inconclusive agenda when we meet together. There are times when I’m just about ready to give up on Quakers altogether, but I keep hoping we’ll change. (Or is that the definition of “insanity” that I read about somewhere else?)

At a recent meeting “to plan for our future” I looked round the room. Out of roughly 60 people present, I guessed that only 2 were under the age of 50, and at least a third were in their 80’s. This is a situation I’ve seen many times before in Quaker yearly meetings, organizations and boards of various kinds. Do the math: groups like this are looking at a very limited life span. All too often, they are preoccupied with preserving the way they’ve always done things before, and they’re not asking the younger generation of Friends what concerns and experiences they are bringing to the table.

I love Friends, and I love Quaker history. I publish books and write articles and give public lectures and workshops about our past — but I only do that in my spare time. I think there ought to be a limit – maybe Quaker meetings could only spend, say, 10% of their time and energy on our glorious history, and maybe we could only use the phrase “early Friends” about once every other year. Maybe we could use about 60% of our time and energy on worship and on concerns related to the present – a lot of Quaker meetings don’t even do that. And maybe we could invest the remaining 30% of our time and energy inviting new people into our meetings, listening without interruption to their stories, asking where the Holy Spirit is leading them, and walking into the future together.

 

 

Will the real Quakers please stand up?

It used to be fairly easy to tell people who the Quakers are. Quakers were born in the English Reformation. We got started in the 1650’s, and a lot of Quakers moved to the American colonies, and we’re all descended one way or another from these first Friends.

As history, that’s still true, but it doesn’t really tell about the bewildering variety we find among the many branches of the Quaker family.

Another way to tell people who the Quakers are is to say, there are the unprogrammed Friends (the ones who worship in silence) and everybody else. If you ask an unprogrammed Quaker, that’s still the way they tend to see it. Unprogrammed Friends are the ones who don’t have pastors, don’t have a creed, and don’t have a pre-arranged form of worship. Quite a lot of unprogrammed Friends feel pretty strongly that they are the only REAL Quakers, and that all of those “other” Friends don’t really count – even though those “other” Friends make up the overwhelming majority of the Quaker family worldwide.

For a long time, it was convenient to divvy up Quakers according to which umbrella organization they belonged to. In North America, unprogrammed Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends General Conference. Mainstream Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends United Meeting. And more evangelically-minded Friends (mostly) belonged to Evangelical Friends International.

That neat division ignored quite a few independent and unaffiliated meetings, as well as the small but spiritually very strong groups of Conservative Friends. It also ignored the fact that some yearly meetings (New York, New England, and Baltimore) belong to both FUM and FGC.

But in the last 10 years, the Quaker landscape here in the U.S. has been changing. Three of the powerhouse FUM yearly meetings – Western, Indiana and most recently North Carolina – have undergone serious divisions, which have drastically reduced their membership and destroyed yearly meeting ministries which had lasted for 100 years or more. These yearly meetings have been greatly weakened, and it may take generations for Friends in these areas to rebuild.

One of the major wedge issues has been support for (or opposition to) full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our meetings – as members and attenders, as leaders, as families, and as couples who can be married under our care. Many of the recent divisions among Friends have been sparked by this issue, which is not unique to Friends – it’s also being played out in nearly every mainstream denomination in the country.

A lot of unprogrammed Friends tend to be pretty self-righteous about gay and lesbian issues, conveniently forgetting how much controversy their meetings lived through during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. My own personal observation is among most Friends under the age of 40, of nearly every branch of Friends, it’s a non-issue – polls show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. think that gay and lesbian people should enjoy the same rights as all the rest of us. In 20 years, this may be a non-issue for nearly all Friends in North America.

Another way to divide us up is into “Christ-centered” and “universalist” Friends. It’s pretty hard to dismiss this division, which many Friends feel goes to the core of who we are. I’ve heard and read dozens of presentations and books by Quakers who are passionately convinced that George Fox and the early Friends were unquestionably Christian, and by others who see the Quaker movement as having been universalist from its very beginnings.

The more excited Quakers get about this, the more ready we are to excommunicate one another and write each other out of the book. The lines have been dug very deeply into the landscape, and especially for evangelical Friends there can be no compromise whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum, I have often encountered a lot of smug superiority among universalist Friends, who feel that they are not only right, but that in a few generations (if there are any Quakers left) history will judge that only they were correct. I find it pretty irritating, and perversely intolerant for a group which usually claims tolerance as one of their main beliefs.

I’m a Christian – or at least I try to be – and a Quaker pastor, which some Quakers see as a contradiction of their understanding of Friends’ beliefs. Probably 80% of my messages on Sunday are drawn from the gospels, and I see Jesus as my Savior. But there are all kinds of people out there, and I see Quakers as a big tent which welcomes all kinds of folks. I’m not inclined to close people out.

I’ve been a minister in yearly meetings which were predominantly liberal (New York and New England) as well as yearly meetings which are theologically more conservative (Indiana and North Carolina). I haven’t changed my own beliefs that much, and I’ve managed to reach people and speak to their hearts and minds everywhere I’ve been.

Outside the hothouse of universalist Quaker workshops, the majority of Friends worldwide identify themselves as Christians. Particularly among East African and Latin American Friends, who outnumber North American Friends of all persuasions by nearly 3 to 1, there is little or no question on whether Quakers are Christians.

Here in North America, Quakers are overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class. We talk a good game about diversity, but the reality is – well, not so much. I don’t think that this means that Quakers are bad people, but we tend to clump together with people who are like us. People argue about how intentional this is. But North American Friends have never really had a sustained, effective outreach to people in our own country who weren’t already pretty close to us.

Quakers are somewhat diverse, but we don’t really handle diversity very well. It makes us nervous the moment we encounter Quaker who really don’t think the way we do. Quakers talk a lot about unity, but the record shows that we have a sorry history of division over the last 200 years.

I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see Quakers give up drawing lines in sand and pretending that they can lock the doors of Heaven against people who disagree with them. I’d like to see us defined both by our deep faith and by our genuine welcome to people who may have taken a different journey to arrive where they are. I’d like to see our meetings reflect more of the racial and social diversity of our society. And I’d like Quakers to laugh more and divide less. For me, that would be a lot more fun than where we are right now.

 

The wars over Faith and Practice

Many of the battles among Quakers in the last 20 years have centered around Faith and Practice – what it means, how it’s interpreted, and who controls it. Bitter arguments, guerilla wars and last-ditch holding actions have been fought over who will win and who will lose if changes are approved.

First, a little background: many yearly meetings still use the “uniform” Faith and Practice which was created by Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) early in the 20th century as a way to build unity among Friends. Iowa, Western, Indiana, Wilmington and North Carolina Yearly Meetings all use very similar material, with very little difference in wording.

Baltimore and New England Yearly Meetings created their own books of Faith and Practice. New York Yearly Meeting uses some language from the “uniform” version for the business side, but adds some of their own material on the history and spiritual experience of Friends.

Contention often centers around the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887, and George Fox’s letter to the governor of Barbadoes, written in 1671, both of which were included in the “uniform” version. These are filled with Bible citations covering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the creation and fall, justification and sanctification, the resurrection and the last judgment, baptism, communion, worship, religious liberty, marriage, peace, oaths and the Sabbath. For evangelical Friends, these two documents are an essential part of Faith and Practice. In particular, the section on the Bible in the Richmond Declaration is key:

“It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other (outward) authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name’ (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized records which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under professions of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and counted a mere delusion.”

For these Friends, this is simply the last word on the subject. However, they often ignore the fact that Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, Quakers are quick to recognize that we differed from other Christians on whether slavery was acceptable (because it’s accepted in many parts of the Bible) or whether slavery was an evil which must be resisted and fought against.

Are all sections of the Bible equally binding and valid today? If something was forbidden thousands of years ago, is it still forbidden now? It’s easy to come up with examples and exceptions. People tend to choose the texts which support their position, and often use those texts to browbeat and try to get rid of people who interpret the Bible differently – even if both sides claim to love the Bible.

When Friends in Indiana split several years ago, Friends fought over the section on “subordination”, which evangelical Friends argued gave them the authority to eject the more liberal monthly meetings. The actual language from Faith and Practice is worth reading:

“Subordination as used in this Faith & Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends “submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ.

Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership.”

As far as evangelical Friends were concerned, the liberal meetings were in rebellion and refusing to submit to their authority, and therefore they were justified in tossing the liberals out. Very few Friends, however, seem to have read the sentences immediately following:

“Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2015 edition, p. 96)

Those two paragraphs are intended to balance each other – the authority of the larger group balanced against the prophetic witness of monthly meetings.

During the division currently taking place in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, both sides say they want to keep using the 2012 edition of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I re-read it last week, and I wonder if Friends on either side have read the opening words of the book:

“Human understanding is always subject to growth. This basic principle also underlies the development of the organizations and institutions through which the spirit of Christianity is made operative in life. While fundamental principles are eternal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times. God, who spoke through the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, still speaks through men and women who have become new creatures in Christ, being transformed by the renewing of their minds and, therefore, able and willing to receive fresh revelations of truth.

Frequently, however, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’ and may misinterpret or make incorrect applications. Therefore, as the stream of life flows on, bringing new conceptions, insights, and situations, it is necessary to strive constantly for a clearer comprehension of divine truth that will enter vitally into personal experience and become a creative factor for the redemption of human character and the remolding of society on the Christian pattern. “A religion based on truth must be progressive. Truth being so much greater than our conception of it, we should ever be making fresh discoveries.” [North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 9 – quote at the end is noted as being from London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1960)]

Note that these two opening paragraphs are only found in the North Carolina and Wilmington versions of Faith and Practice, and are not included in the version used by most other yearly meetings.

At different times and in different yearly meetings, Quakers have fought to keep Faith and Practice “just the way it is”. Soon after Indiana split, though, a new section was added:

SECTION 90. PROHIBITION OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Friends have traditionally held marriage to be a matter for which the whole meeting shares in oversight and responsibility. It is recognized that pastors are authorized by the state to solemnize marriages and are often authorized by the Monthly Meeting to officiate.

Given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position describing the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, no Indiana Yearly Meeting Monthly is authorized to give oversight to same-sex ceremonies under its care, and no Indiana Yearly Meeting minister is authorized to officiate any same-sex ceremony. Ministers in Indiana Yearly Meeting are responsible to adhere to the agreed standards for marriage. Failure to do so, by officiating a same-sex union, will be understood as grounds for dismissal from a ministry position and/or rescission of status as a recorded minister. Monthly Meetings providing for same-sex ceremonies under the care of their meeting will be subject to discipline from Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Now that Friends in North Carolina are in the process of dividing, the more evangelical group are also calling for an immediate revision to Faith and Practice. This new section has been proposed:

“The Yearly Meeting has power to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate Meetings, to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”

For liberal and progressive Friends, or for those who simply cherish spiritual freedom, the issue isn’t whether they’re Christian or not. Overwhelmingly, they identify themselves as Christian. They love and follow Jesus. They value the Bible and seek guidance from it. The Bible speaks loudly and clearly to them on a wide variety of issues.

But they disagree with evangelical Friends on some other issues, and they’re not willing to let evangelical Friends dictate to them. I saw the entire conflict in a nutshell last week at Representative Body, when a frustrated evangelical leader asked, “Why do you want to belong if you don’t accept our discipline?”

In nearly every yearly meeting, Faith and Practice isn’t set up to handle the situation when Quakers disagree strongly with one another. Time after time, in yearly meetings around the U.S., conflict and frustration have arisen because:

  1. a yearly meeting is unable to make a decision or move ahead when Friends are not in unity. We suffer from an inability to “agree to disagree,” especially in changing times.
  2. a yearly is unwilling to take back (rescind) the recording of ministers for teaching or writing ideas which other Friends dislike. There is a mechanism for rescinding, but most yearly meetings have not been able to unite on doing so. In other cases, a yearly meeting has been unwilling to discipline leaders or meetings for celebrating physical sacraments.
  3. there is no mechanism or acceptable precedent for laying down or expelling an entire monthly meeting because of perceived disagreement over issue of faith or practice; trying to force an expulsion has repeatedly led to division

Quakers treasure unity, and the strength which comes from making united decisions. The wisdom of the group is often greater than the wisdom of any individual. However, we also treasure the spiritual integrity of individuals and the right of people to disagree, and Quaker history is filled with examples of times when an individual or a minority has been right.

How will we survive the conflicts of this generation? Will our young people or will seekers who come to us value our conflicts, or will they turn away and look somewhere else for communities of truth and love?

Church keys

One of the most moving moments in starting work at a new meeting is being given the keys to the meetinghouse. It’s a symbol of trust, of having arrived, of being one of the meeting leaders.

Many years ago I attended an unprogrammed Friends meeting in a rural area. Seven miles out in the country. After I’d been coming for about a year, I was asked to come early each Sunday and unlock the meetinghouse and turn on the heat. The key was kept at the neighbor’s house about 200 yards away. It hung on a nail on the door leading from the garage into the kitchen, and anyone who needed to get into the meetinghouse knew where to find it.

When I came here to North Carolina, I acquired a new set of keys – one to the meetinghouse door, and one to the office. That’s plenty for me – I hate carrying around a heavy, bulky key ring. But over the next few months, I found out that different people in the meeting had other keys that I didn’t have – a key to the back door, a key to the kitchen door, and so on.

There was a moment of panic in January when the fuel oil for the meetinghouse ran out, and nobody knew where the key to the oil tank was. We could get more oil delivered – but without the key, we couldn’t put it in the tank! I finally called the former handyman, who told me where it was hidden in the boiler room in the basement.

I kept finding places for which I didn’t have the key, and no one could tell me where to find one. In the office there were three large key rings with dozens of unmarked keys – probably over half for locks which don’t exist any more.

So I spent an hour going round the meetinghouse with the key collection. As I discovered a key that worked, I tagged it with one of those round metal-rimmed tags and a Sharpie marker.

A couple of people in the meeting thought it was a mistake to put tags on the keys. “What if someone broke into the office? They’d take the keys and be able to get in anywhere?” These folks would rather have an anonymous collection of keys, and be able to choose the right well-worn key from memory – even if it means that the new pastor can’t find anything!

It made me think that there must be many other “keys” in the meeting – not just physical keys, but ways to open people’s hearts and memories, their longings and fears and dreams. Just because I’ve got the key to the meetinghouse doesn’t mean I can get in anywhere I want.

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right phrase, the right prayer, code or password. I’ve had to wait and listen to people for a while before they let me into what they’re really thinking or feeling.

A key is a complicated thing – a carefully shaped piece of metal, with a unique pattern of ridges and grooves which lets it move the invisible pieces inside the lock and free it to turn and open the door. Compared to the size of the door, or the whole building, a key is a tiny thing – but if it’s lost or missing, a whole church can be kept waiting outside till it’s found.

Sometimes a physical key can unlock a door into a chapter in the meeting’s past – no one knew where the key was to a large room which was used for many years for a school aftercare program. The program was laid down at least 10 years ago, but it’s still an important memory for many people who came to this meeting because of it. Now that I’ve found the key again, maybe we could re-purpose the room for a new ministry that will help bring life here again.

In some churches, the key is a symbol of power and control – the person who has it doesn’t want anyone to come in, or to have access to whatever they’re fiercely protecting. Fortunately, the meeting where I am now doesn’t have many locked areas.

I expect to keep finding more church keys – ones which open my understanding of the budget, unlock the hurts in an extended family, or open the doorway to all kinds of gifts and ministries. One key doesn’t work in every situation, and sometimes I have to call in a locksmith.

What are the keys to your meeting?

 


P.S. – just as an historical and cultural note, when I was growing up in Vermont, a “church key” meant something else entirely. It was an item at the bottom of the fishing tackle box which came in handy on a hot day. This meaning has gone out of common use since the invention of pop-tab cans.

can opener

 

Pastoral calls

Hi, all – I’m back from vacation, during which I did my best to put aside my work and not to think any Quaker thoughts at all!

In my last post, I said that one reason that I’m a Quaker pastor is that I love visiting people. In a typical month, I make between 30 to 50 calls and visits.

Many people today don’t seem to know what to expect in a “pastoral call”. In the old days, a visit from the minister meant cleaning the house from top to bottom, everyone scrubbed and on their best behavior, the family Bible dusted and on prominent display in the parlor. Those days of artificial formality are past!

Folks in our meeting are pretty busy, and I make lot of “quick visits” by e-mail or phone. I also get dozens of messages every day from people who want to share news, ask questions or ideas. People often pull me aside for a moment during coffee hour, but those conversations are usually interrupted and always short.

Even in today’s high-tech world, many people prefer a face-to-face visit rather than a phone conversation or e-mail. I hold regular office hours 4 mornings a week for people to drop in at the meeting office. Office hours are “interruptable time” when I can set aside whatever I’m doing and spend time listening.

Visits take place in homes or hospitals, but can also be at work or at a coffee shop. Several times a month, I run into people from our meeting in the grocery store. We block the aisle and catch up on things for 10 or 15 minutes. Not everyone likes to sit down in a chair and open up – some people talk more easily when we’re out on a walk, or working together on some manual task.

Sometimes people want to talk about an illness or personal problem, but often folks just want me to get to know them better. I’ve started thousands of conversations by asking people to tell me about the photos they keep on the mantel or by their bedside.

If we talk about important personal issues in a pastoral conversation, people can expect complete confidentiality. One of the most important ministries we can offer is simply listening – providing a safe place to share doubts, difficult situations and deep questions.

People talk about every subject under the sun – parenting problems, whether to sign a living will, whether pets go to Heaven, questions about a book they’ve read or a message they heard in worship. Sometimes a pastoral conversation is a kind of mini clearness committee, other times it’s a celebration of life. People share journals, recipes, meaningful mementoes, crafts they’ve done, job applications they’re working on. We talk about divorce, illness, career changes, aging parents and moral crises as well as vacations and grandchildren.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is simply be there – in an emergency room, or in a surgery waiting room, or in the long hours sitting by the bed when someone is dying. Holding someone’s hand can be the most important kind of ministry there is.

When I come calling, I never ask for money. In fact, I don’t know how much anyone gives to the meeting, unless they choose to tell me. That’s the treasurer’s job, not the pastor’s. I may use a visit to share some news, invite people to participate in a meeting-related activity, or talk about an opportunity for ministry.

In the old days, the pastor was expected to pray at every visit. I’m always glad to pray with people, but I don’t like to be pushy – prayer isn’t something to be embarrassed about, but it is very personal. Some people in our meeting like to have quiet prayer time together. Out of the quiet, it may be easier to share what they’ve been thinking about.

As Friends consider new patterns of ministry for the 21st century – new forms of worship, new spiritual communities, new ways to organize – I hope that we’ll remember that direct, person-to-person care is one of the most important ministries of all.

Dealing with silence

Quakers are world-famous for our love of quiet worship. Nearly every article or online source you’ll find refers to our long history of worshiping in silence.

I never read the articles and books before I became a Friend. I stumbled into Quaker worship when my college room mate invited me to visit Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. My first-year room mate was an inveterate explorer of different religious traditions – he was into every kind of spirituality and mystical experience he could find. He’d been to an unprogrammed meeting the week before and asked me to come and keep him company.

For me, Quaker meeting was like coming home to a place I’d never known was home before. I fit effortlessly into the silence, as though I was putting on a well-worn, comfortable shoe. I was surprised when the hour was over and everyone started shaking hands.

When I started looking through the books in the meeting library, I found this quotation from Robert Barclay:

“. . .when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart. . .” (Apology, XI, Section 7)

For almost 10 years I attended and was a member of unprogrammed Friends meetings. I went to Earlham School of Religion for 3 years because I had questions I wanted answered, books I wanted to read, and skills I wanted to learn.

But like most unprogrammed Friends, I had no idea that there was another branch of the Quaker family – or that those “other” Friends actually made up the majority of the Quaker world.

I wound up being a Quaker pastor – something I never imagined doing – more because of my love for visiting and helping people than because I wanted to preach. I also felt that most unprogrammed meetings neglect the rich tradition of Scripture, do a pretty poor job of sharing their story, and tend not to have very good educational programming.

I also found out that not everyone likes extended periods of quiet worship. I still find that surprising – quiet prayer feeds my heart so deeply, and I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging. But not everyone is built that way.

This week, a friend sent me an article about an experiment that many people would literally rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in silence. (NOTE: the point of the study is actually that many men would rather jolt themselves than sit quietly – women apparently have more tolerance for silence.)

West Richmond Friends, the meeting where I work and worship, is a “crossroads” meeting – we have folks from both the programmed and unprogrammed branches of the Quaker family, as well as refugees from other traditions and people with no previous religious background. We usually have 2 or 3 hymns, a children’s message, a Scripture reading, a very short sermon, and 15-25 minutes of quiet, called “open worship” in our meeting.

In an effort to keep everyone satisfied, we also have a full hour of unprogrammed worship several times a year (usually on the last Sunday of any month when there are 5 Sundays).

It’s clear that some people in our meeting deal with silence more easily than others. Even on a “normal” Sunday, some Friends start to squirm and wiggle after only 5 minutes of quiet, and looks of glazed-eye, near-death boredom set in after 10 or 15 minutes (I’m usually on the facing bench and can observe these things). Other people in the meeting tell me they’re “just starting to settle in” after 20 minutes, and complain if anything cuts into or shortens the “open worship” time.

In my 30+ years of work as a Quaker pastor, the most consistent and persistent issue which comes up in committees, evaluations, and surveys is this tension between Friends who love and value the silence, and Friends who are completely satisfied with 50%-90% less quiet time. (At West Richmond, our attendance typically drops about 40% on completely unprogrammed Sundays.)

This isn’t just an issue for programmed and semi-programmed meetings. When I worked in New York Yearly Meeting, and a Friend there once told me that he had attended his unprogrammed meeting faithfully for more than 40 years without having any kind of “spiritual experience” like the ones his fellow worshipers described. He told me that he came to Friends, and stayed with Friends, because he deeply appreciated Quakers’ stance on various social and political issues, which gave him an outlet for the kind of witness and action which was the center of his life.

I don’t know how to deal with this difference. Whatever winds your watch, I guess. Whatever floats your boat. For me, silent prayer is great, and I can never get enough of it. (When I go on retreat, I often spend several days with the Trappist monks, who have been practicing silent prayer for the last 1,000 years or so.)

Other Quakers (not all of them programmed Friends) seem to have a much lower appetite for silence. An earlier generation called them “fast Friends” because they were ready to end the quiet time much more quickly. I don’t think they’re wrong, or unspiritual. I don’t think it’s a matter of education, or acclimatization, or appreciation for silence. These Friends are equally wonderful, love God, and are devoted to serving their fellow human beings. They’re not “second class Quakers” in any sense.

A large part of my ministry has been spent building bridges between Friends who want more quiet worship, and Friends who are happy with much less. I feel at home and at ease in both groups, and I’m sensitive to the different theologies which each group tends to hold dear, which flow from their different ways of worship.

I’m still convinced that we belong to each other as Friends, that it’s not just our name and our common roots which keep us together. I wish we could stop hacking at each other, denying each other, and anathematizing each other, and simply realize that not everyone is the same – but that God calls us together, even though we’re different.

What do you think?


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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