Monday, March 31, 2008

Questioning God

We’re getting ready for our monthly case study at work. That’s where one of us presents an in-depth look at one of the congregations we’ve been working with and drill down deeply into it so we can learn what we’re doing and grow our ability to work well with congregations. As part of the getting ready, we’ve been reading “The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation, and Action.”

The article is a little more exciting than it sounds – but then I guess it would have to be. I did find myself thinking about my recent blog on “To Be or Not to Be – Together In God.” In it I posited that it might be a good idea for faith groups to stop and ask questions – the prime among them being “What is God calling us to do and be in this place at this time with this people?” In “The Art of Powerful Questions,” the author say that compelling questions

  • meet people where there is the most energy and relevance for them
  • are simple clear and penetrating
  • involve people’s values, hopes and ideals
  • and shift from a fix-it focus to a possibility focus

As I reflected on those ideas, I found myself saying, “Yes” in relation to gathering people of faith and asking that “What is God…” question framed in such a way that it does the above four things. I think that would lead, as we open ourselves to the Spirit, to a new way of being the people of God in a specific locale.

That doesn’t mean such a conversation would be easy. Good answers to good questions rarely are easy (except for when I asked Nancy to marry me over nineteen years ago – I found the question easy, she thought it was a good question, and I though her answer was equally fine). But I do think that the asking, with the guidance of God’s spirit would take any congregation to a new place of discovery about God’s will and would open up the idea of possibilities rather than fixing what’s wrong. Perhaps we would learn, to our surprise, that we are doing what God wants and nothing needs to change. I think it’s more likely though that we’d find ourselves and our fellow worshippers called to step out in faith in new directions and to do some new things. What they might be, I can’t imagine – but God can.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Faster than a speeding Bible -- Superheroes and Faith

I was checking out Ship of Fools (the e-zine of "Christian Unrest") early today. One of their pieces noted a site that catalogs the religious preferences of comic book heroes. “This section of the site catalogues the religious affiliation of hundreds of superheroes, their archenemies and sidekicks.” Well, I was a kid who read lots of comics and attended church as a kid – so I thought I’d check out who was what in the religious super-hero world (or is that super-hero religious world).

I was a bit surprised to learn that Superman was a Methodist. Part of the surprise comes from him being drawn by a couple of Jewish guys. Another part comes from trying to get my head around a true Methodist being a super-hero – “faster than a Wesley hymn, more powerful than the General Board of Discipleship?”

Batman turns out to be a lapsed Episcopalian. That doesn’t surprise me. The BatCave with all its secrets reminds me of a “smells and bells” congregation gone amok. And Bruce Wayne/Batman is always showing up at various society affairs – definitely not Pentecostal.

I was disappointed to discover than Blackhawk (the Polish freedom fighting flyer) who led an ecumenical band of pilots, was a lapsed Catholic. Disappointed in the lapsed part, that is. His fighting fit perfectly with Catholic just war theory in my thinking.

It seems that just about every faith tradition represented in America – United Church of Christ, Baha’i, Hindu, Presbyterian, et al – has at least one superhero affiliated with them. Even the Seventh Day Adventists. Every faith tradition, except, and you may see this coming… Quakers.

Now there is a list of possible Quakers, but I’m not buying it. These all were lumped under the category “Legion of Quaker and/or Radical Pacifist Super-Heroes.” Well, as anyone who knows Quakers (at least Midwest Quakers) will tell you, there’s a big difference between “Quaker” and/or “Radical Pacifist” – except, as my son-in-law Mark will tell you, when it comes to Nancy and me.

Indeed, the only true (sorta) Quaker on this list is Richard Nixon. And he, even on this list, was hardly a superhero. His appearance is due to Robert Smigel and Adam McKay’s X-PRESIDENTS, which originally appeared as animated “TV Funhouse” segments of NBC’s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE! This parody comic featured a resurrected Richard M. Nixon (the real Nixon being dead at the time). The “sorta” comes in because, 1) he was dead, and 2) Nixon also attended a Presbyterian church in California, so I’m willing to cede him to the Calvinists and the whole concept of total depravity.

The closest we’ve come to having a superhero was in the late 80s when Quaker Oats launched a campaign featuring Popeye the Quaker Man. “Instant Quaker Oats Presents the Fight of the Century: Popeye the Quaker Man vs. Bluto the Bad!”, a pamphlet of cartoons, was one of their ads. The campaign was withdrawn after a flurry of mail from outraged “radical pacifist” Quaker. ;-) You know what they say, “Hell hath no fury like a pacifist scorned.”

So, here we are in the 21st century, and still no Quaker comic book hero. It’s enough to drive a person take a swig of Old Quaker Whiskey – which did exist.

-- Brent

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Good Friday Prayer-Poem: A Quiet Roar


he lays his left hand along the beam
hand that moulded clay into fluttering birds
hand that cupped wild flowers to learn their peace
hand that stroked the bee’s soft back and touched death’s sting

he stretches his right hand across the grain
hand that blessed a dead corpse quick
hand that smeared blind spittle into sight
hand that burgeoned bread, smoothed down the rumpled sea


he stands laborious
sagging, split,homo erectus, poor bare forked thing
hung on nails like a picture

he is not beautiful
blood sweats from him in rain

far off where we are lost, desert dry
thunder begins its quiet roar
the first drops startle us alive
the cloud no bigger
than a man’s hand

Veronica Zundel - taken from The Lion Christian Poetry Collection

To Be Or Not to Be -- Together in God

“To be or not to be?” That was the question the Friends in Fellowship worship sharing group pondered last Sunday evening. The group started meeting at Ploughshares Farm in July 2007 and the time seemed right to worshipfully consider together whether we should continue or not. We spent almost two hours in silence and deep speaking and listening and, in the end, discerned that we felt led to continue as a group. We also determined that we were open to new folks joining as they felt led and for any of us to leave if so led.

The conversation was deep and heartfelt. We entered it without any preconceptions as a group of what the outcome would be. But this post is less about what we did, than it is about a thought that occurred to me toward the end of the evening and has continued to stay with me since then. And that thought is, what would it be like for every worshiping group to set aside time to ask “Should we be or not be?” What would it be like to face, as a people of faith, to come together and seek God’s guidance about whether to continue meeting or not. Continue programs or not. Keep the building or not?

By that I don’t mean the governing council meeting and wrestling with this so as to fill out a report to the denominational office. Or to fulfill some requirement in a book of discipline. But rather to engage the congregation as a whole in a sort of holy wrestling with purpose and mission. And not at a set time of year (“Oh, it’s time for that meeting again!”), but rather because the members and attenders are spiritually sensitive folks and understand that following God’s direction is the most important work they can do – more important than how many people show up for worship, what programs are offered, are the financial needs being met, etc.

I am certain there are some worship groups who do this kind of discernment, but by and large most congregations seem to meander on their busy way. They’re so busy doing that which folks felt God had called them to years or generations ago that they rarely stop and ask, “What’s God want us to be doing – as a whole – now?” They may ask about adding this program or dropping that service – but what about the larger question – “Does God continue to call us to be together as a community of faith – or is it time for …?” For what can only be discerned as we prayerfully listen to the One who calls, and guides, and leads us to the places we need – not want – to be.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Beautiful Faith and A Night at the Opera

Nancy and I went to the opera last night. It was a first for me -- someone who has always mocked (albeit gently) opera as little more than a country-western song that last three hours and is sung in a foreign language. And "Tosca" sort of fit that criteria -- it was long (2 hours and 49 minutes) and very sad (all the leads die -- "There's blood everywhere," said our docent happily prior to the show). Of course, where it differed was that there was no truck or dog or D-I-V-O-R-C-E, just death and sadness.

What I didn't expect, though, was to be so completely drawn in and mesmerized by "Tosca." It was beautiful -- the sets, the symphony, the singers, the music. Captivating. The time flew by. At each intermission, Nancy and I looked at each other with eyes that said, "Wow." No words were needed. It was amazing. And while I didn't run out and buy season tickets, you can be sure that we'll be back. It was too beautiful an experience not to enjoy again.

Which made me think about faith and attracting people to it. Lots of congregations try lots of things to bring people in the doors. We hear that conservative churches are growing, and so a group of us decides the way to growth is to be more theologically conservative. Or an expert says that "contemporary worship" is attracting new folks -- so we rip out the organ and put in a praise band. Or seeker-sensitive services. Or Saturday night services . Or Cowboy Church (I'm not making this up!). Or... whatever. Lots of congregations try these things and don't see much in the way of results.

What we don't seem to try is making faith beautiful. I've been thinking about that a lot after reading Tony Jone's The New Christians. Especially the passage where he says:

"... why in the world would you think that you can do anything to get people to come to church? Instead, why don't you worry about being faithful -- living out a beautiful Christianity -- and see what the spirit does in your midst? I think that people will be more attracted to the Spirit than anything you could ever do to "hook" them. (p. 201)

After going to the opera last night, I am more than ever convinced of the wisdom under girding Jones' thinking. My preconceptions of opera were shattered -- but not by rational arguments by leading critics, not by a pledge of rigid adherence to Puccini's original score or staging, and not because they provided an "opera-seeker-sensitive listening experience with cup holders at each seat, watered down content, and sit-com length. No. Instead they simply made it beautiful. And that beauty made me long to experience more. Our souls hunger for beauty where ever they can find it. As Jim Croegaert's song says:

Frost on the window never the same
So many patterns fit in the frame
Captured in motion frozen in flame
And in the patterns is there a Name
Why do we hunger for beauty?
("Why Do We Hunger For Beauty" ©1989 Meadowgreen Music Co./Heart of the Matter Music )

That hunger for beauty is part of who we are -- and what calls us to beauty and to God. Dare we -- conservative, liberal, seeker-sensitive, praise-band oriented, Bible-based, emergent, or whatever, dare to live a beautiful faith and thereby call people to God? Dare we not?

-- Brent

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Exisiting Congregations and Convergence/Emergence

In my most recent blog, I said that the move to convergence/emergence had to start with questions and discernment. I think this is imperative. One reason is that it's a bit different moving an existing congregation to a new place than it is starting a completely new work. Not that either is easy!

Second, I even wonder if an existing congregation can be moved in this direction. The questions about what is God calling us to do in this time at this place with these people? Why has God brought us together? Why are we located geographically where we are? Why do we do what we do with our time together – in worship, study, prayer, fellowship? are hard ones. They call into question, in many people's minds and hearts, the things that have made us who were are as individuals and a community of faith. That includes our current "order" of worship and the way the pews are positioned in the Meetingroom. Perhaps a beloved pastoral type set the current order of worship forty years ago and people remember him fondly and want to honor his memory. Perhaps my mother was on the committee that picked out the new pews and carpet for the meetingroom forty years ago. All of these questions then move beyond just interesting spiritual ones and into the realm of interpersonal and system dynamics.

Third, I also don't think convergence is something that can be grafted onto a current system. Not too long ago people were wrangling over contemporary worship styles or traditional styles. Some compromised by developing "blended worship" -- a mix of chorus and hymns, organs and praise bands. I don't think this generally worked very well (at least that's what I've seen as a consultant). Except for the few places who did it well and carefully, it mostly dissatisfied both groups -- the young and old.

Blending convergence with traditional would be an even worse idea, I think. That's because the two are largely incompatible. Convergence is not just a new layer to be added, it's a whole new way of "being church." That's also why I doubt it could be an "added" service -- "we'll do the traditional service on Sunday mornings and the convergent on Saturday evenings."

Again, these are just my musings and thoughts -- after reflecting on some of the congregations I know and love. I wonder, even knowing all the good hearted people in them, whether they could agree to move in this new direction. Could we really unscrew the pews and dismantle the platform and arrange ourselves in such a way that we could see each other instead of all looking at the pastor and choir and the backs of everybody else's heads? The only way I see this happening is if it is a God thing -- if the community of faith listened and asked and prayed together and came to the sense of the meeting that this was the thing to do. And by community of faith I don't mean the ten people and pastor who attend monthly meeting. I mean everybody.

Another route may be to say, "It's not for us, but we like it for others and so we'll open some of our space to do this new thing." To do a sort of congregational space sharing. Other congregations do this all the time -- I know one building that serves as a synagogue on Friday and Saturday and a church on Sunday. Perhaps this could be a way -- to embrace the doing of a new thing whilst honoring the good work and the needs being met by the congregation's style and manner and ministry now.

These are the sorts of things I believe need to be thought about and wrestled with, all under the work of seeking God's will. Not my will. Not a small group's will. Not even a majority's will. Only what is God's will.

-- Brent

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Still More on Convergence and Emergence and Doing What God Wants

Since I’ve been blogging a bit (okay, a bunch) on the emergent/convergent movement, I guess you can tell that I’ve had something on my mind. And that something is mostly, “What does it mean for Quakers to be the Friends of Jesus in this day?” And I mostly mean that for the programmed tradition since that's the tradition I know best.

The first thing I believe is that the convergent Friends movement is not for everybody or every congregation. There are many fine, vital congregations functioning in our Society as well as society at large. Nor do I think that it is a magic bullet – which probably is a good thing, since we Quakers don’t really care for ammo. The third is that moving this direction, as a congregation or as individuals, is a matter of discernment, of seeking God’s will. The ultimate question is not “What would Jesus do?” but rather the more demanding, “What would Jesus have us do?” That requires carefully discernment work. And before you think this is a plug for my new book Sacred Compass: The Path of Spiritual Discernment, let me assure that it’s not (though it is a really good book!). Rather, it seems to me, to be the starting place because asking what God wants should be the starting point for any spiritual exercise – including the reformation of our life together, also known as Church.

This discernment must be centered in the transformative work of the Holy Spirit – leading, guiding, directing. It will involve lots more listening, I think, than it will doing. It must begin with the questions, “What is God calling us to do in this time at this place with these people?” Why has God brought us together? Why are we located geographically where we are? Why do we do what we do with our time together – in worship, study, prayer, fellowship?

If we take time to answer those questions, which seem to me central to the emergent/convergent movement, we may – I would posit, probably will – find ourselves moving new directions. And asking even more questions that would involve a rethinking of our "order" of worship and maybe even a reorientation of our architecture. What should a Meetingroom look like? Could we -- would we -- dare ask such questions of ourselves? Would we -- could we -- change if called to?

And, I further posit, that very few of the emerging convergent congregations would look alike – either in their worship styles, room configurations, study opportunities, outreach. It would be much more organic – growing from the soil of the community in which they are planted and nurtured and growing in the warmth of God’s love and guidance.

For example, I doubt that any other group would look quite like the Friends in Fellowship group that meets every two weeks at Ploughshares. We gather, usually center in silence, and then engage in an intentional (but unplanned) spiritual conversation around a topic that arises from the hearts and souls of those who are gathered. We have no clerk nor any idea what shape the evening will take – we have committed ourselves to being Spirit-led. We trust that since Christ is our present Teacher, the Spirit will lead our worship. And so we’ve worshipped and talked worshipfully about such things as discernment, peace in a war-wracked world, what is the “right” size for a spiritual community and so much more. When others hear about our group, I’m happy to tell them how we do what we do and say that they are even welcome to come experience it. But I also tell them they must go deeply into the questions above.

One reason I do that is that I’m finally, at geezer-hood, learning to trust – to trust God and God’s faithful people. And so, at the first meeting of the Friends in Fellowship group, Mr. Bill (me) came with his plans – which were promptly scuttled by the people God called together for that meeting. And together we developed our way of being God’s people together. And it was – and still is – good. For us. I don't know -- or particularly care -- whether it would be good for any other group. That's for the group and God to decide.

What the convergent Friends have in common is hearing God's voice calling us to do what Tony Jones’ The New Christians urges us to do -- to live out a beautiful Christianity, be faithful, and then see what the Spirit does in our midst? If that’s at the heart of the emergent/convergent movement for Friends – regardless of whether a particular congregation continues as it is or devolves or evolves into new ways – then God things will happen.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Quakers as the First Emergents

As I noted in a comment posted to my “Convergent, Emergent, Divergent” blog, I'm reading Tony Jones' The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier.

One line from its early section really resonated with me and my feelings about convergence/emergence and Quakers. In telling a story about Lillian Daniel (a UCC pastor friend of mine), Tony writes, "Lillian thought she was joining a movement, but she was joining a bureaucracy. And that bureaucracy tends to quash the passion of the many Christ-centered and enthusiastic persons therein."

As I read farther into the book, I saw some things that made me wonder if Quakers weren’t the original Emergents. When Tony shares some things from Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, Tony relates how the fictional Neo (a former Presbyterian pastor turned Episcopal layman) says:
  • About the Bible – “What if the real issue is not the authority of the text … but rather the authority of God.” This, of course, resonates with what Friends have long held – that we honor and cherish the written words of God in scripture, but God is our ultimate authority. As George Fox said, “’Oh! no; it is not the scriptures;’ and told them it was the Holy Spirit, by which … opinions, religions, and judgments were to be tried; for it [The Holy Spirit] led into all Truth.”

  • About Christianity as the exclusive spiritual truth, Neo says “Look, Dan, I believe Jesus is the Savior, not Christianity.” Again, to quote Fox, “O then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’: and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”

  • And about evangelism – “Stop counting conversions… Instead count conversations, because conversation implies a real relationship, and if we make our goal to establish relationships … I know that conversions will happen.” Friend George Fox said, “Bring all into the worship of God... And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: 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 every one; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

There are many connection points – robust theological thinking, a missional approach, gender equality, social action – as well. Of course, where the similarities break down are that I’m thinking of the early Quakers, not us today. Today, I’m afraid, too many of our congregations (especially the pastoral ones) are too much like one Friend described them, saying we “behave for all the world other low-temperature Protestant churches.”

Now before it begins to sound like I am an unabashed apologist for convergence or emergence, let me say I’m not. After years of being a pastor and a congregational consultant, I’m a skeptic (not that I’m not naturally. Ha) – especially when it comes to congregational programming that is the latest and greatest. “Best practices” often aren’t. What works in one congregation cannot guarantee success in other. But still, this convergence/emergence thing feels much a movement in the same way the early Friends were a movement. And I hope that perhaps it can help break us out of that “that bureaucracy [that] tends to quash the passion of the many Christ-centered and enthusiastic persons therein."


Monday, March 03, 2008

Convergent, Emergent, or Divergent -- Where Are Quakers Going?

Nancy and I attended a meeting last evening with about 60 other Friends from three yearly meetings to discuss the desire of forming an association of progressive Friends. Reflecting on that meeting today, I came to the conclusion, based on what I heard last night, my work as a congregational consultant, and my heart, that perhaps – and it’s just my opinion – that much of what I would hope from such a group is underway in the convergent Friends movement.

The convergent Friends movement is, it seems to me, the Quaker version of the emergent church movement – a group, according to their own words, “is a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” (Emergent Village). They also say that they are about

  • “Growing”: which indicates our desire to develop as the dreams of God for the healing, redemption, and reconciliation of the world develop.
  • “Generative”: which means that we expect our friendship to generate new ideas, connections, opportunities, and works of beauty.
  • “Friendship”: Because we firmly hold that living in reconciled friendship trumps traditional orthodoxies – indeed, orthodoxy requires reconciliation as a prerequisite.
  • “Missional”: Because we believe that the call of the gospel is an outward, apostolic call into the world.
Why I think the convergent Friends movement has much to offer is that it embraces the above all within the context of the rich diversity of Quaker faith and practice. I like the idea behind the word “convergent” – one definition of which is ”tending to come together from different directions.” I am concerned that there be places for theological hospitality and deep discussion about Friends testimonies and their applicability in today’s world. I don’t think that developing another group of “like-minded” Friends is going to be very helpful to us. That would seem to me to be “divergent.” I know what I cherish are rich times of worship across “lines.” What feeds my soul is when whatever dialogue growing out of that worship is done with respect and caring – me listening and learning from my Evangelical brothers and sisters, my more mystical brothers and sisters, my liberal brothers and sisters and letting Christ teach me through all of them.

I don’t think convergent Friends is the final answer for all Friends in all circumstances. But I do think it has a lot to offer to those of us inside Friends who long for places of deep spiritual engagement (and all that means) and those outside of Friends who hear about us and wonder where to connect with a people who seek to be known as the Friends of God in an open and welcoming way.


PS Robin Mohr, a blogger at What Canst Thou Say and a Friend from San Francisco, is organizing a dinner in Indiana on April 6 for anybody interested in convergent Friends. It will be at Ploughshares Farm (Nancy’s and my home) that evening. You can read more about it and sign up to attend at If you're itnerested, please visit Robin's blog and sign up to attend.