Monday, August 31, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

Freedom of expression is the freedom to worship God on your own terms. Value the opportunity to think unguided by the world. Learn what you feel you need to know, let other information pass. No moment of silence is a waste of time.
-- Rachel Needham, British Friend

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Future of Friends

Since I was a bit toward the negative side in my previous post, I thought I should do something positive. Something that shows that I have actually given a good bit of thought about the future of Friends and this thing that I've been calling theologically hospitality. That latter phrase -- "theological hospitality" has come under fire by some people who think it means being wishy-washy or non-committal about faith matters. So I invite you to read my thoughts on it -- and how it could impact the future of Friends and our ability to share God's good news with a hurting, searching world. I gave these thoughts as part of a keynote speech to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative) earlier this summer.

Discerning Which Way Now
North Carolina Yearly Meeting – Conservative Lecture
University of North Carolina -- Wilmington
Seventh month 10, 2009

I want this lecture to be both a combination of information and challenge – information about how I see the best of Quaker discernment and how it can be used by Friends to determine “Which way now?’ and a challenge to think about what God is calling us to do with this people in this place at this time.

I want to say something about the second part first – the reason that this topic matters to me. First, besides being a writer and Quaker minister (no longer a hireling for the Society – I have hired out to some Christians who actually pay very well), I spend my days as a congregational consultant. In my role as executive vice president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, I see all sorts of congregational dynamics at work – in Indiana congregations large and small, rural and urban, Christian and other. And that includes Friends. I also actually read such journals as the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and peruse statistics on The Association of Religion Data Archives.

All of these have a sobering effect. They mostly show that Friends are losing ground. In North Carolina since 1980, Quakers have posted a twenty-seven percent decline, losing almost 3,000 members – though there are fifteen more congregations than in 1980. Nationally, Friends United Meeting has lost 20,000 members in the past thirty years. The Evangelical Friends International has barely stayed even. Only Friends General Conference has increased in numbers.1

That is why a question that was raised recently at the worship group meeting at our farm seems especially relevant. The question was whether Friends would even exist one hundred years from now. I think that is more than a rhetorical question or an interesting mental exercise – it is a real one. But behind it is an even deeper question – should Friends exist in another 100 years?

To read the rest, visit

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sore Losers or Good News?

Sore Losers?

Well, that title may be a bit harsh, but then it seems harshness is the rule of the day for Quakers in this part of Indiana – at least those who have any affiliation with Western Yearly Meeting. And I have resisted writing on this subject hoping that harshness had had its day and was a thing of the past. But something happened yesterday that so disturbed me that I felt I needed to write – even if it’s just for me.

My own affiliation with that body is unofficial (at this time) but long. I am not a member of a Meeting that belongs to Western Yearly Meeting, though I attended one for eight years that is a member of Western Yearly Meeting. I am a former staff member of Western Yearly Meeting and wrote the narrative for the Yearly Meeting 150th anniversary.

As many Friends know, this Yearly Meeting has been the scene of a fair amount of rancor around a certain issue the past few years. It looked as if it would all come to a head at this summer’s Yearly Meeting sessions – which is one reason I decided to attend an arts and faith conference 1,500 miles away. Not because I’m a coward, but frankly because I wanted the geographic distance as an assist to spiritual distance – I wanted space to hold the yearly Meeting in prayer. To pray for people on both sides of the issue, for wisdom for the clerk, for God’s will to be done (not mine), and for Christ’s love to prevail.

James 5:16(b) says, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much,” so I was hoping that the fervent prayer of this (not-so-righteous) man might at least avail a little. I received daily reports about the progress of Yearly Meeting from people I trust and admire. And I heard that there was a fair amount of tension and disagreement but that the clerk, by and large, did as fine a job as possible in allowing people to be heard, to hearing what people were saying, and to forming a sense of the Meeting – which, as I understand it, was that there was no unity on this controversial issue and so no action would be taken.

In other words, it sounded like Quaker process – as outlined in Faith and Practice – was followed. The Yearly Meeting met in session, discussed and prayed over this issue, sought God’s will and moved on. Now I understand that some people would not be happy, no matter how this turned out (though they should be if Quaker process was followed) because it meant they “lost” – if you want to put in terms of winning and losing (which I think is ludicrous – who would win in this situation).

I thought the point of Quaker process was partly to trust the wisdom of God being transmitted through those gathered for Meeting for Worship for Business.

Evidently I was wrong. Before Yearly Meting was over someone who, in my opinion, should have known better based on their position in the Yearly Meeting, tried to raise the question on the floor of Yearly Meeting. After the Yearly Meeting had moved on to other issues.

Still, I hoped this issue at last would be put aside and the Yearly Meeting could then get on to doing something really important – such as speaking the Christian Quaker witness to a world that is hungering for Good News – not stories of Quakers wrangling with each other. Is that wrangling what Jesus had in mind as He hung upon the cross? I somehow doubt it.

What finally swayed me to write was the recent Plainfield Friends Church e-newsletter which reported that the Meeting had a approved a minute that said, Plainfield Friends Meeting affirms the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice-2005 Edition, and will continue to faithfully follow it as a description of what we believe and how we are to work together as a meeting and Yearly Meeting.

That is a fine minute. I have no problem with that. But I do have a problem with the statement that proceeds it – “We are concerned that at the 2009 Yearly Meeting Sessions there was an unwillingness to uphold basic principles in our Faith and Practice concerning the deity of Christ and atonement through Christ.

That seems a pretty strong statement. It’s an accusation against other people of good faith, basically saying that other people were unwilling to uphold Faith and Practice. Yikes. That really bothers me. If I said those words I would be saying, “I have the right answers and the right thinking and however faithful you might think you are, you are wrong, your understanding of faith is wrong, your faith is false, and you…” You, you, you… Me, me, me.

Where is God in this? What would Jesus think? Where is the Holy Spirit at work – no fruits of the spirit evident in that statement.

And I found the next part of the newsletter even more upsetting. Titled “Looking for a Way Forward in Western Yearly Meeting” it says “There are a number of meetings and individuals in Western Yearly Meeting who are concerned that we failed to follow Faith and Practice in some of the actions at Yearly Meeting this year. Some even see a loss of integrity and authority seriously damaging the Yearly Meeting….People are looking for ways forward in what has become a divisive situation.”

It then announces a meeting to discuss this need for a way forward. A way forward to what? It’s not a way forward as a Yearly Meeting to my thinking – it’s a way forward of a particular way of thinking theologically, to the exclusion of those who think differently. The clue is that phrase “that we failed to follow Faith and Practice in some of the actions at Yearly Meeting this year.” It seems to me that Faith and Practice was followed – at least so far as Quaker process is concerned. And just because my way or your way wasn’t the way things turned out, doesn’t mean the process wasn’t followed. Indeed a meeting such as the one that is being held does more, in my opinion to harm the integrity and authority of Yearly Meeting. The Yearly Meeting is not the staff. It is not a few leaders. It is the people called Quakers of the various constituent Meetings gathering under Faith and Practice, following its procedures for how to conduct business, and seeking God’s will together. The authority and integrity of the Yearly Meeting is not threatened by actions taken together in a Meeting for Worship for Business as part of the annual sessions. It is threatened when those who disagree with an outcome raise a hue and cry about needing a “way forward” for their way of believing.

I find this all very sad. Very sad. It misses the point of our mission as Friends in this world – one that was well articulated by Friend Edgar Dunstan –

The early Friends were fully assured that they had a message for all men – not merely that one or other of their testimonies was specially relevant to their own time, but that message in its totality, in its wholeness, was God’s good news for all sorts and conditions of men...’Have you anything to declare?’ is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. It should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is that Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existence as part of the Christian fellowship? …Have we ‘good news’ for them?

Have we good news for them? Not at this rate. Who wants news of Quakers – peaceable Friends of all people – fighting amongst themselves.

To quote the Quaker theologian Homer Simpson, “Bah. Meh.”

-- Brent

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow - a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.
-- Pierre Lacout

Pierre Lacout was born in 1923 in the south of France. He was a priest of the Carmelite Order before becoming a Quaker in 1964. The above is translated from his book God Is Silence (Dieu est Silence).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

Eternal God, let thy spirit inspire and guide us. Thy will be done. Give us the strength to fulfill our task without selfishness, slothfulness, or cowardice. . . . Eternal God, we will listen to thy call and obey it in order that we may hear it ever more clearly. Give us the honesty to examine our own acts and thoughts as scrupulously and severely as those of other people. . . . Give us the quiet courage needed in all circumstances and natural to whoever has consecrated his life to thee. . . . Do not let any defeat, any fall . . . separate us from thee; in the midst of all our weakness let thy love take hold of us and little by little lift us up to thee.
-- Pierre Cérésole

Pierre Cérésole (1879-1945) of Switzerland was the founder International Voluntary Service for Peace. A conscientious objector, he found himself in prison for that stand. He joined Friends in 1936. He wrote this prayer shortly before his death.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Quaker Wisdom for Today

I ask for daily bread, but not for wealth, lest I forget the poor.
I ask for strength, but not for power, lest I despise the meek.
I ask for wisdom, but not for learning, lest I scorn the simple.
I ask for a clean name, but not for fame, lest I contemn the lowly.
I ask for peace of mind, but not for idle hours, lest I fail to hearken to the call of duty.

--Inazo Nitobe, 1909

Monday, August 03, 2009

Rooted and Grounded

I am back home. Home, for me, is the Midwest. In general. Specifically, it's Ohio and Indiana. Ohio is where I grew up and it is still home to me in a way that is very spiritual and yet somehow undefinable. I have been gone from there now more years (barely) than I lived there, but whenever I cross the Ohio-Indiana line and see the arch proclaiming "Welcome to Ohio" or hear Karin Berqquist sing "Ohio" ("I know Ohio like the back of my hand") a sense of melancholy homecoming settles over me.

Just as real, but less melancholic, was the feeling I had flying into Indianapolis yesterday after almost 12 days in Colorado and New Mexico.

Those were glorious days -- vistas that can barely be imagined. In Colorado, I visited my sister Julie and her husband Dave who now live in Montrose. Julie has wanted to live in Colorado ever since she and I were there at Young Life's Silver Cliff Ranch in the late 70s (she as a kid and me as a leader). She says (and I have no reason to doubt her -- knowing both my younger and older self) that as my youngest sister I made her go. But she loved it. And now she and Dave live there. We visited Black Canyon, Ridgway, Ouray and other fascinating places. I took a ton of photographs.

Likewise in Santa Fe and Chimayo. Skies wide open, wispy cloud formations, amazingly colorful desert flowers. What great light.

But. But in the same way that St. Paul tells us that we are to be "rooted and grounded" in [Christ's] love so that we might be filled with the fullness of God, I find that I am rooted and grounded in the Midwestern soil. It speaks to my soul with its lush greenness, multiplicity of flowers and grasses, tall trees, and manageable vistas.

Likewise its people -- generally polite, often understated (if asked how something was, we'll say "Pretty good" or "Not bad" as a high compliment), deeply spiritual -- even if we disagree about what it means to be spiritual. These people, like the land at its best, reflect the goodness of God's love. At our worst, we are like a wicked tornado, shredding everything in our path (and some of that has gone on, I hear, among a gathering of -- of all people -- Quakers this week. I am glad I was in New Mexico for that!).

Regardless. These are my people. This is my home. This is my vision of Heaven -- both here on earth and in Eternity. Good hearted women and men rejoicing (though subtly) in the blessings of God, land abundant and fertile, life a wee bit slower (when I allow it to be), and God feeling near.

I am rooted and grounded in this place.

I hope you feel that way about your place. God be praised. And it's good to be home.

-- Brent