Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A convergent dinner

I suppose it is about time, now that Amanda and LizOpp and Chris M have blogged about it, that I reported on the convergent dinner that was at my house on March 18. It all started so innocently when Robin M was talking about coming to Boston and maybe we could go out somewhere and have pizza after the Weed lecture. So I responded that we could all come to my house if she wanted. So she sent me an email saying that there would be about 7 people. So I invited a few people from Fresh Pond Meeting like Beckey Phipps who was going out to Robin's meeting the next week, and people on my support committee. So when I got done counting everybody I got to about 14 people.

So I went to the Weed lecture. Afterwards Holly Baldwin asked Tom and Liz Gates if they wanted to come. Ben Guaraldi brought El Salvadoran Friend Raul Perez Chacon up from the FWCC Section of the Americas meeting. And there was Venderlin, a Friend from Heidelberg who had come to Boston to attend a conference. He came to Beacon Hill Meeting and heard about the Weed lecture and stayed for that. And so we invited him to dinner. So we headed off. I had told Beckey that I would call her when we were on our way so that she could come over. It had taken a while to get everyone organized to leave so when I called Beckey she said, “Oh, I'm already at your house.”

We learned something new about Convergent Friends that afternoon. While organizing them is like herding cats, they are really more like puppies. We have a small living room. It is small enough that we have two love seats in it because there isn't a wall long enough to put a couch against. But at one point everyone was in that room all crunched up together to not miss anything. I counted at that point and there were 18 people in the room. There have never been 18 people in that room before. Some people had to leave early and some people arrived late. Lynn told me that there were 26 people altogether.

I took some pictures of the gathering but I inadvertently left my camera in some funky mode and none of the pictures came out. But other than that it was a wonderful evening. After my recent experiences it was wonderfully restorative to have such a variety of Friends from around the world getting along and enjoying each other's company. We expanded on the traditional pizza and chocolate chip cookie menu by having beer and wine available. At first I was a little nervous about how Raul would take this since I know that Friends from Africa and Latin America have a strong testimony on abstinence from alcohol. But once Ben Guaraldi explained to him that I was a borracho (a drunk) he didn't seem to have a problem. :^) He did make a point to take a picture of the table with as many beer bottles in it as he could so there is no telling what stories he will be telling about us when he gets back to El Salvador.

After dinner Robin asked us to answer two queries. They were, approximately: What is it about your faith tradition do you love? What is it that drives you crazy? There was good sharing although we did not always stay on topic. Because Ben was translating everything into Spanish for Raul, we had a slow paced discussion which flowed nicely. We discovered that Venderlin had once had an Argentinian girl friend and so he spoke some Spanish as well. It turned out that many of us knew some Spanish and soon a number of people were helping with the translation and there was a real bilingual feel to the evening. Lynn, who speaks French but not Spanish, told me later that she was able to follow along with a lot of the Spanish as well.

My only regret for the evening was that there were people I would have liked to have spent more time with but it was not possible. So I will just have to wait for the next Convergent Friends opportunity in the Boston area.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reflections on the conversation thus far

This has turned into quite the discussion. I have been letting the conversation here go on more or less without me. I have needed to take some time to reflect more on events that happened in Kenya and also some of the comments that have been posted here.

First of all I think that Ron Bryan has presented a bit of a straw man argument. He said, speaking about the Richmond Declaration, “Many have suggested we should change it or do away with it, so everyone can do as they see fit.” I suggest that there are other motivations at work. One is an understanding that the foundation of Quakerism is the direct experience of God and the direct, inward teaching of Christ and the Holy Spirit. This is not everyone doing what they see fit.

The reluctance of some yearly meetings to endorse the Richmond Declaration is not a new thing or just a reflection of the current trends among Friends. In New England it was the Guerneyite yearly meeting which did not endorse the Richmond Declaration in 1887. To the best of my understanding it never endorsed it from then until we reunited in 1945. The reservations were not necessarily about the content of the Richmond Declaration, but about the entire idea of trying to reduce Quakerism to a form of words. There were concerns that the Richmond Declaration would be used as a creed and as a way of enforcing doctrinal unity and forcing out people who disagreed with it. There certainly have been cases where such reservations have proved to have been justified.

Now I do not deny that there have been times that I have looked at the state of Quakerism and have found myself with the words from Isaiah and the music from Handel in my head, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” But note the key first word in that quote, all. The liberal flock of individual sheep wandering around without an obvious center may seem to fit that description. However it seems to me that the seemingly more cohesive Evangelical flock is heading off together in a direction away from the original understandings of Friends.

Because human beings have what appears to be an almost unlimited capacity for self-delusion, our leadings and teachings need to be tested against our current community and also our historical community, the cloud of witnesses. This historical community includes the written record of Friends who have preceded us and, of course the Bible. If there is one God and God leads us today as God led people in ages past, there should be a consistency between that record and our leadings today. When some meetings in Indiana Yearly Meeting started practicing water baptism and outward communion the response was to start a dialog on what it means to live sacramentally. Why can there not be a similar dialog across FUM on other issues where our understandings diverge?

The second place where I disagree with him, and this is a more fundamental difference, is this. He says, “It is still necessary, in my opinion, to have a guiding statement that puts us as a Religious Institution squarely in the camp of Biblical Christians.” The problem I have with this is that it assumes that there is only one way to be a Biblical Christian. I base my Christianity on the Bible and my experience of God working in my life. But I have come to very different positions on some things than Ron has. There is a fundamental question that needs to be answered. If we are going to test our leadings against the Bible, what do we do when we have conflicting interpretations of what the Bible means. In a recent email my daughter said, “I'm still struggling with the idea of Very Religious people not understanding that loving everyone is a very Biblical idea, and that people who claim Jesus as their go-to guy can miss the boat on so many of his messages.” I will be the first to admit that I miss the boat myself on many things. I console myself sometimes that I appear to be in good company because all of the Twelve seemed to have missed the boat on numerous occasions. If loving everyone is a Biblical idea, can everyone include Friends we disagree with? “But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” (1 Cor. 8:12) Can we take the lesson from 1 Corinthians 8 about forbearance for members of the church whose understandings may be at different levels and apply it to the family of Friends? Again, this is an area in which we are all walking around with veritable lumber yards in our eyes.

At the same time I am pained by some Friends, even some from my own yearly meeting, who seem to me to be saying, “Let's withdraw from FUM. We don't want to have anything to do with those Evangelical Friends.” It was painful for me when I felt similar sentiments expressed about liberal Friends and their yearly meetings and it is painful to hear liberals saying similar things about Evangelicals. When I see comments to the effect of, “Maybe we should leave, most of us are not Christ centered anyway,” I am greatly saddened. First of all, the basic assertion is not knowable at this time. To my knowledge no one has done a study of the relative numbers of Friends in New England with various theological beliefs. More importantly, the quantitative approach belies our history as Friends. Traditionally, Quaker decisions are not made by a counting of votes. If there are significant reservations expressed, the good order of Friends would suggest that the decision should be held over. This did not happen in the decision to endorse the Richmond Declaration. This was one of the things that made this such a painful experience. It felt as if the concerns of the dual-affiliated meetings were of little importance and in fact that the dual-affiliated yearly meetings themselves were of little importance to the rest of FUM. Even if it were true that most Friends in New England are not Christ centered, it doesn't mean that we can dismiss so cavalierly those that are. It is precisely when we are in a majority that we need to be extra careful. The way we behave when we have power is critical. This is what the prophets said repeatedly. This is what Nathan told David. This is what Jesus meant when he said that as we do to the least of these his children, we do to Him.

I am concerned about what this latest round of divisiveness reveals about our current spiritual condition. It seems to me that we are letting our hearts become hard and our necks stiff. This is true across the theological spectrum. This is not a spiritual condition I find much support for in the Bible. I am also concerned about the long term effect on a number of Friends institutions. There are some who maintain that FUM would be better off if it were more focused theologically. The more evangelical yearly meetings would more than make up any lost income. This is possible but the current conditions of FUM as an organization is fragile enough that the loss of talent and income that major withdrawals would entail might be a sufficient short-term blow that FUM couldn't continue for the long term.

I am also concerned about what a withdrawal would do to the dual-affiliated yearly meetings. I fear that it might turn out to be divisive there as well. I have heard people talking about the option of the “amicable divorce.” I just caution people that an amicable divorce does not mean a pain free divorce. More than one messy divorce started out with the best of intentions of being amicable. As hard as it may be to stay together, we should not kid ourselves about how hard it would be to separate as well.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Ron Bryan's observations

Ron Bryan, General Superintendant of Iowa Yearly Meeting(FUM), left the following message as a comment to my article "Back from Africa with a broken heart." I didn't want to leave it at the end of a long discussion where it would be easy to miss. With his permission I am posting it here as a guest article.

Observations from my recent visit to Kenya and the General Board Meeting.
By Ron Bryan

The Richmond Declaration of Faith along with Fox’s letter to Barbados as compiled in 1887 have served as the guiding expression for who FUM (Five Years Meeting originally) was and is since the beginning, even though some who have chosen to participate in FUM have not ratified it or agreed with it. Many have suggested we should change it or do away with it, so everyone can do as they see fit. This sounds an awful lot like Judges 21:23, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. NASB. I believe the Declaration draws heavily upon scripture as proof and quotes Fox to verify who Quakers are. It is still necessary, in my opinion, to have a guiding statement that puts us as a Religious Institution squarely in the camp of Biblical Christians.

For me the African’s voices, particularly the two statements as shared during our group meeting, stood out above all others, (1) “You came to us 100 years ago and told us about the Bible and Jesus Christ using the Declaration of Faith as a guiding document, we believed, and now you want to take it away from us.” (2) “While we sit here and squabble my people are perishing”. Yes, there was a clear sense that the 15 African Yearly Meetings intended for us to make some statement of who we are. They are convinced that Friends are Christians who use the Bible as authority. Also, no one denied the importance of the Holy Spirit in living and understanding our faith.

Convincement, a term some Friends identify with, comes from being convicted and converted, and then the transformation process moves into full swing. John 15:5-8 and Matthew 18:3 Evangelicals have always concluded that only by the Holy Spirit are we able to fully understand and appreciate scripture, and that the revealed Word is not altered by our wishes or demands. It is one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, to teach us about Jesus Christ and His truth. And it was and is this same Spirit that spoke to our forefathers and foremothers dating back to the Apostles and the first century. The whole of the Bible, even with all its honest and provocative accounts, stands ably by itself as a historical text, which demonstrates how God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity.

When I read of the personal awakenings of early Friends, I see similarities of their (convincement) experiences. George Fox, Isaac Pennington, John Woolman, Joseph John Gurney, and Thomas Kelly to name a few, all knew Christ experientially and were transformed into believers and followers of Christ. Their lives and their witness became bolder and clearer. And in reading these conversion experiences I find no evidence that they denied the truth of Scripture or the Holy Spirit as Light. The Scriptures remain, even though doubters and scoffers disappear and decay such as Voltaire and Nietzsche.

In our modern society we seem to want to rely upon our personal mastery of words, “In fact, the popular sayings attract only because people are haunted by the idea from the intellectual heights that life is, in reality, absurd. Thus the only acceptable relief is to be cute or clever. In homes and on public buildings of the past, words of serious and unselfconscious exhortation, invocation, and blessing were hung or carved in stone and wood. But that world has passed. Now the law is ‘Be cute or die.’ The only sincerity bearable is clever insincerity. That is what the clothing and greeting card graffiti really scream out. The particular ‘message’ doesn’t matter.

And yet we have to act. The rocket of our life is off the pad. Action is forever. We are becoming who we will be-forever. Absurdity and cuteness are fine to chuckle over and perhaps to muse upon. But they are no place to live. They provide no shelter or direction for being human.” Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 10 and 11.

So we play with words and peoples minds, and yes even their souls. To many the time is now, that we must take our stand with whom we have been and who we are. To talk about God being love without also including the many other attributes of His nature, such as mercy, grace, judgment, sometimes even anger, to name a few, is to portray an incomplete picture. To base our faith upon the latest sociological survey or the pursuit of personal happiness without regard for the proven words of the Bible is ultimately folly. Many have attempted it before and have fallen prey to the seductiveness of self indulgence. The condition of our world and we humans that are alive in it today, speak loudly to the depths of our natural separation from God. Yet, He has chosen us as humans who are created in His image and those who will respond to His voice, to be transformed, to replace our hearts of stone with new life— life that embraces all of God’s love, not just the parts we prefer.

A friend of mine recently commented, “I wonder how disappointed humanity will be when we finally accept that God’s purpose is more than just meeting our demands.”

As I post this blog, which is only the second time in my life, I realize that my attempt at words is woefully inadequate, yet, I feel compelled to make this statement. I am painfully aware of the wordsmithing that friends love to exercise at great length, and because of that I have been reluctant to enter into many a foray. However, now is the time that I feel lead to respectfully add my comments.