Blogging for the Kingdom

Warn­ing: this is a blog post about blog­ging.

It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the ebb and flow of my blog­ging. Quak­er­ran­ter, my “main” blog has been remark­ably qui­et. I’m still up to my eye­balls with blog­ging in gen­er­al: post­ing things to Quak­erQuak­er, giv­ing help­ful com­ments and tips, help­ing oth­ers set up blogs as part of my con­sult­ing busi­ness. My Tum­blr blog and Face­book and Twit­ter feeds all con­tin­ue to be rel­a­tive­ly active. But most of the­se is me giv­ing voice to oth­ers. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and pub­lish­er; late­ly I’ve been focused on the lat­ter.

When I start­ed blog­ging about Quak­er issues sev­en years ago, I was a low-level cler­i­cal employ­ee at an Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a cer­tain free­dom. More impor­tant­ly, blogs were a near­ly invis­i­ble medi­um, read by a self-selected group that also want­ed to talk open­ly and hon­est­ly about issues. I start­ed writ­ing about issues in among lib­er­al Friends and about missed out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ties. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hind­sight, the archives give me plen­ty of “told you so” cred­i­bil­i­ty. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?

Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. Lots of Quak­er mon­ey and human­ly activ­i­ty is going into projects that don’t have God as a cen­ter. No amount of rant­i­ng is going to dis­suade good peo­ple from putting their faith into one more staff reor­ga­ni­za­tion, mis­sion rewrite or clev­er program.It’s a dis­trac­tion to spend much time wor­ry­ing about them.

But the biggest change is that my heart is square­ly with God. I’m most inter­est­ed in shar­ing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheer­lead­er for any par­tic­u­lar human insti­tu­tion, no mat­ter how noble its inten­tions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the con­text of 350 years of Friends’ under­stand­ing of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of peo­ple in our meet­ing­hous­es that don’t under­stand it this way any­more. And also aware that the seek­er want­i­ng to pur­sue the Quak­er way might find it more close­ly mod­eled in alter­na­tive Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties. There are peo­ple all over lis­ten­ing for God and I see many attempts at rein­vent­ing Quak­erism hap­pen­ing among non-Friends.

I know this obser­va­tion excites some peo­ple to indig­na­tion, but so be it: I’m trust­ing God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the com­mu­ni­ties we bring togeth­er to wor­ship Him keep get­ting dis­tract­ed, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every per­son of faith of every gen­er­a­tion has to remem­ber, re-experience and revive the mes­sage. That hap­pens in church build­ings, on street cor­ners, in liv­ing rooms, lunch lines and nowa­days on blogs and inter­net forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the mes­sage is get­ting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insist­ing on only one chan­nel of shar­ing that mes­sage. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to man­i­fest this in our world: his king­dom come and will be done on earth.

But what would this look like?

When I first start­ed blog­ging there weren’t a lot of Quak­er blogs and I spent a lot more time read­ing oth­er reli­gious blogs. This was back before the emer­gent church move­ment became a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Zon­der­van and wasn’t dom­i­nat­ed by hype artists (sor­ry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter the­se days). There are still great blog­gers out there talk­ing about faith and read­ers want­i­ng to engage in this dis­cus­sion. I’ve been intrigued by the his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of Thomas Clark­son, the Angli­can who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker per­spec­tive using non-Quaker lan­guage. And some­times I geek out and explain some Quak­er point on a Quak­er blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an expe­ri­enced Friend who had nev­er been pre­sent­ed with a clas­sic Quak­er expla­na­tion on the point in ques­tion. My track­ing log shows seek­ers con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed and drawn to us for our tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­monies, espe­cial­ly plain­ness.

I’ve put togeth­er top­ic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, may­be too much to put on top of what I do with Quak­erQuak­er (plus work, plus fam­i­ly). There’s also ques­tions about where to blog and whether to sim­pli­fy my blog­ging life a bit by com­bin­ing some of my blogs but that’s more logis­tics rather than vision.

Inter­est­ing stuff I’m read­ing that’s mak­ing me think about this:

Quaker Quote of the Day

I’m exper­i­ment­ing with Quak­er Quote of the Day for the Quak­erQuak­er Twit­ter account. You should be able to read them on Twit­ter here. Extend­ed ver­sions will be on QuakerQuaker’s new QOTD blog.It’s hard to pack a good quote into only 140 char­ac­ters so there will be some short­en­ing, but the full piece should give it a bit more con­text.

I’ll be most­ly quot­ing his­tor­i­cal Friends but I might throw a liv­ing per­son in there once in awhile. I won’t use a quote book to deliv­er the same adage you’ve heard a mil­lion times before. I’ll also try not to chop it up into a mean­ing that goes again­st the author’s inten­tion.

The scent of communal religion

A recent arti­cle on the art and sci­ence of taste and smell in the New York­er had a para­graph that stood out for me. The author John Lan­ches­ter had just shared a moment where he sud­den­ly under­stood the mean­ing behind “grainy,” a term that had pre­vi­ous­ly been an eso­ter­ic wine descrip­tor. He then writes:

The idea that your palate and your vocab­u­lary expand simul­ta­ne­ous­ly
might sound felic­i­tous, but there is a catch. The words and the
ref­er­ences are real­ly use­ful only to peo­ple who have had the same
expe­ri­ences and use the same vocab­u­lary: those ref­er­ences are to a
shared basis of sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence and a shared lan­guage. To peo­ple who
haven’t had those shared expe­ri­ences, this way of talk­ing can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.

How might this apply to Quak­erism? A post-modernist philoso­pher might argue that our words are our expe­ri­ence and their argu­ment would be even stronger for com­mu­nal expe­ri­ences. I once spent a long after­noon wor­ry­ing whether the col­ors I saw were real­ly the same col­ors oth­ers saw: what if what I inter­pret­ed as yel­low was the col­or oth­ers saw as blue? After turn­ing around the rid­dle I end­ed up real­iz­ing it didn’t mat­ter as long as we all could point to the same col­or and give it the same name.

But what hap­pens when we’re not just talk­ing about yel­low. Turn­ing to the Cray­ola box, what if we’re try­ing to describe the yel­low­ish col­ors apri­cot, dan­de­lion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super hap­py“. Being a Cray­ola con­nois­seur requires an invest­ment not only in a box of col­ored wax but also in time: the time need­ed to expe­ri­ence, under­stand and take own­er­ship in the var­i­ous col­ors.

Reli­gion can be a like wine snob­bery. If you take the time to read the old Quak­er jour­nals and reflect on your spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences you can start to under­stand what the lan­guage means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, out­dat­ed and parochial. They become your own reli­gious vocab­u­lary. When I pick up an engag­ing nine­teen­th jour­nal (not all are!) and read sto­ries about the author’s spir­i­tu­al up and downs and strug­gles with ego and com­mu­ni­ty, I smile with shared recog­ni­tion. When I read an engag­ing historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod know­ing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blo­gos­pher­ic bruha­ha.

Of course I love out­reach and want to share the Friends “sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” One way to do that is to strip the lan­guage and make it all gener­ic. The dan­ger of course is that we’re actu­al­ly chang­ing the reli­gion when we’re change the lan­guage. It’s not the expe­ri­ence that makes us Friends – all peo­ple of all spir­i­tu­al per­sua­sions have access to legit­i­mate reli­gious expe­ri­ences no mat­ter how fleet­ing, mis­un­der­stood or mis­la­beled. We are unique in how we frame that expe­ri­ence, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared under­stand­ing to direct our lives. 

We can go the oth­er direc­tion and stay as close to our tra­di­tion­al lan­guage as pos­si­ble, demand­ing that any­one com­ing into our reli­gious society’s influ­ence take the time to under­stand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spread­ing horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do some­times) and it also means we threat­en to stay a small insid­er com­mu­ni­ty. We also for­get to speak “nor­mal,” start think­ing the lan­guage real­ly is the expe­ri­ence and start car­ing more about show­ing off our vocab­u­lary than about lov­ing God or tend­ing to our neigh­bors.

I don’t see any good way out of this conun­drum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quak­erism, speak­ing dif­fer­ent­ly in pub­lic than in pri­vate (see this post) but I wor­ry this insti­tu­tion­al­izes the snob­bery and excus­es the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste edu­ca­tors? For want of a bet­ter anal­o­gy I won­der if there might be a Quak­er ver­sion of Star­bucks (yes yes, Star­bucks is Quak­er, I’m talk­ing cof­fee), a kind of move­ment that would edu­cate seek­ers at the same time as it sold them the Quak­er expe­ri­ence. Could we get peo­ple excit­ed enough that they’d com­mit to the high­er costs involved in under­stand­ing us? 

Military Intervention – For the Flu?

h3. By Johann Christoph Arnold
“If we had an out­break some­where in the Unit­ed States, do we not then quar­an­ti­ne that part of the coun­try? And how do you, then, enforce a quar­an­ti­ne? …One option is the use of the mil­i­tary… I think the pres­i­dent ought to have all…assets on the table to be able to deal with some­thing this sig­nif­i­cant.” – Pres­i­dent George W. Bush, news con­fer­ence, Octo­ber 4, 2005
For years, health offi­cials have warned that a vir­u­lent strain of avian influen­za could rapid­ly spread the globe, killing mil­lions. Head­li­nes about such an out­break now seem to pop up dai­ly, and there is rea­son for increas­ing con­cern. But Pres­i­dent Bush’s recent request to Con­gress, ask­ing for the author­i­ty to call in the mil­i­tary as part of the government’s respon­se to such a dis­as­ter, is wrong.
To start with, call­ing in the troops would set a wor­ry­ing prece­dent, and not only because it would be yet one more step to a ful­ly mil­i­ta­rized state.
We already have pub­lic health sys­tems at both the state and fed­er­al lev­els, which, though weak­ened by years of under­fund­ing, could still be quick­ly strength­ened and expand­ed by an infu­sion of con­gres­sion­al aid. The­se agen­cies have been oper­a­tive for years, and the peo­ple who direct them are trained and expe­ri­enced in deal­ing with infec­tious dis­ease.
This is more than a med­ical issue. Have we learned noth­ing from the recent spate of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters that has wracked our shores? Have we not con­sid­ered that in the end, dis­ease, pesti­lence, and floods might be an inescapable part of life?
I am not sug­gest­ing that we should stand idly by. I myself have chil­dren and grand­chil­dren and friends whom I dear­ly love, and would be the first to call for pro­fes­sion­al med­ical assis­tance should such a dis­as­ter strike my fam­i­ly or com­mu­ni­ty. But aren’t we a lit­tle auda­cious in think­ing, in the after­math of two ter­ri­ble hur­ri­canes, that we can some­how avert or pre­vent such a tragedy?
Quar­an­ti­ne and iso­la­tion may indeed be a nec­es­sary part of our respon­se, but let us not for­get that fam­i­lies and pas­toral care­givers must also be part of the equa­tion when many peo­ple are dying. Does our gov­ern­ment real­ly care for human beings, or does it wor­ry more about the dev­as­ta­tion such a pan­demic could wreak on the glob­al econ­o­my?
If wide­spread death is tru­ly immi­nent (some sources sug­gest that 150 mil­lion peo­ple could die of avian flu) wouldn’t it be bet­ter to pre­pare our­selves by pay­ing at least some atten­tion to the fact that we all must die one day, and that dying is going to be ter­ri­bly lone­ly, and fright­en­ing, if we are quar­an­tined? We need to con­cern our­selves with this issue because one day death will claim each one of us.
If we die alone, under the con­trol of the mil­i­tary, who will provide the last ser­vices of love for us, and who will com­fort the loved ones we leave behind? Are we going to sit back while we are denied the chance to lay down our lives for each oth­er, which Jesus says is the great­est act of love we can ever per­form? A mil­i­tary respon­se will not bring out the best in peo­ple, but only mag­ni­fy the fear and anx­i­ety we already have about death.
Why are we so ter­ri­bly afraid of dying? Only when we are ready to suf­fer – only when we are ready to die – will we expe­ri­ence true peace of heart. Dying always involves a hard strug­gle, because we fear the uncer­tain­ty of an unknown and unknow­able future. We all feel the pain of unmet oblig­a­tions, and we all want to be relieved of past regrets and feel­ings of guilt. But it is just here that we can reach out and help one anoth­er to die peace­ful­ly.
Once we rec­og­nize this, the specter of a world­wide flu epi­demic will not make us fear death, but give us pause to con­sid­er how we can use our lives to show love, while there is still time.
Again, enforced iso­la­tion is wrong: sick and dying peo­ple are often lone­ly as it is, even in sit­u­a­tions where they have a fam­i­ly and friends. How will they feel when the gov­ern­ment forces us to treat them like lep­ers? How will they find com­fort, if they are not even allowed to talk about what is hap­pen­ing to them?
We should see it as a priv­i­lege to stand at their bed­sides at the hour of death, not a dan­ger – even if this means that we are even­tu­al­ly tak­en by the same plague. That is why I feel mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion would be such a tragedy.

Johann Christoph Arnold (“www.ChristophArnold.com”:www.ChristophArnold.com) is an author and a pastor with the Bruderhof Communities (“www.bruderhof.com”:www.bruderhof.com).

Jeffrey Hipp: My Feet Are on Solid Ground

A Guest Piece by Jef­frey Hipp
“I take this com­mit­ment of mem­ber­ship very seri­ous­ly – to labor, nur­ture, sup­port and chal­lenge my fel­low Friends; to walk in the Light togeth­er, and to give, receive, and pray with my fel­low sojourn­ers when the next step is unclear. My feet are on solid ground.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing