Bono’s Christianity

U2’s singer talks about God:

Reli­gion can be the ene­my of God. It’s often what hap­pens when God, like Elvis, has left the build­ing. [laughs] A list of instruc­tions where there was once con­vic­tion; dog­ma where once peo­ple just did it; a con­gre­ga­tion led by a man where once they were led by the Holy Spir­it. Dis­ci­pline replac­ing dis­ci­ple­ship. Why are you chuckling?

More on Frank Viola’s blog

Visit to Vineland Mennonite Church

Yes­ter­day the fam­i­ly vis­it­ed Vineland NJ Men­non­ite Church.

We were com­ing after 8:30 Mass at Julie’s church and arrived a few min­utes before the wor­ship ser­vice while they were doing their reli­gious edu­ca­tion pro­gram. But the dis­tinc­tion between reli­gious ed and wor­ship was min­i­mal, almost non-existent. Atten­dance at both was near-universal (about 110 total) and much of the wor­ship itself was reli­gious edu­ca­tion. There was a series of 15 minute’ish ser­mons (deliv­ered by var­i­ous men), bro­ken up by some four-part a capel­la singing (beau­ti­ful), recita­tions from a Bible verse they were mem­o­riz­ing and kneel­ing prayer (a sur­prise the first time, as they all spin around sud­den­ly to face the back, kneel and pray).

It’s prob­a­bly one of the most reli­gious­ly con­sci­en­tious com­mu­ni­ties I’ve seen. A lot of the ser­vice involved review­ing belief struc­ture. Their book of dis­ci­pline is very slim, not much more than a tract, but it’s some­thing they use and they spent part of the time read­ing from it. Much of the wor­ship hour was meant to rein­force who they were, why they were and how they were – to explain over and over why they led their dis­tinc­tive life. Theirs is a vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tion for those who agree to fol­low the author­i­ty of the group’s teach­ings. I sus­pect that every adult in the room could give a detailed pre­sen­ta­tion on con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite faith and give detailed answers about points of doc­trine. At the risk of insert­ing my own opin­ion I will ven­ture that the wor­ship ser­vice felt a bit dry (as Julie said, there wasn’t a ounce of mys­ti­cism in the whole pro­ceed­ing) but I don’t think the mem­bers there would feel offend­ed by this obser­va­tion. Excit­ing the sens­es is less impor­tant than review­ing the val­ues and liv­ing the moral life.

Visu­al­ly, the group is strik­ing. Every man in the room wore a long-sleeved white dress shirt but­toned all the way up, dark pants and black shoes; all had short hair and only one or two had facial hair. I was more dis­tinc­tive­ly plain in my broad­falls and sus­penders but the effect of sixty-or-so men and young boys all dressed alike was visu­al­ly stun­ning. Like a lot of plain peo­ples, the women were more obvi­ous­ly plain and all but one or two wore lightly-colored cape dress­es and head cov­er­ings (I lat­er learned that the excep­tions were new­com­ers who weren’t yet mem­bers). Seat­ed was seg­re­gat­ed, women on the left, men on the right. Gen­der roles are very clear. There were kids – lots of kids – all around, and a big focus of the ser­mons was fam­i­ly liv­ing. One extend­ed ser­mon focused on dis­cern­ing between pro­vid­ing well for one’s fam­i­ly vs. greed and the bal­ance between work­ing hard for your fam­i­ly vs. giv­ing up some things so you can spend time with them. Kids were present through­out the ser­vice and were rel­a­tive­ly well behaved.

The church itself was called a meet­ing­house and was plain – no cross­es of course. Peo­ple sat in pews and there was a raised area up front for min­is­ters and elders. The build­ing dou­bled as a school­house dur­ing the week and its school­rooms had a lot of Rod and Staff books, famil­iar from our own home school­ing. A mem­ber described the school as one leg of the three-legged stool, along with church and fam­i­ly. If any one part of the equa­tion was lack­ing in some way, the oth­er two could help insure the child’s moral wel­fare. School was free for church mem­bers but was open on a tuition basis to non-Mennonites. These out­siders were required to make cer­tain lifestyle choic­es that would insure the school stayed rel­a­tive­ly pure; the most impor­tant require­ment was that the fam­i­ly not have a tele­vi­sion at home.

My reg­u­lar read­ers will have one ques­tion on their mind right about now: did any­one invite us to lunch? Why yes they did! We didn’t even have to prompt it. We knew a cou­ple there – M and J, who run a restau­rant in the local farmer’s mar­ket, a favorite Sat­ur­day morn­ing stop for us. They took us under their wing when they rec­og­nized us, sit­ting with us dur­ing wor­ship and then show­ing us the school. J said that if we came back again we could come over for lunch. Then she back­tracked and offered that we could come now, explain­ing that the church had had recent dis­cus­sions over whether it was too pushy to ask first-time atten­ders to lunch or whether they should restrain them­selves and invite them on the sec­ond vis­it. Wow, a church that thinks about this?!

So we fol­lowed them to their place for lunch. It was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask more ques­tions and get to know one anoth­er. Meals are impor­tant. Julie and I had won­dered why there were Men­non­ites in Vineland NJ of all places – and two Men­non­ite church­es at that! Short sto­ry is that there had been a civil­ian pub­lic ser­vice facil­i­ty in Vineland for con­sci­en­tious objec­tors and Lancaster-area Men­non­ites decid­ed that “the boys” sta­tioned there need­ed the ground­ing of a local church com­mu­ni­ty (appar­ent­ly oth­er C.O. camps were scenes of debauch­ery – Men­non­ite drag rac­ing in Col­orado Springs was cit­ed). This became Nor­ma Men­non­ite Church, which still exists and is anoth­er local church I’ve been mean­ing to vis­it for years (hi Mandy!). In the 1960s, there was a great round of lib­er­al­iza­tion among Men­non­ites, an unof­fi­cial aban­don­ment of the dis­tinc­tives cod­i­fied in their books of dis­ci­plines. Many church­es split and the Vineland Church was formed by those mem­bers of Nor­ma who want­ed to main­tain the discipline.

This prob­a­bly explains the strong focus on the rules of the dis­ci­pline. For those want­i­ng more of the his­to­ries, I com­mend Stephen Scott’s excel­lent “An Intro­duc­tion to Old Order and Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite Groups” along with any­thing else Stephen Scott has writ­ten. The Vineland con­gre­ga­tion is part of the East­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Men­non­ite Church con­fer­ence, pro­filed on pages 173 – 176. A lot of the Men­non­ite issues and splits are echoed among Friends and we’d do well to under­stand these cousins of ours.

The result is a church that’s big on group prac­tice: the dress, the lifestyle. M. told me that they don’t believe in the­ol­o­gy but in Bib­li­cism. He explained that they don’t think the Bible con­tains the word of God but instead that it is the Word of God and he paused to let the dis­tinc­tion sink in. The Bible is not to be inter­pret­ed but read and fol­lowed, with spe­cial atten­tion giv­en the gospels and the let­ters of Paul.

So no, I’m not going to go Con­ser­v­a­tive Men­non­ite on you all. I have a TV. My pro­fes­sion is web design (they’re not into the inter­net, natch). I’m mar­ried to a pracitic­ing Catholic (I don’t know how they would bend on that) and at this point my brain is wired in a curi­ous, out­ward way that wouldn’t fit into the nor­ma­tive struc­tures of a group like this. Doctrinally-speaking, I’m a Friend in that I think the Word of God is the Inward Christ’s direct spir­it and that the Bible needs to be read in that Light. There’s a lot of peo­ple who wouldn’t fit for var­i­ous rea­sons, peo­ple who I would want in my church (they main­tain a hard line against remar­riage after divorce and I didn’t even ask about gay issues). But I have to admit that the process and struc­ture puts togeth­er a real­ly great com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple. They’re hard-working, kind, char­i­ta­ble and not near­ly as judg­men­tal as you might imag­ine – in prac­tice, less judg­men­tal than a lot of pro­gres­sive reli­gious peo­ple I know. Non-resistance is one of the pil­lars of their prac­tice and they were gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in Julie’s Catholic church and my expe­ri­ences among Friends and we talked a fair bit about Islam.

Nor­mal­ly I’d give a big thanks to the church and M & J here, except I know they won’t read this. I am grate­ful to their kind­ness in shar­ing their church, beliefs and fam­i­ly meal with us.

Early Friends as reference, not justification

My response to the excellent Greg Woods' If I wanted to live by 1600s standards, I would be Amish. Greg talks about the over-obsession with Early Friends and the tendency to use them as ways to accuse others of un-Quakerism. 

The academic obsession with Quaker history is about 100 years old or so. From the beginning the rise of "Quaker history" has been tied to the arguments of the day. We want to boil "Quakerism" down to it essentials and separate out what is core from what was an artifact of 17th century England. Each branch raises up historians who argue that its churches' focus is the essential of those early Friends.

I consciously try not to use early Friends as justification. But I do use them for reference. I think a lot of the problem is we all have stereotypes about them. When I go back and read the old Books of Discipline, I find them much more nuanced and interior-focused than we give them credit for. 

Greg mentioned taverns, for example. It's not that earlier Friends thought everyone couldn't handle their liquor. They saw that some people couldn't and that spending a lot of time there tended to affect one's discernment and God-centeredness. They also saw that some people got really messed up by alcohol and eventually came to the conclusion that the safest way to protect the most vulnerable in the spiritual community was to stay out. 

The observations and logic are still valid. I've known senior members of past Quaker communities who have had alcohol problems but we don't know how to talk about it because we've decided it's a personal decision. 

What I try to do is not focus on the conclusions of early Friends but to drop into the conversations of early Friends. As I said, the old Books of Discipline are surprisingly relevant. And I love Thomas Clarkson, an Anglican who explained Quaker ways in 1700 and talked about the sociology of it more than Friends themselves did. It's a good way of separating out rules from knowledge. When we ground ourselves that way, we can more readily decide which of the classic Quaker testimonies are still relevant. That keeps us a living community testifying to the people of today. For what it's worth, there's quite a bit of mainstream interest in the stodgy traditions most of us have cast off as irrelevant....

Hanging with the high schoolers

At the PYM High School Friends retreat, Fall 2009Had a good time with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting high school Friends yesterday, two mini-session on the testimonies in the middle of their end-of-summer gathering. The second session was an attempt at a write-your-own testimonies exercise, fueled by my testimonies-as-wiki idea and grounded by passages from an 1843 Book of Discipline and Thomas Clarkson's "Portraiture". My hope was that by reverse-engineering the old testimonies we might get an appreciation for their spiritual focus. The exercise needs a bit of tweaking but I'll try to fix it up and write it out in case others want to try it with local Friends.

The invite came when the program coordinator googled "quaker testimonies" and found the video below (loose transcript is here):

The Not-Quite-So Young Quakers

It was five years ago this week that I sat down and wrote about a cool new move­ment I had been read­ing about. It would have been Jor­dan Coop­er’s blog that turned me onto Robert E Web­ber’s The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals, a look at gen­er­a­tional shifts among Amer­i­can Evan­gel­i­cals. I found it simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­ori­ent­ing and shock­ing that I actu­al­ly iden­ti­fied with most of the trends Web­ber out­lined. Here I was, still a young’ish Friend attend­ing one of the most lib­er­al Friends meet­ings in the coun­try (Cen­tral Philadel­phia) and work­ing for the very orga­ni­za­tion whose ini­tials (FGC) are inter­na­tion­al short­hand for hippy-dippy lib­er­al Quak­erism, yet I was nod­ding my head and laugh­ing out loud at just about every­thing Web­ber said. Although he most like­ly nev­er walked into a meet­ing­house, he clear­ly explained the gen­er­a­tional dynam­ics run­ning through Quak­er cul­ture and I fin­ished the book with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of why so much of our youth orga­niz­ing and out­reach was floun­der­ing on issues of tokenism and feel-good-ism.

My post, orig­i­nal­ly titled  “The Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and the Younger Quak­ers,”  (here it is in its orig­i­nal con­text) start­ed off as a book review but quick­ly became a Quak­er vision man­i­festo. The sec­tion heads alone ticked off the work to be done:

  • A re-examination of our roots, as Chris­tians and as Friends
  • A desire to grow
  • A more personally-involved, time-consuming commitment
  • A renew­al of dis­ci­pline and oversight
  • A con­fronta­tion of our eth­nic and cul­tur­al bigotries

When I wrote this, there wasn’t much you could call Quak­er blog­ging (Lynn Gazis-Sachs was an excep­tion), and when I googled vari­a­tions on “quak­ers” and “emerg­ing church” noth­ing much came up. It’s not sur­pris­ing that there wasn’t much of an ini­tial response.

It took about two years for the post to find its audi­ence and respons­es start­ed com­ing from both lib­er­al and evan­gel­i­cal Quak­er cir­cles. In ret­ro­spect, it’s fair to say that the Quak­erQuak­er com­mu­ni­ty gath­ered around this essay (here’s Robin M’s account of first read­ing it) and it’s follow-up We’re All Ranters Now (Wess talk­ing about it). Five years after I postd it, we have a cadre of blog­gers and read­ers who reg­u­lar­ly gath­er around the Quak­erQuak­er water cool­er to talk about Quak­er vision. We’re get­ting pieces pub­lished in all the major Quak­er pub­li­ca­tions, we’re asked to lead wor­ships and we’ve got a catchy name in “Con­ver­gent Friends.”

And yet?

All of this is still a small demo­graph­ic scat­tered all around. If I want­ed to have a good two-hour caffeine-fueled bull ses­sion about the future of Friends at some local cof­feeshop this after­noon, I can’t think of any­one even vague­ly local who I could call up. A few years ago I start­ed com­mut­ing pret­ty reg­u­lar­ly to a meet­ing that did a good job at the Christian/Friends-awareness/roots stuff but not the discipline/oversight or desire-to-grow end of things. I’ve drift­ed away the last few months because I real­ized I didn’t have any per­son­al friends there and it was most­ly an hour-drive, hour-worship, hour-drive back home kind of experience.

My main cadre five years ago were fel­low staffers at FGC. A few years ago FGC com­mis­sioned sur­veys indi­cat­ed that poten­tial donors would respond favor­ably to talk about youth, out­reach and race stereo­typ­ing and even though these were some of the con­cerns I had been awk­ward­ly rais­ing for years, it was very clear I wasn’t wel­come in quickly-changing staff struc­ture and I found myself out of a job. The most excit­ing out­reach pro­grams I had worked on was a data­base that would col­lect the names and address­es of iso­lat­ed Friends, but It was qui­et­ly dropped a few months after I left. The new muchly-hyped $100,000 pro­gram for out­reach has this for its seek­ers page and fol­lows the typ­i­cal FGC pat­tern, which is to sprin­kle a few rotat­ing tokens in with a retreat cen­ter full of poten­tial donors to talk about Impor­tant Top­ics. (For those who care, I would have con­tin­ued build­ing the iso­lat­ed Friends data­base, mapped it for hot spots and coor­di­nat­ed with the youth min­istry com­mit­tee to send teams for extend­ed stays to help plant wor­ship groups. How cool would that be? Anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty lost.)

So where do we go?

I’m real­ly sad to say we’re still large­ly on our own. Accord­ing to actu­ar­i­al tables, I’ve recent­ly crossed my life’s halfway point and here I am still ref­er­enc­ing gen­er­a­tional change.

How I wish I could hon­est­ly say that I could get involved with any com­mit­tee in my year­ly meet­ing and get to work on the issues raised in “Younger Evan­gel­i­cals and Younger Quak­ers.” Some­one recent­ly sent me an email thread between mem­bers of an out­reach com­mit­tee for anoth­er large East Coast year­ly meet­ing and they were debat­ing whether the inter­net was an appro­pri­ate place to do out­reach work – in 2008?!? Britain Year­ly Meet­ing has a beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced new out­reach web­site but I don’t see one con­vinced young Friend pro­filed and it’s post-faith empha­sis is down­right depress­ing (an involved youngish Amer­i­can Friend looked at it and remind­ed me that despite occa­sion­al atten­tion, smart young seek­ers seri­ous about Quak­erism aren’t anyone’s tar­get audi­ence, here in the US or appar­ent­ly in Britain).

A num­ber of inter­est­ing “Cov­er­gent” mind­ed Friends have an insider/outsider rela­tion­ship with insti­tu­tion­al Quak­erism. Inde­pen­dent wor­ship groups pop­ping up and more are being talked about (I won’t blow your cov­er guys!). I’ve seen Friends try to be more offi­cial­ly involved and it’s not always good: a bunch of younger Quak­er blog­gers have dis­ap­peared after get­ting named onto Impor­tant Com­mit­tees, their online pres­ence reduced to inside jokes on Face­book with their oth­er newly-insider pals.

What do we need to do:

  • We need to be pub­lic figures;
  • We need to reach real peo­ple and con­nect ourselves;
  • We need to stress the whole pack­age: Quak­er roots, out­reach, per­son­al involve­ment and not let our­selves get too dis­tract­ed by hyped projects that only promise one piece of the puzzle.

Here’s my to-do list:

  • CONVERGENT OCTOBER: Wess Daniels has talked about every­one doing some out­reach and net­work­ing around the “con­ver­gent” theme next month. I’ll try to arrange some Philly area meet-up and talk about some prac­ti­cal orga­niz­ing issues on my blog.
  • LOCAL MEETUPS: I still think that FGC’s iso­lat­ed Friends reg­istry was one of its bet­ter ideas. Screw them, we’ll start one our­selves. I com­mit to mak­ing one. Email me if you’re interested;
  • LOCAL FRIENDS: I com­mit to find­ing half a dozen seri­ous Quak­er bud­dies in the dri­vable area to ground myself enough to be able to tip my toe back into the insti­tu­tion­al mias­ma when led (thanks to Mic­ah B who stressed some of this in a recent visit).
  • PUBLIC FIGURES: I’ve let my blog dete­ri­o­rate into too much of a “life stream,” all the pic­tures and twit­ter mes­sages all clog­ging up the more Quak­er mate­r­i­al. You’ll notice it’s been redesigned. The right bar has the “life stream” stuff, which can be bet­tered viewed and com­ment­ed on on my Tum­bler page, Tum­bld Rants. I’ll try to keep the main blog (and its RSS feed) more seri­ous­ly minded.

I want to stress that I don’t want any­one to quit their meet­ing or any­thing. I’m just find­ing myself that I need a lot more than business-as-usual. I need peo­ple I can call lower-case friends, I need per­son­al account­abil­i­ty, I need peo­ple will­ing to real­ly look at what we need to do to be respon­sive to God’s call. Some day maybe there will be an estab­lished local meet­ing some­where where I can find all of that. Until then we need to build up our networks.

Like a lot of my big idea vision essays, I see this one doesn’t talk much about God. Let me stress that com­ing under His direc­tion is what this is all about. Meet­ings don’t exist for us. They facil­i­ate our work in becom­ing a peo­ple of God. Most of the inward-focused work that make up most of Quak­er work is self-defeating. Jesus didn’t do much work in the tem­ple and didn’t spend much time at the rab­bi con­ven­tions. He was out on the street, hang­ing out with the “bad” ele­ments, shar­ing the good news one per­son at a time. We have to find ways to sup­port one anoth­er in a new wave of ground­ed evan­ge­lism. Let’s see where we can all get in the next five years!

Images from Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative

Here are a few pho­tos from our trip to Bar­nesville Ohio for “year­ly meet­ing sessions”:http://www.ohioyearlymeeting.org/. The pan­el talk on “Con­ver­gent Friends”:http://convergentfriends.org/ with C Wess Daniels and Ohio’s David Male seemed to be well received. In some ways I thought it was sil­ly for _us_ to trav­el so far to tell _them_ about con­ver­gence, as OYM© Friends have been doing impor­tant out­reach and renew­al work for years, sup­port­ing iso­lat­ed Friends with the bi-annual Con­ser­v­a­tive Gath­er­ings and though their “affil­i­ate member”:http://www.ohioyearlymeeting.org/discipline.htm#Affiliate pro­gram. One place to learn more about cur­rent out­reach efforts is “ConservativeFriend.org”:http://www.conservativefriend.org/.
Road trip stretch Post-lunch talk planning Photo of photo Kids hang out
Baby on the run