Tell them all this but do not expect them to listen

It seems to me that one of the cor­ner­stones of Judeo-Christian phi­los­o­phy is to remem­ber the sto­ries. I’m more than three-quarters of the way through the Bible (I’m stretch­ing my One Year Bible plan across two years) and that’s real­ly all it is: sto­ry after sto­ry of human’s rela­tions with God. Friends have picked up this method­ol­o­gy in a big way. Our pri­ma­ry reli­gious edu­ca­tion is the jour­nals elders have been asked to write to recount the tri­als and prophet­ic open­ings of a life lived in an attempt at spir­i­tu­al obe­di­ence.

There must be a pur­pose to this con­stant sto­ry review, some way it deep­ens our own spir­i­tu­al lives. One gift it gives to me is per­spec­tive. I was just tak­ing an evening bath and found myself get­ting upset about a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion from my past and stopped to pick up my One Year Bible. The Old Tes­ta­ment read­ings for most of Tenth Month come from Jere­mi­ah. Here’s a bit of God’s instruc­tions to the prophet:

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to lis­ten. Shout out your warn­ings but do not expect them to respond. Say to them, ‘This is the nation whose peo­ple will not obey the Lord their God and who refuse to be taught. Truth has van­ished from among them; it is no longer heard on their lips.’” (Jer 7:27)

And lat­er:

“Jere­mi­ah, say to the peo­ple, ‘This is what the Lord says: When peo­ple fall down, don’t they get up again? When they dis­cov­er they’re on the wrong road, don’t they turn back? Then why do these peo­ple stay on their self-destructive path? Why do the peo­ple of Jerusalem refuse to turn back? They cling tight­ly to their lies and will not turn around.’” (Jer 8:4)

Here we are, Sixth Cen­tu­ry B.C., and the spir­i­tu­al state of God’s peo­ple is in a ter­ri­ble state. It makes my aggriev­e­ments look pet­ty. And maybe that’s the point. The rela­tion­ship between God and His peo­ple have been in a rol­lar coast­er ride for mil­len­nia. Sure, Jesus’ new covenant brought about a lot of changes but didn’t end hypocrisy or faith­less­ness. Protes­tants can point to the ref­or­ma­tion and Friends to the new peo­ple gath­ered by George Fox but both move­ments long ago floun­dered on the shoals of human weak­ness. His­to­ry hasn’t stopped. The tri­als of the spir­i­tu­al don’t stop. We don’t get a free ride of spir­i­tu­al ease just because we’re on the cur­rent edge of human his­to­ry.

As ear­ly Friends were aware, a spir­i­tu­al life still requires lift­ing of the cross. It’s easy to let dis­ap­point­ments lead to despair, and to retreat into the many temp­ta­tions of the mod­ern world has at ready sup­ply. In that state it’s easy to put off wor­ry­ing about our duties to our fel­low humans, to life on earth and to God. Every once in a while I’ll get whiny about some­thing and my dear wife will say “get over it and do what you need to do already.” We’ve remem­bered the sto­ry of Jere­mi­ah for 2500 years for the same rea­son: “you think you’ve got it bad, you’re not being dec­i­mat­ed and enslaved in Baby­lon!” Per­spec­tive.

* * *

I’m still think­ing about one of the con­ver­sa­tions I had the oth­er week at Vineland Men­non­ite Church–about the dif­fer­ence between the­ol­o­gy and Bib­li­cism. I like the­ol­o­gy and I like learn­ing about the con­text of Bible sto­ries I read. I enjoy hear­ing new the­o­ries about old para­dox­es (for exam­ple, Mar­tin Luther King’s take on the sto­ry of the Good Samar­i­tan fas­ci­nates me in part because it reminds me that the sto­ry is set on a real road and is intend­ed as a sto­ry about real peo­ple mak­ing dif­fi­cult choic­es). But I’m also aware that it’s easy to spend so much time read­ing and talk­ing about the com­men­tary that I for­get to read the orig­i­nal sto­ries them­selves. If sto­ries are reli­gious ed, then we have to remem­ber to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. Some­times when I stum­ble on the cool blogs of the clever­est min­is­ters I won­der if they stop to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. So much ener­gy seems to be expend­ed on mak­ing up new words and giv­ing mes­sages of easy hope. I can’t see Jere­mi­ah join­ing them at the local church brew pub fest to hoist a Rolling Rock. The cur­rent New Tes­ta­ment read­ing in the One Year Bible is Paul’s let­ter to the Coloss­ian, which includes this gem:

Don’t let any­one cap­ture you (Colos­sians) with emp­ty philoso­phies and high-sounding non­sense that come from human think­ing and from the spir­i­tu­al pow­ers of this world, rather than from Christ.

I’m sure George Fox hoot­ed in joy when he read that line! The sto­ries remind us that all is not well and that all will not be well. Temp­ta­tions still nips at our best inten­tions. The great­est temp­ta­tion is self-reliance. Our test as indi­vid­u­als and as a peo­ple will be demon­strat­ed by how we patient­ly and faith­ful­ly we bear the hard­ships we encounter and keep our trust in the risen Christ.

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:

Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pen­dle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cit­ed.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gen­tri­fied.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pen­dle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tra­di­tion?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring these con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?


RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pen­dle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new move­ment.

Impromput Hammonton area Friends worship

My F/friend Raye Hodg­son is tak­ing a train from Con­necti­cut to South Jer­sey next week for a vis­it, and locals and would-be vis­i­tors are invit­ed to my house for some wor­ship! Raye’s involved with Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tive and New Eng­land Friends and seems to be doing a cool sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture project these days (which I didn’t know except for Google!)

It’s next Thurs­day, the 19th at 7:30pm in Ham­mon­ton. If you want to join but don’t have my address just send me an email and I’ll pro­vide details. There’s also a Face­book event list­ing for this. If enough peo­ple are inter­est­ed we can have more occa­sion­al Conservative/Convergent/Emergent Quak­er­ly wor­ship in this part of South Jer­sey! If you can’t make it but are intrigued by the idea, let me know and I’ll keep you in the loop. 

UPDATE: The wor­ship went well, about half a dozen peo­ple showed up. If you want to be alert­ed to any follow-up wor­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties in the Ham­mon­ton area send me an email and I’ll add you to my list. 

The peace of Christ for those with ears to hear

Over on Quak­er Oats Live, Cherice is fired up about tax­es again and propos­ing a peace wit­ness for next year:

My solu­tion: Quak­ers, Men­non­ites, Brethren, and whomev­er else wants to par­tic­i­pate refus­es to pay war tax­es for a few years, and we suf­fer the con­se­quences. I think we should cam­paign for a war-tax-free 2010 in all Quak­er meet­ings and Mennonite/Brethren/etc. com­mu­ni­ties. What are they going to do – throw us all in jail? Maybe. But they can’t do that for­ev­er. No one wants to pay their tax­es for a bunch of Quak­ers and oth­er paci­fists to sit in jail for not pay­ing tax­es. It doesn’t make sense.

A com­menter chimes in with a warn­ing about Friends who were hit by heavy tax penal­ties a quar­ter cen­tu­ry ago. But I know of some­one who didn’t pay tax­es for twen­ty years and recent­ly vol­un­teered the infor­ma­tion to the Inter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. The col­lec­tors were non­cha­lant, polite and sym­pa­thet­ic and set­tled for a very rea­son­able amount. If this friend’s expe­ri­ence is any guide, there’s not much dra­ma to be had in war tax resis­tance. These days, Cae­sar doesn’t care much.

What if our wit­ness was direct­ed not at the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment but at our fel­low Chris­tians? We could fol­low Quak­er founder George Fox’s exam­ple and climb the tallest tree we could find (real or metaphor­i­cal) and begin preach­ing the good news that war goes against the teach­ings of Jesus. As always, we would be respect­ful and char­i­ta­ble but we could reclaim the strong and clear voic­es of those who have trav­eled before us. If we felt the need for back­up? Well, I under­stand there are twenty-seven or so books to the New Tes­ta­ment sym­pa­thet­ic to our cause. And I have every rea­son to believe that the Inward Christ is still hum­ming our tune and burn­ing bush­es for all who have eyes to see and ears to lis­ten. Just as John Wool­man min­is­tered with his co-religionists about the sin of slav­ery, maybe our job is to min­is­ter to our co-religionists about war.

But who are these co-religionist neigh­bors of ours? Twen­ty years of peace orga­niz­ing and Friends orga­niz­ing makes me doubt we could find any large group of “his­toric peace church” mem­bers to join us. We talk big and write pret­ty epis­tles, but few indi­vid­u­als engage in wit­ness­es that involve any dan­ger of real sac­ri­fice. The way most of our estab­lished bod­ies couldn’t fig­ure out how to respond to a mod­ern day prophet­ic Chris­t­ian wit­ness in Tom Fox’s kid­nap­ping is the norm. When the IRS threat­ened to put liens on Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing to force resis­tant staffers to pay, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary and clerk said all sorts of sym­pa­thet­ic words of anguish (which they prob­a­bly even meant), then docked the employee’s pay any­way. There have been times when clear-eyed Chris­tians didn’t mind loos­ing their lib­er­ty or prop­er­ty in ser­vice to the gospel. Ear­ly Friends called our emu­la­tion of Christ’s sac­ri­fice the Lamb’s War, but even sev­en years of real war in the ancient land of Baby­lo­nia itself hasn’t brought back the old fire. Our meet­ing­hous­es sit quaint, with own­er­ship deeds untouched, even as we wring our hands won­der­ing why most remain half-empty on First Day morn­ing.

But what about these emerg­ing church kids?: all those peo­ple read­ing Shane Clai­borne, mov­ing to neigh­bor­hoods in need, orga­niz­ing into small cells to talk late into the night about prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty? Some of them are actu­al­ly putting down their can­dles and pre­ten­tious jar­gon long enough to read those twenty-seven books. Friends have a lot of accu­mu­lat­ed wis­dom about what it means the prim­i­tive Chris­t­ian life, even if we’re pret­ty rusty on its actu­al prac­tice. What shape would that wit­ness take and who would join us into that unknown but famil­iar desert? What would our move­ment even be called? And does it mat­ter?

—–

Any­one inter­est­ed in think­ing more on this should start sav­ing up their loose change ($200 com­muters) to come join C Wess Daniels and me this Novem­ber when we lead a work­shop on “The New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends” at Pen­dle Hill near Philadel­phia. Methinks I’m already start­ing to blog about it.

How and why we gather as Friends (in the 21st Century)

On a recent evening I met up with Gath­er­ing in Light Wess, who was in Philadel­phia for a Quaker-sponsored peace con­fer­ence. Over the next few hours, six of us went out for a great din­ner, Wess and I test­ed some tes­ti­monies,
and a revolv­ing group of Friends end­ed up around a table in the
conference’s hotel lob­by talk­ing late into the night (the links are
Wess’ reviews, these days you can reverse stalk him through his Yelp
account). 

Of all of the many peo­ple I spoke with, only one had any kind of
fea­tured role at the con­fer­ence. With­out excep­tion my con­ver­sa­tion
part­ners were fas­ci­nat­ing and insight­ful about the issues that had
brought them to Philadel­phia, yet I sensed a per­vad­ing sense of missed
oppor­tu­ni­ty: hun­dreds of lives rearranged and thou­sands of air miles
flown most­ly to lis­ten to oth­ers talk. I spent my long com­mute home
won­der­ing what it would have been like to have spent the week­end in the
hotel lob­by record­ing ten minute Youtube inter­views with as many
con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants as I could. We would have end­ed up with a
snap­shot of faith-based peace orga­niz­ing cir­ca 2009.

Next week­end I’ll be burn­ing up more of the ozone lay­er by fly­ing to Cal­i­for­nia to co-lead a work­shop with Wess and Robin M. (details at Con​ver​gent​Friends​.org,
I’m sure we can squeeze more peo­ple in!) The par­tic­i­pant list looks
fab­u­lous. I don’t know every­one but there’s at least half a dozen
peo­ple com­ing who I would be thrilled to take work­shops from. I real­ly
don’t want to spend the week­end hear­ing myself talk! I also know there
are plen­ty of peo­ple who can’t come because of com­mit­ments and costs.

So we’re going to try some exper­i­ments – they might work, they might not. On Quak­erQuak­er, there’s a new group for the event and a dis­cus­sion thread open to all QQ mem­bers (sign up is quick and pain­less). For those of you com­fort­able with the QQ tag­ging sys­tem, the Deli­cious tag for the event is “quaker.reclaiming2009”. Robin M has pro­posed using #con­ver­gent­friends as our Twit­ter hash­tag.

There’s all sorts of mad things we could try (Ustream video or live
blog­ging via Twit­ter, any­one?), wacky wacky stuff that would dis­tract
us from what­ev­er mes­sage the Inward Christ might be try­ing to give us.
But behind all this is a real ques­tions about why and how we should
gath­er togeth­er as Friends. As the bank­ing sys­tem tanks, as the envi­ron­ment
strains, as com­mu­ni­ca­tions costs drop and we find our­selves in a curi­ous new econ­o­my, what chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties open up?