October 8, 2006

Is FGC Convergent?

What would you make of this statement:

"We seek to help Friends engage in a continuing process of renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical, spiritual and theological foundations of Quakerism and our Quaker Testimonies as the basis for our practice, social witness and service."
Would you think this is a vision statement crafted by a group of Quaker bloggers? or a minute that was approved by the Ministry & Counsel Committee of Friendly Monthly Meeting, U.S.A.?

It's neither.

It is a statement that comes from what I believe to be one of the Best Kept Secrets among unprogrammed Friends: the Long Term Plan of Friends General Conference.

Before I launch into my love for that particular document, I want to underscore a couple things.
    1. Friends General Conference (FGC) is an organization that provides services and programs to Friends in Canada and the U.S., primarily to Friends (and their yearly and monthly meetings) who worship in the unprogrammed tradition (i.e. Liberal and Conservative Friends).

    2. FGC is not intended to be an overarching organization that develops policy and procedures for its constituent affiliated meetings--though many Friends mistakenly put FGC in that role. FGC's history of providing services to unprogrammed Friends comes out of a confluence, of sorts, of concurrent conferences held at the turn of the 20th Century: First Day School associations; Friends' religious conferences; and a gathering for "philanthropic labor."

    3. The policies and procedures that FGC develops, including its Long Term Plan (LTP), are intended to guide the FGC staff and governing body (Central Committee) with carrying out its responsibilities. Yearly meetings and monthly meetings remain responsible for their own decisions and for care of their own responsibilities (e.g. whether or not to marry same-sex couples).

Okay, back to what I really wanted to write about.

When it's printed on paper and shared with Friends, the Long Term Plan starts with FGC's Minute of Purpose. The online version includes a whopping six introductory paragraphs (yawn...).
(Approved by Central Committee, Tenth Month 21, 1995)

Friends General Conference is a Quaker organization in the unprogrammed tradition of the Religious Society of Friends which primarily serves affiliated yearly and monthly meetings. It is our experience that:

* Faith is based on direct experience of God.

* Our lives witness to this experience individually and corporately.

* By answering that of God in everyone, we build and sustain inclusive community.

Friends General Conference provides resources and opportunities that educate and invite members and attenders to experience, individually and corporately, God’s living presence, and to discern and follow God’s leadings. Friends General Conference reaches out to seekers and to other religious bodies inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends.
So how cool is that, that in the Long Term Plan, several key elements of our faith are right there, front and center! And as a newcomer to serving on FGC's Central Committee, when I read that Minute of Purpose, I knew I was in the right place!

Beyond the opening Minute of Purpose, the LTP includes goals (4); objectives (19) to help us meet the goals; and action steps (half-a-squizzilion of 'em), all of which flesh out the Long Term Plan.

Now, in my six years of serving on FGC's Central Committee, I would say that Goal IV itself is lifted up a fair amount, probably because the language that it contains reflects some of the yummiest part of Friends' traditions and experience:
Goal IV:

Articulate, communicate and model core experiences, values and principles of Friends, such as the direct experience of God, the miracle of the gathered meeting, the meeting for worship for business, the balancing of individual leadings with corporate discernment, and the call to live and witness to our faith.
Of course, any Quaker who knows me knows that I have come under the weight of making our faith explicit ("articulating" it) and being intentional about modeling Quaker practice and Quaker tradition with integrity, authenticity, and spiritual groundedness as best we can, especially if we want to convey our faith to future generations.

But THIS is what I'm really excited about, and I think FGC doesn't give enough attention to it:
Goal IV, Objective 3.

Help Friends engage in a continuing process of renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical, spiritual and theological foundations of Quakerism and our Quaker Testimonies as the basis for our practice, social witness and service. (emphasis mine)

Just how do we go about helping Friends "renew and integrate" the primitive Quakerism that is built upon certain "foundations"--foundations that have been undermined by pop culture, oppressive religious dogma, and a quietist form of our faith?

As I have been living with that question during the past three years or so, I have at last begun to see a few opportunities that could become part of the answer. Some of those opportunities have to do with the Quaker blogosphere and the Convergent conversation. Other opportunities have to do with waiting for an opening to speak with Friends in my local community, about our roots, our foundations, and the basis of Quaker theology.

Most recently, as I have invested more of my time and energy into helping prepare for FGC's 2007 Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin, I have found that the Gathering Committee* is not necessarily connected to nor has any awareness or understanding of FGC's Long Term Plan. And I just find that to be a shame.

Thankfully, though, the FGC committee that guided Central Committee through the process of crafting and implementing a long term plan is still in place, and I've forwarded my concern onto them. The clerk of FGC's Committee for Discernment in Long Term Planning--fondly known as DiLTP--was grateful for my bringing it to her attention. (Doesn't everyone like to be let in on the secret?!)


P.S. Here's my formula for some of what constitutes FGC:

Quaker youth + books + online directory of meetings +
+ First Day School materials + a reprint of Lloyd Lee Wilson's
popular writings + week-long summer Gathering =

Friends General Conference

More specifically, here are some of FGC's most beloved and sought after services and programs.

Quaker Finder, for when you are on the road on business or vacation and want to find out what meetings are in the area where you are staying (FGC is including more and more Quaker churches on this service, too!)

QuakerBooks, formerly known plainly as "The Quaker bookstore." You can get ANY book you want (or CD or DVD or videotape) from QuakerBooks of FGC!

Traveling Ministries Program, for when your meeting wants to find a qualified, seasoned Friend to address a tender or difficult concern with which it has been holding or wrestling.

Quaker Youth Ministries, because young Quakers are not necessarily the future of Quakerism; they are right here, right now, the present of Quakerism.

FGC Gathering, also known to many Friends simply as "FGC," which drives Central Committee members crazy because of course FGC is "more than the Gathering..." I used to get a chuckle out of seeing banners at the Gathering that supported the misnomer. The banners used to read, "Welcome to FGC!" Now they've all been updated to read, "Welcome to the FGC Gathering!"

*The Gathering Committee is an ad hoc committee that coordinates the nitty-gritty of the Gathering and basically has a two-year life span, one year of which overlaps with another Gathering Committee that is responsible for the subsequent year's Gathering. For example, just as Tacoma's Gathering Committee was halfway through its work for the 2006 Gathering, the River Falls' Gathering Committee began to gear up for 2007. Did you follow that?


Anonymous said...

This is such a superb post. There's so much of substance here, expressed clearly and vigorously. I hope it's widely read and deeply pondered.

-- Mitch

quakerboy said...

Liz, you are to be commended for your effort to encourage FGC to live their long term plan.

I am expecially heartened by the call to renewal by building on our historical foundations. The key word is "build". We don't have to mirror the early Friends nor can we. But we must BUILD upon the blessings our foreparents have handed us. Continuing revelation is just that, continuing. We do not have to reinvent our faith in each generation, only to build upon the Foundation already laid.

Anyway, as usual, you give me hope for our sisters and brothers in more liberal Meetings.

God's peace Liz!

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Liz!

I am struck by the contrast between the FGC mission statement with which you began your essay --

"We seek to help Friends engage in a continuing process of renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical, spiritual and theological foundations of Quakerism and our Quaker Testimonies as the basis for our practice, social witness and service."

-- and the parallel mission statement for FUM (which was crafted by Rufus Jones):

"Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved and obeyed as Teacher and Lord."

And in that context, I think it worthwhile to ponder one of the passages you quoted further down in your essay, from the Minute of Purpose approved by the FGC Central Committee in 1995 --

"By answering that of God in everyone, we build and sustain inclusive community."

-- in the light of Friends' historical usage of "that of God in every one" as meaning that in the heart and conscience that convicts us of sin.

For George Fox and other early Friends -- and for some of us today -- "that of God" is not something that builds and sustains inclusive community, but rather, something that calls the sinner to redemption and -- in cases where redemption is refused -- separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

I'm afraid not all of us would see this disconnect between the Central Committee's usage, and Friends' historical usage, as properly representing "key elements of our faith", or as "cool", or as fulfilling FGC's self-declared mandate to help Friends integrate the historical and theological foundations of Quakerism into their practice.

Martin Kelley said...

No disrespect intended Liz, but are you nuts? FGC just fired the only staff person who would even know what your post's title means.

A month ago I would have agreed that one of FGC's opportunities for growth--spiritual, generational geographical--involved the blogosphere and the convergent conversation. The ethos of the blogosphere fits well with the FGC governing philosophy--service as opposed to oversight. Now that I've been sent packing I have to think its leadership doesn't know what it doesn't know and will continue to miss its chances for a long time to come. I'm not saying there isn't good work to be done in the margins but an organization is more than pretty words in an unread document. A social theorist I once read argued that institutions eventually grow to serve themselves, that decisions are made based on their effect on the organization first and that mission gets relegated to secondary status. I could cite examples, but I'm too busy trying to shake dust off my feet to want to go there.

I've wondered whether one of the below-the-surface we'll-never-really-know reasons I was given the handshake goodbye is that I think in terms of movements and much of what I did was think about how FGC the organization could serve and be served by them. That meant I was more interested in the margins than the center. My two yearly meeting visits this year (Great Plains FUM, Ohio Conservative) were to unaffiliated yearly meetings and one of my proudest achievements at this year's Gathering was making sure Peggy and Alivia of Freedom Friends could come. This connecting-at-the-margins seems to be a key element of "Convergent" Quakerism yet it would have politically more astute of me to focus on the institution, to visit FGC yearly meeting and to tell the core what it wants to hears. I'm glad you're still there, working with the organization to live up to its mission. That's important work. I've gotten enough love and encouragement from various committee members to know that my work was appreciated and that in turn makes me appreciate that there's a lot of interest in the committees for this kind of work.

Again, I'm glad you're there, Liz, doing the good work. Good luck to you. I'll miss seeing you at Central Committee. I'd get a kick hearing how my absence is explained.

Liz Opp said...

Mitch - Thanks for dropping by; and as Martin points out in his comment, like you, I hope that the LTP is "widely read" beyond the eyes of FGC staff and members of Central Committee. I personally have shared the "skeleton" of the LTP with members of M&C in my monthly meeting and a few others within the yearly meeting. There may also be an opportunity for parts of the LTP to be shared with the co-clerks of the 2007 Gathering and with one or more Gathering subcommittees but that remains to be seen.

Quakerboy - As you know, "being heartened" is just one step on a very long road of getting actions to match words. Every year, approximately one third of Central Committee rotates off and a new third begins service, and the LTP reaches many of these new committee members during their orientation. (Granted, not everyone will find it as cool as I do!) But-- it is also very different to have been a part of the process to develop and approve the LTP rather than merely receiving it and reading it through.

That said, a few new programs--some of which Martin was directly involved with--have emerged as a result of the LTP, namely Quaker Finder, the Youth Ministries Program, and the Traveling Ministries Program.

Marshall - Thank goodness for your comment! There was something sticking in my craw about the "answering that of God in everyone," and I couldn't get to it--but you articulate my own sticking point: the historical use of that phrase refers to bringing folks to the Inward Teacher and "leaving them there," so that the Light may show them how they have strayed from the Path...

So for sure, not all of Central Committee--or FGC's staff, for that matter--sees this disconnect as clearly as you do. This is one of the challenges of being a Liberal Friend and of being part of an organization that serves primarily Liberal Friends: we incorporate our own understandings and misinterpretations into our work, making it doubly hard to reclaim some of our lost language and practices.

Nevertheless, I still think of the LTP as a cool document that could help "unknowingly lost sheep" find the way back to the flock... or at least to the same meadow! At least, it's helped ME do as much.

Martin - I have sent you an email regarding your comment, and I'll repeat publicly a part of what I included in it: that I did take time to consider whether to post this piece in light of your own circumstance. And I agree, very much so, that FGC needs to be mindful of becoming self-serving--a point that my partner reminds me of, frequently.

Thanks to everyone for dropping by.


david said...

You mentioned Canada! We're on the radar!

FGC might like to know that our working group/ad hoc committee charged with re-envisioning Quakerism for CYM is setting forth a proposal to withdraw from both FGC and FUM.

There will be massive resistance. But I think it may be a good idea. This proposal has been put forward before as asome sort of half-baked notion it would solve a our theological diversity issue. That isn't on the plate this time. Its about shepherding diminishing resources -- and the idea that we can only afford one Wider Quaker Body (I love that term -- heck I weighed myself this morning -- I live that term!) -- our committee proposes an all our eggs in one basket solution: FWCC.

Sorry to hear about Martin. Hope he lands on his feet.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, David --

I'm happy to mention Canada when I talk about FGC, because FGC does serve Canada, and we have to stop being so U.S.A.-centric!

As for the rest of your comment: By any chance, is this committee the "Consultation and Renewal Committee" that I've heard about? I was an appointed FGC visitor to Canadian Yearly Meeting and was able to read of all sorts of things, including the "C'n'R" report.

I also heard a lot about CYM's consideration of pulling inward, which did in fact seem to get some Friends on fire about recognizing the important witness that Canadian Friends bring to the table.

I don't believe anything definitive about affiliation had been approved at the time of annual sessions, but you might know more about that than I do!

Thanks for stopping by.


Joe G. said...

I know you meant well and probably see a lot more light and life where I personally don't. OTH, I have to agree with Martin on this one. If FGC is "convergent" than I'd rather not be a part of that, especially given that they got rid of one of the most important voices in the whole "convergent" conversation.

That said, I think the life and light is at the local, person to person level. Any convergent stuff that might be occuring happens there, thank God, and not at one more committee meeting for an organization that doesn't even realize that it's out of touch with things...(helping to support and build that which inspires more Friendds to live lives like those of the Christian and Friends Peace Teams or arguing about sweat lodges. I lost a lot of respect for FGC this past year because of that.)

Joe G. said...

P.S. Please don't take my comment as directed at you, because it's not. You're part of the light and life, Liz (oh, my, that is a little bit of alliteration going on there) that remains in FGC so...

Paul L said...

I'm just back from a Friends Journal board meeting where we did some soul-searching along the lines -- Who are we? What is our job? What would happen if we didn't exist? What should we look like in ten years? Etc.

This led to questions about whether the market for what we had to offer was inherently small (i.e., Quakers) -- which implies certain business and financial realities (i.e., FJ will always depend on financial contributions over and above the cost of subscriptions and advertising revenue), or is it potentially very large (i.e., those who are hungry to hear the Everlasting Gospel) for which another business model is possible?

I was reminded of the chestnut about the janitor at NASA who was asked, "What do you do?" And he answered, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."*

I think the problem with Quaker organizations -- from the smallest worship group to the largest yearly meeting and all of the alphabet organizations -- is that they tend to think that (or act as if) they're sweeping floors instead of putting men on the moon. Sweeping floors is honorable work and needs to be done, but it is not the end in itself. I see FGC's long-range plan as intimating some sense of its place in God's larger plan, but it isn't as explicit as it might be. It doesn't do much good to help people find Quakers if Quaker meetings are Lifeless and impotent. (See Marshall Massy's comment above where he contrasts FGC's minute of purpose with FUM's to see what I'm talking about).

If a Quaker Organization sees its primary mission as serving its own constitutents, as FGC appears to have done (for perfectly understandable reasons) that implies a certain approach. But if its primary purpose is to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth (or however you would state the mission of the Church), it will think of itself and go about its work in a different way.

In other words, is FGC seeking to serve the Society of Friends, or a certain branch of it, and do what it wants? Or is FGC's primary mission is to serve God and the church and God is telling FGC at the moment to help strengthen monthly and yearly meetings in all the ways its strategic plan says? These are very different questions and eventually produce different fruit.

The same questions could be asked of our monthly and yearly meetings.

I suspect that Friend Martin's critique of FGC in particular (even before his departure) and of the RSoF as a whole is that they (we) see our mission as sweeping floors: publishing curriculum and books, increasing intervisitation, creating a presence on the web, increasing our size and racial diversity, holding potluck suppers, making sure everybody feels comfortable, etc. -- instead of manifesting the Kingdom promised by the Gospel by these particular means. One reason is that we can't seem to agree on what the larger purpose is, and to avoid resolving that question we work on the best methods of keeping the kitchen clean.

I largely share that critique, though I see evidence that FGC is getting it right in some ways (along the lines you lay out, Liz) and that it's not a lost cause by any means. But neither is it inevetible. Watch and pray.

* I realize that the janitor's answer might just as well have been, "I'm helping to maintain and preserve U.S. hegemony over the world", but that wouldn't have made quite the same point, would it?

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul, I really like the sweeping floor/moonwalk parable. For what it's worth FGC did a private survey recently that's totally rocking. The organization knows about the moon, which is why I was happy to sweep floors all these years. Sure, I've been challenging it to look up more and I think it's mising some important targets but I'd still argue it's on a good trajectory. Much of the work will simply have to happen elsewhere, that's all.

Mark Wutka said...

Hi Liz,
Thank you for this insight into what is going on at FGC. While I do have some positive feeling about what you have posted, I do share some of the concerns posted by others.

With respect to "renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical ...", I do worry that this often ends in cherry-picking phrases from historical writings and assigning new meaning to them. In addition to "that of God" that Marshall pointed out, there is also a great disservice done to the "what canst thou say?" quote. I have also heard suggestions that "holding in the light" had more of a connotation of the light illuminating one's shortcomings and not so much as praying for someone, and also that "how does the Truth prosper among you" was more along the line of "is your meeting growing?" I hope someone more knowledgeable might give some insight on that last quote, it seems like it would more likely be asking whether a group is following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I am glad you are on the committee, Liz, and I hope that wonderful things result from your faithfulness.
With love,

Anonymous said...

I hope I won't be suspected of "popcorn" commentary since I have already paid my respects once.

However, Paul L made an observation that reflects a concern which has privately haunted me for some years now: "Sweeping floors is honorable work and needs to be done, but it is not the end in itself."

The Friend speaks my mind so well.

Could we perhaps place this extreme of mundane quietism into a broader context?

What if the phenomenon of faith were like a rainbow, and at the other end, we encounter the pitfalls of mystic quietism? For example, when surveying the general impotence of American women, suffragist Susan B. Anthony found that they were lost to the cause, "up in the air" with Jesus and the angels (or saints).

If there were such a rainbow, it would apply across various flavors of creeds and belief, not just ours.

It would be a rainbow with two rocky, barren foundations of quietism.

(Or, if you prefer, a double-headed arrow.)

I am already moving away from our common phrase "centering down" in favor of "centering up."

I want to climb that celestial staircase, looking for the center.

-- Mitch

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Friends.

These comments are wonderful, given their breadth and diversity!

First things first: It's been so long since I've had a chance to read and respond to new comments, that I went back and re-read some of the early comments:

Marshall -- I missed this on my first pass, but your comment refers to the excerpt about "renewing and integrating... foundations of Quakerism" as FGC's mission statement--which it is NOT. That statement is a single item in a multi-page document that comprises FGC's Long Term Plan.

If FGC has a mission statement, per se, I would point to the paragraph that concludes its Minute of Purpose (which is in my original post, but here it is for convenience):

Friends General Conference provides resources and opportunities that educate and invite members and attenders to experience, individually and corporately, God’s living presence, and to discern and follow God’s leadings. Friends General Conference reaches out to seekers and to other religious bodies inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends.

Again, FGC is not an overarching body to create and enforce policy or theology to its constituent meetings, and I think that difference is reflected in the statement's emphasis on "providing resources and opportunities" to Friends.

Okay, back to new comments:

Joe G. -- Sorry it's taken so long for me to respond! ...I'm not saying that FGC is convergent as an institution (yet), but I can see how what I wrote here might lead you and others to draw that conclusion.

I was just struck by how that one excerpt has held my attention for a few years now, and how "convergent-sounding" it came across to me at this time.

That said, the one item I lift up (Goal IV, Objective 3) seems to reflect some of what the convergent conversation is about when it comes to Liberal unprogrammed Friends: returning to our roots and retrieving the baby (or babies!) that we threw out with the bathwater some time ago.

I'll also yield that FGC is missing the boat when it comes to following certain online discussions, including the Quaker blogosphere, Live Journal, etc. Some of these threads really are impacting the Quaker renewal and convergence that we're sensing. Sure, there are individuals who look at the internet and get involved from time to time, but as an institution and as a corporate body, FGC has a long way to go... as might other Quaker institutions.

It's clear that God doesn't call all of us to use the internet to explore and deepen our Quakerism. And I myself still don't know how to have a corporate experience of the Divine on the internet, personally. As you say, Joe, "the life and light is at the local, person to person level."

Paul L -- Welcome back from Friends Journal. I bet there were some interesting conversations THERE!!!

As others have already said, your anecdote about the NASA janitor is worthwhile to remember. I also appreciate how you make the connection of "putting a man on the moon" with "bringing the Kingdom of God on Earth." Well put.

Martin -- I'd say that yes, FGC will nearly always be missing the mark--it's an institution made up of flawed human beings, after all (well, FGC does get it right every once in a while). But I wonder what state Liberal meetings might be in if QuakerBooks no longer existed; or if the Traveling Ministries Program never got off the ground; or if Youth Ministries were still fragmented among the remaining committees...

FGC isn't perfect, and yes, "much of the work" will happen elsewhere. But some of the work will happen NOW because of the faithfulness of others over the years. We do what we can, as we are led and as Way opens.

Mark -- I chuckled at your comment. For one thing, I'm a stickler for language myself. I want to know the theological (if not historic) basis for Quaker lingo and practice, so I share your concern about overuse/misuse of some of our words.

But I also chuckled about the classic query that you mention, "How does the Truth prosper among you?"

For two of the last three years, I have offered and been called upon to help craft queries that Central Committee uses to help ground us a bit during sessions. Worship-sharing is now part of the 4-day business sessions, and it's not always something that appeals to me to be a part of.

BUT -- I have resisted using the all-too-familiar query because I feel we're out of touch with the original Power and Life that had been a part of it for early Friends. Don't get me wrong: for many Friends, there is STILL power and life to that query. But I'm talking about my own sense of things as it reflects on the body of Central Committee.

So I frequently work to pull out queries that "get underneath" the all-encompassing "How does the Truth proper with thee?" Questions that invite Friends to look at what we are wrestling with about our relationship to God right now; where is God stretching us or asking us to become vulnerable?

Thankfully the work of creating queries--especially ones that relate to the business at hand in some way--falls to a few of us at a time, which usually helps.

Mitch -- Your comment about "climbing the celestial staircase, looking for the center" reminds me of walking the labyrinth.

And for me, I believe that wherever I am, God is with me. Neither up nor down. So I seldom use the phrase "center down." I'll simply say "settle," because when I settle, I often become aware of God's presence--WITH me.


Marshall Massey said...

Hi, Liz --

Many thanks for the clarification that the paragraph I quoted back to you was not a mission statement.

As regards QuakerBooks and the Traveling Ministries Program, I'm not sure I'm impressed. One can order all those books from Amazon.com and elsewhere. And the Traveling Ministries Program did virtually nothing to help me in my walk across the country last summer, although I asked its clerk for assistance directly. -- Not that I blame the Program or its clerk; the clerk in question told me that the Program had very limited resources, and I don't think that was her fault or its. But if that sort of thing is what is supposed to justify FGC, then I don't see the point. It ain't a patch on the services that Margaret Fell provided from the North of England, or that the Meeting for Sufferings provided in the early days from London.

On another level, I would point out that all those statements you are quoting are Quakerly-correct bureaucratese. They lack the living fire of the prophetic imperative. When administrative bodies lose touch with that living fire, they become good places to do good works in while hiding from the summons of the Cross. That, too, bothers me.

Anonymous said...

Marshall Massey credits FUM's purpose statement to Rufus Jones. I think this is in error. My memory is that the purpose statement was newly adopted in the first part of the 1990s. I believe I remember some discussion about whether or not Savior should have been included along with Teacher and Lord. And it doesn't sound like R.J. to me, but like a modern Quaker evangelical organization "mission statement."

Hi, Liz. We left our episcopal parish this past spring when the rector called an ex-gay minister as associate rector. The conflict between our leading on homosexual partnerships and the politics of the parish had become a constant subterranean distraction, and had deepened to differences over "biblical authority." Worship there wasn't working for us anymore, though we still love many of the people, the sincerity of faith, music. Many good memories. I don't regret the 7 year exposure to more traditional Christian preaching, teaching, and spirituality. But to make a long story short, we seem to be back among Friends.

Thinking about some of the themes in the conversation about "convergence"... A couple of Gordon College students came to meeting Sunday on assignment, and a small group was giving them the run-down on Quakerism. I was struck by how quickly Friends turn to their history to describe themselves, even if they don't know their history very well. It struck me that one problem with this tendency is that it can make it harder to see Friends' history clearly--history becomes too freighted if it becomes the terms in which we describe who we are now.

One participant offered that Friends were more concerned with the teachings OF Jesus than the teachings ABOUT Jesus. I'd heard this before--actually from the grown daughter of an Indiana Yearly Meeting pastor describing her father's approach. But I was uncomfortable here, too. On the one hand, early Friends did have strong teachings ABOUT Christ Jesus as light, seed, truth, come to teach his people himself. On the other hand, there can be long stretches of time when what makes sense to me (or what I want to challenge myself with) are some of the teachings OF Jesus. But I realized afterward that what made me uneasy was the implicit stake in denying (or at least setting safely aside) a big part of the traditional gospel. Whether or not I can affirm Jesus as Teacher and Lord--and whether or not I expect others to affirm--I want it all available.

My younger daughter and I attended the annual retreat of the small meeting we are attending. An old woman (she would prefer "old" to "older") born in Germany, lived through Hitler, is an important quiet (sometimes sleeping) elder in the meeting. Her love and faith are very real, and she faces the debilities of age with enormous appreciation for the many good, active years she has enjoyed. But she is one who would rather not even use the word "God." "Life" works for her, and she needed Quakers' non-creedal space to free her natural reverence into something to cherish and share with others. Well, "life" works and doesn't work for me. "God" carries other meanings that somehow go beyond life as shown on this planet, and sometimes I need that beyond in order to maintain faith here. But I have no desire to tell her she is missing the boat or "hiding from the summons of the cross." Fact is, I'm not that sort of evangelical. I am deeply grateful that she is available to the meeting, to me, to my daughters--and she will give her own testimony. Is it too much to want the gospel, the NT, the Hebrew tradition, the history of the church, Quaker history, Ghandi, Buddha, sentimental French moral tales of the 19th century, and you and I today all available as we seek, a la Paul, to not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good? Is Jesus too much totalitarian fire in a bottle to be held that way? Always a question for me. But I find from experience that I either hold it lightly or not at all.

I was thinking the ideal response to an inquirer would not be a disquisition on Quaker history, practices or beliefs, but, as Jesus once said, "Come and see."

Paul Kelly

Liz Opp said...

Marshall - My apologies for overlooking your follow-up comment. It's been a busy time for me!

You are right that "one can order all those books from Amazon.com," but I don't want to. I want to support companies and organizations that are value-driven and aren't out to make big bucks or drive out local or independent merchants. Not to mention: I can't call up Amazon.com on the phone and ask for help in finding Quaker books that address a certain topic--something I've done from time to time through QuakerBooks of FGC.

But what works for me doesn't mean it will work for everyone.

As to the Traveling Ministries Program and the cross-country travel you did, I get a sense of anger, frustration, pain from you about how that played out for you. Am I reading you right?

I don't know the ins and outs of how the committee that undergirds the program works, but I have seen on other occasions that the more visible FGC and its programs become, the more Friends want something from FGC that it cannot provide, isn't prepared to provide, or doesn't feel clear to provide.

When my customary sense of privilege meets a program's limits, of course I initially feel angry, pained, disillusioned. If I stay in those sorts of feelings too long, though, I may start separating myself from the Love and Spirit to which we all strive to be faithful. At some point, I must turn it all over to God.

Knowing a handful of Friends who serve on the Traveling Ministries Committee, I personally trust the deep, Spirit-led discernment that these Friends engage in, year after year. And of course, the committee is made up of fallible human beings, so perhaps there is yet some learning on their part that will come out of your inquiry.

Of course it's not for me to persuade you of any individual's or group's faithfulness; and it's not for me to expect that a program or organization will be able to extend itself beyond what it feels it can do, simply because of leadings that I have been given and am pursuing.

To quote one Friend:

"To keep low is not to be too sure we’re right but to seek the divine spark in those with whom we have strong disagreements..."

I'm concerned about your sense of anger, Marshall, though perhaps in the time that you posted your response here, things have shifted for you. If they haven't, I worry for you, and I hope you'll continue to make time to "stand still in the Light and submit to it."

Paul -- Thanks for coming by and sharing your experience, concerns, and musings. I find them very rich indeed! ...I don't know if you'll return here to see my response, but if you do, I'd like to know if I can post your reply as a "guest piece" on The Good Raised Up. If you wish, you can contact me directly at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.