December 23, 2006

When a 5-year-old asks if I'm Christian

Last night, while driving to a bowling alley of all places, my five-year-old niece MB asked me out of the blue:

Liz, are you Christian?
It's not as easy a question to answer as one might think!

For one thing, MB's parents are raising her as a Jew. For another thing, MB's family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. For a third thing, how likely is it for a five-year-old to be able to grasp the difference between "primitive Christianity" and today's secular Christianity? Not to mention my own personal journey with the whole topic!

So I took a breath and answered
Well, I don't believe in anyone named Jesus Christ, if that's what you mean. But I do believe in God, and since I was raised Jewish like you, I guess I still am kind of Jewish. Even more important than if I'm Christian or not, I believe in doing things that are common to both Judaism and Christianity, like treating people well and doing charity or tzedaka.
She seemed to accept my answer.

Then I asked her if she was Christian or Jewish. "I'm Jewish!" she replied. "But my daddy is Christian so we celebrate Christmas for him and Hanukkah for me and Mommy."

I'm waiting for the day when MB, my partner, and I can all talk about belief in God, spirituality, putting our faith into practice, and bringing our practice back into our faith.

But for now, we settle on playing four rounds of Apples to Apples Junior in a day, which is just fine for all of us!


Isaac Penington, anyone?

Away with your notions, and empty husks, O several sorts of professors! come to the thing itself, or rather wait on the Lord to be led to it, that ye may feel the seed, the pure seed, the living seed, the Holy One of God, and may know its planting and growth in you... --Isaac Penington
In the event that Friends or seekers do a search for Isaac Penington and want to be able to see how a handful of us are wrestling with the meaning and interpretation of some of his words from one particular essay, there is an exchange in the comments of the previous post. Just so you know.


P.S. The works of Isaac Penington can be read online.

December 14, 2006

Starting a new thingie

In recent posts by Nancy of Nancy's Apology and by Rob of Consider the Lilies, both these Friends are exploring new forms for worship--or, as Nancy puts it, experimenting with creating a "church thingie."

Experimenting with new things makes sense for those of us who hunger for meaningful experiences that are deep and full of capital-L Life. I suppose that's much of the unstated, unconscious explanation for why the worship group that I participate in got started.

Starting a new faith community "thingie" sometimes requires concrete planning, but I suspect more often it requires a clear leading and rootedness in one's inspiration--hopefully an inspiration that comes from the Spirit and not from one's ego. That's where talking with a few trusted others might be helpful, even if those few others serve as a short-term informal clearness committee.

I admit, though, that sometimes that inspiration can come from disappointment or frustration with the existing community. Sometimes it is easier and empowering for us to know what we want when it's looked at in relation to what we know we don't want.

I have always known inwardly that God does not want us to be unhappy. What is less clear to me is the place of intentional, community-based discernment and testing when one is so discontented and has already wrestled with the community. When is it okay to walk away and look to starting a new thingie?

. . . . . . . . .

Reading Nancy's and Rob's posts reminds me of a frequent conversation I have had with any number of Friends, all of whom had some concerns about how and why the worship group got started.

The worship group has been in place as a worship group for at least two years (before that, we were an informal fellowship group). We've hosted some informational sessions at other meetings to help address some of the most frequently asked questions, hoping to quell misperceptions and have people hear directly from us.

More than a year after those presentations, questions still linger and Friends still wonder. A conversation just last week pretty much followed the same progression as other conversations over the past two years:

Friend: So, why did you all decide to start a worship group when there are already other meetings in the area?

Me: It's not anything that we set out to do, actually. We were just a small group, getting together about once a month for fellowship and maybe for some worship "if the kids were quiet enough..."


Friend: But why have a separate group? Why not be part of one of the existing meetings?

Me: Well, among the group of us, it seems like we get something out of having a belief in common, about the Divine and about how we can listen together for God...

Head nod. Pause.

Friend:Oh. You mean, you don't feel you can get that experience here...?
It's hard and sometimes tiresome for me to hear similar questions put forward from so many different people when I feel like we've done our part to communicate what we're about and why we're around.

On the other hand, the most recent conversation has given me a fresh opportunity to articulate who I am as a Friend and who the worship group is as Quaker body. And it's made me aware--again--that despite the announcements and presentations and one-on-ones, there will probably always be more questions to answer, more puzzlement to clear up.

On top of that, I'll have to think about what would happen if, when asked, "You mean you can't have that experience in the monthly meeting?" I would answer simply, "No, it doesn't seem I can."

Since the meeting is pretty clear about appreciating the theological diversity that exists there, I find myself affirming that I personally benefit from a sort of theological unity rather than spiritual diversity--though theological unity is not to be confused with theological uniformity, in much the same way that unity over an item at a business session is not the same as unanimity.

. . . . . . . . .

Another piece that Nancy's and Rob's posts have made me reflect on is that it seems no matter how careful we are about getting the word out about whatever "new church thingie" might be happening and however open it is, Friends are going to project onto it whatever unresolved issues or fears they still carry:

Divorce: Oh, you're starting a new group... Your splitting off from us.

Failing out of school: Oh, you're starting a new group... You think you've got the right answers and the rest of us are just getting it wrong!?!

Classism: Oh, you're starting a new group... It sounds pretty exclusive to me.

However, the conversations I've had in the past two years with Friends who are curious or genuinely concerned about the worship group have been some of the richest conversations I've had with local Friends in a long time, which feels very nurturing and, well... enriching. And I'd fathom a guess that the one-on-one conversations have had far more impact on these Friends than reading a history of the worship group that's printed in a newsletter or presented in a small pamphlet.

We never know when we'll be called to start a new thingie, and we also may never know that that's where we've been called until after the fact. Some things we just do, in the moment, because that's where God has put down the next stepping stone.

To be clear: the situations that Rob and Nancy are entering into seem very different from times when Friends come under the weight of a concern, or wrestle with seemingly being out of step with the meeting, etc. Theirs may not require the sort of disciplines I have written about, though having the support and mutual accountability that trusted fFriends can provide is still an important piece. We do the best we can with the information we have; we wait and hold and wonder and consider.

I'm not always clear about the need to have a clearness committee to test every single nudge and inward prompt we have. But I remain clear that we will know how well we were led and how faithful we were in following the leading by looking at the fruit that is borne of the thing, after we've walked on a few more stepping stones.


P.S. As an afterthought, I am suddenly reminded of one of my favorite series of books--and I am NOT an avid reader, by any stretch. Somewhat deep into the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card, the reader learns that the protagonist has a leading to build a church.