August 10, 2008

Iowa Conservative sessions 2008, Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post about my reflections on Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s annual sessions.

Bruce Birchard, John McCutcheon

Other touching moments came from evening speaker Bruce Birchard of Friends General Conference, and from an interest group led by Quaker singer/songwriter John McCutcheon, who also provided a concert on Wednesday evening.

In his remarks, Bruce touched on two themes. He spoke about the way the peace testimony has been (nearly?) coopted as a sort of creed among modern day Friends, and Bruce called on us to return to True Root of the testimony, which grows out of being personally convicted by the Spirit.

Bruce also shared a very tender and emotional story about experiences with his family's coming to terms with having an "out" gay family member--a lesson about perfect Love casting out fear (1 John 4:18.)

When a Friend asked Bruce about what he thought accounted for a deep change of heart in his father, Bruce put his hands face up, shook his head, and said, "I honestly don't know." But a moment later, another Friend stood and offered this counsel:

Why don't you just say that he was changed by the Spirit? Why do we Friends not acknowledge that such a change happens because of the workings of the Spirit on us? We say we believe in the transformative power of God, so why are we slow to acknowledge it when it happens?
Those words hung in the air for the remainder of the week and were reflected upon during the closing worship on First Day.

John McCutcheon's remarks were also powerful for me, and I was sorry to have missed part of his interest group, during which he spoke to how we might draw deeply from our own culture and on our own faith tradition when confronted with difficulty. John would share a true story of some act of personal courage and then play a song he had written about that act.

Two examples that stick out for me are the story of SuAnne Big Crow and the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailović.

There were a few other gems in John's remarks. For example, at one point he asked us to name two speeches from the Civil Rights Movement. The room was silent after a few offered "I have a dream."

Then John asked us to name two songs from that same period.

We Shall Overcome. ...Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. ...We shall not be moved. ...Blowing in the Wind.

John explained that in any social movement, there are two primary activities: (1) Rallying the masses and (2) practicing the art of persuasion. And one of the best ways to persuade, John offered, is to tap how people feel in a way that joins us to one another. Music and song do just that, and that's why songs from a specific movement or event stay with us longer than many speeches.

Then John threw out this quip as he started to play a familiar song and encouraged us to sing along, reminding us:
Without differences, there would be no harmony.
The only thing I wished was that John himself would have shared something of his own spiritual journey, but still: Having him in concert later that night was a treat.

Interest Group:
The spiritual glue for meetings with diversity of belief

Early during sessions, I met two women from Fayetteville, Arkansas, and we found ourselves engaged in a conversation about just what it is that holds our meetings together, especially in the presence of tremendous theological diversity.

(Thanks to blog reader David Carl for "sending" Susan and Elizabeth! Maybe I'll see you next year...?)

We acknowledged our desire to hear from and speak with others on the topic, and since I have attended these sessions for a few years now, I offered to set up an interest group for later in the week.

About 15 Friends attended, which is a fair number, given that there was also a popular tour of the Scattergood Farm going on at the same time.

It seemed as though Friends were eager to talk about the condition of their meeting as it relates to theological diversity. Comments ranged from some Friends who are delighted and enriched by the breadth of diversity, while others are challenged and confused by the lack of a shared understanding of just who and how we are.

A number of times I reminded Friends that we were seeking to know what it is that binds us together, though it was a slippery slope whenever we ventured near the topic of theological diversity instead.

It reminded me of the challenge we face as Friends to describe our faith tradition in terms of what it is and what we do, rather than what it is not and what we don't do. If that makes any sense.

The interest group could have continued beyond our allotted time, and so to wrap up, I said something like,

"It may well be that what binds us together are a few things:
    The history of our faith tradition itself,
    Our manner of worship as unprogrammed Friends,
    Our willingness to speak authentically about our experience, including what we wrestle with; and
    Our laboring together in love, over such concerns like theological diversity."
In retrospect, I might add that all of us seem to yearn to keep what is dear to us, even if that means different things to different people. But the yearning itself is the same, and when I remember that, my heart is softened and made a bit more light.

When Bruce Birchard was asked a similar question later that night about what he thought binds us together, he simply remarked, "Our experience of the Divine."

And even five days after my return home, and after another opportunity for me to consider this topic once more, I would add--
    A recognition that something transformational happens when we live from, and strive to move towards, a center of Love.

Expecting to be changed

Also since I've been home, I've begun thinking again about what it is that sustains us in our faith as Quakers.

These Iowa sessions reiterate for me the very real possibility that the more we live and interact with one another as a covenant community, the more likely we are to adopt behaviors that reflect a larger Gospel Order, a larger rightly ordered manner of living that is in harmony with the rest of the planet.

More and more Friends within IYMC are actively reducing their reliance on fossil fuel, and the Peace and Social Concerns recommended that Friends consider avoiding air travel and help redesign transit systems.

I recognized that within myself, if I am separated for too long from people who are bearing witness to a new way of being in the world, it is harder for me to let go of my own way of being in the world, just as I gave up my child-phobia because I saw models of a different way of how non-parents might be a presence to children in a small, manageable setting.

When I am surrounded by a loving people who are striving to be faithful and obedient followers of God's call, then I too strive to be faithful, obedient, and loving.

And when I am surrounded by such a people, and I open myself to the Light, I likely will stretch myself and engage a bit more in the corporate life of living into God's kin(g)dom on Earth.

And that's how I would say I've been changed and transformed by the Spirit during these Iowa sessions this year.


P.S. I forgot when I first posted this piece to give a shout out to fellow bloggers Micah Bales and Marshall Massey. In addition, I discovered that one of my car companions on this trip, Aimee, also has a blog, which encompasses more than Quaker stuff


Part I
of my reflections
Micah Bales' post on this year's IYM(C) sessions
Aimee's post, What Would John Woolman Do?
The minute that was approved that addresses follow-up to the "emergent concerns" of greater Iowa


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

This post moved me a great deal. I found myself challenged by the question, why we don't credit the workings of Spirit in transforming us, and thinking of the ways that acknowledging the gifts of Spirit--times of being favored in ministry, gifts in ministry, or the times when something will open dramatically and beautifully--seems vain and self-important to me, a liberal and unprogrammed Friend. Though in fact, it's the opposite--it's about the ways it's not my specialness that makes the good things happen, but rather, a "God thing," as one Christ-centered Friend refreshingly put it to me this week.

I love to be changed by the Spirit. I need to find ways to say so, simply, openly, honestly, though it may feel awkward to me at first.

There's a great deal more that this post evokes for me. I think I'll wind up re-reading it several times... Thanks so much for conveying a sense of your experiences at Iowa Conservative Sessions.

Aimee said...

Thanks for posting your reflections Liz. It's true we didn't get to process much because of munchkins in the car.
Thanks for the reminder about that one comment (crediting the working of the Spirit in us). I was there and had forgotten about that one!
It was a rich gathering though, with much to process.

Liz Opp said...

Aimee and Cat -

Since writing this piece, I had the opportunity during a recent committee meeting to lift up how I so often credit my own good thinking, or the guidance and wisdom of those around me, when much of what has helped me be transformed and brought closer to God has in fact been God.


David Carl said...

"(Thanks to blog reader David Carl for "sending" Susan and Elizabeth! Maybe I'll see you next year...?)"

Ah, my pleasure! Hopefully I'll make it to the April session.


RichardM said...


A few years back I had the leading to stimulate an open discussion of our theological differences within NCYM(c). The leading took several years to work out. First, I had to get clear about my own theology. To do so I volunteered to lead Bible Study at YM sessions in which I explored "Continuing Revelation within the Bible." I held up a variety of passages from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament showing how the various books of the Bible represent quite different theological viewpoints. The Bible doesn't speak with one voice. Rather it is a long argument about who God is and what we are and what is our relationship to God. I also organized a panel discussion where four Friends agreed to answer questions about their own theologies to the YM. Finally at a Representative Body session held at Virginia Beach Friends present gathered to share their own theological convictions, a summary of which was compiled. At the start of the process I was fearful that our theological diversity would be so great that bringing it out into the open would lead to bitterness and even possibly divisions. Yet, I felt lead to do this anyway and that imperative made me go forward despite these feelings. What emerged from all of this was that I was amazed by how much unity and how little diversity there really was. I know that within the Society of Friends as a whole there is great diversity but I find that there is a strong central core of unity. Any brief summary will be defective but bearing that in mind here it is. There are a few theological extremists on both ends of the spectrum. At one end are the fundamentalist who accept a Bible-based rather than Spirit-based theology which holds that salvation comes only to those who consciously accept a version of Christian theology centered around the Atonement. Such Friends are more influenced by other Christian churches than they are by Quaker tradition. (See Max Carter on Tofu Quakerism) At the other end of the spectrum are the humanists who think that all God-talk is merely symbolic of the highest potential of human beings. I had the sense that there were few if any among North Carolina conservative Friends at the fundamentalist end of the spectrum but I wondered how many humanists there might be. It turns out that there are very, very few of them. I think that there is a central core of Friend whose theolgy is that the Spirit is real and powerful and not just a metaphor for human potential and that faith in this Spirit does save us ("save" = transform) to the extent that we listen and obey. Faith saves but faith is not "accepting Jesus as your personal Savior" i.e. agreeing to a rather narrow theology.

What about the Society of Friends as a whole? I honestly don't know but I am beginning to suspect that this core is very strong in the Society at large and that the extremes seem bigger than they are because they tend to be a lot louder than the core. I do not feel led to provoke a discussion of theology in the Society of Friends as a whole, but if someone else did, then perhaps they would find that there is a deep unity that is more powerful than the superficial diversity.