July 15, 2006

Do I have to be a Christian
to be a Convergent Friend?

I began a comment on Timothy's One Quaker Take in response to his concern over just what "Convergent Quakerism" means.

Timothy references some of what occurred during the interest group at Gathering. Some of the questions he raises about the use of that phrase now prod me into sharing something that has been on my heart for awhile. So I am expanding on the comment that I had started in response to Timothy's post by continuing my thoughts here.

Monday night of the Gathering, when Martin, Robin, and I finally had a chance to review the interest group and what we had just been through, one of the things I mentioned was my concern that Friends who had attended that session may have made the assumption that the three of us identify as Christian.

For the record, I do not identify as Christian. At least not in the conventional/secular use of the term.

I had recognized as the evening went on that more and more Friends were speaking passionately about their love of Jesus and about their joy of being among Christian Friends. I began to worry how any non-Christian Friends might be responding. After all, the evening had begun as a forum to consider the spiritual fire that was leading some of us to restore and reclaim traditional Quaker practices for ourselves. I had no idea that it would open doors for Christian Friends to feel so at home and freed...

Likewise, it had never occurred to me, in my opening comments during introductions, to talk about why I, a non-Christian Quaker, was able to unite with the hunger and excitement of two Christian Friends and co-facilitate an interest group on engaging in a Quaker renewal through a convergence among Friends (though Robin acknowledged she could barely whisper the word "Christian"...).

By the time I had realized that the spiritual safety of non-Christian Friends like myself perhaps was being trumped by the excited witness of Christian Friends, we were well settled into worship.

So. Just where do I find myself in this conversation about Convergent Quakerism?

Like Timothy, "convergent" is a term I wrestle with. For myself, I have recognized that I cannot speak about it until I have lived with it for a while and until I see what, if any, fruit of the Spirit there may be.

I am someone who seems to have a natural affinity for learning languages. How that plays out is that I know intuitively to wait and observe and "feel my way" as I am exposed to how a certain word, phrase, gesture, or even facial expression is used over time, by different individuals, and in a number of contexts.

In the case of the phrase "Convergent Quakerism," (or just "convergence" among Friends) I have observed its use in at least these ways:

  • Robin M's initial definition, since she lifted it up for testing;

  • Martin Kelley's own use of the phrase sometime later (see the last sentence of an earlier post of his);

    and, more recently,

  • in an article in Quaker Life, written by blogger C. Wess Daniels.
  • It's Wess' words that speak to me and that "tweak" my own conflicted insides. In the article, he writes:
    The excitement [about Convergent Friends] is not over the fact there is a new group of Friends, but that there is a group of people who are in love with early Quakerism, Jesus and the Bible, following the Spirit and sharing God’s love with the world today. Convergent Friends hold both the Bible and experience in high regard, and reject the modern dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In order to do this we must focus on transforming our practices.

    One important practice we Quakers must participate in is a continual retelling of both the Christian (through the Bible and church history) and Quaker narrative (through journals, history books, etc.). The retelling of these stories helps heal and reshape the disparaging identity we now bear. Sharing stories must turn into learning and transformation if we are to pass our tradition onward...
    Here is what I unite with:

    1. That there are Friends, from no particular branch and from every branch, who are in love with what we understand is part of early Quakerism.

    2. That we love and yearn to be faithful to the Spirit and to live into God's love, regardless of how we name that Presence.

    3. That integrating our faith and our practice is key to renewing and sustaining a rigorous, transformative Quakerism.

    4. That retelling our personal stories and sharing our historical narratives about who we are as Friends and who we have been as Friends will help convey our faith to those who worship among us.

    And here are the things that I wrestle with, given that I was not raised in a Christian tradition:

    1. If I do not know Jesus directly, and if I am not "at home" (let alone in love with!) the Bible, how can I count myself among Convergent Friends?

    2. If there has been no regular place for Scripture in my experience as a Friend, how can I count myself among Convergent Friends, or even among Conservative Friends?*

    3. If I have next-to-no familiarity of the history of the Church, and only a thumbnail's understanding of how the Church has impacted early Friends and Friends today, can I count myself among Convergent Friends?

    Are these not some of the items that, in fact, put me more squarely among Liberal Friends?

    ...And yet, going back to how Robin phrased it, I am in fact "seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life" by following the leadings of the Spirit.

    What's more, to me the Convergent conversation occurs when participants are secure in their faith and not defensive about it. I can stand firmly and squarely in my faith as I understand it, and other Friends can stand firmly and squarely in their faith as they understand it, even if our Quakerism is expressed or revealed to us in different forms.

    It has been my experience that I have gone more deeply into Quakerism because Friends have spoken truthfully with me about their own.

    I have gone more deeply into Quakerism because Friends have asked me to risk looking more closely at the roots of practices such as eldership, testing a leading, and providing mutual accountability.

    In short, Friends have held my feet to the fire while making it clear that I would be loved and welcomed even if I could not stand the heat.

    For example:

    Maybe two months before Gathering was to get underway, I recognized that I had completely forgotten about the forum on the Quaker sweatlodge that was supposed to be convened on the night of interest groups.

    This is a concern I have been following because of friends I have on all sides of the issue. I contacted Robin and Martin to say I was going to have to reconsider--or discern further--where I was meant to be that Monday night.

    Robin responded by saying, "Well, you go to where you are called. At the same time, you made this commitment to do this interest group and you are a part of this work." Such is how I remember it, anyway.

    I felt no judgment from Robin, no anger, no hurt. Yet she reminded me that God had called me to that interest group, too. Neither Robin nor Martin told me what to do, but God did. Robin's words just reminded me to Listen again.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Convergent Friends seem to hone one other. We connect with one another around our common hunger and desire to delve more deeply into Quakerism, and the commonality is what carries us into the life of the Spirit, into the Stream. We move beyond words, beyond judgment...

    And, again, affirming how Robin has described Convergent Friends, I would concur that "the winds of the Spirit are blowing across all the branches of Friends - blowing us in the same direction."

    This by no means that ALL Friends from EACH branch feel the wind. Maybe the wind is the Breath of the Spirit that has blown life into only a few of us who had not previously had a voice--or who hadn't had a leading to speak before.

    But it seems that something is happening, and has been happening and perhaps quickening for awhile. Conversations across the schisms of Friends have been ongoing since the schisms first emerged. There are always bridge-builders and peacemakers that emerge after a split, regardless of the theological divide, religious rift, or family break-up.

    It is clear to me that these conversations, and the evolution of the phrase "Convergent Friends" are not done. We are, however, struggling and wrestling with important concepts, old and new, and we have made that struggle our own.

    It may not be easy, so at least let us be faithful.


    *This is largely why I consider myself "Conservative-leaning."


    Lorcan said...

    This is a dear and thoughtful post, and I will have to read it several times to understand its full impact. I am rather sure to heal the schism, we cannot come together on a name of God, an image of God, a language of God, but only on the acceptance of God, and God in others.

    Lorcan said...

    I fear that when we define this...
    "seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life" as being wedded to the past belief in an image of Jesus, we loose the meaning of the message of Yeshua, that there is not tribe in God. It is the hertitage aspect that is our tribal affiliation as Quakers, we should be quick to question that aspect of tribe that makes us Quakers. Tribes tend to be rather cliquish.... to be fully open, we must, as Yeshua offered, be ready to drink from the water of life with those we can't imagine being in unity with...
    thine again,

    Anonymous said...

    Liz wrote:
    I can stand firmly and squarely in my faith as I understand it, and other Friends can stand firmly and squarely in their faith as they understand it, even if our Quakerism is expressed or revealed to us in different forms.

    This Friend speaks my mind! Thank you, Liz, for such a thoughtful post, and for such clarity and honesty. I really think it's the deep sharing of our own personal experience, which you exemplify here, that is at the heart of "convergence". I hope you have also read Peggy Senger Parson's post on Why I like the idea of Convergence.

    Anyway, between Peggy and you, I'm feeling a little breathless right now. You've taken it away!

    Liz Opp said...

    Chris M. - Thanks for the link to Peggy's post. I'll take a look at it.

    Lorcan - Thanks for commenting, and especially for this point:

    It is the hertitage aspect that is our tribal affiliation as Quakers, we should be quick to question that aspect of tribe that makes us Quakers. Tribes tend to be rather cliquish....

    You offer me a reminder I have come across a dozen times in as many days:

    We are all one Family, one Tribe. We are Brothers and Sisters of one another.

    Now I must remember that and start living it.


    Paul L said...

    Liz: You ask, among other things:

    If I do not know Jesus directly, and if I am not "at home" (let alone in love with!) the Bible, how can I count myself among Convergent Friends?

    I'm kind of in the same situation, though I suspect I might be familiar with the Biblical narrative than you are. But I'm not sure how "at home" or "in love" I am with Jesus or the Bible the wholehearted way our more evangelical (small "e") Friends describe it.

    All I know is that I'm open to the possibility and growing into it slowly, encouraged in no small part by the living witness of those who testify to to the power of Jesus in their own lives. I may never get there, and I may someday abandon the whole endeavor, but I don't feel that that disqualifies me from hanging out and learning -- and possibly contributing -- what I can. (Maybe I'm an "almost persuaded" Christian, like Agrippa. See Acts 26:27-28.)

    From what you have said here and elsewhere, you seem open to the possibilty of growing into a Christian Quaker, even if you may not have an inclination to do so at the moment, and unless I'm missing the point entirely, that seems more than sufficient to call yourself a Convergent Friend (or to let others call you that).

    Anonymous said...

    Liz - This is a wonderful post, both honest and challenging. I would have liked to respond earlier but now is as good a time as any I suppose.

    First when we talk about Christians and Jesus I feel that we need to make the distinction between say George Bush's Jesus and George Fox's. One has interpreted Jesus in such a way to gain power, use rhetoric and confuse discipleship with "love of empire." Fox read and understood Jesus as Lord in the way the early early church did - the Gospel revived. He say that for Jesus the powerless, weak and lowly were to inherit the Kingdom, through peaceful means, through following the Spirit, through accepting all of humankind with love and grace, and through seeking justice for those in need.

    These two Jesus' are diametrically opposed. Fox's Jesus - as our testimony goes is the real Jesus - the son of YHWH.

    I am telling you this so that when I say the word Christian it holds some precision to it.

    Something that I see in the convergence of Friends is a desire to deal with Jesus, to take him back from the empire and to follow him in a way that creates disciples of peace, love and justice. Of course dealing with Jesus can take many forms, but this is what it seems like you're doing as well. You are considering it. We need a place where it's okay to be a Jesus' follower and a Quaker like Fox - this is not acceptable across the board. We also need a place to consider Jesus or consider Quaker practices - have the freedom to think it through. Convergent is both.

    One main characteristic of this postmodern Quakerism is that it is set to break modern dichotomies. It is the Enlightenment that birth the non-jesus-all-justice-liberalism and the empire-hungry-jesus-conservatism. Neither fit Fox's theology (or the other peace churches before that).

    Why I think it's so important to deal with Jesus is because it's Fox's Christology and allegiance to Christ that made the early Quaker movement what we know of it today. Christ-centered Quakerism birthed the likes of Barclay, E. Hooten, Fell, Pennington, Penn, Woolman, etc.

    They are the heros of the tradition to me ignoring this the way Lorcan suggests only strips the real content of our faith away (though I totally agree with what he said when he said, "on the acceptance of God, and God in others" it's just that his 'ONLY' is based on his historical preference with modern liberalism full of dualism's I'd personally like to avoid). All I am asking currently is that we don't ignore, and we don't out and out reject it. That we ought to consider the person of Jesus, and how he shaped Quaker identity. I think this will be part of overcoming our dualisms we have in our tradition today.

    The other characteristic of convergent Friends is inclusion, grace and patience with one another. Modern dualism don't allow for much of this either. We have to figure this out together, or it won't work.

    So in my mind Christian or not this conversation has room at the table for everyone in the style of Jesus. Who ate with everyone, even those who hated and finally killed him. I am very glad that you are carrying for this conversation and that you are a "convergent Friend."

    Liz Opp said...

    Paul and Wess,

    Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I know that I am viewed as a Convergent Friend, perhaps for the simple reason that I strive to live in the creative tensions that exist within contemporary Quakerism. Sometimes I do better at that than other times.

    Where I find myself now, as the Convergent conversation turns and turns and turns, is with a piquing curiosity about the Jewish nature of the rabbi whose teachings we are talking about.

    (Maybe that is something that Marcus Borg has written about???)

    There is something that stirs within me when I come across the name "Yeshua" in lieu of the name "Jesus," yet if I understand things right, these names refer to the same individual, at least in some regard.

    I'll probably ask the Velveteen Rabbi for resources about Yeshua/Y'shua/Jesus, from a Jewish perspective.

    Thanks again for taking the time you did to read me... I am curious where we will be led, individually and collectively, as the discourse and exchange continue.


    Mark Wutka said...

    The idea of you feeling somewhat excluded from Convergent Friends has been weighing on my mind, because I felt like my relating of my experience with Conservative Friends may have also contributed to that.

    I can't speak for Conservative Friends and I am open to correction, but my impression of NCYM-C is that the most important thing is your dedication to a life in the Spirit, both individually and as a community (I think the implications of the "community" part are at the core of what sets them apart from liberal Friends). I did not get the impression that you would be required to read the bible or to believe any specific things about Jesus, or even to use the word "Christ". Of course, if you are uncomfortable with other people quoting the Bible or using Christ-language, it might be difficult for you to feel at home, but my impression is that you would still be welcome. Personally, I would welcome any chance to worship with you and participate in a community with you.

    When I said that I thought the "community" part sets the Conservative Friends apart from Liberal Friends, it is based on my limited understanding, and also from a conversation over the weekend with Lloyd Lee Wilson (any misrepresentation of NCYM-C here should be attributed to me, not him). He offered a definition of Conservative Friends that was something like "A community dedicated toward living by the inward leading of the Hold Spirit".. I wish I had the exact phrase. Anyway, I thought that his description would fit quite a few Liberal Friends, but then he said it again and paused after "community" and I understood the difference. I think a lot of people have trouble with the idea that the community has an interest in an individual's spiritual life. For example, I don't know about other yearly meetings, but SAYMA's Faith and Practice doesn't include any advices, and the queries mostly avoid suggesting that any particular actions might be bad. When we read queries at Atlanta Friends, we don't record the answers or try to discern the community's answer to the query. It isn't just procedural things, my impression was that other people had a genuine interest in helping me, and in my helping them if possible - not in a judgmental way, but just in building-up.

    I apologize for the long message, and for being slightly off-topic by talking about Conservative Friends when everyone else is talking about Convergent Friends. I hope it at least helped a little.

    With love,

    Liz Opp said...

    Hey, Mark--

    Nothing you have said or written has been troublesome for me, so don't worry about it.

    The main stimulant or catalyst for my writing this post was the way the interest group at Gathering played out, followed by my own response to Wess' article.

    Otherwise, I agree with your sense of and experience among Conservative Friends: that I have been welcomed in large part because I strive to be faithful to God's leadings, and because I am willing to speak honestly about the theological questions with which I wrestle.

    What'll be interesting to see, too, is if ANY of this thread emerges during my time at Iowa Conservative's annual sessions, which start in just a few days! (Rumor has it that Kody will be there as well...)


    Mark Wutka said...

    I wish I could be there as well. Ceal and I have said that we would love to visit Iowa YM (C), but it is a pretty long trip. Please give Deborah Fisch our best wishes, as well as Callie (I don't remember her last name, but she was DF's traveling companion to NCYM-C). I'm sure it will be a wonderful experience!
    With love,

    Mark Wutka said...

    I remembered last night that Callie's last name is Marsh.

    Liz Opp said...

    Hey, Mark--

    I have known Callie for a few years, mostly through the two Midwestern Quaker groups that gather occasionally for singing and fellowship, Nightingales (Northern Yearly Meeting) and Meadowlarks (Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative).

    I'll be sure to say Hey to Deborah and Callie when I see them. They are dear people and are cherished by many.


    Anonymous said...

    Hi Liz, Albion, everyone!

    Albion writes, "...I understand that with the possible exception of the Friends at Paullina here in Iowa, that most 'Conservative Friends' (in Iowa) are not Christian."

    I don't know where Albion got his statistics, but my own experience of Iowa (Conservative) is quite different. In the ten years or so that I've been involved with it, most of the Iowa (C) Friends I've met have been quite clearly Christian; they just don't make a show of it. They simply live their faith.

    For what it's worth, too, let me call your attention to Iowa (Conservative's) "Advices and Queries", which were revised (and approved by the yearly meeting in their revised form) just a few years back, and so serve as a pretty good reflection of the current state of the yearly meeting. Notice the very first sentence, please: "Quakerism is a living faith made real through the inward light of the living Christ." I think that speaks volumes about the way people in Iowa (Conservative) perceive themselves and their yearly meeting.

    Liz Opp said...

    Albion -- I see that you repeated your comment--and I have responded to it--on another post, and Blogger is set up so that I receive comments automatically via email. I hope you'll look at my response there when you have a chance.

    Marshall -- Thanks for sharing what you know of and have experienced among Iowa Conservative Friends yourself. Since I have been a visitor there only for a few events in the last 12 months or so, I did not feel I could speak directly to Albion's perception about how Christian the yearly meeting is.

    For myself, I know that I have had to be among Conservative Friends over quite some time--and have close friendships with one or two of them for even longer--in order to begin to get a feel for what Conservative Quakerism is about, including the nature of Christianity within the faith, how these Friends "live their faith," and how welcome and valued I can be made to feel, despite my own wrestlings around "the Jesus question" (see my comment to Albion in the other post, linked above).

    I find that my perceptions about various groups of Friends are changed for the better when I seek to have a variety of experiences among them personally, rather than limit my knowledge to what I read in Quaker texts and online.

    This, in turn, seems to be in keeping with the practice of basing t/Truth on experience, rather than on hearsay or on someone else's writings.


    Liz Opp said...

    Albion -- Your enthusiasm for Quakerism and for a healthy, compassionate Christianity is clear here, and I hope your communication with Friend Marshall will be fruitful, if the two of you connect.

    Thanks for sharing some of your experience. It helps me to have some of those "missing pieces" about how you got to where you are.

    My closest friend recently reminded me that there is a danger we Quakers face:

    People who discover us through reading and who become enamored with who we are and what our history has been often forget that we Quakers are human.

    The best reminder of this comes through spending time with us, not just in worship but in fellowship, on committees, during discussions, and during Meetings for Worship for Business.

    We have our faults.

    We struggle to tell the truth. Sometimes we outright lie.
    We sometimes hit our children.
    We sometimes cheat on our taxes and on our spouses.
    We are not always kind to strangers; we do not always clothe the naked and feed the poor.
    We sometimes fight in wars, despite the Peace Testimony.
    We did not always take a stand against slavery. Some of us owned slaves and didn't want to free them.
    We don't like everyone. Sometimes we don't like each other.
    Sometimes we drive faster than the speed limit, or don't always recycle everything we can.
    We don't have the same perfect Love that some spiritual teachers we emulate had.

    So I don't know how to caution you gently, how to ask you to let me, let us be fallible... but still keep your sights on God and what it is that God wants for you; how it is that God asks you to be, even if others seem to fall short.

    In other words: if you put me on a pedestal, I am bound to disappoint you. If you see Quakers as the paragon of virtue, you are bound to find us less than virtuous at one point or another.

    I myself have been guilty of putting Friends on a pedestal, only to wonder why they didn't live up to my expectations. Maybe that's why I want to put up the warning flag: Been there; done that; don't want to do it again (but probably will anyway, since I'm human).

    I'm tired as I write this, so I hope I am making sense. Thanks for keeping in touch.


    Gregg Koskela said...

    Reading your post days ago, coming back to it tonight, and sitting with the many comments has been moving.

    I always appreciate honesty and openness, and that is what I see in all of this. Tonight or tomorrow, I hope to post on my own blog some of my thoughts in response to your post; not as argument, not as rebuttal, but to offer honestly some of my journey as you are doing here.

    Thank you.

    Anonymous said...

    Albion, I've received your e-mail and will reply to it in due time. (It requires more labor on my part than I can give it just now.)

    I will say here that I don't think my experience discredits yours, and I don't think yours discredits mine. My experience is that a majority of the Iowa (C) Friends I've met are Christian, but not in a noisy or partisan or quarrelsome way, and that the Yearly Meeting as a whole identifies with the Christian tradition as historically understood by Friends. Whatever your experiences have been, they do not mine that mine have not happened or are invalid, any more than mine mean that yours have not happened or are invalid.

    As to Christ's teachings on marriage -- well, this isn't going to be a short response, and I ask Liz's forgiveness for posting it here anyway. Albion, I would ask you to read Christ's teachings on marriage in the context of his teachings as a whole.

    On the one hand, Christ clearly wanted every law in Judaism to be taken to a deeper and more profoundly right level, as exemplified in his Sermon on the Mount, and in terms of marriage, this meant not even looking at another possible partner with lust.

    But on the other hand, Christ taught forgiveness, seventy times seven times, and that the Father forgives us just that freely; he taught that we are given another chance, a chance to do it right this time, if we want it. And I am sure that applies to marriage as much as to every other aspect of life.

    And I might point out that Christ did not forbid divorce. He said Moses permitted it (only) because of our hardness of hearts -- i.e., our failure to listen to the Guide in our hearts -- and that is a definite and absolutely correct criticism of our condition, is it not? And he said that if we divorce a spouse for a reason other than the spouse's adultery, we are committing adultery (which is a very grave sin) ourselves, and this is true. But he did not forbid it; he merely said that this was not God's original intention, and implied that it would be infinitely better to fulfill God's original intention, and certainly that we should not commit adultery.

    Taken together, these points do not seem to me to absolutely forbid remarriage to a different spouse. But they do place an enormously heavy burden on us to do the whole thing right, not just self-indulge.

    We should not divorce someone, or remarry to someone different, if there is any possibility of making the original marriage work.

    We should not even marry someone if it is not truly the partner God intended for us for life; and we should be very, very careful about this discernment.

    We should not go easy on ourselves about what we have done, or what we are doing now, or what we are drawn to do next. If we are divorcing for a reason other than our partner's adultery, we are committing a very grave sin.

    But we should also not close our eyes to the fact that God totally forgives our errors, and even our gravest sins, if we are truly repentant and willing to change and make amends. And we should be aware that if we see right reasons for going ahead with the divorce, God sees them too. All rightness is of God.

    We should just not close our eyes to the fact that such right reasons will inevitably not be the whole of the story, and that a very grave sin is involved as well.

    We should therefore start the process of getting past a wrong marriage, and forming a right one, either with the same partner or with a different one, by turning to God: (1) to be totally honest about what we've done wrong, (2) to seek ways of making every possible amendment and mitigation for what we've done that was wrong, including changing our own desires and plans and going back to the original marriage if that is right, (3) to seek forgiveness and healing, and (4) to seek the strength and guidance and clarity to do what is truly right from this point on.

    We should not be closed off to the possibility that restoring the original marriage is the truest realization of the Kingdom of Heaven. We should not be closed off to the possibility that ending the original marriage is the truest realization of the Kingdom. We should remember that realizing the Kingdom is what God wants, and that, conversely, obeying the Inward Guide, who tells us what God wants, is itself the Kingdom.

    I do not think that this is an "ugly" way to address the issues of divorce and remarriage.

    I do think (as I said before) that it is a very strenuous way to do it, and one that places a dreadfully heavy burden on anyone who married the wrong person, at a time before she or he fully understood the gravity of marriage, and now realizes her or his mistake. But Christ teaches us that God is charitable toward those who make mistakes, to the degree that they in turn are good to others. So even in that case, there is probably more of a way out of the marriage, and into a different marriage, than a fundamentalist would admit; it's just going to be a much, much, much harder way out than a liberal would admit.

    Do you disagree?

    As the Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."