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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Risen Christ Meetings

I received this comment from Bill Samuels a few days ago. It's listed in the comments but I wanted to post it because I feel what he has to say is very important. Bill writes, "After going to Cedar Ridge Community Church for a year, I was back at my old Quaker meeting one Sunday a couple of months ago. I was really struck at the vast difference in the atmosphere between the two places. At Cedar Ridge, there is a spirit of joy and hope which pervades. Not so at the meeting. I found the meeting to be a downer Nice people really trying to live out their values, but where is the joy that Jesus said He came to bring us? We have to not only live out our faith, but be it. If we have truly been transformed by the love of God through Christ Jesus, there will be an abiding joy in our life regardless of circumstances. This is winsome to people struggling to find their way in the world."

I really appreciate what Bill has to say because I find it to be so true. I think that many of our meetings suffer from issues of self-image. We almost expect our meetings to fail so we don't see any reason to have hope or be hopeful. It's easy to compare ourselves to other churches that are much larger or more active and we feel that we don't feel as if we are doing well. Add to that meeting leadership that is often over focused on issues of finance, tradition, maintenance, and making sure that everything is done in a nice and decent order and you have a recipe for an atmosphere that often not very uplifting.

Bill's comment points out the importance of "atmosphere" or "climate" within a meeting. We often do not realize it but organizations, congregations, and meetings do carry a particular climate and atmosphere. In some ways, it can be very tangible. Again, the people who have been charged with the responsibility of setting the tone for this atmosphere are that of the meeting leaders. Are your meeting leaders setting a tone of faith, hope, and love? Is there a sense of joy among the meeting members and leaders? Is there a winsomeness that is present?

To be "winsome" is to have an atmosphere that has a sense of levity about it as well as affirmation and appreciation. The people present value their faith and they believe deeply in their faith but they don't take themselves so seriously that they aren't afraid to admit their mistakes and to listen to other viewpoints. Bill is right. In a world in which people are struggling and trying to find a sense of joy and meaning, we need our meetings to be a place of winsomeness and joy. In fact, I would say that a key mark that a meeting is being influenced by the Risen Christ is that they are becoming more winsome and joyful.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Embracing Grace and the Quaker Message

In his most recent book Embracing Grace, author Scot McKnight writes: "...this generation is challenging the Church to perform what it proclaims, or, to use less elegant language, to put up or shut up. What this generation is asking to see proclaimed by performance is grace. People today want to get to the bottom of things, in fact to the bottom of their own things. They want something that finds what is really there and tells them there is a way for what is really there to be restored to what it once was or what it can be. They want something that speaks to their condition and that can set them free from the chaos this world confronts them with. They want something that will draw them closer to God and to others and lead them to a life that is good for the world. And they want to both hear it and see it."

If Scot McKnight truly does have a sense of what this generation is seeking - and I believe he does - it's an invitation for us as Quakers to truly engage ourselves witht he condition of the world so we can bring them something that "speaks to their condition." It's interesting to me that McKnight uses a phrase in his book ( "something that speaks to their condition") that almost word for word describes Fox's spiritual experience. In his own spiritual journey, we know that he came to experience Christ as the only one that could speak to his condition. What our culture needs is not a something but a Someone. That Someone is the deep abiding presence and love of the Living Christ.

As McKnight writes, though, they want to hear it and see it. Our faith is not going to penetrate hearts and souls through mere information but also through demonstration. We demostrate the presence of Christ through our grace extended to the world and how we treat one another. When we come face to face with Jesus of the New Testament, we are challenged greatly. The picture we get in the Gospels often contradicts how we truly act.

In his new book, The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian McLaren writes: "What if Jesus of Nazareth was right - more right, and right in different ways, than we could have ever realized? What if Jesus had a message that truly could change the world but we're prone to miss the point of it? What if we have developed a religion that makes reverent and honoring statements about Jesus but doesn't teach what Jesus taught in the manner he taught it? What if the religion generally associated with Jesus neither expects nor trains its adherents to actually live in the way of Jesus?"

Maybe one of the great contributions of Quakers in this generation is that we train our "adherents' to actually live in the way of Jesus. What a poweful movement that would be! What a difference they would make!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Positive View of the Quaker Sacramental Way

Many thanks to read Alan Parker who shared this quote by John Willem Rowntree with me. It articulates well the reason Quakers do not practice the outward sacraments of baptism and communion.

"...It is the inward change - the inward purification, the spiritual fact and not the outward symbol, that belongs to the truth in the Kingdom of God. Neither in the refusal to baptise nor to take the supper do Friends set forth a negation. They assert, on the contrary, the positive truth that the religious life is the inward life of the spirit. But no place or time can limit its action, or any symbol adequately express it." (John Willem Rowntree (QFP, 27.37) , 1902)

I especially like Rowntree's words that Friends are setting forth a "postive truth" - that the spiritual life is the inward life of the Spirit. So often we do tend to portray our position in the negative..."We're not for baptism" or "We're against communion." On the contrary, we believe in baptism and communion so much we feel as if anything external or ceremonial falls short of the original intent!

This quote by Rowntree is worth pondering many times over..and sharing with other seekers and folks wrestling with the sacrament issue.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Issue of Sacraments Among Friends

In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner has this to say about sacraments:

"A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside. Generally speaking, Protestants have two official sacraments (the Lord's Supper, Baptism) and Roman Catholics these two plus five others (Confirmation, Penance, Extreme Unction, Ordination, and Matrimony). In other words, at such milestone moments as seeing a baby baptized or being baptized yourself, confessing your sins, getting married, dying, you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.

Needless to say, church isn't the only place where the holy happens. Sacramental moments can occur at any moment, and place, and to anybody. Watching something get born. Making love. A high-school graduation. Somebody coming to see you when you're sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger's eyes and finding out he's not a stranger.

If we weren't blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental."

As Friends (Quakers), it is noteworthy that we are taking into consideration the need for people to have a tangible experience of the Divine. In other words, we recognize the fact that there is a whole generation coming up and into our meetings that has a hunger for the symbolic. This is evidenced in the emerging church movement and post-modern worship experiences where there is the use of ancient symbols, candles, written prayers, etc. But could it be that offering the physical sacraments to those who desire it is taking the easy way out.

It may take more work and effort - and more time - to teach people the meaning of inward communion but in the long run we are opening their heart up to even greater growth. Through our experience of inward communion, we teach people to, as Buechner put is, "...catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life." We also begin to communicate the truth that sacramental moments can happen at any time.

Offering the outward sacraments may be solution but it's a short-term solution. It doesnt make us as distinct which makes it easier for people to move on from our meetings when they get disillusioned and bored. There are plenty of other places that can offer them the outward sacraments. But, if we hold to the reality that there is great power in inward communion, we develop within them a longing and satisfaction that they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. Teaching people about the value and power of inward communion and baptism may take more time but it's a long-term investment that will reap long-term rewards. Not only for our meetings but for the life of the person. We will be teaching them about the sacramental nature of life and that is a gift everyone should experience!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Helping People See God - Simple Love

This past week I spoke on the simplicity of love. It's been part of a series of messages entitled "A Simple Faith for a Complicated World." In my message, I shared a quote from Thomas Merton which talked about the sacramental nature of love. Taking his cue from 1John, Merton describes how loving others takes on a sacramental feel because it ends up being an outward experience of an inward reality. In the fourth chapter of 1 John, the writer tells us that no one has seen God but that God is made known and manifested through our acts and expressions of love. I'm struck by how simple yet challenging that can be. The very essence of the Good News is to love one another but yet we find that difficult to do.

The danger for Quakers of wading into the practice of the outward sacraments is that we may feel that the presence of God is found more in a ceremony and ritual then in expressions of love and compassion. God's reality then gets confined to a certain time of the week (Sunday morning presumably between 11am-12pm) and to a certain ritual. As I read 1 Corinthians 13, I am challenged by how this sacrament of love is supposed to look. Just when I'm tempted to get over pious and theological, I read that love is designed to be kind, gentle, and patient. In love, I am invited to stay away from being rude and irritable. To read 1 Corinthians 13 is to be challenged to do a quick review of your day and ask, "How well did I love today?" There are plenty of days in which I am rude and short with other people. There are plenty of days in which I am less then kind and gentle. And of course, there are plenty of days in which I am very impatient.

We Quakers have a wonderful opportunity through our witness of the non use of the outward sacraments to show present day society and culture what authentic faith looks like. It's not about ceremony or ritual. It's not about reciting creeds or adhering to theological and belief statements. It's about loving others - whoever the "other" might be. And that includes people we often find hard to love...and poeple society finds hard to love and accept.

What we discover is that as we love and as we practice the "sacrament of loving" we realize that the gospel is more about inclusion then exclusion. The gospel is more about embracing then rejecting. In his book, "Embracing Grace", Scot Knight writes:
"Neighborly love begins in one's home and with one's own neighbors and thus unleashes the cycle of grace into our society and even further into our world." We need to unleash this "cycle of grace" because there is so much "ungrace" in our world.

Maybe the most important thing is that, as Quakers, as we further our discussions about vision, sacraments, and any other issues we may choose to dialogue on, let's take great care and creating environments of grace in which we are willing to listen and hear what the other has to say rather then being quick to make judgements or pronounce judgements on each other. As we discuss the sacraments, let's practice the sacrament of loving one another.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Character of Sacramentality

With my apologies to Paul Anderson of Northwest Yearly Meeting for borrowing from his good words and not getting his permission to quote him, I need to let others know that the term "sacramental restlessness" was first coined by Paul. I read it in an article he wrote years ago for the magazine "Evangelical Friend". The article was so good I have hung on to it for years. It is the best explanation put forth as to why we as Quakers do not observe the outward sacraments. Here are some quotes from the article for others to reflect upon.

"But what is it that really makes something sacramental? Or put otherwise, what is the character of sacramentality? Unfortunately, we Quakers have been rather shallow in our treatment of the issue. We too easily stress what we don't do and miss the whole point of a very beautiful and meaningful testimony - one that the world needs desperately to hear."

"Sacramental restlessness among Friends may be a sign that the local church leadership has not been thinking enough about how the real presence of Christ is experienced in the gathered meeting for worship, how every worship meeting should create the space for 'communing' with the risen Lord, how the Holy Spirit can fill and transform the individual with Pentecostal fire, how the world can be reached miraculously by God, how the divine is made accessible through outward means - the character of sacramentality."

"So just what is the positive Quaker testimony on the sacraments? In a nutshell, that God looks on the heart, and the heart that believes in Him receives Him. Outward ways of expressing ourselves to God and before others may help us at times, but they NEVER determine God's divine action toward us. Inward trust alone is the sole condition for receiving God's saving grace and sanctifying power."

"Forgiveness of sins, forsaking the world, spiritual immersion, divine empowerment, all of these are received through faith in Jesus Christ alone; and the only true outward evidence of the newness of life is the changed and changing lives of those who abide in Christ and are immersed in His spirit. Friends believe this is what Christ came to bring, and that no religious group or method regulates the divine dispensing of grace. God looks on the heart. That is enough."

"Jesus came not only to tell the world how to encounter God - He came to be that communication and the locus of encounter...When God wanted to communicate His saving love to the world with finality, He didn't send us a ritual, a book, a song, or even a good sermon. He sent His only begotten Son, the Word-made-flesh."

"So if we think about how our spiritual lives might become most fully sacramental, three priorities remain. First, acknowledge Jesus Christ as God's saving/revealin self-communication to you personally, and do so often. There is no substitute for responding believingly to God's loving initiative. Second, create the sacramental space in your devotional life to daily feed on the Bread Jesus offers through prayer and Scripture reading. There is no substitute for being immersed in the Spirit. Third, regard the gathered meeting for worship - the people who love Christ, in whose midst He dwells - as the place to encounter the living presence of God radically. There is no substitute for communion with Christ in corporate fellowship."

Sacramental Restlessness - Issues to be Considered

This topic has certainly triggered many responses. I feel it's often that way because this whole experience of not observing the sacraments is so near and dear to the Quaker heart. Also, it's the one main thing that distinguishes us from any other group. So, when we hear of other groups practicing the outward sacraments or if we are in a group that chooses to do so, we may feel as if we as Quakers are selling out. I can remember in high school visiting another church with a friend of mine. It was a Presbyterian church and I happened to attend on the Sunday they were observing communion. I did participate but I felt very guilty. And I thought that was strange. Why should I feel guilty for observing something that was done in church? We can often feel guilty for transgressing our traditions. Over my many years in pastoral ministry, I have certainly embraced the non-observance of the sacraments as held by Friends. But, in situations of community worship experiences (when worshiping in another tradition) I have participated in receiving the sacrament of communion. My reasoning for doing this is for a sign of unity with that other church. Also, if they were in our setting we would be inviting them to observe our "communion" so I am willing to observe their communion. Reflecting on that leads me to realize that as much as our understanding of communion can be a sincerely held position, we can often hold it in a legalistic way and without realizing it begin to determine who is in our out of the Quaker camp based on that issue alone. Which leads me to pose these statements / questions as future followups...these are based on the the responses I have recieved.

1) What is a true Quaker? Is there such a thing? Can a true Quaker actually be identified by a set out outward marks or is being a Quaker such a fluid thing that if you are a seeker, you are Quaker? And, are we in dangerous territory by trying to identify what a true Quaker is..and for that matter..trying to identify which are the true Quaker Yearly Meetings, local meetings, etc.

2) Should or focus be to uphold certain long held traditions and understandings of Friends or should our focus be to vigorously discern the continuing revelation and leadings of the Living Christ. In other words, could it be that a meeting is being sincerely led to offer the sacraments and at the same time still hold to the truth that they are a Quaker meeting? At one time, Quakers did not have pastors but now we do.

3) On the flip side, what does it mean to live sacramentally? If we do believe that Quakers should continue our witness of not observing the sacraments, do we go far enough and help people understand what it means to live sacramentally or do we sometimes carry a somewhat elitist attitude which says to other denominations, "You may feel the need to do that but we dont."

Having said and asked all of this, I must add that my own position is that I believe that it is not essential to observe the outward sacraments. I believe that there is much to be offered in helping our society value silence and contemplation as a way to experience the Living God. I must also add that I don't think we have done as good a job as we could have connecting up our Quaker values with present day culture. To use more theological jargon, we probably could do a better job incarnating our Quaker theology in our present day context.

For those that choose to offer the sacraments as Friends, I can judge them. I can only say that there is somewhat of a price to pay and a cost. When the Israelites asked for a king so that they could be like all the other nations, God was willing to allow that but warned them that there would be a cost. I believe that God is willing to allow Friends meetings to live obediently in that way but there is a cost at moving beyond the traditional Friends view. There is a cost in wanting to be like all the other churches and denominations. I believe you lose the credibility as a Friends meeting in being able to talk about experiencing the Living Presence without the need for ceremony or ritual. I believe you lose the credibility to talk about the fact that we can experience God without a mediator. And, I believe it sets people up to possibly think that there is something they need to add to their faith experience in order to have God love them more and accept them more.

Thanks for all your comments and responses...keep them coming and keep thinking. Friends have too much to offer so we can't run the risk of getting lazy and not think creatively as to how we can express our faith.

Blessings,
Scott

Monday, January 02, 2006

Upcoming Blog Topics for 2006

Greetings and Happy New Year! I hope and pray your 2006 has gotten off to a good start and you have lived up to all of your many resolutions!

I took a little time off from the blog mainly due to activities and events at my meeting. Christmas is always a busy time of year. We then took a week to visit with family in Indiana. We had a great time and I was able to bring the Christmas morning message at Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, Indiana. This is the Friends church that my father pastors. Upon returning to North Carolina I spoke at the North Carolina Yearly Meeting Youth Tremors Conference at Quaker Lake. With all of that going on, it was hard to find a stretch of time to sit and offer any postings.

As I look to the next few weeks, there are some areas that I will want to reflect on. First, there is the issue of a sacramental restlessness among some Quakers. This is particularly true in Indiana Yearly Meeting where they are trying to establish forums to dialogue about the issues. There are some meetings in Indiana Yealry Meeting that already do offer communion and baptism and others that are considering it. Naturally, this is the cause of some concern among some of the other meetings that would choose to maintain the traditional Quaker testimony of no outward sacraments. I find that I immediately gravitate towards the position of "no outward sacraments" since that enables us, as Friends, to offer another way of communion (through silence) that can be very important for people and the church universal. On the other hand, how does one deal with the fact that the meetings that do offer the outward sacraments have, in good faith, spent time in sincere and honest discernment about the issue and they genuinely feel that God is leading them to do this. Could it be that when it comes down to it our only absolute as Friends is that of the living Presence of Christ. And, could it be, that Christ may lead us as Friends to make changes in some dearly held "ways of doing things" ? Or, for the sake of identity and witness, is the issue of the sacraments something that is meant to be static and never changed?

A second area or issue that I will keep addressing is that of the ongoing discussion of the "emerging church" and what that means for Quakers. I realize that "emerging church" has become a fad in some circles but I believe that there are some realities that this movement is addressing that Friends need to address. And not only Friends but the church as a whole. In the past, I have coined the phrase "emerging Quakers" and I feel that there is alot of validity to this. Is there an "emerging Quaker" movement that is beginning to make some ripples among Friends? And, if there is, what will it look like? What does it look like? What should it look like?

Finally, there is that ongoing topic of a vision for Friends. I noticed in the flyer that advertised the Friends Ministers Conference for November that one of the workshops is "A Vision for Friends" led by John Williams and Retha McCutcheon. I think it's good that this will be addressed. I also hope that we don't have to wait until November to realize that God's vision can be discovered right now...in our various meetings and localities. Maybe one thing we have relied too much on is the big event providing the answers for us. This doesn't take away from the positive role of the Ministers Conference but I notice that it's easy to become to "event oriented" that we forget that vision and renewal is a daily process that operates on God's timing and not our timing.

Thanks for checking in and sharing in this dialogue. One question I would leave with those who visit this blog - would there be any interest in forming some regional gatherings ( which would lead possibly to a national gathering!) in which these issues could be discussed and dialogued with the intent of living into an ongoing vision for Friends? I envision this more as a time in which there is prayer, worship, discernment, and dialogue /discussion and those who attend are asked to read a book or books before attending. If so, let me know by responding to the blog.

Thanks and God bless!