Enemies

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 31, 2014)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

All through this series on the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve been wondering how in the world Jesus got a universal reputation as a great teacher. Even people who don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, who don’t claim to follow Jesus with their lives, still say that Jesus was a great teacher.

How in the world do people say that? Have they read this stuff? It is crazy! If Jesus is universally acclaimed as such a great teacher, I wonder why it is that our world doesn’t look much like what he taught as truth.

For us who DO say we follow Jesus…have we wrestled with how radically against the grain Jesus’ teaching actually is? Continue reading

Way Forward?

(These words and thoughts are my own. I am not in any clerk position in our Yearly Meeting and do not speak for our Yearly Meeting. As a community, we have not discussed many of these ideas, but I offer them in hope that these words or some like it might be affirmed by the Yearly Meeting as a way forward.)

As Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, we have just completed our 122nd annual sessions. In our discussions and business this week we discerned that we are not in unity around a proposed revision to our Faith and Practice about human sexuality. What might be further said?

We are in unity and we affirm our love for persons who identify as LGBTQ (both in and out of NWYM).

We are in unity and we affirm that all people, including those who identify as LGBTQ, are made in God’s image and can hear and respond to the Holy Spirit, the Light within.

We are in unity and we affirm that sexual intimacy is a gift of God, both for procreation and to build and sustain bonds of mutual love and respect between a man and a woman in a marriage relationship.

Where Friends are in disagreement is in our understanding of God’s direction for how sexual intimacy should be practiced outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Some among us believe the Bible and the historic church clearly teach celibacy for those who are not in a heterosexual marriage. Some among us believe the Spirit’s leading and the Bible allow sexual intimacy to be practiced in a committed marriage, regardless of gender.

We acknowledge the extreme difficulty of a life of celibacy, and affirm that it is possible only through God’s sustaining power.  We acknowledge the difficulty involved when a largely heterosexual group interprets God’s will for those in the sexual minority.

So as we wait for God’s Spirit to bring us to unity, we also wish to humble ourselves before God in confession and repentance.

We confess that in the past and the present, our words and actions have not always matched our professed love for persons who identify as LGBTQ. We repent of this, and we ask forgiveness from those who have been hurt.

We confess that we have not always upheld the value of the person as we have condemned certain sexual behaviors. We repent of this, and we ask forgiveness from those who have been hurt.

We confess that we have not always obeyed Jesus’ command to be like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). We have walked on the other side of the road as LGBTQ persons have died of AIDS, been bullied, harassed, abused, murdered, and committed suicide. We repent of this, and we ask forgiveness.

Have mercy, Lord Jesus.

Simplicity

(Message given at NFC 10/7/12)

Life often comes at us with a ferocity that defies description. We often feel pulled and stretched like taffy….with demands and responsibilities, interests and opportunities, all tugging us in a thousand directions at once. Bowled over and internally turmoiled, our circumstances and our divided loyalties cause a fog to descend over our eyes as we look forward in our lives.

We long for a straight path, for road signs to lead us somewhere…well, not just somewhere, not just anywhere, but to a place of contentment and significance where we feel like we have done something worth doing, not just been bruised and buffeted by the winds of life.

This tension point of tugging is where I want to begin exploring simplicity. Not as if simplicity is a nagging “should”; not as a stern task master calling us to better stewardship of our planet. Not as yet another demand pulling at us, yanking us, screaming that we must become more simple.

I want to start with the tense, anxious, awkward tug of war we so often feel about so many things in life. Never enough time. Never enough money. Never enough significant things to accomplish. Never enough clarity or direction or vision to see a way forward. And in that turmoiled reality, I invite us to see the call to simplicity as a rescuer–as a centering point in the storm. Continue reading

Resurrection

So tomorrow, after more than a year of silence, I will bring this blog back to life. Sometimes I think my spoken messages do better in written form, and I felt that last Sunday. So I’ll blog that one, and then work on some in the current series we are doing.

We’re looking at the statements “Faith Expressed Through Witness” from our Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, trying to figure out how to put these things in to practice on a day to day basis. As always, the best part of blogging is when you respond with your thoughts, so feel free to comment!

Blogging workshop at FWCC

Last Friday night was a great experience.

I was at FWCC’s annual gathering for the section of the Americas. Robin Mohr invited me to join her in leading a listening group on how blogging is helpful in the Quaker discussion. I really enjoyed the opportunity to hear her speak in person about her own journey and how she has followed leadings that have opened through writing and now traveling to and leading discussions among various Friends’ groups. Robin, I really believe, being used very effectively to help articulate common round for Quakers and lead us forward toward the future God has for us.

I thought the listening group went well; but the best part of the time for me was people. I loved meeting people I’ve interacted with on blogs, talked with on the phone, and known of for awhile. I had amazing conversations with new F/friends as well. In particular, Jeff Hipp from New England YM gave a profound description of how he is striving now to let the Light shape him, rather than to use it as a tool to give him what he desires.

I’m in a season where it has been difficult to make time for blogging; I hope the day will come when that season passes, and I’ll write more regularly. But even if I never blog again, this journey of friendship and faith has been well worth it!

How I see the bible

(Thank you for the enjoyable comments and discussion! Sorry for the slowness between posts. I’m going to bite off less than I originally said I would in this post, so that I’ll actually keep moving forward. This post will be some of my presuppositions about the bible, the next will get into the specific biblical witness about issues related to atonement.)

This past Sunday in worship, I shared an analogy for the bible that I’ve held for awhile. I think it bears repeating here, as a building block for how I view the bible.

Sometimes when a child is lost or kidnapped, the authorities bring in search dogs. They take clothes and other items from the child’s room, things that they know have the scent of the child on them, and let the dogs carefully smell and learn the scent of the child. They start with something they are sure has the correct scent, so the dogs know what they are looking for; then, they launch them into the woods or the fields or the streets, to find in the world the scent of the child.

For thousands of years, God-followers have agreed that the 66 books of the old and new testaments contain the “scent” and voice and revelation of God. They become a fertile training ground for us to discover how God speaks, for discovering what concerns God. Immersing ourselves, studying these books, trains us on the right scent of God. When we “go out” into the world, into our day-to-day lives, we are better equipped to find God’s activity in us, in others, in the world.

Can we find God without the training? Yes. It’s possible because God’s desire is to be known, and because God’s presence is everywhere…in creation, in relationships, in truth, in our minds and conscience. But just like the search dogs hunting for the missing child, it’s much more effective to begin with what is agreed upon as the true scent.

To broadly stereotype and apply the analogy coarsely…”liberals” run the risk of being search dogs running here and there without a solid foundation in the “scent” of God. “Evangelicals” run the risk of spending all their time sniffing clothes in closets and drawers, and never going out and attending to the voice of God in the world. My desire is both/and: to be on the God-hunt constantly in my life, letting the books of the bible train and shape my understanding and recognition of the voice of the Spirit, and also actively looking and listening for that same Voice in its myriad forms in our world, and aligning my life with it.

The written words of the bible point to the living Word, Jesus (John 5:39-40). God’s desire is to be known by humanity, because the very purpose for our creation was to be in relationship with God. So yes, the bible is a part of the self-revealing of God, in the words of human authors who carefully attended to the voice of the Spirit. But those very words in those pages point us to Jesus as the clearest example and revelation of God’s self. And in a strange but beautiful way, John 17 gives a glimpse of how Christ can dwell in us, and we can dwell in God, making Christian community, Christ’s body, yet another revelation of God’s Spirit.

How can I assign such a definitive value to words written long ago over almost a thousand year time span? Isn’t it naive, given recent discoveries of other “gospels” and “scriptures”, to think that there is something special about these 66 books and these alone? I find myself having a lot to say here, and probably run the risk of boring some…so feel free to skim or be done. 🙂

First, in regard to the other texts. Many who use the existence of such texts to denigrate the role of the bible do so without examining carefully the history of these texts or their marked differences from the bible. For instance, looking at ancient texts that correspond with what we call the old testament is a good comparative study. I’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, for example, works that are often thrown out as “proof” that the bible merely copied familiar stories like creation and the worldwide flood from other traditions. To say, “They have a flood, too,” and then discount the originality or value of our bible doesn’t do justice to the complexity of either the bible or the other documents. Each is not just reporting facts, but making sense of the world as it looks at the origins of our world. And each says vastly different things about what undergirds our origins and our current reality.

Similarly, there were other gospels and books written about Jesus- the Gospel of Thomas and other gnostic gospels being the most often cited thanks to Elaine Pagels and others. Again, these are more than just documents giving facts: they are saying vastly different things about the nature of God and our world. One notable difference is the spurious nature of Jesus’ miracles. In these other gospels, the boy Jesus stretches out lumber that carpenter father Joseph cut too short; he brings clay birds to life for amusement.

The point I want to make is that the mere discovery of other, similar documents does not ex post facto invalidate the bible. It simply demands that we must use discernment to make solid decisions about which (if any) speak to the nature of the Light Within, as Quakers say, or to our own worldview about the nature of God and our world.

If we are people who trust and believe in corporate discernment…if we are people who trust and believe that a meeting for clearness is a valid way of hearing the voice of the Spirit…there is absolutely no disputing the clear sense of godly people the world over for thousands of years. Some write off the early church councils which established the “canonicity” of our bible as political bickering (of which there undoubtably was some). I find it odd that Quakers would so quickly discount the power of the Spirit to be expressed through a community seeking direction. Add to that the overwhelming textual evidence, which demonstrates the overwhelming value people of history have voiced by saving these 66 books in exponentially more copies and fragments than the other texts. Add to that the evidence of lives changed in multiple cultures in multiple centuries by these books. These reasons do not “prove” the inspiration of the bible, but these are the things that bolster my belief in it.

Next, the bible displays a remarkable unity of theme and purpose. This is really what I want to unpack in my next post, connecting the dots of a unified picture of how God relates to creation.

Finally, the bible has consistently matched, amplified, and illuminated my own experience of God. (And just so you know, I very much realize this is the epitome of circular reasoning, since I started out trying to show how the bible shapes my understanding of God. 🙂 But consider this a big nod toward a postmodern, Wittgensteinian, web-oriented view of knowledge. And consider this a pathetic parenthetical attempt to sound smarter than I really am.)

Why is atonement needed?

My friend Robin blogged about Brian McLaren’s books, writing an almost throw-away line wondering why the crucifixion is such a big deal, much more so than the resurrection, it seems. I jumped on that in the comments, and a wonderfully rich discussion exploded about the atonement. Now I find that Tony Jones is starting a series on original sin, which has some overlap in this area as well.

First, “atonement” is a theological word that has been highly and diversely developed in the history of the church. At its root level, it looks at how and in what way Christ heals humanity’s broken relationship with God, so that once again we can be “at one” with God. The thoughtful comments to Robin’s post, from a very diverse group of people, have occupied a lot of cycles in my brain over the last several days. So much so, that I probably have to spread this out over several posts.

I think the place I want to start is in the context of the wider Quaker family (I may branch later into atheist/agnostic, but not yet). Marshall Massey pointed out, very accurately in my opinion, that atonement issues are right at the heart of our past and present divisions as Friends. Then, corollary issues immediately arise: what weight and authority we give to the Old and New Testaments, our view of human nature, our view of the character of God, etc.

As an evangelical Friend reading comments from liberal or unprogrammed Quakers, my eyes have once again been opened to how often our differing assumptions can cause us to miss each other completely. From childhood, I’ve accepted that human beings’ actions cause a rift between ourselves and God that needs healing. I’ve accepted it like the air I breathe, without a whole lot of questioning why or even noticing it. Many of us in our circles assume this idea so much, that we jump right in to the question of how atonement works, before we’ve ever established a basis or case for why atonement might be necessary.

The default evangelical answer is to say, “Well, it’s in the bible.” Which it is, as I’ll make the case in another post. But how might I give evidence to someone for whom the bible is NOT authoritative, how might I give evidence from other aspects of life that a breach between humanity and God truly does exist, and therefore needs to be healed? That is what has been short-circuiting brain cells for the last few days.

Here’s the best case I’ve been able to make up to this point, for why a break in our relationship with God must exist, and why atonement is necessary.

My observation of the world is that true evil exists. Not just misguidedness, not just mistakes, not just lapses in judgment or bad habits or failure to do my best. True evil exists, and we see it in the form of horrific human choices. I see it (as do a myriad of others) on a global and societal scale, in oppression, in slavery, in genocide, in the holocaust, in war, in sexual abuse and prejudice and manipulation. I see it on a personal scale, sitting over coffee with people I know and care about who share the choices they’ve made to act out sexually, or to steal, or to abuse a loved one, choices that wound them and their relationships, choices that they cannot explain to me or to themselves. “How did I do this? How did I make this choice?”

Can you hear me say that I believe true evil exists, and that every person I’ve met has succumbed in varying degrees to choosing evil, and that it is a different issue entirely than whether humans are inherently good or evil? I’ll overstate and say I don’t care whether we are inherently good or evil: what matters to me, what troubles me, is that myself and every person I know at times chooses against our desires and our intentions, and does evil that harms ourselves and others. We are powerless to always choose the good, regardless of our desires or intentions. That is building block number one, but it still does not explain why those actions cause a rift between us and God.

Quakers have always believed in a Divine Seed, a Spark, the Light Within which empowers us to live holy lives and to act justly for our brothers and sisters in the world. Central to our faith is a real Deity who can and does interact with us as humans, empowering us to do good in the world. (Sidenote: I realize here I am leaving aside non-theist Friends and agnostics/atheists. I apologize.) All of us Quakers, across the divides, believe that the Divine Presence is available to every human being on the planet, universally.

My understanding of the anthropology and theology of liberal Friends would lead me to this conclusion: liberal Friends believe that perfection could come to individuals and to humanity if everyone attended to the Light or Seed within. Everyone is on a level playing field; no detriment or demerit of the soul has to be overcome. The presence of God is something which can help, enrich, empower and improve our lives, and the absence of God simply means less good is achieved in us and in our world.

I personally have great difficulty reconciling that view with the world that I see. How did the 20th century, the bloodiest, most horrific century on record, occur if the improvement of individuals and the human race were easily “chooseable” by humanity? That would seem to raise questions about the power of this Deity we say we serve. On the anthropology level, how does my friend, who knows and listens to God, commit adultery that my friend did not believe was right? That kind of choice should not be possible if there is no detriment of the soul to overcome. Either God wasn’t strong enough, or something internal blocked my friend from choosing what my friend wanted to choose.

So there is building block number 2: the presence and the accessibility of God, itself universal, does not universally lead to the abolishment of evil. There must be something blocking, hindering, stopping, inhibiting the work of God in humanity, otherwise utopia would have been achieved. (To paraphrase something I read somewhere, the liberal dream of humanity building a better world died at Auschwitz.)

When I or my family are “wronged” in some way, there is a personal offence, an indignation, a pain that must be addressed. If, as Friends believe, the Light is more than philosophical “good”, but the embodiment of “good” who wants to interact and speak relationally to our condition…would there not be a question of offense or indignation or “wronged-ness” on the part of that relational Deity? This is the best I can do to achieve QED outside of the scriptural witness. If there is a Deity who embodies goodness and justice, universally available to all humanity, and yet there is continual choosing of evil by humanity (even with the possibility and power of doing good available through the Deity), there must be both something blocking humanity from choosing that good, and a woundedness and a rift in the relationship between the Deity and humanity must exist.

My wife Elaine may have summed it up best in a question: “What, then, was the condition that George Fox spoke about, when he said ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition?’”

(See also an older post, “Why I identify as a Christ-centered Quaker”. Next up: the biblical witness to the need for atonement, with corollaries on how I read and view the scriptures.)

Convergent Friends #1

I remembered my blog… 😉 And notice the hopeful way I title this post, implying that just maybe, perhaps, this might be the first in a series celebrating Convergent October 2008.

Obviously, I have not made time for the blog for quite a long time. I’ve said it before, but it ought to be said again, that the no-doubt-about-it absolute best part of this blog has been the community with Quakers across the country and across our divides. I consider myself a proud member of the convergent Friends movement, and am grateful to have been a part of the dialogue before it was named by my friend (who I would not have if it weren’t for this blog) Robin Mohr.

So when I saw the announcement for Convergent October 2008, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I think what came together for me yesterday in worship at Newberg Friends was this: one of the biggest reasons I was originally drawn to Friends is also the bedrock for convergence. We’ve begun a series on the book of Galatians, and the life-changing power of that letter from Paul is to refuse to let relationship with God devolve into religion. An active life in the Spirit, refusing to be codified, separated, parceled out or ritualized…this is the heart of our faith. A group of people, a community, a body, that refuses to draw boundary lines and separate into “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

I see this as the heart of Quakerism, and I see this as the wind of the Spirit that is drawing us together from across the divides that have developed. We refuse to let language, history, or associations separate us. Because we want relationship. We want life. We want living, breathing, passionate, “aliveness” in the Spirit.

I remember Liz Opp, years ago, wondering whether being Christ-centered was a requirement for convergence. I can’t presume to answer that question, and I refuse to be one who sets any kind of criteria for entrance on what I consider a journey. I can, however, follow a long line of faithful Quakers and testify, give witness, to my own experience.

I have been found by Christ, and my life is given to him. When I joined Friends, it was because I was making a conscious decision to leave behind a kind of evangelicalism that drew lines and boxed up boundaries. My pursuit of obedience to Christ led through the landscape of Galatians and Luke 7 and all kinds of other places where the radical inclusiveness of Christ’s love for the world explodes with gracious power. To me, this journey of convergence is a beautiful work of the living Christ, and I celebrate it!

So thank you, Friends, for beginning this journey.

I’ll conclude with a link to what I shared in worship yesterday about Galatians. I think it fits dead on with our convergence journey.

Are we really going to talk about…communion?

Thank you.

Thanks for all your thoughts, e-mails, and prayers. Today was a good day. In each service, it seemed we became a gathered meeting. God’s presence was with us, and this was a very good experience for me. I think, as Robin wrote in the comments, that I probably have more to write. But I felt faithful today.

My good friend Corey Beals helped me when I was needing help to focus. He reminded me of the wonderful Friends’ history of queries. “Find some good questions to help us,” he said. I closed today by asking if we really do have freedom from and freedom to. Here were my queries:

Do you truly have freedom from?

Are you free from the untruth that certain people and practices control and dispense an encounter with God to us?
Are you free from the “transaction” model of worship, where if we do certain things or certain practices, God must magically respond?
And, for those of us who are very at home with the Quaker belief: Are you free from spiritual pride, thinking the rest of the world isn’t as mature in their view of communion as we?

Do you truly have freedom to?

Are you truly free to encounter the living God in every moment of every day?
Do you seek to draw from the true vine and feast on the true bread and notice the activity of God as the most important thing in your life?
Are you free to let symbols and habits and acts of worship draw you into the real presence of Christ?
Are you free to let your body and your senses worship and encounter God, free from the lie that says the best worship is disconnected from having a physical body and living in a physical world?

Here’s the rest of what I shared.

Too much…

I now have 11 pages, typed, single spaced, of my own thoughts and quotes from books and people about communion. It’s 1:08 in the morning, and I’m too tired to keep pushing on, but I still need more clarity before Sunday. God, work in my spirit and mind and heart even as I sleep.