Monday, June 29, 2015

Guest Post: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

[I am spending the summer as the pastoral intern at First Friends Meeting, a church in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM).  On Sunday, June 21, Deborah S offered this message in programmed worship.  She agreed to let me share her message as a guest post here.]


We in the Quaker tradition generally don’t incorporate the outward sacrament of confession and absolution into our worship service.  But sometimes I wish we did.  Because I believe that we who are leaders in our state denomination—North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends—we have sin to confess. And it’s the sin of once again dividing up the body of Christ.

If we did offer public confession, my prayer would be this:
Jesus, during that last meal with your friends, you interceded for your disciples and said: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”  (John 17:21)

Jesus prayed that his followers may be one.  Yet, like so many before us in so many different Christian denominations, our state gathering is spiritually divided. We are not one. We who preach peace are fighting among ourselves.

Forgive us, O God.

Jesus, you said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Matthew 12:50)  And yet, in our brokenness we have taken it upon ourselves to judge who is right, who is wrong, who is in, who is out.

Forgive us, O God.

Jesus you said, “This is my commandment, that you Love one another, as I have loved you.  You are my friends if you do what I have commanded.” (John 15:12, 14)

Our very name, The Religious Society of Friends, comes from that same passage, this passage calling us to Love.  And while I think Friends in all of our meetings (churches) want to love one another, we have failed.  And instead, some have questioned other’s integrity and we have had spats over theology.  While I believe differing opinions are fine, in our disagreements in our wider Quaker denominational gatherings, we have often been unkind to one another.  Hurtful words have been uttered. We have not stayed centered in Christ’s love or centered in the Holy Spirit.

Forgive us, O God, I pray.

Amen.
For those of you who are visiting today or are relatively new to First Friends Meeting, I promise that today’s sermon is a one-off. We don’t normally focus on our denominational woes. And let me emphasize that the divisions I am speaking about are not internal to First Friends Meeting. So… please don’t let today’s message scare you away, okay?

Thankfully, we at this meeting are not fighting over theology. We certainly have our own failings and growing edges, but as a local congregation we are not struggling over the issues that are dividing the wider state denomination.  And while I haven’t wanted to preach about this before (there is not a lot of joy in it), I think it’s time to talk plainly from the “pulpit” about these wider concerns that are taking place beyond our local meeting in our wider North Carolina Quaker world.

I, of course, can only speak this morning from my experience and my perspective.  I encourage you to talk with others, ask questions, read the material that we will get out to you soon.  Then please come to our July 12 Monthly Meeting for Business, as we seek to hear God’s voice among us in order that our First Friends representative can then speak clearly on our behalf to the wider Quaker body on August 1.

Many of you have heard rumblings that our state denomination is in trouble. And you have asked, “What the heck is going on? What are we arguing about? What is dividing the sixty plus Quaker meetings (or churches) that we’ve been connected to for over a hundred years?”

Well… it’s complicated.  Of course. But here’s my best understanding on what we are struggling with:

The first issue in our Yearly Meeting is that, among the 60 different churches, we have differing views of Scripture. Many of our beloved siblings in Christ understand scripture to be their primary authority.  First and foremost, their source of spiritual authority is the Bible. While we at First Friends love scripture, we also believe (much as early Friends taught) that the Bible is merely words unless the Holy Spirit brings our reading of scripture to life.

As we read scripture, we seek to understand it through the lens of Jesus who said that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. So we try to read and interpret scripture in that spirit.

Which means, for instance, that even though there are parts of the bible that say women should be silent in the church, we affirm that God can speak equally to all people. It means that although war was understood in King David’s day to be God-led and even spirit-inspired, we choose to say war should never be the answer.

And getting to one of the current major dividing points: while Jesus didn’t speak to the issue of same-sex marriage, it is our understanding that scripture, properly interpreted, affirms covenantal relationships. And so yes, we will affirm and marry a same-sex couple that is choosing to make the huge and prayerful commitment that marriage asks of anyone.

(And, since same-sex marriage is a huge topic, if my words surprise you, please feel free to call me and we can talk about it further.)

So, the first point is that people within our state denomination are divided over scripture and its authority.


A second issue is the question: Who is saved? And how are we saved?

Many of our fellow Quakers believe that the only way to God is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that it is through the sacrificial blood of Christ that our sins are forgiven and one receives salvation.

Now here at First Friends, we will respond to that question of salvation in a variety of ways. But, in general, we would affirm that it is not ours to judge who is in and who is out. Early Friends preached about the universal saving Light of Christ. About how people who are living out a deep and genuinely loving faith that results in loving their neighbor—those people with such a faith—are encountering the Living Christ even if they don’t know the name of Jesus.

So, there are genuine differences in how we view salvation, and those differences have become a great concern for some in our Yearly Meeting.

In my experience, those are the two main theological concerns.


Of course, the underlying question is: Why can’t we all just live with the differences? Why do we need to agree on our view of Scripture or salvation?  After all, we in NCYM have lived with theological diversity for years … why can’t we continue to do so?

I wish we could. I personally think we could.  I believe First Friends is made richer for being in association with others who think and believe differently. I like the diversity. I need the wideness of thought, prayer, and belief.

However, not everyone in our Yearly Meeting is comfortable with that range of beliefs.  And I respect their reason for wanting to disassociate with us and those who believe differently.  It comes down to what the Apostle Paul called being “unequally yoked.”

The Apostle Paul wrote that we should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Many of our beloved Friends feel their association with those who believe differently regarding salvation and the Bible (and same-sex marriage) qualifies as being unequally yoked.  And this is a sincere belief. My more theologically conservative friends are not trying to be mean or judgmental, they are simply stating what they understand to be true and wanting to be faithful to their beliefs.

As one of my friends from the other end of the theological spectrum said to me, “How can we preach Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross as the only way to salvation when you across town teach something else? Our association dilutes the clear message of salvation in Christ.” And again, he said that not with a mean spirit, not even critically, but in care and with sincerity.

For our more theologically conservative Friends, our diversity of belief is a genuine stumbling block. And I get it. So let me emphasize: this is not light versus darkness or good guys versus bad guys, etc.  For the most part, these are our fellow Quakers who like us and even love us, but simply feel like they can not continue to remain yoked with us.

Which brings me back to my first words: May God forgive us. For I believe that somewhere along the way, we all haven’t maintained the relationships that could have seen us through these theological differences.

And so our state denomination is at a standstill. Our body of representatives will gather on August 1 and possibly make a decision to separate in some manner. Or maybe some other GREAT wisdom will arise allowing us to health-fully, authentically remain as one body.  

What I do know is that it is time to stop our theological spats. Because the world needs all of us, conservatives and progressive alike, to do the work of Jesus, who called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the orphans, and work for justice.  And friends, I am hopeful because we worship a God who forgives our brokenness, wipes away our sin, and calls us into new life together.

So, let us pray for wisdom. Whether we stay together as a denomination or not, let us prayerfully determine in the wider body to at least love one another.  For they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  And they know we are Christians by our love.

Amen.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Stoking the Fire

I had my first real experience with Friends United Meeting (FUM) Friends over the weekend at the Stoking the Fire conference, which took place May 22-25 in Milford, OH.  This was supposed to be my first week of work at First Friends Meeting, but since my supervisor is out of town, she suggested that I attend the conference and get to know FUM Friends that way.  I usually like to wait a while to let things settle before writing about an experience like this, but since I am leaving for California tomorrow, I want to write some of my initial impressions.

One of the highlights for me was being able to ride in the car with other Friends from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM).  I did not know any of these Friends before we set off together on the 7.5-hour trip from Greensboro to Milford, but we know each other well now!  We spent a lot of time talking about our meetings, yearly meetings, and preaching, and we laughed a lot.

This was the first Quaker conference I have been to in a long time where I did not have any
responsibilities.  That was a little strange for me, but also pretty great.  The planners did a good job of building spaciousness into the schedule, with breaks and unstructured time, and I spent a fair amount of time napping and reading for pleasure.  The conference center was also very comfortable, with single rooms and plenty of food.

I didn't know what to expect entering an FUM gathering, but the Friends were extremely welcoming.  I got to spend time with some Friends I hadn't seen since the 2012 World Conference of Friends.  It was lovely to be able to catch up and share new ideas (some Friends and I especially enjoyed debating the parameters of "bro theology" over lunch one day).  I also got to know some new people, and I expect those relationships will continue online and as we travel among Friends.

The worship times were warm and welcoming, with a spirit of listening and a willingness to experiment.  The gathering was explicitly Christ-centered, and I got the sense that many Friends there feel out of place in their own meetings; they seemed relieved to be in a place where they could share their Christian beliefs freely.  The singing throughout the weekend fed my soul, especially in the Saturday evening Taize worship.

One thing that was surprising and disappointing was the gender imbalance in presenters over the weekend.  Men preached every morning, led the plenaries, and led most of the other activities in the large group.  In our main sessions, only two out of ten were led by women.  There were three young men (i.e., under 40) present, and all of them had leadership roles in the main sessions; there were at least eight young women, and none of them did.  The women who led tended to be in typically female roles: as support, leading music, or leading prayer.  I also noticed immediately that everyone was using male pronouns for God.  I am not used to hearing exclusively male pronouns anymore, and it was distracting and a little alienating for me.

Even more distressing were some of the comments that older men made to younger women present.  There was one man in particular who referred to all of the women there as "honey" and "girl," and then proceeded to tell them what to do.  I heard from three women that some of the men had made inappropriate comments about their appearance, including sexual and racial remarks.  This behavior is unacceptable and I expect better from Friends.

The conference took place over Pentecost weekend, and there was a sense of longing for a new Pentecost among Friends, a renewed fire in the Religious Society as a whole.  We did not experience that kind of fire, but there was a warmth to the gathering that was encouraging.  I think most of the Friends there came out with a renewed feeling of commitment and a greater sense of hope for the future of Friends.


In the final session, we spent time sharing where we had seen fire in various places throughout the weekend.  Rather than a bonfire, many of the fires were more like the candles in the Taize service—small but giving off more light and heat than we might have expected.  

Then Colin invited Friends to join him in the center of the circle, to draw near to Christ with him.  He started by inviting people individually and eventually everyone was welcomed in.  Afterward, a Friend referred to this moment as an altar call, and I realized that it was, but unlike other altar calls I have witnessed, which can feel manipulative and coercive, this grew organically out of the time that we shared together.  Friends felt free to come to the center or stay on the edges, and Christ was present everywhere.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mid-Year Report

[To the May business meeting of Freedom Friends Church]

People say that the second year of seminary is the hardest. Academically, this year was not as challenging as I expected, but it has been emotionally difficult. Many things in the culture had an impact on people in my program, including the Black Lives Matter movement responding to white privilege and police violence, and especially the scheduling and delay of Kelly Gissendaner’s execution (an inmate at Lee Arrendale State Prison, where I worked as a chaplain intern last year). I also withdrew from a class for the first time ever, because the professor was a bully and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything. 

I feel like an outsider here in a number of ways. It has been challenging for me to be the only Quaker at Candler, where I am frequently called on to educate people about the Religious Society of Friends and to represent Friends. In the Pacific Northwest, my politics seem pretty moderate; here, people consider me extremely liberal. I miss the diversity of Friends in the Pacific Northwest and the ways Convergent Friends interact and worship together. 

I finished my contextual education at Atlanta Friends Meeting this spring. My main focus this past semester was on the meeting’s Gathered Meeting Retreat, which took place the last weekend of March. The theme was “How Friends Worship.” Over the weekend, we tried various prayer practices, talked about the language we use for the divine, and shared about our experiences in unprogrammed worship. On Sunday morning, we had semi-programmed worship, Bible reading in the manner of Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative Friends, and unprogrammed worship. I was glad to have the opportunity to lead this retreat; it felt like a good use of my gifts. 

One of the purposes of seminary is to make students confront their own issues and unhealthy patterns. Over the winter, I began seeing a new therapist who has both an MDiv and a Ph.D from Emory---a good fit for me right now. She and I did good work together, particularly around anxiety, sexuality, and attachment. I have continued to see my spiritual director monthly, and a third person joined my anchoring committee. I have a strong support system, which is reassuring for me. 

Looking ahead to next year, there are a number of things I am excited about. I agreed to serve on the board of trustees for Friends Journal, and decided to step down from the Sacred Worth executive board to make time for that new commitment. My MDiv thesis proposal was approved: I will be writing about how women ministers’ bodies are seen as both threatening and threatened. I also will be participating in Candler Advantage, which will provide me with an $8,000 grant and three credits for spending the summer working at First Friends Meeting in Greensboro, NC. I am excited to spend time in a programmed, FUM meeting, and I am looking forward to preaching and gaining experience in pastoral care and administration there. 

In some ways, it is hard to believe that I am two-thirds of my way through seminary, though in other ways it has felt very long. I am starting to think more about what I want to do after I am finished with school here, and hoping to find a place and a job where I can settle for a while. Thank you for your love and support.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Seven Years

Today marks seven years since I started this blog.  That's kind of hard for me to believe.  Seven years ago, I was a brand new lawyer, living in Seattle, working for a court.  Since then, I have moved several times, left the law (mostly) behind, and started seminary.  When I began writing here, I had no idea that within a few months I would start years of traveling ministry among Friends or that I would eventually be recorded as a minister.  I just knew that I had to write.

Over the years, I have used my blog for different purposes.  It has often been a way for me to tell those I love who live far away what I am doing.  Sometimes I have responded to something specific that is happening in Friends or the culture.  I have shared traveling minutes and annual reports.  Recently, it has been a place to post some of the writing I am doing for school and my reflections on being a Quaker at Candler School of Theology.

Writing here led to writing elsewhere.  Pieces of mine have been featured in four Quaker anthologies (Writing Cheerfully on the Web, Enlivened by the Mystery, Spirit Rising, and An Inner Strength), as well as in Friends Journal and Western Friend.  A lot of that writing appeared here first.  The blog itself has been a useful archive for my writing over time.  When Friends ask for resources on particular topics, like vocal ministry, eldering, or the recording process, I can point them to posts I have written over the years.

One thing I did not expect when I started blogging was the people I would meet through it.  Some of my dear friends and peers in ministry are people that I first met online, because we read each others' posts.  The Quaker blogosphere has changed a lot since I first started—back then, we used to follow each others' blogs and comment on posts; now, most of those conversations happens on social media.  I am grateful for the online community that I found and the relationships that have strengthened over time.

Even though I do not write as much as I once did, I am glad to have this small online platform when I do have something to say.  The quote in my header has challenged me to look at "the nature of all things"—the good and the bad—and face those things head on.  I am thankful for all of the people who have read and commented, online and in person.  These conversations have been encouraging and helped to keep me accountable as I continue on this quest.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Gathered Meeting Retreat


I.  Lesson Plan

This is a lesson plan for Atlanta Friends Meeting’s Gathered Meeting Retreat, which will take place on March 27-29, 2015.  My goal for the retreat is to introduce people in the meeting to some of the different ways that Friends worship.  I hope that by talking about different forms of worship and spiritual practices, Friends in the meeting will expand their understanding of worship, have a larger vocabulary for talking about worship and spiritual experiences, and deepen our communal experience of the unprogrammed worship that we practice at Atlanta Friends Meeting.

Friday evening: Introductions (7:00-9:00pm)

·      Introduction: theme, take care of yourself, what we will be doing
·      Opening circle questions (ask people to say their name and stand while speaking):
·      What is one thing that you love about Friends?
·      What is one thing that you brought with you?  One thing you left behind?
·      Why are you here?
·      Names for the divine exercise
·      Introduction to worship sharing (handout)
·      Small groups
·      Introductions
·      Query: How is the Spirit with you?

Saturday morning: Prayer (9:00am-12:00pm)

·      Introduction to prayer – expansive, holding in the Light, go where they haven’t gone
·      Anne Lamott’s prayer: help, thanks, wow
·      “Thanks,” by W. S. Merwin
·      Psalm 16
·      Embodied prayer
·      breathing prayer
·      body prayer
·      doodle prayer (show on a flip chart)
·      mandalas
·      labyrinths/walks
·      prayer postures (holding in the Light) – to your ability
Break
·      Stations of the Lord’s Prayer – a Christ-centered activity (useful, educational, optional!)
·      alternative: mandalas
·      debrief
·      close with singing prayer: Simple Gifts
·      Worships sharing
·      pray together
·      Query:  When you pray, how do you pray?
·      Small groups: pray for each other (be clear about boundaries, participate to your comfort level)

Saturday afternoon: Experiences in Worship (3:00-5:30pm)

Worship
·      Small groups
·      Query: Was there a time when you felt the Spirit moving in worship?
·      Fishbowl
·      People who often speak in meeting: What does it feel like when you give vocal ministry?
·      People who speak less often: How do you experience worship?
·      Conversation for the group
·      What is the strangest thing you or another person has felt led to do during worship?
·      What is vocal ministry?  Where does it come from?

Sunday morning: Worship (9:30am-12:00pm)

·      Semi-programmed worship: singing, gratitudes, petitions
·      Bible reading in the manner of Ohio YM Conservative Friends – introduce, can use other sacred texts
Break
·      Worship

In this retreat, a lot of the activities are focused around queries.  This is a typical Friends practice, but it also reflects my understanding of religious education as not coming primarily from the teacher.  By responding to the queries, the people at the retreat are drawing on their own inner wisdom and bringing responses that are more diverse and profound than I could by lecturing.  Particularly in the section on prayer, I offer many different practices, but I trust that people will choose the practices that are best for them.

The activities in this retreat also reflect my emphasis on the body.  Wherever I can, I have people participate in ways that get them moving and reflecting on their own bodies in worship.  In addition, the majority of the sessions are experiential.  I do not just want people to hear about worship, I want them to experience it themselves.  I hope that in all of this, we will have the experience of God teaching us, directly and through everyone in the room.

II.  Reflection

A joy for me in leading this retreat was how well integrated the children’s program was.  Sometimes in retreats like this, the children’s program can feel like childcare or an afterthought.  I was not responsible for the children’s program, but the woman who was leading the children called me to discuss what I was planning to cover and we talked about how that could be adapted for the children.  For example, both adults and children considered prayer practices on Saturday morning, and the children made a mural entitled “How Do We Pray?” that we later put up in the main room.  The program on Friday night and Sunday morning had intergenerational aspects, and everyone came together for the Variety Show on Saturday night.

The first frustration that I experienced was with the schedule.  I did not have much control over the schedule; the planning committee just told me which blocks of time I had to provide content.  Unfortunately, meals only lasted an hour and the committee scheduled the program to begin exactly when the meals ended (i.e., breakfast was from 8:00 to 9:00 and the morning program was scheduled to begin at 9:00).  This meant that I was rushed trying to get to the room where we were meeting and that everyone else was late.   I spoke with a member of the committee about this and suggested that next year, they schedule at least 15 minutes between the end of meals and program.  

            Another thing that was hard for me was that we had different people in nearly every session.  A few came to everything, but many were unable to arrive until late on Friday, some left early because they were sick, and some were taking this as a real retreat rather than coming to the program.  I expected some of this, and made it explicit that the program elements were optional.  Combined with people arriving late to sessions, however, this made it challenging to know when to start or how many people to expect, and it led to some lack of cohesion in the group.  

My response to both of these issues was to begin with 15 minutes of silent worship.  This worked pretty well.  Our practice in unprogrammed meetings is that the meeting begins when the first person sits in worship, and others enter into that silence.  By being on time myself and sitting in silence, I was able to invite others into worship and signal that we had started the program.

I got some good feedback over the weekend.  One person said that I had done a good job redirecting back to the topic at hand when others tried to change the subject.  There were a few times when people brought up areas that could have derailed the conversation and the program, but I was able to step in and remind Friends to come back to the theme.  Another person commented that she had never seen a retreat leader leave the room the way I did during small group discussions (and other times).  This was intentional: I find that when I am in the room, a lot of the focus is on me, and it is helpful for me to leave when I want participants to talk to each other.

Even though it was a lot of work, I really had a good time leading this retreat.  It was fun for me to share worship practices with my faith community, and it was a different experience to do a retreat for people that I already know.  We got to know each other better, and I know that we will continue to be in relationship with each other.  This also provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how I have grown in ministry and leadership.  I had led almost all of the activities before, but I felt more relaxed and confident than I have in the past, and I think that made it a better experience for everyone.

















Monday, March 2, 2015

The Problem With "Coming Out Christian"

My entire life, I have seen Christians act like they are a persecuted minority.  Beginning in Sunday school and then youth group, people would tell us that we would be persecuted by society (or maybe communists) for our beliefs, and we, the mighty few, would have to stand up for our Christian faith in the face of that persecution.

The thing is, Christians in the U.S. are not a minority, let alone a persecuted one.  We are the majority, numerically and culturally.  Schools take breaks around our holidays, prayers in public spaces are almost always in our tradition, and nearly every U.S. president has been Christian.

Recently, I have seen a couple articles online in which people "come out" as Christian.  This is troubling for me for a number of reasons, and one is that I think it feeds into this narrative of Christians as a persecuted minority by co-opting the language of LGBTQ people. 

The writers say that "coming out" as Christian feels risky for them.  That may be true, but it is not risky in the way that actually coming out as LGBTQ is.  These writers are not at risk of being rejected by their families, losing their jobs, or having a higher likelihood of suicide because they "come out" as Christian.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with another queer Christian, one who is not out.  He said that hiding is destroying him, but he is afraid of how his family will respond that that he will lose his job.  He said, "I spend most of my time alone. I just don't know who I can trust." 

This is what coming out really means for many LGBTQ people (including LGBTQ Christians).  I am not comfortable with Christians appropriating that language for other purposes.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Kelly On My Mind

I met Kelly Gissendaner a year and a half ago, when I was on a tour of Lee Arrendale State Prison.  As part of our contextual education at Candler School of Theology, a group of my classmates and I would be spending four hours a week at Lee Arrendale as chaplain interns.  We were touring the prison before receiving our specific assignments.

Kelly greeted us with a smile.  As the only woman on death row, she was isolated from other prisoners, and she enjoyed having visitors.  She showed us the baby blankets she had been crocheting to donate outside the prison, and she was excited that the prison administration was going to allow her to have knitting needles, so she could relearn how to knit.

I was assigned to a different part of the prison, so I didn't see Kelly again, but I would hear about her.  How her favorite theologian is Jürgen Moltmann, and they are pen pals.  How Moltmann came when she earned her certificate from the Theological Studies Program in prison.  How she encouraged other inmates and challenged my classmates with her theological insights.


Last month, I ran into Chaplain Bishop, my supervisor in the prison.  She asked me, with tears in her eyes, to pray for Ms. Kelly.  Her clemency hearing before the Board of Parole was coming up, and if they denied clemency, she would be executed.  My classmates and I prayed.  People wrote letters and testified on Kelly's behalf at the hearing.  We held vigils and waited for news.


When the news came that the board had denied clemency, it was shocking.  People at Candler were devastated, and I can only imagine how those at Lee Arrendale felt.  Kelly was scheduled to be executed last Wednesday, but due to bad weather, her execution has been postponed until Monday.

I don't know Kelly well, but I know Lee Arrendale.  I know the fences with barbed wire and the locked gates.  I know how the buildings and the inmates' uniforms blend together, until it seems like the entire world is a monotonous sea of khaki.  I have sat with women as they grieved over the deaths of family members, worried about their children and grandchildren, and counted the days until they could leave.

Some studies have shown that over 80 percent of women in prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse before being incarcerated.  Unfortunately, Kelly is included in that number.  These women do not need the state to add to their experience of trauma and violence.  They need people to hear their stories, see them, and know who they are.


I do not want Kelly to be a martyr.  I do not want her to be a rallying point for a political cause.  I just want them not to kill her.



More information about Kelly Gissendaner

New York Times, A Death Row Inmate Finds Common Ground with Theologians

Huffington Post, Meeting Kelly Gissendaner and When Is Grace Enough?

Kelly Gissendaner's Clemency Application

The hashtag on Twitter and Facebook for Kelly is #kellyonmymind