Friday, April 25, 2008

The Ways Which Lead to Peace

The FWCC (Section of the Americas) annual meeting this year was held in Indiana, at the Waycross Episcopal Camp and Conference Center. Waycross is a lovely cluster of buildings out in the country, complete with winding paths and a creek and a bridge…. And, just in case you have ever doubted that the Episcopalians have a special “in” with God… there is No cell phone service available at their retreat center. How’s that for enforcing a retreat-like atmosphere? The place was perfect.

Several things go on at an FWCC annual meeting… gatherings for worship, committee meetings, business meeting, workshops, small worship groups, various evening plenary sessions, and lots and lots of wonderful conversation, punctuated by food.

The business meetings were… bad… for me. I tried to sit through them a couple times, without success. Once, I was able to escape by becoming an unofficial “aunty” to a toddler, and taking her out of meeting for a snack. A few other times, I just plain escaped. I went and practiced my belly-dancing in my cabin, while everyone else was seriously considering budget items etc. This was Much better for me! Someone once told me that business meetings are not my forte, anyway. They seem to have muddled through without me, ok.

The workshops and the plenary sessions were excellent. There was a particularly lively evening presenting a history of Ohio and Indiana Friends, in which the people representing meetings that had been laid down… had to lie down. By the end of the history, “bodies” were scattered about the floor. And Rachel Stacy of Baltimore YM, gave a keynote address about the challenges of living out her faith… excellent and inspiring.

My favorite part of the weekend, besides the many opportunities for informal conversation, was my small worship group. When folks arrive, each person is assigned a number for a small worship group (about 10 people in each group). Everyday, we gathered to explore queries together. This year, we explored the ways which lead to peace, within ourselves, within our community, and in the wider world. I love these groups, because we get to have extended conversations together with the same few people, and really get to know something about each other.

The other truly wonderful part about an FWCC weekend, is the many opportunities for worship together. Everyday, we gathered for worship before the business meeting. And on Sunday, we got two worship sessions! Friends have different styles of worship, and each worship session tended to have the flavor of the group of Friends whose turn it was to lead worship that day. There were songs, and sermons, and silent worship, and Bible reading, and prayers… Some of it in English, some in Spanish (translated vicey-versy). It felt just plain good to be worshipping among Friends (and friends). My own branch of Quakerism does waiting worship in the name of Jesus Christ. But it was nice to gather together with other Quakers to share the worship styles we each find meaningful.

On the last day, a preacher got up and at the beginning of his message, said, “The FWCC saved my Quakerism.” He didn’t specifically elaborate on that statement, but the rest of his message was about stumbling blocks… assumptions we make that prevent us from allowing the Holy Spirit full range in our lives. And I have been thinking about what he said… “The FWCC saved my Quakerism.” And I wonder if maybe the FWCC will save my Quakerism, too. Not in the sense that I might have left the Religious Society of Friends if I had never attended the FWCC. Because I have never been in danger of leaving… I love Quakerism… its beliefs about the nature of God and Christ… its beliefs about our relationship to God……

But I think that it is very easy to begin to think inside a box, when one associates only with those Friends that one sees every week, or even when one associates only with Friends from one’s own branch. It would be very easy for me to get a sort of philosophical hardening of the arteries. With the FWCC, I have the opportunity to explore for myself what is essential to my faith, and what is only useful within context, and what is actually a stumbling block to my faith. The FWCC keeps me thinking outside the box. Good stuff. It will keep my Quakerism more lively, I think, and more likely to listen to the Holy Spirit when it blows.

Next year, the Americas annual meeting will be in the Portland area. In 2010, it will be in Honduras. In 2012, the world plenary meeting will be in Nairobi, Kenya. Please come! Maybe the FWCC will save your Quakerism, too!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Postmodernism 101

“The postmodern world is a world which understands itself through biological rather than mechanistic models; a world where people see themselves as belonging to the environment rather than over it or apart from it. A world distrustful of institutions, hierarchies, centralized bureaucracies and male-dominated organizations. It is a world in which networks and local grassroots activities take precedence over large scale structures and grand designs; a world in which the book age is giving way to the screen age; a world hungry for spirituality yet dismissive of systematized religion. It is a world in which image and reality are so deeply intertwined that it is difficult to draw the line between the two.”
--Dave Tomlinson, The Post-Evangelical

So, you’ve heard people use the word, “postmodern.” And you’ve said to yourself, “No, they probably aren’t talking about contemporary fences.” And then you applied your high school etymology knowledge, and you decided that “postmodern” must mean “after modern.” Well. That clears everything right up. But, no… wait… after modern what? Well, both “modern” and “postmodern” are words that describe a type of worldview--the set of beliefs, assumptions, and values that people use to help them make decisions and to interact with the world around them. When a worldview is dominant and shared among many people in a population, we commonly call this an “age.” Until recently, the modern age was dominant, at least in the West. Recently (like roughly post-WW2), the postmodern age has begun emerging, and replacing the modern set of beliefs and assumptions with its own set of beliefs and assumptions. Oh. OK. Well, that explains it then. Hey, waaaiit a minute… Just what the heck exactly IS “postmodern” anyway? What ARE those beliefs and values?

Let’s go back a few hundred years…. Say, back to the 1470s, or so. Johan Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press. And a few years later, Martin Luther defaced a church door with a couple of nails. And a little later, a little something called the Reformation showed up (in the West… I’m just talking about the West here). And all this ushered in what we now call the modern age. And then there was the Industrial Revolution, which moved us along higher and deeper….

So, in the West, the last 300-400 years or so (it’s hard to pinpoint the date and hour when an age “officially” begins) have been dominated by a modern worldview. Modernity has valued logic, linear thought, hierarchy, institutions, external sources of authority, order, control, and predictability. Modernity separated people’s various spheres of reality into clearly defined boxes: one’s emotional life, one’s business life (“nothing personal; it's just business"), one’s secular life, one’s spiritual life, etc. The modern age valued abstract thought, expository and propositional argument, rationality, individualism, a focus on the written word, efficiency. Just off the top of my head… one might consider the assembly line to be a good modern approach to manufacturing, and McDonald’s to be a good modern approach to prepared foods, while giant agricultural farms might be the epitome of modern agriculture, and megachurches might be THE ultimate in modern religion.

Now, what a worldview values, it encourages. What it doesn’t value, it discourages, belittles, and sometimes persecutes. People who hold to beliefs and values that don’t fit into the dominant worldview, often have a real hard time of it. But the folks who hold to the dominant worldview have a hard time too, because as they belittle the stuff they don’t value, they are pushing themselves further and further away from a balanced life, and way out into logical extremes. Which is what has been happening to modernity. As people saw the inherent failings in the extreme version of modernity, they began to feel disillusioned and unfulfilled, and they began to react. And to look for something that felt more rewarding… just like the seekers of 400 years ago brought in the modern age from an age whose name I do not know.

And so, now, we are on the threshold of a new age…. the postmodern age. Just what exactly it will be known for is kind of up in the air right now… check back in another 300 years and we will be able to see more clearly what is an enduring value of postmodernity, and what was just a passing fancy or a misinterpretation. Personally, I kind of hope they will have come up with a better name for it by then, too… “postmodern” is a tad on the clunky side, in my opinion.

Anyway, as things are currently shaping up, postmodernity values the symbolic, the mystical, and the experiential. A postmodern person has a worldview that is organic, matrixed, holistic, and spiritual. They value intuition, fluidity, subjectivity, mystery, narrative, pluralism/diversity, community, ritual, beauty. The postmodern person is comfortable with ancient practices and paradox, and prefers to think of things in a both/and paradigm instead of the either/or dualistic paradigm of modernism. The postmodern worldview integrates the spheres of life: all aspects of a person’s life are entwined. There is no sacred/secular split… one’s business is as holy as the form that one’s worship takes. This integration also includes the senses… postmoderns want to include all of the senses in life, as well as the whole body (rather than trying to focus life up in the head the way modern philosophy tended to do). Think fractals, chaos theory, probably anything from Einstein… And, perhaps the thing that the postmodern age is currently most famous/notorious for: radical relativism. Radical relativism states that there is no ultimate knowable Truth, that my truths are as equally valid as your truths, whatever they may be. My own opinion is that there is too much made of this particular aspect of the postmodern age; I suspect it is a combination of a really bad hangover from the bad effects of extreme modernity, and of a misunderstanding on the part of modern people about what postmodern folks are trying to say (But I could be wrong; we’ll have to check back in 300 years). The postmodern worldview looks very messy to someone with a modern worldview…..

When people try to apply their postmodern values, beliefs, and assumptions to their spiritual lives, the result is what is currently called the “emerging church” (sometimes “emergent”, but I think that is actually a specific name for a specific group, not a general term). People with a postmodern worldview tend to be spiritual people, with a deep sense of connectedness to the Divine (definitions of the Divine may vary). They have no problem believing in God. But they are disillusioned with institutions, and with outside authorities, and with what they see as the “non-spirituality” of organized religion. They see modern organized religion as irrelevant to their spiritual journey. “Church”, as it has come to be defined in the modern sense, just doesn’t speak to them of God. And yet they yearn for both the Divine and for community, and so they are experimenting with ways to be The Church (a community of believers journeying together) that are meaningful to them. These emerging church experiments vary quite a bit from location to location, because each group is trying to develop something that is local and authentic and uses all the gifts they have available. However, they all try to heal that secular/sacred split… Church isn’t just for Sunday; it’s all the time. And they all try to live as community in varying ways. And they emphasize the life of Jesus… the narrative of Jesus over the exposition of Paul. At least one emerging church says what they are trying to do is “follow the way of Jesus.” The words “Christian” and “Christianity” have become awkward words for the emerging church, because they are associated in many people’s minds with modern authoritarian creedal structures and subcultures. So the emerging churches try to emphasize with their phrasing that they are talking about a way of life, not a creedal set of beliefs.

Which brings us to the Quakers. When we are at our best, we are postmodern (when it is at its best). But we have been influenced by modern thought, too, almost right from the beginning. Just for example, the early Quakers denied the arts. Artistic expression was frowned upon, and got people disowned for hundreds of years. Was this really a valid expression of worshipping in Spirit and in Truth? Well, not in my opinion…. In my opinion, the denial of the arts was an unconscious accommodation to the modern worldview. And then there was the removal of all outward symbol/ritual… in essence stating that we cannot worship God in Spirit and in Truth unless we deny our senses and our bodies, and contain our spiritual lives solely in our heads. Another accommodation (again, in my opinion.) And, of course, our tendency to rely solely on spoken ministry in meeting for worship, is a very modern position… sort of a box that one must fit into or be rejected. (I am writing from the point of view of a Conservative Friend… other Friends may be able to pick out assumptions from their own traditions and from our shared foundation that seem to have more of “modern” in them than of “Truth”.)

Which brings us to convergent Friends, which seems to be a term that the emerging church has taken on within the Religious Society of Friends. Convergent Friends love Quakerism. I mean, they love it, deeply. They don’t want to go anywhere else; this is their spiritual home. And yet they don’t see Quakerism as a finished work. They think that Quakerism has more growing and developing and healing and emerging to do, in order to speak to pilgrims and seekers of the postmodern age. We Quakers have tried to live out a lot of the best ideals of the postmodern age for hundreds of years. Convergent Friends want to hold onto our best ideals, while learning how to channel the fire of the Spirit out into the world in a way that shines for this day and this place. Today is the day the Lord has made.

So, to make a short story very long, That is what “postmodern” is. We are living at a threshold time. Values are shifting. Old beliefs are being challenged. God is at work in exciting and scary ways. The Spirit is blowing us onto paths that we don’t know where we’re going, but the Way looks green. And The Mystery is walking beside us, and dwelling within us. Intuition, fluidity, mystery, paradox, beauty. Messy, maybe. But definitely hopeful.

[Some guys named Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger wrote a book called Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures that I “borrowed” a lot from for this essay. Also, a guy whose name I don’t remember wrote a book called The Emerging Church that was also very very helpful… I remember he lived on the West Coast and had the most amazing multicolored hair.]

P.S. In case you haven’t noticed, I am not an academic, or a history scholar. So some of my facts might be a bit muddled. I hope that people will feel free to let me know where I have gotten my story wrong, or where my words have been more confusing than helpful. Thank you in advance for your patience with me.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sacred Compass: An Interview with Brent Bill

This past weekend, I was at the FWCC’s section of the Americas annual meeting. And it was wonderful, and I plan to post something about it soon.

However, something has come up. One of the wonderful things about being in Indiana last weekend, was getting to meet Brent Bill and buy his book, Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment. It is a deeply Quakerly book, written in a way that is accessible to everyone, Quaker or not. It is an encouraging, comforting book, telling us we each have accessible a “sacred compass”-- a guide that points us homeward to God. And when we pay attention to our sacred compass, the whole of our life becomes a pilgrim journey of transformation. There is even an excellent chapter on helping others to discern their own way. I have very much enjoyed reading it this week, while I have been flat on my back in bed trying to recover from an awful cold… a blessing, because I would not have had time to read as much if I hadn’t been as sick!

Brent writes in the introduction: “When we travel through life attentive to the sacred compass, we find that God’s direction changes us. We discover that spiritual discernment is about sensing the presence and call of God, not just about making decisions. The process of following the sacred compass awakens us to a life of constant renewal of our hearts, minds, wills, and souls.”

So, this week, Brent announced a blogging contest, and asked everyone to send him interview questions regarding Sacred Compass. So far, Wess and Liz have posted their interviews. Since I can’t resist a request for a good query, here are mine. The questions are mine, the answers are Brent’s. Thanks Brent, for writing a book encouraging us to listen to and follow our Guide!

1) What led you to write Sacred Compass?
One of the main reasons I wanted to write a book on discernment was that it seemed to me there were way too many books about how to make the "right" decision regarding God's will for our lives and not enough that said "all of life can be a decision for God's will to be revealed." That latter idea was one I wanted to explore and thought that people would find helpful.

2) Who do you picture needing to read Sacred Compass?
The person I see picking up and finding it helpful is a person who is tired of the sort of 1-2-3 steps to finding God or 55 days of spiritual seeking or... a person who is looking for a deep affirming look at the presence of God's direction in his or her life. That includes the challenging times as well as the easy times. If a reader is looking for the 1-2-3 step sort of book, I don't think she or he will find Sacred Compass very satisfying. It doesn't offer clear, concise instructions or answers to our spiritual life's deepest questions. Rather it offers ways, practices, techniques for helping us find those answers -- all within the context of faith and our particular life situations.

3) Tell me about a time in your own life when you could have benefitted from the information in Sacred Compass.
Oh, there have been soooo many times. I especially wish somebody would have told me this when I was a teenager and trying to figure out what God's plan was for my life. And the emphasis was on "plan" -- not plans. This idea of a -- one -- plan is so destructive spiritually, I think, because it implies if you miss one part of the plan, you are doomed, at best, and damned, at worst. For all my Bible-based up-bringing, I had never heard the verse in Psalms (25:4) "Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths." The idea of paths for our lives, I think, is very freeing.

4) Tell me your favorite part of Sacred Compass... the part that always makes you smile, maybe because of something that happened while you were writing it, or because it seems so True to you that you can't hardly believe You wrote it.
One of my favorite parts is in the chapter called "West of Eden." I called it that, because as you know, Genesis tells us that the Garden was east of Eden. So if we're west of Eden, then we're certainly not in Paradise. Or at least that's how it can seem. And in this chapter, I relate a portion of how I, a city boy, ended up living on 50 acres in the country and how that move, at its onset and fraught with all kinds of family dynamics, did not seem like a move to Paradise to me. I smile now because, by allowing myself to be led in that direction (and honoring my good wife Nancy's leading to that place) many things opened up for me and indeed I have found a peace that comes from knowing that I am in the right place for this time of my life. God knows me better than I know myself. Imagine!! And so I read that story and I smile ruefully and delightedly.

5) Quick! The elevator door is about to open, the light is about to change, the fast-food line is moving, they're already running late for a meeting.... In a few sentences, what is the single most important thing about Sacred Compass that you would like to share with a potential reader?
“Our lives are journeys to the Divine. God calls us to love and life and light. The Sacred Compass is about making that journey in soulfully satisfying ways -- ways that bring joy and purpose to living, whether in good times or bad. Ways that lead to the face of our loving God.”

Monday, April 7, 2008

He Sees the Fall of the Sparrow

I have just returned from four days at the FWCC annual meeting (section of the Americas). It was a wonderful time of getting to know new f/Friends, and renewing friendships with old f/Friends. It was wonderful. (Did I say that already?) Really really really wonderful.

I am still too tired to write anything Deep, but I thought I might write about a little thing that happened.

After the official meeting was over, I planned to drive over to Nancy and Brent Bill’s house for a convergent dinner with Friends, that had been organized by Robin. While I was driving that way, my car’s engine began to make a strange rattling noise. I pulled into a local Burger King parking lot, and listened… yep, it was the engine. Nope, it didn’t sound like the sort of noise I wanted to hear 300 miles from home. So, I did what anyone would do. I prayed, and asked God to get me home safe. Then, I went into the Burger King and got a stiff drink. I sat for a few minutes and drank my Coke and browsed through Brent’s new book, The Sacred Compass (which is wonderful) and considered my options.

Finally, I decided, as much as I wanted to go to dinner, I would run straight for home, if the noise was still there when I started the car. I started the car. It was gone. Thank you, God. So I went to dinner and had a wonderful time talking about all things convergent/emergent/Quaker. And I drove home, and the noise didn’t return. This morning, Kevin told me to start the car, so he could hear the noise. And I did, not really thinking it would be there… after all, it hadn’t been there for 300 miles. The engine immediately began to rattle, worse than before. Kevin nodded and started to go down to the warehouse for tools. I said, “It didn’t make any noise at all, after I asked God to get me home!”

He shrugged. “I asked God to make it come back.”

So he fixed it. He says it was the air conditioning clutch that was failing and needed lubricating. Thank you, God, for getting me home safe. Thank you, God, for letting me feel like it might probably be OK to attend the dinner. Thank you, God, for letting the fix be cheap!

This is what I call a “shoelace miracle.” It’s a little thing. A really little and unimportant thing. And not very impressive. But it’s like this: when a three-yr-old goes to his father and holds out his shoe, and asks his father to tie his shoelace, does the father say, “That’s not important enough for me to worry about. Come back when you have something important that you need”? No. The father ties the shoelace. And the kid runs off, and thinks his father can Do Anything. (Which is a scary responsibility for us fallible flesh-and-blood parents). Every time God gives us a little shoelace miracle, we trust Him a little more. He can Do Anything! Even the easy stuff.