Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Waiting Rooms and Worship

We all spend time in waiting rooms. Often it is in a doctor's office, waiting to get help from a medical professional. It might be in a hospital, waiting for news about someone we care deeply about. Or it can the the noisy waiting "lounges" of modern airports, getting ready to go to the next stop on our journey. Waiting rooms are common experiences in the sense that we we experience them many times through our lives. They are also common experiences in the sense of a shared, universal experience common to all of us.

The waiting that happens in a waiting room is not passive, but active. We are not just waiting around with nothing to do. There is a reason for the waiting. We are waiting to see the doctor. We are waiting to board a plane for the next stop. We are waiting to find out how the surgery went. It is a waiting of anticipation, being ready to move on to the next step.

The waiting that happens in a waiting room involves paying attention. We listen for our name or our flight to be called. We may distract ourselves with books, old magazines or music on our mp3 player, but part of us is listening. That part of us that is paying attention hears a door open, a name called, or sees movement.

And finally the waiting that happens in a waiting room is resolved in activity. We gather our things together and move to what is next. We board a flight, see a doctor, hear the news from the surgeon. The time of waiting is transformed into action.

On Sunday evening, October 10, we will begin something at Plainfield Friends that I am calling "The Waiting Room." It will be a time of traditional Friends worship at 6 pm followed by a time of Bible exploration and discussion at 7 pm.

Traditional Friends worship is a lot like the waiting that happens in a waiting room. It may be quiet but it is not passive.  There is a reason for the waiting as we anticipate some kind of moving.   In a doctor's office or an airport lounge we have a pretty clear idea of what will be happening.  Waiting in worship means we are open to something happening, even though we may not know exactly what that something may be.
Waiting in worship involves paying attention. We may notice a variety of things - the ticking of a clock, our stream of consciousness, a passage from the Bible, the concerns of the day - but in all of that there is a listening going on. We listen for others and we give attention to what God is doing. As we wait, we may find our name being called.

And waiting in worship may bring us to a place of action. We may share something with the group. Or we way discover something that needs to be done afterwards, in our relationship with others or with God.

There is a place for everyone in the waiting room. 

The Waiting Room

beginning Sunday, October 10
6 pm - The Waiting Room
A time of traditional Friends worship

7pm - The Bible Hour
A time of Bible exploration and discussion


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Quaker Perspectives Wanted

Wess Daniels in Gathering in Light  mentions that Jez Smith from the British Quaker magazine “The Friend” is looking for a variety of Quaker perspectives on a few questions. He asks us to read this and consider helping him out-

Just what is the World Family of Friends? From 3-5 September Quakers from Britain Yearly Meeting, Ireland Yearly Meeting, Aotearoa/New Zealand Yearly Meeting and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting will be exploring this question through worship, workshops, activities and fellowship at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, UK.
The participating Friends will be bringing their own connections to many of the Yearly Meetings and worship groups around the world. But I would like to add some more perspectives to share with participants and to share online as a resource for other Friends who want to explore this starter question. To facilitate this, I would appreciate it if anyone would take the time to answer the following questions:
  • a. Why are you a Quaker?
  • b. How are you a Quaker?
  • c. Please give an example of how a Meeting for Worship is conducted in your tradition.
Ideally please keep to a word count of around 800-1,000 but any length of response will be accepted. Please also give me your name and Meeting details. A photo would be great too. Email to If you prefer to video your response, or have photos online that would help with your response, please email links to uploaded material to the same address. Initial deadline for material for the course is 2 September 2010 but earlier submissions appreciated!

Here's my response:

Why am I a Quaker?

I am a Quaker because when I was in high school I went to county-wide Youth For Christ meetings at Garden Grove Friends Church in Southern California.  Fast-forwarding a few years, I found myself looking for a church to attend and while browsing through the phone book came across Garden Grove Friends.  I was curious about what a "Friends Church" might be since I had grown up in various Baptist churches. 

There I discovered something very different from what I had grown up with.  The forms of worship in this meeting were familiar because it was programmed worship, but the people I encountered there knew God in a way that was new to me.  God was present.  Jesus was teaching his people.  So I stayed.  As I discovered other things about Friends - our way of doing business, our understanding of ministry and the testimony of equality - I realized that I belonged among Friends.

How am I a Quaker?
I am a Quaker who continues to be amazed at how the first generation of Friends broke through the forms and structures of the church of their day and discovered a way of living almost totally in the presence of Jesus Christ. 
I am a Quaker in a programmed meeting who enjoys and gains from unprogrammed times of worship. 
I am a Quaker who is part of a stream of people extending back to biblical times who have experienced the revelation of God in many ways and forms.  I am a Quaker who learns from George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn, Robert Barclay, John Woolman, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney, Rufus Jones, Elton Trueblood and the many contemporary voices expressing Quaker faith.
I am a Quaker who understands Quaker faith as an expression of Christian faith.

Worship in my tradition-
I enjoy being part of the programmed tradition of Friends.  Singing, group prayer and preaching are valuable elements of worship for me. We have times of unstructured waiting as well, and I personally would like to move more in this direction.

How would you respond?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When Did Jesus Become God?

Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ
A basic defining issue among Christians is the question of who Jesus is.  The Nicene Creed describes Jesus as
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father.1
The creed describes Jesus as unique, eternal, true God and one in being with the Father.
One of the widely circulated ideas about this description is that it was late in coming.  The argument is that the first generation of Christians did not have this understanding of Jesus, but that it was developed in the second and third centuries in order to either consolidate church power, justify burning heretics, or encourage military expeditions (or all three).

Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ by Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski argues that, based on what the first generation of Jesus' followers have written, they understood Jesus in the way he is described in the Nicene creed.  They argue convincingly that "the deity of Christ is . . . a major theme throughout the New Testament."

The book is a very readable and thorough treatment.  The material is organized around an acronym developed by one of the authors - "Jesus shares the HANDS of God:
Honors:  Jesus shares the honors due to God.
Attributes:  Jesus shares the attributes of God.
Names:  Jesus shares the names of God.
Deeds:  Jesus shares in the deeds that God does.
Seat:  Jesus shares the seat of God's throne."

The authors cite numerous biblical passages and discuss various issues of interpretation in making their case.  They do a good job of dealing with contemporary biblical scholarship and provide a wealth of references for further study in the endnotes and bibliography.

There are two questions that can be raised about this argument for the deity of Christ-

First, can we rely on the New Testament texts to know what Jesus did and what his followers believed?  I think we can.  There are many resources that present good arguments for the reliability of the material we have.  One recent example is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.

The other question has to do with whether those first Christians were even able to give a clear picture of what Jesus was about.  Perhaps they were confused or self-deluded (or, in some scenarios, even intentionally misleading).  A New Testament introduction such as An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo is a good place to start in sorting out those issues.

Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ  is a very helpful approach to understanding who Jesus is.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Who Are We? (Preparing for Western Yearly Meeting - 2010)

 About a year ago I wrote about "Preparing for Yearly Meeting".  Here is the 2010 installment:

Western Yearly Meeting is working through a process of self-identity.  It is often expressed as a simple question:  "Who are we?"  This attempt at self-identity has been going on for at least 15 years.  In that time there has been some confusion, anger, and heat. Sometimes there has been positive conversation as well.

Who are we?  One suggestion is that the Yearly Meeting is simply the collective identity of the people who constitute it.  If we can blend together our collection of leadings, understandings and personalities in some way, we can identify who we are.  But this only gives us a snapshot, like those group pictures that are taken on anniversaries and other special occasions.  A snapshot only shows us a single point in time and only shows what the camera lens can see.  There is a story behind that single picture but eventually the snapshot becomes all that is known of that story.

A Yearly Meeting is a group of people that has developed an identity over many points in time as they work alongside each other.  In order to identify who we are, we need to look at the story behind the snapshot. 

Any organized group has a history.  There are founders who bring a group together for identifiable reasons.  Over time, new issues come up and the original founding reasons are adapted, changed or added to.   I'm in the Plainfield Kiwanis Club and the Kiwanis motto is "For the children of the world."  Kiwanis began in 1914 as a social club for young businessmen, with no apparent concern for the children of the world.  Understanding how it changed helps me know what Kiwanis is all about.  An organization cannot know itself without knowing its history.

Structures are also created and adapted, changed or added to.  There is a tendency to see structure as negative, to suggest that all of that organization as getting in the way of doing things.  In fact, groups develop structure in order to get things done.  An organization needs some level of organization!  True, sometimes structures outlive their usefulness and there is often resistance to structuring things in new ways.  But to know who we are we need to understand the ways our history and structures interact with each other. 
And all organizations have some common belief structure that shapes the group.  The common element in the "Kiwanis belief system" is that we are doing things for the children of the world.  That shapes our activities.  If  I started urging the club to stop sending all our hard-earned elephant ear money to Riley Hospital for Children, some of my fellow Kiwanians would take me aside and suggest that I might need to find a different service club to join.  As a faith-centered organization, Western Yearly Meeting has described its belief system in some detail in Faith and Practice.  It is a belief system that has been shaped by history, is expressed in our structures and  shapes our ways of doing things.

The answer to the question of who we are is found in this intersection of beliefs, structures and history. 
For me, the answer to the question begins by taking seriously the faith that was agreed to in the Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.  The "Essential Truths" are an excellent statement of a distinctively Christian faith.  We add to that our distintively Quaker history that is filled with people whose lives were transformed by that faith, and we begin to catch a glimpse of what we could be.  And then we need to examine our structures and ask some tough questions about how they connect with our beliefs and our history. 

pastor Bill

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Summer Reading

Past, Present and Future Church:

 The Concurrence and Unanimity of The People Called Quakers edited with introductions by Patrick J. Burns and T.H.S. Wallace.  A new edition of Quaker sermons collected by Andrew Sowle and originally published in 1694.Movements begun by charismatic leaders like George Fox begin to transform as they enter their second generation.  Many of these sermons are by second generation Friends.  As I read these, I sense that the fire is still there.

The Journal of Elias Hicks in a new edition edited by Paul Buckley.  Paul Buckley has gone to Hicks' original manuscripts for this restored edition.

To understand Friends today we have to deal with Elias Hicks.  Gnostic heretic or defender of the true faith?  Read his own account of his journey and discover for yourself.

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.  A call to restore Jesus to the heart of faith, arguing that everything else flows from this.

You can read a brief version of the manifesto at

The common thread is the Jesus Question: 
"Who do you say that I am?"

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Instant Sermon!

Three connected points that all start with the same letter.  Can't get any easier than that!

(I-77 north in Virginia, headed to West Virginia)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Another Poem by William Stafford

How the Real bible Is Written
by William Stafford

Once we painted our house and went into it.
Today, after years, I remember that color
under the new paint now old.
I look out of the windows dangerously
and begin to know more. Now when I
walk through this town there are
too many turns before the turn
I need. Listen, birds and cicadas
still trying to tell me surface things:
I have learned how the paint goes on,
and then other things--how the real Bible is
written, downward through the pages,
carved, hacked, and molded, like the faces
of saints or the planks ripped aside
by steady centuries of weather, deeper than
dust, under the moles, caught by the
inspiration in an old badger's shoulder
that bores for grizzled secrets in the ground.

from The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"If the Church Were Christian" by Philip Gulley

In the introductory chapter of If the Church Were Christian, Philip Gulley says something very important. "The question for Christians is whether the church reflects the priorities of Jesus". Identifying those priorities is essential for the life of the church. Gulley goes on to identify the priorities of Jesus as "less a codified doctrine or creed and more an approach to life that emphasizes grace, is always on the side of human dignity, is always devoted to our spiritual growth and moral evolution, and is always committed to the ongoing search for truth, even if that search leads us away from institutional Christianity."

He then presents in ten chapters propositions that describe how a church would live out those values:

  • -Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.

  • -Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.

  • -Reconciliation would be valued over judgment.

  • -Gracious behavior would be more important than right belief.

  • -Inviting questions would be valued more than supplying answers.

  • -Encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity.

  • -Meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.
  • -Peace would be more important than power.

  • -It would care more about love and less about sex.

  • -This life would be more important than the afterlife.

The Right Question - A Nebulous Answer

Gulley asks the right question. If the church is following Jesus it should be reflecting the priorities of Jesus. Gulley presents his vision of those priorities and gives many examples of people and churches that have followed those priorities well and not so well.

But how do we know the priorities of Jesus? Gulley argues that we cannot accurately know the true intentions of Jesus. In his view, the stories of Jesus are to some extent creations of the early church and there is no universal agreement on what those stories mean, so we cannot assume a universal understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Our understanding comes from our own experience, which is limited at best. There is an existential truth to the stories about Jesus that when combined with our experience and understanding, can give us some idea of the priorities of Jesus.

Gulley's priorities seem to be developed out of some of the stories about Jesus, his interactions with the theologies he grew up with and his various experiences with other people, both good and bad, along the way. There is no clear explanation of why these priorities are chosen over others. Some of them are more directly connected to Jesus by referring to some of the stories about Jesus, but others are just tossed out there. When a story about Jesus contradicts Gulley's argument it is explained away as an addition or a misunderstanding. For example, when Jesus makes judgmental statements about some pharisees it is seen as possibly an antisemitic addition by early Christians rather than anything Jesus would say.

But it is not a book of theology. It is a book about a journey. As such, it leaves some questions unanswered and some things lack clear definition.

An Either-Or World

As Gulley describes the values being lived out in the church, he does a better job of telling us what those values are not. He sees other expressions of Christianity as failing because they insist on believing specific things about Jesus. Creeds and doctrine get in the way of following the priorities of Jesus. In each chapter he shares stories and gives examples of people who have lived out their faith in wrong and hurtful ways, often because they are holding on to a particular set of beliefs. The implication is that if we let go of those beliefs, we will be rid of our wrong and hurtful ways of doing things.

It is an "either-or" world with little room in the middle. In the introduction he tells of a woman who describes herself as a Christian in general cultural terms: "If I say I am a Christian, I am." The only alternative he sees to this are those who "would have us examining one another closely, judging who among us is fit to bear that name, attempting to construct a definition suitable to all, which is both undesirable and impossible." Either one or the other. But there are other alternatives. There are many who hold to a traditional understanding of Christianity and are not judgmental, uncaring, and fixated on institutions.

The succeeding chapters set up more "either-or" choices with limited recognition of other ways of seeing things. Chapter 1 describes our choice as seeing Jesus either as a model for living or as an object of worship. Gulley describes his early religious training and his unquestioning acceptance of Jesus as divine. He then tells of his rethinking and rejection of that understanding of Jesus. It is true that if Jesus is not divine, then worshiping him would be a foolish thing. But worshiping Jesus as divine and following him as an example are not mutually exclusive. This has been part of being a Christian since Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus . . . ." (Philippians 2:5)

Two Questions

I am left with two basic questions about Gulley's argument:

  • -Why keep Jesus? If the traditional and cultural understandings of Jesus keep people from recognizing the true priorities of Jesus, wouldn't it be easier to leave Jesus out? The priorities Gulley presents are pursued apart from Jesus by many. What is there about Jesus that needs to be held on to?

  • -If the church is as irredeemable as described in this book, why bother with the church at all? In seventeenth century England the first generation of Quakers saw a church that had lost its way and they responded by establisheing new structures and ways of doing things that were not tied to the existing church. They worshiped and followed Jesus in a way that impacted their world far beyond their numbers.

I agree that the basic question for Christians is whether the church is reflecting the priorities of Jesus and I agree that people have done many terrible things in the name of the church while claiming to be followers of Jesus. But the solution is not to reduce a rich and vibrant faith to a set of feel-good platitudes.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Everything Stops For a Minute"

Why the Sun Comes up

by William Stafford

To be ready again if they find an owl, crows
choose any old tree before dawn and hold a convention
where they practice their outrage routine. "Let's elect
someone." "No, no! Forget it." They
see how many crows can dance on a limb.
"Hey, listen to this one." One old crow
flaps away off and looks toward the east. In that
lonely blackness God begins to speak
in a silence beyond all that moves. Delighted
wings move close and almost touch each other.
Everything stops for a minute, and the sun rises.

The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Walking out of the Grave

I have been reading parts of The Power of the Lord is Over All, edited by T. Canby Jones. It is a collection of the pastoral letters of George Fox. As the Friends movement spread across England and around the world in the 17th century, George Fox wrote many letters of advice and encouragement.

In a letter from 1675, George Fox writes about the reality of the resurrection of Jesus and how our sharing in that resurrection changes everything. I want to share these thoughts with you as we observe the Easter season and celebrate Resurrection Sunday.

For Fox and other Friends, resurrection wasn't a future hope in the "sweet by and by." We are risen with Christ in the present. Life in Christ is a present reality, unfolding into the future. For Friends, the Good News is that we are already dead! We died when we entered into this new life in Jesus and are now living in the power demonstrated by the Resurrection of Christ.

George Fox writes:

- - - - - - - - -

"They that are risen with Christ...let such put on the new Man, which .. is created in Righteousness and Holiness, and live. [They] have their part or lot in the first Resurrection ... and the second death has no power over them; but they live in him, that has Power over death, hell and the grave ....

Therefore, all you who are the first fruits to God, in the Resurrection by Jesus Christ, who know him, the Resurrection and the Life ... are translated from darkness to Light and into the Kingdom of his dear Son .. that you may show forth righteous and holy fruits, so that you may glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be as lights to the dark world and salt to season the unsavory .... You cannot bring forth this holy, righteous and pure fruit unto God, but as you abide in Christ Jesus, the Truth, 'who did descend and ascend far above all principalities, thrones and dominions, that he might have the preeminence above all' (Col 1:16-18), and that you in him might live above all unto God....

So in him, who is your Lord, walk, who is the Amen and there the living can praise God together. The living gather in the Name of Jesus, the Name of him 'who was dead, is alive again and lives forevermore .. the First and the Last'(Rev 1:11 & 18)."

- - - - - - - - -

George Fox personally experienced the transformation that comes when we put on "the new Man," the living presence of Jesus, and live in the power of his resurrection. And he encourages us to be lights to a dark world, salt to season the unsavory, and people who bring forth holy, righteous and pure fruit.

How do we do that? George Fox describes it very simply: "So in him, who is your Lord, walk . . . ."

We walk with Jesus out of the grave and into a new life, "translated from darkness to Light into the Kingdom of His dear Son."

Walking with Jesus,