Monday, May 16, 2011

Someone is thinking of me!

I just received the Spring 2011 issue of Interchange, the newsletter of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, and discovered that someone is thinking of me.

It is time to register for the 340th annual session of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.  The theme this year is "Moving Forward in Community:  Welcoming the Divine, Welcoming Every Person."

On page 2 is a presentation of the theme and a set of queries for individuals and meetings as they prepare for the annual sessions.  Then there are some additional queries under the heading "Related Thoughts:"

  • What does our experience with mentally ill F/friends teach us about inclusion?
  • Is our Meeting House welcoming regarding Accessibility issues?
  • Are we welcoming to Transgender F/friends?
  • Are we welcoming to Christocentrics/others?
  • Does our meeting reflect the diversity of the population in our area?
I am happily "Christocentric" (although I am puzzled by who those "/others" might be) and am always bemused when groups of Friends are challenged by the presence of "Christocentrics" among them.  Three generations ago almost every Friend, whether in the Gurney, Hicks, or Wilbur traditions, would have been very comfortable with being considered "Christ-centered."  What happened?

One explanation:  It is a working out of Neuhaus' LawWhere orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.  (I encourage you to read the linked article to get a fuller understanding of what Neuhaus meant.)

Thank you, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, for thinking of me.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

General Query 7 - The Business of Life

General Query 7. Business Responsibilities-Do you avoid such undue expansion of your business responsibilities as to endanger your personal integrity? Are you truthful and honest in your business transactions, punctual in fulfilling your promises, and prompt in the payment of your debts?

General Query 7 is easy to pass over.  We see the title – “Business Responsibilities” – and move on, thinking that it doesn’t apply to us because we are not involved in any kind of business.  The warning about undue expansion of business, being truthful and honest in business transactions, fulfilling promises and paying debts reinforces this impression.

But Query 7 is talking about more than behavior in business.  The behaviors it describes have to do with integrity, a commonly accepted basic testimony among friends.  Even though I may not be a businessperson, there is a business I am part of that demands integrity – the business of living with others.

Life in a family, community and world requires a basic level of integrity.  It is the mortar that holds relationships together, one-on-one and in a community.

The warnings in Query 7 about business practices apply to the way we conduct the business of living:

-“Undue expansion of business” is a warning against allowing activities to take over our lives to the detriment of relationships.  In an age of social networking it could be a warning against spending so much time interacting with people over networks and various media that we forget the importance of being a living presence with those close to us.

-Being truthful and honest  applies to much more than business transactions.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” is a simple instruction from Jesus that applies to all of life.  Good communication depends on sharing words that are reliably true.  Unfortunately, we learn from an early age a variety of ways to “spin” our words in ways that are misleading or false.

-Fulfilling promises and paying debts promptly is more than just being fair and upright with others.  Fulfilling promises is one way we demonstrate love to those around us.  Healthy relationships are built on promises that are kept.  Paul reminds us,  “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

Here is my revision of General Query 7:
The Business of Living  – Am I guarding against cluttering my life with things that keep me from being a caring and loving presence with those close to me?  Are my words reliably true?  Am I keeping promises and paying my debt of love to God and others?


Monday, April 18, 2011

General Query 6 - Staying Focused

(Another post in a series on the Western Yearly Meeting General Queries)

General Query 6 in the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice:

Standards of Life-Do you observe simplicity and moderation in your manner of living? Do you give proper attention to the rules of health? Are you careful to avoid all places of amusement that are inconsistent with Christian character? Do you practice total abstinence from tobacco, narcotics, and alcoholic beverages?

We live in a “newer, better, bigger” culture. Enterprises spend incredible amounts of money to convince us that we need the newer electronic gadget, the better laundry soap and the bigger television. We are persuaded that we need things that we have gotten along fine without. We are eager to adopt the latest opinions and ideas and jump on to the “newer, better, bigger” bandwagon.

General Query 6 addresses this cultural issue as it presents three traditional Friends testimonies – simplicity, moderation and abstinence.

Simplicity is the spiritual discipline of being focused and staying focused -- organizing one's life for a purpose. In a world that tries to distract us in thousands of ways and invents needs that never existed before, maintaining a focused center in our lives is hard work.

There are magazines and books that will tell us how to simplify our lives, get back to basics and recover simpler ways of doing things, but the spiritual discipline of simplicity cannot be put on like a set of new clothes. I see it growing organically out of our spiritual priorities. Are we honest with ourselves about our faith? Are we willing to be open to God's leading and are we trusting God's paths? As our inward path becomes more focused and simple, our outward paths will change as well. We will be less easily distracted by the “newer, better, bigger” culture that we are part of.

Moderation is one way we express the discipline of simplicity. As we disconnect from the “newer, bigger, better” culture we are less inclined to jump on the latest fad or invented need. As we maintain our focus on what is important we are able to remain calm and quiet in the middle of a world of invented needs.

But the focused life of simplicity can lead us to do immoderate things. The history of the Christianity is a history of people being immoderate in following God – St. Patrick, Francis of Assisi, George Fox, and more contemporary activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, and Millard Fuller. Twenty years ago, Kathy and I adopted three sisters. It was an immoderate thing to do (at least one person called us “crazy”) but it grew out of our desire to do what God wanted us to do. It complicated our lives incredibly, but at the same time helped us stay focused on what was important. A complicated action that was an expression of simplicity.

Abstinence can be another expression of the discipline of simplicity. This General Query calls us to abstain from a few specific items, but there are many things that do not need to be part of our lives for our own physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Practicing the discipline of simplicity means asking ourselves over and over again, “Does this activity/pursuit/interest/possession bring me closer to where God wants me to be? Does this need to be part of my life?” It's a tough question that we need to ask over and over again.  And these are questions we need to involve our community as well - family, friends and congregation.

General Query 6 as written is too narrow. Simplicity is not simple, moderation is not necessarily the outcome and abstinence is too shallow a word.

Here is my suggestion for rewriting General Query 6:
Standards of Life - Is my life focused on God's leading and am I trusting God's path? Is my outward path consistent with my inward path? Am I being distracted by the “newer, bigger, better” culture around me? Do my activities/pursuits/interests/possessions bring me closer to where God wants me to be? What do I need to let go of?


Monday, April 11, 2011

General Qery 5 - An Ongoing Building Project

(A series on the General Queries in the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.)

General Query #5 - Youth and the ChurchDo you seek the conversion and spiritual development of your young people?  Do you endeavor to instruct them in the principles and practices of Friends?  Do you strive to create a community life that will promote their mental and physical well being?

This is a fundamental principle – the adults of the community have a responsibility to tend the spiritual life of the children and young people.  When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment he begins by repeating words from Deuteronomy 6 – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  This follows the Shema - "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

But a heart that loves God needs cultivating.  The passage in Deuteronomy goes on,
 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.(Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NIV)

The community has a responsibility to find ways to plant love of God in the hearts of our children.  Jesus reinforces this with a challenge and a warning, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:5-6 NIV)

Rufus Jones talked about young people and the church in terms of building – “There is no generation of young minds that finds the truths and realities of religion easy of apprehension.  Faith is never ready made; it must always be built.  The building process is easier in some epochs than in others, but the structure of the spirit must be reared in every case in the face of real difficulties.”(Christian Faith and Practice, #511)

Building a new building is complex, time consuming and expensive. Building hearts that love God is also complex, time consuming and expensive – and it is a building project that never has a clear and definable date of completion. Yet we still need to spend time and money on this building project of christian education and spiritual formation. 

It is a good building project to be involved in.  We can look around in our meetings and see young people and young adults that have learned to love God.  We see the results of generations of caring and sharing the love of God.  It is also a frustrating project because it is likely that those young people will move to different places and we might wonder if our efforts were worthwhile.  But we must not abandon the building project, even if we do not receive the ultimate benefit.

“Faith is never ready made, it must always be built” (Rufus Jones)

My revision of Query #5:  Youth and the Church - How well are we building the love of God in our children and young people?  Are we drawing them into a community that loves God?  Is our expression of the principles and practices of Friends winsome enough to draw in the youngest in our midst?


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Coming to Terms With the Queries

This is the first of a series of posts on the General Queries in the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.

Coming to terms with the Queries

The season of Lent is a time of self-examination. Friends have not emphasized Lent, but self-examination in the form of Queries has long been a part of our history.

Friends' statements of faith often include queries, and the Western Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice includes two sets, one for everyone and another for elders. The introduction to the General Queries describes them as "guides to personal and corporate discernment." Individuals and meetings are encouraged to read them frequently.

A lot of people dislike the queries. They understand the purpose behind them, and will agree that they can be useful, but they avoid them whenever possible.

Why we don't like the Queries:

-The Queries sound like nagging parents. When we look at the queries, we hear faint echoes of, "When will you remember to pick up your clothes?" or "When will you stop wiping your nose on your sleeve?" The heart of the problem is that we don't like to be reminded of things that we know we should or shouldn't do.

Query #4 asks "Do you make your home a place of hospitality, friendliness, peace and Christian fellowship?" and all we can think of is last night's argument, the mess in the living room, or the anxiety over keeping or finding a job. We know we don't measure up and the Queries are good at reminding us of that fact.

-The Queries make us feel like Sisyphus, stuck in a life of rolling a huge boulder up a steep hill, and before we reach the top, watching it roll back down, so that we have to start over. Always striving, never arriving.

Query #1 asks, “Do you strive for the constant realization of God's presence in your life?” We have moments in which we experience the presence of God. And then those moments are gone and we start over again. Always striving, occasionally arriving.

Part of the problem is that constant string of “Do you? . . . Do you? . . Do you?” The presentation of the queries puts us off. I have come up with a couple of ways of thinking about them that would be more embracing and welcoming. Perhaps you have some suggestions as well.

How we might grow to like the Queries:

Here are two positive ways to think about the Queries--

-The Queries as a string tied around our finger. There are things we need to remember to do, and one traditional memory device is tying a string around a finger. We need help to remember to drop the clothes off at Goodwill, pick up some bread and bananas, and get to the meeting at the library. We sometimes forget those things because we are in the middle of doing everything else.

The Queries, like a string tied around a finger, are reminders that there are things we need to be doing while we are busy doing everything else. We get busy and forget to "strive for the constant realization of God." We need help remembering.

Maybe Query #1 could start off “Please remember to strive for the constant realization of God's presence in your life. Try to find some ways to be sensitive and obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit.” There must be some ways to word these things so that we don't hear a nagging parent in the background.

-The Queries as a traveler's checklist. When we go on a long trip, we make a list. We know from experience that if we don't have a checklist, we will forget something important. It's very hard to take those great travel pictures if the camera is still hanging on the hook back home. If you don't pack your comfortable pillow, you will be stuck with those lumps of foam at the motel. The checklist makes the journey go better.

The Queries are preparation for a journey. They remind us of some important things that we need to pack, but they are not the journey itself. The Queries can help us make sure that the stuff we need is in the suitcase.

In this case, Query #1 might go like this: “In what ways am I experiencing God's presence in my life at this place that I am at right now? Where am I getting my directions from?”

How do Queries work for you? Any thoughts?