Tapping a Viral Energy
Indianapolis First Friends
Pastor Robert Henry
May 20, 2018
This morning, I am going share with you something a little different – I am not simply going to preach or exegete the passage Eric just read, but rather share from my heart about my understanding of the current condition of Quakerism in our world. Karla Jay from our fellow Friend’s Meeting, Iglesia Amigos asked me to give the keynote address at a small conference she was putting together a couple weeks ago. Some of you were there – I was grateful for your attendance and your encouragement to share this with our Meeting.
Karla wanted me to talk about the grounding of social justice in our Quaker tradition and in scripture, but I sensed a deeper call. In preparing to speak I had already begun thinking through my own personal experience within the universal church and among Friends. You may not know that for 20+ years, I have been dedicated to ministry and taking action in cities like Chicago, IL, Detroit, MI, Portland, OR, and now here in our great city of Indianapolis. I have not only been involved in activism, advocacy, and teaching, but, I have learned the importance of the behind-the-scenes daily grunt work of learning to become a faithful presence in the communities and neighborhoods in which I have and currently live. This morning, my hope is that you will get a sense of potential, maybe some challenge, and hopefully a clearer vision of who we are and where we are going as a peculiar people called Quakers.
Let me start this way….
I have been there – no hope, no vision, no sense of purpose – ready to give up. Ironically, this was also how I felt about Quakers at one time. Please understand, it is not the way I feel anymore. This revived confidence was sparked in the midst of great challenges and personal weakness. As one who became a Friend after much study and experience in a variety of faith traditions, I realized that Friends have a great deal to offer our world today, but many are missing out because of a lack of energy. Let me explain.
Most of us know that Quakers across our country have been embroiled in battles over a multitude of issues, many relating directly to our action and the people we serve, and the lasting effects cause everything from exhaustion to some actually giving up. I guess we all could sit around arguing to get our way or hoping for a better outcome someday, but, let’s be honest, that is not going to get us far.
Quakers come from a long history of passionate people who not only argued and hoped, but passionately and confidently lived out what they believed. History records them as fearless in their pursuits and trailblazing new paths. From women’s rights to the abolition of slavery to becoming sanctuaries for refugees…whether we were marching with Dr. King for civil rights, protesting war through sit-ins, or simply inviting our neighbors over for dinner, we have had an active, prominent Quaker voice that has made way for change and drew people to be that change.
Those voices came forth from enthusiastic and willing women and men who went the extra mile and lived against the grain of society. People like Elizabeth Abegg the German educator who rescued Jews during the holocaust, or John Woolman who campaigned for years against slavery until it was abolished. Or Bayard Rustin the gay, African-American civil rights and LGBTQ leader who stood with Dr. King, or Elizabeth Fry who reformed English prisons. These are just to name a few. They possessed an energy that is rarely seen in Quakerism, today.
What I would label a “viral energy” – one that spreads rapidly through a population by being enthusiastically shared with a number of individuals.
Not only have religious niceties, worldly comforts, overt busyness, and mass consumerism taken a toll on our viral energy, many Quakers today find themselves defaulting to religious conformity and simply wanting to be right.
What happened to being different?
What happened to being radical?
What happened to seeking a truth that can make things happen in the world?
What has happened to our action?
In my lowest moments when I began to give up, I realized my viral energy was starting to wane. As I preached and spoke of looking for “that of God in my neighbor,” I had stopped looking for that of God in myself. I no longer had confidence in the message I had been given, nor did I have the energy to live differently. I had become disconnected, broken, and useless to myself, and thus to Quakerism as well. I was no longer enjoying what had drawn me to the Quaker Way in the beginning. The light within had dimmed, and survival had set in.
Everything became about arguing my position and others being my enemy, and I’ll have to be honest, I began lacking personal awareness. Things became rather myopic and all about salvaging me – no longer a positive viral energy, but rather more like a negative virus to my system.
Where was the gathered meeting?
Who was discerning with me?
What happened to me bearing witness to life together with my community?
That is just it. I became, what I believe much of Quakerism currently finds itself, caught up in -- bondage.
Many Quakers are in bondage to traditions, to the glory days, to a specific experience, set of beliefs, ministry, or even leader. Often, I have found well-meaning Quakers telling stories from 40-50 years ago and thinking somehow things will magically change in the present. There is clearly a disconnect. The energy surrounding those stories are not translated into finding new ways to go viral and take action in the present. Probably because we have chosen to tell the same stories for so long that we began worshipping the traditions and the past instead of rendering it for a new generation. This leaves us in bondage to our past and little hope for going viral and taking action in the present.
The darkness of bondage can be overwhelming, but it also can make the light seem much more brilliant.
Even though I, personally, had hit bottom, I had not been completely destroyed. As I climbed out of my pit of despair, I began to notice my energy increase. I not only rediscovered myself, I began to rediscover my love for the Quaker Way. I laid aside the arguing, the reveling in the past, and the comforts and went on a new search for Truth.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that my journey was very Quaker in nature. Our Quaker ancestors found themselves feeling empty within the church of their day and learned to live with viral energy the foundational virtues of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality. The early Quakers found these virtues in the teachings of Jesus’ apostles and the life and ministry of Jesus, himself. Early on, our Quaker ancestors wanted us to return to living out these virtues.
Jesus in his very first sermon outlined this ministry of action. Luke 4:18-19 records Jesus’ words - he says:
8 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]
This is what he taught his disciples and they lived out. This is what we are to do as well.
Even Jesus’ own mother sang prophetically in her Magnificat of Jesus’ life and ministry and how it would affect us. As you know from back at Christmas, I love Joy Crowley’s translation of Mary’s words, she says,
This goes deeper than human thinking.
I am filled with awe
at Love whose only condition
is to be received.
The gift is not for the proud,
for they have no room for it.
The strong and self-sufficient ones
don’t have this awareness.
But those who know their emptiness
can rejoice in Love’s fullness.
It’s the Love that we are made for,
the reason for our being.
It fills our inmost heart space
and brings to birth in us, the Holy One.
It’s the Love that we are made for!
Or as Bishop Michael Curry said in the sermon at the Royal Wedding just yesterday.
“When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room — plenty good room — for all God's children. And when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”
I realized that if I was to find that resurrection and hope for the future which the bible so clearly speaks of, or if Quakerism was to be resurrected, it was going to first take learning to truly live again and embrace this love.
The most profound thing I was learning was that Quakerism
was not going to change until I did.
Our presence or the way we live in this world is the key to what I believe will revive Quakerism, break the bondage, and engage our active life. When we, Quakers, awaken to this reality, we start to realize that we are integral to creating a more just, loving, and peaceable world - just as Jesus did. We are to build healthy communities, not arguing, divisive, proof-seeking, unwelcoming places of fear. The Bible is clear that Jesus was opening the door to ALL people.
Our viral energy should be put into creating spaces where differences are appreciated, cultures are celebrated, and where the process of life and living is explored together. When this happens, new stories begin to emerge, new energy flows, the bondage of our past is broken, and the message goes viral in our world. And folks that means lives are changed now and forever!
For several years now, a personal revival has been taking place in my own life. Not only am I seeing young and old (even in my own family) being drawn again to the Quaker Way because new stories, new possibilities, and new people are working together to build the type of community that our ancestors wanted and lived out, but I am excited and filled again with a viral energy about what Quakerism has to offer my neighbors, community, and First Friends.
It is clear that our world has been desperately crying out for a new way to translate life and find hope. Don’t you feel or sense it?
Because I have seen the impact the Quaker way is having in the eyes of youth, college students, young adults, I have full faith that our future is ripe. These next generations are not in bondage to their past, but easily could be if we don’t, with a viral energy, embrace hope and possibility for their future.
A while back, I was watching the Disney movie “Tomorrowland” with my youngest son. As I was pondering the future of Quakerism, I could not help myself be moved by this quote,
"In every moment there's a possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality."
I have wondered at times, could it be that Quakerism has lost its belief of a better future?
Folks, please hear me on this - I DO NOT believe this. I sense now, more than ever, it is time to do whatever is necessary to lift the bondage, embrace the future, gather the people of ALL cultures, nationalities, and races, and make Quakerism a viable reality with a viral impact in our world, again.
I believe strongly, that it is going to take embracing new ways of coming together, new uses of social media, new teaching methods, new art and music, new activism, and a new translation of those biblical and Quakerly distinctives for today’s society. I think you would agree that we need to simplify our lives, be a more peaceful people, act with more integrity, gather and know our community, seek equality on a multitude of levels, and work for sustainability while being good stewards of our resources.
We will need to explore all the possibilities, not just those that worked in the past. It is going to take us living new stories and inviting others to join us. People we may not even be comfortable with or who we have rejected in the past.
It is going to take a willingness to get-up-and-go and get out of our boxes and experience new things. That means it is going to take RISK, which means it will take a new you and me, full of viral energy, possibility, and belief and attitude that this can be a reality, NOW!
Friends, it is time to make Quakerism go viral. It is time to believe, again! It’s time for action!
As we enter our time of waiting worship, take a moment to ponder the query in your bulletin:
What am I doing to lift the bondage, embrace the future, and make Quakerism a viable reality with a viral impact in our world, again?