Is This A Way of Life?
Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting
Pastor Bob Henry
September 29, 2019
Galatians 5:4-6 (NRSV)
4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
For the first couple weeks of this series, I have focused on beliefs systems and the challenges they pose to Quakerism and Christianity. In many ways, rigid systems of belief that demand correctness have as Brian McLaren points out, caused Christianity (and I believe certain groups of Quakers) to become frozen (I have even heard some people joke about the church becoming the “The Frozen Chosen”). Brian goes on to say that Christianity has rendered…
“…itself incapable of making ongoing contributions to human cultural evolution as conditions changed. In fact, it became the opposite of what it had originally been: it became a leash or a locked door impeding ongoing growth instead of a force for liberation and forward movement.”
Sadly, I have heard almost these same words describing Quakers or even our Yearly Meeting. We often talk about the Quaker’s great contributions to human cultural evolution, about the forces of liberation and change, yet many of our Quaker contributions happened a long time ago. It makes me ask…
· Have we lost or maybe forgotten our passions and distinctives?
· Have we become comfortable or aligned with other faith priorities?
· Have we made our Faith and Practice into doctrinal absolutes, hoops to jump through, and systems to gate keep – freezing our own work until everyone gets in line with us? (which let’s be honest, we know is never going to happen).
Folks, we are Quakers/Friends, we are historically known as movers and shakers, even radicals within human history – and not in little ways but big ways – such as women’s suffrage, prison reform, Native American relations, Civil Rights, war relief, and I could go on an on. Many of these life-giving developments started as grass roots movements in the hearts of individuals within local meetings just like ours – and many of these individuals were young people. Their discernments and leadings were supported by their local meeting which furthered their cause –sometimes taking it as far as a national and global audience.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sent some queries to ponder from a small segment of people here at First Friends. They were creating queries to help those in our Meeting with Introspection Regarding Contentious Issues. Just listen to some of the queries they came up with:
· How do my present values and my meeting’s values reflect upon Quaker values and history?
· How do the meeting’s current leadings reflect on Christ’s teachings?
· How may I begin dialogue to gain clarity on said positions or topics?
· How may I better discern my own inner voice and draw from Christ’s teachings?
· If I do not see room for dialogue within others or within myself regarding beliefs or concerns; or do not feel safe creating dialogue, how may I create a forum for such within my meeting or myself?
First, I love that people are sensing a leading to write queries within our meeting, wanting to have conversations, and to dialogue about contentious issues in our community and world that reflect the life and values of the Jesus we see within the scriptures. I believe this is how grass roots movements begin, change happens, and Quakerism flourishes – this is an exciting prospect for First Friends!
Second, this isn’t the only case of this at First Friends. I have watched, in the last two years, numerous concerns regarding contentious issues come from individuals, be presented to the meeting, and move to bigger arenas where a greater impact can occur – everything from fighting pay-day lending in our city, to addressing women’s education in Africa, to looking closer at the safety of 5G networks. This is why partnership with Quaker organizations such as Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, American Friends Service Committee, Right Sharing of World Resources, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Quaker Voluntary Service, and many more are so vitally important. All of these organizations utilize and have been started by individuals from the local level that have sensed a call to have a greater impact in our world.
I think this speaks clearly to why Quakers need to continue asking, or for some to return to asking, at the local level; What role do we play? and What can we do, or should we be doing? All while taking time to reflect on where we have grown frozen or ineffective. Just maybe we need to give ourselves permission to lay down ineffective programs and begin to implement new and more relevant ones that speak to today’s issues. Just because we have always done something, doesn’t mean it should continue. It may actually be in the way of new possibilities and allowing new voices within Quakerdom and our own meeting to be heard.
I have to admit, when I look outside of First Friends at Quakers as a whole there is a wealth of possibility. Yet instead of passion, grass roots ideas, and forward movement, I too often see a lot of frozen, leashed, and locked doors – where membership is rapidly declining and the threat of being laid down is knocking at the door. It seems they have lost the momentum, the passion, the force for change, and too often they have lost faith in it changing! Please hear me on this – I do not want, nor see, this to be our path at First Friends.
I have a feeling many are on this lackluster path because of what Brian McLaren claims,
They couldn’t handle the call to faith expressing itself in love,
so, they reverted to beliefs expressing themselves in exclusion instead.
The reality is that it is much harder to love people than it is to exclude them. Over the last several years, First Friends has realized this in its migration on marriage equality and same-sex relationships, and I am sure if we went back a few more decades, we would find First Friends had to migrate on its position regarding the acceptance of divorced and remarried people, as well. Many of you in this room at different times of our history would have been excluded by our system of beliefs. These are never easy decisions, but when people are loved and not excluded it is for our betterment and it strengthens our community (unless our safety is at risk). It’s much easier to use a belief system, or for us a Faith and Practice to promote exclusion. That is why we need to constantly return to question, re-examine, and rethink our Faith and Practice – embracing its fluidity, relevance, ability to adapt, guide, and change.
Some of you may be unaware of the origins of our Quaker “Faith and Practice.” Originally, in the 17th century as the first Faith and Practices where being written down, they were known to document what acceptable Quaker behavior was, Quaker business practice, and Quaker peculiarities (or what we would today call our distinctives and testimonies for living the faith).
In the 1900’s when the Orthodox movement of Quakers began to align themselves in America with American Evangelical Protestantism, they added to their faith and practice a set of beliefs that one is to personally accept and believe about God, Jesus, the Church to be considered a true Friend. This is very similar to the statements of faith we see in many churches today.
Other Friends (especially those coming out of the Hicksite movement) were very skeptical of anyone telling them exactly what they were to believe. Instead, they often included a collection of excerpts and quotes from Quaker writings on a variety of topics and issues - allowing for individuals to find what speaks most true to their experience.
I personally believe the marriage of American Evangelical Protestantism and Quakerism led many away from their Quaker foundations and caused them to fashion their Faith and Practice into a set of rules and standards instead of a guide for a way of life.
In the beginning of our own Western Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, it quotes the earliest Quaker advice on Faith and Practice from 1656 and describes the spirit that should characterize any such document among Quakers. It reads,
“Dearly beloved friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all with the measure of light which is pure and holy may be guided, and so in the light walking and abiding these may be fulfilled in the spirit, not from the letter; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”
Thus, our very earliest Faith and Practice as a unified group of Quakers warned of the dangers that Brian McLaren and many others are talking about today with rigid system of beliefs that “killeth” instead of birthing a life of love.
I am proud of our Quaker ancestors for recognizing the importance early on of not getting caught up in rules or forms and instead embracing a way that brings about life. And as I have been saying since the beginning of this series, that way of life is rooted in love and modeled in the life of Jesus!
Actually, our faith and practice affirms just that, it states
“From the birth of the Quaker Movement, Friends have regarded Christianity as essentially an experience and a way of life based on that experience.”
It reminds me of when I first read Rob Bell’s book, “Velvet Elvis.” I hadn’t begun my migration to the Quaker Way (or maybe I had and didn’t know it). At the time, I was still an Anglican Priest serving a small parish in Michigan, yet something was going on inside me. All the structures, all the rules, all the formalities of my religion were weighing heavily on me, and sadly our denominational structure was crumbling over everything from scandal, to proper ecclesiology, to doctrinal absolutes. But then I read the following words from Rob Bell and it caused wings to sprout and migration to begin. I believe today, looking back, it was the gateway to my seeking and wanting to live the Quaker way. Rob said speaking of his own experience,
…I am simply trying to orient myself around living a particular kind of way, the kind of way that Jesus taught is possible. And I think that the way of Jesus is the best possible way to live. This isn’t irrational or primitive blind faith. It is merely being honest that we all are living a “way.”
I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live.
I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live.
I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live.
I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live.
I’m convinced listening to wisdom of others is a better way to live.
I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live…
[At the time, I had not been introduced to the Quaker S.P.I.C.E.S (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship) but later I would realize that what Rob was describing were elements of those S.P.I.C.E.S.]
Rob went on to say…
Over time when you purposefully try to live the way of Jesus, you start noticing something deeper going on. You begin realizing the reason this is the best way to live is that it is rooted in profound truths about how the world is. You find yourself living more and more in tune with ultimate reality. You are more and more in sync with how the universe is at its deepest levels.
For too long, I had thought the way of Jesus was about having the correct beliefs, following rules and doctrines (because that had been how it was presented to me) – but it was about so much more. I realized I was missing out!
This way and life were about reality and living in the present moment and allowing the Truths of my faith to surface as I lived my life together with others in community. I, and many others like me, assumed the comfort and isolation of religion kept us safe in almost a magic bubble, safe from the wild-ness of the world.
Where it began to come into perspective was when I started to see this way rooted in the most profound truth - love. This was what Brian McLaren described as Jesus’ “unflinching emphasis” and his most radical point. Brian said,
“It was his new commandment, his prime directive – love for God, for self, for neighbor, for stranger, for alien, for outsider, for outcast, and even for enemy, as he himself modeled.
I realized that this way – this living a life of love meant that I would need to get out of my bubble. That my structures, my beliefs, the things that I had thought mattered the most, would need to take a backseat to learning to love. Jesus himself would take the 10 rules (or commandments) from the Old Testament and sum them up in two statements of love – Love God and Love your neighbors as yourself.
If you noticed our scripture for today said it so well,
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything [symbols of the rules and regulations of the pharisees]; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
Next Sunday, as we celebrate World Quaker Day, we will explore more deeply what it looks like “When Love is the Way.”
As we head into waiting worship this morning, I want to read the queries for us to ponder and for those listening online: Ask yourself…
· Where am I being called to speak up and share my passions for service in the meeting, the community, or world?
· Where have I found it easier to exclude than to live out of love?
· What religious bubbles might I need to pop to experience a fuller life?