Friday, September 9, 2016

Why Not Preach Philemon?

ESR's Stephen Angell delivered the following message during worship on September 6, 2016:

Although Paul’s epistle to Philemon is one of the Scriptural texts suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary for this week, I have never heard a sermon given on this text. This provoked me to think about what I, or the broader Christian church, might be missing by not hearing more sermons on Philemon.
Charles Colcock Jones [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
The evangelical Presbyterian Charles Colcock Jones (1804-1863) was, according to American National Biography Online, “a wealthy planter … best known during his lifetime as a tireless worker for the evangelization of African-American slaves. … Hundreds [of slaves] joined one of his churches [in Liberty County, near the Georgia sea coast.] … Though he was frequently sought out for advice and counsel, slaves never forgot that Jones was a slaveholder and their response was always filtered through that reality.”
Once, possibly in the 1830s or 1840s, Jones chose the text of Philemon for his open air church service for slaves. This choice of text did not inspire a favorable response from his audience. According to Jones (as recorded in his diary), “When I insisted on fidelity and obedience as Christian virtues in servants and, upon the authority of Paul, condemned the practice of running away, one half of my audience deliberately rose up and walked off with themselves, and those who remained looked anything but satisfied, either with the preacher or his doctrine. After dismission, there was no small stir among them; some solemnly declared that there was no such Epistle in the Bible; others, that they did not care if they ever heard me preach again.”
(That’s questionable exegesis – Paul uses the word “obedience” once in this epistle, in verse 21, and it is applied to Philemon. Paul is hoping for Philemon’s obedience. He mentions nothing about Onesimus’ obedience.)
By F. Gutekunst, Philadelphia, Pa. (Photographer)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lucretia Coffin Mott(1793-1880) is widely known for her tireless labors on behalf of abolitionism and women’s rights. She would never have chosen the book of Philemon as one on which to base her message to a hushed Quaker gathering or any interfaith assembly of abolitionists. But, in 1842, she attended a Quaker quarterly meeting in New Jersey, where conservative Hicksite George F. White “preached of Onesimus being sent back to Philemon. . . He … carried many with him.” (Letter to Nathaniel Barney, 10th mo. 8, 1842) Mott was also moved by God to speak on that occasion, and she records that she spoke as if White had not been present. This could be seen as a subtle rebuke to White. Later speakers in a Quaker meeting often attempt to bring in strands of the insights of earlier speakers. But Mott implied that White’s use of Philemon, at least in this particular way to celebrate Paul’s decision to return a fugitive slave to his master, was not at all inspired and thus she would take no notice of this previous message.
The historical realities that shaped the preaching of Jones, Mott, and White, and the responses of their audiences are close enough to our own reality in the United States (even after the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment) that we may well regard the presence of Philemon in the Scriptural canon as an embarrassment. Perhaps we sympathize with the seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Samuel Fisher who objected to the presence of Philemon in the canon, because it had no worthy spiritual dimension. Since it dealt only with “private” and “domestick” matters, Fisher argued, its relevance beyond the initial audience of one for which it was intended was highly suspect.
At the least, it is a text to be handled with care.
But I wonder what interpretive possibilities have been missed with this text. What might be done with a reader-centered interpretation of this intriguing narrative? Can we understand this story as an exercise in contextual ethics? Unlike Paul’s other epistles, there are no matters directly relating to proper Christian doctrine in this epistle; it deals with matters that, within a seminary curriculum, have fallen under the province of ethics and pastoral care.
Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As a Jew who is a person of privilege, specifically of citizenship privilege, because he is a citizen of the prevailing empire, Paul has been led to address a friend, a clerk of a Quaker meeting (or, if you insist, the leader of a “house church”), who is another person of privilege, a slaveholder, who under the laws of that same empire owns another human being. Paul wants this other person of privilege to relinquish some of his privilege, by emancipating a person that he owns. Could this have any relevance to our own situations? Christians, throughout two millennia of history, have often interpreted the Apostle Paul, and his addressees, and the people that Paul discusses, as Every Person; we can readily identify with all sides of the dilemma.
At this point, it could well be appropriate to analyze the epistle line by line to appreciate the strategies that Paul is using in his attempt to gain his end. While that could be quite profitable, I will forgo that exercise today. I would simply ask that you put yourself in the shoes of Onesimus, of Philemon, and of Paul. How does this situation look to you from each vantage point? If you were writing this epistle from the viewpoint of Onesimus, what would you say? If you were writing from Philemon’s viewpoint, what would you do? If you were to re-imagine the position of Paul himself, would you write anything differently?
Don’t avoid challenging subjects, just because they are awkward and difficult. Rather, engage them with enthusiasm, because they’re important. During my sabbatical, I had the opportunity to be Scholar-in-Residence at Reedwood Friends Church in Portland Oregon. Part of my responsibilities was to lead two discussion series. I chose to lead the Sunday morning discussion series on Early Quaker Theology, and the Wednesday evening discussion series on the writings of African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights. There seemed to be particular interest in the Wednesday evening series on Black Quakers. It was remarked to me that my predecessors as Scholars in Residence (roughly one a year for four decades) had often talked about Early Quaker Theology, but no one had previously explored the insights of African American Quakers. We had a great deal of enjoyment and fun, as well as serious moments, looking at the thought of Howard Thurman, Sojourner Truth, Jean Toomer, Helen Morgan Brooks and others. (See Harold D. Weaver, Jr., Paul Kriese, and Stephen W. Angell, Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights.) What important topics for the seminary and the theological curriculum have we been overlooking? Is there some way that we can set aside our embarrassment and find a good way to dive right into this overdue topic?

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here

Thursday, August 25, 2016

North Carolina Yearly Meeting: An ESR Visitor’s Standpoint

ESR's Steve Angell attended this summer's annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), and shares his reflection on the gathering:

In separate conversations, two F(f)riends that I have known for a long time, Brent McKinney and Billy Britt, greeted me warmly and welcomed me back to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting), meeting at Caraway Conference Center in Sophia, North Carolina this month (Eighth Month, 2016). I was delighted to receive their welcome. But, in all honesty, I had to admit that they couldn’t welcome me “back,” because I was attending North Carolina Yearly Meeting for the first time! Both Brent and Billy were astonished. Hadn’t they each been in many meetings with me over the years? I agreed that it was so, but this was still my first time visiting with them in North Carolina. So, with gratitude for the wonderful hospitality of Brent, Billy and many others, and even though I bring something of a practiced Friend’s eye to the occasion, these are still the reflections of a newcomer to NCYM (FUM).

On the opening night of the yearly meeting, Colin Saxton, General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, gave thoughtful and insightful Spirit-led reflections on Acts 28. He retold the story of Acts in such a way that it accentuated the similarities between the dilemmas faced by the apostles in the first century and the situation that we face in the twenty-first century.  He suggested that while today Christians from all sides of the political spectrum call on the government to help their cause, what we can learn from Acts is that it is really the church that has the responsibility to act on behalf of its own values.
The last sentence of the book of Acts (28:30) portrays the Apostle Paul living in Rome and “welcoming all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Colin was especially struck by the fact that the last word in the book in the original Greek is one that means “unhindered.” In a physical sense, this may not have been really accurate. Colin pointed out that Paul was probably shackled to his guard as he moved about. But Paul is, as we are, unhindered in the way that really matters. If we stop blaming our problems on others, and we were to really tap into the available power of the Holy Spirit, as Paul did, what magnificent changes could we manifest in our own time?
The Clerk of the Yearly Meeting, Mike Fulp, Sr., and the Clerk of the yearly meeting executive committee, Brent McKinney, brought the gathered assembly to consider the grave issues that currently confronted the yearly meeting. As Associate Editor of Quaker Theology, I was well aware of the issues faced by North Carolina Yearly Meeting, controversies that Quaker Theology has covered in-depth over the past two years (issues #26-28). Fulp reviewed the events of the past year. Fulp noted that the Executive Committee in 2015 had released, or expelled, three meetings, Poplar Ridge, Holly Spring, (two of the more conservative meetings) and New Garden, (a liberal meeting) because of “dual affiliations” with other yearly meetings. (The terminology gets quite confusing, as there is a North Carolina Yearly Meeting, Conservative, that is “conservative” in a different sense than the strongly evangelical theological identity that is being labeled as “conservatism” in the yearly meeting sessions that I went to. Nothing in this essay should be taken to apply to NCYM-C.) Said Fulp, but “east met west,” and meetings of all theological persuasions had rejected the Executive Committee recommendation that these three meetings had to go. Since that meeting one year ago, Fulp observed, “we have heard no objections to meetings being dually affiliated,”  so the cause of the discord within the yearly meeting must lie elsewhere.
Fulp remarked on the guidance to the yearly meeting provided by a theologically diverse group of nine pastors who convened to try to find a way forward for North Carolina Yearly Meeting.  On May 9, they submitted a report to the yearly meeting executive committee, that stated “while we can celebrate much that unites us, we also recognize the issues that divide us,” including the authority of Scripture, atonement, same-sex marriage, and the nature of our Christian identity. The controversial issues are often presented as non-negotiable. After a lengthy dialogue, seven of these pastors proposed that “the only way forward is a mutually-agreed upon separation.” This proposal came with a stated hope that North Carolina Friends could stay connected at some level, but there was a need to set Friends at liberty on those things that divide them. The other two pastors dissented from these conclusions, asserting that the yearly meeting needed to find a way to stay together.
Fulp and McKinney found this proposal to be quite helpful. Consequently, the executive committee had spent several  months exploring what a separation might look like. It would be a massive undertaking, which would need to account for matters of faith, organization, property, and law. One proposal was that the yearly meeting could separate, with one successor organization focused on “authority” of Scripture and of the yearly meeting, and the other on “autonomy” of the individual meetings. To my ear, this sounded very similar to the separation that had just taken place in Indiana Yearly Meeting. (Issues #18-24 of Quaker Theology had covered that yearly meeting’s separation.)  If a separation were to take place in North Carolina, McKinney observed, he suspected  that both new yearly meetings would be a part of Friends United Meeting. Just such an outcome had taken place in Indiana three years previously.
Monthly meetings were already taking it upon themselves to separate themselves from the yearly meeting if they deemed the yearly meeting to not be acting with sufficient urgency on the issues of Christian identity as set forth by the pastors’ group and many others. Prior to the yearly meeting, the departures of 17 meetings had already taken place from North Carolina Yearly Meeting. At the yearly meeting sessions for which I was present, two more departures were approved. These meetings all sent letters and had their own reasons for leaving, but all but one (Fancy Gap) who had gone were theologically on the conservative (or evangelical) end. They took their financial contributions with them, leaving a rather large hole in the yearly meeting budget. But what concerned Fulp and McKinney the most was that 14 more meetings are threatening to leave. (The most obvious evidence for this was a recent letter from the Yadkin Quarter of NCYM. Ten such meetings were signatories to a letter, dated fourth month, seventeenth day, 2016, that stated, “Many Monthly Meetings have already left the Yearly Meeting and many more are ready to leave if unity in our theological beliefs is not accomplished soon.”)
McKinney noted that if a separation were to take place, that it would not preclude a reunion some time later. He reached across the world to Africa for a precedent for his hopeful remark. In the early 2000s, Tuloi and Nandi yearly meetings, both located in Kenya, had reunited, and McKinney, who was present, could remember the great joy in this reunion. (There have also been geographically closer reunions, that went unmentioned in this context; between 1945 to 1968, several yearly meetings in the eastern United States and in Canada reunited, to form the present-day New England, New York, Philadelphia, Canadian, and Baltimore yearly meetings. These five yearly meetings of Friends, while absorbing some Orthodox Friends, are today predominantly liberal in their theologies. So these examples may not appeal to North Carolina Friends affiliated with Friends United Meeting, who trace their identity to the Orthodox branch of Quakerism.)
A draft of a “procedural plan for separation into two yearly meetings” was presented by Brent McKinney. The yearly meeting did not approve this draft. Each meeting would have had to “choose alignment with their preference for one of the two yearly meetings,” by a preliminary deadline of November 5, 2016, and a final deadline of June 3, 2017. The plan detailed a process for dividing assets and working on two books of Faith and Practice for the two successor yearly meetings. There was not extensive discussion of this draft on the yearly meeting floor. Instead, there were seven different breakout sessions, at which all members of North Carolina Yearly Meeting were invited to speak, and at which careful notes were taken on newsprint posters, so that the Executive Committee could refer to them in their luncheon meeting immediately after the morning session.
Some of the comments presented a challenge to the more liberal meetings: “How are you a Quaker and not a Christian?” “Why do some teach theology not in Faith and Practice?” Experiences stretching back several decades formed a pretext for a separation for some: “I started as a Quaker in 1978. First, North Carolina Yearly Meeting made me want to leave, but I stayed. A few years later, some kids at my meeting went to Quaker Lake Camp, and they were ridiculed for believing in Jesus as the messiah and the only way to salvation. The kids did not go back. At the Representative Body in 1978, meetings were coming forward speaking against atonement.” Some urged that those meetings without a strong belief in Scriptural and yearly meeting authority should leave voluntarily: “Our meeting is one [that favors] authority, and we have been waiting over a year. No one wants separation, but if there are those that do not believe the same, they should go elsewhere.”
There were others who defended the current makeup of North Carolina Yearly Meeting and stoutly denied that there was any need for separation: “We are stronger because of our diversity.” “Meaningful worship can occur despite differences.” “We should seek ways to become more tolerant and work together to be more accepting.” “Responsibility rests on everyone to work for the unity of the body of Christ.” Someone asked, “how do we speak to the world if we can’t reconcile?” Another person confessed, “we have lacked skills in conflict resolution.” “We must find common ground in love.” Support of mission work, such as North Carolina Friends’ work with the Choctaw Native Americans, Friends Disaster Service and Jamaica Yearly Meeting, was one instance of common ground that was often cited.
Some mentioned concerns about difficult issues, such as homosexuality, that weren’t being addressed. “Our group did name a few times  the issues of homosexuality. It’s still an underlying issue.” “The issue of homosexuality is tied in with the issue of Biblical Authority.” “It is time we have a very frank discussion about homosexuality.”
The practical difficulties involved in separation loomed large for many, especially if it involved a division of assets. Some feared that a division would endanger the yearly meeting’s missions and its Quaker Lake Camp. “How will we support ministries like Quaker Lake Camp if we don’t stay together?” “What about the superintendent? Will there be one over both?” “This feels like a divorce which would include division of assets. I have a concern about legal battles.” “I have a concern about the sanctity of North Carolina Yearly Meeting endowments.” “How do we address those who have borrowed money from endowment funds?” “If we divide, we’ll lose significant financial assets. Is it worth it? Will missions outreach suffer?”  
Choosing between two new yearly meetings would be difficult for many: “How would I choose? I embrace both sides.” “Trickle-down splits in Monthly Meetings, and families, are a concern.” But others pointed out the dangers of continued inaction: “We have many meetings prepared to leave. We are at the point that we need to take action, or we will die and wither.” “I have a concern that if we don’t do something, meetings will continue to leave.”
As the Executive Committee looked over the set of comments, it most likely was evident to them that there was not a sense of the meeting, or even a preponderance of opinion, on behalf of proceeding with the separation plan as they had outlined it before the breakout sessions, or of forgetting about separation altogether. Some of the commenters in the breakout session must have anticipated this difficulty, because some were searching for middle ground between these two rather polarized options. “I believe that a split has occurred, but I have a vision of an umbrella, one where everybody belongs.” “I do not want to split, but we definitely need to reorganize.” “Have we considered reorganizing on a quarterly meeting basis based on theological affinity?”  “Can we survey the Meetings around foundational issues and form Quarterly Meetings and Yearly Meetings around philosophical similarities?” These comments recognized a need for monthly meetings to have more fellowship with meetings with similar affinities, but seemed to avoid the difficulty of a division of the Yearly Meeting’s substantial financial assets.
It was this last set of comments that provided the core of the Executive Committee report when the yearly meeting reconvened in general session in the afternoon, and it was the Executive Committee’s turn to report on the results of the breakout groups. What they proposed in the afternoon was a reorganization that would be focused on reconstituting quarterly meetings largely or wholly on lines of theological affinity. They proposed that North Carolina Yearly Meeting operate as a shell, and that there be two associations under this shell, or umbrella. The idea had surfaced before during the yearly meeting’s last two years of turmoil. The Umbrella Plan was Option One of three options that had been presented at June 2015 meeting of NCYM’s Representative Body; when the meetings had the opportunity to express themselves on the merits of these three options (later expanded to five), only five of the 70 meetings in NCYM had preferred this Option One. But no consensus had developed around the other four options either. 
And at this late hour, the umbrella plan looked more appealing. A Friend from First Friends Greensboro asserted that it was “everybody’s second best choice” and a “pretty good plan.” A Friend from Winston-Salem Meeting found the proposal “intriguing.” A Friend from New Garden mentioned the heartfelt advice from Allen Jay, a venerable Quaker forebear who died in 1910, who wrote in his autobiography that “separations never brought more people to Christ.” A Friend from Randleman Meeting, however, complained that the new proposal was “very vague.” A Friend from Deep Creek Meeting cautioned that North Carolina Yearly Meeting cannot afford to “hemorrhage any more meetings.” Even some members of the Executive Committee seemed cautious. Would this more limited proposal really solve the yearly meeting’s problems?
On behalf of the Executive Committee, Tom Terrell drafted a minute that read as follows:
Over the past 319 years, the North Carolina Yearly Meeting has never been without a time when we debated who we were as Christians and as Quakers and the steps that we should take to fulfill the missions of Christ on earth.
As the years have become decades and the decades have become centuries, the multiple views and competing positions in this discussion have moved farther apart. The challenge of bridging our differences has become an increasingly daunting task.
In recent years, the chorus of voices concerned about our differences has risen, and we have labored diligently to find a way to maintain our unity of purpose, our unity of worship, and the unity of our corporate body.
Managing this conversation has become a regular task of the Yearly Meeting’s Executive Committee, to the exclusion of other work for which we have been appointed. After many meetings, and after long and prayerful discussions, the Executive Committee concludes that matters within our Yearly Meeting are moving too swiftly for us to assume a posture of organizational inertia.
In just the past year, 19 of our 72 meetings have left the Yearly Meeting and two meetings have been laid down. A diverse group of ministers has asked the Executive Committee to recommend a structured pathway to separation. Southern Quarter has united in asking that we consider taking steps toward division. And we have been informed that several more meetings will leave the Yearly Meeting if action leading to reorganization or division is not quick and decisive.
This afternoon the Executive Committee listened attentively to the questions raised and the comments made during morning breakout sessions. We know much more now than we did prior to annual session regarding the beliefs, the fears, the anxieties, and the aspirations of represented meetings.
However, we did not hear a sufficiently strong consensus for unity, and therefore we return to you, as your Executive Committee, seeking approval of the plan as broadly outlined at this morning’s session, but with a focus on reorganization rather than separation.
Based on the collective suggestions made in each of your groups, the plan may look differently as we take measured and considered steps toward a reorganized body. At each step, our recommendations and decisions will be made according to your input and approval, and they will be taken in a manner that respects the needs and interests of all members of our Yearly Meeting.
We know that there are questions to which we do not yet have answers and that there is now and will later be uncertainty, but as we acknowledge our depleted ranks and consider the rising volume of dissatisfied voices, we conclude that our only reasonable option is to work towards reorganization in whatever form it takes. Within this plan of reorganization, each meeting’s destiny will be controlled and determined by the meeting itself, and each resulting organization will determine its own theological identity.
In the face of these many unknowns, and in the Spirit of the same Christ that brought us together 319 years ago, we ask this body to approve the plan presented this morning, but with a focus on reorganization into two groups.
Approved this 13th day, eight month, 2016.
Mike Fulp, Presiding Clerk, North Carolina Yearly Meeting
While this minute presented a clear statement as to how the Yearly Meeting had arrived at its present crossroads, and also provided a clear statement as to the proposed path of “reorganization” going forward, it was a more general minute than what had been presented in the morning, and also more general than the main thrust of the Executive Committee recommendations as presented in the afternoon. It did not completely commit the Executive Committee to the umbrella plan, although that was the path that had garnered the most support at yearly meeting sessions.
I had to leave yearly meeting sessions early in order to return to Indiana for the start of a new school year, so this is where my knowledge based on personal observation ends.
But the reporting of Chuck Fager corroborates the strong place that the reconstituted umbrella plan plays in the thinking of the NCYM Executive Committee.  In particular, the Yearly Meeting Epistle, approved after I left, gave prominence to the umbrella plan:
The gathered body continued to listen to Friends’ concern about the direction of the yearly meeting, of whether or not to split, going our separate ways based on some arbitrary definition of “who we are.” We heard a call for tolerance of others, meetings that seek to live the Love of God differently in service to their community. We heard that “we are already divided.” Nineteen meetings have left the yearly meeting, and others are considering leaving the yearly meeting. We are splintering. Friends began to ask “Is intentional division better than unorganized splintering?” Everyone struggled to understand “authority” and “autonomy” and how to understand our life together in Christ. Is it better for NCYM-FUM to die to allow for a resurrection of a new organization? Could we serve Christ better if we reorganized our yearly meeting, our quarterly meetings, and our committees and ministries? Concerns were expressed about “Do we love one another, as Jesus teaches?” We were reminded of the words of Allen Jay over 100 years ago, “Separations have never brought one to Christ.”
Due to theological differences, several meetings indicated that they would leave if the yearly meeting does not divide. Several other meetings spoke out against division. Out of the chaos and lack of clarity, in an effort to work with Love without compromising Faith, Friends approved a way to move forward. NCYM-FUM will work on reorganizing with subgroups or associations remaining under one yearly meeting umbrella. We intend to remain joined in essential ministries that are important to all, staying in relationship with each other, while we seek clarity of our theological distinctives for the groups that comprise the yearly meeting.

So this visitor was heartened. A hasty separation seems to have been averted. And North Carolina Friends sought compromise. The desire for more fellowship with Friends who share a similar theology may be able to be met through a reorganization of Quarterly Meetings. A difficult division of yearly meeting assets was avoided, at least for the time being. Perhaps, when I get welcomed back to North Carolina Yearly Meeting next time, they will be discerning a movement of the Holy Spirit to reunite with other meetings in their state. The yearly meeting epistle ends with the observation, “We came here asking ‘Who has God called us to be? What has God called us to do?’ We continue to discern these answers.” May this discernment continue to lead North Carolina Friends to a blessed place of peace and unity. I am grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed this small part of their journey as a yearly meeting.

Stephen W. Angell is Earlham School of Religion's Geraldine Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies. His most recent book, Early Quakers and their Theological Thought: 1647-1723, is available here

Monday, May 9, 2016

A graduation farewell from Danny Coleman, MA '16

Hello friends,

I regret that I won't be able to attend graduation in Richmond.  Sadly, travel cost considerations from Seattle--coupled with my job responsibilities--made it unfeasible.  Although the total amount of time I spent "in person" at ESR was relatively brief, I do feel a strong connection and I hope to visit in the future.  I very much appreciate that I was able to "attend" the Baccalaureate Dinner and Service remotely via Adobe Connect.  Thanks for making that possible.

I want to thank each of you for your instruction, guidance, support and encouragement during my time as a student at ESR.  Attending seminary and earning a Master's degree was a dream that I nursed for many years before way opened for it to come about.

When I was awarded the Nancy Kortepeter Mullen Scholarship for 2013-14, it was a tremendous affirmation and confirmation and inspiration.  I recall sharing the news with my wife and we wept tears of joy together.  Receiving the scholarship had a significant impact on our lives and marked a major crossroad.  There is a story in the biblical book of Joshua, chapter 4, in which the Israelites--having crossed the Jordan river--set up "standing stones" to serve as a visible reminder of their miraculous journey.  After receiving the scholarship I decided that if I managed to graduate I would likewise make a token of remembrance--something I could look upon all of my days to remind me of what God has done in and for me at ESR and of the many kindnesses extended to me there.

Attached is a photo of my remembrance.  The text reads "Fides quaerens intellectum," which was the motto of Anselm of Canterbury, and translates as "Faith seeking understanding."  Already, in the short time I've had it, it has provided opportunities to tell people about my experiences at ESR.  

And so, friends, my thanks and best wishes to you.  


Monday, April 4, 2016

A Thought on “Unlock Justice:” the 2016 FCNL Lobby Weekend Event

ESR student Karen A. Bradley shares her thoughts after attending Friends Committee on Legislation's Spring Lobby Weekend: 

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to attend the “Unlock Justice” Lobby Weekend sponsored by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington DC. As a nontraditional student, I was--let's just say--“a tad” bit older than most of the participants, about 400 Quaker and Quaker-inspired high school and college students. The purpose of the event was to train and excite young activists in lobbying as an advocacy practice.  Participants spent three days learning about the issue and one day actually lobbying their state senators and representatives on Capital Hill. It was a high energy event to say the least.  These young adults were amped up on their political and religious passions.  Even the moments of Quaker silence shimmered in palpable effervescence. 

Sentencing reform was the substantive focus of the lobby weekend. In particular, mandatory sentencing, especially for small drug crimes, that has filled our prison systems with essentially non-violent, minimal crime offenders who end up with very long maximum sentences. There is also evidence that this affects poor and minority communities disproportionately. Much needs to be done to reform these laws.  That is why FCNL chose this issue for the lobby weekend.  It is an essential step in having a more fair and just approach to imprisonment in America.

I care very much about this issue. As I looked over the 400 students packed into the hotel conference room, I also thought about my own nephew, Joshua, who sits in a prison in Oklahoma. It isn't one of those extreme examples we heard about at the conference.  He is an ordinary rural kid in his early 30s who was arrested for selling “meth.”  It sounds bad and dangerous but he is not that formidable.  Josh grew up in a low income home and community.  He has a dad who died of an overdose. He has multiple learning disabilities including ADHD.  They tried Ritalin at the time but eventually, because Josh didn't have access to health care, he didn't have any access to treatment.  He dropped out of school in 8th grade and began self medicating with speed (oddly kids with hyperactivity actually feel more calm when they take speed.)  Because he didn't complete school, he struggled to find jobs.  He moved through a variety of them, all minimum wage. For the most part, he attempted to do well in them. Even when he did do well, the pay was hardly enough to live on.  His growing involvement with drugs grew out of the lack of economic opportunities, the on-going issues with learning disabilities, a narrative on rural masculinity, and a whole host of other things.  There were times he had more opportunities then others. He has a loving, supportive family.  Even so, Josh never really pulled his life together; his drug use grew worse.  His crime, the “selling” of meth, was simply him passing on enough to a few friends in order to pay for his own habits.  So now he is in prison for three years and he has several substantial fines he must pay when he gets out.

It is hard to imagine how this scenario is going to yield anything other than more failure in his life.  What “lesson” will he learn in prison that will make his life better when he gets out? He has a drug addiction, learning disabilities, and a learned way of life that centers on tough masculinity.  He needs adequate health care.  He needs education. He needs a minimum wage that he can live on.  He needs job opportunities that are meaningful.  He needs an alternative way of thinking about the world that gives him hope.

Joshua is only slightly older than the young Quaker lobbyists who marched into senator and representative offices on Capital Hill to speak their minds.  Their life paths are very different.  There isn't anything the young Quakers can do to directly to undo the unevenness between their more blessed lives and the lives of poor rural white kids in Oklahoma. But that those students take the time to invest their blessings in ways to intervene in the system and to demand attention to the cause of peace and justice is truly a beautiful thing. It inspires me to work harder and it gives me hope. 

The tag line for the whole weekend was “Tell congress why you want to “unlock justice.”--the source of many videos that were posted on social media.  Here is my response.  Why do I want to “unlock justice?”  Because I believe that prison sentences are no substitute for adequate education, affordable health care, and a functioning economy.  

Quaker young adults, you rock!

See for yourselves: photos up on Facebook

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Inner Darkness, Winter Gardens

ESR student Susan Flynn delivered the following message during ESR Worship on February 2, 2016:

We are at the close of the first month of the year, a time where people make resolutions to live their life better, access meaning quicker, clear away what is unneeded or not working.  We are just beginning February.  Even though it is the shortest month, for most people I know, they can’t wait for it to be over.  The hanging-on-of-winter and the pull of spring end up leaving many of us craving sunlight, with the impatience of cabin fever.  I have discovered I love ESR for the same reasons I love winter.  Winter is a chance to bundle up, go inside, read a good book, reflect, and act like a cat by finding the most comfortable place to fall asleep.  Enjoy the contrasts, hot chocolate after being out in the cold, candlelight in the evening.

 Today I want to not talk about inner light but our inner darkness.  I grow weary of the association of light being good, and the dark being bad and scary.  We need the dark as much as we need the light; they are contrasting but not opposites.  The Ying Yang symbol attempts to demonstrate that both light and dark are a part of each other, connected by the same underlying essence.  This writing explores how I have been distracted by the light and given gifts through darkness. 
When we have too much light it can affect our bodies and brains, too much sun, can lead to health issues.  We can be kept from sleep at night from the blue light emanating from our electronics.  As human beings we are designed to stop and replenish - darkness is necessary for this to happen.  At night, our brains remove what is unneeded information, consolidating useful material while our body’s systems re-calibrate on every level, regulating growth and hunger hormones for optimal functioning during the day.  The moonflower and certain water lilies only bloom at night.  Butterflies, the symbol of transformation, would never open their magnificent wings without their time in dark seclusion as caterpillars.     
Sometimes the bring light of spring and summer can be stressful for me because my expectations for the day sky-rocket.  And I often find myself disappointed when I cannot accomplish an uncanny amount of work, activities, and play before sundown.  With winter, well maybe not this one, but winters in the past, a layer of snow can make it hard to go out, lowering my expectations to reasonable.  Nature turns the lights down low and we are invited to go within, and experience what awaits our engagement.  Or we can choose not to and tap our feet impatiently awaiting the spring.  The sunny months are always entertaining, fun and stimulating; but I have learned the most from exploring the dark.  
Before I decided to go to seminary I experienced a bit of a dark night of the soul.  Two years before I went, I was getting swallowed in debt, trying to sell a house that I had once cherished as a place I called home.  I spent a lot of time in nature and in the company of my cats as I reflected on the end of a relationship that lasted over a decade.  I didn’t want to be with people, so when I wasn’t at my job I would have my meals with the birds outside and spent time praying inside with my cats at night.  At that time I learned about the many levels of loneliness.  And that is when I really started to talk with God.  I prayed nightly asking for direction, answers, and help by candle light.  God, nature and animals were my most cherished company during that time.  They journeyed with me into the abyss, and there I had encounters with fear, doubt and self -worth.  I was disoriented for a while, groping around in the dark, but as I became accustomed to connecting with my shadows, remembering who I was and what was important, it became powerful place to be, working with the force of life.  When Luke Skywalker trained with Yoda in the swamp, he was blind-folded - unaided by visual sight to see what was in the light.  He began to hear and see from another place.  A place within, that was honest, deep and holy.  One that was free from illusion and distraction.  As I wrestled with loneliness I began to learn how lovely it was to be alone and that it was not only the end of certain things in my life, but also the beginning.
          Ministry has always been something that whispered to me, and nipped at my heels in my life’s most present moments.  At that time, I loved my job as an Employment Specialist; it affirmed my love of people, but over the course of 12 years I discovered I wanted to work with people in a more spiritual way.  As I was clearing out the weeds in my life, I began to water the thought of going to Seminary.  Knowing internally that the place that held the most value and meaning for me was with the church, people and nature. 
I changed realtors, emptied the house and sold most of what I owned.  The house sold on May first in Massachusetts and I was working at a job in New Hampshire on the 21st, and by fall I was traveling to many seminaries in my old Honda Lucy, in search of a good place to study.
          Although I had some of my most theologically provocative conversations at [another] school in Chicago, I did not fall in love.  In the end, Earlham School of Religion stole my heart.  I wanted to study with people of other faith traditions; the beauty of Richmond’s farmland and sky called out easily winning over the city living the other schools offered.  But most of all ESR had an essence that the other places could not touch; sure the other places were impressive, shiny, engraved scripture in the floor, ornate chapels, and had extensive community programs, but something was missing.  I knew when I visited ESR, this was a place I would be able to go as deep as I wanted to into the questions I would have.  And as most of you know who have ever been in class with me, I have a lot of questions!  I could not identify all the reasons ESR held my attention, the essence was a bit mysterious, but I had enough to go on, I was going to move for the fourth time: destination Richmond, Indiana.
          I have lived in both Massachusetts and South Carolina and although I have roots in both places, I find I always go through culture shock when I go from one to the other.   And even though I knew ESR, nestled in the Midwest was exactly the place I was supposed to be, when I got here I experienced another wilderness desert moment.  Where was everyone?

          I did not quite get the Quaker culture when I first arrived, the quiet, stillness and lack of bright colors was a bit different.  When I would enter Barclay I felt like I was in an old western ghost town.  I would burst in, with my rambling gregarious greetings, dressed in various colors that did not necessarily go with Quaker grey.  Pushing open the Barclay saloon doors, this displaced cowgirl would instantly disturb the productive solace-filled space.  The first couple times I came, I would question myself wondering, "Wait.  Where am I?  Should I be speaking in a whisper? Am I in the library?"  The people of Barclay got used to my energy.  Matt would know it would be just minutes before I dropped in asking if I could test the Keurig machine. He would laugh when I would reason I was making sure it was running properly for the prospective students.  Miriam, always gracious, instead of hiding the candy bowl would busily refill it, knowing my not-so-covert ninja agenda was always on a mission for a piece of chocolate.  And Jay upon hearing my exuberance would always subtly close his door in order to get his work done without the distraction of an over-excited cowgirl.
          As an enthusiastic U.U. it took me a little while at ESR to get acclimated, at first I was very aware of what I was missing, color, buddies, things to do, and extroverted people.  We were surrounded by farms growing all sorts of things, why did it feel like a desert to me?  Was the grass greener at another seminary?  Had I made a mistake?  As I went to classes and waiting worship and got into the flow of ESR, I began to realize, that the mysterious essence I couldn’t name originally was actually transformational, and that spirit I felt in the air was descending upon me.  The desert I saw was an illusion, because I was searching for something that would never be found where I was looking.
          The quiet, the spirit, and this place asked me, invited me, to go within.  This lifted the veil helping me realize, as I first suspected, that it wasn’t in the shiny, or carved floors, it was not who I had been in my last job.  It was so quiet, all the voices of the world hushed, and I came to understand, we were not without, we were actually deeply and perhaps more available for the holy listening, of spirit in this place.  I was on sacred land, that was lush and nutrient enough to grow whatever I needed while I was here. 
The green grass began to sprout around my spot in the Richmond desert; I saw community and loving called it as I saw it, pockets of community.  There were all these great, hole-in-the-wall places to eat, Roscoe’s - a coffee shop where I could study, caffeinate and move the furniture - nature trails all over the place, and high -aliber lectures and shows in town.  My extroverted side is satiated knowing of all the things to do, but the gold I was originally mining for was for my introverted side, the apophatic nourishment.  Upon first arriving here, I was used to so much external stimulus and touchstones, it was disorienting for me at first not seeing them were I was accustomed.  And although I am a kataphatic person, I was drawn here because of the space made for the introvert, appreciation for processing and contemplation.  Knowing this environment would allow for spirit to arise and be heard where she would in my life.  That chance to honor the dark, turn off all the lights, the doing, the entertainment, and let the head sink into the heart and explore what is most vulnerable, honest and true.  Love, integrity, being connected, witnessing and listening are among these gifts. 
I have been doing a lot of reflecting since I got here.  The natural environment of quiet, and simplicity, has helped me shed the layers and pieces that were not helpful in my theology and personal philosophy.  For me the gift of transformation has been in learning to trust the process of breaking apart - it’s terrifying for sure but I understand what is happening now.  Perhaps the same feeling the Incredible Hulk might have experienced the first time his skin turned green and he doubled in size.  Seminary in my opinion, if done right is transformational on every level, destruction, mayhem, construction, peace, pain, and deeper sense of purpose, power and place.
          In my life before Seminary, I was trying to get my ducks in a row, race with the rats, and work toward the good life, and as my life unfolded as many people's do, my ducks scattered.  Who decided on ducks anyhow? If I am administered a new set of ducks, if I can’t send them back, I think I would rather have them dance or drum and invite some non-ducks to the party.
Now down to an apartment's worth of stuff, I have found again I no longer need all that I have.  I have also been cleaning out my internal spiritual house, finding the possessions worth the most don’t take up space to store, but are a treasure to have.  Refocusing from consuming to connecting with people, the love of learning and discussing something important, practicing reiki, letter writing, and not having a T.V., is such a joy.  Knee deep in compost, preparing this winter garden, focusing in on the question Wayne Muller asks us, how then shall we live?  A large part of this garden is reserved specifically for mystery, the spirit to plant what is inspired at any given point.  I acknowledge that I have only two of the many hands that will be tending to this enchanted place.  The winter, the absence of light, is just as good growing conditions as the spring and summer.  What does your inner darkness, this garden of winter have to reveal to you?     

Friday, November 6, 2015

Hicks and Gurney Fight it Out at Silver Bay

Students in Steve Angell's "Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity" class this fall were asked to imagine a scenario in which Joseph John Gurney and Elias Hicks met up in a present-day context with which the students are familiar. Below is one of the resulting essays, from MDiv student John Edminster:

In the fantasy-narrative here unfolding, Elias Hicks (1748-1830) was brought back to be keynote speaker at New York Yearly Meeting’s 2016 Summer Sessions. While the Sessions Committee was arranging this, the Worship-at-Sessions Subcommittee decided to call up Joseph John Gurney (1788-1847) to lead evening Bible Study during the week. Some expressed concern that Friend Elias and Friend Joseph John[1] might not get along well, but the sense among the planners was, “we’re not a creedal religion, no one’s salvation depends on doctrinal correctness, and there’s that of God in every person, so there’s no good reason for them not to get along.” And that was that. At week’s end the Epistle Committee reported that Friends found their visits “stimulating.” But only those who attended knew how very stimulating they were.

Poor Joseph John: he’d no sooner gotten his name-tag on the Inn Porch than Friends started mobbing him about the FUM employment policy, LGBTQ concerns, and the environment. Eventually Ruth, a sensitive old-timer, took him off for a quiet cup of tea and brought him up to date on the issues that exercise Friends nowadays. Joseph John seemed dismayed that Biblical teachings weren’t among them. Ruth explained that though the yearly meeting has an advice[2] about Scripture-reading, Friends here pretty much let other Friends make what they like of Scripture – if it’s read at all. Some do; many don’t.

“But it’s ever been the belief of the Society of Friends,” cried Joseph John, “that the Holy Scriptures were written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, believing, we might have life through His name!”[3] He caught his breath and went on: “And secondly, the accordance of the truths revealed in Scriptures, with what we know in ourselves, and observe in the world around us, and more especially the adaptation of the gospel of Christ to the condition of fallen man, supplies us with a further conclusive proof, that the Creator and moral Governor of the universe is the Author of the Bible.[4] God speaks to us through the Bible, Friend! Can’t we hear Him pleading with us? ‘Return ye now, every one from his evil way – for as I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked!’"[5]

“But just how is humanity ‘fallen,’ Joseph John? And will you be telling the Friends in your Bible-study classes that there’s a ‘hell’ or a ‘damnation’ that they’re in danger of? That’s going to be a hard sell here. They don’t think of themselves as wicked. Best-selling author Phil Gulley has argued –“ But here Ruth broke off, for Joseph John had buried his head in his hands and begun weeping.
Over dinner she persuaded Joseph John not to risk losing his Bible-study audience by insisting on the literal scientific and historical truth of the Bible. “Stick with the moral teachings of Jesus,” she advised. “If you want to assert that people are in bondage to ‘sin’ and you can’t use a less charged word like ‘brokenness’  or ‘proneness to error,’ OK, Joseph John, take your chances, but stay away from mentioning the ‘devil.’ It’ll just blow people’s circuits.”

“Circuits?” Joseph John asked, wide-eyed.

Linda, meeting Elias’s train up in Ticonderoga, greeted him with the happy news that the Hicksite separation of 1827-28 was now largely forgotten, New York Yearly Meeting’s Hicksites and Orthodox having reunited in 1955. “Anyway, we’re mostly Hicksites here now.”

Elias smiled wanly in an attempt to be friendly, his smiling muscles weak from disuse and his alertness to the temptation of pride triggered by the mention of “Hicksites.” We’ll just see what they mean by that word, he thought. He didn’t have to wait long. His keynote speech, delivered shortly after dinner to a packed auditorium, was entitled “The Requisites to the Being and Well-Being of a Christian.” The first principal requisite, he began, was “a real belief in God and Christ as one undivided essence – known and believed in, inwardly and spiritually.” The second was “a complete, passive obedience and submission to the divine will and power – inwardly and spiritually manifested – which when known, brings to the Christian state through a crucifixion of the old man with all his ungodly deeds. And thirdly, in order for the preservation and well-being of a Christian, it is necessary that they often meet and assemble together for the promotion of love and good works.”[6] The audience, stunned by the unexpected Christian language and particularly by the call for “the crucifixion of the old man,” sat in breathless silence.

“But thanks be to God,” Elias concluded at length, “who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law to all those that believe and are witnesses of his spiritual appearance in their hearts to take away sin and finish transgression and fulfill all righteousness in those who willingly deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him in the way of regeneration. Even so, let it be, saith my spirit, with the spirits of the faithful. Amen forever.”[7]

“Are there questions, comments, or ministry rising?” the Clerk asked.

A hand shot up in the back. “Yes – the Friend in the black suit.”

“Friend Elias,” began Joseph John, “I heard thee say that the Messiah was ‘a true and real man, possessed of the same nature of our first parent, Adam, [who] by his faithfulness to divine requisition and the leadings of Holy Spirit… overcame the wicked one… setting an example to all his followers and assuring them… that… they might come to… be strengthened through divine aid to rise superior to all temptations and the possibility of falling. For to effect this by his example, his precepts, doctrines, and commands was the great and glorious end of his coming.’[8] Was that the only end of His coming, Elias, to be an example and teach doctrines? And was that ‘same nature of Adam’ His only nature? For Paul plainly taught ‘that Jesus Christ… subsisted in the nature and condition of God, [and] so humbled himself, as to take upon him the nature and condition of a servant and a man.’[9] And ‘those who look upon Jesus of Nazareth as a mere man, almost necessarily deny the doctrine of his propitiatory death and sacrifice on the cross.’[10] But that sacrifice, Friends! That sacrifice served a vast purpose, ‘nothing less than the redemption of the world – the deliverance of mankind from the bondage of sin and Satan, and from the bitter pains of eternal death, and his final translation to the kingdom of everlasting rest and glory!’[11] But ‘under the imagination that we have the whole Christ, as a thing or substance, in ourselves, [as Elias and his followers claim,] we first disregard, and then deny, the divine, incarnate Saviour, of whom the Scriptures testify.’”[12]

At this the whole auditorium burst into disorder, with some Friends waving their hands to be recognized, others holding their arms aloft to signal for silence, and others standing and speaking without waiting for the Clerk’s recognition. But Joseph John had not yet relinquished the microphone. He went on, shouting over the din: “I know that some of you ‘secretly entertain the good old faith of the Christian Quaker; truly believing in Jesus of Nazareth, as… the Saviour of the world. Do not such individuals dangerously compromise their principles, so long as they continue in church-fellowship with ministers and others… who are publicly known… to repudiate these essential doctrines of the christian religion? In the tenderness of christian affection, I submit this weighty consideration to the verdict of their consciences! “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” – ‘[13]

Thus began the week. Gurney won some sympathizers over the course of his Bible-study sessions, but no defectors from the reunited yearly meeting; experience, it seemed, had proven separation too costly. Hicks, without intending it, persuaded many self-styled Hicksites to stop using the term to refer to themselves. Most Friends left Summer Sessions unsure just what the differences were between the two old men in plain dress – “I don’t get it,” said Ruth. “They’re both Christians.”

Linda quipped, “Remember the theme of last year’s summer sessions, ‘320 years – one faith?’[14] I’ll bet they think twice before using that slogan again.”

John Edminster is a first-year MDiv student at ESR. He moved to Richmond along with his wife Elizabeth (also an ESR student) from New York City, where he is a member of Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting (New York Yearly Meeting).

[1] "Gurney was born at Earlham Hall near Norwich (now part of the University of East Anglia), the tenth child of John Gurney (1749–1809), who was a banker (Gurney's Bank) and a Friend himself. He was always called Joseph John." Emphasis added. [accessed 10/11/2015].
[2] NYYM’s second advice reads: “Friends are advised to read frequently the Scriptures and such other books as will inspire and instruct, and to encourage the practice by their families and others.” Faith and Practice (1998 ed.), [accessed 10/18/2015].
[3] The section of the 1887 Richmond Declaration of Faith entitled “The Holy Scriptures,” which has a Gurneyite heritage, begins: “It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written so that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name.’ (John 20:31)." [Accessed 10/9/2015].
[4] Gurney, Hints on the Portable Evidence of Christianity, New Edition (Philadelphia: Henry Longstreth, 1856), p. vi.
[5] Ezek. 18: 23, 31, 33:11; cf. Jer. 18:11, 35:15 (KJV).
[6] Quoted from Paul Buckley, ed., The Journal of Elias Hicks (San Francisco: Inner Light Books, 2009), p. 349.
[7] Ibid., p. 223.
[8] Ibid., p. 292.
[9] Gurney, Biblical notes and dissertations, intended to confirm and illustrate the doctrine of the Deity of Christ, 2nd ed. (London: L. Rivington, 1833), p. 95, emphasis added. The reference is to Philippians 2:5-11.
[10] Gurney, A Letter to the Followers of Elias Hicks, in the City of Baltimore and Its Vicinity (Baltimore: Wood & Crane, 1840), p. 4. [Accessed 10/18/2015].
[11] Ibid., p. 9.
[12] Ibid., p. 17. Emphases in the original.
[13] Ibid., p. 5, inconsistent capitalization of the word “Christian” as in the original; exclamation point added. The scriptural quotation is from 2 Corinthians 6:17 (KJV).
[14] NYYM Minute 2014-11-27, [accessed 10/18/2015]. See the author’s "'320 Years, One Faith': What does faith ask of me now?" article in Spark, May 2015. May2015-Edminster [accessed 10/18/2015].