Thursday, November 15, 2012

What Not to Wear

The following is the text of a sermon delivered by ESR student Leigh Eason on November 11 at the meeting she pastors, West Elkton Friends:

Colossians 3: 8-14 (NIV)  8 But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Change is so very uncomfortable, that many times we just stay with what we have, even when we know it isn't working for us.  Take the state of Quakerism, for instance. Today in the United States of America the number of people in the Religious Society of Friends has dropped almost 25% in less than thirty years. Using 2002 data, we dropped from about 121,000 to about 92,000 members. If we are to survive for the next generation, it is paramount that we begin doing certain things that were set out by our founders and certain things that are adaptations and new ways of expressing our beliefs. In essence, we have to be willing to change, to live into our testimonies, and to put on a new self that meets the needs of our society. To use an old phrase, we have to be willing to adapt “so as to speak to thy condition.”

There is a program on The Learning Channel called "What Not to Wear." Friends of the fashion-challenged submit names to the producers along with reasons they feel their friends need a fashion makeover.  If the producers are interested, they stalk the person who needs the fashion makeover taking video footage of what the intended contestant wears for two weeks, making record of bad clothing choices. If they are selected, the person is called to stand in front of the two actors who will show this person, in front of their friends, the video footage in order to convince them to give up their entire wardrobe and go on a shopping spree with their guidance and with 5,000 dollars. They bring in their clothes to a large room, and the clothes are placed on a clothes rack. There is a big metal trash can, and they have to watch as the actors on the program take the clothes off of the rack and throw them into the trash. It is difficult for me to watch. Most of the contestants cry. Many argue for their clothes as if begging for clemency. Many of the clothes have some sentimental value to the contestants. The contestants recall what was happening in their lives when they wore that shirt or blouse, and they don't want to forget that memory. Some contestants don't want to go forward. And these programs I have gotten to see are only the contestants who have gone forward.

And these are the ones willing to even consider change.  The contestants who do not even consider it, never are shown on television.  There are people who just say, "No, I can't do this.” There have to be people who are not willing to let their memories or their choices go into the can.  There is already some dumpster diving that does happen.  Anything worse than that, I presume are the contestants we never get to see. But there are definitely people resistant to the challenge, resistant to giving up their clothes, and resistant to accepting new rules of behavior for a look they won't know or aren't sure they will have control over. Because the contestants are then taken to New York with a 5,000 dollar credit limit, and told how to dress in fashion.

Some of the contestants seem to want to buy 5,000 dollars of their old clothes that just look slightly different. It is more than saying that they have their own personal style. The actors in the show try to teach them new choices, but they also try to understand the contestant and the contestants' reasons for the selections. What ensues is a push and shove of sorts between what the person likes and trying to get them to accept new behaviors and choices.

It is a long, long way from the Quaker gray clothing our ancestors wore. And I'm not citing this to ask that we throw out the simplicity and equality testimonies. I'm not at all. The contrary actually.

What occurs to me when I watch it is that people have specific reasons they dress in certain ways. Choices of behavior, even selections of clothing, have specific triggers in the brain. Even when they get to the part in this television program where the contestants go shopping, change is hard.  But so much of this is like the scripture in Colossians 3, because we hang onto anger and all the memories associated with it, foul language and how cool it makes us feel, the statement it makes about us, we think.  We hang onto our memories of trauma and refuse to heal.  And we hang onto old ways of worship, old ways of organizing, old ways of doing things, because like those nasty ugly sweats, they give us comfort and makes us feel we can move about freely in our bad-looking world.

This past weekend my clerk and I attended The Indiana Yearly Meeting Representative Council.  For a long time the people of Indiana Yearly Meeting have been unwilling to make a change.  They had clung onto what they knew, and wanted others to do just what they had done for years, even though it wasn't working.  Yet, I witnessed a change in Indiana Yearly Meeting on Saturday. Sitting there listening as changes were made, and people felt uncomfortable, I was reminded of this television program, but it also gave me hope.

After the Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business ended, I had a chance to speak with Doug Shoemaker, the superintendent of Indiana Yearly Meeting, and expressed to him my want for the two yearly meetings to work together in the future.  I told him I thought he had the harder job. There were members of the old Indiana Yearly Meeting who wanted to vote. There were members of the old Indiana Yearly Meeting who thought we didn't know Jesus. There were members who talked about cutting out the flesh eating diseases to save the body of Christ. And I said, “and with all that, we (meaning the new association of Meetings and individuals from IYM) get an opportunity to revive Quakerism. “I like my job much better than yours,” I said.  And he agreed.

Given the task ahead of reviving Quakerism, my question for us today is, "Can we let go of the old and put on the new in order to not only preserve our heritage, but to make the future possible for Quakers?"
If there were a rack of old behaviors that don't serve us well, would we allow for the necessary change? Do we, when the behaviors are changed, have the urge to go in after them, and quickly put them back on? It is even more complicated than this superficial show about outfits. When we look at changing behaviors personally, we have to look at not only stopping the behaviors, but accepting and healing what creates the urge to do them again.

We can follow the prescription in Colossians. Can we accept that we not only have to take off the garments of distractions, but that there are two levels of change that have to happen: we can change the focus inside of ourselves on more discerning and prayerful actions, and we can change the focus we take outside of ourselves as well, changing what we do in the community? We can't just change one or the other because they are intertwined.

There are things that motivate us not to change. I know that sounds like an ironic statement, but even not changing is a choice. I can use myself as an example. My choice at times to keep the same eating habits that made me unhealthy may have a lot to do with an old trauma or just fear. But it is not an excuse. It is a need to see where I need to heal, and get the healing work done. I can’t make excuses. As Maya Angelou said, “Someone was hurt before you, wronged before you, hungry before you, frightened before you, beaten before you, humiliated before you, raped before you… yet, someone survived… You can do anything you choose to do.”

If we use the analogy of this show, my refusing to get this healing work done would be the equivalent of me reaching into the trash can to retrieve behaviors God has tossed away. I am actively refusing an opportunity for something better in my life.

And oh do we find the excuses to not change: it's too hard, it won’t work, and the most profound, we don't have time. There is a quote from a book called Life's Little Instruction Book that says, “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresea, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.” How we spend our time is a choice.

So how does this apply to the problem that I first brought up, the drop in activity and membership among Quakers? It is the resistance to change that is killing us and choosing to be absorbed into a dying form of Christendom. The good news is that we have Testimonies that we could be living into. They are profound, earth-shattering Testimonies that people in this world need us to live into so that we can lead a way to spirituality that works, that is clear, that gives light and life and grace.

But we choose to remain in whatever state we have been in. This stifles our growth. Because being a Friend isn't just a belief, it is an applied belief system. Other than the ability to remain civil in the face of opposition, I witnessed a wonderful act of Friendly Process at that Indiana Yearly Meeting meeting. Greg Hinshaw, the clerk, practiced restraint, let go of old behaviors, set aside what he admitted was a behavior pattern of agenda making and let go of intentions, and listened. It made all the difference in the world. Being totally present and listening to that of God with whom we disagree is what it means to be Friends. It is an example of trusting the process because we trust the God in the process to work through it to bring about needed change.  This process has to be trusted and these testimonies have to be lived out from the inside out. They challenge us to change our behaviors from the norms of society, and to become lights in the darkness of life, and to trust a God who is aware and living through us to make this world a healed place of existence.

But they also challenge us to look within to find the reason that we don't live with simplicity, or that we don't speak with peace, or that we don't include others. It gives us a community that is supposed to be about not only inclusion but accountability, helping each other to live closer to these Testimonies so that we can be the change in this world.

Imagine our lives if simplicity reigned, if we only spoke with peace and goodness to other people, if we only allowed positive and affirming conditions to exist in our own beings. It doesn't matter what we do in committee or even what we do in our world or our work that is about these testimonies if we don't apply them internally. Did you know that the statistics of abuse among Quakers has some disturbing information contained within? Did you know that the most abusive Quaker spouses are more likely to be involved in outside work for peace? We can't change the world until we change ourselves. Hypocrisy revolts people. So if we want to attract others to us, we have to not be afraid of internal change. Internal change is the most difficult change.

As the light shines on your life in silence, introspection for points of resistance and change is always in order. There is no change that is outside of the reach of God. We simply have to be willing to allow these changes to happen.


  1. I really enjoyed your sermon/article. I'm a member of Friends of the Light in Traverse City. The separation from IYM has been difficult and painful. Your article helps to keep the separation in perspective.
    Thank you!
    Kathie Scott

  2. "Being totally present and listening to that of God with whom we disagree is what it means to be Friends."
    But then why is Indiana YM splitting apat?

    By "There is no change that is outside of the reach of God" I hope you are not trying to say our homosexual brothers and sisters were not created in the image of God like the rest of us, that they need to repress or change their proclivities to be loved by God and redeemed by Jesus.