Living into the Kingdom

It really is a revolutionary concept, presented toward the end of the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus of Nazareth.

To invoke God’s kingdom on earth as well as in heavenly spiritual expanses takes us way beyond nationalities, social status, even economics. It transcends our experience in everyday relationships. It’s a call for justice and peace, especially.

The idea of kingdom is, of course, unfathomable for Americans, as is a dictatorship or any other form of authoritarian rule. We can try to translate it as commonwealth, dominion, realm, or sphere, each with its own limitations. The Blessed Community comes closest for me.

Some of us take this seriously. What steps can we take to bring this closer? How do we honor the creation we’ve been given? How does governing by love rather than fear really appear?

It’s something we can take baby steps toward in our families and local congregations. It’s not always easy, but we need practice.

I find it a more engaging approach to following Jesus than the question, “Are you saved?”

Especially with the kicker, “as your personal lord and savior.”

I believe the concept of Living into the Kingdom is more essential than the Resurrection.

Yes, that is startling, even as I write it.

But it is also of the here-and-now.

How are you Living into the Kingdom?

Coming to unity on a boiling issue

In the Society of Friends, or Quakers, we never vote on the  issues before us as a community but rather pursue a more difficult route of finding unity in which everyone is in agreement. It’s not exactly consensus but rather trying to find the leading of the Holy Spirit.

It’s an amazing practice, actually, even though one person can hold up the motion of everyone else. Sometimes, as we’ve each discovered, that one person is closer to Truth than the rest of us. And so we labor together until clarity appears.

Without going into the details now, I’ll turn to a recent example of that discipline.

As we Friends in my congregation considered our response to recent racial affronts in America, we realized our reaction needed to go far beyond putting up a banner on the meetinghouse wall facing a busy downtown street or, for that matter, reciting certain trendy catchphrases.

As some among us observed, we needed to go to the spiritual heart of the conflict.

Here’s what emerged, a proclamation we recorded, after months of deep reflection, in our monthly meeting for business records. We do not do such things easily.

~*~

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2, RSV)

Dover Friends Meeting affirms the deep truth we find in Black Lives Matter. It aligns with our conviction that there is that of God in each person.

Within our Meeting, we have Friends who have benefitted from racial privilege based on whiteness and those who have experienced pain, privation, and even peril because, as people of color, the onerous weight of institutional racism has been heaped upon them. Together, we reject the cultural fiction that “whiteness” has intrinsic value.

We hear, instead, a call to unity across our differences in our Meeting and in our society at large. This unity is a foundational truth of our lives. It stands firm on the bedrock of our primary experience that the Divine dwells within each.

In our entanglement with institutional racism, we have run afoul of Paul’s advice, “Do not be conformed to this world.” We sense a divine invitation to open ourselves to the revealing of ways we must cast off conformity to systems that unfairly benefit some and prepare ourselves for transformation through the renewing of our minds and hearts.

We come to this moment humble and ready. The rigor of the task ahead necessitates that we do this work, individually and collectively, in faithful Quaker community. We pledge to each other mutual accompaniment.

Dover Friends Meeting commits to proceed actively, following Spirit’s leading, to live into new ways to manifest equality and unity in our meeting, the Religious Society of Friends, and in our secular society.

For the first time since 1661, we won’t be gathering face-to-face

The clerks’ table in a previous year in Vermont. The presiding clerk, standing, is flanked by reading clerks and recording clerks as he attempts to summarize the “sense of the meeting” and recognize Friends in the auditorium who wish to speak to the item at hand.

The top level of governance in the Society of Friends is the yearly meeting, so-named because it gathers once a year in decision-making sessions. The constituent local congregations, in contrast, are termed monthly meetings, since they gather in business sessions once a month. (Yes, it’s confusing, since we sit together in worship at least once a week as well.) Everyone active at the local level is welcome to participate in the annual sessions.

Rather than having a single overarching yearly meeting, ours exist independently, originally on a regional basis. Something like the various strands of Eastern Orthodox, for that matter, with the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox the best known of many.

Among Quakers, New England Yearly Meeting is the world’s oldest, founded in 1661, and was held in Newport, Rhode Island, until 1903. Since then we’ve gathered for a week each August on college campuses or other residential sites around the six-state region. In my time here, that’s been Hampshire in Massachusetts, Bowdoin in Maine, and Castleton in Vermont, and I’ve heard tales of the years the event was held in a camp on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.

It’s a solemn and joyous occasion, one that many participants – and many families – schedule their work vacation time around. It’s something like a huge class reunion, too, where you reconnect with many people you hold dear. And living in a college dorm, as most of us do, it’s not uncommon to find that random pairings among those of us who go solo turn into regular roommates, year after year.

So I’m still stunned by the announcement a few weeks ago that we will not be meeting in person this summer, due to the coronavirus. Yes, we will be attempting something online, but it won’t be the same.

Among the faces and late-night conversations I’ll be missing.

Just as jarring is the more recent cancellation of summer sessions at Friends Camp in Maine. For many of our kids, it’s a highlight of their year, and friendships they form there sustain them through high school and college. As one of our neighbors says, a camper who became a counselor, the news is a bummer.

Amen.

 

Religion and the global backlash

Have you ever heard someone blame religion for all the armed conflicts in the world? It’s an easy accusation to make, at least until you look deeper to see the financial, ethnic, even racial motivations underlying the violent and oppressive actions throughout history.

Karl Marx may have called religion the opiate of the people, but he also saw economic inequalities as the real oppressor. Labor inequities were only the tip of that iceberg. For once, you can call me a Marxist, at least on that count.

As a member of a historic Peace Church denomination (a grouping that also includes Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish), I can view the wider Christian stream from a critical perspective that acknowledges the many ways faith communities get co-opted by what is often called the World in earlier pronouncements or Empire in corners of our own – even seduced by the vast range of secular idols. What emerges is corrupted and even false religion, not even of a godly scope.

That perspective can provide for a long examination, one far too broad for a mere blog post.

Nevertheless, in the face of the rising stream of intolerant and often violent social and political backlash across America and Europe, especially, I sense that the anger and hatred are fueled by a post-Christian mindset, one that is ultimately materialistic, divisive, and nihilistic.

In contrast, what I’ve often found in radical faith across traditions is an alternative of hope, humility, justice, and love. Repeatedly, progressive social, political, and economic reformers have had religious roots and support. It’s not an even history, and one that is too often countered by reactionary forces, but I wonder how else the world might turn back the growing darkness without people drawn together in deep spiritual faith and discipline.

The continuing marginalization of religion – especially radical religion, like that I espouse – is one more means of inhibiting any challenge to the few who are reaping the vast benefits of the ongoing social breakdown for their own personal gain.

Where do you find refuge, renewal, and opportunities for social progress?

 

If one approach doesn’t work, here’s another

The Bible often offers multiple versions, often sharply contrasted, as if knowing that we, as humans, will keep thinking and asking this and that without seeing the fuller picture behind words and our preconditioned concepts.

These versions say, in effect, “OK, you don’t accept that one, you don’t get it, so how about taking the matter from this angle?” Sometimes the facts or accounts even contradict themselves, especially in details, to get us to start questioning our assumptions. The whole point, I sense, is that ultimately the issue is unanswerable, along the lines of the conclusion of Job’s struggle. You just have to look at it in utter awe.

In an approach that says in effect, “OK, you didn’t understand this story, now try this one,” seems to assume, “You’re going to keep asking questions, thinking, circling, so let’s short-circuit that flow,” because much of what’s really at hand is beyond logic. No wonder in the big Job scene, God finally erupts in righteous indignation.

Quite simply, there are many times where words just can’t convey an awareness of the infinite. Or even a fleeting sunset. Or hope or love.

What can you think of that goes far beyond the ability of words to express fully?

 

Meet a Quaker

Many of the Dover’s churches have their booths at the city’s annual Apple Harvest Day festival, and the Quaker meeting is no exception. Here we are making the most of our past to let people know we’re still thriving today. We handed out homemade cookies – 1,162 of them baked the night before – and had kids pitch in to hand-crank grains of oats into oatmeal. The Quaker Oats company, by the way, was never owned by Quakers – they just liked our reputation for honesty and quality.

Considering labor

How do we make a living without seriously compromising our beliefs?  The military-industrial complex has extensively penetrated nearly all facets of American society. Not even the universities are immune. And corporations, in their quest for ever higher short-term profits, incur other moral difficulties. Law? Medicine? And so on. Until we as Friends resolve this, we are likely to face either accelerated decline in membership or inability to maintain our testimonies, which are eroding too rapidly as it is.

Where do we turn? Retreat into farming? Farmers aren’t surviving. As the French novelist inquired more than a half-century ago: Where are the shoemakers in the Society of Friends nowadays?

Professionals, as hired guns: rootless, living by our wits: how fast can you dance, pardner?

THOSE MISSIONARIES DON’T REALLY KNOW US

Recently, we got a white packet in the Quaker meeting post office box. The label was addressed to our Inner Light Preacher and came from the Columbus Missionary Society in Ohio.

We do get some weird mass mailings.

One mailing list has us as the Religious Order of Friends, which sounds to me like a monastery. Officially, Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends, quite active in the wider world.

Pieces targeted to the Proprietor or the Chief Purchasing Agent always amuse me. Nobody owns us but God, for one thing, and even that can get unruly.

And then, like many other Quaker congregations, we have no paid staff, much less a pastor. Vocal messages arising during our hour of mostly silent worship each week are kept short and delivered without notes or, we hope, earlier intention.

Preaching? I’ve been accused of crossing the line, but we never have anything like what this is addressed to. Homiletics are out of the question.

Oh, yes, while many consider a doctrine of Inner Light to be a distinctly Quaker teaching, it was originally Inward Light, with a much different emphasis than is given today. To see my take on that, look at my pamphlet, Revolutionary Light.

So this envelope was a first.

Inside was a 53-page booklet titled Holiness (be filled with God) Or Hell (or spend eternity in Hell) by William Baxter Godbey, and inside that were three more. I decided to Google this guy, only to discover he was a Wesleyan evangelist who lived from 1833 to 1920. No wonder his text had such an old-fashioned ring!

One of the others was a 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, and a third was by abolitionist and pioneering revivalist Charles G. Finney.

I can’t find anything about the missionary group online, but they did put some money into this mailing. What was their intent? The works simply don’t speak to us today, apart from some fundamentalist Christians. For the most part, Friends (to use the more formal name of Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends, based on John 15:14-15) have moved far beyond the confines of these arguments. I look at the writings as historical curiosities but am not moved by their legalistic thrust.

In short, I’m left baffled.

The cover letter, by the way, was signed merely, “Love, A Brother.” And since there was no return address, only a Zip code, I can’t exactly ask him, either.

COMMEMORATING 250 YEARS IN THE QUAKER MEETINGHOUSE

Dover Friends Meeting where I worship is the fifth oldest congregation in the state – and the first that was not part of the governmentally sponsored parishes that are now affiliated with today’s United Church of Christ.

Our meetinghouse – the third we’ve had, in fact – is the oldest house of worship in the city, and this year marks the 250th anniversary of its construction.

It went up on a single day in 1768, much like an Amish barn raising in our own time. There were likely 150 men and boys at work on the construction itself, plus an equal number of women and girls preparing food and the like.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re holding an open house at 2 p.m. There will be tours, a reading of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “How the Quaker Women Came to Dover” (his parents were married in the meetinghouse), presentations of activities we’re involved in, light refreshments and conversation, and a closing concert by musically talented members and the audience.

All are welcome.