Is America Headed Towards Theocracy?

Micah Bales - 17 hours 12 min ago

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known that some Christians want the United States to become a theocracy. I was surrounded by this kind of Christian in middle school.

Many of them were lovely people; others were not. What they all had in common was this: They believed that America could – and should – become a “Christian nation.” They believed in a society where our leaders held the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. They had faith that “godly men” in positions of power and influence could bring about the salvation of our nation.

These friends, teachers, and classmates were part of a very powerful movement. Since the 1980s, this ideological force – the Religious Right – has gained enormous power. At the heart of this movement is the ideology of dominionism, the idea that Christian leaders should dominate all areas of society.

Dominionism identifies seven spheres in our nation’s culture: religion, government, business, the arts, education, family, and the media. To bring about the kingdom of God, each of these must be captured by godly leaders.

From my childhood experiences among the Religious Right, I know that this movement runs deep. An extensive network of preachers, politicians, congregations, and think tanks are working nonstop to transform our country into a place where godly men rule and everyone else obeys. Yet I have often underestimated how widespread and powerful this movement actually is.

This article from – “How a Christian Movement is Growing Rapidly in the Midst of Religious Decline.” – helped remind me. It details a powerful dominionist network, rooted in the charismatic movement, that is intent on transforming American society. It differentiates itself from more traditional Christian movements in the following ways:

  • Rather than focusing on building congregations, it puts its energy into spreading beliefs and practices through conferences, ministry schools, and the media.
  • It focuses less on proselytizing non-believers and more on transforming society by placing like-minded leaders in powerful positions.
  • Rather than formally organized denominations, the movement is a network of independent leaders.

Reading this article my first thought was: “Hey, this sounds a lot like the Friends of Jesus Fellowship!” While Friends of Jesus does have a leadership core, we have a lot of freedom in how we organize ourselves. We don’t have a top-down structure. Instead, we encourage one another to explore what bold faithfulness looks like. When we take action, it is because the Holy Spirit directs us, not because a human leader ordered it.

We’re also not locked into building new congregations. Most of us attend a variety of churches – both Quaker and non-Quaker – that we did not start. We have gravitated towards building momentum through gatherings, teaching, and internet outreach.

And, like the dominionists, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship has not primarily aimed our message at non-believers. We’ve had a lot more success in energizing and encouraging folks who are already on the path.

So is Friends of Jesus a dominionist movement? No way! Here’s why:

Dominionism is obsessed with placing its leaders at the top of the pyramid. Friends of Jesus’ mission is to follow the homeless Messiah, the outcast, the forgotten one. We want to be friends of the Jesus, who became a slave and served others rather than placing himself over others.

Friends of Jesus is the complete opposite of dominionism. We’re a bottom-up community. We seek to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying love.

The kingdom of God isn’t a domination system. It doesn’t look like our present world, except with better overlords. The way of Jesus doesn’t replace the rich, powerful people at the top with new elites. The Holy Spirit turns the whole social pyramid upside down!

It’s a huge challenge to think about what Jesus means when he says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Because this isn’t a mysterious metaphor. It’s economic, social, and political reality. The kingdom of God is about the presence of real love and justice, not the authority of human rulers. The only “dominion” in God’s new order is that of a servant, a lover, a friend.

Many Christians are chasing after political, social, and economic dominance. But we Friends of Jesus have another calling. To a more beautiful, joyful life. A life rooted in love, relationship, and reliance on God. An existence so free of anxiety that we are unafraid to lower ourselves and lift others up.

There’s room for you here. In the midst of all the confusion and hatred, come find the humble way of Jesus with us. Like any good network, we have a gathering coming up.

Related Posts: The Parable of the Two Investors What is the Life of the Spirit?

The post Is America Headed Towards Theocracy? appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

So What I Said Was: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Racism, Sexism, Empathy, and Lent

Holy Ordinary (Brent Bill) - Mon, 03/27/2017 - 6:38am
The past two weeks, in two different places (Village Chapel of Bald Head Island and West Newton Friends) I spoke on the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan women. So what I said (sorta) was:

Compared to the width and breadth of the mighty Roman empire, Palestine at the time of Jesus was just a tiny speck. A mere 120 miles from its northern tip to its southern border. But even within this tiny plot of geography which Jesus and the disciples found themselves walking, were three major divisions of territory – and belief. In the north, where they started their journey, was Galilee.

The most direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee was through Samaria. However, many devout Jews arranged for extra travel time to skirt the whole territory. Those who didn’t, traveled at their own peril. Samaritans attacked pilgrims on their way to the holy city. Jews led assaults on Samaria, destroying their temple on their holy mount, where they held that Moses had received the 10 commandments.

It was into this that Jesus walked this day.

Now, most of the time when we hear this familiar story, we focus on the woman at the well. And her story is a fascinating one. But today I want us to look at what this story tells us about Jesus and his nature.

It’s noon. The middle of the Jewish day of that era, which runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s also the hottest time of the day. Jesus is weary and thirsty. The disciples go ahead to town to buy some food. Some major attitude change must be occurring in them, for them even to go buy food from Samaritans. A Jewish truism held that to eat with a Samaritan was as eating “swine’s flesh.”

As Jesus sits there, at a well on the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph, whose body had been buried there after the Exodus from Egypt, he’s approached by the familiar woman of the story. His dealings with her give us insight into three important aspects of Jesus’ personality.

The first is that it shows us, in its fullness, the humanity of Jesus. Here is no man free from the demands of our common life. He’s been walking a long way, he’s hungry, thirsty and tired. His life, his walk, was an effort for him, the same as it is for us. And so Jesus, in his humanity, shares in ours.

A second thing it shows is the depth of his empathy. From any other religious leader of the opposition of the day, the woman most likely would have fled. She would fear such a person as condemning and hostile – because of her race and her lifestyle. But she talks to Jesus and it is he who begins the conversation. We have only the barest record of what was said – the Bible never pretends to be a stenographer’s record. What we have is what the gospel writer thinks we need to know. One has to wonder what else was said. Whatever it was, the woman opens to Jesus – a friend who came not to criticize or condemn, even though many might say she deserved criticism and condemnation. Jesus does not even give her his quite common command to “go and sin no more.” He lets her be. In his empathy he sees she has need of his grace, not judgment, for the judgment she’s laid on herself over her lifetime has been probably almost more than she can bear. He lets her off “Scot free.”

That’s good news to us today. Not that it gives us license to behave any which way, but it shows us that God looks on the inner person and sees the heart. A person may act outwardly contrite and yet have a heart of stone. That’s what Jesus often got on the Pharisees about. Or a person may not seem to have “paid for his or her sins” and yet grieve over them in the very deepest part of his or her being. And that is the man or woman to whom Jesus extends his love and sympathy.

Finally, the story shows Jesus as a breaker of barriers. In this case the barriers of racism and sexism. The hatred between the Jews and Samaritans ran deep and wide. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. He made the Samaritans heroes of some of his stories and conversed freely with them – as he did the woman at the well. It’s no wonder, with the history of hatred, the woman was surprised he would speak to her – a Samaritan. But speak he did. And indeed he stayed with the Samaritans for two days after this encounter.

He also broke the barrier of sexism. Some of the Pharisees of this time were known as the bruised and bleeding Pharisees. That’s because their interpretation of the Law forbid them from speaking to a woman in public, even their sisters, mothers, or daughters. Yet Jesus sits and talks with this woman as if she was as capable of understanding as any Jewish man. This is highly unusual, for many Jews (as did other religions of the day) believed that a woman was incapable of understanding the things of God and so such talk would be wasted. Some doubted women even had souls.

Jesus dealings with this woman, as well as many others, show that the faith he established is one of equality of all people. Thus in Galatians, Paul can write, “I Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Jesus’ was a breaker of barriers, how can we, his followers, be any less? We need, as part of the gospel message, to show a church that welcomes all regardless of race, gender or any other distinction and to work to eliminate such distinctions in our community.

To a Jew of Jesus time, this encounter was an amazing one. It should be so for us today. Here came the Son of God dusty, thirsty, and tired. He breaks through the barriers of race, religion and gender to love everyone in his and their humanity. He invites us today, as he did that Samaritan woman 2,000 years ago, to drink from his well, a draught of water that will quench our every thirst.
Categories: Blogs

Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sun, 03/26/2017 - 2:04pm

When Friends pulled the rope on the bell atop Spring Friends Meeting, the ringing convened the Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation on March 25. And its session began with cheers & applause.

Pull the rope, ring the bell for victory over the AHCA, and to call for continued resistance.

That’s because there was a major success to celebrate: the abrupt, inglorious end of the so-called “American Health Care Act” the day before.

Not only that, practically all of the 50-plus Friends and friends of Friends present had been active in the tidal wave of citizen resistance to AHCA, in ways large and small, loud and quiet, public and private; they deserved that big round of applause.

Spring Friends Meeting NC. Photo by Scott Holmes.

After more than four months of distress, anxiety & even despair over the dangerous turns taken in American public life, this ovation marked the overdue return of an optimistic mood: Resistance can work!

Now to be sure, as was pointed out, fighting the repeal of health care for 24 million people had been like climbing a mountain, an uphill slog on a wilderness path. Finally at the summit, in the clear air after an arduous climb, the exhilaration at the accomplishment was well-earned, yet modulated by the vista it now opened — that of many more mountains waiting to be crested in turn.

Undaunted, we began preparing for the next trek by canvassing the group to identify concerns and issues whose weight they were under. The list was long!

Your self-effacing blogger, listening and making a list.

It spread across the front of the meetinghouse, and ranged from the Supreme Court to LGBTQ repression, erosion of public schooling, climate change, and lots more.

Indeed, one of the youngest present, Liam (lower right among the multi-generational team below), also had concerns to ring the bell about:

The session then heard from several resource people, representing a variety of groups and action perspectives, from the ACLU & NAACP & the National Black Justice Coalition,  AFSC’s immigration work,   

(Liam’s concerns: I suspect he had some help with the cursive.)

the ongoing peace witness of Quaker House near Fort Bragg,  and more.  The idea here was to begin to find openings, connections, and other like-minded Friends to join with.

Mandy Carter, in the red sweatshirt, brought long experience with work for LGBTQ rights and racial justice. And God brought perfect weather for talking about this outside.

The talk was lively and non-stop, even with breaks. The gathering moved almost seamlessly into broader issue discussion, with resource people as participants, to consider ways to keep moving and build cooperation and momentum.


Barrett Brown, left, President of the Alamance County NC chapter of the NAACP, describing local efforts and statewide aspirations.

The Consultation was not aimed at producing resolutions or a new organization, but to assist in encouraging and facilitating cooperation for continued resistance.  Encouragement also seemed in plentiful supply, and we closed with some music, from Scott Holmes, who doubles as an aggressive lawyer fighting mass incarceration  when he’s not writing songs. He’d written a new resistance song just for us.

Perhaps this model of locally-driven multi-issue and multi-group consultations would be of use to other Meetings. It is neither expensive nor complicated, and the organizing was done by a small cadre of volunteers, using social media as the main means of promotion.

And one of its most welcome outcomes, as these photos show, was a lift in spirits. We’ll all need more of those; there’s still much to ring the resistance bell about.



The post Ringing Spring’s Bell for Continued Quaker Resistance appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Thu, 03/23/2017 - 9:26pm

The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017
Spring Friends Meeting, Snow Camp NC
(For Directions, click here)

The Consultation Schedule:

Noon – 1230: arrivals & lunch
1230 – 1:15: Welcome & small group intro, to get acquainted & identify major interests
1:15-1:30 – Break
1:30 – 2:30: briefings by resource persons (2 each, of 25 minutes, so attenders can take in two)
2:30-2:45 – Break
2:45 – 3:45: interest groups for intensive networking & testing ideas
3:45-4:00 – Break
4:00 – 4:45: reporting, evaluation & closing.
And when we’re finished, we’re not done: Head back home, Resist & Raise Heck!

Resource Persons

Scott Holmes: mass incarceration, police abuse
Clare Hanrahan & Coleman Smith, Asheville: Direct Action
Steve Woolford, Bill O’Connor, Quaker House: peace anti-war work
Lori Khamala, AFSC: Immigration work & resistance
Sarah Gillooly, NC ACLU staff: defending civil liberties
Mandy Carter, the National Black Justice Coalition: lgbtq issues & racial justice
Barrett Brown, President, Alamance chapter, NAACP
Joan Walsh, NC StopTortureNow: Torture Accountability, 
Karen Porter & Sion Dayson, Indivisible:  Chapel Hill

There is a Facebook Event page for the gathering, at:
Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation

(For Directions, click here)

The post The Carolina Friends Emergency Consultation – March 25, 2017 appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

The Quaker Art of Dying?

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 03/22/2017 - 5:36pm
Hopewell Cemetery, Winslow Township N.J. One of the many South Jersey Quaker burial grounds on long-bypassed country roads. The meetinghouse that was here is long gone.

We’re now casting about for articles for a Friends Journal issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife.” I’m interested to see what we’ll get. Every so often someone will ask me about Quaker belief in the afterlife. I’ve always found it rather remarkable that I don’t have any satisfying canonical answer to give them. While individuals Friends might have various theories, I don’t see the issue come up all that often in early Friends theology.

As extremely attentive Christians they would have signed off on the idea of eternal life through Christ. Since they thought of themselves as living in end times, they totally emulated New Testament miracles. George Fox himself brought a man back from the dead in a town off Exit 109 of the Garden State Expressway. Strange things afoot at the Circle K!

Fox’s biographers quickly scaled back the whole miracle thing. Apparently that was an oddness too far. The cut-out parts of his biography have been republished but even the republishing now appears out of print (never fear: Amazon has it used for not too much).

But Friends has folk customs and beliefs too. The deceased body wasn’t unduly venerated. They recycled grave plots without much concern. I can think of a couple of historic Quaker burial grounds in Philly that have been repurposed for activities deemed more practical to the living. The philosophy of green burial is catching up with Quakers’ practice, a fascinating coming-around.

It also seems there’s a strong old Quaker culture of face impeding death with equanimity. That makes sense given Friends’ modesty around individual achievements. There’s a practicality that I see in many older Friends as they age. I’d be curious to hear from Friends who have had insights on aging as they age and also caretakers and families and hospice chaplains who have accompanied Friends though death.

Writing submissions for our issue on “The Art of Dying and the Afterlife” are due May 8. You can learn about writing for us at:

How do Friends approach the end of life? We’re living longer and dying longer. How do we make decisions on end-of-life care for ourselves and our loved ones? Do Quakers have insight into what happens after we die? Submissions due 5/8/2017.

ps: But of course we’re not just a dead tradition. There are many healers who have revived ideas of Quaker healing. We have a high proportion of mainstream medical healers as well as those following more mystical healing paths. If that’s of interest to you, never fear: October 2017 will be an issue on healing!).

Categories: Blogs

"What a wonder I was/ when I was young..."

Holy Ordinary (Brent Bill) - Wed, 03/22/2017 - 6:51am
Ben and me in woods, 1977
by Wendell Berry

Listen Online

What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep streams, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.
"VII." by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch. © Counterpoint, 2016.  (buy now)
Categories: Blogs

A Quaker Race Riot In Philadelphia?

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Tue, 03/21/2017 - 10:14pm

Three forces in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PHYM) are on a collision course, and unless there is a major new development they are due to meet head-on Saturday March 25, at the spring yearly meeting session.

On one track is the self-styled Undoing Racism Group (URG), which is determined to “hold accountable” the YM, its staff & structures in a drive to “decenter whiteness” & uproot what it sees as an entrenched culture of “white supremacy.”

On another track are those in the YM who are uneasy with the URG. Everyone insists they want to banish racism; but some question whether URG is the best vehicle for this work. Its assertive/aggressive style, some doubt the wisdom of its proposals, some are troubled by both.

This mix is volatile enough. Then on March 4, the third train hove into view in the form of the PYM General Secretary, Christie Duncan-Tessmer. She announced several staff changes, abolishing four job slots, and downgrading another.
[Photo below: Christie Duncan-Tessmer, General Secretary, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.]

Job cuts are always hard. As Zach Dutton, PHYM Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life, put it on March 6, 2017: 

Laying down the four coordinator positions that make up the Youth & Young Adult Programs Team allows us to create space for the expansion of the current set of programs we offer. I know that this seems counter-intuitive. It also hurts the Friends who work in these positions to lose their jobs. It hurts the communities they serve to lose relationships with their coordinators. This fact bears repeating and holding up. There is nothing about laying down the positions that isn’t painful and that doesn’t make life hard in the short term. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the coming transitions are as smooth and supportive as humanly possible.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has had to absorb many in recent years;at the turn of this century, it had over 50 full-time staff; after the changes it will be about 25. And this time the impact of the changes could be explosive, because they include a demotion for the one Friend of color on the YM staff. (There are several other staff of color, non-Friends.) Further, the person demoted, Marille Heallis, is Executive Assistant to General Secretary Duncan-Tessmer. And the reaction to this move among URG stalwarts has been harsh.

In 2015, the YM listed work against racism as one of its corporate goals. URG came together as an informal, volunteer group, to pursue this work. It has conducted numerous workshops and made various presentations.

It has also made proposals to become a formal ongoing part of the PHYM structure. Here it has hit a wall. It asked to be made a formal YM committee, but the idea was rejected. Then it prepared a detailed plan for incorporating its efforts across all PHYM structures. They took this plan to the Implementation Committee for the Strategic goals. The Implementation Committee turned down this plan also.

But the URG was not ready to take no for an answer. At last summer’s annual session, after the plan was read, described for information only, several URG supporters walked to the front and surrounded the Clerk’s table, and prevented the body from moving on to its next agenda item (revisions of Faith & Practice), insisting that the URG proposal be discussed and then acted upon.

They got their wish. Faith & Practice was set aside, and the URG plan was extensively debated (some Friends might object to the term “debate,” but I’ll let it stand.) And in the end, the URG got its wish, but didn’t reach its goal. When the Clerk asked for approval, there were also numerous voices raised in disapproval, and the Clerk properly noted that there was no unity and the plan was set aside.

Did the “blockade” of the Clerk’s table (some URG supporters called it “eldering”) & the disruption of the session spark this opposition? To some extent it seems likely. Even URG leader Lucy Duncan, who helped present the plan, later wrote that “Though it felt as though there was urgency and spirit moving, I can see how some would interpret this as pushing too hard, perhaps even bullying.” (Facebook August 4, 2016)

It would also hardly be a surprise if some resolved not to reward such behavior but to rebuke it.

Furthermore, the plan’s rhetoric reportedly alienated some. It spoke repeatedly of the YM as embodying & supporting “white supremacy” and “racism.” Yet, for me at least, trying to see PHYM in a larger social perspective makes this terminology problematic. As the PHYM session gathered, the larger society was in the midst of a turbulent political campaign in which avowedly white nationalist groups were being mainstreamed and openly bigoted attitudes were being articulated by leading candidates. (This “mainstreaming” has continued since the November election.)

“White supremacy” and “racism” seem quite correct applied to them and their agendas (& still do). But using the same terminology to describe PHYM? Certainly this nearly all-white Quaker body needs work. But to some at least, hearing it lumped into the same rhetorical category as those giving Nazi salutes, reviving the Klan, and vowing to rid the country of Muslims and Latinos (not to mention the ominous anti-semitic stirrings) would seem at least inaccurate if not downright offensive. After all, PHYM has many faults; but it is also the body that produced John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Bayard Rustin. It is not the Klan, or The Daily Stormer.

You want “white supremacy? They’ll show you white supremacy. You want racism? They got that, too. Plenty. And they’re not alone.

Yet there were also substantive objections, which to my mind deserve careful attention. Let’s look first at the URG proposal. The full text is here, but this excerpt and this diagram that came with it makes its thrust visible:

From URG Plan, submitted at PYM annual session 2016

“Proposed Structure and Leadership for the Undoing Racism Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting” (Excerpt)

In order for PYM to fully live out its commitment to ending racism in our midst, it will be essential for the body to understand that unless we are actively resisting racism, a majority white body will perpetuate the racism and white supremacy.

We believe it is essential that the Undoing Racism Group also be placed within the structure of PYM in such a way that it has the responsibility to hold the yearly meeting accountable to its corporate witness around racism.


Our primary purpose and goal is to eliminate racism and white supremacy in our Yearly Meeting. We will achieve our purpose by:

• forming a Care Committee, consisting of Friends of Color dedicated to the service of holding the Yearly Meeting and our clerks accountable in a loving and faithful manner


Sorry for the fuzzy image. The four vertical blue boxes are labeled (left to right): “Admin Council; Quaker Life Council; Nominating Council; & PYM Staff. These are now the principal departments of PHYM.

In sum, the plan would have given the URG an all-pervasive status, with a seat at every PHYM table, a finger in every pie, a voice in every deliberation & hiring choice, and the mandate to “hold accountable” all of it, according to standards they would define & set. Which frankly sounds like having a veto, though the term was not used. Further, the URG would be self-forming & autonomous, outside the established PHYM Nominating mechanisms. The arrangement would continue until URG felt its work was done.

Pondering this, I was not surprised that the Implementation Committee balked at it, followed by many at the 2016 annual session. And the reasons, while surrounded by layers of mushy talk, were pretty straightforward. The Committee wrote: 

Our sense is that the autonomous role proposed by URG for itself in the recent proposal is not in alignment with the expectation that the work of ending racism be the work of our entire community, nor with the manner of holding authority and accountability as envisioned in the Long Range Plan approved by PYM. This creates a conflict for a group that wants to exist within the structure of the Yearly Meeting.


The URG plan, some said, seemed less to “fit into” the PYM structure, but looked more like a takeover: it would have been similar to a receivership, when an outside authority takes control of a foundering body, and is empowered to take drastic steps to revive and rescue it. And even from the distance of several hundred miles, that’s how it reads.

It may be that the URG really believes PHYM is in just such desperate shape. Or perhaps they didn’t see all these troubling implications.

Whichever, others saw them, said so, and didn’t back off. Indeed, this session marked the third time by my count that the URG has made a proposal and been rebuffed.

From my outside standpoint, it seems that URG’s repeated failures are not so much proof of ineradicable racism in PHYM, but suggest rather that they have misunderstood some key elements of the body’s history & evolution.

To explain, let me call on one of PHYM’s patron saints, Lucretia Mott. When Lucretia came into PHYM, it was nothing like the oft-praised equalitarian “spiritual democracy” frequently evoked by today’s fuzzy liberals. To the contrary, it was a strict top-down hierarchy, run by “Select Meetings” of ministers, elders & overseers.

Yes, overseers –and however unfashionable that term is today, it described them well — their task was to “See-Over” the rank & file, from their elevated perch on the facing benches (& everywhere else too), and enforce many quite specific rules. [The photo below is of the three rows of elevated facing benches at the historic Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia. For many decades, they were more than simply decorative, but expressions of power & hierarchy.]
The overseers were appointed essentially for life, and did not answer to the meetings they oversaw.

Lucretia’s ability soon gave her entry into the PYM Select Meetings. But instead of climbing the ladder, she quickly began to chafe under their weight & pettifoggery, which involved disowning people left and right.
[The photo below is of the Longwood Progressive Friends Meetinghouse, next to Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania, 1865.]

And not one to merely talk, Lucretia was soon a leading figure in a grassroots rebellion, which became visible in the Progressive Friends movement. Lucretia and other key Progressives worked from inside PHYM (& other YMs), demanding an end to the Select Meetings, abolition of recording & snoopy overseers, and replacement of the hierarchical pyramid with a flattened congregational structure. They wanted monthly meetings to be the “center” and Quarters and Yearly Meeting were to serve, and not rule them. [Photo below is of the earlier, hierarchical Quaker church structure, which lasted more than 200 years.]

Lucretia did not live to see the achievement of the Progressive reforms, but they were in place by the of the 1920s, and were ingrained in the PHYM ethos by the time of the reunification in 1955.

Few Friends today know this history. Yet for almost a century, this congregation-centered structure has continued. In Philadelphia some of this reality was obscured by the comparatively huge PHYM central staff (peaking at 50+ full-time at the turn of this century).

But this top-heavy wheel-spinning (financed by the way, mainly with dead Quakers’ bequest income) did not replicate the old pyramid’s rule. One reason is that among the thousands of convinced Friends who joined during those decades, there were very many who had left other authoritarian churches. And they did not expect to bow to Philadelphia (well, unless they were looking for a job, a grant, or scholarships for their kids). Along the way, innocent of Friends’ history, they invented a new Testimony called Equality & inaccurately projected it back to Fox’s time.

Now comes the URG, whose plan called for setting up a new cohort of overseers in every nook and cranny of PHYM, with mysterious measuring rods and the power to call down the electric furies of “racism” on miscreants at their option.

Structurally, this would be a big step back toward a past which PHYM had long ago left behind, and many members had rejected in other settings, and were very hesitant to go through again.

Perhaps this description will be unwelcome to some in the URG. When the point was raised, according to the  minutes:

 Another Friend asked for clarity about what seems to be a hierarchical nature of the proposed structure. The response was that it is a relational body, not a supervisory body.

Nevertheless, the resemblances to that old order were more than a few, and all unsettling:

For one thing, the URG in the proposal was answerable only to itself, like the old Select Meetings. And like them, its jurisdiction and tenure were essentially unlimited. And there’s that freighted phrase, “hold accountable”.

Moreover, in the proposal, both “racism” and “resisting racism” are referred to in doctrinal terms: the URG asserted that it knows (best) what the one is, and how (best) to do the other. Expressing doubts about this is typically seen as evidence of racism (i. e., heresy). I don’t say the URG Friends all think this way, but that’s how it reads.

Now into this mix has been tossed the bombshell of staff changes: four positions dealing with children and young Friends are abolished. They’ll be replaced with contract workers hired by the event, overseen (there’s that word again) by one full-time office staff member.

And General Secretary Christy Duncan Tessmer’s Executive Assistant, Marille Heallis [photo at left], is being demoted: from full-time to 60 per cent time, and at a lower hourly rate. (She was also, she has written, offered a substantial severance package if she declined the demotion and left the staff.)

The youth staff cuts will be regretted and grumbled at; Marille Heallis’s demotion has already sparked outrage and calls for resistance.

Heallis has filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And she has gone public, with a lengthy blog post detailing her charges of being chronically discriminated against by her boss.

Her complaint was echoed by a former colleague, Jennie Sheeks, who was for several years PHYM’s fundraising staffer, until she left earlier this year. In a Facebook post on March 8, she was asked if she believed the demotion was an act of racist retaliation. She replied:

Jennie Sheeks [photo at left]: Yes, I’m so pained to say, that is my conclusion from what I’ve witnessed over many months and after much attempt by many people to quietly, with confidentiality, and with love help Christie. I do not say this lightly. I do not say it with any motive other than Marille’s protection from abuse. I do not say it without having exhausted other routes and means of addressing the injustice. And I didn’t want to say any of it. I’m tired of trying to fix what’s broken here. But there is no one else who had as close a vantage point as me who can speak without fear of loosing their job, so I feel bound to take on this uncomfortable and awkward role bringing the hidden to light.

(Christie Duncan-Tessmer did not return my call seeking comment.)

A key URG member, Lucy Duncan, said of this in a Facebook comment on March 20 that 

if the body [of PHYM] had approved the URG structure proposed [at annual session 2016], this decision would never have been made: the proposal was intended to guard against such overt abuses of power that arise from white assumptions of superiority.

While this was an individual comment in an obscure thread, it was still notable for contradicting the statement in annual session that the URG presence would not be “relational” and not “supervisory.” Stopping the CEO of the organization from changing the status of her own assistant is pretty straight-up supervisory.

So will anything come from all this at the PHYM session on March 25?

It isn’t supposed to. Such sessions are typically very much scripted and scheduled in advance, with little time or space for anything spontaneous to happen. And the published schedule indicates that there will be some time for questions about the staff changes.  But on the other hand, there have been disruptions at recent PHYM sessions, so sometime things don’t go according to plan.

But the changes will not be up for review; wise or not, fair or not, the General Secretary oversees (sic) the staff, and staffing decisions are her call. And with legal action in the offing, Duncan-Tessmer has all the more incentive to listen and say little beyond, “Thank thee Friend.”

Yet even if the lid stays on at this weekend’s session, these rumblings in PHYM are signs of a body in significant internal disarray. And frankly, with the burgeoning return of organized, high-power racism (not to mention numerous other plagues) all around it, this turmoil could not come at a more inopportune time.

The post A Quaker Race Riot In Philadelphia? appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

The Parable of the Two Investors

Micah Bales - Tue, 03/21/2017 - 2:00am

There were once two investors. One was wise, another was foolish.

One day, the stock market plummeted. For the next few weeks, prices were in free fall. Many were panicking. What if this was another Great Depression?

Early on in this crisis, each investor met with his financial advisor. Each received the same advice:

“Things look bad right now. Stocks are falling, and we don’t know when prices will stabilize. But don’t let fear get the best of you. The markets cycle. Prices will rise again. Hold onto what you have, and you’ll be OK.”

After the foolish investor heard this advice, he was calm for a day or two. But another week passed and the market was still falling fast. He was losing so much money, he couldn’t stand it any longer! The foolish investor sold his shares at a much reduced value and placed the money into a savings account.

The wise investor had a different reaction. He kept the stocks he already owned, but he didn’t stop there. He also immediately withdrew his savings and bought more stocks.

As the prices continued to fall, the wise investor continued to pour money into the market. The lower the prices fell, the more he invested. He risked everything. He even sold his house and his car so that he could buy more shares.

The stock market collapse was very severe. It was several years before the markets began to recover. During these terrible years, the wise investor had hardly anything to live on. It was hard times for everyone.

Finally, the words of the financial advisor did come true. The market began to inch back upwards. Within a few years it was stronger than ever. Unfortunately, the foolish investor didn’t gain from the rising stock market. All his money was still in the bank. He bought high and sold low. He risked little. He was left with little.

The wise investor saw a very different outcome. His investments did more than rebound. All the cheap stocks he bought during the crash multiplied several times. By the time the economy was strong again, he had become a rich man.

The kingdom of God is something like this.

Related Posts: What is the Life of the Spirit? What if This is the End of the World?

The post The Parable of the Two Investors appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

Black with a capital B

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Fri, 03/17/2017 - 5:33pm

It’s been a long-running debate in editorial circles: whether to capitalize ‘black’ and ‘white’ in print publications when referring to groups of people. I remember discussions about it in the early 1990s when I worked as a graphic designer at a (largely White) progressive publishing house. My official, stylesheet-sanctioned answer has been consistent in every publications since then: lowercase. But I remain unsatisfied.

Capitalization has lots of built-in quirks. In general, we capitalize only when names come from proper nouns and don’t concern ourselves about mismatches. We can write about “frogs and salamanders and Fowler’s toads” or “diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.” Religious terms are even trickier: there’s the Gospel of Luke that is part of the gospel of Christ. In my Quaker work, it’s surprising how often I have to go into a exegesis of intent over whether the writer is talking about a capital-L divine Light or a more generic lower-case lightness of being. “Black” and “white” are both clearly lowercased when they refer to colors and most style guides have kept it that way for race.

But seriously? We’re talking about more than color when we use it as a racial designation. This is also identity. Does it really make sense to write about South Central L.A. and talk about its “Koreans, Latinos, and blacks?” The counter-argument says that if capitalize Black, what then with White. Consistency is good and they should presumably match, except for the reality check: Whiteness in America has historically been a catch-all for non-coloredness. Different groups are considered white in different circumstances; many of the most-proudly White ethnicities now were colored a century ago. Much of the swampier side of American politics has been reinforcing racial identity so that out-of-work Whites (codename: “working class”) will vote for the interests of White billionaires rather than out-of-work people of color (codename: “poor”) who share everything but their melatonin level. All identities are incomplete and surprisingly fluid when applied at the individual level, but few are as non-specific as “White” as a racial designation.

Back in the 1990s we could dodge the question a bit. The style guide for my current publication notes “lc, but substitute ‘African American’ in most contexts.” Many progressive style sheets back in the day gave similar advice. In the ebb and flow of preferred identity nomenclature, African American was trending as the more politically correct designation, helped along by a strong endorsement from Jesse Jackson. Black wasn’t quite following the way of Negro into obsolescence, but the availability of an clearly capitalized alternative gave white progressives an easy dodge. The terms also subtly distinguished between those good African Americans who worked within in the system from those bad radicals talking about Black Power.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought Black back as the politically bolder word. Today it feels sharper and less coy than African American. It’s the better punch line for a thousand voices shouting rising up outside the governor’s mansion. We’ve arrived at the point where African American feels kind of stilted. It’s as if we’ve been trying a bit too hard to normalize centuries of slavery. We’ve got our Irish Americans with their green St Paddy’s day beer, the Italian Americans with their pasta and the African Americans with their music and… oh yes, that unfortunate slavery thing. All of these identities scan the same in the big old melting pot of America. It’s fine for the broad sweep of history of a museum but feels coldly inadequate when we’re watching a hashtag trend for yet another Black person shot on the street. When the megaphone crackles out “Whose lives matter?!?” the answer is “Black Lives Matter!” and you know everyone in the crowd is shouting the first word with a capital B.

Turning to Google: The Columbia Journalism Review has a nice piece on the nuances involved in capitalization, “Black and white: why capitalization matters.” This 2000 lecture abstract by Robert S. Wachal flat-out states that “the failure to capitalize Black when it is synonymous with African American is a matter of unintended racism,” deliciously adding “to put the best possible face on it.” In 2014, The NYTimes published Temple University prof Lori L. Tharps ’s convincing argument, “The Case for Black With a Capital B.” If you want to go historical, this thread on shifting terms by Ken Greeenwald on a 2004 Wordwizard forum is pure gold.

And with that I’ll open up the comment thread.

Categories: Blogs

“Dilemma for Dr. King” – A 51st Anniversary Review

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Thu, 03/16/2017 - 1:02pm

When I wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King’s office in the late fall of 1964, seeking a job in the civil rights movement, I claimed to be a writer, and that’s what they hired me to do.

It turned out my claim was mostly about the future: I was working toward becoming a writer.  But once on the staff, when confronted by my green rookie whiteness (yes: green whiteness was a thing; maybe still is), I was essentially struck dumb as a writer. I was overwhelmed by the weight of my utter ignorance about the South, the movement, about black and white — about myself.

(I am everlastingly grateful to Dr. King’s office manager, the late Randolph Blackwell, for indulging my failure, and not firing me; I think he could see I needed what Quakers call “seasoning” — a lot of it. And besides, I was only drawing $25 per week from the payroll, which was not much even then.)
For nearly a year, I was able to write only a few poems. (This period of internally-enforced silence is detailed in my memoir of that time –written 30-plus years later– Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.)

Selma, 1965. Hosea Williams, John Lewis & Andrew Young in front, I’m in the back, at right.

But then, late in 1965, after being part of the Selma voting rights campaign and its aftermath — after, as my veteran mentors in the movement explained, “paying my dues,” I finally began to recover a prose voice.

And by then, the seemingly sunny prospects for major progress toward racial justice were being increasingly clouded over by an external threat: the rapidly-escalating U. S. war in Vietnam.

And that’s what I was moved to write the first post-silence piece about: the problems posed by the war, not only to the country or the movement, but in particular to its putative leader, Dr. King. I finished the piece pretty quickly, then feeling bold, sent it off to a magazine — a real magazine, one I had reason to believe Dr. King read.

And they accepted it! The piece was published fifty-one years ago today: March 16, 1966. 

It was a first for me in two important respects: my first article published in a “real” national magazine. And it was the first article I was ever paid for: the grand sum of $35. (In a box somewhere in the house, or the storage shed out back, I still have the stub of that check, in a frame; at least I hope I still have it.)

Because it was the first, I have often thought of that piece in March, as this date rolls past. And from time to time, I have searched it out and looked it over. 

And it’s not so bad, for a debut article. Sure I was young and callow, and it shows. But maybe the piece was useful then. And maybe it’s worth looking at here. Much has changed since 1966. But much also seems to still be stuck, or even worse. Issues of progress toward racial justice are certainly still salient, and the draining of resources away from closing these gaps on behalf of an ever-greedy war machine are as timely as this morning’s headlines.

So as both a personal exercise, and a public offering, I have copied the full text here, interleaved with some current reflections.

The Christian Century – MARCH 16, 1966, pp 331-332

Dilemma for Dr. King

The Vietnam war is perhaps the greatest challenge of this Negro leader’s career and conceivably its culmination.

Charles E. Fager

(Mr. Fager, formerly on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is now on the faculty of Friends World Institute in East Norwich, New York.)

AS THE LEADER of the Negro struggle for equality, Martin Luther King is faced with the perils of success. His movement, it is now clear, is going to bring America’s Negroes into the mainstream of national life. The job will not be done “NOW!” or even within a generation, but the forces set in motion by five years of mass nonviolent effort are too far-reaching to be reversed. The nation’s “white power structure” has come to realize not only that integration can be accomplished without major upheavals in the present American socioeconomic system but also that it will in the long run serve to enrich that system.

Reflections: How language has changed! The universal “he” leaps accusingly out at me; that was still standard discourse then. 
Also “Negro”: yet it was a respectful term at the time. Dr. King used it all his life.
But what is almost embarrassing is the presumptive tone of optimism: “we” (the movement) had won; all over but the shouting.

I wish.  But this was not merely my personal conceit. The 1960s civil rights movement had just reached its high-water mark in Selma: the new Voting Rights Act was registering black voters by the tens of thousands across the South; both President Lyndon Johnson and a progressive Congress seemed on board.

Sure it would take time to mop up the remaining pockets of resistance. But that year the movement had hit what looked like a home run, rounded third, and was striding confidently toward home plate. And Dr. King, who came to Selma with a Nobel Peace Prize fresh in his pocket, appeared to be at the apex of his prestige and influence.
Those were the days! And how soon they passed . . . . 

With victory on the horizon, the Negro leadership with Dr. King as its symbol seems uncertain about what to do next. There is a strong temptation to dig in, to consolidate and expand the gains already made; in short, to begin playing the political game for an ever larger piece of the nation- al pie, as did the labor movement at the end of its rise.
Such a feeling is natural. “Freedom Now!” translated into more specific terms means for most Negroes simply: “We want in!” Into the economy, into the political circuses, into all the currents and eddies of the American mainstream. This is why the Muslims and Black Nationalists failed to catch on with the Negro masses: they preached revolution and prepared for an Armageddon which would destroy the white world. But the average Negro doesn’t want to destroy anything; he wants to spread it around. He isn’t basically opposed to “the system”; he just doesn’t like being at its bottom.

Of course, Muslims and black nationalism, beginning with the cry of “Black Power,” were hardly fading, but about to become a major fixture of the news and the black community. Ah well; more that I and other white liberals never guessed about the future, though by mid-1967 my first book , White Reflections On Black Power, undertook to grapple with its first wave.

The way is not so clear for Dr. King, primarily because during his entire career his whole stance has been not merely an economic one but more basically a moral one. He opposed segregation not simply because it was economically debilitating but because it was evil and unchristian. Perhaps such a focus on ethical matters was but part of a strategy, a necessity if the conscience of the non-southern white community was to be stirred and drawn into the struggle. If so, it now stands revealed as a two-edged sword, because many of the moral issues which Dr. King and the movement have raised in the restricted context of the segregated south have national and international contexts and implications as well. With the entry of the civil rights movement into the level of full national participation, the leaders are no longer just confronting the nation with its regional sins but are themselves confronted as full-fledged citizens and moral spokesmen with the issues of overall national policy.

I think I was right about the moral foundation for the movement here. But economics did not go away. Dr King returned to focus on it in his last year, with the plans for what became his last effort, the Poor Peoples Campaign. I wrote about that in my book Uncertain Resurrection; but it’s another story.

The most unsettling context for these issues is, of course, the war in Vietnam. Negro leaders, even up to last spring in Selma, frequently told draft-age males in their audiences that they had no business fighting for anything abroad until things were straightened out at home. Now, faced with the realities of tripled draft calls and Negro bodies being shipped home from southeast Asia, many are wishing they had kept their mouths shut. When some worker in Mississippi (who apparently hadn’t got the word) seriously suggested that Negroes refuse the draft, the resulting flap reverberated all the way to Harlem and back. The traditional Uncle Tom leadership hastily scrambled aboard the Johnson escalator; the militants, and Dr. King as the most successful and ethically articulate of them all, were thrown into a public quandary.

Dr. King is not known as a man of vacillation, yet his statements on the war seem curiously circumspect, almost tame. His staff is said to be deeply, even bitterly divided over strategy regarding a response to the war. Some have reportedly urged him to begin immediately an all-out effort to challenge the surrounding smokescreen of official doubletalk. Others are convinced that such a course is suicide; they contend that Dr. King and his organization would be Red-baited into bankruptcy and oblivion even within the Negro community. The few mild protests he has made are said already to have cut substantially into the donations coming into his Atlanta office. Given the permanently precarious finances of civil rights organizations, this makes further ventures even more risky.

Here I get to the point and the piece begins to hit its stride: In fact, Dr. King was being very circumspect in comments about the Vietnam war in those months. But I had also heard him, at a closed staff retreat in late 1965, say that eventually he would have to face up to the war, and take whatever criticism a more public stance provoked. “Eventually” still seemed to be far off when I wrote this piece — and when it was published.

At present Dr. King seems to be trying to walk a tortuous middle path: opposing the war as a matter of form but doing so as quietly as possible. Speaking to a support rally for unseated Georgia representative-elect Julian Bond, a SNCC staffer, King concentrated on the issue of free speech, not the SNCC statement opposing the war which brought on the legislative move. Perhaps Dr. King is biding his time, hoping to get his campaign against northern slums off the ground before tackling the broader issues of the war. There is something to be said for this as a matter of tactics.

Julian Bond, left, with Dr. King.

Julian Bond, (1940-2015, educated in part at the Quaker George School in Pennsylvania), still young but a veteran civil rights activist, was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives soon after the Voting Rights Act was passed. But in January 1966, the Georgia House refused to seat him because he had endorsed a public anti-Vietnam War statement. Some months later the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ordered that he be seated, and he served in the Georgia legislature for twenty years.

It is also possible, however, that Dr. King simply doesn’t yet know what to do. Challenging the war would mean an open break with the administration and the loss of all the perquisites of membership in the “great consensus.” In any case it seems unlikely that he can continue to be quiet in the face of continuing escalation of the fighting without seriously compromising his acknowledged role as a man of principle.

Though going through motions of support, the nation is clearly uneasy about the war. This self-conscious, almost guilty attitude is new in the national consciousness, and Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns can take much credit for its development. As the administration’s facade of “national honor” in Vietnam continues to be punctured by the responsible press, the underlying contradictions and moral evasions of our policy are brought home ever more forcefully to much of the informed public. Each new lapse of credibility, each new revelation of official immorality cries out the louder for rebuke and makes more critical the need for authentic moral challenge to the war.

Among all our truly national figures Dr. King is one of the few who are undeniably men of conscience.

Even now, I stand by that statement, while acknowledging that Dr. King had his flaws and sins: he  plagiarized much of his doctoral dissertation; he was serially unfaithful to his wife. On the matters of racial justice and war, he was indeed moved by conscience, lived bravely, and paid for his witness with his life.

If there is to be any significant national reassessment of the Vietnam war and the policies it exemplifies, he could do more than anyone else to bring this about and his implicit acquiescence in the war would do the most to prevent any such reassessment. He cannot escape these facts. No one thrust as Dr. King has been onto the stage of world attention and conflict can ever again find a refuge in the sectional or minority cause from which he sprang. When he accepted the Nobel peace prize he baptized all races into his congregation and confirmed the world as the battleground for his gospel of nonviolence and reconciliation. He is no longer and probably never again can be a spokesman for just an American Negro minority. Simply because of his position in the world limelight, he cannot avoid confrontation with the ethical implications of national and international events.

Other voices, much more influential, were delivering similar messages to Dr. King. And he was listening. At the end of 1966, he went on a month-long private retreat. At an airport enroute, he picked up a magazine which had on its cover the unforgettable photo of a young Vietnamese girl (Kim Phuc, who survived horrible burns and scarring and now lives in Canada) running down a road, her back seared with burning napalm from U.S. bombers. The image reportedly shook him (as it shook many others, including me.) When King returned from his retreat, at the beginning of 1967, he was ready to take on the war with the full blast of his eloquence.

This is why as the Johnson administration talks of escalating the war beyond 450,000 men, of bombing Hanoi-Haiphong and even of confronting China on the Asian mainland the virtual silence of the unchallenged spokesman of American conscience becomes ever louder and more painful to those who have followed him thus far. The war in Vietnam is perhaps the gravest challenge of Dr. King’s career and conceivably its culmination. Who among us today could blame him if, faced with this dilemma, he agonizes over his course of action? No one, surely; but Martin Luther King, Jr., is not only answerable to us of today: he must walk with history as well. And if in his agony he should fail to act, it must be asked: can history forgive him?

Dr. King not only made peace with history — he made history when he took on the Vietnam War. His finest address on the war, “Beyond Vietnam,” given at the Riverside Church in New York City, was initially blasted by white Establishment voices (and some more cautious black ones). The Washington Post was typical, declaring that he had thereby “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

I was among the several thousand packed into the Riverside Church to hear this address — delivered April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, and it fulfilled every aspiration expressed in my article. And despite the initial cascade of criticism, Dr. King’s witness, reinforced by that of others, and events in the war, turned much of this Establishment in his direction within a couple of years.

Dr. King did not live to see his sacrificial witness bear fruit. I did, and its personal impact has has never diminished. All of which makes this article, and this personal anniversary #51, more important than simply marking the first toehold in public print. Despite its youthful limitations, it discerned themes and concerns that continue to this day, and seem (alas) undiminished in their urgency. 

The post “Dilemma for Dr. King” – A 51st Anniversary Review appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

What Is the Life of the Spirit?

Micah Bales - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 7:39am

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/12/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 & John 3:1-17 You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks of a mystery that can only be described in parables and metaphor. We heard a lot of these last month as we went through the Sermon on the Mount together. Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth. We’re the light of the world. A city on a hill. A lamp that lights up the whole house.

Jesus’ central message is about what he calls the “reign” or the “kingdom” or the “empire” of God. He describes this hidden empire as a treasure buried in a field. It’s a pearl of great price. A seed being sown. Yeast causing bread to rise. A tiny mustard seed growing into “the greatest of shrubs.”

What is this leaven Jesus is talking about? What is the light he says shines in us? What is the pearl of great price, that we should be ready to sell everything we have to acquire it? What is Jesus pointing to when he speaks to us in these mysterious terms?

In our scripture readings this morning, I believe we’re pointed towards an answer. Early on in the Gospel of John, Jesus has a middle-of-the-night encounter with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a well-respected religious leader among the Jews. He’s an elder of the people. A teacher. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, which makes him one of the most powerful religious judges in the entire Jewish world. This is a man who knows God’s law backwards and forwards, and teaches it to others.

And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus seeking answers. Despite all his wisdom and experience, Nicodemus can sense that Jesus has something unique to offer. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond anything in Nicodemus’ experience. Nicodemus just can’t look away.

When Nicodemus shows up at Jesus’ house in the middle of the night, he tells Jesus that he’s a fan. He believes that Jesus is a teacher who comes from God. Anyone who can perform the signs that Jesus has must be on God’s side. Nicodemus wants to learn more.

Jesus doesn’t answer Nicodemus in the way I would expect. I would have thought that maybe Jesus would tell Nicodemus to quit flattering him. Or maybe he’d push back on Nicodemus’ idea that signs and wonders can prove God’s presence. To be honest, I kind of expect Jesus to be tough on old Nicodemus. After all, he’s probably visiting in the middle of the night because he doesn’t want to be seen associating with this rabble rouser, Jesus. Why all the secrecy?

Here’s the most interesting part of this dialogue for me: When Nicodemus speaks, Jesus seems to hear a question. Now, looking at the text, Nicodemus hasn’t actually asked a question yet. He’s just getting started, letting Jesus know that he respects his ministry. But Jesus understands that Nicodemus didn’t come out to visit him at two in the morning just to pay his respects. Nicodemus wants to know what lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. He wants to discover the mystery.

Sensing this, Jesus dispenses with the pleasantries. He hears Nicodemus’ silent question. And he tells Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

This throws Nicodemus for a loop. What is Jesus talking about, being born from above? Nicodemus came out to get some straight answers from Jesus, but here he is, still talking in metaphors. And a ridiculous metaphor at that! “What?” says Nicodemus. “You want me to climb back into my mother’s womb and be born a second time?”

If Nicodemus expected Jesus to cut it out with the metaphors at this point, he must have been disappointed. Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question with even more mysterious language: Nobody can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Jesus says, “You can’t just be born of flesh and blood. You’ve got to be born of the Spirit, too. That’s what you came looking for, Nicodemus. That’s my secret.”

Our other reading this morning was from Paul’s letter to the Romans. And at first glance, it doesn’t seem immediately related to this mid-night episode between Jesus and Nicodemus. Paul spends a lot of time talking about the story of Abraham, and what it says about the relationship of faith and the law. Is following all the rules enough to bring us into right relationship with God? Paul says no.

If following the law can’t produce righteousness, what will? What was it that allowed Abraham to have such an amazing relationship with God? Paul insists that is purely through faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham trusted God, and in response God drew him into right relationship.

The whole story of God is built on faith like this. When we are able to trust God, when we give our lives over to him, he draws us into relationship with him. He makes us holy. He calls us sons and daughters.

Through faith, God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars. The Jewish people had always interpreted this to mean that Abraham’s biological descendents – particularly the Jewish people – would be blessed with a special relationship with God. If you shared Abraham’s DNA, you had a share in the kingdom of God.

The Jesus movement brought a radical new interpretation to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. Paul writes about this interpretation in his letters, and Jesus points to it at various times during his ministry. Jesus and Paul and the disciple community all tell us that the true children of Abraham are not those who are biologically related to Abraham; it’s those who share the faith of Abraham.

Can you trace your geneology back to Abraham? Good. So could Paul, and all of the Twelve Apostles. But that’s not enough to qualify a person for the kingdom of God. After all, the religious leaders who persecuted and murdered Jesus – the Pharisees and the Saduccees – were also biologically related to Abraham. They could claim him as father. And yet their lives were alienated from the faith of Abraham. They trusted their Abrahamic DNA. They trusted the laws and ordinances that Moses and the elders had passed down to them. But they did not trust God.

God showed up in their midst. Jesus was standing before them, healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, and proclaiming good news to the poor. But the best and brightest of Abraham’s biological children were unmoved. They preferred ancient rituals, legalistic rules, and holier-than-thou games to the fiery presence of God in the burning bush.

Clearly, though, not all of the religious teachers were so hard-hearted. Nicodemus didn’t come out to see Jesus in order to undermine or refute him. Nicodemus was part of the “frozen chosen” of the Jewish religious establishment. Yet despite all that heavy tradition and social obligation, he was able to sense something in Jesus. Something alive, active, and powerful. Something fresh and new. Something that made all of Nicodemus’ religious titles and authority seem worthless by comparison.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus wasn’t concerned with how pure Nicodemus’ ancestry was. All that DNA tracing is according the flesh. It’s essential – life is impossible without our biological natures. But it’s also insufficient. Without the life of the Spirit, a purely “biological life” is without meaning or purpose.

My wife, Faith, and I have an ongoing debate. I believe that animals, and all living things, have spirits. She thinks that only humans have what you might call a “soul.” Me? I see the spirit of life everywhere. Animals breathe. Plants breathe. Some living things are more complex than others, but we all have a spiritual dimension, a life that goes beyond mere survival.

Still, I can also see things from Faith’s perspective. Take our dog, Austin, for example. He spends most of his time acting out of compulsion. He is a biological being running on autopilot. For Austin, most of life is about when he can eat, when he can drink, when he can go outside and relieve himself. It’s about warmth, and comfort, and safety. It’s about who will be kind to him, and who he should stay away from.

But every once in a while, I see something deeper come out. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Austin experience joy. We were back in Kansas, visiting my family, and we all decided to go on a nature hike. At a certain point in our walk, we crested a ridge, and we discovered an open field with a large group of geese.

When the geese saw us, they all started to take off. They rushed into the air, leaving us behind. This was a good move on their part. We learned that day that Austin is a bird dog. He was in a state of total alertness. He was ready to chase those geese down.

That was the first time we had ever seen Austin smile. Austin came from an abusive background. Before that moment, he was really a very somber dog. But when he saw those geese, he was fully present. There was no fear in him. He had found himself.

“What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” I saw the Spirit-born part of Austin that day. It’s that animating presence that transcends our compulsive biological impulses. It’s this Spirit that gives us the capacity to be more than mere animals. The Spirit of life makes joy possible. It makes faith possible.

Jesus says that this Spirit is like the wind. It blows where it will, and we can’t control it. This was a major discovery of the early church. Jesus teaches us that God is perfectly capable of raising up children of Abraham from the stones, if necessary. Paul writes that we are all Abraham’s children when we share the faith of Abraham. This faith, this joy, this kingdom, comes from the Spirit.

This is why Jesus says that he did not come into the world to condemn the world, but to save it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” God loves all of us so much. And he has power to make us children of Abraham, not according to the flesh, but through the power of the Spirit.

Through the faith of Abraham, God empowers us to transcend our biological compulsions. Just like Austin the dog, we can discover joy in moments of unity with our world and our God. We can be freed from lives that revolve around reflexive tasks, unspoken anxiety, and the struggle to survive. We can be truly free.

We can only see this kingdom when we are born from above. When we receive that gift of spiritual life and awareness that makes all of our biological life worth living. When we discover the purpose that we were created for. To show love to others. To speak the truth. To become agents of beauty.

In this Spirit, this power, this kingdom, we encounter the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Related Posts: Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine? On Being Human in a Robot Age

The post What Is the Life of the Spirit? appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

The Wisdom of the Body -- A Guest Post by Christine Valters Paintner

Holy Ordinary (Brent Bill) - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 6:00am
As someone who's written about using our five physical senses as doors into a deeper spiritual life (Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God), it is my pleasure to welcome Christine Valters Paintner as a guest blogger this week. She's penned a number of my favorite books and her newest one, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women, has just been released. For Holy Ordinary, she's written a piece titled "Sacrament of the Senses." I'm sure you'll be blessed by it. I know I was.

As the twelfth- century teacher Hildegard of Bingen says, “God has a burning love for the flesh.” And there are four stages, she says, in the ascent of holy knowing: “seeing, hearing, smelling, and tasting.” --J. Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul

The Catholic Mass, which is my own home tradition, is often described as “smells and bells.” A full liturgy will often meet and inspire every one of our senses: the scent of incense rising, bells ringing, stained glass windows, singing songs, embracing another at the kiss of peace, eating the bread and drinking wine.

I have always loved the Catholic idea of sacramentality, which means that physical things participate in and reveal the presence of the holy. The liturgy with all of its sensual dimensions is sacramental, the marriage union between two lovers is sacramental, the holy oil of anointing used in healing is sacramental, this bread and wine become flesh and blood is sacramental.

And then there are of course the more ordinary everyday sacraments. The sacramentality of our own flesh which allows us to be present in this world and receive its gifts through our senses.

If we ponder the monastery setting, we might imagine the soaring arches of the cloisters, the fragrant garden in the center providing herbs and medicine for healing and a taste of Eden in their midst, and the songs rising at the Hours for prayer. There is a profound honoring of the way these sensual delights can bring us closer to God.

To have a sacramental spirituality is to honor that our senses are doorways into the holy. When we bring ourselves intentionally to an experience and let ourselves receive it through our senses, the richness of it and the multi-dimensionality of it shimmers forth.

There is even a tradition in Christian spirituality of what are called the “spiritual senses.” The senses were seen as so essential to receiving the gift of the sacred in the world, that there was believed to be parallel interior senses to the exterior ones. There was spiritual vision which was the ability to see God beneath the surface of things. There was spiritual hearing which was the capacity to hear God underneath the noises and distractions. Each sense, including taste, smell, and touch, were imagined as having these inner counterparts, and when cultivated, offered us the ability to encounter God in the flesh and blood reality of the world.

The root of the word savor comes from the Latin word saporem which means to taste and is also the root of sapient which is the word for wisdom. Another definition I love is "to give oneself over to the enjoyment of something." When I give myself over to the experience of savoring, wisdom emerges. Savoring calls for a kind of surrender. We have all kinds of stories in our minds about why we perhaps shouldn’t give ourselves over to enjoyment, whether out of guilt or shame or a sense of fear out of what might happen. Yet we are called to yield to the goodness of life, to bask in it. It is an affirmation and celebration of God’s creation and an echo of “that’s good” from Genesis.

Savoring calls me to slowness: I can't savor quickly.

Savoring calls me to spaciousness: I can't savor everything at once.

Savoring calls me to mindfulness: I can't savor without being fully present.

It also calls for a fierce and wise discernment about how I spend my time and energy. Now that I know deep in my bones the limits of my life breaths, how do I choose to spend those dazzling hours? What are the experiences ripening within me that long for exploration? Do I want to waste my time skating on the surface of things, in a breathless rush to get everything done when all I need is here in this moment?

There is also a seasonal quality to savoring – this season, what is right before me, right now, is to be savored. It will rise and fall, come into fullness and then slip away. When I savor I pay attention to all the moments of that experience without trying to change it.

And finally, there is a tremendous sweetness to this open-hearted way of being in the world. Everything becomes grace because I recognize it could all be different, it could all be gone. Rather than grasp at how I think this moment should be, I savor the way things are.

(excerpted and adapted from The Wisdom of the Body)

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess at, a virtual global monastery offering resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of ten books including her newest, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women. Christine lives on the wild edges of Ireland with her husband where they lead pilgrimages and retreats.
Categories: Blogs

New Resistance Reading: “Our Society. Our Future: Resist!”

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Sat, 03/11/2017 - 12:21pm

“To every thing there is a season,” says the biblical sage Ecclesiastes,

A time to gain, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away . . .
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak,”

and I would add,
A time to endure, and a time to resist.

As I write, in early 2017,  in the United States, such a time of resistance is upon us.

This new collection (now available in paperback and on Kindle) is for those who have been through “a time to lose” — losses that, as I write, are far from over. Some of these losses will have to be endured for a time, perhaps a long time.

Yet if so, they are not to be endured in passive, compliant silence.

These losses will afflict some more, with the weight of an enslaved history on one side, and official bullets on the other. Yet even among  those most advantaged,  none will escape: the very air that all breathe, the water necessary for all life, are at risk, as well as justice, and what we have known of freedom. 

Likewise the ways of resistance are manifold, and guides and programs and checklists for the new waves of resistance strategy are proliferating.

This collection is not meant to add to that burgeoning strategy shelf. After all, no program can fully encompass the resistance. Its scale can include monumental gatherings of hundreds of thousands — even millions. It is also carried on in quiet, solitary acts of defiance. Often these are no more than calm, insistent truth-telling, now an increasingly radical act as lies are embedded in the heart not only of government, but enshrined in the high seats of what is called religion, especially American white Christianity.

Amid this great variety, there are two resources which the resistance handbooks mention, but cannot turn into a formula, namely creativity and imagination. These are weapons more of the weak than the strong, and buckets of money are not enough to quell or substitute for them.

Nor can their impact be reliably predicted, or programmed. Who knew in the spring of 2011 that the single word “Occupy” would soon make the the pillars of great wealth tremble? And who could have foreseen that pink knitted caps with floppy pointed ears would be the symbol that shook an arriving, arrogant regime?

Imagination and creativity are, in my view, better conveyed by images, by verse, and best of all by story.

Among the oldest stories in Western culture is one of resistance to oppression and a quest for liberation.

For my part, I have written stories for almost forty years. Most have been set in my religious community, that of the Quakers, and many relate to our own rich and complex history. They were not written with a plan in mind, beyond the intent to tell pieces of truth in ways that could capture the attention of readers. Yet going back over them as the clouds gathered for this difficult time, I saw that many are in fact about, or involve, resistance.

It may be resistance to slavery; to any of several wars; unjust imprisonment; spy conspiracies; and more.

And several of the stories also involve ghosts. I don’t know whether I believe in ghosts. But I more than believe that my American life has unfolded in a haunted society; and my encounters with some of its many specters are reflected here.

Among those encounters, possibly the most welcome one has been with the shade of Quaker Lucretia Mott, a great 19th century Friend. She survived and resisted the ravages of war, personal loss, struggles with her own co-religionists on the one hand, and proslavery mobs on the other.

And through it all, it could truly have been said of her, that as an advocate for the rights and full humanity of all, but especially women, “She has persisted.”

One of her most ringing affirmations echoes repeatedly now, with special resonance:

“I have no idea,” she declared, “of submitting tamely to injustice . . . . I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity.”

Neither are these stories.

They offer examples of imagination, creativity, and courage. If they provide any readers with encouragement and a spur to find and express those elements now, in this season of trial, this collection will have been a success.

Our Society. Our Future: Resist! 
Available here, and at Amazon & on Kindle.

The post New Resistance Reading: “Our Society. Our Future: Resist!” appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine?

Micah Bales - Wed, 03/08/2017 - 2:00am

Christianity is a wine-soaked religion. My teetotalling Quaker ancestors did their level best to rid the world of alcohol. Still, the pages of the Bible are full of references to the drink.

Jesus’ ministry began and concluded with celebration. He kept a wedding party going strong into the night when he transformed water into wine. And when his time on earth was almost up, Jesus enjoyed a simple passover meal with his disciples. He offered them bread as his body, and wine as his blood.

The Hebrew scriptures say that the life of a creature is its blood. What is wine, that Jesus would offer it to us as his life?

Wine is a mysterious drink. It breathes, ages, and develops over time. Even before Jesus made it a centerpiece of the Christian faith, wine has always held a religious significance. It has a life of its own.

One very interesting thing about wine is the unpredictable way it ages. It is well known that good red wine can improve dramatically over the course of several years in a cellar. What’s less commonly known is that this improvement is not always linear.

A young, bold, and aggressive wine can mellow into a refined, coordinated vintage. But open it too late, and it may have turned to vinegar. Open it too early, and it may not have the qualities you expected at all.

In the midst of all this change, there is often a “mute” period. Between the boldness of youth and the sophistication of age, the wine falls silent. If you happened to sample it during this time, you would certainly be disappointed. But wait a little longer, and you may experience a masterpiece.

Jesus himself is like wine. We experience the boldness of his teaching, healing, and rebuke to hypocritical leaders. We witness the glory of his resurrection, the power of his triumph over sin and death. And Jesus also passes through a mute period. Between the last supper and the resurrection, Jesus falls silent.

As he stood before the High Priest, he said almost nothing. Only enough for the religious tribunal to condemn him. Then he was taken before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who was astounded at how little Jesus had to say. It was as if Jesus’ fierce boldness and righteous anger had slipped away.

As he hung dying on the cross, the silence was deafening. There was no dynamic action. No sermons or healings. Angel armies did not come to the rescue. Instead, Jesus turned inward and directed himself to the God who felt so absent right then. He showed love to a fellow condemned prisoner. He consoled his disciples and his mother.

Jesus’ whole life was churning in the vortex of this “mute” time. Jesus had been faithful, and something amazing was about to happen. But as Jesus drank the muted wine of that moment, all he could taste was gall and vinegar.

In both wine and human life, this muted space is awful, mysterious, and necessary. Wine must lose what it once was in order to become what it is meant to be. Our lives must pass through brokenness and surrender. The loss and emptiness of the cross is the only path to a resurrected life.

You may be living through a muted moment in your life right now. You feel empty, shorn of the enthusiasm and excitement that once propelled you. There’s a gentle brokenness in you. It invites silence. Grounded humility comes unbidden as you repent in dust and ashes. There is peace here.

Now is a time to wait. There’s no need to open that bottle before it’s ready. Like any good wine, your life is breathing, opening. You are an unfolding mystery.

Related Posts: What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong? Can I Be Happy Without Progress?

The post Do You Think You’ll Age Like Wine? appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

Lucretia Mott & The The Wild Chase Scene

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Fri, 03/03/2017 - 4:59pm

Who was Jane Johnson, and why was she racing down Philadelphia streets  in a coach with Lucretia Mott in September of 1855? And why were federal marshals trying to catch them??

And why did Johnson run through Mott’s house and out the back door?

There’s two ways to find out the answers to these (and many other) exciting questions.

One is hard, the other is easy . . . .

The first way is the harder one:

One: Read this letter Lucretia wrote to a Friend about it. (Good luck!)


Two: Join me on this First Day, Third Month 5, as Lucretia would say, (that’s Sunday March 4 for us non-plain speakers).

I’ll be at the Orange County Main Library in Hillsborough NC, at 1 PM. (The library is at 137 West Margaret Lane, Hillsborough).  I’ll be giving a talk about Lucretia then, which will reveal all. (Well, as much as I can in an hour or so.)

I find Lucretia Mott both inspiring and fascinating. And one of my  big questions about her remains unanswered; it is;


Do What? ALL of it:

She raised six children, planted many large gardens, and all of them grew along with her social activism, while her husband struggled to establish himself in business.

She also hosted a steady stream of relatives and guests, cooked up a storm, kept house (some reports say she IRONED her sheets!).  Yet she also knew how to conduct herself in public, even amid intense controversy and even violence. She was a nationally known public speaker, at a time when women weren’t supposed to be heard in public at all; she was an organizer; and she was an activist/agitator on so many issues I lose count. 

She was also a busy Quaker, at both local and yearly meeting levels, and helped shake up the Society of Friends both inside and out. Plus a  devoted wife to James Mott (they were married 57 years), and followed a large network of relatives by many visits and writing an endless stream of letters, by hand.

And, in 1855, she helped Jane Johnson escape. (Okay, she had help.)



Sometimes I think of myself as an activist, even if mostly retired; but reading about her, I feel like the world’s Number Two Slacker.  (I forgot the name of who’s Number One.)

And for years she was a target of traditionalist Quakers, who tried repeatedly to have her disowned. 

But they failed every time. And I figured out why, and will tell all on Sunday.

Lucretia was plain til the end. Here is the marker for her and James in the Fairhill Burial Ground in north Philadelphia.

Detail of Lucretia Mott’s grave stone , buried alonside her husband , James Mott. At Mott’s Graveside in Historic Fair Hill Burial Ground,

See thee First Day (Sunday, March 5) at the Orange County Main Library, 137 West Margaret Lane in Hillsborough NC, at 1 PM.  

The post Lucretia Mott & The The Wild Chase Scene appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

The Shoe Drops (Again) for North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Wed, 03/01/2017 - 11:05pm

This past week (so far) a bunch of big shoes have dropped, including:

— a huge war buildup;

— the sharks circling for the kill on health care; while

— even longtime peaceful immigrants living in fear;

— Muslims, even American-born ones, being harassed at the borders;

— clean air & water are gurgling down the tubes;

–  more vote suppression is on the march, and

– I probably forgot several more —

But stop the presses–!!

The really big Quaker news is that the hardline evangelical caucus in North Carolina YM is upset (again) because they aren’t yet guaranteed “sufficient separation” from a handful of liberal meetings they’ve been trying to purge for more than two years. And so they’re pushing for yet another in the unending series of showdowns; it will come this Saturday, March 4, at the NCYM Representative body session.

And who cares about a distraction like fair Quaker process?
A document we recently gained access to shows that the answer is: some important people don’t. (More on that in a few minutes.)

First an admission: Yes, Friend, I for one am getting weary of writing this same story: “Another NCYM crisis showdown! The hardline caucus is demanding this and that (mainly that “liberals” have to go) or else they’ll leave, the sky will fall, satan will rule, yada yada. . . .”

Well, they haven’t succeeded, and some of their meetings have indeed put the walk in their talk and marched out the door; so god bless ’em and thanks.

But like dandelions in the lawn, more just keep popping up. And the NCYM establishment, either in cahoots or cowed, keeps telling the rest of us to knuckle under. Except mostly we haven’t.

It’s pretty much the same old song again for this weekend. The main target is the decision made last August at the 2016 annual session to placate the evangelicals by reorganizing NCYM, adding two distinct associations under a skeletal NCYM umbrella.

This decision was an alternative to a plan to split the YM in two, which was specifically rejected. This no-split decision was reaffirmed at the November Representative body session.

But now, the hard core evangelicals are throwing another tantrum, saying “Nope– not good enough, we demand a do-over.”  And this do-over would completely invert the decision from last summer.

To review, here’s the general idea from last summer. 

Note that the two new “associations” would really have had very little day-to-day connection, other than being “under” (graphically speaking) NCYM. And NCYM would be drastically shrunken, reduced to little more than an investment bank account & a committee of trustees (drawn from the two subgroups), and its only staff a part-time bookkeeper.

The “reorganization plan” from last August, in schematic form.

But it turns out that for some evangelicals, even that slender residual “connection” is too much to bear. One can hear the tired refrains: “Be not unequally yoked . . .”; “what does Christ have to do with Satan or Belial (satan’s nickname),” yada yada antichrist, demons, homosexuals.”  (Wake me when it’s over.)

So, as we reported in late January, a transition committee headed by longtime NCYM pastor Hugh Spaulding put out a letter insisting that the hardcore had reneged. They now said they must have “adequate separation into two groups,” or else they “will continue to splinter,” which would somehow be terrible. And even though Spaulding’s committee was not in unity to give in to this demand, he said we had to anyway. (See what I mean about who gives a fig for a fair Quaker process?)

In response, the Autonomites (the unofficial name for designated liberal meetings–they have not yet picked an “official” name) we posted about them here), called a meeting last Saturday (February 25), in which they were urged by facilitator Mark Farlow to form a solid block of opposition to this plan at the upcoming Representative session this Saturday.

There was general agreement with this idea, but this observer noted something less than a tide of enthusiasm or high dudgeon in the room. Indeed, one suspects that even many Autonomites, after two-plus years of fending off wave after wave of purge attempts, are feeling a good bit of purge fatigue. This sentiment could well have been deepened by the many other shocks they (and the country) have faced since January 20.

But I digress. What’s at stake in this internecine, increasingly obscure dispute?

As far as I can see, it’s mainly two things: first, the remaining shreds of integrity retained by the NCYM establishment. If they’re going to toss out their own decision made in August and reaffirmed in November, in the face of yet another blackmail/extortion ultimatum, then for what it’s worth, their reputation will go down the drain with it.

Otherwise, the main concrete stake is money; but even that won’t really be affected much.

Either way, the “reorganized” NCYM will be turned into a foundation; legally, it will no longer even be a church body. Its role will be to hold the NCYM trust funds of $12 million or thereabouts, and dole out the earnings; it will own such properties as NCYM now has, which are of three types: some real estate, which they plan to sell; some cemeteries to keep up; and the NCYM Camp, Quaker Lake, which they plan to rapidly spin off on its own.

So Quaker Lake will supposedly soon only be technically “owned” by NCYM; in fact, its own board has already been charged to move rapidly toward full autonomy.

BTW — The Quaker Lake board seems eager to be on their own: reports from camp insiders indicate that many Quaker Lake board members very much fear that unless they get out from under NCYM fast, the toxic spirit of creeds and purges which has demolished the Yearly Meeting will spread and infect their small green acreage as well, with similarly dire effects. (And you ask me, they are quite right to be worried.)

Meantime, beginning next fall (that’s the target, at any rate) the NCYM-Foundation will begin handing out trust fund earnings to the two new separated yearly meetings, proportionally to membership. Current estimates are that the evangelicals have about three times as many members on their list as do the Autonomites. So the actual arrangement would resemble this revised, “NEW Umbrellas” chart.

In practical terms, the difference between the two arrangements may not be great: in both, NCYM is equally shrunken; in both, each subgroup will get their checks. But there’s a kicker: if more meetings leave before the reorganization is finalized, like disinherited offspring, they lose their access to the trust fund gravy train.

So this new scheme offers a way for the hardcore to have their cake and eat it too: to gain “adequate separation” from the liberals, without having to leave — yet while keeping copious access to the money.

Suppose they get away with it? Suppose the liberal meetings are fed up and forced out, and the only remaining connection is that their new body sends a few members to the NCYM Foundation trustees? What then?

How long do you think it would be before the hardcore demanded a purge of the foundation board, to get fully rid of the despised liberal remnant – and have all the fund income for their own pet projects?

I try to hold back about predicting the future: but given the pattern of NCYM history for twenty-plus years, it’s a no brainer to see new purges coming; for some of these folks, it’s what “being church” really means.

And as for Quaker process, here’s a revelation to ponder: the January letter insisting on the revived split was from Hugh Spaulding, as we noted in the earlier post. Spaulding had been named Clerk of a committee to consider changes in Quarterly meetings as part of the reorganization. And his letter insisting on the separate-or-splinter was issued, in his own words, in spite of the fact that committee was “not in unity” behind the new two-YM split idea. But so what?

So this: what surfaced a few days ago were the minutes of the “Authority group,” that is, the evangelical caucus from which all this pressure has come. And they show that the clerk-coordinator-organizer of the latest evangelicals putsch is – voila! It’s Hugh Spaulding! (The full text of these minutes is here.)

Talk about putting your thumb on the scale. Talk about loading the dice. Stacking the deck. Conflict of interest; a smoking gun; flagrant, blatant. Using his position purportedly as a servant of the body to completely thwart its formal decision, to shape its destiny on behalf of the faction he is essentially leading.

So what will happen to NCYM this Saturday? Whichever way it goes,  North Carolina Yearly Meeting, FUM branch, that’s been around for more than three hundred and twenty years, looks pretty much done for, and with it will go a once-honorable “Reputation of Friends.”

Already all that’s left is some spoils to squabble over. (This will be almost a textbook example of what has been described in earlier posts as the “Blockbuster Effect,” when a seemingly thriving, major enterprise completely loses touch with its “industry” for internal reasons, and quickly goes out of business.)

(Yet a quietist voice, reading this last passage, whispered gently in my ear: “Ah, but North Carolina has been through this movie before!  In 1903 to be exact, when a similarly-determined pastor-oriented leadership insisted that every local meeting had to have a pastor.

But some traditionalist meetings said ‘No!’ and from that –relatively quiet — split came two groups claiming the Quaker heritage back to NCYM’s beginning.”)

And good grief, their claim is valid! So even if NCYM-FUM essentially disappears, as seems likely, nevertheless “North Carolina Yearly Meeting” will continue to exist, in the smaller branch, called NCYM-Conservative. (They’re still non-pastoral, but not all that “Conservative”: they even have a website.)

Seems they’ve been walking humbly enough, loving mercy and their fellow people enough, that so far they haven’t ended up tearing each other apart, which now looks like no small feat. So they could well turn out to be the last original North Carolina Yearly Meeting left standing.

Could it be they know something that these hardcore evangelicals don’t, and even many of the liberals have forgotten?”

Or possibly, when the dust settles, the Autonomites might take a page from NCYM-Conservative and reorganize themselves with the familiar name.  NCYM could rise from its own ashes yet again – same name, many of the same people, and one can hope with a new affirmation to worship freely, peaceably, and faithfully in the Light, particularly in this year with all these other, truly big shoes dropping all around.

What a concept.



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Categories: Blogs

What If This Is the End of the World?

Micah Bales - Tue, 02/28/2017 - 2:00am

Pretty much every generation has thought theirs might be the last.

We’ve had different reasons. The early Christians thought that Jesus was going to come back and wrap up history. During the Middle Ages, the Black Death gave people reason to think that the world was ending. In my parents’ lifetime, the threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present. American school children cowered under their school desks for fear of the Bomb. The idea that the world might end at any moment was reasonable.

For my generation, the possibility of nuclear war has receded, psychologically if not in reality. Instead, we witness the real-time destruction of our natural environment. Erosion blows away our precious topsoil. Fracking fouls our drinking water and shakes our earth. Hundreds of species go extinct every day. Our climate is entering a terrifying death spiral.

Many of us wonder whether we are witnessing the end. What happens when the reefs and oceans die? What will we do when the arctic tundra thaws, releasing so much methane that the impact becomes completely unpredictable? How will we survive the radical transformation of our planet, the loss of uncountable plant and animal species? What kind of world will we bequeath to our children?

I recently re-watched a film called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It’s a movie about the destruction of all life on earth, and how all sorts of different people react to it. Some start rioting, others throw orgies and do drugs. Some seek out lost love or spend time with family. For a few, the end of the world confirms their deepest commitments and priorities. For many others, it is a shocking revelation that they have wasted their entire lives.

This film got me to thinking about what the real source of meaning in my life is. If I knew for sure that everything was going to end soon, what difference would that make for how I live?

Mortality clarifies. It challenges me to consider whether there is any meaning beyond my own life, and the lives of those around me. What if this is the end? Does that mean everything was pointless?

Times like these force me to dig deeper, to seek out a sense of purpose that goes beyond survival. I must discover power, beauty, and significance in the present moment. Even if we are hurtling towards annihilation.

There is a dignity, presence, and love that is stronger than death. There is hope beyond the grave – even a mass grave. There is an assurance that, no matter what happens to us, this time together is real. It matters. It is beautiful. Let’s give thanks for this time, and bless one another with it. And maybe we’ll find that this isn’t the end, after all.

Related Posts: What If Everything I Think I Know Is Wrong? Can I Be Happy Without Progress?

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Categories: Blogs

OMG! My Congressguy is Having a Town Hall!

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Fri, 02/24/2017 - 10:34am

My Congressman is a hero.

Why? Because he’s having a public meeting. TWO, actually; one of them right here in Durham. And we didn’t even have to ask him!

Hero of the week: Rep. G.K. Butterfield

Now, some fussbudgets might object that there’s nothing “heroic” about a Congressman meeting constituents. “Hey,” they grumble, “this is his JOB. It’s what he was elected to do: listen to us here, and work for us and for a better America in Washington.

Silly idealists. Especially this year. This month. This WEEK. It must be heroic, because so few of his colleagues are daring to do it.

(Has your Rep. been seen in public this week? Our two NC Senators have evidently fled the country. #notkidding.)

According to the Town Hall Project, Butterfield is the ONLY ONE of North Carolina’s 15 Members of Congress holding actual town hall meetings this go round. Maybe the others think it’s now illegal here, like trans-friendly bathrooms. With our current nutcase Legislature, it would be an easy mistake. (But you can bet they’re busy raising campaign money this week. You can take that to the bank.)

The Congressional Badge of Honor, this month.

I hear that some of the few solons who ventured out have met with somewhat exuberant receptions. Well, we here in the NC First District can get excited too, but Rep. Butterfield will probably hear more applause than protests.

Far as I’m concerned he’s standing on the right side of most things that are important to me. I voted for him in November, and have no regrets. And he even knows how to tweet. Like this:

And that’s definitely not “fake news.”

The Durham session is tomorrow. And wouldn’t you know I messed around and made a commitment to go to another meeting, about some dismal Quaker breakup thing. So I can’t be there.

But I’m sure Rep. Butterfield won’t be lonely. And realizing I’d be away, I already shared some of my views with him. I did it by  FAX; and it got through quick. 

First I thanked him for holding the meeting, and for being on the progressive side.  Then I talked about health care, and the plans to rip it up. And I ended with a request:

 I want to tell you about what I would say if I could be [at the town hall]. It is about my grandson Calvin King, who is seven, and a NC resident. And it is about Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

Calvin looks healthy and lively in this photo, which he now is.

But if it weren’t for Medicaid and the ACA, he would not look this way. He has had to have two unexpected, serious surgeries to bring him to his present state of health.

Without Medicaid & the ACA, Calvin would not have been able to have these procedures. It’s that simple.

My understanding is that you support the ACA and oppose plans to repeal it. Thank you for that.

However, I wish I had heard your voice on this more often, and more vocally. And I wish you would lobby your colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus to, borrowing the words of a famous populist,  “Raise Less Corn and More Hell!” about this issue (and many others, but I’ll stick to ACA/Medicaid here.)

Pardon my language, & I meant no disrespect. But this is not something I feel calm & polite about.

We in your district need to HEAR YOUR VOICE on this issue, more often, and louder.

You’re on the right side. You’re doing your best. Let all of us – and those on the other side – hear it, every day, on this issue.

This is not an academic or “political” issue.

Lives hang in the balance. Lives in MY family & thousands more in this District.

Thank you and keep up the good work!

Charles Fager
Durham NC 
First District NC

A North Carolina Member of Congress who actually wants to listen to constituents, in public. Right now, there’s only one.

But what a concept!  (I could get used to this.)



The post OMG! My Congressguy is Having a Town Hall! appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

The Quaker Ecosystem

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Thu, 02/23/2017 - 7:35pm

An upcoming theme of Friends Journal is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s called “Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem” and addresses countless conversations I think many of us have had over the years. Here’s the description:

Many of our traditional decision-making structures are under tremendous stress these days. There are few nominating committees that don’t bemoan the difficulties finding volunteer leadership. In the face of this, a wave of questioning and creativity is emerging as Friends reinvent and regenerate Quaker structures. Previously unasked questions about power and decision-making models are on the agenda again.

I think this begs the question of the whole why and how of our organizing as a religious society. One of the most read posts on my blog in 2003 was a based on a review of a book by Robert E. Webber called The Younger Evangelicals. Webber was talking about mainstream Evangelicals, who he divided into three generational phases,

  • Traditional Evangelicals 1950-1975
  • Pragmatic Evangelicals 1975-2000
  • Younger Evangelicals 2000-

I was working at Friends General Conference back in 2003 and Webber’s descriptions felt surprisingly familiar despite the very different context of liberal Quakerism.

Take for example youth ministry: Webber says Pragmatic Evangelicals tend to prefer “outreach programs and weekend fun retreats,” which is what the eventual FGC Youth Ministries Program mostly morphed into (before going into permanent hiatus). Webber suggests that the Younger Evangelicals cohort sought “prayer, Bible study, worship, social action” and sure enough many progressive spiritual types in Philly left meetinghouses for the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake’s account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and sustainable youth ministries running (you can read QVS’s Ross Hennesy’s journey from the 2013 FJ to see Webber’s chart come to life).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many Quaker orgs are stuck in a rut trying everything they can to make the Pragmatic Evangelical model work. There’s a hope that just one more reorganization will solve their systemic longterm problems—new people will come into committee service, meetinghouses will start filling, etc. But the more we try to hold onto the old framework, the more creative energy dissipates and Friends get lost or leave.

My personal hunch is that structure (almost) doesn’t matter. What we need is a shift in attention. How can we back up and ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is our prophetic role and how do we encourage and support that in our members? How do we care for our church community and still reach beyond the meetinghouse walls to serve as healers in the world?

A few years ago I dropped in on part of my yearly meeting sessions. In one room, mostly-older members were revising some arcane subsection of Faith and Practice while across the hall mostly-younger members were expressing heartbreak about a badly-decided policy on trans youth. The disconnect between the spirit in the rooms was beyond obvious.

I think we need to be able to stop and give attention to direct leadings of needed ministry. I often return to the Good Samaritan story. In my mind’s eye the Levite is the Friend who can’t stop because they’re late for a committee meeting. If we could figure out a way to get more Friends to pivot into Good Samaritan mode, I suspect we’d find new life in our religious society. Perennial questions would transform.

Signs of new life are abundant but unevenly distributed. How do you imagine the ecosystem in 10, 20, or 50 years? Submission due date 3/6 officially though we may have a chance to review later pieces.

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Categories: Blogs

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Quaker Ranter (Martin Kelly) - Wed, 02/22/2017 - 7:39pm

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I’ve read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between “conservative” friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I’m in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don’t identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I’ve noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they’ll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it’s not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don’t mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don’t refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can’t think of any that doesn’t span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we’ve had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we’d append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side’s labelled appendage is “Conservative,” giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting’s clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio’s gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you’ll find people who are very attached to labels. That’s what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It’s all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.


Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn’t bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Categories: Blogs
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