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The Healing Power of Stories

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:45pm
By Michael Bischoff. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 454), 2018. 27 pages. $7/pamphlet. Buy from QuakerBooks

Why do we get cancer? While there are risk factors such as exposure to certain substances, chronic inflammation, alcohol abuse, and bad diet, there are many other causes (known and unknown) for why and how we get cancer. We occasionally ask, as many have, why bad things happen to good people. Why do things happen the way they do?

But that’s not what this Pendle Hill pamphlet is about. The Healing Power of Stories by Michael Bischoff is about healing one’s life while living with cancer. First diagnosed in apparent excellent health at age 44, he started medical treatment and set up his own website where he connected with others to share stories and find support and encouragement. He organized his own storytelling group and then helped others organize their groups.

Many of us learned of his being diagnosed with glioblastoma (the most aggressive kind of brain cancer) in 2016 in Don’t Postpone Joy: Adventures with Brain Cancer, co-written with his wife, Jennifer Larson. Bischoff wrote an update in the January 2018 issue of Friends Journal, where he continued his story.

During that first year of surgeries, chemo, radiation, and experimental treatments, Bischoff started a spiritual practice of sitting at a favorite spot along the nearby Mississippi River. The river invited him to toss out his negative thoughts and let them float away. An old turtle lumbered by, eldering him in the ways of patience and persistence. The graceful flight of a blue heron invited him to find joy in his life. He thought of those moments by the river as he sat in worship with Friends. Wading into the water reminded him that he was wading deeper into the river of life.

This pamphlet continues the narrative, some three years after his diagnosis. Friends continue to follow him on Facebook and share stories of health journeys through CaringBridge.org, which enables loved ones to connect through personal, private websites.

Bischoff writes: “A good story brings us deeper into life. It keeps us wondering what happens next, bringing us back into the flow of our embodied emotional lives.” He found that we can keep our own story in perspective when we see our lives as part of the larger human experience. Our narratives can touch us as no mere argument can, because they reach our whole selves—body, heart, and mind. Mary Jo Kreitzer, from the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, assured Bischoff that healing is always possible, that we can open up to life even though we may not survive our cancer.

Quite apart from all that one can do to get through an illness, whether or not one survives is ultimately a mystery, dependent on factors such as luck, economics, quality of medical care, privilege (or the lack thereof), geography, and timing. Bischoff writes:

If I die tomorrow, that doesn’t take away from the miracles and healing that have already happened. Healing isn’t a one-time result but an ongoing process that doesn’t stop with death. Seen as a spiritual practice, the primary goal of healing stories isn’t just individual survival and physical health, but union with the larger flow of life moving through us. In response to George Fox’s challenge to us of what canst we say, I answer, “There is a healing river coming for all of us, and it is unavoidable.”

I contacted Bischoff and asked how this pamphlet might be used to help form a healing story group. He suggested that such a group could be started with two people who would be willing to tell a short version of their journey toward healing as they went through an illness or traumatic experience. The sharing could be structured around a set of questions like those suggested here by Jonathan Adler and Annie Brewster in their organization Health Story Collaborative:

  • Whom do you feel connected to and who has been there for you?
  • In what ways have you been an active rather than a passive character in your journey?
  • What do you have control over?
  • What have been the “silver linings”?
  • How do all of the different stories of your life fit together and make sense?

Michael Bischoff has found a path toward healing one’s life. “As we confess ways we are broken, testify about the Spirit’s movement in us toward well-being, and proclaim what we are learning as a core spiritual discipline, we can live out the healing power of stories.”

The post The Healing Power of Stories appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:40pm
By Gary Dorrien. Yale University Press, 2018. 632 pages. $45/hardcover or eBook; $30/paperback. Buy from QuakerBooks

In Breaking White Supremacy, Gary Dorrien, professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary and professor of religion at Columbia University, makes a convincing case that Martin Luther King Jr. should be understood as part of an underappreciated religious tradition, the Black social gospel. Dorrien argues that this “neo-abolitionist theology of social justice” was the animating tradition that informed King’s thought and action, motivated his organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and led to many of the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. This book is the follow-up volume to Dorrien’s earlier work, The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion in 2017 and covered the emergence of the Black social gospel in the early twentieth century. Breaking White Supremacy can profitably be read on its own, but together the volumes form a remarkably comprehensive study of the role of religion in the struggle for black freedom and are certain to become a standard work on the subject.

The book is a series of biographical accounts of key Black religious leaders, covering their childhoods, educations, and activist careers. Topics include Benjamin May’s efforts to find a way to approach God that would be relevant to the social struggles of African Americans, Boston University chaplain Howard Thurman’s mystically inclined approach to religion, and Pauli Murray’s attempts to develop an intersectional approach to theology that could be both feminist and in favor of racial justice. As one might expect, the figure who receives the most attention is King. Dorrien skillfully documents how King welded together several different streams of thought, from the Black church upbringing he received as the son of a pastor to the white liberal Protestant theology of his graduate training and Gandhian ideas of nonviolent social change.

King’s persistent vision for nonviolent social change and his knowledge that his witness would lead to his death make him seem almost Christ-like; much of the book, however, makes clear he had human faults. Dorrien sees King as a model for laying out a progressive religious vision in his economic agenda, which grew toward democratic socialism and began to include demands for policies like a federally guaranteed minimum income. Quaker readers may find the detailed discussion of how King tried to balance his idealistic devotion to nonviolence with the realism of political action to be particularly helpful. It is quite clear that King stayed committed to his nonviolent vision until the end of his life.

The book rightly portrays the Black leaders it depicts as heroic figures, but it manages to avoid becoming entirely celebratory. One high note is the nuance with which the book dealt with the life of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the Harlem minister turned influential Democratic congressman. Powell was a master of political intrigue who used his talents to advocate for civil rights legislation while living a celebrity lifestyle with numerous extramarital affairs and legally dubious financial practices. Powell was not always a firm ally of King and notably tried to blackmail him with the false allegation that King and Bayard Rustin were a gay couple. Dorrien’s account does not shy away from showing Powell’s ambitious and Machiavellian side, but also takes his religious life and moral commitments seriously, showing how Powell tried to live out his personal vision of Christianity.

This is a book that offers a rich reward to those who want to devote the time to go through it, but it is lengthy and so comprehensive that casual readers or book groups may feel deterred. Breaking White Supremacy is not suited to serve as an introduction to those seeking an understanding of the Civil Rights Movement because it assumes readers know at least the outline of the major events in King’s life. It offers considerable detail on topics that seem of less urgency than the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, such as the many pages that are devoted to the career of Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University, and discuss Howard’s institutional politics at length. For its intended audience, who already know the basic facts of King’s life but want to better understand his place in American theology, this book is invaluable.

The post Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

The Joy of Job: An Investigator’s Perspective on the Most Righteous Man on Earth

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:35pm
By Maribeth Vander Weele. Sagerity Press, 2018. 138 pages. $24.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

The Epistle of James speaks about the “patience of Job,” but in this little book, Maribeth Vander Weele speaks about his joy. She quotes Bildad’s statement to Job, “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy” (Job 8:21).

Vander Weele presents “an investigator’s perspective.” She is the founder of her own investigative firm, the Vander Weele Group, and she explicitly uses the tools of her trade to study the book of Job. In a concluding word, Vander Weele outlines ten elements that investigators look for, and then she summarizes how each of these elements relates to her study of the book of Job. (In many ways, one should read this section first.)

On the cover appears a portrait of Vander Weele’s father, Dr. Harold Vander Weele, drawn by her sister Susan Vander Wey. (It’s a family affair!) Vander Weele learned from her father the value of “the throwaway line,” which she argues is important to the investigator and to the book of Job.

The book’s title page includes an additional subtitle: “An Extraordinary Story of Repentance and Restoration.” And Job’s story is certainly extraordinary! It is also familiar: Job is a good man with many possessions. Satan tells God that if everything is taken away from Job, even his own health, then he will curse God. God lets Satan do with Job as Satan will: he takes away Job’s property, children, and health. Job remains faithful, and God eventually restores his fortunes.

Sagerity Press published this book and apparently only this book. The only other occurence of the word “sagerity” that I could find was Sagerity Investigative Intelligence, a service provided by the Vander Weele Group. Vander Weele does not discuss the origins of this name “Sagerity,” which seems to be a neologism. I can only assume that it derives from the fact that Job is often classified as wisdom literature, along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

Vander Weele does not refer to academic research on Job at all. In all fairness, however, scholars have not written a lot of books on Job for the general public. Indeed, the only really accessible scholarly book on Job is Stephen Mitchell’s 1994 poetic translation and commentary, simply entitled The Book of Job, which Vander Weele does not reference. She does, however, refer a number of times to an 1827 work by John Fry entitled A New Translation and Exposition of the Very Ancient Book of Job. Scattered throughout are occasional quotations of folks such as C.S. Lewis; David Wilkerson (of The Cross and the Switchblade fame); and her pastor, Daniel Meyer of Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill., who gushes about the book on the back cover.

Vander Weele is in dialogue not with scholars but with her child self. She says she was taught that the lesson of Job was that innocent people can suffer without reason, that God’s ways are mysterious. Job 29 is Vander Weele’s point of entry. Her calling Job “the most righteous man on earth” in the subtitle is a bit sarcastic because her contention is that Job is unrighteous and that God is righteous.

This “investigator’s perspective” is very much a Christian perspective, with lots of support from pastors, according to the acknowledgments. (She does refer to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s book on religious violence, Not in God’s Name.) Vander Weele’s many footnotes primarily cite Job but also other verses in the Hebrew scripture and New Testament. I appreciate her attempting to ground Job in the Christian Bible.

The book is interesting if a bit idiosyncratic. In some ways, it is a personal journey but strangely impersonal. Vander Weele is an investigator, so she keeps her own emotions and story out of the equation, but I expected a bit more when I saw the tender portrait of her father on the cover. Friends might read this book with profit, though the only explicit reference to the Society is a paragraph about “the Quaker Capitalism of the Nineteenth Century,” in which she refers to a book by Deborah Cadbury about her chocolate-making ancestors. For modern interpretation of Job, I am partial to two twentieth-century dramatic works: Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play in verse J.B. and Neil Simon’s 1974 comedy God’s Favorite. It seems that the stage has captured—or unleashed—Job better than the written word.


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Categories: Articles & News

… And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:30pm
By Michael Hudson. ISLET-Verlag Dresden, 2018. 340 pages. $29.95/hardcover; $26.95/paperback.

The authors of the Bible never guessed how puzzled we would be by things they didn’t think needed explanation. Why did certain people want to kill Jesus? Why would he accuse the Pharisees of “neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah: justice, mercy, and good faith” (to paraphrase Matthew 23:23)? It isn’t obvious to us, from 2,000 years away, that these “weightier matters” were laws about land, debt, interest, foreclosure, and slavery. Modern Americans don’t understand how or why the Torah could have demanded loans without interest or foreclosure, or land sales limited to a seven-year term. The idea of the Jubilee (years when debts were forgiven and land returned to debtors) seems marvelous, yet we’ve doubted it ever could have taken place.

From his experience as a modern economist, a historian of economic theory, and a scholar researching ancient economies from their Near-Eastern beginnings to the end of the Byzantine Empire, Michael Hudson says that clean slate proclamations had been widely practiced by previous civilizations. Far from being radical innovations, they stabilized a society by reversing its built-in tendency to downward mobility.

A Near-Eastern ruler wanted small farmers working and fighting for him, not losing their land and families to powerful creditors. When a new king came to power, or faced war, or simply found an occasion to celebrate, he would proclaim a clean slate, restoring farmland to previous owners and freeing everybody enslaved for debt. Commercial loans, houses within cities, and people captured in warfare were unaffected. It was the small farmers who unavoidably fell into debt for minor fees and operating expenses, and were forced to incur interest charges that staple crops—however essential—could never cover. These people, the bulk of the population, rejoiced at clean slate proclamations. Their creditors did not.

We find this kind of law fairly early in the Bible, before the stories of Saul and David. Then, under the monarchies of Judah and Israel, prophets often denounce the elites for coveting—and taking—their neighbors’ wives and property, but they say nothing about Moses making such things illegal. Under Jeremiah’s influence, we have the only example of a biblical king calling for the release of all Hebrew slaves, and this, as Hudson points out, comes as a military response to a threat from Babylon.

When the Babylonian army turns aside, the Judean elite immediately force their bondsmen and bondswomen back into slavery. That, according to Jeremiah, ensured that Jerusalem would fall to Babylon, that its leaders would soon be taken away into exile. Years later, when the exiles’ descendants returned to rule Jerusalem under the Persian Empire, they were still compiling their Scriptures into their final form, and they had learned from Babylonian tradition that periodic clean slate measures were needed to keep an agrarian state in good order. Hence, Hudson says: “Jewish religion and its biblical narrative reflected an economic conflict that culminated in taking the role of protecting debtors out of the hands of kings and placing it at the center of Mosaic law.”

Jesus has been depicted before as a defender of the Torah’s provisions for the protection of the poor, but Hudson’s background gave me a better sense of why he would approach (and naturally fall afoul of) the Temple priests in Jerusalem. No book can provide a complete explanation for Jesus’s life and teachings, but this one is an improvement over the unsatisfactory “harmless teacher” and “nonviolent insurrectionist” alternatives we’ve typically been offered.

This is not primarily a religious book, but it supplies some long-needed background on how and why Judaism and Christianity have taken the forms they have. It also provides a wealth of detail on the politics of debt relief from its Sumerian origins to its eventual suppression in the civilizations of Greece and Rome. The complexities of the debtor-creditor conflict from one time and nation to another are somewhat overwhelming but very well explained.

Hudson is not an apologist for what John Kenneth Galbraith used to call “the conventional wisdom”; like Galbraith, he is a clear writer focused on the politics and workings of actual contemporary economies. He writes:

Mainstream economists depict money and debt as only a veil, not affecting the distribution of income and wealth except to finance growth. Even in the wake of the 2008 debt crisis and subsequent Greek national bankruptcy, this ideology is silent as to the socially corrosive effects of debt prying away control of the land, natural resources, and the organs of government.

The post … And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure, and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Elisabeth Brewster Potts Brown

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:20pm

BrownElisabeth Brewster Potts Brown, 78, on July 6, 2018, of an unexpected heart attack, in her beloved summer home in Pocono Lake Preserve, Pa., where she had spent her final days in a week-long family reunion. A birthright Friend, Betsy was born on July 19, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pa., the oldest daughter of Jane Elisabeth McCord and Edward Rhoads Potts. She grew up in Southampton (Pa.) Meeting and lived in Bryn Gweled Homesteads in Bucks County, Pa., an intentional community founded by Friends.; attended Abington Friends School; and graduated from George School.

She met Allan Brown through connections at Swarthmore College, and they married in 1962. In 1963–65 they lived in Vietnam, working at the American School in Saigon—Betsy in the school library and Allan as a teacher. After returning to Philadelphia, they belonged to Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia. Once the children reached school-age, she earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in library science from Drexel University. She was a librarian at Medical College of Pennsylvania, American College of Financial Services, and Springside School before serving as the bibliographer for Haverford College Library Quaker Collection for the final 20 years of her career. She was also secretary of Friends Historical Association for many years and a member of Germantown Friends School Committee.

After she and Allan divorced in 1988, she lived in intentional neighborhood Tanguy Homesteads until 2002, when she retired and moved to the final unit in newly formed Jackson Place Cohousing in Seattle, Wash., in time for the birth of her first grandchild. She transferred her membership to University Meeting in Seattle and then to South Seattle Meeting when it became a monthly meeting. Her kind, direct wisdom helped guide the formation of the meeting and leavened weighty issues at her faithful attendance at business meetings. She was recording clerk for several years, a member of the Arrangements Committee, and an integral member of the Older Friends group.

A conservationist and lover of nature with Quaker values in all aspects of her life, she was devoted to her family and community and always looking for a way she could help. Her home life was spare, but she was generous with her possessions, her time, and her love. She enjoyed music, math, and language; was curious about the way things worked; and was a lifelong learner and constant reader with a wry and quirky sense of humor. She loved fast cars and in an alternate life would have been a race car driver; the Mini Cooper she owned near the end of her life was a dream come true and a nod to that other self.

Her final few years were difficult, as she struggled with anxieties stemming from mental illness and confusion from the early stages of dementia. In 2016 she moved to the Horizon House retirement community, where she was involved in the library, choir, worship group, and cat lovers circle. Friends remember her as kind, cheerful, caring, intelligent, and straightforward, with a ready smile and a bit of a silly side that endeared her to all.

Betsy is survived by her children, Jonathan Wistar Brown, Rebecca More, and Sarah Elisabeth Brown.

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Categories: Articles & News

Christopher Henry Hodgkin

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:15pm

HodgkinChristopher Henry Hodgkin, 74, on June 11, 2018, at home in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Wash. Christopher was born on May 22, 1944, in Philadelphia, Pa., to Ruth Walenta and John Pease Hodgkin. He was a cousin of Eli, Sybil, and Rufus Jones on his mother’s side and a grandson of Henry T. Hodgkin, the first director of Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa. He attended Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia, where he was a birthright member. Before he started kindergarten, the family moved from Philadelphia to Bryn Gweled Homesteads, a cooperative community in Bucks County, Pa., that his parents and 12 other couples, many of them Quakers, had founded in 1940. He attended public schools; enjoyed soccer and week-long bike trips; and played piano, trumpet, and French horn. He spent summers sailing and canoeing at the Jones family farm on China Lake in Maine, which later led him to guide youths on months-long wilderness canoe trips in the lakes and rivers threaded through the North Maine woods. He attended St. John’s College.

During the Vietnam War, rather than apply for conscientious objection as a Quaker, he was led to avoid taking advantage of his birthright and practice as a Quaker to exempt him from military service as a conscientious objector, when non-Quaker objectors to killing on moral grounds could not be so exempted. So he turned himself in as a non-registrant and spent two-and-a-half years in Allenwood Federal Penitentiary. After his release he earned a master’s in business administration and worked as business manager at Quaker institutions and schools, including Pendle Hill, Sandy Spring Friends School (where he also taught English literature), Oakwood Friends School, and Staten Island Friends School. In 1978, he transferred his membership to Staten Island (N.Y.) Executive Meeting.

He moved to San Juan Island, Wash., and married Margaret Scott Bryan, called Peggy, in 1980 and two years later transferred his membership to University Meeting in Seattle. After a law degree from University of Washington, he opened a law office in Friday Harbor. He continued his love of the Great Books and classic fiction, leading several online book groups for many years. His Facebook page photo shows him seated in front of his Great Books bookshelf reading a Great Book. He enjoyed time in his vegetable garden; creating in his extensive woodshop beautiful items for use and enjoyment (many of which he designed himself); and playing bagpipes, hammered dulcimer, concertina, pipe and tabor, harmonica, and recorder.

After treatment for acute myeloblastic leukemia in 2017, he returned home in remission, enjoying his last few months with his family before the disease returned and took his life. On August 18, 2018, Southampton (Pa.) Meeting held a memorial meeting for Christopher and three of his Bryn Gweled contemporaries who had died that year.

Christopher’s brother, David Hodgkin, died in 1948. He is survived by his wife, Margaret Bryan Hodgkin; three children, David Hodgkin, Katharine Sears, and Dorothy Sears; five grandchildren; and a sister, Margaret Hodgkin Lippert.

The post Christopher Henry Hodgkin appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Jane Reppert Jenks Small

Friends Journal - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 11:10pm

SmallJane Reppert Jenks Small, 96, on August 26, 2018, at Foxdale Village in State College, Pa. Jane was born on August 3, 1922, in Philipsburg, Pa., the oldest of six daughters of Eleanor Rae Runk and James Harold Reppert. She grew up in Plainfield, N.J.; graduated from North Plainfield High School in 1940; and attended Swarthmore College and Wheelock College of Education in Brookline, Mass., before marrying Barton L. Jenks Jr. in 1943. Joining State College Meeting in 1952 when Bart began work at Pennsylvania State University, five years later she worked with others in the community to establish Schlow Centre Region Library. Once her children were older, she returned to school, obtaining a bachelor’s degree from Penn State in 1965 and later doing graduate study there. She worked for a time in the Swarthmore College Alumni Office, but the career she cherished was as a teacher for 17 years at Matternville and Ferguson Township Elementary Schools in the State College Area School District.

She and other Quaker mothers established the Cooperative Playschool for three- and four-year-old children in the basement of the State College meetinghouse. A spiritual mentor to many younger Friends and others, over time she served on every committee except Finance, and she clerked many of them, including Building and Grounds. Her positive attitude informed her interactions with people and facilitated her transitions in life. She retired from teaching in 1981. She was an early supporter of State College Friends School, serving for many years on its board of trustees; a member of the League of Women Voters for 60 years, serving on its board; and a member of the American Association of University Women for more than 50 years.

She and Bart were part of the small group that started Quaker continuing care retirement community Foxdale Village. They moved into a cottage there in 1989, even before the Community Building was finished. Bart died in 1995.

In 1998, she married Peter B. Small, who died in 2006. In addition to her parents, her five sisters, and her husbands, Jane was preceded in death by her daughter, Effie Jenks, in 2014. She is survived by a son, Barton Harold Jenks (Janet Lewis), and one grandchild.

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Categories: Articles & News

Quaker Theology: Weaponizing “Quaker Process”

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Thu, 02/28/2019 - 10:14am

What accounts for the wave of schisms we at Quaker Theology have been chronicling since 2010 & dubbed “The Separation Generation”? And what could be done about it? In our 20th Anniversary issue of Quaker Theology, we began to raise these questions in a survey of the carnage inflicted by these disruptions.

Doug Bennett, former president of Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana.

Doug Bennett, a former president of Earlham College and a savvy Friend, provides one of the key clues.

While at Earlham he was a member of an Indiana  meeting which went through the purge of 2011-12. Afterward,  he reflected delicately on what had happened in a blog post from  September 7, 2012:

“Schisms require some governance fiddle.

My earliest wondering about schisms was about how they could ever occur given Friends governance practices, our commitment to acting in unity through attending to our business in worship.  If we have to act in unity, how can we divide?

I think the answer must be that somewhere, somehow in each schism there has been some forcing, some deviation from our best governance practices. We have divided by not finding unity – or declaring  ‘unity’ when there was none.”

Our reporting on these recent crackups persuades me that Bennett is basically right, and his insight here is a very important one. Still, I have some quibbles.

My first quibble is that his post falls short of the Friends aspiration to “plain speaking.” That is, “Fiddle” is a woefully insufficient word to describe much of what happened. “Cheating” is plainer, thus more accurate. Chicanery, duplicity and treachery are apt corollaries. 

In some of these recent cases, particularly Indiana and Northwest yes, the fiddlers/cheaters got their way. In North Carolina, Western &  Wilmington YMs, they faced pushback, and the “fiddles” didn’t work out as planned. In our culture today, it’s a pushback world. 

So that’s another quibble with Bennett. Cheating,  if identified and faced, can be stopped, or at least blunted; but besides calling a treacherous spade a corrupt shovel, a meaningful response requires courage. Speaking truth to power, carrying the cross, and all that. Or, in pietist argot, “spiritual combat.”

Western Yearly Meeting was graced with a Clerk who spoke and was “valiant for the truth” about the body, which was that there was nothing close to the demanded “unity” to banish Phil Gulley, notwithstanding the scheming of a vocal pastoral faction. Hence Western got through its ordeal, though in a wounded, reduced state. Wilmington likewise.

On the other hand, Northwest’s powers, operating in a culture of extreme secrecy that could teach the CIA some lessons, struck like nighttime lightning. In North Carolina, the oldest of the five, the conflict was particularly ugly, and the only way the cheaters could succeed was by treachery and ultimately an act of utter, shocking self-destruction.

A final caveat, not really a quibble, is that Bennett’s trenchant observation calls for, but hasn’t received, more attention.

What is to be done about leadership and factional cheating and malpractice? About weaponizing “Quaker process”?

From the jump such malpractice requires the intentional undermining of the discipline more familiarly known as “Quaker process.” Many Quakers, especially convinced Friends escaped from openly authoritarian churches, can become quite sentimental about this. But such sentimentality can easily facilitate victimization. 

How do we identify and call out such maneuvers, not in histories composed long afterward, but as they unfold?

In conventional “Roberts Rules” proceedings, there are at least the beginning of such tools: motions to appeal from the ruling of the chair; motions to delay, etc. To be sure, such rules are also vulnerable; anyone watching the U.S. Congress can see that. But at the least, truth can usually be spoken, and find a place in the record. Friends do not seem to have much of a counterpart.

Another widespread weakness is what I call the Quaker Doormat Syndrome; others have named it the Curse of Quaker Niceness: a carefully-prepared faction makes strident demands; too many others then simply roll over and let themselves be trampled. This is part introversion wanting peace and quiet–Quaker Process seen as a warm fuzzy security blanket; part a conflict avoidance reflex by those who have faced abuse or major trauma; and part plain old fear, even panic. 

We don’t have a settled prescription for dealing with this disorder. But I contend that to start with, Friends need to follow Doug Bennett’s example, speak its name and begin to face up to it. Serious grappling, intellectual, historical, and spiritual, is called for.

So thanks again to Doug Bennett for surfacing this malady. Although it’s been rampant in The Separation Generation, it is nothing new, in Friends or Christian history.
And it’s not always successful. We can push back. And the first push is not to ignore it or accept it passively.

The post Quaker Theology: Weaponizing “Quaker Process” appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Quaker Theology and Today’s “Separation Generation”

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Wed, 02/27/2019 - 1:17am

The journal Quaker Theology was started to promote & participate in informed theological discussion & engagement. The need for such  engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by what turned out to be a major, but unexpected themes of the two decades of publication, the rise of what is called  in the 20th Anniversary issue, The Separation Generation.In this period, five U.S. yearly meetings have split; one of them disappeared entirely, after 320 years.

It’s not easy – in fact, impossible – to pick a starting date for this schismatic wave in American Quakerism. My personal preference is July 1977, when the first major interbranch conference in decades nearly blew apart in Wichita, Kansas, over the surfacing and demand for recognition by gay men.

That was surely a dramatic moment. Others might home in on the “Realignment” struggle of 1990-1991, with its undercurrents of panic over feminist Wicca and (nonexistent) Satanism. The goal of “Realignment” (not yet realized, but which some still hope for) was the ripping apart of the umbrella group, Friends United Meeting (FUM), which once straddled these lines. [Both these incidents are described in my book, Without Apology (1995)].

But others could leapfrog over that, to 1957 when much of Nebraska Yearly Meeting demanded to be “set off” as a separate, evangelical group, which became the evangelical Rocky Mountain Yearly Meeting.  Or to the years 1926 to 1937, which saw secession from FUM’s predecessor, the Five Years Meeting, by the evangelically-oriented Oregon YM (1926).

That same year brought a fundamentalist schism in Western and Indiana YMs, from which came Central YM; and then, in 1937, the departure of Kansas YM, also evangelical, from Five Years Meeting.

Or even return to 1904, when North Carolina YM, an Orthodox group, saw an exodus by its monthly meetings which had rejected the YM’s shift to leadership by paid pastors, with programmed worship and the related new “Holiness” theologies.

The exiles named themselves North Carolina YM (Conservative). We published a sketch of this group on its centennial in QT #11. In Iowa, a similar division in 1877 had produced Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and planted the seeds of an independent Quakerism on the West Coast. 

That’s not to mention the earlier Conservative (or Wilburite) separations, beginning in 1854, or the contemporaneous Progressive Friends insurgency among Hicksites. And behind them all, dim now after nearly two centuries, remains the cataclysm of 1827-1828, when most YMs splintered into Orthodox and Hicksites.

I don’t want to go back that far, though; 1827 and the Wilburite separations have been chronicled extensively, and some of the best Quaker historians have tackled the “Holiness”/pastoral rise. Moreover, there were similar controversies within and among groups that stayed in the Five Years Meeting through most of the twentieth century. Besides, the profusion of initials and labels which sprouted amid the doctrinal and organizational weeds is dizzying; I’ve studied it for years, and am still only moderately confident I know what they all mean.

The giant corpse flower. When it blooms, the stink is like death ad it spreads widely. Have American Friends been living through a “Corpse Flower” blooming?

So here we’ll fast forward again, skip past Wichita and “Realignment,” to land in western Indiana, home of Western (Indiana) Yearly Meeting, in 2003. Then the spotlight was on a Friends pastor named Phil Gulley. His ordeal, marked the beginning of what we call The Separation Generation. Like the blooming of the Titan Arum, one of the largest, most acridly malodorous of blossoms, its vapors spread widely and rapidly.

Phil Gulley, 2016

There was an acrid premonitory whiff of this in 2003’s QT #9, in a review of Gulley’s book, If Grace is True. Phil Gulley was (and remains) a Quaker pastor living near Indianapolis. He had also built a successful side career as an author of homely, Lake-Wobegon-in-Indiana-like “Front Porch Tales.”

But both his “day job” as a pastor and his achievements as an author seemed to be in mortal peril when Grace appeared. In it he made an argument for a universalist Christian theology, and critiquing the orthodox theories of atonement and hellfire he had abandoned. Our review spoke of the resulting outcry by some hardline pastors to “unfrock” Gulley for his book’s “heresy” as if it were all over with. Our naïveté was soon obvious: the struggle continued for six more years; by the time it abated i Western YM, it had also migrated and expanded.

As a result, beginning in QT #18, in the fall of 2010, there began crowding into the pages  of Quaker Theology a procession of yearly meeting schisms and purges. Like a stubborn grassfire they raged from sea (in Atlantic-bordering North Carolina) to shining sea (Oregon-Washington at the Pacific’s edge), with outbreaks in flyover country too. Our overall impression at this point is that these years could mark as deep a rupture as that of the “Great” Separation of 1827, when Orthodox and Hicksite divided.

Theology was, at least rhetorically, central to all:

Who was Jesus? What is the Bible’s status? Do we need to be “saved”? From what? By whom, and how? Is there a Quaker creed (in fact, if not in name)? How (and again by whom) are allegedly holy books to be interpreted, and yearly meetings to be governed? Should LGBT persons be affirmed?

These and related issues recurred; answers are still in dispute, and the membership of many individuals, the legitimacy of monthly meetings, and even the existence of yearly meetings – all were at stake.

The Editors of Quaker Theology have had their opinions here, which have not been hidden; but we don’t pretend to have resolved these matters.

Instead, we worked as hard as we could just to keep up (barely) with the struggles, in a largely journalistic fashion. At first this was an opportunity; soon, it became a duty. That’s because coverage of these struggles by other Quaker publications has been so sparse as to be nearly nonexistent. 

Someday (we hope), serious Friends and scholars will review, extend and correct our reporting; in the meantime, Quaker Theology has by default become the “paper of record” for this decade-plus of upheaval.

As the 20th Anniversary issue took shape, it was our impression that the Separation Generation may be largely played out.

But then again, maybe not; perhaps it is only shifting shapes and venues: we note that some liberal yearly meetings have of late been tying themselves up in knots over identity issues, especially race. These too have theological dimensions, even though many liberals foolishly think they are “beyond” or “above” such stuff. Will these struggles be peaceably resolved, or will they lead to new divisions?

We hope not: a respite from the corpse flower stench of schism would be very welcome.

Yet just as we were finishing up this post, came the disconcerting news of the Methodist Church’s rejection of same sex marriage and LGBT affirmation, which could portend schism in that much larger denomination. We won’t make predictions about that, except to venture that it seems a sign this struggle is far from over, outside Friends as well as within our own ranks.

Further, it recalls the warning of Koheleth in the Book of Ecclesiastes (8:17), that humans will “never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. The wise may claim to know, but they don’t.”

And neither, for that latter, do we.

If you find this post of interest, please pass it on.

The post Quaker Theology and Today’s “Separation Generation” appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Quaker Theology at 20: People, Witness, and Ideas

A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager) - Mon, 02/25/2019 - 10:24am

Much of what we’ve published in the journal Quaker Theology has been about people, mostly Quakers, past and present. This may be unusual in theological journals, but Quakerism is very much a lived religion, embodied in people, their witness, and their thought.

[The first 32 issues of Quaker Theology are all online here [www.quakertheology.org], available to all in searchable form. The 20th Anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y26gmlbj ), and will be on the web soon. ]

Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor. Many of these shocks came from reading and reviewing books. (It does help if a theologian is something of a book nerd.) 

For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since at least 2001came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance.

His book, Christianity and War, and Other Essays Against the Warfare State, was miles ahead of most other antiwar screeds I have read (or written); it was reviewed and excerpted in QT #20. 

I was handed the book by a young soldier who was considering becoming a Conscientious Objector.  At that point I’d been searching for a liberal/left or conventionally evangelical challenger to what I call “American War Christianity,” a cult which is deeply (and dangerously) rooted in the U.S. military. But I had found nothing of any consequence.

But  Christianity and War wielded its theological bat like Babe Ruth on a tear, knocking pro-war piety right out of the park. A representative affirmation: 

“The love affair that many conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have with the military is an illicit affair. It is contrary to the tenor of the New Testament. It is an affront to the Savior. It is a cancer on Christianity.”(254) 

Further, as a biblical literalist, Vance believes that indeed, “God commanded the nation of Israel in the Old Testament to fight against heathen nations (Judges 6:16). . .” 

But . . .

(Then he goes right for the jugular): 

but [the U. S. president] is not God, and America is not the nation of Israel . . . .God sponsored these [ancient Hebrew] wars, and used his chosen nation (Deuteronomy 7:11-12) to conduct them, [but] it does not follow that God sponsors American wars, or that America is God’s chosen nation. It does not follow unless, of course, one is a Christian apologist for the U.S. government and its wars.” (p. 126, 129) [Emphasis added.]

And that is precisely what American War Christianity comes down to: the shockingly idolatrous identification of U.S. interests as being dictated by God, and treating its leaders (especially conservative presidents), as the equivalent of God. But it was Vance, the avowed fundamentalist, who published the most trenchant religious naming & critique of it I have seen.

Equally shocking, in a very different way, was another tome, Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric Mcbay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen; DGR for short.  The title seemed appealing, and there were several favorable references to Quakers in the hefty text. 

Yet its “strategy to save the planet” came down to a dead-serious plan to do that by eliminating the large majority of humans. Yes, they called for, and laid out a detailed plan to, carry out genocide on a mega-industrial scale, using conspiratorial tactics directly copied from terrorist groups of various stripes.

We surveyed this scheme in QT #21, from 2012, and note here that the group and its agenda is still out there, presumably working in secret toward making its neo-September 11 big debut.

Am I exaggerating in this description of DGR here? Well, consider this Q&A snippet from their website:

[Q].If we dismantle civilization, won’t that kill millions of people in cities? What about them?

[A] Derrick Jensen: No matter what you do, your hands will be blood red. If you participate in the global economy, your hands are blood red because the global economy is murdering humans and non-humans the planet over. A half million children die every year as a direct result of so-called “debt repayment” from non-industrialized nations to industrialized nations. Sixty thousand people die every day from pollution. And what about all the people who are being forced off their land? There are a lot of people dying already. Failing to act in the face of atrocity is no answer. . . .

I take that as a “Yes.”

A more familiar demon appeared in QT #5: the Ku Klux Klan. The vehicle was, of all genres, a 1999 young adult novel: Mim and the Klan, by Cynthia Stanley Russell. The story is straightforward: Mim Hanley is an Indiana teenager, whose passage through a seemingly ideal small town adolescence is disrupted by the discovery that her beloved, doting grandfather was a Ku Klux Klansman during the Klan’s 1920s revival.

This is not the shocking part; nor is the disclosure that grandfather Hanley is a devoted lifelong Quaker; and not even the fact that there were other Indiana Quaker Klansmen (and women) in those days.

No, what’s shocking about all this is that Mim & the Klan, seventy years after the fact, was the first published Quaker-oriented reference I found to this Kan-Quaker alliance. After all, it’s not a rumor: secular researchers have known about it for years. But there has been a kind of omerta oath of silence about it among Quaker historians. [A few years later, this KKK-Quaker connection was mentioned briefly in the landmark book, Fit For Freedom, Not For Friendship, which we reviewed in QT #16.] And in 2019, the shock persists, as the KKK’s apparently easy infiltration into much of Midwestern Quakerism still awaits detailed examination (and stock-taking) by Quaker scholars and theologians.

Yes, theologians. For after all, if the Klan was anything, it was a theology-driven movement. (Reminder: they burned crosses, not dollar signs or flags; these pyres were not to destroy, but to project the cross, as a sign of searing theocratic –aka theologically-justified — power.) The Klan handbooks were full of their theology; and each klavern had one or more chaplains, called a Kludd. 

And not least, while the Klan as an organization has largely withered, its theology and basic agenda have not only persisted, but have now leaped into the highest circles of public power. Our contention is that meaningful resistance to this resurgence will require theological, as well as other forms of engagement by many. And that work includes Quakers.

The need for such engagement was made clear, at least to this editor, by the other major theme of the two decades of Quaker Theology’s publication, what is called there The Separation Generation. We’ll take a look at that in the next post.

If you find this post of interest, please pass it on.




The post Quaker Theology at 20: People, Witness, and Ideas appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Showing Kindness by Anne M. Scherer

What Canst Thou Say - Thu, 02/14/2019 - 9:07pm

Showing kindness

every single day

each action you take

it’s all about mindfulness.

Think about the words you say

showing kindness everyday

someone old or young, in a wheelchair,

needs a warm smile, not a stare.

Small, tall or color of skin

all that truly matters is what’s within

we all have minds and a heart

showing kindness is being smart.

Straight, Bi, Transgender, Lesbian or Gay

people tend to judge; so show kindness

think of people as a rainbow

you will see equality and know.

Everyone has emotions, feelings deep inside

happy, sad or feeling mad and sometimes want to shout

when you see someone sad, ask “Would you like a hug?”

showing kindness helps others let their feelings out.

How many ways can you show kindness?

Did you help your mom or dad, a friend in need

or a neighbor? Did you brush your cat, walk the dog,

fill their bowls with food to feed.

There are so many ways to be kind

it brings love and joy

showing kindness

is all about mindfulness.


Categories: Blogs

Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone?

Micah Bales - Mon, 02/11/2019 - 4:00am

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 2/10/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 6:1-13; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; & Luke 5:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

If Isaiah were with us today, we might think he was a little nuts. This is a man who at one point walked barefoot and naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years as a sign against Egypt and Ethiopia. He used his own children as prophetic signs, naming his three sons: “A remnant shall return,” “God is with us,” and “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily.” Can you imagine the teasing in middle school?

For all his apparently crazy behavior, Isaiah was not a fringe character. He was a major figure – a sort of celebrity –  in the kingdom of Judah for decades. He outlived several kings, and had criticisms for all of them. He had audacity, social standing, and a total lack of a self-preservation instinct that allowed him to pick public fights with the top leadership of Judah.

He had one other thing. The most critical thing. This was the alpha and omega of his ministry: Isaiah had an experience of God. A living relationship with the creator of the cosmos.

That sounds lovely, right? What a beautiful thing – a personal relationship with God. That’s what we all want, right? That’s what every Christian church in town is offering, isn’t it? A personal relationship with God.

Well, it’s not so warm and fuzzy for Isaiah. Isaiah doesn’t have his heart strangely warmed. He doesn’t feel an ineffable sense of oneness with the cosmos or the warm embrace of comforting love.

The beginning of Isaiah’s ministry is a moment of terror. It’s an encounter with the unknown and unknowable God – the Holy One of Israel. This is a God that is so different from us that no one can see him and live. A God who is so terrifyingly awesome that his presence can’t be contained in any building, any nation, any ideology. This is the God that Isaiah meets in 742 BC – the year that king Uzziah died.

In our reading from Isaiah 6 this morning, he writes:

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:  ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;  the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

We don’t even know what these creatures really looked like. I think a lot of people imagine that the seraphim look like conventional statuary angels – you know, buff, beautiful men with big white wings, who look like they spend all their time in heaven lifting weights. But most of the imagery we have in the Bible about heavenly beings is far more alien, far more frightening. 

The commentaries I’ve read suggest that it’s likely that these seraphim were snake-like, maybe an amalgam of several different kinds of animal. The word “seraph” means “one who burns.” Maybe the angels were on fire. Whatever they were, these heavenly creatures were just as fearsome, just as utterly different from human beings as the God who created them. 

In Isaiah’s vision, the boundary between heaven and earth had been utterly shattered, and all the scary things that human beings should never see were pouring into his reality. It says that the whole building shook with the power of the heavenly creatures’ voices. The hem of God’s robe filled the temple, and the house was filled with smoke. It’s like a rock concert from hell – oh wait, heaven!

Heaven and hell are both within the human heart. They can coexist in one moment. In this startling, mind-blowing vision, Isaiah comes face to face with that which is totally other and transcendent. The utterly unknowable. The Holy One of Israel.

How would you respond to this? What would your reaction be? What are we to do in the face of the unspeakable holiness, power, and majesty of God?

Well we know what Isaiah did. He nearly fell into despair. Here he was, standing in the light of God, and all he could see was darkness. The smoke of God’s glory covered him. It was choking him.

Standing in the presence of God, Isaiah became aware of his own distance from God. His wickedness. His rebellion against the love and power of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah had an encounter with the glory of God, and all he could see was the way that he and his fellow countrymen fell short of that glory. What a horrifying thing to see. Especially because of who Isaiah was, an upstanding member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite. Even at twenty years old, Isaiah was already in many ways a holy man. A holy man among the holy people of the holy city of David.

But when he came into the presence of God, all that human pretense fell away. Awareness of his own sin, and the sin of his holy people, overwhelmed him.

But before Isaiah could become totally lost in the despair of his own darkness, one of the seraphim took a live coal from the altar. Holding it with a pair of tongs, it flew over to Isaiah and touched the burning coal to his lips.


And the seraph said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Isaiah was free. Free from sin. Free from the desolate darkness that he had experienced upon entering into the presence of God. He was clean. Holy. Welcomed into the presence of a mystery and power so awesome that he could barely stand to be in the presence of the hem of his garment.

This freedom is an unconditional gift. Isaiah cries out in his distress, and God sends the seraph to cleanse and heal him. To liberate him from his sin. To make him the kind of person who can stand in the presence of the heavenly beings and speak the words of God to his people.

And then Isaiah hears the voice of God call out, from beyond the temple, somewhere up in the heavenly realm, speaking to the great council of heavenly beings: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”

And immediately, Isaiah cries out again from the floor of the temple: “Here I am! Send me!”

Such boldness. Such reckless readiness to be the emissary of the Most High. This was unthinkable just moments before. But now the seraph has touched the burning coal to Isaiah’s lips. His guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. He is ready to be a servant of God. A prophet. A man who speaks the words of God to his people.

What are those words? What is the message?

Turns out, it’s not good.

Go and say to this people:  
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; 
keep looking, but do not understand.’  
Make the mind of this people dull, 
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,  
so that they may not look with their eyes, 
and listen with their ears,  
and comprehend with their minds, 
and turn and be healed.

Isaiah thought he was out of the woods, but now he’s back in the darkness. He’s passed through God’s purifying fire. But the recipients of his prophetic message have not experienced that transformation. Isaiah has changed, but his people haven’t.

“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah cries out. How long until all the people of Jerusalem will see with the same eyes and hear with listening ears? How long until God sends a hot coal for every set of lips?

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant,  
and houses without people, 
and the land is utterly desolate;  
until the Lord sends everyone far away, 
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.  
Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again,  
like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”

Whoa. This sounds really, really bad. There’s a purification coming, and it’s going to make that hot coal from the seraph taste like nice cup of cocoa. God says the land of Judah is going to be smashed – laid waste, until not even a tenth of the people are left. 

And Isaiah says, “The holy seed is its stump.” There will be a remnant. Out of all this horror and destruction, there will be a purified community that will emerge, ready to speak the truth and live God’s mercy and justice. But this transformation will only come about through a horrifying process of national purgation.

That’s so intense. Right? I mean, what do you even say to that? Your people will be saved, but only after they’re mostly annihilated. You will see the glory of the Lord, but Jerusalem will be burned to the ground first. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple – but not one stone will be left on stone.

Which brings us to Jesus. Jesus was engaged in ministry during a time that was, in some ways, quite similar to that of Isaiah. Both Isaiah’s and Jesus’ ministry began in a period of relative peace and prosperity. A time when the people of Israel imagined that things were just going to keep getting better. More freedom, greater wealth, and independence were on the way!

But what the people didn’t know, didn’t want to know or understand, was that God was not pleased with the status quo. God didn’t approve of the selfish, faithless rulers of Isaiah’s time, or the self-serving hypocrites who reigned in the Jerusalem of Jesus. A time of purification was coming. The temple would be overthrown. Foreign powers would conquer Jerusalem. All of this had happened before, and would happen again.

This is the context for Jesus’ first encounter with Peter, James, and John, on the Sea of Galilee. The old order is falling away. They don’t know it yet, but God has pronounced judgment over the corrupt rulers and authorities in Jerusalem. Terrible purification is coming, but a remnant will be saved.

Now it says that Jesus is teaching by the sea, and the crowds are so intense that he asks a fisherman named Simon to let him jump in his boat and preach from there. Simon agrees, and so there Jesus is, preaching from this fishing boat, sitting out in the water. I mean, I can relate to this. Sometimes I have to go to great lengths to avoid being mobbed by crowds when I’m preaching.

Anyway. When Jesus is done with his teaching, he says, “Hey, Simon – why don’t you put out into the deep water and let your nets down to catch some fish?”

Simon and his crew had just got done pulling an all-nighter. In fact, when Jesus got into their boat, they had been cleaning off their nets and preparing to put them away. They spent the whole night looking for fish, but didn’t catch anything. And here was Jesus, saying, “hey, guys, why don’t you try to catch some fish?”

Now, if I were Simon in this situation, I can imagine feeling a little upset. I’ve already done this Jesus guy a favor by letting him preach from my boat. I’m tired. I’ve been up all night. I still haven’t finished cleaning my nets, and all I want to do is go home and get some sleep. 

But even though Simon might be justified at getting upset with Jesus, he doesn’t. He says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

You’ll never guess what happens next! Oh, well, I guess you will, since we just read the scripture earlier. They pull in so much fish that the nets are starting to break. They catch so much fish, that they have to call over to the other boat in their little flotilla, to get their help in pulling in their catch. They land so much fish, that the two boats are completely full, to the point that there is some concern that both boats might go under due to the weight!

This is when Simon has his Isaiah moment. Simon is standing in the temple, and the hem of the Lord’s robe is filling the space. The room is full of smoke. The seraphim are flying and crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” The whole earth is proclaiming the glory of God. The sea and its fish declare the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

And Simon has the same response that Isaiah did. It says that he fell down at Jesus’ feet and cried out: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

In the presence of Jesus, Simon saw his darkness more clearly than ever. In the presence of glory, Simon could not escape his unworthiness. In the presence of divine mystery and power, Simon fell to his knees in awe and fear.

But Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will be fishing for people.”

And it says that they brought their boats to shore. They left everything. They followed him.

Jesus came with good news. Before this passage we read this morning, Jesus was healing the sick, casting out demons, teaching the people, and transforming lives. After this encounter with Simon and his friends, Jesus keeps healing and teaching and proclaiming the reign of God.

Jesus came with good news, but it’s not good news for everyone. It’s not good news for those who are rich. For those who are in the center of power. For those who think they are in control. It’s not good news for the people of Jerusalem who will rise up in rebellion against Rome, and who will be crushed when the Roman legions arrive. The good news of God’s empire is a terror to those who lean on the world’s vision of success – governments, and armies, and central banks, and power politics.

But for those who are being saved, the gospel is the power of God. It is the hot coal touching the lips. The gospel cleanses from sin and transforms blindness into true sight. It’s a grace that upends lives and gathers community around the love and power of God.

In their encounters with God, both Isaiah and Simon first had to face the darkness. In the light of God’s presence, they saw their own darkness – all the ways in which they had turned away from the source of life to worship their own wills, their own judgments. 

Yet both Simon and Isaiah also discovered that sin is not just an individual problem. In the words of Isaiah, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Righteousness and sinfulness are not merely questions of personal morality. We live in a social reality that shapes our sense of right and wrong, that governs our imagination and sense of the possible. To a great degree, we are sick because we are part of a sickened humanity. We are blind as part of a society that has forgotten how to see. We hate what we’ve been taught to hate, and fear what we’ve been taught to fear.

Isaiah and Simon knew that sin is not an individual problem. And yet they chose to take personal responsibility for it. They accepted an invitation to become vessels of God’s word in the world – to become prophets of the living God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sin is not an individual problem, but the prophets choose to take personal responsibility. The prophets act as a bridge between the irrevocable holiness and set-apartness of God, and the lost state of the human family. The prophets take responsibility, not only for their own sin, but for the sin of their brothers and sisters. The prophets surrender themselves to God, and God gives them the strength to live as part of a truly counter-cultural community. A community that lives in the reign of God, now, even in the midst of a society that is actively in rebellion against God.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be such a community – a prophetic community. We are called to stand in the presence of the seraphim, to have our lips cleansed with the burning coal. We are called to hear from God the hard truths about our society, and to speak this message to a world that does not want to hear it.

Like the first disciples of Jesus, we are called to gather together into community that embodies the way of God in a world that rejects him. This may mean that we look a little weird. If we’re like Isaiah and are called to walk naked and barefoot for three years as a sign, we might look really weird!

But whatever the call, wherever this road ultimately takes us, we are invited into the prophetic ministry of Isaiah and Simon, of John and Jesus. We are invited into a path in which God makes us fearless. Fearing God, we can have no fear of any human being. No ruler or authority can intimidate those who have stood in the presence of the Almighty and received absolution from the seraphim. Standing in the presence of Jesus, we are called to be indomitable in the face of men.

Let’s stand in that presence, together. Let’s fall to our knees before Jesus. Let’s kiss the coal as it touches our lips. And dedicate our lives to speaking the truth boldly, loving our neighbors fully, and offering up our lives for the formation of the remnant community that God is gathering together even now.

Related Posts: Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near

The post Is the Gospel Good News for Everyone? appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure

Micah Bales - Tue, 01/29/2019 - 2:00am

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/27/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, & Luke 4:14-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

Wow, Jesus. They really wanted to kill you. I mean, really – these were the people who knew you as a little kid. These should be the folks inclined to think the best of you. They should like, you Jesus! Yet by the end of your first sermon in their synagogue, they’re ready to run you off a cliff.

How did it get to this point? How does a community go from loving and admiring this young man, to wanting to tear him apart with their bare hands? How does a congregation go from being impressed with Jesus’ sermon to being so enraged they can’t contain themselves? What did you do, Jesus?

When Jesus showed back up in his hometown, Nazareth, he already had quite a reputation. He’d been gone a long time. He’d been out exploring. Learning. Growing. Getting baptized in the river Jordan. Living out in the wilderness with the wild animals. Doing battle with the Devil and being attended to by the angels. Jesus had seen some things.

And now the world was seeing some things from Jesus. It says that Jesus returned to his homeland of Nazareth, after his sojourn with John the Baptist and his experience in the desert. It says he was “filled with the power of the Spirit.” Word had spread about Jesus. This man was on fire. You just had to hear him.

And so they did. Throughout Galilee, Jesus visited his people in their synagogues. He taught them, fed them, healed them. He brought them the good news of God’s empire – the reign of peace, justice, and love that would overcome the empires of this world. And people were just lapping it up. The scripture says that he was “praised by everyone.”

Praised by everyone. That’s always nice, isn’t it? I like it when I’m praised by everyone.

So Jesus has been in Galilee a while. News has spread, and some folks in his hometown are probably even getting a bit frustrated. “Hey, Jesus. You grew up here, man. When are you going to come visit? You’ve been everywhere else. We heard what you did in Capernaum – a city full of gentiles. When are you gonna come and give some love to your own people, the folks who raised you?”

Jesus does eventually make it to Nazareth. Apparently not his first stop, but he gets around to it eventually. And it makes me wonder: Was there some hesitation on Jesus’ part? Did he stay away from Nazareth for a reason? What was holding him back?

We’re about to find out, aren’t we?

When Jesus gets to Nazareth, it says he does the same thing he always does when he’s in a new town. He sees the sights. He checks out the local cuisine. Maybe goes to a party or two. And he most definitely makes it to synagogue on the Sabbath.

So there he is. It’s Saturday morning. Jesus walks into the synagogue, and everyone is waiting to hear him preach. There’s no TV, no radio, and it’s like a young Michael Jackson just showed up in Nazareth. Except, you know, imagine that Michael is your nephew.

They give Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he reads from it:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And with that, Jesus rolls up the scroll, passes it back to the attendant, and sits down.

Now, I’d assume that Jesus was done at that point. Because for me, culturally, sitting down in a big gathering like that means that you’re ceding the floor. You’re fading back into the woodwork. Someone else is going to talk now. But that’s not how things worked in the synagogue in Jesus’ day. When you were reading, you stood up. But when you were preaching, you sat down.

And so Jesus began to preach. He says:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Boom. Jesus reads from Isaiah, from a passage announcing the coming of God’s anointed. He reads about a leader who will bring good news to the poor. Release for the captives. Sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. He tells the people gathered in the synagogue that day, “You’ve been waiting for a liberator. You’ve been waiting for a savior. Don’t wait anymore. He’s sitting right in front of you.”

Just let that sink in for a moment. How radical that must have been. How politically charged that statement must have felt. How much emotion those words must have inspired. What a huge claim Jesus was making. Here was the neighborhood kid, back from his study abroad program, and he was claiming to be the King of Israel, the anointed one of God.

I guess I’d only expect two kinds of reactions to this message. Either ecstatic joy, or total rejection. I mean, what else is there? You either believe he’s God’s anointed, or you don’t. You either are ready to follow him and face the slings and arrows of the Roman occupation – or you’re not. It’s gut check time.

And it says that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

“Is not this Joseph’s son?”

So they liked him – they really liked him! Jesus was a very impressive man, and he won the people of Nazareth right over. Here was their Messiah! He’s our guy! He’s the son of Joseph. This Jesus is our very own, home-grown Messiah. Hallelujah!

Can you imagine the civic pride? I mean, I don’t know how things are here in California, but back in Kansas where I grew up, small towns will put information about notable locals on their welcome signs. Like, “Welcome to Abilene, Kansas – home of Dwight D. Eisenhower!”

Oh yes, the elders of Nazareth could see it now. “Nazareth, home of God’s anointed!” Our boy Jesus is going to be large and in charge. Life is gonna be pretty good!

But that’s not the kind of messiah God had anointed Jesus to be. Jesus knew where his identity came from. He knew who his daddy was. It wasn’t Joseph, and it most certainly wasn’t the Greater Nazareth Chamber of Commerce. Jesus didn’t come to make the comfortable feel even better about themselves. He didn’t come to privilege his clan over the others. He didn’t even come to bless the Jews rather than the gentiles.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus; a spirit that dwells with the humble, the lost, the marginalized, the weak. It’s a spirit that finds its home among those who have been broken. This spirit doesn’t care about your genealogy or your resume.

This is where Jesus’ sermon takes a sharp turn. It’s like a Jesus is rolling down the highway, doing ninety in his dodge minivan, and all of a sudden he just rips hard to the left. He crosses the median and all four lanes of traffic – right out into the desert.

[Jesus] said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”

The people of Nazareth still hadn’t understood who Jesus was. They still thought he was Joseph’s son. They thought they could own Jesus, appropriate him as a member of their clan. And Jesus knew that they would demand signs of him.

Jesus has come to Nazareth with a big message of redemption. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and Jesus is inaugurating it. Jesus is the doctor, and he’s been healing all sorts of people throughout Galilee. He’s healed Jews aplenty, and there’s word that he’s even healed people in Capernaum, a gentile enclave.

So for Jesus – the doctor – to cure “himself”, that meant to heal his own people in Nazareth. If he was able to do signs and wonders among the gentiles, surely he could do the same or better among his Jewish relatives.

The Nazarenes would “believe in him”, alright. They would acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah – but only so long as he was the right kind of messiah. A messiah who performed miracles for them. A messiah who bolstered their own sense of exceptionalism. A messiah who told them that they were the center of the universe. That God was for them and not for others.

But that’s not the kind of messiah Jesus is. Jesus is a servant of the unknown God. The God of the tent, who can’t be tied down by human demands. Jesus is the Messiah of the wilderness, who rejects the call for signs and wonders. He is the prophetic voice who brings liberation for those who are the margins, and who restores the sight of those who know they are blind. For those who place themselves at the center, for those who believe that they already see just fine, he has nothing to offer.

And so Jesus tells them this. He reminds them of the actions of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Both of them performed great miracles for people who were beyond the bounds of Israel. The pagan widow at Zarapeth, the gentile warlord Naaman. People who were indifferent to the Jews at best, enemies of Israel at worst. Jesus tells his people that being blood relatives of the Messiah won’t earn them God’s favor. The healing power of God will pass them over as good news is preached to the poor, the marginalized, the outsider.

Basically, Jesus says to his aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, “I have nothing for you. You never knew me. And you definitely don’t know what God is up to. Repent. The empire of God has come near.” In the words of John the Baptist from the previous chapter of Luke:

Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Don’t wait for signs and wonders. Bear fruit. Don’t place yourselves at the center and expect blessings to come. Bear fruit. The ax is lying at the foot of the tree, and the woodsman is coming. Bear fruit.

We can see now that Jesus is walking in the path that John made straight. That path is the way of the prophets.

Jesus’ relatives in the Nazareth synagogue see it, too. And they’re not happy. They’re enraged, as a matter of fact. They’re so furious that it says everyone stood up and chased Jesus out of the synagogue.

They wanted to kill him. They would have killed him. They would have thrown him off a cliff. But it wasn’t Jesus time yet, and so it says that, “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” On to greener pastures. On to minister to those who were ready to hear his words, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.

In our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear about how the church is the Body of Christ. All of us – gathered together in this room, much like Jesus’ synagogue two thousand years ago – we are the body of Christ. Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with Christ’s body. As Paul says, “In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

The body of Christ isn’t about our biological parentage. It isn’t about how important we are in the world around us. In fact, all those factors might get in the way of discovering who we really are in the Holy Spirit. Whose children we truly are.

We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. God has given us roles to perform and gifts to share. Apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power, healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. God gives gifts and calls us to ministry as members of the body. These treasures are given through the individual for the community. And, because we are the body of Jesus the crucified one, our community is given up to death for the salvation of the whole world.

What would Jesus find if he came to preach in our churches today? Would he encounter a people prepared? A people of inner strength and humility? A people given up to death and aware of our amazing responsibility as his body?

How would we react if Jesus came to us with the same message he had for his own home synagogue? What if Jesus told us, “Don’t ask for signs from me. Don’t ask for miracles. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Serve the poor and needy. Live among the marginalized and oppressed. Make common cause with the despised and imprisoned. Don’t expect signs and wonders from me. You must become the signs and wonders.”

Are we ready to become the signs and wonders? Are we prepared to grapple with the reality of what it means to be the body of Christ in this world? Are we ready to bear fruit worthy of repentance, and to face the cross like Jesus has? Are we ready to move beyond ourselves, to become the body and blood of Christ, broken and poured out for our neighbors and for the whole creation?

Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” But we have become one with the Doctor. We have been baptized into his life and spirit. We are his body, and individually members of it. It is we who are called to heal. To liberate. To give sight to the blind and proclaim good news to the poor. It is we who are to become vessels of the miraculous.

Related Posts: Lift Up Your Heads – Our Redemption is Drawing Near
In These Days of Despair, There Is A Way of Hope

The post Think You Know Jesus? Don’t Be So Sure appeared first on Micah Bales.

Categories: Blogs

Sad News from FUM

Friends United Meeting - Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:44am

The global community of Friends United Meeting grieves the loss of DaleGraves, who died on December 10, 2018, eleven months after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Until January, 2018, Dale served as Interim Director of Belize Friends Ministries, an FUM field staff position. In this capacity, he gave tirelessly to fulfill God’s call on Friends to witness to the love of Jesus Christ among the Southside community of Belize City. He was instrumental in helping FUM reach clarity on that call, and led the work of finding, buying, and rehabilitating a new facility in which to house a burgeoning ministry.

Dale and his wife, Sylvia Graves, are beloved by Friends from around the world, who experienced their humble and generous gifts of service over many years. Eden Grace, FUM’s Global Ministries Director, shared these thoughts:

“Each morning in Belize, Dale would rise before the sun and set out on a jog along the seashore. This morning routine was not only a time for physical exercise, it was a time for spiritual sight, in which he attuned himself to the beauty and wonder of his surroundings. Many mornings, he would return from his run to post a breathtakingly-beautiful sunrise photograph on Facebook as testimony to the glory of God and the gift of a new day. Dale’s collection of sunrise photographs have served as many things for me – background images for powerpoint presentations, memes, and screen savers – but also as visual reminders of the wonder and joy of each moment in each day, in all things vast and minute. Dale’s unique combination of good cheer, hard work, and spiritual perception have left an indelible mark on countless people, and he will be dearly missed.”

A service of thanksgiving for the life of Dale Graves will be held on January 5, 2019. Details will be shared as they become available.

Categories: Articles & News

New Director of Belize City Friends Center Called

Friends United Meeting - Mon, 12/03/2018 - 12:51am

Friends United Meeting has called Nikki Holland to fill the position of Director of Belize Friends Ministries! This full-time, long-term field staff position will have primary management responsibility for coordinating all of FUM’s work in Belize, including supervising the staff, managing the facilities, developing donor relationships and coordinating with the FUM headquarters in Richmond, Indiana, USA.

Three years ago, Friends United Meeting committed itself to pursue a significant expansion of its ministries in Belize. Building on more than twenty years of success in operating a small non-traditional school for at-risk inner-city youth in Belize City, FUM is now working to:

  1. Gather a worshipping body of Friends in Belize through incarnational and relational evangelism in the Southside neighborhood of Belize City
  2. Grow the Belize Friends School to serve more young people, to offer primary-level education to adults, and to provide pastoral counseling to students and families
  3. Facilitate the Southside community’s transformation from a place of hopelessness and violence to a place of hope and peace through multiple ministry initiatives, beginning with the re-launch of the Alternatives to Violence Project in Belize
  4. Identify and develop suitable facilities to house the expanded Friends work in Belize

As the Director of the Belize City Friends Center, Nikki will lead the staff team: the school Principal, teachers, administrative assistant, Pastoral Minister, and other staff and volunteers. She will participate actively in the ministries of FUM in Belize, serve as a member of the Belize Friends School Board, write grants and develop donors, manage the physical plant, and host Living Letters visitors and volunteers. Nikki will also work with the FUM Communications and Global Ministries staff teams to share compelling stories of what God is doing in Belize, cultivate relationships with government and non-governmental entities in Belize, and build networks among the various stakeholders in the Southside neighborhood, and, as way opens, build relationships among the wider Friends community in the Caribbean region.

Nikki is a member of The New Association of Friends and has spent the last four years living in Mexico. During this time, in addition to raising a family and working, she has been part of starting a Quaker worship group; has been studying for an M.Div at Earlham School of Religion; and has been investigating potential solutions for problems with domestic violence that exist in her city.

Nikki writes, “Each of these activities has taught me about what kind of ministry I have been created to do. I am called to a ministry of spiritual hospitality. I am called to make space for people to rest and grow in the love of God. I believe that my calling is consistent with the role of Director of Belize City Friends Ministries.”

As a member of the FUM field staff, Nikki will work with the Global Ministries staff to raise prayer and financial support sufficient to sustain the ministry. Communications staff are already at work preparing her magnets, pledge cards, and more.

General Secretary Kelly Kellum says that Nikki brings a lot of energy and capacity to the work in Belize, and that “her teachable spirit will serve her well in a new cross-cultural environment and her experience in working internationally will greatly benefit the Friends Center. Most importantly, Nikki is enthusiastic about Jesus and about being a Friend.” In addition, Kelly says, “I’m certain that she will fit well within the FUM community and become the leader she is being called to be,” and he encourages the beloved community of Friends to support her with prayer and financial pledges.

About her sense of call, Nikki writes: “The work that I see happening in the Belize City Friends Center (BCFC) is about transforming difficult situations. It’s about offering second and third and fourth chances. It’s about believing in youth to live into their potential. BCFC makes space for young people to rest from turbulent pasts so that they can grow in a loving and encouraging environment. An inspiring team of people are doing this work in the same spirit that I see in the gospel work of bringing the Kingdom of God to this world.”

“Peace overcomes violence. Hope grows in frustrated circumstances. Love never fails—

“It is beautiful work and I feel honored and excited to have the opportunity to participate in it.”

Nikki, her husband, Brian, and their three boys, are hoping to make the move to Belize by July 1.

Belize Friends Ministries Mission Statement: Building on the existing Belize Friends School ministry, Friends United Meeting will engage in a holistic Christian Quaker ministry that is deeply grounded in the discernment of God’s direction in Belize. We seek to witness to the transforming power of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit through our witness, including worship, discipleship, education, leadership development, alternatives to violence, community building and economic empowerment.

Categories: Articles & News


Quaker Mystics - Mon, 08/06/2018 - 11:16pm

Dearest God
my motives are never pure

I want so badly
to serve

Yet I’m so limited

I see my efforts

indifferent surroundings

Direct me
Teach me

Comfort me
as I look at myself

So I can
keep going


old fool

Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Tue, 07/24/2018 - 10:32pm

Help us

Forgive us

Use us

Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Tue, 07/17/2018 - 12:33pm

Wind blown

Falls on far side
of the fence

and flourishes

Turning each day
in delight
to face

glowing globe
source of all warmth

Seeing differently
from separate vantage point

Some would say

But seeing
is more than believing

personal truth

if spoken
may entice others

For there’s no need for

All are born innocent
Free to choose

Wallow in this world

Or die to self
and dance on cloud tops

Categories: Blogs


Quaker Mystics - Wed, 07/04/2018 - 7:06am

Oh God who watches every wave
and is with each blade of grass
let me know you’re here

The world holds me blind and deaf

Let me hear the whisper of your breath
in the sighing of the wind

Feel the brush of your robe
as you come to me

I lay my heart in your hands
and long to throw my body
in your arms

Gleaming rose
glowing sunset
pale before your glory

Focused on your work
twirling in ecstasy

Categories: Blogs
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