Friday, July 25, 2008

Northwest Yearly Meeting

On the 15th, I flew from Greensboro, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon and spent a number of days with my cousin, Ben, who lives in the city. It was a blessing to be able to stay with him, relaxing for a few days without any responsibility beyond waking up at a certain point in the day, reading, and working on my backlog of email. Within a few days, Tyler Hampton, an attender at Detroit Monthly Meeting, arrived in the city and spent a couple of days with Ben and me, before Tyler and I made our way together to Northwest Yearly Meeting. It has been a pleasure to have Tyler as a traveling companion on this leg of the journey. We have been able to support one another as we experience a new Quaker culture and mingle with hundreds new people. I am grateful for his presence here this week.

On Sunday morning, we attended West Hills Friends Church with my aunt, Thea. It was an extremely friendly meeting, with a simple service, which began with a few people gathering early in the meeting room and holding silent worship for about fifteen minutes in anticipation of the arrival of the rest of the congregation. The programmed service consisted of several hymns, led by an electric-guitar-playing man at the front, rock and roll style, a brief message brought by a missionary couple who were back in the United States from the Middle East, a very humorous sermon by the pastor, and then a period of open worship, which was followed by a time of prayer requests and announcements. The sermon was full of humor, often seeming more like a stand-up routine than the usual message delivered in many churches, and the congregation was very responsive, clapping, cheering, and slapping the benches. Quite a different way to do church!

That afternoon, we rode down to Newberg, Oregon, where Northwest Yearly Meeting held its annual sessions on the campus of George Fox University, and that evening Tyler and I were able to attend a gathering of Northwest's Young Adult Friends at the home of Bruce Bishop, former youth/YAF leader for the yearly meeting, and present director of communications for the yearly meeting. It was a good time to meet with younger Friends, tell them about why I am traveling this summer, and invite Friends into conversation with me.

That evening, Colin Saxton, Northwest's superintendent, spoke to the body of the yearly meeting. He spoke on the subject of repentance, reminding us of Jesus' message that we are to "repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Colin reminded us of the very real presence of Christ with us and of our need to repent and accept Christ's call to complete obedience and discipleship, learning of him and taking on his easy yoke. He reminded us again and again of the real presence and leadership of Christ among us today in the Church, emphasizing that Christ's presence as Friend and Lord is, "no peripheral doctrine - this is at the core of a Friends understanding of the teachings of Christ."

I was very impressed by Colin's message, and I was blown away by the fact that he spoke on repentance, a concern that had been weighing so heavily on my heart for weeks, becoming rather a theme of my travels among Friends from the Conservative, FGC, FUM and EFCI traditions. The wind of the Spirit is blowing through the branches and it is shaking every leaf. The Lion of Judah has roared, who can but tremble? The Word of the Lord has issued from Zion, who can but prophesy? Repent, Friends! Repent and turn from your waywardness and return to the bosom of Christ, the safety of your God's care. Fall on your knees, hear and obey that which God has in store for us as a people.

Colin spoke for the Sunday night evening session, but the primary speaker for the week was Tony Campolo. Campolo was quite an impressive speaker, speaking three evenings in a row, and getting better each night. The first evening, I felt that he was laying the groundwork for the subsequent nights, pulling some of his punches, making us laugh, and preparing us for the lashing that he intended to give us in the two sermons to follow. The first evening, he focused on God not merely as a notion or idea, but as a transforming power that enters into us and changes us. He said that joy and love are signs that Christ has entered into us and saturated our being. He challenged our ideas of success, reminding us, in the words of Francis of Assisi, that "the poor and oppressed are sacramental," and he told us that "the way to build the Church today is the same way that they built it in the first century: by people loving people and accompanying them into the household of faith."

The second evening, Campolo took us deeper and laid greater challenges before us. The primary message of that night's sermon was the distinction between power and authority. Power, he said, is the ability to coerce. Authority, on the other hand, he defined as, "commanding obedience through loving sacrifice. Jesus, he reminded us, had great authority (see Matthew 7:28-29), but he rejected power (see Matthew 4:1-11). The "Constantinian Heresy," Campolo explained, was when the Church began to exercise power, rather than the authority that comes from sacrificial love. He drew our attention to Philippians 2:5-11, as an exposition of Jesus' sacrificial love. The love of Jesus on the cross is the heart of the Gospel, the message: it is through sacrificial love that we gain authority. The Church does not speak with authority, explained Campolo, because it has not paid the price. It is not living sacrificially. The phenomenon of politicized religion is a case in point: we resort to power when we have no authority. Campolo went on to call us to a commitment to social justice, saying that "Jesus never allowed the second commandment to be separated from the first." Campolo ended the evening with a direct call for concrete action on the part of those in attendance. He issued a call for everyone there that evening to begin to support a child in the Third World through Compassion International, and he called on young people to give him their name and address, to commit to a year of service among the poor.

For the last evening session, Campolo began with an explanation of Jesus' saving work on the cross, explaining that Jesus reaches out through all time and both forgives us of our sin, and cleanses us of our sin, liberating us from it. He then went on to talk about how the term "fundamentalism" was once a respectable term, but soon became tied up in a lot of things that it was never meant to be about. He went on to say that the term "Evangelical," a word that was to replace the word "fundamentalist," has now taken on many implications that are more political in nature than religious. He suggested another term, "Red Letter Christians," to denote Christians who take the teachings of Jesus as their guide and baseline.

During the previous evening's session, Campolo had briefly touched on homosexuality, condemning "the oppression of gays," but on this final evening he engaged us extensively on this very sensitive issue. Campolo explained that he is a "conservative" on the issue of homosexuality, believing that it is contrary to the intention of God for the human creation. But, he pointed out that his wife held an opposing view on the subject, and that they occasionally debated the issue publically, "to show that it is possible to differ on this issue and not get a divorce." He said, "it's crazy to split over this issue," insisting that it is important that Christians not break unity, but instead hold together and keep wrestling. Furthermore, Campolo decried "the horrible oppression of gays" as "unacceptable," even though he "disagrees with the lifestyle."

To conclude, Campolo reminded us of the story of the rich young man and challenged us to accept the full implications of the Gospel, not just the parts that we think we can fit into our lives without completely giving ourselves over to Christ. "We're all willing to be Christians up to a point," he said, "but tonight Christ is going to call you to go beyond that point... to the cross." Campolo urged us to give over everything to service to God, saying that scripture condemns retirement (citing the parable of the rich fool). He called retired people to account for being, "an enormous waste of the Church's resources," and called upon those who no longer worked for money to give everything they had, treasure and time, to the work of the Church of Jesus Christ. Addressing the other end of the age spectrum, Campolo encouraged parents to instruct their children, not being afraid to "tell their kids what to do." As he explained that "everyone else is telling your children what to do with their lives - school guidance counselors, teachers, MTV," and called on parents to give firm guidance to their children, I heard several high school aged Friends behind me say, "amen!" Every youth, he concluded, should feel that he or she is on a mission from God. All of us must be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and live out the call of the Church in the world.

The remarkable thing about all of Campolo's sermons was the sense that, by and large, he was preaching Quakerism to Quakers. It occurs to me that it is probably a very good thing for us to hear true, inward Christianity preached to us by outsiders from time to time. But Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting are most certainly Quakers. Indeed, it has been refreshing to find such an intensely Quaker body: both Christ-centered and distinctively Quaker. Friends here seek to live and preach the "whole gospel," which I heard described as, "not only the verbal witness of Jesus Christ, but also peacemaking and social justice." Friends of all stripes, pastoral and unprogrammed, could learn a great deal from the way in which Friends in Northwest hold together the tensions of the Quaker understanding of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. They recognize "that of God in everyone," but at the same time are strongly missional, seeking to liberate the oppressed Seed of God in their own hearts and in the hearts of seekers outside of their fellowship. They are firmly biblical in their worldview, but avoid to a great extent the pitfalls of placing the written word, interpreted legalistically, as a higher authority than the Spirit of Christ, which inspires us to rightly interpret the Scriptures and be changed by them. They are committed to social justice and peacemaking, but do not separate that from a clear witness to the saving power of Messiah Jesus, whose Spirit takes away all occasion for war.

I was pleased to see that the character of Northwest's business sessions were mature, grounded, and centered in the Spirit of Christ. While I was in attendance, I saw the approval of a minute condemning torture, as well as the approval of a series of amendments to their Faith and Practice, which is under revision currently. There was approval of a section of the Faith and Practice which allows local churches, with permission from the yearly meeting, to forgo using the name "Friends" in their "common name," that is, what the church is referred to as in everyday conversation and on the meetinghouse's sign. There was also discussion of a minute calling on the governing authorities of the United States to correct the present situation in which illegal immigrants are being separated from their spouses and children, breaking up families through deportation. There was discussion on this minute, but as there was not enough time to come to unity on it, it was laid over for a later meeting. The sense that I felt rising in the body was that Friends should be addressing, first and foremost, the question of how we ourselves are feeling called to act to ameliorate the present situation. How are Friends called to reach out to our Latino brothers and sisters in Christ?

The worship style at Northwest's annual sessions was interesting. Each evening session was begun with several songs, led by a group up on the platform, with lyrics projected onto a large screen hanging above. Following these songs, we would hold about five minutes of silence, before that night's speaker rose and presented. There were other times, too, where there was music and brief open worship, including during the business sessions. I found it quite nice to have time for musical worship in the midst of business meeting.

Apparently there was a yearly meeting reorganization that was completed last year, the most remarkable result of which is that Northwest's missions and peacemaking are now organized into one function. Evangelism and peacemaking/social justice are not separated. For example, both Christian Peacemaker Teams and a new meeting-planting mission in Russia are under the care of NWYM's Board of Global Outreach (Friends in Northwest use the term "board" to refer to what many Friends would call a "committee").

To sum up, I have had a wonderful time at Northwest Yearly Meeting's annual sessions. I am very impressed with the vibrancy, rootedness, friendliness and strong character of this body of Friends, and I look forward to continued contact with them in the future. I am particularly excited to think about ways in which my own yearly meeting, Great Plains, might move into closer relationship with Friends in Northwest. With all that we have in common, I hope that way will open for us to deepen our ties and come into greater partnership in living out and sharing the Good News of Christ Jesus.

5 comments:

Bill Samuel said...

I appreciated your post. I think that Northwest YM is one of the most interesting and alive places in North American Quakerism, but I have never attended their annual sessions. I attended West Hills once, and really appreciated it. If I lived in Portland (or some other places in the Northwest), I don't think I ever would have left Friends.

I know of no other place in North America where both the focus on Christ and the commitment to traditional testimony of Friends is as strong.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Micah!

It was good to see and read this report on Northwest YM. Thank you for sharing it!

I like Campolo's summons to distinguish between "power" and "authority", but I have problems with his definition of authority. The New Testament word translated as "authority" is exousia, which derives from exestin, the word meaning "it is lawful/permitted/possible". (Exestin is the word that gets used when people ask Jesus, "Rabbi, is it lawful to do such-and-such?") Exousia can thus refer either to ability (the capacity that makes things possible), knowledge of God's will (the prophet's ability, knowing what is lawful), or the capacity to inspire creatures to conform with God's will simply by declaring what that will is (the judge's ability, which Jesus transmitted when he gave his disciples "authority to cast out demons"). In no case is this the same as an ability to "command obedience", for God's authority may still be disobeyed; the Bible describes many instances of such disobedience. Neither is loving sacrifice a necessary part of it. In the Bible, the authority of the prophet, or of the disciple, or even of Christ himself, is simply the authority of one who knows the Father's will and can therefore speak as His representative, expressing God's will and power in place of his own.

Thus I cannot agree when Campolo explains that the Church does not speak with authority because it has not paid the price; it is not living sacrificially. I believe I know what Campolo is getting at here, and I respect what he is trying to accomplish. But it's important to understand that the authority that Jesus possessed, and that we ourselves may come to possess through unity with Him, comes from knowledge of God's will, not from making a sacrifice of one's life. Thus the words of Jesus himself, in John 15:15-16!

I believe we may test this distinction in the following way: There are those who sacrifice their whole lives for some cause, even for a cause they identify as God, and yet they do not acquire the authority of the disciples; one does not hear God's authority in their voices. Such are many wild-eyed preachers, and many uncompromising politicians, and many fanatic advocates of particularly causes. Why is this so? Why do they lack true authority? They are fulfilling what Campolo views as the necessary requirements for authority; they are living sacrificially. But they do not in fact know God's will, and what they are sacrificing their lives to is not so divine as they imagine.

So authority comes through divine knowledge, and while that knowledge may well lead to self-sacrifice, it is not the self-sacrifice but the knowledge that makes the authority manifest.

I would connect to this, my concern about Tony's term "Red Letter Christians". Here too I think I understand what he is driving at, and I respect what he is trying to accomplish. But as a Friend, it seems to me that God's will is known most clearly when it is known directly; the red letter stuff in the New Testament should not be read without correction from that inward Fountainhead, or else errors are inevitably going to creep in. The idea that homosexuality is "contrary to the intention of God for the human creation" is a manifestation of what cognitive psychologists and social anthropologists call the drive for "cognitive consonance", the drive for a nice simple understanding in which each of the ideas rings in total harmony with all the others. This drive has enormous power over us, but it should not be confused with the voice of Christ in the place of heart and conscience. As Nietzsche once wrote, "The will to a system [denotes] a lack of integrity." Christ's will in our hearts and consciences is not a will to create or enforce a system, but a will to do mercy, to behave uprightly ourselves (without judging others, lest we be judged), and to walk in intimacy with our divine Parent.

Your praise of the Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting made my heart glow! I too hope that this will lead to spiritual benefit for Friends in the heartland states.

All the best,
Marshall

leftistquaker said...

Marshall,
On same-sex relations I gather we agree, and I continue to be impressed by how you hold to Conservative Quakerism despite the fact that it is among liberal Quakers where the most acceptance of same-sex relations occurs.

However, on Campolo, you should appreciate the difficult tension he lives in. He is a card-carrying Evangelical who has advocated peace-making, environmentalism, gender-equality, and other progressive causes as a direct challenge to the Christian Right for decades. His view on same-sex relations is actually progressive within that context! What other evangelical do you know who even dialogues with the opposing view on this topic?

Peace! Charley

Bruce Bishop said...

Micah,
It was great to meet you at NWYM and I am serious about being open to pursuing some sort of "sister-YM" relationship with Great Plains... or just with you, to continue being an encouragement to one another. I know that the sustained relationship we have had with Ireland YM has had many benefits for us, and I'm sure it would be similar with you.

I appreciate your "perspective from the outside" on NWYM. It's always good to get feedback on who we are, how we are perceived, how we live our commitments. Your reflections are moving and encouraging. But be aware that we've definitely got our weaknesses and "issues". You'll see those too if you hang around us much.

That said, I am glad to be part of NWYM. It's a great place to call home and a great people to call my "faith community." I hope we can continue to learn from others, as well as offer who we are.

The whole re-combining of evangelism and justice (which never should have been separated in the first place!) has been a commitment that doesn't come naturally. We've struggled with some sense of "turf wars" as people voice their concerns that "their" passion not be overlooked or watered down. It's tough to try to hold these things together. Yet Jesus continues to be our example... as well as the early Friends. So we have no excuse or way to hide from the hard work. I'm pleased that we continue to hold to the commitment and seem wiling to argue in friendly ways about how to proceed. Recent teaching around spiritual discernment and how to hear the voice of God corporately has laid a helpful foundation for us, I think. (I'll be doing some of that teaching in Western YM next year, I believe.)

Anyway, thanks for your post and your presence. I hope NWYM can continue to be an encouragement to Friends, as we continue to learn from Christ and you all as well.

Bruce Bishop

Marshall Massey said...

Well, my leftistquaker friend, you are most welcome to visit my Conservative Friends yearly meeting, as Micah is doing right now, and let me know if you find traces of discrimination against homosexuals, blacks, women, or any other group whose members are who they are by birth rather than by choice. I'd be delighted to see you here, and would be very interested in hearing what you have to say after such a visit.

Bruce Bishop and NWYM have my sympathy regarding those "turf wars". As the instigator of Quaker Earthcare Witness, I have to admit that I've seen the same thing in every corner of the Quaker world — evangelical, liberal, FUM and Conservative. Just human nature, I'm afraid! — And it doesn't diminish my regard for NWYM one iota. I know they're working hard to follow Christ, and that's what matters most.