15 September 2007

Covenant Community: Notes to Ponder

July 2007
I would like to invite you into a discussion I have been having with other individuals, with my monthly meeting, and with God. It involves the manner in which we have been called together into our monthly meeting, yearly meetings and as members of the Religious Society of Friends. As we begin with some gathering moments of silent worship, please hold your own meetings and what themes or currents they have running through them in contemplation...
What is a covenant? It is an expression of the relationship between God and God's people:
Scripture came into being as the expression of the relationship between God and his people. To use the formula that occurs repeatedly in Scripture, "I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 37:27, etc.). The Bible typically portrays this relationship in terms of the covenant or its theological equivalents: the kingdom of God, the family of God, new life through membership in the Son of God. All issues and concerns raised in Scripture have their place within the ebb and flow of the covenant relationship between the Lord and those who have pledged their loyalty to him in worship and obedience. In this sense, covenant is the air we breathe in Scripture. Even where the concept of the covenant recedes into the background, it still supplies the framework and the thematic material for understanding all parts of the Old and New Testaments. In particular, it has profound implications for Christian worship. (http://www.laudemont.org/index.html?MainFrame=http://www.laudemont.org/a-bcacw.htm)

I am hoping to gather together here some snippets of discussions that are happening in many groups, from evangelicals to non-theists, conservatives to universalists. It begins with our early ancestors in the Society, and continues forward to today. Some claim it has skipped generations; I will leave that up to you to decide.

Most importantly, it involves the manner in which you and the Friends within your monthly meeting have been gathered, and the particular gifts which you all possess, that give your meeting its particular flavor. Please feel free to join in at any time, this is really a workshop, not a lecture, so I'm interested to hear from you equally or more than from myself. I see myself as offering some beginning concepts for your consideration and discussion.

My own journey begins with my discovery of the writings of Lloyd Lee Wilson. Lamar Matthews recommended his readings to me several summers ago, following a retreat on gospel order here at Baltimore yearly sessions. (Ask if all understand what gospel order is: the manner in which we understand God asks us to live). As a liberal, non-theist Quaker, I have to admit that I had to struggle through some blocks I had with Lloyd's language and beliefs as a conservative, yet something called to me immediately in his books. He was talking about something I had experienced, yet did not have clarity on. It was the difference between a “welcoming community” of individuals, and a community that is called together by God. This is the community I'm speaking of today.

For years at different times, I've been a member of Ministry and Counsel, Pastoral Care, Advancement and Outreach, Adult and Children's Religious Education. I have observed the ups and downs of attendance and participation, the feeble and courageous attempts at outreach with mixed results and the varied levels of care and comfort offered to our members and attenders. Many times I had meditated and wondered over the seemingly random changes of our meeting makeup and the mysterious disappearances of attenders I thought were clearly engaged. Lloyd Lee Wilson gave me a framework to begin to think differently about all of this:

p. 71 When meeting is understood to be primarily a human community, the unusual is threatening. Newcomers are unusual by definition, and most visitors can feel this sense of threat; they respond by not coming back. Some few, those who are least different from the people who are already in community, stay to become members themselves. When meeting is understood to be a Covenant experience, the unusual is God breaking into our lives in a new way – cause for celebration! Visitors to a Covenant meeting are given a truly heartfelt welcome and are more likely to want to come back again. When we live in a Covenant relationship with God and one another, we offer the spiritual refugees who come to our meetings far more than shelter from the storm – we offer a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes of each one of us a new creation in Christ.

p.72 The path to genuine, Spirit-led and Spirit-fed growth in our meetings lies not in contriving to make our meetings as comfortable and nonthreatening as possible to those who may visit, but in accepting with joy the covenant relationship with God that is expressed in the meeting to which one belongs. The most convincing argument one can humanly give to another about the healing, peace and joy that comes from giving up one's refugee mentality and entering into the Divine Covenant is the simple testimony of one's own life, lived in that same covenant.
These concepts began to get at what I have been alternately seeking and wishing to build within my own meeting. It also brought me back to thinking about some processes I'd been involved with in my prior meeting in PYM, where we worked towards visioning what God had planned for our meeting.

So that is the process I'd like to engage you in today – visioning what God has created in calling together all of the members and attenders of your meeting, those you agree with and those you don't, those who appear to fit and those who don't, those with clearly defined gifts, and those who may appear to be floundering. It's my thesis that no one is called by accident to the meeting they begin to attend and continue to attend, and that our work together and individually is all called by God.

“In the covenant community we choose to be in relationship with God, and God gives us to one another and to the community. Our primary bond is to God, which makes the community itself resilient and capable of great healing. The crises and interpersonal failures which would destroy a human community become, in the covenant community, opportunities for the love of God to heal and reconcile us to one another and for the community to witness about God's healing presence in the world.”
--Ogilvie, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, p. 62.

Let's take a moment to think about our own individual meetings, and some recent events in the meetings. It may be a conflict, or it could be an event such as homecoming, a wedding, a memorial...even a major repair. Try to visualize who stepped forward in that instance, and what their gifts were to the meeting. Try to visualize what blocks there were, if any to the event going off smoothly – anyone or anything that stood in the way. What happened in the process of coming to a united sense of the Meeting?

Now imagine that God has gathered each and every person and event that happened for the purpose of the spiritual growth of the corporate whole and possible of the individuals involved. Employ the idea that there are no accidents in order to see if there is any different understanding you can gain of the incident. What do you find?

Imagine what happened to the community of believers who put forward the Declaration of 1660:
We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatever; this is our testimony to the whole world. The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.
-to Charles II, 1660

Note the phrase “The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided..” This is not a community that believes it is acting as a group of people, it is a group who are being led by a mutual power. This community is gathered for this purpose among others.

In John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples, “ I have called you Friends. Everything I have learned from the Father I have given to you.” This simple phrase is the basis for the naming of our religion. It is the personal covenant George Fox entered in to and what came to be the basis for the Religious Society of Friends. In Fox's and Ogilvie's language, we are more than people who mediate our relationship with God through Christ. We are Friends of Christ and therefore of God. Our community is based on this friendship and how we respond to it. When we become convinced of our relationship with a meeting, implicit in this is our primary relationship with God.

How do we respond to the way in which God calls us here?
DO we live in covenant community?
Do we weep or rejoice for it in times of trouble or joy?
Do we feel the soul of our own community as the individuals within it struggle or are ill?
What do you feel about the notion that you are tied inextricably to the others in your Monthly meeting, in your Yearly Meeting, to all other Friends?

Recently I learned that some Midwest and Pacific YM Friends are having a discussion about “Convergent Friends.” Robin Mohr of PYM defines these friends as “Friends who are seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life in the kingdom of God on Earth, radically inclusive of all who seek to live this life. It includes among others, Friends from the politically liberal end of the evangelical branch and from the Christian end of the unprogrammed branch.” (from her blog)

Convergent Friends is an evolving idea that has been discussed widely in the Quaker blogging community. The conversation emphasizes relationships that foster the building and edification of the Kingdom. It is a return to the beliefs of the early Friends in many ways, and an attempt to live lives that are not secularized or divided by our exposure to modern culture. As a universalist Friend, I take some issue with the language of “the Kingdom,” but I do believe it is only a matter of time until this conversation expands to become more pluralistic.

The evidence I have for this is the work of Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, two evangelical Friends who have come to believe that God will “save” every person on earth. I was first taken with their book, “If God is Love: Rediscovering grace in an ungracious world.” The authors describe their journey from very rigid, right and wrong beliefs, to seeing the grace of God acting in all aspects of life in ways that could not fail to challenge them to move beyond the narrowness of their denomination.

On page 137, they talk about “gracious religion:”
Gracious religion isn't an unbending allegiance to a narrow orthodoxy. It is about approaching our life with God and others in a spirit of gentleness, humility, and openness. These tools become the means by which God fits us for citizenship in the world and God's kingdom. It is about being less committed to a rigid, self-concerned institution and more concerned about authenticity, integrity and faith.

This faith is not about believing the right things about God, but about trusting God to remake us in God's image, full of grace and truth. Its goal i is not dogmatic certainty, but making our peace with a great mystery – that God's simple truth is revealed in a multiplicity of forms. All of these forms reflect a common conviction – that we are most like God when we love each other.
What a glorious day it will be when the Convergent Friends begin to converse with the universalist Friends in a dialogue where each accepts the presence of God in the other.

The FUM conflict over hiring of homosexuals threatens to lead us just to that place. Conflicts over sexual predators in meetings lead us there. Any place where there is no easy solution, God offers us a door to a new creation, and we need only accept that we are called to be with each other for this possibility.

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