Forming the People of God

As I have finally finished my seventh quarter at Fuller, I begin a time of reflections about what I have learned and unlearned and all that in between. As I entered this qtr I was exhuasted, looking forward to a hopefully not-to-difficult 10 weeks of class work so that i could recover from the exhausting work I did the previous qtr. Well it wasn’t what I hoped for, it was very tiring and very involved, but it was also restorative in many ways.

First: My class “forming the people of God” was a healing experience for me. I entered the class in a state of mind I have been in for the past two years – trying to figure out how to not be a pastor and avoid something I know has been placed on me, now as I have ended the quarter I feel a renewed sense of hope and urgency in ministry, I see the possibilities in how to be church. This class has given me tools I did not have before I took it, and has helped me to reframe ideas about being church into doable dreams.

I have to be careful that my ideas and dreams don’t become prideful musings and a superiority complex, which is always a battle for me. I don’t think I have figured it out, or that my way is the best, but I do think that I have discovered a great way for me, which has also been done by others in healthy ways. I think in this way I willingly do something different from others, I submit myself to a tradition, a group of people, a story, and a specific movement. I do this knowing that which I align myself is a human structure with failures as well as successes. But for some reason, I no longer want to start something new within the church; I want to help heal, restore and join in on what is already happening. This is different from others today and that is okay, because I realize for many the established traditions are frightening and often represent what we don’t like about Christians. I agree that these are my feelings as well, because I see Jesus as the homeless carpenter, who led a rag-tag group of zealots, prostitutes and tax collectors to start a revolution – there is no establishment in that. The establishment that is there, is the on-going story of God’s salvation from the beginning of time, up to and accomplished in Christ’s life, and carries on today. There are different groups of people who have experienced this story in various ways, and so for me it is the stories that are most important within my own chosen tradition. it is important that we are apart of these on-going stories, somehow, somewhere, it is not important what establishment you are apart of, but that that group of people find their story located in the story of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ. This is one fear of the organized church – that those within the traditions have forgotten their own stories, no longer care, or no longer give those stories authority. it is those communal experiences that are most important in the body of Christ – and so whether we are in a formal denomination or not we must dig for those experiences of not only those within our congregations today but of those who were there 200 years ago. it is important that all stories are welcome at the table, because they are all valid experiences of the Holy Spirit and God’s work, even the not-so-pretty ones (actually we sometimes need those more). Every story must be welcome at the table, and it is within these that I find hope for the church to come.

when we gather together to tell and relive our past histories, we are reminded in powerful and moving ways of the spirit.

Secondly: My classes on OT Prophets and Gospels have been important for my own humble-understanding of the scriptures. This is at first glance an obvious statement, and I agree we need to be learning more and more about the scriptures as to understand them better, but in many ways I approached these classes as a learned theologian. This is of course my confession, in that I approach many things that way, only later to realize “I was older then, I am younger than that now.” My love for the prophets has deepened so much, the prophets are hard to understand, because most of them are not written in narrative form – this makes them feel distant to us. But as Dr. Butler began to place their lives in within the narratives for which they belong the prophets came to life. their coming to life showed me how much they really have to say to us today, how radical their own faiths were, how much they struggled to follow God, and how easy it is to forget who we really are. The prophets are in someways more like us (those who are called to follow Christ) than any other characters in the Scriptures because they faced the evils of their own day, and struggled with how to transform their situations much like we do. They questioned their own calls to follow God, they wept for the poor and marginal, they argued of the poor politics of the kings and the priests. They even tried to run from God and did insane acts like walk around the city butt-naked. These are my people, their stories i can identify with (not so much the naked part – but wanting to do something radical, willing to lay my own life down for Christ). They also felt the deep need to return to their older stories, their heritage that the people so easily forgot or left behind.

As far as work goes I have struggled with identity in “what i will do.” I know earlier I said that pastoring sounds good, but that comes with a deep terror and fear of inadequacy as well as being afraid that I will get trapped into a mold of unhealthy ministry. But this is not what I mean so much. Because I wonder if I should be paid as a pastor at all, whether I should be a professor, or if that is something far beyond my own abilities or giftings, and what do i do in the meantime. I have felt very guilty about Wyldlife in Glendale, because I really have let the ball drop. I realized that I can take on way to much, out of the desire to “do what is right, and take care of a need.” Emily is trying to teach me about my boundaries and lack thereof – this has been a hard lesson – i want to save everyone from their sorrows. maybe in order to forget my own, maybe in order to pay penance for the sins of my fathers, maybe to feel better about myself, but in any case I have taken on too much once again. Emily is right in that I need to know my own limits, and for her I have to thank for a more healthy life that I will live (if I follow her advice). But this brings me back to wondering what it is that i will do, knowing that i do too much and want to do too much. have i told you that i want to make movies, be a theologian, a father, a pastor, an amazing husband, a folk-singer, a great friend, a discipler and teach others the ways of following Christ, and help the Friends church survive the 21st century? I want to do all those things, and more if I sat and thought long enough; how will i come to terms with my own humanness? my limits? my own failures? I make myself out to be the super-hero in every story, only to learn that this is a lie. What will i do to be happy, and content when there is so much to be done? I wish i could be like others who saw the only needs worth caring for as their own, who are not willing to care for others, or reach out to the lost. I wish that God never gave me Proverbs 24:11 as a call on my life, i mean this, i really wish I could get away. i wish i could not want to do what i know i need to do, but as it stands i have this yearning that i know will not go away until it is done.

Emily and I have experienced a lot since coming to cali, many let downs and many exciting times as well. We are in another stage of transition, another time of difficulty, risk and excitement. we are learning how to love one another mutually. how we can both not dominate the other, how to live a life of compromise within our family. we are seeking to learn what it means to be family, and how our vision of family will shape every choice we make, every child we rear, every story we tell. Emily is facing big decisions about who she is in light of God’s creation, who she is in terms of her abilities and call, this is never an easy conversation with yourself and with God because there are no clear lines, no clear answers, and no clear road. It is in a sense the thing we will always face, it is what the prophets questioned every time the spirit of the Lord told them what to say or do. in a way we need to identity crises. not that we encourage them to come, but when they come they give us the opportunity to reframe ourselves in light of the new information the crises brings. we can make a more educated guess next time around. Emily and I are in this educated guessing right now. this is not to say that the spirit is not involved because it is a guess, rather the spirit is absolutely invovled, and that is why it is a guess – “the spirit goes where it chooses.” No person has the corner market on Spirit, or clear guidance (not even the prophets). This is why we need each other, this is why we cannot dominate another person, this is why every story is welcome at the table, because no one person really knows all that there is to be known about where the spirit is going. we make educated guesses, and the more people we add to our mix the better our guess will be.

i say this with much hope, not the other way around because we tend to move away from people, to privatization, to individuation. When we don’t like how something goes, we start over somewhere else. these are bad guesses, because we cannot expect that the spirit wishes for more division – and division is movement away from people. The spirit wishes for healing and restoration, unity and love. I have found many people who try to make decisions based on “what the Lord is leading me to do” on first glance this is a worthy cause – but the problem is that the Lord rarely leads one person alone in a direction, it is at least two and it is with the mission of healing and casting out the evils that oppress people. When we become individuals, stripped of the larger body of faith, of storytellers, we lost sight of this, and we divide into yet another maverick Christian (or church). Even when it comes to me deciding what i will do about a career choice, or a girl to marry, the Spirit will lead through a group of people. the guess should come from a group of people. I have experienced this truth in so many ways. I know people who are married or are planning on getting married against the guess of everyone around them, against the people who love them and care for them. I know people who have made career decisions against the better judgment of many people. This is where the difficulty comes in, understanding discernment from preference. I know that this could be giving too much power to a group of people over another’s life, and it is certainly true that the communities, friends and families in our own lives and past have made bad decisions – some of these bad decisions have ruined some of us. but today we dismiss any power of community within our lives, we allow the only authority in our lives to be me, myself and i. In my own case, I am trying to decide whether to do a PhD in Theology with a focus on Quakerism or one more focused on general theological studies. I have had many different guesses from various people on what i should do, and often i find myself saying (even this morning) it really doesn’t matter what others say because I can do what I want. Well of course this is true, and is exactly what Adam and Eve thought. But what my attitude needs to be is “why is it that so many people who care about me say this one thing?” Is this fitting with what the spirit might say? I begin to weigh every bit of advice and counsel against my own experience. I have thus chosen to allow the stories and advices of others to bear weight in my life because I believe that I am not the only one who God speaks to, in fact I have heard God speak so little, that I hope by prayerfully seeking the advice of so many brothers and sisters we may be able to piece together the word of the Lord; then our guess would be an educated one. I must point out that I do believe God can and sometimes does speak loud and clear to people, but even in those moments, that spoken word will not bring individualism and privatization but healing, unity and restoration thus the whole community is involved in both the piece parts kinds of revelation as well as the loud and clear kinds. And thus we must always push back towards people, community and stories, because we know that on our own we will be lost and wondering unable to make heads or tails of life’s greatest mysteries.

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

One thought on “Forming the People of God”

  1. I got to thinking about all you said. Sometimes i get the notion that I am the only one having the ever daunting thoughts of what will I do one day. What difference can I make? Pastor Gary always told us this story about this boy who was found on the beach with all of these starfish. They had all washed a shore. He was young and so he was scrambling around to throw all the starfish into the water, there had to be thousands. His parents hurried over and told him that there was no way he would help all those starfish in the water. He looked at them and said, “it matters to this one, it matters to this one.” I guess i can only do as much as i can. I’ve decided that over the past year i’ve been very excited to help but have overcommitted myself way to much. Time to step back and realize a focus and a plan.

    Just wanted to drop a note and tell you your entry sounded semi-familar. Comforting at times also. I appreciate your honesty.

    Hope all is well.

    -kristen

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