The Convergence of Quakerism – Ephesians 2:11ff

The text from my message given to Camas Friends Church June 6, 2010

Personal Histories

In the last couple weeks, I have been reflecting a lot on my own history, my own personal narratives that have shaped my life. With having recently gone home this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise. I confess that I have a tendency to want to break with my past, to want to start over. I like clean slates (in fact, my dad was in a band by the same title, and so I’m a bit partial!). Who doesn’t like, and sometimes need a clean slate? One of my favorite things in the whole wide world is a new, unopened notebook. To open it for the first time. To see the clear white pages, to think about the possibilities, to decide what will get written in that notebook all inspire me.

Through these reflections I started to realize that my own tendency, or temptation, to neglect my history, and to turn away from it. I suppose there are many reasons, some potentially good, to do something like this but I came to the conclusion that for myself to pretend like it has no power over me is dishonest. To do that is for me to not be true to who I am. No matter the things I am ashamed of in my past, the things I do not understand, or cannot change, these are all woven into the fabric of my being. So I recognize within me the temptation to want a clean break.

The other ways to deal with our personal histories such as avoid or ignore that history. Maybe it is because it was a painful history, some traumatic event happened that changed everything for you or your family, maybe you made a decision that proved to be fateful. Many of us are products of such painful past experiences.

And sometimes we can be simply unreflective about the whole thing, putting little thought into these past experiences. We just simply do not believe that the past is important or that it has no bearing on today. Finally, one last way we deal with history is to want to live in the past, to get back to the “Good Old days,” and if only we could get back there, then everything would be all right. Now before I turn all physiological on you, and you feel the need to lay down on a couch and tell me everything, I want to turn the conversation to church and its history.

The Church’s History

The church’s history is, to say the absolute very least, a mixed bag. There are many traumatic experiences that have happened, some to us because of our faith, but more often than not, things we’ve done to others for the lack of their own faith. The perpetuation of racism, classism, and predjuice in today’s church wasn’t born today. It’s a part of a much longer history of practicing, and mis-reading, mis-using faith and the scriptures towards our own ends.

Therefore, rightfully so, there are within the church, or at least Western Christianity, these two tendencies of dealing with the past that I named above. The clean slate approach and the Good Old Days variation [these are of course, technical terms]. Christian Evangelicalism wants to be past-less, history-less. That is why there is such a draw to groups who advertise as being “non-denominational,” in a world where the past equals baggage, or out-moded authority, denominations become a bad thing. For many, denominations represent the “baggage of history.” I can understand this sentiment. Looking back through our history, wouldn’t it be nice to claim distance from all those mistakes?

But this view neglects the fact that we all have histories, we are all storied people. We are all formed by cultures, traditions, and our own stories. In fact, the commitment to be history-less is itself a tradition that stems back to the Enlightenment, where tradition was an evil word and the best minds worked to replace tradition with scientific reasoning and individualistic rationality.

The other tendency the church has is to clutch unwittingly to the good old days, or what I call “traditionalism.” Now tradition and traditionalism are not the same thing. I take a tradition to be some that is ongoing, that still has life, that can change and adapt itself to changing times. In this sense, the practice of science or medicine is a tradition. Traditionalism, on the other hand, is re-enacting things done in the past, hoping to revive another time. It assumes no new thing can, or should happen.

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

-Jarslov Pelikan

You know these groups based in traditionalism. They can be either fundamentalist or liberal. They are unchanging (or at least perceive themselves that way). They believe that by clinging to they way things were done, they can retrieve a time and place where they felt God most deeply. This position is the most scorned of the two in our society. The Amish are rarely talked about in a positive light for this reason. We have people in church leadership leaving their congregations regularly because some people just don’t want to change!

And yet, I we can be sympathetic to this for two reasons. One is that I think we increasingly want grounding. We want something more out of life than what today offers and secondly, we can look back at moments in our history, and with the perfect insight of hindsight, we can see where God was at work. We want that. Who doesn’t want to go back to a time when we felt close to God? However, I believe, both the avoidance of history nor traditionalism are no longer viable options for Camas Friends, as well as the Quaker tradition.

Convergent Friends

This is where convergent Friends come in for me. Convergent Friends are Quakers, any Quakers or even people who are influenced by Quakers, it’s no secret club, who see the importance of the Quaker tradition, its practices, its virtues, in a way that they put it into conversation with today. Maybe they help update some of its more idiosyncratic features (such as not doffing hats, or saying thees and thous), or maybe they fully adopt other ideas (such as taking traveling minutes) in order to recover those practices within a new context.

Convergent as a word is a little playful. It has two meanings. One is the obvious meaning of convergence, the coming together of two things. In our case, it’s the coming together of the tradition within our contemporary society, it’s also the coming together of Quakers from all branches of the Friends tradition in order to learn from each other and befriend one another.

The other more playful meaning is that it is a combination of two words: conservative and emergent. That is the old plus the new, coming together in creative ways to form an expression and practice of faith that is rooted in the here and now.

Convergent, a becoming

Like most of you, I didn’t grow up in the Quaker church. I grew up going to a variety of churches, but was most heavily involved with Catholics because my step-grandpa paid for all of us to go to parochial school from a young age. I began reading Quaker history only after I started working in a Friends Church in Ohio. I started working there as a youth pastor, mostly because the job was available and only very peripherally because it had anything to do with Friends.

But while I was there I started reading Quaker history and was almost immediately struck by the alternative vision of Christianity that Quakers have been putting forth for close to 400 years. I had been going to school to become a pastor, was regularly studying theology and the Bible and was growing more and more dissatisfied with the standard, pop culture (if you will) understanding of Christianity. For me, a couple of things that changed were my convictions around women in ministry (I grew up, like most conservative Christians, believing women just weren’t capable of doing ministry), my convictions around war changed radically from my upbringing, and along with that my understanding of what it means to announce Jesus as Lord changed. Finally, my understanding of the nature of the Bible was challenged and changed. But beyond all this, I had a deep sense of call to ministry that was rooted in some profound mystical experiences, and a commitment and connection to the poor.

And then, I start reading about Quakers and learned that all this stuff, was stuff that Quakers have been working out in their own communities for years! I had this epiphany, like, “hey, wait a minute, I must be a Quaker and I didn’t even know it.” Later, upon reading early Quaker theology, such as Robert Barclay’s writings, I had multiple experiences of reading words written in the late 17th century that spoke words I had always believe but had been unable to say for myself.

So I have these profound experiences and what would you expect me to do but start looking for people who share these convictions, or at least understand what the heck I’m talking about! This was one way Emily and I connected early on. We each came to be convinced Quakers through separate experiences, but both resonated with many of the same things about Quakerism as an alternative vision of Christianity than the one we were accustomed to experiencing.

I began looking but was unable to find many Friends who actually sought to live out these convictions I was reading about in the history books.

So we began experimenting with our own Quaker-like worship groups and we worked at forming communities rooted in some of these ideas. At one point, we were a part of leading a small house church movement in Canton, OH that had upwards of 30 people piling into living rooms every Monday night to discuss and experience this stuff.

What I began to realize was that I was not isolated in these longings for something more, something deeper, something alive, and alternative to mainstream Evangelicalism. Emily and I both felt like “This kind of Christianity is what the World is hungry for.” I still believe that this is true.

However, while reading all this Quaker history, and the great things done in the name of Christ through this radical group of followers doesn’t on its own satisfy anything. We wanted to be a part of a church living this stuff out now. If I am going to be a Christian, I want it to be in a community of Christians who really believe it enough to put it into practice.

So we started looking for people who not only knew and cared for the tradition (all of it, not just the pieces we like), but were interested in practicing it, trying to work it in their very lives, and allow it to mold them and their communities.

Convergent Bloggers

Overtime I started discovering, mostly thanks to blogs and google, that there are other Quakers, from other parts of the Quaker spectrum (because there is no monolithic Quakerism either) that are also deeply interested in the Quaker tradition. What I learned is that they too care deeply about seeing this stuff lived out in today’s world, and that they to think that, at least the best of our tradition, has something still to offer our troubled world. But that belief, and that talk, on its own is really cheap.

And so while there is a lot of stigma about other Friends, and while there are deep historical schisms among our own tradition, some Quakers have been (for as long as those schisms have been around) working to maintain friendships, to reconcile differences, and work to live out their tradition faithfully in the world.

The internet created a safe connecting point to others who shared a lot of the same convictions. It also created a way to bypass some of the institutional boundaries and barriers that have formed over the years between our groups.

And so, in 2005 Robin Mohr, non-pastoral Quaker from San Francisco, named this group “convergent.” And so a word was put to a movement of people all seeking something deeper, and something more creative and full of life. Since that time, looking back, we’ve noticed that many have been “convergent” long, long before this word ever cropped up.

While many within the church, both Quaker and otherwise, reject history and see it as a hang-up, something that keeps them from being “relevant” and something they see as a hindrance to “the simple and pure Gospel.” Therefore, they seek to cut themselves off what they see as entanglements of history,while others cling to history, in an unchanging way for fear of what the new will bring forth. Convergent Friends seek to embody both of these tendencies, reconcile them, hold them in creative tension and build on it as the Spirit guides.

So rather than simply “conserving” traditionalism, or breaking with all history and starting our own new thing every time we don’t like what somebody says, we see history as an asset, something we can learn from, something that is unavoidable, something that God actually works to bring together into this moment. But what matters is not so much what happened back there because God is not dead, the Light of Christ still shines, and so in what ways can we take these stories, these practices and our tradition, and learn from them and listen to them in a way that actually helps us to form a contemporary community that is faithful, that is an alternative vision of the people of God.

Ephesians 2: The Bigger Picture

In closing, let’s consider the thinking behind Ephesians 2:11ff, which outlines this work from the standpoint of Jesus Christ.

I see this passage as underlying the God’s work is to bring all together, abolishing the dividing walls. This isn’t meant to abolish difference, those who come together are still Jew and Gentile, who they are, their own collective cultures, their own individual narratives remain in tact, but they are brought up into one larger story that is bound together and reconciled through Jesus Christ who “is our peace,” and who is working to build a “new humanity.” And those with deep differences, theologically, but also ethnically, which is the deeper point in this passage, is joined through “access in one Spirit to the Father.”

What I like about this is that we see that something new is clearly emerging out of something old.

So these histories are not forgotten, lost, or avoided. Rather they are brought together to bear on this moment, through the peace and new work of the risen Christ. The histories, our histories form who we are, bring us into our current state, we cannot go back and change things (no matter how much we might like too), and we cannot get rid of them, but we can enter into the Christian story, which includes these other stories and redeems them, reconciles them through Christ’s peace-bearing work on the cross.

This is to say God is right here with us, and takes all our baggage, all the good stuff, all the gifts, all the people who have hurt us, and who we have hurt, and meets us right here in this place and continues the work of reconciliation. In other words, Ephesians 2 is clear that Christ is drawing storied people together, Jews and Gentiles, and this is an important, essential feature of God’s work. All of who we are is important to the work God does among us now. Any attempt to flee from it, or pretend as though it does not exist is not only dishonest, but cuts the work of God short.

Convergent Friends then are Quakers looking to join that reconciliatory work, not just with our Quaker history, which we see as a part of who we are (whether we know it or not), but more profoundly with one another, who we need if we are to emerge as a new community of faithful followers of Jesus Christ. We want to join in with the emergence of our tradition in a new context, because we believe these histories, these stories are our stories, they are the practices and the tools that can help us navigate today’s world amidst the rubble.


Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger 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.