How many of you speak another language? Meaning, raise your hand if you speak Spanish, French, Quechua, Mandarin, whatever, even a little bit.
How many other languages do we speak? In various parts of life, you may speak several languages as needed. There’s a specialized jargon for fashion, for sports, for medicine, at school, for young people, for people who were young in the 60s. Do you think that today, in the United States, there are separate languages for women and men? What about people from different economic or social classes ? African American and White people? Urban and rural, for business people, social workers and students? What are some other examples of different languages you speak? How many of you feel like you speak Cat? Or Baby?
As we go through life, we all learn many languages. Have you thought about it that way before? How often in your daily life do you encounter people who speak different languages because they have different beliefs, culture or social or economic differences? For many of us, we cross these “boundaries” between people daily. For others, this experience occurs rarely and it’s a big deal.
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (Revelation 12:11)
The work of the People
One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials. -David James Duncan
David James Duncan’s novel “The Brother’s K,” is about a family that lives in Camas, WA. The place where I pastored for 6 years before moving to Greensboro. Papa, one of the main characters in the book, is a paper mill worker who has gone semi-professional in Baseball. He does fairly well as a pitcher for his team until he has his thumb crushed in an accident at the mill.
Consequently, he falls into depression and begins to abuse substances. So in an attempt to regain ground and find some life he builds a shed in the backyard where he begins practicing his pitching again.
The Quaker movement began like other Radical Reformation traditions, rejecting the basic Christian creeds. This wasn’t because they weren’t Christian, but because they believed that creeds created a consumptive rather than participative faith. Quakers believe that creedal Christianity led to folks to professing rather than possessing authentic Christian faith. They saw this playing out in 17th century England where the church and state were in bed together, where Christianity was used to legitimize a “religion of empire,” rather than one that challenges and critiques empire.
I write this because I am wondering to what extent this saying no to creeds has hurt our contemporary understanding of Quakerism? Let me be clear in saying that I fully accept the early Quaker critique of creeds. On the other hand, I accept the heart of what the creeds are after, which I believe is meant to put something forward, affirm something, and say “yes” rather than “no.” Maybe this is too generous a view for some and I am fine with that, but stay with me for a moment: my concern is that the Quaker tradition, at least in some sectors, has largely become a “’no’ religion.” Not only are we often defined by others by what we are against, but we ourselves use Quakerism and Quaker process as a gateway to say no.
“In improv, if you have a group of people who are developing a storyline on the fly, without a script or master plan, and someone says “No” to an idea put forward, what happens? It stops everything. No, ends the scene. It prevents forward movement in the story line.”
In improv, they call this “blocking.” Blocking is the cardinal sin of improv acting.
Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.” (Patricia Madson – The Wisdom of Improv)
I think I first stumbled upon this kind of Quaker “blocking” when I noticed that the people within Quaker meetings who receive the most resistance, push back and are generally treated with a greater amount of suspicion are the individuals who take or at least appear to be a little too decisive, a little too pushy, and take initiative. It is easy to be comfortable with the status quo and I have seen our unwillingness to respond quickly to the moment, act in ad hoc ways, and be decisive around decisions as being chalked up to “we need to honor process?” But this can easily move into blocking territory. Afterall, Quakerism is itself a lot like improv in that it is a tradition that calls for paying attention in the moment, being obedient when one is led and stresses the immediacy of the Holy Spirit.
I have heard and see people talk largely about what Quakers don’t do and don’t believe: “we don’t celebrate holidays, we don’t use titles, we don’t record people, we don’t force people to believe anything, we don’t evangelize, we don’t have preachers, we don’t use the lectionary, we didn’t keep enslaved humans, we don’t have symbols, we don’t practice communion or baptism, we don’t have people in the military in our meetings, or worse… ‘you can’t do that because it’s not Quaker.’” Friends, this is treating our tradition as a blocking tradition.
Not only is a lot of this not true it represents a certain version of the story that serves some and puts others at a disadvantage, a religion of no needs gatekeepers. If this is what our faith tradition has become then this is a sad state of affairs. If all we have to offer is who we are not then we have lost the ability to create, produce, and think outside the box and be responsive to needs in the moment. We have let go of the immediacy of an authentic connection to God who very well may call us to act now.
When we adopt the Quakerism as a religion of no we are no different from those Jesus chastised in Mark 2:
“He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath…”
Process is meant to be a guide, but it is not the end all be all. Quakers have to think on their feet. We have to be responsive to what God is doing in the moment and when people are led to respond, we should use process to support faithfulness and obedience to the One who calls us, not shut them down. Process doesn’t always have to be front-loaded either. It can work behind the scenes and after a decision has been made. Placing all of the emphasis for process prior to a decision betrays our idolatry of “choice,” rather than trust, relationship, and community which tend to be where the weight of things lay after a decision is made. Be able to have a choice is itself a privileged position.
I would suggest instead that It’s like a line with two arrows one leading up to a decision and one delineating the process after a decision or choice has been made. We need as much help after we make a decision as we do before and sometimes we have to make decisions on in the moment, sometimes we have very little or no choice. Is there space for a supportive process after decisions are made? Is process and Quaker belief about blocking or is it about saying yes, building affirmation, trusting, and producing something good in the world.
The anecdote to blocking in the improv world is “yes, and…” by building rather than blocking the scene is opened up, new possibilities are created, new pathways become available, new characters enter the scene. How often is a block made out of fear? Fear because saying “yes, and…” means things will go beyond what we can anticipate and control?
This second version to Quakerism is more participatory, building upon a collaboration and an “open work” view of our faith communities.
I am attracted to Oscar Romero’s version of this “yes, and…” faith,
“I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God,who loves us and who wants to save us.”
What do we need to do to move from a religion of “no” to a practice of saying “yes, and,” from a practice blocking to a practice of building up, working from a place of trust and generosity. One word I hear very little in Quaker circles is grace. I learned the sign for grace the other day at work and I have been practicing ever since, reminding myself of the grace that God showers upon me/us. What would it take for Friends to focus on grace and yes and allow process to be not a gateway, but a path towards building a great affirmation before and after we are faced with a challenging moment?
How does the word “no” and our practice of blocking impact our ability to reach out to others?
How does it impact our ability to hear and learn about racism and whiteness and other important critiques within our Quaker meetings and churches?
How does this perception impact what people think about our ability to be “team players?”
I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of Friends in New England this past weekend to discuss the importance of Quakers practicing outreach. I am still processing what I heard and what I learned from that very rich and deep time. Here is one thought that arises.
There is a need to relink the life of the Spirit with our thinking around outreach, or as some would say, “the mission of the church.” I realize that this language – outreach or mission – is normal for some Friends and sounds really scary for others. I’m less invested in reclaiming the word “mission,” than I have been in the past, but it gives us a jumping off point. I know that when we hear this word we think of colonialism, gentrification and church growth. So let’s talk about that. And let’s look at where we are guilty of these things, rather than assume that only those Christians over there are the guilty party on this. And let’s talk about alternative ways of understanding what it means to practice outreach, “witness” or in the words of George Fox, “let your life preach.”
Ever since the origins of Christianity, there has been a push and pull between word and deed. This has been exacerbated by the rise of the sacred and secular split in the West with the dawning of the Enlightenment and modernity, but it is nothing new and it still impacts how we frame these conversations. In the Jesus’ teachings, there is no distinction between a faith that is vibrant and a faith that is embodied publicly, or in the world. Jesus’ view is integrated and non-dual. One’s life in God informs one’s life in the world, and one’s life in the world informs how we approach, speak of, and narrate our experiences of the Divine. Faith in a non-dual perspective is a way of life, rather than a series of scheduled events, responsibilities, or labels we apply to ourselves and others.