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Turning Our Resources Inward

This post is part of a series based on Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Please see the introductory post, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition, for an overview of the series.

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.

– Philippians 2:1-4

“When you conduct the autopsy of a church,” Rainer says, “you must follow the money. For where the money of the church goes, so goes its heart.”

When a congregation is struggling, typical personnel, building and facility costs are reduced only as a last resort. “In dying churches, the last expenditures to be reduced are those that keep the members most comfortable.”

When membership begins to shrink, donations go down and outreach and community ministries are the first to get cut. Rainer writes in grim terms about how, in dying churches, staff members are expected to spend their time almost exclusively on the needs of existing church members, rather than on helping the church to manifest God’s love in the community.

In unprogrammed Quaker meetings, this inward focus might be less obvious. After all, we generally don’t have any paid staff – to tend to our needs or anyone else’s. But we might see dying meetings lay down (or fail to create) Advancement committees, as energy to maintain a Quaker presence at community events or to thoughtfully and deliberately invite new attenders into the community diminishes. We might see meetings lay down their Peace and Social Concerns committees, as coordinating meeting-wide service initiatives begins to feel futile due to low participation. Finally, we might see dying meetings disinvest from their First Day School programs, as the needs of parents and children are tacitly acknowledged to be in competition with those of settled older adults. Those with power and longevity in the community ensure that their needs keep getting met, while increasingly neglecting those they are called to servechildren, those new to our faith, people in prison, people with disabilities and people who are struggling financially.

In a dying meeting, the bulk of the budget isn’t dedicated to embodying the Kingdom of Heaven through spiritual deepening or working toward justice and mercy in the world. Ignoring Friend Micah Bales’ prophetic challenge to “burn down the meetinghouse,” Friends instead spend their dwindling resources on internal priorities and the expenses associated with keeping a meetinghouse well-warmed, well-lit and well cared-for – even if there’s nobody in it.

Reflect on your church or meeting’s budget and volunteer hours. What priorities do we support with our money and our time? Think about the fraction of resources dedicated to outward-facing ministry – advancement and evangelism, service to the needy, contributing to the community via volunteering or interfaith witness? Now consider the fraction of resources dedicated to inward-facing ministry – facilities, pastoral care and the like.

I don’t know the right balance of spending in different categories – after all, a nice building can be incredibly helpful in welcoming newcomers – but I have heard it said that the Church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not yet members. Do our priorities reflect that mission?

A picture of a stone fortress against a cloudy sky

When the Church Becomes a Fortress

This post is part of a series based on Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Please see the introductory post, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition, for an overview of the series.

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.

– Philippians 2:1-4

When a congregation loses connection with its surrounding community, death becomes inevitable.

When meetings or churches start, they naturally spring up in areas where their members have connections – they live and work and play nearby. But if members don’t reach out to their neighbors through active service and conscious outreach, slowly those connections will fade. Younger generations – the people who don’t have deep emotional connections to the meeting or memories of it as a vital community hub – will not see the benefit in driving long distances to worship in a community with no connection to them or their faith community. And as families move away in the natural course of their lives, there will be no one to replace them. If there is some effort at outreach within the community, it usually looks like asking community residents to come to the church; there is almost never an effort by members to carry ministry into the community. And the idea of sharing leadership with “outsiders” from the community is anathema.

Instead of being a wedding feast to which all are invited, the church becomes a fortress, whose goal is to keep people and possessions on the inside safe and to keep people and influences on the outside out.

The Secret Society of Friends

Does this sound familiar? To me, it sounds a little bit like a description of the “hedge” of Friends’ Quietist period, when our way was to keep ourselves separate from, and undefiled by, the world by either intermarriage or evangelism. The hedge – plain dress, plain speech and other Quaker distinctives – has been precious for preserving our society. Our conscious pursuit of holiness is essential in a world that often discourages us from seeking the things of the Spirit. But I fear that sometimes we make an idol of “being Quakerly” in a way that impairs our ability to share the love of God and that closes us off from the voice of the Spirit. We are more motivated by fear of risking what we have than we are by love of our God and his creation.

One thing I often hear is that “Friends don’t proselytize.” Though I think this is ofen grossly misleading, there are at least two senses in which it is accurate. First, Friends have traditionally acknowledged that nobody can truly “convert” anyone else. Only the Spirit can reorient the heart away from the self and towards God, a proces known among Friends as “convincement.” Second, the empirical reality is that, since the Quietist period, many unprogrammed Friends have made non-evangelism a mark of Quaker virtue, adding a veneer of sanctity with phrases like “God will make sure the right people find their way to meeting” and a subtle attitude of superiority toward Evangelical Christians of the “Do you know Christ as your Lord and Savior?” variety.

Unlike Evangelicals, the thinking goes, Friends respect others by not bringing up uncomfortable topics like faith in polite company. We aren’t so indiscreet as to talk openly about our experience of God, even in our own meetings. How much more guarded are we with non-Quaker acquaintances? We may find the idea of sharing our faith intrusive, vulgar or even coercive, so we make a point of not advertising our presence or inviting our friends and co-workers to join us at Meeting for Worship. I do this as much as anyone – and I love talking about, thinking about, and exploring our faith. But I’m pretty sure that my silence – our silence – doesn’t represent faithful cooperation with God, who pursues each of us with relentless love.

Is More Going On?

And is excessive respect for boundaries and internalized bourgeois norms all that is at play? Or is more going on?

My mother was with me at a meeting for worship a few years ago when someone was lamenting the lack of racial diversity in our meeting. (I was the only Black member at the time.) At the time, a Black college student was occasionally providing childcare during our worship time or during business meeting. My mom asked if she had ever been invited to join us in worship. The bemused silence she received in response spoke for itself.

Was she never invited because she was Black? Young? The “help”? I don’t know.

But I suspect that, on the rare occasions when we do invite people to our meetings, we probably focus on inviting people who will fit in comfortably with the the people who are already there – generally White, well-educated, financially comfortable, politically liberal and mature in years.

Are these the only people who need to hear that God loves them tremendously and unconditionally? That they can know freedom from dysfunctional and harmful patterns of behavior? That they can participate in the high call of service and find riches in a simple way of living? That a loving community gathered in the Holy Spirit is possible? I don’t think so.

But somehow we seem to only seek out the people who remind us the most of ourselves.

Releasing Control, Embracing Love

I learned in Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship, Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye’s wonderfully thorough and probing look at Quakers’ complicated history in the fight for racial justice, that Quakers were often dedicated collaborators with Black churches, but were deeply ambivalent and even openly hostile to Black people seeking membership in Friends’ meetings.

You see, helping Black people – or immigrants or the poor – is basic Christian charity. But inviting “others” into membership isn’t charity: it’s solidarity, which is much more challenging.

Solidarity means encountering people as equally worthy, equally gifted, equally capable. It means trusting, really trusting, that there is that of God in every person and that the Spirit will speak to and through all who seek to listen, regardless of their ethnicity, political preferences, class, education or physical or mental ability. It means relinquishing control over how we follow the Light and embracing the inevitable change that occurs when new influences enter the community.

Are we ready to relax our fists, too often clenched around the levers of power, and instead extend the tender hand of love and friendship?

Are we ready to lay down the conviction that we alone know best and instead lean into the wild and reckless faith that God will bring forth new light from unexpected sources?

Are we ready to welcome people whose education, political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, age or mental or physical ability might be different from the norm in our community? What would need to change in our meetings and churches to truly embrace such precious, beloved image-bearers of God?

And even more than welcoming, are we ready to go into our communities and serve our neighbors – all of our neighbors – on their turf and on their terms?

How is God calling us to share his extravagant and inclusive love in this moment?

Worshiping the Past, Abandoning the Future

This post is part of a series based on Thom Rainer’s Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Please see the introductory post, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition, for an overview of the series.

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

– Ecclesiastes 7:10

When congregations die, it’s usually after a slow erosion rather than a cataclysmic event. During that process, there are several points when they could change directions. The decline is seldom irreversible. But instead of facing reality and responding accordingly, people use some high point in their past to justify why they should not change now. And so they die.

Of course, what they are saying may or may not be relevant. It may or may not be true. But it has meaning for them. “In 1978, we had a hundred members – and no website! So why do we need one now?” It sounds ridiculous, right? But I’m sure you have heard variations on this yourself.

The most common thread in Rainer’s 14 “autopsies” will be familiar to many Friends: dying churches live with the past as their hero. As Rainer writes, “[W]hen any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded wih anger and resolution. ‘We will die before we change.’ And they did.”

How often do Friends dismiss uncomfortable suggestions by referring to “how we do things” ? Or by appointing ourselves as the sole authority on what is or is not “Quakerly”?

“We can’t focus on outreach. Quakers don’t proselytize!” What about the Valiant Sixty? These men and women – Spirit-filled ministers like Elizabeth Hooten, Mary Fisher and James Nayler – crossed oceans to spread the Good News.

“Liberal Friends don’t recognize gifts in ministry. We’re all ministers!” Elias Hicks himself was a recorded minister – as were many, many Hicksite Friends in the decades following him. More significantly, there is very good reason to think that Liberal Friends’ century-long experiment in DIY spiritual nurture hasn’t increased our gifts but diminished them, hasn’t multiplied the impact of the Spirit but reduced it.

“Why should we focus on religious education? Quakerism is great because you can believe whatever you want!” What about the many works on Quaker faith that have nourished us through the centuries – from William Penn’s No Cross, No Crown to Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion? As I have written before, “Every individual determining truth for themselves is not Quakerism, it is Ranterism, a deception stamped out by early Friends because of how easily the individual is misled by pride and passion. Instead of leaving Friends to their own devices, we traditionally have come together to listen to the Light with the full conviction that God will make His will known if we earnestly seek it as a gathered body.” No, our discernment isn’t set in stone – we must always be open to new revelation by the Spirit – but neither is it endlessly malleable by the individual.

So we see that the statements we use to justify continuing to do things our own way are often misleading, even flat-out false. But – and this is key – even when they are true, the illustrious deeds of Friends from days gone by are irrelevant to our faithfulness in this moment. We still have to do the work of listening to the Inward Christ today, minding the Light today, seeking God’s will today.

However, it gets worse than that – because sometimes we don’t just refuse change because of misguided convictions and doctrinal confusion. More chillingly, we often refuse change simply for the sake of our own preferences and convenience.

When, for example, questions arise about adjusting the worship calendar to accommodate families or young adults, how often do we hear that they should just get up earlier, or later, or that “the time was never a problem before.” When meetings are advised that their failure to provide childcare for business sessions or meeting workshops leaves parents feeling excluded and marginalized, how often is the response left at, “That isn’t our meeting’s practice.” In other words: Go pound sand, mama!

Whether the issue is the handling of post-meeting announcements, the possibility of a monthly hymn-sing, initiating a weekly potluck, starting a group for teens or young adults or something else entirely, too often the response is as simple as it is devastating. “We’ve always done it this way,” we say. “And we won’t change. Not for you, not for anyone.”

Friends call the buildings in which we gather “meetinghouses” rather than “churches” because the “Church” is the living Body of Christ, and I have heard it said that the Church is the only organization that exists primarily for the good of people who are not yet members.

Does this describe us? Do we prioritize the needs of people who are on the peripheries of our community – children, parents, and others who are hungry for Spirit-grounded community? Do we look for opportunities to welcome people who are struggling and desperately need a warm heart and a helping hand? Or do we put ourselves – our needs, our preferences – first? Do we listen to how the Spirit is calling us to live today and tomorrow? Or do we make an idol of “how we’ve always done things,” using our traditions to prevent discernment, instead of encourage it?

Are we faithfully living as the Church? What reflections inform your conclusion?

Autopsy of a Deceased Church: Quaker Edition

To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

– Revelation 3:1-3, NIV

For the last several years, I’ve been talking up the book Autopsy of a Deceased Church by Thom Rainer to anyone who seems remotely concerned about the future of the Church in America or the future of their congregation or the future of Friends. Given the depressing state of faith in our country since I read the book on Mackenzie Morgan’s recommendation, I’ve been talking about the the book a lot.

So why am I writing about the book instead of just advising you to read it? After all, it’s an extremely quick read, a few hours at most. Even better, it’s a steal at well under ten dollars!

I’m writing about it for two reasons.

First off, a friend of mine, a pastor of a Quaker church – a man with an obvious interest in maintaining his congregation’s “non-deceased” status – attempted to read the book and said he just couldn’t get through the layers of cultural specificity. It was, in his words, “too Baptist.” Whether because I am gifted in cross-cultural communication or because I was raised Baptist, that wasn’t an issue for me. I would hate to have Friends miss out on Rainer’s insights because they can’t relate to his context, so if I can effectively “translate” for a Quaker audience, I’d like to do so.

But I’m doing a series about it now – in the midst of a busy and challenging season in my ministry, in my professional life and in my personal life – because Friends are out of time. In the last ten years, Friends in the United States have lost 12% of our members and 24% of our meetings.

Think about that: since 2010, nearly one in four American Quaker meetings or churches has closed its doors. The topic of dying congregations, and how to save them, feels urgent to me, and I’ve been unable to write much of anything since I read these devastating numbers.

Friends have a great reputation – for courage, for justice, for faithfulness. In other words, we have a reputation for being alive.

But like the church in Sardis, if we don’t change – by strengthening what remains of our communities, by recommitting to the beauty and richness of our spiritual heritage as Friends, by waking up to the need for change – our final hour will come like a thief in the night.

And the deeds of faith to which we are called will remain undone in the sight of our God.

Now is the hour of our visitation. Now is the hour of our decision. Please, please, please – let’s be real with each other as we explore topics like these, inspired by Thom Rainer’s book.

I have only ever been a member of liberal Quaker meetings, and I am sure I have blind spots, but I’m hoping this series can engage Friends from across the theological spectrum. We need each other so desperately.

And let’s take heart. Even in Sardis, as bad as things were, there were a few people “who [had] not soiled their clothes.” They received a promise: they would walk with the angels, dressed in white, for they were worthy.

Will we be worthy to walk with them?

Fight the Symptoms or Cure the Disease? A Plea for Spirit-Led Discernment

A Note: In this blog, I truly try to focus on matters of Christian discipleship. While I am very open and enthusiastic about my own theological location in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I prefer not to use this space to engage in Quaker “inside baseball”: I want to speak to and with faithful people beyond my tiny corner of the Church. The below letter represents a continuation of that commitment, as the concerns raised about decisionmaking with insufficient divine guidance are not unique to Friends. But it also represents a departure, as the particulars described below are specific to the Friends of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). Some NYYM Friends have felt led to endorse the concerns I lift up below, and to ask for a called meeting to discern a path forward as a worshiping body led by the Spirit. If you are a Friend in NYYM who shares these concerns and would like to join that list, which you can view here, please add your name and monthly meeting in the comments below. And if you would like to learn more about my ministry among Friends, please click here.

Another note : The “post comment” button is white on white, but if you click above where it says “Notify me of new comments via email,” you should see the button appear. Alternatively, you should be able to comment in the WordPress app.

Dear Friends –

A little over a year ago, New York Yearly Meeting took up discernment of a “Draft Statement on Becoming an Anti-Racist Faith Community.” Though its authors were unknown and it did not arise from any committee, the statement was fast-tracked to the floor of business meeting at Summer Sessions, where it was agreed that we would engage in a yearly meeting-wide discernment process. Though the discernment process never materialized, a webpage dedicated to the Draft Statement was launched, it was routinely published in the our online newsletter, and discussion sessions were created – not to discern whether the yearly meeting should adopt the draft statement, but to share our reactions to it and how we could incorporate into our faith lives as Friends. Effectively, the statement, though nominally a draft, was treated as though it had been discerned and adopted. This de facto adoption of the Draft Statement continued until a group of Friends of various racial backgrounds and theologies came together over many months and discerned that integrity demanded that the process we adopted as a yearly meeting be followed. This was expressed lovingly but firmly, and repeatedly, to NYYM leadership. Eventually, the weekly promotion of the statement tapered off; the concerns expressed by NYYM Friends, both individuals and monthly meetings, were acknowledged; and work finally began on building the discernment process we approved as a yearly meeting. This discernment process is still “under construction”; I have heard nothing about when, how or if the yearly meeting will roll out the process so that we can actually engage with the statement as a body. 

Then, about six months ago, another statement came before our yearly meeting, “An Urgent Call to the Religious Society of Friends.” The Urgent Call was drafted by a collection of prominent Friends from yearly meetings concentrated in the northeast and disseminated throughout United States Quaker networks. It was published only a handful of weeks before our NYYM Summer Sessions; in fact, several committees donated their meeting time at summer sessions so that the Urgent Call could be considered by our yearly meeting. I was looking forward to the opportunity to discern God’s will together as a worshiping body at my first in-person Summer Sessions experience, to really “do” Quakerism together, listening for the Spirit’s guidance on such important issues as the future of our democracy and how we, as Friends, are called to respond to the threat it is under. Instead, I found that the Urgent Call had already been endorsed on behalf of the yearly meeting. While we were “considering” it as a yearly meeting, our discernment was not around the decision of whether to adopt the Urgent Call, but how to incorporate it into our lives. The decision of whether to adopt it was not entrusted to dozens or hundreds of NYYM Friends being led by the Spirit. Instead, it was made by two individuals. I am 100% sure that they were acting thoughtfully and prayerfully. However, they nonetheless usurped the opportunity for NYYM Friends to seek God’s voice together, instead putting us in our current position of having our yearly meeting publicly endorse a document for which unity in the Spirit was never sought and manifestly does not exist. 

And now, just a few weeks ago, a “Statement on Sexual and Reproductive Services” appeared in our online newsletter, approved by Quaker Earthcare Witness. This statement, which was issued by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), condemns the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and states that “restricting access to…abortion, will adversely impact the health and well-being of people and their families.” Quaker Earthcare Witness asks Friends meetings to issue statements supporting the IUSSP’s declaration. I would prefer to set aside the tenuous connection between Earthcare and abortion, since the only relationship I can think of is using abortion as population control for the good of the environment – a horrifying thought. Many Friends, myself included, believe strongly that God and our peace testimony call us to promote and protect human life and human dignity, from the earliest stages of human development when a growing baby is hidden in the womb to natural death, however that may come. It struck me as troubling that a committee dedicated to protecting all of creation was calling on Friends to speak forcefully for the unrestricted right to abort developing humans – not by reference to traditional Quaker faith and practice, not by reference to the “cloud of witnesses,” not by reference to the Bible or the early Church or even to the philosophy or sacred traditions of other faiths or cultures. No, we are being called to speak forcefully on the mysteries of life and creation on the sole weight and spiritual authority of … the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.

First, a document created by a group of anonymous NYYM Friends was treated as endorsed without proper corporate discernment. Then, a document created by individual Quakers from outside our yearly meeting was actually endorsed without any corporate discernment. Now,  our monthly meetings are being called to “consider issuing a statement of support” for a document that, though endorsed by a Quaker group, has no recognizable Quaker content – a call made with no mention made of corporate discernment, or faithfulness, or what it means to live a life grounded in the Spirit.

I might be a “bad Friend” to quote Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, but I have a feeling he was onto something in Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Third time it’s enemy action.” Our enemy is spiritual, not any creature of flesh and blood, but the same principle applies.

Friends, the Adversary is afoot in our yearly meeting and is using the cover of these essential, emotional and timely issues to seduce us away from our one true Love – the Spirit of God who is always present to comfort and always ready to guide. The Deceiver cries, “Urgent! Disaster is coming! There is no time for the niceties of Quaker process – we must act now!” But “Quaker process” isn’t an exercise in bureaucratic box-checking. Quaker process is listening for the voice of God together, the very foundation of our faith. What use is it to be antiracist if we become anti-Spirit along the way? What have we gained by saving democracy if in doing so we abandon the Kingdom of Heaven? What victory do we win in condemning the actions of the Supreme Court if, by acting in our own will and way rather than walking in the Light of Christ, we condemn ourselves in the process? 

Each one of these outwardly unrelated happenings is a symptom of the same disease – a reliance on our own judgment and priorities rather than on divine guidance. I no longer have the energy to battle symptoms, but it is more urgent than ever that we fight the underlying disease, because without a cure, we are lost. The stream of “statements” and “calls” and “declarations” will continue, and our yearly meeting will continue to embrace them, until and unless we return to the Source of all our power and strength. Without that Source, we will continue running after every issue that grabs our attention, flitting in turn to every cause, faithful to none of them – because none of them will be seasoned and embraced with the conviction that only comes from knowing that God has called us and we have no choice but to follow.

In love, 
Adria Gulizia

Embracing Spiritual Gifts

A while back, I shared an essay on the Ephesians 4 spiritual gifts – apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher – and how we welcome them (or not) in our faith communities. Titled “Welcoming the Gifts God Sends Us,” it was a lament about what we lose when we fail to welcome ALL of the spiritual gifts destined for the building up of the church – even those that make us upset or uncomfortable.

Last night, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to revisit the theme of spiritual gifts in a First Monday Lecture for Pendle Hill. Instead of merely bemoaning our lack of receptivity, this time I let myself wonder what it would look like to be a people who delight in each other’s gifts, who wonder where the Spirit is moving in the words that make us squirm. How could we be a place of refuge for each other, an oasis for a world being crushed under the weight of our own false beliefs?

I was super nervous sharing my talk. I had never had to prepare a talk of that length before, and the words that had seemed mild, almost clinical, on the page, felt almost alive as they came out of my mouth. But I am told that my message spoke to many who listened, and I hope that it will speak to you.

I made some slides to accompany the talk, which you can find here. Please give it a look, and let me know what you think. I hope it blesses you.

Here are some additional resources that might help as you explore spiritual gifts. Please add additional resources in the comments!

Why Do Friends Worship?

This blog post grew out of a very brief conversation during a workshop that I recently facilitated. That workshop, “The Time to Be Tender” – making space in community to show up for God and for each other – was part of an ongoing series on Quaker Testimonies to Mercy, facilitated by Baltimore Yearly Meeting Friend Windy Cooler. I cannot recommend Friend Windy, or the series, highly enough. Please check out the series here and join the online conversation exploring how God is calling Friends to courage, to faith and to open hearts here .

I have a love-hate relationship with celebrity pastors.

Okay, to be fair, I don’t actually know any celebrity pastors, so I guess I should say I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of the celebrity pastor. I believe that any model of ministry in which so many people – often thousands – are focused so intently on one individual to teach, preach and prophesy is intrinsically dysfunctional, a perversion of the Good News, which calls the Church to be a living testimony to the reality that God’s Spirit has been poured out on all people, not just on one person.

But, man… when I just want to hear some good preaching, there I am on YouTube, scrolling through sermons by Francis Chan or Paul Washer or even T.D. Jakes. See, these sermons have everything. They’ve got biblical exposition – how educational! They’ve got thoughtful illustrations – how inspirational! They even have a few jokes – how entertaining! These guys have found a winning formula for their sermons, and it’s reliable. And it’s layered on top of the form and structure provided by the service as a whole, with hymns, readings and prayers following a regular and predictable rhythm. With these guys – and they are, in fact, mostly men – you pretty much know what’s being served. If you like the flavor, it’s easy to keep coming back for more.

Friends’ meetings for worship, especially our unprogrammed meetings, aren’t like that at all. Sometimes there’s singing – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s a reflection on scripture – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s a meditation on life or the Spirit – but often there isn’t. Sometimes there’s prayer or humor or a few minutes of teaching – but often there aren’t any of those things, either. In fact, sometimes, there isn’t any speaking at all – just an hour and change of sitting quietly together, followed by snacks and coffee of highly variable quality in the fellowship room.

It reminds me of the movie character Forrest Gump’s famous observation about life being like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. In the case of Quaker worship, where anyone can stand and speak about anything – and I do mean anything – you can’t even be sure that there will be chocolate in the box! It might be breakfast cereal or rice or a pair of gym shoes instead.

So when Friends who are otherwise involved in a meeting’s life and business begin to make a habit of skipping meeting for worship, their common rationale – “The worship doesn’t feed me” – is understandable. After all, sometimes what’s in the “box” of meeting for worship is a regifted sweater, which doesn’t make for a very good meal.

When we treat meeting for worship as primarily being about our personal enjoyment and individual enrichment – like a painting class or tango lessons – it makes sense that our attendance is contingent on how elevated we feel after the experience. After all, we have many different options for how to spend our time. It is only right that we should act as wise consumers, shopping carefully for the most enjoyable, uplifting or useful experiences. Maybe that includes meeting for worship; maybe it doesn’t.

But here’s the thing – Friends don’t come to meeting for worship just to be fed. We also come to be formed. Friends have traditionally believed that meeting for worship is a primary means that God uses to shape us into the people He created us to be – both as individuals and as gathered bodies of Friends.

We see this in the words of Robert Barclay:

“…when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed…”

We see this in the words of George Fox:

“We need no mass for to teach us, and we need not your common prayer, for the Spirit that gave forth the scriptures teacheth us how to pray, sing, fast, and to give thanks. The true faith changeth not, which is the gift of God, and a mystery held in a pure conscience. Our faith, our church, our unity in the Spirit, and our Word, at which we tremble, was in the beginning before your church-made faiths, and our unity, church and fellowship will stand when they are all ended.”

We see this in our Books of Discipline:

“In our life as a religious society we have found it true that the spirit of man can come into direct contact with the Spirit of God, and can thereby learn of God. A man who has experienced the sense of contact with the Spirit will not only wish to listen for himself to what God may say, and in the secret of his own soul speak with God, but he will become conscious that fellowship with other human beings, especially if they be seekers like himself, will strengthen and deepen the sense of communion. The way of worship through silent communion, in which there is freedom for spoken prayer or ministry, springs from the fundamental experience of the Society of Friends, and is a constant expression and working out of its central principle.”

Expectant worship is a powerful technology for deepening our spirituality, heightening our awareness of the voice of God and strengthening our love for each other. In worship, we are empowered:

  • To grow in goodness and holiness as the Spirit ministers to us in the silence. Friends’ waiting worship is not silent for silence’ sake. As George Fox said, “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” In worship, we consciously set aside our activity to let God shape and teach each one of us directly – independent of distractions and free from the limitations of our human perspective.
  • To practice listening for the voice of God in the “gym” of worship. As Friends, we believe that God is generous with His guidance and that we can live and love in new ways if we mind the Light of Christ. But amidst the demands and busyness of life and work and family, that kind of focused attention inward is so hard. Meeting for worship lets us practice listening for the voice of God in a space where distractions are minimized. Over time, we build up our “God muscles,” increasingly taking the ability to listen and respond to the Spirit out into the world with us every day.
  • To learn patience and wisdom through the silence and vocal ministry of others. Sometimes, the vocal ministry we hear in worship speaks directly to our spiritual condition. Sometimes, it seems silly or vapid. Sometimes, we might dismiss what we hear as vague and superficial, on the one hand, or overly dogmatic and prescriptive, on the other – only to find that it spoke powerfully to others. The ministry we hear in open worship teaches us humility and patience as we learn to welcome what nourishes us and to hold in grace and tenderness what doesn’t.
  • To enjoy each other’s presence and company. Part of being in community is celebrating each other and delighting in each other’s company. The hugs, jokes, and stories are among the pleasures of fellowship. We’ve been given each other to love and care for. We should enjoy it!
  • To know each other well enough to help keep each other on the right track. For most of human history, we lived, worked and worshipped side by side with the same people. If someone was a cheat or a gossip or a liar, others would find out quickly and could confront them. But in our day, it’s easy to have one face at home, another at work and yet a third in our faith community. Regular contract helps us know each other well enough to help each other live lives of integrity.
  • To create a community that cares for its members’ needs. Just as we need to know each other well to help each other live into our calling as Friends, we also need to know each other well to care for each other effectively. Do we notice when someone’s affect is off, when the conversation between spouses is chilly, when the children don’t have their usual energy? In order to care for each other’s needs – financial assistance, prayer, a networking connection, or just a listening ear – we need to build enough knowledge and trust in each other to know when to ask “Is everything okay?” – and to feel confident giving an honest answer.
  • To identify, lift up and support each other’s spiritual gifts. The Bible says that those who follow Christ shall be “ a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” These are all words that point to the importance of building up each and every individual in God’s love and wisdom and power. “Royal priests” are not born but formed and trained over time. We can’t help form each other unless we know each other well – not just socially, but spiritually too. We need to see how the members of our communities love each other and help each other and uplift each other to understand how the Spirit is leading each us into fullness and maturity for the good of the community as a whole.

Worship is powerful and necessary – even when it doesn’t always give us the “right” experience. It’s not a “nice-to-have” add-on to committee service and business meeting; it is a doorway into the mystery of individuals being knit together in God’s infinite love and holy purpose. If your meeting or church has consistently shallow worship over time, it should be treated as an emergency, the spiritual equivalent of a five-alarm fire. I am happy to share resources on deepening worship. (Friend Patricia Loring’s Listening Spirituality and Friend Christopher Sammond’s writings and workshops are a great place to start.)

But I encourage us all to reject the mindset that would insist that worship cater to our own desires, our own wishes, and our own notions of what an “uplifting spiritual experience” should be. Worship is so much greater than that. God is so much greater than that. And we can all be part of that greatness when we choose to stop trying to control our experience of worship and instead lean into the mystery.

Anti-Racism and the War of the Lamb

For me, becoming a Quaker wasn’t a choice. It was an outward recognition of a spiritual reality, that God himself had called me to a place and a people for a purpose beyond myself. This realization was born of two deeply profound spiritual experiences. The first was the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit in meeting for worship. I knew in my body, in my bones, in my soul the reality of sitting in the warmth of God‘s love and feeling myself lifted and elevated, loved and held, examined and known in all my darkness and all my light. The second was a recognition in my mind and spirit that this approach to the walk of faith, this understanding of the Gospel of Christ, this profoundly practical way of striving toward right relationship in and with the world was True and that it was calling to me.

Part of this Truth was encountering the Lamb’s War, which is how early Friends called the fight against evil to which Christ calls his followers. As a teenager trying to make sense of the world and my place in it, I had been drawn to Islam, with its up-front acknowledgment of the duty of every believer to struggle against evil, both in one’s own heart and in the outside world. This commitment inspired and convicted me, making me wonder why such urgency was lacking in my own mainline protestant upbringing. While my theological convictions did not allow me to become a Muslim, the weight of righteousness unfulfilled still lingered in my heart. What I discovered in early Friends’ commitment to the Lamb’s War sang to my spirit. 

Like the Muslim thinkers I admired, early Friends were unequivocal about the reality of evil. As George Fox said, “spare not that which is for the sword, and for the fire; let all fleshly-mindedness be trodden under your feet.” Wickedness is real and sickening and all too present. That George Floyd could be murdered in the street, that Philando Castile could be summarily executed for the “crime” of legally possessing a firearm, that Black and Brown children could be warehoused at the border in inhuman filth and squalor – God calls us to stand against these abominations with all of our being. At the same time, the Lamb’s War does not ever allow good ends to justify evil means, whether physical violence, coercion, dishonesty, talebearing, or any other method not in keeping with our way as Friends. Instead, as early Friend James Nayler put it, “[Our] armor is the light; [our] sword is the Spirit of the Father [God] and the Son [Christ]; [our] shield is faith and patience; [our] paths are prepared with the gospel of peace and good will towards all the creation of God. [Our] breastplate is righteousness and holiness to God; [our] minds are protected with godliness, [we] are covered with salvation, and [we] are taught with truth.”  This call to the Lamb’s War, which spoke to me so profoundly, demands the highest discipline and the most absolute humility as we follow the Living God. Internally, we stand in the Light, allowing God’s secret power to weaken the evil within us and raise up the good, to paraphrase Friend Robert Barclay. Externally, we work tirelessly for the good of our communities, while loving our enemies, doing good to those who hate us, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who abuse us.

Which brings me to antiracism.

Antiracism can be a confusing term. It sounds like it means “being against racism,” but it is much more than that. Antiracism is not simply being against bigotry and bias in our individual relationships and institutions. Instead it is a fully-formed ideology that, among other things, posits the necessity of a power analysis to look at how various types of oppression, including White supremacy and anti-Blackness, but also ableism, homophobia, misogyny, and more, are mutually reinforcing and set up tiers of power and influence even in the most outwardly egalitarian environments. Antiracism is a tremendously powerful lens for understanding the world around us. Particularly in the context of the United States, the theory of antiracism draws a line from the early days of the slave trade through the three-fifths compromise to the Civil War to Reconstruction and the backlash against it to redlining and Jim Crow right down to the present day to demonstrate the fierce grip that White supremacy has on our national psyche and the real-world impact that has on the lives of people of color. 

I see that chokehold, including its impact on Friends and our failures to embody or even seek true racial justice for centuries, in profoundly spiritual terms. In the virtual workshop I gave through Powell House in 2020 on “The Lamb’s War for Racial Justice,” I described racism as a malevolent spirit haunting our land, one of the lesser gods of our civil religion, which encourages us to see those who are our brothers as less than human, that sees dark skin as a stigma, that accepts a racial hierarchy – with White people on the top, thank you very much – as right and normal. This spirit is greatly weakened in our day from the days when brown-skinned men, women and children were sold in market squares across the country. But it persists. I believe the theory of antiracism has much to teach, and I heartily recommend exploring it, with a particular encouragement to do the anti-racism analysis training through Roots of Justice. 

But antiracism can easily come into tension with Spirit-led community. Because of the ways that it looks for the power analysis in every relationship, and exhaustively catalogs the ways that power protects itself, antiracism sometimes leads its followers to see conflict around issues of race or between White people and people of color as being exclusively about racism or preserving White supremacy, not necessarily seeing the role played by conflict style, class or cultural difference, or competing (though equally important) values. The antiracist view has been known to flatten nuance – that there is a tension between welcoming difference and group cohesion, that there are reasons other than rank anti-Blackness to say “all lives matter,” though anti-Blackness motivates some. Antiracism may not recognize that the very tools used to preserve power – private conversations instead of public call-outs, requests to assume the best of each other, the willingness to proceed slowly –  might be used for legitimate reasons as well, for example to preserve reputation and relationship while allowing deeply restorative, holy work to take place. When it insists on communities of racial justice and accountability, but not on the individual patience, self-control and forgiveness that make our meetings safe places to admit our struggles and shortcomings to each other, antiracism undermines the very transformation that it seeks to effect. The outward Lamb’s War of public righteousness and the inward Lamb’s War of personal virtue cannot be separated. And any effort towards corporate transformation that isn’t leaning on divine power and grace is doomed to failure. 

This is because antiracism, though useful, cannot transform. It cannot liberate. It cannot save. This is why I must object, in the name of God, to any proposal to elevate antiracism to the level of doctrine within communities of faith. 

Unfortunately, this is already happening among Friends. I have heard firsthand accounts of Quakers – in the name of antiracism -abandoning our foundational conviction that the Spirit speaks to us and through us as a worshiping body, approaching the clerk’s table to demand action on the basis of a signed petition rather than acting based on corporate discernment. I have read descriptions, both triumphant and distressed, of the forcible deplatforming of Friends whose ministry was requested or supported by a yearly meeting because other Friends found their programs to be insufficiently antiracist. A White Friend in conflict with a Friend of color at a Quaker gathering was excluded from reconciliation conversations in flagrant violation of our traditional understanding of Gospel Order, and instead gossiped about and quietly blackballed rather than lovingly engaged, in the name of antiracism. At least one yearly meeting has formed committees whose membership is restricted on the basis of race in the name of antiracism. (There are public accounts of many of these events. My goal isn’t to embarrass anybody, so I didn’t link to them. Feel free to send me a message if you’d like more information.) And all of these actions, whose consistency with our faith and with the leadings of the Spirit is at least worth discerning over, have taken place in a context where concrete commitments to Friends of color – supporting Friends of color in our institutions or effectively welcoming Friends of color in our meetings – are much less visible. Instead of using the commitment to racial justice to become more faithful Friends, too often the embrace of antiracism in an invitation to indulge the worst instincts of the First Adam who fell – calling out instead of loving eldering, sarcasm and hostility instead of simple truth-telling, silencing dissent instead of Spirit-led discernment, and assuming the worst of each other instead of approaching each other with godly love, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

This is not necessarily an indictment of antiracism itself. In a context where people are committed to love, committed to community, committed to cultivating patience, forgiveness, tenderness, long-suffering, generosity, courageous obedience to the Spirit, and the humble recognition that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – as my uncle says, the only difference is between the caught and the uncaught – antiracism might be an extremely helpful commitment to draw us into greater faithfulness. For such a community, united in the commitment to laboring with each other in the Way of the Lamb, understanding that it is better to suffer and be wronged than to depart from that Way, antiracism might be a boon.

But in the context of contemporary Liberal Quakerism, where our commitment to God and each other is not anchored in a shared understanding of what it looks like to embody Beloved Community, elevating an ideology such as antiracism to the level of doctrine is a profound threat to our continued existence as Friends in anything but name. Friends have already demonstrated – in our yearly meetings, at our gatherings, in our institutions – that, in the name of antiracism, we will allow race to determine committee membership, we will cast aside Gospel Order in interracial conflict, and we will seek action on the basis of the exercise of power rather than out of prayerful discernment. We will summarily discard our faith and our practice if we feel they are not yielding the “right” results. But each time we abandon centuries of witness with little or no discernment, each time we put our commitment to antiracist theory above our commitment to following the Inward Christ in our time-tested ways, we erode the foundation of our faith, of our testimonies and of our witness to God and man of the Spirit’s work within and among us: that the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is real, is knowable, and is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Our commitment to antiracism cannot be stronger than our commitment to following that Spirit and the path that God has laid for us as Friends.

This is precisely my fear when considering New York Yearly Meeting’s Draft Statement on Becoming an Antiracist Faith Community. In a yearly meeting where the existence of God is left to individual conscience, where knowledge of the Lamb’s War is rare and commitment to it is rarer still, where recognizing spiritual gifts is controversial and where a shared commitment to Gospel Order is non-existent, committing to an ideological framework as potent and expansive as antiracism is an invitation to idolatry and collective self-destruction.

Fighting racism, which poisons the souls of White people with the need to be superior to people of color and poisons the souls of people of color with the belief that we must be defined under and against White people, is a non-negotiable aspect of the Lamb’s War. We must identify it, both root and fruit, and spare it not, for it is only fit for the sword. But we must do so as followers of the Light of Christ, first and foremost. I have been gathering with Friends for months trying to discern a beginning to what it might look like to stand firmly against racism from our perspective as Friends, seeking guidance from the Spirit instead of importing a theory from the world without prayerfully considering how it does or does not fit in with our other theological commitments. The results of our discernment are here. We have no conclusions, but we have a starting point. I hope that others will join in this work so we can walk together toward a brighter future together as Friends.

I understand that this position may damage or even destroy my reputation among Friends in certain circles. But if I must face judgment, then let it be man’s, and not God’s. 

Post-script: Where do we go from here?

A friend of mine with whom I shared this piece before I published it asked me how I feel God is calling us to move forward as Friends. I don’t really have specifics, but it is clear to me that the answer is not to reduce our growing commitment to racial justice, but to greatly increase our commitment to a robust, embodied, sacrificial Quaker faith. 

From the discernment document linked above, I want to share the following quote:

In the Beloved Community we aspire to be, we can own and repent for how we continue to hurt each other, strengthened by the Spirit to stand in the Light of Truth – even when that Truth is painful. In the Beloved Community, we can lay down the false protection of pride and, in humility, put each others’ interests and needs above our own. In the Beloved Community, everyone is seen, honored and heard, given what they need to thrive, and encouraged to offer their unique gifts to serve God and each other. In the Beloved Community, the wounds of our shared past and painful present are held tenderly and, by the miracle of love, are allowed to heal. In the Beloved Community, justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. In the Beloved Community, we are one in the Spirit and we are one in love.

As Friends, we need more to be more intentional about recognizing the reality of evil within our own hearts, as well as within our structures – and we need to have faith that the power and love of God can redeem us from that evil if we allow such redemption to take place. What does this look like? Normalizing confession, repentance and restoration. This can take place within spiritual friendships and structures like Life Transformation Groups or within support committees and Meetings for Healing. The important thing is that we create spaces where people can say, “I messed up and I want your help and God’s help to do better,” and they can hear back, “We love you, and we’re with you.” If we don’t have those spaces, saying “you did something racist” will always feel like an attack instead of an encouragement to “mind the Light.” Vulnerability, not defensiveness, is required if transformation will take place.

We also need to constantly be on the lookout for each other’s spiritual gifts, so that we can affirm them, support them, but also hold each other accountable for their use. Someone with a shepherding gift wants to love their community and keep it safe – but we can’t let safety be an excuse not to hear hard truths about ourselves and each other. Someone with a prophetic gift will be eager to get the community in line with God’s will on racial justice – but the desire for righteousness cannot be allowed to crowd out pastoral love and compassion for others. There’s no point getting everyone a “seat at the table”  if you’ve burned down the building seeking justice without mercy.

We need to get really concrete about what God is calling us to change in our individual lives, in our families, in our meetings and in our Quaker institutions, so that we can reflect the goodness of God’s beautiful, diverse creation. It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves “antiracist” if we don’t see the many ways that we conflate “being a good Quaker” with successfully embodying middle-class Whiteness, including the common prejudice in unprogrammed circles that pastoral Friends – the vast majority of whom are people of color – “aren’t real Quakers.” How – specifically – are we being called to shape our lives toward racial unity? How about class unity? Casual statements like “spanking should be illegal” or “Friends don’t need any help with their personal finances” or “I can’t understand people who let their kids play football” demonstrate a sense of cultural superiority that will alienate people from other backgrounds. I don’t spank my son (though I freely admit to slapping his hand when he tried to unfasten his car seat while I was driving), my personal finance skills are reasonably good, and I’d never let my child play football – but as someone with Black, southern, working-class roots, I know plenty of people who feel differently. If the “big tent” of liberal Quakerism isn’t broad enough for them to feel comfortable exploring our faith, it doesn’t really matter how great our ideas about racism are – we’ll continue to perpetuate the norms that continue to make “fit for freedom, not for Friendship” the reality in our present day. 

And finally, we have to allow God to breathe life back into our corporate practices. That starts with you and me, with opening our lives to each other and seeking each other’s discipline and oversight in our lives, and committing to work out our conflicts in love and good order. It means showing up for each other with food and money and childcare, not just gathering to pat each other on the back about how great we are because we don’t need hymns and pastors to tell us what to think about God. It means exploring the rich tradition of our Quaker faith and learning to use the tools we have inherited around discernment, conflict resolution, community care, and faithful listening to God. Once you get into the weeds with each other, in the real meat of life and death and hardship, and you love each other through it, trusting in the Spirit to work miracles among us around racial justice doesn’t seem as farfetched.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Maybe God will open more to me – or to you. Let’s continue the work together.

Why We Still Need a King of Kings

“[The powers] will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

– Revelation 17:14

In my corner of Babylon, we expect to be heard. We appreciate our representative government, and we expect everyone’s voices to be heard – especially ours. We want to speak to the principal. We want to speak to the manager. We want to speak to your supervisor – yes, yours. We want to know how this decision was made.  We sign the petition. We attend the protest. We write to the editor, or at least to the comments section. Some of us are mild and some of us are pushy, but either way, we will not be moved, and we will not be ignored. I say “we,” but I mean “I.” I will not be ignored.

I pity the people of Iran or North Korea, who are forced to bow to a supreme leader. I certainly don’t want one of my own. Our country was founded to liberate us – some of us, anyway – from the rule of unjust kings or of just kings. As our democratic ideals have grown in fullness, we have committed and recommitted to equality, to inalienable rights, to the pursuit of happiness for all. What does it mean to call Christ the “King of kings” for a people like this – a people committed to self-governance, committed to representation, committed to being heard? Haven’t we moved past such an antiquated and even barbaric concept as absolute power over other autonomous creatures? What can calling Christ “king” even mean?

It means everything.

If Christ is king, then I am not. My own desires are not the standard by which people or situations should be judged. I can be selfish or self-serving (sometimes). I can be ill-informed, reactive or unaware (often). Now I see “through a mirror darkly” – only on the other side of this life will I see in full. Even my most cherished opinions must be held lightly, merely provisional in light of that which is eternal. 

If Christ is king, then Rachel Maddow is not – and neither is Sean Hannity. It’s not enough to listen to commentators I like and nod along. Everything that is said must be filtered through scripture, the witness of the saints and the unwavering authority of the Inward Christ. Is what is being said true? Is it charitable? How does the message reflect the fruits of the Spirit? Does it encourage me to be generous, loving and patient, or opinionated, argumentative, and cruel? Does it encourage understanding, self-sacrifice and empathy (yes, even for those people)? Or does it encourage hatred or contempt for others? It’s not enough to fact-check our sources, though truthfulness is important. Something can be factual and still toxic to our relationship with God and others, if it stimulates our fear or pride. 

If Christ is king, my bank balance is not. It’s easy to be generous and broad-minded when you’re not afraid for your future or your family’s future. Once concern for survival is introduced, generosity looks like foolishness and greed looks like wisdom. There’s a temptation to horde, to lie, to cut corners. Like Ananias and Sapphira, we are tempted to hold our resources back from others, while pretending to be more righteous than we are. But if Christ is king, then his word is like gold – and he promised that God would provide. Fear of going without doesn’t excuse us from our calling as Christians.

If Christ is king, then love is not. I have a beautiful son, who I think is the funniest, smartest, most curious, sweetest, most lovable child on earth. There is so much that I would do for him. Sometimes, though, I need a reminder that I also have obligations to other people in my life. As easy as it is to forget, it is deeply immoral to put so much energy into loving a person, thing or ideal that you let it crowd out other parts of a rightly-ordered life – honoring God, diligence at work, duty to our family, friends and fellow believers, care for the poor – or lead you to do things that are otherwise immoral, such as mistreating other people’s property, treating any human being less than respectfully, or using our bodies in ways that do not honor our Creator. Such a love, if it is love, is fundamentally a form of idolatry. God is love, but love is not God. The distinction is essential.

I have increasingly seen in recent years the phrase “Kin-dom of God” (instead of the traditional “Kingdom of God”) used to refer to our right relationship to creation and to the Spirit. Kin-dom emphasizes relationship over power, love over authority. That emphasis – on connection, on fellowship, on oneness – is beautiful and important. Part of my love for my faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), is the holy anarchy that arises from our faith that God spreads spiritual gifts generously and freely among all who would receive them. It is such fertile ground for God to draw fruit from. But there is one authority that we must respect and one hierarchy that we must preserve: the sovereignty of God over all of creation and the authority of Christ over our whole lives. Without it, fertile ground for the Spirit quickly turns to salt and sand as we slide into wickedness, confusion, and futility.

As human beings, we are spiritual creatures. Something or someone will always be the focus of our thoughts and our energy and our devotion. We will have a king, whether we consciously choose one or not. So let’s have that king be Christ.

Walking the Path of the Perpetrator

As an attendee of the annual conference of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, I recently had the privilege of experiencing a day-long training on restorative justice for mediators facilitated by Elizabeth Clemants. Elizabeth is the founder of an incredible non-profit called Hidden Water, which provides no-cost mediation and restorative approaches for adult survivors of childhood sex abuse and their families – including former abusers who are ready and willing to walk the path of the perpetrator by taking responsibility for the harm they have caused. She clarified during the training that we have all caused harm – that we all must walk the path of the perpetrator. Hearing such a deeply Christian message at a professional training set me back on my heels a bit. It has also sparked reflection, the first fruits of which I share here.

Have you ever experienced the tender sweetness of holding a sleeping baby? Part of what is so special about those moments spent cradling a new life is an infant’s freshness and newness and openness. Their skin is so soft and smooth that it practically glows. Their eyes are wide and full of wonder. They smile, laugh and cry easily and freely and naturally. Even a few years later, everything is different – toddlers are routinely mistrustful, and their knees and elbows are already roughened by years of crawling and falling. Exploration and painful lessons take their toll. Life scars us.

People scar us, too. We all have to reckon with the way others hurt us. We can brush it off, ignoring the wounds inflicted on us. We can downplay it, emphasizing our resiliency while de-emphasizing the capacity of others to hurt us. We can justify the harm others have done us, attributing our pain to our own defects, our own shortcomings. All of these are valuable psychological defense mechanisms. They prevent us from seeing ourselves as disempowered victims and preserve our self-image as strong individuals capable of shaping our own fate, which is critically important for our emotional and material well-being. We are not the absolute masters of our fate, though, and given enough life experience, given enough pain and grief, each of us will confront the limits on our ability to direct our own life. Each of us must reckon with what that means for how we see ourselves and our world. This challenging work is one of the essential foundations of wisdom, and it is the path of the victim.

But there is another path, equally important and in some ways harder to walk.

Each of us moves through the world damaging others with our sharp edges. Often we hurt others by accident. Sometimes we do so on purpose. But none of us is so virtuous or so careful as to make it through this world without leaving wounds in our wake. We have withdrawn from those who had a right to expect our emotional engagement. We have imposed on those who had a right to expect our restraint. We have abandoned those who had a right to nurture, and we have oppressed and abused those who had a right to freedom. To own the reality of that, to sit with its impact, without minimizing, denying or justifying it to ourselves – that is a work that takes courage and the willingness to sit with painful truths. That is the path of the perpetrator.

Not only is holding grief and sorrow for the way each of us harms those we encounter part of the path to wisdom and maturity, it is also a nonnegotiable part of the Christian walk. If we cannot own our sin – both the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do – we cannot receive the grace of God. Without admitting our guilt, we are incapable of receiving forgiveness. Without being open to the realities of our own faults and temptations, we will never be willing to “stand still in the Light and submit to it,” in the words of the prophetic Quaker George Fox. No matter our race, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity or political affiliation, we can never step into the fullness of God’s promise for us until we admit our inability to live lives of righteousness and goodness without him, and until we sit with the real pain and damage that implies, some of which we may never know.

Walking the path of the perpetrator is not for the faint of heart. Listening to those we have hurt, letting the Light show us the darkness inside – it’s a painful thing. But the Spirit of Christ is with us, and within us, as we do this work. And in that Spirit, all things are possible.