Featured(Review) How the Body of Christ Talks

God is a community of persons, a community that is open to humankind in all our woundedness and immaturity, making a space for us to participate in and contribute to the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.

How the Body of Christ Talks by C. Christopher Smith

In How the Body of Christ Talks, C. Christopher Smith reveals to readers the sacrament and vital function of conversation within Christian communities. He draws upon experience and stories from his own church’s initiation into healthy, deep, faith-based conversation, as well as stories from a variety of other religious communities. Weaved throughout the book is also a passionate vision of the church’s role within its surrounding community. Smith presents an expansive view of the church’s position in the community that is both exciting and challenging.

Smith gives guidance on moving carefully but determinedly from a state where conversation is lacking or too shallow, to gradually approaching more challenging topics and making larger decisions as a healthy body. Far too many churches fall into the traps of sticking to shallow discussions to avoid conflict or limiting what’s permitted in conversation to fit an imposed and often top-down unity. Smith reminds us that while we come together to find common ground and faith, homogeneity leads to brittle social structures that can be restrictive and easily shattered. His examples of the conversations some churches worked through together were difficult at times, as an LGBT person of faith, to read yet more stories of the trouble some have in finding love and acceptance toward people like me. However, Smith clearly expresses the need to prioritize the well-being and wholeness of oppressed and abused people as we engage in these conversations.

As a Quaker, I recognize some of the problems discussed around lack of deep conversations about faith, and I appreciated that Smith draws upon Friends’ communities and practices in parts of his writing. His approaches are not reliant on clergy or church hierarchy, leaving space for a wider range of religious communities to follow his advice. He also shows a deep respect for discernment within a whole community that feels deeply compatible with Quaker process. I believe that following Smith’s advice around conversation, combined with an openness to prophetic witness, could bring a renewed health and vigor to religious bodies of any tradition.

Featured(Review) Quaker Quicks: Telling the Truth About God

In Quaker Quicks: Telling the Truth About God, Rhiannon Grant presents a case that Quakers must talk more clearly and openly about God and theology, and encourages us to see the ways that we already do. The book gives a clear view of what (liberal) Quakers often do and don’t say about God, as well as what things could be added to the conversation to find unity in our diversity of beliefs. It could serve readers well who are looking for an entry point into Quaker theology, and it has many worthwhile insights for more experienced Quakers, as well.

The book explores the unique theology that Quakers express by pointing out some ways our values show up in conversations about God: value in negation, value in silence, and value in listing possibilities. Grant turns some of the standard Quaker tropes and jokes on their heads as she draws out the theology that we express with statements like “I wouldn’t say that” or “consider that you may be mistaken.” At the same time, she cautions that we may actually have an over-reliance on some of these less explicit conversational tools which can be detrimental to our community and shared story. She also shows sympathy to Quakers who feel hesitant to use more traditional Christian expressions and those who feel that doing so is vital to their religious practice, and presents some methods for bridging these conversational divides.

One thing which I deeply appreciated about this book was the way that it demonstrated how clear talk about theology in Quaker circles can push back on the hyper-individualistic tendencies of our culture. Grant points to ways that we express our openness to individual experience and leading, but reminds us that the essence of Quaker faith is to value and process those experiences in community. She highlights several ways that our universalist tendencies can be life-giving and acknowledges ways which they can be condescending to or exclusive of those who hold more focused beliefs in one definition of God.

This book is an excellent resource for Quakers looking for advice on how to work within the tension that exists in our broad faith community, as well as a tool for clarifying to newer Quakers what all our odd expressions and vague-sounding statements mean. Grant shows a way that we can value silence and be open to many experiences of God, but that we can hold our community together and grow stronger by living out our value of honesty in the ways we speak to each other about those experiences.

FeaturedWith whom are you crucified today?

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

Luke 9:23-24

There are a variety of calls to be “crucified with Christ,” “take up your cross daily,” and generally to let go of one’s selfishness and obsession with our own concerns throughout the Bible and many other religious traditions. I think, though, that the image of Christ in these particular cases adds a layer that is important but easy to miss: Jesus does not only stand for himself, but for all who are deprived, oppressed, and looked down upon. To be crucified with Christ is not a call to a self-help style letting go of day-to-day anxieties so we can retreat from the realities of society or get back to productive jobs. It is not simply a command to get rid of the negative parts of ourselves to become some abstractly better person. It is a challenge to stand (or fall) in solidarity with those who are cast out by others.

When we consider any statement about Christ to only be about the one person named Jesus in the gospel stories, we imagine a Jesus who would have failed to follow his own instructions. He makes this clear to us time and again, that he is any person among the “least of these.” Jesus is not one man, but all people who are poor and disempowered in the dominant structures of the world. He does not call us to take up our crosses to reach some personally rewarding higher level of consciousness or to take on a purer state that will grant us entry into an afterlife. Jesus instructs us to take up our crosses so we might find our place among and work alongside those already bearing the crosses which were forced upon them.

Furthermore, Jesus did not instruct people to take up their cross as a single action, but to do so daily. It’s an act that he knew we would all be tempted to carry out once in a while when it was suitable. When we put ourselves in a more vulnerable position or respond to the needs of marginalized people over our own once in a while, we feel noble and self-important. We’ve stooped down to the level of another for a moment, knowing full well that soon we can stand up straight again and carry our riches in our pockets rather than a wooden symbol of death upon our backs. We’re called to take up our cross daily because there are always those whose crosses cannot be put down, even when they feel they can’t bear it any longer.

We’re told to carry our own cross, but not where we will find it. This is not a command to wallow in our own self-pity or to sacrifice ourselves meaninglessly to alleviate guilt, but to find the cross which we are led to carry today by the Spirit. For many of us, that may require putting aside some of the comfort and safety we’ve been unfairly granted based on race, class, gender, or other unearned privileges. It means looking for where Christ is in the world today and standing alongside him, her, or them. It means being willing to give all we have to destroy the death-dealing social structures that send some along that path to Calvary so others can walk the road to Rome. Our cross is somewhere today, but the world has built up a myriad of structures to hide it from us. We need to take up our cross, and likely someone else is already carrying it.

Featured(Review) Quaker Quicks: What do Quakers Believe?

Two things in Quaker Quicks: What do Quakers Believe? that impressed me from the start were the avoidance of Quaker jargon (plain speech for the modern age!), and the focus on the present rather than idealizing the faith and activism of past generations of Quakers. This book provides a clear and concise overview of Quaker beliefs, practices, and organization with a focus on unprogrammed Quakerism. The author’s examples and experience are focused around British Quakers, but much of the book applies to the broader (Liberal) Quaker community. It highlights the way that Quakers value truths that are “opened” to them through direct experience, rather than creeds which others have presented to them.

One weakness this book suffers from at times is the tendency to overly emphasize individual and sometimes consumption-focused actions by Quakers. For instance, the focus on how Quakers live greener personal lifestyles presents a faith that has a footprint only as large as its own members. At times Quakers do fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on personal change, but Quakers often do (and should) work to change the wider world through both witness and action. Hopefully this book encourages people to experience Quaker faith for themselves, and they find it to be a community working toward systemic change.

The book is refreshing in its clear statements about Quaker beliefs, along with the acknowledgment that Quakers do not hold to dogmas or creeds. The blending of description, quotes from various Quakers, and summarizing statements helps the reader get a clear picture of Quaker faith. If you want to learn about how Quakers seek to find truth, live in that truth every day, and transform both their world through conviction rather than condemnation, this book is an excellent starting point.

FeaturedUn-Deserving

For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I find myself very often obsessing over the idea of deserving. Everything needs to be earned or owed, and I feel guilty or jealous when the balance doesn’t match my estimations. As a society, we fixate on who deserves what. Do poor people deserve food or luxuries? Do investors deserve returns on their investments? We allow ourselves to be consumed with this, in spite of knowing (whether we admit it or not) that almost none of what we receive or what is done to us has anything to do with what we deserve. I feel I deserve what I have because I worked for it. But does the person who worked twice as hard and got nothing deserve what I have, instead? We get anxious when these ideas of deserving what we have are challenged, as well. Much of what I have in life has more to do with whiteness and other forms of systemic privilege than my own efforts, and it’s been a painful process to recognize that. Whether at a personal or systemic level, even a very simple examination shows us that factors well outside our control determine much of what’s granted to people in the world, and yet we hang on to this metric that continues to fail us. But there is another way.

The beauty of divine love is that it is unconditional and unchanging, and has absolutely nothing at all to do with what we deserve. Nothing we do can reduce it or cancel it out. You can no more affect the amount of God’s love available to you than you can change the temperature outside your house on any given day. You can close all the windows and doors and blow hot or cold air through the house, or do any number of other things to hide from it, but the weather will still be out there the next time you open the door. Even in spite of all these efforts, that weather still has an impact on the indoor temperature. In the same way, we can shut ourselves off from that unconditional divine love and support. We practice ignoring it. We build up systems completely contrary to it in which we can find a measure of our worth over and against others. And we get very good at these things over time. But the doors are still there, even if it takes some struggle and handiwork to get them open again

This source of love is unmarred by any action we can take, and we can return to it no matter how many times we’ve turned away. Denying or hiding from divine love won’t put us forever outside of it or cause some wrathful storm of vengeance. It’s not about coercion or threats. So why should we seek it out? Why dwell in it if we can walk away and still come back?

God’s grace is not to relieve us from some threat if we don’t comply. It is victory over death of our own individual and collective making. It brings us freedom from the harmful habits, anxieties, and various deaths both big and small we fall prey to when we live outside that love. It tells us we are loved and will be cared for, no matter what we have done. Christ gained victory over death, and cleared the path for us to do the same. It’s not only for those who deserve freedom from death. We don’t earn grace like a wage or salary. By accepting the unlimited and unconditional love of God, we move away from the system which only grants us what we deserve, and teaches (and requires) us to afford that same grace to others.

Dwelling in God’s love provides us with a blueprint for a better world. Not only do we find individual freedom, but we can build a new world centered on grace, as well. When we know we all carry that love inside us and live out our lives from that place of love, we help to build the Kingdom of God. We built it here in this world, but not based on the rules of this world. All the blessings of that Kingdom are available to all of us, like God’s love. It doesn’t require us checking others’ time cards to see if they’ve met a quota. It doesn’t require us to determine if someone has the potential to pay back what has been given to them. No person needs to prove their worth, productivity, or ability to be a member of that Kingdom. We can each rest in the knowledge that the fruits of the Kingdom do not belong to us, nor to anyone but God. And that God, working through us, will provide them to all.

There’s a new creation being made, and nothing we can do will change that. The only question is whether we will take part in its work and open ourselves to its rewards, or spend our time arguing and fighting over what we deserve.

FeaturedDoes a clear conscience matter?

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

1 Corinthians 4:4

One of the things I’ve always struggled with was whether I was unwittingly awful, sinful, or condemned. It made sense in my Calvinist upbringing. There really was no way to know if I was actually saved or simply deceiving myself. And, well, I turned out queer, trans, and not at all a Calvinist, so… good point, brain. But the mentality sticks with me in all my self-evaluations still. Does it ever really matter how certain I am that I’m on the right track? There’s so much I’ll never know and so many things I could be wrong about.

So, what is a clear conscience worth? Does it heal those wounded by our unwitting or careless harmful actions? Does it correct our misunderstanding or fill in the shadows of ignorance set up by this world of oppression and segregation? Does our good intent and positive feeling about what we’re doing make the world a better place or make us better people? Will clear consciences bring about the Kingdom of God?

Paul’s statement seems to acknowledge that the clear conscience and positive intent doesn’t undo wrongs or sanctify one’s actions or being. But what does it mean that the Lord judges him? I don’t think it means he can throw up his hands and refuse to reflect critically on what right action is or how he’s falling short, because he can never know the mind of God. In fact, he follows up with a whole collection of statements about right and wrong action after and a litany of things that should be judged. Like, a lot.

While Paul and I may land in different places about the judgment of some of those actions, he’s modeling critical reflection for us. It’s not enough to think you’re doing right. It’s not enough to sigh and say God will sort it out in the end. We need to be looking for the things that have been systemically hidden from us, and paying attention to the impacts of our actions. There are times we need to be troubled, and times we need to be comforted, but in all of those times we should be reflecting.

In activist spaces I tend to see an increased focus on impact and action, over belief or intent. A focus on belief and intent offers an easy path to a clear conscience. Say the right words, believe the right things, convince yourself you meant well, and you’re on the right side of things. The switch to impact draws our attention to caring for others, and can help us focus on allowing our lives to be transformed by our beliefs. However, our impacts will never be purely positive. We’ll never think through every contingency or prevent every possible harm. Dwelling on all the possible impacts of every little action spins me right back into a Calvinist panic that I may yet be a monster in human skin. And that kind of debilitating anxiety also does nothing to bring about a new world.

There’s personal, emotional value in a clear conscience, and that matters for our health and sustained work. It doesn’t matter more than the well-being of others, and it doesn’t matter more than our pursuit of perfection. But I, at least, need that comfort of a positive self-evaluation from time to time to avoid sinking into panic and overwhelming doubt. Our beliefs, if they are alive and sincere, should be calling us constantly to break through the barriers of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and all the ways the negative impacts of our actions on others are hidden from us. A critical, contemplative, but active faith will guide us toward perfection if we let it. When we worry that we may be secretly terrible, it’s important to remember that we are here to seek perfect love and care for all (in spite of the ways our segregated, disconnected lives set us up to fail at this.) And no matter how we are judged by ourselves or others, there is one who will always judge us in love.

FeaturedA Listening Heart

So give your servant a discerning heart…

1 Kings 3:9

One of the things I’ve found most moving in Quaker worship is the focus on listening. I sit, whether in Meeting for Worship or on my own, and listen for wisdom, comfort, challenges, or whatever may come. It’s not always an easy task. It takes time and effort to discern what’s meaningful and what’s my own wandering thoughts or what I wish I was hearing. It’s helped me personally in a number of ways, but for now I want to focus on listening.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian faith, I was often focused to obsessive levels on speaking to God. Begging for certainty that I was saved. Pleading that people I loved who weren’t Christians would be spared from Hell. Asking for God to end the violence that others directed at me or that I directed at myself. All that desperate petitioning naturally led me to worry whether God was listening to me. It didn’t lead me very often to ask if I was listening for God.

The phrase “a listening heart” is one of the translations of what Solomon asked for in the book of Kings, when he asks God for wisdom. When I chose my first name (transgender experiences will be another day’s topic!), I settled on Sofia in part because it means wisdom. I’ve always tried to view it as an aspiration rather than a destination I’ve reached, and I think the idea of a listening heart mirrors that aspiration. It’s wisdom in active form. It needs to be practiced consistently if it’s to be useful. It acknowledges that the source of wisdom is something we have access to, but not something we own.

Solomon was far from perfect at listening throughout his life, and that’s led me to overlook him most of the time. It’s easy for me to write off any given state authority figure as evil and corrupt without much further thought, but I want to hold on to Solomon’s original request as a reminder. Of course power and wealth disconnect us from other people and from God, and I’m not likely to have that problem on quite the same scale as Solomon. My prayers growing up were never for those things, and I’ve moved on from a lot of the beliefs and circumstances that led me to lie awake whole nights dreading and praying and trying to control those particular aspects of human experience. However, I still find myself quite often feeling panicked and desperate for control when things don’t go in the direction I’ve convinced myself is right. Quaker worship gives me a chance to remember that my role is to listen and then to follow the wisdom that’s spoken to me.

FeaturedStatement of Faith

Below is a statement I wrote to share with other members of my Meeting, as we worked on structure and curriculum for religious education. I hope to use it as a reference and beginning point as I develop these and other ideas over time.

There is an inherent value in everyone and everything, which can never be diminished below or increased above the value of another. I find inspiration in the framing of this as “that of God in everyone.”[1] I’m also inspired by the idea of God or the soul as a community: that our soul and/or God only exists in us, and that we each have “a little piece of a great big soul.”[2] Whether this God/soul is a literal being or a metaphor doesn’t matter much to me. What matters to me is that I use it to inform my thoughts and actions.

We can find revelation & inspiration from sources accessible deep inside ourselves, but that those individual leadings must be guided and discerned through community & tradition. That tradition includes the Bible, which has inspiration from that same source. The source of that inspiration is the same across the years, but the context we live in leads us to interpret it differently.

This source guides us to do the work that’s needed to bring about a perfect existence here in the world we inhabit. Jesus called it “the Kingdom of God.” It’s more than a physical kingdom or a far-off realm, though, and it’s our duty to bring it about. It’s both a goal we aim to create permanently and something that we can bring into being for just a few moments of perfect adherence to its values.

The values that bring about the Kingdom of God are those which respect that of God in everyone/everything: peace, integrity, protection of the world we are a part of, and solidarity with each other in times of struggle or oppression. We best practice these by opening our hearts and ears to each other and to that source inside us (which some call God), and then by doing the work of peace-making and doing the work that source leads us to together.