My Quaker Pilgrimage So Far

A photo from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering, shot by Micah Bales

A photo from the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering, shot by Micah Bales

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
 They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.”
Psalm 84:5-7

I have encountered a good number of recovering Evangelicals who have expressed that they vaguely consider themselves Quaker or would potentially become Quaker. I have been consistently annoyed at how little effort they put into exploring this faith they somehow feel connected to and I get especially bothered when they act like Quakerism somehow does not exist anymore. But the more I have thought about it and explored Quakerism for myself, I get why they feel Quakerism is unapproachable.

I came to QVS with a fairly open-ended idea of what Quakerism was and in love with the little I had grasped for myself. I knew that some of the core things I have come to believe the past few years were in harmony with what the early Friends taught, and I felt empowered by that. It was comforting to be so in line with an established religious tradition, and I’ve seen it as an honor to be connected to a group with such a rich heritage of cultivating a spirituality that takes action. Friends of Jesus Fellowship, my long-distance church family, confirmed to me that the message George Fox carried was still alive today, being preached and manifested.

Living in Portland, the heart of the Convergent Movement among Friends, has been an incredible blessing and opportunity in my life. I am thankful for the beautiful cross-branch interactions in this city. I am thankful that I was able to attend two different parties this weekend with Friends from 5 different Friends meetings/churches, Evangelical and Liberal. And I am thankful that I know people who serve and love Jesus from very, very different meetings.

That being said, though… I still feel a bit isolated. The Quakerism I fell in love with, and the Quakerism I desire, seems to be a variety that is hard to find. And finding the Quaker community I need has felt impossible. Often I am confused about what Quakerism even is.

At times, I am confused on the point of meeting. I am confused on the point of worship. I am confused because I do not really understand what binds a meeting together, or what really makes our worship distinct.

Is it our testimony of peace, or S.P.I.C.E.S. as a whole, that binds us together?

Is it actually the Light?

Is it mere communal meditation?

Is it, dare I say, Christ?

…Or is it simply being Quaker?

I am scared by how often it may be just that. We are Quaker because we are Quaker, and we practice being Quaker by being Quaker. And yes, that may very well be hyperbole, but does it ring true in some sense?

So for my friends who expressed an interest in Quakerism but did not feel they could pursue Quaker community, I sympathize. I get it. Quakerism is a personal experience of the Light, but it is also just as much, if not more, a communal faith. The community and flavor of Quakerism you need and long for may not be found in institutional Quakerism.

That is a reality I have been coming to face myself.

I long for a community that is not simply centered on Christ, but is consumed by and in complete surrender to Christ. The Quakerism I am looking for takes the radical implications of the gospel very seriously, and I desire action fueled by the Spirit’s power.

And I think there are others out there who are also hungry for such a Quakerism, but, again, it is hard to find.

Much of Quakerism, both Evangelical and Liberal, can be spiritually beneficial for these sorts of folks and can fill a need for some form of community, but it is often not enough.

I am reminded of something my friend Micah Bales wrote a few years back on his blog:

What if we stopped trying to be Quakers? What if, instead, we put our energy into being communities that truly reflect the love, joy and peace of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What if, instead of trying to preserve an heirloom faith, we cast aside everything except our determination to be God’s holy, chosen and beloved people, here and now?

I think the way of Christ was never meant to be confined to a single tradition. I think it is a lot bigger than a set of spiritual disciplines. And it is much, much bigger than Quakerism. It is about the Kingdom of God and the extension of Christ’s reign. It is about being committed to living intentionally with those who have also come to follow Jesus. And of course, it is about following Jesus, our Friend, Savior, and King.

And I am scared that there is little room in institutional Quakerism for those who desire to follow Jesus communally, living out the Sermon of the Mount as a people. I don’t think there is much space for those “lowercase e” evangelicals and “lowercase c” charismatics in Quakerism.

From where I stand, I see glimmers of hope in Quakerism with the Convergent Movement and different meetings/churches that believe and worship Christ, are passionate about the gospel, seek justice for the oppressed, are LGBT-inclusive, and are not stagnant in their Quaker identity.

I also find hope outside of Quakerism.

I find hope through the growing number of Evangelicals whose view of the Bible lines up with what Quakers have been preaching since the mid-17th century.

I find hope through prophets and teachers like Bob Ekblad, a Presbyterian who actively works for the liberation of the imprisoned and the undocumented. He is also training others to be ministers of reconciliation at the People’s Seminary, marrying liberation theology and the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

I find hope through pastors and leaders like Brian Zahnd, who take humanity’s God-given dignity and the authority of the Christ’s words seriously when he claims that one cannot support torture and be Christ-like.

I find hope through my spiritual family, Friends of Jesus Fellowship, who are faithfully serving Christ and are not bound by their Quaker heritage, but enriched by it.

I find enough hope to believe that the Church is moving forward, that the Spirit of God is still working on this earth, and the mission of Christ is more alive than ever among us.

It may be hard to believe sometimes when taking the suffering of the world into account and when we see all the brokenness in the Church, but the fact that we can see these things may reveal that we have been healed of blindness and are being prepared to bring Christ’s healing power into the Church and the world.

As of now, I feel a bit like a wanderer, jumping from meeting to meeting, seeking out of fellowship wherever I can find it, but still not grounded in a community. I believe the burden that I have to be in a community that is grounded in Quaker values, LGBT-affirming, worships and follows Jesus, is led by the Spirit, and is preaching and living out the gospel, is not to go to waste. I sense a call to create the space for those who long for the same thing, and I am thankful that I have a body, though currently distant, that believes in the same mission. Yes, I’m still discerning what that call is and what it will look like, but I can no longer numb the tug of the Spirit. I am accepting God’s invitation into ministry, though I admit hesitantly, but this alone is undoubtedly a step forward. Perhaps I was really placed here for such a time as this.

I don’t think this is a message just for me, but I think this is a very special time for the Church as a whole.

As Christendom breaks down, as global violence and warfare escalates, and as the corruption of the world’s systems come to light, the unhelpful ways of the Church and her fondness for the empire becomes more apparent and the Way of Christ becomes more distinct. The Way we have been called to is radical and requires making decisions that are risky and taking action that is not in line with the way of the world. It seems that life and death, blessings and curses, are set right before us to choose.

Will we cling on to the comfortable ways of religion, are we going to blindly serve the empire, and are we going to choose the cycle of violence, or are we going to follow Christ, the crucified God, and the Way to peace and life abundant?

I have been confronted by the gospel of Christ over and over again as I have discerned where I belong in Quakerism. I’ve gotten worked up and anxious over how exactly I fit into this gloriously peculiar, wildly divided, and truly anointed, spiritual family. Often times, in the midst of this wrestling, I remember there is a Church and world outside of Quakerism; a Church that needs to be “be built up until…all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God… attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13) and a world that desperately needs the reconciliation and healing offered by Christ.

As I’ve written before, the label of Quakerism is but a label. If my Quaker faith is simply for the sake of Quakerism, then it is futile and worthless. I think my Quakerism’s purpose is much bigger than that. I would hope it is for God,  the Church, and for all God’s children and creation.

This pilgrimage of mine is not just for the ideal Quakerism; it is for Zion, it is for the Kingdom of God, and it is for Jesus.

This pilgrimage can wear me down, and at times I feel so alone in this, but I keep going because I see others, though very often far away and with very different callings, also seeking Zion. I keep going because I know that such a pursuit is a grace and gift. I sojourn on because it is worth it and I trust that I will go from strength to strength till I appear before God in Zion. 

Advent and Waiting for the King(dom)

Advent is here and for the first time in my five years of following Christ, the Advent narrative has spoken to me. You can consider this shameful for two reasons: 1) This is about the birth of my Lord, so this should kind of be a big deal for me, and 2) I almost became Catholic… twice. All I can say to defend myself is that I have never formally belonged to a liturgical church; that’s all I really got. Having said that, Advent seems extra relevant this year and has caused much-needed self-reflection, especially in how this season is marked by waiting.

For those foreign to the idea of the liturgical calendar, Christian Smith makes following it very attractive in his book “How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps” (I know, it’s a mouthful). He explains that this calendar is “an ancient, highly-developed system of marking and living time that is shaped by a historically Christian sense of reality.” He goes on to explain the benefit of this sanctified time, writing that “the marking and flow of time is a fundamental force shaping our lives” and that “lives formed by a Christian approach to time tend to over time become more Christian.” He continues, “The significance and power of the cosmic story of redemption becomes more real, more embodied, more formative as it is dramatized across the year and within each day. The flow of the seasons, our waking and sleeping, become connected to Christian meanings and teachings. Christian discipleship is thus pressed home by means of a dimension of creation and life—time—that is both deeply natural and human.”

Advent is a season in this calendar where Christians worldwide anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ, who is believed to be Messiah prophesied about throughout the Old Testament and the one ancient Israel was promised for their redemption and liberation. In this season, we intentionally place our faith in Christ’s coming, believing in him despite our circumstances, and trusting that our hope’s fulfillment is approaching. During Advent, we not only take part in the joy that was Christ’s first coming, but find hope in Christ coming again. As we live in this paradox of the Kingdom of God being “already/not yet”, we choose to embrace the struggle of the “not yet” as we believe that one day Jesus shall fully reveal his faithfulness in his return and in the coming new heavens, new earth.

For me it has been striking how relevant Advent is to my life currently, as I seek to find and create the spiritual community that both I and others in the Church need, as I have yet to find out how soon I shall be reunited with my partner, as I wait to find out what exactly my post-QVS life shall look like, and as I discern my calling and vocation.

Part of me celebrates that this season is so relevant, and it feels like a gift from God, but part of me is annoyed. I am nudged by these Advent reflections to look at my life, with so much of it up in the air, and believe that this hope I am barely holding on to will be fulfilled. But how will this vague belief be good enough? I need answers, I need money, and I need my life to make sense! But no—the truth is, I need humility to trust that my life is in the hands of the maker of Heaven and to believe that God is faithful.

But this waiting-thing is a vital aspect of Christian spirituality. Waiting will not simply be a marker of a few transitioning seasons of my life but it will be essential to my discipleship under Christ.

The Kingdom of God has not fully arrived, and the condition of this world can seem like such a mess that seeing hope in it can be considered foolish. But our calling remains the same: to contend for this coming Kingdom to be made manifest on this earth. This is not a complacent waiting. It is an eager waiting. It is an active waiting. Like John the Baptist, we are called to prepare the way for Christ’s coming. We are called to cooperate with Christ in revealing and extending the reign and Kingdom of God, and trust and find joy in that one day this Kingdom shall arrive in all its glory.

John of Patmos watches the descent of the New Jerusalem from God in a 14th century tapestry.

As Christians, we find hope in the coming Kingdom, but we believe that the Kingdom is also accessible to us now. The gospel we believe and preach is an invitation into this ongoing story of redemption and restoration. This gospel is relevant in every age, and that includes now, as the reality of systemic racism has become more and more apparent in the media, and as we’re hearing about the unjust deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Yes, it is difficult to muster up hope that mankind has a positive destiny, but the mission of Jesus Christ speaks directly into this oppression, as revealed in Luke 4:18-19,

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus launched his ministry with this statement, and revealed that his mission is to undo and abolish oppression in all forms. The heart of his ministry was liberation, and it continues to be just that today, as Christians are called to follow the Way of Christ in the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

If that is so, we are to believe a day shall come when the “year of the Lord’s favor,” or “jubilee,” is initiated for eternity. A large part of the jubilee year in the Old Testament was the freeing of slaves and cancelling of all debts. Jubilee addresses the hardships of oppressed and forgotten by offering them a new beginning. Jubilee was proclaimed and reframed by Jesus as a time that was coming while also meant to be experienced now. True Jubilee to be both desired and pursued.

And so we wait. And in this waiting we long for the Kingdom where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4) but also contending for the Kingdom in the meantime by visiting “the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (Jam. 1:27), feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, inviting in strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, finding Christ in the least of these (Matthew 25:31-46), and doing all that must be done to serve the hurting and liberate the oppressed.

We wait believing that Christ was prophesied to be “Emmanuel” or “God with us.” We wait believing that Christ is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). We wait believing that Christ reveals a new way of being, a greater Kingdom, and good news. We wait believing the gospel that soothes the ache of being caught in the growing pains of the Kingdom of God, providing hope for now and the future.

Discernment: It’s Not About The Answers

This is my discernment pose.

This is my discernment pose.

For me, I have found that many of my inward crises are not best dealt with by solely finding solution to them. I am all for prayer, deep theological study, and turning to community to discern life decisions and theological beliefs, but I think we too often exhaust ourselves discerning and we forget about living. Many of my experiences of hearing God and finding peace in times of ambiguity and seeking answers have occurred when I simply follow what I already know I am commanded to do.

Last year, I wrestled with a lot of things—moral and theological issues—and there were a countless number of times where I had to make the decision to stop obsessing about discernment and go to work, deal with produce (I worked at a small grocery store), talk to customers, smile, quietly and discretely bless all the fruits and vegetables, and be a good employee. In that process of everyday life, with my ego fairly hushed and my mind calmed, I would hear God. I would find myself consoled. I would find peace. Things in my head would find cohesion. And life came together.

When it came to my theological crises, I would often have to stop studying theology in order to understand it. I had to take a step back, not let worry fuel my pursuits, direct my soul’s pondering on Christ and his gospel, and go on with my life; in time, things seemed to just mend themselves. There were even times where I found peace with not knowing—and even never knowing.

I am pretty adamant that there there are times where those struggling with figuring things out, and I mean that in the broadest of terms, need to find a space away from the to-be-discerned matter and just follow God with what he already put on their plate. Sometimes a break from heavy discernment is needed so that one can discern.

I do not mean to oversimplify the discernment process and how to approach theology. Discernment is both a discipline (1 John 4:1) and gift (1 Cor. 12:10) that should be pursued and developed actively through prayer, study, and community. I am just concerned about the excruciating effort people pour into ‘discerning’, as it is often a toxic experience. People become so obsessed about being right or on the right path that they forget about the path they are on and how God is already with them.

I know I’ve often needed to remind myself that gaining answers is not the goal of the Christian faith but developing oneness with Christ is (also known as Theosis among the Eastern Orthodox), which is often cultivated in the processes rather than in the conclusions. The much-needed and glorious struggle is to find God in the messiness and confusion of the process and to let go of the need to be right or to be in control. This is perhaps the greatest gift of discernment; finding God, whether that be with answers or without.