Good evening, Friends! It is a joy to be with you, and I am so grateful for the privilege to serve as general secretary of Friends United Meeting. I have appreciated Jim Smith’s devotional messages over the past two days and resonated with his distinction between the Living Water that is our source of life and the vessels we create to contain that Water. To be fully honest with you, I don’t have much interest in the containers we create within the church — the systems, structures and bureaucracies that demand so much time and attention. I would much rather talk about and splash about in the Water of Life.
But tonight, I do want to talk about the vessels — because they matter, and they are necessary, if we are going to be a community. Systems and structures either free us to life in the Kingdom of God, or they hinder us from faithfulness. A useful vessel, one that is well-designed and properly used, pours out living water to the thirsty. And in a day when there are so many who thirst — we need well-designed and well-used vessels . . .
If you have ever heard me talk about my hopes for the Religious Society of Friends, then you are likely familiar with a quote I have loved and used on several occasions. It comes from one of my favorite Friends, Francis Howgill. In talking about the experience of Christ gathering his people in those early days of the Quaker movement, Howgill said:
“The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us & catch us all, as in a net, & God’s heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds. We came to know a place to stand in & what to wait in; and the Lord appeared daily to us … And our hearts were knit unto the Lord & one another in true & fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit & of the bond of peace … and holy resolutions were kindled in our hearts as a fire — which the Life kindled in us — to serve the Lord while we had our being. And mightily did the Word of God grow among us & the desires of many were after the Name of the Lord. O happy day! O blessed day! The memorial of which can never pass out of my mind. And thus the Lord, in short, did form us to be a people for his praise in our generation.”
I love this image . . . but I wonder some days if we really believe it is possible that it might also be true for us in our time and place.
Over the next several days, you will hear me and others use three words with some frequency: Energize. Equip. Connect. They are the words that I hope will more fully inform and shape FUM’s work over the next several years. And they arise, I think, right out of the imagery in Howgill’s description of whom the early Friends were . . . and who we might be in our time . . .
I had met Christ in college — he lived a few doors down the hall of my dorm-floor through the life of an amazing young man. Later, and more profoundly, I encountered the risen Spirit of Christ on a midnight run through campus that changed the whole content and trajectory of my life. From that day on, it has been the same Spirit of Jesus that encounters and encourages and empowers me to run toward him and run with him . . . rather than away.
This is exactly the story we read in the text of the New Testament. Jesus, we are told over and over again, . . . is alive. He is risen! And he abides in and among and through his followers. It is his empowering spirit, not our religious devotion or human effort that transforms us into something beautiful and animates and directs our efforts to continue his ministry
in the world.
This, in my mind, is what it means to be energized. This is what it means to be filled with the power of God, in a way the New Testament describes in language akin to dynamite. This is the power that Jesus sends the disciples out to minister in — to drive out evil, cure diseases, heal the sick and make visible the reign of God. It is the power the apostles waited to be immersed in Acts 1, as they prepared to engage in a world-transforming movement.
This dunamis — the energizing and animating power of God almighty — is described as a foundational grace that enables us to live truthful lives, bold and courageous lives, lives drenched with love and compassion, graced with divine endurance and might, rooted in a liberating joy and freedom. It is the power to walk in unhindered union with the God we’ve come to know and love.
Does this describe your life? Are you energized and animated by the living Spirit of Jesus? Does it sound like the life you in your meeting or church? . . . I am not asking about an experience you may have had in the past . . .
I confess I do not always live this way — but it is my heart’s desire. And I think we can, in fact, live into this Life and Power by God’s grace, and as we nurture and encourage it in one another . . . behind our strategic thinking is an even more foundational grace that is our source of faithfulness. It is that Presence and Power of Christ that is beyond us and all our best efforts and wisdom.
As I think about the community of Friends, and in particular those of us within FUM, I want to be part of gathered people who share in and depend on the energizing Spirit of Christ. . . . And so long as I keep serving with FUM, I am determined to do what I can to see that we stay focused on energizing our community with a passion for and sense of spiritual vitality and depth.
Alongside being energized, are we equipped as a community? Are we ready to co-labor with God in restoration of all things — because that is what God is up to in Christ. . . .
We are meant to be a community of ministers — mobilized around the advancing reign of God. As ambassadors of God’s grace, as ministers of reconciliation, heralds of Good News, prisoners of hope, instruments of righteousness, restorers of justice … our lives and our life together are intended to reveal the glory of God and see that God’s will be done on earth … just as it is continuously in heaven. Our work is to embody the things of God.
As I think about a people who bring praise to God in our generation, I imagine a community that is fully equipped to serve as God intends . . .
Across the world, Friends have fed the hungry, taken in the alien and orphaned, spoken the truth when silence or a little-lie would have proven less costly. On our best days, we have shared our faith with humility and courage and invited others into our fellowships.
This is work we’ve done in our past — but what about today and tomorrow? And are we prepared to do this work and other work effectively? Skillfully? Sustainably? . . .
Well, I want to be part of community that takes seriously the work of equipping. Across the Quaker world, and especially within our FUM community, I’d love for us to become better focused on raising up effective leadership, developing and deploying able ministers, and creating opportunities and experiences for our faith-in-action to be nurtured and God’s work to be accomplished through us. And so I am determined to do what I can to make sure FUM keeps moving this direction . . .
Finally, in addition to being energized and equipped, how about being connected?
Later this week, you will be asked to approve three new yearly meetings and an association as new members of FUM. This will put the number of yearly meetings and associations FUM at 34. Thirty-four! Among the four major branches of Friends, FUM is the largest, and there is the possibility for even greater expansion. In East Africa, Friends are reaching out in places like South Sudan, the southern area of Tanzania and Malawi. Over the past two and half years I have been in FUM, we’ve had inquiries from several groups in India, other places in Africa, Barbados, Finland, Mexico and by scattered Friends in North America. People want to belong to something beyond the cozy confines of their meetinghouse walls. I think it is because the love of God naturally draws us to reach beyond ourselves . . .
But it ain’t easy … is it? Community is tough work, whether that clan consists of three people, 30 people, 30 meetings/churches or 30 yearly meetings . . . It is the source of some of our greatest joy and our deepest heartache. I think it is a severe mercy that will either break us apart or transform us. The question is whether we will come to experience and rely on that unity which transcends our diversity, to be knit together in a lasting bond of peace or whether we’ll let the threads that might connect us to simply fray beyond repair?
For me it is our greatest challenge and the spiritual discipline we are called to claim as a priority. I want to be part of a community that actually practices peacemaking in our local churches and meetings, within our yearly meetings, within the covenant fellowship of FUM, as eagerly and authentically as we try to do in matters of national and international dispute. I want to be connected in spirit and in purpose with Friends who know in their bones they are on an adventure together . . . This means creating spaces and places to be together, to worship together and to work together. It means learning from each other and staying engaged when we don’t see eye-to-eye immediately. It means praying for one another, taking responsibility for the hurts we cause one another, and forgiving as freely as we have been forgiven by Christ. Connection — if it is to be in terms of creating a global community of Friends and not just being an international affiliation of organizations — is going to require a level of humility and intentionality that will stretch us at our souls. Are we willing?
On a whole other level, connection also speaks to the world around us. How is it we Friends are demonstrating and proclaiming the good news of Christ to the people around us? If my experience is any gauge — I’m not sure we do this so well . . . Here are some examples from conversations I have had and exchanges I have seen on websites:
• I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We have a nearby city called “Quakertown” and the people are known for making fine furniture.
• Yes. I just saw Quaker oatmeal in the grocery store the other day. So they must still be around to make it.
• I didn’t even know until a recent conversation with a friend who is dating a Quaker that they still exist. I knew they were here in the 1700s, but after that, my history lessons failed me and them. To me, they were in the same category as Atlantis and woolly mammoths.
• I have heard of George Fox. Isn’t he connected to Quakers?
• There are Quakers in Kenya?!? When did that happen?
• Do Quakers still exist?
• You are the first Quaker I have ever met.
• And then worst of all — and I have heard this several times… “I thought you were all dead?!?”
Friends, are we dead? No, seriously — are we? I didn’t think so. Why then are others saying it is so? . . .
My question is — why do we allow this to be the case? Beyond the peril it brings to own vitality and future, if we really believe in the goodness of this Life we’ve come to know and the Power that is available in this community, why on earth would we not share it joyfully and freely with others?!? . . .
The life we have in Christ is a cool cup of water waiting to be tasted … guzzled by some … who are feeling like they are dying of thirst. Why on earth would we deny them?!?
There is a thirst for what we claim to possess. Several years ago when I was a pastor, I got a phone call from a telephone company asking if the meeting wanted to switch providers.
I told the guy on the other end of the line that I was just a pastor — I couldn’t make high-level decisions like this! After a bit of nervous laughter, he said, “Are you a Friends pastor? I’ve always wanted to meet one of you but I did not know where to find one. I’ve been reading about Quakers and am so drawn to your faith and life. Can you tell me if there are any in Texas where I live?” I found my handy-dandy FWCC meeting directory and gave him the contact information of a couple of churches and meetings near him.
Another time, I was sitting in a pizza parlor waiting for my take-out order. A man came into the restaurant and . . . took seat next to me on the waiting bench and said, “What are you, religious or something?” [because I did not know where the liquor store was located]
I told him I wasn’t too sure how religious I was, but I did happen to be a follower of Christ and a member of the Quaker community in town. “QUAKER,” he nearly shouted. “My grandmother was a Quaker!” For the next 20 minutes or so, he commenced to tell me everything he knew about Friends and a good deal about his beloved grandmother. By the time he wrapped up his story he had tears in his eyes and he said, “I wish everyone was a Friend.”
You know, I do as well. But not if they are going to be dead Friends — or ones that are confused for being dead. We don’t need Friends in name only. We need ones who are baptized into the transforming Life and radiating Power of Christ. In my reading of the New Testament, Jesus wasn’t much interested in proselytizing. When he called others to follow, it was not by way of proselutos — where one changes their religious affiliation. Instead, he invited them into a metanoia — a radical, reorienting, transformation of life. This is what the world is looking for — can we offer it?
Well, I am determined to do what I can to make sure FUM builds connections — both within our community and with a world that ought not to be wondering whether we are all dead or how they might find us or if we are still doing anything today. We are made for connections — here and out there. As we move into a new Triennium, it is the hope of the General Board and staff that FUM will increasingly be a global community where Friends are energized, equipped and connected in order to carry out the work God is calling us to do in our time and place.