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Introduction of the New General Secretary – July 30, 2011

Colin Saxton

FUM General Secretary, beginning January 1, 2012

Thank you, Friends! It is a real joy to be here with you in Wilmington. It is also very humbling to be asked to serve in this role with FUM. I will say—and I hope this is okay to say—I’m also very excited about it!

It’s been interesting over the last several of months. I’ve had several FUM people say to me, “What on earth were you thinking taking this job?” What a funny question! What is not to like about FUM? Part of what I hope to do today is not only introduce you to me but also, along the way, reintroduce you to you. My hope is that you, too, will be excited about your work—our work—in the world and the central place you have among Friends. Because despite the very, very real challenges and difficulties we may encounter along the way, FUM has good and important work to do in the world.

I came to Friends after becoming a Christian in college. I didn’t grow up in the church at all and so, in my experience, involvement in a local congregation was life-changing and transforming. To be put into a community whose focus was to know and follow Christ and to go out into the world and make a difference was absolutely incredible. I was stunned a bit, after becoming involved, to find people who were not similarly amazed at this privilege and opportunity. It seems they had grown up in the church and, along the way, grown tired of it and lost sight of the significance of being the church. I was seeing the Church as one of God’s great inventions—a community where lives are continuously changed. Others, not so much.

As I got more involved in the church, however, it did begin to seem that our main work was to sit and learn to be spectators, to watch what was going on up front at the long list of religious events. As I was reading the New Testament and was experiencing God in prayer, it seemed to me that the spiritual life was much deeper and far more lovely than all of that. And so after a while, I began to get a little bit bored and apathetic, too. It felt like my spirit was being crushed. And so I went through a period of trying to find a spiritual home that would continue to excite my mind and enlighten my life and heart to the Spirit and work that God was doing in the world.

Randy Quate mentioned last night during the Johnson Lecture, sort of a holistic Jesus, a full Jesus, the “whole wheat” version he craves. That was my experience of Jesus reading the Sermon on the Mount, as well. I saw the Jesus who was calling us to a brand new way of living, calling us to be and become an alternative community, living out God’s righteousness and justice in creation. I read the story and experienced the power of God reconciling individuals to God’s self through Christ. I experienced the call to committed relationship in community where lives and our common life are being transformed into the image of Christ. I longed to be part of a full Gospel community, bold enough to both proclaim and demonstrate the Good News. That was the community I wanted to find. So, I started reading church history and I ran across all of you. I was taken by you Quakers and I thought, “That’s my home. There is my community!” You see, I did not want to be a part of a Christian tradition that made Jesus only a character in a book and left him there, or one that turned him into a museum piece to roll out on Sunday morning or just a name we recall at all our nice religious events. I wanted the ongoing, transforming experience of knowing and following the Risen One and I wanted to share in this Life with others who were committed to knowing and following him. That is what I saw being offered among Friends, and so I cast my lot with you.

As all of you know, the ideal and the real often collide in ways we do not expect. While I was not naïve enough to expect perfection among Friends, I did imagine something more than I found. Unwilling to lose hope, I began to sense an inward, spiritual stirring for renewal across the whole Religious Society of Friends, that God would use us in a mighty and powerful way. I know some of you have shared in this same inward stirring, because you’ve told me about these rumblings in your own hearts. But I also ran into people in my own yearly meeting and in other places who had this similar passion but sometimes felt like a wet blanket was smothering their efforts.

I confess, at one point, I went through a period of disillusionment about renewal and the church. What do you do when you feel disillusioned? Well, one option is to do what many good Quakers do—you leave. Right?!? Just go off and start your own group, free from all of their problems and issues. I considered this option, but truth be told, I wasn’t named well to start a Quaker splinter-group. The “Colonite Friends” does not have a very good ring to it. And what would happen if there was a split? Suddenly, you would have the Semi-Colonites and that is just plain wrong. God forbid if there was a charismatic renewal movement for then you would get the Spastic-Colonites! I am sorry but no matter how much one loves God and desires to be faithful no group should ever be named that.

So there I was, needing to choose what to do in a moment of disillusionment. The truth is it was the Spirit that convicted me—not the limitations of my name. Leaving is not what we do when we have been called into a community. We’re called to hang in there with each other. We’re called to work through our differences. But more than just work through our differences, we are called to come back to our Center together. We’re to find that Life and Power that has a hold on each of us, that knits us together as one people. We’re called to become so deeply rooted in Christ that we rediscover the unity that transcends diversity—at least when we will allow it.

During that time I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. In that book he said something transformative for me. I don’t know how many of you have read Life Together, but in it he talks about how we come to a place of disillusionment—and that this is a wonderful thing. Often we think about being disillusioned as negative. If you think about living an illusion, however, that’s not really a good thing. In my case, the illusion I was living was my idea of what the Religious Society of Friends ought to be. Yet as I more closely examined my picture of the ideal community, I quickly noticed how much that community looked just like me. Wow! What a scary thought—a group of people like me! Given my history of decision-making and struggles, how could that possibly be a good idea?!? And so that spirit of disillusionment came to me as a great grace, helping me see my “ideal” for what it was.

It also was a grace because now I had a choice to make. In that place of disillusionment, will I become cynical, which a lot of us have chosen I think, or will I/we become open to what God wants for us, especially as a community? Can we lay down our agendas and come together and seek God’s way for us rather than insist on our own path?

Well, I chose to engage Friends in a new way. The call that God put upon my life was—and it was very specific to me—to create community where Christ was known, loved, and obeyed. Since you are a part of FUM, that language probably sounds pretty familiar. For me this was a clear call dating back to 1991. My job, whether I was a pastor or working for UPS or in a grocery store, was to create community where Christ was known, loved, and obeyed. This call was deeply freeing for me. I realized I didn’t need a job description or a title or a paycheck to do this work, I simply needed to be faithful and to hopefully find other people with a similar interest. Interestingly, I found it in my yearly meeting again, when I wasn’t trying to push my way upon them. God opened a way and good things began to happen. I suspect it was a way that was always present; I had just never bothered to notice it.

A favorite book of mine is written by a fellow named Robert Quinn; it’s called Deep Change. He says if you want to change an organization you have to start with the one thing you have any control over, and that’s yourself. You need to be willing to be transformed before you ought to be concerned about transforming others. You ought to be willing and interested in exercising self-control rather than trying to control everybody else. It’s a lot more fun, of course, trying to control other people, I know that. But real responsibility lies with yourself. In a healthy organization, we recognize we need to do this. We can work together and support each other. Encourage each other. Hold one another up to our highest standards and with a spirit of integrity—so that we live individually and collectively into who we have been called to be and what we have been called to do.

As I think about my role with FUM, part of what I want to do is help us think about that word integrity. How do we live with organizational integrity? How does FUM live out its mission, its purpose statement, its reason for existence with a profound sense of integrity? As I read the purpose statement I can’t think of any greater work to be done in the world: “Friends United Meeting commits itself to energize and equip Friends through the power of the Holy Spirit to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord.” To me that is what the world is crying out for! To create not only individuals who embody that life but communities where that life is present. Communities where other people can begin to find a spiritual home and experience that transforming power in ways they never could on their own. And then thinking about the strategic priorities of leadership development, evangelism, communication, and global partnerships, what does that look like? What can that look like as Friends United Meeting continues to live out its mission and vision in the world?

You see, I do not believe that organizations and structures are evil. Sometimes we think of organization as a bad thing. But if you read the interview that Katie did in the July-September issue of Quaker Life, you know that I think an organization, if it is run well, frees us to be and do better than we could otherwise. It helps us live out the call God has put upon our lives—for God’s glory and for the sake of the world. Being this kind of organization is very hard work. It’s a whole lot easier to just sort of muddle around. I guess I hope to work with the staff and the General Board, building on the great work Sylvia has done, to help us focus even more on the things that God is calling us to over the next three years.

Now I want to make a confession or two at this point. If you were looking for someone to just help you run a more effective and efficient organization, you could have done a lot better. You could have found someone with much more management experience. You could have found someone with a lot more skill in fundraising and all the other things that come with this job. And so we might find this to be a short relationship. I can do some of those things, but those aren’t really the things that grab my heart and attention.

I am not sure that the call upon FUM is simply to be a more effective organization. What I really believe is that God is calling Friends to live up to the call that came to us early and often—to be a spiritual community, a deep and powerful movement. Not one in which we try to replicate the past but one in which we learn to live faithfully into the future. Being the beloved community where we experience God together, where we find that central unifying Presence, where we create the kind of organization that our young people are dying to participate in, find a home in and care about as much as any of us.

One of my spiritual disciplines over the past year and a half—and this is another fun connection to Friends United Meeting—has been to read Romans 12:1-2 almost every day. I don’t know what the motivation was for this passage to be the theme for the Triennial—maybe it was just a familiar passage, a nice banner to gather under. Actually, I bet it was more than that. I bet it was a longing and a prayer by the organizers. It certainly has been my longing and prayer over the last year. As I’ve continued to read it and think about it I’ve translated it into words that best speak to me:

Therefore I plead with you, beloved, in view of God’s overwhelming mercy,

commit your entire life— holy and pleasing—to God.

This is the highest act of worship.

Do not conform and adjust to the pressure of the world around you,

making you immature and misshapen.

Instead be transformed by fixing your attention on God.

Then you will know and follow his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

It is an interesting passage because Paul is writing to Christians—already committed followers of Jesus living in Rome. They were plenty religious; they seemed to be plenty moral, as well. Maybe what they were trying to find, though, was a deeper sense of spiritual integrity. How do we live out our faith as followers of Christ in the world full of complexity? Among a very diverse group—Jews and Gentiles, male and female—how do those people all find that united place in Christ? Given my bias, agenda, and limited vision, am I genuinely open to God’s transformation?

And so I read and re-read, and prayed over the passage. What I found for myself is that it’s the doorway to a deeper baptism. It’s the doorway to being reinitiated on an everyday basis into life with God. It is a way of learning how to give up control, learning how to not push for my agenda but to seek God’s agenda, learning to level the barriers that I would otherwise construct between me and God, learning to live into that transforming power.

The other thing that I’ve been curious about and have been both heartened and challenged by is this: What is the evidence that this transformation is actually happening in your life? It is an easy thing to say, “I’m really committing myself to you this time God! I’m really open to your will now!” Note, however, where Paul takes the readers of Romans as soon as he talks about this transforming power. Beginning in verse three, Paul begins to identify some of the evidence that this spiritual baptism is actually taking place:

  • We come to one another with humility.
  • We recognize the diversity of the body, our own giftedness, and we use that giftedness for the encouragement and upbuilding of one another.
  • We love one another with sincerity.
  • We’re devoted to one another.
  • In the midst of all the difficulties in community we take a step toward each other rather than away from each other.
  • We honor each other.
  • We keep the spiritual fervor alive rather than quenching it.
  • We share with one another.
  • Practice hospitality.
  • We live in harmony with one another and at peace with one another.
  • We bless rather than curse.
  • We overcome the evil in our midst.

And then, my favorite line of the whole passage, is that we remember that we belong to one another. We belong to each other!

Most of you don’t know me and that’s a deficit for our relationship. In fact when I met with the search team I told them several reasons why they shouldn’t hire me. One of them was because I don’t know most of the people in FUM. I think that is a hindrance to getting started in this work. One of the things I’ve been doing ever since the call became official is I’ve been going through the back of Quaker Life and reading through the list of meetings, in order to pray for your meetings and pray for your pastors and your clerks. I’ve been praying for the yearly meetings. And so it’s been fun to come here and see names of people that I’ve been praying for.

I think this is a spiritual reality—belonging to one another and allowing transforming to practically impact the way we live and work and play together as a people. The kind of unity, the kind of relationship that God calls us to is not the kind of flimsy tolerance in which we put up with one another. No, there is a deep spiritual uniting that is meant to occur. There’s a profound oneness that can happen in the body of Christ. It’s what George Fox said when he said “mind that which is eternal and see that you are written in each others’ hearts.” You are written on one another’s hearts! Part of my hope in being involved in FUM is that we’ll experience more and more that profound sense of oneness as we are effective and as we are fruitful in the ministries that God has called us to as a community.

I also know that change is very, very difficult. Every change that we experience is experienced as a loss, at least to some degree. Even good change is experienced as loss. And so I hope that as I and staff and General Board and as you initiate change for the future, we’ll be gracious with each other, as we keep moving toward change with courage. Out of that sense of knowing in our bones that God has called us to something new, something more, being gracious with one another along the way can make a huge difference in how we journey together.

So without maybe saying much about the future, that is a little bit about me and a little bit about why I’m so very excited to be part of you. Thank you so much for the invitation to do this. I really look forward to getting to know all of you and so many others over the next three years. Thank you!