Tuesday, January 12, 2016

All Creation is yearning for us to become truly human, truly children of God

Romans 8:19 For the anxious watching of the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God."All creation is anxiously waiting for the uncovering/the revealing of the children of God." (Romans 8: 18).
This biblical passage seems very appropriate as the theme of the global gathering of Quakers in Peru during the last two weeks of January. What makes this passage especially relevant is that Paul sees the redemption of Christ as cosmic, not just personal. Paul tells us that the whole creation is in bondage because of human sin and is yearning to be free. Christ came to liberate not just humans, but plants, animals, trees, every living creature. What wonderful news!

In this chapter Paul is describing a cosmic war between Spirit and flesh that begins inwardly--flesh yearning to satisfy its own selfish desires, and Spirit seeking to do God's will and to bring God's blessed community/kingdom down to earth.

What does that mean today? I am aware that many read this passage as if Paul is saying that Christ came simply to liberate us from death and prepare us for eternity in heaven. This is, I believe, a valid interpretation. Jesus did come to free us from our sins and prepare us for everlasting life. He let himself be crucified to show the liberating power of self-sacrificial love. His humiliating death was not the end, but the beginning of the Jesus movement. No longer would animals be sacrificed to appease an angry God; the death and resurrection of Jesus demonstrated that God is love, and made such sacrifices unnecessary. Through his ultimate act of love Jesus transformed the hearts of his disciples, freed them from sin, and ushered in a new age.

This is a valid, but I feel incomplete reading of the text. Paul isn't talking just about human beings. He is talking about all creation being redeemed. Let me give what I think it a more comprehensive reading of this text.

Paul's assertion that the "wages of sin is death" applies not only on a personal, but also on global level. We see clearly that human sin (alienation from God and God's purpose) is destroying the earth and threatening all life. Scripture teaches us that all creation is sacred and belongs to God ("The earth is the Lord's, and the profits therefrom," Psalm 24:1),  yet we treat the earth as a possession, a commodity to be exploited for our own personal gain. The commodification of God's creation is sin, specifically, the sin of greed. And our insatiable desire for more and more material things is dooming countless species (including own own) to extinction.

That's why it is important to realize that Christ came to liberate all creation from this un-Godly way of life. To understand this passage, I'd like to  reflect on three themes:
  • The yearning of creation
  • The uncovering of God's children
  • Becoming children of God
The yearning of Creation

Paul presents God's Creation as a living entity with a desire for liberation. He compares nature to a woman in labor, about to give birth to a new being, a divine reality. This view of nature as a living creature with emotions and a divine purpose is in stark contrast to the modern view that sees nature as a mechanism or as a resource to be exploited for human purposes.

Paul's vitalistic and spiritual view of nature is in keeping with the philosophy/theology of the Quaker theologian Howard Brinton. Brinton drew a distinction between the mechanistic view of nature/religion/God (associated with Cartesian dualism) and the organic view of nature/religion/God espoused by Quakers. According to Brinton, Quakers understood not only biblically but experientially that we are all interconnected. As John's Gospel puts it, God/Christ is the vine and we are the branches.

Paul's view corresponds to my own experience of the natural world. I feel fully alive when I am in a natural environment--walking in the mountains, tending my garden, smelling the flowers and the earth. When I am in the natural world, I feel a deep connection with living creatures and I know we all come from the same Source. We all have similar yearnings to be free.

When I see the damage caused by fracking, mining, and clear cutting, or animals pent up to be slaughtered, my heart breaks for my fellow creatures in the natural world. It is heart-rending to see how our Mother Earth, God's special Creation, is being polluted and destroyed for the sake of human greed.

I feel as if the Earth is crying out, asking for us to listen to what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do. We need to live in harmony with Creation. We need to live sustainably. God gave us a mind and heart that enables us to live in a way that brings peace and joy to the world.

I am glad that over 40 Quaker organizations around the world have endorsed a statement called "The Challenge of Climate Change." But we need to move beyond mere words and engage in meaningful, prophetic action. We need to become changed people so we can change others. My wife and I have taken steps to reduce our carbon footprint and water use. We have reduced our water use by 50% by installing a gray water system and our electricity use by 100% by installing solar panels. We drive a Chevy Volt that gets 80 miles per gallon. We harvest fruits and vegetables from our garden. We share our abundance with friends and neighbors. We also use our home as a model of green living so others can follow our example.

But this is just the beginning. We need deep changes in policy. We need to change our system so it rewards good stewardship instead of greed and waste. We need to do our part to fulfill the divine plan to bring God's kingdom down to earth. I believe this is the work that God is calling us to do in our age.

Uncovering our true nature: the "apocalypse" of God's children

How do we become "children of God" and part of God's liberation movement? I believe we already are children of God, created in God's image. Each of us can connect directly with God through the Inward Light (Logos), but many of us don't know it or don't act as if this were true. We have assumed other identities that alienate us from our true identity. For example, we imagine that we are first and foremost Americans or Russians or Israelis. This nationalistic identity sometimes stands in the way of our realizing that we are part of a human family and that everyone in that family is equally important. This human family was created by God, for God's purpose of creating God's blessed community here on earth as it is in heaven. We need to realize this basic truth in order to become fully human. Furthermore, as Paul implies, we are part of a family that includes all living creatures. We  need to uncover our true nature as children of God to realize this truth about our relationship to creation.

Paul uses the word "apocalysis" (uncovering) in this passage, which implies that we are uncovering what already exists within in. This essence is what Quakers called "the Seed." Within each of us the "Seed" is yearning to grow and bear fruit in acts of kindness and love.

I know from experience what it means to be a child of God. In meeting for worship, I experience my interconnection with everyone in Meeting. I feel I can let go of my personal agendas, personal thoughts, and listen to what Spirit is saying to me and to each of us present. In the deep silence I feel a deep connection with those around me, a sense of peace. Not the peace of the world, but the peace that passes understanding.

Sometimes I don't feel peace, however, I feel inner conflict when my life is not in harmony with God's will. I feel uncomfortable. My thoughts are scattered. I can't focus. So I wait until I feel God's presence and wisdom guiding me either just to "be still and know that I am God" or to take action to bring back my life into harmony with God's desires. I reflect daily on the passage: "Lord, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are fixed on you. For in returning and rest will be our salvation. In quietness and trust will be our strength (Isaiah 26:3; 30:15)." Returning one's attention to God can a long and painful process. but it is also necessary for us to grow emotionally and spiritually.

In this process, I feel that I am being more and more aware of how I am part of the human family that God created for God's purpose. I am not an isolated individual. I am part of this Creation that is anxiously yearning to be free.

I look forward to connecting with Friends from around the world--from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. We are all part of the Quaker family, but more importantly, we are part of God's family. I am really excited to explore how we manifest our true identity as children of God!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"If you love one another, you are my friends": becoming true Friends through FWCC

Jill and I in Mexico, where we attended an FWCC gathering
and also took part in a field trip to Vicente Guerrero
sponsored by Casa de los Amigos
On January 16, Jill and I are going to Cuzco, Peru, to attend a gathering of around 350 Quakers organized by the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). We are excited by this opportunity to visit this beautiful country with its intriguing history and to get to know Friends from around the world. 

To prepare for this trip intellectually, and to bone up on my Spanish, I have been reading Los Ultimos Dias de Los Incas by Kim MacQuarrie. I have been both fascinated and appalled by the story of how a small, ruthless band of illiterate conquistadores overcame the Inca empire, devastating the indigenous culture with almost unimaginable cruelty. Sadly, they committed their unspeakable atrocities in the name of Christianity, with the blessing of the Church. I wonder: what are Christians doing today to share the true gospel, not the love of power, but the power of love? 

As Jill and I prepared spiritually for this trip, we have been inspired by the mission statement of FWCC:
Created out of vision and hope almost a century ago, Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) today is a broad association of Quaker Yearly Meetings stretching across all branches of Friends— an interweaving of relationships, histories, and concerns. The Section of the Americas (SoA), one of four regional groupings in this association, extends from the Arctic to the Andes. A long term goal has been to achieve full participation from the wide diversity of Friends in the work of the Section. Broader participation by younger Friends, evangelical Friends, Friends of color, and Latin American Friends, as well as unaffiliated Friends, is a priority for the Section.  

I became involved with FWCC around six or so years ago because I felt a leading to reach out to Evangelical Friends. Ever since 9/11, I have felt led to reach out to people of other faiths, especially Muslims, because I am deeply committed to our Quaker Peace Testimony. I  agree with the Catholic theologian Han Kung who said: "[There can be] no peace among the nations without peace among the religions, no peace among religions without dialogue."

After 9/11 there has been a huge increase in violence around the world  perpetrated by religious extremists. That's why I dedicated much of my life to interfaith peacemaking, attended interfaith conferences both locally, nationally and  internationally, and even wrote a book on this subject, "Quakers and the Interfaith Movement." I'm still convinced it's crucially important for Quakers to work with people of other faiths to promote justice and peace.

Let me be clear. Even though I call myself an "interfaith Quaker," I still consider myself a follower of Christ.

Rick Warren, an Evangelical pastor known for his best-selling book "The Purpose-Driven Life," illustrates how being a follower of Christ requires us to love those of other faiths. Ten years ago he had the audacity to agree to be keynote speaker at the annual convention of  the Muslim Public Affairs Council (even though some "Christians" picketed the gathering with hateful signs condemning Muslims and Islam). Warren began his address with words I will never forget:

"I love Muslims. I love Jews. I love gays. I love straights. I love Republicans. And I love Democrats." He paused dramatically and added, "I love because Jesus COMMANDED me to love."

As a Quaker Christian, I resonate with Rick Warren's words. I love because God created me to love and because Jesus called us to reach out in love to everyone, especially those who are considered "enemies," whoever the latest "enemy" happens to be. 

Jesus reached out in love to Romans, Samaritans, and those who were marginalized and rejected. I'm sure that today Jesus would want us to reach out to Muslims since they belong to what Quaker novelist James Michener called "the world's most misunderstood religion." .

My interfaith journey led to many beautiful friendships with Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others. Befriending those of different faiths didn't weaken or water down my faith as a Christian and as a Quaker. In fact, I feel that I am a better Quaker and a better Christian because of these friendships.

In 2007 I went to a national Quaker gathering called Friends General Conference and attended a workshop led by the theologian Marcus Borg. I asked him about the challenges of interfaith dialogue and he responded, "The biggest challenge is not interfaith dialogue but intrafaith dialogue." This comment challenged me to think more deeply. I realized that I felt more comfortable hanging out with Muslims and Buddhists than hanging out with Evangelical Quakers, and there was something not quite right about that picture!

For those who aren't Quaker, let me explain that American Quakerism split into several branches in the 19th century, and these splits were very painful. Some Quakers stuck to traditional Quaker beliefs and practices (unprogrammed worship, unpaid ministers, etc) while others adopted many of the beliefs and practices of traditional Protestantism.They organized Bible studies, hired pastors, and traveled around the world as missionaries. Friends in each branch considered themselves "true Quakers" and were often not on speaking terms,

Today there are four main branches of Quakers: "unprogrammed" Friends (mostly connected with Friends General Conference), "pastoral Friends" (Friends United Meeting), Evangelical Friends, and Conservative Friends.

Fortunately,  mostly thanks to FWCC, Friends in these different branches are learning how to get along, and to act like friends, even though they have differences in theology and worship style. FWCC organizes gatherings and intervisitation among Friends  that have helped to dispel stereotypes, open hearts and minds, and build friendships.

I feel that my leading to reach out to Evangelical Friends was confirmed when I met and married my wife Jill, who is an Evangelical Christian. Before she met me, she knew little about Quakerism, but today she attends unprogrammed Quaker meetings for worship part of each month and has given presentations at numerous Quaker gatherings. She feels at home among unprogammed as well as Evangelical Friends, and is deeply respected and loved in Quaker circles wherever she goes. I should add that Jill is a very loving as well as lovable person!

Jill at the housing justice workshop she gave at the FWCC
gathering in Mexico City
Last spring Jill and I traveled together to Mexico City to take part in a gathering sponsored by FWCC, Section of the Americas. Jill has lived and done missionary work in Latin America, is fluent in Spanish, and quickly made friends with Latin American Quakers. She also gave a workshop on her book, "Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models," parts of which have been translated into Spanish with the title "Vivienda y justicia: una perspectiva biblica" We not only built bridges of understanding, we also had a blast! When Jill is among Latinos, she becomes truly herself, and fully alive!

I will treasure the friendships I made during my first trip to Mexico City--kindred spirits I met who care deeply about refugees and fair trade and the environment. At the FWCC gathering, and at the Casa de los Amigos (the Quaker center in Mexico City), I felt I was truly among friends.   

When we go to Peru, Jill will be giving a workshop on the biblical basis of housing justice, and I will be leading a home group. What excites me about Jill's work is that she has helped me (and many others) gain a deeper understanding of the prophetic message of the Bible--the liberating gospel of justice and peace.

I am sure that we will have wonderful opportunities to meet with and learn from the rich diversity of Quakers who will be attending this gathering. I am eager to discover what challenges our friends in South America and other parts of the world are facing, and how we can work together to practice the gospel of love.

From my experiences at the World Conference of Friends in Kenya in 2012, I know that Friends around the world worship very differently and have very different ideas about what it means to be a Quaker. Differences can be perplexing and disturbing, but they can also be delightful and enriching. During our four and half years of marriage, Jill and I have learned an important lesson: you don't have to agree theologically to love each other. Jill and I share core values--we both love Jesus, and justice, and admire people like Jim Wallis and Amy Goodman--but we often interpret the Bible and the world in different ways. And that's a very good thing. As the French say, "Vive la difference." May we as Friends celebrate our diversity as we discover our unity in the One who created and sustains us.

Attenders at FWCC gathering in Mexico City at a mural by Diego Rivera

Members of the FWCC Communication Commmittee