Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Some Friends Facing A New Future

“Let's move on! I've got some great plans for you!" --- God
The unknowns of life can be scary. If you are like me, stepping out into unfamiliar territory can be daunting. But for the people of God, it's not an option. In that regard I'm sure you will recognize the following words from the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel languishing in exile. 
"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”                                                                          (Isaiah 43:18-19 - NIV)
The “new thing” is God’s intervention on behalf of the exiles to bring them home, and to give them a new hope and a new future.

Some may say I am pushing the envelope applying these words to the present situation facing Indiana Yearly Meeting. But I suggest they can be applied to the Friends meetings that find themselves in the non-B category of the reconfiguration issue, wondering if there is for them any hope and any future. In fact, if reconfiguration eventually happens, I suppose those that move on as IYM-B meetings may also claim these words. And that’s fine. It wouldn’t be the first time Christians have found the same passages of the Bible speaking to more than one side in conflicted situations.    
But in this blog I am applying them to non-B meetings. That may seem premature, since there still hasn’t been a final resolution to the reconfiguration question. However, in spite of the pleas and prayers for unity and reconciliation from around the yearly meeting, there are strong voices that are determined to see reconfiguration happen. If it does, that shouldn’t mean these groups cannot   find ways of fellowship and worshiping together. At least we hope not. 

Joyce and I happen to find ourselves in a non-B church, not because we looked and looked until we could find one, but because after a year of visiting different meetings, and lots of  prayer for discernment we felt led to Winchester Friends following our retirement as pastors at Friends Memorial Church  in Muncie.  Upon joining in with them we found Winchester Friends to be dealing with this issue, as were all of the rest of the meetings of Indiana Yearly Meeting. But that is why I use the pronoun “us,” to include Joyce and me as part of the non-B Friends on a possible exciting new journey.
Christian history is a story of multiple schisms and splits, and Quakers within that story have had their share. Some have been without great rancor. Others have been rather boisterous. On one of my trips into Ohio with some IYM Training and Recording candidates to get in touch with our Friends roots we visited the meetinghouse where we were told there was an Ohio Quaker split years ago.  If I’m not mistaken (I was once before) we saw where, in the midst of this Quaker row, the Presiding Clerk’s chair was tossed out of the window. Fortunately the Clerk was not still in it.

But along comes the prophet’s call to get past the past---at least to not keep dwelling on it. Frankly, Isaiah, that’s not always easy to do. There are ties and co-involvements in a myriad of ministries that are a part of that past. There are memories of meetings and conversions and conversations that are precious. You can't just shelve those easily. Therefore it doesn’t mean that these must be erased. It does mean they should be placed in proper perspective. The reason: we are otherwise liable to miss what God wants to do---to us and through us---in the present and the future. I have read some really exciting words on that infamous medium called Facebook from some persons who feel God could be calling non-B Friends back to Christ-centered holistic missions, with spirit filled meetings reaching out to a new a generation of seekers. God can certainly be pleased with that!
But if we are too absorbed in issues of financial assets, we can miss God calling us back to other kinds of assets, such as ample gifts waiting to be used. If we are too absorbed in matters of formal identity, such as whether we will be called Indiana Yearly Meeting “this or that,” we can miss the calling to the most important identity of all: the people of God through whom he wants to do a new thing.   

If reconfiguration happens, this is not to minimize the importance of financial assets and formal identity, and there are other issues that will require trained and patient minds. But it is to encourage those non-B meetings who are interested in travelling into a new future together to plan a gathering where there can be celebration in praise and prayer, worship in silence and vocal expression, all to the end that we can discern the new way forward. Who will pick that up?
After all, when God told the people of Israel in exile that he was “making a way,” he didn’t expect them to just sit there and stew. They had to get up, put one foot of faith in front of the other one, and move into that new future. And to us God is lovingly saying: “Get the point?”   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Discerning the Will of God---A Quaker Dilemma?

In a diverse body of well intentioned Friends, how can we be certain of the will of God? Is not this a present Quaker dilemma? This may get me branded a heretic for questioning this fundamental tenet of Friends spirituality, but it has brought about more than one impasse among Friends, and seems to be at the center of the “to reconfigure or not to reconfigure” issue presently facing Indiana Yearly Meeting. I was led (I hope) to write these thoughts after reading an exchange this morning on the IYM Facebook Discussion Page in which two sincere Friends framed the problem by asking why the “other side” could not accept the possibility that their side was led by the Spirit. So allow me pose the issue in the form of a heavenly conversation:

The Holy Spirit returns home after a long day’s work among Quakers of Indiana, and the Heavenly Father asks how it went. The Spirit answered, “It’s just….just AWFUL!” The Father says, “Oh? Do you want to tell me about it?” The Spirit replies, “I shouldn’t have to. You set up that impossible scenario!” The Father asks, “I did? In what way?” The Spirit replies, “You created them to be persons with the capacity to be individually led by us, and even in corporate situations, to have different perspectives, each one claiming our leadership!” The Father replies: “Hmm, I guess you are right. Well, it’s the only way I could give them a sacred dignity and worth, and immediate access to The Family---You, Me, and Jesus.” After another pause, the Father says: “Well….I guess they’ll just have to live or die with it.” The Spirit replies, “You got that right!”

Indiana Yearly Meeting Representative Council gathers again on Saturday, September 29 to consider the Task Force’s recommendation concerning reconfiguration after having heard from all of the meetings that are going to reply. And the decision may lead to life among IYM churches…or death. My figures may not be exactly right, but I think there are 4 meetings who are now going with the “A” option, and around 10 or 12 who have not replied at all. I think there are 38 meetings that wish to go with “B”, and 10 or 12 who do not wish to reconfigure. I’m sure there are some persons reading this who will say Bill Wagoner is off here or there, and that’s okay, but I think the numbers are close enough for me to continue these thoughts.

So to get to those, let me quote from IYM Faith and Practice on Ideals, Chapter I on Government, Section 4 on Friends’ Methods” (page 50):

“It is the practice of Friends to give unhurried and sympathetic consideration to all proposals and expressions of opinions as the will of God is sought. Friends endeavor to respect an earnest and sincere minority and, if it seems necessary, may postpone action until Friends have secured more light on the question at issue and attained a greater degree of unanimity. When exercising this privilege each Friend should be certain that the expressed concern and comments are led by the Spirit of God. After due consideration has been given to all points of view, it is the responsibility of the Presiding Clerk of the Meeting to weigh carefully the various expressions and to discern and present to the Monthly Meeting what he or she believes to be the will of God for the Meeting.”

Three comments: (1) The italics and high-lighting are mine; (2) I assume these words apply also to Quarterly Meeting and Yearly Meeting Presiding Clerks; and finally, (3) in response to the words, “…believes to be the will of God for the Meeting,” I want to say, “Wow! That’some kind of responsibility.” But there it is, on page 50 of IYM’s book on Faith and Practice. I know that would give me pause if I was asked to be a Presiding Clerk anywhere up and down our Quaker organizational scale. If under the guidance and scenario of the words above I as a Presiding Clerk was required to announce a decision, I’m not sure I could be absolutely, completely, perfectly led to believe and announce the will of God…Not just the better of two or more options, but the very will of God.

I can just hear someone say, “Oh well, Bill, that’s just religious language or the proper Quaker way of putting it. Don’t take that will of God thing so seriously. We’ve got to move on, so all we want is for the leader of our meeting to settle it so we can all go home.” Well pardon me, but trying to determine how or even why our yearly meeting should go through painful division is not a casual matter, and it certainly isn’t a matter for one appointed Presiding Clerk to decide so we can all go home.

“Ah,” but you say, “the Faith and Practice gives that person that power, and any changes in Faith and Practice cannot be approved until next yearly meeting.” “Ah,” but I say, “it may behoove a Clerk and all of us to give this more time.”

So in closing I have two questions, both bearing on Faith and Practice, and on the question of whether “to reconfigure or not to reconfigure”:

First, should we change that will of God language in Faith and Practice, unless we really think one mortal among us, where there are differing strongly held views, can confidently announce God’s will, without  previous bias bearing upon her or his mind? Why couldn’t we just say that the Clerk has discerned a way in which Friends might move on, or has discerned the best possible solution in a difficult situation, and not be so presumptuous about divine sanction? Otherwise unity, which is always what God desires, will take a lot more praying and seeking God’s face than we have done so far.

Finally, I must have missed where the Faith and Practice emphasizes the use of the Clearness Committee as a way to help persons discern their way through a situation. If it’s there, will someone inform me. But has the yearly meeting given any thought to use a similar process for the reconfiguration impasse? There are organizations that can come in without bias and help us truly corporately discern the will of God.

And isn’t that what this is all about? 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Okay, so who's out of tune?

I can well remember the days when our small high school in LeGrand, Iowa introduced band. The year was 1951, and Joyce and I were beginning our senior year. How small was the high school? Our senior class totaled 12 students. It stood to reason then that the number of students who made up that first fledging band was not large---maybe 12 to 14. In spite of the small number, most of the usual  basic instruments were at least represented: saxophones, clarinets, a cornet and a trumpet, a French horn, a tuba, a big bass drum, 2 trombones (I blasted away with one), and a flute. And guess who was behind the light and airy sounds of the flute? Yep. Joyce.

Our first band director was Alfred Witham. Of course he gave individual lessons to each of us as band members, but when he brought us all together for our first practice session as a band---oh my! In spite of  “tuning up” as a group before launching into our first joint effort, there was much less than perfect harmony---more cacophony. At any point our director could have stopped the music and asked, “Okay, who’s out of tune?” At that point we might have looked at each other with a “Not me” expression….But we knew better.     
“Okay, so who is out of tune?” In I Corinthians 14 Paul talks about the issue of tongues as an expression of praise used in worship in the church at Corinth, and says that if no one understands what is said, what good is it? And then he adds (in verse 7 – The Message) “If musical instruments---flutes, say, or harps---aren’t played so that each note is distinct and in tune, how will anyone be able to catch the melody and enjoy the music?” It appears Paul alludes here to playing solo, but the same would be true if the harp and flute were playing a duet. . And then it could be asked, “Which ONE of you is out of tune?” “Not me,” says the harp, “I’m always in tune.” “Not me,” says the flute. “I’m also always in tune.”  And to that all the people are saying, not Amen, but rather:  Well, something is wrong, because those listening to you are having trouble catching the melody and enjoying the music!”

To expand that analogy, it can also happen with more than two instruments. And to apply that analogy, Indiana Yearly Meeting right now is trying to decide just how many diverse “sections” there are to its combined orchestra of the Spirit, and which one or ones are out of tune---because there is dissonance in the ranks. And you hear a lot of “We’re not out of tune. It must be them” going back and forth, and the world listening in is having trouble catching our Quaker Christian melody and enjoying the music. And quite frankly, for a lot of the participants, it’s not even fun playing the Lord’s song anymore---not even with those whom we think are in tune with each other. And the amazing thing is that however many players or groups there are, they are all using the same sacred sheet music and notes called the Bible. Well, I guess it comes down to how you interpret the musical score in front of you. And that opens up issues we’re not going to try to nail down in this blog.    

So, okay, who is out of tune? It could be me, and if there is an Indiana Yearly Meeting section that needs to profess and have absolute purity, don’t invite me in. I’m utterly human and I do need retuning now and then. I can and do claim the joyous privilege and possibility of the touch of the Master’s hand to do just that. In fact, what I want to simply underscore here is the importance of each of us being personally in tune with the Divine Director, and constantly retuned.  It’s amazing how that might help the whole. Individual and corporate suggestions abound on how Friends can make sweet music again. All you have to do is turn to Facebook and find that there is a plethora of ideas on how to figure out reconfiguration, some of them good, some of them more heat than light.

I’ve also read a few, though, that have gotten to the heart of the problem---mine, yours, and everyone’s. And they are the ones that have called us back to personal accountability to God, and to one another in the body of Christ. And maybe, just maybe God would like us to gather for a yearly meeting wide “spiritual music fest,” bringing nothing but the instruments of our lives, to pray and seek his face, to know one another better, and to let Him heal our church.
Hopefully, to that all the people might say “Amen.”