Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Keeping our eyes on the prize

As requested, I'm posting here a lightly revised comment I made at The Good Raised Up the other day and mentioned in my previous post. It was written in response to Liz's discussion of the FGC Long Term Plan, and may make more sense if your read her post first. (But then you wouldn't need to read my comment here. . . .)

I'm just back from a Friends Journal board meeting where we did some soul-searching -- Who are we? What is our job? What would happen if we didn't exist? What should we look like in ten years? Etc.

This led to questions about whether the market for what we had to offer was inherently small (i.e., Quakers) -- which implies certain business and financial realities (i.e., Friends Journal will always depend on financial contributions over and above the cost of subscriptions and advertising revenue) -- or is it potentially very large (i.e., those who are hungry to hear the Everlasting Gospel) for which another business model is possible?
I was reminded of the chestnut about the janitor at NASA who was asked, "What do you do for a living?" And he answered, "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."*

I think the problem with Quaker organizations -- from the smallest worship group to the largest yearly meeting and all of the alphabet organizations -- is that they tend to act as if they're sweeping floors instead of putting men on the moon. (This is true for all religious organizations, of course.) Sweeping floors is honorable work and needs to be done, but it is not the end in itself. I see FGC's long-range plan as intimating some sense of its place in God's larger plan, but it isn't as explicit as it might be. It doesn't do much good to help people find Quakers if Quaker meetings are Lifeless and impotent.

If a Quaker Organization sees its primary mission as serving its own constituents, as FGC appears to have done (for perfectly understandable reasons) that implies a certain approach. But if its primary purpose is to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth (or however you would state the mission of the Church), it will think of itself and go about its work in a different way.

In other words, is FGC seeking to serve the Society of Friends (or a certain branch of it) and do what those Friends want? Or is FGC's primary mission is to serve God and the church and God is telling FGC at the moment to help strengthen monthly and yearly meetings in all the ways its strategic plan says? These are very different questions and eventually produce different fruit.

The same questions could be asked of our monthly and yearly meetings.

I suspect that our Friend Martin Kelly's critique of FGC in particular and of the RSoF as a whole is that they (we) see our mission as sweeping floors: publishing curriculum and books, increasing intervisitation, creating a presence on the web, increasing our size and racial diversity, holding potluck suppers, making sure everybody feels comfortable, etc. -- instead of manifesting the Kingdom promised by the Gospel by these particular means. One reason is that we can't seem to agree on what the larger purpose is, and to avoid resolving that question we work on the best methods of keeping the kitchen floor clean.

I largely share that critique, though I see evidence that FGC is getting it right in some ways and that it's not a lost cause by any means. But neither is it inevitable. Watch and pray.

* I realize that the janitor's answer might just as well have been, "I'm helping to maintain and preserve U.S. hegemony over the world", but that wouldn't have made quite the same point, would it?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Some catching up to do

I've been too busy to write anything recently, but here are a few things I've been reading and found to be valuable.

Marshall Massey has a very good post on how to read the Bible -- as an insider reading a family album.

Liz Opp has generated a lot of thoughtful comments with her discussion of the FGC Long Range Plan and whether it suggests that FGC is part of the convergent Friends movement. (I have a longish comment there that probably should have been posted here.)

I've just finished Taylor Branch's At Canaan's Edge, the third of his massive and masterful history of America in the King years. This one covers 1965-68. As any of you know who've read the earlier books, Branch is a magnificent storyteller, full of detail that makes reading the book like chewing a sandwich made with 7-grain bread -- you feel like you've accomplished something when you're done with it.

One of Branch's best points is how he weaves strands of different stories together to create a vivid picture of the time he's writing about, making connections that you hadn't seen before. In Canaan's Edge, for example, he weaves the rise of the Vietnam war with the ultimate demise of the Civil Rights Movement per se in such a way that made sense of a time that seemed nothing less than chaotic -- obviously important and historic but chaotic nonetheless -- during the time I was 10-14 years old and watching all this stuff on TV. For example, I knew in my memory that Dr. King was murdered only five days after LBJ abdicated running for a second full term, but I had forgotten how it felt to have the world fall apart all around me like that. Branch's book reminded me again. I can't recommend the book highly enough.

This past weekend, I picked up and am carefully reading Catholic Quakerism by Lewis Benson. (Although I bought the book at the FGC bookstore in person, it doesn't show up in its on-line catalog, for some reason. So the link is to New Foundation Fellowship.) I must have read it before because parts of it seem so familiar, but I couldn't have told you before rereading it much detail.

I love reading Benson, though his intensity and the challenge he poses usually scares me. It is as if I would like to believe as he does, but I haven't yet found the courage to do so. He, more than any other Quaker writer I've read other than ole George himself seems to be describing an alternate universe that exists and to which I have access if only I am willing to go there. In doing so, he explains the unique power of the Quaker message and gives us a reason to be. I'm especially impressed by his discussion of Quakerism's place in the ecumenical movement and how powerfully he argues that we are not merely a branch of liberal Protestantism -- or, at least, we need not settle for that weak soup.

On the plane to and from Philadelphia this weekend I read most of this month's issue of Friends Journal, which is a special issue on "What are Friends Called to Today?" (I was going to and from the Journal's board meeting.) Bloggers Robin Mohr and Martin Kelly have articles in it that I hope will lead many readers to their and other blogs to learn more about what this convergent Friends stuff is all about.

I also enjoyed fellow Northern Yearly Meeting member Kat Griffith's article "Conversations from the Heartland" about her experience talking politics with fellow home-schooling mothers who hold dramatically different political and religious views than she does. Or do they? I always enjoy Kat's writing which I find courageous and strong.

The entire issue is worth reading, and I hope that others find it useful in sparking something in their meetings.

I'm beginning to prepare to give a talk on how Quakers approach the Bible as part of an interfaith dialog sponsored by the St. Paul Council of Churches. There is a five or six week series where two or three speakers a night from the Abrahamic tradition -- Jews, Muslims, Christians -- discuss their respective approaches to the Book. I'm on with a B'hai and a Unitarian, which tells you something about how the rest of the Christian world places us. This is one reason why Marshal Massey's post mentioned above was so welcome. I am also interested to see how this experience influences how I teach Quakerism 101 again after the first of the year.

And there's lots more going on, actually, at home, at work, and in the meeting that is making me feel quite busy and just this side of frantic. I could use a long nap. But in the end I count it all a blessing to be so engaged. I just wish I had the time to do them all as well as I would like.