Monday, June 29, 2015

Guest Post: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

[I am spending the summer as the pastoral intern at First Friends Meeting, a church in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM).  On Sunday, June 21, Deborah S offered this message in programmed worship.  She agreed to let me share her message as a guest post here.]

We in the Quaker tradition generally don’t incorporate the outward sacrament of confession and absolution into our worship service.  But sometimes I wish we did.  Because I believe that we who are leaders in our state denomination—North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends—we have sin to confess. And it’s the sin of once again dividing up the body of Christ.

If we did offer public confession, my prayer would be this:
Jesus, during that last meal with your friends, you interceded for your disciples and said: “I pray that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”  (John 17:21)

Jesus prayed that his followers may be one.  Yet, like so many before us in so many different Christian denominations, our state gathering is spiritually divided. We are not one. We who preach peace are fighting among ourselves.

Forgive us, O God.

Jesus, you said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”  (Matthew 12:50)  And yet, in our brokenness we have taken it upon ourselves to judge who is right, who is wrong, who is in, who is out.

Forgive us, O God.

Jesus you said, “This is my commandment, that you Love one another, as I have loved you.  You are my friends if you do what I have commanded.” (John 15:12, 14)

Our very name, The Religious Society of Friends, comes from that same passage, this passage calling us to Love.  And while I think Friends in all of our meetings (churches) want to love one another, we have failed.  And instead, some have questioned other’s integrity and we have had spats over theology.  While I believe differing opinions are fine, in our disagreements in our wider Quaker denominational gatherings, we have often been unkind to one another.  Hurtful words have been uttered. We have not stayed centered in Christ’s love or centered in the Holy Spirit.

Forgive us, O God, I pray.

For those of you who are visiting today or are relatively new to First Friends Meeting, I promise that today’s sermon is a one-off. We don’t normally focus on our denominational woes. And let me emphasize that the divisions I am speaking about are not internal to First Friends Meeting. So… please don’t let today’s message scare you away, okay?

Thankfully, we at this meeting are not fighting over theology. We certainly have our own failings and growing edges, but as a local congregation we are not struggling over the issues that are dividing the wider state denomination.  And while I haven’t wanted to preach about this before (there is not a lot of joy in it), I think it’s time to talk plainly from the “pulpit” about these wider concerns that are taking place beyond our local meeting in our wider North Carolina Quaker world.

I, of course, can only speak this morning from my experience and my perspective.  I encourage you to talk with others, ask questions, read the material that we will get out to you soon.  Then please come to our July 12 Monthly Meeting for Business, as we seek to hear God’s voice among us in order that our First Friends representative can then speak clearly on our behalf to the wider Quaker body on August 1.

Many of you have heard rumblings that our state denomination is in trouble. And you have asked, “What the heck is going on? What are we arguing about? What is dividing the sixty plus Quaker meetings (or churches) that we’ve been connected to for over a hundred years?”

Well… it’s complicated.  Of course. But here’s my best understanding on what we are struggling with:

The first issue in our Yearly Meeting is that, among the 60 different churches, we have differing views of Scripture. Many of our beloved siblings in Christ understand scripture to be their primary authority.  First and foremost, their source of spiritual authority is the Bible. While we at First Friends love scripture, we also believe (much as early Friends taught) that the Bible is merely words unless the Holy Spirit brings our reading of scripture to life.

As we read scripture, we seek to understand it through the lens of Jesus who said that the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor. So we try to read and interpret scripture in that spirit.

Which means, for instance, that even though there are parts of the bible that say women should be silent in the church, we affirm that God can speak equally to all people. It means that although war was understood in King David’s day to be God-led and even spirit-inspired, we choose to say war should never be the answer.

And getting to one of the current major dividing points: while Jesus didn’t speak to the issue of same-sex marriage, it is our understanding that scripture, properly interpreted, affirms covenantal relationships. And so yes, we will affirm and marry a same-sex couple that is choosing to make the huge and prayerful commitment that marriage asks of anyone.

(And, since same-sex marriage is a huge topic, if my words surprise you, please feel free to call me and we can talk about it further.)

So, the first point is that people within our state denomination are divided over scripture and its authority.

A second issue is the question: Who is saved? And how are we saved?

Many of our fellow Quakers believe that the only way to God is through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that it is through the sacrificial blood of Christ that our sins are forgiven and one receives salvation.

Now here at First Friends, we will respond to that question of salvation in a variety of ways. But, in general, we would affirm that it is not ours to judge who is in and who is out. Early Friends preached about the universal saving Light of Christ. About how people who are living out a deep and genuinely loving faith that results in loving their neighbor—those people with such a faith—are encountering the Living Christ even if they don’t know the name of Jesus.

So, there are genuine differences in how we view salvation, and those differences have become a great concern for some in our Yearly Meeting.

In my experience, those are the two main theological concerns.

Of course, the underlying question is: Why can’t we all just live with the differences? Why do we need to agree on our view of Scripture or salvation?  After all, we in NCYM have lived with theological diversity for years … why can’t we continue to do so?

I wish we could. I personally think we could.  I believe First Friends is made richer for being in association with others who think and believe differently. I like the diversity. I need the wideness of thought, prayer, and belief.

However, not everyone in our Yearly Meeting is comfortable with that range of beliefs.  And I respect their reason for wanting to disassociate with us and those who believe differently.  It comes down to what the Apostle Paul called being “unequally yoked.”

The Apostle Paul wrote that we should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Many of our beloved Friends feel their association with those who believe differently regarding salvation and the Bible (and same-sex marriage) qualifies as being unequally yoked.  And this is a sincere belief. My more theologically conservative friends are not trying to be mean or judgmental, they are simply stating what they understand to be true and wanting to be faithful to their beliefs.

As one of my friends from the other end of the theological spectrum said to me, “How can we preach Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross as the only way to salvation when you across town teach something else? Our association dilutes the clear message of salvation in Christ.” And again, he said that not with a mean spirit, not even critically, but in care and with sincerity.

For our more theologically conservative Friends, our diversity of belief is a genuine stumbling block. And I get it. So let me emphasize: this is not light versus darkness or good guys versus bad guys, etc.  For the most part, these are our fellow Quakers who like us and even love us, but simply feel like they can not continue to remain yoked with us.

Which brings me back to my first words: May God forgive us. For I believe that somewhere along the way, we all haven’t maintained the relationships that could have seen us through these theological differences.

And so our state denomination is at a standstill. Our body of representatives will gather on August 1 and possibly make a decision to separate in some manner. Or maybe some other GREAT wisdom will arise allowing us to health-fully, authentically remain as one body.  

What I do know is that it is time to stop our theological spats. Because the world needs all of us, conservatives and progressive alike, to do the work of Jesus, who called us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the orphans, and work for justice.  And friends, I am hopeful because we worship a God who forgives our brokenness, wipes away our sin, and calls us into new life together.

So, let us pray for wisdom. Whether we stay together as a denomination or not, let us prayerfully determine in the wider body to at least love one another.  For they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  And they know we are Christians by our love.