Thursday, October 13, 2016

Meditations on Plants and Gardening

Recently I left my job, so I've had some time to tend to my gardens. Here are some parables that came to me as I trimmed, weeded, and planted.

Part I
The Violent Seize It by Force
Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16

As a person who loves plants, I often wait to see what a volunteer seedling will turn into before I consider it a weed. As a result, I have volunteer evening primroses in my flower bed. They provide a spot of pale yellow and the deer prefer them to the plants I deliberately included. Now I like them so much that it distresses me to see them bitten off by my neighborhood herbivores.

However, the most persistent volunteer is a common hawthorn that I did not plant and is not in a place where I want it.  We have cut it back for twenty years with the result that it is bushier and hardier than ever. I suspect that the only way to get rid of it is to dig it up completely or to poison it.  But I just don’t hate it that much. And at this time of year, August, the hawthorn provides a lovely spot of color with its red berries that feed the birds. 

I also meditate as I’m trimming this thorny bush. I think about the vital force that the hawthorn has put into persisting as part of my landscaping. I think about what it adds to the beauty of my yard and how it feeds birds. I think also of a parable about the kingdom of God and those who are forcing their way in, even to the discomfort of local gardeners. Why not appreciate the energy and vitality of their search for God? It’s clear that they are responding to the good news Jesus came to share and be for us. 

In my home denomination, we have spent so much energy trying to prevent the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in our churches, and we set limits on their freedom to listen to Jesus themselves and obey what Jesus tells them and contribute the gifts Jesus has given them to our congregations. Maybe our energy is better spent on our own seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s rightness and justice rather than protecting our space and justifying ourselves.

Part II
Pruning and Shaping
Hebrews 12:6; John 15:2

So, given that this hawthorn has violently forced its way into the kingdom of my plants, and it will not go away, what am I doing? I’m trimming it and shaping it. I mutter to it, “Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth,” and “If you’re going to stay, you can’t grow any old way you please, particularly into the roses.”

It takes some finesse to trim up a thorny plant like roses and hawthorns. I need long sleeves, gloves, long-handled pruners, and clippers.  I need to move slowly and cut judiciously and quickly.  I need my pruners and clippers to be sharp. I need not to slip on the hillside and fall into the bush. I need to know something about how pruning affects the plant’s growth. 

Today I did research into how to help a hawthorn look its best. I found out I need to cut out suckers that grow up from the bottom.  So I went in after them.

We’ve mistreated this hawthorn so much by severe pruning that it has sent up numerous suckers in order to survive. I decided that anything less than one-half inch diameter could come out. To my surprise, these stems were very hard to cut through. It seemed possible my bicep might be the thing to tear. Additionally, pulling out the cuttings required a firm but gentle grip—firm because they were tangled in with the other branches, gentle because, well, long sharp thorns. With all my care, I walked away with one or two new puncture wounds. But the hawthorn looks so much better.

I see a parable here in the harm the inexperienced or thoughtless gardener can do with clippers and pruners. We turned a potentially lovely, airy, flowering tree with three lovely seasons into an unwanted pest partly by never bothering to find out what it is in itself and how best to help it be beautiful.

How often do I look at others and wish they would give up trying to be part of my “landscaping,” my church? They cause me pain, and they intrude on my space. They don’t fit in with how I thought the church should be. But they also won’t go away, despite my lack of welcome. What if I get to know them so that I can see how best to welcome them, how to make space for the gifts they bring, how to help them fit in without destroying who they are? What if I decide I'm willing to suffer a little so they can experience God's freedom?

Part III 
The Wayward Rose Bush
Luke 15:11-32 “It is fitting that we should be merry and glad; for your own brother was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and now is found.”

Besides the hawthorn, another volunteer is a rose. Its parent plant is above a cinder block rock wall. I think the parent chose to send up a shoot—a scion—at the bottom of the wall, right by the water tap where the hose connects.  I love it because it has beautiful blooms. My husband wants to destroy it because “it thrashed his arm” while he was getting out the hose. We are presently compromising by cutting it away from the hose. I fear if we attack it aggressively, we will kill the bush above, which is attached to it by its roots.

But I might be wrong. So I asked an expert, my friend Phil, and he confirmed my fears. Killing the offshoot might kill the parent plant as well.

I see a parable here. Children in Christian families often grow up to share some values and reject other values their parents have. Parents can find this wounding, and churches can be offended and even blame the parents. I remember when I was a young “elder” and an old saint was complaining about young people not being brought up to follow a particular taboo. I said, “My parents brought me up with that taboo, and I’ve never shared their belief about it.” She may have been offended at my brashness, but she didn’t cut me off from relationship with her or the church. If she had pushed for this punishment, she might have lost my parents also. I’ve seen such things happen.

Even more tragic, I see parents confused between establishing boundaries for relationship and seriously damaging relationship with their own children when their child rejects their values. How can parents and children trim back the thorny branches so they don’t “thrash” our hearts without causing deeply felt estrangement between parent and child?

Perhaps looking for and affirming “that of God”—the equivalent of blossoms—in each other can help. Parents bear the greater responsibility to speak healing and affirmation to their children for those unique gifts each child brings into our world. And children can also initiate loving affirmation for the many good things they inherit from their parents. We need both generations to flourish for each to be healthy.

Part IV
Artificial Scarcity and God's Love
“I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

When I first began cooking, I used spices and herbs bought at the grocery store in small glass bottles for large prices. I did not know any other way, and I assumed, because of the packaging, that scarcity dominated the spice and herb world.

Then one day, my husband brought home five pounds of cinnamon and five pounds of nutmeg.  Such a lot of spice! My concept of spices and herbs began to include the idea of abundance (and as a side note, of artificially enforced scarcity.) Now, 30 years later, we still have nutmeg from that original purchase, though we ate our way through the cinnamon years ago. I blame cinnamon toast.

Today, I have many herbs growing in my garden. Most spectacular is an oregano plant that resists drought, winters over, hosts bees in the late summer and produces enough oregano to flavor the sauces of 10 to 20 cooks. I have parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. I have lemon grass, basil, marjoram, summer savory, and fennel. Some of these are perennial, some are annual. All produce far more than I can use. I even discovered that when my cilantro seeds out, I can harvest cardamom, an actual spice.

I see a parable here of the evolution of my understanding of the love of God. When I was a child, I saw the love of God as scarce and expensive, something I had to work hard to earn. I began to be aware that the scarcity was artificial, perhaps even promoted as a way to shape and control my behavior. Now I find through experience and belief that the love of God is abundant, that it just needs a heart ready to let it plant itself, and God will produce enough love to satisfy an individual and even pour out over an entire village.

Part V
The Diverse Mint Family
John 10:16, Matthew 12:41-42, 50

I celebrate today the many plants I love that belong to the mint family.  The Lamiaceae  (according to Wikipedia) are “a family of flowering plants…frequently aromatic in all parts and include…basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, thyme, lavender and perilla.” Family members can be found all over the plant-supporting globe. Many are grown to eat or drink, some for beauty, some for repelling deer and other plant-eaters.  Salvia and dead-nettle are in this family. They characteristically, though not universally, have square stems, and their leaves are in opposing pairs, each pair at right angle to the one above or below. 

When I breathe in the scent of my salvia plants, I feel a deep sense of pleasure. I say to the plant, “Thank you for smelling so wonderful.” When I water my mint, oregano and sage plants, I enjoy their aromas. I love the strong mint tea I bought at the souk in Tunisia, and I’m fond of “curiously strong mints.”

I cannot believe how many members there are in this family, how tenacious they often are of life, and how they send out runners underground and seeds overground to ensure their persistence.  Lemon balm has invaded my yard. It propagates very successfully and will crowd other plants out, so I pull it up, but I can never pull it all up.

The parable that comes here relates to the wide variety of the individuals and worshiping communities and denominations that make up the church universal. Unbelievably, the gospel propagates itself both underground and above ground, through root—families of faith—and through seed—converts who hear and give heart space for the gospel to sprout and grow. The sweet scents, lovely blooms that feed the bees, and the multiplicity of usefulnesses for human beings are an aspirational analogy to us as individuals and congregations. Do we make our communities more beautiful, more livable, more equitable for our neighbors? Do we soothe their pains, sweeten their existence, and spice up their days?

To paraphrase Jesus’s parable about sheep, “Other mint varieties I have that you have never heard of or did not recognize. These also fulfill God’s will for the mint family, and will add beauty and pleasure and healing to your lives.”

Part VI
Sedums and Gifts
Genesis 3:8, Psalm 91:1-4, Matt. 23:37

Someone I didn’t know very well lived with my husband and me for a number of months. He was shy, quiet, and well-behaved, and we didn’t do a good job of getting to know him. Years later, I discovered that he went hungry in my house because he was in his 20s and we were in our 50s, and we were eating salads and other light meals in a vain effort to lose weight. He had that miraculous metabolism that can eat an entire calf. I am still embarrassed at my lack of perceptiveness.

He also loves plants, and he planted some that are still here a decade later. A group of fall-flowering sedums has survived an enormous amount of neglect and drought to bring forth lovely flowers right on time.  So today, in late September, I weeded them.  I’d like to actually see the blooms.  And I’m watering them as we are in our dry season. I hope they don’t die of shock.

There are several parables here. First, pay attention to those in my orbit and under my care. What do they actually need? It is probably not identical to what I need. Perhaps asking them if they have enough to eat, literally or figuratively, is a good place to start.

Second, care for the relationship. Even if it survives on benign neglect, it is in my own best interest to keep it healthy and to let the other person’s virtues shine in it. If I let it be smothered or even just kept invisible by my neglect, I have no one to blame but myself if I miss its beauty.

Third, do not ignore or disparage the gift someone brings. Even if I didn’t ask for it, it represents an effort to be friends. (At the same time, gifts are not quid pro quo. That’s more of a trade and should be negotiated openly.) And when I give a gift, I need to give it cheerfully and without strings attached.

Sometimes we neither bother to get to know what God really wants from us, nor do we value the gifts, particularly the grace-filled love, that God has given us. We might do well to take a little time to listen and to weed out the things we have let grow that make it hard to see the beauty of God.

Part VII Caring for Plants with Thorns
Isaiah 53:5 "He was wounded for our transgressions."

As you can see, I love roses. They need clipping. I love berries that grow on spiny vines. They need pruning and tying up to wires. I love my horse who gets burdock burs in her mane and tail.  I have to work them out without pulling out all her hair. My life is filled with, wait for it, thorny problems.

Once I trimmed my berries or my roses, wearing gloves of course. A day later, my wrists and fingers ached, sort of like arthritis. I discovered then that I am allergic to thorns, that they are just a little poisonous to me. The medical term is “plant thorn arthritis.” I went after each with needle and tweezers and then a little rubbing alcohol. Sometimes a surgeon has to help remove tiny fragments of thorn that elude the home needle, though this didn't happen to me.

This makes me think of a parable or two. First, the work of ministry can include thorny patches, leaving the minister scratched and perhaps a bit poisoned. Sometimes careful self-examination and removal of the poisonous bits from the soul can be done at home, and sometimes the ache and swelling remain and the minister must seek professional help. It’s important to address these small problems before they become systemic.

Second, Jesus himself found his ministry to be wounding. He was despised, rejected, mocked, betrayed. He knew what we humans are like, and he still acted out his love for us, doing for us what we needed rather than what we wanted. This is the same today. He also felt thorns both figurative and literal, and he died to give us new life, abundant life. By his wounds we are healed. We are grateful every day that Jesus showed us God’s true nature of love and made it possible for us to turn toward that love. We recognize every day that though we need pruning, we protect ourselves with strategies that wound others.  Let’s lean in to God’s love, trusting that God will take away what we need to lose and give what we need to gain.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Syro-Phoenician Woman Meets the Living Word of God

I preface this with the words of Hebrews 4:12: “For the word, the logos, the Word of God is alive, powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing right through to where soul divides from spirit or breath, to where joint divides from marrow, discriminating and discerning the thoughts and intents in the inmost self.” And I remind us that John’s gospel identifies the word, the logos, the Word of God like this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and the life was the light of human beings….And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1: 1, 4, 14).  Jesus walked among us, making God visible, and speaking as the embodied Word of God to the other human beings he encountered each day.  As we listen to what he says to these others, we can hear as well what he is saying to us, since Jesus has come today to teach us Himself through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Given this foundation, what do we make of the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, told in Mark 7 (and Matthew 15)? Do we see a Jesus who does not understand that he is God-sent to the whole world? Do we see a Jesus who is given to testing the faith of a desperate mother before granting her wish? Do we see a Jesus who is modeling their prejudice in an acted parable for his disciples, teaching them thereby that God heals Gentiles also, that Gentiles also can have faith in the one God sends?

I’ve heard it all three ways, and now I want to add a fourth way that to me solves some of the vexing problems of the above interpretations.

First, I have an a priori objection to thinking that Jesus participated in the ethnocentrism of his countrymen. This may be a flaw in my rational self because I do object to the heresy that Jesus carried all of God’s knowledge around in his human brain and was just pretending to share in the human condition. So if Jesus was limited at all, there is no logical necessity that his limitations weren’t also ethnocentrically Jewish. The preacher I heard positing this interpretation was making the point that Jesus himself grew in understanding his mission, moving from the Jewish messiah to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  But since this is what John the Baptist said at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, it is hard for me to believe that John knew more about what Jesus was called to than Jesus did. Even in Mark’s telling, Jesus had already healed the Gerasene (Syrian) demoniac, who became the first non-Jewish bearer of the good news (Mark 5).

Jesus had the following things to say about his ministry, and only God knows how they fit chronologically with his encounter with this Gentile woman, but Mark puts them prior.

“Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown, among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). This makes clear his understanding that those closest to him were least likely to see his calling and gifts.  “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave shake the dust off of your feet as a testimony against them,” Jesus told his disciples (Mark 6:11). This makes clear his awareness that his own people might well reject the good news of God’s kingdom. Then he said to the most conscientious religious Jews of his day, “You have a way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” and told his disciples, “It isn’t what a person eats that makes the person unclean, but the evil that comes from within” (Mark 7: 9, 17, 21).  This sets aside the dietary laws that were a key way to tell Jews from Gentiles.  So when Jesus comes to Tyre to talk with the Gentile woman, he has already said a number of things that confront the Jews.  He has notified his disciples of the need for “new wineskins” for the fresh “wine” of the good news. He has announced that his true family are all those who do what God wills.  For these reasons and more, it seems to me unlikely that Jesus was expressing his own racism in this moment.

I also have a visceral objection to the “test of faith” interpretation of this encounter.  Jesus did not ask the Gerasene demoniac if he believed or require him to ask in just the right way. Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic and then healed him with no question at all to the man about his faith (Mark 2). He did not require the man with the withered hand to express faith, and the man did not even ask for healing (Mark 3). He stopped the storm on the lake in spite of the disciples’ lack of faith (Mark 4). The two miracles recorded in Mark 5 do include Jesus commending the woman’s faith that moved her through the crowd to touch Jesus’s clothes, and encouraging Jairus to believe rather than fear. These two people and the Gentile woman share the characteristic that all three are desperate and turn to Jesus with hope. So why would Jesus test the one with the least background in Jewish faith more than he does the synagogue leader? It seems unlikely that the one of whom it is prophesied that “a smoking flax he will not quench” would pour cold water on a mother’s desperate hope while encouraging a father’s. Thus I can’t see this as Jesus testing the Gentile woman’s faith.

There is some precedent for seeing that the Gospel writers recorded Jesus’s actions that they found to be rich in metaphoric meaning—and these acted parables are available to us on many levels. However, I cannot think of any other of Jesus’s actions that depends on acting out for the disciples their own prejudices or limitations in a way that treats another human being negatively. He didn’t sucker people into agreeing with something he pretended to believe and then punch them with the opposite truth. Look at his interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4). Jesus is already talking with her when the disciples return, even though they may well be scandalized by it. He doesn’t pretend first to share their distaste for Samaritans and then try to engage the woman. Additionally, it seems unlikely that Jesus would waste the opportunity to speak into an individual’s heart in order to make a point at that individual’s expense. So if this is an acted parable, its interpretation needs to be something different.

I remember finding out that a short story called “The Overcoat” by the Russian author Gogol is primarily seen by Russian readers as humorous and playful (see for example The Enigma of Gogol by Richard Peace, p. 148: “the author also laughs at his hero…”). As an American, however, I see it as grotesque and tragic. I miss all the puns and verbal hijinks of the Russian text, and my reading experience is linguistically and culturally distant from the reader Gogol wrote for. I read the translated text like an American.

In reading the Bible, I read like an American heir to the Judeo-Christian mindset. I have typically adopted the interpretive stance that sees God’s chosen people as the center of the story and all other peoples as “inferior.”  In fact, I read as if I myself were one of the chosen people, despite not being Jewish. I am, in fact, in the same boat as the disciples. So to them (and to me, ironically) this Gentile woman is by Jewish definition inferior and thus “a dog.”

Then it occurred to me: this encounter takes place on her turf, in Tyre. She is the one with Roman citizenship. She’s the one from a city with paved roads. She is the one who would be so unlikely to turn to an itinerant Jewish carpenter, even one with a reputation for working wonders. She is likely to be carrying in her heart a sense of social superiority, even pride. And if this is the case, I need to rethink her approach to Jesus.  Matthew records that she followed Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” What can she possibly be meaning by these titles?  Does she think that they must be flattering, since she has heard that Jesus responds to them? Does she even know who David was? And does she continue shouting because she demands that they listen to her?

I think it is possible that she views herself as a social superior, bending because of her desperate need to ask for help from someone she would be unlikely to speak to under other circumstances.  In fact, she is more like me—a privileged American citizen—and Jesus is more like a recent immigrant, perhaps even a migrant worker with or without a green card. She uses a title of respect that she has heard but that means little to her to get Jesus’s attention so he will grant her desperate request.  To her, Jesus is a means to an end. 

His responses are recorded in different form in Matthew and Mark.  In Matthew, he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Perhaps he even shouts this back to her. He confronts the ethnic and class issues directly. Jesus has a pattern of confronting issues directly. Why do you call me good, he asked a good Jewish man. You know only God is good.  Why do you call me “son of David,” why do you call me “Lord”? These titles mean nothing to you. They are signs to the house of Israel.

But he does stop walking, and she embodies her desperation by bowing before him. The Greek word used for this contains in it the idea of a dog licking the master’s hand.  Perhaps she has caught his hand and is kissing it, perhaps she is crouched over his feet. I dare say she has not often bowed before a Jew before. She is a Roman citizen, in a prosperous and vital center of trade and manufacturing, and he is a provincial manual laborer, not even a citizen.  “Help me,” she says.

The words Jesus says next still confront her. Jesus says this: God sent me first to Israel, a people you feel yourself to be superior to, but a people God has called God’s children. You understand that it is inappropriate, it is not a beautiful thing to take what these children need (whom you care nothing for) and give it to the little dogs under the table, leaving the children hungry.

She finds a loophole in this parable; she’s a smart woman. She tells it again, from the dogs’ point of view. Her willingness to be counted among the little dogs shows that she is willing to accept a humble place in God’s economy. “Yes, Lord, but we both know that children drop food, and the little dogs are welcome to scavenge.  There is enough goodness, enough mercy, to feed my child, my dear dear daughter, to free her from being tormented by evil. Even the little dogs eat the crumbs.”

Why is this speech counted a sign of great faith? Here is a woman driven by desperation to accost a socially insignificant itinerant laborer in public, despite her prejudices and assurance of superiority.  As Jesus often, and perhaps always, does, he pierces to her heart and requires her to come clean. And when they get to the heart, they discover that she does have faith that there is enough goodness, enough mercy, for the arrogant, self-satisfied outsider, that the dogs have a place in God’s economy as well, and that an honest conversation with Jesus is good for everyone. This is true for us today as well. Bring your desperation and hope to Jesus and then hear what He says to you.  When it pierces to your most inner self, you will recognize that you have heard the Word of God.  Listen, accept, and respond to that Word, and then do what Jesus tells you to do.

Peace, Richard. The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N.V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981. Google Books.

The last century of Seleucid rule was marked by disorder and dynastic struggles. These ended in 64 B.C., when the Roman general Pompey added Syria and Lebanon to the Roman Empire. Economic and intellectual activities flourished in Lebanon during the Pax Romana. The inhabitants of the principal Phoenician cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre were granted Roman citizenship. These cities were centers of the pottery, glass, and purple dye industries; their harbors also served as warehouses for products imported from Syria, Persia, and India. They exported cedar, perfume, jewelry, wine, and fruit to Rome. Economic prosperity led to a revival in construction and urban development; temples and palaces were built throughout the country, as well as paved roads that linked the cities. (

Monday, July 20, 2015

Faithful and Wise Stewards

Northwest Yearly Meeting Keynote Address 2015
Becky Ankeny, General Superintendent

Luke 12:35-38, 41-44:
“Keep your pants on and your flashlights handy, like servants who wait for their employer to return from his honeymoon trip, so that when he comes and knocks, they will open the door immediately.  Blessed are those servants whom the employer finds prepared and watching when he arrives. This is the truth: he will put on his own apron, make them sit down to the table, and come and serve them dinner himself.  And if he comes in the middle of the night or at dawn and finds them watchful, those servants will be happy.” … Peter asked, “Lord, are you speaking this just to us disciples, or to everyone?” And the Lord said, “Who is the faithful and wise steward whom his employer shall put in charge over his household to feed everyone in the house at the appropriate times?  That steward will be happy if he or she is fulfilling that responsibility when the employer comes back.  This is the truth: the employer will make that steward boss of everything” (paraphrased).

There are so many parables about us and God as servants and master. This relationship helps us understand that we are not the ones who call the shots, not the ones who own the house. We are caretakers, we are stewards, we are trustees, we are servants. God has given us responsibilities, and key in that word is the idea of response. Our work is in response to God as our master. This parable helps us ask what is important to God. As the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, what have we been trusted with by God?  What have we been given to care for? How do we fit into this parable and the various other parables where God leaves people in charge of some aspect of God’s world? 

It helps us answer these queries to look to the Bible to find what God loves and treasures and takes joy in. From there we can infer our own calling in this world and among the human beings God so obviously loves.

God loves creation and creating.  Genesis tells us of light gathered out of dark (Gen. 1:4), land gathered out of sea (1:9); plants, trees (1:11): sun, moon, stars, universe (1:16); sea monsters, fish, whales, birds (1:21); creepy-crawlies, livestock, wild animals (1:24); procreation itself (1;22); all living creatures, especially including human beings in God’s own image, to whom God entrusted the care of the living earth (1:26). Both male and female human beings, charged with filling and organizing and ruling over the earth (1:27), caring for plants particularly (1:29).  God also gave humans time, marking it off by Sabbaths—time to work, time to rest (Gen. 2:3, Ex. 20:11). And God gave humans choice—the choice to trust and obey God, the possibility of love—both human to human and human to Creator (Gen. 2:16,17; 2:23-25).

We are thus caretakers of God’s creation and creating.  We care for the oceans, the wilderness, the farmland, the gardens, the villages and cities where people live together.  We care for living things—we learn about them and from them, we find their usefulness in God’s grand scheme, we respect their natures and we help life to prosper. We hold the earth in trust for God. This is a human responsibility, not uniquely given to the NWYM Friends, but the widespread concern among us for the earth recognizes a God-given responsibility.

Traditions and Relationship
God loves being in relationship with humans (Ex. 20:6). When God led Israel out of Egypt, using Moses’s gifts and passion as the instrument, God gave the people clear instructions.  Don’t ever forget that I did this for you.  Steward this history, steward the Sabbath rest I require, steward all the feasts I’ve prescribed.  Let everyone see the uniqueness of our relationship.  Embody yourselves the universal pattern I, God, follow: setting slaves free (Ex. 20:2; 21:2; 22:21,22; Lev. 26:13), placing them in a way of life that has a gentle, restorative pace (Ex. 20:11; 23:11-12) and built in moments of festivity and joy (Ex. 23:14-17; Lev. 23), teaching them to remember their source—God—and their deliverer—God—and their shepherd—God—every day.  Treasure this relationship.  It is your inheritance, your heritage.  And remember this also. I have relationships with other peoples as well (Deut. 2; Amos 9:7; John 10:16; 11:52). I am not without a witness throughout the world’s peoples (Acts 17; John 1:9; Romans 1:19; Psalm 19:1-3).

When Jesus came into the world as a Jew, he showed what it means to hold a tradition in trust for God (Matt. 5:17). He reminded everyone continually that the primary purpose of a human being is to enjoy a personal interactive relationship with God (Matt. 6:25-34; 7:11; 10:19-20; 12:50; 18:14; 22:37; 25:40; John 14:23, and so much more). He argued most heatedly with those curators of Judaism who cared most about the tradition—I think he loved the Pharisees so dearly for their commitment—but he saw that they missed the point. They focused on externals (Matt. 23:23-32; Luke 6:6-9). They made slaves to the tradition; they themselves were enslaved (Matt. 23:2-4,13-15). And they curated God instead of living with God in gentle, restorative, festive relationship (Matt. 15:3-6; 22:37-38).

Jesus shocked them—so obviously a teacher, a holy man, a prophet (Luke 7:16)—because he ignored externals and went straight for heart issues, their genuine life before and with God (Luke 7:36-50; Mark 7:1-23)).  He told one curator of tradition, Nicodemus, you’ll never understand unless you are willing to start over, like a newborn infant—without preconceptions of what God wants and instead always a child in relation to God.  God’s spirit, like the wind, goes wherever it pleases, despite your efforts to contain and control it (John 3:1-8).  Don’t make the lethal mistake of attributing the work of God’s free spirit to the devil.  You cannot yourself leave your slavery if you do this (Mark 3:20-29).

Each Other and Our Neighbors
So besides the creation and a relationship with God that our traditions point to, what has God given us to care for as NWYM Friends? God has given us each other and our neighbors (Gen. 4:10; Deut. 15:7-11; 24:14-15, 17-22; Matt. 22:39; 25:34-40; Luke 10:25-37).

We are trustees of our children, holding them in trust for God, trying to keep them alive and making it normal to live honestly and openly before God (Deut. 11:18-19; Matt. 19:13-15; Luke 17:1-3).  We learn about and from the children God has sent us, we help those children find the gifts God has graced them with, we make space for them to take the place God made for them in God’s grand scheme (Luke 2:40-52). We are caretakers of our young people. NWYM Friends established Greenleaf Friends Academy and George Fox University as partial fulfillment of this care for our children. We need to welcome young people onto our YM boards and listen to what God is saying to them.

We care for others by clearing out the debris that prevents them from knowing God personally—knowing God experimentally.  God does not give us the right to control and limit how other people know God (John 4:23-24; 15:16-17; 21:22). God does not ask us to be in charge of who gets to be part of God’s family (John 5:19-30; 6:44-45).  Instead, God asks us to tell everyone everywhere the good news that Jesus is present to teach all of us (John 14:16-17, 26), that we have something in us that yearns toward God and that recognizes good (John 1:4, 12-13), and that God is also yearning toward us and eager to meet us more than halfway (Luke 15).  Friends have traveled the world, beginning in the first generation with the Valiant Sixty, to point people toward God.  NWYM Friends have traveled the whole world to embody and preach the good news—to Alaska, Bolivia, Peru, Palestine, Russia, China. NWYM Friends are also opening their hearts and church buildings to AA, Celebrate Recovery, neighbors from the street, children from around the world.

We are thus caretakers of each other. We listen to and learn from other people, we enrich others’ lives rather than impoverishing them; we make space for others to be in authentic personal relationship with God where God is making them whole and holy, where they can take joy in loving God and other humans. Friends’ heroes such as John Woolman and Elizabeth Gurney Fry, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Lucretia Mott, Hannah Whitall Smith, Herbert Hoover are excellent examples of living well into this kind of caretaking. 

Sadly, Friends’ record of fulfilling our call to care for each other has not been spotless.  Friends held slaves and trafficked in them for over 100 years before coming to recognize that slavery is inherently wrong.  Friends enforced conformity to external standards of dress and forbade marriage to non-Friends with fundamentalist rigidity. Friends disowned young men who fought for the Union against slavery for violating the testimony of non-violence.  Friends who adopted the practice of paying pastors soon fell away from the testimony of equality in ministry for both men and women. Friends are not immune to the currents and prejudices of their social contexts, not above racism or sexism or other prejudices, nor are they immune to the temptation to prefer economic stability to standing against social ills and the temptation to substitute form for living reality. We must acknowledge the truth that each of us has potential for blindness as well as sight, for evil as well as good, for error as well as truth. We need humility and repentance, and sometimes we need to change our minds, not in pursuit of some superficial relevance, but because sometimes we are wrong. And persisting in blindness, evil, and error alienates people from the Jesus we embody. We need to be born again, to start new in every generation and in every day of our individual and communal lives. We need to be born again to care for each other and our neighbors, all of whom God is trusting to our care.

God has also entrusted us with the good news, the Gospel. And we have this entrusted to us not so we can protect it but so we can share it. The dominance of Christianity in the U.S. is waning; we have seekers next door who need the Good News. NWYM has great opportunity to share our relationship with God with spiritual seekers outside the church, and we need to remember how far back to start. Like Paul among the Gentiles, we need to begin with the basics, namely the Creator God who gave humans freedom, is good, and uses human messengers (Acts 14).  Like Paul, Quakers tend to focus on the good God intends toward us.

The heart of the Gospel is Jesus.  We need to teach the history of the Incarnation.   The essentials are in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius (Acts 10):

1)   God anointed Jesus on earth with the Holy Spirit;
2)   Jesus came to bless, heal, and free human beings.
3)   Jesus was killed in Jerusalem;
4)   God raised Jesus from the dead.
5)   Many saw the risen Jesus, even eating and drinking with him.
6)   Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead;
7)   Whoever places his or her confidence and trust in Jesus will receive the remission of sins, release from slavery to error, dishonor, wrong-doing, disobedience

NWYM’s commitment to this Good News positions us well to speak to people who know little about Christianity.

When we care well for our neighbors, we may find that sometimes they bring alien ways into our congregations, creating tension.

Thus Peter’s sermon to insiders (Acts 11) reminds them that no human is common or unclean; that God shows no partiality, accepting any reverent and obedient person; and that God poured out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, even before any ritual of baptism.

The story of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) represents the continual conflict between established expectations and new membership.

Believers need to learn to be as welcoming as God and to recognize that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit transcends ritual.  We NWYM Friends understand that Jesus has come to teach us himself and that within each person is the potential to respond to that teaching with obedience. We can invite our neighbors to “live up to the light you have.”

James’s response in the council of Jerusalem shows how an established group can welcome outsiders.  “We should not trouble these who are turning to God with our whole religious history.”  They asked new believers to commit to worshiping only God, to having sexual ethics, and to caring for the convictions of others in the fellowship. The Gospel is good news to all.

So let us consider together that we NWYM Friends hold the creation, our relationship with God, and each other and our neighbors in trust for God.  Let’s consider what the limits of our trusteeship are. Let’s be as simply authentic as we can with God, knowing that God will help us move toward wholeness as individuals and as a small part of the church universal, the bride of Christ whom Christ purifies. And let us care for our neighbors who have not yet heard that they can be in a personal authentic relationship with God by sharing the good news and helping them feel welcome among us. Then when our boss, Jesus, shows up, he will find us doing a good job of caring for the other servants and he will put on his apron, sit us down at the table, and serve us dinner. May it be so.