As The Seed Falls: Building a Generative, Convergent Quakerism
A Seed Falls
Jesus, in speaking about his looming death, talks to his disciples in a metaphor that I want to draw on as we explore the topic of change and renewal together this evening.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24 NRSV)
This is indeed a powerful image, not just because it is true, but because it lays the groundwork for Christian thinking around the idea of resurrection and how we might understanding the ongoing work of change and renewal within the Christian tradition.
It was later, in the 1970s, that this metaphor was applied as a model for thinking about change and renewal within the Quaker tradition by Everett Cattell, an Evangelical Quaker, missionary and president of my Alma Mater. He spoke these words to a gathering of Friends World Committee for Consultation Quakers concerned about the Future of Friends:
Perhaps the call is now before us for a new seeking: a seeking to find where God’s Spirit is actually at work in today’s world and then a giving of ourselves to work with Him — whether within or without the framework of Friends. The future of Friends may be like the grain of wheat, which must fall to the ground and die. Perhaps this would be the way to a new harvest (Cattell 1970:5).
These are tough words to take for Friends.
They are hard because it suggests that Friends may not be paying close enough attention to what God is doing out there, in our surrounding culture, an insight I think he brings as one who is missionary trained.
They are hard because they suggest that the “framework” of Friends is just that, a framework. Where it is helpful keep it, but where it becomes an obstacle to the real goal, which is joining in God’s work in the world, then we need to find new doors to enter and pathways to create.
“Sometimes we have to start over,” as Deborah Fisch shared during the 2016 North Carolina Yearly Meeting-Conservative sessions.
These words are also hard because they suggest that death is necessary for new life. The way we sustain what we love is by letting go of our control over that thing. It suggests, as Richard Rohr has said, our commitment to traditionalism can be our way of actually avoiding the tradition (Everything Belongs, 2003: 23).
I have seen this time and time again. Our commitment to protect and police the boundaries of Quakerism has led to a loss of the very center of our tradition. For example, consider the times when Quaker process has been used to avoid doing the real work of discernment. As our particular Quaker group becomes more and more concerned about survival, fearing and avoiding any kind of death or a falling of the seeds, we almost guarantee death. In the metaphor of the seed, avoidance of death is what ensures it.
Remember the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John and how Jesus actually lets his friend die? Lazarus dying was meant to show that there is something beyond death. For the Quaker tradition, fear of death, fear of splitting, even fear of risk-taking can become an emotional barrier that keeps us from experiencing new life.
This is the insight of Jesus that passes through the Quaker tradition. This was the insight of early Friends who called into question a bloated Christian traditionalism that allowed for the radical core of Christianity to perish, or at the very least rendered it useless. What I think Penn meant by “Primitive Christianity Revived,” was that the core of the tradition, that which is eternal and most alive within the tradition, was being restored.
I hear three main pieces at work in Cattell’s original framing of Quaker renewal:
- The importance of tradition, which is most alive and transcends death, it is what remains of the old seed after death.
- There is the critical attention to what God’s Spirit is doing now that is likely occurring outside of the walls of our churches and meetinghouses. I like what Eddie Gibbs, a professor of mine at Fuller, once said about this: “A Secular Church is now surrounded by a spiritual culture.”
- And that there is something between these two, where the apprentices of the tradition are committed to joining the work, and entering into a dialogue between tradition and context regardless of risk; and even if it means death to our ideas and the “the framework of Friends.” In this dialogue with differences we put what we hold dear out in the open. We name it, recognize it and put it in conversation with other voices and convictions, that offer different perspectives, challenge, critique and affirmation.
While Cattell’s words are not the origins of the idea three essential components to renewal, tradition, context and dialogue is what I, and others, mean by the phrase “convergent Friends.”
Convergent is a portmanteau, a word that derived from the combination of two other words as in: Conservative (as in the tradition) and Emergent (within our context today).
First, a word about this first part “conservative” to the tradition:
To have a convergent outlook as a Quaker is to find deep value and resonance in the tradition. It helps us identify the what the center is. It is the thread that connects the seed falling to the new fruit emerging. Tradition is what we are accountable to, inviting us into a larger story and requiring surrender of self. We don’t walk into a tradition and begin, an estate sale, we come in and become apprentices to it.
Those who are convergent Friends refuse the false option between antiquarianism and anti-traditionalism, and instead argue that renewal is much more like a Jazz improvisation. In Jazz, you have one who is an apprentice of the tradition, who learns it so well before they able to master improvisation.
For more on the connection between Quaker renewal, convergent Friends and Jazz Improvisation I would encourage you to look at Chad Stephenson’s article in Spirit Rising called, “Convergent Friends as New Jazz Traditionalists.”
Within this understanding of renewal, tradition is the grounds upon which all innovations and improvisations rest.
As Church historian, Jaroslav Pelican, says:
Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, and it is traditionalism that I believe gives the word “tradition” such a bad name.
And Gustav Mahler once wrote:
“Tradition is tending the flame, it’s not worshipping the ashes.”
Second, I want to say something about this second word “emergent” within our context.
If the first word “tradition” is the seed, then we can locate this second part in our metaphor of the seed as the soil within which the seed rests. The soil provides the nutrients, and the conditions whether amiable or constrictive to the last of the fruit and what kind of fruit might break forth.
If tradition is the seed out of which innovation will spring forth, then our cultural context becomes the catalyst for that innovation and change.
This part of Cattell’s framing may be a bit more challenging for some Friends than others, especially if I were to use a word like “mission” or “church in context” here to describe what I am talking about. So I’m not going to use either. :) The point Cattell is getting at is that God is already, always at work in the world. This is the lesson of the incarnation, we don’t bring God to people, God brings God to people, all we do is join as co-laborers in a work already being done.
If that is true, then our work becomes very much about listening and this deep work of empathy with others who are like and dislike us, as we discern where and how God is moving. We will not show up and assume we have the answers, we will show up and help others listen for what God is already saying.
I think Cattell is saying that for a faith community to remain vital, it must continue to find ways to remain up-to-date, and have culturally appropriate expression of faith. As another theologian writes, “all theology is contextual.”
Yes, we can go too far on this edge, trying to become all things to all people, and this is why we have and hold in tension this understanding of “tradition,” but the reality remains that we must, if we have any hope at bearing new, fresh fruit, be engaged in what God is doing now.
Let me recognize this is very hard work. We must have the humility to recognize that there are things that God is doing which we have stood in opposition to, and there are things that God is doing which God did not first ask the Quakers what we thought about it, and there are things that God is doing which will require much deeper, and sometimes difficult and painful work, if we are to join in it.
So when we look around, what do we see God doing in the world?
For me I can’t help think about these issues of racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, xenophobia, poverty and class that are ripping our communities and people in our communities apart.
I look at the Black Lives Matter movement and I get the whiff of God. It is just the kind of subversive thing that I believe the Spirit has always been about, whether or not we have recognized it, resisted it, or welcomed it.
I look at the movement for basic human rights for people who identify as queer. I see how people have been building community, subverting a homophobic culture and risking lives, all the while gaining momentum in a fight for liberation. There is the continued need to struggle for acceptance and basic dignity for people in LGBTQ communities and especially people of color in those communities whose lives are in danger on a daily basis. I have seen God at work in queer communities in ways that the church longs to see.
I also see God at work in anti-poverty movements, where we see poor people building a movement to end poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign, the residents of Detroit who organized around water, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association, those a part of the Moral Mondays and the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, are just some examples of poor people (And their allies) organizing economic justice in this country. God has always been on the side of the poor and so I know God was behind these things too.
I do not think it is a coincidence that the less we engage with God’s activity in the world the less people are drawn to our meetings and to the Quaker tradition. If our theology and practices cannot or do not speak to the times then of what use are we?
Third, is the importance of dialogue amidst difference.
Convergent renewal holds tradition and context together while in dialogue with differences that can open up a terrain for change, critique, and affirmation.
Rufus Jones understood well this call to keep tradition and context constantly in tension when he said:
“Faith is kept, as life is kept, by a constant adjustment to their environment” (1900).
Dialogue between these two aspects of convergent is essential. There must be a synthesis of conversation. Friends can not attempt to be all things to all people, while at the same time, the boundaries and practices of our communities adjust according to their environments to accommodate the needs that arise and the leadings of the Spirit.
There are many ways to practice the kind of convergent dialogue:
- Find where the needs are in your community and go to where people are working to respond to those needs. Go as listeners, as followers, and joiners. We go to learn and ask questions first. Too Often we want to be invited as the experts, rather than, as they say in Young Life, “earning the right to be heard.”
- We can participate in groups like FWCC and other Quaker organizations bring different kinds of Friends together to share experiences and learn from one another. Or gatherings like the Pacific Northwest called the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, which has been going on since the 1990s and has done an incredible job of bringing Evangelical and Liberal Quaker women together.
- We can go where the people are in our communities. At Camas Friends, we had a ministry at a laundromat where we paid for people’s clothes to get washed, we held monthly “God Pubs”, had open-mic storytelling nights at people’s homes, we served free lunches in the parks during the summer for hungry kids, and worked with other faith communities at the homeless shelters and in interfaith issues. We got out of the meetinghouse and into the community.
- Create convergent gatherings that pull Quakers from across the spectrum, worship together, share life together (For more info on how to do that see this post).
- Visit and support meetings that are doing something new and unique. There are meetings and churches which are “convergent” such as Freedom Friends Church which is a Christ-Centered, lightly pastoral, semi-programmed, and fully inclusive.
Each of these experiences and examples can change us, some more radically than others, but they will have an effect on how we understand our faith.
How do we feel about being opened to being changed? Interacting with Quakers, as well as others, who have very different experiences than us?
Dialogue can be dangerous because it can open us up to change.
Consider this common image of the Quaker Family tree:
Q: What do we usually say about it? What are our attitudes towards those other Quakers?
“This is so disappointing.”
“Look at what we’ve done.”
Instead of having the debate about who was right, who is the most faithful or who among has betrayed the tradition, can we think about all of this in a different, more generous way?
What if we assumed each new branch was a seed falling to the ground. Each is an experiment, an expressions and or attempt at bring something new to life? Empathetic dialogue can shift our perspectives on how we understand each of these branches. Instead, this images might look more like this! Suggesting instead an evolution of ideas and spreading those ideas far and wide. The best are the ones that are most adaptable, integrative and compelling.
A Faithful Betrayal
This convergent mindset is captured beautifully in a story I once heard by Peter Rollins:
There is a parable about an old wise master who was at the end of [her] life. [S]He had one disciple [s]he was deeply fond of but was worried that this disciple was still far from enlightenment. The disciple was deeply devoted to the master, carefully following all of [her] teachings and never deviating from the path laid out for him. This was what troubled the master most of all. Calling [her] disciple to eat with [her] privately, [she] began, “You have been a thoughtful and dedicated follower of my teachings for many years, and you may well one day become a great teacher. However, I sense that you are in danger of betraying me in your thoughts and actions.”
The disciple was crushed at the suggestion and responded, “… I never tire of engaging in the rituals and prayers that you have taught. I swear to you that I would never betray you, my great teacher.” The master responded, “The fact that you have never betrayed my teachings, and the fact that you swear never to betray them: this is to betray them already.”
I want to take this story as one final point of departure about developing convergent renewal. Convergence is a faithful betrayal, and because of that not everyone likes it or welcomes it. A Faithful betrayal is one where the apprentices of the tradition love it too much to let it become obsolete, and therefore betray it in some way in order to save it.
And like in this story, convergence is based on “generative” thinking.
First, that means that it builds the strengths and the life-giving threads of a community. We build on the strengths rather than the weaknesses of who we are.
Second, generative thinking is also based on remaining open-ended so that those who come after can edit and adapt. Notice how the master welcomes experimentation. She welcomes invites her student to “remix.” She holds the tension between faithfulness to the tradition and its total disregard. The master in this parable offers an image of what it looks like to remain open-ended. She is the one who opens the gate to change.
I see generative Quakerism standing in contrast to another kind of Quakerism I see at work: gate-keeping.
We will either try and be gatekeepers of the interpretations, the practices, protectors of copy-right so to speak, where we spend the majority of our effort defining and policing the boundaries of who and what is “in and out,” or we will work to strengthen the center, with a generous orthodoxy behind our attitudes about what can pass as the Quaker tradition.
Generative thinking is opposed to gate-keeping. Generative Quakerism is about pathway making.
I have heard gate-keeping Quakerism articulated as “Quakers don’t do….” or “Quakers believe….” as though either is a universal truth for all time and all places often used to draw boundaries between those who are in and those who are out.
Generative Quakerism is about movement building, it is about tending to the center so that the boundaries aren’t needed as much.
Gate-keeping Quakerism is the culprit of of turning away many in my generation and those who are younger.
Generative Quakerism finds ways to connect. Creates opportunity for listening and acting out of empathy.
The one version of Quakerism believes that the most faithful Quakers are dead and long gone. Our best days are behind us. All we have left are the fumes of the fathers and mothers. This mode of existence is to be a preservation society, a museum with lovely artifacts and an inspiring history.
The other version is dangerous and risk-taking, but it will lead some to be what Bayard Rustin called “Angelic Troublemakers,” and it will unsettle us, but it is committed to the living and present Christ among us at all costs. It is deeply committed to God’s struggle for what is just and true today.
Gate-keeping Quakerism restricts the terrain while generative Quakerism expands the circle.
There is this story that Douglas Steere tells that I am sure some of you are familiar with:
In the years immediately following the First World War, the Quakers worked in Poland distributing food and clothing. One of the workers who served a cluster of villages there became ill with typhus and in twenty-four hours he was dead. In this village there was only a Roman Catholic cemetery, and by canonical law it was quite impossible to bury one not of that confession in its consecrated ground. So they laid their cherished friend in a grave dug just outside the fence of the Roman Catholic cemetery. The ’next morning they discovered that in the night the villagers had moved the fence so that it embraced the grave. — Douglas Steere: Mutual irradiation, a Quaker view of ecumenism (Pendle Hill pamphlet, no. 175), 1971, p. 7.
I love this image of moving the fence. We can expanding the circle.
[One big shift that came at Camas Friends was when we stopped thinking about our community as simply the people who came on Sunday morning to meeting for worship. Instead, we began thinking of and treating the people in the 25+ AA meetings that used the meetinghouse every month, and the Montessori school, with all its students, parents and teachers, as a part of our direct community. The size, skills, needs, gifts and potential collaborations quadrupled overnight.]
Moving the fence creates new opportunities. It brings new characters into the scene that wouldn’t have been there with the gate closed.
Generative Quakerism is saying “yes, and” rather than “yes, but…” Yes, and builds the scene, yes, but or no keeps the scene from ever developing.
There is a big difference between building something out of Legos and building something out of concrete. Legos can be changed and adapted. They are always provisional, ad hoc. Unless of course you super glue them together like Lord Business does in the Lego Movie. Concrete is not intended to move, even if in the end grass does break and buckle it.
What does it look like for Friends to embrace that fact that our tradition is a lot more like Legos than it is like concrete?
This is why, in the more programmed and Evangelical traditions we have struggled so much with our faith and practices. A Quaker faith and practice is more like a work of Legos than concrete. Quaker Faith and Practices are a lot more like wikis than they are like encyclopedias.
But this is rather unsatisfying to our culture of control that seeks to manage who has access, whose voice, whose sexuality, whose race and gender count.
Generative Quakerism allows for the seed to fall to the ground and die trusting that it will find good soil and new fruit will be brought forth.
So instead of this tree, let’s conclude instead with another kind of tree.
This last image is a “nurse long.” In the PNW you see this a lot. This is an image of a whole ecosystem of change, where every living thing participates. There is, as Bob Gosney shared last night, a mutual receptivity, that happens on a nurse long.
It shows us that even the dying of things is itself not the end but new beginnings, nutrients, and in service to fresh fruit. Among other things, the Nurse Log image ought to help remove some of the fear around dying. There is life beyond death.
What makes a nurse log successful is that it becomes a space where things die and are reborn collectively, both are dependent upon one another, a seed falls to the ground and dies and in so doing it bears much fruit.
“The future of Friends may be like the grain of wheat, which must fall to the ground and die. Perhaps this would be the way to a new [life].
If you are interested in going deeper into the subject of cultural change and how to help adapt traditions and practices in ways that remain connected to their past while also radically new, please consider reading my book A Convergent Model of Renewal (2015).
This post was first shared at North Carolina Yearly Meeting-Conservative //July 15, 2016 @ Guilford College