Collective thoughts from Sheila Bach, Steve Elkinton, Laura Lee Fischer, K. C. Kohout, and Steve Morse
1. How has global change affected our communities and ourselves?
Major global-scale changes that we have experienced personally have to do with human population increase, globalized trade (and consequent lower prices and lost jobs), consciousness of the planet earth as our only home, an increasing world appetite for energy, unstable international financial systems, growing poverty and food shortages, the continuing internationalization of war, revolutions in transportation and communication technologies, invasive species (such as the recent wave of stink bugs), and a growing tolerance in the U.S. of race and class differences. At the Meeting community level, all of these occur, too, but are seldom discussed in any profound way.
One Friend noted the dominance of the market-driven “Hollywood Culture” that seems to diminish our spiritual life. TV and recordings too often seem to detract from personal introspection and spiritual growth. Indigenous cultures have few defenses against this homogenization. Perhaps this is a cause of the decline of mainline Christianity and eclipse of Quakerism within the broader society.
Here in the suburbs of Washington, DC, there is an increasing stratification of types and classes of people as U.S. citizenship and immigration requirements tighten. International workers often receive lower pay levels. There appears to be less equality, not more. Niche marketing may make it harder, rather than easier, to get outside our traditional world views. Yet here, we and our children are exposed to a greater variety of peoples and cultures than ever before.
Some convergences are irreversible. One recent example is the Arab Spring – it couldn’t have happened without cell phones. In many cases, there are positive signs despite the downward trends: cleaner rivers and air quality, new architecture that generates all its own energy, and the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.
The effects these factors have on us and our community vary widely. We think we are in control, but we are usually on the receiving end of these changes, some of which come on very gradually and some of which come overnight. In the past 30 years the population of the U.S. has doubled, but the total number of Friends has hardly changed at all. Will cell phones and their buzzes and noises be the end of silent worship as we know it? Generally, as a community, we have taken actions to react to specific situations: the civil right movement, fair housing, the sanctuary movement, burned churches. We have not done well dealing with the bigger issues. Our sense of not having enough time (to serve on committees, to be clerk, to help our community, etc.) may, in fact, be a direct reaction to the increasing busy-ness and time demands of this globalizing era.
2. What actions have we taken in response to global change as experienced in our area, to express our responsibilities towards all Creation? In what ways have my own activities or those of my community contributed to positive or adverse local and global change?
Actions that immediately come to mind include:
— New Friends’ queries and advices that sensitize us to global issues, like human population pressure, energy issues, and resource depletion and limits.
— Supporting local Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs),
— The slow food movement and its awareness of eating locally grown food,
— Engaging our communities in positive campaigns on global issues, such as Quaker Earthcare Witness,
— Prayer to heal the world.
For one Friend, most Divine guidance is usually a command of what not to do. But to sit in moral judgment of others who may be doing that activity feels wrong. Each of us may have concerns and leadings, but often we don’t find solidarity with others in our community. How do you find other people who support these important concerns?
After a State Department staffer visited our Meeting and asked for help resettling Iraqi families who had moved here (with only the clothes on their backs) we rallied and supported five families for almost a year, getting a number of other interested churches involved, too. Our commitment was fueled, in part, by anger about America’s heartless foreign policy abroad.
However, there have been a lot of missed opportunities. We travel more, we know the world better, but we are also leaving bigger carbon footprints everywhere we go. In general we do not take the time and have the understanding necessary, as Friends, to see the ethical, moral, and ecological consequences of what we do. No one wants to make others feel bad. We have no prophets, as of old, railing against such contemporary “evils” as unsafe mortgages, unfair trade, toxic pollution, overbuilt highways, energy-inefficient cars, election corruption, lack of opportunities for youth, export of jobs, etc. It is easy to feel overwhelmed.
3. How do changes around us affect our relationship with God? How does my relationship with God affect my responses to the changes around us? What role does faith have in my life and in the life of my community? In what ways do I and my Friends church or meeting community bear witness to our Testimonies in our daily lives?
If God is all things, then God includes nature, despite its cruelty and storms. If God is good, then why do so many bad things happen, why does the world feel sometimes like it is imperiled by over-population, nuclear weapons, ocean warming, etc.? If God is timeless, our relationship to Him shouldn’t change. However, changes make us listen more intensely. Being aware of the changes opens us to God-centered reactions. The frustrating situations are where there is no clear way forward. Often we have to move forward just on faith.
Global changes do affect our sense of what God is, and it is easy to fall back on the proven – the sanctity of DNA, the miracle of life, the pervasiveness of the life force seen in nature, the beauty of fall leaves – rather than personal redemption through Jesus Christ. Survival vs. salvation — what a choice!
It is harder to live a simple life now than in earlier years. In America, there is an embedded economic force to create new desires. It is constant and pervasive marketing. It is easy to be manipulated by the culture around us. For one Friend it is now spiritually painful for him to shop in large shopping malls. In our busy lives, it is hard to make time for God. Brother Lawrence advises that we can, we should choose to do all things reverently.: make all actions manifestations of God. Avoid de-humanizing activities such as violent video games, unnecessary websearching, etc. The true gift is having the interior space to let our minds be free. Step outside of deciding, be humbled by beauty, stop and look and listen, offer praise, be deeply reverent. Emptying of self is the precursor to being led by God, to surrendering. To react to change requires listening and prayer. Some of the ways we fail to react are the same ways we fail to come together as a community.
It’s easy to feel more powerful than we are. Being humble helps us listen better. If we can tap into God’s caring for the world, we can have the energy to help care for it too. There are times when we are prayed through, as God sorrows for the world. Surely Friends who created such noted organizations as the American Friends Service Committee were drawing on this Divine sensitivity.
Bearing witness to our testimonies is a continuous challenge. We work towards peace and carry on a small peace vigil each week, but the country remains at war. We are good stewards of our finances, but we are still in debt. We talk about simplicity, but really want our comforts. We build community, but are not well integrated into our broader community. We can hardly take care of our basic community needs, let alone have time to deal as a community with these broader global issues. People burn out easily and chose their causes perhaps too carefully. Globalization offers us too many huge issues — we get paralyzed.
One remarkable example of one of our members taking peacemaking seriously as a testimony and a ministry was Tom Fox, our former clerk, who joined Christian Peacemakers. In an era of war, he sought to help make the world a more peaceful place. He was assigned to Baghdad in the depths of the Iraq War and eventually, alas, was abducted and killed. All of us were moved by his death, and he was widely mourned. Yet the power of his courage and deep spiritual commitment lives on untarnished.
4. What stories or experiences from past times of catastrophic happenings – perhaps from Scripture, perhaps from the record of regional or local events – might inspire us to respond to the changes the world is facing today?
One Friend talked about the vision of Ezekiel’s River, a river starting at the Temple in Jerusalem to bring life to all: fruit for food and leaves for healing. Perhaps God has well-being as a goal – abundance and wellbeing. Can we Friends be a worldwide river and bring peace and joy and love everywhere?
The vision of the Peaceable Kingdom is also powerful, featuring reconciliation, not just compromise. Visions such as “living in that condition that takes away the occasion for all outward wars “ are sustaining and provide us energy and hope. One indication of the Indwelling Spirit is energy and a sense of abundance.
For some religions, Heaven is not of this earth, but elsewhere. Our vision is of salvation here and now. The Kingdom of God is here. God’s intention is to help and heal our world here and now. Therefore we can direct our spiritual energy to this Creation of which we are a part. How can we be more fully human beings – and relate to the other creatures more fully?
Gratitude is a foundation for grace, for generousness, for humility. Pride and credit too often get in the way – one extreme is to be aware of the concept of “nameless to nameless.” The best gifts are anonymous.
The world is becoming more and more religiously tolerant – this is a great thing. Most of the higher education institutions in the U.S. are very tolerant. We are greatly inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.
However, this era is the first time that some global threats (e.g., oil depletion, atmospheric carbon dioxide, etc.) has occurred. There are no precedents, just warnings from the past (such as overextended past civilizations). Electronic communications is making the world smaller, but we’re not really talking to each other yet. Even the family dinner table is coming apart, a lot of families don’t even communicate there any more. Electronic communications is actually splitting us apart.
What are some of the lessons of Tom Fox’s life and death? If the world is falling apart, pray hard and follow your leading, even if it means sacrificing your life. Don’t worry about dying needlessly, if you stand and fall on principle, others will notice and be inspired, perhaps to follow in your footsteps. Be prudent, but don’t be paranoid. Talk and write and share – some of the most inspiring spin-off from Tom’s death were his insights left behind in writing and on his blog. God can be found in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, if we are but brave enough to go there.
Some cataclysms occur suddenly. But perhaps the worst ones we face as human beings are slow and steady: over-population, diminishing resources, greater competition for clean water and air, widening income gap, decreasing civic engagement, the breakdown of the social contract. Many of the services and institutions we enjoy and benefit from – Social Security, the GI bill, bank account protections, fair labor laws, environmental protections, etc. – were crafted over years and have enhanced our lives. If they are swept away, it will feel like a cataclysm.
5. How can we bear witness to the abundance God offers us and testify to the world about ways in which justice, compassion, and peace may address significant disruptions, stress, and tensions.
Justice is critical. John Woolman went out of his way to acquaint himself with injustice. In the past 100 years Friends have organized groups, like AFSC to work on peace, compassion, and justice. Does this corporate model still work? Even internal discussion among ourselves are useful. Speaking in meeting is a way of bearing witness. Young Friends are always raising money for good causes.
The Quaker message about a living relationship with God and Jesus – and having it be the basis of your life — should be so much more available to the world around us. Can we bear witness more fruitfully and effectively? Are we too divided by our own theological diversity? Thomas Kelly sets the right tone about what is most important. We each have our own challenges: impatience, lack of sensitivity, listening poorly, getting caught up in self. How can we see these as opportunities? How can we optimize the gifts we are given?
The material abundance may run out in an over-crowded world. Inner abundance is the new frontier. We should develop games and festivals that are not consumptive, but cooperative and creative. In our yearly meeting (Baltimore, USA), one of our great ministries is a vibrant summer camping program. And now there is serious effort to make the camping population at summer camps more ethnically diverse. Young adult Friends are following up to get underserved populations involved. These camps involve hundreds of kids each year – and many of the experiences there are transformative, changing these children for the rest of their lives through love and hope. Many of these young people become bonded to Quakerism and form the heart of a nationwide community of Young Adult Friends. It is curious how a set of simple summer camps has become our most important investment in the future.
Probably the best way to bear witness to peace, compassion, and justice is to live them out each day consciously, being supersensitive to when people in our communities and states and Nation are stepping away from these ideals. Quickly one can be overwhelmed by the injustice in the “justice system,” the dictatorial and inhuman practices of the “peacekeeping” military, and the corruption and waste in compassionate social services. To stay on a true path seeking these ideas requires huge stores of faith and prayer. Even following one of these directions requires great sacrifice and courage.
6. How can we support one another in rekindling our love and respect for God’s Creation in such a way that we are messengers of the transforming power of love and hope?
Good communications. Good listening. Getting to know our concerns more deeply. Worshipping together (worship is the “beating heart” of our community). Supporting each others’ concerns. How can we help each other become better instruments of God? One barometer of our generosity and concern is how we donate as a community (and right now the Meeting’s debt to renovate the building may be hobbling us from being more generous.)
Just getting to know one another can be terrifically enriching. Sometimes just being close to someone without words can nurture Spirit. Holding the Meeting in the Light as a worshipping community can be deeply fulfilling. Yet our Meeting has had a hard time recently setting up Friendly 8s and other intentional social forums.
We are lucky to have places like our Quaker camps and Friends Wilderness Center in West Virginia where we can get away from our daily lives and revel in nature. We need to slow down and listen to each other, take time to recharge your batteries.
One Friend was present at the founding of Friends in Unity With Nature (now Quaker Earthcare Witness — QEW) in 1987. Those who gathered under this concern clearly felt Spirit-led and felt present n the midst of major environmental crises. Since then the population of the world has doubled. And miraculously, QEW has survived, if not prospered. However, Friends as a body have not embraced its issues and manifestos. Everyone seems too busy with our jobs and raising our families.
We can support each other by learning about the Ecological Footprint – and how much is our rightful share. We can sensitize each other about the damaging consequences of our actions – following in the footsteps of John Woolman. We can set up sustainable communities that get by on less through economies of scale. We can share stories of spiritual transformation that led people to serve others better. We can participate in and raise funds for Right Sharing of World Resources or Heifer International. In short, we support each other in a Meeting, even if we strive to live more fully with God and His Creation as individuals.