Fruit Basket Upset: And, the Eighth Continent

About three years ago, I started saying, “The Internet is the eighth continent of global ministry.”  Not everybody bought into this, but for me, it seemed self-evident.  I traveled on the Internet all the time.  I used a travel minute to support online ministry.  Of course the Internet was its own distinct place.  It’s a place in which ministry is both essential and distinctly different from ministry in Africa or Europe or Australia.  Unlike telephone systems, televisions, periodicals, or the postal service, the Internet—while technically a medium for communications and information—doesn’t function as only a medium.  It’s a non-geographic location where people are.

Think about it.  We “go online.”  We study there, work there, meet people there, build relationships there.  We shop there, date there, fantasize there, entertain ourselves there.  These days, we even worship there.  The Internet has its own (heterogenous) culture, separate from the culture of our in-person social connections and geographic areas.  It has its own linguistic dialects, its own traditions, its own economy, its own humor, its own status system.  It even encourages its inhabitants to begin to think differently.

I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations in Quaker circles about what’s next, and I find myself thinking about the last year of pandemic and online worship as a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset.  (Have you played this game?  A group sits in chairs in a circle.  Each participant is assigned a fruit: usually some are oranges, some are apples, and the rest are bananas.  One player stands in the center of the circle and calls out a fruit: “ORANGES!”  Every player who is an orange must leap out of their seat and run to sit in a different unoccupied seat.  The last player standing becomes the new center player and calls the next fruit.  If the center player is feeling particularly impish, they might call “FRUIT BASKET UPSET!”  This requires all players to leap from their seats and scramble for a new one.)

Why a giant game of Fruit Basket Upset?  Because even though many Quaker meetings transferred directly from in-person meetings to online meetings, a lot of Quaker individuals did not.  We started dashing about, switching seats.  Some Friends were just visiting and “went home” to their own online meetings the next week.  But that wasn’t true for others.  Some Friends returned to beloved meetings that they hadn’t attended in years, having moved away.  Some Friends’ meetings didn’t move online at all, just shut down, so Friends there had no choice but to worship elsewhere, at least for a little while. Some Friends began experimenting and discovered a distant meeting that was a better match–maybe in a different yearly meeting or even a different theological branch.

This is great.  We’ve had a year of serious chaos.  I’m a fan of any source of positive spiritual support and communion.  But . . . when this pandemic is over, are the Friends who’ve found new faith communities “going back?”  Will they return to their geographic meetings, or will they stay in their new-found Internet homes?  This is one drive behind the desire for hybrid meetings, and so far, I’m seeing a lot of conversation about the technical implications.  How do we create a hybrid meeting in which everyone can see and hear and minister?  

That’s a good first step.  But I feel like there are much more complicated questions.  If a Friend is worshiping regularly with a meeting online that’s geographically far away, where is that Friend’s membership?  Are they sojourning with the meeting online, or are they transferring membership?  If it’s the latter, what does membership in a physically distant meeting mean?  How does a meeting provide pastoral care to a member who’s two thousand miles away?  How does a distant member serve a meeting? I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m saying it’s different.

In effect, a hybrid meeting is no longer located in its geographic place.  A hybrid meeting is located online, and some of its members gather physically in order to access that online meeting together.  If we say otherwise—that the meeting is gathered physically in a geographic location, but some members are allowed to “beam in,” so to speak, through technology, then the members online are automatically excluded from everything that happens when the technology is turned off.  Which means, if we aren’t led to exclude, that there can’t be a time when the technology is turned off.  Which means the meeting is de facto online.

I find this both exciting and stunning.  What does that mean for community service?  What is an online meeting’s relationship to a homeless shelter or a food pantry?  Suddenly, community service and protest and witness and advocacy aren’t necessarily bound by traditional geography—because the meeting’s not in a geographic place; the meeting is in the eighth continent, the Internet.

Almost none of our meetings have had time to think this through.  Ultimately, some will embrace this model, and others will discern we’re not led to it.

But wait: this game of Fruit Basket Upset is actually even more complicated.

Because when the pandemic started, we didn’t just leap in the air and run for different chairs.  Some of us moved the actual chairs.  Some of us started entirely new meetings.

Did we do this on purpose?  Mostly no.  Some institutions (Quaker schools, Quaker conference centers) started holding regular meetings for worship online, and in most cases, we thought this would go on for a few months . . . and now it’s been a year.  Other groups of Friends, or individual Friends, started online worship of various kinds without connection to any institution.  I’ve done this myself, with family devotionals.  With a few notable exceptions, no one expected these worshiping communities to become worshiping communities, with all the fullness of what that means: developing processes and traditions together, working through conflict, celebrating each other’s joys, upholding each other through grief and loss.  We thought we were meeting temporary needs, and in many cases, we’ve discovered something bigger.

Some of these online worshiping communities are not going to want to end.  I’ve heard explicitly from individual Friends that this online group or that online group feels more like home than their geographic meeting ever did.  Is there a pathway by which these online worshiping communities can become “official” meetings?

 As far as I can tell, there isn’t.  But . . . couldn’t there be?

We’ve Fruit Basket Upsetted ourselves into a whole new place.  Suddenly, worship and religious education and communal discernment and witness and outreach are all happening on the Internet, on this eighth continent, in a place we haven’t mapped and don’t know how to map.  It’s a lot like the days of the very first Friends.  We’re running around, establishing communities, seeking the Light and preaching the Word of the Lord, and yet we have no workable system of organization—just sprawling, dangerous, fertile, blessed mess!

(And it is a mess, with lots of things working well and lots of other things really not. Where’s a 21st-century Margaret Fell about now?)

I have no idea what we’re going to do, and frankly, I find the unpredictability thrilling.  Maybe every geographic quarter will establish its own online monthly meeting.  Maybe online meetings will seek membership in yearly meetings—the ones that resonate with them theologically, since geographic proximity is a total non-issue.  Maybe one or more yearly meetings will be led to make an explicit statement: “Hey, y’all!  If you’re an online meeting looking for a home, come on over here.  We’d love to be in discernment with you.”  Maybe there’ll be new yearly meetings completely online.  Maybe EFCI and FWCC and FGC and FUM  (and ETC) will accept into their membership online meetings. Maybe online meetings will decide that traditional membership is irrelevant and find their own ways of living in covenant community.

And what about the hybrid meetings?  Maybe they’ll thrive in their new online existence.  Maybe this will be the shift that demands radical hospitality, adventurous outreach, and revolutionary witness.   Maybe the Friends who’ve been begging for change will finally see it manifesting.

And maybe—just maybe—the meetings that are led to not be online will deepen in their understanding of what it means to be geographically specific.  What powerful ministry might emerge from a meeting that is deliberately and consciously present within its physical neighborhood?

This is the part where I’m tempted to say “please, whatever you do, don’t end the game of Fruit Basket Upset and demand that everybody rebuilds the circle and sits down in their original chairs.”  But you know what?  I don’t think that’s even possible.  I think we’ve changed too much this year, that too many of us have made too many discoveries, and that as a whole, we can’t go back, not even if we wanted to.

Maybe what’s next is entirely different from any possibility that we can imagine.  Maybe now, more than ever, the call is to “give over [our] own willing, give over [our] own running, give over [our] own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in [us] and be in [us] and breathe in [us] and act in [us] . . .”

But on the Internet.

Dangerous Theology

This text is based on a presentation originally given at the Quaker Theological Discussion Group Panels in December 2020. The query given to presenters was, “What is a Quaker theology of vocational ministry, and how is it enfleshed/embodied in community?”

Ministry is inherently risky.  The existence of a call to ministry implies potential failure: failure to respond, failure to discern, failure to fulfill.  Ministry also carries with it potential societal and personal consequences, ranging from outright persecution to subtler judgment for counter-cultural words and actions to loss or rearrangement of personal relationships.

Perhaps for this reason, within the Quaker context, we can’t address a theology of ministry while only addressing the minister.  Quakerism is not a faith of the individual but of the community.  In theological and theoretical circles, Friends say that the community, not the individual, has the responsibility for empowering ministry.  The individual may be called, but the community must respond faithfully.

What does this mean?  Consider first the simplest of circumstances: one individual is called to give vocal ministry one time in the context of expectant worship.  What role does the community play in making this ministry possible?  The community is deeply centered in worship, which makes the rising up of vocal ministry more likely; the community has taught the individual how to recognize and discern a call to vocal ministry; the community has created an environment in which the individual knows that, if the ministry is given imperfectly, the minister will not be ridiculed but, instead, appropriately supported and guided; the community has demonstrated its willingness to listen to and respond to well-led ministry, even when it’s challenging; the community may pray silently for the minister who is standing and speaking; and the community has provided the necessary physical support, such as a microphone and sound system.  All of this empowers ministry, making more possible any individual’s faithful response to a call.

But when we are speaking of vocational ministry, the role of the community necessarily grows more complicated.  “Vocational ministry” is either continuous or recurring, consuming a significant portion of the time and energy of the minister.  In the case of vocational ministry, much more is needed to make the ministry possible.  The community still must educate about ministry, refrain from ridicule, support and encourage and guide the minister, accept the fruits of the ministry, and provide appropriate physical and spiritual support.  But “appropriate physical and spiritual support,” in this instance, would likely include clearness committees, travel minutes, recording, logistical assistance, financial support, prayer, spiritual guidance, emotional support, and help with family obligations.  Suddenly, the empowering of ministry is a considerably larger task.

The community is responsible for empowering ministry.  In the context of a covenant community, this makes sense—because ultimately, of course, it is God who empowers ministry, but God generally does this not by invisible miracle but by way of placing the minister within a community, which faithfully fulfills the charge.

This is a dangerous theology.

It is dangerous because ministry is inherently risky, and when Friends say to a minister, “The community is responsible for empowering ministry,” it can cause an individual to commit to the risk, believing that the community will be present to play its role, and often, the community is not there.

It’s obvious how this can damage the minister, but it also damages communities.  It is inevitably damaging to the community because the community is failing to fulfil an expectation that it often did not know existed and that members of the community have never agreed to.  Yes, in theological and theoretical circles, we often say that the community is responsible for empowering ministry.  But among Friends generally, many have never even heard of this concept, and some of those who have heard of it have rejected it explicitly.

Can Friends continue to claim that this is our theology?  If theology, among Friends, is discovered through a process of corporate discernment, and if many of the Friends alive today are not in unity with this idea (that the community is responsible for empowering ministry), then at what point must we admit that this is no longer the sense of the meeting?  It’s certainly true that, historically, this has been our theology, and tradition is the contribution of our ancestors to contemporary corporate discernment.  Still, it’s difficult to argue that any theology is still our collective theology when the majority of Friends have never heard of it and when some who have, have rejected it.

In the twenty-first century, Friends also must question whether such a theology is a reasonable expectation of our communities.  Our spiritual ancestors lived in communities that were mostly self-contained.  Partly because Friends were not accepted in mainstream society, Friends tended to live close together, eat food from one another’s farms, send their children to school together, patronize one another’s businesses, socialize with one another, and marry each other.  

Today, we have non-Quaker neighbors; our children attend school with non-Quakers; we obtain our food and other goods from non-Quakers; we marry non-Quakers; we work for non-Quakers; we have non-Quaker social obligations.  Without judging whether this is a positive or a negative change, it certainly is a change, and we all have obligations to our non-Quaker human connections.  We may see the Friends in our meetings for no more than ninety minutes each week.  Under those conditions, is it reasonable to expect that we will manage to fulfill all of our obligations to our non-Quaker connections and still have sufficient time, energy, and financial resources to take full responsibility for empowering ministry within our Quaker communities?

I don’t believe we have a Quaker theology of vocational ministry.  I do not believe we have done the necessary work of discernment within our communities to know what such a theology, today, would be.

Friends do continue to be called to vocational ministry.  From time to time, a Friend comes to me who is experiencing such a call and asks for my advice, as someone who’s living it.  Here’s what I say:

You will experience extraordinary support and faithfulness from your community, and particularly, from certain individual Friends.  You’ll have much for which to be grateful.  But the community will not take responsibility for ensuring that your needs are met.  You must do so, and doing so is part of the ministry.  You must learn to, first, discern what you need; second, ask for what you need; and thirdly, accept support when it’s given.  You must also learn to recognize the moments when the community is not able to give you what you need, and you will have to find another way.  Obtaining the necessary emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial support for the ministry is not something you must do in addition to the ministry.  It is part of the ministry.  Learn to think of it this way.

I wish that most Quaker communities were ready to discern a theology of ministry, but in my experience, this is not where we are.  Instead, we’re in a place of needing to discern what it means, more generally, to be a thriving, twenty-first century covenant community.  Nearly every Quaker community I know is entangled and bound in the dominant culture and “we’ve always done it this way,” but faithfulness is risky, and the work before us is learning to be faithful communities.  After that, a theology of ministry will come.

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#24)

December 24, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

Santa’s already on his way.  I think of him often throughout the day, but I don’t worry a bit.  He’s very well-practiced.  Mostly, I’m writing letters by the fireside, and in between, I’m knitting some socks.

Most of the elves have nothing to do.  I think a few have started a snowball fight.  Elf Sunkiss and Elf Sweetdew have started preparing our Christmas feast.  Elf Jellyfrost is picking up the train tracks.  Elf Snowfeather is fretting that he might have sent The Secret Garden to a child he’d marked down for Little Lord Fauntleroy, and he’s already scheming how to remedy that next year.  But the rest are all snoozing or snacking.

Except.  Elf Cedarspice—Senior Cartography and Routing Coordinator.  Remember him?  He’s in touch with Santa all through Christmas Eve, monitoring for weather, adjusting the route for passing airplanes, making calculations so that Santa won’t frighten any geese.  He tracks sources of fresh water, in case the reindeer get thirsty, and even helps Santa dodge falling stars.  Every so often, I check on him, but he’s so intent on his maps and mathematics that I’m not certain he knows I’m there.

This will be my last letter of the season, but I’ll put one more surprise in the mail for you tomorrow.  I’m so glad you decided to write to me.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#23)

December 23, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

December 23rd.  You’d think we’d be frantic.  But no—on this, the last day of preparation before Christmas Eve, everyone’s relaxed.  We know we’ve done our very best.  We take the time for the final touches: tighten a ribbon, stitch on a sleigh bell, extra carrots for all the reindeer.  Santa takes a nap.  Elf Snowbeam and his choir and all of our musicians perform slow, calming, familiar songs.  Rudolph washes and dries his nose.

We feel proud and full of love for all the children of the world.  But even more importantly, we know that our little part of Christmas is not the most important at all.  If there were no presents, nothing in the stockings, Christmas would come triumphantly anyway.  That’s the wonder of Christmas, really.  It’s love and friends and family, and singing and hugging and playing, and faith and joy, and we don’t make those things.

Later tonight, we’ll gather around the tree, and we’ll light our candles, and we’ll sing “Stille Nacht.”  And then, Santa will choose just one elf to help him with the final checks of the sleigh, to give pats to each reindeer, and to close his bag, before—in the absolute stillness—midnight turns to early next morning, and he flies away for Christmas Eve.

(Don’t tell.  But he’s choosing Little Elf Willowwisp.)

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#22)

December 22, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

It might be time to tell you one of the North Pole’s greatest secrets.

At one end of the courtyard is a tower twenty elves or so tall.  At the top of the tower is a golden clock that shines like Christmas candlelight.  Like any clock, the arms go around, though unlike most clocks, there aren’t any numbers, for the North Pole’s in every time zone—and also none at all.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we need a few extra hours and minutes to finish our preparations for Christmas.  When that happens, the reindeer fly up to the clock, and they nuzzle the hands—just a little bit—to slow down time.

It’s terribly convenient to be able to do this.  Some years, I’m not sure how else we would make it.  But it does have unfortunate side effects.

Has it ever felt as though the days before Christmas, the days when you’re so excited that you can hardly wait, grow a bit long?  Does it ever seem as though surely there are more than twenty-four hours per day?

Well…sometimes there is.

When our clock slows, yours do, too.  All of them.  It’s the magic, you know.  But I absolutely promise it’s worthwhile.  Play an extra game; have an extra snuggle; make an extra phone call; write an extra card.  Enjoy the long days.  They won’t come again for an entire year.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#21)

December 21, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

Three more days to Christmas Eve.

The reindeer are so excited that they can hardly sleep.  Last night at midnight, Blitzen and Comet woke us all up playing kickball with a potted poinsettia.  Luckily, Elf Flittersong went out to calm them down.

This morning, Elf Jellyfrost laid toy train track across the courtyard from the assembly line to the gift-wrapping department.  Then she placed the toy trains along the track and let them drive themselves over.  They move quite quickly, as long as someone makes the right “chugga-chugga-toot-toot” noises to keep the magic going.

Elf Snowfeather, who helps Santa choose all the right books for all the right children, always has a few that he wants to switch at the very last minute.  He paces back and forth with a clipboard: “Magical realism for Amare…fantasy for Fatoumata…a bathtub book for Nasir…a chapter book for Ana…a chapter book? Or a book of crafts?  Or both?  Or maybe a cookbook!”

 Elf Sunsugar and Elf Sweetdew have the kitchens open eighteen hours a day.  They serve foods that can be eaten at a run: muffins, sandwiches, sushi, boiled eggs.

And Elf Beetledrop’s paintbrush is flying as she touches up the last of the holly.  These are my favorite days of the year!

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#20)

December 20, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

Four days before Christmas Eve.  It’s time for the Carnival of Sweets!

Elf Honeyeyes and Elf Silversprig have charge of the sweets factory.  It makes a little candy year-round, but not much, because most candy doesn’t keep.  So every year, on the 20th of December, hundreds of elves—all of whom have other work for the rest of the year—shift over for a colossal carnival of cooking candies.  

Into the factory go sugar and butter, and cocoa and vanilla and peppermint oil.  In go honey and cream (and cows to help make more cream).  And nuts and maple sugar and fruits of every kind.

And out…well, out come candy canes and peppermint bark and butter toffee and truffles, and chocolate Santas and chocolate kisses and peanut brittle and caramels.  Out comes fudge and gingerbread.  Out comes ribbon candy and marzipan and glazed fruits and nougat and rock candy.  And the chocolate oranges…the chocolate oranges actually roll out the door, three per second!

The sweets factory hums and vibrates with magic.  Imagine a foundation like a chocolate bar, with walls that look like gingerbread and marshmallow-shaped doors and windows.  The smokestacks look like peppermint sticks, and the steam puffing out smells like gumdrops and whistles the tune of “Jingle Bells.”  

Read an extra Christmas story tonight.  We need the magic more than ever.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#19)

December 19, 2020

Dear Jacob and Sophia,

Five days!  It’s only five days until Christmas Eve! 

Today, I pulled out Santa’s best suit, cleaning and brushing and mending and polishing.  He saves this suit just especially for Christmas Eve.  Oh, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it, but somehow the pictures never show all the details.

There’s a silver ring from Sweden in the shape of a Yule Goat.  There’s a charm bracelet with three charms: a tiny parol from the Phillipines that really lights up and spins; a fried chicken leg from Japan; and a Pohutukawa from New Zealand.  Santa’s stockings come from Iceland, and one is embroidered with candies while the other has cross-stitched potatoes all around it.  The buttons of his coat are shaped like yams, as the people eat during la ribote in Martinique, and slices of pineapple, like they serve for Christmas dinner in Barbados.  And pinned to Santa’s hat is a tiny gold star from Bethlehem.

Every year, when I assemble all the pieces, I think of all the children all over the world who are growing more excited every day, and I’m so grateful to be a part of all their wonderful traditions.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus

Letters from Mrs. Claus (#18)

December 18, 2020

Dear Sophia and Jacob,

What a brave question you asked in your letter today.  Many children wonder whether Santa Claus is real.

Let me tell you a story.

Years ago, when Little Elf Willowwisp was even littler, she crept into the sitting room where Santa and I were enjoying a fire.  I’ll never forget how shy she looked, eyes wide, lips a-quivering.  

“Santa?” she said. “I need to talk to you.”

Santa scooped her right up and into his lap and asked her to tell us what the trouble was.

She swallowed hard.  “Well…I don’t believe in children anymore!”

Are you surprised?  This happens sometimes.  After all, most elves have never seen children.  They’ve only heard stories.  It can be hard to believe in something far away that you’ve never seen.

But we must believe.  What would happen if all the elves stopped believing in children?  They wouldn’t make toys; they wouldn’t wrap presents; they wouldn’t sing carols; they wouldn’t load the sleigh. 

And what would happen if children stopped believing in Santa?  They wouldn’t bake him cookies, they wouldn’t send him letters, they wouldn’t hang up their stockings or sing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  We’d never have enough Christmas magic for Santa to fly all around the world.

We need one another.  I believe in you!  And so does Santa, and so do the reindeer and the elves.  And once she was reminded about the magic, Little Elf Willowwisp decided that she believes in you, too.

Merry Christmas!

Yours sincerely,

                  Mrs. Claus