Monthly Archives: February 2018

We Are a People

Two weeks ago, I was invited to talk with a class of first graders about my work as a Quaker minister. First graders ask awesome questions—“how does it feel” questions and “when did it start” questions and “why is it like that” questions, and perhaps best of all, they have no idea which sorts of questions don’t have answers, so they just go right ahead and ask everything. If you’re looking for insight into a difficult situation, I highly recommend attempting to explain it to a first grader.

I’ve worked a lot with this age group, so their reactions didn’t surprise me much except for one part, when we got stuck on the question, “Who picks you up at the airport?”

Me: …and then, when I get where I’m going, somebody picks me up at the airport and takes me to the conference center or the meetinghouse or wherever I’m supposed to be.

Kid #1: Who picks you up at the airport?

Me: Well, somebody who’s a local Quaker does. It’s different every time.

Kid #2: Do you just get in a random person’s car?

Me: Well, no, I usually have the person’s phone number or something ahead of time. And I send them a text message and say something like “we’ve landed, and I’m coming downstairs now, and I’m wearing a black jacket and carrying a blue backpack.” And they say, “I’m the bald guy in the gray car with the blue bumper sticker that says “Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions).”

Kid #3: And then they just drive you to where you’re going?

Me: Exactly.

Kid #4: Why?

Me: Because they know I need to get there.

Kid #5: Is it ever not a Quaker who picks you up at the airport?

Me: Um, sometimes it’s a person who’s a friend of Quakers, but usually it’s a Quaker.

Kid #6: How do they know you’re coming?

Me: Usually somebody who’s a Quaker that I know reaches out to them and says “Emily is coming on Saturday and she needs somebody to pick her up at the airport and take her to the conference center” and then the local Quakers talk to each other and figure out who can do it, and that’s how it happens. Not just for me, but for other visitors, too, if other people are coming.

Kid #7: So they just pick you up at the airport? Just because you need somebody to pick you up at the airport?

Me: They do. See, being a Quaker is kind of like being part of a big family. So even if we don’t know each other, we know we’re kind of like family and we try to take care of each other.

And that’s when it clicked. A sort of general murmur of ohhh went through the group, and we were able to move on. But at the end of the thirty-minute conversation, guess what was the one specific thing that the first grade teacher commented on as I left the room? “I love that idea, that you’re all like a family.”

Sometimes I forget how counter-cultural this idea can be, and I forget how surprising it can sound and how difficult it might be to understand. For a group of six-year-olds in a secular school, I used the word “family.” A more complete description would be “a covenant people.” Friends are a covenant people, a group given to one another by God with the assignment to build the beloved community.

It’s important to recognize that we are not the only covenant people; there are other groups who understand themselves this way, and it’s my feeling that God probably recognizes them that way, too. It’s also important to recognize that being a covenant people does not imply that we are perfect. To be a covenant people is about the nature of our relationship with one another and with God; it has nothing to do with the degree to which we are successfully living out that relationship.

There are lots of ways in which we’re falling short. And our failings are worth talking about—not feeling guilty about (which is frankly counter-productive and spiritually destructive)—but recognizing and talking about so we can learn and grow and do better. But just this once I don’t want to talk about our failings. I want to talk about the potential. What does it mean, that we are a covenant people?

It means that we are inexorably connected to the Divine. You will be my people, and I will be your God.

It means that we can experience division, but we can never be truly torn apart. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? . . . And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

It means that we can learn from one another—and praise God with one another—across cultures and nationalities and languages and theological differences. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

And it means that we pick each other up at the airport. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

I’m so glad to be among you. Thank you.

Building for Growth

One of my favorite books is The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge. I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading; it’s 403 pages of densely packed text on systemic analysis in the business world, but that just happens to be my cup of tea. You can see in the photo above what the pages of my copy look like.

In the chapter about growth, the book says, “If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

To illustrate, it tells the story of a technology company that built a particular type of superior computers, selling these with the guarantee of a two-weeks-or-less delivery time. At first, things went swimmingly. Customers loved the product and were drawn in by the rapid delivery. The sales force functioned extremely well—possibly too well—and eventually, it became clear that there would come a time when the factory couldn’t keep up.

One bright executive suggested building a new factory, but the others were not convinced. What if sales slowed down? Better to wait until they were certain of the market.

Eight months or so later, demand did outstrip supply, and at that point, executives approved building a new factory. But construction took a good six months, and in that time, the two-weeks-or-less delivery guarantee stretched to four, then six, then eight, and finally, customers began cancelling orders and purchasing instead from competitors. By the time the new factory opened, demand had dipped so far that the new factory was superfluous.

To make things worse, when demand eventually began to creep back up—after all, the company was selling a superior product in comparison with its competitors—the executives did not learn from their earlier mistake. When it was suggested that a third factory would eventually be necessary, they delayed: “Last time we did that, demand dropped and we wasted all that money!” When demand again outstripped capacity, the delivery wait time again became unreasonable, which again caused demand to drop, this time irrevocably.

The company went out of business.

“If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

Why am I talking about this on a Quaker blog?

We’re not selling a product, but the principle is relevant anyway. Let’s take a look at this “if-then-because” statement.

Starting with the if: “If there is a genuine potential for growth…” This strikes me as an of course. The Quaker message is universal, empowering, and hopeful. All people have direct access to the Divine. By listening intently to the voice of Spirit and following the leadings we hear, we can be transformed as individuals. Furthermore, by doing this listening in communities and by following leadings together, we can build a world in which all people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, respected, and loved, and in which all creation thrives. There is no way that this message would not be appealing to more than the less-than-a-million people who currently call themselves Friends.

So let’s look at the next bit of the sentence: “…build capacity in advance of demand…” What does that mean, in a Quaker context? Does it mean to get a bigger building? Well, yes, if yours is one of the very few Quaker meetings that has no more room for anybody to sit. But many of us are in the opposite circumstance, with physical facilities that are comically big. How can we, then, build capacity?

It’s more about preparing for people who aren’t yet there.

Even if you don’t yet have small children, you can have soft toys in the worship space and a collection of picture books and a dedicated volunteer to provide.

Even if you don’t yet have teens, you can have a room or corner that’s a designated “teen space,” with couches and bean bag chairs and a Friend who’s qualified and prepared to serve as an adult presence.

Even if you don’t yet have any visitors or newcomers, you can have a designated “welcoming Friend” and a stack of pamphlets (regularly dusted) and a glossary to attach to every business meeting agenda.

Even if you don’t yet have anyone who’s hard of hearing, you can use a microphone in meeting for worship.

Even if you don’t yet have language diversity among your attenders, you can have a small Spanish section or Korean section or Russian section in your library, or whatever language other than English makes the most sense in your neighborhood.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are struggling financially, you can create or simplify processes by which meeting funds cover Quaker-related costs for those who need assistance.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are genderqueer, you can make sure there are easily accessible gender-neutral bathrooms.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who struggle with mobility, you can install ramps and move coffee hour to a first-floor location.

And even if you don’t yet have racial diversity in your meeting, you can read Lifting the White Veil or Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship or participate in an e-retreat about understanding and healing white supremacy.

If you don’t take these steps to welcome the new Friends before they arrive, then like the company selling computers, you’re building capacity just a little too late. This is the last part of the statement: “…as a strategy for creating demand.” We build capacity for the community we hope to have because otherwise, we are demonstrating by our behavior that the only people we want are those who look and act exactly like us. And those who do not look and act exactly like us will understand that implicitly and will stay away.

Good intentions are not the issue; we have to look at the impact. Exactly who are we prepared to welcome? Not who are we wishing would come, not who do we like to think we would welcome, but who are we actually—physically, emotionally, intellectually, monetarily, and spiritually—ready for? In a very real way, the answer to that question limits who will come.

Holy Experiments

Last year, I published a series of blogs on multiage inclusion. A surprising number of Friends read that series, and I realized that many of us are ready–or past ready–to engage with the questions of how our cultures and our institutional structures often undermine the very call of Spirit without our realizing it—not just in terms of age inclusion, though that’s significant, but in many other ways as well.

It’s worth noting that some Friends have been engaging in this work for quite some time. From that point of view, I’m late for the party. But what gives me hope is the critical mass that I see—Friends all over the world who are poised to say yes, God is calling us to grow and change—and moreover, the fact that in 2018, we have everything we need technologically to bring together those Friends-all-over-the-world and to do this work as a people.

And so, on April 2nd, 2018, the day after Easter, I’m launching a new ministry. It’s called Holy Experiments.

Holy Experiments is designed to support Friends with an aim toward following Spirit adventurously and building culturally inclusive communities of faith. This will happen in a variety of ways. One piece will be skill-building—looking at culture and structure methodically, with a lens to understanding and learning to perceive unintended effects. The second piece will be what I’m calling “along the way”—affirming the spiritual conditions necessary in a faith community that’s doing hard things. A third element will be weekly queries, and a fourth will be concrete, specific experiments—things that Friends are encouraged to try, to see what happens, and then to keep or release, as led.

Friends are welcome to engage as able. You can step in, drop out, participate fully, be an observer…and that level of participation can change over time, day to day, week to week, whatever you can do. You can receive weekly emails (through Flocknote), and if you live in the United States, you can receive a weekly query by text message. (If you’re in a country other than the United States, you’ll still get the query, but it’ll come in your email.) Sign up for emails and/or texts by clicking here or by texting HOLYEXPERIMENTS (all one word) to 84576.

There’s also a Facebook group for regular interaction with other Friends.

I come from an education background, and I know that not everyone enters the world through text. So sometimes we’ll be reading together, but sometimes we’ll be using photographs or paintings or videos or music or comic strips. A little bit of everything.

Backpack and I will be looking for opportunities to travel. I want to come and speak with Friends in your area about this work; please invite me. I haven’t quite managed it yet, but I’m working on obtaining grant support so that I won’t have to create a financial barrier by asking churches or meetings for the cost of my travel.

Eventually, I hope there will be other resources to engage more Friends—Bible studies, small groups online, religious education curricula, ready-to-publish newsletter articles, and so forth. I’ll be checking in with participating Friends to see which of these things might be the most helpful.

Holy Experiments is a four-year project. It will end on March 28th, 2022. Just about anything could happen in any of our lives between now and then, so as I’ve said—drop in, drop out, participate fully, be an observer, whatever you need to do.

This ministry is under the tender care of my support committee, which is itself under the care of my local meeting, which is Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting in New York City. It is non-institutional ministry, meaning that my costs will come mostly out of pocket. If so led, you can offer financial support here. I’m equally grateful for prayerful support and for social support—by social, I mean spreading the word so that others may join in.

Looking forward to April 2nd