Changing Your Religion

July 21, 2015

There is a Quaker family in Some Luck, Jane Smiley’s novel (first of a trilogy) about an Iowa farm family, but that’s not what drew my interest. Good thing, too, because nothing is said about this family religiously except that they are Quaker and thus a bit apart from others. Walter Langdon, the father in the family that is at the center of the chronicle grew up Methodist but not in any deep way. Rosanna, who he marries when he returns from World War I, grew up Roman Catholic.

This religious difference doesn’t seem much of an issue (she was eager to be out of her parents’ house and on with her life) until she and Walter soon begin having children and the question arises about where they will be baptized. That question freezes Rosanna for a time, but she opts for the Methodist church.

What does draw my interest is Rosanna’s religious journey from that point forward. It is unusual in my experience to read a novel that addresses religious issues unless issues of religion or religious identity are front and center, the main thing. Religious matters aren’t the main thing in Some Luck but they do matter, especially for Rosanna.

She gives birth to six children over a space of two decades, each quite different from the ones before and that sets her wondering. When Mary Elizabeth (the third) dies of an accidental fall, Rosanna finds herself with despair and troubling questions.

If having religious questions in view in a novel is unusual, all the more so is having religious change in view. Rosanna drags her family to a Billy Sunday revival and answers an alter call. That helps her feel cleansed and better able to leave the tragedy behind. She directs her family away from the Methodist church in which her husband grew up and has them begin attending an Assembly of God church. She finds a more active religious experience there that’s helpful to her, but later, with the Depression full upon their lives, she finds the preacher in that church too quick to blame individual behavior for the sad circumstances in which nearly everyone is now enmeshed. She and her family creep out of the church mid sermon one Sunday never apparently to return.

There is nothing especially deep or insightful about this religious journey in Smiley’s novel, but it is striking that I can’t think of a parallel in another novel. I can think of novels where there is turmoil about having given up religion but is there another that sympathetically imagines a person’s leaving one church for another ass one thread in a more complex skein?

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All Hail Max Carter

May 18, 2015

On QuakerQuaker this morning I posted a brief appreciation of Max Carter for his quarter century as Director of Friends Center at Guilford College.

Yes, Max is one of those Carters, one of the stalwart families of Western Yearly Meeting. He avoided Earlham as an undergraduate (he went to Ball State), but received his M.Div. from ESR in 1975. I first met him at Germantown Meeting in the mid-late 1980s. I was a youngish political science professor at Temple University (and a new Friend) and he was completing a Ph.D. in Religion.

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Should We Record Ministers?

May 13, 2015

If we believe that all are called to ministry, should Yearly Meetings specially record some people as ministers?

RecordingWhen a group of meetings were set off from Indiana Yearly Meeting a few years ago and then formed the New Association of Friends, they had the challenge of working out all the arrangements (policies, processes) of a Yearly Meeting (this even if NAoF doesn’t want to consider itself a Yearly Meeting). One of those challenges is the question of whether NAoF wants to record people as ministers. That question has particular resonance because a number of individuals in NAoF had been recorded in Indiana Yearly Meeting or in other bodies.

Friends began recording ministers at the very beginning of our history. Today some Yearly Meetings record ministers and some do not. (FUM YMs generally do; FGC YMs generally do not.) In nearly all cases, whether to record was settled by Yearly Meetings decades ago. I am finding the current discussion in NAoF fascinating: it raises questions that were thrashed out long ago but also some fresh notes.

NAoF appointed a small committee to draft a policy on recording. What they produced broadly follows the lines of current recording processes in FUM YMs but (in my reading) makes the criteria and process less formalistic. As an appendix they also provided an excellent historical overview of recording in the Religious Society of Friends. Now member meetings in NAoF are discussing the draft, and there is also a discussion taking place among NAoF members via e-mail.

This is a conversation worth others following. Here are three contributions (from among many) in that discussion.

One person writes: My main concern is that we find a way forward for the New Association that both honors our past while giving us the flexibility and creativity we need to envision a new future together. … My hope would be that we not conflate recording of gifts with the professional requirements of [pastoral ministry and chaplaincy], but instead be free to celebrate and record the wide variety of gifts evident among us. If there is a member of my meeting with a gift of music ministry, for instance, that should count just as much as a gift for pastoral ministry and should in no way require an MDiv or a background check. Perhaps the answer is in distinguishing between the professional requirements of particular gifts and the recording of gifts generally. How can we together develop a process that satisfies both needs? I believe that we can, and that we will have a better process for it.

Another writes: It might be useful to point out that those who have been to seminary, or who have professional aspirations related to ministry, approach this question differently than those of us who are simply part of the priesthood of all believers. Some (or many) of those who are or wish to be chaplains and pastors are asking for a process that supports their work in a world that requires credentials. The rest of us have much less at stake, personally.

For me, personally, I don’t mind if we engage in some level of affirmation and credentialing as a way of showing collective support, particularly where it allows a ready interface with the outside world (e.g., if recording permits someone to solemnize marriage under state law). Although it creates two classes of people in an otherwise egalitarian framework, I’m willing to hold my nose and support it because I value people who make such a commitment and want to support their work.

As a musician, I don’t need encouragement of my “gift” from the meeting through any formal recognition. In fact, I would prefer that I not receive special recognition: my music itself is my gift to my meeting, something that I give freely without a desire for recognition. To be “rewarded” with recognition in a formal way turns my gift of music into a transaction with the meeting, which undermines the very act of giving. I suspect the same is true for many others who volunteer their time and talents in many other ways. A minute of appreciation is more recognition than any of us seek. Recognizing gifts feels like a slippery slope: Which gifts do we recognize? Who do we exclude by not recognizing all gifts? Why make unnecessary distinctions?

My recommendation: do what we have to do to interface with the outside world, but keep things as simple and real as possible by avoiding too much recognition.

A third writes: I agree … that the document leans heavily towards the requirements for particular categories of gifts. My concern is that we are reducing the Testimony of Equality to the lowest common denominator. …

I have an MDiv and am a Recorded Quaker Minister in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, recorded by [another] Yearly Meeting. I don’t think the MDiv is problematic, and neither does it smack of privilege. I was a pastor in Indiana Yearly Meeting and the MDiv prepared me for that. It has been my experience since earning my MDiv that people are consistently reminding me that I am no better than them, consistently reminding me that it does not automatically make me a minister, consistently reminding that God speaks to them as well….and I have consistently devalued my education in efforts to make others feel better and to prove that I understand the testimony of equality.

An MDiv is not intended to automatically make someone a minister. That is the job of God and our communities of Faith. An MDiv does not mean that one hears or evens obeys the will of our Teacher. An MDiv has never been (especially among Quakers) something that has granted someone privilege. It DOES mean that I know how to exegete scripture, teach scripture, put together a sermon, understand the conundrums of particular theologies, and a variety of other things. Scripture is complicated, theology is messy, and history all too often repeats itself.

As a life long Friend, I have come against the Quaker mistrust of formal theological education often. I don’t even know what an indulgence looks like, let alone sell them. We don’t have physical sacraments, so naturally, I am not privileged in administering them. The Roman Catholics aren’t selling indulgences anymore and many of my friends who are ordained in other Christian denominations are well aware that they are equal to everyone sitting in their pews. We must be careful that our rejection of “ordination” does not carry with it inherent put downs of our other sisters and brothers in Christ. I sacrificed much to get my MDiv. I am proud that I accomplished this and have gained this knowledge. The Testimony of Equality does not require that I dismiss it. An MDiv is not the only place this education occurs. I do know several individuals who have read extensively, studied on their own, and applied their learning.

In my understanding of the Testimony of Equality, the meaning is that we are all equal, NOT that we are all equal in all things. Please do not hire me as your piano player. Please do not have me teach Sunday school to kids under that age of 16. Neither does the Testimony of Equality mean that we are all treated the same. We don’t treat people the same in our own lives, and that does not make those people any less equal. We don’t need to tear down one in order to uplift the other. The Testimony of Equality is also messy.

It would seem to me that the Recording of Gifts would come with categories of gifts, all equal, but having different requirements. As mentioned before, the Recording of Music Ministry would not need a background check. Things like jail chaplaincy, pastors, and Children’s Ministry would. There is a public face to some of our ministries and the wider public relies on and trusts that we will vet accordingly. We are not just Recorded for the Society of Friends, but for Society period. It would be a sad day if we just ministered to those that belong to our own group.

I also think, that a document outlining the Recording process needs to include portions that address the possibility of a Recorded Minister/Pastor abusing someone, or misappropriating funds. We would like to think that those things will not happen, but historically they have. What would the process be if those things were discovered and brought to the attention of the Recording Committee? A restoration process is also a good thing. How will we care for those Recorded Ministers who are struggling? How will we support them back to health?

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My Family

May 8, 2015

Today would have been my Dad’s 96th birthday. This past Saturday, my older son Tommy married Randall Johnston in Little Rock, Arkansas. These are just the two most prominent reasons I’m thinking about my family today.

“Family” has an odd etymological history. It has a Latin root, but familia refers to the servants of a household. The Romans would have used domus (think “domestic”) to refer to parents with their children.  No matter. Today we use the term to refer to the connected network of parents and children, sometimes meaning a smaller group of those living together, sometimes meaning a more multi-generational sprawling group. This picture puts my family in dramatic focus for me:

Bennett Evans plus clan 15.5.3There are twenty-seven of us here in a photo taken at Tommy and Randall’s wedding: three generations of Bennetts and Evans and those to whom we’ve made connections. (My Mom, Roberta Evans, had one brother, Sam. Both Sam and Roberta had three children.) I’m here with my wife Ellen and our sons Tommy and Robbie. My first wife, Dulany (Tommy’s mother) is here, too, along with her sister Kathy and Kathy’s husband Karl. My sister Nancy is here with her partner, Jim; Nancy’s daughter Lindsay, son-in-law Jeremy, and their daughters Lydia and Eliza. (Missing — they left too early to be in this photo) are Nancy’s daughter Karen, son-in-law Steve, and their daughter Emily Grace.) My sister Kate is here with her husband Wayne and their daughter Julia. My cousin Anne Evans is here, though her husband Steve is not. My cousin Tom Evans is here though not his wife Cyndi. Tom’s son Elijah is here with his wife Megan, and Tom’s daughter Sarrah is here with her husband Ali and their sons Idris and Naim.  Joining us as family for the first time are Randall, her mother Marcela and her sister Blair.

(Also not here: Tom and Anne’s sister Deb, her husband Wayne, their children Chad and Jan; Dulany and Kathy’s brother Joe; Nancy’s first husband George; Jim’s first wife: all deceased. Plus Tom’s first wife and Kate’s first husband; Jim’s children, spouses and their children; Wayne’s daughters, spouses and their children; Marcela’s brother Glen, his wife and children. I can’t begin to account for various spouses’ brothers and sisters, their partners and children. And also not here: my Bennett cousins. Dad’s brother John’s wife, children, grandchildren: we’ve drifted away from them even as the Bennett-Evans connection has strengthened.)

There are three generations pictured here. Of the parents of the oldest generation here, only Ellen’s mother Anne and Dulany’s mother Ginny are still alive.

In the 1960s, such an Evans-Bennett photo would have pictured a group all of who lived in Rochester, Norristown or Bloomsburg (PA). Now we live sprawled across the U.S.: Topsham and Portland, Maine, D.C., New Jersey, central Pennsylvania, Rochester, New Orleans, Little Rock, Portland Oregon, Providence (RI). It takes a celebration such as the Tommy-Randall wedding to bring us together.

A particular joy for all of us this weekend (along with the wedding activities) was watching the youngest children play together: Robbie, Lydia and Eliza, Idris and Naim, and Emily Grace. When they are older, what will such a photo look like?

It is good to be among family.

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Styrofoam Boat, Plastic Junk

April 30, 2015

Styrofoam boatFrom a collection of photos published by The Atlantic marking Earth Day.

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Some Further Thoughts on My RFRA Post

April 27, 2015

church street and state streetLast week the AFSC Acting in Faith blog posted something I wrote about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the controversy it stirred up. A friend wrote me about what I said there.  “Knowing that you actually have a strong opinion, I’m surprised at the quiet tone in this,” she wrote.  “I wanted it to feel more like the statement of a dedicated ally, because I believe that’s what you are.”

I’m sure everything I write can be improved, made both clearer and stronger. I want to add some further thoughts not in justification of that post, but rather to try to add clarity. Yes, I want to be an ally, but what does that ask of me?

I’ve written (and acted) strongly on behalf of equality for LGBTQ folks. Back in 2011-12, for example, I wrote 41 blog posts about this issue for Indiana Yearly Meeting. Most of those spoke to why we shouldn’t see the Bible as speaking against same-sex relations.

I believe the RFRA issue has some complexity to it that many who are denouncing the Indiana law may be missing. Yes, it’s a bad law, even in its revised form. Likely, the motives of those who put it forward are cynical. Nevertheless, religious freedom is a valid concern, and some balancing is required between religious liberty and other rights. In centuries past, Quakers were denied religious liberty. Today in the United States, Muslims are often denied religious liberty, and sometimes evangelical Christians are, too. That evangelical leaders cry wolf far too often doesn’t mean that there is no basis for worries about religious liberty.

My central concern about the current controversy is that we keep separate two different arenas in which the issues in play are being contested. One is a civil arena, and one is religious. There’s work to be done in each, but it is different work and, I believe, that work needs to be carried through in different ways.

In the religious arena, we want to allow people to have whatever religious beliefs they want, and we want to allow them to gather together in worship and belief according to their own lights. When people step out in public and engage with others who may well have different religious beliefs, that is when we enter the civil arena. Conflicts can arise in either arena, but we try to deal with them in different ways. In the religious arena, persuasion is what we want: you try to persuade me; I try to persuade you. In the civil arena, we insist on non-coercion and treatment as equals. In the first, we pay attention to sacred sources. In the second we pay attention to the law. These two arenas don’t stay neatly separated, however, and that’s why this ground is complicated. The civil arena is the one that is currently getting all the attention, but it shouldn’t.

A brief reminder about the rise of religious liberty (or tolerance) in the western world may be helpful here. Before the 17th century, no one much made claims for religious liberty. There were right ways of believing, those who believed different things were heretics, and governments punished heretics, often with death. Schismatic groups (Lollards, Cathars, etc.) were persecuted and destroyed. Non-Christians (Jews, Muslims) were occasionally suffered to live among Christians on terms of submission and yet were still subject to regular bouts of violence or expulsion. This began to change with the Protestant Reformation. New beliefs arose that again divided Christians. As some monarchs became Protestant, Europe entered into a long period of religious warfare as the various sides tried to compel each other to believe as they believed. These religious wars largely came to an end in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, which provided that each political realm would have its own religious beliefs. There now would be tolerance or religious freedom at least for rulers. Monarchs were still free to persecute those they considered heretics within their realm, and often did. A century later, some countries—like the United States—began respecting a principle of religious freedom for all individuals, not just for monarchs.

Tolerance or religious freedom took hold not because anyone stopped caring about right belief, but because the cost in violence was too high in trying to make everyone believe in orthodoxy. It was in the rise of this principle of religious freedom that the two arenas were split apart. Thus we talk of separation of church and state. People could use argument and persuasion to draw adherents to their church, but in the public square, live and let live was to be the norm.

The two arenas regularly collide. Religious beliefs, for many, carry convictions about how we should behave—and not just in private but also in public. Religiously based morality, they believe, should apply everywhere. Hence we have controversies about things like abortion, the teaching of evolution in schools, conscientious objection from military service, public prayer and religious monuments, and much more. We make some concessions to allow people to live out their religious convictions in the civil arena: some think we make too many concessions, some think too few. The debate about RFRA is about whether we should allow another concession, one that would allow people to refuse service to some to avoid any participation in what they consider sinful behavior (read: cakes or photographs for same-sex marriages).

I believe this ‘religious freedom’ law is a wrong step. We said no to something similar when we said restaurant owners (etc.) could not refuse service to African-Americans on religious grounds. As with race and gender, so it should be for sexual orientation. In the earlier piece I said “we will not allow the fabric of our society to be torn apart by the exercise of religion; we said we must act civilly toward one another.” Public accommodations (restaurants, motels, commercial services) must be available to all on an equal basis: that’s the right approach in the civil arena.

Similarly, I believe that the law ought to permit same sex marriage. There is no legitimate public purpose to permit opposite sex marriages but not same sex marriages. To allow the one without the other is to allow religious purposes to be enshrined in law. Non-discrimination and equal regard are the principles that should prevail in the civil arena.

Not only do I believe this ‘religious freedom’ law is a wrong step, I believe it is being put forward with cynical intent to incite opposition to same sex marriage. The legitimate balancing purposes of religious freedom legislation are already well ensconced in the federal law passed in the 1990s. You get a glimpse of the cynical intent in the claim by Gov. Pence and others that the recently proposed Indiana law is ‘just like’ the federal law when it actually went much farther in allowing religious claims to trump civil equality.

I believe it was right to push back against the original Indiana RFRA and the similar versions now being put forward in other states. (Note: someone is coordinating this campaign.) But, as I said in the original piece, I think this controversy is a sideshow, and we want to be measured and thoughtful in our pushback because two other matters require our strength.

One need is to continue the fight for same sex marriage in every jurisdiction in the United States. That’s the real front in the civil arena. The denial of marriage rights is where the most harm is being done.

The other need is to speak clearly and yet respectfully to those religious people who believe homosexuality is a sin. It is not legislation (nor the repeal of it) that needs to be our approach in this religious arena. We need to speak to them in a religious voice, one genuinely grounded in care and love.

The prejudice against LGBTQ people is not a true leading from God, of that I am quite sure. But how to help others find their way to this understanding? Not through arguments about public policy, especially arguments that seem to demean religious belief. We cannot allow this to be an argument that pits religious people against secularists. (Of course there are religious people who think this is a bad law.) I worry that the more we rise to the bait of arguing against things like the Indiana RFRA, the more we appear to be saying that we place no value on religious matters. We may be maneuvered into appearing to care only about the civil arena and not at all about the religious arena. That’s precisely the appearance that those putting Indiana-RFRA-like bills in play want to bring about.

It is not a ‘quiet tone’ I am aiming for in this controversy. I certainly want to be strong. Rather I want to affirm LGBTQ rights and also affirm the importance of religion in a way that acknowledges that sometimes the exercise of religious rights collides with other rights.

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What Does Justice Ask of Us? What Does God?

April 19, 2015

On AFSC’s Acting in Faith blog this morning is a piece I wrote about the the recent controversy over a religious freedom law in Indiana. Here’s how it begins:

“Always do the right thing as you know it.” I wrote that on an index card for my young son a few years ago. It is one of three. The other two, still on his mirror, read “Always tell the truth” and “Always be kind.” These are simple urgings for me, as well; I believe they are part of what God asks of me.

But what happens when what I think is right conflicts with what someone else thinks is right? The eruption of controversy over religious liberty in Indiana and Arkansas puts that question on my mind.

Read more here.

penn_trial

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