Friday, April 23, 2010

What Should I Eat? Community and the Individual

As Quakers, we talk a lot about community, one part of the handy SPICE testimony acronym. And in a world that often isolates and estranges us one from another, the idea of a real community gives us all sorts of warm fuzzies. As part of a true community we receive support, nurture and love. We find meaning in providing that same care to others and in identifying as a member of something bigger than ourselves. But as just one of many members in a community, these connections with others sometimes rub against, or even clash with, the individual. The group as a whole may have different needs or expectations than I, as an individual, do. Some other individuals in the community may feel strongly convicted about something in a way I do not. Greater society tells us when this happens that it is always the rights of the individual that override the constraints of the group. I, the individual, am the ultimate authority on all things pertaining to me.

But, is this the way that we, as Christians and Quakers, are called to live? Does this reflect the kingdom of God? Can I be part of a community and do whatever I want? To me, the answer seems clearly no. Jesus calls us to love one another, be in community with one another, and be members of a body. And sometimes this will mean that I will give up some of my individual agenda in order to be caring for others in the community.

As a newlywed committed to living her life jointly with another individual, this situation is often before me. In a somewhat mundane example, I like boxed macaroni and cheese, especially with tuna in it. My husband, Micah, is not a fan. And so, I choose to not eat boxed mac and cheese when we have dinner together, instead eating something we both will enjoy. Of course, I could say “I want macaroni and cheese and that’s what we’re having. So there.” I would then get what I want to eat, but I also would be selfish and choosing my own needs over those of a person I love. The beautiful thing about this situation is that I know that Micah would eat boxed mac and cheese for dinner because he knows I like it. He too would surrender his own agenda so that I could enjoy my cheesy noodles.

This surrender of our own demands so that others might be welcome and a full part of the community is part of being a family of faith. A youth pastor I knew growing up once told a story of a kid he had in his youth group who had been previously involved in some really dark satanic stuff. One day, the guy came over to the pastor’s house and his kids were watching a movie. The movie deeply disturbed the teenager as it reminded him of the satanic things he had been involved with and struggled to leave behind. The pastor turned the movie off and from then on when the guy came over the family made certain that movie and any related toys and games were put away. They themselves did not feel convicted about stopping watching and enjoying the movie, but they choose to not put a stumbling block in front of a brother.

For a third example of this balance between individual freedom and community, there are those among my friends who choose not to drink out of religious conviction. I personally do not feel convicted in this way. But when I am with these friends, I do not drink and a certainly do not suggest that we go out to a bar during our time together. It is the kind and understanding thing to do. I choose to abstain from behavior I would usually take part in so that I can be in fellowship with them.

That in one community there would be people who have different convictions on how we live out our life is nothing new. Paul felt the need to write in Romans advice on how to proceed when we differ on such things.

Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them. Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help, they will stand and receive his approval. (Romans 14:1-4)

Paul goes on saying:

Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. (Romans 14: 20-22)

And what is more loving for a community than that? I show I care for other’s by putting their needs above my own. By loving their spiritual health more than I love my freedom to do whatever I want. And as a reward for such a sacrifice, I also have my spirit cared for and am in communion with my brothers and sisters.

-Faith Kelley

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sacred Space

Yesterday afternoon a guest asked me, in tentative English, if there is a church here at the William Penn House. I told her yes, we have worship here every morning from 7:30 to 8. She then asked me where it was and if it was open now. I was confused for a moment and then realized that she when she asked about a “church” she was wondering about a physical space. I explained that we met for worship in the very unassuming conference room that she had been store her luggage in all day. She too was confused for a moment, but then realized what I was trying to tell her.

In this misunderstanding I was, once again, reminded of the very real temptation to view a certain space as being more sacred, more full of God’s presence, than other spaces. But of course, we’re all good Quakers here and never make that mistake. We point to it with the language we use, not calling our buildings “churches” but rather “meeting houses,” not wanting to blur the line between the community that is body of Christ and some drywall and bricks. We often explain to non-Quakers that we think that all of life is sacred. No one day of the week, no one space, no one physical object is more blessed then the rest. God created everything and continues to be among us and in us, making everything hallowed. The physical space is irrelevant. Only our openness to the Spirit’s moving in us in a particular moment matters.

When in town, I often attend Sunday morning worship at Takoma Park Preparative Meeting, which holds worship in a dance studio. We all have to take our shoes off so as not to scuff or dirty the floor and we sit in medal folding chairs. There’s only a small window high on the wall and the rest of the lighting is florescent bulbs. This is nothing about the space the cries, “Communion with the Creator of the Universe going on here!” But God is there making the space sacred, when we are attentive enough to notice and respond.

But do I really live my life this way? Certainly I enter the National Cathedral here in Washington with more reverence and awe than, say, I enter my bathroom, for example. The cathedral is large and grand. It has an altar, stain glass and stone. My bathroom is small and normal. It has an old tub, linoleum and a leaky skylight. (Part of difference in attitude might also have to do with how often one space gets cleaned versus the other too.) The beauty of the National Cathedral makes me feel like I am closer to God there than my bathroom; even though I claim to know God that exists and can make himself known in both spaces equally.

If I was to live my life really in the truth that God has made all and is present always, what would it look like? Would I be more centered and aware? Would I notice God’s working in the suburban sprawl as much as in a forest? Would I be closer to living my life as one continuous act of worship? I am not making an argument that everything is beautiful- certainly a Wendy’s parking lot is less beautiful then Sequoia National Forest. But God is there in both those spaces. Miracles and epiphanies can happen in both those places. God calls us to be part of his work in the world in both places. The parking lot and the forest, the cathedral and the conference room are all part of the sacred space that makes up our lives.

-Faith Kelley

Friday, April 2, 2010

Middle school students participating in an after school music/theater program in DC
Women from Kenya, Tanzania, Cameroon and Uganda working in HIV/AIDS here in the states while supporting children in their home countries
A DC resident artist from Cameroon
8 exchange students from China
8 students from a PA private school
3 high school students from Hiroshima
1 Holocaust survivor

This is just a sampling of the range of people I have had the honor of crossing paths with, working with and sharing meals with over the past 6 weeks.

One of the things I am really learning to appreciate about working at William Penn House is the amazing diversity of people that we get to meet, and how, in meeting all these people, we see not how different we are, but how similar we are.

What is so incredibly moving to me is that people really do want to be a part of making the world a better place despite, in some cases, incredible adversity. The adversity of each person also brings a different level of gift to the world. The students from Hiroshima and the Holocaust survivor are/were visiting DC as part of telling stories of reconciliation and healing. The artist and the music/theater students are using the opportunities of the creative arts to tell stories and to bring their voices to the world - stories not of gloom and doom, but of hope and love.

In our most recent newsletter, Faith Kelley wrote that what we do at William Penn House is provide a space for conversation and a place of welcomeness, and then get out of the way so that new things can happen. I am really learning to appreciate this as a means of making the world a more peaceful and hopeful place. It means making a conscious effort and commitment to being open to the possibilities - not an easy task and not always achievable, but as the past few months have shown me, well worth the effort.