Extending the Table

ricketts-bannerUnitarian Universalist minister John C. Morgan told the following story in an essay called “Shout It Out, Folks! We’re Evangelists, Too!”:

A few weeks ago, I happened to use “evangelism” in a sermon. As I was gathering together my notes and heading for the coffee, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that someone was marching toward me, faced flushed, angry eyes looking for a landing spot on my psyche.

“Don’t ever use that word here,” she said.

“What word?” I asked innocently, already knowing from past experiences what she was going to say.

“Evangelism!” She drew back as if the word itself had caught in her throat. I think it had.

These words articulate what I feel are our own anxieties and struggles as Quakers with the “E word.” This in turn has limited our own outreach efforts, particularly as we seek to be a multicultural and multiracial faith community.

The Greek root word for evangelism is evangel meaning “one who tells good news.” Evangelism is the act of telling good news. Nothing more, nothing less. Sharing good news doesn’t have to be cornering a stranger, thrusting a tract at her, and asking, “Are you saved?”

Arrington Chambliss, who founded the Relational Evangelism Pilot Project for the Episcopal Church Diocese of Massachusetts, sees evangelism more in terms of engagement than conversion. She says, “It is God who does the converting. Relational evangelism is about us having a deep enough relationship that others want to join with us.”

Jesus’s life and ministry was the incarnation of relational evangelism. Jesus’s initial engagement with his disciples turned into a long-term relationship. In their relationship with Jesus, the early disciples experienced a man who spoke with integrity, modeled equality, and lived simply among them. When a disciple reached for a sword, drew it out, and struck the servant of the high priest—cutting off his ear—Jesus said to his friend: “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”

These prophetic testimonies offer us today a framework on how we are called to live and be in relationship with each other. Like Jesus, we strive to live out theses values both in the context of our meeting communities and in the world.

In cleansing the temple and overturning the tables of the money changers—both in word and deed—Jesus attempted to liberate a house of prayer from its physical and spiritual clutter to become one of simplicity unobscured by power and wealth. He did this so that all could be welcomed in God’s “house of prayer.” In her book Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity, Catherine Whitmire writes, “Living simply entails clearing our lives and our houses of spiritual and material clutter so as to create more space for faithful living.”

Today that same righteous anger both in word and deed is being echoed by a remnant of Friends: Friends who are calling the Religious Society of Friends back to a faithfulness, to our testimony of equality. In doing so, we seek to cleanse the religious society from racism and privilege, both of which have spiritually impoverished our relationships.

In A Plea for the Poor, nineteenth-century Friend John Woolman wrote, “May we look upon our treasures and the furniture of our houses, and the garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions.” And so it is today. Friends are called to look at not only the seeds of war in our lives, but also the seeds of privilege.

Living into our testimonies—whether it is organizing against our government drone attacks on civilians or confronting racism in Quaker organizations—sometimes feels like going through a dense, muddy forest. We are journeying under a canopy overshadowed with self-doubt and disappointment, coupled at times with feelings of brokenness and abandonment from Friends along the journey.

We pull back from the forest and build walls, retreat into safety that is familiar. Paul Simon put those feelings into words in his song “I Am a Rock”: “I’ve built walls, / A fortress deep and mighty, / That none may penetrate. / I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.”

Even in our darkest hour, the Holy Spirit nudges us back into relationships from our retreats of safety and slowly helps us to live into the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Spirit heals our brokenness and becomes the living rock that deepens our relationships. Spirit empowers us to work with others in promoting a just and peaceful world.

The Celtic peoples used the term “thin places” to describe those places where the veil that separates heaven and earth is nearly transparent. In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus J. Borg describes it this way:

Thin places are places where . . . we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around and within us. . . . A thin place is a sacrament of the sacred, a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A thin place is a means of grace.

Can our Friends meetings be free of privilege and be a living sanctuary where all of God’s self is free to minister to us in all of her offices as teacher, priest, and prophet? Can our Friends meetings be those thin places in which our relationships, regardless of race or class, be a sacrament of grace and wholeness? Can our Friends meetings be the body and hands of the Holy Spirit in the world today?

Paul Ricketts

Paul Ricketts is a member of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Meeting and currently serves on American Friends Service Committee’s Community, Equality, and Justice Board Committee and its Midwest Executive Committee. He also serves on Friends General Conference’s Committee for Nurturing Ministries.

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