My friend and colleague, Josh Brown, pastor at Springfield Friends just down the road shares a wonderful challenging story in a blog that he writes. Josh has been around Quakers for a long time in his pastoral journey. He’s pastored in New York Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting, and now North Carolina. He knows the Quaker landscape pretty well.
He writes, “Years ago I was hosting a fellow Quaker pastor from Kenya for a week. He was here in the United States to study and while he was on fall break, he wanted to visit a local meeting. We drove around to see the sights in our area, stopped at a very historic Quaker meetinghouse in the Upper Hudson Valley. Meetinghouse was closed, but we peered in the window, walked around the cemetery which dated back to the late 1770s.”
“My friend from Kenya was very impressed and asked, ‘How many members did the meeting have?’ I told him about 25. He thought a minute and then in kind of a half joking, half serious voice, he said, ‘This is the problem with Quakers here in the United States. Too many of your members are under the ground and not enough of them are above the ground.” We laughed and moved on, but he had a point’.”
“Quakers have a rich fascinating and prophetic past but on the whole, we’re not very actively involved with our future. We are the heirs and custodians of an enormous heritage of Quaker literature, buildings, spiritual struggle, and historic witness but we are investing less and less in the needs and interests of the next generation or even in the generation around us.”
I know Josh personally, he is not given to a kind of woe is us writing, doom and gloom prognostications. He loves pastoring. He loves history. He loves the rich spiritual legacy of Quakers. He also loves the possibility that Quakers have something to offer in the present and in the future. So do I. I think you do, as well.
This past month we’ve been intentionally focusing on our Quaker story. We’ve called it Quaketober.
The intent hasn’t been to glorify the past. The intent has been to remind ourselves that this Quaker story is a story that is still being written. As we’re reminded of the past, we become familiar with the story that has already been written as we note the heroes and the heroines of the past, their courageous and prophetic actions. We are encouraged, you and I, to continue this story, write our own chapters, new chapters of faithfulness and fruitfulness.
Our Deep River story began back in the 1750s. Folks felt led to hold worship in individual homes. They grew, they solidified, they built their own structures to meet in as well as started other Friends meetings and history says they even possibly started the first schoolhouse in Western Guilford County.
In the book about Deep River Friends Meeting, a fellow by the name of Cecil Hayworth writes, “Indications are that during the first 40 years after becoming a Monthly Meeting, Deep River was the mother of at least seven meetings. Only three of those seven now remain as active organizations today, Springfield Friends, Jamestown Friends, and Deep Creek Friends.”
I recently read in a report from one of our Africa Friends, I believe in Tanzania where they have grown from 10 meetings to almost 27 meetings. I think our African Friends have a little bit of “street cred” to at least share with us their vision and their passion.
The meetingroom we gather in this morning was constructed around 1875 with the bricks from the dirt, as I understand it, across the street to your left where the Wal-Mart grocery store now sits. The first worship in this meetingroom was on the first Sunday in November in 1875. That’s why we like to have Founders Day on that first Sunday in November.
For 143 years, folks have been gathering in this place, in this space to worship, to listen to God, to encourage one another, receive strength for the coming week. In those 143 years, babies have been dedicated, weddings have been celebrated, memorial services have been offered with tears shed, new members have been welcomed with joy and open arms, and it continues to this very day because each generation previous to us rolled up their sleeves, they have done the hard work of being good stewards of what they had received so those who come after them, you and I, and anyone else after us will be the beneficiaries of the same spiritual blessings they have experienced.
These blessings include friendship, community, a place of belonging. It includes spiritual strengthening, encouragement, and a place of refuge when life is tough. Sometimes these spiritual blessings show up as a renewed hunger in one’s spiritual journey, a healed marriage, a second chance in life, a deeper sense of purpose, a hope when we feel defeated. Sometimes it’s a faith tradition that speaks to your own condition and offers you a spiritual home.
What I mean is there are times where I will meet people who come into a Friends Meeting, who come into a Quaker Meeting and all of a sudden they will say, “This is the language my soul has been speaking. I just didn’t know what to call it.” What they realize is that they have found a home and have found a place among Friends.
Sometimes the spiritual blessings are tangible in nature, financial help, food on the table, outreach to the community through Free Peace Pantry, a campout for hunger.
All of this has been made possible because each generation has invested time and energy in this living faith community called Deep River Friends. They invested for the present, but they also invested knowing it would be good and right for future generations to experience the same blessings. They invested their time, their gifts, their leadership, their money, and their presence. They invested because they knew as we do that God has a purpose in this place for Deep River Friends Meeting.
If you want to talk evidence based, how can you exist for 260 plus years and say you don’t have a purpose? If this place did not have a purpose in God’s realm and in God’s thinking, then somewhere along the line, the brakes would have come to a screeching halt at some point. But we’re here. Sometimes you just have to look at the fruit and say, “Something’s going on”.
What does God have for us?
As I prepared this message, I kept reminding myself I did not want to stand in front of you this morning and sound like a spiritual sales person trying to describe the new and improved version of Deep River Friends Meeting with cheesy phrases like, “What’s it going to take to get you inside this church? What’s it going to take to get you on this committee?”
I have come to realize that church and faith communities are not products to pitch, they are not commodities to consume. They’re living stories that have narratives. They have past chapters, but they’re constantly writing new chapters as this future unfolds. Like a story, characters come and go, some stay for awhile but leave, some stay for the whole story and then pass on. We mourn their passing, but we celebrate the contributions. This story continues and we all have a part to play in this story, from the nine year old to the 98 year old. This story needs the input and contributions of everyone.
I’m not going to stand before you this morning as a spiritual salesman with a glitzy pitch. Rather, I stand before you as a fellow pilgrim and spiritual companion on the journey with you to go wherever God is leading us. I have come to think that the most honest, most refreshing verse in the Bible is Hebrews 11:8 which reads, “By faith Abraham obeyed and when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance and he set out not knowing where he was going.”
We know that Abraham eventually reached the Promised Land, Canaan, the land of milk and honey and it was there he settled. But, at the time, God called him to set out on a journey. He had no idea where he was going. All he heard was a voice that told him to leave what was secure and comfortable and to set out on a journey of faith into the unknown and he did. In that moment, all he did was to obey, to be faithful, to respond in faith and embark on that journey, confident that God would show him the way and lead him to this destiny that God had in store for him.
Based on Abraham’s experience and the witness of scripture I can say this, I don’t have an elaborate vision statement or strategic plan. That may feel disappointing to some, but based on Abraham’s experience, I can say this, categorically God has a destiny and future for Deep River Friends. It is a destiny and a future we will only ever experience if we’re willing to leave what is often most comfortable and secure and embark on a journey into this unknown.
This is not a fool’s errand for the sake of activity. This is an intentional journey that is experienced in companionship with one another and with God. It’s in this journey that we listen for God’s guidance directly through one another, it’s what we call the sermon. It’s what we call listen to God’s. It’s what we call getting a sense of the meeting. It’s what we call being faithful to God’s leadings. It’s realizing we are part of a living story that lives and exists within a bigger story and that is God’s story.
God called Abraham to leave the security of the familiar, journey toward the future God had for him. In doing this, Abraham is told that he and his people will be a blessing to the world throughout history.
I think we’re a part of that history and story. We the Church, it’s God’s mission, I think, to bless humanity through his people and God seeks to repair, to restore, to recreate, to renew all of creation. Stories and stories have shown that God has blessed our world through this work and ministry of early Quakers. I believe God still wants to bless our world through the work of Quakers. I believe God wants to bless our community and neighborhood through the presence and ministry of Deep River Friends and I believe God wants to bless you and I in our own personal spiritual journey. A blessing which takes the form of deeper awareness that you and I are loved immensely by God, that we are created for a purpose that gives our lives shape and meaning, that God provides what we need in the midst of our deepest struggles and hardest moments. God’s guidance is available even when we have no idea where we are going or what the future holds.
In fact, every Sunday there’s a verse or scripture in your bulletin that reads this, “Dear brothers and sisters, we always thank God for you. We’re thankful that your faith is flourishing and that you are all growing in love for each other.”
That would be my short answer to what it looks like to live this blessed life, to be flourishing in our faith, and growing in our love. As we’re flourishing in our faith and growing in our love, we’re able to offer a flourishing and loving presence to the world.
The future’s unknown. It really is, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be scary. An unknown future does not have to paralyze us. Quakers have always been known as a movement. If you’re a movement, then by definition you need to keep moving. Moving with confidence that God gives and provides for us as we keep moving forward.
This is the only pitch I’ll give you. Let’s keep moving forward towards the purpose and future God has for us. Let’s keep moving forward towards the world’s pain and brokenness so we can be a healing presence and bring God’s love and light. Let’s keep moving forward towards a world wounded by violence and hatred so we can be a presence of peacemakers and peace builders. Let’s just keep moving forward towards one another in love, acceptance, and hospitality so our world can see what civility and graciousness looks like even in a diverse world. Let’s just keep moving forward towards those places of injustice so we can bring His prophetic presence and word to each situation and be God’s shalom in those places of question. Let’s just keep moving forward to where those who feel as if the world has given up on them because of their mistakes and failures and let’s show them that the Gospel is all about second chances, new life, and starting over. Let’s just keep moving forward toward those who feel lonely, alone, and isolated and offer friendship, community, and a place to belong. Let’s just keep moving forward in our own personal and spiritual journey towards this shaping and forming of God’s spirits so that our lives increasingly look like Jesus and the Kingdom of God in maturity, in character, in actions, and in wholeness. Only when we’re whole … Only when you and I are whole can we help remake a world that needs to be wholed.
Richard [War 00:14:37.18] is a Jesuit priest who makes this great statement, “If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit our pain.”
Right now our world is transmitting its pain in spades and tons and in loads. We need to believe with all of our heart that there is a human condition that can be healed and made whole by the grace and power of God. When it does, we can become a better, different place.
As Josh Brown, pastor of Springfield Friends says, “Quakers have a rich, fascinating, and prophetic past but on the whole we’re not very actively involved with our future. We are the heirs and custodians of an enormous heritage of Quaker literature, buildings, spiritual struggle, and historic witness. But we are investing less and less in the needs and interests of the next generation or even in the generation around us.”
I hope after 15 years, you know me well enough to recognize that I’m not given to much melodrama or over exaggeration. Let me say this with all seriousness of soul.
It is wonderful for us to have a rich history. It’s a privilege to be a part of such a respected faith tradition, but we have a generation around us that is desperately in much need of a witness and light that shows them the way through our present confusion and fearfulness. We have people searching for meaning and purpose. We have folks seeking a coherent and engaging structure in life. We have people seeking hope and a way forward. We have people seeking to become better people in order to help make this world a better place.
That’s worth giving your life to. That’s worth waking up in the morning for. History teaches us. The future calls out to us. But the present needs us. It needs us to be the movement God created us to be so the world can eventually become the world God intended it to be.
Let’s keep moving forward.