Friends are among those who say that both sides are correct. There are two different definitions of "works" at play (sorry!) here. We cannot reach our full stature in Christ with pious practices, ceremonies, or self-enhancing efforts. The letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews make it clear that the sacrificial system had its chance, and simply didn't get us where we want to go. The only law we now require is the one that God is ready to write on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33-34, echoed in Hebrews 8:10 and Hebrews 10:16).
However, our faith is communal, not merely individual, and we are helping each other live in that unguarded covenantal closeness to God, guided by the laws written on our hearts, that is the essence of Quaker faith (and not Quaker only!). Therefore, we (ideally) don't just stay in our separate orbits. We rightly ask each other whether "God's laws on our hearts" is a reality for you, for me; and whether we are in touch with our hearts or are perhaps numb from addiction or fear or injury. The question, "How is our faith bearing fruit?", is not a denial of the primacy of faith, it is an invitation to go deeper in faith, to put more life-weight on it.
We don't expect each of us to be identically gifted in biblical insight, or in intercessory prayer, or in prophetic civil disobedience ... or, for that matter, in spiritual maturity and confidence. That's why it is all the more important that we lower the barriers of autonomy and learn to ask each other, tenderly, even with tears, about where our hearts are. The point is not a sudden and dramatic restoration of the whole Friends Church (aka Religious Society of Friends). The point is to begin where we are, building a community of love one relationship at a time.
How do our structures serve us in this task? Many of our churches and meetings have elders or the equivalent, and I've appreciated the discussions of eldering that have appeared in our blog community (for example, Marshall Massey's survey and the comments that followed; and also see the comments on this item on Mark Wutka's blog). Although I do think that some spiritual gifts lend themselves to eldering more than others do, I also think Marshall's cautions about exalting the elders is a good one, especially since the main obstacle to eldering has almost nothing to do with gifts. It has to do with interpersonal barriers of almost pathological individualism. More than once, I've heard from those who've been approached to serve on elders or on a meeting of ministry and counsel, "Who am I to talk to someone else about their private life?"
The reason I appreciate Marshall's unromanticizing of elders is that the correct answer to this question applies to all of us, not just to the person who uses genuine or false modesty to avoid service as an elder. "Who are you? You are a brother or sister in discipleship. I need you to listen to me and talk to me. I need to be able to tell my beloved community—but sometimes not to everyone—how my heart is doing. I need you to dare to respond to me, even taking the risk of being wrong, which isn't the end of the world, because we already have a commitment to each other's well-being."
Among Friends, neither elders nor pastors enjoy exalted status. They exercise functional leadership, not leadership by virtue of status, and if their roles are not functional in a given situation (such as a tiny meeting where it truly works to have the roles carried out informally), filling these "offices" should not be a priority. But communities that may have become complacent and ingrown sometimes overlook one important aspect of those roles: the ministry of providing access. Having a designated pastor is one way that the meeting serves newcomers, the wider community, and those who don't participate in the tacit networks of long-time members, to help put them in touch with the resources they need. This is true whether the "resource" is instruction, access to the pulpit to follow a prophetic leading, referral to others who are more able to meet a particular need, sources of food or clothing for people whose paycheck or welfare check didn't last the month, or pastoral care and counseling. I'm not arguing that the pastor should be the only or even the prime contact person for any of these situations, but by liberating someone for pastoral service, the meeting is making that access far more consistent. In any case, when nobody has a specific concern for the ministry of access, the community probably might as well be dead to the world.
A pastor of a rural Friends meeting once told me about a woman in his community whose husband was abusing her. The local sheriff was a friend of her husband's. She went to the pastor for help because he was a visible access point for ministry. It was not a spiritually exalted role, but was nevertheless lifegiving in that specific situation.
Likewise, elders are also points of access. Some of us are comfortable confiding in just about anyone, or have good intuition about whom to approach. But the meeting that publishes a list of elders is, in effect, saying that "these people have committed themselves to be accessible for concerns about individual or corporate spiritual health." They may not be any more spiritual than the rest of us, but they've agreed to be more visible simply to provide that access. They've also agreed to a discipline of confidentiality. And, while we should all be willing to intervene when we see a brother or sister apparently suffering from heartsickness, and our structures may provide other roles, committees, and individuals to do those things often done by pastors and elders, I think it's helpful and maybe even urgent for the meeting to let its members and attenders know that some Friends have a specific commitment to accompany those in distress. And that access to that accompaniment doesn't depend on being socially connected.
Reedwood Friends Church makes this "access" a regular feature of meeting for worship. In the printed bulletin, and sometimes in the announcements at the end of meeting for worship, we are told that anyone who wishes to speak with an elder can go to a particular spot, and the elders take turns being present at that place for a period of time after the close of worship.
Sometimes I wonder whether, in our nice, congenial, and dysfunctionally private existences as Friends meetings and churches, there aren't people living the sort of tortured realities that Ted Haggard was apparently living during his leadership at New Life in Colorado Springs. (Background: read his PDF letter of confession and apology.) Given the choice offered by our culture—self-gratification with whatever rationalization numbs the conscience; or uncreative suppression of sexuality, with whatever secret compromises enable public compliance—our churches need to do a lot better at providing safe eldership to the anonymous brother or sister and the celebrity alike. I've seen more than one Friends meeting deal with "outreach" issues of addiction and abuse with theoretical correctness but with an assumption that this concern serves outsiders, not anyone inside the church. Wrong!
One of the worst consequences of not being deliberate, thoughtful, and explicit in providing for human hearts in distress, is that when distressed people come to our meetings, they exercise (without any malevolent intent) a disproportionate influence on us nice people. When someone comes to my meeting and says, "There's too much Christ language, too much salvation language" (yes, it does happen even in a member church of Evangelical Friends International!), our options should not be limited to those polarized twins, abject codependence or defensiveness. Of course, we should check to see whether our faith language has become formulaic; we owe that to ourselves as well as to newcomers. But we can also ask whether the allergic reaction to Christian language is the symptom of a wound that deserves tender attention. We're not just moderately Christian, subject to political negotiations about how much language to use and to balance out with other constructions; we're Friends of Christ, and those with the least commitment to the future of this precious friendship don't get veto power over how we express it and embody it. But they are entitled to our genuine, active, painstaking love, a love that at times dares to ask, "How's it going with your heart?"
An irony: American churches that stress the importance of faith over works (often those tending toward legalism or doctrinal purity) have a skewed definition of works. They minimize "works" of justice and mercy, but often seem to value the "works" of formalism: using the right words, observing the behavioral rules of the holiness culture, and so on. Now, it's a bit easy to make fun of these double standards, but I'm not sure I'm totally sold on the opposite approach—serene ignorance of the cleverness of sin and addiction. To risk an oversimplification, both groups need to grapple with the messy reality of being embodied believers. Maybe a greater effort at dialogue would help.
A tangent: What does it mean to use Scripture verses the way I used them in the first paragraphs of this post? Last week I criticized the "Pokemon-card methodology" of biblical interpretation. I do not use verses of this beloved text as power cards to trump opposition, but as a sign that I've looked for evidence that my thinking is in resonance with the foundational document of our faith community, and to open up a dialogue with anyone who cares as much about that document but sees it pointing a different direction. In the eternal dimension of God's commonwealth, I cherish the "elders," the ancient ministry and counsel, whose words were collected by the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in forming the Bible.
I've criticized the American media's almost unrelieved negativity about Russia more than once, and Konstantin's Russian Blog has sometimes been my ally in this effort; he keeps finding awkward instances of double standards. He's found two allies of his own recently: N. Petro's article, "Sticking it up Vladimir the Impaler," and Mark Ames's article, "Where is America's Politkovskaya?" In both cases, I'm linking to Konstantin's own blog rather than the sources because I also recommend reading the comments on his blog.
The OOZEletter also gets a pair of links for their latest issue. Last week I gave my own thoughts on Saddam's impending date with the gallows; here's OOZE's take: "Jesus Says about Saddam: 'Hang Him! Hang Him High!'" ... and a reflection on Ted Haggard: "God's Heroes: Speaking Out about Ted Haggard."
Civil Justice: I've appreciated watching the development of the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation's campaign to promote "fair play" as the foundational value of our civil court system (helping citizens deal with pressures to reduce the independence of the judiciary through such alarmist pitches as tort "reform").
- Fair Play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O26MbTexwxI
- Adversarial Process: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BY5GwQSoAsA
- Independent Judiciary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljFs03lp3U4
A couple of weeks ago, I was worried about the music clips disappearing from Youtube and similar services. Blues are rare enough as it is! But in the last few weeks, a whole crop of new blues clips has blossomed on Youtube. [However, many have been removed since--hence the substitution, below, that I made in April 2009.] Here's just one, by a man whose music and presentation both move me very much, Otis Spann. He and Albert King were the first two blues musicians I ever heard. As I said some time back, for decades I listened with admiration to Otis Spann's music without ever knowing what he looked like when performing: