‘Insights’

Adventures in Missing the Point

Monday, May 7th, 2018

I recently had the privilege of attending my niece’s wedding at Buckingham Friends Meeting House, located in a quaint village just a short drive from Philadelphia.  It was a beautiful ceremony, but it had extra special significance for our family, as we all found ourselves sitting in the very same place and on the very same benches where our very first American ancestors once sat, most of whom were laid to rest in a nearby cemetery.

Established in 1702, Buckingham Friends Meeting served as a house of worship for some of the earliest Quaker immigrants to this country.  Many of them were first generation Christians as well. The Friends movement was still relatively new, but its founding fathers and mothers were slowly disappearing (Margaret Fell died the same year that the meeting was opened). Now it was up to this new generation of Christ followers to carry the torch, faithfully and fearlessly bearing witness to the revolutionary gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the New World.  And this they did, through great personal sacrifice, some of them giving their very lives in the process.

Sadly, it became painfully clear to me during my visit to Buckingham that the torch had been dropped at some point along the way. As I walked around the meeting house and read through the literature that was most prominently displayed, I was unable to find any direct reference to Jesus whatsoever. And yet it was George Fox himself who declared with great joy, “There is only one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.”

Some might describe this as a classic example of “mission drift.” Others might attribute it to an inevitable process of cultural adaptation and accommodation. I can only summarize my personal feelings that day with one word: heartbreaking. It was as if they were missing the whole point. To borrow from the Apostle Paul, it seemed as though they had embraced “a form of godliness” while “denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5). Correct me if I’m wrong, but were not the first Friends seeking to do the exact opposite?

As we look back over church history, including our own history as a people called Quakers, I would like to think that we might be smart enough to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t have to repeat them. But when I survey the overall health and vitality of the American church in general, and the Evangelical Friends Church in particular, I can’t help but wonder …

  • Like our friends in Buckingham, is it possible that we are devoting so much energy to preserving and protecting our Quaker traditions that we are missing the whole point of the gospel? (cf. Mk 7:9)
  • And are we also in danger of exchanging the very power of God for an empty form of godliness? (cf. 2 Tim 3:5)

I don’t have all of the answers, of course, but I would humbly offer these questions as potential “queries” that each of you may want to share with your congregations as well at some point in the near future.

In the midst of such growing concerns, I must tell you that I am encouraged by what appears to be happening at our two Friends-related colleges and universities here in Mid-America:

  • I recently finished teaching a course on “Spiritual Formation and the Transformational Journey” for students enrolled in the School of Graduate Studies at Barclay College.  The course concluded with a three-day, intensive, face-to-face gathering on the Barclay campus. It was a wonderful, life-giving experience for all of us, and I am deeply grateful to have a small part in helping Barclay continue to fulfill its critical, core mission as a community that is called “to prepare students in a Bible-centered environment for effective Christian life, service and leadership.” 
  • I had the privilege of speaking in chapel at Friends University several weeks ago during their Quaker Heritage Week, at which time the building that houses the graduate school was renamed in honor of John Woolman and Elizabeth Fry.  I was also invited to share this same message with the Board of Trustees during their spring meetings. I couldn’t be more thrilled by recent developments at
    Friends, as the University seeks to return to its roots as a “Christian University of Quaker heritage,” that “equips students to honor God and serve others by integrating their intellectual, spiritual and professional lives.”

During these increasingly dark and difficult days, when the hearts of so many appear to be “growing

 cold” (Mt 24:12), may those of us who are part of the extended family of Friends here in Mid-America “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess” (Heb 10:23) and to our core calling and true identity as faithful Friends of Jesus, remaining ever mindful of the words of our Lord Jesus himself: “You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jn 15:14).

For the love of God, we can’t afford to miss the point.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Kingdomtide

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

As we move into the month of November, it feels as though we are doing more than simply turning a page on the calendar. Things just feel different.  The air is cooling, the leaves are disappearing, and the stores are bustling. Ready or not, the holiday season is suddenly upon us.

We are entering into a new season on the church calendar this month as well. The period between Pentecost (“fifty days” after Passover, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian church) and Advent (the beginning of the Christian year, celebrating the “coming” of Christ into the world through his Incarnation and Virgin Birth) is commonly referred to as Ordinary Time.  The final month of this Season after Pentecost, the period between All Saints’ Day and the First Sunday of Advent, has been designated as Kingdomtide in many church traditions, an intentional time of celebration and reflection on the reign of Christ.

Personally, I find it difficult to describe the ongoing, life-altering, transformational ministry of Jesus in the lives of his followers through the power of the Holy Spirit as “Ordinary Time.”  I much prefer the term “Kingdomtide,” emphasizing the central message of the gospel which was continually proclaimed by Jesus and the early church: “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15).

Regardless of our personal views regarding the church calendar, I know that we can all agree on the centrality of proclaiming this “good news of the kingdom” (Mt 24:14), through both word and deed, until our Lord’s return.  We have all been called to engage in a common mission as we join our hearts, minds, hands and feet in the corporate embodiment of our Lord’s prayer: “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).

This is also in keeping with the good and beautiful dream that has been entrusted to us as an extended family of Friends here in Mid-America:

We dream that whatever is true in heaven be true on earth … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.

So how might we embody our prayers during these high and holy days on the church calendar in such a way that “whatever is true in heaven be true on earth?”  And how might we proclaim the good news during this season of Kingdomtide in such a way that our lives and the lives of our friends and neighbors might be genuinely transformed from something merely ordinary and lifeless to something truly extraordinary and life giving?  And how might these seasonal practices become increasingly integrated into our daily lives throughout the remainder of the year as well, converting good and beautiful dreams into unforced rhythms of grace that faithfully reflect the rule and reign of Christ?

Each of us will need to answer these questions for ourselves, of course, but allow me to offer just one practical suggestion in order to help prime the pump just a bit:

Invite someone outside of your own family to join you for Thanksgiving dinner.

For some of us, this is already a common practice.  If so, we might consider how to expand our guest lists this year.  For others, this may be a brand new idea.  If so, I would encourage you to try it on for size.

In an iCulture that is rooted in rugged individualism and increasingly saturated in national self-interest, the ministry of hospitality is an increasingly rare and priceless commodity these days.  A recent study published in the American Sociological Review indicated that at least “25% of all Americans have no close confidants” whatsoever.  And yet, from the very beginning of human history our Creator made it clear that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Ge 2:18). As Henri Nouwen once observed, “We are able to do many hard things, tolerate many conflicts, overcome many obstacles, and persevere under many pressures, but when we no longer experience ourselves as part of a caring community, we quickly lose faith.”

Inviting someone new to Thanksgiving dinner won’t instantly remove loneliness from the world, but it will certainly reduce the risk for the folks who gather around our tables. In the process, we may find that our capacity for extending Christ-like hospitality to our friends, neighbors, co-workers and even complete strangers will increase exponentially. We may even find that “loving foreigners” (Dt 10:19) and “caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (Ja 1:27) is no longer reserved for special seasons, but is considered nothing more than a normal Christian life.  Before you know it, we may just end up living in such a way that our entire lives become so permeated with the passionate, relentless grace and mercy of our good and beautiful God that the people around us can’t help but proclaim, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Happy Kingdomtide.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent 

The Discipline of the Empty Chair

Friday, September 8th, 2017

As I write these words, I am gazing at a one of my favorite images. It is a photograph I took a few years ago while hiking around Sprague Lake, a pristine mountain oasis located at the south end of Rocky Mountain National Park. At the center of this picture there is an alpine lake, surrounded by a vast forest of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine. Enthroned in the background are the majestic, snow-capped summits that preside over this portion of the Continental Divide: Flattop, Thatchtop, Chief’s Head, Long’s Peak. In the foreground, at the bottom of the photograph, there is an empty bench made of rough, hand-hewn timber that has my name on it, or so it would seem. As naturalist John Muir was known to say, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

As an avid hiker and nature lover, this image continually reminds me to give thanks for the breath-taking beauty I have been privileged to behold, while stirring within me a fresh hunger for exploring the multitude of new destinations that are just waiting to be discovered. More importantly, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, the empty bench serves as a regular reminder that our risen Lord is inviting me to recognize his presence, to engage him in conversation, to join him on the journey, and to allow him to be the strength of my life at every point along the way: “I lift my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Ps 121:1).

This is easier said than done, of course. Like everyone else, there are an endless number of competing voices pulling at me from every direction from morning to night, both internally and externally. And I want very much to respond to them, to please them, or to appease them, at the very least. I want to have a sense that I am valued, appreciated, affirmed, loved.

But among the many capricious voices clamoring for my attention, there is but one Voice that has the ability to satisfy the deepest longings of my heart. Augustine was right: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You, O Lord.” At the end of the day, whether we realize it or not, we ultimately live, move and have our being before an Audience of One.

This became unusually clear to me seventeen years ago during my first weeks on the job as a professor at Barclay College here in Haviland. I moved to the sunflower state by myself in August of 2000, leaving my wife and six children in Ohio, waiting for our house to sell. Although I was extremely excited to begin my new adventure on the college campus, I was less than thrilled to do it by myself. I was the new kid on the block, living alone in an empty house, occasionally feeling like I was stranded on a desert island in the middle of a tiny, remote village in the middle of … somewhere.

After enduring two or three weeks of this solitary confinement, the Lord decided it was time to crash my little pity party. As usual, He did so in a very kind and unexpected manner. As I was laying down for bed one night, I noticed something that had been there all the time. It was there when I sat down for dinner, it was there when I rode in the car, it was there when I flew on the plane, and it was there when I was at work in my office.

“It” was an empty chair. Except that it wasn’t empty at all. The Lord was gently reminding me that what appeared to be an empty chair was, in a very real sense, continually occupied by the One who promised to be with me “always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20). He was with me when I laid my head on the pillow each night, when I got into the car each morning, when I took my seat on the plane, and when I sat down to work on each and every course syllabus. He was with me, and He wasn’t going anywhere. He was just hoping that I would notice.

As this simple reality began to sink in, the Lord began to transform my loneliness into a whole new appreciation for solitude. It wasn’t long before the silence became increasingly welcomed as a personal invitation to engage in intimate, uninterrupted conversation and ongoing companionship with Christ. As Paul Tillich has said, “Loneliness is a word to describe the pain of being alone; solitude is a word to describe the glory of being alone.”

In time, the house in Ohio sold and my family was finally able to join me in Kansas. As thankful as I was to have them all with me, I have to confess that I was somewhat disappointed at first to discover that it was suddenly much harder to find an empty chair!

The lesson was not wasted, however. I am continuing to benefit from the discipline of the empty chair. To this day, when I find an empty chair next to me along the way, I am regularly reminded that it is not empty at all. The Lord is with me, and he’s not going anywhere. He is my constant Companion and Friend. He is just waiting for me to acknowledge his presence, to engage him in conversation, and to join him on the journey. And when I do, my spirit sings for joy: “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known” (see “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles).

May our Lord Jesus continue to bless you and keep you, dear friends, and may you experience great joy on your journey as you embrace his presence in your midst!

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

I was looking through my dresser drawers the other day and I came to a startling realization: I have way too many t-shirts. The problem is that I really like t-shirts, and I find it surprisingly difficult to part with them. After all, t-shirts are readily available, relatively inexpensive and extremely comfortable. They can be easily re-purposed as rags, quilts, pet bedding or painting attire. They also make great souvenirs and serve as portable billboards for your favorite people, places, teams and causes.

The most recent addition to my t-shirt collection is one of my very favorites so far. It’s a trekking t-shirt that features a solitary hiker and a solitary tree framed by the following caption: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” This caption is actually a portion of a short poem written by Bilbo Baggins, the main protagonist in The Hobbit and a primary character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The poem presents an encrypted description of Aragorn, an heir to the royal throne who is currently wandering throughout the land as a vagabond ranger known as Strider. The poem is used to help convince Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, to trust Aragorn even in his Strider guise. Aragorn later recites the first two lines when he is attempting to get Frodo to trust him enough to join him on his journey. 

For those who may not be familiar with these fanciful tales of Middle Earth, it may be helpful to note that Tolkien, a devout Christian, created them to serve as allegorical representations of Christ’s kingdom here on earth. As such, Aragorn (and to varying degrees, Gandalf and Frodo) embodies much of the character of Christ. Not only does he wander in the wilderness before revealing his true identity as the chosen one, but through multiple acts of sacrificial love on behalf of his friends, Aragorn helps to save all of Middle Earth from the demonic sway of Sauron and his dark forces of evil. Sound familiar?

As I reflect upon my first three years of ministry as general superintendent for EFC-MAYM, there have been many days when it seems as though Mid America bears an uncanny resemblance to Middle Earth. To be honest, I have frequently felt a bit like Frodo, just a little Hobbit from the Shire. One day he is minding his own business and enjoying a relatively simple life with his friends and neighbors, and the next thing you know he is suddenly summoned to fulfill a new and unsolicited mission, one that is way above his pay grade, in response to the call of a great and godly king who, like Aragorn, typically appears in the distressing disguise of a vagabond ranger who is relentless in his determination to free the entire land from its captivity to the dark forces of this fallen world.

While there are those rare times now and then when the king chooses to reveal his true identity in all of its splendor, more often than not, his character is made manifest most clearly in the midst of the seemingly mundane, messy, every day, ordinary events of human life. And every life has a story to tell.

Far from fanciful tales, the stories we have to tell here in EFC-MAYM are about very real people from very real places who find themselves fighting all-too-real battles. Having visited all of our churches (including multiple visits to many churches) during my extensive travels across Mid-America over the past three years, I can speak from firsthand experience when I say that we are all just a bunch of ordinary Hobbits after all, an equally flawed yet remarkably resilient family of Friends, representing a wide variety of racial, ethnic, religious, geographic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and we all share a common condition:

  • We are all harassed and helpless, left to our own devices, like sheep without a shepherd.
  • We are all longing to be free from Satan’s reign of terror upon this fallen planet.
  • We are all weary of the wreckage left behind in the wake of sin and death.
  • We are all desperately seeking salvation, in all of its multi-faceted expressions.
  • We are all passionately and unconditionally loved by our great and godly King, who also just happens to be our Creator, Redeemer and most faithful Friend and Companion, the One who is absolutely relentless in the pursuit of his mission to “seek and save that which was lost.”

As we gather for the 146th sessions of EFC-MAYM this month in Haviland, we will pay special attention to the Israelite’s long, arduous, transformational journey through the wilderness on their way to the promised land. We can learn much from those fellow sojourners who have walked before us on this trail of faith (cf. Heb 11), but if we have any hope of completing the journey ourselves, we must “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer [trail blazer] and perfecter [trail guide] of our faith” (Heb 12:2), for he is our one and only reliable Way in the wilderness. Over time, as we learn to follow him even more faithfully, we find our lives slowly, surely and increasingly reoriented as we wander together along this truly transformational journey with Jesus, our vagabond King. And it isn’t long until we come to the very same conclusion as J.R.R. Tolkien and every other faithful friend and fellow traveling companion who has gone before us:

“Not all who wander are lost.”

 

The Way in the Wilderness

Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

“A voice of one calling in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
– Luke 3:4

When God is about to do something new and wonderful in the world, he often calls his people to the desert in order to prepare the way. It’s as if he must begin with models before he is ready to build a movement. And more often than not, it seems, his workshop is found in the wilderness.

Throughout his forty years of tending sheep in the Midianite desert (Ex 2-3), God was preparing Moses to lead his fellow Hebrews out of slavery and into the Promised Land. While seeking asylum from Saul in the desert strongholds of Ziph, Maon and En Gedi (1 Sa 23-24), David was being prepared to rule over the nation of Israel as God’s anointed king. Elijah’s frantic flight into the Sinai desert (1 Ki 19), following his initial contest with the prophets of Baal, prepared the way for a fresh encounter with God and a renewed call to return home and finish the job. It was in the wilderness of Judea that the word of God came to John the Baptist (Lk 3), launching his ministry as the forerunner of the Messiah. Following his baptism by John in the Jordan, it was into this same Judean desert that Jesus was led by the Spirit (Lk 4), where he made final preparations for public ministry by facing his demons on their home turf and demonstrating a divine identity that would soon be revealed to the whole world. And whenever he needed to be reminded of his true identity, “Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness for prayer” (Lk 5:16).

If Richard Foster is right in his assertion that “our adversary majors in three things today – noise, hurry and crowds”– then there is no better path towards healing and deliverance than the way of the desert. But, as Kenneth Leech has observed, those who are called to the desert must be “conscious of the severe temptations which the desert environment itself held. For these waste regions were the abode of the demons and the forces of evil … to enter the desert then is to enter the arena of spiritual conflict.” And yet, it is in the midst of such intense conflict that true character is forged, argues Henri Nouwen, for the desert itself provides a “furnace for transformation,” and “it is from this transformed self that real ministry takes place.”

It is interesting to note that as persecution began to diminish during the third and fourth centuries of the Christian church, “red martyrdom” (giving one’s life for the sake of the gospel) was gradually replaced by “white martyrdom” (dying to one’s self for the sake of the gospel). It was during this time that an increasing number of devoted Christ followers found themselves drawn by God to leave the relative comfort and complacency of organized religion in favor of the silence and solitude of the desert. These Desert Fathers and Mothers were desperate to exchange material prosperity for moral purity, worldly passion for eternal purpose, and shallow companionship for genuine community. They did not go into the wilderness in order to escape trouble, but to seek transformation. They sought to become less attached to the empty values of this fallen world and more fully attached to God’s vision of a better world.

I have never spent extensive time in the desert myself, but I have experienced firsthand the immeasurable value of silence and solitude and the rich blessings of the common life, especially during my tenure as a professor and campus pastor at Barclay College. I often refer to Barclay as the “Quaker Monastery on the Plains” due to its small size, close-knit community, commitment to meaningful ministry and remote location on the Kansas prairie (a region that, ironically, was once referred to as the “Great American Desert”). Needless to say, students and faculty don’t come to Barclay because it is a place of power, prestige and material prosperity. In fact, this reality has a wonderful way of purifying one’s motives. One could easily argue that those who come to study and serve at Barclay are either clearly called or just plain crazy!

It seems only fitting, then, that our 2017 Ministry Conference will be hosted by our friends at Barclay, especially during the college’s centennial celebration year. In keeping with our theme, “The Way in the Wilderness,” we will gather in Haviland, Kansas, a place that has served as formational furnace for our extended family of Friends in Mid-America, North America and all around the world for more than 100 years now. During our time together, we will pay special attention to the Israelite’s long, arduous, transformational journey from slavery in the land of Egypt to freedom in the promised land of Canaan. Throughout their 40-year camping trip through the desert, God’s people were faithfully sustained each and every step of the way by Yahweh, their good and beautiful God.  This is the same God who continues to lead His people through the wilderness of this world today, not merely by cloud or by fire but by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, as we all look forward to that great day when we will arrive safely at our final destination in the ultimate Promised Land (cf. Rev 21:1-22:5).
The question is: “How are we called to live while we are on the way?”

That is the question that will provide the primary focus for our time together in Haviland this summer, July 20-23, as we gather on the campus of Barclay College. I hope that you will join us as we wander together along this transformational journey with Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2) and our one and only reliable Way in the wilderness.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

 

Kyrie Eleison

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

At first glance, some of you may look at the title of this post and wonder if I am about to sing the praises of one of the best point guards in the NBA, a Rookie of the Year, four-time All-Star, and Olympic gold medalist who just happens to play for the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers. But you would be wrong. That would be Kyrie Irving. (And yes, of course, I am pulling for Kyrie, LeBron and the rest of the Cavs to become just the twelfth team to repeat as NBA champions. But that story will have to wait a few weeks longer.)

Kyrie eleison is not a person, but a prayer. The first time I remember hearing this mysterious yet strangely attractive phrase was back in the mid-1980’s when I was still in my early days as a youth pastor in northeast Ohio. “Kyrie” was the title of a hit song recorded by a band called Mr. Mister (I know, it sounds a bit redundant, doesn’t it?). If you want to experience a little blast from the past, you can still find the music video here. It’s actually a pretty cool song.

I’m not sure what inspired the recording of the popular song, but I can tell you about the origins of the ancient prayer itself. Kyrie eleison is a Greek phrase that means, “Lord, have mercy.” Its frequent use as a central prayer of the Christian church derives from several New Testament passages where some form of this phrase is invoked as a passionate plea from a genuinely broken and contrite heart. A Canaanite women, for example, cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord” (Mt 15:22). Two blind men call out, “Lord, have mercy on us” (Mt 20:30). Bartimaeus implores Jesus, “Have mercy on me” (Mk 10:46). But the kyrie eleison is perhaps most powerfully illustrated in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14):

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Over the centuries, the phrase kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”) has become one of the most beloved and frequently repeated prayers in the entire church, especially among our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. This is also the same phrase that inspired what is commonly called the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), a humble petition that has become increasingly popular among Western Christians as well.

So why am I spending so much time describing, affirming and commending to modern day Friends the value of an ancient prayer that has its roots in Eastern Orthodoxy?

I have been following Jesus for nearly 40 years now, and I have always found prayer to be the most essential and most challenging of all the spiritual disciplines. But what has helped me most in recent years is the discovery that prayer is not limited to a few, specific methods or models that are unique to any one denomination or tradition. As my good friend, Fil Anderson likes to say, “There are as many ways to pray as there are moments in the day.”

I have found that the more that my prayer portfolio has expanded, the more freedom, depth and joy I have experienced in my walk with Christ. This has also helped me to more readily embrace the biblical admonitions to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17) and to “pray always” (Lk 18:1).  I have found it much more do-able to pray always when I am better equipped to pray all ways.

If you are interested in expanding your prayer portfolio, I would encourage you to explore the kyrie eleison or Jesus Prayer, especially during this season of Lent. Try them on for size and see how they fit.  To borrow from William Penn, you might think of it as a “holy experiment.” At the end of the day, I pray that you will be encouraged and empowered to pray as you can, not as you can’t.

Oh, and one more thing. It is critical to remember that we are never alone when it comes to this life of prayer.  Our good and beautiful, triune God is always praying with us. As the Scriptures reminds us, God the Father “knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:8), God the Son “always lives to intercede” for us (Heb 7:25), and God the Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rm 8:26).  As we learn to pray with God, not just to God, we grow to understand that prayer is simply a matter of staying in the conversation, i.e., continually and intentionally resting in the gracious embrace of our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, the Lover of our souls, the One who longs to communicate with us “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Ex 33:11).  And somehow, in the midst of this unfolding friendship with God, we are mysteriously and progressively transformed in such a way that others can actually see in us an imperfect yet increasingly authentic reflection of the very face of God (cf. 2 Co 3:18). As C.S. Lewis has testified, “prayer doesn’t change God; it changes me.”

Lord, have mercy.

 

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Entertaining Angels

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

I’m sure that you are all well aware of the recent discussions taking place in our country regarding the appropriate treatment of immigrants and refugees.  For those of us who claim to be devoted Christ followers, this is about much more than mere politics, demographics or statistical sound bites. These are real people with real names and real faces.

It would be good for all of us to remember that Jesus was one of those names and faces at one time as well, a Middle Eastern refugee whose family was temporarily displaced during a brutal despot’s reign of terror (Mt 2:13-18).  It might also help us to gain a better grasp on why our Lord is so painfully clear and unequivocal in His declaration that the way we care for our most vulnerable neighbors (“the least of these”) is in reality the most accurate measure of how much we actually care for Him (Mt 25:31-46).

These conversations take on even greater weight for those Hispanic, Sudanese and Bhutanese immigrants and refugees who are part of our extended family of Friends here in Mid-America. I recently spent a weekend with some of these very real names and faces during my first site visit to St. Paul (MN) Friends Church, our newest body of believers here in EFC-MAYM. This is a fellowship comprised solely of Bhutanese refugees. Like nearly every other member of the group, their pastor, Kumar Tamang, was born and raised in the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan. In the 1990’s, Kumar and more than 100,000 of his fellow countrymen were forced to leave Bhutan during a period of ethnic cleansing due to the fact that they are of Nepalese descent. Because the government of Nepal does not permit citizenship for Bhutanese refugees, they eventually become a people without a country, until they were granted entry to the United States.

Our new Friends in St. Paul provide us with a very tangible reminder that, as much as we might prefer to duck and run from these messy issues, we cannot do so without betraying those we have been called to embrace as our very own family members (Gal 6:10). And while we are always praying for new ways to take the gospel to the “ends of the earth” (Ac 1:8), we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that we are currently living in a time and place when the ends of the earth are coming to us in record numbers.

So what does all of this mean for those of us who are called to serve as faithful and fearless witnesses to the gospel here in our own “Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria”? 

While there are no easy answers to this question, I do want to commend the excellent work that is being done to address these critical concerns by our friends and partners at World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table. I would encourage you to visit their websites, where you can find additional information and valuable resources that may help you and your church family to offer Christ-like compassion and hospitality to the “aliens and strangers” who are currently knocking at our doors (Heb 11:13).

You may be surprised to discover how many angels you have been entertaining in the process (Heb 13:2).

Blind Spots

Friday, January 20th, 2017

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

It was 54 years ago this month that a fiery, young, black preacher stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, calling upon the leaders of our nation to finally and fully deliver on the promises that were made 100 years earlier when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.  Without question, the 1963 March on Washington, and the speech that that Dr. King delivered that day, represent a truly transformational moment in American history.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was far from perfect, of course.  He was no superhero.  He was just an ordinary human being.  Like all the rest of us, Dr. King had his share of blind spots, and his human frailties have been well-documented. But if there is one thing I have learned over the course of my life, it is this: When we as flawed and finite human beings give our good and gracious God permission to transform our lives, we in turn are empowered to become agents of extraordinary transformation in the lives of other people.

I was just 5 ½ years old when MLK was shot and killed while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.  I’m sure I had no idea how to make sense of it all at the time, but as I sat around a black and white television watching the news reports with the rest of my family at our home in northwest Iowa that day, at some level I knew that this was a traumatic yet transformational moment in our nation’s history. I soon discovered that it was to become a profoundly transformational moment in the history of our entire family as well.

As lifelong Quakers, my parents shared MLK’s commitment to pursuing peaceful, non-violent efforts to advance social justice, especially for “the least of these” (cf. Mt 25:31-46).  One of the ways they put this into practice was through the ministry of foster care.  Shortly following Dr. King’s assassination in April of 1968, my parents began to explore the possibility of engaging in racial reconciliation by pursuing the adoption of a bi-racial child, something that was extremely rare and culturally radical in the late 1960’s.

A few months later, in November of 1968, a little boy was born in Youngstown, Ohio to a black father and a white mother.  His birth parents were unmarried and did not feel that they could keep the baby, so they placed him in the care of social services.  This beautiful little boy had light brown skin and fluffy black hair, but he was considered “unadoptable” by most people, based on the fact that he was bi-racial.

In August of 1969, just a few days after my seventh birthday, that little boy was a passenger on a plane that arrived in Sioux City, Iowa.  He was presented to my parents, who gave me the awesome privilege of holding him in my arms most of the way back home, where he was warmly welcomed by the rest of my siblings.  That little boy is 48 years old today, and has a beautiful family of his own.  Andy is not only my brother, but one of my very best friends in the whole world.

But real life is not a Hallmark movie.  I discovered very quickly that not everyone shared our family’s enthusiastic support for racial diversity at the most intimate levels.  I have vivid memories of the extremely cold and creepy reception we frequently received when traveling with my brother in portions of the Deep South, and I still get sick to my stomach when I recall some of the horrible names that he was called by a number of ignorant friends and neighbors.

Like I said, we all have our share of blind spots.

By far the most painful response to Andy’s adoption, however, came from what I would have considered the most unlikely source: my maternal grandfather.  Grandpa was one of the most godly men I have ever known.  Like my parents, he was a lifelong Quaker.  He was also a devoted pastor, professor and college administrator.  But long before I was able to understand what any of these titles meant, he was just Grandpa to me.  He held me on his lap, told me Bible stories, made me eggs and bacon for breakfast, showed me how to tend a garden, defended me from the wrath of my critics, watched Indians games with me, and even managed to hit me a few, soft grounders at the age of 90.

But like I said, we all have our share of blind spots, and that included Grandpa.  Born in 1894 in Guilford County, North Carolina, and raised in the post-Reconstruction south, Grandpa was just two years old when the Supreme Court ratified Plessey vs. Ferguson, which made “separate but equal” segregation (aka, “Jim Crow”) the law of the land.  When my parents were in the process of adopting Andy, my grandfather made it painfully clear that “we love these people, but they are NOT part of our family.”

Without question, even the very best of us have our share of blind spots.

Thankfully, however, that is not the end of the story.  My grandfather loved Christ more than his own cultural conditioning, and he was absolutely committed to practicing the same biblical truths that he preached from the pulpit.  Slowly but surely, over a period of several years, Grandpa’s heart began to soften towards Andy through the gentle yet persistent ministry of the Holy Spirit.

As long as I live, I will never forget the first time my grandfather hugged my brother.  A man that literally wrote the book on “entire sanctification” and “being made perfect in love” had obviously discovered that he had much more to learn about the love of Jesus than he had thought, and he was willing to admit it.  Grandpa recognized his blind spots, and he allowed the Lord to renew his sight.  It was one of the most traumatic yet truly transformational moments I have witnessed in my entire life.

Today we are on the threshold of yet another traumatic and potentially transformational moment, as our 44th president, the first bi-racial president in American history, passes the baton to our 45th president, who will take the oath of office within shouting distance from the very location where MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 54 years ago.  On this Inauguration Day, I am hopeful that President Trump will be reminded on a daily basis of his Election Day promise to work hard at unifying our country in the days ahead, especially when it comes to promoting racial reconciliation and ethnic diversity.  And when he lays his hand on the very same Bible that Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator used at his inauguration, I pray that our new president will be reminded of the unshakable promises that the God of the Bible has made to each and every one of us, for he is the One, according to Acts 10:34-35, who “shows no favoritism, but accepts from every nation [Gk, ethnos or “ethnic group”] the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Thanks be to God for the amazing grace and infinite mercy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!  He is the only One who has no blind spots, and He is the only One who can remove each of ours! 

O Most High and Glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart. Give me right faith, certain hope, perfect love, and deep humility. O Lord, give me sense and discernment in order to carry out your true and holy will. Amen. – Francis of Assisi

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Keeping Up Appearances

Tuesday, January 10th, 2017

As one who was born and raised in an evangelical Quaker family, I was never well-versed in the liturgical seasons on the church calendar during my early days as a Christ follower, but I have grown to appreciate them more and more over the years.  Any tradition has the potential to be completely empty or rich with meaning, depending on how we approach it, but I know that my life and ministry has been greatly enriched as I have grown in my understanding and practice of a wide variety of Christian feasts and festivals.

Epiphany, the season between Christmas and Lent, has become one of my favorites in recent years.  Most of us tend to experience a bit of an emotional letdown following the Christmas season, and for some of us this is often accentuated by the onset of winter, bringing with it colder temperatures, decreased sunlight and fewer opportunities for outdoor activity.  What a wonderful time of the year to devote renewed energy to an intentional meditation upon the “appearance” (Gk., ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia) of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World!

In the western church, Epiphany is celebrated on January 6 (the twelfth day of Christmas, based on the Gregorian calendar), and the primary focus is upon the visitation of the Magi, the initial “revelation” of Jesus to the Gentiles.  The eastern church (following the Julian calendar) typically celebrates Epiphany on January 19 and tends to place primary emphasis upon Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, the first public “manifestation” or “theophany” (Gk., Θεοφάνια,  theophaneia) of God the Son. 

Either way, Epiphany is a holiday that has been celebrated by Christians of various traditions from around the world for at least 16 centuries now. It is intended to remind us that God is always at work in the world, regardless of any apparent evidence to the contrary, and he is continually making personal “appearances” through an endless variety of ways and means (e.g., nature, archaeology, relationships, current events, conscience, miracles, prayer, Scripture, etc.).

When I consider the infinite number of ways that our Lord makes himself manifest to us all on an ongoing basis, I am reminded of a story I once heard about a man who came to G. Campbell Morgan (1863-1945), the prominent Congregational preacher and Bible scholar, with an honest question: “Why is it that God does not speak today as he did to men of old?” to which Morgan quickly responded, “Perhaps the answer is that God has not stopped speaking at all, but that we have stopped listening to God as men of old once did.”

O Lord, as we begin a new year together as a family of Friends here in Mid-America, please give ears to hear you, eyes to see you, minds to understand you, hearts to receive you, hands to embrace you, and feet to follow you.  Thank you for your promise to be with us always, to the very end of the age. Amen.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

The God-bearing Life

Monday, December 12th, 2016

dave“Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28).

I trust that your Advent celebrations are off to a good start, my friends, and that you are willing and able to carve out some personal space along the way to embrace the marvelous mystery of our Lord’s incarnation this Christmas.  A brief glance at the church calendar tends to reinforce the fact that folks like us are easily tempted to place greater emphasis upon action than contemplation during this time of the year.  Mary’s contribution to the Christmas story reminds us that both are equally important.

While it is readily apparent that Mary was quick to act upon critical concerns in a timely manner, it is also equally apparent that she did not hesitate to hit the “pause” button on a regular basis in order to slow down, sit back, and take it all in. This holy rhythm of action and contemplation is not unique to Mary, of course.  We can identify similar patterns in the lives of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna, or the Magi, for example.  But it could be easily argued that there is no one who embodies this God-bearing rhythm of life more fully or faithfully than Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Perhaps this explains why she was given the nickname theotokos (“God-bearer”) by so many of our early church fathers (Dionysios, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, etc.).

Unlike Mary, none of us can duplicate the miracle of the Virgin Birth. But as disciples of Jesus Christ we are all called to be “God-bearers” in our own time and place as we, like Mary, invite the Spirit of the living God to overshadow us, indwell us, and empower us to bear fearless and faithful witness to the tangible presence of Emmanuel, the One who has not only come to be “with” us (Mt 1:23), but to be “in” us (Col 1:27) and “for” us (Rm 8:31).

With this in mind, what might we be able to learn from Mary during this Advent season that might help us to more fully embody the marks of a faithful God-bearer? Like Mary, I believe we are called to devote equal time and energy to both action and contemplation this Christmas as we seek to … 

  • Trust God without trepidation (the contemplative response). May you and I, like Mary, be willing and able to receive our Lord’s angelic annunciation “do not be afraid” by faith, regardless of our circumstances, so that we might rest in the freedom to “wonder,” “marvel,” “ponder,” and “treasure up” all these things in our hearts as we quietly meditate upon the majesty and mystery of our Lord’s incarnation. And may we, like another Mary who knew and loved Jesus dearly, choose to set aside the tyranny of the urgent in order to embrace the extraordinary privilege of sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening attentively to his voice, remaining mindful that, at the end of the day, this is the one and only thing we actually have that can never be taken away from us. (cf. Lk 1:29; 2:19, 33, 51; 10:38-42)  
  • Obey God without obligation (the active response). May you and I, like Mary, be willing and able to recognize our Lord’s clear calling by faith as well, regardless of our inadequacies, so that we don’t have to waste needless time worrying about whether we are good enough, smart enough, old enough, rich enough, powerful enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, or religious enough to be found worthy of God’s favor. And may we, like yet another Mary who knew and loved Jesus deeply, choose to rest so securely in the unconditional love and mercy of Jesus that we are literally compelled to bear faithful and fearless witness to the gospel with a joyous and reckless abandon that is motivated not by some dry, dutiful, legalistic obligation but out of pure, passionate, loving obedience. (cf. Lk 1:39, 46-55; 2:4-5, 22, 39, 41; Mk 16:9-10)

These are just two of the most essential traits of a truly God-bearing life, but they certainly served Mary of Nazareth very well throughout her lifelong journey with Jesus. The same could be said for Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and every other faithful servant of Christ across the ages. And that includes each and every member of our extended family of Friends here in Mid-America. Each and every one of us has been chosen to take our place in the Christmas story as well, serving as modern-day theotokoi (“God-bearers”), flawed yet faithful embodiments of our Lord Jesus Christ, right here, right now. And we do so with a growing awareness that we not only share a common history and identity with every man, woman, boy and girl who has entered into this God-bearing life through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we share a common destiny as well:

We have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us. If we let him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

daveI voted today. I may not have a sticker to prove it, but I can assure you that my ballot is now a matter of public record on file at the Kiowa County courthouse in Greensburg, Kansas. And I must admit, it feels pretty good, not primarily because of who or what I voted for today, but because I actually had the privilege of doing so, freely and without fear. I was even granted a special dispensation to cast my vote earlier than usual due to the fact that I will be away from home on Election Day.

During my 54 years on planet earth, I have had the opportunity to travel to more than 20 countries on 5 continents. My guess is that I may not have been able to do so, and certainly not with such relative ease, if I had not been born in the United States of America. While I have thoroughly enjoyed every visit I have made to each of these foreign nations, and have received a priceless storehouse of precious memories as well as countless transformational encounters with a multitude of beautiful people and places from all around the world, I must confess that I am always deeply grateful to set my feet back on American soil when I return home from each and every trip.

Like the United States, all of the other countries I have visited over the years have their unique set of assets and liabilities. But many of them make no provision whatsoever for the participation of their own people in the formation and/or operation of government. Some of these countries are ruled by brutal dictators. Others suffer under the iron hand of foreign oppressors. And many others are doing their best to recover from decades, if not centuries, of unjust and inhumane treatment as a result of unwanted and uninvited occupation. Very few of them are experiencing anything close to the level of freedom, opportunity, peace and prosperity that we are accustomed to here in the United States.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we have an immigration dilemma on our hands these days. With all of our warts (many of which have become painfully obvious during this year’s election cycle), the United States continues to be a coveted destination for millions of people from all around the world. Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means advocating for an “American exceptionalism” that in any way diminishes the infinite beauty and richness that can be found in each and every country and culture on this globe. All I am saying is that this is one of those days when I am more aware than usual that I have been extraordinarily blessed to live in a place and among a people who have been granted the freedom to make a meaningful contribution to the common good. And for that I am deeply grateful.

At the same time, I am reminded of some wise words that I read several years ago in an article written by World Vision president Richard Stearns, a lifelong American citizen and devout Christ follower, who has recognized from his extensive travels around the world that he is also a citizen of planet earth and, most importantly, a citizen of heaven.  Stearns makes a point in this particular article to emphasize the critical distinction between patriotism (love of one’s country) and patriotheism (worship of one’s country).  It is interesting to note, in this regard, that a recent study conducted by Lifeway Research found that “a majority of Protestant pastors recognize that at times their congregation loves America more than God.” When we love anything more than God, the Bible calls that idolatry.

So where does that leave us? I believe that it leaves us right where we are intended to be as disciples of Jesus Christ: in the world but not of it (Jn 17:15-18). We are called to live as dual citizens, so to speak, and we are called to play our assigned parts as faithfully and skillfully as possible in this Tale of Two Kingdoms. But we must never forget where our ultimate allegiance lies. At the end of the day, we are “aliens and strangers,” after all, people who are “longing for a better country” (Heb 11: 13, 16). As Marty Duren has suggested in reflection upon the Lifeway study cited in the previous paragraph:

Sing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, football games, Olympics parties, parades, on July 4, Memorial Day, Flag Day and Veterans Day. Erect a flag pole in your front yard, or angle one from the front door of your business. But the kingdoms are distinct by divine decree. If God today sent me and my family to Botswana, Bangladesh or Bolivia, and led us to become citizens, not resident workers, I hope we would do it. I hope you would, too. The Kingdom isn’t defined by geo-political boundaries. Every nation, tribe, people and language contains its citizens. If you are a follower of Jesus, never forget we are not citizens of this world. We are missionaries living with a green card in the country of God’s choosing.

This is not a new revelation, of course. It is as ancient as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to mention Moses, Joshua, Ruth, Esther, Daniel and every other faithful man or woman of God. But it is a lesson that must be reiterated and re-learned by each and every generation of true believers. Just ask Ignatius, Augustine, Dostoevsky, Bonhoeffer or MLK. And while we’re at it, Friends, we might want to consult with George Fox, William Penn, Mary Dyer, John Woolman or Laura Haviland.

As another Election Day approaches, there is one more name that merits special attention here. In 1872, Quaker reformer Susan B. Anthony, a loyal American citizen, was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicized trial. (Yes, you read that right. It was a crime for women to vote at that time in our country.) In 1878, Anthony was instrumental in presenting legislation to Congress that would finally give women the right to vote. Popularly known as the Anthony Amendment, it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

So cast your vote wisely and gratefully on Election Day. Pray for your local, state and national leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2). Write emails, make phone calls, sign petitions and participate in peaceful protests, when appropriate, not as a mere expression of political action, but as a faithful act of Christian stewardship, remaining mindful of the fact that our Lord has called each and every one of us to be “salt” and “light” in an increasingly dark and decadent world (Mt 5:13-16). By all means, make your very best and most meaningful contribution to the common good, in Jesus’ name.

But when we all wake up on the morning of November 9, 2016, regardless of who may be moving in or out of public office, let us rejoice and celebrate the fact that we are all one step closer to that Day when this great Tale of Two Kingdoms will finally reach its crescendo, and “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15).

Amen.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

The Antidote for Frantic Fidelity

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
Dave WilliamsI don’t know about the rest of you, but this summer was a bit of a blur for me.  It’s all good, of course – Saltshaker trip to Burundi, Pastor’s Short Course in Indiana, Ministry Conference in Wichita, Multiplication Conference in Haviland, a road trip to Yellowstone for a 33rd anniversary getaway with my beautiful wife – but suddenly we find ourselves at the beginning of a new school year, doing our best to catch our breath.

If you’re like me, I find that I can relate all to well and all too often to the following summary from Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion:

“The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives … grow too complex and overcrowded … in frantic fidelity we try to meet at least the necessary minimum of calls upon us. But we’re weary and breathless. And we know and regret that our life is slipping away … in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full” (89-90).

Originally published in 1941, these words have never been more applicable than they are today. We live in a time of unprecedented complexity and confusion. Our high tech culture is obsessed with novelties, gadgets and an endless variety of “time-saving” electronic devices. The world has never known a society with more leisure time on its hands, and yet, we are among the most chronically exhausted, stressed-out people on the planet. There must be a better way!

“For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by … we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center!” (92).

Thankfully, Kelly offers hope for those of us who continue to struggle against the forces that would keep us from “slipping over into that Center” of Divine Love, out of which we are enabled to love others as we have been loved by God. The hope Kelly offers us can be found not only in the words he writes, but in the life that he, and others, lived. Citing the examples of prominent Quakers such as George Fox and John Woolman, Kelly highlights those traits that set these spiritual leaders apart as passionately devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

One of the greatest insights to be gleaned from A Testament of Devotion, however, is actually not even written by Thomas Kelly, but by his close friend and colleague, Doug Steere, as part of a biographical memoir that is attached to the end of the book. Here we discover that living out of the Divine Center came late in life for Kelly, an intellectually restless, professionally ambitious, Harvard-trained, Quaker scholar. According to Steere, the pivotal event took place sometime in the autumn of 1937, during which time “a new life direction took place in Thomas Kelly. No one knows exactly what happened, but … a fissure in him seemed to close, cliffs caved in and filled up a chasm, and what was divided grew together within him” (118). A year later, following a summer visit among Friends in Germany, Kelly himself testified to Steere, “It is wonderful. I have been literally melted down by the love of God” (120).

Could it be that each of us is not so different from Thomas Kelly, not to mention George Fox, John Woolman and every other prominent spiritual leader who has gone before us?  Could it be that the only way for the spiritual fissures in our lives to close is by allowing the retaining walls we have built up around our souls to cave in? Could it be that the best antidote for “frantic fidelity” is a “holy meltdown”?

As we prepare to enter into a new season of life and ministry together as friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters, I am thankful for all of the flawed yet faithful men and women of God who have gone before us, and for their willingness to allow their lives to be refined in the furnace of God’s purifying love.  By their examples, each of them call us to surrender our own lives to this same holy fire, with deep confidence that the One who melts and molds us is utterly good and trustworthy and has our best interest in mind. In the process, we are relieved from the burden of “frantic fidelity” and we can find rest for our weary souls as we recognize that it is God’s work, not ours, that will stand the test of time:

“Thus we have begun to live in guidance. And [we] find He never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness … for after all God is at work in the world. It is not we alone who are at work in the world, frantically finishing a work to be offered to God … we need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well” (100).

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Dave Williams

Greetings, friends!  As we move into a new season of ministry together in the coming days here in EFC-MAYM, it is exciting to see what God is doing among the wider body of Evangelical Friends from across the country and around the world in regards to evangelism, disciple-making and church multiplication.  If our 2016 National Friends Church Multiplication Conference is any indication, the momentum appears to be building for a renewed initiative to “seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10), especially those in our own neighborhoods, workplaces and local communities with whom we “live and move and have our being” (Ac 17:28).

In recent years, men and women among evangelically minded Friends Churches have begun to rediscover that there are many others who share their dream of making disciples and starting new churches. In May of 2013, the first National Friends Church Multiplication Conference was born out of a deep desire to gather together with those who share this dream. Leaders from the six yearly meetings of the Evangelical Friends Church-North America (Alaska, Eastern Region, Mid-America, Northwest, Rocky Mountain, Southwest) and three evangelical yearly meetings from Friends United Meeting (Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina) began monthly online gatherings to encourage one another and to plan the 2014 National Friends Multiplication Conference. Believing that their role is to act as catalysts in a movement to make disciples and start new churches, the Apostolic Leadership Group chose the collective identity of Friends Multiply. Friends Multiply is led by four focus catalysts and regional catalysts representing the nine yearly meetings involved.

Earlier this summer, this renewed emphasis on church multiplication among Evangelical Friends in North America led to the establishment of Multiplication Catalyst Ministries (MCM). A governing board for MCM was established in June, at which time Randy Littlefield was appointed to serve as the new organization’s very first director.  A native of southwest Kansas, Randy and his wife, Charlene served for many years as pastors and church planters among Evangelical Friends in Mid-America and Eastern Region.  Following several years of church planting experience with the Evangelical Free Church, Randy returned to EFC-MAYM in January of 2011 to serve as Director of Church Planting, and then Associate Superintendent of Multiplication Ministries.  During this time, Randy has gradually developed a broad network of contacts with a wide variety of church planters and missional church leaders from across the country.  Based on his personal background, extensive experience and extraordinary passion for church multiplication, Randy is uniquely qualified to serve in this particular leadership role with MCM.

On a practical level, Randy’s expanded responsibilities with MCM will require him to alter his role with EFC-MAYM.  He will continue to serve as our full-time Associate Superintendent of Multiplication Ministries through the end of the current calendar year, but beginning on January 1, 2017

, Randy will move to part-time (25%) Director of Multiplication Ministries with EFC-MAYM, and his financial support will be adjusted accordingly.  In his new role, Randy’s primary responsibility with Mid-America will be to serve as a “catalytic coach” for our regional multiplication leaders (Area Superintendents, Plant Advisory Teams, Missional Support Teams, etc.) as they seek to encourage, equip and empower each of our local church planters and missional leaders for their critical, front lines ministry of evangelism, disciple-making and church multiplication.

On a personal note, I just want to reaffirm my enthusiastic support for Friends Multiply, Multiplication Catalyst Ministries and the National Friends Church Multiplication Conference.  At the 2014 Multiplication Conference in Haviland, EFM missionary Bob Adhikary addressed the gathering via Skype from Nepal and issued a challenge to North American Friends that I found to be surprisingly prophetic:

“I would challenge Evangelical Friends in North America to consider planting one new church for every 100 of its church members.”

While there was nothing magical about the particular numbers, there was just something about this specific challenge that resonated deep in my spirit.  When I shared this with others from Mid-America who were in attendance at the conference, I found unanimous agreement. If this is truly a word from the Lord, then I believe we can anticipate that at least 30 new Evangelical Friends churches will be started here in Mid-America in the next decade or so.  In fact, since this challenge was first issued two years ago, we have already witnessed the birth of several new churches and/or missional communities among millenials (and others) in Lawrence, the homeless in Wichita, refugees in Forth Worth and Hispanics in Houston.  Additional conversations are currently taking place among Mid-America Friends regarding potential church planting partnerships in the Texas panhandle as well as metro Kansas City and Minneapolis.

As church multiplication pioneer Bob Logan reminded us at the 2016 Multiplication Conference, nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to “plant churches.”  It is Christ alone who has the power and authority to “build my church,” and He has promised that the “gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).  But as Christ followers, we are clearly commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) and to “make disciples” of all nations (Mt 28:19).  Not only is this in keeping with fidelity to the timeless, written word of Christ, but it is also in keeping with fidelity to the timely, living spirit of Christ, as illustrated in the good and beautiful dream that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America.

Having recently completed 33 years of vocational ministry on behalf of Christ and His church, I am increasingly convinced, and I believe the history of the Christian movement consistently demonstrates, that when we are faithful to do our part, Jesus is always faithful to do His.

Grace and peace,

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

The First Word of the Gospel

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

dave*This is the eleventh installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.

 

 

Turn from your brokenness and turn to God, because we have really Good News …
the Kingdom of heaven is near! (cf. Mt 4:17).

re·pent \ri-ˈpent\ verb: to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life; to feel regret or contrition; to change one’s mind (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/repent).

A story is told of a little boy who was “prone to wander” from time to time. His parents wanted to do their best to protect him from danger, of course, so they established some very clear boundaries on how far he was allowed to roam. The next door neighbor’s yard was completely off limits, for example, due to the multiple hazards that it contained (heavy machinery, building materials and a vicious dog, just to name a few). Never, under any circumstances, was the little boy allowed to venture into this forbidden kingdom. The boundaries could not have been more clearly delineated.Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 11.17.27 PM

For anyone who has ever been a little boy, or who has ever known a little boy, what happened next will not surprise you. You guessed it. The little boy crossed the line.

When the little boy’s parents discovered that their son was missing, they immediately gathered the entire family and sent everyone out to search for the missing child. A short time later, the boy was found, safe and sound. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he was found wandering around the “forbidden kingdom” that belonged to the next door neighbor.

When his parents asked the little boy why he had chosen to blatantly disregard their instructions and wander off into the very place that they had so clearly and repeatedly told him not go, the thoroughly embarrassed and guilt-stricken young lad offered up the following defense: “Well, I just came over here to turn around and come back.”

According to his good friend, Matthew, the first word that came out of the mouth of Jesus when he began his public ministry in Galilee following his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the Judean wilderness was not “come,” “follow,” “believe,” or “receive.” The first word of the gospel was “repent” (Mt 4:17). This was also the first word out of the mouth of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for our Lord’s gospel message (Mt 3:2), and it was the first word out of the mouth of Peter as he invited his fellow countrymen to respond to the claims of the gospel on the Day of Pentecost (Ac 2:38).

For many of us, the word “repent” conjures up terrifying images of hellfire and brimstone or street preachers holding signs that warn us to “turn or burn.” But I don’t think that is what Jesus, John or Peter had in mind when they issued a call to repentance to their first century audience. The word they used for repentance was metanoia, a Greek term that is literally translated “change your mind.” It was a word of grace, an invitation to turn away from one’s former way of life in order to turn towards the new and living way offered through the gospel (euangelion or “good news”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When understood in its original context, then, one could easily argue that this call to repentance would have been received more as a message of mercy than a message of judgment. After all, Paul would remind us, it is God’s “kindness that leads us to repentance” (Rm 2:4). “He is patient with you,” Peter would add, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

This may help to explain why the parents of the little boy mentioned earlier chose not to be excessively harsh with their son when they found him wandering away from home. In fact, they could tell that he was visibly shaken by the entire affair and was genuinely grieved by his misbehavior. He had learned his lesson, and there was no need to rub salt in the wound. Like Dorothy, the young girl from rural Kansas, the boy quickly discovered that the grass is not always greener on the other side and, at the end of the day, “there is no place like home.”

Oh, and just in case you may be wondering how I know all of this to be true, that little boy was me.

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” – Jesus, Revelation 3:19-20

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

The Great Emergence

Monday, June 13th, 2016

dave*This is the tenth installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

 

 

We have a dream that our church would emerge in the neighborhoods where we live. And a deep sense of awe came over them all. What if all the believers lived in wonderful harmony, holding everything in common? And they sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met? What if they followed a daily discipline of worship in the temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God? And people in general liked what they saw! What if every day their number grew as God added those who were being saved? (cf. Ac 2:42-47)

According to Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, the only way to understand the dramatic changes that are currently taking place within the 21st-century Christian church is to first understand that “every 500 years the church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” And, he goes on to say, we are living in and through one of those 500-year sales right now.

As Bishop Dyer observes, about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable barrier that must be shattered in order that genuine renewal and new growth may occur. In the course of birthing a brand-new expression of its faith and practice, the church also gains a grand refurbishment of the older one (cf. Mt 9:17). Dyer describes this as a process akin to cleaning out your attic, i.e., discerning the still-useful from the obsolete, sentimental memorabilia from cluttering junk. What should be kept and what should be sold?

A little historical context may be helpful at this point. It was approximately 500 years ago, for example, that the Great Reformation took place (next year will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “57 Theses”), sparking a moral, spiritual and theological house cleaning that eventually inspired the rise of Protestantism and the modern missionary movement. Approximately 500 years before that, the Great Schism rocked the church world as the East (predominantly Greek-speaking and Orthodox) split from the West (predominantly Latin-speaking and Catholic) when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael I excommunicated each other in 1054. Go back another 500 years or so and you will run into Gregory the Great, who was instrumental in the establishment of the monastic orders which would preserve the Christian faith throughout the Dark Ages. And 500 years before that, of course, we’re back in the first century and the birth of the Christian church through the ministry of Jesus and the apostles.

And where does this leave us today? Building on Dyer’s hypothesis, author Phyllis Tickle contends that the church is now in the throes of what she calls “The Great Emergence.” Although it remains to be seen what type of Christian community will ultimately emerge in the coming days, it seems clear that we are moving into a new church age that is becoming increasingly more organic than organizational, more experiential than theoretical, more egalitarian than hierarchical, more relational than institutional, more communal than denominational, and much more costly than it is comfortable.

Hmm. Sound familiar? My guess is that we could use these very same words to describe much of what we might observe in the communities that eventually emerged from each of the previous “rummage sales” that have taken place throughout the 2,000 year history of the Christian church, including the ones that led to the founding of The Society of Friends in the mid-17th century, and the founding of EFC-MAYM in the late 19th century.

And yet, all of this talk of rummage sales and house cleaning begs a very important question: Who gets to decide what goes and what stays? After all, as another prophetic voice once exclaimed, “One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri” (cf. Ron Howard’s version of The Grinch that Stole Christmas).

This is the very question that so many of us are asking ourselves these days as Evangelical Friends here in Mid-America, not to mention the wider body of Friends from across North America and around the world. Without question, we are all in the midst of a “giant rummage sale” or “extreme church makeover” of one kind or another.

This was the central theme of our seven Area Leadership Retreats that were held during the past year, based on the letters to the seven churches in Revelation. As 150 church leaders from 30 of our churches gathered to prayerfully discern the good, pleasing and perfect will of God for our family of Friends here in Mid-America, I think it is safe to say that we all came to the same unmistakable conclusion:

The most important question is not: What (or who) goes and what (or who) stays?

The only question that really matters is: Who gets to decide?

“Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7).

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

Sixpence None the Richer

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

dave*This is the ninth installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

 

 

We have a dream that our properties, personal and corporate, be used 24/7 to bless the community around us, and even be used for community objectives. What if we had no spare rooms in our homes or church buildings? What if we all knew our neighbors across the street, and down the road, and across the tracks and helped them with their needs? What if our churches were like store-houses for ministry? What if God restored the broken and we could hand them the keys to our church vans and even our church buildings? (cf. Mt 25:14-30)

Several years ago I remember reading about a conversation between David Letterman and Leigh Nash, one of the founding members of the band Sixpence None the Richer. When asked about the origin of the band’s unusual name, Nash explained that it was inspired by the following passage from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:

Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what that is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, “Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.” Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.”

So then, one might be tempted to ask, if there is nothing we can give to God, or on behalf of God, no matter how grand, that will add one penny (or sixpence) to his pocketbook, why give at all?

Because we love God, pure and simple, and we want to use whatever resources he has graciously entrusted to us to love others in the same way he has loved us, not as an attempt to repay him, but as a natural expression of genuine, heartfelt gratitude for his amazing grace (cf. 1 John 3:16-18; 4:19).

That’s all fine and good, you say, but how do we flesh this out as the body of Christ here in Mid-America, i.e., what does this type of genuine, heartfelt, compassionate stewardship look like in the real world? Based on my recent travels, it looks a lot like Friends I have met here in Mid-America who …

  • Offer their facilities as host sites for Family Promise, a compassionate ministry to the homeless in their local community.
  • Give the keys to their buildings to their Hispanic friends so that Iglesia Amigos can gather for worship, fellowship and prayer in ways that are culturally relevant.
  • Set aside meeting space for monthly sessions of the Church Leadership Institute for Ministry.
  • Use their property to host Celebrate Recovery for those in their local community who are eager to find freedom from their hurts, habits, and hang-ups through the liberating power of Christ.
  • Allow others to use their church vans free of charge for their own purposes.
  • Make their facilities available for community-wide youth groups, kids clubs and Bible quiz teams.
  • Invite local colleges to use their property for worship gatherings, class sessions and special events.
  • Open their doors to the local community for blood drives, voting booths, prayer gatherings, scout troops, storm shelters, food pantries, medical clinics, parenting classes and much, much more.
  • And it looks like many, many Friends I have met here in Mid-America who open their homes to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and even to total strangers in order to provide a ministry of hospitality to all those who may need it.

This is a very short list, of course, and it represents only a small sampling of the types of things that are happening across EFC-MAYM, but I offer it in the hope of encouraging and inspiring our entire family of Friends here in Mid-America to continue to look for ways to bless our friends and neighbors with the material gifts that have been entrusted to each and every one of us by our good and beautiful God. He may not get any richer in the process, but the rest of us certainly will.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

The Game Changer

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

dave*This is the eighth installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

 

 

 

The final score was embarrassing. The stat line was pitiful. It was yet another lop-sided defeat at the hands of a beatable foe. It felt like the 1979-80 high school basketball season would never end, and we were only half way through the schedule.

No loss is easy to swallow, but I was taking this one particularly hard. I felt personally responsible. I was supposed to be the game changer, after all. I was the big city kid who had transferred to this little town on the prairie, supposedly bringing with me a peach basket full of street smarts, smooth moves and other enviable skills that would magically transport my adopted team to a new level of athletic glory. At least that was what I told myself. Now I was sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s ‘79 Olds Cutlass, riding home from yet another devastating loss in complete despair.

It was going to be a very long drive.

After enduring several miles of awkward silence, my dad’s voice finally broke the stalemate:

“Do you want to quit?”

It sounded like a purely rhetorical question at that point. Of course I wanted to quit. A couple of other players had already done so, and it was hard to find a good reason not to join them. But there was no way I was going to attempt to offer a verbal response to the question. I was so upset that I knew if I tried to talk I would probably just burst into tears, adding even more insult to injury.

Again, it was my dad’s voice that gently waded into the void:

“Well, David, I just want you to know that whether you quit or not, your mom and I will always love you the same.”

More powerful and life-giving words have never been spoken. In one of my weakest moments, a moment ripe with potential for judgment and condemnation, I was the beneficiary of pure, undiluted grace. And in the blink of an eye, I was suddenly jolted out of my suffocating self-pity.

I was loved.

I always had been, and I always would be. And this was based not in my fleeting performance, but in an enduring relationship with one who knew me, warts and all, and loved me anyway. I had nothing to fear, nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. To borrow from Brennan Manning, I found myself “dazed, dumbstruck … and suddenly seized by the power of a great affection.”

I don’t remember anything about the conversation after that. As far as I know, neither one of us spoke another word on the drive home that night. All I can tell you is this:

My father’s unconditional love empowered me to persevere.

I not only finished out the season, but according to those who knew me at the time, I was enabled to do so with an unusual level of Christ-like courage and compassion. Much to my surprise, some 20 years later I received an email from one of my former teammates telling me that he had decided to follow Jesus based primarily upon the power of Christ that he witnessed at work in my life during our time together on and off the court that year as high school seniors. To God be the glory!

I tell you all of this for one reason, and one reason only. To testify to the transformational power of God’s passionate, relentless, unconditional love, and to urge you to join me in relentless pursuit of the good and beautiful dream that has been entrusted to each one of us by the Lover of our souls:

We have a dream that all of the small churches in EFC-MAYM felt truly loved, that big churches felt loved, that medium churches felt loved … what if every church knew their significance … what if we served the world around us with no concern about our growth, our reputation, or our benefit, accepting whatever fruit God gives us? (cf. John 13:35; 1 John 4:12)

When taken seriously, a dream like this has the potential to serve as the ultimate game changer.

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

March Madness

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

dave*This is the seventh installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”

– St. Anthony the Great (251-356), The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Spring is in the air here in Mid-America. The temperature is beginning to rise, the flowers are beginning to bloom, the song birds are beginning to return, and spring training is in full swing as baseball fans prepare expectantly for opening day.

While most of us are eager to get back outside again at this time of year, many others are passionately engaged in an indoor event that has become one of the most anticipated rites of spring in our country. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament will provide an opportunity for hundreds of talented, young athletes from 68 of the best collegiate teams in the nation to compete for a national championship. Famous for its unpredictable bracket busters and unbelievable buzzer beaters, this month-long journey to the final four has become better known over the years as “March Madness.”

Oddly enough, there is another remarkable journey taking place this month that will go largely unnoticed for the vast majority of Americans, even though its significance is ultimately much more far-reaching and long-lasting than anything that may happen on a basketball court.

From March 12-19, approximately 140 high school students from across Mid-America will travel south of the border to invest their entire spring break in loving, serving, encouraging and learning from their Mexican brothers and sisters as together they seek to know Christ and make Him known. “Spring Invasion,” a short-term mission program sponsored by EFC-MAYM in cooperation with Coahuila, Mexico Friends Churches, has been hosting student mission teams in Mexico since 1993.  Spring Invasion allows students to participate in an affordable, intensive, foreign mission experience in a cross-cultural setting. Invasion also provides a place for youth groups to be challenged and stretched together, discovering the godly pleasure that comes from Christ-like sacrifice and service.  Invasion not only helps students develop a mission-minded world-view, but also allows them to take a beginners-level peek at exploring a missionary life and ministry calling for themselves.

And so, it begs the question: While so many other young adults in our country will spend the bulk of their time and money in various forms of self-indulgence over spring break this month, why would so many young men and women from our Friends churches across Mid-America be willing to sacrifice their entire spring break in order to spend themselves on behalf of others? And in a day when so many of our oldest voices are campaigning for the construction of higher and thicker walls between the United States and Mexico, why would so many of our youngest voices cry out for the opportunity to build deeper and stronger bridges with our Mexican neighbors? How does one explain this version of “March Madness”?

Perhaps it has something to do with a good and beautiful dream:

We have a dream that the youth in the church be equipped as disciple-makers. What if every day was like a mission trip? What if adults saw the children and youth of our churches as warriors in the Kingdom, and we walked with them and also sent them out? What if we gave more space for new expressions of the church lived out? (cf. 1 Tim 4:12)

It was a dream like this that led a young man named Anthony, the son of wealthy landowners, to abandon his earthly fortune in order to pursue a heavenly one. “If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said, “go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven” (Mt 19:21). In obedience to the call of Christ, Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbors, sold the remaining property, and donated the proceeds to the poor. He then left home to live an ascetic life in the Egyptian desert where he became better known as “Abba Anthony,” a spiritual warrior who founded a new and increasingly necessary expression of the church that we now know as the monastic movement.

And it is a dream like this that continues to lead many other young men and young women in our midst today to make similar sacrifices in order to follow the call of Christ upon their lives as fully devoted disciples of Jesus. This dream has led some of our young adults to leave their families here in Mid-America in order to serve as disciple-making missionaries in Africa, India or China. This same dream has led others to leave the comforts of home in order to establish new disciple-making ministries right here in Mid-America among our unreached neighbors in Lawrence, Oklahoma City and Houston.

I don’t know about you, but I am convinced that we could use a lot more “dreamers” who are obsessed with this type of “madness” in our churches, and in our world today. As Christian missionary-martyr Jim Elliot once wrote in his journal while serving among the Huaorani people in eastern Ecuador, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12)

– David O. Williams, General Superintendent

What Are You Waiting For?

Monday, February 8th, 2016

dave*This is the sixth installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

 

 

We have a dream that every local church was actively participating with God in the process of making disciples. What if church culture changed from maintenance or preservation to multiplication? What if we knew exactly who God was sending us to, and we knew them by name? What if every church made at least one disciple in the next year, starting with non-disciples? (cf. Mt 28:19)

On Sunday, February 7, the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. It was the eighth Super Bowl appearance by the Broncos and the second appearance by the Panthers. There are four other NFL teams, however, that have never been to the big dance: the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars. Of the four, the Browns and the Lions are the only non-expansion teams that have yet to play in a Super Bowl.

Cleveland does stand alone in the sports world in at least one category, however. The city holds the record for the longest-standing drought when it comes to winning a championship of any kind in any major sport.   Millions of long-suffering fans from northeast Ohio have not seen a winner in Cleveland since the Browns beat the Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship. This means that the vast majority of Cleveland sports fans have never witnessed a championship in their lifetime, thus giving rise to the widespread adoption of common creed: “Just one before I die, baby!”

In case you haven’t guessed it by now, I am a Cleveland sports fan. Offering up such a confession feels a bit like a standard introduction to a 12-step group: “Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m a Cleveland sports fan. It’s been 52 years since my last championship.” And just to prove the point beyond any shadow of a doubt, you should know that I am highly confident that this is the year that the Cavaliers will bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in their 46-year history.

Now then, you may be asking yourself, what does all of this nonsense have to do with disciple-making? In my mind, at least, the connection is very clear. Making disciples always takes times. Sometimes it takes what may seem like a very, very long time. And it can be very, very messy. As a dear friend of mine is known to say, “Disciple-making is a process, and the process doesn’t always look like progress.” Or as I frequently remind my spiritual formation students, “Disciple-making is not a snapshot. It’s a motion picture.” It requires a willingness to wait patiently for the finished product to appear.

Just ask the Apostle Paul. Acts 9 and Acts 13 may be just a few pages apart in our Bibles, but most New Testament scholars agree that it was probably at least ten full years between the time that Saul of Tarsus saw the light on the Damascus Road and the day he was ready to embark on his first missionary journey as a fully devoted disciple of Jesus.

Or you might ask our foreign missionaries who are called to lead disciple-making initiatives among unreached people groups around the world. On many of these fields, there is no tangible interest in the gospel for many months, or even years. And when new converts do profess a desire to follow Jesus, there is almost always a lengthy “waiting period” before they are ready to be fully incorporated into a local church and make a wholehearted commitment to the rigors of Christian discipleship.

Or you might ask our home missionaries about the generally slow, painstaking process that is typically required to reach the lost and plant new churches among our unreached friends and neighbors here in North America. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, many people have very little knowledge of the Bible, very little respect for the clergy, and very little interest in the church. And often for good reason. More than ever, we must earn the right to be heard, and building this kind of trust takes time.

Or you might ask any of the farmers who work the land here in Mid-America. When you drive by their wheat fields this time of year, it may be tempting to assume that nothing is happening. But below the surface, hidden in the rich soil that lies beneath the dormant winter wheat, a mysterious and truly miraculous process is unfolding. By God’s grace, the seeds that were skillfully planted in well-prepared soil last fall will slowly but surely produce a bountiful harvest just a few, short months from now. In the meantime, the farmer must patiently watch and wait.

This type of sanctified stick-to-it-iveness does not come naturally for most of us, especially in our current fast food, microwavable, high speed Internet, Instagram culture. But it is this “long obedience in the same direction” that is absolutely essential when it comes to the ministry of disciple-making. Jesus made it clear in his final marching orders, also known as the Great Commission, that there is no higher calling in life (cf. Matthew 28:18-20), and he pulled no punches about the fact that it would not be easy (cf. Luke 10:1-11).

So where does this leave us as a family of Friends who share a dream that every local church was actively participating with God in the process of making disciples? As Olympic champion Jesse Owens would remind us, “We all have dreams, but in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.” 

Just ask Jesus. No one in human history has ever demonstrated a greater level of stick-to-it-iveness than our suffering Savior. He patiently endured opposition, denial, desertion, betrayal, arrest, condemnation, flogging and crucifixion in order to make a way for each one of us to experience the redeeming love of our good and beautiful God. And through his resurrection, we are empowered to persevere in our unwavering devotion to the fulfillment of his Great Commission, “to make disciples of all nations.” No matter how long it takes, we must remain fully engaged in the work of disciple-making as we patiently and expectantly wait for that great and glorious day when “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).

So what are you waiting for?

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  – Galatians 6:9

 

– David O. Williams,  General Superintendent

A Beautiful Choice

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

dave*This is the fifth installment in a series of articles that are designed to help unpack the practical implications of the We Have a Dream declaration that has been entrusted to us as a family of Friends here in Mid-America. Using Acts 2:17 as a holy compass, We Have a Dream seeks to discern and describe the specific directions that God is currently calling the people of EFC-MAYM to take so that the “dream of the gospel is lived out … in our local churches, in the communities where our churches serve, and in the family of churches called Evangelical Friends Church-Mid America Yearly Meeting.”

 

 

We have a dream of God’s Kingdom coming to heal the sick and the broken … the homeless and hungry knowing that God cares, and has sent friends to help them … orphans and widows … believing that their Creator knows their name.

Life as we know it in our country changed dramatically 43 years ago this month. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe v. Wade that a mother has the legal right to end her pregnancy up until the point at which the fetus can live outside of her womb.  According to recent figures provided by the Guttmacher Institute, over 1 million abortions are now performed annually, and more than 50 million legal abortions have been performed since 1973.

The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore the enormous gravity and complexity that so often accompany such a decision. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

For many women today, the decision to carry a child to full term is clearly one of the most difficult and courageous choices that she can possibly make. I’m sure it must have been for one woman in particular.  For purposes of confidentiality, we will call her Mary.  Unmarried, uneducated, and unemployed, she would have been a prime candidate for abortion. In fact, she would have been strongly encouraged by many so-called experts to terminate her pregnancy “for the sake of the children,” not to mention her own sense of “personal health and well-being.”

Thankfully, Mary did not choose to follow the conventional wisdom of her day.  Instead, with the support of a compassionate team of caregivers, she chose a much more difficult and courageous path.  Because she truly loved the little ones growing in her womb, Mary chose life.  In the words of poet Robert Frost, Mary chose “the road less traveled … and that has made all the difference.”

On January 21, 1996, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Mary gave birth to twin girls.  On January 21, 2016, on the eve of the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, our family will gather in our home to celebrate their 20th birthdays.

Jessie_JasmineJessie Anna Williams and Jasmine Elizabeth Williams, our adopted daughters, are two of the most precious and priceless gifts we have ever received.  They have added immeasurable joy to the lives of their parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins, not to mention countless friends and neighbors. The truth is that it would be impossible for any of us to imagine life without them.

Over the past 20 years, these two little girls have grown into beautiful young women of God whose lives are now devoted to loving and serving the One who created their inmost being and knit them together in their mother’s womb, the One in whose image they have been fearfully and wonderfully made (cf. Psalm 139:13-14). It’s hard to imagine that Jessie and Jasmine’s birth mother could have possibly known what a blessing their lives would be to so many others when she chose to give them birth, but their Creator certainly did. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” our good and beautiful God declares, “before you were born I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5).

As we prepare to celebrate the completion of their first 20 years on planet earth, I just want to say “thank you” on behalf of our whole family to Jessie and Jasmine’s birth mother for making the courageous decision to carry them to full term in spite of the multitude of seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stood in her way. If she could see them today, I have no doubt that she would join with us in affirming the fact that life truly is a beautiful choice.