We meet in silence. Sometimes we have a reading to draw us in, and we often pray and speak what the Spirit provokes, but the ground of our worship is silence. The silence makes space for God’s presence within us and among us.
For me, the silence is confrontational. The first twenty to thirty minutes, and sometimes longer, feels like I am wrestling God. The immediate pleasantness of silence wears off within five minutes, and anxiety usually begins to roll up my chest, into my throat. I struggle to sink into myself, and hush myself before God. I start thinking about work, what I forgot to do today, and I have to counsel myself back into the silence. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I have to bring each of these thoughts before God, and God lets me reason it out to the best of my ability, before I ultimately don’t care. It becomes easy to let these thoughts fall off when I just want to be with God.
Sometimes I feel alone. Like there’s something wrong with me. Like I’m a bad person, a misfit – not fit for friendship. I feel that way tonight. I feel bad.
I think it’s because I’m remembering.
I grew up in the Unification Church. We believed that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was the second coming of Christ. We were called Moonies.
My parents dedicated their lives to the cause of Rev. Moon – a man I called True Father. Their lives were directed and commanded by leaders in the church, and their marriage was arranged by Moon. Our church community was tight-knit, and even though my life was mostly normal, my identity as a Moonie was central.
Growing up, every morning started with a full bow to a picture of Moon and his wife. I would read his words. When Moon was in the States, we’d go to his mansion in New York and listen to him speak. To make space for all the members to fit in the room and to be as close to Father as possible, I’d sit seiza-style, legs folded under the thighs. I made several pilgrimages to Korea, the Fatherland. These trips cost thousands of dollars. I believed they were worth it. Someday, my parents would arrange my marriage to another member born into the church. Together, my wife and I would join in the work of building God's kingdom on earth.
I have some friends where you can tell they experience their bodies as a residence, as a space. With some of them, it’s like they’re visiting their bodies. In their eyes you see them peeking into the world.
Their minds are their sanctuaries.
I’m not like that. I experience my body as my self. In fact, sometimes I struggle to stick with my thoughts long enough to think about what I’m thinking. Sometimes I’m not really sure what I’m feeling. Or how I’m feeling.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ll be out for a run – running – when all of a sudden I’ll feel rage or heartbreak or fear, rising up from my chest and catching up with me. I just keep running into my feelings. Sobbing. Shouting.
I think this is part of why I’m pentecostal. My body is how I know God. When I first came to know Jesus, I felt it. It was an emotional experience, yes, but convincement wasn’t a decision for me. Instead, I was overwhelmed. It took over my body. There were weeks of confusion over feeling compelled by Jesus, and I didn’t necessarily want to be. I tried to push it away. But I was falling in love. I was possessed by love, and I prayed. My whole body shook and shook, and there on the ground, on my knees, I knew God.
I’m going to be honest – I work hard. I work two jobs, one of which is physically demanding. Lifting and carrying heavy things up and down stairs. Hours all over the place, often past midnight – hours past midnight. It takes a toll on my body and on my mind.
I like routine. I like going to bed early, waking up early. I like knowing what’s coming and living in a rhythm. I like the mental space that order gives me to be thoughtful and creative, to be present. But for now, that can’t be a thing.
I’ve worked hard the past few weeks, putting in more hours than usual, trying to make up for the time that I took off work to organize and participate in the Friendly Fire retreat. I was excited for today, for my check to come. I logged into my bank account, and it was big. Not as big as I thought it’d be, but bigger than any check I’ve gotten in a while. So I paid my rent and some bills. I had $27 left.
I'm glad you don't hate gay people. I'm glad you think Black Lives Matter. I'm glad you're inclusive, welcoming, affirming - I'm glad you're the good kind of religious people.
But you're not.
A lot of us had to learn that the hard way.
We had to learn that we were counted as members in order to reach a quota. We were present so the pastor, the church, the denomination, looked good. Open-minded. Liberal. Progressive.
Our gifts were used, flaunted even, and we were constantly affirmed. Told we were needed, necessary, and we were thanked. Over and over again. For what? For showing up. Without saying a word, we were counted prophets.
I used to call myself a Quaker. I never joined a meeting, and honestly, I had suspicions from the beginning that it just wasn’t going to work. But I was desperate for people, and I really wanted the Quakerism I’d read about.
I couldn’t find it, though, and now I’m not sure it exists.
In the meantime, I’ve been talking, and writing, and a number of Friends say my critical observations about Quaker institutions and culture are illegitimate, either because of my lack of membership or because of my newness. I don’t have a right to point out classism and white supremacy, they say.
It’s been hard finding my place and voice in the Religious Society of Friends. And honestly, I’ve given up. I don’t see the point.
When I read what early Friends wrote, I’m drawn to their vision. Friends lived out of step with the world. Their yielding to Christ demanded deep listening, joy in suffering for the truth, abandonment to the movement of Love. They declared the end of days and rejected the idolatry of nationalism. They were living into a new Society of Friends.
My mom didn’t talk to me for forty days after I came out to her as gay. I’d revealed that the friend I kept bringing when I visited family was actually my boyfriend of two years. She was shocked.
Because my mom believes in a sanctified numerology, forty days was the time she needed to sort through her hurt and disappointment with God. At the end of the forty days, she concluded that I had a clean conscience, and she couldn’t argue with that. But in spite of her tolerance of me, her theology remained unchanged.
She’d once told me that gay people were “spiritually lower than animals,” so perhaps this was a progressive position for her.
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Many who followed Jesus hoped for a revolutionary, a leader who might liberate Israel from its imperial oppressor. Christ could have been the answer.
But he died.
And I wonder, if Jesus wanted an insurrection, then why did he die on the cross? Why didn’t he accomplish a revolution?
I’ve been sitting on this question, waiting and thinking. In the meantime, my apocalyptic theology has grown more and more anarchist. I’ve been impatient and angry. But my sense is that this isn’t the way of Christ.
God in Christ reveals what it means to be human. It is love – to live in communion with God and with your fellow children of God. It is to be surrendered to God’s liberating love, embracing the way we are all connected and bound to one another, and following the riskiest and most beautiful implications of this connection, even unto death.
Jesus embodied the truest, fullest way to be human.
Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that nonviolence “is an imperative to action.” That’s why King’s Poor People’s Campaign was envisioned as a “new and unsettling force.” It was to be disruptive. It was intended to make the issue of poverty impossible to avoid. King was assassinated before seeing that campaign unfold, but his words proved true again and again and again. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, disruptive action created results. Protests – riots even – made people pay attention.
But the work remains unfinished. And being a liberal, progressive Christian just isn’t enough. Especially if you’re comfortable in the tension between Empire and Kingdom. You cannot serve two masters. If you’ve chosen the Kingdom, you must refuse and resist Empire. If you’ve chosen Christ, you must refuse and resist Caesar.
Early Friends knew this. They broke laws. Caused public disruption. They ran toward trouble and defied the “justice” of the unjust. Refused to pay taxes and tithes, criticized Empire, and made enemies. They were fined, beaten, and jailed. And they grew.
I never got to know my brother Kento. He was already dying and in a hospital when we first met in person. Just a few days later, he died. He was unable to speak or move, but he was there. I got to touch him. To see him. Finally.
Before that, there had been too much distance. I remember when I first learned of his existence. Then I found him on Facebook, and when he accepted my friend request, it felt like a miracle. I could see pictures of him, read his statuses, see all the people who loved him. I wanted to be able to love him, too.
I only ever knew Kento’s hesitance behind a keyboard. I only ever knew his inability to deal with me.
I hoped he might make peace with us, his birth family, that he might decide to meet us. I told myself to not be anxious, that life would inevitably bring us together. And it did. In a hospital in Italy. In a bed in that hospital. Surrounded by machines.
I remember falling in love with Jesus my junior year of high school. God received me, embraced me, didn’t ask questions. God loved me.
And then I started getting to know Christians.
I went to an end-times Bible study most Saturday mornings my senior year of high school. We listened to recordings of teachings from Mike Bickle, founder of the International House of Prayer – Kansas City, a charismatic ministry with a mission of praying and worshiping 24/7.
It was a small Bible study. Usually there were just three or four of us. We ate bagels, sat in fold-out chairs in a circle, often huddled around a space heater. We listened to Bickle describe the dreadful days that were coming, and every so often one of us would exclaim “Wow!” or “Amen!”
But there was this one moment. I looked around the room. Nobody had their eyes open. They were concentrating on Bickle, trying to soak up every word. It dawned on me that they really believed the end times were approaching, that the day was near. I didn’t know if I believed that.
I was 16 when I stumbled into speaking in tongues. I was praying. Some words fell out of my mouth, and I wondered if this was The Gift. But I didn’t know what to do with it, and I wasn’t sure what was supposed to come next.
I tell people that’s how I found the Quakers. Let me explain.
I met with my pastor, who took an “open but cautious” stance on the charismatic gifts. My best Christian friends had mixed responses and no experience. Several of them disapproved of all charismatic phenomena. Nobody I was close to knew much outside of YouTube clips of hotline preachers. But I was desperate to nurture whatever God was doing in me, confident that she was.
I sought out people who were involved in a Filipino charismatic Catholic community. I sought out everyone. Any inkling that somebody was into tongues, and I found a way to talk to them.
A woman at my church heard from her son that I was talking about the Holy Spirit. She affirmed what God was doing in my life and gifted me with a box full of DVDs, CDs, and books from John Wimber, a founder of the neo-charismatic Vineyard denomination. I discovered in John’s words an integrated Evangelical spirituality that valued mysticism and biblical authority; tradition and new wineskins. The way John ministered was not typical of charismatics; it was grounded in deep listening. His theology celebrated God being present and alive but also embraced the eschatological tension of the “not yet.” He was different.
I stumbled into speaking in tongues. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted.
I was sixteen. I’d only been “born again” for about six months, and I knew I could experience God the same way people in the New Testament did. Paul talked about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians – healing, prophecy – and I believed.
I wanted Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit, the same way he did for believers in Acts.
I tend to get loud when I pray, and I needed to pray. I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I decided to pray at a park near my house. At night. I wanted power. Power to do miracles. Power to heal the sick. Power to raise the dead. I’d wait in silence, but eventually, the prayers came out. I cried out to God, even argued with God. And every time, I felt something: warm waves of love crashed into my chest. I physically trembled. I shook.
Not long before Donald Trump announced victory, early on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, my brother Kento died.
I was in Italy, meeting him for the first time just days before he passed. There in the hospital, he was unable to speak or move much at all. But he squeezed my hand. And it meant the world to me.
Our hands touched.
And then he died.
It’s been a hard month. Hard to know what’s real. Some days, I find myself curled up on the floor, crying, not always sure about what. Other days, most days, I’m numb. Tired. I’ve been struggling to pray, talk, write. It’s hard to make sense of these things. Of anything.
I was alone in my bedroom the night I decided to follow Jesus. I was sixteen years old, and I was done with religion. But I couldn't stop thinking about Jesus.
I’d grown up in the Unification Church, and Jesus was barely a part of the cosmic narrative there. Actually, what I knew about Jesus was that – among our very ecumenical pantheon of sages and saints – he was a failure. But there was something about Jesus. His grace. His forgiveness. His sacrifice. Something about Jesus that spoke to my condition. He was absurd. And beautiful.
Jesus had shaken my faith before that night. In my sophomore year of high school, I attended a Mormon ward for six months, hoping that I might meet Jesus there. But I never received the promised "burning of the bosom,” so I gave up.
Later, as I tried to detox from religion and keep my distance from anything “spiritual,” my desire to know Christ kept coming back. I didn't want to be a Christian. I didn't want to have to listen to shitty Christian rock music or vote Republican or reject evolution. And more than anything, I didn't want to be seen as a nutty born-again. But I wanted Jesus.
Truth-telling. It’s hard to say for Quakers today if it matters the way it once did.
That first generation of Friends were honest. Brutally honest. About the crookedness of Church-as-Empire, about the empty strength of the empire itself. Those Quakers were shameless. They preached a God of justice and peace. A God who didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t tolerate a religion for show nor the vanity of power-schemers. They surrendered their lives to God, and in sweet surrender found themselves dynamically demonstrating the power of God’s Kingdom. On earth as it is in heaven. The early Friends prophesied, subverted society. Convicted by Love, they followed in her footsteps. She shook them, made them quake. And sometimes they danced. Polite society couldn’t understand and didn’t approve. That’s why so many Quakers ended up imprisoned, tortured – or dead.
"We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation." —Extracts from the Writings of Friends, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice
A phrase that keeps coming to mind is "a new Quakerism," and oddly enough, I've been hearing other Friends unknowingly echo this phrase back to me. It seems to me that many Friends, even those who consider themselves "convinced," are hungry for more than what the Society has to offer. We keep coming back to the same point: we desperately need to re-imagine Quakerism.
Charismatic movements throughout Church history have identified water-baptism as a charismatic experience, an awakening or activating experience that stirs up the gift of God within and enables a believer to walk in the power of Christ’s ministry.
Quakerism has never practiced water-baptism. From the beginning, baptism was seen as an inward work of God. Water-baptism was seen as empty ritualism that gave a false sense of spiritual security to those in the corrupt established churches. But even though Friends do not practice water-baptism, the Friends view of baptism shares some dimensions with that of Charismatics.
Isaac Penington wrote, “The promise of receiving the Spirit is upon believing, and it extendeth to every one that believeth. ‘He that believeth on me,’ as the scripture hath said, ‘out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water;’ but this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive…but every one received so much of the Spirit as to make him a son, and to cry Abba, Father, and to wash him.
It’s been hard to write, talk, and even think about God as of late. A major life change snuck up on me, devastated me, and left me questioning everything. To be honest, I’ve been wrestling with hopelessness, doubt, and fear on a fairly constant basis the past month. Even as I’ve been able to get my head above water, and as I’ve reconnected with God, I’ve still been pretty hopeless about church. I’ve been haunted by thoughts like, “Maybe it’s time to let the Church die. Maybe it’s a waste of time to try to keep these institutions running. Maybe we need to abandon the Church as we know it.” I am struggling nowadays reconciling institutional Christianity with Jesus. This could just be my 8 wing acting up (for Enneagram nerds) or maybe I am just bitter, but the American Church models and breeds capitalism, white supremacy, nationalism, and it may do some good, but is it worth it prolonging its death for that?
I have a confession: I don’t regularly or actively participate in a faith community. It’s not something I’m proud of, as somebody who works for a religious organization, but honestly, church is more draining than life-giving and I’m done trying to make it work.
At least for now.
It's not that I’ve never had an edifying experience in church. In times of discouragement or discernment, I often return to the promises prophetically uttered by lay ministers in the charismatic church or hear a Friend’s vocal ministry bounce throughout my head and lead me into Light. But time after time, I’ve tried to find my voice in such spaces, I’ve tried to find ways to serve and grow in such communities, and it hasn't worked. I just haven't been able to get grounded in a spiritual community.
So I’m done. At least for a little while. And I think that's OK.