Remembering from Whence We Are Fallen

September 5, 2014 by

Dear Friends,

This is an unofficial, personal epistle from the sixth annual gathering of Christ-centered Friends in the Northeast, which took place over Labor Day Weekend. I started writing it from my bedroom on the last night of our stay at Powell House, intending to send it to everyone who’d expressed regret at not being able to attend, and also to everyone else who I thought would want to know how it had gone. I’ll be posting this letter on the blog “among Friends” to give it maximum circulation. Although I served as Clerk of the gathering’s planning group, let me repeat that this letter has no official status as a statement from the gathering or its planners, but is just what is on this one Friend’s heart to share with the world.

The theme for the gathering, “Abide in Me,” from Jesus’ Vine Sermon (John 15:4), was chosen last Winter. As our planning group worked on developing a program for the weekend over a series of conference calls, we became clear on two things: (1) that we’d be trying to relate our discussion to participants’ personal experiences of “dwelling in” or “being indwelt by” Christ the Vine, and (2) that we’d be flexible in our planning, not adopting a rigid schedule in advance, in order to let the Holy Spirit guide our sequence of activities as much as we could. I think that the interest in personal experiences (1) served to help me (and, I hope, others) stay focused on my living connection to Christ, avoiding airy notions or unprofitable light conversation during the weekend, and that the intentional flexibility of programming (2) was what allowed the two evening prayer sessions to happen. These proved to be the high points of my weekend.

We had twenty-five participants – fewer than in prior years when we’d met at Powell House. As often happens, some came late and some left early, but for most of the programmed events we had about twenty-two. Four came from the New England Yearly Meeting area, two from elsewhere, and the rest from the New York Yearly Meeting area. Each, on arrival, got a printed sheet with John 15:1-11 on it, in the New Revised Standard Version. Sixth-day evening was largely given over to dinner, introductions and waiting worship. The vocal ministry we heard, I thought, was reflective of the concerns we were bringing with us – like “are we called to be Christian Quakers or to think of ourselves as Quaker Christians?”

On Seventh-day morning we considered the simple phrase “Abide in Me” in plenary session, then proceeded into an hour and a half of waiting worship. There was considerable vocal ministry, but none arresting, I thought, until the three messages that came right at the end. The Friend who’d suggested the “Abide in Me” theme spoke of having invited Jesus Christ to abide in him, and three times being asked, “Are you sure you want this?” The last Friend to give ministry broke into deep vocal prayer that seemed to expose his very heart. I could now be optimistic that the Holy Spirit was bringing us closer.

After lunch we labored. We discussed the first eleven verses of the Vine Sermon in small groups (“Where does the text touch your life now? Was there a time in your life when this ‘abiding’ was harder?”), and then in another plenary session. There at least one Friend expressed fear of the possibility of being found to be an “unfruitful branch” and cast into the fire. Another argued for the positive, hopeful thrust of the Vine Sermon as a whole, and against the existence of a God who might damn anyone. A third spoke of his earlier life as a liar, seducer, thief and self-glorifier, a life and character that he gladly surrendered to be trashed as an unfruitful branch after he’d found himself given a new, repentant heart and a new life in Christ – a gamut of personal experience that made both the promising and the threatening aspects of the “vine” metaphor apt without implying any expectation of a condemnation of any sentient being to everlasting fire. Both fear of God and trust in God were displayed among us, but by God’s grace we weren’t being polarized into believers in hell and disbelievers in hell, but rather gathered, I’d like to think, as a body of God-fearing, God-trusting God-lovers who could all speak to something in one another’s souls. And God – God was God. God loved us, and knew best what to do with us.

That evening we broke into prayer-groups of five or six each. My group quickly went deep into confessions of personal need and heartfelt concern for loved ones. Three of us dropped to our knees on one side of the parlor coffee table and joined hands. One was trembling as she prayed, and remained trembling. Aware of the intensity of others’ experience, I said “Amen” to every petition I heard, but felt strangely cool and neutral inwardly myself, until, at the end, I began to speak for my own yearnings, praying first for my own immediate family and then, as I warmed inwardly, for the whole fear-driven, war-torn, ignorance-darkened world.

Seventh-day night saw an “extracurricular” gathering in the library to discuss discipleship and disciple-making. That deserves a separate letter, and so I’ll pass over it in this report; perhaps you’ll hear about it from someone else.

In First-day morning’s meeting for worship, my wife Elizabeth broke into quaking, a first for her, as she gave vocal ministry on the topic of the Word made flesh, in Christ and in our deeds. Another Friend, bidden by the Holy Spirit, prayed in her native language, unfamiliar to the rest of us, for an ailing family member. I sensed a divine covering – but then, not every message seemed Spirit-led, and the meeting “crumbled” – I don’t know how else to describe it – as Friends broke into speaking a second time in a single meeting, addressing one another by name, and making attempts to “fix” a situation gone awry. We’d started to rise, then stumbled and fallen into a slight, but temporary, disorder. Here we broke for lunch and then several hours of free time.

A late-afternoon small-group exercise focused on “pruning the branches” seemed to bring rich insights. The first four verses of John 15 were slowly read aloud, lectio-divina style, and we considered the pruning that had been done to ourselves – or that we saw as needing to be done. A property-owner new to pruning apple trees and grapevines told of being taught that good pruning is severe pruning, and that fruit trees send shoots upward, but orchard-keepers want them to grow mostly outward and sideways. Another Friend shared the insight that God does not prune once, but continues to prune, giving us just enough stress at any one time as we can take. Another Friend reminded us of our importance to the ongoing work of Christ by observing that the Vine only produces fruit through its branches. One countered our habit of thinking of ourselves solely as individuals by warning that if we neglect our daily practice, we impoverish our meeting. And I? I saw much that I could be pruned of, and found myself welcoming the shears. They might scare me as they grew closer, but I trusted the Lord to give me whatever courage I might need.

The planning group decided that the best thing we could do with the evening ahead of us would be to have prayer-groups again. This time we split into one group of eight and another of ten. My group, the smaller one, moved off to the parlor. I knelt and prayed aloud that the Lord would gather us, and returned to my seat.

Jim, a former monk, spoke next: “Lord, I offer up this prayer of Saint Ignatius:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more. Amen.”

Jim recalls adding, after Ignatius’s original “my memory [and] my understanding,” “my intuition,” “my imagination,” and “my emotions.” In all, it was quite a comprehensive list, and I prayed to be “naughted” – a Fourteenth-Century term I’d learned from reading Julian of Norwich – in every aspect of my personal experience. I noticed my random thoughts with neither eagerness nor revulsion, recalled that I’d surrendered them to God, and then grew sleepy as the silence lengthened. And then the thought came: I can’t let myself sleep! This prayer group is going to fail if I don’t stay alert! And with that, I knelt again and stayed kneeling, waiting for something… something from within or without.

Then Roger, from across the table, asked whether he could put hands on my shoulders. “Please do,” I answered.

Roger’s hands on my shoulders were soon joined by Jim’s hands on my head. And then Jim started to chant the plainsong Salve Regina in his serene old voice. He was calling on the Virgin Mary for help. I was grateful. I rarely think of asking her or any other holy person for help, punctilious monotheist that I am, although I’ve sensed her presence alongside me in prayer once or twice before. With Mary and Jesus invoked, Elizabeth at my side, Roger and Jim touching me, and other loving presences around the table, I felt sweetly and solemnly held. There was a little pulsing of energy in the field around my crown, something that I sometimes take as a sign of a visitation by the Holy Spirit.

Jim’s voice sang on: Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes, in hac lacrimarum valle. I understood the Latin: To thee we sigh, groaning and weeping in this valley of tears. It may have been that the thought came to me in an unfamiliar language, sneaking up on my emotions from beneath, that brought tears into my chest, or it may have been that they were sung rather than spoken: but there those tears were, and I sensed I was ready to pray from them, though I didn’t know where it would lead. When Jim was done singing, I spoke again, in tears that grew to a torrent of sobbing:

“Heavenly Father, Divine Mother, Holy Spirit, Lord Jesus: we are in trouble, bigger trouble than we know: but You know. We, Your children, are fallen, fallen away from You to where we can’t see or feel You, and we’re behaving in a way that’s destroying the earth before our own eyes. We see it, but we can’t stop ourselves. And we’re doing it because we’re in bondage to a great lie. All of us! The oppressors and the oppressed alike, we’ve put ourselves in bondage, we’ve invited the Father of Lies to be our master, and we can’t see it! We’ve enslaved ourselves to habits, cultures, world-views, organizations, and insane loyalties to false gods that are now working together to destroy all life on this planet, with war, with racism and hatred, with deceit and denial, with runaway overconsumption of things that can’t satisfy, and yet we keep guzzling them down to fill our emptiness! Our destruction of the environment is merely an outward sign of our inward sickness! – and because it’s not quite burning us up quite yet, we’re able to keep ourselves blind to the fact, or we look to scapegoating and mutual blaming as a solution, which will prove to be no solution, because the problem is us! Because it’s we who’ve wandered away from the good way that was Your holy will, which was what was best for all creation and every creature in it. It was we who thought that we might create a better reality, and enjoy a better freedom, if we each pursued a separate will and served ourselves instead of one another! – which was madness, but we called it wisdom, and we refused to listen to Your guidance, guidance that would call us back to serving the One Good Will and so restoring the creation to health! And now we’re stuck in this bondage, unable to get out of it so long as we’re in denial of it, shackled into our chains while the world around us catches fire and all around us is burning! Help us, Lord! In Jesus’ holy name, help us! Amen!”

Emptied at last of tears and words, I rose from my knees with Elizabeth’s help and returned to my seat, At last, I thought, I’d felt, on an emotional level, the enormity of the sin, the madness, the all-consuming evil that I’d spent the last month writing about.

After a pause, Emily spoke from the other side of Jim: “Thank God for John, because when I look at the world I see love, and happiness, and people smiling at one another! And I know that his vision is true, but I know that my vision is also true!”

It was a wonderful, healing affirmation of what I’d been carrying. What could I feel but gratitude? And I knew that her sunnier vision of this human world was also true, and needed to be expressed, too – and this was why both of us were needed.

On Second-day morning, the planning group decided that we’d done all we were meant to with the text of John 15, and we did some threshing by geographical divisions – putting Friends from New Paltz on southward into one room and Friends to the North, East, and West of that into another, to discuss possibilities of regional networks and gatherings. We followed that with an hour of waiting worship, and then a business session to decide whether we’d try to create a seventh Northeastern Christ-centered Friends’ gathering, or merely regional gatherings – or what.

During the waiting worship, a Friend confessed to having held back a message on the previous day. He recited from Revelation 2:1-5: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works;” our original love for God having cooled, we can no longer do the works that that love once inspired: we must return to the heights we fell from.

In the brief business session that followed, we saw that there lacked the energy to plan for another Labor Day Weekend gathering in 2015. A Friend from downstate announced that they’d be hosting front-lawn barbecues on all the three-day weekends of the next Summer. Another Friend informed us that Quaker Spring would be gathering next Sixth Month (6/26-7/1) at Oakwood School in Poughkeepsie, and because our gathering would draw from much the same population and resources, he suggested that we think of Tenth or Eleventh Month as a better time for us to re-gather than Labor Day Weekend. With that in mind, we released Powell House from having to hold Labor Day Weekend 2015 open for us on its calendar, though further discernment may cause us to revisit the possibility of gathering on Labor Day Weekend. We created a Discernment Committee to consider possible dates and places for our re-gathering. Once we’ve had our first conference call, the committee should report back to Friends.

Our business concluded, we went to lunch, had last conversations and prayer-gatherings, and then went our separate ways.

In friendship to you all,

John Edminster

Stopping Climate Change Will Take a Change of Heart

August 22, 2014 by

You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. We’ve known since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change. The nightmare sequels, we now know, may include global famine from cropland desertification and collapse of the marine food chain as CO2 sours the seas. To their credit, many men and women of good will are responding by innovating, protesting, going off-grid and eating more simply. Protest actions against a major coal-fired power plant have led to plans for its closure. But the mitigations put in place have consistently seemed too little, too late, and profiteers, enabled by an “anything goes” culture that cares little about truth-telling, are still generating PR claims that natural gas and plutonium are “green,” and elected officials are buying it. Global demand for an ever-higher standard of living, along with capital’s need to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of corporate profit and power, still trump any sustained and coordinated effort to intervene for the common good. Can a People’s Climate March hope to change this? Can any raising of voices or massing of numbers?

A man-made doomsday

How shall we name the situation? There are too many people on the planet saying Me first, or groups of people saying Us first. We’re choking on human selfishness. What’s looming ahead of us is a man-made doomsday attributable entirely to human greed, lying, willed inattention – let’s call it by its right name: human evil. And it’s not just the evil of bankers, fossil-fuel CEOs, and their hirelings in government that we’re looking at, but a spiritual sickness we all share: for we all try to tilt reality in our own favor, sometimes hiding the truth to protect our own skin, often turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. If we stand on moral ground no higher than the “culprits” of climate change, dare we hope to change their ways?

Another way of seeing the situation

But this scenario is built around fear, and the expectation of scarcity and death.

Scarcity and death are not God’s will for us, as the witness of God in your own heart will tell you if you will listen for it. The scriptural testimonies of humans who have known the heart of our Creator confirm this: in Isaiah 45:18, God declares that God created the world “not in vain, but to be inhabited.” The apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon makes the amazing assertion that God “did not create death, but the ungodly, with their hands and their words, drew death to them” (Wisdom 1:13-16), and the prophet Ezekiel records God as saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dies” (Ez. 18:32, 33:11). In the Sermon of the Good Shepherd, Jesus declares, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10), contrasting His role with that of the sheep-rustler whose work is only to destroy. Jesus taught that it was God’s will not to judge and condemn, but only to forgive and heal, and Jesus modeled this divine love by laying down His life for souls gone astray, forgiving even His own murderers. How perfectly or imperfectly the Jesus of scripture reflects the actual character of the God who gave you life and consciousness, again, is something you can ask the witness of God in your own heart. Expect an answer.

The climate crisis will not be overcome by forcing or persuading the “sheep-rustlers” to stop destroying the environment. Neither is there any good done by punishing, condemning or scapegoating them, not even in your fantasies, for “with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:2), and Jesus also taught that refusal to forgive our enemies keeps us unable to receive God’s forgiveness (Matt. 6:14-15).

Forgive and be forgiven

But there is a larger point to be made about forgiveness: it is the revolutionary principle that can change the world. It is the only revolutionary principle that can change the world. The social, economic and political world that is now cooking itself with greenhouse gases is one that runs on the principle of scapegoating: that is, morally imperfect persons with injured consciences (that’s all of us) seek the healing of their injured consciences by imputing evil to other people and then, to the best of their ability, driving those others out of society. This is the origin of war, slavery, the subjugation of women and countless other evils. Like an addictive drug, scapegoating numbs the pangs of conscience, but does not heal the injury. But extending universal forgiveness does, and the empowerment that comes with being healed and receiving divine forgiveness knows no limits.

Let us try, then, what love can do. Forgiveness is an act of will, not a matter of having the right feelings; anyone can do it. It does not require reconciliation with people who have hurt us, and whom we would rather have nothing more to do with. It asks of us only that we make the effort to wish them the same eternal happiness we would wish for ourselves.

The People’s Climate March as a Call to Prayer

August 12, 2014 by

You and I know that these could be our last years on earth, and our children’s too. Scientists have been warning us since the 1970s that our greenhouse gas production is driving climate change, with nightmare downstream effects that may include global famine from desertification of the world’s croplands and collapse of the marine food chain from souring of the ocean by carbon dioxide. Species now go extinct in ominous numbers, raising fears that nature’s pollinators may vanish, killing off the bread of life. As melting ice caps raise sea levels, coastal cities and island nations will sink beneath the waves like Atlantis of legend. Experts tell us that radical mitigation is essential to our survival, but the mitigations put in place are consistently too little, too late; and this, evidently, because mass demand for an ever-higher standard of living, and capital’s drive to milk that demand for ever-higher levels of profit and corporate power, trump any sustained effort to intervene for the common good. In a word, we’re choking on human selfishness: too many people saying Me first.

There will be an end of the world, astronomers predict, four billion years from now, when the sun grows into a red-giant star that swallows its nearest planets. But unlike that more distant, quick end of the world from natural causes, what we’re looking at now is a slow, gradual human-made doomsday, attributable entirely to human evil. Evil? Yes: we could agree to end war, reduce our footprint, and see that everyone’s fed; but we do not. No, it won’t do to blame a power elite of bankers, arms manufacturers, oil-company CEOs and their hirelings in the government and the media for this: that’s called scapegoating, and unforgiveness, and projecting of our own shadow, and judging our brother for the speck we see in his eye. Those power-elite folks are like us. We tell lies. We connive for our own advantage. We turn a blind eye to the sufferings of others. And often we do it, barely aware, on behalf of our employer, our country, or any other body to which loyalties bind us: there it’s “Us first.” Together we all combine to maintain this scapegoating Me-first and Us-first culture out of which this selfish ravaging of the earth rises unchecked by care for the common good.

But we have an all-powerful and loving Creator we can appeal to. True, we’re not used to thinking of God as a real Changer of things, for the science we learned in school left little room for the divine to act in. But our theories about reality don’t limit God to being what we think God is.

What if God intends to save us from this human-made doomsday? But first, I think, we have a lesson to learn – the one our parents tried to teach us, about not being selfish.

Yes, I know: the situation asks more of us than we can do by our own efforts. This is why there’s this process called repentance. When we can no longer bear going on being the way we are, but lack the means of changing our ways, we ask for help, and miraculously, a Higher Power grants us that help. Repentance – the Biblical words for it nachom and metanoia could also be translated “change of heart” – is not something we do, but something we receive as a gift from God: a cosmic heart that can no longer play favorites. To fully receive it, we must forgive everyone everything. Only then do we remove the blockage we installed – yes, we installed it – that prevents our receiving the unconditional love, and guiding wisdom, that the Author of Unconditional Love wishes to give us. That love and wisdom can forge us into the human community we need to be in order to serve as healers of the earth. Nothing else can.

Let’s take the day of the People’s Climate March as an opportunity to worship our One God together, asking God to remove the hardness from our own hearts and the blindness from our eyes, and make new people of us. Only then can we hope to inspire such repentance in the policy-makers, both the known and the hidden ones, whose intransigence is now cooking the planet.

How I Got to Where I Am Now

August 7, 2014 by

Two days ago, I posted an alert about the upcoming Hiroshima Day anniversary on the Google Group unofficially and loosely connected with my home meeting:

The website http://www.doonething.org/calendar/nonukesday.htm urges us to do one thing to eliminate the threat of nuclear destruction — like, for example, “It’s the perfect time to urge your Mayor to declare your city a Nuclear Free Zone.” But I venture to add another suggestion:

If you believe that God is almighty and listens to your prayers, take time on Hiroshima Day to pray that the whole world become a nuclear-free zone. Don’t be half-hearted or tentative; you don’t want God to be half-hearted or tentative about listening to you. Do something radical: kneel to make your prayer. Prostrate yourself to make your prayer. Sing it. Shout it. Dance it. Call up a friend on the phone and ask, “will you pray out loud with me?” and this way you’ll have a witness to what you did. Get up in the morning and fast until you’ve made your prayer. Or even better, and more to the point: ask God how to make your prayer about nuclear weapons. God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray. God is the best expert on it there is, and God is already there in the room with you. Make your prayer an event you’ll remember.

The nine nuclear powers are: The US, the UK, France, Russia, and China; India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_weapons).

There are also “peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” meaning, mostly, use of radioactive material for the generation of electrical energy. but you may feel led to pray that these be phased out also, so that there may be no more Three Mile Island meltdowns, no more Chernobyls, no more Fukushima Daiichi disasters. (There have probably been more meltdowns than you know about: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_meltdown.)

Don’t be discouraged by the amount of money, and state power, and corporate influence arrayed against your tiny little wish. The Ruler of the universe, the Inventor of the atomic nucleus, the Ultimate Comforter of every victim of nuclear warfare and nuclear bullying is on your side. Nothing is too hard for God.

In this posting, the reader will notice, I make some statements about God that invite the question, “How does the writer know these things?” And that’s just the question that a Friend asked in a private e-mail. (The statements about God that I see as most inviting that question are “God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray” and “The Ruler of the universe… is on your side. Nothing is too hard for God.”) Now I could have tried to answer the Friend with proof-texts and exegetical arguments, but if the Friend doesn’t accept scripture as authoritative, I’m out of luck, aren’t I? And anyway it would be disingenuous, because I got these statements not out of scripture but out of the knowledge of God that I believe God planted in my own heart. So I wrote a longish letter back to the Friend explaining how I got from being a child atheist to a born-again follower of Jesus who can dare to claim some knowledge of God’s character and intentions toward us. I think that some readers of this blog may find it interesting. The only thing in it I’d correct is that I referred to my father as a “bad-tempered alcoholic.” Well, he was, but not after he got sober, when I was turning eleven; and then he stayed sober till he died, thirty years later. And even before that, he was a faithful husband and father, a dedicated teacher, and a hard worker who hungered and thirsted after righteousness. I’m inserting a little pictorial tribute to him before I go on (yes, his hands were almost that huge):

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

My letter follows:

Thanks for asking. I’m really grateful for the question, and hope I can do the truth justice. I’ll do my best to speak simply from my own experience. As you can see from the headline of my announcement, “Thursday, August 6 is Hiroshima Day,” I’m very fallible; August 6 is today, Wednesday.

I was raised an atheist. My mother, a gentle soul who put flies out the window rather than swat them, an admirer of Gandhi, told me she believed in the power of Love, but didn’t go into details. My father, a bad-tempered alcoholic who’d been raised by a strict Irish Catholic mother who forbade little boys to “touch themselves” (clueless me! I had no idea what Grandma was talking about). He was in violent reaction against religion, and despised it all as a huge fraud foisted on the masses by the ruling class (“but don’t tell Grandma that you believe that”). When I was nine or ten, some time before my father turned to a Higher Power, sobered up and joined AA, I knelt and prayed to God, angrily, that if He wanted people to believe in Him He shouldn’t make Himself invisible! Oh, what a fool I felt like! How my father would shame me if he’d seen me on my knees! But how I wanted to know whether or not there was a God, because I’d been cursed with a philosophical mind that had to understand the basic principles of existence!

As I grew up, I came to loathe Christianity, which, as I was exposed to it, considered everyone a damnable sinner unless they agreed with its notions, which, however, it could not prove by the ordinary rules of evidence I’d been raised to trust in. In fact it contained a wicked Catch-22 right near the end of its sacred text, The Bible: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8, King James Version). Can you beat that? First it makes me fearful as all hell, and then it throws me into the lake of fire for being fearful! To hell with that! And this Bible is supposed to be about a God who is Love?

But then came the sixties, and first the activist revolution (during which I almost converted to Marxism, but lacked faith in the right-mindedness of the working class) and then the psychedelic and “New Age” spiritual revolution. On an LSD trip I became convinced that there were invisible worlds inhabited by invisible intelligences. I wanted to know more. I read the literature of Zen, Yoga, Sufism, Theosophy, the occult, and the pseudo-shamanism of Carlos Castaneda. I wanted to open my chakras, raise my kundalini, encounter the nagual, and experience enlightenment, with a hunger that even seemed to out-burn my desire for sex and love. I dropped out of graduate school, left my first wife, and became a wandering hippie. During this time I read the Bible, having been tipped off by the occultists that it was full of hidden wisdom. I also remember telling my aunt that I felt so bad about walking out on my first wife that I’d rather die than do anything like that again.

One year after I left my wife (to the day!) I almost got my wish. My new girlfriend Deon, then three months pregnant by another man (this was the sixties, you’ll remember), asked me if I’d take her out to get a hamburger, because there were so many people standing around in our communal kitchen getting stoned that she couldn’t fix herself food there. I agreed. Two friends came along with us, John Butler and Michelle Silverman. It was night. It was the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, on February 17, 1969. John Butler, black, and Michelle, white, were walking about twenty paces ahead of Deon and me. We’d almost gotten to the all-night diner when three bikers jumped out of a parked car, shouting the “N” word, and ran up behind John with obvious intent to do him violence. I squeezed Deon’s hand and sprinted forward, shouting “Hey, man, that’s my brother!” It would have been one of the last things John heard. The man called Crazy Mike, who’d been killing for thrills since age 12, stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife, piercing his heart. He died on the spot. The man called Moose whirled around, hitting me on the left cheekbone with a wine bottle, breaking the eyesocket and giving me the deep-set eyes I now have. As I reeled from the impact, Crazy Mike whirled around and stabbed me in the abdomen, punching through diaphragm, liver, kidney and intestines. “Come on,” one of the murderers said to his buddies, “let’s get out of here.” As I lay on the sidewalk, a strange calm came over me. I knew that I was bleeding internally, and was in shock, which was keeping the pain at a tolerable level, and might die within minutes or even seconds. I remembered the instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: Pay attention. Deon ran up to me, sobbing. I urged her to be calm; “It’ll be all right.”

And then a well-groomed young man in a trenchcoat walked up to me, knelt beside me, and asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” I thought very fast. I knew that, whatever God’s theology might be, He didn’t approve of liars, and I might be meeting God very soon, so I’d have to give a truthful answer to this person. And I’d need to keep it simple. I knew, from the Biblical accounts, that Jesus had laid down his life of his own accord (John 10:15), surrendering so that others might be spared (John 18:8), and was not crucified because of any bad karma of his own earning that might make him “deserve” it: therefore His death on the cross was His gratuitous gift to me. This allowed me to truthfully call Him my Savior. It didn’t mean that the Buddha, Socrates, Marx and Gandhi couldn’t also be “saviors” to me, but I wasn’t being asked about them. So “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

“Good,” he answered. “That’s all that’s necessary.” And he got up and walked away. In a moment, the police arrived, and I got taken in an ambulance to San Francisco General Hospital. I woke up full of tubes and pain. I kept that encounter with the street-evangelist pretty much to myself over the coming years. Frankly, I was embarrassed to have called Jesus my personal Savior; it was like admitting I was bisexual, or weak and cowardly, or a failure and a fool.

Seventeen years later, when my first child was almost a year old, I felt the need of a faith community to raise my child in, and found my way to Fifteenth Street Meeting. It was very tolerant and welcoming, traits I still value. But if I am to call myself a Quaker, I wondered, am I to call myself a Christian also? My biggest quarrel was with Paul who, in Romans 1:24-32, showed that he despised homosexuals, and in 1 Corinthians 14:34, that he silenced women. If I can’t accept the New Testament, I reasoned, I can’t call myself a Christian. I re-read Romans 1:24-32, continuing on to Romans 2:4, where Paul describes God’s eagerness to forgive sinners as the very thing that makes sinners repent and fall in love with God. I saw that Paul may have had his own prejudices against gay people, but their arguable damnability was not the point of his writing, but God’s magnanimity. When I got home to my son’s mom, I quietly announced that I now considered myself a Christian. To my amazement, she didn’t even question it.

Then I started having auditions. The first one was “I give ear:” said in a majestic voice, as if from the other end of the universe, entirely within my mind. Some years later, when I was tempted to commit adultery and wondered what we might do if the door were closed behind her, I heard “NO!” I obeyed at once and put the thought away. A few years later than that, as I was at worship in the meeting house, obsessively berating myself for something foolish or hurtful I’d once said or done, I heard that same voice say “That sin is forgiven! Put it away!” – and soon after that, but on a different day, “I will not let you fall into sin.”

About ten years ago I was told by a respected elder that I carried a gift of healing, which she blessed and sealed in Christ’s name. Well, I thought, people do tell me that my touch relieves headache, but I’m not going to expect cancer cures. Then one morning I woke up with my palms buzzing and a voice in my mind – that voice again – saying “This anointing is for real: don’t abuse it.” And some years later: “I give you the gift of effective prayer.” Today I wouldn’t necessarily expect a cancer cure as a result of my prayer, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

This was not the only gift or calling I believe I was given to carry, but it illustrates my experience of growing in the new life in Christ. I agree that it could all be a delusion, and that reality doesn’t really work that way, and that I need to be deprogrammed or given lithium, but I invite any skeptic to consider the saying of Jesus, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). If my inward experiences can be shown to be making me more arrogant, quarrelsome, and unforgiving, then maybe I should take lithium. But if not – if, rather, they’re seen to make me sweeter and more compassionate, then I’d say to the skeptic, let’s see where this new life in Christ leads, and if you can’t bless it, at least please tolerate it.

Recently I’ve had impressed on me the character of the God of all creation, as revealed by Jesus. Forget the questions of whether His mother was a virgin, whether He rose from the dead, and whether well-meaning people might have doctored the story to air-brush out all the warts and blemishes in the historical record. They are less important than this: Jesus said, and here I paraphrase, “Know my Heavenly Father, who is also your Heavenly Father. He is like what you see Me to be. I wish the liberation of all people from this bondage to oppressors, this fear of death, this endless ignorance and suffering. I am willing to pay for that liberation with My own suffering, even to death by crucifixion. I will forgive all, even My own betrayers and murderers, because God is Love and that’s what Love demands; so will God forgive everyone everything, if they will just come to God and be willing to receive it. Trust in God, who is eternally like this, and who has the power to give you courage, and patience, and wisdom, and kindness, beyond what you dreamed could be yours, so that even this world of fear and pain can be experienced as the outskirts of Paradise, soon put behind us like a bad dream. All that you have read in Scripture about God being vengeful or wrathful is not true. People fear God because they project their own bad consciences onto Him and flee into the darkness rather than face the Light that stands ready to heal and perfect them, now and always. So do not fear, but come and be healed by the God that always intended your perfection. If you are a Jew, come to God as a Jew. If you are a Muslim or a Hindu, come as a Muslim or Hindu; if you are confused about what to believe, come as a confused person.” I am now on fire with this Gospel, and I think that it’s the key to the world’s practical problems, from war and hunger to the ecological crisis that’s now threatening all life on earth.

I can now answer your question directly, which was, “How do you know all this?” How do I know, for example, that God is almighty and hears prayer, that “God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray,” or that nothing is too hard for God? And my answer is, because I’ve been granted a new kind of knowing, a knowing that’s not in the mind but in the heart. I don’t know how I know these things about God, and I would truly want God to rebuke and correct me if I overstep my measure of light and say things about God that are untrue. But when God said to me, “I give ear,” I believe that God not only assured me that He/She/It listens always, but also announced that He/She/It was giving me an ear to hear with. And what I hear with that ear, I must also speak.

Hiroshima Day 2014

August 6, 2014 by

I awoke at 5 and knelt in the darkness to pray. I seemed to see God in the likeness of an old man in a white robe, seated on a featureless white surface, turned away from me. Wordlessly I begged Him not to hide His face from me. He turned it toward me and all the skin and hair had been burned off by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My people had done this to Him. Inasmuch as we’d done it to our neighbors in these two cities, we’d done it to our God, our Source and Refuge. And by “my people” I understood not “the people of the United States” but all the people with hearts and minds like mine, a whole world of revenge-takers, scapegoaters, finger-pointers, grudge-holders and preemptive-strikers: the fallen, in short: the fallen, fear-dominated and ignorant, the projectors of what they despise in themselves onto other people. And now these are also the guilty before God, who the more desperately want to disbelieve in God the more faces they’ve burned off their neighbors and their neighbors’ children in their unspeakable acts of war: they and their proxies in military uniform, they and their proxies in the seats of government, they and their proxies in “defense” industries, which since our initiating wars of choice can no longer be called that. Did I say “they?” I mean “we,” because I too have worn a military uniform, financed nuclear weapons, napalm and white phosphorus with my taxes, voted a wartime commander-in-chief into office, had my retirement funds grow unscreened, and, more to the point, wished cruel and humiliating deaths on others.
O my God! How can I repent deeply enough to help my people repent? Can a man washed clean walk among the defiled, imparting Your cleanness as he goes and not merely taking on his companions’ dirt? Can a soul put her heart altogether into Your holy heart but leave her face and feet among her fellow guilty? Can she be made pure enough to convince those around her that You are a God that forgives everything? Why are my eyes still dry on this day, and my bones not on fire, having seen Your face with the skin burned away?

God is the Elephant in the Room

July 28, 2014 by

God is the elephant in the room.

The “elephant in the room,” according to Wikipedia, is “an English metaphorical idiom for an obvious truth that is either being ignored or going unaddressed” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_in_the_room). Although references to the elephant in the room go at least as far back as George Berkeley (1685-1753), my memory tells me that the twist currently given to the “elephant” trope may date back to Knots (1970) by R. D. Laing (1927-1989) – (can any reader confirm this for me?) – the point of which is: there is a rule against ever mentioning the elephant in the room, and there is also a second rule: namely, that the rule against mentioning the elephant, and this second rule itself, forbidding mention of the first rule, are both unmentionable.

Therapy

Therapy

There is a plausible reason for these truth-suppressing rules: if there is an almighty, ever-present God who guides our steps, thoughts and tongue, then God is a Reality that overshadows – nay, swallows up – all other realities :  for in him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28a). Again, the Lord abides in the heart of all beings, O Arjuna, causing them to turn round by His power as if they were mounted on a machine; he who sees Me everywhere and sees all in Me, I am not lost to him nor is he lost to Me (Bhagavad Gītā 18:61 and 6:30, Radhakrishnan translation). If, moreover, this God loves us, forgives us everything, and intends our perfection and our return to everlasting bliss in His-Her embrace, as our hearts tell us a good God ought to do, then what better thing to do than hasten fearlessly and unswervingly down the paths God has laid out from us, always welcoming God’s corrections, trying to love all creatures as ardently as God loves us, rejoicing that God’s will always intends what’s best for us, ever imploring God for a fuller revelation of God’s presence? But we don’t, because we don’t see things that way, and frankly, we don’t really want to. Now if to be insane is to be out of touch with reality, or to be in denial of it and walking in a fictitious reality instead, – then, if God is as all-good and all-encompassing as we suppose God to be, almost all of us are insane almost all of the time.

But clearly this won’t do: we can’t have lunatics jiggling our prime interest rate, doing brain surgery on our loved ones, or discerning who constitutes a terrorist threat! We therefore pronounce ourselves sane and banish God to a distant throne: if we can’t have no God at all, let’s at least have an indifferent god who doesn’t care what we worms do, or a sulking god who dropped off scriptures ages ago and now waits in silence for the day he can reward or punish us for what we’ve done with them. Whatever: for the moment, the god seems to be staying quiet and letting us get away with our don’t-mention-the-elephant game. We’re safe for now: our kingdom has come, and our will is being done on earth: national security, economic growth, better orgasms and entertainment, whatever exalts this life of the mortal body.

Could it be that there’s a second elephant in the room?

The second unmentionable elephant in the room is the Deceiver. I have no inside information on his – or its – nature or ontological status: has “he” a consciousness, a will-to-power, a hatred of all that God loves? Is he/it merely a life-defiling, truth-denying, soulless algorithm generated by the collective unconscious of fallen humanity? Could “it” be nothing more than a spiritual process of entropy inherent in a fallen creation, tending ever downward toward darkness and chaos? Only God knows, and for the purposes of this discussion it doesn’t matter, but whether this Father of Lies is more properly called “he” or “it,” we are in bondage to him. He dominates every government that rules by force and fear rather than love – which is to say, every armed government in human history, every enterprise that holds the threat of financial ruin over its employees’ heads, every institution that gets its way by bullying. He rules every corporation that seeks advantage over its competitors, including religious bodies that compete for converts. He inspires every effort to seduce consumers into buying things they don’t need. He is the superintendent of every school that teaches children to compete with their fellows for the highest grades and the privileges that go with them. Wherever more value is claimed for self than for the common good, the Deceiver reigns; wherever well-intentioned liars and manipulators think “let us do and excuse this evil, that good may result,” they are among his slaves. We swim in his culture as fish swim in water, many of us scarcely aware that this Deceiver, whom scripture calls “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), is distinct from the God who created us and loves us.

It is this second elephant in the room that keeps the first elephant unmentionable.

Fortunately, almighty God has already defeated the Deceiver, and upholds all those who resist the Deceiver’s attempts to lure us back into bondage. But this good news needs to be spread, far and wide. The time is short.

Plan C: World Repentance

July 19, 2014 by

Contingency planning for the end of the world

All life on earth is now threatened by man-made global warming. And the holders of the world’s political and economic power, as a whole, seem powerless or unwilling to stop it. Celebrated thinker Lester R. Brown published Plan B: Rescuing a Planet in Distress and a Civilization in Trouble in 2003 (now revised as Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009); but instead of listening to Brown and adopting a plausible Plan B, the world continues with its suicidal Plan A, business as usual. Earthcare activists struggle valiantly to open the ears of willfully deaf policymakers while modeling low-impact life-ways themselves, but little is said by anyone about what we might do in case all these interventions prove too little and too late. This writing is to open that conversation. This writing is to suggest a Plan C – which perhaps our Creator may have had in mind all along for just such an occasion as this, a gradually-dawning man-made doomsday.

Plan C is World Repentance. It seems reasonable. An escapist drunken orgy is not reasonable. Genocide of all but a privileged few is not reasonable, though many who think God loves only the privileged may hope that a Rapture-event will achieve the genocide for them. Darkening the skies with megatons of charcoal to cool the earth’s surface is not reasonable, and even if it were, it would relieve only one of many environmental disorders we’ve caused. Scapegoating of designated “destroyers of the earth” is not reasonable, though I fear it may be widely resorted to. The problem is that we’re all among the destroyers of the earth.

Repentance: it’s not a popular word today, possibly because it’s so often used by religious bullies who want to make other people “repent,” that is – in their understanding of the word – grovel. Or perhaps because it’s confused with beating ourselves up. God never asks us to beat ourselves up; it hurts God’s child, and anyway, it does no good. Repentance is, rather, a God-initiated healing process that leaves the person wiser, more loving, and at peace. In the Hebrew Bible, repentance appears in forms of the verb nāḥám, literally “to sigh;” in the New Testament, of the verb metanoéō, literally “to change one’s mind or purpose.” First we exhale completely, letting go of all agendas, all defenses; then we let our purpose be changed. With purpose changed, everything changes. That’s why some speak of “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

Plan C will not be a program instituted by executive order or act of congress. The Pope, the Dalai Lama and a panel of Nobel laureates may come to endorse it, but it will not begin with them. It will begin in millions of contrite human hearts when the numbness of collective denial wears off. They will whisper words of contrition in hundreds of tongues, make prayers according to every world-view and religious tradition on earth, and perhaps weep and groan in the Holy Spirit. Not everyone will; the seer of the Apocalypse anticipated that some would “gnaw their tongues for pain, and blaspheme the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repent not of their deeds” (Revelation 16:10-11) – as some men and women do in every crisis that tries their conscience. But the more people that do repent of their wrongdoings, the easier they make it for their unrepentant neighbors to have the needed change of heart.

Plan C is not magic: it is not a technique to achieve a desired objective. Neither is it offered here as a remedy for fear: let’s face it, nightmares are scary. It’s simply offered as a right thing to do when we see that it’s too late to do all the other right things we might have done. We don’t know what God will do, and whether or not World Repentance would change God’s mind. (Can anything change God’s mind? The philosophers’ jury is still out on that one.) We can see that God didn’t let us suddenly destroy life on earth with nuclear weapons – at least, not yet – but God may still let us slowly destroy life on earth with our wasteful, overconsuming and selfish ways. Or, God may not! There is no second-guessing God.

Are you feeling a call to repentance? It can be followed from within whatever religious tradition you claim as your own. If you’re a Jew, repent as a Jew. If you’re a Muslim or a Hindu, repent as a Muslim or a Hindu. If you’re confused about what to believe, repent as a confused person. The point is to ask your Creator to show you how to repent, and empower you to do it. Maybe it’s not too late to save the earth after all, if the world’s leaders repent! But there will be no repentance of world leaders unless we world citizens take the initiative and go first.

Repentance, the Comforting Gospel, and the Dying Earth

July 11, 2014 by
A friend who read my recent posts encouraging repentance called them “terrifying.” I wrote back:
“I’m grateful to you for telling me that my writing was ‘terrifying,’ because I realize that my objective should not be to terrify but to comfort, and to inspire hope and trust in a God who wishes us no evil, no pain, but desires to rescue us from evil and pain. I heard a voice some years ago, which I believe to have been the Holy Spirit’s, telling me ‘comfort thou the ones that are still asleep.’ I take that as my commission: to be a comforter rather than a terrifier. But before I can comfort, I first need to know that the persons I’m talking to can admit that the world around us is sometimes terrifying. If they can’t, then the comforting conversation isn’t ready to start.
“I believe that we’re all God’s darlings. Really. God sees us the way God made us: innocent, beautiful, sweet, like newborn babies, like Adam and Eve before their Great Disobedience, making up clever names for the animals, eating blueberries right off the bush, and delighting in delighting each other. All the bad crap, guns and waterboarding and debt-slavery, is what we made for ourselves, individually and collectively. And not just the obviously man-made bad stuff, but sickness and danger and death itself also, with the hurricanes, tsunamis and epidemics that plague a fallen world. This is the bad dream we made for ourselves, because we’ve chosen ‘darkness’ over ‘light,’ as Jesus puts it in John 3:19, and we’ve come to prefer the sin-hiding darkness, because it seduces us with false promises of making us happier than the light can. This means that we’ve developed perverted tastes, which lock us into being invested in ignorance and a fallen world. Hence we need to repent of our perverted tastes and be healed of our addiction to what’s not good for us.
“Is it ugly, is it painful, is it disappointing? Then it’s not something God created for us, but something God allowed us to create for ourselves – because God did create us in His image: to be creators, with free will, which allows us to make mistakes. But God also created us to be capable of learning, repenting, outgrowing mistakes, choosing the good over the evil. I say all this just to make the point that God’s not to blame for anything unpleasant in our lives, and therefore, is not someone to fear, but to turn to and trust, crying for help!
“I believe that Jesus revealed the character of God for us, both by serving as one of God’s prophets and declaring God’s intentions, and also by modeling Godlike behavior: laying down his life for us, forgiving all his own betrayers and murderers even when his pain, and therefore his temptation to curse his enemies, must have been almost unbearable. But Jesus is not just a prophet of God and a model for good behavior who lived two thousand years ago and then disappeared from this world; He is a Present Friend. ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ He said (Matthew 28:20). So when you say, ‘I could never be like Jesus,’ He’s there to answer, ‘Sure you can; I’ll help you.’ All you have to do is want it. I think that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. I think it’s a comforting Gospel, tidings of great joy to all people.”

Now repentance is a change of heart. It doesn’t make the thorns drop off roses as we pass by, or the cruel around us lose their cruelty. Life in this world still hurts, and we may even follow Jesus into martyrdom. But repentance allows certain things to happen: one is that we come to know, inwardly, that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39), who is making all things work together for good for us (Romans 8:28; this removes all cause for grief). Another is that, with a change of heart we become a new creature, and the new creature no longer hates itself – what a burden falls away then, and what works of love start streaming from us! A third thing is that we unlearn our deep-seated old habit of deciding what to do on the basis of its expected payoff for me, because the new question becomes “Is this what God is asking of me now?” – which immunizes us against the temptation to reason, “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). This was the reasoning that got us into this present nasty situation.

This brings me to consider our present nasty situation. In addition to our having a world so militarized, so tyrannized, and so polarized between rich and poor, we are also killing life on earth. Our consumption habits, the political and economic choices we make to support them, and the perverted tastes behind them, are all hurtling us forward toward doomsday. At first we thought that the rising titer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would simply raise temperatures and shift comfort- and growing-zones toward the earth’s poles. Then we realized that many species would become extinct in the process; island nations and coastal cities would go underwater as the icecaps melted; increased carbon dioxide in the water would turn the seas too sour to allow shelled creatures to form shells, sending famine up the marine food chain. Our horror mounted as we saw that the melting of polar ice and arctic permafrost would not only change ocean salinity patterns, killing the Gulf Stream and other vehicles of life, but would also be releasing megatons of methane into the upper atmosphere, turning up the flame under the cooking planet.

We’ve realized that the way we do things is unsustainable and called for a Plan B, and sensible Plan B’s have been rolled out. But now it’s evident that the rulers of the earth, both the visible ones and the invisible, lack the will, motivation and flexibility to implement any sort of Plan B. Of course we’ll join the march to the United Nations on September 21 to insist on it, but no doubt the heads of state assembled there will only be able to wring their hands and point fingers at one another. Great numbers of voluntary communities of urban and rural homesteaders may go off-grid and grow their own vegetables as the crisis worsens,  but I can’t believe that anyone will prove competent to make a general, global Plan B happen. So we’ll need a Plan C.

The only Plan C I can imagine saving life on earth is widespread repentance, a world epidemic of repentance – not merely a change of behaviors, though surely outward changes will accompany inward metamorphosis (the replacement of agribusiness and frankencrops with technologies like permaculture, the Wal-Mart trams-Pacific supply chain with a localized transition economy, global capitalism with its yet-unnamed successor).  I look with hope toward the only God,  the only Savior, the only Transformer of Hearts, for the only Plan C that can save life on earth.

Ramadan mubarak! a letter to a Muslim friend

June 30, 2014 by

This is the text of a letter I just sent to a Muslim friend on the first day of Ramadan, edited only slightly, and having sent it, I felt called to send it to all my Muslim friends, and to all, of any faith tradition, who can hear it, with my love. Those who call God “Her” rather than “Him” should substitute that pronoun; we refer to the same Holy One:

As-Salaam alaykum! I was very grateful to hear from you, and ever since then I’ve been wishing for an opportunity to sit and write a thoughtful letter back to you. Many days have passed, all with their pressures and problems, and on some days I’ve simply felt too stupid, or too caught up in superficial thinking, to gather myself together and give you a true picture of what my life is like now, or what I see when I look out on the world. Now it seems as though I needed the awful solemnity of Ramadan to frame an adequate picture of my situation, and what I see as our situation, all of us human creatures.

We are a race of exiles from Paradise. Our souls once knew our Creator intimately, and knew what He wanted of us: to love one another, to be thankful toward Him in our hearts, and to do only good. Somehow we came here, to a world where there is love, but also fear, which tempts us to be selfish and do evil; and these make us forget that we have a Creator. Worse: if we knew we had a Creator, we would hate Him and refuse His guidance, unless we could be convinced that He was just like us, and loved us and hated the ones that we hate, and asked nothing spiritually difficult of us, and smiled on our deceits and our violence. (And why would we hate Him? because turning back to Him from our rebellion would be briefly painful, and we naturally shun pain.)

And behold: a world full of religious leaders who are willing to tell us just such a great lie about God, and a world full of political leaders and institutions that embody that lie. These all say, “Let us do evil, so that good will come of it” – in the original Greek of the New Testament (Romans 3:8), it sounds like a children’s song: poiḗsōmen tà kaká, hína élthē tà agathá. This is the Devil’s song, and the whole human race sings it as it goes about its daily work, making the whole world into a great insane asylum. Those whose hearts remember the commandment “do only good, so that your conscience will stay clean and you’ll remain open to your Creator’s guidance,” are the ones struggling to stay sane among their mad brothers, sisters, parents, employers, children, husbands and wives. But how tempting it is to just say “yes” to what everyone else is saying, and help them go on doing what they’re doing – how else would we earn the money to support our families? – and this puts us back to sleep. So while we’re awake, we desperately need the company and encouragement of others who are awake, who’ll remind us of our calling to do only good, and repent of evil, and remember the all-forgiving God who loves to welcome back any and all who repent of evil they’ve thought, said, done, and approved of as if it were good.

So I pray for myself, and I pray for others, and try to do works of love as opportunities arise – my main work now. And I’m very, very grateful for every expression of love, and comfort, and warning, and encouragement I get back from others that I think are rightly guided, anything that tells me that I myself am walking the path of the rightly guided, the şirāţ al-mustaqīm, because I know how easy it is for us to be deceived by our own pride. May Allah protect you and your loved ones from such temptation always, and continue to lead you along the path of the rightly guided, now and forever, until we stand together in His glorious presence, no longer capable of falling away from Him in whom all good dwells.

Always feel free to ask for my prayers in times of temptation or suffering, and please know that I’m your friend forever.

As-salaam alaykum,

John

Priorities for the Religious Society of Friends

June 28, 2014 by

A story is told about John the Beloved Disciple, who, alone of the twelve disciples, lived to a very old age and died a natural death.  As Jerome recounts it, in his last years John had to be carried to the church in Ephesus in his disciples’ arms. At these meetings he’d say no more than “Little children, love one another!” After hearing the same message many times, his followers found it tiresome, and asked him why he always said it. He answered, “It’s the Lord’s command; and if this alone be done, it is enough!” (see William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Living Books edition, 1983), pp. 187-188.)

“Love one another:” isn’t this the “new commandment” that Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper? Wasn’t this to be the criterion (John 13:34-35) by which all people might recognize followers of Jesus? That they love one another as Jesus loved them – therefore, wrote John, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).  There is, of course, also the commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies (Matt. 22:40, 5:44), without which we can’t really love God: love is the fundamental thing; faith “worketh through love,” Galatians 5:6.  God loves us infinitely, but if we bite and devour one another, refuse to forgive one another, tell lies to one another, or use one another to gratify our own swollen egos, we shut the door on God also, and refuse God’s love.  In such a case, estrangement from God is our doing, not God’s.

Fast forward sixteen hundred years, to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, whose rallying-cry was “Christ is come to teach His people Himself!”  This, said George Fox and others, was a truth known “experimentally,” that is, through direct experience of the “true Light, which lighteth every [person] that cometh into the world” (John 1:9).  It’s important to remember that this was no voluntary association of individuals formed around common values and purposes, but a people of God – “the people of God in scorn called Quakers,” they sometimes styled themselves – who knew themselves bound to God by a covenant, and called – called to be saints, called to grace, liberty, holiness, peace, and eternal life, called to the fellowship, kingdom, and glory of Christ: called no longer to live as separate individuals unto themselves, but to die to the old self and live as branches in the One Vine.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we Quakers may no longer remember that we’re a covenanted people, and we may no longer even agree that there is a God, let alone a Person titled Christ who calls us to a new life, but neither have we repudiated any of these foundational understandings.  So it’s to this covenanted people I address myself here:

New York Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, is in the midst of considering its priorities, having approved a process “to discern… what work God would have us do.” It’s appointed a working group of dedicated, seasoned Friends to meet with local and regional meetings and worship groups. These have done a great deal of deep listening over the past few years, and formulated a Statement of Leadings and Priorities, which is shortly to be presented to the Yearly Meeting for approval. Tomorrow there’s to be a called meeting, at my monthly meeting, to consider the document. I think it’s a pretty good document, and it makes sound, sensible suggestions – loving suggestions – for improving our corporate health.

But there are a couple of things that don’t sit well with me. The encouragement to bring new people into meeting, for example, so that we’ll enjoy an increase in membership. Frankly, I don’t want an increase in membership. 70% of our membership takes no part in our committee work; 10 to 15% come to business meeting; this tells me that membership as we know it is a rotten institution. I don’t even want to see an increase in attendance per se. I’d like to see an increase in love for one another, in mutual forgiveness, in readiness to die to the old self or to die one for another, even to sacrifice personal comfort for one another’s sake. Be more Christlike, Friends! Then, I think, new people would come to us like bees to the honeysuckle vine. And then we might see how to reinvent membership, to have more to do with that covenant with God than it now has.

Then there’s the expressed hope that the Yearly Meeting would “witness to the world on our behalf.” No, I don’t want it to witness to the world on our behalf, I want it to witness to the world on God’s behalf, on Christ’s behalf, on the Gospel’s behalf, or else be silent! I don’t want it to lobby public officials to do the right thing so that what we consider right policies are enacted and enforced, leaving those officials’ defiled consciences unchallenged, but to call those officials to repentance if that’s what their spiritual need is. What have we, a people disarmed of carnal weapons, to do with the apparatus of the state, which is all about domination, force, mass surveillance, and the deployment of carnal weapons? The world says, “let us do evil, that good may come of it” (Romans 3:8); we’re a people called out of the world, forbidden to reason in such a manner. What communion hath light with darkness!? Jesus was silent before Pilate: do we think ourselves any better equipped to negotiate with the world?

On the other hand, if we are a city on a hill that cannot be hid, there’s hope that the world will come to us for counsel when its own counsel fails.

 


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