The Mountain Gets Less Steep

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“Write,” came the word to me when I woke this morning. There were no specifics, but I knew that as soon as time permitted, I was to reconstruct the message I got in yesterday’s meeting for worship, got but did not share aloud. It had been a talkative meeting, and the Spirit raised up a Friend near hour’s end to warn against outrunning our guides. The image came to me of a washing machine too full of others’ laundry to have room for the delicate little tissue I’d been given, but I knew I could blog my message later. I blog it now:

The Lord corrects the corrigible, teach all the scriptures, and happy is the soul that welcomes it: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth;” and this chastening is “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:6, 10) The people that beat their swords into plowshares will first be rebuked (Isaiah 2:4), and “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten,” says the Spirit (Revelation 3:19): “be zealous therefore, and repent.” Early Friends who let themselves be searched by the Light experienced this divine correction, which George Fox celebrated in his famous Epistle No. 10: “Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc., then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation.”

We dread correction because we associate it with pain. Here I’m thinking not of what’s commonly called “bad karma” for hurtful acts, which may or may not constitute “correction,” depending on whether or not we let it get under our skin and touch our conscience. I’m thinking of the torments of the bad conscience. But if we look closely at the process we may find that the pain comes not from God but from something in ourselves. God is perfect love, which casts out fear (1 John 4:18). God is light, in whom is no darkness (1 John 1:5). It is contrary to the nature of love and light to torture; it would be a sin for me to worship a god who did.

No, we dread correction because it involves shame, which frightens us because it threatens to be infinite and engulf us. We want not to be shown how much guilt, or cause for shame, we might truly have, because it might prove more than we can bear. But in such a case our only punisher is our own proud and fearful ego; all God does is illuminate with divine light – a light that shows the true nature and value of things. Many of us flee from this light into denial. This, John wrote (John 3:19), is the condemnation, and it is a self-condemnation. God does not damn.

Paradoxically, as we grow closer to God, shame and guilt lose their sting for us, and with the loss of pain and fear it becomes ever easier to admit, as Paul did (1 Timothy 1:15), to being “the chief of sinners” – and to be willing to dredge up the humiliating details, if necessary. To my joy, I’ve found this to be so. Why should I want to do this? Only to convey to other self-condemned sinners that God is merciful beyond their imagining – the most merciful of all the merciful, in the words of the Qur’an (7:151), ārham ur-rāhimīn. The promise God gave through the prophet Jeremiah (31:34), “and I will remember their sin no more,” stands forever; it is echoed in the New Testament in a phrase often translated “forgiveness of sins,” aphesis hamartiōn, but better rendered “putting away of errors.” I remember my own errors, and the sick, needy heart they arose from, only long enough to persuade you that, whoever you are, God should find you no more undeserving of clemency than me; but when we stand together before God the memory of errors will vanish. The heart that generated the lies, the betrayals, the thefts, the death-wishes, the perversions and cruelties of every kind, will by then have been fully replaced, for it will have awakened forever from the dream of having a will deviating from the perfect will of God.

Dante’s Purgatory was an enormous mountain situated on the other side of the earth from the land of the living, separated from us by an underground Hell. The mountain was terribly steep at the foot, but sloped ever more gently as purified souls rose to its top and ascended into Heaven. I find this a perfect metaphor for the path I walk toward my Creator and Savior, which grows sweeter and easier with every step.

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