He did not many mighty works there

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It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,   as anyone might verify who’s returned to the bliss of the Divine Presence through a violent death; but my heart tells me that it’s a more fearful thing not to know that we’re in the hands of the living God already.  By faith I know that those hands are holding me, lovingly, at all times; but my senses tell me that I’m in exile from them, or have fallen asleep and am caught in a bad dream where we’re all absent from God and separated from Jesus Christ our Savior, wandering in a world of separation, cruelty, want, fear, and mortality.  The horrible thing about this dream is that it’s attractive, and as we yield to its attraction, we find ourselves forgetting that it’s a nightmare, no longer caring that we, once the darlings of an Omniscient Teacher, are  now mired in a pit of ignorance.  Perhaps there never was a God, we think.  Soon the enticing smell of coffee, or the jolting sound of screeching brakes, makes the question of God’s existence recede back to unimportance.

A public Friend is to visit our meeting soon, to facilitate a workshop on vocal ministry.  I’m looking forward to it.  He’s published an article in which he writes, speaking my own mind on the matter, “I believe that we… are losing the ability to discern the Divine impetus to speak at unprogrammed meetings for worship…. This disconnect spells doom for our society, for it is only by ensuring that what is spoken in meeting rises to the level of ministry… that we will attract others to stay in those meetings, and perhaps become Friends.”  (Benjamin Lloyd, “The Divine Source of Vocal Ministry,” Friends Journal, December 2004, p. 6.)

I’d be quite sad if unprogrammed Quakerism died out for want of good ministry, but then I’d trust God to provide some other way for the faithful to gather and worship together.  More important than the survival of Quakerism, I seem to hear the Spirit say, is that you remain faithful.  I suppose faithfulness would include resisting any temptation to counterfeit good ministry when I sensed a lack of it; it would also include staying with my meeting, in sickness and in health, until removed from it by relocation, death, dissolution of the meeting, or divine command.

But I’m wondering whether one can restore good ministry by encouraging it directly.  Do we perk up flowers by watering their blossoms, or their roots?  Barclay’s Apology speaks of “words and ministry [arising] from the inward power and virtue of the Spirit of God.  By the same power they reach the hearts of his hearers and persuade them to approve of him and to be subject to him.”   (Dean Freiday, Barclay’s Apology in Modern English, p. 179.) Douglas Gwyn writes, “The function of vocal ministry within the Quaker meeting for worship is to gather the worshipping fellowship into a common understanding of the gospel and of Christ’s will for that group…. Ministry is not a human office, but an event of God’s grace working through his chosen vessels.  All are to wait on him in readiness for service.  Hence, as we have noted earlier, the goal of Quaker worship is that Christ should be the only one to speak in the Church.” (Gwyn, Apocalypse of the Word, p. 168-169.)

But why would Christ be silent in His Church, letting the hour of worship either pass in dead silence or be hijacked by outpourings of junk messages?  I leave that question for the reader to ponder.

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18 Responses to “He did not many mighty works there”

  1. Trevor Bending Says:

    Dear Friend John
    As a ‘two-year attender’ at my unprogrammed meeting in London (Britain Yearly Meeting), I feel your last question comes close to hitting some nail on the head.
    I’m aware of the potential divide between ‘christocentric’ and ‘non-theist’ Quakers and of the perhaps corresponding divide between different views of appropriate ministry.
    At one ‘extreme’ there are those who say that one should only ever speak if absolutely forced to do so by the Spirit. At the other ‘extreme’ those who hold that if something prompts one to say something in meeting then that ‘message’ may be meaningful for some and perhaps prompt other deeper ministry whilst being apparently ‘junk’ for others. If one speaks or has spoken, then it happened and that must be or might as well have been ‘the will of God’.
    But most also believe that silence itself is ministry whether it is ‘expectant waiting’, active listening and reflection or going deep within.
    I tend towards really liking the silence but also welcoming spoken ministry wherever it comes from and however bizarre or irritating it might seem at the time.
    Many Quakers today, in Britain and the USA, are inclined also towards various forms of Buddhist practice or meditation, not least that of Thich N’hat Hanh. I’m reading at the moment ‘The Barn at the End of the World’ by Mary Rose O’Reilley which I might say is an inspirational ‘revelation’.
    I’m struck by how her presentation of Thay Thich N’hat Hanh’s teaching reminds me of the teachings of Jesus. The words are very different but I feel that the sense is the same. Both teachings focus on Love, submission (and non-violence) but Jesus’s sayings are notable for their simplicity and brevity (and sometimes their inscrutability and possible layers of hidden meaning).
    I believe many evangelical and ‘christocentric’ Friends are fond of citing George Fox in support of their views, but Fox also ‘speaks’ (like Jesus himself) to universalist Friends including ‘non-theists’.
    Perhaps this is a conundrum or perhaps despite differences of belief we need only agree to ‘love one another’ from whatever source (the One source?) this teaching comes and be open to new light on how to put this teaching into practice.
    Yours in Friendship
    Trevor

  2. Marshall Massey Says:

    From what I hear, Friends meetings were largely silent even in the beginning. Remember Robert Barclay’s account in his Apology of how he was converted? — he wrote, “Not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this life [of the Spirit]; for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life….”

    I do think that if Friends’ worship were more fully centered in the Power to which Barclay refers, instead of simply being a resting in silence, or a disunited activity fragmented among a dozen competing imported forms of practice (contemplative mysticism, Buddhism, paganism, “nontheism”, knitting, etc.), some of us would feel less of a lack in the worship, and less of a need for preaching. But perhaps others will disagree.

  3. forrest curo Says:

    What I’m told of early Friends’ practice, is that they would sit in silence for long periods (by our standards) and when they were given something to say, they would go on quite awhile with that as well. As with our worship-sharing, they did expect to hear something before they were done. Some detractors reportedly complained about loud and disturbing “groanings” at some of these early Meetings, which may sometimes have been more like Pentecostal events than our quiet hour on Sunday…

    What if God’s long term intention is not to address everyone through human ventriloquist dummies– but rather, to ‘collaborate with everyone from within’?

    Anyone who practices a serious art form has probably had moments of experiencing something close to this…

    Hi, Massey! As usual, my main disagreement with you is that I don’t think there’s really an ‘outside’ spiritual realm that “imported forms of practice” could be imported from: That is, I’d say that to God these different practices are variations of one thing.

    I do agree that we ought best to learn our culture’s native ‘spiritual language’, if we hope to be mutually intelligible at all, if we’re even to have anything meaningful to say… If we aren’t getting Jesus, we aren’t really getting Buddha either.

    That “Power” is still at work, just having a hard time of it among people who’ve forgotten that Spirit is real, and really matters.

  4. Marshall Massey Says:

    I shan’t argue with you, Curo. I find it incredible that you would think that practices that have nothing to do with listening to the voice of Christ in the heart and conscience — classic Buddhist meditation, say, which focuses on observing how everything is ephemeral — are variations of the same thing as actually listening to that voice. But at this late date, I doubt that either of us can change the other’s mind. Go in peace.

  5. Thy Friend John Says:

    It warmed my heart to get responses from you three, Trevor, Marshall and Forrest, and so promptly! I note the disagreement between two of you about what Marshall called “disunited activity fragmented among a dozen competing imported forms of practice,” which Forrest suggests may be but “variations of one thing” in the eyes of God. Indeed they may be, and I believe that God must love the Buddhists, pagans and nontheists as dearly as me, the converted Christian, but _let’s ask God_ how He or She feels about having several variations being performed at one time in one place. I don’t know the answer, but I assume that as Quakers, we all believe in a God who’s willing to answer such questions directly, and that God, who is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33), would not give us mutually inconsistent answers. Shall we?

    I suppose that the puzzle I posed at the end of my posting, “why would Christ be silent in His Church?” – substitute “the Holy Spirit” for “Christ” if it makes you feel more comfortable – was an obviously loaded question, given my title, “He did not many mighty works there,” taken from a familiar Bible verse (Matthew 13:58) that ends “because of their unbelief.”

    I myself am not entirely comfortable with “unbelief” as a translation of the Greek _apistía_, which here seems a defect more of the heart than of the notional belief-system. The lukewarm believers at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22), or the “rebellious people, lying children” of Isaiah 30:9-10, who “say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things” – these are ones whose resistance to the truth, whose _apistía_, might inhibit Christ from doing mighty works among them. They _really don’t want_ any mighty works done.

    But it may be that Christ’s ability to do mighty works among us, or to give powerful ministry in our meetings, is not at all limited by our preferences, our unbelief, or our diversity of practice. He didn’t seem to be daunted by Saul’s fanatical Pharisaism when He struck him blind on the road to Damascus and then opened his ears. He may just be respecting our preferences when He lets us go without mighty works for a season, or leaves our meetings for worship in the hands of message-bringers who prophesy smooth things.

    Did anyone get what I meant in my first paragraph when I wrote of the agony of finding ourselves exiled from the presence of God?

  6. Thy Friend John Says:

    And a P.S. to Trevor: I think you’re absolutely right when you write, “we need only agree to ‘love one another’ from whatever source (the One source?) this teaching comes and be open to new light on how to put this teaching into practice.” The commandment to love one another comes from One Source, whatever we may call Him, Her or It (for how could a beckoning toward unity come from what is not the One?). And this is why I stay with a meeting that sometimes disappoints me, just as I stay faithful to a wife and children that sometimes frustrate my wants, loving them as best I can and always forgiving whatever calls for forgiveness. It’s the right thing to do. And that’s how I’d want our Lord to treat me, after all.

  7. forrest curo Says:

    Massey, if you’re going by what people say they’re doing, you’ll find a whole lot more divergence than with questions of “What’s God doing with it?”– or “What’s happening in their mind/heart/spirit?”

    ——————————————

    I’m not saying some descriptions won’t serve better than others; only that there is one huge Mind/Heart/Spirit in&out there. And that people connect with that because that’s what exists; also because “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek” (I’m quoting a Buddhist writer here, but it’s a Christian observation as well.)

    Sometimes people prefer & choose descriptions that don’t require more faith from them than they can muster (without embarrassment, without demanding that they risk feeling faith & possibly having it disconfirmed, perhaps for other reasons as well.)

    God is a lot “bigger” than us; so people are as afraid to believe as to disbelieve, so far as they haven’t yet learned to trust.

    Half the time, dealing with each other, people interact with distorted images… and the more the other person matters to us, the more profound those distortions are likely to be.

    Extend that observation to a person thinking about God… and there’s the potential for sheer terror. As many people, excessively locked into ideas about God, have suffered. We know that God is loving, but for someone who isn’t sure of that, saying that God loves them just might not reassure.

    And people do cling to their ideas about how the world works. Disturb those too abruptly & you’ve got a very upset human: “How could I have been so wrong? What other surprises might leap out and bite me?” In a faithless age, where people are as embarrassed about expressing belief as their ancestors would have been about blasphemy, there are many inconsistencies between what people believe and what they think they believe…

    How this relates to what’s happening (and not happening) in our Meetings… I think God is bringing us along as quickly as the membership can handle. It just isn’t as fast as we personally want. (& we too, know that God is more than enough to overwhelm us, if that were His intention.)

  8. Marshall Massey Says:

    John, you asked, “Did anyone get what I meant in my first paragraph when I wrote of the agony of finding ourselves exiled from the presence of God?”

    I am not sure I did.

    What caught my attention was that you appeared to be altering the meaning of the passage from Hebrews that you quoted. The original author of Hebrews 10:26-31 was reminding his readers that, at the end of the day, God does indeed exact a fearful penalty for sin, and particularly for the sin of backsliding from the path and discipline he has given us through Christ: the same teaching that Christ himself gave in, for example, Matthew 25:31-46. You seem to be saying, however, that God is not the sort to exact such a penalty: “By faith I know that those hands are holding me, lovingly, at all times….”

    I would welcome clarification.

    • Thy Friend John Says:

      I would agree, Marshall, with the author of Hebrews: don’t mess with God, and don’t backslide. You and I may each have gotten the tenderest of reassurances from Him that He (or She, but for this writing I’m going to just use the masculine pronoun) will protect us from falling from grace, but still we know that He’s no respecter of persons, we’ve looked down into the abyss (in my case, after having been empowered to crawl out of it), and, having looked, we know enough not to play close to the edge. I hope. I know that Paul has reassured us that God is faithful, who will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able (1 Cor. 10:13), and I, who know myself to be very temptable, depend on that reassurance — heavily! But the Lord, who knows my tendency to morbid worry about my own weakness and its possibly fatal consequences, has given me experiences that discourage worry and encourage trust in Him. In fact, in Fourth Month 2000 I received a clear message from Him that ended, “… and comfort thou the ones to whom I send thee that are still asleep.” From this I’ve come to believe that I’m commissioned more to encourage trust in God’s faithfulness and lovingkindness than to stress the horrors of hell, which I believe is a real danger for all of us, though all around me are people, some of them sincere Christians, who think my belief in hell is a defect in my faith. Have you read Joseph Hoag’s account of his youthful vision of the damned in the sea of fire? (Quoted in my posting here of 10/29/2011, “The Kingdom of Hell is Within You.”)

      Nevertheless, I stand by my statement that God’s “hands are holding me, lovingly, at all times.” Inwardly I know, though I can’t tell you how I know, that God’s love is everlasting and infinite; and, just as Paul wrote in Romans 2:4, it’s this sense of the _goodness_ of God, not His scariness or wrathful terribleness, that leads me and others to repentance, in spite of the fact that we may be addicted to behaviors or tendencies that may render us, as Paul says, worthy of death.

      I was jolted by your query, Marshall, and in a good way: it made me wonder whether the Lord had sent you to me to warn me against overconfidence and complacency about myself, or against preaching a false Mickey-Mouse gospel that lets people think there’s nothing to worry about. Then, within the last few days, two things happened: I saw some horrifying evidence of spiritual corruption very close to my own community of Friends, and I had my attention directed to the 33rd chapter of Ezekiel (“if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.”) I think that the Lord was using your query to alert me to an upcoming situation of considerable gravity, in which obedience would require me to play the role of a warner. Please pray for me over the next couple of weeks, that I do my job well and prove helpful to others alongside me.

      • Marshall Massey Says:

        John, your posting of October 29, last year, on hell and damnation, was quite moving, and in large part matched my own thoughts and feelings. I thought also, as I read it, of C. S. Lewis’s thoughts on the subject, incompletely expressed in his books The Great Divorce, Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength. You and he and I do not have identical views, but we are not, the three of us, that far apart.

        You certainly have my prayers at all times.

      • Thy Friend John Says:

        Thank you, Marshall! You’ve named some of my favorite books, by the way — those by C.S. Lewis.

        You’ll remember my comment that I “knew enough not to play close to the edge of the abyss — I hope.” Last night I dreamt of being on the roof of a high building and sliding forward on my belly to look over the edge. I overestimated the braking effect of friction and slid further forward than I’d wanted to — not enough to terrify me but enough to scare me significantly.

        Yesterday, in haste, I forwarded a friend’s e-mail to a third party without first asking permission, and had to answer to the friend for a breach of confidence. That was indeed playing close to the edge of the abyss, and my dream told me so. I have to thank the Lord for His kindness in both giving me that dream and opening its meaning for me when I awoke.

        God being no respecter of persons, I’d like to think that God sends such clear and intelligible warnings to all people, regardless of theology or world-view, whose predominant wish is to do the right thing rather than “get their own way.” But how does God get such a message to an entire civilization that operates on the supposition that seeking to get one’s own way is the normal way to live?

  9. Ian Says:

    Dear John,

    Your beautiful blog ministry hits on something that is a real matter of concern, and while I do not think it is appropriate to articulate a specific solution to that concern without inspiration (which I feel short on now), I do think that expressing the concern is an important act of knocking at the door.

    To some extent it seems obvious what should be done about the failure of a body of Friends to produce vocal ministry that moves that body of Friends forward. The obvious solution you imply is to bring that body of Friends closer to God. When collectively closer to God, presumably, we will minister appropriately to each other in Meeting, and also hear each others’ ministries appropriately (as speaking in tongues is of little use if no one can listen in tongues). There are some stumbling blocks to being receptive to a solution like, “we should all get closer to God”, however. To one far from God, this statement is either offensive or laughable (if he or she has rejected the idea of God), or confusing and lacking clear meaning.

    Noam Chomsky has written that he might qualify as an atheist, but he’s unwilling to call himself such “because it is not at all clear what I’m being asked to deny.” Those who hear they should get closer to God may also be confused as to what this means–what it looks or feels like. They see people claiming to be close to God even as they persecute others and indulge their own lust for power and superiority. If people are reporting their closeness to God correctly in these instances, is such closeness even desirable?

    Even to the extent people have a somewhat accurate and experience-based understanding of what the end state of closeness to God feels like (and if you’ve felt it, you would presumably regard it positively), they might still not have any idea which contraction of which voluntary muscle groups would lead to that increased closeness once that closeness recedes. Following the command “bend over and touch your toes!” is considerably easier than following the command, “be closer to God!”

    There is a comparable problem with commanding love, or generally seeking to be more loving. We tend to perceive love as an involuntary emotion, so commanding someone else or ourselves to love more is a little like commanding someone to make their heart beat faster or to make their neurons convey electro-chemical messages more slowly.

    Having felt close to God at various times in my life, I have found that it usually feels like it comes through grace, rather than works (or even faith, which itself is a kind of mental work). And to the extent it comes through works, it is often difficult to discern cause, as there tends to be a lack of perceivable contiguity between the good works (or faithful service) we offer at one time and the closeness to God we feel when that closeness to God is most needed.

    If we seek greater closeness to God as individuals or a collective body, I think that being as obedient as we can to the still small interventions that God makes in our consciousness (to the extent we can still perceive them) is the closest we can come to voluntary action that would better ready us to grow closer to God.

    Many would say that God is close to us all the time, and it is only we who sometimes (mis)perceive ourselves as not close. However, as we live by our perceptions, a felt distance from God is a real distance in our existence. And bringing our perceptions back into alignment with God’s reality is often not as simple as articulating with words that our perceptions are self-deluding. The more we ourselves work to hear the guidance of God (and some voluntary muscles are involved here), and just as importantly, follow the guidance of God (voluntary muscles are much more involved in this case), then both sets of muscles will be strengthened. Ultimately, though, the Holy Spirit is like the wind, and “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going” (John 3:8).

    We may do all the muscular work of obedience and yet be long in feeling the presence of God through the Spirit. We may do no muscular work at all, and still, by grace, feel the presence of God through the Spirit.

    B.F. Skinner is famous as the psychologist who invented, or at least refined, operant conditioning. He had acute awareness of the fact that reinforcement of previous behavior was the most powerful means of conditioning organisms to repeat that behavior. Less known is that Skinner hated receiving honors and awards, and he hated receiving them precisely because he knew that they directed his nervous system to repeat whatever actions had produced those rewards, and he wanted to be free of this external control by the world. He wanted to pursue what he pursued independent of that control.

    Given the common lack of contiguity between doing the work of the Lord and feeling the presence of the Lord, doing the work of the Lord can be considered an excellent way of breaking the freedom-eroding conditioning cycle of stimulus-response reinforce-repeat.

    Will doing the work of the Lord be more likely to bring us the reward of feeling the guidance of the Spirit in our meetings for worship? While the question may have a discernible answer, the very asking of it might reflect a temptation best avoided.

  10. Trevor Bending Says:

    Wow Ian!
    That’s a long read. What can we read into all that stuff about ‘voluntary muscles’?
    There’s a Buddhist (I think) saying – ‘There is no way to happiness – Happiness is the way’. You can substitute other things for Happiness – like Peace, Truth, Simplicity etc. Put Love in. Then Love is action, a verb, not a noun, a feeling or emotion. I think the Buddhist concept of loving action is very close to this and I also think Jesus was saying something very similar – not something emotional I feel for my family and friends (or not) but loving action towards the needy and our enemies undertaken, even dispassionately, because it’s the right thing to do.
    ‘Love one another’ is then an injunction to action, not emotionality.

    • Marshall Massey Says:

      Trevor, the statement,“There is no way to peace. Peace is the way,” was made by the peace activist, labor leader, civil rights organizer, Protestant clergyman, and sometime Friend, A. J. Muste, in a letter to the New York Times concerning matters in Viet Nam, published November 16, 1967. It has become quite famous in the decades since.

      What you quote here is not, I believe, a Buddhist saying, but a paraphrase of Muste.

  11. Trevor Bending Says:

    Hello Marshall
    I’m afraid I’d never heard of A.J. Muste so I decided to look him up (on Wikipedia – where else!). I discovered that according to that source he was born in Zierikzee – a town in Holland which I happen to have visited in the 1960’s!
    According to Wikipedia he died in his 80’s in February 1967 so did he write that letter?
    I had a similar problem when somebody gave me the quote (something like): “Anyone who believes you can have continual growth on a finite planet is either mad or an economist”. I eventually traced it fairly reliably via several false attributions (with erroneous dates) to the Quaker (and economist) Kenneth Boulding!
    I believe I was thinking of ‘There is no way to happiness; Happiness is the way’ which may be the title of a fairly recent book. Substituting Peace can also be identified with Buddhist sources and if you put Love or possibly anything else in, it’s still in accord with general Buddhist thinking (and possibly the Tao).
    So I wonder if the phrase (with Peace) did originate with Muste or did he derive it from somewhere else?
    I see no harm or inconsistency in attributing ‘There is no way to Love; Love is the way’ in spirit to Jeus even if he didn’t say it in the words.
    Love
    Trevor

    • Marshall Massey Says:

      Trevor, Muste’s letter was published posthumously, as part of an article titled “Debasing Dissent”.

      The line has been widely researched, but no one has yet found any appearance of it before Muste.

  12. Michael Snow Says:

    (I did not see a contact link.) If anyone like to review Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way, I would be glad to send the word doc. You can get a preliminary idea of the book with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature:
    http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

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