I just came back from an “Eldering in the 21st Century” workshop at Powell House, feeling both a heightened sense of responsibility for my meeting’s condition and an increased competence to help it, so long as I remain faithful to the Lord’s guidance. At the heart of my renewed hopefulness is renewed joy in the goodness of God, whose intent, I believe, is the restoration of all His (Her, Its) beloved children to innocence and bliss. (This particular view of God’s intent didn’t come up during the workshop, but a theme was “Ministry is anything that makes God’s love more visible.”) It doesn’t matter that many of my fellow Quakers may not share my trust in a God with personhood and a will, or my notions about a Savior, Jesus Christ, carrying out that will. Neither does it matter that many of my fellow Quakers seem wiser than I, more dedicated to eradicating evil and relieving suffering. My job is to love them, support them, pray for them, and do my best to live by the Lord’s glorious gospel, trusting Jesus to do the rest.
Let’s talk a little about that glorious gospel. Lately I’ve been struck by its central paradox: on the one hand, it’s “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10), from a God who is Love Itself (1 John 4:8), and we don’t need to have the “right” theology in order to benefit from it. Hallelujah! But on the other hand, it requires us to walk a path that’s hard to find and leads through a narrow gate, “for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt. 7:13-14). No, it’s not bad-cop Paul who makes heaven sound hard for us sinners to get into while good-cop Jesus gathers little children to His bosom and welcomes everybody. It’s Jesus Himself who warns us that we have to repent, take up our cross, forgive everyone everything, and be ready to lose our life for the truth’s sake, or else risk being cast into an outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth, (In Matthew’s gospel, we’re ejected into it; in John’s, we choose it freely because we’ve come to love darkness rather than light.) Now, these demands are just plain scary. And yet what better news could we hear than that we needn’t fear death, or any of this world’s threats and dangers, but can have the everlasting support of an all-forgiving and almighty Creator who will wipe away all tears from our eyes? That’s the paradox: the gospel is wonderful beyond words, and yet it asks so much of us that we’re not sure we can do it – nor even that we want to.
The natural reaction seems to be to reach for the science textbook or the newspaper and remind ourselves that there’s no general agreement that God exists. OK, we won’t go that far. But let’s spend our Sunday mornings at a house of worship where folks all hold the right values, but where we won’t be called sinners and told to repent. Here’s one: Anytown Monthly Meeting! We can go deep into silence together here, come out refreshed, and then collaborate together in doing good works: no creeds, no doctrines, no study of scripture unless we choose it.
The problem is that we bring our shadow with us wherever we go, so no sooner do we start to sink into that delicious silence than we’re distracted by our own frivolous inner chattering, or troubled over some bad thing we did, or worse, jarred out of the stillness by someone whose self-important babbling is spoiling our worship! Once again we’ve come to meeting hoping for a taste of paradise, and instead got a taste of the darkness that makes us gnash our teeth. Why can’t our meeting go deep in worship, why can’t we come away feeling that we’ve met God and been blessed, baptized, transformed by the encounter? What’s wrong?
The first thing I’d warn against is the thought that a failed meeting for worship is “no big deal; these things just happen.” What? If our elderly mother had promised to make a special trip to meet us at the airport and we didn’t find her there, wouldn’t we panic? How much more should we be concerned if our Heavenly Parent failed to show up for a rendezvous! And the second thing I’d warn against is blaming the failure on the spiritual condition of the others in the meeting. Jesus had something to say about finding the mote in our brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3-5). If the voice of ego is driving out the voice of God all around us in the meeting room, what is it that’s happening in our own heart? Third, it should go without saying that if we haven’t been practicing daily during the week, we have no business going on stage at Carnegie Hall on Sunday: finally, I notice, more Friends are starting to query one another about daily spiritual practices. This is a good thing.
But I haven’t yet been hearing Friends query one another about coming to meeting with unclean consciences. Perhaps the dirtiest thing we bring in the meeting house door with us is unforgiveness, grudges, eagerness to hear gossip that will allow us to despise our scapegoat all the more. We also, many of us, bring in a recent history of complicity with evil – the things we’ve done for our employers, and our employers’ clients, during the week; the things we’ve let our government do, in our name, without protesting them; the waste of the earth’s resources we’ve been party to; the profits our retirement funds have made from evil investments. In these things we may feel helpless, because we have rent to pay and children to raise and see no alternative to living as we do, but have we prayed to God for deliverance from these things, this devilish economy of importing pleasure and exporting pain? Have we asked God’s forgiveness for these things that we know are contrary to the common good? Then there are the lies we may have told – oh, perhaps not to our family members, but what about the ones on our income tax returns? Or the cruel things we may have said in jest?
The subject of lying leads directly to its twin, the secrets we keep. What is it that we would not like anyone to know about our inner life – anyone, ever? If there’s anything like that festering in there, then we’re one of the poor, mad self-damned who “love darkness rather than light, and avoid the light to avoid exposure” (John 3:19-20). This attitude puts us in bondage to the enemy of God, for God is the one who wants to liberate us from all such toxic separateness. Are we walking in the meeting house door with such an attitude? Then how can we worship God?
Finally, if we’re still wondering why we find our unprogrammed meetings so full of junk ministry, let’s ask ourselves what junk we’ve put into our own minds over the past week. Have we masturbated to the accompaniment of fantasies that would be sinful if acted out in reality? (By “sinful” I don’t mean just “forbidden in the Bible” but really sinful, in a way our own heart can recognize: adulterous, predatory, degrading.) Are we quite sure that we’re not secretly praying to be allowed to act them out in reality? Have we asked God to heal our sexuality so that we’re not torn by yearnings for what would not be good for us or others? If we feel enchanted by an erotic attraction, have we prayed for the spiritual good of the attractive one and so purged our preoccupation of some of its selfish element?
Then there’s the junk we fill our minds with by watching television and reading the newspaper. “But it’s the true news,” we may protest. “We have a duty to inform ourselves.” The unfortunate thing is that it’s the “true news” unsanctified by compassion, thrown at us by commercial media interests who know that what most excites our baser passions is what best sells newsprint and air time. Among “baser passions” must be included the desire to be thought the most knowledgeable among the present company, and the lust (if we read the financial pages) to be the investor with the best competitive advantage over others. The news reports are always full of villains: do we bring the villains before Christ in our prayers, asking Him to help us love them?
When we enter the meeting house on Sunday morning, we put the self-serving world and its transitory goods behind us in order to enter into the presence of the Holy. In other faith traditions, we might be expected to remove our shoes, prostrate ourselves, genuflect or make the sign of the cross in order to cross this threshold properly. We Quakers, however, traditionally do without such outward forms because we’re resolved to hold to the substance behind the form. But the time has come for us to ask ourselves: have we abandoned both form and substance together?