Author Archive

The Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech

February 12, 2016

If my people, the Quakers, could make themselves famous for one thing, I wish it could be abstinence from hurtful speech. They already have a reputation for non-violence, and a reputation for truth-telling: why not put these together as the Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech and preach it on the street and the Internet, in the bus queue and the laundromat?

Well, I think I already know one reason why not: and that’s that “harmlessness” sounds wimpy. We’ve been infected by the mainstream culture of the World, which teaches that you’ve got to project toughness, and be a little scary, to be worth anything. The slogan “Speak truth to power,” popular among some Friends, suggests an adversarial standoff in which Quaker rightness wilts Establishment wrongness, and the once-mighty grovel and slink off into nothingness. But this is not loving, this does not encourage repentance and reconciliation, but enshrines unforgiveness. It is an evil fantasy, and can only retard the owning of our own shadow on which our personal healing depends.

Think again about harmlessness: Jesus Christ was harmless, and taught a gospel of harmlessness: “love your enemies… if your enemy compel you to go with him a mile, go with him twain.” So did the Buddha; so did this nation’s own saints William Penn, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, Jr. These were not wimpy people.

There is another reason we don’t embrace a testimony of harmless speech, and that is that we like the gratifications of sarcasm and, let me call it by its right name, cursing our oppressors under our breath. We don’t want to think of doing without it, because it’s one of those things we tell ourselves we have to do for stress relief — like drinking (if we drink) or masturbating (if we masturbate). But do we? It takes only a little more time, and a little more mindfulness, to hold up our anger at our oppressors before God, and pray that they be granted the gift of repentance. This can turn ill-will into good will without even requiring that we stop being righteously angry.

But what about that “natural” hunter-instinct in us that rejoices in the kill and celebrates victories over adversaries?

The Muslims have a custom of saying “Bismillah,” “in God’s name,” whenever they take an animal’s life. I try to ask this of myself when I slap a mosquito, or kill a flea I’ve combed out of the cat’s fur: a tiny moment of giving thanks to the Creator of Life for His/Her permission to take a life, and of prayer that God might somehow bring good effects from my authorized act of destruction. To call on God’s name seems to have a way of taking away whatever malice I might have had toward the offending creature, who was, after all, my Beloved Lord’s creature and may have been dear to Him, who feels the suffering of everything that suffers.

The vow of harmless speech I’m encouraging people to take, and particularly my fellow Quakers, is not a frill, a luxury. The planet is cooking, and the people that might stop this human-made doomsday process aren’t stopping it. I suggest that their powers to do good may be mired in the adversarial processes they’re engaged in – which are everywhere: in the insanely costly electoral competitions now consuming this country, in the sports arena, in the marketplace and in the police station. Did I mention our now-permanent-seeming state of war? Our attention is consumed with efforts to control the behavior of other people by countering their will with ours. And this all starts in the human heart, which thinks to relieve its suffering by generating barbed words, which we’re too heedless to disarm before we let them out the gate.

If everyone agreed that there is a God, and our lips and minds were God’s property, and that no will but God’s ought to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the task of persuading all our brothers and sisters to commit to harmless speech would be a no-brainer. Mouths would be holy, and no longer be seen as places from which both blessing and cursing might come. But we don’t have that agreement to build from. All we can do, each of us, is try to model the world we want to see.

A letter to Friends back home

December 15, 2015

Dear Friends back in New York City and in New York Yearly Meeting:

During these three weeks between school terms at Earlham School of Religion, I want to seize the opportunity to greet you, bless you, and thank you, first for making a Quaker of me and helping me raise my children as Quakers, second for helping me find and marry such a wonderful Quaker wife, thirdly for loving us, helping us grow in our faith, and acknowledging and supporting our spiritual gifts, and lastly for helping us relocate to Richmond, Indiana to study for Masters’ of Ministry degrees at Earlham School of Religion. Going to study at ESR was a dream of mine, since the early 1990s, that I never thought I’d have fulfilled in this lifetime. And we love being here. Hallelujah!

But I would never have been ready to come here to study until I was ready to commit to living, no longer for myself, but for God – which is to say, for others, who are all, without exception, God’s beloved children, whom God both wants and intends, I firmly believe, to save from this fallen life of mortality, ignorance, and suffering. (Living for others also means that I’m not just pursuing my own academic success here, but also Elizabeth’s and all my classmates’ as well; Elizabeth and I are clearly being prepared for some mission as a team.)

Living for others means that I’m living and studying for all the world’s oppressed, disadvantaged, and hurting, both humans and other creatures; I’m living and studying for all the oppressors, who are full of suffering they haven’t started to feel yet, and desperately need repentance and healing of their brokenness; I’m living and studying for all the world’s exemplars of kindness and wisdom, that they might be lifted up high, so that their light might shine far and wide; and I’m living and studying for all of you that might want an ESR education for yourselves, but have children to raise, jobs to do, health and debt problems to cope with, and all those ties keeping you where you are. So let me try to give back some of the bounty I’ve been given, and share with you some of what I’ve been learning since I got here four and a half months ago.

I’d say that the main thing I’ve been learning is the art of self-emptying, or what theologians call kenosis. One of the courses I just finished taking was Introduction to New Testament Studies. I decided (or was led) to call my term paper “Christ’s Kenosis and Ours: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Philippians 2:5.” I thought I was going to sound very smart and scholarly. Nope. I gathered all these books and articles, planning to cook them into a delicious intellectual stew, and then I sat there, and sat, and sat, unable to do anything with my material until it told me what wanted to be written. And what wanted to be written boiled down to: “Take Philippians 2:5 seriously. Don’t think you can act like Christ by trying to. Get out of the way and let Christ act through you.” I had to throw out over half of my intended bibliography. It was a little like trying to drive to Boston in a dream, only to find that the car insisted on driving to Philadelphia and wouldn’t hear of Boston.

Actually, that Philadelphia-bound car showed itself during my first week here, back at the beginning of August. I was taking a two-week intensive course in Spiritual Formation and not managing to keep up with the work. Some of my required readings were still in U-haul boxes in New York, and I couldn’t get replacements for them here in time. “I’m failing,” I thought. “I’m halfway through Week One and I’m failing.”

I immediately got the message, loud and clear: “I didn’t bring you here to fail. Now stop thinking like that.”

Kenosis. One aspect of it is not-doing, a concept that will be familiar (as wu-wei) to readers of the Tao Te Ching. In Introduction to Pastoral Care we got a lot of instruction on listening. Many of the “helpful” things I was saying in my caregiving encounters were turning out not to be helpful at all: they were putting words into the careseeker’s mouth, they were getting in the way of her self-discovery, they were imposing my assumptions on her process. I’ve had to learn to treat the pastoral-care interview like a meeting for worship with a concern for clearness: center down, and center down, and center down again. Be empty and wait for the person seeking clearness to name her own clearness.

This seems to be a lesson for me also with regard to “political” action in the world, in the widest sense of the word. “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth,” boasted Archimedes, explaining the physics of the lever. But what leverage for good can Johnny have on the world if Johnny weighs nothing? (And what weight can even Archimedes bring to bear on his earth-moving lever if he’s so high in space as to be weightless?) So I wait on the Holy Spirit to show me what to do, and the impact my action has, my “weight,” will be whatever the Holy Spirit intends. I continue not to vote, since I regard the ballot box as a carnal weapon, intended to defeat and silence opponents, not to make them better. Moreover, to participate in the choosing of a Commander-in-Chief (or Governor, Senator, etc.) is to help put control of lethal weaponry into the hands of one fallible candidate or the other, a form of killing-by-proxy that my membership in Christ disallows. If called for jury duty, I’m prepared to tell the judge, “I have no faith in this criminal justice system to do criminal justice, nor in this correctional system to correct.” But then, my citizenship is not really in any state that rules by violence and the threat of violence, but in a monarchy that isn’t of this fallen world, whose Ruler, Love Itself, is almighty. I pledge my allegiance to it every time I say “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” I think we serve it with every act of rightly motivated kindness, whatever our faith tradition or our theology.

I’ve taken a fascinating class called “The Creation of Modern Quaker Diversity.” I think I’ve come to understand, much better than I ever did, why people became partisans of Fox or of Nayler, Quietist Friends or Hicksite Friends, Wilburite or Gurneyite Friends, Holiness or Modernist Friends, Liberal, Conservative, Evangelical Friends, or any kind you can name. (I’m still not sure which local meeting to ask to transfer my membership to; Elizabeth and I feel close to clearness, but the discernment process isn’t over till it’s over.) One of the fruits of that course was some intensive study of Isaac Penington. I came away from it awed by my sense of his spiritual stature: he had to be up there on a level with the great saints of all time. George Fox had his Lewis Benson to interpret him for the modern world; I think Penington is still waiting for his.

My reading of the New Testament has undergone major shifts as I’ve come to see how much agenda-driven editing, interpreting, and “correcting” has gone into the texts. Matthew’s Jesus is clearly out to revolutionize His hearers’ understanding of the Torah: love your enemies, forgive your persecutors; adultery in your heart is as real a sin as an overt act; it is lawful to take reasonable liberties on the Sabbath. Yet Matthew has Jesus say that not one letter of the Law shall ever change: that, I think, has to have been Matthew’s defensive editorial addition, to argue for Jesus’ “orthodoxy” to a mostly Jewish audience. Or look at the tenderness Paul shows in Philippians and First Thessalonians, and his clear joy in the kindness and mercy of God. I think the vengeful thundering of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9 can’t have come out of the same heart; neither can the contemptuous words about the Cretans in Titus 1:10-16. I hope that a clearer picture of who Jesus and Paul really were is emerging for me. Friends, please pray that I be rightly guided here.

Last year I wrote a tract for distribution at the Climate March called “Plan C – World Repentance.” I’m still praying for world repentance. I believe in its possibility.

A Reason for the Hope that is in Me

November 11, 2015

In my student mailbox this morning I found an envelope containing a $100 bill and an unsigned note reading, “John, Always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is in you!”
These words echo 1 Peter 3:15, which in the King James Version reads, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”
Well, nobody directly asked me for a reason of the hope that is in me, but this seems as good a time as any to give an account: I can start by telling you that God has spoken to me on several occasions, in clear words planted in my mind. I can tell you that I’ve despised myself and thought myself damnable, not for no good reason, but for truly despicable things I’ve said and done; but I’ve been assured that God has forgiven my sins; wishes the repentance, salvation, and perfection of every soul; and has assured me that henceforth I’ll be guarded against my own propensities to do evil. And that’s for starters.
Lest anyone conclude from this that I’m only concerned about saving my own ass, which I confess is a weakness of mine, God has also maneuvered me into a position where I’m trusted to pray for other people, and also to encourage other people to pray for one another, and to trust in the power of intercessory prayer. And not just pray for others, but do things for them, do real works of love that cost me something. As a result, I’m finding that I feel such a tenderness toward many people that I can imagine laying down my life for them. I hope I never have to, and I also hope that Jesus Christ would lend me His own courage, and His own love, enough to go through with it, if I ever did have to. But I trust that He would give me such strengths for the asking if I needed them. He said, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20, KJV), and He’s there. I’ve experienced His presence.
Perhaps you’re wondering whether I’m going to mention the present state of the world, which looks very beautiful when I look at the trees and the river and the sky, but very horrible when I look at the newspaper. It seems to be a deeply fallen world. But I have hope there, too. God may allow dreadful, cruel, meaningless- and unfair-seeming things to happen by the millions, every day, but I know that God is too good to actually will them, and God mobilizes us who care about the sufferings of others to intervene for their relief. And we haven’t yet seen what relief and healing might await us, and those others, in the next world.
But ultimately I have hope because I believe that God wants me to, and would not trick me. And I hope that God will kindle the same kind of hope in your heart, too, Friend, if God hasn’t already.
About that hundred dollars: this has happened once before; I suspect it’s the same donor; but I have no idea who he or she is. I believe that he or she wants me to receive it as a gift from God; and so I do. Now it happened that just yesterday I spent $72.95 on Bibles to give away – not that I can really “afford” such an extravagance, but it just seemed the right thing to do. I’ve just gotten my money back, plus a little seed-money for future ministries. Thank You, Lord. Thank you, too, unseen friend.

Instructions from the Risen Christ

April 20, 2015

A sermon delivered to Manhattan Monthly Meeting on First Day, 4/19/2015

Friends, – Jesus had a lot to say to fallen, suffering humanity during His years of ministry, but, judging from the gospel records, very little to say during the short period between His resurrection and His ascension (traditionally forty days, though the number forty may have been picked more for its mythic associations than its historical accuracy). “Hereafter I will not talk much with you,” Jesus had said in the final minutes before His arrest (John 14:30), preparing His disciples for a future in which the Holy Spirit would provide the guidance they’d been looking to Him for up till then. – And then, less than twenty-four hours later, He’d said tetélestai, “It is finished,” and died on the cross (John 19:30). And that finished His conversation with them, His teaching, His ministry, His sacrifice, His work on earth. – Almost.

This morning I invite you to join me in unpacking the remainder of that “almost,” – that is, the teachings He gave us after His resurrection from the dead. Now, the written record is sketchy. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disagree about what happened next: in John, Mary Magdalene meets Jesus outside the tomb, and He forbids her to touch Him; in Matthew, two women encounter the risen Christ, – and touch His feet. Mark and Luke mention no encounter with Christ by the empty sepulcher, but rather with one or two men in dazzlingly white clothing (one in Mark, two in Luke). But all agree that the first witnesses were women, or a woman, who came at dawn and found the stone rolled away from the mouth of an empty grave.

And then what? – Mark and Luke tell the story of an Easter-afternoon encounter on the road to Emmaus, with a nighttime sequel among the disciples in a room in Jerusalem. John mentions two meetings with the disciples, one with Thomas absent and the second with him present. Matthew mentions no meeting with the disciples in Jerusalem, but rather one that takes place on a mountain in Galilee. John also has Jesus arrange a final breakfast with the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. In all these encounters it seems as if no one recognizes Jesus until He wills it. He also enters rooms with locked doors without passing through them. He also… vanishes.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, also tells of the Risen Lord’s meetings with His brother James, with five hundred brethren, and with Paul himself (1 Cor. 15:5-8). A Gospel to the Hebrews, known to the Church Fathers but now lost except for a fragment, also mentions an Easter-morning breaking of bread with James. Now what happened in all these encounters? What did Jesus have to say that He hadn’t said already, or couldn’t have said before rising from the dead? And – is there a common theme or central point to it?

Here are the essentials I’ve gleaned from the records that we have:

1. I am really alive among you, in a physical flesh-and-bones body that can eat, drink, and be touched.

2. Thus was it foretold, that the Messiah should suffer, die, and be raised again (Luke 24:35-37, 44-47).

3. All authority in heaven and on earth has now been given to me (Matthew 28:18), and I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:20b).

4. Now “receive Holy Breath from me” (John 20:22), and “stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49b). In other words, an anointing of some sort is needed before you are ready to go out as disciples. (The Gospel of John says that Jesus “breathed on them,” but the original Greek says that He “blew into them” as a flute-player blows into a flute, using the verb from which we get our word “emphysema,” so He may have given them mouth-to-mouth artificial respiration, one by one.)

5. Thorough changes of heart and mind (metanoia) have now been made possible, a virtual rebirth that enables the discarding of sin (áphesis hamartiōn), which no longer clings to the sinner as it once did. This good and liberating news must now be announced to every nation (Luke 24:47).

6. You disciples must also feed My sheep (John 21:15-17), that is, live no longer for yourselves, but to tend lovingly to the people I send to you, and build community. I will equip you for your several missions with facility with new languages, immunity to snakebite and poisons, and the power of healing touch (Mark 16:17-18).

7. Peace be with you! I now send you forth, as my Father sent Me forth (John 20:19-21). Make disciples among all nations (Matt. 28:19), washing them clean in the power of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all the things that I have commanded (Mark 16:15).

Now to me, some of these parts of Jesus’ post-resurrection message have the look of the central teaching, and others, the look of a frame around the central teaching. As part of the “frame” I’d include the presentation of His credentials: He was and is the Messiah, He really died, He really is alive now, and He has authority over everything, forever. Also part of the frame would be His commission to spread His gospel, His anointing breath and charismatic empowerments, and His instruction to feed the sheep.

But what is this gospel, the central teaching in the middle?

It is, in a word, salvation. It’s the sin-eliminating metanoia, the “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18), the birth of the new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15) within the shell of the old personality, the transformation made possible for all humankind, both before and after Jesus’ walk on earth, by the death and resurrection of its Savior Jesus.

Transformation, metamorphosis: we morph, and we do it merely by facing that Holy One, name Him however we will, and by letting Him reshape us into something more like Himself (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformation, this “morphing,” frees us from addictions to sin, frees us from our defenses against being aware that we’re addicts to sin, one of which is our habit of seeing faults in others that we can’t admit to having in ourselves, and frees us from identifying ourselves with our sins and so walking around in perpetual shame, guilt, and uneasy denial, over all the vile things we’ve ever said or thought or done.

Repentance, rightly understood, disconnects us from sin so that it falls away from us. This falling away, or removal of sins, áphesis hamartiōn, often translated “forgiveness of sins,” is something that we can feel – not when we die and go to heaven, but right here. Jesus confirmed that the prostitute that crashed the banquet and washed His feet with her tears was someone who’d felt her sins forgiven, and that’s why she acted so wildly generous and loving (Luke 7:36-50). It’s not something we can fake by glibly declaring ourselves sinless, and neither is it something we can get without first forgiving everyone else their sins against us (Matt. 6:15). Neither is it a blessing that God reserves only for His special darlings, for we are told in 2 Peter 3:9 that the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (You want it for yourself? Help everybody get it!)

We come to the heart of the matter when we ask what the connection is between repentance and salvation. Briefly, there is no salvation without repentance. Salvation, sōtēría, means “safety” or “making safe.” In our unchanged, unrepentant state we are not safe, we are in bondage where we can be jerked around by our chains. If you doubt that, think of how quickly anger can jerk you into a state of temporary insanity, where you suddenly become sure that you’re in the right and the other person is in the wrong, and not only that, you must immediately correct that wrong person by hurting or humiliating him. As we are in bondage to anger, so are we in bondage to fear, pain, hunger, thirst, and erotic attraction. But Christ will free us from bondage to these things for the asking, if we’ll only cooperate with His efforts to strengthen us against the temptations these things hold over us.

If we’ve experienced this transformation of repentance, or even started to feel it, let’s do all we can to share the glorious fruit of it. It is wonderful to feel bondage to sin gone from our lives! If we haven’t yet, then let’s pray to receive it, and do all we can to get the obstacles out of the way, for ourselves and for others! – for most people in bondage can’t feel how horrible it is until they’ve been freed. Salvation has been won for us, and the Lord Jesus Christ, now risen, holds it out to us as a free gift. All we have to do is say “yes,” reach for it, and accept it.

We must decrease, and Christ increase

January 1, 2015

To all Friends everywhere,

We must decrease, and Christ increase.

All power is His in heaven and earth, but He will force no entry into an unwilling heart, and if we leave Him standing outside on our day of visitation, we slight Him to our own impoverishment and hurt.

He stands at the door and knocks now. Why do we hesitate? It may be that we fear diminishment, for we’ve all been promised comfort and security by the world, and we don’t want to risk the loss of it. It may be that we cherish individual ambitions, for we’ve been taught since infancy to compete for the world’s honors, and to withdraw from the contest too much resembles death in our eyes. It may be that we live in artificially heightened opinions of our own powers, rights and agency, and shrink from the possible realization that the self we so worship is but a mask, a shadow, a fiction. Of old, Christ Jesus prophesied that that which is done in secret or whispered in the ear would be shouted from the housetops, and we all have lies, tender spots, grudges, guilts, sexual kinks, shameful memories and outright sins that we dread having the whole world know about. There are so many reasons to pretend that we don’t hear that knock at the door! But none of them are good reasons, because they all involve choosing unreality over reality; and all such choices are known to end in unhappiness.

The Knocker at the door, then, is the Light that will show us who and what we are. But two things may distract us from opening to let Him in. One is our membership in a club of nice folks who also don’t answer the door. The other is our involvement in a righteous cause too important to be distracted from. The Religious Society of Friends, unfortunately, may provide us with both of these excuses.

But fortunately, the Religious Society of Friends is not really a nice folks’ club, but a people of God, bound to God by a covenant. Oh, we’ve done our best to forget the Quaker covenant announced to and through Francis Howgill on 3/28/1662. Many who know of it may regard it as a mere historical curiosity, not relevant today, though Howgill’s contemporaries took it seriously enough; his account is accessible online in William Sewel’s History of the rise, increase, and progress, of the Christian people called Quakers (p.403 of 3rd ed., 1728). But the real question, Friend reader, is: what does thy own heart say about its genuineness? If it was a real communication from the living God, then God may at any moment shake our meeting houses to their foundations, and hold us each answerable for that covenant today.

As for our righteous causes, God may prosper or frustrate them as God thinks best, but it will surely be only a matter of time before we’re shown the folly of deploying on the battlefield before consulting the General.

Let’s waste no time, Friends, in opening the door.

The Day of the Wrath of the Lamb

December 10, 2014

This coming Saturday, 12/13/14, is being widely promoted as a “Day of Anger.” Because many of our institutions seem to be in the hands of liars, hypocrites, the selfish and the cruel, there is much to be angry about in this country, as throughout the world. Perhaps many of us, when next called for jury duty, will find reason to tell the judge, as I do, “I have no faith in this justice system to do justice, nor in this correctional system to correct.” Fortunately, however, there is an all-seeing and almighty God, who has established an infallible justice system and a perfect correctional system.

But while we wait for these to do their work, we have a choice before us: to let anger tempt us to be hurtful, or to forgive. The Buddha warns us that if we give into such a temptation, suffering will follow us “as the cart-wheel follows the hoof of the draft-ox” (Dhammapada, 1). Jesus warns us that if we don’t forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will God forgive us our own (Matthew 6:15) – and this, not because our all-merciful God, whose very nature is Love, wants to withhold forgiveness, but because our blocking the outflow of forgiveness from our own hearts also blocks the inflow of it, just as breaking a wire in an appliance stops the flow of electric current and disables the appliance from doing what it was made to do.

Jesus modeled God’s forgiveness by forgiving even His own betrayers and murderers as He hung dying on the cross (Luke 23:34); so did His follower Stephen (Acts 7:60), setting a pattern for all persons of good will to follow. We should make every effort to follow this example, not for the selfish reason that we’re hoping for a personal heavenly reward (in which case we may not deserve that reward), but out of compassion for all those merciless, fear-driven human hearts responsible for police violence against persons of color, for CIA torture of political suspects, for sins against the planetary ecosystem, for government coverups and perversions of justice everywhere. These souls are our brothers and sisters, human broken appliances in need of repair. If we can’t wish for their recovery and salvation, we can’t fairly wish for our own; without the repair of our own unforgiving hearts, we can only expect to wind up in the same junkyard.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t rebuke evildoers; the all-important question is what spirit we rebuke them in: with intent to hurt them or intent to heal.

The Book of Revelation describes, in symbolic form, times of trouble yet to come, when disorders of nature will threaten men and women with fearsome sufferings, not unlike the way our scientists expect them to do shortly. In an ironic twist, the narrator announces that a lion will step in to save the day,  but the heralded “lion” that appears turns out to be a lamb (Rev. 5:6), symbolic of Jesus Christ. The action then heats up: war, famine, mass death, a great earthquake, and the darkening of the skies. Terrified, the rich and powerful flee to their bunkers in the mountains, where they call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!” (Rev. 6:16.) What, the wrath of the Lamb? Only the insane would be afraid of the wrath of a lamb! Only the insane… or those so deeply guilty, and so unforgiving in their own hearts, that when their hopes of controlling the situation vanish, they can only expect to be treated as unfeelingly as they have treated others; and that expectation is their own self-condemnation.  As the Gospel of John (3:19-20) puts it: “This is the condemnation: that men loved the darkness rather than the Light… for everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Earlier I expressed my trust that God’s correctional system is perfect: by which I mean that every soul gets corrected and healed, and in the end none are lost. But the thought of guilty and violent souls, before the end of that process, calling for mountains and rocks to fall on them – that’s enough to turn my Day of Anger into a Day of Tears: tears not only for the victims of racist or other police brutality, but for the perpetrators themselves. I could wish such self-inflicted cruelty on no one; and neither, I think, could the loving Creator that I worship.

The Daily Nothing

December 5, 2014

Ecclesiastes 3:14 reads, in the Authorized or King James Version (1611),

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

The thoroughly Bible-literate contemporary readers of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets (1633) would therefore have recognized that God’s answer to Donne’s opening question must obviously be, “No; none of My works decay; check your Bible.”

But even if we share the faith of those 17th-century believers, we nonetheless, like Donne, often feel the dreadful need of repair, and of God’s magnetism to draw our iron hearts back upward toward their Maker:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.

If you sit in prayer today and find distracting thoughts pulling you away from the One you’re trying to worship, try “Do Thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart” as the corrective thought to bring you back to center. Or just “Thou,” for short. It helps to remember that God wants you at least as much as you want God!

Today’s title “The Daily Nothing” came to me in the dream I awoke from: under that title, a wise old woman was publishing daily short reminders of the unchanging Truth that has nothing to do with the things of the world that change and cause us distress, neither our own “feeble flesh” nor the evils of our time, nor our impossibly long to-do lists. How important it is to make time for Nothing! To put aside our own thoughts and our own wills, to sit still in that Daily Nothing and let God do what God will with us, even if God sees fit to do Nothing with us!

Unfit to Worship

October 23, 2014

I woke up from a horrifying dream.

I was in a college library, smoking the stub of a joint in a secluded aisle. Fearing that others might smell marijuana smoke and come looking, I realized that I’d better conceal my little roach in my cupped hand and leave the library quickly. I hurried out the glass doors and onto the deserted twilit lawn. And then I realized that I hadn’t done my morning devotions, but had chosen to blow off greeting my God and Savior, my very Life, so that I could get stoned instead. How remorseful that made me, and how ashamed! And this choice that I’d made was no simple mistake that I could repent and ask forgiveness for, but one that had left me, at least for the moment, unfit to approach God at all, for I had just poisoned my mind with a drug that would leave me incapable of worship or focused concentration of any kind. As despair struck me, I snapped awake.

I won’t waste the reader’s time telling about my college years, now roughly half a century in the past, which provided the symbolic imagery for this dream and taught me the effects of marijuana on my own brain. I’d rather direct the reader’s attention to the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30; Luke 13:28; in my dream, the lawn outside the library), and the scriptural warnings against “finding no place of repentance, though we seek it carefully with tears” (Hebrews 12:17; so also in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31). Shakespeare gives us a memorable portrait of a sinner who kneels, but cannot pray, in King Claudius (Hamlet, III.iii). But perhaps my readers have their own memories of being in such a case. It’s not that God won’t gladly hear prayers from the most hopeless of sinners in the most hopeless of positions! But there are things we do, on our side, to disable our own access to God.

Now I’ve been proclaiming, with joy, a God who forgives everything, heralded by a prophet, God’s unique son Jesus, who forgave even His own murderers, and convincingly claimed that His Heavenly Father was of the same character (John 14:7-11). But I fear I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to the predicament of the soul who puts herself beyond this wonderful universal forgiveness, locks herself out, and throws away the key. God does not damn us; we damn ourselves (John 3:19-20). This is not God’s will for us! God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); God intends a universal reconciliation (Colossians 1:20)! God’s nature is love (1 John 4:8) and love wishes only good to every being (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Moreover, God tells us (please forgive the masculine pronoun, which I know limits the Limitless One) that there is nothing too hard for Him (Genesis 18:14, Jeremiah 32:27). Jesus tells of the good shepherd’s delight in rescuing the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). But God, who created us with freedom of choice, can’t rescue a will that willfully refuses rescue. One must say “yes.” And we have ways of sealing our own mouths so that we can’t say “yes.” Adrienne von Speyr (in The Letter to the Colossians, commenting on Colossians 3:17) observes: “That is the most serious thing about sin: that, once chosen, it remains constant and sticks to the sinner. Unless help comes from outside, from above, unless he receives grace, man cannot get rid of it.”

I held the details of my dream in worship, and the significance of the act of smoking pot in a college library grew on me: what is a college library but a place where a student goes to acquire knowledge for the sake of understanding, and understanding for the sake of wisdom? In its essence it’s a temple for lovers of Wisdom, the bride of Love. But if one loves merely the empty mental pleasures that smoldering cannabis induces, or loves knowledge for purposes contrary to wisdom and love (say, the power to dominate, exploit, impress or seduce people), then one is not only an impostor with no business in the temple of Wisdom but a fire-hazard dangerous to its treasures. They and you don’t belong together. For your own sake it’s best to get out of the treasury of knowledge before the knowledge itself turns hurtful to you, as our misguided civilization is now starting to discover – but that’s another topic.

For the topic at hand is love: we’re given the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourself (Matthew 22:37-40), as God loves us. When we love things incompatible with the love of God and the neighbor, like our own pleasure and profit, our own safety, our own preeminence and good name,  or the secret compartment we hide our lies in, then, and to the extent of these loves, we disable our own access to God. What foolishness! And yet we all do it, at least until we ask to have our hearts washed clean of loves for lifeless idols. But that’s the easiest and simplest thing to ask for!

So take this opportunity to pray with me: Lord God, Divine Mother, Higher Power, whatever You wish us to call You, show us the true nature of the objects we’ve given our love to; help us discern rightly what deserves our love, and what does not; give us hearts willing to love the good and the worthy; and then set them on fire with love! This we ask in Jesus’ name, who promised (John 14:14), “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” Amen.

 

What Quakers Believe about… Repentance and Remission of Sins

September 20, 2014

And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. – Luke 24:47 (AV)

What Quakers believe about anything is, for better or for worse, conditioned by what they’ll allow themselves to believe. Those of little faith may believe some of what they read in the newspaper, some of the time, while those of great faith may be working major “signs and wonders” to the glory of God. One thing Friends tend to agree on, though, is that we ought to speak from personal experience, and be able to answer affirmatively to the query, “Is it inwardly from God?” If it’s simply an opinion – early Friend George Fox wrote, “We own not opinions.” What follows, I believe, is inwardly from God.

According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus left his followers with a commission to preach, that is, to announce the availability of, a changed state of mind (metanoia or “repentance”) that would allow one to know oneself to be sinless: in other words, that one’s previously acknowledged sins had been dismissed, forgiven, and declared null and void. The original Greek reads metanoia eis aphesin hamartiōn, literally “repentance into remission of sins, so we know that Jesus didn’t intend us to think that “repentance” and “remission of sins” were two separate and independent gifts, but one thing that led directly into the other.

And yes, they are gifts: repentance isn’t something we can achieve by ourselves, any more than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. As the first generation of Christians recognized (Acts 11:18), it comes to us as a gift from outside ourselves, or not at all. Otherwise there’d be a huge industry peddling repentance like a drug, and how-to-forgive-yourself books would be on every combat veteran’s Kindle. Churches would be fitness centers of the soul, where moms and dads would put in a half hour on the treadmill after work to sweat out the day’s lies, white-collar crimes and adulterous fantasies, then go home to the kids fresh as a daisy. Of course there are preachers who’ll exhort you to repent as if you could do it at will: but I, who had to “repent” of smoking seven times before I could stay quit, can tell them otherwise: it was granted me to quit smoking.

How would we know that we ourselves, or another person, are in a genuine state of repentance and not in a mere mood or delusion? For there are people that do dreadful things without feeling the least bit sinful about them; we call them psychopaths. But “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16-20). Jesus, in Luke 7:36-50, shows us the signs of a person who knows she’s been forgiven all her sins – she’s exuberant, loving, and generous, even to the point of letting herself look a little foolish: she weeps in public, she kisses Jesus’ feet. It’s a kind of behavior not easily counterfeited.

Moreover, repentant people who’ve experienced remission of sins should be able to describe how they know their sins were remitted. Since George Fox’s day, Quakers have been in the habit of asking claimants to religious truth, “What canst thou say?” I could answer you, for example, that I was sitting in meeting one day, obsessively berating myself for some past foolishness, when I heard an authoritative Voice in my mind say, “That sin is forgiven: put it away!” During another Quaker meeting I heard that Voice say “I will not let you fall into sin.” And there were other experiences, so that today I feel still temptable, but powerfully protected, and discouraged from worrying. But ask for your own convincing experience!

Luke records that remission of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name, and it’s a fact that among North American Quakers today, some preach in Jesus’ name and some do not. Some might argue that, before Jesus’ time, the Buddha also taught a way to sinlessness that erases the karma and vāsanās of sin: of whether this way works I confess my ignorance, not having followed that path. I preach repentance and remission of sins in Jesus’ name for these reasons:

1. I’ve felt myself given “a mouth, and wisdom” (Luke 21:15) to do so by the Lord Jesus Himself, who has made me a member of Christ. In this work “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). This is a condition available to everyone, though it requires a kind of voluntary dying to one’s old ways.

2. Only in the ministry of Jesus, for the first time in known history, do we find an instruction to forgive everyone everything, modeled perfectly for us by the Teacher’s own behavior, coupled with a declaration that God our Creator is of the same all-forgiving spirit. It is extremely important for men and women to know this about God. But to know this about God, we must practice that all-forgiving spirit ourselves, and ask God’s help with it.

One thing Quakers are rightly known for is their truthfulness, and I would be less than truthful if I claimed or even implied that what I’ve written here is typical of contemporary Quaker thought. But I do hope to help make it so.

Remembering from Whence We Are Fallen

September 5, 2014

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


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