Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Who Dares Treat Human Souls as Things without Feelings or Value?

June 29, 2018

God loves us all. God wants us, God’s children, to learn to love everyone also.

Jesus, who taught “Love your enemies” and even forgave His own murderers, claimed to be of one will and character with God. Who could understand God’s heart better than Jesus? So when Jesus assures us that God will forgive us our sins if we forgive others their sins against us, we may be confident that God, who wishes to save every soul, wants us also to be kind, merciful, and all-forgiving. In this way we are made fit to inherit God’s own eternal peace and joy.

One of Jesus’ apostles put it simply: God is Love.

But there are some who, as yet, cannot see God this way. These can only imagine a Supreme Deity – if they believe in one at all – who loves a few and rejects the rest. This belief allows some such people to treat their own designated scapegoats cruelly. These seem unable to take to heart the warning that we must reap what we sow – until or unless a sick conscience, now at last coming to be recognized as “moral injury,” leads them to repent and renounce cruelty. But this is to learn the hard way.

Such people need our prayers. If they have taken pleasure in tormenting others, or even given assent in their hearts to a sadistic government policy that kidnaps a nursing infant away from its mother, that pleasure, or complacency, must turn to pain as their souls flee from the light that exposes the evil. This is not divine punishment , but self-punishment, as the Bible itself attests.

We must not wish such pain on them, or on anyone. Wishing others ill only keeps the cycle of vengeance going. Nor may we take satisfaction in the thought of their coming humiliation when they are corrected. They are our brothers and sisters, God’s beloved children, like ourselves. They are ourselves. We are entitled to rebuke and resist them, to warn them, to do all we can to stop them, without resorting to violence. Only by remembering that we wish their repentance and redemption, and not their suffering, can we obey the divine advice to overcome evil with good.

– A tract written for distribution at the Families Belong Together public event in Richmond, Indiana, Seventh Day, 6/30/2018. The printed version has footnotes giving biblical references.

Advertisements

Sheep Having No Shepherd: a sermon

February 28, 2018

But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. – Matthew 9:36, King James Version

I don’t usually wake up in panic. I did last Wednesday, having the idea that it was already Tuesday, March 6th, and I’d completely forgotten that I was supposed to come to Friends Fellowship Community on March 4th to lead worship. – What? it’s still February? . . . then I’m safe! Within a few minutes I was wondering why I might have dreamed that dream, about forgetting an obligation, letting a lot of people down, and going in a split-second from a normal state of mind to a horrified one. And then I thought: . . . They’ve all lived a long time. They’ll understand. And so I knew what it was I’d talk about today: that helpless feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd.

Actually, the whole world knows that feeling. It’s the feeling of the child separated from her mother in a strange city, the feeling of the flood victim, the refugee, and every person dying. Jesus came to be our Shepherd at such times of helplessness, and if we accept Him then, we’ll be shown that He’s available to guide and protect us at all times: both when we’re feeling strong and happy, and also when we’re feeling sick and confused and weak. Now when I say this, I’m not saying you have to have a certain type of belief about Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not about theology. It’s about crying out in times of desperate need, “Creator, if You exist, hear me and help me!” And about surrendering yourself, asking God’s forgiveness for all the selfish things you’ve said and done, and being willing to be given a new heart, a loving heart, in place of the old, selfish one.

And then you may come to realize that the Ancient Maker of quintillions of suns and planets has listened to you, tiny as you are, and answered you in love. God knows what it’s like to be human like you, because He lives in you and knows your every thought, and He has a way for you to go forward. Always.

Now what does Jesus have to do with all this? As I understand it, Jesus, the Man, experienced oneness with God, and having lived and walked in that oneness, has an eternal existence, as Christ, in which He can help other humans grow toward, and into, that same oneness. The apostle Paul describes Him as the head of a great human Organism, the body of Christ, of which we can function as members (hands, eyes, feet, voice) – if we can put aside living for self and live, instead, for the good of the whole creation. The Head of the body, the Shepherd of the sheep, the Vine from which we branches draw life – Scripture is full of metaphors for Jesus Christ’s relationship to us, His willing followers. Drawn into His life and enjoying the peace of clean consciences, we no longer have meaningless moments, no matter how empty, idle or fruitless they may look from outside, for we are participants in His life, as something inside us always knows.

I’m thinking, for example, of Jesus’ long walk to the cross, commemorated each year during Lent: up the long ascent from Jericho, into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, into the Garden where He was taken into custody by men whose fear-driven hearts were closed to His truth. Two crucifixion stories (Matt 27:51, Mark 15:38) tell of His crying out to God, “Why have You forsaken me?” before dying. But had God really forsaken Him? Were His six hours on the cross meaningless, did He die a failure? Did He and His way of loving enemies and forgiving His persecutors lose, while Caesar’s way of crushing all resistance to a cruel Empire won? Let your own heart tell you the answer. All glory be to Him, and to God His Father, and to the Holy Spirit which teaches our hearts the truth. Amen.

The Everlasting Gospel

January 13, 2018

Notes for a sermon to be delivered 1/14/2018

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people…. – Revelation 14:6, KJV

“The everlasting gospel” – the Greek original reads evangélion aiōnion. This could be translated an everlasting gospel, or “good news that always was and always will be.” Early Quakers often spoke of “the everlasting gospel” as the gospel they’d been sent out to preach to the world, not a mere story about Jesus that people might believe or not believe, the way you and I might believe or not believe in global warming or the theory of relativity, but a word from the Savior himself with the power to “abolish death and bring life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10).¹ Think of it as the sound of an alarm clock, which you start to hear in a dream, but it has the power to pull you right out of that dream and into the waking state. This may be what birth was like, and it may be what death will be like: what can you say but “Wow” when what you thought was reality fades away and you find yourself in an all-new reality? “Behold,” says the One on the heavenly throne, “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). This is the good news; this is what Paul must have meant when he wrote that “the gospel… is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16).

Now I’ve only had a little foretaste of this salvation from fear, sorrow, shame, remorse, and the threats of pain and annihilation; I know about it only by faith. I did sit on God’s throne in a dream once, and saw everything become transparent, so that the interior of every created thing and being was revealed – but that was only in a dream. I’ve seen Jesus in dreams, but those could just be figments of my dream-generator. I don’t believe I’ve yet heard the ringing of that gospel alarm-clock I mentioned, that wakes us up into eternity and the presence of our beloved Creator. If I’ve ever consciously stood before God before, I’ve forgotten it, maybe because I chose to love something else, and my “foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:19-21).

But this I do know by personal experience: that Christ lives in me. He sees through my eyes, hears through my ears, feels through my heart. He must; otherwise He wouldn’t be able to comment on my experience in words audible in my mind, to give me courage and firmness when I need them, to hear my prayers, to direct my walk to people who need to meet me and then to put good words into my mouth. “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” asks Paul (2 Cor 13:5). Of course there are people who will tell me that I must be insane, because I’ve heard a voice; and there are people who’ll tell you that I must be hearing the voice of the Devil, because my theology or politics don’t agree with theirs: well, they said that about Jesus, too (Mark 3:22). The point is, once you know that Christ lives in you, your sense of who you are changes forever.

At that point, you’ve heard the Everlasting Gospel. If you’re a Jew or a Muslim or from some other tradition that’s been persecuted by Christians, He may identify Himself by a name more congenial to you, and appear as a “She” or an “It” if that works better for you. He may tell you that your sins are forgiven, He may warn you against a temptation, or reassure you that He won’t let you fall into sin – who can say? – but you won’t forget that voice you heard in your mind, not ever, and you’ll never forget the evidences that He lives in you – and that you live in Him. He’ll remind you (John 14:26).

Now if this hasn’t yet happened to you, and you want it to happen to you, I suggest that you tell Him so. Tell Him you’re willing to give up everything that might stand in the way of it. You may be surprised by how much He lets you keep, even though you now know that it’s all His property, including your own self. If you’re not ready to offer up everything, on the other hand, don’t worry; He has ways of persuading you that it’s a good idea, and a right time in mind to convince you. I’ve found Him very patient. In the end, if you come to Him, you’ll know that it’s only because God’s first drawn you to Him (John 6:44).

¹ George Fox (1624-1691), who associated the everlasting gospel with God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 22:18), wrote that “the Lord God and his son, Jesus Christ, did send me forth into the world, to preach his everlasting gospel and kingdom” (Journal, Nickalls ed., 34-35). Isaac Penington (1616-1679) wrote that “the gospel that was preached to the nations [in earlier times] was not the everlasting gospel; that gospel did not bring life and immortality to light… and men had only a sound of words instead of the thing…. an outward knowledge, a perishing knowledge in the perishing part… which… had no union and fellowship with that which is everlasting” (The Way of Life and Death (1658) in Works, 1:51). Robert Barclay (1648-1690) identifies the everlasting gospel with the commandment to all people to “love [God] in our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves,” commending the “faithful witnesses and evangelists” in “this our age” who direct all people “to come to mind the Light in them, and know Christ in them… so as they… may come to walk in his Light and be saved” (Apology (1678), 167).

A Christmastime Reflection

December 21, 2017

The story of Jesus begins and ends with forgiveness: Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Luke’s ends with Christ’s parting words “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Christ’s commission to Paul is to open the eyes of the Gentiles “so that they may turn from darkness to light… [and] receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).We humans need forgiveness of sins terribly, not just of the “sins” that can be named and counted, but forgiveness and healing of anything that causes self-loathing in us and sends us looking for a scapegoat, because until then our self-unforgiveness and unforgiveness of others – however masked by denial – are toxic and infectious and keep the world mired in evil, false solutions, and consequent despair. Without real repentance and forgiveness, I believe, social and political action are but a band-aid, and religious programs off the mark; but with repentance and forgiveness, one finds the Pearl of Great Price and can help all come to repentance, which I believe is God’s own desire (2 Pet 3:9).

But cheap repentance and cheap forgiveness are dangerous counterfeits to be shunned. If one looks deeply enough into oneself, one may find an “I” so damaged by being sinned against (especially while the “I” was forming) that it cannot truly say either “I forgive” or “I repent.” Or a guilty soul may find such an overwhelming fear of exposure that self-confrontation is blocked and guilt must go unacknowledged. In such cases the only cure may be God’s intervention. One must invite and welcome it as best one can, however frightening or painful it may prove to be. It may help to reflect that it will probably be no more painful to ourselves than the pain suffered by the One who bore our sins on the Cross. He lives, and is will lend courage and endurance to any who lack it, I believe, as generously as He has lent them to me.

Welcome, Christ, through whom, in whom, and as whom only, I believe, can we recovering sinners discover how infinitely we are loved by our Creator. Amen.

Earlham Students Support the Standing Rock Witness

September 5, 2016

Earlham College and Earlham School of Religion students will be staging a prayer witness and teach-in, beginning at noon on Wednesday, 9/7 and continuing at least until the end of the week, at “the Heart” at the center of the Earlham campus in Richmond, Indiana. These actions will be in support of the Camp of the Sacred Stone, an encampment of over 4,000 Native Americans and their supporters at the Northern tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where the Cannonball River joins the Missouri near Cannon Ball, ND.

The Camp, whose spokespersons have asked for prayer support as well as material support from elsewhere, is engaged in a peaceful witness against further work on the 1,168-mile Dakota Access Pipeline, which was to cross the Missouri River just a half-mile upstream from the reservation. In spite of the encampment’s non-violent nature and location on the Dakota/Lakota nation’s sovereign territory, the local sheriff and the pipeline company have both called the protest “unlawful,” North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple has declared a state of emergency, and Lieutenant Governor Drew Wrigley has threatened to use his power to end the encampment. Private security forces have used attack dogs and mace on unarmed protestors.

The Earlham students’ witness aims to increase public awareness of the confrontation taking place, of the underlying issues, and of the Camp of the Sacred Stone’s expressed need for ongoing material and spiritual support. Some among the students also ask prayers for the repentance of the camp’s opponents.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council has objected to the pipeline’s threat to the tribe’s drinking water supply, which is drawn almost exclusively from the river, as well as to the tribe’s air, sacred sites, culturally important landscapes, and its very future. Opponents of the pipeline, noting the frequency of pipeline ruptures, say “It’s not that an oil spill might pollute the river, but that eventually it will.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a sovereign nation occupying 2.3 million acres of land in North and South Dakota, with legal aid from the nonprofit Earthjustice, sued in Federal Court on 7/27/2016 for a preliminary injunction against further construction on the pipeline, which is to carry almost 500,000 barrels of oil a day from North Dakota’s oil fields to Patoka, Illinois. In 1958, without tribal consent, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had taken the Dakota ancestral land that the pipeline is now scheduled to cross for a damming project on the Missouri River. The Army Corps of Engineers, bypassing its obligation to consult with the tribe, fast-tracked the Dakota Access Pipeline by invoking the Nationwide Permit No. 12 process, which grants exemption from environmental-impact reviews mandated by the Clean Water and National Environmental Policy Acts by treating the pipeline as a series of small, unrelated construction projects. The tribe’s suit was heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on 8/24/2016. Judge James E. Boasberg declined to make a decision on that day, but promised one by Friday, 9/9/16.

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.

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.

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.

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.