Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

Jesus Calls Us to Die to Self

March 4, 2014

At a recent gathering of Friends, I was given approximately this message to share with the gathered body: “The inwardly known Christ, whatever we may each call Him, Her, or It, calls us to die to self. This sounds dreadful and forbidding, but it is not. Jesus said ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:30), and He has ways of making it so, amazing ways, as I can testify from experience. Whatever Jesus calls us to do, He gives us the courage, wisdom, love, forgiveness, humility, words to speak, whatever it is that we needed to do what we have to do and didn’t think we could ever do.

“A Friend earlier expressed the concern that we might decline or die out as the Religious Society of Friends, lose our meeting houses and all the trappings of our group identity; but if this were to happen, the Holy Spirit would still call us to worship and witness together, because the call to die to self will sound so long as there are selves to die, and souls called to die to self will always need one another’s company and encouragement, and as we die to self we are gathered into a larger body, which functions through us as a vine through its branches (John 15:5).

“As we die to self, we become transparent vehicles for Christ, and that makes us attractive to anyone looking for Christ, who said ‘I will draw all people to me’ (John 12:32). As embodiments of the living Christ, we draw them from what is false, and transitory, and unsatisfying, to what is true, and eternal, and satisfying forever.”

At the next break, a Friend asked me where the call to die to self is found in the words of Christ. Evidently fatigued from a day of note-taking, I drew an utter blank and had to tell him so; but then a bystander came to my aid and said, “Perhaps you can find it in ‘If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me'” (Luke 9:23-24). That helped me remember “He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he who hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25; cf. Matt. 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). But I resolved at that time to search for more evidences of that teaching in Scripture, for I was sure they were there to be found.

And here’s what I’ve come up with over the intervening days – not an exhaustive list of proof-texts, but rather a set of general impressions:

1. Hidden in plain sight is Jesus’ model prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), which begins “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” We can’t say these words and truly mean them until we’re ready to relinquish all our own claims to our own kingdom and our own will. Our own agenda, our own efforts to control things, our own self-promoting schemes and little self-gratifications, all must be laid on God’s altar and only taken back up again if and as God permits.

2. The twin commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut. 6:5), and to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18), on which, Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40), are not really possible to fulfill without such a “dying to self” that you will never again put your wants ahead of God’s wants, or someone else’s wants. Every scheme to import pleasure and export pain must be abandoned; every competition that pits “my interest” against “your interest” must pass the test of compatibility with love of God and love of neighbor.

3. This, of course, requires as thorough a change of heart as Adam and Eve underwent (in the other direction) when they turned from unity with the will of God to defiance of the will of God.  God promises us such a change of heart, from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, in Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33 promises a new covenant, in which God’s law will be put in our inward parts and written in our hearts, and we shall have “one heart” (Jer. 32:39).

4. Can we do this by our own efforts? No more than we can perform heart-surgery and be the patient at the same time. Therefore the New Testament is rich in metaphors of death and rebirth into a God-given new life: Jesus tells Nicodemus that “a man must be born again” (John 3:3), and Philip and Andrew, that a corn of wheat must die in order to bring forth fruit (John 12:24). In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells a would-be disciple, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22; cf. Luke 9:60). Paul writes repeatedly about our being “baptized” into Christ’s death, so that we might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), risen with Christ and forgiven our sins (Col. 2:12-13), “quickened with Christ when we were dead in sins” (Eph. 2:5) – “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

5. In such cases we have put off or “mortified” the sin-addicted “old man” (Rom. 6:6, Eph. 4:22, Col. 3:9) and become a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). Effort, of course, is still needed; we are still tempted. But we now live in Christ, and He in us (John 17:20-26); and “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

6. Lest anyone think that these death-and-rebirth tropes are all theological inventions of Paul’s, or John’s, not rooted in the teachings of the “real” Jesus of the synoptic gospels, consider what the Jesus of the synoptics might have meant when He called on people to “repent.”  One could, of course, “repent” a minor offense. But repentance in its larger sense, metanoia, was not merely feeling sorry about the sins one had committed; neither would weeping, fasting, or doing violence to oneself  count as repentance (Heb. 12:17). John the Baptist insisted (Matt. 3:8, Luke 3:8) that sinners “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance:” one had to show that one had repented by changed behavior.  In fact repentance was not something one could “do” by oneself, but had to be granted as a divine gift (Acts 5:31, 11:18). It brought forgiveness of sins in its train (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38, 3:19); without it, one might die a meaningless death, like the hapless victims of the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13:3, 5), or the  fool that built his house on a foundation of sand (Matt. 7:26-27).

I am persuaded that many of the sayings and parables of Jesus are rightly read as calls to die to self; but whether I’m right or wrong in this, I urge my readers to consider whether the living Christ that knocks at the door of their heart (Rev. 3:20) calls them to die to self, so that they can move on to a life in which God provides for them like the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:28), and those who have left house and family for Christ’s sake, and the gospel’s, may receive them back a hundredfold (Mark 10:29). His yoke is easy, and His burden light; but first we must come under it by dying to the unyoked life.

A correction: my God-knower is not asleep

December 7, 2013

Yesterday I posted an outpouring here that began “Help, help! My God-knower has fallen asleep,” and this morning I feel called to report that I’ve been corrected.  My God-knowing organ, or faculty, is my conscience, as Quakers have been insisting for centuries, and it was awake enough to rebuke me, and, thank God, I was alert enough to pick up the rebuke.

Last night, in conversation, I referred to a third party as “a prick,” although I qualified my statement by saying that I sometimes felt annoyed by the man, but could see his admirable qualities and his unique value to the community, and made it a point to pray for him. I then retired to the bedroom, where I found that a loosely-capped fountain pen in my breast pocket had come undone and left a big ugly stain on what had been my favorite shirt. And that wasn’t all: during the evening I’d developed a painful inflammation on the right side of my tongue. (“Probably viral,” I’d thought. “It’ll pass soon enough.”) The inflammation was reduced this morning, but still there. The two mishaps, with my pen and my tongue, were odd enough coincidences to set me to querying myself when I sat for morning worship: was there a message for me in them? And yes, there was.

I’m called to a ministry of healing prayer, and I’m not to speak ill of a brother or sister for whom Christ died. Since Christ died for all, that means I’m not to speak ill of anyone. I may say, truthfully, that so-and-so angers or annoys me, or has hurt me, or in my eyes frequently exhibits bad judgment, a weakness of character, or behavior that I find unacceptable.  But whoever it is, I’m under a commandment to love him or her, and if I belittle a person by reducing him to one (unjustly) ill-famed body part, I’ve weakened my own prayers for him and proven myself a hypocrite as far as my ministry of healing prayer goes. The whole third chapter of the Epistle of James addresses this: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?”

Of all things I do that I wouldn’t want to weaken, I don’t want to weaken my prayers for others’ good. Patanjali warns that even to take satisfaction in the humiliation or suffering of others “bears fruit in endless suffering and ignorance,” and urges us to use that thought to correct other thoughts that may infect our heart (Yoga Sutras 2:34). There’s enough suffering and ignorance in the world already.

My blog-posting before the “Help, help!” one was entitled “A heart that’s right in the sight of God,” and in it I revealed that I was tempted to call some persons “damnable blasphemers,” and “rolled Ezekiel 16:63 around in my mouth like a delicious throat-lozenge of fire.” Well, it shouldn’t surprise me to get an inflammation in my mouth from such a throat-lozenge, I reflected. Ezekiel 16:63 reads, in part, “thou mayest… never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee for all that thou hast done.” For a moment I experienced myself as standing silent before God, forbidden to open my mouth, even in prayer. It was not a pleasant situation to be in. Then I felt permission granted.

Oh, and one more thing: neither am I to speak ill of myself. I erred; I was corrected; I repented; I felt forgiven, but instructed to write up the experience and share it. My tongue’s now almost back to normal, and most of the stain’s washed out of the shirt.

And if you, like me, grieve that our God-knowing faculty isn’t better developed, know that God surely understands our grief and is working on the problem. Note that Jesus addressed the problem in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and in John 14:8-9; the Apostles address it in 2 Corinthians 3:16-18, in 1 John 2:27 and 4:7-8, and elsewhere.

A heart that’s right in the sight of God

December 4, 2013

“Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter, for thy heart is not right in the sight of God,” said Peter to Simon Magus (Acts 8:21) in a rebuke that, happily, triggered Simon’s repentance. The original Greek for “heart right in the sight of God” is kardia eutheia enanti tou theou, and the word here translated as “right,” eutheia, is more properly translated “straight.” Its adverbial forms eutheōs and euthys convey the notion of an immediate consequence, as when Jesus performs a healing in the Gospel of Mark and eutheōs, “straightway,” the hemorrhage stops, the damsel rises from the dead, or the deaf man’s ears are opened. A heart “straight” in this sense would answer the Holy Spirit’s promptings straightway.

I went to bed last night thinking that a heart that’s right in the sight of God is the most precious thing I could ask for.  This morning I read, somewhere in the Philokalia, that it’s more to be desired than the joys of Heaven, because if my heart were not right, and steadfastly so, I’d go plummeting from Paradise just as Adam, Eve and Satan did. O Lord, make my heart steadfast and keep it steadfast, in Jesus’ name. I feel it wavering from steadfastness every time I’m tempted to say something hurtful in anger or take pleasure in someone else’s real or imagined pain. I want a straight heart that stays straight, fit always to stand in Your holy, enlightening and all-healing Presence until I’m absorbed back into Your Unity. And since I believe that this is what You intend for me and for all living creatures that I love, I thank You now and always for our salvation; Amen.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a Friend who was concerned that our Friends’ meeting, and maybe the whole Religious Society of Friends, was a “declining institution.” He shared with me a letter he’d gotten last year from another Friend who’d left our meeting in deep disappointment over our members’ behavior. Mention of the often inane and ego-driven messages we hear in meeting for worship made my anger rise, and I imagined raging at the meeting that those who were breaking the silence with junk ministry were damnable blasphemers, defiling their neighbors’ attempts to have communion with God with their narcissistic insistence on getting others’ attention on their own selfish thoughts! And  so on and on. I rolled Ezekiel 16:63 around in my mouth like a delicious throat-lozenge of fire. And the day before that, I’d had a conversation with a young man who’d withdrawn his interest in becoming a member because of our “disorganization.” Don’t get me started on others’ failures to be organized! I hear my late father’s voice echoing in the back of my heart: “When are you going to get organized!?” How intolerant of others my own shame can make me!

And then this morning, as I prayed for a heart that’s right in the sight of God, it came to me that I was praying alongside countless others who were praying to God for the same thing, many in tears, many with hearts purer than my own. It also came to me to tell my Friend that it didn’t matter whether we were a declining institution or a thriving institution, the only real question was whether he wanted a heart that’s right in the sight of God; and if he did, he’d find at least one other person at our meeting that wanted the same thing, and who would pray for his steadfastness in wanting it, and would commit to encouraging him to persevere. But then, he might find that somewhere else, too. The Holy Spirit would tell him where to go on Sunday mornings, and I hope, of course, that he’d go there straightway.

Radical Jesus and a Tyrant Devil

November 29, 2013

“How do we like the government of satan?” asked early Quaker Stephen Crisp in a 1691 sermon. “I hope we do none of us like it.

We are a generation of selective ears, like all the generations that went before us, different only in the kinds of things we filter out.  For fourscore and seven years European-American males held it to be a self-evident truth that all men were created equal, but filtered out African-Americans, Native Americans and women.  For seventeen centuries Christians have filtered out Jesus’ pacifism and worshiped the power of the carnal weapon.  Today, of those that willingly hear of a Holy Spirit and a Creator God, many refuse to listen when the same scriptures that herald the Holy Spirit speak of “unclean spirits” too, or when texts declaring the might of God also warn of a “god of this world” opposing the Almighty.  Many of us smile at the ignorance of first-century writers who, lacking the insights of modern psychiatry, could only impute pathology to evil beings; we read Paul’s “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) merely as a clever figure of speech.  But perhaps this is just what the god of this world wants.

On the other hand, the First Epistle of John (3:8) reads, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil,” and Jesus’ own recorded words confirm that this is how He understood a major part of His own mission on earth: to “announce liberation to the captives” (Luke 4:18), to “cast out devils,” (Matt. 12:28, Mark 1:39, Luke 11:20, 13:32), and to empower His apostles to cast out demons in His name also (Matt. 10:8, Mark 16:17).  For Jesus as for His contemporaries, the demonic world was real, and it had one ruler, whose grip on this fallen world was to be shaken loose by Jesus’ crucifixion and rising again: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).

Now consider this contemporary reflection: “To the extent that we no longer realize the reality of the supernatural power of the demonic realm – against which we are powerless in our own unaided humanity – we no longer sense the need for a Savior, for Jesus Christ.  Even for many professing Christians, Jesus has become simply an excellent teacher of values, among many other teachers, like Confucius and the Buddha.  This is a major problem with the New Age movement:  It fails to recognize the reality of the supernatural dimension of evil, and affirms that human beings are good and have tremendous untapped potential for growth if only they can discover how good they are and rid themselves of shame.  Consequently, there is in the New Age system of thought no real need for a Savior; they see Jesus simply as a good man bringing a wonderful message of love for the human race.”  (from Francis MacNutt, Deliverance from Evil Spirits: A Practical Manual, p. 33.)   If you, like me, have a knee-jerk reaction to writers who speak of a “New Age movement” as if it were an intentional gathering of wills like the Labor Movement or the Civil Rights Movement, please put it aside; Francis MacNutt has a point here, and one of particular poignancy in these times when we see the Great Lie Machine gathering up its money and political power to trash all life on earth.

Yes, the Great Lie Machine.  You don’t have to be a conspiracy-theorist to see the same spirit of selfishness,  hypocrisy, and lust for power at work in phenomena as diverse as the  consolidation of big money’s control over nominal democracies and their media, while it continues to back regimes that disappear, torture and slaughter their dissidents; the stealthy expansion of environmental pollution, debt-slavery, offshore sweatshops, surveillance, prisons, weaponry, information-management and crowd-control technology; and the insane race to degrade and destroy the earth for the sake of the wealth to be sucked out of it.  The only question is whether there is one will and one master intelligence running the Great Lie Machine.  Not yet having the mature discernment to answer this question for myself, I turn it over to my heavenly Shepherd, trusting that we who more want to do the right thing than get the best interest rate will be enlightened about it, mobilized and led by Him when the time comes for appropriate action.

Just recently I received a request from a friend to discuss the newly published Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith on this blog (Paul Buhle, editor; published 2013 by Herald Press in Harrisonburg, Virginia and Waterloo, Ontario; ISBN 978-0-8361-9621-4; paperback).  I like the book very much, find it beautifully illustrated, and hope to see my own life changed by reading it!  It starts with Sabrina Jones’s masterly sketch of the ministry of Jesus, “Radical Gospel,” from His baptism in the River Jordan to His post-resurrection giving of the Great Commission.   Taste and wit are shown in Friend Sabrina’s blending of scenery from first-century Palestine with images from the urbanized twenty-first century: the crowd around the Baptist is clearly of the ancient world, but when the Devil comes to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, we see a horned Satan with eyeglasses, who offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of this world” in a panorama that includes the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.  The illustrations of Jesus’ parables likewise jump forward twenty centuries to show modern soldiers guzzling bottled water and a skeleton-like hunger-striker refusing food brought by a guard who could be from Guantánamo.  It delights me to imagine the Gospel of Jesus Christ, made graphic through Sabrina’s richly gifted pen and brush, reaching people that might never take the trouble to read the Bible itself — except that here we see Jesus the teacher and Jesus the resurrected martyr but not Jesus the healer, and not Jesus the Savior who claimed, “all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18), draws all people to Him (John 12:32), and gives eternal life to whoever comes to Him (John 17:2).  My prayer is that I’ll see these other sides of Jesus in Sabrina’s future work.

“Radical History,” by Gary Dumm, with Laura Dumm and others, introduces the reader to some of the Church history you might never get to know if you weren’t one of the contributors yourself, and it’s vivid and fast-paced, covering Wycliffe and the Lollards in 14th-century England, the Anabaptists and Hutterites on the Continent and in America, the Quakers in the Colonies; it ends with a one-page life of abolitionist Angelina Grimké (1805-1879).  “Radical Resistance,” by Nick Thorkelson, brings the history up to the present day. The setting is a group discussion that could take place “last week, or 20 years ago, or next month,” “in Brockton, Massachusetts – or the hills around Sâo Paulo, Brazil – or the ruins of Port-au-Prince… – asking: … What are we called to do?”  Different presenters tell stories of inspiring acts of witness, from the 19th-century mission of Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) to the Christian Peacemaker Teams of today.   There the reader is left, wondering what he or she is to do now, and with whom?

There is One who can tell us what we are to do now, who said He would be with us “alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20); but if He is not a Savior, but only “a good man bringing a wonderful message of love for the human race,” then He can’t give us the new, courageous heart and Holy Spirit-guided discerning eye that we need in order to be turned from hesitant, comfort-loving Christian Peacemaker wannabees into the faithful saints that the condition of the planet now calls for.  And this, in my view, is one limitation of Radical Jesus.  The other is that the huge array of bad guys currently running things, and stupid or misguided or enslaved or indifferent people working for or complicit with the bad guys, is just plain daunting: convert one wicked person to the way of righteousness and you’ve made all heaven rejoice, maybe, but then what about the other billions?  Don’t these people have a world headquarters that can be immobilized?  Is there some master strategy that can be blocked, some hypnotizing chief enslaver that they can all be freed from?

Jesus said, “I testify of ‘the world’ that its works are evil” (John 7:7b), “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). Yes, there is a chief enslaver, called in Scripture the prince, or god, of this world, and our Savior has defeated him (or “it”) already; it remains for us to unseat that god in our own hearts by saying “yes” to faith and love, and “no” to fear, pride, greed, lust, selfishness, anger — we may be given several opportunities to do this in any given day.  And then we are to listen.  We will surely be called and led.

About goals and strategies: an open letter to Faithful America

October 18, 2013

To the authors of “How Christians can shut down the Tea Party:”

It troubles me that Faithful America is trying to shout down the false Christianity of the Tea Party so-called Christians.  I’m sure I hate it as much as you do; but I feel a binding commandment in the scripture “the servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all… In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25, KJV).  More important than silencing the right-wingers must be praying for their repentance, and along with that must come a willingness to show them that we love them and are concerned for their salvation.  We’re not competing with them for the attention of the media, or for votes at the ballot box, or for funding: these are the earthly treasures that moth and rust do corrupt (Matt. 6:19), and fighting over these things constitutes carnal warfare (2 Cor. 10:4) even if no outward swords are drawn, because at the heart of the struggle for worldly influence is the evil desire to defeat, rather than to save, these people.  No; fighting “bad guys” only creates more “bad guys,” and keeps us addicted to fighting “bad guys,” who are little more than our own disowned shadows.  But Jesus, who forgave his own murderers and prayed for his own enemies, won over his adversary Paul; similarly Francis of Assisi, the Hindu saint Caitanya and the Quaker Mary Fisher won respectful treatment from intolerant Muslim rulers, Gandhi won over his sometime persecutor General Smuts, and even arch-segregationist Governor George Wallace, as a born-again Christian, repudiated his former ways and asked the forgiveness of African-American civil rights leaders.  Hate perpetuates strife; love wins.  Please consider a change of heart.  God calls us to faithfulness, not success in what we’re trying to achieve; if God favors our cause, success may be granted us as a gift.

We Need a Gospel, Not a Theology

May 14, 2013

So, in the power of the Lord Jesus Christ preach the everlasting gospel, that by his power the sick may be healed, the leprous cleansed, the dead raised, the blind eyes opened, and the devils cast out.
– George Fox, Epistle 114 (1656), in Works, v. 7, p. 114.

We Friends need a theology, some say: perhaps something more modern than the Apology Robert Barclay gave us in the 1670s, when the world was thought to be only thousands of years old and Moses’ history of it accurate. I agree! It would be priceless to have good information about God. For what can we understand about our own condition if we know nothing about the One responsible for our being? Only that we’re walking around in deep ignorance. Is God heartless, cruel, capricious? Then why is there suffering? Does God have a will, or care about human morality? Is there any way for creatures to know their Creator? Why do different scriptures and philosophies disagree about what God wants from us?

But information alone could not cure our ignorance, or our clearly evident bondage to sin and death. And the most perfect theological teaching could not save us from this unhappy exile from the immediately experienced presence of the Source of All Good. “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him” (Job 23:8).

Much more than good information, therefore, do we need good news: words that heal us when they say “be healed,” words that save us when they say “be saved,” words that reveal God when they say “behold your God.” That’s what a gospel does, or is expected to do. A gospel, unlike a mere theology, is a manifestation of divine power. If it doesn’t mend the broken, raise up the fallen, destroy the works of the devil and set free the captive, it’s not a gospel worthy of the name.

“The gospel of Christ,” wrote Paul (Romans 1:16), “is the power of God unto salvation.” The gospel of Christ was but an unfulfilled prophecy in Isaiah 61 until Jesus read it aloud in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-21), then proceeded to do deeds that showed the world He was fulfilling it. What is a gospel? A gospel would not only show me something of the glory and goodness of God, it would allow me to find a Savior and say, “Behold, I’m a corrupt tree that produces only corrupt fruit; make me into a good tree, and I’ll glorify you by producing only good fruit” – and my Savior would do it.

Every human heart yearns for a gospel, a great truth that makes possible a happy ending to our small and disappointing existences, because that’s what the heart seems to have been made to do: but most of us don’t expect such good tidings of great joy in our own time or in our own lives. But why not? Have we forgotten how to imagine the very good, or are we afraid to risk disappointment? Or are we afraid of what a Pearl of Great Price might cost us? Do we want the miracles of Jesus to exist only in a book about long ago and far away? Shall we dismiss His promise to be with us always, even to the end of the world, as something He never really said, or didn’t mean literally, because it can’t be true?

Looking into my own heart for the answer, or everyone’s heart, I find that we’re mostly content with things as they are, and don’t like leaving our comfort zone. Only when we find ourselves tormented by life, and bereft of faith in the fantasy that attacking someone else will relieve the torment, do we become like the disabled and desperate people of long ago that sought out Jesus of Nazareth for healing. Otherwise – why leave the comfort zone?

I find two other things, besides torment, that push us out of our comfort zone: one is love, which makes the torment of others as intolerable as torment to ourselves. The other is the realization that our comfort zone is maintained by illusions and lies, chief among which is that its comfort will last indefinitely. It never does. And then something – torment, love, or disillusionment – makes us feel our crying need for a gospel. One is there waiting for us.

Grant us, Lord, not merely the transforming and awakening power of Your gospel, but the faith and courage to receive it. Have we resistances? We welcome Your sweeping them away.

Spiritual Loneliness

February 12, 2013

For three years I’ve been attending the meeting that my partner belongs to. It’s a small meeting, about 20 at worship. It’s a big change from the urban meeting I’m a member of, which routinely has 100 people gathered together for unprogrammed worship.

At first I thought I was having trouble shifting from that large, urban meeting, which I found so powerful and where there were often deeply silent meetings, to the small, quiet one in the suburbs. But I’m coming to understand that there is more to my trouble than adjusting to a shift in numbers.

Don’t mistake me. It’s a friendly meeting! I like the people there. Lots of strong individuals who’ve led and are leading interesting lives.  I’m making social friendships. I’ve been warmly welcomed. Community is strong. And there is a real desire in the meeting to make the world a better place, with actions that match that desire. More than a few folks, in a spirit of hospitality, have asked me when I’m transferring my membership out of the city and joining with them officially.

I can’t do it.

This week I was given more insight into why. Even though I’m not a member I’ve been serving on a committee. Over the weekend, we were putting the final touches, via e-mail, on a list of basic books about Quakerism to be ordered from FGC. There were maybe eight or so titles on the list–new stuff from FGC that I haven’t caught up with yet. But there were two classics that I didn’t see on the list: Friends for 350 Years and A Testament of Devotion.

I suggested them.

I was shaken by the e-mails I got back. Several Friends said they had always found Kelly’s language too opaque and daunting. What they could grasp of Kelly didn’t speak to their condition. And Brinton (although one Friend said she personally loved the book) was deemed “not suitable for newcomers.” As one member put it, she found that Brinton told her “more about Quakerism than [she] wanted to know.”

These book-ordering e-mails have proved extremely painful to me. They’ve gone deep. They’ve revealed to me, in an actual way, that these good, caring people and I are not speaking the same language.

This Sunday, I will sit down with them in the meeting room. There will be a lovely fire in the fireplace that the benches are arranged around. In the silence . . . In worship . . . Where are our places of communion? I am filled with a sense of spiritual loneliness. What is it calling me to?

The Spiritual Cannot Do Carnal Things

December 21, 2012
John Edminster: The Martyrdom of Ignatius, after an Orthodox icon, 12/21/2012

John Edminster: The Martyrdom of Ignatius, after an Orthodox icon, 12/21/2012

Bishop Ignatius of Antioch (d. 108 C.E.?), being escorted to Rome to be eaten by lions in the Coliseum, was allowed to receive visitors and write letters to the Churches of Asia Minor before taking ship for Italy.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians I read: “Those that are carnal cannot do spiritual things; neither can those that are spiritual do carnal things, just as faith cannot do the works of faithlessness, nor faithlessness the works of faith. But even the things that ye do at the prompting of the flesh are spiritual, for ye do all things in Jesus Christ.”

I’ve been wanting to post statements of my own on this blog for some time, but not had the freedom nor the energy. But this beautiful statement of Ignatius’s so far outshines anything I might write that I’m taking a break from my job to put it out there for all of you that have asked for the new life in Christ and felt His acceptance of you. Ask yourselves whether or not this message sounds like your Shepherd’s voice, and if it does, rejoice with me, give thanks, and relax; He will not let you lose it unless you willfully break away. And why would you?

Days 9 and 10: Laying Down Our Life

October 19, 2012

Lord, make me ready to lay down my life for You, or for any of the brethren or sisters, for sinners, fools, enemies, for anyone at all, for love of You and of them; and if my life, then how much more readily should I lay down my night’s sleep, the contents of my wallet, my health and comfort, my resentments, my book collection, my job and liberty, my ambitions and my insistence on winning, my desire to impress, charm and control people, my desire for the love, favor and good opinion of others, my inertia and love of ease. Lay down my lukewarmness! Lay down my fear! Lay down my attachment to these vain things that charm me most, which are no more than the stuff of dreams! Lord, seize my heart and make it like Your own, ablaze with universal and unstinting love! Amen, amen, in Jesus’ name, Amen!

Days Two and Three: Abiding and Obeying

October 12, 2012

Abiding in Christ the Vine, and obeying Christ our Shepherd, seem such obviously good ideas that I had to ask myself, this morning, why we don’t always, all of us, obey and abide.  Looking into my own heart, as I rode the bus to work,  I saw a number of contrary tendencies that I’ve learned to call laziness, and fear, and resentment, and desire, all swimming around in a dark pool of ignorance. 

The ignorance, it seems, we humans mostly can’t help, but there are some bits of ancient wisdom that suggest that we often choose to make ourselves more ignorant than we already were, driving out the possibility of faith.  My memories of my youth as a teen-aged shoplifter, poseur and chronic liar tend to support them.  Bad moral choices dumb us down; or, ask for darkness to cover your selfish misdeeds and you’ll get darkness.  The Yoga Sutras (2:34) warn that sins such as harming others “bear fruit in endless suffering and ignorance” (emphasis mine – je). Jesus teaches Nicodemus that “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” (John 3:19-20.)  Paul writes of God’s creatures turning away from their primordial knowledge of God “because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God… but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:21-22.)  The Bhagavad-Gita (18:22) speaks of people whose nature is “darkness” (tamas) as clinging obstinately to a false knowledge that takes the part to be the whole, denying the rest of reality.  The literature of modern psychology is full of observations about repression, denial, and the many ways we protect ourselves from the truth.  I find myself wondering whether it’s my addictive delight in having a will independent of God’s – my sinfulness, some would call it – that keeps me from the delight of unbroken and infinite knowledge of God that I know I was made for.  “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.” (Psalm 17:15.)

This ignorance (avidya), the Yoga Sutras assert (2:3-4), provides the “field” for all the other afflictions that taint consciousness: self-regard, attachment, aversion, and clinging to the mortal body.  Here are the “laziness, and fear, and resentment, and desire” that I found on my morning bus ride, the things that would pull me away from Christ my Guide.

I watched an episode on “The Simpsons” some years ago, in which the foolish Homer Simpson “got religion” and kept praying, as he followed his own impulses, “if this is Your will, Lord, send no sign.”  How we dread getting a “sign” that would send us on a mission that risks pain and death!  (As if we could avoid them.)  And yet my experience has shown me, time after time, that when the Lord requires me to do something, He always provides the courage, or patience, or wisdom, or whatever I need, to get it done!  Why fear pain when He will give me the strength to bear it?