Archive for the ‘Gospel’ Category

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.

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p6EeA-ef

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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.

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.

How I Got to Where I Am Now

August 7, 2014

Two days ago, I posted an alert about the upcoming Hiroshima Day anniversary on the Google Group unofficially and loosely connected with my home meeting:

The website http://www.doonething.org/calendar/nonukesday.htm urges us to do one thing to eliminate the threat of nuclear destruction — like, for example, “It’s the perfect time to urge your Mayor to declare your city a Nuclear Free Zone.” But I venture to add another suggestion:

If you believe that God is almighty and listens to your prayers, take time on Hiroshima Day to pray that the whole world become a nuclear-free zone. Don’t be half-hearted or tentative; you don’t want God to be half-hearted or tentative about listening to you. Do something radical: kneel to make your prayer. Prostrate yourself to make your prayer. Sing it. Shout it. Dance it. Call up a friend on the phone and ask, “will you pray out loud with me?” and this way you’ll have a witness to what you did. Get up in the morning and fast until you’ve made your prayer. Or even better, and more to the point: ask God how to make your prayer about nuclear weapons. God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray. God is the best expert on it there is, and God is already there in the room with you. Make your prayer an event you’ll remember.

The nine nuclear powers are: The US, the UK, France, Russia, and China; India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_weapons).

There are also “peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” meaning, mostly, use of radioactive material for the generation of electrical energy. but you may feel led to pray that these be phased out also, so that there may be no more Three Mile Island meltdowns, no more Chernobyls, no more Fukushima Daiichi disasters. (There have probably been more meltdowns than you know about: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_meltdown.)

Don’t be discouraged by the amount of money, and state power, and corporate influence arrayed against your tiny little wish. The Ruler of the universe, the Inventor of the atomic nucleus, the Ultimate Comforter of every victim of nuclear warfare and nuclear bullying is on your side. Nothing is too hard for God.

In this posting, the reader will notice, I make some statements about God that invite the question, “How does the writer know these things?” And that’s just the question that a Friend asked in a private e-mail. (The statements about God that I see as most inviting that question are “God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray” and “The Ruler of the universe… is on your side. Nothing is too hard for God.”) Now I could have tried to answer the Friend with proof-texts and exegetical arguments, but if the Friend doesn’t accept scripture as authoritative, I’m out of luck, aren’t I? And anyway it would be disingenuous, because I got these statements not out of scripture but out of the knowledge of God that I believe God planted in my own heart. So I wrote a longish letter back to the Friend explaining how I got from being a child atheist to a born-again follower of Jesus who can dare to claim some knowledge of God’s character and intentions toward us. I think that some readers of this blog may find it interesting. The only thing in it I’d correct is that I referred to my father as a “bad-tempered alcoholic.” Well, he was, but not after he got sober, when I was turning eleven; and then he stayed sober till he died, thirty years later. And even before that, he was a faithful husband and father, a dedicated teacher, and a hard worker who hungered and thirsted after righteousness. I’m inserting a little pictorial tribute to him before I go on (yes, his hands were almost that huge):

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

My letter follows:

Thanks for asking. I’m really grateful for the question, and hope I can do the truth justice. I’ll do my best to speak simply from my own experience. As you can see from the headline of my announcement, “Thursday, August 6 is Hiroshima Day,” I’m very fallible; August 6 is today, Wednesday.

I was raised an atheist. My mother, a gentle soul who put flies out the window rather than swat them, an admirer of Gandhi, told me she believed in the power of Love, but didn’t go into details. My father, a bad-tempered alcoholic who’d been raised by a strict Irish Catholic mother who forbade little boys to “touch themselves” (clueless me! I had no idea what Grandma was talking about). He was in violent reaction against religion, and despised it all as a huge fraud foisted on the masses by the ruling class (“but don’t tell Grandma that you believe that”). When I was nine or ten, some time before my father turned to a Higher Power, sobered up and joined AA, I knelt and prayed to God, angrily, that if He wanted people to believe in Him He shouldn’t make Himself invisible! Oh, what a fool I felt like! How my father would shame me if he’d seen me on my knees! But how I wanted to know whether or not there was a God, because I’d been cursed with a philosophical mind that had to understand the basic principles of existence!

As I grew up, I came to loathe Christianity, which, as I was exposed to it, considered everyone a damnable sinner unless they agreed with its notions, which, however, it could not prove by the ordinary rules of evidence I’d been raised to trust in. In fact it contained a wicked Catch-22 right near the end of its sacred text, The Bible: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8, King James Version). Can you beat that? First it makes me fearful as all hell, and then it throws me into the lake of fire for being fearful! To hell with that! And this Bible is supposed to be about a God who is Love?

But then came the sixties, and first the activist revolution (during which I almost converted to Marxism, but lacked faith in the right-mindedness of the working class) and then the psychedelic and “New Age” spiritual revolution. On an LSD trip I became convinced that there were invisible worlds inhabited by invisible intelligences. I wanted to know more. I read the literature of Zen, Yoga, Sufism, Theosophy, the occult, and the pseudo-shamanism of Carlos Castaneda. I wanted to open my chakras, raise my kundalini, encounter the nagual, and experience enlightenment, with a hunger that even seemed to out-burn my desire for sex and love. I dropped out of graduate school, left my first wife, and became a wandering hippie. During this time I read the Bible, having been tipped off by the occultists that it was full of hidden wisdom. I also remember telling my aunt that I felt so bad about walking out on my first wife that I’d rather die than do anything like that again.

One year after I left my wife (to the day!) I almost got my wish. My new girlfriend Deon, then three months pregnant by another man (this was the sixties, you’ll remember), asked me if I’d take her out to get a hamburger, because there were so many people standing around in our communal kitchen getting stoned that she couldn’t fix herself food there. I agreed. Two friends came along with us, John Butler and Michelle Silverman. It was night. It was the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, on February 17, 1969. John Butler, black, and Michelle, white, were walking about twenty paces ahead of Deon and me. We’d almost gotten to the all-night diner when three bikers jumped out of a parked car, shouting the “N” word, and ran up behind John with obvious intent to do him violence. I squeezed Deon’s hand and sprinted forward, shouting “Hey, man, that’s my brother!” It would have been one of the last things John heard. The man called Crazy Mike, who’d been killing for thrills since age 12, stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife, piercing his heart. He died on the spot. The man called Moose whirled around, hitting me on the left cheekbone with a wine bottle, breaking the eyesocket and giving me the deep-set eyes I now have. As I reeled from the impact, Crazy Mike whirled around and stabbed me in the abdomen, punching through diaphragm, liver, kidney and intestines. “Come on,” one of the murderers said to his buddies, “let’s get out of here.” As I lay on the sidewalk, a strange calm came over me. I knew that I was bleeding internally, and was in shock, which was keeping the pain at a tolerable level, and might die within minutes or even seconds. I remembered the instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead: Pay attention. Deon ran up to me, sobbing. I urged her to be calm; “It’ll be all right.”

And then a well-groomed young man in a trenchcoat walked up to me, knelt beside me, and asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” I thought very fast. I knew that, whatever God’s theology might be, He didn’t approve of liars, and I might be meeting God very soon, so I’d have to give a truthful answer to this person. And I’d need to keep it simple. I knew, from the Biblical accounts, that Jesus had laid down his life of his own accord (John 10:15), surrendering so that others might be spared (John 18:8), and was not crucified because of any bad karma of his own earning that might make him “deserve” it: therefore His death on the cross was His gratuitous gift to me. This allowed me to truthfully call Him my Savior. It didn’t mean that the Buddha, Socrates, Marx and Gandhi couldn’t also be “saviors” to me, but I wasn’t being asked about them. So “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

“Good,” he answered. “That’s all that’s necessary.” And he got up and walked away. In a moment, the police arrived, and I got taken in an ambulance to San Francisco General Hospital. I woke up full of tubes and pain. I kept that encounter with the street-evangelist pretty much to myself over the coming years. Frankly, I was embarrassed to have called Jesus my personal Savior; it was like admitting I was bisexual, or weak and cowardly, or a failure and a fool.

Seventeen years later, when my first child was almost a year old, I felt the need of a faith community to raise my child in, and found my way to Fifteenth Street Meeting. It was very tolerant and welcoming, traits I still value. But if I am to call myself a Quaker, I wondered, am I to call myself a Christian also? My biggest quarrel was with Paul who, in Romans 1:24-32, showed that he despised homosexuals, and in 1 Corinthians 14:34, that he silenced women. If I can’t accept the New Testament, I reasoned, I can’t call myself a Christian. I re-read Romans 1:24-32, continuing on to Romans 2:4, where Paul describes God’s eagerness to forgive sinners as the very thing that makes sinners repent and fall in love with God. I saw that Paul may have had his own prejudices against gay people, but their arguable damnability was not the point of his writing, but God’s magnanimity. When I got home to my son’s mom, I quietly announced that I now considered myself a Christian. To my amazement, she didn’t even question it.

Then I started having auditions. The first one was “I give ear:” said in a majestic voice, as if from the other end of the universe, entirely within my mind. Some years later, when I was tempted to commit adultery and wondered what we might do if the door were closed behind her, I heard “NO!” I obeyed at once and put the thought away. A few years later than that, as I was at worship in the meeting house, obsessively berating myself for something foolish or hurtful I’d once said or done, I heard that same voice say “That sin is forgiven! Put it away!” – and soon after that, but on a different day, “I will not let you fall into sin.”

About ten years ago I was told by a respected elder that I carried a gift of healing, which she blessed and sealed in Christ’s name. Well, I thought, people do tell me that my touch relieves headache, but I’m not going to expect cancer cures. Then one morning I woke up with my palms buzzing and a voice in my mind – that voice again – saying “This anointing is for real: don’t abuse it.” And some years later: “I give you the gift of effective prayer.” Today I wouldn’t necessarily expect a cancer cure as a result of my prayer, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

This was not the only gift or calling I believe I was given to carry, but it illustrates my experience of growing in the new life in Christ. I agree that it could all be a delusion, and that reality doesn’t really work that way, and that I need to be deprogrammed or given lithium, but I invite any skeptic to consider the saying of Jesus, “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). If my inward experiences can be shown to be making me more arrogant, quarrelsome, and unforgiving, then maybe I should take lithium. But if not – if, rather, they’re seen to make me sweeter and more compassionate, then I’d say to the skeptic, let’s see where this new life in Christ leads, and if you can’t bless it, at least please tolerate it.

Recently I’ve had impressed on me the character of the God of all creation, as revealed by Jesus. Forget the questions of whether His mother was a virgin, whether He rose from the dead, and whether well-meaning people might have doctored the story to air-brush out all the warts and blemishes in the historical record. They are less important than this: Jesus said, and here I paraphrase, “Know my Heavenly Father, who is also your Heavenly Father. He is like what you see Me to be. I wish the liberation of all people from this bondage to oppressors, this fear of death, this endless ignorance and suffering. I am willing to pay for that liberation with My own suffering, even to death by crucifixion. I will forgive all, even My own betrayers and murderers, because God is Love and that’s what Love demands; so will God forgive everyone everything, if they will just come to God and be willing to receive it. Trust in God, who is eternally like this, and who has the power to give you courage, and patience, and wisdom, and kindness, beyond what you dreamed could be yours, so that even this world of fear and pain can be experienced as the outskirts of Paradise, soon put behind us like a bad dream. All that you have read in Scripture about God being vengeful or wrathful is not true. People fear God because they project their own bad consciences onto Him and flee into the darkness rather than face the Light that stands ready to heal and perfect them, now and always. So do not fear, but come and be healed by the God that always intended your perfection. If you are a Jew, come to God as a Jew. If you are a Muslim or a Hindu, come as a Muslim or Hindu; if you are confused about what to believe, come as a confused person.” I am now on fire with this Gospel, and I think that it’s the key to the world’s practical problems, from war and hunger to the ecological crisis that’s now threatening all life on earth.

I can now answer your question directly, which was, “How do you know all this?” How do I know, for example, that God is almighty and hears prayer, that “God likes to be asked for advice on how to pray,” or that nothing is too hard for God? And my answer is, because I’ve been granted a new kind of knowing, a knowing that’s not in the mind but in the heart. I don’t know how I know these things about God, and I would truly want God to rebuke and correct me if I overstep my measure of light and say things about God that are untrue. But when God said to me, “I give ear,” I believe that God not only assured me that He/She/It listens always, but also announced that He/She/It was giving me an ear to hear with. And what I hear with that ear, I must also speak.

Repentance, the Comforting Gospel, and the Dying Earth

July 11, 2014
A friend who read my recent posts encouraging repentance called them “terrifying.” I wrote back:
“I’m grateful to you for telling me that my writing was ‘terrifying,’ because I realize that my objective should not be to terrify but to comfort, and to inspire hope and trust in a God who wishes us no evil, no pain, but desires to rescue us from evil and pain. I heard a voice some years ago, which I believe to have been the Holy Spirit’s, telling me ‘comfort thou the ones that are still asleep.’ I take that as my commission: to be a comforter rather than a terrifier. But before I can comfort, I first need to know that the persons I’m talking to can admit that the world around us is sometimes terrifying. If they can’t, then the comforting conversation isn’t ready to start.
“I believe that we’re all God’s darlings. Really. God sees us the way God made us: innocent, beautiful, sweet, like newborn babies, like Adam and Eve before their Great Disobedience, making up clever names for the animals, eating blueberries right off the bush, and delighting in delighting each other. All the bad crap, guns and waterboarding and debt-slavery, is what we made for ourselves, individually and collectively. And not just the obviously man-made bad stuff, but sickness and danger and death itself also, with the hurricanes, tsunamis and epidemics that plague a fallen world. This is the bad dream we made for ourselves, because we’ve chosen ‘darkness’ over ‘light,’ as Jesus puts it in John 3:19, and we’ve come to prefer the sin-hiding darkness, because it seduces us with false promises of making us happier than the light can. This means that we’ve developed perverted tastes, which lock us into being invested in ignorance and a fallen world. Hence we need to repent of our perverted tastes and be healed of our addiction to what’s not good for us.
“Is it ugly, is it painful, is it disappointing? Then it’s not something God created for us, but something God allowed us to create for ourselves – because God did create us in His image: to be creators, with free will, which allows us to make mistakes. But God also created us to be capable of learning, repenting, outgrowing mistakes, choosing the good over the evil. I say all this just to make the point that God’s not to blame for anything unpleasant in our lives, and therefore, is not someone to fear, but to turn to and trust, crying for help!
“I believe that Jesus revealed the character of God for us, both by serving as one of God’s prophets and declaring God’s intentions, and also by modeling Godlike behavior: laying down his life for us, forgiving all his own betrayers and murderers even when his pain, and therefore his temptation to curse his enemies, must have been almost unbearable. But Jesus is not just a prophet of God and a model for good behavior who lived two thousand years ago and then disappeared from this world; He is a Present Friend. ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ He said (Matthew 28:20). So when you say, ‘I could never be like Jesus,’ He’s there to answer, ‘Sure you can; I’ll help you.’ All you have to do is want it. I think that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. I think it’s a comforting Gospel, tidings of great joy to all people.”

Now repentance is a change of heart. It doesn’t make the thorns drop off roses as we pass by, or the cruel around us lose their cruelty. Life in this world still hurts, and we may even follow Jesus into martyrdom. But repentance allows certain things to happen: one is that we come to know, inwardly, that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39), who is making all things work together for good for us (Romans 8:28; this removes all cause for grief). Another is that, with a change of heart we become a new creature, and the new creature no longer hates itself – what a burden falls away then, and what works of love start streaming from us! A third thing is that we unlearn our deep-seated old habit of deciding what to do on the basis of its expected payoff for me, because the new question becomes “Is this what God is asking of me now?” – which immunizes us against the temptation to reason, “Let us do evil, that good may come” (Romans 3:8). This was the reasoning that got us into this present nasty situation.

This brings me to consider our present nasty situation. In addition to our having a world so militarized, so tyrannized, and so polarized between rich and poor, we are also killing life on earth. Our consumption habits, the political and economic choices we make to support them, and the perverted tastes behind them, are all hurtling us forward toward doomsday. At first we thought that the rising titer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would simply raise temperatures and shift comfort- and growing-zones toward the earth’s poles. Then we realized that many species would become extinct in the process; island nations and coastal cities would go underwater as the icecaps melted; increased carbon dioxide in the water would turn the seas too sour to allow shelled creatures to form shells, sending famine up the marine food chain. Our horror mounted as we saw that the melting of polar ice and arctic permafrost would not only change ocean salinity patterns, killing the Gulf Stream and other vehicles of life, but would also be releasing megatons of methane into the upper atmosphere, turning up the flame under the cooking planet.

We’ve realized that the way we do things is unsustainable and called for a Plan B, and sensible Plan B’s have been rolled out. But now it’s evident that the rulers of the earth, both the visible ones and the invisible, lack the will, motivation and flexibility to implement any sort of Plan B. Of course we’ll join the march to the United Nations on September 21 to insist on it, but no doubt the heads of state assembled there will only be able to wring their hands and point fingers at one another. Great numbers of voluntary communities of urban and rural homesteaders may go off-grid and grow their own vegetables as the crisis worsens,  but I can’t believe that anyone will prove competent to make a general, global Plan B happen. So we’ll need a Plan C.

The only Plan C I can imagine saving life on earth is widespread repentance, a world epidemic of repentance – not merely a change of behaviors, though surely outward changes will accompany inward metamorphosis (the replacement of agribusiness and frankencrops with technologies like permaculture, the Wal-Mart trams-Pacific supply chain with a localized transition economy, global capitalism with its yet-unnamed successor).  I look with hope toward the only God,  the only Savior, the only Transformer of Hearts, for the only Plan C that can save life on earth.