Archive for the ‘ministry’ Category

To a Fellow Healer

August 20, 2016

I recently said good-bye to a younger healer with an outburst of parting advice that even surprised me with its simplicity and clarity. It went something like this. (Actually I said far less than this: what follows is what I’d like to have said:)

Don’t neglect your healing gift. If you’re carrying it, you have to be always ready to ask someone who’s suffering, “Would you like me to lay hands on you and pray for you?” (You’ll generally want a third party present, to witness that you didn’t lay on hands in an improper way. Also, before touching them, it’s advisable to ask, “May I touch you here?” and get an explicit consent. If touching them would tempt you erotically, do no more than take their hands in yours, or touch the persons’ bodies not at all, but at most lay hands on their “aura,” the energy-field a few inches from the skin surface.)

Neither force yourself to make such offers. Trust your own sense of when it’s appropriate to make the offer. You may get a sense that the Holy Spirit sent that person to you, or put it into your mind to make the offer. Remember that you’re not a magician and can’t guarantee results; it’s only Jesus Christ who does the healing. But in any case your touch can do no harm.

With practice you’ll develop a familiarity with prayerful mindfulness, and will know when to take your hands away. I always finish by saying aloud, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

Most important is to remember that this gift is precious and deserves to be kept in a clean vessel. Pray to be rid of selfish hopes – that your patient will like you, love you, look up to you, or desire you. Try to think of yourself, in this context, as merely a tube trying to reach to Heaven, not very interesting at all. If your patient does show signs of finding you interesting, be compassionate but remain professionally correct, and don’t flatter yourself. Pray that the Lord protect you against temptation.

A very, very important part of keeping the gift’s vessel clean is consecrating your mouth (and your writing hand, and your inward will) to the truth, and to lovingkindness. Mouth, hand, heart – they’re no longer yours, but belong to God; you’re their steward now. You may no longer curse – not to a person’s face, not behind their back, not even by proxy. If someone angers or annoys you, pray that God stop their offensive behavior and correct them. Wishing that they might be ashamed is not an evil wish, so long as you wish that shame drive them to repentance and not destruction. You must wish for the “bad guys” everything that you would wish for yourself and those you love.

If you find yourself smiling inwardly when others “do your cursing for you” by demonizing or belittling others, telling hurtful jokes, or making barbed accusations, remove yourself from the situation – turn off the TV set, end the conversation, excuse yourself and leave the company – and pray the toxins out of your system. Try to be patient, and keep asking God’s help; there are a lot of toxins. These are the social and emotional toxins that pollute the air we all breathe and the water we all drink. But God wills that we be freed of them.

Remember that by agreeing to serve as one of the Lord’s healers, you’ve asked to be developed into someone whose words have the power of coming true. To be entrusted with this power, you must show that you can be trusted to use speech only to bless and heal. You’re being watched – but fortunately, by Someone who delights in forgiving, so ask forgiveness as often as you need to, and delight in your all-forgiving God as God delights in having an all-forgiving child who’s growing increasingly like its Heavenly Parent.

For those who like illustrations, I’m attaching a copyright-free “iaomai” monogram. “Iaomai” is Greek for “I heal.”

I Heal

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A letter to Friends back home

December 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reason for the Hope that is in Me

November 11, 2015

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

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p6EeA-ef

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.

Ramadan mubarak! a letter to a Muslim friend

June 30, 2014

This is the text of a letter I just sent to a Muslim friend on the first day of Ramadan, edited only slightly, and having sent it, I felt called to send it to all my Muslim friends, and to all, of any faith tradition, who can hear it, with my love. Those who call God “Her” rather than “Him” should substitute that pronoun; we refer to the same Holy One:

As-Salaam alaykum! I was very grateful to hear from you, and ever since then I’ve been wishing for an opportunity to sit and write a thoughtful letter back to you. Many days have passed, all with their pressures and problems, and on some days I’ve simply felt too stupid, or too caught up in superficial thinking, to gather myself together and give you a true picture of what my life is like now, or what I see when I look out on the world. Now it seems as though I needed the awful solemnity of Ramadan to frame an adequate picture of my situation, and what I see as our situation, all of us human creatures.

We are a race of exiles from Paradise. Our souls once knew our Creator intimately, and knew what He wanted of us: to love one another, to be thankful toward Him in our hearts, and to do only good. Somehow we came here, to a world where there is love, but also fear, which tempts us to be selfish and do evil; and these make us forget that we have a Creator. Worse: if we knew we had a Creator, we would hate Him and refuse His guidance, unless we could be convinced that He was just like us, and loved us and hated the ones that we hate, and asked nothing spiritually difficult of us, and smiled on our deceits and our violence. (And why would we hate Him? because turning back to Him from our rebellion would be briefly painful, and we naturally shun pain.)

And behold: a world full of religious leaders who are willing to tell us just such a great lie about God, and a world full of political leaders and institutions that embody that lie. These all say, “Let us do evil, so that good will come of it” – in the original Greek of the New Testament (Romans 3:8), it sounds like a children’s song: poiḗsōmen tà kaká, hína élthē tà agathá. This is the Devil’s song, and the whole human race sings it as it goes about its daily work, making the whole world into a great insane asylum. Those whose hearts remember the commandment “do only good, so that your conscience will stay clean and you’ll remain open to your Creator’s guidance,” are the ones struggling to stay sane among their mad brothers, sisters, parents, employers, children, husbands and wives. But how tempting it is to just say “yes” to what everyone else is saying, and help them go on doing what they’re doing – how else would we earn the money to support our families? – and this puts us back to sleep. So while we’re awake, we desperately need the company and encouragement of others who are awake, who’ll remind us of our calling to do only good, and repent of evil, and remember the all-forgiving God who loves to welcome back any and all who repent of evil they’ve thought, said, done, and approved of as if it were good.

So I pray for myself, and I pray for others, and try to do works of love as opportunities arise – my main work now. And I’m very, very grateful for every expression of love, and comfort, and warning, and encouragement I get back from others that I think are rightly guided, anything that tells me that I myself am walking the path of the rightly guided, the şirāţ al-mustaqīm, because I know how easy it is for us to be deceived by our own pride. May Allah protect you and your loved ones from such temptation always, and continue to lead you along the path of the rightly guided, now and forever, until we stand together in His glorious presence, no longer capable of falling away from Him in whom all good dwells.

Always feel free to ask for my prayers in times of temptation or suffering, and please know that I’m your friend forever.

As-salaam alaykum,

John

Again, will you repent?

June 22, 2014

This is a sequel to my  posting of yesterday, “Will you repent?” This time I won’t merely write a comment on another Friend’s blog posting, but dip my pen, so to speak, into my own heart. (If this figure of speech is found disturbing, it was meant to be.)

I read in the Philokalia, years ago, that there is no salvation without repentance. At once I felt the truth of the statement, for it had already been made clear to me that the God of All Consciousness willed my salvation into everlasting peace, but my sense of myself as a sinner kept me from peace. What names of self-condemnation had I not called myself! Liar. Thief. Cheater. Hypocrite. Impostor. Betrayer of trust. Coward. Selfish. Moral weakling. Sex criminal. Adulterer. Pervert. Addict. Cruel. Loveless. Bully. Persecutor. Racist. Anti-Semite. Would-be rapist and murderer. Failure. Fool. If that person were to stand in a Light of Truth that exposed everything, I couldn’t bear it. I must, therefore, continue to keep certain memories of things I’d thought, said and done hidden and, as much as possible, forgotten. And I must defend the secrecy of my secrets until, mercifully, they died with me and could hurt me no more.

This sense of tainted self, which I sense afflicts most people here on earth, predated  my belief in an all-seeing God. But a Light of Truth that exposed everything could exist, theoretically, in the basement of a police station, the brain-decoder lab of a mad scientist, or the anal-probe room of a UFO. So long as our master strategy is to keep the shame of our tainted self hidden, we must mostly hope that no Light of Truth catches up with us anywhere, and that an all-seeing God does not exist – or, if one does, that He, She or It has no interest in turning souls inside-out to expose their interiors. I wonder whether this would explain the appeal, not only of atheist materialism and moral relativism, but also of religions of cheap grace (forgiveness of sins without having to name them), and spiritual disciplines promising cheap liberation, with a guaranteed destruction of the karmāśaya that requires no looking inside it.  Collectively, we have an enormous investment in keeping the darkness dark.

I like to call this state of consciousness I’ve just described “fallen,” having personally experienced glimmerings of another state that is “unfallen.” The fallen state is one of fear. I’ve seen how all the vices, anger, lust, greed, pride, envy and so on, can be traced back to fear, including that peculiar one that causes projection and scapegoating of all that we can’t bear to acknowledge in ourselves. It’s not yet known to me, at this stage in my life, whether death, danger, pain and evil result from our choice to dwell in a fallen spiritual state, or are independent God-established facts of life that justify our fear; but faith tells me that we may know this on the day that God “wipes away all tears from our eyes” (Rev. 21:4).

A society of humans in a fallen state is, not surprisingly, often cruel to its deviants, its outsiders, its scapegoats, and it typically institutes systems of domination and oppression to maintain itself, with myths and ideologies to justify the inequities of those systems, and payoffs of privilege to anesthetize those who enjoy what others lack. War, slavery, child abuse, violent entertainment, substance addiction, extremes of wealth and poverty, loan-sharking, prostitution, organized crime, and idolatrous exaltation of vain or evil things as “good” are all common features of fallen culture, now as in ancient Babylon. To what extent a society of fallen humans can be made kinder, gentler, and fairer without addressing  the root problem of fallenness is one of the great experimental questions of our time. I’ve seen marvelous improvements in child-rearing and race-relations in my day, but also very ugly developments in the technology of  torture and killing. Antibiotics have done wonders with bacterial diseases, but, as I write, medical equipment is being used to force-feed prisoners held without criminal charges by a government that promised their speedy release years ago. I look out the window and still see a fallen world, and fallen people that have a crying, screaming need for salvation from it. (I happen also to believe in hell: an after-death state in which the inner torment of fallen souls continues, but without the disguises and cushions that this world affords. But it’s not necessary to believe in hell to believe in a universal human need for salvation, for this world is hell enough: ask the man who’s falling forty storeys from an overturned platform.)

Now back to Theoliptus of Philadelphia, who wrote that there is no salvation without repentance. How will we be restored from our fallen state without a great transformation in our consciousness? And how will we allow such a transformation without a massive letting-go of hates, fears, grudges, prejudices, false beliefs, and  idolatrous attachments to things that can never save us? That is repentance. And it’s not something that we can do in our own power, like saying a polite “I’m sorry.” It must come to us as a gift from elsewhere or it will not happen at all,  for it requires something that we don’t have yet. We know when we’ve gotten it; it makes us feel good. We know we’ve been washed clean of all those former things.  The sinner, even the chief of sinners, as Paul called himself (1 Tim. 1:15), is no longer in bondage to sin (John 8:31-36).

“When they heard these things, they…  glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life,” Acts 11:18. I’m now ready to speak about the God who grants repentance and salvation. What can I know about God? I’m less than a worm next to the Creator of one hundred trillion trillion stars. However, I believe that I’ve been spoken to by the voice of God, not many times, but enough. And I’ve been shown that the character of  the all-forgiving Jesus of Nazareth, my Savior and the world’s, mirrors the character of God: God is love (1 John 4:8, 4:16) and it is not the will of God that a single one of these little ones should perish (Matt. 18:14) or turn wicked and die in its sins (Ezekiel 33:11), but though its sins be as scarlet, they should be made white as snow (Isaiah 1:18), and that soul should have everlasting life (John 3:16) in which it experiences righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). I believe that Jesus’ laying down His life for us made these gifts of repentance and salvation possible for us, though I don’t yet know how. But I expect to be taught, once I’m made capable of understanding it.

The reader will note that I quote the Bible a lot, and may wonder why I choose the passages that make God seem easy to love, and not, say, those more troubling ones that liken God to a man in a drunken rage (Psalm 78:65), have God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then punishing him for it (Exodus 4:21 ff), or having people cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 19-21). My answer is that these sweeter scriptures have been “opened” to me, and those that make God look capricious or cruel have not. The sheep of the Good Shepherd know their Shepherd’s voice from the voices of the hireling, the sheep-rustler and the wolf (John 10:1-14), and I recognize my Shepherd’s voice in Biblical passages that glorify the mercy and lovingkindness of God. I can believe in a Christ Jesus who freely lays down His life for me (John 10:15-17). I can’t believe in a God the Father who demands the torture-death of his innocent Son as payment for our sins; it can only be a lie invented by fallen theologians. God who planted the moral sense in me must have a far higher one than I do (Psalm 94:9).

Now it’s written in that Bible, “With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful… and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself unsavory” (2 Samuel 22:26-27, Psalm 18:26).  This suggests an important epistemological principle, that the unmerciful cannot experience God as merciful, not because of any sulkiness or wrathfulness on God’s part but because of a psychological incapacity in the unmerciful person that inevitably accompanies his refusal to show mercy. In that vein, Jesus notes “if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We are not to blame the Father for this, any more than we’re to blame the sun for appearing red when the atmosphere is heavily polluted. It is my conviction that all scriptures that put a fierce face on God represent the faith of fierce prophets or the experience of fierce times. The sun often appears red, and threatens soon to turn redder.

This brings me to the present situation of humankind, and the danger our overconsumption now presents to all life on earth. We have been bad stewards over the creatures, and it’s because we’ve been unrepentant fallen stewards.  Today there are people of faith who wish to shame, or bully, the most powerful-seeming of the bad stewards into changing their behavior.  But fear-based and adversarial actions are not appropriate behavior for people of faith,  whose every act should reflect the goodness of the God or dharma that they represent and serve as an advertisement to the evildoer to change his ways and enter into such a path of faith himself.  Until the CEOs of the fossil-fuel companies and their financiers are brought to repentance and a living relationship with God, the true mission of the environmental movement will remain unaccomplished. Until the earth itself is recognized not as a multi-use farm and recreation area for mortal creatures but as a staging-area for a life with God in eternity, our uses of it will continue to defile it. We who pray that God grant all creatures of the earth their daily bread, trustful that our Best of Fathers will not trick us by giving us a stone instead (Matt. 7:9), have a prophet’s assurance that God intends the earth to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18). Ask your heart whether or not this is a message of God to you, and if it is, spread trust that God will turn the threatened dying of the earth around. While you are in communion with your heart, ask it whether or not your repentance is yet complete and perfect, and if it is not, whisper to God, “yes, perfect it.” God will do the rest.

 

 

Weeping over the Lord’s Prayer: a First

May 31, 2014

My tears arose out of a sort of thought-experiment I did while saying the Lord’s Prayer this morning. Here’s the thought-experiment; you might want to try it yourself.
I’d been imagining people asking me why it was so important to me to be virtuous, like, was it a selfish ambition of mine disguised as its opposite? In many ways it may be, but there’s also the fact that I’m aware of so many people suffering, and wanting to be prayed for by someone that God would listen to, that just for their sakes I’d want to be someone that God would listen to. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous person availeth much,” wrote James (5:16b).
Now from what I know about God, and please forgive the masculine pronoun, He’s the sort of person that would listen to anybody, righteous or unrighteous, because we’re all His darlings. If He gave us consciousness, then He sees with our eyes and feels with our heart, and His compassion abides with us forever. I know this about God because He gave me a heart to know it with. Scripture also tells me that He had compassion on Cain when Cain complained about the severity of his punishment. Scripture tells me that when I look on Jesus, I also see God, and that Jesus fed even Judas with the mystery of His body and blood, knelt to wash his feet, and forgave him from the cross.
But if I stand before God’s throne covered with the dung and vomit and slime of my own sins, and yes, they really have been that bad, I’ll be so distracted by the smell and feel of my own condition that I won’t be able to remember Who I’m talking to, or why, and my prayer won’t be able to be effectual or fervent.
So first I need a bath. (I imagine the Prodigal Son bathing and washing his garment in some deserted brook, by starlight, on his way back to his father’s house.) The bath is in the Lord’s forgiveness, which is infinite; but in order to receive it, I have to become forgiving, as infinitely as I can be. And of course I’ll need the Lord’s help with that.
So take your bath and drop your grudges and let’s get on with this thought-experiment.
Did I say, Drop your grudges? Your grudges and your shame, too. If it’s brought you this far, it’s served its purpose. If your shame tries to cling to you, and whispers that you’ll never be free of it, and that it’s bigger than God and that it owns you, tell it to go speak to your attorney, Jesus Christ, and not to return without His permission. It will slink away.
O.K. – now start saying the Lord’s Prayer, but as you do, think of what you look like from the vantage point of God on His throne. Don’t worry that this seems like Mickey-Mouse theology; it’s a symbol, it’s a metaphor! God already knows, and forgives, the fact that we can only think about Him, or Her, or Him-and-Her, using metaphors; so be as Mickey-Mouse as you have to be! The throne is high above the fluffy white clouds, and there, down on earth in a little patch of sunlight, is you, logging in to your connection with the Divine by saying “Hallowed be Thy name.”
If you really mean it, you continue to stand in the sunlight. If you don’t, then an ugly, oily, opaque cloud of colloidal dirt – of your own making – instantly blots you out of God’s sight and hearing, plunging you into a stupefying darkness, at least until you say something that you do mean. That’s the rules of this thought-experiment. Ready for the next phrase?
“Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is watching you gesture to the earth all around you. Your patch of sunlight is widening. Yes! Now it includes the whole earth, and every creature on it. Do you really mean it? Is there any other kingdom you’re trying to advance, is there any other will that you’re trying to make prevail? Then beware – for in will roll that cloud of dirt, like the great dust-storm whose darkness ended the Jurassic!
But let’s say that you’re still standing in your patch of sunlight. Now comes “Give us this day our daily bread.” Who’s “us?” If you’re asking it on behalf of all creatures, spread your arms wide, and again the fluffy white clouds part, and your patch of sunlight widens to include all your human brothers and sisters, the cows and the earthworms, the alley cats, the roaches and the flies, the angels, the trees and the bacteria. Is there any class of creatures you’d deny their daily bread to? But why? In God’s kingdom, all are meant to live in harmony!
The next phrase is: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But this, I remind you, is your thought-experiment, and here I must leave you to finish it without me. Here, in my thought-experiment, my tears started, tears of gratitude that I was still standing in a patch of sunlight in the sight of my Creator, still being listened to because, by His grace, my motives had been so purified that I was not secretly trying to bullshit Him, or oppose His will in any matter I’m aware of, or thank Him that I am not as this publican standing next to me: anything, anything could have made that dreadful cloud of dirt roll in and blot me out; but it did not. I’d been permitted to stand in the presence of God, and stay standing. Hallelujah.
God is too good to be true; and yet He is true, even the only true reality there is. Hallelujah; amen.

The vocal ministry I’d like to hear at meeting

April 13, 2014

Meeting began at 11 a.m. today, and the first message came at 11:08.  By the time the ten or twelve messages were over I was feeling quite alone, and even slightly sick, wishing I had a second community to pray with to prepare me for worship with this community, this big unruly family of Friends I love that I’ve been worshiping with for twenty-five years.  I couldn’t leave them unless God reassigned me – they’re my tribe.  But I’d looked for food, and gotten sawdust and sand.  I longed to hear something said among them that I wasn’t hearing, and the Holy Spirit was not opening my mouth to say it myself.

Late in the afternoon, after business meeting, after I’d parted from everyone, I seemed to feel the Lord urging me to write down what it was that I’d wanted to hear, so I spent most of my subway ride home writing a first draft of what became… this:

“The reign of God is at hand!  And Jesus Christ, who brought us this wonderful news, repeated it again and again, sealed it with His blood and witnessed to its truth by rising from the dead, has assured us that He is with us always, even to the end of the world; so that if the reign of God was at hand when He opened the eyes of the blind, fed the five thousand, and forgave harlots and publicans their sins, then so is the reign of God at hand today!  Brothers and sisters, do you know what this means, this reign of God?

“It means that the reign of self is over!  No more domination of the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich, no more ‘survival of the fittest’ where each has to fight to get his own way and some get trampled, because God loves everyone and can be trusted to provide what’s best for each!  That means that Love rules, and not fear, in the kingdom we inhabit – where, as God’s beloved children, no longer competing with one another for scarce goods, we ourselves reign with God!  What though there still be sword, hunger, plague and iron bars endangering the body in this world of suffering – God gives love, trust, courage, and guidance enough to sustain the soul through anything this world can inflict!  Which is to say that God gives us new eyes to see with, eyes that can see the ocean of light covering the ocean of darkness.

“How may we know that the reign of God is at hand?  By this: that as we ourselves forgive trespasses, we can feel the dirtiness, the shame, the guilt of our own past trespasses fall away, and the wellsprings of our own sin cease to flow.  And by this: that just as Jesus gave his disciples in ancient Galilee the authority to heal the sick, rebuke evil with power, and call the troubled to a thorough and effective repentance, so He gives us that authority today also, if only we will own our discipleship and devote ourselves to it!  Oh, my brothers and sisters! This is that new heart of flesh with the law graven on it that the Hebrew prophets promised us!  This is what it means to be born again as a new creature in Christ!  And it delights our Heavenly Parent to give this to us, if we will only open up our souls to accept it!  Hallelujah!  Brothers, sisters, open up your souls!”

A Personal Mission Statement

March 14, 2014

God is love, and calls us all to forgive all offenses and adopt God’s will as our own.

I’ve also discerned that God calls me to preach and exemplify this call to repentance of our selfish ways, and bear witness to the new life that follows on our being forgiven and healed from estrangement from God, which is this common fear-dominated condition called sin. I experience and understand this new life as a life in Jesus Christ, who lives both in God and among us, guiding, directing, warning, empowering, gathering, healing and perfecting all who will come to Him, whether they call Him by that name or some other.

I’ve discerned that I’m called to serve Jesus Christ, in His name and power, as a teacher of His gospel, persuader, comforter, hearer of confessions, and conveyer of His forgiveness and His healing. As I understand my calling, I’m to do this chiefly, but not exclusively, within the Religious Society of Friends.

I ask the help of a spiritual care committee to help me grow in this ministry, and to correct me if I should stray from it.

Does Our Vocal Ministry Profit the People? Queries from William Penn

July 9, 2013

William Penn’s Primitive Christianity Revived (1696) begins, “That which the people called Quakers lay down, as a main fundamental in religion, is this, ‘That God, through Christ, has placed a principle in every man to inform him of his duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that live up to this principle, are the people of God; and those that live in disobedience to it, are not God’s people, whatever name they may bear, or profession they may make of religion.’  This is their ancient, first and standing testimony: with this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the world.”

The tenth chapter of this remarkably compact little summary of Quaker faith and practice treats of how “the Lord, [working] in the hearts of this people, …brought them to a divine worship and ministry.”  Penn’s explanation of waiting worship deserves to be better known among Friends today: “…it is this people’s principle, that fire must come from heaven, life and power from God, to enable the soul to pour out itself acceptably before him.  And when a coal from his holy altar touches our lips, then can we pray and praise him as we ought to do.”  Readers familiar with Scripture will recognize the allusions to 1 Kings 18:38 (fire from heaven) and Isaiah 6:6-7 (the coal from the altar).

Penn proceeds to explain Quaker ministry in these words (with Biblical citations in brackets provided by this blogger): “And as our worship stands in the operation of the spirit and truth in our inward parts, so does our ministry.  For as the holy testimonies of the servants of God of old, were from the operation of his blessed spirit, so must those of his servants be in every age; and that which has not the spirit of Christ for its spring and source, is of man, and not of Christ. …we are not only not to steal from our neighbors, but we are not to study nor speak our own words.  If we are not to study what we are to say before magistrates for ourselves [Matthew 10:18-19, Mark 13:11, Luke 12:11-12, 21:14-15], less are we to study what we are to say for and from God to the people.  We are to minister ‘as the oracles of God’ [1 Peter 4:11]; …And if we are to minister what we receive, then not what we study, collect, and beat out of our own brains; for that is not the mind of Christ, but our imaginations, and this will not profit the people.

“This was recommended to the Corinthians by the apostle Paul, 1 Cor. xiv that they should speak ‘as they were moved,’ or ‘as any thing was revealed to them by the spirit,’ for the edification of the church; …And if the spirit must give Christ’s ministers their utterance, then those that are his are careful not to utter any thing in his name to the people, without his spirit; and by good consequence, they that go before the true guide, and utter words without the knowledge of the mind of the spirit, are none of Christ’s ministers… and they cannot profit the people.  And, indeed, how should they, when it is impossible that mere man, with all his parts, arts, and acquirements, can ‘turn people from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God [Acts 26:18],’ which is the very end and work of the gospel-ministry.

“…I say, if Christ’s ministers are his witnesses, they must know what they speak; that is, they must have experienced, and passed through, those states and conditions they preach of… or they come not in by the door [John 10:1-18], but over the wall, and are thieves and robbers.”