Archive for the ‘Quakerism’ Category

Only God can answer that of God in another person

July 17, 2016

We Quakers like to talk about “that of God in the other person,” a phrase from George Fox whose use among Friends became broadened beyond its original context largely through the influential writings of Rufus M. Jones (1863-1948), so that today one hears Friends speak as though “that of God” were part of the mortal individual, and “answering that of God” in that individual were something that another mortal individual could do as a sort of pious courtesy, like bowing and saying “Namaste.” North American Friend Lewis Benson (1906–1986) worked tirelessly to expose this misconception, but it persists nonetheless.

This may be largely because we don’t want to have that of God answered in us. It will upset us. It will penetrate our defenses and touch parts of ourselves that we’ve locked into a closet to silence their screaming: places of terror, rage, deep shame, overwhelming grief. These parts of ourselves frighten us, so we’ve set up standards of politeness and other cultural patterns to protect ourselves, and one another, from having to face them, although the brainwasher, the waterboarder and the deprogrammer may find ways to pick the lock anyway. Fortunately, there is One who loves us who also knows how to pick the lock: God. And God’s touch heals whatever it exposes. But we may not know that until it’s happened to us. (That’s why repentant slave-trader John Newton called it “Amazing Grace:” it is amazing.)

This might explain why there are so many low-voltage Quaker meetings where the hour of worship is filled with messages that don’t come from the Holy Spirit, but from the interesting thoughts of the mortal individual, and the hearers, predictably, aren’t deeply affected. A psychotherapist might call this phenomenon “collective resistance;” an engineer might call it a homeostasis mechanism.

To “answer that of God in another person” is to speak to that of God in them, in words or meanings that That-of-God-in-them wants conveyed to them. Got that? Let’s say you’re an unhealed mentally ill person, an unrecovered addict, a troubled conscience, some sort of broken person who’s patched yourself together with duct tape in order to keep going on with life, but you’re really not OK. There is that of God in you, but you’ve silenced It, duct-taped your inner ear closed. But God still wants to save and heal you. So God, who can do everything, raises up a prophet to speak to you – to speak God’s words to you from outside, since you resist hearing them from the inside.

The “prophet” may have no idea that he or she is functioning as God’s prophet. The words that smite your conscience may have been written weeks ago by a journalist, or centuries ago by a dramatist. They may be said to you through sobs by your partner or child, or icily by the boss who’s firing you. God, who created everybody, can use anybody. But the words hit home. Which is to say, they answer that of God in you.

But “answering that of God” in another person is not something we can do in our own will. We like to hope we can, by praying hard enough, or lobbying the other person sweetly enough, or threateningly enough, or with enough allies on our side, or persistently enough. My mom desperately wished she could get my dad to stop drinking. But she had to die before he hit bottom and, by the amazing grace of his Higher Power, sobered up. This is why I resist saying “we Quakers answer that of God in other people” like “we speak truth to power” or “we live in that power that takes away the occasion for all wars.” It’s wishful thinking. We answer that of God in other people if and when God wills. When it does happen, it’s really more truthful to say that God answered that of God in the other person, and then to give thanks for the miracle that God worked.

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The Friends’ Testimony of Harmless Speech

February 12, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must decrease, and Christ increase

January 1, 2015

To all Friends everywhere,

We must decrease, and Christ increase.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Priorities for the Religious Society of Friends

June 28, 2014

A story is told about John the Beloved Disciple, who, alone of the twelve disciples, lived to a very old age and died a natural death.  As Jerome recounts it, in his last years John had to be carried to the church in Ephesus in his disciples’ arms. At these meetings he’d say no more than “Little children, love one another!” After hearing the same message many times, his followers found it tiresome, and asked him why he always said it. He answered, “It’s the Lord’s command; and if this alone be done, it is enough!” (see William Steuart McBirnie, The Search for the Twelve Apostles (Living Books edition, 1983), pp. 187-188.)

“Love one another:” isn’t this the “new commandment” that Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper? Wasn’t this to be the criterion (John 13:34-35) by which all people might recognize followers of Jesus? That they love one another as Jesus loved them – therefore, wrote John, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).  There is, of course, also the commandment to love our neighbors and our enemies (Matt. 22:40, 5:44), without which we can’t really love God: love is the fundamental thing; faith “worketh through love,” Galatians 5:6.  God loves us infinitely, but if we bite and devour one another, refuse to forgive one another, tell lies to one another, or use one another to gratify our own swollen egos, we shut the door on God also, and refuse God’s love.  In such a case, estrangement from God is our doing, not God’s.

Fast forward sixteen hundred years, to the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, whose rallying-cry was “Christ is come to teach His people Himself!”  This, said George Fox and others, was a truth known “experimentally,” that is, through direct experience of the “true Light, which lighteth every [person] that cometh into the world” (John 1:9).  It’s important to remember that this was no voluntary association of individuals formed around common values and purposes, but a people of God – “the people of God in scorn called Quakers,” they sometimes styled themselves – who knew themselves bound to God by a covenant, and called – called to be saints, called to grace, liberty, holiness, peace, and eternal life, called to the fellowship, kingdom, and glory of Christ: called no longer to live as separate individuals unto themselves, but to die to the old self and live as branches in the One Vine.  Three hundred and fifty years later, we Quakers may no longer remember that we’re a covenanted people, and we may no longer even agree that there is a God, let alone a Person titled Christ who calls us to a new life, but neither have we repudiated any of these foundational understandings.  So it’s to this covenanted people I address myself here:

New York Yearly Meeting, to which I belong, is in the midst of considering its priorities, having approved a process “to discern… what work God would have us do.” It’s appointed a working group of dedicated, seasoned Friends to meet with local and regional meetings and worship groups. These have done a great deal of deep listening over the past few years, and formulated a Statement of Leadings and Priorities, which is shortly to be presented to the Yearly Meeting for approval. Tomorrow there’s to be a called meeting, at my monthly meeting, to consider the document. I think it’s a pretty good document, and it makes sound, sensible suggestions – loving suggestions – for improving our corporate health.

But there are a couple of things that don’t sit well with me. The encouragement to bring new people into meeting, for example, so that we’ll enjoy an increase in membership. Frankly, I don’t want an increase in membership. 70% of our membership takes no part in our committee work; 10 to 15% come to business meeting; this tells me that membership as we know it is a rotten institution. I don’t even want to see an increase in attendance per se. I’d like to see an increase in love for one another, in mutual forgiveness, in readiness to die to the old self or to die one for another, even to sacrifice personal comfort for one another’s sake. Be more Christlike, Friends! Then, I think, new people would come to us like bees to the honeysuckle vine. And then we might see how to reinvent membership, to have more to do with that covenant with God than it now has.

Then there’s the expressed hope that the Yearly Meeting would “witness to the world on our behalf.” No, I don’t want it to witness to the world on our behalf, I want it to witness to the world on God’s behalf, on Christ’s behalf, on the Gospel’s behalf, or else be silent! I don’t want it to lobby public officials to do the right thing so that what we consider right policies are enacted and enforced, leaving those officials’ defiled consciences unchallenged, but to call those officials to repentance if that’s what their spiritual need is. What have we, a people disarmed of carnal weapons, to do with the apparatus of the state, which is all about domination, force, mass surveillance, and the deployment of carnal weapons? The world says, “let us do evil, that good may come of it” (Romans 3:8); we’re a people called out of the world, forbidden to reason in such a manner. What communion hath light with darkness!? Jesus was silent before Pilate: do we think ourselves any better equipped to negotiate with the world?

On the other hand, if we are a city on a hill that cannot be hid, there’s hope that the world will come to us for counsel when its own counsel fails.

 

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.

 

 

Will you repent?

June 21, 2014

This morning, Steven Davison posted a blog posting entitled “The New Lamb’s War – the Language and Worldview of Quaker Prophetic Witness” (http://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/the-new-lambs-war-the-language-and-worldview-of-quaker-prophetic-witness/#comment-1862). I think that Steve is my uncontestedly favorite blogger, now that Paul Hamell (http://entirelydifferent.net/) has left this world for the next, and some others, like “Brooklyn Quaker” Rich Accetta-Evans, have fallen silent in the blogosphere.  I revere Steve’s loving heart, brilliant mind, and wealth of knowledge; but we differ theologically. He’s put an immense amount of work into articulating a theology for Liberal Quakerism that stops short of declaring itself to be Christian Quakerism.  (See his http://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/category/liberal-quakerism-an-exploration/.)  I, on the other hand, understand myself to be the property of Jesus Christ, a fact that makes moot the question of whether I’m a Christian or not.  I may be a valuable piece of property, a worthless piece of property, or something in between, but I’m bought with a price and live, no longer to myself but in Christ, under an everlasting covenant.

So Steve’s posting this morning pushed my “ignite me” button, and the first thing I did was post a response, which I reproduce here (with a few subsequent edits):

I eagerly await your presentation of the Lamb’s War, Steve. I’d like to think that while the Liberal Friends’ lambs are making their cavalry charge against the Man of Sin (whom James Nayler named as the enemy in this war; we’ll return to the question of who and what he is, but the impatient may want to look ahead to 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, noting that the Greek anthrōpos tēs anomias could also be translated “Person of Lawlessness”), Conservative and Evangelical Friends’ lambs will be sending their infantry divisions in on the right and left flanks, trapping the Man of Sin in a valley of no escape and forcing his unconditional surrender to an engulfing sea of bleating lambs. What better cause to bring these natural allies together for! We’ll also be doing the Man of Sin a favor, too. It’s no fun parading around pretending to be God when you’re “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

What a sad reflection on the condition of Liberal Friends, though! “Today, Liberal Friends do not generally share this worldview [of early Friends]. Our God—when we have one—is not primarily and essentially a lawgiver and judge. We are not comfortable with the idea of divine judgment, especially in its classic biblical presentation as destruction and suffering.” Your God, when you have one? — You mean you’re not a people of God any more? Some of you are sheep with a shepherd and some of you have no shepherd? How will you fight a Lamb’s War without your General?

I’d argue that the Christian God was never “primarily and essentially a lawgiver and judge,” anyway, but a Lover and a Forgiver, a Savior and a Cherisher, who always wished all His darlings, or Her darlings, to be saved, awakened from their terrible dream of fallenness, and reunited with their Divine Source in an eternity of perfect bliss. (For “darlings” read “all souls,” or “all sentient beings.”) This is the God whom Jesus likened to the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15) and then modeled by forgiving His own murderers from the cross (Luke 23:34), having made plain to his followers (John 14:9) that whoever sees and knows Him, Jesus, also knows the character of God. This is also the character of God that was revealed to Paul, who, in a marvelous tour de force of rhetorical irony (Romans 1:20-2:4), ends his thundering denunciation of us sinners and our “abominable” sins with “but it’s God’s kindness and forbearance and patience that leads us to repentance.” Not God’s wrath or God’s scariness, but God’s kindness, yes, God’s heart-melting tenderness.

You note that Liberal Friends “are not comfortable with the idea of divine judgment, especially in its classic biblical presentation as destruction and suffering.” All the worse! Because then that means that the destruction and suffering we experience daily are meaningless! If you explain our sufferings as the workings of karma (a concept that pervades Christian scripture, as in “as ye sow, so shall ye reap,” though the term itself is a Hindu-Buddhist import) but divorce the law of karma from a lawgiving God who ordained it, you’re saying that God had nothing to do with it. What is God, anyway, just an observer? How can an observer be a Savior? (God does come across as an indifferent observer in the Yoga Sutras, though a righteous avenger in the Bhagavad-Gita, and a nonentity in the Buddhist literature, so Liberal Friends who look to the East for their theology can make God be whatever they want God to be.)

There is an explanation of the suffering we experience that is consistent with the Christian teaching that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16), and that is that we chose to experience a world of suffering and death when we chose to have a will that diverged from God’s. This happens to be the central thesis of A Course in Miracles, for those Liberal Friends that follow that text, but it can also be found in John 3:19-20 and, in mythic form, in Genesis 3.

But with repentance, rightly understood, all that changes: suffering, death, the hapless victimhood of innocent creatures about to be cooked to death by the heedless, godless captains of a runaway industrial civilization. Once we’ve undergone the thorough change of consciousness that constitutes repentance, rightly understood (for the Greek metanoia means something far deeper than mere shame or regret over past deeds), it becomes an experienced fact that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). Repentance is the almost-inevitable consequence of discovering that the Man of Sin, the Person of Lawlessness, is me, for from that discovery there is no other meaningful escape. (There’s suicide, of course; but is that meaningful?)  The question before Liberal Friends is, Will you repent? And the test of whether Liberal Friends’ theology is viable or not is, Does it invite repentance?

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.

The Glorious Gospel and the Friends’ Meeting in the Shadow

February 12, 2014

I just came back from an “Eldering in the 21st Century” workshop at Powell House, feeling both a heightened sense of responsibility for my meeting’s condition and an increased competence to help it, so long as I remain faithful to the Lord’s guidance. At the heart of my renewed hopefulness is renewed joy in the goodness of God, whose intent, I believe, is the restoration of all His (Her, Its) beloved children to innocence and bliss. (This particular view of God’s intent didn’t come up during the workshop, but a theme was “Ministry is anything that makes God’s love more visible.”) It doesn’t matter that many of my fellow Quakers may not share my trust in a God with personhood and a will, or my notions about a Savior, Jesus Christ, carrying out that will. Neither does it matter that many of my fellow Quakers seem wiser than I, more dedicated to eradicating evil and relieving suffering. My job is to love them, support them, pray for them, and do my best to live by the Lord’s glorious gospel, trusting Jesus to do the rest.

Let’s talk a little about that glorious gospel. Lately I’ve been struck by its central paradox: on the one hand, it’s “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10), from a God who is Love Itself (1 John 4:8), and we don’t need to have the “right” theology in order to benefit from it. Hallelujah! But on the other hand, it requires us to walk a path that’s hard to find and leads through a narrow gate, “for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Matt. 7:13-14). No, it’s not bad-cop Paul who makes heaven sound hard for us sinners to get into while good-cop Jesus gathers little children to His bosom and welcomes everybody. It’s Jesus Himself who warns us that we have to repent, take up our cross, forgive everyone everything, and be ready to lose our life for the truth’s sake, or else risk being cast into an outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth, (In Matthew’s gospel, we’re ejected into it; in John’s, we choose it freely because we’ve come to love darkness rather than light.) Now, these demands are just plain scary. And yet what better news could we hear than that we needn’t fear death, or any of this world’s threats and dangers, but can have the everlasting support of an all-forgiving and almighty Creator who will wipe away all tears from our eyes? That’s the paradox: the gospel is wonderful beyond words, and yet it asks so much of us that we’re not sure we can do it – nor even that we want to.

The natural reaction seems to be to reach for the science textbook or the newspaper and remind ourselves that there’s no general agreement that God exists. OK, we won’t go that far. But let’s spend our Sunday mornings at a house of worship where folks all hold the right values, but where we won’t be called sinners and told to repent. Here’s one: Anytown Monthly Meeting! We can go deep into silence together here, come out refreshed, and then collaborate together in doing good works: no creeds, no doctrines, no study of scripture unless we choose it.

The problem is that we bring our shadow with us wherever we go, so no sooner do we start to sink into that delicious silence than we’re distracted by our own frivolous inner chattering, or troubled over some bad thing we did, or worse, jarred out of the stillness by someone whose self-important babbling is spoiling our worship! Once again we’ve come to meeting hoping for a taste of paradise, and instead got a taste of the darkness that makes us gnash our teeth. Why can’t our meeting go deep in worship, why can’t we come away feeling that we’ve met God and been blessed, baptized, transformed by the encounter? What’s wrong?

The first thing I’d warn against is the thought that a failed meeting for worship is “no big deal; these things just happen.” What? If our elderly mother had promised to make a special trip to meet us at the airport and we didn’t find her there, wouldn’t we panic? How much more should we be concerned if our Heavenly Parent failed to show up for a rendezvous! And the second thing I’d warn against is blaming the failure on the spiritual condition of the others in the meeting. Jesus had something to say about finding the mote in our brother’s eye (Matt. 7:3-5). If the voice of ego is driving out the voice of God all around us in the meeting room, what is it that’s happening in our own heart? Third, it should go without saying that if we haven’t been practicing daily during the week, we have no business going on stage at Carnegie Hall on Sunday: finally, I notice, more Friends are starting to query one another about daily spiritual practices. This is a good thing.

But I haven’t yet been hearing Friends query one another about coming to meeting with unclean consciences. Perhaps the dirtiest thing we bring in the meeting house door with us is unforgiveness, grudges, eagerness to hear gossip that will allow us to despise our scapegoat all the more. We also, many of us, bring in a recent history of complicity with evil – the things we’ve done for our employers, and our employers’ clients, during the week; the things we’ve let our government do, in our name, without protesting them; the waste of the earth’s resources we’ve been party to; the profits our retirement funds have made from evil investments. In these things we may feel helpless, because we have rent to pay and children to raise and see no alternative to living as we do, but have we prayed to God for deliverance from these things, this devilish economy of importing pleasure and exporting pain? Have we asked God’s forgiveness for these things that we know are contrary to the common good? Then there are the lies we may have told – oh, perhaps not to our family members, but what about the ones on our income tax returns? Or the cruel things we may have said in jest?

The subject of lying leads directly to its twin, the secrets we keep. What is it that we would not like anyone to know about our inner life – anyone, ever? If there’s anything like that festering in there, then we’re one of the poor, mad self-damned who “love darkness rather than light, and avoid the light to avoid exposure” (John 3:19-20). This attitude puts us in bondage to the enemy of God, for God is the one who wants to liberate us from all such toxic separateness. Are we walking in the meeting house door with such an attitude? Then how can we worship God?

Finally, if we’re still wondering why we find our unprogrammed meetings so full of junk ministry, let’s ask ourselves what junk we’ve put into our own minds over the past week. Have we masturbated to the accompaniment of fantasies that would be sinful if acted out in reality? (By “sinful” I don’t mean just “forbidden in the Bible” but really sinful, in a way our own heart can recognize: adulterous, predatory, degrading.) Are we quite sure that we’re not secretly praying to be allowed to act them out in reality? Have we asked God to heal our sexuality so that we’re not torn by yearnings for what would not be good for us or others? If we feel enchanted by an erotic attraction, have we prayed for the spiritual good of the attractive one and so purged our preoccupation of some of its selfish element?

Then there’s the junk we fill our minds with by watching television and reading the newspaper. “But it’s the true news,” we may protest. “We have a duty to inform ourselves.” The unfortunate thing is that it’s the “true news” unsanctified by compassion, thrown at us by commercial media interests who know that what most excites our baser passions is what best sells newsprint and air time. Among “baser passions” must be included the desire to be thought the most knowledgeable among the present company, and the lust (if we read the financial pages) to be the investor with the best competitive advantage over others. The news reports are always full of villains: do we bring the villains before Christ in our prayers, asking Him to help us love them?

When we enter the meeting house on Sunday morning, we put the self-serving world and its transitory goods behind us in order to enter into the presence of the Holy. In other faith traditions, we might be expected to remove our shoes, prostrate ourselves, genuflect or make the sign of the cross in order to cross this threshold properly. We Quakers, however, traditionally do without such outward forms because we’re resolved to hold to the substance behind the form. But the time has come for us to ask ourselves: have we abandoned both form and substance together?