Archive for the ‘Quaker worship’ 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 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!”

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?