Archive for the ‘Scripture’ Category

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.

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.

A heart that’s right in the sight of God

December 4, 2013

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

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

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

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

Radical Jesus and a Tyrant Devil

November 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Geometry of Heaven

July 13, 2011

Paul prays for the Ephesian church “that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph. 3:19b). Nice sentiment, we think. Kind-hearted thought. And then we read it again: me? Tiny me, filled with all the fulness of God, who created all this vastness and multiplicity? Does Paul realize what he’s saying?

Paul generally does know what he’s saying; he chooses his words carefully. Moreover, he asks the Holy Spirit to guide his pen, because he’s speaking for God and Christ and does not want the fledgling church misled by a thoughtless word. I take this prayer as strong evidence that it is possible that I might be filled with all the fulness of God. I then stop and wonder how it could be possible – not as a temporary illusion on an LSD trip, but as an everlasting reality I might awaken to. I picture myself as an infinitesimal point by comparison to God’s endlessness – with nothing inside and everything outside. Then I catch myself: I wasn’t really thinking of a mathematical point, which has no inside, but of small things with small but positive inner content: grains of sand, periods printed on paper, neutrons. Of course those things can’t be filled with infinite content inside, but a dimensionless point can, because it has neither inside nor outside but only, if embedded in a surrounding space, “side.” The point is to lose self, have no more inside, and thereby know the Fulness. Not to worry: one remains what one always really was, the creature made in the Creator’s glorious, perhaps dimensionless, perhaps qualityless, image.

I in God, and God in me: it’s all unimaginable, I know, from the point of view of a self embodied in mortal flesh in a world of space, time and change. Poets have sung about this mystery as they passed through mortal flesh, Lao-Tse, Parmenides, John of the Cross, all in metaphor. One of the most beautiful poems comes from the Upanishads:

Om.
Pūrnamadah, pūrnamidam,
Pūrnāt pūrnam udacyate;
Pūrnasya pūrnam ādāya,
Pūrnam evāvaśişyate.
Om. Śāntih, śāntih, śāntih.

Om. That is full; This is full.
From Fulness arises Fulness.
When Fulness is taken from Fulness,
Indeed Fulness remains.
Om. Peace; peace; peace.

A poem more familiar to readers of the Bible begins, “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” If I were filled with all the fulness of God, how could I want? It dwarfs my worry that I won’t be able to pay all my bills this month, or finish that difficult job on my desk, or live to retire with my debts paid off. God will wipe away all tears from my eyes, your eyes, and in the end all creatures’ eyes, even those that may have exiled themselves to some outer darkness where there’s wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Persuaded that this Fulness cometh not with observation, I wait to be surprised by it. As it’s nothing I can earn by my own merit or ready myself for by special exercises, I can only go on with my everyday life, but enormous gratefulness wells up in me when I think that God’s generosity is such that you and I, who feel ourselves to be deserving of so little, are to be given All That Is.

A message of hope: the white stone, with a new name written

November 8, 2010

I bring a message of hope for us failures. It comes from the second chapter of the Book of Revelation [2:17]: Hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give… a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he [or she] that receiveth it. This white stone is a token of acquittal. In ancient courts you’d vote to acquit the defendant by casting a white stone into a pot, or vote to condemn by casting a black stone into another pot. So to get a white stone from God means that God finds us innocent.

It came to me this morning that God’s gift to us of a new name means that the old name has been replaced. We all have portfolios of accomplishments we’re proud of, but we also drag around this shameful baggage of things we wish we hadn’t done – the hearts I’ve broken, the things I grabbed for myself with the result that someone else had to do without them, the hurtful things I said that can now never be unsaid. But both this portfolio of accomplishments and this criminal record of sleazy acts accrue to us under our old name. So after God has given us the new name, all these things belong to nobody. They’ve become history, and history has now been completely erased; there is only now.

And with this new name comes a restoration of our original nature, as God created us: which is to say, in God’s own likeness. And as John wrote, possibly the same John as wrote the Book of Revelation, God is love [1 John 4:8, 4:16]. So what can this new name mean, except that we return to our original nature and purpose, which is to be channels of divine love? To which I say Hallelujah, and Amen.

Vocal ministry given at Fifteenth Street Meeting, 11/7/2010



Our Mother

July 7, 2008

I’ve been the silent partner in this blog, for the most part — I think the only posts I’ve made have been silly ones about Talk Like a Quaker Day.

Something suddenly prompted me to post the following prayer/poem, which I completed on August 18, 2007, at Powell House.  It seems to have spoken to both Christians and Wiccans of my acquaintance.  That’s what I was hoping it would do!

Our Mother

Our Mother,
who art among us,
holy do we name thee.
Thy home be here,
thy grace appear
in Act as it does in Spirit.
Prepare with us our daily bread,
and heal us of wrongdoing
as we learn to free those that wrong us.
Test us not beyond our ability,
but keep our souls from destruction,
for in thee is our home,
and our strength,
and our beauty,
now and always.
Amen.

Completed at Powell House, August 18, 2007

Peter Goes Fishing

May 7, 2008
I did some research that now makes Peter’s fishing expedition in the 21st chapter of the Fourth Gospel a little more vivid to me. First of all, Peter’s “I go a  fishing” (as the King James Bible has it) was hypago halieuein in the Greek, something like “I’m going down a-salting,” reminding me that Peter was going fishing in a freshwater lake and speaking in Aramaic, in which the activity of fishing (unlike the Greek word for it) didn’t imply having salty fingers. The Sea of Tiberias was one he might have drunk from, cupping the water in his hand.

If Jesus was crucified in the year 33 C.E., the month of Aviv would have begun at sundown on April 17 (by the modernized Julian calendar), the approximate time of the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. So Passover, the 14th day of Aviv, would have begun at sundown on Thursday, April 30, the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus would have been met His death on May 1. The stone would have been rolled away from His tomb under a moon that reached perfect fullness during the dark early hours of Sunday, May 3. On the evening of May 3, according to the Evangelist, the resurrected Jesus appeared to all the disciples but Thomas Didymus and Judas Iscariot. Then on May 11, eight days later, He had Thomas put his fingers into the healing wound in His side – a wound then ten days old.
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Psalm 22 and Beethoven’s Ninth

April 1, 2008

A friend sent me the text of a sermon he delivered on Good Friday. It was a powerful sermon, painting a vivid picture of Jesus’s physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering in Gethsemane and on the Cross. It was a message about abandonment and finding the everlasting arms to lean on again. And I was moved, not only because of its eloquence but also because I have some sense of the personal challenges my friend is facing right now as he looks toward a difficult future.

As I thought about my friend’s life and the sermon he delivered out of it, I was humbled by a new awareness of how Jesus meets us exactly where we are, offering us exactly what we need.

Where I am in recent weeks is engaged in musing on whether Jesus was taking a nazirite vow when he said at the Last Supper that he wouldn’t touch any more wine until he’d completed his task. He keeps his word and also refuses vinegar–equally a product of the grape. I don’t know what I’m to do with that musing, other than to share it here, but I’m sure I’ll know by and by.

For me, right now in my life, I have the luxury of not identifying with those last words as a cry of abandonment. Today I can hear “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as, at one and the same time, a statement of what looks like fact to the eyes of others, an act of self-comfort in quoting Scripture to himself, and Jesus’s final message to the world as he speaks aloud for all to hear, despite the terrible physical state he is in, the first words of Psalm 22.

It’s a psalm that fascinates me. The first twenty-one verses describe both Jesus’s Crucifixion and our own mundane times of crisis and suffering. But then, with no transition whatsoever, verse 21 switches in midstream and flat-out states that rescue has happened. Period. No explanation.

Save me from the mouth of the lion! From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. (NRSV)

In the King James Bible the transition is so abrupt as to require mythical beasts:

Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. (AV)

It reminds me of the place in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony where the brooding, mournful instrumental music is stopped dead by a human voice singing, “O friends, not these tones!” and then the astounding, irresistible Ode to Joy chorale begins.

That’s what happens in Psalm 22. Both Psalm 22 and Beethoven’s Ninth give me a model of faith as a choice. Turn around and face the other way. Sing another song. Just do it!

Here is the new song of verse 22:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (NRSV)

I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee. (AV)

And I’m fascinated by verse 29, which seems to be saying that even the dead will worship Yahweh. It’s a wonderful comfort to me to think that I can go to Meeting for Worship from the grave.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. (NRSV)

All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul. (AV)

From where I am in early April 2008, I can experience those last words of Jesus as his last teaching to me. “Pay attention,” he’s telling me. “I’m leaving you with this psalm. Go look it up. (Study Torah.) It’s all in there.”

My friend, who began my consideration of Jesus’s last words with his Good Friday message, can find a personal companion to be with him as he faces his physical and spiritual challenges.

Both of us have found our shepherd. We shall not want.

The Night Jesus Washed His Disciples Clean

March 22, 2008

3/21/08. I can’t forget that today is called Good Friday, and that Jesus, on the day of His crucifixion, may have had to use all the mental discipline He could muster to keep His focus on the present moment and prayerfully on the presence of God. Could the Man who stilled the wind and the waves also still the adrenalin, the rage, the fear in His own body? How did He cope with the pain of the nails, the crown of thorns, the blood trickling down into His eyes? More importantly: what can I do for Him and His mission today, right this moment?
 
Reading from the Gospel of John this morning, I noted that the Evangelist prefaced the story of the foot-washing with a seemingly irrelevant parenthesis, John 13:3: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God:…” – what is this? Something Jesus was just becoming aware of, or something He knew for a long time? If for a long time, why mention it here? The only sense I can make of its placement here is that the writer is using it to put a frame around a part of his narrative he finds particularly important – perhaps the whole Passion story, but  perhaps just this part about the washing of feet.
 
“Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands:” after such a buildup, we might expect that Jesus then magically made tangerines appear on the supper table, or had the stars in the sky spell out the words “repent, everybody.” But no; He stripped naked and put on a bath-servant’s towel. And then He tells Peter that Peter won’t understand what He’s doing until some time later. There’s something profound going on here. Jesus, knowing that all things are in His hands, is about to do one of His greatest works. Humble Himself and play servant to His own servants? Well, yes, that, but something more: wash His disciples “clean every whit,” so that Peter, his feet bathed, will no longer need his dirty hands and defiled head washed.
 
I’d never seen this before: that was Jesus’ baptism of his disciples. With Judas we’re given to believe that this baptism didn’t “take,” John 13:10-11, but for the others I believe they were, at that moment, made sinless. This is the baptism that the apostle describes as “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). If it had required a complete removal of the filth of the flesh, Jesus would surely have washed Peter’s hands and head, and maybe even sent him outdoors to gargle.

Sinless? I know that Peter then did a string of inappropriate actions, like cutting off Malchus’ ear and denying that he knew Jesus; and all the disciples fled from the garden, abandoning their Lord and Savior. How can we not think them still sinners? But we have the Lord’s own word that they had been washed “clean every whit.” And this is only fitting for souls of whom Jesus was about to say, first reminding them of their new-found cleanness (John 15:3), “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (15:5). Can members of Christ be unclean? The disciples might still err in minor ways – Paul would later rebuke Peter for dissembling, Galatians 2:11 ff. – but they now had consciences that sins would no longer stick to as they once did.
 
Unstainable consciences, while still capable of minor errors? It’s not as though the disciples had been given Teflon coatings, or – to use the language of Yoga, become jivanmuktas who could generate no more karma, bad or good, because they’d attained to direct knowledge of the timeless Atman and could identify no more with changeable nature – but rather, I think, Jesus gave them what Paul was later to call huiothesia, “son-placement,” translated by King James’ scholars as “the adoption,” Galatians 4:5-6 and Romans 8:13-17, whereby we call God Abba, “father.”

There’s no Teflon coating involved in this: we wash out our errors, as Peter did, only with our tears, and these are tears of real pain. It hurts to see our own laziness or cowardice or greed cause someone else sorrow. But there’s a good reason not to call such errors sin. For we now feel God’s parenthood, protecting us from falling so deeply into sin that we have to block off awareness of our condition with a fabric of lies. Moreover, we now have a heart that yearns to be corrected whenever it strays, rather than go on straying in happy ignorance. It is the heart of what Paul called “the new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15).

That freedom from sin, I think, was the great spiritual gift passed on when Jesus washed Peter’s feet. It came to me seven years ago, just before I fell in love with Elizabeth, when I heard the Unmistakable Voice in my mind say, “I will not let you fall into sin,” so I know it’s a real thing, given to little people like me who are by no means jivanmuktas. It does not mean that I couldn’t spoil it all if I set my mind to becoming an evildoer, as I did for a time as a child when I thought I might be more impressive if I were one of the bad boys; the sinless life does require vigilance. Robert Barclay (Apology, Proposition 9, §II) comments wryly, “it is to no purpose to beseech them to stand, to whom God hath made it impossible to fall.” What I take my Lord to have meant is that I can trust Him absolutely, and that by His grace I can now, amazingly, even trust the new heart He has given me.