Posts Tagged ‘God’s forgiveness’

The Prayer from the Cross

March 4, 2019

A Sermon Delivered at Earlham School of Religion, Third Day, 2/26/2019

Friends: I invite you all to join me, during this hour, in a guided meditation on what might have been going through the mind of Jesus as He was hanging on the cross, waiting to die. Whether or not you accept Him as your personal Savior, a Divine Incarnation, or just a very good man who may or may not have risen from the dead, you are attached to a Christian theological seminary, and the world will expect you to have given this subject some thought. So I’m here today to help with that, though I claim no special knowledge.. Because of the solemnity of the topic, I’ve scheduled no hymn-singing. I will not be dwelling on the cruelty and injustice of the crucifixion, but if you think that discussing the subject at all may be harmful to your peace of mind or mental health, you may leave at any time, with my blessing.

We’ve been trained here to identify the social location we think from, and mine is one you can all see: multiply-privileged white-looking, straight-seeming, well-educated American male. But I pray that, during this gathering, the Holy Spirit, speaking though me, might transcend the limitations of our social locations so that I speak to the condition of everyone here. But I also discern a need to disclose my theological location in giving a talk like this, so here it is: I self-identify as a follower of Jesus Christ, whom I call Lord and Savior, in whom I now live, and who lives in me. I was raised a nonbeliever, and I’m only where I am now theologically because I believe I’ve heard Christ’s voice and felt His guidance. For data about the Crucifixion I rely on the Bible. I recognize that the four canonical gospels disagree among themselves about many details, and include some stories I find unbelievable, like the pericope about bandaged zombies coming out of their tombs at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt 27:51-53). The part about the darkness at midday (Luke 23:44-45) may be a distorted memory of the lunar eclipse of 4/3/33 CE (not a solar eclipse, impossible during a full-moon festival like Passover).

I believe the gospels reveal a clear and consistent picture of Jesus to anyone who studies them. I have no use for alternate theories I’ve heard, that Jesus was “really” a political revolutionary, or the son of a human father other than Joseph, or a mistaken believer in an imminent apocalypse, or an India- trained disciple of yoga masters. It’s not that I want to quash such speculations, but any truth that there may be in them would add nothing to Jesus’ value to me. I do believe in His miracles, which is to say, in what we call “paranormal” powers over the natural world. I do believe in His bodily resurrection. Finally: if you don’t agree with my theology, that’s fine with me; I don’t think your salvation depends on it. Anyway, Christ may not want you to agree with me.

In any case, there was something about Jesus – His purity of intention, clarity of vision, integrity if not outright divinity – that made Him so different from the rest of us that it’s hard for us to imagine “being” Him, walking in His shoes and thinking His thoughts. But if we must, let’s start by asking His help: Lord Jesus, purify our hearts and enlighten our minds to fit us for this work, so that we might, if only for this hour, love in accord with Your heart and know in accord with Your mind. Amen.

I believe that what He was doing on the cross was praying for the salvation of the world. Yes, also suffering; yes, also dying; but surely His intention was to be praying, with all the concentration He could muster, for He was not one to waste time on futile activities. You and I might just go to pieces when nails went into our hands and feet, but Jesus would not, if He knew in His heart that being crucified was an essential work-assignment that He had to do right if He wanted the world saved. Now some writers have conjectured that crucifixion spelled the failure of His mission, but that simply cannot be, if His mission was to model the way of all-forgiving God. If your mission is to model the way of an all-forgiving God, you do it by being forgiving unto death (Luke 23:34), and a public death like Jesus’s, or like Stephen’s in the Book of Acts, gives you the chance to show the world that you mean it. That God is all-forgiving is surely good enough news to die for!

An all-forgiving God? Look at the Lord’s Prayer with me: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After He teaches that prayer, He comments, “forgive all trespasses and yours will be forgiven; but withhold forgiveness and yours won’t be” (my paraphrase of Matt 6:14-15). Now would God ask us to be all-forgiving if God weren’t all-forgiving? (If God had predestined most sinners to eternal damnation and Jesus knew it, Jesus couldn’t and wouldn’t have taught this!. Take that, John Calvin!) The only barriers to forgiveness by God seem to be ones that we put up, (1) by trying to hide our sins from God, often by denial of needing forgiveness, or (2) by refusing to extend forgiveness by holding on to grudges. This is what the Fourth Gospel must mean by describing [all] condemnation as self-condemnation, a fleeing from the truth-revealing Light into all-hiding darkness (John 3:19-20), where God’s forgiveness, by our own decision, cannot reach. But to know that we can be freely forgiven all those things we’ve loathed ourselves for is a kindness of God that, as Paul notes (Rom 2:4), should make us want to repent them! Jesus illustrates the wild joy and generosity of the much-forgiven by pointing to the uninhibited exuberance of the sinner-woman at Simon the Leper’s banquet (Luke 7:36-50).

Now I framed this digression about Jesus’ gospel of an all-forgiving God within a speculation that Jesus was praying from the Cross for the salvation of the world, a prayer that presupposes an all-forgiving God. The whole creation yearns for salvation! The whole creation groans (Rom 8:22), all sentient beings groan along with humankind, groan from ignorance, impermanence, fear, pain, danger, and mortality, things we all long to be saved from whether we can express that longing or not. Jesus is twice hailed as the “Savior of the world” in the writings of John, and I believe that Jesus felt that love, repentance, and forgiveness, practiced universally enough among humanity, might indeed undo our ancient fall from Paradise and work the “reconciliation of all things” (Col 1:20). Love “hopes all things,” Paul wrote (1 Cor 13:7), and if the crucified Jesus saw Himself as called to a ministry of saving the world through love, then He would have been praying with all His heart for it. “One-pointed” as any adept of yoga ever was, Jesus would have been supremely accomplished at focusing His attention on one single point and keeping it there.

Imagine Him focusing it on His own heart as a radiating source of love. Is He distracted by the pain in His hands and feet? Then He is willing them to be radiating outlets of the love in His heart: He’s experienced, as we know, at willing through His hands, which have touched and healed many, and willing through His feet, which have walked on water. Is He distracted by irrelevant thoughts? He’s experienced at silencing them: “Peace; be still,” He’d said to the wind and the waves (Mark 4:39). “Get thee behind me, Satan,” He’d said to His tempters (Luke 4:8, Mark 8:33). Pain does not break His resolve! According to the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, He breaks His silence only for essential things: to pronounce forgiveness of His killers (Luke 23:34), to bless the repentant thief (Luke 23:43), to put His mother under the protection of the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26), and to beg relief from thirst (John 19:28). He cries out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), signaling those “with ears to hear” that He is “fulfilling the scripture” of Psalm 22. He is also, perhaps, crying out as the Voice of All Creation to its Creator: “Restore us to the condition of Paradise!”

Jesus’ body may be in a state of shock as death approaches, with reduced blood pressure and possible hypothermia, so that He weaves in and out of consciousness, but I imagine that His will remains firm. Unprogrammed Friends are no doubt familiar with silences so deep that we seem to be fast asleep, except for the glimmering awareness that our abiding intention is to be at worship. Imagine, then, Jesus’ awareness thus reduced to just a bare, naked intention for the world’s salvation, before the final moment when He comes to, heaves a final sigh – “It is finished” – and gives up the ghost (John 19:30).

It is possible that His consciousness, during His hours on the cross, has expanded so far beyond the confines of His physical body, as egoless minds are said to be able to do, that He has allowed Himself to suffer the sufferings of all creation. This would allow Him to cry out the prayer of every suffering creature to God as with its own voice; – but of such a mystery I can have no knowledge, unless He reveals it to me and grants me a mind that can take it in. I only sense, by faith, that His is the perfect love that casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18); and that His prayer for us is one with the eternal blessing of the Creator, who pronounces the creation “very good” at its completion (Gen 1:31).

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Who Dares Treat Human Souls as Things without Feelings or Value?

June 29, 2018

God loves us all. God wants us, God’s children, to learn to love everyone also.

Jesus, who taught “Love your enemies” and even forgave His own murderers, claimed to be of one will and character with God. Who could understand God’s heart better than Jesus? So when Jesus assures us that God will forgive us our sins if we forgive others their sins against us, we may be confident that God, who wishes to save every soul, wants us also to be kind, merciful, and all-forgiving. In this way we are made fit to inherit God’s own eternal peace and joy.

One of Jesus’ apostles put it simply: God is Love.

But there are some who, as yet, cannot see God this way. These can only imagine a Supreme Deity – if they believe in one at all – who loves a few and rejects the rest. This belief allows some such people to treat their own designated scapegoats cruelly. These seem unable to take to heart the warning that we must reap what we sow – until or unless a sick conscience, now at last coming to be recognized as “moral injury,” leads them to repent and renounce cruelty. But this is to learn the hard way.

Such people need our prayers. If they have taken pleasure in tormenting others, or even given assent in their hearts to a sadistic government policy that kidnaps a nursing infant away from its mother, that pleasure, or complacency, must turn to pain as their souls flee from the light that exposes the evil. This is not divine punishment , but self-punishment, as the Bible itself attests.

We must not wish such pain on them, or on anyone. Wishing others ill only keeps the cycle of vengeance going. Nor may we take satisfaction in the thought of their coming humiliation when they are corrected. They are our brothers and sisters, God’s beloved children, like ourselves. They are ourselves. We are entitled to rebuke and resist them, to warn them, to do all we can to stop them, without resorting to violence. Only by remembering that we wish their repentance and redemption, and not their suffering, can we obey the divine advice to overcome evil with good.

– A tract written for distribution at the Families Belong Together public event in Richmond, Indiana, Seventh Day, 6/30/2018. The printed version has footnotes giving biblical references.

A Christmastime Reflection

December 21, 2017

The story of Jesus begins and ends with forgiveness: Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist’s “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Luke’s ends with Christ’s parting words “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Christ’s commission to Paul is to open the eyes of the Gentiles “so that they may turn from darkness to light… [and] receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18).We humans need forgiveness of sins terribly, not just of the “sins” that can be named and counted, but forgiveness and healing of anything that causes self-loathing in us and sends us looking for a scapegoat, because until then our self-unforgiveness and unforgiveness of others – however masked by denial – are toxic and infectious and keep the world mired in evil, false solutions, and consequent despair. Without real repentance and forgiveness, I believe, social and political action are but a band-aid, and religious programs off the mark; but with repentance and forgiveness, one finds the Pearl of Great Price and can help all come to repentance, which I believe is God’s own desire (2 Pet 3:9).

But cheap repentance and cheap forgiveness are dangerous counterfeits to be shunned. If one looks deeply enough into oneself, one may find an “I” so damaged by being sinned against (especially while the “I” was forming) that it cannot truly say either “I forgive” or “I repent.” Or a guilty soul may find such an overwhelming fear of exposure that self-confrontation is blocked and guilt must go unacknowledged. In such cases the only cure may be God’s intervention. One must invite and welcome it as best one can, however frightening or painful it may prove to be. It may help to reflect that it will probably be no more painful to ourselves than the pain suffered by the One who bore our sins on the Cross. He lives, and is will lend courage and endurance to any who lack it, I believe, as generously as He has lent them to me.

Welcome, Christ, through whom, in whom, and as whom only, I believe, can we recovering sinners discover how infinitely we are loved by our Creator. Amen.

How I Got to Where I Am Now

August 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

Everything I Know about Drawing Moon Faces

My letter follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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