Some implications of neighborliness

05/31/2021 § 2 Comments

A few months ago, I posted a meditation on how the two great commandments, as Jesus articulated them, required our nurturing cooperation as part of nature (Here)l  Recently, I was reading an essay by Wendell Berry which makes much the same point, and made it about 40 years ago.  The essay is “The gift of good land,” and it can be found here, or in the collection of essays by the same title. This essay is valuable on many points, but here is the bit I”m thiinking of right now.  He has been reflecting on the gift of the Good Land, the Promised Land:

the good land is not given as a reward. It is made clear that the people chosen for this gift do not deserve it, for they are “a stiff-necked people” who have been wicked and faithless. To such a people such a gift can be given only as a moral predicament: having failed to deserve it beforehand, they must prove worthy of it afterwards; they must use it well, or they will not continue long in it….

How are they to prove worthy?

First of all, they must be faithful, grateful, and humble; they must remember that the land is a gift: “When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee” (Deuteronomy 8:10).

Second, they must be neighborly. They must be just, kind to one another, generous to strangers, honest in trading, etc. These are social virtues, but, as they invariably do, they have ecological and agricultural implications. For the land is described as an “inheritance”; the community is understood to exist not just in space, but also in time. One lives in the neighborhood, not just of those who now live “next door,” but of the dead who have bequeathed the land to the living, and of the unborn to whom the living will in turn bequeath it. But we can have no direct behavioral connection to those who are not yet alive. The only neighborly thing we can do for them is to preserve their inheritance: we must take care, among other things, of the land, which is never a possession, but an inheritance to the living, as it will be to the unborn.

And so the third thing the possessors of the land must do to be worthy of it is to practice good husbandry. The story of the Promised Land has a good deal to say on this subject, and yet its account is rather fragmentary. We must depend heavily on implication. For sake of brevity, let us consider just two verses (Deuteronomy 22:6-7):

If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the dam sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the dam with the young: But thou shalt in any wise let the dam go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days.

This, obviously, is a perfect paradigm of ecological and agricultural discipline, in which the idea of inheritance is necessarily paramount. The inflexible rule is that the source must be preserved. You may take the young, but you must save the breeding stock. You may eat the harvest, but you must save seed, and you must preserve the fertility of the fields.

Nurturing Ministers Case study #7 additional remarks

05/23/2021 § 1 Comment

The story of David Ferris and Comfort Hoag raises three points that I’d like to note, especially for those who seek to encourage ministers and ministry.
1. The encouragement of ministers as part of a minister’s work.

From the beginning of our movement, Friends were anxious to encourage faithfulness in the gifts of vocal ministry.  It was an abiding responsiblity for the  minister, to be alert to evidence that someone was being prepared for the work, and alert also to any leading to help the Friend accept and occupy their gift. This alertness included paying attention to the many ways anyone may hesitate to take up the calling.  Comfort Hoag here exercises this responsibility, and stories like it are to be found in many journals.

A 1765 letter by John Fry on the condition of the Second Day Morning Meeting stresses the traditional understanding that the continued vitality of the Society depends in part on this work of “midwifery” of new ministers:

There is ” a state of infancy and childhood ” even  in the ministry. This ” church,” he tells them, ” was at  first gathered by a living and powerful ministry,” and now  the Society and its rulers begin to think that “the situation  of things is altered, and that it can “now thrive and grow and  become fresh and green without it!” “Are we ashamed of  the foolishness of preaching which was so effectual in the  primitive times?” he asks. “As in the Lord there is no  variableness neither shadow of turning,” and as the Truth is  unchangeable, so the work and operation of the Divine Spirit  must ever be the same in all ages, and attended with the same  effects, and leads to and qualifies for different services, as  ministry, exhortation, &c….If sympathy and encouragement  of the warmest kind be not extended to young Ministers,  and some of the deficiency of their ministry borne with,  ” from whence,” he asks, ” is the church to be supplied with  able Ministers “

from  A.R. Barclay’s Inner life of the religious societies of the Commwealth… pp 532-3

Some ministers have had a particular concern for others in the work, and have held them in loving and discerning prayer.  Joseph John Dymond writes:

I can well recollect some of the profit and blessing that attended the action of an honored minister, now deceased, who would at time sgather together such of the Friends present at Yorkshire Quarterly Meeting as were in the practice of speaking more or less frequently in meetings for worship, and, out of the treasures of his own experience, addressing them upon the themes of aminister’s calling and work.


2. The importance of empathy and mutual care between ministers.

From the beginning of our movement, ministers were solicitous for others who shared the work. There are very many letters between ministers, expressing sympathy in times of trouble or discouragement, noting signs of growth, and anxiety for the others’ welfare and progress in the service.  

This may take the form of accompanyment in prayer.  I have often quoted a passage that illustrates this from Edward Hicks’s journal. He described how, as a young minister, he was reproved publicly by an elder. Meekly but firmly he accepted any rebuke that applied, but asserted that he still felt that he was not in the wrong. He reports the comment of an older minister at that point:

Thomas Scattergood then spoke nearly in the following manner: “I rejoice, Friends, that this matter has taken the turn that it has. I was sorry for the interruption, and felt much for the young man, who I saw was a stranger. I thought that he had got a little lost, and I was travelling with him in spirit, to find a safe landing place. . . .” (Hicks, pg. 60; this passage adapted from On living with a concern for Gospel ministry, 2nd ed. )

Sometimes there was admonishment.  One might say that the aim was basically that the ministers be kept awake and aware of their own condition.  Sarah Lynes Grubb, in reporting on a series of family visitations she had undertaken in Coventry, in 1797, says

What I have done has been through inexpressible pain, and in one instance particularly, where I had to tell a young woman who appears in meetings, that hers was a floating ministry, and the Lord would have none such. Oh! I could not help it, let the consequence be what it might; the word was like a sword in my soul, till I gave up.  I remembered that I could not choose what to do, and what to leave undone, and yet be accepted.

Yet very often the message was one of encouragement for the work’s sake, from someone who understood the risks, the costs, and the rewards of the work if done in the right spirit.  Lydia Lancaster writes to a friend who has been in a time of discouragement, 

The last time I heard of thee it was a time of great weakness with thee, which took deep hold of my mind…Thou knowest the harvest is great, and the faithful labourers in many places are too few.  It is our duty both to pray and to be engaged in our own particulars for the work going on which is begun in the earth, many of our worthy fathers being gone to their rest from their labours, and we, who remain in their places, are passing on after them towards eternity…Maybe we shall see each other at our spring meeting, meanwhile let us be true in our desires for each other, and for Israel, and heritage of God everywhere, that Truth may increase, and cover the earth in a more general way to his praise, and the comfort of all his mourners, that they may put on the garments of praise, instead of the spirit of heaviness — so wisheth, so prayeth, thy firm friend and true lover in the covenant of endless life.


3. My faithfulness may open a way for yours

There was a time in my youth when it many times happened that a friend of mine would stand in meeting and offer a message that touched upon and opened into an exercise I was experiencing in the silence, and Ii was brought to my feet to speak in a way that continued or elaborated on his. If he had not spoken, I would not have.  When Friends are attentive, they often can be led into the same exercise as the  meeting’s work in the silence proceeds.  This is reflected in the ministry that may come forward — and it is best when each person is faithful in their measure, so that the way opens for others’ contribution. This sort of experience is often recounted in the Journals and it touches closely on the David Ferris story that Tammy Forner has shared with us in the previous postl  Priscilla Gurney writes about a lesson she learned in this connection while on a visit to the island of Guernsey, early in her mnistry:

In the first opportunity of the kind, a gentle impression was soon afforded me, to express a sentence; but considering it so much fainter than the one I had ventured to suppress, I suffered an hour to pass in obscure and conflicting silence, before I  yielded to break it;  which being at length made humblingly willing to do, the little offering was  followed by a copious and valuable communication from my beloved friend and companion..[so that ]  I believe I never hesitated more…to endeavor faithfully to fulfill the service appointed to me; which appeared to be, generally, that of opening the door into a wide field of ministerial labour, on the part of my endeared and highly qualified companion. 

If our worship is truly led by a Spirit who is not a God of disorder but of concord (1 Cor. 14:33), then Friends will be led to the inward and outward ministry needed for the time and the people gathered, and this service of the Spirit of Christ to each of us, and each of us to the other, will be so ordered as to edify those gathered — to build up, instruct, encourage, chasten, heal, and bind together in the delight and the power of an unexpected experience of love. 

Nurturing Ministers Case Study #7 Guest post: Tammy Forner and David Ferris

05/16/2021 § Leave a comment

Tammy Forner has sent this excerpt from the journal of David Ferris, and then offers reflections on how this passage has informed and helped her.  You might say that we have here an example of  three-layer, cross-century nuturing — Comfort Hoag — David Ferris — Tammy Forner.    I am very grateful to Tammy. I will add some additional reflections in a separate post.

From the Memoirs of David Ferris

In the year 1755, being in company with Comfort Hoag and her companion, from New England, then on a religious visit to Friends in this part of the country, I attended a meeting with them, in which I felt a concern to speak to the assembly, but, as usual, evaded it.  After meeting Comfort said to me, ‘David, why didst thou not preach today?’  I smiled at the query, seeming to wonder that she should ask such a question, and endeavored to appear innocent and ignorant of any concern of that kind.  As she knew nothing of me but what she had felt, (having never before seen or heard of me) she said no more.  On the following day a similar concern came upon me, and I evaded it as before.  After the meeting, Comfort again said to me, ‘David, why didst thou not preach today?’  I endeavored to pass it by as I did before but she said it was not worth while to evade it, for she was assured that I ought to have preached that day, and that I had almost spoiled her meeting by refraining, which had hindered her service.  When I found I could not conceal my faults, I confessed the whole, and told her I had been for more than twenty years in that practice; and then gave her a history of my life from the beginning down to that day.   She admired that divine kindness was yet manifested toward me in such manner, seeing I had so long rebelled against it, and then gave me suitable caution and advice.
The following day, being at meeting, I again felt a concern to speak to the people, but endeavored to evade it.  A man of some note was sitting before me, which increased my reluctance to speak.  I supposed he would not be present at the next meeting, and then I would obey the call of the Lord to that service.  Thus I spent the greater part of an hour.  At length my divine Master, the great Master Builder, thus addressed me, ‘Why dost thou still delay, desiring to be excused until a more convenient season?  There never will be a better time than this.  I have waited on thee above twenty years; I have clearly made known to thee my will, so that all occasion of doubt has been removed; yet thou hast refused to submit until thy day is far spent; and if thou dost not speedily comply with my commands, it will be too late; thy opportunity will be lost.’  I then clearly saw that if I were forsaken, and left to myself, the consequence would be death and darkness forever!  At the sight of the horrible pit that yawned for me, if I continued in disobedience, my body trembled like an aspen leaf, and my soul was humbled within me!  Then I said, ‘Lord!  Here am I, make of me what thou wouldst have me to be; leave me not in displeasure, I beseech thee.’  All my power to resist was then suspended; I forgot the great man that had been in my way; and was raised on my feet, I hardly knew how, and expressed in a clear and distinct manner what was on my mind. When I had taken my seat, Comfort Hoag rose, and had an open, favorable opportunity to speak to the assembly.  After meeting she told me that, during the time we had sat in silence, her whole concern was on my account; that her anxiety for my deliverance from that bondage was such, that she was willing to offer up her natural life to the Lord, if it might be a means to bring me forth in the ministry; and that on making the offering I rose to speak.  On which her anxiety for me was removed, and her mind filled with concern for the people present.  (from Martha Paxson Grundy, ed. Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris (1707-1779). Philadelphia: Friends General Conference, 2001), pp. 51-53.)

Tammy Forner reflects:

David Ferris was an early American Quaker, a contemporary (both temporally, and in his witness against slavery) of John Woolman, and was impacted by the 1720s wave of revivalism of the First Great Awakening in America.  Ferris’s struggles with belief and faith, and with how to carry his lifelong awareness of God’s presence and activity in his life, form a classic and engaging seeker’s tale.    I encountered the book in 2014, early in my sojourn with Friends at Hartford Monthly Meeting as I was seeking way forward through a series of nudges to change my course in both my professional and personal frames.  At that point, the memoir became a touchstone in my effort to better understand the process of discernment of leadings in Friends’ practice.  And, I found kinship with him in his struggles with ego, temptation, and moral and ethical clarity.

More recently, within a course at Earlham School of Religion and coming to an understanding of myself as a practicing ‘everyday mystic’, I chose to re-engage with Ferris and his specifically Quaker spiritual journey as a form of personal and corporate Christian mystical experience.  This study examined events in his journey out of the mainline Christianity of his day into Quakerism; and listening to the divine Teacher in discernment around the course of his education, his work life choices, and his family life; and, finally, his response (after 20 years of resistance) to a call to traveling ministry at age 51.

This story cannot be easily untangled from his reflections on his life to that point.  Nor can my own relationship to that story be fully understood outside of my own history, and recent, deep discernment that brought me to an early retirement from a long and fruitful career in the construction industry, and to enter seminary at age 60.

The mechanics of my life’s stories are very similar to Ferris’ accounts.  I was brought up Presbyterian and was ordained as an elder at age 26; but by age 30 I found myself unable to justify the doctrine against lifelong mystical encounters with the Divine and how I ‘read’ Scripture.  My path took me first to the UU Church for 17 years, where I found ‘life’ in teaching and community discernment of mission and vision for two congregations.  This was followed by 7 years of good old active resistance to the work of Spirit in my life as my working and family life became more complex.  An epiphany in late 2013 prompted me to re-engage in my relationship with God, and led me to Hartford MM in March of 2014.  It was here that I found a path, and a community, that had room for me and accommodated an emerging re-membering of the indwelling of Spirit. Building on the call into eldership at 26, clear leadings to seminary studies that had arisen at age 40 were gradually re-experienced.  My way forward became clear(er), and it continues to emerge.

Most of the time, these days, I have no doubt that I am walking the road/ swimming in the stream of God’s will.  The rest of Ferris’ story is pertinent to this sense.  Despite highlighting his 20 years of resistance, he also chronicles the ways in which he actively listened to God and redefined every aspect of his life and work in accordance to what he heard.  There is a thread of emerging faithfulness and commitment to particular ‘ministries’ as his life unfolded – of responding to his measure of Light, and then engaging as more was given to him.  I can trace similar threads in my own spiritual, family, and working lives that also point to emergence and movement toward God, and deeper life in the Spirit.

And, that last piece of resistance – his resistance to the call into vocal ministry and the emergence of a traveling ministry, and mine to the clear call to seminary studies – can often be tough to live alongside.  In my case, I can sometimes fall right down the rabbit’s hole of regret for not responding earlier given the bounty of what is, right now, in this chapter of my life; and can even engage in self-recrimination i.e. perhaps I made a grave error and seminary life right now a sort of purgatory wherein I carry the weight of my earlier blindness…. and I suspect I am not the only Friend that can be plagued by this sort of doubt and confusion as we echo Ferris’ struggles with ego, temptation, and moral and ethical clarity.

So I will continue to carry Ferris’ life, and the stories within it, as an important touchstone.  His is an account of growing in obedience to God/the Inner Teacher throughout his life.  He chronicles his active resistance to clear leadings about which he had doubts that were grounded in ego, in circumstance, and in fear.  His struggles resonate with my own journey.  I do not question that I grew into the Light as I responded to the many challenges that my personal and professional life offered.  I am also very aware of when my ego stepped (and steps) in to unground my judgment and interfere with my life within Divine will.

“Christ is sufficient,” continuing revelation, and Quakerism as a Markov process

05/09/2021 § 2 Comments

In the region of Quakerdom that I inhabit, it’s not uncommon to  hear people speak of “continuing revelation” as a bedrock belief of Quakerism.  This seems to be second in mportance only to such variants on “that of God in every one,”  as this, on the New England Yearly Meeting website: “At the core of the Quaker faith is our trust that all people can have direct, inward experience of divine love, healing and guidance.”  For example, the introduction to our emerging new Faith and Practice speaks of “a three-fold  path of faith: faith in our Guide, faith in continuing revelation, and faith that we can be guided together.”    This is generally in harmony with our current relinquishing of all sources of authority except “Spirit.”  

I recently revisited George Fox’s Epistle #320, written to convince Friends and others  of the importance of women’s meetings for church affairs, parallel with men’s. After a typical Foxian pile of scriptural evidence, we arrive at the following astonishing statement: 

if there was no scripture for our men and women’s meetings, Christ is sufficient, who restores man and woman up into the image of God; to be help mates in the righteousness and holiness, as they were in before they fell.

This, produced in support of an innovation in Quaker practice, would seem a perfect and authoritative example of continuing revelation, and so it is, but it is not simple, even so. Herewith a few reflections.

  1. When we say “continuing revelation” do we actually mean “revelation,” that is, a better view of something hitherto suspected or only partially descried or suspected? (as in this famous passage from The Lord of the Rings):

    And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

    The land that Frodo sees is a real land, and in fact it is a destination long sought. He has taken passage on a ship, built on purpose to voyage to that land, and the land itself, and the way to go there, are attested and warranted by others’ long experience and substantive information. Of course, the best second-hand description of something not as full and, well, immediate, as first-hand encounter, so while Frodo “knows what to expect,” the actual encounter is richer and more precise than any report or imagination.
  2. It seems to me that the content, the value, or meaning, if you will, of our claims of “continuing revelation” must depend on the nature of what is being revealed. This, in turn, provides an important clue to the core of our message to the world — and to each other.
  3. The Faith and Practice quote above refers to our Guide, and our faith that we can be guided. This suggests other questions: Who is this guide? How can we tell when we’re following the guide we seek to follow, rather than (say) a blind guide who might just lead us into a ditch? What would we say our destination is?
  4. How do we know that the guide we claim to be following is not just us, reassuring each other, and thus a revelation only of what we can agree on, on a particular day, and with a particular constellation of people? (I am reminded of the discernment process of the Bandar-log, the Monkey People, in Kipling’s Jungle Book: “We all say so, and so it must be true.” )
  5. There is surely some truth to be discovered in a moment and a particular gathering. Does it, need it, relate to any other perceptions of truth? The answer to this depends on what guidance is being listened to
  6. It will not be surprising that early Friends were challenged on their understanding of “continuing revelation,” as an anarchistic idea, either silly or pernicious. As ever, the clash of formulations stimulated Friends to clarify what they meant. Barclay puts it well enough, in discussing the necessity, nature, and limits of “Immediate revelation” (Apology, Prop. II, passim):

    They then that do suppose the indwelling and leading of his Spirit to be ceased, must also suppose Christianity to be ceased, which cannot subsist without it… What the work of this Spirit is, is partly before shown, which Christ compriseth in two or three things, “He will guide you into all Truth”; “He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance…. there be many truths, which as they are applicable to particulars and individuals, and most needful to be known by them,are nowise to be found in the Scripture… Christ hath promised his Spirit to lead his children, and that every one of them both ought and may be led by every true Christian the Spirit of God dwelleth and abideth..: He in whom the Spirit of God dwelleth, it is not in him a lazy, dumb, useless thing; but it moveth, actuateth, governeth, instructeth, and teacheth him all things whatsoever are needful for him to know; yea, bringeth all things to his remembrance.

7. The Quaker position, then, is that the immediate guidance upon which we can rely as we live day by day, and from which we can expect guidance when we encounter a particular problem, is from the spirit of Christ. This Spirit’s teaching first shows us where we are falling short and refusing its invitation. If we accept that insight, and allow the Spirit to help us remove the roadblock, then we can be shown how to move forward in unity with that Spirit, and (often) what growth is required of us to live in what we are shown.

8. This position means that our decisions, when rightly discerned, are our best understanding of how the law inwardly written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33) “which spake by the prophets,” and is the divine life working in us, and seeking to come fully to birth in us, is to be followed in our current need.

9. Our ability to make out whether we are looking at our decisions in the light and life of Christ is not to be come by easily, but takes practice — this is why our daily prayer, scripture reading, and waiting in silence, are so necessary to skilled Quakerism. Moreover, the recognition is not a matter of reason. Barclay compares it to the direct knowledge of the senses:
Wait then for… the small revelation of that pure Light which first reveals things more known; and as thou becomes fitted for it, thou shalt receive more and more, and by a living experience easily refute their ignorance, who ask, how dost thou know that thou art acted by the Spirit of God? Which will appear to thee a question no less ridiculous, than to ask one whose eyes are open, how he knows the sun shines at noon-day?

One effect of practice is to develop the spiritual senses, so that we do not judge by the outward — whether it be scriptural proof-texts or cultural factors that are used not to further the work of divine love, but to justify our own goals and desires. If one authentically and humbly seeks to learn from the Spirit of Christ, Barclay says thou shalt feel the new man, the spiritual birth and babe raised, which hath its spiritual senses, and can see, feel, taste, handle and smell the things of the Spirit; but till then the knowledge of things spiritual is but as an historical faith. 

James Nayler (in his tract How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome) gives my favorite description of this sensation, and its complex components:

as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised. And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world.

And in the same place, Nayler continues by pointing out that faithfulness, that is, a daily embodiment of (and testimony to) the guidance given, results in an enlargement of our spiritual capacity — and is how we participate in God’s current and continuing work of creation and re-creation.

if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using; but if you will not give up for His names sake, but would hold the treasure, and escape the reproach, then will it be taken from you, and given to him who will yield the Lord of the vineyard His fruit in due season; for that which the Father freely begets, He will have freely brought forth, that the shining thereof in the dark world may praise Him.

11. Hugh Barbour summarized the tests that Friends used to help sharpen and challenge their judgments of a leading. (The following is extracted from a Tract Association pamphlet called “Five tests for discerning a true leading”):

1.      Moral purity. The first test for the genuineness of a leading was moral purity. Friends said that the Ranters “fled the cross,” and that the true Spirit was always contrary to self-will and led to righteousness. They applied this test within their own Meetings, and their austerity was certainly in contrast to the libertine habits of the Ranters.

2.      Patience. As a second test, elders warned Friends to sit with their leadings for a while in patience. Self-will is impatient of tests. Fox wrote, “Be patient and still in the power and still in the light that doth convince you, keep your minds unto God . . . If you sit still in the patience which overcomes in the power of God, there will be no flying.”

3.      Consistency with others. The third and most important test was likely to be the self-consistency of the Spirit. The Light should not contradict itself, either in history or among the members of the Spirit-led group.

Even the senior preachers submitted their directives to each others’ testing. In 1659 Thomas Aldam and William Dewsbury wrote to George Fox and Edward Burrough: “Take into your consideration the things written down in that power which came to me and W. Dew. at York and let me have an answer, how the large wisdom of God in you doth approve of the particular things to be done, and what it disapproves of, that in one Mind we may meet.”

4.      Consistency with the Bible. One strong means for using the consistency of the Spirit as a test for the validity of leadings was to compare them with biblical conduct.

Friends were never willing to use the Bible directly as a guidebook or rule book lest it substitute for each person’s own direct experience of the Light of Christ. In every area of life the Spirit must be absolute. But the Quakers, of course, believed that the biblical writers were also divinely inspired and that biblical teachings and prophecies were therefore proper to use for comparison. They were also willing for their opponents to test them by the Bible.

5.      Inward unity. The power of the Spirit to bring people into unity was one of the happy discoveries of the early Friends, and served as a final test of the guiding of the Light.

12. Is Quakerism a Markov process? A Markov process (as I learned from Chomsky’s Syntactic structures long ago) is a computational “machine” in which the only relevant considerations for its next action are its current state. The past does not matter. You just start with what you’ve got, and then apply the relevant rule to yield a new state, which then is the sole basis for the next round of decisions. I have often thought that Quakerism is turning more and more into that kind of a system. It seems to me that this is not a way to build a spiritual community, and also not a way to develop the spiritual senses for the kind of discernment that helps us live into, live in, the Commonwealth of God (common-wealth). A tree, while putting forth new leaves into this year’s conditions, is upheld by the accumulated growth of all its previous years; nor could those leaves emerge without the previous season’s work.

To come back to George Fox’s assertion that “Christ is sufficient”:

There was no precedent in scripture or tradition for the innovation he was advocating — women’s meetings. The new practice was different, in this way, from silent meetings, or the Quaker understanding of the ministry, which Friends would argue represented a return to the practices of “primitive Christianity.” As part of an in-house debate about process and structure, Fox is bringing to bear perhaps the most audacious claim being made by the Children of the Light in their revolutionary days, the explosive “first three minutes” of Quakerism. He could do this and reach the witness in (most of) his hearers, because of all the shared understanding about whose Spirit was being followed, and how one can learn to know that Teacher’s voice and intent for us. We, too, can be audacious, knowing and showing that learning to tell what will lead to our living more fully in the Light, and be a testimony (evidence, invitation, proclamation) of that Light, is a matter of practice, a path of faithfulness followed by “humble learners in the School of Christ.”

Forthcoming in June:”Messages to meetings”

05/03/2021 § Leave a comment

In June, Inner Light Books will release its newest title, a book by myself:  Messages to Meetings. This is a collection of  letters, blog postings, and other messages written in love to Friends, out of a sense of requirement in conjunction with service in gospel ministry.

The pieces address themes such as love and unity, prayer, true worship, gospel ministry, spiritual hunger, faithfulness, spiritual gifts, being teachable, hospitality to the active life of the living God, traveling Friends, prophets and callings, and diversity.

Charles Martin, the publisher and editor, and copy editor Kathy McKay, not only caught some infelicities in the originals, but also asked me to supply explanatory footnotes and references; their work I trust will make the collection more readable and more useful.

The cost will be $30 for hardback, paperback $15, and ebook $10.

Nurturing ministers, Case Study #6: Youngering

04/22/2021 § 3 Comments

I have had a couple of responses to my invitation to send in “case studies,” stories about nurturing ministers; I hope others will share stories with us.  I am grateful to Joe Snyder, of Multnomah (Oregon) meeting, who contributed this story:

Here is one story from my experience, a case of youngering:

I have sometimes been given to see the Seed of ministry beginning to grow and flourish within another. This is exciting, awesome, and amazing. The person is often considerably younger than I, but not always. I have tried to help nurture and encourage these gifts as I perceive them, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and it has been quite inspiring to see them develop. On one occasion, one of these Friends, considerably younger than I, with what I thought was a lot of courage, said to me: “Y’know, Joe, you have a tendency to take ownership of people.” Pause. Well, they were absolutely right. The people that I was encouraging often became “my project”. I’ve had to sit with that for a while, but it was and is, of course, extremely helpful and has enabled me to do a better job of nurturing others without direction, and to be able to get out of the way as the path unfolds for them … and to just celebrate their flowering without any inward or outward need to take credit. I am exceedingly grateful to the person for pointing this out to me. An example of eldering at its best; everybody benefits.

The insight that Joe descriibes, of recognizing some opening gift in another, originates in an inward tenderness, which may have been made possible in many different ways.  Something more is needed, however, to put it into words: a  leading or impulse which, if pure and loving, can nourish the recipient and also strengthen the one who offers the word of counsel and encouragement. It is a creative act.

Conversations in which people speak honestly and openly about a growing point they see in someone else  are not easy to initiate.  In daring to begin such a conversation, you make yourself vulnerable to the other person’s response.  Furthermore, the person you speak to must be in an open place to hear, digest, and respond to the counsel being offered.  No wonder we are reluctant to talk about things of the spirit which cut so close to our selves!

In such moments of openness, however, other things can get mixed in, often very quickly and imperceptibly.*   To get unalloyed gold, refining may be needed.   The “impurity,”  the alloying ingredient, may be harmless in its place, but in this situation it is out of place. In offering  encouragement,  our Friend has responded artlessly to beauty, an opening spring of ministry in another person.  What enters in, though, is the sort of attachment which becomes possessive. The perceptive younger Friend was loving and brave enough to see this dynamic and name it,  and Joe was brave and loving enough to hear the correction.

As Friends and meetings experiment, becoming a little more courageous in seeing and encouraging gifts, it is good to have such stories in mind, and reflect upon them sometimes.

Joe’s original impulse was from the “pure principle”  to the “pure principle” : Christ’s spirit feeling its unity, and rejoicing at the sense of abundance and growth that results.

If we build for ourselves the practice of pausing to remember that this is the nature of the exchange, we can be protected by that same Spirit from mixing in the tincture of ownership, or other such emotional attachments that are extraneous to the   simple opening of life.  Then the good that we are led to do can really serve the life of God in all.

This kind of connection can work in either direction.  I am reminded of this passage from Catherine Phillips’s journal:

When we are singularly made instruments of good, in the hands of Providence to any soul, there is a natural aptitude to lean a little to the instrument, and to prefer it above others, which may for a time be allowable. The Lord, leading the mind by gradual steps from the love of other objects to the entire love of himself . . . may permit it for a season to lean to an instrument; in which case a prudent reserve is necessary, as well as a tender regard to the growth of the party thus visited.

I have experlenced this myself — someone’s ministry touches me deeply, I feel the delight of discovery, and for a while I tend to see everything through the lens they have given me: an attachment has formed. This connection may not even be in a direct relationship, but can be the effect of an author I have discovered, who has revealed something for me.  The person has been a wayfinder, the means (“instrument”) by which I have been opened or enlarged in spirit. Following them with enthusiasm for a while makes it possible to see if the initial insight can lead to more that I can learn through that teacher.  This can be a passionate engagement:  the creative drive, the erōs, stirs us deeply when we feel it flowing.**

At some point, though, for the gift to be complete, we must recognize that the wayfinder is not the path, the Spirit’s instrument is not the Spirit.  In this interaction of deep engagement and nonpossession, we taste something of God’s relationship to us and to creation.  As Thomas Merton writes,

The most wonderful thing about the world is that it is nobody’s property, not even God’s!  We who are ruined by our own indigence to the point of thinking that we can possess something worship a false god, a god of possession, that is, a god of destruction.  God is the God of the living. (Entering the silence pg. 474)

* I am reminded of when, in Matthew 12, Jesus talks about how an evil spirit, cast out by a healer, may long to “return home.”  If the demon  returns to the soul, and finds that it is empty, like a house newly swept and put in order, a welcoming little nest, it will settle right back in, and invite its friends.

** If the passionate engagement is with a living person, then other consequences may arise unexpectedly, as boundaries are weakened or removed; passion can take many forms.

Further on the “womb of eternity”

04/17/2021 § 2 Comments

Last year, I posted a little piece on the phrase “the womb of eternity” that I found in one of George Fox’s epistles. In that post, I noted that Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 313-386) used the phrase.  In this post, I add a new item to my little collection, a poem from the Greek Anthology (1.19) by one Claudian, a Christian poet from roughly the mid-to-late 4th century.  Who Claudian was we don’t really know, and there was at least one other Claudian, perhaps two, poetizing in those days.  The uncertainty of the authorship, and the uncertainty about dates, would not let us make any statement about possible intellectual or literary relationships between Cyril and this Claudian.  As you will see, if you read on, Claudian’s contribution to my little quest presents an interesting wrinkle, and in any case is full of fascinating imagery.

The following is my rendering, not poetic but serviceable.  I will add a comment or two afterwards.

                               To the Savior

O Christ, who guards the wise womb of everflowing fire,
Established [or: enthroned] upon the world’s fluctuating Necessity,
Life-giving source of God-mandated life,
First-produced utterance of God, the father whose name we cannot speak,
Who, after [your] mother’s burden of child-bearing,
And your self-accomplished birth from a wedding without bridegroom,
Brought to a stand the rage of the heretical Syrian tribe,
And dismantled the falsely-named rituals of empty idols,
Strode across the seven-strapped belt of heaven,
Sitting on unspeakable angelic wings:
Be gracious, Venerable Eye of all-engendering God,
Guardian of life, Savior of humankind, eternal King.

Well, this is not the Womb of Eternity, but it is the Womb of a fire that is ever- alive (in the sense of “living water”, that is, flowing water as opposed to standing water).   Clearly the womb that Christ is guarding is seen as a primordial source of fire (of stars, the sun, and the heat of living things, perhaps).  Thus, Claudian is celebrating a Christ who is God’s first message, and while the Father’s name is unutterable, we can say Christ’s name.

Note that the word I translate “utterance” is the short word ops, which most primitively means “voice,” and comes also to imply the work we do with the voice, utterance, discourse, or word.  Claudian is heir to all the developments of Greek literature and language of the preceeding millenium, so we can expect him to make use of every nuance.  The poem, indeed, is full of grammatical forms and words that belong to epic poetry, which if done skilfully, can lend a sense of reverend force to the words (just as many of us love the unique power of the King James translation of scriptures, which sets it apart from everyday language).  Note also that the word I have translated “humankind” is a poetic word merops, a compound of ops, suggesting “one who possesses articulate speech.”  This echo may hint at our kinship with Christ.

Thus, the “womb” here, as in George Fox and the other places I have found, suggests a place of creative, up-welling power and divine intent, unimaginable and ever-flowing into the cosmos.  It is both fire and wisdom, and Christ, the first, guards and watches there, seeing all, lord of that fountain of life, but unlike God, not ineffable, and approachable by those who speak in hope — a giver of grace.

Absconditus: God hidden, an Easter reflection

04/04/2021 § 1 Comment


There are times when God is hard to find.  Isaiah 45 declares God a hidden God, even as the prophet names God the savior of his people. Mystics and theologians who emphasize the complete sovereignty, a radical otherness, of God have felt the power of the idea that God sometimes intentionally veils Godself from human perception.  This defines a relationship in which humans are completely subject to an ultimately unknowable will, though on the whole the evidence is taken to suggest that God wills well to those who love this Divine Other.  Thus, the hidden God may teach us lessons  by Her absence as well as by Presence.

The Quaker journals (spiritual autobiographies) offer many examples of earnest ministers, whose meat and drink is to know God’s presence and leading as the root of joyful and laborious service, who have shorter or longer times of spiritual drought, when the sense of Presence is withdrawn.  This is very often taken as a lesson in dependency, and a warning against pride or presumption.

Moreover, it is easy enough to say “He’s not there” when looking at history, where there are crimes and tragedies enough to make the idea of a benevolent Director of the Action seem ridiculous, or even harmful.  Bad things happen to good people — and good things happen to bad people.  This is not new, but the pain is felt freshly over and over.  

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ call to perfection comes with a startling challenge, by telling us that God’s love is such that the fundamental blessings of Creation are not withheld from anyone, no matter where we would put them on the scales of morality: 

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?   Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

The starkness of this is part of the mystery of Jesus and his experience of God.  Hugh Barbour once wrote:

Jesus said that God saw, but did not prevent, the fall of a sparrow, and that the Tower of Siloam collapsed upon 18 men no ³worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem²(Luke13)  Yet he saw God¹s lack of judgment as God¹s love for each person, bird, and flower, and the  power of it as the hidden Seed of the Kingdom.  His ability to demonstrate this to outcast individuals and huge crowds shows how fully he must have known, even as the ultimate prophet, that a true prophet is called to embody the message he is given for God¹s people. For me, therefore, the Passion narrative beginning in Mark 8 and its center in the narrative of Gethsemane, is central to tryng to understand Jesus. He knew the final prophet had been rejected by God¹s people in their holy city on its holiest holiday.

And then Jesus died that death, and was buried like anybody else.  What kind of a Redeemer, a Reconciler is this?  The Powers of the World (that is, the world of human-created order, an order built on inequality and violence, beneath all the fruits of civilization), had proven too strong for the little seed cast by the side of the road. No wonder many followers of Jesus have needed to remake Him in imperial dress, and associate the shepherd and cmpanion of fisherfolk and outcasts with the structures of power that “the World” teaches is “the way it’s supposed to be.”  Jesus couldn’t have meant all that stuff about love and mustard seeds and becoming like a child, and foot-washing? 

Many are ashamed at the Lamb’s appearance, it is so low, and weak, and poor, and contemptible, and many are afraid seeing so great a power against him.(James Nayler, The Lamb’s War).

 I have known cycles of doubt, in which, despite all the many blessings I have been given, and the love that I am surrounded with in marriage, family, and friends,  the cold winds of a cosmic loneliness blow in through the cracks of my little house. At those times I can begin to taste the bereivement — “bereft-ness” —  that Jesus’ friends were sitting with, In that empty  upstairs room  — empty though they were all gathered there, because there was no communion in their fear and sorrow. 

When the women (the Marys) come to the empty tomb (in Luke’s account), one of the two witnesses in shining raiment (white like snow, as at the Transfiguration), says “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?  It’s not here that he is, he has risen.”   I share the disciples’  condition in this, too, that I have not gone all the way to the heart of what Jesus was telling them; still seeking the living among the dead.  So how prepared was I to learn, when he demonstrated it, enacted the message which includes complete vulnerability to the terrible, mysterious forces amongst which we live, and the message, too, of God with us in the depths — the sign of Jonah? 

John’s account makes it clearest, and maybe speaks Jesus’ heart:   a hopeless Mary Magdalene turns from the enigmatic tomb, and runs into someone who simply and quietly gets her to explain her tears.  When he listens, and then says her name, she recognizes the teacher, whom she cannot yet grasp — she is not ready, mere recognition is not enough.  But the key is mutual recognition:  Jesus acknowledges her (naming her in her particularity, like Adam naming in his garden), and she then can see him.  That then is the beginning of a new journey, first in haste, and then in endurance, fed by the Life that escapes a stony grave.  Thereafter, one can know the Presence, still as mysterious as the universe, by the kindling in the heart. 

Discessit ab oculis, ut redeamus ad cor et inveniamus eum.  “He withdrew from our sight, that we might return to our heart and find him.” Augustine Confessions 4:XII.

It doesn’t have to be this way: Proclaiming gospel values; with a note on “original sin.”

03/28/2021 § 8 Comments

(adapted from a message given in worship.  Note: This was posted last year, but for some reason WordPress returned it to “Draft” status sometime in the last few months.  I only just caught this glitch a few days ago.)
I found myself, in a recent meeting for worship (connected by Zoom, as one so often is these days), thinking of my dad. Every year, in his 7th grade science class (1960s and ’70s), he’d have a lesson about Life on Other Worlds. The kids would be engaged, of course, and at some point he’d ask: “What would you do if a flying saucer landed in your back yard, and a Little Green Man came out?” The kids would respond, “I’d run!” “I’d shoot’em!”
My dad would strike them dumb by saying, “Not me. I’d try to talk with them.” Then he’d explain why he’d want to hear what the travelers might say, and intend. He’d come home and tell the story with a chuckle. In the midst of the Vietnam war fever, this was an arrestingly alternative approach — counter-cultural, you might say.
My beloved, sweet father was not at all free from racial and other prejudices; but he saw the problem with prejudice, and in those years at least responded to communitarian impulses that he thought were the best of America.
This annual 7th grade ritual came back to me, I think, because of the recent protracted public outcry about systemic brutality against black people and all the long list of injustices and outrages perpetrated against the powerless, and especially people of color, by the powerful.
It’s so relentless a feature of human history up to the present, like war and sexism and brutality to children and the earth, that it seems obviously to be rooted in the fiber of our being, ineradicable from human behavior. No wonder, I think, that the theologians developed the doctrine of original sin: Our natures start out broken, just because of who we are: Sons of Adam, daughters of Eve.
No wonder George Fox found it hard going to preach freedom from sin, through the power of the Light of Christ within — and his opponents “roared and preached up sin,” with liberation only to be found in the Next Life. But as he was not the first to note, if “There is none righteous, no, not one,” (Romans 3, after Ecclesiastes), then why are we continually exhorted by scriptures and preachers to live blamelessly, strive after righteousness? What, after all, can it mean to walk in the light, as children of the light, if we are fundamentally hearts of darkness? What, indeed, is the “relevance of an impossible ideal”? It is a cruel teaching, but Augustine and his followers tell us we have to accept it, and accept that all the admonitions of the prophets and the Savior himself to cast off sin and walk in righteousness don’t really mean what they say.
Now, many Friends may object, “Well, so much the worse for them, and I don’t really care what Paul or Luther have to say about this stuff. All that matters is what can say.” Yet if we are worshippers of God, and that God is one, the God of Jesus and of Fox and Paul, then somehow the teachings that we believe we receive inwardly must at least be engaged with contrasting understandings apparently from the same source. After all, the endlessly quoted “What canst thou say?” passage in Margaret Fell’s account is about engaging with Scriptures through the power of the spirit that gave them forth:
[Fox] stood up upon his seat or form and desired that he might have liberty to speak. And he that was in the pulpit said he might. And the first words that he spoke were as followeth: ‘He is not a Jew that is one outward, neither is that circumcision which is outward, but he is a Jew that is one inward, and that is circumcision which is of the heart’. And so he went on and said, How that Christ was the Light of the world and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this Light they might be gathered to God, etc. And I stood up in my pew, and I wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, ‘The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord’. And said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

But Friends understood that their understanding that God is still with us, still teaching and preaching as from the beginning when He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, means that our imperfect hearing must recognize (as Penington says):
A third great help, which in the tender mercy of the Lord I have had experience of, is sobriety of judgment. Not to value or set up mine own judgment, or that which I account the judgment of life in me, above the judgment of others, or that which is indeed life in others. For the Lord hath appeared in others, as well as to me; yea, there are others who are in the growth of his truth, and in the purity and dominion of his life, far beyond me. Now for me to set up, or hold forth, a sense or judgment of anything in opposition to them, this is out of the sobriety which is of the truth. Therefore, in such cases, I am to retire, and fear before the Lord, and wait upon him for a clear discerning and sense of his truth, in the unity and demonstration of his Spirit with others, who are of him, and see him.

Well, it just so happens that, as the world has turned and brought us to the events of june, 2020, my wanderings through the Greek New Testament have brought me to Paul’s great epistle to the Romans, and for fun I have been keeping Erasmus’s Annotationes and Paraphrase of that book within reach. In chapter 5 comes the passage that serves as an important cornerstone for the idea of imputed sin, that is, that we already start out at birth with a burden of sin, because our forefather Adam (and foremother Eve) committed the original sin. The passage (5:12) was translated in the Vulgate to suggest that sin entered the world because of Adam “in whom all have sinned” — with the implication that the sinfulness was inherited. But Erasmus pointed out that Augustine (whose Greek was admittedly limited) was the only one among the early Fathers who understood the passage this way.
The alternative is to understand the clause as meaning, “since all have sinned,” and Erasmus argues on the basis of the next few lines, that the reason we have all sinned is that we are imitating our parents-back-to-Adam: “no one does not imitate the example of the first parent.” Sin is therefore a learned behavior — all too easy, given human nature.
But if sin is learned, it can be unlearned — though since our proclivity to sin is so great, the unlearning is only possible when we are willing to acknowledge the need, find and seek to adopt alternative responses to the occasions of sin — and seek and accept the necessary clemency and power of Christ’s spirit. Christ the teacher, Doctor Logos, can bring diagnosis and the necessary medicine. It’s up to us to use it — yet God upholds us in our attempt to be faithful to the Light, both with inward help and outward help from other travelers along the way .
Quakers from the beginning have rejected the “imputed sin” idea, even as they (we) rejected the “imputed righteousness” view of the Atonement. Very many of the spiritual autobiographies, the journals, note that the authors felt that they began in innocence, and they could remember when they started to come under the bondage of sin — often all too willingly. Victorian Quakers like Rufus Jones or John Wilhelm Rowntree in the same connection were glad to embrace Wordsworth’s account of the child coming into the world “trailing clouds of glory,” and only later coming under the “shades of the prison house.”
But if sin is learned, it can be unlearned, especially if we find, or are shown, alternatives, so that we learn to seek and do the good, the better that we can see, and recognize and live past the worse, then how important is the “foolishness of preaching,” how important the testimony in deed and word of those who are more experienced in the journey, more practiced in the cycles of seeking, finding, and living up to our measure of the light (and not beyond)!
It is so important that we not be silent in the face of evil, and even if all we can say is “Things can be different! We can choose life! This much I have found, and thus have I been changed!” then we are making our contribution as citizens of the Transformed Realm, as children of the Light, the Camp of the Lord. Faithfulness in the little (no matter how little) enables faithfulness in greater trials. Jesus promised such growth in freedom, and abundant joy in the finding of it.

Notes:For more about Romans etc., see John Payne (1971) Erasmus as interpreter of Romans. (I can supply a pdf for the interested). Also see Sylvia Fitzpatrick, Erasmus and the process of human perfection — the philosophy of Christ.

Finally, a reminder and a challenge to us all:
It is a living ministry that begets a living people; and by a living ministry at first we were reached and turned to the Truth. It is a living ministry that will still be acceptable to the church and serviceable to its members. (Testimony concerning John Banks by Somerset Quarterly Meeting)

Nurturing ministers, case study #5 William Penn and John Richardson

03/14/2021 § Leave a comment

John Richardson (1667-1753) writes in his journal:

A passage is here revived to my mind, which was that: after a large yearly meeting, where were many able ministers, worthy William Penn, who was one of them, taking me aside, said, the main part of the service of this days work went on the side, and we saw it, and were willing and easy to give way to the truth, though it was through thee,who appears but like a shrub; and it is but reasonable that the Lord should make use of whom he pleases; now, methinks, thou mayest be cheerful.
From which I gathered, that he thought I was too much inclined to be cast down; therefore I gave him this true answer, I endeavor to keep in a medium, out of all extremes, as believing it to be most agreeable to my station; with this remark, the worst of my times rather embitter the best to me. William shook his head, and said with much respect, There are many who steer in this course besides thee, and it is the safest path for us to walk in; with several other expressions which bespoke affection.
This worthy man, and minister of the Gospel, notwithstanding his great endowments and excellent qualifications, yet thought it his place to give way to the Truth, and let the holy testimony go through whom it pleased the Lord to empower and employ in his work, although it might be through contemptible instruments. (Journal of John Richardson, pg. 98)

There are several points to note here, when you think about encouraging a gift in ministry. 

First, Penn is speaking on behalf of a body of elder ministers, who had grown in their gifts over time, and carried the work reliably, as they were led to do so.  They were acknowledged in the eyes of the meetings, in that their work was approved, and supported insofar as they were faithful. 

Second,  these experienced public Friends were known to be watchful for the condition of the meeting, and for the emergence of new gifts, and expected to encourage those in whom the life was felt to be at work. 

Third, they reflected on the condition of individual Friends, and to extend support in particulars.  This included sharing something of their own trials and lessons learned.  

Fourth and most important of all, they were concerned that God’s work go forward, regardless of who got the call.  If a message had life, it was to be welcomed.

The traditional Quaker understanding of the work of the ministry was that the gift was God’s, and might take any of a number of forms, not necessarily to be predicted or expected according to everyday standards of “qualification.”  So Penn here is seen, by Richardson, as exemplifying the most important qualification, which is tenderness, availability, and clear understanding of who is the Leader of our worship and our works. 

And  [they] did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 1 Cor. 10:3-4. 


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