03/21/2018 § Leave a comment
Reading Emerson’s Nature, found this line (in Ch. 8) which speaks (part of) my mind.
No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something.
It’s the “heartily” that struck me. A characteristic Emerson word.
A propos of the idea of “prayer as learning,” I once wrote:
In this transition of expectant waiting for the moment of illumination, there is learning. A common fruit of prayer is a heightened awareness of the subject [that becomes a focus for the prayer]…. The Light illuminates and shows us our condition; it is what we should focus on, rather than the shadows that it reveals. …We can find ourselves struggling against change, feeling reluctant to become, even in a small matter, a new person….
During all this time of searching, you may also be thinking, making plans and resolutions. As long as these ideas and schemes do not become distractions, substitutes for attentively standing in the Light, they can be resources for the future. As with all potential distractions, note them, look at them in the quietness of the heart, and then set them aside. Until you have been able to look at your current problem in the love of Christ, you are not likely to see the true value of your plans and resolutions. Perhaps they will be useful, when their time comes; perhaps they are wishful thinking, a premature rushing to closure. Nothing of value will be lost if you keep your inward eye towards the Lord’s peace and stillness.
03/18/2018 § Leave a comment
I have felt for a while (and I know I’m not alone) that we Friends these days don’t have all the kinds of meetings we could and perhaps need to have — and therefore the gifts that would be called out and exercised by them are not discovered and cultivated. In this post, I want to lift up one such variety.
When our yearly meeting recently began to experiment by holding gatherings between annual sessions, I wondered if maybe this could provide an opening for a further experiment — to develop some modern echo of the old regional “yearly meetings,” one of whose major features was public meetings for worship, intended to reach out to nonFriends. I have tried to gather some concrete information about how these meetings worked, and how they fit in with other Quaker activities. What follows is a sketch for a study. Unlike most of my posts, this one will have references at the end, in someone wants to join in the fun.
Reading in the accounts of the first century or two, I have been puzzled by the frequent references to “yearly meetings,” or “general meetings,” or “circular meetings.” Friends mention “yearly meetings” for Wales, at York, at Skipton, at Bristol, Woodbridge, Colchester, Baldock, and more. Benjamin Holme, traveling in New England in 1715, mentions a yearly meeting at Dartmouth, and then a few months later “on Rhode Island.” Catherine Phillips describes how her husband organized a yearly meeting at Truro (Cornwall, not Cape Cod) in 1785.
Now, some of these are clearly embryonic versions of what we think of as Yearly Meeting. Elizabeth Emmott’s Story of Quakerism reports that
In 1658 a “General Meeting for the whole nation” was held at John Crook’s in Bedfordshire; in 1660 Ihe ” General Meeting “was held at Skipton in Yorkshire, and, as George Fox says in a letter, ” from thence it was removed to London the next year.”
Hugh Doncaster tells us that in some areas, “circular meetings” were settled for groups of counties, by which a meeting for worship and business would be held in each county in turn (thus, Samuel Fothergill and Bejamin Holme attend a “yearly meeting” in Worcester, which is the “circular meeting for the seven counties” in the west country of England). Some at least of these circular or “general” meetings evolved into later quarterly meetings. Some, however, seem mostly to have been for worship and fellowship — but also with the specific intent to hold public meetings for worship, by which to reach out to nonFriends.
I traced down many references in my little research project, because I was very interested to see any descriptions I could find of what actually happened at these meetings. Of course, when I checked Braithwaite’s Second Period, I found that W.C.B. had read everything there was to read, and written an admirable brief summary (pp 546-549). However, accounts in the journals of Thomas Story (pp. 273, 285 289,307), Catherine Peyton Phillips (pg. 279), and Benjamin Holme (passim) provide interesting additional details.
These meetings often included gatherings of ministers, and of elders (and sometimes the two together), and meetings mostly for Friends. But the public worship was carefully prepared for — usually more than one session, often over more than one day, with lots of publicity ahead of time. Temporary meeting places were erected for large crowds (the word “booth” is used, these clearly held hundreds of people — one meeting is recorded to have attracted 4,000 people), and minister’s galleries (as in meetinghouses, to help the preaching be heard by a large gathering). There were lots of logistics (and Catherine Phillips’s account of the Truro meeting gives some welcome glimpses into the behind-the-scenes work).
Ministering Friends were expected to be there in numbers, and it was assumed that in a favored gathering, Truth would be “largely declared.” After the gatherings, the ministering Friends would spread out over the adjacent countryside, holding public meetings, as well as visiting Friends meetings or isolated Friends along the way, as led. It is reasonable to assume that the publicity attending the big event would make Friends meetings more intriguing for nonFriends, especially if ministers “from away” were known to be in town after participating in the yearly meeting. Friends in their journals do sometimes report an uptick in convincements and meeting attendance in the region in the wake of the gathering.
Thomas Story’s account of the gathering in Exeter gives a sense of the “pedagogy” or teaching impact of such events, held over several sessions, “like those in the north, not meddling with matters of business or discipline, but only worship, doctrine, and occasional communication of holy things.” His account also provides a sensitive description of the ministers’ experience — burdened until they had discharged what was given to them, passing it on to the people for whom the gift was given:
The meeting began on first-day morning, the 9th of the month, and ended the third-day following, and was a good time throughout; but as generally such meetings are observed to be, was brighter and brighter, and brightest in the end. For as they consist of a mixed multitude of all sorts and notions, the understandings of the uncouth and ignorant are darkest at first coming; but as they begin to be illuminatd by the testimony of Truth, and their senses a little awakened to relish something of the sweetness and virtue of it, Truth then flows more freely to them, with a greater facility in the minister, and reception in the hearer.
The sensible and living, who, in the life of the Son, and as they stand related to him who beareth the infirmities of all from the foundations of the world, in the beginning of such meetings, are often deeply and mysteriously laden, but being eased of their burthen and travail, now laid upon those in the auditory, where it rightly belongs, things then proceed, and conclude to mutual comfort and ease… This meeting ended in peace and gravity.
There are, and must be costs to such exercises, as the old accounts make quite clear– costs and temptations. The holding of such meetings requires some daring — a confidence, not in our own powers, but in the value of the Truth we have come to experience, as a living, robust, and effective spiritual path, which can render a coherent and inviting account of itself — both as to practice, and to the doctrine, that is, the reasons for what we do, and what it does to us — how it leads to liberation, to wider, richer, more loving, more fearless and joyful living. Can we listen openly and expectantly enough?
It requires daring of those who would participate in the ministry at such a meeting — a true reliance on the power of Christ our teacher to guide, to provide words as needed, and to open, to prepare ears and hearts so that the seed sown in faith and love finds some good ground. It will challenge us to open ourselves to the differing demands and needs of worshippers who are not used to our ways, for whom Quaker worship will hardly seem like worship at all, and who may need support, guidance, and invitation so that they can see and feel what is possible — what is in fact happening to them in the depths.
It will challenge us accept the experiences of poverty of spirit, of disorientation, of rejection, and of struggle to stay faithful and pure — all as part of the fulness of the path of light we seek to walk, to advocate, and to embody in our measure.
Braithwaite, W.C. (1919, repr. 1961) The second period of Quakerism. London: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, and Wm. Sessions.
Brown, Alfred W (1885) Eavesham Friends in the olden time. London: West, Newman & Co., Printers
Doncaster, L. Hugh (1958) Quaker organization and business meetings. London: Friends Home Service Committee.
Holme, Benjamin (1754) A collection of the epistles and works of Benjamin Holme, to which is prefix’d an account of his life and travels in the work of the ministry, through several parts of Europe and America: written by HIMSELF. London: Luke Hinde.
Phillips, Catherine. Memoirs of the life of Catherine Phillips. in Friends Library vol. XI.pp 188-287.
Story, Thomas. Life, in Friends Library, vol. X.pp. 1-372
Tanner, William (1858) Three lectures on the early history of the Society of Friends in Bristol and Somersetshire. London: Alfred Bennett.
03/16/2018 § Leave a comment
A few years ago, I circulated this letter within the Yearly Meeting. I was reminded of it recently, and in case it might still have some use, I repost it. Maybe as you read it, you can think of things to add — things your meeting attends to, in reflecting on its spiritual condition, or things you wish could be attended to, or ways that you have see these conversations be productive — and maybe even valuable after the report”s been written.
Another question that’s occurred to me is, is there a way that a meeting’s State of Society report could be used as part of outreach beyond the meeting, and beyond Friends? What uses has your meeting found for this exercise?
As we reflect on our meetings’ spiritual condition: a letter to my Friends.
At this time of year, our meetings are thinking about our “state of Society” reports. In the past few weeks, I have found myself often drawn to reflect on this work, and on the service it can be to us, to see our meetings’ condition, and in doing so our own as well.
Our practices can too often feel like customs or routines to follow, out of habit, or to maintain order. Yet we can, with prayer and imagination, come to them in the Spirit in which they were adopted, and find in them renewed openings. The first operation of the Light is to show us our condition, and there also ability comes to follow it. In turning to the Light, we find renewal for our journey as a people gathered.
What I have been led to consider is, What are the evidences of a meeting’s health? Activity, busyness is no more an evidence of a community’s health than it is a sign of personal health. On the other hand, persistent quiet is not necessarily a sign of tranquility. I am concerned to lift up two kinds of evidence: the climate of the meeting, and the ministry to people of different conditions.
Is there a climate of engaged love? Acceptance and hospitality are of great value, but the kind of love that healthy meetings have is a practical one that reaches further. Such active love is eager to see a growth in each member of the fruits of the Spirit, and intentional about spiritual nurture to encourage that growth.
Do Friends voice, and act upon, the assumption that “each hath a gift and is serviceable” for the life of the whole? Are the marginal or shy, the young, the tired, held in the kind of loving attention which does not press, but is on the lookout for opportunities to see and name how each can serve according to their capacity and measure?
Is the meeting teachable towards unity in the Spirit? In our day, we are deeply aware of the diversity of our communities. indeed, we often in challenge ourselves to be yet more diverse, and include more kinds of people, from more conditions, than we are accustomed to do. Out of such diversity can come a growth of insight, and a greater capacity to reach and be reached by the Witness of God in others of different background. Sometimes the diversity of beliefs, and the many differing paths by which we have been gathered into our meetings, feels like the paramount truth of our condition, and while we are grateful, we can also feel weakened as a community, and fear we are reduced to an association of isolated reporters: “I wouldn’t want to generalize about Quakers, but what I can say is…”
Yet our God is a God of unity, not confusion, and our communities are places where the divine presence should enable us to feel the truth of the unity which God wills for us, and indeed which is our basic condition. Truth and love, justice and forbearance, compassion and courage, are all different names for the life of the One as it is expressed in and through us. Yet it requires an act of intention to pray towards, long for, that unity, and patience and courage to seek how to name it or enact it as we have found it.
In the end, Friends, the most important question about a meeting’s climate is, What is the spiritual hunger you share? If it is companionship, that can be achieved in many ways. If it is visibility and activity, those, too, can be achieved by various means. If it is comfort and quiet, and the preservation of the community’s history, these also are goals within reach.
But any of these can be accomplished without any real growth of experience with the Spirit as a living, disturbing, creating, healing, transforming power. Are there any in your meeting who cry with the psalmist “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God” ?
In that hunger lie wrapped up all the other yearnings for peace, truth, equality, simplicity, and community — and indeed these many faces of love and power all are seen to be different effects of seeking and dwelling, in our measure, in the Presence that we seek for, and sometimes experience.
Ministry for, and to, different conditions
The ministry of the meeting, which includes the words spoken, and the silent ministry, and the words or deeds of service or prayer with individuals or groups at other times, is rooted in a listening, loving focus on the actual people gathered, and on the One in whom they are gathered.
As you consider the meeting’s condition this year, Friends, listen for the conditions within the community, in compassion and honesty. Three conditions that have come particularly to mind in my exercise are these: the “young” members, of any age, who are new to Friends; the “established”; and the “well-grown in the truth.” Each of these conditions has characteristics which may require particular kinds of service to help them forward, and it is good sometimes for a meeting to reflect on whether the ministry is offering what it could, under God’s guidance.
— In the “young,” that is, those new to Friends, there may be exploration, enthusiasm, receptivity, a need and desire to learn the foundations of the Quaker path. They need guidance, but not only instruction. They have come to you in curiosity perhaps, but under that is a restlessness or inquiry, and it is the witness of your acts and life joined with words of explanation and welcome that they will be helped to see that among you they can find a living path. Inquirers need to feel our humility, but also where we are touched with Fire and the holy spirit.
— In “established Friends,” there is a growth of discipline and order, a maturing exploration of and use of gifts, and a habit of bearing responsibility for the life and support of the meeting. But in this period, there can be an engagement with contradictions, and continued mysteries in the understanding of Quakerism. Faith and discoveries which were nourishing and inspiring in the first days among Friends may feel stale or insufficient for the demands now encountered. New resources and opportunities are needed, if such active Friends are to re-discover their spiritual childhood, the place of wonder and gratitude, openness and receptivity. Fire and the Spirit!
— Those well-grown in the truth have a tested understanding of the value of the diverse paths people can follow, as well as the dangers of a mere celebration of diversity. They have an understanding of the pitfalls and dangers of life in the Spirit, for individuals and meetings, and a sympathy for questioning and doubt.
Their experience has brought a reliance on the workings of the Lord in many situations, and they have learned to wait and listen; they have seen (or others have seen in them) a growth in tenderness, courage, freedom, discipline in love and truth.
At this stage, though, there are fresh challenges, that come from habits long established, the same problems and challenges returning over and over. They can read the indicators of the meeting’s long-term good or ill-health and stability, its growth and depth; caring deeply, they can yet feel take for granted, and their own seeking and spiritual thirst is not seen.
Fire and the Spirit — the baptism is needed at every stage!
People in each of these stages of their spiritual life offer ministry rooted in the questions and findings of that condition, but each also has its temptations and problems. In every stage there are times of dryness, of misplaced complacency, of frustration, and of hope. Everyone needs to receive nurture and love, in meeting and out, if their gifts and strengths are to be confirmed and to grow. All need exhortation or inspiration, instruction, reassurance and consolation, gratitude and challenge — accompaniment in the Spirit, as individuals trying to walk in the Light.
Friends, as you consider the meeting’s condition, and the conditions of the members, seek out the resources that the Quaker path can offer for the seeker, the finder, the certain and uncertain, the mystic and the non-mystic, the contemplatives and the ones bearing concerns for witness. All these are sitting among us, sharing our common life; and indeed each of us may well stand in each of these conditions at some time in our life.
Under the guidance of the spirit of Christ, by whose light and life our body can be ordered to work as one organism, we can do our best to see how truth and life prosper among us, and be prepared to help each other as way opens. But if nothing else, we can hold each other in that Light where heart’s secrets are known, even if we do not know them, and grace and power flows: ministering to the divine growth in each other, as we receive ability from God.
In that Spirit, our “state of society” report can rejoice with discernment, and challenge forthrightly with love, for welcoming and for building up; and accept our doubts and failings with patience and compassion, so that everything serves the Life we call by so many names, whose work is healing, wisdom, and unity.
In Christian love your friend,
03/10/2018 § 1 Comment
I am working up a little piece on the old “Yearly Meetings” or “General Meetings” that occurred up and down Quakerdom during the first decades of the movement, and were important occasions for outreach to non-Friends, as well as encouragement to Friends in the regions.
In the course of this, I encountered the following passage, which delighted me. Italics and breaks added.
[In the year 1660] In Bristol, 65 persons assembled at Dennis Hollister’s house were carried off to prison, and a like number the following week, making in all about 190 prisoners in Bristol.
D. Hollister and G[eorge] Bishop, being summoned before the Mayor, arguments were used to dissuade, and threats to terrify them from meeting : but they answered with Christian courage and freedom that they thought it their duty to meet in obedience to the requirings of the Lord, whom they ought to obey rather than man : and that
they might as well think to hinder the sun from rising, and the tide from flowing, as to think to hinder the Lord’s people from meeting to wait upon Him, whilst but two of them were left together.
They were sent to join their brethren in prison : but happily a speedy liberation was obtained for those who were subjected to this imprisonment through the unwearied intercession of Margaret Fell with the King.
(William Tanner (1858) Three Lectures on the early history of the Society of Friends in Bristol and Somersetshire. pp. 26-7)
03/07/2018 § 2 Comments
substance of a message given in Central Philadelphia meeting
In New England Yearly Meeting, at this time of year, meetings are preparing their reports on their spiritual condition, the state of their society for the previous year. We are pleased to recall the old Query from the early years of our movement, “How does Truth prosper among you?”
Very often we respond to this old question as if it meant “How’s it going?” So we can say, Well, we’ve got a First Day School that’s going well, and there’s a lot of activity around social justice concerns, and we’re doing some outreach, and Meeting for Worship is important. There’s an issue we need to address, and we’re grateful for what’s been given to us this past year. Our answers are like the shimmer on the surface of the rippling sea, not showing much of the quieter movements, far below the surface. This morning I have been led to some consideration of the word “Truth” in the query.
Friends in the past used “Truth” in ways that went well beyond a simple proposition or assertion of fact, a “truth claim,” some specific content. “Truth” instead connoted something of the action and the reality of God’s work in the world, as we experience and try to live it.
When I go to the center, and find my way to the place of Presence, as we have done in this gathering this morning, and I am feeling in that Presence a sense of stillness, then the Truth I encounter means that I see my unity with those around me. I can see or feel again my unity with humans at large — my neighbors known and unknown to me — and beyond the human world, unity with other living beings and the landscape they live upon. I can feel my being a creature, a part of the creation, and take delight in it.
Having felt or tasted that unity, in that place of connection, I find that Truth takes the form of light or illumination, so that I see, am given the ability to see, often with pain or grief, ways in which I have failed to keep that unity in mind, failed to live up to what I have been shown already; or allowed that understanding to be overwhelmed or drowned out by the noise and bustle of daily living. So “truth” then is encountered as judgment — judgment in the Light.
Yet if I can accept that truth, at the Center, and wait in the place where unity is felt, I can be led to see and accept that I, even I, can experience forgiveness, can move with the guidance of the Light’s judgment to renewal of my life, and that, if I have not lived fully in the measure of that life and light that I have been given to see, yet the promise is still there, and some power given to heal that grief, and move again into faithfulness. So “Truth” means mercy, too — the action or experience or process of mercy.
From the truth rooted in experiencing unity, illumination, grief and mercy — in the operations of divine love — I may find, in the Presence, a dawning realization that to me, in my measure, is given some role to play in Christ’s work of reconciliation, of healing, of rescue, of service — in addition to the daily bread of faithfulness — so that “Truth” means concern, and not just concern in general, but concern as a specific focus and way that I am given to follow, for a time. So then “Truth” is also a path, and the pathfinder — and the companion along the way.
The God, the mystery God, with whom we are gathered here, who has brought us together this morning, can be called by many names, in our many languages and moods and needs. One of them, though, is “Truth,” and I am seeing this morning that unity, illumination, grief, judgment, mercy, love, concern, are all other ways of saying “truth,” and when we ask ourselves about the prosperity of Truth, the truth of of our condition, we are really being challenged to examine where we are seeing evidence of these operations and effects, the life, of the active Truth among us.
How does Truth prosper among us?
02/22/2018 § 2 Comments
I came across this excerpt from Origen’s commentary on Genesis — he is writing about scripture study and teaching (referring to the miracle of the loaves and fishes in the 6th of John):
As long as the loaves remain whole, no one is fed or refreshed, nor do the loaves themselves seemed to increase. Well then, consider how we break the few loaves: we take from the divine Scriptures a few words, and how many thousand people are filled! But unless these loaves were broken, unless broken down into small pieces by the disciples, that is, unless the letter was broken down into little pieces and discussed, its meaning would not be able to come to all. When we have begun to work through and to discuss every single part, then the crowds will take as much as they are able to. But what they cannot take is to be collected and saved, ‘that nothing may be lost.’ (Jn 6:12)….We carefully collect these and preserve them in baskets, until we see what the Lord wishes to be done with them as well.
(This is §203 in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Origen Spirit and Fire: A thematic anthology of his writings. )
02/12/2018 § Leave a comment
I continue my word-study on “seeing” in the first chapter of John’s gospel with a meditation on the 3 passages which have in common the verb θεάομαι theaomai.
First, the texts (blame translations on me; occurrances of the verb are italicized).
Verse 14: And the word became flesh, and came to dwell for a time among us (lit. “in us”). And we saw its glory, glory as of an only son from the father.
Verse 32. And John testified, saying “I have seen the Spirit coming down from heaven as if a dove, and it dwelt on him. ” In verse 33, we learn that John needed preparation for this seeing: ” I didn’t know him; but the one that sent me to baptize in water, that one said to me, The one on whom you see the Spirit descending and dwelling, this is the one who’s baptizing with the Spirit.”
Verse 38. Turning, and seeing them following, Jesus said, “What are you looking for? They said to him, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher’), where are you dwelling?”
So who’s doing the seeing and what are they seeing?
Verse 14, We saw — the glory of the word made flesh.
Verse 32: John saw the Spirit, guiding his eye to the Lamb of God
Verse 38: Jesus saw the two disciples of John.
In each case, there is something that is mediating or making the seeing possible. In verse 14, the meaning seems to be that “we” saw the glory of the Word, made visible to us by the body, the earthly person, which made it accessible. In verse 32, John is seeing the Spirit as pointer to the Lamb of God. But he would not have known what he was seeing, if the Sender of Prophets had not schooled him beforehand. In verse 38, Jesus sees the disciples unmediated, but the encounter was made possible by the seer, John. His disciples took Jesus seriously because John, because of his preparation and its fulfillment in his seeing, enabled him to ascribe to Jesus a role of great if puzzling meaning: “Look, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” That was not what the disciples were looking for.
Kittel’s theological dictionary of the New Testament says (sub voce ὁράω horao) that θεάομαι theaomai “suggests spectators, and denotes attentive seeing, i.e. ‘behold’. Having a certain solemnity, it is used for visionary seeing and the apprehension of higher realities.” Contra Kittel, as I mentioned in my first post in this series, Raymond Brown questions whether we can find such consistent nuances in the uses of this word, in contrast to the other verbs “to see.”
I am haunted by the interactions among these 3 verses in this luminous, puzzling, mythopoeic chapter, in which our verb seems to mean “beholds with insight or understanding.” The Word (=God) becomes flesh. Meanwhile, the Sender of John (= God) prepares John the Seer so that when the Incarnate Word is pointed out, when the Spirit alights and dwells upon him/it, John not only beholds who it is, but understands his mission (the Lamb of God, the sin-taker). John the Seer directs two of his followers (two of “us”) to Jesus, on whom the Spirit dwelt (same verb), who beholds them following, and opens a dialogue. They want to know where he dwells (same verb). He invites them to come, and they’ll get a look. They dwell (same verb) with him, and they (”we’) behold the glory of the Word, as it were the glory of a unique child sent from the Father. The result is that they (the first of “us”) become followers indeed, and the first proclaimers (after John) of the New Thing that God is doing. We are the recipients of that proclamation through all the witnesses of the centuries, but we, like they, receive it to the extent we behold the glory of the Word at work, Christ come in the bodies of his saints, teaching his people himself.
The Word has been at work in all and through all this, working God’s purposeful self-revealing: creation, light, life, Spirit, and Incarnation. The result is that the Word is, among other things, manifested as story or proclamation, the meaning (logos) that we discover in our living as Children of the Light.
02/11/2018 § 4 Comments
Many people these days, among them Friends, feel a calling to prophetic action, prophetic witness, prophetic utterance. The times are pressing us to be as clear, as honest, as faithful as we can, in proclamation, in calling others to join us in earnest and whole-hearted commitment — in action as well as word — to the Gospel life. This is no doctrinal matter, but rather an understanding and enactment of Christ’s call to compassion, to truth, to justice, to servanthood, to transformation: To any who received him, who believe in him, he gave the power to become children of God. (John 1:12).
Alive to the urgency of crises like climate change, and the willful blindness of the wealthy and powerful, we long for prophetic outcry, disruption and denunciation of the veneer of a moral, well-running social order. It is hard work to seek,under divine guidance supported by all the wisdom, know-how, and community life that we can muster, actions that effectively say, Wake up! Turn back! Choose life!
But the task before us is even harder, because Christian prophecy has two themes: the first is, “You must change your life!” and the second is “Christ offers us the power to become children of the light!”
This week, this passage from Isaiah (Isa. 30:9-11) came back before me:
this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; Which say to the seers, ‘See not’; and to the prophets, ‘Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits. Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.’
I was struck by the realization that it can be an unwelcome message, a rough thing to hear, that our understanding of our prophetic task is too narrow. In the liberty of the gospel, we need to be free of our own habitual ways of thinking. I realized that the rhetoric and the emotion of protest can absorb all our search for prophetic witness, so that the underlying message is fear and anger. Bad things are coming, and anger at banal evil is justified and needed. But one of the “right things” that must be prophesied is the presence and power of the Light, as we can testify to it and demonstrate it.
John the Baptist denounced the immorality of Herod, called people to repentence, demanded righteousness from soldiers and government agents, advocated material generosity, and warned that if righteousness was not restored, the wrath would come — the axe is already laid against the tree!
Yet in an important sense, these diagnoses and denunciations did not make him a prophet. He was a prophet, because he called people to make way for the coming of God and God’s dominion, which would come in a form and in a way quite unlike anything expected or longed for. He recognized and pointed out the Lamb of God, whose path our renewed minds would make straight, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire: the purifying power of the Light, and the creative power of the Teacher, the comforter, the inviter to the feast.
William Taber, beloved Friends teacher and minister, described the functions of the prophet thus:
- To know (or rediscover) the Law and to tell it (interpret it);
- To show how the Law is to be lived — point out paths towards faithful embodiment of the Law;
- To make spirit available — inviting others into the prophetic work
The only way to make spirit available is to live in it, and to accept its lessons, knowing that our efforts will seem (perhaps even to ourselves) foolish — our efforts to wait, to mind the light and life, even in the poverty of our spirits, where the holy birth is to be found — and to speak truth and judgment in love to the souls (not the feelings) of those to whom we are called to witness.
I decided to know nothing among you except Christ and him crucified. I came in weakness and in fear and much trembling. My word and my proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the Spirit and power. In that way, your confidence would be the power of God, not in human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:2-4)
If the motion of love is not interwoven in our witness, intrinsic to it however challenging we are led to be, then indeed our seeing and our prophecy will be more partial, more flavored with our own stuff, than the gift of it promised.
02/04/2018 § Leave a comment
The first chapter of John’s gospel is inexhaustible. The Word, Light, Life; the lamb of God; the Spirit-dove — and more, of course.
This time through, it struck me that this light-filled chapter is full of seeing. In this and subsequent posts, I will explain what I mean by this, and offer what reflections I can, arising from this view of text, action, and message.
First, the “problem”: the sheer intensity of seeing/perception in this chapter. This intensity or amount struck me in three ways.
- Several verbs for seeing. The first thing that caught my eye is that in the Greek text of this chapter, there are 4 different verbs that can be translated as “see.” [a] θεάομαι theaomai; [b] βλέπω blepo; [c] a compouned of blepo, ἐμβλέπω , emblepo; [d] ὁράω horao. This latter verb makes its future from a stem op-, and its past tenses from a stem eid- with an alternate form id-. I will come back to the possible distinctions of these in a minute.
- Lots of seeing. The first chapter of John has 51 verses. Somebody is seeing something or someone in 20 of these verses, using one or more of these verbs. There’s a lot of looking going on.
- Moreover, there are also things becoming visible, or shining; there is light, and people and things receiving it (or not); there is darkness/shadow; and there is also the Word~light~life- become flesh, relating to people, rejected by people, giving power. Finally (for now), there is the cosmos, usually translated “the world,” and taken here to mean “the worldly,” but not recognizing~knowing it/him. Oh, and there’s glory, and the Spirit like (as if) a dove. So in addition to the explicit seeing, there are also a lot of visual transactions.
Maybe I will pause the nerd-storm here to talk about what absorbs me in this little project. First, I have read Greek since high school, but am mostly self-taught, and I know that, as a result, there are holes and sketchy places in my command of the language. Moreover, reading the Gospels, I want to extract whatever evidence I can from the original, about what I would have seen, or heard, or felt if I had been there, in addition to any nuance or poetry that I can detect.
Second, I bear in mind thedistinction, ancient in Christian and indeed Jewish exegesis, among 3 (or 4) kinds of Scriptural interpretation:
[a] Literal/historical: what do the words say, what is the setting, who are the players in the drama, etc.; [b] the tropological, that is, the implications for ethics, morals, behavior; [c] the allegoric, which sees the words and events of the text as symbols of spiritual lessons and truths; and an even more mystical variant of the allegorical, the anagogic, which in its mystical interpretations seeks for lessons about the life of the kingdom of heaven here or in the life to come. The first chapter of John fairly drips with opportunities for mystical interpretation — but before we can see what we can make out of the text, we have to make sure we can make it out — hence some attention to words and grammar. (Of course, there’s also the sheer fun of philology!)
I will close with some quick definitions of our verb stems, and next time explore who’s doing what kind of seeing, and what they’re looking at.
[a] ὁράω horao This is the word for “to see” that you learn first in Greek. It can have meanings like “see to something” in the sense of getting it done; and noticing, or recognizing. But it’s the closest thing in Greek to a “vanilla” verb of seeing. As with some very common words in English, this verb has different stems used in different tenses (think “go, went” or “is, was, be”). Mostly this is not relevant to this study, but I can’t help but point out that a key past tense stem is eid-/id-, which is related to the verb “to know”. This old stem, which in Indo-European had a form like *weid-, shows up in many of the related languages, sometimes meaning something like “see” (think video, the Latin word for “see”), sometimes something like “know” (as in the Sanskrit Veda).
[b] βλέπω blepo. This can connote “glance at,” or just “see,” but also “look with intent or purpose, look carefully”; also “rely on” (as in our “we look to you for that kind of thing.”)
[c] ἐμβλέπω , emblepo. This is a compound of en- “in” and the previous verb. But it often can carry the connotation of “look directly at, look in the face” or even “look consideringly, consider.”
[d] θεάομαι theaomai. This verb often connotes “gaze at”, with a sense of wonder or surprise; “look reflectively at,” “observe,” or even “contemplate.” Unlike the other verbs for seeing, this one implies a longer look.
I have consulted the great Anchor commentary on John, by Raymond Brown, and (of course) he has a little appendix word-study on these words (in vol 1), which notes all these nuances as the verbs appear throughout the gospel, and then closes (pg. 503) with this warning: “Those scholars who think that the verbs are synonymous have almost as many texts to prove their point as do the scholars who would attribute specific meanings to the verbs.”
I hear his warning, but will not heed it enough to be discouraged from my little word-study.
01/26/2018 § 3 Comments
I happened to be listening in my car to Tehanu, the “last book of Earthsea,” when I heard that Ursula Le Guin had died. The eloquent final chapters of that book, which thankfully were not the last of Earthsea, are full of Le Guin’s humanity, intelligence, irony, and reverence, and her understanding of how important, and mythic, the things of everyday life are. I happened to stop the book to turn on the radio, and so heard the news of her passing. I found myself in tears for the miles between New Hampshire and Cambridge, recalling what she wrote on the occasion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, which came as she was reading The Lord of the Rings to her son:
Like all great artists he escapes ideology by being too quick for its nets, too complex for its grand simplicities, too fantastic for its rationality, too real for its generalizations… It does not seem right to grieve at the end of so fulfilled life. Only, when we get to the end of the book, I know I will have to put on a stiff frown, so that little Ted will not notice that I am in tears when I read the last lines:
‘He went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ” Well, I’m back,” he said.’