Climate change a spiritual opportunity Meditation #4: Reap the whirlwind

09/07/2019 § Leave a comment

They have sown the wind, they will reap the whirlwind. — Hosea

Although the Scriptures are full of events or rules that arise solely from God’s will, and have no rationale — the dietary laws, for example, or the healing miracles of Jesus, the parting of the Red Sea and the sun standing still at Gibeon, or the calling of a prophet — the world is seen to be essentially lawful. Seed time and harvest come;  rain and droughts arise from the normal dynamics of the earth, animals and plants obey their natures and bring forth offspring according to their kinds;  you see a red sunrise, and know that a storm is approaching.

People, too, enact their natures, for good or ill.  David sins and repents; lepers healed of their disease are grateful or ungrateful;  Peter quails at the tests of the Passon Week;  weak old Eli, corrupt and self-indulgent, yet retains enough reverence and insight to give Samuel the eldering he needs as he begins to fall into the hands of the living God.

The prophets, “seers,” have a strong feeling for the systematic connections of events, motives, creatures, the land. Much of their ministry is in pointing out the consequences of human choice — for the great, for the humble, for the innocent and the wicked, for the health of the earth.

Often their teaching emphasizes that small things matter.  Even while they are talking about the fate of nations, and the dynamics of international power games, the health and viability of their society is seen in individual choices. Moses tells the Children of Israel to choose life, each of them living according to the commandments.  The Ten that Christians think of as “the” commandments are all individual in their focus — keeping the Sabbath, honoring your father and mother, telling lies — these are things you or I do.  Caring for or mistreating a stranger, conspicuous consumption, offering a little incense to a local nature god — these, too are individual choices, but if widely enough indulged in, they can set a trend and become a communal or collective norm, a cosensus about what is valued.

Thus a whole culture can shift away from faithfulness, without any explicit decision that it shall be so.  All the while, people can believe that on the whole they are being true to a set of values that in fact they have long abandoned.  “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” In this way, individual choices can be evaluated with reference to the largest of scales, the will of God.  In a world where the sacred is recognized, my failings and my healing are oriented to it, and at the same time I am oriented in my society.  Thus the divine, if a living presence, provides coherence and supports the making of meaning.

Now Hosea is warning Israel about the consequences of such a shift, in this case into idolatry.  He sees, with sight enhanced by the spirit of the Lord, that the people’s consciousness has changed to focus on the local and immediate  — they have come to think in the language of little gods of field and forest, wind and air, fertility and the hearth.  When they placed their faith in the God of Abraham, their scope of concern could reach beyond today’s weather or this year’s harvest, bearing in mind that, whatever their diligence and skill, their daily lives are embedded in a larger system, much of which is not under their control.

God through Hosea says that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Because they have turned away from the wisdom they had before, when their allegiance was to the true God, the teacher, He cannot accept the prayers of the priests anymore.  They are in no condition to represent God to the people, and they care to connect people only to concerns at the local scale.  Abraham Herschel writes

Without abandoning the cult of of the God of their Fathers [but only going through the motions  – bd], the Hebrews worshiped…a god of the land rather than of the Creator of heaven and earth…Who was the Lord of nature everywhere, as well as the Master of history at all times.

Though these chthonic gods are to be propitiated, they are at a human scale, and thus to be manipulated by people for their own purposes, and it is natural that they can be represented by images whose absurdity is lampooned by Isaiah (44:16-17), who derides  a man who grows a tree, chops it down, and makes various uses of the wood:

He burneth part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eateth flesh; he roasteth roast, and is satisfied: yea, he warmeth himself, and saith, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire: And the residue thereof he maketh a god, even his graven image: he falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and saith, Deliver me; for thou art my god.

Thus, in a curious fashion, the move from worshipping the Creator to  worshipping the Creation (even the “elemental things of the universe”) brings the focus down to our comfort level, to the human world, the world as we have shaped it for our habitat, the world we can most easily comprehend, control, predict, indeed “model” in every sense.

Such a complete pre-occupation with the works of our hands, the meanings and activities of people, is far advanced in our own day, and it is iconically seen in the growing majority of the world’s population dwells in cities, clambering about in a geography of infrastructure, with the walls of the cocoon paradoxically woven tighter by the webbing of mass communication, suffering from a deficit of Nature.  In a sense not usually meant, it is thus the case that the world has grown small and we are comforted by telling each other smooth things, reassuring things, comfortable things — and rebuking any leader or prophet who speaks uncomfortable truths.

But it is the work of a prophet to climb upon a watchtower and scan the horizon, looking beyond the city’s walls, across the verdant or blighted landscape, and given by the Lord’s teaching some understanding of the web of relationships and dependencies into which we all are woven. In such vision is based the prophet’s “If… then.”  And Hosea also knows that when great forces are incited, the results can be uncontrollable.

It is characteristic of such a web (such as, for example, a food web) that a change may have easily predictable local or immediate consequences — but also give rise to additional, extensive, less determined impacts throughout much of the system. When a key predator is removed from an ecosystem;  when someone tells a lie and breaches trust; when the choice is made to go to war — the damaging results grow like a living thing.

There are positive examples as well — when a dam is broken so that the river can become again a living system;  when foregiveness is given and accepted;  when a child is nurtured, a spiritual gift is used in joy — who knows how far the ripples will spread?  It is incalculable.

Hosea’s grim pronouncement reminds us that in an immensely complicated system the results of our idolatries, our follies, our gestures of fear and anger, can be amplified  — incalculably.  We may think in our self-confidence that we can stir up the air, and keep control — but the world (social, spiritual or physical) has powers, momentum, gravity of its own. Seeing human self-sufficiency, God warns:  Thou thoughtest I was altogether such an one as thyself!

How carefully we must listen, must receive, must follow, must repent, must learn not with the ears alone, or the head, but heart, soul, strength, and mind!  How much we need wisdom!

Wisdom crieth out: .How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity, and the scorners, delight in their scorning,  and fools hate knowledge ? Turn ye at my reproof!

I will pour out  my spirit unto you, I will make  known  my words unto you.  Because I have called  and ye refused, I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded, but ye have set  at nought all my counsels, and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity, and mock  when your fear cometh,  when your fear  cometh as desolation, and  ycur destruction cometh as a whirlwind, when  distress andanguish cometh  upon you ; then shall they call upon me but I will not answer. they shall seek me early but they shall not find me.

But who hearkeneth unto me, shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil (Proverbs 1: 21 and following)



Climate change a spiritual opportunity. Meditation 3:The cattle on a thousand hills

08/31/2019 § 4 Comments

All the beasts of the forest are mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. Ps. 50

In this psalm, God reminds us of the divine sovreignty over the world, and puts us humans in our place in the creation.  While Genesis 1 speaks of “dominion” and “subduing,” by far the weight of the Scriptural message is one of stewardship, responsibility, and dependence.  At every point in which human pride or greed come to the fore, God reminds us that, though we are precious in God’s sight, and created in the divine image and likeness, yet we are creatures with definite, that is finite, scope:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Ps. 8)

Over and over, we are taught that we can make right use of the (other) creatures (animal, vegetable, mineral), or we can misuse them, but we rely on them, and on the biological and astronomical rhythms of the earth and its inhabitants.

Jesus tells many parables about stewardship and accountability, and in each case the thing being accounted for is a material blessing — money, a vineyard, a fruit tree bearing fruits, or requiring cultivation and pruning,  the gifts and works of mercy and healing, and (in the footwashing story) our love and service to others. Seed-time and harvest, rain and sun, the cattle on a thousand hills — all these are there for us, but not at our command.  Our relation to these things is that of reception and gratitude, as it was in Eden, and though we must work (and, the Preacher says, take joy in our work), it is God that gives the increase, and may require our lives or whever we have, in God’s service.

Yet the creatures are not there only for us — the “beasts of the forest,” the birds of the air, Leviathan, the humble and instructive ant, the owl and dragon, hyraxes and gazelles, ravens and sparrows, the flowering trees and the weedy mustard, are all living their lives as they are created to do. Sometimes humans hunt them, or in building push them back from our habitations — but they are always there occupying their stations in the world. When humans misuse their gifts, forget their dependence, and abandon the path of gratitude, and reap the “judgment,” the consequences of their folly or evil, the beasts and the untamed plants come in to fill the deserted spaces with the primordial energy that testifies to the wildness of God. This same God brought healing through Jesus’ mediation, worked the transfiguration, covered the garden of Gethesemane, and (nearer than Jerusalem) works in and through us for liberation.

Moreover, deep down, at a visceral level, we know that our place is within the creation.  While recent scientific research has shown that experiences of nature are calming, healing, and restorative, this is really no new discovery. People in every age and tradition have found for themselves that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” that the heavens declare the glory of God. We have always taken comfort, amidst the woes and uncertainties of life, in the reliability of nature — and this deep participation in the joy of the creator is woven into our fabric, and no matter of ideology.  Lucretius, no theist, remarks:

why see we lavished o’er the lands
At spring the rose, at summer heat the corn,
The vines that mellow when the autumn lures,
If not because the fixed seeds of things
At their own season must together stream,
And new creations only be revealed
When the due times arrive and pregnant earth
Safely may give unto the shores of light
Her tender progenies?  (Trans.  W.E. Leonard)

and in similar vein, Hopkins, having registered his soul-sick perception of the condition of the human-managed world:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
 And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
then reaches for comfort to the “nature of things” not human, and that enables him to lift his gaze towards the fountain of renewal:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings

When we are famished, parched, and know ourselves to be, then it is with gratitude and relief that we can accept the bittersweet truth, that our powers are great but not unlimited, that our knowing is only in part, and that we are embedded, embodied, in a transcendent (beyond the self, beyond the human) web, whose being preceded ours (we late-comers to creation), and whose well-being feeds ours.  It is not by human doing that in the city of God, John the prophet saw that

In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations

Emerson, in his post-Christian, Stoicism-inflected Nature, wrote (chapter vii):

The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious. But it differs from the body in one important respect. It is not, like that, now subjected to the human will. Its serene order is inviolable by us. It is, therefore, to us, the present expositor of the divine mind. It is a fixed point whereby we may measure our departure. As we degenerate, the contrast between us and our house is more evident. We are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God. We do not understand the notes of birds. The fox and the deer run away from us; the bear and tiger rend us. We do not know the uses of more than a few plants, as corn and the apple, the potato and the vine. Is not the landscape, every glimpse of which hath a grandeur, a face of him?

This view represents a stance of reverence, humility, and gratitude.  Have we learned, however, that as we have degenerated from “unity with creation” (to use Fox’s phrase), we now can in fact violate the “serene order”?  So it might appear, as we mostly live in the first Adam nature, being “of the earth, earthy”  (1 Cor. 15).  Yet the message and the fact of creation’s transcendence, and our embeddedness in that larger being,  suggest otherwise.




Climate change a spiritual opportunity: Meditation II, Sparrows

08/23/2019 § 1 Comment

Let us consider sparrows.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father” (Matthew 10).  Luke (Ch. 12) has it “Are not sparrows sold 5 for two farthings? Yet not one is overlooked by God.”

The point of this saying of Jesus is usually seen in its argumentation that if God cares about a sparrow, so trivial a creature, how much more does He care about us (the type of argumentation known as “kal vachomer”, or “light and heavy”) — and even the hairs on our heads are numbered, nor can we turn one white or black by an act of will.

But as an ecologist seeking to cope with the climate crisis, I find myself moved by the first lemma of Jesus’ comparison: the idea of God, the God of the universe, the Law giver and Shepherd of Israel, being concerned by the life or death of a single sparrow.

At the risk of hubris, I think I can share something of God’s point of view here, the interest in any species large or small. My first thought is, What kind of bird is meant by the Greek strouthion? Georg Kittel’s New Testament word-hoard says that the kind of small bird is not known, but Liddell and Scott’s great Greek dictionary unequivocally identifies it with the House or English sparrow (Passer domesticus), perhaps the most widely distributed bird species in the world.

So here Jesus tells us that God attends even to these birdlings, common and sometimes pesky, bought cheap in the markets for food or as a pet, in the same way that God attends to humans. This is an echo of the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast — common, dirt-common, multitudious things are somehow “like” the Kingdom of Heaven.

There is here yet another nuance. God is not interested in “sparrows” as a concept, a species, but in each particular sparrow — not a single sparrow falls but God observes and accompanies in the divine cherishing. Here is a thing that is close to the heart of a naturalist: the life, death, characteristics of a species are in fact constituted by the life, death, characteristics (personality, even) of the individual members. No one individual sparrow, oak tree, human, trout, or toad is identical to all others of its kind, however closely related.

This is not only a matter of genetics. Every living thing experiences the world as it moves through its life span, and minute by minute its tissues, its metabolism, its neural pathways (if it has them) are tuned and retuned to the world. So the uniqueness and preciousness of each individual organism is not only a matter of the eons of evolution that it represents, but also of its own inhabitation of the gift of life, of interaction and perception, of learning, suffering, fulfillment, creation or procreation.

Walt Whitman, of course, sang of the preciousness of the particular, in his Song of Myself:

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

This, it seems to me, is a matter for reverent thought, concentrating our imagination until, feeling the pulse of uniqueness in an individual creature,  we can recognize how often we fall into the trap of “generalizing” which is the root of so much evil.

Sometimes, of course, we must speak in terms of classified groups of things, but the worshipful mind enables us to understand feelingly how, in speaking of any species — including our own — strictly as a mass phenomenon, we put distance between ourselves and the experience of the individuals which constitute the species.

Our culture has increasingly become identified with our economy, that is, with the creation and distribution of wealth, and economics and its handmaidens have largely talked of humans as units of production and consumption, as masses and statistical objects to be modelled and controlled or “nudged” or molded for “the greater good,” itself an idea that obscures the individuals who are (or are not) experiencing the consequences of controls, nudges, mandates, and so on.

From this point of view, we can blithely speak of “collateral damage” caused by a new educational policy, or environmental insult, or war, and become accustomed to the compromise that sin, and incomplete knowledge and imperfect methods may make unavoidable — accustomed and complicit, rather than taking it as part of our calling to address prophetically and in compassion.

Our whole polity sometimes seems to me to speak as Saruman does, in trying to persuade Gandalf to compromise with the Enemy:

We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish (Lord of the Rings, “The council of Elrond”)

When I wait until I can see and love  the sparrow that the Lord notices, the one wandering sheep that the shepherd seeks, the man possessed by the demon Legion, who is healed and made one whole — then I know that the Spirit that I feel, when I am dwelling faithful, never can forget the one, the one, the one, in his, her, its preciousness.

The Spirit warns us, when we feel that preciousness, to never be free of our kinships with the particular creatures, in our story-telling about “Creation” and “our” place in it. This is one of the great insights of Darwin, that what there is in the world is a myriad myriad individual lives and spirits, sharing in the fundamental unity of life. Is there not in this insight an endless spring of prophetic witness?

I invite you to spend time absorbing the import of the following selection from Thomas Merton.

The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God.
The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints.
The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.
The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.
The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints. There is no other like him. He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way. That is his sanctity.
But what about you? What about me?

from  A Book of Hours (p. 72). .

PS to previous post: A note from James Nayler

08/16/2019 § Leave a comment

from the great tract Milk for babes and meat for strong men..

To you tender hearted ones, who have felt the call of the Father’s love, who now see more desirableness and beauty in the innocency and meekness, than in the mountains of prey, or self-conceited exaltations arising from the airy knowledge:

My soul is with you herein; and in that which has given you a sight of this excellency, wait low, and diligently hearken thereto, until the thing itself spring up, which naturally has this riches in it, which comes from above, and yet is felt far below all fleshly affections, high thoughts, and hasty desires, and by these is vailed and hid from you; so that you cannot come to the life and spring of it, but as you deny these, and put them off, by sinking down through them, all these earthly foundations and ends, to rise up:

For under all these your Beloved suffers, while these are above in your minds, and through the fall of all these must He arise, and over all these take the Kingdom, ere you come to have a quiet dwelling place in Him, and He in you.

So under all these must you pass, and into the likeness of His death you must come, and be planted therein, that the fellowship of His sufferings you may feel, and partake of His meekness and patience therein, who bears all things.

And your faithfulness with Him therein must be thoroughly proved: In which faith and patience you shall learn Him whom you love, His reproach without, His temptations within, even such trials as cannot be declared to another, shall you learn in Him, with His love, obedience, patience, meekness and long-suffering under all: and how through all these He rises, in which resurrection He chains His enemies, and takes them captive whose captives you were: and thus shall you have fellowship in His resurrection

Climate Change a spiritual opportunity: Meditation I: Death as part of life, and the gospel in desolation

08/16/2019 § Leave a comment

Given the increasingly grave scientific news about climate change, and the growing evidence of its deleterious effects on people’s sense of well-being and hope, it seems to me that we are challenged to bring our fears of death and loss into our prayer work. I am grateful for the many wise people (Friends and others) who are doing climate grief-work, who are helping make explicit some of the inarticulate groans of loss and anxiety.I am drawn,  however, to add some more particular reflections on the spiritual work that this loss and anxiety offers us, in this and the next couple of posts in this series

“Close to a sword is close to God”
Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, written en route to his martyrdom in Rome, include some intense declarations of his eagerness for the martyr’s death that awaits him (beasts will rend him to death in the gladiatorial arena). The sentiments felt foreign, even bizarre, but something clicked when I encountered this passage (§4 in his letter to the Smyrneans, my translation):

Why have I given myself freely to death, to fire, to the sword, to beasts? Well, close to a sword is close to God, and ‘with the beasts’ is ‘with God.’

Now, as to martyrdom, I confess I lean towards Erasmus’s position: “Let others seek martyrdom; I don’t think myself worthy of this honor” (Epistle #1167). Yet there is something further to be heard in these words of Ignatius, I think, beyond his obvious, fierce self-surrendering witness.

In a close encounter with death, with the boundaries of our life as we know it, the many things that fill the foreground of our consciousness, day to day, are pushed away, and we are confronted with mere existence. Our life is a mystery to us, and part of the mystery is the realization that death is a necessary and unavoidable part of the same fabric. To quote the Book of Common Prayer, echoing Psalms and Ecclesiastes,

Man, that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

Meditation on this fact, and upon its application to meas well as to everyone else, was once recommended to everyone as an important — and indeed health-giving — practice. Socrates says (in the Phaedo) that the truest philosophizers should meditate on death, and it should be less fearsome for them of all people — precisely because it is the work of philosophy to figure out what is truly good and beautiful. This brings a freedom into which grace can find entry.

This is not a species of foxhole spirituality, or a casting ourselves on God’s Mercy, as our fears of not-being and our anticipatory griefs rise up before us, seeking to avoid the worst. It is a recognition of Truth, that something fundamental is being revealed — about our material being, its life, its trials, and sufferings, and its end. In this recognition we see how we participate in all the processes of the universe, from up-building to dissolution. Thus much, the ancient philosophers could teach, and represent it with bleak grandeur: You have been born into this remarkable and abundant world, and lived your span. It is only reasonable that you return to the state in which you were before becoming enfleshed. This participation in the great cycles of matter and energy can be beautiful to contemplate; as an Ursula LeGuin character says (in The Other Wind):

“I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.”

Now, the witness of Jesus, which is one with that of the Logos before and the Christ Spirit since, says something additional. Jesus shows us that in the boundaries, limits, extremities, of our finite, mortal selves, God is to be found, in ways not otherwise to be recognized or known, in our weakness, in our temporariness, in our vulnerability, and in our pain and grief. When we lose our certainties, our sense of safety, our sense of control — there is suffering there, fear, and anxiety: these are real. Yet many have found a way to live this desolation as a free gift: If you would be perfect, go, give up all that you have, and follow me.

Jesus does not demand this of everyone, certainly not those that he healed — he restored them to health, and he only admonished them to give appropriate thanks, and take care not to be alienated from God.

Yet there can come a time — and this is a place I come most days, as I think about the condition of the world — when we recognize, even as we acknowledge with gratitude the blessings we have received, and enjoy them, that they will pass away; even the blessing of life is not ours, as we face soon or late our great change “from works to rewards.”

Yet Christ teaches that God has tasted, does now continually taste the bitterness of death and pain, and this does not negate the blessings of divine joy. We can know truth in these moments of poverty, if we are poor in spirit and willing to see that we are accompanied. Thomas Merton conveyed something of the majesty of this vision in his Hagia Sophia:

A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts Himself to sleep.

But this is not all the truth of mortality — so in the next post, I will turn from swords to sparrows.

Nurturing ministers, Case study #4: Dewsbury and the Lord send John Richardson back to Coventry

07/30/2019 § Leave a comment

Here is an interesting case of a young minister receiving uncomfortable guidance from an elder minister, but subjecting his own doubts, as well as the veteran’s advice, to the inward test before acting.

John Richardson was a beloved minister born in the period of persecution, but surviving well into the “middle period” of Quakerism (his dates are 1667 to 1753). Friends from this period (another famous one is Samuel Bownas) were able to hear first-person accounts from surviving First Publshers of Truth, and they knew many who suffered greatly in the persecutions of the Restoration period. His own father, William, was convinced in the early days in Yorkshire, suffered distraints and imprisonments, had some work in the ministry though hampered by ill-health, and died while John was still a child. John writes:

as my Father was thus waiting and looking for a more general breaking forth of this glorious, powerful and Gospel-day, which had in a good degree sprung up in his heart, he had not, as yet, seen that worthy and good man George Fox, although he passed through those parts about that  time,  but soon after came William Dewsbury, and at the sound of his voice, I have heard my Father say, he was exceeding glad, in hearing him declare the way to find the lost piece of silver, the pearl of great price within, a Saviour near that had been held forth by men to be at a distance. But having left the dark watchmen, of whom they used to enquire [referring here to the clergy of the Established Church), they now met with their Beloved at home, in their  own bosoms.

John first “appeared in the ministry” about age 18, by his own account. After a period of physical and spiritual trials, he felt open to leadings for travel. He writes:

After the Lord had healed me, he sent me forth in the work of the ministry, and the first journey I took southward was into Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and through Coventry, and so to Warwick to see William Dewsbury. One thing is remarkable, upon William’s enquiry, What way I came?

In my account of the particular towns and places I had passed through, I mentioned Coventry, which was the last and the worst ; for some of the rude people flung stones at me, with great violence, as I was speaking in the meeting, so that had the Lord suffered them to have hit me, they must have spoiled me ; but my faith in the Lord, and the strength of the Truth, bore up my mind above fear of the outward man, or what wicked men could do to me.

After William had heard my account, he fixed his eyes on me and said, “Thou must go back again to Coventry.” I appeared unwilling, for two reasons : First, because I thought I had cleared myself of that people. Secondly, I thought it not safe to run myself into danger of suffering, unlcss I was satisfied the Lord required it of me. But William was positive, and said, I must go, for there was a service for me to do there. Upon a deliberate consideration of the matter, and a seeking to the Lord to know his will in it, I found my way clear to go,and I had some service and good satisfaction, and left Friends nearer to one another than when I first met with them; for there had been a misunderstanding among some Friends in that city.

This must have been around 1687, as John had spent a couple of years after his first speaking in ministry hindered by inward and outward barriers to more faithfulness (as he forthrightly describes).  Dewsbury would then be near the end of his  life, not long released from his final imprisonment in Warwick and now at home with his family there.  Given the tone of affection and reverence that John uses in speaking of his father, Dewsbury perhaps would have had special authority for John — as one of the few survivors of the first appearance of the “Power and Glory of the Lord Shining out of the North,” and as the person who convinced his beloved father of the Truth.

Two reflections.

First, on Dewsbury’s side:  Dewsbury listens carefully, and one can imagine he was attending to the condition of the young person before him, as well as the condition of Coventry —both the hostility of the town, and the troubles in the Friends community there.  In John he would have seen a committed young minister still in formation — gifted but inexperienced, and somewhat fearful.   One additional factor that must have been part of William’s judgment was his experience that God would support his rightly commissioned servant.  Thus, when William urges John to go back to Coventry, he perhaps was seeing that if John went back confident in God’s power, rather than his own, he would grow past his fears, and be more fully equipped or qualified for whatever came to him thereafter.  John may have felt that he was clear of [had no further responsibility with respect to] Coventry, but William clearly sensed that God, and Coventry, needed more — they were not clear of John, so to speak.

Second, as to John:  John, having dared finally to undertake traveling work, would be in a receptive mood to hear advice from such a figure as Dewsbury, eager to recount his experiences and hear advice from the veteran.  Yet the only reason he was at Warwick was because he felt he’d accomplished what he’d been sent to, having encountered some danger and hatred along the way. He was aware of the issues in the Coventry meeting — what was his time there actually like?  Did he feel a bit daunted by   the experience of coming into a troubled meeting, he a new minister?  It may be that he didn’t trust his perceptions, or did but feared to “meddle” — did he not speak all that was given for the Coventry meeting, or did he not wait long enough to really feel their condition and receive guidance to witness as they needed?  And then there were all those stone-flingers and hecklers (maybe it’s no wonder things were hard in Coventry meeting!)

In any case, he hears Dewsbury say, Thou must go back, nevertheless!  John reflects on his misgivings, but he does not just take William’s word as a command.  He took it back to the Lord, whose servant they both were (and William would have felt this was the right thing to do).  The eldering made him stop and listen carefully again, questioning which voices he was really attending to.  He concludes that the Shepherd’s voice — both in the judgment of his mentor, and as inwardly received — was in truth saying, Thou must go back.  So back he went.  He “had some service,” and some “satisfaction” as reward, seeing that he left “Friends nearer to one another than when I first met with them.”  He came freer and more available than when he’d been there before: As the advice says, “Teach by being teachable.”  Here we see the prophetic ministry at work — where both the “prophets” are dependent on the Word of the Lord as it comes to them.

P.S. I am reminded of Bill Taber’s account of the 3 functions of the prophet: 1. To know the will of the Lord; 2. To point out the way to live it, and 3. To make spirit available.

P. P.S. The First Publishers such as William Dewbsury were not shy about urging each other to undertake some service — or refrain from it.  In a letter to George Fox, Dewsbury writes,

Dear Brother  I am moved to write to thee if thou find movings to come hearaways it will be in [good?] service, for many dear children hath our father in these parts, the harvest is great…if thou come, dear Bro, send some to visit them [sic] little Remnant scattered about Leicester and thereaways, much care lies on me for them. I see much carelessness amongst them.

Again, WD is urging GF to consider whether he might find a concern to come “thereaways,” and elsewhere in his letter suggests that there are people “that hath of the outward” (people of means, in this case) could  provide hospitality to him, even if he brings a few more with him.  If George felt drawn elsewhere, then let the Lord’s will be done, but just consider, because there’s a pressing need.  Practical work.

Reflections from a contemporary traveling minister

07/24/2019 § 1 Comment

Maurine Pyle, of Illinois Yearly Meeting, has written a valuable reflection on her experience of being called to a traveling ministry, and finding her way to faithfulness, entitled “Finding our way forward together.”  She talks about the elders who have helped or inspired her, the kinds of service that has been drawn from her, the questions, doubts and learning that have come along the way, and the complex dialogue or dance that she (like anyone) has had with her meeting community. The article was published this month in the Western Friend (their library is here) and I have downloaded it (as anyone may) from their website, and placed it in the Amor Vincat Library here.  I encourage you to read it, share it — and perhaps find a way to develop and share your own reflections.

Maurine’s article concludes:

My spiritual pathway has involved both struggle and joy, and that is how God teaches.Along the way I relinquished my personal security and learned how to feel more comfortable in an uncomfortable place. Whenever people asked what my ministry would be, I always answered that God was showing me step by step. I still walk this path, less lonely, less afraid. For many Friends my calling has been proven as coming genuinely from God. Doubts may still linger, yet my ministry has been recorded on the hearts of many.

Reading problematic texts: The Epistle of Barnabas, a loose thread

07/02/2019 § 2 Comments

Recently I posted  a short passage from the Epistle of Barnabas. Alert Reader Phi James wrote:

As there is heightened sensitivity with regard to anti – semitism, certainly in the UK, might there be a feeling of slight discomfort with the use of the EoB outside of the academic sphere, however valuable a benign quotation might be?

This is an important point, because Barnabas (we’ll leave aside vexed questions of authorship for this post) constructs an early, elaborate argument for supercessionism, that is, the teaching that the covenant between God and the Jews was rendered obsolete by the new covenant represented by Jesus.  I put it in the least objectionable terms, but of course the last 2,000 years have seen many malignant developments drawing justification from that argument, so even the mildest and most tolerant forms are repugnant and dangerous.

Supercessionism in some version is one of the most persistent, and least questioned, forms of anti-semitism, pervasive in just about all kinds of Christianity, in many cases down to the present day.  It was therefore notable that the Roman Catholic Church, at Vatican II, explicitly repudiated the doctrine in the declaration Nostra Aetate, affirming that God’s convenant with the Children of Israel has never been cancelled.  (The Council stated it as an article of faith that Christ’s work means that all God’s children are embraced in one family, but how this will eventually result in an outward unity is left to God’s future work, and is not for us to say.)

Quakers must acknowledge that from the First Publishers down to our times, many Friends have taken supercessionism as a matter of course (just read the letters to the Jews from Fox, Penington, and Fell, for example, or many polemical tracts that construe the Puritan opponents of Quakers as the modern descendents of the Pharisees, whose “covenant of works” has been superceded or spiritualized to the point of obsolescence).  Such Friends have never advocated persecutions, but their supercessionist attitudes are clear nonetheless.

This is true of other figures throughout the history of Christianity from whom I have learned much — Desiderius Erasmus, for example — and it has clear roots in the Greek Scriptures — the Gospels as well as in the ambiguous Paul.  After the destruction of the Jerusalem church under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, the memory of Jesus as a committed if dissenting Jew was eliminated in the next few decades.  (Indeed, Barnabas is said to be writing to counter “Judaizing Christians” in Alexandria,  that metropolis and home of the Septuagint.)

The layers and layers of kerygma, rationalization, transmission errors, partisan points of view,  and individual axe-grinding that are compounded in the texts have forced many Christians (and some non-Christians) to the position that most of the things that are asserted about Jesus are not what Jesus would have said about himself — and who can say how vast the “quest for the historical Jesus” literature is?

John Meier’s analysis of the evidence about Jesus as a committed participant in the Jewish life of his time and place, came to a position that I find confirms my private accommodation, summarizing his huge book (A marginal Jew, vol. 4) thus:

However bewildering the positions Jesus sometimes takes, he emerges from this volume as a Palestinian Jew engaged in the legal discussions and debates proper to his time and place.  It is Torah and Torah alone that puts flesh and bones on the spectral figure of “Jesus the Jew.” (pg 648)

The conclusion I come to is, that a resolution of this (as of many questions about Jesus) cannot be reached with the evidence before us.

It is certain that Truth requires that we not refuse to see the difficulties, the evils, the contradictions, the self-delusions, that are part of being embodied spirits, in a culture and community of others in a similar predicament, whose common life is so often mediated by words and things constructed of words.   I don’t think I am exempt from blindnesses and prejudices, and I don’t expect that of others.  This is not a matter of compacency, it means that I know that in myself “there is much to die to” (as Job Scott wrote).

When therefore I find a passage like this from Barnabas

Humans are earth that suffers: for of the face of the earth was the molding of Adam.

knowing that his supercessionism is part of his account of Christianity, I have to taste to see whether that taints this sentiment.  If so, then I must step back;  if not, then I may accept an insight that he offers, while not denying where I believe he is in error. This is the same effort that I am called upon to expend in reading Fox or Woolman and it means to me that no Christian can claim to be so without sorrow and repentence, without a clear acknowledgment that those with that label have ignored, allowed, or committed great evils.

(Indeed, isn’t something of this kind of discernment required of each of us in our relationships with the living as well as with those who speak only on the printed page? We have to account for and make our accommodations with each others’ errors, limitations, and misdeads.  “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting.” Penington.)

The task that I see before me, therefore,  is to do everything possible to live in the Spirit whose influence Nayler spoke of, and to allow the Light —whether inwardly or through others’ prophetic challenge to me — to expose my sins of commission, omission, or ignorance (Cleanse thou me from secret faults! Ps 19), and save me by transformation from the great transgression, and keep me in fellowship with the oppressed.

I therefore find much apposite spiritual method in these words:

There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end.

Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.

It sees to the end of all temptations: as it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other.

If it be betrayed it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind.  In God alone it can rejoice,  though none else regard it, or can own its life.

It’s conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth, but through sufferings, for with the world’s joy it is murthered.

I found it alone, being forsaken; I have fellowship therein, with them who lived in dens, and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.



Jesus and the Canaanite woman

06/14/2019 § 8 Comments

Reading in Matthew the other day, I came back to one of the most challenging of the Jesus stories, the incident of “the Canaanite woman,” another of those anonymous women with whom Jesus engaged authentically, and dramatically. Chapter 15:21-28 reads (my translation)

Jesus departed into the borders of Tyre and Sidon. Now look: a Canaanite woman from the vicinity coming out to him cried out to him, saying “Have compassion on me, respected sir, son of David! My daughter is badly possessed!” But he answered her not a word. Coming up to him, his students urged him, “See her off, she’s hollering out after us!”
Jesus answered her, and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Approaching, she knelt by him and said, “Lord, help me!” But he replied, “it’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the offspring of dogs (lit. “to the whelps”). But she replied, “Well, but the whelps do eat the crumbs fallen from their masters’ table.” Whereupon, Jesus replied, “Woman, your faith is great! Let it be as you wish.” And her daughter was made whole from that hour.

I never read this haunting story without cringing, and wondering what the lesson is, what this tells us about Jesus and ourselves.  This time, I am struck by the question: Jesus marvels at her faith, but where is she actually putting her confidence?

She comes to him respectfully, and acknowledges his royal lineage — in the terms of the narrative, thus acknowledging his mission — calling him the Son of David and calls on his compassion to help her child.  I find Jesus’ silence puzzling.  Sometimes I have thought he was just ignoring her, but as I re-read the story this time, I suspect that he may have been wrestling with himself — when his pupils bustle up and urge him to get rid of the annoyance.

But their demand rouses him to the courtesy of a reply, as he answers her with the dilemma he is trying to resolve:  I was sent to the children of Israel, I have to keep my focus.  Was he struggling to reconcile this desire to prioritize his effort — perhaps reinforced by the fatigue of his work — with the vision of Isaiah that he’d shared in the home synagogue (Luke 4:18:  “The spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim good news to the poor, to announce liberation to captives, and restoration of sight to the blind, and relief to the oppressed”).

The Canaanites at this time, mostly remaining in Phoenecia (in Mark this woman is called “syro-phoenician”), were pagans.   So she would not have been able to make the claim that she worshipped the same God, as the Samaritan woman at the well (in John) could have claimed.  Yet he had already crossed this barrier, in healing the centurion’s son (ch. 8), if we take the order of events in the gospel as being basically chronological.

In any case, the woman’s response to Jesus’ assertion — however tentative — that his mission was constrained, was a renewed appeal to his compassion: Help me!  His reply is harsh.  He does not only say, No, I have no calling to those outside Israel.  Rather, he seems to be saying, The favor you ask for your daughter is the kind of service that I should give only to the children of the house of Israel.  It’s not right for me to give it to the young of the dogs that live in the house! (the word here is kunarion, which means “a little dog, pup, whelp.” Some commentators take this as an affectionate if condescending diminutive, “little ol’ Spot”, but I don’t see the evidence.)

I have to confess that I do not hear, in this second reply, the tone of a servant sorrowful that he cannot exceed the terms of his employment: “Gee, I really wish I could, but my boss has given me strict orders…”  Rather, it smacks of dismissiveness, of un-graciousness:  a chip of ice, of hardness, persisting in the healer’s heart.

The woman accepts the terms of his comment — but does not accept the rebuke, nor does she accept that a healer’s compassion can be kept within the bounds of national identity or other group affiliation.  The household pets have the right to seek their sustenance from the abundance of the master’s feast.

I feel a certain challenge to Jesus’ own teachings from this woman’s reply. Not long before, after all,  Jesus is shown reminding his critics that compassion and healing are never ill-timed— in Matt 12:10-12, he asks, Can one do good on the Sabbath?  You wouldn’t scruple to help your livestock out of a ditch, and how much more valuable is a person!  So (even though in fact healing is permitted on the sabbath), he is willing to reject inhumane interpretations even of the sabbath rest, that primordial sacred pause (Gen. 2) -whether for healing, or for other human need (as with the disciples munching grain just a little earlier).  So how can healing and compassion be restricted to the right people only?

The woman’s prophetic challenge seems to awaken Jesus to a different view on his dilemma.  Perhaps at first he thinks of his parable about the importunate neighbor, who keeps asking for bread for his unexpected company until the householder rises and satisfies him if only to get rid of him (Luke 11).  But then he must’ve also recalled that the Father, with whom he is increasingly being united, knows how to give good gifts, knows the need before he is asked, and wills our flourishing.

Then his eyes are able to see the extent of the gift she is presenting him.  For her faith is not really in this man who has twice put her off, the second time more brusquely than the first.  Her faith is in the power that she sees working in and through  him.  From her point of view, this prejudiced man is not the fountain, but a declaration of the fountain of living water.  Even if she, a Canaanite, might name the god differently, she feels the Reconciler, the Shepherd of Israel, present and at work.  Perhaps, as a pagan, she is not surprised that divinity works through a very human instrument.

Jesus honors her reliance on the power whom he reverences and seeks to serve, whose universal compassion and truthfulness is the true self that has been coming to birth — in him, yes, but he sees that this unity is intended for us all:  I in the Father, and you disciples in me (John 17).

So Jesus, repenting,  says to her, “Let things happen as you wish.”  She has revealed the fullness of his calling; her faith may have opened the door to wholeness for him, as well as for her daughter.  He moves on, to and through the Transfiguration towards the Passion, with increasing power,  freedom, and humility.


Truth is of a growing nature

06/02/2019 § 4 Comments

Reading the Life of Joseph Pike, an Irish Friend, this morning, I came across an epistle from 1722 to the “national meeting,” sent as he was then too old and infirm to attend in person. The full epistle covers many issues of faith and practice, but these early paragraphs (punctuation tweaked by myself for easier reading) are heartening all on their own:

I do…hereby send you the salutation of my most endeared love in our Lord, Jesus Christ; and particularly unto you, my beloved Brethren, who have kept your habitations in the Lord’s holy and eternal Truth, and have retained your zeal and integrity for his holy name.

You are they that are near and dear unto me, in the covenant of Light and Life. You are as bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh, in a spiritual sense; and unto you it is, that my love and life flow at this time; which love, distance of place cannot separate or wear out. For surely our love to Truth and for Truth’s sake, does not decay or wax old, as doth a garment; for though our outward man may wax old, decay, and grow weaker and weaker, yet those who retain their first love and integrity to the Lord, their love to one another, and their zeal for the Lord’s holy name and Truth, increase and grow stronger and stronger.

For Truth is of a growing nature, and of the increase of Christ’s government in the souls of the faithful there is no end, until time ends them here.


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