What is needed for the effective fulfillment of our task?

09/19/2021 § 1 Comment

As a college student, I helped pay my way with work-study, including a stint as a book-shelver in the Harvard College library.  For an eclectic reader, this was a great treat, especially when I had time to indulge my interests — for example, to wander to the shelves of Quaker literature. One of my projects from this seed-time was reading the whole series of the Friends Quarterly Examiner. In the era of no easy photocopying, I took a lot of notes on yellow or green lined paper, which after nearly a half-century now seem venerably brittle and faded.

While engaged slowly in the Augean task of cleaning and sorting my study, I came across some of the notes from this era.   Henry Cadbury wrote in 1927 about the “function of Quakerism,” in the Friends Quarterly Examiner (vol 61, pg 349). I excerpt some comments here for your interest, with the caveat that I do not have access to the original to check the accuracy of my transcription:

…very likely the future function of the Society of Friends may resemble our service of the past. That service has been distinctly adventurous and experimental…. The test of our Society’s right to live is not [our] past achievements. It lies in our eagerness to continue our experimental function…

What is needed for the effective fulfillment of our task?…
1. There is need for greater solidarity among Friends…Uniformity, however, is not a necessity. In fact, great variety of individual experience, training, and temperament will be conducive to the succes of a joint enterprise…

2. A further requirement within the borders of our Society is the increasing fidelity and intelligent loyalty among the more indifferent members… The Society of Friends cannot do its service with a large group of hangers on…. The whole membership must be infused with a greater enthusiasm for our joint enterprise.  That this has not been the case is due to our failure to create a conviction of a living and vital task to which Quakerism is called and to inspure an esprit de corps throughout our membership.

3. A third requirement… is the intellectual enrichment of our religion…. the vitality of a religion has its true exponent in the quantity and quality of its imaginings….

4.  A final intensive requirement is the deepening of spiritual life… One thing we can do is put ourselves in that condition where the spirit grows, and to reduce the circumstances that quench the spirit.  One of these circumstances is the excess of our activities… we have a fatal incapacity to reduce activity for the purpose of gaining spiritual strength… Wholesome activity is good and development comes from exercise, but there are other sources of quiet power that must not be neglected.

A correction to A language for the inward landscape

09/19/2021 § Leave a comment

A close reader asked me about a confusing quotation in A Language for the Inward Landscape.  I realized upon revisiting it that the problem was not one of interpretation, but simply that I had overlooked a badly garbeled transcription, and allowed it to stand.  On page 124, there is a quotation, from pages 57-8 of the Journal of Ann Branson.  It does not make any sense as it is quoted.

However, the passage in the Journal makes perfect sense.  Here is the correct wording, and I post it here with apologies to readers, and to Ann Branson’s memory.

I sat in Meeting to-day under much exercise and concern that I might not withhold any thing given me for others through me for others. Some having expressed concern and wonder that my mouth is so generally silent in worship. I clearly saw that I might arise under a great weight of exercise, which this day as well as at many other times,  has impressed my mind: that we as a people, once eminently favored to experience heavenly good, might more and more seek ability to worship God in spirit and in truth, feeling strong desires in my heart that the life and power of religion might be duly sought after, believing that if this was the case, we would feel our heavenly Father’s presence among us, to the comforting and strengthening of our hearts.

New in Media: J.S. Rowntree “Work and maintenance of the vocal ministry”

09/13/2021 § 7 Comments

John Stephenson Rowntree (1834-1907) was a weighty Friend of the 19th century.  He played a key role in the Society’s engagement with the modern world;  though very much part of the evangelical mainstream of British Quakerism, he had a broad historical view of the Quaker movement, and a deep grasp of its principles. Along with A.R. Barclay, JSR was one of the first Friends to make use of social science ideas to examine the condition of the Society, and to take seriously the possible causes of the decline of the Society.  He was dedicated to many causes we would now term “social justice,”  as well as to Quaker schools.  He served for a time as Lord Mayer of York, suggesting the esteem in which the “world” held him. A gifted and beloved minister, he expended much time and thought on the nature and role of vocal ministry (both prophetic and teaching ministries) in the health of the society of Friends, and despite important differences in outlook, was an encouragement to the younger Friends who came forth to take leadership in the late 1800s, who shaed many of his concerns — most notably John Wilhelm Rowntree.

  I have added here a thought-provoking piece entitled “The work and maintenance of the vocal ministry,” as excerpted  from his Life and Works.  As with many of his pieces, Rowntree analyzes some challenges facing the British Quakerism of his time, some of which he ties to a decline in the breadth and depth of the vocal ministry in its various forms, considers some possible contributing causes, and suggests possible solutions, drawing on Quaker history and other sources for his ideas. 

He is quite forthright in suggesting direct and practical means that meetings or yearly meetings might take to ensure that Friends be encouraged to this service, and he provides a useful glimpse of the work of the Second Day Meeting for Ministers, and its role in getting ministers to visit meetings, in a fashion that is quite direct and practical.  

Such measures have been suggested, and even devised and attempted, in modern meetings — such as New England Yearly Meeting — but as far as I know have mostly faltered.  I remember one time in our yearly meeting, when a committee (of which I was a member) arranged with a number of experienced Friends to visit some specific meetings within their Quarter and beyond. We helped with contact information at the meetings to be visited, provided directions to find the meeting places, and did anything else that seemed helpful in enabling these visits to be do-able.  In the end, almost none of these Friends followed through and actually made the visits. Although, as clerk of that committee, I felt some sense of personal failure — what else might we have done?  What did we do wrong? — and the regret remains when I think of this incident.  

Yet I do have to say that these Friends clearly did not feel that they had undertaken an important piece of work — involving the investment of a few hours over the course of 3 months.  I have often heard Friends say that “we have abolished the laity,” or that “we are all ministers,”  but it is not so often that I can put my finger on what consequences Friends feel as a result of claiming that role for themselves, or for “us.”  

Whether you agree with Rowntree or not in this piece (and granted that he was writing more than a century ago, in a different world in some ways), yet he does write with the assumption that the work of the ministry is real work, something that takes up time, energy, and other resources, gathered and spent on behalf of the beloved community, and that the community has a right to expect that of some of us, and also to make it possible to enact that responsibility, relying on the guidance of the Spirit, but not neglecting to deploy our organizational and practical    knowledge as well.  I encourage you to read it, and consider whether your region of Quakerdom sees any of the issues that Rowntree is reflecting on, and whether any of the strategies he recommends might be of use in some form, in our own times. 

Elemental spirits, invisble guardians

08/30/2021 § Leave a comment

For the past month, I have been able to set aside a solid couple of hours early in the mornings for scholarship and meditation.  This morning, I felt the usual pleasure in sliding into that time of focus  — but found myself more aware of the onward flow of the seasons outside.  My early mornings in recent months have been accompanied by a catbird singing in the dogwood outside my window, by the kaliedoscope of fragrances drifting in from the gardens, and the sounds and feel of summer weather. Today, though, no catbirds or phebes are singing, and despite a last flush of roses and the riot of phlox outside, the predominant note is now set by asters, goldenrods,  the staccato of falling acorns, the noise of crows and grackles getting organized for what’s to come.  The savor of my companions-in-print and in the communion of souls, is somewhat overshadowed by the restlessness of late summer, which invites one out into it as urgently as “spring fever” when the winter breaks.  I start to recall nature poetry, and seek out the mystics who loved the land.  This Old Irish poem comes to mind:

Scél lem dúib:                                    News I bring you:
dordaid dam;                                     Stag is belling;
snigid gaim;                                        Winter’s snowing;
ro fáith sam.                                      Summer’s gone.

Gáeth ard úar;                                     High cold wind;
ísel grían;                                             Low the sun;
gair a r-rith;                                        Short its course;
ruirthech rían;                                    Ocean roars.

Rorúad rath;                                       Reddens Bracken;
ro cleth cruth;                                   Shape is hidden;
ro gab gnáth                                       Now familiar
giugrann guth.                                  the voice of geese.

 Ro gab úacht                                      Cold has seized
etti én;                                                 Wings of birds;
aigre ré;                                               Time of ice;
é mo scél.                                            That’s my news.

I am reminded by all this of the simple fact that, no matter how material we may feel our existence to be, humans live by imagination, that great power that drives both science and poetry, and making of all kinds;  enables time travel, and gets us out in the woods or down to the water again.  It is an indispensible part of spiritual life, no matter what “divers liveries” we wear, of a particular religion or un-religion, though it can be the road to harm as well as health, depending on what kind of compass or landmarks you’re using.

I have been thinking about the idea of “elemental spirits” as it emerges in various traditions that I have some acquaintance with. The epistles of Paul suggest he has an ambivalent view of the “elemental forces” that we share the universe with, though the sense of our basic alliance or affiliation with the processes of Nature is suggested in his comment in Romans:  “The eager expectation of the creation awaits the manifestation of the sons of God.”  Our emergence, our maturation as the Children of the Light, is a blessing to the rest of Creation, from which and in which we exist.

The intense feeling of kinship with nature has taken many forms in the history of human imagination, which in some ways is human history.  Nature spirits and fairies;  the genius loci; theosophical or Findhornian devas — all convey this sense of personality, not just of “Mother Nature” but of this place, this tree, this stone, this brook, this animal or herb.  In biodynamic farming, the elementals are not only un-relating materials and processes with which the farmer must contend.  They are centers of activity and intent, which can cooperate with the farmer, but also wait to be healed and liberated into full beneficial activity by good culture of land and animal — the farm, including all its wild inhabitants, the farmer and the crops and livestock, are seen as one organism, in which the elementals also are an integral part.  This is more than seeing ” tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything,”  but is a transactive, relational framing of human life as intgerated in Earth.

Such images and ideas, with their echoes in many cultures, have tended to foster a sense of reverence about the resources which we require for the good life, and that includes a feeling that we should beware of not over-using or misusing “the creatures,” the other elements and actors in creation.  George Fox felt this viscerally; his search was turned to a time of exile, not by his cousin’s inviting him to take a glass of ale, but by the turning of an honest quenching of thirst into a drinking game.  George tossed his groat upon the ale-house table, and fled in grief, ovecome by this simple, humdrum example of un-reverence towards life and the Giver of life.

In the early days of the Christian movement, pagan observers mounted often severe attacks on the emerging faith — at a time when it was just taking shape, still in many ways unformed.  By second century, the movement included several remarkable teachers and thinkers, who countered the challenges raised by the critics and in so doing gave further definition to Christinanity — but many possessed a fervor and imaginative power which kept their theologizing from becoming yet a thing only of the head.  (Erasmus:  “Once, faith was more a matter of a way of life rather than a propounding of articles of belief…. [but] faith began to reside in the written word rather than in the soul… Articles increased, but sincerity decreased; contention boiled over, charity grew cold.”)   An anthology of the writings of Origen is rightly entitled Spirit and fire.

So I am not surprised, but rather comforted, to see how Origen (not along emong the early Fathers) recognized that the cogent challenger Celsus had raised a matter worth engaging by complaining that the Christians had turned away from a proper understanding of the spirituality of natural things.  Origen replies to this in a way that pleases my  late-summer attentiveness to the voices of the land, and the feeling I’ve had since childhood of the aliveness and sovereign value of the organisms among which I pass my days.  Note that Celsus when Celsus speaks of a daimōn, he is speaking of something different from a “demon,” in the sense of a little helper of Satan.  Rather it is a neutral spiritual force or entity, with its own tasks or duties to perform.  Origen, who knows all this very well, nevertheless is drawing a distinction between the “diabolic”  and the neutral or positive forces in creation.  These were two subtle guys.  From Contra Celsum Book 8, ch. 31:

Celsus  thinks that we cannot eat bread or drink wine in any way whatever, or taste fruits, or even take a draught of water, without eating and drinking with demons. He adds also, that the air which we breathe is received from demons, and that not an animal can breathe without receiving the air from the demons who are set over the air. If any one wishes to defend this statement of Celsus, let him show that it is not the divine angels of God, but “demons”, the whole race of whom are bad, that have been appointed to communicate all those blessings which have been mentioned.

We indeed also maintain with regard not only to the fruits of the earth, but to every flowing stream and every breath of air that the ground brings forth those things which are said to grow up naturally — that the water springs in fountains, and refreshes the earth with running streams …only in consequence of the agency and control of certain beings whom we may call invisible husbandmen and guardians; but we deny that those invisible agents are demons

To New England Friends tendered during yearly meeting, to cherish the new growth and not to waste it.

08/13/2021 § 2 Comments

Dear Friends,
Many of us were made tender during our recent yearly meeting. In some, the openings of new understanding or of compassion have been felt; in some, wounds were received or renewed, or new healing begun. Now is the time, before our habits and duties overwhelm our inward senses, to acknowledge to ourselves the stirrings of transformation, the places where a promise has been felt, or fresh power entered in. The first growth is tender, and needs cherishing, and cultivation by the harrows of love. The hatchlings in a nest, an opening bud, the child Moses set adrift, the Babe in Bethlehem, the burning hearts on the road to Emmaus, the hearts and minds of the women at the Easter tomb, wounded by grief and then surprised by joy:  Have you tasted something like this, however small? Rememer the truth of it, now, and consider how it should accompany you in weakness and in growth.
Inward, spiritual events, are real events. They take on substance as we wait to feel, and then act upon, what word or deed will let it draw us further into life, the freedom and mild learning yoke that Jesus invited us to, Step by step, poco a poco, we can follow the guide, and feel the consolation and the power, our poverty and our joy, the fire and the holy Spirit.

And it is not given to us only, this precious little thing. As we bring a new leading or new opening into the light of love and truth, we will be sent opportunities to share some crumbs at least of the little loaf put in our hands. It is told how, when Sequoyah had begun to spread his writing system among the Cherokee in the 1820s, if a man who had learned it met someone on the road, he would ask if the other could read using the new system. If not, he would begin teaching him there and then. Do you have even some rudiments of new learning to tell others about, in simplicity and as a gift, not a demand? We give thanks, then we break bread, and share it out, but first we look to see if the bread is good to share, if we feel it is nourishing. Often, our plain bread will be enriched by something given to another to share. We cannot take in all the bounty that the Founder of the feast has for his friends, all at once, but once we are at the table, our portion is ready. As the Common Prayer book of my youth said, “Draw near with faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort. Feed on Him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.”

So we are not to despise the first little puttings forth of the divine life in us, but honor them. As in the first springtime, it is best to look for the little beginnings, and feel how they open us up with their fresh opening. As Penn said of the First Publishers: “They were changed men [sic] in those days, before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent, as well as their garments.” But they were moved to declare that they had seen the dawn, and shared that much, as they and their friends watched to see what the unfolding day would bring, of challenge, of work, of journeying, and delight.
In Christian love your Friend,
Brian Drayton

The modesty of Christ, Quaker spiritual formation, and our role in Creation. III

08/06/2021 § 2 Comments

The modesty or humility of Christ, the Incarnation not as parable but as testimony, is a key to understanding how our spiritual health and growth is indissolubly linked to an understanding — increasingly concrete, specific, and felt or experienced — of our proper role and place in creation.* For the Spirit dwelling within, if it is the Christ spirit, is the Spirit of divine Wisdom who was/is creating all, embodying — in shaping the world’s body — God’s eros (a longing for relationship that can also be union) and delight in abundance and diversity. The book of Proverbs has Wisdom saying:

23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth;
26 before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men.
32 And now, my sons, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.
34 Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.
35 For who finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD;
36 but whoever misses me injures himself; all who hate me love death.

Thus we cannot fully know the Spirit until we feelingly know our kinship with all that the divine wisdom has brought forth, and come to grateful relationship.
This means accepting that we are ‘of the earth earthy’ with all its implications of delight, and also of limitation and mortality. Our sense of importance must be tempered by this:

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. (Ps. 90)

Yet if we come (again) to see with eyes sharpened by love and knowledge, we can see that this also shows us how we participate in the wonders of the world, one of them, and yet with our own distinct characteristics, since we have access to our feeling and our thinking, in a way we cannot penetrate that of other beings (even though we can get hints of their experiences of delight as well as terror):

Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12 passim)

To know that our spiritual as well as physical being is interwoven with the earth’s life, processes, and condition is part of the great reconciliation of which the gospel message testifies. It cannot be denied that our cultures and history have wounded and deformed our participation in the life Creation (through the “arrogance of Adam”, as Erasmus put it — our fantasy of separateness and domination).

[Humans] have abused the law of nature which God had inscribed on the hearts of all mortal beings. The wisdom of ‘philosophers’ rendered the world more foolish than it had been, so that [deluded] religion of the nations… was the highest impiety. (Erasmus, Paraphr. in Marc. LB 164)

By knowing and accepting for ourselves the testimony of the modesty of Christ, and the prophetic living that comes from that acceptance, we are led to renew our relationship and participation in the Creation, under the guidance of that Spirit that “takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind.”
Now, at this point in history, we will not reverse the workings of the world system, responding in its own ways and tempo to the consequences of human activities over the past two centuries, but we can understand more clearly that our witness for peace and justice, and for healing, must be interwoven with earth care, for we are earthlings. But further, if we walk as Children of the Light, then we must act in accordance with what we have over the centuries come to understand about that Light as it shines and works in and through human hearts and hands.

* A note: I use “creation” here not to mean a commitment to a literal Genesis-based view of How All This Happened, but as a framing that implies our spiritual belonging within, as opposed to, the universe

Nurturing ministers Case #8: Leadings from others

07/31/2021 § 3 Comments

A minister is to do everything the Spirit requires, and nothing that it does not. This truism tends to be understood to refer to the process that happens when a potential leading is inwardly perceived, and the Friend seasons it inwardly, and then with the guidance of the community in some form. But though very often a leading begins as an event originating inwardly, this is not the only path by which leadings may come. Friends and meetings are impoverished if this is the only way leadings happen. By way of introduction, I share a story I remember from reading Laughter in Quaker Grey long ago.
The elder Friend comes to the younger Friend, and asks, “Has thee ever considered that thee might have some share in the ministry?” The younger Friend, “I have never had that concern.” The elder: “But has thee ever had a concern to have the concern?”
I am going to use a personal anecdote and a page from early Quaker practice to explore this topic.


A quarter of a century ago, when we first moved to New Hampshire and transferred our membership to a new meeting and a new Quarter, I was asked to address the quarterly meeting at an old meetinghouse opened for public worship once a year. When I get an invitation to a meeting, I sit with it to feel whether I am free to accept. I was clear to do it, and we found our way there. We were met at the meetinghouse by David Curtis, a farmer and pillar Friend of the region. He belonged to our new meeting (Weare MM), but we had only just become acquainted. He shook my hand and said, “Glad you’re here. I hope it will be a good opportunity for you.” The Friends who invited me saw it among other things as a way to encourage a relatively new minister by putting me to work. I cannot recall now how things went. I believe I was faithful, as I have no lasting sense of rebuke or remorse as residue from the event. It was a small event in the life of the meeting, but significant for me.
The thing is, that a meeting where there is life has many Friends who are sensitive to the motions of love among the meeting and in the members, and such Friends may well see a need or opening. They further may see that a particular Friend might serve the need, and encourage the Friend to consider whether she might undertake it. She is then handed the task of discernment, just as if the motion had arisen from within. Very often a wise response is to ask “Is there any indication from the Spirit not to do this?” As Hugh Barbour noted, the daily practice among early Friends often consisted in listening throughout the day for “stops” or indications that a certain course of action was forbidden them, at least at that time, rather than waiting for positive specific commandments for every act they undertook.
With that understanding, we should take a welcoming stance to suggestions from discerning Friends that we should consider undertaking a thing that needs doing. The motion of love that originates the work may well be perceived by someone else than ourselves, and then it is on us to understand it and undertake it if there is no conflict in doing so.
It is with this understanding that the Second Day Morning Meeting of ministering men Friends in London gathered to make sure that ministers were distributed among all the meetings (large and small) in the metropolis. Some of these Friends were only sojourning there for one reason or another, and may well have been quite unused to the great city and its Quaker culture, coming as they did from the far corners of the island. Yet charts were drawn up and assignments given; unless a Friend had a specific leading to go elsewhere, he did as he was asked. This reflects the attention to the welfare of the meetings, taken by a body of experienced and discerning Friends who carried that responsibility actively in prayer and in practical arrangements. John Stephenson Rowntree provides an excellent view of the active work of this body (one ancester of later meetings of minsters and elder, Ministry & Counsel, and the like). At this time, it was made up entirely of ministering Friends, exercising watchful care over each other for the good of the body. As to this blend of spiritual concern and practical consequences, Rowntree writes:

It is sometimes implied, if not said, that it exhibits some lack of spirituality for a Friend to allow his name to be put down on a plan to attend a certain meeting at an appointed hour. Evidently this was not felt by George Whitehead, William Penn, Ambrose Rigg, and Samuel Bownas; and if they were not conscious of it, we may well suspect the validity of our scruple. It is urged that to plan out the location of Ministers on a future day is to interfere with the disposal of them by the Holy Ghost. But is this really the case ? The wording of the minute of 1723, which speaks of the dispersing of Ministers “according to their concern or freedom,” is significant. Probably in nine cases out of ten, a Minister has no special drawing to one meeting above another— he has a freedom to go where his friends think him the most wanted. In the case of his having a “concern ” for one meeting, way would be made for his giving effect to such an apprehension of duty. (in “The work and maintenance of the Gospel ministry,” in Life and Work, pg 271) .

If a vital and adequate ministry is to help a renewal of our meetings as we face the callings and challenges of these times and those that follow, we cannot neglect this lesson from our past. We should be on the lookout, for each other, for needs and for Friends whose gifts may be of service there. And especially, we should be alert to those whose gifts could grow by undertaking that service, and the spiritual challenges it might bring. If you want to nurture gifts of ministry, do not neglect sending work towards the new servant, so that they can exercise their spiritual muscles; and remember also that they will need discerning support as they undertake an opportunity that came to them from a discerning Friend.

The modesty of Christ, Quaker spiritual formation, and our role in creation, II

07/20/2021 § 3 Comments

The modesty of Christ and Quaker spiritual formation

In the previous post, I discussed some aspects of the ancient doctrine of the Incarnation as Christ’s emptying of himself, as elaborated by Desiderius Erasmus. A key point is Erasmus’s emphasis on the necessity of the body, not only for Jesus’ work as go-between between divine and human, but also for each of us, as the instrument by which we ‘work out” our salvation and grow towards perfection. For this reason, while unchanging “things above” are to be preferred to changeable “things below,” the feeling, acting body is to be accepted with gratitude.

Now, the first Friends were as ready to decry human weakness, and more than ready to abhor our inclination towards sinfulness, and thus our distance from God. As James Nayler writes, “That sin is in the world, and that all are thereby become children of wrath, is generally believed and confessed by all” (How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome, 1657). Barclay (at the beginning of Proposition 4 of the Apology), describes the human condition thus:

All Adam’s posterity (or mankind), both Jews and Gentiles, as to the first Adam (or earthly man), is fallen, degenerated, and dead; deprived of the sensation (or feeling) of this inward testimony or seed of God; and is subject unto the power, nature, power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he soweth in men’s hearts, while they abide in this natural and corrupted estate: from whence it comes that not only their words and deeds but all their imaginations are evil perpetually in the sight of God, as proceeding from this depraved and wicked seed. Man therefore, as he is in this state, can know nothing aright; yea his thoughts and conceptions concerning God and things spiritual, until he be disjoined from this evil seed and united to the Divine Light, are unprofitable both to himself and others…

From this point of view, Christ indeed had to lower Christ-self to dwell in a body so prone, and as it were, homelike for sin, the house of alienation and deafness to the voice of God.

While I have not found among Friends the kind of meditations on this aspect of the Incarnation found elsewhere in the Christian tradition, the great distance between the transcendent God and us earthlings can be said, I think, to form a backdrop for much of early Quakers’ understanding of the work of Christ. For example, when William Dewsbury says, “The body of sin is a loadstone to draw you from the life of God… this is flesh and blood, and flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he articulates the sharp distinction, even opposition, between the nature of God, in whose likeness we were created to be, and that of humans in the Fall.

Yet humans’ experience is that the steadfast “love at the heart of things” is persistently striving for reconcilation, and “has left not himself without a witness” in any time, even our own.

Quakerism takes seriously Jesus’ teachings perhaps most deeply in accepting that salvation/liberation and reconciliation come in unexpected pathways, by ways and means that are not planful or (often) even comprehensible, according to human preferences; and he rejected conventional glory, repute, and coercive power. Born poor, he finished an outcast, riding to his final conflict with the powers of the age “on an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass,” mounting his challenge to the rulers by teaching on the streets, and did not resist when facing execution: “If my kingdom were your kind, I’d fight with your weapons, work in ways you’d understand. My peace is not your peace.” Rather, Christ came and comes somewhat like the tide comes in: at the ebb, there is a little time of waiting and undirected motion. Before it turns, the action is on the surface, the winds stir up ripples, and the boats swing to random points of the compass. Then, there is the smallest motion inward.

So the way we are to find and live in reconciliation cannot be by storming the battlements of heaven with prayers and human methods and devices. We can join the Lamb’s War, a way for our own and the world’s liberation, but it can only be fought using the Lamb’s weapons, and these are not learned in a day, nor learned at our own command and pace, but lived through, and into. It is a process of growth, not of achievement.

In the light which shines in all, and visits all, there is the power; and this power strives with the creature to work itself into the creature; and where there hath been the least breathing after life, there hath been a taste of the power: for this came from it. But the great deceiver of souls lifts up men’s minds in the imagination to look for some great appearance of power, and so they slight and overlook the day of small things, and neglect receiving the beginning of that, which in the issue would be the thing they look for. Waiting in that which is low and little in the heart, the power enters, the seed grows, the kingdom is felt and daily more and more revealed in the power. And this is the true door and way to the thing: take heed of climbing over it. (Isaac Penington “A short catechism for the simple-hearted.”)

Quaker practice was (is?) intended in all its forms to achieve no end but support and enable each of us to follow this path, which only can be traveled under the guidance of a spirit which is holy, its presence precious, which Friends knew to be the spirit of Christ by the content and direction of its guidance.

The structures, processes, and conventions that we have adopted to enable us to live lives attuned to that Spirit are human “sub-creations,” shaped as we are faithful in our measure, but not pure conduits, nor unchangeable — they are human artefacts. Yet a measure of their faithfulness, as shaped and as enacted, is the extent of their incompatibility with “workaday” methods and aims — the ways of the world. They work well, to the extent that the fruits of the Spirit are alive among us, such as  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Gal. 5:22) — yes, and courage, too.

This is one reason that Friends have (when in health) always respected a leading that felt uncomfortable, that was “in the cross” — discomfiting both to the self and to convention, and discomfiting to the self in large part because it invited ridicule or opposition.

Thus, the way that Friends were led into, in seeking to follow their guide in all things, is an organic way, a disconcerting way, a way not under our control or at our convenience. Atonement cannot happen without Incarnation, though, and bodies are always a tentative thing, however much beauty and power they can express. I leave our Friend I.P with the last word for now:

Mind therefore this my single-hearted advice:
Let thy religion be to feel the pure principle of life in the pure vessel of life; for the eye must be pure that sees the life, and the heart that receives it. And faith is a pure mystery, and it is only held in a pure conscience. Know that in thee that purifies thee, and then thou knowest Christ, and the Father, and the Spirit and as that lives and grows up in thee, so shalt thou know their dwelling-place, and partake of their life and fulness.

The modesty of Christ, Quaker spiritual formation, and our role in Creation, I.

07/13/2021 § Leave a comment

On July 12th, 1536, Desiderius Erasmus died in Basel, Switzerland, at rest after a life-long, relentless ministry of scholarship and writing. I have recently been meditating on a passage from his Paraphrase of the Gospel of Mark that seems to offer profound and useful teaching, congenial to the practice of Quaker spirituality, and to strengthening a Christian witness on climate change. I will set these reflections out in three parts:
I. The modesty of Christ is at the root of the gospel’s radical import
II. The modesty of Christ and Quaker spiritual formation
III. Modesty and our participation in Creation

Part I: The modesty of Christ is at the root of the gospel’s radical import

In his paraphrase or comments on the first chapter of Mark,* Erasmus reflects at length on the incident of Jesus’ baptism (in chapter 1), and what it may teach us about Jesus’ intent for his work. As with mainstream Christian teaching since the 1st century, Erasmus assumes that Jesus, both human and divine, is aware of his nature, and is clothing his mission in clear teaching, by deed as well as word.

In the story, Jesus, knowing very well that he has no need of the cleansing that John the Baptizer has called the people to accept, yet undertakes it. This is an example of Jesus’ “modesty” or “humility,” and a sign of his kinship with us.
At this point, Erasmus says

The arrogance of Adam had closed Paradise to us;
The modesty of Christ opened heaven for us in place of paradise.

In a way, Jesus’ baptism is a further development of the incarnation, the human form as channel for divine revelation. Erasmus placed a high emphasis on the humanity of Christ. He felt that only by coming to a vivid understanding of that true humanity could we grasp the astonishing nature of the divine gift being offered by Jesus’ word and example. Despite his unity with God, Jesus made choices about how to grow to participate in that unity, to experience the transformative work of the “power of God to liberation” (Rom 1:16-27).

In this incident, Jesus, who has (as traditionally taught) authentically taken on a human body, takes another step away from arrogance or a reliance on his fully-realized divinity, undergoing an act that signals an acknowledgement andrejection of sin, and a rededication in newness of life (“like any other person,” as Erasmus says). Indeed, I might add, since we know so little about Jesus’ inward life, we cannot rule out that he also was strengthened for his work, by this basic gesture.

In the next segment of the story, Jesus is coming up from the Jordan. The Holy Spirit descends, and a voice affirms him — it is after this humble act in solidarity with seekers gathered there on the riverbank that God claims him as “his beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

It is not surprising that with the voice might come a visual sign to increase the meaning and the wonder of this opening of Jesus’ mission (God teaches by both precept and demonstration.)  Now, it might be supposed that a manifestation of the All-Father, announcing the great work that has begun, would take some form as unmistakable as fire or lightening on the mountain, or a shining uncanny cloud (as we see later in the transfiguration story). Why not a eagle? An angel in glory? A fiery chariot? Why a dove?

Erasmus teaches that the choice of a dove is another lesson about the core and radical nature of Christ’s message and work:

A visible sign is shown to our eyes, so that we might be taught what sort of minds the Spirit loves, and what sort it rejects. For nothing is more simple than the dove, nothing more foreign from combat or plunder.

This understanding of Christ’s way of working — what the Spirit will do and refuse to do — is eloquent of the deeply counter-cultural nature of the gospel, whose core is the challenge to us to a life completely centered and reshaped by love, agape, as unfolded most trenchantly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

The humilty of Jesus, and his compassionate companonship with seekers and sinners, from the beginning conveys the heart of the divine intent. It is all the more overwhelming in its contrast to a view of Christ that emphasizes God’s transcendence and unimaginable glory, his enactment of a beneficial transaction done to humans,with a strong punitive thread: “Somebody has to pay!.”

Rather, the power (and pedagogy) of Jesus resides precisely in his unification of the  human-earthly and the divine-spiritual. Christ is the solvent between these two, or (given the inward work of Christ) the bridge, across we are invited to the fullness of life, opened to us by the experience of the truth that frees, as we make indispensible use of our bodies, our real lives, to learn freedom’s lessons, as way opens and the Spirit enables.

Part II. The modesty of Christ and Quaker spiritual formation

* I am using the text of Jean LeClerc’s Louvain edition of the Opera Omnia, vol. VII, page 161 (published 1706).

Retire to the first gift

06/21/2021 § 3 Comments

[Based on a message that arose during a visit with the “Good News ministers” 6/12/21.]

All gifts are needed for the health of the body of Christ.

A mark of health — a sign that Friends are listning together to the same Guide — is a harmony that develops and persists among all the gifts.  This is true first in the meeting for worship — harmony & mutual support, which is felt even when outwardly there might be many themes arising in the ministry: but they all arise from an exercise that is increasingly shared, and that exercise is going on in the silence, with each contributing what they have to give there of openness, tenderness, struggle, thanksgiving, patience, watchfulness, longing, delight.

It is true also in the work of gospel ministry: each minister is to occupy their gift and so a necessary part of growth in the ministry is a coming to know the nature of one’s gift.

A key role of the gospel minister is to feel  in prayer and with spiritual sight or “taste”  how the different gifts in the meeting are mutually supportive. This work sometimes is done by naming the harmony, the places where it happens, or perhaps where it has been unnoticed as yet;  or to pray for it, or to encourage it explicitly where it may  be needed, not yet in existence.  This harmony with all other gifts that are active in the body is a fulfilment of each gift, a coming to maturity, so that in our diverse services, we can watch over each other in love, and welcome new growth  wherever it appears.

This morning I have on my mind a line from James Nayler’s Milk for Babes: “take heed of that nature that would know more than God is willing to reveal: for you shall find that unwilling to obey what it knows. And take heed of  that which desires to  appear before men to be commended, for that seldom deserves praise of God.”

In our times, we may bear with us an intense perception of the needs of souls — whether among our Friends, or in the community or world beyond. We see that “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed,” and see also the damage that is happening, the opportunities that are lost, when we see ourselves as consuming atoms, individual, and in no unity of spirit with a community (As Judges has it, “There was no king in Israel in those days, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”) human or natural. It is hard to keep in a place of living hope.

In that consciousness, and yearning to feel healing from its wounds, and to help others live more abundantly, we are aware of how much work there is to support this healing, name the need for it, share experiences of it, tell stories of pitfalls encountered and overcome.   We can see, or imagine we see, how spiritual health is to be achieved, and what we ourselves need to do to achieve it.  The goal is right over there!

Yet, it is so often the case that we can see how we can be, long before  that transformed self is a reality.  The work of the Spirit, and the labor of our own souls (and bodies and minds) still lies ahead — seeing the destination is not the same as arriving. A key part of what we can offer in our service is be clear about what we see, and what we have yet to become, not claiming to be more than God has made us. For a minister, this is critical, if one is not to offer a counterfeit, and thus bring the Gospel we preach into disrepute.

Samuel Bownas, in his book on the qualifications necessary to a gospel minister, frequently advises the minister to “retire to their gift.”  It is an act of humility that everyone has to experience many times over — an examination before the Giver of gifts, to know what and how we can truly testify, to encourage others in their walk in the Light and not try to do more than we can do authentically, whether out of longing to be useful, or in emulation of someone else (not seeing the true value of our own gift), or out of other demands of the ego.

So it is that a central part of the qualification for ministry is coming to know what one is called to do, and able to do.  Every gift is different, because it comes through individual persons, and that personality, if in right ordering, is part of how the gift can do its work. This understanding doesn’t call at once, but through one’s exercising of the gift as led, and learning from the practice, from the guidance that we may receive from others, and from the opportunities that we find opening for our service — or closing.

But sometimes, even if you have come to see this “retirement” as a necessary part of the work of the ministry, when you are confronted by doubt or unfaithfulness, discouragement or exhaustion,  and you undertake to seek what your gift requires at this time, clarity and re-commissioning (or release)  do not come.

I think it is important not to press too hard, to focus too much on “my ministry.”  The thing is that one’s ministry is a birth, or perhaps better an outgrowth, of one’s spiritual life (and it’s not yours, but Christ’s gift, after all)If that is ailing, then the place for healing, or renewal, or tranformation, needs to be closer to the root.

So in such times, and really in all times, the first work is to retire to the first gift, the gift that is offered for everyone, no matter what other gifts or callings may emerge — that is, the gift of Christ’s presence and action within.  Seeking this freely and frankly (“We would see Jesus,” said the seekers, John 12:21) , shaking off our self-image, our self-judgments, our big plans and projects, we can be enabled to refresh ourselves as simple children of the Light.  You all know the lessons that are to be learned there, about our condition and what our needs are.

But I want to emphasize today that the essence of this return, the retirement to the first gift, is in waiting till we come into the place of love — even if the waiting can be longer than we want, and we have to wrestle angels of confusion or impatience or hopelessness in order to come into that place of love.  A true retirement to this gift involves waiting even past a place where we “feel love for” — we have to go to the place where we feel ourselves beloved, and worthy to be loved (what we deserve is quite beside the point), just as the trees and rivers and birds are worthy to be loved, and stand in God’s love in their own place.

After all, this is the ground and spring of authentic gospel ministry, the source of the motion of love, the message which is the subtext of every act of mnistry, no matter what the words or deeds are that we feel ourselves led to perform.  The meaning of every message must be the love of God, and so to retire to this first gift is the first and greatest requirement for us who feel called to the service of the gospel, which is God’s power at work for liberation, for reconciling the world to God, Who is love.

 if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?   Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?  (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:30-33 KJV)

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