Absconditus: God hidden, an Easter reflection

04/04/2021 § 1 Comment


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

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of joyful and laborious service, who have shorter or longer times of spiritual drought, when the sense of Presence is withdrawn.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03/28/2021 § 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

03/14/2021 § Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nurturing ministers, case studies: Invitation to contribute

03/10/2021 § 2 Comments

Last year, I started an irregular— and open-ended — series of posts called “Nurturing ministers, case studies.”  (You can find them using the Search bar for this blog).  I  got up to #4, and then got pulled into a more urgent series, now concluded. I want to return to this series, as stories come my way.

It is very important that we build up our “library” of concrete examples of how Friends in the ministry — of whatever age or length of experience — have been guided, chastened, encouraged, or instructed. No matter what our calling is, we can all become better servants. Everyone who is in active service is a co-worker, since all gifts are from the one source, and for the expresssion of divine love.

In addition, as meetings seek to help nurture and have care of gifts in their membership, or learn their way into eldering, they may find that they are not sure what sort of thing might be helpful.  The great repository of Quaker journals, letters, and histories can provide some resources to this end — not to copy, but to reflect upon and learn from.

Now,  I am keeping my own eyes open for stories worth reflecting on, but maybe you know some that you think would be valuable to share. If so, please contact me! You could send the story, or the story and your reflections, whch Id be glad to post as a guest post on this site. I might feel free to add my own reflections to yours…
At some point, when a couple of dozen have accumulated, I’ll collect them into a single document for ease of sharing — and if the stories keep piling up, there might be new editions, perhaps with some simple “study guides” or suggestions for use.

Speaking about living in the Spirit Final: True worship

02/26/2021 § 2 Comments

True worship
and the ministry that emerges from it,
and facilitates it

We are most of us familiar with the story that Samuel Bownas tells on himself , as here followeth:

[O]ne First Day, being at meeting, a young woman named Anne Wilson was there and preached. She was very zealous, and I fixing my eye upon her, she, … pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power: “A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?” This was so suited to my condition that … I was smitten to the ground, but, turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it? (Bownas 1839, 3)

I must confess that on many Sundays, I have been in his condition, and I have had suspicions that it’s true of others as well. To be blunt, I have been in many meetings that are drowsy, comfortable, and serving as refuge or cushion from the harassments of the week, which can include committee work or even service in the ministry, if one loses contact with the motion of life that can attend, sometimes does attend, the rightly assumed tasks and duties of life. In such a drowse, our inward eye and ear are closed to the wonders and terrors that surround us, and of course there are moments when this is therapeutic. Even on the night he was betrayed, Jesus permitted his disciples to sleep, when it was evident that they could no other.
But if we wish to speak and live prophetically, and dwell together as a prophetic people who live and speak in the Truth, we must not fool ourselves about the quality of our worship, and disconnect that worship from our calling to holiness, to perfection as it is possible for humankind.

The true worship is in the spirit, and in the truth, and the true worshippers worship there; and such worshippers the Father seeks, and such worship he accepts; but all other worship is false worship, and all other worshippers are false worshippers; such worshippers as God seeks not, nor can accept their worship…he that worships out of the Spirit, he worships in that nature; but … he that worships aright, must have his nature changed, and must worship in that thing wherein he is changed, in that faith, in that life, in that nature, in that Spirit whereby and whereto he is changed. For without being in this, and keeping in this, it is impossible to please God in any thing. He that is the true worshipper is a believer, and in his worship he must keep to his rule, the law of faith, the law of the Spirit of Life in him, the law which he receives by faith fresh from the Spirit of Life continually. (Penington, “The way of life and death made manifest,” Works vol i: 34)

If that is our goal, it is in worship that we learn what to listen for, and where to find again the springs of life we have found before. There, too, we start to understand how to follow in the way we have been shown, in which faithfulness our faith is more securely founded. Job Scott:

No soul ever was, or could be, saved without it, out of the life of it, or in ignorance of its redeeming power. It is never ideal, or speculative, but is always inward, vital, and experimental; and no man knows anything more of it, than he so knoweth it…Some suppose the gospel is unconnected with obedience in man. But it is ever connected with it, requires it, leads to it, and effects it….(Scott Journal, in Works vol 1:17)

In an episode of true worship, in which we taste in some measure the freedom, assurance, and generosity of the Spirit of Christ, we find our way to the Presence, to the Seed and place of rest. But once is not enough, nor is our starting place always the same — as our lives move ahead, and our condition changes. So we must feel our way back to the Seed from wherever we start, knowing from experience what we are seeking, and learning to feel when we are moving towards or away from it. In time, finding our way from more and more conditions or starting points of awareness or deadness, till we can at any time move back towards the spring of life, we can learn to come home in an instant (or in a nanosecond as Bill Taber liked to say, perhaps acknowledging the distracting fullness of our days). This frequent keeping company with Christ is the Quaker response to Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing,” to which other traditions offer other practices native to their own spiritual culture (though with care we can learn from them). Here’s Penington again:

Now this worship,…is continual. There is a continual praying unto God. There is a continual blessing and praising of his name, in eating, or drinking, or whatever else is done. There is a continual bowing to the majesty of the Lord in every thought, in every word, in every action, though it be in worldly things and occasions; yet the Spirit of the Lord is seen there, and the tongue confesseth him there, and the knee boweth to him there. This is the true worship, and this is the rest or sabbath wherein the true worshippers worship. When the creation of God is finished; when the child is formed in the light, and the life breathed into him; then God brings him forth into his holy land, where he keeps his sabbath. (Works vol 1: 35-6)

If our worship does not work a change, so that we bear the fruits of the Spirit, and the marks of those who have met with a living power beyond and yet within them, then our worship is not yet true enough, and we will know that our worshiping is true of we learn more about it from the practice.

For example, worshiping in truth day by day, and feeling in it our kinship and with our friends, and the place where unity can be found in our diversity, we can learn not to mistake the benefits of this powerful common living for the essence of it, fruits for roots — so that when we do not know joy, gentleness, meekness, and patience, kindness etc., we are not discouraged, or discount the power which makes for them. From that unity we can speak with power, act with endurance, awaken the sleepers, and invite others to the great work of living justly, creatively, and without fear, in balance with the nature forces upon which our bodies and our cultures depend. But we cannot manufacture that power, that truth, that fearlessness, if we are not living in unity. Now, therefore, in a time when our unity feels fragile, let us practice unity by seeking each other’s well-being and faithfulness. This is not only to be done by wishful thinking, but by truthful worship, in which the barriers to unity are brought into the Light, until we are freed from them, and receive power to get over them; or have them given back to us transformed by that Light.
Now, in recent years, Friends have grown more interested in, and active about, the seeing and welcoming the diverse gifts among us, but we have not yet gone far enough in this work. We are called further, to act on, act in, the expectation that all can be faithful stewards, for the gift’s sake, and for each others’. As we are diligent in our own faithfulness, and worship more and more in truth, we will grow ever more aware of how our own callings are bound up with the common life, and we find more ways not only to assert that connection, but also to affirm and forward it in concrete and specific ways. Let us receive concerns with joy as the evidence of God’s action in our time, day, and measures, and be eager in praying for and nurturing these gifts, loving our neighbor’s concern as if it were our own. Let us challenge ourselves and each other often, asking, What concrete things have I done to welcome another’s gifts, so that I rejoice to feel the growth of God’s life in him or her, and feel myself nourished thereby? How often do I seek to feel how my service will nourish the growth of those in whom other gifts are active?
And here I think that the ministry has much unfinished work, and there are too few at it. I have often said that one important function of a minister (whether officially designated so or not) is to serve as a guinea pig, an experimental organism, who at times tries things, or has things tried on them, as a way of learning on behalf of the body, along or across some frontier. “It is a living ministry that begets a living people,” [2] and one way that this happens is by the searching, attentive love with which the minister holds the gifts and service of others.

The end of the ministry is not only to gather, but also to preserve and build up what is gathered, even to perfection. And the soul being (especially at first, if not for a long time) weak and babish, not so fully acquainted with the measure of life (having had but some touches and demonstrations of it, but not being gathered fully into it, nor rooted and settled in it); I say, the soul in this state, hath as much need of the ministry to preserve, direct, and watch over it in the truth, as to gather it out of the world. (Penington, “Some queries concerning the order and government of Christ’s church,” in Works 2:367)

My longing, Friends, is that we not allow each other to live in the shallows, and fear or complain that we have not the stature, or the power, or the message needed by our times and conditions. Quakerism teaches that this sense of insufficiency is not overcome by an act of will. We have much to die to, as Job Scott said, but also much to learn about the many dimensions of life as a people, the Children of the Light, guided by a spirit of fire, of healing, of prophecy, of compassion and joy.

Then were our hearts inclined to hearken unto the Lord, and our ears, which he had opened to hear, were bent to hear what the Spirit’s teaching was, and what He said unto the Church, who is the chief Shepherd and Bishop of the soul. Thus were we gathered into a right gospel exercise and gospel worship by Him, through whose name we had received the remission of sins past, and whose blood had sprinkled our hearts from an evil conscience, and who gave the pure water that washed and made clean. So that with true hearts many began to draw nigh unto God in the full assurance of faith, as the ancient saints did and were accepted, and had access by that one Spirit, by which we came to he baptizcd into one body, and so came to drink into one Spirit and were refreshed, and greatly comforted; and grew up together in the mystery of the gospel fellowship; and so we worshipped God, who is a Spirit, in the Spirit received from him, which is the gospel worship, according to Christ’s appointment. John iv. 24. (John Burnyeat , Jorunal pg 8; and in Friends Library vol 11, pg. 123)



[1] As I have written perhaps too often, Friends need to reflect on one message of traditional Quaker architecture. Old meetinghouses have a surprising proportion of their seating space dedicated to the “facing benches,” with 10-15% of the seating set aside for Friends who have been encouraged by the meeting to exercise spiritual gifts of ministry and eldership on behalf of the meeting. The message is that we need a lot of Friends to be at this work, each according to their gifts and calling meeting. The message is that we need a lot of Friends to be at this work, each according to their gifts and callings — working together on behalf of the spiritual health of the meeting, and encouraging the enactment of Gospel love in the world. We may use different mechanisms (tradition or new) to see, nurture, and welcome such gifts, but however we do it, we need to get to it, and also be willing to learn lessons from our historical experiments in practice.

[2] Testimony concerning John Banks by Somerset Quarterly Meeting 1711, quoted by A.N. Brayshaw in The Quakers, 1969 [1953], 247.

Speaking about life in the Spirit 9: Body

02/23/2021 § Leave a comment


Is it not a measure of our assimilation to the values of the larger society that we tend to think and act as if our membership in the Society of Friends is a matter of personal choice? We’re all familiar with the idea of the spiritual supermarket, in which the seeker is recast as a shopper, selecting one or another brand product. Many of us, in accounting for how we came among Friends, will report a sense of having been led, often unwittingly, towards a society of people who combine a reverence practice with commitment to a certain kind of ethic.
Early Friends taught that Christ is present now, “in the body of his saints, ” as James Nayler said in one of his controversial works:

God and his word is now manifest in the bodies of his saints in the same manner and as freely as formerly he hath been; and that there he is a sufficient teacher and shield against sin, without any other help to all, according to the measure of their knowledge of him present. (Works 2:536)

It is in this indwelling that all are constituted as one body, not through our will, but through the work of the One, the Seed Christ in us. Fox speaks eloquently of how the power of God can be felt bringing order and unity; and indeed, you might say that, in discerning spirits, a spirit that scatters is to be distrusted, however much it might be welcomed by some as a truthful spirit. After all, God is not either truthful or orderly: God is all things at once, and encountering God-stuff, we encounter what feels like truth, or mercy, or justice, or conviction of sin, or comfort, or challenge — these are all different ways we experience the One.
Fox writes:

Because the Seed is one which is Christ and he is the Master…all brethren, who are in the Spirit, are one. You have all one Eye, which is the Light; one fire, which consumes all which the Light discovers to be evil; and one Spirit, that baptizes all into the one body, where there is no confusion, but pureness and oneness.” (Epistle 46)

Even though we are led by an infallible spirit, stability and persistence in faithfulness as a people are a constantly maintained condition: homeostasis in the body of Christ. Fox continues: “Therefore, all Friends mind the oneness and that which keeps you in the oneness and unity…” Fox recognizes that it is possible to wander (jump, run) out of the Light, and thus out of the oneness: we can be led into oneness by minding the Seed, but we can separate again. The health of the body includes an inherent element of reconciliation and repair. There is a continuity between the order that arises when a person or a people are most open and obedient to the Holy Spirit, and the work of that same Spirit which enables us to see the need for reconciliation, and strengthens us to seek it, and live in it.

Although the group can be led into right action, and the Spirit can help us discover community structure consistent with its guidance, the individuals are the living stones of the unity, the factors in the structure. We must each dwell in faithfulness, if we hope to be led faithfully as a people.When we are living in this realization, we are led away from any temptation to see our unity in the body solely in terms of machinery (process) to be deployed to solve a problem, or intervene once something has gone wrong. While such processes and procedures can be powerful tools in the hand of a community or an individual in doubt or difficulty, they are not enough. Like any tool, they must be deployed at the appropriate time, and applied effectively to appropriate problems. To switch metaphors, medication is most helpful if you have a good diagnosis, and you have chosen the correct intervention and dosage.

A persistent challenge for us in our Quaker struggles is that our diagnoses and prescriptions often do not rest on good analysis of our condition. We can be distracted by the confusion of personality with revelation; we can forget that a crisis in a community has a gestation period, and that a disrupting or alarming event very often gains power from pre-existing, often unnoticed, conditions — individuals’ criticisms or doubts, crises of confidence or faith, unresolved grudges, hasty judgments, and a technical mindset that can perhaps close the lips of a wound, but not wait and work for healing.

If we do not allow ourselves to learn from the Spirit lessons about our condition, about our current ability to enact unity, and the things that hinder that acting, then our intellectual and emotional labor, our discussions and reports, will not move us forward.
The Spirit by which we are guided, and which underlies all our separate concerns, longs for, persuades towards, our unity. A frequent attention to the community, and a waiting to feel where the unity stands (beneath all our diversity), is a gift to oneself and one’s meeting. Gifts are not elicited by demand or strength, but are things received from love. The kind of prayer I am advocating is one in which our selves, and all the parts and actions of our spiritual body, are held lovingly and known at bottom to be deeply connected. As we make this kind of attention, or attentiveness, a steady thread of our practice, we can find our way, experimentally, into an understanding — and an ability — to see, and then to live, in unity, in some measure. We may well lose sight of the unity sometimes,  but once we have had the taste of it we know that it can be found and felt again.

This unity may be expressed in many ways, and may well grow into a strong, shared vision for community life. We need to help each other remember that unity is not an accomplishment, or a product, but a process, a living process, which requires the nourishment and care appropriate to itself. A living body maintains its health, in the face of abrasive, down-tearing, consuming forces, by constant up-building, nourishment, rest, and creative action. The result is a sense of well-being, of flourishing, which speaks of a body and mind in balance. When we live as members of one spiritual body, and that body is flourishing, we and our body will give evidence: patience, love, mutual forbearance, eagerness for good works, courage in the face of doubt or trouble, compassion, simplicity, truthfulness, teachableness, joy. If someone should examine our condition and find these alive in us, find them reliably to be true of us, then we can hope with some confidence that our flourishing has roots in the life of God flowing through us, the Logos, which is God’s creating and healing power.

This in truth is the gospel, the power of God which works for our liberation, each of us, but also makes us know how and where we are one, and where we can be confident of that unity. Jesus’ last commandment was that his friends love each other as he had loved them, but in his prayer at the last supper, he asked that all might be one, as Jesus and the Father were one, and with them. Where daily waiting in silence and expectancy comes to be characteristic of us as a people, we participate in the process of challenge and transformation which prepares us for the unity Jesus prayed for, and equips us for it.

The root of all this, as Friends have always known and claimed — seeing it from the beginning as one of the principal arenas for the Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin — is worship, true worship, in which we see feelingly not only what we can become, but also what we are at the moment — what we know that we can live, and what we must not claim yet.  So we turn to worship in the next and last post of this series.

Speaking about life in the Spirit 8: What Spirit?

02/20/2021 § 8 Comments

God is spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
I remember the first time that I heard “Spirit” used as a proper name. A friend from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting came to live and work at Friends Meeting in Cambridge. Upon returning from the General Gathering in a message in meeting he used some such phrases as that “Spirit teaches… Spirit says…” This usage is becoming more and more widespread, and as has happened with “light,” it has become a way to express a focus of devotion and reverence that has no necessary content or implication. In a time of theological deconstruction and seeking, this has a value in building bridges, reducing barriers to inclusion, and avoiding specific commitments. It is characteristic of a desire for constructive and loving engagement across boundaries. Indeed, once when I was serving as a recording clerk for our YM, a Friend let me know that my use of the phrase “the Spirit” was uncomfortable to them, because it reminded them of “the Holy Spirit,” and all that Christian stuff.
It turns out that the use of “Spirit” in this way, without the definite article or other qualifier, is widespread outside modern Quakerism. It is interesting to see the range of communities that use it — neo-Pagans, Spiritualist, & some groups influenced by Hindu mysticism, among others. Given the thousands of years in which people have contrasted “spirit” with “matter,” it is not surprising that the term can carry so many meanings.
Which spirit do we seek? Do we mean what we say when we quote the “Peace testimony,” with its uncompromising claim about its authority?

the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

I think it does matter what Spirit we listen to, and if we are being guided by the Spirit of Christ, we will be able to tell. [endnote 1] Moreover, by learning together to do so, we will be helped in these confusing times, these transitional times, to make use of other sources of guidance in a way that brings strength and coherence, rather than confusion. Those who have walked this path have noted many times characteristic effects, which indicate the work of the Holy Spirit, and while some of them are noted in conventional “pneumatology,” others are peculiarly Quaker, or at least Friends have put their own flavor on them.

A. The Spirit of Christ can bring into unity across time and culture

First, it is good to reflect upon the bedrock claim that God, whatever God is, is one. This may seem to go without saying, but the implications, which Friends preached boldly from the beginning, are still important to us today. As Job Scott said, “The gospel is no upstart thing of only about 1800 years standing.”

He is only one. His operations, offices, relations &c., are many and diverse. His attributes, though many, do not divide, nor diversify him. He is good, holy, just, merciful, . He has or is wisdom, power, love &c. Yet his having and…exercising all these, prevent not his unity. It follows, therefore, that in strictness of expression, he rather is, than has, any of these…For his word is himself; his spirit is himself; so is his goodness, wisdom, power, love, justice, mercy, &c…He has no wrath, but what is, in him, the same thing as his love. He is one. The contrariety is in us….All the possible diversity that may seem to be in him, respecting us, is wholly in us.

The universal work of Christ, by many names, is a well-known implication, which Scott restates directly:

Were the heathen under the new covenant? I answer that so far as the law was written in the heart, and conformed unto, among the heathen, Jews, Mahometans, Negroes, Indians, or any other race of men whatever, and whenever, they were so far under the new covenant…There never has been but one way of salvation: this was, and is, Christ forever….[Jesus] declares, “before Abraham was, I am.” As if he had said, “I am, not now only…I am through all time, the life of religion, the salvation of man, the everlasting covenant.”

This understanding may be in part responsible for the multiplication of names for God that we find in the Journals: Truth, the Inward monitor, Best Help, Adorable Wisdom — seeking to convey the attribute of God that is most evident in experience at the time.
In our struggles with discernment, however, the commitment to God as One casts an important light on our ideas about “continuing revelation,” because it reminds us that the deeply satisfying unity we long for, and sometimes taste, is not a matter of “best fit” construction; and the difference is that the unity not only feels nourishing to us at the time, and removes a sense of constraint and discomfort, but enables us to see how the unity that brings life exists below or beyond or within the differences we see most easily.
But all this is, in a sense, reasoning from first principles, whereas Friends have felt the unity, many times, and seen it as a “covering” of the Spirit, because hearts were changed, hasty spirits were quietened, and words if spoken came with power and with sweetness, however few and halting they might be. Such times are, in Quaker parlance, “baptizing times,” when we are dipped into sympathy with each other. Such baptisms do not come as a result of our intent, but rather when we relinquish our need for control or victory, and are reduced or graced with a longing for clarity, and to sit together with our brothers and sisters in love. Have you not known times, when you feel yourself in exile amidst your Friends, or your culture, or from yourself, and brought into a deep exercise of spirit, when no way forward appears?
This state of conviction, of being convicted, is a time when the judging part can come forward quickly, and our intellects cannot see the way to a solution. It may well be that for unity to be found again, we must go through long preparation of heart and soul, before mind and strength can be brought to bear. New England’s story is good to recall: our separation in 1845 was a fruit of broken trusts, the exercise of power to compel uniformity, and some theological differences — but indeed also of wounds and anger, fear, and other perennial elements of human frailty. Reunification took 100 years, and it required that contradictions be addressed and lived past in love, and it took so long because individuals needed to be healed enough of inward conflicts, wounds, and fears that the yearning for outward unity — which has never since looked like unanimity! — took the lead; and indeed the conversion that began in the early 1900s, and took organizational form in 1945, has continued down to today; and the process must ever be renewed.

B. The work of the Spirit is also timely

The work of the Spirit is timely. We have found that it is to be relied upon from moment to moment, working always towards our salvation, our liberation. The early narratives of conscious wrestling sometimes feel almost formulaic, but, after all, it is the fate of each of us to reinvent many wheels as we each of us encounter the world as new individuals. Job Scott again:

Before I was 10 years old, the workings of truth grew so powerful in my mind at times, that I took up several resolutions (or at several times resolved) to amend my ways, and live a serious and religious life, though I was not one of the most vicious of my years…. it was the very power and spirit of God upon me that so condemned and distressed me for sin, and strove to redeem my soul from the bondage of corruption.

When in this mood, he “began to take notice of what I heard read and conversed about religion,”  and developed some desire to know God’s spirit, as converts did in the days of the apostles.

But, like many others, I overlooked its lively checks and calls in myself; longed to be favored with it; but supposed it was some extraordinary appearance, different far from any thing I ever yet had been acquainted with.

Because the prompting of the Spirit can be overlooked, drowned out in its small first invitations, Friends have learned to heed many phenomena of inward weather, of moment-to-moment experience with the Spirit, as we walk through our lives which have both inward and outward trajectories. I have written earlier about some elements of this, but there are additional ideas and experiences that are of importance for the active life founded in the listening practice of the daily watch. In the following extract, John Churchman, a minister with long experience in watching for the small openings to duty, reports the genesis, continuation, and departure, of a calling that in the end came to nothing, as to the outward:

In the year 1736, one night as I lay in bed, my mind was uncommonly affected with the incomes of divine love and life, and therein I had a view of the churches in New Jersey, with a clear prospect that I should visit them. In that prospect and the strength of affection which I then felt, I said in my heart it is enough; I will prepare for the journey as soon as I can hear of a suitable companion, for I do not expect that I shall have a clearer sight than I now have.

I soon heard of a Friend who had a visit to New Jersey before him, and spoke to him about my concern, but he let me know that he knew of a companion, and they had agreed upon a time to proceed. After I had mentioned it to him and some other Friends, my concern seemed to die away; but I remembered the resolution I had taken up, and that I then thought I would not look to be bidden again, I was fearful something had drawn my mind from the proper attention to that opening, which was the reason it seemed to go off. 

The more I strove to look after it, the duller it grew; and I then sorely repented that I had spoken about it, and thought it should be a warning to me in future; for I began to see there was a difference between seeing what was to be done, and being bidden to do the thing shown: besides this, I had to consider there was a time to bud, a time to blossom, a time for fruit to set and appear, and a time for it to ripen. 

The experience was well worth reporting,  because it provides an instructive window in to a minister’s experience of attentiveness, of patience, of readiness for response, and for freedom in the letting go, whatever the cost to self-esteem. Any Friend may have such experiences, since we are all to be on our watch, during our daily choices to undertake or to refrain, to speak or to be silent. It is the daily practice of our faith.
The ebb of the spirit’s tide can sink very low, as any Friend who’s traveled in the ministry can attest. I remember well times when I felt a clear call to undertake some work in the ministry, and as the time approached, I felt drained and sterile. With experience we can learn the lessons of those times with less trepidation.  Ruth Follows writes in her journal:

I am sensible that these stripping seasons have been very teaching to me: and when we look like fools to those who are foolish indeed, it is at such times we learn true wisdom; for in true silence we have the best teaching, even the Lord himself is our instructor.

Indeed, now, when I undertake to follow a leading, I expect that as the time approaches all sense of self-confidence will be withdrawn, and I have come to welcome, indeed count upon that time of emptiness, when I know that I am a servant indeed; and I know also that if there is anything I can bring or offer to my Friends of instruction or encouragement when the time arrives, it will be made available to me, “for Thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer.

C. Spirit and Christ.

While it is useful to explore the offices and operations of the Spirit, however, this goes only so far towards understanding whether the Spirit we stand in is the same Spirit that Jesus spoke of, and embodied, and shared with his friends and followers, accessible and alive even after his death. [2] That is a spirit of guidance and truth, surely, which Jesus says will provide continuing insight into the Gospel that he brought and lived. But if it is the Spirit of Christ, and we are no longer servants but friends, then as we come to know that Spirit, more of Christ’s personality should be unfolded to us, made available so that we can enter into it, or feel it taking up living room within. So I would like to speak for myself here, about how I have come to see the Spirit in its present operation as the Spirit of Christ.
First I should stop and bring into focus an important Quaker term, or rather practice: waiting. Like “dwelling in watchfulness,”  “wait” in Quaker spirituality has an active quality. When we read in Isaiah, “They that wait upon the Lord shall mount up as eagles,” we realize that this is “waiting on” as in “waiting on table.”  It is the inward posture of one who is attending to the intentions or purposes of another person, who may at any time ask us to undertake some task or journey. Or again it is the waiting that happens when a learner is in the presence of a teacher, an apprentice with a master — looking and listening for teaching or demonstration or enactment, so that the attending soul can see or act in fresh ways, growing in capacity and freedom under the guidance of the active One.
“Waiting” is the operative term here, because I can say that my experience of the Spirit has grown in the waiting, not day to day, but also year to year. Coming into the Presence, I have been given the grace sometimes to feel into that personality (to feel, too, where my personality and that of the Spirit are not comfortable together). It is as though I have come into a room, over and over, and become gradually acquainted with its shape, its dimensions, its furnishings, its atmosphere.
The Spirit that I have come to feel, to seek for, is one that makes me tender, malleable, so that I am as it were prepared for shaping, and free of concern about consequences, and direct as a child in my asking and receiving;

• That Spirit confronts me with the challenge of the Law of Love, as well as the prophetic virtues of justice, care for the poor, openness to the stranger, worship of the One along, the ethic of Truth: the call to the beauty of holiness, and no final rest else;
When I am in that Spirit, I feel renewed in me the ability to mourn and to find comfort, to serve with whatever I can in the cause of compassion towards my neighbor;
• In that Spirit, I am brought to feel Logos/Sophia, the coherence and lawfulness at the heart of this inconceivably messy universe, intricately bound up in its origination and its unfolding, as the first Word of Creation continues to be pronounced and take shape — Wisdom of God, delighting in the creation, and turning us through delight to the awe in which new lessons are learned, of complexity and of sorrow.
• In that Spirit, also, I can feel kinship with the life of nature, of non-human beings, plants, animals, and the landscape itself, a joy and sense of reverence [3], and a sense of freedom from a need to matter, to be importance, knowing that I am precious yet of not much account — so that I can feel and rejoice in the Folly to which Sophia brings us, freedom and delight — the life of abandon in the wind-like Spirit.
• Waiting further, I can understand more and more the choice and the love shown forth in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, and the grace of the empty tomb, and how it is nothing arrogant to accept that, in my measure,  these should be my portion, also.
In this waiting, finally, I can at times feel indeed grafted onto a Vine fed and enlivened by a common life, in whose branches and twigs and leaves and fruit I participate in the unity, and rejoice in the growth, and the promise of the seeds for yet more.

The best single word to describe this spirit is Christ. [4]


[1] Sometimes I think modern Friends don’t realize just how Christocentric early Friends were. Their “Christology” seems to me very “high” indeed, one reason that I find such resonance with such figures as Origen and Erasmus, whose experience of Christ at work in the world is intense. There are indications from early Quaker controversies that their contemporaries noted this emphasis. Cf for example from Fox’s Journal, when an antagonist, Col Lyne , admits that Fox is Christian, contrary to charges made, and says, “I perceive you exalt Christ in all His offices beyond what I have ever heard before. ” Nickalls, pg. 598.

[2] After all, if we are being guided by the One, then later revelation should build upon the Gospel, not overthrow it.

[3] Thus Christ has the whole human race, and perhaps even the totality of all creation, as his body, and each of us is individually a member of it. “You are all brethren” (Matt. 23:8): all means the whole creation; and one and only one is Lord, Jesus Christ. (Origen 791-2)

[4] I am not a Jesus Seminar fan, but I like the informal description of the way they’d evaluate candidate sayings of Jesus: Red: That’s Jesus! Pink: Sure sounds like Jesus. Gray: Well, maybe. Black: There’s been some mistake. Using this method, as my understanding of the Spirit has matured, I’ve come to vote red: That’s Jesus!

Speaking about life in the Spirit 7: Light

02/17/2021 § 1 Comment

16. Light

Mind the light. Hold in the light. Inner light. Light in everyone.
So much has been said and felt and argued about light as a Quaker word! Yet it is so central to Quakerism from first to last that one cannot leave it unaddressed. It is easy to enter a conversation about the light by pointing out that early Friends identify the light very directly with Christ, while for very many Friends now “Light” is detached from that identification, and it is a placeholder for “the divine” or something even vaguer. This difference is an important fact.
But I wish to testify first that to a remarkable degree, even the most non-theist of Friends experience this debatable presence and power with freshness and reality. When we are not talking about this, but dwelling in it, however labelled, we can indeed be brought to humility, to comfort and challenge, to renewal, to confession, to unity. This is something to celebrate and acknowledge with reverence. For some people there is an actual sensation of light; for others “light” is what they call the experience of Presence. In any case, it is important to understand that in the original Quaker experience, the light was not, is not, a passive environmental condition. It is active, searching, and challenging. It is a an agent.
Friends came to this experience of Light when they had reached an impass, had reached the end of their rope, spiritually speaking — religion was not providing meaning, order for their lives, progress towards holiness, inner peace. Here is Anthony Pearson:

dear friend, I must tell thee I have now lost all my religion, and am in such distress, I have no hope nor foundation left. My justification and assurance have forsaken me, and I am even like a poor shattered vessel, tossed to and fro… as blind, dead, and helpless, as thou can imagine. I never felt corruption so strong, and temptation so prevailing, as now; I have a proud, hard, flinty heart, that cannot be sensible of my misery. When I deeply consider how much precious time I have wasted…my spirit feels a sudden fear; but then I am still flying to my old refuge, and there my thoughts are diverted. What it means to wait on God I cannot apprehend; and the confusions in my own spirit, together with the continual temptations from without, are so great, I cannot understand or perceive the small still voice of the Lord. (In Barclay Letters of early Friends 1847, pp.327-8)

Indeed, we are safest when we can not only live with the sense of “stripping,” of desolation, but come to see it as a necessary, salutary condition to return to over and over again — so that “convincement” is renewed over and over in “conversion,” whose progress is like that of the incoming tide. It never hurts to return to fundamentals. In his “Short catechism for the sake of the simple-hearted,” (Works 1:123-4) Penington rebukes his fictional discussion partner when they ask:

Q. But hath not this Saviour a name? What is his name?
A. It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart, than by rote. Yet, if thou canst receive it, this is his name, the Light; the Light of the World

Questioner obstinately asks

Q. Why dost thou call him the light? Are there not other names every whit as proper, whereby he may as well be known?
A. Do not thus set up the wise and stumbling part in thee; but mind the thing which first puts forth its virtue as light, and so is thus first to be known, owned, and received. Yet more particularly, if thou hast wherewith, consider this reason: we call him light, because the Father of lights hath peculiarly chosen this name for him, to make him known to his people in this age by, and hath thus made him manifest to us. And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names

And how does the Light do its work?

Letting in the light (which convinceth of, and warreth against, sin), the life stirs and is felt; and the life leads to the Word which was in the beginning, and giveth the feeling of that also. And in the Word, the righteousness, the peace, the wisdom, the power, the love are felt; and he is made all these to those who are led into and kept in the light.

Q. But can I do any thing toward my own salvation?
A. Of thyself thou canst not: but in the power of him that worketh both to will and to do, thou mayst do a little at first: and as that power grows in thee, thou wilt be able to will more, and to do more, even until nothing become too hard for thee. And when thou hast conquered all, suffered all, performed all; thou shalt see, and be able understandingly to say, thou hast done nothing; but the eternal virtue, life, and power, hath wrought all in thee.

In some ways this is the most embodied form in which to encounter God. As visual creatures we have so much experience of light, and its varieties and its opposites —seeing/blindness, radiance, clarity, the paradox of rainbows emerging under certain conditions white light  as Unity in diversity. Light and heat. Finding a way versus stumbling in the darkness. Day and night, evening and morning, shadow/false -reflection/true and so on.
So central and visceral is light to our world – indeed it is something we share and know we share with the majority of living things — it is no wonder that many Friends have been glad to accept this near– universal sensory experience, and lay aside the Quaker insistence on the light is a manifestation of Christ at work amongst us.

I must confess here that it is difficult for me to get into a mindset that does not feel or assume the equivalents, so as to see what is gained by it, or lost by ignoring or forgetting it. Perhaps the best way forward, for me, is to ask: what do I learn from considering, meditating on living with the possibility of relating the light is experienced with Christ as in the Gospel of John?
First, it is a challenge to individualism or self–sufficiency, because the light, considered as a divine activity, illuminates each of us as from a common source, and is no personal possession. This experience came as a surprise to Friends, and it was disconcerting or even terrifying.
Second, flowing from a common source, it is orienting— the direction towards or away from, warmer/colder., we can choose to collaborate with traveling in and towards it, or shun it; as Nayler points out the light is only a means of salvation if you accept its workings (Love to the Lost, in Works vol. 3 pp. 53-57).
Finally, John’s introductory hymn starts with Logos, and quickly moves to connect that cosmic force with the activities of creation, life, and light; then adds judgment and the ability to claim our inheritance as children of God.  Consequently, in accepting the equation of light and Christ, we are drawn experientially into the mysterious heart of relationships with a living Other. This is yet another way to fight free of idolatry, especially the almost irresistible tendency to worship one’s own image, inclinations, and feelings.

A note on terror. When I read the chapter in Hugh Barbour’s Quakers in Puritan England on “The terror and power of the light,” I was deeply reached and opened to the possibility that I had not at all understood the encounter with the Light, even though the source of the terror seemed inaccessible to me. Because I start with the assumption that human nature is the same, though culture changes, I have sought to feel my way to the places where our culture bases its deep sense of confidence, which if shattered would indeed bring terror.

It is hard for 21st-century people — postmodern, post-Christian people, whose habits of mind are infected and informed by the language of Mammon, the great God economics, which defines value as wealth, freedom as choice, choice as purchase, individuals as consumers or factors of production, to get into a worldview in which the condition of our souls is a matter for existential anxiety, and to reckon with the idea that some things have value absolutely quite apart from their value in exchange or use. I suppose this is part of the secularization process, the disenchanting of the world, which has shaped modern religion, including modern Quakerism. (There have always been people whose view of the world is so formed — at least, we have records of non-theist, materialist thinking since classical times, and biblical times for that matter. Atheism, or materialism, or nihilism, have always been around as options in Western culture. “All they that see him laugh him to scorn.”).

But there are fears that haunt us, and being cut off from life and alienated from bodies, selves, or others — these when confronted in their actuality are terrifying.  In such a state, it’s revelatory to know what it is we fear, to admit our own role – sometimes as cause or perpetrator, sometimes as sufferer, sometimes as both; to recognize that we are mortal indeed, and shall be forgotten.  These are sufficiently painful that a constructive, abundant, and love-filled response can be gratefully received and before that, to hear that one as possible, that there is a way to live and that is free of these terrors – that is good news indeed. To discover upon seeking that way the transformation is required–that the power comes each time we plant our next step, to affirm and enable us to take the next towards a source of greater life — that is good news, too.

Speaking about life in the Spirit 6: Not just metaphor

02/14/2021 § Leave a comment

Overture: Our speaking and our identity

How does a dialogue with traditional Quaker language help us discover our own spiritual identity? What happens when classic Quaker terms have different meanings (or no meaning) when spoken by 21st century Quakers?

15. Not just metaphors; or, there is no “just”

A “language for the inward landscape” is no help if in our exploration of it we stay at the level of description, and translation, of lexicography and paraphrase. The gathered wisdom of the tradition, of the people to whom we have been led, is not in the words, unless we recall and rest love with where the words come from, and recognize that their language was being used as a means to evoke in the reader or hearer an echo of an experienced reality, and to provide some instrumental help for them to feel towards the reality pointed to.
Wrestling with these terms and the issues they raise is critical, I think, to our survival, and by this I mean not only our definitional existence, our reason for being, but the processes by which our community develops, deepens, discerns, and responds in witness, and in walk.
It may be useful here to stop and reflect on the Quaker use of the word “baptism.” Of course, Friends early reached the position that the outward ordinances are not necessary, and indeed to be avoided as a habitual practice, especially since the baptism that John foretold would be the work of the Christ would be with fire and the Holy Spirit. Yet the word “baptism” is very commonly met in the journals. For example, Martha Routh reports

On sixth day, we were at the Branch, a trying meeting, attended with close secret baptism of spirit; yet encouragement was handed to the exercised travelers. (Routh, pg. 190)

Ann Crowley says,

In this arduous journey, we travelled nearly 3000 miles, attended 241 meetings, and visited 627 families. Such an engagement required deep baptisms, to prepare for usefulness, in the great Master’s time, doing or suffering according to His unerring wisdom; but by endeavoring patiently to bear these descendings, we were permitted, at seasons, mercifully to feel the renewed arisings of light and life… (Crowley, pg. 470)_

John Griffith writes:

It became indisputably clear to my understanding, that it is altogether impossible to administer, in a feeling effectual manner, to people’s several states, unless we are baptised thereunto. (Griffith, pg. 43)

A common variant is “dipped,” as in “dipped into sympathy.” In almost all cases, the accounts imply an inward struggle, resulting in an unmerited and unpredictable increase in awareness and ability — an increase of life and wisdom arising from exercise, to put it in more traditional parlance. * It is, I believe, a common experience for the spiritual traveler, especially one who feels under the weight of some concern, and it represents in microcosm of the Quaker progress of the soul — one might characterize such an event as an episode of the inward work of Christ in the exercised person. Such experiences are evidence that the person is attuned in some measure to the guidance of the Spirit, and in that attunement made aware of limits or boundaries of their availability under the pressure or longing to walk more closely with the Guide.
As an aside, I think we should bear in mind that most of the journals and the storehouse of writings that we have from the early Friends were written by ministers, as part of their ministry (even as these lectures are). The purpose of Quaker ministry is to collaborate with the Spirit’s work of reconciliation:

John Griffith writes,

The main design of gospel ministry is to turn the children of men to the grace of God in themselves, which will teach them to work out their own salvation, and diligently to seek the Lord for themselves, in whom, their strength being renewed, their spirits would unite, and greatly help and relieve the ministers in their gospel-labours. (Griffith pg. 128)

But the thing that drives gospel ministry is love. The minister learns from an apprenticeship in listening and following, and immersion in a soul-climate including both their own spiritual condition, and that of those they encounter. The minister in time, with experience, comes to know that love is the most important anchor for service, though it is not an easy lesson to learn and hold to; and since love is the fundamental commandment for us all, the minister’s message first and last must be love, a yearning for the spiritual flourishing of others.

From an inward purifying and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others. All faithful people are not called to the public ministry, but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various, but wherever men are true ministers of Jesus Christ, it is from the operation of his spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them, and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others. (Woolman Journal, pg. 31)

Martha Routh, whose journal is full of valuable reports on her inward experiences during her service in the ministry, gives a glimpse of how she experienced this “feeling sense”:

While sitting under the renewal of baptism, I had to believe that the state of the meeting was very complicated. But it is only for thee to read, oh fellow traveler, thou who art able to do it, in a similar line, what it is to be so engaged, and how great the care and watchfulness which is necessary, even when under the holy anointing. The states of the people are opened like flowers in a garden, some appearing beautiful to the eye, and affording a pleasant savor; others of a contrary appearance yielding an offensive smell; others having little or no scent. To know how the culturing hand should be turned upon these, in order to help, is indeed a weighty matter; and nothing short of that adorable wisdom, which alone is profitable to direct, can accomplish it according to the divine will. (Journal page 215).

Perhaps it was Richard Bauman who said that the dilemma of the minister was that she was called to do everything the Spirit required, and nothing that it did not require. The core of the work is in listening — listening to Scripture, to the gathered meeting, to the condition of individuals, to one’s inward condition, and below, through, above all listening to the Spirit. Much of the language that one hears from the ministers includes a strong sensory component — even a phrase like “I felt a stop in my mind” conveys the feeling of being pulled up short, or coming against a wall. As a more recent example of this embodied perception , I offer a phrase that Bill Taber used , with a smile: the “minister’s belly.” I have heard from Bill, from friends, and from others, varying accounts of its origin. In one version, Bill was recalling the feeling of warm and tangible love in the fatherly hug of a portly, beloved minister. In another which you will read in that remarkable memorial prepared by Ohio yearly meeting, the phrase refers to visible tremors that the young Bill noticed in the substantial belly of a beloved minister as he felt the conviction that he was called to rise and speak.
One final nuance: in my last opportunity with him, Bill did a little diagnosis of my condition, and then gave this prescription–”Remember the sense of prairie like spaciousness that I felt walking the wide salt marshes of my childhood home. Get the feeling of that openness, that inclusive embrace in here (patting his stomach)– and you feel yourself opening wider and wider in love and caring and the sense of freedom.”
The work is challenging, but the reward is a joy that is not just a satisfaction of being faithful–it is the delight of the gardener or shepherd in fostering growth and the springing up of fresh life, and in the experience of baptism, of preparation under the daily cross, the joy is purified by the growing understanding that ability is furnished from beyond one’s own resources, though all that one has is more and more consecrated and ordered in and for that service.

Our midweek meeting, a laborious travel of spirit, crowned with peace, for I did not give way to the current of drowsiness, but breasted it with all my might, but was sorry to see so many goodly Friends carried along with the downward stream, having always understood that it is the sick and dead fish that swim with the current….J.J. ( a neighbor, not a Friend) felt led to come to meeting, but not feeling well was going to stay home, when he ) thought he heard a secret voice like this, “Present thy body a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is thy reasonable duty.” …in the course of meeting, our dear E.S. was led to speak from the same text most feelingly and practically, which appears to have made a deep impression upon J.J.’s mind. But what it will come to I know not, for many are called and few chosen; and I fear that J.J. is too much like myself, he talks too much. (Edward Hicks, Journal, pg. 179).

It is valuable to seek to understand, from a sympathetic, inside perspective, what experienced travelers have to say, since we may go far in our journey under the misapprehension that what we have seen and felt is all there is to say or know about the endeavor.
I pause here with another phrase of Bill Taber’s, “more than a metaphor,” which he used in speaking of the Light, which we will turn to soon, but it is relevant to our whole discourse here.

Cognitive scientists, linguists and philosophers have discovered that “metaphors” are more than colorful turns of phrase or effective political or rhetorical tools. They are deeply rooted in our experience as organisms, they are indeed physical objects in our brain-body system, they engage open psycho– motor pathways laid down during physical activity, sensory experience, in thinking, and when one is caught up in narrative. They are thus concrete objects in the universe, as much as rocks or winds or beetles. Moreover, they are tied to scenarios, possible enactments, and they exercise power by their tendency to expand their reach to include related ideas, experiences, and processes.

The next post will turn to the great not-just-metaphor, Light.

* I find an interesting parallel with Origen’s teaching on “aporia” or “impasse” in Scriptural interpretation With his understanding of Christ the Word active among us, Origen moves past the established philosophical usage of the word logos, using the term to describe a time when the mind does not see how to make sense of a passage.  The reader then must rely upon the activity of the Logos to teach the seeker, who thereby grows in wisdom enough to understand the Scripture in fact in and through the Spirit that gave it forth. Von Balthasar, pg. 8, and see also P. Martins, Origen and Scripture.

Speaking about life in the Spirit 5: The Cross

02/09/2021 § 6 Comments

13. The Cross, and Living in it.

The Cross: I know Friends who have been Christian, who have despaired at the challenge of rescuing the Cross from the evils done under its sign. I know Friends who are allergic to any mention of the Cross, seeing it as the symbol of oppression. I was once rebuked by a Friend who was pained that I would mention the shameful things that had been done in Christ’s name, and under the sign of the Cross. In retreats on the “Language of the inward landscape,” the session on Living in the Cross is usually the hardest, and the most productive, eliciting as it does a range of wounds, misgivings, and questions, as well as affirmations. This bitter-sweet mixture is our condition, and in part explains why so many Friends are glad to embrace one or another relativization of Christ which avoids the issue of the Cross completely. One active study group at a Friends Meeting in New England says,

We look to Jesus, along with many other great figures throughout the ages, as wisdom figures, teachers of love and compassion,

and works to develop a panentheistic account which avoids any version of the Cross, but keeps its focus steadfastly on a vision of convergence between an idealized Science and an idealized Religion. It has developed a model of divine-human dynamics which sees an inevitable evolution towards universal harmony; the model seems to suggest that one can rescue Christ from the consequences of centuries of Christian malfeasance and disgrace by just avoiding the Cross altogether.

From the point of view I am taking here, however, which construes Quakerism as an active relationship with the Spirit, such an abstraction, whatever its attractions, is no help in the daily dialogue with the Living One who calls and accompanies — whereas the Cross, as lived by Friends, is a very real help, and indeed represents an indispensable process and practice. The key is in the phrase “living in the cross,” common among Friends from the beginning, with variants such as “it was in the cross to me. ”

Of course, this language in part echoes Jesus’ injunction to his followers to take up their cross and follow him. But Friends have understood that the transformation of self requires endings, choices, departures, and sacrifices, all arrived at by a process that includes learning, grief, and boundary-crossing It is easy with a superior grin to reproach the earnest with believing that “whatever hurts must be good for me,” but the plain fact is that the stronger the resistance is to a change that seems necessary, the more importance is connected with the challenge. Moreover, will power is not usually enough: something more is needed, and Friends came to know that the power that brought them to such a stand was also at work to enable the change. Here is Richard Farnsworth, already deeply possessed of this experience in the earliest years of the movement, to Margaret Fell and her household, employing at least three nuances of “the cross”:

“Ah! My dear hearts, prize the love and mercy of the Lord, and daily mind your growth into that which is eternal: and the everlasting love and power of the Lord keep you all in faithfulness to Him in what you know. Keep in the cross, and purity will grow; — the safest way is in the cross: take up the cross daily; mind that which crosseth your own wills, and it will bring every idle word, thought, and deed to judgement in you; and so the old man will be crucified, with the affections and lusts thereof; and you shall find the Lord to sit as a refiner, to judge out all the old leaven, the old nature; and so the new man will be raised up…” (Richard Farnsworth to Margaret Fell (and household) 1652. in Barclay 1847, pg. 434)

Bill Taber often talked about the experience of living in the Cross, and of his discovery of the Cross of Joy. At one point, he “translated” the old language thus:

living in the cross is, first of all, being keenly alert to the highest reality we know, in every moment, so that we are able to choose, microsecond by microsecond, the attitude and action most in line with the will of God. Living in the cross is akin to “nonattachment” because in this state of alertness we can be given the grace and the self-discipline to give up our own will, our own attachments, and our own prejudices through the incredible grace of God manifested through Jesus Christ. Living in the Cross of Joy is not a one-time experience. It is life-long and is an important symbol of soul’s journey in this earthly life. Most of us keep learning throughout our lives about what this cross really requires in terms of personal growth and personal change. (from Taber 2002 pg. 10)

And I tried to gloss this thus:

To live in the Cross is a place of rejoicing and creation, because one passes through death to a newness of life, and in one’s own measure and sphere participates in the drama of salvation whose great signs are Calvary and the empty tomb, but whose experience is the Lamb’s war as you and I can live it, the growth in freedom and the experience of the power of love to remove fear and its oppressive kin. The source of the joy and liberation is the experience of the Presence, ever less veiled, which brings judgment and healing, establishes perspective, tends to humility and patience, strengthens compassion, and enriches our ability to perceive and rejoice in beauty, purity, and mercy—and just as keenly to perceive and reject self-inflation, possessiveness, defensiveness, grudge-holding, injustice, and anything that takes us out of earshot of the Shepherd’s voice. (Drayton 2007, pp. 21-2)

Next:  We aim to be, claim that we are, a body gathered by the Light, whose most central act is the meeting for worship. and who seek to follow the leadings of the Spirit.   In coming posts, I will reflect on several terms contained in that sentence, terms so important and so disputed: Light, Spirit, Body, and Worship.


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