05/08/2022 § 4 Comments
At about the same time that I resolved things with the Selective Service, I went off to college. The atrocity that was the Vietnam War continued, and I was awakened enough to current affairs to see how the war was creating or exacerbating great disunity in our society. The events of 1968 were still fresh and alarming in my memory, as were the Kent State shootings in May, 1970. An uncle of mine worried that, if I went off to Harvard (as I did), I would end up being made into a Communist. I never became a Communist (whatever he meant by that), and in any case I arrived at college already alienated from the dominant narratives about the USA and the religious and economic institutions intertwined with the government and that were supposed to be natural allies of the Way Things Were Supposed to Be.
One phrase that kept coming to mind was from the gospel of Mark: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. The story says that this answer to a question about tax-paying to the Roman overlords flummoxed those who asked and those who heard it. I could not see any way to construe the answer except that Jesus was teaching that Caesar (the political authority) was not synonymous with God. Peter when questioned before the Sanhedrin made the same point in the Acts of the Apostles (“We must obey God rather than you.”); in the story his tone is not defiant, but a bit regretful. It is up to each of us to figure out where the line might be drawn.
When the relation between state authority and spiritual duty was discussed in the mainstream culture, I found that Paul’s admonition to be subject to the government as a power deputed by God was often quoted as making an equation between the two authorities. When I compared this line of thinking with the sayings of Jesus and Peter (not to mention rather a lot in the Prophets), however, it seemed like propaganda intended to keep people quiet and under control. This attempt to keep people obedient and to rebuke dissenters was advocated by an ideology that had no qualms about universal military training, massive expenditures for instruments of war and other violence, and the constant indoctrination of people to turn them into reliable economic units, all supporting the One True System.
With all this evil baked into daily life, I heard Jesus asking us to wake up, pay attention, and think for ourselves: “Why don’t you judge what is right? You’ve got the Law and the Prophets, for heaven’s sake. The Scriptures recount many examples when a government loses its legitimacy, even those once duly anointed by God. The same thing applies now, when worldly power flows from Rome, permeating the government and economy of every province, however much local customs are ‘tolerated.'”
It seemed to me quite clear that the same processes operate in our own times — illegitimate governments covering their ill doings with a fair-seeming mantle of words, and prophets seeing through the veil and naming what they saw concealed there.
I hasten to say that it wasn’t just the gospels that made me alert to the role that government and custom can play in the perpetuation and normalization of evil. Before ever I knew more about the gospels than what I heard in the selections used in the Book of Common Prayer, Tolkien had taught me, when I first read the Lord of the Rings at 11 years old, to be wary of plausible disguises assumed by the agents of evil, as when Frodo meets Aragorn at the “Prancing Pony”:
At last Frodo spoke with hesitation. ‘I believed that you were a friend before the letter came,’ he said, ‘or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way the servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.
And Thoreau writing on civil disobedience was more directly to the point, in his objection to the policies of the US Government in his day:
the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, “Your money our your life,” why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to nature, it dies; and so a man.
With such teachers as these (and others), I came to realize that an objection to war, and refusal to participate, was inherently connected with dissent about a lot of other things — possibly the whole social order from which I benefited, but which caused great harm to many others, disguised under many euphemisms. Thus, to assent to the war system is to assent to the whole system of authority, which will be glad to relieve me of all need to develop and live by my own values: it will supply me with all my needs in that way, and all I have to do is accept and go along.
There is in this a totalitarian tendency which sometimes is more overt, and other times more hidden. I am minded here of Robert Frost’s exquisite late sonnet “The Silken Tent,” which praises a woman he loves, but provides an image of hidden constraints that fits my thought here quite well:
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
I have only been intermittently faithful to the understanding that I reached a half-century ago, but the system is so all-encompassing that it seemed to me that there was good work to do in supporting and encouraging an alternative point of view, seeking to be part of a “company of the committed,” as Elton Trueblood called it — and it was in this hope that I found Friends, seeking a community that would uphold a robust alternative understanding of the Gospel and saw action as part of a prophetic witness. Thus, the question of what is Caesar’s, and what is God’s would always be a live one. Whatever I have done in the line of ministry (or activism) has always been shaped by this intent.
I close with a quotation from Jacques Ellul (from the article “Anarchism and Christianity”) on the need for a Christian opposition to the Powers and Principalities, as they are embodied in the Total State now typical in the world — a blended legal-economic-military-surveillance entity, whose agents are found in each of us (what Leguin calls “the little traitor self”):
political authority in its essence tends to grow indefinitely. It has no reason at all to limit itself. No constitution, no ethics, can prevent political power from becoming totalitarian. It must encounter, outside itself, a radical negation based on the opposition of those intending neither to conquer authority (and so undertake political activity) nor to exercise it for the good of others (and so be politics). It must be those representing an intransigent moral conscience and an effective force of opposition. The permanent struggle of this group.-which is not a class, not organized in advance, not a sociological entity-is itself the Struggle for the freedom of others.
04/30/2022 § 2 Comments
How shall we be equal to these times of catastrophe, and those that are soon to arrive? That is, how shall we become (or in some cases continue to be) people who can see what is in fact the case with our times, our selves, our world, and say it, and yet remain able to live in the love of God and neighbor, and not be possessed by fear or despair?.
I think perhaps I want to make my question, which is the one I am sitting with most days, more pointed: How do I, how do you, become or remain such a person?
There is no doubt that we must live and work together to resist evil and keep doing good. Yet it is important not to forget that “we” does not excuse “me” or “thee” from seeing to embody what “we” stand for: “We” cannot be faithful for long if you and I are not. A principal enemy of faithful living in our day, I think, is distraction, one of the master enemies of peace of mind in our times (though probably in all times — think of the allurements of Vanity Fair in Pilgrim’s Progress). Purity of heart, says Kierkegaard, means willing one thing.
It is with this need for focus (and the daily struggle to keep it) in mind that I had some pun in the title of this post. I was reading the first story in chapter 6 of John’s gospel, the feeding of the five thousand. This is generally listed among the miracles of Jesus, but as I sat with it, I realized that in this chapter, Jesus enacts a parable, and then explains its meaning, just as he does with the Sower. T
his chapter, howeever, introduces a decisive shift in the gospel’s message, focusing (like a parabolic mirror) Jesus’ teaching on the distinction between things that matter for the fullness of our lives as experienced spiritually, and things that distract. By “fullness” I mean a life that is stable and dynamic in its orientation and commitments to love, is resilient to disturbances, challenges, and deceits, committed to service and to listening, and whose grounding is in persistent gratitude.
Moreover, the parable and its explanation begin to address more fully than before what Jesus’ role is, and how his message is not just a rephrasing of the teachings of the Law, prophets, and sages. While in continuity with them (all streaming from the same God), Jesus’ message requires us to confront the mystery, the hidden implications, of incarnation in this world of symbols, of wonders pointing to wonders.
The preceding chapter centered on a single story, Jesus’ healing of the paralytic at the Bethesda pool, and its aftermath. While much of the narrative is focused on controversy over Sabbath compliance (which John makes clear is not about the healing itself, but about the man’s carrying of his mat), the spine of the story is something else. The newly healed man is asked who healed him, and he doesn’t know (indeed, it was not the kind of help he’d expected from Jesus), so he goes in search of the wonderworker, who has slipped off into the crowd. He finds Jesus, and learns his name; in the exchanve, Jesus says (I paraphrase!), “Look, it’s great that you’re well, but I’m telling you: You have a second chance, now, don’t blow it! Don’t just take up where you left off, living heedlessly and unfaithfully, lest worse befall!” This seems to me to be an echo of the saying in Matthew in which Jesus says “Don’t be afraid of someone who can do no more than kill your body. You should be more in awe of the One upon whom depends your soul’s life, as well as your body.” There is a way in which the gospels show Jesus emphasizing that while physical healing is a great blessing, the harder work is spiritual healing. In the natural way of things, the trials of bodily suffering will distract someone from attention to their spiritual condition, but soul-health is in the end more necessary, and harder to restore once impaird. Here we see the founding Logos, the cohering power of divine Wisdom, as re-Creator.
Now, at the beginning of Chapter 6, Jesus withdraws north, and across the sea of Galilee, and he goes into the hills with his disciples. Inevitably, however, there is a following crowd. They have seen or heard about Jesus’ wonderworking, and of course there is the excitement that is stimulated by the extraordinary. Many true and false prophets were marked by the manifestation of healing powers (and not only then!), and it is some evidence of the oppressive burden of disease among the people that such healings could be so attractive, and so important a sign of supernatural powers at work.
No teaching is reported here, which I take as another indication that the prophetic sign itself is the teaching — thus, it serves the purpose of a parable. Jesus comments to his disciples that there’s a problem — all these people need to be fed. What are they going to do about it? We only occasionally see dramatic irony in the gospels, but John here says, in an aside, that Jesus presented this challenge to the disciples, but already knew what he was going to do about it.
As one might expect, the apostles don’t know what to do — the cost is so great, and they don’t have a supply of food handy. Philip says, perhaps tongue in cheek, that a child nearby has a few barley loaves and little fish. Without hesitation, Jesus has the people sit down, gives thanks for the boy’s mite (he gave what he had!) and proceeds to distribute the broken bread and fish to them, to pass out among the people. Everyone is filled, and rather than there being a ridiculous paucity, there is a super-abundance.
The people are sure that they are in the presence of the prophet promised to them. The sick and infirm are healed; the hungry are fed. This person acts in specific, concrete ways to address simple human needs, and in a way that elicits wonder, breaks boundaries, hints at new possibilities. Let’s grab him and put him in charge!
This reaction seems a species of idolatry. In the presence of the uncanny and the wondrous, people experience a sense of uplift and excitement, and want to represent it in material terms, as if to make it somehow a more permanent presence in their lives. Peter responded in the same way at the Transfiguration, when stunned by wonder he wanted to make shrines to memorialize the numinous encounter. The apostles’ attitude at the feeding of the five thousand is not recorded, but if the crowd had seized Jesus and anointed him, would Philip, Peter, Andrew and the rest have objected? Their understanding did not yet reach so far.
Jesus, who knew what is in the human heart, slips away alone. The apostles head back across the lake, and while they are (so to speak) all at sea, Jesus comes to them across the water, that changeful element that means life, and shapes itself to any channel that admits it. Here there is no favor bestowed, but just an unaccountable thing. Jesus is present with them in a way they cannot understand, in a prefigure of their encounters with the risen Christ. The many-eyed crowd on the other shore knows that Jesus did not leave with the Twelve, and press in with questions when they see him there.
Jesus answers them with a simple paradox which echoes his encounter with the woman at the well: You take me seriously because you were filled with bread and fish, but you didn’t read the signs.* You didn’t stay with the wonder, but promptly translated it into material terms, and so tamed it. But your response to the wonder has its root in a longing for a larger way of living, a more abundant life — you are famished for the Word of the Lord to be living among you.
You only need to ask the right question, get into the right place to ask for what you really need. Bread is good, health is good, but can you not see that you are seeking not another David on the throne in Jerusalem. but rather the true king, the Liberator King? It’s because that king, my Father and yours, is working that I am here working among you; he taught me all I know, all I’m saying to you: Do you have the ears to hear, the eyes to see the gift that’s being given?
Jesus now declares himself, his role, in uncompromising and disturbing terms, not as a king dispensing favors, but as the bread of heaven, to be received and (literally) incorporated; thereby can anyone be joined with the Creator, and in that unity cross a threshold into a very different kind of living even here on earth, as Jesus then teaches and demonstrates in the remainder of his ministry.
. *Note: The word used is σημεῖα sēmeia “signs, portents”, the root of words like “semantics,” the science of langauge meanings.
04/19/2022 § 2 Comments
While discussions of the Quaker stance on peace and war have arisen recently because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I had been reflecting on it for another reason already: a change of attitude in my workplace.
When I first came to work at TERC, in 1986, and the director indicated that he’d like to hire me, I was so relieved! I’d been looking for a long hot summer, having been laid off just after we’d bought our first house. Although the new job was in a field (science education) I had no experience in, and no training for, it seemed like a new opening way — and no other path had appeared, despite dozens of applications and interviews. The job was funded by “soft money,” mostly grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and I actually had no project to work on yet, but they decided to take a chance, and I was glad for the opportunity.
A final question remained, however, so I steeled my nerve, and said, “One more thing. I can’t work for any place that takes money from the military. Do you ever seek grants from the Pentagon?” The boss, who never told me directly about his Quaker background, smiled and said, “We don’t do that here.” “OK,” I said, “I’ll be glad to come!”
Over the years since, people occasionally have mentioned possible work for the Pentagon, but it was shunted aside (with one exception for “Department of Defense” schools for the children of service people stationed overseas, and in that case I was told the money came from the State Department. But this was a fait accompli before I heard of it, and I was not involved.)
Meanwhile, the War Department* has built up an active program of grants for K-12 science, math, engineering, and technology (“STEM”) education. These grants are in most ways indistinguishable in substance from similiar research and development projects from the Dept. of Education or the NSF. The “requests for proposals” (RFPs) read rather innocuously to someone seeking to do STEM education. But the RFPs explicitly (and naturally) connect the investment in K-12 education to the War Department’s mission of national military readiness.
In recent years, few people on our staff recall the old commitment to avoid such grants. The educational funding climate has changed in ways that make it harder to get support for the kinds of work we do, and newer people from time to time express interest in RFPs from the War Dept. I have always reminded people of our traditional position, but to less and less comprehending ears. Up until now, I get the feeling that the RFPs have been avoided out of kindness to me. This, of course, is not a stand based on principle, but a desire for internal comity.
I should say here that, though my religious affiliation is well-known, I have never felt it right to bring religion into discussions of corporate policy. I have always based my arguments against seeking Pentagon money on non-religious grounds (and over the years others who joined with me in that opposition also argued similarly). I will not rehearse these here, except to say that our commitment to equitable, participatory, question-driven learning seems incompatible with the core ideals of the military. Moreover, the vast commitment that our government, economy, and society make to the preparation for and glorification of war have sapped attention to and investment in work that makes for peace and effectual democracy.
Well, a couple of weeks ago, as a staff meeting was discussing potential grant opportunities, a newer staff person asked about seeking Pentagon funding. The president’s response was, well, we have to look at each RFP, and see how it would or would not move our work forward (I paraphrase). The upshot was a position that would look at each RFP on its merits, as with any other opportunity.
I should say that my colleagues are excellent people, committed to social betterment and to education that is an important contributor to a thriving, multicultural democracy. They simply do not see any basic conflict between their ideals and those of the military. Within this frame, the most important question is, indeed, a utilitarian or situational one: Will this help me do what I think important, or not? Money, after all, is just money, and better they spend it on kids’ learning about weights and measures, or clean energy, or math education for incarcerated adults seeking their GED, than on guns and mines and foreign interventions. There will not, I expect, be a surge to seek Pentagon grants, but the door is now really open. On a Zoom call, no one could see any reaction from me; I am glad I am moving into retirement this year.
The system is so pervasive, that it is invisble; we are fish that do not think about the water in which we swim — unless something troubles the water, like an unsettling encounter with the Gospel or indeed any critique of our society’s implicit assumptions, such as this one from President Eisenhower, no peacenik:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
- I have come to the conclusion that the old name for this department, which was replaced after WWII for propaganda reasons to the Defense Department, is still the correct one, and it’s important to call it what it is.
04/09/2022 § 7 Comments
The heinous and brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine has stimulated a lot of people to think about their attitudes to war and peace — well, more particularly, to this war. Some people naturally have direct personal connections with the nations involved, but many who don’t are still wrestling with it. For example, I have found interesting two recent Quaker comments — personal, direct, and thoughtful — one that I read on the DailyKos website here, by a contributor whose pen-name is TeacherKen, and one by Chuck Fager, here. These raise questions about Friends’ position on peace, its relation to nonviolence (in one of its many forms), the Quaker doctrine of the state, the nature of national ethics (if any) to individual ethics, and miscellaneous other matters.
[Side note: I do not recall seeing much discussion of this kind during, say, the “African world war” of about 20 years ago, or the recent Syrian or Yemeni “civil” wars, or any of a number of other heinous and brutal conflicts large and small. If I am wrong, I hope someone will correct me in the comments, with my thanks. If I am right, then there are perhaps other questions to be explored, about why this war makes these questions so pertinent.]
I want to make clear that in what follows I am not “answering,” still less arguing with, either of these writers. I merely mention them as stimulants, pushing me to examine issues about which I have had long-settled positions. Maybe I need to change my mind, or maybe just consider the issues freshly. It’s always good not to go around freighted with fossilized beliefs or ethics in matters so important as peace and war. So I am going to do some thinking aloud. The reflections will have an autobiographical element, but only so that I can acknowledge (to myself as well as to possible readers of this blog) the history and personal contexts out of which I write.
Like a lot of you, I was forced to formulate my position on war because of the military draft — I turned 18 in 1971 — these memories are thus a half-century old, so caveat lector! Wth the deadline for registration and classification approaching, I had to decide what I would do.
The men in my family had all served for various lengths of time in the military (father and uncles in the Air Force, grandfathers in Army and Navy; several of my cousins have also served, some as careerists). So I suppose the most likely event would have been that I also would serve in some capacity (my dad dropped a couple of hints that the Coast Guard was a nice option for someone who’d been on the water all his young life). Still, no one urged me to make a particular choice and I don’t actually recall any discussion of the matter before I started having to work out my ideas. Moreover, no one in my family expressed any sympathy with the Vietnam War, which was the context within which my choices were being made.
Influences. In addition to family, I had friends who were definitely skeptics about the war. One of them was one of the first non-religous conscientious objectors (CO) in the State of Maine, and the other sought CO status on the basis of a family tradition of religious pacifism. A neighbor who was a formative mentor for me had made me aquainted with Gandhi’s Autobiography around age 14; for Christmas in 1966, my father gave me Walden and other essays by Thoreau (“A good guide for one who wants to get away from it all…Love, Daddy”), which introduced me to “On civil disobedience.” Meanwhile, I went to a Jesuit high school, where I heard about the Berrigans, read the gospels and John xxiii’s Pacem in terris, and encountered Erasmus, that tireless and eloquent opponent of war. During these years, too, my dad was was a regular subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, and from my mentor I knew a little bit about the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. Finally, when I got ready to make a statement to the Selective Service, I obtained a copy of the indispensible Handbook for Conscientious Objectors, some version of which has been in my library ever since.
In which I get to meet the draft board. When I came to file my Form 150, I declared that I sought 1-O status on the basis of a conscientious opposition to war in any form, anchored in my belief in God (or something which substantially took the place of God). My claim was accompanied by letters of support from several worthies (not one of whom was religious), and by a small paperback copy of the gospel of John. My application was rejected rather quickly by the draft board in Bath, Maine (a shipbuilding town whose Bath Iron Works got most of its work from the Navy). I appealed, and they brought me in for a hearing, in a chilly room upstairs in the town hall.
I have been reflecting on three of the questions I was asked, and that I tried to answer.
- Would you have joined with the patriots to fight the British during the Revolutionary War? I knew that this would allow them to evaluate whether I was a good American kid with a quirky set of scruples, or whether I was an unAmerican Communist sympathizer. This one wasn’t hard for me — I had been raised on the novels of Kenneth Roberts whose sympathetic view of both the rebels and the Tories in New England, and his skeptical view about warfare and its motives, had taught me that right was not confined to either side. I was able to say that I probably would have been sympathetic to the patriots’ cause, but I would not have taken up arms. So my heart, however misguided, was adjudged to be in the Right Place on that score. I noted, but did not comment, on the implication that patriotism is most tellingly shown by joining in warfare, an assumption that I did not share.
- Now supposing the earth was being invaded by aliens, say Martians (naturally) — surely you’d take up arms to defend earth against space invaders? I confess I had not anticipated this hypothetical, and thought hard and fast. Now, as I have probably written elsewhere, my dad had asked his 7th grade science class every year what they’d do if a flying saucer landed in their back yard. After hearing a range of adolescent bellicosities, he would stun them into (temporary) silence by saying “I’d try to talk with them,” which always led to a lively discussion. Prepared by this (sort of), I told the draft board that my first objective would be to find out if their intent was hostile, and I noted that if they could get here by means then unknown to us (we had only just landed on the moon, right?), they would probably have technical superiority, and fighting might be beside the point. I did not think at the time about the implied “othering” in this framing, the tacit equivalence of an enemy with “aliens,” in this case “nonhumans.” Even in very white Maine, however, some people (including some of my friends) had noted with respect to the Vietnamese that “they” just happened to be brown-skinned as well as Communists, and that these two characteristics somehow were supposed to excuse the brutality of the US tactics. After all, what can you do with people who care so little for the value of human life?
- Finally: Suppose you came home and you found someone raping your grandmother? Well, I’d pull him away. But suppose you had a gun? Well, I have no experience with handguns. Welll, suppose you did? And suppose it was loaded? And suppose you were a good shot? There were several layers to this, for the 18-yr-old me. First, my family (and I myself) hunted and fished. The draft board in my case (and in others I knew) was of the opinion that if you ever used a gun for anything, then you couldn’t really be a pacifist, and therefore could not object to war. I realized at that moment that there is a perceptible difference between personal self-defense and warfare. I was not able to formulate any ideas about that on the spot, but I filed it away for the future. Second, I realized that, for them, this was a game that could be played to indefinite extent, finding some place where I would admit I would take some life — deer, bass, or maybe even a mosquito — and that this would invalidate my exalted claim. I was just able to formulate a distinction between hunting for the table (which is what we did) and engaging in warfare. Finally, I emerged enough from the fog of hypotheticals and my own intimidation to restate the gospel position: “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight for me.” Having thus found my footing, I managed a burst of clarity, and said that I could not really say what I’d do in the situation they’d posed, but I know what I would hope to do, which was to prevent the harm and take the risk on myself. In any case, as I understood the gospels, warfare is forbidden to the followers of Christ. (It was only later that I thought that If they only knew my grandmother, they would be feeling some compassion for the assailant of their imaginations.)
The draft board concluded that I was naive but probably sincere, and I was awarded I-O classification. I would thus wait till the draft lottery decided whether I would be required to undertake alternative service. In the event, my number was too high.
Undigested food for thought. As I mentioned above, the dialogue with the draft board showed me that the relationship of personal nonviolence to warfare and national policy was a problem I had not really confronted for myself. There were yet other considerations that I did not bring up, but had been introduced to by Erasmus and such writers as Roberts, I.F. Stone, and Pope John, which is the reality and complexity of war as a cultural, political, and economic event, with corrosive and evil effects not only on the combatants — war as business and profit center, war as a fit subject of science and design, war as theatre, war as a creator of illusions and excuse for cruelty and perverter of justice, war as a destroyer of minds and souls, of landscapes and futures. Dow Chemical and the other makers of weapons, napalm, carpet bombing, “pacification” by destruction, the devastation of the Plain of Jars, Henry Kissenger and the Christmas bombing, and over all the nuclear shadow and the endlessly spiraling budget for the War Department… Every one of my contemporaries knows a version of this backdrop (“I’m everybody’s brother and son/and I ain’t no different from anyone,” to quote a recent Nobel Lauriate).
In any case, this is the first round of memories that TeacherKen and Chuck Fager brought up for me — the lessons that the draft board helped me learn.
03/19/2022 § 1 Comment
For as long as i can remember, I have wondered what Jesus meant by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” The fullest context for this phrase is found in Matthew 12. The chapter comprises a series of incidents in which inward and outward are contrasted — I will briefly list the sequence here, before returning to my main concern, which is, “When we say we are guided by Spirit, what spirit is it?”
The disciples being hungry, pick some grain along their way, though some might accuse them of violating the Sabbath prohibition on work.
A man with a withered hand is brought to Jesus, and Jesus heals him, and in the aftermath quotes Isaiah 42:1-4 (“my appointed child…will not break the reed already bent, nor quench the smoldering wick; he will give justice the victory, and the nations will find hope in him”).
Next, a man afflicted by a demon so that he is dumb and blind is brought to Jesus, and sight and speech are restored.
Jesus’ detractors assert that the only way Jesus can be casting out devils is with the power of Beezebub. Jesus dismisses this by saying that a house divided against itself can’t endure — Beelzebub can hardly be colluding in the overthrow of his own enterprise. “But if I cast out demons by the spirit of God, then God’s kingdom has indeed come upon you!”
Now (v. 28) we get the first reference to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: If you don’t gather alongside me, you scatter. Consequently (v. 31), I say that every kind of sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, except that against the holy spirit. Even if someone should speak against the Son of Man (child of humanity, “human being”), that will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the holy spirit will never be forgiven.”
Then come four quick images, and then an interesting incident. The images are: 1. from a good tree, you expect good fruit; rotten tree, bad fruit. A good person yields good things from their treasury of good; the bad person offers the contents of their treasury of evil. You accusers say the right thing, but do evil — but the fruit people bear reveals the condition of their hearts and in the final analysis (“the day of judgment”) your deeds will be compared with your words. 2. The sign of Jonah: the outward temple will be destroyed, but in three days I will build a new one — as Peter later writes, building with living stones. 3. The expelled evil spirit will try to come back. If it finds the home clear and empty, it will take up residence again, and bring its friends, too. This recalls Isaiah chapter 1: “Cease to do evil; learn to do good.” Emptiness is neutral (What’s in your treasury?)
The Interesting Incident: Jesus’ mother and siblings (adelphoi could be “brothers” or “brothers and sisters”) push through the crowd to where Jesus is teaching. Folks tell him they’re there. Jesus says, “Whoever does the will of my father in heaven, that is my mother, sister, or brother.”
In this chapter, Jesus over and over is saying, Don’t trust appearances, but look for evidence of the truth of the matter. The discourse on the blasphemy against the spirit of God is triggered by the captious accusation that Jesus’ healings are no evidence of any holy calling. Jesus points out that this is nonsense on the face of it, but then reframes the whole question, asking “How can we tell by what spirit we are animated?” To answer that question, you have to judge by the fruits produced [enacted] from the heart, rather than from words alone. Seek always the inward truth, the truth down to the bone. If you live in deceit, you will not be able even to recognize the divine at work; or you will see it and find it convenient to turn away from the evidence. Moreover, a treasury apparently emptied of evil is of no help (Remember the letter to lukewarm Laodicea! [Rev. 3:14ff]): good is a positive matter of substance.
I like this evidentiary approach, because it is relevant to another long preoccupation of mine: the desire not to worship myself, that is, not to fashion a comfortable idol from various materials, and thus avoid an authentic encounter with an Other, in which and through which I am changed towards full spiritual maturity. Sometimes one’s spiritual need or hunger is so urgent that any possible answer is attractive — it is interesting that Jesus warned against the allure of false saviors in a time of war and disorientation(Lo here! Lo there!). What indication have I that some impulse that I have is not from the Spirit of Complacency, rather than from the holy spirit which guided Jesus, which his followers knew to be his spirit, also? How can I tell?
Some early Friends were eloquent in their teaching about this question, which goes to the heart of the Quaker understanding of the gospel. Two passages have long accompanied me:
Isaac Penington writes, of the urge to quickly label things
It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart, than by rote….Do not..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….And by thus receiving him under this name, we come to know his other names. He is the life, the righteousness, the power, the wisdom, the peace, &c., but he is all these in the light, and in the light we learn and receive them all; and they are none of them to be known in spirit, but in and by the light.
And James Nayler writes, in a passage full of scriptural echoes:
…as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.
And it is the like of gentleness, meekness, patience, and all other virtues which are of a springing and spreading nature, where they are not quenched, but suffered to come forth to His praise in His will and time, who is the Begetter thereof, and to the comfort of His own Seed, and cross to the world: And if you be faithful daily to offer up your body as a sacrifice, to bring forth His image, name, and power before His enemies, then what He moves you to bring forth shall be your inheritance, and will daily increase with using; but if you will not give up for His names sake, but would hold the treasure, and escape the reproach, then will it be taken from you, and given to him who will yield the Lord of the vineyard His fruit in due season; for that which the Father freely begets, He will have freely brought forth, that the shining thereof in the dark world may praise Him.
It has taken me a long time to learn the sound or taste or challenge of the One, the ineffable, whom I often am led to call Mystery God. No one in my youth would have cared what path I took. Since my earliest experiences of awe and “unity” were wordless, while abroad in woods or on the water, I could very well have rested in that visceral living connection. Yet what then is a human, what am I as a human among humans? The Eden story has at least this much truth: We are children of earth, but we have our distinctive needs and gifts in the council of all beings.
It was the draft board, I think, that forced me, nudged me, to begin a search for what specific spirit I wanted to live from. I had to make a statement in the face of warmaking, a more definitive declaration than I had ever needed to before. I have not been able to formulate my current position better than I did a few years ago.
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 alone, 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 — the 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, and a sense of freedom from a need to matter, to be important, 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.
02/20/2022 § Leave a comment
Every year, I write an annual report to my meeting about what I’ve been doing in the previous year, in the line of ministry. I do this because the meeting has explicitly noted, in a brief minute first crafted by Lynn Monthly Meeting and Salem Quarterly Meeting in 1983, that I have a sustained gift in the ministry, and by acknowledging the gift (without being very specific about the details) they did two things: first, they put me on notice that I had a responsibility to be a faithful steward of the gift, and second, that they had a share in that responsibility. Perhaps, without thinking about it consciously, the Friends who have done the discerning were vague about details beyond that, because they have known that in our tradition they were marking a process, not an event. Part of the stewardship lies in the descrying of the way as it opens. Part lies in the discernment of the way the work’s taken shape. Thus, the work has to include some attention to the disciplines that emerge along the way, as well as events that give some evidence of God’s work in the world. After all, that’s what Quaker theology has always claimed — that ministers are prepared and called by Christ alive and active in the world, and they are to do what they are called to in that service, and nothing they are not called to do. There is no requirement that the works undertaken should be on any large scale, or be noticeable; nor is there any expectation that one may ever know the effects, or “measure the impact.” “Mind your call, that’s all in all.”
Part of the Quaker testimony is that ministers are called, and they are accountable to God, and to Friends. Before Friends had any formalities to speak of, the accountability within the community was among the pubic Friends, who knew the work, and who had some experience in tasting whether there was life in someone’s deeds in that line. Later, meetings learned to issue minutes, and have a regular discipline that seemed more serviceable most of the time than a reliance on the informal fellowship of ministers, however rigorous the ministers were with each other. Having elders part of the care of the gift is now understood to be necessary, because they understand the work of ministry from a different perspective. Still, there are some things that ministers see and know that come out of the shared experience in the work (including figuring out what work shall be).
Consequently, part of my discipline is to report to my meeting annually, but also to report also to some others who are in the work with me, in one way or another, and sometimes to include notes on my discipline, the practice of the practice, so to speak.
I will not burden this blog with the details reported, but here is the preamble (as it were) from this year’s accounting.
In what follows, I offer some account of what work I have done under my concern for gospel ministry in 2021, and what I can foresee for the coming year.
Every year I try to inquire whether I continue to feel that I am called to service in gospel ministry. There have been times in the past year, when not for the first time I have wondered whether this calling was being withdrawn, and I might be on the point of release from it. This question is a matter of importance, because it is a necessary consequence of the Quaker understanding (with support from various passages in the scriptures) that spiritual gifts and their exercise flow from Christ as the head of the body whose members we are.
We are to seek earnestly the best gifts, Paul tells us. This does not mean that we are to choose a gift we admire and work away at it, as if we were learning to ride a bicycle or read music. Rather, we are to be attentive to what is rising in us, which seems like an opening way. If it is accompanied by a sense of love, of increased unity with ourselves and with God, it may be a new gift intended for our use. If the love moves us towards making an offering for the welfare of others, then that is another indication that we may be on to something. John Woolman put it well:
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.
Friends in the past felt that another indicator of a true calling from God is a sense of inner resistance, either a stubborn refusal to get into that kind of thing, or a deep reluctance stemming from a sense of inadequacy. This can’t be happening to me — it’s not what I do, it doesn’t fit with my image of myself, I don’t know how to do it… The reason that this was taken to be one evidence that a real calling was coming to you, was because it was “in the cross” to your will, your habits, your self-image. As Michael Birkel once said, in reflecting on this passage,
A careful reading of John Woolman’s writings shows that for him the opposite of purity is not usually dirtiness but rather “confusion,” or “mixture.” To be confused is to be mixed up, not to be clear. Purifying is a cleansing but it is also a clarification, a process of becoming clear.
What is it that needs to be purified, and what purifies it? Our will (our capacity to desire and to make sound decisions) is not pure….Our motivations are not pure. They are mixed. We need to ask ourselves: why do we want what we want, even when it seems good? Because our motives are mixed, there is the ever-present risk of self-deception, projecting our own needs onto the wider world, being so attached to a cause that it serves our own sense of self-importance more than the injustice or wrong itself. We’ve all met people like this, at times even in our own meetings. Their working assumption seems to be: if you love me, then you’ll love my leading. And, conversely, if you don’t love and support my leading, then you don’t love me….Purification requires a resignation (to use a traditional expression), a letting go. …The traditional term for this among earlier Quakers, including that very early Quaker, the apostle Paul, is dying and rising with Christ. The agent of purification, according to John Woolman, is the purifying love of Christ. It is not wrath….Our vision is purified, and so is our heart.
It is with this understanding that we can see that a calling to ministry, whether short or long, comes with a recognition that this task, however surprising or incongruous it may seem, is for us right now the shape of our path of spiritual maturation. Accept the gift, and use it as faithfully as you can, and you will be transformed for and by the service. Refuse it, or avoid it, and your growth will suffer. Moreover, your faithfulness may be the means of encouraging it in others, though you may never know it; and your choice not to accept the gift and its consequences may mean that others’ paths will wait longer to be opened to them.
The first experience of the cross may well be the reluctance, or fear, that this calling is in fact your way forward. A second experience of the cross may come with the recognition of one’s inadequacy — or perhaps a recognition that one’s gift right now is very small, and may consist at first in a simple opening of our hands to what comes next. Yet accepting that small thing, with gratitude for it as it is — not as a promise of future expansion, but as a blessing already received — results in a change in the direction of attention, a change in the way you interpret what you experience, a change in how you pray. The transformation, the cross, lies in getting to that place of gratitude, and of love.
Accepting a calling, in love, will then put you on a path of apprenticeship and learning, but it will be focused by the concern (as any concern focuses us), confronting us with spiritual exercises of unexpected kinds, and placing us under a discipline that will itself grow and deepen along the way; for a gospel minister, the core disciplines are watchfulness and availability often without any “reward” or gratification in action. “Let life be your commission,” says Penn, and do not see silence as a penance or something to be resented; silent waiting, in readiness, is where the work takes shape. All Quakers should be waiters and watchers, and the Quaker minister must be even more intentional and attentional in that work, keeping up the daily watch.
If we accept with joy the work that is coming to us, all that we know (or that our friends can tell us) about learning, practicing, serving, planning, etc. will be given back to us for our use, but bearing now the flavor of the divine love that does not seek to own the work or its products. Simply knowing that love, and knowing also how we are not yet working out of it, is part of the apprenticeship, and the most important part. But our whole personality can gradually be tuned towards the work, and nothing is wasted that is in harmony with the shape that the flow of divine life takes in and through us — for a time. “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all these will be added thereto.”
This much I have learned the truth of, in some measure, after all these years, and I find that when I settle into the presence of God, and feel again the flow (however small in me) of gospel life (the power of God for our liberation), I recognize that I am not yet free of the calling, and I remeber again the line from Psalm 71 that seems like a good motto for this time in my life:
You have taught me from my youth, O God… and so even into age and grey hairs, do not foresake me, until I have proclaimed your upholding strength to the coming generations.
I also recognize that however long one’s experience in this work, in the fundamentals one must always be a beginner. As always, therefore, I would be grateful for advice from the meeting, or from others to whom I send this; and I am also glad to provide more information or reflection on any point herein. If Friends feel that I should be doing something that I am not, or refraining from something that I am doing, I would be grateful for guidance.
02/07/2022 § Leave a comment
…so long as we are clothed with this outward tabernacle there is a necessity to the entertaining of a joint and visible fellowship, and bearing of an outward testimony for God, and seeing of the faces of one another, that we concur with our persons as well as spirits. To be accompanied with that inward love and unity of spirit doth greatly tend to encourage and refresh the saints. — Robert Barclay
“Embodied spirituality” is not a new idea, though in recent years it has become again a phrase in vogue, in Christian circles and many others as well. This is surprising in a religion several of whose master narratives has been about incarnation and “treasure in earthen vessels,” even to the point of asserting that a final triumphal experience for the faithful at the end of the world is the reunification of individual souls with their long-dissolved material housings in a New and Better Edition, as Ben Franklin wrote.
In a less exalted vein (or so it might seem at first), the daily round of Christian life here on earth is intricately bound up with the needs and natures of our bodies, and of our social milieu. Jesus laid his hands on people, struggled through oppressive crowds, supplied wine for a wedding celebration, sat down tired by a well, embraced children, allowed his feet to be anointed. Though so ascetic a follower as Francis of Assissi could speak of the “Donkey body,” the Wise have always known that the body is our complicated, consecrated vehicle on the journey to holiness.
Beyond this, however, is the realization that, as Jesus represented it to his followers, the divine life is as much a matter of common life as of individual faithfulness. Each of us is responsible for our own faithfulness — but we are members of one body, branches of one vine; and Jesus’ farewell prayer on his friends’ behalf is “that all may be one.” After all, Jesus promised (Matt. 28:20) “I am with you (plural) all the days until the end of the world,” and that he would be found wherever two or three are gathered.
Not only are we bound at a fundamental level with Christ and all the other members of the “mystical body,” but that binding is functional: it provides “up-building,” mutual support, instruction, formation and confirmation in our lives in the Spirit. As Isaac Penington wrote (paraphrasing Paul) to Friends in Amerhsam:
Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and any thing that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.
It is no wonder, then, that from early in our movement, when Friends felt “the Kingdom of Heaven… gather us and catch us up as in a net,” we admonished each other to meet frequently, to be alert for times to wait together on the Lord, for our mutual refreshment and strengthening. William Dewsbury’s 1653 epistle, which may be called the first sketch of a discipline, is a good example. It is a matter of divine requiring that Friends should worship regularly, and those that are caring for the meeting also should additionally meet together, and for longer.
This is the word of the Living God to his Church he hath called and chosen out of the World, to place his name into order, and guide in his pure Wisdom to his praise and glory, who alone is worthy God over all blessed for ever more.
That in every particular Meeting of friends, Servants and Children of the most high God, that there be chose from among you, one or two who are most grown in the Power and Life, in the pure discerning in the Truth, to take care and charge over the flock of God in that place; and this is the Word of the living God to you who are chosen..to see that order be kept in the Church, in constant meeting together, according to the Rule that hath been given forth, once a week, or more if it may be, beside the First-day meeting, and to have a general Meeting with other Friends near to you, once in two or three weeks, as the Lord orders and makes way…be not slack and backward, but faithful to the Lord in improving every opportunity for Friends to meet;
and to lay the charge and care of some Friends that is the most grown in Truth, in every Town where Friends are scattered, to see they meet together to wait on the Lord three or four hours as the Lord orders, one night or two in a week
In this constant meeting, the gathering “with hearts and minds prepared” is essential to the vitality of the community. Prepared for what? If we are to be a prophetic people, that is, a people whose foundation is an experince of God, and whose first duty is to translate what is received from the Spirit into the life of the community (in deeds or in words, in individual action or community structures and metabolism), then our preparation of heart and mind is for encounter, and our attitude one of reverence or awe. What in your experience corresponds to Moses at the Burning Bush, or Peter at the Transfiguration, or the women at the empty tomb, or the disciples on the road to Emmaus? The Voice or Place (one synonym for God in Jewish spirituality is haMakom, ‘the place’) may often be quiet, as quiet as an upwelling spring or an opening flower. However it is known, the experience of reverence there is a precious resource, the essential nutrient for the soul and the community of souls.
I once read (in Neave Brayshaw? Douglas Steere?) a saying along these lines:
Fervent preacher, pious people;
Pious preacher, lukewarm people;
Lukewarm preacher, cold people.*
As Chautard wrote, “The spiritual generation is always one-degree less intense in its life than the one who begets it in Christ.”
So often I hear Friends say, “We are all ministers.” Too often this seems glib, at best. Better to say “We are all potential ministers,” whose first task is to find out what the Teacher is teaching. If we all have a share in the prophetic ministry — whether in words, or deeds, or inward work— we become equipped to do so by our commitment, our consecration to knowing God, knowing God’s way, clariying our focus and our following of the Light, and letting that light so that its invitation reaches the Witness in others, and brings them into their own apprenticeship in the Spirit, and its unity. This does not come casually, but with heartfelt seeking, intent, patience, constancy — our part in God’s faithful covenant love. As Lewis Benson wrote, “The work of the ministry is real work.”
Barclay, with whom I began this post speaks powerfully about the way that group that has abandoned itself in worship can have this kind of effect, which many Friends can attest to, a most ordinary miracle, yet wonderful nonetheless. The prophetic work — hearing the Word that lives, and incarnating it in human life — begins in stillness, and from there the way opens as the Life directs
Such is the evident certainty of that divine strength that is communicated by thus meeting together and waiting in silence upon God, that sometimes, when one hath come in that hath been unwatchful, and wandering in his mind, or suddenly out of the hurry of outward business, & so not inwardly gathered with the rest, so soon as he retires himself inwardly, this Power, being in a good measure raised in the whole meeting, will suddenly lay hold upon his spirit, and wonderfully help to raise up the good in him and beget him into the sense of the same Power, to the melting and warming of his heart, even as the warmth would take hold upon a man that is cold, coming in to a stove, or as a flame will lay hold upon some little combustible matter lying near unto it;
yea if it fall out that several met together be straying in their minds, though outwardly silent, and so wandering from the measure of grace in themselves (which through the working of the enemy and negligence of some may fall out) if either one come in, or may be in, who is watchful, and in whom the Life is raised in a great measure, as that one keeps his place he will feel a secret travail for the rest in a sympathy with the Seed which is oppressed in the other and kept from arising by their thoughts and wanderings;
and as such a faithful one waits in the Light, and keeps in this divine work, God oftentimes answers the secret travail and breathings of his own Seed through such a one, so that the rest will find themselves secretly smitten without words, and that one will be as a midwife, through the secret travail of his soul, to bring forth the Life in them, just as a little water thrown into a pump brings up the rest, whereby Life will come to be raised in all and the vain imaginations brought down, and such a one is felt by the rest to minister life unto them without words;
yea sometimes when there is not a word in the meeting, but all are silently waiting, if one come in that is rude and wicked and in whom the power of darkness prevaileth much, perhaps with an intention to mock or do mischief, if the whole meeting be gathered into the Life, and it be raised in a good measure, it will strike terror into such an one, and he will feel himself unable to resist, but by the secret strength and virtue thereof the power of darkness in him will be chained down, and if the day of his visitation be not expired it will reach to the measure of Grace in him and raise it up to the redeeming of his soul, and this we often bear witness of, so that we have had frequent occasion, in this respect, since God hath gathered us to be a people, to renew this old saying of many, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
* This may have been adapted from Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s, The soul of the apostolate (1912), or Chautard may have himself borrowed it from elsewhere and adapted it to his purpose.
01/15/2022 § 4 Comments
The third task of the prophet, as Bill Taber describes it, is to “make spirit available.” It is bound up with the other two functions: To know the Law, and to show how we can live the law (or find our way back to living it).
Following Bill Taber’s exposition in The prophetic stream, let us think about the story of Moses’s call in the desert.
At the burning bush, Moses is given a task — to bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt, declaring to Pharaoh and to the Israelites, that their oppression violates God’s intent: They are to be freed and then return to their homeland.
Here we have denunciation and diagnosis, based both on the sufferings of the people, and on a judgment that the relationship between the Israelites and pharaonic Egypt, begun as an act of generosity, has now become one of exploitation. The guests fleeing famine have been absorbed into Pharah’s system of state slave labor.
Told this way, it sounds like the sort of political/ethical statement we might make today with regard to many oppressions: You become aware of and name a Bad Thing, diagnose wherein its badness lies, and formulate and argue for a solution.
But Moses, standing there barefoot in awe, recognizes that this entails a dual challenge: how to get the Children of Israel to trust him and follow his lead, and how to get Pharaoh to agree. Moses therefore needs to know on whose authority he can bring this system-threatening message: “Who shall I say sends me?”
We can base our advocacy in the world on many kinds of authority: science, the Constitution, decency as defined by custom, or (often true of Quaker advocacy) perhaps on our historical status as advocates for justice and peace.**
The voice from the bush, however, provides no statistics, footnotes, nor precedents. It says, “Say that I sent you,” and when Moses reasonably asks “Who are you?” the voice says: “I am; say that I am sent you.
Now when Moses took up the work, he was still saturated by his private, overwhelming experience of an encounter that opened in simple wonder — a bush that was not consumed though it was ablaze — but continued by turning into a personal relationship with an unimaginable and incalculable power, which claims that relationship from the start of the conversation.
This power did not only issue commands; it also made sense, in its diagnosis, its plain statement of the problem, and its disconceringly direct solution: You are my people, you are oppressed, you must leave. This is the way it has to be. If it were merely a private imagination, a “numinous experience” of one person in the desert, it would naturally engender skepticism in friend and foe alike. But it connected with history, and with some aspects of the people’s sense of justice, and the Israelites’ experience of oppression. Moreover, as problems arose, in what we would now call the implementation phase, solutions were forthcoming from I am, sometimes miraculous, sometimes quite pragmatic. But there was another element in the story: the evidence that in receiving the task and undertaking it, the messenger himself was changed, even revolutionized.
The power, I am, that commissioned Moses continued in relationship with him, and worked transformations upon him. I am equipped this person halt of speech to appeal effectively to the people and to their oppressor, giving them a picture of the situation, and moving them to action. And out of the encounter with the Bush, and his subsequent collaboration with I am, Moses became “the meekest human being on earth,” teachable and unsparing of self in service. The witness in the people were reached by this authority, or authenticity — something has happened to him, and he speaks in power and demonstration of his encounter with an Other, whose evidence kindles our hearts, too.
When later Moses came down from Sinai, at the time that he received the commandments, the restatement of God’s will for his people in that time, his face shone, though he did not know it, and the people asked him to wear a veil, so bright was the reflection of the Presence in his visage. This veil, often commented upon in all the centuries since it was first described, may stand for his clothing God’s message in intelligible words suited to the understandings of the people, as they shared (though by reflection or retransmission) in the light of the Lord.
The perceptible personal impact of Moses’ encounters with I Am affirmed and renewed his authority, whose authenticity was accepted when the people rememberd to listen through the instrument — the prophet — to the One who taught him. . (And later, when Moses’ guidance seemed to make no sense, to a people who felt free to criticize, repine, and otherwise assert their own desires, the reality of the multple encounters with I Am kept Moses mostly faithful, renewed his strength, and also grounded his meekness. Awesome and incalculable as it was, this was a relationship which allowed conflict and argument, uncertainty and miatakes, forgiveness and forgivenness.)
I Am was encountered in many forms: in the Burning Bush, in the sendings (“angels”) in power or in instruction, and in the many ways of working — the plagues, the pillars of cloud and fire, the thundering voice and the sheltering cloud on Sinai, the power of the Ark, the brazen serpent. So, too, “making spirit available” took various forms.
Direct testimony was one form of his prophetic action — “What I am telling you I have from I Am, whose presence I live in and work from, and whose effects on me you can see.” His words, given with power and speaking to their hearts, moved or awakened people.
Beyond this, however, Moses visibly continued in active relationship with I Am, in his times of retiring to “wait upon the Lord” for counsel and commissions — this waiting and deferring to a power beyond himself pointed to the Presence, whose signs were evident to those who sought them. At one point, when (accepting his father-in-law’s advice) he had appointed 72 elders to aid him in guiding caring for the Children of Israel, he brought his helpers before the Lord in the tent of meeting, and so powerful was this broadened participation in the Presence that there were two late-comers who were seized by the spirit and began to prophesy out in the camp itself, away from the holy precinct — a development that Moses welcomed withf fervor.
Aside from outward works, he continued in prayer for the people — and for himself. He also sometimes suffered for the people— and the spectacle of his agony in the tension between his people’s opinions and demands, and those of I Am, was itself a testimony to a Reality that was not so urgent or compelling to others, in the absence of episodes of uncanny power and portents (The parallels with Jesus and his followers, before and during the Passion and after, are good to reflect on in this connection. What about me? What about you?)
The power and effects of Moses’ encounters and relationship with I Am changed him inwardly and outwardly, and these changes pointed to the authority whose commissioned agent he was. (As William Penn wrote about the First Publishers, “They were changed men in those days, before they went about to change others; their hearts were rent [torn], as well as their clothes.”) His witness reached the people, and he saw the possibility that all might become prophets and know the Lord directly, so that he would no longer be the mediator for the relationship.
this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
Thus, it is not speaking about the Spirit, but living in it, learning its laws and constraints, that serves both as evidence and as invitation; and gives words the savor of authenticity and import. “Would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!”
** A game that can take various forms. When I applied for conscientious objector status, the draft board in Bath, Maine, had dealt with just 2 COs before; both as it happened were friends of mine. One of them (whose family were Christadelphian pacifists, though he did not practice at all) was asked in his hearing before the board, “Why are you making this claim?” He said, “Family tradition.” They asked what he meant. He said “My grandfather went to prison as a CO in WWI; my father went to prison in WWII; so I’m just doing the same.”
01/09/2022 § 2 Comments
Something I wrote down, one October morning a few years ago, offered here for fun.
Arose early, 2 hours before dawn. Exercise, coffee, news. I settled down to email, and began to organize the day. The morning was warm enough I could crack the window open to let more of it in.
The light began to grow, and the birds to shift about and talk, using their intimate, autumn voices — no singing now, just quiet greetings or objections, or little exclamations of surprise.
I stood up to lean upon my windowsill, to see what was going on, the swift appearances and soft disturbances, flick and flitter, with the intermittent blue-and-white flare of a jay hitting the brakes for a landing.
A mist began to rise, not at first light, but grew and thickened as the day opened, cloaking and softening the woods. The foliage was past the peak of color, but as always the mist so shaped the light that the yellows, red-browns, golds, the sumac reds, and the fading purples of the understory glowed with a different brightness than the sun gives.
Watching the mist appear, as if generated by every square foot of lawn and forest, the nearby pond also, yes, but simultaneously everywhere, I realized that it was recalling the seacoast fogs of my youth. Considered as a fog, however, the mist was a counterfeit. Why was that? What was the difference?
A fog, as I recall it, did not “rise.” It arrived — creeping up the river from the bay, rising rising against the barrier of the forest between us and the river, until it spilled over at us, filling the riverward meadow until it climbed the hill and crossed the road. There, the vanguard joined up with the wings or arms that had followed the river to our western banks, and invested the vast, surrounding salt marshes, and finally our house was surrounded, and then enclosed.
Fog was unlike any other weather. It deadened sound, thickening the air so that it blinded, it deafened & distorted. It did not exclude all light, of course, but it changed the act of seeing, narrowing & narrowing your eyes’ reach until you could see just this here, and that there, maybe, but not yonder. If you had no reason to challenge the boundaries, your world was shrunken, or perhaps focused in a way that heightened attention and perception by removing context, connection, and distraction.
Sounds were muffled, in a way, but the thick air also bridged distance, making far-away things become neighbors by the carrying tones, knocks, reports: different implications and invitations. Most of all, it brought the voices of the fog horns, each distinctive: pulsing at different rates; high-pitched or low; monotonous or twin-toned; calling, calling out to sea, up the bays and rivers, reaching through the island woods solemn and meaningful. What did they say?
I was placed here, built on the immovable, to warn you of the inexorable, to sing to you of my rock, a portal between the worlds of land and sea, of confidence and fear, life and death, knowing and unknowing. When you are far enough away, the fog makes me call to you, a familiar companion; if you come too close, I will mourn for you, I who work no changes, but witness only.
Sight and sound the fog transforms, and its chill wraps you and bedews your skin. Its thinnest, most rarified tendrils and banners, though, come in through the portals of nostrils and mouth, and lay the most direct summons, the claim of kinship, and unity. The odor and taste of the sea surround you, and for this while the sea becomes your element again. The exhalations of living things and dead, the matter of continents broken by frost, ground up or dissolved in a hundred processes, all washed down to the ocean at last by the sea-born, sky-born rains — all these combine in the salt-broth, boiling coldly as the world turns and the moon stirs it up, and the vapor rising from the broil condenses as the fog, and comes redolent inland.
A mist is a meteorological event, as incommodious sometimes as a blizzard, or delightful as Zephyros, but a fog is a visitation, a sending of the great, unliving, restless personality of Mother Ocean, the whale-road, the font of abundance, ship-killer, transporter and transformer.
So here is a story wrapped in fog.
One day in my youth, I went out in my Grand Banks dory, beloved but never-named, 18-foot, white inside, grey without, pushed by just a few coughing, fuming horses., laden with stinking redfish and whiting, to pull my few dozen lobster traps, and then cross over the Sheepscot to sell my week’s haul.
I took my usual snaking route, down and up Robinhood Cove, and around the Knubble and its bay. I stopped at each trap, and while the boat drifted, pulled it up by hand from the cold depths into the summer warmth; emptied it, refreshed the bait with my home-made bait needle, buttoned up and reset the trap again. Back to the mooring, to pick up the lobster cars — floating pine boxes in which a few days’ haul were waiting, uncomprehending, for their fates to unfold — and also the crab cars as well, seething with cholerics not so precious as the lobsters, but worth enough to fill my gas-tank for the week.
Hauling in the cars was absorbing work, because wet wood and inmates together made a good heavy weight, and no straight lift was possible if you had no winch, or a boat big enough to mount one. So you leaned over the gunwale, untied the car from its tether, grappled the rope handle on the near end, and pulled the thing over against your hull. Then, in one of the myriad everyday things we do to risk our lives, you put one foot on a thwart, and the other on the gunwale, making yourself the davit, and took up the strain. The boat heeled over with the weight, until the rail was kissed by the sea’s upper skin, and ticked by the ripples. Then you’d fall backward slowly, so the gunwale took the weight, and the car balanced on the rim while you and the boat regained equilibrium; you’d slip the car down with a gentle thud onto the bottom, and repeat.
All aboard, I turned out to the eastward passage to Sheepscot Bay, the debouchment guarded by Goose Rock, aiming towards its other side, where lay the lobster-pound along Townsend Gut where I sold my crabs and lobsters.
When I got to the bay, I saw that a fog bank had taken temporary possession of the estuary. I knew the bay, though, by chart and by experience, knew by the set of the tide which way was up or down (out or in), and had my little binnacle compass screwed to the transom. (Many years later, it now waits to do its job again, sixty miles from any shore, sitting patiently near my work-table; though the course our house has set rarely shifts enough for me to consult it.)
It was not long until I lost sight of the homeward shore, and there was still a mile to cross. The channel was mostly deep, with a spatter of islands and swell-washed rocks, beloved of sea-gulls, seals, and terns. I was not at first dismayed, but as I pushed along in the quieter, quieter fog, the soup closed in and in until I could see just past my prow, and a bit astern, but no more: my boat and I were in a room of dirty cotton white. I soon came to feel that a fathom’s worth of sight in each direction was too small for comfort, especially since those fathoms were shifting seaward gently and relentlessly. The foghorn’s voice from around Newagon was getting louder, but as long as it stayed to my starboard, and I couldn’t hear the gong which meant “Ledges ahead, and next stop: the Cuckolds,” I was still roughly headed towards Southport Island, at the head of which ran the Gut, rather than out to sea — Damariscove Island then, or Portugal. I shifted my course, only a little concerned, more diagonally inland, thinking to strike the eastward shore someplace and creep up along it to my landing.
Lightless and hornless (dummy!), I was an invisible and voiceless thing on the water, so I kept a sharp ear out for larger craft that might come steaming at me unawares; I did not want a surprise encounter with superior force. All I heard above my motor’s grumble was water and fog-sounds, until suddenly someone sighed loudly not too far away — just over there beyond the fog-wall. I paid attention, and began reviewing in my mind who might be sighing there.
In an instant, my little water circle was crammed with dolphins, blowing and splashing, seeming to spin round and round my boat like a living whirl-pool, dipping and rising easily, only occasionally rolling an eye at me, and so much faster and more agile than my boat that it seemed as stable and motionless as a May-pole while they wove and danced around.
Crossing the Bay in sunlight or rain, I’d seen these roisterers before, chivvying the mackerel up and down, dodging the sail boats and the stinkpots, and having a hell of a time. On the bright days, with the gulls and terns, the ospreys and the fishermen, the cormorants and the day-sailers, the porpoise added a feeling of holiday to the crowded scene. Once in a while, a larger cousin might roll through, just where the Sheepscot widened so far that it could no longer be distinguished from the Gulf of Maine, and then it was as though a base-line was added beneath the birds, the wind, the white-caps, and the dolphins’ dance.
I’m saying that on any day they were good company, these littlest, duodecimo whales, zipping and wallowing around me. My boat was a curiosity, a plaything for them, and I myself was of no account. Yet their presence today — sentient, sportive, vivacious — transformed the little spot of black water that my eyes could see, and, as the poet says, made “one little room an every where.”
The pod stayed with me for I don’t know really how long. Long enough, in any case. I started to feel the fog thin out, and lift off the water a bit, so that I could peek under the curtain to see just where I was. As yet, no ledges stopped me, and I heard no warning breakers. As I reached at last the skirts of the fog, the dolphins one by one, it seemed, each took a bow and vanished back into the soup. And then I saw the shore ahead.
It was not a rescue, Arion-style, or a favor to me, their visit: it was a game they played for their own amusement, and the unaccountable pleasure in human company that dolphins seem to take. Still, I have never lost the gratitude I felt that day, and the wonder; the sea smell, the sound of dolphins breathing hard and flipping up their tails an arm’s-length from me, heedless of my propeller or my prow, fearless. Quite impersonally, I was accompanied, it was a grace.
When a mist comes up, here in the Monadnock hills, I enjoy it or complain, depending on what my purpose or my hurry is. I know it is no sending, though, no time-changer, news-bringer, whisper of Old Ocean, or memory of a long-gone home; no fog. My compass, with its steady rose, keeps its own kind of time, with North its only Now, and even when the mist comes thickest, I do not go consult it.
12/27/2021 § 1 Comment
Bill Taber, in The prophetic stream (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #256), wrote that one of the key functions of the prophet is “to make spirit available.” In this pamphlet, based on a course he taught at Pendle Hill called “The prophets and the Quaker connection,” Taber uses the biblical prophets and George Fox to shed light on each other, and on the nature of prophecy as a central part of the Quaker experience.
I think it’s good to reflect on this idea sometimes, as it touches on many matters central to Quakers’ self-understanding (and sometimes our self-conceit), as when we claim or long to make a “prophetic witness” about some evil in the world, or when we talk about the related notion of “continuing revelation” as a central feature of Quaker belief and practice.
Such phrases can become empty with frequent use, and you know how nature abhors a vacuum — all kinds of meanings and ideas can get attached to such powerful words (powerful because evocative), sort of like the unorganized collection of shells and whatnot that you collect during a walk along the beach. At some point you need to sort through the bucket and consider what you want to keep, and for what purpose. And none of us is free from the errors of insufficiently percipient judgment about our condition (hypo-crisy), so when we can gain some improved or clarified insight into one of our beliefs about ourselves, it is a help along the way to freedom.
Herewith, therefore, a small series of reflections in this connection. I will try to unpack some of what (I think) Bill Taber was getting at with his phrase “make spirit available.” Another post will come back to a question that keeps bugging me: What spirit? Then we will return to another of Bill’s phrases, “catching prophecy” (“Is catching prophesy like catching the measles?” he asked).
First, an anecdote, which I have probably recounted before:
In 1984 (I think), Bill Taber and I led a workshop for ministering Friends at an FGC Gathering. My days were mostly devoted to preparation with Bill for the next session of the 5-day workshop, helping lead the day’s session. and a lot of quiet walking (I needed a lot of time to digest what was happening, and stay in a place where I was available).
Early in the week, Bill and I were in the room we shared, and after we’d conversed a bit, he settled down to some reading and meditation at his desk. I sat at mine, and found myself drawn into a time of worship. Bill also fell into it, but no word or look had been exchanged, and indeed we were each sitting facing the wall, with our backs to each other. It was an opportunity of the most understated kind!
As I reached what felt like the Center, I found that faces began to appear in turn before my inward vision — people I knew, some I was close to (like family or friends), some I knew very little. A face would arise or come forward, stay for a little while, and then be replaced by another, and each one was surrounded by a sense of cherishing love that was not personal at all, and had no content but an apprehension of the unique value of each person.
I was not making anything happen, nor had I intended anything more than a time of centering, probably to focus on the week’s work. All this was just a gift in the moment, and it transformed my understanding of what “intercessory prayer” might mean: the feeling was so open and free that I understood what I had heard others report, of being “prayed through.”
I was startled when, as it were bringing up the rear, my own face appeared before me, and in the Presence I felt able to pray for myself in an unpossessive love that hid no flaws, and removed anxiety. Love and judgment were two sides of the same coin. I cannot express how fully emancipating it was, and yet how challenging. I had never been able to pray for myself before, and rarely even thought to try. Now somehow the door was open.
Years later I told Bill about this experience, and he listened with the attention which he gave to anyone’s account of their spiritual experiences. He occasionally recounted this story, naming no names, to others, noting that he felt nothing of what I was going through, and certainly took no credit for it.
All through this event, I was aware of Bill’s presence, not participating in my experience, nor interacting with me, but keeping at his own work. It was rather like the feeling that one has in a gathered meeting, when you can feel the other worshippers, or see them, warm and bright, with the inward eye. My exercise was nourished by the accompaniment. In a similar way, when you come into meeting, and you’re not settled at all, but a few Friends have really entered worship ahead of you, the warmth and welcome help you feel at home (“focus” in Latin means “hearth”). This is something known among Friends from the earliest days, as beautifully described in Barclay’s Apology, Proposition 11 “Worship”:
Such is the evident certainty of that divine strength that is communicated by thus meeting together and waiting in silence upon God, that sometimes, when one hath come in that hath been unwatchful, and wandering in his mind, or suddenly out of the hurry of outward business, & so not inwardly gathered with the rest, so soon as he retires himself inwardly, this Power, being in a good measure raised in the whole meeting, will suddenly lay hold upon his spirit, and wonderfully help to raise up the good in him and beget him into the sense of the same Power, to the melting and warming of his heart, even as the warmth would take hold upon a man that is cold, coming in to a stove, or as a flame will lay hold upon some little combustible matter lying near unto it. ‘
Yea, if it fall out that several met together be straying in their minds, though outwardly silent, and so wandering from the measure of grace in themselves (which through the working of the enemy and negligence of some may fall out) if either one come in, or may be in, who is watchful, and in whom the Life is raised in a great measure, as that one keeps his place he will feel a secret travail for the rest in a sympathy with the Seed which is oppressed in the other and kept from arising by their thoughts and wanderings; and as such a faithful one waits in the Light, and keeps in this divine work, God oftentimes answers the secret travail and breathings of his own Seed through such a one, so that the rest will find themselves secretly smitten without words, and that one will be as a midwife, through the secret travail of his soul, to bring forth the Life in them, just as a little water thrown into a pump brings up the rest, whereby Life will come to be raised in all and the vain imaginations brought down, and such a one is felt by the rest to minister life unto them without words.
Yea, sometimes when there is not a word in the meeting, but all are silently waiting, if one come in that is rude and wicked and in whom the power of darkness prevaileth much, perhaps with an intention to mock or do mischief, if the whole meeting be gathered into the Life, and it be raised in a good measure, it will strike terror into such an one, and he will feel himself unable to resist, but by the secret strength and virtue thereof the power of darkness in him will be chained down, and if the day of his visitation be not expired it will reach to the measure of Grace in him and raise it up to the redeeming of his soul, and this we often bear witness of, so that we have had frequent occasion, in this respect, since God hath gathered us to be a people, to renew this old saying of many, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”