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

07/02/2019 § 2 Comments

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

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

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

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

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the Puritan opponents of Quakers as the modern descendents of the Pharisees, whose “covenant of works” has been superceded or spiritualized to the point of obsolescence).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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When therefore I find a passage like this from Barnabas

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

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

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

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

I therefore find much apposite spiritual method in these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Jesus and the Canaanite woman

06/14/2019 § 8 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Truth is of a growing nature

06/02/2019 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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


Recognizing the true Spirit: “a springing and spreading nature”

06/02/2019 § 1 Comment

The excerpt from Joseph Pike’s epistle to Friends in Ireland brought to mind a passage from James Nayler’s 1657 tract How sin is strengthened and how it is overcome.  I have slighly monkeyed with the punctuation to facilitate reading.

I will editorialize here just a bit:  I find it so helpful when someone describes their direct, visceral experience of the Spirit, this particular Spirit. Such descriptions, hints, indications, help me in the fundamental spiritual work, which is hearing, recognizing, and heeding the voice of the Shepherd.

You that love holiness, it is near you; power over sin and satan is near you: salvation is at hand; go not forth to seek that abroad which you have lost in your own house; He is your salvation that condemns sin in your bosom: He that reproves the wicked is with you: He that is pure is your peace: He that never consented to sin, but stands a Witness against it: if you have such a Spirit in you, you have the Spirit of Christ the Savior.

So take heed to Him, to believe in Him, and to mind His leading, and to follow Him; if you part not from Him, He will be your everlasting peace, and over-ruling power to subdue your sins; and by Him shall you tread down strength with ease and delight……
…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.

What a glory is it to see peace shine in the midst of war, love in the midst of hatred, meekness in the midst of strife, righteous judgment in the midst of wickedness, innocency in the midst of violence and oppression.

As a lily among thorns, so is that of God among the men of the world; and therein does His nature and beauty appear in His temple, to which all must confess, and praise Him therein.

(The tract’s full text — well worth reading! —  can be found here)

Climate change a spiritual opportunity, Part 1

05/21/2019 § Leave a comment

A while ago, I wrote a letter to New England Friends on “Climate change as a spiritual challenge” (later pamphletized). This tried to articulate what “spiritual challenge” might mean, and to relate our engagement with those challenges to the early Quaker preaching on the Lamb’s War.   Since then, many of the issues I was trying to articulate have continued on my mind, in part because I have been trying to see more clearly where the gift is in our present predicament.  In this series of posts, I try to work up a progress report.

An Introduction

For some years now, I’ve been thinking about a passage in Penington’s “Short catechism for the simple-hearted” (you can get it here):

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.

But note how he goes on:

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. 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.

Early in my grappling with this, I asked (in a talk to Illinois Yearly Meeting),

 …we know that the life that is in Christ is the light of the world.  Yet is there another manifestation of that life for our time, which is being offered to us, in the needs and troubles of our times, for insight, for comfort, for challenge, for nourishment?  Not to replace “light,”  but something that might be particularly important and tuned to our condition now?

This has set me off on a long tramp to figure out things like, What actually do I think the Gospel is about?  Does Quakerism still provide the means to reach to that meaning?  How does all this connect with the systems crises that we have, mostly unwittingly, brought upon ourselves, and which will shape the human project for the foreseeable future? What distinctive contribution might a Quaker practice of the Gospel life make to someone living in such times? And what, on the other hand, do the times and systems of the world tell us about the Gospel itself?  In the end, what does it mean to (as our Faith and Practice says) “take your part in the ministry of reconciliation between individuals, groups, and nations”?

I often hear echoes in my mind of John xxiii’s Pacem in Terris, the first contemporary prophetic voice I ever heard, challenging us to listen to “the signs of the times”, a listening that is a core activity of prophetic awareness and prophetic action.    As Bill Taber put it, the tasks of the prophet are:

to discover, or recover, or reinterpret law…to walk in this law, and show others how to walk in it… to make spirit available.  (The Prophetic Stream)

I have suspected that, if we can see all these questions and their answers as threads in one fabric, and we can go some way to describing the pattern interweaving those threads, it could be a way to renew Quakers’ engagement with the Gospel and with the sources and methods of hope in action, hope in contemplation.

In this series of posts,  I envision (at the time of writing) the following “chapters”, though I will feel free to elaborate if need be.

  1. This introduction
  2. Swords and sparrows: on awareness of God
  3. Remembering unity with creation
  4. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself”
  5. Quaker spirituality: Becoming reconcilable
  6. Aftermath and open questions

I am quite aware that others are working in the same fields; within the Quaker world,  Doug Gwyn’s A Sustainable Life is very rich, and comprehends in larger scope some of what I am aiming at here.  (A nonQuaker book that I have been fed by is Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind.)

No doubt you, Reader, can think of other voices that you’d like to recommend (perhaps your own?) in comments or in other ways.  All I am doing, really, is continuing my apprenticeship in the ministry, working out things for myself, and making some of them visible in case they’re helpful somehow.


An apologetic footnote on quoting oneself.  It is sometimes strange to see someone quoting themselves in their writings.  I know not what others may have in mind when they do it, but I wanted to go on record about my own practice.  I have two reasons to do so.  First, in my professional world, it is a species of plagiarism to quote one’s prior works, or incorporate material from them, without attribution. Consequently, I’ve developed the habit.

More germane here, however, is that this blog represents, to a great degree,  my thinking aloud, my inner dialectic, sampled in case the samples have some savor.  When I think a thing, I often wonder:  Is this a step forward, or just the tracks of prior wanderings?  Am I creating an increasingly coherent account of the world for myself, or am I just strolling in circles?  So I look back, with curiosity and trepidation, hoping that maybe, one time or another, I’ve stumbled on a tool or a story or a trail that remains useful for my present labors in the undergrowth — but aware that sometimes one has to discard that old stuff.



Earth that suffers

05/16/2019 § 2 Comments

From the Epistle of Barnabas, §6, a line for meditation:

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

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05/14/2019 § Leave a comment

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Communion and the paradox of dynamic unity

05/13/2019 § Leave a comment

We give thanks to you, our father, for the life and knowledge of which you made us aware through your child, Jesus. Yours is the glory forever. Just as this fragment (morsel) was scattered upon the mountains and, gathered together, became one, even so let your church be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. (Didache, or the teaching of the twelve apostles, §9)

In the earliest days of the Christian movement, the fundamental evidence and process of unity with the mystical body of Christ was the gift of the Holy Spirit — when the gift was seen to have been bestowed, baptism was a secondary ritual. Once someone was accepted as a member of the fellowship, the union of the body was reaffirmed, strengthened, and sometimes, perhaps, repaired by the shared love-feast commonly known as the “thanksgiving” or eucharist.

In later centuries, what originated as a shared meal  (sometimes the occasion of  excess, see for example 1 Corinthians 11) developed into a highly stylized ritual in which the eating and drinking is strictly symbolic (with exceptions such as the Anabaptist and Moravian love-feasts.  And sometimes meeting potlucks). Whatever the form, table-fellowship has been seen as a necessary part of Christian practice, indeed a sacrament of central importance.

Quakers from the beginning have preached that Christians should strive towards the inward experience of communion, rather than an outward dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper and Passion.  The outward ceremony can be perforned by rote, having no real effect on the participant.  Someone can participate with unclean or insincere heart (see 1Cor 11 again).  Moreover, as early Friends knew well, during the Middle Ages, the eucharist, or the consecrated elements, came essentially to be seen as magical — and indeed, the legend of the Holy Grail as it developed incorporate much of this magical thinking.

Robert Barclay laid out the Quaker view of the matter in Proposition XIII of his Apology:

The communion of the body and blood of Christ is inward and spiritual, which is the participation of his flesh and blood, by which the inward man is daily nourished in the hearts of those in whom Christ dwells, of which things the breaking of bread by Christ with his disciples was a figure, which they even used in the Church for a time, who had received the Substance, for the sake of the weak: even as abstaining from things strangled, and from blood, the washing another’s feet, and the anointing of the sick with oil, all which are commanded with no less authority and solemnity than the former yet seeing they are but shadows of better things, they cease in such as have obtained the Substance.

This spiritualized account of the sacrament — emphasizing that the ceremony was not necessary, nor helpful unless one experienced the reality it symbolized — is pretty much the Quaker position today, even though our testimony against ceremonies is not as complete as it was. (There is also maybe more to say about the early Quaker preaching on this point;  in a future post, I hope to undertake a comparison of Barclay’s understanding with that of James Nayler.)

The prayer from the Didache opens up an additional dimension, however, which I find moving and challenging.  The people are portrayed as fragments of bread scattered on the mountains, in an echo of prophetic compassion throughout the centuries.  In  1 Kings, the prophet Micaiah, when he finally tells the truth to King Ahab, says (1Kings 22:17),

I saw all Israel scattered on the hills as sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, These have no master; let them return every man to his house in peace

Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah among others echo this vision, of the Lord’s people scattered over the mountains, untended by neglectful shepherds.  A return to faithfulness, under the guidance of the Shepherd of Israel, will mean a gathering of the people together under the hand of nourishing shepherd, and the return of peace — to each heart (“every man to his house in peace”), but not in isolation, but in a society united under the shepherd’s guidance.

The vision of us, not as sheep, but as fragments of bread scattered across the rough places, echoes the prophets, but more directly echoes the stories in the gospels, in which Jesus, seeing the people scattered, yet drawn in their need to look towards someone who might offer hope of clarity or direction, indeed doesn’t teach about or prophesy the gathering and nourishing of the people, but enacts it.  So in Mark, chapter 6, in “a desert place”  (but in parallels in other gospels, the scene is a mountain), Jesus

saw much people and was moved with compassion toward them, bceause they were as sheep not having a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things

As the evening approaches, the disciples urge Jesus to let folk go “into the country round, and into the villages”  to get something to eat — one gets the picture of individuals and little groups dispersing again, each fending for themselves.  But Jesus, acting on behalf of the Great Shepherd (John 14 “The Father that dwelleth in me, he does the works”), feeds the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, amplified by gratitude and compassion.  The community that has gathered around him remains intact as a people, and with a reminder of abundance:   “of the fragments they took up 12 baskets.”The word “fragment” here translates directly the Greek klasma (plural klasmata). This is the same word used by the Didache  for the bread used in the community meals of thanksgiving, which were a time of social prayer.

There is thus one more teaching about “communion” hidden in the nuances of the Didache prayer:  we are fragments of an original unity.  We have indeed our own value, even as morsels of bread do, but by Christ’s work of reconciliation, in which we all are to be collaborators, we are gathered together again, our unfragmented state restored to a communal integrity, which we can then see is the body of Christ (the Bread of Heaven, John 6): the staff of life, bread for the journey, to be given for nourishment and as an invitation to be gathered:  Standing in that re-gathered unity, no longer scattered on the mountain as broken isolates, we are transformed to be newly fragrant fragments (klasmata) for sharing, a whole loaf always to be broken for others’ need.

This view of the “communion of the saints” (or, as Trueblood called them, the “company of the committed”) is thus far more than a happy time to celebrate our friendship.  It is a vision of transformation, enabled by the compassion of the Shepherd/Prophet, who shows care for each individual sheep, but sees us always as a flock, a gathering in which we listen to the shared teacher — and in the course of being fed, pass on something of our life to each other.





“It don’t get easy”: Reflections on a memorial minute [2]

05/03/2019 § 2 Comments

Too long ago (March 27th), I wrote the first of two posts on a passage from Hannah Stratton’s memorial minute (see that post  here).

Now at last the other shoe drops:  two more reflections — I’ll reproduce the passage I’m thinking about first.

After having passed through many deep preparatory baptisms, Hannah H. Stratton appeared in the weighty work of the ministry, and through faithful obedience to her Divine Lord and Master she grew in her gift and was acknowledged a minister in the year 1869.
“After having for many years engaged in the work, she remarked to a younger friend, ‘It don’t get easy.’ In our religious meetings the weightiness of her spirit and her humble, reverent waiting for the arising of Divine Life were instructive, not daring to open her lips without feeling a renewed qualification and necessity laid upon her to stand forth in the work. Thus, her ministry partook of the savor of life, and was sound and edifying, reaching to the witness for Truth in the hearts of those who heard her…. Soon after returning [a minute for travel in 1901-2] she penned the following: ‘I feel that, as I am nearing the setting sun of life, I may be released from this awfully responsible field of labor.’

C. The savor of life; baptisms; witness.  Friends will sometimes want to let a person know that their message in worship was helpful or valuable.  It is true also that some kind of indication of encouragement from the community  — at least once in a while — helps the minister, maybe even relieves her/him from anxiety about whether their discernment whether to speak was sound or not. On the other hand, you don’t want to feed the ego of someone who does something helpful in meeting.  Our theology makes the claim that messages in meeting arise and are given under the direction of the present Christ (even if they “taste of the pipes”), so the speaker should not take credit that is due to God.

We have various ways of expressing encouragement to avoid praise — you say to the Friend “I appreciated what you said,” or “Thee was used,” “The message you gave this morning was helpful,”   or even something less direct — “What you said in meeting got me thinking about  X…”  (Such expressions of gratitude are even heard from Friends who do not believe that God is invovled in the origination or deliveray of messages —  keeping ego in its place is wise regardless of theology.)

Even if a community has told a Friend that they are seen to have a sustained gift for the ministry (as was Hannah Stratton’s case, when her gift was “acknowledged”), such  general encouragement does not relieve the Friend of careful attention on each particular occasion: Hannah made a practice of “not daring to open her lips without feeling a renewed qualification and necessity laid upon her to stand forth in the work.”

But there are three key words in this short passage that lie close to the heart of the spirituality of Hannah Stratton’s community.  Baptism is used here in a peculiar Quaker meaning something like a powerful and meaningful spiritual experience, immersive in its feeling. But more than that, it often connotes (as once I wrote) “a renewed clarification in the Spirit, an exercise in which a person moves past some barrier to be open in compassion and insight.”  The result is thus a fresh experience of one’s participation in the body of Christ.

If someone speaks in ministry while their consciousness is alive to the presence and work of God, in which they are participating, their self is for that time used not as a performer or focus, but as an instrument for others’ benefit.  In that condition, words that are offered will have the taste of truth, authenticity, the flavor of the divine, living water from which they are drawn — a savor of Life.

At such times, words coming from such a source, and through a person “qualified” or prepared as messenger, will reach past our everyday faculties of analysis and critique, and touch the witness, that active presence of God in each of us, which resonates with the message, and shows us the truth of our own condition.  Whereas the old oath, ‘As God is my witness,” suggests that the Almighty saw the whole thing,  the Quaker would say that God is the witness in our hearts, testifying to us in secret about the way things are, and pointing out how next we should and can move towards life and away from death.   As Penn famously wrote:

O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you!  Where is the poison, there is the antidote; there you want [are in need of] Christ, and there you must find him;  and blessed be God, there you may find him.  Seek and you shall find, I testify for God.

D. “I may be released…”   Ministry (of any kind) is a gift from God, given through someone for the common life.  The person in whom it appears, first as an opportunity or opening, can accept the responsibility, and (as Hannah Stratton did), grow in their gift.  But they do not own it, and indeed it can feel like a burden to carry, sometimes, especially if it continues for a long time.  Rarely,  one hears a Friend expressing a hope that at some point the burden can honorably be laid down (rather than withdrawn because it was neglected or misused — think of the parables of the faithful and unfaithful servants or stewards in the Gospels).  The carrying and employment, the stewardship of the gift, includes not just the enacting of the gift (for example, the giving of a message or teaching a lesson) — that’s the tip of the iceberg, but all the necessary waiting, learning, preparation — the baptisms — which are the rest of the iceberg.    Hannah expressed the hope that she could come down from the watchtower.

There are lessons to be learned and shared, in a spiritual community, about how to know when a gift, a task, a concern, is completed, and the load can be set down, or passed along to others.  If such a time of liberation does not come, then the continued work will be accompanied by renewed strength and new growth, and a fresh savor of joy in the service.  If the word comes, “Well done, and that’ll be all,”  that can bring its own kind of joy, and the gift has been carried rightly, there will be no regret at the transition, but rather “the reward of peace.”


Do this now!

04/26/2019 § 11 Comments


this (all 10 minutes!),

and pass it on.
Many of you have heard of Greta Thunberg, but you may not have watched this.

If you have watched it, you may not have passed it on.You may have watched and passed it on, but you may not have talked with anyone about it, or started quoting from it.
These are all things you could do today.

Some of us, some of you, may  have been saying such things for a long time, and even taking some action. So what? Greta Thunberg is a new, welcome, powerful voice, saying some very basic stuff — basic, as in fundamental, foundational, cornerstone…
And just because I’ve heard music in the key of A before doesn’t mean I can’t get something out of hearing Beethoven’s 7th symphony.

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