Awesome: Psalm 111 and true worship: for ministering Friends gathered in Cambridge, 1/28/17

“The fear of the Lord is the  beginning of wisdom, and they that live by it grow in understanding.” (New English Version).

I. Sometimes it’s good to stop and reach down to the fundamentals.  The word translated as “fear” (yira’ ) can just as well be translated as “awe” — in contrast to “terror” (pachad).  The first has more of a spiritual connotation, the other more a physical one.

I have often thought that we don’t, these days, think enough about the “soul.” Of course, the nature or substance or definition of “soul” is a problem, but then so is “life” itself, as an abstraction or proposition.   Even if “soul” is taken to be a metaphor or a place-holder, however, it is sometimes useful to reflect on what makes for soul health.  For such health is foundational to all our actions as spiritual beings — it affects the quality of our activity, our words, and deeds.

At the very least, it may be permitted to say that the soul is that which is engaged by true worship.  By “engaged,” I mean to include “convicted, enlightened, nudged, reproved, refreshed” and all the other events that may happen when worship is alive and truthful.  By “true worship,” I mean worship in which something happens which relates to inward growth, an encounter with an Other (other-than-our-will)  which begins or nurtures or demands a change first in inward condition, and then in outward behavior.

Jesus was preaching no dualistic doctrine, when he said “Don’t fear those that can kill the body but not the soul;  fear rather Him who can send both body and soul to Gehenna.”  The master who affirmed God’s love for the creation is reiterating here what he said in other terms: Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all the other good things that we need for life will be added thereto, as they are without seeking, for the birds of the air and the grasses of the field.   The child of God is most fully alive when their allegiance is established on that foundation.

For me, at least, the experience of awe is the starting place.  While it is present, it clears away all other engagements, and presentations of self.  It is anything but empty, though it is a state in which the little mills of thought and emotion cease from their grinding for a bit.  As in other centering experiences, thought and emotion can be re-admitted into the inward sanctuary, once it’s been cleared.  But with awe, the fear of the Lord, it is not that my little interior space is re-ordered: I am given to feel and see beyond myself, despite myself.

My earliest memory is one of awe, when I was transported by the sight of barn-swallows wheeling amongst sunbeams pouring through gaps in the roof of a ruinous barn.  Freedom, refreshment, and delight.

II. The second half of the verse from Psalm 111 moves from the intensity of the experience of awe to its extension into the world. The NEV seems understated, when it says that those that live by “it” grow in understanding.  The Septuagint says, “Good understanding [comes to, belongs to] to everyone who practices it (where “it” refers to the wisdom, perhaps insight,  one gains from awe). The Hebrew, I think, says something similar:  that “good understanding [belongs] to all who practice them”  (awe and its consequent wisdom).

Thus, the psalmist, like Jesus, teaches that awe gives rise to wisdom (insight, understanding), as one lives it out in practice.   We are to seek first the kingdom, but we are  known by our fruits of word and deed — this is no purely interior event, but the changed heart brings forth treasures which in their measure change the world.

III.  So here we come back to the importance of seeking “true worship,” worship in truth.  In such worship, the divine Life is known to be at work, and in its tendering effect we have evidence, assurance, that we can grow up further into freedom, freedom in the spirit of Christ, whose law is love, and whose power comes through liberation as we accept the truth of our condition, and the promise that we can walk fully as children of the Light.  As Penington writes:

He that hath the least taste of faith, knows a measure of rest, finding the life working in him, and his soul daily led further and further into life by the working of the life, and the heavy yoke of his own laboring after life taken off his shoulders.  Now here is the truth, here is the life, here is the sabbath, here is the worship  of the soul.  (Works i:36)

I know for sure that at times I worship for myself, and do not  seek to get beyond that.  I may strive for silence, even achieve an inward silence, but it can be no more than a repose that asks for nothing further, a quiet that is not at all expectant.  In itself, this is not bad, and rest of this kind is as necessary to the soul as sleep is to the body. But I must not fool myself:  this is no more than a pre-condition for worship not the thing itself.  How often I sit in meeting with no profit but repose, going from it basically unaltered, and no further along in faithfulness than before — not seeking to feel beyond the “first birth,” in which I am using my own skill and will!   As James Nayler writes of the will-worship Friends testified against  (“A Discovery,” p. 48.):

The first man worships a God at a distance, but knows Him not, nor where He is…and here he has fellowship with men, or with those he calls brethren . . .  And thus in vain does he worship.

True worship, in which I have not only come to rest, but opened longingly towards a power or motion beyond my own, is known by its fruits, a change toward a life more and more freed from bondage:

Before any can rightly worship God, they must wait to know His Spirit, that leads to know Him and His worship, and the matter, and manner; for all who do the same thing only as to the outward performance, do not worship God, because they worship not in the Spirit and power of God Himself . . . the way to be well-pleasing to the Father, is to wait in the light, till you feel something of the Spirit of life, which is in Christ Jesus, moving in you, and then to that join, in its power to worship.

Such worship can disturb one’s comfort, and awaken one to the threatening, risky engagement with the dynamics of struggle, compassion, and witness—the Lamb’s War.

IV.  As a minister, I must be honest about the condition of my worship life, and aware of when it is not true.  For when I am not come to true worship, I have not come to the place of availability, receptive to guidance, and open to those with whom I worship.  Not worshiping in truth, I am not serviceable.

Awe, the fear of the Lord, enables me once again to seek the place which opens to openness. I have known it, and every time I come there again, I must observe, mark taste, feel it, so that when I wander again, I know what to look for, what my soul indeed is hungering for, dull and distracted though it be.

And so I find that, whether I am in that condition or wandering from it, it is good to join with the psalmist and confess my gratitude to God, who knows how I long for the living water, and as long as I do long for it, God points me over and over towards it, directs my feet to the paths of praise.

Inner peace and the right use of media: T. Shillitoe makes me think

Thomas Shillitoe was a prominent British Friend (1754-1836). He was a fascinating blend of Quietist practice and truculent defender of orthodoxy. He traveled extensively in the British Isles and Europe (including Scandinavia and Russia), and was absolutely fearless in his obedience to the least promptings of Truth. When traveling in America during the time of the Great Separation, he was among the most engaged of the British ministers fighting (the word is not too strong) against the views held or attributed to Elias Hicks. Hardly more remarkable than his travels is his documentation of them in a lengthy journal full of detail (perhaps most easily (!) found in the Friends Library, vol. III, pp. 74-486).

In 1820, Thomas Shillitoe wrote a lengthy general epistle to Friends in Great Britain and Ireland.  Among many pieces of advice, he says (on page 178, column b, for those following along at home):  “Endeavor to keep that ear closed, which will be itching to hear the news of the day, and what is going forward in political circles…

Thomas S .was living in a world with a lot fewer “media”— newspapers were about it, in terms of mass communication.  Interestingly, his position on this is not just an elaboration of warnings against the evils of music, theater, and the like.  Thomas knew that sometimes you have to read the newspapers — and that you can get caught up in it:

I have found it one of the many crosses I have had to take up, and avoid reading political publications, and, as much as possible, newspapers… I am well aware that men in trade, and sometimes those who are free from its encumbrances, have occasion to resort to those channels of general information; but when this is my case, I find it safest for me, after I have received information on the subject in question, then to put the paper away from me.   I am aware that it requires firmness so to act, there being something in our nature so anxious to know what is going forward in the world…

Once the information starts to flow, pouring into eyes and ears, it gathers momentum, tickles  our novelty-detectors, triggers our reflexes for pattern-making, and awakens our curiosity.  Maybe reading just one more story, following just one more link, consulting one more pundit or reference — and then I’ll “get it.”  What is it I’m trying to “get”?

There is a real satisfaction, probably deeply seated in us,  that comes from finding the answer to a question, solving a puzzle, hearing the end of a story.  We can get into the habit of reading or listening or watching without a specific question (aside from maybe “What’s happening?”), or intent, driven by the  desire for that sense of fulfillment or completion.  You never can tell when something might come along that’s “important.”  Better check it out…

When is it too much?  How much news or information or narrative or amusement is enough?      From the vantage point of Quaker spirituality, the only answer is:  When your peace is broken.  Shillitoe in his letter does not lay down any rule about what content to avoid, how much time is too much.  His metric is, What does it take to keep my inward peace, stay gathered and near the Guide?

[The practice of stopping when one’s purpose has been achieved] ...is the only way for us experience our minds to be preserved tranquil, amidst all the commotions, all the turnings and overturning, that may be permitted to take place, when the measure of inquiry may be filled up…I have found that, if we suffer our minds to be agitated with political matters,our dependence becomes diverted, by little and little, from the true centre and place of safety, where perfect peace is experienced, though the world and all around us may speak trouble.

This is not a counsel of retreat, though the emphasis on “quiet” can seem so.  I am reminded of a time when I was talking about the spirituality of Woolman’s time to divinity students in Kenya, and one young man said, “All this sounds very good, but with all that waiting, when do they ever do anything?!”  It was important in that conversation to bring our social, connected, bodily selves into the picture:  We can not ever really disconnect, nor cease from acting, as long as we are alive.

Jesus told us not to be anxious about what we will eat or wear.  He did not say “You don’t need to eat, physical things don’t really matter.”  He fed the five thousand, got wine for the wedding feast, healed people of their miseries — he understood Incarnation!!   But we need to take time to live in the New Birth, care for that fragile life, with its gentle imperatives and quiet voice — otherwise, the more familiar native urgencies will overwhelm it.  We can count on our bodies and our emotions to do their work — so there’s really no danger in restraining ourselves for the time it takes to live into the new perspective, the new possibility, of more abundant life.

Penn testified True godliness don’t turn men out of the world but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavours to mend it.  The question is, How by yielding to the  Holy Spirit can we so order our lives that we more and more are living in the delight, freedom, integrity, and love to which we are invited to by the Light of Christ?