Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox: The New Worship (lecture four)

Fox repeats this call over and over: “Keep your testimony…for your worship in the spirit and in the truth, that Christ Jesus hath set up” (Works, 8:34); “keep up your testimony in the light, power, and spirit of God, for the worship that Christ set up above sixteen hundred years since, in spirit and in truth…which is a worship that cannot be shaken.” (8:84) This is a testimony that the Quakers had before the peace testimony was formulated in 1660, and I think in Fox’s mind it was the most important of the Quaker testimonies. It is the thing that brings people to Christ, as they see that we are gathering together to feel his living presence in our midst. — Lewis Benson

In the fourth lecture of the series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox given at Moorestown meetinghouse in 1982, Lewis Benson examines the origin and nature of early Quaker worship. His intent is “to get a new perspective on the problems of contemporary Quakerism, and to bring something into the life of the Society of Friends today which is the heritage of all Quakers but has not survived in any living tradition.”

There is an assumption among Liberal Quakers that waiting in silence during the hour of worship replicates the early Quaker practice, an assumption which fails to take into account that the intent of early Quakers was entirely different from that of contemporaries, which centers on personal reflection that is sequentially shared. Early Quaker worship was attended by “people who had heard and received this everlasting gospel and who were filled with a fervent desire to gather together in the name of Jesus to wait to feel his presence in their midst as their living teacher, leader, ruler, counsellor, and orderer.” Early Friends gathered together and quieted themselves in order to receive and  hear their heavenly prophet, receive intercession from their heavenly priest, be ruled as a people by their heavenly king, and be fed by their heavenly shepherd. Their cohesion was the result of waiting together for guidance, acceptance, and instruction that came from heaven, and not from one another’s personal perspectives.

For Fox, meeting in the name of Jesus has a very definite content, and it has to do with the gospel experience, the experience of Christ as present, and present in a functioning way. I have found 22 references where Fox makes it clear that “meeting in the name” involves such a definite experience (Benson).

That this revolutionary way of worship should have been lost from Quaker communities over the last several hundred years is not surprising; for it had likewise been lost since the apostles’ days and not recovered until the early Quakers practiced it 1600 years later. Yet corporate worship in spirit and in truth, meeting “in the name of Jesus,” remains forever available to reclaim yet once more by any who come to be “children of the New Covenant.”

Benson’s essay can be found at the website of New Foundation Fellowship (nffquaker.org) under the Resources tab which features Benson’s writings. Here’s a link: The New Worship

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

JOHN 8 AND 9: A LESSON FOR PROPHETIC MINISTERS

In the ninth chapter of the book of John we are given a story of a healing, a bestowal of sight to one who has been blind from birth. Unlike many of the healing stories found in the first three books of the New Testament, this story is more than a simple interchange between Jesus, the healer, and the one who is healed, for the individual’s restoration to health is the catalyst for a dramatic conflict which takes place within the setting of society. The beginning of this story is the transformation of the individual, but as the plot progresses, we see the rippling effect that the individual’s transformation has upon the surrounding social hierarchy and relationships within it. We witness the inevitable confrontation between the way of the newly empowered and the old way of the world, where power and authority are wielded destructively. The man, once blind but now sighted, takes on and overcomes the oppressive force.

The simple, heroic story contained in John 9 is complete and satisfying in its own right. It has an additional function, however, in that it forms a unit with John 8. Together these two chapters combine to present a lesson about good stewardship of the prophetic gift to those who are called to minister the gospel, the power of God. Each chapter presents a distinctly different approach to encountering the darkness in the world. If we compare the two, we will see the better strategy. For while one is productive, the other is not. Let us learn the lesson these stories hold.

FRIENDS’ INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURES

Before examining the text, let’s first look at Friends’ way of understanding Scriptures. Traditionally, we have found spiritual meaning in Scriptures that is beyond the literal content of the text. Early Friends wrote about the spiritual implications of scriptural language and argued against  literalism, which in their time was the prevailing basis for exegesis.

In Fox’s Journal, there is a story of an encounter with a Jesuit, who argues for a literal interpretation of Christ’s words: This is my body; take this in remembrance of me till I come. The Jesuit claims that the bread and wine once consecrated by a priest becomes “immortal and divine and he that received it received the whole Christ.” Fox replied to him:

Now Christ said, “This is my body”; also he said, “I am the vine, and the door and the rock of ages.” Therefore, is Christ an outward rock, door, or vine?

“Oh,” said the Jesuit, “that is to be interpreted.”

“Then,” said I, “interpret also his words, ‘This is my body,’ of which he said, ‘Take this in remembrance of me till I come'” (Journal, 344).

In the story we will explore in John 9, blindness and sight are used as metaphors. Blindness refers to spiritual ignorance; this story is not about physical impairment. Physical blindness (standing for spiritual insensitivity) was understood as metaphor by early Friends:  “…for that eye that is turned from the light is the blind, and leads into the ditch, and is to be condemned” (Works, 4:25).

Additionally, when we read a story in scripture, we should keep in mind that some parts simply move the plot along, so that the lesson is easily grasped by means of a good, strong narrative. For example, when we read that Jesus healed the blind man by spitting on the ground and making a paste with the spit, and spreading it on his eyes, we know that these particulars are not significant in themselves. (There is no magic involved in healing the spirit.) Rather for the sake of the narrative, the cure must be as visible as the ailment itself, for it is the visibility of the cure that compels the Pharisees to acknowledge that it has occurred. Their chagrined weakness in the presence of heavenly power is an important part of this story.

If we marvel at the literal particulars of the cure (the spitting on the ground, the spreading of the paste on his eyes), if we see this as a magical “sign and wonder,” we put ourselves among that wicked generation that Jesus admonished.

An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, except the sign of the prophet Jonas (Mt. 12:39).

We come to understand the fundamental spiritual meaning of the scriptures when we ourselves have undergone our sojourn in and release from the belly of the whale, that darkest of places! Till then, like Jonah, we are all recalcitrant prophets in the dark whale’s belly, out of the life and power in which the Scriptures were written, out of the life and power in which they must be read and understood.

When we look at stories in Scripture, we must carefully distinguish on the one hand between those elements that function to make the lesson of the story clear and, on the other, those elements that run parallel and refer to our spiritual lives that are outside the story. An example of the latter is Jesus telling the blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam, which the writer tells us means “sent.” The blind one is “sent” in the story; just as in real life outside of the story, the Lord sends out the once blind but now-sighted ones, i.e. his ministers

to preach gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18).

The Scriptures often teach us a lesson about spiritual reality within ourselves or within the social sphere by constructing a narrative structure that is analogous to inward experience.

THE HEALING

If we study the language of this character (the blind man) from the beginning to the end of chapter nine, we can see him change and become strong. There is a profound transformation of his personhood. This sense of personhood is the area in our own lives that Christ heals: that deep existential foundation on which our sense of self rests. Let’s follow the text through and see what the blind man says from beginning to end.

For the first ten verses of the story, he says nothing. He is spoken of by others; the disciples puzzle over the cause of his infirmity, and his neighbors argue about his identity. But he himself is passive, silent, and lifeless, a puzzle to others and without an identity: a non-person.

Following his cure, his first words (in the original Greek) are “I am” (Jn. 9:9 Mc Reynolds).  These simple words reveal much. When the community’s chatter has ceased, the healed individual emits a simple, strong statement of self-awareness. The man knows who and what he is; the man asserts consciousness of being. This dramatic moment in the story is a point of reference for us readers in our own particular histories. For within each of our lives, there is a possibility of a moment when one first experiences the transcendent range of one’s being. Then is one convinced that it is for this joyful fulfillment that we humans have been created. When we have come into the knowledge of God, it is a moment of healing, of irrevocably affirming life. Having come out of the darkness, out of the emptiness, we can say simply: In this is life.

Important to notice in these early lines of the story is the simplicity of the man’s speech. Except for the names of others, he speaks in monosyllables only. He answers the questions others have posed to him, thereby allowing them to control the conversation. He has no agenda of his own and speaks only to provide information requested of him. He admits his ignorance and doesn’t hide it. “Then said they unto him, Where is he? He said, I know not” (Jn. 9:12). He holds to the truth: that is the working principle guiding his speech. He has no other agenda, and thus he does not use speech rhetorically, as a vehicle to manipulate others.

For a moment, let’s contrast the blind man’s simple use of language with that of another group of characters in the story—the Pharisees. The Pharisees, the authorities, do have an agenda: it is to hold onto power. The authentic power of God, Christ, has appeared on the scene and has healed the blind man, and this challenges the man-wielded authority, the man-made religion of the Pharisees. Because their control can only be assured by the sanction or acquiescence of their followers, they strive to influence adversely the thoughts and feelings of the community toward this new, authentic power that has appeared in their midst. They distort the truth, denying the evidence of the healing, and they discredit Jesus: the one who has manifested the power of God.

“This man is not of God,” they claim – putting the weight of their authority behind the declaration – for he violates the tradition; “because he keepeth not the Sabbath day” (Jn. 9:16). Repeatedly they question the newly healed one, hoping an opportunity will present itself to discredit the healer. “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” In strong, simple, certain terms, the healed one responds, “He is a prophet” (Jn. 9:17).

Again and again they summon him, forcefully displaying their authority.

Then again called they the man that was blind, and said unto him, Give God the praise: we know that this man is a sinner.…Then said they to him again, What did he to thee? how opened he thine eyes (Jn. 9:24 and 26).

In the early part of this story, we saw that the healed man’s language was simple and passive. Now, we see a different stance:

He answered them, I have told you already, and ye did not hear: wherefore would ye hear it again? will ye also be his disciples (Jn. 9:27)?

The once-blinded beggar has changed; he has taken charge of the situation. He asks the questions, putting his opponents on the defensive, and even makes a joke at their expense. No, the Pharisees don’t want to become Jesus’s disciples, and the question puts their shameful intent squarely in front of them. The healed one has outwitted, shamed, and defeated those in power. He doesn’t stop there.

The man answered and said unto them, Why, herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes. Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing (Jn. 9:30-33).

The complexity and power of the man’s argument effectively stills those who are opposed to his witness. Yet, he is still guided by the same principle that guided his former, simple declarative sentences: a regard for truth. His assertive tone indicates confidence and self-assurance—again a contrast to his former powerless passivity. He has been healed, and the powers and principalities of the world feel the threat he poses to their control. He does bruise their head, and they in turn do bruise his heel (Gen. 3:15). To remain in power, they must expel from their society the one who has defeated them with the truth. And this they promptly do.

In the final seven verses of chapter nine, there is a recapitulation of the two main points in this story. Jesus initiates contact with the healed one who now has been cast out of the community and questions him: Does he believe in the Son of God? Is there to be recognition of the relationship between them? True to form, the man in his simple regard for truth seeks a manifest basis for his belief:

He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee (Jn. 9:36-37).

This manifest basis for belief is direct, personal experience. The basis for belief is that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes (1 Jn. 1:1).

To complete the story, we see Jesus himself outwitting the Pharisees and having the last word. To the Pharisees’ question: Are we blind also, Jesus responds: If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth (Jn. 9:41). This verbal firework leaves the Pharisees in the dark, the darkness being the place they have already chosen for themselves. To recognize one’s need, one’s blindness, is to be ready for change. If one is content with (or resigned to) oneself, the world, and one’s way of operating in it, one will sense no need for change, and therefore will not be ready to receive the new and living way, the Light of Christ. The blind one was ready, in that he recognized his need, his inability to see. The Pharisees were not; they claimed to see, and their sin thus remained.

REACTION TO IDOLATRY

In chapter nine we are given a success story. One who was weak became strong. One who was blind, could then see. And those who thrived in the corrupt world were set back in humiliating defeat. The story follows a well-trod narrative path, virtue triumphing over vice, the underdog coming out on top. As a story, it is complete in and of itself. However, this story has an added function. There is another lesson to learn here, and it is particularly addressed to those who are sent by the Lord into this alienated and corrupted world to present the gospel, the power of God. This is a lesson about reacting to the evil we will encounter, both within ourselves and within the world outside of ourselves. How do we handle this challenge productively? We must take a step backward into the previous chapter to find an answer to this question.

That chapters eight and nine comprise a single unit with an overarching theme can be seen by taking a quick overview of their structure. In each chapter, the starting point is Jesus’s declaration: I am the light of the world (Jn. 8:12 and 9:5). (The story of the woman caught in adultery was later inserted at the beginning of chapter eight. It is missing from all early Greek manuscripts.) That such contrasting stories begin at the same point and with the same statement is a clue to the reader that a comparison between the two is being made. There is nothing haphazard or casual about the placement of Jesus’s declaration at the beginning of these chapters. The statement names the force, the light of Christ, and implies the world is without that light. The disparity suggested is then played out differently in the two chapters.

We have already seen the successful outcome in chapter nine. Jesus did his work; he healed someone, and in turn, that someone – with his eyes newly opened to the light – outwits and shames the Pharisees in their darkened state. So it can be said that Jesus overcame the darkness indirectly through his healing work of the blinded. In contrast with chapter nine, in chapter eight, we see Jesus confronting his darkened attackers directly. When challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with a ferocious directness. He meets them head-on, contradicting, arguing, accusing, and insulting them.

The Pharisees therefore said unto him, Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true. Jesus answered and said unto them, Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go (Jn. 8:13-14).

It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me (Jn. 8:17-18).

Logic and wisdom cascade from Jesus throughout this chapter, and the Pharisees are submerged. Jesus speaks over their heads; he insults them. He calls them ignorant, worldly, slaves in sin, likely to die in their sins, unteachable, base-born, children of the devil, murderers and liars. His words are unrestrained, furious, and profuse. Here is a sample:

Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44).

What is the end result of this verbal onslaught? The Pharisees pick up stones to throw at him.

Compare the ending of this story with the one in chapter nine. In chapter nine the one whom Jesus healed does the work of overcoming darkness, as it is manifested in the corrupt Pharisees. Here in chapter eight, Jesus himself has expended a great deal of energy, convinced, transformed, healed no one, and furthermore, he has endangered himself!

By comparing these two chapters, the prophetic minister can see the lesson about his or her work in the world. When one sees that the Word preached and offered has no place in the hearers, that the revelation given is unwanted, when minds are closed “because they receive[d] not the love the truth” (2 Thess. 2:10), then recall these chapters in the book of John. And, having done so, move on to reach those who have ears to hear and eyes to see. It may be tempting to lash out when deceit and greed are working destruction in tandem. Chapter eight of John shows us the waste that lies down that avenue.

Look once again at the opening statements in these chapters, this time noting their differences. At the beginning of chapter eight, Jesus says:

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life (Jn. 8:12).

And in chapter nine he says:

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world (Jn. 9:4-5).

Both statements have a reflective, re-orienting quality. In the first, he states his intention—his followers will have the light of life. In the second statement, he reminds himself that his time in the world is limited, and he must work now. This self-reminder follows fast upon the tirade which has just occurred in chapter eight. One comes to the conclusion: Jesus saw that the direct confrontation of hardened idolaters is a waste of precious time. He returns to his purpose; he recalls himself: I am the light of the world. The prophetic minister learns the lesson and draws the parallel: Look to one’s strength and purpose; don’t be weighed down in fruitless, enervating engagements.

This same strategy was offered by George Fox to Lady Claypole as guidance when he wrote:

For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distractions, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory; and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace (Journal, 348).

One can see that the strategy for dealing with “sin, corruption and distraction” in oneself is the same as the strategy for confronting these same manifestations of alienation that one sees in others. Do not focus on the evil but on the Light that overcomes.

DISCIPLINED INTELLIGENCE IN GOSPEL WORK

I would like to point out two further examples in which the writer gives guidance for sensibly directing one’s efforts. In chapter eight, Jesus engages in a fruitless tirade against corruption and darkness in the world, and in chapter nine, he is a less central figure, one who goes about his work, healing one who was in deep decline. The main conflict in chapter nine is between the Pharisees and the healed blind man. They differed greatly in their readiness to receive the needed transformation. The blind man was very receptive, and the Pharisees were highly resistant, hardened, and unmoved.

Between these two extremes of full readiness and full resistance are placed two additional groups: the disciples and the blind man’s parents. Unlike the blind man, none of these people is fully ready to receive the light of Christ. They all are provided with something that they value in the present age and will therefore be less inclined to seek further, truly wanting a change. Even the disciples accept and depend upon their culture for their understanding of right and wrong, justice and order. They ask Jesus: Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind (Jn. 9:2)?

Their thinking is derived from and restricted by the boundaries of their culture. In turn, the culture can’t grow because the minds that sustain it have been bound, closed, and thus cut off from life in the Creator. Into this stifling situation, Jesus opens the window of heaven and allows the wind to blow where it will (Jn. 3:8):

Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him (Jn. 9:3).

Jesus asserts that the creative power of God continues to be revealed in the restoring of his creation to himself. The perfection of God will be made manifest here on earth, as it is in heaven. He envisions what is to come: the creation restored, re-made by the power of the Creator. The disciples can see only the present malady and look backward in time for its cause, but Jesus can envision and thus enact a remedy. Yet, though the disciples are ignorant of the prophet’s vision of God’s restored creation, they are teachable. They want to understand; they ask for the truth.

The parents of the blind man are not so well positioned in the middle ground they occupy between the blind man and the Pharisees. Unlike the disciples, they lean toward the corrupted and unteachable Pharisees. They want something other than the truth; they want a secure place within the community of synagogue society more than they want an alliance with the truth, even though this desire entails a denial of their own son. They are asked by the Pharisees to account for their son’s recovery of sight.

We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind: But by what means he now seeth, we know not; or who hath opened his eyes, we know not:  he is of age; ask him:  he shall speak for himself. These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue (Jn. 9:20-22).

That is the only appearance of the parents in this story. They enter and exit the picture having secured their place within the religious society. Many to whom the gospel is ministered within Quaker communities are held fast by this same desire. Though sensing and even privately acknowledging the authenticity of the gospel they have heard preached, they nevertheless reject it publicly, since acknowledgement would jeopardize their standing within the community.

These two stories in chapters eight and nine of John teach one to act with disciplined intelligence in gospel work. Ministering the Word may or may not result in communication, as communication requires both receptivity on the part of the hearer as well as fidelity on the part of the speaker. Insisting on the validity of gospel ministry while disregarding the lack of receptivity in those to whom one ministers is a waste of time, strength, and social viability. It is poor stewardship of God’s gifts.

As one would expect, this same lesson appears in early Quaker writing. Isaac Penington sees that those who are hardened and self-satisfied in their idolatry are “unworthy” and will be passed by,

[those] who are so sound and whole in their notional apprehensions and practices that they have no need of the physician…and whom he intendeth shall have no share with him.

Beginning with a line from chapter four in Hosea (a chapter describing idolatry and its consequences), Penington underscores the Lord’s instruction to his prophet to leave the idolater to himself or herself:

“Ephraim is joined to idols” (he is well, he hath enough, he hath no need of me) “let him alone,” saith the Lord….it is my will to have mercy on these my greatly distressed ones, and to destroy (inwardly to destroy, oh, who knows what that means!) the fat and the strong, and to feed them with judgment (Penington, 3:278).

One must discern and acknowledge the lack of receptivity when it occurs, and one must refocus attention to the Light and move on to do the work elsewhere. The present darkened situation is an opportunity for God’s power to be displayed. Jesus disciplined himself to see over the darkness and said: I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no one can work (Jn. 9:4). We, too, must look beyond the present darkness and attend to the work before us: receiving and ministering by God’s grace the new, yet age-old prophet’s vision of a world in transformation by the light that shines within.

Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highways; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people. Behold, the Lord hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. And they shall call them, The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord: and thou shalt be called, Sought out, A city not forsaken (Isa. 62:10-12).

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mediate Role of Virtue

Love mercy and true judgment, justice and righteousness; for the Lord delighteth in such. Consider these things in time, and take heed how ye spend your time. Now ye have time, prize it; and show mercy, that ye may receive mercy from the Lord: for he is coming to try all things, and will plead with all flesh as by fire (Works, 1:115)

This statement is from a letter that Fox wrote in 1651 while he was being held in Darby jail. In this letter, Fox admonishes local judges to love virtue, specifically “mercy, true judgment, justice and righteousness.” Notice that he does not reason with the judges about their duty, nor does he argue that virtuous behavior would benefit society. Both of these arguments would call upon the judges to choose virtue so that some ideal of character or society could be met. Fox, instead, gives different reasons for being virtuous: 1) the Lord delights in virtuous behavior; and conversely, 2) the Lord will judge and punish harshly those who refuse virtue, “[he] will plead with all flesh as by fire.” Fox is claiming that virtue is a necessary mediate condition for receiving the proximate favor of God, not a practical measure for achieving some human ideal.

Implied in this understanding is the belief that there’s some advantage to receiving God’s favor and avoiding his wrath. Convincing people of this who are without the fear of God (that is to say, the knowledge of God) is difficult. It seems natural and obvious to the reprobate mind that each person must chart his own course toward maximum personal advantage, navigating around or conquering whatever obstacles impose themselves, even when those obstacles are the demands of virtue. Choosing virtue over opportunity for personal gain often does not seem wise to the man who does not know Christ: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”(Lk. 16:8).

That this worldly wisdom is, in fact, not life-enhancing but instead is life-inhibiting ignorance that can and must be contradicted is the primary theme of Scriptures and seventeenth-century Friends writings. Both sources hold up the pursuit and acquisition of virtue as an intermediate and necessary step that prepares one to receive eternal life, knowledge of the living God. This assertion is reinforced repeatedly throughout these writings, one example being the sixteenth chapter of Luke.

At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus tells a story of a man who is lacking in virtue: a steward who has been wasteful of his master’s goods, and as a result is fired. In straits for how he will live, the steward decides upon a plan: he will curry favor with those who owe his employer goods by reducing their liability. Not only does this steward lack prudence and economy, he also lacks the virtues of honesty and righteousness:

How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, an hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore (5–7).

Once the man no longer has the job of steward, he will call upon these people for return favors: quid pro quo. The text then has the steward’s employer evaluate the scheme: “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”(v.8). How reasonable is it to praise fraud that has been injurious to oneself? The master praises the steward who cheated him; in a world devoid of virtue, reason also is in short supply.

This praise of the dishonest steward accelerates the chaos that began in the first line of the story: we were told that the steward was not doing what a steward does, which is care for his master’s goods. When a word no longer signifies its meaning, confusion results. When a steward no longer cares for his master’s goods, when a master praises his servant’s thievery, chaos and confusion abound. In verse nine, this chaos crystallizes into a maxim:

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

At this point in the story when confusion is rife, having gained the apex and planted a senseless maxim as its flag, the narrative voice shifts. Suddenly appearing in the passage’s final verses (10–13) are cogent, inarguable assertions that follow one upon another. One senses that Jesus, having finished his story, is now presenting its moral:

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much(10). If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches(11)? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own(12)? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon(13).

With the exception of the first part of verse ten, all these statements are put into a negative rather than a positive form: “…if ye have not been faithful” (11, 12); “No servant can serve…,” “Ye cannot serve…” (13). One may state with assurance that a sinful (negative) condition will not enter the Kingdom, but one cannot positively state that behaving virtuously will ensure entry; for that entry is determined by God alone (Mk.13:32). We cannot assess whether we ourselves are virtuous; God alone, who is a consuming fire, tries the heart. Lack of virtue prohibits receiving Christ, but even one’s very best effort to be virtuous does not guarantee the coming of Christ. For that, one can only prepare oneself, and then wait and watch(37).

Last First-day in worship at a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were five messages given during the hour. Each contained a personal narrative which held up a particular virtue: benevolence, bravery, tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness. All the messages followed the same narrative arc: virtue was exhibited and virtue was rewarded. Embodying virtues is often rewarding, useful, and practical in shaping and improving our individual lives and of that of the social groups to which we belong. That is not, however, the reason for embodying virtue that either Jesus or first Friends give. For them, the condition of virtue is a mediate state, which is neither accommodated in the world nor yet given entry into heaven. Virtue’s purpose and value is that it prepares the heart to be acceptable to God. Virtue affirms and signals a desire and humble willingness to sacrifice and then to wait upon the coming of the Lord. It is faith before faith is given.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox

Lewis Benson began his lecture series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox at Moorestown Meeting in New Jersey in the fall of 1982. The first lecture in this series is titled “The Place of George Fox in Christian History.” It is now available for reading on the New Foundation Fellowship website, and can be accessed through Ellis Hein’s introduction: http://nffquaker.org/profiles/blogs/the-place-of-george-fox-in-chri… All are welcome to visit. In the coming weeks and months, NFF will sequentially post the nine remaining lectures in this series.

In this first lecture, “The Place of George Fox in Christian History,” Benson states his intention for the series: “to focus on Fox’s actual teachings as revealed in his writings,” thereby addressing two problems: 1) scholars’ mistaken interpretations of Fox’s teaching, and 2) widespread lack of familiarity with our Quaker heritage. These lectures provide an excellent opportunity for Friends to familiarize themselves with significant portions of early Quaker understanding, as Benson’s scholarship is thorough; his interpretation is sound; and his presentations are clear and coherent.

I always try to approach people’s interpretations of Fox with an open mind, but I’ve often found that he’s misrepresented and misunderstood. Lewis Benson also saw this problem and identified it in this lecture, referring to many scholars of his time.

One of the primary distinctions that Fox makes is that there is a pure religion “that comes down from above” (Benson identifies this elsewhere as Abrahamic religion), and then there is man-made religion (Adamic religion), which is arrived at by means of ideas, emotions, ideals, social pressures, etc., in short, anything human beings can contrive and subscribe to. In this all-too-prevalent man-made religion (Adamic religion), Person A will likely have a different take on religion from Person B. If, however, they each are choosing and forming their religion from ideas, feelings, principles, etc., they both are subscribing to man-made religion. An example of this apparently-different-but-actually-the-same man-made religion is Protestants and Catholics, though differing were, nevertheless, of the same root and stock, claimed the seventeenth-century Quakers.

In contrast to the Adamic religion that permeated their culture, what Fox and first Friends were given was the pure religion that comes down from above, i.e. revelation. (Recall Fox’s surprise at hearing “There is one, Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”) Now this Word is what is revealed by Christ, and is Christ, and is unchanging; it is the gospel, the power of God. Therefore, those who have received this gospel power find themselves in unity with those in history (first Friends, apostles) who had also received this heavenly dispensation. Because of that unity of spirit, we find that the words of these two groups convey our own most inward identity and also present wisdom that we can affirm, ascribe to, and benefit from.

The faith that comes down from above cannot be acquired by human beings; it must be given by God. So, what does one do? Letting John the Baptist’s words resonate within one’s heart might be useful, as he came before the Lord and prepared the way. Ultimately, it’s about needing truth for your soul like you need oxygen for your body.  I see this particular sense of the need for truth to be the hallmark of humanity, but people deny their humanity often. The words in John 1 speak to this denial: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Meanwhile, we have a great deal of literature that affirms the reality of the gospel power. I’ve heard a number of people say they were convinced of the gospel by reading Fox. I’ve always found this suspect because one is assimilating ideas when one reads, and Life is not intellect, and neither is it emotion. Fox does affirm—throughout all his voluminous writings—the reality of the new, inward Life that God in His mercy and truth meets out to those who call upon Him in their need, to those who wait in readiness. There are quite a few of Jesus’s parables about preparing oneself. Most emphatic, however, is Jesus’s concluding lesson to his disciples shortly before he’s arrested:

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch (Mk. 13: 35-7).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doing Our Part

A year and a half ago I wrote an essay titled “The Only Antidote,” in which I argued for the need to think critically: to use natural powers of reason and conscience to honor, discern, and communicate the truth. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the cause behind the rise of Fascism and also referring to a Bible story of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod, I pointed to the crucial and perennial role of critical thought in containing the spread of evil.

Although critical thought can check evil, I contended that ultimately it is no match. Nonetheless, the exercise of thinking critically benefits the soul immeasurably. In subjecting oneself to reason and conscience, we prepare the way of the Lord; decent, honest effort precedes the gift of faith that comes only from God. It is only through the power of God that evil can and will be overcome and destroyed, both within and without. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” say those who have known what’s necessary and possible.

At the time I wrote that essay,  our country was not in imminent danger of electing to its highest political office a man who sports an Orwellian disregard for truth. Now, however, that threat looms: we the people of the United States might, in fact, elect to the presidency a man who represents, enables, and lauds speech and behavior that is beyond the pale of reason and conscience.

Stated at our country’s founding was the claim that we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable rights.” We have, in fact, been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable responsibilities, that among them are right use of reason and conscience. Let’s use them well.

If we assume that pervasive, severe moral catastrophe is not possible in our own country, we do well to heed those who have lived through complete breakdown in their own regions. In the following paragraph, Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, who witnessed firsthand Europe’s descent into Fascism, traces the progression from idealistic humanist philosophy to tyrannical totalitarianism, inevitably occurring, says Brunner, when unchecked by a Christian tradition within that society:

That is to say that idealistic humanism leads to an individualistic conception of society, which in the end must have anarchical consequences. That is why modern society in so far as it has relinquished its Christian basis appears to be in a state of latent anarchy or dissolution. With the middle of the 19th century, there begins a fierce reaction against this individualism, and this collectivist reaction in its turn is worked out logically from a naturalist philosophy. The alternative to idealistic individualism is not free communion but primitive tribal not to say animal collectivism. It is the de-personalised mass-man,  the man forming a mere particle of a social structure and the centralised automatic mechanical totalitarian state, which inherits the decaying liberal democracy. Only where a strong Christian tradition had prevailed was it possible to avoid this fatal alternative of individualism and collectivism to preserve a federal non-centralised, pluralistic organic structure of the State, and therefore to avoid that sudden transition from a half anarchic individualism into a tyrannical totalitarianism. But the societies of the West, which abhor the way taken by totalitarian Russia, Italy, and Germany, do not yet seem to have grasped that if the process of de-Christianisation goes on within their society, they too will inevitably go the same way. (The Gifford Lectures, Emil Brunner’s “Christianity and Civilization” http://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/christianity-and-civilization)

By the 1940s the philosophy of idealism, against which Brunner warns, had begun in Quaker circles to displace the original prophetic, apostolic Christian faith of earlier centuries. This trend was recognized and revealed by Lewis Benson.  In an excerpt from his essay “Prophetic Quakerism,” Benson describes the difference between the two doctrines of the Inner Light: prophetic and philosophical (italics mine):

First, the philosophical interpretation understands the Inner Light to be that innate capacity of human beings to comprehend rational and ethical truth….This view tends to make the concept of ‘spirit’ in man identical with the concept of ‘mind.’ The ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ of man is the seat of the divine element in man and the essentially divine reality is not external to the soul.…This view affirms the inherent spirituality of the human psyche due to the presence of a native rational and ethical principle which is divine.

Secondly, the prophetic doctrine of the Inner Light understands that man may become completely spiritualized, that is to say, brought into perfect harmony with the will of the Creator God who is spirit. But the agency for this spiritualization is not to be found by an inventory of man’s native capacities. Man is made spiritual and godly by a power which operates in man but which is nevertheless not of man. It is always the working of a sovereign will distinct from one’s own. Thus there is accessible to man a light which illuminates his moral life, but this life is not present in man as his own psychological possession. It is imparted to man and man has received the promise that it will never be withheld. The condition of the operation of this light within man is his willingness to submit both conscience and reason to this objective and superhuman light. The conception of the Inner Light does not displace human reason, but says Joseph Phipps, it does caution ‘against…the setting up human reason above its due place in religion, making it the leader instead of the follower, the teacher instead of the learner, and esteeming it vested with a kind of self-sufficiency, independent of the direction and help of God’s Holy Spirit.’ Likewise conscience or the ‘sense of ought’ is a quality of human life but it should not be regarded as autonomous and it cannot lead to the ultimate principles of righteousness unless informed by a higher authority. (The Truth is Christ, “Prophetic Quakerism,” pp. 14-15)

The doctrines of “that of God in every one” and “the power of love and good will to overcome war and hate” are derived from the idealism that originates with the philosophical interpretation of the Inner Light. This doctrine is a tribute to human capacity and thus differs from the prophetic doctrine, which places  man in total dependency on the power of God to inform his understanding of right and wrong, and to gather, govern, and preserve a people who have Christ as their head: “whose dominion and strength is over all, against whom,” says Penington, “the gates of hell cannot prevail.”

Benson’s piece, written in the middle of the Second World War, when civilization hung precariously in the balance, recognizes the limits of human ability and power to order and preserve the world and the necessity of coming into the knowledge of and obedience to the Will of God, as did the first Friends.

The essay “The Only Antidote” can be read at my website Abiding Quaker under the heading of September.

Patricia Dallmann

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Only Antidote

Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10).             

Hannah Arendt was a philosopher and political theorist who left Germany in the early ’30s. After having done relief work in France for some years, she was briefly held in a detention camp when France fell to the Nazis. She fled to the United States in 1941 where she taught and wrote for several decades. Some may be familiar with the phrase “the banality of evil” that she coined while covering the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in the early ‘60s. It was Eichmann’s “absence of thinking,” Arendt wrote, “that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing…possible in default of not just ‘base motives’…but of any motives whatsoever….Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?” (The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978)

Arendt came to believe that the great destruction wreaked during the times of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism was a direct result of the refusal to exercise our human capacity for critical thought. The forfeiture of reason opened the way for chaos and destruction, she claimed. The following is an excerpt from a monologue in the film titled Hannah Arendt:

This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.

At another point in the film, Arendt defines radical evil as the continual obliteration of sense within daily surroundings that occurred in the concentration camps. Senselessness made superfluous the high mental functioning that distinguishes us as human beings. Thus, Arendt argued, the obliteration of sense was intended to make “human beings superfluous as human beings.” In a classroom scene, she lectures her college students:

Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable sinful motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. In the concentration camps, men were taught that punishment was not connected to a crime, that exploitation wouldn’t profit anyone, and that work produced no results. The camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless: where, in other words, senselessness is daily produced anew.

Later Arendt wrote in a personal letter that evil was “thought-defying,” that its nothingness precipitated a frustration of thought. In that same letter, she modified her earlier view on radical evil.

I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil”….It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth and can be radical. (Letter to Scholem 7/24/63)

Arendt thought that evil spreads when man forfeits his capacity to think deeply. She later concluded that thought is frustrated by evil, as “thought tries to reach some depth,” and evil has no depth. She rightly saw that evil destroys man, and man cannot overcome it by his own power.

Arendt’s ideas of the necessity for deep, critical thought to halt evil, and evil’s impervious resistance to thought, has a Scriptural corollary in the work and execution of John the Baptist. Like Arendt, John is calling people to engage in thought when he cries, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). The word “repentance” at its etymological root means “to think differently.” John’s call to repentance is a call to re-think or to begin to think more deeply and truthfully.

In the fourth chapters of both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist’s story surrounds the temptation story of Christ in the wilderness. Both John and Jesus spend time in the wilderness, for the wilderness is the place where independent thought occurs, apart from the city where group influence dominates. John prepares the way by calling people to begin to think more deeply, to think for themselves and not be conformed to the group, to repent of that. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he urges. Furthermore, John acts with independence, clarity, and righteousness; he gives concise, righteous direction to people, publicans, and soldiers (Lk.4:10-14) who do not share his independence, his clarity. With clear resolve, he exhorts people, distinguishes right from wrong, the wheat from chaff (17), the worthwhile from the worthless.

Herod puts him in prison for it and beheads him. Herod’s taking the head of John the Baptist symbolizes worldly power (Satan) eliminating the faculty of reason, intellect, mind. Arendt concluded that thought cannot overcome evil, and John’s execution by Herod represents the same idea in a symbolic narrative.

Jesus, like John, will be executed by the world, with its love for power and glory that is Satan’s to give. But unlike John, Jesus will overcome the power of death that Satan holds, for Jesus is “mightier” than John, as John informs those who receive his baptism (Mt. 3:11). Following John’s execution, Jesus takes up the ministry where John left off, echoing his very words: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(4:17). Jesus, however, has undergone the wilderness temptation by Satan and, in keeping the word of the Father, has become established in right relationship with Him. Therefore he, unlike John, is empowered to overcome the world, Satan, and death.

When Arendt claims that human thought cannot overcome evil, she is in accord with Scriptures, for John and the baptism of repentance that he ministers could not overcome evil. Both thought and repentance are the purview of human beings. Though it is exceedingly important that we undertake this preparation of critical thought (that is, thinking differently, independently), thought itself is not sufficient: it is not the Way. Evil frustrates thought, as Arendt observed. Herod, symbol of the worldly power of Satan, kills John, the symbol of independent, righteous thought. A brief look at one of Satan’s temptations shows how futile thought is when attempting to understand or overcome evil.

Satan’s first temptation aimed at Jesus in the fourth chapter of Matthew employs a conditional if/then statement: “If thou be the Son of God, [then] command that these stones be made bread.” If/then statements are often used in arguments and show a causal relationship between two ideas: the form is a tool for determining truth or falsehood. Satan instead uses the if/then statement to obscure truth: he implies Jesus’s Sonship is conditional upon his successfully turning stone into bread. Additionally, when Satan says to Jesus “command these stones be made bread,” he is issuing a command. For when Satan adjures a person to command, who actually commands: the person or Satan? The command is Satan’s, and thus the person who follows Satan’s command is subservient to him and is not, himself, in command. More, much more, could be said of the devil’s tactics in this passage: how he would diminish and destroy; tempt Jesus to use his Sonship in service to self rather than God; how he would have Jesus to do away with himself, using Scripture as an authority to subvert. The confusion is rampant, and reason is frustrated and exhausted by attempting to untangle the lies of the devil, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).

The love of power and glory that entails willfully engaging in confusion and deceit is evil. When deceit and power are preferred to clarity and truth–darkness preferred to light–condemnation follows; humanity is lost. As human beings we are called to love and strive for truth and understanding. Our love of truth that we can manifest in thoughtful exercise of reason and conscience (that is, in the different thinking called for by John the Baptist’s call to repentance) is the necessary preparation to receive Christ, the truth. In his essay, “Friends and the Truth,” Lewis Benson affirms early Friends’ devotion to truth.

For early Friends truth was the ultimate value. George Fox says, “prize the truth above all things” and “love the truth more than all” and in an Epistle to Friends he writes, “Let the weight and preciousness of truth be in your eye, and esteemed above all things by you.” Truth is that which we are to love and prize and esteem above everything else. The truth, says Fox,” is that that is stronger than all” and “do not think that anything will outlast the truth.”

The term “truth” of which Fox spoke in such glowing superlatives has now disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary. How did this conception come to occupy the central place in Fox’s thought and what meaning did it hold for him? Fox’s conception of truth is grounded upon his belief that the life of man is determined by his relationship to his creator. He believed that the creator speaks to man calling for right action and for a community that lives under his rule. By listening to God and obeying his word man fulfills the basic law of his being. This basic conversational relationship between man and his creator is what Fox means by truth. Truth does not consist of particular propositions or a system of propositions. It is rather a dialogic relationship with God. When this dialogic relationship is broken, man ceases to fulfill the purpose and destiny that God intended for him. This is the fall of man–the failure to hear and obey the creator. This is what Fox calls “the fall from the truth” and to his opponents he declares: “To the witness of God in you all, I speak; that you may see your fall from the truth, out of the prophets’ life, Christ’s life, and the apostles’ life; so you are out of the commands, and fallen from God…” Truth is experienced as the voice of the creator whose word must be obeyed, and so it is natural for Fox to speak of hearing truth’s voice and obeying the truth. Truth comes by obedience in righteousness and therefore the wisdom of “Friends in the Truth” is not the wisdom of the wise but the wisdom of the just.

 We’re here today because we’ve gone through these trials; we’ve been tempted countless times to love something more than truth, and for the love of it, we’ve chosen truth instead, though our choice entails baptism into Christ’s death, the world’s brief triumph. We know that the eternal triumph, the resurrection to new life, follows the inward dying to the self. In that triumphant inward resurrection, we know not only rightness but the joy and the peace of having received Christ, the life, of having received the power to become sons of God. When we have known Christ, the life, we are powerfully drawn to get the relationship with God right, to seek it with our whole heart. In the fourth chapters of Matthew and Luke, we see the elements of right relationship with God revealed by Jesus, who was led by the holy spirit into the wilderness, there to be tempted by the devil. Each of the three responses that Jesus gives holds one key element to that divine relationship that enables the human to surmount the core threat the devil poses: that is to say, the threat of separation from God, the loss of dialogic relationship.

Though appearing in different sequences, Satan’s three temptations are the same in both the Matthew and Luke stories. Jesus’s first response in each version describes what the human receives from God; in Matthew, the second response defines how the human is to enact his obligation to God; and the third response, what is his duty to God. (In Luke, the order is reversed for the second and third.) It is important for Jesus to affirm his understanding and partaking of the divine relationship prior to the start of his ministry, for he (as was John and every other prophet) is assaulted by the same power of Satan again and again during his work. The prophet’s understanding and its source must be realized and available before he begins; that is his anointing to preach the gospel.

Jesus answers Satan’s first challenge in the following statement:

It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4).

Jesus implies that Man is a spiritual being who cannot survive apart from the Spirit. Human sustenance is spiritual, the Word of God, not stones or bread, which are earthly. As human beings, Jesus says, we live “by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Satan intends to famish the human spirit by severing it from the provider of its true sustenance. Jesus rebuffs the temptation and articulates right understanding of what constitutes human life and what sustains it.

In the second temptation in Matthew, Satan suggests to Jesus that he cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; that if he believes the Scriptures, he should expect angels to prevent him from coming to harm. Jesus responds with these words:

It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord Thy God (7).

Right relationship to God is again the issue in the second temptation. For man to assume that he knows what constitutes right action apart from God’s command is usurpation. The devil tempts Jesus to take the initiative and to expect God to follow along. Conventional piety, ideals, speculation, doctrine are all typical ways man displaces the righteous hearing/obeying relationship with God. God is not tempted to follow along behind man’s doctrines, principles, piety, and ideals to ensure that nothing goes amiss in man’s determination to realize his ideations. No, ideals are no substitute for a hearing obedience to God; nothing humanly contrived is acceptable. The pious person falls into vanity when he fails to believe and accept Christ’s admonition, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn.15:5b). Piety is a self-deception that one’s own mind is an adequate substitute for God.

Although a man may take up and perform, something which is called religious, and some carnal outward ordinances, and pray in words, and read and talk of the Scriptures, and in that find contentment for himself for a time; yet the witness of God’s Holy Spirit shows him his hypocrisy, and that he seeks a cover to shelter himself under in his disobedience, in order to be at ease in the flesh; which is all in vain for there is no peace within; but the measure of God’s Spirit still shows him that he serves sin and follows his own will, and in this will brings forth a worship which is only will worship, (worship from the carnal mind of man, instead of the Spirit of God). Francis Howgill

The third temptation that Jesus undergoes sums up the matter of right relationship with God in one defining statement:

Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (10).

Satan would entice by promising power and glory in exchange for subservience and worship. This is the stark choice: man worships God, or he worships the devil in his desire for worldly power and glory. The human obligation, states Jesus, is to worship and serve God only. This third and final response completes the description of right relationship between God and the Son of God.

From the start of our movement, Quakers held that we are to look inward while reading the Scriptures to find the truth of them in ourselves. We know that this Scripture passage of temptation in the wilderness refers not to Jesus alone but reveals the threat directed at our humanity to become less than human. We all regularly undergo this trial: to engage in deceit in exchange for power; our life depends upon our loving, prizing, and esteeming truth above worldly power and glory. The world will not love us for our choice, for we are not of it. Nevertheless, we can do no other than look to God, as Jesus did when tempted by the devil. For overcoming the world, death, and the devil can be done only through the power of God. Reason is insufficient to fathom or defeat evil. It is God’s Word that sustains us in Life when we are tempted to confusion or deceit, and this is the substance of Jesus’s retorts and example in the Scripture passage we examined. We receive sustaining life from God alone; we are not to usurp God’s position of command by substituting our own human will; and we owe God our worship and service. We thank God that we have this passage to remind us of our rightful place and, more so, that we have the light within to guide us. The early Friends knew the strength of the enemy and heralded the only power great enough to overcome it. Christ’s Light, wrote George Fox, is “the only antidote to overcome and expel the Poison of Satan’s greatest Temptations”(The Works of George Fox. 4:303).

So if you mind the light, and in it stand, you will see the Lord giving issue, whereby you will find deliverance standing in the light, which comes from the word, which is a fire, and a hammer, and a sword, which beats down that which is contrary to the truth, divides and burns up, but keeping the word, the temptations will not come nigh, but the word of reconciliation be witnessed, and the word of faith which makes clean, and purifies, and sanctifies; where the old garment is put off, and the knowledge in the flesh denied, and the knowing in the life, in the spirit, where nothing comes to reign but life and power, where all is overturned, and with the power of the Lord comprehended, the dread and life of the living God, to whom be all honour and glory for ever.  

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BROUGHT INTO THE FAITH

As a child growing up in a Protestant community in Iowa, I received instruction in the Christian tradition, which included memorization of a few Bible verses. The one that was emphasized above all the others was John 3: 16.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

As children we accepted this without question—as young children do—assenting to all our elders claimed was true. The assertion at the beginning of that statement is a comforting thought: God loves the world. The Creator loves his creation and all his children. This is the elementary religious doctrine that we were given.

While still a child I received yet another introduction to truth, this time distinguishable from the institutions of church and family. Though this introduction was not clothed in religious language or ideas, it was intrinsically “religious,” as it was full of wonder and arose following a question from my father about ethics.  At the time it occurred and for decades after, I did not realize its pertinence to the life of the spirit. Many years passed before I came to understand that at a particular moment in time there had been an opening, and the boundaries of mundane life had momentarily disappeared from view. So, having relayed the benevolent doctrinal introduction, I’ll now speak of the experiential.

At the age of seven or eight, I played the card game Solitaire for hours on end. It pleased me to move the many cards about according to rules, rules that allowed the game to progress steadily toward a conclusion, which was orderly and complete. I didn’t always win, however; in fact, winning was a rarity. So, this idea came to me: when all the cards had been played, and I could go no further in a particular game, I would take the liberty of turning over one card that shouldn’t have been turned over. This I called “cheating.” A good game would involve cheating only a few times; whereas in a bad game I would cheat many times.

One day, after a very good game, I ran to my father and said, “I won at Solitaire, and I only had to cheat once!” Smiling down at me with twinkling irony, he asked, “When you cheat at Solitaire, you know who you’re cheating, don’t you?” That question in some wonderful and mysterious way precipitated the opening of an expansive reality, which left that moment in time imprinted deeply on my memory, beyond what the event itself would suggest.

These memories from my childhood refer to distinct kinds of preliminary exposure to truth: first, to institutional doctrines set in religious language and tradition – to which many of us have been exposed and have accepted as children, and second – to an inward encounter.

There were no further openings in my childhood, and several years later, I entered adolescence. As my childish things were put away, my spirit, for no apparent reason, began steadily sinking into heavy despair, which is not unusual for teenagers. I was in the world but not of it, nor yet of any other place. I felt closed off from life, entombed and spiritually dead. For the next two decades, life seemed to me to be one long-running futility. There I was: still breathing, eating, and moving about more or less, absurdly alive and healthy in body, meeting responsibilities, getting on with life, and yet, without real meaning or purpose. Something was missing from my life, and I would have felt cheated, had I believed that there was any game, order, or rules in life that had been violated. It was a dark, depressing, frustrating, irritating, enraging and deadening time. There was an unbreachable gap between the orthodox assertion we had been given as children, that God loved the world, that He was in heaven and all was right; a gap between this idyllic claim and my undeniable experience of living death and despair.

Throughout this dark time I had no idea that I was in the throes of a regular spiritual process, another kind of game if you will, a game with rules and a goal. Though I did not know it, I was learning this new game, this new and living way. In this game, neither I, nor my family, nor any institution was to be the arbiter, and only through seeing and “feeling the futility of all former and other ways,” was I to be readied to receive this new way of faith.

The new way that I was yet to find was this: as a person I would receive the life and power that the Creator gives, only after having painfully learned and accepted that I was not the source and center of my life, not the Creator, but a creature. The creature, the person was to receive Life, receive Wisdom, receive Love, Peace, Righteousness, to receive Grace and Truth. I was not creatively to cobble together some reasonable, passable facsimile of these virtues. Inevitably it comes to one’s attention that one’s fine construction has missed the mark, fallen short, or fallen apart when subjected to the challenges and stresses of stormy reality, like a house built upon the sand (Mt. 7:26).

I had assumed that I could adequately construct my life on principles and values that I had chosen; “good” principles they were, “Quaker” values. The existential anguish and loneliness that accompanied my aim to generate some personal dignity were symptoms that haunted me, as they have haunted many who have lodged captive in this darkened state.

Though I didn’t know it through those long years, the end goal of this process was to become an established and mature human being, to have “life and immortality brought to light” (Journal, 16) and become visible and knowable within. I was waiting in darkness, neither seeing nor claiming to see. Unlike in the game of Solitaire at age eight, the essential rules of the “game” were kept, the rules which are written in the soul: don’t renege on what you see; don’t make claims to see when you don’t; be attentive and truthful with yourself about your inward state.

George Fox speaks of this most trying time in his Journal, both in describing his own inward transformation and similarly, in the transformation his ministry was to precipitate in others: I was to bring people off from all their own ways to Christ, the new and living way (Journal, 35). The law to which he refers in the following passage could be paraphrased: don’t put your trust in human discernment; it’s an inadequate substitute for Christ, the wisdom of God:

I saw this law was the pure love of God which was upon me, and which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it; for I could not be dead to the law but through the law which did judge and condemn that which is to be condemned. I saw many talked of the law, who had never known the law to be their schoolmaster; and many talked of the Gospel of Christ, who had never known life and immortality brought to light in them by it. You that have been under that schoolmaster, and the condemnation of it, know these things; for though the Lord in that day opened these things unto me in secret, they have since been published by his eternal spirit, as on a house-top. And as you are brought into the law, and through the law to be dead to it, and witness the righteousness of the law fulfilled in you, ye will afterwards come to know what it is to be brought into the faith, and through faith from under the law. And abiding in the faith which Christ is the author of, ye will have peace and access to God (Journal, 16).

Let me draw your attention to Fox’s initial statement: “I saw this law was the pure love of God…which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it.” Though this law is the pure love of God, it is troubling “to the selfish, fleshly, earthly will which reigns in its own knowledge and understanding” (Journal, 17). To us in our natural, earthly-minded state, God’s law does not seem like love, but instead a tormenting judgment. Rather than bear this dark, troubling time, facing the emptiness of one’s own knowledge and understanding, rather than bear this, many choose an easier route and excuse themselves from humbly waiting in darkness, preferring instead to make claims for themselves and for their understanding. Fox found those who made these false claims particularly hard to bear:

I had a sense and discerning given me by the Lord, through which I saw plainly that when many people talked of God and of Christ, etc., the Serpent spoke in them; but this was hard to be borne (Journal, 20-21).

Of course, then as now, such falseness is not solely the habit of those who speak deceitfully of inward familiarity with Christ. Deceit is a universal phenomenon, not confined to any particular time or place. And so is the truth (the way and the life) that frees us from it (Jn. 8:32; 14:6).

If we are eventually to know that perfect freedom in spirit and in truth, we must begin where we are to honor the truth, even though our knowledge is riddled and imperfect. No force can compel us to honor truth, if we are otherwise disposed. Yet, prophets, who have seen what is at stake, have urged us to do so, warning against the counterfeiting of perception:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isa. 5:20)!

It is an intentionally wicked or carelessly slothful distortion that Isaiah warns against. Yet, one doesn’t live long in the world before discovering that obscuring the truth is routine fare: “they hate the truth for the sake of whatever it is they love instead of truth” (Augustine, 233).

It is here that one must question oneself: When you hate and obscure the truth from yourself, you know whom you’re cheating, don’t you?

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (Jn. 3:19).

To refuse to see, is to forego the gift God has prepared for each of us. Unless we acknowledge and act upon the guidance that we each are given through our individual consciences, we will fare as the wicked and slothful servant in Matthew 25, seeing the one talent that has been given taken away and given to another who has ten.

Early Friends found that the doctrines of our tradition can be seamlessly integrated with mature, inward experience. This inward experience followed hard upon the shaking and demise of their own ways, their own thoughts; so that those things which could not be shaken might remain (He. 12:27). Peace and access to God is possible, Fox and other early Friends affirmed. They preached this gospel, as on the house-top, that others too, might see and hear what had been hidden and obscured, as it once had been obscured to themselves. The first work of Friends was (and still is) to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Lk. 4:18). Yes, the Word does convict each and every one, and it will be a troubling time initially for those who patiently wait, honoring the truth. But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved (Mk. 13:13b).

That God loves the world, we heard as children; that God loves the world, we now know, for we have felt that love and not simply inferred it. Not only do we know God’s love, but also peace, righteousness, and wisdom, all received from God, clearly not by our own best efforts, but received from God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:9).

Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfieth the desires of the hungry soul (Journal, 13).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment