Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Prayer from Job Scott

I recently encountered this prayer in the works of Job Scott1, which he claims is the first prayer he ever offered in meeting:
"O Lord God Almighty! thou who art from everlasting to everlasting! Hear, O Lord, we pray thee, and arise for the help of the suffering seed. Circumcise thy people's hearts to love and fear thee. Baptize us in the river of judgment. Spare not thy rod, nor withhold thy hand, till thou has bowed the stubborn will, and brought forth judgment unto victory. And then, O gracious Father! pour in the oil of consolation , and heal the wounds with the balm of Gilead. Sanctify us, O Lord, for thy service. Cleanse us, we humbly pray thee, in thy fire, which is in Sion, and purify us in thy furnace which is at Jerusalem, that we may be a people to the praise of thy great name, which is worthy of all adoration and praise for evermore. Amen, Amen."
My first thought was that this prayer wouldn't go over well some meetings because of the language, but that the main reason for that, I think, is that we no longer have the same context for it, and we aren't used to hearing people speak this way any more. When I read this, the main context I read it in is what George Fox expressed in this excerpt from Epistle #10:
Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and hone; and then content comes;
My understanding of this is that early Friends experienced the light as illuminating their sins and temptations, but that in continually dwelling in the light, they found those temptations lessening. As Robert Barclay wrote, "I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up." Incidentally, Lloyd Lee Wilson recently pointed out that our modern phrase "holding someone in the light" takes on quite a different meaning when looked at in this context.

I think this experience of the light is essentially what Job Scott is praying about, using biblical language. This is how I interpret some of these:

Circumcise thy people's hearts to love and fear thee

The idea of "circumcision of the heart" did not originate with Paul, but occurs several times in the Hebrew bible, such as this passage in Deuteronomy 30:6, which seems close to Scott's phrasing: "Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live."

Baptize us in the river of judgment. Spare not thy rod, nor withhold thy hand, till thou has bowed the stubborn will, and brought forth judgment unto victory.

These words might sound harsh to our ears, but I think that when coupled with the consolation that comes afterwards, it is a liberating thing. Many times we have no problem identifying our own flaws and temptations, but what Friends have testified to is that the light takes us from being mired in those temptations to getting beyond them. It makes sense that one would pray for that.

pour in the oil of consolation , and heal the wounds with the balm of Gilead

Praying for that judgment, for God to "spare not thy rod", makes the most sense to me when coupled with praying for the consolation after it. The later talk of sanctification, being cleansed in fire, or being purified (which is basically being cleansed in fire) is essentially this same process.

What I think is most important about this prayer is that it is about something experiential, and that Job Scott (and presumably others in the meeting) desired that experience. I find this aspect of the light both desirable and compelling, and I think it is necessary for us to find true unity in meeting - to have the light push away our selfishness, fear, anger, so that we are able to dwell in God's presence together without obstruction.

1. Some other editions of Job Scott's journal do not contain the prayer at this point. The version I am using is the 1831 "The Works of that Eminent Minister of the Gospel, Job Scott" published by John Comly, who was a Hicksite Friend.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Belief, Faith, and "That of God"

One of the difficulties I have with the question "What do Quakers believe?" is that it makes an automatic assumption about the nature of belief—that it is essentially the acceptance of some doctrinal statement. I tend to prefer the aspect of belief that has to do with putting one's faith or trust in something. While it may be that people are asking "What do Quakers put their trust in?", my experience has been that they are more often looking for doctrines that they can compare with their own set of accepted doctrines.

A common answer among liberal Friends today to the question "What do Quakers believe?" is "there is 'that of God' in every person". It often seems to me that this answer is given as an item of doctrine, and then one might say how other doctrines derive from it, such as "we believe in non-violence" because every person has 'that of God', we believe in equality because every person has 'that of God', etc. At the same time, people often express difficulty in trying to see 'that of God' in certain people.

My impression of Fox's writings is that 'that of God' played a more active role than being an item a doctrine, more than a reason to treat people equally or not war against them. For example, in one of his epistles he wrote:
So, when their minds are turned with the light and spirit of God towards God, then with it they shall know something of revelation and inspiration; as they are turned by that of God from the evil, and emptied of that, then there will be some room in them for something of God to be revealed and inspired into them.
Traditionally, Friends experience of the Light is that it would illuminate those shadowy places in us, and would lead us away from sin and evil. There was a change wrought in us by the Light. It was important that to wait to be rightly led: "And in the wisdom of God wait, that ye may answer that of God in every one" and "Nor any write, print, nor speak, (for God,) but as ye are moved of the Lord God; for that reacheth to that of God in others, and is effectual." To me this seems more as a matter of faith and trust than just a doctrine, because it is an active process around which Friends base their activities.

So that brings me to ask: Do Friends today have faith and trust in 'that of God' in every person? Are we striving to answer 'that of God' in others, and do we have the faith that doing so may eventually bring them away from evil? I ask this because much of the discourse today seems to ignore this. It seems to me that people think it is okay to speak badly of someone, to be rude, condescending, insulting to someone advocating some oppressive policy. As long as one has the votes to force one's will on a minority of people, there is little concern for answering 'that of God' in them. Is there an expectation that a particular law will answer 'that of God' in someone?

Do Friends blend in with the crowd when it comes to politics? Are we carrying the same signs, saying the same things as everyone else? Are we waiting in the wisdom of God so that what we write, print, and speak answers 'that of God' in others? I wrestle with this frequently, and most of the time the result is me not doing something because I feel a stop from it. I feel a general pull towards finding ways to effect change while answering 'that of God' in others, while not yet having concrete leadings. For now, I am striving to walk in the Light as best I can and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in my interactions with people.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Living by the Sword

I have been considering the phrase "he who lives by the sword will die by the sword." I was sure it was in the bible in the story of Jesus' arrest, but that passage actually says "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matt. 26:52, NRSV) That seems even more encompassing than "living by the sword". I have always thought of it somewhat literally - actually being killed by a sword, or a gun. Lately, however, in watching my nation's reactions to yet another mass shooting, I have begun to understand that dying as a spiritual death, in much the same way that Paul writes of sin as death.

Taking up the sword, especially in a way in which one no longer has regard for the life of one's neighbor, is a kind of spiritual death, and a separation from God. When you say "you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands", you're dead already, because that is what you cling to until death. Jesus said "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell". The sword and the gun are symbols and manifestations of that fear.

Given the circles I travel in, perhaps most people reading this just not in approval. But, what are other things that we might hold in a fearful death grip that are spiritually killing us? Are there people, institutions, ideas, physical objects that we must have? Are there things that interrupt our love of God or of our neighbors? Money, for example, is one I struggle with. Perhaps I also have too much faith in institutions.

One aspect of the Exodus story is the Israelites learning (and failing to learn) a daily dependence on God. I recognize in myself that I need that same lesson - that checking the news or Facebook has more importance in my daily routine than it should, and that what I read in the news stirs up fear of those who kill the body. Maybe I'm not in danger or taking up the sword, or gun, but there are other things I have taken up that are not life-giving.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Avoiding the Light

For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. John 3:20 (NRSV)

Right before Christmas, Mary Linda and I became aware of a young man who was homeless and needed a place to stay. We had a lot of discussion about it, much of it involving logistical difficulties. As we talked about it, I began to feel uncomfortable with the situation and expressed my frustration over it. Eventually, Mary Linda said "can we sit in worship around this?" I became aware of a part of me that didn't want to do that — the part of me that said "No, I don't want to be talked into this." But, we sat in worship, and as we did, I felt my objections falling away and we decided that we would offer space for him.

A few days later, I happened to read John 3:20, and I felt it was in some way talking about how I didn't want to sit in worship. There was something in me that did not want to come to the Light. It occurs to me that there are times when I hold so tightly to either wanting to do something or not wanting to do something that I am reluctant to bring it to the Light — to sit and listen for God's guidance. I must be willing to let go of that thing, and if I feel some reluctance to do that, perhaps I have some deep sense that it may not be what I am supposed to do.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Words, Symbols, and Idols

I was at the West Knoxville Friends meetinghouse this weekend for a meeting with the Nurturing & Steering committees of Southern Appalachian Young Friends (the teen group for my yearly meeting). Last night, we had a discussion that touched on our use of language and how our language can hurt others. One of the things that I found myself thinking is how words can be symbols, and when they are symbols for systems of oppression they can be hurtful to those who are victims of that oppression system, and yet seem somewhat innocuous to those who are not on the receiving end of that oppression, especially if we aren't aware of what they symbolize.

On the way to Knoxville, Mary Linda took this picture around the Cookeville exit: Then on the way home, right around the same place, I passed a car with a bumper sticker reading "In God We Trust". That got me thinking about Christian words and symbols, and at first, I thought about how those words and symbols might be used more as symbols of American Christian culture, which is not the same thing as Christianity. In this case, they are sometimes used to symbolize membership in a group, but not necessarily in consideration of what those symbols actually represent. Of course, that's me being somewhat judgmental, but I do think it is important to consider how we use words and symbols, and when it comes to religious symbols, it can get into the area of idolatry when the symbol becomes separated from God. For example, look at "In God We Trust". I often hear that phrase used in ways that seem more about establishing Christianity as the official religion of the U.S.A., rather than being about trusting God. Much of our political discourse these days seems driven by fear, and if we really trusted in God, fear wouldn't have such a grip on us. I don't know if I would say that the phrase itself is the idol, or the political ideal is the idol, but it seems like either way it suggests that something is substituting for God.

I started questioning how I might also be using a symbol, word or practice without consideration or connection to God. We might be tempted to say that since Quakers have internalized everything, we don't really get stuck on symbols in the same way other faith traditions do, but I think maybe we have just made it harder for us to find those things, but they do exist. One personal example that comes immediately to mind is the silence. I know that there are times when I just sit in worship being silent, sometimes I even find myself settling in and enjoying the silence. Intellectually, I understand the silence in our worship to be a product of our listening for the Inward Teacher to lead us and I remember one time thinking that the phrase "silence means assent" works well for us in that it is our assent to being led by God. But more times than not, I do not have this assent at the forefront of my mind when I settle into worship. I may think of being centered, and I do have periods of being aware of listening, but I feel like do not enter into it consciously.

It gets more complicated for me with the cross. Again, intellectually, I resonate with the internalized understanding of the Cross mystical that William Penn describes here in No Cross, No Crown:
The cross of Christ is a figurative speech, borrowed from the outward tree, or wooden cross, on which Christ submitted to the will of God in permitting him to suffer death at the hands of evil men. So that the cross mystical is that divine grace and power which crosseth the carnal wills of men, and so may be justly termed the instrument of man’s holy dying to the world and being made conformable to the will of God. ...

Well, but then where does this cross appear, and where must it be taken up? I answer, within, that is, in the heart and soul; for where the sin is, the cross must be. Custom in evil hath made it natural to men to do evil; and as the soul rules the body, so this corrupt nature sways the whole man; but still, ’tis all from within. Experience teaches every son and daughter of Adam an assent to this; for the enemies’ temptations are ever directed to the mind, which is within; if they take not, the soul sins not; if they are embraced, lust is presently conceived (that is, inordinate desires). Here is the very genealogy of sin.

But how and in what manner is the cross to be daily borne? The way, like the cross, is spiritual, that is, an inward submission of the soul to the will of God as it is manifested by the light of Christ in the consciences of men; the way of taking up the cross is an entire resignation of soul to the discoveries and requirings of it.
I don't consciously think about taking up the cross daily, although I do occasionally recognize it at work in me. Lately I have felt a concern about my interactions with people online, which I felt upon hearing one of the advices read at NCYM-C: "Seek the beautiful and worthwhile in literary and recreational pursuits, being always sensitive to the encroachment of the banal, the degrading, or the violent." I felt that I shouldn't be contributing to the banal, degrading, or violent. Since then there have been times when I really wanted to, but I have felt an inward stop, that I think is that inward submission to the will of God. Although I can see this in retrospect as a small example of taking up the cross, I feel I want it to be more a more conscious thing.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Brokenness of Spirit

I have been re-reading the Journal of Stephen Grellet lately, and in it he tells a story about Spring Meeting in North Carolina and how the meeting had lost all of its membership, until a young man felt drawn on First-days to open up the meetinghouse and worship there by himself. One day, he felt a strong leading to stand and speak, which he did - to empty benches. Shortly after he sat down "several young men came into the house, in a serious manner, and sat down in silence by him. Some of them evincing brokenness of heart."

The phrase "brokenness of heart" has been on my mind since then, and with it, the contrast in the level of emotion between what I perceive in the writings of early Friends and what I experience in most liberal and conservative meetings today. One of the things that stands out to me among early Friends is the amount of tears. Stephen Grellet writes often of "tears of joy" or "tears of gratitude". Samuel Bownas wrote of an early childhood experience of accompanying his mother to worship with imprisoned Friends at Appleby prison:
I observed, though very young, how tender and broken they were; and I was very inquisitive of my mother, why they cried so much, and thee too, said I, why did thee? She told me that I could not understand the reason of it then, but when I grew up more to man’s estate I might.
After his famous encounter with Anne Wilson, he writes:
... in secret I cried, Lord, what shall I do to help it? And a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, Look unto me, and I will help thee; and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears. Then I remembered what my mother had told me some years before, that when I grew up more to man's estate, I should know the reason of that tenderness and weeping, and so I now did to purpose.
I know tears are not unknown among Friends today. Some Friends in NCYM-C like to quote a now-deceased member who would say "the floor was wet with tears". I also remember that at the close of SAYMA one year I saw a beloved member of Nashville Friends Meeting with tears streaming down his face. I have experienced them from time to time as well.

I have an internal conflict here because I am somewhat suspicious of emotionalism by itself. I have had plenty of experience of revivals and church services that can get people into a high emotional state. There is one in particular I remember fondly, being maybe 11 or 12, I found myself quietly singing hymns in the car ride home, feeling a great level of peace and love. But, my experience with this kind of thing is that it didn't last, and so I have grown somewhat skeptical about it.

I wrote recently about humility and I think is it one of the factors in some of these cases of tears of early Friends - the "brokenness of heart" (or of spirit). One of the ways early Friends experienced the Light of Christ was as a searchlight that illuminated the dark places in the heart and brought them forth. My impression is that this was often felt in worship and led to tears and other gestures of humility. Isaac Penington describes it in very stark language:
By his casting into the furnace of affliction, the fire searcheth. The deep, sore, distressing affliction, which rends and tears the very inwards, finds out both the seed and the chaff, purifying the pure gold and consuming the dross; and then, at length, the quiet state is witnessed, and the quiet fruit of righteousness brought forth, by the searching and consuming operation and nature of the fire.
What I love about this passage is its representation of the struggle and pain of seeing one's sins illuminated, and then the quiet state that follows. My experience of this searching light is not as vivid as what early Friends portray. There are times when I am in meeting, or reading, especially times when I have tried to settle into the presence of God, when something speaks to me and makes me aware of something I should or shouldn't do, but it generally doesn't reduce me to tears.

I think there may be some level of discomfort among liberal Friends with this idea of the Light searching and revealing one's sins. Many people have grown up in churches that preach the Calvinist idea of the "total depravity of humanity", or in ones that have a tendency to be very judgmental. I have heard people say "there's nothing wrong with me" in a way that has felt to me as more a rejection of "total depravity" than a statement of being perfect. Although I think it is important for us to acknowledge that we are not perfect, I don't think our emphasis should be on how sinful we each are, but rather on how the Light changes us. One of the things I heard mentioned at NCYM-C this year, was that in the early days people came to meeting expecting to be changed. It seems to be that allowing ourselves to be brought low, to have our spirits and hearts broken - broken open, by the Spirit, lets us welcome in that change.

The other part of this brokenness, then, is the peace that comes afterwards - the "quiet state" that Isaac Penington wrote about. This comes about from the Light as well. I particularly like the way George Fox talks about it in Epistle 10:
Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the Light, that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation: then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you.
Even harder than submitting to the searching of the Light is standing still in what it finds. I live in a culture that is action oriented, and if something is wrong you have to do something to fix it, and the idea of not doing something is very contrary. I think this attitude also contributes to my resistance to being broken in the first place. Just as the silence in meeting for worship comes out of our surrendering ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I want to silence my impulses to fix myself and wait in the Light. Similarly, I want to cultivate the willingness to be broken open - it's not something I can do on my own, and while it may often be something I couldn't resist if I wanted to, I think it is helpful to be open to it.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Testing Leadings

Yesterday I read an article by Chuck Fager about the ongoing situation in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM). In the article, Chuck includes a letter from the NC Yearly Meeting on Ministry and Counsel, outlining a doctrinal basis for splitting the yearly meeting. In listing perceived differences between two factions, it has these contrasts about the purpose of scripture:

The Holy Scriptures are subject to the Holy Spirit and, should a seeming conflict arise, the Holy Spirit provides the final answer.The leadings of the Holy Spirit never contradict the Holy Scriptures and, should a seeming conflict arise, the Holy Scriptures are a trustworthy source of the Truth because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.

I originally had a lot to say about these two statements, but I believe much of it was just rehashing a 200-year-old argument, so I will only say that I believe the Scriptures must be read in the Spirit in which they were written, and if the second statement implies otherwise then I disagree with it.

But, this got me thinking about the whole idea of testing leadings against the Scriptures and whether that has mostly disappeared from Liberal Friends. My impression is that it has (and I note that the first of NCYM's statements about Scriptures doesn't mention it either). The follow-on question, then, is whether there are things that we do test leadings against (I'm going on the hopeful assumption that we at least test leadings with one another via sitting in worship and discerning). It seems to me that the testimonies are one of these touchstones. If a perceived leading is not consistent with the peace testimony, for example, that should at least make us pay extra attention to it. I don't think that we should reject it outright, but be extra careful in discernment. Perhaps the writings of early Friends can serve as touchstones as well - I have read a bit of Robert Barclay in working on this post and some of it will probably come to mind in the future. In particular, I wonder how much of our surrounding culture becomes a touchstone. Is there an automatic assumption that something is right because it is consistent with our political views or our party's platform or those of our neighbors and co-workers? Among Liberal Friends, can we tell when something is part of the liberal culture we tend to surround ourselves with, but not necessarily of the Spirit?

One reason I ask this is that in the polarization of our politics, there seems to be more of a lock-step mentality. If you are for X, you must also be for Y and Z. It sometimes feels like there is an unspoken "if you are a Quaker, you must be for X, Y, and Z". Now, I don't have a problem with someone assuming that if I am a Quaker that I am at least striving to be humble, peaceful, honest, etc., but when it comes to assuming that I would support or reject some particular law or organization, I have a problem with that. The Holy Spirit can lead us in unexpected directions that are not necessarily the direction our surrounding culture would understand, and we must continue to seek that Spirit and to test our leadings against it, and not fall back on our cultural assumptions.

With regard to the Scriptures, I do find myself examining my behavior in light of them. For example, Matthew 5:22 says "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire." I have been trying to take that seriously, and refrain from referring to people I don't agree with as "stupid", and not trying to perpetuate insulting memes. I also find this statement by Robert Barclay compelling, and it speaks to another reason why I continue to read the bible: "This is the great Work of the Scriptures, and their Service to us, that we may witness them fulfilled in us, and so discern the stamp of God's Spirit and ways upon them, by the inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and Work in our Hearts".