Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Christmas Presence

It is Christmas Eve night and Ceal and I are here in Clearwater, Florida, visiting my 95-year-old grandmother. We visited Clearwater Friends this morning and had an enjoyable worship with them. This is one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. All the stores are closed, people quiet down, and Christmas finally seems peaceful.

I have spent much time contemplating the Christmas season, as well as my reaction to it. I have pushed myself away from much of the tradition, because I felt like it wasn't really focused on Christ. In the process, I feel like I have lost much of that peace within myself. As I have reconnected myself to the Christian tradition I grew up with, I have also allowed myself to become more critical of other individuals and communities. While I acknowledge that our community needs people to stand up and point out the times when we have gone off-course, I think in my case, a lot of it is over-compensation - I complain about the community not being where I think it should be because I am not where I think I should be. I found myself sitting in a church service this evening fighting off thoughts of how silent worship is so much better, and not partaking more fully in the joy of being surrounded by hundreds of children positively buzzing with anticipation (the buzz occasionally drowned out the pastor!). That is not a loving way of living. God, I know I need a lot of reshaping, I'm sorry I keep interfering with the job.

I didn't expect to say all that. I was just planning to talk about Christmas presents. I was contemplating Christmas presents this morning during Meeting for Worship, not really the presents themselves, but the state of anticipation they bring. I wondered if maybe the practice of giving gifts wasn't so bad, but that our culture has overdone it, and lost the connection that we are celebrating God giving us the greatest gift. It was that thought of God giving us a gift that reminded me again of a post by Charles Rathman about the atonement. There is a hidden irony here, because I complained to my friend Shane last week about focusing on the crucifixion during Advent. I felt that it was almost like we want to focus more on Jesus' death than his life, and now here I am thinking about just that. Charles wrote:

Our sinfull nature thinks of and can see only the carnal -- the outward -- and that is what of Jesus we managed to kill. The Indwelling Power of God that was in Jesus -- the Christ -- is everlasting and could not be killed. We destroyed the giftwrapping and left the precious gift for all of humankind.

As I think about that mythical search for the "perfect Christmas present", I realize that God is the undisputed champion of giving the perfect gift. He has given us something that never gets lost, never breaks, and never needs batteries. And on top of that, God encourages re-gifting!

However you celebrate God's love to his children, I wish you His peace and love!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Samuel Caldwell Revisited

About 8 years ago, on a monday night in Philadelphia, Samuel Caldwell spoke about Quaker Faith vs. Quaker Culture, and had some pretty harsh words about the culture of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Parts of his speech came to mind this morning as I sat through a popcorn-ish meeting full of political messages about Palestine.

Caldwell opened with the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (NET Bible)

The part of Caldwell's lecture that has always stuck with me is the notion that Liberal Friends (Caldwell limited it to PYM) have become the unfaithful servant in this parable. Caldwell suggests that PYM has taken its one talent - Quaker Faith - and buried it inside Quaker Culture. I propose something a little more radical - that Liberal Friends have taken the Quaker faith that was a revival of early Christianity, and buried it within a new definition of faith that does not yield additional talents. Modern Liberal Quakerism has become a faith that is kept within, it offers others the fruits of that faith, but fails to offer the faith itself.

The statement this morning that set me off was yet another use of "that of God in everyone" as a reason why we treat people the way we do. According to Lewis Benson, George Fox's use of the phrase "that of God in everyone" was not used as a theological statement that justified the peace and equality testimonies, but it was something of God in man that shows him what is evil and also that it was the witness of God in man [that] teaches us how to use, and not to misuse our natural environment. According to Benson, the phrase had disappeared from usage until Rufus Jones revived it in the early twentieth century, giving it a new interpretation as a theological justification for some of the testimonies. This new justification, I believe, is an example of burying the one talent in the ground. It means that we no longer look at "that of God" as something that is awakened and answered in others, bringing them into a right relationship with God, but is merely a philosophical reason why we act the way we do.

The second way we bury the one talent lies in the statement that "Quakers don't proselytize". This statement is not true, Liberal Quakers certainly do proselytize, often quite vocally. The difference is that instead of proselytizing about the spirit of Christ within them, Liberal Quakers tend to proselytize about the fruits of that spirit - opposition to war, equality, simplicity. If proselytizing about one's faith is considered bad, is it not worse to try to convert people to a viewpoint that is ostensibly achieved by the spirit of Christ working upon our hearts, especially when we seem to expect people to get to that same viewpoint without Christ?

The third way we bury this talent is in our individualism. Sometimes, it feels to me like Liberal Quakers act like a herd of cats - everyone goes in their own direction, following whatever path they want to. This course is often justified by the famous quote "what canst thou say?" The community aspect of Quakerism has been watered down in that meetings seem to be reluctant to accept responsibility for the spiritual health of its members - it is something left to the individuals. If you read the full quote, George Fox said You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? It was not a call to do and say what you want, but to follow the guidance of God. The call of cross is not one of individualism but one of submission to God - to walk in the Light is to follow God's leadings and not our own. Our community should act as a guide to help us discern true leadings from our own individual wants and desires. Another aspect of this individualism is in the idea that Quaker business is conducted by consensus (I heard this several times this morning). We are supposed to be following God's will, and business meetings are for discerning that will corporately and acting upon it. When we take God out of the equation, we are left with individual ego's trying to make decisions that don't make anyone mad. Allowing our faith to be shut up in individuals and not truly shared corporately is yet another way we bury it.

Finally, we bury our talent when we give up our waiting worship to politics and individual crusades. I hear so many people speaking about various political issues, and it is extremely rare that anyone stands up and talks about listening to the still, small voice within. I almost seems like we have lost the ability to truly minister to one another, and to truly answer that of God in one another. Instead of paying attention to the vine and whether the roots are healthy, we focus solely on the fruit. Going back to "what canst thou say", when we rise to speak in meeting, we should take extra care to insure that what we speak is "inwardly from God". It is not enough to say "God wants us to be peaceful, so if I say something about peace it is from God." To close the ear of the soul to the whispers of that inner voice is to bury the talent deep in the soil where it does no good.

Timothy Travis posted a thought-provoking response to this on his blog.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Speaking and Listening

A few weeks ago, during Meeting for Worship at Atlanta Friends, a Friend rose and spoke at some length using very Christian language. This is not new, in that this particular Friend usually speaks this way. This time, however, another Friend spoke about using a language that others can hear, and it felt to me like she was referring to the first Friend's choice of words. It appears to me that many Friends in my meeting tend to stick with words like "Light" and "Spirit" and tend to shy away from saying "God" or "Jesus" and rarely use the name "Christ". I have some difficulties with this, especially with what I perceive as a bias against Christian language - that people who best express themselves with a Christian vocabulary must instead hide behind more vague terms. What I find particularly distressing is that the usual reason for this is that many people are refugees from spiritually abusive churches and find Christian language uncomfortable. By avoiding this language, we reinforce the idea that it is bad, instead of showing that it isn't the language that is bad but the way it has been used by others. While it seems that much of the focus is on how we speak, I believe we should instead be looking at how we listen.

The wife of a friend of mine is a native Spanish speaker, and she once found herself working with a couple of Italian engineers. She did not speak Italian, and they did not speak Spanish, but the languages are quite similar, and they discovered that if they each spoke their native languages, the other was able to understand well enough for them to work. It was much easier for them to find words in the vocabulary they knew, rather than to try to find fitting words in a language that they had only a little familiarity with. They were able to rely on the common ancestry of their languages to be able to hear what each other was trying to say. If our words in Meeting for Worship all come from that single divine source (hey, I can dream), why can we not listen and hear Christ's voice through those words. Why should we ask people to instead translate into language that may not express what God wants them to express?

The second chapter of Acts describes the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and filled the apostles, and they spoke in other languages (i.e. they spoke in tongues). The remarkable thing is that those in the crowd heard the words in their own language. The Holy Spirit, the Inner Light , or whatever you wish to call it, helped those in the crowd to hear, just as it helped the apostles to speak. Can we not allow that Spirit to do the same thing in us today, and to truly hear and "feel where the words come from"?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Some Poetry

Ceal and I spent a delightful weekend in Knoxville with the Southern Appalachian Young Friends (SAYF). The theme of the retreat was "Creativity" and explored how the working of the Spirit is manifested in our creativity. One workshop was devoted to writing with an emphasis on haikus, and I thought I would share the things I wrote. The first is closer to a sonnet than a haiku:

The Spirit whispers softly in my soul
the still, small voice that spoke to men of old
but when it speaks I do not always hear
amidst my roaring selfishness and fear

In silent worship, gathered to His call
the loving spirit covers over all
and in the quiet is my soul's release
to float in streams of everlasting peace

Oh God, I know there's nothing I can do
but let my soul be drawn in love to you
there's nothing in this world I need to know
to follow you is simply to let go

And here are the haikus:

Whispered messages
into the souls in worship
some hear, some do not

A smile and a hug
can fill the soul with more joy
than words ever can

Walking in the light
God will open in you streams
of living water

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gospel Ministry

I have been going through Samual Bownas' "A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister" again lately. I am trying to record it as an audio book so I can listen to it while I am driving (I plan to make it available for download, if anyone can stand the sound of my voice). The book is quite wonderful, and I learn more and more as I go through it again. In this passage, Bownas talks about speaking as led by the Spirit, trying to stay close to what you are given to say:

I advise to an inward waiting upon thy gift, to feel the moving thereof in thy own mind, which will by a gentle illumination clear thy understanding and judgment, whereby thou wilt clearly see thy place and service in the Church; and if thou findest it thy place to minister to others, be willing to do thy Master's will, and stand up in the meekness of the spirit which moveth on thy mind, and speak the word thereof according to the present opening that is before thee, regarding strictly on the one hand, by speaking too fast and too loud, thou do not over-run thy natural strength, gift and opening, which, if thou happens to get into it will bring thee into confusion, and thou wilt not know when to conclude, and so mayest shut up thy own way in the minds of thy brethren, and bring thyself under a just censure; therefore whenever it happens so with thee, sit down; for by endeavouring to mend it, thou mayest make it the worse. So on the other hand, be not too low, nor too slow in thy speech, so as to lose the matter that way; but carefully keep to thy opening, avoiding both the extremes. Stand up in a calm and quiet frame of mind, as free as possible from either a fear or care how thou shalt come off; but follow thy guide in all circumspection and humility, beginning, going on, and concluding in thy gift. Thus wilt thou experience, what the wise man said to be true, “A man's gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.”
-- Samuel Bownas, "A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister"

In another passage, he warns against superfluous words and gestures (holding one's arms out wide, or gazing upwards). I don't see these gestures much, but it sure seems like people throw in a lot of extra words. Someone might give a long description of how they came by a particular book, as well as a professional history of the author, before quoting a short passage. It is one thing when details seem extraneous at first but then tie in at the end, it is another to provide details that have nothing to do with what one is trying to say.

Bownas also warns against "borrowing", using things we have read or heard as a substitute for what is given by the Spirit. I love the manna metaphor used here:

But the danger of borrowing may lie as near, respecting the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, with any other books that may affect our minds, as what we have heard delivered in the openings of life. For it is no more lawful for us to preach what we have read, because we have read it, than it is for us to preach what we have heard, because we have heard it. Nay, I may further add (what thou wilt find by experience true in due time) that it is not lawful for thee to repeat thy own experience, and former openings, merely in thy own strength of memory and will; for if thou dost treasure up and furnish thyself this way, thou wilt be greatly disappointed, and thy doctrine will be like the manna kept out of season; worms bred in it, and it stank. Now a spiritual minister is, and ought every day to be, like blank paper, when he comes into the assembly of the Lord's people, not depending on any former openings or experience, either of his own or others, that he hath heard or read; but his only and sole dependence must be on the gift of the spirit, to give, and bring to his understanding matter suitable to the present state of the assembly before him.

A couple of lines from Proverbs 30 came to me this morning while reflecting on Bownas:

Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar. (Proverbs 30:5-6, KJV)

I have often heard verse 6 quoted in reference to biblical translation and accuracy. I had never before considered it with respect to vocal ministry, and now that I do, they really shine for me - that I should strive towards speaking only those pure words from God, not adding my own.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Faith in the face of tragedy

It has been difficult to even read about the tragedy at the Amish school in Pennsylvania. I saw this quote from Sam Stolzfus, a 63-year-old Amish woodworker:

We think it was God's plan and we're going to have to pick up the pieces and keep going. A funeral to us is a much more important thing than the day of birth because we believe in the hereafter. The children are better off than their survivors.

That last sentence reminded me of Isaiah 57:1, which says:

The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. (KJV)

Monday, October 2, 2006

Blown by the Spirit

The wind blows where it wishes
and you hear the sound of it
but cannot tell where it comes from
cannot tell where it goes
so is everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
-- from Robert Evans' Scripture Songs

As I have been reflecting on this verse, I think of a leaf in the wind. It is totally at the whim of the breeze and moves in response to the slightest change. When we first feel that holy wind stirring within us, most of us try to cling to where we are and what we are. It is when we are able to let go completely and let ourselves be taken by that wind that we are truly able to live our life in the Spirit of Christ - to let ourselves be not only born of the Spirit, but to be borne by the Spirit.

Friday, August 18, 2006

My Utmost For His Highest

At the Gathered Meeting Retreat for Atlanta Friends Meeting this past April, our facilitator was Rubye Braye from Wilmington Friends Mtg (NCYM-C). Rubye recommended a daily devotional book to Ceal called "My Utmost For His Highest" by Oswald Chambers. For several months, I had seen that book in various places of the house, but I didn't pick it up because I was never that happy with daily devotionals.

When we visited the NCYM-C gathering earlier this month, I heard a number of people quoting Oswald Chambers, but didn't make the connection until I saw the book in our room. Since then, I have started reading it daily, and so far I have found it very satisfying, inspiring, challenging, and thought-provoking. Although we have it in book form, I usually read it online.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

The Marriage of Spirit and Scripture

Peter Kirk, a bible scholar from Chelmsford, U.K., recently wrote about Bible Deists (in a nutshell, people who believe that God created everything and now just sits back and lets things unfold without any intervention). Most of what he talks about, though, has to do with how many Christians treat the bible - almost as a replacement for God. They ignore the Spirit that inspired the words, and focus only on the words themselves.

George Fox articulated the Quaker approach to the bible when he said "For as the Spirit of God was in them that gave forth the Scriptures, so the same Spirit must be in all them that come to understand the Scriptures."

The main reason I want to draw attention to Peter's article is the end. These are not actually Peter's words but are quote from the book Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere:

Somewhere along the way, though, the church has encouraged a silent divorce between the Word and the Spirit. Divorces are painful, both for the children and the parents. One parent usually gets custody of the children, and the other only gets to visit occasionally. It breaks the hearts of the parents, and the children are usually worse off because of the arrangement. Many in the church today are content to live with only one parent. They live with the Word, and the Spirit only has limited visiting rights. He just gets to see and touch the kids once in a while. Some of his kids don't even recognize him any more. Some have become afraid of him. Others in the church live with the Spirit and only allow the Word sporadic visits. The Spirit doesn't want to raise the kids without the Word. He can see how unruly they're becoming, but he won't force them to do what they must choose with their hearts.

As Quakers, with our focus on being guided by the Holy Spirit, I think we sometimes develop a tendancy to ignore the bible and in doing so we lose a valuable guide. We are in danger of becoming those unruly kids that the Spirit has to try to raise without the Word. It's not that I don't understand why some people avoid the bible. I know many people have been beaten over the head with its words to the point where it is a source of pain for them. That may also be why people try to avoid overtly Christian language in some meetings, as well. It seems to me that this behavior only reinforces those feelings someone may have developed about the bible. If the only people they hear quoting the bible or talking about Christ are preaching anger and hostility, how can they form any other opinion? As Paul said in Galatians 5:22-23, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (NET). Wouldn't it be better to hear about the bible from this Spirit?

George Fox knew what it was to be beaten over the head with the bible -- literally!

Now while I was at Mansfield-Woodhouse, I was moved to go to the steeple-house there, and declare the truth to the priest and people; but the people fell upon me in great rage, struck me down, and almost stifled and smothered me; and I was cruelly beaten and bruised by them with their hands, and with Bibles and sticks.

But George also knew the inner workings of the Spirit, and knew that in the hands of those people who were not in that same Spirit, the bible was nothing but a paper club.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Building Walls and Drawing Lines

It seems like a good percentage of the Quaker-blogosphere has been dedicated in one way or another to the issue of building walls - who is a Quaker, who isn't, do you have to believe this or that. The words "inclusive", "exclusive" and "tribal" seem to get thrown around a bit. This is often a very painful subject for people, and I think one of the driving issues is that people fear that a wall is being built, and that they will be left outside it. That is not my intention here.

Often in these discussions, people talk of building a wall, or drawing a line - those on one side are "in" and those on the other are "out". The thing is, there is a difference between walls and lines. Walls keep people out, lines do not. What lines frequently do is help you know where you are and what to expect. When you're driving down the highway, the lines give you guidance as to the direction you are going, and also where to expect other cars to be. I don't even want to think about what rush hour in Atlanta would be like if we erased all the lines on I-285.

What I would hope we have within the global Quaker community is more like a highway with different lanes. There are lanes for Christ-oriented people, some who prefer having a minister, some who prefer the older tradition, and lanes for people who may or may not be Christ-oriented but want a diverse, even eclectic community. We are all (hopefully) heading in the same direction, but we take different ways to get there. We look over at the other lanes and see how things are going there, sometimes we even decide to change lanes.

My hope is that we can all find a lane where we can get to where we are all going without giving other drivers the finger.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A little more about my experience at the NCYM-C gathering

I feel like I went off on a tangent before with respect to some similarities between my experience among Conservative Friends and what I read about the Convergent Friends. I would like to just share some more of my experiences, without getting into schisms and such. I have felt a little uneasy that I have been allowing myself to be pulled away from something precious into something that distracts me.

The opening worship was rather quiet, but there was a depth and a seriousness to the messages. After dinner was the meeting for the committee on Ministry and Oversight, to which everyone was invited. Ceal and I were seated next to Louise Wilson, who is a recorded minister from Virginia Beach Friends Meeting. It was a delight getting to know her. Sometimes she is very deep, other times just funny and makes effective use of a mischievous smile. We were talking about simplicity and how hard it can be to give some things up. She said that looking back over her life, she has been amazed at how things just seem to fall away. It reminded me of the possibly apocryphal story about William Penn being told to wear his sword "as long as thee can". To me, that isn't saying that it is okay NOT to simplify, but that as I come into a closer relationship with God, those extraneous things will fall away on their own.

I ended up volunteering to be a reader for the 7th Night program, which was the Gospel of Mark in 9 Voices. There were 2 narrators who read everything that wasn't a direct quote, one person reading all of Jesus' lines, and then everything else went to the other 6 people. I was one of the other 6, and we were scattered throughout the audience on 7th day. When we were first deciding where everyone would be seated, it was suggested that the person reading God be placed on the top row. For some reason there are times when I can't help making a joke, and I said that while I liked that idea, I might also suggest the middle of the front row, because if God can't get tickets for front row, center, who can? Lloyd Lee laughed and said "Thee has a future as a theologian". There's a scary thought! I thought everyone did a great job, especially Tommy Gipson, who read Jesus. Now, I'm sure it was just a coincidence, but I couldn't help noticing that they had the visitor from the Liberal Friends (i.e. me) read every one of the unclean spirits. I AM LEGION!!!

When we were at SAYMA, we saw our f/Friend Deborah Fisch and we joked that we were coming to the NCYM-C gathering to heckle her - she was the keynote speaker. Deborah laughed, and then said "Well, maybe you could be on my support committee". That was a new one for me, and we were quite happy to have been asked. For me, being on the committee was like doing a meeting for healing, and it turned out I really needed to do this - not necessarily for Deborah, but for me. We met about 30 minutes before Deborah's talk and held her in the light, prayed, offered some vocal ministry and song. Then we held her in the light through her talk. That opened something in me, as it does sometimes in meeting for healing and it affected me for the rest of my time there - it is difficult to describe, but I do get a sense of being "in the Spirit" at various times and at various intensities, and I felt that way much more frequently afterwards. If you ever get a chance to hear Deborah Fisch speak, go! She had so much to share and I think everyone there was deeply and personally touched by her words. One thing she said that I heard repeated a lot afterwards is that there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more than you are right now, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you any less than you are right now. Deborah also spoke quite a bit about 1 Corinthians 12, which I blogged about just two weeks ago. Of course, Deborah is much more insightful than I am.

The closing worship was just incredible. Deep, moving messages. I was even given a brief message, which is quite rare (the message part is rare, they have all been brief). It was an interesting experience in that the message had been trying to get my attention, like it was tapping on my head or something (dink, dink). But I figured it was just a random thought. So finally, I said "God, if this is really a message, let me know." I don't really remember how it became so clear, but a minute later I was on my feet. Sometimes I wonder whether God doesn't need me to speak much, or if I am just not a good listener. But then, there are other ways to minister to people than just speaking in meeting. Maybe that's what I am meant to do.

The day after I got home, I typed in a 2-page document that was from an earlier meeting of Ministry and Oversight discussing what is the core of being a Conservative Friend. I sent it to the Gwinnett Friends Preparative Meeting where I have been worshipping a good bit lately. As I was typing it in, I got to the list names of those present at the meeting, most of whom I had just met. Each familiar name brought a little bubble of joy, and I long to see these people again and worship with them.

Update (8/1/2006):
The summary of what it means to be a Conservative Friend, answering the query: The “fabric” of Conservative Friends is made of many threads. Name the threads that make up the “religious” part of the Religious Society of Friends. Which of these thread(s) seem essential to our identity as Conservative friends? Which thread(s) are essential to the manner in which we practice our faith? is now available online!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


We had an interesting bible study at NCYM-C. We discussed 3 parts of Deuteronomy and a section of 1 Corinthians 11. Bob Gosney, who led the bible study, said that he had intentionally chosen very difficult passages. The passages from Deuteronomy had to do with reciting Israel's history as something of a ritual, and the latter part of 1 Corinthians talks about communion. Bob jokingly said we were dealing with "3 Rituals and a Sacrament". I had a rather odd way of looking at a section of 1 Corinthians 11 and I wanted to share. Here is the passage (1 Corinthians 11:27-32):

For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup. For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead. But if we examined ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world. (NET Bible)

This is probably one of those passages that Quakers hurry past, especially with the blood drinking and all, but I think deep down, there is some relation to our practice. I think the key to looking at this section is in the word "judgment". Most of the time, we hear "judgment" used as one of those "end times" things where all the bad people go to Hell and all. But in this case, "judgment" is used in the present tense, as is the word translated as "are disciplined".

Now, although liberal Quakers don't talk about it much, there is a judging aspect of the inner Light that illuminates some of the dark sections of our soul. It can be a painful process, and I think this is really what Paul is talking about. It isn't that if you do this wrong you are going to Hell, but that if you do it wrong, the Holy Spirit is going to let you know about it. Sometimes we may speak in meeting and afterwards have a squirmy, uneasy feeling that we strayed from our guide. I think this is an aspect of that judgment and it isn't meant as punishment but a correction. It seems that Paul is exhorting us to pay attention and follow the inner promptings of the Spirit - not necessarily in following a ritual, but in everything that we do. And if we act against those promptings, God will let us know.

Worshipping Among Conservative Friends

Ceal and I visited the 309th Annual Gathering of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends Conservative last week, and it was a wonderful, liberating experience. So many of my conversations with Friends revolved around either our personal spiritual lives, or the spiritual lives of our meetings. I found the Meetings for Worship to be very enriching and refreshingly devoid of political messages, and the Meetings for Worship with attention to business were also enriching. As one would hope with any gathering of Friends, it was a beautiful group of loving, welcoming, and nurturing people who made me feel at home immediately.

The thing I found liberating is that we all were speaking roughly the same language, so we could all speak openly about our experience in a deep way, instead of trying to translate it into vague, generic terms. We were able to sidestep all the discussion about tribalism, and "how do you define Quakerism" and discuss our life in the Spirit. After reading some of the comments about the gathering of Convergent Friends, I suspect many people had a similar experience there. LizOpp said this about the Convergent Friends gathering:

Convergent Friends seem to hone one other. We connect with one another around our common hunger and desire to delve more deeply into Quakerism, and the commonality is what carries us into the life of the Spirit, into the Stream. We move beyond words, beyond judgment...

The part about "hone one [an]other" really resonated with me, because I felt that so strongly at NCYM-C. That's really a key function of the community. That's why there are advices and queries, and why the NC conservative meetings labor to answer one of the queries as a community at every business meeting, and then read those answers at the yearly meeting. It is part of the process of honing.

I'm not saying that I think that liberal Friends need to become conservative Friends, but it does point out to me something that I think liberal Friends need to at least acknowledge: The more diverse people are in their spiritual experiences, the more difficult it is to convey them to other people in a deep, meaningful way.

I think the reason you see people coming to a Convergent Friends gathering and suddenly being excited and liberated while talking about Christ is because they have suddenly found a place where they can just let go and not worry about offending someone because they have different beliefs. If those conversations are anything like the ones I had at NCYM-C, they have absolutely nothing to do with excluding people or suggesting that other people's beliefs are somehow wrong. They have everything to do with trying to be a faithful servant to God.

It is much easier to just label these as tribal, or exclusive, or say that they really don't understand anything about Jesus, than it is to admit that they are excited because they have found something that had been missing from their spiritual life.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Acknowledging the Gifts of the Spirit

I participated in a Friendly Bible Study yesterday that discussed Matthew 9:14-26, which includes Jesus healing a woman with a hemorrhage and also raising a young girl from the dead. I had felt that one of the points of this section was that Jesus healed people. I was a little surprised that more than half of the group was uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus healing people, and less comfortable with the idea that any of us might be able to do the same. Some expressed difficulty with the idea that some people are healed and not others, and that it made God seem arbitrary or capricious. This was not really new to me, I have heard those comments before, but I think I was struck by the fact that the majority of this small group felt that way. Since then I have been reflecting on the possibility that the majority of (Liberal?) Quakers also feel this way.

It is interesting to apply this same line of thought to vocal ministry. Why does God speak through some people more than others, some never at all? Why can't God just speak directly to people? Doesn't that make God seem arbitrary or capricious as well? Why does God need or want our participation in getting her message out? If we can accept the idea that God may speak through us at times, why is it not possible that God may use us in other ways as well?

I specifically mention vocal ministry because I think that it is one (or maybe a combination of several) of the gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in 1st Corinthians 12 (7-11):

To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. (NET Bible)

So for Paul and the early Christians, healing wasn't just something Jesus did, some of them were also able to do it. They also recognized various other gifts amongst each other. I quoted this passage a few months ago when I was talking about speaking in tongues, and I was led to read it yesterday morning before Meeting for Worship. What stood out to me more yesterday was the passage that follows (12-26):

For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit. For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. If they were all the same member, where would the body be? So now there are many members, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.

Not only is it important to recognize that there are different kinds of gifts beyond just vocal ministry, but that we don't all have the same gifts. I think that has fallen away somewhat within Liberal Quakerism from what I can see. It seems like we are hesitant to acknowledge a gift or try to nurture it because we feel like it creates an inequality. We don't really have recognized "elders" so much as people we privately consider "weighty Friends", and recorded ministers seem rare. I think the community and God would be better served if we were to acknowledge and nurture the various gifts within in the community. Recognizing that someone has a particular gift doesn't mean that other people aren't also given that gift from time to time, and it isn't necessarily permanent - someone may lose their gift. The recognition is more of the community taking responsibility for that gift - the individual for the exercise of the gift, and the others for the care and nurture of the individual. While the idea of having recorded ministers and elders seems like it sets up some kind of hierarchy, I think Paul's description of the Church as a body casts the idea of recognized gifts into a more egalitarian light. Not everyone can be the eye, and while the eye is important, it needs the protection of the eyelid. While the eyelid isn't a glamorous job, the eye may soon be unable to function without it - everyone is important, no matter what they do.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

A SAYMA Photo "Opp"

I'm happy to report a Liz sighting at SAYMA, and I have photographic proof:

I had a great time talking with Liz about FGC, blogging, and a number of other things. I wish we had had more time to chat.

I'm sorry I won't be at The Gathering this year, the On Fire! Renewing Quakerism through a Convergence of Friends interest group sounds really great Since it is hosted by a number of Friends from, I am curious to read the different viewpoints Friends from this group.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Healing Workshop

Ceal and I did our first workshop together this year at SAYMA. It was titled "Holding Each Other In The Light - Quakers and Healing". We only had about 2 hours, and we planned to do a Meeting for Worship for Healing in the second half, so we had to fly through some of the material. We touched on healing as a tradition among Quakers and back to early Christians and the Israelites. To me, the highlight of the workshop was the meeting for healing. It was similar to ones I have experienced at the Gathering - larger and more intense than what we usually have in Atlanta. It never ceases to amaze me how well Quakers take to this kind of meeting - there was vocal ministry, singing, touching, hugging, tears and smiles. We had 5 young Friends in the meeting as well, and several of them really seemed to take to it. I can't describe the joy I felt at seeing that.

During the workshop, I read this entry from George Fox's Journal from the period 1648-1653, because it really speaks to me:

When they had haled me to the common moss side, a multitude following, the constables, and other officers gave me some blows over my back with their willow rods, and thrust me among the rude multitude; who having furnished themselves with staves, hedge-stakes, and holm or holly bushes, fell upon me, and beat me on my head, arms, and shoulders, until they had deprived me of sense; so that I fell down upon the wet common. When I recovered again, I saw myself lying in a watery common, and the people standing about me, I lay still a little while, and the power of the Lord sprang through me, and the eternal refreshings revived me; so that I stood up again in the strengthening power of the eternal God and stretching out my arms among them, I said, with a loud voice, ' Strike again; here are my arms, my head, and my cheeks.' There was in the company a mason, a professor, but a rude fellow, who with his walking rule-staff gave me a blow with all his might just over the back of my hand, as it was stretched out; with which blow my hand was so bruised, and my arm so benumbed, that I could not draw it to me again; so that some of the people cried, 'He has spoiled his hand for ever having the use of it any more.' But I looked at it in the love of God, (for I was in the love of God to them all that had persecuted me), and after awhile the Lord's power sprang through me again, and through my hand and arm, so that in a moment I recovered strength in my hand and arm in the sight of them all.

It isn't just that this is an example of the gift of healing, it also speaks to why our connection to God is so important in living out Jesus' commandments. George Fox stood up and essentially turned the other cheek - to use the more literal interpretation of that action. He was able to do this because he was strengthened by God. I believe this is why we need to take care to nurture our spiritual life - it gives us the strength and support to carry out what God asks of us.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Meet Hector Black

The keynote speaker for the 2006 SAYMA Yearly Meeting was Hector Black, from the Cookeville, TN Monthly Meeting. He spoke on the subject of peace - we had speakers the previous night talk about simplicity, integrity, community and equality. While there are many interesting and inspiring aspects of Hector's life, the most riveting is how he and his family dealt with the murder of Hector's daughter Trish in 2000. His first reaction, amidst all the pain, was that he wanted to kill the man who killed his daughter. But as the love of God worked to heal his broken heart, he overcame that desire.

The Victim Impact Statement from the trial contains a lot of the material he used in that section of his talk. After giving a little background about Trish and how devastated they all were by the murder, this is how Hector concluded his statement:

I know that love does not seek revenge. We do not want a life for a life. Love seeks healing, peace and wholeness. Hatred can never overcome hatred. Only love can overcome hatred and violence. Love is that light. It is that candle that cannot be extinguished by all the darkness and hatred in the world.

Judge Goger, that is the reason we are not asking for the death penalty.

I know that ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ was not meant to be empty words. I don’t know if I have forgiven you, Ivan Christopher Simpson, for what you did. All I do know is that I don’t hate you, but I hate with all my soul what you did to Patricia..

My wish from my heart for all of us who were so terribly wounded by this murder, including you, Ivan Christopher Simpson, is that God would grant us peace.

For me, Hector's story had greater impact on me because he shared his initial reaction of "I'll kill the bastard!" Hector wasn't some perfect being who could just absorb an event like that and say "It's okay, I forgive you." He was a person who, through his anger and pain, allowed the love of God to work in his heart.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Back from Yearly Meeting

I got back from my yearly meeting (SAYMA) last night. I am still rather tired physically, but spiritually refreshed. This was Ceal's last year as registrar, which kept us both pretty busy, her much more than me. Having been enmeshed in several blog discussions, and lately worshipping with a more Christocentric group, I was a little curious as to what my reaction would be to the various goings-on at SAYMA. I worried that I might not have patience for things that I think are out of place, or are over-emphasized. As it happened, this was probably my favorite year at SAYMA so far. I have become acquainted with quite a few Friends, and I would estimate that during Meeting for Business, I could name more than half the Friends present. It was so wonderful to see everyone, to greet them, to worship with them and enjoy our time together. Although I am usually an introverted person, I took great delight in saying hello to so many people. Perhaps one day I will be like that all the time.

I feel like there are wisps of ideas running through my head, that I am trying to snag and bring forth here. In the next few days, I hope to be able to write more about SAYMA (and maybe provide a picture or two).

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The Story of Jesus of Valdosta

I discovered today that the Cotton Patch Gospel is now available online. If you have never heard of the Cotton Patch Gospel, it was written by Clarence Jordan, a southern minister who also started an intentional community called Koinonia Farm in the 1940's, and underwent a lot of persecution because Koinonia Farm was a community of both blacks and whites. A Koinonia Farms project to build houses for poor people in Americus, Georgia was a precursor to Habitat for Humanity (Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat, ran the Koinonia Partnership Housing project for its first few years).

When I first read parts of the Cotton Patch Gospel, I was a little put off by it. Clarence Jordan has torn the New Testament from its first century Palestine roots and plopped it down into mid-20th century Georgia. I used to think it was just quaint, but I have come to the understanding that it is trying to give you a story you can relate to better. You might be able to picture people and places better when their names are familiar. It isn't just giving things different names, he changes some of the situations. In the letters of Paul, where he had been talking about circumcision and the inclusion of Gentiles in the church, in the CPG, he is talking about segregation and churches that include both blacks and whites.

One of the things that was changed that seems a little harder to get used to is that Jesus was lynched. Instead of the cross, Paul talks about the noose. For example, this is an excerpt from the 1st Letter to the Christians in Atlanta (the modern-day Corinth):

To the so-called "practical" people, the idea of the noose is a lot of silly talk, but to those of us who have been let in on its meaning, it is the source of divine power. It’s just like the Scripture says:

I will tear to bits the dissertations of the Ph.D’s;
I will pull the rug from under those who have all the answers.

I just love the part about tearing to bits the dissertations of the Ph.D's, it is quite a vivid image. The original was something to the effect of "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise".

When you read the CPG version of Matthew, however, Jesus was crucified. Matthew was a later work for Jordan, so perhaps he was also not as comfortable with the idea of a noose instead of a cross. Even if you don't enjoy the Cotton Patch Gospel, it is instructive and inspiring to read about its author. You can find out more about Clarence and Koinonia Partners at the Koinonia Partners web site.

Friday, April 28, 2006


When Marcus Borg writes about Christianity, he often uses Quakers and Pentecostals to describe opposite ends of the spectrum of worship. When I was younger, I spent my summers with my grandparents who attended an Assembly of God (Pentecostal) church. Thus, I am blessed to have experienced both ends of the spectrum (some of my in-between experiences are rather amusing as well, like the time I was about 9 and discovered only after a really huge gulp from the cup that Episcopalians use real wine instead of grape juice for communion). During my time at this church, I had occasion to witness some interesting things like "being slain in the spirit" and glossolalia (a.k.a. speaking in tongues).

Speaking in tongues is an interesting thing to me. I have never done it, neither have my grandparents. I read an article on a while back (I can't find it now), by a minister who has never spoken in tongues, and was rejected by some churches because of it. That article was brought to mind last week when I was reading 1 Corinthians, where Paul says in chapter 12:
Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results, but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. (NET Bible)

So basically, he has outlined the various spiritual gifts. Later in chapter 14, he says:
Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened. (NET Bible)

At first, this grabbed me because it suggested that putting undue emphasis on speaking in tongues was probably harmful, and also expecting everyone to have that particular gift was not in keeping with Paul's understanding of the gifts. But then, I was struck even more by the realization that Meeting for Worship is essentially all of us getting together to exercise the gift of prophecy. It is amusing to consider what some of the reactions would be to someone speaking in tongues during Meeting for Worship, yet we are really just exercising a different gift - and aren't we also ignoring the possibility that not everyone is given the gift of prophecy? It seems to me that in Meeting for Worship for Healing, we are trying to exercise the gift of healing, and I have felt very strong indications of that gift occasionally during these meetings - much more often than I have felt the gift of prophecy (interestingly, I feel some of the same physical effects from both).

I found a pamphlet on Prophetic Ministry by Howard Brinton that did equate at least early Quaker worship with the gift of prophecy. It is an interesting overview of what happened to prophetic ministry, and suggests reasons why ministry today doesn't always seem very prophetic.

Given QuakerK's recent comparison/contrast between Quakerism & Evangelicalism, perhaps we should also compare it to the Charismatic movement.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

"F The President" ?

There was a big peace march & rally here in Atlanta over the weekend, and a number of people parked at the Atlanta Friends Meetinghouse and carpooled to the rally. Ceal and I had to go by the meetinghouse in the afternoon and I saw a car with a small, square black sticker that said "F the President". At times I have seen similar things like "Muggles for Bush", "W Is Not The Answer", and much worse. Even in Meeting for Worship there are also occasional snide remarks about Bush and Cheney. I have been guilty of this myself, not in Meeting for Worship, but in my daily conduct. This is not a practice of love, is not what Jesus calls us to do.


Look at these pictures. Can you love these people, hold them in the light, and pray that God will bless them? Our peace witness comes from the commandment to love our neighbor as ourself, not out of some duty to "do the right thing". Loving someone doesn't mean we have to agree with them, but it does mean that we treat them with respect and dignity, and do not make fun of them.

When I first started attending meeting, a dear woman named Jane Wellborn would ask us to hold in the light George W. Bush, his Cabinet, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and various others. This was a little more than a year after 9/11 and I had some difficulty with holding Osama Bin Laden in the light, and I will admit some difficulty with the others as well. I am so very grateful for Jane's witness, which continues today, and I look forward to her constant reminders.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

George's Car

Once a man named George was walking along a road with his friends and came to a rusted old truck. They tried driving the truck, but it wouldn't move because parts of it had gotten wedged into the road and into other parts of the truck. With some patience and work, George and his friends removed the parts that were in the way, and soon they had a simple, flatbed truck that took them all over the place, and anyone could ride on it.

After a long while, people began to ride the truck not because it got them anywhere, but because they liked the idea that anyone could ride on the truck. Some people who liked to fly added wings to it. Then someone who liked boating replaced the steering wheel with a rudder. A skier replaced two of the wheels with skis, while a biker installed a bike wheel. Pretty soon, the truck was such a mixture of all kinds of vehicles that no one could even describe it. And it never went anywhere.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

A little bit of Rilke

I have been reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke lately. The German is just beautiful. I haven't really found an English translation that captures enough of the feel of it, so I naively decided to give it a try myself. I wanted to try to preserve the rhyming scheme and meter as well as the meaning, because Rilke fits them together so well.

I started with The Book of Hours (Das Stundenbuch) and translated the first two poems. The first, in German, is:

Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an

Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an
mit klarem, metallenem Schlag:
mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fühle: ich kann -
und ich fasse den plastischen Tag.

Nichts war noch vollendet, eh ich es erschaut,
ein jedes Werden stand still.
Meine Blicke sind reif, und wie eine Braut
kommt jedem das Ding, das er will.

Nichts ist mir zu klein, und ich lieb es trotzdem
und mal es auf Goldgrund und groß
und halte es hoch, und ich weiß nicht wem
löst es die Seele los...

And here is my translation:

The clock strikes the hour and stirs me awake

The clock strikes the hour and stirs me awake
with a clear, metallic chime:
my senses now quiver. I feel: I'm able -
and I seize the moldable day

Not a thing is completed outside of my sight
and things yet forming stand still
my vision is ripe, and like a bride in white
receives everything in its will

Nothing is too small to me, and I love it still
and I paint it large and in gold
and I hold it high, and know not for whom
it will cause the soul's wings to unfold

The second poem is pretty well-known. Again, the German version:

Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen

Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,
die sich über die Dinge ziehn.
Ich werde den letzten vielleicht nicht vollbringen,
aber versuchen will ich ihn.

Ich kreise um Gott, um den uralten Turm,
und ich kreise jahrtausendelang;
und ich weiß noch nicht: bin ich ein Falke, ein Sturm
oder ein großer Gesang.

And here is my translation:

I live my life in widening rings

I live my life in widening rings
That spread themselves over all
I may not complete the last of these things
But to journey is my call

I circle round God, the most ancient form
My journey a thousand years long
Yet still I don't know: Am I a falcon? a storm?
Or part of a much larger song.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Do you solemnly swear... ?

I have been thinking lately about Jesus' admonition in Matthew 5 about not swearing oaths, and the extent to which Quakers take it. The NET Bible version of this passage is:

5:33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 5:34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all – not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 5:35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 5:36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 5:37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.

To me, it seems to me that Jesus is speaking about telling the truth, and having to use an oath to say "This time I really *am* telling the truth". The problem I have is that we use oaths for more widespread uses than just "I am telling the truth." For example, if you participate on a jury in Dekalb County, Georgia, you take an oath. You are not swearing to tell the truth, you are swearing that you will listen to the testimony and put all prejudice aside. Now, if this oath ends with "so help me God", then I think it definitely conflicts with Jesus' admonition, but what if it doesn't?

When a witness is sworn in, he or she is asked to raise their right hand, and then asked "Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you give is the truth" with no "so help you God" at the end. That seems a little gray to me.

What about the oath of office for an elected official? Here is the U.S. Presidential Oath of Office as specified by Article II, Section I of the Constitution (which calls it an "Oath or Affirmation"):

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

There is nothing that says you have to raise your hand or place it on the bible (there's an irony!). Would that make a difference? I was a little curious to see if either of the two Quaker presidents (Hoover & Nixon) opted for "affirm" instead of "swear". Interestingly, Hoover opted for "affirm" and was the second president to do so. Franklin Pierce was the first.

The reason this gives me such trouble is that once you get out of the realm of oaths as a statement of "I am telling the truth", it is hard for me to distinguish between that and a verbal contract. As far as I know, Quaker's don't have a problem with entering into contracts, so I am wondering what guidelines to use.

It feels to me like placing your hand on the Bible or saying "so help me God" is definitely out, but I am a little unsure about the phrase "do you swear". I think that even if the oath begins with "do you swear or affirm", if it ends with "so help me God" then it would still be the kind oath that Jesus is talking about. In fact, I think that if it is any promise that "*this time* I will behave differently than I have in the past" then it seems to be wrong. When it is a declaration that one understands and will follow the expected procedures, it seems more like a verbal contract than an oath, regardless of whether it is called an oath.