Monday, June 29, 2009

Bible Translations

There is an interesting tradeoff in bible translation that cropped up again for me today. Some bible translations tend toward being more literal - trying to translate word for word what the original text says. Others adopt a more dynamic approach, trying to convey the meaning of the text while not always being word-for-word (it might be described as thought-for-thought). I used to prefer the more literal translations, but one of the problems there is that the closer you get to the original text, the more you need to know about the original culture, and it is very easy to miss the significance of passages. Another problem, of course, is that the word order and grammar of Hebrew and Greek is quite different from English, so the closer you get to a word-for-word translation, the more stilted the English sounds.

Lately, I have been enjoying the New Living Translation (NLT), because it tries to use English as it is spoken today. Many translations end up with a style of English that is rarely spoken, although it is still grammatically correct. For some people, it feels more like "biblish" - a separate language that is spoken by those in-the-know. I don't believe the original texts felt this way to the hearers, and the King James bible probably still sounded pretty natural to early Friends. I have felt lately that for some people, hearing the bible in a more natural sounding form of English may help lower some of the barriers that might otherwise come up in the presence of such a different usage of English. I also think there is a temptation to think that speaking differently is an indication that the words are inspired. I know some people may feel a special connection when they hear a traditional rendering of a passage - my mom is this way about the traditional King James readings at Christmas time, but, I believe that it isn't the grammatical form of the words that is the important thing - it is that they are spoken from the Spirit. This works both ways - the biblish-sounding words can still reach people for whom they sound alien if they are spoken from the Spirit. But, people still have the choice of whether to listen or not - I think it helps to navigate around some of the barriers people may put up.

While the literal approach has the problem of not conveying enough context, the dynamic approach has the problem of conveying too much. That is, if there are multiple ways to read a text, a translation might not convey the various options. I ran into this today with the NLT in its translation of 2 Peter 1:19, which reads:

Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts.

The NET bible translates it this way:

Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

The King James Version reads:

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

Notice that the NLT has taken the "prophetic word" or "word of prophecy" and turned it into "the message proclaimed by the prophets". I think this is probably the typical protestant interpretation of this passage, but for Friends, possessing the prophetic word is not having the scriptures available, but being able to speak the prophetic word directly by the Spirit. I believe the NLT version of this verse does not allow for that interpretation, while other translations do, and I believe the Greek text allows it as well.

In his journal, George Fox relates an encounter with a priest in Nottingham that illustrates how Fox interpreted this particular passage:

When I came there all the people looked like fallow ground, and the priest, like a great lump of earth, stood in his pulpit above: he took for his text these words of Peter, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy, whereunto ye do well that he take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts." He told the people this was the scriptures, by which they were to try all doctrines, religions, and opinions. Now the Lord's power was so mighty upon me, and so strong in me, that I could not hold; but was made to cry out, "Oh! no, it is not the scriptures;" and told them what it was, namely, the holy spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions, and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all truth, and so gave the knowledge of all truth.

As Friends, I think we need to be especially aware that our understanding of the bible often differs from the traditional protestant view, and that despite the best efforts of the translators, various bible translations do tend to carry along the doctrinal views of the translators. While we must still rely on the Holy Spirit for illumination of the text, I think it helps if the text does reflect the original inspired message.

Friday, June 19, 2009

What's wrong with evangelism?

You don't have to read much of the writings of early Friends to see that evangelism was an integral part of their life. Since "evangelism" is an overloaded term, let me explain what I am talking about. The word "evangelism" derives from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (EUANGELLION) which means "Good News". The word "gospel" means the same thing, coming from the Old English form of "good story/message". For Friends, the gospel was not simply a message because they understood by experience Paul's description of the gospel as "the power of God unto salvation". Preaching the gospel was Spirit-led, Spirit-filled preaching that awakened people to the Light of Christ within them - to turn them from darkness to light (a phrase from Paul that George Fox often quoted).

I would guess that many modern Friends are very uncomfortable with the idea of evangelism, and perhaps for a number of different reasons. If this does make you uncomfortable, why? Maybe you could ask yourself that and sit with it before reading further.

These are some of the potential objections that come to my mind:

  • Religion is a personal thing, I don't want to push it on anyone
  • Friends don't proselytize
  • I don't want to be like those other religious groups
  • It is disrespectful of other religions
  • I'm afraid/embarassed

    I would like to hear of others. The reason I am bringing this up is to contrast it with our attitude towards the political process. By using the political process to do the things we think need doing, we are essentially imposing our will upon those who don't have enough votes. While one's religion is a matter of choice, and with Friends it has always been a matter of the individual making the choice to turn towards the Light, in the political arena, the minority doesn't really have a choice. The voice of the majority is backed by the law enforcement of the United States government (or whatever country you may be in). While I was at SAYMA last week, I heard Friends talking about our "window of opportunity" to get things done before the congressional elections start next year. I heard discussions about the effective ways to contact various government representatives, and about lobbying at the state level in addition to the national level. Why can't we also have discussions about opportunities to spread the Good News? Why don't we hear more statements like "many were convinced", as George Fox wrote numerous times in his journal?

    Ceal and I had a long discussion about this one evening, and she asked me what someone could have said to me when I was 20 that would have reached me. I have to admit that I don't know. But, I also understand that it isn't the words themselves that are the important thing, but that they are spoken from the Spirit. Early Friends often spoke of their being a power behind their words, and I believe that power could have reached me, too.

    No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket.
  • Monday, June 15, 2009

    For the beauty of the earth

    We were at the SAYMA (Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association) annual gathering this past weekend. On first day morning, I was walking up the road to get our van from the parking lot. I wasn't aware of how busy my mind was, just thinking of what we needed to do that day. Suddenly, as I walked past one of the most beautiful views on the campus, I became aware of the quiet beauty of the mountains and the rich, lively green of the trees, bushes, and grass. I felt a stillness come over me that was such a contrast to what I had just been feeling.

    View from Warren Wilson College

    Early Friends' Experiences of the Light, Part 7

    This is a continuation of a previous post.

    Friends experienced feelings of peace and a sense of divine love through the Light. John Gratton wrote that “The sense of his love, and the experience which I have of his goodness, tenders my poor heart, and bows my spirit before him; and I hope you partake with me, and will also feel with me beyond words or writings.” This divine aspect of love was also felt between one another. Elizabeth Chester wrote of her husband Edward:

    He would often say, he felt more of the love of God than he could express, and he much desired stillness and retirement, saying, he knew the worth of a quiet habitation. I felt him in that love of God, which surpasses the love of all things here below, in which we were joined together by the Lord

    Isaac Penington wrote than when some Quakers first reached that of God within him, it stirred up love towards those Friends:

    As I remember, at the very first, they reached to the life of God in me, which life answered their voice, and caused a great love in me to spring to them ... And this was the effect of almost every discourse with them; they still reached my heart, and I felt them in the secrets of my soul; which caused the love in me always to continue, yea, sometimes to increase towards them

    Stephen Grellet wrote of divine love enabling him to speak to others:

    I proceeded in it in much lowness of spirit, keeping close to my heavenly guide. He so condescended to me, that on coming into a family, a feeling of Divine love clothing me, I was enable to communicate my concern for them, so as, in many instances, to reach the witness for Truth in their hearts. Many of these opportunities were favoured seasons, and proved visitations of love and mercy to the people. Most of them received us, and our books, with tears of gratitude.

    Friends found that dwelling in the Light gave them a peace that was contrary to the spirit of war. George Fox often said that it took away the occasion of all war, as he does here:

    for dwelling in the word, it takes away the occasion of wars, and gathers our hearts together to God, and unto one another, and brings to the beginning, before wars were

    Friends also felt a peace in doing what they were led to do. John Woolman wrote:

    As I was favored to keep to the root, and endeavor to discharge what I believed was required of me, I found inward peace therein, from time to time, and thankfulness of heart to the Lord, who was graciously pleased to be a guide to me.

    Friends experienced a sense of peace and love from the Light unlike anything they knew of. John Gratton wrote:

    And Oh the peace that flowed in my heart! as Christ promised, not as the world giveth, who cry peace, peace, when there is no peace at all experienced. But, praises to the God of my life, his peace hath he given to me and many thousands in this day; that peace the world does not know, neither can they take it away from us, glory to the Highest for ever. Oh! the love and life that flows here, and springs from the Fountain of living waters, in whom all our fresh springs are. Feel it reader, in thyself, hast thou not seen it gush out of thy rocky heart?

    Early Friends' Experiences of the Light, Part 6

    This is a contination of a previous post.

    One of the most fascinating experiences of Friends has been that of leadings – especially those that seem unexpected or out of place. George Fox relates a story in which he was led to take off his shoes in the middle of winter and proclaim against the city of Lichfield until he felt clear and was able to leave:

    As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield; where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still for it was winter; and the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying, “Cry, wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!” So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, “wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!” It being market day, I went into the market place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and made stands, crying as before, “wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!” And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace;

    Stephen Grellet relates a well-known story of a man who felt led to worship alone in an abandoned meeting house:

    The following interesting circumstance was there related to me by John Carter, a near relative of the Friend who had been an instrument in raising up that meeting from a decayed state, and on that account had called it Spring meeting. A number of years ago, it had become much reduced, through the unfaithfulness of some of its members, and the death of others. A young man of the name of Carter became religiously inclined, so as to feel disposed to open the meeting house, and to repair there, though alone, on meeting days. He had continued to do so for some time, when one day, a great exercise came upon him, to stand up and audibly to proclaim what he then felt to be on his mind, of the love of God, through Jesus Christ, towards poor sinful man. It was a great trial of his faith, for nothing but empty benches were before him. He yielded, however, to the apprehended duty, when, shortly after having again taken his seat, 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. After the meeting closed, he found that these young men, his former associates, wondering what could induce him thus to come alone to that house, had come softly to look through the cracks of the door at what he was doing, when they were so reached by what he loudly declared, that they came in. Some of them continued to meet with him, and became valuable Friends. The meeting increased by degrees to the size it now is.

    While Friends were often led by immediate insights, at other times they felt a concern pressing upon them as a weight, which seemed to grow heavier. This was often referred to as being under the “weight of a concern”. If Friends ignored this concern, or willfully disobeyed it, the weight would continue to increase until they could bear it no longer. David Hall writes of one such incident of unfaithfulness in his journal:

    For on the 22nd of the same ninth month, a great weight seized me, to go through the town of Skipton, and call the inhabitants thereof to repentance, which concern and burthen grew heavier and heavier towards the middle part of that day, so that I could rest in no place; however, keeping it to myself, I went to meeting, it being our week-day meeting, where I was in great distress, having not given up to the concern. After meeting I returned home, and remained under the same anxiety of soul. Next morning came, and the same concern fell again weightily upon me, growing heavier and heavier, as before, insomuch, that I went out of the school into a place apart to crave the Lord’s assistance in the discharge of my duty. The weight growing intolerable, I privately laid the matter before my father, who, at the hearing thereof, broke out into tears, and calling my mother into the parlour, acquainted her therewith, whereupon she fell upon her knees in humiliation before the Lord, to implore his aid; and at her rising up she encouraged me, saying, – Be not cast down. We all three wept.

    Friends often found that they had insights into another’s spiritual condition. As George Fox described it: “The Lord hath given me a spirit of discerning, by which I many times saw the states and conditions of people, and could try their spirits.” He relates many of these kinds of experiences in his journal, such as this one:

    There came also at another time a woman, and stood at a distance from me. I cast mine eye upon her, and said, “Thou hast been a harlot,” for I perfectly saw the condition and life of the woman. She answered, many could tell her of her outward sins, but none could tell her of her inward. Then I told her, her heart was not right before the Lord; and that from the inward came the outward. This woman was afterwards convinced of God’s truth, and became a Friend.

    Stephen Grellet relates the story of Comfort Hoag, who, in the midst of sailing for Europe, had a revelation that they would be returning to America:

    About forty years ago, Comfort Collins, then a Hoag, having surrendered herself and her all to the Divine will, under a sense of duty to go to England on religious service, with the unity of her friends, embarked for Europe, accompanied by Sarah Barney. After they had been out at sea about a week, as they were sitting together in the cabin, in solemn silence before the Lord, Comfort said to Sarah, “The Lord has accepted my free-will offering to his Divine will to go to Europe, and now he releases me from this service; and, as a proof of it, he will bring us back again to the American shores.” Sarah Barney told me that the communication was attended with so much solemnity, that she could not doubt that it was of the Lord. Without exchanging a word with one another, they continued a considerable time in silence, when they heard the captain of the ship speaking with his trumpet to another ship, stating that he was under the necessity of returning to port, as his vessel had sprung a leak, which the Friends knew not before. Thus were these women brought back, and from that time they felt themselves entirely released from the service of travelling in Europe.

    William Edmundson received a revelation that he was going to be robbed:

    About this time a singular exercise fell upon William Edmundson, as he was attending a fair on business at Antrim; by which he was instructed in the benefit of faithfully attending to the secret intimations of the divine Monitor, saying, “this is the way, walk in it,” even when he might not see immediately the intention of the Almighty in thus leading him by a way that he knew not. Returning with his brother late from the fair, they proposed to lodge at Glenavy, six miles on their way homeward; but before they arrived there, William was introduced into a great exercise of mind, accompanied with an intimation, the source of which he believed to be the divine Spirit, that his shop was in danger of being robbed that night, but that he was to go back towards Clough; and being much perplexed under the apprehension of danger to his property on the one hand if he went not home, and on the other hand not knowing wherefore he should be required to go back to Clough, he cried earnestly to the Lord, to be preserved from following a delusive spirit, and that he might be directed what course to pursue. On which he received a clear intimation, that the same power which required him to go back, would preserve his property from harm. Lodging at Glenavy, he slept but little; but in the morning, not daring to disobey so clear a command, he let his brother proceed homewards, while he went himself to Clough. On reaching his home, he found that on the night when the foregoing exercise came upon him, the shop-window was broken down by robbers, and fell with such violence on the counter as to awaken his family, and the thieves being frightened ran away. “So,” says he, “I was confirmed that it was the word of the Lord, that said, ‘that which drew me back should preserve my shop;’ and I was greatly strengthened to obey the Lord in what he required; for I was much afraid, lest at any time my understanding should be betrayed by a wrong spirit; not fearing the loss of goods, nor sufferings for the truth, its testimony being more to me than all other things.”

    Continued in Part 7.

    Early Friends' Experiences of the Light, Part 5

    This is a continuation of a previous post.

    While unity is the foundation of Quaker business meetings, it is hard to understand the idea without experiencing it. Friends wrote of “being of one mind” or being united. George Fox and others would say that their hearts had been knitted together, echoing a theme found several times in the bible. William Hunt wrote of a moving experience that evokes both tendering and unity in a way that suggests that hearts are broken in order to be united:

    “sat under a cloud of thick darkness, in which he felt the mystery of iniquity work in a wonderful manner; after which the Lord, in everlasting kindness to his pained children, was pleased to raise the seed of Zion and exalt her horn in the midst of her enemies, so that we had many comfortable meetings, and our hearts were much broken and sweetly united."

    Isaac Penington spoke of being knit together, and the experience of the meeting being of “one mind”:

    Unity in the spiritual body, which is gathered into and knit together in the pure life, is a most natural and comely thing. Yea, it is exceeding lovely, to find all that are of the Lord of one heart, of one mind, of one judgment, in one way of practice and order in all things,

    John Burnyeat wrote of the power in meeting and how it united every one:

    Thus growing into this experience of the goodness of the Lord, and of the sweetness, glory, and excellency of his power in our assemblies, we grew in strength and zeal for our meetings more and more, and valued the benefit thereof more than any worldly gain; yea, it was unto some more than our appointed food. Thus continuing, we grew more and more into an understanding of divine things and heavenly mysteries, through the openings of the power which was daily amongst us, which wrought sweetly in our hearts, which united us more and more unto God, and knit us together in the perfect bond of love, of fellowship and membership.

    Appearing before a New Jersey court in 1830, Samuel Bettle testified about the Quaker way of business and the unity experienced by Friends:

    Our mode of deciding questions is peculiar. It is intimately connected with our religious principles and doctrines; when an individual or a religious assembly is gathered into a reverent, inward, waiting state of mind, that we are sensible at times of the presence of the invisible and omnipresent One – qualifying the heart for secret communion and approach unto God. Hence, the Society believe, and it is one of their peculiar and distinguishing doctrines that there may be secret approach to and worship of God, without any ceremonial outward act or service; and in our meetings for business, we also hold that it is needful to experience the same power to qualify us for right discernment and to restrain our own spirit and will; and we do believe that when our meetings have been thus in degree influenced, there have been wisdom and judgment better than our own; consistent with the prophetic declaration respecting the blessed Head of the Church, that “He should be a Spirit of judgment to those who sit in judgment.” With these views, and a corresponding practice, our Society has been favored to come to its decisions and conclusions at its various meetings, with a remarkable degree of harmony and unity. These conclusions, thus prevailing in a meeting, or, in other words, this sense of the meeting, is often attained to with very little expression; and the member acting in the capacity of clerk records this sense, feeling or conclusion of the meeting. And it has never been come to by a vote, or the opinion of the majority; no question is ever taken by a reference to numbers, or votes, or a ma jority, or anything like that. It is obtained upon religious principles, which we understand very well, but which it is difficult to explain. We have got along in this way for near two centuries very well.

    Continued in Part 6.

    Friday, June 12, 2009

    Sowing in Tears

    They who plant in tears
    will harvest with shouts of joy.
    They weep as they go to plant their seed,
    but they sing as they return with the harvest. (Psalm 126:5-6 NLTse)

    Ceal and I were sitting in prayer this morning here at SAYMA, and I suddenly had an insight about this verse. I had always thought of it as saying "you may be suffering now, but God will make it better". This morning, I understood it in the context of the humbling and tendering of the Holy Spirit, as I just recently posted about. In allowing ourselves to be brought low, and tendered, even to the point of tears, we find at the end of it, great joy in the deeper connection with God and with one another.

    Friday, June 5, 2009

    Early Friends' Experiences of the Light, Part 4

    This is a continuation of a previous post.

    Friends frequently wrote of being humbled by the Spirit, or that their hearts were made tender. While being humbled can be part of one’s individual transformation, it was also something that was experienced as a community. Friends frequently wrote of being humbled, tendered, or brought low, sometimes accompanied by tears.

    John Churchman shared a typical description of being humbled:

    That humbling time had at Flushing was of singular service to me, being thereby made willingly subject to the divine openings of truth, the motion of the eternal Spirit and pure word of life, in speaking to the several states of those who were present in the meetings, and life came into dominion, and the power thereof overshadowed at times, to my humble admiration;

    John Woolman wrote often of being humbled, tendered, or brought low, and in this instance, he gives a hint of the struggles he went through:

    At length, through the merciful continuance of heavenly visitations, I was made to bow down in spirit before the Lord. One evening I had spent some time in reading a pious author, and walking out alone I humbly prayed to the Lord for his help, that I might be delivered from all those vanities which so ensnared me. Thus being brought low, he helped me, and as I learned to bear the cross I felt refreshment to come from his presence, but not keeping in that strength which gave victory I lost ground again, the sense of which greatly affected me.

    William Savery writes of humbling in relation to the convincement of a young man:

    30th. Had a meeting at George Dillwyn’s lodgings: about thirty attended, among whom were two candidates for the priest’s office; it was a humbling time, and one of these young men was much broken, and all his former fabric destroyed; he seemed like a man in amazement, that he should have found the truth in so simple a way and so unlocked for, and we endeavoured to strengthen his exercised mind.

    Tears often accompanied this humbling and tendering. In his journal, Samuel Bownas wrote of observing these tears as a child:

    Many Friends were in prison at Appleby for attending that meeting, whom my dear mother went to visit, taking me along with her, and we had a meeting with the prisoners, several Friends from other places being likewise there by appointment. 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.

    William Sewel wrote of another account of tears, and also of the trembling and shaking, and that although some did experience trembling and shaking, Friends did not think of it as something everyone should do:

    Now because in those early times, among the many adherents of this persuasion, there were some that having been people of a rude and dissolute life, came so to be pricked to the heart, that they grew true penitents, with real sorrow for their former transgressions; it happened that they at meetings did not only burst out into tears, but also were affected with such a singular commotion of the mind, that some shakings of their bodies were perceived; some people naturally being more affected with the passions of the mind, than others: for even anger doth transport some men so violently, that it makes them tremble; whereas others will quake with fear: and what wonder then, if some being struck with the terrors of God did tremble? But this being seen by envious men, they took occasion from thence to tell, that these professors of the light performed their worship with shaking; yet they themselves never asserted that trembling of the body was an essential part of their religion, but have occasionally said the contrary; though they did not deny themselves to be such as trembled before God; and they also did not stick to say, that all people ought to do so, however thereby not enjoining a bodily shaking.

    Thomas Shilltoe writes of many being moved to tears at the close of yearly meeting:

    after which the Yearly Meeting was adjourned to Short-creek meeting-house, in which not a few of our company on this solemn occasion were bathed in tears; some of the youth amongst others.

    Continued in Part 5.