Sunday, August 21, 2016

Words, Symbols, and Idols

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Brokenness of Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 5, 2016

Testing Leadings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2016

That Which Is Not Of God

The phrase "that of God in every person" is common among Friends. In the last century it has come to be, for some, the foundation of the Quaker testimonies (e.g. we don't believe in war because other people have "that of God" in them). But, an older usage that continues today among some Friends is the idea that there is "that of God" in us that guides us, illuminates the shadows in our hearts, and transforms us. The peace testimony in this case comes from being transformed into a life in which war and violence are no longer options. I often quote this phrase from Fox's journal in explaining the peace testimony: "I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars".

"That of God" in others was something to be answered. Here is one way that George Fox expressed it:
So all Friends, of what calling soever, that dwell in the power of God, and feel the power of God, and the light of Christ Jesus: dwell in that, act in that; that ye may answer that of God in every one upon the earth with your actions, and by your conversations, and by your words, being right, just, and true. This goes over the unjust, untrue, unholy, and unrighteous in the whole world; and reacheth to the good and true principle of God in all people, which tells them when they do not do equally, justly, righteously, and holily.
The idea here is that when we dwell in the Spirit and we act from the leadings of that Spirit, it resonates with "that of God" in others, and perhaps brings them to a new awareness of "that of God" within themselves. What this brings me to is the consideration of the opposite - in what ways do we answer that which is not of God in others? Take anger, for example, which is one of the "works of the flesh" that the Apostle Paul listed (along with its cousins enmities, strife, quarrels, dissensions, and factions) before he listed the "fruit of the Spirit". Anger seems to be one of those things that feeds itself, and it can almost be an addiction for some people. I think that when we knowingly and intentionally anger someone we are answering that which is not of God in them. That is not to say that there aren't things we may be led by the Spirit to do that may anger people, but that there are things we do that are not directly of God that feed those things that are not of God.

There is also something of a mob mentality that we can trigger. Someone may have some desire to do or say something but deep down they know they shouldn't, but then we say or do that thing and then they feel it is okay because we did it. On the positive side, I should also say that one person stepping forward and speaking up about something can give other people the courage to speak. The negative side can also feed on itself, since you may affect one person, and they in turn affect another and so forth (and in the Internet age, it can affect hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions).

One aspect of the idea of not answering "that which is not of God" in others might be the first part of query #9 from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative):
Are we mindful of Friends testimonies against alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and other harmful drugs; and do we refrain from using them or dealing in them, realizing that abstinence is the clearest witness against overindulgence?
I bring this one up because it seems to me to be a perpetual struggle for the monthly meetings to answer. Some people, especially those who have personal experience with substance abuse, seem to prefer a hard line on this, while others don't see a problem with an occasional glass of wine. It will be a shame if queries like this go by the wayside in the future, because I think it is good for us to wrestle with these questions, and acknowledge that we aren't isolated individuals - what we do or don't do can have an effect on people.

I took up plain dress about 6 years ago and one of the reasons was as a spiritual discipline in which I became more aware that people were watching me, so that perhaps I would be more aware and deliberate about what I do. I think my success in that area has been mixed. I think it has helped me in many ways, but perhaps I have also developed an ability to not see people staring at me. While this kind of discipline can be helpful, it seems like it could be particularly harmful if I am not watchful. When I do something that answers that which is not of God in someone, does the way I dress make it worse (i.e. "well, if HE can do it...")? Along that same line, do those of us who have various positions of leadership in our meetings have that same potential to make things worse?

My hope is that the consideration of whether we are answering that which is not of God can be a useful tool in discerning the difference between our own wants and desires and what "that of God" is telling us to do.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Testimony of Humility

"that if those who were at times under sufferings on account of some scruples of conscience kept low and humble, and in their conduct in life manifested a spirit of true charity, it would be more likely to reach the witness in others" -- John Woolman
One of the things I love about John Woolman's journal is that it conveys a sense of tenderness and humility, and two words that express humility to me in the writings of Friends are "meek" and "low". Low, of course, has a wide range of usage, but in this case I am thinking of the phrases "keep low" and "brought low". While "brought low" carries a general sense of being "brought down", it appears to me that the emphasis among many Friends was in the humbling that results from it. For example, in one of Fox's epistles: "the lofty looks of man shall be brought low, and the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down" (borrowing from Isaiah 2:12 and 2:17). The idea of "keeping low" seems to refer to remaining humble. Again from Fox: "keep low in your minds, and learn of Christ, who teacheth you humility, to keep in it".

Meekness is frequently mentioned in early Friends' writings, and one of the places I see it a lot is in confronting one another over actions. For example, Isaac Penington writes to his children about what to do when they notice evils in others, that they should first take notice of that evil in themselves and wait in the Light ("in the fear of God", actually) to be "delivered from it and kept out of it." Only then does he suggest that they "in tender pity, love and meekness, admonish they brother or sister of his or her evil, and watch to be helpful to preserve or restore them."

Meekness, lowliness and humility all seem to be both a way to encounter the Holy Spirit, and a result of that encounter. That is, there are times where we are reminded to "keep low", as if that is something we do on our own, and at other times we are "brought low" by the Spirit. Isaac Penington, in writing about "The Way and Means to Avoid Persecution" (he means avoiding persecuting others), says:
The gospel makes meek, tender, gentle, peaceable; fills with love and sweetness of spirit; teaches to love, to forgive, to pray for and bless enemies: and how shall this man persecute?"
When I got back from NCYM-C and was again immersed in the online world, it felt to me as if things had gotten far more vicious in the span of a few days. It also occurred to me that it might just seem more vicious because I spent several days in the gentle, peaceful spirit of that yearly meeting. Either way, it made me question where meekness and gentleness have gone, and why that is not one of our primary witnesses in the world, especially now. Why isn't humility listed as one of the testimonies? (aside from the fact that you can't make a word out of SPICE+H, although if you could add something with O, HOSPICE would work). The SPICE acronym is relatively new, of course. The original testimonies were more actions than ideas - using "thee" and "thou", not removing your hat for people, not swearing oaths, plain dress, refusing to fight in a war, etc. Only within the last century have our testimonies been described as general concepts. As I said before (in a manner that could have used a bit more gentleness and meekness), I don't treat the testimonies as a core set of beliefs, but rather as expressions of our shared experience of the Holy Spirit. In replying to a comment on that previous post, I realized that I think of the testimonies as touchstones, just as I do Galatians 5:22-23 ("the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control"). As touchstones, I compare my actions and leadings against them - is there love in this, is there integrity, etc.

I think humility should be in the list - that we should consider whether what we feel we are led to do is from a spirit of meekness, gentleness and humility. Maybe this means that we don't always have to be right (okay, that one stings). Maybe it means that instead of writing other people off as stupid, we try to understand why they disagree with us. Maybe it means that we are willing to be laughed at and criticized because we take a stance that our culture thinks is naïve. I know there are a lot of bad things going on in the world and I don't think we should be hiding our heads in the sand rather than confronting evil. But, I also believe that our tradition has an important witness, and that we should be willing to do things differently.

As I was writing this, I kept thinking about the phrase "the meek spirit of the gospel", knowing that I had read it somewhere, but couldn't find the reference. As it turns out, it was in a passage that I have written about before. The quote is from Elias Hicks:
[I] set forth the great danger of mixing in with the spirit of the world, which leads to strife and contention, and the promotion of parties and party animosities in civil governments: all of which have a direct tendency to engender war and bloodshed, and are therefore inconsistent for us, as a people, to touch or take part with, or to suffer our minds to be agitated thereby; as it always has led, and always will lead those, who are leavened therewith, out of the meek spirit of the gospel, which breathes "peace on earth, and good will to all men".
Now, I think there is some context necessary here. First, as I wrote recently, I don't think we should just blindly copy the actions of earlier Friends, and in Hicks' day, some Friends were very opposed to participation in government. Some of this may have come out of disillusionment with Penn's government in Pennsylvania. Hicks was sharply critical of Penn in a letter to John Murray, Jr. (See Paul Buckley's excellent "Dear Friend: Letters & Essays of Elias Hicks", pp. 17-22). Even being in a different time, however, I still recognize the truth in what he writes. Party politics do engender a warlike spirit in which members of the other parties are no longer thinking, feeling human beings, but are masked, uniformed figures to whom are ascribed a particular set of beliefs and positions. We may not all agree about the amount to which Friends should be concerned with politics, but I would hope we can at least recognize the dehumanizing spirit that has pervaded our political landscape. It is my hope that we can overcome that spirit by acting in the meek spirit of the gospel.

"Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly with one another." -- Isaac Penington to Friends in Amersham.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Myths and Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have a problem with authority, and here's an example of what I mean. Mary Linda and I watched "Cold Comfort Farm" a few weeks ago, and this scene with Ian McKellen brought some of my authority issues to my attention:

While I love the line "there'll be no butter in Hell", my inner critic is saying "how do you know?", and that question occurs a lot for me. It comes up, for example, when we pass a billboard along I-40 that says "When you die, you WILL meet God", and another along I-75 that says "The Holy Bible: Inspired, Absolute, Final". I am okay with "inspired", although I think they mean something else by it. What do they even mean by "absolute"? Being in a religious tradition that believes in continuing revelation, "final" doesn't work for me either. When I am feeling cynical, I feel like they are saying "the bible says what I say it does, period". There is a take-it-or-leave-it absoluteness in the way many people approach the bible, and for that reason, some people leave it.

Even so, I am still one who values the bible and I think that's because my approach to the bible is more along the lines of what Marcus Borg calls "historical-metaphorical", in that it isn't the factuality of the stories of the bible that are the important thing, but what they convey about the authors' understanding of God. This obviously implies that I don't think that the bible was divinely dictated. I find myself thinking about using the word myth when talking about some of the stories, but I don't usually say it out loud. I remember thinking it was somewhat scandalous in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" to hear Dr. McCoy saying "according to myth, the Earth was created in six days". I always understood the word "myth" to imply falsehood, which is one of the definitions that Merriam-Webster gives for it. Another definition is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon". It is in the latter context that I use the word in referring to at least parts of the bible, not as a judgment of any truth or falsehood. You don't have to believe that the world was created in six days to appreciate the message that the world is good.

What this means is that I keep in mind that there is a human element here — that the various authors of the bible were writing about their experience of God, but I don't believe they were infallible. Friends have always maintained, that as the bible was written by people influenced by the Holy Spirit, it must be read in that same Spirit, and I continually try to do that. One of the results of this is that I think of the various stories of the bible as influences on my understanding of the Holy Spirit, but not as things that should just be duplicated. To use a musical analogy, musicians study the playing of other musicians, learning various riffs, studying phrasing, practicing techniques, but the end result is not to play exactly like the musician they are studying, but instead to expand what they are able to play. Music is played in a context. You wouldn't normally play a Miles Davis note-for-note solo in the middle of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but you might play the symphony in Miles Davis' style (as if he was playing it), or you may play it in your own style that is influenced by him — what an interesting creation that might be! The bible is an intersection of the Spirit of God, people, and a point in time. Living in a different point in time, the result of that intersection may be different — or not. We are all still human after all.

The Sermon on the Mount talks about turning the other cheek. I think as Friends we often just take that literally, but Walter Wink suggested that it had to do with asserting your equality with the person slapping you (based on which hand was being used to do the slapping). I find it interesting to view some of Jesus' actions as being similar to what early Friends were called to do with "hat honor" and "thee & thou", witnessing against class inequality. Now, maybe I will be called to literally turn the other cheek, but maybe there will be some other form of self-sacrifice that I am required to do, or maybe there will be some other way to assert my equality with someone or confirm someone else's. I think we get a richer view of the bible when we don't assume that things are to be copied literally. I have the same attitude towards the writings of early Friends. Sure, maybe we're supposed to go naked as a sign, but maybe our time calls for something different.

My confession here was spawned by the reference to "the enemy" in a previous post about an epistle from Alexander Parker. Right now, I don't think that I have to believe in a literal enemy, devil, tempter, adversary to see the truth in this epistle, because it describes a tendency for us to misunderstand what the Spirit is telling us, or a temptation to just say something we want to say even thought we don't really feel a leading from the Spirit.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Some Counsel From Alexander Parker, Part 2

I recently posted about an epistle from Alexander Parker in which he speaks of how we settle into Meeting for Worship. Immediately following that, Parker goes on to speak about vocal ministry:
And if any be moved to speak words, wait low in the pure fear, to know the mind of the Spirit, where and to whom they are to be spoken.—If any be moved to speak, see that they speak in the power; and when the power is still, be ye still.—And all who speak of the movings of the Lord, I lay it as a charge upon you, to beware of abusing the power of God, in acting a wrong thing under pretence of being moved of the Lord:—for the pure power may move, and then the enemy (who goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,) he may present a wrong thing to the view of the understanding; and here is a danger of abusing the power, acting that which the true power condemns, and yet pretending that the power moves to it;—this is a double sin. Therefore, let every one patiently wait, and not be hasty to run in the dark; but keep low in the true fear, that the understanding may be opened to know the mind of the Spirit; then as the Spirit moves and leads, it is good to follow its leadings;—for such are led into all truth. Thus, my Friends, as you keep close to the Lord, and to the guidance of his good Spirit, ye shall not do amiss; but in all your services and performances in the worship of God, ye shall be a good savour unto the Lord; and the Lord will accept of your services, and bless and honour your assemblies with his presence and power.
In the previous post, I mused about the idea of our Meeting for Worship being such that we were reluctant to leave, and hoped that we would feel that more. I think Parker's advice here becomes daunting when our meetings don't experience the power that he did. In the absence of that power, Would waiting until we feel it have the effect of completely shutting up vocal ministry? Would that be a good thing? One one hand, it might be good for us to have more consideration over our words, on the other hand, if the purpose of vocal ministry is to build us up ("edifying" in the King James Bible), what happens when there is none? I don't mean to say that we never experience that power, but I think the experience varies from meeting to meeting, and changes over time, and some meetings find themselves in a fairly dry state. Perhaps expectation is the key. Do we come to meeting expecting to experience what Parker refers to as "the power", what is our waiting worship waiting on?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Some Counsel From Alexander Parker, Part 1

I recently came across an epistle from Alexander Parker to Friends published in Letters, &c, of Early Friends (Douglas Steere referenced it in the introduction to "Quaker Spirituality"). The opening reminds me of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 when he talks about worship in his time, beginning with "What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, …".
So Friends, when you come together to wait upon God, come orderly in the fear of God: the first that enters into the place of your meeting, be not careless, nor wander up and down, either in body or mind; but innocently sit down in some place, and turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present by the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart, sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the Spirit: and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light; a few that are thus gathered by the arm of the Lord into the unity of the Spirit,—this is a sweet and precious meeting, where all meet with the Lord!—Those who are brought to a pure, still waiting upon God in the Spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are: for God is a Spirit, and in the Spirit is he worshipped; so that my soul hath dear union with you, who purely wait upon God in the Spirit, though not a word be spoken to the hearing of the outward ear. And here is the true feeding of the Spirit; and all who thus meet together to wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength daily. In such a meeting, where the presence and power of God is felt, there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here: and this is the end of all words and writings—to bring people to the eternal living Word. So, all dear hearts, when you come together to wait upon God, come singly and purely; that your meetings together may be for the better, and not for the worse.
One thing that struck me in reading this passage was the idea of being drawn together in meeting such that we don't want to part. One time during worship at Atlanta Friends Meeting, a small child of a visiting family was a little noisy and his mother decided to take him outside. As they were going, he said "I don't want to leave", and I thought how lovely it would be if we all had that feeling during worship. Years ago I talked about having a time limit on Meeting for Worship, and that came up in conversation at the NCYM-C annual sessions last week. My current feeling about this is that I wouldn't want to arbitrarily say that there is no time limit, but my hope is that one day we might all feel like we don't want to leave.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Selections and Letters From the Works of Isaac Penington

I notice that I posted several times about my reprint of "Southern Heroes" several years ago, but not once about my work on combining two out-of-print collections of Isaac Penington. I really enjoy Penington and had a reprint of "Selections From the Works of Isaac Penington" (Darton & Harvey, London). I decided to combine the selections with the "Letters of Isaac Penington" (Association of Friends, Philadelphia) and create a nice single-volume Penington collection (for a much more thorough collection, see Quaker Heritage Press' 4-volume "The Works of Isaac Penington.

As usual, it is available for print-on-demand, and is also available for free as a PDF.

Given the vicious political environment we find ourselves in today, I share this letter of Penington's from 1667:
Letter 21
To Friends in Amersham.


    Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness, and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall, and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh, wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then ye will be a praise to the Lord; and any thing that is, or hath been, or may be amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb's dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So, watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon to do this in and for us all. So, mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live: the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.

    Your friend in the Truth, and a desirer of your welfare and prosperity therein.
4th of Third Month, 1667.

Monday, July 18, 2016

NCYMC - The Honeymoon is Over, and That's a Good Thing

I just got back from the 319th annual session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), which was held at Guilford college. Sometime over the weekend, I came to the realization that the honeymoon was over, and probably had been for a few years. When I was younger, the phrase "the honeymoon is over" had a very negative connotation, as in "you don't care about me anymore". Not only do I not think it is a bad thing for the honeymoon to be over, I consider it a healthy part of a relationship.

When I first started attending the NCYM-C annual sessions, I gushed about them, and I still do. It felt like my spiritual home, and so much of what was going on there resonated with me, met my spiritual needs, and changed me. But, I also recognize that I idealized the yearly meeting to some extent. I didn't particularly notice flaws, or things that just didn't speak to me. I also recognize that I have changed over the past 10 years (so has the yearly meeting). While I'm just thinking at this moment about my spiritual life and my views on Quakerism and Christianity, it occurs to me that my life has gone through tremendous upheaval since that first visit. I find that I don't idealize the yearly meeting as much any more. There are things I don't agree with, people that may occasionally grate on me, but despite that, it still feels like my spiritual home and I feel deep love for the yearly meeting. I think it's important to recognize that.

People often come to our meetings seeking something, just as I did in my first visit to NCYM-C. For those who find what they are looking for, they often have the assumption that they have found the perfect place. Then, when they discover that we are, in fact, human beings, there can be a feeling of disillusionment and disappointment that may drive them away. This happens in other kinds of relationships as well -- friendships, romances, jobs, memberships, etc. I do think it's good to have a honeymoon period -- it helps cement those things in a relationship that connect us, but as the honeymoon period wears off, it's equally important to not let the things we have overlooked suddenly obscure those things that connect us. Mary Linda and I often find ourselves mentioning this dynamic with newcomers (not necessarily first-time visitors, but those that want to sit down and talk with us about the meeting). It's not that I want to end that honeymoon period, but that I want people to be aware that there is something beyond it, and that it deepens the relationship to love one another flaws-and-all.