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.