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.