Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reflections on Bible Half Hour

This year the Bible Half Hour at New England Yearly Meeting was not the usual long discourse on some aspect or another of the Bible. Instead Tracye Peterson led us in Meetings for Reading. She would identify the passages, usually 2 or 3 verses at the most. Different people would read the passages from different translations, including Spanish versions from our Cuban Friends. Then we would sink down with these passages and see what would rise up. I think that it worked reasonably well although some people did not like it as well as the lecture/sermon format they were used to.

All of the passages were taken from the first chapter of the Book of James. What follows are some of the passages read and some of the thoughts and images that they brought forth in me.

“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind;” James 1:5-6

When I first heard this I thought that the doubter would be buffeted and blown about by the vicissitudes of this world. As I sat with it I realized that the wind was the breath of the Holy Spirit. The person without faith would be blown about by the Spirit. Just because one lacks faith does not mean that God ceases to exist. Your lack of faith does not cause the breath of the Spirit to cease to blow. God does not cease loving you just because you don't believe in God. But faith is like a keel. With a keel, your boat can sail across the sea. The keel allows a boat to take the wind and use it to travel in steady direction. The wind no longer buffets you about, with faith, the wind powers your journey.

“You must understand this, my beloved; let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid youselves of all sordidness and rank grown of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implaned word that has the power to save your souls.” James 1:19-21

This one pierced me to my heart. I have only recently been learning how to separate my anger and self-righteousness from the voice of God. I know that speaking from my anger has hurt people. I will try to hold this one in my heart if I am tempted to anger over what I perceive to be the shortcomings of Friends. My anger does not produce God's righteousness.

This does not say to not get angry, although one should not fly of the handle or get angry quickly. Instead it is counsel to be careful when angry. To be aware that God does not speak in our anger. God does not build the Kingdom with our anger. We are human; we get angry. But God's righteousness is built with our love, our patience, our forbearance, compassion. God's way is the Way of the Cross, of forsaking power and seeking meekness and humility.

This is how James Naylor described it:
There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betreyed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgieness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings: for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this ressurection and eternal holy life.

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing. James 1:22-25

We were created in the image of God, but we forget. The face of God is to be found in our faces. We must be doers of the word because in the doing we remember who we are.

If any think that they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but decieve their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pre and undefiled before God, the Father, is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:26-27

Be slow to anger because our anger does not create God's righteousness, be doers of the word and not merely hearers, and bridle your tongues. We should all repeat this as we enter into Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business.

We are to keep ourselves unstained by the world but not uninvolved. We are not defiled by what we take in but by what comes out of our hearts. We are stained by the world when we take in the attitudes of the world: hardness of heart, selfishness, pride, greed and so on. It is sometimes dirty work to care for the powerless in their distress. By caring for the poor and powerless we take up the work of the Cross. It is the blood of Christ that cleanses us. Jan Hoffman at last years FUM Triennial talked about how Christ is Light and in Him there is no darkness, so even His blood is Light, and this is the Light that cleanses us.

Monday, August 14, 2006

What canst thou say

At the sessions of New England Yearly Meeting just concluded, the Faith and Practice Revision Committee presented a second draft on their chapter on worship. Other reactions to this particular business session can be found here and here. I was the confused person that Cat Chapin-Bishop refers to who asked for a clarification of what we were to respond to. I would have been satisfied with a short answer such as “names for God” or “our experience of worship” or whatever. Jan Hoffman's answer was eloquent and was certainly a message but it was a very indirect answer to my question. Maybe she was answering Cat's unspoken question instead of mine.

The business session was fine but I was brought up short by the first paragraph in the draft introduction: “When Friends ask that crucial question 'What canst thou say?' our answer takes its place in a living, changing tradition.” On my first quick and somewhat distracted reading (because I did not read the advance documents in advance like I was asked to) it seemed to me that “What canst thou say?” was being used as Quakerese for “What is your opinion?” On rereading the entire section again it is not clear that is is being used quite in that sense. Whether reading it correctly or not, it pushed a button I hadn't known I had until then. Using “What cans't thou say?” as an invitation for an opinion or a justification for offering one seems to be fairly common among Friends. It seems to imply that all our opinions are important and that each of us should be ready to express them at any time. Unfortunately, that was not what George Fox was asking about when he asked the question. In fact, such a usage is opposite to the original meaning.

The quotation is from Margaret Fell's description of the first time she heard George Fox preach and her conversion. In somewhat larger context the quote is: “You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?"

This is a far cry from asking or justifying an opinion. It is not implying that everyone's opinion is of equal value. It is asking us to consider where our words come from. Rather than being a justification for our ordinary opinions, it is a challenge to discipline ourselves to become obedient to God, to walk in the Light that God shows us, and then, when we know God's voice, did we get what we say from God or from somewhere else.


Update: Since writing this I have found a similar take on these thoughts by Simon St. Laurent at Light and Silence.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Authentic speech and witness

I am back from New England Yearly Meeting. I have not been blogging recently because I was preparing for the workshop that I helped to lead. We had a catchy title that I forget but the general theme was applying the Friends Peace Testimony to the relationship of NEYM and FUM. And then I was at Yearly Meeting.

I am not going to try to give a full report on what happened at Yearly Meeting. I am not a journalist. Instead I will make a series of posts about little tidbits that I heard or read that caused a reaction in me, or little bits of insight that I got during the five days.

Lloyd Lee Wilson gave the keynote address. It was a very dense talk. It wasn't hard to understand but it was so filled with good stuff that if you stopped to think about something he said, two or three other good things went whizzing by. I hope that it will be released in pamphlet form so that I can read it and let the words sink in and study them. My reaction at the end was very much, “This Friend speaks my mind.” As important as the words was the deep place that he took us to. He got us off to a good start and we were able to stay in a deep and centered place for much of the week. This was not just his doing but the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people since last year when our Sunday meeting for worship was so uncentered and frothy that our Young Friends (the High School group) sent the adults a minute from their business meeting eldering us for how poorly we conducted worship.

At the very beginning of his talk, Lloyd Lee said something like this, “It is not authentic to speak of something when it is clear that I do not posses it in my own life.” What follows are my reaction to that

This really is the crux of our spiritual condition. This is what the testimonies are supposed to be. A way of living our lives that give testimony to our beliefs. At our best our testimonies are not our words but our actions. Our testimony on honesty is not just in our refusal to swear oaths, it is in Thomas Ellwood walking with a group of other Friends across Bristol from the overcrowded prison in which they were being held to another prison without guard or escort because that was what they said they would do.

Our peace testimony is embodied in people like Tom Fox. For most of us, at least for myself, my life is not much of a testimony. The extent of it is that I have not applied for jobs with defense contractors. The last time my company was acquired, I refused to sign a paper saying I would apply for a security clearance if it was needed. But mostly my life looks a lot like the lives of the non-Friends around me.

What does it mean to live an authentic Quaker and Christian life in a society that is founded and defended by violence and in an economy whose underlying principle is greed? Do we have an alternative to offer to an American Dream defined only in terms of material wealth? These are difficult questions because the answers may require changes in the way we live. This is hard work and it may be dangerous work. It is certainly not comfortable work. But it is work we need to be doing.