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.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

What purifies the soul?

For it is not the hearing of the truth that purifies the soul, but the obedience of the truth which makes the vessel fit for the Master's use, who in His using, and its obedience, makes it a vessel of honor, and glorifies His Son therein, in your bodies to do the Father's will in the world, whereby the Father is glorified in the Son, in whom He shines forth, as the Father begets Him again in you, and you in Him (who was with the Father before the world was,) of His own nature and good will, which as you receive again by faith and obedience, you will be changed into the same image and nature, and to delight only therein, being born of the same Spirit; as he that is born of the flesh delights in the things of the flesh.
James Nayler

I have been reading James Nayler lately and this paragraph has stuck with me. It is the concluding paragraph of his 1657 pamphlet How Sin is Strengthened, and How it is Overcome. I have been reading it in Volume IV of the Works of James Nayler from Quaker Heritage Press. It is also available on-line here or here.

This sums up the essence of early Quaker spirituality quite well and has something to say to us today as well. The first statement brought me up short. Hearing the truth does not purify the soul, it is obedience to the truth that purifies the soul. Reading, writing or speaking the truth also does not purify the soul unless it is done in obedience to the promptings of the Spirit. This can certainly provide a dose of humility for people like me who have some facility with the written and spoken word.

It is God's use of us combined with our uniting with that use that prepares us to be even more fit for God's continued use. This glorifies Christ embodied in ourselves and allows us to do God's will in the world. By this Christ is born in us and by faith and obedience we will be changed into the nature and image of Christ and will delight only in the things of the Spirit.

Claiming that one can be transformed into the nature of Christ is a pretty extreme claim. It is the logical end of the Quaker doctrine that perfection is possible in this life. There is sound scriptural basis for claiming that we can be as Christ but Friends were careful with how they said this because they did not want to be accused of blasphemy. It was, after all, enacting Christ's entry into Jerusalem that got Nayler convicted of blasphemy. During his trial, Nayler claimed that the honor he received was appropriate inasmuch as it was directed to the spirit of Christ in him, but not if it was directed to the fleshly person. Parliament was not inclined to accept this fine distinction and convicted him.

This idea of being transformed into the nature of Christ underlies the Holiness movement which found a home among Friends and is also expressed in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as Deification. Do we take seriously this idea that we can become embodiments of Christ's spirit? Do we see our daily acts of obedience to the Spirit as the method of this transformation? Do we see obedience in small things as a step towards obedience in ever larger things, until we can be obedient in all things? Are we willing to give up our personal areas of rebellion? Are we willing to listen to the promptings of the Spirit in all things that we do? Are we willing to depend on God for everything? Are we willing to sit with the discomfort these questions might create?


Will T


Saturday, November 06, 2010

Like a Weaned Child

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed myself and quited my soul,
like a weaned child with it's mother;
my soul within me is like a weaned child.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 131

This is one of the great images of resting and trusting in God and it leaves out most of the story. A weaned child gets to the place of peace and rest, but the weaning child is something else. It is a child who is crying for something they cannot get, crying for what they have lost. It is a child that is hungering for that which no longer satisfies and refuses the better nourishment that is put in front of them. The weaned child is an image of rest and peace, but for both the child and the mother, the process was not easy. They have earned their rest.

Friends in their writings, in both their early writings and their later journals, developed a style that mentions baptizings and difficulties yet is almost totally opaque about what was actually going on with them. Reading about our Quaker heroes presents a picture of strength in the face of adversity but does not give any idea of what the nature of their inner travails. As a result we only get a partial picture and as a result, our spiritual lives seem pale and weak in comparison.

One gets the picture that the spiritual journey is like what we would like to see in our retirement portfolios, a steady line going up and to the right. Like Jacob's ladder, every round goes higher, higher. My spiritual journey doesn't look like that at all. It looks more like my actual retirement portfolio, up some days, dropping precipitously on others and no way to tell what will happen next. My own experience of the spiritual life, though is not one of a linear progression. If there is a mathematical analogy, it is more like chaos theory. It is a path of sharp contrasts and discontinuities. I have moments of insight and awareness of the deep presence of God. I have felt myself led and held. I have had periods where faithfulness came easy and I felt the Presence so strongly that I could do no other than to be faithful. My soul was indeed calm and quiet like a weaned child.

At other times, my inner two year old has been going at full throttle, throwing tantrums and stamping its foot and saying, “No!, you are not the boss of me.” There are times when I am hanging on for dear life, and there are times when I have let go and just say, forget this. But the storm passes, and I find myself coming back to God and I find myself being drawn back into God's acceptance.

James Russel Lowell wrote the poem that provides the words for the hymn:

“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment do decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;”

I have always wished that it were that simple. I find myself being faced with choices constantly. Sometimes I feel like it is once a day, or once an hour. In the midst of the storm, I do not find the Quaker idea of the day of visitation, or the Biblical story of Lot's wife being turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back when fleeing Sodom to be particularly comforting. I find that exhortations to avoid backsliding do not speak to my condition, especially if I am backsliding. What nourishes me is the story of the prodigal son who has wasted his inheritance and is welcomed back with open arms. It is the promise implicit in Jesus' admonition to forgive each other 70 times 7 times, because God's forgiveness is even greater than our own. It is a far cry from Esau's plea, “Father, have you no blessing left for me?”

I take comfort from the psalmist:
Whither shall I go from the spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

Even when I am refusing the hand, crossing my arms across my chest and stamping my feet. Even when I am insisting on crossing the street by myself, your hand is still there, whether I take it or not. 

And yet, each little unfaithfulness, each little act of rebellion makes the next one easier. Our habitual ways of avoiding God, or running full tilt away from God, did not become habitual overnight. They became habits from our constant practice. We are called to examine every part of our life in the Light of Christ. Eventually we will have to address these habits we have built and change our habits of avoidance into habits of faithfulness. The path that we are called to is narrow and strait, but my experience of it is that it is not straight.


Will T