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.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A benevolent God

I found this picture and accompanying article on the web on Sept 12. I found it disturbing on many levels. This picture is of a man who jumped from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and it appeared in many newspapers the next day. The statement struck me as obviously true, but I know that this is not true for all people. In fact, it was important for at least one family to know that the person in the photo was not their loved one precisely because they felt that anyone who jumped from the World Trade Center was committing suicide and would be damned to hell.

Jesus, of course, did not condemn sinners. He ate with them and associated with them and healed them, much to the dismay of people with a much more rigid view of what proper behavior was. Jesus accompanies us in our brokenness. He invites us to see our own brokenness and sinfulness and start our journey to God from that point, and not from the place of judgment and self-righteousness. It is in our acknowledgment of our own shortcomings that we are able to have compassion for others who have also fallen short. This is the compassion of God and the compassion of Jesus who welcomed into heaven the thief being crucified next to him.

But as I read the article I felt how important this exercise in Christian education that I have undertaken is. There are people who have been taught a version of Christianity that is very un-Christian. It is important to present an alternative view for the sake of those who are in pain because of an inaccurate understanding of God. From reading the comments to the original story, it is also appears that many people reject God and Christianity because they are rejecting exactly such narrow-mindedness and to them Christianity and narrow mindedness and superstition are synonymous. Those of us who believe in an experiential and compassionate Christianity have a responsibility to see that this vision is presented to the world as a viable and attractive alternative.

We must also remember that while this may look like a doctrinal issue, it is mostly a matter of attitude. It is possible to believe that committing suicide would send you to hell but to also recognize that jumping out of a window to escape a fire hot enough to cause metal beams to sag is not suicide. The problem is not the doctrine, it is the rigid application of the doctrine without compassion or understanding. The problem is taking ones own views and attitudes and making it a rule by which you judge everyone else whatever their beliefs. I have seen this play out among Friends on both sides of the disputes over acceptance of gay men and lesbian women into full fellowship with Friends. I have heard reports of Quaker parents disowning their children for being gay. I also know of liberal Friends who would withhold contributions to their own meetings if so much of a dollar of that money would end up in the hands of Friends United Meeting. If you look across the theological and political spectrum of Friends, you will find compassionate, caring and open minded people. You will also find judgmental, self-righteous and rigid people. Sometimes they will be the same people.

I don't know how to open hearts and minds, but God does. We need to make our meetings communities where we can feel safe enough to admit to their own brokenness and hold in love and compassion the brokenness of others. They need to be places where we can look at our fears and to put down our swords and shields; where we can look at the people around us with compassion and love, and in doing so, find compassion and grace for ourselves. We need to make our meetings places where the Commonwealth of God is made visible to all.


Will T

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Monday, September 05, 2011

Faith is a Relationship

If you ask someone about their faith, they may describe it in terms of a creed or a document. In many church services there is a part in which a statement of faith is recited, be it the Apostle's Creed or the Nicene Creed, or something else. Orthodox Friends might reference The Richmond Declaration of Faith. If you ask me, I am likely to go into a discussion of Barclay's Apology. We tend to view our faith as if it were the same as our beliefs. I am as likely to fall into this trap as anyone. But I don't think that God is particularly interested in theology.

Jesus is always asking his followers whether they believe, whether they have faith. But it is always, do you believe in me, do you have faith in me? When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, (Matt 14:22-33), Peter said, “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said come and Peter boldly stepped out of the boat and started walking on the water. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became fearful and began to sink and called out to Jesus, who reached out and saved him. Then Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” This was not the faith of intellectual belief that he was asking about, this was a question Peter's faith in the power of God to hold him up.

When Jesus healed people, he was clear that it was a matter of faith. Not faith in dogma or scripture but faith in Jesus' ability to heal. When the centurion came and asked Jesus to heal his servant, (Matt 8:5-13) the centurion says, “Don't bother coming to my house, I am not worthy. Just give the order and he will be healed.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have i found such faith.... Let it be done to you according to your faith.”

But how does this translate to our lives today since Jesus lived and died some 2,000 years ago? This was the key insight of George Fox that Christ can still speak to us. “There is even one Christ Jesus who can speak to your condition.” “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” This was the wondrous news that made Fox's heart jump for joy. Christ can be known inwardly and we are invited to live in relationship with this inward Christ, just as the disciples lived in relationship to the outward Jesus in Galilee. They saw this as a fulfillment of the prophesy of Jeremiah 31:33-34, “ But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” This is a call to know God and to be in relationship with God.

Evangelical Christians are right on the mark with their question “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” if they mean by that, “Do you trust the voice of Christ within you to lead you to healing and greater love and understanding?” But for me, this question carries with it a sense that there is only one relationship to have with Jesus and our experience of the Divine takes a single form. If you haven't had a particular experience or if your relationship with God is different, then you are, at best, a second-class Christian. The Biblical record contradicts this. God appears to people throughout the Bible and each event is unique. God walks with Adam in the cool of the morning. God appeared to Abraham in the form of 3 strangers walking down the road. Moses encountered God in a burning bush. Jacob wrestled with God through an entire night. God answered Job out of a whirlwind. God appeared to Elijah as a still small voice after the whirlwind, the earthquake and the fire had all passed by. The miracle of Pentecost was not that the apostles spoke in tongues. The miracle was that the apostles spoke and every listener heard them in their own language. God is always speaking to us in our own language and in the context of our own knowledge and experience. If we have a personal relationship with God, than each relationship will be unique, just as each of us are unique. And each of is is being called into relationship with God.


Will T

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Friday, September 02, 2011

Christian Education

During the discussion at NEYM Sessionson renaming the Christian Education committee,  I started thinking about other meanings of Christian education, and those thoughts have been percolating ever since. My first thoughts were about the need to educate Christians. Although early Friends thought that they were on a mission to spread their gospel to the entire world, it turned out that it was mostly a matter of educating Christians. When they spoke in the steeple-houses, or in the yards outside when they were not allowed to speak inside, they were trying to educate Christians about the true nature of Christianity. Christianity as they experienced it and understood it, bore little relationship to what was being preached in many of the churches. They did not pull any punches about this, either. Barclay called the doctrine of predestination “a horrid blasphemy against the love of God.” It appears to me that a large portion of the Christian Church in America has become captive to the kingdoms of this world. Early Friends saw themselves as primitive Christianity revived. We need to educate ourselves and others about how revived Christianity is different from what we see around us.

The second area of Christian education that came to mind is based on who it is that comes to our meetings. Many people come to Friends suffering some sort of spiritual trauma from whatever tradition they came from. Many of these people have difficulty hearing Christian language. At some point we need to be clear, as Quakers, that our view of Christianity is different from what it was where they came from. We need to be able to articulate a non-traumatic and healing vision of Christianity. And we need to embody this vision in our lives and in our meetings.

With this in mind I am planning to start a series of posts on Christian education. I will be discussing various aspects of Christian theology and what the Quaker take on it is. Much of what I will have to say will not be unique to Quakerism, but I will try to identify how the Quaker tradition embodies these things. Some Friends are not comfortable with theological discussions, but ultimately any faith tradition is an embodiment of a particular theology. It is difficult to understand the puzzling or unique aspects of any faith tradition without understanding the theology that underlies it. For instance, it is strange to find out that some Catholic and Episcopal churches have special sinks that are not connected to the regular plumbing . But if you know that these sinks are used for washing the dishes used during the Eucharist and if you understand the concept of transubstantiation, it is easier to understand that people would not want any drops of wine or crumbs of wafer that have become the physical body and blood of Christ, to be washed out into the common sewer. Quakerism has its own quirks and oddities. I do not intend to discuss our peculiarities of architecture, but I do expect to discuss some of our unique religious, organizational and cultural structures.

This is all matter that I am still working on myself, so I hope that what I write can be a starting point for discussion.


Will T