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, October 11, 2011

This I know experimentally

And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, 'There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,' and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the preeminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall prevent it? And this I knew experimentally.
George Fox, 1647

This is George Fox's description of the great opening he had turned him from a seeker to a finder and an itinerant preacher and so led to the Quaker movement. But I want to focus today on the last sentence, “And this I knew experimentally.” If we were to paraphrase this into modern English, it would probably be rendered, “And this I knew experientially.” I think though that the older word carries with it some useful associations. In modern English, to know something experimentally implies some kind of scientific rigor. We know something because we have conducted experiments and have demonstrated it. But scientific experiments are really a formalized method of trial and error. One proposes an idea and then conducts some experiments to see if the idea is true or not. This is the heart of the scientific method and seems to us far removed from spirituality.

I think that for Fox, and anyone who proposes an experiential theology, as Friends do, the element of experiment is important. Fox came to his opening only after he had traveled around seeking out the leading lights of his day. He found that none of the people who he met could answer the questions in his soul. He found the answers in an inner voice. He heard this voice, he identified it as the Inner Christ, and he found confirmation in that his “soul did leap for joy.”

It does not take a lot of introspection or experience with people to realize that there are a number of voices speaking in us at any time. Some Christians will quote Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” to support their idea that we should trust only in Scripture, because our own hearts are too unreliable. There is a useful caution here because there appears to be no limit to human powers of self-deception. But this is not the end of the story. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:13 “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.”

How are we to know which is the correct voice to listen to. In John 10:4-5, Jesus says “the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because do not know the voice of strangers.” How do we come to know this voice. The short answer is that we conduct experiments. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul identifies the fruits of the Spirit. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In Matthew 7:15-17 Jesus instructs his followers to judge people by their fruits. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” This is actually very sound practical advice and it applies to both inward and outward prophets. If we hear a voice that we think might be God's, listen and follow it. Then look at the results. Does it bring forth, in however small a way, any of the fruits of the spirit, or does it have the opposite effect? This provides guidance as to the nature of the voice. So by listening and observing carefully, one can learn to distinguish the Shepherd's voice from all others.

Likewise, the journals of Quaker ministers have many stories of their difficulties in learning when to speak in meeting. Some, like David Ferris, recount the long periods of their resistance to the voice prompting them to speak. He reports that it was the fervent prayers of a traveling minister that enabled him to break through his resistance. John Woolman, on the other had recounts a story of when he spoke more than he should have and felt an inward correction. After anguish and prayer, some weeks later he was led to speak some words in meeting that gave him peace. “As I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure Spirit that inwardly moves upon the heart.” In both cases, there was an inward prompting or correction. Both people also had encouragement from their community to pursue greater faithfulness. This is an experimental approach to religion.

For many people, religion has been taught as something that they have to accept on authority. Sometimes it is the authority of a book, be it the Bible, the Koran, or the Torah. Sometimes it is the authority of a person, be it the Pope, an evangelist, or a pastor. Sometimes the authority is tradition. Anyone who teaches that ultimate authority rests with any outward authority and not with the Spirit as heard in the heart is teaching something less than the full Christian message. Quakers say that you can hear God yourself . As Robert Barclay says, “It is the privilege of the Christian to know the Shepherds voice.” Learning to know this voice is a process and, as in any learning, there are bound to be mistakes. Knowing that we are all learning, we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other when mistakes are made. But as we progress in our discernment we are able to say, as George Fox did, “And this I know experimentally.”


Will T

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Monday, October 03, 2011

Bringing in the sheaves

May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
Carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126:5-6

I attended a wedding at our meeting last week and it was a joyful celebration and at meeting the next morning there were also many messages about joy. This brought to mind the lines above from Psalm 126 and of course the gospel song  that it inspired. There are many links between joy and sorrow and it seems that the two emotions are often experienced in some mixture. I have tears of joy because I remember the times of pain. Likewise, at my times of deepest pain, I often feel closest to God, so there is joy in that as well.

But what came to me today was the realization that it is only when we have been plowed up and broken open inwardly that the soil of our soul is ready to receive the Seed of God. At other times, the soil of our soul may be too hard or rocky or dry to receive the Seed. But when we are broken open, the Seed can fall in deep, and it can continue to grow, even when the soil above it has been beaten down again and may be hard and dry on the surface. As the seed grows, it brings forth it's fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

By remembering the times when we were broken and hurting, we are able to respond compassionately and lovingly to those we encounter who are broken and hurting. By receiving, we are enabled to be generous. By being made tender, we are taught how to be gentle with ourselves and each other.

So as Yamen's and Bernadette's families spoke of how much they felt welcomed by the meeting, and how the meeting felt joy at being welcomed into their celebration, I realized how much the meeting learned about opening itself and surrounding people with love when we accompanied our Friend Bill and his family on the journey from his diagnosis with brain cancer to his death 6 months later. Out of that time of weeping, we have brought forth fruits of community and openness and welcoming and we rejoice bringing in those sheaves.

The world is filled with brokenness and pain. But in all of that brokenness are the places where the world is broken open to receive the Seed of God. In the time of weeping we must also be sowing. We do not know how long the seeds will take to germinate and grow. I remember reading that the ground in the desert in the Southwest United States is filled with seeds. There are something like 10,000 seeds per cubic inch of soil. Because of the dry conditions, these seeds can last for hundreds and thousands of years, each waiting for just the right conditions of rain and temperature for it to germinate. Some require a short but intense rain. Others, moisture over a longer period. The right conditions might only happen once every hundred years, but when they come, the seeds are ready. And when the time comes, we can rejoice in the harvest and the increase, knowing that in that increase is the Kingdom of God; knowing that in the increase the seeds are being made ready for the next sowing.

Blessings to all,

Will T

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