Questionnaire

In early November, I received an email from Sergio de Moura, an adjunct professor at a university named UNILAB, which is located in Redenção, Brazil. Sergio informed me that although Brazil has more than 200 million inhabitants, the country has no Friends meeting. Having long considered becoming a Quaker himself, he wanted to publish writing from a Quaker perspective for others in his country who were likewise interested in the faith, and so was requesting permission to translate my essays into Portuguese and to publish them. Though he was particularly interested in the Quaker way of worship, he also asked if I would answer some general questions about Friends faith and life in a questionnaire that he intended to send out to a number of Friends from different areas. The following is a copy of the completed questionnaire that I returned to him.

1. Who is Patricia Dallmann? How have the Quakers’ teachings influenced your life? When did this journey start?

I first became interested in spiritual matters in my early teens, and would discuss ideas with my grandfather and also with friends. I began to read about various world religions at this time, and a few years later, began reading philosophy and literature that addressed spiritual questions. I continued to follow this interest in college where I studied literature. Throughout this entire time, my heart was heavy because I had no certain understanding of truth that could provide a foundation for my life, and so I felt ungrounded and lacked confidence and hope. I identified as an agnostic and felt no interest in or drawing to religious practice or belief.  I became deeply depressed in my late 20s and remained near despair until age 32, when a specific, powerful revelation of eternal Being was given to me. Though inwardly changed from that time, I began to seek religious affiliation only a year and a half later. (I believe I needed time to accustom myself to this new way of being before taking any outward action.) I then found the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and began attending meetings each week, and began to read Isaac Penington and later George Fox, both 17th c. Friends. Both men’s writings powerfully expressed my experience and understanding, as revealed in that initial epiphany and thereafter in worship. I became very active in the spiritual work of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (the Quaker organization in this geographic area) at the local and regional levels, and continued this work for a decade and a half. During that time, I became convinced Liberal Quakers (whom the yearly meeting comprised by and large) had little understanding of or interest in the original Quaker mission and message, and I withdrew my membership. In the past decade, I’ve continued my work as an essay writer (see my blog Abiding Quaker at patradallmann.com), and take opportunities to share fellowship with those who fear God and are committed to the Truth. I have worked with New Foundation Fellowship (which promotes early Quaker understanding) since the early ‘90s; NFF’s website is nffquaker.org.

2. “To have a relationship with Jesus” is a notion so widespread by many Evangelicals, so much present in their religious culture and deeply rooted in their theology. As a Quaker, how do you see this idea? Does it work in a Quaker setting or how far do Friends agree or disagree with this conception?

My understanding of Evangelical Christianity is that it differs theologically from the faith of 17th c. Friends, the faith that I affirm. A shorthand distinction is this: Evangelicals identify their faith with the affirmation that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior: they choose to accept Jesus. The Friends of the 17th century did not choose to accept Jesus; Jesus chose to accept them (Jn. 15:16). In other words, faith is not an act of will but a gift from God (Rom. 9:16). Friends derived their name from the verse preceding the one aforementioned, i.e., Jn. 15:15:

Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

This verse centers upon the choice of Jesus to make himself, the Word of God, known to us: that he does so is the “continuing revelation” that is the primary Quaker distinctive.

3. About “the light within” and “that of God in everyone,” how do these concepts work for Friends and specially for you?

The light within is experienced inwardly; it purifies and sanctifies my being. It is what I seek, expect, and hope for as I sit in silence; it informs my conscience, making me better able to live in a way that sees and thus glorifies God. Knowing its availability, I can act with strength and virtue, even when my natural inclination would have me do otherwise. It avails me of peace, order, joy, and every goodness I could want; it is the pearl of great price. As for the other phrase you’ve chosen (that of God in everyone), I caution you that this phrase has been taken by Liberal Friends from Fox’s writing and used in a way Fox did not intend nor would agree with: Liberal Friends use the phrase to mean that which is virtuous and of value to the first-birth nature. There is no room in Liberal understanding for the second birth, which Jesus tells Nicodemus (Jn. 3:3) must occur.

4. Do you think of Friends as an “exclusive group” or as taking part in a “selective club”? I ask this considering that: When compared to other Christian or not Christian groups, Quakers represent a very little spark of the religious culture. I mean, they are a reduced small group.

Did Jesus see those who understood his teaching to be an “exclusive group” or “selective club”? No, he did not; however, he did say:  Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Mt.7:14).

(a) A lot of people out and faraway of the Quaker mainstream centers are eager for that kind of comprehension about the light within, while Quakers seem to have decided “to hide themselves” from the world.

It is the concern of like-minded Friends that people who are far from Quaker centers are not likely to hear of the Quaker faith. We are hopeful that the technical advances in communication that have taken place in recent decades will enable more of these people to discover the existence of this precious faith that is being practiced among us, and they will get in touch.

(b) It seems that a culture of secularization reached many religious settings, including Quakers. It implies perhaps that there has been a loss of interest for spirituality and it has reduced the numbers of adherents in Christian meetings.

I have found secularization to have taken place in Liberal meetings, and for this reason I withdrew. The Liberals’ culture is secular in that social justice issues are given attention, and Christ is not known or heard. In any religious group, the members often make an idol of the community and their acceptance within it. This has always been a problem, as can be seen in Jesus’s dealings with those in his religious community: religious culture usurps the primacy of inward life, and this can be seen among Christian groups as well as among the Liberals.

5. For some people, suffering and pain are proof that there is no God, once a good God shouldn’t permit their creatures to suffer. How far the “light within” can help someone to deal with this assumption? What’s your opinion about this affirmation?

The book of Job examines and responds to the question of suffering by having God assert his wisdom in having ordered creation the way in which He did. The light within does give us understanding (wisdom) and acceptance of (and gratitude for!) the way creation is ordered, and we can glorify God for so ordering it, even though there is suffering. It is through holding to the truth while enduring suffering that we become prepared to receive the light of Christ within. We have Jesus’s work on the Cross as an outward example of the inward work that we ourselves must undergo. This is the Quaker understanding of the cross: it is suffering for the Truth’s sake.  George Fox wrote:

[T]he eternal God knows and his son Christ Jesus, IT IS FOR HIM ALONE AND HIS TRUTH’S SAKE THAT WE SUFFER. . . . And so the Lord hath given us “not only to believe but also to suffer for his name and truth’s sake” (The Works of George Fox, 8:251).

The truth is we humans are limited, finite, mortal beings, and we do not have the power to prevent ourselves from undergoing loss of all kinds throughout our lives; to accept inwardly this truth is to die to any false notion of self.

6. What is the Bible and the four Gospels for Quakers? Are they a light or do they just introduce the light to us? Would there have been a Quaker movement unless George Fox had had the insight of “the light within” right from the gospel of John?

Barclay’s third proposition identifies the Scriptures as

esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty; for as by the inward testimony of the Spirit we do alone truly know them, so they testify, that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led into all Truth: therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader (Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity).

Fox found that the Scriptures confirmed his inward experience of the light within:

Yet I had no slight esteem of the Holy Scriptures, but they were very precious to me, for I was in that spirit by which they were given forth, and what the Lord opened in me I afterwards found was agreeable to them (Journal of George Fox, Nickalls, 34).

7. About Jesus:

(a) Did He die on the cross for our sins? Is He our savior?

(b) Is He God, the Son of God or just a prophet?

The following quotation from Fox emphasizes the coming into unity with Christ, which is the one true atonement. Although Quakers held that Jesus “taste[d] death for every man” (Heb. 2:9) on the Cross, they asserted none was redeemed but through the inward knowledge of and unity with Christ. Here’s the quotation:

Christ saith. . . “No man can come to me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him” (Jn. 6:44). Now what is the means by which God doth draw people to his Son, but by the Holy Spirit. . . God doth draw people from their unrighteousness and unholiness, to Christ, the righteous and holy One, the great Prophet, in his New Covenant and New Testament, whom Moses in the Old Covenant and Old Testament said, God would raise up, like unto him, and whom people should hear in all things. . . . They that do not hear the Son of God, the great Prophet, do not mind the drawing of the Father by his Holy Spirit to his Son; but to them that mind the drawings of the good spirit of the Father to his son, the Spirit giveth understanding to know God and Jesus Christ. . .Then they know that Jesus Christ is the way. . . and that none can come unto God but by and through his Son. . . they know that Christ is their Mediator and. . . their High Priest. . . and is able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by him (The Journal of George Fox, Bi-centennial Edition, II: 458).

 

 

 

 

 

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The Rose That Bare Gesù

There is no rose of such virtue

As is the rose that bare Gesù.

For in this rose contained was

Heaven and earth in little space;

Res miranda. [a wonderful thing]

The angels sungen the shepherds to:
Gloria in excelsis Deo:
Gaudeamus. [Let us rejoice.]

Leave we all this worldly mirth,
And follow we this joyful birth;
Transeamus. [Let us go across.]

The iconography of the Nativity story is rich with meaning, and the lyrics of this medieval carol touch upon some of that meaning in the opening verse: “There is no rose of such virtue / As is the rose that bare Gesù.”

Virtue is the quality that identifies the mother of Jesus; virtue carries and nurtures the seed, and to it gives birth. The incarnate God, Christ Within, is brought into being through spiritual gestation in virtue.

Our tradition doesn’t rely on a single story to communicate the reality of our condition and the transformation that is our fulfillment, our new birth. The richness of its figuration offers many opportunities to imaginatively grasp and thereby learn what we’re called to.

“The Mediate Role of Virtue” is an essay on a different story in Scripture (found in Luke 16) that harbors the same theme of the necessity of virtue for the coming of the Lord. This essay, first posted in December 2016, can be found here.

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Some Observations on John’s Second Epistle

For many deceivers have come forth into the world, who do not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such is the deceiver and the antichrist. Look to yourselves, so as not to lose what we have done but receive your full reward. Whoever breaks forward and does not abide by the teaching of the Christ does not have God; the one who abides by his teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not take him into your house, and do not give him any greeting; for anyone who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds (2 Jn. 1:7-11).

Recently a friend and I were discussing the second epistle of John. She had brought up the above passage and was specifically interested in the seventh verse:

For many deceivers have come forth into the world, who do not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such is the deceiver and the antichrist (7).

And within that verse, the phrase “the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh” stood out for her. “Do you have an idea of what this means”? she asked.

Just a few days before, I’d read this epistle and had thought about the very verse she’d pointed out. I suggested that the words “in the flesh” did not refer to Jesus’s earthly life of a few decades. Rather, it seemed to me, the apostle was alluding to the presence of Christ Within; it was our flesh—the believers’ flesh—to which the Light of Christ is come. And “acknowledg[ment]” that Christ is come in the flesh is predicated upon that inward encounter with him, with his Presence.

A week or so later, my thought was confirmed when I read one of Fox’s tracts titled “A Word,” from which the following excerpt is taken:

Who loves the light that he hath given them, witness Jesus Christ come in the flesh. . . and you that hold up the figures, deny Christ come in the flesh (The Works of George Fox, IV: 33).

Loving the light Jesus Christ has given us (having first received it!) is inherent in any authentic witness that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. And conversely, to “hold up the figures” (“figures” being concepts provided by bygone prophets) is to “deny Christ come in the flesh.”

Those not having known this encounter-cum-revelation can only posture an attitude of faith, and thus deserve the designation the apostle gives them: deceivers. John sought to distinguish between those who’d experienced the arrival of Christ Within and those “deceivers” or “antichrists” (signifying enemies of Christ) who had not. In short, John was telling us that the essential defect of “the deceiver and the antichrist” is profession without possession.

Whoever breaks forward and does not abide by the teaching of the Christ does not have God; the one who abides by his teaching has the Father and the Son (9).

To “abide by the teaching of the Christ” is to learn from the one who “is come to teach his people himself,” Christ who inwardly reveals himself that we may learn the Father’s will and do it.  And “whoever breaks forward,” and distances him- or herself from this condition of hearing obedience, “does not have God” but are instead “presumptuous talkers of God, who see him not” (Works, IV:30).

“Do not take him [the deceiver] into your house”(10) is a warning to  readers to keep some distance between themselves and deceivers, but the warning can also be interpreted figuratively. One must not allow a  conceptual approach to faith to enter and occupy the living space where only an experience of faith should reside.

The apostle knows the danger of losing “what we have done”(8) and cautions rigorous care when dealing with conceptual faith and those who harbor it: to refuse to offer even a greeting. For to greet is to acknowledge, and thus, in a minor way, to sanction. And to sanction deceit even in a minor way is to participate in and promote it: “for anyone who gives him a greeting shares in his evil deeds”(11).

That mind, which doth speak of God, but lives not, dwells not, nor abides in the fear of God, that mind must suffer, and pass under the judgment of God, for the curse of God is upon that mind. . . . And that mind may talk of God, and speak of God, but not in union with God, nor from enjoyment of God in the spirit, nor from having purchased the knowledge of him through death and sufferings; but from hear-say of him, and from custom and tradition (Works, VII:32).

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Thus far this essay has considered the second half of John’s epistle, which, with its warning about deceivers and antichrists stands in contrast to the epistle’s first half, concerned as it is with truth and love. See how frequently the word “truth” appears in the epistle’s first sentence (italics mine):

The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth; For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever (1-2).

Love is the outgoing expression of truth, which resides within, and thus not only does the apostle express his own love for the “elect lady” but is confident that “all they that have known the truth” will also love her: not because she elicits his or their affection but because the truth dwells within them, and is the living source and impetus of love.

And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another (5). And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it (5-6).

In verse 5, we read that love for one another is commanded, and has been so “from the beginning”: “the beginning” referring to that glorious, singular event when one is “born. . . of God” (Jn. 1:13). And so to love is to bring forth, to express, the Life that began and is continuing in Christ, the Truth.

In verse six, a significant distinction is made between 1) the inward hearing of the Source and 2) its conveyance outward into the world. This distinction is made by the use of one letter: the letter “s” added to the word “commandment,” making the word either singular or plural. The Source is one, and to attend to that Source is the one commandment (no “s” added). The expression of that Source will vary according to whatever teaching or guidance He gives at particular times and places: that is, there will be various, specific commandments (and so an “s” is added). These commandments (with an “s”) are what we Quakers call “continuing revelation.” So verses 5 and 6 diagram the economy of parousaic revelation: the Source being God, the Father, and the various, particular expressions of His person being love brought into the world through His Son, His substance and body: the elect people of God.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God (1 Jn. 4:7).

 

 

 

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On Redemption in John 11

He who expects to arrive at . . . the union of the soul with God, by means of consolation and comfort, will find himself mistaken. For, having sinned, we must expect to suffer, and be in some measure purified, before we can be in any degree fitted for a union with God, or permitted to taste the joy of his presence. Be ye patient, therefore, under all the sufferings which your Father is pleased to send you. If your love to him be pure, you will not seek him less in suffering than in consolation.  A Guide to True Peace – Jeanne-Marie Guyon

This essay is about the final stage in the process of redemption: when we have observed and embodied the demands of the Law; when we have heeded faithfully the requirements of conscience; when we have watched and waited expectantly, and yet have come up empty, and not known why. I will examine crucial verses in John 11 that point to the condition that immediately precedes the inward resurrection to life eternal. This chapter in John is about Lazarus being raised from the dead, but the verses I will focus on replicate the conditions of inward death and inward resurrection that are to be visited upon all.

The Meaning of Embrimáomai

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled (Jn. 11:33 KJV).

Because the King James Version doesn’t translate verse 33 well (“he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled”[33b]), I’ll be using instead a literal translation of the New Testament by Richard Lattimore, titled The New Testament ([New York: North Point Press, 1996]). In his preface, Lattimore describes his technique:

I have held throughout to the principle of keeping as close to the Greek as possible, not only for sense and for individual words, but in the belief that fidelity to the original word order and syntax may yield an English prose that to some extent reflects the style of the original (vii). . . . [M]y aim has been to let all of my texts translate themselves with as little interference as possible (ix).

Lattimore’s translation of verses 32 and 33 reads (the relevant sentence italicized):

When Mary came to where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. When Jesus saw her weeping, and saw the Jews who had come with her weeping, he raged at his own spirit, and harrowed himself.

The Greek word in question is “embrimáomai.” Whereas the KJV translates this word as a gentle groan (“he groaned in the spirit”), Lattimore translates it as an intense, explosive anger: “he raged at his own spirit.” Lattimore’s choice is supported by New Testament scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg, who wrote:

The word [embrimáomai] indicates an outburst of anger, and any attempt to interpret it in terms of an internal emotional upset caused by grief, pain, or sympathy is illegitimate (The Gospel According to St. John, 3 vols. [London: Burns and Oates, 1968-82], 2:335.

The text itself supports these scholars’ findings: The Jews interpret Jesus’s weeping as arising from grief (“Then the Jews said: See how he loved him” [36]), but as the Jews in this story always come to the wrong conclusion, we can assume that here their reasoning about Jesus’s weeping is also wrong. Finally, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, informs us that “embrimáomai” “suggests indignation and fault-finding.”

Universality of Blaming

Indignation and fault-finding is what Mary does: finding Jesus along the road, she greets him with an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”(32). Blame follows loss and suffering, a pattern of behavior not unique to Mary. Her sister Martha speaks the same words when she confronts Jesus. The repetition implies both react to loss and suffering in the same way: with resentment and blame (21). That resorting to blame be seen as a universal and not solely a family characteristic, we’re told that the Jews also suffer (33) and blame Jesus. (“Could not he, who opened the eyes of the blind man, make it so that this man also might not die”? [37]) We cannot miss the idea that loss, suffering, and resentment universally fuel blame. (It’s the property of the first Adam—the one who blamed Eve—the one who blamed the Serpent.) Given all the examples in this 11th chapter, we find the question of whether or not one dies to the self depends upon whether, having suffered loss, one chooses or refuses to cast blame elsewhere.

Another Way

Verse 33 presents Jesus modeling a new and different way to handle loss: “he [Jesus] raged at his own spirit, and harrowed himself.” Like the rest of humankind (“by nature children of wrath” [Eph. 2:3]), Jesus rages at life’s limits, rage that is typically redirected outward. (“If thou hadst been here my brother had not died” say each of Lazarus’s sisters.) Always quick to blame another for one’s suffering, one assumes if only others changed—or were manipulated, controlled, or somehow gotten rid of—one would not have to suffer.

Jesus upends this fallacy by instead choosing to embody the human frailty and limitation without casting responsibility for it elsewhere: he feels the weakness that comes with loss; acknowledges the finitude that leads to suffering; and endures the rage of resentment that follows. Instead of looking outward to blame another, however, he holds the awareness of his finitude and endures; that is the meaning of “he . . . harrowed himself”: he subjected himself to the distress and torment incumbent upon his being mortal, and refused to obscure or deny it by looking for externalities to hold accountable. In short, he refused to blame. This is what it means to take on the sins of the world—whether grand or small—and absorb their effect, which will be loss to the self, its fleshly image and temporal equilibrium in the world. Absorbing the effects of sin is nicely described in this verse from 1st Peter:

He committed no sin, he was convicted of no falsehood; when he was abused he did not retort with abuse, when he suffered he uttered no threats, but committed his cause to the One who judges justly (2:23 NEB).

Returning to the passage in John, we are told: “Jesus once more was inwardly raging, and went to the tomb”(38). The rage accompanies one all the way to the tomb, wherein lies death to the self. God raises a person up from there. . . and from there only. The risen Christ abiding within restores abundant well-being (life eternal), and thereby, is the sin of the world borne and overcome.

The Inward Resurrection: Jn. 11:42

So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said: Father, I thank you for hearing me, and I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd which surrounds me, I said it so that they should believe that you sent me (41-42a).

Jesus knows the Father hears him, even when he doesn’t speak aloud. Their communication is in the inward parts; he speaks aloud only that the crowd might hear. His spirit spoken (the apex of words!) manifests the unity of God and man, and enables others to sense and believe in God’s power to send His Word to us. Such is prophetic ministry—as understood by Friends. It is the manifestation of the inward resurrection to life in Christ; that is to say, it is faith heard (Rom. 10:17).

Shall he find faith on the earth? (Lk. 18:8b)

Some have the form of godliness, acknowledging the need to undergo the cross within, yet in their hearts reject it, seeing no more than a stumbling block or foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23). This is hypocrisy: dwelling in form without substance. Others go on with their worldly lives, having no sense of what they’ve forfeited, and one feels their loss, their emptiness, with compassion. Some from an early age have so felt truth’s pervasive demand that the cross has been with them, a constant companion, though for a time unnamed. And there are some worthy folks who begin to feel truth’s insistence after long years spent captivated by other concerns: social position; empty, intellectual notions; worship of power, or other idols. These folks mend, as they find the peace that comes with living authentically. Other conditions and paths could be listed, but whatever the variation, there is one universal constant that is observed in every soul that enters its rightful place in unity with God: suffering in and for the truth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Presumption and Belief in John 11

Of the 21 chapters in John’s Gospel, chapter 11 has been for decades the least interesting to me. It was its scattered quality that put me off: too many characters, most of them contributing only snippets; vignettes that seemed to go nowhere; dialogue that just didn’t connect or flow; inexplicable actions and reactions. Where was the throughline? I asked myself: the coherent theme that took shape with each succeeding verse.

As a narrative, this chapter seemed more like a script out of Theater of the Absurd, a movement that began in the late 1950s that took its cue from Existentialism, and featured works that showed the breakdown of communication and its replacement with irrational and illogical speech. It turns out, this impression was not so far from the truth: chapter 11 is about the breakdown of communication that occurs when people work exclusively from their own presumptions and complacent certainties. Unlike the works by the existentialists and the absurdists, however, this chapter not only illustrates the problem but shows the way out of it. Far from being a jumble of discord, this chapter has a tightly organized structure that showcases the dysfunction arising from human presumption; the presupposing nature that Jesus identifies with the epithet “the sickness unto death (4).”

Introduction of Theme and Characters

No time is wasted in setting up the forces at play in this narrative and the personae that represent those forces. The chapter begins:

Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick (Jn. 11:1-3).

As readers of gospel narratives may have come to expect, Jesus sets out a succinct description of the situation and its end, its telos, which is not death but is instead, the glory of God:

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).

In these opening verses, we’re told all is not well; there’s sickness in the household: that is to say, there’s sickness in the place where one dwells, and Jesus is sent for, because he is known to heal that which is not well in the place where one dwells: that is to say, Jesus heals the soul.

Mary and Martha are in close relationship with the sick one (just like the self is in close relationship with the soul!); and as such, we will see later in the chapter how each of these different “selves” responds to the Lord. (We are given some foreshadowing when we’re told early on that Mary attends to the Lord [anoints him and wipes his feet with her hair] but find no mention made of Martha.) These sisters – each in her own way – will represent a particular response to the Lord: one spiritual and the other spiritless. Interpreted, the chapter’s first few verses tell us that a soul can be sick, and Jesus called upon; yet not every manner of being will reach to and engage him.

Illustrating the Problem

We will pick up this theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus after first taking a detour to examine the sickness that Jesus is called upon to heal. We’re given to see its nature: the natural human tendency to presume to know what is right and true, when, in fact, one doesn’t.

This segment starts with verse 5 and runs through 17. In these 13 verses, there are several examples of what at first glance – and perhaps at second or third glance! – appears to be confusion and absurdity. I’ll briefly list these examples, as their significance lies not so much in each one separately but in their assembly into a unit, a few of the many varied expressions of the “sickness unto death.” Look for absurdity, confusion, and presumption in these verses.

Here we go:

  1. Verses 5 and 6: Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.

Jesus’s abiding two days in the same place after hearing Lazarus was sick seems to make no sense: Wouldn’t he want to get to Lazarus as quickly as possible? is our presumption. Look how we are implicated in presumption right from the start! A little reasoning goes a long way—too far in fact, as we’ll see confirmed later in the text.

  1. Verses 7-10: Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again. His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again? Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.

The disciples presume Jesus should consider the danger of entering Judaea. Jesus’s answer (Are there not twelve hours in the day?) seems to absurdly miss the point.

  1. Verses 11b- 15: Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.

The disciples presume Lazarus sleeps, as Jesus has said so. Jesus seems to contradict himself, creating confusion.

  1. Verse 16: Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples. Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Thomas (Didymus), who represents being of two minds, would prefer to have the matter settled, and so presumes it is, assuring himself with a display of flamboyant resolve.

Verse 17 states a numerical fact (Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.) and as math partakes of the absolute and certain, the numerical reference signals the end of this segment of confusion, which began in like manner with a similar numerical fact in verse 6 (…he abode two days still in the same place); this befuddling segment is hemmed in on both sides with number facts, thereby containing the apparent disorder. We’ve been given a glimpse into the miscommunication, confusion, and absurdity that characterizes our natural condition, as well as our varied attempts to corral that disorder with fact and presumption. It is our “faith” in our own faculties to control the vicissitudes of life that is “the sickness unto death.”

Nevertheless, Jesus’s words throughout this section, though seeming to contribute to the confusion, are clear and consistent. I’ll not go through all four examples one-by-one but will instead offer just one explanation: to the second example in the list (7-10):

Jesus has informed his disciples that they will go into Judaea to assist Lazarus, and they respond that there is danger there: possible stoning. Their presumption is that Jesus must assess the outward circumstances before deciding to act: are circumstances favorable? dangerous? worth the risk? Although Jesus’s answer seems to have nothing to do with their question (Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him [9 and10]), his response does answer their concern. For he is teaching that one’s actions should not derive from one’s assessment of outward circumstance, as the disciples presume, but instead from inward direction found through “the light of this world.”

The Self that Presumes and the Self that Waits

Now we can return to the theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus. The next passage in the chapter (18-35) features a contrast between the opposing ways the self can function: the first, characterized by Martha, is the proud, arrogant self whose presumption fills up the self, puts itself forward, and spills out its presumptions onto others; and the second, characterized by Mary, is the humbled, empty self that waits to be given, to be filled with what she knows she does not herself possess. The distinction between the two is made immediately:

Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house (20).

Conversely, Mary comes out to meet Jesus only after first learning that she has been called:

And when she [Martha] had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him (28 and 29).

Martha “went her [own] way,” and there’s evidence of her self-direction in her encounter with Jesus, who can teach her nothing. Look how frequently she presumes, using the words “I know”:

Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day (21 – 24).

Jesus’s response (I am the resurrection, and the life…) completely glances off her, and she falls back onto her stockpiled “knowledge,” which bears no relevance to the powerful words she’s just heard. With all the assurance of ignorance, she repeats her catechism:

Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world (27).

Although Mary’s encounter with Jesus begins with the same words her sister spoke (Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died [32, 21]), she utters these words having first fallen down at his feet (32). Her spirit is humble, as we learned early in the chapter when she was first introduced: lowly, wiping his feet with her hair (2). Unlike her sister, she doesn’t presume to be higher than she is, neither in knowledge nor in life. So low and empty of life is she that she weeps her emptiness before the Lord. And he, sensing the depth of her sorrow at loss of life, is reached, joins with her, and likewise weeps (35). It is the felt despair that – if we’re honest – comes to us in our earthly life, and does elicit the Lord’s compassionate response, his unity with us, and we feel his love.

The Prevalence of Presumption

To emphasize the prevalence of the error of presumption, we are given yet more examples. The “Jews” fare no better in this chapter than they do in the rest of this gospel. Here they as a group have a single voice, and form a kind of backdrop chorus that stands for humankind in general, repeatedly in error to the point of comic absurdity. Situated midway between the accounts of each sister’s meeting with Jesus are the Jews… presuming they know:

The Jews…when they saw Mary… went out, followed her saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there (31).

Mary is not going to the grave but is going to find Jesus, who has called for her. Later presuming again, the Jews mistake the cause of Jesus’s tears: that he weeps out of love for Lazarus (36), rather than his sorrow and rage at the misbegotten suffering he’s sees in front of him. More presumption follows, as the Jews speak among themselves about Jesus’s supposed failure to prevent Lazarus’s death:

Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? (37)

And Martha, who from the start has modelled the presumptuous mode of being, again speaks after the Lord has commanded the stone that seals the cave where Lazarus lay be taken away. She does not surprise us when she jumps in with yet another mistaken presumption, this time relying on absolute, certain mathematical fact: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days (39).” Jesus’s gentle reminder to her goes unanswered—and likely unheeded. (Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?)

Belief versus Presumption

At key points in this chapter, Jesus has spoken of belief: he gives his reason for not immediately setting out to assist Lazarus, his intent being that his disciples might believe (15); he identifies belief as necessary for coming out of spiritual death and into life, and remaining there (25 and 26):

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

Belief is needed to see the glory of God (40); he states the cause for voicing his gratitude to the Father for having heard him: that his hearers might believe that he had been sent (42). Finally the story ends with our being told “many of the Jews which came to Mary [interpreted, which came to Mary’s condition], and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him (45).”

It is in verses 41 and 42 that we see the crucial distinction made between belief and presumption, which is the overriding lesson of this narrative. Jesus says:

Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.

Verb tenses are important here as they indicate timing: past, present, or future. (This is one example of the KJV providing the necessary nuance to enable sound interpretation.) Jesus knows he has been heard by the Father—not that he will be heard, or that he is heard but that he has been heard (past tense). Whereas presumption gets out ahead of what is known; belief follows behind what has been known; belief is a result of experience, presumption the result of intellectual speculation.

The second sentence is also in the past tense: Jesus does not say, I know that thou hearest me always, but “I knew (past) that thou hearest me always.” He does not speak so that the Father will hear him, for then his speaking would be a presumption on his part; rather he knew (past) that he is heard “always.” He“said” (Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.) so that others may hear/believe that the Father has sent him (42). And surely they will have done so (future perfect!), when they too have seen (past) the power of God raise one from the dead, and having seen (past) Jesus’s part in the action, they may now believe – not presume – that he has been sent by the Father.

One becomes able to distinguish intellectual presumption from experiential belief when one has been called forth by Christ into life, as was Lazarus (43). Then setting aside the trappings of the grave and spiritual death, that is to say, setting aside presumptuous, self-affirming tendencies, we have learned to wait in emptiness of soul, in the spiritual tomb where we dwell, anticipating the freedom afforded to each of us when we have felt the decree: “Loose him, and let him go.” In that resurrection to life, we see the glory of God, and we glorify his Son whom we have known.

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).    

 

 

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The Solitary Ascent

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father (Jn. 20:17a).

Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side (27a).

Just seven verses separate these seemingly contradictory instructions about touch that Jesus gives to these two followers: first, he cautions Mary not to touch him, and a short while later, he urges Thomas not only to touch him but to do so invasively: to feel his wounds. Clearly, there’s a difference in the significance given to “touch” in these two stories.

In the second instance, touch is the means by which the unbelieving Thomas is convinced of the reality that death has occurred and is followed by resurrection to life. Touch, here stands for personal experience that precipitates convincement. Sensory perception – the feeling, seeing, hearing – is a type or shadow for the inward perception of the substance. That substance is accessible only through the eye of faith, which alone senses, and convinces of the reality of the lordship of Christ.  (And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God [28].) In this episode Thomas and the other disciples learn that their work will be to convince others of the Truth through bestirring an inward apprehension, which sensory perception approximates.

In the first story, Mary has just recognized the Lord and has lovingly reached toward him; here touch has a different function and significance. Jesus is not teaching or convincing or engaged in any outwardly directed assistance to others, as he later would be in his encounter with Thomas and the disciples; rather he is here concerned with protecting himself and his intent to ascend to the Father.

He had been delivered into the earth but a few days before: killed and entombed; he had now risen out of the earth and was walking upon it; and, to complete his course, he was to rise above the earth to sit (rest) at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1). He would, therefore, not be deterred by worldly attachment here symbolized by touch. In this exchange with the woman, touch stands for an intimacy that can derail the soul in her journey upward toward completion, perfection, i.e., the soul’s ascent into heaven. Jesus confirms this fact when he keeps Mary at arm’s length by explaining: “for I am not yet ascended to my Father.”

The imagery of being first held under and then subsequently rising out of the earth can be seen frequently in early Friends writings.

…shake yourselves from the dust of the earth and come away in faithfulness and obedience to your call – J. Fothergill

…your minds will be animated and lifted up above the world and the fading, perishing things of it. – T. Scattergood

Must not they who are…free from the world through the cross of Christ, the power of God… walk as freemen, having the earth under them and not over them? – W. Edmundson

In George Fox’s vision of 1671, the same earth-as-encumbrance imagery occurs, but here it is applied en masse, perhaps an indication of Fox’s realization of the universality of the earthly, darkened condition in which humanity lies spiritually dead and buried, as well as of his life’s work to turn people – in large numbers – from darkness to light. He tells us:

And I had a vision about the time that I was in this travail and sufferings, that I was walking in the fields and many Friends were with me, and I bid them dig in the earth, and they did and I went down. And there was a mighty vault top-full of people kept under the earth, rocks, and stones. So I bid them break open the earth and let all the people out, and they did, and all the people came forth to liberty; and it was a mighty place. And when they had done I went on and bid them dig again. They did, and there was a mighty vault full of people, and I bid them throw it down and let all the people out, and so they did (Nickalls, 578).

As earlier illustrated in the chapter from John, Jesus – while in progress from earth to heaven – addressed two concerns: one, his work of convincing/liberating others, and two, protecting himself from earthly attachment. In this vision of Fox, we see these same two concerns likewise acknowledged, and yes, touch – signifying attachment – is again the metaphor, and the woman – signifying the earthly – is again the threat. Fox’s vision continues:

And I went on again and bid them dig again, and Friends said unto me, “George, thou finds out all things,” and so there they digged, and I went down, and went along the vault; and there sat a woman in white looking at time how it passed away. And there followed me a woman down in the vault, in which vault was the treasure; and so she laid her hand on the treasure on my left hand and then time whisked on apace; but I clapped my hand upon her and said, “Touch not the treasure.” And then time passed not so swift (Ibid).

A closer look at the particulars of this passage is worth taking. Fox is journeying down into the earth; he is discovering what in his own nature is to be found that is susceptible to earthly encumbrance. He is not here focused on his work to convince/liberate captivated humanity.  Rather, here he searches out what threatens to captivate himself: and thus, he must descend into his own earthly, underground dynamics of being.

There are two women in this vision, which functions to alert one that no particular woman is meant here; rather that “woman” as category is intended (and we extend the boundary of that category to encompass “the opposite sex”). This same rhetorical devise is used in chapter 11 of Revelation where “two witnesses” do not signify particular witnesses but instead stand for the category of “those who witness,” that, as a type, they may be informed of their role and expectations, which are listed in that chapter.

The first woman Fox envisions is seated, dressed in white, and “looking at time.” Interpreted, the woman is seated and at rest; she’s among those “which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14). She looks at time, which interpreted is to say, she is not in time but is apart from it and observing it; she is where there is “time no longer”(10:6), i.e., she knows life eternal. In this first woman, we learn what qualities pertain to the person who potentially poses a threat to the prophet’s sensibility: one who is spiritually cognizant.

Fox moves on, followed by the second woman, deeper into the earth, and we see, envisioned in dream-like imagery, both the threat and the action taken to thwart it. In the second vault, “the treasure” lay, which I interpret to mean, the place where was found his sense of life. It is his left hand that is touched – not the hand with which he labors, but that part of his being not given to his work; it is there the claim upon him is made: to engage that which is not his work but some other genuine, vital part of his being, for example, his emotion. We are told time moves rapidly as a consequence, which indicates a waste of resources (time, effort, attention, etc.) that follows the misdirection of attention toward a personal, nonproductive area of life. Closely replicating Jesus’s words to Mary, Fox resists this claim upon himself, saying: “Touch not the treasure.” We then see “time passed not so swift,” which is interpreted to mean, he no longer saw his resources wasted.

Perhaps it was the personal, non-work directed nature of the topic that led Fox to conclude this journal entry with cryptic words, hinting he could speak more to the point if he chose but would instead leave interpretation to another.

They that can read these things must have the earthy, stony nature off them. And see how the stones and the earth came upon man since the beginning, since he fell from the image of God and righteousness and holiness. And much I could speak of these things, but I leave them to the right eye and reader to see and read (Ibid.)


In the first verse of the Epistle to the Romans, Paul describes himself as “separated unto the gospel of God.” In his exegetical work of the same name, Karl Barth expands upon the phrase:

Paul…is always himself, and moves essentially on the same plane as all other men. But, in contradiction to himself and in distinction from all others, he is—called by God and sent forth. Are we then to name him a Pharisee? Yes, a Pharisee—“separated,” isolated, and distinct. But he is a Pharisee of a higher order. Fashioned of the same stuff as all other men, a stone differing in no way from other stones, yet in his relation to God—and in this only—he is unique. As an apostle—and only as an apostle—he stands in no organic relationship with human society as it exists in history; seen from the point of view of human society, he can be regarded only as an exception, nay, rather, as an impossibility. Paul’s position can be justified only as resting in God, and so only can his words be regarded as at all credible, for they are as incapable of direct apprehension as is God Himself. For this reason he dares to approach others and to demand a hearing without fear either of exalting himself or of approximating too closely to his audience. He appeals only to the authority of God. This is the ground of his authority. There is no other (28).

“Separated, isolated, and distinct,” and not “approximating too closely” with those to whom he ministers is the platform from which this apostle must work; as must the prophet, Fox; and even  the Messiah himself. Barth states that only thus could Paul retain “the ground of his authority”: that “his words [could] be regarded as at all credible.” In each of these three instances – whether with Jesus, Paul, or Fox – the work entails a resistance to an “organic relationship with human society.” What was present in the two earlier illustrations but absent from Barth’s analysis, however, is the more foundational motive: In addition to ensuring the viability of one’s mission and work in the vineyard of God, there is the elemental drive to secure the soul’s solitary, heavenward ascent; one must “go it alone.”

 

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The Imperturbable

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. (Hab. 3:17-18)

Habakkuk was a prophet who foresaw the demise of his nation. While all around him signaled willful alienation from God, he wrote these lines of beauty and joy. For he knew that a person’s state is determined, not by outward circumstance but by the imperturbable Light of Christ, given and received within.

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