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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Dialogue on Quaker Understanding of Free Will

This is a transcript of a dialogue between Stuart Masters and me that occurred in early to mid-December 2017 in the comment section of Stuart’s blog post “Friends of Martin Luther? Quakers and the Protestant Reformation.” The point I challenged was Stuart’s assertion that by a free act of will man participates in his transformation from sinner to saint. I contended early Quaker understanding held that the will is not free until liberated by Christ.

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Pat wrote (quoting from Stuart’s post):

While people may be incapable of transforming themselves, humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice, and when they do, by God’s transformative power, it is possible for them to come into perfect conformity to the will of God (i.e. holiness or perfection).

Stuart, your stating that Quakers believed that “humans have sufficient free will to make this fundamental choice” is not accurate. Nayler writes:

There is no will free for God but that which is free from sin, which will man lost in the fall, when he let in the will of the devil and entered into it; wherein man became in bondage. And all that man in that state knows of the free-will, is that which moves in him against the will of the flesh and of the devil, which is seen in the light of Christ (Works, III, 132-3).

Man is either in the will of the devil or he is in the will of God, the latter moving in him against the will of the devil. There is no neutral state from which man chooses the one or the other. To claim otherwise encourages “self-willed” man to remain self-satisfied, imagining himself in an innocuous, autonomous state, rather than his true state of being poor, helpless, blind, and naked, and without God.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

Thank you for your comment! I am aware of this Nayler passage, which I think comes from ‘Love to the Lost’. However, I cannot believe that Nayler means what you suggest he means.

Since early Friends rejected Calvinist double predestination, logically, they had to accept that there was a degree of human cooperation with God in the salvation process. They much have accepted the need for a human response to the divine offer. If not, there would have been no point launching the massive preaching campaign during the 1650s. The essential exhortation to turn away from carnal things and toward the light of Christ in the conscience, requires a response from its hearers.

I agree that they limited the extent of free will (and saw human wilfulness as a key aspect of sin). However, no free will, no choice to turn to Christ, only God’s action (which in this sense would have to be coercive, and against the free choice of the individual, which then leads to the problem of explaining why God might force this on some but not on others, bringing us back to the issue of predestination).

Shalom,
Stuart.

Pat wrote:

I think if you read through the section titled “Concerning Free-Will” in “Love to the Lost,” you will see that I am correct in saying that Nayler asserts there is either God’s will or the devil’s will, with no free will (in our contemporary understanding of the term as autonomy) that stands apart from the two. The passageway from one to the other is given through the quickening Word of God. Nayler writes:

and as the spiritual man is quickened by the word of God, and that man born which is not of the flesh, nor of the will of it; so is that will seen again in man which is free, wherein the creature is made free from the will of the flesh, which is bondage (133).

As it is not within man’s ability to give birth to himself, it cannot be he who autonomously wills to be born from above; he is born of God. To be born of God occurs not from the will of the flesh, nor the will of man (Jn. 1:13). It was the Word of God that seventeenth-century Friends preached, to the end that others could feel the quickening seed of God within (as they themselves had been given), and feeling that quickening they found entry into God’s will, and thus experienced their freedom, which hitherto they had not known.

So man hath not free-will further than he is free-born from above of the seed that sinneth not (134).

Stuart wrote:

My view has always been that the Early Quaker position was closer to that of Wesley than to Calvin. However, I need to be open to the possibility that their roots in Calvinist Puritanism left a legacy in their faith and practice.

My interpretation of Nayler’s words are that he is emphasising the view that salvation comes by the work of God alone and not by the effort of the individual. I agree with this and feel that it is consistent with the early Quaker position generally.

Early Friends were clearly very ‘black and white’ in their understandings; one was either in darkness or in the light, in God’s will or the devil’s will, in the first birth or the second birth etc… That need not imply that they did not feel that all people were faced with a choice; to turn to God or to remain in darkness. Such a choice presumes a degree (however limited) of free choice.

However, that does not resolve the very serious problem I outlined in my first response, which you have not answered. If humans have no free agency or choice in the salvation process, then we are left with the Calvinist positions of predestination and irresistible grace. This implies that God chooses some for salvation and others for damnation, without any human choice or decision.

I cannot accept that this was the message of the first Friends.

Shalom,

Stuart.

Pat wrote:

The Cain and Abel story offers information on how to understand Friends perspective on God’s acceptance of man, or lack thereof. Following the telling of each brother’s sacrifice, God’s respect to Abel’s but not to Cain’s, and Cain’s anger, He speaks:

If thou doest well, shall thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Gen. 4:7).

What is interesting here is God’s speaking as though Cain knows what doing “well” entails, and is not doing it. The text presents what appears to be identical behaviors between the two brothers: They both bring offerings of their labor, described with almost identical words, but only one’s is accepted while the other’s is not. We can’t see what’s amiss with Cain’s offering, but God can and does, and furthermore knows Cain does as well, and holds him accountable. By having nearly identical descriptions of the brothers’ sacrifices, but God’s judgment differing towards them, we see a narrative device by which the difference between the brothers is located: the difference between them lies within, invisible to us on the outside (and invisible to those who prefer darkness to light) but visible to God, who knows the heart.

Where has Cain failed? A strong clue is the word Jesus uses in Mt. 23:25 to describe his brother: “righteous Abel.” God expects Cain (and each of us) to live up to the capacity given: first, to love truth/righteousness; second, to recognize our limits in knowing truth/righteousness; and third, to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Mt. 5:6), that we might be filled. This love of truth requires an inward sacrifice, and Fox affirms Cain’s lack of it when he wrote in “The Papist’s Strength”: “he [Cain] observed outward things, and comes not to witness the spiritual sacrifice” (51).

“I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not” (Isa. 65:1) is a verse that points to the heeding of the seed of God within before it is known that there is such a thing; it is those who heed and love and seek a place to stand that only truth can provide; that mourn its lack with heart, mind, soul, and strength; it is these who come to be comforted through the mercy of God in His sending of His Spirit. It is not our choice or decision to suffer such need; but sensing its truth, we do not muffle or darken, obscure or deny, but instead, feelingly know the emptiness of the heart, which cannot, should not, and will not be placated by any means at our disposal or will.

Stuart wrote:

I am currently doing research for a book on James Nayler’s theology and so will need to address this matter.

I agree that the work of salvation is God’s work alone, and not about our personal effort, but maintain that, unless we at least have the freedom to respond to God’s offer of salvation, we are left with the irresistible grace of Calvinism.

Early Friends, like many others, separated from their parish churches and were seekers of truth. That seems to imply an act of choice, even if it was divinely guided. Fox exhorts people not to quench the Spirit, which implies a decision not to follow its leadings. The very act of Adam’s disobedience implies making a choice against the way of God.

If no-one has choice, no-one can be held responsible or accountable. They could do nothing else.

Pat wrote:

Your reasoning is sound, Stuart, but it starts from the wrong premise. We are not like a King who sits on a throne deciding and choosing what will be the law of his land: God’s salvation or the devil’s perfidy. Rather we are like a subject deep in a pit with no way out. It is not by choice or decision that we see our pitiful state, because, in truth, it is impossible not to see it—for those who have eyes to see. We do not choose to mourn our condition, as, in truth, it is impossible for a creature not to mourn its captivity—for those who have a heart that feels. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25) Paul is showing the necessity of seeing and feeling our true state, and the means of our deliverance. Truth, truth, truth from first to last, from captivity to freedom!

I’ve tried to show that there is another way to understand the solution to our condition other than (1) a participatory use of human will, or (2) election via the doctrine of predestination. I am convinced that it is the one understood by first Friends, and is also in accord with Scriptures. I’m grateful for this opportunity to have discussed the issue with you.

May the love of Christ be with us.

Patricia

Stuart:

Thank you Pat, I am certainly willing to take account of the perspective you have outline[d]. In any event, I need to do more work on this issue.

In the love of Christ,

Stuart

The discussion continued one week later.

Stuart wrote:

Hi Pat,

I have been doing some research on how human ‘will’ was understood in the early modern period. It seems that ‘will’ primarily related to human to our emotions, motivation and affections, rather than agency or the capacity to make choices. On this basis, I can agree with what you have said about the position of early Friends without rejecting my belief that Friends accepted that humans could make a choice about whether to respond to God’s offer of regeneration and salvation.

Essentially, I think we were simply defining the term ‘free will’ differently.

Shalom,
Stuart.

Pat wrote:

Stuart, your new definition of “will” does not affect the argument that there is no neutral ground from which to exercise free will, which is the position of first Friends, which I’ve explained. It is not possible to “choose,” because the will is captivated until it is set free by Christ, the truth. Here’s Penington’s clear refutation of the will standing of itself “free to both equally”:

But as for your speaking of free will, ye do not know what you speak of; for the will with the freedom of it, either stands in the image and power of him that made it, or in a contrary image and power…[Mark this.] The will is not of itself, but stands in another, and is servant to that in whom it stands, and there its freedom is bound and comprehended. For there is no middle state between both, wherein the will stands of itself, and is free to both equally, but it is a servant and under the command of one of these powers…such free will as men commonly speak of is mere imagination (Works, I, 77).

 Stuart wrote:

Well we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shooting the Moon: An Essay on Reflection and Substance

One Saturday each month, Friends from around the Philadelphia area meet at a specified meetinghouse for what is called “Extended Worship.” The schedule for the day is worship for several hours in the morning, then lunch and gathering in the afternoon for an opportunity to share one’s response to the morning’s ministry, or the insights silently gained during worship. The event usually draws around a dozen or so Friends, and for the most part, it has settled into a gathering of regular attenders, of which I am one.

Another regular attender, whom I’ll refer to as “S,” has been struggling with cancer for a while, and her messages often bring forth some of what that struggle entails: the fear, confusion, sense of loss, the desire for healing, and the striving to remain hopeful. That morning her message came to us as a story of a recent experience she’d had while hospitalized and interacting with other patients and their families in the waiting room of a 12th-floor oncology ward.

“S” is an artist, and for some time, it’s been her practice to photograph the full moon each month. In her message, she described other times she’d photographed the moon: times when the light of evening was just right, the sky a clear, warm blue in the moments before dark, and times when the moon was tinged with the reflected light of the setting sun. Having a 12th-floor vantage point overlooking Philadelphia, she saw a unique opportunity to photograph the moon as it rose above the horizon and was mirrored in the towering, glass-walled buildings of the city.

Her camera, tripod, and other equipment brought in by a friend, “S” prepared to get the shot, as interested onlookers joined in the fun of sharing her quest. The waiting room began to hum with curiosity, talk, and laughter as other patients; their kids, parents, and grandparents; friends; and staff chatted, and hoped the cloud cover might break and the moon appear, which in the end, it did.

The primary cause for joy for those in the room, however, was not the successful completion of the quest, but the warm person-to-person interaction that had emerged. The group found among themselves, at least for a time, the wherewithal to withstand and overcome the fear of impending threat and loss. Just as the rising moon may reflect the sun’s rays, we humans can also glow in the beauty of our nature. When her message finished, this hymn came to mind:

For the beauty of the earth / And the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth / Over and around us lies.

Lord of all to thee we raise,

This our hymn of grateful praise.

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Sitting in the silence that followed, appreciating the richness of the story and the liveliness it depicted, I thought that God is glorified in his creatures when we act with courage and ability, with creativity and warmth, and with love.

Then unexpectedly Jesus’s words from John 17 appeared in my mind: “Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee.” These words begin the prayer Jesus gives just before his arrest, which leads to the events that he knows will bring an end to his earthly life. As the verse presented such an abrupt alternative to what I had been feeling and thinking, I realized I needed to examine it.

Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him (1-2).

Jesus begins the prayer by acknowledging that God is the source of life: he addresses Him as “Father”; he appeals to Him for power to complete his mission, a mission that God has given. Jesus’s initial words express a dependency on God for purpose, strength, and love. Here there are no mediating activities or relationships; instead there is a direct one-to-one interaction between the Creator and the human being, a reciprocality: Jesus, as man, is to be glorified through receiving God’s presence, and God is to be glorified by Jesus’s conformity to His Will. It is a relationship that retains the distinction between Creator and creature, and yet interiorizes that relationship through the indwelling of God in man: “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (21).

Secondly, in this passage, Jesus identifies his mission: he is to give others eternal life; he is not intent upon bettering the natural state by lessening fear, creating beauty, or by forming bonds of affection. His mission can proceed only upon his having received “power over all flesh,” i.e., the power to withstand any claims made upon the will by the first nature that exists independent of God.

Given the circumstances, one might suppose that the impulse to self-preservation would figure in this prayer, but throughout, there is no sign of it. Jesus instead focuses on making known the glory he has been given, and in turn gives to others (22). In like manner for us, to know the glory received from Christ blinds us to every natural impulse; for there is neither seen nor felt a forfeiture or sense of loss to the first nature, as one receives and focuses upon the light of Christ within. Such is the complete power and beauty of our Lord, who is the Substance forevermore.

 In this stands our blessedness and everlasting happiness, as our eye is kept always looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and not only to know him as the author the beginner of faith, but as the finisher and ender also, and to know the end of faith, which is the salvation of our souls…. Many are living witnesses in this age, as in ages past, of the power of faith, even in the beginning of its work. But it is a higher state to know the end of it, the finishing of faith, even to know its work done, to know the heart purified by it, and the victory over the world obtained, the wicked one subdued, overcome, brought down, and destroyed. This is a blessed state indeed, and that which all are to wait for, press after, and witness. The only way to attain this is to always look to Jesus, to keep the eye of the mind toward him, and the ear open to him, who alone teaches to profit, even in silence, when no word is spoken outwardly. This is the blessed end of the ministry and the ministers of truth whom the Lord has sent among us, and of all preaching, writing, and printing, even that everyone’s eye might be turned to Jesus, always looking to him who has begun the good work, and who alone is able to finish it.

–William Shewen, (Meditations and Experiences [Market Street Fellowship Early Quaker Series, 2015], 74-75)

                                   

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advice to a Young Christian

The following response was given to a young man who while living in South America had felt bewilderment and dismay when speaking of his faith to those who associated Christianity with the condoning of violent abuse against them and their culture in previous centuries, as well as an abuse toward women in the present-day. His statement can be read here in a post titled “When Words Fail.”

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That people use the language and ideas of Christianity for their own selfish ends is commonplace. You are seeing some gross forms of this perversion in South America, but subtle forms of it are just as deadly to the souls and cultures who succumb to this or to any other corruption. The need to dominate is always a fear of death, which is Satan’s reign, whether it’s dominating women, other cultures, or language (as did Humpty-Dumpty!*).

Upon seeing corruption, you must take care of yourself first (like putting on your oxygen mask before trying to help others with theirs): don’t let resentment or grief take up residence in your soul. Recognize the corruption you’re seeing, but don’t let negative emotion or thought overcome you; despair is “of the world,” and Christ within overcomes the world. You can be ready to act on the Lamb’s behalf only if you abide in his name: Let his light preserve you in righteousness, his power be your readiness to act, and his wisdom your guide to victory.

The victory will not always manifest as an immediate reversal of the world’s corruption, but it will always manifest as soul-satisfying peace and joy, which gives you strength to continue in the face of what appears to be overwhelming odds, for the whole world lies in wickedness. Though you may or may not effect change in outward circumstances, know that you are not working alone: For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men (Titus 2:11). Though it be in the darkness of men’s hearts, the light, grace, and truth shines in everyone, and is forever one’s Lord: in faith, a formidable ally.

 

*”When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

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A Colony of Heaven

Last December in his blog Can you believe? Johan Maurer offered an opportunity to voice one’s thoughts on what constitutes a faith community through taking a survey he’d composed titled “Building a Trustworthy Church.” It can be found here.  In this survey, participants were asked to describe their experience of trustworthiness (or its lack) in religious communities they’d been part of, and also to rate the importance of particular qualities or features for sustaining a trustworthy religious community. The survey included questions on the nature of leadership, culture, education, and finance.

Participants were also asked to envision “qualities or features [that] would be most important to include in any congregation [they] might consider joining.” As I began to write my response to this particular question, I found more and more ideas tumbling forward, and upon completing my answer, noticed myself re-visiting the long-ago feeling of being six-years-old and having finished my Christmas list! Here’s my list of the features and qualities:

The primary feature would be a genuine knowledge of God and Christ. I’d want to see some effort had been given to studying Scripture and early Friends writings, additionally contemporary writers who have studied these original resources and written sensibly about their findings. I’d want to see good character, not only in major issues such as marital fidelity but in minor day-to-day behaviors, such as not monopolizing conversations or podium time, etc. In short, I’d want to see some self-awareness and discipline counteracting the fallen nature’s tendency to self-aggrandizement. I’d like to see a creative, personal approach to worship and socializing: the house church where each brings a psalm or prayer, and worshipers gather around a table to share and joyfully have a meal together sounds like an ideal. I’d like to see true friendliness and concern about one another’s lives. I’d like to feel that the group was truly the body of Christ, a colony of heaven. I’d like to hear others minister the Word of God.

There is in every culture a germ or seed of origin that determines its form and function. In time, too many accretions burden the entity; distort its function; and cause it to fail, to die, leaving behind a hollow shell of what once lived. Prophets call us to honor and return to the source, the living seed, and not to worship the cultural casing that once held its outgrowth. George Fox here recalls the small beginning of the church in apostles’ time when they

said, “pray every where;” who met together in their several houses, and went from house to house. Acts 2. 46. And this was the practice of the church in the primitive times, which we observe, who were to edify one another, and exhort one another, and build up one another, and pray for one another, and they were not to be tied to one place, synagogue, or temple, which the Jews were only, but sometimes they met on mountains and hills, and sometimes in houses. And the church was in Aquila and Priscilla’s house, 1 Cor. 16.19. there was a meeting set up in the primitive time (The Works of George Fox, IV, 269).

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The Best Gift of Life

And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them (Rev. 11:11).

The writing that follows is a transcription of vocal ministry given in meeting for worship at a Philadelphia meetinghouse on February 4, 2018. Soon after I had given this ministry, the meeting’s Worship and Ministry Committee met and discussed my ministry as a problem in need of their intervention. (To get a sense of the tenor of the ministry I had given at this meeting, see essays based on transcriptions: “Called to Christ,” November 2017; “Moses and the Burning Bush,” January 2018; and “The New Way,” March 2018.)

In that committee meeting, members decided they would attempt to persuade me to change the form and content—and thus the Source—of the ministry I gave. And if they could not persuade me to change the ministry, the committee would convey their disapproval by ousting me from further participation in the meeting.

Thus charged, a committee representative approached me under the guise of the committee’s “wanting to support the ministers in the meeting,” and to that end, asked to meet with me to discuss it. During that meeting, his true intent emerged as he repeatedly urged me to alter the ministry. (It was the committee’s idea that I should speak in parables!) I politely but firmly declined to adopt the change the committee had devised for me, and the following Sunday after meeting for worship was cornered by several members of this committee, who made it clear that I was now ostracized from the meeting: my ministry was deemed “unwelcoming.”

Having given several decades of prophetic service to the Philadelphia Quaker community, I felt myself, at that point, inwardly released from again ministering to a Liberal meeting. Though there were a number of Friends in the meeting who regularly and warmly expressed appreciation for the ministry I gave, and often wanted to speak with me about it, these interested and supportive Friends were not in positions of influence: not clerks of committees, nor wielding old Quaker surnames, nor ambitious to ascend the ranks of the meeting hierarchy.

Through their intent and action, these Liberal Quakers silenced prophesy in their midst.

For more than half a century, clear-sighted Friends have been pointing to signs of spiritual distress in our Society. Many of them have been scholars, who have offered sound analysis of the cause and progress of this decline, but we’ve had too few personal stories documenting it. This account is one but is typical of many, as Adria Giulizia points out in her description of the steps by which contemporary “managers of vineyard” (Mark 12) silence the prophets among them. She writes:

When the prophet challenges us with uncomfortable truths, rather than using our discomfort as an opportunity for reflection and discernment, we tell her to tone it down, complain that she is “unwelcoming” and, if she doesn’t get the message, we run her off (“Welcoming the Gifts God Sends Us”).

A genuine assembly of Friends is comprised of people who when faced with a choice between truth and securing a comfortable—or exalted—place for themselves in the community, to a person will choose truth, hands down. Only in Christ, the Truth, can such an assembly of Friends function with coherence and viability.

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Here is the transcription of the ministry I gave on February, 4, 2018, in this Philadelphia meeting:

Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (Jn. 4:13b-14).

There is a story in the book of John about Jesus resting at the well of Jacob. His disciples had gone to town to get food, and Jesus was sitting on the side of the well, resting. A woman came to draw water from the well, a Samaritan woman. Jesus asked her for a drink of water, and they had a conversation about drawing water from the well.

Jesus said that the water that came from the well would satisfy thirst for only a short time, but thirst would return. There was water, however, that he had to give that would prevent one from ever being thirsty again. He was talking about the Spirit that he had and wanted to give to everyone.

We come here each week, and we share the sustaining experiences of our lives; we offer ideals for consideration, so that we might be inspired. These things are transitory, and that’s why we come here: we need that refueling—week after week—because life debilitates and threatens, and we’re vulnerable. We need to be strengthened; we like strength in numbers and teamwork.

But Jesus was alone, and he had something to give. When we receive what Jesus has to give us, we have a source of life within us that wells up forever. We don’t need external things that we humans can provide for each other: we have the source within us; we have life.

Is it better to keep coming and receive what is transitory: when we’re empty, filling up from other sources, sources other than ourselves? It makes us dependent, cowardly, because we know we’re depending on others for what we do not have ourselves; it makes us conformists.

What is it to be a Quaker?

Jesus said: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly”(Jn.10:10b), ”that [his] joy might remain in [us] and that [our] joy might be full”(15:11). It is “that of God” in each of us that responds to Christ’s offer; it is that of God in every one that may receive life in Christ.

Do not shortchange yourself. You are a human being, and this is a gift, the best gift.

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To place this ministry and its mild reprimand within the context of the work of prophetic ministers to forthrightly speak the truth that challenges deceit and corruption, one could read accounts, debates, and treatises of seventeenth-century Friends. Here is just one example, an excerpt taken from James Nayler’s “The Lamb’s War” (Works, IV:20).

So holiness is come down from heaven, and the light of the son is arising, and begins to shine; and now all unclean spirits get to their strongholds. An unclean, lustful, covetous, proud heart, that hath got the words of truth, is become a habitation of multitudes of unclean spirits and hath covers for them all; so thither they flock apace, and in the light they are seen making head against the lamb, the temples of God to defile, holding forth whoredoms of all sorts, to entice the simple to come out from their strength; but he that keeps within is safe, and the clean heart is God’s habitation, and such as walk in his light are them that are saved; who are inhabited with the chaste spirit and clean minds, they cannot bewitch; so the Lord alone is become the salvation of all that receive him, and the separation is making daily, and them that are saved of the nations walk in the light, and thick darkness covers the unclean, and such love the deeds that are evil; and see not destruction in their way; and the fool delights in his folly, babbling and vanity, and thinks he is as rich as he that hath the treasure of God in a clean vessel; and the whore wipes her mouth, and saith she is right, though the heart runs from God all the day long. And so the scriptures are fulfilled upon that generation, that it may pass away out of the sight of the Lord, and his holy ones forever, into the place out of which the deceiver came, and the deceived with him.

And this the father of lights shows to his own,

as they come out from amongst them;

Glory to his day forever, and holiness without end.

 

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