The Lesson of the Fig Tree

The following is based upon gospel ministry given in a Philadelphia meeting on May 6, 2018.

There is a story of Jesus and his disciples walking toward Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance, and upon approaching it, he saw that it had leaves but no fruit, “for the time of the figs was not yet”(Mk. 11:13). Then Jesus cursed the tree, saying, “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” (14). Though it was the nature of the tree to bear figs only in season, he cursed the tree for having no fruit.

As with so many incidents that take place in Scripture, this story tells us something of ourselves, and in this story, we are being taught something about what is expected of us as human beings. Like the fig tree, we humans have a particular nature, the human nature, and what its fruits are is well-known to each of us: we have our particular strengths and limitations, our seasons of fear and desire, our fruits of virtue and vice. These all are a part of our human nature.

We are being told in this story that just as more was expected of the fig tree than its nature could yield, more, too, is expected of us than that which our nature can produce. To meet the expectations that are placed upon us–and that we place upon ourselves–we must be more than what our nature confines us to be. We are commanded to be righteous and loving (Jn. 15:12), yet human nature does not allow us to be this; it always lets us down. We try and we fail, and we try again.

How are we to handle this problem with which we are cursed? Is self-deceit our nature’s only possible escape from imposed and internalized expectations of the unattainable? Is the honest person’s only option the agonized cry of Paul: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24)

It is through receiving the spirit of Christ that we become more than our nature allows. It is through receiving this Spirit that we may bear divine fruit of love and righteousness, which is beyond human nature to yield. We prepare to receive this divine Spirit by stilling our human nature and waiting in truth, in that emptiness where, in truth, Truth is not yet come. Through waiting to receive, Friends found that Truth is given, and our human nature transcended and fulfilled. Friends of Truth discovered that we could come into unity with the One whose divine image we bear as sons and daughters of God, and thus come into loving, righteous fellowship with one another. Their discovery confirms the reality that, in any age, we humans can bear the fruits of the Spirit, in season and out, no longer prevented by the confines of our nature; it is  the one true miracle!

Who are ingrafted into Christ? Can any one be ingrafted into him, but as he is inwardly revealed and made known? Yea, is not he in them who are ingrafted into him, and are not they in him? Is not he that is truly regenerated cut off from the old stock within, from the root of bitterness within; and is not he implanted into the new stock within also; insomuch as he sensibly feeleth the pure, holy root of life bear him, and the sap thereof springing up in him, causing him to bring forth fruit to God in due season? (Penington. Works: IV, 165.)

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Review of Traditional Quaker Christianity

As I read and re-read Traditional Quaker Christianity, I felt a spirit of humble diligence intent upon conveying the core substance of Quaker understanding, as well as the practices that have thus far assisted its continuation. The original draft of this book was the result of a study of Friends faith and witness by Ohio Yearly Meeting member Michael Hatfield. He gave his work to the yearly meeting “to do with as it saw fit.” Small study groups were formed in which his writing was found useful but in need of more work. OYM called upon four Friends (Arthur Berk, John Smith, Susan Smith, and Terry Wallace) to edit and develop Hatfield’s original draft.

There are seven chapters in the book, each containing anywhere from four to ten sections. Each section is comprised of a title, selections for recommended reading, a short essay, and questions for discussion. Four appendices complete the main body of the book, providing more discussion of eldering, a brief history and present-day scope of alternate forms of Quaker faith, a glossary of Quaker terms, and a bibliography.

This book would be helpful for anyone wanting a readable introduction to or comprehensive overview of the original tenets of Quaker Christianity, and the sustaining practices that have evolved in Ohio Yearly Meeting. The primary doctrines of the faith are all included: the Word of God is Christ (not the Bible); the Spirit of Christ is universally bestowed; salvation entails obedience to the living God (not intellectual assent to doctrine); only in the daily cross of Christ can evil be overcome. In addition to presenting the central beliefs, the book examines particular tenets that have arisen from the faith: that gospel ministry is oracular, that the Scriptures are esteemed and studied, that baptism and communion are inward occurrences, and that females and males have equal spiritual potential in substance and practice. Pertinent passages from the Scriptures and Friends writings are frequently cited and paraphrased to supplement the editors’ descriptions and explanations.

Some present-day misconstructions of Quaker faith are addressed. For example, in the fourth section of the first chapter, Lewis Benson is quoted contrasting the ethic of obligation with the ethic of idealism: the former being a principle grounded in divine Will as opposed to the latter, which is based in human values. A later discussion in chapter seven on testimony versus testimonies furthers the discussion, and the difference is then illustrated in later sections where the original peace witness and the contemporary peace testimony are each described.

I found the essay on clerking substantial in identifying gifts needed for clerking, responsibilities of both clerk and meeting while conducting business, and helpful practical advice for maintaining order, and writing or modifying a minute. Throughout the book, practical advice is regularly offered and always purposeful.

The roles of elders, overseers, ministers, and teachers are each described: their work, the strengths and gifts necessary, and the typical dangers encountered. A chart at the end of chapter six compares the different functions and orientations of each, providing an easy reference to Friends who are not practiced in identifying these gifts and are unfamiliar with their specific benefits to the community.

Though Traditional Quaker Christianity is intended to convey the tradition among Conservative Friends, it may find readers among Liberals and Evangelicals. Should another generation of Quakers come forth and undertake the restoration of “the desolations of many generations,” they could find this book a resource for building up a Quaker Christian society. Here they would find stated the purpose and aim of the society, means to realize that aim, practices to support those means, and generally a structure provided in which a people of God could arise, flourish, and serve the cause of Truth.

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The New Way

The following is based upon ministry given in a Philadelphia meeting on 11/5/17.

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There is a story about Jesus that takes place after he’d been ministering for a while. He was at home, visiting with his brothers shortly before a festival was to occur in Jerusalem. His brothers were planning to go to the festival, but Jesus was not planning to go with them. The brothers spoke to Jesus, perhaps to chastise him for not going, or perhaps to mock him. They said to Jesus, if you have a message for the people, why don’t you go to the festival and give it? No one who wants to be known acts in secret. Show yourself to the world.  Jesus responds by saying: “My time is not yet come: but your time is alway ready”(Jn. 7:6).

What Jesus is saying here is that he must wait for guidance before he acts; he doesn’t act on his own power and volition, as do his brothers, but he waits until he’s been given understanding from God for what he is to do, and when he is to do it. It is a new way to be, to regulate one’s life. And this is the content of Jesus’s ministry: there’s something new.

When I come to meeting, I arrive early and, a little while later, listen as people begin to enter  the meeting room and settle in. I like to hear all the sounds: the coughing, the sniffling, the shuffling of feet. These are cozy human sounds; there’s a warmth in hearing them, like sitting in front of a fire. And then there are the messages: people’s opinions and ideas. People have always had opinions and ideas. They, too, are human, a natural part of us. Some may be good ideas and some not; some may be productive and others destructive; some dutiful and others careless; some creative and others unimaginative, but whatever their qualities, they are all ideas. They come with our being human, along with all the other capacities that have been given to us by our Creator.

When Jesus spoke about his time being “not yet come, but his brothers’ time being always ready,” he was making a distinction between the new nature and power he’d been given by God–an inspired, divine nature–and the old human nature in which we are confined to knowing and receiving only human ideas and opinions.

To inform, to manifest, and to witness to this new way of being–partaking of the divine nature–was the purpose of Jesus’s ministry; it is the new way given by God.

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Stages of the Work

In his booklet “A Revolutionary Gospel,” Lewis Benson writes of three stages of work that seventeenth-century Friends undertook: the first in the sequence was turning people to Christ through preaching the Word (the substance of vocal ministry), which reached to the witness of God in others (convincing/convicting of sin); the second stage was settling and establishing the newly convinced, which entailed repentance and amendment of life; and the third was building on this newly laid foundation, thereby enabling the Church to form and become a witness to the society at large of the new order of righteous community.

Many in our meetings today are not yet convinced—have not moved into the first stage—and therefore the second and third stages of development (settling and building) go largely undiscovered. The work for any who have been inwardly convicted of truth and have learned the necessity of silently watching for its promptings for guidance to speak in meeting have before them the work of the first stage: turning people to Christ, the truth, through giving voice to the power and spirit of the Lord that can reach to the witness of God in everyone. This was the vocal (gospel) ministry as it was at first, and is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Benson concludes the segment on stages of the work with a paragraph that reminds; reassures; and, yes, comforts us that our time is not the only time of mistaken notions of individualism:

A fairly large segment of first-generation Quakers misunderstood the nature of the Quaker revolution. They thought it was leading to an individualistic righteousness and a loose association of free-wheeling religious individualists. They failed to catch the vision of a great people gathered to God by Christ who would learn together, obey together, witness together and suffer together. However, faithful Friends, who had grown up in the truth, became builders of the new righteousness and the new community (p.11).

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Moses and the Burning Bush

[The following is based upon vocal ministry given on Twelfth month, the 31st.]

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed (Ex. 3:2).

One of the significant things about the burning bush that Moses saw was that it continued to burn. The bush burned and was not consumed. And so, Moses was drawn to look at it: he’d not seen anything like it before. For fire burns while it has fuel: wood, gas, or some other material. But when the fuel has been consumed, the fire goes out. The fuel is finite, and once it is gone, the fire no longer burns.

We humans are like fire in that we have a finite amount of substance to fuel our lives. We have limited time to live; our understanding is limited by history and circumstance; our capacity to love is limited by our affections, and often fails when we come into conflict with others. Our life powers are limited, much to our chagrin.

Moses was a man who was intensely aware of his limitation: he couldn’t speak properly; he had run away from his people whom he knew to be suffering; he had even killed a person. He felt his shortcomings keenly. When God spoke to him from the burning bush and told him that he would send him to Pharoah to liberate the Israelites, Moses–feeling his limits and doubting his ability–replied:

Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? (11)

Because Moses felt and knew his limitation, he was prepared to become a spokesperson for God (a prophet); his sensing the truth of himself readied him to respond to God. We, too, may heed the promptings of truth about ourselves, and be led by the seed of God within. We, too, may be given to see the light, to know eternal life that is beyond our finitude; we, too, may be delivered from captivity and led into the promised land.

Contrarily, we may be hemmed in, enslaved by the inward Pharoah. Who is this Pharoah within, who will not let us go? He it is who would prevail; who would control and dominate; and who’d refuse to see what is, in truth, immediately before him.

To Moses, who saw his limitation and confessed his need for strength, God replied: “Certainly I will be with thee (12).” The power and wisdom of God, Christ the light within, visits, empowers, and sustains our lives indefinitely, eternally. Like a fire whose fuel is not consumed in burning is the life he brings to us: a life whose substance is not consumed in time, but is eternal.

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Enduring unto the End

If we died with him, we shall live with him; if we endure, we shall reign with him. If we deny him, he will deny us. If we are faithless, he keeps faith, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:11-13).

These simple, beautiful lines are preceded by the Apostle’s guarantee: “Here are words you may trust.” It seems likely that he’s informing us that the words are inspired, and therefore trustworthy. In addition, the breadth and depth of understanding, expressed in so few words, is indicative of inspired authorship. So few words to speak of such a lengthy process, for the dying mentioned in the first line is slow and difficult, and, as a result, widely avoided. Nevertheless, the long inward process is laid out for us in the Scriptures’ apocalyptic passages; there we’re given words about what to expect: where we are going and Who will come to us in the end.

Each synoptic gospel contains an apocalyptic chapter; I prefer the one in the book of Mark because the language is concise, intense, and powerful. Chapter 13 begins with Jesus providing his disciples with an image and prediction of a destroyed temple. The disciples had been impressed with the buildings of their religion and said so, but Jesus tells them that “all will be thrown down”(2). Though he speaks of the culture’s dwelling space for God, he is referring to the inward dwelling place of our human spirits: our religious, philosophical, psychological, and cultural concepts in which we posit our understanding of self and world. These, Jesus says, will be thrown down.

Many of the chapter’s subsequent verses (7-20) describe destruction, turmoil, and distress: war, earthquakes, famine, betrayals, upheavals, family disruption, and fleeing one’s home and land. The significance of this imagery is two-fold: in one form or another, life’s distresses will be the lot of all; and secondly, this is not chosen but visited upon us, and endured. Personal trials are unique yet come universally to us all. It is as if Jesus, using poetic images, is giving an overview of life’s calamities, specific calamities that when conjointly listed imply the universality of loss and affliction. The line spoken by the Magi in Eliot’s poem summarizes it well: “A hard time we had of it” (“Journey of the Magi”).

This onslaught over time will, in truth, undermine confidence in all existential concepts, even those concepts of “self,” “God,” “love,” and “light.” All will be thrown down so that there’s not one stone left upon another to sustain one’s constructed image of life and self; this is one’s own personal inward suffering “such as never has been until now since the beginning of the world which God created”(20). Jesus tells us how we’re to handle it: we’re to endure to the end(13). To endure is to hold to the deep, wordless human insistence that truth must be honored, though it shakes to the ground every manmade notion of earth and heaven and leaves one feeling lost, without bearings. Such endurance during the temptation to despair is the material of Quaker journal writings and the experience of all true Christians.

Knowing the extreme suffering and despair of the inward process, the Cross within, Jesus warns us upfront to not be deceived and misled by those who come saying that they are the light of Christ:

Jesus began:”Take care that no one misleads you. Many will come claiming my name, and saying, ‘I am he’; and many will be misled by them”(5-6).

By making grand claims for themselves, such persons will mislead and foment a symbiotic relationship with any whose endurance has flagged and are ready to forfeit. A primary tactic of such is to manipulate by flattery, appealing to the ego of the willing victim by suggesting he’s already knowledgeable of God: in Paul’s words “saying that [his] resurrection has already taken place”(2 Tim. 2:18). Second, any check on this corrupt teaching will be denigrated as unworthy, thereby eliminating any standard for exposing the false gospel. The willing participant, in return, offers tribute in the form of loyalty and support, for he thinks himself released from his responsibility to endure, as Jesus has called him to do. This alliance upsets people’s faith, and so Jesus prominently places his warning against it at the start of his discourse. Early Friends admonished this dynamic when they saw it by recalling the prophet’s words: The priests bear rule by their means, and the people love to have it so.

The Son of man comes inwardly to those who “endure until to the end, [for] the same shall be saved”(13). Salvation is known by the inward coming of the Lord, “Then they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory”(26); his coming is known by the complete otherness of his person, for he is a person, neither solely a principle nor an essence. The coming of the Son of man is that which no person can effect by his own desire or aspiration or sacrifice; the coming of the Lord is out of our hands entirely, Jesus teaches. We do not know how to turn to the Son of man because we have no idea what he is inwardly, what to expect; his coming will not resemble in the slightest our human concepts of “light and love” or even our concepts of God. We know neither the substance nor the timing of this inward event: “But about that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; only the Father”(32). It is entirely other, for our deliverance is the prerogative of our Creator, not of our creaturely aspiration.

We can reject this ancient wisdom of our tradition but do so at our peril: “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away”(31). A faithless turn to idolatry only destroys one’s chances of salvation; it in no way impacts the soteriological structure by which we are called to abide: endurance in the truth until the end.

If we are faithless, he keeps faith, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:13).

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Called to Christ

[The following is based upon vocal ministry given on 1 Tenth month 2017.]

In his Journal George Fox spoke of three kinds of dreams:

For there were three sorts of dreams: for multitude of business sometimes caused dreams; and there were whisperings of Satan in man in the night-season; and there were speakings of God to man in dreams (Journal, ed. Nickalls, 9).

In dreams we may learn something of ourselves that lies hidden during waking hours. The dream state allows access to a deeper awareness of who we are and what we think and feel. The self is not covered and veiled but revealed, and we can apply insights from dreams to better understand and improve our lives. We welcome this truth about ourselves and would like to always live with a deep awareness of truth, for there is freedom and comfort in it. Jesus said the truth makes us free, and he also said that the Comforter is the Spirit of truth. There is freedom and comfort in truth.

Fox also spoke of the two kinds of messages that the first Friends gave to people. To those who had not yet come into knowledge of God, Friends preached repentance. For repentance is an intentional uncovering of the truth about the self: what it is that must be seen and then laid down. In repentance, one chooses the light of truth over obscurity. The other kind of message that Friends preached was to those who had already gone through this coming into self-knowledge and had been given to see themselves as they were, without the Lord. They had been open to the truth of themselves, and had discovered that the truth that is Christ soon after was revealed in them. 

To the world the apostles preached repentance, and to believe in Jesus Christ; and taught faith towards God. But to them who were redeemed out of the world, in whom the son of God was made manifest…preaching repentance and the doctrine of baptism was needless, in whom it was fulfilled, to and in such as were brought to God (Works, 7:143).

They who saw themselves as they were without the Lord already knew the value of repentance, as it had led to their entry into the way, into the truth, and into the life that is Christ. They were free men and women who knew the Comforter, the Spirit of truth. To these people, Friends preached Christ in them, because they were folks who sought to hear Christ, the Word, preached: it brought them to the living God; it was their life. 

Fox writes: “There is a time of preaching faith towards God; and there is a time to be brought to God” (Ep. 151). Whether we are in need of repentance or whether we are in the life of Christ, we are all human beings and must move forward from the position we are in. For it is to Christ that we are called: Christ in us the hope of glory. 

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