Saturday, March 23, 2013

Walking cheerfully over the world…


The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures for ever, and is the same and never changes.

Margaret Fell – Quaker Faith & Practice 19.61

Your word, Lord, is eternal;
    it stands firm in the heavens.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
    you established the earth, and it endures.
Your laws endure to this day,
    for all things serve you.
If your law had not been my delight,
    I would have perished in my affliction.
I will never forget your precepts,
    for by them you have preserved my life.

(Psalm 119.89-93)

I take immense comfort in this knowledge of God’s permanence, his being eternal. All things change, and decay; God is not a thing, but the ground of all thing-ness. He (for my purposes, the pronoun will do as well as another – none of them is really up the task) seems to hold isness itself like a cup; in traditional metaphor, in the palm of his hand.

This God who, self-existent, is the source of all being, is not distant. Were it not for his intimacy with the universe of things, I don’t suppose there would be a way for them to be. But there is “that of God in everyone” – the same Spirit is the light in the eyes of each of us, it seems to me, human and animal, all that lives.

Once something like this comes to be a part of us, nothing can be the same again. Once we live our own lives out of this source – out of the same source as matter, energy, stars and the contents of intergalactic space – “then [we shall] come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox, Quaker Faith & Practice 19.32)

Photo: The Banjo Pier, Swanage, in winter – Mike Farley

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We are always waiting for the Holy Spirit…

We are always waiting for the Holy Spirit—somehow forgetting that the Spirit was given to us from the very beginning. In fact, she was “hovering over the chaos” in the very first lines of Genesis (1:2), soon turning the “formless void” into a Garden of Eden.

We are threatened by anything that we cannot control, that part of God “which blows where it will” (John 3:8) and which our theologies and churches can never perfectly predict nor inhibit (Acts 10:44-48). The Holy Spirit has rightly been called the forgotten or denied Person of the Blessed Trinity. We cannot sense the Spirit, like we cannot see air, silence, and the space between everything. We look for God “out there” and the Spirit is always “in here” and “in between” everything. Now even science is revealing to us that the energy of the universe is not in the particles or planets—but in the relational space between them! And we are having a hard time measuring it, controlling it, predicting it, or inhibiting it. It sounds an awful lot like Spirit.

Richard Rohr

Perhaps this is in part why the Quakers, open as they have always been to the movements of the Spirit, had such a difficult early history. For so many years I have felt that I was seeking the Holy Spirit, trying to find circumstances where I could put myself in the way of the Spirit, listening for a hint of the wind rising, the cry of the wild goose across the marshes.

Listening. I had not thought to listen together. I was familiar with the Vineyard sense of the Spirit’s presence in (musical) worship, or in corporate prayer, but I had always assumed that actually hearing the Spirit was something that would happen not only in silence but in solitude, as indeed it does. But it had not occurred to me that a group of women and men meeting together would provide something like a radio telescope array, whose listening power would be enlarged not despite but because of their differences, in a kind of spiritual interferometry.

Silence is becoming more and more my own default position. I long for silence with a clarity that it’s taken me a long time to admit to myself, and which is perhaps not so much a longing for silence in and of itself, but a longing for the Spirit who is not only always present, but is always seeking us. Silence is the heart’s opening to that call, so gentle as to be imperceptible in the scuttle and click of busyness, the hastiness of speaking…

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Under the clouded sky...

It is difficult for us to reconcile the two ideas of God as a loving Father and as the Creator of all things, because of the existence of cruelty and undeserved suffering in Nature itself. Jesus apparently did take for granted the idea that God controlled the rising of the sun and falling of the rain and had made us male and female. It makes me long to have him here now so that I could ask him some of the questions that his disciples didn’t ask him. In fact I find that I am talking to him in my mind and that it is a great deal more profitable than talking to myself; even though it is, in one sense, talking to myself; and even though I don’t get the answers to the questions that puzzle me. But that doesn’t worry me now, because I have learned, as a scientist, how much I don’t understand. I have learned too that when a scientist encounters two apparently irreconcilable ideas, these are the stepping stones to new knowledge.
Kathleen Lonsdale, 1962 (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.23)

I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you can rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff...
Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
The wonder is that we go on from day to day, wondering where to have lunch, planning our next day, discussing the relative merits of different operating systems; and all the while light pours through the interstices of all that is, scouring our eyes, hosing clean our hearts if only we will turn to it, and singing this strange, clear note that says, over and over again, despite everything we think we know, “...that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

Grace upon grace, out of pleroma—out of a fullness we cannot begin to comprehend, out of some well of isness that dwarfs all we know of space or time, comes a love so incarnate, so utterly bone of our bones, that the breath is driven from our lungs, and we gasp for the gift of air, of life, of all that is. That is all, really, that anyone can say. The rest is experience, experiment, practice, day after tiny day, little as we are ourselves. Just the quiet ways of faith, under the ivy, under the clouded sky...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jacob's Well

“Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon...” (John 4.4-6)

Jacob’s well is a thin place. Even after all these years, with the accretions of centuries, and the Eastern Orthodox monastery of Nablus built over it, the deep well is just as it would have been when Jesus met the unnamed Samaritan woman there over two thousand years ago. To stand there, beside the worn stones of the kerb, and watch as the icy cold, clear water is drawn up by bucket, is a strange experience. For an instant, the poky candlelit crypt seems to split apart, and the sunlit dusty hillside above the town is open again to their words:
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’ (John 4.19-24)
The light in the Holy Land is extraordinary. Somehow it is more than just light. I looked through the photographs I took of that day, hoping to find one to illustrate this—but they don’t show the actinic quality that transforms time, threads the instants on a braid of isness, stretches the breath to hold truth between the rise and fall of one’s chest.

“ the Spirit and in truth.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Love in the realm of freedom

“Love can only happen in the realm of freedom, and ever-expanding freedom at that.” (Richard Rohr, The Four Gospels)

We are so used to the expression, “God is love” (1 John 4.8) that we often do no stop to think what this means in practice. Or possibly we do think, and that is the problem.

In human relationships we do not think ourselves into love by reasoning about the suitability of a potential partner, nor do we sit down and work out the advantages and disadvantages of being in love before we fall in love. We spend time with someone, and suddenly we discover, sometimes to our complete surprise, that we are in love with them.

If God is love, how can we find him by reason? How can we fall into that love with him by accepting a set of propositions, or by acceding to a set of regulations?

True love between humans is profoundly opposed to rules and regulations - hence so many tragic stories based on love that breaks the rules, or is broken by them - and yet we bind religion (the very word implies binding) with creeds, dogmas, commandments... Poor God! How his love goes unrequited among religious folk, unreturned, unknown in so many places of worship.

It is only when we know God, in true worship, that that truth will set us free (John 8.32).

At Jacob’s well, Jesus sat talking with a Samaritan woman (John 4.1ff.) who asked him (vv. 19-20) where God should properly be worshipped - on the mountain there, or at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies, “...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Truth is freedom, just as the Spirit is. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3.8)

True worship sets us free, as true love does its beloved. True love is a great adventure, and so is true worship - perhaps the greatest adventure, out on the endless sea of God’s own undying love...

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

In the darkness?

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” ( John 1.5) 
For me, the darkness is at least as much my unknowing as it is any externally imagined source of evil. Unknowing can be turning away from knowing, closing one’s eyes to the light; or it can be simply the incapacity, the sheer tininess of the human mind before the isness of God.

The light, however, shines with uninterrupted love and presence. Christ is not limited, and his mercy does not depend on our receptiveness, or even on our repentance - much as it may lead in the end to that.

The light isn’t anything we may see by the light, and to dwell on what it shows us is plainly to miss the point. “Mind the light” - that is our job. At the last, that may be all that does matter...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Listening to the Light

Quakers are often thought of as being a withdrawn or closed group of people. Some even think that we have died out. We haven’t. We are still here, and still leavening the world around us...
Quakerism is a part of the European Christian mystical tradition which combines spirituality with the practical life, and its particular insights give it a universal appeal with is particularly relevant to today’s world. As a specific movement it started around the mid-seventeenth century. It arose out of the searching by many people for a religious voice that was true to the Holy Spirit... The famous Quaker historian, Rufus Jones, has shown that Quakerism was a part of the stream of mysticism which started with Dionysius and included Jacob Boehme, St Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart and the Friends of God... In reality, the founder of the Quaker movement was - and is, for it has to be discovered anew in each generation—the Holy Spirit...
Light is a very important Universal symbol. It is not limited to Quakers, but we use it in a very specific way, as another name for Christ, the divine within all creation... Sometimes the light is seen as a peaceful symbol, gently showing the way ahead, or filling us with wisdom and healing, and sometimes it is the fire which burns up all the old self, to allow the Divine to manifest... 
Jim Pym, Listening to the Light
Light. It was my very first experience of Christ, when I sat down in an old ruined walled garden at the age of 31, and at last admitted that I was to be a Christian. It is still my experience of him—at times an almost physical light, beating through my closed eyes like sudden sunlight, a totally real and immediate experience of what Paul wrote in Romans 8.9, “you... are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.”

There is an old Quaker phrase, itself borrowed from the Collegiant Will Ames, “Mind the Light.” It has come to have an increasing resonance for me. It means, of course, to turn one’s mind to the light, and not to what it may (spiritually) illuminate—but is also means “look out for the light!”—for that light will burn, and it is hard sometimes to sit still under it, as I now know to my (actually blessed) cost!