Sunday, April 21, 2013

“The silent assemblies of God’s people…”

Robert Barclay (1648-1690), who wrote the first systematic exposition of Quaker theology, shows how knowledge comes from worship:

Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life. For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.21

“For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people…” So it has proved to be for me. Thinking about Meeting for Worship this morning, immediately afterwards, I found that I had no words at all for what had passed, and yet I knew that it had been a profoundly affecting time – beyond describing, or even what we normally understand by memory. I know that I am different, that things I had failed to understand or admit to myself are now clear, as if a layer of dust or sediment had been blown clear, and yet I cannot explain to myself, let alone anyone else, how that might have happened. I find myself strangely weak, defenceless, and yet equally strangely at rest in God’s hand. Truly, the Spirit has ways we not only fail to understand, but have no means of understanding. Perhaps even Scripture is of little help to us here, except by showing us (e.g. John 3.8) how little we can expect to grasp of the Spirit’s ways. Robert Barclay comes far closer to it than I could hope to…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Idolatry or openness?

Almost all religion begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The natural and universal response is to “idolize” and idealize that event. It becomes sacred for you, and it surely is. The only mistake is that too many then conclude that this is the way, the best way, the superior way, the “only” way for everybody—that I myself just happen to have discovered. Then, they must both protect their idol and spread this exclusive way to others. (They normally have no concrete evidence whatsoever that other people have not also encountered the holy.)

The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access. “We forbid them to give you access; it is impossible,” we seem to say! Thus much religion wastes far too much time trying to separate itself from—and create “purity codes” against—what is perceived as secular, bad, heretical, dangerous, “other,” or wrong. Jesus had no patience with such immature and exclusionary religion, yet it is still a most common form to this day. Idolatry has been called the only constant and real sin of the entire Old Testament, and idolatry is whenever we make something god that is not God, or whenever we make the means into an end. Any attempt to create our own “golden calf” is usually first-half-of-life religion, and eventually false religion.

Richard Rohr, June 2012

The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life... Under this church ... are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts... There may be members therefore of this Catholic church both among heathens, Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who ... are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God, and there-through become true members of this Catholic church.

Robert Barclay, 1678

God is so very much greater than our minds can themselves comprehend that it is simply foolish to feel we can legislate how he may or may not communicate with our fellow human beings. It is also very shortsighted indeed if we feel that we can legislate where our fellow Christians may or may not turn for inspiration and comfort along their spiritual journey. To say, “You mustn’t read that, it’s influenced by another faith!” or, “You may not publish that, we have withheld our imprimatur!” is so far from Christ’s way (consider his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.1-42), and its consequences) that it is one of the great acts of unfaithfulness, not to mention foot-marksmanship, in the history of the church.

May we be known by our generosity, our open-heartedness, to all women and men of spiritual yearning, of whichever faith, or none. May we become a refuge and a comfort to them, through the indwelling Christ who loves through us… and may they be a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to us too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Love was what he meant…*

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God's guidance so that you may find 'the evil weakening in you and the good raised up'.

Advices & Queries 1,9


Love. The promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Surely it all comes down to this. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4.16b)

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1.15-17)

If in God all things hold together, then as God is love, all things hold together, coinhere, in love. The presence of God must surround all that is, bathing each quantum in love. In all that rejoices, God is there, rejoicing. In all that suffers, God is there, suffering. (Thibault, Peter Abelard’s friend in Helen Waddell’s eponymous novel, understood this. You can read the heart-breaking passage here.)

Since God is love, then in the end we cannot fall out of love, any more than we could escape God. And so in worship, in the silence for which I long so much these days, we yield ourselves to the love that is before all things…

*Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love Ch.86

Picture: Mike Farley

Friday, April 05, 2013

Explaining prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed throughout his life, death and resurrection.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God not be moved to the good, finally (Romans 8.28) of those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.

(Michael Ramsey, Canterbury Pilgrim)