Quaker Faith & Podcast on Plainness

This is a really good episode. The leveling up/leveling down question, in particular, is important for Quakers to think about—not just with respect to plain speech and dress, but also with respect to the place that Quakers occupy in contemporary (North American and British) society. If we’re mostly white and middle class, then it makes sense to find ways for us to check our privilege, for lack of a better term. But what message does that send to people who are poor or face discrimination due to race, disability, or sexuality? “You, whom society already demeans and effaces, demean and efface yourself some more”—that’s hard to square with the promises of the gospel.

In fact, this speaks to a contradiction in the testimony of plain speech and dress that goes back to the early days of Quakerism. Here’s Robert Barclay:

And if a man be clothed soberly and without superfluity, though they may be finer, than that which his servant is clothed with, we shall not blame him for it: the abstaining from superfluities, which his condition and education have accustomed him to, may be, in him, a greater act of mortification than the abstaining from finer clothes in the servant, who never was accustomed to them.

So we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg and his assistant both wearing t-shirts and jeans, but one of them buys from, say, DKNY or Kenneth Cole, while the other buys from Target or Wal-Mart. This would count as a responsible form of plain dress, per Barclay. But as Mackenzie and Micah point out, this arrangement masks the vast inequality in wealth and power between the two. And though the early Quaker movement was egalitarian in many respects, their radicalism didn’t really extend to overturning the economic structures of English society, in the way that the Diggers, for example, did.

One thing worth reading in this regard is a post by Richard Beck in which he discusses the theological concept of kenosis (or self-emptying) and how it looks different for people at the top of society versus people at the bottom. In short, if kenosis at the top means giving up your privileges and self-importance, then kenosis at the bottom has to mean ridding yourself of the self-loathing that makes you think you deserve to be at the bottom. Otherwise you’re just preaching abuse to the already abused. That awareness of the two different meanings of kenosis is something worth cultivating.


Good soil

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 7/22/2018.

A sower goes out into a field and scatters seeds. Some of them fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Some fall into thin soil and grow for a bit, but without any roots, they wither in the sun. Some fall and take root among thorns, which smother them and keep them from yielding fruit. And some fall on good soil, where they bloom a hundredfold.

Jesus says that this image illustrates how God’s word is received among different kinds of people. Some can’t or won’t hear the word at all. Some hear it and try to take it heart, but lack follow-through. Some try to listen to it, but are overwhelmed by the pleasures and cares of this world. And some hear it and live it out successfully.

That’s what Jesus says about this image. But what can we say?

I find it important to remember that our concern here should not be for the seed—for the seed of God will flourish where it will, even outside of institutions and churches; even outside the Society of Friends. Rather, our concern should be for the soil—that is, us. Are we fitting vessels for the Holy Spirit?

For many of us, our predicament today seems most like the soil with the thorns: We want to draw closer to God and walk in God’s ways, but there is so much bad news, so many obligations, so many distractions. We can be led astray, sometimes without even knowing it. The founder of our movement, George Fox, once said that “whatever ye are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone.” We can be addicted to many things: not just, say, alcohol or gambling, but ideas, both about the world and about ourselves. I have learned from conversations with LGBTQ Christians, for example, that it is often the most progressive members of the faith than can be the most hurtful on questions of queer identity, because they have imagined themselves to be not only in the right on this matter, but on the right side of history. How, then, could they saying or doing things that alienate queer people?

This, then, is the task: To hold firm and not be deceived, even by our own sense of what is right; to keep the thorns at bay. But unlike other tasks, this is no feat of craft or organization: to be good soil, we need merely to be of service.

"The Parable of the Sower" by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)
“The Parable of the Sower” by Hans Leonhard Schäufelein (1480-1538)

Who Is Anna March? (probably not a Quaker)

This story of a con artist in the literary world is worth reading on its own, but the passing detail here is worth lingering over (NB: Kruse was one of Anna March’s aliases):

The contract had landed, in part, thanks to Barbara Appleby, a public radio fundraising consultant Kruse had hired — and charmed. “She played up her Quaker background and her feminist beliefs,” recalls Appleby. “She said her mother was high up in the press office, that she was press secretary for Carter … . Why wouldn’t I believe her?”

As Annalee on Twitter notes, flaunting one’s Quakerism as a way to demonstrate one’s honesty is, to put it charitably, not Quakerly. The image of Quakers as uniquely trustworthy is founded on a few scraps of historical truth—e.g., the refusal of Friends to swear oaths (because it implies one would lie in other circumstances) or Quaker merchants replacing haggling with fixed prices (because charging two different prices for the same thing is wrong)—but it doesn’t give a true account of actual Quaker behavior through the ages, and certainly not today. Grifting on the order of Anna March may not be common, but I can think of a few cases in recent memory in which gross financial mismanagement has plagued Quaker communities. A prominent example can be found in Larry Ingle’s account of the time the treasurer of his meeting was caught embezzling over $33,000. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending, as the treasurer committed to repaying the meeting in full.

Another thing to point out with respect to the Anna March story is that appealing to (real or imagined) Quaker honesty has a long history in the United States, of which the Quaker Oats brand (invented by a Presbyterian!) is only the most egregious case.

Review: Sacred Signposts

Cover of
Cover of Sacred Signposts by Benjamin J. Dueholm

THOMASINA: Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library…. How can we sleep for grief?

SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

Something has been lost, or is in the process of being lost, or is going to be lost if nothing is done. Every religion and every culture faces this reality when the question of its survival is raised. For Christians, it is especially disconcerting because of their relationship to the past. The gospel is not, we say, something that you would stumble upon in ordinary life or suss out through one’s own reason. Rather, it is rooted in particular events at specific points in history. Jesus of Nazareth, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc. Part of the work of the church, then, is historic preservation: to show that those events of millennia ago make claims upon us living today, and for all time. This task is relatively easy when Christianity is the dominant culture, and thus the forces of cultural conservatism can be pressed into its service. But what happens when that dominance is gone?

Continue reading “Review: Sacred Signposts”

Past the shallows of moderation

But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.

Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.

So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.

Steven Davison

Unless we are called

The following is based on vocal ministry that I gave at Frederick Friends Meeting on 4/8/2018.

The apostle Thomas hears a report that Jesus, who was killed, has somehow returned. Refusing to believe this, he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week passes. Thomas and the other disciples are gathered, and Jesus appears among them; and he invites Thomas to touch the wounds on his hands and the wound on his side. But he doesn’t have to: what he sees is enough for him to say, “My Lord and my God!”

We each have ideas about what the search for truth, for meaning, will be like — we know, even if tacitly, what to expect. Maybe we’ll be better versions of ourselves. Maybe we’ll be free of all the things that weigh us down. However we think of it, it’s common to fall into the assumption that this search is all one-way: it is we who will be seeking, we who will be finding. But the reality is that our intentions do not count for nearly as much as we might like to imagine. We know this to be true in other parts of our lives. Our upbringing, our socioeconomic status, the moment in history we occupy — all these things do more to determine our circumstances than anything we do by our own will. Even within our bodies, conscious, intentional thought counts for very little; most of the time, we act on instinct and unconscious patterns we are scarcely aware of, if at all.

It is all the more so with God. “You did not choose me but I chose you,” says Jesus elsewhere. So it was for Abraham and Sarah, and later for the people of Israel: their choices were more about responding to God’s call or God’s action in the world, rather than them deciding what they wanted and going out to get it. Framed this way, a little humility is in order: for all our talents, truth and meaning will not be present to us unless we are called to see it. Even if we know what we’re looking for — the marks of the nails in his hands, and the wound in his side — we are likely to be unprepared when we actually find it. This is one reason why we should cherish the Quaker practice of expectant waiting, for it recognizes that we must stand aside from our usual habits and listen to the One who invites us to new life.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio
“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio (1601-02; Oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 57 1/2 in; Neues Palais, Potsdam)

Could Quakerism be the radical faith that the millennial generation is looking for?

A few thoughts on this by Chris Venables:

  • Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, while cliché, continues to be a useful heuristic.
  • A commenter on Facebook had a brutally pithy response: “At least some parts of our culture seem more eager for our message than has been the case in a long time. I’m not sure, though, that they are especially eager for our Society.”
  • It so happens that I was talking recently with a young Friend who goes to the college near my local meeting. He had started a Quaker worship group on campus, but it never got off the ground due to lack of interest. So there’s a data point against this article’s thesis.
  • Progressive faith traditions, including Quakerism, are all falling off a cliff in terms of membership, which suggests a deeper disengagement with institutional religion that a better social media game or a more streamlined church bureaucracy won’t solve.
  • I’d put the dilemma of Quakerism in the 21st century this way: It’s not just that our treasures are in jars of clay, it’s that no one would even know the treasures were there, and it seems like they’re easier to find elsewhere. And how do we know that what we have are even treasures?

Saltmarshes of the heart

I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Mike Farley

Good Friday

In the sacrifice of Jesus we have, as it were, a temporal transverse section of an eternal process, an emergence into time and space of the Heart of God, eternally pierced for His children. This sacrifice was not made simply to show men on Earth the way to reconciliation with God, though that was part of its meaning. It occurred also as an essential part of the eternal process itself.

Howard Brinton, Friends for 300 Years
"Exodus" (1952-1966) by Marc Chagall
“Exodus” (1952-1966) by Marc Chagall