The love of God is not a thing one comprehends but that by which — and only by which — one is comprehended. It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being, and like that time, we learn it by its lack. Flashes and fragments, flashes and fragments, these images are not facets of some unknowable whole but entire existences in themselves, like worlds that under God’s gaze shear and shear and, impossibly, are: untouching, entangled, sustained, free. If all love demands imagination, all love demands withdrawal. We must create the life creating us, and must allow that life to be — and to be beyond, perhaps, whatever we might imagine. I, too, am more (and less) than anything I imagine myself to be. “To know this,” says Simone Weil, “is forgiveness.”
Christian Wiman. Probably not the most representative part of the poem, but it’s the most quotable.
I’m posting here (because I don’t see it elsewhere beside scanned public domain books) this collection of advices for Quaker ministers and elders published by London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) in the early 19th century. Most of it concerns speaking in meeting for worship and how to do it rightly, although some of it touches on traveling in the ministry and personal conduct generally. It’s dated in some places (there’s even a version of the Billy Graham rule!), but I find that a lot of it makes sense and even has opened my eyes in some ways to what Quaker worship can be. For example, the advice to not make a big deal out of being divinely inspired to speak, because all that matters is that the words spoken have a “baptizing” effect on the listener, has been encouraging to me in speaking during worship. Likewise, the advice against prophesying “in their own spirits against any nation, town, people, or person” is something a lot of us need to hear when it comes to political topics being brought up in meetings. In any case, I hope you find this similarly useful.
The casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety.
Posted here for obvious reasons. Pair with this advice from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative):
Prayer and thanksgiving are an important part of worship. May they be offered in spirit and in truth, with a right understanding, seasoned with grace. When engaged therein, avoid many words and repetitions, and be cautious of too often repeating the High and Holy Name of God. Neither let prayer be in a formal and customary way, nor without a reverent sense of Divine guidance.
“Religious liberty” no longer refers to the constitutional principle enshrined in the First Amendment. It is a buzzword, a misleading slogan asserting religious privilege exclusive to a particular variety of politically conservative Christian — which is to say a privilege only for the kinds of Christians who always and only support the Republican Party.
I’m increasingly convinced that religious liberty in the United States has become a dead end, in part because of the way in which the concept has been abused in recent years by Hobby Lobby and others. Rather than being a shield to protect people of faith from state coercion, it has become a sword to hack away at the foundations of civil society—the very idea that there are things we must hold in common if we are going to have any kind of polity. It probably merits a post of its own, but this also applies to the tradition of war tax resistance and/or advocacy for a peace tax fund that many Quakers have participated in. At a time when the things that bind us together as a society are so fragile, I’m wary of efforts that smack of isolating oneself from the sins of the world, rather than building solidarity in hopes that, God willing, those sins might be overcome.
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.
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.
I had been kicking around writing something on the uses and abuses of creeds in the Quaker tradition, but then I discovered that Ben Wood had written a fairly definitive version of that essay already. So read that instead.
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.
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?
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.