To Be and To Do

As we begin to consider who we are and to what we are called I’m reminded that however we proceed, the starting point is our understanding of the very nature of God. What made George Fox’s message stand out was that it was built upon the idea that in the person of the Holy Spirit Christ had come as he promised. … instead of conceiving creation, including human beings, as being materially corrupt and worthless, creation is seen as the handiwork of a loving and generous God of grace.

 

Last spring Pope Francis startled many by saying “who am I to judge” those in gay relationships”, and since then he has been trying to move the church to recognize the “gifts and qualities” that gay people bring to the church and to provide a more welcoming space for them of course with the clear caveat, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.” More recently, the report of the Bishop’s “synod,” called to discuss the church’s response to the many cultural shifts in family life, said the church should appreciate “the positive values” gay people contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings. The report also called for ongoing theological reflection about the status quo of denying communion to those who divorce and remarry. It also said the church should recognize that gay relationships, though morally problematic, often include “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice” and “constitute a precious support in the life of the partners.”

As you might expect, some influential bishops have expressed alarm at what they called a “near revolutionary” document. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American who heads the Vatican’s highest court, said the Vatican had released “manipulated” information about the bishops’ debates, emphasizing the proponents of inclusiveness without reflecting the “consistent number of bishops” who oppose the dramatic calls for a shift in pastoral tone. The head of the Polish bishops’ conference said the document was unacceptable and deviated from traditional church doctrine. The cardinal also said unsanctioned partnerships are committing “self-mutilation of their love”. As you probably heard, the document failed to be adopted.

Sounds like Roman Catholics are wrestling with some of the same issues as are non-Catholics.

This week a person with whom I’ve come to appreciate through my dealings with Caritas who is a member of Assumption Parish put on my desk a copy of Spokane’s Diocesan Pastoral Plan for the next four years entitled Joy Made Complete. It is based on a pastoral letter from Pope Francis entitled The Joy of the Gospel which articulates a vision for the Church in our time. The booklet sets out four priorities drawn from Acts 2:42-47 saying “Those who believed in Christ devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles; to the communal life; to the breaking of bread and to the prayers and to sharing with those in need and adding to their numbers those who were being saved by sharing the Good News.

Although, in good Catholic fashion, it came down from those above within their hierarchy, it is a thought provoking, impressive and inspiring piece.

            The four year Pastoral Plan calls for improving Faith Formation and Leadership Development. That includes a program named Called and Gifted and one entitled Theology On Tap. It suggests forming Bible study groups and re-establishing what we would call Sunday School in the local churches. It also calls for daily Bible reading and asking parishioners to consider taking a leadership position in the local church.

            The second priority is about community building with a major piece being about becoming a more welcoming community, especially to inactive parishioners. It calls for holding parish pot lucks, a family camp and reviewing the history of the parish, work days to make the place look more inviting and a series on a faith-based approach to family life. Pope Francis’ words are quoted where he wrote of the parish saying “It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”

Priority Three focuses on worship, well, in their case liturgy, stewardship and discipleship. It calls for increase frequency at worship. It is suggested that different types of prayer and meditation should be experienced and the parish should establish a stewardship committee.

The fourth priority brings together Evangelization, as they say, Ecumenism and social outreach. It calls for scheduling an event dedicated to social justice, charity, Christian unity and intentional discipleship; a bible study series on social justice and an effort to identify the special needs of community members who suffer from poverty, loneliness and physical and emotional challenges and devise ways to reach out to them. It even suggests ecumenical services with pulpit exchanges.

I can tell you, this ain’t my grandmother’s Catholic Church.

One reason this may be important for us is that, as you will learn during the Elder’s report in Monthly Meeting, our Elders are calling us to revisit our calling as a meeting; asking, exploring what is our focus and mission and what does our Creator want us to be and do within our community.

           This last week, a pastor in the Yearly Meeting emailed the pastor’s list to say that during Yearly Meeting Noah Merrill, the guest speaker, used a Quaker quotation that said something about “My job is nothing less than to bring people to the feet of the Cross (or feet of Jesus) and leave them there,” He said that “even Google can’t figure out what I’m talking about.” He wanted to know if anyone could help him find the source of the quote.

Johan Maurer, Howard Macy and I responded with what we’d found but the concluding phrase “and leave them there” has evaded us all. I have since emailed Brent Bill who used the line in a blog he posted last January thinking he might help with the citation. The best he could do was find where the phrase had been referred to in a 1905 edition of The Friend magazine. Wade Swartz found the line quoted by Steve Angell in a book he published in 2004 without citation. But it asks the question “what is our role, our ministry?”

The quotation in this mornings’ bulletin is from George Fox’s Journal. In this one paragraph he says “I was sent to turn people from darkness to light..”, “I was to direct people to the Spirit…” I was to turn them to grace…”   It is a short synopsis of his sense of call. In each case he understood that his work was to create an environment, a relationship, a situation in and through which Christ, or the Spirit, and even grace could do its work. In London Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice thirty years ago we find this line: “The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays on us.” Another Friend characterized our calling this way “As Christians we need to see ourselves as God’s plumbers, working on reservoirs and channels for the living water that can quicken the daily life of men, women and children…Jesus taught us about patterns of living that make for wholeness as we and our neighbors care for one another and build one another up.”

As we begin to consider who we are and to what we are called I’m reminded that however we proceed, the starting point is our understanding of the very nature of God. What made George Fox’s message stand out was that it was built upon the idea that in the person of the Holy Spirit Christ had come as he promised. Humanity need no longer wait for some end of time shoe to fall for the kingdom to come in power. And then, of course his message included the idea that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’ which points out that the inward teacher is already at work were we to only stop and listen. And thirdly, instead of conceiving creation, including human beings as being materially corrupt and worthless creation is seen as the handiwork of a loving and generous God of grace.

Yes, as we come into our relationship with God through the work of the Spirit of the living Christ, such light the cracks in our exterior, we see our brokenness but instead of running in fear of judgment we can know the loving embrace of grace itself and be made whole. Our challenge is to create such an environment for ourselves and one another.  

 

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Hope Isn’t Wishful Thinking…

 

Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.

 

There are few things in world history more astonishing than the preservation of hope for Israel by Israel and the roller coaster ride of the continuous fulfillment and disastrous destruction of their hope. Had Israel’s hopes been merely wishful thinking Israel would have disappeared from history like all the nations that surrounded them. But the people of Israel had experiences in their past, divine guidance and intervention which saved them through overwhelming dangers, bound them together as a nation through the gift of the law by the God of justice, whose justice is demonstrated when God judges God’s own nation and threatens to reject it, if it does not keep justice within itself.

Paul Tillich proclaimed that we have a right to such ultimate hope, for like Israel we too experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love. We experience it when we discover a lasting truth and feel the need for a great sacrifice. We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments in which we feel: This is a holy place, a holy thing, a holy person, a holy time; these experiences transcend the ordinary ones; they gives more, demand more, points to the ultimate mystery of my existence, of all existence; it shows me that my finitude, my transitoriness, my being, surrendered to the flux of things, is only one side of my being and that humanity is both in and above finitude.

Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal, there is already, however fragmentary, participation in the eternal. This is the basis of the hope for eternal life; it is the justification of our ultimate hope. And if as Christians we point to Good Friday and Easter, we point to the most powerful example of the same experience.

As much as our rugged individualized theology suggests, participation in the eternal is not given to the voluntarily isolated individual, a people who intentionally separate themselves from others because they see themselves as special or the nation that supposes itself to be chosen and exceptional beyond all the rest. Participation in the eternal is given to us as we discover ourselves in unity with all others, with humankind, with everything living, with everything that has being and is rooted in God’s creation. It was when Israel’s elite lost that perspective and, focusing on their own chosen-ness and assumed security, they became a predator society. They ignored the needs of the vulnerable among them upon whose labor they lived lives of exorbitant luxury. It was in times like that when their privileged life style caused their roller coaster to take a steep dive into exile and near extinction.

There are many stages of complicity in what has been characterized as a predatory society. I’m afraid none of us can claim an exemption.  

Today we prefer to point to our super elite. Few of us can imagine what living in the economic stratosphere is like. These people live at a level beyond the rich man in the ‘rich man and Lazarus’ story. Next to them we have the well to do, those for whom the phrase ‘if you’ve got to ask you can’t afford it’ is descriptive. Like those economically above them they exist on incomes provided by inherited and invested wealth. These persons become addicted to living in a bubble of unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege and superiority.

Next in line are those whose lives consist of dreams of upward mobility mixed with the fears of the consequences of economic decline. Fulfilling their dreams or realizing their worst fears are beyond their control and result from the decisions of those they serve. The Bible aptly describes them in the story of the unjust steward.

Of course there are those whose livelihood comes from their productive labor, whether they work for themselves or are employees of others. Because they have marketable skills, abilities and opportunities they set themselves above those who for reasons of birth, disability, disease, ignorance or simple sloth live on the margin.   Amos chided his contemporaries who engaged in illusionary self-indulgence but were not “grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”   So caught up in their pursuit of the good life they didn’t notice that their world was crumbling beneath them.

Walter Brueggeman, out of his Old Testament perspective, said that the orphans, widows and immigrants are the canaries of any social system. He points out that abuse of the vulnerable is an affront to God and a violation of God’s rules for righteous living. Leviticus 25:35-37 reads “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. Such abuse is an unsustainable policy for any society. In the act of ignoring the challenges faced by the powerless destructive and costly consequences arise for the body politic. The real tragedy is that disregard of both God and neighbor permits a predatory society to seem normal and acceptable.        

When Babylon showed up at Jerusalem’s main gate, the big issue for Israel was her blindness to the fact that the good life she thought was secure was disintegrating beneath her feet. The leadership was in full denial. Jeremiah 6:13-15 reads: 13For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. 14They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. 15They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. 16Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.”

So then the prophet speaks for God: 18Therefore hear, O nations, and know, O congregation, what will happen to them. 19Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not given heed to my words; and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.

With no shame for their greedy exploitation of the vulnerable they continued to mouth the words “Shalom, Shalom”. Two chapters later Jeremiah repeats himself.     His contemporary, Ezekiel, in 13:9, castigates the professional prophets, speaking for God he says: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations.”

Some how the urban elite of Jerusalem and leaders of Israel truly believed that they were above correction by God, too special to fail.  They were warned that pestilence, the sword, famine and captivity would be the result of their economic treachery but they persisted, actually saying (in Zephaniah 1:12  “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They took God out of the equation all together.  That sounds a bit contemporary.  

There’s a humorous colloquy that occurs between the professional prophet Hananiah and Jeremiah.  Hananiah is something of a strict constructionist who in the aftermath of the Babylonian siege dismantling of the Temple reiterates centuries old promises of God’s protections, in full denial of the changed situation. …the prophet Hananiah…spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” You’d expect that Hananiah would be presented as a charlatan or a quack, an idolater or an immoral and deceptive individual However Hananiah, whose name means “Yahweh is gracious,” is presented as a model of prophetic propriety. He uses all the right language, including the typical “Thus says the Lord.” He also performs symbolic acts like Jeremiah. He is given genealogical and geographical identity and placed in an historical context, no different than Jeremiah.

The only clue to the “falseness” of Hananiah’s preaching is the word he speaks. And many would have concluded that he is even more believable than Jeremiah. He preaches the gospel so clearly! God is about to act in saving ways on behalf of Israel. Those are words a despairing people wanted to hear. Jeremiah even has to hesitate for some time before he sees through what Hananiah has to say.

Hope isn’t pipe dreams and wishful thinking. Hope is only hope when it is grounded in reality.

Jeremiah had himself fitted out with a wooden yoke, trying to make his point that God’s punishment for Israel’s injustice for the poor was that she would live under the yoke of Babylonian oppression .  Hananiah breaks Jeremiah’s wooden yoke arguing that in two years everything will be as it used to be.  In response Jeremiah shoulders an iron yoke which can’t be broken.  He says “Go, tell Hananiah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them (v.13).  The lesson has to do with Hananiahs’ willingness to endorse denial, his refusal to see the world that is actually in front of him, his inability to see that the God of rigorous requirements is active.

All powers of creation are in us, and we are in them. We do not hope for us alone or for those alone who share our hope; we hope also for those who had and have no hope, for those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, for those who are disappointed and indifferent, for those who despair of life, and even for those who have hurt or destroyed life. Certainly, if we could only hope each for himself it would be a poor and foolish hope. Hope isn’t wishful thinking – it is grounded in our experience of the divine and the reality that swirls around us. It acknowledges that God is an active player who requires that humbly his people do justly and act mercifully.

 

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A Biblical View of Hope

A Biblical Hope

Hope is foundational for us because it gives meaning and shape to our life as a community and our personal lives. Hopes shape our vision of how we are to be the church. A good is example is that of a student entering college with the hope of being an architect, a petroleum engineer or a medical doctor. The student’s hope for the future shapes the choices of things like what courses to take and how to spend their time and energy.

In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know what is the hope of His calling….” In Romans 15:13 we read “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The author of I Peter wrote: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…”,

In 1st Corinthians 13 the Apostle Paul held three things up for our attention: “Faith, hope and love.” Faith is trusting God. Love is the virtue that marks our lives and our community as a follower of Jesus Christ. It’s pretty clear why those two values are held in such high esteem but, why “Hope”?

Hope is foundational for the Christian community because it gives meaning and shape to our life as a community and our personal lives. Hopes shape our vision of how we are to be the church. A good is example is that of a student entering college with the hope of being an architect, a petroleum engineer or a medical doctor. The student’s hope for the future shapes the choices of things like what courses to take and how to spend their time and energy.

If you think that the end of history is annihilation, that there is no life after this one then the old Budweiser slogan ‘ you only go around once in life so grab for all the gusto you can get’ would be a way to live consistent with your highest hopes. It makes American consumerism, narcissism, and hedonism seem reasonable. “She who dies with the most toys wins.” Doesn’t seem to be very hopeful. Maybe that’s what’s wrong…. Hope has become a scarce commodity.

The most popular view today among Christians today seems is that the goal of redemptive history is that individual believers will live in heaven for ever. The Anglican Cleric and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright has written that “Very often people have come to the New Testament with the presumption that ‘going to heaven when you die’ is the implicit point of it all….” Then he adds “They acquire that viewpoint somewhere but not from the New Testament.” Calvinist minister Anthony Hoekema, suggests that we’ve picked up this notion from the lyrics of some of our most loved hymns. How about these lyrics: “In mansions of glory and endless delight / I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright.” It may comfort us to think that we will spend eternity somewhere off in space, far away from earth, in some ethereal heaven, wearing white robes, plucking Irish harps, singing hymns while flitting from cloud to cloud.

If that’s your hope for the future it is highly unlikely that you would give much thought to caring for the environment or addressing the pressing needs of vulnerable people. The only activity with any lasting significance would be evangelism, preparing others for a spiritual heaven. You see, our hope for the future shapes the choices we make in our lives today.

What the Bible spells out is that God’s intention for God’s redemptive work is not an etherealized heaven, ‘up there’, apart from creation and outside history and certainly not individualistic as if salvation is the flight of the individual soul to God. It is a restored creation. If your hope for the future centers on God restoring this earth creation care becomes quite important.

So let’s start where the Bible does. According to Genesis 1:31 God created the world ‘very good’ and declared it so. Then, according to our salvation history, God placed humanity in this beautiful and fruitful garden with the expectation that humanity would delight in its’ rich diversity and enjoy fellowship with God. We were charged with caring for creation as a corporate task. This, the Bible says, was God’s intention.

Our salvation history also tells us that human beings rebelled against God in arrogance and disobedience which had the direct result of creation becoming polluted. We know from our own lives that there are consequences to our actions, good or bad. So the story that begins in Genesis is that God sets out to remove the ruinous effects of our behavior so that creation can again be as it once was.

God chooses Israel to be the demonstration project of how life on earth was supposed to work and to embody the promise of God’s purpose of redemption. Have you noticed how the life of Israel has always been connected to the land? That is where she is to live out her life in obedience to God. In various ways God gave direction to govern Israel in every part of her life; social, political, economic, environmental, familial and personal.

We read of Israel’s repeated failures and of the Prophets looking forward to the day when Israel will return to the land when her life will be restored to live into God’s intention. Any Israelite would describe hope to you as God restoring the nation to their land, that the land would be fruitful, and under the ruler-ship of God earth would be just and peaceful and that even the animals would live in harmony. In the Old Testament the destiny of humanity is inextricably linked with life on the earth. It’s so beautifully pictured as “The Peaceable Kingdom”.

Jesus didn’t change the Jewish hope in a restored earth. He not only affirmed the Old Testament view he fulfilled it. The very dogmatic statement is that Jesus is Christ. It is clearly beyond us to grasp that the Creator intentionally enters that which is created for the purpose of restoring it. We treasure the stories of Jesus’ birth, we struggle to practice Jesus’ wisdom and we are in awe when we read of his rejection and execution and we glory in the story of his resurrection and then his return to abide with us as Spirit. In Jesus, creation and redemption are inextricably tied. Salvation is the healing of a broken world.

Jesus and the Jewish leadership had a huge difference of opinions over how it was to come to be. “To the Gentiles, foolishness to the Jews a stumbling block…” John the Evangelist declares Out of his full store we have all received grace upon grave through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; but God’s only Son, he who is nearest to the Father’s heart, he has made him known.’…”This is God’s chosen one” That conflict resulted in Jesus’ death. Death is the limit of humanity. In Jesus’ death God made such limitation God’s own. It is the meaning of reconciliation. There are abundant notions grounded in economics and juris prudence about how all that works. None are sufficient. We can say that in Jesus’ light humanity sees its own darkness. Our salvation history says that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a preview of life in the age to come. A better understanding of Jesus’ promise of preparing a place in the Father’s house is not of some remote heaven but of our living in the presence of God’s spirit. The fulfillment of our prayer “…Thy kingdom come on earth…”

When we read in Acts 26 of the Apostle Paul defending himself before King Agrippa he made two astounding statements about the hope he held and his ministry up until that time. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made to our fathers by God, to which promise our twelve tribes hope to attain, serving God fervently night and day. For the sake of this hope, king Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews.

A few verses later Paul testifies that, I did not disobey the heavenly vision. But… I made known the command to repent and to turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance. Because of these things, having caught me in the temple, The Jews tried to kill me.” He said: ” I stand until this day, … saying no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said was going to happen; that the Christ must suffer, and that he, the first to rise from the dead, would announce the dawn to Israel and to the Gentiles..

Paul’s testimony included “no other things than those which the prophets and Moses said were going to happen”, the same hope the twelve tribes of Israel held.

Paul draws on Isaiah when he refers to the promises made to the fathers. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:9  

All too often our view of the future is quite limited and revolves around us. Me. But the kingdom of God is comprehensive. Creation is restored and all humanity with it.

What does that say about our role in this work of God? Redemption is about the restoration of the whole of our life and calling and it follows that our mission is to embody the good news in that every part of our lives including the public life of our culture. It means that we are to be the good news in our care for the environment, our efforts in the interest of economic and criminal justice, in our business ethics, accuracy in the media, in education and study, within our family, international relations.

N.T. Wright said: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

“Salvation, then, is not “going to heaven” but “being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth….

Revelation tells us that the dwelling place of God is with us. That’s no new thing to Quakers. We have for centuries held to the understanding that Christ has come to teach his people himself. We are to be God’s people and we have experienced of God’s presence with us. The conclusion of Revelation is that the old order of things has passed away. Humanity and Creator are reconciled, our breach has been healed. Love reigns. There is our hope.

 

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Affirmation Mysticism

There will be progress and regressions. But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy.

In his first attempt at creating a Latin grammar, the ancient Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro is said to have forgotten the future tense. That continues to plague us today. The result is that overwhelmingly our thinking is static, repeatedly closing off conversation about the future, and when we do entertain the subject we only address it as something already accomplished, finished. Much of contemporary Christian theology ‘thinks’ this way. Faith, for instance, is required to conform to an orthodoxy – to authorized theories, doctrine and practices all of which find their foundation in the past. Knowledge becomes re-remembering, as in the ritualized eucharist. Celebration becomes the observance of something that has been. And woe unto those who would dare challenge the status quo.  

 

For instance, contemplative knowledge is, by definition, solely knowledge of what can be contemplated, that is considering the experiences of the past, and as such it bends a closing arch over what has been and is and shuts out consideration of what is yet to come. Even where it is grasped historically, this world of ours is thought of as a world of repetition. Our use of scripture falls into this trap of become petrified.

 

In his new book Reality, Grief, Hope, Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, Walter Brueggemann begins by pointing out that in the development of a tradition that becomes ritualized, the socio-economic advantage of the folks in power is effectively disguised in it. It becomes an “ideological cover-up” that intentionally hides the reality. As an Old Testament scholar he illustrates how this process was the essential factor in Israel’s destruction as the urban elite of Jerusalem were able to deny the reality of the world swirling around them.

 

He turns next to point out the role of the prophets, who are found by the elite to be outsiders and an offense and who champion the God of Abraham and Jacob as well as the rights of the ordinary person. Good, bad or indifferent, it was the role of the prophet to point to the reality of the world.

Read: Isa 1:17; Jeremiah 5:27-28; Ezek 22:6-7

 

Now the reality is that, primarily, all of our lives are in the future. Depending on the orientation of the individual, the future dimension contains either what is feared or what is hoped for.

 

If our orientation is fearful, we leave unexplored our grief over that which is lost for lack of consideration, for our failure to invest, our fear of being embarrassed by failure. We dismiss Utopian thoughts as wool gathering and day dreaming. This is how theologians and philosophers have gone about it for centuries, with their form, idea or substance posited as being a finished product. That includes a postulating Kant and even a dialectical Hegel. This has spoiled our appetites for hope particularly in seeking pathways to a life of satisfaction.

Although it scares us, expectation, hope, intention towards possibility that has still not become is a basic feature of human consciousness. Hope for a future requires an openness to potential danger and a willingness to risk.

Ernst Bloch wrote that what is required is the learning of hope. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them. The work of hope requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.  

 

Paul Tillich wrote that there is one idea which has grasped the imagination of the West but which has already lost its power because of the horrors which have happened in our century. It is the idea of progress toward the fulfillment of the age-old hopes of human kind. This is still a half-conscious, half-unconscious belief of many people today. It is often the only hope they have, and its breakdown is a profound shock for them. But the question is: Does this progress justify the hope for a stage of fulfillment? Progress is a justified hope in all moments in which we work for a task and hope that something better and new will replace old goods and old evils. But it seems that whenever one evil is conquered, another appears, using the new which is good to support a new evil.

 

The goal of humanity is not progress toward a final stage of perfection; it is the creation of what is possible for us in each particular state of history; and it is the struggle against the forces of evil, old ones and new ones, which arise in each period in a different way. There will be victories as well as defeats in these struggles. There will be progress and regressions. But every victory, every particular progress from injustice to more justice, from suffering to more happiness, from hostility to more peace, from separation to more unity anywhere is a manifestation of the eternal in time and space. It is, in the language of the Old and the New Testaments, the coming of the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God does not come in one dramatic event sometime in the future. It is coming here and now in every act of love, in every manifestation of truth, in every moment of joy, in every experience of the holy. The hope of the Kingdom of God is not the expectation of a perfect stage at the end of history, in which only a few will would participate. No! The hope of mankind lies in the here and now, whenever the eternal appears in time and history.

 

“There are few crises to compare,” wrote Rufus Jones in 1904, “with that which appears when the simple, childhood religion, imbibed at mother’s knee and absorbed from early home and church environment, comes into collision with a scientific, solidly reasoned system” His generation, young, eager and intellectually hungry in the last decades of the nineteenth century, endured most directly the impact of Darwin’s biology and German historical criticism, an impact that Jones vividly described as a “collision.”   In that day Protestant denominations of all stripes were torn apart by what came to be called the modernist/fundamentalist controversy in the 1920s. We still stumble over the rubble of that convolution. When he wrote that Rufus Jones had recently suffered three devastating losses, first of his wife, then of his fiancé in and most recently and most tragically, of his only child, his son Lowell. In other words, Jones knew spiritual crisis.

 

Out of these crises—the alienations of modernity—Jones composed his most important book, Social Law in the Spiritual World. . He grouped mystics into two classes: negation mystics and affirmation mystics. The first class sought “peak experiences,” the ecstatic rapture of union with the divine. Jones regarded this as spiritual escapism. Rather, he looked to the affirmation mystics for guidance. Such mystics, with whom he certainly hoped to include himself, “do not make vision the end of life, but rather the beginning . . .” More important than the vision is obedience to the vision.” he wrote. For the affirmation mystic, the solitary, personal, inward, mystical experience, which for Jones always lay at the heart of spiritual life, was to be valued only insofar as it empowered a person to service in the world. “The truth test is to be sought, not in the feeling-state, but in the motor-effects,” he wrote. For Jones, the test of mystical experience was its social utility.   In a 1921 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Mystic’s Experience of God,” Jones defined mystical experience this way: “Mystical experience is consciousness of direct and immediate relationship with some transcendent reality which, in the moment of experience, is believed to be God.” This made mystical experience accessible to those of almost any theological persuasion. From Spiritual Energies published in 1922: “We assume that [mysticism] is for saints or apostles, but not for common every-day people like ourselves. Well, that is where we are wrong.”19 The mark of Jones’s genius is that out of the crises of his age he was able to craft a vision of the religious life that not only proved workable for himself, as a practitioner of the faith he advocated, but also reached out to countless other struggling Americans. Moreover, Rufus Jones brought mysticism to the masses not just because he declared that mystical experience was open to all in theory; in this regard, he was simply being a good Quaker, affirming the Inner Light.

 

Twenty years later, reflecting on the tumult of the world of 1942, he opened another Atlantic Monthly essay on mystical experience with these lines: “While I am writing this, the world seems to be collapsing into a primitive chaos of revolution and destruction.” Yet, Jones argued, “It is now if ever that we need the voice of those who, ‘listening to the inner flow of things, speak to the age out of Eternity.'” Jones concluded with one of his most stirring refrains, calling his readers to a higher life through intimacy with the Eternal. Mystics, Jones wrote, are in every church and in no church at all. They are in towns and cities, on country farms, in CCC camps and in the Army. They are laboratory professors and they are college students. They are rich and they are poor. They are good-livers and they are hardy ascetics. But they have, one and all, learned that they do not live by bread alone, but have resources from the World beyond the world of space and time, and their “best moments of life” are times of spiritual fecundity, infused by contact with a Beyond.

There is where we learn hope – hope for a future already alive within us.

 

One more thing about the mysticism of Rufus Jones. One of the central themes of his scholarship in the history of mysticism is that mystical experience itself, as he put it, “flourishes best in groups.” This, of course, reflects more than anything else the communal mystical practice that is Quaker worship. As Jones phrased the same idea in Social Law, “No man can be holy unto himself.”

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The Christian Hope

God assures us that, in the midst of our human planning in this world, which is always threatened by failure and fiasco, Christ is present with us. The presence of Christ is a stimulus to hope, even in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. It encourages us to search for “life […] to the full” (John 10:10), to work for a better future for our world, to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. It also offers us a share in God’s life – a life that we participate in already by virtue of our existence, and a life that grows in us as we flourish.

Crossing Iowa on U.S. 34 we spotted three red headed turkey vultures sitting on the roof line of a home. It seemed a bit creepy. Put us in mind of the many folklore omens we’ve heard in our lives. In retrospect, at least from the perspective of the vultures, it is clearly a sign of hope not unlike the house cat patiently sitting in a hay field awaiting a tasty mouse.

Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Reality, Grief, Hope points out striking correlations between how we in America have been changed by the catastrophe of 9/11 and how the destruction of ancient Jerusalem changed Judaism. He shows how the prophetic biblical response to that crisis was truth-telling in the face of ideology, grief in the face of denial, and hope in the face of despair. He argues that the same prophetic responses are urgently required from us now if we are to escape the deathliness of denial and despair.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the firebrand English Baptist preacher, was invited to address British Friends in 1866. His title was “George Fox.” I can’t imagine anyone in that Devonshire Meeting House on that Tuesday evening forgetting what they heard. He related that Fox, after going to one professor after another, inquiring as to this and that, at last found peace where, as Spurgeon said “we too found it…” He told the gathered Friends that “There is one passage in his Journal which has been quoted thousands of times, but you will not object to hear it again, it deserves to be printed in letters of gold”:

“And when all my hope in all men was gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.”
This renowned Baptist preacher retraced Fox’s life from childhood in a religious home through his deep depression, his conversion experience and his near martyrdom suffering indignities and imprisonments at the hands of the religious and civil authorities of his day. He detailed Fox’s ceaseless ministry. Then he wrote of Fox: “The death of our friend was the noblest thing of all…. I have prayed many times—in fact it has grown to be almost a daily prayer with me—that I may be able to say when I finish my course what George Fox said, “I am clear, I am clear”. Oh! It will be a special mercy for you, my brethren in the eldership here, you who speak in God’s name, if you shall be found clear at the last. Consider what God’s truth is, and how we ought to handle it as God’s truth, not as a matter to be trifled with or to be spoken without prayerful earnestness; and consider by whose power we profess to speak, namely, by the power of the Spirit of God. Do we always speak by that power? Are we always conscious that we are true to the motions of the Spirit within…? Are we not occasionally silent when we ought to speak, or do we not speak when we ought to be silent….
Spurgeon continued: “I do not think that George Fox spoke too strongly when he said, “I am clear.” So far as he knew the truth, I cannot see that he could have given his testimony to it more boldly, or more distinctly. He adopted every mode which ingenuity could devise to arouse a slumbering nation, and better still, he also followed after the better wisdom which comes from the Spirit of God. As far as he knew it I believe he delivered every jot of God’s counsel, and that in all respects he was faithful to his conscience, so that he could say, knowing that God was hearing him, ‘I am clear.’” Fox’s was a journey that began in despair but once finding hope became a powerful instrument of God to his generation. His is a story that demonstrates that once hope is learned it causes a person to throw themselves into its wake wholeheartedly.

In our day, hope may well be hard to find. World history is a cemetery of broken hopes, of utopias which had no foundation in reality. In our nation as in every nation, there is much foolish hope; national arrogance, will to power, ignorance about other nations and people, hate and fear of them, the use of God and his promises for the nation’s own glory. These do not come out of what we truly are and cannot, therefore, become reality in history, but they are illusions about our own goodness and distortions of the image of others.

Paul Tillich declared that there are things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. As we sung last Sunday, in the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine. There is a presence, a beginning of what is hoped for. And so it is with the child and our hope for their maturing; we hope, because maturing has already begun, but we don’t know how far it will go. We hope for the fulfillment of our work, often against hope, because it is already in us as a vision and driving force. We hope for a lasting love, because we feel the power of this love present. But it is hope, not certainty.

Like the vultures on the roof or the cat in the hay, hoping implies waiting. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 37:7). Waiting demands patience, and patience demands stillness within ourselves. This aspect of hope is most important in the hope we have within ourselves and our own maturing and fulfilling what we essentially are and therefore ought to be.

There are two kinds of waiting. There is a passive waiting in laziness, like those who wait for some end-time catastrophe from which they will be spared. And there is a receptive waiting in openness. The one who waits passively, in laziness, prevents the coming of that for which they are waiting. The one who waits in quiet tension, open for what may be encountered, works for its coming. Such waiting in openness and hope does what no will power can do for our own inner development. The more seriously the great religious leaders of our past used their will to achieve it, the more they failed and were thrown into hopelessness about themselves. Desperately they asked, and many of us ask with them, Can we hope at all for such inner renewal? What gives us the right to such hope after all our failures? Again there is only one answer: waiting in inner stillness, with poised tension and openness toward what we can only receive. Such openness is highest activity; it is the driving force which leads us toward the growth of something new in us. And the struggle between hope and despair in our waiting is a symptom that the new has already taken hold of us.
The idea of eternal life in Christianity is often misunderstood as valuing the next life at the expense of this one, but this not the way that the term is used biblically. In John’s gospel what he points to is a new kind of life that is available now, which transforms every aspect of life as it is lived. As well as this, it offers a new horizon on what can be anticipated at the end of life. In Christianity, this is expressed as hoping for the coming of the kingdom of God. The kingdom will come in its fullness giving what Christians call an eschatological character to their hope: “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). This plays an important part in the critique that Christianity offers to any account of the future that is merely this-worldly: there is a condition attached to that understanding that holds here, since the future that Christians hope for is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet;’ it is both ours and God’s. But this need not be expressed merely as an eschatological hope, as if the limit to human folly only held at the end of time. If that were the case, Christians would hope that God will establish God’s kingdom on the ruins of this world, in spite of everything that humanity has done in its search for well being and the fulfillment of our potential. But this is a misunderstanding of the world, of our role in it, and of God. God assures us that, in the midst of our human planning in this world, which is always threatened by failure and fiasco, Christ is present with us. The presence of Christ is a stimulus to hope, even in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. It encourages us to search for “life […] to the full” (John 10:10), to work for a better future for our world, to hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. It also offers us a share in God’s life – a life that we participate in already by virtue of our existence, and a life that grows in us as we flourish.

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Humanity is Desperate for Hope

Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors of the human experience while genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor.   Addressing fear and anxiety is a question of learning hope. Hope is superior to fear but it isn’t passive. Hope is an emotion that goes outside itself and broadens people, emancipates people and provides a direction in which to move. Hopeful people throw themselves into the pursuit of what can help this world.

John 10: 7-10 Romans 4:13 ff

Humanity is desperate for hope.

It is no new thing. George Fox, in an epistle of 1666 wrote:

“O Friends, let Righteousness flow amongst you all, Truth and equity, uprightness and holiness, which becomes the house of God. Live in the holy order of the Life, Spirit and Power of the everlasting God.   Keep in the Faith that works by Love, that purifies your hearts, the mystery of which is held in a pure conscience…. O live in the pure Hope, which purifies you as he his pure, which Hope is Christ, who was before the hypocrites hope…(that is) impure. So, feel Christ your hope, which anchors your immortal souls … in all waves, storms and tempests … and sure and safe in all weathers…. “

I was loaned the August National Geographic magazine because it included a revealing article on hunger in America. It addressed issues of the availability of grocery stores to urban households. It highlighted hunger among rural families who live surrounded by corn and bean fields. It examined how Federal dollars are distributed to producers and how they impact diet. It contrasted $10.00 spent on fast food versus healthy food and illuminated how hunger and obesity are two sides of a coin with people buy cheap food that is filling, obesity being the unintended collateral damage of a poor diet. According to the article America has 48 million people categorized as ‘food insecure’ – more than half are white and more than half live outside cities. I guess that the fact that someone cared to research hunger in America and report on it says that we may be able to point to some hope.

In the same magazine the lead article was about what was called “The First Stonehenge,” a village built five thousand years ago off what is today the northern tip of Scotland. The temple complex on the Ness of Brodgar stood for longer than Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral have existed. Some suggest that one particular large tomb, being aligned to capture the rays of the setting sun on the eve of the winter solstice, is a key to understanding stone age religion. It is about hope.

I guess the point is that human beings throughout time have known anxiety, and that anxiety, when fixed and more definite becomes fear. Earliest humans would feel the earth shake, or the sun disappear or days grow extraordinarily short and not know why. And they would become anxious. Hopelessness is a most insupportable thing, its intolerable to human needs. Even deception, if it is to be effective, must work with flatteringly and corruptly aroused hope, offering either mere emptiness or empty other world promises. The Latin is: ”Corruptio optimi pessima” it is roughly translated “the corruption of what is best is the worst tragedy.”   Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors of the human experience while genuine hope is its most dedicated benefactor.   Addressing fear and anxiety is a question of learning hope. Hope is superior to fear but it isn’t passive. Hope is an emotion that goes outside itself and broadens people, emancipates people and provides a direction in which to move. Hopeful people throw themselves into the pursuit of what can help this world.

Everyone’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just simple minded escapism – it’s what the lottery depends on. But the other part is provocative, is never content to simply accept the bad. It has hoping at its core and is trainable. It can be lifted from unregulated, empty, daydreaming. It is a question of learning hope.

Paul Tillich preached his The Right To Hope sermon at Harvard’s Memorial Church in March l965. He began by pointing to how Ernst Bloch acknowledged hope as a permanent, driving force in every person. He points to how little we speak of hope’s roots, its justifications, what creates it and maintains it, sometimes against enormous odds. Instead, he says we tend to devalue hope, calling it wishful thinking or utopian fantasy.

But nobody can live without hope, even if it were only for the smallest things which give some satisfaction even under the worst of conditions, even in failure, poverty or illness. Tillich wrote that “Without hope, the tension of our life toward the future would vanish, and with it, life itself. We would end in despair, a word that originally meant “without hope,” or in deadly indifference.” The Apostle Paul referred to Abraham’s faith in the divine promise that he would become the father of a large nation although he had no son in his and his wife’s old age “In hope he believed against hope”. Old Testament authors struggled to maintain the hope for Israel within the many catastrophes of its history. And later on, they struggled as individuals for their personal hope, and finally there grew a hope in them for the rebirth of the present world and a new state of all things. This double hope, for the universe and for the single person, became the faith of the early Christians. It is the hope of the church for “the new heaven and the new earth” and of the individual to enter this new earth and new heaven.

Interpreting first century Judaism through reactionary sixteenth century Protestant binoculars is fruitless and misleading. First century Judaism was not a religion of meritorious works; rather it was a religion of grace and mercy from which good works flow. But these hopes, in both Testaments, have to struggle with continuous attacks of hopelessness. There are outcries of despair about life. There is the despair of Job when he says, “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease” — but as “the waters wear away the stones [and] the torrents wash away the soil of the earth, so thou [God] destroyest the hope of man” (Job 14:7, 19).

There is a tremendous struggle about hope in the New Testament that went on during the whole lifetime of Jesus. It reached its height when, after his arrest, the disciples fled to Galilee. Hopelessly they said to themselves, like the two in the beautiful story of the walk to Emmaus, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). They had hoped, but he was crucified. In order to regain hope; they had, as is said in I Peter, “to be born anew to a living hope,” namely, by the spiritual appearances of Jesus which many of them experienced.

Later on, the church had to fight with hopelessness, because the expectations of the Christians for the early return of the Christ remained unfulfilled. Paul writes to his congregations, (Rom. 8:24_25), “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” We wait. That means it is not yet in our possession; but in some way we have it, and this having gives us the power to wait. The Christians learned to wait for the end. But slowly they ceased to wait. The expectation for a new state of things on earth became weak though it was one prayed for it in every Lord’s Prayer — Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven! The result was to concretize systems of beliefs to bolster a waning hope.  

So also was the hope of the individual for participation in eternal life undercut by science and philosophy. Imaginations of a heavenly place above and a hell below became symbols for the state of our inner life. The expectation of a simple continuation of life after death vanished in view of a sober acceptance of the seriousness of death and a deeper understanding by theology of the difference between eternity and endless time. In view of all this, most people today, including many Christians, have experienced the attacks of hopelessness and struggle for hope against hope. We have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that we must either go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous “in-spite-of” or we formalize doctrine in which we hide our doubt. For hope cannot be verified by sense experience or rational proof.

            Everybody can lose themselves in foolish hopes, but genuine hope is something rare and great. How then can we distinguish genuine from foolish hope?

Where there is genuine hope, there that for which we hope already has some presence. In some way, the hoped for is at the same time here and not here. It is not yet fulfilled, and it may remain unfulfilled. But it is here, in the situation and in ourselves, as a power which drives those who hope into the future.

 

 

 

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O.K., If you say so…

(Prepared for Sunday August 10)

Matthew 14:28

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

I found that strange? “Lord, if it is you, command me to risk my life, to tempt death, to walk out across a lake of dark, swirling, threatening sea.”

First it seemed strange that Peter was uncertain that the voice calling him from the waves was the voice of Jesus. Trying to hear in a raging storm, which Matthew tells us is the context for this favorite bible story, is something with which we can identify. Driving wind, white caps and rough seas, lightening and thunder… “What?” “I can’t hear you!” “You want me to do what?” It reminds us of that great old hymn - Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea, day by day his clear voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow me;”Peter doesn’t question the tumult of his life or ours, the wild restless sea. It’s Peter’s contention that Jesus voice wasn’t all that clear.

And Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the waves.” Peter has the audacity to give Jesus an order and amazingly Jesus complies. This might be an important warning about being careful what you ask for. Maybe we should pay more attention to our prayerful petitions. One important aspect of this interchange is that Peter doesn’t walk on water on his own it is a matter of obedience. Running ahead of the Spirit’s leading – in an act of prophetic ministry or vocal ministry can be misdirected. In all humility Quakers have to fess up to coming up with the penitential practice of solitary confinement, a practice declared cruel and inhumane.

“Lord, if it is you….?” If Peter wasn’t sure, how can we know when it is Jesus calling us to step out on faith? With Quakerism’s orientation toward immediate revelation we’ve sometimes had to deal with the embarrassment of a Friend doing something stupid and the whole society suffers. We’ve had to find a way to support the individual who feels led to prophetic ministry and yet be ready to help someone pull in their wings, maybe for this story, water wings when it is thought that the call to service has been misconstrued. The process begins with one not keeping their leadings to themselves, trusting the community of faith to listen with respect to what they feel has put on their heart. That involves the whole community in the process of discernment, a process of discernment that is grounded in worship and Scripture. I love the story of Philadelphia Friends debating whether to invest in the Erie Canal. Some argued that had God wanted a watercourse in that location God would have created it so. After a time of worshipful stillness one older Friend rose and from his experience of being familiar with the Scriptures simply quoted Genesis 26:21. He said “and Jacob digged a well.” We aren’t Peter in this regard – we are in a wholly different dispensation, that of the Holy Spirit who with the Scriptures and the experience of a faith community we are better able to resolve the question that Peter knew was very important – important to his very survival.

There maybe another clue to how you will know that the voice that calls is that of Jesus. Jesus is the one who extravagantly, recklessly, commands us to leave the safety of the boat, to step boldly into the sea. There was no testing the waters, sticking in a toe to see whether it was too cold, no testing to see whether it would actually hold him up. No, what was being tested was what his faith was made of. That’s Jesus. It is far removed from another old favorite hymn that went “Far away in the depths of my spirit tonight
 Rolls a melody sweeter than psalm; In celestial strains it unceasingly falls O’er my soul like an infinite calm. Peace, peace, wonderful peace, coming down from the Father of above! Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray in fathomless billows of love.” That may be the kind of faith many of us would prefer but not here, not in this passage. 
 Jesus calls you to risk your life, to throw caution to the wind, to step out the boat and defy death. In Matthew’s story Jesus doesn’t simply call Peter over the tumult. Jesus doesn’t call us out of the tumult. No, in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Peter into the tumult. Jesus calls Peter out of the boat and on to the waves.

 

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From Loss to Love, From Bitterness to Joy

Ruth is a much loved domestic tale of God’s faithfulness lived out in the lives of everyday, ordinary human beings. It is a drama of human love reflecting and enacting divine love in which famine turns to abundance, loss turns to love, bitterness turns to joy, barrenness gives way to new birth and new life.   And the catalyst for all this is not a patriarchal king, prophet or judge, but a childless widow and foreigner named Ruth.

The story starts “Along time ago…” That’s equivalent to saying “Once upon a time…” That’s a pretty good sign that this is a story that is meant to both transmit a moral and to entertain. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, because of the Book of Ruth’s opening claim to be from the time of the Judges, the Book of Ruth was moved from among the writings to where we find it now, between the historic scrolls of Judges and 1st Samuel. The Hebrew canon placed it before Ezra and Nehemiah, the two books which recounted the restoration of Israel after the exile. One of the demands made in the restoration was that Jews were to divorce their foreign wives. The story of Ruth blatantly challenges idea.

In this story Mahlon’s next of kin, Boaz, marries Mahlon’s widow, the foreigner Ruth. They have a son named Obed. Obed has a son, Jesse, who has a son, David, who becomes King of Israel. By becoming the great-grandmother of Israel’s heroic king the Book of Ruth points out how petty and short-sighted was such a policy of racial purity. It is one of the first calls for universality over endogamy. Ruth shows that outsiders who profess faith in Israel’s God can be fully assimilated into Jewish society. Ruth demonstrates that not only could a foreigner be completely assimilated, but he or she might be God’s instrument for some higher good.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s law has, ironically, caused a famine in the House of Bread, that is Bethlehem. To escape the hardship Elimelech (whose name means My God is King), moves his wife, Naomi (whose name means Pleasant), and his sons Mahlon (whose name means Invalid) and Chilion (whose name could be translated Withering on the Vine) to Moad, a land east of the Dead Sea. According to Genesis 18 Moab was populated by the immoral descendents of one of the children born as a result of the incestuous drug rape of Lot by one of his two daughters. Other sources tell us that the Moabites were peaceful and prosperous traders who welcomed refugees from natural disasters. They shared the Mosaic Law, a common language and many other customs with the Israelites.

Both of Elimelech and Naomi’s sons married Moabite women, Chilion married Orpha (whose name means nape of the neck) and Mahlon married Ruth (whose name means friend). Naomi’s husband and sons died. It left her a bitter, landless vagrant with two dependent daughters-in-law in a foreign land. Despite Naomi rejecting her three times, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to Bethlehem.

The second act of this story tells of the industriousness and fidelity of Ruth and how she caught the attention of a powerful man of integrity named Boaz. Boaz uses the exact same phrase found in Proverbs 31:10 to describe the ideal woman/wife to voice the community’s opinion of Ruth, a woman of integrity, a worthy woman.

In the third act of the play Naomi takes the matter of security for her daughter-in-law into her own hands. She evidently researched the implications of the redemption of property by a next of kin. It would provide for her security but were something to happen to her it would leave the young widow Ruth vulnerable. She also knows where Boaz was to be working, threshing the grain that has been harvested. The harvest that was beginning when they returned to Bethlehem was now over.

She tells Ruth to take a bath, put on some perfume, get herself dress up and then go to where Boaz was working.   Here’s the language: “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do”.

The word “feet’ is used in the Bible as a euphemism for a man’s private parts. Though there are no explicit mention of sexual relations here as is in chapter four you would have to be blind to miss the obvious sexual overtones. Freshly bathed and perfumed Ruth comes by night to the threshing floor where Boaz sleeps. She uncovers some part of his body, lies down beside him, spends the night and then leaves before dawn.   This is pretty bold of her… actually a little bolder than you might expect.

The passage ends with Naomi telling Ruth, ‘he will tell you what to do…”   But what we read is that when Boaz awakens to find himself uncovered and surprised to find Ruth next to him, it is she who tells him what to do. Listen: “I am Ruth, your servant;” she says, “spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” To “spread one’s cloak” over a woman was to marry her. Ruth proposes to Boaz! And she calls him to fulfill his duty as the close male relative who is obligated in Israelite law to redeem his kin who have fallen onto hard times. For some the story of Ruth is understood in terms of a Levirate Marriage in which it is the duty of a man to marry his brother’s widow. What we have described in the Book of Ruth is not levirate marriage, it is rather about a different custom having to do with the next of kin, the Go’el.

The significance of the role of the Go’el is that of a redeemer. In ancient Israel any duty which a man could not perform by himself had to be taken up by his next of kin. Any rights possessed by a man which lapsed through his inability to perform the duties attached to such rights, could be and should be resumed by the next of kin. This applied to relatives who had fallen into slavery and especially to parcels of land which any Israelite found it necessary to sell. In the Book of Ruth the next of kin was called upon to purchase a parcel of land formerly belonging to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. But the story becomes more complicated when the interests of Elimelech’s heir Mahlon is considered.

The river of true love always seems to have rapids to negotiate. The last act of the play opens at the city gate where legal proceedings are underway. It is intended to be humorous. You see, there is a fly in the ointment. There is an unnamed ‘next of kin’ nearer in line than Boaz and he is enthusiastic about acquiring Elimelech’s land.   His claim on the property is primary and must be abandoned if Boaz is to be the man in Ruth’s future. So the plot twist is that the unnamed primary next of kin is informed that redeeming Elimelech’s land was a package deal that included taking responsibility for Mahlon’s widow and producing an heir who would ultimately claim ownership of the strip of land that was in question. Here is where customs related to leverite marriage become an issue. In response he pulls off his own sandal since he refuses to carry on the name of Mahlon. There’s yet another custom at work here, the “halizah” ceremony. Traditionally, in a situation in which the widow of a brother who has died childless wants to marry someone else, by removing the brother-in-law’s shoe he is released from the obligation of marrying her, and she becomes free to marry whomever she desires. The ceremony is very simple. The widow loosens the shoe of the brother-in-law in the presence of the elders of the town and spits on the ground in front of him. By the way, if the man’s private part is referred to as a foot, the shoe denied takes on a whole new significance.

In our story the nearest next of kin suddenly remembers a previous appointment and removes his own sandal. So, having fulfilled all righteousness, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his marriage to Ruth. He promises that he will do all that Ruth asks. Her faithfulness to her mother-in-law is matched by Boaz’s own faithfulness. And, it is worth noting, this foreign widow mirrors God’s own faithful love. Boaz says, “May you be blessed by the LORD, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.” Ruth has chosen Boaz and they find new life in each other.

Love and faithfulness abound, like the piles of grain on the threshing floor, and blessings overflow into the lives of those who once were empty. Ruth conceives and bears a son. Where there was barrenness in her marriage to Mahlon, now there is birth. Where there was famine, now there is a plentiful harvest. The women of the village interpret this blessing for Naomi: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Ruth is Naomi’s greatest blessing.

Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the faithfulnessof God, embodied by Ruth and Boaz, everyday, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.

 

The story of Ruth leaves us with the promise of God’s faithful love, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel, and into our lives as well. Blessing upon blessing, heaped up and overflowing.

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A Migrant Family Finds Hope Amid Despair

The first chapter of Ruth sets up the story that follows. “In the days when the judges ruled” (1:1) refers back to the time of the judges, a time of chaos and disobedience in Israel. In fact the last verse of the book of Judges, the verse just previous to this one reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing what is right in your own eyes is never a good thing in the Bible; and, indeed, the book of Judges traces a story of decline and anarchy in Israel.

The famine in the proverbial ‘house of bread’, the literal meaning of the name of the town of Bethlehem, thought to be the consequence of disobedience to God caused the family of Elimelech, Naomi and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion to migrate to Moab. Moab was east of the Dead Sea, a land that was evidently willing to accept displaced refugees. Set against this backdrop of natural disaster a more personal calamity adds insult to injury to this nuclear family. First Naomi’s husband died and then not long thereafter both her sons died, leaving her with no way to support herself, much less the Moabite wives taken by her sons. Some of us can relate to Naomi’s loss and disappointment, her grief and bitterness.

Naomi is bereft. She decides to return to Bethlehem and her family. As she and her two daughters-in-law are on the way it occurs to her that, similar to her own situation in Moab, should Orpha and Ruth stay with her they both would be aliens and widows in a foreign land. She advises them to return to their own families where things might not be good but certainly a place more likely to find a future than staying with her. Orpha saw the wisdom in that. Naomi, as a widow in Bethlehem would have a hard enough time meeting her own needs much less trying to care for two women of foreign birth. She returned to her mother in the hopes of finding a future. It was a mature choice and too often we fail to acknowledge her wisdom.

It’s in this chapter where we find the most famous passage in Ruth: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16). The bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story. Ruth’s loyalty, Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more.

I’ve wondered about how Naomi was received by those who had stayed behind in Bethlehem and endured the famine.  9So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; It can be hard for a community to fully embrace someone who withdrew from the community.  The other piece of that is that her old neighbors hardly recognized her.     

The text says that “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” (1:22). Naomi feels old and empty and not up to the physical challenges of working the fields. And though her presence reminds Naomi of her son’s death Ruth is with her, and the harvest is coming.

God does not speak from burning bushes in this book; nor does God divide the sea. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action. One example is Ruth asking permission of Naomi to go out to glean barley to sustain them. In answer to Boaz’ question of the identity of this foreigner gleaning in his field the servant reported “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and she has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

As the old adage goes, “A coincidence is a miracle in which God prefers to remain anonymous” and the text reads: “as it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” When Boaz is introduced in the narrative he is described as a powerful man of integrity. He is a pillar of the community who also just happens to be related to Naomi’s dead husband. He is impressed with her stamina and commitment.  8Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”

So Ruth asks “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?” 11But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”

Again, God does not speak from burning bushes in this book. Instead, God acts through circumstance, and through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God’s faithfulness is embodied in human action.

Naomi sees the astonishing amount of barley that Ruth has gleaned and finds out that it is Boaz who has helped Ruth. And it is only then that Naomi begins to move from despair to hope. She recognizes in this turn of events the hand of God and she is quick to name God as the source of blessing: “Blessed be he [Boaz] by the LORD, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (Ruth 2:20). The tide is turning. Emptiness is being filled. Hope is born. And it is an old widow (one who has seen more than her share of sorrow) who recognizes the hand of God in these seemingly happenstance circumstances. Perhaps it is often thus: Those who have had long experience of seeing God at work can recognize and name those times in our own lives when miracles begin to happen.

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1st John – Epistle of Schism

It’s truly a fascination to see that nearly half of the 105 verses in 1st John are listed among the most favorite Bible verses. It is truly an orchard from which many verses have been cherry picked. It was a walk down memory lane as I read through it several times, getting caught on verses I had memorized.  

9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.1

1But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him23

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;

 19We love because he first loved us. 2 You could almost call this little book an Epistle of Love.

But that’s what makes it so confusing. It’s context is one of a nasty quarrel between people who were supposed to love each other. It raises questions like: Was it was written before or after the Gospel of John? Was it ‘assembled’ from many sources over time with new elements being added? Either of these being true would certainly help explain the essential incoherence of the book which many biblical scholars have reluctantly admitted. J. H. Houlden referred to 1st John “a puzzling work” and suggests that “to find a single logical thread … is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.” I’ve got to say that man speaks my mind.

Not a single Gospel detail is included in 1st John. No teachings are attributed to any human Jesus and there is no specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about the resurrection. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are simply not there.

In the Gospel of John Jesus promises to send an advocate to “be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). This is pretty essential to Quaker faith and practice because the promise by Jesus is that this Spirit will be our comforter and guide. This is the Christ who has come to teach his people himself. 1st John shows no knowledge of such an advocate.   The mention in 1st John of an advocate is not an abiding spirit among us but Jesus himself interceding with God in heaven.

The expectation that the church faced a long-term future as the first century passed into the second accounts for the Gospel of John abandoning the expectation of an immediate end of the world. Yet the Epistle speaks of living in “the last hour” (2:18). So then how do we account for this regression to a more primitive eschatology?

And just as unsettling is its’ Theo-centricity in contrast with the Gospel’s Christo-centricity. Believers are “God’s children.” The text says that it is God who is light with no word of Jesus’ own declaration that “I am the light of the world…” The Gospel centers on Christ Jesus but in 1st John God holds center stage with Jesus in a supporting role. It is God “who dwells within us” (3:24). Keeping Jesus’ commands is of major importance in the Gospel. In 1st John knowing and keeping the commands of God is one of the central issues.On multiple occasions the epistle tells the reader to ‘love one another’ and this admonition comes from God, ignoring the many times the Gospel puts those words in Jesus’ mouth. The concept of Jesus as a teacher is nowhere in evidence in the epistle, even amid references to the idea of Christian teaching.

The picture of Christ presented in 1st John is remarkably more primitive than what we find in the Gospel. How could the author simply rid his mind of the Jesus presented by the Gospel of John?

Scholars who argue that the Gospel was composed before 1st John acknowledge that the opening of 1st John is “a poor imitation” of the Gospel’s Prologue. In “recasting” the mighty Prologue the writer discards the Word and its incarnation. He drops any references to pre-existence and creation; and the figure of John the Baptist disappears altogether. Does he now disagree that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God, or that this Word was made flesh? The obvious explanation is that the opening passage of the epistle is an earlier formulation of Christian orthodoxy focusing on the “message” about eternal life that the community has received by revelation, and the Gospel is of a later period which adopts Jesus as the proclaimer of the message and an incarnation of the Word itself.

The occasion for the composition of 1st John was a nasty, name calling church split between those who adhered to the initial Jewish outlook held by the community from its beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who embraced a new development in their faith, the existence of the intermediary Son. This group became convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of their tradition but the group holding to the traditional views, we are told, have “gone out,” since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

            Were the progressives pushing a view which was not part of the original “knowledge” bestowed by the rite of anointing? That this new perspective it did not go back to the beginning is suggested by the very fact that the writer does not specifically make such a claim. 2:24 reads “If you keep in your hearts that which you heard at the beginning . . . (then) you will dwell in the Son and also in the Father.”

Aside from the fact that what was heard is not spelled out, the point is not presented as an argument to prove the group’s position against their opponents. 3:11 actually states the message which was heard at the beginning is: “that we should love one another.” The writer does not state that the doctrine of the Son was part of the original message. The phrase in 1:3c linking the “Son Jesus Christ” to the Father is a new addition to the initial version of the group’s self understanding by someone who subsequently chose to see the Son as implied in the sect’s original revelation.

           If the doctrine of the Son is relatively new, at least in its acceptance by the community, how can the writer speak as though the antichrist (meaning the one destined to be against the Messiah) was a traditional part of the congregation’s expectations? Because the idea of a “man of lawlessness,” an agent of Satan (or Satan himself), was well established in Jewish apocalyptic expectation, a figure who would oppose God’s work and that of his Messiah at the End-time establishment of the Kingdom. There is no record of the term “antichrist” before 1 John, and scholarship generally regards the term as invented by the writer of this epistle. And in 1st John it is applied, not to some bigger than life power but to the conservatives who felt they needed to part company from the progressives over this shift in understanding the faith.

Walter Bauer said that, not unlike all ancient history, early Christian history was written to show Constantinian triumph and Catholic orthodoxy as provided for by God. The Christianity of second-century Ephesus did not meet the standards of an emerging Catholic Orthodoxy. Some blamed Paul who had planted the church in Ephesus. They sought replace him as patron saint with John. F.C. Baur wrote that “Paul had laid the foundation in Ephesus and built up a church through several years of labor. If Romans 16 represents a letter to the Ephesians, then, on the basis of verses 17-20, we must conclude that already during the lifetime of the apostle, certain people were there whose teaching caused offense and threatened division in the community. 1st Corinthians 16:9 tells us of ‘many adversaries’ in Ephesus. In any event, the book of Acts has Paul warning the Ephesians … that from their own midst there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the Christians for themselves (20:30). In Revelation the recollection of a Pauline establishment of the church of Ephesus was suppressed…On the foundations of the new Jerusalem (21:4) only the names of the twelve apostles are there. There is no room for Paul. And at the very least, it will be but a short time before the Apostle to the Gentiles will have been totally displaced in the consciousness of the church of Ephesus in favor of John.

The earliest Christians in Ephesus were Jewish Christians who believed that the Christian faith was continuous with the Jewish faith and who were content to live within the context of a Jewish community. Their view of Jesus was that he was the Messiah who had come and then promised to return to fulfill the hopes of the Jews as well as the Christians. The expulsion of the Christian community from the Jewish synagogue had a mighty effect on the Christian community, producing a trauma of faith of major proportions. It was amid this crisis the author of the Gospel of John gathered the traditions of the community and interpreted them to address the needs of the newly isolated community.

The community became an independent Christian body though there were some internal conflicts over the interpretation of the original gospel and proper belief and practice in particular. The author of 1st John says that a group had gone out from the ranks of the community. Both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity but they interpreted it differently. Each of the disputing parties were making the claim that its interpretation of the Gospel was correct. The secessionists so stressed the divine principle in Jesus that his earthly career was neglected. They apparently believed that the human existence of Jesus, while real, was not significant for one’s salvation. The only important thing for them was that eternal life had been brought down to men and women through a divine Son who passed through this world. The author faults the secessionists on three grounds. First, they claimed an intimacy with God to the point of being perfect or sinless. Second, they placed an inadequate emphasis on keeping the commandments. Third, they were vulnerable on the subject of neighborly love.

So what did I learn from all this? From the very beginning people within the community of faith have held contradictory beliefs. The reason the Gospel of John is so different from the synoptics is simply because people remember things differently. They use different words to describe their spirituality. That’s nothing new. But the lesson that I find beneath the nasty battle for orthodoxy in Ephesus is that despite the differences in our describing our faith experiences we are called to love each other. In the fourth chapter we read this: 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Evidently the two sides to this church squabble couldn’t see how this injunction was applicable to them. Were it not for those lovely cherry picked verses I have no doubt that 1st John would have been excluded from the canon of scripture.

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