Discovering An Advent In Our Own Tradition
As we mentioned last Sunday, Advent is supposed to be about God coming to live in and change the world – your world, my world. Rightly understood Advent is about God ushering in a new way of living with the potential to profoundly disrupt the normal rhythms of life, of business, of politics. Advent is an invitation to seek that newness in unexpected places. I suggested that we might discover true Advent within our own tradition as Quakers.
Unless and until you are convinced of the truth of a matter you are unlikely to make changes in your life. For the earliest Quakers, convincement was much more than rejecting old beliefs or accepting new beliefs in their place. Even the powerful personal experience of the Light of Christ in one’s life was only a starting place to become a convinced Friend. Marcelle Martin recently wrote in her blog that early Friends had to learn how to allow the Light of Christ to be an active and growing force in their lives. After turning their attention to the inward presence of Christ who became their teacher and guide, they were shown startling and uncomfortable truths about the nature of their society and their inner selves. They saw that they had been conforming to deceptive and oppressive social behaviors. Painfully, they recognized that they had allowed subtle inward negative forces to separate them from God. The Light revealed this to them and changed their lives—from the inside out. It was like learning that they had not been fully alive.
For those of you who know the movie the Maxtrix – the analogy is surprisingly accurate. The movie depicts a dystopian future in which reality as perceived by most humans is a technologically induced dream world created by sentient machines to subdue humanity while using their bodies’ heat and electrical activity as an energy source. From conception to death a person in the matrix was, for all practical purposes, a single cell in an array of batteries. A computer programmer learns the truth of his captivity and is helped to escape the dream world of the Matrix and experience what it means to be fully human. The movie dramatically treats the fact that some prefer the dream world for reality.
For early Quakers, cooperating as God melted away inner impediments to a life of Truth and faithfulness, they relinquished themselves to the spiritual fire of purification. Some Friends described that experience as the terror and power of the Spirit. The person they had been before this change was called “the old man.”
Through the process of surrendering everything to the transforming power of the Light, the image of God within their humanity was restored. The “new man” or “a new creature” was born, a son or daughter of God, a person willing to “crucify” personal desires and pleasures, when necessary, in order to center his or her life around God and God’s loving and radical purposes. They called this process “regeneration.” They were transformed into a new kind of being. They changed their clothing, their speech, their social mannerisms, their business practices. They stopped complying with unjust social norms and laws, accepting the loss of social status and sometimes imprisonment that followed. They supported one another to be faithful and to endure persecution by forming close networks of community. Their spiritual rebirth involved a great deal more inward and outward change than is demonstrated by those today who claim to be “born again.”
Marcelle Martin who is a relatively new and delightfully insightful interpreter of Quaker spirituality, shared that her initial introduction of Quakerism came through reading about early Friends and their times, piecing together her own account of the beginning of the Quaker movement. She was fascinated by their collective experience and the powerful way so many early Friends ventured into the world proclaiming the radical message of the Light of Christ within, challenging oppression of all sorts. Their stories were dramatic, heart-wrenching, and inspiring. More recently, in looking more closely at the nature of their spiritual experience, she asked herself: What, exactly, was the transformation they underwent that enabled them to become such bold witnesses to the truth they discovered?
The transformation early Friends experienced was a process of rebirth: a diminishment of the self-centered will–a kind of death–and the awakening of a being given over entirely to doing the will of God. They called this the New Birth. In his Apology, Robert Barclay wrote: “For those who do not resist the light, but receive it, it becomes a holy, pure, and spiritual birth in them. It produces holiness, righteousness, purity, and all these other blessed fruits that are acceptable to God. Jesus Christ is formed in us by this holy birth, and by it he does his work in us.” Through this spiritual rebirth, early Friends became “partakers of the divine nature,” as promised in 2 Peter 1:4. It required giving everything to God; in return, one gradually became wholly united with the fountain of God’s love and transforming power.
Marcelle Martin has conducted workshops on what she characterizes as elements in the early Quaker spiritual journey. They aren’t to be confused with stages of a spiritual journey, like one would think of rungs on a ladder. She says that they are more like strands that weave through and which may unfold or become prominent in various stages of the whole process.
She says these earliest followers of the way began with Longing–a desire for greater intimacy with God. This longing is experienced in many different ways, often as a heartfelt yearning for connection with God, or the need to be obedient to the divine will. Sometimes it manifests as dissatisfaction with the religious beliefs or practices in which one has been raised, or in dissatisfaction with the ways of the world. More generally, one might simply feel a longing for the way of truth or love.
Longing eventually causes Seeking. Initially, most seeking is outward. It may involve attending lectures, reading spiritual books, discussing scripture or matters of religion, trying out other forms of spirituality or joining a new spiritual community. Seeking may lead to new understanding and to growth in faith, but innate spiritual longing cannot ultimately be fulfilled through outward means.
It is Turning Within which is the essential element of the Quaker spiritual journey. At some point, the seeker discovers that God—Christ, the Light, the Holy Spirit–has been dwelling inside all along, inwardly present in a quiet and humble way that was often easy to dismiss or ignore.
Early on, one did not become a Quaker merely through seeking, or even through discovering the indwelling divine presence. Three more elements of the journey would come into play in the process of convincement. She identifies these as: Openings, The Refiner’s Fire, and Being Gathered into Community.
Openings include a wide range of divine revelations and direct guidance of the Spirit of Christ within. Openings can be dramatic, but are more often subtle impressions upon the inward, spiritual senses. By “minding the Light,” over time one becomes more sensitive to divine openings, and more responsive. For many early Friends, revelations came in the form of “openings in scripture,” fresh understanding of the meaning of particular Bible passages, with relevance to their lives. Spiritual guidance often came through an inward hearing of certain scriptural phrases or verses.
The Refiner’s Fire is a difficult and usually painful element of the spiritual journey. This biblical metaphor was used by many early Friends to describe the process by which the Light of Christ reveals and melts everything within us that resists God and God’s ways. Gradually sin, temptation, and disbelief are cleansed away, as well as overriding cravings for comfort, pleasure, and social status.
Being Gathered into Community is the third essential element in the process of convincement as a Quaker. The community helps its members to stay faithful to God’s transforming work among them, help that is especially needed when one encounters inward and outward resistance. The “corruptions of the world” lose their controlling power and, with the assistance of the community, one becomes increasingly dedicated to God’s purposes. Gradually the faithful person discovers that he or she is bonded with the community in deep, spiritual ways, no longer a separate being but part of the body of Christ.
As God becomes more clearly the center, individuals and communities receive Leadings of the Spirit that are about doing God’s work in the world, in matters both small and large. The divine presence within provides guidance about how to live in accordance with God’s will; this often involves doing things differently from the cultural norms. At first this guidance is primarily about specific aspects of personal and communal life. Responding to leadings brings us up against both inward and outward resistance. What God asks involves a sacrifice of time and energy on behalf of others, with diminished gratification of creaturely desires and personal preferences. Something inside us groans at the things to which the Spirit leads us. Giving witness and taking up counter-cultural ways of living also elicits resistance from others. Those who are faithful sometimes lose social status, or experience persecution. Obediently following the leadings of the Spirit leads to what early Friends called Living in the Cross, or the cross to our wills.
In the experience of early Friends that this work in their lives was not something they did, it was Christ within who carried out the leadings of God’s Spirit and enabled them to bear the sacrifices and suffering that often ensued. God’s power enabled them to be faithful, and they experienced God’s love flowing from within, moving them to risk difficulties for the sake of others. Marcelle calls this element of the spiritual journey Abiding in Divine Love and Power.
Early Quakers, like many other Christians before them, understood that the transformation to which they were called led to a state of spiritual maturity called Perfection. It is a state of being able to live perfectly in accordance with God’s will, without any resistance or sin. Perfection is not a static state. Once in it, a person can continue to grow, endlessly, but its’ important to know that we can also fall out of that condition. Friends recognized that people are given different “measures” of the light, and that there are degrees of perfection. As one is faithful to the measure one has received, more is given.
Advent – a spiritual adventure that awaits each of us as we open ourselves to the work Christ wants to do in our lives. In the next few weeks we will be exploring these elements of Quaker spirituality.
December 8, 2013 Spokane Friends Meeting