Pictures of Radical Faithfulness

The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.

In the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel Luke tells us a story about the last time Jesus is allowed to teach in a synagogue. It is a testimony to an internal struggle Jesus had between embracing his ancestry and his call to a prophetic ministry.

10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

From the birth narrative in his first two chapters; Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and circumcision right down to Luke’s pointing out the first time Jesus preached in his home-town synagogue Luke never lets us lose sight of Jesus’ Jewishness. And now he tells us about the last time of teaching in a synagogue. But never does he fail to remind us that Jesus’ relationship with his Jewish heritage was conflicted. Luke makes especially clear that when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the ninth chapter Jesus was driven by the agenda of the Prophets that proceeded him. Jesus never backs away from either his pedigree and heritage nor his burning intent to save the Judaism of his day from itself. The leaders of the religious and secular establishments feared him as a revolutionary – certain to get them in trouble with their Roman overlords. Jesus is the quintessential illustration of radical faithfulness.

In a backhanded sort of way we can see reflections of how Donald Trump sets himself apart from the leadership of the party for which he is its standard bearer and the way the establishment leaders are fearful of wholeheartedly embracing him and his candidacy.  And there’s another parallel and that is to Islamists who want to replace civil law with laws reflecting their values, goals and standards, that is Sharia Law. I think it’s interesting that the word Sharia translates into English as “the way”.

Quakerism is indebted to Frederick B. Tolles for describing the very similar radical faithfulness of George Fox. He said that Fox, who persisted in calling himself ‘son of God’ and who later acknowledges that he had many brothers and sisters, was demanding nothing less than that the military ruler of all England should disavow all violence and all coercion, make Christ’s law of love the supreme law of the land, and substitute the mild dictates of the Sermon on the Mount for the Instrument of Government by which he ruled. Fox would have him make England a kind of pilot project for the Kingdom of Heaven. In that, Fox was a revolutionary. He had no patience with the relativities and compromises of political life. His testimony was an uncompromising testimony for the radical Christian ethic of love and non-violence, and he would apply it in the arena of politics as in every other sphere of life. It is not recorded that Cromwell took his advice. Neither is it recorded that Fox ever receded an inch from his radical perfectionism.

Luke gives us no clue as to where this story takes place. Since the earliest development of the Synagogue system there was an openness to itinerant teachers called ‘the freedom of the synagogue’. It was on a sabbath that in a local synagogue Jesus was teaching. Luke writes: 13:10  Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.

11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

Luke gives us a description not a diagnosis. I recall seeing a woman on the streets on a town in Japan who walked bent double. It’s easily understood how this woman in the synagogue stood out from the other women who were gathered there. Jesus stopped preaching and started meddling.

12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  Given that earlier in this same chapter much is made for the need for repentance that this act of uncommon compassion and healing occurred without any discussion of the cause of the woman’s illness or of any need for confession of sin. Some people are upset by the way in which God’s love is extended, healing is offered and grace is received. It was a simple pronouncement that broke the chains of what held her captive: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

So here we have a question. Is the importance of this story that it is a miracle healing or is it a pronouncement story built on the conflict between Jesus and the shape of the Judaism of his day? This particular text gives evidence of both: it is a healing that leads to an important pronouncement. The purpose of understanding this, however, is that it might aid us in appreciating the uniqueness of the narrative itself: it is a miracle with something to say about God!

Some miracles stories go to great lengths to show the run up and then the payoff from the miraculous action. But here the miracle is hardly even described. At most Jesus is said to have laid his hands on her. Luke rushes past the graphic physical description of the miracle to get to the conflict. And, that by itself should have set off a storm of protest. The two things of importance is that with a word Jesus announces her freedom from the crippling spirit and when she is healed, the healing happens in the form of the divine passive (“she stood up straight” actually reads in the Greek as she “was straightened up” — assuming God as agent). God not only “set free”, but “straightened” her in the synagogue on the Sabbath. So in the moment in which we should see celebration of the woman’s being made whole,  while the woman is standing up straight and praising God we read:

14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

A synagogue leader in tries to shame Jesus with the congregation by pointing out that the healing was work — something that could be done on any of the six days set aside for labor instead of the holy Sabbath. Like his accuser Jesus responds to the crowd pointing out that any of them would take care of an animal needing help on the Sabbath — so how much more should they respond to a human being in need. In the Greek both the synagogue leader and Jesus are saying more here than our translations make clear. The synagogue leader uses the Greek verb dei to make his claim about the ought of work. Luke loves this verb in his narrative because it describes what it is necessary for Jesus to do as God’s Prophet. This is why Jesus’ response picks up on the synagogue leader’s claim. The ought here is not about a divine necessity to work on the other six days, but based on a divine necessity to have this woman be freed from bondage on the Sabbath. To make the point even clearer, Jesus calls her what she really is a “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus doesn’t supersede Jewishness with his claims about the Sabbath, but rather intensifies their theological grounding in the necessity of God and God’s purposes to heal, liberate, and unbind.

17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

When God is up to something, prepare to be unbound: whether from confining diseases, or social norms about persons with disabilities, or even our sacred cows. The fact that Jesus does this within the Jewish tradition and for a daughter of Abraham shows that God keeps showing up, drawing the circle just a little wider and unleashing a divine horizon that engenders rejoicing over the loosing of every human bondage. On one hand it’s a warning to those of us who see ourselves as protectors of what has been, conservators of the status quo. Sometimes despite ourselves, we get a glimpse of the great and glorious thing that God is doing, celebrate the expansion of grace that is there for all, and give God our thanks and praise. The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.

 

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Abandonment

We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds.

 

The 1928 Democratic Convention nominated a very popular progressive and four time governor of New York, Al Smith, as their presidential candidate. That same year Republicans nominated Herbert Hoover. Between the convention and the general election Democrats abandoned their nominee as it became known that Al Smith was a Roman Catholic. One columnists of his day wrote that he lost the election because of three things: Prohibition, which he opposed, Prosperity which soon evaporated and Prejudice. My grandfather, a newsman and a Catholic, considered himself to be an Al Smith Democrat until he died.

The question on my mind is whether we are witnessing something similar with the Republican party and Donald Trump. This week it was reported that in the interest of protecting down ballot races for seats in the House and Senate three well known Republican leaders were planning ‘an intervention’ with candidate Trump. The list of disaffected Republicans defecting to support the Democratic candidate has continued to grow. It was suggested that with his ties to Russian financial interests Trump was a real “Manchurian Candidate.” A story even surfaced that before the election season began Donald Trump met with Bill Clinton and the two plotted to destroy the Republican party. The candidate himself expressed the opinion that he might lose because a fix was already in on the election. Despite all the opposition, both within his party and without, Mr. Trump continues to enjoy tremendous popular support.

American Conservative magazine’s Rod Dreher’s interview with J. D. Vance, author of the book Hillbilly Elegy helps define why many people find Donald Trump such an attractive candidate. He began his interview saying that “a friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs”. By way of explanation Vance replied that “these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant. … And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

“The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues. … From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and praise for the noble businessman and economic growth.  … these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.

He continued: “We’re no longer a country that believes in human agency.  To hear Trump or Clinton talk about the poor, one would draw the conclusion that they have no power to affect their own lives.  Things have been done to them, from bad trade deals to Chinese labor competition, and they need help.  And without that help, they’re doomed to lives of misery they didn’t choose. ‘Believing you have no control is incredibly destructive, and that may be especially true when you face unique barriers. The first time I encountered this idea was in my exposure to addiction subculture, which is quite supportive and admirable in its own way, but is full of literature that speaks about addiction as a disease.  If you spend a day in these circles, you’ll hear someone say something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so why judge an addict for drug use.”  This view is a perfect microcosm of the problem among poor Americans.  On the one hand, the research is clear that there are biological elements to addiction–in that way, it does mimic a disease.  On the other hand, the research is also clear that people who believe their addiction is a biologically mandated disease show less ability to resist it.  There’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.

Dreher asked Vance to expand on the importance of the US Marine Corps to develop discipline in his life and fundamentalist Christianity in his biological father’s life. Vance’s response was:Well, I think it’s important to point out that Christianity, in the quirky way I’ve experienced it, was really important to me, too.  For my dad, the way he tells it is that he was a hard partier, he drank a lot, and didn’t have a lot of direction.  His Christian faith gave him focus, forced him to think hard about his personal choices, and gave him a community of people who demanded, even if only implicitly, that he act a certain way.  I think we all understate the importance of moral pressure, but it helped my dad, and it has certainly helped me! If you believe as I do, you believe that the Holy Spirit works in people in a mysterious way. I’d make one important point: that not drinking, treating people well, working hard, and so forth, requires a lot of willpower when you didn’t grow up in privilege.  That feeling–whether it’s real or entirely fake–that there’s something divine helping you and directing your mind and body, is extraordinarily powerful.

In an interview this week Pat Boone, in responding to a question about his take on the race for Presidency, said “God has lifted his hand of protection from the United States.” One group, supporting the Republican candidate argued that it was an endorsement of Donald Trump. Groups on the left put their own spin on the interview. For me, it raised again this question of abandonment. The context of Boone’s comment is that at one time God had placed his hand of protection on the United States and has now, due to our many failures, lifted that hand of protection. Since the mid 1800’s America has seen itself in that light. John L. O’Sullivan, in an article on the annexation of Texas wrote that it is: ‘our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’ This attitude helped to fuel western settlement of this continent, justified Native American removal and war with Mexico. In its inception did the United States displace Israel to become God’s preferred nation? And now because of our immorality, injustice, greed, violence, –all those things to which the Prophets pointed in their accusations of Israel– has God abandoned us?

Reasserting the words of Samuel 12:22, Psalm 9:10 and 94:14 tells us that God will not abandon his people. Jesus tells his followers that though he was leaving the earth they would not be left ‘comfortless.’ So what do we make of Israel’s experience of being taken into captivity, and ultimately having the Temple destroyed and, and of course, Jesus’ passionate plea from the cross. Isaiah 52 and 53 is all about recovery. The picture left in my mind is that of the parent whose child wanders off in a store after being told to stay close. And when the child becomes aware of its separateness it experiences the anxiety of being abandoned. And all the while the anxious parent, in the next isle over, allows a life giving message to be learned.

In the transcript of Pat Boone’s interview he refers to the Old Testament story of Balaam and his donkey and says: “If God can use an ass for His purpose … He can use a Donald Trump, for example.” He didn’t end there, he added: “Or, of course, a Hillary Clinton. The question: Which one, if either, will actually look to Him, seek His will and not “political correctness” in the crucial decisions that will determine our future?” I’d question whether either campaign would want to go beyond a sound bite on this one.

For seventy or so years our society, and especially the church, has stepped away from the Prophetic role of pointing to how a culture destroys the lives of people. For nearly two centuries the Church taught that human beings were guilty of sin and needed to repent. Then we found it enormously popular to put less emphasis on sin and the negatives of the Christian Faith and concentrate on the positives. A half century ago Karl Menninger raised the question with us in his book Whatever Became of Sin? In reaction many evangelical voices, continuing to stress the sinfulness of the human race and the need for repentance, have become cloisters of self righteousness, hypocrisy and exclusion.

 

The last six of the Ten commandments deal with how we treat one another, the sinfulness of violating them, and the need to repent if we do. Were we to follow them, can you imagine how different our world would be? Remember that “repent” is simply a military term that means “about face,” that is, turning around and going the other direction. And to speak of ‘sin’ isn’t a life sentence, it simply means missing the mark. Following Yearly Meeting there was quite a discussion on the pastor’s list serve about Jesus telling the woman at the well to “go and sin no more.” Beside the fact that the words are in the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery some held out their responsibility to accuse and convict. And, of course, just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough! We need to change what we are doing. Turn around and have better aim. We need to hear more clearly the voice of Micah where we read: He has shown you, oh man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. We need to reflect on Jesus words when he said we were to: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:28-31)

We have bought too heavily into the model of diagnosing moral failure and its consequences as disease rather than holding out healthy life choices and focusing on life affirming behavior. Maybe we have forgotten that human beings are moral agents and need to be held accountable even for their self inflicted wounds. And, as important as is personal accountability, the good news is that we are not alone in our struggles with the challenges of life. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit to lead and to guide. But we’ve got to be willing to talk about that. We need a community of the faithful to encourage us and at times hold our feet to the fire. As contradictory as it may seem, does the Trump campaign, highlighted by the values of the man himself, actually point out our need to allow our Spiritual roots to influence our lives, our faith and even our politics?

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Treasures and Light

The question of why a woman would choose to abort a pregnancy is similar to why a person feels it necessary to arm themselves.

 

I’ve been a supporter of getting non-sporting weapons off the streets for decades. I still think Wyatt Earp had the right idea about open carry in urban settings. But I don’t think that outlawing guns will solve our addiction to violence. By the same token it’s my personal opinion that an abortion is a tragedy. Family planning resources are available to make an unwanted pregnancy an anachronism. Outside of situations of rape and incest, unwanted pregnancies are a symptom of being irresponsible with one’s sexuality. Still I don’t believe in outlawing abortions, harassing those who choose to have them or those who choose to perform them. Why? Because both these hot button issues are spiritual matters. As to abortions I believe, as a country, a state, a city, a community, a congregation – regardless of the choices around sexual intimacy people make we could accelerate the reduction of the numbers of abortions which we are now seeing by removing the social and financial obstacles and fears some women have about raising a child. That’s consistent with Isaiah’s assertion that the naked be clothed, the homeless housed, the hungry fed, the captives emancipated and get this, even the manacles on the wicked loosen. Only then, Isaiah insists, when you call on God, will God answer.

The question of why a woman would choose to abort a pregnancy is similar to why a person feels it necessary to arm themselves.

I think the answer may be found in Jesus’ admonition in the 19th through 21st verses of the 6th Chapter of Matthew: 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Underlying much of our national anxiety and unrest is the fear that many people feel of losing to others the treasure that they personally have accumulated or that had been amassed by a generation before them. Many who once identified themselves as middle class have lost much of their purchasing power and with it social status. Where as it was once possible for one person in a family to earn a livable wage for a traditional family now two or more are required to makes ends meet and a necessity if they want to educate their child. In our system of economics, business, industry, and government are charged with being as efficient as possible, producing goods and services at competitive prices. But the world expanded, markets have become international, people in developing countries are excited about receiving a living wage and business is pleased to enjoy lower costs per unit of production. Ocean going freighters bring more goods to our shores than we send away. And that results in ever fewer jobs for American workers, regardless of whether they are willing to do such work.

By the same token banks prefer that we use automatic teller machines, complex computers, instead of them having to hire human tellers to handle our financial transactions. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the impact artificial intelligence has had upon our lives. And the loss to middle income jobs increases our sense of vulnerability.

In our generation people of color have broken out of stereotypical roles as have women and more recently those who manifest atypical gender identities. The fact that people from south and central America live and work among us isn’t new – they were actually on this land before most or our ancestors arrived. Only recently has that reality begun to shift the lines of political power. And think about it, the Chief Executive of the United States is a person of color. I can remember when that was unthinkable. As for women, in the State of Washington both our U.S. Senators (a word that means ‘old men’) and the person who represents us in the House are all women. The majority of the County Council are women. Almost half of the City Council are women. We have a woman running for the highest office in our land. That’s a huge change. And more recently lawful marriage now makes space for people of the same gender to form a household. You might recall that just like the church fought the Copernicus revolution churches divided over the emancipation of slaves, woman’s suffrage, and now gender issues.

One of the first political issues I faced working in a bi-racial urban neighborhood was with the introduction of a Federal program called Community Action Against Poverty. We had worked to develop a neighborhood organization and it seemed that all CAAP did was to hire people. And then one day it struck me that hiring people was a good thing. Of course the other side of the economic fears of those who have is the experience of the havenots. Just as real is the sense of being held captive to the privilege enjoyed by others which deny opportunity.

We know, because the data is readily available, that some people have come out of these changes in our culture quite well off while others haven’t fared so well. We currently celebrate 536 U.S. Billionaires. That’s contrasted with 320 million individuals. The effective tax rate in 1954 was seventy percent. Today, for the top ten percent of tax payers the average rate is around twenty percent. The point isn’t what is fair or equitable – it’s that we all know that over the past three decades the very wealthy have gotten wealthier while the great majority has experienced a reduction in their standard of living. And that feeds the feeling of vulnerability and the sense of being held captive to a rigged system. So the idea of building a wall to keep persons from the southern climates out of our jobs, out of our hospitals, and off our welfare roles gains traction. Fearing that international trade agreements will move even more jobs to developing countries bring together groups who are normally estranged, the best example is the nominees for President of both the Republicans and Democrats have taken positions in opposition to the proposed Trans Pacific Trade agreement.

Now into that volatile mix add the fear of an environment gone haywire with threats of rising sea levels, changes in the distribution of rainfall across the continent, crops no longer feasible where they once were the staple. Add into that corporations and reservations with hydrocarbons buried in the ground meeting resistance to their being transported and sold on the world market. And what about fears of genetically modified plants and animals and an array of chemicals use to increase crop yields.

You could argue that the problem is that we know too much. Ignorance is bliss is similar to our wanting the world as it was. We know how many people were killed by a suicide bomber in a town the other side of the globe which only moments before we didn’t know existed. We know of every mistake made by those charged with keeping the peace at home – and abroad. We know the voting record and the moral behavior of every public figure – and the economic interests that have contributed to their campaigns for re-election. Seeing the world in this way can make us physically ill. In the face of all that we read Jesus’ words 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. He challenges our priorities, to the core. He goes on and says that our problem is how we see things. The few remaining lines of Matthew 6 which we have yet to explore are these:

22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

And that’s the darkness in which we swim. And its antidote is the light within us. We need healthy eyes so we can be full of light. Now our eyes are filled with anxiety and fear. An astigmatism is distorting our vision of what is truly important. What is needed is a relationship with Christ, the light within, that enables us to see the world differently.

There is an approach to human behavior that suggests that how we think about something determines our mental health. It’s an interesting corollary to what Jesus is saying. Cecil Hinshaw in 1945 said: In describing his early ministry, George Fox wrote, “I was sent to turn people from the darkness to the Light.” The “children of Light” knew that they had been redeemed from sin and its power, and that conviction and experience was their message. They had experienced the moral tensions which were native to Puritanism, and they had found an answer to them. That answer is the keynote of early Quakerism. Fox expressed it in classic words, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” Without question, the Light within is, in early Quakerism, that which William Penn called “the first principle.” The cornerstone of their faith was the belief that Christ did lead and guide them out of darkness into the glorious light of God’s perfect love and power. Out of this experience of the redemptive power of the Light came their message of victory over the forces of all unrighteousness.

The Light within was equated by them with Christ. Instead of a vague, impersonal spirit, they believed that Light to be the eternal Christ who had been manifested perfectly in the historical Jesus and who continued to dwell in the hearts of his followers. “Christ is come and doth dwell and reign in the hearts of His people,” They genuinely believed that Christ, the same power and spirit which was in Jesus, had taken up his abode in them. If you are looking for a solid bit of Quaker Christology this is it: The Light is the eternal Christ who was manifested perfectly in the historical Jesus and who continues to dwell in the hearts of his followers.

We aren’t talking philosophy, we are talking rugged, naked Christian spirituality. Jesus calls us to pray, give, fast, get our priorities straight and open ourselves to Christ’s light illumining our inner world so that we see the outer world through the eyes of Christ. When Christ is come and dwells and reigns in the hearts of us, his people, Christ will lead and guide us out of darkness into the glorious light of God’s perfect love and power.

 

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Fasting

In this middle section of Matthew 6 Jesus speaks a few lines about fasting. Starting with the 16th verse we read: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Jesus said ”And whenever you fast…” and a bit later says ‘But when you fast…'” That might hit you strange. The whole idea of fasting seems foreign to us today so probably the most important thing to grasp is that Jesus doesn’t say “if” you fast, the line is “whenever you fast.” Christians who identify with highly liturgical churches think this refers to Lenten fasts – forty days of giving up some one thing, like watermelon or watching professional basketball. That’s not what Jesus is talking about.

The origins of the ritual of fasting are lost in history. Several secular reasons has been suggested. One idea is that a person would fast before partaking a sacred meal, the opposite of eating something before going to a banquet so you won’t be scarfing down everything in sight. Another idea is that fasting makes one susceptible to visions. It’s also thought that a period of fasting provides new vitality in a time of infertility.

Reports of fasting are found in the oldest strata of biblical literature and there can be no doubt that spontaneous fasting was widespread from earliest times both among individuals and groups. Fasting, as recorded in the Bible, clearly emerged in response to spiritual needs. We are told that Daniel “afflicts himself” not only by abstaining from choice food, meat, and wine but also from anointing himself; David, who, in addition to fasting from food, sleeps on the ground, does not change his clothes, and refrains from anointing and washing. The most widely attested function of fasting in the Bible is to avert or terminate a calamity by eliciting God’s compassion. The purpose of fasts during wartime was to seek God’s direct intervention or advice. Thus, Israel observed fasts in its wars against Benjamin, the Philistines, and other enemies. Fasts were also reported in the hope of averting annihilation by the Babylonians and by the Persians.

Fasting was also used to avert the threat of divine punishment. God mitigates Ahab’s punishment because he fasted and humbled himself. David fasted in the hope that “the Lord will be gracious to me and the boy will live.” Fasting served as a means of supplicating God to end a famine caused by a plague of locusts and to alleviate the oppression of foreign rule. Passages in Psalms and Ezra tell us that people fasted to win divine forgiveness and implies that fasting is basically an act of penance, a ritual expression of remorse, submission, and supplication. When a calamity, human or natural, threatened or struck, a public fast would be proclaimed.

But fasting is not an end in itself rather it’s a way a person can humble their heart and repent for their sins and this repentance manifests itself in deeds. Isaiah makes the contrast between a fast which is not accompanied by sincere repentance, and which is therefore unacceptable to God, and the true fast which leads to God’s merciful forgiveness: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him… Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.

If you see Jesus’ message in Matthew 6 as a whole, like prayer and one’s charitable giving, fasting is best kept private. I guess that posting on Facebook a selfie of how your fasting caused misery wouldn’t be a suitable witness to your faithfulness and righteousness.

Jesus said that no one should know that you are keeping a fast by your appearance. But, according to Isaiah, there are to be practical results: the naked are clothed, the homeless are housed, the hungry are fed, the captives are emancipated and get this, even the manacles on the wicked are loosen. Only then, Isaiah insists, when you call on God, will God answer.

As I look at the history of fasting one of the things what strikes me is that you’ve got to be convinced that things are about to get bad or they are already intolerable. Are things really that bad? Are we suffering a plague, is our way of life being challenged? I listened to as much of the most recent Political Convention as I could stand, aware that, like a hurricane, I’ll have to endure a similar destructive wind blowing in the opposite direction in this next week. What I heard was it’s all bad and we need a political savior to lead us out of the wilderness and build a fortress to provide protection from the invading hordes.

Were we ancient Israel we could expect the leaders of our sectarian state to declare a fast to secure God’s compassion to avert the threats. But our nation isn’t a sectarian state, despite what some would like to believe. Our nation is secular in nature and I expect there would be tremendous public outrage were our political leaders to declare a national fast. But what would be inappropriate for the Church to enter a time of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation?

I’ve tried to imagine what such a fast would look like. We would have to give up our notion that people of faith worship different gods/God’s. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. If we take seriously our creation stories that proclaim one creator, there can’t be others, maybe just called by different names that opens us up to welcome any an all of creation to join in a great fast.

How David fasted is marked by changing behaviors: giving up delicacies, treating oneself with luxury, avoiding elevating oneself above others. And, with Isaiah as our mentor our fasting would focus on the needs of those who are captive to wickedness, who are oppressed, hungry, vulnerable, and homeless and this compassion even to extend to those who have been found guilty of crimes. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.

Maybe giving up watermelon or strawberry shortcake, or dark chocolate isn’t what’s called for. Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast” he said “whenever you fast.” Fasting to avert disaster is on the same level of Spiritual Discipline as prayer and charitable giving. When you pray, when you give, when you fast…

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Worried Scared

This whole idea of our need to defend the faith or more precisely defending our preferred doctrinal orthodoxy strikes me as a lack of trust in God….

Last Sunday, on Facebook, a Boston Terrier informed me that for dogs all the noise associated with fourth of July fireworks is particularly scary. As the video went on the pup made suggestions for keeping one’s pooches safe and secure. The ASPCA sent out a reminder that more dogs are lost on the Fourth of July than at any other time.

Some of you are acquainted with our Australian Shepherd, Kuma. He is a very affectionate dog but skittish isn’t a big enough word to cover the extent of his anxiety. We put his harness on him and wrapped him in an Ace bandage to provide a bit of security. He was beside himself with the illegal actions of a few scufflaw neighbors despite our trying to comfort him. The hard part for me was to have to tell him that what was ahead would be much much worse. Excessive worry can actually make matters worse.

Two people who Facebook tells me are ‘friends’ of mine recently posted lists of all the horrible things things that they feel are guaranteed to happen should the Presidential candidate which they fear the most gets elected. Pollsters tell me that the negative emotions for the presumptive candidates of both large parties are higher than 50 percent. The Washington Times recently reported that experts are predicting the 2016 presidential race won’t be a contest of which candidate Americans vote for in November but which candidate they vote against — the fear of an unwanted occupant in the White House will drive record numbers to the polls, as voters respond to the ingrained impulse for self-preservation. Jon A. Krosnick, a professor of political science, communication and psychology at Stanford University is quoted as saying: “In general, we as humans are more motivated by threats than we are by opportunities.”

My own analysis is that the battle for the White House simply highlights the anxiety level throughout our society. This element of belligerence and the willingness to go to the mat was evident in an email a member of the Yearly Meeting Elders recently posted to yearly Meeting pastors. It was a devotional article based on 1st Timothy 6:12 “Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses”. The article read: “No idea is more politically incorrect among today’s new-style evangelicals than the old fundamentalist notion that the truth is worth fighting for including the essential proposition of Christian doctrine. … where God’s Word speaks clearly, we have a duty to obey, defend, and proclaim the truth He has given us, and we should do that with an authority that reflects our conviction that God has spoken with clarity and finality. This is particularly crucial in contexts where cardinal doctrines of biblical Christianity are under attack.”

There were several replies to the email most of which supported the idea of ‘defending’ the faith. One built a long treatise on how Nehemiah encouraged the people of his day. “So what do I see as a lesson on how we should respond? Again from Nehemiah, “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Neh. 4:14b And further, “Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon.” Neh. 4:17

One faithful friend brought an end to the discussion with his comment “In my experience,  as people defend what they’re sure is the truth, what goes missing early on is love and, with it, humility. That often does great damage to the community of faith.”

This whole idea of our need to defend the faith or more precisely defending our preferred doctrinal orthodoxy strikes me as a lack of trust in God. In Acts 5 we read about how the orthodox Temple police were ordered to arrest the Apostles and bring them before the counsel. It was Gamaliel whose wisdom won out. After pointing out other similar evangelistic efforts he concluded that “… in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

It seems difficult for us to let God be God in any number of ways.

I read a blog that told of how this person’s friend told him that he had received a chilling email from the new manager of the medical facility where he balanced a practice between direct care and research. It went something like this: “Budgetary concerns. Productivity being reevaluated. We need to talk. I’ll set up meeting.” It was to be three weeks after the original email before the meeting was to be held. As you can imagine his friend was “catastrophizing” his situation. We’ve all gotten these sorts of messages and know they can be a real source of distraction. Each and every day between the email and the meeting he was assuming the worst, imagining all kinds of negative scenarios. Would the funding for his research lab be jeopardized? What would happen to the people who worked for him? Would he be expected to see more patients under increasingly difficult circumstances?

The day after the meeting was to be held his friend called to report on what had happened. The meeting was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. By 4:20 p.m., the manager had not appeared. Then at 4:30 p.m., his friend received a call from the delinquent manager who said that the meeting was canceled, explaining that the issue was not that important after all. There were no concerns with productivity or budget. His friend was relieved but also angry and dismayed that he had wasted so much emotional energy over a situation that was absolutely insignificant. Worrying obsessively about things you can’t change has a huge cost, it drains your energy and takes a toll on your emotional and physical health. The blogger thought that the lesson was clear: Try to live in the present moment. Be anchored in the present.

Jesus had quite a different answer. He ends the sixth chapter of Matthew this way:

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Jesus doesn’t propose that we compartmentalize the various aspects of our lives to isolate those items that may be problematic. He doesn’t suggest that we simply live in the present moment or any other approaches to staving off anxiety. The central line of Jesus’ statement about worry is this: your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

How hard it is to hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life.” Don’t worry? You’ve got to be kidding. Open the paper. Watch the news. Commercials invite us to worry about our health or our body odor or whether our teeth are adequately white or those horrid wrinkles that tell our age. Houses display security signs. At some airports you’re are liable to see a 19 year old with an assault weapon slung over his shoulder. It’s not just me. I think we live in an incredibly anxious culture. How in the world, then, can Jesus possibly ask us — really, command us! — not to worry?

The text doesn’t start with the injunction about worry. No, it begins with an assertion that we cannot serve two masters, both God and money. If we try, Jesus says, we’ll end up loving one and hating the other. So what’s the connection? Well, notice that Jesus doesn’t say money is evil, just that it makes a poor master.

The alternative Jesus invites us to consider is entering into relationship with God, the God who is infinite and whose love for us and all creation is infinite as well. Love operates from a different “economy” than physical security. When you live in this kind of relationship of love and trust, you’ve entered into the realm of abundance, a world of possibility, a world of contentment. Suddenly, in this world — Jesus calls it the “kingdom of God” — not worrying actually becomes an option.

I know, I know, it’s hard to believe in this world of abundance that Jesus proclaims, this world that invites us to trust God’s faithfulness: like a flower does spring or to sail upon the currents of God’s love like a bird does the air. This is why, in the end, Jesus dies — not to somehow pay for our sins (there we go tracking and counting again), but because those in power were so invested in the world of insecurity that abundance was down right frightening, even threatening. Scarcity, after all, creates fear, and fear creates devotion to those who will protect you. Abundance, on the other hand, generates freedom.

This is the world Jesus invites us into: a world of abundance, generosity, and new life. But it is also a world of fragility, trust, and vulnerability. Lilies and birds, after all, can’t defend themselves but must trust God’s providence and love.

Again, I know this is hard. We are, after all, surrounded by countless images of scarcity and fear that seek to cause us to worry. But maybe this is exactly where we start. If we are surrounded by images of scarcity, worry, and fear, then perhaps our task this week and in the weeks to come is to capture thousands of pictures of their opposites: abundance, courage, and trust that help us to relax, breathe, count our blessings, and trust in God’s providence.

 

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A Template Prayer

The last phrase of the Lord’s prayer, as most of us repeat it, doesn’t exist– at least in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew.  It’s a doxology that has been added and similar to the way we traditionally use debts or trespasses we tend to include it. It reminds me that some insignificant scribe at a desk in a medevil library got carried away with his devotion to God when he added that line. It’s a shout out of God’s greatness.  Maybe we need to take a page from the copyist and proclaim for our selves For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen” 

9“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us this day our daily bread. 12And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14

16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I launched this short series with the July Newsletter. It’s a discussion about the first 8 verses of this 6th Chapter of Matthew.  This next section that I’ve worked on for today is much better known. Our Catholic friends call it the Our Father, most Protestants refer to it as The Lord’s Prayer.  I see it as a template prayer provided by Jesus for his followers. After expressing a preference for praying privately and the value of brevity in the first verses of the chapter Jesus reminds his followers of a truly wonderful notion — that “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” You might conclude from that that praying really isn’t necessary. But were that the case Jesus wouldn’t have shared this template for prayer. “Pray…this way:” is what he said.

Before we wade into the meat of the prayer there are a couple of things that could become distractions that we need to deal with first. There are words at the conclusion of the prayer which we don’t include when we recite the prayer as a group. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. It’s a note of clarification about the reason for forgiving others where they have violated our boundaries. It’s fair warning that forgiveness of others is a big thing. And then you might wonder what happened to the part of the prayer that we often recite that goes: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, Amen.”  Well there’s an argument about whether those words are part of the original text or was added by a highly motivated and enthusiastic copyists. We’ll touch on it again.

Jesus begins by telling us that we should address our prayer: “Our Father”. Jesus includes us as siblings in his own family of origin. When you pray “Our Father” you might want to realize just how all inclusive is that phrase. Jesus includes  you and you, by saying “Our” not only include yourself but every other human soul who joins in such a prayer. A literal translation of the Greek text reads “You, Father of us…” I know I often begin a public prayer addressing God as “Loving God”. Seeing the words of Matthew 6 in this way might cause me to change my ways. And, by the way, the translation of the text is usually translated in a why that places God in a very remote other place, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” That clearer comes from a flat earth perspective which since John Glenn even the most literal minded has had to admit no longer works. I prefer a simpler, more literal, translation that instead of some special place ‘up there’ sees heaven as all that the sky covers. So “Let your name be hallowed in all creation.”

Former Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams says that when people grasp God’s name as holy, as something that inspires awe and reverence, they no longer trivialize it by making God a tool for their purposes, to “put other people down, or as a sort of magic to make themselves feel safe”. He says: “Understand what you’re talking about when you’re talking about God, this is serious, this is the most wonderful and frightening reality that we could imagine, more wonderful and frightening than we can imagine.”

Then we are to petition God that “Thy kingdom come.” This petition has its parallel in the Jewish prayer, ‘May he establish his Kingdom during your life and during your days.’ The request for God’s kingdom to come is commonly interpreted at the most literal level as a reference to the belief that a Messiah figure would bring about a kingdom of God. Jesus spoke frequently of God’s kingdom evidently assuming that this was a concept so familiar that it didn’t require definition. This petition looks to the perfect establishment of God’s rule in the world, an act of God resulting in the restoration of creation as God intended. When we pray such a petition the issue at hand isn’t simply waiting on the striking of midnight when all our carriages become pumkins and our horses become rats in an end of time scenario nor is it waiting on God to act.  It is an expression of our willingness to be used of God, asking God to act through us.

And the next line gets to it directly “Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” John Ortberg says of this phrase: “Many people think our job is to get my afterlife destination taken care of, then tread water till we all get ejected and God comes back and torches this place. But Jesus never told anybody—neither his disciples nor us—to pray, ‘Get me out of here so I can go up there.’ The request that “thy will be done on earth” is an invitation for us to join God the work of restoring creation.

God,  “Give us this day our daily bread.” As you might expect this isn’t as straight forward as it sounds. The Greek word ἐπι-ούσιος which has been commonly translated as ‘daily’ only occurs in Luke and Matthew’s versions of the Lord’s Prayer, and nowhere else in any other extant Greek texts in all of ancient Greek literature.  A literal interpretation of this unique word is ‘super-essential’. We are praying for what we can’t live without. It signifies what is necessary for life, and  every good thing sufficient for subsistence. We sing “break thou the Bread of Life, Lord unto me. In John 6:48 ff Jesus tells those gathered around him “I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And Jesus made certain that the connection back to the manna in the wilderness not be missed. Recall that in the Exodus story it was all about the children of Israel learning to trust God. They were instructed not to store manna, except before the Sabbath. That every day God would provide just enough for that day. It runs so counter to our way of wanting to store thing away for the proverbial rainy day. But to do so is to question God’s promise, God’s provision. So the daily bread is what we need to survive and it comes daily – when we ask.

John Wycliffe, in 1395, produced the first English translation of the Bible. He translated the Greek word oph-ei-letais as dettis. As a result those of the Reformed Tradition; Presbyterians, Congregationalist, tend to say “debts” when they say the Lord’s prayer.  William Tyndale in his 1526 translation chose the word treaspases. Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists and Quakers, for that matter, tend follow Tyndale and employ use the word “trespasses” when they repeat from memory the phrase which in print goes: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. It’s interesting when people gather for a graveside service and the Lord’s Prayer is used. I guess it could be seen as a form of speaking in tongues. The text speaks of being owed and owers – which sounds more like debts. However trespasses has a much broader application. So on the heels of asking for what we need to survive Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer continues with a petition for debts to be forgiven in the same way as people have forgiven those who have debts against them. You recall that Luke’s version speaks of sins rather than debts. Asking for forgiveness from God was a staple of Jewish prayers. Whether debts or sins, the reference is to failures to use opportunities for doing good. You might remember that in the parable of the sheep and the goats the grounds for condemnation are not wrongdoing in the ordinary sense but failure to do right, missing opportunities for showing love to others. But again we can easily miss the main thrust of this petition. The verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer show Jesus teaching his followers that the forgiveness of our sin/debt (by God) is contingent on how we forgive others.

In James chapter 1 we read “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” So, what’s going on here when we are told to pray: “And lead us not into temptation.” One plausible way to see this petition is noting that it follows the request for daily bread. The Temptation is to get caught up in the pursuit of things material.

But deliver us from evil” There is a lot of controversy over what this means. Some speak of evil in general or referring to the evil one, a personal devil. In no known Aramaic source is the devil referred to as “The evil one.” A literal view of the Greek text suggests a phrase closer to “rescue us from the wicked.” Instead of generalizing or personalizing evil, simply acknowledging that wickedness exists makes a great deal of sense. The recent suicide bombings at Ataturk Airport and the mass murder in Orlando or Afganistan are stark reminders that it is from the actions of the wicked that we pray for rescue.

There is a well known Quaker story of a young man who picks up a rock and throws it at a bird and actually kills the bird. He discovers that it was a mother bird with a nest of baby birds. He wrestles with what to do and ultimately kills the hatchlings, sparing them from starving to death. Later he quotes Proverbs 12:10 making the pronouncement that the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. It brings the words of the template prayer into rather clear relief.

The last phrase of the Lord’s prayer, as most of us repeat it, doesn’t exist– at least in the earliest manuscripts of Matthew.  It’s a doxology that has been added and similar to the way we traditionally use debts or trespasses we tend to include it. It reminds me that some insignificant scribe at a desk in a medevil library got carried away with his devotion to God when he added that line. It’s a shout out of God’s greatness.  Maybe we need to take a page from the copyist and proclaim for our selves For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen”

 

 

 

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Looking Once Again at Job

It was a great question Satan asked “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for all of us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God?

I needed to take another look at the Book of Job…

Job isn’t intended to be history. Like the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon that follow it in the Bible, it is devotional in nature. Some say it is the oldest of the stories in the Bible and it predates Judaism. When you go all the way out Indian Trails and visit the petroglyphs you’re told that they pre-date any indigenous peoples now known. Job is like that. It has this wonderful “once upon a time” quality, with the setting being in the land of Uz. There is no place called Uz. And Job has it all. Listen to this: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

The book has been interpreted a variety of ways. Most scholarship has focused on two aspects of God’s speech from the whirlwind near the end of the book. It’s there when God tells Job to Brace yourself and stand up and take it as a man. That blows me away. Is that the voice of God? I’m trying to make sense out of Job’s experience.

Job 1: 1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.

4His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.

6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. (I want to make sure you understand that Satan, in this story isn’t like what we’ve been led to think about Satan. He was a loyal, trusted, prosecutor or auditor like the Government Accounting Office, or Inspectors General. We get to eves drop on this conversation. It is not out of malice that Satan does what he does.)

7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” So, God isn’t above doing a bit of bragging on his creatures. And in response, the Inspector General proceeds with his challenge.

9Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

So the scene is set. Satan has been given license to test the quality of Job’s trust in God. It’s a great question Satan asks “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God contingent on the fence privilege has place around us? Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God? This God isn’t the God of the Psalms or Exodus. Though the Satan can’t touch Job in his body this is what he does.

13One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

In turn four witnesses who escaped capture and death tell Job, the greatest of all the people of the east, that everything, everything that gave him power and prestige and progeny, that guaranteed the future of his lineage had been taken from him. Waring neighbors took their toll but so did the natural forces of wind and lightning. One fell swoop and all was gone. And this may be the most unbelievable part of the whole story:

20Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.

Of course we recall the rest of the forty chapters. In the second chapter we read that again the heavenly beings were in council before the Lord, the Satan among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

We recall how Job’s friends try to explain to him what happened, that somehow Job must have sinned – because such suffering and lose could only be understood as punishment. Against all that Job maintained that he was innocent and held tight to his integrity. But the story insists that the universe is deliberately at variance with the view held by Job and his friends. In the friends’ insistence that Job’s suffering meant he had sinned, and in Job’s demanding a specific reason why he, in his innocence, should suffer, both sides presume the existence of a system of reward and punishment in the cosmos. A righteous person cannot know why he or she suffers and the wicked prosper, because our wisdom is not God’s. And the bottom line is that we human beings can’t wrap our small minds around what God is about.

What the story points to is that there is no such law of retribution and that nature is neutral to man’s moral action. The sun rises on the righteous and sinner alike (28:13, 15). Rain falls on the desert, whereas it could have been directed only to the cultivated land where it is needed by men (38:26 27). Wild animals do not observe the tenets of human morality (38:15 16). Material prosperity and misfortune do not constitute divine recompense or chastisement. It is the concept of a cosmic order that does not operate according to a built in principle of moral retribution which makes possible the selfless piety that is the first issue posed by the book of Job.

Nature is amoral. It doesn’t operate reasonably. Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes are simply nature being itself. Alligators or gorillas dragging toddlers into harms way aren’t moral matters. However, it would be a grave error to interpret the book of Job’s denial of divine retribution as constituting a legitimate excuse for us to abandon our obligation to seek to establish justice on earth. Even though justice is not woven into the stuff of the universe nor is God occupied with its administration, it is an ideal to be realized by society. The principle of automatic reward and punishment is, in its self, a form of coercion, and leaves no special realm in which humanity can exercise our moral freedom by doing the good from purely disinterested motives. The author of Job may be denying one fundamental assumption of the narrative and prophetic books of the Bible, but his denial is consistent with another, even more fundamental assumption: that it is up to humankind to carry out God’s commandments and that this primary task must be done in society and actualized in the course of history.

It was a great question Satan asked “Does Job fear God for nothing?” It’s a good question for all of us. We who are blessed, like Job. Is our love for God founded on our belief that God is a loving and compassionate God? This God isn’t the God of the Psalms or Exodus. Is our love for God contingent on the fence privilege has place around us? Most agree that the ultimate theme of the book of Job is the nature of a righteous man’s faith in God. It turns on the question of the nature of religion: Can we serve God for naught?…When Job says, ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him’ in the thirteenth chapter the second half of the verse may also be translated, “yet will I argue with him.” The book reaffirms Job’s trust in God -and God’s trust in Job. In teaching that piety must be unselfish and that the righteous sufferer is assured not of tangible reward but of fellowship with God, biblical thought about justice, retribution, and providence reaches a climax -and a limit.

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“Enough! “It’s time to forgive and console…”

“Now,” Paul says, “it’s time to forgive and console” this person who had made life so ‘painful’ for Paul so that he won’t be overwhelmed by guilt, shame, sorrow. “Reaffirm your love for him” Paul tells the Corinthians.

 

Because the first word of the second chapter of II Corinthians is “So” we have to start with the last words of the first chapter. Paul writes: “I do not mean to imply that we lord it over your faith; rather, we are workers with you for your joy, because you stand firm in the faith. Paul gets to “So” by telling the church in Corinth that he and they are co-workers for their joy and that they stand firm in the faith.

“So” Paul writes “I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. Another “painful visit”? That implies that there was a previous visit that turned out to be painful. What we will soon learn is that instead of a return engagement Paul wrote a ‘painful letter’. It was out of distress and anguish of heart and with tears that it was written. That suggests that what had made the previous visit painful was no little consequence. It’s generally accepted that he had left Ephesus for Thessaloniki or Philippi as many as three years after his visit to Corinth. Paul had travelled from Corinth into Asia, carrying the Gospel and carried the offense done to him in his heart, almost like a treasure. And it was only after some time on the road he writes a letter, a severe letter, unloading on these people in Corinth. Talking about holding a grudge.

II Corinthians gets overlooked because it doesn’t fit our idea of a contiguous correspondence. There is an undeniable incongruity between the first part which is conciliatory and gratifying and which makes direct reference to a painful, regretted letter and the last, beginning with the 10th chapter, were we are reading about personal misunderstandings and bitterness. The possibility suggests itself that what we actually have in chapters 10-13 is Paul’s painful letter.

Another interesting thing about II Corinthians is that more than any other writing of the Apostle Paul, this letter reveals his human weaknesses, his holding onto wounded feelings, his sternness, irony, rebuke, impassioned self-vindication, but also his spiritual strength, the deepest tenderness of affection, humility, a justified self-respect, zeal for the welfare of the weak and suffering, as well as for the progress of the Christ’s church and for the spiritual advancement of its members.

Here he comes off a bit self serving when he says he wrote the letter in the sincere hope that what had happened before wouldn’t be repeated when he made a subsequent visit. “I wrote it as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice.” It is something of an apology for if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? That’s a story in itself. In a way it’s freeing to know that Paul popped off, said a little more than he intended and hurt some people that he really didn’t want to hurt at all. It was a Mills Brother’s number one hit that comes to mind.

You always hurt the one you love
The one you shouldn’t hurt at all
You always take the sweetest rose
And crush it till the petals fall

You always break the kindest heart
With a hasty word you can’t recall
So, if I broke your heart last night
It’s because I love you most of all

 

It finally occurs to Paul that his painful letter was a little too rough on the Meeting in Corinth. In retrospect he tells the Corinthians that he wrote it, as he says: not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. But one thing was clear, it had caused a great deal of pain. I imagine that the awareness of the damage done came from others who had visited Corinth and reported the situation to Paul. I can even imagine that at first he dismissed it. Was it an important enough to distract him from the important work of ministry? But finally it did sink in. And he writes this letter to them.

But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you. And everyone there knew who Paul was talking about. On learning that a member of the Meeting had badly offended Paul the community took measures against the person. The letter continues:

6This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; 7so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. 10Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. 11And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

Paul says that the person who caused him ‘pain’ actually caused pain to the whole congregation and in response the congregation brought punishment on the perpetrator – and Paul says the punishment was enough. Now, Paul says, it’s time to forgive and console this person so that he won’t be overwhelmed by guilt, shame, sorrow. “Reaffirm your love for him” Paul says.

The word translated as “forgive” in 2 Cor 2:7 is charizomai (“to give freely”), which is the same word Paul will use when he calls on them to “give freely” to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem (in 2 Cor 8-9). The reason Paul so stresses the importance of forgiving — and the mutuality involved in his forgiving anyone they forgive — is that both he and the Corinthians all stand together before the “face” (prosopon) of Christ, the source of their life together. Indeed, he warns, we forgive so as not to be taken advantage of by Satan, whose intentions are to destroy any community we might have with one another through Christ.

This passage, as a whole, testifies to how damaging it can be to individuals and the Meeting should one person fails with regard to hospitality. But imagine how much greater that would be should that person believed in the very depth of their heart that Paul needed to be corrected. That can certainly be us, so certain of our understanding of right and wrong, of how things ought to be and keenly aware when things don’t go as we believe they should. I’m guessing that the lesson here has to do with a lack of humility and the need to judge another. Whatever, it certainly offended Paul. And Paul decided that despite telling the Corinthians he would made a return visit he changed his mind – going back would be too painful.

And it follows how damaging it can be if someone persists in holding a grudge and then gives voices to it which draws everyone’s attention to the failure of one among the many. It certainly weakened Paul’s message, sapped his energy and created a distraction. Paul awakened to the need to be reconciled to his brothers and sisters in Christ.

And then when the whole congregation brings sanctions upon the offender. Some groups practice shunning, is that what went on here? We aren’t sure. Other groups practice excommunication – denying the offender table grace. How do we do that? Drawing lines between those on the inside and everyone else is done any number of ways. The way it’s done isn’t important. What we know is that when Paul learned of it he says “enough!”. He says, as much to himself as to the Corinthians, that it’s necessary to forgive and console. The church just isn’t the church without forgiveness. After all, we Christians understand ourselves first of all as people who need to be—and have been—forgiven by God. But then what does forgiveness mean? Does it mean, for instance, that once an apology has been offered and accepted, everything goes back to how it was before? Is forgiveness a reset button? Do victims have a say in setting future boundaries? Are there conditions that need to be met in order for forgiveness to take place? If we insist that victims extend unconditional forgiveness, isn’t that grace for the offender, and law for the victim?

Far too often we act as if forgiveness has to be earned, that there has to be evidence of repentance. God in Christ forgave us without any evidence of repentance on our part, without our doing anything at all to earn his forgiveness; and I think he expects us to follow his example in relation to others.  We are to make others whole as we have been made whole ourselves. The disciples were told to forgive an uncomfortable number of times. When asked who our neighbor is, Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show how we ourselves must be neighbors to others. We are to concentrate on what we can do, not on what we think someone else should do, but we have a tendency to waste time and effort on their sins and shortcomings which are much more visible to us than our own. We want to do the right thing but, like the Apostle Paul, we have the sinking feeling that all to often we fail. We forget that Christ came among us to deal with failure and restore us to fullness of life. It would be nice if all this came naturally, but in reality we are being asked stretch in ways we never thought possible. Jesus asked, Christ’s Spirit asks, Paul asks us to experience more deeply than ever before God’s unfailing love for us, and to share that love with others. We are being asked, not in any power of our own, but in the power of the Christ who abides within us, to become an aqueduct, a channel for the life-giving fountain which is Christ. That is no mean task for us all.

 

 

 

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Called to Compassion

As the comforter comforts us, abides with us, accompanies us, comes beside us in our times of peril so we are called to accompany and comfort others. This is the result of what God has done for us.

II Corinthians 1:1-12

The Scholarly dissection of II Corinthians has resulted in it being seen as a compilation of more than one letter of Paul to the church at Corinth. The beginning section has been described as a ‘letter of reconciliation’ written after the successfully resuming good relations with the church following his having written what Paul referred to as his ‘painful’ letter. Paul tells that in Asia he was pushed to the limits, beyond his ability to endure and expecting to die yet, by the grace of God was delivered and he chalks some of it up to the prayers offered on his behalf by the faith community in Corinth.

The pressure he experienced on his missionary journeys in Asia caused him to despair. He all but gave up. Reflecting on his experience he praises God who cares about that which unsettles our lives. His pain was emotional pain and the comfort he received from God is of a different character than mere sympathy. It gave him help and hope.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia: 2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

12 Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, with integrity and godly sincerity. We have done so, relying not on worldly wisdom but on God’s grace.

Embedded several places in the Greek text is a compound word along with several of its linguistic cousins that is anglicized as Paraclete. Usually when we hear the word we hear it as an appellation or name for the Holy Spirit. A straight forward translation is “the one called to our side” – para meaning ‘along side’, like parallel and kale-o is ‘to be called’. It also shows up in the Gospel of John (14:16-17) where Jesus is quoted to say “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. Here the same Greek word that we found in II Corinthians as Paraclete is translated as Advocate. Other translations use words like helper, counselor or comforter. But the image caught up in the Greek is one who is the one who is called to come along beside you.

In the New Revised Standard Version we read this translation of II Corinthians 1:4-5. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

This is my attempt: “Blessed by God; the Father of the anointed master of us, Jesus; the Father of mercies and the God who has been called to stand beside us and comfort us. The one who is with us to comfort us in every difficulty enables us to be the one called to stand beside others in their difficulties through the same one who has been called to stand beside us”.

Para kaleo – the one called to come along side us is the comforter, the counselor, the advocate. And, at the request of Jesus, God has sent the Spirit to accompany us and be with us in the difficult times of our lives.

Easily to be missed in verse four of the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the first chapter of II Corinthians is the tiny word ‘so’. Actually it’s part of the phrase “so that”. It is a connective conjunction. Of course the common day Greek used by the Apostle Paul didn’t have conjunctions, the meaning is caught up in the linguistics. It says that by the same God who provides one to be our comforter, who comes along side us we are called and empowered to be the Paraclete to others, called to stand beside them to provide consolation to others in their time of affliction by the one who has been called to come beside us.

As the comforter comforts us, abides with us, accompanies us, comes beside us in our times of peril so we are called to accompany and comfort others. This is the result of what God has done for us. For us then to share the pains of Christ means we stand with the other in the perils they face as we follow the path Christ lays out for us. Paul’s pain helped him to give comfort to others. As Paul received comfort and passed it on to others, it falls to us, as it did to the Corinthians to pass it on to other people.

So you ask “So what?”

The gender of three tenths of one percent of children is ambiguous at birth. It’s only as these people mature that who they are sexually becomes known. However, birth certificates embrace a simplistic binary mythology of gender – that is, through physical examination a child is determined to be either male or female and in many situations surgery is done on the infant to remove all doubt. As a child matures the truth of the matter becomes self evident. These children, certifiably of one gender and maturing emotionally and physically live with the confusing ambiguity of their own sexuality, are all too often the targets of bullying and abuse, and, statistics reveal are at a much higher risk of suicide. Recently politicians have added to the emotional abuse by politicizing what has been a matter of reality since time before time. Gender identity is how a person sees themselves. Gender certification is how they appeared at birth.

And, to add to it, the grave peril faced by these people has been exacerbated by the voices of the church community. Are we not called to come along side persons experiencing peril and offer safety, comfort and protection? I’m struggling with what has happened to the church in this country.

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Pentecost

One does not exercise spiritual authority in the Religious Society of Friends. One is exercised by spiritual authority, if one is humble enough to follow the Guide closely.

Acts 1; I Corinthians 12:

Luke, in the first paragraphs of his second book, the Book of Acts, relates the last conversation Jesus had with his followers before he ascended. “This,” he (Jesus) said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Not unlike us, Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it – as Luke illustrates in continuing to tell the story: So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.

That’s pretty clear – it was none of his disciples business when Caesar’s soldiers would be sent packing back to Rome just like it’s none of our business, all this discussion about end times. That’s not what we are supposed to be about. What is important is grasping that upon which is the church’s foundation.

8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

There is a lot Jesus doesn’t say and in the vacuum we’ve been tempted over the centuries to fill in the blanks. One thing that Jesus does say is that you will or shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. It’s fascinating to me the hurdles that some groups want to put on this promise. You can find all kinds of theories of what you have to do to get the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus said, according to Luke, is that when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. How about that, it’s not something we control, not something we can acquire.

The next thing Jesus says, also with the same kind of determination: you will be my witnesses. Not may be, or could be but that those upon whom the Holy Spirit has come upon are witnesses – literally to the ends of the earth.

In the next chapter Luke describes what Jesus promised would happen “not many days hence”. Pentecost isn’t a first century Christian thing. According to the Jewish calendar the day God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses occurred 49 days after the Exodus, the day after the Passover – thus the holy day of Shavuot occurs 49 days after the first day of Passover. Jews of the Greek culture named it the fiftieth day or Pentecost.

Luke sets the scene by writing in Acts 2: that: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

I saw a great Pentecost cartoon this week. It portrayed a group of people in the back ground with flames above their heads and in the foreground was a man telling a smiling youngster with a marshmallow on a stick “Don’t even think about it.”

When we read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth we learn that the experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon persons wasn’t restricted to those who had gathered in Jerusalem with the Apostles on Pentecost. The experience of that Pentecost continues and it falls to Paul to help the church know how to understand this phenomena. In the twelfth chapter he read this to clarify the source of it:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit invades a life what the life emits is consistent with the words “Jesus is Lord”. He develops that further when he writes:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

First Paul helps us to understand that from the Spirit of Christ different people receive different gifts, different people receive different callings to service and different people are motivated to take different courses of action. This is for certain not a one size fits all kind of faith tradition. All these gifts, ministries and activities – every manifestation of the Spirit is for the common good. Acknowledging that is something of struggle for some – and I guess that has always been the case or Paul wouldn’t have found it necessary to address it. It can be hard to make room for something different from our own experience. The commentator on this passage in the old Interpreter’s Bible says that Paul is eager to say that spirituality is not one uniform experience which is separate from all other areas of life. The spiritual is not in contrast to the material and the intellectual. Manifestations of the Spirit are to be found in wide varieties of conduct, because spirituality exists wherever the living, acting God works through capacities of any type. Spirituality is not a separate compartment of life, but a divine relationship which may ennoble all aspects of experience.

To all this diversity that seems to befuddle us there is actually an intrinsic unity.  It’s more than just “God’s plan for your life” or your personal purpose. This idea that every manifestation of the Spirit is for the common good calls us into that kind of communal life.

What might these gifts, calling to ministry or action look like? Paul says the gift of utterance of wisdom or knowledge may come to one, another may be gifted with a healing touch or some other miracle. Some may be prophets and other the gift of discernment another speaking in other languages and when that’s the case another will be gifted in interpretation – that list isn’t all inclusive – and what is most important is the all these gifts, calls to ministries and actions come from the same Spirit who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

The foundation of the church is not found in carefully articulated statements of faith to which everyone subscribes. It’s not grounded in scripture, which requires reinterpretation generation after generation. It’s grounded in the work of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit that is the Spirit of Jesus that has come upon us to teach us, lead us, call us to ministry and motivates us to action. Putting limits on the work of the Spirit isn’t ours to do. The quest to articulate one’s spiritual gifts (or to find one’s purpose, or to learn God’s plan for your life, etc.) often results in a spiritual navel gazing that, undoubtedly, leads to despair – for when we gaze into ourselves, how can we not despair?

What seems appropriate for us to do is to make ourselves available to one another as we seek to make sense of the call of the Holy Spirit on our lives. As we listen to this very present yet mystical presence in our lives we might find ourselves finding it necessary to council another that listen more intently when the call they sense doesn’t seem to fit. In other situations we may find it important to challenge another to risk taking the action or engaging in a ministry to which they have a sense of call.

The Religious Society of Friends is at heart a corporate spiritual journey. As Lloyd Lee Wilson said, it’s not a place where each individual gets to have their own self-designed spiritual growth charter. It is only in our joint practice, in our joint experience, and our joint testimonies that we have communities of believers who can do the work that God has set us out to do. God’s project, as understood by Friends, is not so much the sanctification of myriads of individuals, as it is the transformation of all creation.

What we do as we worship and live and do our business together, is we learn those skills and abilities jointly that enable us to model the Kingdom of God to the rest of the world. This is our testimony as a gathered people. And we do so by taking the seeds of that learning out beyond the confines of our monthly meetings and begin to transform the world outside the Religious Society of Friends.

And the measure of our faithfulness is not how many hearts we have won to Jesus to God or to the Divine power or the Inner Light. It is how real we have made the Kingdom of God.

This is the Lamb’s War. It is no walk in the park. It takes all of our effort, jointly together, and we’ve got to be lifting one another, encouraging one another, and occasionally saying ‘look out, there’s a hole there.’

Spiritual authority among Friends rests in the Gospel, the Good News. If it is not Good News for everyone, it is not the Gospel. And if it is not the Gospel, it doesn’t have authority over us.

The baptizing power of the spirit of Truth is the true evidence. It is not true because I said it, or because it is eloquent or because it is four-syllable words. It is true because you can taste the Gospel. It baptizes you.

One does not exercise spiritual authority in the Religious Society of Friends. One is exercised by spiritual authority, if one is humble enough to follow the Guide closely.

The Holy Spirit is being invitational, not coercive. If you don’t want to participate in the life, you don’t have to. But if you decide that that is what you really want, then God will use you, and God will use you in words or deeds or symbolic actions or whatever, but it will, in fact, be authoritative to those who have ears to hear

 

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