Calm has entered my life. Not that my life is completely calm but, sometime in the last few days, a tightly-stretched band of anxiety let go. Thinking of it as I write this, I breathe a sigh of relief. While I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly what happened, I want to sketch some of the contributing circumstances. You will recognize a continuity with what has gone before.
Afraid to “submit” / Relaxing into a Benign, Supportive Universe
An important part of my softening came reading a comment from my old Movement for a New Society friend, David Finke. We had been out of touch and David was excited to rediscover me through this website. David, you wrote: …
But even beyond that, my testimony to you… is that it is not WE who do the finding. Rather, we ARE FOUND – by the Good Shepherd who has never let us wander fatally off the cliff. That, I think, is the heart of Luther’s discovery that “By Grace are we saved, through faith… not by works, lest any man should boast.” The initiative is from The Divine, our cosmic Lover.
David, you go on to say…
Anglican bishop Leslie Newbiggin. … said, more or less, aphoristically:
“Religion is about man seeking God. The Gospel is about God reaching out to mankind.”
David, you write,
“That made my mind do one of those 180-degree flips, and largely put behind me all the demands, the rigor, the anxiety, about whether we were “doing it right” – either in terms of behavior or belief. From that point on, I’ve been open to – and largely experiencing – the marvel and miracle and Grace of God reaching and finding me, affirming and restoring me (through all my many failures and weaknesses) to that Imageo Dei of which you eloquently speak. I continue to be amazed by this Bounty …
You say you and I have
…been confined by that phrase … “that of God in everyone” [as] a statement about ourselves, rather than about God’s transformative Power…
…the most frequent Foxian testimony was, “The Power of the Lord was over all.” Looking to the Source, not to our navels.
David, all this had a very good effect on me. You continued
…both George and Helene are saying that we’re going a mistaken direction in looking at ourselves (including our consuming pathologies) rather than to the Light which both reveals our “transgressions, confusion and distractions” AND empowers us to gain victory over them – a first step on the way to Peace.
You directed my attention to George Fox’s “Letter to Lady Claypool” in which I found the phrases:
… what the light doth make manifest and discover, temptations, confusions, distractions, distempers; do not look at the temptations, confusions, corruptions, but at the light that discovers them, that makes them manifest; and with the same light you will feel over them, to receive power to stand against them. … the same light that lets you see sin and transgression will let you see the covenant of God, which blots out your sin and transgression, which gives victory and dominion over it, and brings into covenant with God. For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them.
These words were balm to my soul.
Fear of the “Christ” word
My book group has been reading (retired Episcopal bishop) John Selby Spong’s new book, JESUS FOR THE NON RELIGIOUS. As he has in earlier books, Spong writes out of the historical understanding of Jesus developed by the Jesus Seminar, but where many Jesus Seminar members are content to say, “this is what we know, historically,” Spong looks at most of the biblical renderings of Jesus’ life and says, “As history they are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!”
I was shocked by Spong’s negativity as I read, but I now recognize these demystifications were important for me to hear. Spong does not negate the bible stories themselves. He says Jesus’ followers were rightly dazzled by Jesus’ God-filled presence, and wrote the gospels with magical and theatrical and liturgical overtones as their best attempt to convey the power of the “Jesus experience.” What Spong says is “WRONG” is the understanding that these stories are history, that they “happened” in space-time.
So what does it matter whether a bible story is “history” or an inspired tale, one which struggles to represent contact with a spirit-filled (but fully human) Jesus? It matters because for centuries Christianity has been a powerful engine of social control. The Roman Emperor Constantine merged Christianity with the Roman state. Over the centuries Christianity has brought the legitimated power of the army, the police and the thought police to bear on much of Western Civilization. If you can’t, or won’t, say the formula in the proper way, you could be dead, or at least excluded beyond the pale. Not to say that Christianity has not made beautiful contributions to the human experience, but the “historical” formula of the Resurrection has been used to “prove” God was active in Christianity in ways he was NOT PRESENT elsewhere.
This thing about formulas is fascinating.
Last weekend my Meeting had a panel on “Quakers and Jesus.” The next day, in a group conversation, a friend expressed shock and fear at what she had heard. She comes from a much more traditional Christian background than I do, has endured years of formulaic worship and attempts at social control based on it. I tried to tell her that, in the context of TCFM, her reaction was “phobic.” While devout talk of Jesus may well have been linked with threatening situations in her past, when members of our meeting talk like that, it does not mean we are about to lord it over her, regarding how she should think and act. I’m not sure she benefited from my observation about “phobic,” but it was very valuable to me to be see such a vivid demonstration of the lasting power and pain of the old formulas. Our conversation group recalled there had been similar strong reactions to a children’s Christmas pageant at Meeting, a few years before.
One way I have found to use some standard phrases like “Christmas,” in a way that demonstrates I am not trying to invoke their formulaic power is to offer alternative phrasings. I’ve noticed that for years, in Quaker Community Forest publicity, when I talk about our Early Winter Harvest, I’ll refer to cutting “Xmas trees” in one sentence and “Yule decorations” the next. It takes the edge of things, for me at least. I think one interesting indication that a formula is being invoked is capitalization. I do feel I have finally opened myself to the activity of the divine within me in a new way. If I end up talking about it in terms of “Christ,” I’ll use “my christ,” lower case.
Afraid of becoming a partisan
Another aspect of the knot of fear I think has relaxed in me is the fear of being seen to take sides in a theism / non-theism struggle. I have been greatly helped by John C’s class “Taking Jesus Seriously.” John points to the world that Jesus saw, with the kingdom of heaven in plain sight, all around us, or within us. John says that this kingdom is the same world that the Buddha saw. Both Jesus and Buddha indicated that it took some doing to achieve this form of “seeing” the world, but that achieving that “sight” allows us to live fully in the world and to be at peace with it, whatever it may bring, even if that is persecution and death.
While Buddha and Jesus saw the same world, when they turned to their followers they naturally used the language of their culture to explain what they saw. Hence, says John, we get two different stories explaining the same thing. (In his course John uses Buddha’s method, as understood by vipassana meditation, to help us see the world as Jesus saw it.)
One vision of the world, two cultural expressions of it, one theistic, one non-theistic!
Whew! What a relief!
Maybe I can relax.
Spong’s message is consistent with this point of view. He devotes a significant part of his book to showing how Jesus’ followers used “Jewish” explanations. If you have had a transcending experience of humanity and you are groping for words to express it, where do you turn? Well, if you are a first-century Jew, and you are saying “it’s like… it’s like…” you naturally turn to the stories of Moses, the stories of Elijah and Elisha.
John Shelby Spong’s own upbringing was very “biblical.” In the course of his life, he says, his Christianity has been transformed, and clearly the power of Jesus in his life remains strong. My single most powerful moment last week came with the reading of Spong’s epilogue, “Christpower.” Here’s the poem expressing his core religious belief:
As George Fox said:
For looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are swallowed up in it;
[one aspect of Buddha’s “suffering”?]
but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them.
Thank you, dear friends.
This is wonderful, powerful stuff, Richard! I particularly like the observation that the Buddha and Jesus saw the same reality, and used their own cultural forms to explain what they saw to people around them. One was a reformer in a non-theistic tradition, the other a reformer in a theistic one, and the results were different.
I think that we (certainly I) react to the pietism that surrounds a lot of Jesus-talk and Christ-talk. Pietism, I think, is a confusion of the formula with the reality, and maybe in Spong’s terms it would be a worship of the Jesus-stories rather than of Jesus. I think of pietism as the things that people do in order to present the appearance they think a “proper” Christian should present — and sometimes Quakers fall into our own form of pietism (presenting ourselves the way we think “proper” Quakers should present themselves). It’s like a layer of frosting so thick that my teeth hurt! I can’t get through the frosting to the cake underneath, and I’m more likely than not to turn away from the whole plate because the frosting is too much for me. What you’ve done here, with the help of Spong and John Cowan, is to scrape the frosting off so I can taste the cake — and there’s a surprising amount of cake there to enjoy!
It’s a little embarrassing for a good Quaker to tell this story, and it comes to mind anyway: one of my most powerful spiritual experiences (so powerful that it was physical as well) came from assisting at a Roman Catholic mass.
This happened when I was a chaplaincy student at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago in 1988. We students rotated responsibility for the chapel services on Sundays. We’d lead the Protestant service at 10:00 (usually very small attendance) and stay on for the mass at 11:00 (usually quite a few patients, staff, and family there). The student would offer the same homily for both services, sitting up on the altar with the priest who would officiate for the ritual of the mass itself. Obviously, this meant that the students who were nuns led the Protestant service, and students who were Protestants led gave the homily at the Roman Catholic service, and the Quaker bumbled her way through both. (I was never very good at leading worship!)
On this particular occasion, though, the priest and I (a guy I particularly liked) managed to do something the Wiccans would call “raising power” up there on the altar. I have no recollection of my homily, and as usual I did not partake of the wafer and wine, because I’ve never been baptized. Nonetheless, when the priest (Jim) turned to hug me with the greeting “Peace of God”, I could feel power surging through us both. It was like the whole altar was alive. The feeling of joy and power lasted all through communion, making me tingly and light-headed. On the way home afterwards, I had to stop the car and ground myself, because I wasn’t safe to drive in that condition.
So, frosting or no, formulas or no, the power is there and available, and in this case appeared suddenly, out of nowhere. (My homily certainly didn’t do the trick!) The “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God” as Paul Tillich might say, happens in “transitory moments of unambiguity” which don’t come at our own bidding — and which we can nonetheless prepare ourselves for, and certainly long for. Grace is the Divine reaching out for us, and prayer and worship is us reaching out for the Divine.
Your friend David writes: “â€¦been confined by that phrase â€¦ â€œthat of God in everyoneâ€ [as] a statement about ourselves, rather than about Godâ€™s transformative Powerâ€¦the most frequent Foxian testimony was, â€œThe Power of the Lord was over all.â€ Looking to the Source, not to our navels.”
I must say I am a bit baffled by this. There is a absolutely nothing navel-gazing about the former phrase. “Walk cheerfully over the world, responding to that of God in every one,” if it directs us to anyone’s navel, it is to the navel of our brothers and sisters, and not our own. And that is a very good place to gaze. It is very clearly about how we treat and respond to one another. Whatever we think or believe or hear or feel about God, if we can’t do at least as well for one another we have nothing to offer. There may be a mystical presence–I’m not at all certain that I experience it–but if it is going to distract me from the full-bodied and warm-hearted physical presence of the human being in front of me, then I would be better off without it.
I know this snippet is not central to your message here. But I have heard Fox’s beautiful, loving and crucial phrase dismissed this way before, and it seems to me so seriously wrongheaded that I had to comment.
Since I could not be in two places at one time, I ended up missing the panel on Quakers and Jesus. Thanks for mentioning it here, though: I’ll want to keep my ears open for stories from others who attended the panel.
Your experience of such an opening like the one you’ve shared here reminds me of experiences I myself have had, as well as stories I’ve heard from other Friends who come to understand that we had put You-Name-It at the center of our lives, rather than putting the Divine Principle there.
At various times, I have had my own needs/expectations at the center; another person’s perception of me at the center; and my disappointment/frustration with the monthly meeting at the center. But when I have realized my error, and when I have “let go” and have restored what I call God to the center, I find I relax and become more present to the moment that is in front of me, rather than worry so much about what the future may or may not hold.
In the manner of sharing personal experience–as Rhoda has done (Thanks, Rhoda!)–I’ll share this particular awakening I had around this theme:
Two years ago, I was in a significant amount of spiritual pain, asking myself, Why do I feel like such an outsider of the meeting? …Why doesn’t anyone see the pain I’m in? …How is it I could attend annual sessions of the yearly meeting when I don’t feel Known by so many fellow Friends?
The answer came in such an unexpected way during worship one afternoon. I came to realize that I was, in a way, demanding that my needs be addressed by others before I would “step up” and get reengaged in the meeting. In essence, I had been putting MY needs at the center of my faith.
When I realized that that is what I had done, even in my pain I intuitively “rearranged” the paradigm I had been carrying and restored God to the center. Yes, God knew about my spiritual pain. And yes, God was caring for me even in my suffering.
At the same time, God was calling me to service–something I understood only because soon afterwards, several Friends from outside the monthly meeting asked me to support them around concerns and travels they were engaged in.
The “edge” of my pain dissipated and my focus shifted from “me” to “Thee.”
Like giving up a long-time bad habit, I still “forget” about what it is I am to keep in the center of my life. I still fall into my old ways. But I’m having an easier time discovering the source of my unease when I’m off-balance, which, once recognized and named, helps me rearrange what I’ll call my inward, private actions.
Thanks for taking the time to share your own openings here, Richard.
Liz Opp(enheimer), The Good Raised Up