Archive for the 'Spiritual issues' Category

The wars over Faith and Practice

Many of the battles among Quakers in the last 20 years have centered around Faith and Practice – what it means, how it’s interpreted, and who controls it. Bitter arguments, guerilla wars and last-ditch holding actions have been fought over who will win and who will lose if changes are approved.

First, a little background: many yearly meetings still use the “uniform” Faith and Practice which was created by Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) early in the 20th century as a way to build unity among Friends. Iowa, Western, Indiana, Wilmington and North Carolina Yearly Meetings all use very similar material, with very little difference in wording.

Baltimore and New England Yearly Meetings created their own books of Faith and Practice. New York Yearly Meeting uses some language from the “uniform” version for the business side, but adds some of their own material on the history and spiritual experience of Friends.

Contention often centers around the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887, and George Fox’s letter to the governor of Barbadoes, written in 1671, both of which were included in the “uniform” version. These are filled with Bible citations covering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the creation and fall, justification and sanctification, the resurrection and the last judgment, baptism, communion, worship, religious liberty, marriage, peace, oaths and the Sabbath. For evangelical Friends, these two documents are an essential part of Faith and Practice. In particular, the section on the Bible in the Richmond Declaration is key:

“It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other (outward) authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name’ (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized records which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under professions of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and counted a mere delusion.”

For these Friends, this is simply the last word on the subject. However, they often ignore the fact that Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, Quakers are quick to recognize that we differed from other Christians on whether slavery was acceptable (because it’s accepted in many parts of the Bible) or whether slavery was an evil which must be resisted and fought against.

Are all sections of the Bible equally binding and valid today? If something was forbidden thousands of years ago, is it still forbidden now? It’s easy to come up with examples and exceptions. People tend to choose the texts which support their position, and often use those texts to browbeat and try to get rid of people who interpret the Bible differently – even if both sides claim to love the Bible.

When Friends in Indiana split several years ago, Friends fought over the section on “subordination”, which evangelical Friends argued gave them the authority to eject the more liberal monthly meetings. The actual language from Faith and Practice is worth reading:

“Subordination as used in this Faith & Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends “submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ.

Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership.”

As far as evangelical Friends were concerned, the liberal meetings were in rebellion and refusing to submit to their authority, and therefore they were justified in tossing the liberals out. Very few Friends, however, seem to have read the sentences immediately following:

“Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2015 edition, p. 96)

Those two paragraphs are intended to balance each other – the authority of the larger group balanced against the prophetic witness of monthly meetings.

During the division currently taking place in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, both sides say they want to keep using the 2012 edition of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I re-read it last week, and I wonder if Friends on either side have read the opening words of the book:

“Human understanding is always subject to growth. This basic principle also underlies the development of the organizations and institutions through which the spirit of Christianity is made operative in life. While fundamental principles are eternal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times. God, who spoke through the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, still speaks through men and women who have become new creatures in Christ, being transformed by the renewing of their minds and, therefore, able and willing to receive fresh revelations of truth.

Frequently, however, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’ and may misinterpret or make incorrect applications. Therefore, as the stream of life flows on, bringing new conceptions, insights, and situations, it is necessary to strive constantly for a clearer comprehension of divine truth that will enter vitally into personal experience and become a creative factor for the redemption of human character and the remolding of society on the Christian pattern. “A religion based on truth must be progressive. Truth being so much greater than our conception of it, we should ever be making fresh discoveries.” [North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 9 – quote at the end is noted as being from London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1960)]

Note that these two opening paragraphs are only found in the North Carolina and Wilmington versions of Faith and Practice, and are not included in the version used by most other yearly meetings.

At different times and in different yearly meetings, Quakers have fought to keep Faith and Practice “just the way it is”. Soon after Indiana split, though, a new section was added:

SECTION 90. PROHIBITION OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Friends have traditionally held marriage to be a matter for which the whole meeting shares in oversight and responsibility. It is recognized that pastors are authorized by the state to solemnize marriages and are often authorized by the Monthly Meeting to officiate.

Given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position describing the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, no Indiana Yearly Meeting Monthly is authorized to give oversight to same-sex ceremonies under its care, and no Indiana Yearly Meeting minister is authorized to officiate any same-sex ceremony. Ministers in Indiana Yearly Meeting are responsible to adhere to the agreed standards for marriage. Failure to do so, by officiating a same-sex union, will be understood as grounds for dismissal from a ministry position and/or rescission of status as a recorded minister. Monthly Meetings providing for same-sex ceremonies under the care of their meeting will be subject to discipline from Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Now that Friends in North Carolina are in the process of dividing, the more evangelical group are also calling for an immediate revision to Faith and Practice. This new section has been proposed:

“The Yearly Meeting has power to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate Meetings, to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”

For liberal and progressive Friends, or for those who simply cherish spiritual freedom, the issue isn’t whether they’re Christian or not. Overwhelmingly, they identify themselves as Christian. They love and follow Jesus. They value the Bible and seek guidance from it. The Bible speaks loudly and clearly to them on a wide variety of issues.

But they disagree with evangelical Friends on some other issues, and they’re not willing to let evangelical Friends dictate to them. I saw the entire conflict in a nutshell last week at Representative Body, when a frustrated evangelical leader asked, “Why do you want to belong if you don’t accept our discipline?”

In nearly every yearly meeting, Faith and Practice isn’t set up to handle the situation when Quakers disagree strongly with one another. Time after time, in yearly meetings around the U.S., conflict and frustration have arisen because:

  1. a yearly meeting is unable to make a decision or move ahead when Friends are not in unity. We suffer from an inability to “agree to disagree,” especially in changing times.
  2. a yearly is unwilling to take back (rescind) the recording of ministers for teaching or writing ideas which other Friends dislike. There is a mechanism for rescinding, but most yearly meetings have not been able to unite on doing so. In other cases, a yearly meeting has been unwilling to discipline leaders or meetings for celebrating physical sacraments.
  3. there is no mechanism or acceptable precedent for laying down or expelling an entire monthly meeting because of perceived disagreement over issue of faith or practice; trying to force an expulsion has repeatedly led to division

Quakers treasure unity, and the strength which comes from making united decisions. The wisdom of the group is often greater than the wisdom of any individual. However, we also treasure the spiritual integrity of individuals and the right of people to disagree, and Quaker history is filled with examples of times when an individual or a minority has been right.

How will we survive the conflicts of this generation? Will our young people or will seekers who come to us value our conflicts, or will they turn away and look somewhere else for communities of truth and love?

Church keys

One of the most moving moments in starting work at a new meeting is being given the keys to the meetinghouse. It’s a symbol of trust, of having arrived, of being one of the meeting leaders.

Many years ago I attended an unprogrammed Friends meeting in a rural area. Seven miles out in the country. After I’d been coming for about a year, I was asked to come early each Sunday and unlock the meetinghouse and turn on the heat. The key was kept at the neighbor’s house about 200 yards away. It hung on a nail on the door leading from the garage into the kitchen, and anyone who needed to get into the meetinghouse knew where to find it.

When I came here to North Carolina, I acquired a new set of keys – one to the meetinghouse door, and one to the office. That’s plenty for me – I hate carrying around a heavy, bulky key ring. But over the next few months, I found out that different people in the meeting had other keys that I didn’t have – a key to the back door, a key to the kitchen door, and so on.

There was a moment of panic in January when the fuel oil for the meetinghouse ran out, and nobody knew where the key to the oil tank was. We could get more oil delivered – but without the key, we couldn’t put it in the tank! I finally called the former handyman, who told me where it was hidden in the boiler room in the basement.

I kept finding places for which I didn’t have the key, and no one could tell me where to find one. In the office there were three large key rings with dozens of unmarked keys – probably over half for locks which don’t exist any more.

So I spent an hour going round the meetinghouse with the key collection. As I discovered a key that worked, I tagged it with one of those round metal-rimmed tags and a Sharpie marker.

A couple of people in the meeting thought it was a mistake to put tags on the keys. “What if someone broke into the office? They’d take the keys and be able to get in anywhere?” These folks would rather have an anonymous collection of keys, and be able to choose the right well-worn key from memory – even if it means that the new pastor can’t find anything!

It made me think that there must be many other “keys” in the meeting – not just physical keys, but ways to open people’s hearts and memories, their longings and fears and dreams. Just because I’ve got the key to the meetinghouse doesn’t mean I can get in anywhere I want.

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right phrase, the right prayer, code or password. I’ve had to wait and listen to people for a while before they let me into what they’re really thinking or feeling.

A key is a complicated thing – a carefully shaped piece of metal, with a unique pattern of ridges and grooves which lets it move the invisible pieces inside the lock and free it to turn and open the door. Compared to the size of the door, or the whole building, a key is a tiny thing – but if it’s lost or missing, a whole church can be kept waiting outside till it’s found.

Sometimes a physical key can unlock a door into a chapter in the meeting’s past – no one knew where the key was to a large room which was used for many years for a school aftercare program. The program was laid down at least 10 years ago, but it’s still an important memory for many people who came to this meeting because of it. Now that I’ve found the key again, maybe we could re-purpose the room for a new ministry that will help bring life here again.

In some churches, the key is a symbol of power and control – the person who has it doesn’t want anyone to come in, or to have access to whatever they’re fiercely protecting. Fortunately, the meeting where I am now doesn’t have many locked areas.

I expect to keep finding more church keys – ones which open my understanding of the budget, unlock the hurts in an extended family, or open the doorway to all kinds of gifts and ministries. One key doesn’t work in every situation, and sometimes I have to call in a locksmith.

What are the keys to your meeting?

 


P.S. – just as an historical and cultural note, when I was growing up in Vermont, a “church key” meant something else entirely. It was an item at the bottom of the fishing tackle box which came in handy on a hot day. This meaning has gone out of common use since the invention of pop-tab cans.

can opener

 

Pastoral calls

Hi, all – I’m back from vacation, during which I did my best to put aside my work and not to think any Quaker thoughts at all!

In my last post, I said that one reason that I’m a Quaker pastor is that I love visiting people. In a typical month, I make between 30 to 50 calls and visits.

Many people today don’t seem to know what to expect in a “pastoral call”. In the old days, a visit from the minister meant cleaning the house from top to bottom, everyone scrubbed and on their best behavior, the family Bible dusted and on prominent display in the parlor. Those days of artificial formality are past!

Folks in our meeting are pretty busy, and I make lot of “quick visits” by e-mail or phone. I also get dozens of messages every day from people who want to share news, ask questions or ideas. People often pull me aside for a moment during coffee hour, but those conversations are usually interrupted and always short.

Even in today’s high-tech world, many people prefer a face-to-face visit rather than a phone conversation or e-mail. I hold regular office hours 4 mornings a week for people to drop in at the meeting office. Office hours are “interruptable time” when I can set aside whatever I’m doing and spend time listening.

Visits take place in homes or hospitals, but can also be at work or at a coffee shop. Several times a month, I run into people from our meeting in the grocery store. We block the aisle and catch up on things for 10 or 15 minutes. Not everyone likes to sit down in a chair and open up – some people talk more easily when we’re out on a walk, or working together on some manual task.

Sometimes people want to talk about an illness or personal problem, but often folks just want me to get to know them better. I’ve started thousands of conversations by asking people to tell me about the photos they keep on the mantel or by their bedside.

If we talk about important personal issues in a pastoral conversation, people can expect complete confidentiality. One of the most important ministries we can offer is simply listening – providing a safe place to share doubts, difficult situations and deep questions.

People talk about every subject under the sun – parenting problems, whether to sign a living will, whether pets go to Heaven, questions about a book they’ve read or a message they heard in worship. Sometimes a pastoral conversation is a kind of mini clearness committee, other times it’s a celebration of life. People share journals, recipes, meaningful mementoes, crafts they’ve done, job applications they’re working on. We talk about divorce, illness, career changes, aging parents and moral crises as well as vacations and grandchildren.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is simply be there – in an emergency room, or in a surgery waiting room, or in the long hours sitting by the bed when someone is dying. Holding someone’s hand can be the most important kind of ministry there is.

When I come calling, I never ask for money. In fact, I don’t know how much anyone gives to the meeting, unless they choose to tell me. That’s the treasurer’s job, not the pastor’s. I may use a visit to share some news, invite people to participate in a meeting-related activity, or talk about an opportunity for ministry.

In the old days, the pastor was expected to pray at every visit. I’m always glad to pray with people, but I don’t like to be pushy – prayer isn’t something to be embarrassed about, but it is very personal. Some people in our meeting like to have quiet prayer time together. Out of the quiet, it may be easier to share what they’ve been thinking about.

As Friends consider new patterns of ministry for the 21st century – new forms of worship, new spiritual communities, new ways to organize – I hope that we’ll remember that direct, person-to-person care is one of the most important ministries of all.

Dealing with silence

Quakers are world-famous for our love of quiet worship. Nearly every article or online source you’ll find refers to our long history of worshiping in silence.

I never read the articles and books before I became a Friend. I stumbled into Quaker worship when my college room mate invited me to visit Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. My first-year room mate was an inveterate explorer of different religious traditions – he was into every kind of spirituality and mystical experience he could find. He’d been to an unprogrammed meeting the week before and asked me to come and keep him company.

For me, Quaker meeting was like coming home to a place I’d never known was home before. I fit effortlessly into the silence, as though I was putting on a well-worn, comfortable shoe. I was surprised when the hour was over and everyone started shaking hands.

When I started looking through the books in the meeting library, I found this quotation from Robert Barclay:

“. . .when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart. . .” (Apology, XI, Section 7)

For almost 10 years I attended and was a member of unprogrammed Friends meetings. I went to Earlham School of Religion for 3 years because I had questions I wanted answered, books I wanted to read, and skills I wanted to learn.

But like most unprogrammed Friends, I had no idea that there was another branch of the Quaker family – or that those “other” Friends actually made up the majority of the Quaker world.

I wound up being a Quaker pastor – something I never imagined doing – more because of my love for visiting and helping people than because I wanted to preach. I also felt that most unprogrammed meetings neglect the rich tradition of Scripture, do a pretty poor job of sharing their story, and tend not to have very good educational programming.

I also found out that not everyone likes extended periods of quiet worship. I still find that surprising – quiet prayer feeds my heart so deeply, and I find the sheer noise of most contemporary Protestant worship almost unhinging. But not everyone is built that way.

This week, a friend sent me an article about an experiment that many people would literally rather give themselves electric shocks than sit in silence. (NOTE: the point of the study is actually that many men would rather jolt themselves than sit quietly – women apparently have more tolerance for silence.)

West Richmond Friends, the meeting where I work and worship, is a “crossroads” meeting – we have folks from both the programmed and unprogrammed branches of the Quaker family, as well as refugees from other traditions and people with no previous religious background. We usually have 2 or 3 hymns, a children’s message, a Scripture reading, a very short sermon, and 15-25 minutes of quiet, called “open worship” in our meeting.

In an effort to keep everyone satisfied, we also have a full hour of unprogrammed worship several times a year (usually on the last Sunday of any month when there are 5 Sundays).

It’s clear that some people in our meeting deal with silence more easily than others. Even on a “normal” Sunday, some Friends start to squirm and wiggle after only 5 minutes of quiet, and looks of glazed-eye, near-death boredom set in after 10 or 15 minutes (I’m usually on the facing bench and can observe these things). Other people in the meeting tell me they’re “just starting to settle in” after 20 minutes, and complain if anything cuts into or shortens the “open worship” time.

In my 30+ years of work as a Quaker pastor, the most consistent and persistent issue which comes up in committees, evaluations, and surveys is this tension between Friends who love and value the silence, and Friends who are completely satisfied with 50%-90% less quiet time. (At West Richmond, our attendance typically drops about 40% on completely unprogrammed Sundays.)

This isn’t just an issue for programmed and semi-programmed meetings. When I worked in New York Yearly Meeting, and a Friend there once told me that he had attended his unprogrammed meeting faithfully for more than 40 years without having any kind of “spiritual experience” like the ones his fellow worshipers described. He told me that he came to Friends, and stayed with Friends, because he deeply appreciated Quakers’ stance on various social and political issues, which gave him an outlet for the kind of witness and action which was the center of his life.

I don’t know how to deal with this difference. Whatever winds your watch, I guess. Whatever floats your boat. For me, silent prayer is great, and I can never get enough of it. (When I go on retreat, I often spend several days with the Trappist monks, who have been practicing silent prayer for the last 1,000 years or so.)

Other Quakers (not all of them programmed Friends) seem to have a much lower appetite for silence. An earlier generation called them “fast Friends” because they were ready to end the quiet time much more quickly. I don’t think they’re wrong, or unspiritual. I don’t think it’s a matter of education, or acclimatization, or appreciation for silence. These Friends are equally wonderful, love God, and are devoted to serving their fellow human beings. They’re not “second class Quakers” in any sense.

A large part of my ministry has been spent building bridges between Friends who want more quiet worship, and Friends who are happy with much less. I feel at home and at ease in both groups, and I’m sensitive to the different theologies which each group tends to hold dear, which flow from their different ways of worship.

I’m still convinced that we belong to each other as Friends, that it’s not just our name and our common roots which keep us together. I wish we could stop hacking at each other, denying each other, and anathematizing each other, and simply realize that not everyone is the same – but that God calls us together, even though we’re different.

What do you think?

Business and Busy-ness

All too easily, we forget the distinction. Business is what we’re supposed to be doing. Busy-ness is what we all too often do. There’s a difference.

Our “business” may be our daily work or employment. It may be buying and selling, or providing a service. It may be caring for our family. It might be a deeply-held spiritual or social concern. It might be spending time in prayer, or taking time off to think about something. According to the dictionary, business is what “engages our time, attention or labor as a principal serious concern or interest.”

Busy-ness, on the other hand, is what we fill our time with. It’s all the fluff and distraction, the non-essential nonsense that takes the place of the real business of our lives.

Much of our culture is built on busy-ness. We’re flooded with ads, with appeals, with news and sports, with opportunities, all designed to distract us from what is really meaningful or vital. Does it really matter who won the Emmy awards? Will this new deodorant really bring us lots of friends? Does Miller Beer really make life worth living? Will today’s news really change the course of world history, or will we still face the same challenges tomorrow?

It may not matter that our children are always freshly scrubbed; it may be more important that we spend time with them. It doesn’t matter that our lawns are the most weed-free on the block; it’s more important that our homes be friendly and inviting. Getting a promotion or moving up the corporate ladder don’t always mean that we’re doing our job well, or that we’re even doing the right job at all.

We use busy-ness to tell ourselves and other people how important we are. We use it to shield ourselves from uncomfortable truths we know in our hearts. Busy-ness lets us pretend that we’re doing all we can, because our time is filled. As a friend of mine put it, “Maybe if we keep busy doing lots of things all the time, God won’t catch us in our emptiness…”

Boredom, depression, desperation and frustration can all be signs that what we’re doing isn’t what we’re meant to do. Busy-ness should remind us that something inside us is deeply wrong. Dropping some of our busy activities may be painful. The alternative, though, is to wake up to the fact that we’ve wasted our lives.

It isn’t always easy to draw the distinction between business and busy-ness. An active person may have a deeply centered inner life, or their outward activity may hide an inward hollowness of heart. A person who appears to be idle, or who does seemingly humble or useless things, may actually be doing important work.

Prayer is an important tool for separating business from busy-ness. Quiet prayer times offer the opportunity to look over our lives and see whether our lives are filled, or simply busy. A few hints:

• When we’re doing the real business God has given us, it feels like freedom; busy-ness always winds up feeling like slavery or bondage.

• God supplies our needs to accomplish our real business; with busy-ness, there is never enough.

• Doing God’s business always leads to trust in God; busy-ness is always accompanied by anxiety.

• Discovering our real business results from hearing Jesus say, “Follow me...” Busy-ness results from ignoring God.

The challenge is always for us to be doing the business of God. Our daily lives, our employment, our recreation, the way we raise our families, our worship, our spiritual disciplines and testimonies — all these are God’s business. Prayer, reflection and discussion will show us whether we’re doing things God’s way, or our own way.

 

My favorite Quaker quotes

Hello again — I’ve been “off the air” and haven’t posted for a while. I thought I would share some of my favorite classic Quaker quotations of all time.

Quakers are highly quotable, and Friends have always enjoyed saving and sharing these great snippets and one-liners with each other. I’m sure I have missed some of your favorites — feel free to post them in your comments.

  1. “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: and in that also I saw the infinite love of God…” – George Fox
  2. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?…” – George Fox
  3. “There is that near you which will guide you. O, wait for it, and be sure to keep to it…” – Isaac Penington
  4. “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.” – Isaac Penington
  5. “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself…” – James Nayler
  6. “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” – London Yearly Meeting
  7. “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers…” – William Penn
  8. “A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it…let us then try what love will do…” – William Penn
  9. “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but for that reason it should be most our care to learn it…” – William Penn
  10. “…the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us form a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons…” 1660 Declaration to King Charles II
  11.  “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other…but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation…” – Edward Burrough
  12. “For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up…” – Robert Barclay
  13.  “…to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives…” – John Woolman
  14. “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again…” – Stephen Grellet
  15. “You are never tempted by a devil without you, but by a devil within you…” – Elias Hicks
  16. “It is an honor to appear on the side of the afflicted…” – Elizabeth Fry
  17. “I give myself this advice: Do not fear truth, let it be ever so contrary to inclination and feeling. Never give up the search after it; and let me take courage, and try from the bottom of my heart to do that which I believe truth dictates, if it lead me to be a Quaker or not…” – Elizabeth Fry
  18. “Those who go forth ministering to the wants and necessities of their fellow beings experience a rich return, their souls being as a watered garden, and a spring that faileth not…” – Lucretia Mott
  19. “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” – Lucretia Mott
  20. “Has a separation ever caused more people to hear the Gospel? Ever enlarged the Church? Ever shown to the world more of the gentleness and meekness of Christ? Has a separation ever caused the world to exclaim, `See how those Christians love one another?'” – Allen Jay

Like clockwork

I realize that this is a total departure from what I usually post on this blog, but maybe it’s time for a little theology.

Every year during Advent I put candles in the front windows of our house, as a symbol of our welcome for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. The candles are electric, with little 7-watt night light bulbs which look pretty and festive.

I used to go  around every evening and plug them in, and then unplug them before I went to bed. Then I invested in a bunch of inexpensive electric timers, which turn the window candles on from 6:00 to 8:00 in the morning, and then again from 4:00 in the afternoon till about 11:00 at night.

The timers aren’t very accurate – I can only set them very roughly within about 15-30 minutes of the actual time. And because of friction inside the timers, or possibly because of original sin, they tend to fall behind a few minutes a day.

So, about once a week I have to go round the house and tweak the timers a bit – setting one 15 minutes faster, or adjusting the little knobs that control the on/off cycle, or sometimes replacing a light bulb. It takes a few minutes to get them all where they need to be, and then they’re all set for another week.

Years ago, in the 18th and 19th century, people tried to come up with a new way to understand God, a way which would incorporate all of the new scientific knowledge which was flooding the world at that time. People were learning about the laws which govern the movement of the stars and planets, about the hidden world of chemistry, the process of evolution, and the great depths of time during which mountains and continents had been formed and re-shaped.

It seemed impossible to them that God could be in charge of the movement of every atom in a universe which was bigger than they had ever imagined. So, many people gave up the idea of a “personal God”, and said that the world was more like a giant mechanism which God had created and set in motion. God created the world and the laws which govern it, the laws which scientists were discovering. Many theologians compared the world to an enormous clock, and the phrase “a clockwork universe” entered peoples’ imagination.

In some ways, that makes God seem removed and impersonal (“transcendent”, to use another theological word). In this metaphor, God is a “hands off” kind of creator, who doesn’t interfere with the workings of the world.

Well, tinkering again this year with our window candles and unreliable timers gave me a fresh sense of how things may work. As we work to get ready our welcome, some of the timers need frequent adjustment. Some of our light bulbs need to be replaced, so they can get back to their work of shining in the darkness. Sometimes the window shades need to be pulled up, so that the light doesn’t just glow in the guest bedroom, but so that it can shine out for everyone to see, and so that Jesus will know that He is welcome in our home.

And maybe, just maybe, God isn’t a hands-off Omniscient Designer in a perfect, eternal clockwork universe. Maybe the etnernal laws of nature have some slippage built in, or maybe things wear out and need to be adjusted or replaced. Maybe God goes around adjusting things, tweaking things, or nudging things along from time to time. Maybe God has to work a little bit now and then.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the season of Advent, and I hope you’ll take some time this season to prepare for the coming of Christ into our world.


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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