Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rex Ambler's Light to Live By

There has been an amazing level of interest expressed in Quaker circles here in the US and abroad in the work of Rex Ambler to explore the experience of early Quakers in arriving at a spiritual state of incredible peace and fulfillment, a state that permitted them to form vibrant communities that felt in some way corporately that they had overcome sin. He spent a lot of time exploring early Friends writings and over a period of time managed to reduce the inner experiences they described to a relatively simple meditative formula that helped him to overcome inner turmoil and unhappiness, and then help others to overcome their deepest problems as well. The process - or "practice" - as he calls it is pretty simple and is laid out on pages 46-47 of his book, Light to Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality:

• Relax body and mind - Feel weight of your body on chair, release tension in your body. Let worries go and preoccupations. Relax mind and be wholly receptive.
• Let the real concerns of your life emerge – what is really going on in my life? Do not answer from the head. Silence.
• Focus on one issue – one thing that makes you uneasy – try to get a sense of the thing as a whole.
• Ask why it is like that – wait in the light, and let the answer come. Pursue to deepest place
• Welcome whatever answer comes – trust the light. Submit to it and it will show you the way through.
• A different feeling will arise in you about it. Accept it.

He says in the book that when he went around to different Meetings in England and Europe he found that people mostly responded to the practice with great enthusiasm but some few did not take to it. They either were not open to some new way of approaching their worship routine, or they felt it was maybe even a little dangerous to plumb so deep into one's psyche, or that it seemed a little too self-centered. But he no where apparently ran into the objection that the practice totally abandons the biblical language in which early Friends insights were articulated. He starts from the words they used but he soon departs from these words and frames his experience in general meditative language or psychological language that no doubt modern people, even Friends are more comfortable with.

I am not saying here that the practice Ambler has developed is ineffective. It may indeed be helpful and fruitful for many Friends. But my own experience has led me to see the issue of biblical words and the biblical narrative as very important in my spiritual life and I feel that is what I should give testimony to. I have written about this before in my book Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism and I feel it is relevant here. I understand that most people today, at least most people among Friends, are pretty educated and secularized. While they might see the importance of the biblical narrative to early Friends, they feel that the language they used really doesn't resonate with modern people. People in the 17th century, when Fox lived, did not talk in psychological terms about their inner lives. They, like everyone in their society, saw things largely in biblical terms. The world was full of disputes, anger, unfaithfulness, violence - the fruits of man's sin, man's fallen nature. There was no Freud, no Buddhist Meditation around to dabble in. You talked about problems in religious terms. You conquered problems or felt you conquered them by coming to see them conquered through religious commitment. Here are the words George Fox used:

“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, the, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [prevent] it? And this I knew experimentally” (Fox's Journal, 11).

Ambler knows from reading all of Fox that what he experienced transformed his life and eventually the lives of many. So he tries to translate that experience out of the Christian, biblical context. But my experience was different. I grew up in 20th century secular America. I had little exposure to religion in my early years. My parents were atheists but I lived with a lapsed Catholic grandfather. I went to church from time to time but it wasn't part of my life in a deep and consistent way. I did hear all the stories of Adam and Eve, of Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Egypt, Jesus in Bethlehem, the cross, the resurrection. You can't grow up anywhere without getting them somehow, however shallow-ly [new word]. When later in my life I came to see the biblical story as very real and important to me, I compared my experience with a scene from the movie, Miracle Worker, about the life of Helen Keller. She had lost her vision and hearing at a very early age - somewhere around 14 months, I think. And as she grew up she learned no way of communicating at all until the teacher Annie Sullivan is hired by her parents to try to tame her. Over the next months, the teacher tries to teach her sign language, felt through symbols impressed on her hands. Helen doesn't really get it. She learns the signs. She accumulates a whole vocabulary but she really doesn't have a clue what the signs and symbols mean. Then in a revelatory moment in the turmoil caused by her behavior, her teacher desperately tries to show her that the signs that spell the word W-A-T-E-R actually do relate to something real - the water she pumps out onto Helen's hands. Somewhere deep in Helen, a link is established between the hand sign and the reality of the water. This revelation opens ALL reality to her because she SEES the link between the game and the world around her and in her. My experience was the same. A moment came in my life when I saw that the biblical narrative and the language used to communicate it were deeply wrapped around my inner spiritual reality, and that Christ was in me to redeem me, guide me and help me live my life. The truth is it doesn't really matter to me if every detail in the narrative is historically or scientifically "true" - it's truth on a deep spiritual plane is very real and completely relevant to me today.

Is the experience one has through that medium the same as you would get through the more detached meditative language? The German title he used to describe his method tells me he thinks it does - Wo Worte Enden. Ambler obviously thinks so, but I doubt it. And the words of scripture are the words the whole cloud of witnesses before have used - even those Quakers we love. If we want the historic community of Quakers to continue with the vibrant spiritual message they gave us, I worry about abandonning the words of God we encounter in the Bible.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Genesis and John

I have done a lot of thinking about Genesis and John in recent weeks, partly because I am leading a Bible study at Westbury Monthly Meeting and we're working on Genesis, but also I am part of an adult study group at my local Catholic Church and we were doing the Book of John all winter; we just finished up about a month ago. In one of those moments that is very mysterious as we were going over the last words of Jesus on the cross, I began to see something I really hadn't seen before. Some things came together for me - some Quaker, some Catholic - a volatile mix. But it was an "opening" for me, a powerful one, so I thought I'd write it up.

OK, so to start, the words of Genesis 3:15 have been seen by Christians from the earliest days as prophetic - that one day the "Seed" [Offspring] of "the woman" would "bruise the head" of the serpent [evil power that alienates man from his creator]. For Fox and early Friends, this idea of the Seed - Christ, the Light and Word of God - meant that the power of evil over us was dashed in a fundamental way. Christ was the "Second Adam":

“And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how he was tempted by the same Devil, and had overcome him and bruised his head, and that through him and his power, light, grace and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in him” (Journal 12).

AND again:

“Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell . . . I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall. And the Lord showed me that such as were faithful to him in the power and light of Christ, should come up into that state in which Adam was before he fell, in which the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made” (27).

This vision of Christ as the Second Adam was pivotal for Fox. The overturning of "the fall" as a condition that weighed us down made "perfection" possible - moral perfection. It made possible ALL the testimonies Friends made and have continued to make to this day: equality of male and female – restoration of the original equality, the peace testimony, the ability to love as Christ loved, the end of all worldly obsession with position and power.

I knew the importance Quakers had associated with this vision of Christ’s work. I remember asking the leader of my Catholic Study Group [Emmaus] why Catholics did not seem to give much weight to the “Second Adam” idea: Why was there still an assumption that mankind lived in “the fallen state” that Adam and Eve’s disobedience had led us to? It seemed like Christ’s redemption should be at least as potent in shaping the reality we all lived in. He responded that we had a choice – about accepting Christ and his being the Second Adam or not, but it didn’t change the underlying reality we lived in. I didn’t pursue it, but inside I did feel that somehow something wasn’t right about this. If Christ was in fact that Second Adam shouldn’t we be dealing with a world fundamentally transformed? Please know, by the way, that I know I am dealing with a spiritual reality and not a simple historical reality when I speak of these parts of the narrative.

I admit I became a little obsessed with this and went to the internet and tried to find out why Catholics hadn't given the "Second Adam" idea the same weight Friends had, and it led to a whole new discovery. I learned something very interesting. The passage at the center of this – Genesis 3:15 – was a foundational passage of the Church’s devotion to Mary (Mariology). OK, go slow.

Inquiry into this, I might add, has led me to be aware that this passage is a veritable quagmire of theological discussion. At bottom, the majority of Christians over the years have accepted the passage as a messianic prophecy. The interesting thing is that I don’t think any Christian group has given the passage more weight than early Friends. That Jesus was for “man” a Second Adam that gave us an ability to overcome all the consequences of “the fall” in a very real way – including an end to the submission of woman to man, an end to the futility of life and expulsion from the spiritual garden that God intended this world to be – these are absolutely fundamental elements of the Quaker Christian vision and tradition.

But the Mary part – how did that come to be? It comes down to translations. The translation of 3:15 that I have in my Bible and that Fox had in his Bible [either the Geneva or the King James] was based on the Greek Septuagint [pre-Christian Jewish translation of the Torah from Hebrew to Greek]. Here the passage read, "I will put enmity between you [talking to the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed [offspring] and hers; He will crush/bruise your head, you (serpent) will bruise/strike his heel.” Most modern translations seem to use the word “offspring” rather than “seed” and this is important mainly because the text Fox used probably had “seed” and the idea of the “Seed” of Christ was one of the key terms Quakers used to refer to that indwelling presence of the redemptive power we should be living in. But the key thing here for the Second Adam idea is the use of the pronoun “He” which was seen by the early disciples and later by Fox as a prophecy of Christ’s role.

What happened though was that sometime in the late 4th, early 5th century AD, Jerome created a Latin version of the Old Testament texts but used some existing Hebrew texts as his source, not the Greek Septuagint. The few changes he made in the Genesis passage 3:15 were influential in the growth of the devotion to Mary in the church. It wasn’t the only passage that seemed to justify it, but it was important. His translation used the feminine Latin pronoun instead of the masculine singular. In English it reads, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” So in the Catholic “take” on 3:15, the emphasis is on Mary as the New Eve, not Jesus as the Second Adam. The dispute about the passage is very interesting and continues to this day. But for me the issue is not so much which translation is exactly right but how did the people influential in my Christian life see the passage and how did it shape their theology. It makes a lot of sense that God, in the story, would be talking about “the woman” and “the serpent” – they were the two He was talking to. But my inquiry into this also led me to a somewhat new and equally exciting new take on another related reference to Mary.

I knew that the opening of Genesis was very important to Fox and Friends. And I knew that the term “Seed” was just as linked to Genesis as “Light” and “Word” but I wondered if the first part of Genesis was so important to the author of John, were there not perhaps other references to it in other parts of John’s gospel. The first other passage I thought of was the miracle at Cana, Jesus first miracle and the beginning of his ministry. There had always been controversy over the question of why Jesus referred to his mother as “Woman” not mother dearest. And the note in my Jerusalem Bible says, “Unusual address from son to mother; the term is used again in 19:26 where there may be a reference to Gn 3:15, 20: Mary is the second Eve, ‘the mother of the living’.” And the only other mention of Mary in John is in John 19:26 when Jesus is on the Cross, and he again calls her “woman” – Jesus, “[s]eeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, this is your son’. Then to the disciple he said, ‘This is your mother’. And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home” (John 19:26-27). Putting together all of these passages blew my mind. Quakers had gotten the Second Adam insight and run with it, finding in it a theological basis for leading the charge back through the “flaming sword” that kept us out of Eden; but Catholics had seen that in accepting Mary, the woman who was the first to open herself utterly and completely to Christ’s life in her, we too - all of us who were Christ’s beloved disciples – could really join ourselves to them both.

But perhaps the strongest sense of "convincement" I felt about the connection between these Old and New Testament passages came when I read on in John and it said, "After this, Jesus knew that everything had now been completed, and to fulfil the scripture perfectly he said: 'I am thirsty'. A jar full of vinegar stood there, so putting a sponge soaked in the vinegar on a hyssop stick they held it up to his mouth. After Jesus had taken the vinegar he said, 'It is accomplished'; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit" (John 19: 28-30). Yes, the promise made in 3:15 was accomplished.

“Openings” have power. They make us feel that God is working in us, opening our eyes to things we have been blind to; raising to life in us insights that enrich our faith lives and make us feel the fruits of faithfulness – excitement on an intellectual and spiritual plane, love for those who have witnessed to him and made him live for others. I am thankful.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Being Catholic AND Quaker

Well, I don't know how this is going to work, but I've decided to put the Bible Study on a separate blog that is linked to this page, but not on this page. This is partly so I can continue having a blog that is completely dedicated to the reading and study of the Bible, but also have space to have posts on other things. So Catholic-Quaker will be a place I can post my ideas about other things.

How is it possible to consider oneself a Roman Catholic AND and Friend/Quaker? I consider the Catholic Church to be the original home of the gospel of Christ at least in the west. The Eastern Orthodox Churches go back to the beginning too, but I am from the western world. The separation of church and secular state is something achieved by the church in the west and I think that was a good thing. There is a lot of history and a lot of religious diversity within the Catholic Church that a lot of people don't appreciate. There is a deep tradition of mysticism and many stories of individuals feeling "called" by God to live out their faith in different ways. As my husband once said, I am drawn by the history and the mystery of the church.

Then how can I be a Quaker as well? Quakers arose in 17th c. England in a landscape of religious ferment brought on by the Protestant Reformation. With the rebellion of Martin Luther and the crumbling of church unity that came as a result of his prophetic call, the political ferment of the times, the revolutionary role of the printing press and people's access to the Scriptures and the church's inability or unwillingness to respond constructively, a whole array of new voices emerged and many groups that believed that they had recovered a vision of the gospel that was truer, more faithful than what the church was teaching. I think that many if not most of these voices were authentically prophetic and should have been listened to better. George Fox was one of these voices, and his vision of Christ's gospel - the new covenant and "gate" or portal into the Kingdom of God - as a way we could truly enter into Life as God meant us to live it. The difference between Fox's message and the messages of St. Francis or probably many other holy people was the this was a way not just for those who committed to "religious life" as the Catholic Church understood it - it was for all lay people who wished to live the consecrated life.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Genesis 4 through 9 - Cain & Abel and the Great Flood

Genesis 4 – Cain and Abel
The consequences of "the fall" are inescapable when we look at the history of "civilized" man. The story of Cain and Abel reveals to us the broader consequences of man's fall as they extend beyond the lives of the perpetrators into the lives of their children (all of us). Cain and Abel represent two ancient modes of life - the shepherd's and the farmer's. Both are already in the practice of relating to God through the giving of gifts, offerings or sacrifices. Why this mode of relating to the creator is adopted is not explained. It is simply assumed.

The two first children of "the woman" are Cain and Abel, a tiller of the ground (now cursed) and a tender of sheep (4:2). We see them here offering the work of their hands to the Lord. Cain gives offerings from his labors - fruit of the soil, and Abel from his labors, "the first-born of his flock" (4:4). We are not told, nor is Cain why his offerings are found less pleasing (4:6). Perhaps God favors offerings that are "living" over those from the soil and the wits of men. Perhaps it is because the soil is weighed down with the curse He placed on it in Gen. 3:17. God will favor shepherds throughout His story and also will favor the "younger" sibling over the older. But we may also perhaps assume that there is something awry in the heart of Cain, something only God can discern but which makes all the difference between them. God's displeasure with Cain enrages Cain and the jealousy he feels leads directly to his act of violence against his brother. The soil--cursed along with Adam--is Cain's medium. He will further debase it by pouring his brother's blood out on it. We see in his violence and violation of family love the furthest consequences of the alienation which Adam and Eve initiated.
God's words to Cain - ". . . is not sin at the door like a crouching beast?" - are, I think true of all men in the fall. But God tells Cain he must "master" it (4:8), and so must we. We can do this. The warning comes before Cain's act. There are some fascinating details in this story when God confronts Cain with what he has done: God tells him his brother's blood calls out to Him (4:10). God does not kill Cain (no capital punishment here - yet) but bans Cain from the soil, which is what he takes his living from, and forces him to be a wanderer, thus deepening the alienation and exile imposed by the first fall. Whereas the soil for Adam was cursed, for Cain it will yield nothing. He is exiled from it completely and must live from his "technologies" alone. He will be a fugitive and a wanderer, belonging to no real community, yet still alive. This is the completion of that spiritual death begun by his parents. Cain will be the founder of a "city". This adds a sociological dimension to the fall narrative. Then the text traces the descent from Cain and goes on to tell of the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve, a boy that will take the place of Abel in the family.

The sin of Cain ramps up the tension in the narrative, a tension that was introduced by the fall. For George Fox, the key wisdom to be taken from the narrative was to see the "state" of Cain as a "state" we too must struggle with (Journal 30). But other details of the story intrigue me as well.

Genesis 5-11
The next seven chapters of Genesis set forth the early history of "fallen" man as they saw it. The descendants of Adam and Eve are told of and some early legends and myths set in the narrative build a sense of God's frustration with how his creation has turned out. Man's heart "fashioned nothing but wickedness all day long" (5). So God decides to basically start over again, to wipe everything out, saving only Noah and his family to start the "human being project" over again. Noah's name means "may this one comfort our sorrow" and I do think it is God who is sorrowing. It's kind of interesting but God's work too - like man's - is burdened with a sense of frustration and futility.

God tells Noah to build an ark and give him very specific instructions for constructing it. He will be equally specific later when He instructs His people to build an ark for the covenant and even later to build a Temple under Solomon. Whenever God punishes us in the narrative - in Eden - and now here, He also helps. Throughout the story we see the same paradox - God punishing man and simultaneously offering the hand of salvation.

What is also interesting is that the story shows us a God who punishes the innocent along with the guilty. The innocent animals God created to be with man in the creation. There is a sense in these early stories that the one given dominion by God - here generic "man" but later the kings and priests set over "man" - stands for everyone over whom they wield authority. So here, when man does evil, all the innocent creation must endure the punishment imposed on those in position of responsibility. Later, when there is a monarchy, or a priestly leadership class, the innocent, poor and dependent people they are responsible for also bear the chastisements brought on by the "shepherds" who fail. There is a tension in the story between this kind of "collective" vision and an equally strong vision of individual responsibility and existence before God. Later we will be told in no uncertain terms that children will not be held responsible for the sins of their fathers, that each person will be judged on his or her own "merits" whether those merits be earned or won through faith in Christ. But the "collective" dimension has a continuing reality too. We do bring the innocent down with us when we sin.
So Noah and his family build the ark , gather a remnant of the creation onto it, and endure forty days of God's wrath. Forty is a magical number in Scripture. Later there will be forty years in the desert for Moses and the people with him. And Christ will spend forty days and nights in the desert as well. When Noah and his family leave, they offer up a sacrifice of those "clean animals" on board [there are two accounts woven into the story - one giving two of each animal and one that provides a few others so that this offering can be made]. God makes a "covenant" with Noah, expanding his "dominion" over the creation by giving him meat to eat as well as plants, but man is to refrain from eating the blood of the animals, and God places a rainbow in the sky as a "sign" of his covenant with man.

So God tries to start the project over, but it doesn't take long for us to see that things are not going to change much. Noah, being a descendant of Cain, is a tiller of the soil and he plants a vineyard. He gets drunk on its grapes and his son Ham disgraces himself by looking on his father's nakedness while he is drunk. In punishment for this, Ham is consigned to a destiny of servitude. 19th c. pro-slavery apologists used this to justify the perpetual slavery of the black race, which was believed to be included as descendants of Ham.

And chapter 11 describes the splintering of man's language into many tongues as a result of man's pride in building a tower of Babel to "make a name" (11:4) for themselves. So the overall narrative leaves us with a creation still far from what it is God intended. In His next attempt, he will take another tack, starting instead with one faithful man.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

May 1st Bible Study Meeting

As everyone knows, it was very frustrating trying to just get to the Meeting House last Sunday, with all the roads blocked off. We got there late, but there were four for about a half an hour - not long enough for such important material as is in the first three chapters of Genesis. I felt moved in meeting to pretty much go over the very important Quaker-related material I feel is in the text and I see more and more in these words. But the conversation was great. The following are observations I have made on the QuakerQuaker Blog site on these chapters:

There are many interesting things in the story of the "fall" but the things most interesting to me:

1. The nature of the "death" that Adam and Eve suffer as a result of their disobedience?
2. The "fallen" nature of our lives on this earth, and do we continue to live in that fallen world/nature?
3. What Christians and especially early Quakers understood about what you might call God's "Ur-Promise" [original/first promise made] in verse 3:15? This is called the "protoevangelium" in Catholic circles.

But first, I just want to point out something I think most writers have missed - the fact that there is a whole lot of "irony" and sophistication in the story. First of all, the serpent says to Eve, that the creator God has lied to them. God has told them if they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will "die." But the serpent says, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (2:4-5). And then when they both eat of the fruit, the text tells us "the eyes of both of them were opened." They see that they are naked and they feel ashamed. But God is not trying to keep them from being like gods; he has created them specifically to be like Him - the one and only God. And when the text tells us that their eyes were "opened" I think we should see this as irony. They have by their disobedience become less like Him and less able to see and less alive. Their fallen condition will be one of spiritual death, spiritual blindness and spiritual debasement. I think early Friends saw that these results of the fall were all internal. They have separated themselves from the divine nature God planted in them.

But then comes the promise (also called by early Latin speaking Christians the "protoevangelium" [original "good news"] - mysterious and embedded in the punishments God imposes - and this needs to be presented in one of the older translations to be appreciated in the Quaker context I am trying to present: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel" (KJ Version). This promise that someday a descendant of Eve - her "seed" - would defeat the serpent. Early Christians took this to be a prophesy of Christ's victory over sin. Christ was to be the second Adam, and his victory over the seed of the serpent (evil/sin/the fallen condition of man) would permit things to revert to the original intention God had for us - to be His presence on earth, to be faithful in all things to Him. Fox's famous quote -

“And when I myself was in the deep, under all shut up, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great, that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how he was tempted by the same Devil, and had overcome him and bruised his head, and that through him and his power, light, grace and spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in him.” (12)

It is because of Christ's victory over the serpent that Friends believed that spiritual "perfection" could be achieved, that the spiritual "death" could become life once more in us and the earth restored to become God's "kingdom" again. The testimonies of Friends are all elements of faithfulness that can only be achieved through this overcoming of our fallen condition: the equality of man and woman as it was meant to be (see Genesis 1), the peaceable kingdom, our ability to walk day to day with God as our guide.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bible Study and Discussion for Friends

Genesis 2 - After God rests on the seventh day, we move on to yet another creation story - this one focusing on the creation of man (Adam) and his dwelling place, the garden in Eden. Here man is created separately (and first) and placed at the head of the earthly creation and given the job of caring for it. There are all kinds of trees, but in the middle of the garden are the tree of life, from which Adam may eat, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - from that tree Adam is told he may not eat, "for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die" (2:17).

God then says that "It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate." (Gen. 2:18) God creates the wild beasts and birds and brings them to the man. Adam names them all, but finds none is "suitable" as a helpmate. So Yahweh makes Adam sleep and while he sleeps, God takes a rib from the man and builds it into a woman - bone from Adam's bone, flesh from his flesh (2:23). "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife and they become one body" (2:24). They are naked but feel no shame.

Genesis 3 - In chapter 3, the narrative's "conflict" will emerge, the conflict that will create the tension and drama from which the long, big-picture story will flow. There is a serpent in the garden who approaches the woman and asks her about the one thing God told them not to do. The serpent tries to convince the woman that God is really bluffing them, that there's no way they would die from eating the forbidden fruit. He's just trying to keep man from being His equal. The language the serpent uses is important: "'You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil'" (3:5). The woman, using the reasoning power God gave her, ponders all the good things the fruit seems to offer - its pleasing look (beauty), its good as a food (practical usefulness) and the desirability of the knowledge it promises (philosophical wisdom). So she disobeys God, trusts the promises of the serpent and eats the fruit. Her husband, who is with her throughout, also eats and the text tells us "the eyes of both of them were opened" (3:7). They see that they are naked, but of course they always saw that - it's just that now they feel differently about it. They feel shame.

Later, when God comes to talk to them, the shame they first experience in relation to each other now comes between God and them. God sees the change. When he confronts them, they try to obfuscate and conceal what they've done. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent. No one accepts responsibility. But God holds them responsible and all are punished. The offspring of the woman will struggle with evil - it will strike at our heels and "dog our steps" if you will. I will come back to exactly what is said to the serpent by God, for it is one of the most important scriptural lines in the Bible for Quakers and all Christians. But God also punishes the woman but multiplying her pains in childbirth and subjecting her to the authority of the man. And the man is punished by having the soil cursed and making it hard for him to cultivate. And he will suffer a degree of futility in his labors - he was created from the dust and to the dust he will return. The couple are cast out of the garden and an angel or cherubs with a "flaming" or "flashing" sword is posted "in front of the garden, . . . to guard the way to the tree of life" (3:24).

All right - there is a lot here. I think these chapters are perhaps the most important scripture for early Friends - fused with the New Testament passages from John and Paul that "opened" them to Fox and others. But we'll go slowly. Here are the key things I hope we will discuss over the next week or so:

1. What is the nature of the "death" that Adam and Eve suffer as a result of their disobedience?
2. What is the "fallen" nature of our lives on this earth, and do we continue to live in that fallen world/nature?
3. What did Christians and especially early Quakers make of the what you might call God's "Ur-Promise" [original/first promise made] in verse 3:15?

People have argued all kinds of things about these chapters - that this is why human beings die, that God never intended for man to be mortal but that mortality came as a result of this "original sin"; that this is why men dominate and will always dominate women; that women somehow deserve to be subservient because we were the weak ones and caused human kind to fall from grace, etc. I don't really see these things as necessary conclusions. What I think is most important to Friends is the last question and a sense they had that the Christian world had somehow not seen the importance of the promise made by God in these words. We will talk about it next Sunday - if you can come, or you may leave your thoughts on the blog.

Bible Study and Discussion for Friends

What I would like to do here is to have a place where the twice monthly Bible study that we are doing at Westbury Monthly Meeting can be located so that people who cannot come or who miss meetings or who may not even be at our Meeting but would like to be part of a Quaker based Scripture conversation might go to see what is being studied, make comments and enter into dialogue with others. We had a very nice meeting last Sunday, Easter Sunday and we will meet again next week - May 1st. But what we did was share what our experience and feelings about the Bible were, and then we just started out reading Genesis 1. We will discuss it and chapters 2 and 3 as well next time. They are very loaded and important chapters for all Christians but maybe even more especially for Friends. I am trying to do something similar on an internet site called QuakerQuaker, so a good many of the posts here will also be posted there, but I am hoping this will be a more Meeting-based place where discussion can occur. That's my hope. We'll see. So here we go.

OK, so let's get started. I remember the day in 1986 when I stood up before a class of Friends Academy (Locust Valley, NY) 7th graders and started to teach Quakerism for the first time. And since the early Friends writings that had been so critical to me in returning to Christ were so inaccessible to young readers, I decided to just use the biblical narrative to introduce them to Quakerism. We started talking about the Bible as if it were just another book you would take off the shelf, and I surprised even me when I realized that it is a narrative that starts at the beginning of the creation and ends at the end of that same creation. It presents itself as if it were the complete story.
Early Friends did not use this kind of language in discussing the Bible. Like others of their time they did not use that kind of language - describing the Bible as a "narrative" - that language is comfortable to me because of the reading I've done in "narrrative theology" and in particular in reading Stanley Hauerwas. But early Friends did seem to see the book as containing truths that needed to be "interiorized." But we'll get to that as we go.
I think the most important books of the Bible to Fox and early Friends were Genesis and the Gospel of John, so going over Genesis will take a while - especially the first several chapters. The Bible I use is the Jerusalem Bible, but I often check multiple translations when the translation is particularly important.

Genesis 1 - There are two accounts of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. There is so much in the first chapter, that I will just deal with it today. In the first God creates the universe and the earth through the power of his Word, and the first "thing" created is Light - not the light of the sun or the moon - those lights come later, on day four. The separation of the waters below the dome of heaven and above it comes on day two, the gathering of the waters beneath the dome and the proliferation of the earth's vegetation comes on day three, the sun and moon and stars - necessary for calculating time and seasons - comes on day four, the teeming forth of life comes on day five, and then on day six, God creates the human species - both male and female - "in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (27). They are given the power to "conquer" the creation or "subdue" it, an authority early Friends saw as a power to both use and to care for, be responsible for. God rests after man is created.

For me the most interesting insights I've had on the first creation story are the following:
1. The creator in this story is fundamentally "other" that everything we can see. God is not created, not contingent in any way. But we are created and contingent, and there is no other way of our understanding any part of God's nature without accepting the lines that we are somehow "like" Him - male and female, we share qualities with God. Ludwig Feuerbach and later Karl Marx wrote that God was merely our "projection" of our human nature out onto the universe. The Bible supports this, and it will be for us one of the critical ways we come to understand anything about God or ourselves.
2. When you consider how ancient this literature is, it is amazing to me how profoundly "modern" it is - modern in the simultaneity of the creation of male and female, modern in the closeness to what evolutionary theory says about the order of things in the creation of the universe - not exact but close.
3. It gives us a view of "man" that is not easily charicatured. It claims for man a dignity and goodness that defies all that we know of man in the history that will unfold for him, but it shows us God's divine intention, the impetus and engine of the divine determination to redeem what he has created when it disappoints Him, a determination that we will see played out in the biblical narrative
So that is some of what I see in this chapter. I would love to know what others see that is important to them personally.

What does it mean to you that we are "created in God's image"?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 2 Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics:

2 Cor. 10 - Paul describes himself as one who bullies them only when he is away (in his letters). But he fancies he will have to do so in person to people who accuse him of “ordinary human motives” (3). He does not fight with fleshly weapons. They are assailing his authority – he defends it as given to build them up, so he won’t neglect to use it. He resolves to be more like the man of his letters when he is with them. He returns to the theme of boasting [see Jeremiah 9] urging them to come off believing in pretensions others have made and to recognize that Paul’s position of authority--his boast--derives from a commission from God.

The amount of time Paul devotes to this theme—of boasting, of seeing himself in conflict with others who are trying to denigrate his authority or puff up their own status in the church—indicates that there must have been some pretty caustic words going around and challenges among those preaching and teaching as to their relative status in the leadership.

2 Cor. 11 - Paul’s “jealousy” for them is from God. He arranged for their marriage to Christ. But as in the Genesis story, the serpent turned them [Christ’s Eve], away from simple faithfulness to a fallen condition and fallen relationship with God.

Paul has a little irony in his tone here. He asks them to “put up” with his foolishness; they “put up” with it when others preach a different message. Again, he refers to competing “apostles,” men who call themselves or make other feel they are “super-apostles” (5). Are they charging money for their preaching and thus making people feel they are getting something of greater value? Paul preached for free (supported by brothers from Macedonia). There are counterfeit apostles, “Satan going about as an angel of light.” They apparently are claiming to be more “Jewish” than Paul, for he reasserts his “Jewish” credentials here. They may also be claiming to have worked harder, but he here boasts of his many sufferings in Christ—39 lashes at the hands of the Jews (5 times); beatings with rods (3 times); a stoning; a shipwreck; dangers of all kinds; sleepless nights, hunger and thirst; fastings; exposure (25-29). He tells of his escape from the hands of the governor of Damascus, “let down in a basket through a window in the wall” (33).

There is a lot of emotion in this letter about the rivalries, divisions, boasts of superiority and travails suffered in these early days. So, the divisions in the church are from the beginning. Still, we must try to settle them, overcome them. If Paul anguished over this, it is something still worth working on.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 2 Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics:

2 Cor. 7 – Paul expresses his belief that together they can put off all that keeps us from being perfect in holiness: “let us wash off all that can soil either body or spirit, to reach perfection of holiness in the hear of God” (1). Still this hope of personal and communal perfection does not blind him to the fact that the wider community of churches is full of “trouble on all sides: quarrels outside, [and] misgivings inside” (5). He commends the “suffering” that the Corinthians have gone through that led to some repentance or change in them. “To suffer in God’s way means changing for the better and leaves no regrets, but to suffer as the world knows suffering brings death” (10).

2 Cor. 8 - Paul talks of the generosity of the Macedonians to encourage a like offering by the Corinthians. He links his concept of giving in the Church to Jesus’ giving of himself to make us rich in grace. “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of this poverty” (9). Also interesting here is a concept of “equality”, which Paul develops—that when some in the Church have a surplus, that surplus should be used to bring a degree of equality to those who have less—and that it would work the other way too had others a surplus and the people of Corinth had need of other’s help. There should be “equality” of status in the church (13-14).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 2 Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics:

2 Cor. 5 – Paul, the poet, continues - When the tent we live in is folded up there is a house built by God for us. We “groan and find it a burden being still in this tent” (4). We do not want to leave the mortal tent but we want to put the immortal garment over it. “to have what must die taken up into life” (4). In the law court of Christ, “Each of us will get what he deserves for the things he did in the body, good or bad” (10). In part it is this “fear” of God’s judgment that impels Paul to “try to persuade others” (11). But everything he does, he does out of love—if he appears crazy, if he uses his reason—he is simply trying to get us to understand that Christ “died for all. . .so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him. . .” (15). This is the ministry of reconciliation—reconciliation of the human with the divine, reconciliation of man with man, of man with woman, of man with the creation. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (21).

2 Cor. 6 - Do not neglect the grace God gives to you. This present moment, this time between Christ’s coming into the world and his return “is the day of salvation” (2). The marks of His presence are the following:
- fortitude (endurance) - capacity to suffer afflictions and constraints
- purity
- knowledge
- patience and kindness
- a spirit of holiness
- genuine love
- truthful speech
- able to demonstrate God’s power
- armed with the “weapons of righteousness”
- always rejoicing.

He warns about harnessing yourself to unbelievers. “[W]hat fellowship does light have with darkness?” (14) What this harnessing is is the question. It cannot mean a lack of love or concern, a failure to reach out to those who are lost. But it must mean at least accepting or being indifferent to the standards, values and habits of “the world” (the mass of unbelievers). Mennonites use the following passage to justify removing themselves—“ . . .we are the temple of the living God; as God said: ‘I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Therefore, come forth from them and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; then I will receive you and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty’” (16-18).

This is not exactly a Catholic vision. How shall this be reconciled to the Catholic openness to all that seems good and worthy in the secular world. How indeed shall the Catholic notion of “countercultural” be reconciled to this same openness? See the Avery Dulles article of 1998 where he tries to describe an approach to such reconciliation. Seeing this comment again in 2011, I do not completely recall the article referred to here, but I think he was talking about the need for us to tell our stories of faith, so that those caught up in the worldly culture around us can see that there is an alternative approach to living in this “tent.”

Reading this again in 2011, I wonder if this last part of chapter 6 is not a little self-contradictory. Paul is so articulate about Christ’s joining himself to us in our sinful state, though he himself had no personal sin. But now, as he is encouraging us to join ourselves to Christ, he tells us to stay away from those who have not done so. I think we must do as Christ did and live our lives among those who need his love and his salvation. We
must not be like them but if we separate ourselves completely, we are not following his example.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 2 Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics:

2 Cor. 3 – Paul commends the community for being such a great witness. He doesn’t need to commend them. They themselves are a “letter of recommendation” “from Christ. . .and written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God”(3).

Everything is resting on the Spirit – his commendation of them, his “qualifications” or credentials to be and “administrator of this new covenant" (6). Then he goes on to compare the salvation offered by Moses through the outward letter of the Law with the salvation offered by the Spirit. He calls the one that came by Moses a “ministry of death” (7), not because it was bad — it wasn't. It was glorious (7). But because the ministry of the Spirit is so much more glorious, it makes the older one pale by comparison (10). The veil that veiled Moses’ face in Exodus continues to veil the understanding of many who read the old covenant.

He ends the chapter with this: “Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit” (17-18).

This language is beautiful, but it is also complicated. I think I get it. What we "look to" to guide us in our spiritual journey, and the power of the Spirit that illuminates it for us, determines in large measure what we ourselves become. We are "the image" of that "looked to reality," the mirror that reflects it. The eyes we bring to that reality have a large part in determining exactly how transformative the "reflective" experience is in our lives.

2 Cor. 4 – Paul continues to defend the manner in which he has proclaimed the gospel—having been accused of being obscure or veiling it in some way. He claims rather that some are not able to “hear” the gospel because “the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (4). Paul denounces the watering down of the word. His way of preaching is to state “the truth openly in the sight of God” and leave it to others’ consciences and to God. If there is a veil, then it is on those who “are not on the way of salvation” (JB 3). God brings light to illuminate the darkness, and it is he who shines in our minds to radiate the knowledge of God’s glory. We are only “earthenware jars” – “we see no answer to our problems but never despair. . .” “We carry with us in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus too may always be seen in our body” (10). See Luke 9:22 for Jesus’ statement of his gospel—“whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

“So death is at work in us, but life in you” (12). “Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (16). “[W]e look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (8).

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 2 Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics:

2 Cor. 1 - In his opening and thanksgiving, he refers to God as the “God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged. . .” (3). We are strengthened by God that we may be equipped to pass on that strength to others, to make them feel that there is a source of strength and comfort for every affliction in our God. He tells them something they apparently already know—that he had to pass through some severe affliction in Asia, an affliction that “utterly weighed” him down; but he was delivered.

He speaks of knowing that he has conducted himself toward them “with the simplicity and sincerity of God” through God’s grace (12). He had planned to come to them on his way to Macedonia and then to return through Corinth again back to Judaea. But apparently he had to change plans and go from Troas (NW Anatolia]; they are disappointed, but he isn’t coming so as not to inflict pain on them. He wrote scolding them, not to cause them pain but to show his love.

2 Cor. 2 - He urges them to show love to wrong-doers they may have in their community. He will not argue with them for having forgiven them (10). He speaks of the opportunities that are created for the gospel - just by the “odor” or aroma believers give off—“an odor of life that leads to life” (16).

George Fox refers to this as well—see page 27 of his Journal where he says, “All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter.” Everything that touches the salvation work of God has this aroma.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Daily Scripture and Thoughts On It

The Scripture readings I am doing right now are all from the letters of Paul. I am reading his letters and trying to put them into the context of the story told by Luke in Acts. I am presently re-reading 1st Corinthians. Any commentary I make is in italics.

1 Cor. 14 - Prophecy is preferable to tongues for it edifies and “builds up” the church. It is best to have a unity of spiritual and intellectual gifts. The personal gift is not as good as the gift exercised for the community. Tongues are just a sign to those outside the faith, like miracles. Paul seems to say even for the unbeliever the gift of understanding is to be preferred, for the unbeliever will have his spiritual condition addressed and not come away thinking believers are crazy. It is good here too to read this passage in light of what Paul says about the cross in 1 Cor 1:18-25, which many use as a justification for anti-intellectualism in the Church. Paul says here, “[For] if I pray in a tongue, my spirit is at prayer but my mind is unproductive. So what is to be done? I will pray with the spirit, but I will also pray with the mind. I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will also sing praise with the mind. . I give thanks to God that I speak in tongues more than any of you, but in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14-19).

Paul’s concern is that those who come into the Church will encounter there a testimony that can bring him to God. The kind of service Paul describes in this chapter is interesting to think about. He imagines that a person coming in would see one person reading a psalm, another giving an instruction, revelation or a speaking and interpreting of tongues, prophets speaking—two or three at a meeting. The way he describes it, it sounds more or less like a Quaker Meeting. Would that Friends really saw themselves as exercising this gift of prophesy. The admonition about women not being free to speak in the church is very hard to deal with. I think Fox clearly saw that the Church in Christ should be a place where the “redeemed” should gather without the burdens of “the fall.” I still love Paul. He is amazing in this letter.

1 Cor. 15 – Paul repeats to them the very heart of the gospel teaching, which he “received” and which he passed on the them: that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers on once. . After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me” (3-8).

Christ’s dying must be seen in the context of the scriptures—of the scripture redemption narrative. [The NAB note refers us to the following OT texts specifically: Psalms 2:7 and 16:8-11; Is 52:13-53; Hosea 6:2 and the OT references made in Acts 2:27-31; 13:29-39)]
Ps. 2:7 – The Lord speaking: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain,” I will proclaim the decree of the Lord who said to me, “you are my son; today I am your father. Only ask it of me, and I will make your inheritance the nations, your possession the ends of the earth. With an iron rod you shall shepherd them, like a clay pot you will shatter them”.

Ps. 16:10 - For you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful servant see the pit. You will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.

Is. 52:13 – See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him—so marred was his look beyond that of man, and appearance beyond that of mortals. . .He grow up like a sapling before him, like a shoot from the parched earth; There was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him. . .Yet is was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured. . .”

Hosea 6:2 - He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence. Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain like spring rain that waters the earth.”

[Acts] Ps. 27:13 – “I believe I shall enjoy the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.”

The disputed points of this gospel Paul addresses are 1) resurrection of the dead, which Paul argues must be general and applicable to all if it is to be applied to Christ (13-16). If there is no resurrection, then Paul says their “faith. . .is empty” (14); they are still in their sins (17). This seems to put a lid on an exclusively “realized” eschatology. But Christ has been raised. Paul gives an archetypal argument, comparing Christ to Adam: “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life. Paul’s vision of the end times is that Christ will come (23), the end will come and reign “until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” destroying every sovereignty and power death included. Then Christ will hand over his kingdom to His father.

Paul goes into a great deal of detail, trying to make sense to his readers of the thing called “resurrection of the dead.” Having assured them of its centrality, he now tries to find a way of making it sound reasonable: he argues that death is always necessary for birth. Things must be sown in the ground before they can come forth in new life. He argues that there are different kinds of flesh, and the kind we will have may be very different from the kind we now have (39). The seed of this new life is the corruptible flesh we now inhabit, but it can be changed from being “natural” to being “spiritual.” His belief that the end will come very soon, even before the end of his own generation, comes out here (51), and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (54-55). It is only faith that gives us the “knowledge” that the work we do now for the gospel will not be “in vain” (58).

I can relate to the idea that the bodies we live in now might be a kind of seed for the springing forth of some kind of existence that we cannot imagine, an existence that will even be bodily—just as any seed thrown into the ground may issue forth in a kind of new life that looks nothing like the seed from which it came; but the limitations of my own experience, the limits imposed by my senses and my imagination, make me wonder if we might have it really all wrong—that maybe our continued existence will only be real to the extent we retain a vision of our interconnected lives, our unity with all people—past, present and future. What we are and do today, in our lives, could make the human life that comes forth in the future far different and better than it could be if we live only for ourselves. But that is all so this-worldly, that sometimes I wonder if that is what Christ meant; or maybe all I am supposed to do is be obedient and not worry about what I cannot understand. It is more likely that.

1 Cor. 16 – The collections for the church in Jerusalem should go on weekly. He tells them he plans to come after he passes through Macedonia and is thinking of staying the winter with them to sort out some of the problems he has addressed He plans to stay in Ephesus until Pentecost because his work there is very productive. Timothy is traveling and might come. Apollos was asked to go to them, but cannot. He urges them to do everything they do in love.