Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Daily Old Testament: Isaiah 27 and My Own Book "Leadings: A Catholic's Journey Through Quakerism" (Part 25)

Isaiah 27 – The Lord’s “terrible, swift sword” will “punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent” (27:1). And, following up on image of the vineyard presented in Isaiah 5, the prophet tells us of God’s love of it. “I, the Lord, will watch over it, watering it carefully. Day and night I will watch so no one can harm it. My anger will be gone (27:3-4).

The Lord will burn up the “briers and thorns” (27:3) that try to invade them, but if they “make their peace with me” (27:5), they will find shelter in the Lord. The exiled will return and worship on the holy mountain

From Leadings: A Catholic’s Journey Through Quakerism
Part 25
In January of 1980, I had an opportunity to attend a conference in Pennsylvania of a Quaker group called New Foundation Fellowship, led by a man named Lewis Benson. Born a Friend in 1909, Benson discovered the writings of George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, early in his life, shortly after experiencing a Christian conversion similar in some respects to the conversion Fox had undergone. Benson had been amazed to learn how different Fox’s message was from the message he had grown up with as a birthright Friend [even then]. By the late 1970s, he had become the leading authority on Fox and Fox’s theology among Friends. The disparity between that theology and the relatively incoherent theology of twentieth-century Friends distressed him, so he made it his life’s work to try to revive the Christian vision of Fox in the Society of Friends. New Foundation was only his latest effort to promote this mission.

The gathering was my first formal exposure to Fox’s thought and to the kind of worship that could happen when everyone was gathered into the same vision of Christ. It was very inspiring. I had read a little of Fox in shorter pamphlets and collections of early Quaker writers, but now I became familiar with his journal. Because of the importance of Fox’s vision to my own ideas and my own journey, I need to spend some time presenting his thought. To do that I must also touch a little on the historical context in which he lived.

Fox was born in 1624 in the midlands of England. To put that date into some historical context, 1624 was just a little over a hundred years after Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church and just a little under a hundred years since England’s Henry VIII had broken from Rome to start the Church of England. In that hundred years, England had suffered enormous religious turmoil. Henry’s daughter Mary had tried to reestablish the Roman Catholic Church, burning at the stake some three hundred Protestants in the effort. Elizabeth I reversed her sister’s work and reestablished the Protestant church along more “moderate” lines – keeping a good deal of the Catholic pageantry and hierarchical structure while moving away from Catholic dogmas a bit more than her father had.

At the same time all these religious changes were taking place, the economic and political stability of the country was also being shaken to the core, a shaking that brought forth numerous splinter groups of religious dissenters. The dissenters had radical ideas about the shape England’s social and political structure should assume. By the time Fox was born, religious tolerance had gained a modest foothold in England, but radical Protestants and Catholics were still subject to persecution – lose of property, jailing, whipping, branding, and other trials. The brutality and persistence of religious conflict in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would ultimately bring about an antireligious reaction with the coming of the Enlightenment, but Fox lived in the turmoil just before, a period of radical religious thought and millenarian expectations. Fox was sixteen when the English Civil War broke out. He was twenty-five when Charles I was put to death by the Puritan faction of the English Parliament.
Fox describes himself in his journal as an ardent Christian from his earliest years, but his devotion to Christ and his constant reading of the scriptures did not bring him happiness. This depressed and distressed him. At nineteen, he left home to seek out someone who could give him advice or guide him, encourage him, and help him achieve the kind of peace he thought the gospel of Christ promised to believers. He visited everyone he thought might be able to help – all the “experts” in religion – but no one could help him. His relatives tried to get him to find a wife and settle down, but he was persistent. After a few years, he began to have what he called “openings” into the gospel and the Scriptures – things he felt clear and certain about. He realized, for example, that true believer in Christ is not just someone who calls himself a Christian, but one who has in some way “passed from death to life” (Fox, Journal, 7); that being a real “minister of Christ” (Fox, Journal, 11) meant more than just getting a degree at a university; and “that God, who made the world, [really] did not dwell in temples made with hands . . . but in people’s hearts” (Fox, Journal, 8).

Then, sometime in the year 1647, when he was twenty-three, Fox had a powerful personal experience of God’s presence. He described it as a voice saying “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition . . .[and] when I heard it my heart did leap for joy” (Fox, Journal, 11).  It is hard at first to understand why these words had such revelatory power for Fox. He already believed that God dwelled in human hearts, and he already knew that Christ was the center of his faith. But what he experienced was not an intellectual idea but and experience of God’s voice opening Christ’s presence to him in a very immediate way. Fox’s experience of Christ’s voice and presence in him were not the end of his seeking, any more than they would be for me centuries later. It was the beginning. For several years after this opening, Fox continued struggling with the temptations and worldly habits that kept him from entering into Christ’s peace. But he finally did come into a state of mind and heart so settled and so sure of Christ’s support that he described it as a kind of reentry into paradise. The idea that a Christian could come into such a blessed state in this life outraged many contemporaries of Fox, who believed as a matter of doctrine that man could never overcome sin in this life but had to wait for God’s reward of peace in heaven. Fox didn’t mean by his claim that all the outward incidences of life could be perfect – he suffered many outward hardships over the course of his later life – but he never retracted his statement that believers could come into a state of spiritual restoration in this life. In fact, many of the “testimonies” Friends later became famous for flowed directly from the conviction that they could.

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