This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.
Be honest with yourself. What unpalatable truths might you be evading? When you recognise your shortcomings, do not let that discourage you. In worship together we can find the assurance of God’s love and the strength to go on with renewed courage.
The week that President Trump arrived in the UK, I sat in worship with a deep sadness in my heart, weighed down by the moral cowardice of our leaders. I felt so angry, and so powerless. As I offered these feelings to God, I felt my focus shift from the President to myself. It felt like I was being asked ‘what have you done in response to the evil you are witnessing?’, and I was unable to give an answer. I felt convicted of apathy, of not involving myself in politics at a local level. I can’t remember the last time I wrote to my MP. Was I entitled to feel so passionately angry about things that were happening at the top, if I wasn’t willing to engage at the grassroots level?
Awakening from denial
This is one of the primary functions of meeting for worship, this is when worship is truly apocalyptic – the Light reveals, it shows us our true condition, which includes the bits we’d rather remain covered up. God will not allow us to live in denial and delusion, and as long as we turn to the Light, the Light will show us how things really are, however unpalatable they may be. This advice also speaks of our ‘shortcomings’. The New Testament uses the word hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark’, and is traditionally translated as ‘sin’. The Light shows us our sin, the way we fall short as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. I used to believe thinking of myself as a sinner involved seeing myself as a disgusting worm, but I’ve now come to see that acknowledging my sinfulness should not result in self-hatred. Such self-disgust would show me to be captive to pride, invested in the illusion of my own moral perfection. Being a sinner is nothing special, and it doesn’t take erase our intrinsic goodness as God’s good creation. We should be able to speak openly about our sin. Our meetings need to be ‘bullshit free zone’ where we can be honest about who we are. As long as we hold on to a need to be morally pure, as long as we are ashamed to be imperfect, we will hold ourselves back from the Light. Being honest means having the humility to open the closet door, allowing the Light to illuminate all that we wish were hidden about our lives.
Rescue from despair
I said God will not allow us to live in denial. Neither will God leave us to despair! The Light not only reveals our sin, it renews our courage to persevere. When we let go of reliance on our own strength, we can be filled with the strength of God. When we give up the need to be ‘good people’, we can rest in the love of the Creator whose creation is fundamentally good. Out of the heart that trusts in God shall flow rivers of living, spiritual water (John 7:38), refreshing and rejuvenating. We may be able to find this spring alone, but the work is much easier when we undertake it together in a worshipping community.
The narrow way of hope
In the committed life of faith we walk the ledge between the chasms of denial and despair. This walk of vigilant hope is a difficult, wearying place to be, and requires a regular return to the Source to be reminded of God’s love, and renewed with God’s strength. This is a way of tension, the tension of a tightrope: Jesus said ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’, and also said ‘if you would follow me you must take up your cross’. The life of faith is both as simple, and as demanding, as turning to the Light within, facing what it has to show you, and following it wherever it leads.
The more power, wealth and privilege we have, the harder our hearts will become, and the harder it is to let in the Light, so we shouldn’t expect change from the hard-hearted leaders of the nations any time soon. We need to show them how it’s done. In a world where those in power call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, and who are wise in their own sight, we are called to walk the narrow way of humility and hope, of serpentine-wisdom and dove-like innocence, because with God’s help we can do the work that needs doing.
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. [1 Peter 5:7-9]