Reading the 2019 Swarthmore Lecture – Ch 2: Staying low

In May 2019, the annual Swarthmore Lecture was given by Eden Grace, a member of New England Yearly Meeting and Director of Global Ministries for Friends United Meeting (FUM). Eden’s lecture was entitled ‘On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation.’ I’m blogging my reflections on the lecture, chapter by chapter. You can read my reflections on chapter one here.

Summary of Chapter 2

In this chapter, Eden tells of the ministry of Jay O’Hara. I first came across Jay through the QuakerSpeak video about his activism. It’s a great accompaniment to this chapter:

‘Why I Blockaded 40,000 Tons of Coal With a Lobster Boat’

The focus of this chapter is the seemingly paradoxical insight that ‘surrendering any expectation of effectiveness is the only way to be effective’ (p.28). Sustained activism requires sustained mysticism. To rely on our own strength leads to burn out, for our own strength is limited. The only strength that is sustainable is the power of God. ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 16:25). Jay calls this ‘staying low’, after Isaac Penington: ‘Oh! keep cool and low before the Lord, that the seed, the pure, living seed, may spring more and more in thee’ (p.29).

Eden emphasises that ‘staying low’ is not easy. In Jay’s experience, he needs other people to help him ‘stay low’. He needs other members of his religious family to hold him accountable, to ask him the questions he can’t, or daren’t, ask himself. But modern liberal Friends are not used to dealing with these sorts of requests. ‘Jay’s meeting struggles to know what to do with him.’ They are ‘uncomfortable exercising that sort of authority and power’ (p.31).

A powerful ministry of climate justice requires Quaker ministers who are supported by their community, not individuals acting out of their own strength. ‘Staying low’ requires discernment, and Quakers have long known that discernment is best done with others. We need to reclaim a positive understanding of spiritual authority – authority that is given by the Spirit, that is discerned and supported by the community of faith.

Participating in God’s work

This chapter has led me to reflect further on what it means to ‘stay low’. Other related phrases Quakers use include ‘let go and let God’, ‘give over thine own willing’ (Qf&p 26.70), and the idea that we should be channels of living water (Qf&p 23.08). I have a difficulty with the image of being a channel or pipe through which water flows. It feels too passive and impersonal. One inanimate pipe is generally as good as another. I hear this impersonal passivity when I hear some Quakers speak of the spiritual life as a total erasure of the self, as if we should aspire to be a kind of God-zombie, a Divinely-animated puppet. To counter this sense of impersonal passivity, there are three things I want to emphasise about ‘staying low’:

1. God wants us as fellow participants, not as mindless slaves. Quakers are called ‘the Religious Society of Friends’ because Jesus designated his followers as friends rather than slaves (John 15:15). God wants to ‘work with’ humanity and not just ‘work through’ us. Within the branch of theology that studies the identity of Jesus (known as Christology), this is expressed in the idea of the two wills of Christ. This idea says that Jesus was not a meat-machine possessed by God, he wasn’t a God in a human shell – he was fully human and fully divine, and so had a human will and a Divine will. In Jesus these two wills are in perfect harmony. Part of theosis – the process of becoming ‘enGodded’ that Eden spoke of in chapter 1 – is bringing our own will into harmony with God’s will. This is what it means to ‘stay low’ – to be as humble as God is.

2. Because we are participants, staying low is not passive, it’s active. It requires action on our part, which is why the process of staying low is really hard. Bringing our will into harmony with God’s is a struggle, as there is much that works against it, both within and without. We are not simply switching of a light – more like cutting our way through a bramble patch! We see how difficult staying low is on the Mount of Olives as Jesus prepares himself for his arrest, trial and execution. Jesus can only say ‘not my will but yours be done’ through anguished prayer where ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground’ (Luke 22:42-44). Perhaps it would have been easier for him if his friends had not all fallen asleep! This is why support from our community is vital for staying low.

3. The struggle to stay low is then not an erasure of the self. It is not we who disappear, rather it is all the false understandings of ourselves that are removed. In staying low we discover who we really are. When we die to all the ways we try to be God, we learn who we are as God’s creatures. We discover ourselves as ‘unique, precious, a child of God’ (A&Q 22). And in discovering who we really are, we realise that who we are as individuals matters. Whereas one pipe is as good as another, our particular identities are of vital important for the work God has for us. My ministry is unique to me, my gifts and my situation. The more I am myself, the more fully I can live my ministry.

Someone who encapsulates what it means to stay low is Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary is not a mindless vessel, she cooperates with God. In response to God’s invitation, she proclaims “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). She is not merely an incubator for Jesus. It is from Mary that Jesus receives his human nature. Although we don’t see her wrestling with God’s invitation (or call for a clearness committee!), we read that she is ‘perplexed’, and needs to ‘ponder’ it. We also see Mary’s acceptance contrasted with Zechariah’s disbelief (Luke 1:18-20), emphasising her trust in God. Mary’s identity is important. Who she is (a brown, Jewish teenage mother, living under occupation, later to become a refugee and asylum seeker) communicates who God is and who’s side God is on. Her ‘lowliness’ (Luke 1.48) demonstrates how God brings ‘down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1.52).

Those who built the tower of Babel got it wrong. God is not found by reaching up. Staying low requires helping each other to get down from our towers, from our thrones and our high horses. Then we will find God waiting for us with the lowly, bringing in the Kingdom from the bottom up and turning the World upside down.

You can read my reflections on chapter 3 here.

3 thoughts on “Reading the 2019 Swarthmore Lecture – Ch 2: Staying low

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s