Advice and Query 8: Join the thanksgiving of the cosmos

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.

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.

A&Q 1 to 7 have presented us with a series of foundational theological principles, chiefly concerned with the nature of God and how we may know God’s will. With A&Q 8 we begin the second group of Advices and Queries, which deal specifically with worship.

Worship is a response, rather than something we initiate. We don’t make anything happen, something has already happened. God *is*, and we can only respond with worship.

Worship is about thanksgiving, and giving thanks through sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t a payment. Abraham discovered this when Yaweh refused the sacrifice of his son Isaac – this God is not like the other Canaanite gods who demand the blood of children. Ultimately, not even the blood of animals is required: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ [Psa. 51:17] The prophets speak of the uselessness of blood sacrifice if it is not accompanied by justice: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ [Hosea 6:6]

Faithfulness, humility, love and justice – this is how God wants us to give thanks, this is what makes our worship acceptable. These ideas come together in Paul’s words to the church in Rome (which for me capture the essence of Quaker worship):

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2]

Worship is something we do better together. We seek a gathered stillness not as an end in itself. We come together not for a quiet space or time out. The purpose of our gathered stillness is worship, and the purpose of our worship is to be drawn together – the religare of religion – and lead by the power of God’s love. Worship begins and ends in God’s love.

communion_of_saints_-_baptistry_-_padua_2016
Created by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

How is it possible to worship alone? Perhaps because we are never really alone. Worship is an ancient song we join in with. It’s a thunderous river we jump into. We add our pinch of incense to the aromatic clouds already billowing up before the throne of God. I have occasionally had the experience in worship that there are more people in the room than physical bodies. I believe that when we worship we join with the worship of all who give thanks at that moment. Not only that, but from the perspective of eternity we join all who have worshipped and all who will worship, the ‘great a cloud of witnesses’ [Heb. 12:1] that is known as the communion of the saints.

In my thanksgiving, I see myself in perspective. I remove myself from the centre of things (what a burden it is to be at the centre!) and take my place in the choir of worshippers. Not only must we remove our individual selves from the centre of the universe, we must see the human race in perspective. If the God whose love we respond to is the Creator of all things, then it is not just humanity who is God’s creature. The birds, the trees, the stones, the seas, the stars and the angels – everything that is visible and invisible, conceivable and inconceivable – all created things give thanks to their Creator who loves them powerfully. We catch a glimpse of this in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” [Rev. 5:11-14]

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. To become aware of God is to give thanks for all that is Good, living renewed lives in response. To become aware of God is to become aware of our fellow creatures in all their vibrant mystery. To become aware of God is to find our rightful place in the cosmos, allowing ourselves to be led further and further into Love.

Advertisements

Advice and Query 7: Expect the unexpected

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 aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

The birds are busy at this time of year, exploring the hedgerows for whatever berries remain. There have been rumours of increasingly rare hawfinches nearby. How might I catch a glimpse of them? The bird watcher can acquire tools and knowledge, and can become better with practice. Someone who follows the right Twitter feeds, and has a good pair of binoculars, is in a better position to spot a hawfinch than I am. But however prepared, equipped and disciplined we are, the birds remain entirely free. The bird watcher doesn’t control the birds.

So it is with the spirit of God at work in the world. We are called to be aware of it. This does not mean we can control it, posses it, or predict how it acts, but we can equip ourselves with practices and knowledge that will heighten our awareness. We may seek God, but we never truly find God, as if God is hiding, waiting to be found. When we apparently find God, it is because God has chosen to reveal God’s-self. God finds us.

God is so free, even freer than the birds, that when we put boundaries on the spirit of God, God breaks through them. When it was thought that God could only be encountered in special holy places, God surprised Moses by meeting him in the shrubbery on a ordinary hillside (Ex. 3). When God was thought to dwell in the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, the thick curtain veiling the inner sanctum was torn apart (Mk. 15:38) and God was revealed executed outside the city walls. God is not only to be found in special places. God can be found in ordinary activities and daily experiences. God may meet us in the washing up, or waiting for a bus, as well as in the meeting house.

The God of the Christian story is unpredictable. “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:15, c.f Isa. 43:18). This is a God who will always act in ways we don’t expect, for God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). Therefore spiritual learning must continue throughout life. As soon as we think we have God pinned down, we must start all over again. God works not only within the Temple, but beyond it. The curtain is torn in two, the banks of the river are burst! Every aspect of our lives is a potential burning bush. All human endeavour can be illuminated with God’s Light. There is not one moment where God may not meet us, surprise us and make all things news.

The words most often quoted from this passage is the advice to be ‘open to new light’. What does this phrase mean? I have heard the expression that Quakerism is ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light.’ This gives the impression that Quakerism is on an inevitable trajectory away from it’s Christian roots, that Christianity is part of Quakerism’s past and not its future. It also suggests that by ‘new light’ we mean ‘other religious traditions’. I believe that the advice to be open to new light is not solely an invitation to seek beyond Christianity. Neither is it an instruction to endlessly seek without ever finding. Rather, at the heart of being open to new light is asking ‘In what unexpected way is God going to act next?’ To be open to new light is to expect the unexpected. God can meet us ‘in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.’ What other sources might God choose to act through?

But when the unexpected happens, how can you tell what is of God and what is not? When new ideas arise, what commends them? Novelty alone is not enough. A new idea does not automatically mean new light. A new idea could be a deception, a distraction, a notion and an idol. Does this new idea arise from the workings of the spirit of God? This A&Q ends with words of fundamental importance. Our capacity to apprehend the will of God directly and accurately is impaired. We need to approach new ideas with discernment, which requires humbly bringing them before the community of faith.

Discernment requires us paying attention to what has gone before. Although God is free to act in new ways, we have stories of how God has acted in the past, we have clues to God’s character. The writers of the New Testament understood the Christ-event, a totally unexpected occurrence, by looking to the Hebrew Scriptures and showing how it retrospectively made sense. Likewise, the first Quakers believed that the leadings of the Holy Spirit would never contradict Scripture. Our stories, tradition and history are important tools for discerning whether a new idea is indeed new light.

To be open to new light is not an individualistic, theological free-for-all. It is a recognition both of the freedom of God to act in unexpected ways, and our own inability to know the will of God directly. Being open to new light is a weighty yet delightful corporate responsibility. Where is the spirit at work? What will it do next? How do we meet it together?

Thank you to my readers

Dear readers and followers of Jolly Quaker,

2017 has, in one way or another, been a challenging year for me, but blogging continues to be one of my chief joys.

I write this blog for myself. It helps me organise and articulate my thoughts. The act of writing a post and putting it out there is always cathartic. In many ways it’s a spiritual practice.

That said, I really appreciate others taking the time to read and comment on what I write. It’s incredibly affirming, and when people politely disagree with me I enjoy the challenge to articulate my thoughts better, or to reevaluate my own opinions.

I’m hoping that 2018 will yield a bumper crop of Jolly Quaker posts as I continue the Advices and Queries series, which are proving very popular, and are so enjoyable to write.

So thank you for following the blog, re-tweeting my tweets and for reading, liking and commenting on my posts.

As the days in the Northern Hemisphere begin to grow lighter, I wish you a happy Christmas (if marking Christmas is your thing) and a Light-led 2018.

O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
Dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
And pierce the shadows of the tomb.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advice and Query 6: Learning to disagree well

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.

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

What happens when we meet with difference? We might experience the excitement of learning something new. We might feel uncomfortable and alienated, especially if we find ourselves in a minority. We might be deeply disconcerted at having our values and beliefs, perhaps our entire worldview, challenged. To encounter difference is to have our sense of ‘normal’ questioned.

How do we respond to the challenge of difference? The encounter with difference may be so challenging that we seek to erase it. Difference might be experienced as a threat to the peace and stability of the group. ‘If we’re not all the same, how can we possibly get along?’ We might try and erase difference through coercion and violence, suppressing or destroying that which is different.

A more subtle and perhaps unconscious way of erasing difference is to attempt to ignore it. I hear this in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ – if we could only forget about our religious and cultural differences, if we could forget our history, then we’d all be able to get along. Like the words of ‘Imagine’, are we, in the name of peace, guilty of treating difference as an illusion?

In A&Q no.5, we read about living in the tension of knowing and non-knowing. In this A&Q, I hear another tension between similarity and difference, acknowledging that we have things in common with other religious traditions, but also recognising that there are Quaker distinctives. There are insights particular to Quakerism. The silence of Quaker worship is not a blank canvas waiting to be filled with other theologies. It is not a void to be filled with the melodies of other traditions – the Quaker practice of silent worship is its own kind of music. It is our Quaker particularities that unite the Quaker community – the way we worship, the way we make decisions, the language we use and the history we inherit. These are the materials we are given to treasure, celebrate and work critically with.

Quakers should engage in dialogue with other traditions, and we should do so gladly. In such encounters we have the opportunity to grow in humility, practise and receive hospitality, and learn how limited our experience of the world is. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) – God is wholly ‘other’ and in meeting with difference we may hear the disrupting and renewing voice of God.

We are also asked to remain faithful to Quaker insights. This acknowledges the possibility that, in encountering difference, we will find our Quaker understandings challenged. It’s a reminder that the purpose of inter-religious dialogue is not to reach a point where we are all in agreement. Disagreement and impasse must be expected. We may even have to state that certain beliefs or practices are incompatible with Quakerism.

Because dialogue is difficult, and involves disagreement, we need to enter imaginatively into the ‘other’. Where are the differences as well as the similarities? Are there differences we’re tempted to ignore, because we find them too challenging? Such work takes patience and humility. Simplistic ideas that ‘all religions are the same’ will not do. Other religious traditions are different. They have different ways of worship, different objects of worship, different understandings of ‘salvation’, different histories etc.

The bonds of friendship we seek are not based solely on how we are alike. Just as we must learn to love our enemies as well as our neighbours, we must learn to love in the midst of difference as well as similarity. The strongest bonds of friendship are forged in learning how to disagree well. The question, both within and without the Quaker community, is ‘how can we live in peace without erasing difference?’

You may be interested in two of my previous posts on this subject: one on Quaker use of the World Religions Bible, and the liberal-Protestant belief in universal religious experience.

Advice and Query 5: A God who is free

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.

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

How can we know anything about God? We can’t have knowledge of God in the same way we have knowledge of objects. God doesn’t have weight, height, colour or texture. God is not a thing. In the Bible, God is continually shown to be a hidden God with an unpronounceable name. So how can we have knowledge of such a Mystery?

According to this A&Q we have knowledge of God through experience of the Light. We can learn from the experiences of the living, but the dead should also have their say. The Bible, the writings of past Friends, all writings which reveal the ways of God, are the lived experiences of God’s Light. We cannot rely solely on our experience as an individual, which is fallible and limited. God is revealed to us through others, through a community that extends backwards through time.  That said, neither should we discount our own experience and understanding, limited though it may be. Just as God is revealed to us through others, God is revealed to others through us. Knowing God is a collective project. Far from being a collection of individuals with private theologies, this A&Q exhorts us to be a community of robust theological debate.

We are asked to boldly speak about our discoveries, and welcome doubts and questions. This A&Q reminds us that being a finder doesn’t stop you from being a seeker. You can doubt and question without doubting and questioning everything. You’re allowed some firm footings. To seek without the desire to find leads to aimless wandering and theological flabbiness. To find and renounce further seeking leads to rigidity and self-righteousness. Seeking and finding go hand in hand.

I find this tension of seeking and finding, of knowing and not-knowing, in the early Quaker understanding of how God is revealed.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:1-5]

According to the New Testament, the Word – that which paradoxically God both is, and through which God creates and orders the cosmos – is not revealed through printed words on a page, but is enfleshed in a living person – Jesus. God’s Word is not an object or a tool, but a Life to be in relationship with. We can never know a person in the way we know a table or a chair. Can we ever say we fully know our closest friend? A key insight of the first Quakers was that to speak about the Bible as the Word of God is misleading. They experienced the Word of God as the living Christ present in their midst. Scripture, though of great importance, is merely words about the Word. As soon as we treat God’s Word as printed words on a page, we are in danger of treating God as a thing that we can know fully, and therefore control.

Then the devil took [Jesus] to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” [Luke 4:9-12]

The God revealed in the person of Jesus is totally free from any constraints we may try to impose. I’m writing this in the aftermath of the announcement that the U.S. embassy will be relocated to Jerusalem. This is widely interpreted as a means to secure the votes of conservative evangelical Christians who believe that such a move will hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. This theology is based on an erroneous mid-19th Century interpretation of Scripture (treating it as the ‘Word of God’) and suggests that God’s hand can be forced. If God is free, nothing we can do could possibly force God to act in any particular way. To put God to the test in such a way is, according to Luke 4, the theology of the devil.

So we are left with more Queries. When we search for God as a community, and when we communally test our findings, is the freedom of God respected at every point? Can we hold the tension of seeking and finding, the tension of a God who is revealed in our inward beings and yet still remains hidden? Such a project will, as the opening words of the A&Q tell us, take time.

Advice and Query 4: Wrestling with Jesus

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.

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

In Britain Yearly Meeting today, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Quaker. The religious self-expression of individual British Quakers takes many forms: Buddhist, pagan and Islamic for example.

In such a landscape of individual theological variety, what does it mean for the Religious Society of Friends to be rooted in Christianity? According to this A&Q, Christianity is not a chain to be cast off, but the root structure that feeds the Quaker tradition. To cut ourselves off from our roots might put the whole Quaker project in jeopardy. Whatever our own individual beliefs are, we cannot fully understand the Quaker tradition without understanding its Christian roots. So much of our common language – such as ‘Friends’ and ‘the Light’ – is drawn from Scripture (particularly the Gospel of John). If we are to fully own our faith, then we have a responsibility to learn of its origins.

This responsibility is spelled out in terms of reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus. Whatever our opinions of him, he can’t be ignored. According to this A&Q, the significance of Jesus is located in three areas.

  1. His example of love in action. This is a man who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and emphasised how God is close to those on the margins.
  2. His obedience to God. In living the prayer ‘not my will but yours be done’ Jesus experienced estrangement from family and friends, made enemies of the religious authorities, and was executed by an occupying power.
  3. His relationship with God.  Jesus showed a startling intimacy with God, referring to God as ‘Abba’ (‘Daddy’), and repeatedly withdrew from public life for times of private prayer.

To obey God is to live a life of love in action. To live such a life is costly, and cannot be undertaken without a solid foundation in prayer.

It should be noted that in focusing on the ‘life and teachings of Jesus’, there are many fundamental mainstream Christian understandings of Jesus that are left aside. Here there is no Incarnation (the belief that Jesus is both wholly God and wholly human), no Resurrection (the belief that Jesus rose from the dead), no atonement (the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection reconciles God and creation) and no Second Coming (the belief that Jesus will return). There is no virgin birth and no empty tomb, no Jesus Christ. What we have is the Jesus of 19th Century Protestant liberalism, shorn of miracles and metaphysical claims. The Jesus of the A&Qs is a teacher and moral example, not a Saviour or the Word Incarnate. This is a great shift from the first 250 years of Quaker belief in Britain, and a break from the majority of Quakers around the world.

This raises many questions, particularly regarding our relationship with the Bible. This modern Quaker understanding of Jesus is markedly different to how the authors of the New Testament saw Jesus, for whom the resurrection was of paramount importance. What are we to make of the New Testament authors? Do we distrust their motives? If we reject their account, upon what do we base our knowledge of Jesus? And how do we relate to our Quaker ancestors? When George Fox heard a voice say ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, how are we to interpret it? How do we relate to our fellow Quakers across the globe, the overwhelming majority of whom trust the Biblical account?

This is a well-crafted, diplomatic A&Q. It affirms the importance of Jesus (if not Jesus’ centrality) without making metaphysical claims that would prove divisive within the British Quaker community of the time. It does however raise questions that we are yet to fully wrestled with.

I’m glad that challenge and inspiration are paired together in this A&Q. Jesus is a figure of both mystery and hope. He is both frustrating and exciting. He refuses to be pinned down and summed up. His ‘otherness’ is part of what makes him Jesus. Whatever we individually make of Jesus, I hope that he will continue to provoke the British Quaker community to live ever more loving, riskier and prayerful lives of obedience to the ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.

Advice and Query 3: Pray without ceasing

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.

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.

The previous two A&Qs spoke of God and the spirit of Christ. This third passage adds another word for the Divine mystery to our Quaker vocabulary – the Holy Spirit. It is to this Spirit that we are exhorted to be open to, to be guided by. How are we to do this? In this third A&Q we receive instruction on spiritual practice. We can be open to the Holy Spirit by setting aside times of quiet.

Silence is a central Quaker tool for opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. Note how silence is not valued for its own sake. We do not worship the silence. This is not ‘Silence’ with a capital ‘S’. The purpose of silence is to deepen our awareness of the divine, and to find in that awareness strength that is not our own.

There is no prescribed way to use times of quiet. There’s no set time or posture, and no suggested frequency. There’s no prohibition against using song or movement or birdwatching to reach a place of stillness. All of us need to find a way into inward silence and openness, and we are free to find the way that works best for us. Remember that the aim is to deepen out awareness of the divine. This is the end of all our spiritual practice.

The path of spiritual discipline is one of progress and growth. Can we cultivate through our spiritual practice a continuing and continuous sense of inward stillness? Can we, with Paul of Tarsus, rejoice always and pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:16-17)? The Quaker experience tells us that ‘in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that “those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep”‘ (Qf&p 2.22). What begins as a simple suggestion to set aside times of quiet, becomes an exciting and terrifying challenge to live a life of ever-flowing prayer, of continuous connection to God. It suggests that the life of the cloistered contemplative is available to us even in the hubbub of our daily lives.

Such a prayer-filled life is counter-cultural, and can only come through practise and perseverance. Such a life is so challenging, that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need encouragement from our fellow Friends, and they in turn need our encouragement. We must support each other in this Quaker-style monasticism. Our spiritual lives are not private – we have a responsibility to each other for our collective spiritual health.

Again we hear the message that we are not self-sufficient, we are not independent. We need each other, and we are dependent on God. The guidance and strength we receive from God doesn’t just come once a week. One hour on Sunday listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts isn’t enough. Like the Israelites in the desert, gathering manner from heaven daily (Exo. 16), and following the pillar of cloud and fire daily (Exo. 13:17-22), the Holy Spirit is present to feed us and lead us every day.

Not only are we to encourage each other outwardly in our spiritual discipleship, we are to hold ourselves and one another before God, in God’s Light, inwardly in prayer. To hold another in the Light strengthens both the one who prays, and the one who is prayed for. I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I also believe it is a great mystery. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse for not doing it! If we live in a God-centred cosmos, as I believe we do, attending to God and lifting up our fellow creatures before God does not seem a ridiculous way to behave.

With all this talk of spiritual discipline, we could fall into the trap of thinking that our worthiness as Quakers depends on how spiritually disciplined we are. The final line protects against this. We don’t undertake spiritual practices in order to earn the favour of God or our fellow Quakers. We do them because the Holy Spirit cherishes us, and wants to bring us to new life. All are cherished by God, whether we set aside times of quiet or not.