About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Endure trials for the sake of discipline"
- Hebrews 12: 7-13

This has been a year when death and loss are real and close for many of us.

As Cat wrote recently on Quaker Pagan Reflections,

Live long enough, and loss, real loss, is inevitable, after all. We know it, but we live in the happy illusion in our youth that it is not so, that death and disease are the aberrations. Middle age knows they are the rule, and that soon or late they come for everyone we love.

But…there's an up side, too. The older I get, the better able to weather grief I seem to become. It turns out that in this, as in so many things, practice helps. Grief is a skill that grows better with use, if we dare to trust it—to feel it, acknowledge it, and keep walking.
This year I have made concrete, irreversible decisions about care for my mother as she declines into Alzheimer's. I have also struggled to communicate with my father, both long distance and in person, as Parkinson's wastes his body and reduces his speech to mumbling.

It was from Dad that I learned much of what I wrote about Jesus in my previous post on this blog. He and I don't continue to share all of the same doctrinal beliefs or liturgical practices, yet we do trust in the same sustaining Presence in our daily lives.

We two have survived our own version of the adult alienation which many fathers and sons experience. The details are not important now. Sometime in my late forties I lay down the desire for our arguments to be "settled," and he apparently did so, too. Being in the present with each other has become more important.

Ironically, I'm now 300 miles away and he can't speak clearly. As a remedy, after my September visit with him, we agreed to communicate more often by email. To my relief, this opened the door to a kind of intimacy which we have shared only rarely in my adult life.

[Note: In what follows I've elided or masked some private matters.]

In early November, I wrote to Dad:

When you fell from my arms after our hug back in September, it was like punctuation at the end of a sentence about mortality and about the eventual loss of you and Mom...and [my spouse] Jim...and everyone else I hold dear.

I've had close friends die, as well as relatives. Jim's parents have both died. At one level I thought I was learning how to deal with death.

Yet visiting you in September and dealing daily with Mom's irreversible decline makes me feel as if I've just been imagining death intellectually until now. Now its concreteness is visceral.

Somewhat surprising to have lived all the way till age 59 without having felt this so undeniably.

I don't say that my own faith is in doubt, yet it feels very dry at present...as if faith were knowledge without evidence, while mortality is clearly real.

A part of me chuckles at that last sentence and says, "You're growing up. Just be patient."
Here is part of Dad's reply:

Until I received your letter I had not thought of what it is like for you [children] to realize that you will have to live through our dying…. I realize that it's not easy or intellectual—but quite visceral—to imagine the dying of anyone we love….

My faith, as you describe yours, is not in doubt. But I confess I have a hard time thinking of not living on in this life, even when I'm reminded that our Lord Jesus Christ has promised us resurrection and life with him and Abba Father and all his saints….
After a few more exchanges, Dad sent me this:

This morning I read Hebrews 12:1-13. I found that verses 7-13 speak to us mortals:

Endure trials for the sake of discipline.

God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.

Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of all spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.

Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Sounds like my drooping hands and weak knees are the Father's discipline for me—"painful at the time, but later yield[ing] the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who [are being] trained by it."

I'm grateful to share his with you, now.

Love and peace.
This message stopped me for a bit, but then I grinned at my own ego discomfort over Paul's talk of discipline in this passage.

Like many, I tend to be put off by religious language which implies punishment. I bridle against the notion of demands for obedience imposed— whether I acknowledge their authority or not—by an external "power" and enforced by threat.

Yet my faith and practice charge me to listen more deeply.

I reread the Hebrews passage and did some research into the denotations and connotations of the words in Paul's Greek text. Doing so opened out the passage for me, showing me something more valuable than I had first seen.

Here's what I found, as I wrote Dad:

Thank you for the Hebrews passage and your personal take on it.

It's helpful to me to learn that the Greek noun (paideia) and verb (paideuo) which are translated as "discipline" have a richer sense than our narrower English notion, which tends to carry negative connotations of enforced learning and punishment.

Paul knew that, in the Hellenic world, paideia referred to classical "instruction," the process of educating a person into his/her truest form, into real and genuine human nature.
Read this way, Paul's "discipline" sounds less like a warning to "shape up or else." Instead, it assures those who open themselves to paideia of a difficult yet rewarding lifelong process of nurture and growth. I wrote:

When I read Paul, writing about the loving Father, I know this is what that "discipline" is about: leading us, incrementally yet inescapably, into an awareness of and acceptance of our true nature as mortal yet loved.

God assures us that "sufferings"—all our aches and losses and griefs—are merely part of being human, not punishments laid upon us.

We come into our true human nature as we become able to remember God's loving presence with us, even when we suffer.

This is a blessing.
Dad responded to this message with his own research on Hebrews 12:1-13 in the New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. XII.

Here's what he found:

…from the many faces of faith presented in [the previous chapter of Hebrews], the one emphasized here is endurance…. Verses 11-12 refer to living the Christian life as the endurance of an athlete running in a race….

Sometimes that endurance can mean suffering, not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness. And again, for those who are not enduring, it can indeed be punishment.
This observation went straight to the heart of my concern. I wrote:

The whole matter of translation reminds me of something I used to tease Mom about. She would mention some personal habit or trait she was dissatisfied with and say, "I'll have to discipline myself to do X."

I would say, "Why don't you say, 'I'll have to school myself'? You like school."

I didn't realize then that she and I were playing off of two different connotations of paideuo.

I particularly appreciate the Interpreter's Bible line about "suffering not as punishment but as evidence of faithfulness."

It works both ways, though, because faith can sometimes be all there is to enable endurance.

Two years ago, when I was deep in clinical depression, there were many days when the only thing I could manage to do was to endure.

In the morning, struggling to make myself get out of bed, during the day, when my motivation would grind to a halt in imagined despair, sometimes the only thing that would keep me going was to center down, pray to God, say to myself, "It's just your brain chemistry," and then to do whatever was the next thing to do.

Those were times of spiritual dryness, when I had to rely on God without sensing God.

God is always present.

In my times of sadness now, I do the same thing.

I'm glad for this conversation.
Dad replied:

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Psalm 66:16-20 in The Living Bible spoke powerfully to me on [a day five years ago] when I was struggling with [the spiritual crisis I confessed to you at that time].

Now, it still testifies to me with God's great love and mercy:

Come and hear,
   all of you who reverence the Lord,
and I shall tell you what he did for me.
For I cried to him for help,
   with praises ready on my tongue.
He would not have listened
   if I had not confessed my sins.
But he listened. He heard my Prayer!
   He paid attention to it!
Blessed be God who didn't turn way
   when I was praying,
and didn't refuse me his kindness and love.
Once again, I stumbled over the conventional language of "sinfulness" and "confession." However, I knew that the disciplined question was not “What is wrong with this language” but, rather, “What does my discomfort with this language tell me about myself?”

Dad’s crisis involved breaking through denial about hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, and then confessing all of this to God, to his pastor and to his family.

For Dad, these actions opened the way to answered prayer, to relief from his sense of sinfulness, and to renewed spiritual wholeness.

Dad's witness challenges me to ask why I am troubled by the words of verse 18:

He would not have listened
   if I had not confessed my sins.
The most difficult answer to this is that I know my own hurtful behavior patterns and their consequences, yet I watch myself repeating them over the years.

Paideia rarely produces an instantaneous reform.

Its workings are slow, incremental, correcting and mentoring me throughout my life. Moments of breaking through my self-deceptions and rationalizations. Moments of glimpsing and trying a truer way. Moments of returning to try again.

The Spirit which disciplines me exercises scrupulous discernment, not accepting anything less than naked self-knowing. Yet it also exercises unbounded patience.

The character of the relationship is not the impersonal one of subject to ruler, but the living one of child to parent, or, better, of student to pedagogue.

Therefore, I don't experience God as refusing to listen unless I meet certain conditions. Rather, I experience myself as being unable to hear God until I listen past my own noisy ego.

Perhaps this is why I prefer Robert Alter's version of the verses in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.

The Living Bible is Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor's mid-20th century effort to reinterpret the King James Version in language his children would understand. By contrast, Alter's work is a fresh translation, setting aside two millennia of Christian interpretation to recover the concrete eloquence of the first millennium BCE Hebrew poets.

Here is Alter's version of Psalm 66:16-20:

Come listen and let me recount,
   all you who fear God, what He did for me.
To Him with my mouth I called out,
   exaltation upon my tongue.
Had I seen mischief in my heart,
   the Master would not have listened.
God indeed has listened,
   has hearkened to the sound of my prayer.
Blessed is God,
   Who has not turned away my prayer
nor His kindness from me.
For my father, his moment of deep personal crisis did have the dire character implied by the English term "sin." I thank God that he was given the blessings of forgiveness and renewal when he was ready for them.

But read this again:

Had I seen mischief in my heart,
   the Master would not have listened.
When I cry out in those moments of horrible grief or confusion, or in those moments of dismay over yet again "missing the mark," it is the mischief in my heart to which the Master does not listen.

When I allow the discipline of the Spirit to quiet me, I can see and set aside that mischief.

Then I discover that my true prayer has already been heard and answered.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Mike Shell is a member of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting and attender of Jacksonville (FL) Meeting. He lives with Jim, his spouse of twenty-four years, and manages remote customer services for Jacksonville Public Library. He publishes Walhydra's Porch and The Empty Path.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Way Preparer -- Luke 1:68-79

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,
That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

John the Baptist. He is a shadowy figure for most of us, especially at this time of year, when the arrival of the baby Jesus is taking center stage. John becomes for us, if anything, a secondary character in an unfolding drama focusing on a barnyard birth, angelic anthems, scared shepherds, wandering wise men and rapacious regents. His appearance onto the stage of these events usually goes unnoticed as our attention is focused on what we consider the main plot – the coming arrival of the Baby King.

I have been thinking of him, in no small part, because I've been reading John the Baptizer by Brooks Hansen, an engaging novel about this enigmatic man and his mission. And I commend it to you.

It reminded me that, yes, John's birth is no cause for a natal celebration, no giving of gifts, no three month long frenzied buying season. Yet, the coming of this baby was miraculous, too. One that was heralded by an angelic announcement, by the same angel even, as was Jesus’. And it was his birth and his life that set the stage, prepared the way, for this one who would come, the one who gets all the attention (and rightfully so). Without this baby, who grew to a man, the people of his day would not have been as ready for the baby and man Jesus.

That’s often the way it is with people who help prepare the way for others to step into the limelight. We appreciate their moment on the stage but are often anxious for them to depart so we can get to the main attraction. We often fail to see the wonder and accomplishment of these talented troupers and notice how they have made us ready for what is to come.

My friend Alan Garinger appreciates those who play second fiddle – he’s done a whole series of sketches on sidekicks. All because he happened to like one back-up singer who made one of his favorite singers (he felt) sing her best. But Alan is rare (for that and other reasons) – most of us want to see the star not the sidekick.

And many us regard John the Baptizer as a sort of sidekick. In fact, if we are honest, we have a picture in our minds eye of Jesus as rather polished and smooth (in a good way) and John the Baptist as a sort of wild and woolly holy man. Like Gabby Hayes to Roy Rogers. After all, John the Baptist, as a man, was known as one who lived in the wilderness, ate locusts and honey, preached long and loud and baptized people in the River Jordan. He spoke the plain truth and didn’t soften it with nice parables. We have the feeling that he literally scared the hell out of people instead of winning them with kindness and love as did Jesus.

That may be because we don’t really look to closely at this one who was the way preparer. He comes from hardy and religious stock and his own birth had that of the miraculous about him, as did his cousin Jesus.’ John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the temple in the days of Herod. He was married to Elizabeth, who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. Both were well past the child-bearing years. Still, they wanted a child. We are told they both lived righteous and blameless lives. One day, while going about his business as a temple priest, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that God has heard their prayers. Elizabeth will bear a boy child. Just as when Gabriel later appears to Mary, he tells Zechariah what the boy’s name is to be and what role he is to play. Zechariah’s response to the angel is a bit more skeptical than Mary’s – he doesn’t believe the news. And so his mouth is sealed, Gabriel says, “until the day that these things come to pass.”

The people who were waiting on Zechariah to help them with their temple offerings were annoyed at the delay – where could that priest be? When he finally appears, he can’t speak. Maybe the wait was worth their while they think, assuming Zechariah has seen a vision. He makes signs to them, performs his duties and stays at the temple until his time of service ends and only then returns home.

Indeed, as the angel Gabriel says will happen, Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Six months into her pregnancy, Gabriel appears to her cousin Mary with his news for her. And he adds the information about her cousin Elizabeth, saying “with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary hastens to visit her cousin, both in wonder and for assurance. Elizabeth blesses her and helps her confirm the truth of the angelic message.

The time comes for Elizabeth’s baby to be born. The neighbors gather to see the child and on the eighth day, as the Jewish ritual demands, he is to be named. His father, remember, hasn’t spoken in nine months. The people want to name the boy Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth says, “No, his name is to be John.” “But nobody in either family is named John,” they protest. Sounds like today, doesn’t it. So they take their case to Zechariah. He writes on a tablet “His name is John.” Immediately, his tongue is loosed and his voice erupts into the passage of scripture I read just a few minutes ago.

I love these words of Zechariah. First he praises the Lord for his remembering his promises and his bringing salvation through the house of David. These are the same things we read about in the prophecy of Jeremiah last week when we talked about how the people, and indeed the times, were ripe for redemption.
Then he speaks to the child. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That’s quite a charge to child whose birth, and life, we largely ignore.
Indeed, John, as a baby, drops from the biblical narrative at this time after a sentence saying that he grew and became strong in spirit and was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel. Attention is now drawn, in the Lucan story, to the nativity, which begins with those familiar words “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
When John reappears he is around 30 years of age. He emerges as a wilderness preacher, adorned in coarse camel hair as opposed to the finery of the temple priests. He lives simply and preaches a simple message – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The people who hear him think he is the prophet Elijah come back.. The political powers, especially Herod, are afraid of his popularity among the people, but also afraid of what might happen if they do away with him. He urges the people to show their repentance by being baptized in the waters of the Jordan river. If you read his words, they sound remarkably like the message of his cousin who is to follow. Loving those in need of loving and stern with those to whom much had been given and much was expected.

He was especially harsh in his confrontations with the royal palace – in this case, King Herod. This is not unusual for an Israelite prophet. Judean kings, while not liking it, had gotten used to it. Of course, they often dealt with it by imprisoning or killing the prophet, but they were used to it. The reason for Herod’s ultimate dissatisfaction with John has to do with John’s denunciation of marriage to Herodias. For the Jews of the time, John’s denunciation was more than a moral pronouncement – it was one of political, religious and ethical dimension. Herod had put away his first wife, whom he had married in a political alliance which did indeed bring peace to the area, to marry his half-brother’s wife. Herod Antipas, incensed at John’s increasing popularity, his attacks on himself and Herodias, and perhaps frustrated in his attempts to find and silence the other Jewish trouble maker Jesus, has John arrested. But that’s all, until at his birthday celebration, the daughter of his wife danced and so enchanted Herod that he promised her anything she wanted. She asked for the head of John the Baptist. A man of his word, good or evil, as were all mid-eastern potentates of the time, Herod granted her wish. So ends John’s ministry.

Or does it? The latter part of John’s story is something most of us are familiar with. Movie makers have delighted in telling it, with its blend of sex, scandal and mayhem. But we don’t often think of John as one who gave his life in the cause of preparing the way for the Messiah. When we do think of him, we think of John the Baptist as an adult. A man who captured the imagination of the people of Israel, talked of turning from sin and toward righteousness and announcing the coming in immediate terms of Jesus. And it is true that this is one of the ways he pointed people to Christ and prepared the way for the Messiah.

Yet, I think it is important to remember, especially at this season of advent which some Quakers (bad or not) pay a little bit of attention to that all of John’s life was heraldic in a way. Even in the nature of his birth. That is in itself miraculous.

We, like the people of John and Jesus’ day, expect to see the things of the spirit dressed in trappings of something religious. That is, in the liturgy (or lack of), singing, sermonizing, scripture reading and so on. That’s not to say that important things aren’t there – they are. But we are so used to finding them there that they are often the only place where we see God at work. And so we fail to see God moving in the things we often think are the simplest and every day things of life. In this case, the birth of two baby boys. But that’s the way God works, more often than not -- in the normal course of human existence – although, I grant you, in these cases, with miraculous dimensions to them. We are much more likely to hear the voice of God in an infant’s cry, if we will open ourselves to that instead of being annoyed, than we are in some super charged religious setting.

That’s because, true to His nature, God did not prepare the way for a Messiah on a white charger with angel armies arrayed behind him by sending a dramatic figure with trumpet blaring and mountains moving. God instead prepared the way for a Messiah who would come as a baby, grow into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love, by sending another baby who grew into manhood, preach and teach, heal, care, and live and love and breathe and die, all in the name of God’s love and pointing the way to the one who was to come. Those who come to follow Jesus, both during his lifetime and after his resurrection (including us today), had their hearts opened in preparation for the everliving Christ by John. He was not the Light, but willingly pointed people to the Light.

We would do well to remember that during this advent season -- the willingness of John the Baptist to point to Jesus. How he made his life’s work, indeed gave his life, preparing the way so that others could see Jesus. It may well be that that is our call this advent season – to help others see Jesus. It is, after all, easy to lose sight of the Christ child in all the Christmas wrapping and decorating and caroling and on and on and on. Even in the midst of celebrating his coming, we fail to prepare our hearts and eyes for the birth of the miraculous child from the skies.
John reminds us that pointing people to the everliving Christ who comes to call us His own is a noble ministry in and of itself.

May we open our hearts and minds to being preparers of the way – so that through our hearts, and words and actions others might encounter the Christ for whom they seek – even if unaware.

-- Brent
Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, writer, and photographer. Learn more about him at www.brentbill.com or holyordinary.blogspot.com or theartoffaith.net

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Living in the Kingdom of God

"The Kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17: 20-21)

My friend Abby died yesterday. I'm not sure how well I'm going to do with this essay, because I'm so stretched between my grief, my desire to honor her life, and the fatigue that comes from waiting for an unwanted death, that I'm not sure how clear I can manage to be.

But it seems important to share this.

Last night, I got to live--at least for a little while--in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy. Which is perhaps an odd thing to write about spending time with friends after a death, and especially after the death of a woman who might have objected to my using the word "God" in any sentence where I was speaking of her or of her life. Never mind. I'll try to piece this together for you as best as I can.

Abby was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of this month. Two weeks ago, surgery revealed that the tumor in her colon was Stage IV. One week ago, sonograms and other medical analysis showed that the cancer was widespread enough that the only thing chemotherapy could guarantee her would be pain, and she and her wife made the decision for her to come home. "We realized that this is as good as it's going to get, " Abby wrote to us.

Home she came, to a bedroom that had just been painted her favorite color--purple--and a house she and her beloved had lived in for a little less than a year.

In between the visits from hospice nurses and social workers, Abby and Janet kept up a steady flow of communication with us all, letting us know that her pain was under control; that she was sleeping a lot; that she was thinking of us all. Like waves washing onto a shore, best wishes from friends arrived on their doorstep: casseroles, cards, Facebook notes and emails and phone calls, and visits. "It's the first time the house has been quiet all day, " Janet told me, early one evening this week. "Everyone keeps stopping by."

The last time I saw Abby alive was on Friday last week. Her breath was short, and her mind was wandering a bit--how much from the morphine, or from the "Ativan cocktail" she'd just been given was hard to say. She found the erosion of her razor-sharp wit and memory hard to bear, and was visibly frustrated with the constant ringing of the phones--the house phone, the cell phones for everyone present, with their dozen different rings. But she was grateful, too. Though the endless calls distracted her from her ability to say what she wanted to say, and though she felt the painful nearness of her own death ("I still have so much to do!" she cried to me, at one point) she also had nothing but praise for the friends, the hospice nurses, the endless stream of well-wishers.

She inquired anxiously how I was doing, at one point, and was there anything she could do for me? (Oh, Abby!)

Abby died at 3:00 yesterday afternoon, gently, in her sleep.

Janet called me around 6:00 or 7:00, and I told her I wanted to be there with her; she said that would be all right. When Peter and I arrived, we found Janet on the phone, calling one person after another. "I just don't want him to find out by the computer," she explained, hanging up from a call to wrap us each in a bear hug. "There are just certain people... I don't want them to find out from someone else."

Janet was focused on caring for us, caring for others, caring for Abby... She was not bustling from room to room, distracting herself from her grief. She was holding it and holding us all, wrapping us all up together in the strength of the love she and Abby had shared for one another and with us.

It was not silent. There were the phone calls, in and especially out. There was the concern for those who could not be present, but might want to be. There was the big box of photographs, spanning decades of Abby's life, her daughter's, and Janet's, which a changing pool of a half-dozen or so of us shared with one another along with matzoh-ball soup, knishes, and fistfuls of kleenex.

It was quiet when Janet announced that she felt it was time to call the funeral home to come for Abby's body.

"They'll be here at nine," she told us, minutes later.

I reflected back that it seemed important for us to be there for Janet when they arrived--did she agree? She did, so Peter and I went home briefly, to care for our dogs, and make a few calls of our own, to "our" part of the phone tree. Passing the word.

We returned, anxious Janet not be alone when the funeral staff arrived. We need not have worried. As one person hugged goodbye, another arrived. More waiting, photographs, sadness... and love.

The moment when Janet disappeared with the stretcher-bearers to assess the logistics for removing Abby's body was a hard one. At one point, I looked into the eyes of a woman I had never met before, and said, "Hi. I'm Cat. You don't know me, but I need to hug someone. Do you mind?" She shook her head, and we wrapped our arms around one another, holding each other as we cried a bit.

I know that woman now. And she knows me.

In fact, we all of us know one another now, who were willing to hold and be held in our grief. I have looked into the eyes of men and women I did not know a week ago, and found love and comfort there. Each of these people loved my friend, for a longer or shorter time. Each of them holds a small spark of her fire, and is bearing it forward within them.

We're friends within and through our friends. Through our love for them, we can love each other. Through our love for each other, we have our friends: alive still, whole and strong.

We comforted one another. We comforted Janet--awkwardly, I'm sure, but I know my friend, and her heart held enough grace to see beyond our lack of it. Janet and Abby both faced this parting with enormous courage... and grace.

It takes grace, to remain grateful for love in the midst of loss. It takes grace to see the small gifts of reflected memories in the eyes of the friends who love you and grieve with you. It takes grace not to give way to bitterness, or blame, or anger (as we all will eventually do, at least for a while).

I am deeply grateful that Abby and Janet were able to stay in that grace together.

My friend's death is a tragedy, a lost color in a rainbow, a lost instrument in a symphony that demands her song. We who remain are inadequate to carry her stories as they should be carried; we are inadequate to comfort one another, let alone her wife, our friend. That is true.

But it is also true that those who live with open hearts and with gratitude for the small and human gifts of love receive something extraordinary from time to time. There is something there, waiting to be allowed inside, that is bigger than a knish or a kleenex, or even a human heart.

I have seen flocks of birds rising together in a wave, flying so close that wing nearly brushes wing. With invisible signals, they know: now we wheel. Now we soar. Together in one wave they crest and rise and fall, gathered in beauty. To me, that is a vision of the Kingdom of God.

And last night was a vision of the Kingdom of God.

Wheeling and turning, embracing and mourning a friend, we stood gathered by grace and by gratitude into the living presence where there is no loss, there is no death, and every eye reflects back all the love it has been given, fully and without distortion, into the eye of every other.

The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Joy, the Kingdom of Love is right now, forever, and every minute; if we let it. If we have the strength (or the grace) to find the love, even in the heart of loss.

We do not need to wait for heaven. We live in the Kingdom now.

May God heal all hearts.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Speak Lord for thy servant heareth

When I was a child my parents and I lived in suburban Kent. We were 'C of E', Church of England, which meant in practice that we usually went to church on Sunday and I went to Sunday School during part of the service and learned hymns and Bible stories.

At home, among my collection of sumptuously illustrated Ladybird books, there were Bible stories too and the one that I remember best told the story of Samuel - The Child of the Temple - who heard the voice of God but did not recognise that it was calling him.

At school, primary and secondary, I learned more Bible stories and read them in the language of the King James version. They became part of my life, but in the same way that Shakespeare did, not set apart as something different.

When I was about 12 years old I had what I later learned to call a 'transcendent experience'. In one moment out of time I knew, with an absolute certainty which has never left me, that everyone and everything was connected and valued in love and that that love was God. I knew that there was life after death because there was life before it in one unbroken continuous thread of which I had been, was and always would be somehow part.

I did not know what to do with this experience. I did not tell anyone about it but I refused to be confirmed in the Church because I did not want to be confined and limited by what seemed like just one set of certainties. I did not give this as a reason though and others assumed that I had no belief. At school I was not allowed to take Religious Knowledge 'A' level because I was 'not religious enough' and although this closed off an academic route to greater knowledge of the Bible with hindsight I can see that was not the way I was meant to go.

Eventually, when I was in my early thirties, I found Quakers and got to know about Britain Yearly Meeting through my job as a librarian in Friends House Library in London. In meeting for worship I recognised a connection with the experience I had had as an adolescent and began to hear the voice of my Inward Teacher. Gently but inexorably I found myself pushed out of my comfortable isolation and towards a life of community and eventually I joined Reading Meeting.

Among other things I felt that I was being urged to get to know the Bible better but I was not sure how to do this in the context of the Quakerism I knew. Over time several opportunities for learning were given to me.

I was sent as a Britain Yearly Meeting representative to Ireland Yearly Meeting and found that there regular Bible Studies were a natural part of the meeting, something I had not experienced before. I attended a couple and found them engaging, the facilitators well informed but not intimidating and relating what was studied to the participants' own emotions and experience. I then attended a workshop given by the 1995 Swarthmore lecturer, Anne Thomas of Canadian Yearly Meeting, which explored a way of looking at Bible passages by acting them out and inhabiting the different viewpoints of the characters involved.

All this was expanding my horizons so that when I read a pamphlet on Friendly Bible Study I was excited and enthusiastic. The idea of studying the Bible in small groups, looking at what each passage says to us now, seemed to me a valuable approach which would concentrate on the truth of continuing revelation, a very important part of Quakerism for me. I tried to bring Friendly Bible Study to my meeting, with the approval of elders, by inviting anyone interested to meet at my home. About half a dozen people came but among them were three older men, all 'weighty Friends' who refused to engage with what I was trying to do but instead turned the meetings into sessions of competitive academic sparring. It was all Greek [or Hebrew] to me. I could not compete or make them understand what I was searching for. I and the rest of the group were silenced and I gave up.

The voice of my Inward Teacher is still pushing me to find ways of looking at the Bible more deeply and most importantly as part of my Quaker community. The blogosphere has brought me into contact with so many Friends who are doing this. I can read and learn from them at a distance but what I long for are opportunities to share with others in my own local and Yearly Meeting. It is not a solely academic approach I am after but a way of sharing spiritual experience with others in the context of the Bible and seeking guidance on our way forward together. I have come to realise that I need companions on this journey for, like Samuel, I need help to follow where God is leading me.

Gil Skidmore is a retired librarian who has been a member of Britain Yearly Meeting for thirty years. She was a Joseph Rowntree Quaker Fellow in 1994, giving workshops on spiritual autobiography, and writes about this and Quaker history, particularly the 18th century. She is currently co-clerk of QUIP [Quakers Uniting in Publications].

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Technical Difficulties

The Bad Quaker Bible Blog is continuing to go through periods in which comments seem to be rejected by Blogger. This seems mostly to be happening in Firefox, and not all versions of Firefox at that. If you are a Firefox user, you may want to make a copy of any comment you're about to leave on our posts... just in case the Internet spirits are feeling unkind when you post.

We are interested in hearing about technical glitches that come up with your use of the blog, whatever browser or platform you are using--feel free to respond here or to email me at quakerpagan AT mac DOT com if you have issues to raise.

And to anyone who has been having trouble commenting--I'm very sorry. It's definitely not intentional, and I hope you'll try again in another browser.

If problems are persistent enough, and no other solutions exist, we will have to relocate the blog. (But I hate to do that now you've found your way here!)


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts

Before I knew human language I was learning about the Bible.

I grew up in a Lutheran preacher's family in 1950s Ohio. My Dad preached a liberal, non-violent Jesus, my Mom—daughter and sister of Lutheran preachers—played the organ while old ladies sang sweet or stirring 19th century hymns, and I learned Bible stories in Sunday School.

The Lutherans of my childhood didn't teach hellfire and damnation. They taught confession and forgiveness and now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?

They also didn't teach biblical literalism and inerrancy, though, in my child's mind, there was an unspoken assumption that all the Bible stories they told me were true. Of course, pretty much anything adults told me was "true."

There was no Sunday School attempt to acknowledge or deal with the ambiguities and outright contradictions in the Bible. This was partly because adults don't expect children to be capable of noticing or contemplating ambiguity and contradiction.

Actually, children do attempt these things as best they can, but, unfortunately, they usually do so without the help of adults. Adults generally are not comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction, and they would rather "become as little children…."

By adolescence, I was of course noticing and struggling with every single ambiguity and contradiction in life, since that is the job assignment for adolescence.

Meanwhile, Jesus was revealing more radically in my personal life his demand for non-violent justice.

We moved to South Carolina in 1965, the year my high school was integrated. It took me a while to understand why white friends wouldn't let me and my black friends sit at their lunch table.

When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, a group of black and white students tried unsuccessfully to convince the principal to hold interracial dialogs, in order to avoid violence. Instead, he accused us of violating school policy when we called a similar meeting in the county library outside of school hours.

By the time I got to Lutheran Seminary after college in 1972, I was deeply concerned with issues of war, race, poverty and women's rights. It had become clear to me that doing one's best to practice non-violence and to make human rights real was the essence of now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace.

To me, Jesus' most powerful, prophetic word is now.

Everything else in scripture is guidance on how to do now, or else stories about people who, though believing themselves to be faithful, either distracted themselves from or attempted to put off the divine plea for now.

In this context, the passage which fills me with the most bittersweet joy and longing is this one from Jeremiah:

33 No, this is the covenant I shall make with the House of Israel when those days have come, Yahweh declares. Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts. Then I shall be their God and they will be my people.

34 There will be no further need for everyone to teach neighbor or brother, saying, "Learn to know Yahweh!" No, they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, Yahweh declares, since I shall forgive their guilt and never more call their sin to mind.

—Jer. 31:33-34, New Jerusalem Bible

"When those days have come…."

I used to struggle with the conventional Judeo-Christian-Islamic use of the notion of linear history to interpret God's interaction with this world.

I could see linear history implicit in the sequence of events, which appear to flow in only one direction. I was taught to see it in our historical storytelling, whether that was storytelling about my own life and the lives of people I know, or about other lives, or about nations, cultures, civilizations, epochs, the earth or the cosmos.

I was also taught to see it in the Bible, in that library of stories, drawn from oral and written traditions across centuries, which tell how the People stumble, err and try again and again to hear, to understand and to respond to God's desire for "mercy, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

Yet something always troubled me about the conventional readings of this history, the conventional ways of understanding God's promise.

All those thousands of years, all those billions of lives, waiting.

All those mundane or barely subsisting or horribly suffering lives of people who have to live through the not yet, who might never even hear the promise, "When those days have come…."

Something did not seem right. It was far too difficult—nearly impossible—to believe that the all-healing love of God could be present in each moment of each life, if God were saying "not yet" to billions of lives.

Random Sphere, by Eric J. HellerThen I realized that for God it is all now.

I imagined the sphere of all that humankind will ever experience.

Our paths through that sphere may (or may not) be linear history.

Yet, in relation to every point in that sphere, God is now.

Over the decades since that realization, I have come to imagine another possibility, another way of knowing the true love of God through the cloudy mirror of the scriptures.

"Within them I shall plant my Law, writing it on their hearts."

Imagine that, instead of being commandments, the familiar ten sayings given to Moses are promises.

Better still, imagine that they are affirmations of what is already true, whenever we find ourselves, even momentarily, in the now of God.

"When you are aware that you are in my now...

"You have no need to mistake parts of me for the whole.
You have no need to make objects to hold my power.
You have no need to deceive others or yourself, hiding behind oaths in my name.
You readily allow all beings the equal justice of rest on the sabbath.
You honor your parents.
You do not kill, commit adultery, steal, give false evidence or covet.

"When you are aware that you are in my now, you have no desire to stray from these realities, and you cannot be swayed into do so."
—Exodus 20:1-17 (paraphrased)

Imagine that, instead of being promises, the beatitudes are affirmations of what already is.

"When you remember that you are in God's now...

"The poor receive what they need.
The grieving are consoled.
The gentle have the earth as theirs.
Justice is given to all.
The merciful receive mercy.
The undefiled of heart see God.
Those who work for peace are acknowledged as God's children.
Those who suffer for justice sake see it fulfilled."
—Matthew 5:3-10 (paraphrased)

Imagine that, instead of petitions in prayer, we make affirmations in the now...

"Our parent, your name is revered.
Your way is enacted in all parts of the now.
You give us what we need for the day.
You forgive us and help us to forgive.
You do not test but rescue us from temptation."
—Matthew 6:9-13 (paraphrased)

That would be an answer to now-how-do-you-live-in-God's-grace?

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

Mike Shell is a member of Columbia (SC) Monthly Meeting and attender of Jacksonville (FL) Meeting. He lives with Jim, his spouse of twenty-four years, and manages remote customer services for Jacksonville Public Library. He publishes Walhydra's Porch and The Empty Path.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness"

So, I've been trying to figure out my best qualification to be a Bad Friend-- you know, get admitted to the club. According to the Facebook group introduction, I need to be "just not very good at being Quaker .... [not] always peaceable, humble, kind, loving, truthful." I wear plaids a lot, which isn't plain dress... does that count? I yell at people sometimes... I think that's my *real* bona fides as a Bad Friend. But in my unprogrammed circles, I sometimes get this vague suspicion that folks think I'm a Bad Friend for being so interested in the Bible.

Now, my brand of satire may be too light and dry, so I just want to get the disclaimer right up front that my monthly meeting has several people with divinity degrees in it, scripture is occasionally referred to in spoken messages during worship, and in reality folks are familiar with the Bible to some degree and do esteem it to a greater or lesser extend. But still... there are certain cultural norms, social mores and expectations, that I keep having to cross. The raised eyebrows, the don't-know-what-to-say-next pause after I mention a verse in conversation. After I visited Indiana Yearly Meeting the first time, I took to carrying around a compact copy of the Bible to every Quaker event I went to, modeling the evangelical style. FGC Quakers sure don't do that. (But, it's NRSV; and I haven't highlighted it.... If you really need to know, it's the zip-up kind, in admiration of Eden Grace's travel Bible...)

Well, when I was growing up, I didn't get too much exposure to the Bible. My Unitarian-Universalist Sunday School studied Bible stories one year --you know, Adam and Eve and Noah, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, out of a large-format picture-book for little kids. When I graduated from high school, the UU's didn't give me a Bible but a book about Thoreau (which was great... I love Thoreau...).

At the school where I teach we have some new faculty members who grew up evangelical, and the question of the inerrancy of scripture is a live question for the husband; we've had some great conversations about it. But it was never a question for me. The other day I realized I had to explain to him that where I grew up, the Bible wasn't believed to have any inherent authority at all. It was cultural heritage, thought-provoking moral stories, and troubling histories about holy wars. But I was curious, so in high school I started cautiously exploring it.

The first parts of the Bible that meant anything to me personally were the Sermon on the Mount, the first chapter of the gospel of John, and the first verse of Genesis. And I think the Sermon on the Mount is a fine place for a teenager to start getting to know the Bible, because it's about right action, and it's about avoiding hypocrisy, and it's about high ideals. Impossibly high ideals, indeed; but that's material for a different blog.

In college, I ran into evangelicals for the first time. Some were friendly, and some were argumentative. My first exposure to proof-texting was when a good friend, who was Christian and gay, arranged a debate between the campus chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ and the religious-or-Bible-studying members of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, about what the Bible says about homosexuality. Needless to say, fireworks ensued. I was most struck by the sterile legalism that the debate created. It wasn't creating a welcoming atmosphere for spirituality, or for spreading any good news.

Some Christian friends advised me to read Paul next, but that's where I really ran into problems. I was too easily sidetracked by his boasting, and the parts where he tells women to be silent (but is it really Paul or an interpolation?) and verses that talk about Christians being "slaves to Christ" (but see Romans 8:15... and of course John 15:15!). So all in all, by the end of college I was attending Friends' Meetings regularly and finding Quaker writings such as Fox's and Woolman's Journals to be much more helpful to my spiritual/religious growth/quest.

Five years later I went to Pendle Hill. Their Bible courses transformed my relationship with the Bible and radically deepened my spiritual life. (Many thanks to the teachers, Rebecca Kratz Mays and Chris Ravndal.) And here's what made the difference: sharing about it in a group. An accepting group, where you could honestly lay out what you disagreed with, what gave you the heebie-jeebies, what made you angry. What moved you. What brought tears to you. What you yearned for. What you loved. A group where we could weave together the experiences of our lives with this record of a window onto the transcendent. Reading the Bible together, out loud, in sincerity, formed a "Meeting for Worship for Learning" which gave God a chance to relate to us through the words.

I think Quakers like me are most open to the messages in the Bible when we can wrestle with it like Jacob wrestled with the angel; can argue with it like Moses argues with God (Exodus 32). Not argue with each other over it, like I did in those college debates (or like Cat's Bible-as-blunt-instrument), but share our struggles and our insights with our Friends, like I could at Pendle Hill.

So here's one of my now-favorite passages in Paul's letter to the Romans. It's chapter 8, verses 14-39, as informed by keeping in mind that beautiful summary, chapter 12 verse 2. Maybe the best short part to quote is verse 26: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. ... [and 12:2:] 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."

As I studied Paul with others, prepared to argue with him about theologies I didn't like, I found so many advices that I loved, and descriptions of growth in spiritual life -- specifically, about transformation through faith. (And faith could mean: walking trustfully when we can't see, as in 2 Cor. 5:7.) Paul gets so enthusiastic! He's found this path, this way, and wants to leave landmarks for others; it's like the journal and map of an explorer. So my heart melted a little for him. Now when I read those passages, I think of those deep silent meetings for worship --maybe we've had a message praying for help, or grateful for God's love -- when you can tell that everyone really is gathered in the Spirit, and you hear the sighs rippling through the room, and I think, "There it is, interceding for us! Helping us renew our minds and discern the will of God!"

Frederick Martin is a member of Monadnock Monthly Meeting of Friends, and teaches history at The Meeting School, a Friends' boarding school nearby. He posts very occasionally on A West Rindge Quaker.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Consider the Great Love of the LORD -- Psalm 107

As I mentioned in my first post, I grew up in a Friends church that placed a great deal of emphasis on Bible memorization (and gave prizes for it!). So I read the Bible a lot as kid and teenager. I mostly looked for short verses to memorize – they counted as much as long ones. “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) was every memorizer’s favorite.

During that time, my favorite book of the Bible (and home of very few short verses, I might say!), though, was Psalms. It still is. I love the aspirations, the honest language, the advice, the humanness of those songs. They help me as I try to live my faith.

The 107th psalm is one that helps me the most. Part of that has to do with my encounter with it when I was entering into one of the darkest times in my life. At a time when I felt that my life as I had known it was collapsing around me (largely as a result of my own actions and mis-actions),

I'll admit that the opening words (Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever) were a little hard to choke out during that time when I was feeling completely bereft. But as I read on, I found a litany of people whom God had helped. God helped those who were lost, in prison, on ships at sea ... most anyone, most anywhere. And it didn’t matter whether they were victims of misfortune or whether they had brought the misfortune on themselves. When they cried out to God, God responded. He heard their cry and rescued them.

And so I came to this psalm and read it with new eyes and an eager heart especially after encountering these words:

Some became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy. (17-22)

That was me. My life. While I could relate to some of those in the psalm who found themselves in bad places only because they'd gotten lost or gone down to the sea in ships, I was a rebellious sort. Inwardly, at least. And my iniquities took away my appetite, my ability to sleep, my sense of worth to myself and anybody else. Death seemed like a pretty good option. But, if my life was a mirror of those in this psalm, then perhaps my salvation could be, too. After all, it says that when they cried to God in their trouble and were saved. God sent forth His Word and healed them and rescued them.

That was pretty good news. Especially since it doesn't say that God did all this only after they sufficiently cleaned up their sinfulness and got everything in order. No. They called in the midst of their distress. And God heard them. It was a word from God that I needed to hear. And so, night after night, day after day, I would reread that psalm – a way to sense to God’s presence when I felt at my most low.

The words of that psalm feel like good news to me today, too. I don’t know as much as I wish I did about living in the way of Jesus, but I do know this – that the psalmist is right when he says, “Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the LORD.” (43)

That’s the sort of wisdom I aspire to – to be wise in the great love of the Lord.

-- Brent

Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, writer, and photographer. Learn more about him at www.brentbill.com or holyordinary.blogspot.com

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Micah 6:8

For the past three years or so, I've been on something of a mission to come to terms with the Bible.

I was raised without a religion. As an adult, I found my spiritual identity as a Pagan--not the people "of the Book," as we like to say, but "of the library." The Bible never held any special place for me as a religious person. Over the years, I have managed to find satisfying and reliable paths for encountering Spirit that in no way related to the Bible.

And as a liberal Friend in a very liberal monthly meeting, I suppose I could go a long time without ever opening That Book.

On one level, that would make perfect sense.

Surely most of us have had the experience of having had the Bible used on us as a blunt instrument: of having been whacked upside the head with it by proof-texting preachers, as sure of their own salvation as they are of our need for it. This is especially true for non-Christians, like me: something about my mere existence seems to provoke some folks to heights of fearful rhetoric. You'd think I was personally Babylon the Great riding her Beast, come to usher in the end times.

I have been Jesus-ed at for more than one lifetime.

The other experience I've had that I suppose must be common, is of encountering the kind of liberal Christian who thinks of Christianity as the Source of All Niceness. The Bible is not to be taken literally, but exactly how it is relevant to this very polite, intellectual, not particularly life-changing religion of Niceness is never made clear. It is taken as a given, however, that singing the right songs (not too loudly) and attending a Nice church on Sunday is simply better than not doing so. In somewhat the same way that chewing with your mouth closed, or not wearing plaids with plaids, is better. The idea seems to be that we should all be Christians because it's what is in good taste.

I just never saw the point, frankly.

But a funny thing happened to me when I became Quaker.

In Quaker worship, I can feel the direct and immediate presence of a Spirit of love and peace. It's a Spirit as powerful as a river in full flood, and as deep and still as a lake at dawn. Worship can be as physical and visceral an experience as being tumbled by waves onto a beach when I'm body surfing: silent worship, hearing vocal ministry, giving vocal ministry. (Damn right Quakers quake!)

Now some of that is quite familiar. Pagans also know the direct and loving touch of a Spirit (or spirits) of love and truth. But some of it is bran-spanking new, at least to me: For the first time, as a Quaker, I have encountered the Bible used as a conduit for a living and present Spirit of love. Among Friends, when they are faithful, when they are led, and when they take pains to stay close to the root, the Bible becomes a language of power and heart.


Who knew?

I guess somebody must have figured it out before me. Probably that's where that bit about reading the scriptures "in the Spirit in which they were given forth" comes from. But I've been surprised.

I can still remember the first time I heard the words of the Bible spoken from the depths of worship, and felt them, really felt them, all the way to the soles of my feet, and knew that those words, at least, were True:
Do justice.
Love mercy.
Walk humbly with God.


Of course, without the Spirit in them, they're just words. A bumper sticker. It's pretty easy for us humans to take in the Word, and make it into... words. Just words.

But if lived?

Do I? Do I act justly, in all things? Well, no. I try. But I forget a lot. I screw up a lot. And sometimes even on purpose. (Crap.)

Do I love mercy? Well, mostly. Sort of. Except when I don't.

Do I walk humbly? Ouch. Not so much. (I want you to walk humbly first. As Mark Twain once said, "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.)

I get glimpses, though. I get flashes, of what it would be like, to be really fully faithful, even to this one flash of Truth. And in the lives of some Friends, I get more than flashes, and it's pretty breathtaking.

Brent Bill wrote last week of the idea of a "life verse" from the Bible, a kind of inward compass for our spirits. I don't think I can claim Micah 6:8 as a life verse. I think it could take everything I've got, and everything Spirit and my community can lend me, for me even to approximate living into this one. But what a thing to try! What a hope to set my sights on.

If I can take in the Spirit I have begun to hear in the Bible, in Micah and elsewhere, and find a way to stay faithful to that--to resist the pull to kill the words and put them, safe and dead, on a bumper sticker I will never really read in my heart... well, to the extent that I can do that, I will be richer for it. The people around me will be richer.

So I am trying. Bit by bit, as Spirit illuminates a verse here, a story there, I am finding my way into a Bible I hadn't known existed until recently: a Bible that is not owned by humans, not a flag to stand under or a loyalty oath to take or a license to become complacent. Instead, this Bible is a language for listening in.

Maybe it's not the Seed. But it is at least fertile soil in which, at the right time, the Seed can begin to grow.

I'm good with that.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of the Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting of Friends. She earns her living teaching 9th-grade English, and maintains the blog Quaker Pagan Reflections together with her husband Peter.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Lamp Unto My Feet, A Light Unto My Path

When people learn I’m a Quaker, one of the first things they ask (after “Why don’t you wear black?”) is “How do Quakers feel about the Bible?”

“That,” I reply, “depends on the Quakers – or more specifically, the Quaker – you’re asking about.” Then I go on to explain that Evangelical Friends are very much like their Evangelical counterparts of other denominations and believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Then there are Quakers at the other end of the theological spectrum who have complete disdain for it, feeling it is completely outdated and worthless. And then there are those of us who fill in the middle of this spectrum – which is vast.

That said, I think it is those of us in this vast middle who struggle the most with reading the Bible and what it means for us. If we can, like one the end of Quaker faith maintains, disregard it as irrelevant, than there’s no struggle. Likewise, if it is seen as inspired and inerrant, that, too, narrows the surface on which to wrestle. I have heard some of my very Evangelical brothers and sisters in faith say “God said it (referring to the words of the Bible), I believe it, that settles it.”

I grew up among the very Evangelical Friends. And so I read the Bible and memorized huge chunks of it (my Catholic friends said they were pretty sure I did that because I was looking for a loophole). And the Bible remains a very important part of my faith as a Friend. I take it very seriously both as the story of God’s interaction with God’s people and as a guide for living.

Having said that though, even as a kid I struggled with the ways the Bible was to be a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105), because, frankly, some of it just didn’t make sense to me. And still doesn’t.

For example, as kids we were urged at church camp to pick “life verses.” A life verse was a piece of scripture that we would use to keep us faithful and on our way to being good Christian kids. Many of my young friends picked the standard ones – John 3:16 (For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life) or Psalm 23 (The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.). Some, to prove they knew that the Bible was their beacon of faith chose Psalm 119:105 – “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Others chose “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Roman 3:23) or “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6). These were kids that really struggled, at least from my vantage point, with the sin we heard about all the time. All our verses were from the King James Version, of course. If it was good enough for Moses, it was good enough for us.

My verse, in case you’re wondering, was a bit more obscure. It was I Chronicles 26:18. It reads, “At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar.” Makes absolutely no sense as a life verse – or in some ways a Bible verse. When I was asked to recite my life verse I would do so dutifully and enjoy the blank looks and the hurried scrambling to see if that was really in the Bible. I guess I was a bad Quaker even back then.

But that verse was actually a good life verse for me precisely because it was so ambiguous and for the questions it raised. It allowed me space to wrestle with questions of faith and the role of scripture and all the other stuff.

So I wonder, as part of this sort of on-line Bible study, what verses – life or otherwise – have been important to you? And why? And how do you see the Bible? And why?

The Bible remains very important to me (though I don’t memorize it -- looking for loopholes or for edification – as much as I should). It does remain a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path – even when I’m trying to puzzle it out.

-- Brent

Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, writer, and photographer. Learn more about him at www.brentbill.com or holyordinary.blogspot.com