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, 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