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.

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.


  1. Dear brother, Michael, yes. Yes, right down to the image you chose which is so very close the image of the divine that came to me unbidden and which also reminds me of the picture my own minister father drew for me once on a napkin (just a little sketch of eternity, love, and justice) the memory of which keeps my faith from growing too brittle even on the hardest days.

  2. Yes indeed. That promise is the center of that "New Covenant" we are supposed to be living, and the real power behind the older perceptions. Learning what it means and applying it as you illustrate so well is our whole business, I think.

  3. A lovely testimony for my Sunday morning reading. I am realizing (slowly and imperfectly) that this "now" needs to permeate my consciousness, especially during work hours when I so easily function from a very different mental place of maximizing productivity and fear of uncertainty.

  4. I appreciate the sentiment, however: I am always put off when Christian types (I use the *type* qualifier so as to include Friends who may not consider themselves technically Christian) refer to the god of the Hebrew scriptures as Yahweh. To use that name in a spiritual context is

    1) disrespectful to Jews who consider that name unutterably holy,
    2) meaningless to all but the most eclectic of non-Jews who have no clue of the historical, linguistic or spiritual implications of that name and
    3) confusing to the rest who may wonder if the name-caller really means to invoke a Canaanite god of war.

    I realize that the Jerusalem Bible adopts this ill-advised convention throughout the Hebrew canon, but the fact that no other popular English translation since has followed suit speaks libraries.

    Certainly the use of LORD to represent the tetragrammaton is an archaism that needs to be abandoned. I have a suggestion, based on the reason implied in Exodus for the adoption of the NAME for the "one true God" -- the Creator. When Moses asks the voice from the burning bush who he should say has sent him to liberate the Hebrews, the voice says, "Tell them I AM has sent you," making a play on the simililarity between the NAME and the Hebrew words for "he is" and "he causes to be." The Creator seems more direct and consistent with traditional beliefs about the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus than "the uncreated." So my suggestion is that the NAME be rendered in English as "the Creator" unless the context suggests another, more appropriate rendering.

    N.B. Moffatt rendered the NAME as "the Eternal" in his translation, but that always seemed to me stilted and inaccessible in terms of popular conceptions of God, but practically everyone raised on the Bible relates to the notion of God as Creator.

    For what that was worth.

  5. Translators have struggled with how to represent the four-letter (tetragrammaton) name of God for more than 2,000 years. The vocalization of the Hebrew consonants YHWH (yod he vav he) is unknown. The conjectural vocalization "Yahweh" dates only to the 19th century (attributed to a Christian Hebraist named Gesenius, and has no Jewish status - I don't know how uncomfortable Jewish scholars are in pronouncing it. In Jewish liturgical reading "adonai" (Lord) is customary, while in non-liturgical quotation one usually says "haShem" (the name). KJV occasionally transliterates YHWH as "Jehovah". The Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World" translation consistently uses "Jehovah" for YHWH; in languages (such as Spanish) that have no such word, they use "Yahve".

  6. A beautiful meditation, Michael; thank you for lifting my spirits. Learning to think about the kingdom(/realm) of heaven as a liminal, always-coming-into-being state has been a growing spiritual edge for me, too. I can't resist a book reference: "Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming" by Ben Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, and Timothy Peat. (Forward by John Punshon!) The jacket blurb begins, "Central to the faith of early Friends was the present sense of the Second Coming of Christ and the bringing of heaven on earth." The *present* sense... there it is!

  7. A general comment... I like what y'all are doing here, and wouldn't mind joining, but I'm not sure I'm "a bad Quaker." I mean, I'm not much Quakerly, and may well be a failure as a human being, but I think I'm a Quaker (maybe more so than most members these days, at least closer to that essential essence of seeing connection to The Spirit as the greatest need) and I don't think I'm doing any more badly at that than others, or that any other checklist of Quaker "goodness" is relevant. I don't Believe in "Quaker Process"; that makes me a heretic of sorts... but I do see the need for what that's meant to be. I just don't know; am I bad enough?

    And why aren't you over at kwakerskripturestudy.blogspot.com , where you would also be needed and welcome?

  8. "But the hour is coming and now is ..." (Jn. 4:23).

    Thanks, Michael.

  9. This is lovely and inspiring, Michael. Thank you.

  10. You had me up until this point:

    "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."

    The above quote, while sentimental and nice, is NOT IMO reflective of reality in any way, shape, or form whatsoever. (Yeah yeah I know I need to make the change I want to see, yadda yadda yadda.)

    But see this, in a nutshell, is what makes the rational, non-theist in me go "Bzuh?" Ultimately, while re-framing of the Top Ten to make it easier to swallow is an admirable effort, it is still an ancient desert tribe's list of do's and don'ts. Relative how, and why, to my life and others' lives, here and now?

    I get what you're going for in the post, Mike, I really do. And I lean towards panentheism, and view that perspective as "mostly harmless" in comparison to the rest of the theistic worldviews out there. But it's still just a touch too anthropomorphic for me to swallow whole-cloth.

    I want to be able to say, "Yeah, cool, you're reframing it in a context that's applicable and useful for today, right here and right now!" But a small, still voice, inside me is going, "But that's not what it meant, three thousand years ago, when it was first being practiced."

    Not that I'M one to cast stones, I still favour the Gnostic texts and cosmogonies.....

    I hope no one minds if I comment here.

  11. Hello again, friend! "Imagine," suggested Michael. Imagine: hear the call of the impossible, and then act. In whose reality do we live? Can't we, like Blake, live in the Imagination -- and make it real? Don't we shape reality every moment? This is the "realising eschatology" of the first Friends, as it was of the first followers of Jesus: "the time is coming, and now is." What could be more relevant than justice, mercy, and peace, yesterday, today, and always?

    God would be beyond all knowing and unknowing, but love, what Jean-Luc Marion calls the divine intention, is known in the giving and receiving, and for love it is now or never. (Maybe that's not what "For God it is all now" means to Michael, but maybe it is at least compatible?)

    I don't know if that was helpful at all (I hope it was), but I liked writing it: thanks for the prompt!

  12. Dear Ones,

    Thanks for your moving comments.

    This post was an effort to express the heart of what I have come to know "experimentally" over the decades since I left seminary in 1973. It is reassuring to know that its imagery resonates for many of you.

    Some of you who have not been following my other blogs may misapprehend what I am attempting when I write a post like this one.

    No religious language (theist, nontheist or secular) can do more than point at reality metaphorically. Genuine religion (theist, nontheist or secular) is not about beliefs but about collective trust in and sharing of the grace-filled experience of reality.

    Since, as this post explains, my "native religion" is Christianity, that language comes easiest when I want to write poetically about that which is before and beyond language.

    Nonetheless, my present awareness is also informed by my Pagan sensibilities, by Buddhist psychology and practice, by study in linguistics and comparative religion, and by study in the neurobiology of consciousness.

    Regarding the above post, the key is this:

    I am not expressing a sentiment or reframing old texts in a sentimental way. I am using metaphor to describe an inescapable human reality.

    If there is a Divine One, the manifesting of that One's kingdom must be in this world, not in some other to which we flee when we die.

    If there is not a Divine One, the manifesting of unwavering, nonviolent justice and equality can only be in this world.

    It doesn't matter to me what the Ten Commandments meant to those who first spoke or heard them. If we do not live them in the now, they are worthless.

    If we do not make the Beatitudes real in the now, they are worthless.

    I believe that Jesus asks of us something much more difficult than to behave ourselves so we can get to heaven. I believe that he tells us to bring heaven to this earth.

    I believe he obliges us to see that we waste the gift of our human consciousness when we merely suit ourselves, rather than living in the now as those old biblical texts sing of it.

    I don't say we are immoral when we merely suit ourselves. I simply say that we waste what we have been given.

    I also believe that the way to live in the now is written on our hearts.

    And so it is.

    Blessèd Be,

  13. I like the reworking of the ten commandments and the Beatitudes.

    I would like to see more use of the word "Divine" to refer to "God", as I believe that the Divine is the emergent mind of the universe, and probably not its creator, because the mind grew with the universe.

    Great idea for a blog.

  14. A reminder to all:

    It's not the intention of those of us who are writing this blog for you to present you with any kind of universal or prescriptive sense of the "right" way to read the Bible, or to teach you to read it the same we do.

    The point of this blog is very much to speak for ourselves individually, subjectively. If what we write strikes you as sentimental or beside the point, or worded differently than you would word things, well, that's actually all right. If our words do not speak to your condition, let them go.

    But test them first, as you would vocal ministry in a meeting for worship. Do not ask yourself, "Do I agree with this?" Ask yourself, "Do I sense the movement of Spirit in this?" Or, if the vocabulary is not as you would express an idea, do not be quick to judge the speaker's use of language; language is so slippery, and religious experience so hard to describe, that our words will inevitably fail us just when we need them most.

    I would ask that the readers of our blog try, as the chief visited by John Woolman did years and years ago, to "listen to where the words come from." Each of us, as we write, will be using the words in which we are best able to share with you the stirrings we have felt of Spirit within us. We may choose words that will be difficult to hear, or mean different things to you.

    That is because we're human, fallible, and limited by the power of words. But listen to us in Spirit, as we are attempting to read the Bible in Spirit, and perhaps we will understand one another anyway.

    That's the hope, at least.

  15. Oh! And, to Forrest! While Friendly Skripture Study is also a really worthy project, it has a rather different focus. Here, the point is one individual sharing their personal, subjective experience with a Bible passage or story, and others responding to that story... or the the Bible viewed through the lens of story.

    Friendly Skripture Study begins with the text, where we begin with a single encounter with text. And so, it is a bit different. (Though it is another place where readers here might find it interesting to share their reflections on the Bible.)

  16. Thank you Michael. The Bible is personal story as well as Story. This is the kind of thing I'm glad to see here- one's own experience,interpretation, and the place I try to get people to when involved in any kind of exploration of the Written Tale. Later Patrick

  17. "Can't we, like Blake, live in the Imagination -- and make it real? Don't we shape reality every moment? This is the "realising eschatology" of the first Friends,"

    I like this, and suddenly the concept of Quaker eschatology has a crystal clarity for me, and aligns perfectly with my gnostic praxis. Thank you, Friend George, the insight is useful to me.

    My apologies to all, if my earlier remark seemed as if I was being closed-minded, or not making the attempt to "hear where the words come from".

    As someone for whom these passages had very different interpretations and connotations, ingrained ones at that, I often find it exceedingly difficult for the canonical texts to speak in a manner that cuts through the white noise still in my head around "the book". This is why I find myself much more comfortable in the Gnostic scriptures. Not that I idolize either canon.

    I would like to be able to eventually appreciate the metaphor of the Christian canon in the same way I appreciate the metaphor of the Gnostic texts. Given my background, I don't know if that's ever going to be possible. I hope no one here minds if I stumble and fumble, as I make the attempt......

  18. Friend Arnold,

    You have a valid concern regarding any effort to make YHWH pronounceable.

    In my own writing, my habit is simply to write YHWH. However, my training in quoting other sources is not to "correct" them. Hence, I quoted the Jerusalem Bible text as it was published.

    My personal reason for using YHWH is inspired by, though perhaps not the same as, the traditional Jewish reason: no human language can adequately name THAT about which we are trying to speak.

    I've tried to come up with a "nickname" for the Divine over the decades, without, of course, much success. Different situations call for different nicknames.

    In my private prayers, I usually say "Mother-Father God," because that hints has my inner experience of the Divine One has have qualities of both parents.

    But it's all playing with words in an attempt to point to the NAMELESS.

    I appreciate your comments, as well as the follow-up from Bob Richmond.

    Blessèd Be,

  19. Friend Forrest,

    I'm sure you're bad enough to comment here.


    I have actually been lurking on friendly skripture study and appreciate the effort there.

    Unfortunately, I have a difficult time with John's gospel...supposedly the Quakers' favorite gospel...so I haven't figured out how to comment in a useful way. John is so far from Mark, which makes him even farther from the historical Jesus.

    I'll keep reading and try to contribute something.

    Thanks, and

    Blessèd Be,

  20. Friend Poimandrea Alchemi,

    I'm actually glad you are commenting here, though I stumbled over that word "sentimental."

    This comment resonates for me:

    "As someone for whom these passages had very different interpretations and connotations, ingrained ones at that, I often find it exceedingly difficult for the canonical texts to speak in a manner that cuts through the white noise still in my head around 'the book'."

    I share that difficulty.

    For years after I left the Lutheran Church, I did not know how to speak about what I formerly called "religious" awareness and experience. I needed to dump the old baggage of these texts and of all the liturgies and doctrines I'd grown up on.

    Decades later, I have made peace with the fact that my inner language is "Christian," simply because that's the first language I learned for describing those experiences which are numenous, which transcend what is "just me," and which lift up my interrelationships with other people and with That Which Includes Us.

    I can appreciate how the Gnostic texts might be helpful for you. Ironically, when I explored them, I felt I would need to take on a whole new load of baggage (cosmologies and concepts) which I didn't need.

    Instead, my project has been to reclaim the library of writings in the Bible. I do this in part by studying the work of those scholars who are reconstructing the historical contexts of the original texts the significances of the texts for their original audiences.

    In larger part, I do this by listening in the Silence.

    I welcome your input.

    Thanks, and

    Blessèd Be,

  21. Friend Poimandrea Alchemi,

    I'm writing this a day later. I become more and more grateful for your original comment as I continue to listen to it.

    You are correct that the Beatitudes are the sticking point. I recognized that when I was writing the original post, but I knew I needed to frame them in terms of now, rather than in terms of "the sweet by and by," as the hymns used to say.

    The text has Jesus say, "Blessèd are...for they shall...." I understand Jesus to be challenging us who wish to follow him with a much more immediate saying, "Blessèd are...for the kingdom is now...you, my followers, give them this now."

    In the Quaker metaphor, Inner Light convicts me in my own heart, because I still keep more than my share. Of prosperity, of privilege, of access to the benefits of this world.

    Here's how I understand the now:

    This world, as it already is, holds all the resources necessary for every person born to it to have what she needs for survival and wellbeing. Both in terms of material needs and in terms of peace and justice and equality.

    But because I and other would be good people keep more than we need, many times more others go without.

    I struggle with this. I tithe to local organizations which help with food and housing and health. Yet I also cling to my middle class comfort. And I fear so much becoming one of the people of the street that I guard my wealth.

    I am in this respect like Luke's rich young man who went away sad, when Jesus commended him for his obedience to the Law, but then added, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me" (Luke 18:18-23).

    This self-awareness points me to what early Quakers considered the true test of faith: not what you profess but what you do is the measure.

    I don't necessarily take "sell everything" literally. Yet Jesus' spotlight shines, convicting me, whenever I catch myself fearing to lose what I have or dodging a poor-looking person on the street.

    This fear still needs healing.

    Thank you for catching my attention.

    Blessèd Be,

  22. I always struggled with the Beatitudes. i understood turning your cheek and having no gods before me and loving thy neighbor as yourself (thank you Hillel) but there was something paradoxical about the teaching which required a cleverness which I didn't respond to. Then some where i read that an alternative translation for "Blessed are" is "Go Forth"

    So rather than an acceptance model you get a call to action, a call to ministry, a call to reach out. Rather than a passive and rather weepy exaltation of weakness and woundedness as the key to heaven and spirituality - the one that Neitzche loved and hated, you get....

    if you are poor in spirit,Go forth
    and Yours will be the kingdom of heaven.
    if you mourn,Go forth
    and you shall be comforted.
    if you are the meek,Go forth
    and you shall possess the earth.
    if you hunger and thirst for justice,Go Forth
    and you shall be satisfied.
    if you are merciful,Go Forth
    and you will obtain mercy.
    if you are pure of heart,Go forth
    And you shall see God.
    if you are peacemakers,Go Forth
    And you will be called sons of God.
    if you suffer persecution for justice sake, Go Forth
    For yours is the kingdom of heaven.

    I have no idea where I read this - but it allowed me to read the beatitudes in a new light.

    Sharon Doyle
    Orange Grove Friends MEeting
    Pasadena, CA
    currently teaching in Aqaba Jordan.

  23. Sharon, I like this very much!

    Thank you,