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.


  1. Oh my, oh my... this post touched me deeply. I'm walking into middle age right now (I'll be 40 next year) without yet experiencing the death of anyone closer than a grandparent. Cat's observation is true -- I'm increasingly aware that major grief is on the prowl and will come to me sooner or later. It's scary, and I wonder how I will endure it. Reading pieces like this help reassure me that we (nearly) all *do* endure it, and I am grateful for that.

    What a blessing for you to have this time of rich communication with your father. Thank you for sharing some of it with us. I found it insightful and comforting.


  2. Paul's use of discipline is like Mr. Miagi in Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off kind of discipline.
    Nothing about it is punishment.

  3. Discipline is one of my very favorite words- right up there with compassion and joy. I guess I hadn't fully considered that others see discipline as something imposed by an outside force. For me, it has been the promise I carry within myself that love and effort can reconcile my imperfection to my potential, even if only inch by inch.

  4. Thank you for this one, Michael. I love the illustration you chose for it, and the likeness of faith and the endurance of an athlete, and the discipline of being trained.

    As somebody currently struggling with physical pain, this one touched me. And the context of the relationship with your father...

    Ironically, I cannot now search for the words to express how important this was to read, and how much it meant. But I feel lighter, even though I have to move away from the computer now, and go take care of the colicky baby that is my body and its needs for the moment.

    This, too, can be endured; this, too, can be part of a wholesome discipline in my life, if I stay open to God and to my fFriends.

    Thank you.

  5. The word “discipline” comes, of course, from the same root as “disciple”. Aristotle’s paideia, and Diogenes’s, show us what the idea meant in ancient times: both these great ancient philosophers saw it as centering on a process of imitation, or emulation. A student of horse-riding learned by watching a matcher horseman and imitating what he did. A student of philosophy learned by imitating the philosopher-teacher until he got the underlying sense.

    Diogenes, the greatest of the early Cynics, spent the last half of his life as a slave owned by an admiring master; he raised the master’s two young boys to imitate his own philosophical practice. When he walked to the marketplace on an errand, the boys followed him, barefoot as he was, silent as he was, dressed as plainly, looking neither to left nor to right but keeping their eyes on him.

    Christ said to enquirers, and also to his disciples, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The word “follow” here is akoloutheitô, literally meaning “be with me on the road”.” The similarity to Herakleitos is pretty obvious.

    Paul wrote in I Corinthians, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” And here the word “imitators” is mimêtai, from which we get our English word “mime”.

    It’s the same idea in all these places. The true Christian discipline isn’t enforced learning; it is emulation — emulation until we get the deeper sense of the thing.

  6. Thanks, Mike, this is good stuff...

  7. 錢,給你帶來歡愉的日子,但不給你帶來和平與幸福........................................

  8. Necessity is the mother of invention..........................