Welcome to the Friendly Quakersaurus!

Friendly Stegosaurus

Welcome! Welcome to the Friendly Quakersaurus.

Kwakersaur (the semi-extinct species)

I’m not entirely sure just what this space is going to look like. The first Quakersaurus was birthed way back in the 1990s some time with a vanity website. Then it migrated over to a creature called Blogspot (now Blogger) as a blog. It then morphed again into the Kwakersaur Friendly Skripture Study communal blog which I continued to coordinate/facilitate until I passed the work on to someone else. I believe that critter is been extinct for some time now.

But we belong to an era of Jurassic Park were extinct critters can be resurrected with the right technology. And for now the technology is Facebook and WordPress.

I have a wide range of interests which I focus on with some obsessive precision. I like dinosaurs and fossils. I’m also fascinated with Quakers (mostly of the 17th century variety) and Christian spirituality. Here in Canada we are in the middle of an election and so I would be very surprised if politics didn’t find a way of creeping into the mix. I also have personal irons in the fire related to disability rights especially from a faith-based perspective.

All of which is to say, again, that “I’m not entirely sure just what this space is going to look like.” Join me if you wish.

2019-10-26

In the interest of full disclosure. My actual connection to the Quaker communities is somewhat tenuous currently.
I began my association with Friends in 1982 when I attended a Friends’ meeting after running into a book in the public library. I have participated actively in the life of two monthly meetings in a number of roles and represented Quakers on outside bodies. I was also married in a Friends’ Meeting under the care of that meeting and after the manner of Friends. But somewhere along the line life got in the way. Geographically participation in the life of a Quaker meeting became difficult, and then for variety of reasons it became emotionally difficult and then I simply found myself elsewhere.

Recently — and by recently I mean on and off over the last year or so but increasingly more over the current year — I have been missing my connection to Friends. I find my nose in 17th century Quaker literature (mostly Isaac Penington, but occasionally George Fox and James Naylor) and have managed to to attend a Quaker meeting three times in the last year and a half (which doesn’t seem like much, but it is more than I have done in the preceding decade).

fides quarens intellectum
(faith seeking understanding)

Anselm of Canterbury

Unseasoned Ministry

This morning I joined Pendle Hill’s worship in the barn (online). And the following came to me, but I was not ready to share before the meeting came to a close.

Indeed in this world there are many gods and many lords. Each making claims on us until the noise rising up from the earth becomes deafening. But for us there is only one God, the one Jesus called Abba, the father of all light from whom every good and generous gift comes, from whom all things come, and for whom we live, and breathe, and have our being. And for us there is only one Lord, our prophet and teacher, Jesus the Anointed One, through whom we receive all those good gifts, and through whom we live, and breathe, and have our being.

A Spirit Which I Feel

Friendly Quakersaurus

Well, this morning, I joined the online worship at Pendle Hill barn. There was no vocal ministry, though plenty of requests for prayers and “holding in the light” at the rise of meeting. During worship I was guided to read that well-worn statement of James Nayler from the end of his life, but did not feel released to share in meeting.

I don’t know exactly where this passage was coming from although I could probably do some kind of psychic archaeology on it. The social isolation from the coronavirus pandemic, the stress of our lives disrupted by it, the streets filled with protests against the systemic and structural racism of our society, and the sometimes dissent of those protests into more physical expressions of anger and dissent. But none of those were consciously present to my mind when the urge to read this passage came to me.

And then again I read from a fellow blogger, Claire Flourish [click here]. She and I have not that much in common other than the fact that we blog on WordPress and that Quakerism has somehow got its hooks into each of the both of us. But I like her writing style. I like how she tries to get underneath the obvious. And I like how she adorns what she has to say with classical artwork — although I can usually not figure out the connection between the artwork and the topic at hand (perhaps you feel the same way about my cartoon dinosaurs).

In any event, she was engaging with the social media storm over JK Rowling’s statements [click here] regarding transgender women (as I knew she would). And I sense that she was trying very hard to listen to that same spirit that James Nayler was speaking about in 1660. And so I post James Nayler here.

The line breaks are entirely my own. They are my attempts to break the text down into smaller pieces, more easily digestible, and to more easily show the structure and parallelism of his thinking in his last days. So here is his witness:

James Nayler [1660]

There is a Spirit which I feel
that delights to do no evil,
nor to revenge any wrong,
but delights to endure all things,
in hope to enjoy its own in the end.

Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention
and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty,
or whatsoever is of nature contrary to itself;
it sees to the end of all temptations.

As it bears no evil in itself
so it conceives none in thoughts to any other.

If it be betrayed it bears it,
for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness,
its life is everlasting love unfeigned,
and takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention,
and keeps it by lowliness of mind.

In God alone it can rejoice,
though none else regard it or can own its life.

It’s conceived in sorrow
and brought forth without any to pity it,
nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression;
it never rejoiceth
but through sufferings,
for with the world’s joy
it is murdered.

I found it alone,
being forsaken;
I have fellowship therein with them
who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth,
who through death
obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.

Thou wast with me
when I fled from the face of mine enemies,
then didst thou warn me in the night;
thou carriedst me in thy power
into the hiding place thou hadst prepared for me;
there thou coveredst me with thy hand,
that in time thou mightest bring me forth
a rock before all the world.

When I was weak
thou stayedst me with thy hand,
that in thy time
thou mightest present me to the world
in thy strength, in which I stand
and cannot be moved.

Praise the Lord, O my soul.
Let this be written for those that come after.
Praise the Lord.

J.N.

A Few Words on John 9

So Jesus and a handful of his followers are walking down the street, and they pass yet another beggar. The fellow is sitting on a mat with a wood bowl for donations in front of him. And one of the disciples (probably Peter, he was always saying stupid things) points the fellow out to Jesus, “Who sinned,” he asks, “this man or his parents?” Because the beggar was blind from birth.

And this is how it works. We see something that makes us uncomfortable: in this case a blind guy, so impoverished he’s reduced to sitting on the roadside begging for coins. And it troubles us in places we don’t like being troubled. What’s our usual response? Throw a few coins at them and keep on walking. The last thing we want is to see them as a human being, more like us than we really want to know.

But our nameless disciple doesn’t throw coins at the guy. He uses his religion to do something that people have been doing with their religion for thousands of years — he made himself feel better by blaming somebody else and using his religion for permission to do it. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Believing that somebody did somebody wrong, and that’s why the guy is blind and on the side of the street begging, makes us feel better. After all nobody is singing this somebody done somebody wrong song about us — it must be somebody else. And the only thing scarier than we are to blame, is that maybe our world is to blame. Maybe we have created a world that at its heart is unfair and unjust. And we can’t go there. Fixing that one is just too big a mess. And besides we’re not begging in the streets, and we are benefiting just a little bit too much from the way things are to want to see changes that are too big.

Rabbi Jesus, stops takes a look at the guy begging by the side of the street, and replies, “He didn’t sin. And neither did his parents. Or at least, that’s not why the guy is blind.”
This man was born blind, so the works of God might be made manifest in him. This man was born blind for the glory of God.

Well that’s a game changer! I don’t get to blame anybody anymore. Unless of course I want to go toe to toe in the boxing ring with the all-powerful all-knowing Creator of the universe. I’m really NOT going to win that one.

So we don’t get to play the blame game. But we still have the problem about who’s responsible — that doesn’t go away. After all that poor guy that triggered this whole thing for us is still sitting there by the side of the road on his mat and his bowl and his snaggle-tooth guide dog named Ned. And we’re still not digging around in our pockets for change. And if we’re there, then we’re responsible.

So Jesus bends down and scoops up some dirt from the street, mixes it with spit, and makes this disgusting paste which he then spreads all over the guy’s eyes. Chances are the guy would prefer a toonie! This Jesus is a master of street theatre. He spits in a blind guy’s face and tells him to go wash it off! He has people’s attention.

The guy gets up and goes to wash his face in the pool of Siloam (which means “sent”). He does this because he’s used to being spat upon. That’s what people do to people who make them uncomfortable — especially if they are privileged enough to get away with it. When he washes off the filth, he washes away his blindness, the thing that makes them different from us, the thing that makes us uncomfortable.

“As long as I’m in the world, I am the light of the world.” He talks to us in riddles sometimes — what do we do with this stuff? “As long as it is day, we need to do the work of the one who sent me.”

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Friendly Quakersaurus

Our whole world is set up on the premise that we can make ourselves look better by making other people look worse. There is the right kind of people, and there is those other kind of people. Jesus crossed the barrier between the privileged and those who make privileged people uncomfortable. In fact he shredded the barrier itself. He opened up the possibility for a community of people who by all normal expectations should be uncomfortable with one another. Because the real enemy isn’t the blind guy on the street. It’s the idea that we’re normal. It’s the idea that the world is good enough. Good enough for the people who benefit from it.

Mind the Pure Principle of Life

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Friendly Quakersaur

This post relates to the pastoral letter of Isaac Penington referred to as “To a Parent” in the Collected Works (click here).

It was part of a vague plan. The letter has a short preamble and a brief close and I imagined two maybe three postings to deal with that material before I dove into the meat of the matter.

I was all set to write a post on “prayer as mourning”. In fact the posting is sitting in my drafts folder — entitled and with a quote but otherwise gathering dust. Each time I sat down to begin the posting something restrained me. And I am reluctant to say that this is the hand of God or the Light Within (although I do not deny the possibility). I think the more likely explanation however is that I have brooded on the topic long enough that I am not actually convinced I would learn anything new by writing it down. And so at least for the time being, it is no longer a live wire for me.

So we move on to the next spiritual practice. When Isaac Penington leaves the opening paragraph and moves into the body of his letter, he takes up his main topic: the religious training of children. But unlike a modern commentator who may begin with developmental psychology and how children’s brains need to learn — he begins with the spirituality of the so-called teacher and directs him into waiting-worship.

A Pure Principle

There is a pure principle of life in the heart, from whence all good springs.

The opening sentence(s) of this letter’s body bring me to a standstill. It has a complex syntax marked by commas and semicolons — implying parallelism is the way in. But I needed to read this portion over and over in order to get a sense of what he was trying to say. And to demonstrate what I think it means — I have broken the sentences down into bullet points and I have bracketed out portions and emphasized others. In other words I’ve made the structure even more complex in order to make it more simple. I hope I have it right.

  • There is a pure principle of life in the heart, from whence all good springs.
    • This thou art to mind in thyself;
    • and this, thou art [to wait on the Lord, to be taught and enabled by him] to reach to, in thy children;

Penington starts with the classic Quaker assertion (at least from a liberal Quaker perspective) that there is a “pure principle of life in the heart” which I take to be a cognate of the more common “Light”. This pure principle is in the person he is addressing but it is also in his children. By implication it is also in Isaac Penington: the end purpose for Penington’s “retirement in the Spirit” is to bring forth God’s “pure life” in himself and others.

He asks his reader to “mind” this pure principle of life in ourselves “to reach to” it in others (more particularly our children). In contrast, we wait on the Lord to be taught and empowered by him to do so. While Friend Isaac is quite specifically talking about childcare and raising children in the faith — this seems more broadly applicable to ministry and mission in the manner of Friends.

The verb “to mind” has become an endangered species in Canadian English applied almost exclusively to childcare. In Canada we would say “look after the children” instead of “minding the children” in most cases, but we recognize the term — typically childcare done by non-child care professionals. We also call it “babysitting” even when the children in question are not babies and when no one is sitting but instead running around the backyard. The signs of the London underground are world famous: mind the gap. “Minding” is all about paying attention with the intention of responsibility and care.

What we mind in ourselves, we do not mind in others (although I suppose that could be because they are children). Instead we reach to that “pure principle of life” (“this”) in them. And we cannot reach this without the teaching and empowerment of “the Lord”. It is Christ that teaches us, not the light. The light is what opens us to the teaching. And this brings us to a 20th century Quaker teacher by the name of Lewis Benson.

Lewis Benson

I never met Friend Lewis Benson, but he has had some influence on me in the early days as I came into the orbit of Fritz and Kathleen Herzberg. Through their influence I read a short book called “Catholic Quakerism” and listened to Lewis Benson speak through a series of talks recorded on cassette tape (which tells you how very old I am!).

Lewis Benson appeared to have a deep influence people’s lives. The people who heard his message — which was a message about what the message of first friends was — became galvanized by it. In some ways this is a liability. Friends (at least in the more liberal tradition) heard the intensity and the commitment and instead of listening to the message identified that earnestness with the closed mindedness of evangelical Christianity. I have spoken before how labels give us permission to relate to the label instead of the person — and I think the work and witness of those friends has been hampered by having been so labelled.

In 1970 journal called Quaker Religious Thought published an article by Lewis Benson called “That of God in Every Man” — what did George Fox mean by it? (click here). Transcriptions and PDFs of this article are available in various sources over the Internet (here for example) because multiple friends think it’s an important witness.

Friend Benson’s work relates to this little letter in at least two ways. First, that “thing” that we tend to refer to as the Light or “that of God in everyone” went by multiple names in Fox and the early Friends. They were rather fond of the term “Seed” which they borrowed from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and which Paul in turn borrowed from Genesis (the biblical book, not the rock band). I put the word thing in quotes because Benson is convinced that the light is not a thing. It is not something in us somewhere that we can access. It is not the divine principle within us. It is something God places their that calls us to be united with God. It is a longing and not a something.

Benson is also convinced that, the oft quoted phrase “answering that of God in everyone” should be paired with a similar phrase in George Fox “reaching that of God”. We are called to be a missional people.

This is likely to be disturbing to at least some people. The notion that the children of our meetings are in some sense a mission field that need to be “reached” is probably the sort of notion that causes modern people in general and many Quakers in particular to raise walls rather than open hearts.

Last Thoughts

This posting raises more quibbles than answers. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I know of at least two people who sometimes visit this space who know Lewis Benson far better than I do for example — and they may have something to say with my treatment or my account of how Lewis Benson has been received in Quaker circles.

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What I take away from this: that Quaker teaching that seems to make us most unique — that there is a pure principle of life within each of us from which all good springs — is both true and not the end of the story. That Seed, that Principle, that Light is not itself Our Teacher. Like Paul says of the law, it cannot itself save, it is but a pedagogue, a slave who walks along the road with us and brings us to the One who has come to teach us himself.

If you are further curious about how the first Friends understood this inner principle, or want someone else’s understanding of Lewis Benson’s tract I would heartily recommend you to a blog posting from a very long time ago by fellow named George Amoss (click here).

George Fox Epistle XX [1652]

This posting was revised as of 13th day of 5th month (according to the modern reckoning) in response to comments. My apologies. Some of the transcription errors were quite horrendous!

To all my dear brethren, whom the God of power hath enlightened with his eternal light, and discovered unto you is way of truth, and brought you out of the dark ways, wherein ye have walked; which dark ways all the world walk in. But where the pure light of God is witnessed, it guides to himself. The light is but one, which leads out of darkness and the dark world, into the world which is without end. Therefore all Friends and brethren in the eternal truth of God, walk in it up to God, and be not sayers only, nor backsliders; for the backslider is a sayer, and not a doer, and there arises ambition, pride and presumption out of that nature. But dwell in the pure light, which God hath made manifest to you in your understanding, and turn your minds to him, and walk as children of the light, and of the day, and be not drunken in anything, nor run to extremes in any thing; but be moderate and patient. Wait for the presence of the great God, and our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ; and be not so childish as to be tossed with men’s words without life. And run not out after others’ liberties, which they have got in their notions; for thou that dost so, wilt not abide in the truth; and so thou mayest come to be shaken, and shake others, who look at words. But wait everyone in particular, (in the measure that God hath given you,) upon God, in the fear of God, then your hearts will be kept clean; and this is the sure way. And wait all to have the son made manifest in you, and the son alone to set you free in yourselves in particular; and all that are made free by the son, are one. But the first nature, that would have liberty, must go into captivity; which they that live in their carnal reasoning, seek freedom for. But here is man deceived in his first birth.

George Fox

But ye all, whom the immortal seed is brought to light, who are raised up to sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus, and are become children of the day, walk as children of the day, and as children of the light, and “let your light so shine before men, that they may glorify your Father, which is in heaven.” All loving the light, ye love the one thing, which gathers your hearts together to the fountain of light and life; and walking in it, ye have unity one with another and the “blood of Jesus Christ cleanses you from all sin.” The knowledge of the letter, which you formally got into your notions and comprehensions, the dark mind gave dark meanings to it, and so kept you in the broad way; but now wait all to have the same spirit manifested in your understandings, which was in them who gave forth the scriptures, who are come out of the broad way, holy men of God, who had escaped the pollutions of the world. And if every particular of you know not a principle within, which is of God, to guide you to wait upon God, ye are still in your own knowledge, which is brutish and sensual. But waiting all upon God in that which is of God, ye are kept open to receive the teachings of God. And the pure wisdom and knowledge is that, which comes from above, which is to know God, and Jesus Christ, the way, which is hidden from the world; and to walk out of your own ways, and out of your own thoughts. And dwelling in that which is pure, up to God, it commands your own reason to keep silent, and to cast your own thoughts out: and dwelling and that which is pure, it discovereth all this. So dwelling in the Spirit, it keepeth all your hearts to God. To whom be all praise, honour, and glory for ever!

Friendly Stegosaurus

G. F.

From Judge Fell’s in Lancashire, the 31st of the 11th month, 1652.

…but I digress

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You see I had this plan. The next word Isaac Penington uses for prayer in his little letter is “mourning” and I was going to go there. Word study and all sorts of stuff like that there.

And then came midweek meeting for worship. It is been a very long time since I’ve been to midweek meeting for worship and this is my first midweek meeting online so to speak. It was a quiet little meeting as it often is in the evenings. And I was moved to speak.

I shared from memory the biblical story of Hannah. I am fairly familiar with the story. My cat is named Hannah. A Quaker author, Hannah Whithall Smith (click here), was influential to me when I was still new to Friends. The story of the biblical Hannah can be found in I Samuel chapter 1 (click here).

Hannah and Her Sister-Wife

Hannah’s husband had two wives. Although the Bible doesn’t say so, I take Hannah to be wife number one. The second wife was basically brought in to make babies because Hannah was barren. And the second wife, took every advantage to shame and humiliate Hannah as a result.

The Bible is a patriarchal text. There is no escaping that. It does not go out of its way to honour women’s experience. This is one of the rare occasions where it does so. One of the strengths of the Bible is that it is willing to be critical of the Israel that authored it. It acknowledges the practice of polygyny (the patriarchal practice of having more than one wife) but it also acknowledges the woundedness of the practitioners. It does not lift it up as an ideal so much as a practical necessity. And it is well aware of what the practice does to human relationships and family politics.

Now the family heads up to a place called Shiloh for a festival. Animals are sacrificed. There is feasting and drinking and dancing. Hannah is overwhelmed, she withdraws from the merrymaking to go into the temple. She prays there alone, and overwrought, with tears streaming down her face, her lips form words but no sound comes out.

The presiding priest, a fellow named Eli, sees her there and assumes she’s drunk from the festival. He berates her and tries to have her thrown out. Instead she stands up for herself, tells him she’s not drunk but praying her heart out. Flustered (I think) he blesses her and promises her that God has heard her prayer.

There is more to the story than that. But that’s where I left off when I shared Wednesday night. What happens next is Hannah and her family go home and Hannah conceives a child (in the usual way). The child will be the prophet Samuel. Samuel will anoint Saul, the first king of Israel, and his successor, King David. Samuel — despite himself — changes Israelite and even human history. He moves Israel from a tribal confederacy into nationhood. More immediately, he delivers God’s prophecy to a corrupt priesthood that defrauded the people.

Second Thoughts

At the time I gave no commentary on the story. I did not know why it was laying on my heart nudging me to speak and to share. But now I’ve had two days to brood about it.

While I did not know it at the time it is in many ways the breach between my last blog post and the one I have been planning for next. Hannah withdraws from the busyness of life, and the celebrations of life, to be alone with her God. And what she does there is mourn — which is where I was going to go in my next blog posting. In that sense it is a confirmation that I am writing about what I am supposed to be writing about right now. It is also a warning to me that this is not about words alone but real human situations and the intensity and the anguish that comes out of them.

It does not happen often to me. My prayer life tends to be bled dry of feeling. I crave a certain austerity in my prayers and meditations. But there have been times when I have stood in prayer with tears and the words formed on my lips but would not leave my throat. I identify with Hannah in that sense.

During at least one of those times I turned to Protestant (United Church of Canada) clergy for support and found them not merely inadequate but incompetent bordering on abusive. They spoke from their place in the church, speaking for the institution, instead of as the listening ear. They sought to impose their own interpretations on my experience in a way that discounted it. And sometimes they were just unavailable. In the trauma thereby was extended rather than shortened. And so Hannah’s experience with Eli also resonates.

My experience with failed pastoral support has been part of my return journey into Quakerism. I read in early friends the strong anti-clerical sentiments and I no longer dismiss them. Early friends used quite harsh language — George Fox was rather fond of the term “apostasy”. And I no longer quickly pass over the word.

The Bible places a prayer on Hannah’s lips. It was almost certainly not sung by Hannah. It speaks of anointing kings in a time when Israel had no kings. But the sentiment of the prayer rings true for Hannah’s situation. It is part of the prophetic call for the valleys to be raised up in the mountains brought low. In a world where power is abused the kin-dom of God promises great reversals of fortune.

Song of Hannah
(I Samuel 2:1b-10 NRSV)

“My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

“There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.

“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

No Rule but the Inner Life

I recently posted a pastoral letter from Isaac Penington dated 1665 (click here) with the promise that I would return to it at some point to reflect on it. This posting is the beginnings of that consideration. My plan for this space is to go through this letter looking for indications of Friend Isaac’s prayer practices.

On the surface this letter is all about advice in child-rearing. But at the same time the letter is saturated with references to spiritual practices (i.e., “prayer”). So let”s see where this takes us.

Retired in spirit

The word “retire” pretty much had the same range of meanings in the 1600s as it does today. The emphasis would be less on ending one’s work-life, and more on withdrawing from social situations into isolation. Likely, the primary sense, unlike today would have been a military retreat. It occurs twice in the AV 1611 (i.e., “King James version) and both of them refer to the tactical withdrawal of fighting troops from the field of battle. So we can infer that this “retirement” is something similar to what we would today call a religious or spiritual retreat.

When we talk about withdrawing “in spirit” for the purpose of prayer it’s hard not to be reminded of the words of Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew about withdrawing to our “closet”. I cite the AV 1611 simply because that is the version Isaac Penington read.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Matthew 6:5-6 [AV 1611]

The “closet” is almost certainly NOT what we think of as a closet today — a clothes closet. The exact reference of the Greek word is a bit ambiguous. Residential buildings were usually open plan and so the closet would have been any part of that building that could be closed off from the main room — a storage room perhaps or even a bedroom.

Historically this passage in Matthew becomes the anchor for a broad set of practices. The monastics and the hermits withdrew from the world using this passage as justification. The monasteries and convents were referred to as “cloisters” which word has the same roots in medieval French as our word closet and closed. But the spiritual literature that came out of those cloisters shifted the sense of this passage from the physical isolation into exploring interiority. Monks very quickly learned that even when they were in the monastery they could get caught up in the busyness of life. And so the “closet” became the inner cloister of the heart.

This is almost certainly what Isaac Penington is talking about when he refers to “retired in spirit”. He is not just physically withdrawing from the world and its busy activities. He is also withdrawing his attention to focus more fully on spiritual matters.

Social Location

I really wasn’t planning on going here, but somehow I feel this would be an incomplete posting if I did not. Spiritual practices are also social practices which means that they are embedded in a social network of people and activity. And so their meaning shifts with our social location.

You don’t hear the term social location as often anymore. Or the other term overly inflated with its own sense of self-importance: positionality. The more contemporary term to talk about such things is “privilege”. All of these terms are in-house jargon. People use them as much to self designate themselves as part of a group or an ideology as they do to actually communicate meaningful things.

The fact that Isaac Penington could withdraw both physically and mentally from the demands of his day to the point where the arrival of the morning post constituted an interruption — this fact alone — says something about his privilege and his social location. He belongs to the right kind of people. The people who have the leisure to think about things — indeed are expected to think about things. This is a man with household servants and probably land. Which is interesting, because the overwhelming success of Quakerism in the first years was due to its appeal to rustic manual labourers rather than to gentry in their London townhouses.

Bringing It Home

Now Isaac Penington was a Quaker (of course), and I seek to allow Quaker mores to inform my own practice as much as I am able. One of the serious draws for me of Quakerism is that witness, “but what can thou say?”. I do not want a faithfulness that is in words alone.

I often feel the call to go within: to withdraw both physically and mentally; but I do not experience this is the spiritual call. It is an avoidance strategy that happens when I am overwhelmed, over-stressed, overstimulated or over-committed. I am an introvert and as such is my preferential coping mechanism when life becomes difficult to manage.

T.A.R.D.I,S.

We introverts suffer from the delusion that, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, we are bigger on the inside than we are on the outside. It is important for me to always remember that it is in fact a delusion. Just because I tend to introvert — especially in times of stress — does not mean that I have met the call to confront God in my life more than halfway. I do not have an edge over extroverts in this manner.

magpies

In fact, once I do go within, I have a hard time focusing on God. My brain is something of a magpie and it likes to collect shiny new thoughts and ideas to feed me in the silence. And they are no more holy than the squirrel that runs across the front yard or the cardinal singing from the cedar tree. Even though they come disguised as angels of light.

So going within is not always a holy exercise for me. It is comfort seeking. And it is avoidance. One of the life lessons given to me, is that while we are called to serve God with our strength, we generally meet God in our weakness. My task then, is to lean into the anxiety — to seek God in outward activity.

It is often times true, that I will attend meeting for worship and find myself un-refreshed. It seems like the entire time was spent pulling myself away from distractions and back to centre over and over again and never simply resting in the Presence. But it is at the same time often those very difficult times of worship that bear the most fruit in the hours and days following. It is almost as if the real blessing is not resting in the presence of God but seeking the presence of God.

If, by the way, you want a very good book on prayer as essentially, this recurring return to the centre, might I suggest David Johnson’s “A Quaker Prayer Life“?

A Pastoral Letter

Friendly Stegosaurus

I returned to blogging after many years in October 2019, and even then, the Isaac Penington letter printed below had been weighing on me for several months.

From the first time I read this letter I had this sense that I needed to do something with it — mostly for my own understanding — but also in writing possibly as a help to others.

This letter is ostensibly a letter to an enquirer (a Quaker sympathizer of some sort) asking about the implications of Quaker practice for the rearing of children in the faith. This is an important question and if we had better answers to that question over the generations then maybe Quaker history would have been different.

I cannot say if this inner push to engage this text is a leading from the Light or whether it is simply the creaturely thing in me that knows pontificating on the minutiae will feed the Reasoner and my ego that stands behind it. I do know that if I follow my usual practice what will start out a simple plan will quickly become complicated and then unwieldy and collapse under the weight of impossible expectations. My hard-drive is littered with half finished projects!

And so I leave you here with this letter and a promise to return to it. But with no promises of what returning to it might look like.

YOU expect from me an outward rule; but I have no rule, but the inward life

TO A PARENT

DEAR FRIEND,

I have not much freedom to write at present, being retired in spirit, and mourning to my God, for the powerful bringing forth of his pure life, yet more perfectly, both in myself and others; yet the spirit of thy letter doth so strongly draw, that I cannot be wholly silent.

This, therefore, in the uprightness, fear, and tenderness of my heart, I say to thee.

There is a pure principle of life in the heart, from whence all good springs. This thou art to mind in thyself; and this, thou art to wait on the Lord, to be taught and enabled by him to reach to, in thy children; that thou mayst be an instrument in his hand, to bring them into that fear of him, which is acceptable to him, and will be profitable to them. Mind, therefore, its leadings in thy heart, and wait to be acquainted with its voice there. And, when thy children ask thee any questions of this nature, — What God is; where he dwells; or whether he sees them in the dark — do not reject it; but wait to feel somewhat of God raised in thee, which is able to judge, whether the question be put forth in sensibility or in vanity; and which can give thee an advantage of stirring the good, and reaching to that, which is to be raised both in young and old, to live to the praise of him who raiseth it. And take heed of a judgment after the flesh; for so thou mayst judge us, our principles and practices, and approve or disapprove, &c. But wait to feel that raised in thee, which judges righteous judgment in every particular; and wait the time of its judgment, and be still and silent, further than manifestly thou knowest that it, and not thou, judgeth.

And, as to thy children, daily feel the need of instruction from the Almighty, to govern and direct them, and wait daily to receive it from him; and what thou receivest, give forth in fear, and wait for his carrying it home and working it upon their hearts. For he is a Father, and hath tenderness, and gives true wisdom to every condition of his people, that wait upon him; so as he may be known to be all daily, and they able to be nothing without him.

Thou expectest, perhaps, from me, an outward rule; but I have no rule, but the inward life, and that not in the way of outward knowledge, but daily made known as my Father pleaseth; nor can I direct thee to any other, but to wait, that life may be revealed in thee daily, according to thy daily need in every particular. And this I say to thee, in the love of my heart, wait, O wait, for the true discerning which is given to the true seed (in the raising and dominion of which in thee thou wilt feel it, and not otherwise), that a wrong thing judge not in thee, in the reasoning and fairly appearing wisdom; for then thou wilt judge and be led amiss, and, through error of judgment, stray aside, and wander from the desire of thy heart.

But breathe unto the Lord, that thy heart may be single, thy judgment set straight, thou thyself by his principle of life in thee, and thy children guided to, and brought up in, the sense of the same principle. As for praying, they will not need to be taught that outwardly; but, if a true sense be kindled in them, though ever so young, from that sense will arise breathings to him that begat it, suitable to their state; which will cause growth and increase of that sense and life in them.

Thus, in the plainness of my heart, have I answered thee, according to the drawings and freedom which I found there, which I dare not exceed; who am thy unfeigned Friend, though outwardly unknown,

I. P.

20th of Third Month, 1665

from Isaac Penington, Works and as found on at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/letter05.html, 04-22-2020 9:04 PM

Lambs War: What’s in a Name?

I wrote this on March 1st — it seems a lifetime ago. Things have happened since then that I’m not ready to write about here. So I post this unedited. The hiatus mentioned in the opening refers to an earlier hiatus of writing.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Juliet Capulet

And so I am back. The hiatus having more to do with not having anything urgent to say and a life full of distractions. I want to pick up where I left off here (Lamb of God I: On Translation). You can see from this previous post my intrinsic style: to be overly scrupulous about some things while ignoring others. Rabbi Yeshua may accuse me of swallowing the camel while straining out the gnats.

Way opened for me to return to this blog through a number of sources which seem to coalesce into a niggle. A niggle is a word I picked up from a Friend’s ministry a long time ago. A “niggle” is an inner nudge, not yet ready to be called a “leading” or a “concern”. The groundwork was laid with the reading of the book by theologian Gregory Boyd. He documents one of the sub-themes of scripture: the war in heaven. And then along came John Jeremiah Edminster with a comment on the Abiding Quaker blog commending James Nayler’s tract The Lamb’s War. Which led me to look at Nayler more directly.

Present anyone with the term “Lamb’s War” and they will assume it is some kind of wordplay thing like “jumbo shrimp” or “poor little rich boy” or possibly “honest lawyer”. And there may be something to that: just what kind of war could a lamb wage? But mention the Lamb’s War in Quaker circles and you will be referring to a well known but generally unread tract by one James Nayler. You can actually read it online thanks to the faithfulness of Quaker Heritage Press (click here).

It has had a profound influence on Quakers over the years despite the fact a minority of us have engaged it directly. And with this blog posting I am about to become one of those who have become so engaged. “The Lamb’s War” is actually an abbreviation. The full title is:

The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin


Which brings us to the musings of that famed philosopher of linguistics, Juliet Capulet, cited at the opening of this blog posting. She claims that the name of a man is not a part of him but something external to him. And if you agree with her (or with Billy Bob Shakespeare, speaking through her) then it follows that the title of this tract is not itself a part of this tract (or for that matter, the title of this blog posting, is not a part of the post).

I commiserate with dear old Billy Bob. I have had two articles appear in newspapers where the editors gave the pieces different titles than I myself had assigned. In at least one case, the title did not describe the content — in fact the title misconstrued my main point.

So, if the title is actually not a part of the work, what is it and what is it doing there? The term that some (mostly postmodern) literary critics give to titles and other pieces of text which surround the main work (tables of contents, indices, back cover book blurbs, and the like) is paratext. Paratexts are deliberately added to the text to set the limits and boundaries of the text. As an intentional act this means we need to understand them not solely through what they say, but also by what they do by saying it.

What does a title, such as “The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin” do? Well, it does a number of things, but I think it primary function is to label the text. As a person living with disability in a world that is unrepentantly ablest, labelling makes me a little uncomfortable. Labels invite us to relate to the label instead of the thing labelled.

And, as we have already noted, the label is not itself the thing. If I go into a hardware store and pick up the box labelled “50 flathead screws” and I am in the market for flathead screws I will take the box with its label to the cashier and take the product home. I am not going to inspect the box and count the nails. If when I get home I find there are only 49 and not 50 I am not going to have great sorrows and vituperation’s about it. But if I open the box and find mothballs instead — yes I am going to be quite perturbed. The label is not the thing but I took action with regards to the thing based on the label.

The label is very helpful. It becomes a handle, as already noted, with which to refer to that more complicated massive language-game which is the entire tract; but it also shapes my expectations. When I read a book or watch a film, consciously or unconsciously, I am waiting for that moment when I will know why this book or this film has this title. In some cases the connection between the title and the text is straightforward and simple. An example might be Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale or Edgar Allen Poe’s Annabel Lee. But with more allusive titles the connection may be more elusive or may shift as the work progresses. Consider the film Jésus de Montréal, for example.

And of course what words do are shaped by the words we use. So next time let’s look at the specifics of that title: The Lamb’s War Against the Man of Sin.

So What Do We Do With All This?

Nothing About Us, Without Us, Is For Us
  1. FIRST I would ask you to be mindful of your use of labels and other people’s use of labels. To apply a label is to close a door. It is to shape how you see another person and in some cases to dismiss them.
  2. LIKEWISE the titles on books and films and 17th century religious tracts — they are there to marginalize some readings and to lift others up. Keep yourself aware of how that shapes how you read.
  3. I HAVE been pushing how what is said has functional meaning beyond the meaning of what is said. But to fully understand that functional meaning we need to look at what is said. Next posting I look at two figures mentioned in this title: the Lamb and the Man of Sin. Before going on to my next blog post, consider both these terms and what they may mean and what they may mean for you. Especially be aware of whether they stir up strong feelings or memories and how you react to them.

Zoom

This morning I attended online meeting for worship sponsored by Pendle Hill for the second time and the second day in a row. I do not know if this will be a sustained practice — likely not. But I’m glad it is available to me.

[i]

My mind a chattering squirrel in a maple.
Return. Quiet.
From the next room
the long slow creak of the door.
The one I love loving me;
the noise of her trying to be soundless for me.
Return. Quiet.
Birds cry from 100 miles away.
Return. Quiet.
Then we are done.

[ii]

There are a number of online meeting for worship events popping up on the inter-web. Pendle Hill just happens to be the one where the time and the time zone fits me best. It runs from 8:30 AM to 9:10 AM in the Eastern Time Zone. If you’re interested click here.

[iii]

I am not familiar with Zoom (the platform Pendle Hill is using for its particular M4W experiment). So my first thoughts are that I am too engaged with the fiddly bits. I scroll through the participants lists looking for names and faces that are familiar. Perhaps a handful from online and one person I’ve met face-to-face.

It does not feel like Meeting for Worship. But not sure what it feels like. And again this may just me needing to get familiar with the process and the folkways. The closest thing I can compare it to is using a meditation app. The one I’m most familiar with is insight timer (it’s very good, but I’m not very good at using it) and it really doesn’t feel like mindfulness meditation using an app either. It’s a strange creature halfway between face-to-face worship in solitary meditation augmented by technology.

[iv]

One pattern I’m noticing (over only two meetings) the tendency for vocal ministry to draw heavily or even be exclusively the words of someone else. People are singing hymns. People are reading other people’s poems. That seems comfortable here in a way that would seem strange in a face-to-face meeting for worship.

Here I put on my philosopher of language hat. This is what some language theorists would call “appropriated discourse”: taking the words of another, repeating them, and thereby making them your own. It has always been a part of Quaker ministry but my experience has been that it is usually a smaller part.

Appropriated discourse is interesting because the same words in a new setting and in situations where the speaker is quite open about appropriating the others language sometimes shifts the sense or adds poignancy. A him from a more traditional church setting was sung but with some of the words changed to make them more Quaker-friendly for example (“Lord” becomes “God” and “I” becomes “we”).

Why is this I wonder? Perhaps we are less strict on the folkways when we are worshiping from our own space. Maybe we hunger for connection and connecting with others’ words helps us make that connection.

At the rise of worship we were asked to share prayers, blessings and reflections. It is clear the social isolation caused by COVID-19 ways on people’s thoughts. It is equally clear that carrying that through worship makes us mindful of those who bear the greater burden of this crisis: health care workers, front-line workers, and the people who are vulnerable to hunger, poverty and economic risk as a result of this pandemic.

Friendly Stegosaurus

May we each and all find ways of connecting with people in this time of social-distancing and may we also remember those who carry the greater burden of this crisis.