Saturday, May 31, 2008

The most wretched of Quaker bloggers am I, having neglected posting here for as long as I have. God bless Robert Hopper for posting here most recently. I have also been reading various religious tomes, purchased on the cheap from a used bookstore that opened up down the street from my old house.

I may post my thoughts -- which will be much briefer and more visceral than Robert's very thorough review below -- on a number of these books. But in the immediate term, wanted to share some quick thoughts on a piece of pop religious fiction I bolted through in the last couple of days.

Judging from book sales figures, I may be one of the last people around to read Joshua, A Parable for Today by Joseph Girzone. I have to admit that the writing was a bit stiff and hackneyed, but since the central character was in fact a modern-day incarnation of Jesus, the book does have a certain appeal that pulled me through the text. I also understand the book has been made into a movie.

Girzone's work has received its share of criticism, some from those who criticize the Joshua character's opposition to religious authority. Indeed, I found myself thinking of George Fox regularly when reading this book, and felt that Quakers reading the Joshua books may see this character as a Fox surrogate. Lutherans may find him to be a stand-in for Martin Luther

While I do not want to be a spoiler, I will say I found the ending of this book anti-climactic. Moreover, I detected a strong anti-Catholic bias in the book. To those reading this book, it should come as no surprise that Girzone is a former Catholic priest.

I may pick up others of the Joshua series -- most certainly if they come up in the inventory of the used bookstore down I patronize. This is fiction, and is not the stuff of deep works that are to be meditated upon. But if they make us more mindful of our relationship with God and cause us to contemplate the role of Christ in our daily lives, these books are certainly preferable to other literature.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

7th Day 1/5/2008
Robert L. Hopper

Several months ago, during the latter part of summer, I visited Charles and his family. As I was leaving, I saw several books that caught my attention, and mentioning this to Charles, he offered to give me any one of them if I would write a short review of it for this blog. I agreed, and I chose The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. Though I lack any formal training in the practice of book reviews, I submit the following in the hope that it, at the least, encourages others to read the book for themselves.
Thomas A Kempis’ sought a life, in contrast to the culture around him, of devotion, zeal for spiritual truth, and simplicity. He divided the work under consideration into four books, each one containing a number of chapters. The first book, “Counsels on the Spiritual life,” is divided into chapters that address, among other topics, personal humility, reading of the Holy Scriptures, peace and spiritual progress, avoidance of rash judgments, and bearing with the faults of others. In the second book, “Counsels on the Inner Life,” he addresses, among other topics, purity of mind and simplicity of purpose, self-knowledge, loving Jesus above all things, humble submission to God, and the cross. In the third book (the longest of the four), “ On Inward Consolation,” he addresses topics such as Divine love, how Truth instructs us in silence, how to bear sorrows, trust in God, that our peace cannot depend on man, etc. The fourth book, “On the Blessed Sacrament,” addresses communion in the form of bread. The third and fourth books take the form of a dialogue between the believer and Christ Jesus, or a monologue of Christ Jesus and the believer.
I found much of insight as I read this work; some of what Kempis wrote squares with Friends’ experience, understanding, and doctrine. His stress on the need for humility, simplicity, trust, and silence, reminded me of similar counsel given by tender Friends both past and present. In the third chapter of book one (entitled “On the Teaching of Truth”) he writes: “Those to whom the Eternal Word speaks are delivered from uncertainty. From one Word proceed all things, and all things tell of Him; it is He, the Author of all things, who speaks to us” (p. 30). In the same chapter, further on, he writes, speaking of those who seek knowledge without humble knowledge of themselves, and talk of spiritual matters over regeneration in the renewing of their mind and amendment of life: “If only such people were as diligent in the uprooting of vices and the planting of virtues as they are in the debating of problems, there would not be so many evils and scandal among the people...At the Day of Judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holily we have lived. Tell me, where are now all those Masters and Doctors whom you knew so well in their lifetime in the full flower of their learning? Other men now sit in their seats, and they are hardly ever called to mind. In their lifetime the seemed of great account, but now no one speaks of them” (p. 31). This latter quote recalls the words of Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:17-31). There were many other such points of contact between Kempis’ work and Friends’ experience, understanding, and doctrine, and this should be no surprise, for as Barclay wrote in his Apology:
§V. Thirdly, though according to the knowledge of God revealed unto us by the Spirit, through that more full dispensation of Light which we believe the Lord hath brought about in this day, we judge it our duty to hold forth that pure and spiritual worship which is acceptable to God and answerable to the testimony of Christ and his apostles, and likewise to testify against and deny not only manifest superstition and idolatry, but also all formal will-worship, which stands not in the power of God, yet, I say, we do not deny the whole worship of all those that have borne the name of Christians even in the apostasy, as if God had never heard their prayers nor accepted any of them. God forbid we should be so void of charity. The latter part of the Proposition showeth the contrary; and as we would not be so absurd on the one hand to conclude, because of the errors and darkness that many were covered and surrounded with in Babylon, that none of their prayers were heard or accepted of God, so will we not be so unwary on the other as to conclude that because God heard and pitied them so, we ought to continue in these errors and darkness, and not come out of Babylon when it is by God discovered unto us. The Popish mass and vespers I do believe to be, as to the matter of them, abominable idolatry and superstition, and so also believe the Protestants; yet will either I or they affirm that in the darkness of Popery no upright-hearted men, though zealous in these abominations, have been heard of God or accepted of him?2 Who can deny but that both Bernard and Bonaventure, Taulerus, Thomas à Kempis, and divers others have both known and tasted of the love of God and felt the power and virtue of God's Spirit working with them for their salvation? And yet ought we not to forsake and deny those superstitions which they were found in? The Calvinistical Presbyterians do much upbraid (and I say not without reason) the formality and deadness of the Episcopalian and Lutheran liturgies, and yet, as they will not deny but there have been some good men among them, so neither dare they refuse but that when that good step was brought in by them of turning the public prayers into the vulgar tongues, though continued in a liturgy, it was acceptable to God, & sometimes accompanied with his power and presence: yet will not the Presbyterians have it from thence concluded that the common prayers should still continue; so likewise, though we should confess that through the mercy and wonderful condescension of God there have been upright in heart both among Papists and Protestants, yet can we not therefore approve of their ways in the general or not go on to the upholding of that spiritual worship which the Lord is calling all to, and so to the testifying against whatsoever stands in the way of it. (

I, too, am of a mind that we cannot deny the working of the love of God within those whose manner of worship and understanding is not entirely consistent with that of Friends, and we can glean great insight and encouragement for our spiritual growth from the writings of such persons. It is in this understanding that I recommend the work of Thomas A Kempis.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review of George Fox & the Book of Revelation, by Arthur Berk, with an introduction by Daniel Berrigan (New Foundation Fellowship publications).

In my experience, no other book of the Bible is as misunderstood, misused, or avoided as the book of Revelation. I can recall my own misguided thinking about this book of the Bible, shaped by the children’s bible study and the preaching in the Baptist churches I attended with my aunt in central Illinois, and the United Church of Christ I attended with my mother near Chicago. In the former, it was seen as conveying a prophesy about a distant future, unrealizable in the present age, and preached upon with a heavy dose of gloom and doom as incentive to get right with the Lord. In the latter, it was referred to as an example of apocalyptic literature, written for those people in that day and age, but having only symbolic meaning for us today at best, or as having no place or value in our enlightened age and time, except as an academic study, at worst. As a young adult, when I lived in Colorado Springs, CO, I overheard many street corner preachers using the images in the book of Revelation to scare their listeners. Sadly, today, we have a world filled with “end-times” theologies, in which this wonderful book of the Bible is used to frighten and enslave, or in the service of a particular geopolitical ideology, and the popular media, which thrives on sensationalism, promotes these misguided views of the book of Revelation. Recently, in a letter, I wrote the following in regard to this: Many Christians, of whatever stripe, have been misled, including myself before my convincement, about the meaning and place of the book of Revelation in our faith, and others avoid it for the same reason, thereby denying themselves a precious volume that, as George Fox pointed out, was written for us. I can recall how radically different, and refreshing, when I first read them, were Fox's openings on this book as recorded in his journal. Arthur Berk, of the New Foundation Fellowship, has written a small booklet entitled George Fox & the Book of Revelation, a work that I highly recommend.

I must say, when I read Fox’s journal for the first time, prior to my convincement, my reaction to his openings on the book of Revelation were that his thinking was so far ahead of others of his time. After my convincement, though, it became clear through my own experience that his openings had nothing to do with him being ahead of his time, and everything to do with being in the Spirit which gave forth the Scriptures. It is only by being in the same Spirit that gave them forth that one may rightly understand them. Arthur’s work is a succinct guide and aid for reflection and study, as it pulls together Fox’s writings on the text and the text of Revelation itself. As said in the excerpt from my letter above, I highly recommend this small but essential work to Friends and others who seek to be turned “from darkness to the marvelous Light of Christ” (p.12)

Consultation for New Meetings and Worship Groups 8/12/2007-8/14/2007 Friends Center, Barnesville, Ohio.

This consultation, organized and convened by Jack and Susan Smith of Rockingham Monthly Meeting, brought together Friends from near and far, to share, to learn, and to build fellowship with one another. We worshipped, we had Bible reading, we shared in the preparation of our common meals and the clean-up chores, and we also had unstructured time to enjoy the surroundings and one another’s company. There were eight sessions held over the two and a half days of the consultation, with several topics covered in the first six sessions, each led by one of the participants. Among the topics were: The history of new meetings among Conservative friends; What mistakes have happened, how can they be avoided, what does seem to work, and what we have learned; Recognizing and encouraging spiritual gifts, and how much structure is needed? To what extent should new groups be part of a big picture?; What is the role and place in the group of the convener, and the role of the sponsoring established monthly meeting?; What are the responsibilities of the new group? There was time in each session for questions and sharing. The last two sessions were left open for discussion and sharing on previous topics, and the discussion of topics arising as a result of what had taken place in the previous sessions. It became apparent during the sessions, and in our discussions during times of common labor and fellowship, that we shared some common experiences in-spite of having such varied and unique circumstances, and even that which was unique to the experience of another was encouraging to all, for it confirmed that the Lord does not use a cookie-cutter approach to how we develop as branches of the true Vine.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Knowledge of what is right versus the strength to do what is right.

"For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." (Deut. 30:11-14)

Within our hearts we usually have an inkling of what is the morally right course of action. In Deuteronomy, Moses presents the 10 Commandments and makes clear that these commandments are written in our hearts that we make follow them and on our tongues that we may speak them. We know this Word of God not in the letter but through an unspoken relationship with the Divine.

Some people would claim that this inborn knowledge of right and wrong is not theological in nature, but rather biological. Biologists like Marc Hauser suggest that our intrinsic sense of morality is the product of natural selection, as following certain moral codes tends to preserve a species or a society.

The exact mechanism and turn of events that led to the fact that we have this Word of God written in our hearts is not important, and while most Conservative Quakers would not take issue with various theories of how evolution took place or the process of natural selection, to see morality as biological rather than teleological presents certain problems.

First of all, if morality is seen simply as a tool for self-preservation or the end result of centuries of natural selection, it becomes very easy to decide to disregard that moral sense when it seems advantageous to us. We know it is wrong to kill, but if someone can argue that more lives will be saved, values defended or world conditions improved, we may decide to go to war. Making grave decisions on what are right and wrong courses of action based on what we feel the outcome of those decisions will be is an act of vanity. Events in the world unfold with too great a degree of complexity for us as individuals or groups of individuals to know for certain what the end result of our actions will be. Yet we regularly defy God's laws for the apparent convenience of men -- often with unintended, distratrous consequences.

Moreover, in situations where we know what the right course of action is, how can we stay motivated to take that course of action, particularly if we have no fear of negative repercussions? What of the embezzler who may feel that their employer is evil and deserves to be stolen from? What of the wife who feels neglected by her husband and considers an affair? If we are careful to avoid being caught, and if the people we are wronging are in the wrong themselves, why don't we simply commit these sins and feel the satisfaction of having had our way?

In order to stay on the path of righteousness, we must see righteousness as its own reward. While we love our neighbors as ourselves, sometimes our neighbors are hard to love, and in order to remain moral we have to look to higher, non-human-centric reasons to behave ethically towards them. Humankind, the earth, our daily life situations, are all transitory. They are as the grass, and will pass away like the passing of the seasons. In God's time, we will pass in mere moments.

This being the case, why not take the transient, illicit pleasures of life because they are there for the taking? If the reason that monogamy is right is that it supports the development of children, why not engage in adultery if no children are to be produced? If the reason we know stealing is wrong is that it viloates an inbred social contract, as someone like Hauser may contend, why should we avoid the temptation to steal if we don't think we will get caught? If the reasons that we have for walking a righteous path are biological or practical, and if they are based only on what is right or even desirable for us in the moment, our morality is built on shaky grounds indeed.

Fairness, justice, balance, love -- we need to see these things as divine and everlasting. And when we are moral because it is what God wishes for us, and because we delight only in His presence in our hearts, then we can succeed in being moral when otherwise we might fail.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

7th Day 21st 2007

Dear Friends,

Three items of news caught my attention this past week. One of them is well-known to most, and that is the tragedy at Virginia Tech, while the other two may not be so well-known. On PBS this past week, there was a report about the ecological disaster of commercial fishing. Of interest is the fact that over 90% of the ocean's large fish have been harvested in the past 30 years. Commercial fishing is not a "mom and pop" operation, for the most part, rather it is an industry with huge ships, factories that ply the waters, destroying the natural environment and discarding an obscene number of marine wildlife in pursuit of the most desirable ocean fish, and other seafood, in the developed world. In addition to this ecological disaster is the human cost--almost 1/3 of the population in the developing world depends on ocean fish for its sole source of protein, which means that the depletion of the ocean has its greatest impact on the weakest and poorest. I could not help but think of the words spoken by the Prophet Hosea, chapter 4: 1-3:

Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of
land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying,
and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood. Therefore
shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and
with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away.

The reasons for this, and other ecological problems, are many, but the core reason is little if ever mentioned or discussed--the sins of killing, greed, idolatry (literal and metaphorical), nationalism, selfishness, and so on. Until this core reason is admitted, is faced and dealt with through repentance and coming under the government of Christ Jesus in the heart and in one's conduct, all other solutions will be nothing more than Band-Aids. The sin of Adam and Eve was the desire and the act of going their own way and choosing to place their wills in subjection to the Adversary of their souls rather than God--disobedience to the voice of the Shepherd of Israel.

The second item, story of NPR about the new Reaper drone--an air force drone that can seek out and drop bombs and kill "targets" while being controlled by specially trained pilots anywhere in the world. Each of these drones cost $8,000,000. NPR interviewed one of the pilots in training, a fighter pilot chosen for this new duty. He described this new job as less "sexy," but it would enable him to "complete my missions and be home for dinner at night with my wife." I was shocked by this, not that I haven't heard such statements before, but it struck me, and it angered me, and it saddened me. Again I though of the above quote from Hosea. Again, the core reason reason for such callousness is the same--it is sinful disobedience and worldly lust disguised as honor, and duty, and truth.

The final story related to the tragedy at Virginia Tech. One of the survivors was interviewed on the evening news, and it was his forgiveness of the young man who killed himself after killing 32 others. He wished that he had been able to speak to and try to help in some way the young man who shot him. The tv reporter remarked and asked him if he knew how crazy this sounded. This reminded me of the some of the remarks about the Amish community's response to the shooter at the Nickel Mines school--it was seen as beyond understanding, strange, even unnatural. There were those who saw this response as a beautiful example of true Christianity, but it is my experience that even these folks saw this as beyond the ability of most people living in the larger world--this is the same as those who claim that the Sermon on the Mount is for some future point, and that God's commandments are for that future time. I was encouraged to hear what this young man said about forgiving and reaching out. It speaks of what we know, that there is a Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world--Christ Jesus the Word of God.


Monday, April 09, 2007

What do you feel moved to do?

When I read this story about a man here in Milwaukee who was so upset by a 17th century painting hanging at the Milwaukee art museum that he tore it off of the wall and started kicking it, I was simply amused. Amused and a little embarassed for my home town.

Upon reflection, I have been left with another impression. What if this was the exact response the artist was trying to elicit? After all, art is not designed to depict an event or a scene, but rather to cause an emotional reaction in those who behold it. Vannini certainly wanted to stimulate some emotional response with his painting of David holding the head of the vanquished Goliath. It is almost certain that he did not intend for anyone to be quite so disturbed as to put a foot through his canvas, but it could be he would prefer that reaction to no reaction at all.

Friends, we can apply this truth to our understanding of the Gospel as well. We must not simply read the scriptures from an intellectual standpoint. Rather, we must allow them to affect us, to change us, on an emotional and spiritual level. That is what the human authors intended, and it is that transformation that the Lord wants us to experience.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A philosophy of children.

Over the last 20 years, I have seen my own feeling about children gradually change, perhaps in parallel with my religious sensibilities.

In my early adulthood, I was adamant that I did not want children. There were too many children in the world already, and in retrospect I know that the idea of the responsibility of children was not something I was interested in.

I eventually married a woman who was also adamant that she did not want children, and when I became single again I was still not overtly interested in children. The tide probably began to turn for me when my niece Cassie was born. I felt something moving within me when I held her tiny, premature infant form in my arms. What moved was not so much my position on whether or not I wanted children, but rather my understanding that we need to love each individual child completely and with as much understanding and patience as Christ can grant us in the moment. This makes children not so much something that is wanted as much as a ministry that one can be called to by the Lord.

I came to think that while some people wanted children, and other people did not, this was not important. You see, at one point in history, people who got married either had children or did not. If the children came, they were a gift from God. If not, that was not God's plan. Later, we obtained technology that would allow us to avoid having children. And while in the past there were impolite words to refer to children born out of wedlock, we now were saddled with new terminology -- unwanted children. Now, we could prevent unwanted children, so that every child would be wanted. Now I am the first to admit that it is best to ensure that one can provide a stable and loving home for a child before having children, but I do believe that in recent years we have seen a continuation of the progression towards parents seeing children from their own, human, self-driven perspective rather from a Christ-centered perspective.

While more and more technology was marketed to prevent children for people who did not want them, other technology was created to allow people who did want children to have children, despite natural barriers. As a result of selfish human nature and aggressive marketing by the reproductive health industry, I believe that currently children are primarly viewed unconsciously as a consumer product. If you want them you can have them if you have enough money and are willing to pay the reproductive doctors.

Adoption is another avenue where money and children can become intertwined. As a recent adoptive parent, I can only relay the nature of some of the discussions my wife and I had about what we would and would not do to afford the adoption process. We had both heard horror stories of adoption agencies that milked prospective parents for all they could, justifying their various fee structures by the end result of the process -- a baby. Web sites and periodicals regarding adoption stress that obtaining second mortgages and even using credit cards are ways to afford the adoption process.

But clear thinking can put the cost of adoption into perspective, and help remove the emotional need one might feel to parent from the financial costs of adoption. Adoption agencies do not provide babies. They fulfill certain functions -- often required by regulation -- to provide foster and adoptive homes to children. By law, a child offered for adoption must be given freely, and very limited compensation can be offered for specific child-related expenses. But just as a Quaker may be critical of paid ministers for selling for money what Christ gave all men for free, adoption agencies can be guilty of the same thing. My wife and I chose a Christ-centered agency and were therefore less worried about this, but as Christ said, "you must be innocent as doves yet wise as serpents." These words of Christ Jesus should be one's constant guide in the adoption process. For just as the heart can be a vessel for God's love, if manipulated by others it can be a betrayer.

Each child is a gift from God to the world -- a gift that comes with a loving and joyous responsibility for those who would be parents. Even days into this experience called being a parent, I can feel myself changing, my concerns being less for myself and more for this child who depends on me -- currently for everything. This parenting experience will bring Carla and I closer to Christ Jesus, as we understand more fully the challenges that he has caring for and bringing man to the Father, and as we execute His teachings within the walls of our home.

Wanted? Unwanted? These are not valid questions when it comes to children. The child's worth does not rely on these things having to do with a parent. The child is wanted by God, and the parent's role is to instill that realization in the child, and prepare the child to grow not only physically and mentally, but spiritually in the eyes of the Lord.

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