Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting Back to the Garden

I was thinking last night about Church teaching and how we tend to skip right over the "Garden of Eden" and move so quickly into the disobedience of humanity and the alienation of humanity from God.

And, it seemed to me that Church teaching needs to go back to the Garden of Eden, to a longing in the heart of every person, to recall and remember a time of goodness and unity with God, others and the created order. And, when we get back there, we need to linger.

I think the real secret of Quaker teaching is that they start in the harmony and beauty and communion of the Garden of Eden, whereas other wings of the Church begin their teaching with the "fall into sin" by the first humans. Quakers are filled first of all with a deep conviction of the primal unity of God and humanity and they experience this in their souls. Sin, for them, is an alien force, and not natural for human beings. Alienation from God is an unnatural condition against which the soul rebels. This type of Christianity is in contrast with our Protestant Christianity which teaches first about the natural state of humanity being sinful. Catholicism is a little in between on this emphasis, being closer I think to Protestants than Quakers in practice.

So, what about starting out with this image of Paradise, not with the image of Paradise Lost? Maybe CSN&Y were on to something when they sang:"We've got to get ourselves back to the Garden"?

And, what about applying this type of emphasis when we think of our own individual lives? As we seek to understand our lives, maybe we ought to begin with those memories of a time when we experienced the sheer goodness and unity and joy and peace of life in this world? And, linger there a good long while before we start reflecting on the evil and disruption and sorrow and conflict.

The Quakers found the experience of the Garden of Eden in the depths of their souls. Maybe the way back to the Garden is to find the experience of true joy and peace in our memory as we have the courage and strength to remember simpler times, times for many of us from our younger days and childhoods. Times when things just made sense because we hadn't yet discovered how many things don't make sense. Times when we just felt the joy of new discoveries, of playing without worry, of experiencing being a part of life and not feeling the burdens of life.

I started thinking of these things after looking at some old pictures. It made me feel more alive inside to look at those pictures and remember. And, the remembering seemed to start something healthy in my heart and soul. Maybe I am on my way back to the Garden. It is good to remember that I once was a boy, a little boy in a house with a mom and a dad and a sister, and a dog. Because the way I experienced life at that time is deep within me. Somehow in remembering, that experience comes to me now and makes me more who I really am.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Inner Sanctuary of the Soul

In the first part of A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly begins to talk about living life from inner resources and shares his deeply held belief that there is "an inner sanctuary of the soul" within every man, woman and child. In this inner "holy of holies," the Spirit of God draws us to seek him deep within. Kelly speaks of the Seed within all of us, the Inner Christ, the Inner Light, moving us to awaken.

Thomas Kelly is a Quaker. The Quaker way of life is a celebration of the discovery of the Creator of life in our very souls. And, reliance on external resources like an ordained clergy, denominational polity, sacred buildings, and even sacred rituals seem to Quakers to keep human beings from discovering the greatest spiritual truth of all: that God is literally present in the depths of each individual human soul, waiting to embrace and heal and guide into all truth, and bring the human spirit closer and closer to the Divine.

"It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within that illumines the face of God and cast new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it." (3)

Speaking of Christ, Kelly says: "And He is within us all." (3)

These Quaker beliefs arise from the Biblical witness of what God has done in the history of humanity through the Divine Incarnation in Jesus, the Christ. But, the Quaker of way of experiencing and living this faith is distinctive from other wings of the church, and other wings of religion as a whole. In some ways, the Quaker emphasis on the inner world similar to mystical traditions of Christianity, Judaism (maybe Islam as well) and Buddhism, Hinduism or Daoism. But, the Quaker experience as communicated by Thomas Kelly seems to be based on the deep conviction that God has planted a seed deep in the soul of every human being when Jesus was "planted" in the earth by his death on a cross. And, Quakers like Kelly believe that this seed is stirring to life in the soul of every human by the power of God's blessed life-giving power - the very power that raised Jesus from death to life. This is a mysticism grounded in history, grounded in the saving acts of God in human history and the history of this world.

In a remarkable way, this Quaker faith expresses the core of the Biblical faith (see how much sense the above description makes of Paul's letter to the Romans Chapter 5). And, this faith in the universal effect of Christ's death and resurrection opens doors of communion and fellowship with all people who are seeking the Divine.

The Quaker way is very confident in the graciousness and universal reach of God,and Kelly was very confidnt that the "Seed" in every human being was the very seed of Christ. There is a universal graciousness and confidence in God's love for all people, but also in God's redeeming action for all people in Christ. It is as if every human being is claimed and marked by God, marked as a child of God, and destined for goodness and glory and communion with the living God and fellowship with the children of God.

From a long and personal study of Romans about 25 years ago in seminary, I came to believe in this amazing graciousness and reach of the death of Christ: how God literally claimed the whole world for redemption and union with God's very self. For the first time, it became clear to me that the deep structure of the whole world and the depths of every human being had become altered by the death of Christ, and the raising of his body from the tomb was God's promise of a good destiny for all people and all things.

The whole world lives under this promise, but somehow we have suppressed this Good News. And, the world suffers from not awakening to the promise it lives under. I guess not many people know it because they haven't had the chance to know it. The Church has not really proclaimed this promise, because by and large the Church hasn't really believed this Good News. No, generally the Church has believed in some truncated form of the Gospel that goes like this: 'God so loved those special people who accept the teachings of the Church that he gave his only Son that whosoever accepts the teachings and practices of the Church will have eternal life." The Quakers realized that they needed a better teacher than "the Church" to rely on, and they had found that better teacher in their very souls: the Inner Light of God,the Inner Christ was speaking within their very hearts. And, they didn't believe they were some special elect, but believed they had simply awakened to what was possible for every human being. "There is that which is of God in every man," is what George Fox once said. And, the prophecy of Jeremiah had come to pass with the Quakers: "In that day, no one will teach others, saying: "Know the Lord," for each will know me, from the greatest to the least, for I will write my law on their hearts." (paraphrase of Jeremiah 31:31-34). The external teacher has faded away; the internal teacher has come in his glory. This is the way the Quakers discovered, which is the experience of the early church that we read about in Paul's letters, in Acts, and well, this is the experience that comes to people like you and me even now. So long as Church teaching keeps us from experiencing God in the inner sanctuary of soul, it is unholy. Whenever any teaching enables us to experience God in the inner sanctuary of the soul, it is holy.

But, when is an experience genuine, when false? Because, surely human beings can come up with all sorts of inner experiences that may or may not have anything to do with God. The only answer I have is to test any experience over against the way of Jesus in this world. The way the Gospel writers described Jesus way in this world. Is your experience illuminated, embraced by this way of Jesus? Does the way of Jesus that is described strengthen, clarify and bring celebration to your experience? I simply do not trust any other revelation of God's way enough to make it the touchstone and authority in my life. I have found this way of Jesus to be true. And, this way is not always described too well by Church teaching. But, if you read the Bible's account of Jesus as the very revelation and presence of God and look deep within, there is some clarity. Maybe others have found other ways to test and guide their experience. If so, that is great with me. Jesus is the only way I know of that cuts through all the falsehood of the external and, yes, internal world I live in. On this way, we find peace with God and each other and ourselves.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly

I am reading this book: A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly again. It is a collection of four "talks" he gave towards the end of his life. I don't know how many times I have read it since I found this book in Hastings a few years ago. Kelly was a Quaker and a teacher at Haverford College in Philadelphia. He died in his late 40's very suddenly around the middle of last century.

The way he "speaks" in these talks is full of such life and insight. I am going to be writing some about this book as I read through it again. But, you'll do better just reading it for yourself. Four chapters: The Inner Light; Holy Obedience; The Blessed Community; the Eternal Now.

I wonder how open I would have been to Kelly's writing when I was younger. I didn't really start reading much of what would be called writings about "spirituality" until I was in my 40's. When I was in college,seminary and after, I was into the "hard stuff." Theology, philosophy of religion, Biblical interpretation, and some church history and ethics. I thought people who wrote and talked about spirituality all the time were people who avoided the prophetic core of the Gospel and were afraid to feel the push of faith into areas of injustice. Kelly's last of four talks (the eternal now and social concern) just breaks through all of these questions and illuminates a path of real holiness right in the midst of life.

I'll continue about Kelly's book next time.

This writing seems like a sacred writing to me. It also carries with it a sense of power and liberation and holiness. I don't know how else to describe it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rebuilding Our Lives

It seems to me that we have been given the chance of rebuilding our lives as human beings. I like the Psalm that says: "Unless the Lord builds the house, the labor is in vain." That makes me think about how much help is needed in rebuilding a human life. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the labor is in vain." Somehow we need to find our way to resources beyond what we have in our little thoughts and feelings. We need more than that to rebuild our lives.

The very hopeful thing spiritually is that in faith a person can really go back and look at the foundation of his or her life. Faith gives us access to the depths of life, and enables us to rebuild. Our little thoughts and feelings can be transformed into very powerful thoughts and feelings.

Rebuilding can be a difficult work. Because when you rebuild, you have to tear down and clean out before you can put the new structure in. As we were working to renovate our old church building, we discovered termite damage in the wood structure around the lower level of the building. Fortunately, there were no active termites, since we had treated the entire area when we first moved into this old buiding a year earlier. But, because of the damage, we had to tear out the old wood structure of two entire rooms before we could rebuild. But, now that area is rebuilt.

Our lives can be like this. If we really get in there and inspect them, we may find some damage to the structure of our lives. We may even find forces active in breaking down the foundation of our lives. For years and years at the old church building, nobody inspected to see what the condition of things was. All the while, the termites were doing their destructive work. And, then upstairs in the building, a similar process was going on with damage from moisture from roof problems. Ignorance may be bliss, but the problem with ignorance is that it is out of touch with reality. When we aren't in touch with reality, we cannot act to shape reality or reshape it by our work.

In our lives, we probably need the most help in discovering the reality we are in. We need God's illumination in our souls to be able to see who we are, acknowledge where we have been, and grow into a hope for what we can be. But, we first have to go down to that basement of our lives and find out how the structure is. If termites are active down there, they will continue doing their damage until we get down there and do something to stop it. And, if we do stop it, then there is still a damaged foundation which has to be rebuilt.

I am talking figuratively, and I'll say a few things literally to make sure I'm being clear. If the foundation of your life - your own emotional life, your spiritual life - is in turmoil, then there have been destructive forces at work in your past or there are destructive forces at work in your present. Symptoms of these destructive forces are the presence of negative, self-destructive thoughts within. You may have aided or be aiding these destructive forces through alcohol or drug abuse or drawing near to destructive persons or by nurturing self-condemnatory thought patterns. Or, you may be increasing your trouble, because you just plain won't take responsibility for the trouble you're in. And, you may just have some trouble, because life has handed you some hard luck.

Whatever it is, you are responsible for your life. I'm going to say that again: whether you have done it to yourself or someone else has done it to you or some force in the physical world, like disease has done it to you, it is your life and you are responsible for it. That means, it is yours to work with, to bear and to do the best you can with. And, we can help each other bear this responsibility.

In contemporary thought, people are obsessed with blaming - they want to affix blame. But, it doesn't help. What is really missing in our world is people being willing to take responsibility. People who take responsibility for situations, take an active role in working towards resolving problems and building towards a better life and future. In a family, if something goes wrong or one member is having trouble, everyone feels a certain responsibility to act. Sure, the one who is having trouble has the primary responsibility, but others look at the other's trouble as partly their responsibility too and don't sit around blaming. Taking responsibility is a practical, objective way of approaching life and its challenges. This is the way of going down to the basement, seeing what the damage is, assessing it objectively and saying: "Let's get to work on it." That's how you fix things. Not by simply wishing you didn't have a problem, or not by complaining about your trouble - but, by looking at it for what it is, and figuring out how to get to work on it.

Rebuilding is difficult work. But, when you get something rebuilt, it is an even greater joy than building it from scratch. Because, you have the sense that something very precious has been saved and transformed. Even the mess that we are at times remains a precious human mess that is worth saving and rebuilding.