Quaker Theology -- Issue #17

Selected Excerpts from,
To Be Broken and Tender: A Quaker Theology for Today.


“Waiting and Attending”

One day in prayer I saw a mound of clay being worked by two hands, one the hand of a child, the other the hand of an adult. Then I saw the infinite faces of Jesus. Some faces were familiar— one, the face in the children’s book of my youth, another the rough-hewn face of a vigorous Jewish man— the infinite images of Jesus we hold singly and together. Then I saw a darkness, and in that darkness a door opened up into incredible beauty and light beyond comprehension.

The closeness of love and friendship—a dimension of holiness made visible in Jesus—defines my life. Comfort is as simple as a hand on my knee as I cry. Friendship is as complex as listening to my delights, my frustrations, and my fury with a willingness to say when I am off track. Love is full of passion. Love is a deliberate action arising out what I know of God. Dreams give a place for words and a shape to the ongoing experiment which is my life.

It has not always been this way. Forty years of waiting preceded my experience of this vision, and the depths of the opening and transformation it represents. Years of living into the image of my taciturn Dad, a mix of athleticism, technological expertise, gentleness, without ever considering I might be loved for myself. That waiting was an unconscious seeking which gradually opened me and made space within me for God’s work to be visible. This time made space for me to accept unconditional, infinite love when it broke into my awareness at a moment of grieving my father’s death. Only awareness of being loved was enough to change me at the core so I might become more tender to the condition of those I encounter and to myself. In this process I came to know divine Love as powerful comfort and as a huge, not always pleasant, impetus for transformation.

A Transforming Way

Many of us experience a point in our lives when it is time to take stock, to review where we are going, and to move forward on a path which reflects our values and our hopes. This hiatus may be voluntary, or it may come without warning. Upon my father’s death in 1991, I found myself suddenly confronted with the reality of the Eternal Presence in the world. Until then, I defined my faith in terms of action: what Friends call the testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, community and integrity. Mysticism was an abstract concept. Theology seemed irrelevant.

Early Friends rejected academic theology and church-imposed creeds. They saw both as dry and devoid of life. While George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, and others wrote much that can be called “theology,” their sole purpose was to point others to the living reality of Christ present. Yet the letters of Margaret Fell, Isaac Penington and others offered spiritual guidance and encouragement to individuals, theological and practical instruction to Meetings, and warnings to persecutors of the danger to their souls. These Friends also wrote many tracts defending their faith in a time when blasphemy, and even worshiping outside the established church were grounds for imprisonment and fines. Thus, when I speak of “theology” I follow their practice of referring to what they personally knew of God, not some academic exercise or what I’ve heard from other people. But I also hope that what I write will help others to find their way and to articulate what unites Friends as a body, as well as what gives life to us as individuals.

The intensity of that mystical opening in 1991 sent me into the Quaker journals which spoke of such encounters with Christ Jesus. Theology – the way we speak of the nature of God and all that is holy — began to make sense and allowed me to integrate this new inner life with a life of activism. It gave my head and heart a place to meet and helped me articulate my experience of spiritual growth and discernment. As I named the Eternal at work in me, contrasts sharpened and my soul and brain became less at odds. The Light exposed traps which had too long held me in a place of fear, and highlighted the ways in which worship reshapes social justice actions. One thread running quietly through the book is Friends’ commitment to peace and the multiple ways this might shape us even in our failures to live into it. The peace testimony asks for nonviolence at many levels, as well as removing the seeds of war. In it I find a commitment to engage without rancor people whose beliefs seem in sharp contrast to mine. I have lived this out among Quakers who are deeply divided across the theological and political spectrum. I have had to deal with my own prejudices and fears in order to be faithful to this testimony. My work benefits from the pressure of evangelical Friends to articulate and examine my own beliefs.

I have questions about what underlies the work of bridging divides, directly or indirectly: How does a person of faith who is not at all certain about Christianity (especially as that term gets battered about in 21st-century America) speak about that hope which grounds her work and life? Is everything up for grabs? How does community inform individual spirituality and growth? Is Christianity hopelessly bankrupt, the tool of those who want to press just one version of morality? As the world grows smaller, how can Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and all the myriad of others learn to cooperate so that all might enjoy this earth?

“The Consuming Fire”

In 1652 Margaret Fell had a sharp revelation that caused her to cry in her spirit, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves. We have taken the Scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.” These words told of the searing power of the Light burning through Fell’s soul. These words marked her transition from a reliance on outward guidance of the church to awareness of Christ Within and her own obligation to listen and follow that Guide. Two years later she could write an epistle to all Friends with assurance about the work of that Inward Guide, which “opens the Mystery of God, …[and] who is a Consuming Fire to all that is not of him.” The quickness with which she stepped into leadership and spoke with the authority evident in this letter bespeaks her preparation for this opening: her thorough knowledge of the Bible, her privileged position in society, and the long period of seeking which preceded her encounter with George Fox.

My transformation began as sharply as Fell’s, but took longer in its realization. Only looking back can I see it as the result of a long search. In 1991, in my early forties, in many ways I felt lost. After nearly five years of interacting with evangelical Friends, I wasn’t at all clear about who Quakers were. I was clear about attending the Fifth World Conference of Friends in Kenya that summer, even though I was not a Yearly Meeting representative. I was disoriented by my father’s cancer. My work as a planning consultant was erratic: good jobs alternated with time spent marketing myself. I became more and more vulnerable and in despair; a precondition to being opened and broken.

“The New Creation”

We are called to live in the New Creation, a life lived in accord with the Beatitudes and other teachings of Jesus. A life of simplicity and integrity evidences a life transformed so thoroughly that neither greed, nor fear, nor the opinions of popular culture remain central. In such lives, in such communities, the Light shines so clearly that the City of God becomes visible.

The City of God is visible in everyone who lives Truth in all things. The blessing of the City is visible in the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. The City is a place for justice, where all people know respect. Here we also come to know our rightful place in the dynamic system that is the earth and all its creatures. And the existence of the City can only come about through the “Lamb’s War,” which rejects all violence and knows only the weapons of kindness, gentleness, truth, peace, joy and compassion. Above all, it is the way of humility and faithfulness to divine leading: a willingness to do that which is ours to do no matter how strong the pull to take on all the ills of the world.

Raising up the New Creation and seeking to live it out on earth puts us at odds with popular culture and much that is happening around us. Yet this vision is not unique to Friends: it is the way a significant number of people read the Gospel message and is consistent with what I know of Buddhism as well as the teachings of the Yoga sutras. It is a way of being that many people have reached through many faith traditions. The particular take any group has on this vision is its own, but we share much in common. It is a path at once very lonely and full of fellow travelers.

“The City of God”

Realizing the City of God on earth is to me the end point of Quaker mysticism: a union with God which is engaged in the world. At times Quakers speak of “practical mysticism” or “ethical mysticism” or even “familied monasticism” to describe an approach to life that is grounded in spiritual practice as disciplined as that of monks, but lived out in ordinary homes among the pressures of the everyday world. Similarly, the Buddhist pacifist, Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken of “engaged Buddhism” to convey the need for contemplatives to respond to the world around them.

The 46th Psalm has been central to my vocal ministry at times. It provides me with a glimpse of the City of God in a way which reaches beyond words. Verses four and five proclaim:

There is a river whose streams make glad the City of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved…

The Psalm goes on to point out that while nations may be in an uproar and kingdoms tottering, the City of God is safe from such things. The power of God is more than any human or natural force. God devastates human plans by destroying weapons and making wars to cease! The Psalm goes on to tell us, “be still and know that I am God.”

That complex, disturbing book, Revelation — the last book of the Bible — has the fullest vision of the City of God. It is most definitely a holy place, filled with the divine spirit, “coming down out of heaven,” to be squarely part of this earth. (Revelation 21:2) This City is clear and transparent. No hidden places exist there: no secret deals in back corners, no lies, no covert control by malicious (or even benign) forces.
The New Jerusalem has twelve gates, which seems restrictive to us today. But two thousand years ago this was an image of an open city where all may come and go freely. Most cities then were walled, heavily guarded, and had one, or perhaps as many as four, gates depending on their size.

There are no temples in the city. This recalls John 4:24, where Jesus tells the woman at the well that a day will come when people will no longer worship on the mountain, as her people did, or in the temple, as the Hebrew people did, but all would worship in Spirit and in Truth. Passages from the gospel of John and Revelation underpin the Quaker refusal to consecrate churches or otherwise assert that one could only worship in certain places: the important thing is how we worship and our awareness of the Spirit present among us, not the place.

“Suffering”

In 2007, I had the privilege of spending a few days with a well-to-do extended family. They owned an apartment building where the family members lived side by side, each with their own apartment yet with the doors open all the time, meals shared, and kids running in and out with great freedom. They lavished me with good food, showed me their city with pride, and I joined them in the Easter week celebration at their church, where one of the families accompanied the priest through the stations of the cross, carrying the symbol of Christ’s crucifixion.

The last night I was there, they sat me down in the living room and started to speak of their lives. They told of soldiers occupying the building where I was now staying, and in their occupation destroying the plumbing and ruining much of what was there. They told of a neighbor, a young mother, stepping onto her own balcony for a moment and being shot and killed for stepping outside during curfew. The father showed me his damaged hands, which meant he could no longer create the jewelry which had been his main livelihood. Their story was long and immediate. A condition of living in Ramallah. They were able to put the pieces of their lives back together, although one daughter was still visibly suffering from the trauma. They had rejected revenge and sent their children to the Friends School where they were taught about peace.

Once one has experienced such suffering how is it possible to go forward, balanced between the pulls of despair and revenge without succumbing to either?

I inhabit a place in this world and a time in history when physical suffering is alien to daily life for most of us. It is a tragedy– an accident or illness or criminal act– and I am among those who have rarely been directly touched by these War fills the news, but it is continents away, as is mass starvation and other happenings which tear apart whole societies. As a person of privilege, how am I to stand with the people who hosted me in Palestine? If – when – my circumstances change, how will I respond to pain and anguish in my own self? And on top of this, my spiritual ancestors tell me I am to take up the cross, an action which can cause me to voluntarily enter into a dangerous or painful circumstance.

The cross is a messy theology, full of contradictions and used to justify everything from self-flagellation to crusades. But one thing I get from sitting with my spiritual ancestors, is that the cross is not to be used as an excuse to harm anyone else, nor is to be used to seek out suffering. However, suffering may come as a result of taking up the cross, as Barbara Blaugdone found out centuries ago. The inward sense of rightness which comes with taking up the cross is distinct from our modern efforts to seek external comfort, as when we ask in Meeting for Business if “Friends are comfortable with…” whatever is the decision of the day, rather than explicitly considering whether this is what we are being asked to do.


The words broken and tender speak to my spiritual condition. They describe much of what I’ve been through in the past dozen and more years. They tie me to my spiritual ancestors as well as to other Friends today. In these words I also learn of changes needed in myself and in my spiritual community: the brokenness which needs to be fixed, as well as the brokenness which is the precursor to wholeness. They tell me that I may feel raw and tender as my heart expands and learns to be tender to the movement of the Spirit in other souls.

Fear is alive and well in the world. I have no doubt of that. Many people are willing to play on that fear and use it to their advantage. In the heart of faith is the knowledge that something broken got fixed. One mark of Truth is that while it may point out fear and make it visible, it is not based in fear. It destroys the power of fear. We hide behind barriers in false hope of protection. The breaking down of these barriers is a sign of God at work in the soul.

Fear often feels raw as it rubs off the hard edges of the heart. To be tender is not always pleasant. Nor is being broken. I often back away from both as fast and hard as I can. But desire draws me back, offering a promise of breaking the fear of death. Desire for being held in the circle of Mercy. Longing for the water of Life. A wish to move out of the muck and step onto solid ground.

Ultimately, each of us is part of a community and in each community as well as each individual there is that which must be broken before finding peace with one another. The practices we have for engaging with one another have in them the aim of fostering tenderness in our actions and words and breaking the worldly habits of aggression and self-interest. We stand in the odd intersection where God’s way and human will clash and sometimes merge. My hope is in the integration of our way with the way of Truth and Love.


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