28 September 2008
I am often told by Christians of various sorts that the Bible is "essential" to the following of Christianity; that without the written Scriptures, you cannot be a Christian. This is certainly the explicit position of most Protestants, especially those who believe that the mouth of God is stopped shut, and that the written Scriptures are the only way in which he communicates with us today. This is an interesting belief, but one which was explicitly rejected by the founders of the Religious Society of Friends, who looked to a different Teacher for their primary guidance. Like those earlier Friends, I value the Scriptures highly, and I read something out of them most every day. I believe that the inspired Holy Scriptures are one of the ways that God communicates with His church, and are absolutely the best outward guide for obtaining right knowledge of God. But helpful as the Scriptures have always been, the foundational, original, and traditional Friends' faith and practice has never regarded having them as obligatory for maintaining right relationship with God, for Quakers or anyone else. The "sure foundation" of our Christian faith is not and has never been the Scriptures, but was and remains the Inward Light of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the One who has come to teach His people Himself.
This is an important point because lots of Friends are muddle-headed about this. Sometimes they tell me that we shouldn't point this out, because other people will misunderstand the fine and subtle distinction we make, and be led astray. To which I start muttering under my breath, "So when did we become the smartest people in the world?"
Sometimes they tell me that we should be careful not to think about it much, because we might confuse ourselves and end up devaluing the Scriptures entirely in our efforts not to overemphasize them, and be led astray. Then I start muttering again: "So now we've become the dumbest people in the world, too?"
Mostly they just fret and chew their lips, because lots of times the truth is that they just don't much like the idea that such a convenient and commonly-accepted outward tool as Scripture might not be the central pillar of the Christian church. They've already been led astray, for crying out loud.
Mutter, mutter, mutter.
With respect to Holy Scripture, I suggest that the traditional words of the earliest Friends be kept in mind: Scripture is "not absolutely necessary." An excellent suggestion I read once was to describe Holy Scripture as "not of the essence." Another excellent summary was to simply state that they were "insufficient."
Robert Barclay was a 17th century Scottish Friend who wrote foundational works on doctrinal Quakerism that have never been equaled. He's often quoted for his statements about Scripture in his famous 1678 book, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. After describing the value of the Scriptures for history, prophecy, and Christian doctrine, Barclay's Third Proposition "Concerning the Scriptures" reads:
Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners. Yet because they give a true and faithful testimony of the first foundation, they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit, from which they have all their excellency and certainty . . . therefore, according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is the first and principal leader.
So far, so good: very clear, and often quoted. Most all non-FUM/Evangelical Friends will agree with this foundational document of the Society that Scripture is useful and valuable and secondary to the Inward Light. (Conservative Friends will further specify it as the Inward Light of Jesus Christ.) But the devil is in the details, as the Frenchman said, and the biggest detail here is called "inessential." Because while our earliest generation of Christian Friends held that Scripture was valuable, and important, and contained highly useful truths, they were united in the idea that it was not essential to have it, read it, or understand it to be acceptable to the God who it was written about.
Don't misunderstand me here—I and those earliest Friends are in agreement that if the Scriptures have genuinely been made available by God to a person, then upon going through them the followers of Jesus Christ should recognize him there, no matter what they call him or what sort of strange rococo accompanies their worship. But many people have been exposed to interpretations of Scripture that talk about a Jesus Christ that I've never met—one who is completely unrecognizable to me. I know people who consider themselves doctrinal Christians who have very little of Christ in their beliefs. So please understand me when I say I'm not talking about that stuff. If you want to be a Christian, and the Scriptures are made available to you in a true and intelligible way, then you should certainly take full advantage of them in their supporting role.
But back to Barclay and whether Scripture is or is not "essential," please. The Scotsman had a lot to say about Scripture in his propositions on "Immediate Revelation" and "Universal Redemption by Christ" that wasn't contained in the one entitled "Concerning the Scriptures." More people quote Barclay briefly than read him carefully, but he had great insight on the subject. Please bear with me and slog through this hoary passage:
But if we shall make a right definition of a Christian, according to the Scripture, videlicit, That he is one that hath the spirit of Christ, and is led by it, how many Christians, yea, and of these great masters and doctors of Christianity, so accounted, shall we justly divest of that noble title? If then such as have all the other means of knowledge, and are sufficiently learned therein, whether it be the letter of the Scripture, the traditions of churches, or the works of creation and providence, whence they are able to deduce strong and undeniable arguments (which may be true in themselves), are yet not to be esteemed Christians, according to the certain and infalliable definition above mentioned; and if the inward and immediate revelation of God's Spirit in the heart, in such as have been altogether ignorant of some, and but very little skilled in others, of these means of attaining knowledge, hath brought them to salvation; then it will necessarily and evidently follow, that inward and immediate revelation is the only sure and certain way to attain the true and saving knowledge of God.
May I translate?
1) Scripture itself defines a true Christian to be a person who has the spirit of Christ, and is led by it.
2) Possession of the letter of Scripture and of tradition will not make a person a Christian, as many "great masters and doctors of Christianity" don't qualify for the honor.
3) People today and in the past who have experienced inward and immediate revelation of God's Spirit in the heart have been saved, even though they have been ignorant of or unlearned in Scripture and tradition.
In other words, Barclay's position is that first, merely possessing, studying, and learning the Bible and its doctrines does not ensure right relationship with God. Second, that people without Scripture but with inward revelation of God's spirit can and have achieved that relationship. And therefore, that inward and immediate revelation is "the only sure and certain way" of salvation. Scripture, according to Barclay, can't do it without inward revelation, but inward revelation can and does do it without Scripture.
Barclay goes on:
“NOT A QUESTION OF WHAT IS BENEFICIAL, BUT OF WHAT IS ESSENTIAL
IV. However, this should not be understood as a claim that the other means of knowledge of God are useless and of no service to man. This will be clear from what is said of the scriptures in the next proposition. The question is not what may be profitable or helpful, but what is absolutely necessary. [The bolding is mine, folks.] Many things may contribute to the furtherance of a work without being the essential thing that makes the work go on. In summary, what has been said amounts to stating that where true inward knowledge of God exists through the revelation of his Spirit, everything essential is there, and there is no absolute necessity for anything else. But where the best, highest, and most profound knowledge exists without the revelation of his Spirit, there is nothing, so far as the great object of salvation is concerned.
Barclay here says first, that Scripture is useful, and helpful (I agree), but "not absolutely necessary" to provide revelatory knowledge of God, which he has already said in the first passage is what brings people to salvation. He next says the revelation of the Spirit is sufficient, and nothing else is "absolutely necessary." Lastly he says that even where the best and highest knowledge exists (which will be Scripture) without the revelation of his Spirit, there is no salvation. Scripture, according to Robert Barclay, is "not absolutely necessary," but inward revelation alone, even without it, is absolutely certain. These are the Scotsman's words, not mine.
Early Friends were very concerned not to fall into a mistaken reliance only on Holy Scripture, which all their enemies were quoting against them, daily. They pointed out repeatedly that it was not “absolutely necessary,” and that “Christ was sufficient” without it. Read these short quotes from our human founders:
You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of light and hast thou walked in the light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? Margaret Fell, on George Fox
For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew him not but by revelation, as he who hath the key did open, and as the Father of life drew me to his Son by his spirit. George Fox
And if there was no scripture for our men's and women's meetings, Christ is sufficient...he is our rock and our foundation to build upon. George Fox
I can declare unto you...that this gospel order...I neither received it of man neither was I taught it but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. George Fox
But I looked upon the Scriptures to be my rule, and so would weigh the inward appearances of God to me by what was outwardly written; and durst not receive anything from God immediately, as it sprang from the fountain, but only in that mediate way. Herein did I limit the Holy One of Israel, and exceedingly hurt my own soul, as I afterwards felt, and came to understand. Isaac Penington
Christ has tasted death for every man, which knowledge we willingly confess to be very profitable and comfortable, but not absolutely needful unto such, from whom God himself hath withheld it. Robert Barclay
And although Scripture is extremely valuable to the daily functioning of our Christian body, here also we should not confuse what is absolutely helpful with what is absolutely necessary. With respect to Conservative Friends tradition, John Wilbur very early cautioned us not to rely on Holy Scripture for important details of our daily walk with God that the Holy Spirit expected us to receive from Him directly:
1st. Can the Scriptures, or did they ever, save anyone without the spirit?
2nd. Is a person called to do the work of the ministry by the Scriptures, or by the spirit of Jesus Christ?
3rd. Is a man brought under a concern to go from one place to another to preach the gospel, by the Scriptures, or by the constraining power of the spirit and love of Jesus Christ?
4th. And when he is arrived at the place assigned, and is assembled with the people, is it not the spirit of Christ that truly unfolds the Scriptures, and brings to view the state of men, either in the words of Scripture, or in some other suitable language?
5th. And when a professed minister preaches in any of our meetings, his doctrines not being repugnant to the letter of the Scriptures, are the elders or others to judge by the Scriptures, or by the Spirit of Truth, whether his ministry is from the right spring or not?
6th. Did not the Jews think they had eternal life in the Scriptures, and yet would not come unto Christ that they might have life?”
And our True Founder and True Guide, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, was quite emphatic about whether Scripture was of the essence, sufficient, or absolutely necessary:
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life: and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39-40.)
All these selections from the actual words of early Friends, John Wilbur, and that Jesus guy himself, indicate to me the nature of what early and traditional Friends have always believed. Christian Friends have always acknowledged that Scripture is helpful and important, and should never be ignored by those who have access to it and are willing to read it in the Spirit. But our Christian Society has understood and publicly held from the very beginning, not just that Scripture is secondary to the revelations of the Holy Spirit, but that first, Scripture alone is an insufficient guide to important--and essential--aspects of the daily life of a Christian, and second, that the Holy Spirit can choose to provide sufficient guidance to Christian living and ultimately to salvation, without Scripture. The possession, reading, study, and understanding of the Bible is recommended, but is not required by Jesus Christ as a precondition for turning to Him, being accepted, living as a Christian, growing towards perfection, and achieving salvation in His Light.
Mutter, mutter, mutter.
23 September 2008
Today was a special day for me, one that comes only twice a year, and always serves as a time for me to reflect on milestones, and accomplishments, and to put my day-to-day scheduling into a larger context of the handiwork of God. Today was the Equinox.
All summer the days have been growing shorter, a little bit shorter each day, but at a faster and faster rate. From my sophisticated astronomical observatory on the front porch, I can step out and watch the sunset two miles away on the ridge to the west. During the summer the sun goes down behind the maples on the northwest hilltop, way up towards the progressive metropolis of Bethesda about eight miles off. Each day the sun sets a bit more to the south, as the Equinox approaches. And finally, today, 21 September—the Autumnal Equinox—it sets just behind a little barn owned by our neighbor up on the ridge. Tomorrow, the sun will miss the barn entirely, and set just behind his house instead, a little more to the south. And as the autumn progresses, the sun will keep setting farther and farther south all the way until the Solstice—the first day of winter—when it will begin to swing back like some sort of cosmic pendulum, until it finally passes the house and the little barn again on the first day of spring next year, but going the other way. In six more months.
I’ve always used the Equinoxes to mark time, to keep track of my life on the somewhat slower ticking clock that is available to me out here in the sticks. To me, the Equinoxes represent tipping points, momentary pauses in a slow cycle of change, resting points that come twice each year where I can stop and ask myself why I’m where I am. To make my life easier, I tend to organize decisions and events around the equinoxes and solstices, to make them easier to remember. I married my lovely wife on the vernal equinox, many years ago. When somebody asks me what our anniversary is, all I have to say is “The Vernal Equinox.” Then when they say, “When is that?” I just point to the little barn on the ridge and say, “See the sun going down over there? When it goes down behind that little barn, then I know it’s our anniversary …” This seems to satisfy most people, because they don’t seem to ask me any more questions about it.
But the slow ticking of this cosmic clock is what is important to me—the chance to step back and take stock of things myself at regular but distant intervals. I kept bees commercially for ten or twelve years—about 900 beehives—and working with nature teaches you that the Big Cycles are slow, and come around once a year, or even longer. I once knew a country boy who said to me that it was easier for country people to adapt to city life and living than it was for city people to adapt to country life. I asked him why, and he explained that it was all a matter of timing. You see, in a city job, if you mess something up, you just wait until next Monday and start over. If you mess up a contract, just do better on the next one coming up. You can learn to do something pretty quick, because over a month or two you get a dozen chances to try again. In the country, though, in agriculture, your opportunity to learn comes one time, each twelve months. Mess up on the timing when you plant your wheat, and you lose—your second try is twelve months away. Don’t split your bees in time in March, and they hit the trees in April. You lose your replacement colonies and your chance at making honey until next year.
What this means is that a country person in a city job can learn how to do it more or less reasonably quickly, because the information he needs comes in quickly. A city person used to the rapid repeat of the city information cycle tends to get lost in country tasks, because the information comes in so much more slowly. In urban software technical writing (I used to do that) I could have a dozen or two dozen assignments each year to learn from. In the country, I will have perhaps only two dozen more farming seasons for the entire rest of my life. This is quite humbling, and it’s one of the reasons that I use the Equinoxes to keep track of the passage of time.
Right now is the sixth Autumnal Equinox we’ve spent up on this hilltop in Appalachia, a long way from Silicon Valley in California, where Shawna and I met writing computer manuals for IBM. We bailed out of that world right when people were trying to figure out how to make money off the Internet and decided to run 1000 beehives for pollination and commercial queen breeding instead. So we left San Jose and moved into the fertile Central Valley, where temperatures were 114 degrees and our bee business had lots of customers. And now we’re here.
We have 25 acres of hayfield and hardwoods, a perennial stream (sort of), an ancient post-and-beam animal barn, a carriage house, milk house, a brandy-new 3000-square-foot insulated metal building with a half-mile of heating coils in the floor, about 900 dead-out beehives (another story) and lots of potential. Almost nothing but potential, it seems.
In the winter the road is under snow, in the summer the well goes dry, we have inadequate fencing and little of the necessary equipment. The wheels fell off our old Farmall Super-C when we tried to load it into the trailer in California to get it here, and it’s still sitting there where I rolled it back. Tractors are expensive, and we don’t have a replacement yet. But we have plans. Lots and lots of plans.
And this is where they are going to be:
Shawna put this new blog up to allow us to organize what it is we want to do with the rest of lives—what we want to grow, build, preserve, learn to do, and most of all, keep track of. Stop by and offer suggestions, or just check on our progress. We'll be running this project from now until the cows come home. And we don’t yet have cows.
But we still have those stinking goats. Tina from the junkyard wants goats, and said she would come by and look them over last Saturday. But she didn’t come, so I assume her husband talked some sense in her. But Tricia (who drives the school bus) is looking for goats. Our kids are the first ones on and the last ones off the bus, so maybe if I hog-tie them one at a time I can toss them up in there on the floor sometime next week.
Or before the next Equinox, anyway.
21 September 2008
Right now we have about 14 cats, I think—seven or eight adults and as many kittens. There are a few that we don’t see as often as the others, but most all of them tend to congregate on the kitchen porch at meal times, so we can often get a reasonable idea of what we have then. Some of the cats are special, after all--there’s One-Eye, an elderly female whose right eye exploded during an infection years before we took her on. One-Eye is a delightfully good-natured animal who doesn’t presume on anybody’s good intentions. She’s low on the cat totem-pole, though, because she can’t deal with rivals if they approach from the wrong side, so she tends to stay on the fringes of social activities. Another special cat is Old Mama, a tortoise shell of indeterminate age who may be the primal ancestor of some of the others currently wandering about the porch. Old Mama is a friendly but sober animal who takes a dim view of our dogs in her territory, and savages them mercilessly. Then we have a variable number of unnamed cats that come and go, often quite pleasant animals, but so temporary that we don’t get attached enough to them to actually give them a name.
The cats are transients, drifters. For some reason, the people in town seem to think that dropping cats off in the country is a kinder fate than taking them to the pound to be gassed. I don’t know why. We’ll hear a car slow down near the house, and then speed up and drive off. Then that evening there will be another cat, or two, or three, on the porch for dinner. But they often don’t last. Coyotes love cats, and a town cat dropped off in our neighborhood generally has about a two or three-day life expectancy before the coyotes run them down, unless they latch on to a household pretty quick. Most country folks take a dim view of additions to their local cat population, and often solve the problem with a shotgun, what the Amish call a “long-distance cat-catcher.” We don’t do that here, as I like cats. When we get too many, we just load a few up into the van and drop them back off in town on our way to Meeting . They have a lot better chance of doing well in town than they do being deposited off somewhere else in the countryside, and for all I know might re-join the household that passed them to us in the first place.
We don’t bother with sterilizing them, because it doesn’t matter. Most of our older cats were spayed somewhere along the way (we don’t keep the toms around long—too much violence), but we still end up with a half a dozen new ones every year. Our additions from town often have a litter a week later (which is why we got them), so paying money to sterilize them isn’t part of our limited budget.
Barn cats are useful animals to have. They’re not house animals, although the kittens constantly invade through open windows and doors, always on the lookout for something interesting to destroy. As they get older they have less interest in the house and spend more time in the woods and outbuildings nearby.
They keep the mice under control for us very well. Although there are lots of Deer Mice, White Footed Mice, and various voles around, we seldom have them in the house, because the cats eat so many of them. Same with Eastern Moles, although I don’t know how the cats catch them. They bring in beautiful Short-tailed Shrews, too, huge insectivores to contrast with the tiny Sorex that show up as well. And of course, they keep the chipmunks down, and the larger tree squirrels stay away. Having a dozen dedicated predators around also means that the fledgling birds have a chancy time, but they seem to cope. The Barn Swallows don’t do well under the porch eaves, but then we do have barns for them, after all. As I write this I can hear a Mockingbird cursing the cats from the maple tree by the mailbox.
Life goes on, for all of us, not just the cats.
17 September 2008
As I usually hear it expressed, materialism is a modern philosophy that explains the universe in terms of scientifically knowable and testable causes and effects. I distinguish it from what I call the supernatural, which for me also includes the agency of unknown, unexplainable, supernatural causes as a part of the hypothesized real world.
Typically, materialists tell me that their philosophy is equipped to answer any significant question. Then they sometimes tell me that the questions that it can’t answer are either unimportant, or should be set aside as temporarily unknowable. Sometimes they go on to admit that although the materialist approach may not be able to answer all questions today, they are confident that it can explain everything sooner or later, if pursued correctly. In contrast, I’ve had them tell me that a supernatural view is invalid because it takes the questions that it can’t answer, and then explains them by fabricating an imaginary world in which the causes are external to the local frame of reference: “It was God who did it,” and so forth.
Deus ex machina, so to speak.
You’re probably familiar with “Deus ex machina.” It’s an old Greek theatrical ploy, in which hopeless predicaments are resolved by the sudden intrusion of an Olympian god, who imposes a cheap fix by divine intervention. In some of the crasser theatrical productions, an actor portraying the appropriate god was actually swung over the stage props by a crane, and precipitated into the story by mechanical means: “Deus ex machina”—“God from the machine.” All just in time for dinner, of course, but not a profound solution. The materialists, in effect, accuse me of invoking Deus ex machina when I suggest that a possible addition to my explanations of the physical world might include the hand of God.
Now, my understanding of the scientific method asserts that testable ideas are required before an assertion can be said to be phrased in scientific terms. This is how we use the scientific method in both the earth and the life sciences, on our better days, anyway. If a hypothesis invoked supernatural mechanisms, then valid ways of testing the supernatural would be required before the explanation would be a tenable scientific theory in explaining the world. Not proven, you understand, but merely an acceptable theory subject to routine scientific investigation. But the other day in conversation, when discussing what supernatural evidence might be appropriate in a test of that sort, my local materialist told me, “If I ever experienced a vision of angelic visitation, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, because angels don’t exist.” Or in my re-phrasing, “My pre-existing belief is more valid than any contrary evidence I might be presented with.” And I asked my other materialist what evidence could convince him of the reality of a divine intervention in his life. You know what he told me? “Nothing.”
Wait a minute, here …
Scientists agree that for a theory to be “scientific,” it must be possible to think of a prediction that can theoretically disprove it—a null hypothesis. If any theory cannot be tested this way, then it has not been stated in a scientific way. Note that you don’t have to disprove it—if it’s true, you won’t be able to anyway—but if you can’t ever come up with an experiment that would prove it wrong if it was wrong, it ain’t science. A scientific-sounding theory for which you can't generate a prediction that would disprove it remains just speculation, no matter how many professors gravely nod their heads at it. There is a place for speculation in science, but it is to generate testable hypotheses. If enquiry stops at the speculation stage, we don’t have the scientific method in action, just daydreaming.
Now listen carefully, because I don’t want to hear accusations that I’m creating a straw man:
If a materialist tells me that he would always consider a visitation—of angels, say--to be a hallucination, then he is asserting that physical evidence cannot shake his disbelief in angels. The admission that contrary evidence cannot disprove a theory renders it untestable, and indicates that it rests on faith--not facts, not reason. If physical, sensory evidence is not acceptable to demonstrate that a supernatural vision was real, a priori, then materialism is not ultimately logical or scientifically supported by facts, but is instead maintained independently of natural evidence, and hence is a supernatural world view—a religion, so to speak. I’ve asked materialists what would convince them, and many of them are so sure of the truth of materialism that they don’t even understand my question.
This is a typical materialist world view, but when it is supported in this way, materialism is no more logical—or scientific—than supernaturalism. In my argument, such a materialist world view rests on scientifically unproven assumptions, and while the superstructure built above the premises may be internally consistent and logically valid, it cannot be said to depend on a logical or scientific framework. This is fine with me, but it upsets the materialists I explain it to.
I am not trying to prove the existence of God here, which I will maintain is not a scientific question, but denying the existence of God because no evidence is acceptable is also a materialist position that I hear frequently. I am pointing out that with respect to the supernatural, the materialist appeal to science is frequently unjustified, because ultimately the materialist point of view often departs from the scientific method into reliance on unproven assumptions. Not in theory, but in practice, which is where the money is. This puts them in the same boat as the supernaturalists, albeit unwillingly.
The exception that will disprove this line of reasoning is if a materialist is able to state a situation or occurrence that would disprove the null hypothesis that angels don’t exist—or that God does not exist--in other words, to describe a real-world situation in which his disbelief in angels or God could be scientifically disproven, to the standard level of confidence accepted in science—perhaps a P value of 0.95, for example. It is unnecessary to perform it, merely to describe what it might be. Unless that can be done, this type of materialism is a religion that relies on non-material evidence for its validity.
This isn’t hard for me to conceive of, but it would require a materialist to explain what might make him believe in God. Any materialists out there who might suggest something like that? (And don’t say that you’d have to visit Heaven yourself to believe in it, because I’ve never been to Australia, and I’ll tell you to prove to me that Australia exists, too.)
We made it all through the winter, we haven’t frozen to death, killed each other, or otherwise suffered the consequences of seven people living in a snow-bound and increasingly smelly house, afflicted by cabin fever. I know it’s over, because an hour ago I witnessed the Resurrection, just below our hayfield, next to the ruins of the old Lampville Schoolhouse. It was the arrival of the Cross-Bearers. I listened to them sing.
Now to other people in other places, spring arrives on other cues, on symbols that I know nothing about. Perhaps it’s the day the sun rises at exactly the right point on the horizon, at exactly the right time. Perhaps it’s the first flower of a certain species, or the first appearance of a certain bird. Perhaps it’s a cultural benchmark, an annual theatrical production, a television program, maybe, for people who own television sets. For me, spring is heralded by the mating songs of the newly resurrected Cross-Bearers, the Pseudacris crucifer in the slough to the south of our warehouse.
I’d been expecting it. All the amphibians have been dormant all winter, hidden under stones, under the bark of the rotting trees, buried in the mud or the humus. But the temperature has been rising slowly with the increasing day length. Just three days ago, there was still a rim of snow around the dead-out beehives stacked by the warehouse. The frost on the market van yesterday was so thick it came off the windshield in clumps when I scraped it off to drive back from the transmission shop early in the morning (another story). But the wind blew all day yesterday, hard, and from the south. It was cool, but warmed gradually. And today it blew again, still from the south, and warmer than before. The first short-horned grasshopper nymph was out two days ago, and I saw the first mosquito this morning.
I knew they would come tonight, and at sunset I stepped out onto the kitchen porch, listened, and they were there. I could hear them from the house, just faintly, a mile off, so I started up the backup van and rolled it down to the slough, rattling over the broken limestone road. They hushed when I arrived, but I cut the lights and the engine, and sat in the growing darkness with the car window down. And after a few moments, one tentative peep floated up, followed by another. And then thick and fast they came at last, until after a minute the little valley rang with the songs and their echoes from the hillsides. It was finally spring.
They’re tiny little things, as tree frogs go. I’ve seen big tree frogs in the Oklahoma swamps, and bigger ones still in the high mountain streams of Arizona. These are about the size of a quarter, and have a single, high-pitched peep, repeated over and over. Not very impressive until they get together. After the first warm rains in the spring, though, they seek each other out by the hundreds in shallow ponds and temporary sloughs. From a mile away, they sound like distant teams of horses in harness bells. Up close, their united voice is thunderous, and you have to shout to be heard by someone standing close enough to reach out and touch. The song is an ode to joy, to new life, and a celebration of the cycle of Creation. On their backs is a dark brown “X,” the cross that gives them their name—crucifer—the Cross-Bearers.
Easter was just last Sunday. As a Quaker, I don’t pay much attention to traditional holy days, whether they’re Christian or not. Coincidentally, though, Ishtar this year fell within a day or two of the Vernal Equinox, the North American astronomical definition of spring. So this year the equinox coincided with the resurrection of the lesser Cross-Bearers, and also with Christendom’s celebration of the resurrection of the Greater Cross Bearer. All three at once. A blessed set of days.
This was just the first night. Tomorrow there will be more, and in a week the celebration will spread to the other amphibians in our neighborhood. Already tonight I heard the chuckling of the first Rana clamitans among the crucifers. Just a few, but they all know it’s about time.
And thank you, God, it is.
12 September 2008
This story always has a special meaning for me, because God has used floods to re-shape and change my life several times. For example, I used to own lots of books. I still have a few hundred, but in the Old Days I took pride in the fact that I still owned almost every single book I had ever bought, found, or been given. I would tell people that Books were my extended memory, a way for me to have information at my fingertips without having to keep the sorting tabs up behind the frontal bones.
I owned new books, old books, cheap books, and expensive books. Eighteenth century hand-colored natural history texts. Hall's Mammals of North America, Walker's Mammals of the World. A hundred years of technical literature on internal combustion engines, theory and design of exhaust systems, the U.S. Army's Biological Survey of the Louisiana Purchase, Herpetologia, 1810. Ancient Chinese astrological handbooks, Greek philosophy, Malayan occult works, fiction, art, history, mathematics, all mixed in with Toby Chipmunk and Kevin Rabbit.
And then the first flood came through, and in an hour I went from 100 linear feet of books to about 40. They had been temporarily stacked in sealed boxes on the warehouse floor, and as I waded through the flood carrying them to safety, those on the bottom slowly filled with silt, diesel fuel, pesticides, and manure from the Stygian hog lot a mile upstream.
When I unpacked the boxes, I realized that not being selective in my accumulation had forced me to pay a steep price. The books that I actually treasured, that actually had value to me, were mixed up among the ones that I had merely accumulated, and the impartial flood waters had simply sliced off the bottom boxes. I had unavoidably rescued many titles that I would gladly have sacrificed in place of others that were being destroyed.
So I moved all I owned to what I thought was higher ground, and packed the 40 remaining feet of books into new boxes, and put them on the new warehouse floor far away. And then God sent the rains again, and my new warehouse went 30 inches deep. I lost 30 feet of the 40, as well as hundreds of stored bee hives, electric motors, tools, supplies, and all the photographs from many years of serious work with my beat-up old Nikon.
I don't want to dwell on the stuff that was lost, because the point of my observation was that it didn't matter, not only in the long run, but in the short one, too. That old book I spoke of earlier
explains it like this:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
I had spent an incredible amount of energy on my library of books, sorting them, expanding coverage, replacing worn-out copies, adding new subjects and new viewpoints. I had forgotten how temporary it was, how temporary we all were. And I was so tangled up in the stuff, that I wasn't paying attention to what was really important. And so for me, the lesson plan included stripping away the distractions. Not just the books, but a vast edifice of mental accessories to my life that I didn't need and were simply obstructing my view of what I did need. I came out the other side much more aware of how much time I had, and where I was to spend my time and energy. I don't have the same regard for stuff anymore. Now, when people offer me beautiful family heirlooms to care for, I say "No, I am not a safe repository. I am subject to lessons."
And it frees me, too. I don't own much of anything worth stealing, so I don't own a door key to my house. I don't worry about where the truck keys are, because they're always in the trucks. They're not worth stealing either, even assuming a thief could get them started.
But the Floods were still pretty stressful, so now I live on hill, where that lesson, at least, is one I won't have to deal with as often. I've come through them changed for the better. And, you know what? After all the destruction, I still have Toby Chipmunk and Kevin Rabbit. Who could ask for more than that?
“How did the stall building go?”
“We didn’t do any of that. We just rode the donkey.”
“Do you want something to eat?”
“Naw. They fed me dinner.”
“What did you eat?”
“What kind of squirrel?”
“How should I know? It was chopped up, breaded, and fried.”
“Was it good?”
“Yeah. I had a piece of the back.”
“How many squirrels were there?”
“Not enough. Her mother and grandmother kept fighting over the heads.”
And so it goes.
Yesterday at six-thirty in the morning we packed everybody up in clean clothes, jumped into the van, and went to the Big City!
We don’t normally go to cities, as they’re too far away and we don’t have much reason to visit them. Until gasoline hit $4.00-plus, I would spend Saturdays at a Farmer’s Market in Columbus, 120 miles to the west. That was a city. But after break-even costs reached $240, we gave that one up. Pittsburgh, though, in Pennsylvania, is only 75 miles the other way. Pennsylvania, in case you didn’t know, is where William Penn founded his colony in the 1680s to give the persecuted Quakers in Britain a chance to go somewhere they wouldn’t be jailed or executed. It’s still there, so I assume the venture must have met with some success.
We went there to attend Pittsburgh Monthly Meeting with a member of our Yearly Meeting who lives in Pittsburgh. He cares for his elderly father and can’t travel often, and we’re planning on going back. (Also, Shawna had a visitation of angels in the meetinghouse, and I want to go see if they’re still there.) And since we were there, we decided to take advantage of the trip and introduce the children to Culture.
Culture is interesting to me, mostly because so many people think that it’s essential, and I tend not to. Museums, symphonies, ballets, all that stuff. Actually, “culture” seems to be just a name for what city people do in their spare time--city recreations are those that either take lots of money (a museum), lots of participants (a symphony orchestra), lots of patrons (successful artists), or all of the above (a baseball team). In the country it’s hard to have “culture,” because the people live farther apart. But then, we have the Milky Way instead. And for a while, we had Art coming to our mailbox, every day. But then he retired, and now Linda brings the mail.
We chose to visit the Carnegie Museum, along with its gigantic Museum of Natural History, and Crystals, and Anthropology. Andrew Carnegie was a 19th century industrialist who made his riches in the steel industry, then late in life donated vast amounts of his money for museums and libraries across the country. Getting religion after you made your pile was common back then. “I plan to repent before I die,” they would say, “but right now getting rich is more important.” My hometown in Oklahoma had a Carnegie Library. Some of them these days have been converted into avant-garde dwellings. Lots of room for books, they say.
But first, Shawna and I had to negotiate the nuts and bolts:
“Who’s going to drive?” she asks.
This is always amusing to me, because my lovely wife not only came late to automobile travel (she’s from Chicago, where cars are still unusual, apparently) but also because she’s a genuine Flat-Lander for whom hills and blue-sky corners mean a white-knuckle ride. We arrived in Pittsburgh after an hour of easy Interstate travel, only to discover construction zones and hills.
“This is worse than Dayton,” she mutters, once again grinding the right wheels into the broken curbstones as she veered away from a threatening orange cone. “Why didn’t you drive?” (She usually covers her eyes when I take the wheel, because I learned to drive in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where speed and daring will get you through anything. If I drive, she mostly keeps her eyes closed.) But eventually we made it to the Museum without incident, with me holding the map and Shawna slowly picking her way through the old industrial city, passed on every side by mystified locals who were wondering whether we really intended to park there in the middle lane.
We walk into the museum and are greeted by a burly security guard in a business suit, who waves cheerfully and begins talking to a small device hidden in his hand. When we arrive at the ticket counter, they’ve already got the quantity discount brochures ready for us.
“Do we want to buy a season ticket?” Shawna asks. For a family of seven to visit the Carnegie Museum costs about $80, without food. For $135, we can go as often as we like, as long as we come back within a year. We buy a season ticket and go inside. This is cheap—I priced Cirque du Soleil at over six hundred dollars per performance. (We’ve never been to it.)
“Where are the dinosaurs?” Starbuck asks. The dinosaurs are very impressive. Lots of gigantic skeletons, some that you can even walk under. One of the biggest ones towers over our head, with a long slender tail that the little sign says might have been used for defense. Popping it like a whip might have caused it to reach supersonic speeds, it reads. This is interesting to me. My Choctaw uncle was a muleskinner, and could crack a fourteen-foot bullwhip over his head with such accuracy that I have watched him flick a single cigarette butt off the ground, over and over, the whip never ceasing its whistling circle round his shoulders. I happen to know from lots of experience in whip repair that any dinosaur that popped its tail like a whip would soon have no tail left long enough to pop. Apparently the paleobiologists never knew any muleskinners. My regard for the museum staff drops a notch.
We move on to the world-famous crystal collection. As an ex-petroleum geologist, I’m a sucker for pretty rocks, so we spend a lot of time in here. “Galena,” I intone solemnly for Number One Son Griffin, pointing my finger at a gray cube the size of a child’s building block. “It’s a lead ore.”
“Rhodochrosite,” I predict confidently, indicating another specimen.
“Kyanite,” I point out next.
“It’s glaucophane,” Devra says, peering closely at the little card.
“Let’s go see the Natural History section now,” I suggest.
The stuffed animals are a big hit with the older kids. Buffalo, musk oxen, polar bears, Eskimos. (The Eskimos aren’t stuffed—just models.) Three year-old Golden ignores the beautiful and painstakingly mounted specimens, as he has discovered “Extreme Animal Video.” Extreme Animal Video is not what you might expect—it consists of a five-foot cube made of painted plywood, from inside of which comes a thin thread of tinny music. Bending over and peering inside through a screen-covered window, I behold a bad dream. Gyrating to the beat of the music, dressed in a child’s shirt and trousers, is a very badly stuffed coyote. Hanging upside down from the ceiling is a stuffed opossum, outfitted in miniature overalls. Over in the corner is a stuffed white-tailed deer, perched on a stool next to a little window, weaving and bobbing to the beat. They are all facing a small television screen on the other side. I avert my eyes. “PETA would go nuts over this,” I whisper to Shawna. But suddenly it gets worse. As I watch, the head of the dancing deer seems to nod, then to flop violently back and forth. Suddenly, to my dismay, it flies off the shoulders of its gaily-dressed mannequin, smacks onto the floor, and lies still, eyes staring up sightlessly. Leaning forward to my own window, I see Golden’s hand retreating through the little window next to the deer’s body, which is now dancing and bobbing headlessly like a children’s nightmare.
“Golden! You just broke the head off that deer!” Golden, of course, stares at me blankly. He doesn’t come to the city much. The first time he ever saw a flush toilet, he and Starbuck stood next to it for thirty minutes, flushing it over and over to see how it worked. A dancing deer was a temptation so obvious it needs no explanation.
“Let’s go find somebody,” I say, and we move away before the children destroy the whole thing. I am not impressed by the childproof nature of Extreme Animal Video. My regard for the staff drops another notch. There’s nobody in sight to confess to, so I make a mental note to tell the next security guard about the damage, and we go visit the dead Egyptians.
Unlike the Eskimos, the Egyptians are really there, and really dead, looking like dried-up old road kills in carefully reconstructed models of genuine excavations. “Look, kids,” I say. “Is that gross or what?”
Paoli says, “We already saw it, Dad.” Old skeletons with dried up skin and tendons are boring. She can always see those at home, where the woods reveal old deer carcasses, or occasional cows and goats, or you name it. No need to pay $80 to see an old dead Egyptian. Maybe if was dressed up and dancing . . .
Then I spot something I recognize. It’s an old Egyptian writing tablet, the kind made from a little slab of wood covered in beeswax. You scratched a few words into the beeswax with a stylus, and it stayed readable as long as you needed it to (or until you left it in the sun). The little piece of wood has two holes on one side, where they would tie loops of cord together to bind a stack of tablets into a primitive book. The little sign explains, “The holes in the tablet are for suspending the tablet for carrying.” That’s not right, I think to myself. Anybody who knows anything about ancient Egyptian bookbinding practices knows that they tied the tablets together, a style imitated later in the leather parchment books called membranae by first-century Hellenistic Jews and the later Romans. My respect for the legacy of old Andrew lessens a bit more.
We spend the entire afternoon at the Carnegie Museum, which in the end totally defeats me by its sheer size and variety. By four o’clock it’s all I can do to stare dumbly at the ancient Sioux horse decorations. “288,000 individual beads,” the push button tells me brightly, “and it weighs 34 pounds.” I don’t even try to verify the math. Later I catch up with all the kids inside the Pueblo Diorama, listening to the recording of old Hopi women explaining how to grind corn. Except then I notice Golden, who has discovered a six-inch-by-six-inch hole in the artificial adobe wall, and is busily attempting to enlarge it into a new entrance to the interior. “Golden!” I shout futilely. He is already inside.
Finally it’s over, and we head to the exit, past the gauntlet that every parent knows lurks in museums, zoos, and galleries of any kind: the Gift Shop.
“Can we buy something? Can we?” The exhausted children come back to life like those other Egyptians, the ones from Hollywood.
“One thing,” says Shawna. I go sit down by the T-shirts, because I know how long it will take.
And it does. Griffin finally chooses a very nice pocket guide to Rocks and Minerals. Devra selects a small Guatemalan bracelet. Paoli ends up with a small glass egg (she will lose it immediately in the car on the way home.) Starbuck finds a small Plexiglas box filled with colored oils and model porpoises. Golden selects a bag of candy. Then he changes his mind for a hat shaped like an alligator’s upper jaw. The he changes his mind again in favor of a small truck.
“Decide now,” says Shawna. The museum gift shop is closing. Finally Golden decides. I’m so tired I don’t even know what it is. We make our way out to the car, the children running ahead in the empty parking garage to get to the best seats first.
“You drive,” says Shawna.
Friends, is it okay to lie? Can you, as a Quaker, tell a lie? To save your life, or someone else’s?
Do you ever wonder about this question? It’s a significant one, I believe. Many of the old Quaker testimonies are considered out-of-date these days, not appropriate to our more sophisticated and complex times. Most of us don’t wear the funny clothes, or do the funny Quaker-talk much anymore. When’s the last time you kept your hat on in court when the bailiff told you to take it off? But truth-telling is fundamental to integrity, which is arguably the most important Quaker testimony of them all. For me, this question is important because I try to integrate my religious profession into every aspect of my life, and telling a lie would often make my life a whole lot easier. And while I can’t predict the daily difficulties that I might face, I try to consider the ultimate consequences of following through on what I believe.
Probably most of us would agree that it’s wrong to tell a lie for personal gain—to lie on our income tax, for instance. Or to lie about who dropped the cookie jar, or about where you went last night, and who you stayed out late with. You might even say that you wouldn’t tell a lie to save your own life, if it came to that.
So let’s cut to the chase.
You hear a knock on the door. You open it, and it’s your Jewish neighbor. She says, “They’re after me. Will you hide me?” You drag her in, stuff her in the closet, and close the door. Then comes another knock. You open it, and there, resplendent in his uniform, is the local Nazi Party chief, with the police. He says to you, “Good afternoon, Quaker. Do you know where the Jew is?”
Well, what do you do?
This is a very serious question, one that I don’t in any way want to diminish by trotting out the well-worn parable above. The implications are deadly serious. Lying is held to be fundamentally wrong in most cultures, so wrong that it is seldom even addressed as a question. This is true even though those same cultures often routinely excuse or recommend lying as a means of solving difficult social problems (like the one above). Read the Jewish Tanach, in Yisro 20:13:
“You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your fellow.”
There have been cultures that interpret this to mean only that you shall tell the truth in certain legal proceedings—both Jewish and Christian. But the Christian interpretation of this Jewish precept has most often been that God informs us that a lie is wrong, anywhere, and if it is wrong to lie in a courtroom, it is just as wrong to lie in the hallway outside, or anywhere else. And of course, there are many Proverbs that condemn a lie.
As for Quakers, in my 1863 copy of The Discipline of the Society of Friends of Ohio Yearly Meeting, it reads under “Conduct and Conversation:
“Such are to be treated with, as are guilty of lying, drunkenness, swearing, cursing; together with other immoral and scandalous practice: and when persons are guilty in these respects, or any of them . . . the said meetings ought speedily to testify against them.”
And in 2001, it reads:
“Carefully maintain truthfulness and sincerity in your conduct, and encourage the same in your families.”
That’s all pretty clear, I think. There’s no fine distinction being made about white lies, or lies for compassionate purposes. Lying, without qualification, is judged to be simply wrong, lumped with immorality and scandal.
Quakers have always interpreted truth in speech as one of our foremost testimonies. In fact, speaking briefly, clearly, and with scrupulous honesty was one of the original meanings of the term “plain speech.” We used to make sure that we didn’t participate in truth rituals in a court of law—it implied a double standard of truth, as if we weren’t enjoined to be carefully honest at all times. And Quakers were historically noted for their honesty, for telling the truth to all people, always. If you’ve been associated with Friends for very long, you know most all of the stories. Honesty and telling the truth are so fundamental to Quakerism that interestingly, Nickall’s Journal of George Fox has no index entries at all for “truth,” “lying,” “honesty,” “integrity,” or anything associated with telling the truth as a testimony, although there are 15 references to “swearing.” Even Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity which mentions lying four times, does so only in other contexts, where it uses the practice to demonstrate that something else is wrong, because it forces the Quaker to lie.
And yet, Quakers hiding escaped slaves from the legal authorities routinely lied to save the fugitives. There were weasel words used to good effect, such as the famous “There are only free people in this house,” meaning that the concealed slave was, of course, actually a free person. I’m afraid that was a lie, but telling it saved lives and meant freedom for the escaping slave. So there is Quaker precedent for personal dishonesty in a more important cause. Or is that what is going on?
But to get back to our question, what do you tell the waiting Nazi? If you say, “The Jew is in the closet,” she dies, and although you have been faithful to one witness, you have betrayed another: that of protecting a fugitive who trusted you. If you say, “She’s not here,” you save her life, at the cost of betraying a command from an omnipotent God. If you refuse to answer, or act stupid, the police will likely search your house and find her anyway. So what do you do?
Let me spell out the question:
Is it, or is it not, appropriate to disobey a commandment of God with the intent of being faithful to another of his commandments? Do we decide which ones he meant us to take seriously, and which ones he meant for us to let slide, if necessary? Or do we follow them all to the letter and let him decide what will transpire?
Are we authorized to disobey one of God’s commandments on the basis of an anticipated tragedy that we think might result from that obedience?
Does God require you to betray his commands in order to be faithful to him, in a larger sense?
It’s worth pointing out here that Jesus himself is never recorded to have told a lie, but didn’t hesitate to overrule Mosaic law when he thought it appropriate.
So, Friends, what do you think?
I’m a Quaker. I own a gun. I see no contradiction there.
I don’t normally read newspapers, but a headline caught my eye at the grocery store the other day: U.S. Supreme Court rules it’s a right to own a firearm. As it turns out, in something over 200 years, the constitutional amendment permitting American citizens to keep a gun in their possession has never been explicitly defined. Shorn of the legalese, the new decision states that citizens have a right to keep a firearm in their home for self-protection, without government interference. Plain and simple.
Personally, I applaud this decision. I’ve grown up around firearms. My rural grandparents kept a loaded 12-gauge in the corner next to the telephone. My uncle kept a lever-action .22 rifle under the seat of the pickup. Other aunts and uncles kept hunting rifles, pistols, and old nostalgic military weapons in their homes and vehicles. They were all country people, who lived close to a nature that didn't always welcome their presence. My grandmother used a rifle to kill the rabid dogs that visited. Coyotes killed the stock. Skunks, possums, and raccoons ran off with the chickens. The firearms encouraged these neighbors to keep their distance, and dispatched the ones that wouldn’t. And of course, the guns were used to hunt animals for food and during butchering. The rural Quakers in my meeting often own guns today for the same reasons my non-Quaker ancestors did.
But urban Quaker culture these days sometimes looks askance at private ownership of firearms. A gun is a weapon, after all, and has no real purpose other than to dispense death. On one internet forum a while back, the attitude of some Quakers towards firearms was expressed to me clearly, in a conversation regarding the murder of some young people on a college campus:
I really feel that we're just living the logical consequences of our lack of gun control in general. To change things would require a national push for a saner interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and then a long process of cleaning up the guns that are already in circulation.
I’m afraid I would respond with non-violent resistance to anybody wanting to “clean up the guns that are already in circulation.” And many people besides me don't want to be "cleaned up."
The justification for Quaker involvement in gun control is often tied into an expression of the Peace Testimony. Because guns can be used to kill people, the reasoning goes, their ownership contradicts this testimony. Therefore, gun control is something that Quakers should support.
I don’t buy that argument. Peaceable early Friends here in America used long guns—the assault rifles of their day—as tools for protecting their livestock and providing food for their families. In the event of political difficulties, various Quaker histories describe how they would send their guns into town with friends, so that they could remain unarmed should hostile soldiers or Indians visit. Quaker Pennsylvania became a national leader in flintlock rifle design and manufacture (usually by the non-Quaker Scotch-Irish), and different counties of the colony were famous for the different styles of firearms manufactured there.
These Quakers saw no contradiction between owning a gun and maintaining a testimony of peace and Christian love towards their neighbors, and neither do I. They owned guns in the same way that they owned a shovel or an axe. They used the gun to control wildlife or to provide food. Where I live, coyotes eat my cats, feral dogs run wild and bring down deer (among other things), and rare but occasional black bears move through my woods. Raccoons kill my beehives—many of them. I support peace, but that's not the same thing as shooting a rabid raccoon in my children's playhouse.
My own weapon is a Colt Government Model .45, a semi-automatic handgun used by the American military as the standard-issue sidearm for around 80 years. It’s rugged, simple, reliable, and serves the purposes for which I use it. I keep it locked and unloaded, but all my older kids know where it is and how to use it. My three-year old has had carefully supervised shooting practice. It’s part of our household inventory of tools. Not the most accurate or the cheapest gun, but it’s what I have.
Some Quakers propose gun control today in the same spirit that an earlier generation of Friends used to introduce Prohibition, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States. The most lasting result of Prohibition in America was the jump-starting of organized crime, which began by bootlegging alcohol. That Quaker experiment proved a failure, with many decades of repercussions. I object to Quaker support of intrusive government practices like this.
But my main objection to gun control is that it violates the basic Friends testimony of following the Inward Light. This is the most important Quaker foundation—much more basic than an interest in peace. As Friends, we are to follow the Inward Light in our actions. The organ used to perceive our measure of this Light is our conscience, and when we are faithful to it, we are faithful to our measure. As we are obedient, our measure is increased, and so on. But if we do not see the Inward Light pointing to a certain path, then we do not live by our own experience if we make a pretence of obedience. And we are not to impose our personal leadings upon the consciences of others, for to do so means that we encourage them to be unfaithful to their own measure, and to follow ours instead.
The old story of George Fox and William Penn’s sword is instructive. When Penn asked whether he should continue wearing his sidearm now that he was a Friend, Fox supposedly replied, “William, wear it as long as thou canst!” William at first demurred, but after a while he left the sword at home. Before he had been convicted by the L:ight, Penn would have been disobedient to set the sword aside. After, he would have been disobedient to have left it on. In both cases, Penn was faithful to the Light that had been granted him. And in this instance, Penn chose to leave his sidearm at home, where I leave mine.
To coerce people into obedience to someone else’s leading where unity does not exist contradicts the fundamental Quaker testimony that we should listen to our Guide first, and the discoveries of other Friends next. It also throws in the common mistake of taking a secular issue and wrapping it in religion for added support. Where I live, this simply doesn't fly. In my own rural meeting community, we have no inclination to seek unity on restricting gun ownership. The situation is obvious—it’s a non-issue in the country.
And to claim that the Peace Testimony requires me to give up the gun I use to protect my beehives from a marauding raccoon is a connection that I don’t understand. Were I using my weapon on people, or even storing it to keep that option available, then of course it would be a different matter. But I don't, and without an explicit connection, the Peace Testimony argument simply falls down, leaving gun control as just another secular concern like fair wages or low-sulfur diesel fuel.
So Friends, until I am led otherwise, I shall keep my firearms in my house, with the understanding that by doing so I act in consistency with my religious values as a Friend. And I encourage you to do the same, if you are so led, should you live in an area where gun ownership makes sense.
As a Quaker, I merely suggest that you be careful with them.
The other night we had 14 ears of corn, two for each of us for dinner:
"Can we shuck the corn now, Dad? Can we? Can we? Please, please . . . "
One hour later we have a neat brown paper bag full of corn husks for projects, and five ears of corn.
"Where are the other nine ears of corn?"
"Starbuck ate one."
"Where are the other eight?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"Where is all the corn you shucked?"
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
"No more corn for you, indefinitely. Eat your ear of corn and go to bed."
"No coffee cake?"
"No coffee cake?"
"No coffee cake?"
"No coffee cake?"
"No coffee cake?"
"No, no, no, no, no."
Now if I could just get our neighbor Chester to come and get his antique one-row corn picker out of our carriage house, I'd be done with corn for a while.
And, of course, the barn swallows are giving it a try again, just a few feet out of reach.
Just how ecstatic do we have to be to use the word "inspired" when we talk about what we do in obedience of the Holy Spirit? Just how letter-perfect do our words have to be before we can trust them to be from God? The reason I'm asking is that as a Friend, I am accustomed to sitting next to ordinary people in meeting who stand and speak as prompted by the Holy Spirit. To me, this is what "inspiration" is all about--a motivation by the influence of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ to respond to an immediate leading with a thought, word or action, as directed by the Spirit. But they are often somewhat ordinary about it.
Back in the old days, ordinary Quakers flopped on the floor and foamed at the mouth under "inspiration." Some still do, I suppose, but it isn't routine by any means, at least where I live. But I know people who do suddenly have things to say in meeting that are clearly directed by outside supernatural forces. Or they walk up to my wife and say things that seem incomprehensible but which mean something to her. This is what I know of as inspiration in the real world. I believe that this inspiration is the same as that granted the apostles, and as far as I know may be granted to a modern Friend in the same measure.
But I don't think it follows that inspiration from the Holy Spirit requires inerrancy in the delivery of the inspired Friend's message. When a minister in my meeting stands to speak, she does so with a distinct Ohio accent, and her words are constructed out of the cultural context of the Ohio River Valley, in the eastern United States. She may make an inspired point that is True while using imperfect grammar, or she may later write an inspired letter that contains spelling mistakes. Her inspired words may illustrate a point using an incorrect knowledge of fact or circumstance. It's the letter that's inspired, not the envelope.
Likewise, when a first century epistle writer sat down at a table, it's clear that he wrote using the vocabulary and cultural framework of a first-century Christian. This epistle writer might have written an inspired book that was preserved as Scripture for the future, but which reflected his contemporary knowledge of factual matters that we know more about today. Those mistakes don't make the words or writings of the author any less inspired, or any less True, in the areas in which he was ministering--just human. An imperfect implement, but good enough for the task.
I've written elsewhere about the inarguable fact that Christian Scripture contains errors of geography, history, and science. The errors are easy to find, and the fact that they're there doesn't impress me. The point that I want to make is that these errors do not in any way by themselves render Scripture uninspired, or faulty, or without the value given it by the Holy Spirit. Just as a Quaker minister may misidentify the species of a bird in a parable about God, a Jewish author might misidentify a mustard seed as the smallest of all seeds, or a Greek writer misquote an Old Testament prophet, in an account where that information is not the point.
Many times people attack inerrancy by assembling lists of various Scriptural errors or inconsistencies, and then trot them out to say that because Scripture is erroneous in these small details, it must be untrustworthy in a larger context. They often wrangle with people who defend inerrancy, who themselves say that if Scripture is believed to be capable of errors in details, then it can't be trusted in a larger context. The arguments work from the same assumption--that Scriptural Truth depends on inerrancy. As I see it, the value of Scripture as the inspired words of God do not rise and fall on unrelated errors or the writer's lack of a modern education.
My faith in the message of the Scriptures isn't shaken by the many minor internal inconsistencies or the contradictions with modern knowledge, because I don't expect them to be perfect or treat them as a science textbook. Likewise for geography, or history. Their value is elsewhere. I believe the messages are True, so I don't worry about the little stuff that crept in here and there, or the hiccups in the delivery. This is hard for some Christians to accept, because they have been taught to look to a Book for the direction they need, instead of the Author patiently standing next to them, waiting for them to notice.
But I think it's what we're called to. So I don't sweat the small stuff.
I collect old Quaker documents. I’m always interested in how Quakers responded corporately to the challenges they faced in their own time and place, so I’m always interested in Disciplines, books of Faith and Practice, Committee reports and guidelines, old Minutes, and the endless minutiae of the Society. We Friends tend to write a lot, so there’s lots of text to scrutinize for insight into how the Society felt and acted about issues of concern in their time and place.
My interest extends into the present, too, in looking over current procedures and guidelines, both from my own Meeting and those from others around the country and the world. Sometimes there are insights that can be gained into our own problems by looking at how others have dealt with those of their own. Sometimes there are red flags, too, when I discover something going wrong, something that might not be apparent to the Friends so close to it that they can’t see it clearly.
I came across one such example the other day, in looking over a recent description of the tasks assigned to the “Welcoming Committee” of an active urban Meeting here in the United States. The description was several pages long, and contained practical information such as how to unlock the heavy doors, setting out the guest book, providing name tags and markers for newcomers, and re-stocking the pamphlet titled “You and Your Children Are Welcome.”
And here is where I discovered the red flag. This Meeting is in a big city, with the usual big-city problem of homeless people wandering the streets at night looking for shelter. Five paragraphs cover how to welcome strangers at the door, introducing them to the Society, explaining what is going on, making sure they have the right pamphlets, checking the street for latecomers, and so on. Very comprehensive and hospitable. But just before them comes the single paragraph about sending the poor people away:
If there are homeless people sleeping or camping in front of the building, this would be a good time to gently ask them to go elsewhere. I like to tell them about [a Roman Catholic Church] as a place to sleep or [another Roman Catholic Church] for food etcetera.
And a little further along, another guideline:
Occasionally homeless people will wander into the lobby during Meeting. You will need to handle these situations as well.
“Go elsewhere?” “Situations?” I know the problems of dealing with poor people in urban areas from personal experience. I’ve given away my food (and my spare shoes) to homeless people in Columbus for years, because sometimes they have no food, and sometimes they have no shoes. In the winter I reach into my pocket and give them extra money to help get them into a rooming house for the night, because sleeping behind a dumpster in the Ohio snow is a short ticket to death. I am under no illusions that I can solve all the problems, so I concentrate on who God puts in front of me, that day, and I do what I can. I can’t always help, but these are children of God--I never make a blanket policy of sending them away.
The origins of the Religious Society of Friends were among social misfits, ostracized people, often rendered poverty-stricken by circumstances of faith. And the origins of Christianity itself were among the slaves, beggars, servants, widows, and orphans of the totalitarian Roman Empire. Money and food was regularly allocated by the Christians for the local paupers, and disparity in sharing food between richer and poorer people at the agape meal led to a stern admonition in one of Paul’s letters. But here, in modern America, a Friends Meeting sends poor people away to Roman Catholic Churches, which apparently are more interested in them. What in the world is going on here, to have a Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends make a written policy of sending beggars away, without even a question, and to another church, at that?
What message does our Society have for these poor people, sleeping in doorways?
I’m not interested in identifying this Meeting. Like many others, this one maintains a vocal position in opposing world oppression and injustice. On its website for this month, its Advices and Queries highlight “Social and Civic Responsibility.” But most of the wording is focused far away, and addresses governments, communities, nations, the world-- large groups, humanity as an abstraction. And most of the means for solving problems seem to be committee work, civil disobedience, mass social advocacy, promotion of group change, the seeking of just laws. What is missing here is personal responsibility, the traditional concern of the Friend to turn his eyes from the bleeding world, to attend to the bleeding friend asleep on the Meeting House steps.
It was Jesus Christ himself who said, “For ye have the poor with you always,” and truer words have never been spoken. There will always be beggars sleeping in doorways, but rather than sending them away, would the Son of God perhaps have suggested another response? Jesus took the beggars, the tax collectors, the crazy people, and the sinners, and singled them out for special attention. He spoke with them, touched them, fed them, and treated them as people for whom he had a message of great importance. What lessons did he teach? Who hears them today?
Urban paupers are sometimes dirty, smelly, foul-mouthed, and ungrateful, and occasionally are drunk and mentally disturbed. But there are other ways of remaining faithful to the greater testimony of answering that of God in everyone than “gently asking them to go elsewhere.” For instance:
- Assign a Friend to invite the beggars inside to learn that the Society of Friends has a message of interest to their spiritual growth. If they are disruptive, then ask them to go elsewhere, not while their only offense is choosing the wrong steps to sleep on.
- Make up a dozen or two small bags of food—a doughnut and a box of orange juice. Hand them to as many beggars as are willing to eat quietly in a back room, while meeting is going on, or let them eat on the steps.
- Assign the Welcoming Committee the weekly task of Welcoming the Beggars to the Society of Friends, each Friend to spend one hour per month, or per year, sitting out on the steps with them during meeting, learning who they are and hearing the messages Jesus Christ might be sending with them to the worshippers inside.
- Hold an all-night vigil on the Meeting House steps with them, to learn about tragedy and injustice close to home, and what to do about it.
- Occasionally cancel the regular “No Injustice in Far-Away Places” demonstration to allow time for a “No Hunger on the Meeting House Steps” demonstration to take place instead.
And so on. None of these things will make the homeless people go away, or solve all their problems, or make them smell better or speak more quietly. And yet, isn’t it a fundamental testimony of the Religious Society of Friends that all people are equal in the sight of God, and that our responsibility on this earth is to help our brothers and sisters, right here, right now, successfully or not, dirty or not? When we “gently ask the homeless people to go elsewhere,” what are we telling them about what we believe? What are we telling the Roman Catholics who feed and house the beggars that we send away? What do we tell ourselves when we look into a mirror that evening, about our own faithfulness to that of God in everyone? And what do we tell our God about how we live up to our measure of the Light he has given us?