Thursday, October 15, 2009

Do Friends Worship Silence?

Jenn and I were looking to reference the phrase “a still, small voice” in the Bible one night. For whatever reason, she uses the NIV, and I use the NASB. We looked in the concordances of our respective Bibles and found absolutely no reference to such a verse. “Ah!” I said, “the early Friends (and many modern ones) used the KJV.” We googled the phrase and were led straight to the place in the KJV where we could find it, and we did a little study, because we know that much about Quaker worship itself has been based upon this verse. It is found in 1 Kings 19:12.
The verse is found in a passage that runs the length of Chapter 19, but for the purposes of our study, we looked at 19:9-15. Elijah, who is hiding from Jezebel’s wrath at Mt. Horeb, after destroying the prophets of Ba’al, is asked by YHWH what in the world he is doing in a cave. Elijah answers that the people of Israel are seeking to destroy him. “Go forth,” says God, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” Elijah remains in the cave, and awaits the presence of YHWH to act further. “And behold, YHWH was passing by.” A hurricane blows through, but Elijah recognizes that God is not in it. Then an earthquake occurs, but Elijah recognizes that God is not present in it. “After the earthquake, a fire, but YHWH was not in the fire.” Then comes verse 12, where the KJV reads something like “and after the fire… a still, small voice.”
Other translations do not use the “still small voice” phrase. The NASB uses “the sound of a gentle blowing.” The NRSV uses “the sound of sheer silence.” My wife suggested this is the Hebrew version of “the sound of one hand clapping.” At any rate, is important to know, that according to the text, YHWH was not in the still small voice, or the silence, or whatever your translation reads. It is at the point of silence, as we find in the following verses, that “when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in a mantle (so as not to look upon the divine presence) and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, ‘What are you doing here Elijah?’”
I suggest that God is not found in the silence, but when silence occurs in a worshipful manner we know God is imminent. The silence, our waiting in silence as Elijah did, prepares us and makes us fertile for the Word of God to be spoken among us and it is silence that prepares us to receive it properly. But what does this have to do with worship?
Many of our Quaker contemporaries seem, not to worship in silence, but to worship silence, as if it were in the lack of vocal ministry that God is most present. Many of us might even view vocal ministry as less conducive to real relationship with the Creator than is silence itself! But while God may indeed be present in waiting worship, it is through vocal ministry that YHWH is made relevant to a community of faith. While many of us might come to meeting to relax from a hectic week, others long for YHWH to appear in the midst of our waiting and replenish our souls through the Spirit guided vocal ministry of other Friends. We wait on the Spirit without recognizing that silence is intended to make us tender toward the Spirit’s impending activity. Silence without vocal ministry is to spend our full Spiritual measure quite lavishly on ourselves, without benefiting other faithful Friends who are longing for God to be fully realized among us in a corporate manner. How dare I limit God by not thinking that the Creator would speak to others through me. This goes for our lifestyles as well as our spiritual vocabulary. God speaks through us all, even if the message is intended only for one individual amidst gathering of Friends. It is time we realize that the silence makes us ripe for vocal ministry, and is not intended to protect us from it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Life as a gift

People often view life as a gift. I have, over time, come to believe that my own life is a gift as I continue to recover from a tragic addiction to cocaine and alcohol. I really have no business being alive, and when times are toughest, I often remember that there were times during my life when I did not have the will to live. Liberation and salvation are biblical themes that have real meaning for me and for my family. I believe that I should voluntarily submit myself to God, Community, and my family in a manner that stresses the egalitarian qualities of such a commitment.
I think there are other people who view life a precious, but for the most part think that we belong primarily to ourselves, with potential gods, communities and lovers having no more than a peripheral claim on our being. Our life is our own, and ought to be lived as such. I am not necessarily critical of this view, but acutely aware that it stands in contrast with my own.
Then, there are some who might view life as an accident. They might believe that life is either without meaning, or only made meaningful by values that we ourselves attribute to it. I am not really clear on the particulars of this view, though I will admit that I tend to view it with a critical, even if uninformed, eye.
However, I can now say that I have experienced life as a product of laziness. There is a broody hen that sits in our garage all day and all night. She doesn’t lay, she hardly eats, and as far as hens go, she is not particularly friendly. Since all the mothering instincts are supposed to be bred out of her, she stands as an anomaly among the flock. Since farm protocol and family finances dictate that we don’t feed any unproductive mouths that aren’t human teenagers, this hen was due to be culled in July when we butchered the broilers. However, when the time came for butchering, we forgot about the broody hen and she lived to see another day because we were too lazy to butcher her later.
After a few more weeks, my wife noticed eggs were gathering underneath the broody hen, and marked them all with an X so that we wouldn’t harvest them. She was interested to see if they hatched. We were all skeptical. However, last Saturday, when we were doing chores, my wife and our daughter Rosa and I heard a distinct peeping. We checked by the broody hen, and there was a new chick, very sick looking, and being ignored by its somewhat confused mamma. The body temperature of the chick was so low that it felt cold to the touch. I silently thought that I would put it out of misery, but Rosa the 7 year old, who wants to be a vet, took it into her hands and brought it into the house. Six hours after a heat lamp had been applied, the chick was up and walking, eating and drinking, and full of the promise of life.
Then, two days later, we heard more peeping, and sure enough, one more chick had hatched. This one was in worse shape, because another hen had driven the mother hen from the nest and began to peck at the chick as a meal. Its head was pecked raw and the chick was near dead, but Rosa took it into her hands, brought it into the house, and applied a new heat lamp and some antibiotic ointment to the it. Two days later, and both chicks are healthy.
So, our family is learning lessons about life. Not only that it has value, but also that, sometimes, human arbitrariness plays a role in what lives or dies, or what thrives or survives. What does our own arbitrariness about life say about a creator God who allows such an inconsistent human value to thrive. Why doesn’t God “breed out” our ambivalence about life, which exists at every level and across the social, political, and religious spectrum. Perhaps such arbitrariness is cruel, or, perhaps it is not so much divine ambivalence as it is that God is as full of wonder as we are about the miracles of life and knows that without a certain level of ambivalence, life would lose its meaning altogether. Life indeed would be an accident, and those chicks would have no more value to my daughter or her parents than the time it would take to end it. We need the tension that exists between viewing life as something that belongs only to us, or exists as a gift from a Creator, because , I believe, the alternative that suggests it is meaningless takes away our drive to use life as a means to something greater than ourselves. There are great questions to be answered, but only when we accept that life has precious value in spite of arbitrariness are we driven to find the answers that give life more meaning.
I just hope the chicks don’t grow up to be roosters. Roosters still have meaning, but only rank a little higher than teenagers when it comes to total value of contribution.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Some thoughts on continuing revelation

It strikes me as interesting that Friends who respond negatively to my Christ-centeredness most often cite the Quaker concern for “ongoing” or “continuing revelation.” While I am certainly not in opposition to the worthwhile perspective that YHWH continues to reveal the divine-self through human beings, institutions, and communities, I would like to point out a separate but related concern that ancient Friends rallied around in the 17th century. It was that those who were responsive to the Inward Light were called to participate in practices that were thought to resemble the beliefs of the earliest Church. Indeed, many Quakers believed that apostasy began as early as the second century or before, as Friends believed those folks began to veer away from the original teachings of the Christ, or, their Inward Teacher. It was a return to the “primitive church” that marked early Friends’ faith and practice far more than their concern for ongoing revelation. Even when defending the worth of women preachers and egalitarian households, Friends turned to Hebrew Testament texts concerning Abraham and Sarah before they made any reference to women in the ministry as a matter more consistent with fresh revelations from God.
I have observed, in limited contact, that many Friends who are opposed to Christ-centered Quakerism tend to suggest that they are not necessarily more in tune with the divine (though they may think so in self-comparison to those superstitious “righteous christers”), but that they understand that previous leadings or revelation has always been tinged with human hubris. We have never really understood the ancient truths to be truths until we were fully liberated by liberal democracy and the (healthy) skepticism that comes with it. Indeed, it is an ancient truth that women are most competent ministers, leaders, and servants of the divine. It is an ancient truth that we should love our enemies as well as our more friendly neighbors. It is an ancient truth that all human beings are equal, and that injustice is an evil that must be overcome. But these Truths are not only evident in some aspects of liberal democracy, but are evidenced in the early church as well. Women in the ministry is a first century CE construct, not a 16th century humanist one, nor is it born of 17th century Quakers, nor of 19th century Americans. Liberation and equality are simply not constructs of modernity. Yet, the idea that democracy has represented the apex of liberation is as much a lie as nonbelievers represent the resurrection to be.
There is veracity in the claim that truth is not only found in the biblical text or Christ-centered faith. I believe that truth is represented in numerous places and in many faiths. But for the most part, if we are to stay comprehensible to one another and maintain any integrity in our ability to claim truths, they must be part of a larger context that anchors our worldview, but particular enough so that we maintain the diversity of faiths that make for a better world. While many of my anarchist friends may deny that we are responsible for the mistakes of our forebearers, the narrative component of particularity insists that we are part of our past, and responsible not only for its maintenance, but for rectifying the evils done in the name of our particular faith and redeeming it as a meaningful contributor to the vast array of particular truths that exist in a pluralistic universe.
It is also my understanding that there are competing truths, and that many claims conflict with one another. I believe that patience will serve the Truth more than blending inconsistent claims so that there are mundane collections of aphorisms and proverbs to fill in the gaps of inconsistencies. I will stick to my story, and listen to yours, and believe that we are both experts in a Truth that will bear up both of us in future generations. I can trust that God will properly arbitrate both history and truth, and does not need the help of synchronists to make everyone happier about who they are and what God they have constructed.