Seeking a Quaker Understanding of Advent

Seeking a Quaker Advent

George Amoss, who blogs at Postmodern Quaker, wrote that the first Quakers were truly apocalyptic.  In the phrase “Christ has come to teach his people himself…” those first Friends experienced the Second Coming of Christ in discovering the Spirit of love within the very heart of their being. It transformed their world; they lived in what Jesus had called the Kingdom of God. Mystically, they were one with God by virtue of love’s identity. From the moment of “visitation,” when love re-created them, Friends knew themselves to be the Word of God in human form, the body of Christ in the world. Prophetically, living in the Spirit in which Jesus had lived, they shared the compassionate awareness and urgent concern for equality, justice, and peace that had characterized Jesus’ life’s work. This is what true Advent is about, living in that life and power, discovering the spirit of love at the heart of their being.

With the first Friends, Christianity itself was reborn from a superstition-laden religious system of personal salvation from the wrath of a displeased god into a living expression of love in the world. Through the awakening of the compassionate heart within them, early Quakers redeemed the Christianity of their day and led their society closer to the vision of Jesus. As Quakers today, we are heirs to their experience. We are in a to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in Christian tradition and practice, as we seek to discover and live from the heart of compassion, the Spirit of Christ within us. In a time when mainstream Christianity is too often a force against human welfare and liberty, we, like those first Friends, can offer an experience of the living Christ that breaks apart the prejudices and constraints of common religious forms while appealing to the love and beauty from which those forms devolved. By way of our words and our lives, we can demonstrate the love through which Jesus and the early Friends exploded superstition, challenged oppression, and witnessed effectively to liberty, justice, and peace.

Coming to that place either as individuals and as a faith community is truly a challenge. For British Friend, Harvey Gillman, it is the image of Jacob struggling with the angel recorded in Genesis 32 which speaks most to him. You remember the story. God had instructed Jacob to return to the country of his family’s origins. He knew that would mean facing Esau whom he had defrauded. He sent messengers to tell Esau that he was bringing him a tribute. When the messengers returned to Jacob they brought this report “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.  Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed…” As Esau was expected to meet him soon he got up in the night and escorted his wives, eleven children and the domestic help along with all he owned across the river Jabbok between himself and his adversary.

The story continues: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Of this text Harvey Gillman wrote: We struggle with the mystery on the bank of a river, at the crossing of a threshold. We struggle all night; we demand to be blessed by the angel at the threshold of a new territory; we will not let go even when we are rendered lame by the angel; but at the end we are transformed; we change from Jacob to Israel; we find in the dignity of the search for meaning a new deeper self. To hear and heed, to know and to follow the truth which reality discloses to us — that is the quest. Not with certainty, not a truth better than that of other people, but the truth which is revealed to us in our life and to which we try to come to terms within the community of seekers in which we find ourselves.

Spirituality in this way is perceived as a deep attending to and communion with the Spirit, fleshed out, embodied, incarnate even, in this beautiful, sacred, scarred and polluted reality of which we ourselves are a part. Spirituality is beholding with love this world in which we find ourselves. To talk of the spiritual life without an ethical dimension and in contradiction to scientific exploration is a futile endeavor. We explore together our spiritual insights, give form to the search in our corporate worship, and live out our findings, experimentally, in testimony.

The great Quaker insight and challenge is that “we answer that of God in everyone.” In a recent correspondence in the British weekly, The Friend, there was a discussion as to what was meant by “answering.” Someone pointed out that George Fox’s basic idea was that there was a seed or a light from God in each of us. But actually that seed often lay dormant; the light was dim. The role of one human being for another was that we help the seed in each other to grow. We call out the divine in each other. This is in fact the basis of our testimonies. But before we can do that we must actually see each other. We must give each other attention as each is a unique, precious,  child of God. The first challenge of the spiritual life is that of seeing, of attending, of witnessing.

And while we desire to build relationships we are severely limited until we first recognize that uniqueness, that preciousness that is ourselves. We need to attend to ourselves, see ourselves, warts and all, darkness and light. This is a real challenge. It needs eyes to see, and hearts to attend. The light of Christ shows us our darkness, but it gives us energy to overcome the ocean of darkness and leads us into community with those who also seek, and then perhaps with those who cannot seek, or those who can no longer seek, and those who are too afraid to seek.

In a sense, our corporate worship is our exercise of seeing, of listening, of beholding. It is where faithfulness is practiced. Of course, there are times when God is there, but we aren’t. There are times that we see the light in others but not in ourselves. There are times when we are too busy saving the planet to behold the details of the world that encompasses us with its small beauties and its troubles.

A deepening of the spiritual life of the group arises from the sharing of story. In many traditions there is a common story, a given theology into which we are born and to which we have to give assent to find whatever salvation is offered. Friends start the other way round. Part of our recognition of our self — and we cannot recognize others, without some recognition of our own self — is the ability to delve into our own experience and to try to hear what our lives are saying to us. And isn’t it fascinating that we can only do this when we have others to listen to us, and our listening to the stories of others. This will help us reflect upon our own story. From the particular details of these stories we can begin to understand the human story. And this is certainly good news. It leads us to understand the divine story.

And the stark reality is that the story isn’t stale or stagnant anymore than is water gushing from an artesian spring.  This week, on the Yearly Meeting’s Facebook page, a middle school science teacher and a member of West Hills Friends, shared a thought from her life. She had just started a unit about how astronomers have viewed the solar system.  Her sixth graders loved the story of how Copernicus spent his life watching the stars,  trying to make sense of what was going on in this big crazy world.  After years of watching Copernicus realized that what he observed didn’t fit with the story he had been taught.  For over a thousand years western culture had been certain that the earth stood still in the center of the solar system and the rest of the heavenly bodies moved around it.  But Copernicus’ data just didn’t fit that model.  He had to change his story to make sense of his observations.  That’s worth saying again.  He had to change his story to make senses of his observation.  His new information didn’t fit with the old story.  He most likely felt the excitement of his discovery but probably also felt confused, insecure, anxious and maybe even more intense emotions like fear, dread, sadness or grief.  She said that Piage, the child psychologist, recognized that when human beings get new information they can either ignore it, assimilate it seamlessly into their old story or reshape their understanding.  Fundamentalists, hack scientist and addicts of all kinds are examples of the ignoring strategy, of which we too are all guilty at times.  Piaget, recognizing how uncomfortable and complex is the reshaping approach, called it disequilibrium.   The good thing about disequilibrium is that is can be a motivator for intellectual growth and creating new understandings that are more adequate for dealing with reality.  I think it true of spiritual reality as well. Though it might leave me anxious, uncomfortable, upset, scared or sad to make sense of what I am observing, hearing, listening, of some new thing rising, it may require that I change my story, how I understand the world,  the people around me and even myself.

I wonder how we live this out in our meeting. To do this we need to overcome fears about ourselves and suspicions about others; we need to have time and patience; we need to be able to deal with difference as there will be elements in each other’s stories that are alien to our own experience. Even the language of the other’s story may be very different from what we might use. We live in the realm of Spirit; it is the glue of the universe; it nourishes all life; it gives whatever meaning there is to our fragile existences; it gives us the connection with all life, if we attend to its promptings. It leads us beyond our individualism into an oasis where we can meet together before the next part of our journey.

Most of us are called out of the solitariness of our private deserts into the bustling market place among the traders, the shakers and the movers; among the beggars and the broken. And it is there that we are called to answer that of God in everyone. It seems to me that the very core of the spiritual journey is that we look, we behold, we wonder at, we respect, we affirm; we do this as individuals, in communities, in our daily work, and in our worship. Our attempts to establish a vision of peace, justice, equality, respect for creation, are all aspects of this spiritual vision. Indeed our testimony in the world is the proof of the depths of the vision we have been granted. When I am overwhelmed yet again by what I hear in the news, by the almost unrelieved darkness of so much in national and international politics, it is this amazement that gives me hope. When confronted by the fact of my own mortality and that of all I love, it is this that gives me the confidence to cherish the fragility of things.

The experience of a Quaker Advent, is to experience the Second Coming of Christ in discovering the Spirit of love within the very heart of our being, engaging is the process of letting it transform our world and our lives and beginning to live in what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.


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