Thursday, February 5, 2015

Sabbath Timeliness

Bethany Theological Seminary and Earlham School of Religion's Seminaries Librarian Jane Pinzino delivered the following message in ESR worship on Tuesday, February 3, 2015: 

Early one Friday evening, when I was a graduate student living in Philadelphia, I was walking home from the pub with Lana, a classmate in the program. As we strolled across the Walnut Street bridge, I was discussing in detail my views about a class in medieval paleography that Lana and were enrolled in. I was verbally processing the work of the week now done, continuing the trajectory from our Happy Hour conversation.  As daylight waned Lana became more and more quiet, apparently distracted, and finally visibly concerned.  Lana turned to me and politely asked whether we might move along more quickly, and I often remember her explanation, “The sun is going down and when it does, I put down my backpack.” I looked at her backpack and I looked at the sinking sun, and we picked up the pace.

We proceeded in silence while I digested this unexpected information about Lana’s way of life. Lana then shared with me, “And this is why I don’t normally go to Happy Hour on Friday with all our friends in the program; it’s not because I don’t want to be with all of you; it’s because I celebrate the Sabbath.” Lana rested at home from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. In  a bit confusion on that Friday, I offered to Lana that I would carry her backpack myself, but that idea was unrealistic since I was also carrying a backpack heavy with books. And in fact, Lana preferred carrying her own load, she simply wanted to reach home to put her own backpack down in her place, and begin the Sabbath celebration, lighting candles and enjoying rest at the end of the school week.  As we now walked along Walnut more briskly, Lana went on to describe how she observed the Sabbath in her home by refraining from schoolwork and spending a day that celebrated, received and reflected. Lana loved graduate school and the creative processes that she engaged in all week long through her writing, presenting, discussing, organizing, teaching; all of which she lay down every Friday evening for a full 24 hour period. My walk home with Lana that day started my own journey of claiming Sabbath rest as a vital part of a productive, industrious, full and rich life.
As your librarian I recommend four books, all of which I draw upon for my own spirituality and for this message: 1) the classic work by Abraham Heschel, entitled “The Sabbath,” 2) a work by Wayne Muller, “Sabbath: Finding, Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives,” 3) Wendell Berry’s, “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems,” and 4) a book from self-improvement literature by Neil Fiore, “The Now Habit: A Strategic Programfor Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.” Through my practice, I learned years later one of the things that Lana was calling me to, on that Friday--what is called in Jewish tradition “Sabbath of the tongue,” which means not talking about work all the time. Rather, talk about the sunset, talk about wine, candles and flowers, share joys, abstain from grievances, and don’t talk at all, invite silence. In the Sabbath we consider not the results of our creation, but the mystery of creation itself.

We live in a culture that not only overworks, but may be unclear about what it means to rest. After the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, they wandered their way to Mt. Sinai where the Lord delivered the Ten Commandments in their hearing.  And they distinctly heard God say, in the context of their new precious freedom, you are no longer slaves, celebrate the Sabbath Day and keep it precious.  We probably don’t need reminding that we should rest, but we may need support knowing understanding what rest might look or feel like.  From Abraham Heschel: “People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle . . . celebration is an encounter, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”
Lana, as member of a Jewish community both local and global, had extensive law and literature to drawn upon to define work and rest.  While I have figured out a Sabbath practice for myself, centered in my home, it is mostly independent from a practicing community. A couple, or a couple with children, who relax together on the weekend may have a unique Sabbath celebration, even if they do not use the word “Sabbath,” but what I am unsure of, and remain unsure of, and ask your response about is, “While we may all agree that it is important to observe some semblance of Sabbath; is it important to observe the Sabbath, or to observe it all together?” The Orthodox Jewish community is in it together in ways and with a level of mutual support that really precludes the possibility of violating the Sabbath.  I have read articles and stories about Jews coming together for Shabbat who were otherwise complete strangers—in an airport--but in the Sabbath practice they became family. “The soul cannot celebrate alone,” Heschel says.
What about pastors and ministers whose work it is to lead worship on Saturday and Sunday? Really, when do they celebrate the Sabbath?  As you know, to be a professional minister, or an amateur one, or even an active church member, you work on the Sabbath.  Preparing sermons, teaching Sunday School, leading monthly meeting for business, building community; this is all work.  Ironically, it seems, those who may be most attuned to the spirituality of rest, are ones who may often find it lacking in their lives.
In the Pentateuch, according to Numbers 28:9, the Levite priests offered

two sacrifices every Sabbath, which doubled their regular daily workload of a

sacrifice each day; and according to Leviticus 24:8 the priests also refreshed the

altar bread on every Sabbath. Now the Levite priests did not own a parcel of

land in Canaan like the other tribes of Israel; their inheritance was God; ideally

they did not work the land like their fellow Israelites; they took care of the

Temple and worship. The priesthood in ancient Israel had their own set of rules.

And pastors today help to provide a Sabbath day for others, and may be left to

figure out on their own their Sabbath rest.

In my personal practice, on Friday evening, I come in the front door and I place my keys in the Shabbos box.  This is my Shabbos box that I brought in from home. A Shabbos box is something that Jewish families often have, and at the outset of the Sabbath they put in it whatever represents work; for me it’s my keys; some people put in their cell phones, or a list of work responsibilities that they will not do on Shabbat.  At the conclusion of Shabbat, you take the items out of the box, and work now resumes. I place my keys in the Shabbos box every day when I come home, and in addition to never losing my keys anymore, I leave the work day behind and frame my mind for rest.

Questions arise in our time and place: How do I rest at home when I work out of my home? How do we define our “home”?  How do we define our “family”? And how long to celebrate the Sabbath each week? Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday? One Jewish family told me, “We would, we really would, but the kids have all their music lessons and sports practices on Saturday. We can’t deprive the kids of their activities; the kids want to be involved with everything that goes along with Saturdays in the U.S.” So I follow the simple lead of this family, the Kasimow family: Friday evenings are sacred.  I spend them at home.  When I lived near the Kasimows, I often celebrated Shabbat with them.  My friends here, mostly non-Jewish, no longer expect me to do anything outside the home on Friday evenings; my response is “Shabbat Shalom.”
I bear witness for my household: if housecats were theologians, my two kitties would be sure to claim, “All of life is a Sabbath.” My family on Friday evenings are my loved ones, including those in heaven above, my ancestors, angels and saints with whom I have shared love.  I do refrain from my occupational work on Saturdays, though on Saturday I am not quiet in the way I embrace silence on Friday evenings.
Beyond Friday evening, we may cultivate Sabbath moments throughout the week. I celebrate the Sabbath and receive rest most powerfully through gardening. I grow flowers; I lose track of time when I dig and plant my flowers, when I enter into the processes of nature, watering and feeding, watching the buds come to life, the unfolding of petals.  I meet God in the garden. My favorite of the resurrection narratives is that found in John, where Mary Magdalene finds Jesus walking among the flowers, so at ease and present that she mistakes him for a gardener. Wendell Berry talks about that experience of Sabbath time, when time stretches to its fullest within us: “There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes, and the way is not a way but a place.” That place is home, where we celebrate the Sabbath.
          God knows however, I’m not fond of weeding, although it may be necessary for the health of the garden.  I procrastinate on the weeding.  Weeding is work, and not gratifying work, as far as I can tell. I dislike weeding, and I can’t even find someone to pay to do the weeding. When I weed my garden, I am conscious that I am working. My back hurts, my brow sweats, my labors don’t resolve anything; there are always more weeds. I console myself, I will just weed for 15 minutes each day; 15 minutes feels like an hour. When I water and walk among my flowers however, my heart is at rest.  That is a Sabbath moment. For Berry, “In time we are present only by forgetting time.”  Heschel defines Sabbath time in this way: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
And for all of us who are procrastinators, one of the gifts of taking time off weekly, punctually and without feeling guilty, i.e. without judging oneself to be a slacker--to take time not to do, but simply to be--is that it builds within a subconscious urge to work.  I anticipate with pleasure the return to work. Work, the return to work, the conclusion of the Sabbath, releases energy—I get my keys and list out of the Shabbos box, ready now to do what now needs to be done to sustain daily life. Berry offers it as an allegory of a turtle:
“Every afternoon the old turtle crawls up out of the river along the trunk of a drowned tree that slants out of the watery dark into the sun and the wind. In the wind and the sun he dries and ceases to shine. He grows warm. He looks slowly this way and that way. He thinks slowly, and his thought passes from satiety to hunger. And so he lets himself sink back down out of the air and light.”
In the deep of winter, most plants, flowers and trees, the soil itself goes through a dormancy period in order to flower and bear fruit in their time. The dormancy period of rest is one in which nutrients come together and penetrate the plant’s internal systems towards renewed productivity.  When a gardener plants bulbs in the fall, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, she must do so in a timing that ensures that the bulb has sufficient dormancy time in freezing weather before sending forth its green shoots to bloom in the spring.  We too require periods of lying fallow, resting and coalescing energies within, cultivating inner spaces where we find the energies of heart and the powers of peace.  The more we engage in unrelenting busyness, the more brittle and shallow our roots may become.

At this time of year, when the garden is frozen, I tend to the outdoor creatures that visit my yard in winter; this year I have even more birds on these cold days than I did any day over the warm and green summer.
A poem from Wendell Berry:
“The sounds of engines leave the air. The Sunday morning silence comes at last. At last I know the presence of the world made without hands, the creatures that have come to be out of their absence. Calls of flicker and jay fill the clear air. Titmice and chickadees feed among the green and the dying leaves. Gratitude for the gifts of all the living and the unliving, gratitude which is the greatest gift, quietest of all, passes to me through the trees.”
I am full of anticipation for the arrival of spring and the planting season. Anticipation for the Sabbath is one of the things that makes the whole six days worth it. Sabbath time is a taste of eternal time. “Eternity is not infinity. It is not a long time. It does not begin at the end of time. It does not run parallel to time. In its entirety it always was. In its entirety it will always be. It is entirely present always.” Shabbat Shalom. Let us lift up our hearts in open worship.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Old Testament Scholar reviews "Exodus: Gods and Kings"

Regarding the new Bible move, Exodus: Gods and Kings, all I can say is, Not only "no," but "hell no." Even as a generic fantasy movie (along the lines of Lord of the Rings) it is totally lame. As a retelling of the exodus story, it moves to horrid. As to what they got right: well there is a Pharaoh, and a Moses, and some slaves, and some plagues, and being caught between a sea and Pharaoh's army. But that's about it. It would be worth seeing only as an exercise in how to totally mangle a biblical story. It's not even their gap filling that I object to, though a lot of that was bad. It's what they left out. The aim seems to be to turn Moses into a fighting man. Here is my list of things that are wrong. It is by no means exhaustive.

The movie begins inexplicably with a battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites. Inexplicable because the major battle at Kadesh between those two armies took place during Ramesses II’s reign, not during his father’s. Plus there’s no mention of the eventual peace treaty signed between the two nations. The only point seems to be to establish both Moses and Ramesses fighting abilities and to round out one of the gap fills, an Egyptian prophecy that someone will save someone’s life, and then become king. During the battle Moses saves Ramesses. And that means what exactly?

Since the movie begins when Moses is already an adult, it entirely omits chs. 1-2. One of my objections to most movies about Exodus is that they fail to establish why Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews (keeping in mind that Pharaoh pretty much enslaved everyone so there were always plenty of other slaves in addition to the Hebrew ones). But at the end of Genesis, the Hebrews are coexisting quite peaceably with the Egyptians. How do they go from friend to enemy? In the text it is because a new Pharaoh comes along who doesn’t know about Joseph. He looks around a sees a bunch of them and perceives them to be a threat (Exo 1:8-10). Gosh, might there be similarities between that and today’s debates about the changing demographics in the US? But that key plot point only comes up for a few seconds and is raised by the overseer of Pithom, not Pharaoh.

Also by omitting chaps. 1-2 t there is no Shiphrah and Puah. That’s two Exodus movies that don’t mention Shiphrah and Puah. Neither does Prince of Egypt. The actions of Moses' mother and sister are recounted to Moses by Joshua's father, Nun. Apparently Moses didn't know he was Hebrew and his Egyptian mother didn't tell anyone. She gave some story about an Egyptian general. Though how she accounted for not being pregnant is left as a gap.

Moses doesn't have to flee because he killed an Egyptian, but because he was outed as a Hebrew to Ramesses by the overseer at Pithom (who apparently is also flamingly gay).

When Moses is expelled, his Egyptian mother and Miriam are sent away on a cart, never to be seen or heard from again. So there's no Song of the Sea and no Miriam leading the song. Like Lord of the Rings, women play no substantive role, which is ironic considering that only women are actors in the first two chapters and without them there would be no Moses. The end result is to suggest that until Moses came along no one had ever considered resisting Pharaoh’s tyranny.

Moses "call" comes about apparently through traumatic brain injury. The movie also omits most of Exo 3-4 so there is none of Moses arguing with God about why his going to Pharaoh is a bad idea.

I was not surprised that they omitted Exo 4:24-26, that bit about where God tries to kill Moses and Zipporah comes to the rescue. No one wants to touch that episode.

God is a bratty 10-year-old boy with a British accent. They couldn't at least make God a bratty 10-year-old girl?? The only good thing I can say theologically is that at least there was some questioning of God's genocidal tendencies.

Egyptians probably didn't have luxurious pillows or mattresses on their beds. Hadn't anyone in this movie seen the head rests from Egypt?? (

Aaron is a total non-character. He mostly stands around and says nothing. The plagues just happen. There is no back and forth between Moses/Aaron and the Egyptian priests, much less between Moses and Pharaoh.

After they cross the sea and Pharaoh's army gets drownded (as the song goes), there's about 5 minutes of movie left. First they have Moses going back to get Zipporah and Gershom because they're "in love." Which might actually be an improvement over the Bible where Moses seems to divorce Zipporah at some unknown point of time (Exo 18:1-7).

Then there is a scene with Moses going up a mountain. In the distant background you see people, and lights (it's night) and something that looks like a framework for the golden calf. But that's the only reference to Exo 32-34. There is no other mention of it and the God character certainly doesn't say anything about it. If you didn't know the story of the Golden Calf you might never know that's what the scene was about. The "calf" structure wasn't very obvious so it might just look like people celebrating. So what was the point of it?

Then there's Moses chiseling the commandments on a stone tablet - apparently from left to right. (A reminder that Hebrew is written right to left).

And then the people are on the move and Moses is in a cart with a box in it, presumably containing the tablets.  Fade to black.

OK. Yes the special effects were nice. But like Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars 1-3, there’s just way too much computer generated stuff that looks computer generated. Mostly you think that everything looks fake and unreal. Which is a pointed contrast to the movie Noah, which actually looked like it happened in a real place to real people.

There you have it. And that's not even considering the race issue that all the leads are white people. (And what was the point of Sigourney Weaver's role??) I don't know what Ridley Scott was thinking, but there was really no point, that I can discern, to making this movie. Both Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt do more justice to the biblical story than this does, and both of those have problems as well. One of my biblical studies colleagues posted the following on Facebook about the movie after she saw it. “Nice horses.” I think that’s all the good she found in the movie. Which is too bad because it’s not like there aren’t themes within the exodus story that are relevant to today.

So, if you see it, let me know what you think. Maybe you'll be more generous and charitable than I am. 

Nancy Bowen is Professor of Old Testament at Earlham School of Religion. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Steve Angell answers a Quaker Questionnaire

College student Samantha Siebert reached out to ESR's Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies Stephen Angell to complete a questionnaire on Quakerism for a project in her religion class. Below are her questions and his responses. Do you think he got all of the answers right?

Quaker Questionnaire

Thank you for taking the time to do this questionnaire. Please fill out each question to the best of your knowledge.

1.      Please describe your affiliation with/connection to the Quaker religion?
I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

2.      To the best of your knowledge, when was the Quaker religion founded?
The middle of the 17th century (about 1650).

3.      Please describe a typical Quaker service. What takes place? Is there a spiritual or prayer leader? What role does that person play in the service? What is that person called?
It varies from place to place. In some locales, such as the area of Philadelphia, the group meets in silence. If some one is given a message from God, they are free to share that with the group, but then the group returns to the silence. The role of the leader is to close the worship by shaking hands. She or he has no title. In other parts of the world, there is often a pastor who leads the Quaker worship. A short period of silence may be included in the worship, but generally there are lots of hymns, prayers, and a sermon.

4.      What is the house of worship in the Quaker religion called?
Sometimes it is called a meetinghouse. Sometimes it has been called a church.

5.      Does the Quaker religion have a formal liturgy? IF YES, how, if at all, has it changed since the religion was founded? Has it become more or less structured/formalized?
There is no simple answer to this question. (But see my answer to question 3.) Books have been written on it. (Pink Dandelion, Liturgies of Quakerism).

6.      What are the principle teachings/ethics of the Quaker religion?
The Quaker religion is often considered to be centered on certain testimonies that all Quakers believe in, but they may interpret differently. The testimonies are often listed as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality.

7.      Do Quakers believe that humans can encounter God? If yes, how?
Yes. Most often Quakers encounter God in the silence, where they hear a “still small voice.” See I Kings 19:12.

8.      Where did the name "Quakers" come from?
In 1650, the founder, George Fox, on trial accused of blasphemy, told his judges that he quaked in the presence of the Lord. One Judge Hotham said, in derision, “Oh, you’re a Quaker.”

9.      Do Quakers believe in an afterlife? Reincarnation? Something else? Nothing at all? Please explain.
There is a diversity of views on these matters among Quakers.

10.  Do Quakers believe in Karma? Please explain.
Karma, being a Hindu or Buddhist concept, might attract some Quakers who are attracted to those religions. Belief in karma, however, is not deeply rooted in Quakerism.

11.  How do Quakers view people from other religions?
Quakers believe that all have the Light of God within them. That includes members of other religions.

12.  How does one become a member of the Quaker religion? Is there any sort of special rite of entry or a ceremony?
This varies from place to place, but one way this happens is that when a person requests membership in a Quaker meeting, a clearness committee is appointed to meet with them. The committee makes its recommendation to the whole meeting. If the meeting approves, they are a member.

13.  What is the Quakers’ stance on modern issues such as gay marriage or the death penalty?
Quakers are generally opposed to the death penalty. There is no agreed-upon stance on gay marriage. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends has approved its support of gay marriage, but some other yearly meetings oppose it, while others still have no position at all on the matter.

14.  Are there any issues, such as military service and taking oaths that Quakers oppose? If yes, why?
Quakers have historically opposed military service. Jesus has told us to love our enemies; it seems to us that loving them means not killing them, but finding constructive ways to resolve our differences. Quakers have also opposed taking oaths, because swearing on the Bible does not make something more true than it would be otherwise. Quakers regard it as a central point of life that we should always tell the truth.

15.  Are there aspects of a Quaker school that are different from a non-religious school?
There are plenty of Quaker schools in your area. Why don’t you go visit one and decide for yourself?

16.  If you could use one word to describe what being a Quaker means, what would it be?

17.  Do you think the number of Quakers will grow in the future or decline? Why?
In some parts of the world Quakers are growing, and in some parts declining. There are no simple answers as to why. Social and cultural factors undoubtedly play a part. In general, Quakers aren’t worried. If we listen to what God wants for us to do, that is enough. We must be faithful.

Want to learn more about Quakers? Be sure to check out ESR's Quaker Information Center:

Friday, December 5, 2014

Quakers Are Mystics

ESR MA student Tracy Davis completed this essay for her Quaker Mysticism course with Carole Spencer. You can find out more about Spirituality courses at ESR here, and our Quaker Studies courses here.

Quakers are mystics. Friends testify to a communicative Creator who is both transcendent and immanent, present among us, even within us. Our practices of silent waiting worship, corporate prayer, or verbal sharing in message or songs of admiration and gratitude, create an intentional inviting environment for awareness of the guidance and action of the Holy in our personal lives, in community and in all of creation. Dorothee Soelle understands that: The basic conviction of Quakers wasand isthat God reveals Godself without respect of persons’” (Soelle 2001, 173). God continues to reveal that which is real directly to any person or sincere group of seekers, no exceptions. Positive energy within a group enhances our perception of the brightness of the Light because humans respond to and open up their hearts more when nurtured in acceptance, respect and encouragement. As it should be mysticism is, indeed, at the center of Quaker praxis, both personal and corporate.
            From our meditative practice we each gain insight that guides our actions. Some receptive mystics hear, sense or dream very specific instructions while many intuit soft nudgings moving them forward. We have read in our books of discipline from the time of the earliest Quakers that it is important to have a personal time of retirement daily in which we separate from all of our worldly concerns to read of the Holy, to journal, to sit quietly and to nurture our souls. Our individual centeredness provides balance and maturity to support our community of Friends. A dedicated discipline of silence is challenging because it exposes our own thought patterns and emotional mind states. Change needed to decrease the burdens of resentment, guilt, self-cherishing and anger can only be implemented by our own surrendering of them based on self-awareness.  Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) writes: Every person, then, who awakens to consciousness of a Reality which transcends the normal world of sensehowever small, weak, imperfect that consciousness may be . . .The success with which he follows this way to freedom and full life will depend on the intensity of his love and will; his capacity for self-discipline, his steadfastness and courage (Underhill 1990, 445). The discipline begins in our private practice, and the fruits nourish the community. 
            Corporate discernment is crucial to ground and guide our decisions and direction. We make many mistakes due to our human limitations, frailties, and ignorance. Mature questioning is required, along with willingness to challenge one another aiming toward decisions that fulfill all righteousness and prevent needless harm. We are at our best when we take time to nurture one anothers strengths and to lovingly challenge or redirect any oppressive behaviors among Quaker brothers and sisters. Becoming vulnerable with one another and humble under G-d, we can operate at a higher vibrational frequency the more we open to the mystical.
            We Friends have not lost our mystical foundation, but it can be obscured by excessive rationalism or by distractions caused by either sincere attempts to meet the needs of work to support life and family or by the many attractive entertainments available toward which our time and energy are spent. I think Jesus warned of such useless preoccupation when he said: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:22 & Luke 12:34).
             Friends must be willing to nurture Spirit despite the disapproval of the dominant culture focused on often empty promises of intellect and reason and on a false sense of security in material attainments. Friend Marcelle Martin writes of her life-changing commitment to a mystical path: I had come to the moment when I wanted nothing more than to discover the truth about life, when I was finally willing to give up being normal in order to do so . . .I believe I opened to mystical experience by opening first to the direct experience of my own emotions, including the most painful, and to a direct and feeling confrontation of my deepest questions and fears (Martin 1995, 1). Quakers have forever been known to be a peculiar and courageous people. We must remember that the spiritual journey often includes an acute awareness of the sufferings of life as well as the bliss of being united with the loving Source of all life.
            Although not widely acknowledged, there are Friends from programmed and unprogrammed traditions working together to support mystical engagement. Recently I learned of a newsletter entitled What Canst Thou Say? that a small group of volunteer Quaker mystics publishes. In it Friends share many varieties of religious mystical experiences. The vocabulary and symbolism used by way of description come from Early Quaker, New Age, Evangelical, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi traditions, for example. In 1996 Pendle Hill hosted a gathering, Mystics Among Friends Today, which filled to its 50 person capacity and required a waiting list. Bill Taber, Marcelle Martin, Marty Grundy, Patricia McBee and Mike Resman led workshops there. In response, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article entitled "Quakers Mystical Heritage." The Ben Lomond Center planned a similar conference scheduled one month later. Although I imagine most all Quakers to practice mysticism to some extent, there is small contingent among Friends who are deeply dedicated to this style of Divine experience. 
            If a rich mysticism were more evident among Quakers, it could only bring increased unity because by definition it would indicate more obviously the presence of G-d among us. Perhaps then we could say with Paul: If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).

Coogan, Michael D. Ed.The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010

Martin, Marcelle. What Canst Thou Say? Friends Mystical Experience, and Contemplative Practice. Newsletter #5, July 1995

Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001

Monday, November 10, 2014

John Dear's Prompt

Thomas Swann shares his thoughts on Earlham School of Religion’s 2014 Ministry of Writing Colloquium featuring Father John Dear:

One would be hard pressed to slip into sleep when listening to John Dear even if you were prepared for the exuberant words that come out of his mouth. He is a very passionate speaker. Perhaps for most even shocking. Though for many at the weekend ESR Writers Colloquium their heads moved up and down with agreement towards much of what he said. This is not a language and thought for the meek, not at all. 

My back went soft in the presence of his spoken truth when I heard him quote Daniel Berrigan, an early and constant influence, "The point of this life is to make our story fit into the story of Jesus".  Oh my.  What a contrary flow of theology in this day when we seem to do our very best to make the gospel of Jesus mold to our modern day sensibilities. A wonderful amount of research has sharpened our understanding of the historical realm of Jesus. Yet at the same time we seem to be stuck in making the understood life of Jesus still comply with the Constantinan demand for an imperial order. Non-violence is a way back to the call to peace beyond empire.

Dear was the keynote speaker at the Colloquium and seemed truly delighted by the opportunity to speak with a group of fellow "holy writers".  We were not his typical audience coming to hear his strong call for a more radical life of justice for all. The talk is recorded,, and well worth the time to watch. As we were a group of writers, it struck Dear that we should write while we were together. In the spirit of his friend Natalie Goldberg, he offered several prompts to write on for 7 continuous minutes. Once our pen started we were not to stop. Fresh off such a masterful and impassioned talk on Non-Violence and Jesus, for me it seemed only fitting that I respond to his prompt, "what does living a non-violent life mean for me"?

I could still hear those words of Berrigan ringing out loudly surrounded by the testimony of John Dear and his conviction that we are called to take our place alongside God in the Peaceful Kingdom, once we meet the challenge to create it.

The Prompt (with later editing)

It seems that living a nonviolent life demands that I not hold onto my life as tightly as I sometimes do. I must value all life but my life cannot be more significant than any one person's life or the collective good of a peaceful life of existence. For me there is a fear that, just perhaps, God's endless love does not exist for me and I hold onto the sense of control that I can avoid death. That delusion is precious but beyond reason or good living.  If I can let go of the need to believe that I alone control my life and that I am more than a mere physical body then the realm of nonviolent existence becomes obtainable. I do not earn this life opportunity but choose to actively participated by example and thus become an active agent of transformation to the kingdom Jesus radically intended. My belief in a universal unceasing love for all offers the freedom to live a nonviolent life but it must be practiced. Gandhi spoke of this, he called it Satyagraha; a process of non-violence and self-suffering.

In the freedom to love I become free to sit with my intrinsic values and stand strong in the midst of the threat of harm. I cannot be compromised by my fear. I can join in as an agent of change, which is the third way that Jesus offers. I do not to have to fight, I do not have to run but I do have to stand my ground and change myself and demand the same of those who wish for a different norm. I do this not by force but by example and sacrifice. It is not so much a process of becoming courageous but of understanding deeply that I am called as a person of faith to my place in the Peaceful Kingdom. This is the radical alternative of Jesus. Not a theology but a way of being, a way of living.

If I fear death then I can be pulled off course by any threatening force that is willing to take my life or freedom or lifestyle or the endless pursuit of materiality. If I know that my life is truly a spiritual life then in spite of the fear I must overcome, I cannot be compromised.  Only shunned, detained, arrested or ultimately killed.  The great practitioners of nonviolence knew and know this and practiced placing themselves in jeopardy for the creation and maintenance of peace for all in the Kingdom Jesus calls us towards. Simple? No, but what a wonderful point on the horizon.

"That's what I'm trying to do, to take seriously what Jesus says about loving our enemies, making peace and seeking justice, to follow his story and live it out today in these times of war and injustice." -John Dear

Thomas Swann is a member of the Earlham School of Religion community and studies writing as ministry. Thomas may be reached at and

Friday, October 31, 2014

What is God?

Below, ESR's Carole Spencer shares her reflections on leading a recent retreat on "Images of God":

Someone has said that “To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.” 

Last weekend, Friday evening Oct. 24 and Saturday Oct 25, I led a workshop/retreat on ‘Images of God’ at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana to explore what may be the central question of the human soul.  Retreatants experienced ten hours of full immersion in the deepest of theological and spiritual explorations—our language, concepts, images and experiences of God.
Eleven brave participants signed up, four men and seven women.  Most were of the baby boomer generation and beyond.  The oldest participant was in his 80s, the youngest in his 30s.  Most were either Quakers or Methodists, but their religious diversity was much broader than their traditional affiliations, ranging from skeptic to mystic.

We explored images of God through scripture, poetry, music, and visuals such as art and icons.  Participants were invited to reflect on, and reconnect with, their images of God through different stages of their life. 

A basic assumption of the workshop is that God is beyond all words and images, yet we need symbols and metaphors to be open to the mystery of the divine in which we live. A second assumption is that our language and our images for God will mirror our culture and our conditioning, and it is natural to construct images of God that are anthropomorphic, cultural and time-bound.  As we mature and develop spiritually, and as our world changes, our images of God change, expand and evolve.  The goal of the workshop was to open participants  to new ways to encounter, connect and respond to the divine mystery in their life.

‘JesusWept’ by Daniel Bonnell, one of the several artist images we reflected on.

One participant shared a powerful experience she had as a young child of eight years old upon seeing the aurora borealis.  Later, several days after the workshop she gave me an envelope with several poems she had composed that described her experience of God.  She has given me permission to share the poem called ‘Awakening,’ a marvelous image of God as both personal and cosmic love.


On a cold midwinter night
I, a child, am snug in bed asleep, when –
   someone is calling my name
   someone is gently shaking me –
“Loie, come see, come see
              something wonderful.”

I’m wide awake now and curious.
Wrapped in my blanket, shivering in excitement,
  I follow my parents out on the hill
  between house and barn.
The night air is charged with a bright
              mysterious light.

Over our heads the night sky
shimmers and moves with colorful lights
    - a giant tongues of flame
in pale red, green and blue.
We three stand close, faces uplifted in
             awestruck wonder.

I take for granted this is God’s work.
Although I couldn’t say just who God is.
     Family love enfolds me
     as my spirit reaches into the sky –
I am experiencing the immensity of
            Creative Love.

That night stands as a bright landmark
on my journey of awakening faith.
    I know that, small as I am,
    I am a part of this Grand Creation –
As close as family Love –
As wide and mysterious as
           The Universe.

~ Lois Jordan

Carole SpencerCarole Spencer serves as Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion. She is a recorded minister in Northwest Yearly Meeting.