Monday, September 30, 2013

The Call We Respond To

ESR student Thomas Swann shared this message in ESR worship on September 5, 2013:

Sue – eee!  Sue – eee.

That is a call still used in parts of the southern Appalachians to call in the pigs for their evening feeding. I have lived in those mountains and they are dear to me. And yet I left there to be here. Just as you have left some place to be here..
Sue –eee. Have no fear I am not going to speak about the shoreline of Galilee and the demons that Jesus cast out and placed in the herd of pigs that were near by.  Pigs roaming in a land of Kosher is however captivating to the imagination. Many questions do arise.
 The shout of  Sue – eee is a call of sorts.  But for now, no more, Sue –eee’s.  But I do want to walk around the territory of Call, A Call, The Call, Our Call and what we are doing about it.


Dear Friends, Brothers and Sisters. We gather here today, some of us having returned for another year, some of us just starting this journey and others holding the ground of stability upon which the community’s foundation is maintained. For all of us I hope there is a sense of call to be doing the work before us. The story each of us would tell of how we arrived at this place, is as different as we can imagine and perhaps limited only by our imagination.  Or perhaps it is beyond our comprehension for if it is a call then there is some other entity doing the calling. Again for each of us we may explain the call differently but the implication that someone or something beyond us is doing the calling still stands. There is a voice calling out, drawing us forward. Beckoning. Perhaps this arises fear or exhilaration in us, or a little of every emotion possible.

I am regularly struck by the calling of the disciples. There are several places in the New Testament where we hear the story of Jesus calling forth one or two individuals to follow him.
                Matthew 4:18-20 says
                As he walked by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter,          
                and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And
                he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately,
                I repeat, immediately, they               
                left their nets and followed him.” 

A call and an immediate response.  And then.

                Mark  1:19-20
                As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who           
                were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left
                their father Zebedee in the boat with hired men, and followed him

An immediate call and response.  And then.

For me I believe there are stories not canonized or passed on in letters or gospels of how a similar encounter or encounters happened between this man, Jesus and the women who too were called and responded in a way that was immediate. Nancy Bowen teaches of “gap filling” when we fill places in the narrative to make a more complete picture for ourselves. So I gladly draw into this story what I believe is a clearer understanding  of our story. It was not only men who responded.

An immediate call and an immediate response.

Is that how it is for you? In your story how did you hear, how did you respond? Was the call immediate? Was the response immediate? How is this journey going for you after our first week here together?

I know for me it was not that way. I was not an immediate responder. I might have preferred to stay in the boat with Zebedee and the hired men. And sadly I still cannot gleefully say I have given over to my call completely. Now I do spend less time walking around the geographical landscape of this beckoning I have heard for many years, or ouch, actually decades now. But then I am still a bit of a wanderer.

It is only a very patient God who waits for me. Faithful in the pace I choose to keep.

However I think I might just be missing something. Their response was immediate.

Another piece of scripture that comes to mind as we enter this year is from Matthew 18: 18-20.
“Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by your Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This is also often quoted as saying “two or more”. 
Either way, 2,3 or more, it is not one that is mentioned.  It seems we are being told that when we gather, the same indwelling that many of us feel in our call is expanded among us. It is shared and together we can be answered in a way that we cannot when we walk this journey alone. Something is available, perhaps only when we work together.

Last week at the opening convocation we heard Bethany President Jeffery Carter speak of the gift we have already received. My spine had waves of energy pass over it as he said in such direct and immediate language that there is good news, what we seek from God has already arrived. It is present in you and I and all around us. I heard a soft tempo building forth as a shout of joy rose into my heart. All possibilities are present because we have received a gift.

But my friends what about that gift? How do we go from the call that has been felt, to as we hear in Ephesians, “a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Worthiness is one of those terms that creates a gasp and shutter when I hear it. It seems loaded with layer upon layer of societal pressure and expectation. I want to grab one of my talented Jewish or Greek scholar friends and say do tell me that there is another word or meaning that will take away the sickening feeling in my stomach that the word “worthy” creates. Aren’t we all worthy? Haven’t we all received the gift?


Take a deep breath.
The trap door to existential hell does not need to open up, Thomas.
Thank you.

But what is the journey to worthiness?

Within the Katha-Upanishad there are the words, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” And this is hard, this answering to our call. Do we think it was easy for those men and women who dropped what they were doing and took steps toward a man who was calling them?

How far do we go back to understand the call that brings us here? As I have reflected on this topic these last days I keep seeing the thread of my call going further and further back. Things I didn’t remember pop in front of me and I say yes there is a seed, there is another. As if the call has existed in the universe waiting for my birth and yours.

I recently reconnected to my college advisor, professor and friend, after nearly 30 years. It was a great rambling conversation, which grew from a quick lunch to a three-hour slice of time. He did not seem surprised that I was in seminary. From my perspective he should have been stunned but he wasn’t. Then yesterday I remembered he was the person who told me about a book by John Hersey entitled The Call. That title, that book was probably the first time I began to realize that there could be a “voice” that could drive individuals to do something they had never conceived of or to dream about things being different in a significant way. A reviewer at the time said, “This huge novel, despite a slow start and a subject – Christian missions – that won’t appeal to all, is exciting and moving.”  Hmmm, I say that is a terribly written sentence that still captures so much.

No matter how creative my story of how I came to stand before you there still is the nagging question, would I have stood up from mending my nets and started a walk towards an unknown future. Or how many times have I walked right past the opportunity when it has called out to me in the texture of my day. I am certainly not feeling any shame about this today and hope no one here feels the need to cast any darkness on their journey. However, I am asking all of us individually and collectively to start asking ourselves, what does this call really demand of us. It will perhaps look differently for each of us but when we hear the call, what extraordinary challenge is before us. What is the equivalent of standing up and walking towards a place that is uncomfortable but full of hope?

Annie Dillard at the start of her book An American Childhood opens with these words.
                When everything else is gone from my brain – the President’s name, the
                State capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name
                and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends,
                and finally the faces of my family – when all this has dissolved, what
                will be left, I believe, is a typology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay
                this way and that. (3)

What typology are you rooted in that will remain lasting beyond all memory? A hard question, yes, but didn’t we come here to ask hard questions? And better yet find answers that can change our life and the lives of others.

In a world of the instant, where instantly most anything you can imagine can appear, what are we immediately being called to do? What in the ancient mind or in the particularity of these early disciples can we learn from?

I am not offering you much to hold onto in answers but the opportunity and invitation to consider.

I am so excited that we have this opportunity, for all of us to learn and explore, to questions and find answers in a desperate world. We do this both alone and together at the same time.

Two or more have gathered. The sense of call is abundant. What are we going to do within and with each other? What are we calling out and asking for?

To paraphrase Ephesians:
“Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you … for where two or three are gathered  … I am there among you”

Amen and Amen

The Closing Benediction

My Dear Neighbors
As we move out into the world
This day
To the afternoon
To days ahead
Let us keep sight
In our ears, eyes and heart
What brought us here
What beckons us

Life is abundant
Opportunities are abundant

Please Go In Peace

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Community, Knowledge, and Peace

Wilmington College Senior and Quaker Heritage Center Staff Isaac Garrison invites you to join the College for their annual Westheimer Peace Symposium:

Community, knowledge, and peace.  These are the concepts that appear together on campus when the Westheimer Peace Symposium is upon us.  The Westheimer Peace Symposium has been a remarkable event on the Wilmington College campus for the past twenty-two years.  The Symposium has brought together people from all over to learn about nonviolence, social justice, the environment, and the nature of war.  Westheimer also gives students the opportunity to learn how to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

  (Lisa Shannon, 2013 Guest Presenter)

Community is an important feature of the Westheimer Peace Symposium that one will not find at many other events.  Westheimer teaches members of the Wilmington College campus and the off campus community the importance of coming together for the greater good. It bridges the gap between people, allowing them to have discussions that would not be carried on in everyday life. When we see two people talk about what is really important in the world, we are seeing community in action.
Knowledge is a foundation that The Westheimer Peace Symposium gives to attendees.  Westheimer gives people the chance to learn about things, experiences, and movements that one would have to try to find.  It gives people a time to ask questions and think about what they can truly do to make a difference in the world.  The theme for the 23rd annual Westheimer Peace Symposium on Wednesday, October 16, is “Africa’s Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Nonviolent Solutions” ( and, in the hope that it will give everyone the opportunity to see beyond what the media tell us is going on in Africa.  Students and members of the public will be able to hear people from different backgrounds tell what is going on in Africa and how we can help.

  (Chris Abani, 2013 Guest Presenter)

Wilmington College’s commitment to peace is why we have the Westheimer Peace Symposium.  Peace comes alive on the day of the event.  People can feel the presence of peace all around them.  Knowing that there are others out there who help make this world a safer place brings a sense of serenity.  Peace is strong on the Wilmington College campus and we use the Westheimer Peace Symposium as a tool tie in community and knowledge. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How Samuel Fisher Knew that God Was Still Speaking

Message delivered by Stephen W. Angell at Earlham School of Religion Worship Service, September 19, 2013:

“While remaining in herself, [Wisdom] renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets.” 
Wisdom of Solomon 7:27

This verse was a favorite of the seventeenth-century English theologian, Samuel Fisher.
Who was Samuel Fisher?
Fisher was one of the most learned theologians of his time, taking both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oxford University. He had an interesting spiritual journey, beginning his ministerial career as a Congregationalist Puritan, and having a comfortable living, first as a chaplain to one of the leading Puritan politicians, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, and later becoming minister of the Church of England at Kent, in the southeastern part of England. He married a woman named Elizabeth, and had three children, two of which survived infancy. When he was 38 years old, the English Civil War began. Six years later, Fisher had a conversion experience and became a Baptist. He was a very vigorous debater on behalf of Baptist theological tenets.
In 1655, when he was fifty, Fisher met with traveling Quaker ministers Will Caton (19 years old), John Stubbs (37), Ambrose Rigge (20), and George Fox (31). These persuasive young adult Friends had a striking effect on, let’s call him, a mature adult, Fisher. As a result, Fisher became a convinced Friend, and he was just as avid a debater on behalf of Quakers as he had been earlier on behalf of Baptists. He traveled with Stubbs far and wide to spread the Quaker message, visiting Heidelberg, Venice, and Rome.
Fisher had not lost track of events at his alma mater, Oxford. In 1654, a year prior to his convincement, two young Quaker women, Elizabeth Fletcher (17) and Elizabeth Leavens, were the first Quakers to preach at Oxford. They were treated abominably. Overnight, they were placed in a cage reserved for evildoers. The next day, Vice-Chancellor John Owen ordered them whipped out of town as vagrants. After that happened, some Oxford students assaulted them, dragging them back into Oxford, where they were tied back-to-back and had water pumped on them, almost drowning them. Then Fletcher was violently thrust by an Oxford woman on a gravestone, inflicting an injury of which Fletcher died some years later.
In 1659, John Owen, theologian and former Vice-Chancellor, published a defense of the Bible as the Word of God. He pointedly denounced Quakers for their belief in immediate revelation and what he saw as their insufficient regard for the Bible. The attack on the Quakers, intended for Owen’s university students, was written in Latin. Owen also intended that the unlearned Quakers would not be able to respond to his attacks, since his work was not written in English, but Fisher would be up to the task. He published his defense of Quakers against the criticisms of Owen and other Puritans in his most important work, Rusticus ad Academicos: Or, a Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies.
One of Fisher’s concerns was: How should we as Friends read the Bible? What should be our view of the Bible’s authority?

One thing to notice is that there was as much diversity on Quakers in the 17th century on that question as there is today in the 21st century.  Not all Friends read the Bible in the same way, nor do we have the same estimate of the Bible’s worth.
One 17th century Quaker, George Whitefield, expressed his view on the subject in the following manner: “The Scriptures . . . were given forth by the Spirit of God, and no whit altered by translation, they are a perfect Testimony of God . . . whatsoever is written ought to be believed and received for Truth.”
Fisher, on the other hand, was not at all convinced of the Bible’s perfection. In regard to the texts of books of Scripture and their transmission, Fisher believed that the Scripture text that we have is fallible; there have been mistakes by copyists; there are mistakes when translating from the original languages; the Scripture as we possess it is “uncertain.” We certainly do not have the autographs, or original texts as written down by prophets and apostles. Among all the available choices, scholars make subjective choices, only utilizing the translations and texts that each one likes.
Fisher also devoted his critical eye to matters of the Scriptural canon. He is not at all convinced that the canon of Scriptures handed down to him (and us) is the proper canon. He notes that there are many texts that are mentioned as inspired in the Bible that we do not have; there are others reputed to be written by the same authors which survive in some form, but have not been included (e.g., Paul’s letter to the Laodiceans).  He believes that what was canonized decided in a rather haphazard or arbitrary fashion. He wonders whether there some writings included, such as private letters (Paul’s letter to Philemon), that actually would have been better left out of the canon. Also, when one compares Catholics to Protestants, one finds that these two branches of Christianity have differing canons. The Catholics include the Apocrypha, or intertestamental works, but Protestants do not. Yet there are many good insights in the Apocrypha. One is the verse we have under consideration today, Wisdom of Solomon 7:27.
In Rusticus, in typically convoluted but penetrating prose, Samuel Fisher asks the following, very pertinent question to John Owen:
“Why do you say, downward to the consignation and bounding of the canon in Ezra’s days, as if between his days and the days of Christ’s flesh, the Spirit of the Lord was straitened (as it never is, see Micah 2) and God had limited and bound up himself from manifesting his Mind out of his Mouth to any men at all, for so many hundred years together, because some prophets had been moved to commit to writing, or at least to permit to be written by others, some few of those things they saw and said concerning partly their own, and partly the after times, and other Nations? Does not Wisdom say of herself, That in all ages entering into holy souls she makes them Friends of God, and prophets? Wisd. 7.27. And there were no holy men of God in those days, wherein ye imagine all God’s speaking in and by any prophets then was ceased, in and by whom he manifested his mind as he moved them to speak and write, as immediately as he had done others before them?”
Fisher here depicts Puritans like Owen of dividing all of human history into four or five dispensations. From the time of Moses (perhaps 1200 BC) until the time of Ezra (perhaps 400 BC) God revealed God-self to human beings, and these revelations were written down in a book that we call the Old Testament. From the time of Ezra until the time of Jesus, there was no revelations by God at all. From the time of  Jesus until the time of John of the book of Revelation, there was another time when God revealed God-self to human beings, and again these revelations were written down and bound into a book. Then from the time of John forevermore, God has ceased to reveal God-self, and we have no authentic revelations from God.
To demonstrate the fallacy of Owen’s thinking, Fisher slyly quotes from the “Wisdom of Solomon,” a deuterocanonical text that was probably written between 100 and 50 BC. The Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical works, were generally integrated into the Old Testament, until Martin Luther, citing Jerome, published Old Testament books with Greek originals into a separate book. The translators of the Geneva Bible, favored by the Puritans, said of the Apocrypha that they were “books which were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church, neither yet served to prove any point of Christian religion, save inasmuch as they had the consent of the other Scriptures called canonical to confirm the same.” Owen held this dim view of their authority. Fisher, on the other hand, sought to establish the broadest possible view of the Biblical canon, and he was prepared to accept as Scripture any book that was mentioned in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as themselves Scripture. His broader point is that Revelation flowed freely in the 400 years between Ezra and Jesus. Wisdom had found its way into holy souls in those four centuries, too, and had transformed them into friends of God, and prophets.

What about the final dispensation after the completion of the book of Revelation? Fisher’s point is that God is still speaking, to borrow a phrase from a recent advertising campaign. God tries to reach us in all times and in all places. God can do a new thing. Now it shall spring forth, shall ye not know it? (Isaiah 43:19) What Fisher knew experimentally is that the Quaker movement of his lifetime was a brilliant manifestation of God’s immediate, or continuing, revelation. God is still trying to find a way into our souls. That’s Fisher’s message.  God is still trying to find a way into our souls, because it is still God’s great desire to turn us into the paths of holiness. In every generation, God is seeking friends. God is still raising up prophets. That is the message that Fisher was devoting his enormous erudition to developing while he was alive. And if Samuel Fisher could be with us today, in this place, at this hour, I have every confidence that is what he would still be saying to us. Let us listen to what God has to say to us. If God is calling any of us to be prophets, may we be faithful to God’s call.