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Several Quaker bloggers this past week have been either asking or reflecting on Quaker identity, the Quaker movement’s calling, as it were. I recommend reading them all, and the comments the garnered, too:  my own, David Johns, Micah Bales, another Micah Bales post, and Johan Maurer (apologies if there are others I’ve missed). I find myself wondering, “What are we really trying to get at?”

In my post, I ask what is substance and what is trivia in what we know as Quakerism today, in any branch. May the authors have mercy on me for trying to capture their deep and rich blogs in one sentence each! In Micah Bales’ first post, he suggests that we shift our societal stance from being a response to threats to our society, to a trust-based openness to God’s leading. David Johns says that we should neither get too hung up in protecting a Quaker identity nor be too eager to be in touch with current popular culture, but focus on living like Jesus would have us live. In Micah’s second post, he continues David John’s theme of focusing on faithfulness as the key virtue. Johan Maurer draws our attention to the older branches of the Christian family, who look at Quakerism and wonder whether we have thrown out heritage, culture, richness, depth, and texture. 

I am heartened and inspired by these blog posts and heartily agree with the points made. Micah and David’s focus on faithfulness to the Living Christ and using Jesus as model and teacher seems true and right.  At the same time, I find myself wanting to mount a passionate speech in favor of Quakerism. Not as an object of worship, or for the purpose of venerating a tradition for its own sake, or heroes for the sake of hero-worship.

Quakerism is a means to an end – we all need some practical advice on how to live as Christians, and we need a community for encouragement and accountability. I wouldn’t claim  that Quakerism is a better way, objectively, than other approaches to God, but it is the way that God calls me and many others to be in. I’d like to suggest that we can and should be serious about our Quakerism, without giving it too much or too little weight.

The Bible suggests to me that there will be variety between groups of believers. Paul wrote letters containing distinctly different advice to several churches, based on their particular circumstances, culture, and the personalities within each church. The Book of Revelation contains the notion that churches have an “angel”, or a soul, with a distinct character. Walter Wink builds an analysis of human institutions (including churches) on Revelation. I find it helpful to my understanding of the role of Quakerism: Every human institution has three characteristics, and all are present at the same time: each one is created for a divine purpose; it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction; and it is redeemable. Churches, being human institutions, will all fall short of being the true representation of Christianity. Still, because of the divine purpose for which it is called, it is important for the church to try to find its calling. 

With the certainty both of our divine calling and of the inevitability of falling short of that calling, I draw several conclusions:

1. If we focus just on Jesus, not on the how-to of Quakerism, my experience tells me we are playing a high-stakes game. It means we dedicate ourselves to a high ideal, without much intentional evaluation of consequences, and without much ability to catch ourselves if there are undesired consequences. Sadly, a lot of harm is inadvertently done by well-intentioned people. I think a denomination does well not just to have high ideals, but also some stated intentions and practices, and also some practices for examining whether the outcomes of our actions affirm the original leading.

2. Assuming that all churches have a divine purpose, we can assume that other churches have wisdom in areas where we don’t. We carry within us the seeds of our own destruction, as Walter Wink would put it. We lack traditions, rich heritage, and a way to settle internal conflict. Here’s another: a Lutheran pastor once told me that Quakers are very elitist. She said, “Silent worship offers little to the many, many people who rarely or never have the dramatic kinds of openings, revelations, and mystical experiences Quakers are supposed to have. What about an everyday faith, for the regular days and regular people?” After I got over my initial shock, I conceded that she has a point. Either because of personality differences, stage in faith development, or experiencing a dry period, not everyone will have powerful religious experiences, or have them very often. Other churches offer ways to help people engage the divine using a variety of methods: through teaching, verbal reminders, smell, taste, imagination, sight, and rituals. I’m not suggesting that we change Quakerism, but I am suggesting we might be more aware of an area where we, perhaps, aren’t offering people support in something that may be difficult.

3.  The corollary is that we must be more aware of what our divine purpose as a church is? The possibility of  inward, unmediated revelation of God? That we can live in the Power that removes the occasion for war? That there is one, even Jesus, who can speak to my condition? The practice of waiting expectantly for God to speak to us? Emphasis on the fundamental spiritual meaning of many outward rituals and practices? Remind older churches not to take themselves and their rituals too seriously, and entertain the possibility that mistakes can and have been made, even by very holy people? (Whereas the testimonies may have seemed radical in the 1600s, ideas like equality, peace, and integrity are hardly unique in society today.) 

4. Our Faith & Practice is an important document. Do we submit to its authority? Do we train people to know what they are coming into when they become a member of the Religious Society of Friends? If we really do believe in the idea of “being faithful” as the main authority (rather than reason, Scripture, or our faith community), we should be very good at distinguishing between the pressure of personal emotions, our intellect, and divine leadings. Can we honestly say that we are very good at that? Do we teach it? Do we practice and model saying yes to some leadings, no to others? Or are we so eager to appear non-judgmental that we say yes to everything we can? 

In conclusion: Yes, Quakerism is worthy of our attention and study. But only as a means to Christian living, not as an end. We cannot worship it, we cannot make its preservation a goal in and of itself. Quakerism offers us a manual on how to be faithful. With attentiveness to the wisdom of other branches of Christianity, and the awareness of Quakerism’s divine purpose, we can learn from criticism from others, and become more faithful in our task of being faithful and teaching faithfulness.

How would you describe the “angel of Quakerism”? What is her calling? What are her character flaws? What are her prayer needs?

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In one of the last scenes of Monty Python’s comedy “Life of Brian”, poor Brian is trying to escape a crowd of followers who think him a real prophet when he is only pretending to be one in order to escape the Roman soldiers pursuing him.  In Brian’s haste, he drops a gourd that someone had forced into his hands earlier. One of the women among picks up the gourd Brian drops, and excitedly proclaims it to be a sacred sign from the prophet. The crowd is ecstatic to have found this sacred relic, and pursues Brian again when his sandal falls off and and he continues his flight with one bare foot and one foot in a sandal. When the pursuing crowd finds Brian’s abandoned sandal, an argument immediately breaks out between those who continue to worship the gourd and those who adopt the sandal as the superior sign of the prophet. This second group fractures just as quickly, one arguing that everyone should wear just one sandal, like their prophet Brian, the other half arrogantly claiming a superior position, understanding the sandal merely to be symbolic of some deeper meaning, not in the literal, primitive sense of the first group.   

“Life of Brian” is to me one of the most astute critiques of the cultures of believers because it focuses on the human failings of those of us in the wider Romano-Judeo-Christian sphere – in its English way. Monty Python pokes fun at our human tendency to get caught up in trivia and lose sight of substance.

If we were to take a Monty-Pythonesque view of the four branches of Quakerism, what would we find? Believers who are focused on the the substance of faith, using the lens of Quakerism? Or people fighting with each other over the supremacy of the gourd or the shoe, and whether the shoe is to be understood literally or metaphorically? Imagine for a moment that most of what we do falls into the category of shoe or gourd, what are the few elements you absolutely would insist are essential to Quakerism, not just a practice you have grown attached to?

Query for prayerful contemplation:

If you were to start a Quaker worship group today, built on the essentials of Quakerism, what would it do? What would worship be like?

I initially wrote the blog post below on March 4, 2012, but – for a variety of reasons – did not post it at the time. Eight months later, our Meeting has been through a lot of pain and difficulty. Attendance among the original group of Friends has fluctuated. We are about to embark on a process of healing and reconcialitaion – at least we are considering it. This seems like a good time to post my original post, unedited. I hope to write additional blog posts on how Meetings deal with sex offenders, how Friends deal with the spiritual dimensions of interaction with people who have committed serious crimes, and how Quaker process is able to – or not – to handle these challenges as they arise in the midst of our Meetings. Your prayers for our Meeting would be most welcome!

March 4, 2012: Once again, I feel called to deal with a difficult topic. I do not intend to be graphic and offensive in my writing, but this is a sensitive topic that may stir up difficult feelings. Dear reader, if you know this to be an area of potential pain for you, I encourage you to consider that you have the freedom to choose not to read this blog, or not to read it at this time. Please care tenderly for your needs.

I did not attend Meeting for Worship this morning. I feel sad about not attending, and my absence was not a protest against anyone or anything, nor was it a statement of any position. However, I was not ready to worship with the Level 3 registered sex offender who has recently started coming to our Meeting. I was surprised to discover that I am also not ready to worship with those Quakers whom I feel could have done more to prepare our Meeting for his presence among us. 

How does one prepare for worshiping with a Level 3 registered sex offender? I can’t imagine there is a one-size-fits-all answer to that. But it seems to me that there are several components one might expect. Ensuring everyone’s safety (offender and Meeting members); acknowledging the facts; dealing with the emotions that arise in response to the facts; seeking to know the Divine potential; and aligning one’s will with the Divine potential. I will share my process and where it seems to have worked or not, and I invite others to join in conversation with the idea that, between us, we may grow in the Spirit and come up with something that might be helpful to other Friends and Meetings that may be dealing with this kind of issue.

Our sex offender, whom I will call John Doe or just JD*, has raped a dozen women, served decades in prison, and now wants to attend my Quaker Meeting. A very cursory look online suggests that there may have been some legal sleights of hand that may not have been entirely fair to JD. Part of me wanted to dive into more research – I love gaining knowledge – and I think I was also hopeful that there were extenuating circumstances that would allow me to discover that JD’s actions and motivations weren’t as bad as they appeared at first sight. I did do a little additional reseacrh, but quickly concluded a) given the adversarial nature of the legal system, nothing I read was aimed at presenting the Truth, and b) the details of his actions have no bearing on the condition of my soul as I prepare to worship with him.

So the knowledge I am laboring with is that JD raped 11 women, and statistically the risk of him re-offending is high. What do I do with that?

I am disgusted, horrified, angry, griefstricken, sad, sad, sad, angry. I am grateful that, so far, I got away physically unharmed from three attempted rapes in my youth. I will not thank God  for sparing me, because that would imply that God abandoned the others. I am angry with God. I lament the fact that 1 in four or five women has been sexually assaulted. I am scared. Who knows if I’ll be as lucky next time? My mouth and throat go dry, tears well up in my eyes, my stomach knots as I think about my two daughters. Will they be among the lucky ones? I grieve for the many people I know whose lives have been changed by sexual assault, and I feel some shame at my passivity and powerlessness in the face of the many thousands of rapes that happen daily, and the sale of people for the purpose of sex. I am grateful for those who have survived, and I praise God for the healing that many of them have experienced. I am repulsed by the thought of sharing the intimacy of worship with someone who sexually assaulted so many women! I wish JD would just go away. I am angry with those members of my meeting who have encouraged JD to worship at our Meeting. I worry about those in my Meeting who have been sexually assaulted – what effect will JD’s presence have on them? Reopen old wounds? Will they leave?   

What do I do with all of these feelings? I acknowledge their validity. Yes, I am angry, relieved, scared, concerned, repulsed, and more. And that’s OK, and it is important to tend to my emotions. 

Equally clearly, my feelings are not a good guide for my actions. For that I look to my faith. What are the actions of a person of faith? What are faith communities to do? What does God say?

Early Quakers often got into arguments with their contemporaries about the power of God to conquer sin. I think it’s fair to say that this was the single most contentious issue between Quakers and Presbyterians – Quakers rejected the notion of Original Sin and insisted that God in a very literal sense can inhabit our being in such a way as to free us from the temptation to sin. My favorite book on the subject is Apocalypse of the Word by Douglas Gwyn. It stands to reason that if we allow The Seed to blossom within us, give “that of God” free rein in our conscience and soul, let “Christ Within” guide our words and actions, clearly we can all be transformed into new beings. It doesn’t get much clearer than Paul’s words: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:19-21 

Not only did the early Friends passionately believe this, Friends have been active in prison ministry from the earliest days until the present. In the early days, Friends were frequently jailed for their beliefs. As the centuries have gone by, our ministry has shifted to ensuring that conditions in prison were conducive to that kind of transformation in individuals. Prisoners were to be treated with respect and kindess so as to learn how to respect and be kind to others in turn. As psychology and sociology have developed, many Quakers have delevoped programs in the prisons to teach the social and interpersonal skills and sensitivities that would aid prisoners in being transformed. 

And of course I agree with this theology. My own faith experience is that “I am dead and Christ lives in me”. I support the ministries in the prisons that seek to bring about inner transformation. I believe in them. It makes sense to me that Quaker Meetings would offer a place for released prisoners to come and worship. They are far more likely to sustain any progress they have made if they are part of a community, and they most certainly can use the accountability and support of a Quaker Meeting. JD claims to be transformed by personal commitment to integrity. He says he is safe and does not present a threat to anyone in our community in his current state. 

And yet… I am not ready to worship with him.

In part, I think time will help. My feelings will gradually become less intense, based on past experience. Also, I think my meeting made some mistakes that make JD’s presence harder to accept. It would have been helpful if we had known about JD’s background before he started worshiping with us rather than learning about it after we had worshiped and interacted with him. Also, when a letter did go out to the meeting’s membership, it would have been helpful if it had acknowledged the distress some members might experience or offer compassion and resources to those who might be struggling. 

*I will not name anyone, and everything I say about individuals or our Meeting’s process is either a matter of public record or was said by someone in a official capacity. Nothing confidential will be revealed. However, I imagine some of those who appear in my blog may not be happy about my characterization. My intention is to say only enough to be able to grapple with the spiritual issues, and never with the intent to cause embarrassment. When I say something that sounds critical, please try to be generous with the individuals and consider the systems perspective.

I was invited to preach the Easter sermon at the Living Interfaith Church just north of Seattle today. Below, you will find the sermon I wrote. In fact, I didn’t actually preach this sermon. At the last minute, God told me to put my manuscript aside and speak the words the Spirit would give me in the moment. In the message I gave, I used John 4 and Robert Barclay’s words, “I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up”. That became the core of the message and the query I gave them for the open worship time. Anyway, here is the sermon as written:

Thank you for inviting me to come to your church this morning to talk about Quakers and Easter.

I have to tell you that this is a bit challenging. You see, traditionally, Quakers don’t celebrate special religious days and events according to the calendar. Instead, we throw ourselves into the spiritual event. What is the spiritual significance of Jesus’ death and coming to life again?

You may be wondering why we would neglect the external celebration, when all the other denominations in the Christian family make Christmas and Easter the centerpiece of church life?

Quakers look at passages like John 4 more literally than most. In John 4, Jesus is in Samaria and meets a nameless woman at the well. She understands Jesus to be a prophet, and asks him where people are supposed to worship, on a mountain in Samaria like her people do, or at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth… God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

 What Quakers have taken this to mean is that when we think of Christmas or Easter, we consider the spiritual meaning of Christmas and Easter.

 What do I mean by “spiritual Easter.” What is the spiritual significance, or spiritual event, of Easter, from a Quaker perspective?

 Let me read to you a quote from George Fox, one of the founders of Quakerism, from around 1650:  “I saw also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God.”  Death, evil, humiliation, do not have the last word: love does.”

And then there’s another sense in which the early Quakers talked about this Easter phenomenon: “it is the medium whereby we can rise in dominion over our earthly nature, as we feel [the divine] spirit rise in us to do away with sin, and to put an end to transgression; and this is a lesson of daily experience to all those who know by the powerful influence of his spirit working in us, raising the mind above all outward laws… James Bellangee, 1854

 So Easter is not just about Jesus dying and coming to life again, but every human being’s soul rising above the constraints of our broken, flawed, human nature.

 I’ve read these quotes to you from the words and lives of some Quakers from history. That’s good. Nothing wrong with that. We don’t have any creeds or official teachings of any kind from which I could draw to talk about Easter. Because to Quakers, creeds cause arguments, and no words can come close to describing the reality of God anyway. The Bible, when read literally, can be interpreted to mean any number of things. So, far more important than the words of the Bible, or the words of early Quakers, or any creeds, are God’s words straight into each heart.

 What is most important is what the divine reveals inwardly to each one of us. Because Quakers believe that God speaks directly into the heart of every one of us. It’s an absolutely fundamental part of Quaker faith. Here are the words of Margaret Fell, another one of our founders, in 1694.

 ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, “We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.”

 So what’s important to Quakers is to “know the scriptures in ourselves”. We know what scriptures describe as our own experience.

The most authentic way for me to share a Quaker Easter with you is to invite you into your own encounter with the Divine. A lot of the Quaker experience is just sitting in silence, being still, listening, waiting, molding ourselves to God’s will. Some of us never have mystical experiences. But we do rely on the experiences we have in worship – mystical, an insight, a sense of peace, some words that come to us, an AHA! – as the most authentic source of authority I offer you today is the opportunity to know inwardly, to encounter the meaning of the resurrection in yourself.

I’m going to read the Bible passage to you again, in a slightly different translation, and then I’ll give you a few queries. Queries are open-ended questions for reflection. They don’t have answers, really, but are a way to give the mind/soul/spirit both focus and spaciousness to go wherever the Divine leads:

Luke 24:1-12

Queries:

1. Put yourself in Peter’s place. You’ve just buried your best friend and spiritual teacher, and now his grave is empty. You’re puzzled, shaking your head. What do you imagine Peter is experiencing? 

2. Think back to an incident in your life that started with seemingly insurmountable difficulty or pain, but eventually turned out OK or even life-giving in a way you couldn’t have imagined at the outset. How is that experience similar to or different from what you think of as “resurrection”?

3. What does “resurrection” mean to you? How is this different from earlier conceptions of what “resurrection” means? What brought about this shift?

Because the topic of forgiveness is so sensitive, and has so often been used to bludgeon, silence or guilt those who have suffered an injustice, I want to start off with a few caveats. I don’t think anyone has the right to demand that another person should forgive, or forgive on a certain time line. In my mind, God can give us anger at an injustice as a powerful force to drive personal and societal change. Forgiveness isn’t a more “worthy” or morally correct feeling than anger. Each emotion has its appropriate time and place. Please accept the following thoughts not as a general promotion of forgiveness, but theological reflections on forgiveness in its proper time and place.

My father-in-law Ray was the victim of medical malpractice when he was in his 60s, and the family believes his quality of life could have been better in his remaining years if things had been done right early on. Ray could probably have successfully sued his doctor – and since Ray is a lawyer, he could probably have done it without much cost to himself. But Ray chose not to, saying that he just didn’t want to spend his remaining years in the courtroom. He’d rather enjoy whatever time he had left with his family.

Ray’s decision came to mind after I heard the Norwegian Labour Youth Party’s response to the terrorist who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, on July 22 this year. Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Youth party, later said at the party’s official memorial gathering, “We have been changed and marked by what has happened. We will always be known as the July 22 generation. And that gives us power. Because we have the power to decide what the future will be.”

Neither one of these vignettes is about forgiveness per se, but my curiosity was awakened. What, exactly, does the famous Matthew 18 say about forgiveness? Matthew 18 contains the scene where Peter asks whether 7 is the correct number of times to forgive, and Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Now, Jesus may simply have been saying, “Peter, you dolt, this isn’t something you can quantify. This is about soul and internal transformation, not a set of rules.” However, if he was saying something more generalisable, what could that be?

I started, as usual, by looking at the context. What is going on in the story before and after this particular scene?

The story with Peter is in a collection of parables and incidents that take place just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem and is killed. In terms of relative importance, we are close to the core of what Jesus’ wanted his disciples to know, the heart of what he wanted to accomplish in his life. Immediately before Peter’s question is the parable of the lost sheep, in which Jesus explains that each sheep (person) is too beloved and precious for God to allow him or her to be lost. Before that, the disciples bicker about who is greatest, and Jesus tells them that the greatest is s/he who is most like a child. Immediately after Peter’s question comes the parable of the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven a huge debt he owes his master, but follows up by refusing to forgive a smaller debt that is owed him, and harshly punishes the debtor. The master’s response is to withdraw the forgiveness he had previously granted. Jesus moves on to address divorce, essentially saying that a man can’t just divorce his wife because he feels like it. Then Jesus returns to the topic of children, saying that heaven belongs to children and those who are like children.

In looking at all these stories together, it looks to me like Jesus is addressing generosity, broadly speaking. What they all have in common is that the initiator of the parable is trying to impose some sort of judgment on others, dividing people into categories of greater/lesser or worthy/unworthy.  It is about turning away children, someone who owes money, or a wife one is no longer infatuated with. In each situation, it is the person with relative power in the relationship who rejects the one who has less worldly power. Jesus teaches the person who would judge or dismiss someone who comes to them that they should respond generously and with welcome.

What – the question of forgiveness belongs in the larger picture of generosity and welcome?!

I have always thought of forgiveness in the framework of justice, as an ultimate goal in a journey that involves the victim feeling healed, the perpetrator repenting, making amends, and choosing a better path. Maybe that’s why I could never articulate a theology of forgiveness?! As long as I looked at forgiveness in the context of justice, it seemed to tie the victim to the perpetrator in a relationship of sorts, and the humanly impossible feat of feeling peace about what had happened. It never felt right.

But what if forgiveness instead is about acts of generosity and welcome? Perhaps that is why my father-in-law Ray and the Norwegian Labor Youth’s actions made me want to read Matthew 18. Now, I can’t say anything about how any of them feel – that is not for me to say. They may feel badly done by, angry, and still hungering for an apology,  restoration, or wanting never to have anything to do with the perpetrator ever again. All of those would be very natural feelings. Perhaps they feel peace about it? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m entitled to know, and it belongs in their inner world and their relationship with God.

I do think I am permitted to reflect on other people’s acts. My father-in-law decided not to invest any more of his energy in the doctor and did not sue him. Instead he devoted himself to his wife and family and causes he believed in, creating a better life for all. The Labor Youth likewise decided to more or less ignore the killer. They have decided to put their energy into shaping the future. Their generosity and welcome of Muslims were the policies that got them into the crosshairs of the killer. After the killings, the surviving youth redicated themselves to that vision. Furthermore, they discerned that building social trust – creating a society that allows people’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs to be met – is the best defense against violence. In other words, they are being welcoming and generous to all, in the hopes it might prevent future killings.  

That looks like forgiveness to me, the kind we read about in Matthew 18. Then we can leave feelings of anger, peace, despair or contentment where they belong, in the private conversations in the heart between the individual and God. 

Query for prayerful reflection: What stirs in you when you think of forgiveness within the framework of generosity and welcome? What do you think of the idea of distinguishing between feelings and acts when considering forgiveness?

In my previous blog post I said that, according to early Quakers, statements about the subservient role of women, slaves etc only apply to those living under the old covenants. Then Jesus came, and he fulfilled the law and embodied the New Covenant, ending the need for written rules and blood sacrifices. Under the new dispensation, humans need no intermediaries between us and God, and God speaks directly into our hearts to tell us what we are supposed to do, and all humans are equal in this ability to hear and obey God. Complete freedom and equality, in other words, for the faithful.

Then I asked what, if anything, we need to do/say/believe in order to take part in the freedoms of the new Covenant, and I wondered what we should make of people who aren’t part of the New Covenant.

Some caveats first: The answers I have arrived at are probably not very original, but this is the first time I have worked my way to them myself. I suspect some of you will not be happy with the answers I have arrived at. I’m actually not very happy with them myself. They fly in the face of some of my previously held beliefs. However, my task is not to find answers that easily fit with previous categories. If they did, I would have to suspect myself of trying to make God fit my world view. My answers, though they don’t make me happy, are more trustworthy to me because they aren’t what I would have expected. They are the result of my attempts to be faithful.  

Many Christians, especially those of the evangelical persuasion, say that it is belief in Jesus Christ that makes us beneficiaries of the new covenant. Those Christians point to texts like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” As I engaged with these texts during the past week, I discovered that most of them are in the book of John. In Acts and Romans it also often says that belief “saves”. I don’t dismiss those texts, but I don’t think they are about the covenant. Rather, they are about the life-giving joy of believing. (Look for another blog post later on what belief does.)

So I took a look to see if “belief” is tied to “covenant” elsewhere in the Bible. By far the greatest number of references to covenant is in the Old Testament, as you would expect. Here’s the main text reference in Jeremiah 31:33: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” The interesting thing is that this way of talking about covenant doesn’t change when we move into the New Testament: In Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is called the “perfecter of faith” and the covenant is compared to a will (a gift).

In all of these passages, God or Jesus are the initiators, the ones with agency, and humans are simply passive recipients. Humans aren’t required to do anything for the covenant to happen. 

When requirements are listed – for the most part separated from covenant – it sounds like this: In Hebrews 10:36, it says “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.” Hebrews 13:15-16: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” It is also made clear that we are not supposed to insult or mock or make light of the Divine. Again, actions are required, not beliefs.

Then I tried turning it around to see what the Bible says about beliefs or faith. When the concepts are first brought up it is in the Old Testament, of course. It is rarely, if ever, in connection with the Messiah. Later, when Jesus does show up, the belief/faith concepts don’t seem to change meaning from the way they were used in the Old Testament. Even in Hebrews 11:1-2, the main text that describes covenant, faith is defined as follows:  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” The rest of the chapter lays out what these “ancients” did, not what they believed in. When discussing “faith”, it seems like even the new testament mostly means it not in the sense of belief in Jesus, but in the sense of commitment to God and doing good. “Being faithful” actually seems like a much more apt phrase than “belief” does in its modern use. The requirement is to be faithful, then, not to hold a particular set of beliefs about Jesus.

All of this goes a long way towards answering the question of what the New Covenant means for people who don’t believe in Jesus. The way I read it, God initiated the covenant and Jesus perfects it. It makes no difference whether we believe or not. All humans are beneficiaries. Hebrews 10 goes to great lengths, in fact, to persuade us that Jesus’ sacrifice was a one-time event and it has already been accomplished. There is nothing any one of us can do or say at this point that could undo the event, it has been done “once for all.”

And yet there is this notion that Paul dispenses rules to people who live under the Old Covenant. Can there be people into whose hearts and minds God hasn’t (yet?) put the law? People who “just don’t get it” – who won’t persevere, praise, share, encourage others to do their best, be respectful of the holy, etc? Perhaps such people need some instructions spelled out. Without inner guidance from the heart, having written laws may be more helpful and effective. Or perhaps “the people who live under the Law” are all of us – perhaps we are free in some areas but still live “under the Law” in others? Or could it be that some of us, for whatever reason, haven’t claimed the freedoms of the new covenant that have been given? Galatians 5:1 creates the idea that freedom must not just be given, but also claimed: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

Queries for prayerful reflection: What does the New Covenant mean to you?

I’ve been studying Margaret Fell’s Women’s Speaking Justified with other Seattle Friends in Bible study in recent months. In it, Margaret takes on the New Testament texts that appear to say that women shouldn’t preach or be in leadership positions in the church, esp. 1 Corinthians 14:35 which says “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says,” and 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Margaret’s main idea is that a closer look at those texts reveals that the writer is clearly addressing only those women who live “under the Law”, under the Old Covenant with God. Women who have entered into the New Covenant with God, says Margaret, are not bound by those old rules but are free to prophesy and teach.

Let’s spend a moment reviewing the covenant idea. The Hebrew Scriptures describe a series of covenants between God and representatives of humanity: Adam, Abraham, Moses etc. In these covenants, God promises good life and abundance in return for human commitment and worship. There are a number of laws governing human behavior (e.g “Don’t eat fruit from that tree”, the Ten Commandments) and the covenants are typically sealed with a blood sacrifice (e.g. Isaac, “Pass Over” before fleeing Egypt in Exodus). Humans break every single covenant and suffer because of their disobedience (e.g. Adam and Eve are banished from Eden, God floods the earth and only Noah and his closest family and some animals survive). God forgives and starts anew with a new person and a new covenant. Repeat cycle until the birth of Jesus.

With the life and death of Jesus, the early Quakers believed that something entirely new happened. The New Covenant is sealed with the blood of Jesus, and this covers all sins in perpetuity and abolishes forever the need for any more blood sacrifices. All the old laws are done away with, such as pork being prohibited and women and men having different roles. With the New Covenant, Jesus restores humanity to the state that we were in before Adam and Eve fell. Christ ushers in “the last days” in which God says (Acts 2:17-18): “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

The idea of the New Covenant is central to the early Quakers’ theology. The New Covenant is the justification they used to adopt the radical ideas of approaching God without intermediary, sacraments, and creeds. The New Covenant is the premise for all humans being of equal worth, it releases humans from swearing oaths, guarantees God’s forgiveness, etc. The established church was outraged at the religious liberties those early Quakers (and many other religious groups at the time) took.

Mainline Christians are still quite focused on the covenant idea, though they may have different theologies and practices regarding how a Christian enters into the covenant. Most Christians believe the covenant is established at baptism (some reaffirm or claim it more fully at confirmation). Communion, for most Christians, is a time when they symbolically re-enter the new covenant, repeating the words in Luke 22, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

And now a multitude of questions break forth:

If we don’t practice outward communion or say those covenant-establishing words, how do we think covenant is established? By conviction/convincement? With what do we as modern-day Quakers seal the covenant, if not with water and/or wine?

Can we claim to have entered into a covenant if we’ve never thought much about the concept? Can we claim the freedoms of the new covenant if we don’t enter it in some outward or inward fashion? 

Why do some modern Friends attach the New Covenant to belief in Jesus – the idea of the New Covenant is introduced in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31) and is done without attaching it to the Messiah. Many Jews believe that they have already entered into the new Covenant. 

If Quakers believe we have entered into the New Covenant with its freedoms, what do we believe about people who haven’t entered the New Covenant – are their behaviors bound by the Old Covenant laws, so that women should be silent in church?

And if, as I imagine some might be inclined to do, one wants to ditch the New Covenant idea, how would you construct a Quaker theological foundation for equality, unmediated revelation, etc?

Friends tend to say that although we don’t practice the sacraments outwardly, we do practice them inwardly or spiritually. Hence we can talk about communion as an experience of unity with God or with other worshipers. Spiritually, we might call it baptism every time we dedicate our lives to God or when we are called to speak in Meeting and are filled with the Holy Spirit speaking through us.

Quakers tend to keep our discussion to the two Protestant sacraments, but there are of course five additional sacraments practised by Roman Catholics: confirmation, confession, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. Most Christians agree that the sacraments, whether 2, 4, 5 or 7 in number, are things that Jesus told his followers to do, outwardly or inwardly, whether or not we agree what exactly the spiritual reality is intended to be.

So… what about foot washing?

Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is described in John 13:1-17. The disciple Simon Peter initially doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, but Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me”. After washing everyone’s feet (including Judas’) Jesus says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” The words that he uses after washing his disciples’ feet are very similar to the words Jesus used after sharing a cup of wine and breaking some bread with his disciples.

When theologians try to explain why foot washing shouldn’t be a sacrament, they variously claim that Jesus uses “as” in this passage, not “like”, or that this passage doesn’t contain words that are evocative of covenant but that the wine/bread and baptism passages do. However, linguistic analyses aren’t terribly persuasive to this Quaker. My method of Biblical interpretation involves asking the ultimate source of authority, “the spirit that gave forth the scriptures” in George Fox’s words, and then asking my Friends to help with my discernment.

I was fortunate to spend some time in 1993 in community with people from the Church of the Brethren, where they practice foot washing at Easter every year. Brethren and Mennonites not only practice foot washing before sharing communion (they call it Love Feast), but also require their members to be reconciled with God and with their community members before participating in foot washing. The theology is of servanthood and humility: all Christians are expected to serve others and be willing to humble themselves.

I’m not sure how reconciliation came to be a condition for participating in foot washing. Perhaps because reconciliation may require us to be willing to humble ourselves, either by asking forgiveness or by letting go of “righteous anger”? Or maybe it’s because Matthew 5:23-24 says, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there… First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Maybe this is the one time of year when Brethren and Mennonites decide to ritualize the event?

Experientially, reconciling before foot washing makes sense to me. Before I participated in foot washing, I tried to imagine what it would be like to kneel at the feet of someone with whom I was in conflict, and wash their feet. It was hard to envisage it because the symbolism of kneeling is so strong. It was harder still, though, to imagine that same person kneeling down before me and washing my feet. Foot washing is such an intimate act that I don’t think I could give my feet over to someone whom I don’t trust. It is hard to imagine how pride could survive a foot washing ceremony.

In fact, this image has become one of my spiritual tests whenever I am ill at ease with someone or feel tension or possible conflict. In worship, I create a little guided imagery for myself and see if I can live into a scenario where I wash their feet and they wash mine. If the imagery makes me too uncomfortable, one way or the other, I know I have to take steps to address the situation or improve the relationship.

Foot washing seems to me to be an outward expression of an inner state of humility, willing vulnerability, and reconciliation. These spiritual states seem crucial to God’s vision for the human condition. And therefore I do believe that foot washing should be as important, spiritually, as baptism and communion. 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Have you participated in a foot washing ceremony? What was the inward experience that accompanied the outward event?