Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Bumbling Quaker and God's Virtuoso

Oh right, this is my blog! I almost forgot. That's how insane work has been lately. But then the first half of the first semester is always the busiest time of the academic year...

Still, I wouldn't miss my annual gig as the token Quaker on campus for anything. Every year about this time in September, Campus Ministry sponsors World Religions Day and invites pastors and lay members of various religious denominations to represent their respective faith traditions at a sort of religion fair held from 11:30 to 1:30 -- the two-hour slot when lunch traffic passes through the center of the campus. I think today was my 4th year representing the Religious Society of Friends. As is my wont, I filled my half of the display table with past issues of Friends Journal and Peaceworks that passers-by were welcome to take. I also brought some books near and dear to my heart, such as Faith and Practice, Quaker Spirituality, and that whimsical opuscule The Quaker Way. Pink Dandelion's
The Quakers --A Very Short History figured in the mix as well this time.

Does it ever happen to you, gentle reader, to see a girl and to say to yourself, She looks like a Susan? Well, the quintessentially clean-cut young man in the white shirt and tie with whom I shared a table today just looked like a Justin. A member of a local evangelical church, he's a student in his senior year on our campus where he also leads a weekly Bible study group. Energetic, earnest, and amiable, Justin also radiates an unwavering certainty in the Truth of his convictions. His unabashed declarations towered over my humble, groping explanations. We were definitely the odd couple of the religion fair this year.

No surprise, of course, that the first question Justin asked me was about the place of the Bible in Quaker faith. I sure wish that one of those bad Quakers from the Bad Quaker Bible Blog had been there to answer that one in my place! Still, I did as well as I could, explaining that Friends revere the Bible and find it to be a source of great inspiration and guidance. I said that during silent meeting for worship a verse from one of the Gospels often pops into my mind and I meditate on it and sometimes give vocal ministry on its message. I noted that many Quakers also read and contemplate the holy books of other faith traditions, such as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita. And of course I quoted Robert Barclay who said that Scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself." I said that traditionally Friends have held the Spirit to be the supreme authority, and I remembered the words of the George Fox Song: "...for the Truth is more holy than the Book, said he."

Prior to asking his question, Justin had been listening closely as I answered questions posed by a student as part of her class assignment. I had been telling her about "the still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12) and about how Quakers believe in turning down the noise and quieting the mind so as to hear the voice of God in our heart. Justin launched into a virtuoso--but most amiable-- refutation of my "Truth is more holy than the Book" doctrine, quoting from both the old and new parts of said Book and duly citing chapter and verse. (How does one memorize all those chapter and verse numbers?) Passages about the deceitfulness of the heart and the depravity of man came cascading, and the admonition that Scripture alone can teach us the Truth.... He trounced me soundly, I must admit.

I asked about those Bible passages that speak of God's wrath, saying that I did not believe in a wrathful God and that I think those passages reflect the fact that human beings did the writing of Scripture, injecting their own (mis)understandings of God's nature, determined by the times they lived in and the events they experienced. Justin replied that those passages remind us of things we prefer not to think about and that they express just how much God abhors sin and evil. He had a valid point. Never did he say that God abhors the sinner. On the contrary, he spoke of God's graciousness and mercy available to us through faith in Jesus.I believe that Justin indeed possesses what he professes.

Listening to him brought back memories of a time filled with certainty, when security emanated not so much from Bible verses as from catechism questions and Church doctrine ably taught in parochial school and "from the altar." A bygone time...but one that leaves no wistfulness behind.

And I thought how concrete, how rock-solid was all that he said...and how airy and undefined my explanations must have sounded! How much more substance a seeker would take away from a conversation with Justin! But then, how does one explain what it's like to sit in the silence and breathe in the Spirit? How do you describe the sudden burst of joy when the heart recognizes the voice of the Master and Teacher?

Why didn't I remember the verse from the Song of Solomon?
Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.
The heart is not deceitful nor is it deceived at meeting for worship. The heart when stilled has perfect pitch.


  1. Well, this bad Quaker from the BQBB thinks you did better than fine, at least here in the retelling.

    "How do you describe the sudden burst of joy when the heart recognizes the voice of the Master and Teacher?...'Listen! My lover! Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.'"

    Oh, yeah. What you said. (Or what the Song said.)

    It may be possible to form a perfectly lucid and well-constructed argument against the experience of the love of God. But I'd rather sit beside you on the bench, listening to the Master and Teacher. Lucid argument just doesn't add up to nearly as much as the sight of the Beloved, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.

    And this was eloquent. I'm so glad you wrote it! Thank you for whatever faithful bumbling went into its creation.

  2. Thanks for reading, Cat.

    Sometimes I do get a bit discouraged by how much easier it is to say what Quakers don't do and what we don't believe in than what we do.


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