The Big Question

          Quaker singer/songwriter Jon Watts is also a videographer.  One of his provocative YouTube videos, “Dance Party Erupts During Quaker Meeting for Worship,” has been viewed more than 84,000 times over the Internet.  In a May 2013 Friends Journal  interview and video, he urges Quakers to use the Internet to communicate in a passionate way.  He describes the ambivalence of most Friends today toward Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but suggests that one should approach these media not as a passive receiver but as an “engaged content creator.”

He urges Friends to use the Internet as a medium for prophetic expression, the way that early Quakers used the newly accessible printing presses to get their radical message to the public.  Take this attitude, he advises:

“I have a message.  I have something to say.  I have a vision for the society, and I have some analysis of the ways the society is broken, and I’m going to get it out there.  …  I’m going to really get in people’s faces about this, because this society is broken.  It’s fallen.  It needs to transform.  And who is going to do it, if it’s not us?  I see the Internet as an opportunity….”

Jon is  creating a YouTube channel called “QuakerSpeak” that will soon start releasing one video per week.   In preparation, he interviewed me last May, after reading my blog and pamphlets, plus an online interview.  He came up with some thoughtful questions related to spirituality and early Quakers.  During a pause, Jon commented on my speaking style.

“You start out your responses with a burst of energy,” he said.  “And then you sort of fade out.”

Public speaking has usually been a cause for anxiety for me, even terror, but I try to be faithful when called to speak.  My intention is to let the Light shine through my words and my being, no matter how much the fearful part of me wants to hold back.  So I made an effort to work with Jon’s feedback.

Recently, we met again.  Two days in advance, he sent some sets of questions to think about, with a reminder that he was looking for a “YouTube-sized answer,” i.e. about four minutes.  Number three was a BIG QUESTION, one I’ve slowly been working toward answering in the writing I’ve been doing.

“When discussing the boldness and courage of the Early Friends in our last conversation, you said that you feel God is trying to call forth something even more powerful in our time,” he wrote.  “What do you feel God trying to call forth in our time?  What is our world in need of?  How can our Quakerism help inform this calling?”

On the morning of the second interview, I took a walk with my friend Terry, who often serves as an elder for me.  Through listening, asking questions, hearing deeper than my words, listening some more, and sometimes making suggestions, Terry helps to draw out a message or ministry that’s forming.  On the 2nd of January, we walked across an open field a few hours before an expected snow fall.  I practiced saying what I thought God was calling forth in our time.  For thirty years now I’ve had a strong sense of God leading me as part of a larger plan, but I have not often tried to look directly at the bigger picture, at what God is leading us toward.  I’ve been dancing around that question.  It has been easier to study the radical, passionate activity of early Friends than to fully face what God is collectively calling us to do now, in the times in which we live.

After lunch, Jon set up his cameras in Terry’s apartment.  After he turned on the equipment, the three of us settled into a period of silent worship.  Jon asked his questions, listened to my answers, then listened inwardly for the prompting of the Spirit before asking follow-up questions, some of them unexpected.  A couple of times, during the silence, I felt moved to speak spontaneously.  Terry sat to the side, holding it all in the Light.  Toward the end he offered a question, too.

Some of my answers were lively, some not.  After fifty-two minutes of filming, snow was falling outside.  Jon turned off the cameras.

In the next two days, while traveling by train and waiting at snow-covered stations, I reflected on what I had said.  I knew I had not given a satisfactory answer to the BIG QUESTION.  At least, I wasn’t satisfied.

In our time, what is God asking of us?

For weeks I’ve been turning my attention to see more clearly.  This morning I woke up early, picked up the journal beside my bed, and wrote four pages.  The whole picture is not going to come through one person or one group, and the picture will remain fuzzy as long as it’s a prospect for the future.  It will become clearer the more we live it out with our lives and not just our words.  More is coming.

The Big Question: What do you know about what God is calling us to now, in our time?  How is the Spirit calling you, your meeting, your community, the Religious Society of Friends, the human race?  What are we asked to do, say, create, dismantle?  How are we called to live?  What must we sacrifice? To what are we called to give our energy, our attention, our resources, our love?


To see the trailer for Jon Watt’s QuakerSpeak YouTube channel, go to

A four-day opportunity to explore the Quaker spiritual journey will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

A Whole Year of A Whole Heart

It was two days before the presidential election. Fresh in my mind were images of Hurricane Sandy flooding New York City and New Jersey, and the frightening memory of having being caught on a sweltering day in a derecho that swept 800 miles from Chicago to Washington, DC.  Tremendous winds had uprooted and snapped enormous trees and cut power to 4.2 million people. I was also troubled by a video of one presidential candidate mocking the other for wanting to address climate change.
As I went to meeting for worship that Sunday morning, I was praying for my country to make a wise choice on Election Day. But I also knew that lowering the dangerously high level of CO2 emissions in the earth’s atmosphere and stopping the rise of the oceans requires more than changing public policy. To use Quaker terminology, I was being “exercised” spiritually. I did not know that my first public blog was about to be born.
Eighteen months earlier, I had created practice blogs on both WordPress and Blogger. I had not notified anybody about them, and they were hidden on the web. I was busy working on two books, one telling the story about the radical, charismatic beginning of the Quaker movement, and a shorter one describing ten elements of the transforming spiritual journey made by early Friends. At Earlham School of Religion’s annual Writers’ Colloquium, I had just attended a workshop on making better use of the internet. For weeks I had been trying a new writing practice to help me listen to the voice of my heart.
In the silence of an unprogrammed meeting for worship that First Day morning, those of us gathered with Clear Creek Meeting were palpably gathered by the Spirit. I felt deeply stirred, and the prayer for the world I had been praying took shape in words. My heart pounded. I stood and spoke. After I sat down again, I quaked. It felt like something had cracked open, perhaps my own heart. At home after meeting, I woke from my afternoon nap knowing I needed to share the message and prayer more widely.
My partner was away, and I had no constraints on my time. In a burst of pure creative joy I started a new blog, and named it A Whole Heart. I wrote my message and sent out news to everyone I knew. It was viewed 405 times the next day, the eve of the election.
It has been a whole year since then, and more. I have written blog posts about all ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey, both as experienced by early Quakers and by Friends today. As best I could, in those posts I described the transformation caused by turning one’s life over to the direction of the Light, the Spirit of Christ.
Now, on the eve of Christmas 2013, I am remembering a vivid dream I had in 1996. In the dream I was sitting at a table with the man who was my partner at the time. He was drinking a Coke, and I was reheating mushy corn pasta. Jesus was speaking to us. In my dream Jesus told us that in the future there would come a time when troubles in the world would cause a great spiritual hunger. He showed us an earthquake, a tsunami (I did not know the word at the time), and a nuclear melt down. He looked at the miserable food we were eating. We were supposed to be able to meet people’s spiritual hunger when the time came.
Feed my food, my people,” Jesus pleaded.
On WordPress, when you create a blog, they give you a form for your first post, entitled “Hello World!” The night I created my first practice blog, the title of the first post gave me pause. What was the message I had for the world?
According to the UTC time zone, by which WordPress dates blogs, it was March 11, 2011. At the same time that I was composing the words of that first practice blog post, trying out my message for the world, tremendous energy was being released deep inside the earth. On the other side of the planet. Japan had been trembling for days with small earthquakes. Exactly three hours after I pushed “send” on that post entitled “Hello World!” one of the most powerful earthquakes in human history ripped through the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Registering 9.0 on the Richter Scale, it shifted the earth’s axis by several inches and moved parts of the main island of Japan almost 8 feet closer to North America. Enormous tsunami waves rose out of the ocean, rising as high as 40 meters (around 130 feet) and crashing inland as far as 10 kilometers (6 miles). More than a million buildings were damaged; 129,225 of them totally collapsed. Almost 16,000 people died. Like some nuclear reactors in the United States, the six nuclear reactors in Fukushima had been built over a earthquake fault line. Two of the six reactors at Fukushima completely disappeared, and the remaining four suffered damage, followed by explosions. Across Japan more than 4 million people were left without power. With no electricity to operate the cooling systems in the remaining Fukushima nuclear reactors, fuel rods overheated and melted down. Radioactivity was released into the air and the local area was evacuated.
When I heard news of the devastation in Japan, the “Hello World!” message I had sent out just hours earlier seemed tiny. From the age of five I’d had known that I had been born to write–and to publish what I’d written. But the message I was meant to release was still hidden inside. By November 2012, however, when A Whole Heart was born, I was ready to share with the world what I had been learning both from the Inward Teacher and from my study of the powerful inward transformation and outward witness of the first community of Quakers. Now that I have done so, at least in this initial way, I believe I have begun sharing the food that Jesus wants me to offer to those who are hungering spiritually.
The disaster of the Fukushima nuclear reactors is far from over. Hundreds of tons of radioactive water have been released already into the Pacific Ocean. A very delicate operation has begun to move the 1,300 fuel rods in Reactor number 4 to a safer location. A single broken rod could set off many times more devastation than the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Reactor number 4 is in better condition that Reactors number 1, 2, and 3, because it was not in operation at the time of the tsunami. No one knows how long it will take to close down the four reactors left at Fukushima, or if it can be done without causing more damage to the planet than even the climate changes set in motion.
To address the planetary challenges of this precarious time, a widespread change of heart is required, a surrender to God’s guidance and the inward work of the Spirit. The transformation that the first generation of Quakers collectively made is an example to all of us of the collective transformation required in our time.
I have more to say about all of this, and I hope to learn more from Friends today about how we are experiencing the inward transformation of the Light in our time. I intend, also, with help from Friends, to publish a short book about what I’ve learned from early Friends, a book that can be used as a study guide by Quaker meetings and other groups.
In spite of the reckless way we human beings have been harnessing, burning, and consuming energy, divine guidance is still available to show us a way to a hopeful future. May we learn collectively to turn to the divine Presence alive within each person, which early Quakers knew as the Light of Christ, receive its guidance, and allow it to become the center and guiding force in our lives, not only individually but also collectively. May the Spirit of Christ be born within and among us again in power, in this time.
Sunrise 2012n crop 1
* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.
A four-day opportunity to explore this material will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends
A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.
© 2013 Marcelle Martin
Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The New Birth

For the first Quakers, convincement was about much more than accepting new beliefs.  Even a powerful experience of the Light of Christ within was only the beginning.  Then they learned how to allow that Light to be an active and growing force.  After turning their attention to the inward presence of Christ, early Friends were shown startling and uncomfortable truths about the nature of their society and their inner psyche.  They saw that they had been conforming to deceptive and oppressive social behaviors.  Painfully, they recognized that they had been under the control of subtle inward negative forces which created a separation from God.  They had not been fully alive.

The Light revealed this and then changed their lives from the inside out.  Early Quakers accepted to be put into the spiritual fire of purification, cooperating as God melted away inner impediments to a life of Truth and faithfulness.  The person they had been before this change was called “the old man.”  Through the process of surrendering everything to the transforming power of the Light, the image of God within their humanity was restored.  A “new man” or “new creature” was born, a son or daughter of God, a person willing to “crucify” personal desires and pleasures, when necessary, in order to center his or her life around God and God’s loving and radical purposes.  They called this process “regeneration.”  They were “translated” (transformed) into a new kind of being.  They changed their clothing, their speech, their social mannerisms, their business practices.  They stopped complying with unjust social norms and laws, accepting the loss of social status and sometimes imprisonment that followed.  They supported one another to be faithful and to endure persecution by forming close networks of community.  Their spiritual rebirth involved a great deal more inward and outward change than is usually signified by those today who claim to be “born again.”

The Journal of George Fox recounts the many years during which he endured the experience of the Refiner’s Fire.  To his surprise, he saw an inner battle between the Light of Christ within and those parts of himself which resisted the Light and veiled him from God.  He gradually opened to spiritual truth and direct guidance from within, ending his conformity to whatever he recognized as oppressive and false in society.  He gave up everything else to travel by foot from one region of England to another to share the prophetic message given to him, enduring much persecution and loneliness.  After years of transformation and increasing faithfulness, he had a visionary experience of being taken to see “the Paradise of God.”  The growing prophetic power that was working through him began to reach more people.  The first Quaker groups formed, calling themselves Children of the Light.

Only after all of that did George Fox receive an indication of having fully been “born again.” In his Journal he describes it briefly, using Biblical language: “On a certain time, as I was walking in the fields, the Lord said unto me, ‘Thy name is written in the Lamb’s book of life, which was before the foundation of the world:’ and as the Lord spoke it, I believed and saw it in the new birth.”  Mentioned in Phillipians 4:3 and several times in the Book of Revelation,  the Book of Life is the list of those who will live forever in heaven with God.  When traveling Quakers Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Williams were arrested for preaching in the streets of Cambridge, they told the mayor that their names were “written in the Book of Life.”   For this and other bold declarations, they were brutally whipped in the town square.

In “The Inheritance of Jacob” Francis Howgill gives an account of his long journey toward the “new birth.”  It began early in childhood and through the first decades of his adult life, when he searched for closeness with God and Christ through reading, prayer, solitude, repentance, spiritual practices, and participating in a series of different denominations, joining whole-heartedly with each church community in turn, but not finding the true life of the Spirit.   Finally he became a preacher among the Seekers, those who were waiting for the true form of Christian faith yet to be revealed.  Although highly acclaimed by others for his spiritual knowledge and a mature man in his fifties, when Howgill heard George Fox preach on Firbank Fell about the inward presence of Christ, he recognized that his decades of Bible study and Bible teaching, his earnest practices and prayers had all focused outward, on a distant God.  He had been ignoring and denying the subtle inward divine presence.  For months afterwards, he endured an intense experience of the Refiner’s Fire.  It revealed to him the falsity of his previous ministry, a ministry that came from intellectual learning and not from direct experience of the presence of God within.  All the works that had come from his own will, even those that appeared to be for God’s glory, were revealed to be contrary to the work of God.  Howgill accepted the judgment.  He experienced the death of his false self, and then “the new man was made.”

“Eternal life was brought in through death and judgment,” he wrote.  “And then the perfect gift I received, which was given from God, and the holy law of God was revealed unto me, and was written in my heart.” His text explains that in order to receive this pure and freely given gift of God, “Self must be denied…that he may be all and you nothing.”  In the new man, in the one who is spiritually born through this process, Christ lives: “Therefore it is no longer the creature, but Christ, who is all in his saints.”  Francis Howgill was anointed for a true ministry.  He was called to leave his farm, his wife, and his children, in order to travel and teach the truth of the Light of Christ within.  He became one of the most effective of the early Quaker traveling ministers, spending the rest of his life in ministry, the final five years in prison.

For early Quakers, true Christianity, Truth, was not primarily about believing in what Jesus had already done for them a long time ago in Jerusalem.  His life and death and resurrection were holy acts of God, but not sufficient in themselves to save people.  In their experience, salvation comes only through allowing the living Light of Christ, which exists within oneself in the present time, to become the active force in one’s life.  They felt that Jesus had called them, and all people, to be “born from above” and to live the Christ life.

This is, indeed, an overwhelmingly demanding call.  My editor, the first reader of most of the drafts of my blog, found this post more challenging than the others.  He wrote: “Is it my shortcomings or is this culmination just too much to accept?”  One of the reasons I have dragged my feet so long about sharing what I’ve learned from early Friends is precisely because of the inadequacy, fear and resistance that I, too, feel when faced with their message.

Hundreds of the first Quakers felt called to publicly testify to their faith and travel in the ministry, but most did not.  Thousands were put in prison, many for merely attending a public meeting for worship, or for refusing to pay their tithes.  Still, tens of thousands of early Friends did not go to prison.  The traveling ministers I have written about in this blog were among the most ardent leaders of the early Quaker movement.  The faithfulness of early Friends did not always take the form seen in their examples.  A life of surrender to God takes many forms.  Still, the rebirth to which all are called is a formidable process.  Although they experienced God as a refiner who put them in the fire, early Friends also testified to God’s compassion and mercy through this transformation.  Thomas Ellwood, for example, described his early openings to spiritual truth this way:

I felt some of that divine power working my spirit into a great tenderness, and not only confirming me in the course I had already entered, and strengthening me to go on therein, but rending also the veil somewhat further, and clearing my understanding in some other things which I had not seen before.  For the Lord was pleased to make His discoveries to me by degrees, that the sight of too great a work, and too many enemies to encounter with at once, might not discourage me and make me faint.

In court, early Quaker leader William Dewsbury testified that, “We witness the Work of Regeneration to be an extraordinary Work wrought in us by the Spirit of God.”  The ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey which I have been describing in this blog are all elements of that process of spiritual rebirth which the first Quakers courageously witnessed not only in their preaching and writing, but more importantly, in their transformed and transforming lives.

The New Birth: Have you experienced the death of a false self and a spiritual rebirth?  Has the Light of Christ within led you or those you know through a process of utter transformation?

Star quilt 3

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe contemporary Friends’ experiences of spiritual rebirth.

A four-day opportunity to explore the Quaker spiritual journey will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends. 

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

© 2013 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Complete, United With God’s Love

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

Seventeen of us gathered at Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio to learn together from the spiritual journeys of Early Friends.  We considered each of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey described on this blog, from Longing to Perfection.  It was an intense weekend!  From short passages of the writing of the first Quakers, we lifted up particular words, images, and biblical references they used to describe their experiences.  We reflected on our own experiences of these elements of the spiritual journey and listened to one another.  Considering the journey as a whole, we noticed how love grows and then overflows.

Early Quakers started with an awareness of how thoroughly they had failed to live according to God’s ways and how totally insignificant and powerless they were apart from God.  Perfection as a separate self was impossible.  What they strived for was to live in perfect harmony with God’s will for them.  As they grew in unity with God, through the work of the Light of Christ within them, they became vessels through whom divine healing and transforming love could flow toward others.

It has been several weeks since I finished my post about early Friends’ experience of overflowing love.  Since then I’ve felt stuck, not knowing how to write about the experience of perfection today.  The first anniversary of this blog was Nov 5th, and I thought it would be “perfect” to have completed all my posts about the ten elements by that anniversary.  But I couldn’t figure out what to write.  Then I thought maybe I’d finish by my birthday.  That date has passed, too.  Those were my willful plans.

In the meantime, I keep reading the popular “wisdom” that perfection is impossible for human beings.  Posted on many websites is a quote by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, acclaimed for his theory of the hierarchy of needs, which culminates with the need for self-realization.

“There are no perfect human beings!”  Maslow insisted. “Persons can be found who are good, very good indeed, in fact, great. There do in fact exist creators, seers, sages, saints, shakers, and movers…even if they are uncommon and do not come by the dozen. And yet these very same people can at times be boring, irritating, petulant, selfish, angry, or depressed. To avoid disillusionment with human nature, we must first give up our illusions about it.”

In Western culture, the word perfection suggests flawless appearances, performances that meet some ideal standard, and the elimination of human quirks.  Pursuit of this kind of perfection feeds the ego’s desire for control and magnifies one’s sense of self.  As I know from personal experience, perfectionism aimed at these goals is quite stressful and perpetuates unhappiness.

In response to my last post about perfection, Rachel in Wales wrote:  “For myself, I think the idea of perfection has been a trap. Trying to be perfect is part of what led me into depression and anxiety. Which isn’t to say I think we should ditch striving. Though I’m not actually keen on the ‘perfection in one’s measure’ idea either, in that it suggests (to me) that some people have a lesser calling than others. I think we’re all called to live lives that reflect the love, joy, beauty, creativity, truth, justice, mercy etc. of God. So I guess for me it’s about an idea of perfection *in so far as it is possible in the world in our current situation*.

Rachel finds it useful to recognize “structural sin,” not only “personal sin/wrongdoing/falling short.”  She wrote, “I like the idea of ‘co-creation’, and of doing things ‘as best as I can’ – the sense of growing towards perfection, and of helping to create a world that is growing towards perfection *but has never yet got there* rather than striving and always failing to reach a bar set high.”  It can be helpful to “use one’s awareness of falling short to develop one’s compassion for others’ shortcomings.”

In Luke 6:36 Jesus says, Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.  Luke’s gospel uses the word oiktirmon, which translates as merciful or compassionate.  In the recent gathering at Friends Center, we reflected on the meaning of the Greek word used in Matthew 5:48, telios.  Telios is often translated as perfect, but actually means something that has reached its goal, or is “complete.” In reference to the spiritual journey another translation could be “mature” or “whole.”

In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus is actually instructing his disciples in how to love.  He is asking them to become like God, who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good. Shine love on all, he tells them, not only on those who love you, or your family members.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  This is the way they, and we, are to become perfect, as God is perfect.  Perfection as complete union with God’s love is not an element of the journey so much as a state toward which we are moving, a condition toward which God is drawing us, day by day.

While writing about the nine previous elements of the spiritual journeys of the first Quakers, I reflected on my own experiences related to that element to help shape what I wrote.  I do not, however, live in a conscious, perfect state of union with God.  In talking with Friends about Quaker experience of perfection in our day, some have suggested that one Friend known to some of us might have arrived at that state.  (However, I have not asked his family members what they think about that!)  This was a Friend known for his wisdom, compassion, and humility.  I remember times when I sat near him in meeting for worship and felt strengthened by doing so.  I remember meeting him on the perimeter path that circles the Pendle Hill grounds and felt that his gentle smile conferred a blessing.  Many have spoken and written about how his teaching or guidance or simple presence for them has been an ongoing source of light and healing in their lives.  In the hour after his death, I sensed his presence with me, giving me encouragement and direction for the path ahead.  Others reported similar experiences shortly after his death.

After weeks of struggling about what to write in this post, I woke up with a memory.   I remembered a meeting with someone whom many considered to be a cause of pain in our community.  This person felt no remorse about words and actions that had hurt others.  She saw herself as part of a victimized group and believed her confrontational and condemning approach to certain people and situations was entirely justified, even prophetic.  I was startled and displeased when I heard her belittle some wise, cautionary words a good friend had lovingly shared with her.  I had no idea how to respond to what she was saying to me.  I felt critical, but I was committed to being a positive presence in this person’s life.  In the silence, I suddenly felt something come through me, from beyond myself: a rush of love and compassion that flowed out of my heart toward her.  Wordlessly, I sensed how she had been painfully shaped by the experiences of her life.  I saw also that she was gifted with a great capacity for spiritual leadership, which would manifest as she healed.  No additional words of caution from me, or pleas for self-reflection, would have been helpful at that moment.  I could only sit with her, and feel God’s great Love flowing toward her, beaming toward her an image of her wholeness, an image of who she was and could be, beyond being hurt, beyond hurting others.

SuperNova - iPhone Background

SuperNova – iPhone Background (Photo credit: Patrick Hoesly)

Although I do not live in a state of perfect union with God, I do feel called to continue on the path toward perfect love.  Thirty years ago I had a powerful dream (or vision) in which I experienced the completion for which I was born.  In that experience I was asked to let go of “holding myself up,” and completely trust in God’s ability to sustain me.  I felt at first a great deal of fear and resistance.  Gradually, however, as I remembered ways that God had sustained me in the past, my heart began to open.  As it opened, I began to dissolve into a loving divine Light.  Finally, I completely opened up into this golden Light, became one with this Love.  Nothing else existed.

I believe it was a dream not only of the goal of my life, but a vision of what is possible for all of us.

Complete, United With God’s Love: When have you felt God’s love flowing through you?  Have you known anyone who seemed to shine with divine radiance, whose life modeled faithfulness in matters big and small?

 * * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.

A four-day opportunity to explore this material will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends. 

© 2013 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Perfection (in One’s Measure)

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

Although priests and preachers in seventeenth-century England insisted that nobody could attain the state of perfection or be freed from sinning while still alive, the first Quakers did not want to postpone perfect faithfulness until after death.  They sought a surrendered life, a life in union with God.  They experienced the Spirit of Christ within them, teaching them, step by step, how to become perfectly responsive to God’s will and free from the compulsion to sin.  In doing so, they became joined with the Fountain of Love.

In Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands his disciples to be perfect, and early Friends were certain that Jesus would not require something that was impossible.  For them, perfection was not about appearances or performance, or in any way about worldly standards.  Christian perfection does not gratify a controlling ego, but instead crucifies it.  After undergoing the purifying rigors of the Refiner’s Fire, after dedicating their lives to following the will of God in all things, big and small, after consenting to live in the Cross, gradually an individual’s will becomes wholly united with the divine will, divine love, and divine purposes.  Christ, the Light, lives and loves and acts freely and fully in such a person.

Few early Friends claimed to have journeyed completely into perfection, but many could point to those among them whom they believed had done so, souls living in a state of unity with God, steadfastly fixed upon the rock which they called Christ, allowing the “life of God in its own perfect sweetness” to flow without impediment through their humanity.

They felt called to return to the original state in which human beings had been created, in the image and likeness of God, with a perfect, divine nature.  Early Quaker writers made reference to 2 Peter 1:4, [H]e has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world…and become partakers of the divine nature.  London tract writer Rebecca Travers, for example, wrote about “that Power and Life in which we that believe have and do know the fulfilling of the promise, and are become partakers of the Divine Nature…”(Testimony for God’s everlasting truth, 41).  In his Journal, George Fox wrote that “Christ saith, `Be ye perfect even as my heavenly father is perfect,’ for he who was perfect comes to make man and woman perfect again and bring them again to the state God made them in…” (367-368).

When speaking of perfection, early Friends often added that one grows into perfect obedience to God by degrees.  More is asked of some than of others, and one is only called to be faithful in one’s measure.  James Nayler, for example, wrote, “It is true, the Light is but manifest in the creatures by degrees, but the least degree is perfect in its measure, and being obeyed, will lead to the perfect Day, and is perfect in its self, and leads up to perfection all that perfectly follow it” (qtd. in Damrosch, 101).

Even those who learn to be completely faithful in their measure need to be vigilant, for this is a condition from which one can fall. Many believed James Nayler had come to the state of perfection during his years as the most celebrated and effective Quaker preacher in London. During a crisis, however, Nayler succumbed to temptation in a very public way, giving fuel to detractors of Quakerism.  His complex story is the subject of many books,* and might become the focus of a separate blog post here someday.  Now I will simply say that while recovering from brutal torture, alone in prison, James Nayler discovered that God had not abandoned him, and he learned to discern more clearly the difference between a call from God and a temptation.

Isaac Penington described the process whereby the spiritual transformation worked in a soul leads increasingly toward the state of perfection:

Belief in the light works patience, meekness, gentleness, tenderness, and long-suffering.  It will bear anything for God, anything for men’s souls sake.  It will wait quietly and stilly for the carrying on of the work of God in its own soul, and for the manifestation of God’s love and mercy to others.  It will bear the contradiction and reproach of sinners, seeking their good, even while they are plotting, contriving, and hatching mischief, laying many subtle snares….  Here is joy, unspeakable joy, joy which the world cannot see or touch, nor the powers of darkness come near to interrupt…and this joy is full of glory, which glory increaseth daily more and more, by the daily sight and feeling of the living virtue and power in Christ the light … in them that turns towards it, give up to it, and abide in it…it cleanseth out the thickness and darkness, and daily transformeth them into the image, purity, and perfection of the light (“Scattered Sheep,” 136).

Katharine Evans and Sarah Chevers, married women and mothers of children, were among the earliest Quaker traveling ministers.  Together and apart they suffered many miserable imprisonments and other punishments.  When they set sail to bring the Quaker message to Alexandria in 1658, they were imprisoned by the Inquisition on the island of Malta.  They asked one of the Inquisitors, “By Faith we stand, and by the Power of God we are upholden; dost thou think it is by our own power and holiness we are kept from a vain conversation [i.e. behavior], from sin and wickedness?”  When told that their statement was prideful, they explained that they had been “children of wrath once,” like everybody else.  However, they had been undergoing the purification of the Refiner’s Fire.  God, they said, has “washed cleansed and sanctified us through soul and spirit, in part, according to our measures, and we do press forward toward that which is perfect” (197).

Evans and Chevers did not claim to have reached the state of perfection.  In another piece of writing, however, Sarah Chevers described the process of self-emptying that leads to being filled and united with God, a state she was experiencing:

The more we taste of this heavenly banquet, the much the more are we broken down into self denial, sealed down forever in the true poverty, and upright integrity of heart and soul, mind and conscience, wholly ransomed by the living word of life, to serve the living God….  [Then] we cannot hold our peace; the God…of glory doth open our mouth, and we speak to his praise, and utter his voice, and sound forth his word of life, and causeth the earth to tremble…my heart, soul and spirit that is wholly joined to the Lord, stream forth to you….  [I] am a partaker of living virtue. (qtd. in Mack, 136).

Perhaps the most beautiful description by an early Friend experiencing a state of union with God–Christian perfection–was written by William Robinson after Boston magistrates condemned him to be hung in 1659.  In a letter to his fellow Quakers a few days before his death, Robinson describes how he has become united with God’s love.  As in the passage by Chevers above, something divine steams through him to others.  It will continue to do so after his death:

The streams of my father’s love runs daily through me from the holy fountain of life to the seed throughout the whole creation.  I am overcome with love, for it is my life and length of my days, it’s my glory and my daily strength.  I am swallowed up with love, in love I live, and with it I am overcome, and in it I dwell with the Holy Seed, to which the blessing of love is given from God who is love, who hath shed it abroad in my heart which daily fills me with living joy from the life from whence it comes.  You children of the living God, feel me when you are waiting in it, when your hearts and minds are gathered into it, when …it runs from the fountain into your vessel, when it issues gently like new wine into your bosoms, when the strength and power of it you feel, when you are overcome with the strength of love (which is God), then feel me present in the fountain of love, wherein are many mansions. (Barbour and Roberts, 133)

crop a Sunrise Dan's farm 2012d

Perfection (in One’s Measure): Has my spiritual experience given me confidence in the power of God to transform my mind and heart and restore the divine image within me?  in others?  Do I aspire to live with God in perfect love, truth, and obedience?  Why or why not?  Have I known anyone who seemed to shine with divine radiance, whose life modeled faithfulness in matters big and small?

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe contemporary Friends’ experiences of Perfection (in one’s measure).

On November 8-10, 2013, Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio  will host a weekend retreat on Learning From the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends.   Registration deadline: Oct 25th.

A fuller opportunity to explore this material will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

* The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit, by Leo Damrosh, is one of the best studies of James Nayler and the sign of Christ’s return enacted by him and several others.

© 2013 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Now Abiding in Divine Love and Power

Many in our time have transforming experiences of God’s love or are inwardly given the power to overcome burdens, barriers, suffering, and unhealthy habits.  A great many of us who attend Quaker meetings for worship have experienced moments and sometimes extended periods when we feel gathered together in a loving divine Presence, which we often call a “gathered” or “covered”  meeting. 

One reader of this blog, Rhonda Pfaltzgraff-Carlson, wrote to describe a powerful sense of divine presence while sitting in a silent meeting for worship in a county jail. Present were four female members of her meeting and twenty-five men accused of crimes.  God’s love was palpable among them.  Peter Blood-Patterson often dreams about the spiritual power he has experienced in community.  “Intentional community at its best gives us a taste of the Kingdom,” he wrote.  That’s why he helps plan and facilitate QuakerSpring each year.

As we grow in faith, we learn to look for God and rely on God in every circumstance; we learn to abide in divine love and power.  Sometimes we discover that God is making most of the effort to help us learn to do this; at surprising moments I have suddenly been able to rest in God’s love after a period of struggle and fear.  Bit by bit, the power of God helps me to overcome the inner and outer obstacles.

This summer my beloved elder and companion in ministry, Louise Mullen, died after years of living courageously with a lung disease.   A quiet, humble Friend, she spent hours every day in prayer, and she was a model for me of a friend who was abiding in God’s presence more and more of the time.

Back in 1996, we received a joint leading.  She was then in her sixties and experiencing a call as an elder, a call not widely understood in our branch of Quakerism.  I was almost forty and felt called as a Quaker traveling minister.  The leading came during a powerful extended meeting for worship at the conclusion of a weekend conference at Pendle Hill retreat and study center.  It was a covered meeting, when many of the fifty people present felt a powerful sense of becoming one in God, tangibly joined together and covered by divine love. 

During that meeting for worship, Louise and I felt God communicating with us.  We both felt a sense of being led to do something to help make the experience of gathered meeting more available for Quakers today, as it had been for Quakers long ago.  Afterward, we explored our leading through numerous conversations and by attending a series of lectures on Ministry given at Pendle Hill.  William Taber and several other speakers in that series spoke about the useful function of special meetings for worship for those called to ministry and eldering.  In my Pendle Hill pamphlet, “Invitation to a Deeper Communion,” I describe how Louise and I followed our leading step by step, with other Friends joining us.  Tri-annual gatherings for “Worship, Ministry, and Eldering” were held three times a year for over fifteen years.  About forty-five such gatherings were held, at more than thirty meeting houses, in the Philadelphia area and beyond.  Starting in the third year, these gatherings included a full morning of worship, usually three hours or longer.  Often these were gathered meetings, in which many felt a special sense of God’s presence and activity. 

Louise Mullen wrote about an experience she had at one of these meetings.  She had come to the gathering bent over from pain in her back, but was lifted out of this pain by an experience of God’s immense love:

I was sharply aware of the pain and at one point began to move forward on the bench to get relief.  I thought the move was intentional, then realized that in the most gentle, tender and strong way I was being moved.  I was experiencing the great flowing energy of the Divine.  At first I thought this could be a call to speak, but there were no words accompanying the power I felt.  After a while I opened my eyes, looked around at the precious souls and knew that the same powerful love I felt in my body had permeated the entire room and all the people it held.  I don’t know how long I bathed in this awareness of the Great Love, feeling no pain in my body. 

When worship came to a close, I rose from the bench with a knowing, once again, of God’s presence, as well as the depth and vastness of the power of that love which is inextinguishable.  I have returned to this experience many times since, especially after the tragedies of September 11th.  My comfort is in knowing that this indescribable power of love is eternal and it is only this which can sustain and bring peace to these chaotic times.  As I do what I can in peace-making activities, this knowing in my heart is what I carry with me.  The Gatherings with extended worship time provide the space for the Divine to touch us in discernible and powerful ways. (27-28)

During my last visit with Louise, about two months before her death, I sat with her while she slowly breathed medicine into her lungs, which she was doing eight hours a day at that point.  Then we talked for a while.  She had a delighted, radiant smile on her face the whole time we spoke. She was abiding in God’s love.

At the summer 2013 sessions of Illinois Yearly Meeting, during a talk on the subject of “Joy,”  Helene Pollock shared a powerfully transforming experience of being joined with God’s love, an experience that was cosmic, yet very personal at the same time.  For her it confirmed the Christian experience of the divine love that comes through Jesus.  Since then, God has been the focus of her life.  She was sustained by God’s love and power even through the ordeal of being diagnosed and treated for cancer:

I’ve experienced a particular need for a sense of the experience of being loved by God.  Having lived my whole life as a committed Christian, just a few years ago I experienced a dramatic spiritual awakening.  (This is hard to talk about).  It was a shift in consciousness that seemed to come at me out of the blue — not related to anything I had done.  Suddenly, without warning, one night I was beset by the profound sense that my whole universe had changed in a delicious sort of way.  The horizon rose to meet the sky, and I found myself rising into the infinity of the stars.  I was infused by the heart of the universe, while remaining very much on the ground.  It was as if the stars were reaching out and calling my name – as if I were united with the vastness of all the grains of sand on all the beaches that ever were, yet I remained as small and insignificant as the tiniest grain of sand. 

This sense of dislocation in time and space was accompanied by an overwhelming sensation of joy, along with a feeling of being loved by Love itself, and thereby in love with everyone and everything.  The Christian Gospel that I had known all my life came to me with fresh intensity.  The experience was so very personal that I knew that God had reached out to me alone – touching my heart in the precise way that I, Helene, most needed to be reached.   I experienced myself being newly christened into the Christian story of a God who takes on personal, human form in the incarnation of Jesus, the enfleshed embodiment of Divine Love.  From that point on I plunged into the task of agape-loving.  Connecting with people in a way that honors God became the focus of my life.

In the months and years following that special night, fragmented pieces of my life came together under the umbrella of God’s love, and I changed a lot.  Much of this was due to daily prayer.  Of course, I still made many mistakes, but the main change is that I became much more of a risk-taker.  I became increasingly aware of God’s Truth and able to speak truth to power.  So I was more confident in facing challenges at work, in my Meeting and in my friendships.  When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, I was at peace, trusting God each step of the way.

Although I have had many glimpses of God’s love, and on numerous occasions have felt divine Providence providing for my needs, I am still learning to trust and abide in God’s love. My Friends, including Louise and Helene and many others, give me reminders that I am sustained by a Great Love that is at the heart of everything.

Abiding in Divine Love and Power: Have you experienced divine Love and power infusing you and helping you to face and overcome challenges? What is your experience of abiding in God’s Love and Power?

* * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Perfection (in one’s measure).

On November 8-10, 2013, Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio  will host a weekend retreat on Learning From the Spiritual Journey of Early Friends.   Click HERE for more information.

A Whole Heart has a Bibliography page.

JacobsensSheltonsPH06crop1© 2013 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Abiding in God’s Love and Power

By walking the path of faithfulness, early Friends learned to abide in God’s great love and allow it to flow through them toward others. Their hearts become enlarged with spiritual love not only for members of their own community, but for people everywhere.  Often at great sacrifice, many felt drawn to bring God’s love to particular people who were suffering or in spiritual need.

It was during the silence of deeply gathered meetings that many were first tangibly immersed in divine love.  Francis Howgill described groups being caught up, as by a net, in the Kingdom of Heaven, “And from that day forward,” he wrote, “our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God….” John Banks also described being bonded by the experience of God’s powerful presence, “And Oh! the days and nights of comfort and divine consolation we were made partakers of in those days together (and the faithful and true of heart still are).  And in the same inward sense, and feeling of the Lord’s power and presence, we enjoyed one another, and were near and dear one unto another.”

After wealthy Isaac and Mary Penington made the sacrifices involved in becoming Quakers, they were free to invite others to meet for worship in their home.  For Mary, this was a joyful entrance into a life surrendered, in love, to God:

Oh! the joy that filled my soul in the first meeting ever held in our house at Chalfont.  To this day, I have a fresh remembrance of it.  It was then the Lord enabled me to worship him in that which was undoubtedly his own, and give up my whole strength, yea to swim in the life which overcame me that day.  Oh!  Long had I desired to worship him with acceptation, and lift up my hands without doubting, which I witnessed that day in that assembly.  I acknowledged his great mercy and wonderful kindness, for I could say, “This is it which I have longed and waited for, and feared I never should have experienced.

Mary Penington’s journal recounts how God sustained her in the tasks of making  a new home for her family and raising her children.

Most early Quaker journals and other documents were written by those who traveled in the ministry.  These Friends spoke boldly in public places and also in court, and they experienced persecution and punishment.  When they were suffering as a result of carrying out God’s leadings, many had a deeply consoling experience of heavenly love, accompanied by an awareness of God’s overriding, ultimate power.  After William Dewsbury become convinced that the Quaker movement was inspired by God and held within God’s control, he was filled with a spiritual power that enabled him to endure conditions of great physical misery with a calm and happy heart, including many long imprisonments:

I never since played the coward; but joyfully entered prisons as palaces, telling mine enemies to hold me there as long as they could.  And in the prison-house, I sang praises to my God, and esteemed the bolts and locks put upon me as jewels; and in the name of the eternal God I always got the victory.  For they could keep me no longer than the determined time of my God.

Marmaduke Stevenson, William Robinson, and Mary Dyer walked to the gallows hand in hand.  Condemned to be hung, the three of them were surrounded by armed men beating drums.  Nonetheless, they were calm, filled with a peaceful assurance of God’s love.  One official asked Mary Dyer, a graying middle aged mother of many children, if she wasn’t ashamed to be holding the hands of two young men.  For several days Mary had been experiencing Paradise, and she responded that was immersed in the flow of divine love:  “[T]his is to me an hour of the greatest joy I ever had in this World.  No ear can hear, no tongue can utter, no heart can understand the sweet incomes or influence, and the refreshings of the Spirit of the Lord which now I feel.”

Communities and networks of Friends found themselves bound together in tender love for one another.  Those who had served as spiritual mentors by preaching, teaching, and modeling the Quaker message were like spiritual mothers and fathers.  Often a spiritual love infused relationships of those who traveled and suffered in the ministry together.  Their letters sometimes expressed a tenderness rivaling even the bond between spouses and family members.  They were carried through difficult trials not only by a strong feeling of being enfolded by God’s love for them, but also by an awareness of being bonded in love to one another.  During a period when he was at liberty, Marmaduke Stevenson wrote a loving letter to his imprisoned companion in ministry, Christopher Holder.  They were both traveling in the ministry in the harsh territory of New England.  Not long after writing this letter, Marmaduke Stevenson was also back in the Boston jail, condemned to death.  Here, however, he is consoling his imprisoned companion:

O my dearly beloved of my father, my soul and life salutes thee, for thou are dear to me in the love which changeth not, but doth endure forever; am I one with thee in the life and power of truth, where we are joined together as members of his Body who is our Head, and our preserver night and day, where we are kept safe under the shadow of his wings, where we feed together in the green pastures by the pleasant springs, where thou may feel me, my beloved one, at the living fountain which doth refresh the whole city of our God, where we are daily refreshed together in the banqueting house, where we do receive strength and nourishment from him who is our life and fills us with his living virtue day by day….  For it hath ravished our hearts whereby we are constrained to leave all to follow it, who gathers our hearts in one, where I am joined and sealed with thee in the covenant of life….

Divinely inspired love helped Friends risk and endure terrible punishments for the sake of helping others to know God and live in  the Light.  Those called to travel in the ministry were motivated by God’s love for the divine “seed,” Christ, in those to whom they were sent.  In a tract detailing the repeated life-threatening punishments she endured in the course of her ministry in Puritan Massachusetts, Elizabeth Hooton wrote, “All this and much more I have gone through and suffered, and much more could I for the Seed’s sake which is Buried and Oppressed…  Yes, the Love that I bear to the Souls of all Men, making me willing to undergo whatsoever can be inflicted.”

After a year’s journey to bring a message to the Sultan of Turkey, a journey that required traveling alone through a land inhabited by people that Europeans considered to be the enemies of Christendom, Mary Fisher wrote of the powerful love God had engendered in her heart for the people of Turkey: “They are more near truth than many Nations.  There is a love begot in me towards them which is endless, but this is my hope concerning them, that he who hath raised me to love them more than many others will also raise his seed in them unto which my love is.”

Abiding in God’s Love and Power: Have you ever been moved to action by a love greater than yourself?  Have you served people because of a sense of God’s love for them, or sacrificed for another?  Have you felt God’s love bonding you to others or bringing your community into unity?  In what ways have you or your community experienced God’s power?

red bloom 1

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe Friends’ experiences of Divine Love and Power Today.

A Whole Heart has pages on Bibliography  and Upcoming Workshops.

(c) 2013 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments