You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? (Matthew 5:13)
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20)
The latest post on Micah Bales’s blog,The Lamb’s War, has troubled me so much I’ve felt moved to write a response. Micah regularly provokes readers to examine what is not alive in contemporary meetings and church communities. I value reading his posts. In Is Jesus “Religious”?, he contends that Jesus did not behave in a religious way, and that Jesus would be unlikely to attend contemporary worship services. He wrote, “I have a tough time imagining our modern-day houses of worship as the site for Jesus’ prophetic witness. I think he’d want to be where the action is – in the lecture halls of universities; on Wall Street in corporate boardrooms; on the internet; maybe even in the halls of government! The last place I can imagine him showing up to make an impact would be at worship on Sunday morning.”
I agree that most meeting and church services have little of the saltiness Jesus wants to cultivate in his friends and followers. Most are too acculturated to mainstream society to encourage members to listen to prophetic promptings. Jesus criticized many of the religious observances of his day, and I believe that the living Spirit of Christ is critical of our lack of prophetic saltiness today.
I do believe, however, that Jesus was both spiritual and religious. He often preached in the open air and in the homes of followers, yet from the age of twelve onward, he was known to spend time in the temple in Jerusalem, which he called his father’s house. He was angered that the Temple was used in ways that did not honor God, and it was important to him to observe Passover with his disciples, one of the most important religious observances of his faith community. When he visited Nazareth, he attended the synagogue and read the Torah passage for that day.
The people of his hometown were enraged by the prophetic pronouncement Jesus made there, and they chased him out. They could not accept that a man they had known as a child, a human being like them, could be filled with God’s Spirit in the way he claimed. Many church-goers today treat the living Christ who visits their worship services in a similar way, chasing away the salty prophet and allowing only the compassionate companion to come close to them.
However, Christ is present anyway.
The Light of Christ fills all things and is present in all places. The prophetic Spirit of Christ fiercely urges people to take action to make our world reveal that the Kingdom of God is among us. Christ is not proud or arrogant, however, but loving, forgiving, patient, and persistent. If people are not hearing a prophetic call in their worship services, it is not because Jesus has refused to attend, but because their ears are not open to hear.
To truly hear God’s prophetic call to action–as opposed to our own ideas about what God or Christ might want–we need to learn to hear the voice of the true shepherd and distinguish it from all the other inner and outer voices and motivations which call for our attention. A faithful religious community helps members cultivate the ability to hear true spiritual guidance and helps us find the courage to follow it.
I have experienced God’s presence and guidance in many ways, both in the places Micah mentions, and also in many of the gatherings and practices of my religious community. Some of my experiences have seemed, in particular, to be experiences of the Spirit of Christ. This winter, for example, I received some clear guidance while attending my mother’s church. During a moment of silence, I inwardly sensed Jesus asking me (not for the first time, but never before so clearly) to take up more discipline in a certain area of my life which had been in disorder. This instruction was brief, but so clear, so loving, and so real. Since then, I have heeded that instruction, and it has been changing my life.
Years ago I took a month of mostly silent retreat in my mother’s house. During times of prayer, I kept seeing a particular image of Jesus. In the larger painting from which the image comes, it is clear that his poignant expression is directed toward the devout rich young man who wants to know what else he needs to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus invites him to give away everything he owns and become a follower. The young man, however, is too attached to his riches and to the comfort and status they confer. The face of Jesus reveals no condemnation; he has a look of pure compassionate love. It is the love that sees everything, a love that forgives, but a love that also calls us to let go of our attachments and enter a risky life of faithfulness and freedom of spirit.
During my month of retreat, I noticed that only one church in that small Virginia town had a woman pastor. It was the most humble-looking church building in town, with aluminum siding instead of brick or stone walls. I attended the worship service one Sunday morning. I was graciously greeted. When I took a seat, I saw that I was the only person there who was not African American. The cover page of the church program contained the image of Jesus that had been appearing to me. Pastor Lucy preached an energetic sermon, and I felt the Spirit of Christ present there. I also frequently experience the presence of Christ in the Spanish mass in that town; Latino families travel from all over the Shenandoah Valley to attend.
And this past weekend I visited a Catholic retreat center, home to more than 100 retired Franciscan nuns, many of whom served in schools for fifty years. Most, suffering ailments associated with old age, clearly find spiritual support from the worship service. After the priest performed the ritual of consecration, several sisters served communion. I was sitting near one, a woman in a blue striped pant suit who lifted up a host for each person coming to the altar. She had a beautiful, joyful smile on her face and looked lovingly into each person’s eyes. I felt Christ’s presence.
Yes, Christ is present to comfort and support and guide in today’s worship services. Does the prophetic call of Christ also reach people there? During the coffee hour after the mass, one of the nuns said that since her retirement, she now finds joy by teaching GED classes in the local prison.
What about our Quaker meetings?
For many years before coming to Quakers, I had thought of myself as “spiritual but not religious.” The first time I attended Newtown Square Meeting, I was greeted warmly outside the old stone meetinghouse. It was a lovely fall day. Only five or six attended that meeting for worship, several of them people who take time regularly for prayer, worship, and listening for divine guidance. The small room, though paneled in wood up to the windows, seemed very plain. In spite of a ticking clock, the stillness was deep. A thought came to me strongly and clearly: This is like the place where Jesus taught his disciples. I felt that I would be taught by Christ in that place, and within a few months, I felt led to join that meeting. I was deeply shaped by participating in that close religious community and learned how to participate in the communal practices that Quakers use to help people hear and faithfully respond to divine promptings.
In meetings for worship held in that meetinghouse, over time, I experienced Christ calling me to move to the inner city of North Philadelphia, calling me to join a small Quaker “ministry of presence” in a neighborhood known for poverty and the drug trade. After months of struggle with this call, I obeyed, and walked through a veil of fear to the other side. My housemates and I worked with our neighbors to reclaim the local park and make it a safe place for children to play. We went to City Hall to advocate for new playground equipment. During the years I lived in that neighborhood, I felt the Spirit of Christ inhabiting my body in a new way.
Perhaps my “largest” experience of the presence of Christ came during the annual sessions of my yearly meeting, held in the Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia. Days earlier, NATO had begun bombing Kosovo, in an attempt to stop genocide. In a room filled with hundreds of Friends, there was deep concern about this. I felt as through the entire enormous room was filled with the presence of God. In the gathered silence, it was inwardly opened to my understanding that Christ was present as God’s compassionate heart. I felt a call to us in that gathered silence. Within days, some of us began a prayer vigil for peace in the world. For an hour every Sunday afternoon, we stood in front of the Liberty Bell giving public witness that God calls us to address conflict nonviolently. That vigil continued every Sunday for more than ten years. Tourists from all over the world took photos and videos, which they brought home to their countries, evidence that some U.S. citizens oppose war and militarism.
The Jesus I have met in worship services all over this country called me into the barrio, into the offices of our city councilman, and onto the streets. In prayer and worship, I have also heard Jesus call me to sit alone at a desk and computer, to write about the Quaker way to live a life of faith. I believe I am called to a prophetic task in this, as well.
Being part of a faith community has always been essential grounding for the faithful life, and the prophetic life.
Where Christ Meets Us: Have you met Jesus in meetings for worship or worship services of your church? Has participation in a religious community helped you life a faithful life, or has it hindered you? Where have you been taught or guided in a way that seemed prophetic? Have you heard Spirit-led prophetic ministry in your meeting? Have you encountered God or Christ in a way that led you to prophetic witness or action?
A Whole Heart has pages on Articles & Interviews, Videos, Upcoming Workshops, and Bibliography.
(c) 2014 Marcelle Martin
Thank you for sharing this inspirational writing, Marcelle.
Thank you for your writing, Marcelle. I have heard Christ speaking to me as well. One day He handed me a Mantle of Roses with the words, you will wear the Mantle of Roses as you go into the church. The meaning of those words are still unfolding–yet the smell of the roses are still alive in me.
Thank you, Marcelle. I am so appreciative of your eloquent response. I have not read Micah Bales’s blog, but if what you say is accurate, I wouldn’t bother to read very much of it anyway.
To imagine Christ on Wall Street or in a corporate board room or in the lectures halls of universities or on Facebook is ludicrous and not concordant with anything said about him in the Bible except for his overturning of the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. John 8:23 states, “Ye are from beneath; I am from above:ye are of this world; I am not of this world.” And in Matthew 5:16, he says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” On Wall Street? Are you kidding?
Christ taught us to be in the world but not of it, and there is no place better than Wall Street or a university classroom in which to practice worldliness. Christ, in fact, showed no interest in the worldliness of intelligentsia or the rich and influential. These were they to whom he referred when he commanded, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your prearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (Matthew 7″6). His apostles were “unlearned and ignorant men” (Acts 4:13). At least these were humble enough to be teachable. There are few things that impair learning quicker or more effectively than being rich, famous, or educated.
I must say that I have had little contact with the Quakers, but what I know of them makes me think they are among the most devout, faithful, and humble of those who would call themselves Christians. That being true, it is no small wonder that you would experience the Spirit of Christ in your churches and your meetings. How grateful I am to know that God is no respecter of persons, that he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, that we are his children, and that he loves us. Where else would he be but with those who love him, who keep his commandments, and who strive to be like him? Corporate boardrooms? I doubt it. College lecture halls? Not likely. The likelihood is that there is no more godliness in those places than in the houses of Nye County, Nevada.
I appreciate your writing, Marcelle, and I am thankful for this post.
Michael Shea, MDpahrump nevada
Sent from my iPad
Michael, Thank you so much for taking the time to reply! I fear I may have done Micah’s blog injustice by only quoting a few sentences. I believe he imagines Christ in those places speaking truth about the need for change.
Beautifully written, my friend. I would answer yes to all of your queries. Jesus abides in me so where ever I am he is there as well. I have been blessed in any church, or gathering of people who love God, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them. Sometimes I think we are so busy condemning one another for not worshiping correctly we forget a hurting world is watching for that “look how they love one another” moment that we should be exhibiting. That should happen in a grocery store, a board room, on the street, and in a church. I get tired of the argument between being Spiritual and Religious. I believe they go hand in hand…like Faith and Practice, Faith is our Spirituality, Religion is our Practice.
As the world grows darker I pray that all who love and obey God will take our calling of being light and salt to heart…the world needs to see the light and taste the salt. That will happen wherever two or three gather together in His name, because He promises to be there with us.
I love what you say about faith and religion, Pat. A careful reading of the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t a simple itinerant philosopher; he was the head of a church as well, recognizing the need for human beings to have organizations to help them become mindful of their covenants with the Lord. Faith without works is dead, and it is at least in part through the church that works are performed. Thanks very much.
While I have not had a conscious meeting with Jesus in my Meeting, participation in my Meeting and other Meetings have been essential for my spiritual formation. My current Meeting was and continues to be the conduit for my opportunity for service. While prison ministry might not be considered prophetic by some people, I believe it is. I am called to it as part of naming the spiritual condition of the world.
Thank you, Pat and Rhonda, for sharing where you meet Jesus and how you are led to manifest God’s love.
So…. I am very sympathetic with Micah’s frustration w/ the lack of connection to the Living Christ in many organizational settings AND I believe both Fox & Jesus would probably be much more at home stirring up trouble (in a prophetic sense) than sitting quietly in organized worship services (Quaker or otherwise). Nonetheless, I also appreciate very much your blog. I think God breaks thru in MANY organized religious settings (of all stripes). I’ve certainly felt God’s stirring in monasteries, masses, and many meetings for worship. I do agree with Fox and Barclay that for worship to be really an opportunity for Christ to break through most powerfully, it needs to be guided by the active leading of Holy Spirit. Rigidities of structure & form in Institutionalized worship services (including sadly many “unprogrammed” MfW) often serve as powerful barriers to the Living Christ breaking through. The extent to which members of a faith community are trapped in the “world’s” values & loyalty to material security over dependence on God are also potent barriers to the work of Christ in many organized religious settings.
Hi, Marcelle. Thanks for responding to my essay.
It may surprise you to know that I generally agree with your post, except insofar as it seems to assume that I disagree!
Like you, I have experienced time and again Jesus’ presence and power in meetings for worship. As he promised, he is present with us when we earnestly seek him – and sometimes when we don’t!
The purpose of my post was not to denigrate the importance of corporate worship. Rather, it was to raise an alarm that our “religious” gatherings no longer have the same cultural relevance that perhaps they did in centuries past. Increasingly, the “religious” world has been shunted aside, becoming a footnote to the great drama of history – a history in which the prophetic Jesus clearly intervenes and our sovereign God has a stated interest.
Perhaps this misunderstanding highlights the fact that we (Quakers) tend to think of Jesus in almost exclusively “spiritual” and “inward” terms, but in fact his ministry is deeply historical, practical, and even political (in the most radical sense of that word).
Thanks for responding, Micah, and for clarifying the purpose of your post. It is, indeed, important to understand that the message of Jesus is not just about the inward life but very much about the outward one, as well.
Thank you, again, for your inspirational posts. I appreciate you writing about your own experiences and making the message personal.
Mardelle, Micah, and other Friends, thank you for writing so powerfully about the life of faithfulness, wherever and however it manifests. I would add that our churches and meetinghouses are often full of spiritually hungry people, and that often they are just as hungry when they leave church as when they arrived. Too often we are feeding each other spiritual junk food, food which may be tasty but has no nourishment for soul or body. Part of Jesus’ prayer is that we might be given this day our daily bread–the spiritual nourishment we require. One of my formative experiences happened in the church of my childhood. I was fifteen, a very shy and polite fifteen. I sat listening to the minister talk to God for us–using 17th century English: saying thee and thou and thy to God. My outer demeanor didn’t change, but inwardly I fussed, “Does God understand 20th century English, or does he not??!” In that instant, I felt a numinous sense of Invitation. No words were there for me to hear, but it was as if God said, “Go ahead, Mariellen. What is it you would like to talk to me about?” It was a long time before I accepted that invitation on a daily basis–it took desperation to get me in that frame of mind. But yes, Jesus hangs out in our churches, in our boardrooms, in prisons and classrooms, inviting us to break bread together. He stands at the door and knocks, but he waits for our invitation before supping with us.
(A dear Friend in our meeting once quoted that saying and added, “One could think of Jesus supping with us as an inner dinner. But there’s always something we’re supposed to DO afterwards, so the inner dinner is always a business lunch!”)
Blessings on you, Marcelle, for starting this conversational thread!
I expect that in the early church people saw Jesus fairly often. This was part of how they knew he was still alive & guiding them. But distinguishing that experience from dreams, and distinguishing inspired dreams from “a bit of underdone potato,” could be tricky. Hence the warnings (whether historical or posthumous) about false Christs (or false images-of?) and not chasing after reported sightings. Whatever the ascension at the end of Luke signified, it must have made people less inclined to credit subsequent appearances.
Some very credible individuals have encountered him since then. Anthony Bloom, an atheist at the time, choosing to read the shortest gospel in the book, out of sheer indignation at something a priest had just told him, unexpectedly felt utterly certain that Jesus was in the room, on the far side of the desk, so real that Bloom said he could disbelieve everything else he’d ever learned about anyone else in human history, but not the reality of Jesus.
Luther, when still a monk, reportedly saw Jesus in two versions, one who came lovingly and one who came with accusations. His confessor told him the one who accused him was ‘an impostor’ — but once we grant that possibility, sightings in general are rendered suspect — perhaps a grace to the one seeing, but not in themselves convincing to others.
So we have Jesus’ words. Some of which seem ‘in character’ to me, some which do not. “Picking and choosing what it suits me to believe?” No. Could I subsequently reinterpret some passage I hadn’t trusted, and then find it true & genuine? Of course. There’s incredible metaphoric depth in Biblical materials. And inspiration does not make a person (at least not this one) infallible. [The Spirit is supposed to lead us “into all truth”, but nothing persuades me this is supposed to happen instantly. Something points a direction to us. It may not always seem like the same direction to different people; but then we aren’t always starting in the same place.]
Only In that one sense, of “seeing” his words, I have “seen” Jesus, and that his Father is like him, and is truly “our Father.” This doesn’t seem like a bad arrangement. Does it mean anything that I haven’t seen more? Probably that if I literally saw him I’d have to argue with him, and lose?
About that “rich young man.” William Herzog makes a good case that Jesus wasn’t demanding he give up his attachment to money — but that he pay restitution. In the simpler economic system of the time, it was much clearer that people became rich, when they did — at other people’s expense, directly or indirectly. Somebody must have violated what the Torah said about not coveting (or foreclosing on) their neighbor’s land. Someone else had been impoverished by the young man’s “wealth”.
As a generalized economic practice, selling all one had and giving the proceeds to the poor wouldn’t work out. The Jerusalem church in Acts may have done it, in service to a shared mission.
In other places, it would have been awkward. One could feed a lot of poor people on the proceeds of one rich convert’s clearance sale; but the next rich man would have to come along fairly quickly to feed the formerly-rich convert & everyone else.
In practice, religious institutions try to sustain themselves by rich members’ largess. It is, after all, easier for people who already have money to raise more. But then those institutions end up dependent on sources that might not truly represent Right Livelihood.