Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Discerning True Guidance
Growing up naive, sincere, pietistic, and goal-oriented, I was very concerned to know God's will for my life--what was to be my central mission? Who would I someday meet, love, and wed (and let it be soon;-)? Which theological doctrine was true and which false? What career should I choose? Where would God have me serve? How best should I prepare for all this? Even where should I live?
I prayed, listened to umpteen sermons and read countless books and pamphlets on the topic. I was all into the "How To." One of the best theological booklets, The Will of God, by the British Methodist pastor, Leslie D. Weatherhead, written many years ago during the worst days of World War II, surprisingly didn't even deal with any "how-to."
I wish I could say then, everything worked out well for me, but it didn't. Nor has it for most people! History often seems one long deranged wreck.
At times, when hearing of all the heartache, even from successful leaders, I wonder if there are any truly blessed God-centered people. Consider that at one point in his ministry, George Fox lay in bed listless for two weeks overwhelmed by an ocean of despair.
And Fox could be mean and petty. For instance when he visited James Naylor in prison, Fox demanded that James Nayler kiss his foot before he forgave him! What?! Sounds not only ethically immoral, but down right egotistical.
Mother Theresa, near the end of her life, said she hadn't felt God's presence for years! John Wesley, after leading thousands to Christ, meeting the needs of the poor and needy, helping to transform the lives of so many lost people, wrote in a letter to his brother Charles, during one severe depression, that he felt he had never really loved God. Even John the Baptist, when in prison, came to severe doubts as to whether Jesus was really the Messiah, the One sent from God.
Sometimes, even in my earnest love and seeking to do God's will, the brokenness of myself and others and chance circumstances got in the way or led to dead-ends. Once I strongly felt and reasoned through that I and my wife should help start a peacemaking, socially-concerned church. Sounds good does it not?
We did, investing many hours in the effort, praying fervently that we would reach many people, giving out to the local community--but then in only a matter of months everything came crashing down. Why, when all seemed right?
According to statistics, hundreds of worshiping communities fail all the time. I suppose one could argue that God is not responsible when a Christian business fails. After all "Jesus saves people, not money"--to quote the current joke. But why does God allow the vagaries of circumstances and time to strangle meetings which exist to show compassion, work for justice and equality, and help those in need?
When doing my very best as a high school teacher, I had several students lie and claim that I had shoved them! What a ridiculous slander if the charge weren't so serious. That horrible slander left me feeling angry at the school district and abandoned by God. I wasn't so upset at the students. They were at-risk students who often caused and got into trouble. Their lies could be understood. But what of God's will? Why?
To tell you the truth, I am still not over the tragedy. But it has finally dawned on me that Jesus, early on in his ministry, warned us we would be falsely charged and unfairly maligned, and yet we should bless those who lie about us. So I do. I pray for the people who so hurt me, and I pray that someday I will be able to live completely in God's peace.
The hard truth of life finally comes to most of us: though we do experience God and seek to live each moment in the Spirit, and though some choices are morally and spiritual far better than others, in this open-ended path of becoming, there are no easy sure-fire methods or step-by-step trail maps.
Scripture does say "In all things God works together for good," but God's working is within the finite--our best choices, circumstantial chance (the openness of this life of being), the natural order of survival, and other factors. So millions of humans who seek the truth don't end up being healthy, wealthy and wise, let alone happy and successful.
When we speak of finding meaning and purpose--God's will for us--we aren't thinking of the glossy success of the pop evangelical Christian books that flood the U.S. market, where if one does the three steps or the seven points, he will achieve what is meant to be. Nor are we talking of the doctrinal tomes that weigh so heavy they twist and bend nearly every individual who carries them around within his psyche.
Some individuals do seem blessed with temporal success, but so many humans go through present hell--the deepest levels of Sheol, dropping deeper and deeper year after year, and only their centering in God's love, despite the wreck of life, keeps them from plummeting into an abyss of despair. In the Bible why was it that Job after all his trials became happy and successful, but Jeremiah's life ended so terribly, his people and country destroyed, he himself kidnapped and taken to a foreign country?
Why did Peter escape jail but James got beheaded by the government? Why, if everything works out for good, did all of the apostles' lives, but one, end in very violent death? Why did so many early Friends have to languish in prison for years, many dying? Why are many thousands of followers of the God suffering now as I type, in Orissa and North Korea and Saudi Arabia and...
Finding meaning and your destiny in the Light doesn't mean all will be well in the short run or that you will achieve the American dream or that you will only have personal setbacks like I did in ministry and career. On the contrary, millions of humans suffer natural disasters, disease, and evil behavior by individuals or governments. In fact, often the worst seems to come the way of the devout.
Think of Elie Wiesel, age 12 and a fervent lover of God, suffering in Auschwitz, his father dying, his head bashed in by a Nazi club. Elie lost most of his family who were gassed and turned to horrid smoke drifting up into the Nazi sky. Think of the loving persons lost in the tsunami which raved over Indonesia killing over 230, 000!
Far too often this life journey is difficult and lonesome and tragic--as the old gospel song wails. What of a lady friend of my family who developed cancer, died all too soon leaving behind her three little kids with no mother?!
Evidently, finding God's will is not at all what most people have thought, certainly not what I thought for so many years. Even Yeshua, who lived in God's presence from moment to moment, in his last seconds cried out in agony, feeling totally abandoned by his Father! "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
And strangely of all, in all of this--in all the excruciating suffering in the cosmos--God suffers most, endures the agony each of us and every sentient creature suffers! God is closer to us than our own heart.
What is the point of this reflective wallow in the "ocean of darkness"?
What I am trying to do? Get us all depressed and make us feel hopeless? Have I been reading too much history? Too many biographies? Are facts such as that half of all babies in 17th century England never survived to their 5th birthday obsessing me too much? Or that every year in the present time, 6 million children die from malnutrition?
Not at all!
But we do need to realize down to our innermost being what St. Paul stated and what the theologian Paul Tillich and others have so profoundly pointed out--when we live truly spiritual lives we must do so living "under the Cross."
Both liberal and traditionally conservative religious views are too often filled with human illusions of their own particular distortion. The depth of evil is so great that, as one mystic writer wrote, "At the Heart of the Universe is the Cross." Thank God that no matter how deep and wide the abyss of evil, Eternal Light is deeper and wider and higher and further.
In this difficult reflection, I am seeking to walk very circumspectly--looking soberly and realistically at the facts before I suggest one small method toward seeking to do God's will, to finding in each moment God's meaning and purpose for us that we might in our own small way be a part of the Spirit's counter to the juggernaut of natural and human history. That we might be one tiny step forward by God's love toward what Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point, the Scriptural metaphor of the Kingdom of God, the union with Ultimate Reality.
Here's my suggestion, the result of all of the above:
I've made it into an acronym (though some may find that sort of cheesy), because I need daily a quick method to remember to remember to seek to live in the Light, not in my own designs, and certainly not in my own selfishness, my culture's twisted perspectives, or the tragic brokenness of human history.
Guided by God's Light
Understand by Reason
Inspired by Scripture
Decide through Clearness of Community
Enlightened in Experience and Practice
Here's an example of how this has played out in the past:
In the 18th century the vast majority of Christians, and people of other worldviews, supported slavery. They were morally blind to the terrible evil though many of them saw slaves every day. Indeed, Christians were the strongest supporters of the slavery, citing the Bible as proof. Friends, from their birth in the leveling movement of England in the 1640's, had emphasized equality for all humans yet most contradictorily they didn't actively oppose slavery. Many Quakers in the 1700's owned slaves and supported slavery!
Scholars think this is so because Quakers were already being persecuted for their faith and didn't want to be seen as supporting slave revolts and insurrection. Many Friends had been imprisoned for years because they were considered dangerous revolutionaries, even though most of them clearly were not. So it would seem that George Fox and other early Quakers practiced the subterfuge of St. Paul, who also emphasized the quality of all humans in Christ, yet supported the institution of slavery so as to not receive more persecution from the Roman Empire.
This, of course, seems unethical to us now, but we ought to be careful in our judging, unless we are willing to stick our neck out on other controversial ethical standards.
How many Quakers regularly protest against the murder of pre-born infants now when our society is so committed to the right of abortion on demand?
How many of us are deeply involved with supporting suffering Iraqis, Syrians, Nigerians, and Afghans?
Some Friends did protest strongly against slavery. One of the best known protests occurred in 1688 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. However, by the time John Woolman was a young person working for a Quaker merchant, most members of the Society accepted slavery or remained quiet in their disapproval.
Even in the 1800's, long after Quakers had banned slavery in their meetings, they still were so ethically blind that they disowned and and expelled abolitionist Levi Coffin from the Society of Friends because he worked to free slaves through the Underground Railroad!
#1 Guided by God's Light
When John Woolman was directed by his employer to write a bill of sale for a slave, he felt suddenly slavery was wrong and that he shouldn't write it. But he did so because he had been assigned the task, but then later he deeply regretted his act. The next time he ordered to write a legal document dealing with slavery he followed his conscience's warning that this was contrary to the Good, the True, the Just and refused.
#2 Understand by Reason
Humans in history and now get all sorts of convictions and notions. They conscientiously seek to do the right thing. Consider Robert E. Lee. He was so guided by right action, by duty, by honor, by conscience that he didn't get one demerit in all of his time at West Point! Yet, look how wrong his conscience guided him. His guidance that he thought was from God was the partial cause of the horrific deaths of over 800,000 Americans, and the wounding and suffering of millions, and the loss of so many families, and so countless other worse results.
So often our conscientious "guidances from God" later turn out to be exactly the opposite. When accepting any "guidance," we need to use our reason to make sure we aren't deluded, misguied, or deceived. When ever we get an intuitive ethical sense, we need to double check it with our rational ability.
Later as Woolman became more and more convinced of the evil of slavery, he reasoned that he should not buy or use products available in the market if they came from slave labor.
#3 Inspired by Scripture
There are too many cases where millions of us humans have used Scriptural passages to slaughter, torture, enslave, persecute, destroy, steal, lie, and so forth; therefore when we seek inspiration from Scripture, we need to carefully ground that in reason and Enlightenment values. See Valerie Tarico's
"In Defense of Cherry Picking" for a good explanation of this. http://valerietarico.com/2015/05/21/in-defense-of-cherry-picking-the-bible/
#4 Decide Through Clearness of Community
Though John Woolman and Levi Coffin were sure of the rightness of abolition, they sought confirmation from other Friends, and never became self-righteous but traveled about among Friends seeking to convince them in the Light that they needed to oppose slavery too.
#5 Enlightened in Experience and Practice
The more we choose well, the more we reject the wrong, the more we see the Light more clearly. Based on Woolman's sense of the Truth, his understanding of the central ethical meaning of the NT (despite its many pro-slavery verses that so civilized humans used in defending the institution), his interpreting his concern with careful reason,
Woolman then, more and more, applied this to his experience.
At one point Woolman, despite being a very successful business man, stopped wearing dyed clothing because the dye came from slave labor. This lead other well-to-do people to look at him as an odd duck, but he followed God's Spirit putting into practice his concern, without regret.
But there is no money back guarantee;-) that G.U.I.D.E. will succeed. Besides, the ideas and methods expressed for this aren't mine. However, after a life time of reading and hearing wise counsel, trying to implement and live in the Light, yet encountering roadblocks and sometimes suffering serious car wrecks and the daily drudge,
I do find Light in G.U.I.D.E.
Reflect and go forth to walk over the earth cheerfully as George said 450 years ago:-)
In the Light,