Sixth Month 16

But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay be nay. – James 5:12

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The Quaker refusal to take oaths, with its Scriptural counsel repeated here, comes straight from the command of Jesus in Matthew 5:34: “Do not swear at all,” which is then amplified: “All you need to say is ‘Yes’ if you mean yes, ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One” (NJB).

Seemingly quaint actions, such as the Quaker “hat testimony” – refusing to doff one’s hat in the presence of royalty or one’s “social superiors” – and the use of the distinctive Plain speech, with its first-person directness, have their origin in passages such as those that open the second chapter of James.

And our quaint custom of naming the days of the week and the months of the year with numerals – a practice shared with some other nonconformists – recognizes their derivation from the names of pagan gods, and the admonition from the Apostle Paul “to throw off everything that belongs to the darkness” (Romans 13:12) and to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). And so on.

Sometimes spiritual practice resemble a huge tangle where you begin loosening one loop and quickly encounter many more. But that’s how it goes.

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And in Behalf of the Thessalonians, Paul prayeth, That the very God of Peace would sanctify them wholly; that their whole Spirit, Soul and Body, might be preserved blameless unto the Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

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Sixth Month 15

Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe His prophets, so shall ye prosper. – 2 Chronicles 20:20

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Among the multiple meanings of establish is one meaning “to clear from doubt;  demonstrate convincingly; prove.” And prosper can also mean “thrive.” I like that combination. You can, of course, try out the other meanings of both words here and see just how many more layers exist in this text than we encounter on first reading.

Along similar lines of becoming clear from doubt and then thriving, George Fox’s epistle 208 advised early Friends: “So when the sinners’ minds are turned with the light and Spirit of God toward God, then with it they shall know something of revelation and inspiration; as they are turned by that of God from evil, and emptied of that, then there will be room in them for something of God to be revealed and inspired in them. . . . [T]hey will have prophecy, seeing things to come, being turned from evil that has darkened them, and separated from God; . . . they will see the Covenant, through which they will come to have peace with God.”

Sounds like weeding a garden so plants can have more room for their roots and more light from above.

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And this is that Word which came unto Abraham in a Vision, saying, Fear not Abraham, I am thy Shield and thy exceeding great Reward. Unto whom, in the very next Verse, Abraham gives Titles of Lord and God; which proves the Word to be Eternal and Divine; but so are not the Scriptures Eternal, for we know they had their Beginning in Time: And tho’ they are Words and Declarations of Divine Things, yet must we distinguish between the Declaration, and that which is declared of, so as not to call them both by one Name. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 14

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables. … – Matthew 12:1-3 (NIV)

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In addressing the masses, Jesus often relied on parables – spiritual lessons based on real-life types of situations – in part, as commentators have noted, because he could reveal “truth to the spiritual and ready mind” while simultaneously concealing it from others. (For his own explanation, see Matthew 13:10-18.)

Much of the power of a parable resides in the reality that it can never fully be contained – there are always elusive elements in motion, just as there are in good metaphor (even for the spiritually and ready minded). You keep coming back to these mini-dramas for your own renewal and growth. You can never nail them down with an ultimate “moral” or “law” for action. In fact, they often contest the prevailing understanding or teaching.

The kind of open-ended reading they demand also challenges fundamentalists, who place the Bible in a position of dominant authority and extract a flat equation rather than wrestle with metaphor. Some, in fact, insist on the King James version, because even synonyms threaten their perceived purity.

But what if the texts we are translating are themselves corrupted? That is, if editors tampered with the Scriptures before passing them on? The early Bible authority St. Jerome, responding to intense probing by Augustine, suggested as much when he responded, asking him “not to challenge an old man … who asks only to remain silent.”

So we return to a parable as a story, one that can be told in many ways and many languages and still convey its central message as we repeatedly listen in wonder.

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Therefore the Spirit of Christ is the Rule of his Peoples Faith, and the Guide of their Life; yet doth not this detract from the Scriptures, nor the Estimation of this People (called Quakers concerning them) for I know they do believe, that whatsoever Things were written aforetime, were written for our Learning, that we through Patience and Comfort of the Scriptures might have Hope. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 13

…  Ye are witnesses of these things. – Luke 24:27 and 48

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Witnesses, of course, have first-hand encounters with specific events and actions. That’s not to say they understand what they observe, yet as they collect their impressions – often together with others who were present, as is represented in the plural ye – a composite perspective emerges.

Early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay’s Apology describes the Bible as a “looking glass in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers. There we find that our experience is analogous to theirs. … This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their usefulness to us.”

We, too, can be active witnesses to “these things” as they happen in our own lives and circles.

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And ’tis his Spirit that leads into all Truth, even that Spirit which searcheth all Things, yea the deep Things of God, as saith the Apostle, which Spirit teacheth them of all Things, and bringeth all Things to their Remembrance, according to Christ’s Promise. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 12

Then he opened their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures. … – Luke 24:27 and 48

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I sometimes see the Bible as a huge transparent cube that has been wired like one of the maps or displays one encounters, say, in a science museum; you push a button and miniature bulbs light up everywhere. Select a topic or theme – social justice, angels, peace, money, sacrifice, the Spirit, or sheep, for instance – and a systematic network blazes forth. A concordance is helpful in locating related passages; indeed, comparing and contrasting them is a form of Bible study many find fruitful; I have a cousin who spent a dozen years indexing every word in the Bible and closely examining his index cards for unexpected linkages: his perspective on events in our own time was astounding. Noted literary critic Northrop Frye perceives in this an array of myths; figures, types, and antetypes (technical terms) and their correspondences; phases of revelation; imagery; metaphor; narrative; and rhetoric as The Great Code, a tapestry in which one thread touches all the others.

Of course, in facing even a single passage, perspective helps. I think of encountering a knotty poem or story line and finding myself grateful for the insights of a critic who opens new dimensions to my appreciation.

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So that the Scriptures themselves, say not of themselves, that they are the Word of God, but that they bear Witness of him. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 11

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. – 2 Corinthians 3:6 and 17 (NIV)

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This is a remarkably spring-loaded statement.

I love the way the equation, “the Lord is the Spirit,” inverts into “the Spirit of the Lord.” In the process, the Lord as a noun, springs into action as an implicit verb, Spirit, returns to its origins as breath or breeze.

Presumably, the Spirit of the Lord is everywhere, which now prompts another equation built around where – is it where the Spirit of the Lord is sensed and welcomed? Or something more subtle or widespread?

Freedom, meanwhile, can be a very perplexing concept. For starters, it can mean free from some things or free to others or even free in certain ways, even before we get to combinations and specifics.

All the while this sentence keeps unfolding, the statement itself is exhilarating. Yes! Yes! Yes!

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Those written Words (for Scripture signifies a Writing) they are Publications in Testimony of that creating Word of Power, by which the Worlds were framed, see Heb. xi. 3. yet they do not declare that the World was made by them, but by that Eternal Word which was in the Beginning, as it’s recorded, John i. 1. the same is that which liveth and abideth for ever, 1 Pet. i. 23. which Word is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged Sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of Soul and Spirit, and of the Joints and Marrow, and is a Discerner of the Thoughts and Intents of the Heart. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 10

He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. … – 2 Corinthians 3:6 and 17 (NIV)

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Once more, Paul speaks of an ongoing, profound spiritual relationship.

Nothing beats direct experience (not that I would want to endure any of the sufferings recorded in the chapters of Biblical history). There are enough lessons arising through faithful practice in our own era.

Those who impose a narrow, legalistic reading of Scripture soon find themselves imposing dogma and creed – such as trinity or sacraments – that are themselves not part of the text. Ultimately, they amplify in ways that restrict the range of the message.

As we find too often in our daily encounters, “You said” is countered by “I meant.” Effective communication requires far more than words, then. Consider the body language.

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 And this was he, as I said before, who is the Messenger of the Covenant, appointed by the Father, to reveal his Secrets unto his Servants the Prophets, who came to Jeremiah with this Prophecy; so that it was not what he said, but he himself, whose Name is called, The Word of God. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 9

Circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter. Romans 2:29

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Our experience of the Holy Spirit is to lead us to a new way of living – moving from the old shadows into the new Light (Colossians 2:17). Consider: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings” (Colossians 2:20-22, NIV).

We are marked by the new way we act and react, then, in our daily encounters. Is it out of loving or instead blind duty? They’re quite different, even we the steps appear the same.

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The Words that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, stand in the Gate of the Lord’s House, and proclaim there this Word, and say, hear the Word of the Lord, all ye of Judah. The Prophet was to make Proclamation of the Word of the Lord, that the Men of Judah might hear what he saith; as it followeth: Thus saith the Lord, Amend your Ways and your Doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this Place, &c. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 8

For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. 1 Corinthians 12:13a

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Often, when I’ve entered a Quaker meeting for worship late and the group has already settled into a profound silence, I’ve felt as if I just dived into an Olympic-size pool and am swimming underwater to the other end. (It’s an act I usually find refreshing and somehow astonishing, by the way.) The air itself has become denser, perhaps more crystalline.

Now Paul describes that experience as if it were one Spirit washing the faithful into a single pool.

In a way, too, as we become one, we let go of something else. Jesus speaks of his crucifixion as a baptism (Matthew 20:22-23, King James – the other translations ignore this usage of “baptism”).

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And now, I say, it was by this Principle of Divine Light, which God hath placed in my Heart, by which he pleaded with me in Days past, even when I knew him not; that is, I knew not that it was the immediate Act of his own Power and Spirit, tho’ I felt such a Force in it, that as I did in the least yield thereunto, I must confess, I was overcome by it, but still it was as I was subject and obedient to his Power; for I cannot say, The Lord wrought in an irresistible Manner, although I know, and do declare, it was he who did subject me, and made me willing in the Day of his Power. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

Sixth Month 7

Then Jesus quoted them passage after passage from the writings of the prophets, beginning with the book of Genesis and going right on through the Scriptures, explaining what the passages meant and what they said about himself. – Luke 24:27 (Living Bible)

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Prophecy gives voice to the Holy One through receptive individuals. It is not about predicting future events, but rather emphasizes the vitality of a living faithfulness in the present time.

William Taber’s The Prophetic Stream (Pendle Hill pamphlet 256) presents yet another way of examining Scripture, this time by tracing our unfolding understanding of the Divine as expressed by Biblical prophets. This presentation removes the barrier of Hebrew Bible versus New Testament and places the teaching of Jesus in a continuing flow of Jewish knowledge. It also casts the “prophetic ministry” of speaking in Meeting for Worship in a more understandable light: the importance of letting the Holy Spirit breathe and speak through us.

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Tho’ I have heard it said, That the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, &c. often call their Prophecies by the Name of the Word of the Lord, which, say some, is all one if we say the Word of God. Now such I would advise to take a second View of the Text, and then they may find that the Prophets did not call the Prophecies and Writings the Word of the Lord (for they were the Lord’s Words) he being the Word of the Lord, who revealed their Prophecies unto them. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)