Blog Banner

Archive for early friends

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (8/14/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon deviates a fair amount from the written text.)

Sermon Audio


Listen to the sermon on SoundCloud

Sermon Text:

This passage from Hebrews that we just heard: It’s got to be one of the most frequently referenced parts of the Bible. I’ve heard it preached from the pulpit many times. It’s been the theme Scripture for church conferences and events. And it’s been the subtext for so much of church life.

This idea that we are surrounded by this “cloud of witnesses,” that we are a part of a long line of spiritual family. That the struggles we engage in today are part of a bigger picture. It’s a powerful, comforting image.

Back in 2010, Faith and I helped to organize a gathering of young adult Quakers in Wichita, Kansas. It was a gathering that would bring together Quakers from across North America, and across many of the theological and cultural barriers that divide modern-day Friends (and, as I understand it, modern-day Brethren, too).

Most of the gathering took place in a large church sanctuary. The space was ornate and cathedral-like, at least by plain Quaker standards, and it was far bigger than either we in the gathering or the local congregation had need of. In addition to the ample seating in ground level pews, there was also a large, wrap-around balcony – a gallery filled with empty seats.

I remember standing in the sanctuary with one of the members of the pastoral care team for the gathering, and older woman from New England. It was a quiet moment in the church building, before most of the participants had arrived. We were taking a deep breath before the heavy spiritual lifting that would come in the next few days. She looked up into the balcony level and said very seriously. “I can feel them. I can feel the cloud of witnesses.”

It was a comforting idea, but also a challenging one. That cloud of witnesses wasn’t just there to affirm whatever we decided to do. They had an agenda. If those Quaker saints who had gone before us were indeed present, they would be watching to see whether we could bridge the divisions that had developed over the last two centuries. They would be present to encourage us – but also to spur us towards hard conversations and spiritual risk-taking.

I think that this passage from Hebrews is easy to take out of context. We often stretch and bend the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” until it becomes something that is primarily about our own comfort. I don’t know if any of you remember that movie from the mid-90s – Angels in the Outfield? Honestly, don’t really either. I think I saw it once back in 1994, and I don’t remember a lot of detail. But here’s the basic idea of the film:

In the movie, the Los Angeles Angels are the worst team in Major League Baseball. But there’s a little boy who loves the team, and he wants them to win so badly that he prays and asks God to help them win the championship. To his surprise and amazement, God sends angels to miraculously catapult the team into first place. Only the little boy can see the angels, but the effects of their work is clear to the whole world as the Los Angeles Angels go from being the worst in the league, to the best.

It’d be nice to have a cloud of witnesses like that, wouldn’t it? A group of angelic figures that could carry us to glory, even if we’re not at all ready for it. If the “cloud of witnesses” were like the angels in the outfield, we’d always have these invisible cheerleaders – spiritual support for us when times are tough and victory seems impossible. The cloud of witnesses would become an angel army. They’d exist to reinforce our own dreams, our own wishes, our lives as they are. They’d give us strength to make our dreams come true.

And sometimes this might be the right idea. If we’re experiencing hard times, if we’re suffering for our faith and paying the consequences for following Jesus, we need the presence of this encouraging cloud of witnesses more than anything. We need to know that we stand in a line of courage, endurance, and victory in the cross of Jesus. Knowing that, by the grace of God, many others have run this race and been faithful, we’re encouraged to persevere, even when it feels impossible.

But most of the time, at least for me, I experience the cloud of witnesses as a challenging presence in my life. These are people who, as the scripture says:

“…were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

This cloud of witnesses are no “angels in the outfield.” They’re not here to give me victory without suffering or pain. They are witnesses to the full cost of discipleship. They demonstrate the kind of hope that is only possible through bearing the cross of Jesus in this world. These are people who inspire us, people who challenge us, whose lives confront our own compromises and give us courage to do what is right.

I think we all have our favorite members of the cloud of witnesses, our own personal gallery of saints that have come before, who spur us to greater faithfulness. One of these witnesses for me is a man named James Nayler. James was one of the most visible leaders of the early Quaker movement in the 1650s. He was a gifted evangelist, spreading the gospel across England. His campaign of preaching in London had a powerful impact, growing and solidifying the Quaker community there.

The 1650s were a time of tumult and upheaval in England, and Quakers were often arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith. James Nayler had a rougher time than many. He was charged with blasphemy by Parliament, and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. But honestly, he might have been better off if they had hung him. His punishment was grotesque: He was given a public flogging of hundreds of lashes. After that, they branded his forehead with “B” for “blasphemer” and bored his tongue through with a hot iron, so that he could never preach again with his renowned eloquence. After that, he was imprisoned until he was physically ruined.

When he finally did get out of prison, he tried to make his way back to Yorkshire, to see his family for the first time in years. On his way, he was robbed and beaten severely. He was found by passersby and died the next day in the home of a Quaker physician.

I mention James Nayler this morning, because I believe he is a prime example of what the author of Hebrews referred to when he spoke of the cloud of witnesses – this heritage of saints who have run the race and endured the cross as an example and encouragement to us.

And I think that Hebrews 11 and 12 were on James Nayler’s mind, as he lay dying in the north of England. Those who attended him recorded his final words, which included this description of what it meant for James to be a living member of that cloud of witnesses – to find himself in communion with them through his own suffering and martyrdom:

“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God.

Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”

The cloud of witnesses that James experienced were no “angels in the outfield.” They did not save him from suffering, nor give him victory in the eyes of the world. Rather, he encountered a spirit that walked with him through that dark valley of shame and defeat. This spirit gave him the power to love, even those who flayed the skin off his back, branded his face, and mutilated his tongue. Through his suffering and baptism into “love unfeigned,” James Nayler found fellowship with the lost and forgotten saints of God – who through death, obtained resurrection and eternal holy life.

Our gospel reading today reminds us that the kingdom of God comes through challenge. It causes division wherever it emerges, because it challenges our basic ideas about what is right and fair. The truth is, none of us want to experience the cross. Not even Jesus did! The most natural thing in the world that we could do is seek to avoid death, suffering, and shame.

But what Jesus reveals and the cloud of witnesses repeats, is that beyond the cross lies resurrection. On the other side of suffering, and torture, and shame lies the eternal holy life and love unfeigned that James Nayler and so many saints before him discovered. The cloud of witnesses bears testimony to each one us through the Holy Spirit, spurring us on to greater courage in the face of heartbreak, death, and loss of identity.

Unlike the angels in the outfield, this cloud of witnesses is not about helping us win the “game” of this world. Instead, they walk beside us, encouraging us as we learn how to lose in such a way that we experience the resurrection life in the midst of struggle, so that we ourselves become part of that cloud of witnesses, reflecting Christ’s self-giving love to others who need it.

Before I close, I want to take us back to that church sanctuary in Wichita, Kansas. I want you to stand with me on that lower level, amidst the pews. Look up with me into the gallery. Who are the witnesses that you see there? Who are the saints who have gone before you that encourage you even in the midst of confusion and pain? Can you see the faces of the people who have carried their cross with courage and joy? Can you see them smiling on you with love?

Where are they calling you? What parts of your life need to change so that you can embrace the kind of courageous living that they did? Even in the face of resistance and division, where are we being called to change so that we can bear the cross of Jesus, and become a cloud of witnesses to the world around us?

Related Posts:

What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus in the Age of Trump?

Will the Real Church of Jesus Please Stand Up?

I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

Related Posts:

A Baptism of Humility

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

Institutional Christianity is trembling, teetering, falling. And that’s a good thing. Crisis and opportunity tend to go hand in hand, and those who embrace this crisis have the chance to make an enormous impact. Freed from the weight of bureaucratic religion and static tradition, a new kind of life can emerge.

Now is the time to carry out bold experiments in Christian discipleship.  We’re living in a very interesting moment, an in-between space where the shell of the old order has not yet completely crumbled, and the little seedlings of the new are just barely peeking up from beneath the soil. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

It’s a scary moment, too. No one wants to die, and none of us wants to see the tradition and community that has been so life-giving for us go up in the next forest fire. We’d rather keep throwing water on dead wood than face the chaos and uncertainty that would come with that conflagration.

But what if we welcomed the flames? Instead of trying to save the forest as we have known it, what if we opened ourselves to the possibilities that come from newly cleared horizons?

How would our lives change if we came to see ourselves as the instigators of something new? Rather than the exhausting rearguard action that many of us are now engaged in, what if we stopped trying to prop up the old order? Some of our cherished organizations we would need to lay down. Many of our congregations would need to be radically re-organized. Cherished habits and assumptions would be shaken up. Sounds terrifying. Sounds like fun!

We all look back to the white-hot movements that shook the world. Whether it’s the early Quakers, the Reformers, or the early Church – we are inspired by the boldness of these now-mythical bands of saints who risked everything for their faith. One thing that all of them have in common is that those who experienced them were convinced that the Spirit should triumph over the Letter.

All truly apostolic movements are marked by holy mischief. When we’re living in the power of Jesus, we can’t help getting into trouble. The first Christians abandoned both the pagan and Jewish customs that were getting between them and a more living experience of God. The early Quakers were beaten, imprisoned, and killed for actively challenging the powers that be.

Holy rebels in every age have sown the seeds of new life, joyfully subverting the status quo. We break up the hardened ground of ossified tradition and decadent authority. We risk our lives, our fortunes, our very identities to be faithful to the new thing that Christ is doing in our midst. Knowing that the way of Jesus comes with persecutions, we embrace the life of discipleship as a path to expressing the love we receive in him.

This is an invitation. You and I can be part of this new thing that God is doing. We can participate in a movement that will shape the face of the world for generations to come. We can choose to side with the new life that is brewing, down at the grassroots. In the face of misunderstanding and resistance, even hostility and fear, we can become children of light.

What does this look like for you? What are the signs of new life that are sprouting in your neighborhood, your city? What opportunities are there for you in this time of uncertainty and transition? How might you need to change in order to be faithful to this new movement that is emerging in the shadow of the present order? What in you needs to die so that Christ can live?

Related Posts:

News Flash: Christians Don’t Have All the Answers

Love Matters

Gathered As In A Net

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. […] And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love… Francis Howgill (1618-1669)

When Jesus called his first disciples, he recruited some of them from among the fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. He asked a few of these fishermen to follow him, promising to change their vocation forever. Rather than inheriting the family fishing business, they would become fishers of people.

When I first heard the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, I assumed that ancient Palestinian people fished in the same way that I do. I imagined these men sitting on their boats all day, with poles and string, hooks and lures in hand, catching individual fish and tossing them into a bucket. When I first heard the story where Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to fish for people, it sounded like a leisurely day of sport fishing.

I now realize that the first disciples weren’t fishing as a hobby. They didn’t spend their days with poles and hooks, capturing individual fish. Instead, they used wide nets in an attempt to draw large numbers of fish out of the depths. Simon and Andrew were not out catching fish one by one; they sought to bring many hundreds into their boats with one pull of the net.

The early Quaker movement described the work of the Holy Spirit as this kind of dragnet. They experienced being gathered together as in a net, united in God’s power as a people of God. Just as Jesus had called his disciples into an organic community that became the early church, Friends in the 1650s found themselves being gathered by the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Having had this experience, these first Quakers also became fishers of people. They went into all the world, gathering seekers into communities where they could experience the unity and power of the Holy Spirit – the fullness of life in the body of Christ.

Living as we do in a society that is so focused on individual experience and transformation, how do we make sense of the biblical model of salvation in community? How would our lives be different if we lived as an organic whole – the body of Christ – rather than as individual believers with our fishing poles?

What implications would this way of living as a gathered people have on the way we reach out to the world with the love of the gospel? How might we participate in ministry that looks more like a drag net than fly fishing? What would it mean for us to be able to say that our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love?

 

Wait in Patience

Art thou in the darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will feed thee more. But stand still, and act not, and wait in patience, till light arises out of darkness and leads thee. James Nayler (1659)

When we are facing spiritual darkness and despair, there are several ways that we can choose to react. One coping mechanism is denial. When confronted with realities that are too difficult to bear, we shut them out. We look away from the truth of our lives, and do our best to carry on as if everything were normal. Unfortunately, this veneer of normalcy is a lie. Our denial does not keep the darkness at bay, it merely covers it with another layer of untruth. The damage continues to be done, even if we refuse to see it.

Another way of dealing with the darkness is to wallow in it. Rather than covering up our pain, we accentuate it. We define ourselves by it. We come to think of ourselves as victims, tortured souls who blame the universe, other people, God himself, for the pain we feel. Yet, despite the fleeting catharsis of blaming others, we are unable to escape from t he darkness this way. The more we wallow, the more tightly it clings to us, defining our lives.

The early Quaker movement discovered that there is a third way to respond to the presence of darkness in our lives. Rather than denying its existence, the early Friends embraced the reality of darkness within the human heart and in society. They refused to hide from the truth. Yet, they also avoided the self-justifying fatalism of the wallowing soul. Blaming others would not solve anything. The Quaker movement insisted that the individual must take responsibility for his part in the darkness, and move toward the light.

This third way – neither denial of nor surrender to the darkness – is beautifully described in the words of James Nayler as waiting in patience. By standing still in the light of Jesus, consenting to see the darkness for what it was, early Quakers discovered the truth of their own fallen condition. And by acting not, waiting in patience, they were able to avoid the self-pity and blaming stance of the wallowing soul.

Today, just as in the days of the early Quaker movement, there is a light that arises out of darkness to lead us – the very presence and Spirit of Jesus Christ. In him, God gives us power to chart a course through through our self-destructive tendencies to blame and deny. Being led by the light of Jesus, we can face those things which terrify us the most, and be made whole.

 

Living in the Power

If but one man or woman were raised by his power, to stand and live in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in who gave forth the scriptures, that man or woman should shake all the country in their profession for ten miles round. – George Fox, Journal

For the kingdom of God depends not on talk, but on power. – 1 Corinthians 4:20

This weekend I’m headed out to Barnesville, Ohio for the spring gathering of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’ll come together from across the country, listening for how the Holy Spirit wants to gather us, fill us, and send us into a world that is aching for God’s presence.

We will laugh together, and we’ll share our dreams. We will speak words meant to build us up for the mission that Jesus is calling us to. And we’ll be praying for the living Word of God to come and speak in our midst.

We yearn to be a part of a movement that transforms creation, redeeming the face of the earth. We long to shine out in the darkness. Could our lives blaze like the first apostles, the early Christian martyrs, and the Valiant Sixty of the original Quaker movement? As we gather in Barnesville, we cry out to be filled with the power of God that makes all things new.

IMG_8831

We cry out because, despite our highest aspirations, we know that we often get in the way of the change that the Spirit wants to make in our lives. We cling to the comfort of the known, even when life as we know it has grown too drab, stale and false to sustain the kingdom life.

The joy we have been called to in Christ explodes business as usual. The eye of the needle that we’re called to pass through is one that sifts out all smugness and certainty, all self-sufficiency and worldly confidence. The kingdom is revealed in the beautiful handiwork of God in our broken, out-of-control lives.

It is only when we are broken that we are ready to receive healing. Only those who are hungry can be filled. It is only when we surrender control of the future that we can wake up to the present-moment kingdom of God that is hidden in plain sight.

My prayer for this weekend is that God will prepare each one of us to be tender, awakened to our own brokenness and need of God’s grace. I pray that Jesus will be present among us, filling us with his own life and power, shining the light in us to convict us of sin and show us how to love one another as he first loved us.  

Jesus Christ is Born Today

For hundreds of years, most Quakers held it as an important article of faith that true Christians should not observe days and seasons. Instead, Friends insisted on treating every time and place as an equal opportunity to experience the presence of God.

This principle led Quakers to ignore popular feasts and festivals, and even the most important holy days of the wider Church’s liturgical calendar. Until the late 1800s, Friends could be subject to community discipline for celebrating Christmas or Easter! To most of us living today, this seems a strange stance to take as a Christian community. What did earlier generations of Friends consider so wrong about setting aside time to remember the birth and resurrection of the Lord?

If anything, we might wonder whether perhaps we need more special days, not fewer. Most of us live in an environment largely devoid of explicit reference to the divine, and in some places sharing from a Christian worldview can be a serious faux pas. We are expected to keep our God-talk to ourselves! With faith expression increasingly going underground, there are often too few reminders of Jesus’ love and presence.

The early Friends experienced exactly the opposite situation. In their day, not only was a Christian worldview encouraged, it was rigorously upheld by force of law! Backed up by a state church, a particular interpretation of Christianity was used by government authorities to justify abuses of power and human vanity. Days of remembrance like Christmas and Easter were prime time for state-sponsored preachers to interpret the Scriptures in ways that had little to do with the gospel message, and everything to do with reinforcing the status quo.

The radical Quaker movement would have none of this. They denounced the very concept of religious holidays as anti-Christian, and insisted that Christmas and Easter were empty shells of the truth: Jesus Christ is born into the world each and every day, whenever a man or woman makes the decision to open their heart and let him come to live and reign in their lives. He is risen from the dead every time we do the works of righteousness that he is calling us to.

Rather than allowing the religious establishment to frame Jesus’ birth and resurrection as past events, the early Friends drew attention to the fact that Jesus is here, now, and ready to lead his people himself! Rather than merely remembering the Christ who once was, the Quaker movement sought to reveal and embody the living Jesus, whose light has the power to make us sons and daughters of God.

As we celebrate Christmas this year, how can we practice awareness of the birth that Jesus wants to have within each of us? As we remember Jesus’ outward birth in ancient Judea, what does it look like for us to participate in the inward birth that was the whole purpose of his coming? Will we go beyond the complacency of backwards-looking memorial religion, allowing Christmas to become a reality in our lives every day?