April 13, 2005

My Friendly journey with Christ

For about a week or two, I have considered writing about how my understanding of the word "Christ" has shifted: it feels like a quiet part of my Quaker journey that remains in the corners where the cobwebs gather, awaiting a good cleaning in order to be noticed. The idea of writing about this inward shift and continued revelation has been growing, and then I came across a post from Brandice, that includes her own thoughts about Christ in Quakerism.

My life turned to other things, and so I was kind of caught off guard when I pulled up the same post from Brandice again, realizing I had gone as far as creating a draft of something to post but hadn't yet. Even writing this introduction points either to my resistance to gathering the cobwebs for you, or to my fear of "What would it mean for me to share this bit of my Quakerism and spiritual journey...???" (Yipes!) I am amazed at how much I don't want to post this, and yet Brandice's comments makes me squirm with the familiar sense that I may have something to say...

First, let me start with this: I was raised in a Jewish household. Is it any wonder that I squirm when I realize I am called to speak about my understanding, then, of Christ?

Next, let me move to the end: I am at a place in my Quakerism and in my spiritual faith where I have come to understand that "Christ" is that Divine Principle that existed long before a carpenter named Jesus was born and will exist long after all of us are dead. For me, Christ is neither the teacher Jesus nor the spiritual figurehead of Lord and Savior. Christ is another name for the concept of the Living Presence, the Seed, the Light.

I did not come to this understanding easily, and I do not share this part of my story comfortably. Having been raised a Jew, I was exposed to the sentiment that Jews believe one set of things—there is one God; there are laws in place to sustain the Jewish people; etc.—and Christians believe another: Jesus is the Messiah; the only way to salvation and to enter into heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior; etc. In subtle ways, I was taught to retreat a bit from someone who spoke of their "Christ-ianity," and I was fearful of anyone who asked me if I had been saved: Would I have to out myself as a Jew? Memories follow me to this day of being berated and ridiculed by classmates who were raised in Christian households.

As an attender to Quaker meetings for worship, then, and even as a new member among Friends, I was among those who cringed inwardly (if not outwardly) at the use of the word Christ during vocal ministry. The words Christ, Messiah, Jesus, and Savior hinted at the doubt lurking within myself, wondering if I truly was meant to be among Friends. Yet at the same time, I felt very much a part of Friends, and I disliked the implication (one I had created for myself, mind you) that worshippers who used outward Christ language were really wanting folks like me to step away...

My inner conflict became a bit more intense, but not overpowering, after entering into my relationship with my partner Jeanne. She occasionally read the New Testament and infrequently would say something about her experience in church growing up. How could Jeanne and I both be Quaker when she had a faith in Jesus (Christ or otherwise) and I had a faith in God?

I never pushed for answers to that question; I seldom broached the subject with Jeanne. Over time, she established some dear friendships with a few Friends whose progressive Christian Quakerism meshed well with her own, and they later started up a Bible study for a few months. I ended up establishing some of my own cherished relationships among Friends who, like Jeanne, had a deep yearning to be faithful but didn't couch that yearning and that Spirit in terms of Christ.

At some point, I had come across Lloyd Lee Wilson's book, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, and a fire was lit within me: a huge part of this smallish book spoke to my condition--and I could ignore the obvious chapters that dealt with Jesus Christ, the New Testament, etc. But the parts of his book about covenant community, gospel order, spiritual discernment all rang true for me, and it was not tied up in the notion of one particular spiritual-slash-human being named Christ. I created a book study group to focus on the chapters that most appealed to me because I was hungry to share and spread the Truthfulness that I found within its pages, but the greatest enlightenment for me came from something a Friend in the group shared.

This Friend had said something about Christ meaning more than a reference to an extraordinary individual from 2,000 years ago. Christ in fact meant, according to this Friend, that Principle that is borne within us—and has been over the generations of existence—that, when tapped, can guide us into right order with all creation.

Having heard that Friend's witness, I felt something shift inside me. My body tingled with its own response to Truth; a space opened within me. Someone had innocently freed me of the rigid interpretation of Christ that I had grown up with. Here was a definition that did not exclude me from a faith community in which I was participating; but rather was congruent with some of my own secret thinking:

If there is a single Jesus Christ, then why can't there be a single Liz Christ or Martin Christ or Robin Christ...? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly unique? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly beloved children of God?
I've kept these newer thoughts to myself until now, but the Light I had experienced at that particular book study session changed how I would receive the vocal ministry offered by other Friends thereafter, as they spoke about Jesus being with them, or Christ loving them tenderly. I could at last listen for the Spirit encapsuled by the words, and no longer cringe or retreat.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I sit with this post before publishing it, I understand that God does not so much care about how I come to know God, whether it is through Jesus, through Adonai Elohim, through Allah, or even through sobriety. It matters not how I name this Unnameable Presence, or even if I name it. What matters is that I have come to know it experimentally. I know it as my body knows my breath; as my heart knows my blood. There are specific incidents in my life I could tell you, but those stories are for another time, another post...

I once heard a voice inside me during a meeting for worship about 18 months ago. It said:
It does not matter whether you are liked or not. What matters is that you are faithful.
Thanks for reading me.

Blessings,
Liz

16 comments:

Monkey said...

"As I sit with this post before publishing it, I understand that God does not so much care about how I come to know God, whether it is through Jesus, through Adonai Elohim, through Allah, or even through sobriety. It matters not how I name this Unnameable Presence, or even if I name it. What matters is that I have come to know it experimentally. I know it as my body knows my breath; as my heart knows my blood. There are specific incidents in my life I could tell you, but those stories are for another time, another post...

I once heard a voice inside me during a meeting for worship about 18 months ago. It said:

It does not matter whether you are liked or not. What matters is that you are faithful."


This, and the rest of your post, spoke very deeply to me. :) I do indeed think that we're very very similiar in our beliefs and the way that you put things is nearly perfect for me.

I would like more information on the small book you posted about, although I'm still not sure I'll be using the actual term "Christ" any time soon. While I love that way you interpret it and how the word speaks to you personally, I can see all too many ways in which my beliefs would be misconstrued by using the word, because of all too common misconcepts or other identifications with the word Christ.

You expressed your thoughts quite perfectly though. Thank you for speaking (and very clearly, to me). : )

Blessings,
Brandice

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz,
Thank you so much for sharing this. I'm sure it wasn't so easy to hit that send button. It reminds me of a few half-written posts I have to let fly into the ether. There was a lot in your experience I relate to, esp. the familial aversion to Christianity and the way an awareness of Quaker Christianity has sort of sneaked up on me. I'll keep rereading this post, there's a lot here. Thank you for your faithful in putting this into words.
Thy Friend,
Martin Kelley, the Quaker Ranter

Ruthie said...

Liz,

Thank you for sharing - this has really inspired and spoken to me. I think you have articulated something that I feel and as I try to figure out what part Christ might play in my own faith.

Ruthie

Liz Opp said...

Thanks to each of you, Friends, for taking the time to read and hold my post tenderly... I feel affirmed in my faithfulness, despite my discomfort, to have shared this part of my journey with you.

Blessings,
Liz

Robin Mohr said...

"I'll keep rereading this post, there's a lot here."
I'm with Martin on this. I read this three or four times last night. Told two different Friends about it. Started to write in my own journal about it. Had to practice my Lamaze breathing just to catch my breath. This morning, I've come back twice to read it again.

"At some point, I had come across Lloyd Lee Wilson's book, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, and a fire was lit within me: a huge part of this smallish book spoke to my condition"

I have to wonder how so many people have been so influenced by this book.

I feel challenged by Martin and James R. and Alice's comments on the Q.R. and by Liz here to be as honest and precise myself about my relationship with God and Christ.

Paul L said...

Liz: Much of what you say rings true and is entirely consistent with the description of Friends' understanding of universal Christian salvation as I've understood it to be. (See Barclay)

But here's my question: You say It matters not how I name this Unnameable Presence, or even if I name it. What matters is that I have come to know it experimentally.

I think you're saying that it doesn't "matter" as far as one's individual salvation (or enlightenment, transformation, or whatever one may call it) is concerned.

But even if this is true, isn't a major part of the Quaker identity theme you've been writing on stem from your concern that the name one gives to the Ineffable It does matter in practical terms of living in a covenant community (or, more specifically, the Quaker covenant community)?

Haven't you been saying that the clarity of the Divine Will -- and the fundamental unity it imparts -- is stronger and more confidently discerned when those calling upon it are in basic agreement in things like the manner and purpose of worship than when they are widely divergent in these things?

Wouldn't that include basic agreement as to the name of the Who is being called upon?

Or are you saying that agreement on the name of G-- (which can be divisive) isn't as important even to a worshiping community as agreement regarding G--'s character (which is unifying)?

Liz Opp said...

First off, for Brandice, I forgot to post this earlier: the book Essays of the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order can be ordered through QuakerBooks of FGC, or call them toll free (in the States) at 1-800-966-4556. (Who knows, maybe Martin "Quaker Ranter" Kelley will answer the phone himself!). I'm sure whomever you speak with will recognize the title of this popular book; and while you're at it, if you haven't received a catalogue from QuakerBooks, go ahead and ask for one. "You'll be glad you did."

And Paul, I should have known that an attorney-fellow like you would some day hound me with questions! *wink* ...I sure could use you in the Gathering workshop, to stimulate group discussions and to help me consider deeper questions about Quaker identity. smile

Seriously, though, I am considering how to respond to your questions. I have drafted a long reply and am holding it: I am conflicted about responding with my own understanding around the topics you lift up, versus seeking how it is that God would have me reply.

Blessings,
Liz

davidmyers@gmail.com said...

First, let me start with this: I was raised in a Jewish household. Is it any wonder that I squirm when I realize I am called to speak about my understanding, then, of Christ?
Next, let me move to the end: I am at a place in my Quakerism and in my spiritual faith where I have come to understand that "Christ" is that Divine Principle that existed long before a carpenter named Jesus was born and will exist long after all of us are dead. For me, Christ is neither the teacher Jesus nor the spiritual figurehead of Lord and Savior. Christ is another name for the concept of the Living Presence, the Seed, the Light.


Liz,
We have much in common. I was raised Jewish also, and
I am in a similar spot spiritually. Your wording, near the
end, resonates with Barclay, and resonates with me.
I have been adding, in my own life and intermittant
ministry, different words to the story. Some similar,
some different, some stopping short of this, some
moving beyond. It is a fitful process, as I am certain you
know. There is an open-endedness to all the good answers
to all the hard questions that makes it hard to imagine
having finality about the concept of the Seed in us.

For those of us raised Jewish, or even secularized-Jewish,
the concepts of Savior, Lord, grace, being saved, salvation,
and Messiah, are so initially naseau-inducing that there is
an amazing discomfort in trying to re-understand oneself
as a Christian Quaker, which is what both of us have done.

Given that I live on Long Island, there are quite a few
"Jewish Quakers" in the region. The paths are so very
different for the half dozen that I know, that there is little
to be drawn from the pattern of the paths they followed.
I certainly feel that I had no real role models before me
in my journey. At age 32, there are certainly none of the
other "Jewish Quakers" that are anywhere near my age.
[[[I can provide you the email list for Jewish Quakers,
of which there are about 35 on the list (two or three
locally)... though I'd warn that the list is very very quiet
and usually only gears its way into motion when they
want to gnash teeth about conflicting ideas about
Israeli-Palestinian issues.]]]

Interesting, though, that I can't point to a single "Jewish
Quaker" that still really considers themselves "Jewish"
at a core level. In some cases, their faith understanding
veers toward a certain deism and mishmash universalism,
and in other cases these Friends are now
hardcore Christians. Like I said, not a real pattern.

Bottom line though, Liz:
Overall your post touched me and it resembles my
own path so much. The post will be
carried by way of my soul into meeting this week, as I feed
on it and move forward. It's been a wing-ding week on
a buncha levels, on fronts far from this part of my
psyche and fronts close to it too. Any little bit of
spiritual nurturance helps to be able to carry around
knowing that one day it will be useful. Glad that your
little seeds that you had in your hand weren't hidden
or lost, in this case

d

Liz Opp said...

NOTE: Paul L. and I had a small email exchange about his questions (we are members of the same monthly meeting). He ended up emailing me additional comments privately, including why he raised the questions he did, out of concern that he not overwhelm the conversation thus far. I have to say, Paul's explanations for why he offered his questions has helped me slow down even further. I've also asked Paul if I could post his email on this blog as a guest piece, so check back in a few days.

Below is my current response to Paul's questions, which could be a post in and of itself. I say "current" because many times, this sort of conversation leads to additional sharing and greater Light. So, here 'goes.   — Liz

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Paul, your questions lift up for me some of the dualities that I am considering within Quakerism (and you yourself alluded to similar dualities within your email to me). For example, the intersection between a Friend's private inward experience of the Divine and the shared, more public experience of corporate worship. (I could add the third element of outward witness in the larger world, making this a discussion about a Quaker triad instead.)

It is no surprise to me, then, that some of my posts will reflect the inward experience of my faith--how I name God, for example--and other posts will point more to the elements of a communal or corporate Quakerism, or "Quaker gestalt," as Patricia Loring and others write about--how my experience is apparently deepened when worshipers share a common method and purpose of entering waiting worship.

I am coming to understand that a Quaker identity must incorporate and balance, to some extent, both elements of a Quaker dualities: private and public, inward and outward, communal and wordly, contemplative and active.

Let me take each of your questions one by one and see where I am at at the end of it all:

1. I think you're saying that it doesn't "matter" as far as one's individual salvation (or enlightenment, transformation, or whatever one may call it) is concerned.

True: in terms of my inward (private) faith as a Friend, it doesn't matter how I name the Divine. What matters is that I know the Divine, and that I open myself to the Divine's influence and guidance. And the reason it matters to me because my inward and outward life has gotten better as a result. My life has become richer and more meaningful as I have paid more attention to God's guidance, even and especially through rocky times.

2. ...isn't a major part of the Quaker identity theme you've been writing on stem from your concern that the name one gives to the Ineffable It does matter in practical terms of living in [a Quaker covenant community]?

This is not what I intended to express, though I can understand how my words can be interpreted this way, so thanks for asking for clarification.

In recent years I have been carrying a spiritual concern about the loss of our Quaker heritage; that liberal Friends are straying from the root of our faith, which I often think of as the centrality and immediacy of the Divine. I am coming to understand that our Quaker heritage is preserved over time by what we practice, how we live, whether we share that practice or not (both on the surface and at deeper levels as well), how we make our practice and its foundation explicit, and whether that practice can sustain us through transformative experiences.

Of course, practices, beliefs, and traditions are all intertwined: pull one piece of twine away and the others come with it; the rope becomes unmade. Such is the nature of a gestalt and its totality in relation to its individual threads. So it's hard to talk about name or character of the Divine without also talking about Quaker practice, tradition, etc.

Back to Quaker community: Some Friends may have a pagan perspective of the Divine; others may be Christocentric; others may even be agnostic. Yet, when we come together and share how and why we enter into waiting worship, and what we had experienced while we had been worshiping, then we can identify whether or not we are engaged in the same practice of our faith, and we can explore how our experience changes based on our "divergent" or convergent practices:

Do we quiet ourselves to listen for Guidance, or do we give greater weight to our good thoughts? Do we test our leadings among others who are also Listening, or do we proceed without any corporate spiritual support? Do we regularly seek to engage in a personal relationship with the Presence, the Light, a Higher Good; or do we regularly seek a quiet respite from our busy lives? Do we have an experience of the Spirit moving among us during worship, or do we just feel rested, and are these the same thing, and how do we know...?

And, from Lloyd Lee Wilson's book:

When most growth is occurring in meetings without seasoned Friends and distant from well-established meetings, how can one be assured that what is attracting newcomers is the true Quaker message? ...[It] seems to me that many Friends meetings are in danger of overemphasizing the human aspects of our meeting communities at the expense of the divine covenant... (p. 64, 2001 edition)

Heck, if it was only the Name that mattered and not the integration of practice, belief, and living tradition, I think I'd be a practicing Jew after all, because I do believe in God.

3. Haven't you been saying that the clarity of the Divine Will -- and the fundamental unity it imparts -- is stronger and more confidently discerned when those calling upon it are in basic agreement in things like the manner and purpose of worship than when they are widely divergent in these things? Wouldn't that include basic agreement as to the name of the Who is being called upon?

Yes, this is in part what I have been saying, but in the context of my own experience. Quakers historically draw on a "manner and purpose of worship" in a way that pagans, Buddhists, and Catholics do not.

I hope I have been consistent in lifting up that this is how I experience the clarity of the Divine Will: it is what has worked for me; whereas the experience of participating in a more "divergent manner and purpose of worship" has not. But even in my worship group, some of us name the Divine as Christ or Jesus; others as Great Spirit; and others as God. Yet there seems to be an understanding, a faith, that we are all seeking and experiencing the same Loving Presence, regardless of the name we give It.

I want what most of us want, I think: to feel spiritually nourished and fed, while also establishing and sustaining significant relationships with others who are nourished and fed in a similar way. A meeting that embraces widely divergent beliefs, spiritualities, and practices can certainly provide a good fit for Friends who are more liberal than I, but I have found that such a meeting is not a good fit for me at this time in my Quakerism. No one would deny me my desire to have "the good raised up" in me; nor would I deny that same desire in another person... assuming no harm comes to anyone in our pursuit of that.

And true: sometimes I mistakenly hold up my Quaker yardstick for others to be measured by, when my yardstick is for me to measure only myself by. And also true: sometimes a group with a certain practice and history may establish its own "yardstick" to help visitors understand the expectations, norms--gestalt--of the group.

Further: what makes me Quaker is not only my direct relationship with and experiential understanding of God but also my submission of my ego to the authority of the convenant community in which I worship, which has a shared understanding of what such submission means and how we go about collectively discerning the Light. It takes trust and ...faith to do that. I see this point as separate from how we name That Thing That Is Both Beyond Us And Within Us. The key for me comes from whether or not we share in how we listen for, discern, and test the Truth; how we hold one another acccountable in our quest to be faithful; etc.

4. Or are you saying that agreement on the name of G-- (which can be divisive) isn't as important even to a worshiping community as agreement regarding G--'s character (which is unifying)?

Yes and no. Agreeing on how to name the Divine is not as important as sharing an understanding of how we connect with the Divine. Also I am saying that what has added spiritual meaning for me personally, is that in a worshiping community, we agree to hold one another accountable to certain practices and disciplines (not names of the Divine) that connect us with the larger Quaker fabric.

It's true that some worshiping communities may find that its worshipers prefer the green and yellow threads of that fabric (e.g. greater weight is given to personal revelation of the Spirit than to the authority of Scripture), while other worshiping communities find that its worshipers prefer the blue and red threads of that same fabric (e.g. corporate discernment of God's will).

And I am also saying that without certain "primary" or "foundational" threads of that fabric, our Quaker identity may be at risk. How can I learn about the Quakerism that existed before me if I never hear from Friends who have 10, 20, 40 more years among Friends than I do? How can I understand what my crisis of faith is about if no one accompanies me on that journey and helps me make sense of it as it relates to Quakerism (as opposed to 12 Steps' "hitting bottom, for example)? How can I draw on Quaker business practices such as corporate discernment and testing and seasoning if no active clerk explains and models what these are?

Well, Paul, I have said an awful lot in response to your comment. In your email to me, you reiterate that you are genuinely curious to hear my thinking. And I want to acknowledge that much of what I have written is just that: my thinking. I have not felt the Spirit move through me as I have at other times with this blog, so perhaps you have other pieces of the Light that can help further the exchange.

Blessings,
Liz

Liz Opp said...

David and others: I feel humbled by your tender words of appreciation and gratitude.

I think many of us are hungry to know that we are not alone in our questions about God, how we name ourselves without betraying our families or our (religious) history, etc. I have found more than once, that when I make myself vulnerable by sharing something I wish to keep private, there is a permission that is given somehow to others to share themselves more deeply as well.

As for the Jewish Quaker question, I came across a Pendle Hill pamphlet a few years ago that was written by a woman (I think it was a woman, anyway) who had reclaimed her Judaism after, or as a part of, having considered pursuing membership in the Religious Society of Friends. I recall thinking to myself as I finished reading the pamphlet, "That's not where my journey among Friends has taken me."

To each her own, as long as we are faithful.

Blessings,
Liz

david said...

Thank you for your comments (nad your concerns expressed elsewhere). I especially appreciate your leading expressed here:

If there is a single Jesus Christ, then why can't there be a single Liz Christ or Martin Christ or Robin Christ...? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly unique? Can we not be as singly divine as we are singly beloved children of God?

Callie Marsh said...

Liz,
I just read this post and my eyes are filled with tears. I feel touched by the spirit of the Christ. It is the Seed. It is available to all. Your words took so much courage. I am humbled and grateful.
My upbringing was in a socialist agnostic/atheist home, where there was total scorn for words like Christ, salvation, etc. I take as my own some of these words with great discomfort and embarrassment. I am also aware that it is hard to speak them, and two thoughts about that come to mind: 1) When one speaks of Christ or of God, words are so meagre. The danger of diminishing the experience keeps me cautious. 2) I am beginning to mind that I may shy away from Christian language because those who I find "fundamentalist" and, frankly, judgmental--I was known in my childhood in rural Maine as the "heathen" one--have taken away these good words. Why do I let that happen? The root of the word "salvation" was wholeness, healing; the root of sin was to miss one's aim or mark. I think too of sin as a brokenness. It does not mean I am a terrible person, but that the human condition is broken, alienated from the Seed, the Christ, what we call God.
Folks, I don't know what I'm doing here even! Blogging?? Yikes! All I know is there is an important ministry going on, and I am deeply moved, and touched by Love.

Kody Gabriel said...

"It does not matter whether you are liked or not. What matters is that you are faithful."

I really needed to hear that. Thanks. In fact, this whole post is good for my heart. I had read it before, but it speaks to me now in a different way.

See you soon!

Liz Opp said...

Kody, I am so glad to hear from you. And now I have had a chance to re-read this post as well and reflect on that part of my journey... which still is so powerful for me, months later.

I suppose that is part of the gift and grace of the blogosphere and the internet: we can often return to pieces of writing (and art) that we had come across once before and be touched by them in a completely new way.

In this way, we recognize that it is not the words that have changed, but ourselves.

Hallelujah!

Blessings,
Liz

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brerarnold said...

Wonderful post. Thanks. It resonates well with me.

I've said some along these same lines. Very differently, but you might find it worth thinking about. Here's a link to my post "Why I Call Myself a Christian":
http://wp.me/p1OXtI-12

I hope very much that you will comment, as I'd like to know your response.