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Relevant Irrelevancy

Bible Lecture

North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers)

September 2nd, 2007

 It has been seven years since I last stood in this spot, and I have been thinking about the things that have happened during those seven years.  One thing is that this past year I turned fifty-six.  So, the government now officially recognizes me as a senior citizen.  Linda and I took a vacation this summer and I found myself for the first time ordering off the senior menu.  I wanted someone to ask to see my ID, but nobody did.  In fact, we went into one restaurant and we ordered the buffet.  The young woman behind the cash register looked at us and turned to yell at the cooks, “senior buffet!”  And, I keep getting things in the mail about death insurance and cheap cemetery plots and other things like that-reminders that I am on the short end of life.  None of us knows how much time we will have, and we have no time to waste.  I cannot know that I will ever be together with you in this capacity again.  There are many things that I might say.  I have given a lot of thought to what are the most important things to say-the things I would say if I knew that I would never see you again.

I have a little preamble here, but my intention is to look at the most irrelevant prophet I know of, which is Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is a strange fellow.  But the first thing I need to say is that even though I have been favored with a good education, no amount of education could ever make me smart enough to have anything better to offer to you than the Gospel of a crucified and risen Lord.  And, I hope I never think that I’m smart enough to improve upon that.  So, in a sense, I come to you in weakness-nothing of my own really to offer of any value.  And, anything that I might say that you conclude, “That’s just him”- I encourage you to ignore it, forget it, pretend you never heard it-whatever.  However, if there is anything in what I say that is not my own, you dare not ignore it.

Further underlining that I have nothing of my own to offer-my students told me last spring about some new website where they can rate their professor.  It is called  They kept bugging me to look on there.  Against my better judgment, I finally did.  The most disturbing thing about it is that my “Hotness” score was zero.  However, apart from Christ, it is worse than that.  I am nothing.  I have nothing.  I can do nothing.  Only the Word can give us life, and that is what we need – life.

It has always been true though that every smart-alec that comes along thinks he can do better than the gospel-thinks he can do better than the word.  It has been that way since the beginning of the church.  In fact, we come from a long line of people who thought they could do better than God could.  Our first parents, for example.  If you are proud of your Quaker genealogy, you need to carry it on back to Adam and Eve, who were sinners.  They listened to the temptation that Satan offered them that God’s limits were just holding them back.  Therefore, they transgressed those limits in the idea that would somehow improve things.  They did not believe God that it would bring death.  Ever since then, all of those who have regarded God’s limits as an obstacle have always presented themselves as the progressives.  It is a lie.  God’s limits make it possible for us to live.  This idea that we can improve things by transgressing God’s limits is false.  It is the Devil’s compassion.

In the book of Job, Job’s friends offer him this kind of consolation.  Job’s friends work for Satan.  Their human consolation just makes Job’s misery worse.  When God finally shows up, he says to Job to brace himself like a fighter.  Now, I do not know any counseling program that would teach a counselor to do that in it that kind of a circumstance.  Hasn’t Job already had enough?  However, God’s attack heals Job.  God’s attack does Job far more good than Satan’s compassion.  If we get the idea that shielding ourselves from God’s attack makes us better, we will die.

The word must attack in order to heal.  Preaching that does not attack cannot heal.  Preaching that does not name things with their proper names only obscures the truth.  God says in Malachi that on the last day he is going to examine the priest’s mouth to see whether he confined his word in there.  If he cannot, they will get the worst of the judgment, because the people should be able to resort to the priest and find not his own word, but God’s word.  When the priests give their own word-they destroy.  That ought to scare anyone who stands up and speaks in the pulpit or in any sort of a worship setting.  You are accountable.

Gregory of Nanziansus lived in the fourth century.  His father was a bishop who was faced with the problem of two warring bishoprics.  His father got a great idea that the way to stop the war would be to appoint a new bishop and set up a new bishopric on the boundary of the warring factions.  So, they took Gregory, tied him up, and hauled him into the church where they ordained him a bishop by force.  As soon as they let him up, he ran away and stayed gone for a year.  When he came back, he gave a little speech explaining his absence, and this has come down to us.  The gist of his speech is that when he thought about the fact that God would hold him accountable for their souls, it scared him to death.

Everybody laughs when they hear that story.  I laughed when I first read it.  However, there ought to be more of us running from that responsibility if we are not prepared to be accountable.  We will be held accountable.  If we set the people up for destruction by obscuring God’s word, for the sake of any temporal advantage at all, then it is asking for trouble.

Therefore, we have only the word to offer.  Our own thinking, our own logic, is not up for the job.  Now, God has given us reason.  Reason is that quality in us that, potentially at least, is most like God.  Therefore, we dare not throw it away, and early Friends were somewhat inclined that way-to disregard the value of reason.  Reason has to be anchored in faith for it to operate properly.  Reason alone is not a sufficient foundation for faith.  In fact, nothing in us is sufficient.

Now, I am not qualified it as a prophet.  I have kept a journal for about thirty years, and lately I have been looking back at some of the old ones.  What I find is very clear is that I am a horrible prophet.  Things I thought would happen, never happened, and things I never dreamed of-those with the very things that happened.  Also, if we were real biblical people, we would stone false prophets.  There are a number of Y2K prophets leftover still begging for that treatment.  Nevertheless, I am going to dare to make a prophecy.  I think you can write this down, put it in a time capsule, and dig it up in twenty-five years, or fifty years, or a hundred years, and I’m confident it will be so.  So long as the Society of Friends attempts to ground its identity in its own ideas or its own righteousness, it will never, ever, get past this question of identity.  Never.  We will remain in a perpetual, adolescent identity crisis to the end.  There is no way that we can get out of it, if that is our basis.  It will not happen.

Now, there is another way we can go.

I have spent a lot of time teaching-fourteen years in two schools, where I still teach.  Over that time, I have found three kinds of people that are especially unteachable.  First, I suppose I would have to say is teachers.  Secondly, those who are convinced that they have suddenly gone from a life of sin and wickedness to instantaneous perfection.  But, the third kind are those who hold to an anti dogma dogma.  There is no way to reach such people because they deny the truth.  They deny that the truth can be known.  This anti-dogma dogmatism is a species of relativism.  It is another way of saying “There are no absolutes-I’m absolutely sure it”.  It is self-contradictory.  You cannot maintain that position without also, at the same time, undermining that position.  In philosophy generally, something that leads to absurdity-we conclude that means it is an error.  Now, we cannot assume that we live in a rational world.  In addition, this view that we cannot know the truth is pervasive in the world we live in and, sad to say, more and more in the Society of Friends.

Anti-dogma dogma is still dogma.  I have known anti-dogma dogmatists who were just as impervious to reason it as the most hard shell fundamentalist I have ever come across.  Therefore, there are two possibilities here.  Either those who hold that view are not aware of its fallaciousness or, it is simply intellectual hypocrisy.  I am inclined to think it is the latter.

All it takes to bring it out is to propose that there are some things that are true always and everywhere and for everyone.  Jesus Christ is that.  That does not involve a claim that we know everything about Christ.  It involves at least the claim that he is for everyone and that he has decisively dealt with our most basic problem-which is not the state of the world or the state of the Society of Friends-it is our alienation from God.

This anti-dogma dogma excommunicates.  It excommunicates whoever does not agree with its understanding of community.  Moreover, you do not have to take my word for it.  Try it.

The British zoologist Richard Dawkins has written a book recently advocating atheism, which is selling better than any orthodox Christian book I know of.  However, his zeal seems especially ironic to me.  Where does it come from?  In Islam, the basic creed is a “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet.”  With Richard Dawkins, it is like  “There is no God, and Richard Dawkins is his prophet.”  There can be a kind of energy to the opposition to Christ and to God whose source it is not easy to discover.

Martin Luther says of those who have cut themselves off from the word, that there is a “nothing so stupid, obscene, or foreign to all decency that they will not accept as holy worship.”  I think the same is true for us.

You can try an experiment.  Just get on the Internet and go to and punch in spirituality, or religion, or Christology, and see what the top-selling books are.  It is a zoo.  You will not find an orthodox Christian book there.  Now, if this is the crowd we want to be a part of-being popular in the world-I am not sure it is worth it.  There are several books in the top tier that claim to be written on behalf of aliens, and they are selling quite well.

Openness across the board is no virtue because it means being equally open to truth and falsehood, good and evil.  To be open to evil is a vice, not a virtue.  I do not think God designed us to have perpetually open minds.  Our minds are designed to be closed around the truth.  Now if we find that our mind is closed around something not true-by all means, we should open it up, but not forever.  One of the saddest spectacles of our day is American Protestants chasing after every fad that comes along.

Karl Barth said, “The measure of our hostility to the Holy Spirit is our openness to every other spirit.”  There are only two choices in scripture-either the Holy Spirit or other spirits.

If Quakerism is not basic Christianity, as Elton Trueblood called it, or mere Christianity, as C.S. Lewis called it, or “the rule of faith”, as Tertullian called it, or as Jaroslav Pelikan said, “what has been believed always and everywhere by the apostolically founded churches,”-if Quakerism is not that, in its essentials, then there is no reason why anyone should be particularly concerned if anyone leaves.  It is not as if they have left the Church of Jesus Christ, or something.  If all we are is a human organization, then we are not on solid footing.

All right, one point at least on Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is strange because all he does is talk to God.  He does not even talk to the people.  That is weird, isn’t it?  – For a prophet?  How are you going to accomplish anything that way?-just talking to God?  What a waste of time.  So, I hear this phrase all the time-“nothing to do now but pray” as though that is the least effective thing someone might do.  And here is Habakkuk-that is all he does as far as we know.  Habakkuk’s name literally means “Comforter” or “Hugger”- but all Habakkuk does is pray.  Where is the hug?  Habakkuk is a short book, you can read it on your own, just three chapters.  However, I think we, with Habakkuk, face a temptation in this business of relevance.

Jesus’ faced the temptation of relevance also in the wilderness.  It was the first temptation-when Satan says to him, “Turned these stones into bread.”  That would be so much more relevant.  That is what the people want in John 6.  Jesus’ feeds the people in the desert, and they follow him for the food.  Jesus says to them, “The only reason you’re following me is for the food.  Well try this-you must eat my flesh and drink my blood to have any part in me.  “Oh no, the people respond, that doesn’t seem very good.  Many of them turned away, and even the disciples were puzzled.  Jesus’ turned to them and said, “Would you go away also?”  Well no, they respond, because you have the words of eternal life.  That is not what the people wanted.

If we get the idea that the way the church grows is by asking people what they want and then giving them that-we will get that crowd back, but will it be the church?  One basic problem is that unbelievers do not ask the right questions.  It is not until God starts to work in their life that they know what questions to ask.  Otherwise, as Jesus says, we are casting “pearls before swine”.  The crowd wants the material things, the things that Jesus says the Gentile seek after, “What shall we eat, what shall we drink, and what shall we wear?”  Those are things that we also can be tempted to focus on.  Ministers are so rich, yet they might still wonder sometimes “What will I drive?  How will I feed my children?  How will I find the money for a new pair of socks?”  Yes, but still Jesus says, “Don’t worry about those things”.

Habakkuk is irrelevant.  He looks away from the people to God.  This may be because he realizes that the people have gotten into such a state that nothing else can be done.  However, we always need to have this element of detachment-even in all of our action-our attachment needs to be to God, and we must live loose to everything else.  The way that we keep that attachment to God alive is in prayer.  Habakkuk understands that we ought to order our lives with prayer first.  The tendency is to pray in order to live.  However, what I see in Habakkuk is that he lives in order to pray.  Communion provides the basis for everything else.

This is the bedrock of the monastic life at its best.  In the Middle Ages, the people thought their prosperity was most directly related to what the monks were doing in prayer.  Protestants reacted to that with good reasons, but what if the monks were at least partly right?-that the health of our nation-the health of the Society of Friends-the health of the world-is more directly related to what people are doing in their closets with God in prayer, than to anything else that happens?  What a crazy idea that is, but what if it is true?

The greatest saints and martyrs-the ones who have really changed the world, always had an anchor in the invisible.  You can move a lot with the block and tackle as long as it has one fixed point.  Without that fixed point, you cannot move anything with it.  Now, we live in a world where many who present themselves as progressive, are just moving the point where the block and tackle is attached.  It does not change anything.  In fact, when we try to have progress just by redefining the goal, all we really do is make the status quo more firmly entrenched.  It is that anchor in the invisible that makes it possible for hauling the earth more toward God.  However, if we just try to make changes by redefining sin, by redefining God, by redefining the church, by redefining ourselves, we are not changing anything.  We are just reinforcing what already is, and we cultivate the illusion that something is actually happening.

We have the idea that love never points out sin-never points out faults.  G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, says, “Love is not blind, it’s bound”, and everybody who has a spouse knows that.  Spouses perform a great service for us in pointing things out to us.  For instance, “What’s that icky thing on your tie?”  Or, a little brush-off-or, “That was the dumbest thing you have ever said”, or other such things as that.  We receive this treatment because we know, or we want to believe, that it comes in love.  It would not be love to overlook these things too much, because that just sets people up for trouble.

Zechariah tells a parable of the Good shepherd.  The Shepherd is good to the sheep, but the sheep do not like the Good Shepherd.  They much prefer the shepherd that fleeces them and devours them.  The Good Shepherd finally gets fed up with this, goes to the owners, and says, “I quit.  Give me my money.”  They give him thirty pieces of silver-which was a pittance, for his hard work.  Therefore, Zechariah, the Good Shepherd responds the same way as Habakkuk, by letting go and looking to God, “Let that which is dying die.  Let that which is perishing, perish.  Let those who are left devour one another.” He lets go and he looks to God.  It is that element of detachment.  It is not irresponsibility.  The most responsible thing we can do is to cleave to God, no matter what.

We get the same idea in Revelation 22:11-“Let the unjust be unjust still, let the filthy be filthy still, let the righteous be righteous still”.  In all of that turmoil in Revelation-I cannot understand it.  What I can understand in Revelation is that no matter how bad things get, cleave to God, look up.  He is sovereign even in the ruins-even when everything is coming apart, he is still sovereign.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew this.  The angel appeared to her-she could not know what was happening.  But, she said, “Let it be done to me according to your will”.  She received the word, and the word worked in her.  There is nothing better that we can do than to receive that same word that is addressed to us-to let it do its work.

Then we can rejoice no matter what happens.  Habakkuk calls on God to fix things because Israel is in such terrible shape.  God says, “Sure, I’ll take care of that.  I am going to kill them all.”  Habakkuk says, “Wait a minute.  I am not sure you heard me right.  The answer is worse than the problem, sir.”  God says, “That’s OK.  When I am done with the Babylonians, I will destroy them too.”  So, Habakkuk is puzzled by that too.  However, in the course of God saying what he is going to do to the Babylonians, he says to Habakkuk, “The just shall live by faith.”  That is what Paul tells us in Romans also, and it is what scripture says most basically to us.

“The just shall live by faith.”  What does that look like?  This is God’s word to Habakkuk in the midst of devastation.  Now, we talk a lot about experience, but I think we have gotten this business of experience so distorted that I would almost recommend a moratorium on it-and I will say why.  For one thing-you can go home and check this.  Look up in your concordance the word experience and see if you can find it.  In most translations of the Bible, the word does not appear anywhere.  That ought, I think, to raise a concern for us.  There are some words we use that do not appear in the Bible, but we are convinced they are there implicitly and so consistent.

Secondly, see if you can find any place in whole of scripture, front to back, where anyone ever exhorts us to have an experience of any kind.  You will not find it.  God never says such a thing.  What he asks of his people is to trust him no matter what their experiences, and that is whereIsraelfails in the exodus.  Things look bad.  They conclude, “Oh no, it’s all over now.  God will never get us out of this-That’s it.”  It is the lesson that they never get.

Experience is a growth industry, but the only place in the whole of scripture I can find that ever comes close to calling us to an experience is in Colossians, where Paul calls us to share in the remaining sufferings of Christ in the world.  I do not know anybody who will line up for that kind of an experience.  I have never seen any church marquis that said, “Come join us to suffer together”.  I have known some that might as well have had that message on the sign, but I still do not think it is quite the same thing as what Paul means.  If you understand experience as sharing in the cross of Christ-of taking up the cross and following him-then by all means, keep talking about experience.  If you understand experience in any other way, without the cross, then you are not talking about the gospel.

Experience is very popular.  Books that claim to be able to produce experience are enormously popular.  If you can conjure up an experience of your own-what makes you think it is from God?

Christ came to save us from our inner light.  I want to be clear what I am saying here.  This term inner light has changed so much since the 17th century that it is nearly the opposite of what early Friends were talking about.  And here is the difference-the modern collapse of belief in a transcendent God who confronts us.  That was their view-the light is not anything of my own natural equipment.  It is the in breaking of the transcendent Lord of the universe.  Once we lose that, once we conclude that the Inner Light is the upwelling of our own psychological depths-once we equate Inner Light with the God in my heart-it is a short step from God in my heart to my heart is God.  And that is idolatry.  There is no greater tyrant than the God in my heart.  Jesus’ does not leave us to our own subjectivity.  We are not self-fulfilling beings.  We have to have our anchor in something that transcends us.  Otherwise, all we do is go around in circles-we cannot get oriented.

My daughter, a while back, lived in an apartment, and they had a great big possum out in the road around the apartment-just doing laps in the street in broad daylight.  Weird behavior for a possum and the first thing you think is-well, rabies maybe.  So, they called the local animal control people, and they did not want to come out because they said they did not deal with wild animals.  Well, what kind of animals get rabies?  And also, it was quitting time for them, so, here’s this possum just doing laps-in a circle, diameter about twenty ft.- round and round and round and round—following his inner light.

Dennis Kinlaw told a story some years ago about visiting a castle in Scotland where there was a dungeon.  The dungeon had been constructed to be perfectly round, so that in a prisoner in the dungeon could not tell where they were, and it was completely dark.  So, the story is that every person but one who ever went into that dungeon came out of it crazy.  However, one person came out and still had his wits.  So they asked what was it that enabled him to survive.  He said that he had one pebble in his pocket, and every now and then, he would switch the pebble to the other pocket.  That was enough to keep them from losing his mind.

We can lose our minds spiritually if we lose that anchor in the invisible.  We may think we are doing fine, and we may think that we are making progress.  I do not know-that possum may have thought he was making progress.  At least he was expanding a lot of energy.

I will leave you with this good news from Habakkuk.  With devastation on the way, to the tune of a dirge-Habakkuk sings this song: “Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the fine, the labor of the olive shall fail, the field shall yield no meat, the flock shall be cut off from the fold and there shall be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.  I will joy in the God of my salvation.  The Lord is my strength.  And he makes my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon high places.”  Now if that’s what we mean by experience-we look out and cannot see the means of preserving life-we cannot tell how we’re going to get forward -when all of our plans seem to fail-when our prayers seem to get the opposite of what God’s promises have led us to expect-if we can still rejoice-with Habakkuk-in spite of all that-there’s the experience that matters.

I have a student who has a bunch of kids, and a wife who is bedridden much of the time from back trouble.  He works all night and then comes to school.  He is never late-he always has his work in on time.  He gets maybe three to four hours of sleep per day.  But he has a kind of Christian mantra.  It is, “God is good all the time.  All the time God is good.”  He comes to school sometimes without knowing where his gas money would come from to get home or to his job.  But, God is good all the time.  In whatever shape the Society of Friends is in, whatever your personal condition is-this is Habakkuk’s irrelevant faith-that God is good even when he is confusing to us-and that goodness never stops.  That is our confidence and that is our hope.

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