But not the prayer of a revolutionary seeking the violent overthrow of a government. Jesus, the revolutionary in question, was committed to non-violence even as he challenged the Roman Empire. His rebellion was expressed in symbolic acts, in sermons, and in prayer. His most famous resistance prayer is more commonly known as The Lord’s Prayer, which has come down to us in two versions, one in the Gospel of Luke, the other in Matthew.
Hence, the two most common English translations of The Lord’s Prayer are slightly different. One reads, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The other reads, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The first translation comes from Luke, who uses the Greek word harmatia, meaning “to miss the mark”— trespass or sin in English. The second translation comes from Matthew, who uses the word opheilemata--debts.
It’s easy to understand why we would want God to forgive our trespasses, but what does Matthew mean by asking God to forgive our debts? Well, whenever we seek money before we seek God, whenever we feel hatred or indifference instead of God’s Love, whenever we put anything ahead of God or Spirit, we are incurring a debt to God. We owe God time or treasure that we have foolishly wasted in worldly actions.
In a larger sense, our only real debt is the debt we owe God—the debt of worship and faithfulness. This is what Jesus meant in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer. Thus, Jesus believed that worship of the Roman emperor was idolatry. Jesus believed that taxes paid to Rome were stolen from what God’s people needed for life itself. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” his unspoken assumption was that everything is God’s.
And when Jesus speaks of debt, there must have been in the back of his mind the Jewish concept of a Jubilee Year, during which slaves would be freed and debts forgiven. Think of what a Jubilee would have meant for Rome, built on the backs of slaves and the tribute from conquered peoples! Jubilee would be a revolution inconceivable in the hierarchical Roman Empire. It would be the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus—a kingdom in which all human beings are equal, nobody is indebted, and all are blessed by God’s presence.
And are not Friends a Jubilee people? Do Quakers not strive for a revolution in our own hierarchical, capitalist society? Do we not pray to God as Jesus did, that His will be done, on earth as in heaven?
~ Richard Russell
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village
where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had
a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he
said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to
be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my
sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset
about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.
Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
(Luke 10: 38-41, NIV)
Our Quaker meetings can roughly be divided into Marthas and Marys: into those who are mainly concerned with service and those who give first place to worship and contemplation. It’s tempting to take the side of Mary and be critical of Martha; but, of course, we also have these words in James 2:14-17 (NIV):
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have
faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother
or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them,
“Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs,
what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
So, James—and Jesus, too, for that matter—want faith and deeds, worship and action to be united in the same person. But it’s surely true that God calls people to different roles in life. Some are given the gift of spiritual knowing while others receive the gift of spiritual doing. Although James would disagree with me, it’s enough that these two types of people complement each other within the group, within a Quaker meeting.
So, there’s a Friend I know in Britain, American by birth, who’s not at all a social activist; but she doesn’t feel guilty about “doing nothing” because various of her meeting’s activist members come to her for personal encouragement and spiritual refreshment. Her presence allows these Friends to continue their activist ministry without faltering or burning out. And, of course, the doers within our meetings encourage those of us who are less active to get involved in the struggle for justice. Without actions, the Kingdom of God will remain a dream of faith and never become an earthly reality.
We have to have the Marthas. We have to have the Marys. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12: 4-6 (NIV), “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
~ Richard Russell
The poem below was written by Kurt Vonnegut and shared by John Breasted with other members of the OCMM Worship Sharing group. It comes from Vonnegut’s last book, A Man Without a Country (2005).
The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do.”
The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.
~ submitted by Richard Russell
This new space telescope has captured breathtaking images of the cosmos—images like the one above, a picture of thousands of galaxies in a sliver of sky the size of a grain of sand. These views of light from 13 billion years ago inspire a sense of awe that is nothing less than spiritual, for proof of which I offer a quote from Shannon Stirone’s recent article in the N.Y. Times.
When we look up (at the stars), we look for ourselves. Dr. (Carl) Sagan once said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that could not be more true. We long to understand why we’re here and to find meaning in a world where meaning is so often difficult to divine. Telescopes like this remind us that in spite of our specific challenges on Earth, the possibility of connection still exists.
Now that Webb is online, working and already sending extraordinary photos, we can not only continue asking the hard questions, but also possibly, someday, have answers to them. To understand our environment in this way is to understand ourselves. To gaze at the cosmos is to gaze back at our history. These speckled, swirling, bizarre galaxies are a part of our past. It is one perhaps less accessible to us, but nonetheless just as important.
Yes, we are made of star stuff, and perhaps much more. We are not just humans bound to a blue rocky planet in a galaxy. We are the universe calling ourselves home.
~submitted by Richard Russell
You’ve lost your job or lost your girlfriend or lost your mind. But you’re stronger afterwards when you get a better job, a more mature girlfriend, or a healthier mental attitude. Maybe you’ve even grown spiritually.
But are people really stronger psychologically after significant suffering? In relevant research, participants believed that their adversity had positive personal results; but, post trauma, their anxiety and distress actually increased. Why?
There’s a well-established American trope that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” An example is the super-hero movie, in which the hero has to overcome some set-back or adversity before he can continue his career. But when real people suffer some personal reverse, they often don’t feel stronger. They feel anxious because they haven’t experienced strength after adversity; they are distressed because they haven’t met the American expectation that there’s “gain from pain.” So, they lie—both to themselves and the researcher. “Yes, I’m a better person,” they say.
However, there’s a subset of people in this research who really have changed significantly. Perhaps they’ve acquired a new attitude toward life or a new way to frame and cope with misfortune. Perhaps they’ve discovered a new spirituality. What’s the difference between people who are somehow transformed and people who remain the same?
Well, the difference lies in how the personal calamity is processed. Those who are genuinely transformed have reflected on their personal setback. They’ve asked themselves what meaning the adversity might have in their lives. They’ve consciously thought about what happened to them.
And that’s the Quaker way, isn’t it? Friends center down and allow the Inner Light to illuminate their suffering. They search for meaning, even in the sorrows of life. Friends have the spiritual tools necessary to realize some gain from pain.
(My article is based on an episode from the Hidden Brain podcast: What We Gain from Pain.)
~ Richard Russell
“Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel,” said Charlton Heston, movie Moses and one-time president of the National Rifle Association. A study quoted by the New York Times reveals that 54% of fundamentalist/ evangelical Christians have a gun in their home or garage. Cornerstone Arms, an interstate gun seller, is so named because “Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of our business, our family and our lives” and the “Second Amendment to our Constitution is the cornerstone of the freedom we enjoy as American citizens.” In other words, for many fundamentalist Christians, guns have become part and parcel of their religion.
Fundamentalists are very concerned with the freedom to exercise their religion as they see fit. In fact, the more radical evangelicals want the freedom to impose their world view on the rest of American society, which they see as secular and undeserving of its prominence in our nation. Just as these Christians fanatically argue for their literalist interpretation of the Bible, so do these same folk fanatically argue for the right “to keep and bear arms.”
There are several reasons for the resistance to sensible gun laws. But, one cause of this intense opposition is its roots in religion. People who have strong religious beliefs will fight tooth and nail for those beliefs. Since gun ownership has become part of their religion, fundamentalist Christians see the regulation of guns as an attack against “true religion.” They see themselves as fighting for their faith when they refuse to compromise on the issue.
As we Quakers almost always support limiting access to guns, Friends will find themselves in a difficult conversation when they try to dialog with evangelicals who own guns or identify with those who own guns. I suppose Quakers must seek God’s help in changing the hearts and minds of fundamentalist firearm enthusiasts. We must hold these evangelicals in the Light and simultaneously campaign for the votes of “anti-gun” people in the secular society. With a heavy heart, I predict a long and bitter struggle over this key issue in our national life.
~ Richard Russell
In Luke 6:20 Jesus calls the poor, the hungry, and the depressed “blessed.” He adds, “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.”
But how can the poor, hungry, and rejected be blessed? Perhaps in a future life beyond the grave they will be blessed, but a blessed afterlife doesn’t help them right now in their present life. Perhaps Jesus means that there’s hope in every situation; but sometimes things are hopeless as when my friend was stricken with ALS, or my brother-in-law died from alcoholism. Perhaps Jesus is thinking of a Kingdom of God on earth where the poor will be taken care of by a benevolent government, but—as Quakers well know—such a kingdom is always receding, always beyond our grasp. I offer the recent Pandemic and the present war in Ukraine as evidence of history inevitably defeating our best intentions and hopes.
Jesus uses the enigmatic phrase “Son of Man.” Perhaps he is referring to himself, perhaps he is alluding to the Book of Daniel and the apocalyptic figure who comes from the clouds to establish on earth “an everlasting dominion” of justice.
But look closer. What is the common denominator of Jesus and the Son of Man in the clouds? Well, I would say that it’s the power of God made manifest both in Jesus and Daniel’s Son of Man. That power of God is more accurately described as God’s Presence, which Friends have traditionally described as “that of God” in every human being.
And that is why the poor are blessed. They and we—no matter what our circumstances—can never be separated from the Love of God which dwells within us. As Paul says in Romans 8:38:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor
demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither
height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to
separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Of course, many Friends reject the idea of Jesus as the Son in the Divine Trinity of “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” but Paul is not thinking of Jesus in those terms. He is thinking of Jesus as the “Christ,” which is the Greek for “anointed one.” Jesus has been anointed by God, sent as God’s messenger to proclaim the Kingdom of God already in our midst. And when we feel God’s presence, when we are aware of the Inner Light, we are already in that kingdom.
Even those of us who live in middle-class comfort and enjoy the conveniences of modern-day life are ultimately poor in that we sicken and die; but all of us, whether we are visibly poor or superficially rich, have within us the Divine Love that makes us sons and daughters of God. And God’s children are of infinite worth to the Divine Father/Mother. That worth, that dignity, that blessedness can never be taken away.
~ Richard Russell
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