Reclaiming the Christian Message

This is the text of a public lecture delivered by Julia Ryberg at Ireland Yearly Meeting of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)  held in Cork, Ireland on the 26th of July 2013

 I was 26, mother of three little children and distraught with complexities of life. It was a summer’s day in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I stood alone in a grove of mountain birch and wept. I was not yet aware of anything I called God. I called out to someone to help me. And someone answered me.  ‘I am with you. I will help you.’ I don’t know if the words came from within or from without, but a relationship began that day. More than 30 years have passed, and this talk will be about that relationship.

Thank you for this invitation to speak. It gives me an opportunity to remember, take stock and challenge myself. What can I say, today? It feels special to speak here this evening for several  reasons. First, Quaker ancestors on my father’s side emigrated to America from Grange Quaker Meeting in 1741. I have a connection with Ireland—not only a historical one, but also one of being tenderly upheld and welcomed by the body of Irish Friends. Second, Irish Quakers represent a theological spectrum within which my own journey of faith has moved. Your diversity—and how you love each other in it—is important to me. Furthermore, in the audience are guests from other churches, reminding me of significant ecumenical experiences I have had. And finally, in the audience there may be listeners who would call themselves seekers—of a faith, of a faith community—and perhaps something of my experience will speak to your condition. I hope that each of you will hear something that resonates within you. I hope that each of you will allow yourselves to be challenged. I hope that I offend no one. To aid the listening, I will pause for a minute of silent reflection a few times during my talk.

At 26, I identified as Quaker more by heritage than anything else. My family has been actively and influentially Quaker on all sides for many generations. I had a liberal Quaker upbringing that focused more on Quaker practise, pedagogy and peace work than on issues of faith. Some of my relatives were pastoral Quakers, evangelical Quakers…there was an ‘otherness’ about them that made me a bit uncomfortable. My knowledge of the Christian tradition was very sketchy. At Quaker boarding school ten years earlier, there had been a wave of Christian revival that I experienced as arrogant, divisive and exclusive. If anything, being Christian was something that gave me negative associations. Until I was 26, issues of faith were really not on my radar screen.

Things changed suddenly with this first spiritual opening. I felt as if I had been caught up in a net, rescued from drowning in my life drama. I was infatuated with, pre-occupied with whomever it was that had spoken. I called it God and I somehow associated it with Jesus. A Catholic friend guided me to the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I read hungrily. I read Brother Lawrence and Thomas Kelly. I felt Jesus close to me and longed for his total presence in me. Perhaps the infatuation was an escape from the challenges in my life at that time. Whatever the case, the condition lasted for a number of years. It filled me and helped me. It also embarrassed me. I did not talk much about it. I did not want to be a ‘Jesus freak’. Ambivalence found me turning the Jesus button off and on. Ambivalence has been a significant part of these 30 years and is probably what this talk is actually about.

I had married into a Swedish Quaker family and moved to Sweden at 20. My father-in-law was a charismatic wordsmith. However, I could only appreciate his writings years after his death. The day after his funeral in 1986, five years after my first spiritual opening, I travelled to a two-week ecumenical Bible course that he had encouraged me to attend. He had equipped me with a beautiful gilded Bible. I hadn’t the vaguest notion of how to use it. I was the only Quaker at the course. There was a lot of praise singing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, vocal prayer and hours of Bible study. What I mostly remember is the crucifix on the wall of my bedroom. It bothered me. I wanted Jesus, but I didn’t want the crucifix. I debated whether to take it down. It stayed on the wall, but it burned in me every time I looked at it. I also remember feeling excited and comforted by the religious expression of the other course participants, although I could not join in with the praise singing and remain true to myself. I explained, and the others respected my Quaker silence. The singing and praise washed through me and over me. Prayerful hands were laid on me. It was rich and real. This was another turning point.

The early 1990s found me teaching languages and social studies at the local men’s prison. I was expecting our youngest child during that period. It seemed that having a pregnant teacher somehow softened and deepened the discourse in class. The inmates’ conversation often turned to the meaning of life, to matters of faith, of having missed the mark in their roles as fathers, of hopes to do better. It seemed that my faith, diffuse as it was, was entering my professional life and that I needed to do something intentional about it. This coincided with Swedish Friends asking me to serve the Yearly Meeting. I have worked for Quakers since then. Since then, when anyone has asked about what I do for a living, I have needed to say something about my community of faith and my understanding of faith, and the questions ‘Where do I belong?’ and ‘What do I believe?’ keep needing to be answered.

In 1995 there was a dramatic turn of events. I had been feeling a bit restless for some months, perhaps a bit dry and doubtful about the whole God-thing. Unexpectedly on August 1, when I was in a meditative state, I suddenly experienced a bright and powerful light moving from outside me and coursing through my body from head to toe. It was overwhelming. It did not involve any religious language, images or emotions. It was simply an overwhelming and awe-filled experience of a powerful light. My immediate response has remained since that day: ‘Now I know that God is real, active, transcendent and immanent. I do not have to wonder ever again. I need no more proof. This is no longer about belief. It is about knowing.’ Now, you might think, things would be smooth sailing after that. On the contrary, it put me on a new and challenging course.

The experience of light, free as it was from any religious elements, was universal in nature. I understood that similar experiences are recounted in many faith traditions and outside faith traditions. Yet for me, it was the ultimate proof of the existence of God. It seemed that no sooner had God become thoroughly real for me than Jesus began nagging at me: ‘Hey, what about me? Who do you say I am?’  Now it seemed that the abstract was asking to be clothed, to be made particular, to become embodied. I found myself less concerned with the nature of God and more focused on the phenomenon of Jesus Christ. How was he connected with the experience of the light that had affected me so fundamentally?

The experience fuelled my life for many years. It held me under the arms when I served the local Lutheran church as chairperson of the parish board for five years. There was a painful conflict around a controversial vicar, and I had been given a political mandate to remove him from his position. I became deeply involved in the structures, the culture and the liturgy of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. That is when my Christian education really began, and the questions that arose during that time have continued to engage me. Working actively to remove a vicar proved to be a trial by fire. As chairperson, I had to use worldly tools of lobbying and majority rule—so different from Quaker decision making! As a woman and Quaker, I was controversial in challenging an ordained clergyman’s appropriateness for his office. I remember attending mass one Sunday. The vicar was calling the congregation to come forward for communion. ‘Come, all is ready.’ But I was in conflict with him. How could I rise and go forward? Yet not taking part seemed an act of betrayal. In deep distress I called out inwardly to Jesus. ‘Help me! What would you do?’ Immediately, I was brought to my feet. Beyond all worldly conflict between our roles and views, the vicar and I shared a common humanity and we were there to honour the memory of Jesus. The five years of service were a significant piece of spiritual and personal development for me.

The August 1 experience had other far-reaching implications. I made some life-changing choices. Among others, I followed a calling to study. I considered, very briefly, studying for the Lutheran clergy, but how could I leave my Quaker context? How could I serve under a formulated creed?  I wanted to learn about Quakerism, Christianity, church history. I wanted to study the Bible. I wanted to gain some understanding of what my future ministry might be. The result was seven years with Earlham School of Religion, the Quaker seminary in the USA, in a combination of on-site and online studies. Sweden Yearly Meeting supported me throughout the process.

During seminary, I became acquainted with the life of Swedish Quaker Emilia Fogelklou. She was born in 1878. She writes about a lesson in Christianity, when she was around 8 years of age. The teacher was talking about George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, who was under the delusion that he could be guided by an ‘inner light’ that was within each person. Little Emilia piped up: ‘I am suffering from that same delusion.’ She became a writer, mystic, educator, peace worker during two world wars, women’s rights advocate, and one of the ‘mothers’ of Sweden Yearly Meeting when it was founded in 1936. Although I never met her, Emilia’s words and life story have helped me grapple with the Christian tradition. When she was 23, and deeply depressed, Emilia had a transformative experience she called her Revelation of Reality. In order to understand what had happened to her, she studied theology and became the first woman in Sweden to take a degree in theology, in 1909.  She describes her transformative experience in the third person: But one bright day of spring – the 29th of May 1902 – when she sat preparing a lesson amongst the trees behind Föreningsgatan 6, there occurred quite silently, invisibly, the central event of her whole life. Without sight or sound of speech or human touch, she experienced in a state of exceptionally clear consciousness the great releasing inner wonder. It was as though the ’empty shell’ broke. All burden and anguish, the whole sense of unreality melted away. She felt living goodness, joy, light like an irradiatingly clear, uplifting, enfolding unquestionable reality from deep within. The first words that came to her – after a long time – were: this is the great Mercy, this is God. Nothing is as real as this….Within herself she knew, without priest or book, how God finds a person and bestows life and freedom and light. The New Testament opened up from within. She understood that what had happened to her was possible for everyone.  It was part of human life. She recognized glimpses of it in the churches and the sects, but for herself she did not require so much ‘wrapping paper around God,’ not so many repetitions of the same thoughts and words, as if God were deaf or forgetful or reluctant to listen.

Because the August 1 experience was so universal in nature, I felt at liberty to image and relate to God in ways that were meaningful to me. I rejoice at the words of another early Swedish Quaker, Elin Wägner, as she expresses a similar sense of liberty. I have written and said, innumerable times, that Quakers maintain that God dwells in each person. A long time ago it suddenly occurred to me that, in that case, he also dwells in me. But now I knew what I had done with him. Tied his hands and feet, put him on a starvation diet, refused to speak to the prisoner while throwing into the astronomers’ universe a cry of desperation and doubt to some strangely distant and apathetic God. But now he had become free, made himself free or perhaps I had set him free. And then he was able to answer, that poor gagged God.

During the years of seminary study, the framework of the Christian faith became clearer. I understood that there were certain beliefs and doctrines that were central to Christianity, without which one could hardly be a ‘proper’ Christian. You might think that I could have simply not worried about it, given myself a quasi-Christian, or perhaps a universalist Quaker identity and gotten on with life. This was not possible, because—as I said earlier—Jesus was simply not letting me alone.

I struggled with the resurrection, with the exclusive claims of Christianity, with the notion of the Trinity, with the creeds, with the incarnation, with the concept of sin, with how the historical Jesus is related to the Christ of faith. I struggled with the violence and patriarchy of the Old Testament—did I need to relate to those writings at all? I haven’t even begun to struggle with the atonement. How could I possibly call myself a Christian, given that I had trouble with pretty much all of it? And did it really matter? Couldn’t I simply be a committed Quaker without coming to terms with all of the above? Many of my Quaker Friends had just let the whole Christianity thing go…as too laden with history and baggage. I could certainly identify with that! I couldn’t let it go.

It then dawned on me that there are many ways of being Christian, just as there are many ways of being Muslim and Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist. There are many ways of being Universalist. And I have seen the Christ-like life modelled in many people of other faith traditions and none. I had a growing sense, and a growing frustration, that others—an undefined mass called mainstream Christians—seemed to have reserved the right to define what it is to be Christian. I was not prepared to answer ‘No’ to the question whether I was a Christian, but I was not prepared to answer ‘Yes’ without understanding what kind of a Christian I was. It was not going to be an easy or neat journey.

I remember reading a book for seminary studies. It was a history of the different roles that Jesus has been assigned through the centuries—almost as if he had been a paper doll and given different costumes in order to serve cultural, political, social and economic purposes. What a revelation! Which Jesus was I relating to? How have the many manifestations of Jesus affected me, a 21st century Swedish-American Quaker woman? I felt drawn to find the naked, unadorned Jesus, the one behind all the costumes and roles assigned him. Who was he? What did he say? Emilia’s words again: Poor Jesus. If we would only worship him a little less and listen to him a little more.

Finding him, listening to him, means reading the Gospels. I wanted to know the true version. I wanted to know what he really said, and wondered if I couldn’t simply cut and paste the words of Jesus—printed red in so many Bibles—into one document and skip the rest that seemed so inconsistent. I learned about the Jesus Seminar in this context, about the theologians who were studying the Gospels to determine degrees of likelihood that words attributed to Jesus really were uttered by him. And it was both distressing and liberating to me to fully understand that the red texts are not direct quotes and that factual truth is hard to find. I began to understand at a deep level that the Gospels—and indeed all the books of the Bible— are themselves human attempts to make sense of a mystery. The fact that there needs to be several inconsistent versions of the Gospel is not a weakness but attests to the mysterious nature of events that have continued to engage, challenge, nourish people for over 2000 years. It is the same story told through several different lenses—remembered, edited, translated and interpreted throughout the centuries in a rich and often bitter  brew of language, culture and politics.

I continued reading one of the Jesus Seminar theologians, Marcus Borg. His writings, and meeting him in Stockholm last November, have helped me considerably. His book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time was enlightening, and the title intrigued me. Seeing again, for the first time, suggests that we can return with new eyes, new insight, to something—or someone—precious to us, challenging or disturbing to us and see that something, or someone, in a new light. I understood that  I could re-visit my understandings thus far of the Christian tradition. I became aware of the baggage that I had, even though I had not been given an explicitly Christian upbringing. I had quite a bit of baggage simply by virtue of living in a culture that is based on Christian values—although I believe it has distorted what it is to be a person of faith and a follower of Jesus. And I do not need to let the distortions define my faith!

I came to realize that I was probably being a faithful Quaker. Throughout the centuries, Quakers have questioned outer authority in the light of firsthand experience. I felt a growing confidence in my messy, inconsistent seeking after a way to identify as a Christian with my integrity and intelligence intact. Early Quakers had re-discovered primitive Christianity, and the word ‘primitive’ here doesn’t mean a less refined version. It means the version that existed before too many people began messing too much with a good idea—and using it to gain power over others. So, although Quakers are prepared to question outer authority, we also consistently test firsthand experience in the light of tradition. In other words, there is the understanding that continuing revelation will not be inconsistent with a living tradition. This begs the question, What continues to be life-giving in our tradition—both the Quaker and the Christian? And what, on the other hand, might we be holding onto that needs reviewing? The origin of the word ‘tradition’  means both a passing on of something and a betrayal of something. Tradition can be something that grounds us and gives us sustenance. It can also be something that keeps us stuck and betrays the life-giving wellspring. Tradition is not something to be used as an argument for the status quo. It is something that should help us keep our eyes open, that opens us to the past, the present and the future all at once.

Emilia warned us about getting stuck: Systems of faith are like a gauge reading of what has been experienced, and as such they are greatly justified. But we must not get stuck in the past, but in every new situation wait for the current of life  from the one who said  ‘See, I am making all things new’. If Quakers do not do that, we are the poorest of all communities.

But my father-in-law, Sven Ryberg, warned us about abuse of freedom: The Society of Friends has an obliging history, but it is easy to take advantage of spiritual greatness of the past. We have no priests, no confessors, no dogmas or sacraments, nothing that can take us by the collar and hold us under our arms when we begun being sucked into the abyss. We are instead dangerously close to hubris, to self-indulgence, to snobbishness with our freedom, to spiritual sloth and to many, many excuses. We do not notice when we have sunk back from the the glimpse of reality, of truth that we once saw. Quaker freedom is a disastrous pitfall if it is not reclaimed every day from within.

It seems we must navigate between the extremes of getting stuck and losing our bearings.

In the past few years, God has become wider for me. God has become process more than an entity, more verb than noun. I learned of the concept, actually from Celtic spirituality, of ‘thin places’. These are the places, events, encounters, texts and music, where the membrane, the veil, between our everyday reality and the ultimate reality, God, seems to become very thin and we sense that the two realities become one. This resonates with the Quaker understanding that all of life is sacramental. As God became increasingly both more abstract and more present, I found it harder to relate to God. I began to wonder if I was becoming a non-theist—at least I could understand those who are unable to relate to God as a ‘he—up there’, an absent parent, a distant judge. It wasn’t that kind of distance from God that I was experiencing. It was more like God simply becoming synonymous with life itself. How does a fish describe the water?

I was troubled recently by an example of the prevalent notion of God being a ‘he—up there’. Two little granddaughters were visiting and asked me about my work. I said I work for God. They looked at me in disbelief. The elder one asked, ‘You mean him, up there?’ pointing vaguely to the sky. ‘Do you really believe in him, Grandmother?’ I tried to find words for the thinness of life, the  sense of being permeated and loved by something very close to me. I asked if they understood, and they nodded in recognition. The younger child asked if I believed in Jesus, if I believed that he had climbed up to heaven to be with God after he had died. Again, I tried to express a sense of belonging to rather than believing in, of not knowing what actually happened back then, but knowing that there is deep truth in it all; of the fact that people can still be very much alive within us even though they have died—like the memory we have of great grandmother who is no longer with us. I asked if they understood, and they nodded in recognition. I was saddened that, already, these secularised little ones have not been given a working relationship between the awesome wonder of life and a living faith tradition. Emilia wrote:  God may no longer be held captive in heaven, like in a beautiful blue stone to create legends about. It wants to be released alive out of this prison, whose walls people have perhaps needed for their great fear. It wants to descend from heaven as quality in the life of the world.

As God seemed to become more diffuse, Jesus came again into sharper focus. But I realized that my struggles with doctrine had subsided. Like Emilia, I do not need so much ‘wrapping paper around God.’ Or around Jesus.  I have finally claimed the right to call myself Christian, in my way. I feel empowered and at liberty to interpret Christian doctrine and Scripture in ways that help me navigate my life. If we had time, I could tell you what the resurrection and the Trinity mean to me, and I could tell you how I understand John 14:6 (where Jesus says that no one comes to God but through him) in a way that makes perfect sense to me—without suggesting any exclusive Christian claim to enlightenment or connection with God. You might think that things would be smooth sailing at last. Not a chance. Jesus is not letting me alone.

Perhaps it was the enlightening and disturbing study tour, organised by the Quaker Council for European Affairs, to Palestine and Israel. Perhaps it was being challenged and excited during the World Conference last year by all that other Quakers are doing to help mend the world. Perhaps it was closely following the American presidential race and realizing how much was at stake. Perhaps it was listening to Marcus Borg speak in Stockholm about the Kingdom of God—saying that the message of Jesus is about opening our hearts to embrace and work for God’s dream for a world of compassion and justice. Quakers have always maintained that heaven is here and now, but still waiting to come. But had I not become a bit complacent, thriving in my little plot of heaven, leading retreats and serving Friends in various ministries? Could I honestly say that I am living the radical message of Jesus, actively working to build the Kingdom of God? And to what extent is my faith community living the radical message of Jesus, regardless of how we as individuals understand and relate to him? Emilia reminds us that the inner light is not a possession. Perhaps we have only have an empty candlestick left. We do not notice that our journey no longer follows the light of life, but has become the holy legacy of a whitewashed tomb.

Looking back, my relationship with God has been relatively uncomplicated. My relationship with Jesus has been more complex. I have gone from ignoring him to being in love with him to trying to figure him out and now to saying, ‘OK. I’m yours. What can I help you with?’ While obsessing over this talk, trying to make sense of these 30 years, it occurred to me that perhaps I am not as much the initiator of this relationship as I had thought. Perhaps I have been claimed by God, by the Spirit, by the light of life, by the Living Christ that was fully present in Jesus. I think of the story of Jesus beginning his ministry by creating a community around him. He found some ordinary guys to follow him. Maybe I am an ordinary gal that has been found to follow him.  And I am re-claimed, over and over, as I stumble and fall and forget. I am lifted up by God. I am lifted up by God through the body that is my faith community.

My father-in-law told of an elderly British Friend who wrote to him: Christianity is not a theory to discuss or a problem to solve. It is a life to live, a person to love.’ Perhaps the Christian message is not some words that we agree, or disagree, about. Perhaps it is we, as individuals and faith communities, who are called to be the message—called to witness to the Light of life with our lives. Perhaps the incarnation is about the Word becoming flesh in us, claiming us and using us as instruments of compassion, justice, peace. I no longer want to be asked ‘How are you doing?’ but rather ‘How are you growing?’ I no longer want the first question about my Quaker Meeting to be how many members it has, but rather how Truth is prospering among us and how well we love each other.

I want to belong to Jesus in my messy, inconsistent way. I want my way to be his way. I want my story to resonate with his. I want my vision to be the one he was passionate about—which is not a vision that is exclusively Christian.  It isn’t his fault that people tend to get stuck in the wrapping paper. Even if it turns out the the whole story is fiction, it is still powerful enough to change the world—and our lives.

Thank you for listening to my story. I wish I could listen to each of yours. God is at work in each of us in diverse and unique ways. We grow by sharing with each other.