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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part V


As with humility, Kelly cuts past a facile understanding of simplicity to describe the true virtue that lies underneath those outward signs that we sometimes label ‘simplicity.’

I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through with so many pantingly and frantically gasp.  These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and preace we have been missing can really be found.  But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark. [p. 45]


We are called beyond strain, to peace and power and joy and love and thorough abandonment of self.  We are called to put our hand trustingly in His hand and walk the holy way, in no anxiety assuredly resting in him. [p. 46]

Intentionally clearing our calendar is a good practice, and so is turning off the TV, shunning materialistic excesses, and spending time quietly with God.  But none of those things are ‘simplicity’ per se.  Simplicity is the calmness of the soul that comes from deeply accepting that God is on his throne, his love is boundless, and his plans will be brought to fruition in the end.  I may partner with him in his creative and restorative work, and I may sometimes struggle vigorously for the kingdom’s sake.  But no outcome rests on my shoulders.  All rests on God.  So I can rest in him.  This is the last, and lasting, fruit of holy obedience.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part IV

Entrance into Suffering

The Cross as dogma is painless speculation; the Cross as lived suffering is anguish and glory.  Yet God, out of the pattern of His own heart, has planted the Cross along the road of holy obedience. [p. 43]

Kelly is writing in the late 1930’s or perhaps 1940, and he refers several times in this section to the great suffering in Europe.  Even though he didn’t live to see America’s entrance into the war, or to know the worst horrors of the holocaust or the atomic bomb, he still had a deep sense of the suffering of the planet.

[W]e shrink from suffering and can easily call all suffering an evil thing.  Yet we live in an epoch of tragic sorrows, when man is adding to the crueler forces of nature such blasphemous horrors as drag soul as well as body into hell.  And holy obedience must walk in this world, not aloof and preoccupied, but stained with sorrow’s travail. [p. 40]

This isn’t just because joining with people in sorrow is the right or Christian thing to do, but because there is a truth we see in suffering that we can miss in times of comfort.  Comfortable times can entice us to live in the illusion that human cleverness or good will can give us the peace and security we need–and we can drift away from God, seeing no need for him since we are doing so well for ourselves.  Tribulation reminds us of the truth.  Thus Kelly writes:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone.  It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. [p. 41]

I’ve read a thousand times in the Bible that I shouldn’t trust in my money and possessions for security.  Jesus said those things were all temporary, that only treasure in heaven lasts.  But when the economy tanks and my IRA plummets, I have a unique opportunity to re-discover that Jesus was right, and to search my soul to see if I am willing to trust Him fully for my security, or whether I’ll keep scrambling for the shiny things I can gather up around me.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part III

Humility and Holiness

Now Kelly writes that there are many fruits of holy obedience, but “two are so closely linked together that they can scarcely be treated seperately.  The are the passion for personal holiness and a sense of utter humility.” [p. 34-35]

Kelly gets humility exactly right, I think.  It isn’t “self-disgust at our shabby lives”–it’s such a deep awareness of God that you fully realize only what He is doing counts.  Humility doesn’t come through thinking of myself a certain way, it comes from not really thinking about myself at all.

The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him… [p. 36]

If I try to progress in humility by thinking about myself in a certain way, I’ve entered a self-defeating process.  Humility comes when I’m not grasping for humility itself, but grasping for God.

Kelly goes on to say that there is a humility in God Himself–that it makes sense to say “Be humble, therefore, as God is humble.”  I’m not quite sure what he means by this, unless it is that God himself isn’t really focused on his own status or glory, rather his focus is on love for his creation.  This is my understanding of the hymn in Philippians 2:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

In other words, it is because of the fact that Jesus shares the nature of God–not in spite of it!–that he was willing to leave power and privilege to become a servant.  The humility of Christ is not some abberation in the Trinity, but truly reflects the character of God.

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part II

Gateways into Holy Obedience

Kelly writes of two gateways into the wholly (and holy) obedient life.  Some come into such obedience through mystical experience.

It is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of the living God, to be invaded to the depths of one’s being by his presence, to be, without warning, wholly uprooted from all earthborn securities and assurances, and to be blown by a tempest of unbelievable power which leaves one’s old proud self utterly, utterly defenseless, until one cries, “All Thy waves and thy billows are gone over me” (Ps. 42:7).  Then is the soul swept into a loving Center of ineffable sweetness, where calm and unspeakable peace and ravishing joy steal over one….There stand the saints of the ages, their hearts open to view, and lo, their hearts are our heart and their hearts are the heart of the Eternal One.  In awful solemnity the Holy One is over all and in all, exquisitely loving, infinitely patient, tenderly smiling.  Marks of glory are upon all things, and the marks are cruciform and blood-stained.  And one sighs, like the convinced Thomas of old, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).  Dare one lift one’s eyes and look?  Nay, whither can one look and not see Him? [p. 30]

Something tells me that this isn’t going to be my gateway into obedience.  An experience of God half that intense would be twice as gripping as anything I’ve ever known.  But Kelly doesn’t expect this kind of ecstatic experience to endure, or to happen for many people.

Do not mistake me.  Our interest just now is in the life of complete obedience to God, not in some amazing revelations of His glory graciously granted only to some.  Yet the amazing experiences of the mystics leave a permanent residue, a God-subdued, God-possessed will. [p. 32]

It seems like all the genuine mystics understand that (1) very few people are going to have visions of this magnitude, (2) the people who do recieve them have them as an act of grace, not a reward for personal merit, (3) such visions are temporary and rare–perhaps happening briefly once, and never again, (4) they are an aid to Christian holiness, but not essential.  Devoted Christian living can happen without such moments.

I appreciate this characteristic humility from the great mystics, and more than that, appreciate their sense of priority.  It’s encouraging to a complete non-mystic like me that Kelly thinks I can also have a life of holy obedience, even without the celestial visions.  But that means traveling through a different gateway.

…most people must follow…the active way, wherein we must struggle and, like Jacob of old, wrestle with the angel until morning dawns, the active way wherein the will must be subjected bit by bit, piecemeal and progressively, to the divine Will. [p. 32]

The first step is to is to cultivate a

flaming vision of the wonder of such a life, a vision which comes occasionally to us all, through biographies of the saints…through a life lived before our eyes, through a haunting verses of the Psalms…through meditation upon the amazing life and death of Jesus….[p. 32]

This is precisely why I’ve begun to develop an interest in the lives of the saints, and why I think most of the Protestant world made a mistake in rejecting the notion of identifying those among us who have lived exemplary lives worth of study and emulation.  Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Augustine, Patrick, Clare, Aidan–my spiritual life would be significantly impoverished without their examples.  I could also make a long list of the lives “lived before my eyes” who have made a difference.  As Paul wrote, we should “take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Philippians 3:17)

Once you have a vision of what the wholly obedient life looks like, the second step is to start living in a way that is congruent with your vision–even if you are starting in very small ways.

Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if it be like the grain of a mustard seed. [p.33]

Step three:

If you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour, and assert your old proud self, and rely on your clever wisdom, don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets or self-accusations, but begin again, just where you are. [p. 34]

Again I shout Amen!  We all slip and fall.  No one’s path is perfect, and “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part I

The Nature of Holy Obedience

Meister Eckhart wrote: “There are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the other half.  They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”  It is just this astonishing life which is willing to follow Him the other half, sincerely to disown itself, this life which intends complete obedience, without any reservations, that I would propose to you in all humility, in all boldness, in all seriousness.  I mean this literally, utterly, completely, and I mean it for you and for me–commit your lives in unreserved obedience to Him.

If you don’t realize the revolutionary explosiveness of this proposal you don’t understand what I mean. [p.26]

In some, says William James, religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever.  Religion as a dull habit is not that for which Christ lived and died. [p. 27]

The life that intends to be wholly obedient, wholly submissive, wholly listening, is astonishing in its completeness.  Its joys are ravishing, its peace profound, its humility the deepest, its power world-shaking, its love enveloping, its simplicity that of a trusting child.  It is the life and power in which the prophets and apostles lived….And it is a life and power that can break forth in this tottering Western culture and return the Church to its rightful life as a fellowship of creative, heaven-led souls.  [p.28-29]

I’d like to see that last bit on a church bulletin: “Welcome to ABC Church, a fellowship of creative, heaven-led souls.”

There’s a lot on these pages that is worth chewing on for a while.  My initial thoughts:

  1. Kelly sees the primary barrier to complete obedience as an unwillingness to disown self.  This is something beyond giving up “possessions, friends, honors”–but those are the primary things that I think of when I’m grappling with dying to myself.  If I’ve already left my things, my people, and my pride for the cause of Christ, what is left for me to disown?  I think Kelly is right that I don’t understand what he means.  Does it have to do with leaving self-direction so I can become a “heaven-led soul”?
  2. I suspect that Kelly’s contrast between dull habits and acute fevers could be misinterpreted.  I don’t think he is in the modern happy-clappy praise camp.  Quaker spirituality tends to be quiet and contemplative.  He’s not really thinking of externals here, but is still dealing with interior matters.  The issue is: Am I following Jesus out of a sense of obligation, or because I have been so infected with the divine that I can’t be free from Christ any longer?  Based on early chapters, Kelly is all in favor of set routines, at least as a starting point.  But it is my grappling with the God-fever that compells me to these routines of prayer, not vice-versa.  Again, He initiates, I respond.
  3. Interesting that Kelly says that the wholly obedient, submissive, listening life is “astonishing in its completeness.”  We think that we’ve given something up, but we find instead that God provides those things that we truly need when we give up what we merely want.  The simple, humble life is also powerful (world-shaking!) and creative.  We need creativity among the saints, because God is creative and we join him in his work.  Didn’t Craddock say something about boring worship being a sin, because to be bored in our faith is to misrepresent God?

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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part III

As Kelly explains what a life guided by the inner light of Christ is like, he writes that such guidance does not consist wholly “in special leadings toward particular tasks.  It begins first of all with a mass revision of our total reaction to the world.”  This is another area where the classic teachers of contemplation surprised me.  The majority of my acquaintances who “listen for the voice of God” or seek to obey the “inner promptings of the Spirit” seem to have a particular focus on discovering what exciting tasks the Lord has in mind for them.  But the great mystics of the church are primarily focused on cultivating a deep love of God that leads to inner moral formation.  It isn’t so much about what they do specifically, as it is about the kind of person they are becoming.  Again, I’m reminded of St. Teresa.  She remarked in The Interior Castle that the first time a person hears the voice of God, he won’t like it.  That’s because God says the same thing to everybody at first: “put away your sins!”

If you go down the mystic path looking to discover the “wonderful plan God has for your life,” you may be disappointed when he instead tells you to stop sinning and love people more.  Which is where Kelly turns next.

Paradoxically, this total Instruction proceeds in two opposite directions at once.  We are torn loose from earthly attachments and ambitions–contemptus mundi.  And we are quickened to a divine but painful attachment to the world–amor mundi.  He plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chains of attachment.  And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He together carry it in infinitely tender love. [p. 19-20]

Gone is my selfish ambition; in its place is selfless love.  We are called to follow the pattern of the One who left all glory and authority to become a mortal man, a servant, an executed criminal.  In the light of Christ, all wrangling for prominence is exposed for the great foolishness that it is.

But this is joy–not sorrow.  Kelly calls it “the new freedom of utter poverty.”  His last words in this section are worth quoting in full:

Double-mindedness in this matter is wholly destructive of the spiritual life. Totalitarian are the claims of Christ. No vestige of reservation of “our” rights can remain. Straddle arrangements and compromises between our allegiences to the surface level and the divine Center cannot endure. Unless the willingness is present to be stripped of our last earthly dignity and hope, and yet still praise Him, we have no message in this our day of refugees, bodily and spiritual. Nor have we yielded to the monitions of the Inner Instructor.

But actually completed detachment is much harder than intended detachment.  Fugitive islands of secret reservations elude us.  Rationalizations hide them.  Intending absolute honesty, we can only bring ourselves steadfastly into His presence and pray “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” And in the X-ray light of Eternity we may be given to see the dark spots of life, and divine grace may be given to reinforce our will to complete abandonment in Him.  For the guidance of the Light is critical, acid, sharper than a two-edged sword.  He asks all, but gives all. [p. 21-22]


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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part II

From the book:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once.  On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.

The secular world of today values and cultivates only the first level, assured that there is where the real business of mankind is done, and scorns, or smiles in tolerant amusement, at the cultivation of the second level–a luxury enterprise, a vestige of superstition, an occupation for special temperaments.  But in a deeply religious culture men know that this deep level of prayer and of divine attendance is the most important thing in the world.  It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined. [p. 9]

His comments on the values of “the secular world of today” are striking–so often we look back at the 1930’s as a time of devoted faithfulness to which we need to return.  Kelly didn’t find those years particularly spiritual.

Later on, he explains that the “first level” matters of the external world are brought into the inner “second level” and viewed in the light of Christ:

Facts remain facts, when brought into the Presence in the deeper level, but their value, their significance, is wholly realigned.  Much apparent wheat becomes utter chaff, and some chaff becomes wheat.  Imposing powers?  They are out of the Life and must crumble.  Lost causes?  If God be for them, who can be against them?  Rationally plausible futures?  They are weakened or certified in the dynamic Life and Light.  Tragic suffering?  Already He is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.  Hopeless debauchees?  These are children of God, his concern and ours….For faith and hope and love for all things are engendered in the soul, as we practice their submission and our own to the Light Within, as we humbly see all things, even darkly and as through a glass, yet through the eye of God. [p. 10]

As they say in my line of work, “That’ll preach!”  Our attitude is not determined by outward circumstance.  If Jesus is Lord, there is no hopeless situation, no lost cause, nothing so broken that it cannot be repaired.  To say this is not to deny the reality of our situation, it is to begin to believe what reality truly is.  Those fearsome powers will crumble.  Babylon has already been judged, and the dirge for her fall is being sung.  The most lost person is deeply loved by God, and we are called to love them as well.

A word on tragic suffering:  Often the presence of enormous pain in the Earth is used as evidence for the prosecution when God is put on trial.  We want a life with no suffering, and we think that a God who really loved us would give that to us.  The apologists have made a good case that suffering is a necessary consequence of free will.  (If God won’t overturn my free will in order to keep me from getting drunk and driving, then some suffering must come.)  But I think it may be that if we were looking from God’s perspective, we would consider trials and thorns a feature, not a flaw.  Imagine what prayer would sound like if we got the painless life we think we want:

God, we are grateful for another year with no tears, for another year with no challenges and no pain.  There was no need for us to comfort one another, because no one was sorrowful.  There was no need for us to bear one another’s burdens, because they all slipped away on their own accord.  There was no need for us to sacrifice our things, because none among us were poor.  It was another year when we needed no wisdom because there were no problems to answer.  For another twelve months we have not grown, because nothing has stretched us.  We could live out our lives weak in faith and dim in sight, because you shielded us from all harm.

God seems to want something different from us.  Kelly’s response to suffering is spot on: “Already he is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.”  The light of God shines through not when pain is absent, but when his people are present.

When we first begin to cultivate the inner life, Kelly says, we will find ourselves moving back and forth between attention to our external and internal realities.  But over time we begin to move toward the simultaneous attention to both realms.

The first signs of simultaneity are given when at the moment of recovery from a period of forgetting there is a certain sense that we have not completely forgotten Him.  It is as though we are only coming back into a state of vividness which had endured in dim and tenuous form throughout….The currents of His love have been flowing, but whereas we had been drifting in him, now we swim. [p. 11-12]

Kelly makes it clear that while we must choose to move toward the inner life, our progress in this life is wholly dependent on the initiative of God.  He may leave us in the alternating state for his own reasons, or give us the gift of simultaneity.  This reminds me, as Kelly often does, of Teresa of Avila.  It is a common theme among the mystics that we are called to the contemplative life, but progress into the steadfast peace of God is a divine gift that we cannot earn or merit, only graciously receive.  Teresa herself spoke of a long period (eighteen months, I think), during which she had an intense awareness of the presence of Christ, as though he were visibly beside her.  That time ended, never to return, but it was an act of divine grace she remembered with gratitude.

Kelly’s description of the deepest levels of inner life:

We are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day.  Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakableness, firmness of life-orientation.  We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.” [p. 15]

This is exactly the sort of thing that most surprised me when I started reading mystics, although it wouldn’t have if I had known anything at all about mystical orientation.  I had a shallow notion that mysticism was about turning off your mind so you could go about in some kind of detached ecstatic state–prayer as marijuana for the soul.  Instead, the whole point of the inner life is to be intimately connected to the life of God so that you think more clearly (and faithfully), live in the deepest reality, and maintain a serene firmness.  “Established” is a great word for it.  It’s not a head-in-the-clouds drifting at all, rather the cultivation of deep roots in the firm soil of God’s love.  The inner light heightens your experience of reality; it never diminishes it.

This brings to mind a minor pet peeve of mine.  I understand why people who lead communion meditations sometimes say something like “leave all your worldly cares and concerns outside as we focus on the cross and gather around the table of God.”  But if the cross and table don’t help me to see my cares more clearly for what they are, give me wisdom to know what to do and the strength to do it, then they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do.  People who speak this way apparently believe that the realm of faith doesn’t converge with the realm of this world, but every page of scripture seems to me to declare that they do.  The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof–and he still cares about what we are doing within it.

Who, by the way, are the “established men?”

They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich.  They exist, and happy is the church that contains them.

You know some of these folks, and so do I.  They may be rare, but there are always some around.  That is a hopeful thought!

How do we get started on this inner life?

In the early weeks, we begin with simple, whispered words.  Formulate them spontaneously, “Thine only. Thine only.”  Or seize upon a fragment of the Psalms: “so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.”  Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.  For the conscious cooperation of the surface level is needed at first, before prayer sinks into the second level as habitual divine orientation. [p. 16]

I’m still getting a lot of mileage out of  the Jesus PrayerLord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. There aren’t many situations where that one doesn’t apply.  I once fell asleep while reciting that prayer and when I woke up it was the first thing I said.  It was a remarkable experience to literally wake up praying.

Another short prayer possibility comes from Anne Lamott.  She writes that most prayers come down to either “Help me! Help me!” or “Thank you!  Thank you!”  Those both sound good to me.

Kelly writes that over time we may discover that the words are no longer necessary, because we have “entered the attitude of the soul which you meant the words to express.”  But if that attitude starts to slip, we can always go back to reciting the words that took us there.

A final word of encouragement:

And we have our firsthand assurance that He who began a good work in us, as in Timothy, can establish us in Him, can transform intermittancy and alternation into simultaneity and continuity. [p. 19]


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A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part I

Our Christian book reading group is discussing Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion this month.  Kelly (1893-1941) was a Quaker, and is writing out of the strong mystical emphasis of that tradition.  Here are my highlights from part I.

What is here urged are internal practices and habits of the mind.  What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being about the Inward Light, ways of conducting our inward life so that we are perpetually bowed in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. [p.5]

Such practice of inward orientation, of inward worship and listening, is no mere counsel for special religious groups, for small religious orders, for special “interior souls,” for monks retired in cloisters.  This practice is the heart of religion. [p. 6]

Dogmas and creed and the closed revelation of a completed canon have replaced the emphasis upon keeping close to the fresh upspringings of the Inward Life.  The dearth of rich Protestant literature on the interior aspects of Christian living, except as it bears on the opening experience of conversion, bears testimony to its emphasis being elsewhere. [p.7]

Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.  And Christian practice is not exhausted in outward deeds.  These are the fruits, not the roots.  A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and its fitfullness and recreates it (after the pattern seen on the Mount.) [p. 8]

Kelly is one of those authors that I appreciate not because he is a kindred spirit but because his inclinations are so different than my own.  I am not a mystic–not even close!–and yet I find his call compelling.  The richness of deep contemplation, of perpetual inward worship, is a gift he calls all believers to open.  A life energized by communion with the indwelling Christ is not just for the robed ascetics in their silent isolation, but is God’s hope for all of us–parents of chatty toddlers included, presumably!  I love the image of my inner soul contentedly and peacefully bowed in worship, while outwardly I am pushing through my to-do list, coordinating committee meetings, making household repairs, roaring like lions with my daughter.  We abide in the perpetual Sabbath rest even on manic Monday mornings.

Protestant literature about the practices of the inner life is much more prevalent than when Kelly wrote.  People like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard and Phyllis Tickle have become mentors of thousands of Christians exploring spiritual formation.  Our own congregation, which is definitely Protestant and rooted in a highly rationalistic tradition, even hosts an occasional prayer labyrinth.  Things are changing.  But I think there is still a tendency to grope toward the inward life out of a sense of dutiful guilt.  We can add “inner practices” to our already full to-do lists, making them one more thing to check off each day; necessities performed from the limited energies of our human efforts.  We must instead learn to allow our inner life to become a basic orientation toward God that energizes us for the tasks we must do (and that gives us the discernment to see God at work in our own work).

I can picture what that life is like, and I sometimes feel like I’m getting there, but I keep falling back into old, broken habits.  I must remember something else Kelly wrote:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder.  But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders….And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to his secret presence and working within us.

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