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A Testament of Devotion: Holy Obedience, Part V

Simplicity

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]

And

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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