11 March 2021

Marion Ballysingh's testimony (God's sweet revenge, part two)

God's sweet revenge, part one

Hell, holiness, and Jerusalem

In the mid-1980's (exact date to be inserted when I retrieve my diaries from the bank) I made my first trip to Jamaica, sent by Friends World Committee for Consultation to attend Jamaica Yearly Meeting of Friends. Inevitably I fell in love with the island and its Quaker community.

I don't want to begin listing all the memorable Friends I met during that visit -- and risk leaving someone out! However, I remember two Friends in particular who had Richmond, Indiana, connections; both were graduates of Earlham College, located in the city, Richmond, where I was living. One was Mais Howard, who became a good friend in later years. The other was Harold Ballysingh.

I first met Harold at Kingston Friends Meeting, the unprogrammed meeting held at Kingston's Friends Centre. Harold had recently published a tribute to his late wife Marion Cowperthwaite Ballysingh, Quaker Lady in Jamaica, and he gave me a copy. Her biography was a fascinating sample of one of the most important features of Jamaican Quaker history -- the deep involvement of Friends in the island's voluntary social services, especially in services to children and their parents.

from Quaker Lady in Jamaica
Harold had graduated from Happy Grove Friends School, near Hector's River, Jamaica. Marion was a graduate of Haddonfield Friends School in New Jersey. They met in 1924 -- in fact, they met on Harold's first full day as a new student at Earlham. The academic year was already a month old when he arrived, so he was eager to start. The first class that he found in session after completing his registration was Anna Cox Brinton's Latin class; when it ended, Brinton asked another student, Marion (if you hadn't already guessed!), to meet with the new student and bring him up to speed in the coursework. After that meeting, a whole month went by before Harold dared initiate the next conversation, but his heart was already captured on that first day.

And so began the 54 years of their life together. The story of their romance in the pages of Harold's book is touching, with one sad exception: their dates rarely included the movies, because in the Richmond of that era, Harold would have had to sit in the back of the theater. He realized that Marion would have insisted on sitting with him, and (as he wrote) he could neither ask that of her, nor could he -- accustomed to the public freedoms of his homeland -- endure the discrimination silently.

Marion lived to the age of 73 -- and 51 of those years were spent in her new homeland of Jamaica. Soon after her arrival she found her vocation in the social services, culminating in nineteen years as the executive secretary of the Council of Voluntary Social Services. During those years, she was named in the new Queen Elizabeth's first Birthday honors (1952) and was asked to serve at the Quaker United Nations Office in New York City as a visiting consultant on issues of slavery, human rights, and race relations. At her retirement, and again nine years later on the occasion of her death, tributes poured in from all corners of Jamaican official and civil society, and beyond -- much of which Harold recorded in his book.

Harold was deeply drawn to Marion's faith, and mentions this theme prominently in several points of his book. It was in fact this aspect of his portrait of Marion that came back to me recently as I pondered yet another discussion of eternal damnation: Love wins, unrequited love loses. A response to Rob Bell’s view of hell. (Sorry that it took me so long to get to the point of this blog post!) Once again, the fulcrum point of the argument seems to be another version of the tired old binary choice: either we accept or we reject God's mercy, fully and culpably aware of this fateful fork in the road:

I agree with Bell that love does win, but his conception of love is incomplete because he forgets that it takes two-to-tango. God has extended a dance invitation to all of us so when we tell Him that our dance card is full we miss the opportunity to trip the light fantastic with the lover of our souls. Sadly, many humans are afraid of the commitments inherent in divine intimacy so they opt for being wallflowers at the salvation dance rather than stepping out and cutting a rug with the Groom at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

God’s love wins! However, when it is not reciprocated, those who reject it lose. Hell isn’t about sins committed but about God’s redemptive love going unrequited.

Erik Strandness then goes on to mock postmodern attitudes to love -- attitudes that (he implies) fatally deceive us as to the true nature of love as offered by God. It's another variation of the argument that Albert Mohler made in response to Charles Blow: If Christians let themselves slip to the point that they are just too nice to believe that their "good" neighbors are going to hell, it's "... the ultimate confusion of theology and etiquette."

from Quaker Lady in Jamaica

I turn to Marion Ballysingh, not necessarily for her theology (though it is certainly there!) but for her refreshing clarity of practice. Harold directly attributes her devotion to social service with her Quaker faith. He recounts several instances of her wonderful ability to combine deep piety with pragmatism and humor. Among his anecdotes is this visit to their home by door-to-door evangelists concerned to warn their audience about the perils of hell:

In a nutshell, the pleading was, that unless one's soul had been saved -- and these ladies seemed to have considered themselves the agents of that process -- then one faced an eternity ... in the flames of Hell! Marion having listened intently, when they had finished, had the following to say. She who could not refrain from humour, even in the most serious circumstances, opened her reply by quoting her beloved John Greenleaf Whittier:

I trace your lines of Argument;
Your logic linked and strong
I weigh as one who dreads dissent,
And fears a doubt as wrong --
But still my human hands are weak
To hold your iron creeds.
[Against the words ye bid me speak
My heart within me pleads.]

I have a strong suspicion that she had, quite sometime before, checked on those lines and awaited her opportunity. Amiable woman that I know she was, she could be very mischievous at times! But it seemed to have worked, for we never had any more callers. Word must have got around that callers might be subjected to strange poetry! 

Having quoted Whittier, she proceeded:

"Now tell me if I am wrong. Isn't Satan the greatest enemy of God? And isn't he the commandant of Hell? And if that is so, can you ladies explain to me why God would want to give Satan such great pleasure as to hand over to him any of His children whom he created in His own image so that he can burn them in Hell forever?"

The two answered, "The Bible says so."

But Marion was not about to be drawn into any argument, and continued,

"So when we sin, God washes His hands of us and sends us to Hell? Don't you think that you advocates of such a doctrine are attributing to the Creator of the Universe a woeful lack of ability to bring sinners to their senses? Is God not capable of doing any better than to appoint Satan as His agent and supervisor to burn souls? Wouldn't that be supplying Satan with proof of his own success?"

She closed the interview, not in the exact words of Watts, but identical in essence:

"I believe in the promises of God enough to venture an eternity on them."

I see no evidence that Marion Ballysingh confused theology with etiquette.

Sarah Bessey on prayer -- a delightful and moving episode on the podcast The Bible for Normal People.

Brian Drayton seeks concrete examples of "how Friends in the ministry — of whatever age or length of experience — have been guided, chastened, encouraged, or instructed."

And in the meantime, Beth Moore parts ways with the Southern Baptists.

Emily Provance: What grown-ups do

Obituary for a dear friend, Amy Heil.

Blues from Argentina.

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