22 June 2023

Bruised reeds

William Barber, preaching his last regularly-scheduled sermon at Greenleaf Christian Church, referring to the book of Isaiah, says: "I bring justice in the earth through the broken. I bring justice in the earth through the bruised reeds." Screenshot from source.

Last month I promised to re-read John Yungblut's On Hallowing One's Diminishments. The promptings to do so keep piling up, so today I sat myself down to read it.

Among the diminishments John Yungblut discusses are bereavements. There have been a lot of those recently, inside and outside our extended family. In addition to Eden Grace (whose memorial meeting will be at the Cambridge Friends Center on July 22), we heard just three days ago that Lonnie Valentine died. Lonnie taught peace and justice studies at Earlham School of Religion for over 30 years, and there are people all over the world who consider him their mentor. A common theme of the comments following his unexpected death: It's hard to imagine life without Lonnie.

One way or another the grief must be expressed, the work of mourning accomplished, before one can get on with the business of living. If one cannot hallow the diminisment of bereavement by writing of it, one can bear witness to it with friends of the Spirit in an infinite variety of ways. But nothing can altogether relieve the pain that must be borne in solitude.  — John Yungblut.

Yungblut also touches sensitively on the diminishments resulting from outward accident and the organic process of disease and aging. Personally I keep clinging to the not-altogether-fantasy that I'm very healthy, despite the fact that I need three specialists and eight daily pills in addition to my regular doctor. Maybe it's my curiosity about the future, as well as solidarity with friends and relatives, that  has led me to participate in two long-term studies, one on Parkinson's and one on Alzheimer's.

Yungblut quotes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.

These words immediately called to mind William Barber's sermon of last Sunday, his last sermon as lead pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, USA. In the YouTube video of the service, the readings begin here, and the sermon begins here. (But I seriously recommend not skipping the part in between.)

Barber's theme: our disabilities (which I'm equating with Yungblut's "diminishments") do not disqualify us from being people of faith; in fact they serve God and us, in demonstrating God's power through us. "We work so hard to present how strong we are, and we think that’s faith.... God's grace and God's glory is most evident when we are weak."

Church people don't necessarily understand this, Barber says.

They don't understand. That's how God works. A bruised reed, [God] doesn't break it. Now if you go around religious folk and you're bruised, they'll break the hell out of you. ... But that's not how God is. That may be how you are, and you can live like that if that's what you want to do. But don't claim then to be Christian when you do that.

Barber goes a step further, and I see his logic even if I'm not sure I can follow him. He says that some people are "crippled by design." In the apostle Paul's case, for example:

Paul is crippled by design. He's crippled by the need for a spiritual governor. He has seen so much, and has been afforded by God so many revelations in the Holy Ghost that he can't afford to walk around in good health because he'd be too arrogant.

That gave me something to think about. Barber himself, diagnosed thirty years ago with ankylosing spondylitis, knows something about disability and constant pain. While sharing candidly about his life journey, he doesn't make himself out to be exceptional:

Every main character that you heard read [in the day's Scripture readings] from 2 Corinthians to Isaiah to Matthew to Samuel is crippled. Broken. Handicapped. Is that your story, too? Somewhere, in this room, there's not a person in here who does not have some crippling reality.

Returning to John Yungblut:

I saw that the first step for me in learning to "hallow" the progressive diminishments in store for me was a deep-going acceptance. But the acceptance would have to be a positive, not a negative one, if it were to be a real hallowing. I must learn to do something creative with it.

I practiced imagining acceptance of the diminishments as if they were the gift of a companion to accompany me on my way to the great diminishment, death. As one day my body should undergo "rigor mortis" I began to tell myself that the progessive Parkinsonian stiffening could be undergone as if it were a kind of "rigor amoris"—a stiffening by love since it could be understood as part of the process by which I shall ultimately die into God.

I read Yungblut as advising and practicing a kind of double approach, both acceptance (even a humorous acceptance at times) and grief. Along the way, there are occasions for practicing penitence, and to give and receive the ministry of "substitution," as advocated by the writer Charles Williams—a mutual and prayerful willingness to bear one another's burdens. Ultimately, Yungblut urges us to become acquainted with the most fertile of all solitary disciplines: contemplative prayer.

How do I picture the threshold of this kind of prayer after William Barber's sermon? He began by recalling the story of Jonathan's young son Mephibosheth from 2 Samuel, disabled by an accident and unable to walk. Years later, when King David asked whether anyone remained from Saul's household to whom David could show God's kindness, and he was told about Mephibosheth. David invited Mephibosheth to have a permanent place at the king's table. (2 Samuel, chapter 9.)

With whatever diminishments and defects I might have, I picture myself being received at God's table, where you and I have a permanent place.

I copied the entire text of Murray Gurfein's decision in U.S. v New York Times Co. (the Pentagon Papers case, June 19, 1971) in my "Our Times" notebook. (More from that notebook here.) The case made a huge impression on me.

Another enormous loss, although not as unexpected: the death of Daniel Ellsberg. Some of the coverage: The Guardian. National Catholic Reporter. A conversation with Robert and Christine Ellsberg. Also: Christiane Amanpour's CNN interview of Ellsberg.

My review of another John Yungblut pamphlet, Quakerism of the Future.

Announcement of Eden Grace's memorial meeting.

On the contributors' page of this issue of Quaker Religious Thought there's a compact summary of Lonnie Valentine's contributions to Friends' scholarship (to that point). See his review in the same issue. Here's another brief article by Lonnie, "Want Leadership? Develop Followership."

On a related theme: Steve Davison on "Learning to Follow." (And here's a Russian translation. Thanks to Friends House Moscow for both links.)

Imelda May, "When It's My Time."

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