Wednesday, 4 June 2014

When "Sorry" seems to be the hardest word

Some weeks back I attended our local Anglican Church. Since this was the first time I had been for a great many years, it did seem quite amazing how much of the service I remembered.

In the pattern of most churches, the congregation of which I had chosen to be a part of that morning, all said "The General Confession" very early on in the service. The words we spoke were quite unquivocal about the impact of sin and the role of Jesus Christ as our mediator with God.

"ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father;
We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against thy holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done;
And there is no health in us.
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults.
Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen."

To me, we are all God's children. The role of Jesus is for me more as a pattern and a teacher so the usual practice in churches of saying prayers through Christ as a mediator does not really speak to my condition. As a Quaker, I have adopted silence as being the most appropriate way for me to communicate with God.
At the same time I am very glad whenever other forms of worship remind me of sin. Since some form of cleansing is considered necessary for all other faiths before worship, I see no reason why should Quakers be exempt.
Traditionally sin has tended to be a subject we tend to pass over rather quickly. George Fox's visionary statement originated I believe through a very uncomfortable realisation of his own sin besides that he could see all around him at the time. During the years of Oliver Cromwell's Protectorate, he had made an agreement with a military dictator. His highly pragmatic response to James Naylor enabled him to remain on the right side of the law but was notably lacking in compassion. At this time of immense turmoil, George Fox recalled how,

 "I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”

These days Quakers may feel more inclined to take these words more as a weather report than reason to address certain characteristics evident in every human being. Instead of focusing about the inward struggle, we would seem to prefer singing along with the Monty Python Crew about how we should always look on the bright side of life. The very controversial film "Life of Brian" from which this song originates ends in irony as a huge pit is gradually revealed before the condemned prisoners.
 Turning a blind eye to sin represents a huge risk. I remember once being told that my particular failing as a leader was this unwillingness to accept its presence. In doing so, I risked letting people down, even putting them in danger. Without recognising the darkness in ourselves and human nature, it would seem to be fog and not that glorious "Ocean of Light" that we see.

Some years back I remember being invited to attend a talk given at one of our local mosques. I arrived early and was shown into an empty room. At no time that evening did I actually see the speaker, although it was very nice to be joined by several Muslim ladies and their children. The talk was given in Arabic and relayed to us through a sound system. It was evident to me that the people of this mosque had a very precise understanding of God in which everyone was expected to know their place.
Although I was a little put out by these arrangements at first, we had a fantastic evening. The Speaker could not stop for a meal the ladies had prepared, so instead we enjoyed it. During our meal together, this lovely group of Muslim women told me that the talk had been about forgiveness. According to Islam, there is no intermediary pleading with God on our behalf. Instead of focusing upon justice a Muslim believes that if a sinner is prepared to recognise their sin, tries to put things right with the person who has been affected and then takes measures to resist further temptation, it is with Allah as if that sin never happened. 
We all have different perspectives of the truth and an opportunity to learn through the insights of others. That evening I was confronted with my own pride and put very firmly in my place. Through my contact with Islam, without even hearing the speaker, I gained an understanding of God's love and forgiveness that has remained with me ever since.

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