Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Holy Obedience

At the beginning of the holocaust, at the start of the devastation of World War II, Thomas Kelly returned from Europe with a message for Quakers. He returned from that visit shaken by the suffering he had witnessed in Germany but buttressed by new experiences of divine love able to meet that agony.
"Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history."
That journey prepared Kelly for his 1939 William Penn lecture to the Young Friends Association in Philadelphia. Entitled Holy Obedience, that lecture became a central theme to the posthumous collection "A Testament of Devotion." In that slim volume of five essays, Thomas Kelly calls all of us, Friends and others, to the internal life of obedience, of faithfulness. As noted by Jerry Flora "The mystical teaching of Quaker theologian Thomas Kelly continues to enrich and inspire a new generation of readers searching for a meaningful life in a world veering towards chaos."

In Holy Obedience Kelly takes his theme from an observation by Meister Eckhart in the 14th century:
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 my 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.
According to Thomas Kelly there are three gateways into this life of holy obedience. The first is one in which Kelly has intimate experience: the gateway of profound 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 earth-born securities and assurances, and to be blown by a tempest of unbelievable power which leaves one's old proud self utterly, utterly defenseless..."
Kelly does not recommend retreating from the world in a trance of mysticism. Quite the contrary.
Do not mistake me. Our interest just now is in the life of complete obedience to God, not in amazing revelations of His glory graciously granted only to some. ... But holy and listening and alert obedience remains, as the core and kernel of a God-intoxicated life, as the abiding pattern of sober, workaday living.
A second important aspect of entering the gateway to holy obedience echoes the advice given in many Eastern religions:

Begin where you are. Obey now. Use what little obedience you are capable of, even if it be like a grain of mustard seed. Begin where you are. Live this present moment, this present hour as you now sit in your seats, in utter, utter submission and openness toward Him. Listen outwardly to these words, but within, behind the scenes, in the deeper levels of your lives where you are all alone with God the Loving Eternal One, keep up a silent prayer..."

Kelly is known to Quakers as a mystic, as one who has seen beyond the limits of personal greed and self-gratification. He is convinced not only that he has been given a message, but that he must deliver that message. This is the message of not only a Quaker mystical theologian; this is a message of a prophet in our midst.

Here is a slim essay that, like all substantial devotional writing, needs to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and repeatedly. View the complete 1939 William Penn Lecture: Holy Obedience

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