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Beneath and Behind

May 28, 2022

Colleague and online friend Douglas Skinner recently wrote this, and has graciously given me permission to share it with you here —-

I flirted with the idea of becoming a Quaker about 10 years into my ministry. I had grown deeply discontent with the false-front Christianity of the institutional church that was demanding almost all my attention as an ordained minister in those days.

I had not gone to seminary and been ordained because I wanted to “run a church.” It was my hunger and thirst for God in Christ that had guided my every step up to that point (Psalm 63:1-5; Psalm 42:1-5; Matthew 4:1-4; Matthew 5:6), but this just didn’t seem to be biggest concern of the church.

It was easier to get people to a church softball game than to a prayer meeting. More people wanted to play “Bunco” than have a Bible Study. People were more interested in church being fun than in the church being faithful.

And all the while I was haunted by the warning in II Timothy 3:5 about how it’s possible to hold the form of religion while denying its power.

This is what compelled me to read Quaker theology and spirituality with the President of the Quaker Seminary in Houston for the better part of a year. I was drawn to them by their historic witness to the spiritual reality that’s beneath and behind all our ecclesiastical structures and systems, liturgies and rituals, creeds and confessions.

At a time when I was becoming disenchanted with the outward forms of religion, it was the Society of Friends who threw me a lifeline to the inward power of religion.

In the words of Sam Shoemaker that I often quote, I was looking for the fire that the fireplace of organized religion was built to serve. My spiritual life began as a response to a personal experience of the fire of the inner Christ, and my ministry was a commitment to keeping that fire burning so that others might be drawn to Christ by its light and warmth.

What I found in the Evangelical Quakers of Houston were fellow pilgrims on this journey of experiential Christianity, but at the end of my year of reading, thinking, and praying with them, I didn’t jump ship.

As frustrated as I was with the demands of outwardness, I just couldn’t let go of the fireplace. Christmas and Easter wouldn’t let me. The way that the outward and the inward cohere in the Incarnation of Christ (The Gospel’s Christmas truth) and in His bodily resurrection (The Gospel’s Easter truth) convinced me that jettisoning the outward in my decided preference for the inward would finally prove no less satisfying than the displacement of the inward by the demands of the outward that I was experiencing as the minister of a church. It was Calvin Miller in his 1984 book “The Table of Inwardness” (IVP) who helped me see this.

After singing the same tune that I knew by heart about the emptiness of the outward forms of Christianity “gone bad,” and the deadening demands of an institutional church that has become an end in itself, Calvin Miller went on to make the case for “outwardness.” He explained that “outwardness and inwardness are the poles of spirituality as north and south are poles of the earth’s geography,” and that while outwardness is “easily spoiled,” it still has its place. “We need to remember that the same Jesus who said, ‘Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them’ (Matthew 6:1),” Calvin Miller memorably wrote, “also said, ‘Everyone who acknowledges me before men I also will acknowledge before my Father’ (Matthew 10:12).” For every outward expression of the Christian faith that makes it observable there is an inward experience of an invisible reality to which it corresponds. This is the very definition of a sacrament – the outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace.

I finally came to terms with the fact that the outward forms of religion that I cherish and that my own particular spiritual tradition has historically promoted – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – are “built” for fire. They were given to us to be conduits of the Gospel’s power.

Alexander Campbell called the Gospel ordinances “pregnant institutions filled with the grace of God,” and he urged their use by Christians as a way of “impressing on one’s heart the central proposition of the Gospel that God is love.”

The outward forms are the ways we get to the inward realties.

“Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face;
Here faith can touch and handle things unseen;
Here would I grasp with firmer hand Thy grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean.

Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but Thou art here,
Nearer than ever still our Shield and Sun.”

—- As the previous version of our hymnal used to say, “Baptism is an outward sign of the inner working of God‘s grace.”

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