Thursday, December 28, 2006

Still Converting - A Message from "Rich Evans"

Sifting through my jumble of papers the other day, I happened on an article I wrote in December 1976 (before I married and changed my name). I wrote it in response to an invitation from the Quarterly Meeting for Friends to write something about their spiritual experiences. I found in re-reading this piece that this "Rich Evans" had something to say to Rich Accetta-Evans. I have reproduced the article here in case it also has something to say to someone else.


When I first joined Friends in 1969, I felt that I had arrived on a kind of spiritual mountain top, and I expected to climb no further. I felt that the Inner Light was guiding me; that it was sustaining me in a radical lifestyle redeemed from the evils of war and materialism. I was profoundly moved in meetings for worship and often felt the Power of the Spirit like a flood of warmth or a strong rushing stream within me. I was a draft resister, I had very little money, and expected to be in prison soon, yet my predominant mood was joyful.

Jesus, at the time, did not seem to have anything to do with these experiences. He was simply a man who had lived long ago and had perhaps been in touch with the Spirit. The Spirit itself did not seem like a man or a woman but more like an imperonal force. My religious life consisted of trying to tune myself to "It," not of praying to "Him."

Now, a mere 8 years later, I am suprised and happy to report that, for all this excitement and richness, those experiences of 1969 were really only the beginning. I no longer feel myself to be at the top of the mountain because I have seen more of what towers above me. I have gained a deeper sense of how awesome and inexhaustible the Lord our God really is, of how small we are beside Him, and yet of how intimate, tender, personal and sensitive His love for each of us is.

Along the way from there to here I descended all the way from that mountaintop into the deepest despair, weariness, self-disgust. I discovered an element of false pride and self-righteousness which corrupted even my best impulses and blinded me to my worst. I didscovered that my passionate beliefe in "love" did not prevent me from hurting people close to me. I discovered that some of my most cherished views about life were deeply wrong and dangerous to my spiritual health.

At the lowest part of this journey I became involved in a painful separation from someone very close to me. In one especially difficult afternoon, while the pain was sharpest, I found myself feeling not only grief and loss, but angry hatred. This discovery overwhelmed me with disgust for myself, giving way at last to a great bleakness, weariness and heaviness. I felt that there was no way to continue living.

Just then, however, I was "saved", if I may use that word, from my self-inflicted spiritual death. A vision was presented to me. In the vision, Jesus appeared in my path, stretched out His arms to me and said "Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." I knew, as I was seeing this, that Jesus was speaking with the Authority of a fellow-sufferer, a deeply human person, and yet as an example of purity and goodness. Then, although I did not in any obvious way "come" to Him, my weariness and anxiety left me at once. I did not feel elated or ecstatic, nor suddenly sure of what I wanted to do, but I felt rested, relaxed and able to continue living. It was appropriately symbolic that I was able to sleep that night for the first time in days. The rest I found was also a preview of that deeper "rest in the Lord" which I now enjoy in greater measure.

Perhaps surprisingly, this vivid exeperience did not immediatley "convert" me either to the thorough practice of a Christian life or to belief in Christian teachings. I did, however begin to convert. That is, I began to change, to grow, and to turn - however gropingly - toward Christ. I believe that to this very day I am still converting, still emerging into Life from Death, into the "Ocean of Light" from the "Ocean of Darkness".

Such an experience does not, of course, "prove" anything erxcept to whoever has had it. Nor should it be taken as somehow essential to the Christian life. Perhaps it is only when someone is really off the beam, really desparate, that God condescends to use such dramatic and unusual events to get His point across. For me, however, it was a decisive experience which led me eventually to learn several important things, of which I will here mention two:

First, I learned about the reality of sin. I came to see that humanity needs to be rescued from its own destructiveness, both outward and inward. Anyone can see this without adopting speculative views about the after-life. We can see it in the symptoms of spiritual death which abound around us. We can see it in the harvest of war, destruction,l hunger and fear being reaped by people all over the world. But we can see it most plainly of all in our own souls when they ae held to the Light.

Even George Fox, who never reoprts that he outwardly sinned, clearly went through a prolonged struggle with inner weakness and was only rescued by a vioce which said: "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition."

We therefore do the earliest Friends a great injustice, and sap this message of its power, if we suggest that they did not believe in sin or in salvation from sin. More importantly, we do ourselves great harm if we complacently refuse to see the potential for evil within us and shrug off the horrors of the 20th century as if we had no responsibility for them in any way.

The real message of early Friends about sin is more urgent today than ever: not simply that it exists, not simply that Christ will forgive it, buty that through Christ we can overcome it. We can be changed, we can turn away from death and choose life: perhpas not in the thorough and final way that Fox seemed to envisage, but certrainly in a way that makes a real difference, a way that starts us growing instead of dying.

The whole point of early Quaker testimonies was to confront the world with its bondage to sin by demonstrating the alternative: a life in servie to Crist. We cannot maintain a living, relevant, radical testimony today unless we keep in touch with the same Saving Power who was known to our spiritual ancestors.

Second, Ilearned about the reality of "incarnation". On this point it took my theology a long time to catch up with my experience. Even now, the questions reason asks have not been fully answered in my mind. Perhaps they need not be. The important point is this: I no longer think it unworthy of God to become a human being. My vision of Jesus gave me a new picture of God. The effort to define God through negatives as non-personal, non-rational, non-spatial, etc. haslost all appeal to me. I "define" God not at all, but accept His self-revelation, through Jesus. I rejoice in God's willingness to suffer, to love, to care, to forgive, and to lead us.

I suspect that themodern rejection of this idea, among Friends and others, has roots in an unconscious hatred of the created world in general or of the hyuman body in particular. If the material world is made by God, why should he not inhabit it? If the human body is a beautiful temple of the Spirit, why should Jesus not appear in one? Western philosophy has troubled itself a good deal about the proper way to distinguish body from spirit in theory; I think we can take a cue instead from Jesus and concern ourselves with integrating them in practice, and seeking the redemption of both.
- - R.E. December 1976

It is suprising to me that so much of what "Rich Evans" said in 1976 still seems new and fresh to me 30 years later. I've had to relearn some of the same lessons more than once. I might phrase some things differently today - but not as much as you might think. I definitely think I'm still converting.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I want to add this comment on my own post: The experience recounted in some detail here is one that I mentioned more cryptically somewhere in the great chain of comments surronding this post

7:08 PM, December 28, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

I thank thee.

Your account reminded of my own "beginning of the conversion process" experience. In some ways I have left that experience behind. In others I work out the seedling faith of that day with fear and trembling.

7:17 PM, December 29, 2006  

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