Conservative Friend

An Outreach of Stillwater Monthly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends

Converging Around Jesus: A Personal Story

David Male is a member of Middleton Monthly Meeting, Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends.  He lives near Cleveland, Ohio, USA, where he owns and manages an automobile detailing business and experiences regular spiritual visions that would be alarming to other people.  Somehow he seems to take it all in stride.  In this piece David shares a personal epiphany that we can all learn from.

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Part 1:  Cracks in a Hardened Heart


I began the conscious portion of my spiritual journey as a confused atheist who became convinced that my own ideas about the world were no longer working, but with no interest in having any else tell me what to believe.  An unprogrammed Quaker meeting in a college town with both liberal and conservative roots was a providential place for me to land.  With no white man in a robe preaching at me from a pulpit, I felt I was free to sort things out for myself.  I wonder today, had I known then what I was getting myself into, if I would have stayed.

The first thing that impressed me, however, was that here was a group of people who seemed to be intelligent and well-educated but nevertheless felt a need or a desire to set aside an hour or so of their busy lives to just sit and ponder things.  Perhaps if these folks could recognize their need for something outside (or perhaps, deep within) themselves there might just be something to it.  Nothing more than that, other than my mother’s persistent urging, kept me going back.  I had no interest in God.  When I became interested in the possibility of God, I didn’t want to hear about Jesus.  When I became interested in the person of Jesus, I didn’t want to hear about Christ.  It was a long time before I came to understand that ‘Christ’ was a Greek word for a manifestation of the Hebrew understanding of a single God of the universe that is all loving, all knowing and all powerful.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were some very sweet old Friends in that meeting who were lovingly patient with my confusion and reluctance to embrace what I couldn’t understand, as well as a number of younger folks who appeared very impatient with a society that was very unloving of those at its margins, which seemed to include everyone but white heterosexual American men who eat meat.  There was a ninety-year-old woman who repeatedly urged us to, “never underestimate the power of prayer,” in a tone that suggested she knew what she was talking about.  Another old Friend, who apparently was raised Catholic but became a Quaker while in prison for refusing to fight in World War II, often rose and, after quoting some scripture from memory, spoke at length in circles that didn’t always make sense but often contained pearls of wisdom.  Then there was a woman about my sister’s age (I’m a tail end baby boomer, youngest of four.) who talked about the Bible as if it actually had real meaning and value in her life and made me curious enough to want to read it myself.

I began to feel some comfort in this strange mix of people.  On one particularly rough morning, I sat despondently wondering where I would summon the strength to get up from my chair when the meeting was over.  Suddenly I felt as if someone had placed their hand on the nape of my neck, and I instantly knew that everything was going to be okay.  I didn’t know how, I didn’t know when, but I knew it was going to be okay, and I knew it was the hand of God.  I was hooked.  I started reading all kinds of books, attending all kinds of meetings, looking to recreate that feeling of peace and comfort that came in that brief moment.  I met with a new-age group that listened to strange music and consulted crystals and spirits seeking peace and enlightenment.  I even started to look at the Bible!

The new-agers were strange, and so was the Bible, but this guy Jesus was pretty intriguing.  At Easter time I was flipping TV channels and I stumbled upon the epic, “Jesus of Nazareth” and got intrigued by the plot before I knew what it was about.  Here was this guy, helping the little people, confronting the powerful and confounding the smug, gathering a hopeful band of misfits and altering the course of history without ever raising a sword.  I even found myself on my knees at my coffee table when they nailed him to the cross.  “Forgive them,” he said, “They don’t know what they’re doing.”  Neither did I.

One day in that Quaker meeting, the thought came to me that I’d read a lot of books in my life, but never the Bible.  “How can you call yourself educated,” the little voice said, “when you haven’t even read the book that so much of western civilization was based on?”  So I went to the woman mentioned above and asked her how to get started.  She gave me a great little book that contained an overview of the bible story and a guide that showed me how to get through the whole thing in one year.  Once I plowed my way through the “begats” in Genesis I got into the stories and finished up Revelation in six months.  Much of it didn’t impress me, but some of it was great!  I loved Joseph’s story, because everything bad that happened to him ended up being good because he trusted God.  Much of the Old Testament seemed horrid, and much of Paul’s writings seemed rigid, but the teachings of Jesus stood head and shoulders above the rest, as if written in red letters as I’ve since seen them printed in some versions of the text.

From the Old Testament I gleaned a story of a God who was impossibly hard to follow and a people who prospered whenever they turned to God and suffered when they went their own way.  Jesus seemed so right, so true, and yet his way seemed an even more impossible version of the old way.  From there it went down hill, as if Jesus had been a peak moment in time, a nearness to God and Truth that humankind had never attained, before or since, destroyed by a world that couldn’t bear to see his Light, a messy, marvelous, unattainable ideal.

I wanted more.  I wanted to believe that when Jesus urged his followers to be perfect as their Father in Heaven was perfect, he wasn’t just hanging an eternal guilt trip on them by setting the bar above their potential.  But who was I?  I could see what was wrong with the world, but my own life was enough of a mess to convince me that I was far from perfect.  I didn’t want to feel guilty, but I wasn’t satisfied with myself at all.

Somewhere along the way, I was sitting quietly in meeting for worship, minding my own business, when someone, I don’t remember who, he might have been a visitor, stood up and quoted a passage where Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there will I be in the midst of them.”  Now, still being rather cynical, I thought, “Oh, yeah, and I suppose he’s sitting over there.”  I looked over there, and there he was.

Part 2:  What is Real?

He was sitting there, looking at me, with a kind of quirky smile on his face as if to say, “Of course I’m here, where did you think I’d be?”  It was like he was laughing at me and loving me to my core at the same time, and I thought, “I’ve got to change.”  In that one moment, that one look, he read my whole life, and read it back to me, all the hurts, the failures, the potential, the disappointments, the beauty, the ugliness, and it was all okay, but it was never going to be the same, I was never going to be able to pretend that there was no God, that he didn’t love me, that I didn’t matter, that I couldn’t be more than I was, or that I wasn’t good enough, that somehow, everything I ever needed to know was revealed to me in that moment but it was going to take the rest of my life to understand it all.

I’m not sure when exactly this happened.  That part of my life is a blur.  I think it was before I finished reading the Bible all the way through the first time, but after I saw the “Jesus of Nazareth” movie.  The face I saw may have resembled the actor who played Jesus in that film, maybe not, it was the look and not the features that I recall.  I don’t even remember what he was wearing, although in my mind’s eye I put him in the kind of off-white tunic type garment typical of traditional Middle Eastern wear, complete with sandals I am unfit to loosen, but it could just as easily have been jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes.  What a beautiful smile.  What deep, penetrating eyes.  What complete, overcoming, passionate, unconditional love.  Father, brother, teacher, friend, not above me, not below me, beside me to guide me.  (I’ve seen a lot of ‘portraits’ of Jesus since then.  Some look like him, some don’t.)  I had the same feeling I’d had when that “hand” had touched me that time before, but more urgently, more certainly, more specifically the touch of Jesus, and through him, the touch of my loving God.

And then I thought, “Oh, David, now you’re really cracking up, you’re imagining that you’re seeing Jesus.”

And then the little voice said, “David, what makes your imagination any less real than the rest of you?”

And I thought of dreams, and art, and how everything that exists is created, from a thought, an imagination, an idea, “God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”  And Jesus was real, he was alive, he was present in the midst of any two or three who knew about him or chose to gather in his name, we may not always ‘see’ him but he’s there, and he always was and always will be, if we believe it, then it’s true.  Oh, but that’s just fantasy, isn’t it?  What about those hippies gazing at crystals, don’t they believe that stuff, too?  That’s it, I must be cracking up.

Besides, what about all the crazy things people have done in Jesus’ name?  What about the Crusades, the witch hunts?  What about all the people who say, “God is love” but insist he intends most people to receive eternal torment for their failures in this short life on earth?  What about all my Jewish, Moslem, and other non-Christian friends?  What about David Koresh, Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, or Hare Krishna, the Dhalai Lama, Thomas Jefferson for God’s sake?  Who was right, who was wrong?  Is there any Truth?  Does it really matter?

In my mind, he just sits there, smiling at me that smirky smile, reading my life, playing it back to me, telling me that he loves me just the way I am, convincing me that I’ve got to change.

So I went back to the Bible, and read it again.  This time, I hear him speaking in all the Old Testament stories, even the horrid ones.  He’s in every Psalm and Proverb, every prophet gets closer and closer to speaking his voice.  Finally he rises triumphantly to the Cross, of all places, to die at the hand of evil or confused people who just can’t comprehend his love because they’re so afraid of dying, or losing control, and then he’s no longer dead, but appearing and speaking to his followers, who scarcely believe it themselves, and then to zealous men like Saul and me who never knew him but persecuted his followers for threatening our world view, and Saul becomes Paul and builds a tabernacle for him called the Church that never can contain him but becomes for many a substitute for the real thing while nevertheless preserving the Good News on down through the ages so that you and I can hear the story and choose whether or not to believe that it’s true.

I talked to everyone I could about him, some who had heard or read about him, others who knew and had a relationship with him.  Some were attached to books and rules, others walked more gently and assuredly because their fears and doubts were gone.  It was as if many wanted to believe, or thought they should believe, while others simply knew.  They made me crazy, I wanted to know.

I asked one of them about the loaves and fishes.  I’d been to enough pot luck meals to know where the food came from, but where did they get the baskets?  He asked me, “David, do you believe the Bible?”  I answered that it was either true or it wasn’t, it couldn’t be both.  He asked, “Do you believe that God created heaven and earth?”  I conceded that someone must have, other than myself.  Then he floored me with, “So what’s the big deal about a few fish?”

Ever since I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t a fat man who came down the chimney and ate milk and cookies, I’d insisted on proof, absolute physical verification before I was willing to believe in anything.  But now he had me stumped.  I had no idea at all how God managed to create heaven and earth, but here we are.  Who was I to tell God what he could or could not do?  I realized right then that my brain had been my God: I only believed what I could understand. I saw how my arrogance and pride had blinded me.  But if God (or whatever) created life itself, certainly he could choose to create it differently one time.  Suddenly, the virgin birth of Christ is no obstacle, even if it fails to fit the usual pattern explained by the biologists.  Walking on water?  Quantum theory might soon explain that one.  Certainly one with the keys to the universe could suspend himself above an angry sea.  Rising from the dead?  Why not?

I re-read the story of Thomas, poor fool, didn’t believe the witnesses of the risen Christ until he saw with his own eyes, felt with his own hands.  “My Lord and my God,” he finally confesses.  Jesus chastises him (lovingly, of course), “Thomas, you are blessed because you have seen and you believe, but many will be even more blessed because they will believe without seeing.”  I am blessed like Thomas.  Are you even more blessed, or will you wait until you see?  I used to think I was special, that Jesus had come to me in this special way, that I had some kind of special role or something.  People hear my story and say, “David, I wish that would happen to me, then I could believe what you believe.”  Well, you can believe what I saw, if you know I’m not crazy, if you know how my life has been changed, if you know how many Christians have given their lives for their faith in the Risen Lord, the Living God, The Chosen Messiah of God, you can be more blessed than I.

But I know, the rest of the story isn’t all that pretty.  There are seemingly compelling reasons to reject the Jesus story, besides its outrageous claims.  Some are purely logical.  Like, how could he be fully man, and at the same time, fully God?  If he was God, how could he die?  If God died, who resurrected him?  How can three (father, son, holy spirit) be one God?

Others have more to do with the vast gulf between the morality of Jesus and the behavior of his followers, about which enough has been said and done to remain skeptical for a lifetime.  Then there’s just the absurdity of the suggestion that God would demand a one-size-fits-all theology in a world so culturally diverse.  Taking all that into consideration, I decided my special mission was to translate the eternal truths of Jesus message into language that wouldn’t offend, language that didn’t conjure up images of religious abuse perpetrated against unsuspecting children and so-called “heathens” throughout the ages.

I began talking about my experiences and the things I was learning about God in terms that didn’t include hot button words.  Whole realms of Gospel power were off-limits, as words like Christ, blood, sacrifice, obedience, repentance, sanctification, even God and Jesus at times could not be used with offending someone’s sensibilities.  It was okay to talk about light, seed, truth (but only with a small ‘t’, as in ‘my’ truth or ‘your’ truth, but never ‘The Truth’), love, peace, forgiveness, joy, compassion, etc., and people generally seemed to enjoy the messages.  Sometimes I wish I could go back to the popularity of saying what people want to hear, but the Lord wasn’t finished with me yet.

Part 3:  From Mess to Mission

I heard a lecture at a Quaker Hill conference on evangelism about George Fox and his use of language.  The speaker talked about how Fox used all the metaphors, not just light and seed, but also cross and blood.  She made a convincing case that there is power in the language, and if we surrender the language we surrender the power.  She believed that liberal Friends had surrendered the power of Gospel language to the false prophets who preached a different kingdom than the one of Christ.  I went home realizing that what I thought was translating had really been editing.  Instead of sharing what the Lord had laid on my heart, I was changing the words so that no one, especially David, would be uncomfortable.  Good bye Mr. Popularity.

After an experience at Ohio Yearly Meeting in which an old Quaker lady told me that she had stopped worrying about her sin and learned to “rest in the love of Jesus and let his blood wash away [her] sin,” the scales fell from my eyes.  I was truly born again into a new heaven and a new earth in which all creation had a new smell.  Before, I had come to believe that God had the power to raise Jesus from the dead.  Now, I knew that he intended to use that power to restore all creation, beginning with me.  It was no longer about me struggling to be the best person I could be so I could hopefully earn the love of God or at least feel better about being imperfect.  It was all about the perfect love of God beginning to transform me into the child of God I was always meant to be.

Well, as you may imagine, my talk about the blood of Christ didn’t go over too well with my liberal Friends, and my “now I’ve got the answer” attitude didn’t help.  Meanwhile, most of the Christians I knew were hopelessly apathetic about the spiritual, economic and social inequities of the world.  Except for a few pockets of spiritually conservative yet socially progressive Christian Quakers I knew, my spiritual world became a pretty lonely place.  It was during the loneliest times that I drew most heavily on the strength and companionship of Jesus, and my confidence in His Truth grew as I learned to polish some of the rough edges off of mine.  I’m still not afraid to ruffle feathers when called upon, but I no longer feel the need to do so to defend myself, and I hope that I’m a more faithful listener as a result.  A few years ago I discovered the Black Baptist Church, where Jesus is known and celebrated as a champion of the oppressed, and I’ve discovered joys of praising God through Gospel music that I never imagined among the quiet Quakers.  I’m still and always will be a Quaker at heart, but if I don’t argue too much about theology I get along with the Baptists just fine.  I’m trying to learn that it’s okay for them to be pleasantly surprised when they get to heaven to see that God has invited so many sinners to the banquet!

Part 4:  The Second Chapter of Acts

Oh, now, back to the title of this little autobiography.  Recently, I’ve become fascinated by the idea of convergent Friends.  Ever since my early days in that conservative/liberal college town meeting, I’ve yearned for a coming together of the deep Christian faith of conservative Friends and the passion for the suffering world of liberal Friends, and my recent experience with the Baptists has awakened me to the joy and the power of praise that are often missing among unprogrammed Friends.  As a delegate from my yearly meeting to Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), I’ve enjoyed wonderful opportunities to see all these elements come together--if only briefly--enough to glimpse the kind of power that must have existed in the early days before we all began carving up the gospel into little pieces.  Now I’ve discovered this little phenomenon known as convergent Friends in which Friends across our various traditions are reaching out to one another to rediscover that life and power.

I wrote this little piece because I know there are many who want to be excited about the possibility of convergence, but are worried about what that might mean for their ideas about who Jesus is and what he means to us as Friends.  I want to reassure Friends who are leery of Christians that it’s okay, and even proper, to resist corrupt interpretations of the Gospel, while at the same time challenging you to recognize that what you love so much about your Quaker faith comes directly from a sound and critical understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  To my Christian Friends, I want to assure you that Jesus isn’t going anywhere, and in fact his Gospel is powerful enough to overcome the resistance of sincere seekers who reject his false prophets, and encourage you to continue to patiently insist on what you know to be True without feeling the need to isolate yourselves from those who see things differently.

There are many other things I could discuss, things about sanctification that I heard explained and saw demonstrated among Holiness Friends in central Indiana.  “Grace: The Power to Change” by Dr. James Richards, introduced me to “Impact Ministries” and explained to me how to identify with the Righteousness of Christ’s Spirit rather than the corruption of my own flesh as I grow into his image and likeness.  “Twelve Step” programs helped me recognize and confront my personal demons while rebuilding my temporal life in simple, practical ways, reminding me that “God wants us to have our heads in the clouds with him, but our feet out to be firmly planted on earth, for that is where our fellow travelers are, and that is where our work must be done.”  I could write about the many other angels along the way who have brought me pearls of wisdom, like the woman who, when challenged to defend her Christian faith, replied, “Oh, it’s not about what I believe.  It’s about a relationship with a God who knows me, loves me, and is always there to help me, guide me and strengthen me, who teaches me how to love my neighbor as I love myself.”  I could give examples of how God has provided for me, like when I had no fellowship of like-minded believers and discovered Charles Stanley on the radio, whose “In Touch Ministries” taught me ways to apply sound Biblical principles to everyday life, and the guy at work who answered my questions about the Bible and helped me understand how it could all be true in spite of what my liberal education had taught me.

But mostly, since today is the day many Christians commemorate Pentecost (See Acts, Chapter 2), I want to talk about coming together.  I want to express my emphatic belief in the Power of God through His Holy Spirit to unite people from all different backgrounds and perspectives into one overcoming Truth that can be heard and experienced in any language and will, when responded to, change the world of all who receive it.  That Truth is Love, God’s Love for all of us, God’s desire that we would love him in return, that we would begin to demonstrate our love for him by learning to love one another, not with a fickle love that glosses over hurts and real differences but with an overcoming love that won’t rest until lover and loved are found in one accord, united in Truth, and working together for the Kingdom of Love.  When we experience it we hear a mighty wind, we see tongues of fire, we shake the countryside for miles around, choose whatever metaphor you like, they’re all inadequate anyway, for God’s life-changing power, whenever and however He manifests himself, is beyond any words or earthly image we can supply.

Whether you consider yourself a Christian or not, I urge you to look beyond limited, parochial understandings of what Jesus is all about and recognize what is really going on here.  God is breaking in to human history in overcoming ways to lead us into all Truth and into an intimate relationship with Him through all creation.  We can  begin by cleaning up, with God’s help, our own little corners, first in our own hearts, where our own separation from our Creator brings us unimagined grief, then reaching out to our friends and loved ones with gentleness and mercy, and finally pouring ourselves out toward our neighbors and even those we perceive as enemies, even if only with a prayer, until God empowers us to truly love one another as He has loved us, by providing us with everything we need, even sending His only Son to die on a cross for our sins, and rising again to demonstrate victory over death.

If you’ve taken the time to read through this whole story, I thank you and praise God for giving you patience with me.  If some of what you read has resonated with your own experience, I hope you’ve found it encouraging.  If not, I hope you’ve been challenged to look at your own relationship with Truth to see if there might be something that you’re missing.  A good Baptist sermon never ends without an altar call, where nonbelievers are invited to give their lives to Christ.  You won’t get that from me, at least not today.  I’ll be satisfied if you would open your mind just enough to say, “Hmm, maybe I’ve been wrong about that,” or, dare I suggest, “Maybe Jesus is right.”  Then your heart will be open to receive Him, no altar required, and His Truth will be revealed to you in time.  You already know it anyway.  It’s written on your heart.

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If you have questions, comments or complaints about any of this, or are interested in fellowship opportunities, don’t hesitate to contact me directly at drm4you@hotmail.com, or contact the person or organization that brought it to you.  I hope we have the opportunity to meet personally some day soon to deepen our friendship, but remember that the most important friend you could ever have is always near you, and His Kingdom is within your reach.

Written by David Male. 2007. All rights are not reserved.  This message may be reproduced in whole or in part in any medium by anyone who is motivated to spread the love and Truth of God honestly and unselfishly.