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Fruits of the Spirit (1)

When I graduated from seminary, I was pastoring a little Quaker meeting in the city, but wanted to work my way up to a big church, then become the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, which is the closest thing the Quakers have to a pope, except for the power and the pay. Around this same time, Quakers from all around the world were gathering in Indianapolis for the big conference we hold every three years and I wanted to attend and suck up to people and float my name out there a little bit.

The first day of the conference arrived, and I was on my way out the door, when the phone rang. It was Ray, a Quaker who lived nearby, and attended our meeting whenever bad weather prevented him from attending his. Ray had been in World War II, then had become a Quaker after the war, and was known to give his fellow Quakers grief when we fell short of his high ideals.

Ray said, “Can you give me a ride downtown to the conference?”

I said sure, got in my car, and headed over to Ray’s house, a few blocks away. He was standing next to his garage, so I pulled up and he asked my help. “I had some signs made,” he said. And he had. Several signs, all of them critical of our current crop of Quaker leaders, who would be in attendance, the very people I wanted to suck up to. But I was young and Ray was a veteran of World War II, so when he asked me to help him load the signs in my car, I did. And when I pulled up to the front of the downtown hotel and he asked me to help him set up his signs, I did, because how could I not.

And when he said he had to use the restroom, and asked if I could watch his signs, I agreed to do that too, and was standing there holding a sign that read Woe to you, scribe and Pharisees! Woe to you, blind guides! when the General Secretary walked past, along with half a dozen members of the General Board. So that is the story of how it came to pass that I was never asked to be the General Secretary of Friends United Meeting.

People who didn’t know Ray well thought he was a grouchy, old crank, but he wasn’t. He was just one of those Quakers who could never be quiet when the church wasn’t being the church. He actually expected Christians to behave like Christians. He had memorized the fruits of the spirit Paul wrote about in Galatians and would recite them to me every now and then.  “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. That’s it, right there, Philip, my boy,” he’d say. “That’s how you know someone is a Christian.”

It’s just like Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them.”

I was with him once when this man accused him of being judgmental. He told Ray, “You’re not the judge. God is our judge.”

Ray said, “Yes, but Jesus told us to be fruit inspectors, and that’s all I’m doing, inspecting the fruit, and yours is rotten.”

I sure miss Ray. He was horrible for my career, but good for my soul.

Ray could never be silent when Christians were being unchristian. He had this quaint belief that one’s Christianity should be evident and obvious, not discerned by what one said, but how one lived. The Apostle Paul believed that, too. In his letter to the church at Galatia, he said the test of whether someone possessed the spirit of Jesus was the presence of very specific virtues:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Paul said no law, no doctrine, no religious rule surpassed those virtues. We can come up with all kinds of rules about what it means to be Christian, and they don’t mean squat. The only things that matter are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Jesus said it was possible to discern the spiritual quality of someone’s life by the fruit they bear. By their fruits we’ll know them. If someone professes to be spiritual, but they speak unkindly to and about others, or despise those who are different, or promote hate, or neglect the poor, we can rightly say they are not heeding the Light of God within them.

I tell you this because there are many folks today who claim to be followers of Jesus, but show little evidence of it. Often, they speak with such authority, so insistently, they have convinced others their view is the Christian view, their perspective the Christian perspective.  So we have to be fruit inspectors. And my friend Ray had a real knack for that.

Ray was trained as a plumber, not a theologian, which never slowed him down. So it’s1968, Richard Nixon is president and one of his close friends and advisers is Dr. Elton Trueblood, the most prominent Quaker intellectual of his generation. Bachelor’s degree from Harvard. PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Harvard chaplain. Professor at Earlham and founder of the Yokefellow movement. Author of 33 books. The Vietnam War is raging and Elton Trueblood writes an article for Quaker Life supporting the war. No one said a word about it, because it was Elton Trueblood and you didn’t take on Elton Trueblood.  Unless, of course, you were a plumber from Indiana named Ray, who wrote a letter to the editor taking Elton Trueblood to task.

Elton Trueblood wasn’t pleased, so visited the editor of Quaker Life to tell him he shouldn’t have published Ray’s letter. The editor responded by telling Ray he’d happily publish his letters. So Elton the scholar would write an article, and Ray the plumber would respond.  I never knew about this, it was before my time, but at Ray’s funeral a man, who knew and admired both Ray and Elton, told me about it.

I said, “Ray took on Elton Trueblood on the pages of Quaker Life? How did that end up?”

He said, “It became obvious that Elton’s friendship with the president, his proximity to power, had clouded his thinking, while Ray wrote with such moral clarity, we had the feeling we were listening to Jesus.”

We had the feeling we were listening to Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone say that about you at your funeral?  We had the feeling we were listening to Jesus.

In the weeks ahead, we’ll be thinking about the fruits of the spirit. We need to do this because folks doing the wrong thing try to convince others it’s the right thing. It’s not that they’re bad people. Elton Trueblood had many fine qualities. It’s just that all of us, even the best of us, lose our way sometimes. So we need a measuring stick, something against which our lives can be evaluated, standards, benchmarks. And Paul said, “Here they are: love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, gentleness and faithfulness and self-control.”