Message or Miracle? Awakening to the Light

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, April 7, 2019

Here we are, gathered as a community whose beginnings lie about 2000 years back, “a long time ago in a place far, far away from here.”  I want us to imagine ourselves back there.  It is a time of beginnings or endings – or really both.

Imagine yourself someone who has come to awareness of an itinerant preacher named Jesus.  Perhaps you are a follower, perhaps not, you’re not quite sure.  You’re drawn to his message.  And you’ve seen – or at least heard – that he has performed miracles.  He has been out on the road two or three years, and he has a growing following. 

But he has also upset the established authorities, especially the leaders of his religious community.  Several times they have tried to trap him into saying something wrong, and each time he has escaped, making them look a little foolish.  The crowds around Jesus are growing, but the tensions are also growing.  That’s odd because here is a man who is teaching that we should “turn the other check” when attacked. The pressure on him, on everyone, is mounting.  Where will all this end?

Passover is coming in about two weeks.  Thousands of people will gather in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his followers will be part of the crowd. That can only ramp up the tension. 

Two or three weeks go by in a confusing blur.  Jesus does go to Jerusalem. Huge crowds greet him.  And then one night, as he prays with and for his followers, he is arrested by the authorities. He is questioned, tried before a hastily assembled law court, and sentenced to die.  This master teacher makes no apparent defense.  Where you have known him as a charismatic leader, now he appears resigned.  He is dragged away, vilified, and executed in the most terrible way possible.  Then buried in a tomb.  Suddenly it’s all over.  Strangely his body disappears – more desecration. 

Think how confusing that must have been.  How can you not feel let down, deflated; puzzled, sure; but also depressed. 

You all know this story.  We tell it every year at this time, but we tell it not as the tragic end of the story but as a bright beginning.  Because just as suddenly, it seems, it’s not all over.  In the weeks that follow you hear people saying this man Jesus didn’t die.  They’ve seen him.  He is still preaching, still encouraging.  You wonder if you will see him?  Feel his encouragement again?

Months or years – or centuries — later, what do you make of this story?  Still a little confused? I know I find it hard to grasp. 

For some, Jesus’s message is what you take to heart.  What he preached, what he taught, was so very different from what anyone else was teaching.  Not just turn the other cheek.  The last shall be first. Be not proud but be humble.  Ask for forgiveness.  Help the poor in possession, body or spirit.  He taught a new way of life that turned upside down the common sense of the world, and you find it oddly compelling even if very, very challenging to follow.  

For others, it’s the miracles.  There were miracles he performed while he was alive.  Water to wine, lepers cleansed of their affliction, the sick healed, a multitude fed on a few loaves and fishes, even one raised from the dead.  Like a master magician, he saved his most stunning miracle for the end by coming back from his own death. 

Message or miracle? Miracle or message?  Speaking for myself, I’ve been more drawn to the message, the challenging message, than to the miracle.  I’ve not been sure what to make of the miracle story.  This spring season presses us to think about the miracle. 

I grew up in a church that recited the Apostles Creed nearly every Sunday.  It wasn’t really written by the Apostles, but it is old, probably from the 4th century.  Quakers are suspicious of creeds.  George Fox, our founder, said, “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?”  But just today I want to read the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit

       and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy catholic* church,
      the communion of saints,
      the forgiveness of sins,
      the resurrection of the body,
      and the life everlasting. Amen.

I am struck by how much that 115-word summary stresses the miracle.  It hardly says a word about the message – maybe nothing at all.  Where is the Sermon on the Mount in that Creed?  The Good Samaritan? Where is the tenderness to the poor or broken-hearted? Where is the call to peace and justice?

That Creed with its focus on the miracle side gives us guidance about how we are to understand the miracle.  “Resurrection of the body”: that would be a miracle. “Ditto “Life everlasting” – the door to heaven swung open to believers.  “Forgiveness of sins”: some theologians speak of “substitutionary atonement:” Christ died for our sins so we can be forgiven, a dramatic ‘paying it forward.’ 

But let’s note.  People don’t write creeds to sum up what everyone believes.  They write creeds to forge agreement, maybe even force agreement.  Among early Christians there was disagreement about what the miracle of Jesus’s last days was about.  Serious disagreement.  The Apostles Creed was put together to insist on orthodoxy.  If you didn’t subscribe to that you were a heretic.  Hence the Quaker reluctance about creeds.  “What canst thou say?”

What we know of those extraordinary, puzzling events 2000 years ago we largely know from four accounts of the life of Jesus in the Bible: the Gospels. 

The Gospel of John, the one I’m most drawn to — and the one Quakers have been most drawn to – has the following astonishing opening: 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.2   He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

And a few verses later,

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 

Miracle or Message?  I’m struck by how powerfully this Gospel writer opens the story of Jesus by telling us, in five sentences, that the story is Message and Miracle. Both. 

 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

What the writer of the Gospel of John is telling us is that what Jesus taught was a Truth from the very beginning of the cosmos.  What’s more, Jesus was that Truth.  He was a Truth made flesh, a message baked into existence itself. 

He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”   

Having introduced us to The Word, the Gospel writer John pivots to introduce us to the Light. 

 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The Gospel writer is taking us back to the very beginning, to Genesis, where God says, “Let there be Light.”  But he’s suggesting the Light is not just a physical thing, not just something for our eyes.  It is the message, but it is also now the miracle. 

The Light is within each and everyone of us.  It is what can give us guidance if we seek it.  Whatever else we believe, Quakers see this as the miracle: 

Jesus did not die.  He is still the Light of the world.  The miracle is that he is within each of us, still teaching, still guiding.  The Light was not extinguished 2000 years ago.  It shines still. 

The miracle is that the message, the Word, the Light, shines still, and for all eternity.  Quakers speak today of the Inward Light.  It is for that we are seeking. 

Let me close by taking you back to that George Fox quotation. 

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say?” 

There is more to that quotation.  Fox continues:

Art thou a child of Light

and hast thou walked in the Light,

and what thou speakest,

is it inwardly from God?

So let us celebrate Message and Miracle. Word and Light.  In the beginning.  And in the life everlasting. 

And let us ask ourselves in this season:  Are we awakening to the Light? 

Posted in Beliefs, Quaker Identity | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Hearing Leadings

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, February 3, 2019

What is God asking of me today?  Where is God leading me?

These days, such questions are very much on my mind.  Especially these days, because it seems we live in such troubling times, where so much is not right.  So much seems to need our attention.  What should I be doing?  What should we be doing together? 

We have endless war. Even the shape of it seems hard to understand, let alone what could bring it to an end. 

We have deep partisan anger, and distrust.  Deceit.  Dishonesty. 

We have inequalities of wealth and of income that seem to be exploding.  Too many ordinary people don’t seem to have reasonable opportunities for making a living or for caring for their families. 

We have persistent discrimination and harm on the basis of race and sex and gender orientation. 

And we humans have dramatically altered the climate of planet earth largely through burning coal and oil, with harmful consequences for all living things.  We know this, and yet we are struggling to take even simple steps to reverse the damage.  

I worry about these things – and I bet you do, too.  What is God asking us to do about these?  Where is God leading me?  Where is God leading us? 

Sometimes I feel a little passive, a little helpless waiting for something that feels right for me to do, some way to put my shoulder to the wheel. 

All this has been making me think of the story of Samuel – or at least the beginning of his story.  It’s on my mind because Samuel is one of the people in the Bible who does hear directly and unmistakably from God.  (Like Adam and Eve, like Noah, like Moses.  Like Paul.  Like Jesus.  A few others.)

Samuel, the Bible tells us, was born to Hannah and her husband Elkannah.  They had been a barren couple for many years.  Hannah prayed that if she was gave birth to a boy, she would give him back to God.  She prayed and prayed.  And, in kind of a miracle, she did give birth.  And when the boy, Samuel, was very young, she took him to a holy place called Shiloh, and gave him in care to the old priest Eli.  Samuel, I guess we might say, became apprenticed to Eli. 

Eli was a decent man and a good servant of God though he didn’t hear much of anything from God.  His father had been the priest at Shiloh before him, and his grandfather before that, and so on: all the priests had been from this one favored family. 

So one of Eli’s sons would be the next priest, right?  But (and this is harsh) the Bible tells us “Now the sons of Eli were corrupt. They did not know the Lord.”  They did all kinds of bad things, and Eli knew this. But he didn’t do anything about it.  He didn’t know what to do.  Sound familiar?  So here’s the part I’ve been thinking about, from 1 Samuel 3:1-10. 

3 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

After that, Samuel became a great prophet.  God spoke to him regularly, and He was listening. He did what God asked him to do, even if it sometimes puzzled him.  Samuel heard directly from God.  What Samuel heard were “Leadings.”  (And we’re focusing a bit on leadings these first few months of 2019 here in Durham Friends Meeting.)

Who hears the voice of God?  In this story, Eli did not.  Samuel did.  The story is presented to us in a way that says God spoke to Samuel. God did not speak to Eli.  But I’m not sure that’s how we should hear it.

Leap ahead a few thousand years to another story.  The times are troubling.  There’s war, there is inequality, there is corruption and deceit.  Sound familiar?  A confused young man, let’s call him George, is trying to understand how to be a good person, how to know what God hopes he knows and how to do what God expects him to do.  He asks a lot of wise people (let’s call them the Elis of this world) to help him figure this out, but they don’t prove much help. 

Then one day George is out for a walk, a long walk, wondering, thinking, praying, and he hears a voice say to him “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”  That George, of course, was George Fox.  The year was 1647; Fox was 23.  And so begins the movement, the spiritual revival we call Quakerism.  We gather here today and every first day inspired by that Leading. 

What Fox hears that day, what Fox realizes, is that God will speak to each and every one of us, if we still ourselves and listen. 

This suggests a different slant on the Samuel story, I’m thinking.  It is not that God spoke to Samuel and not to Eli and not to Eli’s wicked sons.  It’s rather that Samuel heard what God was saying, and Eli and his sons did not.  God is talking to all of us all the time.  That is what George Fox realized.  

We gather here each Sunday in that confidence, that God will speak to us if we still ourselves and listen.  The question is, will we listen? Can we hear what God is saying?

How do we hear God’s call to us?  It is clear we can miss it.  That’s the main burden of the Samuel story.  Samuel was in the best place, right there at Shiloh, but he was still confused at first. How do we prepare ourselves to hear God calling?  Eli helped Samuel hear what God was saying. 

Perhaps we can help one another. 

My friend and mentor Paul Lacey wrote a wonderful Pendle Hill pamphlet on “Leading and Being Led.”  He uses another example to understand leadings: the example of John Woolman.  Woolman was an 18th century Quaker who was among the first to call attention to the evils of slavery and to press his fellow Quakers to renounce it as well.  And Woolman made striking efforts to befriend the indigenous peoples of North America.   

But after discussing Woolman’s efforts, Paul Lacey says “his example is instructive and inspiring, but ‘be like Woolman’ may not be helpful advice to those of us still struggling to be ourselves with integrity.”

That speaks to my condition.  I am still struggling to “be myself with integrity.”

And then Lacey adds: “Perhaps more apposite advice is to be “like members of Woolman’s meeting:”

“Help each other to be faithful to leadings;

“Learn with and from one another how to listen and probe and wait ;

“Bear with one another’s confusions and shortcomings;

“Persist in expecting the best from one another;

“Practice speaking the truth in love.”

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Androscoggin River in Rumford, Maine

One of several major waterfalls on the Androscoggin River flows through downtown Rumford on Monday afternoon, January 28, 2019. Photo by Russ Dillingham for the Sun Journal.

The bridge in the background is the Morse Bridge, a steel through arch bridge built in 1935 and rehabilitated in 2001.

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Two River Poems: Emily Dickinson & Sara Teasdale

My River Runs to Thee, By Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

My River runs to thee—
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me? 
My River wait reply—
Oh Sea—look graciously—
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks—
Say—Sea—Take Me! 

The River, By Sara Teasdale (1884-1933)

I came from the sunny valleys 
And sought for the open sea, 
For I thought in its gray expanses 
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean 
And found it wild and black, 
And I cried to the windless valleys, 
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland, 
And the salt waves drank of me, 
And I who was fresh as the rainfall 
Am bitter as the sea. 

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A River of Migrants


The fall 2018 migrant caravan seeking to cross into Mexico from Guatemala.

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Rivers of Lava


Lava streams down from the Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatoa”) volcano during an eruption as seen from Rakata Island in Lampung province, Indonesia, on July 19, 2018.  From The Atlantic, 2018: The Year in Volcanic Activity

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, The River

The River

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803 – 1882

And I behold once more
My old familiar haunts; here the blue river,
The same blue wonder that my infant eye
Admired, sage doubting whence the traveller came,—
Whence brought his sunny bubbles ere he washed
The fragrant flag-roots in my father’s fields,
And where thereafter in the world he went.
Look, here he is, unaltered, save that now
He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales
With his redundant waves.
Here is the rock where, yet a simple child,
I caught with bended pin my earliest fish,
Much triumphing, —and these the fields
Over whose flowers I chased the butterfly,
A blooming hunter of a fairy fine.
And hark! where overhead the ancient crows
Hold their sour conversation in the sky:—
These are the same, but I am not the same,
But wiser than I was, and wise enough
Not to regret the changes, tho’ they cost
Me many a sigh. Oh, call not Nature dumb;
These trees and stones are audible to me,
These idle flowers, that tremble in the wind,
I understand their faery syllables,
And all their sad significance. The wind,
That rustles down the well-known forest road—
It hath a sound more eloquent than speech.
The stream, the trees, the grass, the sighing wind,
All of them utter sounds of ’monishment
And grave parental love.
They are not of our race, they seem to say,
And yet have knowledge of our moral race,
And somewhat of majestic sympathy,
Something of pity for the puny clay,
That holds and boasts the immeasurable mind.
I feel as I were welcome to these trees
After long months of weary wandering,
Acknowledged by their hospitable boughs;
They know me as their son, for side by side,
They were coeval with my ancestors,
Adorned with them my country’s primitive times,
And soon may give my dust their funeral shade.


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