Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, April 10, 2022
How do we talk about a God who is beyond our knowing?
The opening hymn we sang this morning, “Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise,” praises a God beyond our comprehension: “immortal, invisible God only wise, in Light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” That’s one way to talk about God: to acknowledge that God is so far beyond us we can’t begin to comprehend. Walter Smith, who wrote the hymn doesn’t even try.
We Quakers often take a different path. Sometimes we talk about ‘that of God within.’ That’s pretty inspecific.
Often we speak often of the Light, or the Light Within. (And it isn’t a ”Light inaccessible hid from our eyes” that we’re talking about.) We often ask that people be “held in the Light,” and we ask that others “hold us in the Light” in difficult times. This is Light we claim to be able to experience, and this has become our preferred way of talking about God or Spirit or Jesus.
Of course, it’s a metaphor. We don’t literally mean we worship Light in the same way we might imagine a group of people worshipping a volcano or fire; it’s not even like worshipping the great and powerful Oz. We know words will fail us when we speak of God. Words can’t really capture the power or the majesty of God. Words can’t really convey the fullness of God’s love for us. So, we use a term that gestures at some of what we comprehend about God. As I say, it’s a metaphor.
Early Friends (and not just Friends) found this idea of God as Light in the Bible. It’s often a metaphor there. Here are some familiar verses
Isaiah 9:2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
Matthew 4:16 The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Goodness! There’s Matthew showing us Jesus quoting Isaiah!
John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Ephesians 5:8 For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.
Drawing from that passage, early Friends called themselves The Children of the Light.
It’s a very powerful and suggestive metaphor. When it’s there, Light makes things clear to us. Light warms us and comforts us. Light is everywhere. These are features of Light: that it comforts us, and that it can be anywhere. We’re saying God is something like this too. But it’s a metaphor; again, it’s not Light that we worship.
I find this metaphor of the Light most helpful when I bring to mind that Light can be searching, that it can reveal what is in dark corners, that it can strip us bare, reveal what we would like to conceal. But we use it less often this way.
God is more than we can ever wrap our minds around. That’s a reason we resort to metaphors. When we resort to a metaphor we’re saying ‘God is sort of like this, in some ways.
This use of a metaphor, it seems to me, is akin to Jesus’s use of parables. Most of Jesus’s teaching come to us as parables rather than as rules to follow or dos and don’ts. We’re meant to learn something from the parable, and we do, but sometimes the parable helps us see that what we’re to learn is more complicated than any simple rule. We’re learning a way of thinking and learning a way of being that’s beyond simple laws or rules. Teaching us through parables is a better way to learn that. But it’s also a warning that we shouldn’t think the lesson can be reduced to something simple or clear-cut.
It’s the same with a metaphor. When we remember it’s just a metaphor, we need to remember not to take it too literally – not to settle into thinking that God IS Light – or that’s the totality of God.
I’ve been reading some writings of early Friends. Here is Isaac Penington, an important early Quaker, and a wonderful writer. In one of his works, shortly after he began considering himself a Quaker, he wrote of the Savior in this way:
He is the tree of life … whose leaves have virtue in them to heal the nations. He is the plant of righteousness, the plant of God’s right hand. Hast thou ever known such a plant in thee, planted there by the right hand of God?
“He is the tree of life.” That is another wonderful metaphor – the tree of life planted inside us.
It puts me in mind of another marvelous metaphor much used by early Friends, used perhaps as often as they spoke of the Light. This is the idea of talking about an indwelling God, the God within, as The Seed. This metaphor, too, has Biblical roots.
Here is Matthew 13:31-32 He presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”
Many of us will remember the parable of the sower that is in three gospels — Mark, Matthew and Luke. That, too, is about God as “The Seed.”
Here is another take on the Seed:
John 12:23-25 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
Here is 1 John 3:9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
Just like the Light, or the Light Within, the Seed is a powerful image. It, too, is just a metaphor, but it calls out or suggests different aspects of the nature of God and of our possible relationship with God. I think that’s one reason early Friends didn’t just settle on one metaphor, but shifted from metaphor to metaphor: the Light, the Seed, the Tree of Life, and many others.
This metaphor of the Seed helps us see God in a different way. The Light is just there. But the Seed needs to be tended. That’s like the tree of life. It’s just a seed unless it is given the right kind of attention. If it’s not given the right kind of attention, it may dry up.
Early Friends sometimes talked, too, of another Seed; this one they called the Seed of the serpent. Human beings could give their attention to one or to the other. One of those Seeds would grow, and the other would not. It’s a choice you make. Without care and attention from you, it’s the Seed of the serpent that will flourish in you.
This is very different from Light and Darkness. There are two Seeds. We can tend one or we can tend the other will decide which will grow. If we give ourselves over to greed or envy or hatred, it is the Seed of the Serpent that will grow.
The metaphor of the Light has been a familiar one since I first encountered Quakers. I think it has become so common, so used, so overworked, that it’s become a little unhelpful. It has less potency to help me see God. These other metaphors are helping me other aspects of God, and thus becoming more useful to me in my spiritual life.
And I’m finding these three images together, these metaphors of the Light, the Seed and the Tree of Life very helpful to me. Together, the three metaphors, bring to mind something growing, changing, life-filled.