Beyond Me

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, October 27, 2019

When I think about God, or about Spirit, or the Light I quickly realize I don’t know very much.  I know that many questions – important questions – are beyond me.  Beyond me.  They’re over my head, outside my ken, too deep for me.  I don’t know why there’s pain in the world.  Why who gets sick is often very unfair. Whether there is life after death.  Those things are beyond me. 

Sitting in a meeting last week, someone used those words, “beyond me,” and I jotted them down. They’ve stayed on my mind.  What’s “me” and what’s “beyond me?”


A lot of the time I’m pretty taken with myself.  I admit that.  I know that.  Many days, maybe most days, I can float on a river of “me-ness.”  I’m in “me-land” much of the time. 

It’s my concerns I’m thinking about; my needs, my wants, my worries, my hopes, my pleasures, my pains.  Me Me Me Me Me Me Me.  There’s a lot of me in my world. 

I may be worse in this regard than most people.  I don’t really know, but maybe.  I certainly don’t think I’m better at getting away from me-land than most people. 

Still, I do notice that most other people most of the time are wondering around in me-land. 

It can be a comfortable place to be, even when I’m annoyed or unhappy about something.  I’m the most important person in me-land.  What I want is the most important thing.  My thoughts are the ones I want to hear – and often the ones I want others to hear.  My hurts, my pains are the ones that seem to most need attention. 

How about you?  Are you number one in your feelings and thoughts most of the time? Are you in Me-land much of the time? 


There are some philosophers who think we can’t be anywhere else.  Me-land is all there is.  It’s the only place each of us can be.  The only pain I can feel is my pain.  The only pleasure I can feel is my pleasure.  If I feel pain about something that’s happened to you, it’s because I’ve come to like you, and it causes me pain when something bad happens to you. 

It’s always just my pain or my pleasure, these philosophers think.  Empathy is just an illusion, they say.  I don’t really “feel your pain.”  I feel my pain, nothing more. 

That’s their view.  I want to say straight up, living here as I do in Me-land, I don’t agree with these philosophers, smart as they may be. 

I believe I can escape from Me-land – at least some of the time.  I may find myself back in Me-land.  I may never escape for very long or get very far away, but I do think I can escape.  There is somewhere else that is not Me-land. 

That’s really why the phrase “beyond me” struck my attention last weekend and why it has stayed there. 


I hope at least a few of you remember an old TV show called “The Prisoner.”  It was a British show that first aired in 1967 and 1968 and starred Patrick McGoohan.  McGoohan was also the prime creative force behind the show.  It was just 17 episodes. 

Here’s a brief synopsis.  After resigning from his job, a secret agent is abducted and taken to what looks like an idyllic Village but is really a bizarre prison. There he is known only as ‘Number 6’.  Those in charge of the Village demand information. He gives them nothing, but only tries to escape.”  In each episode, he does try to escape.  He appears to be succeeding, but each time he winds up back in this isolated, lovely village. (“No man is a number,” the Prisoner used to say each episode.)

Do any of you remember this? 

For me, this is something of an allegory of what Me-land is like.  Me-land is pleasant, but I don’t want to be confined there.  I think it’s important to escape.  I try to escape all the time.  Sometimes I think I succeed for a while.  It can feel exciting, even liberating.  However often I fail, I have to keep trying. 

I don’t believe I’ll ever fully escape Me-land, but I think I’m better for getting out as often as I can. I know I’m going to wind up back in Me-land (in the Village), but I don’t give up trying to escape. 


Where’s the door?  Where’s the pathway out?  Where’s the secret tunnel or hidden stairway?  How do I get outside of Me-land?  How does anyone? 

Actually, I’ve come to think there may be many ways to escape.  Some work better for some people; some work better for others.  (Number 6 found a different way to try in each episode of The Prisoner.)   If you want to escape and are willing to try, you have to find the way or the ways that work for you. 

Here’s one way that works for me – one pathway:  waiting worship. 

In Meeting for Worship, I try to lay down all the Me-ness.  I try to quiet the voices in my head that I know are “me” voices.  I try to lay aside the voices that are talking about my wants, my needs, my hopes, my concerns, and see if I can hear another voice – let’s call it the voice of God. 

Is it really God’s voice?  (How do I know who or what God is? I don’t know. That’s ‘beyond me.’)  All I know is that sometimes I can find another voice, and it’s not mine.  It’s a voice ‘beyond me.’  It’s more than me. 

Making friends with that voice is important to me.  Making friends with that voice settles me, makes me more aware.  Makes me (I think) a better person. 

It’s a voice that connects me.  It connects me to ‘whoever-that-voice-is’ (call it God or Spirit or Light).  But it also connects me to other people.  It helps me know them better – and in a way that’s less colored by “me-ness.” 


Do you have someone in your life who really knows you well?  Who’s honest with you, always, but always tells you things in a really tender and loving way?  I hope so.  (Actually, I’m pretty sure you do.)

It’s great if that someone is another person: a partner, a child a friend.  That bond of knowing you well, that connection, is love. 

But there’s something else, I believe, that can know each of us really well – who loves us.  That’s the voice of God I seek in worship.  That’s the voice we seek together. 

And the connection that voice makes with us is love.  Love: that’s what’s “beyond me.”

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Holding in the Light

I want to talk more about the Light today.  We Quakers talk often of “the Light.”  It’s one of our ways of talking about Jesus or God or divinity. 

There is a particular phrase that’s especially on my mind this morning: “hold in the light.”  Pretty much every week here, during joys and concerns, someone speaks of a friend or a relative who is ill and asks that we “hold this person in the light.”  Or someone going through a difficult patch asks the rest of us to “hold him in the light.”  We do that often.  Quite often we hear someone in Meeting thank us for holding them in the Light, telling us it helped them get through a difficult time. 

George Fox says, “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”  When we “hold someone in the Light,” we’re hoping, aren’t we, to lift them up out of the ocean of darkness into the yet more powerful and abundant ocean of light – into God’s radiant goodness. 

I think this “holding in the Light” is a peculiarly Quaker phrase.  Others might speak of praying for someone.  Others might pray to God to give particular attention to this particular person who is going through a tough time:  ill health or troubles of some kind. 

There’s a powerful metaphor here.  Talking of God’s love can seem a little abstract.  But talking of holding someone the Light makes it more tangible.  We can feel the Light and feel the warmth around us.  When we say we’re holding someone in the Light I have an imagine of bathing that person in Light, and I imagine that we expect or hope the Light will have a healing effect.   And we’re doing something.  We’re not just waiting for God to do something.  We’re holding someone, lifting someone into the Light. 

One reason this phrase is on my mind is because I recently had a heart attack, and a number of people – Quaker friends – said they were “holding me in the light.”  I was on the receiving end of the Light. 

I appreciated all these good sentiments. I love the image of being bathed in the Light.  But I’m not sure I really understand what it means – or rather how it might work. 

This is a stumbling block that goes back to my teens — so it’s been with me a long while.  If God knows everything, and if God shines love on everyone, what is the point of prayer?  God already knows who is in need, and God is already making a maximum effort on behalf of those in need – and on behalf of everyone else for that matter. So what is the point?  Are we really doing anything when we are holding someone in the Light?

I do see in the Bible that spiritually gifted people pray all the time: they pray for healing, they pray for guidance.  They pray for forgiveness.  Moses does it.  David does it.  I’ve grown very fond of the Psalms, many of which are prayers of David.  Even, or maybe especially Jesus does it.  Jesus teaches a simple, profound prayer to his disciples that we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus prays for guidance and for acceptance just before his arrest. And he prays again on the cross for the forgiveness of those who have crucified him.  Jesus is asking that these people, too, be held in the Light. 

The most helpful thing I ever reads about prayer, about this holding in the light business, was a book by C.S. Lewis called Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly On Prayer.  Lewis tells us the point of prayer isn’t to change God’s mind.  God’s mind is something we will never understand, let alone change, but rather we should pray to align ourselves with God’s will and God’s love.  The point is not to change God’s mind; the point is to change our minds.  “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” as Jesus taught us to pray.  We are submitting ourselves and we are reminding ourselves of God’s steady and eternal love for all of us. 

I recently had occasion to read again about a very unusual episode in the history of Friends.  It’s a story told in Elizabeth Gray Vining’s biography of Rufus Jones. 

November 9 & 10, 1938:  that was Kristalnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass.  All over Germany people broke into Jewish homes, stores and synagogues wreaking destruction and terror, and carrying many Jews off towards Concentration camps.  It seemed spontaneous but we now know it was a well-planned attack that helped the Nazis take yet greater control. 

In the wake of that horrible night, three Quakers resolved to make a visit to Germany.  Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnall and George Walton hatched a plan to travel to Germany, to speak to the highest ranking official in Germany to whom they could gain access, and to ask to be allowed to intercede.  The statement they eventually delivered in person to German officials stated they wanted “to inquire in the most friendly manner whether there is anything we can do to promote life and human welfare and to relieve suffering.”

They hoped to meet with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and someone we now remember as a chief architect of the Holocaust.  They didn’t succeed in seeing Himmler, but they did meet with two very high-ranking members of the SS.  They made their presentation, the two men they met with left the room and went to speak with someone in higher authority, perhaps Himmler himself.  Jones and Yarnall and Walton sat in silent worship — holding the German authorities in the Light. 

In the end, they did receive permission for some Quaker relief work to go forward in the days before the Second World War broke out, and for some additional Jews to be allowed to leave Germany to safety.  But of course, they didn’t stop the Holocaust. 

In his journal, Rufus Jones described to officials with whom they met as “Hard-faced, iron-natured men.”   He didn’t think they were ‘good guys.’  They didn’t have any illusions about the character of the men they would meet.  Still, it’s hard to say what Jones and Yarnall and Walton expected.  But in her biography, Elizabeth Gray Vining said that “Rufus Jones to the end of his days believed there had been a softening and a moment of vision.”

A good deal of history looks back on this episode as an instance of profound naiveté.  A foolish gesture, one perhaps even bordering on treason. 

But weren’t they holding the SS officers in the Light? Weren’t they trying to lift up the way of love and peace, trying to lift it above the way of violence and death?  Whatever they expected, wasn’t it worth the effort?  I guess I think so. 

Reading about this desperate mission to the SS leave me wondering why we mostly “hold in the Light” those we most care about, our friends and family.  Certainly, we should hold our dear ones in the Light.  But shouldn’t we also “hold in the Light” those who trouble us most: those who seem most wrong-headed or dangerous?  Do we believe they are beyond God’s reach, beyond God’s love?  I guess I don’t think so. 

As we settle into waiting worship, I invite each of us to call to mind people we think are as bad as people can be, and hold them in the light, believing that the Light, the love, can reach them too. 

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Bake Cookies!

That’s what Maida Heatter yelled at her TV. A doctor was talking about the ways you could reduce stress. He started listing ways: Exercise. Diet. Yoga. Take a walk. “I yelled, ‘Bake cookies.’ ” “Baking cookies is a great escape,” she added. “It’s fun. It’s happiness. It’s creative. It’s good for your health. It reduces stress.” Amen, I say. For me, baking is a spiritual practice.

Maida Heatter

Maida Heatter enriched my life. She died about a week ago at age 102. Who says desserts will shorten your life?

It was a Maida Heatter recipe that first got me seriously interested in baking, a recipe for a Chocolate Mousse Torte that appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in May, 1972. (I was in graduate school.) The recipe had just a few ingredients: 8 eggs, 8 ounces of chocolate, sugar, salt, vanilla, some espresso, and some cream for whipping. You separate the eggs and make an mousse from these, divide what you’ve made into two two halves, chill one and bake the other, then fill the chilled stuff into the baked layer. Frost with whipped cream.

How could this be? The same stuff chilled and baked and this makes something good. This I have to try, I said to myself. I did (learned to separate eggs that day), and voila, I’m still baking, several times a week. The daily feed of NYTimes Cooking, now a morning must-read, leads with a shout-out to Maida Heatter and this recipe.

I love her cookies, but I also love her cakes, especially her Queen Mother Cake. (Both the Chocolate Mousse Torte and the Queen Mother Cake are mentioned in the NYTimes obituary I’m delighted to see.)

All Hail Maida Heatter, Queen of Cakes! Also, Chairperson of the Board of the Chocolate Lovers Association of the World, as she styled herself.

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Androscoggin River, May 2019

Processed with VSCO with kp3 preset

photo by Robbie Bennett

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Learning to Drive

Message at Durham Friends Meeting, May 19, 2019

We celebrated my Dad’s 100th birthday two weeks ago.  He wasn’t with us; he died in 1990.  But I made him a cake and we celebrated his good life.

He taught me a lot of things.  More things than I learned: I should have paid better attention.  One thing he taught me was how to drive.  I wanted to get my license so I did pay attention to that, and so I learned.

He was a pretty tough, demanding driving instructor.  Good enough wasn’t good enough for him, so he made sure I knew how to handle difficult situations of all kinds.  For example, this was in Rochester, New York, and he wanted to be sure I could handle icy roads.  So there was a Sunday we went down to a supermarket parking lot.  There weren’t any cars because supermarkets weren’t open on Sunday when I was a teen.  And for an hour and a half he had me get up to speed in our family sedan, slam on the brakes, and then deal with the resulting skid.  Over and over again, skid after skid.  He wanted me to be comfortable behind the wheel with the car out of control.  He wanted me to have that experience. 

We also had a little Renault that he drove to work.   It had a five speed manual transmission.  Evening after evening, after dinner, he’d take me to a dirt road on a nearby county park and make me practice with that manual gearshift. Often the road was muddy so starting up was harder.  And after I sort of got the hang of it, he had me start the car in second gear.  When I got the hang of that, he’d find a little hill and have me start the car moving in second gear on that little hill.  It all felt a little severe at the time, but I’m glad he made sure I learned to drive well. 

Learning to drive has been on my mind because now Ellen and I are teaching Robbie to drive.  He’s had his learner’s permit for several months, and his first times behind the wheel, at least legally, came in his driver’s education course.  But since he’s had his permit he drives every chance that comes his way. 

I just said “Ellen and I are teaching Robbie to drive.”  Now I know that isn’t quite right.  It’s rather: “we’re helping him learn to drive.”  There’s a big difference. 

What gets done, what gets learned, he has to do.  We’ve introduced him to a succession of challenges and he’s figured out how to handle them.  Instead of a Renault Dauphin, he’s learned to drive a stick shift in our 1987 Jetta, which has sadly just failed a basic safety check so he can’t take his driving test in that.  I’ve had him start the car up in second.  I’ve looked for muddy dirt tracks up at the Topsham Fairgrounds.  He’s dealt with starting up a stick shift on hills.    He’s handled a few skids – though no icy supermarket parking lots. 

I’m not downplaying the role of teachers when I say what we learn we have to learn ourselves.  Teachers can play a big role, but the learning is something you have to do yourself.  The learning can’t be injected with a needle or poured down your throat.  Whatever it is: learning to drive, learning geometry, learning to bake a cake – learning what’s important in life. 

Teachers can encourage, they can coach, they can challenge, they can pose tasks or problems, but they can’t do the learning for you.

As I’ve been sitting next to Robbie in the passenger seat, he’s in control and I’m not.  It’s his hands on the steering wheel; his feet on the pedals.  I make suggestions and comments. I call attention to hazards and situations.  I talk to him about other drivers; how you can’t be responsible for what they’ll do and you’d better be prepared for the worst.  I talk to him about speed limits, about conditions when even going the speed limit isn’t safe. 

I quickly realized – I already knew this, but the realization really hit me – that I can’t tell him things fast enough, even when I’m sitting right next to him.  His learning to drive has to be a matter of his having fully taken in what he needs to know to drive well.  I can’t be some voice in his head he’ll hear every time he turns on the ignition.  (“What would my Dad say about that?”) 

I can still hear my dad talking to me about driving if I really put my mind to it, but that’s not how I drive. 

Nevertheless, there are lots of occasions when I wish I could hear from my Dad.  There are lots of matters I’d love to talk over with him.  There are so many questions I never asked him, and so many others I where didn’t listen carefully the one time or two I did ask him.  Wherever I’ve gone, he’s been there before me: being a teen, falling in love, having children, working, retiring from work

All this about learning to drive and wishing I still had my Dad sitting next to me helping me learn to drive has gotten me thinking about how we learn from God – how we might learn things from God: about living the good life, about fixing the things that aren’t right in this world, about what’s worth celebrating and what’s worth mourning.  Those sorts of things.  Here I am in the driver’s seat.  Is God there next to me?  I think God is.  I think that’s something we Quakers know and maybe can teach others.

Learning life is tougher than learning to drive.  None of us ever quite learns everything we need to know.  It’s like we do need our dad, or better, our mom sitting next to us, giving us the occasional suggestion, pointing out a difficult situation ahead.  And here’s the deal, the wonderful deal.  There she is sitting beside us.  She doesn’t say much most of the time, and we don’t expect her to say much most of the time.  But she’s there sitting next to us.  She’s ready to offer advice, or simply tell us it’s all OK.  When we ask.  When we’re prepared to listen. 

Of course that’s not exactly what George Fox meant we he said “Jesus has come to teach his people himself.”  He didn’t mean Jesus would be literally sitting next to us when we’re driving.  He meant something stranger and yet more wonderful. 

He meant Jesus, or the Inward Teacher, or the Seed, or the Light was always with us, always inside us — as well as all around us.  When we need guidance, we have to be sure to ask.  We have to be ready to still ourselves and listen.  That takes some learning: how to seek, how to ask, how to still myself, how to listen.

And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 28.  What an amazing, reassuring promise. 

Today I don’t have my Dad with me in the way that I’d like.  So it’s a great comfort to me to know that I have the Inward Teacher wherever I go. 

crossposted on Durham Friends Meeting website

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A Language for the Inward Landscape

Message at Durham Friends Meeting          May 5, 2019

I’ve been reading a remarkable recent book.  It’s by Brian Drayton and William Taber, and published in 2015.  Its title is a little forbidding: A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom for the Quaker Movement.  Let me explain a little how this book came to be and what it’s about.

Bill Taber was a remarkable Quaker, an Ohio Conservative Friend who had deep spiritual gifts.  (If you don’t know what it means to be a Conservative Friend, let’s talk about that during social hour.)  I came to know Bill Taber when he was a member of ESR’s Board of Advisors.  He taught at Pendle Hill for many years.  He did many, many workshops and wrote a number of books and pamphlets. 

He had a concern that we modern Quakers had lost touch with the meaning of many Quaker phrases that we have inherited from the first generation of Quakers.  He meant phrases like “hold in the Light” or “the measure of Truth given to each of us.”  He wanted Friends to understand those terms as they were first used because he thought they were important, essential even, to understanding Quaker spirituality.  He did a number of workshops on these old Quaker phrases, which he called “A Language for the Inward Landscape.”  He imagined writing a book, but he died before he could write it.

Brian Drayton is a member of New England Yearly Meeting, a member of Weare Friends in New Hampshire, and another person of deep spiritual gifts.  After Bill Taber’s death, he drew on Taber’s notes and his own understanding to write the book Bill Taber might have written. 

Our Meeting library has a copy and that’s how I came to read it.  There’s an inscription on the cover page, signed by Brian Drayton, which reads “for dear Clarabel, friend and fellow worker in the gospel.” So this is a special book for us here at Durham Friends. 

Why do Drayton and Taber speak of the inward landscape?  Because for many, especially Quakers, our spiritual life unfolds within us, not ‘out there.’  Look around this Meetinghouse: no pictures, no statues, no stained glass, no soaring arches, no incense.  No one dressed up in robes, no kneeling, very little performance.  There may be people for whom a spiritual life requires that external sensory pageant.  But for Quakers (and not only Quakers) the life spiritual unfolds within us as we seek a still small voice: the teacher within, or “the Light.”

Today, let me just say a little about what Taber and Drayton tell us about what early Quakers meant by “the Light”  — what we’re looking for in this inward landscape. 

For starters, of course there is the remarkable opening of the Gospel of John. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 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[a] it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

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

About this, Drayton and Taber say  “It must be emphasized that the first Friends did not start with this and other “Light” passages in the Bible, and then set out to make them part of living experience.  Nor was it that these seekers read the scriptures, and found the answers to their questions, ending their search.  The “light and life” passages had power for Friends because they expressed the way in which these spiritual pilgrims encountered Christ among them.” 

In short: the experience of “the Light” came first:  the felt experience.  That helped them make sense of what it says in the Gospel of John. 

Drayton and Taber quote something written by Isaac Penington, an important early Quaker.  Penington imagines having a conversation with a person first learning about God and Jesus. 

Hearing of the Savior, the learner asks “But hath not this Saviour a name? What is his name?

And Penington answers “It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart than by rote.  Yet if thou canst receive it, this is his name: the Light, the Light of the World.”

So Penington is stating we should strive to know The Light (whatever we call it) by our own experience, not from doctrines or creeds nor even, first, from the Bible.

Drayton and Taber quote Rufus Jones, a much more modern Quaker saying much the same thing.  Here is Jones:

“The Light Within, which is the central Quaker idea, is no abstract phrase.  It is an experience.  It is a type of religion that turns away from arid theological notions and that insists instead upon a real and vital experience of God revealed to persons in their own souls, in their own personal lives….

“We no more need to go somewhere to find God than the fish needs to soar to find the ocean or the eagle needs to plunge to find the air…

The Pioneer Quakers believed with all their minds and strength that something like that was true, that they had discovered it, tested it, and were themselves a demonstration of it.”

For these early Friends, “The Light” was a powerful metaphor, a way of referring to something so powerful that it was difficult, maybe impossible, to capture in words.  They didn’t want us to know it through words; they wanted us to know it through direct experience. 

For these early Friends, The Light was a illumination, it was the source of Truth, it was an antidote to sin, and it was a basis of unity. 

That’s a lot, but they didn’t want us to take their word for it.  They wanted us to seek to experience it inwardly, for ourselves.


Drayton and Taber want us to be careful, even self-conscious, when we use the term “Light.”  So I want to read an important paragraph that ends with a few queries. 

“In areas of Quakerdom in which the language about ‘the Light within’ has come to be used in the context of a great deal of theological diversity or uncertainty, it is important to ask, ‘What do we mean when we say “I will hold you in the light?”’  When the Light is identified, as traditionally, with the inward presence and work of Christ, this identification implies some expectation of spiritual experience. The Light is interpreted by what we learn of Christ in the Gospels and New Testament Letters; at the same time, the scriptural record is also interpreted by our encounter with the living Christ in ourselves and others.

“If the Light is not linked with the Spirit of Christ, then we must seek other ways to understand what in our experience is in harmony with the Light that we know, and what is not. So it is good to take some time in our meetings to ask each other with real interest such concrete questions as:

“(1) What do you mean by the Light, and is that an important way you experience God’s presence and action?

“(2) Have you experienced the Light visually? Do you know someone who has or unusually does?

“(3) What are the ways you distinguish between some prompting or teaching of the Light, and a prompting or urging from some other source? 

“(4) What is the relation between the Light you experience and that which I experience?”

Many have found we experience the Light in waiting worship.  So let us settle into worshipful seeking together. 


  • Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom from the Quaker Movement (Tract Association of Friends, 2015), chapter 2, pp. 15-38. 
  • Isaac Penington, “Short Catechism for the Sake of the Simple-Hearted,” in The Works of Isac Penington, a Minister of the Gospel in the Society of Friends, volume 1, pp 123-4.

cross-posted on Durham Friends Meeting website

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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? 

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