Right now we seem to be heading quickly toward that pinnacle moment of fall, when colors are at their most vibrant. I love not only the beautiful colors but also the warm afternoons and cool mornings and evenings; it’s like the best of both worlds—cool enough that a sweater or blanket feels cozy, but not so cold that we have to face the fact that we’re on a slippery slope toward winter. I took an informal survey among friends and family recently and I discovered that many people say that autumn is their favorite season, but few add that they’re happy about what comes after that.
Fall is a harbinger of change—we know from experience that fall’s beauty is short-lived and will soon give way to bare branches and frosty lawns. And then, of course, snow and ice is sure to follow. Some of us resist that change as long as we can. In fact, I noticed this week driving in to the hospital that many of the houses along my favorite route—past the cattle farm on 200 N—showed signs that the families inside had accepted the coming change. Pumpkins were grouped along the sidewalks, decorative hay stacks, colorful corn, and even a scarecrow had been set out to welcome the season.
I thought back to my own yard. I am in denial I suppose. My front gardens show I’m still fighting the fight of summer—I’m watering flowers and fussing about an increasingly brown lawn—but there are no nods to the coming season, no pumpkins, no corn, no indicator as yet that I am conceding summer and beginning to accept the change that is already upon us.
As a species, change asks a lot of us. It’s hard for us to adjust. We develop such an attachment to things the way they are—that we naturally resist whatever comes to change that. We mourn the loss of summer, the freedom to be outside, the tending of our gardens. Even though we have decades of experience, knowing that spring will come again and summer following that, we still feel the loss. We also know that nothing in this physical world—not our bodies, our environment, our houses, our world—stays the same. Nothing material continues on with perfect continuity. Everything physical is part of a cycle. Houses age and need repair. Bodies age and need tending. It’s a cycle of continual call and response. The very principle of growth over time means change.
When George Fox had his immediate experience of the inward Light on the hillside in 17th century England, I wonder whether he had a sense of how colorful, how diverse, how rich the Light would look, clothed in so many unique and endlessly changing ways, 600 years later. The earliest Friends were seeking a way to worship that they felt was the “true” way—close to the experience of the first century church. George Fox sought to turn us toward the voice of truth in the quiet place where God meets us in our very own selves, in this unchanging place beyond the physical where we are connected to and in relationship with the spirit of God in every moment. Fox’s intention wasn’t to create a new religion but to turn people toward the true source of truth and light and love—that of God in each and all of us.
One of Fox’s most famous quotes was about a vision he had of what this turning would ultimately accomplish. He said, “I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” In that vision, Fox said, he saw the infinite love of God.
That ocean of light, I think Fox would tell us, has been flowing across the darkness now, unobstructed, for eons, maybe ever since the first amoebic life forms jiggled in molecular matter. The ocean of light flowed through Fox and early Friends, spread across the world as the Valiant Sixty crossed the seas. The ocean of light bubbled up in Quaker meetings in the new world and spread from east to west, blossoming into governance through William Penn, the first governor of Pennsylvania, and traveling westward, planting Quaker meetings—yearly, monthly, and otherwise—along its path.
It was this same light that inspired Friend John Woolman to refuse to act in accord with the dehumanization of God’s children or wear or own any item that helped to fund the cause of war. This light, flowing through hearts and minds and listening, receptive spirits, helped Friends rise from their seats and help those who were persecuted escape a return to slavery. The same light urged Friends during World War I to organize food relief organizations for the children of Germany, who were starving. This is a fascinating story because it speaks both of the agency of the light and also to the forethought and protection that God’s light—when heeded today—provides down the road.
A 2010 article from Friends Journal (https://www.friendsjournal.org/2010034/) describes the story this way: “In 1920 English and North American Quaker aid organizations started a feeding program for children. Every day in school up to a million German children received a warm meal and some bread and milk. This saved them from undernourishment, illness and death. [A German word meaning]—”Quaker food” —became an established expression in Germany. The shipping label for the school food bore the following note: “To the children of Germany! A friendly greeting brought to you from the Religious Society of Friends, which for 250 years, and even during the recently ended World War, has adhered to the principle that only love and the desire to help, rather than war and violence, can bring peace and happiness to humanity.”
The article goes on to say that during World War II, “Some of the Quakers secretly hid Jews. For resistance fighters of all stripes also the “Friends” were important contact persons because of their impartiality and their discretion. A number of them were arrested by the Gestapo and paid with their lives. It is astonishing to note, however, that as an institution the Quakers were never outlawed. The Protestant pastor Franz von Hammerstein lists the possible reasons for this: “The Quakers were trustworthy. Their readiness to help, and help even people who were not actually their friends, left a great impression and smoothed paths— even with the Nazis. Not only did they not send the Quakers to the camps but astoundingly allowed them to keep working.” Many Nazis remembered the Quakers from their childhood and the program of feeding the children.”
Friends were stirred to respond to the need by the light within, urging them to do all they could to care for those around them, honoring and acting on their belief that there is that of God in everyone. What I hope you’re hearing is that this isn’t the work of one or two good people who had well-developed moral consciences; this is the work of the light, the agency of God’s love, flowing from person to person across continents and generations.
Our part is to listen and to act in accord with what we hear. We are the ocean of light that flows over the ocean of doubt wondering whether God still acts in the world. We are the ocean of light that flows over the cynical view that even God is powerless to change the hatred and greed we hear around us. We, here today, at Noblesville Friend Friends, are the ocean of light that carries love and concern and understanding and faith into the circumstances of our daily lives, directly to the needs we find around us. We—in concert with hundreds of millions of loving people everywhere–are God’s answer to the hurting world in the here and now. And we are in good company of Friends around the globe and across all time, doing our best to listen and respond to the inward leading of the light.
In both the scripture passages we heard today, we are pointed toward a deeper, unchanging something that exists beyond the surface of the moment. When David was a boy, he unimaginably defeated the ferocious giant Goliath, with God’s help. It was then that Jonathan, Saul’s son, met him for the first time. Jonathan was the natural heir to Saul’s reign, but God had let it be known that David was to take the throne instead. Jonathan could have been understandably jealous and plotted to thwart David’s ascension somehow, but instead he was moved with a deep, soul-level love for David that remained with him all his life. It was deeper than the surface. Stronger than their personalities. Jonathan recognized it as a God-given connection that defined their relationship in the context of eternity. That was the light, revealing to Jonathan, where the source of their oneness began.
Similarly, Jesus is talking to his disciples in our New Testament reading, telling them that because he has revealed the deeper workings of truth to them, they are not merely servants or fellow workers in a good cause; they are his friends. They have been brought to a deeper place from which real understanding arises. It is the verse, John 15:15, that we often use to attribute how we came to be called the Religious Society of Friends. It’s our tradition to seek to listen for and befriend the Light, and as a result, we gain insight and understanding into the movement and leading of spirit. Our time spent nurturing our relationship with the light draws us into deeper sense of oneness with God and all of creation.
The leaves may change, the snow may come, and the latest tweetstorm may show us the underside of our better natures, but the ocean of light George Fox saw so many years ago continues, as strong as ever, leading and moving and reaching out through every loving act by every loving person the world over. Yes, the ocean of darkness seems real. And yes, we do sometimes feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs around us and the relentless pace of change. But in the midst of the outer pressures there is quiet and still and eternal place within us all. We can rest there, at that source of true and unfailing Friendship, whenever we need to re-center and remember what’s most important and lasting. Through us and with us, the light will continue its healing work, shining away any darkness we find—inside and outside—in the name of Love.
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- OT 1 Samuel 17:55-18: 5
- NT John 15: 5-15