Step by Step

Have you ever looked at the photo of a beautiful destination in a travel magazine and thought, “Oh, we’ve just got to go there!”? Or maybe you saw a picture of a delicious-looking cake online and thought, “I’ve just got to try that!” That inner sense—that urge, that energy—not only feels good. It also is a creative force that inspires us to take steps toward creating those experiences, if we decide we want them badly enough.

Of course, we may feel that kind of impulse a dozen or more times a day. Ooh, I love that coat!  Oh, that puppy is so cute. Or I wonder how much a car like that costs?

But our desiring impulses aren’t just about material things—objects we can put in our garage or our closet or our mouths. We also have quieter, more formative impulses, like I’d sure like to have more peace in my life. Or I miss playing the piano like I used to. Or maybe, I wish life wasn’t so stressful.

All of those different thoughts—things we wish for, things we yearn for—are actually creative impulses. Stirrings inside that point to something more. When we look closer at them, we may see that they are the spark of something we’d like to create in our lives. Scientific research tells us that thoughts, words, and actions all have their own vibrations, registering not only in our brains and bodies, but also radiating out into the world around us. That’s not just fanciful thinking—it’s scientific, too.

For example, the words you’re hearing me speak right now are actually vibrations riding on sound waves that get picked up by your frequency sensitive ears. In the same way, thoughts create brainwaves, and actions create ripples of energy flowing outward, like a pebble dropped in a still pond. There have been dozens of writers, teachers, and pastors through the years suggesting that if only we could get our thoughts, words, and actions all moving in the same direction, we’d be able to create the world we seek. Think of that—the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Generally, we Quakers are pretty good at this idea of consistency. We want our insides to match our outsides. As Friends, we try to do our daily tasks—resting, working, caring for each other—in a way that’s consistent with the spirit we feel within. This idea of living a sacramental faith has caused Quakers all around the world to work to alleviate suffering and advocate for respectful and equitable treatment for all living beings.

But those happy creative impulses aren’t the whole story. For most of us there is also a resisting force pushing back, waves that come rushing in, maybe almost immediately after we have a big inspiring idea about something we’d like to do. I’d love to go on a mission trip to our school in Belize! We think with excitement. And then what’s our next thought. Well, but that’s probably a lot of money. And I’m not sure I’m as adaptable as I used to be—traveling can be stressful. Maybe I should just stay home.

Our inward thoughts sometimes resemble the tide, sweeping in, and sweeping out again. As quickly as we have an impulse to do something or go somewhere—something that lifts our spirits and causes a little inward excitement—a different voice inside comes along and throws water on it. Back we sink into our less-inspired state.

But I would suggest that those little impulses, those little flashes of possibility and excitement, are worth listening to—they could be messages from our souls, pointing us toward something God wants for us, something that would give us a more joy, open up new opportunities, or bring more light into our lives in some way. Just yesterday when I was leading a workshop at the hospital, I met someone who followed one of those little impulses and it changed his whole life for the better.

Fifteen years ago, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and although he’d done well at first, his strength and mobility began to fail him and soon he found himself in a wheelchair full-time. Five years later, as luck or spirit would have it, life introduced him to a woman who turned out to be his perfect match. He tried at first to discourage their romance, telling her his disease would only get worse. But as she told me yesterday, “I fell in love with the man, and I was sure we’d figure out the illness later.” So they married and began a happy life together as newlyweds. One day he said he was sitting in the family room in his wheelchair and just he looked up and suddenly thought, “I bet I could walk up those steps.” He didn’t know where the thought came from; he hadn’t been thinking about anything even remotely close to that idea. But there it was, a strong impulse. Instead of waiting for the next flooding thought–which would probably have been something discouraging like, Oh, who am I kidding?—he put his hands on the armrests of his wheelchair and pushed himself up to a standing position. He took a few careful steps to the stairs and then climbed them without a bit of trouble. And he’s been walking ever since.

“I don’t really understand it,” he said. “But I say thank you a lot.”

Often when I get the ideas for my Sunday messages, they come to me as a simple title, along with perhaps a scripture verse or two. That’s what happened early Wednesday afternoon this week. I’d just let my dogs out, and I closed the door to the sunroom, and I turned and heard in my head, “Step by Step.” That’s all there was, and beyond that, I didn’t know what this message would be about. But spirit soon left me know.

When I came in for our Quaker Conversation time that evening, Jean Ann and I wound up talking about the terrible bus accident she was in when she was a teenager. A semi-truck slammed into the back of her school bus and she’d been sitting in the back seat. She was so badly hurt her parents weren’t sure for two agonizing weeks whether she would survive. She was 16 at the time, and as she began to slowly recover, the doctors told her she wouldn’t walk again. Finally, after many weeks in the hospital, she was able to go home, but because they didn’t have rehab then, it was up to her to decide what to do as she tried to get her strength back. Instead of just accepting what the doctors had said about walking, it occurred to her to just try standing up for a minute, then a few minutes, then eventually to take a step. It was a big moment weeks later when she was able to walk into her doctor’s office on crutches after they’d told her they didn’t think walking would be possible for her ever again. Other peoples’ limiting beliefs didn’t hold her back. She followed an inner prompting and was led back to a full life, step by step.

What was that something inside Jean Ann in that crucial moment that caused her to think, “Maybe I can” or “Let’s just see what happens”? It’s courage, it’s curiosity, it’s hope–all faces of the spirit of God within us, calling us back to life, opening up new possibilities, moving us beyond limitations we’ve accepted, bit by bit. Our souls want to be big. Our spirits feel free when they are unhindered, in joy. The work of the Light in us will continue to create abundant life for us, in its fullest and most colorful sense, if we will let the blessing to flow freely through us, and not restrict or block it with discouraging, doubtful, discounting thoughts.

So how do we do that? How do we stay open to the flow of hopeful light in our lives, beginning as a happy little impulse and then moving outward into our experiences? First, we can simply become aware of the continual waves of thoughts going on in our minds—noticing both the uplifting, “I can do it!” impulses and the discouraging, “no, I can’t” ideas that follow.

Then we can invite God in to help us discern which of our impulses we should act on. We might get really excited for a few moments about the idea of eating a whole package of Oreo cookies, but chances are, if we go through with it, we’ll probably regret it later. When we start from a spiritual foundation, we’re curious about the impulse we feel and we wonder where the light is leading us. Maybe God wants to add something new to our lives. If we stay curious, and we stay open, the answer will come.

George Fox taught that when we “stand still in the light,” we get not only a realized sense of the nearness and presence of God in our experience, but we also find out, in an honest and clear way, what’s really going on inside us. The light illumines what we need to see so that we can grow and heal and change. With God’s help, we get better and better at discerning our creative impulses and we’ll discover, step by step, how to respond gratefully, compassionately, and joyfully.

In Psalm 37, God has given us a promise about that, reminding us that our steps are steadied and our success is guaranteed as we do our best to walk in the light. “Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.” We don’t have to distrust those happy impulses; we don’t have to squelch them immediately as some far-away dream or discount them as impossible or unrealistic. Perhaps God is saying something new to us, bringing a new energy, new possibilities meant to lift and encourage us.

Our passage from 1 Peter reinforces this idea that we can be open to new possibilities because of what Jesus has done for us. He adds that our success is assured when we’re letting God lead. Peter—the exuberant Peter, who knows whereof he speaks—says that Jesus set the path for us to follow and travels it with us. “For you were going astray like sheep,” he writes, “but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”

In 1937, author Napoleon Hill, wrote that Jesus, “was an intense dreamer who had the vision and the imagination to see realities in their mental and spiritual form before they had been transmuted into physical form.” Isn’t that an interesting idea? Jesus, who fed the five thousand on the hillside. Who healed the blind man. Who brought Jarius’ daughter back from the dead. Jesus who cast out demons, who reattached a soldier’s ear. Perhaps Jesus, too, was following his own divinely creative impulses as he healed and fed and taught. He could see, think and act from the reality he knew: that God was already at work in the lives of each of us and that the kingdom of God was—is– truly at hand.

So maybe we can be excited about this: What happy impulses will bubble up for us today? Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that, “The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. There is guidance for each of us, and by listening, we shall hear the right word.” Let’s keep our hearts open, with courage, curiosity, and trust, knowing that our tender and unfailingly reliable shepherd, the guardian of our souls, is here to guide us every step of the way.



  • OT Psalm 37_ 23-24
  • NT 1 Peter 2: 21-25

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