My days usually start slow and easy. I get up, typically before the sun—that’s easier to do right now than it will be in June—I take the dogs out and make coffee. I purposely leave things soft and quiet for a while. I may light a candle on the kitchen table, but the rest of the house stays dark and I open the curtains so I can see as the morning light begins to arrive naturally…in my house and in my life.
I love this quiet time at the start of the day. After the dogs are fed, I walk and pray. Most mornings I share with God whatever’s on my heart, praying for my kids and grandkids, our meeting, my hospice team, the needs of the world. As I move from room to room, I notice as the light begins to give shape to the outside world. Sometimes I pray with words—whatever bubbles up—and sometimes I just listen to my heart, feeling what I feel, allowing my attention to seek and feel God’s presence.
But soon my quiet, peaceful morning time ramps up into a day of busyness. Conversations and tasks and plans will fill my head, and my quiet start will be mostly forgotten. I really wish—and I really try—to carry it with me and stay aware of and feel connected to God all day. I am getting better at it, but I still get swept away. But I find it encouraging that even though my head gets crowded with other things, my heart continues to do its work, thank goodness.
Our hearts—like our spirits—don’t need our conscious control, our continual focus. God created us for “both/and” so we can live a life that is both divinely and biologically connected all the time, whether we’re aware of it or not. Every moment we’re awake, we are both rooted firmly in “that of God in us” and actively engaged—for better and for worse—in the outer world.
Last Sunday morning, during my quiet time, for some reason I noticed the sound of the furnace turning off. The silence was profound. I’m sure it happens maybe a hundred times a day, but this time caught my attention. The furnace has done its job, I thought, bringing the house back to the right temperature, and now it can rest until it’s needed again. Just a few minutes later it kicked back on again and the house was filled with that sound of circulating, warm air.
It occurred to me that growing in faith is similar to that. Humans that we are, living in a busy and overstimulating world, it is hard for most of us to just stay indefinitely in that peaceful place where we feel at ease and in sync with the spirit of God. Instead it’s back and forth, up and down, on again, off again, heating and cooling as we deal with outer circumstances and then come back to our inner one. When we forget about God, we get stuck in our heads and our hearts begin to cool; when we remember, we turn back toward God and regain that warm sense of spirit working in us and in the circumstances of our lives.
You may have heard the saying, “The longest journey you will ever take is the 18 inches from your head to your heart.” It’s a journey we make not just once but often—maybe many times a day—as we try to try to live with faith in a chaotic world. That’s our mechanism—our thermostat—for heating and cooling. Am I inviting God into this circumstance? No? Time for the furnace to kick back on.
Our journeys to the heart are important if we want our lives to shine with God’s light, because faith that lives only in the mind is what turns people in into Pharisees and Puritans. Instead of being able to feel embraced by God’s safety, presence, mercy, and love, faith that lives only in the head is an empty, cold, intellectual exercise. This type of faith is a shell—it has no heart—and it sows seeds of division, as people draw lines and argue about who’s right and who’s wrong. Because it has no heart, it is full of judgment, empty of the warm devotion, trust, humility, and welcome God offers those who yearn to know him truly.
This is what Isaiah is getting at in our Old Testament reading. God sees that people are saying the right things and worshiping the way they were taught, but there’s no real life in what they’re doing. They don’t feel or seek God’s presence, because their faith is only in their heads; they are focused on checking the check boxes and following the forms of their tradition. Maybe they don’t even know that a warmer connection with God is possible; their hearts are asleep to the deeper meaning of the words they are reciting. Isaiah tells us that God plans to do something “shocking and amazing” to wake them up. I think it’s important to note that God doesn’t do this to punish them—or us, when it happens—but to wake us up to a possibility we’re missing—the chance for real, vital, living connection with spirit.
The New Testament story we heard points in the same direction. Jesus is telling the woman at the well about the kind of faith God really wants from us: a living daily faith that is about relationship and welcome, worship offered “in spirit and truth” that values that space in our hearts where God can be known.
The idea of a living daily faith is at the center of our Friends tradition. The reading you heard this morning was from John Punshon, a Quaker historian and professor who had a real gift for writing and teaching about Quaker faith. John also wrote about his own journey from head to heart. The night his father died, he came home from the hospital and felt compelled to read the New Testament all the way through. He wrote,
“It was as if I had never read it before. It was full of Bonhoeffer’s words, what seem to me now to be the great realities of religion—sin, sacrifice, judgment, prayer, providence, salvation, glory, faith, hope, spirit—all those things. The theologians I had been accustomed to read were preoccupied with how to construct a faith out of inadequate and untrustworthy historical records and to remove miraculous events to a symbolic realm in which they exercised great power, but were not, literally, true. It struck me very forcibly that the theologians of the liberal tradition were in exactly the same position as the Puritans whom Fox condemned for seeking Christ in the pages of a book and not as a presence immanent in the world. I came to an experience similar to that of George Fox: ‘…and when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy!”
In his book, The People Called Quakers, D. Elton Trueblood tells us a little more about the profound change we experience in our faith as it moves out of the realm of the intellect and travels deeper. He writes,
“The essence of this new word [from Fox] was that Christ can be encountered in the Present Tense. Suddenly Fox realized that men are not fully satisfied with knowing what once was, just as they are not satisfied with hopes of the distant future. The continuous, immediate present is the most exciting of all tenses, because the present is really all that we have. As Fox approached Pendle Hill, in the late spring of 1652, he was conscious of a divine message to the effect that power would come, not merely from knowing the Scriptures, but rather from participating in the same spirit from which the Scriptures arose.”
Participating in the same spirit from which the Scriptures arose, that’s the key. That is the work of the heart, connecting and living and loving in the same spirit from which the Scriptures arose, from which Christ himself ministered and taught and lived. The head, in contrast, will analyze and criticize and compare—that’s what it does. Our minds are all about protecting our identities, strengthening our egos, and preserving us as entities that are separate from one another. Our hearts know the reality of God’s truth—truth about Oneness, about presence, about the Light that is here right now, already shining in each and all of us simply because we are God’s children and God’s life is in us.
I’m sure it is possible to live in touch with an unfading sense of that, of God’s abiding presence. That’s what I’m trying to do in my early morning time. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to hold on to that peaceful awareness throughout the day, no matter what comes, instead of continually tweaking the thermostat, remembering God for a while and then forgetting as we get swept up in the attractions and struggles of daily life.
But luckily, we Quakers are built for just this kind of challenge. The testimonies and queries that are so much a part of our tradition serve as a reliable bridge between our heads and our hearts. AFSC has published a good introduction to Quaker Queries and Testimonies that is available free of charge on their website (I’ll post it in the resources for this message when I put it online). A little searching online will help you find many other fruitful writings as well. Early Friends wrote volumes about making the journey back to “that of God” in us.
We turn to our testimonies not as hard-and-fast rules or as expectations we hold each other to (that would be what a mind-based faith would have us do), but testimonies are a kind of frame for our life of faith as we live in the world. The testimonies—Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship, and more—help us make choices outwardly that are in tune with what we have come to believe inwardly, a help for us as we do our best to live a sacramental life.
In the bulletin today, there are inserts with a few queries from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I offer these as food for thought this week—a little reflective nourishment. When we have a few quiet moments, reflecting on queries can still the racing of the mind so we can hear our hearts more clearly. As we listen, we come gradually to hear what God has for us. With a little practice, that sweet little listening space becomes a meeting place where we know how to find God in any moment. It can become the best and truest, sweetest part of our day. And even if we can’t stay there 24/7—we’ll probably need our ability to heat and cool as long as we live in this world—over time, we will develop an ever-clearer, ever-more-solid knowing that the presence of God is here, faithfully tending our hearts, sustaining our lives, awaiting our welcome.
- OT: Isaiah 29: 13-16
- NT: John 4: 19-26
- Anderson, Paul. The Formative Spirituality of John Punshon (1935-2017): https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/pdf/10.3828/quaker.2017.22.2.6
- Trueblood, Elton. The People Called Quakers, pg. 35.
- AFSC, Quaker Testimonies. https://www.afsc.org/document/friends-testimonies-booklet
- Journal of George Fox (available online): http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/title.html