Deepening and Stretching

Our Quaker meeting was honored to be asked to lead worship for the spring retreat of Western Yearly Meeting yesterday. This post is the message we offered as vocal ministry.

Also, an invitation: It warms our hearts that so many people around the world find and read our blog, and we want you to know we notice and appreciate you and offer a hearty hello! We’d love it if you would add a comment to any post you read and tell us where you’re writing from. Let’s remind each other that there’s no limit to the reach of God’s love! Peace and blessings the whole world ’round! Your Friends at Noblesville Friends.

March 2, 2019

It’s good to be with you all this morning, in this beautiful, light-filled space. I have many happy memories of being in this room after meeting for worship, having snacks, watching my grandkids play on the stage. I’ve witnessed all the seasons through these windows: through those panes, looking across time, you can see the beautiful handiwork of God—snow falling, trees budding, leaves changing.

The first time I came to this meetinghouse was more than 20 years ago on a Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving. I’d recently moved back to Indianapolis from Columbus and I’d heard there was a silent worship here. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, and at that point I’d never worshiped with Quakers before, but I felt a kind of curiosity stirring inside. I wanted to see what it was like.

So on that rainy night I drove here and parked in the parking lot on the north side of the building, not certain where to go in. There were no other cars around. I sat and wondered what to do for a few minutes, and just as I was deciding to give up and go home, someone knocked on my car window. A woman stood there, holding a notebook over her head to shield herself from the rain. She asked, “Is there some kind of silent meditation or something going on here tonight?”

I got out of the car and we decided we’d try to find out together. We tried a couple of doors and found that the side door was open; we then followed the sound of quiet voices into the parlor, where we both participated in silent worship for the first time.

From that very first evening, I felt at home among Friends. Using two tiny things—my curiosity and a well-timed knock on my car window—God led me to my spiritual family and changed my life in the process. Finding the door into this meetinghouse led me to a deepening, living faith, which took me to seminary at ESR and then into hospice chaplaincy, through the recording process, to the great blessing of pastoring at Noblesville Friends, and it has brought me here today. God has been unfolding the path all along—acting as the very principle of life and growth and love—inviting, preparing, and loving me into possibilities beyond anything I’d ever imagined for myself.

And my story is not unique. It’s not even really about me. This is the story of how God, loving us, shows up in our lives in big and small ways, continually deepening and stretching us, drawing up both inward and outward: Inward, into an ever closer and more trusting relationship with God; and outward to share the love and light we find with others. If we look with the eyes of our hearts back over some of the key events of our lives—meeting our spouses, finding our jobs, moving to a wonderful home, emerging from a difficult time, or perhaps healing a hurting relationship—chances are that we will see God at work there, arranging things unobtrusively, nudging us always toward a path of love and goodness, hope and light.

Both deepening and stretching are important in our spiritual lives, because they are both movements of love in different ways. As we make space and take time to nurture our relationship with God, we find a sweetness, a steadiness that stays with us, comforting and renewing and strengthening us. When we feel God close, when we know God is leading, that’s when we can stretch outward in love, sharing the light we’ve found in a way that can minister to the needs we find around us.

In 1694, William Penn wrote about how simple—and how important—it is to make deepening our spiritual lives a priority:

 “If you would know God, and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means He has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small, and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too, and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know; that is, Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world, and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvelous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines for more and more to the perfect day.”

I live in a place that backs up against the woods—wild woods, a place that’s never been cultivated and thinned and tamed. Deer are regular visitors, as are families of bunnies, a circus of squirrels and chipmunks, hungry raccoons, opossum, moles, and the occasional fox. Throughout the year, we have all sorts of birds and in the summer months, bats. It’s hard to describe how right and complete and whole it feels to be a part of it all. This is deepening for me—living in a place where I can see God’s love and joy everywhere I look.

Wendell Berry has a short poem I love that says something about the rich life of the soul that is connected to its deepest source. He writes,

I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

Why is he smiling, do you think? What is it in him that is smiling? I think of it as the deep knowing place inside where the light is always shining, where the soul still walks with God in the early morning light of the first garden. It reminds me of George Fox’s words that even though he was busy in the world, teaching and traveling, thanks to the agency of the inner Light within him, he had been restored like God’s original Adam, brought “into the paradise of God.”

We have the same potential within us—with Christ’s Light as our guide, God’s paradise is our destination. This is what the psalmist was talking about in the verses Sherry read for us: When we delight in God, we are like trees planted by streams of living water, yielding abundant fruit, doing it joyfully, offering the world the gifts God has planted in us, and prospering-blessing-sharing-growing in whatever we do.

Perhaps prospering means growing our meetings, not just in the number of people in the pews but in the magnitude of love shared and lives transformed. Perhaps prospering is living with such an alive spirit that the joy and trust and bond we share with one another shines like a beacon on a hill.

We are made for just this sort of connection. Peter Wohlleben, author of The Secret Life of Trees, says that trees are very good at creating and sustaining their own communities. They share nutrients with one another through elaborate root systems that resemble social networks. They communicate with each other and have special friendships that develop over time. When they share their food, they do so not only with their own species but also with their competitors. They take care of the sick trees in their forest by providing special nutrients that help bolster the immune systems of the ailing trees. And when they grow tall, trees that are good friends arrange their branches to grow in a way that allows them to share the sunlight coming into the canopy, so one doesn’t get more light than another. Wohlleben says trees create communities for much the same reasons we humans do: we live, we thrive, we flourish when we’re together. It is through the many, that the One can be known.

In 1682, Early Friend Francis Howgill wrote about the transformation that took place in his meeting after they took the words of George Fox to heart and diligently sought the Light of Christ within. He wrote,

“The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. We came to know a place to stand in and what to wait in, and the Lord appeared daily to us, to our astonishment, amazement and great admiration…And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love, in the covenant of Life with God; and that was a strong obligation or bond upon all our spirits, which united us one unto another. We met together in the unity of the Spirit, and the bond of peace.”

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, as a model for our own meetings as they are now and as they can be in the future. So perhaps a good query for us—as individuals and as meetings—is whether we’re allowing the space we need for both movements of love, deepening and stretching. Deepening is the inward movement, leading us toward God through prayer, reflection, meditation, stillness, and gratitude. Stretching is the outward motion of God’s love, inspiring us to move in accord with the highest light we’ve been given—reaching out, building, planning, serving, and embracing one another and the wider world. How can those motions bring in and welcome the newcomers who are waiting in our parking lots. Or support the seeking of those God draws to us with curiosity in their hearts?

And here’s the most beautiful and hopeful thing: Whatever our condition may be—whether we’re in a season of rest and deepening or a season of growth and stretching—it’s all part of One great unfolding in the realm of God’s perfection. This whole creative play—the systems that nourish, the arms that hug, the meeting that welcomes, the sun that shines, the rain that falls—it’s all designed and freely poured out to us, moment by moment, by our God who loves us  tenderly and gives us this growing goodness for our joy and the joy of all beings.

In closing, I’d like to share the words of a lovely hymn that lifts up the mystery and miracle, the beautiful rhythm of God’s love continually at work in our lives:

HYMN OF PROMISE

In the bulb, there is a flower
In the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise
Butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter
There’s a spring that waits to be.
Unrevealed until its season,
Something God alone can see.

There’s a song in every silence,
Seeking word and melody
There’s a dawn in every darkness
Bringing hope to you and me
From the past will come the future
What it holds, a mystery.
Unrevealed until its season,
Something God alone can see.

In our end, is our beginning
In our time, infinity,
In our doubt, there is believing,
In our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection
At the last, a victory
Unrevealed until its season,
Something God alone can see.

 

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