Many and One

Don’t you find it fascinating that all the peonies blossomed on Memorial Day weekend? Not just the peonies in my yard, not just some peonies, but literally all the peony bushes I saw from Shelby to Hancock to Marion to Hamilton counties, bursting out in giant blossoms of pink, white, and red. Doesn’t it make you wonder how they know? How do they coordinate? How is it possible that none of the things that might make them different—like different locations, when they were planted, how old they are, how much sun they get, or whether they were half-drowned by all the rain this spring or not—none of that seems to matter. They all know—by some kind of strange peony telepathy: “This is the weekend! Bloom!”

It’s obvious that there is something big going on here, some organizing principle at work in the nature of peonies that we can’t quite comprehend.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if this kind of blossoming principle were at work right now in the hearts and souls of humankind, too? A unifying, organizing law that is leading each and all of us—the whole world over, all at the same time–toward peace, and compassion, and harmony. I realize that we don’t have to look far to come up with all sorts of evidence to the contrary. But perhaps it’s just a matter of scale: maybe it’s a bit harder for us because we’re so much more complicated and willful than peonies. We are good at being many—lots of individual selves–but perhaps not so good at being One. The inner strength and independence we have as individuals, which is a gift, may also make it harder for us to hear the continual call of Love that consistently whispers our name.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians in the days of the early church lifting up this idea of Oneness as the reality in God. Ephesus was a beautiful, flourishing port of commerce in Paul’s time, a melting pot of many different cultures and traditions. It is into that context that Paul sends his letter, talking about the power of prayer, the work of the Holy Spirit, and, in the passage we heard, inviting members to see themselves as one body, united by Spirit.

He urges the Ephesians to “lead a life worthy of your calling” and encourages humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance—or forgiveness—with one another. “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” he writes. And then he tells them how that is possible:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

What an incredibly huge statement that is! It covers everything, doesn’t it? How could we ever feel apart, separated, small, vulnerable? But if you’ve ever tried to live this, you know—many of us experience moments when we feel this kind of connection, but then, as we say, reality comes crashing in, and someone cuts us off in traffic or the water heater breaks or someone posts something on Facebook that doesn’t sit quite right.

Our individual selves get triggered. And we’re good, for the most part, at living these individual lives. We’re accustomed to the independence of our personalities, looking out at life the way we do.

Psychologists and philosophers tell us that it’s human nature–we need to be individuals, doing our own thing, but we also need to belong, to be part of the larger group. The trouble is, those two goals—to be unique and to belong—are sometimes at odds with each other. We may feel that in our families, in our meeting, in our social groups. We live with the tension between the many and the One at every point in our lives where we are in relationship with something bigger than ourselves. Belgian psychologist Esther Perel says it this way, “Love rests on two pillars: Surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.” Ultimately she says it can all be boiled down to two basic but seemingly contradicting needs: our need for security and our need for freedom.

When we feel free to be ourselves, we are individuals and we know what we think, we know what we want, we’re acting on our own creative impulses, we have healthy boundaries, we are autonomous, we feel like we have some control over our lives. There’s something that feels good and fulfilling and whole about that. We may feel we’re being the “us” God created us to be. You may have heard story of Rabbi Zushya who continues to get in trouble in his synagogue for his unusual ideas. He says to one of the superiors scolding him, “But when I reach the next realm, they will not say to me, “Why were you not Moses?” Rather, they will ask me, “Why were you not Zushya?”

When we seek out security in a group of like-minded folks, our task is no longer simply to get what we want when we want it. Simply by virtue of our now having to consider the needs of the larger group, we learn and expand our views and understand differently. Life invites us to move out beyond the little inner world of Me. Being part of a group—moving from the many toward being One—is good for us. Gradually we grow more porous and receptive, more open, softer, perhaps kinder. This is a beautiful thing that happens organically over time as Love leads us more and more beyond the small and limiting surface of our individual lives.

This tension between being an individual and belonging to a group extends to our relationship with God as well. If we really let ourselves surrender to what God has in store for us, what will happen to these practical daily lives we’re living? Will everything change? Will our personalities be altered? First the bad news: Quaker Douglas Steere says “To pray is to change.” So yes, that level of Oneness with God will change us. The good news is that if we’re willing, God will meet us more than halfway. In fact, all we really need is to be willing and to spend some time in quiet, waiting on God. The result is a deep and lasting sense of the reality of God’s nearness. We come to see that, as individuals, we are the many-ing of God; and when we meet God in the silence, God is the One-ing of us.

In his book Dimensions of Prayer, Douglas Steere says that for most of us, letting go of our strong personalities as we wait expectantly on God is a difficult thing to do at first. We often have a tendency to go to God with a list of things we want to fix or a collection of problems we hope God will solve. Steere points out that that kind of prayer is really still about us—what we want—more than it is than about God.

Quaker doctor and missionary Henry T. Hodgkin taught that the person who “plays host of the universe, and regards God as the guest, can never really pray.” Only when we discover that God is the host and we are the guests can we begin to approach God with the humility, receptivity, and gentleness that make Oneness possible. That’s part of what Paul was trying to get across. This Oneness is infinitely bigger than we are—stretching across all time and space. There is no place God’s Oneness is not—including right at the center of our very own being. We can trust that. We can relax into it. And it will tell us when to bloom.

I think the peonies know something deeply that our busy minds cause us to miss—that at the deepest essence of who we are, down deep where the spark of life still ignites our souls, we are truly in tune with the God of all life. We are blossoming on God’s timetable. We all breathe in and out several times a minute. We have cycles of waking and sleeping. We eat, we move, we think, we have our being. We all have experiences and, hopefully, people to love. We all to greater or lesser degrees struggle with questions about meaning and right action and faith and peace and forgiveness.

The Old Testament reading is a single, wise verse from Proverbs which moves us from our rainbow of choices and experiences to a focus on the deeper truth of our common life in God: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”

We get there by entering the quiet of our hearts in humility and gentleness, remembering that God is the host—the creator and maintainer of all existence—and we are the guests, still looking through a mirror darkly, trying to make sense of our daily lives. It is possible for us to let go of our burdens and struggles and questions, our lists of prayer requests, our desires for things to change, and simply be in the quiet of God’s presence, just to be with God.

Steere tells the story of a time he “spoke with the wife of the biographer of Ramana Maharshi, a country Brahim who many in India found to be a veritable window to God. “She told me,” he says, “how she used to come down to Southern India from Calcutta, torn with personal problems and how she would go over and sit in the big living room of the ashram with Ramana Maharshi. She did not talk with him, but simply spent an hour or two quietly in his presence, while others were coming and going. That was enough. She found the knots unravelling, the things that had to be done resolved, and the divisions in her healed, and she left in peace.”

This happens, Paul would say, because she was willing to maintain in the Spirit the bonds of peace she found there. She had discovered the Oneness that exists beyond all the limitless varieties of personalities and perspectives. She found a sense of ease and connection, a deep knowing in which her soul could rest, and then the things in her life that were troubling her just began to unknot on their own.

We Friends know how to find that place within us because we understand silence as the door into Spirit. In the quiet we can meet God with a gentle heart and just rest in the sense of God’s presence. The reason why we are willing to move from the many to the One is important. Author George MacDonald says, “It is not what God can give us, but God we want.”

This is what Early Friend Isaac Penington was pointing toward when he wrote the following in 1681,

“Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and sink down to the seed, which God sows in thy heart, and let that be in thee and grow in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is God’s portion.”

That is blossoming, Friends. And it’s happening in every heart where God is welcome.




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