When I was five or six years old, walking on the ceiling was one of my favorite pastimes. I probably discovered it completely by accident, on a long, boring summer afternoon. I still remember the look on my mom’s face when she walked into the living room and found me upside-down in one of the chairs, my feet stretched over my head, taking imaginary steps on the ceiling which seemed to be—in that moment, anyway—right there, within my reach. At first she told me to get up and sit right on the chair, but after a day or two of repeat performances, I think she gave up correcting me. I’m not sure why it was so fun, but it was part of a pretend world that felt very real–full of possibilities, unhindered by the grim limitations so many grown-ups seemed to have.
It turns out that having the ability to flip ideas around and look at them from different perspectives has been helpful to me throughout my life. It reminds me that the way I’m looking at something isn’t the only way to see it. I’ve learned that if I’m open to another way of seeing things—especially if I’m able to quiet my mind enough to listen for spirit’s leading—constructive ideas and peaceable solutions I’d totally missed before may bubble up.
Remembering to take that kind of Quakerly pause—by noticing when we’re getting swept up, taking a breath, and spending a moment or two listening for God’s input—is a simple, quiet act that can have a big impact. It can change our mood, and our experience, and maybe even our lives, radiating outward into our world, bringing just a little more light and peace.
Isaiah knew about the power of this pause when he wrote, in the Old Testament reading we had today, “For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
Turning toward rest, in quiet and in trust—that’s where we reconnect with our source of true and sustaining strength. This is a place of gentle and sure confidence for the one who knows God, who believes and remembers that God is even now creating something good in our world and has a hope and a future planned for us. In Richard Foster’s commentary on this section, he writes that this verse is
“what is probably the most significant affirmation of the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century B.C.E. …This text urge(s) complete reliance upon Yahweh as the alternative to frantic, anxious military and political posturing. Isaiah is not a pacifist; rather, he believes that trust in Yahweh is the taproot of security. All trust in armaments and alliances, he reasons, is an act of mistrust and idolatry that will only lead to destruction. The assurance of faith is the conviction that anxious self-securing does not work in the real world. The oracle goes on to say that those who rely on armament will finally be routed by armaments (vv 16-17). An arms race ultimately cannot be won!”
This is the quiet and ultimately successful strength of relying on spirit, rather than trusting in armies. The peaceful stillness of a moment spent with God is the “taproot of security.” Grasping at outward shows of strength are really signs of mistrust and even idolatry, Foster says: Having faith in guns more than faith in God, trusting more in money than in God’s ability to provide. Leaning on those false phantoms of security will ultimately fail the one who counts on them.
In contrast, a solid way opens when we recognize God’s gentle leading and act on it. That is what brings about right action and a return to peace and stability in our world. George Fox is one of our best models when it comes to acting with quiet and assured strength. His convictions came from a clear sense of God’s truth working within him. When he was still a young man, in his 20s, he felt led to write a letter to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland. In Fox’s autobiography, he described it this way:
“I was moved of the Lord to write a paper to the Protector, Oliver Cromwell; wherein I did, in the presence of the Lord God, declare that I denied the wearing or drawing of a carnal sword, or any other outward weapon, against him or any man; and that I was sent of God to stand a witness against all violence, and against the works of darkness; and to turn people from darkness to light; and to bring them from the causes of war and fighting, to the peaceable gospel. When I had written what the Lord had given me to write, I set my name to it, and gave it to Captain Drury to hand to Oliver Cromwell, which he did.”
After reading the letter, Cromwell summoned Fox to his house, where Fox shared many ideas about faith and life and being true to God’s leading within. Cromwell was moved to tears by Fox’s words and the spirit in which he offered them. Following this experience, Fox wrote,
“Then I went out; and when Captain Drury came out after me he told me the Lord Protector had said I was at liberty, and might go whither I would. Then I was brought into a great hall, where the Protector’s gentlemen were to dine. I asked them what they brought me thither for. They said it was by the Protector’s order, that I might dine with them. I bid them let the Protector know that I would not eat of his bread, nor drink of his drink. When he heard this he said, “Now I see there is a people risen that I cannot win with gifts or honours, offices or places; but all other sects and people I can.” It was told him again that we had forsaken our own possessions; and were not like to look for such things from him.”
There is a remarkable clarity, a great strength, and an otherworldly freedom in Fox’s refusal. Even though he and Cromwell had had a good meeting just before that, he knew he needed to stand apart, to be clear and in accord with the leading God had given him.
In this day and time when everyone seems to be in each other’s pockets, when lobbyists are changing laws with money and political donors are influencing our elected officials, when scientific research gets funded by groups that have a vested interest in the outcome of the study, we could use a little Quakerly clarity—that quiet, indelible strength of integrity—at the center of our decision-making processes. When personal preferences and favors become a part of the mix, truth may become clouded and lost. The wrong motives—motives that may bring great harm and cost many human lives—get picked up and furthered. But when the leading comes from God and we know it—no matter how small or simple—and we make a choice to follow it, free of the influences of others, we won’t need anybody else’s pockets for anything. The Light will lead. It cannot fail.
The dire question of this day—this day, with even more violence and heartbreak in its wake—is, “How can we help others in this broken and frightening time find this deep stream of peace and security God provides? How can we stay there ourselves, moment by moment?” In the quiet manner of Friends, our strength can get drowned out by a loud and chaotic world. Only God knows the changes that come when we can stay grounded in our peace and faithfully live up to the light we are given. But I trust that good does come.
It is part of Friends’ very deep root system to hold loosely our individual understandings of the truth and wait in the quiet for that deeper sense of confirmation—or consensus, when we’re together—that God is the one bringing the clarity of the moment. When we wait for spirit’s leading, the rest becomes clear. Quakers for generations have been able to act with conviction—to care for others in times of war, to advocate for justice, to improve situations for the imprisoned and the mentally ill—because they knew the source of their strength. It wasn’t their egos, or their might or their money, but their willingness to wait for spirit to show the way of love. Then they just humbly followed, and that made all the difference.
But of course, Quakers aren’t the first ones to value listening to and following God’s leading in our daily lives. We are following a divine model. In our New Testament reading today, we heard how Jesus described to John the source of his own quiet strength. He said,
“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true.”
The leading, the light, the prompting to action, the teaching, the ministry, the advocacy, and the truth-telling: Jesus says it all comes from God. Jesus was so in tune with God that he was able to live out a perfect model of truth, love, and reconciliation for all to see and follow. This passage from John reminds me of a poem written by the Persian poet Rumi, called “The Story of the Reed.” He writes,
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
“Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.”
Be that empty. Whatever the pain, the fear, or the confusion, when we let ourselves be empty, our hearts naturally turn toward the quiet of spirit, the source of our strength. When we feel overwhelmed and powerless in responding to this hurting world, we can ask for help in seeing as God sees. We can wait prayerfully—in confidence and trust–for God’s guidance, which will surely come. Pausing our own reactions long enough to invite God’s view may not turn us upside-down in our living room chairs, but it will surely lead us toward a new perspective and—even more importantly–reconnect us to the peace, calm, and energy of Love that is always present when we remember God is near.
In closing, I offer this blessing from Thomas Merton: “May we all grow in grace and peace, and not neglect the silence that is printed in the center of our being. It will not fail us.”
- OT: Isaiah 30: 15
- NT: John 5: 31-38
- Flanagan, Eileen. Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope. (Berkley, CA: She Writes Press, 2015).
- Fox, George. The Autobiography of George Fox. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/fox_g/autobio.html