Last week right about now I was sitting on a bench overlooking the beautiful St. Joseph river, watching the way the water changed color as the sun rose in the sky, noticing the ducks and gulls flying toward Lake Michigan, feeling a wonderful sense of relaxation all around me—inside and out. That’s one of the great gifts of vacation: time away from time. Time you can expand into. The usual tasks that take time at home—laundry and dishes, bedmaking and grocery shopping—aren’t necessary when you’re traveling. Free time really is free time. You can sit and watch the water, sit and watch the sky, follow the path along the river, simply feeling full and blessed and grateful for the breeze, and the beauty, and the peace.
Another gift of vacation is that it may offer a new perspective on old things. Before I left home last week, I was feeling rushed and a bit knotted up inside, hurrying to get on the road, worrying about the chaos in the news, concerned about the tension and disconnection in the world. But I noticed on Saturday, when my daughter-in-law Jordan, my daughter-in-law-to-be Ashley and I went to the beach, that what I discovered in the real experience of real life didn’t match the concerns I had been carrying around in my head. The people around me weren’t cold or distrustful or on edge, like the headlines suggested. We were all just families, of all ethnicities and all ages, on blankets and towels of all colors, some with tents, some with kites, some with frisbees. Some playing music. Some speaking in languages I didn’t know. All happy, playing, enjoying a beautiful day in a beautiful place, digging in the sand, splashing in the waves, contented and at peace together. We were simply truly, one humanity at peace, happily, together.
That’s not what social media had told me about the state of our world. But right there, in living color, my own experience showed me what was real. People were kind. People were good. People were enjoying a beautiful day with family and friends. And we all seemed to share a common desire—to relax in a place of beauty and simply enjoy the day.
And what’s more, no one around us was talking about politics or Washington or world affairs. The older ladies behind us with the three large coolers talked about recipes and the state fair and the cousin who couldn’t make the trip. The three young couples to our right chatted happily about wedding plans and cell phones. (The guys talked about the latest phones while their fiancées talked weddings.)
The young couple with two adorable girls on our left spoke to one another in a language I didn’t recognize. They ate and played and swam together. When we made eye contact, they nodded and smiled. There was a sense of peace and ease, of beauty and enjoyment enveloping everything and everyone. It was happiness. It was peace. It was God.
There is something sweet that happens when humans are at ease with one another. There’s a natural harmony present, a unity of mind—no push-me-pull-you of ideas, no looks of suspicion or distrust, no fierce focus on how different we all were. Instead, we were unified by sun and sand and waves, content in a place of beauty with people we loved. Perhaps there was harmony because we were unified in what we hoped to find there that day. Simple, wholesome enjoyment. And that’s what we found.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard the song that Isaiah said would be sung in the land of Judah when the time of happiness and connection to God returned. You may remember that Isaiah is a major prophet and for much of his book he shares the ominous threats and promises of an angry God who is tired of the selfish absorption of the children of Israel. In this passage, however, Isaiah offers a hopeful image of how life will be when the people turn from their fascination with the world and remember the God who loves them. Then, Isaiah promises, those who trust in God—who continue to look to God for the goodness in life—will be kept in perfect peace. Your choices are creating something, Isaiah tells them. You decide which you want more: The strife of the world, or the peace of God.
Similarly, in our New Testament reading, James is concerned that readers learn how to discern between the two different kinds of wisdom they encounter in the world. One kind of wisdom appears as gentleness and fruitfulness—it is pure and peaceable, willing to yield, full or mercy and without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. This is good, heavenly wisdom, James says, and it is fair, peaceable, respectful, and kind.
The other type of wisdom should be easy to recognize, James tells us, because it is full of envy and selfish ambition, it is boastful and “false to the truth.” James cautions us that this type of wisdom is “earthly, unspiritual,” and even “devilish.” He goes on to say that “…where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” You choose, James says to the people, Which type of wisdom you want to bring to the world.
In both scripture passages, we hear the writers offering that there is a choice and a turning that is needed if what we want to experience is the peace of God. Isaiah tells the people a harvest of peace will come when they turn and trust again in God. James encourages his readers to choose heavenly wisdom, turning away from the traps of earthly wisdom, which magnifies chaos and disorder.
The idea that we can choose between the gentle order of God’s peace and the chaotic struggle of the world made me think about the concept of “right order” which is so important among Friends. Right order is also sometimes referred to as Gospel order, and according to Lloyd Lee Wilson, who wrote Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, it is defined as, “the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the Creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say that ‘it was very good.’
I love the idea that the starting point for right order is right here in this moment. It’s not any more difficult than what we’re doing right now. Any time we ask, God will help us recognize which choice or direction is in “right order” with spirit’s leading. With a little practice, we learn how the light checks and balances us as we find our way with God as our guide. We start to notice the outcomes when we act from heavenly wisdom, bringing peace and kindness to the world. We’ll also realize when we’re being self-centered and divisive—and that gives us a chance to correct our mistake and choose again.
George Fox wrote about gospel order in his Journal, emphasizing its ability to bring unity and harmony to the whole world:
“the spirit of God, which was given to everyone to profit withal, and the grace of God, which bringeth salvation and … hath appeared unto all men,
… teacheth them that obey it to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world:
… this is the most fit, proper, and universal rule, which God hath given to all mankind to rule, direct, govern, and order their lives by.”
The order of God’s quiet wisdom is ever-present, like a built in compass, a gift to help us, pointing in the way we should go. All we need do is align with it. Maybe it seems like attuning to God’s harmonious “right order” would be an easier thing to do when we’re on vacation, out of our regular surroundings and open to new and different things. But the harmony that sometimes seems so elusive to us is always here, always available, because God is always here, always present. We can ask for help in finding the rightly ordered answer for anything we’re uncertain about: a business decision, a family dilemma, a relationship, a project, a plan. As we get more comfortable asking for this kind of moment by moment guidance, we’ll discover how faithful, how present, how kind and involved our divine parent truly is.
As I researched the concept of “right order” this week, to my delight I rediscovered the writings of David Bohm, a theoretical physicist and major contributor to the field of quantum theory. In his book, Science, Order, and Creativity, Dr. Bohm says that from the time he was small, he was attracted to music, theater, and visual arts, more drawn toward exploring the unanswerable questions of life than in spending his time with quantifiable research. He said he saw the arts as, “another very important way of responding to nature and understanding our position in the universe. I always felt that, in some deeper sense, the really important figures in science and the arts were fundamentally doing the same thing and responding to the same ultimate origin.”
When I read that last phrase, that the sciences and the arts were both, “fundamentally doing the same thing and responding to the same ultimate origin,” I thought of all the people, happy on the beach last Saturday, enjoying the day together in harmony. We were all doing fundamentally the same thing, responding to our sense of the goodness of life. I remembered what Isaiah promised the children of Israel, that when everyone trusts God—turning together toward their ultimate origin–their lives would produce a harvest of peace. This too echoes what James wrote: that when we’re open to the divine wisdom that faithfully comes when we ask, peace will rest on everything we see and touch and are.
David Bohm calls this “ultimate origin,” the implicate order, and he defines it as the ground, pattern, or structure from which all our experiences arise. All the temporary and changing happenings that occur in our day—people coming and going, meals prepared and eaten—he calls the “explicate” order, arising—on an external level—out of the deeper, unseen implicate order.
Another way of saying it might be that everything we see and experience taking shape around us—this beautiful space, the trees in the park, the clouds outside in the sky—are really the blossoming of the deeper, unified order of life within all things. We Quakers call that that of God—in everything and everyone, across all time and heavenly and early realms. God expresses God’s own goodness, God’s own love and light, through the daily circumstances of our lives. How blessed are we! When we respond by rightly ordering our days and our choices, we make room for God’s creative grace to flow into every circumstance we encounter. The moment we turn toward God, a harvest of peace is already on the way, perhaps closer than we know.
- OT Isaiah 26: 1-6
- NT James 3: 13-18
- Bohm, David and F. David Peat. Science, Order, and Creativity: https://books.google.com/books?id=BPn7CIqkU-0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false