Kingdom of the Heart

Our message for this morning comes to you courtesy of this beautiful paragraph written by Thomas Kelly. It is included in the Universal Light section of Britain’s Yearly Meeting’s Faith & Practice:

The light for which the world longs is already shining. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness does not apprehend it. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness is not overcoming it. It is shining in many a soul, and already the new order has begun within the kingdom of the heart. It is shining in many a small group and creating a heavenly-earthly fellowship of children of the light. It will always shine and lead many into the world of need, that they may bear it up into the heart of God. 

Thomas Kelly, as you most likely know, is a much-loved Quaker writer, teacher, philosopher, and mystic. Born in 1893 to a Quaker family, Thomas lost his father when he was only four, after which point his mother moved the family to Wilmington, Ohio, where they were raised close to Wilmington College and became part of a small Quaker community there. As Thomas grew, he attended a Quaker school and then college, graduating with a degree in Chemistry. His draw toward science was rerouted, though, when he met Rufus Jones, Quaker writer, theologian, and mystic, and felt a strong connection with Jones’ ideas about God and life and service.

If you’ve read A Testament of Devotion, you know that Kelly had a gift for using fresh and alive language to explain what a living relationship with God looks and feels like. He could write so powerfully about this because he’d experienced it himself first-hand. And once he experienced it, he lived there. All Kelly’s life he had been drawn toward God, a student of spirit, deeply interested in theology and philosophy and more. But so much of his faith had been based on knowledge—what went on in his head, what others had taught him, what he believed—and less on direct personal and lived experience. But a crisis that moved his faith from his head to his heart happened after he’d spent years working toward various academic degrees– “chasing adequacy” was how his friend and biographer Douglas Steere put it. On the day Kelly was to appear before a committee at Harvard to defend the second of his Ph.D.s, his mind went totally blank. He was completely unable to defend his dissertation, and the committee not only refused to award him the degree but also told him never to consider attempting it again.

Kelly spiraled into a time of deep despair that some describe as a breakdown. All his thoughts and ideas about how to build the life he wanted had been swept away in a single hour. Broken, empty, and without a plan, Kelly had a breakthrough experience of the deep, enduring, all-encompassing love of God. And it’s that Thomas Kelly—the one we hear in A Testament of Devotion and Essential Truths who really knows and walks and lives with God. This is a man who abides with God in the kingdom of his heart. For Kelly, God’s presence was not something to be simply believed in. It was something to be lived.

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard from the prophet Ezekiel. He was a priest during the time of the exile and he is recognized as a prophet in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. His name means “God Strengthens.” The book of Ezekiel is a story for a traumatized people, those whose lives have been upended, their homes taken, their city destroyed. After being dominated and suffering at the hands of the Babylonians, the people are struggling to figure out how to go on, how to rebuild, what to do. And Ezekiel was there to help God point the way:

In our pew Bibles, the scripture reads: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” I think I prefer the New Living Translation on this particular verse, because it is something we can all relate to:

“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.”

We all know what that feels like, don’t we, to have a stony, stubborn heart? All we need to do is think back to the last time we felt stubborn, or irritated, or judgmental. Hard-hearted, right? Researchers have shown that our physiology changes dramatically depending on the emotions we are feeling in a given moment. Endorphins are coursing through our veins. If we’re clamping down, refusing to budge, digging in our heels, preparing an argument, casting blame, we really do become more stone-like, more solid, immovable. In contrast, when we let go, when we breathe and relax—physically as well as mentally–we feel more open, happy, welcoming, cooperative. Our muscles relax, our upset calms, our expressions lighten. This is what forgiveness does. This is what remembering God does. The hard shell of defensiveness we think we need to get by in this world simply drops away. Think how it would be if we could live t, abiding with God moment by moment in the kingdom of the heart. What a world that would create.

A heart that is open to God is an undefended heart, a heart that trusts and listens and trusts some more, believing the best about God’s children and God’s ability to bring peace at any moment. One of the great things about having this kind of tender, real relationship with God is that even if we struggle in the beginning—and I’m sure God understands that–our trust grows little by little, but much stronger over time.

In the 19th century, a young African American woman named Jarena Lee made her way to the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia for the first time. During the sermon, she found herself powerfully moved by the ideas she heard. In what became the first published autobiography of an African American woman, Jarena wrote:

“The text was barely pronounced, which was ‘I perceive thy heart is not right in the sight of God,’ when there appeared to my view, in the centre of the heart, one sin; and this was malice against one particular individual who had strove deeply to injure me, which I resented. At this discovery I said, Lord I forgive every creature. That instant, it appeared to me as if a garment, which had entirely enveloped my whole person, even to my fingers’ ends, split at the crown of my head, and was stripped away from me, passing like a shadow from my sight—when the glory of God seemed to cover me in its stead.”

The writer of the piece that shared this story added something I felt was very profound and true about Jarena’s sudden and deep realization that she needed a change of heart:

“Often we embark upon a deep spiritual quest for one of two reasons: Either we have suffered a great loss or tragedy which has shaken our worldview, or something in our life has triggered an acute self-awareness, in which we are suddenly aware of the self-centeredness and superficiality of our dominant thoughts and emotions, and feel there must be more to life and ourselves. It’s the later that seemed to trigger Jarena’s search and subsequent experiences.”

Jarena’s change of heart came in what seemed like an instant, when she saw in herself the lack of forgiveness she held against another. She prayed a simple prayer, “Lord I forgive every creature” and God beautifully and instantly and fully responded by taking away the stone-like constriction of resentment and filling her with presence and peace.

Thomas Kelly’s change of heart came after all the outward accomplishments he’d been striving for suddenly went to dust, plunging him into a crisis that he didn’t know how to solve and wasn’t sure he’d recover from. Like the people of Ezekiel’s time, the structures he had built for his life had been demolished, and he had no idea what to do. God came tenderly and gently into that sorrowing place, binding up the wounds with perfect love, and creating in different ways in both Thomas and Jerena tender, responsive hearts.

Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in a public teaching and they were once again trying to trick him into saying something blasphemous. When one of them asked him when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus answered,

“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

Where, in the midst of us? It seems almost too simple, doesn’t it? The light we are longing for is already here, Thomas Kelly told us–with us, waiting on us to notice. Awake, comforting, guiding, reassuring–in the quiet place of our very own hearts. The Pharisees were all men with highly educated minds, but their hearts were made of stone, caught in the feverish dream of the world. We can’t live a deeply spiritual life unless our hearts are awake. And our hearts cannot sleep when we have a living relationship with our ever-present God. Belief lives in the mind, Thomas Kelly would tell us, but a true, growing, and tender life with God happens in the heart.

As we live through our own time of disruption and change, we’re a little like the children of Israel, traumatized after the Babylonians destroyed their beloved Jerusalem and their normal way of life. We’re all in need of a way forward, the reassurance that all this is unfolding in God’s time and God’s way, held in God’s love.

Into precisely this moment comes the lived, experiential wisdom of Thomas Kelly:

The light for which the world longs is already shining. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness does not apprehend it. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness is not overcoming it. It is shining in many a soul, and already the new order has begun within the kingdom of the heart. It is shining in many a small group and creating a heavenly-earthly fellowship of children of the light. It will always shine and lead many into the world of need, that they may bear it up into the heart of God.  

May we be part of that fellowship bearing up into the heart of God the needs of those around us during this time of pain and change and healing. Let’s do all we can to nurture our life with God in the kingdom of our hearts and watch the peace and presence that results.


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