Moment by Moment

At precisely 11:40 this morning, I will turn 60 years old. Right now I am enjoying the last little bit of my 59th year. But when that moment rolls around, I begin a whole new year, a whole new decade, filled entirely with whole new experiences.

Tiny moments like that are so plentiful in our lives we often don’t even notice them; we don’t think about the important role they play as we flow along from one experience to the next. But singular moments are the building blocks we use to create our lives. They can bring great change, rebuild hope, offer promise, heal wounds.

A simple, humble moment can turn out to define a whole new era in our lives. For example, at some point, for each of us, there was a moment when we didn’t yet know how to walk. And then suddenly, with some maneuvering and a little new-found balance, we could. What a miracle.

There was likely a moment when you weren’t married—and then you were. You weren’t a parent, and then you were. You didn’t have a job, and then you did. There was a moment when maybe you didn’t know God, hadn’t thought about spirituality, hadn’t yet had ideas of faith in your mind—and then suddenly, there they were, tiny maybe, but seeds of possibility that made room for divine love to one day enter your life and set up housekeeping there.

Life for each of us is a continual flow of moments–moments that could be anything—each one offering us a doorway into a new experience. What will this moment bring? It might be something adventurous we’ve never done before or something ordinary and routine that we started doing long ago. But when we look more closely at these tiny lived moments, we see that even the things we do all the time—things we might think are boring and tedious–are actually unique and new experiences. If we go to the store later today, we might follow the same route we took when we went there yesterday, but the experience is not the same—it is a different moment. We’re not the same people we were yesterday—today we’re in a different mood, wearing different clothes, another day older, thinking different thoughts. Plus as we drive there, everything around us has changed. The cars on the road are different. The grass has grown a bit. Flowers have blossomed. The sky, the breeze, the sun—all new.

Even when we’re doing something we’ve done a hundred times before, we never live the same moment twice. Every tick of the cosmic clock is an opportunity to meet God in a new and living—and potentially transformative–way.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, which in the Christian tradition around the world is celebrated as the 50th day after Easter, the day the Holy Spirit came to the followers of Jesus as he had promised, guiding and helping them to live lives in tune with all Jesus had taught. In our Friends tradition we place great importance on the leading of the Light, the presence of the Inward Teacher, and on Pentecost Sunday we are celebrating the arrival of the Light among us for the very first time.

As we heard in the New Testament story, Peter and the apostles were all together in one large place—scholars say there were about 120 people present. Among them were Jews from “every nation under heaven,” scripture says, all in town for the feast day of Pentecost, which in the Jewish tradition was a day of celebration commemorating the day God gave Moses the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Yes, they were followers of Jesus but they also loved and honored the Jewish traditions they’d been raised with. On this holy day, they most likely were expecting to hear the reading of the Torah and follow the rituals they’d performed for generations. But God had a very different moment in mind.

Suddenly the entire house was filled with the sound of rushing wind—and living here in Indiana as we do, the sound of a tornado might come to mind for many of us. Following that roar—think about it, it’s a sound we equate with power, natural force, change–all the people saw what must have been the shocking and confusing image of tongues of fire resting on each one of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and, the scripture says, they “began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In Richard Foster’s commentary here, he says that scholars are divided over just what kind of speech this was. Some believe it was the “speaking in tongues” that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians—the ecstatic speech of someone inspired by Spirit; others read this as speaking in languages other than one’s own. Either way, Foster says, “Here the curse of Babel is reversed: God allows people of different languages to understand one another. Thus this first miracle in Acts is auditory, a miracle of understanding.”

Following such a big and otherworldly moment, Peter—as the representative disciple and spokesman—addresses the crowd and he refers back to the Old Testament to show how what they just experienced together is the fulfillment of prophecy, giving further proof that Jesus is the Christ. He recites the Old Testament reading we heard today from Joel to give them a context for what just happened:

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

What a moment that must have been. A door opened in the fabric of time for every person gathered there that day. They came to celebrate a festival day they’d been commemorating for generations, not expecting anything other than their traditional prayers and rituals, and God gave them something completely new—the powerful, living gift of His spirit, that of God in them—that from that moment on would be a part of their lives. No one could have expected—or hoped, or even prayed for–that. The only thing they knew for sure—because they lived through it together—was that something miraculous had happened and God was with them.

It makes me think of a lovely quote from the monk Thomas Merton about how to respond when we feel God is near. He said,

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What is needed is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.

The possibilities of the present moment, the doorway into something new, may be a small and simple encounter that turns out to be something miraculous and even world-changing. Award-winning physician Francis Collins is the former Director of the National Institutes of Health. Always fascinated by science, Collins said that as a young man in graduate school he considered himself an atheist, but he credits a singular moment as the one that started him on the road toward God. He was seeing a patient he’d seen many times before–she had chronic and serious heart problems–and in that particular appointment, she looked at him kindly and said, “Dr. Collins, I’ve told you about my faith several times, but you’ve never said anything. What do you believe?”

That question echoed within him and shined a light on something he knew he really needed know himself. He began studying religions in earnest, and one day—on a hike through a rugged landscape–he saw a beautiful frozen waterfall and that somehow connected with his love of the complex and exquisite patterns and formulas he found in science, and he simply knew that God was real. God’s flame of understanding had come to rest on him, as it had those gathered in the house on Pentecost, and in that transformative and figural moment, Collins opened his mind and heart to God.

Many years later, he would lead the Human Genome project, a cooperative work of more than 20 research labs in six countries around the world. The vision of this huge undertaking was to map the entire human genome so that scientists might come to understand more profoundly, on a biological and biochemical level, what makes us, us, and use that knowledge to heal disease and improve the quality of life. And even though Collins didn’t think the project would finish in his lifetime, on June 26, 2000, they were able to announce that they had a draft of the entire genome. Speaking in the East room of the White House that day, Collins said, “We have now seen the language that God used to speak us into being,” He also said that of the many revelations they discovered, the most powerful was that human beings are breathtakingly similar. This is a powerful truth, Collins said, for anyone who tries to argue that some humans are not quite the same as others. “You just cannot get there,” he said. “Science will not allow it. We are all one family and that is so clear at [the scientific] level.”

Those at the Jewish feast of Pentecost that day two thousand years ago also saw first-hand that God’s language is not limited by any of the things that seem to divide human beings. Do you speak a different language? It doesn’t matter, God helps everyone understand. Are you boxed in by your tradition? God will send a mighty wind to refresh your belief in what’s possible. Do you think God is some far-off, remote deity who created the world and then left it to its own devices? If you give God half a chance, he will show up in your life—in any moment you’re open to it—and show you how close he really is. Always.

I like the way Quaker historian and mystic Rufus Jones describes the great gift of God’s presence in our lives:

‘He finds His complete Life in and through us as we find ours in and through Him and through each other in love and joy and cooperation. He needs us and we need Him, as a vine needs its branches and as the branches need the vine. The Spiritual Universe is thus a concrete reality, not an abstract one, and the Life of God can be revealed and has been actually revealed in a temporal life set in the midst of time, in the Christ of Galilee.”
He continues, “God [is] that central Reality in whom we live and move and are, and yet who respects our august privileges as persons. We can live in Him and for Him or we can go off on our own, insist on our freedom and waste our substance in egoistic ways of foolishness. We can read life down or read it up. We can see it as a temporal, empirical process, or we can assess it in its eternal significance. We can be centers of instinctive drives and urges, or we can be candles of the Lord, organs for the revelation of the Life of the Spirit.”

On this day, so long ago, the Life of the Spirit became a living reality for each of us, when God sent the Holy Spirit to lead us daily, hourly, moment by moment, with truth and grace. There’s so much potential joy there—and love and grace and healing. What is it we need in our lives right now, that one thing that will help us realize once and for all how blessed we are and how much help is available to us every moment? This could be the day or the week or the year God brings it—with a mighty wind—if we are open to the miracle of God’s presence.

It reminds me of the first part of Mary Oliver’s poem Hum, a beautiful reminder of the goodness of life. She writes,

What is this dark hum among the roses?
The bees have gone simple, sipping,
that’s all. What did you expect? Sophistication?
They’re small creatures and they are
filling their bodies with sweetness, how could they not
moan in happiness? The little
worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long? Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing.

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