I had planned all sorts of things for this message this morning, as I anticipated having a whole delicious week off with no surgery, no recovery, and no “have tos” planned. The whole week stretched before me and my only intention was to spend time quietly with God, keeping my heart and mind open, awake to the little joys that come, floating along through the experience of each free, unfolding day.
But life threw a wrench in my plans, and yesterday morning, I found myself with Gloria at the emergency vet on the Southside of Indianapolis. On Friday evening, while my son and daughter-in-law and I were sharing a pizza, Gloria and my grand-dog Rocky were doing what they do when they’re together, joyfully playing, wrestling, chasing each other around. Rocky is a beautiful black lab mix, very smart and active, and Gloria—well, you know Gloria. The vet told me a couple of weeks ago that Gloria is 24 pounds overweight, weighing in, on our last visit, at a substantial 134 pounds. Let’s just say she’s well-loved and she likes her treats.
All was well as the dogs played and the kids and I ate, but then suddenly there was a loud yelp, and all the animals and humans froze. Gloria gingerly got off the couch where she had just jumped and seemingly landed funny. She held up her left rear foot and wouldn’t put any weight on it. I quickly went over and tried to sleuth out the problem, lightly pushing and prodding, moving and lifting that leg. My untrained eye couldn’t see or feel any injury, but it was unfortunately the end of their happy play date and the beginning of a long, worried night for me.
The next morning, Gloria was hard to budge. She would take only a few steps at a time—and none of them on that foot. So Cameron came over as the sun was coming up to help me get Gloria in the car so I could take her to the emergency vet.
My plans for a sweet, idyllic, quiet vacation seemed to be hitting a detour.
The writer E.M. Forster, author of Howards End, once wrote, “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I’m not sure whether it’s what he had in mind, but this idea implies that there is something bigger unfolding, something we can trust, that will be even better—maybe grander or sweeter—than what we had planned for ourselves, if only we’ll be open to it. This applies to big life events and small, and it asks us to have faith that God is doing something good–even through what appear to be the messy, unwanted, and uncomfortable moments of our lives.
One of the things that fits me best about the Friends tradition is the idea of continuing revelation. We hope and believe that, thanks to the loving guide of Spirit, clarity comes. What is murky and hard today will change and resolve and we’ll come to a deeper understanding of it all eventually. Thankfully, our tradition is geared to this kind of freedom–we aren’t expected to know everything about our faith, to adhere to a set of tenets, to recite and hold to a once-and-for-all-time creed. Rather ours is a growing, living, deepening practice of faith that leads us to learn more and more what it means to love in this world as God would have us do. And we do our best to till those learnings into the soil of our lives so they blossom in loving and faithful action.
It’s not enough for Quakers to memorize things and follow rituals. We try to live in such a way that our days reflect the unfolding of our faith. God goes with us to the grocery, hangs out while we garden, sits and passes the time with us at the emergency vet. We are big believers in prayer, praying for more light, more insight so we can know how God sees whatever situation we’re in and respond to it with that new and deeper understanding.
Ours is a practical faith, a walking-around-on-the-earth faith that shows itself in the small choices and actions we take each day. With Jesus as our example of a loving, compassionate, devoted son of God, we try to grasp the lessons of his life and behavior and take his teachings to heart. We believe Spirit helps us deepen our understanding, guiding and assisting us as we struggle to live with faith in a world that often preaches its opposite.
I am a big believer in prayer, so the first thing I did after Gloria got hurt was start praying. I prayed to lessen my fear, to ask God’s healing touch on whatever Gloria was experiencing. I affirmed that God was in the situation and that all would be well because God was present. Did I believe it was possible that I would wake up in the morning and find Gloria perfectly ok, brought back to full health through the calming, comforting grace of our loving God? I did.
But when I went downstairs to check on Gloria, she was the same as before–although she was glad to see me, bless her heart, wagging her tail. Usually, she sleeps on a fluffy blanket right beside my bed upstairs, but that night she’d slept all alone on the laundry room floor, so I’m sure she’d been lonely. I tried to take her outside but discovered it was a Herculean effort for her to get up (although she eventually managed it) and she hobbled out only a few feet (still not putting weight on that leg) and plopped down in the grass.
Does that mean my prayers weren’t heard or answered? That God had left me alone to deal with this situation I didn’t know how to solve? No. It means that I didn’t get the answer I was hoping for right away, which was that Gloria would be magically be fine and back to her goofy self and we’d just relax and enjoy a normal Saturday. But I had invited God into this situation and I knew, based on my faith and past experience with God that—seen or unseen as yet—God was working things out, somehow. My prayers changed. Now they were, “Help me to accept this situation as you feel it should best unfold” and “open the way for us to be led to the right result.”
That’s one of the hard things about life, trying to figure out which things are ours to do and which ones we need to leave to God. In fact, the Serenity Prayer, written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is the centerpiece of most 12 Step traditions:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.
God is our source for all these qualities—serenity, acceptance, courage, and wisdom—and through God’s ongoing travels with us, we gradually learn what God is teaching us about him, about our world, and about ourselves.
I like the way Friend Jean Toomer said this back in 1957. Her words are included in the book, Practicing Peace: A Devotional Walk through the Quaker Tradition:
A friend once said to me--
I do not know which of our afflictions
God intends that we overcome
And which God means for us to bear.
Neither do I know.
But this is certain:
Some I have overcome,
Some I continue to bear.
It comforts me to think that God understands and knows how confusing and loud and conflicted the world and our experience of it can be. We struggle with all the bad news and yearn for some good, our beliefs wavering with fear and doubt. We struggle to know what’s real, to set priorities and keep them. Finding the truth sometimes feels like a child’s kaleidoscope: turn it one way and you see one lovely, patterned image, turn it another way, and you see something completely different. It can help to remember that our human experience will always show us a changeable kaleidoscope because our personal emotions and judgments always color what we see, but there is another, purer way to know what’s true. If we want to know how God sees things, we only need to ask—and listen.
One of George Fox’s biggest problems with the religions of his day was the lack of depth he discovered in people who claimed to be “professors” of the faith. The piety in practice he saw around him gave evidence of an empty faith that was only for show. On the surface of their lives, people who professed Christianity tried to say the right things or look the part so others would see them as devout, successful, to be admired. But when you got down into the details of their lives, deep down where the truth of their faith should have been, there was no rootedness in God, no sense of God’s leading in their individual lives. The outer forms were like window dressing on a life; there was no true, growing relationship within. I like the way George Amoss, Jr., writes about this on his blog, the Postmodern Quaker:
“[Fox] was, as we would say today, disrupting the dominant Christian paradigm, seeking to replace it with a regime of receptivity and fidelity to the living Christ within….Fox challenged his hearers to empty themselves of what they felt was truth and to submit themselves, in humility and poverty of spirit, to the inspiration of the inward light of Christ, the power and wisdom of God-who-is-love. Like the churches and their theologies, selves and their truths were to be displaced by the Christ within, “the hidden person of the heart” and “the way and the truth and the life.”
When the idea for this message bubbled up this week, I thought it was going to be about preparing for the peace we hope to find, create, and experience in our lives. I thought I would be telling you about Evelyn Underhill, who inspires me, and the lovely spiritual retreats she gave in the early 1900s in the beautiful English countryside. I had thought I would talk about prioritizing our tasks and clearing the space and preparing the soil for a lovely, peaceful time with God. Preparing for peace.
But instead, God had another idea, giving me something much more along the lines of an object lesson about faith when things go wrong and life takes a turn we hadn’t planned. How do we prepare for peace when we’re sitting alone in freezing room at the emergency vet while our four-footed beloved gets x-rays? Those are moments for a real living faith: Moments that put knots on our stomachs and make our throats tight, when we’re uncertain, off-kilter, not sure what’s coming next. That’s just where our faith needs rootedness the most. It needs to be strong enough we can rely on it, trusting God to lead and guide us, comforting us and opening the way. Show us what’s real, what’s true, what’s next, we pray. Show us how you would have us see this. Show us what to do.
With a prayer like that, the answers will arise in the heart of someone who knows God and is known by God. We’ve all had that experience of being led. But there needs to be a relationship there before we will remember God and ask for help. If we’ve prayed in the past, we will recognize God’s answers when they come. If we’ve hoped before and seen our hope come true, we’ll know that—no matter how things look–God is surely working to make things right. If we’ve paid attention to our leadings, we’ll know that God is always with us, bringing fresh insight and deeper understanding of the circumstances of our lives. If we’ve learned to trust God, we will grasp and even agree with that idea of E.M. Forster’s that God is indeed bringing us—even in the messy, imperfect situation we may be resisting—the life that is waiting for us.
Our Old Testament reading today, from Proverbs, reminds us of the kaleidoscope of life, showing that our deep intention helps to point us toward the outcome we ultimately seek. In George Fox’s day, he became aware that peoples’ deepest intentions weren’t to know God and live by faith but rather to look good doing it and enjoy status and power. You may remember that Jesus said the same thing, repeatedly, about the Pharisees and scribes of his time.
Proverbs tells us there’s a better way. Those who spend their time in selfish and negative pursuits are only sowing seeds of conflict and destruction that will blossom in like kind and bring an unhappy result. But those who plan for peace, who understand the transforming nature of God’s presence—those who care about relationship, revelation, renewal through trust in God–will know the joy of peace.
We might think of that idea as a kind of cause and effect, a promise of God, a logical outcome, or reaping what we sow, and it is echoed by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians. In a brief but powerful verse, he offers instructions for a living, practical faith that stays true even in crisis and conflict:
“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
It doesn’t have to be any more difficult than that when the God of love and peace is with us. It turns out that preparing for peace isn’t about the outward things at all—clearing our schedules, lessening stress, improving what we eat or say or do—it’s about relying on God, trusting that good is unfolding, and releasing our tight grasp on things the way we want them to be.
So the outcome of our long Saturday at the emergency vet is that Gloria has torn the ligaments around that back left knee. They say she will need surgery to repair it—and get metal pins and a plate just like me, in my shoulder. After that, she’ll need six to eight weeks of quiet, mobility-limited time. How will we get through it? I don’t know. But God does.
My plan is to just stay open and prepare for peace. And we’ll trust God to lead us, one step—limping and shaking, maybe—but one faithful, trusting step at a time. And God will be there.
- OT Proverbs 12:20
- NT 2 Corinthians 13:11
- Postmodern Quaker blog: https://postmodernquaker.wordpress.com/2020/04/17/continuing-revelation-what-canst-thou-say-and-speaking-ones-truth/amp/