When you were a kid at the pool in the summer, did you ever play the game Marco Polo? It’s really fun if you have a few friends with you and it’s even more fun if it’s a hot and beautiful day and the pool is crowded, because then you can all scatter in different directions and hide behind all the adults who really just wish you’d go away and not splash them. Then, whenever you hear the person who is “It” call out, “Marco!” you answer, “Polo!” and then they try to follow the sound of your voice so they can find and tag you as quickly as possible. And then, of course, you become It.
Marco Polo is a bit like hide-and-seek played in water, but the premise is the same. The goal is to find and connect with someone, and the obstacles are (1) the unknown (we don’t know where the others have hidden), (2) distance (people may have scattered far away from you and you have to get from here to there through the water, which is awkward); and (3) the lack of seeing (because initially you have to close your eyes while everybody hides and then when you can open them, you have to figure out where they’ve gone). By using a very natural call-and-response pattern—first we call out and then someone answers—we are able to find our way, make contact, and complete the goal of the game. And have lots of fun while we do it. Kind of like life.
The pattern of call and response is something that is built into the very heart of our survival on this planet, echoed across species in the cry of every infant for its mother and the mother’s responding care; echoed in the rhythm of the tides and the turn of the planet and the crops that seek the sun; mirrored in our human relationships, where I smile and you smile back; and seated deeply—perhaps most deeply—in our soul’s relationship with our divine source. Call and response is like breathing in and out, the pulse of our continual, living, ever-growing spiritual relationship with God.
And those three obstacles I mentioned are not only the challenges we face in a game of Marco Polo but also confounding human problems in our daily game of life. As people of any age, in myriad ways, we continually face (1) the unknown—not knowing what’s coming, what’s hidden, what’s real, or what we’re supposed to do about it; (2) we struggle with distance from others, from God, and from ourselves—physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually; and (3) we have trouble seeing life as it really is, free and undistorted by our memories and prejudices, our experiences and desires.
Luckily call-and-response works here too, as our souls reach to God and God reaches to us, seamlessly, naturally, in love and grace.
The Old Testament story we heard today is the story of God’s call to Isaiah, giving him the vision that helped Isaiah know God wanted his help in turning the children of Israel from the destructive path they were on back toward God. Isaiah was already a man of faith when he suddenly had a vision of God upon a great throne, attended by angelic beings and appearing in the awesome glory of his court. As Isaiah witnessed the great majesty of God’s presence, he suddenly became painfully aware of how imperfect and flawed he was. Who was he to be in the presence of the living God? He cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”
It is a burdensome and yet natural part of our human natures that we tend to compare ourselves—and usually not favorably—with whatever we think we’re seeing in others. In this great moment in the story, God’s perfection shines a brilliant and unmistakable light on Isaiah’s very human shortcomings. He sees, when he looks at God, how far short he falls of God’s perfection.
We Quakers know this experience well and it is part of our commitment to let the Light of Christ lead and teach and heal us. Margaret Fell famously wrote,
“Now, Friends, deal plainly with yourselves, and let the eternal Light search you, and try you, for the good of your souls. For this will deal plainly with you. It will rip you up, and lay you open, and make all manifest which lodges in you; the secret subtlety of the enemy of your souls, this eternal searcher and trier will make manifest. Therefore all to this come, and by this be searched, and judged, and led and guided. For to this you must stand or fall.”
She is asking Friends, then and now, to let ourselves be vulnerable in the light, to be exposed in the truth of our beliefs, to let ourselves see them clearly so that all that is not God’s love can fall away. When we are willing to see the truth of ourselves in this way, the Light shows us where our motives are not the best, where we are kidding ourselves, and when we are acting not for the good of all but for ourselves alone. It’s not a comfortable thing, to have God’s Perfect Light shine in us the way it did for Isaiah, but it is, as Margaret Fell wrote, good for our souls.
In his book, A Quaker Prayer Life, author and Australian Friend David Johnson writes about early Friends’ discovery of the Christ within and how that made their approach to God much different from the other, more liturgical religious practices of their time. He writes,
“Quaker prayer then became an effort to discern this Inward Light and its requirements. Such prayer demanded transcendence beyond normal thoughts and words, and an attitude of humble surrender to the Light. Early Friends were well aware that this transformation could only be effected with the help of God; that in fact God prepares our hearts to enable true prayer. The result of surrendering to God was the instilling of wonderful wisdom, and a life of power and courage that went beyond normal abilities. The strength to suffer patiently without resorting to violence for their faith became a hallmark of early Quakers.”
God has an immediate answer for Isaiah when he suddenly sees his own flaws and self-deceptions. An angel flies to him with a hot coal taken from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, telling him his guilt is now gone and his sin is erased. We might imagine here that Isaiah would feel a huge sense of relief—I think we would, as long as the coal didn’t burn us too much—but instead, in the very next moment, God speaks, asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah, now feeling free of that awful unworthiness, so nothing was holding him back, jumps right up and says, “Here am I; send me!”
This story of Isaiah’s call lifts up something quite important that is often overlooked in our modern search for spiritual health. Today—and there’s a good reason for this—we often turn toward spirituality seeking peace and ease, wanting help and a refuge from the shattering volume and swirling confusion of our current world. And that’s understandable, but it’s an answer that falls short of both our potential and God’s intent. God has greater plans than to simply provide a place of rest and refreshment for those lucky ones who seek and find Him. It’s true that God wants and values our companionship—but it’s also true that God wants all our companionship together, and while any are left out in this great human family of ours, God’s work of Love is not done.
Evelyn Underhill, the wonderful spiritual writer and Anglican retreat leader of the 1920s, wrote in one of her retreat talks that,
“More is required of those who wake up to reality, than the passive adoration of God or intimate communion with God. Those responses, great as they are, do not cover the purpose of our creation…Some people suppose that the spiritual life mainly consists in doing that. God provides the spectacle. We gaze with reverent appreciation from our comfortable seats, and call this…Worship.”
She goes on to say that we are missing the greater answer of our lives if we settle for this quiet place of happy insulation with God, because God has something more planned for us, fitted perfectly to our interests and capabilities, our gifts and talents at this precise time of our lives. We are meant to be a part of God’s call-and-response, His answer of Love to this world’s cries for care. Underhill continues,
“Our place is not the auditorium but the stage—or, as the case may be, the field, workshop, study, laboratory—because we ourselves form part of the creative apparatus of God…”
She invites us to see ourselves—like Isaiah did, as “fellow-workers with the Perfect, striving to bring the Kingdom in.” It reminds me of something St. Teresa of Avila (a-VEEL-a) said in the 16th century, probably one hundred years before George Fox’s time:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
God obviously had this same kind of thing in mind for Saul as he walked along the road to Damascus. As you may remember, he had been among the worst persecutors of the followers of Jesus. He was Jewish, highly educated and devout, and had a raging passion for stamping out heretics who were part of this new fanatical movement of peace. The opening verse to Acts chapter 9 says, “Meanwhile Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
We know Saul had previously been responsible for the stoning of Stephen, and now he had gone to the high priest asking permission to round up and imprison those in Damascus who believed in these new teachings. But on the road, before he could carry out his destructive aims, suddenly a blinding light from heaven flashed around him and Saul fell to the ground, afraid. Then he and others there heard a voice, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Cowering, Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” and the reply was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
In this case it was not Saul’s sense of unworthiness that kept him from recognizing God’s call but his own ego, judgment, and zealousness, which had led him to hate and judge and do all he could to harm the people drawn to this new movement of faith. It took a blinding flash of light and a voice from heaven for Saul to realize that something much larger was calling him to a new understanding, a new mission, a new life. And as we saw in Isaiah’s story, Christ wastes no time in recruiting Saul’s help in the larger work of love he was unfolding: “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
It is an important part of a healthy and maturing prayer life for us to understand what we are praying for and what we are joining when we do. Prayer, we learn early on in life, is not simply a string of requests to a God who functions like a vending machine in the sky: If we just say the magic words and remember to use Jesus’ name, whatever we ask for will be granted. That’s not what real prayer is. That’s not relationship. Instead, true prayer is an opening of our hearts and minds and souls to the will and purpose and love and presence of God, however that may be for us just now. Thy will be done, not mine.
As Evelyn Underhill reminds us, prayer takes us into a new level of relationship that not only brings peace and wholeness and ultimately joy to our lives (although it often does do that) but also equips us to be a part of God’s larger unfolding work of love in our world. God calls us and awaits our response as we live these simple lives, person by person, choice by choice, moment by moment.
In Quaker Douglas Van Steere’s book of retreat writings, called Time to Spare, he offers this somewhat heart-breaking thought: “If God is a God of Grace, if year out and year in, by day and by night, He never ceases to pour out upon us His redeeming life, if He is infinitely woundable, if as Pascal declares “Jesus shall be in agony until the end of the world,” why then do we not respond to Him, why do we not answer back, why do we not diminish His agony, why do we not abandon ourselves to Him and enter His supernatural order of heroic Grace in our relations with our fellows?”
Powerful questions. Doesn’t it make you wonder what more we could do to be the hands and feet and hearts of Christ in a world that so obviously needs God’s touch and comfort? Let’s pray about that this week. And listen and watch and make room for answers to arrive. Because we know the call is there. The need is great. And whatever part we’re meant to play—swimming and splashing with our Friends in this great, emerging ocean of Light—we can know it’s been chosen for us with love, planned with wisdom, and will be directed with joy, not just for us alone, but for the good of God’s children everywhere–in the name of Perfect, lasting, and eternal Love.
- OT Isaiah 6: 1-8
- NT Acts 9: 1-9
- Johnson, David. A Quaker Prayer Life. https://www.amazon.com/Quaker-Prayer-Life-David-Johnson/dp/0983498067
- Underhill, Evelyn. The Spiritual Life. https://www.amazon.com/Spiritual-Life-Evelyn-Underhill/dp/1614273936
- Van Steere, Douglas. Time to Spare. https://www.amazon.com/Time-spare-Douglas-Van-Steere/dp/B0006ARZWA