Living Up to the Light We Have

This week’s message has been a bit of a journey for me. The inspiration began with a simple, happy text message my youngest son Cameron sent earlier in the week. It said, “Guess what I made for dinner? I loved it as a kid but this is the first time I tried making it.” There was a photo of chicken enchiladas, fresh out of the oven, cheese melted all over the top, edges just a little crispy. They looked absolutely delicious. I texted back and told him so and asked what he put in them, he responded with a long and impressive list of fresh ingredients. I realized he’d taken the simple, homemade recipe I’d used for years and made it into something much better, something you’d pay good money for in a restaurant. I was amazed! And hungry. I asked him to invite me over the next time he makes them and he said he would.

There’s something important and poetic, about progress and growth and life–in the way our children, or nieces, nephews, students, friends–can take things beyond whatever level we achieve. They see farther, they do more, reaching higher than we thought to reach. That’s the way inspiration and example co-create in our human lives, mixing what’s here today with the hope and possibility of what could be here tomorrow. It’s a natural seeding of goodness and love, and God is busy planting for the long-haul. The result will be blessing that blossoms at a future time, perhaps generations from now. A seed planted today might not be evident for years but then, down the road, who knows? The harvest that results could be far greater than any one human could imagine in any one time.

When I think of a simple example from my own life, my mom’s piano playing comes to mind. As a child, she wasn’t too crazy about it, because her own mom insisted on lessons, so for her they were a chore and not a choice. But as an adult, after we got our own piano—when I was in seventh grade—mom enjoyed sitting down in the evening and playing one of the three songs she knew well—all from the Reader’s Digest Treasury of Best Loved Songs. If I remember right, Stardust was her favorite.

By then the seed of my own love of piano had already been planted by my great-grandmother, who taught me to play Yankee Doodle and Three Blind Mice before I could even read, so the day I came home to find a brand new Cable Nelson in the living room was a surprising and joyful day I’ll always remember. Piano to me was not a chore but a gift, and I played every moment I could, anywhere I could, learning new songs, trying to practice my lessons, and simply loving the time I was able to spend making music—whether it was good or not. For a time I had dreams of being a concert pianist when I grew up, but there was a small problem with that: I loved playing, but I didn’t love playing in front of people. And after a painful recital at the age of 13, I decided that public performance wasn’t for me.

But fast-forward to the next generation. One afternoon my oldest—and then only–son Christopher, at age two, was stretched out on his blanket on the couch in the family room. He was supposed to be taking a nap, but I had caved a little and told him he could just rest instead. I turned on the television and put the channel on PBS; and there was the symphony with Itzhak Perlman, the famous violinist, playing a beautiful solo. Christopher lay there watching for a minute and then sat up and looked at the TV more closely. Then he got up off the couch and went into the kitchen, pulled a wooden spoon out of the drawer by the stove. He came back into the living room and picked up a ukulele that was near the couch. Then he stood in front of the television, this tiny boy, trying to put the ukulele under his little chin and use the wooden spoon across the strings to make music come out. I was dumbfounded. He was not quite two and a half, but I was certain of what I saw: This boy had the love of music in his soul.

And it turned out to be a love so strong it has steered him through his life. By three he could pick out the Burger King jingle on the piano by himself. By eight he was taking trumpet lessons. By high school he played a variety of instruments, participated in every ensemble possible, and he knew he wanted to teach music. Today he’s a middle school band director, a jazz musician, an arranger, and more. He married another musician, and they speak the same language, which is perfect. That seed of “liking piano” God planted in my mom’s life blossomed two generations later in a huge way. Who knows where it will go from here?

This idea of the long-reach of progress says something to me about hope and promise, and the reason we need to hold tight to our belief in the goodness God brings, no matter how dark and chaotic a given moment may seem. We’re living through a time—hopefully temporary–when much of what we’ve depended on seems frayed, if not broken. Truth and trust have been undermined, and we look to our leaders—wise people, we think, with far-reaching views—to help us respond to the multiple crises we face, to bridge the bitter divisions among us, to lead us toward a baseline of common respect and goodwill for all. Progress, if there is any, seems to be agonizingly slow. It is hard to feel content waiting on an eventual harvest when you are hungry today.

But the writer of our Old Testament reading from Proverbs reminds us that the great work of wisdom has been a long time coming. “Wisdom has built her house…she has set up its seven pillars…” We hear about all the preparations that have been made before people are invited to the feast. And then, wisdom sends out servants into the city, inviting all who will come. She invites us to come for more understanding, to come for insight, to be willing to broaden the simple, practical way we have of making sense of our daily lives. Getting a glimpse of the holy presence in each of our experiences is what we’re offered, if we’re willing to listen to what wisdom has to say.

We also learn about the steep price those who mock pay for their choice to cast doubt and derision on those who try to do good; mockers retaliate, insulting and abusing those who rebuke them, while the wise listen to instruction, love those who care enough to counsel them, and they become wiser as a result. This section ends with,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life.”

Many years ago, I heard someone refer to “the fear of the Lord” as “fear to be without the Lord,” likening it to a small child with his father preparing to cross a busy roadway. The father and child hold hands and that bond keeps the child safe as the father leads them across the street safely. In our daily lives, too, “fear to be without the Lord” means that we keep our hand in God’s so that spirit is continually guiding our experience, come what may. And that trust, that bond, that daily reliance is the beginning of wisdom.

In 1840, young English Quaker Caroline Fox was going through a time of struggle in her spiritual life, when she wrote this in her journal:

“The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.”

“Live up to the light thou hast” has become a guiding principle among Friends as a reminder that God’s Spirit is present with each of us in unique and tender ways, leading us as we meet our individual challenges and temptations and teaching us to enjoy the blessings of beauty and connection and peace. We won’t all see or feel or know God’s light in the same way, but we will recognize the presence of Spirit in a way meant just for us when we feel God close. And as we listen, and live up to that experience, God will bless us with more. That’s how the relationship grows over time. God nourishes the seed of His presence.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he is writing from prison and sharing powerful and personal ideas about his faith. He invites the people of Philippi to look beyond the struggles and distractions of their day and remember what is most important for the long-term:

“I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should embrace this point of view. And if you think differently about some issue, God will reveal this to you as well. Nevertheless, we must live up to what we have already attained.”

We must live up to what we have already attained. Forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead. Live up to the light thou hast, Caroline Fox’s spirit whispered that day in meeting for worship. Wisdom asks us to consider the state of our own souls, how close they stay to Spirit, how determined they are to listen to God in the midst of the noise of everyday life. Yes, we can find plenty to complain about in the world right now. It’s hard to find anything that is working the way it should. We can blame all sorts of industries and people and outside groups and forces and believe—for a time—that that’s where the problem lies.

But all the energy and time we spend pointing at what’s wrong “out there” can also be a temptation that distracts us from the most important thing our faith of us, which is to live up to the Light we personally have been given. Is God stirring our hearts to be more compassionate? More understanding? Do we feel a leading toward peace, a stirring to help with some issue, to pray more, to spend more time in silence? Are we listening to those leadings? Are we acting on them? Are we praying? That’s where we’ll find the solution to the problems we face. Not out there, when things finally work the way they should, but in here, where we turn toward God with gratitude and humility and let ourselves be taught by the Light of Christ.

Quaker pastor and author Phil Gulley wrote,

“Perhaps the reason Jesus lived and loved at the level he did was because he made a habit of living up to the light he had, so more was given him. In being faithful to the small tasks …he was equipped for larger matters. I suspect the vast differences between Jesus’s first sign and his second sign reflected his growing desire to aim higher, to become more deliberate about living up to the light he had, so more light, more understanding, more awareness, more discernment, more power to love would be given him. Now if Jesus is our model for living, this begs the question: Are we living up to the light we’ve been given? Are we faithful to that which we know to be good and wise and gracious and lovely?”

The Light of God—wisdom, grace, peace, and love—continues to shine into each generation and will blossom as the seed of blessing is valued and shared. Something God may inspire you to plant today in the life of another through a small act of kindness could blossom with heavenly abundance 100 years from now. We may never know. But that is the promise, the potential, and the hope of our faith: the active, life-transforming agent of God’s love in this world. And we are given the honor, the gift—the wisdom, if we’re willing—to participate in that as part of God’s loving and eternal ocean of light.

In closing I’d like to offer a quote from American Quaker Emily Green Balch, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 for her work in economic justice and peace:

“It is natural to try to understand one’s own time and to seek to analyse the forces that move it. The future will be determined in part by happenings that it is impossible to foresee; it will also be influenced by trends that are now existent and observable. We speculate as to what is in store for us. But we not only undergo events, we in part cause them or at least influence their course. We have not only to study them but to act…
We are not asked to subscribe to any utopia or to believe in a perfect world just around the comer. We are asked to be patient with necessarily slow and groping advance on the road forward, and to be ready for each step ahead as it becomes practicable. We are asked to equip ourselves with courage, hope, readiness for hard work, and to cherish large and generous ideals.

This week let’s make an extra effort to listen to the leading of the Light in our hearts and then act as we are so led. Each step we take in faith is a step closer to Spirit and a seed sown for a more loving world. We don’t know what the yield will be—or when—but God does. And if we keep our hand in His, that’s enough for us to know.

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