Are you curious about the title of today’s message? I was too, when I started writing it. But I can tell you, now that it is done, it is a message about memory, about finding truth, and about how spirit turns everything to good, even our flaws and mistakes and blind spots. When we learn to listen to our leadings, each day can bring new ideas, new discoveries, new connections. Gradually our understanding grows. Our perspectives wider. Our hearts find it easier to forgive. Kindness blossoms.
My brother sent me a text this week that contained the inspiration for today’s message; it was a link to an online folder containing photos he’d had converted from my grandmother’s old slides. What a treasure! I didn’t know they existed.
I found myself looking at moments from my life that I had no memory of, pictures of me as a toddler or young girl–mostly pouting, I’m sorry to say–pictures of my cousins in our early lives together, and most touchingly, photos of my mom–so young, so pretty, so happy—on her wedding day. I’d seen photos of mom as a child and then photos of her later, after John and I were born, but nothing in between. So here were three pictures—one of her in her wedding dress and two of her wearing what I guess were outfits for the honeymoon–and there was a freshness, a joy, a hopeful light in her face that was much different from the mostly somber, dutiful expression I was so familiar with years later. In these pictures, she had energy, life, color—brilliantly so, enhanced by Kodachrome technology—making the happiness just shine from the image with a vibrant and ready joy. You could tell that her 21 year old self thought anything was possible, and hopeful anticipation was the energy of the day.
Yesterday, while I, probably like many of you, watched the memorial services for the 20th anniversary of 9-11, I thought of all the families who posted and carried photos of their loved ones in the days and weeks following that awful day. I noticed how many, even yesterday—especially in New York—held up photos of their loved ones above the crowd at the events. Still holding on, still remembering, still wanting us to know the loved ones they lost. It’s important that they do that—for their grief and ours. Those photos reflect thousands of different moments in thousands of different scenes and stories—each snapshot, each smile, each setting, each bond as unique as the soul it celebrates.
We take so many photos now—now that we’ve all got cameras in our phones—that we may not think much about what each photo actually represents. But think about this: every one we take is a snapshot of life caught in a perfect moment of suspension between before and after. What happened up until the moment we pressed the button to take the picture is the “before”—moments we have already lived that have become memory. But what’s to come after we press the button is still mystery, anyone’s guess. There could be joy or heartache, and possibly some of both, and much more besides. We all know that, if we’ve lived more than a couple of years in this life.
My mom’s wedding photo marked a big moment that divided “before” and “after” for her. Before the photo, she’d graduated from Noblesville High School and gone to Butler to study journalism. But as she stepped through the archway in her beautiful white dress with gloves up to her elbows, she was stepping into the “after” portion of her life, which at that moment was mostly unknown but still full of hope. At least that’s what her eyes and her smile seem to say.
The vivid color brought out the blue of her eyes and the green of the ivy twined through the lattice of the archway. The colors were striking but they didn’t look real. It made me think of that Paul Simon song Kodachrome, where he sings about how these special effects can colorize our world—for better and for worse. The chorus is
Kodachrome They give us those nice bright colors Give us the greens of summers Makes you think all the world's a sunny day
Who wouldn’t want to think that “all the world’s a sunny day”? Sounds good right about now, doesn’t it? And yet, sadly, the reality is that we know it’s not. We know people are hurting, grieving, sick, and hungry. Trying to recover from hurricanes and fires and of course the continuing pandemic. We know all the hard realities. But we’re living through a time where we struggle with reality—what’s real, what’s not, what true, what’s not, what’s factual, what’s not. We may be suspicious of things that are colorized, touched up, tweaked to create some kind of effect—or maybe just the opposite. Depending on our mindset, and how exhausted we are from all the bad news, we might prefer that life be colorized and sanitized and made to look prettier than it really is. But whatever our yearnings right now, deep down we have a common need to know what we can depend on, what is constant, what is sure. And there are few things in our present reality—this moment right now when we’re stepping out of our own “before” and into our “after”—that give us the sense of security we seek.
The writer of psalms understood the fickle nature of the world and all the sources in it, and he learned instead to depend on God alone for the counsel that guides his life:
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure.
It’s the expression of a grateful soul who recognizes that God is only the one who can help him understand his experiences in a deep way, who teaches him even as he sleeps, who leads him to live a safe and full life. He has found something real that he holds on to tightly. If we asked this psalmist to tell us about his “before” and “after,” chances are that the time before he learned to keep his eyes on God were full of struggle and worry, confusion and conflict. Many of us might say the same.
In our tradition, we know that George Fox also found the Inward Teacher and it is on that discovery—that Christ is come to teach his people himself—that our whole Religious Society of Friends rests. Fox wrote powerfully in his Journal about his deepening relationship with God and throughout we get clear and inspiring pictures of the places he went, the people he met and taught, and the openings he received. Those many glimpses of grace he wrote about help clear the path for us—in full color—examples of how God guides and blesses and leads the life of His children.
In our New Testament passage today, Jesus is explaining to the disciples how and why the Inward Teacher will come to each of us and what we can expect:
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
I especially love that he made sure to tell us the Holy Spirit will teach us all things and remind us of the things we need to know, maybe important things we have forgotten. We have Help, always. Life is not a pass-or-fail test. Perfection is not expected. In fact our flaws and blind spots may be just the “before” Spirit needs to change the whole “ever after” of our lives—and maybe blessing the lives of many others in the process.
This week I read something fascinating written by a 20th century Swedish Quaker named Emilia Fogelklou, who suggested that there’s an example of this in George Fox’s life. In fact, she thinks it’s likely our tradition would not have survived all these years without a particular flaw in Fox that God would one day heal. Fox was an earnest and devout soul, a gifted leader, a visionary, and quite possibly a genius. But he also had a strong personality, a penchant for power, and a bit of an authoritarian leadership style that sometimes showed itself as uncharacteristically harsh treatment of others.
In Fogelklou’s Pendle Hill pamphlet, The Atonement of George Fox, she tells the story of the complicated relationship between Fox and James Nayler. In the earliest days of Friends, the men served, taught, preached, and sometimes wrote together. They were very different people, but there was a mutual trust and respect between them. But as the movement grew, through a variety of influences, Nayler was becoming more zealous in his spiritual style. And on one disastrous afternoon, he allowed himself to be led into town on the back of a donkey, in a re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Nayler was arrested for blasphemy and thrown into prison, and then tried and found guilty. He endured humiliating punishments—including the branding of a large letter B on his forehead—and that made him a pariah among many Friends, but not all. Signs of an early split in the community began to develop around this issue. Some thought Nayler had only followed his leading; others felt strongly he’d gone too far.
Fox was furious and refused to reach out to Nayler in any way; he felt Nayler had brought shame and suspicion to the budding Quaker movement, which could endanger its survival and increase the persecution Friends were already experiencing. Years later, when Nayler, released from prison and sick in body and mind, wanted to make amends with Fox, Fox was cold and aloof and in a cringe-worthy moment of power struggle, offered Nayler his boot to kiss (which sounds exactly the opposite of the spirit of Friends, doesn’t it?). It’s a regretful scene. We each know from our own experience that old wounds and blind spots heal slowly, but Spirit wasn’t yet done working with George Fox. Nor, I’m glad to say, is Spirit yet done working with any of us.
Sadly, Nayler died without ever being able to reconcile with Fox, but Fogelklou believes that this unforgiving, egoistic flaw in Fox nagged at him through the years. It’s likely he felt unresolved remorse at his bad treatment of Nayler and was on some level aware that his heavy-handed use of power had robbed Nayler of the dignity and respect due him as a child of God. So Fox felt led to take up the question of how power should be handled among Friends. The movement was growing quickly—there were some 25,000 Friends by that time—and some kind of organization was sorely needed. There were advising Friends who pushed for a top-down approach, an organization-centered authority, as many traditions have, but Fox, after much struggle, held out against that idea. It didn’t feel right. Finally he found his clear answer in prayer, writing in his journal:
“And the Lord opened to me and let me see what I must do—how I must order and establish men and women’s monthly and quarterly meetings in all the nation and other nations.”
Fox’s opening was clear and straightforward: “Every man and woman be heirs of the gospel and they are heirs of this authority,” he wrote, and Friends would honor and respect the leading and integrity of the individual and seek unity corporately through the inward leadings. Fogelklou writes,
“It was an extraordinarily successful answer to a complex problem. In no other church do spiritual concern and responsible citizenship go hand-in-hand in quite the same way as in a Friends’ monthly meeting—that small parliament where inspiration is included in the social order, where debate alternates with silence, and where “the least member of the church has an office and is serviceable, and every member hath need of one another.”
Unlike those who wanted the meeting to have authority over the individual, “Fox sought the resolution of tension between individual and group through a unity of spirit. To us it is democracy,” Fogelklou says, “but to Fox it was the gospel order revealed again.”
It’s fascinating to me that it was a very human flaw in George Fox that God used to inspire the organizational structure we have today, unique in its form and practice, based on respect and trust in “that of God in everyone” and “the ministry of all believers.” If we overlook that and colorize our image of Fox, we run the risk of putting him on a pedestal and thinking he was some kind of saint specially gifted to do God’s work. And that can make us underestimate how God can use each of us in ways we can’t yet imagine sitting here today. But if we see Fox as a real person—flaws and all—we take heart, knowing that God still has a part in mind for us.
Whatever our “before” may be in this life, when we set our eyes on God alone, our “afters” are filled with possibility and hope. We have the best of all guides leading us. And how great it is to know that perfection isn’t needed—or wanted, or even yearned for—because the One who is perfect uses our efforts for good. That means that all we do, all we give, and everything we try—however clumsily–in the name of love, is brought to life—in full color!–by God’s grace.
- OT Psalm 16: 5-11
- NT John 14: 23-29
- The Atonement of George Fox, by Emilia Fogelklou: https://pendlehill.org/product/atonement-george-fox/
- Kodachrome, by Simon& Garfinkel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGK19Pg6sB0