This week I participated by Zoom, with more than 130 other people from 30 countries, in a fascinating and enlightening conference that helped participants learn a new way to become aware of and invite new ideas that are trying to emerge among and through us. The approach can be applied in professional development settings, for businesses, organizations, and even churches like ours that want to grow; and it can also be helpful to individuals who want to better understand their own lives and get a glimpse of where creativity might be leading them next.
In our smaller breakout sessions, I was quite touched by the stories of a young woman who had recently gone back to work after maternity leave and found that things had changed while she’d been gone. Her work team, which previously had provided services that helped small ventures grow, now wanted to focus on a single problem and offer specific solutions, instead of organically supporting the growth of the whole organizations they served.
This was a difficult and unwanted change for this young mom, and she struggled with the idea of leaving her baby and spending time in a role that she felt was missing the mark. What seemed to clear to me was the tender experience of becoming a mom had opened up a whole new realm of preciousness to her, and as she took steps to go back to work, that nurturing, growing, loving energy was still very much with her. She was also no doubt still close to that sleep-deprived state—if you’ve ever had or loved a newborn, you probably remember it—when you marvel with wonder at every coo and burp and blink and find it hard to believe that something so perfect and innocent has been entrusted to your care. It’s almost the definition of peace itself, holding a newborn as she sleeps, listening to her tiny snores and feeling awed by her pure goodness, freshly born into the world.
This young mom’s fresh experience of tender mystery and nurturance could have been a great blessing to her clients in a variety of ways. She was sensitive now to ideas that provide a fertile ground for growth; new ideas that need a womb for protection, an incubator to grow in. She grasped the time and gentle assistance Goodness needs as those involved in caring for it become aware of its emerging.
It made me think of the difference between the Messiah the children of Israel expected and the one they actually got. They were hoping for a top-down ruler who would come and fix everything with power and might, but what they got was a tiny, precious baby in a manger who would grow a new system of peace over time, teaching them how to love—heart by heart—and showing them the value of compassion and service and grace.
What Isaiah had prophesied, as we heard in our Old Testament reading today, was the arrival of the Prince of Peace. But for generations, the Jewish people had been expecting a Messiah who would deliver them from the oppression of the Roman rulers. They yearned for a military king, a strong and fierce strategic warrior who would deliver them from the hands and governments of those who exploited and controlled them. But that top-down ruler they hoped for was not the baby who was born in the stable in Bethlehem; the one the shepherds would worship and who the Magi would follow the star to see. That Messiah is the one Isaiah foretold:
For unto us a child is born,
unto us a son is given,
and the government will be upon His shoulders.
And He will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on the throne of David
and over his kingdom,
to establish and sustain it
with justice and righteousness
from that time and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of Hosts will accomplish this.
I was first drawn to the conference because I felt a synergy with something we Quakers do on a regular basis in our monthly meetings for business, waiting on and trusting that of God to emerge in our circumstances, whatever they might be. Just recently we did that as a community with beautiful results when we all came to a consensus on what to do about the parsonage. The whole experience to me seemed inspired, guided, and accomplished by God. For our part, we did our best to listen respectfully to one another and to pay attention to what was emerging, trying to stay aware of how we felt God was leading us toward a solution together. And God did that. All the answers we needed just seemed to arrange themselves in the perfect way, unfolding as Isaiah said: “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.” We did our part by listening and trusting and acting as we were so led.
Trusting God to unfold the answer is important when what we want is a peaceful answer that works for everyone involved. Trust means not only that we do our best to trust ourselves, to trust each other, and to trust God but it also means to trust the process: That one thing leads to the next, that the unclear will become clear, that the missing pieces will be revealed; that each person involved has something of value to offer to the whole, and that the ultimate outcome will be the good end that God has in mind. We are all part of it’s unfolding. God’s idea emerges as we make the space for it and turn our attention—humbly, hopefully—in that direction.
It reminds me of a quote from Quaker Thomas R. Kelly:
“No giant figure of heroic size will stalk across the stage of history today as a new Messiah. But in simple, humble, imperfect people like you and me wells up the spring of hope. We have this treasure…in earthen vessels—very earthen vessels.”
Our efforts will always be piecemeal and imperfect—that’s just part of being human—but that’s also why God gave us each other. Because when we come together as a group, when we share ideas and listen with love, praying and waiting on the best and most peaceful answer for all to emerge, we are making space for the Kingdom of God to be born among us. And it will be. Because inherent in God’s gift of life to us is the principle of growth. What we make space for, what we pay attention to, grows.
Our New Testament reading for today tells the story of the moment Mary hears the news that she will have an important role to play in the greatest love story our world would ever know. God sent the archangel Gabriel to the small quiet town of Nazareth. It would be interesting to know what Mary was doing in the moments just before Gabriel arrived. Was she making plans for her upcoming wedding to Joseph? Or doing some chores around the house? Baking bread, perhaps. And suddenly the room was filled with a brilliant light, and the angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
And what was Mary’s immediate reaction? She didn’t faint or stand there frozen, not believing her eyes. Instead, scripture says, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” The fact that her mind struggled to make sense of this otherworldly experience shows her humanity—we probably would have done the same thing. An angel, in the living room? Talking to me? We might wonder whether we were dreaming—or sane.
The angel sensed what was going on in Mary’s thoughts and he added words of reassurance, telling her not to be afraid. He then spelled out the whole story to her, saying that she would give birth to a son named Jesus, and he would be great, called the Son of the Most High.
Mary was still struggling to understand how this could be. The angel offered a little more explanation and said, “the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God…for no word from God will ever fail.” When God has an idea to bring into the world, Gabriel is telling her, everything in heaven and on earth will arrange to make that happen.
And here is the decisive and I think the most beautiful moment in the story, the place where Mary’s head finally grows quiet and her heart speaks: “I am the Lord’s servant,’ she answered. ‘May it happen to me according to your word.”
Although Mary’s mind initially caused her to react with surprise and confusion and doubt, Mary’s heart understands instinctively and whispers Yes in answer to the angel’s news. We can hear her deep trust of God, her deep knowing that God’s plan is perfect and will unfold in a way that will allow unforeseen goodness to emerge in the world.
For us that kind of trust might not seem natural, accustomed as we are to all the struggle in the world around us. Our minds are filled on a daily basis with stories of division and conflict, corruption and violence. But when we get quiet—and we Quakers are good at recognizing the value of stillness—we give our hearts a chance to listen and be known. We create a space—maybe a womblike space—for God to speak and love and lead. Seeds of new ideas can be planted. That is where our trust develops, deep in the waiting silence of our hearts, and not in the busy reactive thoughts of our minds.
As our trust grows, we begin to sense that God is emerging something in this world, right here, in our modern, loud, and messy age. We might not yet understand what new thing God has planned, how it will happen, or when it will happen, but we can trust that, as Gabriel told Mary, “No word from God will ever fail.” God always has some kind of good thing unfolding in our midst, something that will allow unforeseen goodness to emerge in the world, because God’s love constantly works to establish the kingdom of peace within and among us. Our part is to listen and trust and act as we are led.
That transforming and healing work of God brings loving and purposeful ideas into each of our lives, our families, the groups we are part of, our country, our world, and our cosmos. There is not a single part of any existence anywhere that is outside of the reach of God’s love. Peace, harmony, and possibility all grow from the inside out, connecting us with the eternal presence of Goodness because everything has its roots and being, it’s growing and flourishing, in God.
In his poem, The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry writes that he has learned to relax into God’s peace when hurts and worries crowd out his hope for the world and his vision for the future. This stills the frantic whirring of his mind and reconnects him to the reality of life around and within him. Peace—always already present as God’s eternal idea—comes to calm his anxious soul and all feels right with the world again.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
In this time of Advent, we celebrate the truth that in the womb of our present world, God is even now preparing a surprising and astounding gift for us all, a miracle of peace born to us anew, a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Our part is to be aware of and love what God emerges among us, holding it preciously as a mother cradles a newborn baby. No idea from God will ever fail. May our hearts, like Mary’s, whisper Yes.
- OT Isaiah 9: 6-7
- NT Luke 1: 26-38
- Berry, Wendell. The Peace of Wild Things. https://gratefulness.org/resource/the-peace-of-wild-things/