This week brings Ash Wednesday in the wider Christian world. It’s a day of prayer and fasting, a day to reflect honestly on our relationship with God, to admit—to ourselves and to God–what we see as sins and shortcomings, and to take inventory of our spiritual lives, to see where we still have work to do. Could we be doing more to deepen our faith? Are we living up to the promise of God’s presence? Do we see ourselves as a part of that ocean of light George Fox saw so long ago? And if not, what might God be prompting us to do to get closer to Him on a daily basis?
My high school friend Linda always went to church with her family before school on Ash Wednesday and then came to class with a big cross of ashes on her forehead. She left it there all day. Some of our friends were curious about that and wondered why she didn’t wash it off—it seemed embarrassing to them—but it meant something to her. The next morning, when she came to school of course, the ashes were gone.
The ashes typically come from palm leaves that have been saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service. The pastor or priest or deacon dips a finger in the ashes and quietly says, From dust you came and to dust you shall return, as he or she draws a cross on the person’s forehead. The observance is done quickly and reverently and—as in Linda’s case—people go about their days with that symbol of humility and reflection in place, continuing, for that day at least, to think about the state of their souls and their continuing need for God.
Ash Wednesday is also the first day of Lent, the 40-day period leading to Easter that marks the time Jesus spent in the wilderness. He went there immediately after his baptism in the Jordan River to prepare his heart, mind, and spirit for the ministry to come. Often people today give something up for Lent, the idea being that something that they crave, or spend too much time doing, may be getting in the way of their growing relationship with God. So by giving that thing up—whether it’s eating sweets or scrolling through social media—they have more time to listen for God’s leading, to put their priorities in an order that’s more God-focused and less about their own needs and wants.
And without taking the time to think about it, we might not realize how loud and insistent our own needs and wants really are. Our brains are hard-wired to give us a running commentary of our continuing experience as we experience it—I’ve mentioned this before—and the things we want and don’t want, the things we fear and don’t fear, remember and struggle to remember—they get an enormous amount of our internal mental focus. Without taking the time to look inward—without the respite of quiet—that self-narrating bubble might not give God room to speak. Because God won’t just push in and take over; that would conflict with the great freedom God’s given us to create lives we choose. God is quiet and respectful about such things and awaits our invitation. We have to make the space for God in our chronically busy minds, so we can hear His leadings in our hearts.
In our tradition, as you know, we don’t perform outward rituals—not because we don’t believe they are important but rather just the opposite—that the truth of the heart they point to is so important we believe they should be done inwardly and not just on special days, but all the time. Thus the outward communion of bread and wine for us becomes an inward, daily, even moment by moment communion with Spirit. The examining of the heart that happens on Ash Wednesday is something we Friends attempt to do in real time on an ongoing basis—being honest with ourselves and with God, trying to stay open to allow the Light to guide us as we learn to live with more love and trust.
The inward seeking that is so much a part of our faith and practice happens in a landscape of inner silence, when we allow our own needs and wants to quiet themselves for a time so that we might hear or feel something from God. The silence is an important part of our worship, a respectful sense of waiting on God to lead us, and it started back in 1651 when a young George Fox, newly released from prison after serving a year for blasphemy, met up with a gathering of Puritans who were eager to debate him on his beliefs. This is how Fox wrote about the encounter in his Journal:
“And I sat of a haystack and spoke nothing for some hours for I was to famish them from words. So [they asked] several times when I would speak and begin; and [a friendly clergyman] bid them wait and told them that the people waited upon Christ a long while before he spoke. And at last I was moved of the Lord to speak, and they were all reached by the Lord’s power and word of life, and there was a general convincement among them.”
So by keeping a rein on the impulse to engage and debate–that no doubt sprung up in George Fox’s mind–and instead listening steadfastly for God to prompt his speech, all who heard his words were moved by the them, and God touched the hearts of those gathered there. This wasn’t because of the knowledge and conviction of Fox; this happened because Fox quieted himself enough to let God speak through him. As the number of Friends grew quickly, this practice of “waiting upon the Lord” became a central feature of Quaker gatherings. In an epistle to a new Quaker meeting in 1652, George Fox described what happens—and what to expect—when we sit in the silence waiting to hear something from God:
“Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. … And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to…ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation. Then ye grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. … When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here ye learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.”
It is clear that Fox had much insight—and much experience—in knowing both how the mind works and how we are tempted to believe things that aren’t true, things that get in the way of our growing faith. This seems to be just the kind of thing Jesus may have wanted to explore in himself as the Spirit led him out into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days all alone. It was a time of trial and testing, a time for him to learn how he would respond when he was beyond the limits of exhausted and hungry and lonely. Count he be counted on, for God’s great purpose? He needed to know that about himself.
It is one of the truly great stories in Scripture that has everything: Adventure, uncertainty, quest, challenge, temptation, good and evil, courage, resolve, truth, and personal choice. I love that the first verse tells us that it was Spirit that led Jesus out into the wilderness—this was not an accident. Spirit—the stirring of Spirit—had prepared Jesus and unfolded the path for all these events to happen. Right there we see that no matter how dark things look, God has a good purpose for times of temptation and trial.
And what do you think Jesus found in the wilderness? Beautiful vistas, probably. A big, open sky. Stars at night so close he could almost touch them. Lots of time, as the moments slowed down and he had few things to do or plan or worry about. Lots of quiet, with no one to talk to and no neighborhood noises to hear. He might have heard the wind in the trees or perhaps a shepherd playing a flute in a nearby valley, but for the most part, he would have passed his time in inner and outer quiet. Forty days of it.
Picturing Jesus in the wilderness, listening to the silence and waiting on God, makes me think of this lovely poem by Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier:
God should be most where man is least:
So, where is neither church nor priest,
And never rag nor form of creed
To clothe the nakedness of need,
Where farmer folk in silence meet,
I turn my bell-unsummoned feet;
I lay the critic’s glass aside,
I tread upon my lettered pride,
And, lowest-seated, testify
To the oneness of humanity;
Confess the universal want,
And share whatever Heaven may grant.
He findeth not who seeks his own,
The soul is lost that’s saved alone.
He findeth not who seeks his own, the soul is lost that’s saved alone. That insight seems directly connected to the ways in which Jesus was tempted when he was most hungry and most tired and most lonely, close to the end of his 40 days, scripture says. Jesus was tempted, over and over again, to seek his own—his own provision (“tell these stones to become bread”), his own safety (“throw yourself off the temple and the angels will save you”), and his own glory (“All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me”). Each time Jesus was tempted, he responded with scripture from the still pureness of his soul and he refuted the lies and empty promises he heard. He recognized them for what they were—temptations to seek his own instead of listening for God. As weary as he was, Jesus had waited on the Lord to speak, and when the trials came, they were no match for the Light of Truth that was in him.
We can approach this Lent with a similar heart if we choose. We can let ourselves be led by Spirit into a season of listening and prayer, a preparing time in which we clear away the clutter that captures so much of our attention each day. We can take time—on purpose–to think about our relationship with God, wondering how it might grow and where it might lead as we listen more and more. Because Christ comes to teach His people himself, we can trust that simply because we’re willing, God will give us the Light to understand more, see more, and take steps as Spirit leads us on.
As the psalmist said, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” Quaker Caroline Stephen said it this way:
“Words may help and silence may help, but the one thing needful is that the heart should turn to its Maker as the needle turns to the pole. For this we must be still.”
What can we expect to find, as we spend more time in the silence waiting on God? Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned from attending silent worship regularly is that God creates a deep bond among those who wait in the silence together. That sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But it is there, a soul connection that has little to do with our surface personalities. But it’s unmistakable and it is real.
Many people find a deep peace in the silence—you may have felt that even from the relatively short time we have during our worship time together—there is a settling, a relaxing, an ease that comes, as minds are quieted and outward actions and voices are stilled. Sometimes in silent worship—even when things have already been quiet—an even more substantial peace arises and Friends sense the closeness of God in an almost tangible way. That’s what’s known as a “gathered” meeting, perhaps because the peace is so profound it feels like being gathered in the arms of God.
In silence, we may gain insights into problems or challenges we’ve been having or see something in our lives we didn’t see before. The good old-fashioned word for it is conviction—suddenly we see something in ourselves we know we need to change, if what we want to do is live more loving lives. If we are willing, God will show us a next step to take.
Another wonderful thing we may experience in the silence—in addition to deep peace and possible insights and solutions and maybe the revelation of areas for growth—is an expanded sense of who we are as God’s child. We may feel completely and purely and perfectly loved by God—and what a gift and blessing that is! Even a tiny sense of that great love helps us know that all is well, and that everything is in God’s hands, unfolding as it should.
Over a surprisingly short period of time, silence can help our trust in God grow exponentially. Each time we feel a nudge from God and we heed it, we learn something new about our relationship with God. Because the nudges prove true. The insights are accurate. The peace that comes is real. Over time, we discover that Spirit truly is our continual, ever-present, ever-loving Guide. Those aren’t just words; it’s not an ideal we aspire to, it’s true, now, if we could but turn God’s way. But we each must learn this for ourselves, which means we have to try it and see. That’s what George Fox said after his initial encounter with the living Christ. He wrote, “when God doth work, who shall hinder it? and this I knew experimentally.”
There’s a whole, beautiful world of spiritual experience awaiting us if we are willing to press pause on our busy minds and simply listen for God. That seeking is rewarded and we will find a peace, a Light, a Love beyond anything the surface world can offer. And once we find it and know it and love it, we will want to share it, because, as Whittier wrote, none of us is saved alone.
Holding Quakers in Ukraine and Quakers in Russia in God’s Light, praying for protection and peace for all and joining them in praying God’s love and healing for all living beings in our world.
- OT Psalm 62:5
- NT Matthew 4: 1-11
- Whittier, John Greenleaf. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-greenleaf-whittier
- Stephen, Caroline. https://quaker.org/legacy/fqa/types/t21-woolf.html