When you think back over the last week, how much of God’s light do you think you shared with others? How often did you feel it yourself? We rarely think of looking at life that way or gauging the success of our days based on how often we smiled, how many times we were kind, whether we were able to let other people—and ourselves—off the hook, how much forgiveness we showed, and whether we were able to steer clear of judgment.
Instead we often focus on the tasks we didn’t get done, the things that didn’t go right, the people that irritated us, the moments we wish we could take back or do over. Some of that is because of the negativity bias our brains have naturally—we have a built-in tendency to focus first and most on whatever seems wrong: the wrinkles in the rug, the obstacles that have gotten in the way of our plans, somebody’s behavior we’d like to change. That instinctive way of looking at things is part of the whole system within us designed to keep us safe: the sooner we recognize something is off, the faster we can fix it. But we also rarely stop to think of God’s light in a concrete and practical way, as something real and tangible, something observable we can see and feel and share—and maybe even measure. Although it is.
Whether you participated or not, I’m sure you heard us talking about the book study we finished just a little over a week ago. A number of us—I think 11 in total—read and discussed Quaker Rex Ambler’s book, Light to Live By: An Exploration of Quaker Spirituality. The book came about after Ambler researched and then attempted to find what Early Friends had found in their own experiences of the Light of Christ. He wasn’t sure he would discover anything practical or practice-able; and we, reading his book, all had the same questions. We weren’t sure how Ambler’s ideas would connect with our experience, whether we would discover Spirit speaking to us through his ideas. But it was an experiment worth trying.
At the heart of Ambler’s book, he identifies a four-step process Early Friends followed when they settled into the silence for an hour or two to wait on God. Those steps are
- Mind the light. George Fox’s instruction here is, “Mind the pure light of God in you, which shows you sin and evil, and how you have spent your time, and shows you how your minds go forth.” Amber explains this as paying attention to God’s light at work in us. The Light shows us where we’ve fallen short, where we wasted our time, where our minds were scattered, distracted, and caught up in unhelpful outward things that draw us away from the idea of God.
- Open your heart to the truth. This step requires that we accept whatever God’s light shows us about ourselves, even if it’s not flattering. Maybe especially if it’s not flattering. When we open our hearts to the truth we see as we wait on God, we may feel humbled and imperfect—“Yes, I see how impatient I’ve been, God, thank you for helping me see that”—but we will also feel the nearness and comfort of God’s grace. The Light doesn’t reveal these things to shame us or make us feel bad, but to help us love better, and to be open to more and more of God’s light as our trusted guide.
- Wait in the light. Fox might say here, “Stand still in the light,” which is to simply allow ourselves to sit with whatever the Light is revealing in us, waiting to see what God will show us next. In the example of recognizing impatience, for instance, as we wait quietly in God’s Light, we might come to see how our impatience stresses those around us and causes us to treat ourselves unkindly. God will deepen our understanding if we will wait and allow the ideas to unfold.
- And the last step is Submit to the truth. George Fox suggests that this is an antidote to any struggle we have to act or think or give in to a temptation that takes away our sense of oneness with God. He writes, “After thou seest thy thought, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes…Stand still in the light, submit to it, and the other [meaning the temptation] will be hushed and gone.” This tells us that seeing what’s going on inside us changes everything. And we need God’s Light in order to see truly.
Ambler points out that the word submit is not a very comfortable one in our modern culture. It wasn’t too long ago that Paul’s admonition, “Wives, submit to your husbands” was considered a cornerstone of Christian practice in some traditions. But from the very beginning among Friends, men and women were seen as equals in ministry and in life, and all people—regardless of age, gender, or any other characteristic—were valued and listened to and welcomed because “that of God” resides in us all.
But there’s another way to think about submitting to the truth. Rumi wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” In opening our minds and hearts to the working of God’s Light, we are inviting the Light of truth to show us those barriers within ourselves. Where could we be more open to God’s love, more giving in our love of ourselves and others? Every human on the planet would benefit from getting quiet and asking that question. The answer leads us to joy and helps us create communities where we’re all safe and welcome, all appreciated and heard, all living according to the Light that is in us.
At the close of our five-week class, Gary suggested that we take some time and try the process together. Amber’s book offers a few questions to walk us through the experience, and I had planned to read the questions for the group, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d get out of the exercise myself. But after only about 20 minutes (that’s all the time we had left in the class that day), we all felt something positive had occurred during that time. A few of us experienced real insights as God helped us see something in a different way. We came to understand our situations more deeply. We were so amazed by the experience that we plan to do it again—for the entire one and a half hours that are recommended. We’re still working on when we’ll do that, but you are all invited to join in when we gather and see for yourself. We’ll let you know more about that as the plans unfold.
But that brings us back to the tangible evidence of the presence of God’s Light at work in us. In our Old Testament reading today, we heard the story of Moses and how his face shined after his time on Mount Sinai with God. He wasn’t even aware of it. But the scripture says, “His face was radiant.”
When other people saw him, it frightened them. What could that possibly mean? What was wrong with Moses? Perhaps he had caught an illness of some sort. Or maybe now he could shoot lightning bolts from his fingertips if they got too close. They’d never seen anything like it. Moses, realizing the effect his face was having on the people, began to wear a veil. Maybe it wasn’t considered socially acceptable to have such joy at oneness with God when everyone around him was still struggling. But whenever he went back to speak with God, he removed the veil so there wouldn’t be any obstacles between them. God had dissolved those blocks long ago.
I think it’s interesting that Moses climbed Mount Sinai—he needed to go higher, to get beyond the everyday details of his normal life—to be in God’s presence. He had to make an effort to find the peace and quiet at a higher level, so he could turn his attention God-ward and listen to what God had to say. This is similar to our process of minding the light, moving into a quiet, receptive frame of mind where we let go of the busyness of our lives and turn our hearts toward God for a time of purposeful listening. When we hear a word or get a feeling or glimpse a truth we know has come from God, the light in us shines more brightly, just like it did for Moses. We can feel it. We might not need a veil after our time in the silence, but if we spend enough time with God, and we’ll come away with warmer hearts, more peaceful minds, and a hopeful, happy countenance.
In our New Testament story from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about the nature and purpose of God’s light in us. “You are the light of the world,” he tells those listening. “A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
The lamp is put on the stand not so that people will look up to it and admire it, but because by being lifted up its light will shine for everyone in the house, helping them to see. The light blesses and lifts and illumines all who are in the vicinity. In the same way, the Light of God in us is not present with us simply for our own understanding and enjoyment—although it does certainly bless us personally. Rather God’s Light in us shines out to touch and uplift others, giving hope, sharing kindness, demonstrating God’s goodness in very real and practical ways each day.
In the mid-1600s, Early Friend James Parnell wrote, “Keep close to the Light and own it alone to be your teacher, guide, and counselor in all the way through which you are to pass, and in all things that you are to do. Stand in the denial of self and all its goals; and own the Light, which leads into singleness of mind unto God away from selfish ends.”
So maybe one day soon it will be possible for us to look back over the week and count the number of times we felt God’s light shining through us to others. We may begin to see how God’s love flows through lives and how God’s hope awakens possibilities for all. And in case the idea of seeing evidence of God’s Light still seems a little fuzzy, here’s a little test you can try. Ask yourself these simple questions:
- Am I able to be happy for others when good things happen in their lives? If so, you are loving them.
- Am I able to want the best for people who have hurt or upset me in the past? If so, you are forgiving them.
- Do I refuse to participate in speech or actions that dehumanize others or cast them in a negative light? If yes, you are open to finding “that of God” in them.
- Do I take moments in my day to turn toward peace, to catch my breath, to say a prayer? If so, you are caring your spiritual life and including God in your day.
- Do I feel a sense of gratitude—for beauty, for friends, for family, for God? If you do, then you have an awareness of the holiness of life, and every moment—for you, for us all, for the world–can be full of God’s presence.
- OT Exodus 34:29-35
- NT Matthew 5: 14-16
- Ambler, Rex. Light to Live By: An Exploration in Quaker Spirituality. https://www.amazon.com/Light-Live-exploration-Quaker-Spirituality/dp/0852453361