Have you ever noticed how many different versions of the world there seem to be? There was the world you left behind for a little while when you slipped off to sleep last night. And the world you woke up to this morning as you stretched and opened your eyes. There’s the world we experience walking through the woods on a beautiful, quiet, sunny day, and a world we find—maybe a scary world we find—reflected in the headlines and on social media, painting a picture of a world in pain. There’s a world we experience inwardly when we seek God’s presence in the stillness, and what seems to be a completely different world “out there” when we feel stressed, pressured, and worried in our lives. From moment to moment, the world we experience—and whether it feels like a friendly or not-so-friendly place—has much to do with what our minds are focused on, what our hearts are resonating with, and what our spirits are seeking. We can change our experience for the better when we ask God to show us the world God would have us see.
When I go to visit patients as part of my work at hospice, I’m aware that when I knock on the door and go into the house, I am also entering a new world, their world, a world of memories and experiences, expectations and dreams that are different from my own. Their unique world of loves and challenges—and now, perhaps illness and age—shapes the way they see life, what they believe is possible, and the hopes they have for themselves and their families. In our visits, my patients often talk about high moments and hard moments, and they mention thoughts and questions that have been on their minds. We usually laugh a lot. And sometimes there are tears. But when we look together to see where God shows up in their world, we can always see it: The goodness, the light, the comfort, the love, the hope. God is always there. Always.
Our Old Testament reading today, from Isaiah, offers a beautiful picture of the world God would have us know in the fullness of God’s love. It’s about deep and lasting safety, a sweet transcendent peace, a place where even babies are secure playing near snakes once thought to be dangerous and deadly. Harmony is everywhere, and “all the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord.”
This vision Isaiah offers isn’t a far-away dream that might occur “someday” when everything finally falls into place. This is something that’s possible now, as soon as we let go of our image of the world and become open to God’s better vision. And even though this sounds like a big idea, maybe difficult, it’s really quite simple: something we Friends are already very familiar with. That’s what we’re doing when we turn toward God in the silence of our hearts; we’re trading the busy world of our thoughts for the quiet truth of God’s presence. It’s what we hope for when we, in pain and confusion and need, ask Christ’s Light to come and teach us and heal us himself. Open this world we’re caught in, we pray, and help me remember the peace of your presence.
In this passage from George Fox’s Journal, you can hear how Fox continually tried to turn people away from their daily realities of deceit and discouragement toward a brighter life of God’s making. He writes,
"I was moved to go to several courts and steeple houses at Mansfield and other places, to warn them to cease oppression and oaths, and to turn from deceit to the Lord, and do justly. Particularly at Mansfield, after I had been at a court there, I was moved to go and speak to one of the wickedest men in the country, one who was a common drunkard… and a rhyme maker; and in the dread of the mighty God I reproved him for his evil courses. When I was done speaking and left him, he came after me, and told me that he was so smitten when I spoke to him that he had scarcely any strength left in him. So this man was convinced, turned from his wickedness, and remained an honest, sober man, to the astonishment of the people who had known him before. Thus the work of the Lord went forward, and many were turned from darkness to light, within the compass of these three years, 1646, 1647, and 1648. Many meetings of Friends; in several places, were then gathered to God's teaching, by his light, spirit, and power; for the Lord's power broke forth daily more and more wonderfully."
By opening to God’s world, God’s power, God’s vision, early Friends discovered the faithful leading and tender companionship of God. God was working among them in an obvious and powerful way, improving lives wherever the Light was heeded. And perhaps due to Fox’s ability to see God at work, to know God’s presence and power in all that he did, he himself had a high spiritual moment that stayed with him—to one degree or another—for the rest of his life. He describes it this way:
"Now I came up in spirit, through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, innocence, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus; so that I came up to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. The creation was open to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them, according to their nature and virtue."
George Fox experienced the vision Isaiah wrote about, saying he “came up through the flaming sword” (which is a reference to Uriel, the angel of repentance, who guards the entrance to the Garden of Eden) and Fox entered the paradise of God. It was like the whole world was remade—all creation had a new smell—and Fox suddenly felt what it meant to be “made in the image of God”–pure, innocent, and righteous. I imagine it was the pinnacle experience of Fox’s entire life. What could be better? What worries and struggles of normal daily life could bind him now that he knew the way to God’s perfect peace?
In our New Testament reading today, Jesus tries to help the disciples understand what God values most so they might find their way more directly to the paradise of God. But as so often happened, the disciples were caught up in worldly things, trying to understand Jesus’ words in the context of the kingdom they hoped he would be creating. Even at this point in Jesus’ ministry, the disciples were still hoping for Jesus to become a powerful leader who pushes back on the oppressive Roman rule and wins dignity and status for the Jewish people. They had been long oppressed and yearned for the scales to be righted. In the question they ask—“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”—we can hear that they are still preoccupied with the power and status of the world. They want to know what the pecking order will be. Their competitive natures are stirred up. How might they improve their chances so their hereafter will be full of glory?
But of course that wasn’t what Jesus was talking about at all. It’s not what he taught. It’s not what he modeled. Jesus wasn’t interested in teaching us how to get worldly power, how to achieve great wealth, improve our reputations, become social media influencers. Jesus pointed us toward the real and possible—and even present–paradise of God.
When the disciples asked their question, Jesus looked around and then called a small child over to stand by him. You can just imagine the scene, all these disciples gathered around their teacher, hoping he will indicate that they all—or at least some of them—will have important roles to play in the next realm. But instead, Jesus brings the child before them, and says,
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
What a puzzle this must have been to these hopeful, ambitious men! But Jesus knew the truth of the paradise of God: God’s world is a return to purity, innocence, and goodness, the state Adam and Eve were in before the fall. And we know that children, especially very young children, are innocence itself—happy, open, living fully in the moment, enjoying the goodness of life, ready to play, trusting, friendly, generous, and kind.
These qualities are alive in us, too. They are evidence of “that of God” in us when we feel free enough and safe enough to express them. When we recognize what divine gifts they are, we will let them shine in all we do, thus remaking our worlds to reflect God’s beauty and tender care. But because we get preoccupied and overwhelmed with the adult world we see “out there,” we lose touch with the truth of the goodness, innocence, and faith at the heart of our being.
So what does it take to remake our world? Here are some possibilities:
- We can choose to spend more quiet time with God. Simply waiting on God helps us let go of what troubles us and be open to God’s answers.
- We can trust God with our struggles and our joys, talking to God as we would a beloved parent. The more we do that, the more we will feel heard, and supported, and loved.
- We can ask God to help us see and share more goodness in the world. As we feel more and more comfortable sharing those purely good qualities, God will give us lots of opportunities to do that.
- We can listen for the ways God prompts us to respond to the needs that touch our hearts. And as we do, we’ll see, case by case, how God brings more light and love and grace to peoples’ circumstances through us. What an honor that is, when we see it and know it’s God working.
- We can thank God—consistently and often—for everything: that God hears us, knows us, loves us; that the Light of Christ frees us and teaches us to recognize, receive, and share the limitless good all around us.
I’ve mentioned before that often things I experience during the week seem to have something to do with the message I’m preparing for Sunday. This week, on Wednesday afternoon my son called from South Carolina to tell me about a new job he’s just started that he’s very happy about. He’s a carpenter and when he and my daughter-in-law moved to Charleston last summer, he took a job as a project manager with a construction company building luxury homes along the ocean. He said the setting was beautiful and the work was good, but it was missing something. He longed to find work that had more meaning, more purpose.
When I visited them in September, they took me to a place they love that was once a working plantation and is now an education and event center. There is a beautiful sprawling landscape—it’s the oldest natural garden in the country—and there’s a stately and elegant plantation house where many events are held. There are also four slave cabins that have been preserved to help visitors understand that painful part of the planation’s past. A tour guide told the story of people brought against their will from West Africa to grow a special kind of rice in the marshland fields. It was dangerous and draining work, and the swampy area was filled with poisonous water snakes and alligators. Many died young. The kids and I were all deeply touched by the tour and saddened by the heartache and injustice the slaves endured. The guide told us that the man who had been their chief groundskeeper for decades—a descendant of slaves himself who was born in one of the cabins and lived there until the 1980s—had passed away just a few years ago. His sons continue to live and work there at the plantation, living now in a house built for them on another part of the property.
When Cameron saw that the plantation was advertising for a lead carpenter, he quickly applied and got the job. He started work last Monday, and when he called me after work on Wednesday, he said that afternoon he’d had the opportunity to meet one of the groundskeeper’s sons. The man, now in his 70s, still cares for the grounds and gardens his father loved so much, that had been both a source of pain and pride for his ancestors. He introduced himself and said to Cameron, “We’re glad to have you with us. Welcome home.”
Cameron said, “Oh, this isn’t home for me. I just moved here from Indianapolis last summer.”
He said the man looked clearly into his eyes and smiled a little and then said, more slowly this time, “Welcome home.”
What an amazing moment of grace, God’s light shining freely, intentionally, abundantly from one heart to another.
When we’re willing and able and ready to see a different world, a better world, a world of grace and forgiveness, light and hope, reconciliation and restoration, God will show us—it already exists. The Light of Christ will open the way. Let’s let ourselves be welcomed home to the heart of innocence and purity that is our birthright—and the true and lasting reality–of every child of God.
- OT Isaiah 11: 6-9
- NT Matthew 18: 1-5
- The Journal of George Fox: https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journal_of_George_Fox/O5zZAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover