George Fox in Paradise

Today’s message is about the boundless goodness of God and how much our lives—just our normal, daily, human lives–can truly express and reflect that goodness. The inspiration comes from a scene in George Fox’s Journal that has always fascinated me. Fox, still a young man, likely in his late 20s, has come already through that time of despair and struggle when he felt like none of the priests or educated people in his part of England could answer his deepest questions about his faith. They had offered him plenty of answers—mostly from books and other people’s teachings—but none of what they offered had resonated with Fox’s spirit, easing the deep yearning, the unresolved questions, at the center of his heart. Finally, he wrote in his Journal about the moment that changed everything for him:

“…I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw that there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

From that moment, Christ himself became Fox’s mentor and guide, and that experience formed the central truth that the Religious Society of Friends still offers the world today: That thanks to the greatness of the love of God, Christ brings the light of spiritual understanding to each of us individually as we become willing to be guided by love and truth and goodness. And as we become receptive to Christ’s Light, our lives begin to unfold with grace, our faith deepens, and God’s love and tenderness shines through us, bringing more light to our world.

After this personal experience of Christ, Fox continued to have what he referred to as “openings,” when inspired ideas would come to help him understand more about the nature of God’s presence and leading in the world. I recently read a booklet called Early Prophetic Openings of George Fox, published by The Tract Association of Friends in Philadelphia in 1986, and it simply offers, from Fox’s own writings, the ideas God was inspiring in Fox over time. Reading his openings in this way, sequentially, as they occurred to him, offers a fascinating look at the way Fox was led, step by step, idea by idea, to find what he saw and taught as a pure way to worship God and love others in spirit and in truth.

As Fox began to follow his leadings to go to different towns in his area and speak at what he called steeplehouses and other places where people gathered, he experienced a growing sense of intimacy with God as God directed his daily studies and prayers and actions. And then he had a moment unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. This is the event that fascinates me. He wrote about it like this:

“Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I saw I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell.”

Fox then goes on to describe this state, where he had a glimpse of eternal life and the infinite Love of God. He ends this passage with this remarkable statement:

“…as people come into subjection to the spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the Word of wisdom, that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being.”

Fox had a glimpse of something here that other spiritual leaders—including Jesus—have written about and taught: The wholeness of life, the goodness of the All of Life, the all-encompassing transcendent nature of Love in a state much different from the daily reality of conflict and struggle we seem to experience. This was something new altogether. God’s realm. Paradise that was—Fox believed and demonstrated—within reach of human experience, here and now.

Fox tried to tell others about this possibility of paradise, and he went to many different “sects of Christendom” as he called them to share this hopeful idea, but no one listened. They simply couldn’t accept it. It is a belief that still sets Friends apart today. Fox wrote that, “none could bear to be told that any should come…into that image of God and righteousness and holiness that Adam was in before he fell, to be clear and pure without sin.”

A dramatic exchange happened in Derby, England, when after a lively conversation with military officers, priests, and others, Fox found himself brought up before the magistrates because of his ideas. They asked him whether he was sanctified, meaning purified or without sin. Fox writes,

“I said, ‘Sanctified? Yes’, for I was in the Paradise of God.
They said, had I no sin?
‘Sin?’ said I, ‘Christ my Savior hath taken away my sin, and in him there is no sin.’
They asked how we knew that Christ did abide in us.
I said, ‘By his Spirit that he hath given us.’
They temptingly asked if any of us were Christ.
I answered, ‘Nay, we are nothing, Christ is all.’
They said, ‘If a man steal is it no sin.’
I answered, ‘All unrighteousness is sin.’

Remember the story of Moses we talked about a few weeks ago, how went he went up the mountain and conversed with God, his countenance was changed and his face shone with light, and he had to wear a veil when he came back down the mountain so his appearance wouldn’t alarm people? Here George Fox stands before the magistrates, who want to charge him with blasphemy—which in fact they do and he is held in prison for almost a year—but even as he’s talking with them, Fox is in that holy view of God, that place of transcendent understanding that no one around him understood. He wanted people to know the greatness and allness of God and to see themselves also climbing that mountain and communing with God in the same immediate and loving way. But because the magistrates didn’t grasp what Fox was seeing and knowing and feeling, they sent him to jail for his heretical views, saying he was “taken up in raptures.”

Our Old Testament reading today points toward the reality Fox could see, the truth of God’s allness, a reality beyond—and encompassing and upholding—the daily grind of effort and activity most people experience in their ordinary days.

“O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.”

This is a prayer offered by King Hezekiah, one of the great kings of the Old Testament, at a time when Judah was faced with a terrible threat from the Assyrian army. The people were afraid; everyone expected to be trampled by this powerful foe. But King Hezekiah had a strong faith and the prophet Isaiah assured him that God was listening and caring for them. So the king looked beyond the threat of the great army just outside the walls and turned his eyes and heart heavenward, declaring what he knew to be true about God’s reality. And in the end God protected Judah by turning the Assyrian leader’s attention in another direction.

In my Life with God Bible, the commentary here says,

“During World War II the village church of Poughill, England, scheduled a member to pray each hour of the day, seven days a week for the safety of those serving in the military from their community. Because none were killed, to this day the villagers believe God heard and answered their prayers.”

We see this in our own meeting, where we have become convinced of the power of our Quaker prayers. Over and over again, we see those we pray for lifted and comforted, guided and helped by God’s loving, healing presence. Lives can change dramatically for the better when people are praying. And perhaps that’s because when we pray, we are connecting with a reality—maybe even Paradise—far beyond this world of limitation and worry, challenge and trial. When we lift our thoughts, our ideas, our words higher than the problem—whatever it may be—we join King Hezekiah in reaching up to what we know is true about God: God’s greatness, God’s love, God’s care for all life, everywhere, always.

The passage we heard from Matthew points us in this same direction. These are Jesus’s words:

“…do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For all people seek after these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

It would be natural to wonder how, exactly, that is possible in a material world. Where will nourishment come from if we don’t take the action necessary to provide it? But Jesus isn’t suggesting here that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves or our families; rather he is pointing our eyes and hearts higher, to a bigger truth we know about God. When we know God so well that we can be certain we are always cared for—that no moment of our lives happens outside of God’s perfect care for us–the bondage of worry and anxiety about daily things will clear away like a fog, and we’ll be able to see a higher view, a next step, a path leading us farther in divine understanding.

And getting to that certainty is not a hard thing to do. It’s not a big mystery that is “out there” somewhere, to be discovered and deciphered only by experts or gifted spiritual leaders. That was a big part of George Fox’s teaching. Fox wanted everyone to know that the certainty of God is always with us, in the heart, so close we can’t miss it if we’re willing to see. Spirit makes the suggestions, stirs up the curiosity, inspired us with a thousand tiny ideas each day that point us in the right direction. Think of Jesus telling Peter to find the coin in the fish’s mouth. Peter was a fisherman. He knew without a doubt what this meant. Spirit used his own familiar world to teach him about God. And the same is true for each of us.

God uses familiar, normal, everyday occurrences to teach each of us more about love and light, forgiveness and grace. God shows us right in our daily experiences how to leave the fog of confusion and conflict and step up into the clear Light of God’s truth. Whether we are working or reading, gardening or driving, Christ’s Spirit is with us, helping us see and hear what’s possible, opening the door to God’s presence. When we look for God in our daily activities, we feel peace and joy—evidence that we are moving beyond the grip of conflict and worry.

We can find and experience the Paradise of God like George Fox did—it’s not a special discovery for a select few. It’s the hope God has for all of us, the homecoming of all God’s prodigal children who have grown so weary struggling in a chaotic world of error and hardship. Another reality awaits our noticing. We’ve got a standing invitation. When we seek that peaceable kingdom first, we will find it. And all the rest of what we need is provided, because we are always in God’s tender, perfect care.

In closing I’d like to share a bit of the hymn, Higher Ground, written by Johnson Oatman, Jr.:

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining ev'ry day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

Friends, let’s not be satisfied with days willed with worry and upset and struggle when higher ground is so close, within our reach. Jesus reminds us to seek God first in all that we do—to remember God is with us, loving us—and our circumstances will work out, in right order. King Hezekiah points our hearts and minds Godward when troubles are knocking at our doors. And George Fox discovered and proved that God is knowable and reachable—even here, in this current world, with everything just as it is—because Christ himself is our personal guide, bringing Light and love, liberty and grace to all we do and all we are, as God’s beloved children.


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