I once lived with a cat named Francis. If he needed something, Francis would find me and invite me to help him. Regularly this invitation would come in the middle of the night when I was otherwise asleep in my bed. I would stir from my slumber to feel what would best be described as a gentle yet forceful kneading of my eyeballs by Francis’ paws.
I am remembering Francis as I have reflected on the theme of Awakening to the Presence. Like Francis the Cat, I don’t always see God, but I know that God is always around. Every time Francis would wake me up at odd hours, these questions would run through my head: Why me? Don’t other people live in this house? Why are you so relentless in bothering me? Those questions, and these: Why now? Couldn’t this wait ‘till morning? ‘Till coffee is in hand? ‘Till I am better prepared to be of service?
My relationship with God resembles all this: feeling jarred awake, feeling inconvenienced and annoyed, feeling unprepared and entirely unsuitable for the invitation offered me. Awakening to the Presence can be uncomfortable, unexpected, out of our control, and beyond our capacity to deny, minimize, or avoid.
I was raised in Pacific Yearly Meeting, attending monthly meeting in Berkeley. Here I was surrounded by folks who were good-hearted, lived simply, and were committed to the cause of peace. Ours was community rich with stories: How the first Quakers resisted institutional church powers and found new life in simple liturgies and equitable religious leadership; How Quakers fought for religious freedoms; How Quakers participated in the abolitionist efforts and the Underground Railroad; How Quakers resisted war-making, sometimes at great cost. As I grew up in the Religious Society of Friends, one thing I knew for sure: Quakers were on the right side of history. Our work wasn’t always popular in the eyes of others, especially those in power, but in the end, when histories were being written, we came out looking good.
I find myself reflecting on historically significant times because it feels like we’re in one right now. And I find myself wondering if the way we’ve told our pieces of history are helping us or hindering us from seeing what our role is today. History is told by survivors and has a way of telling us certain things and minimizing others. The standard Quaker history we tell minimizes much: How divided Friends have been over the years over many issues; How our pacifist roots are more complicated than we often acknowledge; How Quakers were not united in our work for abolition of the enslavement of human beings (and to this day racism continues to be a force that shapes our Quaker community); how many of the Friends we celebrate today as note-worthy, historically significant exemplars of Quakerness were not popular or respected in their own meetings in their own time.
We must acknowledge that our roots are a bit messier than we may have assumed – not as notes of despair or disillusionment, but as a note of truth about where we’ve come from and how we got here; and in this, we can find a great deal of hope. Part of that hope lies in a liberation from the assumption that we all must agree, that our power comes only when we have unanimity. To the contrary, our history is full of solitary Friends who have witnessed not only against practices “of the world,” but also against their own meetings.
Those of us gathered here now are expecting different things, and while that may prove challenging, I hope that all of us have come expecting to be enlivened, and to leave here more fully aware and more fully connected to who we are and what we are meant to be. I honor our differences because those differences have been some of my greatest teachers: telling me to keep up, to slow down, to be humble, to be bold.
I was a good Quaker kid. I knew what was expected of me and I zealously committed: I stood up for pacifism on the schoolyard; I took a punch and turned the other cheek; I attended all the conferences; I served on committees at every level of Quaker life. I went to more peace demonstrations than I could count. My first career out of college was in community organizing for peace and justice.
And then I seemingly betrayed all of it with this question: Could God be calling me to serve in ministry in themilitary? To put on a military uniform and be a compassionate presence in the lives of those who had been trained to kill? This unexpected call was uncomfortable and unwelcome – both for me and for the Quaker communities that meant so much to me.
Discerning faithfully this call to military chaplaincy took years. The clouds never opened with God’s booming voice offering instructions. Instead, the call emerged through a thousand little moments of awakening. Throughout that time, I was confused, disoriented, and unable to easily fit any of this into a familiar way of thinking and doing. I was stuck ruminating on the big questions – about the meaning of pacifism and the Quaker testimony of peace. I didn’t agree with the basic premise of the military, so how could I wear its uniform? I was shrouded in dread, loneliness, and grief.
Four years into this wandering in the wilderness, I found a Quaker community willing to labor with me. Camas Friends Church, three thousand miles away from where I lived at the time, responded to my epistle to them. They said that children who had been raised in their meeting were serving in the military. And if there were Quaker kids serving in the military, why couldn’t there be a Quaker military chaplain? Their response and the relationship that emerged in the coming years dramatically changed my thinking about this work.
I have never ceased to be a Quaker, and serving as a military chaplain has felt a faithful expression of my Quaker identity, even of the peace testimony. Military chaplains are strict non-combatants. This is the only position in the military that is given access to every level of the chain of command. The job, very simply, is to provide care and counsel to every member of the unit and their families.
I stand fast in the belief that God’s children are on both sides of every conflict, and all are deserving of our compassion and attention. Being a presence of love and compassion in the midst of violence does not mean suspending the prophetic dimension of our Quaker tradition. I believe, however, that our prophetic commitments require us to do more than shake our fists and judge from our armchairs. Prophets are called to go to places they may not want to go. Just ask Jonah or Ezekiel. Awakening to the Presence is not always what we’re expecting. It may not come easy to understand. If we find ourselves struggling, we need to continue to pay attention, to practice discernment, and to risk vulnerability.
I have misunderstood more than I have understood. I have held back more than I have stepped forward. I have overslept more than I have been awakened. And yet, none of my failing, none of my fear, has altered the terms of my relationship with God. God is here. With us and in spite of us. Dwelling with us in this time and place. Ready to inspire and embolden. ~~~
Zachary Moon served for eight years as a chaplain for military service members. He is the author of Coming Home: Ministry That Matters with Veterans and Military Families (2015). Text from the talk above has been excerpted from a complete script of the talk, posted at: westernfriend.org/media/awakening-presence-unabridged