On Water

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Activists chant, “Water is life.” Introductory chemistry teachers instruct, “Water is the universal solvent.” Because of water’s exceptional ability to dismember all sorts of materials – carbon-based molecules, metals, salts – as well as its ability to absorb all sorts of gases – paleontologists tend to assume that life on Earth began in a body of water. And although the Book of Genesis sees life as beginning on dry land on the third day, it sees God as attending to water on the first day. “In the beginning,” after creating heaven and earth, after separating light from darkness and day from night, “God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’” (Genesis 1:6)

Friends (including me) love to quote this portion of George Fox’s letter from Launceston prison, 1656: “[Be] patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” My mind, however, turns less readily to the opening sentences of this same letter, “In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life . . . over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread . . .” I also shy away from this in the letter’s second paragraph, “[Be] valiant for the Truth upon earth; tread and trample all that is contrary under.”

Life cannot thrive by being timid. Humble and yielding, yes; timid and avoidant, no. But while God knows how to “divide the waters from the waters,” humans are unfit to judge the essential purposes of things. We cannot say which water will bring destruction and which will bring life. We cannot say what moves the heart of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. We can, however, say that we have been taught to fear God alone. And we can say that we have been blessed with the ability to learn from mistakes.

New circumstances require new solutions. Sometimes we need to reject decisions made in the past, even while remembering the good intentions behind them. Memory is a gift, not a fortress.

The good news is that every person on earth can learn from mistakes. And even better is the news that everyone can share that blessing with others. Each one of us can learn from anyone else about the unintended consequences of our actions (unless incapacitated by hunger or exhaustion, illness or despair). Each one of us can work with others to try to set things right.

I recently sat through a conversation in which one Friend complained that the FCNL slogan, “War is not the answer,” is not Quakerly because it expresses a rejection of something that is wrong, whereas the Quaker Way is to point towards things that are right. Other Friends agreed, and then one noted with approval that “Love thy neighbor, no exceptions,” is a now available on FCNL bumper stickers. I did not know what to say, remembering Ecclesiastes’s seasons and times and purposes for all things.

Every act of creation includes a range of contributions. Some of these will be messier than others. Some will involve some destruction. By embracing the powers of Continuing Revelation, we open ourselves to constant rediscovery of what we are being asked to contribute today. Let’s not be concerned with the faults we see in others’ contributions. Let’s welcome the great and the small, the gaudy and the subtle, the deep and the wide.

While God was dividing the waters from the waters, he decided which way was up. He “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament . . .” (Genesis 1:7) Finding ourselves embedded in creation, endowed with awareness, we can feel what it means to be upright. That feeling depends each moment on where we are standing. ~~~