Like circus cars ejecting impossible numbers of clowns right before our eyes, we humans emit endless parades of bright ideas into the crowded world. Then we jostle among all the world’s other creatures – animals, vegetables, minerals – and find ourselves wondering, now and then, about our own integrity, the coherence of our lives.
For at least 9,000 years (maybe 37,000), our species has been scratching ideas into rock, bark, skin, paper, magnetic tape, silicon, etc. All the while, countless individuals have viewed a few of those scratchings as Holy and worthy of their worship. Too often, some person even rips a page out of some Holy Book, rolls it into a little baton, and spins it round and round in the cotton candy machine. It’s amazing what an authority can do with a little baton – call an army to attention, point out where to store the tax collectings, or conduct a symphony to uplift the spirits of the poor.
Within this context, the Religious Society of Friends emerged in the 1600s among a few peculiar individuals who longed to hear the voice of God directly and who were natural skeptics of human interference. Isaac Penington, for example, described his early relationships with scripture and authority this way:
Yea, I very earnestly desired and pressed after the knowledge of the Scriptures, but was much afraid of receiving men’s interpretations of them, or of fastening any interpretation upon them myself; but waited much, and prayed much, that from the Spirit of the Lord I might receive the true understanding of them . . .
But I was exceedingly entangled about . . . that doctrine . . . then held forth by the strictest of those that were termed Puritans . . .
In this great trouble and grief . . . I spent many years, and . . . at last, when my nature was almost spent, and the pit of despair was even closing its mouth upon me . . . the Lord my God owned me, and sealed his love unto me, and light sprang within me; which made not only the scriptures, but the very creatures, glorious in my eyes. . . (1667)
Lest his readers get the wrong idea that, due to this epiphany, he planned to pick up his own baton, he added:
The Lord hath broken the man’s part in me, and I am a worm and no man before him. I have no strength to do any good or service for him; nay, I cannot watch over or preserve myself. I feel daily, that I . . . am weaker . . . than ever I have been. . .
Not a pretty picture. Not a catchy tune.
But though I am nothing, I must speak, for the Lord draweth and moveth me; and how unserviceable soever my pity be, [my heart cannot but reach out] both towards those that are in misery, and those that are running into misery.
Penington often wrote of “the Seed” – the pure seed, the seed of life, the inward seed, the seed of God’s spirit – and he stressed that Friends’ unity resides not in speaking the same words or doing the same deeds. But rather, Friends unite by allowing their diverse ideas and actions to be motivated and enlivened by the one and only pure principle, which is love, which “the power of enmity is not able to stand against, but falls before, and is overcome by it.”
Whether we are looking at lines of segregation in the architecture of “structural injustice,” or listening to the unanswered cries of disinherited “ghosts of the past,” or simply smelling that something is rotten, no matter how we perceive this mess, it’s telling us that we all need to care – to put an end to foolishness and to comfort the afflicted. As Friends, we know how to wait together expectantly until a loving response is clear. Then we can do all we can to help each other try to set things right. ~~~