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Work Not in Vain

Lloyd Lee Wilson
On Play (September 2015)
Annual Sessions

I’ve been reflecting on the relationship between our rootedness in the Holy Spirit of God and our efforts to heal the world, to make God’s peace and God’s saving justice more accessible to a suffering creation. “Unless God builds the house, its builders work in vain. Unless God guards the city, the watchman watches in vain. In vain do you get up early and put off going to bed, eating the bread of anxious toil. For God provides for God’s beloved even while they are at rest.” I’ve come to feel that this passage from Psalm 127 is a word for all of us.

Building a house can mean many things – a person’s residence, the house of the Lord, an extended family. Keeping watch brings to mind images of bedside prayer vigil or watching from the crow’s nest for a sign of land on a distant horizon. These words set before me a wide range of actions, all of which are good and honorable. But the psalm is not teaching us which of these actions to choose, it is teaching that they are all in vain unless the prime mover is God, instead of our human initiative of self will. It’s not up to us to choose a task and go at it because we think that it’s needed. We can’t simply sign God onto our own project. History is full of instances when people have started their own projects and then pronounced, “God is with us. God is on our side.” Things rarely turn out well when we do that.

The caution of this psalm is particularly relevant to us in the present day because we can’t help but be aware of the broken condition of the entire world around us. There’s so much at risk, so much at stake, that it feels irresponsible to wait a single moment. But in our haste to be doing as much as possible, we may be working someplace other than where we may be most effective. We may be losing the power that the concerted efforts of an entire faith community could bring to bear. We may be neglecting our own spiritual nurture, and thereby failing to become the effective healers of creation that we might otherwise be.

t’s all about discernment. And by “discernment,” I mean that process of figuring out God’s desire and receiving God’s guidance. In Quaker vocabulary – “We should not outrun our Guide.” We should not take on work that our Guide is not leading us to take on. We should also not lag behind out Guide, continuing to busy ourselves with familiar activity when God has moved on. Easy to say, but hard to accomplish.

There is a particular method of discernment in the Quaker tradition. In the wider Christian world, it is called “contemplation” – going to that place of resting in God. It’s the condition in which Quakers move every time we settle down into worship or say to ourselves, “I need to center down.” It’s a timeless moment of perfect stillness.  In the Quaker tradition, we test our leadings in this way individually, and we also test them in our meetings.

Corporate discernment of individual leadings can take us to a greater unity in our community of action. I am a beekeeper, and I know that the unit of bees is a hive; it’s not an individual bee. I think the unit for Quakers is a meeting. God calls us to be a great people gathered, not a large assembly of individuals gathered. Corporate reflection helps us see how to do that. It’s not always that we all go off to follow the same leading. There may be only one person who is called to be active on behalf of a cause. But if we take the time to reflect together and find unity together, we may discover that we have other people who can produce the flyers, and people who can pay for the postage, and somebody who can cut the lawn and feed the goldfish, so that the individual who is called is free to act. We can liberate one another into service.

That’s wonderful, but it is, I think, incomplete. We need to close the loop. We need to end our actions with same stillness and reflection as at the beginning. In Deuteronomy, the people ask God directly, “How are we going to tell if this is a true prophet or not?” And God says, “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a false prophet.” What jumps out at me about this passage is that no matter how strongly we feel about a particular action or deed, we can’t be sure ahead of time that we understand fully and rightly what we’re called to do and how we’re called to do it. That only becomes clear after the fact. We always do our work without completely understanding how it’s supposed to fit into the overall effort to heal the world. As we follow the cycle of action and contemplation, we are led to move and act in those places that God has already prepared for us. So in the time of reflection afterwards, we can hear, “Well done, faithful servants.”

We can also hear in moments of reflection whether or not we are released from the ministry in which we have been engaged. Sometimes we get out of the way to let others have their chance to do that work. Sometimes we discover that our leading for the past period of time has in fact been our preparation for the next job we are called to do. One thing that’s going to come, if we do this reflection regularly and faithfully, is that we are going to be changed.

God’s intent for creation is quite different from what we can see and hear all around us, and each of us has a particular role to play in the healing and restoration of creation. And the peculiar insight that Quakers add to this effort is that healing and restoration are possible here and now. We’re not waiting for the second coming, because the first coming is still here among us – the palpable, perceptible, and immediate guidance of a very present Holy Spirit.

God has already done God’s part. All that remains is for us to be willing to listen and follow God’s immediate and perceptible guidance. When we do that, we know that God’s Holy Mountain is becoming more substantial moment by moment. And on that day, when God builds the house, we will not labor in vain. And when God watches over the city, we will not watch in vain. We will no longer eat the bread of anxious toil, for we will be co-workers with God, who will give us exactly what we need for the task ahead, even as we rest in the timeless divine presence.

Amen and Amen.   ~~~

Lloyd Lee Wilson is a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). His many writings include Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order and a recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Radical Hospitality (#427).

For a complete text of this presentation, see:  westernfriend.org/media/work-not-vain

Social activism Direct action creation Deuteronomy Bible Contemplation

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