Healing Silence, Sacred Presence, and the Radical Faith of Friends by Paul Blankenship

Luke 10:25-37   

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said,
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?
How do you read it?”
He said in reply,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.”
He replied to him, “You have answered correctly;
do this and you will live.”

But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied,
“A man fell victim to robbers
as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead.
A priest happened to be going down that road,
but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
Likewise a Levite came to the place,
and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side.
But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him
was moved with compassion at the sight.
He approached the victim,
poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them.
Then he lifted him up on his own animal,
took him to an inn, and cared for him.
The next day he took out two silver coins
and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction,
‘Take care of him.
If you spend more than what I have given you,
I shall repay you on my way back.’
Which of these three, in your opinion,
was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Quakerism’s Radical Proposition: God Speaks to Each and Every Human Soul

Quakerism begins with a radical proposition: the Living God lives and moves and has Her being within each of us. In the wonderous, interior castle that is your soul—a place of beauty so divine that poets haven’t enough ink or emotion to describe, and which is invincible against the enemy’s tools and tactics—God speaks.

Friends, do we still quake at this absurd truth? You—little you with your little concerns—on your small speck in this universe—and me— little me with my little concerns on my small speck in the universe—can commune with the Creator of the Universe who cares for us with a personal and unconditional love.

Are we not undone? Do we not tremble at this? Are we wooed by this wonderful fact of our existence?

This Quaker proposition is even more radical. The capacity to hear God is not contingent on what kind of education we have. God does not draw nearer to us on the basis of how many books we’ve read or the number of degrees we earned.

The precious sound does not discriminate by virtue of how much money we have. God is not more likely to whisper words of wonder to the rich than the poor. The woman who lives on the streets is as capable of hearing the precious sound as Bill Gates or Warren Buffet.

The eternal sound does not favor the red, white, and blue. God is not an American with a distinctly American agenda. She is not a Republican, a Democratic, or an Independent. Eternal Wisdom cherishes all creatures in the world—human and nonhuman— and this cherishment is not bound by the walls we create and tear down as the seasons change. God goes in search of poor strangers not to send them away but to bring them home. He is a good neighbor; he does not ignore the wounded; he attends to their wounds with oil and wine.

It does not matter what anyone has done or where they are. God speaks to those whose lives are behind bars of a cell or behind the bars of an ideological prison. Those trapped in a prison of depression are as near to God as those riding waves of joy.

It does not matter what your race, religion, gender, or sexuality is. Thomas Kelly put it this way in A Testament of Devotion:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.” [1]

What a relief. In our time-torn lives, in which we toil day and night through a most frightful and divisive world that we seem to have pushed near the edge of extinction, Christ’s welcoming presence is not fable but fact. Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28-30 give an invitation to a place that is nearer to us than our own thoughts:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

 As Friends, we recognize that Christ’s presence is not divided. While Christ is present to everyone, his voice does not contradict itself. Though it can be difficult to understand, he always asks the same question: do you love me with all of your heart, mind, and soul? And the second question is just like it: do you love your neighbor as yourself? Friends also recognize that Christ, the light which burns in our souls and speaks the voice of love, is not individual’s possession. The Everlasting Light is present, but it does not belong to anyone. It is not a Quaker thing, a Methodist thing, a Catholic thing, an Episcopal thing, or any other religious organization’s thing.

It is not a thing: it is the living reality that gives life to the human and nonhuman world and which are denominational borders will always fail to contain. Indeed, Friends of Jesus—and here I am not just referring to Quakers but to all who dare walk The Way of Love—recognize that the light in us does not choose to reside  within the human person alone; it chooses to permeate the entire universe.

Christ, as Richard Rohr reminds us in the book we will soon begin reading as a Meeting, is not Jesus’ last name. Christ is the ever-present and unfolding reality of unwavering and radical love that never tires of cherishing and restoring and wooing us into peaceful relationship with one another—regardless of political party, nationality, or any other artificial barrier we erect to distort our shared humanity. The presence of Christ, as Rohr puts it, “is as ubiquitous as light itself—and uncircumscribable by human boundaries.”[2] The presence of Christ, in other words, is not just in us but in the whole cosmos.

On Why What’s Everywhere is Hard to See

Being a Friend, then, means affirming a radical proposition: the living God speaks to us and throughout the world regardless of who a person is. Indeed, Christ’s presence permeates not just a human soul but the entire cosmos. Friends do more than affirm this radical proposition. We live it. Or at least we try to. If we are true friends—for, it grieves us all to say, there are false friends as there are false neighbors—we must do more than try to be in the rivers of living waters Jesus speaks of in the book of John. We give our lives to it and we give our lives for it. Nothing becomes more important than this one thing: to love within Christ’s living waters, whatever shore it may carry us to. The shore of our intimate partner’s person when they confuse and frustrate us, the shore of our immediate neighbor’s house when they litter on our lawn, the shore of our employer that seems to take more than it gives, the shore of the animals we care for, the shore of our downtown streets, the shore of our centers of political power, the distant shore of foreign countries.

The rivers of living water know no bounds. It is everywhere and for everything and everyone. To be a Friend of Jesus is to follow the way of the Good Samaritan: it is to treat the stranger with abundant mercy that is divine in source.

But there is a problem. A very real and serious and painful problem. If we claim to live in the living water—if we claim that God is real and that Christ speaks to everyone and throughout the cosmos—then why can it be so hard to hear sometimes? Why, if Christ’s presence is the deep structure of our universe, can it be so hard to see and feel and experience it?

Why, in the seeming absence of the presence of God, do we so frequently call out with Jesus on the cross: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

The question I just raised—about why we so often fail to experience Christ’s presence even though we may trust that it is everywhere—is perhaps the most perplexing question the Christian tradition has faced. Anthropologists refer to this as Christianity’s problem of presence. It is a question of how a seemingly invisible God becomes and remains real to us even though we cannot directly see this God with our eyes. Following the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz  in 1710, Christian theologians may refer to this as the problem of theodicy. The problem of theodicy asks how God can exist, and exist in such abundance, if so much of our reality appears to disclose not God’s powerful presence but God’s painful absence.

I could not hope to answer this question adequately here. We haven’t the time. In one sense, the question is so serious that it begs for more time than we will live. Nonetheless, I want to suggest that there are some reasonable answers to this question. While I have put them into different sections—historical, personal, and social—all of them actually overlap.

The first answer is historical. In A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor ask how our world went from an assumed belief in God five hundred years ago to a situation when God’s presence is no longer assumed. It used to be easy to believe in God, he says, but today it actually takes hard work. Shockingly, if we think historically, belief in God can also embarrass us. Taylor says that we have undergone a shift in naïve understanding because “the conditions of belief” in our society have changed. What he means is that there are no longer naïve theists or atheists—the question of whether God exists is a contested domain. The change in our conditions of belief is complex and multifaceted; Taylor’s book is a long, 900-page answer to that question (which he insists is still not long enough). To be sure, though, the change is related to how some of the most important intellectuals have spoken about God. In the war of ideas, which is a war that is ongoing, God has become passé and almost unbelievable.

Consider Karl Marx. Marx, the revolutionary communist thinker, argued that belief in God is a distraction from the real, material suffering that people experience. Marx taught that we should turn our attention from the heavens and toward the powers on the earth that alienate people from their labor and from one another.

Consider also Sigmund Freud. Freud, who revolutionized how we think about our minds and the degree to which we experience injury from our childhoods, argued that religion is an illusion: a phony belief and a collective neurosis. God, for Freud, is really just an infantile longing that we all have for the strong father we never got but always hoped would protect us from danger. What we need to do—and Freud shared this thought with many from his time, including Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously claimed that God is dead and that we killed him—is to courageously accept the fact that there is no pie in the sky and get on with the business of living and loving well. Otherwise we won’t. For counsel, Freud thought, we should turn not to deluded ministers who propagate phony beliefs but to the people who possess the kind of knowledge based on fact and which you can actually live by: science.

Smart, influential people in recent world history have told our world that believing in God is a dumb, dangerous distraction—and, on some level, most of us believe them. They raise hard questions and make good points.

The second reason is personal. Belief in God can be hard because of the nature of everyday life in our modern world. In short, life in the modern world is very difficult. We all know this. It is hard to live in the modern world and stay focused on one precious thing. Our minds are inundated by the suffering in the world and in ourselves. Every day a news headline appears that demands sacred attention. As we grow older, we fear that a bump that mysteriously appears on our body may be the beginning of the end. Turn on the TV and suddenly you have a thousand things you simply must have. Millions upon millions of us struggle just to keep food on the table, gas in the tank, and a few hundred bucks in savings. In the fear and strife of modern life, we are lucky to carve an hour of time a day to pray and read scripture.

The third reason is social. Belief in God and in the sacred center of our soul is hard because we have a difficult time trusting one another, let alone institutions. Public trust is at record lows. We are more suspicious of our neighbors than we’ve ever been—and more likely to enjoy personal hobbies than communal ones. What we need on Sunday is not to be around more people but to sit down and rest away from people. Further, the church has often failed us. Tragically, church people are perceived as some of the most untrustworthy people in our culture. For more people than ever in American history, churches are imagined as institutions that take life rather than give it. People are leaving the church and they may never come back. In this context of deep distrust and public suspicion, two sacred energies that come to us and need to flow through us are blocked and obstructed: trust and love. Lacking that, it can be hard to encounter the living God that has Her being in our souls. Friends, we are, wittingly and unwittingly, blocking sacred energies.

The Quaker Method

In Friends for 300 Years, Howard Brinton, the famous Quaker who studied under Rufus Jones and founded Pendle Hill, referred to Quakerism as, primarily, a method.[3] Above all, the method is designed to help individuals counter the living God within so that they can be empowered to love the human and nonhuman world—or, as George Fox put it, “walk cheerfully over the world” and “to answer the call of God in everyone.”

The method of Quakerism must attend and adjust to the time and culture it is practiced in. In our times, I believe our method must offer the world three sacred reminders. In a culture in which Christ’s presence is considered phony, the notion that there is a speaking voice within us is difficult to believe. Quakers must therefore remind each other that Christ’s presence is real and that there is a place within which shines with the eternal Light of Christ that no darkness cannot put out. That we need this reminder may be a prophetic witness against our individualistic tendencies that assumes we can do everything better by ourselves or that we’re weak if we admit that we desperately need each other. We do, friends, desperately need one another.

We must also remind each other that we have never had the right words to uncover the divine mystery or to explain how Christ’s presence is here and everywhere even though there is so much suffering in the world. The best answer I have received to the question of suffering came from my teacher-theologian in Berkeley who, one day at a café, told me that in the end there are three things we can and must trust: that God is here, that God loves us, and that we don’t know why we’re suffering so much. We don’t have the answer but we do know question. It is not an easy question but it is the most sacred thing we’ve got: how do we love God with all we have and also love our neighbors as ourselves?

Friends meet. We gather together though we do not always agree and though sometimes we are in a bad mood. We do not give up on each other. The second sacred reminder is that our meeting is worth it. It helps us swim well in the busy sea of modern life. It helps us withdraw from the modern world in order to enter into it more fully and lovingly. A withdrawal into a Sunday meeting is not cowardly, therefore, but courageous. It’s true, though, that we meet not just on Sundays in a church but in pubs, in hospitals, and in jails. We meet on the streets. The point is to meet to encounter God in one another, not to enter a church.

Our third sacred reminder to a culture that has forgotten the importance of God and the human soul is that silence is the language of God. Silence is like a good bath. It is like the first smile of a newborn. It is like a stroll through the trees. In her message on “transitions,” Anya said something really beautiful that continues to stick with me. She said that we are each called to be students of silence.

This is not a well-formed thought—perhaps you can help me understand it. I believe the Quaker method of being silent together as we wait to hear from God, and discern Christ’s presence and call as a group of equals, can be a profound source of healing to our cultural wounds of distrust and lovelessness. I think our silence can be healing and empowering to the wounds our neighbors are suffering from—neighbors here and now and neighbors far and wide.

 Today’s Query

 This week I gave a rather long sermon. Ultimately, I hope it can bring us to the shore of the query I prepared for us. Next week, though, I want to say, I would like to do less talking so that we can spend more time together in silence. I think we need to follow Anya’s suggestion more closely and learn how to become students of silence together. So please come next Sunday expectant to encounter God together in the quiet.

Today’s query, though, is simply this:

How is God—today, in this moment, right now—speaking to you?

To enter this query, let me offer three simple reminders.

God is within you. God is really real. God loves every hair on your head, he loves every inch of your body, even the places you might be ashamed of. God is not the accuser. He loves everything that is inside of you, all of your thoughts. God is the voice of love that permeates every aspect of your being. Equally, God loves the person next to you. That is the second reminder. Right now, God loves the person next to you just as he or she is, with all his good and bad ideas, with all her history and all her suffering. There is nothing that God does not love in your neighbor. Meeting God in this way, in yourself and in your neighbor, is worth it. In this meeting you will see flashes of eternal light. Third, remember that the presence of Christ does not just reside in you and your neighbor but in all of the world. It fills the space of our meeting, and so may be aware of our how it fills our silence.

This message was given by Paul Blankenship at Spokane Friends Meeting on July 14, 2019.

 

[1] Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion (Harper Collins: New York, 1992), 3.

[2] Richard Rohr, “The Universal Christ: A Cosmic Notion of the Christ” The Mendicant 9/1 (Winter 2019): 1-4.

[3] Howard Brinton, Friends for 350 Years (Wallingford: Pendle Hill Publications, 2002), xx.

 

 

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