These are indeed dark times. I read of national and world events, grind my teeth, and sometimes despair that the light of hope for my children and grandchildren is dimming, not brightening. Rex Ambler’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet “Living in Dark Times” was published last month. The Pendel Hill website summarizes his message thus:
How can we effect positive change in our current difficult world situation? In this pamphlet based on his talk at the 2016 Friends General Conference Gathering, Rex Ambler shares his reflections and insights. Citing William Penn, he urges readers to avoid objectifying the world, focus within, and live lives that reflect the truth they discover.
What follows is the presentation I was invited to make Sunday November 8th, 2015 at the Adult First Day School of the Newtown Friends Meeting. The audio recording includes both the introduction given by Norval Reese and the question and answer session which followed my talk.
~ Richmond Shreve
A few years ago I wrote a short story based on climbing a 100 foot radio tower to repair an antenna connection. The structure was old and built like a tall skinny version of the Eiffel Tower, a web work of steel struts wide at the base and narrow at the top and held together with rivets. As I climbed, carefully tethering myself to the structure with a safety belt, it groaned audibly with my weight and vibrated and creaked in the gusty breeze that stiffened and shifted as I climbed above the surrounding trees.
I’m not a particularly courageous person, and my imagination began serving up images of this old tower collapsing in a shower of rusty rivets. I paused in my climb to reconsider. But in that moment of fear a great calm came over me and I imagined a voice that said, “It’s not for you to decide when you die, just take it one step at a time.”
It was not so much a feeling of immutable destiny as a feeling that my life was in benevolent hands, and that I did not need to try to control what might happen, or fret about it, but rather do the next right thing. I think this is the essence of my relationship with the Divine. I don’t understand God, and I don’t spend much time worrying about fate. Yet I do seek to be discerning and prudent, to know what is knowable, and act with integrity.
My spiritual awareness has its roots in my childhood. As a boy of 10 I trained and served as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church my family attended. Father Whitcomb, the priest, was one of those grand old men who by his example models a true and lively faith. He was very traditional and wore a biretta, one of those curious little black hats with no brim and four raised peaks and a large black pom-pom in the center. Although the Episcopal liturgy is complicated and involves dozens of practices and observances, Whitcomb time and again patiently coached me through the complicated ritual with whispers and gestures. I came to understand, even at that youthful age, that the ritual was a matter of respect. It was not something God required or ordained, but was a practice that fostered one’s personal experience of reverence and worship. The “smells and bells,” the colorful vestments, the pomp and ceremony were a vehicle for, but not the essence of faith.
In recognition of my service as acolyte, Father Whitcomb fashioned with his own hands a simple wooden cross cut from black walnut he salvaged from a piece of discarded furniture. It has hung on the wall in every home I’ve had to this day.
In those early years my sense of the divine was paternal. In my reckoning God’s love was like that of an unseen but benevolent father figure. My simple faith evolved as I grew to manhood. As an twenty-something Navy man, I joined a group of young adults who attended the 8 a.m. service at Grace Church Georgetown. We established a weekly practice of contributing a loaf of bread and a bottle of table wine for use in the communion service. There were only eight or ten at the service on any given Sunday; far too few to consume the full loaf of bread or the entire bottle of consecrated wine at the communion rail. After the benediction the surplus was carried to the Parrish hall where we all sat around a single table and ate and drank what remained as part of a leisurely brunch. It was, in my view, truly a communion – friends gathered for worship and fellowship. We liked to debate with the young priest. Our conversation usually centered on the homily preached at the service. We were, in every sense a community of faith and those breakfasts felt like spiritual food.
After my Navy years I returned to college and met and married Lynne, my former wife. As an agnostic, she neither shared nor disputed my faith. We found common ground in the Unitarian congregation of Bridgewater NJ. It was the ‘60s and among Unitarians I learned about and came to appreciate other belief systems. The diversity of that congregation challenged me to think outside of the frame imposed by the Episcopal credo and even the broader Christian traditions.
Joseph Campbell once addressed the matter of changing religions by likening one’s faith to a computer operating system: one should be cautious about switching because there are unintended consequences. My early Episcopalian experiences remain the foundation of my spiritual awareness, but my reverence for them is more nuanced now. I think of organized religion as a path to authentic faith, but not as either necessary or sufficient.
Our great religions have evolved slowly over centuries. They represent a process of filtering and refinement that embodies the influences and perceptions of millions of seekers. The truth each holds sacred gets reinterpreted and refined as the contemporary context changes. It seems to me that we go wrong when we accept the myth and metaphor of a particular religious dogma as immutable unchanging truth rather than the provisional product of our ongoing quest to relate and be connected with a divine mystery. For me it’s not about seeking to understand analytically or to find THE ANSWER.
Those who insist they have it all figured out, that they know and understand absolute truth, are the source of much of the world’s troubles.
The basic principles honored by the world’s great religions are love for one’s neighbor, and reverence for the divine. Many ancient religions call people to live a life apart, to form intentional communities with special rules and practices.
Marguerite and I knew each other socially for years before we became romantically involved and married. We were part of a circle of couples, close friends who met weekly with the express purpose of sharing experiences, becoming better parents and growing in personal depth. Lynne and I separated in 1977 and divorced.
Though our traditions were different, Marguerite and I shared a common faith premise. We attended the Plainfield Meeting and were married there on Thanksgiving Day in 1979.
On September 1, 1983 Korean Airlines flight 007 strayed into Russian airspace and was shot down. Marguerite, her son Mark, my Daughter Laura, and I, were supposed to be on that ill-fated flight. By God’s grace a last minute change of the tour’s departure date put us on the next day’s flight instead.
I’ve often had the experience of being spared both from chance misfortunes and from my own foolishness. They usually take the form of a pause, as if someone had tugged my sleeve, causing me to hesitate and avoid mishap. You could call it luck, but I prefer to be thankful and call it grace.
A couple of years later Marguerite and I were considering a vacation in Spain. I had a different impulse. I wanted to explore what gives higher purpose to our lives. Being a typical tourist seemed self-indulgent and frivolous. To Marguerite’s surprise I suggested that instead of Spain, we should return to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. Marguerite had a longstanding relationship with the brothers at the monastery.
In those days the monastery kept “the great silence” from nine p.m. until after breakfast the following morning. However, just before 6 a.m. a brother would gently knock at each guest’s door and utter the greeting, “Let us praise the Lord.” The customary response was, “Thanks be to God.” Other than the prayers and psalms of the 6 a.m. Matins, those words of gratitude might be the only ones spoken in 12 hours. Marguerite and I have shared the practice of beginning the day with the words, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” No matter what else is going on, we have found it immensely helpful to approach the day with an attitude of gratitude.
I was particularly interested in what motivates monks to give up the freedom of independent life, marriage and family, and submit to the disciplines and institutional simplicity of the religious community.
While we were in retreat there I made it my business to have long private chats with several brothers. Contrary to my expectation they did not view their vocation with a sense of personal sacrifice or hardship. They actually liked being monks. Brother Bonnell “Bonnie” Spencer expressed it best. Though old and frail, his mind was sharp. He had spent much of his long life as a monk living, writing, and teaching in Liberia, Africa. He smiled and chuckled as he said, “I tried many things [before becoming a Monk] but none of them fit well. I simply discovered that being a monk was who I am.” The gist of his story was that the doors to other vocations were often closed and his path was troubled and difficult. But when he moved toward becoming a Monk the doors opened and the way was clear. As Quakers are fond of saying, “way opened” for him.
The other brothers shared different versions of the same story with me. In every case they reported finding their authentic self in their vocation as monks. For them it was a positive, affirmative and attractive choice – not at all the hair shirt asceticism I had anticipated.
At one point I talked with Brother Timothy Jolly about my own life. It was a long conversation, but can be summarized by saying that I was concerned many of my enthusiasms seemed to have no lasting importance. Compared to being called to live a contemplative religious life, my activities seemed rather trivial. I characterized the expense and self-indulgence of touring Spain staying in luxury hotels and dining in fine restaurants as pointless and superficial.
Timothy smiled and asked me, “So, what are you enthusiastic about?” I mentioned my work, my interest in technology, ham radio, and other hobbies. Timothy said, “Did you know that the root of the word ‘enthusiasm’ means to be filled with God?” He went on to say that if we are doing what God calls us to do it is usually joyful and gives rise to the feeling of enthusiasm. Frequently what we are deeply enthusiastic about is not easy, in fact it can be quite difficult and even frustrating.
I believe he was right. The pursuits I’m most enthusiastic about are rarely easy. But they are joyful and satisfying.
Some things are fun, and provide relief from more demanding concerns. But such entertainments rarely make a difference to others, and seem empty when there is nothing of consequence to be diverted from. It’s enthusiasm that sustains one through difficulty.
I just celebrated my 76th birthday. I have already lived my biblical three score and ten years and I enjoy a healthy, comfortable and secure retirement. God has been good to me.
These days one of my enthusiasms is learning and practicing the craft of writing. I write both essays and short fiction. My websites rbshreve.com and nofrackingbucks.net contain more of my work than most of you will ever care to read.
In my life, I have been spared the worst of the suffering that I witness in other’s lives and in the world. Much ink has been consumed attempting to explain the paradox of a loving God and the evil of the world. I was and am particularly perplexed by the many evil acts undertaken in the name of God. I am troubled by the horrors endured by innocents. I can’t help but ask, “How could a loving God, the paternal deity of my youth, the all-powerful force for good … how could God allow such suffering?” In the natural world predation, disease and chance mishaps are the norm. In human affairs evil stubbornly persists. War, famine, pestilence and death are ever somewhere on the globe.
I offer no answer. But I do know that each of us can find the good and evil of the external world mirrored in or own souls. Our acts and relationships are governed by our fears, our hopes, and our faith. These we have the power to shape. We can form ourselves, and is so doing influence our world.
I have come to believe that understanding God as an externality is the booby prize. The spiritual journey, the relationship we cultivate and live in with the divine is what gives our existence meaning. I need to understand myself and actively work at the spiritual process of my personal formation.
To live an examined life is an ontological design project. (Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being.) Spiritual seeking is about crafting one’s soul.
David Brooks, the NY Times columnist, says we acquire depth of character through our experience and response to love, suffering, acceptance, and grace. To the extent we look inward and see ourselves with humility and objectivity, we grow in depth.
So here I am, with most of my spiritual journey behind me. How do I describe the God of my understanding?
What I revere and name as God is the singularity of all that is, all that ever will be — the universe. Humans are unique among sentient creatures because our perceptions are not entirely hard wired, we learn to make new distinctions and through language we share them. We understand ourselves, our lives and circumstances by discerning ever more subtle differences.
I struggle with God’s singularity because I can’t get outside of it and divide it to understand it. My distress at the evil in the world is such a struggle. It’s a mystery, an open question, why the God whom I love and who loves me does not simply ordain that the world be a peaceable and loving place. Instead, it seems that we are locked in a constant struggle to bring order to chaos.
On the other hand, out of that chaos has developed the incredible, highly improbable, and utterly amazing organization and sustainability that you and I take for granted every day.
Since the very first spark of life on this planet, there has been enough of everything. Enough to sustain that life. Over millions of years life has survived and evolved in its wildly varied and exotic forms, replicating and innovating and culminating in a world populated by those like us who occasionally take time to ponder our individual contribution to the totality of all that is and all that is to come.
In my best moments, I see my very existence as miraculous. Here I am, a highly complex self-aware organism with a heart that has somehow kept beating for 76 years.
I perceive that against all odds, this chaotic world actually works for the most part or else we could not be gathered here in this peaceable meeting house sharing our wonder. Much of humanity has, in fact, learned to live in community and support one another. We’ve figured out how to rise above mere hand to mouth survival. We adapt the world to our needs. Albeit imperfectly, we learn from the past and we provide for the future.
Though I am a miniscule part of the vast totality, my life is not insignificant. My actions bear witness to my character and depth of my soul. They inform the lives of others. In like manner a long line of others stretching back in history also influence me. My contribution, be it good or evil, will be communicated and will transcend my life in the lives of those I touch. I’m forever a part of the Great Singularity, only temporarily a distinct individual, and what form my immortal self has will proceed from how I live the life I’m given.
In the fullness of time I notice that all of life optimizes itself. That which is destructive dies, and that which sustains us becomes part of what survives and prospers. So it is with what I share of myself in this life. My family and community will choose the best influences perpetuating them while rejecting the rest.
My daughter Laura retells a story I once told her about my father. On an auto trip with our family, Dad abruptly made a U-turn and headed back to the gas station where he had just filled the tank. He went over to the attendant and handed him some coins saying, “You gave me too much change.” The amount wasn’t important, it was a matter of personal integrity. Once he recognized his mistake he had to set it right. Little did Dad know that one day his granddaughter would pass the story to her children as a model of good character.
Earlier I mentioned fear, hope, and faith. I see fear as negative faith, like the metaphorical darkness. Hope and faith are akin to the candle that dispels darkness. Much of the evil we experience is the fruit of fear.
The common fruits of fear are: cynicism, distrust, anger, hate, alienation, violence, extremism and isolation. Fear motivates survival responses of fight, flight and selfish hoarding.
Hope and Faith are fear’s opposite. The fruits of hope are: vision, trust, peace, love, affiliation, empowerment and joy. The fruits of faith are: charity, courage, engagement, stewardship, empathy, gratitude and inner peace. Hope and faith motivate one to reach higher and venture more, to invest, to risk and to be generous and expansive.
I believe faith calls us to be prudent but not fearful, cultivating the attitudes of hope and trust in God’s ultimate benevolence.
A former business associate and fellow driving enthusiast was afflicted with a degenerative neurological illness that progressively sapped his strength and vitality and had no cure. As the disease progressed it confined him to a wheel chair and prevented him from racing his car on the track. He continued to attend our track events, and helped organizers by serving as the pit steward. At one particular event I noticed he was especially upbeat and I told him it was great to see him looking well and enjoying the day. He said that some days were better than others, and then confided that recently he had been quite depressed, but that his mood was transformed by a vivid dream in which he imagined he called out in despair, “Why me?” A strong, clear voice replied, “I’m sorry, it’s nothing personal.” It was so loud that he said he looked to see if it had awakened his wife. He believed God had spoken to him in that dream, and he said from that moment he felt at peace with his situation and decided to make the best of each day. He’s since passed away.
I’m grateful for my Christian heritage that superimposes a more comprehensible persona on God – a loving presence as the object of faith with a flesh and blood model for how one should live. I can’t love the cold abstract concept of a chaotic divine singularity.
Personally, I experience divine love in friendship. I believe we are called to be the channels of God’s love, some would say angels. We learn how to love in the fellowship of our families, our spouses, our children, and our friends. If we are truly fortunate we become part of a beloved community and experience the bounty of God’s love through one another – a communion of saints where the sacraments may be coffee and cake, or bread and wine, or a smile and a sincere, “How fares the Light with thee?”
There have been angels who intervened in my life. One was an interviewer considering me for a job shortly after I graduated from college. He had asked me about my education and I volunteered that I had flunked out of electrical engineering at Case Institute of Technology. I’d expected him to see my failure as a negative but instead he smiled and assured me that it was important to experience failure and learn from it. He said those who have never failed never really ventured enough to have their limits tested. The very thing I had felt ashamed about he counted as a plus. He transformed my perception of myself with just a few words. He was probably not aware of the gift this was, a divine intervention of sorts.
I’ve experienced times when my interaction with someone has had that inspired quality, and I’ve watched transformation happen in someone else’s perception of themselves or their circumstances as I spoke. My part usually is a story I tell about myself. The conversation can be very intimate and intense. Often I don’t know where the insight or the words I am offering come from. They just flow easily and the other person’s immediate resonance reveals that they are hearing just what they needed. In such moments I believe that I’m a channel for God’s grace, an unwitting angel.
Quakers are fond of saying that there is that of God in each of us. I’m convinced that it’s literally true, and that when two or more of us come together in that awareness we experience the presence of the divine. It is a profound blessing to be the messenger of God’s love to another human being.
I’m sure that in this gathering of Friends it has not escaped your notice that my story of my spiritual journey has moved into familiar territory. You might choose words like “witness” and “testimony” to describe how God is revealed in a gathered meeting, or in another person’s life journey. I am blessed to live with a woman of true and lively faith, a convinced Quaker, and a spiritual seeker. I feel very much at home in this meeting and I perceive that the Religious Society of Friends is aptly named.
Thank you all for your kindness in being present here today and for indulging me with your attention.
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