“Living the Transformation: Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”
Plenary Worship — Thursday, January 21, 2016 Melinda Wenner Bradley (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting)
Good morning, Friends. I greet you this morning as brothers and sisters in the world family of Friends who gather to worship, work, and play together here in Pisac. I bring you greetings from my home meeting in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Section of the Americas. It is a joy and a privilege to be with you, and to be asked to share a message in our worship.
As we gather this morning, I’d like to ask each of you to take a moment to think back to the time when you were a child, and bring to mind someone who nurtured your faith in childhood or youth. Perhaps this was a family member, a teacher or someone in your community. I invite you each to say their name aloud.
Thank you. We have invited them into the room with us, and their wisdom and love.
Now, I would also ask each of you also to think of the children in your life today – the children in your family, the children of your church or meeting, the children in your wider community. The Young Friends who are among us might consider their peers, as well as younger people in their lives.
We will not speak all the names aloud, but let us take a moment to invite them into the room with us in spirit, bringing their Light and hope into this space. <pause>
Now that we’ve crowded the room with even more wisdom, love, hope and Light,
I bring three queries to you, which rose for me as I pondered the theme of our gathering:
- How do we live transformation?
- What place do children and youth have among the children of God?
- Where is Creation’s eager longing realized?
To begin, let us imagine that in living transformation, we connect what has come before, where we are now, and what will be . . . We stand in the present, reaching back and reaching forward.
Transformation is full of mystery. It does not always happen in plain sight. We do not see the transformation happening inside the chrysalis or the seed pod. Growing up on a farm I was witness to the growth cycle where the seed from a plant becomes a plant itself, and its fruit comes to our table to nourish us and also gives us seeds to begin again. At each moment, the seed, the plant, the harvest, is fully present in that form, while still connected to its previous form and evolving into the next. It is a story as old as the earth itself.
Transformation is about movement. It encompasses where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. My journey to be here in this valley of Peru actually began on a hillside in England almost 29 years ago, during the 1987 Quaker Youth Pilgrimage. I’ve come to recognize those weeks as a moment of present-ness for me that was grounded in where I came from, and also a time that sent me forward, changed: knowing that I am a child of God with a place in this world family of Friends.
I was raised in the liberal, un-programmed tradition, and the pilgrimage was my first experience among Friends who practiced our shared faith differently, who came from histories and approaches to Quakerism that varied. I remain deeply grateful for the privilege of participating in an experience that was a call to transformation and growth.
On one of the first days that brought together the whole group of North American and European participants, we engaged in a discussion that would impact how the group lived together during the pilgrimage. The decision created dissension, growing out of differences — differences in our backgrounds, societal and Quaker cultures, and our family experiences. The conversation became emotional and heated.
I can still see us sitting on the floor in a circle that summer evening, and remember clearly the discomfort and tears. At some point we took a break, and a small group of us set out on a walk away from the meeting. We entered a neighboring field and someone began to run. We all ran together, not so much toward anything but away from the conflict and pain behind us.
The end of the field brought us to the top of a hill. There was a crumbling stone fence that was doing little to keep anything in or out — we could have stepped over it — but instead, we each carefully passed through a gate to witness what was on the other side. Verdant hills and fields lay before us, and beyond them the sea. The sun was setting, and silently we sat down on the hillside to watch.
Not a word had passed between us since we had started to run. Our breathing quieted and our silence deepened into worship. And on that hillside, so far from home and the familiar, with new friends from different places, I felt God’s presence so close, as close as breath. Out of the discord behind me, I knew a deep peace in that present moment, and experienced a vision of what could be that felt deeply true.
I sensed the wider world calling to me, and that my work would be to help people learn from each other across place and time and cultures. When I became a teacher, it seemed that would be how I lived this call. The pilgrimage had included opportunities to witness both history and the possibilities for change in the world with other Young Friends. In turn, I sought to help my students understand that they have roles to play in healing and recreating our world.
I kept a photo of that English hillside on my desk in every classroom where I taught. It has been a reminder of how transformation often finds us when we’re not seeking it, in moments where we are deeply present to Spirit and open to how it may lead and change us.
After the birth of my own children, the call shifted. In the same way that the Youth Pilgrimage had shown me a wider world and a global family of Friends, my own young family transformed my sense of belonging as a Friend. I felt called to hold a concern for the place of children in our faith communities, and their understanding of our witness in the world.
What place do children and youth have among the children of God? God is present to children even before they have words. Rufus Jones wrote: Something of God comes into our world with every child that is born. There is here with the newborn child a divine spark, a light within. (1) The living truth in these words has revealed itself to me in many places. I’ve felt Spirit’s presence rocking babies to sleep . . . gathering in worship with students at school . . . sitting on the floor in a circle of children to wonder about a story from scripture together.
If Creation waits for the revealing of its children, let us consider together how we can nurture the Light in the youngest of God’s children. What does it mean to nurture children’s present spiritual lives as part of life-long spiritual formation? If transformation involves movement from past to present to future, from seed to plant to fruit, how do we weave the lives of young people into our present and future?
We have a teacher to show the way.
This teacher had such respect, such reverence for what is within the heart of a child, that he became a child himself. When he grew to be a man, people were amazed at the things he said and did. They noticed the special relationship he had with children; he seemed
to know who they really were and they seemed to know who he really was, without being told. The children came to him. His disciples tried to stop them, but he told them NO – let the children come! Jesus placed a little child among them and he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (2)
We are called to bless children, to affirm them, and to call forth what they have to teach us. What are some of the ways we do this?
We bless children when we are fully present to them.
We bless them when we help them find their place in the story of God’s people. We bless them when we take their questions and their responses to our questions seriously.
We bless them when we acknowledge that they know what they know, even when there are no words to describe it.
We bless them when we value them for who they are now, and not just for what they will be.
When we bless children in these ways, we will find that they have blessed us. And in this mutual blessing, the Holy Spirit is present.
In their book of Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting share this advice:
We help our children [not by futile attempts to ‘keep them in the Society’ (they must make their own explorations), but] by recognizing their own full stature as God’s children. If we, the important adults in their lives, respect their integrity, their capacity to worship and experience God, then they will respect it too. If we share the skills that we are learning, then they will practice them too. If we are truly touched by God in worship, and realize that we can all, both young and old, open up to God, then we have made a good foundation. [A lot else will follow in the children’s religious education but God comes first.] (3)
It’s not easy to speak about the spiritual lives of children. It takes special effort to hear what they communicate, particularly when they don’t have the words to say what they mean. We have to be patient, to wait for children to reveal themselves, in their own way. To really hear them, we must learn how to be with them, how to pay attention to what children might be trying to tell us.
Stories are one way that children can make religious language their own. Jesus used stories to help us imagine the kingdom of heaven, and he often pushed the boundaries of what could really be in the parables he told. When we hear one of these stories together, the children often teach each other, and me. They explain how they are like the pearl of great price: small but to be treasured. They share that, like the tiny mustard seed that becomes a large plant, friendship can grow from an unlikely beginning. They wonder how the good samaritan is like a classmate at school who steps in when another student is being treated unfairly. Again and again, these ancient stories open to show us how the kingdom of heaven might be revealed.
One Sunday morning, after I had told a story in First Day School, the children settled into their own activities in response to the story. My youngest son told me he was going to “do nothing,” but after sitting quietly by himself for a time he came and whispered to me, “It’s all one story.” I was uncertain of his meaning, and asked him to tell me more. He gestured to the materials around the room we used to tell Bible stories and Quaker stories and explained, “It’s all one story. We put it in all these different boxes and baskets, but it’s all ONE story.”
Clearly, doing “nothing” was something that morning. To thrive, children’s spirituality needs space to listen, to explore and imagine; to come closer to what is bigger than them, and to trust in both the knowing and not-knowing. Through stories and religious language we explore identity, make meaning, and see ourselves in the larger story. The imagination we’re invited to engage is central to how we do the work of connecting, creating — even disrupting — that enables us to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To imagine Creation transformed. To imagine the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Where is Creation’s eager longing realized? It is not enough to learn who we are as Children of the Light. Reaching back we find ourselves in the stories, but we must be present to our world and live our faith. The children in our lives call upon us both to nurture their spiritual formation, and invite them into participation in the community gathered for worship and witness.
On the farm where I grew up, we had family dinners where the children would sometimes sit together at a smaller table near the big dining table where the adults gathered. We grew up on stories of the grandparents who had sat there before our parents, and we also knew that, someday, we would be the ones seated there. We became a community of siblings and cousins, and through both stories and participation, we were prepared to take our place as stewards of the land.
How do we prepare our children and make room for them at the table of this world family of Friends? Let’s invite them to join us in the Quaker Way by creating both a place for them to learn about our faith — and places to practice.
We create the “children’s table” that we call First Day School or Sunday School where they learn, play, imagine, and are in spiritual community together. At the same time, let’s ask children to pull up a chair at the table with the whole meeting or church community. Invite them into worship, fellowship, learning, and service with us. This is not always easy to realize in the practicalities, and we need to share with each other the different ways we do this work. Our hope is that children will grow to be adult members of the community who have known all along their place in it.
We need not wait until children grow into adults who find their way into witness through faith; let us include in our present Quaker witness the raising of children empowered to make authentic change. Let’s give them both spiritual and practical tools; teach them about witness anchored in faith, and create opportunities to join the community in service. I think we must do the work that encourages and prepares our children to be, as Friend Robin Mohr says, “the Quakers the world needs.” A people who listen for God and dwell in what we profess.
I often struggle under a concern that the work I am called to do — as a Christian educator, working with other teachers, raising my own children — is not “big enough” work when other Friends are addressing injustice, inequity, hunger and war. I wonder where spiritual formation has a place within the larger work of Quaker witness. How does work with children contribute to transformation? I enjoin us to invite the Friends who work with children into partnership with the big work we do in the world. Let’s join in creating tools to teach about undoing racism, caring for the Earth, making peace and creating justice. Through both faith and practice, Quaker children can find their place at the big table and, in turn, take up the work of witness.
Reaching back one more time, I share these words that were written in 1987 about FWCC at mid-century —
The testing with which present day events and world news confront us only accents the ultimate witness to which we are called. Our roots are deep in history. We must live as if what ought to be can be — though projected into the unborn future.
The life of the spirit has surfaced in various ways reminding us that the Creation was not simply “back there,” but that it is now unfolding. We cannot discern the end, but we can know the direction and purpose of our existence as the “people called Quakers” and believe that God has a purpose for us. Under the FWCC we can know and follow God’s purpose, that through us our part can be unfolded, revealed, and discovered. (4)
The children of God are still being called to reveal our listening ears and clear voices, skilled hands and tireless feet in this world. We are called to make places for our children to join us around this table of the Quaker Way, this feast of Love and Service. The children will, in turn, call others to their place. And the glory that will be revealed encompasses more than individual lives, our religious society, or humanity as a whole — it will restore the earth itself.
(1) Rufus Jones, 1948
(2) Mark 9:36-37 New International Version (NIV)
(3) Anne Hosking, 1984 — Britain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1994)
(4) Errol T. Elliott (chairman of FWCC from 1952-1958), “FWCC at Mid-Century” Friends Journal, December 1987, pages 17-19