Quaker Universalist Fellowship

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Walking the Talk

by Frank Wood

Like the rest of you, I try to live out my beliefs: to “walk my talk.” I am a disappointed idealist, a worried utopian – sometimes full of delight with “what is” but often painfully aware of the mess we make of things. The kingdom of heaven is all around us – but there seems to be so much different from what I expected. Vegetarian friends of my aunt and uncle who had made Schweitzer’s concept of “reverence for life” a central theme in their world view were horrified, when visiting him at Lambarene, to find that he kept a shotgun with which he and others at the jungle hospital killed monkeys and other animals to supplement the meager amount of protein available to them from other sources. Schweitzer wrote, “My knowledge is pessimistic, but my willing and hoping are optimistic.” The “good news” of the Gospel is that when we fall, which we do, we should get back up and go on with God’s work as well as we are able rather than brooding over our sin. As friend Walt Taylor says, “Optimism is essential for life even when it may not seem to be justified by the available evidence.”

I often recall a phrase Elizabeth Watson used when speaking to [Northern] Yearly Meeting several years ago: “Love is the binding force in the universe.” Poetry or metaphor, that phrase captures as well as words can a truth that I feel. Likewise, the radiant experientially-based faith of Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century Benedictine nun, reaches out to me across 600 years when she reports from one of her visions:

God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What is this thing?” And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive, since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing. The answer came: “It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it.” And so everything has being because of God’s love.

As Friends, we try to help each other discover this experientially. I see engaging in this shared task as part of my walk.

Part of my walk involves time spent reading and reflecting. Among the helps to which I turn most frequently I will mention the Judeo-Christian scriptures; the writings of the Celtic Christians sharing their vision of the divine immanent in nature; Julian of Norwich, from whose account of her visions I have already quoted; and Sebastian Franck, a scholar and man of faith who lived and wrote in Basle in the early 1500s. I also sense kindred spirits among the writers of the Chinese classics, the Tao Te Ching, the Chuang Tze, and the I Ching.

You can see by the sources of support I have already cited that I am universalistic, or eclectic, rather than orthodox in my faith and practice. To be orthodox in the negative sense that I have just used it means to believe that there is one “right” way of thinking and acting–mine–accompanied by my withdrawing of respect and support from those who believe otherwise. The tendency toward orthodox thinking lurks everywhere: in scholarship, in science, in art, in the Society of Friends, and yes, in me. But I hope most of the time to be more generous, more universalistic in spirit. I want to reach out, beyond the community of those who are near and dear to me, to the faith community whom Sebastian Franck envisioned when he wrote the following in 1539.

The true Church is not a separate mass of people, not a particular sect to be pointed out with the finger, not confined to one time or one place; it is rather a spiritual and invisible body of all the members of Christ, born of God, of one mind, spirit, and faith, but not gathered in any one external city or place … It is a Fellowship … and communion of all truly God-fearing, good-hearted, new-born persons in all the world, bound together by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God and the bonds of love …. I belong to this Fellowship …. I love any man whom I can help, and call him brother whether he be Jew or Samaritan …. I cannot belong to any separate sect, but I believe in a holy, Christ-like Church, a fellowship of saints, and I hold as my brother, my neighbor, my flesh and blood, all men who belong to Christ among the sects, faiths, and peoples scattered throughout the whole world.

Franck lived just as new developments in printing provided an opportunity for knowledge of other peoples and cultures beyond the imagination of previous generations of Europeans. Today, because of further advances in world communication, we are amazed by our knowledge and at the same time humbled by our ignorance. With Franck, I aspire to belong to this invisible church “not confined to one time or place” that includes all “good-hearted, new-born persons … bound together by the Holy Spirit in the peace of God and the bonds of love” who share with each other through music, art, and the printed word. I do not really care by what names the world may call them.

So many voices. I like to think that our lives make music. In a talk broadcast last fall, Ray Bradbury, the author, said something like “We are here to witness and celebrate the Divine Energy’s marvelous creation.” I agree. I think all good-hearted, new-born persons make up a great choir, each of us with our own quality of voice and our own part to sing. Our task is to sing out–from our hearts–from our souls–from our centers–in celebration. When I am in an “orthodox” mental set, I have as much trouble appreciating the “noise” of this incredible chorus as I have appreciating some musical groups I hear on my radio. Like our great composers, the Divine Spirit likes to experiment with dissonance.

What else can I say about “my walk” and “my talk”? I seek to base my actions on an assumption that the quality of our individual actions toward others has unknowable effects that extend throughout the universe. That is a big statement, but I don’t know how else to say it. From my perspective, since ends are unknowable, choice of means is of first importance. In my heart I believe with the compilers of the Tao Te Ching that good ends can only follow from good means. My working hypothesis is that the quality of my actions towards others, my “means,” depends on the quality of my inner relationship with the Divine. “Hold fast to the great thought and all the world will come to you, harmless, peaceable, serene.”

The world will come to you, harmless, peaceable, serene. Will this happen if enough of us are able to reach and act from that deep center? We do not seem much closer to generating this kind of inner power at a sufficient level than the Taoists of 2,500 years ago. In one place they say sadly, “Everybody knows this, nobody uses the knowledge.” I know they mean to inspire rather than discourage each other–and us. They remained optimistic even when optimism–during a period of dreadful civil war in China–hardly seemed justified by the available evidence.

Besides reading and thinking, what do I do? I have spent seventy years working to do better, to live up to the expectations of myself and others. When I compare myself to some, I do not seem to be doing very much that is worth mentioning. When I compare myself to others, I seem to be doing more. I sometimes find it hard to resist saying, or at least thinking, “I don’t like your walk or your talk. Why don’t you walk my walk and talk my talk? You don’t appreciate my walk and my talk.” As soon as I begin judging others, I find my critical eye turned back on myself. I find a need to keep working on myself. This is healthy. Our real challenge is to contribute as we individually are called to contribute to God’s work.

Besides working on the “fixer-upper project” that is me, I seem to use a lot of my energy observing others; listening to others; supporting or assisting others in acting as they are led; sometimes trying to teach them what I consider better ways to act, or in some cases, occasionally acting for them, dealing with all the mental and emotional garbage that gets stirred up in the process–this is very difficult. Many of the tasks are not grand in conception or execution. A Catholic Worker told me that Dorothy Day once said to her, “If I could figure out the toilet paper problem”–the homeless people they welcomed to the House of Charity carried off the toilet paper for use in blowing their noses – “world peace would be a snap.” As Lao Tze’s friends said, “Not that, but this.” This is where it’s at.

You and I have places in a great choir, brought into being to witness to the world and to celebrate a marvelous divine creation. Sometimes we sing Hallelujah! Sometimes we sing the blues. This seems to be what we are meant to do, and what a grand effect we achieve together. Keep singing, Friends.

Frank Wood was Professor of Educational Psychology and Special Education at the University of Minnesota until his retirement.  A native of Kansas, he attended Harvard, Haverford, and the University of Minnesota.  He has been an active Friend for most of his life.

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