IYM Ministry and Oversight 1999
What is our vision?
When I think of the word "vision" in relation to organisations, I think of something that keeps things together. Something that keeps things moving in the same direction. Like gravity pulls the water in a stream down the mountain. Or like an area of low pressure pulls the wind relentlessly in a particular direction. We need to have something that binds us together. Something that keeps us moving in the right direction. If there is not, we will all eventually wander off and go our own way. In the words of Solomon in Proverbs 29 v 18 "the people perish".
In the Yearly Meeting programme it quotes Proverbs 29 v 18 as "Where there is no vision the people perish". In my version of the Bible I was interested to note that Proverbs 29 v 18 reads "Where there is no revelation the people cast off restraint. But blessed is he who keeps the law."
It seems reasonable to me that if God has not revealed himself to us then we could not be responsible for failing to keep his law. Has God revealed himself to us and is it possible for us to understand what he wants us to do? We need God to communicate with us, to give us direction and to help us understand what our vision should be.
It seems to me that God speaks to us in at least 4 different ways and I would like to share these with you.
Firstly, God speaks to us in the creation of the world in which we live. I never cease to marvel at the order, the patterns, the harmony that exists within nature. How everything seems to work together. How creatures and plants are designed to live successfully within their particular habitat. I donít believe that our world just happened. I see the creative hand of God at work. I can see that it is good and I learn something of what God is like. He is a God that makes rules and sticks to them. I can see that were exploitation occurs that there can be serious consequences that are difficult if not impossible to control. God reveals Himself through the world that He has made.
Secondly God speaks to us through Scripture. The recording of Gods dealings with Abraham and his descendants provide us with a unique insight into the person of God. What he is like, what makes him angry, his great love for mankind, his purity and holiness. The stories of the lives of people who have had dealings with God, their successes and their failures provide invaluable material for those who are seeking to follow the Truth. We need to spend time both in private and in our meetings reading and seeking to understand what God is saying to us through the Bible.
As I walked down a Street in Larne my attention was caught by a poster on a church notice board. The poster asked a question. If there is a God why has he not shown himself? The answer given was "He already has". This is Truth. God came to earth as Jesus Christ. He taught us himself about himself, about heaven and about how we should live. He showed us Love. He demonstrated the greatest Love of all by dying on the cross for our sins. When Jesus died the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Because of what Jesus did we now can have direct access to God. We can enter the presence of Almighty God justified through faith in Jesus Christ.
Fourthly, God still speaks directly to us day by day. The Holy Spirit is given to all Christians to help them in their lives until Christ will come again. In our Meetings for worship we wait for Godís Spirit to lead us and speak to us. We are open to his leading and guiding. Our lives must demonstrate obedience and humility to the Spirit of Christ that lives within us. Micah 6 v 8: "He has showed you, O man what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God". Gods Holy Spirit, directly helps us to do just that.
What binds us together? What keeps us moving in the same direction? Is it our friendship? Our peace testimony? Love for one another? Or is it the person Jesus Christ? For me the Christian Church is bound together through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the living Christ who by his Spirit reveals himself to us day by day. He deals with our sin. He justifies us before the Father. He leads us day by day into a deeper living relationship with Himself and he gives the gift of eternal life to all who ask him.
Friends have sought since the foundation of our Society to seek divine guidance through the worship of Christ Ė the Living Head. Where Jesus is not present Ė the people cast off restraint and perish, but happy is the person who keeps Godís law.
Sadly not everyone on whom the light shines responds to the light. And it can be surprising sometimes who those people are. Another meaning of vision is the act or faculty of seeing. Once Jesus asked a certain group of people - "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?" Mark 8 v 18. This was said in the form a rebuke because the group he spoke to were not his opponents, they were not the Pharisees, they werenít even a group of people to whom he was teaching. They were his disciples. We also should be careful with all the light that we have been given by God that we donít close our eyes and fail to see the vision. That we donít miss the very best that God has for us.
So what is our vision?
What vision are we talking about here? Is it our personal vision? Is it our corporate vision for Quakerism? Is it our vision for the world?
The vision I have encompasses all these areas. It is for my life, for my family, for the church and for the world in which I live. This is my vision and I hope it can be your vision too, that all should experience the revelation of God, that lives should be meaningful and happy, that oppression should end and that everyone should live in peace with God and with each other.
During the last few days there was a documentary featuring Michael Flateley. In it he said something like "if you can see clearly where you want to get to and are prepared to work hard you will get there in the end". Michael Flateley has realised his dream. He can look back and say those words with confidence. That has been his experience.
How we work towards the vision given to us will be different for each person and for each meeting. It will depend on circumstances, on resources and on the gifts and abilities that God has given us.
My vision has not been fully realised yet. But I can say with confidence that it will come to pass. It is not a dream. Its reality is guaranteed by Almighty God. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, and with this I finish, (Isaiah 9 v 2): "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midianís defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warriorís boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peac e there will be no end. He will reign on Davidís throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this."
I have been asked to talk to you on the subject "without a vision the people perish". I know that the quotation comes from Proverbs, but I don't know the context it is taken from. I have to admit that my knowledge of the bible is lacking in places, (very many places, to be precise).
However, I decided not to look it up, but to go inside myself and check out what this quotation means to me and to us here in the Religious Society of Friends.
What is this vision without which we will perish? It must be a vital vision, one without which we cannot live--we will perish if we don't have it. A matter of life and death.
For me, the vision is the commandment which Jesus taught us, the greatest one. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And then the second one which is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself."
Without the vision of the transforming power of Love, we are nothing. If we don't hold on to this vision we become aimless seekers.
Since the commandment to love is the one on which everything else hangs, it is logical to assume that everything, and I mean absolutely everything, we do must lead to an increased capacity to love. Few of us are able, yet, to love unconditionally every living being, the way God loves each of us. We need to practice, to be daring, to be creative in finding new ways to open up to ever greater levels of Love.
We are required to constantly ask ourselves: Whom am I serving right now? As I speak to you here now, am I doing my bit for Love, for God, for spreading the Good News? Is this Yearly Meeting an occasion to serve God in ways that He wants us to? What truly is our reason for coming together during YM? Is it to feel comfortable amongst Friends, a social occasion where we renew friendships already made, and make new ones? A place where we strengthen our sense of identity as a group, where our peculiarities are cherished?
Or is it an opportunity when we can open ourselves further to the guidance of our Christ Light within, where we find strength and encouragement to be faithful to the path He has chosen for us?
The reason I even voice these questions is because I am not quite sure of the answer. Sometimes I get the feeling that we are a cosy club, resting on the laurels of past achievements, keen on maintaining our way of life, our sense of separateness from the rest of society. I am not at all certain that we listen openly to the voice of God anymore, the way early Friends did.
Or that we have the faith that it takes to walk the way He shows us. I am not sure that we are the servants here on earth, for Him, gladly doing the work He asks of us.
I want to ask every Friend: How can each of us first of all hear our calling, then answer our calling and stay faithful to it? Is it a help or a hindrance to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends if you are serious about being a faithful servant? If spreading the Good News of Love is the most important thing in life for you, does it help you to be a Quaker?
When I look around me in the Society of Friends I see many, many individual Friends who give powerful witness and do wonderful work in the fields they feel led to. But I see very little corporate witness from the Society of Friends as one body. A religious society adds up to more than its individual parts. It consists of dedicated members, each one who tries to be faithful to his or her path to the best of their ability. Each one tries to be the tool for God that they are aimed to be. But are we also the very different tool we can be, when this collection of individuals join forces and become the corporate body, the Religious Society of Friends? I am not sure.
It seems to me that we are loosing the art of collectively listening to that small, still voice of God. We no longer know how to give expression to the Truth, as it is revealed to us collectively now, in this generation. It is as if we are afraid of being clear in our witness. Perhaps we are weary of appearing dogmatic. Perhaps we have witnessed our Christian neighbours on this island and seen the deep hurt and pain caused by insensitive, dogmatic religious leaders over many years? Do we choose to stay clear of controversy?
The reason, as I see it, for having an organisation, is so that we as a group can be a strong, powerful witness and a tool doing God's work, not necessarily better than the individual work that is already being done, but differently.
We have a complex organisation, which has served well over the centuries. But do we spend so much time and energy servicing the organisation, that we rarely get a chance to use it? Maybe the Religious Society of Friends is like an old vintage car? We care for it lovingly, remembering all the good use it once was put to, how it served our work for God, how it took us from one place to another, how it eased our work for God. Has our Yearly Meeting become an event when all the different committees representing different parts of this vintage car get together and meet? The steering wheel committee reports, as does the tyre committee, the front seat committee, the back seat committee, the engine committee, the wing mirror committee, the brakes committee, the exhaust committee and on and on...
We get a glimpse of what use this vehicle could be put to, if all committees worked together with a vision in common. When we read about early Friends it appears that at least some of them were extremely clear about their vision. They had first hand experience of the transforming power of Love, they found an inclusive language to express their experience, they shared what they had found, they were persecuted and suffered for their faith, and yet remained faithful. How many of us have had that kind of first hand experience?
I would like to see our Society of Friends as a vehicle for that first hand experience to happen for all of us. I would like to see us getting to know each other better, so that we can build up trust amongst us. The kind of trust that is necessary when we are being called to be faithful to God. I would like us to encourage each other to trust the guidance and inspiration that does come to us. I'd like us to be much more daring and experimental in our opening up to the Light. I'd like us to take more risks, to live more adventurously, to feel secure enough amongst our Friends to try out new ways of responding to God.
Christ is alive in all of us, and is continually revealed to us, generation after generation. And His message for us to love the Lord, our God, and our neighbours and ourselves is as vital and urgent today as it was when it was first given to us.
So, I would like to see the Religious Society of Friends, this old vintage car, to be a vehicle for Love. A vehicle where we are sure of who is the real driver, the one who steers the way, who guides us to where we are needed, who has the overview which we humans don't have. I'd like us to trust our invisible driver, to be joyful in this great adventure that He takes us on, to be faithful to following the course that He chooses for us, to be open and willing to go where He takes us. To trust in other words.
I'd like us to be agents for love. Secret agents with only one mission, to love. Unfortunately the word love nowadays has many layers of meaning; few of them have anything to do with the unconditional love that Jesus told us about. Love has been confused with control and possessiveness. It is governed by complex rules about whom you can love and when and how it can be expressed. The confusion that love requires a sexual expression is well illustrated by a car sticker I once saw. "Love thy neighbour, but make sure you don't get caught"!
We have a lot to learn about love, how to recognise it, how to express it, how to be true to it. Our invisible driver will teach us everything we need to know. He will take us to new places where our understanding of love will be shown to us in a new light.
But are we willing to hear him? Do we want to follow his direction? What if He takes us somewhere we have never been before, where even no Quaker dared to go? Are we so busy polishing and servicing our old vintage car that we don't hear the call of our driver?
I sincerely hope not, but I believe we are always in danger of paying more attention to caring for this great heritage that has been passed on to us in the form of the Religious Society of Friends, than to the readings and promptings of our invisible driver. We need to be vigilant, always checking with each other that we are following the course chosen for us by Him, and not the one that we choose for ourselves. Do we get into this beautiful vintage car, and do we let it take us to where we are to go?
What is our vision?
I like to change the word "vision" to "foresight". "Vision" can also be thought of in terms of "fantasy". This implies that some visions can, at times, be rather unrealistic. Thereís a thought for us when we are considering the future!
My vision is based on my belief that there is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to my condition and also the condition of others. That belief gives me great hope for the future.
Recently I heard a friend of mine speaking about "catching glimpses of the Kingdom": the one who gives assistance to an elderly person crossing a busy road; the nurse who lovingly touches the forehead of a sick child; the glow of a fiery sunset; the compassionate hug given to the bereaved.
Not long ago I listened to an old folk song that goes something like this:
Last night I had the strangest dream Iíve ever had before
I dreamed that all the world agreed
To put an end to war.
I do dream dreams--some of them fanciful--but I believe we should never give up dreaming that as we follow the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can be a part of the vision for a better tomorrow.
Two years ago I attended a workshop on the subject of aging and how to deal with that reality. One other friend and I were the only "young" ones there (in our forties!). However, I felt that I really would like to listen to the wisdom of the sages and begin preparing for the days ahead. I was not disappointed. It was truly a wonderful workshop. I came away very blessed and encouraged.
As I grow older, I would like to grow sweeter, more serene, and be able to face life with a smile on my face. I would like to be able to experience more and more the peace that comes through knowing and having fellowship with Christ Jesus, my Saviour and Lord.
My vision for all of us is that we will embrace the future with hope and not give way to despair.