Mysticism, or direct and unmediated spiritual experience, has long been a foundational element of what it means to be a Quaker. We, along with Christian brothers and sisters of many stripes, believe strongly that God IS already at work. God is at work both through the church and beyond the church. We also do not believe works and good deeds in any way earn our salvation. Somewhere in the tension of these two realities we find what is often referred to as spiritual formation. Christian spiritual formation is not a way of controlling God or manufacturing spiritual ecstasies, but it is a discipline—really a disciplined approach to life—that trusts that God is at work and seeks to assist in that work. It is trying to put one’s self in the best position so that the work of God would carry on unhindered.
During one of his talks at Barclay College, Fil Anderson, author of the book Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers, gave a wonderful metaphor for how we approach this “work” we do. He likened it to the “work” of working on a tan. When we speak of “working on our tan,” it is really the sun that does the work; our work is just putting ourselves in the best position to soak up the suns’ rays. We are changed by our encounter, yet we recognize right away that in no way do we for one second control the sun.
We do not earn the rays. But there is a truth that our little part matters. There is a relationship between how we live and how available we are to God, and the fruits God grows in us. It is not a one to one correlation. We are finite, God is infinite. But we can to some extent, when it comes to the spiritual life, have the faith that the sun will shine and live into the truth of that reality. We can grab the spiritual equivalent to some oil and a towel. We can look for a sweet place to put ourselves before, and appreciate the warmth of, the Shekinah glory of God that is always shining to those whose eyes are open to take it in.
You might not realize it, but the sunflower is not called the sunflower because it looks like the sun in its way. The sunflower is called the sunflower because it turns its face fully toward the sun, and follows it across the sky all day. Like sunflowers, you and I, were created to point our hearts in God’s direction and always be slowly moving along with God in obedience, however small and unnoticed by others this work will often be. We do not do this physically, but it is at times just as subtle, just as secret, as a sunflower doing what it was created to do.
I don’t know about you, but I want to go deeper. I want to chase the mystery of God on the bleeding edge of faith. But this is not the work of one person who–like a Green Beret jumping out of a plane knife in mouth–pulls themselves up by some kind of spiritual boot straps. We cannot manufacture the work of God in ourselves. We are more like a plant than we want to admit. But even just looking at how living things are—finding the wisdom of the plant if you will—can tell us a lot about what is within our small sphere of work in the spiritual life. Like many things in life, it is not the responsibility of a pastor, spiritual director, mentor or any other kind of guru to see that this work is being done in your life. The work is your own to do. No one can do it for you, only with you. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8, servants serve in obedience to and in accordance with the plans and purposes of God, they are just co-laborers with Him. They “manufacture” nothing:
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
I think it is fair to ask the question, “to what extent is a plant complicit in its own growth?” I think a lot of the work we do to further our growth is simply to keep God’s perspective before us. It is only in this perspective of faith that we recognize the truth that God is the source of life, not us. It is only through eyes of faith that we can recognize the fruit God has blessed us with. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can have a transformed perspective on what is happening within, through, around, and beyond us.
There is however the work of “letting” God work, and don’t let anyone fool you; letting is a lot harder than it looks. But unlike plants, we do have the choice of what we are soaking in. We have choice of the soil we absorb our nutrients from. “Garbage in, garbage out” is not God’s governing purposes for us. But it can easily become a metaphor describing our spiritual life. At the same time, not all that stinks is garbage. Sometimes the things we do not like are actually fertilizer, catalysts of positive change in our life. I have seen my share of pasty white computer geeks logging countless hours in places that do not prioritize the light. We too have the choice of entertaining ourselves to death rather than pursuing the spiritual life. We too, to some extent, make the choice of our priorities, of where we are planted so to speak. We do some of that work of soaking; it is good to ask ourselves now and then, as a spiritual query, “What have you been soaking in?”
The soil around us, when it is good soil, gives us context. When we are grounded in God and God’s words of life, we also become aware of the edges around us. They may not seem like bleeding edges necessarily, but there is something God does in us when our focus begins to look outward as well as inward, for evidence that God is at work. The soil around us gives us a sense of “placed-ness,” rootedness, grounding. We notice opportunities for loving service. We notice where God is at work in those around us, and we begin to seek Him out and join Him there. We even notice places we desire that work to be strengthened. We notice those planted next to us (people), and the ways we are connected.
Some varieties of bamboo, to the outward eye, seem pathetic and disappointing in the early stages of their lives. Even after a few years only a small sprout and a few leaves are all that can be perceived as evidence of growth. But often, beneath the surface has been forming a massive root system. Like bamboo we often must grow depth before we can grow height. Since we are so easily focused outwardly we can miss this truth, it really doesn’t matter which way you are growing. The invisible work God does to prepare us for outward work is every bit as important. Often I think we spend our time looking for growth in the wrong places. We level our frustrations at the one or two things that can be seen, and fail to notice the importance of all that is needed to grow. We forget that often we must practice growing and trusting God down in the earthy darkness before we can follow Him in the places of blinding light.
The sequoia, a giant among trees, looks strong and mighty but its roots are shallow. Other trees have about as much going down as they do up, but the sequoia does not. One thing its shallow roots do however is wrap themselves around one another. This is the secret to the sequoia’s strength, on its own a windstorm could push it over and bring about down, but because it’s roots join together with others its own deficiencies do not hold back its noble grandeur. It is in community, not in isolation, that our growth can push beyond the limits of our own roots. It is here that reaching our true potential can do so in safety, that our upward strivings form the true bleeding edge; the corporate canopy of a community stretched out to catch all the grace God rains down upon us.
Lastly, all living things do not stay frozen in time, they move and change. Where movement ceases, life ceases. All living things have cycles of death as well as cycles of reproduction. There is a journey with the bleeding edge that calls us to navigate change, to recognize our place in time. We enjoy the first fruits of eternal life, and look forward to eternity with God, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a hard look at where we are at in this journey toward maturity. Are we in a season of harvest, multiplication, or fallow? There is a story here, a history of God’s faithfulness. Salvation is best perceived with the hindsight of the past, with gratitude in the midst of today’s struggle, and with an eye filled with hopeful expectation for the future. Parker Palmer writes eloquently about different seasons of experience. Each part of the cycle of life has new things to teach us: there is a time for the bustling creativity of Spring, the tempering heat of Summer, the finishing work of Fall, and the life giving fallow that comes only through the path of a harsh Winter.
The bleeding edge will always point us to our need for God. It is always that point where we stop, and God begins, that God is at work. When I was a child I remember marking my age by half years because everything seemed so far off. It was amazing how big even a minute could be then. Now the years seem to whiz by before I even realize I blinked. Whatever season, whatever direction of growth, we face the same choice: reflective mindfulness or ignorance? Actively chasing a fruit filled life, or passively coasting into the slumber of mediocrity? Will we be stuck on the past, or racing ahead of the future? Or will we be anchored in the present moment with God, aware of our bleeding edges; aware of what God is doing in this stretch of the journey?
There is a sacredness to the space life occupies. As we become comfortable being in that space, living into that space, and growing in understanding of ourselves, God and others… we would do well now and then to dare ourselves to risk going deeper: we would do well to find the life of obedience calling us to the bleeding edge of God’s sustaining grace at work within and without, above and below, inside our community and in that visceral place where we live in the moment with Him.