24 March 2016

"To one fixed trust my spirit clings" (thanks to David Finke and John Greenleaf Whittier)

Awaiting spring on Yalagin Street (photo by Judy Maurer)

A couple of days ago, David Finke's message below arrived in my e-mail. I knew immediately that I would want to share it with my own readers, and he gave me the freedom to do so. Here's what he sent:

Beloved Friends,

        It is somewhat perilous to try to reconstruct spoken ministry after the fact, especially in my present case where on this Tuesday I find myself wanting to share what was given through me two days ago in worship at Columbia Friends Meeting. One steers through the twin obstacles of either forgetting something that seemed vital at the time, or else of elaborating into more words than were present in what should have been well-focused and concise. Bear with and forgive me, please, as I try yet to highlight what seemed fitting for more than my own devotion at that time.

        To the best of my recollection…


        When my mother died in 1997, my sister and I (cooperating with the pastor of our parents' local church) were responsible for drawing together a Memorial Service. In the course of that, I recalled snippets of a poem which I again found, and had printed on the back of the program bulletin. It's a quatrain from a much longer poem entitled "The Eternal Goodness," by the mid-19th century Quaker New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier. In considering the challenge faced by the inevitability of death, he said:

                I know not where His islands lift
                Their fronded palms in air;
                I only know I cannot drift
                Beyond His love and care.

        As I looked just now at the poem in its entirety, I see that there were at least 3 crises which, in faith, Friend Whittier was trying to address.

Gretchen Castle's Easter Reflection

       The first part of the poem summarizes part of a years-long polemic that he had in taking on the Puritan Establishment and its Calvinist theology and its "iron creeds." Although he addresses his intellectual and religious opponents as "Friends" and "Brothers," he then makes it quite clear how his experience of the Divine Presence encounters Love rather than a just retribution for the sins of mankind… which he says he knows all too well, if only by looking within. In all humility, he simply declares that we cannot know "the Eternal Thought," and dare not "fix with mete and bound the love and power of God." When you have time, I invite you to examine this poem (a simple google to "The Eternal Goodness" and "Whittier") and see the flow of his message.

        Another crisis, which may have been recent in his experience, was how to make sense of the loss to death, where he longs "for household voices gone," for "vanished smiles." He finds some assurance in trusting that God has "led my dear ones on, and He can do no wrong." What follows are further words of personal comfort in God's mercy, which underlies both life and death. And then he goes on into the quatrain which I recalled as I started these reflections.

        But there is yet another crisis, inferred in the middle part but which we know from the history of Whittier's time was very real, very threatening, very chaotic. It was the near-disintegration of the Federal Union over the issue of slavery, that massive contradiction in "The Land of the Free" which goes back to the compromises in its revolutionary founding, wreckage of which we have with us yet today. Elsewhere, he has left us a great deal of passionate poetic discourse about this blight on the Soul of America.

        But without being specific to that particular social evil, Whittier here gives words which are of great comfort to me this morning:

                Yet, in the maddening maze of things,
                And tossed by storm and flood,
                To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
                I know that God is good!

        This past week has been one in which I've been increasingly and acutely aware of the "maddening maze of things" emerging in our present national electoral struggles. Some of the utterances and attitudes are simply jaw-dropping in their offensiveness and their disregard of the usual norms of civility in the public realm. We are seeing daily, before our very eyes, the disintegration of one of our major political parties, and also some crisis of identity in the other one, as new and often alienated constituencies come into both. And we're still only in the pre-convention primary season, with the better part of a year before us prior to a presidential election. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had feelings of being "tossed by storm and flood."

        Just this morning I came to the painful inner awareness that *I* have to contend with what in Arabic is called my "Jihad"— the inward struggle, which, as Islam teaches, is greater than any outward struggle. The equivalent phrase and concept for me in the language of early Friends is "Exercise." What exercises me, and what I must struggle against — with God's help!— is the temptation to Hate — indeed to despise while trying to be dismissive of — those who utter such cruelty and ignorance. I know that we as Quakers, as Christians, as compassionate human beings, must be held to a higher standard than simply giving in to partisan hatred and righteous fury. But, it is not easy. It helps to be able to identify this as a struggle.

        Nor, do I think, our faith will let us just recoil in horror, look the other way, and retreat into either indifference nor a shallow "spirituality." I find comfort and guidance in knowing that my Teacher, the itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth, at the beginning of his calling faced a number of ways of encountering and dealing with the world — its suffering, its injustice, its crassness and cruelty. Sometime we might look at each of these choices, many of which are summarized in the story of Jesus' temptations in the wilderness.

        We know from the socio-political history of his time that one of the alternatives for a religiously sensitive person was to head for the desert and join the Essenes' commune, to separate out from a corrupt and perishing world and simply to experience being close to God. Although some speculate that Jesus may have spent some time in exploring this option, we know that he vigorously entered into this broken world, rather than seeking to escape from it.

        Similarly, we know that he rejected the political alternative which was the orientation of several who joined him: to become a militant Zealot and take up arms against the oppressor. In our day, the "revolutionary" impulse shouts the slogan, "By any means necessary," and shares a deadly penchant for violence with the defenders of the status quo. Elsewhere, we could examine more closely the other typological alternatives which it is clear that Jesus rejected as he formed and embodied his own kind of Revolution: He was neither an accommodationist ("Go along to get along") Sadducee, nor a self-righteous separatist Pharisee.

        So, I come back to my ongoing immersion in the "maddening maze of things" which is American politics. I know I cannot retain my composure and steady direction by my own will or wisdom, even as I try to incorporate half-a-century of political experience into what one of our hymns calls "The Living Present." Rather, I need a community of prayer and commitment, Friends like yourselves who seek to share "the cup of cold water" given in compassion, who give of their time and substance to relieve suffering and exemplify Concern as opportunity is presented locally and globally. I need the guidance of "The Lord of History" who leads people out of captivity and into a Land of Promise, a Good Shepherd who, as the early church testified, gives his life for his sheep.

        When it becomes apparent that, as another poet expressed it, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," may we find in faith a reliance on that "one fixed trust" — to know that God is good. As we gather here in prayer, I am once more reminded that all the perniciousness of the Human Condition cannot alter a fundamental force in our Universe — the Love, the "Eternal Goodness," which gives coherence and meaning and purpose, which if we will but stay attuned to it, may be Ultimately Reliable. When I can sense this, then the storm and flood of the maddening maze of things may lose its transient power. God help us!


The message above was spoken/written by David Hadley Finke of Columbia Friends Meeting, Missouri, USA (Illinois Yearly Meeting).

Erin Wathen: Escapist theology is a part of American culture.

Friendship and standing up crooked together.

Half-baked Christians with wafer-thin commitment. Is this really new?

Julia Duin on the new Pew Research study of gender gaps in religious observance. ("... There is no country where more men attend church than women")

The "terrifying" methane alarm and two assessments: re-assessing methane (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's blog); NASA on Arctic winter methane emissions.

Mahalia Jackson (after Arthur Godfrey's introduction):


Anonymous said...

To David Finke --

Words that resonate deeply with me, and which I needed to hear. Thee speaks to my condition!

Vail Palmer

Mindful Searcher said...

Thank you, David, for speaking and writing these words, and Johan, for sharing them with us. These are words we need to hear and Whittier a poet who deserves to be read and heeded more.