Inner Simplicity

UUA CHAPEL, October 8, 2002

A service by Kenneth Sutton
Manuscript Editor, Periodicals Department, UUA



And as many candles lighted, and put in one place, do greatly augment the light and make it more to shine forth; so when many are gathered together into the same life, there is more of the glory of God, and his power appears, to the refreshment of each individual, for he partakes not only of the light and life raised in himself, but in all the rest.
—Robert Barclay, 1678 (PYM F&P #50)


We know ourselves as individuals but only because we live in community. Love, trust, fellowship, selflessness are all mediated to us through our interdependence. Just as we could not live physically without each other, we cannot live spiritually in isolation. We are individually free but also communally bound. We cannot act without affecting others and others cannot act without affecting us. We know ourselves as we are reflected in the faces, action and attitudes of each other.
—Janet Scott, 1980 (PYM F&P #242)



Open My Eyes, That I May See, Worship in Song #166

SERMON “Inner Simplicity”

I’d like first to make a comment about language. The Religious Society of Friends, as a worldwide body, encompasses a range of belief similar to that of the UUA, and beyond, to evangelical Christianity, as well as a range of worship practice, from waiting worship to a service much like today’s chapel, to several-hour long services with a teaching ministry and lots of singing.

Friends are beginning to recover from a period of individual self-censorship wherein some Friends would limit their own speech out of a concern for the listener. That course of action has impoverished all, and we’re now trying the opposite. We are encouraging ourselves as listeners to take up the responsibility of listening for the truth within the speaker’s words—both the subjective truth for the speaker and the capital‑T Truth. Some of the hymns and readings may have gender-specific language that seems to limit the divine or humanity. Don’t be distracted or fooled by the words this morning. The words are most definitely not the point.

I considered several tempting themes for my message this morning, from the frivolous—Mary Dyer, a Quaker whose statue sits in front of the State House just down the street, was hanged by the Puritans of Massachusetts on Boston Common and is somewhat of a hero to modern Friends—to the serious—our country is on the brink of war.

Indeed, many Friends no doubt would imagine no topic more pressing or pertinent today than peace. Friends have a nearly 350-year-old testimony for peace: “We are a People that follow after those things that make for Peace, Love and unity. . . [we] do deny and bear our Testimony against all Strife and wars. . . . Our weapons are not Carnal, but Spiritual,” as Margaret Fell put it in a declaration to Charles II in 1660.

But Quaker testimonies rest upon, or rather, grow out of a spiritual reality that is essential for their full flowering. Many of our testimonies, broadly defined, are arguably an objective good whether religious or not: truth, simplicity, equality, community, harmony, integrity, care of the environment. Yet the heart of the Quaker message requires a deeper commitment, a deeper explanation. Jonathan Dale, a British Friend, put it this way in 1996: “A Quaker testimony is a belief that stems from our fundamental understanding of religious truth. It is a corporately held belief about how we should individually act. In practicing [the testimonies], we witness to our understanding of the very nature of God’s spirit of love and truth.”

At the heart of the Quaker message is the belief—and the experience—that there is a God, a Spirit, a Seed, a Word, a Light, a Christ, a Lord, a Motion of Love, a Divine Mind, a Burning One-ness Binding Everything, a Divine Harmony, an Inward Teacher, who is present to us individually and corporately. Although there exists a wide range of individual belief among Friends, the meeting for worship itself assumes a spiritual reality beyond the simple human gathering. The meeting for worship historically is based literally on Jesus’ promise that where two or three gather in his name, there he is in the midst—even if some Friends today do not have a personal relationship with Jesus or identify as Christian. Whatever the theology of the individual, the practice of Quaker worship is based upon experiencing a presence that can communicate directly with each person. The meeting for worship assumes that this presence is real, not a metaphor.

Caroline Stephen in 1890 described her first meeting for worship:

On one never-to-be-forgotten Sunday morning, I found myself one of a small company of silent worshipers, who were content to sit down together without words, that each one might feel after and draw near to the Divine Presence, unhindered at least, if not helped, by any human utterance. Utterance I knew was free, should the words be given; and before the meeting was over, a sentence or two were uttered in great simplicity by an old and apparently untaught man, rising in his place amongst the rest of us. I did not pay much attention to the words he spoke, and I have no recollection of their import. My whole soul was filled with the unutterable peace of the undisturbed opportunity for communion with God, with the sense that at last I had found a place where I might, without the faintest suspicion of insincerity, join with others in simply seeking His presence. To sit down in silence could at least pledge me to nothing; it might open to me (as it did that morning) the very gate of heaven.

Inward simplicty consists in constant attendance to this divine presence. Quakers don’t ordain ministers because God makes ministers, and any of us may be called to that service, as we attend to the divine presence. Our meeting places are not consecrated, and indeed Quakers worship anywhere, in our homes, at demonstrations, in prisons-and even in Unitarian Universalist chapels. Quakers have been accused of being anti-Sabbatarians, and in fact we have had a testimony against “times and seasons.” (In fact, it’s within living memory that some Friends boarding schools began to observe a Christmas holiday. Most Friends have become acculturated and make some observation of Christmas.) That worship typically occurs on Sunday morning is a convenience, not a mandate.

The divine is always and everywhere present; we may at any moment experience the divine birth in us; we may at any moment experience God’s suffering with humanity, or, to continue the Christian metaphor, share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our baptism and our communion are inward states. The real Presence exists not only in worship (where, one might argue, if we do not experience the real Presence we are just sitting there). The real Presence is an objective reality, always present, always ready to whisper in our inward ear. Attending to this whisper is inner simplicity.

And what is the relevance to Quaker testimonies or to current events of this inward simplicity? Thomas Kelly, a Philadelpia Quaker, put it this way in his book A Testament of Devotion:

I wish I might emphasize how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened program of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. . . . The concern-oriented life is ordered and organized from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and the height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and coordinated life-program of social responsibilities. And I am persuaded that concerns introduce that simplification, and along with it that intensification which we need in opposition to the hurried, superficial tendencies of our age.

Kelly is not using the word “good” ironically. There are good committees and good undertakings. Doing them all is not good.

God is a God of order, of harmony, in all dimensions of existence. As we draw near the Light, our inward beings are brought into the universal harmony. The more clearly we can discern the eternal, the more clearly we can see our place in that divine harmony. Our lives begin to reflect our deepest gifts and promise. As we draw near the Light, we are brought into harmony with each other as well as with God.

I invite you to settle into a period of quiet waiting. Make yourself comfortable. You may find it helpful to close your eyes, or you may find strength and comfort in the faces of your colleagues. Quiet your inner voices. Rest in inward silence, open to the breath of the Divine. If you receive a message meant for the body of worshipers, stand and speak in the clearest, loudest voice you can manage. Open worship will conclude with the shaking of hands, followed by the singing of a hymn.

There is that near you which will guide you. O wait for it and be sure you keep to it.
—Isaac Penington, 1678 (PYM F&P #208)




“Blessed Quietness,” Worship in Song #202