Tendered Hearts

Photo of a handmade ornament on a Christmas tree with an attached tag reading "Handmade with Love"

Handmade ornament by Debbie Sutton. Photo by Martin Kelley.

Originally published Dec. 1, 2011.

Many years ago I remember taking part in a Christmas celebration at our meeting. We had a tradition that included a time when each person came forward, put a decoration on the tree, and then talked about the significance of that ornament or what it represented to them. I don’t remember all the different things that were said but there was one ornament that still stands out in my memory. It was a simple-looking decoration made from a small container of meat tenderizer, wrapped in a couple of pipe cleaners for the hook. Mr. Murdock, a very unassuming man, came forward and hung it on the tree. He then talked about how the real purpose of religion is to tender our hearts and consciences toward God and one another.

Mr. Murdock was a chemist. He was a quiet man with a strong analytical mind, and I was stunned by the simplicity and depth of his sharing. This special moment has stayed with me throughout the years and I often remember it this time of year.

Sometimes you can feel a little of this tendering around Christmas, when people think more about the poor and needy that surround them. There tends to be more talk about peace. Even some TV shows can become a little less violent and focused on a more positive image of who we are. Unfortunately this is all very short lived.

I was talking to my mom on Christmas day last year. She said that she is getting tired of Christmas: “We make a big deal about the birth of Christ but we ignore all his teachings, teachings about love and giving to the poor.” She is right. It is so easy to forget all about the deeper meaning of the holidays. We all need a tendering of our hearts and consciences so that we can live out the teachings of Jesus more consistently in our daily lives.

The fiscal crisis that we find ourselves in today has a deep spiritual dimension. It shows that humankind runs adrift without this tendering. We are quickly overcome by greed and self-interest and forget that we are all in this boat together.

Mr. Murdock’s simple message has spoken to me over the years. I have come to see that he was part of a long line of messengers with the same timeless message. It is clear that the outward language and tradition of religion is only meaningful when it leads to inward transformation. This was an important part of the challenge given forth by the first Quakers.

All of this has helped me to recognize that the most extraordinary characteristic of the Quaker faith is the way that it can speak to our hearts and consciences. This is what makes our faith so relevant and important. The message of Christ’s inward coming (when spoken with humble and tender hearts) is still somehow able to be a catalyst for inward transformation which has had such an essential impact on the outward world. I was asked by a Friend recently, “If we do not carry this message of hope to others today, then who will?”

What is it that changes people this time of year? Some have called it, “The Christmas Spirit.” My dear Friend, John Curtis, used to call it, “The Living Presence of Christ.” This was not a theological term for him. It was a way of describing a very real transformative experience. This Presence had come to him as an unexpected gift in the later part of his life and stayed, with him through all the seasons. It was certainly something real and more powerful than a seasonal change in affect.

I was in college when I started to read early Friends and discovered their awakening. This spoke to me in a deep place, and as I look back on those years I can see a real inward tendering within me. I began to feel compelled to share some of this in meeting for worship. I often found myself on my feet, shaking and quaking in an uncomfortable combination of joy and fear. This was the beginning of what later became a great struggle between where I wanted to go, and where it seemed God was pulling me. I have often described this as an inward tug of war. I had worked long and hard in music school to get to the top of my class and I was not going to allow this “calling to the Quaker ministry” get in the way. Well, suffice it to say, I did not win that battle!

I have never regretted my decision to study Quaker ministry with Lewis Benson instead of going on to graduate music school. I really had no choice; the tug was too strong. In my study of early Friends, I found a message of hope and faith that tendered me more deeply and completely than any great piece of music—something I can share with others to help steer them toward what I have found to be a lifelong companion and inward teacher. This message of Christ’s inward coming brings with it an amazing ability to tender our hearts and consciences and transform our lives, and maybe even our world! With this Living Presence of Christ comes the promise of divine love and support that will remain with us throughout the seasons.

Christopher E. Stern

Christopher Stern is a member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa.