In the American South, where I came of age, language is regularly interspersed with phrases such as “God have mercy”; Trust in God”; “Bless her heart, God”; “God don’t like ugly”; and “He is an on-time God.” The word “God,” which I came to know meant a higher, invisible, and omnipotent force, has been in my lexicon since I learned to communicate.
Stories of devotions to God, personified by biblical heroes such as Abel, who was obedient and gave his best to God, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who risked their lives by refusing to bow to an idol lower than God, created indelible imprints in my value system and spiritual development long before I learned the children’s stories of “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Yet, in this milieu of the American South, I, too, learned that God exacts punishment on those who disobey. Terror and guilt accompanied my ideas concerning God. I concentrated more on the wrath, not mercy, of God. “God sits high, but looks low” was a favorite saying of the elders around me. My translation: Avoid the brimstone by never upsetting God.
Without a true connection with faith, God served more as a mythical Santa Claus or magisterial judge and a ready excuse for unexplainable occurrences. As long as God delivered, blissful and blessed described my life. However, when my lofty wishes and fanciful desires failed to occur and humiliations abounded, I became quite dispirited and restless in thoughts that I had unwittingly disappointed God.
I came to rely on signs. Without the comfort of signs, I could not maintain the enthusiasm or hope that some associate with faith. These signs took place normally in what some call “blessings in disguise,” such as an unexpected, fortunate outcome.
The hallmark of my Quakerism is my willingness to endure, positively, whatever happens. The emphasis on endurance reduces my dependence on outward signs and increases my trust in God. This trust routinely creates a more profound peace and joy. It allows me to focus less on expectations. Also, it takes away any fear that might derive from worrying. Jesus admonishes me not to worry about even the most basic of needs, as it interferes with the ability to live presently and in joy. Taking advice from the Apostle Paul, I should run with endurance any present race set before me (Hebrews 12:1).
The humbling process of waiting encourages endurance. At unprogrammed Friends meetings, I wait for the Inner Light to speak, clarify, instruct, and transform me. No longer do I rely on outward prompts that, at the mere cue of a word or an action, elicit performing my religion to the delight of others who perhaps unknowingly associate and connect performance with a level of faith.
A different understanding of the Twenty-third Psalm embodies my convincing: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” My relationship with God is inviolable. I have a direct and unmediated experience with God. There is a dynamic, spiritual presence in the world that transforms the world, including me. The possibilities are limitless.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” Before I gained insight from the Inner Teacher, I read this passage as a royal, godly payback to my enemies and a big-return lottery of worldly rewards for me. Now, I understand my leading may result in acceptance or rejection. I may not outwardly appear whole by worldly standards, but inwardly I am whole in spirit. My rewards may not possess any material aspects, but may take the form of attributes associated with spiritual discipline such as love, joy, peace, and faith.
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” I am inseparable from God. Even when I falter, I have the protection of a trusting Inner Teacher.
Endurance encompasses an independence that liberates me from religiosity. This freedom affords more opportunities to speak to power, honor justice, abolish inner fear, and trust that whatever happens is purposeful. Acts of endurance seed what I associate now with faith and spiritual activism.