Different cultures have different practices and language for the prayerful state of listening for and sharing spiritual messages. Many groups are guided by people who are identified as spiritual leaders.
Weekly Quaker meetings for worship are a gathering of people listening for the Spirit together. Sometimes we feel we have a spiritual message that should be shared with those gathered. Often others in the meeting find that spoken message relates to them as well.
I am thinking about listening now because of this article about Martin Luther King, Jr. The one thing about Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatness everyone keeps missing By John Blake, CNN, Mon January 20, 2020. The article has quite a few stories about King and listening. But the following story is a beautiful expression of hearing the Spirit.
King’s ability to listen led to one of the most transcendent moments in his life. Some call it his “kitchen-table conversion.”
It took place in 1956 when he was considering quitting the civil rights movement. He was dozing off in his bedroom around midnight when the phone rang.
“”Listen, n***er, we’ve taken all we want from you,” the caller hissed. “Before next week, you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
What happened next is recounted in “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.,” edited by Clayborne Carson.
King hung up and went to his kitchen to heat a pot of coffee. He had been receiving death threats for weeks since he had accepted a request to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was afraid for himself, his wife Coretta and their infant daughter, Yolanda. He wondered how he could step down without appearing to be a coward.
With his head in his hands, King bowed over his kitchen table and prayed aloud in desperation. He told God he was weak and had nothing left. Then he listened.
King described what happened next:The one thing about Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatness everyone keeps missing By John Blake, CNN, Mon January 20, 2020.
“It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world,'” he later described.
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
King may not have stood before a cheering crowd at the Lincoln Memorial that day if hadn’t already developed a life-long habit of listening.
It’s always good to remember King’s speeches, but we should also remember this:
He didn’t just talk his way to greatness.
He listened his way to it as well.
Following is one of my own experiences of listening for the Inner Light .
I had long been struggling with the knowledge that simply through the circumstances of the family I was born into, my life was significantly more comfortable in many ways than that of a great many others in America and the world. This was a spiritual problem for me.
God (finally) provided me with a way to begin to learn about that. A number of years ago, around 2013, the environmental group 350.org organized a national day for environmental education/actions. Only one event was listed in Indiana that day, and it was at the KI Eco Center, which I wasn’t familiar with. The day of the event, I arrived at the run down building that had once been a convenience store. But it was full of kids excited to show us the work they were doing, including their aquaponics system, and the rain barrels they created and sold.
I was intrigued, and wanted to see if I could become involved with this community. So we arranged a meeting. On a dark, rainy night I rode my bicycle to the KI building. The adult leaders, Imhotep, Pambana, Paulette and Alvin, and about a dozen young people from the Eco Center were here. I had thought we were going to discuss working on some computer software projects together, which is another area KI works with the youth in.
But Imhotep began asking me a series of questions about myself. I don’t talk a lot about myself, but Imhotep, I’ve come to learn, is very good at drawing stories out of people. I should have anticipated this, but I soon realized I was basically being interviewed so they could determine if I was someone they felt comfortable working with.
I began by briefly discussing growing up on farms in Iowa. And my work at Riley Hospital for Children.
Imhotep asked me to share more.
So I began to talk about Quakerism. When I mentioned that I was a Quaker, Paulette enthusiastically spoke about Quakers and the underground railroad, which was really welcome. But when she stopped speaking, everyone looked at me…
I had thought of this many times over the years. I greatly admired the work of Friends who helped with the underground railroad, as I likewise admired those who worked to help address any injustice or need. I responded that while I was really glad my ancestors been involved with the underground railroad, and it was the right thing to do, that was obviously not something I had done.
There is a danger here. Sometimes Friends point to this work of other Friends to illustrate the work of Quakers. Noah Baker Merrill wrote a wonderful piece entitled “Prophets, Midwives and Thieves” discussing this very thing, warning us not to claim the work of others as our own.
When Imhotep asked me to share some more, I felt a bit panicked, not knowing what to say beyond “Quakers believe there is that of God in everyone.”
But as I said that, I knew it was too abstract. That was when I heard the Spirit tell me to say: “and that includes you, and you…” as I indicated each person around me. The very first time, I think I hesitated slightly as I was asking myself, “OK, we Friends always say this, but do you really believe this of a group that is different from you?”
And I’m really glad the answer was an immediate and emphatic yes, but it also seemed to reaffirm that by exploring it consciously and publicly. At that point I remember smiling at the thought, and the young person whose eyes I was looking into saw it, too, I think. Each person smiled at me as I said that to them, and I had the impression they were thinking, “of course”. I strongly felt the presence of the Spirit.
Imhotep asked, again, for more.
Which left me at the point where I felt I needed to provide some example from my own life. Since KI is built on concern for the environment, I spoke of how I had reluctantly purchased a used car for $50 when I moved to Indianapolis, mainly for trips home to Iowa. Car rental was not common in the early 1970’s.
When my car was totaled several years after that, I heard a clear message that I should give up owning a car. A learning process followed, but I have gladly lived without a car since then. I was hoping that would show how Quakers try to translate what they believe, what they feel God is telling them, into how they actually live their lives.
At that point Imhotep, with a smile on his face, said something like “Thirty years without a car? You are a warrior.” I had never been called a warrior before. It seemed a humorous term to use for a pacifist, but I liked it.
Then everyone looked at me…
Somewhat embarrassed at that point, what popped out of my mouth without much thought, or perhaps again the Spirit led me to say “well…yes, I am really old!”, at which everyone laughed, and our meeting concluded.
That seemed to satisfy the questions for the evening, and they have welcomed me into their community ever since.
The best part of the evening was that then several of the kids came up to me to shake my hand.
I was not used to speaking about faith in public outside Quaker circles, and this was a lesson that it is important to do so. From the beginning, my experience at the Eco Center has been a shared, spiritual one.
One final thing it took me a while to realize was by asking myself if I what I was trying to say was true in a “different” group was yet another example of unintended racism.