In the present

This evening, pastors from Northwest Yearly Meeting will be gathering for their annual retreat at Twin Rocks Friends Camp where FUM General Secretary Colin Saxton is speaking over a stretch of four sessions. At the same time, we’re featuring short devotional thoughts from Colin in Fruit of the Vine. This morning’s reflection is on Luke 24 in which Colin challenges us “to be continually aware of Jesus’ Presence. . . . Unfortunately, there are many distractions and diversions that come our way.”

We must learn to be where we are when we’re there, to be  “in the present,” a practice Colin calls “the premier skill of the spiritual life. After all, the present is the only real moment we can count on; the past is gone, the future uncertain. Now – this moment in time – is the one opportunity where we can always encounter the Living Christ, opening ourselves to his presence and power.”

As I’m reading, I notice that the light is brighter than it’s been in weeks, so I stop for a moment in order to pay attention to my breaths in this silent space of early morning. A space that is already changing into day. It is hard to be here. Already, I’m thinking about what comes next (and it’s mainly a list of things I should have done last week).

That is what happens in this passage from Luke. “Cleopas and his companion . . . get stuck in the past, reflecting on what has already occurred. Similarly, it is just as easy to get swept up in worrying and wondering about what may lie ahead.” Colin writes that even “though both past and future have an important place in our thoughts, they can so preoccupy us that we may miss the One who is with us right now.”

That's a question for me. Am I aware of Christ with me? It’s a question for us. Do we believe God is with us? Do we sense the presence of Jesus?

In today’s text, Colin notes that “the smoldering sadness of Cleopas is transformed into incendiary joy, when he recognizes that the stranger he has welcomed, walked with, and listened to is Jesus. What if he had not been paying at least some attention? Might he have missed Jesus altogether?”

Colin continues, “Right now – the proceeding Word of God is being spoken in your ear. Do you recognize the voice? Right now – as you open your grace-healed eyes, Christ is before you. Do you recognize his face? Right now – is Christ kindling something new within you?”

I hope the answer is yes.

Eric Muhr

P.S. Each morning’s reflection in Fruit of the Vine is designed to replicate our experience in open or waiting worship. Out of the silence, someone stands and shares a story of God’s presence, a way in which they’ve been touched by Truth. Over the days and weeks and months, these gathered testimonies shape us as individuals, and they have power to shape our faith communities, to guide us into the work to which God has called us. If you’re not already subscribed to Fruit of the Vine, I hope you’ll consider doing so. And if you already subscribe, please think of someone in your life who might benefit from a gift subscription. Available in print or digital versions.

A kernel of wheat

In this morning’s Fruit of the Vine, Paul Almquist reflects on John 12:23-33, a passage in which “Jesus likens his death to a kernel of wheat falling to the ground.” It’s a telling image, illustrating the reality that death is separation and an ending. But it’s more than that. Because, “at the right time [the seed] sprouts up and produces many more seeds.”

Paul reminds us, “Jesus predicted that his death would produce an amazing harvest.”

This is not how I’m used to thinking about death. For instance, we’re in a time of cultural change and institutional decline. Death – or the threat of death to so many of the things I’ve invested in and that I love – makes me tense, worried, fearful. What if everything we’ve worked together to build fails to hold together? What if we’re done?

Paul’s reflection is a reminder that what I fear, although a real possibility, isn’t the whole story. There’s a deeper truth here. The kernel’s death is also the seed of new life. The end is also a beginning. This reality explains the confidence of Jesus, who “resolutely declared he would not turn back. He would not seek safety. This was what he was born for!”

This morning, in light of Paul’s reflection, I’m prompted to think about what this means for Barclay Press. And I’m prompted to think about what this means for us. As old institutions, structures, and forms decline in size, number, and strength, what new things might be birthed? What new opportunities might open for us? What seeds has God already planted?

Where is God already at work, preparing to surprise us with hope? I don’t know. But I do know that “at the right time,” a “kernel of wheat falling to the ground” might take root and “produce an amazing harvest.” And I trust that it will be good.

Eric Muhr

Being together

Barclay Press is part of a large Quaker family. I’ve been in Philadelphia over the weekend, making connections with parts of that family. On Thursday, I had lunch with Gail Whiffen and Martin Kelley, editors at Friends Journal. After lunch, we picked up doughnuts from Beiler’s at Reading Terminal Market and walked back to the FJ offices. We talked about the myriad Quaker organizations and institutions and wondered, in the face of significant cultural pressure, if there might be new ways for Friends to be together.

On Friday, Chris Mohr gave me a tour of the Friends Center, where I had a chance to visit the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting library and the cubicle nearby where the work of the Tract Association of Friends happens (including their most recent book, A Language for the Inward Landscape, which we carry in our bookstore). Chris shared some maps and historical photographs; and we traded stories, mostly on the special difficulties and opportunities that come from the financial and relational connections between Friends meetings and Friends ministries.

On Saturday morning, Patricia Stewart bought me coffee. She and I met a year ago at a gathering of QUIP – Quakers Uniting in Publications. Patricia caught me up on the work of Friends House Moscow, an organization she has served alongside people like Johan and Judy Maurer. Over coffee, Patricia told me about youth-led protests in Russia, protests marked both by joyful exuberance and a passion for moral change: integrity, accountability, and dignity.

Later on Saturday, I met with a writer, Yelena Tower, and we discussed several ideas she has for a book-length writing project. Yesterday morning I worshiped at Central Philadelphia Meeting. Right now I’m in the air. We’re supposed to land in Denver in half an hour or so. Tonight I’ll be home, and tomorrow morning I’ll be back in the office at Barclay Press.

Quakerism has a historic reputation for being a faith that gets things done, and you can see – in our conference centers and colleges, our publishing houses and mission-sending agencies, our diplomatic work, our peace work, our work in prisons and in our own communities – that Friends have done a lot of work. But the work isn’t done. And part of the problem for us now is that we’re not always amenable to working together.

I wonder if that might change.

I wonder if there might still be a place for Friends.

I wonder what might happen if we learned new ways of being together.

And after this weekend, I’m encouraged. We have a lot of good people, good organizations and institutions, good work to do. This gives me hope.

Eric Muhr