This is a slightly edited version of an article which appeared as the “Thought for the Week” in the 16 August 2013 edition of The Friend.
From 15 May to 15 August this year I served as resident Friend at Claridge House, the Quaker centre for rest, renewal and retreat near East Grinstead. Before going to Claridge House I stayed for a while at the Quaker Community at Bamford in Derbyshire. The members of the community, and any guests present, gather for Meeting for Worship at eight o’clock each morning. Half an hour of “waiting worship” is followed by “Afterwords”, when thoughts that didn’t feel appropriate as ministry can be shared.
Meeting for Worship at Bamford is often entirely silent, but one morning I felt moved to minister briefly: “I don’t like to interrupt the silence. I hope I can do so without breaking it. If there really is ‘that of God’ within each one of us, perhaps we should kneel before one another, as if we were kneeling before a burning bush.”
According to the Jewish Hassidic tradition, an angel goes before each human being, crying out “Make way! Make way!” And it is said that Satan’s fall from grace was due to his refusal to follow God’s instruction to worship human beings before worshipping God.
At the Quaker Community at Bamford one of the members of the Community told me that she was struggling with the question as to how to love God. At that moment I wasn’t able to give a very helpful response, because I didn’t know where she had got to in her struggle to find an answer to that question. But I shared with her part of the answer that I discovered long ago.
When I left school I went to work in a Lutheran children’s home in Austria. One of my duties was to accompany the boys to the Lutheran church services on Sunday mornings. After Christmas I took up studying the Bible with a Jehovah’s Witness, who came out of the town to meet with me. After a couple of months I no longer felt comfortable attending the Lutheran church services. I asked to be excused from doing so. I was told that I must either have no more contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses or leave the children’s home. Fortunately, I was given a week in which to come to a decision.
My immediate reaction was to leave the children’s home, because the idea of giving up my association with Jehovah’s Witnesses felt like giving up my faith. But, as the week progressed, I thought again and again of Jesus’ parable about the separation of the sheep and the goats on the Day of Judgement. It didn’t matter what beliefs the sheep professed. What separated them from the goats was that they had fed the hungry, tended the sick and generally cared for their fellow human beings, “the least of my brethren”.
It became clear to me that the way to love God was to love the boys who were in my care. I saw the example given by the house mother with whom I was working. She clearly loved the boys. In spite of having to put up with extremely poor eyesight, she was always cheerful and would often be singing to herself. I couldn’t bring myself to believe what Jehovah’s Witnesses were telling me: that only Jehovah’s Witnesses (and people who worshipped Jehovah, in spite of not been reached by the mission of Jehovah’s Witnesses) would be resurrected to eternal life. I don’t know what life after death is like, but I feel certain that she is somehow participating in it.
I gave up on Jehovah’s Witnesses and, for a while, gave up on Christianity altogether, although I continued to attend the Lutheran church services. Eventually, I came back to being a Quaker, having concluded that the way to love God is to love my “brothers” and “sisters”, including my enemies, and that religion and spirituality are about how we live our lives here and now without getting hung up about what might happen after death.
This is only a partial answer to the question as to how on earth we can go about loving God. For God is so much more than “that of God in everyone”.