*** A number of readers have asked that this previously posted essay about my Grandfather be put up again. I am only glad to do this, as my Grandfather was a positive and important person in my life.
This morning when I woke up and shook the fog out of my head, I became aware that I was thinking back on an experience I had undergone many years ago. Perhaps I had dreamed about it or it could be that the Sacred Spirit was bringing it to my attention for some reason. As I go through my day I need to be aware of this, in case the Spirit is indeed trying to communicate something to me. I have found that, at least in my case, God often gets messages past my thick mind by speaking to me in this indirect but unmistakable manner.
Sometimes I wish I could hear from God a little more easily. I find myself from time to time wishing that I could just walk out in my back yard first thing in the morning and find God waiting there to talk to me out of a burning bush. I would even settle for a braying donkey. It doesn’t matter so much how he did it, just that it was a little less troublesome and inconsistent.
My old friend Jesse often tells me that God speaks to all of us all of the time, but we rarely have ears to hear. He claims that many people’s dependence upon thing like Bible reading, sermon-listening, and book study have blinded us, or perhaps I should say deafened us, to the crystal clear voice of God. For Jesse, God speaks through three primary media, nature, the inner light and other seekers. It could very well be that Jesse is right when he says we have become so dependent upon the ways we have been instructed to hear God’s voice that we can’t discern his speaking when it comes in other ways.
Jesse reminds me of my grandfather when he talks like this. I have mentioned my grandfather before on this blog. A southern, rural man to the core, my grandfather was devoutly attuned to the rhythms of the natural world. As a child I often marveled at his knowledge, wisdom, and uncanny ability to see things that others couldn’t see. A Quaker and a mystic by birth, from the time he was a teenager my grandfather was a consternation to his parents because of his stubborn resistance to going to First Day Meeting as the Society of Friends called it. “Church” is basically what it was to others. This resistance did not go away once my grandfather reached his adult years and now, rather than to my great-grandparents, his absence became a consternation to his wife, my grandmother.
The reason I mention all of this is that it was often through my grandfather that I learned that God did indeed speak through venues other than the church, the preacher, the Bible, and, in his day, radio-evangelists. I carry to this day one distinct memory of my grandfather’s approach to religion that was for me an epiphany of sorts. I was 12-years-old and our family was visiting my grandparents during the Easter season. Little did I know at the time that this would be a Palm Sunday I would never forget.
As usual, my grandfather had resisted the family’s repeated entreaties that he join them for the Sunday morning meeting at the “Meeting House.” Even more to my surprise, he asked me if I wanted to stay home with him and “help him take care of a few things.” You can’t imagine my delight at this turn of events. I responded that I would love to stay home and help him and that pretty much settled the matter.
After putting out some extra feed for his two mules, my grandfather took me for a walk in the woods adjacent to his farm. Eventually we came to a clearing, a meadow actually, that was dotted with patches of wild flowers. From our vantage point, the meadow seemed to extend forever and the patches of flowers were like explosions of color in a sea of green. As was often the case, we walked and talked about all kinds of things. I had something I wanted to ask him about and finally got around to it, although I was somewhat apprehensive about asking him.
“PaPa,” I began. “Why is it you never go to church with the family? I have only seen you go a couple of times. Do you hate church?”
“No, son….I don’t hate church. In fact, I like it,” he replied, chuckling under his breath. “I just like to spend my Sabbath day being with God.”
I recall being mystified by his answer and, after scratching my head for a minute or two, go around to asking the logical question a 12-year-old boy might ask.
“But church is where God is,” I said. “If you want to be with God, why don’t you go to church? It doesn’t make sense, PaPa.”
“God isn’t in church much these days, son. At least I haven’t seen him there in awhile,” responded PaPa. “At church preachers preach (they were Evangelical Quakers), singers sing, prayers pray, and gossipers gossip. That doesn’t leave much time for God to say anything.”
I remember he paused for quite awhile to let his words sink into my still young mind.
“I figure if I need to be with God, to talk to him and listen to him, I need to come out here where it is quiet,” he continued. “God didn’t build that church, but he sure as hell made these woods and this meadow. I figure if I want to talk to God I need to go where he lives.”
“I think I understand, PaPa,” I recall saying. “But isn’t religion important? My Mom says my religion is the most important part of life and that when I grow up, I can’t live without it.”
After a long silence, my grandfather looked me squarely in the eyes and told me in no uncertain terms what he thought about my question.
“Just keep in mind a few things and it will make your spiritual life easier and less troublesome,” he said. “First, understand that religion doesn’t have anything to do with God, and vice versa.” My grandfather had to explain what vice versa meant. I was only 12.
“Religion is an invention, just like the wheel and the telephone,” PaPa continued. “Spirituality is sometimes a part of religion but most of the time it isn’t. Unlike religion, spirituality is not an invention. It is something as much a part of being human as breathing, sleeping, and sex. All of those things are built into us from the start. So is spirituality. Our job is so make our lives spiritual every day. Religion is supposed to help with that, but most of the time it prevents spirituality, it doesn’t create it.”
I guess my grandfather was one of the early people to be dealing with the religion vs. spirituality conflict. These days the familiar adage about being spiritual but not religious is so commonplace it has lost much of its real impact. I should not be surprised, however, at my grandfather’s words. As I mentioned, he was a Quaker and a mystic throughout his life. In fact, he knew the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones quite well and often told stories about Jones. I never had the opportunity to meet Rufus Jones, although I would have loved to. Jones died in 1948 I think, which was a year before my birth.
As for me, I was thoroughly confused by this time. I struggled to understand what my PaPa had said, especially the business about spirituality and religion. I asked grandfather if he could tell me again about the difference between the two. Here is where the epiphany came in and also where Rufus Jones fits into this story.
“Come over here,” said PaPa as he got up and walked toward one of the flower explosions in the meadow. “Now, pay close attention and I think you will get the picture.”
Grandfather kneeled down and picked an absolutely beautiful bright purple flower. As I knelt beside him, he said, “I want to teach you something Rufus Jones taught me many years ago. This is probably the most beautiful flower in this whole meadow. Imagine this is the church. Sometimes churches can be really beautiful places, inside and out. And the folks inside can be beautiful, too.”
I listened carefully and appreciated the flower, but wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“Now, hold the flower to your nose and take a good whiff. Smell it deeply.”
Taking a deep breath I held the flower to my nose and smelled of it. Oddly, there was no fragrance, either good or bad.
“There is no smell, PaPa,” I reported.
“Isn’t it strange that a flower so attractive can have no fragrance?” said PaPa. “Churches can be like that as well. Our family goes to a church a lot like that.”
He then picked another flower, not unattractive by any means, but far less striking than the first. He held it to my nose.
“It is wonderful, PaPa,” I said after drinking deeply of the fragrance of this rather ordinary looking flower. “What is it, PaPa?”
“Spirituality,” he said in a serene voice filled with certainty.