Shooting the Moon: An Essay on Reflection and Substance

One Saturday each month, Friends from around the Philadelphia area meet at a specified meetinghouse for what is called “Extended Worship.” The schedule for the day is worship for several hours in the morning, then lunch and gathering in the afternoon for an opportunity to share one’s response to the morning’s ministry, or the insights silently gained during worship. The event usually draws around a dozen or so Friends, and for the most part, it has settled into a gathering of regular attenders, of which I am one.

Another regular attender, whom I’ll refer to as “S,” has been struggling with cancer for a while, and her messages often bring forth some of what that struggle entails: the fear, confusion, sense of loss, the desire for healing, and the striving to remain hopeful. That morning her message came to us as a story of a recent experience she’d had while hospitalized and interacting with other patients and their families in the waiting room of a 12th-floor oncology ward.

“S” is an artist, and for some time, it’s been her practice to photograph the full moon each month. In her message, she described other times she’d photographed the moon: times when the light of evening was just right, the sky a clear, warm blue in the moments before dark, and times when the moon was tinged with the reflected light of the setting sun. Having a 12th-floor vantage point overlooking Philadelphia, she saw a unique opportunity to photograph the moon as it rose above the horizon and was mirrored in the towering, glass-walled buildings of the city.

Her camera, tripod, and other equipment brought in by a friend, “S” prepared to get the shot, as interested onlookers joined in the fun of sharing her quest. The waiting room began to hum with curiosity, talk, and laughter as other patients; their kids, parents, and grandparents; friends; and staff chatted, and hoped the cloud cover might break and the moon appear, which in the end, it did.

The primary cause for joy for those in the room, however, was not the successful completion of the quest, but the warm person-to-person interaction that had emerged. The group found among themselves, at least for a time, the wherewithal to withstand and overcome the fear of impending threat and loss. Just as the rising moon may reflect the sun’s rays, we humans can also glow in the beauty of our nature. When her message finished, this hymn came to mind:

For the beauty of the earth / And the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth / Over and around us lies.

Lord of all to thee we raise,

This our hymn of grateful praise.

+     +     +

Sitting in the silence that followed, appreciating the richness of the story and the liveliness it depicted, I thought that God is glorified in his creatures when we act with courage and ability, with creativity and warmth, and with love.

Then unexpectedly Jesus’s words from John 17 appeared in my mind: “Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee.” These words begin the prayer Jesus gives just before his arrest, which leads to the events that he knows will bring an end to his earthly life. As the verse presented such an abrupt alternative to what I had been feeling and thinking, I realized I needed to examine it.

Father, glorify thy son, that thy son might glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him (1-2).

Jesus begins the prayer by acknowledging that God is the source of life: he addresses Him as “Father”; he appeals to Him for power to complete his mission, a mission that God has given. Jesus’s initial words express a dependency on God for purpose, strength, and love. Here there are no mediating activities or relationships; instead there is a direct one-to-one interaction between the Creator and the human being, a reciprocality: Jesus, as man, is to be glorified through receiving God’s presence, and God is to be glorified by Jesus’s conformity to His Will. It is a relationship that retains the distinction between Creator and creature, and yet interiorizes that relationship through the indwelling of God in man: “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (21).

Secondly, in this passage, Jesus identifies his mission: he is to give others eternal life; he is not intent upon bettering the natural state by lessening fear, creating beauty, or by forming bonds of affection. His mission can proceed only upon his having received “power over all flesh,” i.e., the power to withstand any claims made upon the will by the first nature that exists independent of God.

Given the circumstances, one might suppose that the impulse to self-preservation would figure in this prayer, but throughout, there is no sign of it. Jesus instead focuses on making known the glory he has been given, and in turn gives to others (22). In like manner for us, to know the glory received from Christ blinds us to every natural impulse; for there is neither seen nor felt a forfeiture or sense of loss to the first nature, as one receives and focuses upon the light of Christ within. Such is the complete power and beauty of our Lord, who is the Substance forevermore.

 In this stands our blessedness and everlasting happiness, as our eye is kept always looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and not only to know him as the author the beginner of faith, but as the finisher and ender also, and to know the end of faith, which is the salvation of our souls…. Many are living witnesses in this age, as in ages past, of the power of faith, even in the beginning of its work. But it is a higher state to know the end of it, the finishing of faith, even to know its work done, to know the heart purified by it, and the victory over the world obtained, the wicked one subdued, overcome, brought down, and destroyed. This is a blessed state indeed, and that which all are to wait for, press after, and witness. The only way to attain this is to always look to Jesus, to keep the eye of the mind toward him, and the ear open to him, who alone teaches to profit, even in silence, when no word is spoken outwardly. This is the blessed end of the ministry and the ministers of truth whom the Lord has sent among us, and of all preaching, writing, and printing, even that everyone’s eye might be turned to Jesus, always looking to him who has begun the good work, and who alone is able to finish it.

–William Shewen, (Meditations and Experiences [Market Street Fellowship Early Quaker Series, 2015], 74-75)

                                   

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to Shooting the Moon: An Essay on Reflection and Substance

  1. Patricia, I’m grateful for this reminder that Jesus is “not intent upon bettering the natural state by lessening fear, creating beauty, or by forming bonds of affection.” I call it a “reminder” because, like the young slave-boy whom Socrates “reminded” that he must have already known that the square root of two was an irrational number, I felt a jolt of recognition on reading your words. Jesus _does_ in fact lessen the fear of my “natural man,” pervasively as well as in anxiety-provoking moments. Jesus, the Word without whom nothing was made that was made, _has_ in fact both created much beauty and given my natural man a sense of beauty to appreciate it with. Jesus sweetens all my bonds of affection, gradually washing them clean of selfishness and “respect of persons,” not that I’m to treat anyone but my wife as my wife, but educating me to remember that He might come to me in the guise of any poor or needy or inconvenient creature, “the least of these,” and through that creature put a claim on “my” love and resources, which of course are not mine but my Lord’s.

    But what Jesus does to our natural man is beside the point here. Heaven and earth may pass away, and all our mortal bodies may die, but He is giving us eternal life _now_, and calling for us to enter into oneness with Him and with God.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, John. Of course, you’re right about all the benefits to our earthly lives that accrue when we know Christ within. When the benefits are pursued for their own sake and by one’s own power though, the one thing needful is missed. In the passage I quoted from John 17, Jesus models dedication to the highest priority work of sustaining relationship with the Father, so that the reclamation of the world may proceed: giving eternal life to as many as the Father has given him. This requires prioritizing that work over enjoyment of the beauty of the earth. Because it is such a difficult situation for us to sort out, we sometimes need to resort to asceticism to quiet our natures, clarify our minds, and prepare ourselves to do the work, thus my minimizing the scope of those earthly benefits in this section of the essay.

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  3. Ellis Hein says:

    Because it is such a difficult situation for us to sort out, we sometimes need to resort to asceticism to quiet our natures, clarify our minds, and prepare ourselves to do the work…

    How are you using the word asceticism in the above statement? My understanding of that concept has to do with self-imposed restrictions and self-imposed suffering, the results of which can never transcend self aggrandizement. I have not found self flagellation, rolling in thistles, or any other abusive behavior practiced by ascetics to produce the righteousness of Christ, which comes solely from living in the light he enlightens us with. I would not call walking in obedience to the voice of Christ and the discipline he imposes asceticism.
    Thanks for clarifying what your are saying

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  4. Hello Ellis. I am using the word “asceticism” to mean the practice of outward self-discipline that promotes a turning away from the motions of the mind that we know to be of the evil seed, which together with the good seed, Christ, resides in all. How this differs from the discipline of “keeping in the daily cross” is perhaps a matter of degree. In each, the truth is honored by rightly distinguishing it from evil, but when that which would obscure truth is making itself known, right order sometimes requires outward as well as inward discipline. I myself do not favor “self-flagellation [or] rolling in thistles” (!) but there are more intelligent ways to assist one’s soul. No self-discipline “produces” the righteousness of Christ, but self-discipline works the ground so that the righteous seed brings forth its own fruit more abundantly.

    A more dangerous situation would be, Ellis, to not realize and identify an evil motion as evil. For example, had Cain taken responsibility for the evil motion in his soul, identified it as such, and expelled it, instead of enticing his brother into the field to murder him, he’d have been better off.

    Thanks for your question.

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