by Noah Baker Merrill
To prophesy is not to predict, but to seize upon reality in its moment of highest expectation and tension toward the new.
- Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable
"... We are All Moses."
On what was perhaps the worst night of violence against peaceful demonstrators during the occupation of Cairo's Tahrir Square, I searched reports and images shared on Facebook and Twitter, blogs and news sites, poring over messages from friends in the Middle East. I tried like so many others to piece together a clearer sense of the movement that had come this far, of where it might be headed, and what it might mean for the world. The power of those hours, the waiting, watching, and praying of those weeks, and the jubilation felt by and for the people of the Arab world, remains closely with me. A deep turning, long in coming and with so much farther still to go, was breaking through.
Now, as the Occupy Together movement emerges across the United States, I have a similar sense of this turning beginning to happen among us in a new way. It's a time to listen carefully, a time to seek understanding, and a time to respond.
Amidst images of Christians and Muslims forming human chains to protect one another during worship and of nonviolent revolutionaries lying down in front of tanks and blocking bridges; one image from the early days of the Arab Spring glows with clarity:
Anonymous arms raise a plain sign, handwritten in English. Addressing Hosni Mubarak, who famously identified his rule with the legendary god-kings of Egypt, the sign reads,
"If you are Pharaoh, then We are All Moses".
We are all Moses - together. A radical affirmation. An invitation to reconsider how we come alive. Claiming a journey *together*, not just as isolated seekers. Not waiting for the powerful to tell us what to think and do, and not waiting for a political party to manage our expectations before we can believe in hope and change again. Liberation, says this unknown demonstrator, is emergent, here, now. If we can stay open, risk, and live from faith, we can help lead one another into freedom.
We are all Moses. We are all responsible, the testimony of early Friends tells us, for each other's liberation. This is the foundation of Quaker ministry, George Fox writes to us from prison in 1656. Together, we're charged with helping midwife the birth of newness among us, both inwardly and outwardly. Friends in our time are hearing this. We're rediscovering and reclaiming the gift of spiritual midwifery embodied in the motion of "eldering" - of drawing out one another's gifts and helping them to be grounded and offered faithfully - something that is bringing renewed life and depth to our worship and our corporate life as Friends. And we are called to bring this communal participation, this trusting that we can be made so much more together than we are alone, more than the sum of our parts, into our witness and service in the world. This is a time when it seems the whole Creation cries out to midwife its own liberation, to come more fully alive again, just like Egyptian imperial society was during the story of the Exodus of the Hebrews from captivity.
But unlike in that beloved story, we don't need just one person to lead us in this time. That's not what this moment asks of us. We have to do this one together. It's a message we're hearing from the Occupy Together encampments, and one that resonates powerfully with our experience as Friends. It's not unique to us - far from it - but this divine thread runs through the heart of our tradition: the trust that the Life and Power of God can and does move through each of us, that each voice and each vision offers something vital, and that together we can be guided in Love's revolution. To get there we have to help one another to listen, to understand, and to respond.
And so today - just like in the first generation of the Religious Society of Friends in the 1600's - we're invited to be Moses, together. What might it mean to embody those lessons in this moment, in relation to the Occupy Together movement emerging among us, through social media, in cities and towns across the country, and around the world? Here are a few things we might learn from the story of this Friend's journey so long ago. Maybe you'll hear, through the human microphone of the Spirit that we are for each other, ways to apply them here and now.
Moses knew when he had stumbled into the presence of life-giving newness. Rather than flee from that Presence and go back to the insulation and forgetfulness of comfort, he became its Friend. And so everything changed, for him and for the people.
Moses knew he didn't start the story - the work he was given was a continuation of something much older and deeper. He was invited to help, and that was enough.
Moses said "Yes!" to the journey without knowing the course or the destination. Actually, first he said no. But eventually - and not too late - he said yes.
Moses found that learning to wander together in the Wilderness - a place beyond all we know - is vitally important.
Moses saw again and again that the people he was working with were painfully imperfect, but he kept working with them anyway, because he had faith in who they were invited to become together.
Moses made a lot of public mistakes. Sometimes he learned from them. And through him, so did a whole bunch of other people.
Moses knew that we have to be willing to come to the very edge of the sea—to live and act in faith between the crashing waves and the pursuing army—if we are to have the opportunity to pass through to something new.
Occupy Together is just taking shape. It can't and doesn't promise solutions to all of the pressing issues we face. It's just a small signal, a sign that it could all be different. A sign that—at its most useful—may help hold open space for something new that is about to be born, and already on its way. But this particular newness is happening, and it's happening now. An old and vital story about a world of love and justice is being told in a new way, and we have to choose if we'll say yes to the invitation to help it happen.
I know that many Friends are already deeply involved in this emergent movement, and even more deeply in work and issues it's responding to. I also know that many more Friends have remained aloof, either repelled by some aspect of what they see that's not quite right, or simply believing this has nothing to do with them. Others are turned off by what they see as a lack of direction. Some may not even know it's happening, or what it already means to so many people.
As Friends, a lot of people tell some amazing stories about us - about Quaker work and witness in the past. We tell a lot of amazing stories about ourselves, too. I have the sense that getting involved and staying involved in this emerging movement, trusting that we'll be led along the way through the motion of Love, could breathe new life into many of those beautiful stories, and make them more real in our time. And I think there could be a lot for us to learn from what we will find there, as we allow the experiences we have to work in us, and open space for Love. Who knows where the lessons we'll learn could come through in the future of our own Quaker movement. And then - as John Woolman reminds us across the centuries - and *then*, after we show up, after we open ourselves to what we might first have to learn, *then* we might find we do have much to offer after all, just like the stories say. Being humble is essential in any useful work - but real humility won't prevent us from getting involved.
Because if we're all Moses, then the journey is about all of us, not just Quakers, or those most affected by the layoffs or the floods or the drought or the wars or the foreclosures or the student debts. And the lessons Moses' experience might still have to teach us go beyond the Religious Society of Friends, but they're for us, too.
Envision us back at the edge of the sea - with all those people waiting with Moses for the waters to part, with the mystery waiting on the other side. They have allowed themselves to be led here, between the forces of empire and an impenetrable ocean, with nothing but one another and the promise that God is faithful and calls us home. In our own moment, most of us have the choice of whether we are willing to be brought to the edge of those waters, and to step out in faith, trusting that if we do it together, there may be a way through for more than just ourselves.
We can, as Thomas Merton calls on us to do, "seize upon reality in its moment of highest expectation and tension toward the new", and throw our energy and our voices and the gifts our tradition and our communities might offer into helping hold open this space for fragile newness, for prophetic imagination for our country and our world. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and show up, each act of fierce faithfulness added to the love and passion of so many others might keep the channel open a little longer, or offer fertile ground for new possibilities when the initial rush and attention begins to fade.
Or we can wait and see what happens.
But this opening to choose won't last forever. In faithfulness, timing matters as much as showing up.
Something I know from experience is that we can't truly "answer that of God in every one" in the abstract, in some vague distant world of analysis and political ideology that hovers aloof above the fray, as if Quakers are somehow too good at nonviolent social change to actually get involved. I think we have fallen into this too often. Margaret Fell might call this "having the form of godliness, but not the power." It can look pretty good, but it’s hollow where it matters.
We can answer that of God in this moment so pregnant with expectation by being willing to know and work with our neighbors, all those people who for whatever reason are feeling the call to be part of this emerging newness, amidst so much apathy and despair. We can do it by being willing to enter into relationship, to participate in the messy, confusing, turbulent way that movements happen. We can show up fully and live and share our faith as Friends, but also be available and accessible, not cliquish and exclusive in our in-group peculiar-ness or our need to do something different just because we're Quakers. We'll have to be willing to make mistakes, to be embarrassed, to succeed beyond all hopes, and to fall down hard together when we fail. We'll have to become more comfortable being uncomfortable, because when we're uncomfortable it means something is shifting. And we have to be willing to be transformed.
Rufus Jones, a founder of the American Friends Service Committee and an inspirer of twentieth-century Quakerism, wrote that no reorganization of society, no new program of reform or revolution, would make the world we dream of unless the people who make it up are transformed. We have to participate if we are to be changed.
So let's bring together our Quaker Occupy Together Facebook groups, raise this in our business meetings, and make visible how the Spirit is moving among us in this new - and also very old - work. See you there, God willing, and in the encampments, and in the meetinghouses. And thank you, Friends, for listening deeply, for seeking to understand, and for responding as you're led.
In the Love Who makes all things New,
Noah Baker Merrill
Putney Friends Meeting
New England Yearly Meeting