March 2023 ⏤ Way Opening

by Mary Linda McKinney

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Although I’ve been a fan of the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa since seeing “Dreams” as a young adult, I’d never watched his 1952 film “Ikiru” until last night. I could go into all the things that made it a great film but that’s not the topic of this essay. My intention has been to write about “way opening” and how everything we need is available to us when we are doing the work the Divine gives us to do. In mulling this over before rising from bed this morning, I saw that Ikiru is part of what I can say.

The story of Ikiru, which is translated from Japanese to mean “To Live”, is about a quintessential middle-management, pencil-pushing, perfectly performing cog-in-the-machine government bureaucrat. Kanji Watanabe has worked for his department for 30 years, never taking a vacation or sick day. He sits at his desk all day every day, head down, rubber stamp in hand. Until, that is, he is compelled by stomach pain to a medical facility where he learns he has cancer and only a few months to live. The news is devastating to him. He is bereft to learn he is at the end of a life that he has not lived. He sees that he has denied himself every pleasure in his pursuit of security, he says, for his son. He decides to begin living but has no idea what that means or how to do it, trying first debauchery and then living vicariously through a vivacious young woman. He returns to the familiarity of his office where he hears a calling in the voices of poor women expressing a need for their children.

Through my Quaker eyes, what happens is that he is given a leading that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by following. He has juuuuust enough power in the bureaucratic system to have an impact but not enough for it to be easy. He humbles himself over and over, waiting patiently as important people weigh the political expediency of each action. He becomes a squeaky wheel in an efficient-at-inefficiency machine, making just enough noise to get noticed but not enough to get replaced.

As he followed his leading, I thought of our Quaker expression “proceed as way opens”. For Watanabe, the system was designed to be firmly closed. There were no spaces for openings so he had to find the cracks and wedge himself in to create room just big enough for movement.

I think it is sometimes that way for us in real life. Sometimes we’re given a leading and every door swings wide for us. The resources are abundantly available and everywhere we go we are warmly welcomed. Other times, though, even when we feel convicted of the rightness of the leading, way does not easily open. We find that our first step requires a permit from a bureaucrat who believes it is their job to turn down every request. Or learn that we must collaborate with people who want our resources but don’t share our vision. Or encounter a system, possibly a committee or monthly meeting or the Religious Society of Friends, that does not recognize, support, or have a space for the thing we are called to. What do we do then?

Three things come to mind, the first of which is to trust that God never gives us work to do without making available everything we need to do it in God’s time. This is amazing to experience when way is opening but incredibly hard when it seems it is not. My advice is to have people you can call on to help you discern your path. Sit in worship with it. Hold it and yourself in the Light and ask for Divine guidance. Assume that more will be revealed to you in God’s time and it may not look anything like what you expect.

I apologize for not remembering who this was or where I read it but during my immersion in Quakerism while gathering resources for Faithful Meetings, I read about a long-ago young adult Friend who had a leading to travel across the ocean in ministry. Her monthly meeting discerned with her but came to the understanding that it was not time. Over and over she returned with the leading and over and over she was told “no”. Finally, 25 years after first approaching her meeting about it, she was given the okay to travel in ministry. She carried her leading for a quarter of a century before she was able to act on it!

Which leads me to my second idea: planting seeds. I imagine a seed in her growing as she carried the concern. I imagine her talking with elders, ministers, and folks who were traveling in ministry, learning from them. I imagine her praying and praying and praying, making the seed available for God to nurture. I imagine the seed becoming a sprout and then a sapling and then a tree with deep roots so that when she finally heard the “yes”, she was grounded and secure in her relationship with her Holy Orchardist. A fruit fell from her tree and was passed on until it landed in the book where I found it and was nourished by it. And now I offer a seed from that fruit to you.

We can never really know what seeds we are planting as we do things. When I have a leading, I may think that a successful outcome is completing a task or a project while what God has in mind is a brief conversation with a specific person which prepares them for a news article which leads them to look into a problem which then becomes a concern they are invited by Spirit to carry. I’m seeing what appears to be way not opening for me when in truth, way is totally opening but I am not meant to see it.

And our character Watanabe: If he were a real person with a real leading, think about all the lives he touched as he encountered bureaucrat after bureaucrat. Most would forget him immediately upon his departure but a few might carry his earnestness or kindness or tenacity with them and be inspired by it. The lives of the poor women whose voices were his invitation to meaning and purpose were certainly touched by him; they were the only ones to weep at his funeral.

And all of this leads to my third thought: humility. Watanabe was able to impact the changes he was seeking through the bureaucratic maze because he wasn’t bringing his own desire to it. He wasn’t seeking to leave a legacy or make an impact. He no longer feared losing his reputation or pension nor being fired. He didn’t want anything for himself; he was simply allowing himself, his knowledge and power, time and the little bit of energy he had left, to be a tool to aid the poor women. Because he was in the service of something greater than himself, he could approach each of the cogs in the intractable system with patience and humility. He was able to literally give his life for this purpose.

When I’ve read parts of John Woolman’s journal, I’ve been struck by his humility. He learned step-by-step how to release his attachment to avoiding conflict and not making waves. He learned how to let That of God within him guide him in interactions with slave-holding Quakers, many of whom were much more powerful and socially regarded than he. He learned to “speak Truth to power” by letting go of his own emotional comfort and all ambition and desires for himself and his own life.

Way opens for us when we make ourselves available for Spirit to flow through. This requires humility and patience and trust. It is my experience that God is always inviting us into the flow, always beckoning us to live. This is as true for us today, right this moment, as it was for John Woolman and the long-ago traveling minister. What is the good that wants to flow through you today?

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