By Mary Linda McKinney
Note about language: Please read in tongues. In this essay, I use the term “Kingdom of God” because that is a phrase early Friends used. I prefer to think of it as “the commonwealth of God,” “God’s world,” or the “kin-dom of God” but those preferences are based on my experience. Early Friends lived under the rule of a monarchy and before them, Jesus lived under a similar political structure. They had the experience of a king or emperor who was all-powerful within the place they lived. For them, understanding God as being their Inward Ruler made sense. That metaphor for God doesn’t speak to my condition but when I “listen in tongues,” I can understand their meaning and find my own meaning in it.
As I was creating Faithful Meetings, I read journal entries and stories of long-ago Friends who were imprisoned for their beliefs. Prisons were often literal dungeons, underground, with no plumbing, fresh air, or light. Lice, fleas, and rats were endemic. Friends were thrown into cells, sometimes with hundreds of people: women and children in one area; men and boys in another. Prisoners with outside support could buy or bribe their way to better conditions. Those with no resources remained in the worst places.
Imprisoned Friends had the support of their communities and could have opted to pay to be moved to less squalid areas. Friends, though, believed Jesus’ words when he said that the Kingdom of God was within. Early Friends shared a belief that the Kingdom of God was not only the place those in touch with the Holy Spirit go after they die but also an inward transformation that guided them to faithfully follow God’s leadings here on Earth. These leadings may cause them to be imprisoned but still they would experience God’s abiding presence in the prison dungeons where they were held.
Rather than having Friends on the outside send them resources of comfort, they asked for supplies to help them care for the other prisoners. They would request candles and Bibles so they could read aloud and teach others to read. They would receive food to share and blankets. They would ask for work-related supplies and would teach skills to the other prisoners so those who learned would have more options for income when they were released. These Friends trusted that the Holy Spirit could use them in every situation.
I am of the belief that this world is two: It is the heartbreaking, beautiful clock-time world we live in and it is also God’s creation, both mundane and sacred at the same time. We can live our entire lives only being aware of what is measurably real to us but when we shift our vision a bit, we can begin to recognize the inbreaking of God’s world. Early Friends described this as experiencing the Kingdom of God within themselves which allowed them to see the potential of God’s creation in the world around them. No matter the language we use or the way we experience it, in every moment we have the opportunity to see ourselves as an integral part of the sacred interconnection of all things. The way I understand this is that everything is in God and God is in everything. We are connected to everything in this world through our Creator. In every moment, we have the opportunity to live into what early Friends called Gospel Order through our thoughts and words and actions.
In each moment we can respond to Spirit’s invitation to be fully present to what is true, beyond our ego-needs and comfort and desire, to how Spirit wants to work through us. This was true of early Friends willingly imprisoned in horrific conditions. This is true today. It is important for those of us with comfort, privilege, and power to see how we might use what we have to care for those with less. The world is so heavy. There are so many heartbreaking situations everywhere we turn and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and impotent. But we’re not. We can turn to Spirit and ask to be guided to what is ours to do.