Holding the Tension, Umwelt and Hearts Broken Open

This is the message I gave Sunday March 17, 2013 at Camas Friends Church and is drawn from Isaiah 43: 16-21.

Holding the Tension

This past weekend I had the chance to go to Philadelphia to participate in a consultation with a Quaker foundation. Not only did I learn a lot by participating in the foundation but I got to see a little of downtown Philly and enjoy the sites. I got to see Friend Mary Dyer, William Penn, some old Friends, see a couple meetinghouses and make some new friends too.

Our Saturday meeting was great. There were 15 young friends invited and the goal was to draw on the excitement and creativity of these Friends to help the Shoemaker Foundation in their discernment about where to invest their money for the future.

One of the things that stood out to me about our time together was the many tensions that have to be held when a group of Quakers get together.

When you get that many Quakers together you are going to have different views of God expressed, different religious experiences and often very different language about how to talk about those things, and yet from the moment I arrived I had this very distinct sense of being in a safe space and welcomed by community. I remember feeling instantly connected to these Friends, many of whom I hadn’t met before. I had this sense that “these are my people.” I love that feeling.

Another tension is related to some of the responses we came up with to the various queries. One that really stuck with me was in response to #question 2 above:

“Quakerism is open to all people, but it isn’t whatever you want it to be.”

How do we hold these differences together?

It means that while we are open to all no one individual has the power to decided or control the direction of the group. It takes a process of listening and coming to clearness before God before we move on anything. We believe that only Jesus, who is living and present, gets to be our teacher, final word, and guiding light.

As we all well know, the difficult part is to actually live this tension out in our meetings. And not only is it true that our faith communities are filled with tensions, but so is the rest of life.

  • Some of the tensions we find are in our relationships, Jobs, kids, aging and health and injustices within society.

All of these tensions we are faced with are the gap between reality and new possibility.

So I like the statement: “Quakerism is open to all people, but it isn’t whatever you want it to be.” Because it reminds us that it is human and a deeply spiritual practice to actually be able to hold things in tension.

Of course this is no easy task and the reality is often far different from this. It is much easier to withdrawal and avoid these tension, refraining from saying what you feel led to say or feeling like any discussion on a difficult matter is simply a waste of time are common feelings. But they won’t help us grow or change.


  • [In her book E. O’Connor writes about] The biologist Esther Harding argues that all of nature even humans have a very limited awareness of the inward and outward world. In her study of nature she has found that every creature, both great and small, only sees and hears what concerns itself – every thing else it ignores (12-13).

Harding suggests that each animal lives in a world of its own or an Umwelt. Umwelt basically means environment or surrounding. It can be translated “self-centered world.” Every creature has its own Umwelt that it responds to while ignoring everything else.

Harding gives the example of the wood tick which needs blood from a warm-blooded animal in order to reproduce. When the wood tick is ready to reproduce it attaches itself to a tree and waits for a deer or some other warm-blooded animal to walk by with its thumb out hoping for a little carpool. Because there are so many wood ticks in the forest and not enough warm-blooded animals to go around – Harding says that some wood ticks have stood around waiting for a ride for as long as 17 years! They apparently had a pretty open calendar. It is so fixed on its own situation that it will not change trees, move around, or find an alternative. It is an animal unable to hold the tension between reality and possibility.

This kind of stubborn limitedness works for us as well. Many times we find ourselves in need of making adjustments, changing our expectations, learning how to do something new, or interact with new people and yet we will just hang on that same darn tree for 17 years refusing to budge. It is easy to be like the wood tick and only focus on what concerns us, to live in a self-centered world, while being blind to others’ realities.

[Slide] > The life task of each person is to enlarge his [or her] own narrow umwelt, or to grow in awareness – “Awake, O sleeper, and Christ will give you light.” E. O’Connor (13).

Hearts Break Open

The broader our Umwelts, the easier it is for us to be able to hold the tensions of reality and possibility, the more capable we will be of growing and moving past those stuck places in our spiritual and emotional places of life, the more readily we will be able to accept the differences of those around us and the new possibilities that break upon us by God’s good grace.

We might define grace as God’s help expanding each of our Umwelts. I believe that this is the kind of work that Jesus was constantly engaged in as was Paul and the prophets in the OT.

In Isaiah 43 the people are invited to have their umwelts broken open so that they can be ready for the new thing that God is about to do. This was written most likely in the late sixth century when the Hebrew people were exiled in Babylon. There was a lot of suffering in this time, the people felt the weight of oppression from their Babylonian captors.

The first part of the passage is to remind the people of their foundational narrative of the Exodus and the power of God who has worked to save them who “makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” The author drums up their collective memory and reminds the people that God is capable of delivering them and that Babylon is no match for YHWH. No matter how difficult their situation is, how much of an impasse they believe they are in, or how afraid they are – this is the God who “brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior, and extinguishes them” just as happened at the Reed Sea with Moses and Pharaoh’s army.

When times are difficult we are to draw on our collective memory of the many ways in which God has helped us, redeemed us and walked us through the valley of death in the past.

But then something even more interesting happens. Isaiah says:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

What the author is saying is not to forget your tradition and your history, but instead not to be limited by it. Don’t let it become the binding umwelt. Instead, be ready for it to be expanded. Even if you are the wood tick and every time up until now hanging out on this old tree really worked for you, maybe there’s a new way to do it. Maybe there is a new thing that is arising, a new possibility and if you’re stuck with the same-old tree you’re going to miss it.

“Do not Remember…” is the prophet’s way of saying don’t get stuck waxing nostalgic about the “good old days.” Callie Plunket-Brewton says:

The prophet aims to create an imaginative space in the minds of the people so that their conception of the past can transform their understanding of the present and, thus, the future: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In a seemingly hopeless situation, the prophet calls on the people not to lose heart but to look with anticipation for the signs of God’s approaching redemption, for the “new thing” that is coming.

In what ways does our own grappling the “good ol’ days” and a limited umwelt play out in our own spiritual lives? Is there a new thing God is working among us now?

I love that Isa 43 names the tensions between reality and the possibility of something new that God is about to do with his people. It is meant to be a surprise, a kind of shattering of what we expect so that the hearers might have a new capacity to hear something new.

Broken Hearts – [ILL – Slide] “There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does the Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hears?’ Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?’ The rebbe answers, ‘It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words call in.” (Parker Palmer – A Hidden Wholeness, 181)

We are often afraid to enter into the difficult space of holding tensions and allowing our imaginations to be opened up for fear that our hearts will be broken. It is very possible that we will discover we have been wrong about something. We may find that others have legitimate and deeply held beliefs and experiences that are different from our own. We may hear stories that are too painful to bear, or find ourselves powerless in the face of tragedy we have no power over.  It is always possible that entering a difficult space and in seeking to hold tensions that we may experience a loss, but if it is grounded by God’s grace then that brokenness can bring us into a new capacity to love, listen and care for one another.

Prayer: Break open my heart, guide my thoughts, help me to hold the tensions around me. And those places I dare go, provide a path for me to enter in.

It is not only possible but desirable to be broken into a new capacity. Just as the Hebrew people would come to desire that new thing God would do in their midst – even if it meant leaning into the difficult and scary unknowns of the wilderness they would do it.

It is not only possible but desirable to hold the tensions of life. Jesus’ ministry was filled with tensions, with people who knew they wanted to follow him, but didn’t always understand or do what he taught. The point was never to rid the church of tension, but to create a community that could hold those tensions while being rooted and centered in Jesus.

I believe that it is possible to live with a greater capacity for acceptance and love, but it will not be easy and our hearts may be broken in the process. We can only pray they are not shattered but broken open into a new capacity.

We can actually honor our collective memory and our past experiences while at the same time accepting the new thing that God is doing in our midst. Sitting with our worshipping community and working through our differences is one of the most powerful ways to do this.

As we grow in depth of relationship with those whose values and experiences are different from ours, the horizons of our little worlds are pushed back – our Umwelts are enlarged. Life comes to have a variety and a richness that was not there before. (E. O’Connor 25)