“I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles in which vital and transforming events take place.” Rufus Jones (1863-1948)
Hope is an essential, yet tenuous prod in life. We need hope to keep going, to continue to fight the good fight. Yet hope is not something we can talk ourselves into and it’s especially difficult to come by these days. No matter what the issue, whether the pandemic, the upcoming election, systemic racial injustice, white supremacy, or the vicious political divide in our nation, things don’t seem to be getting better, but getting worse.
So, let me ask you a question. Where do you pin your hopes right now?
The quote at the beginning of this post has long been one of my favorites. It’s so graphic and elegant in the way it depicts pinning our hopes to something we’ve come to trust. I’ve often shared it as a way to explain what possessed me, after 25 years of working in big, complex organizations, to turn toward the quiet work of spiritual direction. Sitting with individuals, helping them attune to God’s loving presence, and then watching them be transformed has awakened hope and deep joy.
Interestingly, Quaker Rufus Jones wrote these words in a letter to a friend during an equally tumultuous time. It was shortly after the end of the First World War and the Second World War was looming. Jones was tasked with leading an international effort to influence the world toward a path of peace. Though he gave excellent leadership to this global endeavor, he found hope in a different place: in the “quiet processes and small circles in which vital and transforming events take place.”
As I ponder his words today and the context in which they were written, I wonder if Jones understood something about human nature and how fundamental change happens in societies. He named two specific domains where the kind of vital and transforming events take place that have potential to genuinely change people and societies: quiet processes and small circles.
What are quiet processes, we might wonder? When I think of this expression, it brings to mind my own times of prayerful reflection and examination. Times when I sat alone, or with David, or a good friend and quietly processed something that was difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Times of wrestling, when I knew something wasn’t well within me, that I needed to change, and only the Spirit of God could do the changing.
The Psalmist captured the idea of quiet process in this prayer:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139: 23-24)
I’m reminded of such a time, a time of anxious wrestling, which happened a few years ago. I was navigating a difficult professional relationship and lacked clarity in terms of what to do. So, I asked my friend and fellow spiritual director, Bev, if we could talk. As Bev listened quietly, she finally made the observation, “It sounds like you’re dissatisfied.” At first, the word dissatisfied didn’t sit well with me. I corrected her and said, “Maybe disappointed.” She cocked her head and asked, “What’s the difference?” As I considered her question, I realized that I didn’t like the term “dissatisfied” because it put the onus on me to do something about the situation. This quiet process helped me see what needed to happen and the responsibility I needed to take.
It’s through examining our lives that we’re able to make corrections and align ourselves more fully with Jesus’s way of life. Yet examining requires quiet moments of process. In silent reflection we’re able to consider our lives thoughtfully and thoroughly, coming to terms with where we’re missing the mark, where we need to change. Until we allow God’s Spirit to search us and expose the motives that drive us, we won’t be open to the significant shift that transformation asks of us. Each of us must do our work. Individually.
Jones further pinned his hopes on the transformative nature of small circles. This image is a bit more straight-forward. In our mind’s eye we might picture a handful of people circling their chairs, listening to one another, caring, challenging, and ultimately affecting each other for good. These relationships make us a better version of ourselves. They help us mature, to see more clearly, to cultivate a winsome and authentic faith.
It’s important to note that for these small circles to be transformative, they must be composed of a certain kind of people. In my recent reading and thinking about neuroscience and secure attachment, I’ve read many of the works of E. James Wilder. Wilder writes at length about the transforming impact of being with others who have a “better brain.” What he’s suggesting is that something happens in us, in our literal brains, that heals and matures us when we are with people with healthy brains, who think with God, whose relational circuits for love are firing on all cylinders.
Here’s an example of such a circle. Months ago I listened to the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett as she interviewed former white nationalist Derek Black (ironic last name) about the college friendships that changed him. During his time at New College Florida, Black was invited (repeatedly) by fellow student and Orthodox Jew Matthew Stevenson to attend his Shabbat dinner each week. Much to the consternation of the other students who attended, Black finally came. This began a small circle of friendships that led to many long conversations, which ultimately led Derek Black to denounce his generational KKK-loving, white-nationalist upbringing.
What Rufus Jones and many of us know is that we can’t change or mature or grow apart from being in healthy relationships with others. But not just any others. Consider the kind of people you are “circled” with. Do they have better brains? Do you experience them as people motivated by love? Are they mature and do their words and actions resemble Jesus? “For where two or three gather in my name,” Jesus said, “there I AM in their midst” (Matthew 18:20).
So, where do you pin your hopes right now?
In the upcoming presidential election, in the appointing of a new Supreme Court Justice, in the growing momentum to confront systemic racial injustice, in a vaccine for Covid-19? There’s a lot of things we’re hoping for right now and many of them have the potential to bring about change. In fact, better government, both local and national, as well as citizen-led movements of peaceful protest are essential and necessary in order for people and nations to awaken and thrive. But will the change they bring be enough? Will these events be sufficiently vital and transforming in order to heal our souls and the soul of our nation?
I confess that I’m partial to Rufus Jones’s vision today. I pin my hopes on quiet processes and small circles because I’ve come to trust them as places where genuine and enduring healing happens. I trust the change that is possible when you and I humble ourselves before God and allow the Spirit to examine our hearts, help us repent, and heal us of our sins of selfishness, indifference, greed, and the lust for power. Societal change isn’t possible unless a significant portion of its citizens become spiritually, relationally, and emotionally mature through doing our own inner work. I also know that doing my own work isn’t enough. I need others to help me.
I trust the change that is only possible when we come together in small, diverse circles of people, some with better brains, wrestling together with what it means to live out the gospel of Jesus today. Admittedly, there is no small shortage of these kinds of circles. So, what is keeping us from fostering them? Instead of waiting for an opportunity to come to us, why not instigate a quiet revolution by forming a small circle of trust of our own?
If Rufus Jones were living today, would he pin his hopes on the same things he did pre-WWII? I think he would because I believe that quiet processes and small circles continue to be proven places where critical, life-giving transformation happens. And when these quiet processes and small circles begin to multiply, generating other quiet processes and small circles, before long we will see ourselves and our culture change. Yes, it’s slow work, and not nearly as flashy or impressive as big national campaigns. But over time, this kind of revolution brings with it enduring conversion and a place where hope can root and flourish.