Celebrating the Life of Samuel Johnson

I recently attended the memorial service for my friend Samuel Johnson, a naturalist farmer who died young after suffering from chronic pain for many years. He was a rare soul with an earthy, contemplative spirituality. He had served in the military during the Vietnam War, became thoroughly disillusioned, and devoted the rest of his life to peacebuilding.

Samuel was drawn to Quaker spirituality, especially to the life and thought of John Woolman who labored to overcome slavery and our American consumer culture. He was one of the founding members of the Valley Friends Meeting and established a farm and orchard that specialized in peaches, grapes, and blueberries. He was also a founder of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.

Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3: 1-6) makes me think of Samuel. He was so observant of the natural world and if anyone would have noticed a burning bush it was him. He was spiritually sensitive and, in his own way, would have been able to recognize it as a manifestation of the Divine, as holy ground. Yet he had an irreverent reverence that gently poked holes in shallow expressions of faith that didn’t leave room for questions and doubts.

Recognizing a burning bush as a manifestation of God is not possible if we think of God exclusively as a transcendent creator and authority who exists outside of our world and intervenes from there to accomplish his purposes. When people have a hard time believing in God, it’s generally this understanding that they can’t accept. Yet there’s another understanding of God as sacred presence that is just as biblical and is common to all faith traditions. Drawing on the thought of the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts, biblical scholar Marcus Borg writes:

God is “the one in whom we live and move and have our being” (17:28). Note how the language works. Where are we in relation to God? We are in God. We live within God. We move within God. We have our being within God. God is not a being far off, “out there,” somewhere beyond the universe, separate from us and the world. Rather, the word refers to “the one” in whom everything that is, is—a reality that encompasses us and all that is.[1]

In that sense, we recognize God in the flame of the burning bush, and the promise to deliver the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Deliverance is not an end in itself—it’s rather the establishment of a covenant people as a blessing to all people. Moses equivocates and wants to know God’s name, but the Divine cannot be named. The answer given to him is “I am who I am.” The sixth-century BCE Chinese scholar Lao Tzu wrote, “The Tao [the sacred] that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” When we name the sacred we are no longer talking about it because it can’t be expressed in words.[2]

Samuel shared this reluctance to name the Divine because so much abuse and violence has been committed in the name of God. In this respect, people who are atheists can be more spiritual than those who easily name the name of God.  We cannot name our hidden God, but we can say that God is love. Our spiritual journey is to be drawn ever nearer to this divine flame of love. Samuel Johnson had personally planned his memorial service and all the scriptures, poems and songs he chose where related to this mystical flame of love. Irish poet and writer John O’Donohue talks about this as a loving eye:

To the loving eye, everything is real . . .  Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see it at all. Love is the light in which we see light. Love is the light in which we see each thing in its true origin, nature, and destiny. If we could look at the world in a loving way, then the world would rise up before us full of invitation, possibility, and depth.[3

For Samuel Johnson, the naturalist farmer, peacebuilder, friend, and counselor to many, such love was always practical and hands on.

[1] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (New York, HarperOne, 2011), 69.

[2] Ibid., 74.

[3] Ibid., 65.

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