‘Tis the season…

It’s nearly the end of November, and retailers from Amazon to Waitrose are putting out their festive videos – quite a good crop this year, so far – to get us in the mood for the shopping days up to December 25th.

Janet Scott wrote, in 1994,

Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

One of sometimes forgotten benefits of keeping the liturgical calendar is the way that it reminds us, especially in a sensitive church environment, of the changing patterns of our relation to nature, and to the spiritual echoes or parallels that accompany that movement through the year.

The narrative arc of the Gospels, from Christmas through to Easter and beyond, thirty three years or so of a man’s life in first century Judea and Galilee, take us from fragile hope to brokenness and despair, and then beyond that into a new and imperishable hope not rooted in outcome or survival.

The accounts of these events are not read merely as an historical account of the genesis of a religion, nor just as a kind of spiritual allegory, but as a way of entering, wide awake, into a reality common to all that comes to be. Everything we know has a beginning, a term of being, and an ending – and yet… New life appears where old life faded, cosmological events arise, fade, and there are new arisings. What is rests in isness; and isness goes on – it is the very ground of being itself. What looks to us like failure then is necessary process;  what looks to us like ending is just the place of beginning again, and death itself is only the way to life.

I wrote once that,

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

To make sense of this, I think we cannot cherry-pick bits of the Gospel account. We need that entire narrative arc, to walk with it, to live it out in our worship and our thinking, to be present to it as it is present in us; and at its best this is what the liturgy does throughout the seasons of the changing year. It would be good if, somehow, we Quakers found a way to do that too…

 

Another kind of peace: reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 24

A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it… It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands, as it is to palliate them with God’s name… We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.

William Penn, 1693 – Quaker faith & practice 24.03

In these difficult days, when elections seem to have been won on promises of intolerance and injustice, when supporters of both sides are calling for more and more extreme opposition one to another, and violence is looked upon as a normal and inevitable response, it is good to read this chapter on our Quaker peace testimony.

We all too often, it seems to me, fall into the world’s ways of looking at disagreement, and fall into the world’s use of words in speaking of it. We talk of struggle, of victory and defeat, of things lost and won. The left does this as well as the right; and occasionally, Friends fall into the trap also. Perhaps we need, as we contemplate a world with Brexit on one side of the Atlantic, and a Trump administration on the other, to reread Kathleen Lonsdale, writing in 1953:

Friends are not naïve enough to believe that such an appeal ‘to that of God’ in a dictator or in a nation which for psychological or other reasons is in an aggressive mood will necessarily be successful in converting the tyrant or preventing aggression. Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated. Yet they did not fail. Nor did they leave behind them the hatred, devastation and bitterness that war, successful or unsuccessful, does leave. What can be claimed, moreover, is that this method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name and with our support.

Quaker faith & practice 24.26

As I wrote a few months ago,

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Our activism as Friends is an outcome, an outworking, of our experience of the Light. We do not hold meeting for worship in order to strengthen ourselves for action, or to seek God’s blessing on a course of action we have wilfully decided upon; we meet in order to encounter the presence of God. As a result of this encounter, and of our encounter with that of God in each other, may may find ourselves called, inevitably, to action of some kind – but this is humanly a side effect, and divinely a leading: something God leads us into.

But this leading may not be to success, to some kind of victory. As Kathleen Lonsdale points out above, “Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated.” The list of Quaker martyrs is long: James Nayler, William Leddra, Mary Dyer – many others. And yet, as Lonsdale says, they did not fail.

We must, I am sure, beware of judging our actions, or their causes, by the standards of the world. The trouble with thinking of ourselves in terms of politics is that we come to think of ourselves as successful or unsuccessful in our political endeavours. But it is our endeavours to love as God first loved us that may have effects, some of them perhaps political it’s true, beyond anything we may see in our own lifetimes. As Roger Wilson wrote (Qfp 24.24), “…it is ultimately the power of suffering in love that redeems men from the power of evil.”

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 4

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 15

Recently, I seem to have become something of an area meeting addict. I don’t think it’s that I have become an overnight Quaker governance geek – I still blench at much of the language of Qfp Chapter 4, and the layers of standing committees, subcommittees and working groups that characterise many area meetings still cause a slight numbness to creep over the edges of my mind. No, I think it’s more that, largely through my experience as an accompanying elder for area meeting, I have come to appreciate something of the spiritual dimension.

Strangely, perhaps, this spiritual dimension of area meeting doesn’t seem to me to be limited to AM’s role in providing a framework of governance within which the local meetings can hold their worship in peace and good ordering, but extends out into unseen spiritual community of which we are all part. As Qfp 4.01 states,

Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings. The change was made to give more emphasis to the area meeting as a spiritual community rather than a regular event, and in the interests of accuracy because many monthly meetings no longer met monthly.

We are beings of matter and beings of spirit: the two aspects of us cannot be separated, and one is not superior to, nor more fundamental than, the other. Our decisions, our mechanisms of governance even, do have real spiritual weight; our prayerful upholding really does help carry that weight out into the space that worship makes in our hearts and in our intentions – into, if you will, the discerned will of God.

Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.

Preserved ministry: Reading Qfp Ch. 1

How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 18

This month it has fallen to me to choose and read Advices & queries. Last Sunday this one, no. 18, showed itself to me, reminding me that these Advices & queries are “not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society.” It is as a community that they are discerned, and it is as a community that we read them, and listen for how they might affect each of us personally. In that sense, they’re a bit like preserved ministry.

Most of our words for the process of preserving things have somehow come to have negative connotations when it comes to using them as metaphors for the human condition. People are frozen in horror, pickled in an excess of alcohol, their sympathies dried up, stale and unprofitable. But I remember from the days when I kept a large vegetable garden that preserving was a joyful sort of a process: slicing and salting the runner beans, shelling and freezing down pod after pod of peas and broad beans, lifting and bagging the main crop potatoes, stringing up the onions to dry. I loved all that.

These Advices & queries, then, bits of preserved ministry, have kept their goodness over the years, and only require opening up, rinsing through, and they’re as good and nourishing as the day they were bottled. This, no. 18, is a particularly sustaining one. It seems to wrap up all the comfortable strengths of eldership and oversight into these few sentences…

Advices & queries – reading Qfp Ch.1

Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of Friends that these advices and queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.

Quaker faith & practice 1.01

Our regular reading of Advices & queries, privately and in meeting (Qfp 1.05) can sometimes seem to be one of those slightly quaint customs, held over from another time, that Quakers, like other religious groups, occasionally indulge in. But I find the generosity of these few words from the introduction touches, and somehow nourishes, something very deep in me. Our warmth and our openness as a church are somehow for me wrapped up in here, together with a recognition of our diversity of gifts and experience (1 Corinthians 12.4-6) that is vital for our understanding and support of each other in our meetings.

I wonder if, over this next month, I can allow myself to reread these Advices & queries yet again with fresh eyes, bringing them into my own “times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?” (Qfp 1.02.3) I find it too easy to fall into each day without heart and mind truly prepared (Qfp 1.02.9), depending more on myself than on God’s guidance. Maybe what I am missing here, as so often, is too plain for me to see clearly? I hope I can simply and humbly – above all, humbly – let myself open to these little writings, taking heed, in their brief stillness, “to the promptings of love and truth in [my heart].” (Qfp 1.02.1)

A Very Simple Heart: Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 28

The very simple heart of the early Quaker message is needed as much to-day as it ever was… The really universal thing is a living experience. It is reached in various ways, and expressed in very different language… The common bond is in the thing itself, the actual inner knowledge of the grace of God. Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge. The early Friends certainly had this knowledge, and were the means of bringing many thousands of seekers into the way of discovery. In virtue of this central experience, the Quaker movement can only be true to itself by being a missionary movement.

Henry T Hodgkin, 1916 – Quaker faith & practice 28.01

In his recent post ‘Spiritual Generosity‘, Craig Barnett writes of British Friends’ “culture of hiddenness”, and of how “[i]n recent years initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this…” 

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the “actual inner knowledge of the grace of God” is in itself a hidden thing. Its effects may not be hidden – as for instance where Friends have worked in so many practical ways for peace and justice – but the root of all we do as Friends is deep in our hearts, where “that of God”  in each of us meets the Spirit in silence.

It can be hard for us to make the leap from the inwardness of meeting for worship to the outwardness of Quaker Week, and yet we manage it happily enough, in our active work for peace, economic justice, sustainability and nonviolence. But we have so much more to give. We are not, as I wrote in another post here some time ago, “[merely] a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.” As Craig Barnett goes on to say:

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times.

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world.

As Hodgkin said above (and remember he was writing during the First World War), “Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge [of grace].” Our work of outreach is one of opening our arms, our hearts, even just the doors of our meeting houses, to those who have perhaps not encountered such a thing before, among the disconnected contradictions of the world we have been born into. This is very simply an act of love:

Many of the people who come to us are both refugees and seekers. They are looking for a space to find their authenticity, a space in a spiritual context. It is a process of liberation. Some discover what they need among Friends, others go elsewhere. This gift of the sacred space that Friends have to offer is a two-edged sword. It is not easy administratively to quantify; it leads to ambiguity. It demands patient listening; it can be enriching and challenging to our complacency. It is outreach in the most general sense and it is a profound service. It may not lead to membership and it may cause difficulties in local meetings. But if someone comes asking for bread, we cannot say, sorry we are too busy discovering our own riches; when we have found them, we’ll offer you a few. Our riches are precisely our sharing. And the world is very, very hungry.

Harvey Gillman, 1993 – Quaker faith & practice 28.10