Category Archives: Advices & queries

Keeping still

For the last week – well, if I am honest, for the last several weeks – I have struggling with an inner disquiet, an inability to escape memories and experiences going back thirty years or more that have returned again and again to cast a shadow over the present, and in some sense still to exert over it some kind of control. As this week wore on it came to me at last that, despite all that I have written here and elsewhere, all I’ve taught and spoken of, I have consistently tried to oppose these relived memories, nightmares and conditioned reflexes with my own will and reason. I think somehow I may have been content to leave many other things in God’s hands; but on this, my trust has not been enough, or perhaps I have simply thought that it was my responsibility to sort out what I had allowed so long ago. At the end of my own resources, finally, I gave up. I lay down in stillness in the middle of the day, looking to Christ in my heart; I fell asleep, and awoke at peace. I suppose that I had in plain fact come to that place the apostle Paul wrote of:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NIV

This morning, the Friend whose turn it was to read from Advices and queries shared a brief ministry to go with her reading of:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

She spoke of the need for trust; that it is God who leads, and God who makes whole. Somehow her words, and the sense of their weight in her own life, closed the circle for me of this week’s culminating surrender to God.

It is stillness, once again, at the heart of this. Without stillness, our hearts are closed to the promptings of love and truth. It was William Leddra, the Quaker martyr of Barbados, who wrote:

Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

In even the darkness, there is a gift God has, but we must keep very still to receive it. In her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus in prayer:

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars – on a mountain, if he could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once, without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.

When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over, which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.

When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to Jesus only once in the entire New Testament – shortly after he is baptised by John – it seems clear that this father and this son were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to spend the night with God in prayer.

If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s. He stayed awake awhile. He slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars – and it was all prayer.

Once again, Paul the apostle knew this, at least in spirit. After the two verses I quoted above comes one of his most remarkable statements:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8.28 NIV

Quietly. The heart is awake in moonlight, pure reflection.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652

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)

Giving up our little lives

There is a dim sense in us that we must always be seeking completeness; it is, after all, the spiritual (or at least, psychological) drive behind consumerism. “Get this product, subscribe to this service, and your life will be complete!” But incompleteness is the natural, inevitable state of the human being: we are small, and partial, and temporary, yet there is something deep in every one of us, however hidden from the conscious mind, that knows the infinite fullness of God as real and touchable.

It is only in the unthinkable – literally, beyond the possibility of thought – release of dying into God that that the empty heart can be loved and filled. And yet the little human thing fears to die. All it has known is its little, bounded self, and it cannot know unknowing.

Dorothy Havergal Shaw once wrote, “Even if it were possible to be a member of every church at once, there would still be incompleteness; the infinite fullness of God will always exceed our powers of understanding and obedience, even our powers to receive vision and joy.”

The paradoxical thing is that we can only touch God by laying things down: the tug of the senses, the continual reaching of the thinking mind. (Oh, these things are good in their place – only they will not bring us close to what is real.) If only we will consent to die to all we know, all we want, all we are, then our life, hidden now with Christ in God (Colossians 3.3) will find itself alive in peace, held adrift in the Ground of Being itself.

From this still place, all truth springs: all true words, and all true actions. Any attempt to avoid this self-emptying will only lead to foolishness; to give up our little lives into this death, by our practice, through our silence, is the light of life itself.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Ch. 6

In the course of reflecting on his experience as secretary from 1940 to 1945 of Friends War Victims Relief Committee and Friends Relief Service, Roger Wilson wrote in 1949:

Yearly Meeting is not, in the last resort, made up of a body of experts. People who know a great deal about the matter in hand may do most of the talking, central committee members familiar with the complexities of translating convictions into practical terms may appear to be leading the meeting. But a few halting yet sincere hesitations, uttered by a Friend from a small meeting in a distant county may, in fact, be of more significance in revealing a matter in its true setting than all the sophistication of the committee worthies. Again and again on deep issues it is reality as known and experienced by the simple and single-minded meeting, that does not know too much to have lost its simple faith, that guides the Society; and the central committee or its administrator who knows that its service is, in the end, related to the life of the local meetings in the country, will have a deep respect for the weight of Yearly Meeting.

QFP 6.08

To me, this little passage opens the very heart of what Quaker process is supposed to be all about. To the extent that Friends feel that the future of the Society of Friends is in the hands of the “sophisticat[ed]… committee worthies” then we are in danger of losing our trust in the simple faith that guides us, and hence of losing our way. Quakerism is not a path that is decided for its members by a specialised, highly-educated elite; it is a path set firmly in the lived experience of ordinary Friends, often in small meetings in out of the way places. As long as we can remember that, as long as local Friends have enough trust in Britain Yearly Meeting, and enough commitment to it to travel there and to overcome the sometimes real difficulties in finding accommodation, and in getting their bookings in in time, and as long as BYM remains committed to listening to “halting yet sincere hesitations” with sufficient patience and sufficient trust that they themselves may be hearing the Spirit in those stumbling words, then we shall go on, faithful “to the promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts” and we shall “[t]rust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.” (Advices and Queries 1)