Category Archives: Church

Ascension Day

…the prayer of baptized people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St. Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26). The prayer of baptized people comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings… and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious… Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it feels dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

So, as we come to this fortieth day of Easter, when we remember that mysterious scene at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems right somehow to look again at this odd calling we find ourselves in. The disciples of Jesus were just like us: they wanted to know when their Lord would finally sort things out, put an end to Roman tyranny and all that went with it, and the messy, broken state of human life itself. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ reply, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…” reminds me of his sharp rejoinder to Peter when the latter queried John’s role in the kingdom, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me. We are often accused of thinking we know all the answers – and maybe some fundamentalists do think so – but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is in himself is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in human understanding, nor to be constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing, and by not knowing allowing myself to be known. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift that is Jesus himself. To pray “in the name of Jesus” is nothing more nor less than this; and it is with some such thought that the Jesus Prayer is so often referred to as “the prayer of the Name”.

We are caught up, by our baptism – and by that term I mean our entry into the life of the spirit, whether or not physical water is involved – into a life more than our own. All we are is, as Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.3) Rowan Williams continues (ibid.):

…we receive life from others’ prayer and love, and we give the prayer and love that others need. We are caught up in a great economy of giving and exchange. The solidarity that baptism brings us into, the solidarity with suffering, is a solidarity with one another as well… We are ‘implicated’ in one another, our lives are interwoven…

And so our prayer, whether we are aware of it or not, covers life itself, the broken, weeping, glorious becoming that is being made. We are not separated, and our breath is breathed with the breath of God.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

‘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…

 

Reading Qfp 20 – An Afterthought

To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be and doing the things he told them to do…

Nor, it seems to me, can you live a Christian life unless, like Jesus, you believe in the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love; unless you believe in these so strongly that you are prepared to put them to the acid test of experiment; unless these constitute the real meaning of life for you, more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus.

Kathleen Lonsdale, 1967 – Qfp 20.26

From time to time I have been troubled by the fact that on the one hand, I find I have been led to live as a member of the Society of Friends; and on the other hand, my lifelong calling has been to pray the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which developed among the monastic communities of Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, and which is assumed, by all its teachers, to be prayed within a eucharistic community – i.e. a church.

The word “church” is very often taken to imply a community called together to worship God (from the Greek ἐκκλησία – ecclesia), and generally assumed to be equipped with creeds, dogma, and at least some formal practice of the Eucharist – Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or whatever the local expression may be. But it was not always so, it seems. The very early church appears simply to have been a local community of worshippers, gathered together by a common love of Jesus and his teachings.

In this sense, the community of Friends fits the bill as well as any other – better, perhaps, than some for whom membership involves passing through some more or less stringent filter (catechism, statement of faith, etc.) of doctrine as a test of belonging.

I have written elsewhere of the “eucharistic community of silence” that is a Quaker meeting, and so I believe it to be. Cynthia Bourgeault writes of Jesus as a “recognition event” –

In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, by what they’d been told, by what they’d hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained–and still remain–are the ones who have met him in the moment: in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter.

In this sense, Kathleen Lonsdale’s “real meaning… more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus” carries the full weight of this shock of recognition – the unarguable, holy presence within the gathered meeting. More than that, the link she makes to the cross, the inescapable (Luke 9.23) link between “the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love” and the death of the self, brings us to the heart of the meaning of the eucharist: the shock of recognition present, to the contemplative heart, in just the same way in communion as in the gathered meeting.

 

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 10

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 – Quaker Faith & Practice 10.05

Coming a year ago into an area meeting where eldership and oversight are handled corporately, from one where the traditional roles are maintained, my eyes have been opened in many ways, not least to the differing ministries within a local meeting. We’re not all the same, nor should we expect others, or ourselves, to be the same. As the apostle Paul wrote of the 1st century church, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12.4) Strangely perhaps, this fact seems clearer, more sharply defined, when Friends are acting in cooperation as they are led, than when they are working within roles defined by tradition, or by the vision of a nominations committee.

There are many ministries, though, as this section from QFP explains, not only the ones that belong to the office of clerk, elder, overseer, treasurer or whoever. Sometimes the Spirit’s leading seems to be reflected in the very character of a Friend called to a particular ministry: the love that underlies pastoral care, the courage of one who speaks truth to power, the stillness and vulnerability behind the call to prayer. What’s needed, it seems, is the sensitivity to recognise these things in the lives of Friends around us, and the humility to accept their recognition of them in ourselves!

I’ve written at some length about ministry in the sense of words, vocal or written, elsewhere in this blog. It’s interesting, as I mentioned there,  that I found it a surprise when a Friend pointed out this blog as a ministry of my own. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but obviously she was right. Our ministries may be many diverse things. The role of warden or resident Friend, doorkeeper, librarian. Someone who listens. A giver of lifts to frail Friends. The one who rarely if ever stands to give ministry, or gets involved in committees, but in whose silence the whole meeting is held, and by whose prayer it is helped to keep faithful to what the Light uncovers…

I remember reading this passage when I was very first considering becoming a Quaker, and thinking that if this were lived out in practice, what a very good place a Quaker meeting would be. And it is, by and large. Friends do seem to live these things out, often in the quietest and least obvious of ways, despite, or at times because of, the occasional difficulties that may arise. Perhaps I’m not often enough, or sufficiently, grateful that this is so.

The First and Final Template…

The Blessed Trinity is the central and foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. But as the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) observed, what is supposed to be the heart of the nature of God has, until recently, had few practical or pastoral implications in most people’s lives. We did not have the right software installed!

For too many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity was unfathomable, abstract, and boring theology because they tried to process it with their left brain, their dualistic mind. Remaining there, it was not much more than a speculative curiosity or a mathematical conundrum (yet surely never to be questioned by any orthodox Christian). However, the Trinity perfectly illustrates the dynamic principle of three and was made to order to demolish our dualistic thinking and to open us to the mystical level.

The Trinity can only be understood with the contemplative mind. It is only God in you that understands; your small mind cannot. I call this participative knowledge. The Trinity can’t be proved rationally. You must experience its flow in your life. You must have moments where you know that a Big Life is happening in you, yet beyond you, and also AS you!

Unfortunately, Christians mostly gave up even trying to understand the Trinity. But if we’re resolved that we want to go into the mystery, not to hold God in our pocket, but to allow God to hold us, then I think we must seek to understand the Trinity experientially and contemplatively, which is not to understand at all, but to “stand under” a waterfall of infinite and loving Flow…

Most of us began by thinking of God as One Being and then tried to make God into three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But what I want you to try to do, and only God can do this in you, is change directions. As the early Fathers of the Greek Church did in the fourth century, start with the three and focus on the relationships between them.

Philippians 2:6-7 beautifully describes the Trinitarian relationship: “Jesus’ state was divine, yet he did not cling to equality with God, but he emptied himself.” This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate. They all live in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to totally let go and give themselves to the other.

When we start with the three, we know that this God is perfect giving and perfect receiving, that the very name of Being is communion, extravagant generosity, humble receptivity, and unhindered dialogue between three. Then we know God as the deepest flow of Life Itself, Relationship Itself. It is not that a Being decides to love; love is the very nature and shape of Being.

This is then the pattern of the whole universe. And any idea of God’s “wrath” or of God withholding an outflowing love is theologically impossible. Love is the very pattern that we start with, move with, and the goal we move toward. It is the very energy of the entire universe, from orbiting protons and neutrons to the social and sexual life of species, to the orbiting of planets and stars. We were indeed created in communion, by communion, and for communion. Or as Genesis says “created in the image and likeness of God.”…

Francis and Clare and many later Franciscans (Bonaventure, Anthony, Duns Scotus, Angela of Foligno, and many Poor Clares) appear to be literally living inside of a set of relationships that they quite traditionally name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But these experiences of communion are real, active, and involved in their lives, as if they are living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them. They are drawn into an endless creativity of love in wonderful ways that reflect the infinite nature of God.

They seem to shout out gratitude and praise in several directions: from a deep inner satisfaction (the indwelling Holy Spirit), across to the other (the ubiquitous Christ), and beyond what I can name or ever fully know (the formless Father).

In the Trinity, love finally has a solid definition and description, and cannot be sentimentalized. If Trinity is the template for all creation, from atoms to galaxies, which now appears to be the case, then a water wheel that is always outpouring in one direction is a very fine metaphor for God. Giving and surrendered receiving are the very shape of reality. Now love is much bigger than mere emotions, feelings, infatuation, or passing romance.

With Trinity as the first and final template for reality, love is the ontological “Ground of Being” itself (Paul Tillich). It is the air that you breathe, as any true mystic discovers, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Eager to Love – The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and recorded talks

This is interesting. The Trinity is one of those doctrines most Quakers – at least within BYM! – would be tempted to set aside as mere creedal residue, long grown-out-of. But there is, quite literally, more going on here than meets the eye.

Rohr points out that over the years the Church has tended to approach the idea of the Trinity with an analytical, intellectual, left-brain understanding – with words, and games with words. But, as he says, “You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.”

To me this gets to the heart of what mysticism is. In silence and contemplation, whether of the gathered meeting, or of solitary prayer, words are suspended. Given nothing to hang on to, the analytical mind frets, criticises, and finally gives up. In this space, in this simple silence, that of God (Spirit, the Ground of Being) within each of us, is directly experienced. This is what the earliest Quakers encountered:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

George Fox, 1658

I think it matters little how we call “the first and final template for reality”. We have each of us different traditions, different understandings, different hurts and joys in the ways we have trodden to where we find ourselves today. If the names of the Trinity hurt and frighten us so that we cannot speak them, we must not seek to prevent others using them, just as those to whom they speak of truth and grace must not seek to impose their use on their fellow-pilgrims.

Those of us who discover themselves “living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them” are surely sisters and brothers at the very deepest level, far deeper than ties of blood. It is difficult – though perhaps Friends have had as good a go at it as anyone – to experience and express this closeness without getting enmeshed in the minutiae of religious communities and formal doctrines,

Writing in The Friend this week, Jan Arriens says,

Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss…

For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words. I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’

The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other…

Love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity…

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty…. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us. Only when the step is taken in this spirit is it admissible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I have always struggled with this. In so much of church life, as indeed in much political and campaigning matters, hardening of the oughteries is an occupational hazard I’m particularly prone to. There are so many activities that can be taken as “obedience to the call of Jesus”: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming strangers, visiting those in prison, spreading the word of truth, working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation… not to mention coffee mornings and bring-and-buy sales!

Clearly one person cannot do them all, and yet neglecting to do any of them feels like disobedience, or at least callousness. I have literally lain awake at night with it all buzzing around my head.

I had not expected to find any kind of answer to this when I found myself called join Friends in meeting. Yet embedded not only in the silence, but in the structure of the Quaker business method, is a process of discernment that is deeply liberating, and full of “love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity.

In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group. Our meetings for church affairs, in which we conduct our business, are also meetings for worship based on silence, and they carry the same expectation that God’s guidance can be discerned if we are truly listening together and to each other, and are not blinkered by preconceived opinions. It is this belief that God’s will can be recognised through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance.

Quaker Faith & Practice 3.02

It has been my experience that this can work in the individual just as well as in the “gathered group”. Dilemmas not only in matters of service, but of leadings, gifts and abilities, seem to come naturally under the “discipline of silent waiting”, whether alone or among Friends. I had not thought of this.

I may have quoted John Bellows before in this blog, but his words express here so clearly what I have found: “I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.”

Speaking Truth to Power

If we look at history, I think we can see a constant swinging back and forth between two poles, Right and Left, representing two necessary values…

The first task seeks order, certitude, clarity, and control. It is the best way to start. But whenever that pattern is in place for too long or is too overbearing, what will eventually emerge is a critical alternate consciousness. Whenever the law-and-order thing is overdone, another group of people will react against it. Once you have an establishment, you will eventually have a dis-establishment. When some have all the power, those who don’t have power ask very different questions, and the pendulum swings back again—eventually. That has been the story of most of history and the sequencing of most revolutions…

It is interesting that these two different powers took the words “Right” and “Left” from the Estates-General in France. On the right sat the nobility and the clergy (what were the clergy doing over there?) and on the left sat the peasants and 90 per cent of the population. Those are now commonly used terms in the global political world. The Right is normally concerned with maintaining some status quo, stability, continuity, and authority; that is a legitimate need and without it you have chaos. Those on the Right, however, are normally considered innocent until proven guilty.

Those on the Left are presumed, for some reason, to be guilty until proven innocent, at least in the minds of many…The powers that have tended to write history have usually been from the side of authority and power, and those who protect power and authority. Once we see this, we wonder why we never saw it before. Without some form of Right, we have chaos in society; and without some form of Left there is no truth and reform in a culture. Thomas Jefferson said we would need another American Revolution approximately every 25 years, or it would become its own new tyranny. And thus the pendulum swings, and I guess we all hope we are living at the appropriate time when it is swinging toward our preferred side, or that there are at least a few elders around…

In the Biblical tradition, the power on the Right and the power on the Left are symbolized by the kings and the prophets, respectively. There is almost a necessary tension and even opposition between them. There is only one time in all the Hebrew scriptures that the two ever made friends, and then only barely. That is when David the King accepted the critique of Nathan the prophet, after Nathan accused him of his sinfulness and David had the humility to say that he was correct: “I have sinned against the Lord” (see 2 Samuel 12).

The Right always considers itself the product of rationality, experience, and civilization. The people on the Left are always the product of these “silly” people’s movements arising out of high-minded ideology, unbearable injustices, or both. Neither of these currents is totally rational (even the Supreme Court disagrees on what is rational). Movements from the Left are normally not well-planned at the beginning. They are intuitive and come from what is suffered by the little people, who at that point are of no account and have no press or status. Thus they rely on symbols, songs, slogans, and momentary charismatic leaders to get off the ground. Remember when white people laughed at black people for singing, “We Shall Overcome”? Remember also those naïve English colonists on the East Coast of America who said “No taxation without representation.” The pattern is always the same: “kings” (power) versus “prophets” (truth).

Richard Rohr, adapted from A Lever and a Place to Stand:  The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer

Quakers often use the phrase to “speak truth to power“, by which is meant precisely what Rohr is saying here about the prophets. What is easy to forget, though, is how much the process owes to the spiritual, rather than the political, aspect of humanity. The prophets are more than critics of the Right: they are conveyors of God’s justice and mercy, and their work is seen supremely in the life of Christ, and in his relations with both the Jewish religious authorities and the occupying Roman forces.

It’s fatally easy to forget the vital connection between mercy and justice, with the results seen in pretty much any violent revolution throughout history. Jesus refused to be drawn by those among his followers who hoped for a military solution to the oppression of Palestine under the Roman occupation, and continually proclaimed that his Kingdom was not an outer, but an inner, realm.

At the centre of all we do and say is this knowledge, gained by the plain experience of silence. It seems to me we can do nothing apart from this. All our truth is rooted in silence, our mercy and compassion in love.