Category Archives: Community

In all directions at once?

I see… an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars…

Where am I in this picture? … How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast web of relationship that animates everything that is.

…it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity – the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (whatever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was “the ground of all being.” The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: “I Am Who I Am.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web

This is, as Taylor points out a little later, not pantheism at all. She is not saying that God is everything, still less that everything is God, but that God is “above all and through all and in all” as Paul the apostle saw (Ephesians 4.6b). God is not a distant being, who occasionally deigns to interfere in the thing that he has made, but “the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.” (Taylor, ibid.)

The question arises, of course, how one might pray to such a God. “In all directions at once”, says Barbara Brown Taylor. But what does that mean? We are so prone to think of prayer as messages between separate parts of a mechanism – us here, God there, the ones we are praying for somewhere else. But if we are not separated like that? If we, and those we pray for, and who pray for us, are in God, and God in us, then our connection is God, and what affects each of us affects each other, because it affects God.

If we really believed this, really saw it to be true, how could we go on living our selfish, antagonistic lives? How could we feel that our loss is another’s gain, or vice versa? This morning’s ministry was all about community, and the communion of community – that by living in love, in a community of love, we are witnesses, and more than witnesses: we are signs of the Kingdom, loci of Kingdom infection in the world. But perhaps we do not so much build community as realise community, and in realising it, make it real to ourselves and among each other.

To pray, in such circumstances, is then a very different thing from any conception of posting letters across time and space.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Prayer, as Daniel O Snyder writes in Friends Journal“is itself a field of engagement.” As St Silouan discovered, contemplative prayer, the practice of stillness and silence, is anything but disengagement, anything but a way out of dealing with the pain and the grief of the world, but is a way of welcoming them into one’s heart without defence, and being made in oneself a channel of God’s grace, Christ’s mercy.

A Pillar of Cloud

 

I have discovered increasingly how much I need community; not just a loose association of people who have come to live not far from each other, but the Eucharistic community that is the church. My life, outwardly at least, has been marked by wandering and change; I have not stayed long with many of the communities I have found myself part of. The one constant has been the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings…

A new post on The Mercy Blog – follow the link to read the rest of the post.

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…

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 16

We eventually have to be aware that our partner is also ‘graced’ by us and our gifts and we are denying ‘that of God in us’ if we do not develop our own gifts. The grace is in the uniting and then it is up to us. Luther married because he believed that in marriage God’s grace permeated the world. This is where marriage within a faith setting differs most from secular marriage. By God’s grace we are a gift for one another, recognising that this person is the person with whom I can create a relationship that will deepen, grow and last a lifetime. This is the dimension within the relationship which earths us in the created world, connects us with the community and is open to the transcendent.

Roger and Susan Sawtell, 2006 – Quaker Faith & Practice 16.11

Although Susan and I met and married before we became Quakers, our relationship from the very start has been rooted in spirituality. We were both Franciscan Tertiaries, and became friends first of all through our local group. As we came to know each other better, our relationship grew to become in many ways a workshop for encouraging each other to explore more deeply how the Spirit touched and led each of us, and this drew us inescapably to the Quaker way.

Since becoming Quakers we have grown and developed each in our own way, and it has been one of the joys of treading this path that we have been able to do so roughly in parallel, each at times supporting the other, but neither one of us taking the lead, nor feeling that we had necessarily to be walking in the same track all of the way.

What has been remarkable has been our progressive discovery that, not so much in spite of as because of our often different approaches, we are ‘graced’, as the Sawtells put it, by each other’s growth into what we can be in the Spirit. And that is perhaps the greatest blessing of our life together.

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.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice – Chapter 3

Our meeting communities vary in size and in the circumstances and experience of their members. Sometimes we may need to vary the ways in which we manage our meetings for church affairs in order to make better use of the talents, time and energy of our members. Co-clerkship, for instance, has been beneficial in a number of meetings; sometimes the monthly pattern of business meetings has been varied to good effect. We should be open to learning from the experiments undertaken by other meetings. Being set in an unsatisfactory routine ‘because we’ve always done it this way’ may be as detrimental to seeking God’s guidance as throwing our traditions to the wind. We are enjoined to live adventurously, but experiment must be grounded in the experience of generations of Friends, which offers us a method, a purpose and principles for the right conduct of our business meetings.

If we sometimes think things are wrong with our meetings for church affairs, it would help us to look at the situation in perspective if we could realise how many troubles arise not from the system, but from our human imperfections and the variety of our temperaments and viewpoints. These meetings are in fact not merely occasions for transacting with proper efficiency the affairs of the church but also opportunities when we can learn to bear and forbear, to practise to one another that love which ‘suffereth long and is kind’. Christianity is not only a faith but a community and in our meetings for church affairs we learn what membership of that community involves.

Quaker Faith & Practice 3.03

This seems to me to be the core of Chapter 3. In embarking on reading this section I have, as so many Friends I suspect, quailed rather at spending so long on procedure, rather than on the spiritual or moral realities for which we meet. But here we read how we are “not only a faith but a community and in our meetings for church affairs we learn what membership of that community involves.”

If we can, it seems to me, approach all our many meetings and committees with full awareness of “our human imperfections and the variety of our temperaments and viewpoints”, then we can grow and serve the community which arises naturally from the practice of our faith together as Friends. Living adventurously together is an immense experiment, as experimental in its own way as our way of worship, and it is only in allowing ourselves, and each other, that full awareness not only of our fallibility and incompleteness, but of the right and inevitable variousness of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional characters (1 Corinthians 12), that we shall be able to be the community we are called to be: a community that celebrates, as it lives out, the inheritance of all the previous generations of Friends who have met together in the Light.