Thursday 20 June 2019

Encounter, Worship, Discernment and Testimony

We Quakers are a curious lot, difficult to pin down.  Ask ten Quakers what they believe and you'll get ten different answers.  But if you ask ten Anglicans, Methodists or Buddhists, wanting to get at what they personally believe, you'll probably get a similar variety.  We are all unique.

Quakers are difficult to pin down because most are tentative in our use of words.  Language developed to help us not merely survive, but thrive, developing mastery in everything we turn our mind to: the culmination of doing.  But doing is merely one of life's outcomes.  Life's nature is being.  Unless we first are, we can't do anything.  We use language tentatively because describing being is extraordinarily difficult.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are a group who mostly realise the difference between understanding (awareness that can be expressed in words) and 'standing under' (how we are).  Quite what we are standing under, or what that even means, we are much less willing to express with any certainty.  So Quakers take a step back and agree we are united, not in what we say, but in what we do.  Especially in our doing nothing – sitting in stillness.

Open to Transformation

Britain Yearly Meeting is the national gathering of British Quakers at Friends' House in London.  Quakers don't go in for preaching or teaching, so the Swarthmore Lecture there is a really big deal.  Each year one Quaker is invited to 'address the Quaker nation'.  The selection process is very Quakerly.  

First a Nominations Committee are asked to discern a selection of suitable people from names that have been put forward. Then, at a Meeting for Worship where church affairs are considered, those present have to discern which candidate they are going to ask.  There is no voting, discussion or argument.  

In silence, each person tries to set aside their own inclinations and be open to 'the promptings of the Spirit'.  They may stand to speak as they are 'moved', make their point simply and sit again as the meeting considers what's been said in silence.  It is not usual for comments to address others' points directly – each person is striving to express 'the will of God on the matter' as best they see it.  

At some point the clerk will attempt to summarise 'the feeling of the Meeting' in a draft minute.  The Meeting then has to discern whether the clerk has expressed what they sense the Meeting is feeling or how it can be better expressed.  The process continues until either all agree or the remaining dissenters agree that the meeting hasn't gone their way.

In 2014 an academic, Ben Pink Dandelion, was asked to give the Swarthmore lecture.  He gave a challenging address and the text was later expanded and published as a book, "Open to Transformation".  

Listening to his talk five years later, I was struck how many of his rigorous and difficult questions are being worked on today.  It seemed he was addressing an audience for whom these questions were new.  But I was listening, having come into Quaker groups for whom some, at least, were live issues.  Again, very Quakerly.  

Quakers will be reticent when it comes to describing transformation and be very wary of anyone who expresses it in terms of a goal or agenda.  But everyone agrees we are here to be transformed, even if going as far as "being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18) may be a matter of debate.

Quakers by Experience

His introduction grabbed my attention.  He said Quakers are united by four processes – more what is done to us than things we do.  We have experienced an Encounter with something we cannot describe and most definitely cannot pin down, something other than ourselves we cannot deny.  For most, I think, it comes and goes.  Sometimes so much absent that we can be tempted to dismiss the experience as illusion.  It certainly doesn't sit comfortably with the way our culture comprehends things.  But we find encouragement in finding Friends who know something of the same experience.

So we meet together in Worship.  Every week we gather in silence, often distracted, sometimes anticipating an Encounter.  When it happens it is always fresh, new, alive.  Like the proverbial river, no one can step into the same experience twice.  Worship is an opportunity to lay aside our usual concerns – the content of our lives – and let our awareness expand to catch a glimpse of what Hindus call THAT, the context we live within.  People who sense this and have something to say are encouraged to speak.  Usually the 'ministry' they give brings encouragement to us all, as we too can perhaps sense the touch of God.  Sometimes the meeting 'gathers'.  Gathered Worship has a wonderful, slightly eerie stillness about it.  Without apparent co-ordination we are severally caught up, as if our hearts are beating as one, united in the same being for a spell. 

Discernment comes most easily in a Meeting for Worship.  This is the sense that what has been said comes from a place deeper than any individual human spirit, but from a Spirit we all share.  I sense discernment as authentic when it feels like, "Of course!  How obvious now you've said it.  Why couldn't I see that before?"  As we agree in our discernment, there arises a confidence that we have dis-covered something of Truth.  It is an energising feeling and historically has been a powerful force for transforming idealistic notions into something concrete, bringing a bit of Goodness into the world.

Which is Quaker Testimony.  Ben Pink Dandelion questioned the separation of Testimonies we have today.  He said we are Testimony in that it is our lives expressing themselves, much deeper than how we behave.  Inevitably it spills over into what we do.  How could it be otherwise?  Simplicity, truth, equality, peace and sustainability are what Quaker Testimony looks like in different circumstances.

Forgive the Americanism, but someone once said to me, "She's a neat energy to be around".  That's Testimony.  It testifies to transformation – being more than ordinarily human – living from a deeper well-spring.  Such people not only show Discernment but make it easy for those around them, too.  When they are sitting in silence, being with them is to share their 'open heaven'; being open to the grace of God becomes the most natural way to be.  Sporadic Encounter has become a 'walking alongside'.

Simple not Simplistic

From sitting in stillness to transforming our world – making it a good place to be – is not a path that can be traced simplistically, as a chain of cause and effect.  It is the life of a community, not the activities of a collection of individuals.  So it doesn't happen often in our secular, individualistic culture.  (And as Ben Pink Dandelion rightly pointed out, Quakers are not immune to those diseases.)  But when Encounter in Worship uses Discernment to become Testimony, the world gets changed.  That's transformation worth having.

Saturday 6 January 2018

A Story of Life and Death. And Life...

There are no people in this story, just cliffs and rocks, sand and water.  A whole ocean of water.  And it assumes that all life, from a single cell bacterium to the most complex mammal, is in the business of being and becoming itself.

Each of our lives are like a tide, it comes in and it goes out.  But perhaps not quite as we think.  For we think our life belongs to us, when actually we belong to life.

Our story begins when our tide is out.  The waters are low across the ocean but the pressure of water far away and the pull of the moon further away are already building momentum.  As the tide starts to rise, our story too begins, with our parents developing in capacity, strength and vigour.  Midway into the tide's flow, our parents' life peaks (at around 25 or so) when their striving in the world has prepared a life we children can be born into.

Life comes from life.  We are already alive before we are alive.  Every one of our parents' cells are living.  A live egg encounters a live sperm and those lives are changed, becoming a unique, different life.  While our tide is rising, we are born into that rising tide.  We grow in capacity, strength and vigour until our tide reaches its peak, at around 25 or so.

Some tides rise in stormy conditions and in some places waves at high tide batter cliffs made during other high tides.  Some of those waves bring down mighty rocks.  But most of us are born in gentler times.  Our impact is more like moving sand, smoothing pebbles, perhaps leaving a little flotsam behind.

But before we know it, our tide has turned.  As we approach 50 we notice our strength ebbing.  We still strive, but the urgency has gone out of it.  For we suspect life is about more than simply succeeding.

This second half of the ebbing tide is a time few notice and even fewer value.  Yet it is the time of greatest opportunity.  Greater than anything we can ever do.  We are approaching an horizon we cannot see beyond.  We will not see another tide, just the receding of this one.  But if we are lucky we can learn to die before we die.  This is the best time of life to realise (make real) what the words 'life' and 'death' actually mean.

The undercurrent is stronger than any incoming waves, though that too will soon weaken.  The water that rushed up the shore has almost all returned to the ocean.  With nothing else going on, perhaps we can pay attention to our receding water as it falls back into the deep.  The tide will come again, we will not.

Or perhaps (despite what everyone seems to think) our life never was our activity on the shoreline?  Haven't we always been the water, urged first forth then back, part of a rising and falling that is wider and bigger than our understanding?

There is still a little time left to enjoy life without the narrowed mind inevitably created by striving and knowing, wanting and doing.  Things are just as they are, and all is remarkably well.  Sometimes there are storms, sometimes stillness.  But always change, always Life, forever being and becoming itself.

Monday 3 August 2015

Cain and Abel Build a House

What do we know about Cain and Abel?  The Bible doesn't tell us much.  We know they shared the same genetic material, being brothers.  We know Cain kept animals while Abel grew crops.  And, of course, Cain killed Abel out of jealousy.

This is the story of a modern day Cain and Abel.  Their father had plenty of land, enough for Abel to farm and Cain to graze his herds.  But as young men they wanted their own place, distinct from the family home.  So they planned to build a house together.

Cain, the eldest, always took the lead.  Abel had pleasant enough features and they were both healthy young men.  But Cain was strikingly good looking with a confident charm the girls found irresistible.  Abel was married first, though.  Cain attracted people who were forever aspiring to bigger and better things. Meanwhile, Abel tended to be content, whether he had much or little.  He got on better with people who understood that "good enough" was, actually, good enough.

So Cain chose the site.  They had camped there as children.  It was a patch of raised ground in the shelter of a wood, within sight of a brook that wound downward through the valley.  It was a good place and Abel wanted to live in their new home from the beginning.

Cain thought Abel was stupid, putting up his tent right on the place where the house would be.  How could he make a comfortable home there?  He would have to move it as soon as they started building the foundations.  And so it proved.  The plan Cain drew up had a load bearing wall going through a corner of Abel's tent.  It was the best place for it, so Abel and his girlfriend were happy to move.  They were just glad it was actually going ahead.

Building took much longer than they thought.  Farming is hard work.  So they could only work on the house in their spare time.  While the stone walls grew slowly around Abel's tent, months turned into years.  They both married and tents were extended as children came on the scene.  Cain was proud of his now extensive pavilion, with all the comforts of home.

Abel simply added extensions to his tent as needed.  The canvas was spattered with mortar, covered with muddy footprints and stained where a bucket had fallen on it.  They kept only necessities so they could easily move from one place to another.  For they had to keep clear of the focus of work as it shifted around them.  Abel's family were literally living in a building site, so they spend much of their time getting on with building their home, while Cain and his family spent most of their time at home in their comfortable pavilion.

There was surprisingly little animosity between such different families.  Abel was never able to articulate what he felt, and his brother couldn't understand why anyone would want to live that way.  For Abel, being at home meant being where you belong, however uncomfortable that might be.  Cain, on the other hand, saw home as a place where life should be easy, all problems were sorted out and you could feel safe.  So both brothers were happy because each felt they were creating the home they wanted. 

The turning point came for Abel's family when the roof was finished.  The house was without timber floors, windows or plumbing, so Cain still thought of it as a mere shell.  But the first night Abel and his wife went to bed under canvas that had a roof over it, they burst out laughing.  Cain probably thought Abel's lot were mad as their children ran in to join the celebration.  That night the walls rang with laughter as, despite draughts and dirt, they sang and danced throughtout their new home.

Eventually, every room had windows, central heating and decor that met with Cain's wife's approval.  Cain chose the best rooms and moved their abundant possessions into more than their fair share of the house.  Abel's family weren't envious.  They happily accepted Cain's need to be superior and didn't need as much room.  Besides, they too were living their dream.  They'd had space for a while.  Now they had warmth, running water and best of all, others to share it with.

Unfortunately, Cain, who had chosen to live detached from the construction, could never shake the feeling of being an outsider in his own house.  Abel did nothing to antagonise him, even going out of his way to make him and his family welcome.  But Cain was unable to get passed the fact that Abel's family had grown up in this house while Cain's had moved into a home that already existed without them.  That festering sore turned to jealousy then murder.

After Abel er, died, his family feared for their lives and fled.  So the house because Cain's family's home from one generation to the next.  But genetics will out.  From time to time, a misfit was born into the family.  Someone who felt no need to strive and saw things from the inside. While those around seemed more aware of the surface of things, these descendants of Abel's father knew the joyous treasure within as the most natural thing in the world.