Sunday, May 05, 2013

That degree of grace…


Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661, in Quaker Faith and Practice 26.70

Surrender. There is that, I think, in the heart of each of us that longs for surrender, try as we may to avoid it. We are taught from an early age that surrender equals defeat, that the valiant never surrender, and so on, but in the hands of the living God surrender is the only valour possible.

In the end, none of us will be able to hold on to our own willing, our own running, our own desiring; and if we reach that last hour trying to do so, what will become of us? But the joy of surrender to the God whose love holds us, and heals us, and sustains us, just as in it all things hold together (Colossians 1.17) will never end, and will flow almost imperceptibly into that Light.

I think that mercy, loving-kindness, can proceed only from surrender. It is only in relinquishing our own clinging, our own self-will, that we can become open enough, small enough before God, to suffer with (which is what the word compassion means) those who are small and helpless, and in need of mercy themselves, and to stand still enough to become places where that healing Light can break into the darkness of pain and loss, at whatever cost to ourselves that may involve.

It is a circular argument. Only by grace can we come to that degree of surrender, that pitch of courage; yet only true surrender is open enough to receive that degree of grace…

(Photo: Bembridge Lifeboat Station, Isle of Wight – Mike Farley)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

“The silent assemblies of God’s people…”

Robert Barclay (1648-1690), who wrote the first systematic exposition of Quaker theology, shows how knowledge comes from worship:

Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life. For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed; and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the knowledge and understanding of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful.

Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.21

“For, when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people…” So it has proved to be for me. Thinking about Meeting for Worship this morning, immediately afterwards, I found that I had no words at all for what had passed, and yet I knew that it had been a profoundly affecting time – beyond describing, or even what we normally understand by memory. I know that I am different, that things I had failed to understand or admit to myself are now clear, as if a layer of dust or sediment had been blown clear, and yet I cannot explain to myself, let alone anyone else, how that might have happened. I find myself strangely weak, defenceless, and yet equally strangely at rest in God’s hand. Truly, the Spirit has ways we not only fail to understand, but have no means of understanding. Perhaps even Scripture is of little help to us here, except by showing us (e.g. John 3.8) how little we can expect to grasp of the Spirit’s ways. Robert Barclay comes far closer to it than I could hope to…

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Idolatry or openness?

Almost all religion begins with a specific encounter with something that feels “holy” or transcendent: a place, an emotion, an image, music, a liturgy, an idea that suddenly gives you access to God’s Bigger World. The natural and universal response is to “idolize” and idealize that event. It becomes sacred for you, and it surely is. The only mistake is that too many then conclude that this is the way, the best way, the superior way, the “only” way for everybody—that I myself just happen to have discovered. Then, they must both protect their idol and spread this exclusive way to others. (They normally have no concrete evidence whatsoever that other people have not also encountered the holy.)

The false leap of logic is that other places, images, liturgies, scriptures, or ideas can not give you access. “We forbid them to give you access; it is impossible,” we seem to say! Thus much religion wastes far too much time trying to separate itself from—and create “purity codes” against—what is perceived as secular, bad, heretical, dangerous, “other,” or wrong. Jesus had no patience with such immature and exclusionary religion, yet it is still a most common form to this day. Idolatry has been called the only constant and real sin of the entire Old Testament, and idolatry is whenever we make something god that is not God, or whenever we make the means into an end. Any attempt to create our own “golden calf” is usually first-half-of-life religion, and eventually false religion.

Richard Rohr, June 2012

The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life... Under this church ... are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts... There may be members therefore of this Catholic church both among heathens, Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who ... are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God, and there-through become true members of this Catholic church.

Robert Barclay, 1678

God is so very much greater than our minds can themselves comprehend that it is simply foolish to feel we can legislate how he may or may not communicate with our fellow human beings. It is also very shortsighted indeed if we feel that we can legislate where our fellow Christians may or may not turn for inspiration and comfort along their spiritual journey. To say, “You mustn’t read that, it’s influenced by another faith!” or, “You may not publish that, we have withheld our imprimatur!” is so far from Christ’s way (consider his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4.1-42), and its consequences) that it is one of the great acts of unfaithfulness, not to mention foot-marksmanship, in the history of the church.

May we be known by our generosity, our open-heartedness, to all women and men of spiritual yearning, of whichever faith, or none. May we become a refuge and a comfort to them, through the indwelling Christ who loves through us… and may they be a challenge, a comfort and an inspiration to us too.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Love was what he meant…*

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.

In worship we enter with reverence into communion with God and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Come to meeting for worship with heart and mind prepared. Yield yourself and all your outward concerns to God's guidance so that you may find 'the evil weakening in you and the good raised up'.

Advices & Queries 1,9


Love. The promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Surely it all comes down to this. “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4.16b)

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1.15-17)

If in God all things hold together, then as God is love, all things hold together, coinhere, in love. The presence of God must surround all that is, bathing each quantum in love. In all that rejoices, God is there, rejoicing. In all that suffers, God is there, suffering. (Thibault, Peter Abelard’s friend in Helen Waddell’s eponymous novel, understood this. You can read the heart-breaking passage here.)

Since God is love, then in the end we cannot fall out of love, any more than we could escape God. And so in worship, in the silence for which I long so much these days, we yield ourselves to the love that is before all things…

*Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love Ch.86

Picture: Mike Farley

Friday, April 05, 2013

Explaining prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed throughout his life, death and resurrection.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

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)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God not be moved to the good, finally (Romans 8.28) of those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.

(Michael Ramsey, Canterbury Pilgrim)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Walking cheerfully over the world…


The Truth is one and the same always, and though ages and generations pass away, and one generation goes and another comes, yet the word and power and spirit of the living God endures for ever, and is the same and never changes.

Margaret Fell – Quaker Faith & Practice 19.61

Your word, Lord, is eternal;
    it stands firm in the heavens.
Your faithfulness continues through all generations;
    you established the earth, and it endures.
Your laws endure to this day,
    for all things serve you.
If your law had not been my delight,
    I would have perished in my affliction.
I will never forget your precepts,
    for by them you have preserved my life.

(Psalm 119.89-93)

I take immense comfort in this knowledge of God’s permanence, his being eternal. All things change, and decay; God is not a thing, but the ground of all thing-ness. He (for my purposes, the pronoun will do as well as another – none of them is really up the task) seems to hold isness itself like a cup; in traditional metaphor, in the palm of his hand.

This God who, self-existent, is the source of all being, is not distant. Were it not for his intimacy with the universe of things, I don’t suppose there would be a way for them to be. But there is “that of God in everyone” – the same Spirit is the light in the eyes of each of us, it seems to me, human and animal, all that lives.

Once something like this comes to be a part of us, nothing can be the same again. Once we live our own lives out of this source – out of the same source as matter, energy, stars and the contents of intergalactic space – “then [we shall] come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox, Quaker Faith & Practice 19.32)

Photo: The Banjo Pier, Swanage, in winter – Mike Farley

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

We are always waiting for the Holy Spirit…

We are always waiting for the Holy Spirit—somehow forgetting that the Spirit was given to us from the very beginning. In fact, she was “hovering over the chaos” in the very first lines of Genesis (1:2), soon turning the “formless void” into a Garden of Eden.

We are threatened by anything that we cannot control, that part of God “which blows where it will” (John 3:8) and which our theologies and churches can never perfectly predict nor inhibit (Acts 10:44-48). The Holy Spirit has rightly been called the forgotten or denied Person of the Blessed Trinity. We cannot sense the Spirit, like we cannot see air, silence, and the space between everything. We look for God “out there” and the Spirit is always “in here” and “in between” everything. Now even science is revealing to us that the energy of the universe is not in the particles or planets—but in the relational space between them! And we are having a hard time measuring it, controlling it, predicting it, or inhibiting it. It sounds an awful lot like Spirit.

Richard Rohr

Perhaps this is in part why the Quakers, open as they have always been to the movements of the Spirit, had such a difficult early history. For so many years I have felt that I was seeking the Holy Spirit, trying to find circumstances where I could put myself in the way of the Spirit, listening for a hint of the wind rising, the cry of the wild goose across the marshes.

Listening. I had not thought to listen together. I was familiar with the Vineyard sense of the Spirit’s presence in (musical) worship, or in corporate prayer, but I had always assumed that actually hearing the Spirit was something that would happen not only in silence but in solitude, as indeed it does. But it had not occurred to me that a group of women and men meeting together would provide something like a radio telescope array, whose listening power would be enlarged not despite but because of their differences, in a kind of spiritual interferometry.

Silence is becoming more and more my own default position. I long for silence with a clarity that it’s taken me a long time to admit to myself, and which is perhaps not so much a longing for silence in and of itself, but a longing for the Spirit who is not only always present, but is always seeking us. Silence is the heart’s opening to that call, so gentle as to be imperceptible in the scuttle and click of busyness, the hastiness of speaking…

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Under the clouded sky...

It is difficult for us to reconcile the two ideas of God as a loving Father and as the Creator of all things, because of the existence of cruelty and undeserved suffering in Nature itself. Jesus apparently did take for granted the idea that God controlled the rising of the sun and falling of the rain and had made us male and female. It makes me long to have him here now so that I could ask him some of the questions that his disciples didn’t ask him. In fact I find that I am talking to him in my mind and that it is a great deal more profitable than talking to myself; even though it is, in one sense, talking to myself; and even though I don’t get the answers to the questions that puzzle me. But that doesn’t worry me now, because I have learned, as a scientist, how much I don’t understand. I have learned too that when a scientist encounters two apparently irreconcilable ideas, these are the stepping stones to new knowledge.
Kathleen Lonsdale, 1962 (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.23)

I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you can rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff...
Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
The wonder is that we go on from day to day, wondering where to have lunch, planning our next day, discussing the relative merits of different operating systems; and all the while light pours through the interstices of all that is, scouring our eyes, hosing clean our hearts if only we will turn to it, and singing this strange, clear note that says, over and over again, despite everything we think 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)

Grace upon grace, out of pleroma—out of a fullness we cannot begin to comprehend, out of some well of isness that dwarfs all we know of space or time, comes a love so incarnate, so utterly bone of our bones, that the breath is driven from our lungs, and we gasp for the gift of air, of life, of all that is. That is all, really, that anyone can say. The rest is experience, experiment, practice, day after tiny day, little as we are ourselves. Just the quiet ways of faith, under the ivy, under the clouded sky...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Jacob's Well

“Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon...” (John 4.4-6)

Jacob’s well is a thin place. Even after all these years, with the accretions of centuries, and the Eastern Orthodox monastery of Nablus built over it, the deep well is just as it would have been when Jesus met the unnamed Samaritan woman there over two thousand years ago. To stand there, beside the worn stones of the kerb, and watch as the icy cold, clear water is drawn up by bucket, is a strange experience. For an instant, the poky candlelit crypt seems to split apart, and the sunlit dusty hillside above the town is open again to their words:
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’
‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’ (John 4.19-24)
The light in the Holy Land is extraordinary. Somehow it is more than just light. I looked through the photographs I took of that day, hoping to find one to illustrate this—but they don’t show the actinic quality that transforms time, threads the instants on a braid of isness, stretches the breath to hold truth between the rise and fall of one’s chest.

“ the Spirit and in truth.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Love in the realm of freedom

“Love can only happen in the realm of freedom, and ever-expanding freedom at that.” (Richard Rohr, The Four Gospels)

We are so used to the expression, “God is love” (1 John 4.8) that we often do no stop to think what this means in practice. Or possibly we do think, and that is the problem.

In human relationships we do not think ourselves into love by reasoning about the suitability of a potential partner, nor do we sit down and work out the advantages and disadvantages of being in love before we fall in love. We spend time with someone, and suddenly we discover, sometimes to our complete surprise, that we are in love with them.

If God is love, how can we find him by reason? How can we fall into that love with him by accepting a set of propositions, or by acceding to a set of regulations?

True love between humans is profoundly opposed to rules and regulations - hence so many tragic stories based on love that breaks the rules, or is broken by them - and yet we bind religion (the very word implies binding) with creeds, dogmas, commandments... Poor God! How his love goes unrequited among religious folk, unreturned, unknown in so many places of worship.

It is only when we know God, in true worship, that that truth will set us free (John 8.32).

At Jacob’s well, Jesus sat talking with a Samaritan woman (John 4.1ff.) who asked him (vv. 19-20) where God should properly be worshipped - on the mountain there, or at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus replies, “...a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Truth is freedom, just as the Spirit is. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3.8)

True worship sets us free, as true love does its beloved. True love is a great adventure, and so is true worship - perhaps the greatest adventure, out on the endless sea of God’s own undying love...

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

In the darkness?

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” ( John 1.5) 
For me, the darkness is at least as much my unknowing as it is any externally imagined source of evil. Unknowing can be turning away from knowing, closing one’s eyes to the light; or it can be simply the incapacity, the sheer tininess of the human mind before the isness of God.

The light, however, shines with uninterrupted love and presence. Christ is not limited, and his mercy does not depend on our receptiveness, or even on our repentance - much as it may lead in the end to that.

The light isn’t anything we may see by the light, and to dwell on what it shows us is plainly to miss the point. “Mind the light” - that is our job. At the last, that may be all that does matter...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Listening to the Light

Quakers are often thought of as being a withdrawn or closed group of people. Some even think that we have died out. We haven’t. We are still here, and still leavening the world around us...
Quakerism is a part of the European Christian mystical tradition which combines spirituality with the practical life, and its particular insights give it a universal appeal with is particularly relevant to today’s world. As a specific movement it started around the mid-seventeenth century. It arose out of the searching by many people for a religious voice that was true to the Holy Spirit... The famous Quaker historian, Rufus Jones, has shown that Quakerism was a part of the stream of mysticism which started with Dionysius and included Jacob Boehme, St Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart and the Friends of God... In reality, the founder of the Quaker movement was - and is, for it has to be discovered anew in each generation—the Holy Spirit...
Light is a very important Universal symbol. It is not limited to Quakers, but we use it in a very specific way, as another name for Christ, the divine within all creation... Sometimes the light is seen as a peaceful symbol, gently showing the way ahead, or filling us with wisdom and healing, and sometimes it is the fire which burns up all the old self, to allow the Divine to manifest... 
Jim Pym, Listening to the Light
Light. It was my very first experience of Christ, when I sat down in an old ruined walled garden at the age of 31, and at last admitted that I was to be a Christian. It is still my experience of him—at times an almost physical light, beating through my closed eyes like sudden sunlight, a totally real and immediate experience of what Paul wrote in Romans 8.9, “you... are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.”

There is an old Quaker phrase, itself borrowed from the Collegiant Will Ames, “Mind the Light.” It has come to have an increasing resonance for me. It means, of course, to turn one’s mind to the light, and not to what it may (spiritually) illuminate—but is also means “look out for the light!”—for that light will burn, and it is hard sometimes to sit still under it, as I now know to my (actually blessed) cost!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Experiment with Light

One of the most powerful aspects of working with the ‘Experiment with Light’ was the experience of knowing in a group when we were hearing truth. This tallied exactly with my own experiences of authentic ritual and of ministry in a truly gathered meeting. There was a quality of depth to it, an authority that simply could not be argued with... And what was extraordinary to me (as a modern individual) was that in seeking truth in this way, the truth discovered was not an individual thing. Truth revealed in this way is not ‘my truth', which, once sensed within me I must assert against or above the truth others discover within; the truth I connect with when I truly surrender will lead me, if I am obedient to it, into unity with others - an experience central to Quakers from the earliest times. It is as if, like fragments of a hologram, we are all aspects of one whole and in the stillness of what we call Quaker worship we can get beneath our ego separations and be reminded of this greater pattern, whatever name we give to it. To live in the Light is to be open to this awareness and seek to be obedient to its guidance at all times.
From working with this process, I learnt that when I am supported (and challenged) to live in this more open way, I do not need to turn to others to be told what to do, I do not need to inhibit my deepest convictions, nor do I need to cling to structures – whether schedules or codified principles of behaviour – to guide me; the whole of my life becomes an experiment in obedience and discernment. Truth is then neither a philosophical notion nor a matter of ethical principles – even ones as worthy as Quaker testimonies. Such codifying of behaviour is actually the very opposite of the experience to which Quakerism points us, which is obedience to something alive and dependable within, a source of revelation available to all beyond any system of religious belief. This is surely what Penn meant by the 'one religion' of the poor and humble, just and meek (QPF, 19.28) – this was not prescriptive, how we should live, but descriptive, how we will live when we are 'dwelling in the light'.
Alex Wildwood, A Faith to Call our Own
One of the things that has simultaneously shocked and delighted me since becoming a Quaker attender in December last year has been just this awareness of the experiential – experimental – nature of faith when lived rather than professed, or assented to. Don't get me wrong – witness is as important as ever, maybe under certain circumstances more important than ever – but it is a witness to simple experience, rather than an act of witnessing to a system of belief, or a set of creedal statements.
This is not to say that beliefs are unimportant; Quakers see belief as so important that nothing second-hand will do. The authority for what one accepts is known within, and is not accepted from anyone else, whatever their status. The Quaker emphasis is on a shared search for truth, and a working out of faith within a challenging but supportive group. At its best, a meeting may include people whose theological views are mutually incompatible at many points, but who nevertheless work and worship together without any disharmony. (Lewes Quakers)
The title of this post is taken from a Quaker spiritual practice, but the insight it represents is of course hardly unique to Quakers – though the radical conclusion drawn may be! Richard Rohr wrote:
God's revelations are always pointed, concrete, and specific. They are not a Platonic world of ideas and theories about which you can be right or wrong, or observe from a distance. Divine Revelation is not something you measure or critique. It is not an ideology but a Presence you intuit and meet! It is more Someone than something.
All of this is called the “mystery of incarnation” - enfleshment or embodiment if you prefer – and for Christians it reaches its fullness in the incarnation of God in one ordinary-looking man named Jesus. God materialized in human form, so we could fall in love with a real person, which is the only way we fall in love at all. Walter Brueggemann called this clear Biblical pattern “the scandal of the particular.” We first get the truth in one specific ordinary place and moment (like the one man Jesus), and then we universalize from that to the universal truth (the cosmic Christ). Our Franciscan philosopher, John Duns Scotus, called this the principle of “thisness” (haecceity or haecceitas in Latin). We can only know in focused moments what is always and everywhere true.
Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 17
It seems ironical, doesn't it, that I am writing about not needing support from external authorities for what God shows me directly, while quoting extensively from my own reading? It's important, though, to understand that what I am saying here is a shared thing, and that I am in the company of f/Friends!

I have all my life tended to doubt myself, doubt my own insights, and to seek for that external authority for my own insights, and yet here I am confronted with an experience which I cannot even myself gainsay. Outside the Meeting, it seems to go on, this sense of being part of something (Wildwood's 'hologram') far greater than myself, and which joins me to so many others across time and space, even though we are in no human contact.

There is an old Quaker expression, “living adventurously.” Truly, Susan and I seem to be caught up in just that...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

That of God...

We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God's continuing creation.
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.
George Fox, 1656, from Advices & Queries: 42
You can call it God if you want, but you don't have to. Quantum consciousness will do. Nonlocality, tangled hierarchy, and discontinuity: these signatures of quantum consciousness have been independently verified by leading researchers worldwide. This experimental data and its conclusions inform us that it is the mistaken materialist view that is at the centre of most of our worlds problems today. To address these problems, we now have a science of spirituality that is fully verifiable and objective.
Amit Goswami

We do not live in a world set up by a blind watchmaker, slowly running down to some kind of unimaginable entropic stasis. What we live in is a network of appearances, beautiful beyond conceiving, subtle and aware, compassionate, even.

God is above all, and in all, as Thomas Aquinas explained. There is that of God in all of us, too (John 17.22-23). How can we doubt that what we do, what we do, think, feel, pray, affects, ultimately, everything?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Community in the Spirit...

We know the power of God’s Spirit at work in the lives of people within the community of our meetings. These people may have been drawn into the community by a sudden convincement, a long period of seeking, or have grown up within it from childhood. We also know that we are engaged in a life-long growth into faith, and experience a continuing irruption of grace into our lives which demands and sustains a commitment to a life of discipleship. We recognise this power at work in people of all ages, races and creeds: a transforming power which can issue in lives of joy, humility and service.

The concrete expression of the Holy Spirit is a strange thing, and perhaps lies at the root of all that is meant by the word incarnation. Traditionally the word is used of Christ, who “came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” (Nicene Creed) But God’s Spirit indwells us too (Luke 11.13; John 16.12ff) and works through us (Mark 13.11; Galatians 5.22-25); and it is the Spirit who fills us in worship, and changes us.
In just the short time I’ve been attending my local Quaker Meeting, the sense of stepping into a community has been palpable. I’ve encountered all kinds of Christian community over the years, of different sizes and degrees of intentionality; yet Quaker community, as I’ve begun to experience it, is something different again.

In the Meeting, under the spiritual leading that arises out of shared silence, the Spirit can weave that fabric called community in an extraordinarily concrete and palpable way.

George Gorman wrote:
One of the unexpected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.

If we are sensitive, we find that everything that happens to us, good or bad, can help us to build a vision of the meaning of life. We can be helped to be sensitive by reading the Bible and being open to experience of nature, music, books, painting, sport or whatever our particular interest may be. It is in and through all things that we hear God speaking to us. But I do not think I am alone in my certainty that it's in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.
But Quaker community is known most clearly and distinctively in silence, and it is out of that silence that all its works of peace and justice flow. The French Quaker Pierre Lacout wrote:
In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.

It’s into that silence that I’m increasingly drawn, sinking into it as into a long-lost home. I keep asking myself why it's taken so long...

Monday, February 04, 2013

Living Water…

It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel—in any denomination. Most of us just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, “Worship me!” whereas he frequently says, “Follow me” (e.g., Matthew 4:19).

Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Saviour” or continue to receive Sacraments in good standing. The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.

Richard Rohr, adapted from CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer (CD, DVD, MP3)

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.

(Quaker Faith & Practice – Advices & Queries 2)

We have become so used to reciting creeds, learning catechisms, and assenting to statements of belief, that we have nearly forgotten that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3.6) Organised religion can be a place of great comfort and safety—but it can be a place where Christ is hidden as much as revealed, for it is the Spirit of whom Jesus said, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” (John 16.12-15)

I can’t help but feel that for some people, or at certain times in people’s lives, all that is needed is silence and community. We are so much the creatures of our own words, so conditioned by the words that continually surround us, that we cannot think till we have the words for our thoughts, nor know what we have thought till we have the words to describe it. God calls us to be still, to rest in him (Psalm 46.10; Psalm 91.1). Only so can we hear the one whose native voice is silence, who speaks “in silence and in truth” (John 4.23-24)

I’m coming to long increasingly for this stillness, thirst for it really, with a kind of irresistible thirst. With the Samaritan woman (John 4.7-15), I long for that living water…

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I sat still under it and let it alone...

I have been trying to make sense of what has been happening over the last few weeks. This is hard going. The traditional language of Christian spirituality is so easy for me to use - I have become so fluent in it that it trips off the keyboard without a second thought - that I use it without a thought for those for whom it might be not only impenetrable, but even misleading.

What worries me though, is to what extent am I failing myself, pulling the wool over my own eyes over the whole question of faith, simply because I am so fluent in the language? Am I simply saying stuff because it sounds so good, so resonant and profound, but at the same time substituting this fluency for real thought, real feeling, for it is hard to know things without the language to describe them to oneself? It used not to be so. Maybe it isn’t, still - but the thought worries me.

Pam Lunn says (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.76):
There are those who can comfortably talk in Christian language, because they experience it deeply as expressing truth and reality as they perceive it. For them it is not ‘just a language’; it is the truth. The words used are inseparable from the underlying truths, the stories, the tradition, the nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
How can I try to find an authentic voice for the extraordinary events that are taking place within the area of me that I have become used to describing as “my faith”? Truly my experience of God, of who he is in Christ, and who Christ is in me (John 17.20, 25-26), is being simultaneously confirmed and deepened beyond anything I could have imagined even a few months ago, and turned upside down in a way that makes me feel deeply vertiginous.

Stillness and non-interference seems at the moment to be the answer:
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me...

Psalm 131.1 NIV
These words, too, from more than 360 years ago, seem to speak to my (much happier, though) condition more closely than most things I’ve read recently:
After this I returned into Nottinghamshire again and went into the Vale of Beavor... And one morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me and a temptation beset me; but I sat still. And it was said, ‘All things come by nature’; and the elements and stars came over me so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But inasmuch as I sat, still and silent, the people of the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope arose in me and a true voice, which said, ‘There is a living God who made all things’. And immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over it all, and my heart was glad, and I praised the living God.
George Fox, 1648

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Consider which of the ways...

Consider which of the ways to happiness offered by society are truly fulfilling and which are potentially corrupting and destructive. Be discriminating when choosing means of entertainment and information. Resist the desire to acquire possessions or income through unethical investment, speculation or games of chance.

We find ourselves living in a society which seems to place more value on “means of entertainment and information” than any other. Actually it has probably always been so, from the taverns of ancient Rome, through the gossip and broadsheets of the 18th century, to the newsreels and gossip columns of the 1950s and 60s.

For years, now, I have had an instinctive aversion to some streams of “entertainment and information”, fictional as well as factual. I don’t mean a narrow-minded disapproval here, so much as a genuine and at times extreme discomfort with things as various as Eastenders, most television news programmes, crime documentaries, contests, reality shows, and so on.

Trying to work out what was going on, especially in company when not joining in with these things could seem eccentric or priggish, I gradually came to realise that what I was so averse to was having my emotions manipulated by outside forces, whether authorial, editorial or societal. If I am confronted with genuine pain or distress, then by God’s grace I shall have a genuine emotional response, which can lead to a genuine and perhaps useful action on my part - but there is not usually any useful response possible to the distress of someone publicly embarrassed on a singing contest.

Part of this is probably due to what is sometimes pejoratively called hypersensitivity; part to the result of long prayer, which tends to peel away the hardened layers from the heart. Part is due no doubt to a simple instinct for self-preservation. It is terribly easy - and in this the Internet is complicit! - to open oneself to things that, while not obviously wrong or corrupt, readily damage the membranes of the soul; if I would avoid inhaling chlorine, shouldn’t I try and avoid them?

Isaac of Nineveh wrote:

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.
Be crucified, but do not crucify others.
Be slandered, but do not slander others.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.
Suffer with the sick.
Be afflicted with sinners.
Exult with those who repent.
Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.
Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.
Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.
Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.
And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place,
do not destroy their character.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Prayer is an exercise of the spirit, as thought is of the mind. To pray about anything is to use the powers of our spirit on it, just as to think clearly is to use our mental powers. For the best solution of every problem, the best carrying out of every action, both thought and prayer are necessary... To pray about any day’s work does not mean to ask success in it. It means, first to realise my own inability to do even a familiar job, as it truly should be done, unless I am in touch with eternity, unless I do it ‘unto God’, unless I have the Father with me. It means to see ‘my’ work as part of a whole, to see ‘myself’ as not mattering much, but my faith, the energy, will and striving, which I put into the work, as mattering a great deal. My faith is the point in me at which God comes into my work; through faith the work is given dignity and value. And if, through some weakness of mine, or fault of others, or just ‘unavoidable circumstances’, the work seems a failure, yet prayer is not wasted when it is unanswered, any more than love is wasted when it is unreturned. 
Mary F Smith, 1936, in Quaker Faith & Practice 20.08
Over the years many Friends have told me that they no longer need regular daily prayer. I don’t want to suggest that I am a better man or that there is only one way but simply that this has not been my experience. I am not emotionally strong, and the expected, and even more the unexpected, needs of patients, students, colleagues, family, friends and strangers leave me empty and exhausted. I could not face the next day without a time in which life is renewed. I shall not describe this in detail. The essence is regularity and time - time to reach down to the level where I can begin to see myself and my work straight, where that strength we call love can break through my anxiety and teach me how to respond instead of react, where I am not ruled by conscience but by Jesus the true man within; the level where I can accept my whole nature and forgive myself and others. Prayer alone can reopen the road to the spirit, blocked repeatedly by busyness, self-importance, self-indulgence, self-pity, depression or despair.
Donald Court, 1970, in Quaker Faith & Practice 20.09
Love silence, even in the mind... Much speaking, as much thinking, spends; and in many thoughts, as well as words, there is sin. True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.
William Penn, 1699, Quaker Faith & Practice 20.11

More and more the Quaker understanding of prayer and worship makes sense to me. To relate directly with God, without the need for classification, ritual, equipment (physical as well as intellectual) lies at the root of all contemplative prayer—and here is a group of people who have based their entire lives on this principle for several hundred years. Experience of worshipping with them alone teaches that this is a vital, living way of unmediated encounter with God. I have found myself comparing it to sticking my finger in an electric socket.

Being stuck at home this Sunday with a dreadful head cold has been an unexpected blessing. Neither able to take part in regular worship at my own local church, nor attend the Friends’ Local Meeting, I have been thinking, and reading, and it seems right to share these few things here. With God’s grace I shall continue these investigations, and when something more crops up that seems good to share on this blog, that’s what I shall do. As always, your prayers are truly valued.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Healing the vision...

One of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life is self-rejection. When we say, "If people really knew me, they wouldn't love me," we choose the road toward darkness. Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God's eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God's beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth...

(with thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

So often in my life I have felt that the insights, hints, leadings I have felt could not be real or important since it was I who was having them. Consistently I have ignored the those who would encourage me, and have given credence to those who would convince me of the unreliability of my own intuitions.

It is tempting to psychoanalyse myself here, to blame those in my upbringing, at school and elsewhere, who encouraged such a mindset. These things may in part be true, but what good would it do to ascribe them to people who have since died, and to institutions since dispersed? Nouwen puts his finger on it here: the way into God's calling is by means of his love: "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3.26-28) "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" (Romans 8.35)

... love was mediated to me, in the first place, by those with whom I worshipped. For my journey was not solitary, but one undertaken with my friends as we moved towards each other and together travelled inwards. Yet I knew that the love that held me could not be limited to the mutual love and care we had for each other. It was a signal of transcendence that pointed beyond itself to the source of all life and love.

George Gorman, 1973

It is surrender to Christ's love, to its presence in each one of us as the Holy Spirit gives us grace to see it, that brings about the restoration of vision and trust. As one recognises that of Christ within each of us, even within ourselves, we somehow come to trust not only the God by whose love we are held, but we ourselves whom he has loved so much...

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Justice by any other name...

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Quaker Faith & Practice 1. Advices and Queries: 17

It seems to me that the contemplative way, even perhaps the way of Christ itself, is summed up in these words. Certainly it seems to have been how our Lord treated others himself (see e.g Mark 7.24ff; John 4.1-42) and it is exactly this quality of open-heartedness that contemplative prayer seems to foster.

Defensiveness in matters of faith seems to be an endless problem. Fundamentalists of whichever faith seem to suffer from it, and along with it seems to go a deep distrust of the contemplative life. One can see this, for instance, in the persecution of Sufis by Islamic fundamentalists, and the online campaigns mounted against Christian contemplative prayer a few years ago by Christian fundamentalist groups in the USA. Of course contemplation is worrying to fundamentalists - it is the openness and well, fairness, that it seems to engender that is so threatening to a mindset "which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged." (McGrath & McGrath, 2007)

 Justice is another name, it seems, for vulnerability - for that is where openness leads. The heart is God's own place, and true prayer opens the heart to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. There doesn't seem to be any other way...