Spiritual practice for uncertain times

2016 has given me much to be thankful for: the birth of my nephew, a year of continuing job satisfaction and being part of a vibrant faith community are at the top of my list. 2016 has also been a disturbing and troubling year. The continuing escalation of the refugee crisis, climate disruption and global terrorism; the rise of figures like Farage and Trump and their fear-mongering rhetoric; continuing cuts to public services and divisions revealed by the EU referendum… Of course all times are uncertain, but for someone like me, who has only known comfort and security, who once believed that humanity was progressing towards ever higher moral standards, 2016 is a wake-up call.

5_9_16_andrea_tempspiraledhawkins

There are two obvious responses to this sobering list of events. One is to escape into despair. The other is to escape into denial. Though apparently polar opposites, both seek a kind of numbness. If everything is terrible and nothing can be fixed, then why bother? If everything is fine (or will work out alright in the end), then what fixing is there to do? Both responses result in ‘business as usual’.

How can we walk the tightrope between them, neither giving into despair (which is nothing less than functional atheism) nor escaping into denial (which is nothing more than cheap religion)?

I find a useful starting place in the words of those who also knew they were living in uncertain times. This post is basically about finding hope, and although we think of hope as being about the future, our grounds for hope are rooted in the past. Reading the words of people like C S Lewis and Thomas Kelly, who wrote in the shadow of World War II, shows me how my spiritual ancestors remained hopeful in the face of troubles far greater than mine. In 1939, in a lecture entitled ‘Holy Obedience’, Kelly said that:

An awful solemnity is upon the earth, for the last vestige of earthly security is gone. It has always been gone, and religion has always said so, but we haven’t believed it. And some of us Quakers are not yet undeceived, and childishly expect our little cushions for our little bodies, in a world inflamed with untold ulcers. Be not fooled by the pleasantness of the Main Line life, and the niceness of Germantown existence, and the quiet coolness of your well-furnished homes. For the plagues of Egypt are upon the world, entering hovel and palace, and there is no escape for you or for me…

…In my deepest heart I know that some of us have to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or it may not mean change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will have to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the “Eternal Internal” which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk of the Middle Ages.[1]

At the end of the year, I am asking myself: How do I respond to the challenges of 2016 as a person of faith? How can I equip myself to live a hopeful response to ‘a world inflamed with untold ulcers’?

20151030_syrians_and_iraq_refugees_arrive_at_skala_sykamias_lesvos_greece_2
Syrian and Iraqi refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos

What do I mean by spiritual practice?

I think another way of interpreting Thomas Kelly’s call to ‘holy obedience’ is as a call to spiritual practice. But what does that mean?

In a previous post I wrote how everything is spiritual:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word translated as spirit is ר֫וּחַ (ruarc), meaning spirit, wind or breath… In the New Testament, the Koine Greek word for the same concept is πνεῦμα (pneuma)…

Just being alive makes you a spiritual being! You can’t have a distinct ‘spiritual life’, your whole life is spiritual, whether you like it or not. Everything we do impacts on our spirituality, for good or ill. Just as we all have ethnicity or mental health, we are all spiritual.

I’d like to add an important detail. The word ‘spiritual’ does not refer solely to something good. Although we may associate it with scented candles and ‘inner peace’, the ‘spiritual’ encompasses much more. Scripture speaks of all manner of spiritual forces at work in the world, some incredibly malevolent and harmful:

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [Eph 6:11-12]

In his book ‘The Powers That Be’[2], theologian Walter Wink has done good work in making the language of the angelic and demonic palatable to modern ears. He writes of every group of people having a corporate spirituality, an ‘angel’ [Rev 2:1], that as well as being good can also be fallen. The spiritual is not confined to the interior life of an individual. If everything is spiritual, then we can speak of the spirituality of private prayer, a sexual relationship, a yoga class, a political rally or an armed insurgence.

vigil_to_unite_in_the_wake_of_the_orlando_pulse_shooting_27358803690
A vigil after the Orlando Pulse shooting in June 2016

Apocalyptic spirituality

So within this wide definition of the spiritual, how do we engage in spiritual practice that navigates between despair and denial? How do we make sure that we aren’t using spiritual practice to blind us to our own oppression, or our own complicity with ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness’? What are we to make of the use of mindfulness by the armed forces, or by schools?

I believe we need spiritual practices that are apocalyptic. I use apocalyptic not as its commonly misconstrued – as the cataclysmic destruction of the world, four horsemen and all – but in its original meaning of ‘revealing’. It means to draw back the curtain, to unveil. An apocalyptic spirituality is about dispelling illusions and deception. We need spiritual practices that reveal the truth – about God, about ourselves, about the world we live in. Truth telling is often an uncomfortable experience, so only engaging in practices that make us feel warm and fuzzy is an act of denial and self-deception.

We need to see things clearly in order to be Kingdom-seeking, which according to Jesus should be our first concern [Matt 6:33]. The Kingdom of God should be the goal of all our spiritual practice. This means we must abandon all other ultimate ends: our individual ‘salvation’, gaining secret spiritual/esoteric knowledge etc. I really like feeling happy and feeling good in myself, but my own happiness can never be the ultimate goal. Happiness can only be an aim of spiritual practice in as much as it helps us in our Kingdom-seeking.

Of course, all of this must be undergirded by love, for without love we are nothing [1 Cor. 13:1-3].

apocalypse_vasnetsov
Are we living in apocalyptic times? Sort of…

Good, fallen and redeemable

Borrowing from Wink again, I believe we need personal and corporate spiritual practices that do the following three things:

  • Affirm the goodness of creation

As a ‘this-worldly’ tradition, Quakers are very good at this. We strongly affirm ‘that of God in everyone’, and acknowledge not just the goodness of the natural world and of ourselves, but of our enemies and the ‘other’. This comes through strongly in our peace work and work with sex-offenders. The Quaker practice of non-violence is often posited on the inherent goodness of all.

Quakers are right to do these things. However, to focus only on the goodness is to indulge in cheap, false hope. Saying ‘everything will be alright’ without taking sin and evil seriously is an empty statement. It is an escape into denial.

  • Affirm the fallen-ness of creation

As a community with a very positive view of the human condition, Quakers are less good at this. With our vocabulary of Light, we can talk about darkness, but I don’t hear ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ spoken of often. Neither are we comfortable talking about boundaries, about what is and is not good or evil.

We need to acknowledge that everything is broken, not intrinsically evil but perverted, fallen. Sin is to ‘fall short’, and we’re all caught up in it.

To focus solely on the world’s fallen-ness is to escape into despair. We can only say that creation is fallen because it is also good. The goodness and the fallen-ness must be held in tension in order for us to walk the tightrope between despair and denial.

  • Affirm the redemption of creation

Because creation is both good and fallen, it is also redeemable. When we hold all of these together, we can say with Julian of Norwich ‘all will be well’. Terrible things may happen, sacrifices will have to be made, there will be suffering and loss and hard work, but ‘all manner of things will be well’. This is real, costly hope.

What can we learn from those who, through their hard work and risk taking, reveal the Light that the darkness cannot extinguish? Where do we see people working for reconciliation between divided peoples? Where do we see people risking arrest to testify against the use of weapons of mass destruction? Where do we see God making all things new?

st_michaels_church_calais_jungle_entrance
St Michael’s Church in the recently dismantled refugee camp (the ‘Jungle)’ in Calais

The time that is called Christmas…

If everything is spiritual, then Christmas is a spiritual practice. Is our Christmas apocalyptic, or an act of self-deception? Are we making the connection between the refugee family at the heart of the Christmas story, and the refugees and displaced people of today? Are we seeking the Kingdom in our celebrations? Are we able to hear and live out the whole Christmas story – the good, the fallen and the reconciled? In a world full of jealous, murderous Herods, God is tearing back the sky – heaven and earth colliding in an intimate embrace of shalom. Let’s train ourselves to see it.

[1] Thomas Raymond Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, Reprint edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1941).

[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, New edition edition (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 2000).

Quakers and the theological dinner party

2016 has seen my blogging rate slow considerably. Apologies dear reader! When I started the blog I worked a 3-day week (those were the days!) and now I have a full time job. Since October, the blogging time I had left over after domestic duties has now been taken up with a rather intense three year project – I’ve started a part-time, distance masters degree in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. My life is now well and truly full.

Quakers and theology

This feels like quite an admission to make as a Quaker. In my experience, theology is not the most welcome of words amongst Friends. Quaker responses to theology appear to range from ‘what is it?’ to ‘we don’t need it’ to ‘theology is a Bad Thing’. To be fair, theology has always had a bad press amongst Friends. Margaret Benefiel offers five reasons why Early Quakers where suspicious of theology:[1]

  1. It was a distraction from real spiritual experience
  2. ‘The available theologies were the production of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically-influenced church councils’
  3. Theology is used as a tool of oppression and to enforce conformity
  4. Academic theology is obscure and obfuscates the truth
  5. Theological speculation creates sceptics

I agree with all of these points – I think… I’ve definitely seen bad theology used harmfully, and read some very wordy and confusing academic articles. So why would I get involved in this theology thing? I can put it best by saying my 15 years with Friends have left me theologically underfed, or have made me hungry for something more than Friends seem to be able to give me. I’m so excited to be getting my teeth into it. I recently wrote on Facebook:

‘…I’ve read several pages of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ and I’m entranced! He talks about a creation infused with God like a sponge infused with seawater; he interprets his spiritual journey through scripture; he talks about looking within and seeing a transcendent Light greater than all natural lights, and he has a very positive view of the goodness of creation. What, Augustine, a Quaker?! Favourite bit so far is when God says to Augustine – ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’ Is that a hint of theosis I detect Gus?’

As well as the joy of discovering the inspiring thoughts of past thinkers, questions are being thrown up here and there. I’m discovering that liberal Quakers’ emphasis on spiritual experience has its roots in Rufus Jones, William James and 19th century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Over the last century, Schleiermacher has been roundly challenged by theologians like Karl Barth. I want to ask how we make sense of our religious understanding in the light of this conversation? And Barth seems to have some quite Quakery things to say about revelation… I feel like a ‘seeker’ again.

download1
Augustine’s hummus is gross but he makes a mean trifle

The theological dinner party

I find it very helpful to think of the tradition of theology as a conversation between the living and the dead. Quaker theologian Rachel Muers writes of Quaker theology as a Meeting for Worship across time, listening for what truth needs to be heard in each voice from the past. I like this image very much. I’m also drawn to the picture of theology as a dinner party, as adding food always makes things better. I posited on Facebook that:

‘When Quakers say “we don’t need theology”, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves.’

Friend Rhiannon countered:

‘To be fair to the Quakers hanging out in the car, some people at the dinner party say things like “Everyone should eat meat because humans were made to eat meat!” and “Gluten intolerance is just a fashion, we shouldn’t provide gluten-free products because it’s just giving in to liberal society!” and eating your own sandwiches is much safer if less vibrant.’

Talking this analogy through with Rhiannon, we thought that if the dinner party is an intimidating place to be, we need to develop some theological resilience. We need to formulate a plan to get back in to the dinner party. This may initially involve some volunteers sneaking back in and bringing back Tupperware full of carrot sticks. Really tasty carrot sticks with some sort of tempting dip.

Theological resilience will help us to articulate why some things need to be rejected and rethought – ‘Oh, so it was Calvin’s potato salad that gave us all food poisoning!’ – and calls us to listen again to voices we may have previously dismissed – ‘Augustine’s hummus may be gross, but he makes a mean trifle.’ Real listening means being open to challenge – ‘Are the sandwiches we thought were made by George Fox actually made by Schleiermacher? And have they gone stale?’ – as well as realising that Quakers have an important voice to add to the exciting hubbub of theological debate – ‘Seriously guys, you *have* to try James Nayler’s incarnational theology… er, I mean his broccoli quiche’. The dinner party will carry on with or without us, and I want to join in.

[Friend Ben has written a great blog post on similar themes.]

[1] Charles Eugene Fager, ed., New Voices, New Light : Papers from the Quaker Theology Roundtable (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: The Issues Program of Pendle Hill, 1995).

Reflections from Greenbelt – Beyoncé and white Quaker discomfort

This year like most years I attended Greenbelt, a festival of arts, justice and faith. As a last minute decision, I attended a panel discussion entitled ‘The Lemonade Effect: Beyoncé, blackness, feminism and white discomfort’. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the festival, being both educational and energizing, prompting me to think more about how my own Quaker tradition talks about race. (You can read chair Chine McDonald’s account of the panel here, and an account from christiantoday.com here.)

The starting point for their discussion was the impact of Beyoncé’s album ‘Lemonade’, a work described as unapologetically black. It makes reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, the treatment of black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the performance of ‘Formation’ at the Super Bowl that featured Blank Panther imagery. The panel spoke, sometimes tearfully, about how much this celebration of blackness meant to them, with lines like ‘I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils’.

From the affirmation felt by Beyoncé’s black audience, the discussion moved to the discomfort felt by her white fans and critics. It has been joked that this was ‘the day Beyoncé turned black’.

In response to ‘Lemonade’, Piers Morgan wrote in the Daily Mail:

‘The new Beyoncé wants to be seen as a black woman political activist first and foremost, entertainer and musician second. I still think she’s a wonderful singer and performer, and some of the music on Lemonade is fantastic. But I have to be honest, I preferred the old Beyoncé. The less inflammatory, agitating one.’

28156903756_4b1c2e8a74_b

 

Where does white discomfort spring from? Is it embarrassment arising from white privilege? Is it a reluctance to admit white privilege in the first place? The panel spoke of it as what occurs when people of colour call white people out on unintentional racist remarks. (See here for a useful parody of ‘white sensitivity’)

I have my own experience of white discomfort. When living in London, I was invited to speak at a local church about Quakerism. During the Q&A, a black member of the congregation asked what I thought about Quakers and slavery. I started talking about John Woolman and the work of Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. She stopped me and said ‘but Quakers owned slaves!’ Things got rather heated after that. I was indignant that she’d asked a loaded question and I felt under attack. She was implacable, and was outraged that I would claim to be ‘proud’ of being part of a religious group that had once allowed the owning of slaves. It didn’t end well. Reflecting on the event years later, I can see that I was naïve in my understanding of Quaker history – Quakers did indeed own slaves, and John Woolman spent a lot of his time trying to convince other Quakers to free their slaves – and I should have approached the question with a greater degree of humility.

The panel also suggested that ‘liberal’ churches are more reluctant to talk about institutional racism than ‘conservative’ churches. White discomfort occurs when a white person feels they are accused of racism, but as one member of the panel pointed out, it would be very surprising to meet someone who wasn’t racist in some way. This isn’t about personal morality, it’s about admitting that we inhabit a system that is deeply racist. This then causes us to behave in an unconsciously biased manner. How could our racist culture not plant the seeds of racism within us? It’s not about attributing blame, but still being able to admit there’s a problem.

In the British Quaker community, I find ‘sin’ to be a dirty word. We are very reluctant to speak about sin. This may be for several reasons. Sin may be associated with crippling guilt, with unconvincing theories of the atonement, or with bad experiences in other churches. We also have a very optimistic view of human nature and moral progress, and talk of sin may seem to go against this. ‘That of God’ in everyone is sometimes translated to ‘that of good’ in everyone. I think as Quakers we’re also used to being the ‘good guys’, generally on the right side of history.

Are we one of those ‘liberal’ churches that find conversations about race difficult? If so, does our reluctance to speak about sin have an impact on our willingness to discuss race and systemic racism? Are we reluctant to admit that ingrained within us are the patterns of racism by virtue of the society we inhabit? Is this a kind of original sin that we soak up from the moment of our birth? Do we need to get better at talking about sin?

Is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion?

Something that many British Quakers will be familiar with is the anxiety that as a Religious Society we are too white, too middle class and too intellectual. (Although I would say this is true, it’s sometimes forgotten that globally there are a lot of black Quakers, although they’re mainly evangelical, and I get the impression that for many British Quakers, being evangelical is a Bad Thing.)

Accompanying the realization that, despite our theological pluralism, we are generally culturally homogenous, I feel that in general:

  • We are discomforted by this, as we want to be a diverse group
  • We don’t know how to become more diverse
  • We are worried that in order to attract more black people we would have to become evangelical like the Quakers in Kenya (which as I’ve said, many would see as a Bad Thing).

It is very easy to say that Quakerism is for everybody, and I think it should be for everybody, but it’s worth at least posing the question – is there something intrinsically white, middle class and intellectual about how we operate as British Quakers? As an educator I learnt that for a long time the British music education system claimed to be for everyone whilst favouring those students with certain musical values and backgrounds. Would it be that surprising if the way we are as Quakers is biased towards particular groups of people?

The collective identity of liberal British Quakers, rather than being formed around a particular story, is formed around how we do things, what Quaker scholar Ben Pink Dandelion has called a ‘behavioural creed’. Although the way Quakers behave has changed slowly over time (e.g. we no longer separate worshippers according to sex, the length of worship has decreased and worshippers rarely, if ever, kneel in prayer), with increasing diversity of belief the pressure to maintain behavioural conformity is even stronger. To change how we behave becomes a threat to our group identity.

For me this raises the question: is the behavioural creed a barrier to inclusion? The panel highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is welcoming different people, but according to your rules. Inclusion is welcoming new people, and remaking the rules together. The message from this was – if you want to include more people, you have to be prepared to change. Authentic welcome means a readiness to take part in something new. At another point in the festival, I heard an Anglican priest relate how she had welcomed a large number of refugees into her church. The Guardian reported that ‘some members of the local congregation have been receptive. But many have left, saying they feel alienated by the hundreds of new-look Christians, uncomfortable with the multicultural flags and incredulous at what they see as people taking advantage of [Rev Sally] Smith.’

If we want to be more non-white and less middle class, are we willing to change?

12219184015_b1ca9d1fec

Preparing to be discomforted

Chine McDonald closed the panel by quoting from Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from A Birmingham Jail’:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth… The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.’

I saw in this description of ‘creative tension’ a parallel with the words of early Quaker leader George Fox:

‘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 everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.’

With words like ‘cheerful’ and ‘blessing’, this passage sounds awfully nice, but answering that of God in someone is not about being nice, it is about challenge. Through public truthful living, we seek to challenge others to self-examination, ‘waking the slumbering Christ’, providing the opportunity to turn to the Light that shows us our darkness, opening the door to negotiation.

Are white Quakers ready to be discomforted? Are we ready to have that of God answered within us, and our darkness disclosed? As well as welcoming others so that they may be changed, are we ready to be changed in order that we may truly welcome others into our communities of faith?

Vibrant silence

Here’s the second of a few posts from my first, now deleted, blog that I think deserves a second reading, and a new home here at jollyquaker.com. This was originally posted in May 2012, and was written during the developmental stages of the ‘Vibrancy in Meetings Programme‘, a project which is now coming to fruition.

Every now and again I take part in a Quaker Meeting for Worship that is totally silent: a whole hour where not a word is spoken. To an outsider looking in, all these occasions may look the same, but to the worshipper these experiences can vary wildly. Sometimes I rise at the end of worship with a sense of nourishment, and have at times been graced with a renewed sense of connectedness to my Friends, God and everything. I vividly remember one totally silent Meeting where I felt a palpable, heavy presence of love in the room, and the glances, smiles and excited words I exchanged with fellow worshippers afterwards confirmed that everyone felt the same. It was a truly gathered Meeting. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, I have also experienced silent worship that was silent for a very different reason. These silences were dead.

A research project is beginning in Britain Yearly Meeting to better understand what makes a Meeting vibrant. Why are some silences vibrant, alive, feeling-full, and others dead and drab? Although the felt presence of God in a Meeting for Worship is ultimately a grace, and not something we can control, I think the way we approach the silence is important. In many secular contexts, silence is a space to be filled. I have witnessed many Meetings for Worship where this attitude is apparent. The silence is a blank canvas for us to paint with our witty aphorisms and pious observations. This idea of silence only leaves us paddling in the shallows of God’s ocean. The silence is not the space into which we speak, or even a space to think. Silence is a response to the Divine. Indeed, it may perhaps be the most perfect response.

small-easel-with-a-blank-canvas-1385377654QWM

God dazzles Job with a sweeping poetic glimpse of the unfathomable mystery of creation. Job can only respond, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” The Psalmist knows the limits of human knowledge when confronted with God’s presence: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” [Ps. 139:5-6]. I have heard ‘ministry’ that is so wordy or intellectual as to be incomprehensible. We can struggle so hard to formulate our thoughts in worship that we miss the mystery altogether.

Silence is a response to mystery. I feel here that Quakers have an affinity with the higher end of the church, as another response to mystery is music. C S Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters imagines a Hell where there is only noise, music and silence belonging to Heaven. Silence and music are the most appropriate responses to mystery, acknowledging unknowing and the limitations of words and concepts.

Silence is not a blank canvas, it is an offering. In worship we offer our silence as we would offer a hymn or a dance. I’d like to continue the art metaphor by suggesting that the blank canvas idea of silence is anesthetic – it results in a numb, feeling-less space where nothing grows. Conversely, silence as response, as offering, is aesthetic – a sensuous, feeling-full experience as one might experience through the arts or sexual intimacy, with vocal ministry flowing from and adding to its transformative power.

I’m not advocating that we should experience mystical ecstasy every time we worship together. Deep silence can also be characterized by obedient listening, and there may often be times when God seems absent, protecting us from addiction to spiritual thrills, as John of the Cross so wisely describes in his Dark Night of the Soul. However, in my experience, an anesthetic silence contains neither listening nor expectant waiting, but is simply dead.

3533703682_e77b3dbf8d_b

Does vibrancy in a Quaker community flow from the quality of worship, or from the quality of everything else the Meeting does together? I’m becoming more and more convinced that vibrancy arises from relationship, and God is love, so God is relationship. I rarely feel called to minister at a Meeting where I am a stranger, and I think my lack of relationship with those present is part of that. The quality of our relationships with each other effect our communal worship. Jesus said that “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matthew 5:23-24].

If we are experiencing ‘blank-canvas’ Meetings for Worship week after week, we must examine our attitude to the silence and our relationships with each other. How often do we see each other outside of Sunday morning? How willing are we to give our time to eat together regularly? Do we know the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives? We should not be satisfied with Meeting for Worship feeling continually like a dentist’s waiting room.

God, food and me

Before Jolly Quaker, I began my blogging adventure on qicil.com, the catchily titled ‘Quaker Intentional Community in London’ blog. That blog no longer exists, and we never did start a Quaker intentional community in London, but many great conversations were had, and I wrote a few good posts. Here’s the first of a few that I think deserve a second reading, and a new home here at jollyquaker.com. This was originally posted in April 2012.

I am convinced that at the heart of a community is a shared meal. When I consider my local Quaker Meeting, we eat together only once a month, and it is always precursor to something else, never existing for its own sake. More and more I am convinced that a stranger who attends meeting for worship and leaves after tea and a biscuit has witnessed only half of the Quaker experience. Meeting for worship is not complete until the community has broken bread together, and by that I mean shared a full sit-down meal.

In another post I’ll tackle these thoughts from a theological angle [this was ‘Quakers and the Peacemeal’, also posted in April 2012], but first I want to share my own experience of combining food and religion.

Peasants_breaking_bread

Growing up in a non-religious home, I rarely came into contact with the traditional Anglican wafer and wine communion. At 14, I was offered communion and informed that I was eligible to take it, having been baptised into the Church of England as a baby. As well as being confusing, now communion was offensive. Some were welcome to eat and some weren’t. It was absurdly exclusive. I was welcome not because of any belief or commitment, I was an atheist at the time, but because I’d been given a magic sprinkling to keep my grandparents happy.

At University, now a Quaker, I participated in ecumenical services. I was still uncomfortable with communion, especially with the bread in wafer form, and felt it to be part of my Quaker witness to abstain from taking part. I still wanted to demonstrate my unity with the other worshippers so I received a blessing. I couldn’t see why everyone didn’t want a blessing – the words (from Numbers 6:24-26) were beautiful and I found the physical laying a hand on my head a powerful gesture.

After University I began my relationship with Adrian, a Christian. We ended up going to the Greenbelt festival together. The big event where everyone came together was on the Sunday morning – communion. We sat with friends of Adrian’s. They were preparing to share flapjack and juice instead of bread and wine. Over the weekend I’d begun to think that maybe this might be the moment when I’d take communion for the first time. It had begun to take on an exotic flavour and attraction, and using flapjack and juice appealed to my love of being different. It got to the part of the service to share the bread. “This is it!” I thought, “my first communion!” At that moment I had a realisation. Underneath it all I had been hoping that one day I’d be holy enough to take it. Just in time I really understood that I didn’t need the symbolic elements to experience true communion with God and other people. I didn’t eat the flapjack, I asked for a blessing instead.

Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravenna

In the August of 2008 I encountered Sara Miles, whose books ‘Take This Bread’ and ‘Jesus Freak’ I highly recommend. The way she talked about communion in such a broad and inclusive way really caught my attention. The week after Sara and Paul, from St Gregory’s San Francisco, led a service at St Luke’s Holloway. The authenticity of the worship moved me deeply. I looked up and saw the ceiling covered with branches and the words ‘and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations’. I saw the people of God as the tree of life, with the Quakers as one branch, and myself as one of many leaves. We are for the healing of the nations. It was time for communion. We processed to the altar, encircled it and prayed. As the bread was broken, real bread, I realised I couldn’t separate myself. I had to express my unity with what had just occurred. I was given the bread and told ‘the body of Christ’, which I heard as an expression of Church unity. Feeling an overwhelming sense of God’s working through all communities passionate for peace and justice I ate the bread.

So now my attitude is that I’ll take communion if I feel moved to, which is more often than not, as a sign of hope for Church unity. The challenge for me now is how do I honour Jesus’ exhortation to remember him through food when the practice of remembering no longer exists in my Quaker community, and even eating together is rare?

[I should add that since 2012 my attitude has shifted once more. If I’m ever in a situation where I’m representing Quakers, at an ecumenical service perhaps, I wouldn’t take bread and wine communion, to honour Quaker sacramental understanding. However, if I’m ever in a worship situation where I’m present as myself and bread and wine communion is offered, I’ll always take it. I’ve come to realise that if bread and wine communion is a sign of church unity, I can’t choose to receive it only when I really like the worship. The church is messy and imperfect, just like me, and if I’m in, I’m in, both when its good and when its bad. As Dorothy Day said: ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’]

I originally noted down these thoughts in 2009, thinking of them as part of a manifesto for instituting Quaker Meeting for Eating. In my next post I will explain and explore how a shared meal both complements meeting for worship, provides new opportunities and experiences for vibrant community, and allows Christ-centred Quakers to remember Jesus in their faith community. How I long for the day when a Quaker Meeting sharing food every week is seen as a necessity and joy rather than a burden!

After the referendum – finding hope

My last post concluded on a pessimistic note. The last four weeks have certainly shaken me up. In the wake of the referendum it’s felt like there’s been horrifying event after horrifying event, to the point where I’ve taken to turning the radio off. Too much bad news.

Finding hope by looking backwards

What I’ve been searching for is hope. I wrote about wanting to be like Mary expecting the birth of Jesus. The advent of the UK’s new Prime Minister was accompanied by speeches promising to fight injustice and to build a ‘better Britain’. Is she able to make that promise? Is it right to place our hope in her?

I feel we live in a culture that is all about moving forward, but I’ve realised that finding hope is about looking backwards. In the Bible, the institution of the Passover is to remember that ‘the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.’ The Covenant on Mount Sinai and the law that is given to Moses is founded on what God has already done: ‘I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.’ The Israelites ask for a king like other nations because they forget what God has done. The Psalms lament this loss of identity:

I am the Lord your God,
    who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.

But my people would not listen to me;
    Israel would not submit to me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts
    to follow their own devices.

A well-rooted tree or chaff in the wind

Psalm 1 says that:

Happy are those… who delight in the law of the Lord. They are like trees planted by streams of water,… The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Daily devotion to the headlines and the politics of Westminster leaves me feeling like chaff in the wind. Instead of listening to the radio, here are a few things that have been giving me hope, rooting me by streams of living water:

  • Talking with a Friend who is living a life in the North East of England inspired by Bob Holman
  • The work of St Chad’s Sanctuary, providing all manner of help to asylum seekers
  • Speaking with Friends who are interested in intentional community, reminding me of my own adventures and all the inspiring people I met
  • Stories of people who took risks in the face of hostility to do the right thing, like this one

I’m still finding my way forward. I’ve joined the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, and the Electoral Reform Society and there are some more intentional communities we need to visit. Having left the empty tomb, it feels like I’m catching up with Peter on the road to Emmaus.

After the referendum – a Quaker response

The days following the EU referendum result filled me with an obsessive, disbelieving sadness that verged on grief. I hadn’t even countenanced a ‘leave’ victory, the case for ‘remain’ seemingly so sensible. I know not everyone who voted ‘leave’ did so for racist reasons, but because people like Nigel Farage campaigned on an anti-immigration ticket, it felt at that moment like the racists had won.

Amidst the emotional outpouring from both sides, calls for unity came quickly. What infuriated me about these exhortations from public figures was that no one seemed to know how to make it happen. ‘Talk is cheap’ I thought, ‘if we knew how to bridge the divide then we wouldn’t be in this mess!’ What grieves me more than anything are the deep divisions that have been revealed by this referendum. How can I do my bit to help heal these gaping wounds?

Last week I spent time in prayer, searching for a story to help make sense of my feelings. Quakers have a long tradition of reading the bible as a map to our inner life, and I found myself drawn to two stories. The first expresses where I’m at, and the second is where I want to be.

I am currently with the women at the empty tomb. The body of Jesus has gone. They are afraid and uncertain. I’m worried about the rise of UKIP, our government becoming increasingly right wing, and how this will distract from our efforts to respond to climate disruption. Is the Quaker community in Britain really up to the job of responding to the tasks at hand? Do we say we worship God, but really worship Security and Comfort?

Peter_von_Cornelius_-_The_Three_Marys_at_the_Tomb_-_WGA05274
The women at the empty tomb [Mark 16:1-8]
I want to be in the story of another Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her pregnancy. One of the many things I like about Mary is that in Orthodox iconography she is associated with the burning bush discovered by Moses. This is because, like the bush, God lived within her without consuming her. There is something very Quaker about this story. The early Quakers spoke of Christ living in them, an idea referred to as ‘celestial inhabitation’. I want to be like Mary, expectantly waiting, aflame with God’s love and energised by God’s presence. In the image of childbirth there is a sense that the future will involve pain and risk, but there is real hope that new life will come.

8508303447_fd269b04f3_b
The Unburnt Bush [Exodus 3], with Mary as ‘Theotokos’ (‘God bearer’)
I’m still awaiting a call to move forward. On Friday I went to the launch of the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ initiative in the middle of Birmingham. This movement is encouraging businesses, schools and other organisations to put up large banners proclaiming ‘Love Your Neighbour’ in the wake of an increase in reported racist abuse. We were asked to commit to individual ‘acts of kindness’ as part of the launch. It was on seeing this that my heart sank. I saw someone write ‘smile at a stranger’ as their commitment. I thought ‘are things so terrible that smiling at people has become a conscious commitment?’ I was also saddened by the idea of ‘individual’ acts of kindness. It’s individualism that has brought us to this place of isolation. I want to know what communal action can I be a part of. What is the Quaker community going to do? Do I need to join a political party or another campaigning group? Answers are still unforthcoming. I’m still at the empty tomb, trembling and bewildered, doing nothing, because I’m afraid.