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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Quaker Non-Theism and the God of Pascal

Some valuable words from Friend Ben: ‘…without healthy Christian roots, latter-day British Quakerism has been thrown back on the dominant God-hypothesis of our culture; a theory of God which leads either to the God of the gaps (which Pascal calls ‘deism’) or non-theism. Yet, there is an alternative to these two visions; a God-talk that embraces the hard truths of existence (our sense of insignificance and abandonment) while at the same time giving depth and substance to our religious language. This third way between theism and non-theism is found in a man laid out upon a cross…’

The Armchair Theologian

Our Modern Contradictions

In recent discussions of non-theism within Britain Yearly Meeting, one theme keeps on resurfacing. Many Friends tell me that they find themselves to be “non-theist” simply because they can no-longer accept what they think traditional God-language entails- a pre-scientific language which no-longer tallies with physical facts. The crushing incongruity between our seemingly purposeless world of mathematical laws and the sacred teleological language of traditional Quaker theology is simply too much for some to bear. I must admit I have at times felt this same tension. When viewed through the recesses of cosmic time, the personal claims of religion appear preposterous. Aren’t we just chatty little apes clinging to a piece of rock, hurtling through a void?  Someone like the non-theist David Boulton would simply plead that we need to live authentically, without the dishonesty implied by such incongruity. As David writes:

I have never, since I ceased to be a…

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The Empty Chair

‘…Why gad you abroad? Why trim you yourselves with the saints’ words, when you are ignorant of the life? Return, return to Him that is the first Love, and the first-born of every creature, who is the Light of the world… Return home to within, sweep your houses all, the groat is there, the little leaven is there, the grain of mustard-seed you will see, which the Kingdom of God is like; … and here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.’ Francis Howgill, 1656 [Quaker Faith & Practice 26.71]

If our Teacher can be found within, how does that shape my own identity as both a Quaker teacher, and a teacher of Quakers? I haven’t got a complete answer, but as a response to this question I make a habit of keeping a chair empty every time I work with a group. It’s a physical reminder to make space for, and listen to, the Inward Teacher. It challenges and reassures me that I’m not, and don’t need to be, an expert. It alludes to the Jewish tradition of setting a place for Elijah at the Passover Seder, and to the Christian image of Jesus knocking at the door, ready to come in a dine with us [Rev 3:20]. Jesus told a lot of stories about hospitality, a general rule seeming to be expected the unexpected. The Inward Teacher could arrive at any moment. Or perhaps it is we who are the guests, accepting the hospitality of the Host? Maybe the Inward Teacher was waiting for us when we arrived, eager for our company, as George Herbert evokes in his poem ‘Love’:

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.

The lessons of success and failure

After a recent successful workshop, I wrote in my journal ‘I find it easy to recognise the presence of the Host. People come to me in tears, telling me of profound transformational experiences, and I stand in awe. I’ve held the space, but the work hasn’t been done by me. My job is to make room for the Spirit to do its work. It is a constantly humbling experience…’ It was easy to write those words, basking in the joy of the participants and feeling pride in my own skill. Maybe it wasn’t such a humbling experience after all.

The real lesson in humility comes when a workshop goes badly. My own worst critic, I rehearse the workshop over and over in my head, noticing every instance of poor planning and each badly worded instruction. I know I couldn’t have planned it any differently, and it wasn’t a disaster, but now that it’s over the whole thing feels like a failure, my dissatisfaction amplified with every replay in my mind. When my teaching falls flat, my pride makes it difficult to see that the Inward Teacher was present there too.

When I was teaching music in primary schools, the impact of my work was often immediate. If the kids can sing the song well after thirty minutes then that’s a job well done. At Woodbrooke several weeks can separate teaching engagements, and the nature of the work is very different. Am I missing the instant hit I got in my previous job? Am I ridiculously hoping that every group I work with has a moment of life changing, Holy Spirit-filled ecstasy? As a music teacher I was told to make my job musically satisfying, then I wouldn’t need to find that satisfaction elsewhere. I was beginning to think that this principle could be applied to my work with Friends, but now I’m not so sure. In my mid-20s I learnt that growing in the spiritual life meant leaving the search for spiritual highs behind. Is it time to learn that lesson again?

‘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.’ George Fox, 1656

Whether I feel a session goes well or falls flat, the empty chair reminds me that there’s a greater Teacher already at work in the participants. ‘That of God’ in them has something to teach me, and I will be blessed by the ‘witness of God in them’. The Spirit can work through my frailty and incompetence as well my skill. Who knows what seeds have been sown in a workshop that appears to be a dud? It is not my privilege to witness the fruits they eventually bear.

Can we find a better word for ‘outreach’?

A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Catching Light’ conference, a gathering of British Quakers focussing on what in other churches would be called evangelism, but Quakers call ‘outreach’.

After a fun time networking and facilitating small discussion group, I came away with the strong impression that we are collectively inarticulate in describing Quakerism. We don’t have the language to describe our own experience in ways non-Quakers can easily understand, and we are inhibited from speaking about Quakerism as a tradition beyond the individual’s understanding of it. As a tutor at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, it’s my job to be articulate about Quaker thinking, and in such a climate of terminological confusion I feel I need to set out my thinking on how we speak Quaker.

Geoffrey Durham, one of the excellent keynote speakers at the conference, spoke compelling about explaining Quakerism in a way that was transparent rather than opaque. To do this, he playfully suggested we abandon the term ‘outreach’ and its odd counterpart ‘inreach’. I find these words dissatisfying in a number of ways, and I feel we already have several words at our fingertips that can do the job better: testimony, ministry and evangelism. ‘But we already have uses for the first two words’ you might say, ‘and the third one is not the sort of word Quakers should be using’. In response, I would like to propose that:

  • What most Quakers describe as ‘testimonies’ are better described as values.
  • We use ‘ministry’ in a confusingly flexible way, either assuming it to refer only to words spoken in Meeting for Worship, or using it to cover a whole host of activity.
  • Evangelical’ is seen as a negative term, synonymous with proselytising and abusive fundamentalism. It is very easy for Liberal British Quakers to talk negatively about Evangelical traditions, ignoring the fact that there are many shades of Evangelicalism, and that most of the world Quaker family is Evangelical.

I feel we can use these three words in a more meaningful way, providing us with powerful replacements for ‘outreach’ and ‘inreach’.

Testimony

It is very common for Quakers to speak of the ‘testimonies’ as a list of values that Quakers share. Speaking of the testimonies in this way began relatively recently in Quaker history, appearing in print in the 1940s.

Such a list makes it easy to describe what Quakers value, but in my experience it miscommunicates Quakerism in several ways. It makes newcomers feel inadequate – ‘I don’t think I can live a simple enough life to be a Quaker’ – and suggests that our Quaker identity is found in our commitment to such values. I believe that being a Quaker is not about being good, but about being faithful. It’s not the simplicity of our homes, or the peace marches we go on that make us Quakers, it’s our faithfulness to the Spirit as discerned by the gathered Meeting.

Speaking of these values as ‘testimonies’ is also an obstacle to using ‘testimony’ in a much more authentic way, to describe living out our faith in the World. ‘Testimony’ and ‘witness’ are closely linked. When we testify, we proclaim what we have witnessed, allowing our ‘carriage and life [to] preach among all sorts of people, and to them… 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.’

Testimony is a movement outwards, beyond the Quaker community. When our witness inspires or challenges others, ‘answering that of God’ in them, it is doing the job of outreach, but with a clear rootedness in our spiritual experience. We are communicating what we ourselves have witnessed. Whereas ‘outreach’ may be suggestive of handing someone a leaflet, ‘testimony’ offers a much more powerful word, rooted in powerful experience.

Ministry

I have heard ‘ministry’ used to refer to many things, including what I’ve just described as testimony. Just as I feel ‘testimony’ is better understood when partnered with ‘witness’, so ‘ministry’ becomes a more useful word when partnered with ‘service’. When we minister to one another, we are serving one another. As ‘testimony’ is a movement outwards, ‘ministry’ is a movement inwards. I feel ministry is best described as the offering of our gifts to build up the worshipping community. Vocal ministry is one such gift (and some are more gifted at it than others), but it is not the only gift. Our ministries are as diverse as the individuals who make up our Meetings. The Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Ephesus that ‘the gifts [Christ] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ [Eph 4:11-13].

When we speak of ‘inreach’, an odd Quaker word used only as the opposite of ‘outreach’, we would do better to talk of ‘ministry’ – what we do in service to our Friends to build up the community and foster our collective growth towards spiritual maturity. ‘So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church’ [1 Cor 14:12].

Evangelism

I realise this is a difficult word for many Quakers. For those of us who have negative experiences of Evangelical churches, the word can carry a lot of baggage. I feel we should not allow such experiences to rob us of a rich and useful word.

We may also associate evangelism with aggressive proselytising. I’d like to draw a distinction between these two words. Proselytising is about self-replication. In saying that Quakers do not proselytise we are saying that the purpose of the Quaker tradition isn’t to make more Quakers. The point of a Quaker Meeting isn’t to keep itself going. I agree! I’m not interested in proselytising in the slightest. I am however very interested in evangelising.

To be an evangelist is to literally be a messenger of good news. To use this word presents us with an immediate challenge. What is the ‘good news’ of Quakerism? What is the Quaker gospel? We are challenged to articulate our individual and collective story. In what way is the Quaker tradition good news for you? In what way is the Quaker story good news for others, particularly the poor?

For me, ‘outreach’ is an insipid, opaque term, that doesn’t really communicate what we’re trying to do, either to others or ourselves. Testimony, ministry and evangelism may be trickier, less comfortable words, but I believe they are powerful tools for articulating our purpose and our methods. We just need to reclaim them.