Trust in the Spirit

Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) is nearly over, and it has been both affirming and discomforting.

The theme for the gathering was ‘Trust in the Spirit’. In reflecting on this over the past week, I arrived at the conclusion that we can’t trust the Spirit unless we trust each other. In session, on the Saturday morning, I found myself inwardly asking – do I trust my Quaker community? Disturbingly, the answer came back – no.

Holding back

Why is this? It is not because my meeting is untrustworthy. I have emotionally kept my meeting at arms length, withholding the opportunity for them to prove their dependability. Perhaps I have kept my distance because I am unsure whether I will still be in London in a year’s time. Perhaps I fear a repeat of previous negative experiences, described very accurately by Patricia Loring, when:

not everyone in the meeting has the same level of commitment to remaining present and open to Divine Guidance, the same level of yielded-ness of ego and willfulness. Our meetings include both those who long for a centered and committed spiritual community, and those for whom the meeting is an optional item, poorly integrated into, or simply tacked onto a life filled with a variety of other activities. We have those who feel that community should be a place of unfailing, undemanding, loving acceptance and those who feel that community is the place where we are challenged and supported to grow to our fullest potential in God.

These very different understandings of what constitutes spiritual community create many of our failures in communication and in caring for one another. Much disillusionment or burn-out occurs because some people have given themselves wholeheartedly to the work of the community, only to find others withhold themselves of work from a more limited and secular vision’ (Listening Spirituality Vol. II p. 40).

I also feel a slight unease that, by celebrating my marriage apart from my local Quaker community, I have denied them one of the most significant celebrations in a community’s life. For a community to thrive we need to offer our time, skills, ideas and resources, but these alone are not enough. We need to offer our whole selves, our joys and sorrows, our brokenness, hopes and fears. These words from the Bible have been humming inside me all weekend:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

This describes what I think Quaker worship is ultimately about: offering, renewal and discernment.

God is with us

I have not been trusting my local Quaker community with my spiritual journey. I seem to have been labouring under the idea that I need to work things out by myself, when one of the great truths of the religious life is that we are not alone. I have been reunited with so many people over the weekend who have affirmed me in my Quaker identity. The Swarthmore lecture resonated so strongly with my experience, it could have been written especially for me. BYM opened with the words of Psalm 122, using Jerusalem as a symbol for the worshipping community. The image of the New Jerusalem came to me:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:22-27)

In the Quaker story, this is not a far-off dream but a present reality. We are a gathered people, and God is with us.

What can I offer?

I realised that I need to involve my meeting in my struggles. I need to give them the opportunity to care for me. If I am going to discern the way forward I will need their help. Today I requested a meeting for clearness – an awe-inspiring, and I suspect highly underused Quaker process. To what work are my partner and I called? If I was in the U.S I might be a Quaker pastor. If I was in another century I might be entering a monastery. How does this all fit in with being a British Quaker (which I feel I definitely am after hearing the Swarthmore Lecture)? These are questions I must entrust to the listening ears of my fellow Quakers.

13 thoughts on “Trust in the Spirit”

  1. Great post Mark. Hope it goes well as you engage in Clearness. I think this is one of the most important skills that Meetings need — the ability and willingness to gather to assist each other in discerning God’s will in the lives of members. I think you are right and trust in each other is necessary. I’m now wondering — what does being trustworthy as a Friend look like? What is it that we are trusting each other to do? I hope it includes making time to support each other in discernment.

  2. Thanks Alice for your supportive words. When I have found Friends to be untrustworthy, it is when I haven’t been taken seriously, or have been made (however unintentionally) to feel foolish. A friend of mine who’s recently come into membership spoke of feeling it as a burden. We have to be prepared to shoulder each other’s burdens.

  3. Rest assured you’re not alone. I found your blog spoke to something in me I’d not be able to express. Many in our Meeting will feel the same, so part of the journey taking together. @sitpax

  4. Thank you. This spoke to me. I don’t feel that I have quite the sense of distance as I am fortunate enough to have an experiment with light group in my meeting where my journeying is known and witnessed and upheld. However to build the ‘temple not made with hands’ among us requires more in shared commitment. Patricia’s words were healing for me. Being open together to the challenge of real community can hurt, especially when as she says, not everyone has that vision. I believe our Quaker meetings are not meant to be museums of ‘good people’ but hospitals for the broken.
    Thank you. Feeling much supported now.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad the post was helpful. Patricia Loring is one of the wisest writers I’ve ever come across.

  5. I respectfully disagree with you. I think if you really trust in the Spirit you will trust in your community. First of course you have to trust that the Spirit has led you to a particular community. Then you have to trust that the Spirit isn’t leading you to leave the community he led you to. If You believe you are where the spirit wants you the rest is easy. Just believe that what takes place in that community is part of your journey to becoming more like Him and act like you believe it. Allow the process to work in you and others. Be faithful to whatever ministry the Spirit is giving you in the community and don’t expect a reward on earth for something that will be yours in the hereafter. Right now God is calling us to love unconditionally in the place He wants us to be so that there can be more of Him (love) in our lives and less of us (self-centeredness).

    1. Thanks for your respectful comment Jim. I don’t think we’re in disagreement, except maybe about it being easy!

  6. Thank you for the honesty of your comments. When more of us can open to each other our struggles with belonging then our Meetings will truly reflect Christopher Holdsworth’s words in his Swarthmore – people who become for each other the way through to the presence of God. But one day it can happen you look around and can say ‘these are my people’ and know the truth of that. It took me a long time to surrender to love. Don’t leave it too long.

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