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.
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.