Advice and Query 12: Building a living temple together

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world. Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognising that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word.

What we seek in meeting is presence, not absence. Fullness not emptiness. In entering worship we don’t seek a negation of the self. Or if we do seek an emptiness, it’s only in order to be filled – filled with the awareness of God’s presence. We seek to be full-filled, to have our horizon expanded beyond all that which preoccupies and distracts. God is both imminent – closer to us than our own breathing – and transcendent – above and beyond the individual and the human. God is among us and God is in the world. God does not want to blot us out, but for us to be fully ourselves – dwelling in God and God dwelling in us. We seek fulness, wholeness and the healing of our fragmented lives.

With this talk of healing and wholeness, some may ask what the difference is between Quaker worship and group therapy. Perhaps there is some overlap, but there are some important differences.

A meeting for worship is a public event. Anyone can come. So anything that is spoken in a meeting for worship is public testimony, not private confession. There is no sense in which things shared in meeting for worship can be treated as automatically confidential. There should be no taboo on discussing the content of vocal ministry after worship has finished. What we share in meeting for worship does not belong solely to us. It does not even belong solely to the group present. If what we speak is truly ministry, then it is God’s word – it is a revelation of God. And God is not a private thing.

Being frail and broken people, we may not always minister as we should. We may speak when we should be silent, and we may be silent when we should speak. We might use the opportunity to speak in meeting in many selfish ways. But God’s word uttered through us in worship is never just for us alone, never just for our own healing. So we need each other to test the spirits. Did what we say come from the Holy Spirit, or from a spirit of pride? The worshipping community must wrestle with and digest the vocal ministry of its members, and not see it as untouchable expressions of individual truth.

Of course, this wrestling should be done in a tender and creative spirit. We must lift each other up, not push each other down. In our our meetings for worship for business, we are exhorted to conduct our decision making in the spirit of worship. Conversely, we should also conduct our worship in the spirit of communal truth seeking. Spoken ministry is part of our collective search for Truth. We are not casting our own individual pebbles into a pond. The stones sink and remain untouched at the bottom, a collection of fragments. This image is too static and individualistic. We need an image that has some sort of direction or goal, an image where there is a guiding Truth to be sought.

All ministry, vocal or otherwise, is service for others. Whatever gifts we possess are to be used for the building up of our neighbour and the community of faith. Perhaps the paradoxical image of the living temple might work – in offering vocal ministry we hope to contribute to the shared project of building a living temple where God dwells. Quakerism is a shared religious project – a project that we’re all responsible for – and our vocal ministry should help others to feel the presence of the immanent and transcendent God among us and in the world.

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Advice and Query 11: The tightrope of hope

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Be honest with yourself. What unpalatable truths might you be evading? When you recognise your shortcomings, do not let that discourage you. In worship together we can find the assurance of God’s love and the strength to go on with renewed courage.

The week that President Trump arrived in the UK, I sat in worship with a deep sadness in my heart, weighed down by the moral cowardice of our leaders. I felt so angry, and so powerless. As I offered these feelings to God, I felt my focus shift from the President to myself. It felt like I was being asked ‘what have you done in response to the evil you are witnessing?’, and I was unable to give an answer. I felt convicted of apathy, of not involving myself in politics at a local level. I can’t remember the last time I wrote to my MP. Was I entitled to feel so passionately angry about things that were happening at the top, if I wasn’t willing to engage at the grassroots level?

Awakening from denial

This is one of the primary functions of meeting for worship, this is when worship is truly apocalyptic – the Light reveals, it shows us our true condition, which includes the bits we’d rather remain covered up. God will not allow us to live in denial and delusion, and as long as we turn to the Light, the Light will show us how things really are, however unpalatable they may be. This advice also speaks of our ‘shortcomings’. The New Testament uses the word hamartia, which means ‘missing the mark’, and is traditionally translated as ‘sin’. The Light shows us our sin, the way we fall short as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. I used to believe thinking of myself as a sinner involved seeing myself as a disgusting worm, but I’ve now come to see that acknowledging my sinfulness should not result in self-hatred. Such self-disgust would show me to be captive to pride, invested in the illusion of my own moral perfection. Being a sinner is nothing special, and it doesn’t take erase our intrinsic goodness as God’s good creation. We should be able to speak openly about our sin. Our meetings need to be ‘bullshit free zone’ where we can be honest about who we are. As long as we hold on to a need to be morally pure, as long as we are ashamed to be imperfect, we will hold ourselves back from the Light. Being honest means having the humility to open the closet door, allowing the Light to illuminate all that we wish were hidden about our lives.

Rescue from despair

I said God will not allow us to live in denial. Neither will God leave us to despair! The Light not only reveals our sin, it renews our courage to persevere. When we let go of reliance on our own strength, we can be filled with the strength of God. When we give up the need to be ‘good people’, we can rest in the love of the Creator whose creation is fundamentally good. Out of the heart that trusts in God shall flow rivers of living, spiritual water (John 7:38), refreshing and rejuvenating. We may be able to find this spring alone, but the work is much easier when we undertake it together in a worshipping community.

The narrow way of hope

In the committed life of faith we walk the ledge between the chasms of denial and despair. This walk of vigilant hope is a difficult, wearying place to be, and requires a regular return to the Source to be reminded of God’s love, and renewed with God’s strength. This is a way of tension, the tension of a tightrope: Jesus said ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’, and also said ‘if you would follow me you must take up your cross’. The life of faith is both as simple, and as demanding, as turning to the Light within, facing what it has to show you, and following it wherever it leads.

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Sourced from Wikimedia Commons; Author: Wiros from Barcelona, Spain

The more power, wealth and privilege we have, the harder our hearts will become, and the harder it is to let in the Light, so we shouldn’t expect change from the hard-hearted leaders of the nations any time soon. We need to show them how it’s done. In a world where those in power call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, and who are wise in their own sight, we are called to walk the narrow way of humility and hope, of serpentine-wisdom and dove-like innocence, because with God’s help we can do the work that needs doing.

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. [1 Peter 5:7-9]

Advice and Query 10: Worship in the desert

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Worship is not always about celebration and fulness. Grief and emptiness have a vital role to play in the authentic faith community. Thomas Kelly writes that spiritual wholeness involves an enlarging of the heart, intensifying the joys and sorrows in our lives. This A&Q invites you to come to worship when you feel you have nothing to offer, realising that your sadness, anger, tiredness, weakness and desolation are in fact important offerings that your fellow Friends need. No meeting is complete without them. ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise’ [Psalm 51:17]. Our needs allow others to give. As well as asking in the silence, verbally ask trusted Friends for prayerful support. There is a real power in naming our needs. In the silence, trust that the Holy Spirit is praying in you. for ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ [Romans 8:26].

What if this time of spiritual coldness continues beyond one meeting? Do you still feel inspired to go to meeting, despite your inner emptiness? If so, then coming regularly to worship is a sign of faithfulness. To keep coming to meeting, even when you get nothing out of it, may be a time of important spiritual growth. It may be a wilderness time, a ‘dark night of the soul’, that you will only truly understand once you are on the other side. It is important to share this journey with a trusted Friend, perhaps a spiritual director. Don’t walk through the desert alone.

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But there is another possibility. Sometimes, if we find ourselves in long spell of spiritual dryness where going to meeting seems to make no difference, this might be a sign that something’s not right. Maybe it’s time to experiment, to try something else, or simply to take a break. The key question is: ‘are you going to meeting because you feel called to go in spite of the dryness, or are you going to meeting because that’s what good Quakers do?’ If it’s the latter, then maybe it’s time to try not going to meeting. What love requires of you may sometimes be to stay at home. If you’re going to try this, do it with the blessing of your meeting. Speak to the people responsible for pastoral care, and explain your feelings. It is better that they know the reasons for your decision, so they can support you in the best way. ‘Accept the prayerful support of others.’

Finally, this A&Q also addresses the worshipping community, and not just the individual within it. It reveals that true worship can take us in all our complexity. It can take our rage and our emptiness. Worship is not about playing a role. Worship should be somewhere where we can be our thoroughly disreputable true selves. This is a real challenge for the Quaker community. Can we hold each other in times of distress, where no easy answers are forthcoming?

Advice and Query 9: Offer your whole self

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

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’.

Married to a protestant, and with a heart for ecumenism, it is not unusual for me to attend worship where ‘communion’ is synonymous with ‘bread and wine’. As long as I’m not formally representing British Quakers, I always take part. I believe in the unity of the church – that Christ breaks all the boundaries we try and set – and see the ritual sharing of bread and wine as symbolic of that unity. I share this because the peace and connectedness I experience after taking bread and wine communion is the same as when I’m in Quaker worship. The spiritual communion is the same. Quakers *do* celebrate communion with God. What does it meant to enter this shared communion with reverence? It means to enter with expectation. We go to worship with the anticipation that God might bind us together more strongly, and with a readiness to respond to the Holy Spirit. Reverence may sound serious and sombre, but as C. S Lewis said, joy is the serious business of Heaven.

So we come with anticipation and readiness. We come with heart and mind prepared. In the previous A&Q I wrote about the connection between worship and sacrifice. As well as coming with a sense of expectancy, we also bring our offering – not a blood sacrifice but a prepared heart and mind. Every day we have the opportunity to prepare our offering, to harvest a daily crop of gratitudes, to confess an inevitable number of shortcomings, and hold ourselves and others in the Light. Then when we come together in our Quaker fellowship, we can heap all this thankfulness, confession and prayer onto the alter, and see what the Holy Spirit makes of it. A wise Friend once said to me ‘If everyone comes to meeting empty, no one can go away full.’ We bring our spiritual bread and wine and feast together with God.

Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravenna

However, we don’t come expecting to get something in return. Our offering is not a payment or a bribe. In expecting God to do something, in anticipating the Spirit’s promptings, we cannot then feel cheated if seemingly nothing happens. God doesn’t owe us anything. We prepare our heart and mind not in order to receive an enjoyable worship experience each week, but in order to be more open to whatever God has prepared for us, which may be joy, tears, judgement, consolation or apparently nothing. We prepare heart and mind during the week because one hour on a Sunday is not enough. If God is God, then worship is where we discover who we really are.

Yield! Relax and lay your burden down, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Yield! Put up your sword. Stop fighting. The war between God and creation is over. Remove yourself from the centre. Christ is the Prince of Peace – not only outwardly between people and nations, but inwardly. The Holy Spirit brings peace to the inner war of our divided selves and weakens the power of evil. The only power evil has is from our power for good. The best word for evil is perversion, for evil is our good gifts used wrongly. The perverted good within us must be weakened through being healed and restored, through being put to the refining fire and set straight. As I write this I hear the echoes of anti-gay Christian rhetoric, speaking of same-sex desire as a river that’s burst its banks. It’s unfortunate that ‘perversion’ has these connotations, because its the best word for evil I’ve yet come across. Evil as perversion must not be thought of only meaning sexual morality, as all our good gifts can be used wrongly. And all our misdirected efforts can be realigned if we yield our whole selves to the guidance of God and the illuminating power of the Light.

Advice and Query 8: Join the thanksgiving of the cosmos

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.

A&Q 1 to 7 have presented us with a series of foundational theological principles, chiefly concerned with the nature of God and how we may know God’s will. With A&Q 8 we begin the second group of Advices and Queries, which deal specifically with worship.

Worship is a response, rather than something we initiate. We don’t make anything happen, something has already happened. God *is*, and we can only respond with worship.

Worship is about thanksgiving, and giving thanks through sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t a payment. Abraham discovered this when Yaweh refused the sacrifice of his son Isaac – this God is not like the other Canaanite gods who demand the blood of children. Ultimately, not even the blood of animals is required: ‘The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ [Psa. 51:17] The prophets speak of the uselessness of blood sacrifice if it is not accompanied by justice: ‘For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ [Hosea 6:6]

Faithfulness, humility, love and justice – this is how God wants us to give thanks, this is what makes our worship acceptable. These ideas come together in Paul’s words to the church in Rome (which for me capture the essence of Quaker worship):

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]

Worship is something we do better together. We seek a gathered stillness not as an end in itself. We come together not for a quiet space or time out. The purpose of our gathered stillness is worship, and the purpose of our worship is to be drawn together – the religare of religion – and lead by the power of God’s love. Worship begins and ends in God’s love.

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Created by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

How is it possible to worship alone? Perhaps because we are never really alone. Worship is an ancient song we join in with. It’s a thunderous river we jump into. We add our pinch of incense to the aromatic clouds already billowing up before the throne of God. I have occasionally had the experience in worship that there are more people in the room than physical bodies. I believe that when we worship we join with the worship of all who give thanks at that moment. Not only that, but from the perspective of eternity we join all who have worshipped and all who will worship, the ‘great a cloud of witnesses’ [Heb. 12:1] that is known as the communion of the saints.

In my thanksgiving, I see myself in perspective. I remove myself from the centre of things (what a burden it is to be at the centre!) and take my place in the choir of worshippers. Not only must we remove our individual selves from the centre of the universe, we must see the human race in perspective. If the God whose love we respond to is the Creator of all things, then it is not just humanity who is God’s creature. The birds, the trees, the stones, the seas, the stars and the angels – everything that is visible and invisible, conceivable and inconceivable – all created things give thanks to their Creator who loves them powerfully. We catch a glimpse of this in the Book of Revelation:

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!” [Rev. 5:11-14]

Worship is our response to an awareness of God. To become aware of God is to give thanks for all that is Good, living renewed lives in response. To become aware of God is to become aware of our fellow creatures in all their vibrant mystery. To become aware of God is to find our rightful place in the cosmos, allowing ourselves to be led further and further into Love.

Advice and Query 7: Expect the unexpected

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

The birds are busy at this time of year, exploring the hedgerows for whatever berries remain. There have been rumours of increasingly rare hawfinches nearby. How might I catch a glimpse of them? The bird watcher can acquire tools and knowledge, and can become better with practice. Someone who follows the right Twitter feeds, and has a good pair of binoculars, is in a better position to spot a hawfinch than I am. But however prepared, equipped and disciplined we are, the birds remain entirely free. The bird watcher doesn’t control the birds.

So it is with the spirit of God at work in the world. We are called to be aware of it. This does not mean we can control it, posses it, or predict how it acts, but we can equip ourselves with practices and knowledge that will heighten our awareness. We may seek God, but we never truly find God, as if God is hiding, waiting to be found. When we apparently find God, it is because God has chosen to reveal God’s-self. God finds us.

God is so free, even freer than the birds, that when we put boundaries on the spirit of God, God breaks through them. When it was thought that God could only be encountered in special holy places, God surprised Moses by meeting him in the shrubbery on a ordinary hillside (Ex. 3). When God was thought to dwell in the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, the thick curtain veiling the inner sanctum was torn apart (Mk. 15:38) and God was revealed executed outside the city walls. God is not only to be found in special places. God can be found in ordinary activities and daily experiences. God may meet us in the washing up, or waiting for a bus, as well as in the meeting house.

The God of the Christian story is unpredictable. “See, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:15, c.f Isa. 43:18). This is a God who will always act in ways we don’t expect, for God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). Therefore spiritual learning must continue throughout life. As soon as we think we have God pinned down, we must start all over again. God works not only within the Temple, but beyond it. The curtain is torn in two, the banks of the river are burst! Every aspect of our lives is a potential burning bush. All human endeavour can be illuminated with God’s Light. There is not one moment where God may not meet us, surprise us and make all things news.

The words most often quoted from this passage is the advice to be ‘open to new light’. What does this phrase mean? I have heard the expression that Quakerism is ‘rooted in Christianity, open to new light.’ This gives the impression that Quakerism is on an inevitable trajectory away from it’s Christian roots, that Christianity is part of Quakerism’s past and not its future. It also suggests that by ‘new light’ we mean ‘other religious traditions’. I believe that the advice to be open to new light is not solely an invitation to seek beyond Christianity. Neither is it an instruction to endlessly seek without ever finding. Rather, at the heart of being open to new light is asking ‘In what unexpected way is God going to act next?’ To be open to new light is to expect the unexpected. God can meet us ‘in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.’ What other sources might God choose to act through?

But when the unexpected happens, how can you tell what is of God and what is not? When new ideas arise, what commends them? Novelty alone is not enough. A new idea does not automatically mean new light. A new idea could be a deception, a distraction, a notion and an idol. Does this new idea arise from the workings of the spirit of God? This A&Q ends with words of fundamental importance. Our capacity to apprehend the will of God directly and accurately is impaired. We need to approach new ideas with discernment, which requires humbly bringing them before the community of faith.

Discernment requires us paying attention to what has gone before. Although God is free to act in new ways, we have stories of how God has acted in the past, we have clues to God’s character. The writers of the New Testament understood the Christ-event, a totally unexpected occurrence, by looking to the Hebrew Scriptures and showing how it retrospectively made sense. Likewise, the first Quakers believed that the leadings of the Holy Spirit would never contradict Scripture. Our stories, tradition and history are important tools for discerning whether a new idea is indeed new light.

To be open to new light is not an individualistic, theological free-for-all. It is a recognition both of the freedom of God to act in unexpected ways, and our own inability to know the will of God directly. Being open to new light is a weighty yet delightful corporate responsibility. Where is the spirit at work? What will it do next? How do we meet it together?

Advice and Query 6: Learning to disagree well

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.

What happens when we meet with difference? We might experience the excitement of learning something new. We might feel uncomfortable and alienated, especially if we find ourselves in a minority. We might be deeply disconcerted at having our values and beliefs, perhaps our entire worldview, challenged. To encounter difference is to have our sense of ‘normal’ questioned.

How do we respond to the challenge of difference? The encounter with difference may be so challenging that we seek to erase it. Difference might be experienced as a threat to the peace and stability of the group. ‘If we’re not all the same, how can we possibly get along?’ We might try and erase difference through coercion and violence, suppressing or destroying that which is different.

A more subtle and perhaps unconscious way of erasing difference is to attempt to ignore it. I hear this in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ – if we could only forget about our religious and cultural differences, if we could forget our history, then we’d all be able to get along. Like the words of ‘Imagine’, are we, in the name of peace, guilty of treating difference as an illusion?

In A&Q no.5, we read about living in the tension of knowing and non-knowing. In this A&Q, I hear another tension between similarity and difference, acknowledging that we have things in common with other religious traditions, but also recognising that there are Quaker distinctives. There are insights particular to Quakerism. The silence of Quaker worship is not a blank canvas waiting to be filled with other theologies. It is not a void to be filled with the melodies of other traditions – the Quaker practice of silent worship is its own kind of music. It is our Quaker particularities that unite the Quaker community – the way we worship, the way we make decisions, the language we use and the history we inherit. These are the materials we are given to treasure, celebrate and work critically with.

Quakers should engage in dialogue with other traditions, and we should do so gladly. In such encounters we have the opportunity to grow in humility, practise and receive hospitality, and learn how limited our experience of the world is. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8) – God is wholly ‘other’ and in meeting with difference we may hear the disrupting and renewing voice of God.

We are also asked to remain faithful to Quaker insights. This acknowledges the possibility that, in encountering difference, we will find our Quaker understandings challenged. It’s a reminder that the purpose of inter-religious dialogue is not to reach a point where we are all in agreement. Disagreement and impasse must be expected. We may even have to state that certain beliefs or practices are incompatible with Quakerism.

Because dialogue is difficult, and involves disagreement, we need to enter imaginatively into the ‘other’. Where are the differences as well as the similarities? Are there differences we’re tempted to ignore, because we find them too challenging? Such work takes patience and humility. Simplistic ideas that ‘all religions are the same’ will not do. Other religious traditions are different. They have different ways of worship, different objects of worship, different understandings of ‘salvation’, different histories etc.

The bonds of friendship we seek are not based solely on how we are alike. Just as we must learn to love our enemies as well as our neighbours, we must learn to love in the midst of difference as well as similarity. The strongest bonds of friendship are forged in learning how to disagree well. The question, both within and without the Quaker community, is ‘how can we live in peace without erasing difference?’

You may be interested in two of my previous posts on this subject: one on Quaker use of the World Religions Bible, and the liberal-Protestant belief in universal religious experience.