Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"Theists" and "Non-Theists"- Can we get on together?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I tend to be quite old fashioned. Just as some English people dress up in Civil War army uniforms to re-enact battles, there seems to me no shame in trying to re-create a perspective from the past. We might even learn something new, become clearer in our identity and sense of belonging, even stronger. (These days things are not as accurate as they might be. Re-enactors operate in much smaller numbers than the original armies, fire blanks, enjoy certain modern comforts on the quiet, even book in to guest houses, bring along their own food, and, when in the company of civilian spectators, resist the temptation to pillage!)

Quakerisim has always seemed to me as being about a search for truth. To me this characteristic defines a process rather than to specify a product. Since our journey of discovery, should last a life-time, it tends to worry me when Friends give themselves labels such as theist or non-theist as if they are now fixed in their position, or have adopted some kind of a creed. On whatever side of that very big "Pond" we just happen to be, our shared journey and the willingness to work together as Friends should in my view be what defines us as being Quakers.

The process of being a Seeker after Truth reminds me of boat holidays I had as a child. Most years we would travel up the river Thames to its highest navigable point just beyond St John's Lock at Lechlade, then, in the absence of other options, turn round and go back. That final lock was always slightly worrying as the river was already narrow, our family not very good at steering, and the available gap between two banks, steadily getting smaller. In passing through that final lock however, I might well have noticed a statue of Old Father Thames. Not surprisingly, it still looks a bit out of place, having been originally commissioned in 1851 for display in Crystal Palace as part of the Great Exhibition. This fine sculpture may have been much admired by Victorians who seemed to do this kind of thing a lot. It was however nothing at all like how I imagined the river.

Just as it would be misleading to say that I do not believe in the River Thames, having never met that bearded, half-naked man with a spade, the term "God" is also subject to a wide range of interpretation. There was no doubt I had some understanding and experience of the River Thames, having been travelling along it all week. Michaelangelo's portrayal of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling also conveys meaning to a particular type of audience. This depiction of God works for some people. In our search for the truth, it would seem we should be honest about our limitations, including the ability to imagine or reason.

As Quakers stumble over the "G Word" not wishing to alienate the non-theists among us, it would seem of relevance to note that this is a very Old Testament Problem. Since it was impossible to see God, Jews developed ingenious ways to avoid saying his name, emphasised the role of angels as intermediaries and made no attempt at description. Instead of speculating about the nature of God, the emphasis was on being alert to creation, so that you could appreciate, for example, the significance of a bush bursting into flames, maintaining a sense of wonder. The main requirement of God's Law was self-discipline, not substituting a more tangible form of worship in the form of idols. In the same way we might also become distracted by easier options or struggle to prioritise. In whichever way we experience these "Golden Calves", there is still a choice to be made.

It would seem to me, our relationship to God can still be compared to living by a river. We may not be able to create sculptures on what this water is all about, or wish to paddle upstream in search of its source. At times water provides a lesson in humility since the river allows so many different types of boat to travel.

We may identify with having water as a life force flowing through our bodies. In recognising our dependency, we might also choose to have a contract, choosing to respect the seasons, act responsibly and not pollute the waters. Without referring to any scripture, carrying stone tablets about in an Ark, or being dogmatic about belief, there is a relationship and interaction. Our lives too may be built around an instinctive moral law that defines our relationship with the river.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Should anyone be allowed into Quaker membership? Is it being mean to exclude people who want to join us and what are we all about anyway?

A few weeks ago our neighbourhood group met for the first time. Although we skirted around various topics, and all of us were tired, bits of the discussion somehow stuck in my mind.

From what was being said, it would seem there can at times be huge dilemmas when accepting Friends into membership. I wonder if this is true of other Quaker meetings out there.

It seemed to me that the issue of membership provides an opportunity to look honestly at who we are and what we represent. Are we considering ourselves to be Christian these days as our founder members did or sneaking into the various ecumenical groups under false pretences? Do we see ourselves as still being a religion, or more relaxed (liberals with a small "l"). Should Quakers make the saving of planet earth a priority, adapting to become more like a way of life these days? Is it now all about culture? Should all Quakers be conscientious objectors or can such matters be left for the individual to decide?

It is always good to hear from those who talk very enthusiastically of their first time in a Quaker meeting and how they immediately feel at home. Perhaps however there are others who have looked around the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, then sat through notices and wondered how came they to be among so very different a group of people to themselves. At times like these I have been reassured by my love of history. We have always had individuals who were not quite like the rest. Its a little hard for me to imagine George Fox sitting down quietly to a men's creative listening group, or putting himself on the flower rota, though sometimes I do like to try!
Some of the more vigorous ministry from Early Quakers such as interrupting church services, shouting out abuse to the people of Litchfield, burning your musical instruments so you can walk about with something resembling a barbecue on your head, or going naked for a sign, might easily attract the attention of elders these days. All of these individuals understood the importance of drama to communicate a message, how necessary this approach was to be inclusive in a semi literate society and absolutely sane.

So what is Quakerism really? Are we consistent, or subject to a changing environment, irrevocably changed from the old days?  Who do now we think we are?

Although it is often said that we began in 1652, the climate which made so many individuals receptive to the message of Quakerism developed during the English Civil War. Many regimental chaplains who enlisted for the Parliament side soon became disillusioned and returned home to their parishes. In the absence of the usual spiritual leadership, Parliament resolved this each soldier in the New Model Army should receive a pocket Bible. This vital piece of military equipment for the time encouraged soldiers to work things out on their own. That characteristic of being on a campaign and needing to seek out truth is I believe,what defines us even today as being Quakers.

Our Meetings for worship do not create membership through the ability to accept a creed. Instead it is process whereby we come to a belief rather than the belief itself which matters. This feature enables Meetings to have considerable diversity, without compromising its identity in any way.

So what should we be asking when an individual asks to join us? Since I have never been an Elder or part of those gatherings that decide such things, the best resource I have available is our history.

1- Are you a Seeker after Truth?
Historically Quakers can be at their worst when instead of focusing on the opportunity of their own unique spiritual journey they start looking around at each other and gossiping among themselves. Instead of allowing a religion of freedom, and personal responsibility, there is the opportunity to judge, so much emphasis on our way of life, and tremendous pressure to conform.

2-Do you require leadership?
The process of being a Quaker is about our unique relationship with God. It does not require interference or distractions.  If you are looking for human intervention, it could be very frustrating to worship in silence.

3-Do you understand what it is like to be human?
At times Quakers can come over as being arrogant. A knowledge of our own weakness and dependence helps make us receptive. Since we are all a part of God's Creation, it is not appropriate to create hierarchies within a Meeting, or see Quakers as being superior to any other faith.

3-Are you Convinced?
Quakers take responsibility for their own spiritual journey. This practice would not make much sense if we did not trust God's love and ability to guide us.

If you genuinely care about a person, it is natural to want the best thing for them.  Love for another human being may be expressed in many ways. It is easy to see love as we welcome Friends into membership of a Meeting. Surely it is also a demonstration of love not to mislead or obstruct those might benefit from a different framework for their journey?


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Preaching epidemic

A few weeks ago I received an e mail from a Quaker at our meeting thanking me for raising awareness about the situation in Libya. This kindness came with an offer of a "collection slot" so I could speak about my concern more widely and raise money from other Quakers.

The following week another Quaker offered to help me set up a Facebook Group so that anyone wishing to send a message of support for people living in Libya would be able to do so. Although the technical side was relatively easy, I felt very inhibited when the site required me to divulge my identity. Perhaps this was lack of courage on my part. It did not seem appropriate for me personally to be leading a campaign. By far the biggest challenge was that of impressing my priorities onto other people. Without a supportive cast of people wishing to join in, it was so easy to give quite the opposite impression from what I originally intended.

Very early on in this process I encountered competition. It seemed there was some kind of league for world problems where those without the benefit of professional marketing skills might so easily fall off the bottom of the list. A single Facebook page jostled uncomfortably with so many other worthy causes. Somewhat illogically I hoped for magical solutions, there would be less to worry about generally in the world and we then could all focus our attention in a much more efficient manner.

Promoting my own concern made me very aware of how often Quakers seem to do this. These activities result from an interpretation of our testimonies. These also have a tendency to jostle for attention.Some become comfortable and compelling with a certain feel-good factor. Others of a more challenging nature mysteriously become "something we might aspire to" as they slip steadily down the list. My very short campaign to raise awareness about a particular issue, challenged me with a realisation that it not our way of life that just happens to make us Quaker.

To me, whether from a soap box, a pulpit, in a leaflet or even through social media sites, all of this telling people what to do is preaching. However well intentioned, in my concern about Libya I could imagine myself being vigorously heckled by George Fox. In his very loud persuasive voice he would be telling everyone not to worry about people like me intervening since God spoke to individuals direct. In a country devastated by suffering, religious extremism and the recent civil war, this uneducated, itinerant shoe-maker reminded everyone he met of their own power to communicate with God direct. When asked for specific advice on the subject of wearing swords (something we all occasionally do in Meeting!) he very decisively threw the issue back for the individual concerned to work it out for themselves. (The next instalment of this story about William Penn would suggest he did this rather well!)

When Early Quakers talked about being directly accountable to God, there must have been some connection in other people's minds. These views had been expressed before. It would have seemed quite shocking that the Divine Right of Kings should be held by ordinary people. Surely this was a recipe for chaos! This understanding of kingship had already proved so devastating and destructive. Just four years earlier it had been the main cause of a very public trial, sentencing and then the execution of a King. Happily these days, although Charles I sometimes raises a Royal standard in Meeting, however strong the views, Quakers do not have the resources for an army.

This link to Divine Right demonstrates why we were seen as being so subversive. In the aftermath of civil war, survivors were desperate to restore law and order. They could already see how all their original ideals had been transformed by conflict, there was now relentless greed, an insatiable desire for revenge and such insecurity at every level of society from all that power had achieved. When people are frightened there is often an incentive to seek out a greater force to assert its authority. Their world would not seem very different from that of many communities today. Although English people considered Cromwell's military rule as a very definite option, for Early Quakers this process led to a search for truth.

Whereas early Stuart Kings had gained Divine Right through a process of hereditary, to Quakers this remarkable privilege and opportunity was an inclusive characteristic of being human. We have all been born with a capacity to seek truth, and in this journey of discovery, can have a direct relationship with God. That process, mysteriously referred to as "convincement" made their behaviour entirely logical. If you are able to trust a power so much greater and better than yourself, it does not seem that necessary or very sensible to settle for anything less. Why should they settle for the power of weapons, the influence of wealth, the external padding of popular opinion, or so many lesser truths when given what God has to offer as a resource?

At times, being caught up in our freedom and enthusiasm, we might forget that crucial connecting link, be  distracted by the temptation to impose our individual leanings upon others. Like every other human being, I have my priorities and concerns.

The people and peacemakers of Libya are often in my thoughts. I remember a country so obviously blessed by God in its natural beauty and know that those people living in it right now are part of that creation. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded quite how beautiful we are. That awareness of being valued may come through the love and support of other human beings. From a distance I have very little idea of the internal politics, only remember a few words of Arabic and genetically cannot possibly describe myself as belonging to a tribe! The God of Islam when communicated honestly and sincerely is however the God I also know.

When there is an opportunity to send my love to Libya, I have chosen to make that commitment, despite the inevitable problems with translation. There are so many needs out there, so many different people and communities about, all requiring the right medicine. To a world pre-occupied with power, status and success, there would seem a need for us not to worry about getting things right all the time, or how we might seem to others. Instead there is the opportunity to trust in the power of our Creator, do what God tells us to do, respond to the promptings of the Spirit and just share love about.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

"Brief Encounter"- Is this all Quakers need to do?

One day when my children were very small, I made a list of all the things people enjoy doing while they are away on holiday. Since practical considerations prevented us from travelling about the world sight-seeing, I decided to spend some time each year having a holiday focused entirely on the things it is possible to do elsewhere but also quite feasible in your garden.

These days we no longer put up a tent, make dens with old blankets or have much use for a paddling pool. Instead of entertaining children, a gang of sparrows have been joining us every morning at coffee time expecting to be in fed. For those adults pretending to be all sensible and mature it may be helpful to know that there is an alabi for wet messy fun. This involves sticks, sloppy blanket weed and is usually referred to as pond maintenance!

I love being in my garden, feeling safe, and sustained through the exclusive company of people I know very well. It is so relaxing not having to go out and meet people, a very necessary holiday for me although ever Sunday morning I am still aware of other Quakers out there who just happen to be in Meeting.

 For those who have ever felt tired after a working week, enjoyed a morning lie-in, time to properly enjoy breakfast, coffee, reading the paper, pottering about the home, doing a bit of gardening and spending time with the family, it would not seem necessary to explain how precious Sunday morning's can be. In all these different ways it is possible to celebrate the moment, refocus, sort out priorities, even worship and be as Quakerly as we like (on our own!). With so many competing attractions out there, it would seem Quaker Meetings do very well these days to attract anyone at all.

For many years I might well have described myself as one of those "Brief Encounter"  Quakers, attracted by the promise of freedom. Through the absence of a creed and our silent worship, there is the opportunity to step outside the usual constraints associated with religion. It may seem surreal at first to be surrounded by so entirely by the worshipping opportunity of silence. Across the floor of each Meeting House there is the attraction, even passion, and a need that feels in some way fulfilled. Although it is undoubtedly love which draws so many Seekers of Truth to our Meeting, and an initial feeling of having found your spiritual home, there is the railway timetable and a world outside to consider. A whistle blows, and when it is only freedom that you are looking for, the spiritual journey moves on.

A considerable number of Quakers I know come through a sense of duty. They attend knowing that meetings need to be sustained through their presence and it is not merely a case of numbers. There is however a very fine line between a sense of duty and importance. Perhaps some roles in our meetings can give individuals a sense of superiority over others. When the job ends, the absence of any other identity leads them to mysteriously disappear for a time until a new role of usefulness is created. Perhaps it is assumed that our tasks and responsibilities about Meeting are so arduous and unrewarding that no one could possibly wish to do them very long. It could be said Quakers methodically shoot themselves in the foot every three years through a system of triennial appointments. This deliberate inconsistency may be a reason why we can be embarrassingly deficient at some types of organisation especially where leadership is required. It would seem almost anything is better than having a hierarchy in our Meetings.

At one time almost every Quaker Meeting struggled to keep going. The problems associated with getting to Meetings often began with a walk or horse-ride of a considerable distance in all weathers that might well involve some expense and take all day. This journey with its associated absence from church services, marked you out as being separate from the rest of society, unsure of any rights associated with property or protection from the law. Those who travelled in the ministry were regularly identified as being vagrants. As Quakers became an obvious target for intense persecution and arrest, their usual Meeting places were boarded up. For the duration of a Meeting and in all weathers, Quakers were often obliged to meet very publicly often amongst a hostile crowd in the open .

In my town every adult Quaker was imprisoned. In the notable absence of protective parents, there were some very good reasons why traumatised, vulnerable Quaker children should remain at home on a Sunday morning. Instead they were quite regularly beaten with sticks and doused in water for holding a Meetings for Worship in the street. This was the "ice-bucket challenge" that no one else appreciated for Truth.

Although some Early Quakers identified very strongly with being a persecuted people, it would not seem very likely that Meetings for Worship were identified with freedom. Being mocked, beaten and doused in water was most unlikely to give their children a feeling of security or importance. At times it may still take the children of a past generation to remind us that there is a stronger reason for attending a meeting for Worship than the comfort associated with having a particular role or the rights we have come to associate with freedom.

Children maintaining meeting for worship in my community were likely to have known Isaac Pennington. Initially this son of London's Lord mayor might well have seemed like a celebrity. With everything to lose he deliberately chose to attend a Meeting for Worship and so came to share a prison sentence with their parents. Perhaps even then it was necessary to keep reminding themselves just how good a Quaker meeting for Worship can be.
Isaac Pennington later described how
"Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand."

Perhaps these days lack of adversity has allowed Quakers to relax in their expectations of Meeting. It is so easy for us to forget that quite exceptional environment where everyone felt included, everyone felt loved, everyone reciprocated that love through the pattern of their own lives, shared a testimony of suffering for the Truth and kept their Meeting going. Over time the people attending a Quaker meeting may change a great deal on the outside but the heart remains constant. That capacity to love honestly and without exception, drawing communities together and bringing out the best of each one, is still I believe a characteristic of being human.
As my own holiday at home draws to a close, I expect to attend Quaker Meeting very soon. In this big messy pond of distracting blanket weed and so many other people, in my own spiritual journey I am learning through example to be a child of my Meeting.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

When Peace is not enough

This morning I was reminded of the time my father collected me from school. During playtime, someone started spreading the rumour that bombs were being dropped in Libya. We were supposed to be doing Arabic but the teacher didn't turn up. I was one of the last to leave Tripoli College that day, took my Arabic text book with me and have kept it ever since. On the way home I was told to look out of the back window because seeing a child might stop people throwing bottles of petrol at our car. This didn't seem to work. We did not wish to draw attention to our home by parking a car outside it, so stopped about 400 yards away and ran. The next couple of months were spent behind closed shutters. My parents listened to the radio all the time. I made a horrible pink pin cushion with lace round the edges that I kept for many years. We had a suitcase packed even though there was no way of getting to the airport, and I could not understand why people hated us foreigners so much.

At times it seems as if a shared understanding may be helpful. At other times however it can be most unkind to imply a comparison with more extreme situations people are going through right now. These days I look back on those experiences which made me the person I am now. They made me realise strength that I did not know I had before. Some of those happenings you would in no way choose but when things are good, happy and peaceful, you tend to appreciate it more. For those caught up in troubles, it must be very hard to imagine good, happy peaceful times ever happening again, but I honestly believe that Light will eventually triumph over darkness.

Until such a time, it does seem so important to remember those who are suffering, likely to be very frightened, and despairing of human nature. George Fox went through such a time. he called it the "ocean of darkness." A Muslim friend called this a time of great 'fitna', the Arabic term for trials and tribulations. When confronted by such suffering, it can be very hard finding the right thing to say.

There may be a temptation to talk about our Quaker peace testimony. We could step in as impartial observers, offer to arbitrate and get people to talk to each other. At times it may be very helpful for a third party to identify some aspect of common ground on which it is possible to build. There will always be room for a foundation. Perhaps because the human race is a family all growing up together, that we tend to fall out most easily with our siblings.

Peace-makers can seem very helpful so long as you are in a good position to bargain. If you are feeling threatened, the very last thing you want is for some do-gooder with very limited knowledge to talk of conflict resolution and bring your enemy nearer.
That brief telling off to the school bully, being told to shake hands to someone who twists your wrist in doing so, bringing the abusive partner home after a telling off and ride in the police car, telling you to vote when there is no guarantee of safety, offering a gun amnesty when there would seem no other defence but to have the means of dispatching a bullet near you. These characteristics among peace-makers can give you nightmares. Human Beings are no different from any other species. Our primary concern is safety. When you are on the receiving end of an injustice, that commodity most necessary to your condition is power. Because we do not have all the evidence or know the answers, it always worries me whenever I see Quakers taking sides.

It would seem quite ironic that one of the usual ways of resolving this situation is by talking about belief. This process can feel amazing, but only if you are the person doing all the talking, or, at the very least, have been invited to do so. Those on the receiving end, experiencing perhaps a very different kind of spiritual journey, may not have the means to imagine quite what you mean by "God." The term "Our Father" can sound very different to the child of an abusive parent. It is possible to leave a victim even more dis-empowered, isolated and unhappy by talking about religion.

The other mistake people often seem to make is by providing the wrong kind of weapon. This process usually involves something to carry about that explodes and may create lots of casualties around you. It may be what people ask for but strength in a human being comes from the inside. In some ways I would liken violence to the use of drugs or alcohol. These provide temporary relief or an illusion of power. They have very little to do with proving a point, providing a solution or making anyone stronger.

It seems helpful to remember that Quakers have always been motivated by stubborn, plain-speaking, uncompromising truth. Strategically we might exploit any point of weakness in the aggressor since those who use violence seem content with second best. Truth however allows for many different perspectives. Those who adopt violence are so often victims themselves. When you are caught up in a cycle it is quite impossible to judge.

Perhaps in our confusion, we step might back, choosing instead to make gestures, rather than try to resolve anything. This would seem to me as being an honest approach and likely to do least damage. Symbols of peace can raise awareness even though we might seem somewhat ineffectual to others. 

Increasingly I have found myself wanting to tell other people how I see then. This morning a picture was conveyed through social media of the old castle on Tripoli sea front. Its a facinating building. There used to be a zoo there. Every sunset during the month of Ramadam a gun used to fire from castle across the harbour. Those hungry and thirsty from fasting must have been so relieved to hear the sound of gunfire but they hear it often now.

I remembered how the old Souq (market) with its narrow streets, and very beautiful houses was situated just behind the castle. The people I saw there used to amaze me with their skill, craftsmanship and patience. I remember the sound of chisels rhythmically tapping away, and the creaking of a wheel turning round as craftsmen put decorations on brass plates.

There were bracelets that I wore made with thousands of tiny beads and so many different things they could make with leather. I had a little braided camel that I loved. The patterned wool rug I have on my floor right now must be over 40 years old and it still looks like new. I remember the place where it was hanging the day that we bought it. I remember Fezzan dates filled with almonds and shaped into a block. They can make the best bread in the world in Libya using clay ovens. If you have ever seen the traditional way of making tea in Libya, you would know how patient Libyans can be. Those who are able to make tea always seem to have a role in a crisis.
Whenever I saw anyone riding a camel it used to amaze me. Humps wobble about a lot and very grumpy camels spit a long way when they don't like you. Its not at all like being on a horse. Those able to ride camels understand the importance of leadership, using the right kind of control on a stubborn, bad tempered, frightened animal. I remember how cleverly Bedouin tents were made, to be put up and taken down so many times, using every available resource. There was the best taxi service ever in Tripoli with beautifully dressed horses who wore hats to keep out the sun. When people talk about armed gangs roaming about the streets of Tripoli, and private armies, I would like the rest of the world to know that the people of Libya are amazing. Those tribes are so interesting, talented and diverse. I wish that I knew more about them. I wish someone would write about them more, but can tell you now, fighting is not the only thing they can do.

As a Quaker, I understand the importance of power. When people say something good or kind about me, I am empowered. In turn this gives me the strength and capacity to pass on power to others. Kindness, is like a car suddenly getting filled up with petrol. Kind words can also travel far.

It would seem to me that Quakers talk a great deal about power. Like so many other faiths, we have identified a limitless resource.
Love allows us the strength to be fully honest, transforms the way we see each other. Love gives us the power to fulfil our potential, Love allows us to forgive. Love mean we can always give away and still find we plenty more. Love allows us to see a way through conflict situations. Love does not need second best.
To me, peace on its own is not enough. When you are up against anything it is necessary to employ power. We may loose our credibility, at times feel pretty daft, but are not supposed to have all the answers, win or try to impress anyone. It would seem to me our role as peace-makers is about giving something of ourselves away, responding to people as they really are, washing the feet of others.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Religious Extremism. Is there anything we should do about it?

Readers of this blog may already know that much of my time is spent researching and writing history. I cannot pretend to be particularly good, or very academic in my approach. Much of the time I am spell bound by the ability, self discipline and achievements of other writers, (writers' block!) although it still seems to me we are supposed to engage with the past. Those characters I communicate with may have been dead for centuries. Despite so many gaps in the evidence, that shared challenge of living on this earth among other human beings with finite resources to go round, still gives them something to say.

The last few weeks have been enjoyable, spent in the company of a very intelligent King who believed he had been given his role by God to restore peace and prosperity to Europe. With so many good intentions, sufficient knowledge and the advantage of being King, it would seem the main lessons to be learnt from the reign of James I is that despite our best attempts, justice is beyond our control. It cannot be relied upon to happen.

These days most people are familiar with this reign through the legacy of Guy Fawkes. Each year in Britain at around November 5th, people light bonfires and set off fireworks to commemorate a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliaments. Through the King's diplomatic efforts, there had been both Protestant and Catholic members expecting to attend the opening session. This gathering would have included the whole spectrum of society of Commoners, aristocrats, bishops and the King. Although the motive of these conspirators (claiming to be Catholic) is now debatable, the whole country could unite against a few desperate individuals who had placed themselves so entirely outside the rule of law. Politically this was very convenient at the time.

The bonfires people lit recalled not only defence of religion, national identity and victory against a Spanish Armada, but also the ancient pagan festival of Samhain. This was a time reflecting on mortality when our greatest fears seem very close at hand. Since those challenges are always with us and it is so easy to be afraid of the unknown, we continue to light fires as winter begins.

This year commemorations are being held to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. As my grandfather's generation move towards the realms of history, if only it were possible to say that evil is not longer a threat and war no longer with us! Whereas these days it is possible to vaccinate people against the vast majority of diseases, a terrible recurring epidemic of violence always seems to be about somewhere. Horrific images are regularly conveyed through the media and social network sites. Children fall asleep to the sound of gunfire. It may seem like the sound of fireworks but so very different when they hit you. Lately there has been news of civilian aeroplanes shot down. Instead of confronting the disease, perhaps we are now immune to all images of public funerals and bodies left rotting in the street.

Do Quakers have any answers. For this poor, divided, unhappy world, do we have anything to say? Could it still be enough to talk about our opinions, campaign from the somewhat limited perspective of our own point of view, seem a bit self-righteous sometimes, and say that we don't do war.

For those minority disaffected groups who feel forgotten or unloved by the rest of the world, it would seem helpful to remember a time when every adult Quaker in my own community was in prison. We were undoubtedly extreme in our behaviour, most intolerant of others, forceful in our opinions, subverting the army, putting the country at risk, quite regularly stirring up trouble. For refusing a simple gesture of loyalty to the State, no one liked or felt able to trust us. We may talk with considerable nostalgia about those stirrings of the Spirit, but for those desperate to restore a semblance of law and order in the aftermath of civil war, Quakers could not have been more unhelpful. Instead of helping to restore peace, it seemed we were deliberately undermining that authority necessary to achieve it.

Our pre-occupation with the truth may make us at times not very comfortable to be with. It does however allow us to set a foundation, listen to the prompting of the Spirit and then move in the right direction. Since it would seem all religions are designed to make us better at being human, our contribution as Quakers might well be an example of self-scrutiny so that our testimonies may always reflect our belief. We know that we have not always been very good so understand all too well what it is like to be human. Since the way we express our understanding differs widely, it would seem particularly helpful for any religion to bear in mind that actions speak so much louder than what we just happen to believe.

At one time Quakers took considerable pride in seeing themselves as oppressed, unloved by the rest because we were one step ahead with God. Although we didn't blow up Parliament, we thee'd and thou'd, refused to doff our caps, and, in the culture of the time, it was like giving a smack in the face to others. It is so easy to create an identity on the outside, even assume a role of power. No wonder the surrender of our bonnets took so long. These days our contribution might well be an understanding that religion comes from the heart of a human being. It is not a status, covering, behaviour or even perhaps a name, but our best understanding of where we should be right now. When you are focused on the strength within, it is no longer necessary to carry about a sword.

Today there would seem very little doubt that religion generally is under attack and that the very worst thing you can do is follow a faith strongly. Some faiths in particular attract suspicion. New ways of pronouncing words such as "Islamists" and "Jihadists" are not at present recognised by my spell-checker but convey the impression of something that is invariably bad. In some countries wearing a certain type of clothing is seen as a criminal offence. Although I might feel slightly envious of a Muslim lady on a cold day, having cold ears does not give me a reason to attack her!

Instead it would seem more relevant for Quakers to share their understanding that it is possible to hold a belief very strongly indeed, even adopt a different lifestyle. If you are following your faith accurately, it will bring a greater capacity to love, learn, be humble in the eyes of God, and not make you a danger to others.

In our survival, we owe a great deal to George Fox. Although very forceful pragmatics do not usually become saints, without that timely peace testimony, I doubt very much we would have survived as a religious movement. God moves in a particularly mysterious way among Quakers! Through our history it would seem we are well qualified to emphasis the importance of religious toleration, allowing for extremes even though we may not always understand them.

At times it can be very frustrating to see evidence of the things people do not know and what they are prepared to do to each other. To me this is another opportunity for Quakers because we do not have a tradition of preachers telling others what to do. Instead of resorting to power or compulsion, the only thing we have to do in demonstrate a different way. For those believing that there is no other way but to blow yourself up as a terrorist, take down a plane or fire a gun from behind barricades, our lives may be an example of honesty before God about where we happen to be right now. If there were to be such easy answers, involving absolute power, surely they would have happened by now.

Right now it would seem there is an opportunity to live our lives in a way that is fully human. We may not know all the answers, feel any certainty of convincing others, or indeed winning. These options may still seem unduly important in our eyes. Instead we can be part of something so much greater that our views, identities and opinion. We should not underestimate the fear or the suffering, believing any part of it to be easy. This challenge may seem very great right now, but, for this poor, troubled, unhappy and divided world, in the words of William Penn, "Let us see what love can do."

Friday, 18 July 2014

How should I work for peace?

Shortly after attending my first Quaker Meeting I was introduced to white poppies when it was announced during notices a few weeks before armistice day that they were available for sale. Having enquired what they were all about, they seemed such a good idea that I have bought and worn one at that time of year ever since.
Through having a close friend in the armed forces I have also gained a very different perspective on war. At one time he was on stand-by for deployment to Iraq, having been informed of WMD's. It was very humbling to know that he was prepared to die even in support of pacifists who might wish him to do otherwise, (like me). So long as there is suffering, and loss of life through war, it would seem very important to me that I never use commemorative events to scrutinise political decision. In our early days, subversive Quakers who thought they might negotiate over their campaigns, were very soon thrown out of the New Model Army! Through holding the same inherited perspective of truth, in very complex demanding situations, I am still not in a position question the bravery and self sacrifice of those committed the armed forces.

It would seem ironic that it is so easy to campaign for peace in a very aggressive way. Shouting down someone who has a different opinion, vilifying an individual because they seem an obvious target or throwing bricks at the police, has never seemed to me as very different from eliminating your opposition in battle. Lately among British Quakers there has been a growing tendency to knit for peace This would seem to me as a very thoughtful approach especially if those needles are operated in the right way! At times it is possible to hurt people a lot through not being sufficiently appreciative of where they just happen to be.

To compensate there have always been many ways Quakers can demonstrate their peace testimony. In my area there are still regular activities at Aldermaston and Burghfield, some more challenging than others. From quite an early age I knew that I was not the kind of person who could hold banners in front of a moving train whatever it happened to be carrying. Although the Greenham Common peace camp was supported by Quakers in my meeting, through lack of campaigning or camping experience at the time, I wasn't at all sure that I would be of much use. Instead, as lettings clerk I helped provide some over-night hospitality for a very interesting diverse committed group of peace-campaigners passing through and loved to hear their stories.

Like many Quakers, I have been involved in demonstrations for peace. There have also been silent vigils, one of which was interfaith, overnight, held in our Meeting house and from the effort of keeping quite all that time, felt that it should have been sponsored! For some obscure reason peace vigils in our town usually surround the statue of Queen Victoria. The Empress of India tactfully looks away, and our town hall blocks that other view which might upset her of a monument to losses inflicted on her Berkshire regiment in Afghanistan. Although the lessons from war do not always sink in, I would never wish to underestimate the importance of getting to know and then learning from our history.

The time I found myself doing a peace vigil on my own proved very significant for me. At first it felt quite embarising to be stuck in the centre of town with a couple of posters with all the cars and buses going past. Then the freedom associated with being on your own sank in. I decided that just because people could take shot cuts in the fight against terrorism all over the world, that should not stop me making friends regardless of race, culture, or belief in my own town. As the idea of a Friendship Walk became clearer, I took the somewhat reckless decision that I should invite other people to join in, then asked the Reading Interfaith Group to support me. That habit over the next ten years of dropping into various places of worship came to involve rather a lot of people. Look back on those times, I think a lot of people enjoyed it, came to understand each other and it was nice that our town was able to set an example. It still amazes me to think of the generosity of all those very different faith groups year after year, although I feel somewhat embarrassed to have been quite so conspicuously the biggest gate-crasher in town.

During that time I learnt something about leadership. Although it may seem about personal power, what defines a leader is the knowledge of being led. In all our diversity, I have come to believe that all religions are intended to make us better at being human. With a fixed agenda such as politics, or the repression of a particular group, that first casualty of truth is very often religion.

Lately there have been some terrible stories of atrocities happening around the world, accompanied by some very strong opinions. Although shared with the best of intentions on social network sites, it would seem images of dead children are more likely to de-sensitise or polarise our thoughts and sense of greviance, than bring us any closer to peace. I would like to think that among Quakers at least, there is more dignity in death and a better way of campaigning.

It has recently been impressed on me, how lucky I am to live in an environment where the law is broad-minded about beliefs. Having freedom of speech does not give me the ability to be correct all the time, or have the right to make judgements about other nations so much less fortunate than my own. There are many conflict situations, a tendency to jostle for the worlds attention with certain causes very much more popular than others.
A young woman was assassinated in Libya quite recently for having views not so very different to my own.  Her unhappy land was where I spent much of my childhood. It is now a memory steadily being destroyed by different warring factions and much on my mind as I write this.

To me peace has never seemed like it should be the easy option, that it would suffice simply to let people know your opinion, that we have the right simply to judge from the distance of our own perspective. War is very dark and cruel. If you do not put sufficient effort into peace, what chance is there of winning through?

Last night I was very moved to hear from the British Ambassador for Libya. Through Twitter he let followers know that he and his delegation had arrived back in Tripoli. The journey had involved several hours driving across the desert from Tunis. There was no other way in or out because Tripoli airport had just been attacked by militia, severely damaged and planes on the runway destroyed. Then through the same source, I read the latest UN resolution concerning Libya and it was so reassuring learn of this shared commitment to peace. Since I was about to fall asleep in the comfort and security of my own home, it seemed appropriate to remember first those who were representing my country, now enduring considerable discomfort, uncertainty and danger in a very hostile environment. The reason why they were back in Tripoli was because they had not given up in the capacity of human beings to create a community of peace. To me this remembering quietly before God a concern, is important. It provides insight, and an understanding of what I am supposed to do.

At times like these I am often reminded my Grandpa. He was a conscientious objector and served as a strether bearer during the First World War. I cannot recall him talking about his experience on the Western Front although our family still have his medals. Instead we knew more about his regular commitment to attend meetings at the local branch of the League of Nations. It would not have been in his nature to speak publicly, only be there because this seemed to him like the right place to be and the right thing to do.

To me, a search for peace cannot be separated from that journey of discovery that we make on an individual basis for the whole of our lives. My understanding of peace these days may seem surprising to some Quakers in that it has involved a better appreciation of some of the tactics of war.

Part of this process involves putting yourself in the best possible position, where your gifts may be most useful, you will be effective and least likely to become a casualty yourself. A very difficult time in my life has emphasised to me the importance of being strong because any sign of weakness provides a compelling opportunity for others to attack you.  This does not mean the strength of being surrounded by a large metal moveable object or carrying something that fires bullets by your side. To me this strength comes from the inside. I tend to associate it with being fully honest. We should be free to develop our talents and opportunities to build up strength. There is nothing wrong with feeling that first blow on the cheek and not falling over. A pattern that will not break, warp or collapse is convincing. Strength enables you to turn the other side. So far as convincing others is concerned, it would seem far they might follow a strategy that is working.
Since both war and peace involve the deployment of power, it would seem relevant for me to remember that I am a human being. Simply through being who I am, the things I am able to do for love will be the most powerful things I can do.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Roman Way

It is a considerable relief to me that I write this blog as an individual. Although I see myself as a Quaker, and am generally known to be one, it has never seemed appropriate for me to speak for them. Whenever I am asked to contribute to an event, or even through writing this blog, it is important for me to make it clear that I am not representing anyone other than myself and that I just happen to be a Quaker.

Perhaps there are other Quakers out there who do not necessarily see themselves as being one of the crowd. At times I have looked around my own meeting, feeling that I would have more in common with the wider world. Of the people I can see sitting around the room who call themselves Friend to each other, how many actually really and honestly like me? Whenever other Quakers use the term "Quakerly" to describe a set of priorities, particular way of life or even at times some aspect of their belief, I will often ask myself if this definition really applies to me.

Some of this insecurity admittedly comes from my background, made considerably worse by that tenancy to stand bolt upright and face any available arrow whenever a parapet is near. When you have been wounded however, even in a small way, there is an opportunity to learn from experience, move into a safer place. The next part of that journey begins with truth, building up strength and healing from the inside, understanding and then moves on to forgiveness.

When confronted by a challenge, I will at times consciously choose to think like a Roman. This is quite easy for me because I was brought up in North Africa and so had the astonishing opportunity to be quite familiar with ruins of Roman cities at Leptis Magna and Sabratha. Since the Roman Empire was so large and inclusive, there is even a Roman city hidden from view close to where I live now and archaeological finds regularly brought to the surface. Perhaps a Roman legacy is still following me about to inspire me.

A Roman soldier used to be very proud of his scars. However disfiguring their wounds might seem, they were a record showing what he had been through, how much he was prepared to endure. Instead of feeling ashamed, it was possible to feel pride at the achievement of coming this far. All his scars would have been on the front of his body. Even though it may have been very frightening in battle, a Roman soldier did not hide away from uncomfortable truths or turn himself around so that he no longer faced the enemy.

At times I have seen some enormous shields among Quakers. These are often linked in a very long line among other Friends so everyone has to move together, concentrating very hard on what the person next to you is doing, to move anywhere at all. Shields are not entirely about support although they might give that impression. They have an unfortunate tendency to trip you up if you lose concentration. Perhaps the most unfortunate characteristic about them is their weight. This involves a need to make them with materials that do not last. When archaeologists discover some lump of metal among grave goods, this could well be the central part or boss, all that is left of something that had could have been quite restricting yet seemed so useful and important at one time.

Even though in our very early days George Fox is reputed to had told William Penn (possibly George Bishop too) that he should carry a sword for as long as he felt able to do so, that fondness for a long very sharp weapon would still seem quite popular among Quakers. Traditionally truth has often been associated with a sword. Having it hanging by our side may be a bit of a weight, quite a tripping hazzard, not always nicely decorated, but a very useful reminder of one of our ancient testimonies none the less. The rule about swords is however often understated. Quakers need to be very careful where they put them. Truth has a tendency to cut deep, may be very wounding, dangerous, invite retribution and even the magic Excalabur wasn't able to identify the most appropriate and deserving victim. Through our fondness for swords I have rather lost count of the number of well intentioned individuals who see life differently, now going about life with a blade between their ribs, because they have encountered Quakers.

The Roman structure of society bore some comparisons to a Quaker Meeting. There were no fixed hierarchies or a hereditary monarchy to make everybody's lot in life very clear. Since there were several instances of ordinary Roman citizans becoming Emperors, there was considerable incentive to use your ability in the manner most likely to encourage some reward for your investment. It may be assumed that among Roman soldiers, the most important consideration was to gain rank within the army. With so much available, they may have been self-orientated, inclined to speculate, conquer their opponents, besides needing to suppress a tendency to feel jealous.

This preoccupation with power led to a predictable amount of politics, manipulation and some unfortunate victims. Among Quaker meetings there has also been a characteristic of division from the beginning as different views and factions attempt to assert their authority over the rest. Since it is very reassuring in an army to be surrounded by people who are like you, there may also be a tendency to withhold responsibility from those who do not seem to fit in. This would seem a very poor strategic approach to a Roman soldier. He could have originated from any part of the Empire. Invested with a sense of responsibility and belonging, he knew all too well that this small Italian town became an Empire through its remarkable ability to include other nations.

Considering the size, diversity, variable leadership and exceptionally high maintenance, it would seem quite remarkable that the Roman Empire managed to last so long. Its soldiers however were acutely aware of the need for loyalty. Everyone within the ranks had an understanding of what the power of Rome represented. Whatever their background or ethnicity they understood and identified with the values it represented and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to maintain the ideal. Those privileged to carry a Roman standard into battle, knew that they were now an obvious target for the enemy yet did so with an immense sense of responsibility and pride. This characteristic of having allegiance would also seem to be shared among Quakers. Our shared identity is to me about respect, equality before God and the entitlement of every individual to pursue their own unique spiritual journey in the best way we can.

 It is well known that all Roman roads were designed to be very straight. Quaker routes also need to be uncomplicated since we are every bit as susceptible to ambush. Even though we may be inclined to look over hedges at all the other opportunities out there, and fall off the pace by chatting to our companions, we note our achievements and sometimes make tapestries of them! Our shields can be immense, plain-speaking swords sometimes a little too much on the ready and you cannot always see our faces under the armour. (!) Such characteristics do not detract from our chain of command or the need to go through life with a mission. In our diversity and regardless of what our background might be, our Meetings for Worship provide Quakers with an opportunity to commit ourselves to God's Kingdom. From here we radiate out, transforming darkness to light, because here on this earth, right now, we have been given this opportunity of life and now a job to do.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Quakers and Authority- Is this an impossible combination?

The story of Samuel's warning about kings was very popular during years of English Commonwealth. Charles I had just been executed, so those army officers and members of the Long Parliament who were now in charge of the nation needed to justify the passing of their sentence. Despite military victory, it was necessary for these leaders of this rebellion to be very bold, creating an new inspiring republican identity for the country or else face widespread rebellion and lose control of the army. Typically for the time, members of the House of Commons looked back, hoping to re-create a very much older social order grounded upon precedent from a time when there were no Kings.

Since many early Quakers had served in the Parliament Army they already believed a tyrannical king had been removed from office and the reason for their military victory was because God was on their side. Surrounded by compelling propaganda which emphasised their own authority as Commoners, Quakers were not unusual in their willingness to embrace the English Revolution, consult the Book of Samuel to justify the loss of their King and turn the whole established social order effectively upside-down.

To those living in England at this time, it would have seemed Samuel's understanding of Kingship had proved remarkably accurate. Like all Old Testament prophets, Samuel did not simply pronounce God's judgements. Instead he was able to predict what would happen if there was to be no change from a particular kind of behaviour or the Israelites adopt the wrong kind of plan. His prophecies gave listeners an opportunity and a choice. Although the Israelites merely wished to copy a feature they had observed in other nations, for Samuel the issue of kingship and authority was not an easy decision at the time.

Samuel's life was far from safe or straightforward, since he already lacked the support of his own children. According to the Bible account,3 His sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement." Instead of being able to feel proud or confident about the future, there was instead a very painful reminder of what had already happened to the sons of Eli.

Despite these insecurities, a temptation to look for easy solutions, and the prevailing pattern among other nations, when asked to provide a King, Samuel told the Israelites,

 "This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
12 And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
13 And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
14 And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants."

Such warnings however failed to dissuade the people. Kingship seemed like the easy option, offering clear leadership and a sense of national identity. Following a somewhat thankless task in pursuit of some donkeys, the very tall charismatic Saul was selected by God as the best available candidate to be King of Israel. From this point it became necessary for a human being to predict what a nation required, exert their authority and use force if they need to. Human beings are susceptible to human weaknesses. Through the appointment of a secular ruler, instead of being satisfied with God's law, the Israelites also traded in their freedom.

Through beginning at a time of immense social upheaval it would seem Quakers retained a tendency to challenge rules, conform or fit in. In those early years we were ingenious in some of our methods and quite regularly created havoc. On the Restoration of monarchy as almost the whole country united to celebrate King Charles II's return to power, Quakers adopted a subversive peace testimony then went to prison rather than take an Oath of Allegiance. In opposition to the State church, we maintained our refusal to to fund its religious hierarchy through the payment of tithes. As if to compound our awkwardness, throughout history we have consistently resisted all the patriotic conformity associated with war.

At times we would seem to others more like anarchists than members of a religious group. It could be said that despite the passage of time, our Quaker identity still seems at times to act as a passport, allowing us to be as difficult as it is possible to be, stand apart from the rest of society and a law unto ourselves.

Being a prophet can be such a lonely business! It is always so much easier to say what people wish to hear. These days Samuel would undoubtedly prefer not to get up on his feet during Meetings for Worship or to talk about popular subjects such as daffodils and his handicraft activities among Friends. Perhaps he would also like to challenge the government, criticise certain rulers, refuse conscription, defy certain laws and put nothing in their place. Instead however Samuel presents us with a simple two-way choice. Either we should be realistic about the risk and consider ourselves subject to the political rulers on earth, or else aim higher, not rely upon the leadership of other human beings and be accountable to God.

Samuel's contribution would seem every bit as challenging now as it was to the Israelites. Instead of promoting the joys of independence, he is not misled by the different mechanisms by which we arrange and operate power. Instead Samuel emphasises our primary allegiance to the law of God and precludes the option of a third way.

Through loyalty to his understanding of the truth, there might well be times when no body comes up to Samuel after Meeting to thank him for his ministry. During coffee, well intentioned Quakers with experience of looking strategically around the room might note his isolation or that he seemed unhappy, speak to him for a few moments, listen patiently, then drift off with the customary alabi that "there's someone else I need to talk to."

To me it would seem Samuel is a particular Friends among Quakers. He may not always be a comfortable visitor to our Meetings and yet this stubborn loyalty to the Law of God still provides us with a challenge. In the wider would it is possible to see society simply as a matter of organised, self-disciplined allegiance. Among Quakers, (and other friends of the prophet) there is the choice. With hats on, eyes wide open, our customary plain speaking, and the support of an Old Testament prophet, it would seem we should ignore the opportunities for power among human beings. Instead we may be alert to the opportunity of working for God's Kingdom. Through having been given the best possible resource, we use love as our means of persuasion and continue to interact with the State.