Friday, 30 May 2014

Written by a Quaker

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
 John Greenleaf Whittier
American Quaker Poet 1807-1892 

This hymn was used in the film Attonement.

Why Quakerism is not a soft option.

In the early part of his journal, George Fox portrays himself as one of a considerable number of people displaced by the recent English Civil War. He is traumatised by all that he has witnessed, disillusioned by both secular and religious leadership. It would seem that right from the onset Quakerism has tended to attract disorientated individuals, looking for security in their lives.

That traumatic loss of confidence in English monarchy which caused the Civil War came to be echoed through every layer and institution of society. It is difficult to appreciate quite how much people were afraid as their family life and normal occupation were interrupted through the need to enlist, casualties mounted, extreme suffering became a part of daily life, a strident, intolerant, partisan church reflected the views of government and the world turned upside down. Through understanding these times, the fears, uncertainties and all that people had been through, we might readily conclude that post-traumatic stress syndrome was a factor in prompting so many people at this time to become so receptive to the Quaker message.

In other ways, it would seem to me that our culture and communities are not so very different. Those Seekers in the North West of England included a considerable number of soldiers who had fought at the Battle of Preston. They had struggled to resume normal life in a way veterans returning home from Iraq, Afghanistan or other postings, might easily understand today. Through understanding the impact of seeing a mine explode for the first time, our veterans will understand George Fox's reaction in "Bloody City of Litchfield." This Quaker identity and sense of urgency is still grounded very firmly upon the experience of war. 

From the beginning it would seem Quakers have been entitled to use religion as an excuse. We might so easily have become the epitomy of those entitled to remain outside ordinary expectations because we have suffered enough. Instead however quite the opposite happened. The fears, uncertainties and loss of confidence in all other authorities came to be channelled into an uncompromising search for truth. Instead of gaining a soft option, or well-deserved retirement, Early Quakers received strength and purpose to their lives. Through such convincement, they were prepared to set themselves up as an example of uncompromising loyalty to the truth and so deliberately invited persecution. Perhaps it was this bravery and disregard for all other considerations which marked them out as being so very different from the rest.

Through having been brought up in an exclusively Christian environment, it would seem inevitable that their language should reflect this background. These days, through living in a multi-cultural world we are much more aware that an experience of God cannot be confined to one particular religion. To me it is important that we recognise diversity of insight as a resource and that these brave, stubborn, very honest individuals thoroughly deserved that no less valid an experience of God's transforming love, power and presence in their lives in union with Christ as their teacher.

These days our society is also very insecure, often betrayed through its leaders and with so many different idols offering a temporary solution. For this troubled world, should our Quaker Meetings provide just one more easy option, to escape the rest of life?

Those of us wishing to maintain a loving connection to past Friends, using the example of their lives as a pattern, might choose to disagree. Although to me it is very important that our Meetings are fully and absolutely inclusive, I think we should also make it clear that in our silence we provide an opportunity to also be Seekers after Truth. Here we may further our spiritual journeys by listening out for God. It is not the easy option. To do so otherwise, or remain silent would however be like inviting war victims into a refugee camp, then compelling them through poverty and lack of education, to stay. Presenting Quakerisim as a soft option, although initially attractive, is neither particularly enabling or kind.

Whilst rocking about the world like a chair on three legs, without an understanding of our true identity we cannot possibly expect to be stable, lasting or strong. Since no sensible person would sit down on a chair with three legs, without being entirely clear about ourselves, we cannot reasonably expect to be of very much use to others.

Instead I think there is an opportunity to be honest and brave about where we are now. There is still a compulsion to be all things to all people and through lack of direction deep divisions even among ourselves. Even from this very moment in time, we also have an opportunity to be humble, receptive, using our Meetings for Worship to focus very much more precisely upon how the love of God can become more evident in our lives.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Who goes to a Quaker Meeting for Worship?

"I have been a member of the Society of Friends by birth-right, and by a settled conviction of the truth of its principles and the importance of its testimonies, while, at the same time, I have a kind feeling towards all who are seeking, in different ways from mine, to serve God and benefit their fellow-men."

John Greenleaf Whittier
American Quaker poet

Religion- Coping with all the scary bits.

For many of us, at some point in our lives, religion can become pretty scary.

This may be as a response to childhood when that set of beliefs very appropriate to someone else's condition, doesn't seem quite so relevant to your own. At times being caught up in a particular life situation can be a very alienating experience when the rules and expectations with a religion no longer seem to apply.

I remember one morning spent gazing sadly at a portion of butter beans on my plate. They refused to disappear and so I was totally stuck.With the best of intentions my mother had said that butter beans are very good for you, and that there were lots of children in Africa who would be very glad of them. I could see no evidence of very hungry children in our dining room at the time. Instead of being won over but all that healthy propaganda, it seemed far more relevant to me that butter beans have a nasty coating that flakes off like dried skin in your mouth and anyway taste disgusting.

There was also that unlikely story about white cabbage. It may seem soggy, anaemic quite lifeless and insidiously covered in salt, but for some inexplicable reason, apparently makes your hair curl. Since my hair was already curly and still has an unfortunate tendency to curl off in all directions, white cabbage did not seem particularly relevant to my condition. It seemed from an early age that not all things we are presented with in life are going to be to our taste, although, in the search for miracles, and God moving in a mysterious way, perhaps we should begin with cabbage!

In marked contrast to these more painful memories of childhood, there were times when a particular type of food was impossible to resist. Throughout history, people have associated hunger with the search for God. To illustrate this point, I can recall sitting on the back seat of our car with a hot crusty loaf in my hands. There was a nice soft accessible bit at the side and a lot you can do with a loaf of bread during the journey home. For some reason that loaf of bread was quite hollow when my mother cut into it at lunch! I was in quite a lot of trouble at the time although did discover that picking away at something can indeed stop you feeling hungry.

 At times religion isn't at all like what it says on the packet. It is incredibly off-putting, besides very hurtful for those who genuinely adhere to a particular faith, when quite terrible things are done in the name of religion. For this reason, it would seem of particular importance that we are honest, noting that in its many forms, blasphemy (including acts of violence) is a misrepresentation of religion and not a part of it.

At times it is possible to get an allergic reaction from food. Even if this is slight, gradual and you are the only person on the planet who reacts in this particular way, it matters. With religion too, it is necessary to be honest about the problems we encounter even though they may not seem particularly relevant or logical to others. It helps not to over-react, believing that all food should now be treated with suspicion or lose sight of the main objective. With any serious adventure, there will be times when it is necessary to show bravery and work around the problem.

Some of the things people believe seem very improbable, irrelevant or strange. There may be a temptation to provide a critical appraisal of everyone else's religion as an alternative to thinking seriously about your own. To judge is often a distraction, and, since we will never have all the evidence of another person's perspective, most unlikely to be very accurate or true.
I do not believe it is ever possible to be entirely right with religion or that we should be held responsible for what we believe. Instead the focus needs to shift away from knowledge. It is the kind of people are prepared to become as a result of our belief that matters.

While writing about my childhood, I was reminded of my grand-daughter who went shopping one day with her own toy supermarket trolley and an illustrated list of things she was supposed to buy. If anyone had asked her, I am sure the thought of chocolate was most in her mind, although a three year old might also realise that other less inspiring items on her list were also there for a reason.

Although it is undoubtedly true that religion contains scary bits, I think my grand-daughter would still tell me that it is fun to go shopping. The trolley is only little, so among Quakers we have no creeds. Some bits (even butter beans and cabbage!) may be right for someone else. Among Quakers, no one is going to proscribe the items on your list. With religion, it is only necessary to take on board the things that you need.

So let's not be afraid of all the scary bits. It's a fantastic opportunity to be invested with the power and responsibility to take control of that journey.  Live adventurously, be a "Seeker after Truth" and with respect for all our fellow travellers, go shopping!!

Speaking Truth to Power

Some Quotes from Margaret Fell 1614-1702

" The God of power give you to understand His will and mind, that you may make Him your joy, who has the life and breath of all men in His hand."
Letter to Charles II

 "Although I am out of the King’s protection, yet I am not out of the  protection of the Almighty God."

"From your dear Mother in ye Lord."


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

What and where exactly are we?

Since jumping in head-first to the Social network, I have gained a great deal through reading the thoughts of other Quakers. Since these Friends have gone to some trouble sharing their insights, it would seem appropriate for me to begin this entry by thanking them. All ministry is I believe given to us for a reason.

Some of the comments I read concern me since they would suggest insecurity among some Quakers, making them unhappy. At times this feeling is reflected in very strongly expressed opinions. Whether this be towards Quakers, or others within the wider community, an intolerant approach inevitably creates barriers. Since Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone, this form of expression would seem more of a panic reaction. The world is not always a thoughtful, kind and loving place, so at times, quite understandably, even Quakers are afraid.

Where trust would seem to be an issue, it is usually necessary for organisations to look at both their defenses and their foundations.

The first part of this process is not at all encouraging because from the onset we always have been a totally defenceless people. Through reading about the fatalities, inability to fight back and intense unpopularity of Early Quakers, it would seem quite remarkable that we did not all die out during those early years.

The foundations for Quakerism are however quite reassuring for those of us who have ever felt intimidated by the language, culture and priorities of seventeenth century England. They are not, I believe its history. Instead it would seem that any stable organisation needs to be triangular with its widest point at the base. Our continued commitment to be inclusive, welcoming and loving provides Quakerism with a strong stable foundation, grounded very firmly on this earth.

At times there would seem a temptation for Quakers to focus merely upon the base layer believing themselves to be an entirely a social group. Instead, as with any triangular shape, there should be a natural progression upwards. This process will involve some kind of spiritual journey. Our tolerance, diversity, and absence of creeds it will enable us to remain "open to new light, from whatever source it may come?" Traditionally those brave, honest Quakers at the start of a spiritual journey are defined as being "Seekers after Truth."

It can be very easy to feel an outsider among Quakers, even perhaps at a somewhat lower level to the rest. At times it is also possible to get lost and there will be times of poor visibility in Meeting. To reassure those who feel on the peripherals, it would seem of relevance to note how Early Quakers were particularly inspired (at times down-right lyrical!) by the presence of honest enquirers who were ready and receptive to their teaching.

A Quaker life involves progression. We learn through experience. I do not believe we should be too proscriptive about the travel aids each chooses to adopt, other than through the offer to share those we have found useful.

At times there may be a tendency to focus on unnecessary items for that journey. It would seem to me the search for God has very little to do with having a good imagination, intellectual superiority of being able to express yourself in a particular way. Through being humble, we might also dispense with reason. By putting our own egos on a back burner, we travel light and so there is a greater incentive to listen out for God. Having silent Meetings would seem a pretty pointless exercise were it not for this opportunity of guidance. This mountain to climb may require the support of Friends. It has many paths although, if everyone heads for the summit, we will all get to the same place given time.

No one could possibly expect to see God although at some point on this journey, a Quaker may reach a stage of "being convinced."  This very seventeenth century phrase refers to having had an awareness of God's presence.
Although there are a great many ways in which this can happen, it is always individual, tends to involve clarity, wonder, transformation and a continued sense of guidance. There is no doubt of its power, relevance and permanence to the human condition.

To me Quakerism has very little to do with appearance, sharing a particular way of life or our ability to campaign. We are vertebrates by nature and that the search for truth continues to provide us with a backbone.
In recent years we may have become a little quiet, even quite confused about our identity, but there is still is a need for unconditional love for the whole of humanity, the opportunity to be a Seeker after Truth, a shared spiritual journey, and that unchangeable focus for all of our lives at the top of the Mountain.

Does anything unite Quakers?

At the World Conference of Friends in 1991, Val Ferguson asked:


"Does anything unite this diverse group beyond our common love and humanity? Does anything make us distinctively Quaker?

I say yes.

Each of us has different emphases and special insights, but wherever Friends are affirming each other’s authentic experience of God, rather than demanding credal statements, we are being God’s faithful Quakers.

Wherever we are seeking God’s will rather than human wisdom, especially when conflict might arise, we are being faithful Quakers.

Wherever we are affirming the total equality of men and women, we are being God’s faithful Quakers.

Wherever there is no division between our words and our actions, we are being faithful.

Whenever we affirm that no one – priest, pastor, clerk, elder – stands between us and the glorious and mystical experience of God in our lives, we are faithful Friends.

Whether we sing or whether we wait in silence, as long as we are listening with the whole of our being and seeking the baptism and communion of living water, we will be one in the Spirit."

Quaker Faith and Practice- Fifth Edition

Chapter 29 » 29.16

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

On Freedom

Many years ago, I can recall being set an essay to comment on the quote "Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains," by someone called Rousseau.
This was a very alarming undertaking, made considerably worse by not knowing anything about French philosophers or what certain college lecturers might like to read. Instead of pretending to be very informed about either subject, I can recall noting all the ways in which a student could feel restricted, blaming various organisations, including the government and police. Since these observations addressed that particular area of the curriculum, and lecturers like having their lectures quoted back at them, somehow I passed that essay!

Even then I had a somewhat uncomfortable feeling there were bits neither of us had thought of.

These days I cannot pretend to be any wiser about Jean-Jacques Rousseau although this isolated statement, taken perhaps well out of the original context, continues to make me think. The world continues to be unjust in how it apportions resources and it is a tragic reality for many people that they still are so far away from freedom. We are victims of our own decisions, and fate also has a cruel tendency to place us in chains.

Those chains of oppression have a tendency to change according to circumstance. For some the struggle for survival could well require every possible resource yet still result in chains. In societies however, where there is law, stability, human rights, material safety, and the option of being content, it would seem ironic that we still somehow seem to end up in chains.

It would seem to me that we shall never experience complete independence because it is part of human nature to submit. If one source of oppression is removed, we will simply replace it with another because human beings naturally choose to be led. Instead of allowing ourselves freedom, we allow ourselves to be influenced, effectively tied down in chains.

Instead of being entirely free it is almost impossible to walk through a shopping centre without believing that there is something that you need.
It is hard to feel content, because we have chosen to accept the guidance of advertisements, as our teachers.
It is hard to feel happy with who you are because we have adopted certain role models which stress the importance of perfection and success.
It is hard to love your own body because somehow there is an image of perfection fixed in our minds.
It is hard to feel valued, because we have chosen to adopt a culture of competition which involves making judgements about ourselves and each other.
It is hard to feel full, when obliged to take all that there is to offer.
It is hard to feel safe whilst believing we are entitled to be led by our emotions.
It is hard to feel happy when we are told to keep raising the level of expectations.
It is hard to forgive because we are supposed to be governed by reason which allows us to retaliate and stand up for ourselves.
Chains are an inevitable fact of life.

Since we are bound through our very nature to be governed in some way, it would seem unrealistic to expect that we can simply throw away our chains. Instead I would like to believe that there is an opportunity for freedom through actively listening out for God. In each moment there would seem to be a choice between being an ambassador for God's Kingdom on earth, or self employed and entirely wrong.

When people sometimes ask me if Quakers believe in God?
I am aware of the many other available chains and ask myself,
Who else should they follow?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Unwelcome Guests

In 1975 a Comedy Series was introduced to British television viewers involving a very traditional seaside guest house. Every episode something went quite seriously wrong. Although in some instances people were unlucky, the cause for so much of this trouble was a seethingly rude, particularly stressed out proprietor called Basil Fawlty who in his attempts to present the best possible impression of his establishment, was, (in the words of their website) "the epitome of a frustrated, social climbing middle-Englanders".

Although it may seem we are not very like Basil Fawlty and cannot imagine ever owning a guest house, most of us would identify with having a home and visitors who come to see you.

The ones I am thinking of this morning do not come announced, They do not make an appointment or ring the shiny brass bell on the front desk to let you know they are here. They do not write their names in the visitors book, but intead put down promises about being there to make you happy, fulfilled, successful, appreciated and so with no further questions, it is quite understandable that we have a tendency to let them in to stay.

Such guests can be everything they promised. There was that surprise birthday party, unexpected presents, winning the charity raffle, a Valentines Card right out of the blue, and a job interview which went really well. Its a lovely feeling to be happy.

Gradually however, such guests have a tendency to become more demanding. At times they will over-eat, take their fun with little regard for the neighbours or other people's guests, create so much dirty washing, use chocolate, alcohol, pills, to achieve the same results. It feels a little unsafe, even dishonest, but who isn't afraid of the alternative to what your guests provide?

That discovery one morning that your guests had repainted the living room a bright sunny yellow was a bit awkward. Even in your dreams it seemed you might be losing control, relying too much upon feelings.

There was now a funny smell about the place. Although difficult to raise the subject directly, it seemed that some treasured possessions, besides those you had just become accustomed to, didn't quite fit in.

Next day it was all very dark because someone had stitched together the curtains. As you stumbled about the house, everything seemed that bit harder to do. Nobody came round to visit because everyone thought you were out. Through lack of practice, it was impossible to remember how curtains are supposed to move, although your guests said it would be quite ok to blame everyone else in the neighbourhood, even the wider world if this would help you to feel better, as it is a horrible feeling being all alone and no body came to help you.

The problem with intrusive guests is that they seem to have an answer for everything. This works for a while but then you are either stuck with the same problem, or else have something else to deal with. There's that promise of happiness and all life's other rewards written so convincingly in the visitors book. It begins well but now there are all these other guests who you don't like nearly as much even though they say that they're related. Somehow they have slipped in between, signed in with false promises or said quite rudely that they are realistic expectations. Instead of being in your own home environment, all these very different emotional responses have set up a roller coaster ride in your living space.

Escaping from a destructive and misleading environment will require carefully planning. It takes time- a whole life time of practice, but best to break the challenge down into individual moments.
An act of worship provides an opportunity to quietly slip away from the rest of life and think. Through silence it becomes possible to recognise those emotional dependencies which so easily get in the way. Gradually we re-discover who we really are by seeing our lives in context. Guests with all their promises need to be told very firmly that within any home there are rules. In future there will be a little sign right next to the bell telling any potential guests about the owner of this house. It says that what we want is not all that there is and that "We are Quakers"


What are Quakers supposed to do?

" The world needs deliverence from the bondage of fear, a fear which makes men selfish, cruel and callous.

Everywhere significance and security have faded out of the lives of men.

Our Society should be witnessing, from its own particular angle of approach, to a God who delivers from fear, and in whom men may find strength and abiding peace."

Yearly Meeting  Minutes 1938

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Separation anxiety among Quakers.

Through having spent all of my adult life with the very good company of a rescue dog, I will be among the first to recommend this particular type of friend. It is a wonderful privilege to be welcomed every time you enter the house by your greatest fan........... although I do rather wish it wasn't necessary almost every time, to re-arrange the carpet.

Many rescue dogs have a tendency to suffer from separation anxiety. From insecurity, loneliness, hunger and mistreatment, a new leader of their pack arrives. Suddenly there is someone to latch on to, prepared to provide for all their needs giving them a home. For this reason it is very important to practice leaving your dog, building up intervals of separation gradually, causing the minimum disruption every time you arrive or leave. Since the relationship we have with our dog is based on trust, it is very important that we are not unreasonable in our expectations. However well adjusted and well trained, dogs are social creatures who need exercise, and cannot be left alone in the house too long.

Since it would be possible for my dog to do a great deal of damage, I like to think that rearranging the hall carpet is more symbolic than the result of prolonged distress. On my return, she is usually asleep in her basket, and through the limitations of a dog's short term memory, cannot recall digging about in the hall for those few crucial incriminating disruptive moments just after her pack leader left.

For Early Quakers there cannot have been much doubt who was the pack leader. Through their letters and testimonies there is so much evidence of trauma from the recent civil wars, howls of anguish through lack of consistent leadership, feeling very lost, and then finally re-homed with a living experience of Christ in their midst. Their responsibility towards God was decisive. Whether it be through leaving their plough, wives, likelihoods, rejecting the excesses of fashion, social protocol, refusing to swear an oath of allegiance, interrupting the priest, not paying tithes, burning all their musical instruments, going naked for a sign or heading to Boston for almost certain execution, duty to the pack leader totally transformed their lives. The depth and closeness of this relationship was expressed in many ways.

Typically, the Early Quaker William Dewsbury said during his final days

"If anyone has received any good or benefit through this vessel called William Dewsbury, give God the glory; I'll have none, I'll have none, I'll have none."

These days it may not always be so clear who Quakers have as their pack leaders. Instead of reacting quickly to every whistle of command, we tend to consider the prospect first, wonder if running after balls is really worth the effort since we are all such busy and important people really.

Absence of leadership can often lead to panic. At times Quakers also have a tendency to dig up the hall carpet, desperately looking for meaning. Without a guiding influence in our Meetings there may be dog fights because in the strength of our opinions we too can get preoccupied with power.
We may make our mark in all the wrong ways, considering Quakerism to be merely a way of life and our sole responsibility to the rest of society is merely to make an impression. At times in the absence of leadership, Quakers can be quite ingenious in their ability to ignore the rules. Through misguided priorities and lack of trust we raid the rubbish bin. Through not being challenged, there is a tendency to chew away on all sorts of improbable items because even though we do not like to admit this, it can be very frightening to be left on your own.

Those Early Quakers understood how hard it was to be patient but at least through a sincere preoccupation with truth, they were facing in the right direction.

Isaac Pennington later recalled how
" I have been a man of sorrow and affliction from my childhood, feeling the want of the Lord and mourning after him, separated by him from the love, nature and spirit of this world, and turned in spirit towards him almost ever since I could remember."

For lonely impatient dogs waiting on a somewhat lumpy hall carpet, there is hope, that moment of joy for every seeker after truth, the sound of a key turning in the lock above their head, a furiously wagging tail rearranging all the letters on the mat, then a desperate need to find some toy to show your pack leader and, above all else, that knowledge of being loved.

Testimony of Marmaduke Stephenson

"And this is given forth to be upon record, that all pople may know who hear it, that we came not in our own wills but in the will of God."
Marmaduke Stephenson
Boston Martyr died with William Robinson October 27th 1659

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Paradise Island.

During my time at secondary school we were set the task of reading a book that scared me. Its content was so shocking, I cannot recall reaching the end even though "The Lord of the Flies" was very strongly recommended at the time. The feeling of horror I had was further aggravated by our local butchers shop which for some reason best known to themselves, decided to put a pig's head in the window. For me, this was one of those horrible visual images that you cannot help looking at, and remember for ever, however hard you try.

"Lord of the Flies" recalls the consequences of a plane crashes on a desert island. The only survivors are a group of schoolboys. Despite being in an effectual paradise they become victims to their own group dynamics, priorities, superstitions. As the plot progresses they become increasingly idle, gullible to superstition, unable to help themselves escape and violent.

This quite shocking dark narrative has since been made into several films. For those who have not encountered the book before, I will put in a link as a Summary of the plot.

It may be argued that this story is a huge exaggeration, contrived though being a particularly exclusive group of pre-pubescent boys, who despite being placed in the most perfect environment, were in other respects particularly unlucky. Instead of involving an inspirational Peter Pan and magical Neverland where life can afford to be a very big adventure, this alternative vision of the "lost boys" seemed to present a terrible indictment of human nature.

During the very early years of Quakerism as Britain reeled from the effects of Civil War most people felt they had been betrayed in some way. It seemed through their recent sufferings, lack of consistency in government and various transformations of the Church that their entire world was turning upside down. At this time of intense suffering and fear, a very similar book to "Lord of the Flies" was produced. Called "Leviation" it also reflected a belief that

“Life is nasty, brutish, and short”
Thomas Hobbes

Despite the recent past and observations about the nature of humanity, Leviathan argued that civil peace and social unity could be achieved through the establishment of a commonwealth by social contract. In an ideal situation this would be ruled absolutely by a sovereign power who would in turn provide for its defense.

Through having experienced these times of terrible uncertainty and hardship, it would have been inconceivable for Early Quakers to dispense with all forms of government, choosing to promote instead an entirely individual approach, or system of Church Government in which a majority would decide. Instead there was a particularly strong emphasis on accountability, where instead of following creeds and clerics, Christ was believed to have come among his people to teach them himself. In practical terms, besides their Meetings for Worship, this meant Early Quakers were regularly referring back to the Scriptures for guidance. Typically, an almost unanimous decision not to take the Oath of Allegiance, could be justified through a reading of the gospels and that they were following Christ's instructions.

These days it might seem we are enjoying unprecedented freedom and opportunities. For many of us there is a particular way of life, so it could seem our Quaker paradise has a tendency to become an island. Perhaps our Meetings long to become more inclusive and diverse. We have access these days to so many different insights and sources of wisdom, but might there also be a risk of not giving them the respect they deserve. Lack of clarity may so easily lead to superstition so instead of living out our testimonies in the context of our belief, we settle for a way of life. Our paradise island may so easily lead to a power-struggle, becoming tainted by human needs and priorities, if we choose to forget what it is like to be human and that Meetings for Worship are for seeking and listening out to God.

Fighting for the Kingdom

"Then was I willing to give my body to death, in obedience to my God, to free my soul from sin, and I joined with that little remnant which said they fought for the gospel, but I found no rest to my soul amongst them.

And the word of the Lord came unto me and said "Put up thy sword into thy scabbard; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my children fight",

which word enlightened my heart, and discovered the mystery of iniquity, and that the Kingdom of God was within, and the enemies was within, and was spiritual, and my weapons against them must be spiritual, the power of God."

William Dewsbury.1621-1688

Monday, 19 May 2014

Giving Peace (Lilies) a Chance.

About two months ago my daughter arrived downstairs with a house plant. This one had been on a top shelf for a while. Its few yellow straggling leaves were now folded over as if they could no longer face the world. The soil was like a hard ball of dust, very light and had no resemblance to the size or shape of the pot. Dropping off along the route to our compost heap, were spiky bits that were once leaves but now looked a like straw. My daughter knew that this desperate case was just the sort of present that I like. As if to dispel all possible doubt of its suitability as a gift, she announced that it had not flowered for a while!

Once breakfast was cleared away, it was surgery time by the kitchen sink, removing all the dead leaves and then re-potting. That long soak in a bucket of water must have seemed a bit excessive to a plant that only had a few leaves left. Having made this initial commitment, it was then given the right kind of light and told very firmly to recover.

Each morning I have a routine of drawing back the curtains and then looking round my straggly assortment of houseplants to see if anything's needed. It soon became apparent I have a particularly demanding patient. This did not seem very fair, as if I was being taken advantage of in some way. Whereas in my daughter's care, this plant had clung on in desert conditions, for me it guzzles water, wants feeding on a very regular basis and even the occasional dust! I could imagine in a real hospital it would be ringing the emergency bell summoning the nurse with a great sense of urgency whenever a leaf touches the wall. If there's a staffing problem, or some other patient takes priority, it goes yellow and wilts in a flash.

It is not a particularly well-kept secret that some people talk to their plants. In most cases this is positive re-inforcement, encouraging them to grow. With some very naughty demanding plants you have to bite your tongue, even though all the evidence suggests that "someone" does not deserve this second chance, is taking you for a ride, and the human race would be overcome by tryphids if everyone was like you. These straggly relics do not have sweet smelling, colourful flowers and vibrant foliage for visitors to admire. Instead of feeling entitled to discard and replace at will, they are a reminder of how my bedroom window was already crammed full of casualties when I was a child, and that this time-wasting, insidious, rescuing habit can so easily become second nature.

For those afflicted by the rescuing bug, trips to the garden centre are focused on the "DD Section" (short for Dead and Dieing). Here you need to prepare yourself for a crime scene, where there is ignorance, well-intentioned spoiling, the wrong kind of care, bug infestation, neglect or the quite unreasonable fault of now being out of season. Instead of seeing only the dark side of gardening, there is the challenge. Before they even recognised themselves as being trophies, such plants get gathered up lovingly in a very Quakerly way because I like to think there is hope for plants whatever the situation.

As Quakers I do not think we should ignore the "DD section" in our world. Belief in the possibilities does not enable us to be content with wilting leaves that have assumed unnatural colours, disassociation from our roots, and those prickly dry sticks of ministry which have a tendency to drop away. Instead there is the option to draw back the curtains, look honestly at a situation to see what is needs. Since surgery is not an entire solution, we need to show patience, rather than believe our opinion and the manner in which we express it is enough. We can be persistent in the small ways. Each day there is the challenge and the opportunity to use discernment, resolve all forms of drought through immersion in a bucket of water, and accept that most conflict situation require cherishing in some way.

 This morning my peace lily finally produced a flower. 

A Quaker Experience of Guidance.

"The Lord who was the guide of my youth hath in tender mercies helped me hitherto; He hath healed my wounds; He hath helped me out of grievous entanglements; He remains to be the strength of my life, to whom I desire to devote myself in time and in eternity."

Written by John Woolman at the foot of a list of Ministers and Elders of Burlington, New Jersey in 1767

Friday, 16 May 2014

Life lessons from an elderly relation.

For years I used feel slightly guilty when people would ask "Do you work?" and then annoyed when my reply seemed to provoke an assumption that it did not amount to much. Sometimes it is hard to describe or even notice the small tasks so at the end of each day, it would be a complete mystery why I should be so tired. It never seemed as if I was doing anything important and that used to worry me.

Lately through visiting a very elderly relation I have learnt that sometimes it is enough just to be there. Whilst everyone else has been busy out there achieving things, we have both gained over the past few years through having discovered time opportunities to be with each other.

Through taking on a commitment to visit, I have received a smile of recognition on a regular basis. It is lovely to be asked how I am, and for news of all the younger family members. In that way alone I feel valued.

At times we would grumble about how the modern world has got all its priorities wrong. It would seem from talking to my aunt that we do not grow or eat enough vegetables these days, we snack all the time in a way that was quite unheard of in her youth, everyone is too competitive, under so much pressure and that some of the rituals associated with belonging to a family have been lost. Through her descriptions I have a very much better idea what it must be like living by the sea. We have shared ideas on how to grow vegetables, cookery attempts that went wrong, and talked a great deal about nature.

My aunt was brought up to be stoical. When you have nursed patients in a London hospital during the blitz, it can also shape your perspective. She has taught me to make best use of the opportunities you have rather than waste any time over what you have not. Instead of grieving about her falls, failing health and increasing blindness, we try to make each moment as good as it can get.

Lately it has been harder to hold a conversation because my aunt gets very tired. We are as a result now about a third of the way through her favourite childhood book, learning about Winnie the Pooh together. For me this is a very humbling experience.

When there are practical problems, this tells me as much about my own weakness, how I need to be patient, understanding and adapt my expectations to another person's needs. At times I used to joke to my aunt about being an absolutely rubbish nurse, with a tendency to trip over the patient rather than be of any practical use. It may seem there are other things I might do with my time than to visit an old lady on a regular basis, but I honestly believe the things we do for love last forever. 

Even though my aunt managed some of her cup of tea during my last visit, it is so tiring and difficult eating. It seems she is getting smaller every time I see her. When the phone rings at an unexpected time, I am always thinking and worrying that it might be something to do with her. It is sensible to be prepared but even more sensible to feel so proud of someone you have gradually got to know, and tell others not to be afraid of developing an opportunity to listen out for someone you love.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Quaker Laundry

Through working mostly at home most of my life, I have gradually developed a routine. Other members of the family may not be fully aware of this, although it generally understood that Friday night is for curry, and on Mondays, both they and my long suffering recorder teacher get cake!

As part of my routine, it is possible to tell what day it is by  the weight of the laundry basket. Fridays is for working through it, and so I can hear that long-suffering washing machine working away in the background. Each time the noise changes to a triumphant peep, there is a break to put its contents out to dry.

From looking at the writing of early Quakers, it would seem they also tended to get caught up in a routine. Since this was an agricultural society, there was much talk among themselves of "seeds", "threshing" and the prospect of huge "harvests", particularly within urban areas "ripe for the gathering". These days it may be much harder for those in a more affluent society to appreciate how much survival depended on doing things at the right time of year to the best of your ability and then knowing all too well how much you relied upon God for the weather.

The way we feel about work would seem to have changed very little over the centuries. At times it can give us a lift, even a sense of importance, although the reality for most people is often more about grind, working through the list, stress, scrutiny, competition and that pressing need to somehow get on with your colleagues. Just as Early Quakers would look forward to a harvest safety gathered in, we might still anticipate the empty in-box on our computers, and a job well done.

The way I feel about my laundry basket this morning would seem fairly typical of a Quaker. Even though it seems most unattractive at this present moment, I know that it has potential. For me it is a case of holding on to that belief, and being honest about the challenge ahead. Even though my washing machine has a "Mixed load" cycle where clothes are sloshed around at 40 degrees then spun very fast, laundry would seem like people, best to understand first before you try to change them.

The woolly items are easy to identify. These soft sensitive characters whom among Quakers tend to be very interested in the right type of consumerism and saving planet earth need to be treated gently. With a critical approach, they can shrink very small. Instead I think we should recognise the value of our Quaker way of life, and its sincerity. Use low temperatures, and Dry them as flat as they need. Wool provides warmth, a welcome and can make you feel very comfortable in Meeting.

Within any group of people, there are the strong characters, with a tendency to share their opinions and whose colours spread in the wash. Rather than bewail this sudden spread of darkness, it is best to be prepared, recognise that it may not be the individual at fault but the response. Although strong colours tend to generate a reaction, it may be helpful to remember that those with a message, may also need to be treated at a low temperature. Through inviting a response, they might well have been hurt before.

Synthetic characters also require understanding, patience and a particular type of care. Even though the net curtains have assumed a stubborn shade of grey, this may be because they have been hung up to attract all the dust. This does seem particularly unfair, not something we would readily do to clothes and particularly stressful having to minister to the neighbours for a while.
 Some items are not merely externals, concerned only with appearance. These have been in the most difficult and demanding situations, shown strength as their primary characteristic, and so cannot always expect to seem lovely.

Within or around laundry baskets there are those items in denial, refusing to admit there could possibly be anything wrong. These "dry clean only" items are sometimes laid across the top, getting in other clothes way and looking a little lacking in direction. Such items tend to accumulate dirt slowly and smell a little chemically sometimes. They claim they are worth the investment, much too precious and sensitive for washing. These stubborn characters would rather be thrown away than admit to being anything less than perfect.

Such garments do not tend to relate very well to natural fibres, grounded upon truth, ready to endure whatever the washing machine throws at them, well used to hot water. At times they get a little creased and difficult to iron entirely flat, although those prepared to stand out and ask questions are like a breath of fresh air to a Meeting.

The way we clean our clothes would seem to have changed a great deal since our seventeenth century beginnings. Washing clothes, particularly in the winter must have been particularly hard. Collars, cuffs and bits under the arms could be removed so you did not have to clean the whole garment every time. The chemicals they used were to hand, typically urine as a bleach, clothes were churned around in a tub or beaten on smooth stones at the local river. It may be assumed that most people wore their clothes much longer before washing them. At this point it would seem diplomatic not to say anything very much about George Fox's trousers that he wore for many years to ride about the country on horseback and were apparently made of leather!

The symbolism of washing is shared by many faiths. It begins by recognising what it is really like to be human, that we have our temptations, our weakness, that things may go badly wrong, and yet we can do something about it. Our faults might be seen as an ugly mark, although all the time we are changing, given experience from which there is an opportunity to grow. 

Being suddenly plunged in hot water can be quite alarming besides painful but there is a wider picture. We may not always emerge glowing white, but honesty and a willingness to learn from experience marks a new beginning every time.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Quaker Castle Tour part 5- Introduction to Quaker Heraldry

Before commencing today's tour, it may be helpful to explain how castles are usually built on two levels. In the centre there is the mound or motte. This is the strongest point so the castle owner would usually live in a stone keep built on top. A lower level called the bailey occupies a considerably larger area. It is protected by the moat, walls, towers at strategic points and a gatehouse. In this area you might find the homes of servants employed directly by the castle owner, besides workers engaged in a considerable number of support industries such as making arms, or caring for the horses. Since castle residents were dependent on the surrounding area for food and raw materials, the bailey also provided the obvious location for trade.

In times of unrest the population of a castle bailey could increase dramatically as refugees from the surrounding area sought safety within its walls. Although this influx of additional families put considerable pressure on a castle's resources, particularly if it was under siege, this responsibility to the wider community was generally understood.

Within the bailey of a Quaker Meeting are those altruistic members who might very well feel like servants, employed most of the time! Others drop in on a fairly regular basis to provide a range of services. Some would seem almost indispensable, whilst others caught up with a range of other concerns and not particularly central to the service of a meeting. In times of war, Quaker Meetings also tend to experience a sudden influx of visitors, drawn by the attraction of our peace testimony. Like castles, we have a responsibility to the wider community even though we might well feel a lone minority, under siege and our resources very small.

Just as those living within a castle bailey were a community, Quakers also tend to see themselves united though sharing a particular way of life. A traditional framework provided by our testimonies is quite regularly added to so that it might almost be assumed Quakers in England these days prefer to grow their own vegetables, choose to buy organic, aspire to a particular type of interior design, have a predictable choice of newspapers, read intellectual books, listen to Radio 4, attend the theatre, and have a somewhat time-consuming tendency to join local choirs. Although none of these activities are bad or subversive, those features describing "A Quaker Way of life" may surround a castle, enhance much that goes on within it, but they not its strongest point.

Those living within the bailey might also have been very busy with their own lives and so at times forgot what really went on in the keep. Through the feudal structure of society at this time, there was however always a direction and a focus. In general the best of any commodity they produced usually went to their lord. At times people may have resented this obligation and considered it most unfair. When the castle was attacked however, this same framework of leadership offered guidance and support.

This relationship between a lord and his subjects came to be represented in a considerable number of places about the bailey. The presence of a flag was a reminder of ownership and that their lord was close by. Even though most people were unable to read, they recognised the colours and pictures on it, some significance in the design, a motto of relevance, and knew that even though this represented the property of their Lord, it was their community as well.

At times of crisis we may run back to our Meeting Houses for support, even answers although it is also possible to get disorientated by life in the bailey. In the way we treat each other, through lack of patience, understanding, jealousy and lack of honesty, even Quaker Meetings so easily revert to manufacturing arms. Quaker heraldry can at times be very hard to find.

For those living with and around a Quaker Castle, we should perhaps be looking out for some banner displayed even above our testimonies, that says we are accountable and our Lord is close by. Though living below this banner, we have a sense of identity and place, knowing that we are subjects. Within this castle there is a contract and understanding between us.

At times it may be necessary to seek discernment because the property of our Lord, particularly within the human heart, can seem very small. It may appear no bigger than a mustard seed, but within the castle there is everything we need. Throughout creation, even within our own hearts there are the heraldic devices stamped everywhere as a reminder. These define our allegiance. We know through the motto of scripture our Lord's intent. Early Quakers were for example, very often talking of "The Word" which had come among them. Through Quaker heraldry we are able to recognise the limitations of our own wealth, status and property since all that we have is of a much meaner quality, loaned merely for our time on earth.

Our Quaker Castle is not about supremacy over other religions and very far from being the only authentic one about. We should not be arrogant, insular or intolerant because the Kingdom of our Lord may include any number of settlements such as ours. Through trade and dialogue with other faiths, we can become stronger, more sure of our own identity and not lose out on the opportunity for a shared spiritual allegiance. To whichever castle we belong, there is an identity, and legal framework on which we can trust. Here we can have absolute confidence in the strength of our protector, loyal to his purpose and so transform all our doings with love to be a part of the Kingdom.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Quaker Castle Tour part 4- The walls. Digging down deep, re-discovering foundations.

On November 9th 1989, the Berlin wall dividing East from West Germany began being dismantled by crowds of ordinary people. Other parts of the world watched mesmerised on TV. All border controls ended on July 1st 1990 and from October 3rd 1990 Germany was recognised as being one country again. At about this time I came to realise how afraid my parents had been during my childhood of atomic bombs, fearing at certain moments of international crisis that someone would lose patience and there would be immediate destruction. Although such fears have by no means gone away, it would seem to me that bringing up children so soon after two World Wars and the invention of the atomic bomb, must have seemed a huge risk. Not surprisingly, my generation has grown up with a very strong perception that opposing ideals as symbolised by walls built to divide people, are almost invariably bad.

These times it might also seem that walls have been superseded by the technical advances of air-power. Whereas Emperor Hadrian had been able to see his strategic line of defence across Northern Britain as a complete solution against barbarian attacks on the Roman Empire, we are able to view this architectural feature on our computers using satellites from space. In a comperable way, those walls of identity and hostility towards each other created by religion are very often regarded with a different perspective, using additional knowledge available through science, the intellect and reason.

It would seem of some significance that early Quakers also grew up at a time when walls were being taken down. In the past castles had been built with archers in mind so it was an advantage to have strategic high points, and narrow arrow slits in the walls. The introduction of gunpowder with its associated weaponry obliged many castle owners to reduce the size of the target by lowering walls, strengthening them with banks from the inside, and increasing the size of arrow-slits so musketeers could use them. Early Quakers reduced the impact of theology by removing the dependency on creeds, strengthened their defences through their emphasis upon truth, and through toleration, increasingly widened the windows.

During the years of English Commonweath, castles were systematically destroyed to prevent a resumption of the recent Civil War. At this time of so many religious sects and the rapid growth of Quakerism, for many people this challenge to traditional knowledge and an understood structure of society seemed like gunpowder to all they held dear. As it seemed the world was being turned upside-down, subjects tended to be more afraid than inspired. Surrounded by so much destruction, it seemed they were to be part of a process in which there would soon be nothing left.

This process of destroying castle walls has since continued. For many Quakers it is now quite understandably assumed that any barrier will limit the availability of knowledge. In wishing to embrace diversity any type of obstruction might serve to exclude people. As a result it may sometimes be very hard to tell whether our priorities and way of Meeting for Worship are still within the castle.

This blurring of identity can make us particularly difficult to find. To compound this problem, a gradual process of evolution and the adoption of new priorities makes us a moving target. At times we throw up an intellectual fog through the way in which we communicate. Such tactics may evade some of the criticism you get with religion but does not make us particularly strong as a castle. Instead of making us more accessible to other faiths, encouraging the process of dialogue, this apparent subterfuge can make it very much harder for other organisations to trust us.

It may be helpful to remember how the walls of a castle could also provide protection and a livelihood through trade. In times of trouble people would come in from the surrounding countryside, believing that the presence of a castle, its ownership and the values it had come to represent might offer them safety. Rather than scale the walls, they approached respectfully and openly through the gate, free to come and leave as they chose, knowing each time they entered the expectations of those responsible for the castle and their own level of commitment.

These days Quaker castles may provide a similar facility for those troubled by life's dilemmas, in need of some support and for Seekers after truth. We may need at times to dig down into our Quaker history, well beyond that sense of identity built up through culture, to re-discover our walls. Whatever height or strength we find them, they mark a boundary, an honest identity, letting people know we are there.