Showing posts with label Quakers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Quakers. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

However bad the situation, there is always something we can do.

Over the last few weeks there have been some horrible images conveyed through the television news. Religious extremists blowing themselves up in a crowded market-place, kidnapped school-girls and the brutal consequences of an advancing army, are all examples pertaining to the human race. At times such as these, perhaps I am not alone in seeking some way to make the world a better, safer, fairer, happier place despite enormous odds.

Most of us contribute to good causes. Such gifts are subject to our means and undoubtedly make a difference. I would like to think of them as symbolic of a much deeper level of commitment. The kind of support I am thinking about right now, can happen at any time and it is something anyone can do.

1-We can act first.
 Those who resort to violence do so through a belief that this is the only or the most effective option. As Quakers we have an opportunity to pre-empt this choice, by showing that we are prepared to listen, that we can be respectful of different situations and perspectives. Acting first often requires courage. We may choose to be compassionate and forgiving, taking care not to lose sight of the potential and worth of another human being. In the words of William Penn, we can
"See what love can do."

2-We can set a good example.
This is a very big commitment. By setting a good example we provide individuals and communities that may be very much less fortunate than our own with an alternative way of living, perhaps a different set of priorities, and consequently a choice.
In the words of George Fox, we have the option to
"Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one."
George Fox, 1656

3-We can pray
For those Quakers brought up in the tradition of programmed meetings this may seem a very predictable suggestion. Others might own to being totally mystified by some of the language Quakers use, wondering whether "Holding anyone in the Light" says as much about our wish to seem proactive and important, and, in comparison to "proper prayer", more of a compromise arrangement.

Quakers believe that anyone can approach God directly, so perhaps it is understandable that at times we can feel a little awkward to step in, doing something those in need of support might just as easily do themselves. Instead of being proactive in our prayer, many of us prefer to wait.

It would seem to me that prayer might just as easily begin with an understanding of the human condition, as through any expectations we have of Divine Guidance or intervention. By praying, we accept our own inability to solve a situation on our own, that we can be sufficiently humble to ask for help and we are open and responsive to guidance. Instead of acting as an intermediary, I see this act as being essentially about our own relationship with God. By communicating our concerns through prayer, we demonstrate our trust in God's love.
Since God is all-powerful, prayers are never wasted. Although this may be in ways we do not expect, or through a wider perspective than we can possibly imagine, our prayers will be answered in some way.
We do not know the solution to many of the world's problems, so will never be in a position to present God with a list of alternatives that we would like him to do. Instead, I think through worship we gain clarity, and in our response to all the worlds' suffering, a renewed responsibility to communicate God's love directly and practically in which ever way we can.

The Role of Jesus 

"Consider now the prayer-life of Jesus. It comes out most clearly in the record of St Luke, who leaves us with the impression that prayer was the most vital element in our Lord’s life. He rises a great while before day that he may have some hours alone with His Father. He continues all night in prayer to God. Incident after incident is introduced by the statement that Jesus was praying. Are we so much nearer God that we can afford to dispense with that which to Him was of such vital moment? But apart from this, it seems to me that this prayer-habit of Jesus throws light upon the purpose of prayer.

I think of those long hours alone with God. Quite obviously petition can have had a very small place in our Lord’s thoughts. We cannot suppose that He whose chief desire was that God’s will should be done in all things could have been incessantly asking, asking. There must have been a sacred interchange far deeper than this. Especially are we sure that He was not praying for material blessings to be enjoyed by Himself alone. On the only occasion recorded in which He asked (in perfect submission) something for Himself, at Gethsemane, His request was not granted.

My own belief is that outward circumstances are not often (I will not say never) directly altered as a result of prayer. That is to say, God is not always interfering with the working of the natural order. But indirectly by the working of mind upon mind great changes may be wrought. We live and move and have our being in God; we are bound up in the bundle of life in Him, and it is reasonable to believe that prayer may often find its answer, even in outward things, by the reaction of mind upon mind. Prayer is not given us to make life easy for us, or to coddle us, but to make us strong … to make us masters of circumstance and not its slaves. We pray, not to change God’s will, but to bring our wills into correspondence with His."

William Littleboy, 1937
Quaker Faith and Practice  2.24

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Quaker dog-training. How good are we?

My mother's little dog was a very sweet character and good most of the time. There was one thing however about her that puzzled me. Whenever you gave her a command such as "Sit" or "Lie Down,"  she would wait for a moment as if considering the request, then perform the task as if this was a joint decision. For some reason she would always say "Woof" afterwards.

 Over the years I have become very used to rescue dogs, at times very naughty rescue dogs who really push the boundaries while they are with you, and then become destructively devastated when they are not.
It would seem a better character reference to say that my present "personal trainer" was once the kind of dog you see advertised by animal rescue charities as having been badly treated, and who deserves a second chance. Instead however, I have that uncomfortable feeling that even rescue dogs can be very much like their owners. This one with a proud record of extending both my physical and mental endurance, is still quite a rebel, very strong willed and with a great sense of fun. Instead of being a truly deserving case, it would seem most likely to me that she ended up on the streets just through taking herself off- being very naughty. Whether or not we always deserve it, there is compassion about!

Anyway, my mother's King Charles Spaniel had a great sense of self-importance, as would seem fairly typical of the breed. Whenever I see these dogs about, it is so tempting to ask their owners if these "little angels" also answer back. Through living in England, I can imagine these little dogs sitting on plush cushions in a Restoration Court, or even a royal lap, knowing all too well that with a possible exception of his mistresses (of which there were quite a few) they were undoubtedly Charles II's favourite subjects.

A little dog such as this one could well have been present as two plainly dressed women presented their case about Quakers. Charles II listened to Margaret Fell and Ann Curtis explaining why Quakers were loyal subjects even though through loyalty to their conscience it was impossible for them to take an Oath of Allegiance. From their very privileged position these little dogs could look down on all delegates. They already knew how to be socially acceptable, enjoy every possible comfort and get their own way at court.

These days it would seem Quakers are presented with a choice. In the past we would follow certain commands without question, even if this meant loss of property, imprisonment, and considerable personal danger. Now we are more assertive about what we believe to be our rights and so there is the cushioned option.

This transformation would seem to me as being very strange since the authority which spoke to early Quakers hasn't changed. There are still the same Scriptures containing laws and commandments, besides the many available insights of other faiths to enrich our perspective of the truth. At times however there is a tendency among Quakers to re-negotiate their position, so that we can also be like royal dogs, aiming somewhat lower in our search for a pack leader. Although you cannot serve both God and Mamon, it would almost seem at times that Power might also do.

Present day Quakerism may involve a process to consider whether a command suits our present condition, rather than to demonstrate implicit trust in our Master. Even when we are living according to our testimonies, there is a considerable temptation among Quakers to say "Woof" "Did you see that?" "That was our peace testimony!" "Just look what we can do!" Because we are talking about now, people these days people will then scratch us between our ears and say what lovely creatures Quakers can be. Since the world is a wonderful place when everyone likes you, how hard it is to resist rolling over onto your back, getting your tummy tickled and then forgetting entirely what you did to begin with. At times like these, it can be harder to tell the difference between a dog and a cushion.

In the past, Quakers seemed much more reliant on their horses to carry then about the country rather than to take on dog ownership in a big way. This isn't to say that besides companionship dogs didn't have their uses.

Nearly all dogs are acutely aware of a need for leadership and their food source. Perhaps Quaker dogs were also very much like their owners. Nearly everyone was hungry due to the general privations of the time, and their owners were undoubtedly hungry after truth. There might have been dogs living at Swarthmore Hall to guard the property (where's the account book of Sarah Fell when you need it!?) Here they would have identified with the household in some way, knowing that they was something important to defend.

No doubt there were rat catchers, birds that needed scaring away and dogs that brought food for the table because if you happened to live in that household there was always going to be an awareness of what you are up against and then some sense of mission. Although some dogs in those days undoubtedly lived on cushions, being a Quaker has always involved a journey and some kind of adventure.

I wonder if Quakers these days can feel quite the same degree of loyalty to the past. Perhaps we look at all those ancient letters and documents, find them a little hard to decipher, re-negotiate, and then woof having achieved considerably less than we might do.

So where are we now as Quakers? Has obedience to the truth now gone out of fashion? Should we enter dog shows even among other faiths because we still have something to offer? Do we celebrate diversity as you do among dogs, identify our talents and then do the appropriate training. Quakers can be very good at obedience training, jumping through hoops, running along see saws, climbing ramps and wiggling through sticks to help make the world a better place so perhaps we should do this often.