Yearly Meeting #4: Making testimonies and opening doors

As noted in my last post, the recent gathering of New England  Yearly Meeting adopted two important minutes, on racism and on climate change. (Final minutes only slowly appearing).

Given their histories, these seem to me to be declarations of testimonies by New England Friends.  As a short-hand description, a testimony identifies something that we believe should be characteristic of all practicing Friends in the Yearly Meeting.  This is a big deal, and also represents an important spiritual opportunity for individuals and for meetings.

Why is it a big deal? Well, a testimony in Quakerspeak is different from a concern or leading, which is generally an individual development.  A testimony represents a fundamental discovery about the nature of divine-human relations, which indelibly marks Quaker faith and practice.

Despite a recent tendency to over-simplify (think SPICE), Friends have made a lot of testimonies, “large” and “small” — on oaths, participation in war, the nature of worship, marriage, gambling, ministry, the equality of the sexes, and so on.  These are claims about what Truthful living entails.

Even when we have separated, we have tried to articulate how the new practices of our particular Quaker fragment are somehow consistent with the previous enactments of various testimonies — Think of debates about what it means to be “plain,” or to uphold the Quaker testimonies on worship and the free ministry, or the several successive Quaker orthodoxies about the use of “beverage alcohol. ”

The point is, every Quaker needs to position him/herself in relation to the testimonies, and even in circles where all the theological or doctrinal content has been abandoned, and Quaker identity rests solely on “praxis,” the testimonies one way or another are a major proportion of the praxis that defines one as Quaker.   Most of us are in process, with regard to our realization of particular testimonies, but we recognize that they are in some sense an irreducible part of our agenda for growth as Friends.

The two recent statements by the Yearly Meeting have some important hallmarks of testimonies. Perhaps most important, they are top-down statements of intent or wishful thinking, as minutes, alas, so often are.  This is because they have come to the Yearly Meeting, and been adopted (accompanied by substantive controversy) because many Friends, and many meetings, over a number of years, have been led by a sense of Truth at the heart of these matters, and struggled with them alone and together.  The persistence, or insistence, with which they have seized us is evidence of Life at work (even if we have much to do, to separate that Life from fad, custom, culture, etc.).

Second, they have life because when Friends engage with them, they are challenged, uncomfortable; and recognize that if they stay engaged with them, this engagement will change them in significant ways — spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and practically.

Third, each of them represents a path of growth:  one may start with little things, yet cannot well come to the end of them, as further understanding — and further challenge — become evidence the longer one tries to live the testimony.

Finally, all testimonies (and there they overlap with individual concerns held over time) have the potential for integration — for being for you or me a path towards a fuller faithfulness and understanding of the whole Quaker message, and the spiritual processes involved in being transformed, by the renewing of our mind, so that we bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of the Holy Spirit, as the advice has it.

I will return to this last point in my next post, to explore what I see as one great opportunity  presented by these actions of the Yearly Meeting — two separate actions, but expressions of the One Lord of Life.

 

Yearly Meeting #3: Love and judgment

In his bible-half-hours at New England Yearly Meeting this year, Doug Gwyn often reflected on the role of “crisis” in early Quaker thought and experience, and pointed out that this word in the Greek original, krisis, means “judgment,” the weighing of a case — and the sense of “decisive turning point” derives from this. Mostly his expositions showed Friends (or biblical figures) as they responded (and were tested by) such moments of decision. I was, however, thinking about the other meaning, as we all lived through the exercises of Yearly Meeting. There was much food for reflection.

As reported in a “talking points” message from the clerk, one item of business raised tensions on the floor, as we were asked to continue to work to understand and address the nature and effects of white privilege among us.

Recognizing the urgency of work for racial justice and the ways in which white supremacy affects and is present in our Quaker faith communities, in the coming months the Yearly Meeting will explore concrete steps New England Friends can take to help us more fully realize God’s vision of the Beloved Community… We see that the work of change and recovery from the spiritual disease of systemic racism needs to happen in each of our hearts, within our organizational structures, and in each of our local meetings. 

 

The language of the report and minute that came before us stimulated some pained or even angry reactions and counter-reactions, and there was a lot of pain, shock, and disappointment as we saw and heard how much work in this area remains before us.
Now, there are few things more corrosive to the unity and health of a community than “the judging mind,” that compares and makes distinctions in order to censure and exert control. The evils of this judgmentalism are well known — but there is plenty of evidence that it’s a very common impulse. Jesus warns “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”  Paul in Romans eloquently argues that if the members of the church are to be in harmony with the Holy Spirit, they must be tender with each other on matters of conscience, as each one seeks to understand what faithfulness calls for from them at their stage of spiritual growth.  George Fox frequently addresses this human propensity in his epistles (and therefore saw the need for the advice!).  For example, from Epistle 217:

All you that are turned unto this living Way by the Power of the mighty God of heaven and earth, live in Peace one with another and Unity. Do not judge one another for that eats and wears out the good, begets the enmity and hinders growth in Truth.

But that word Truth is a problem:  if there is such a thing, which has such characteristic results in lives attuned to it that we can indeed claim to be following a Way —  how can we avoid judgment?  Yet how can we be loving and still judge?

Love can be construed as excluding judgment, and we often, I think, fall into the idea that if we are to be loving, we must hold that differences must all be treated, well, indifferently, and uncritically (if you will pardon the term).  Yet the metaphor of “light” includes seeing shadows:   this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)

But what kind of standard is the Light?  It is not a rule, but a living experience — a dynamic presence that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end.  Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.

If my love is not of this sort, so that difference, or the experience of being judged by others, or the inward prick of a wounded conscience, rob me of my centeredness in the Pure, I  have yet some ways to go to live in the true Light which is love:

then a fire kindles among you, and you have torment, and your love leaves you; which shows your love is not of God, which loves judgment, where mercy rejoices, whose love has not torment nor fear.  (James Nayler, “Epistle concerning love and judgment” Works iii:750-753). 

In that Light, the first challenge is to see oneself in the things that are eternal, to come out of illusion to a sense of establishment and orientation towards the “pure principle” that Woolman wrote is placed in the human heart, and is to be relied upon as a destination towards unity and freedom.   The journey out of this illusion, towards that establishment, involves an experience of judgment, in which one learns the difference between the living seed and the chaff.  This is not comfortable — indeed it can be costly, and the price needs to be paid more than once!

But at the times when one is established in the knowledge of love, and a sense of some freedom in the Spirit, differences between me and thee are cast in a new light, and the predominant concern is agape, in which judgment is purified of self-serving and fear.   With the beam removed from our own eyes, so that we can bear to see our selves in Truth, we can then be enabled to accept the Witness in another, reach to it in another, and feel where growth can happen, or is inhibited.  As William Dewsbury wrote to Judge Thomas Fell:

Friend, that which calls for purity in thee is dear to me, and with it I suffer, which often secretly groans in thee for deliverance.  And whilst thou lend thy ear to the pure counsel of the holy Seed, thou art almost persuaded to lay thy crown in the dust at the feet of Christ… and to follow him daily in the cross… To the pure light of Christ in thy conscience I speak, which will witness me.

At Yearly Meeting, all this, I think, was in evidence:  Light revealing truth, the Shadow in us reacting with un-comprehension, disbelief, pain;  a movement towards the healing judgment that love makes possible, and indeed demands.  The story is still unfinished, and the work that remains is daunting, but I was reminded that in the Light love=truth=judgment.  KRISIS.

Wherefore, O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you! Where is the poison, there is the antidote; there you want Christ, and there you must find him; and blessed be God, there you may find him. Seek and you shall find, I testify for God. (Penn:  Rise and Progress)

Yearly Meeting #2: Encounter with the suffering seed

Over and over, throughout the week, the following kept returning to me, and I am still not free of it.  In case it may be of service, here it is:

Oh my people, what have I done to you?  Or wherein have I wearied you?  Testify against me!

I have equipped you to see my beauty and feel my presence: I teach you of myself in the beautiful and bountiful earth.  I show myself also in the more intimate wonders of your bodies and your relations. You know love and compassion, and the joy of creativity, the doing and the making, the seeking and discovery.

To help you grow in wisdom, in a world that holds pain, disease, and confusion as well as all the gracious blessings of your lives, I have not ceased to teach you, in language you can hear— in the histories of liberation, in the lives of those who’ve found my light and lived in their measure. My witness has been made through a few in every age and land.  My Torah and  my prophets, too, I offered, and even took upon myself to live a human life, from humble birth through to shameful death, to show how low one has to come to see and accept the whole mystery of life.

You, my friends,  can feel the pain of others, you yearn and work to free your sisters and brothers from fear and oppression, in order that they can share in the promises and fragile blessings of human life. I love the faithfulness you’ve been able to live, and your longing to live more.

In the stillness of my Presence, in the moment of prophetic sight, you can sense, dimly or with terrible clarity, how I, the Seed of life, am kept down in others, and how this burdened Seed is prevented from growing into a comely, fruitful plant, whose leaves are for healing and for joy.

But, Oh my friends, now you are reminded that I am also still oppressed in each of you.  I am groaning within you, and striving to be freed, to have the weight taken off.  You can feel it, feel me calling you again to the tenderness that comes from truth — the truth of my being, and the truth of your condition.   You can see how I, Lord and servant, am oppressed and scorned in others, but my suffering and captivity in your selves dims your sight, dulls your soul’s sight, and hinders your hand from the works of compassion you long to take up passionately.

But I, the Seed Immanuel, am still singing my redemption song.  If not, my Light would not have brought you once again this week to the narrow passage towards more abundant life, brought you to feel again the opening that comes by way of repentance.

You have been led to sit down by the narrow way, and your hearts are smarting with the wounds you’ve taken in the approach to it. In your weariness, though, and with a surprising hint of joy, you can see through to works of reconciliation and creaton.  Feed on that joy as it comes to you, bearing fruit in its right season!

But do not cease sitting at the narrow place.  Keep close always to the gate that bits and presses you to tenderness, keep it present with you, as my Rock followed Moses in Israel’s wanderings.  I have told you in so many ways, this is how I live, I the suffering servant, the Lord of life.  I am free and impossibly wide, but dwell also in the heart of suffering, imprisoned with all my children, and within them, even the least; even in you. Rejoice to accompany me there, in the paradox, as I never cease from accompanying you.

 

Yearly Meeting 2016, #1 (ToC)

Like many others, I left our yearly meeting exhausted and grateful. I have heard repeated inward warnings not to let the flow of days and works sweep away all the lessons and questions from this gathering.  I remember Anne Wilson’s warning to the young, unawakened Samuel Bownas: “Thou comest to meeting as thou went from it the last time, and goest from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?”  I’d like not to deserve the same rebuke!

There  will follow at least three posts:

  1. Encounter with the suffering seed
  2. Love and judgment
  3. The unity of gifts:  White privilege/anti-racism and our climate testimony

 

Building our house in the storm: A letter to New England Friends, Aug.6, 2016

Dear Friends,

We are gathering in Vermont to worship, work, and spend time in companionship.  Yearly Meeting can be such a blessed time for inquiry, growth, and consolation!  In the quiet this morning, I find myself filled with gratitude because of the opportunities we have.

We will say many things about the needs of the world, and the calling we feel to respond, and the leadings we are following, and the evidence that some of us see that we are following our Guide, and the burdens we bear in our journeys.

Surely we can say that God is at work among us, and we are trying, at least, to walk as children of the Light.   In my gratitude this morning, however, one question comes with urgency:  Are we taking care that our meetings are in health?  Are we being faithful to the gifts that are given, to help us all live close to the Wellspring of unity and our pure testimony, not of this concern or that, this “practice” or that, but the essential root, our reason for being a people at all?

All our outward doing, if it is witness — what is it a witness to?  The Quaker claim is that acts of faithfulness speak of the inward life out of which they come.  Recall the time when John Woolman sought to understand the origins of his concern to visit the Indians:

Twelfth of sixth month being the first of the week and a rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.  

If we don’t take the time to  inquire  where our doing comes from, to understand how my concern and your concern are rooted in the gospel life, then we can forget the grounds of our  unity in the Spirit.

We may find substitutes for that dear unity — each with the people whose language and concerns feel most comfortable and exciting— but “issues loyalty” can become a reason to judge each other, a root of division.

My concern this morning is  especially for those who are called to the work of ministry in all its many forms, whose purpose is to build up the community as a vessel of the divine life — in public worship or in private, in prayer or presence, in teaching or in preaching.

The work of the ministry, in all its forms, starts with listening, and waiting to feel where the unity dwells, and what the connections are between some present focus of concern and the whole story we as a people are acting out.

All the issues of our times are urgent, yes, but it is just as urgent that we take care that our worship and our witness are truly what we claim them to be, motions of the Spirit of Love.  This has never happened except when some people (many!) have accepted their share of this work, and taken concrete steps to serve, and to grow in the service.  What is called for from you, Friend?

Haggai was a prophet during the time of Israel’s return from exile, and he was the vehicle for an urgent call, which I feel this morning is renewed to us:

These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’” Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai:  “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it…. This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord.  “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the Lord Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house.”

Let’s be about the building!  I think it starts with a renewal of our praying, which is the workshop of all ministry:

Wait until we feel we are at the Center, and then in that confidence, ask:  Am I just worshipping myself, or my longings and needs?  We may feel convicted then, but there comes with the judgment the gift of freedom, and an opening to a clearer view of the true Center.  There we can wait in God’s patience and compassion until all our certainties are overturned, and continue seeking until the Love comes which can be felt when certainties are gone, and our notions are taken from us, and we have felt the poverty of our own spirits. Then the blessing comes.

It is in that poverty that we can accept the gift of the common life, the unity that Jesus testified to and prayed for,  just before Gethsemane and the Cross, and renewed again and again thereafter.  You have tasted it, maybe!   Then you know what Paul meant when he wrote (1Cor 2:16): “But we have the mind of Christ.”

Watchfulness and unity: A letter from William Dewsbury

From Newgate Prison the 5th day of the 9th month, 1661.
“This was writ and directed to several Friends in Bristol.”

Dear Brethren,
Great is the charge committed to you, as to your watchfulness over your own hearts, and the great people amongst whom you are placed; Oh, you brethren, walk in the unity in the lifeof God, it will be the great comfort of them chosen jewels of God in that place; the strength of the life and love of God will wait to cover you, it will flow through you in the unity as a river, to water the garden of God, and cause it to grow full of the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, goodness, peace against which there is no law; so shall your names be honorable in Israel, and many shall bless the name of the Lord for your watchfulness, meekness, and lowliness, and tender love in the power of God, to build the decayed walls of Sion and repair her desolate places, to the rejoycings of all that love the Lord God.
His powerful presence be with you and bind you up as one in his life in all your undertakings for the comfort of Sion; and the blessing of the almighty God be with you, and rest upon you forever.
Your brother,
W.D

Library: Steere’s “The open life”

A new entry into my little library: Douglas Steere’s 1937 William Penn Lecture.  I found the text some years ago on pamphlets.quaker.org, where you can find some other classic pamphlets from this series, and from other series.

This talk is vintage Steere:  drawing deeply on Quaker and other religious sources to challenge us to greater levels of authenticity in action and in prayer, discovered and worked out for ourselves, using the materials of our lives, and learning in the process to be confident that “there is that near you that would lead you.”

He does not scruple to ask Friends to consider if we have not become too careful, too even, too safe for our own (and the world’s) good:

If one stays within the bounds of a decent respectability in religion, we argue, one is at least preserved from a good deal of hypocrisy and many other of the dangers of zeal. It is true that not many of our members travel in the ministry any longer. Publishing truth is after all a pretension to certainty and a trespassing upon the personalities of others that is unbecoming to a generation that looks upon religion as a delicate matter of personal taste. On our lips there is the prayer: Oh God, teach us to do thy will — to a certain extent.

The spirit of caution:  that spirit, it seems to me, can be sanctified — by a willingness to wait, to test, to see if we can live what we have come to see as true.  On the other hand, it can be unsanctified, if it represents mere avoidance– avoidance of commitment, perhaps, or of appearing the fool, or nerves about the hard work of following through with the in-breaking of clarity.   I know this spirit of avoidance very well, in myself, from long acquaintance, and it does not bring life, it holds it at bay.

I like this pamphlet, because, though speaking plainly enough,  Steere does not dwell on rebuking the backward, the unwilling, or the too-comfortable:  such things are part of the spiritual life, and centuries of counsellors have advised us not to dwell on the unpleasant truths we have come to see about ourselves, but to get on with amendment, in simplicity of heart, with the tools of prayer, wisdom, and practice that are available:  Neither do I condemn thee.  Go and sin no more.  There are many ways in which this message comes to us, but there have been times when I have been refreshed by the way this pamphlet challenges me.

Steele reflects on characteristics of the “open life” that takes on the challenge of faithfulness in freedom, and it is noteworthy that they are all modes both of contemplation and of action. He reaches to the inspiriting example of early Friends, but brings his message home to the contemporary soul.

The conditions that I find in these men of the open life are a sense of vocation, a living in the decision, a yielding to the principle, a coming under holy obedience or into devotion, a life of practice in the presence of God. These are not really separable. They are all a part of a single response, a single condition. But we shall enter the temple by several gates.

Diagnosis

In an earlier post, I spoke about proclamation, encouraging you, if you find yourself acting in faithfulness on a climate change concern, to tell people, and seek to understand and connect your testimony with the Gospel underpinning it.

But it has to be said that the search for understanding, coming to know the root of faithfulness, is a spiritual apprenticeship in which one explores the interaction between word and deed.  In this search, personality and culture can distract, confuse, trick us into thinking we possess because we can possess.

One way I think about this apprenticeship is in terms of diagnosis.  This word in Greek is not a medical term (or not only that).  It implies discernment, a “knowing thoroughly,” the sort of understanding that is accessible through patient observation and reflection, and brings to bear lessons already learned.

We believe, as Friends, that God’s guidance and wisdom is available to us (in our measure!) and perceptible, just as the voice of a friend or the unfolding trends of history are perceptible and accessible to us.

Amos 2:7-8:  “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets… The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

In these times of disruption and anxiety, I am very sure that the Lord is at work.  With what joy do I see or hear any hint of that work!  How can we keep from proclaiming the evidence, and all the meanings and hopes it answers to, in ministry that   “interprets the truth of God to us, not alone in terms of momentary experience, but in terms of the growing revelation of God through the ages. ” (Faith and Practice, New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1930, pg 7)

But the discipline of the prophet, or even the unprophetic, unheralded soul who in a moment of sweetness and clarity feels that they experience Truth in some measure, is to wait.  Nayler says, let your food be in the life of what you know, and in the power of obedience rejoice, and not in what you know, but cannot live, for the life is the bread for your souls. (Milk for Babes).

It is so hard to tell the difference between a revelation and a notion, or between the first harbinger of understanding, and the full growth of it!  Too often I have been tempted to seize on what I have thought or felt or realized in a flash of connection, and run with it to someone to let them know.  It’s a particular temptation because at least part of what I am is a teacher, whose delight comes in helping others to see and enjoy and do, to grow in some way — the delight of the gardener, all of whose work is rewarded by the living creature expressing something the gardener could never do himself, yet has helped to make the flowering possible.  The great temptation of that kind of personality is that of the Athenians that Paul encountered (as recounted in Acts) — who were eager to hear and see something new.

We are now, in our culture, so rooted in the language of psychology and social science, loath to speak of “divine guidance,” or a “being sent by the Lord.”  By contrast, we are more accustomed to sharing our story, telling our truth freely, as a healthy act, and a positive assertion of personality.

But Friends have traditionally held that there is another process going on, that is not ours, even if we can hardly find “modern” ways of describing it.  In that process, we have found wisdom in the search, in the waiting, in “feeding on Him in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving ” as the Book of Common Prayer says.   This work is diagnosis. Then we will be able to know if we have a word to say, and feel freed and empowered to say it.

George Fox, early on, saw the difference between one kind of experience and another:

I went up to Swarthmore again, whither came four or five of the priests. Coming to discourse, I asked them whether any one of them could say he had ever had the word of the Lord to go and speak to such or such a people. None of them durst say he had; but one of them burst out into a passion and said that he could speak his experiences as well as I. I told him experience was one thing; but to receive and go with a message, and to have a Word from the Lord, as the prophets and apostles had had and done, and as I had done to them, this was another thing. And therefore I put it to them again, “Can any of you say you have ever had a command or word from the Lord immediately at any time?” but none of them could say so.

So we must take the time that is necessary to be sure that the word we can offer has been seasoned in life;  no time is wasted in that work, however urgently you feel the needs of the time.

Yet if you have been led to an inward clarity, transformed in time into the witness of action, and then if the Light helps you see where this is rooted in gospel love, then you may well be under preparation to tell what has been done for you, to you, through you, and you will know whose you are, and whose the work is, and take your measure of joy in the telling, whether to one or to a hundred, as the way opens. Your testimony, so rooted in reality, will tell us something about the condition of the world in which your seeking and finding have taken place. Diagnosis.

I close with lines from Penn’s Rise and Progress:

Your country-folks, neighbours, and kindred, want to know the Lord and his truth, and to walk in it. Does nothing lie at your door upon their account! Search and see, and lose no time, I beseech you, for the Lord is at hand.

 

Letter: Not to be discouraged by the great challenges before us

Dear Friends:

More than once in recent weeks, someone has spoken to me of discouragement, even despair, as they confront not only the challenges that come with living a human life, but also the challenges of the times.  I have spoken such things to others, to myself, and to God, in the quiet.  All times are challenging, of course, but the nature of the interlocking systems constructed by, for, or against 7+  billion people, combined with the wounds and gifts of history, and the intricate, beyond-human workings of the world organism, are unlike anything we have seen before.

Moreover, one consequence of our networked lives is that one can hear both the great cries of anguish, and the subtle hints of unfolding disarray — perhaps the judgment coming upon us of our social heedlessness, and individual inertia, or unfaithfulness by omission — in any case, I am very aware that I am one among many who feels burdened, and at the same time called to understand how to live freely, faithfully, hopefully, truthfully, in my times.

In this connection, I have been reflecting  recently on this quotation from George Fox’s Journal:

For the Lord had said unto me if I did but set up one in the same spirit that the prophets and apostles were in that gave forth the Scriptures, he or she should shake all the country in their profession ten miles about them. 

    When I found myself quoting this in a recent gathering, people chuckled at the small scale of the impact George envisioned — 10 miles!  Amazing! Quaint!  But as I have thought of it over the past few weeks, I find here another tool for addressing the corrosive “spirit of the times”  — not the only tool, nor maybe the best tool, but one I need to use to better effect:  “not to be more than God would have you be.”   This can be understood as a counsel of Quietism and disengagement, but I do not think that can be so.

After all, the Friends who gave such counsel felt they were part of a new phase of God’s world-transforming work, Christ come again in the bodies of his saints.  But they were also aware of the facts of incarnation, the partial knowledge that comes with finitude, and the way that our power and our testimony is limited by our divided selves, our many-mindedness, and our temptation to claim what we can envision, or can know intellectually, but not embody or realize in our life, our living, acting, perceiving, hoping.

Yet still they longed for and expected expected revolution, a top-to-bottom reconstitution of individuals and societies, with its motive power and its direction coming from the God who sent the prophets, working through the spirit called Christ, our shepherd, pathfinder, and teacher.  They witnessed just such an “overturning” that we, oppressed by possible futures, and global news, long for – out of compassion (which strengthens)  as much as out of anxiety (which weakens).

George’s “ten miles” reminds me to bring into my meditations on concern and action the recognition that my awareness of global crisis does not equip me to act on a global scale, and it does not require me to do so.   I must see as widely as I can, and work to understand what my part is — at this moment — in the whole.

When John Wilhelm Rowntree prayed, “Lay on us the sufferings of the world” he certainly did not mean, “Put the Society of Friends in charge of solving the world’s problems.”   Rather, I understand his words to mean:

“Let us see the world as it is, not as we experience it in our favored condition, or our little sector of the great globe.  Let us not be content with a cheap response to the Ocean of Darkness.  In our measure, we have experienced how the Ocean of Light can flow over it, and we are confident in that power, but we know that there is much more growth ahead and in that growth “much to die to,” as Job Scott said.  Help us see ever more truly, O Spirit of Truth;  O Spirit of Love, help us not deny your promptings in our heart;  O craftsman God, help us turn our hands to the work that you set before us, to do it in our time.  God of abundance, who yet counts each sparrow and seed as precious, help us walk under your guidance into fulness of engagement, greatness of heart, and our full measure as partners in your ministry of reconciliation and healing!”

Prayer: Notes for a meeting workshop

A few years ago, Dover Quarterly Meeting focused its program on nurturing prayer in our meetings. I prepared this simple guide for the meeting’s use, and it still may be serviceable for a meeting or fellowship group. It is intended to take about one and a half hours, total;  a leader  gives the introduction, and then moderates the 1-hour exercise, keeping the time, and helping Friends keep on track.  Don’t worry that much will be left undone — it is designed to leave participants wanting to go deeper!  It is very flexible:  If you use it, or adapt it, let me know!
— brian

 

Considering prayer together: starting the conversation

A. Introduction and preparatory exercise

 1.  We have expressed an interest in considering prayer together. There are many ways of approaching this topic, and all these approaches have been used over centuries. Therefore, there is nothing new to say — except in answering the question, How does this matter to me, and to my community, in this hour, this time of life, this age of the world?

2. Let us stipulate from the outset that, while some of us are more comfortable with prayer than others, and some have lives more saturated by prayer than others, yet standing as we do on the shores of mystery, and always facing a moment we have never inhabited before, we are all beginners. Experience helps, very much so; but the life we seek to encourage in ourselves and others is very tender and vulnerable, and can be found in unexpected times and places. So we need to learn from each other’s stories.

3. It is important to take seriously, from the beginning, that prayer is not primarily a thing to talk about, but to do. Therefore, in our time together, we should actually do some praying. We can structure some of this, but each of us should be on the lookout for the moment when prayer seizes us, provides us an opportunity — perhaps private, perhaps shared

4. One other postulate: the quality, or shall we say, health, of my prayer life is linked to that of my community. It is not that if I pray well, my community will necessarily do so, or vice versa. Yet the more of us in a community that have a healthy prayer life, the more resources the community has as it faces change, uncertainty, opportunity, or conflict. Moreover, a community in which prayer is active and open can do more for the seeking and praying individual than a community in which the inward life is covered or weak.

5. Prayer and its cultivation require us to be honest: about what we desire, what we can do, what we actually do or have done, what we can’t do or think. The only requirement is a positive response to the great, simple invitation that Christ has issued: Follow me. Come and see. Walk in the Light, which is perilous, unpredictable, and streams with utter reliability from a source of love and truth. To love God with all our faculties is our only commandment, which is inseparable from loving others. Find out what this might mean.

6. Try these on, and see how you respond — and think it possible your answer needs further inquiry:

Prayer for me is:

comfort
rest
heightened attention
a test

often or always interrupted

inward research

a way to see others

a habit

impossible

a way to remember joy

unfamiliar

uninteresting

a goal hard to come at

easy

 

  1. Prayer and the community, part 1. We often do not know if people in our meeting (or even our family) have any kind of prayer life, or what kind it is. It is hard to talk about; and then sometimes it is too easily discussed. It takes care and tenderness to speak from experience, with tenderness, and without posturing high or low. But it requires being, for the moment, available to simplicity.
  2. Prayer and the community, part 2. Prayer is hard to talk about in community, we may feel reluctant, because the conversation may reveal surprising differences or doubts present within or among us. Then we need to remember that prayer works best in honesty and charity: speaking reverently and matter-of-factly about doubt, anger, confusion, or dryness brings these or any other issue in to the right atmosphere for response: holding it in the Light.
  3. Prayer and the community, part 3. How shall we get to the place where we can actually know ourselves to pray in within our community — secretely, or small groups together, or during worship, vocally and silently? We need patience, freedom from fear, mercy, kindness, and the spirit of forgiveness and forgivenness: so we always are in need of some transforming.
  4. Pray as you can, how you can. We are tool-using creatures, so we often need (or benefit from) external means to support inward experience. Recognizing these two truths, one sees that prayer can be scaffolded by many means, including words, but not confined to them. Work, music, location, visual cues, physical activity, sitting posture, words — all of these can help us move towards, or maintain, the inward work. Wordless contemplation, the sheer practice of the Presence, may not be the highest path, though for some it is the sweetest.

Finally, though, these things serve just to help us come to the place from which prayer arises: every act of prayer is an act of seeking. Prayer comes to us, comes to meet us as we seek it, because it arises from God’s seeking us as we seek God, the double search. Prayer is a gift, not an accomplishment.

 

B. A 1-hour activity on prayer

  1. Settle into silence. Move towards prayerfulness (however you understand that), and call to mind how you pray and don’t. What helps do you use? What hinders prayer for you? (± 5 min)
  2. Briefly describe this to one or more persons sitting near you, and after a space, listen carefully to their description(s). Pause. When you tell about your experience, how does it make you feel? When you hear another’s, how does it make you feel? What questions arise now?  (±15 min.)
  3. Center again.  Out of the silence, tell your companion(s) what evidence you have about the prayer life in your meeting (in worship, at meeting activities, in homes, or in private).   Do people talk about it, refer to it, read about it, call each other to it, do it visibly? (± 15 min.)
  4. Reflect and discuss:  Is there anyone in your meeting concerned to encourage prayer? How do they do it?
  5. What could be helped in your meeting by a strengthened prayer life?
  6. (last 10 minutes) During the closing silence, ask: what might be a next step for myself? What might I try to encourage in my meeting? How might other meetings, or other Friends, help me or us move forward? Keep it simple, and keep it sweet. If you feel free to, put it into words to the rest of the group, and make yourself accountable for the next little step.

 

A few items to read and discuss as part of further work. 

Heard, Gerald. Ten questions on prayer. PHP 58

Hole, Helen. Prayer, the cornerstone PHP 123

Penington, Isaac. Letters.

Snell, Beatrice S. A joint and visible fellowship. PHP 140

Steere, Douglas: Dimensions of prayer.