20 October 2009

A feeling of Real Need.

“A feeling of real need is always a good enough reason to pray.”

-Hannah Whitall Smith

God's words through Hannah Whitall Smith, through Brent Bill, through Robin M's blog, What Canst Thou Say, to my ears and eyes.  Prayer is the process spirit uses to minister to us all, if we choose to listen.

I believe if we are able to be still enough, if we practice our faith, then the direction we need is readily available to us.  Prayer is one of the doorways to access that guidance. Meditation, yoga, spending time outdoors, worship, reading, chanting, walking a labyrinth, singing:  these are just some of the other ways I have found access to that spiritual direction over the years.

Sometimes I wonder if it was easier to become still in the pre-technology age.  I can scarcely remember.  What I can recall is the feeling of my first camping trip with my friends, without parents to direct the flow.  The feeling of sitting on a rock next to a stream listening to the water fall over rocks and the wind whisper through the trees.  Even in my pre-Quaker, infantile spiritual state, I knew there were words waiting just beyond my grasp, calling me to be silent, to listen intently, to focus inwardly.

A number of us from Hopewell Centre had the chance to participate in a workshop with Daniel Snyder last August at Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Annual Sessions, and he called us into more intentional awareness of coming into the presence of "the infinite lover of our souls."   It was such a simple, yet such a profound experience, that I left that workshop wanting to teach others how close our access to God is.

"How could you not want to be in a relationship with the infinite lover of your soul." 

As we speed up our lives and struggle to keep pace with the every growing demands on our attention, God exists beyond an artificial veil we construct, calling to us as if through a mist.  Without some daily practice, it is almost impossible to lift that veil, to return to closeness to the Light.

In the workshop, Daniel Snyder invited us to partake of a simple process:  Show up, Tell the Truth, Listen.  I was amazed at the diversity of experience shared by the participants.  Each of us merged Daniel's directions into our own basic understanding of our inner process.  It was a process for returning our awareness to the One who is always Present.  Therefore, as we shared with each other, we each brought our own unique understanding to the group, enriching and encouraging each other.

Show up:  I felt myself walking into the light, palms up to receive it, basking in the warmth and calming strength of that moment.

Tell the truth:  I found myself asking, "Is this the whole truth?  What is beneath this?  And beneath that?  And under that?  Deeper and deeper, desiring to share my soul with the ultimate lover.

Listen: Basking in the warm, healing light, I could only listen deeply, waiting like the child at the foot of Jesus, for the comfort, the wisdom, the guidance.

What a gift!  I who have struggled over the years with the remnants of my programmed protestant background, who have felt the practiced prayers of my childhood to fall short of my need, resting simply and surely in the presence of the divine, feeling loved, cherished and valued.  This was my experience in that workshop, and I have returned to it over and over since.

In the months since the workshop, I have understood texts like the Song of Solomon in a new and deeply moving way.  I have entered a new depth in relationship with the Infinite Unknown.  I have understood Jung's belief that God grows through relationship with our incarnate selves.
If God is the infinite divine lover of my soul (and yours) then my own ability to love and serve knows no bounds.

My ability to move through life serenely and gracefully lies in direct relationship to my ability to lift the veil that separates me from relationship with God.  The God of my understand waits patiently for my return.  A feeling of real need is reason enough to pray.

14 October 2009

A Spiritual Path for Today --About the Children

Last week Hopewell Centre MM hosted the first of four talks on "The Quaker Way:  A Spiritual Path for Today."  It was the culmination of six months of planning and talking amongst ourselves about what we wanted to present to our community about who we are.  It is also the final series of events in our year long celebration of our 275th Anniversary of being a recognized meeting in the Shenandoah Valley.  The event was well attended by both community members and Friends, and there was wonderful dialogue between us all.

My own surprise was over the joy I felt just talking about my faith to "strangers."  We are so careful about not proselytizing that I realized there is seldom a time like this when I am called to share the story of my spiritual journey and what brought me to realize I was a Friend.  Last night's topic was "How I came and why I stayed."  Three of us shared our stories for just a few minutes each, following a brief 15 minute worship. 

I was excited that some people had already sought out reading material, either on the web or in print, before they even heard about our talks.  Most were curious about the peace testimony and what one does to resolve the conflicts one might feel over serving vs. not serving in a war. There were the usual curiosities about our manner of unprogrammed worship, whether we are Christians, and what relevance we give the Bible.

The questions that stood out most were related to the children.  Our crowd was middle aged to older, and among these attenders there was a genuine concern about the spiritual condition of our youth in America.  A few questions were asked about how we "attract" youth to our services.  More were asked about how a youngster or teenager sits for an hour of worship and whether there would be much draw for a child here.  They seemed incredulous at the fact that children would be interested in our manner of worship.

We explained the experiences we'd had with introducing children to worship, and the inner discipline that is gained from a lifetime of learning to be quiet listeners.  We talked about the emphasis on living out one's faith and how that impacts our families.

The responses, from our members and from others in the community who'd encountered our youth, either from our meeting or from Camp Opequon, were wonderful!  A young woman who worked at the local pool commented, "You can always tell these children.  You know there is a way with children today...well, these children are just...so...different.  They are not demanding, they are....polite!"  She went on to say that they always welcome our children back.

Another person remarked about the campers being present in Meeting for Worship and being able to sit for an entire hour, without parents, and without incident!  We talked about how our children participate in causes of their interest, express their individuality artistically and creatively, and are taught to stand up for what they believe.

We gave the example of when there was a conflict in our meeting, and our Children's Business Meeting sent a letter to the adults:  "We don't know why you are making such a big deal out of things.  We are over it, and it was about us.  We need our adults to move on."  We told the story of the Young Friends taking a stand when Lamar Matthews was discriminated against at the Trienniel.  

I don't know why this interchange took me so by surprise.  Of course our youth are the answer to our future.  How can we really talk about a path into the twenty first century without acknowledging the legacy our young people will carry, to live out our testimonies of peace and simplicity in our increasingly complex and selfish world.  

It is not that the message of Friends has changed, it is that the need for it has increased.
Having the opportunity to talk to newcomers about our community standing as a balance for an indivualistic culture and even more, offering alternatives and solutions for living in our world, offered inspiration to us all.   

08 October 2009

If you feed a Quaker a mystery...

I confess, I'm a closet mystery novel reader.  I devour them at the rate of one or two a week.  It's gotten so that I can scarcely find a good novel in this genre that meets my criteria.  You see, though I crave a good mystery, it must be written by a good author, who will teach me something and have a plot that is complex enough that I cannot figure it out in the first two chapters.  And I pride myself on figuring them out, fast.

Over the years I've learned alot about my favorite place, the desert Southwest, through the novels of Tony Hillerman, Aimee Thurlo, Margaret Coel and a host of others.  It's a way for me to travel vicariously.  If I pick up a bit of Native American lore along the way, so much the better.

To feed my fantasy of owning a bookstore and herb shop, I read Susan Wittig Albert, who has for years been writing mysteries from the perspective of just such a woman, who excels as a sleuth as well.  For my forensic psychology tastes, there is Jonathan Kellerman, author of the Alex Delaware series of mysteries.

Since I was a little child, I have used reading as the ultimate escape; a vacation without leaving home.  I'm blessed with a vivid imagination, and movies often leave me flat if I've read the book first, because they cannot come close to what my mind can conjure up!

Don't get me wrong, I read my share of Quaker classics and modern non-fiction.  I read the Bible and other spiritual teachings (notably Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly).  But for sheer entertainment, give me a mystery, thick with metaphor and dripping with hidden innuendo.

There's only one place where my Quakerism and my pleasure reading really cross, and that's in Irene Allen's mysteries.  Irene Allen is actually Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, who is a retired faculty member from the Geology Dept of Washington State University.  This itself is a fact that was hidden from me until recently.

The creation of the character Elizabeth Elliott, a Quaker elder from Cambridge, Mass meeting is nothing less than genius.  Through Elizabeth, and her incredibly hapless congregation of Friends, we learn just how Friends live in the modern world.  In her books, I have read about Friends' stance on the War Tax, how we get along with conflicts in the Quaker community, how everyday decisions are made, and how to conduct one's self in public. 

Today in my morning meditation, Elizabeth came to visit me once more, as I sat with my cat contemplating how to proceed in some decisions about my work and spiritual life.  Countless times (but not enough...there are only 4 books) I have sat, as Elizabeth does, in the sun, with my cat at my arm, considering some decision and how I should proceed.  I don't have the wisdom of years that Elizabeth (Kirsten?) does, but I borrow from the elders I have met over the years.

If I want an easy way to show people how and who we Quakers are, I often find myself recommending these dry, humorous novels.  Without even realizing, under the guise of good entertainment, readers will finding themselves drenched in Quaker tradition and language.  Through Elizabeth's eyes, outsiders can learn how decisions are made and ethical issues addressed.

If you haven't read these juicy little morsels yet, you should.  You'll have to search for them in used books stores, but they are usually easy to find.  You too can vicariously enjoy being an amateur sleuth, through the adventures of Elizabeth Elliott.

Nothing like a good mystery to replenish the drained batteries of the soul!

05 October 2009

Call for the Question

Suppose you walked into a party, and the host said to you: "Folks, there's only one rule for tonight's festivities. You may ask all the questions you want, but the only statements you can make will be in response to a question.  In other words, you may not start conversations with statements about yourself or your observations, unless a question has been put to you.  I will be circulating among you to be certain that you do not digress.  And please, allow a little time to unfold between your responses; don't be afraid to take that moment to allow yourself to digest the question before you respond.  Have fun, and don't be afraid to ask any question."

Ponder this a moment.  Really allow yourself to imagine a past situation you were in, be it a social event or a meeting, and imagine all the characters and how they approach you, and see yourself in the situation, mainly asking questions (queries) and only responding to the ones that are put to you.  Drop your expectations of the event, and allow the situation to unfold.

Isn't this the quaker practice of worship sharing taken to a new limit?  How do your imagine your own behavior might change were you prompted to view all of your interactions from the perspective of worship sharing and to focus on the questions rather than the answers?  Is this the manner in which you go out to greet the world?

These are some of the queries that surfaced as I entered the Visioning Retreat at Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM), even before we began the actual process.  Thanks to the creative genius of Michael Marquardt, we were introduced to a new way to think and work on 8 challenges that the staff of BYM put before us.  We broke into small groups, each one addressing a query, and set upon our task.  

I was surprised to see how uncomfortable we seasoned Friends were with a process that we would view as a part of our core, when it was put into this context.  It tuned me into my own presumptiveness when I come into a situation like this retreat:  that I am already primed with ideas and agendas that I might not even consciously be aware of, and that are certainly not seasoned in the Light.

Michael Marquardt is a professor of Human Resource Development and International Relations at George Washington University and President of the World Institute for Action Learning, the organization that teaches "Action Learning," the process described above. (http://wial.org,     http://www.gwu.edu/~elliott/faculty/marquardt.cfm) He is a Quaker and a member of Herndon Meeting.  To my knowledge, this was his first time bringing his cutting edge process to his own "family" of Friends.  Michael is like so many other Friends over time, who have quietly integrated their own manner of living as a Friend into their business practices.  In this case, Michael has actually taken his translation of a part of our Quaker process into the secular world of business, across continents and around the world.  As one who has often pondered what impact Quakers might have on global decision making, this was very exciting to learn!

It was delightful to be called to accountability to live our own manner so succinctly.  In each group were coaches whose job was to keep the time frame, help with clarity, and hold us to the task of the day:   to consider the query and utilize questions to creatively move through the process of responding to that challenge.  Of course, being Friends and comfortable with queries ourselves we had some questions for Michael too:  "Can we have a period of worship?"  "Can we redefine the question?"  "What happens in the executive world, do people end up taking a vote?"  (Michael assured us that in all of his years working with this method, no one has ever come to a vote.)

I'll have another post on the actual challenges that were put to us to work on, but for now I'll just focus on the process.  While Michael was encouraging us to think outside of the box, I was aware of how much he had done just that in his development of the Action Learning method of problem solving. 

What's fun about an experience like this is the personal awareness it calls us to.  When what may be our usual practices are put into a different box, or called a different name, we may fail to recognize them as our own.  The difficult part of this is how we may struggle with the "new" concept, failing to see where it fits in our own toolbox of constructs.  The titillating part is in being called to look at our own process with new eyes, and see the way that process then reflects back through the rest of our being.

In our group there was a bit of a struggle to decide if we were doing things the "right" way.  We wondered if we should redefine the question as we went along, rather than just living the one we had.  We wanted to inject our own ideas into the mix rather than stay on the task of answering the ensuing questions put to each of us or the group as a whole.  We balked at trusting the process.  Some of us had to put our own agendas aside to be truly present.

To be fair, we were doing a condensed version, scheduled to fit in this 5 hour retreat.  This did put a bit of pressure on us to move at a pace much faster than our usual Quaker amble.  I believe that the whole concept of Action Learning is to move beyond the linear model of thinking into a more circular one, and this is probably a struggle for many of us even in a more accomodating time frame.

It was a breath of fresh air in what could have been an arduous process.  As we laughed and wrangled our way through, the time passed incredibly quickly.  I noticed no yawning or dozing.  Some of the ideas that rose to the surface were solutions we are used to hearing, but many were new observations or calls for a different approach.  

As I left the retreat, feeling energized, my mind whirling, I wondered what the continuation of the process will look like.  Will the new thoughts or out of the box ideas be raised to the top, so that they can be heard?  Will the spirit of ongoing revelation continue as we strive to bring vision to reality?  Will there be the opportunity for further use of this process to move us from suggestion to implementation?  Will the staid be able to move aside for the creative new?

I have no answers, only more questions.

02 October 2009

Friends as a Corrective for Culture

I'm always grateful when reading something, be it a blog, or a classic text, or the Bible, or any other spiritual writing, wakes me up from the slumber of apathy or indifference that comes over me from time to time. I find the structure of society lends itself to such numbness. Multi-tasking is the new opiate of the people. At least I can say it is for me. If the demands of our society keep us so busy that we cannot think, what is to become of us?

I'm going on record against it. Nothing good can become of dividing one's self in six different directions at once. What can be said for transporting one's children across town to their myriad of activities while conference calling with one's staff, yelling food orders into the microphone at the fast food place, while contemplating the next move to be made in one's approach to their client. It's an accident waiting to happen, literally and figuratively.

How can this multi-tasking ability be considered such a positive talent to possess, when it means quite frankly, that no one gets my undivided attention? This is the antithesis of how I want my life to be. I suspect that is true for many others as well, but most of the time we are moving so quickly, we don't have the time to stop and regroup.

I was reading Plainly Pagan's post A Quaker Mask of Respectability, when I woke up. Her call to others to recognize her spiritual need for connection spoke to me, and led me to the place of this blog. It lead me directly to the history of my own same feelings. How long I have wandered in the wilderness, silently crying for recognition. I honor her ability to speak aloud.

Everything that being a Friend has led me to has been counter-intuitive to the prevailing culture of individualism.

Where my society would call me to be a staunch individualist in all areas of my personal and working life, my faith calls me to be a member of community. Where my government calls me to war to protect the peace, my beliefs tell me that peace cannot be borne out of violence. When culture tells me that I must protect what I have and hold on to it, lest I be taken advantage of, my conscience tells me that if I leave my door unlocked and give away what I have, there will be no way my enemy can take advantage of me.

Still it is hard to live counter to the prevailing culture, in fact, it is almost impossible. Living in this dichotomy, most of us strike our own level of comfort or balance in the midst. We may function in the society to the degree we must, and end up closeting some of our beliefs to be shared only with a close few. I believe it's fairly common for some of us to throw our beliefs overboard for a period early in life, in order to strike out and make our way in the wilderness of adult life. Perhaps we settle for a moderate religious life, when we begin to have children and want them to have the "right" upbringing. Some of us come to Quaker Meeting on Sunday, desperate for the hour of quiet and the chance to shed off the weight of the garments of our outer lives, then hastily returning to the demands of the day..

I'm grateful that not everyone feels such a need to pull on the garments of our society; not everyone rejects the inner pull toward community. We all exist along a continuum that reflects the paradox of our need to fit and our need to follow our beliefs. Those who stand in the place of holding their belief up for others to see, who are not able to hide their Light under a bushel, make clear the path for those of us not able.

I'm struck that by the period of late middle age, even those of us who have had to sacrifice our "idealism" have begun to search more ardently to find real meaning for our lives, and we have begun to re-awaken to the lofty ideas of our youth, of living more and more in accordance with our values. It's appropriate at this time, because many of us are also being freed from the bondage of daily work through retirement. Without the demands of providing for our families by working in the outside culture, we are now again free as we were as adolescents, to bring our creative, spiritual thoughts into reality.

This individualistic, multi-tasking, fast-paced world does not make it easy for quiet faiths like the Society of Friends to survive. In a world where loud and fast is the norm, we are quiet and slow.
Where being a staunch individualist is the highest cultural value, we base our actions and decisions on the sense of the whole. Yet it is precisely this that we can offer to the seeker, the unquiet one.

Our Society is the corrective for the frailties of the secular society. Where society breaks families and friends apart, we gather them. Where the wheels of industry grind loud and hard, we offer solace and silence. When the long hours and hard work deprive the individual of energy, we offer the place to recharge their inner batteries. Don't we?

So many an attender has commented to me after worship on how inviting the silence was, how there was something they had not felt before in both the quiet and the messages. Many have said they felt a Presence there, or felt the spirits of those come before.

We need to be certain that in our meetings, we do carry sense of Presence forth into the world, and certainly into the time surrounding worship. Are we greeting worshipers as they arrive in a spirit of love and grace? What are we doing to help our community to incorporate and carry the peace they gain from worship into the rest of their lives? Are we risking to be vulnerable amongst each other, so that the Spirit may flourish and grow among us?

Too often I hear people say that they wished they could participate in a meeting activity but were too busy to stay or come back. What are we doing to insure that the activities offered in second hour or religious education are meaningful and relevant to the needs of our community? Do we send our Friends forth into the coming week carrying something that will uphold and uplift them in their daily life?

I have no doubt that we are offering something of dire need in this lightning-paced technology-laden world of the twenty-first century. My own meeting seems to be growing with new attenders. Our anniversary celebration of this year has given us cause to speak out, and we have chosen to use this time to invite the curious and the seeking. I see that the task before our meeting is not just to attract those travelers to us, but to nourish and sustain them in ways they are not finding in their everyday world.

In my own life, I see that this calls me to a new place too. Like those travelers, I came to the Society of Friends seeking, starving and stretched beyond my limits. Slowly, as I worshiped among
Friends, I came to see that I was a Friend long before arrived, but had not until now found my home.
I did go through a period after a few years where I began to question whether Quakers could meet my needs. I was again feeling parched.

Thankfully, I had been given the gift of silent worship and prayer, which I now knew was available to me in any time and place. Here I learned the true meaning of Fox' words, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition." Through the nourishment of the Light, I also came to see that I had to ask what I could offer, allowing God to work through me.

When I began to ask what I had to give, and I began to surrender to the power of Spirit working through me, I found that I indeed had not come to Friends by accident. I had been Led. But what was more amazing than opening to that leading, was finding that I really did have something to offer. The real gift was not in what I had come to receive, but in finding what I had come to give, most of which I am still uncovering.

If we are, as the Society of Friends, to serve as that corrective for our prevailing culture, then we must be willing to make ourselves available to be a growing community: What have you come to give to your community? What part of the whole are you holding? Would you deny to your Friends that part of wholeness that only you can bestow?

The paradox of community is the age old lesson, that it is in the giving that you truly are fulfilled.