14 February 2010

This Moment's Work

My dear friend Bob is battling cancer. He's been living with cancer for over 20 years, and now it appears that he is turning the corner toward another stage in this battle, and though it certainly does not seem it will be in the too near future, we are all starting to face what Bob says is "inevitable for all of us."

He and his wife Judia and their daughter Hilary have been my friends for at least 12 years, and it is a difficult time for them, for me, and for our entire meeting. Bob has been an elder among us for as long as I can remember. When I first began attending Hopewell Centre, he was the Clerk. I hope that I will be able to share some stories about his life and service at Hopewell Centre with you, as time goes on.

Right now, in this moment, the blessing in my life is that Bob has asked me to help him with his memoirs. I have never had such an experience in my life. I've written about others, and about myself, but I have never written with another. The qualitative difference is this: that he being he and me being me, we cannot conspire to write together without affecting each other's spiritual paths in this exact moment and place. It is an extraordinary gift.

I had no idea it would be so. One morning I came to work with Bob, and he had just read one of my blog posts detailing my own separation and return to our monthly meeting. He had tears in his eyes, as he told me how redemptive my blog had been to him, and how it had helped him to realize his own part. He told me he had recommitted himself to our meeting, to do what he could in the time he had left.

I was amazed. I had not realized that he felt as he did, nor did I ever imagine that my writing or testimony could have such an effect on another.

Similarly, his writing and testimony has affected me, and will continue to affect me. In this moment, I daily have the experience of a sentence or a sharing touching me so deeply in my heart that I know God has put it there for my edification as well as Bob's. Sometimes Bob is sharing what is relatively innocuous for him, such as a story leading up to the point he is wanting to make, but I have tears come forth, because that "little ditty" as he calls it has touched a vulnerable part in me. I know in the depth of me that these little seeds will continue to sink in the soil, sprout and grow and bear fruit.

I've been aware for a long while now that we are losing the elders that I began at this meeting with, and with their dying, comes a loss of their presence and eldering, that can never be gotten back again. Yesterday, Bob said, "I sometimes wonder, if this event had happened even five years earlier, when Finney was in her prime, how it would have come out differently." This in reference to one of our dear recently departed elders who was a quiet, loving and stalwart presence to all of us.

We have lost the tradition of writing letters to our families and friends detailing the significant spiritual experiences and leadings that happen within our meetings. Our meeting for worship for business is rarely to have found within its minutes a testimony of a spiritual nature; more it is an accounting of the events and business only. Less and less are we witnessing to each other about our deep spiritual leadings and yearnings. Less and less are we likely to speak up saying that a particular practice or message does not fit the Spirit of our Meeting.

What does this have to do with a Friend battling with cancer? Simply this: Bob is yet another elder member who will leave our midst in an unknown, but short period of time. He has the Presence to anticipate this and is working on Memoirs that are more likely teachings that arise from his experience in and around the Meeting. They are an accounting of his spiritual life. In earlier times, it was a common practice for the children of a member to take the Friend's journal or writings and publish them in their honor. In this way, the leadings of that particular Elder were preserved for posterity.

Friend Finney's son, Jim Riley is a member of our meeting. Since her death in the past year, he has had occasion to go through the many papers and letters she left behind. He has found copies of old newsletters she edited, copies of meeting minutes from when she clerked, as well as very old copies of Faith and Practice from Baltimore Yearly Meeting, her own personal journal, and the journals of others before her. What an invaluable way to experience the world as Finney knew it.

Several other elders in our meeting have passed on in the last few years, and their families were not active in our meeting. As a result we do not have these records and stories to share with those who come after us. It is a great loss.

I think that in the absence of our previous habits of letter writing, recording of ministers and other documentation of traditions and leadings within our populous, we need to consider new ways to preserve our history. Several years ago at a Homecoming, we had a Friend who was versatile with a video recorder, who recorded messages and well wishes from Friends in attendance. Sadly, I don't know what has become of that treasured volume.

I'm wondering if we have become to careless in our throwing aside of traditions and records? Yes, we send our required minutes to the archives, but do we treasure and preserve our Elders teachings? How can we be open to ongoing revelation, yet not learn and respect our traditions? Are we in danger of losing our roots to our revelations?

I pray that, as I am learning from my friend Bob, we may all learn to be aware of each moment and the measure of Truth in it, and find a way to savor and remember that Truth. I pray we may preserve the lessons we learn so that we find effective ways to pass these lessons on to those who follow us. I pray that I may be an effective witness in documenting the teachings that are offered to me.

10 February 2010

When do you Worship?

"Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe." Jesus says this to Thomas, after he has allowed him to touch his wounds. Doubting Thomas does not possess this essential element of faith. Do you?

In Helen Hole's 1962 Pendle Hill Pamphlet, "Prayer: The Cornerstone", Hole posits the position that a flourishing spiritual community depends on prayer as its foundation and nurture, the meeting's life blood.

Contrary to modern approaches, which often cite action (Faith without Works is dead), Ms Hole purports that prayer is the singular most important element of a faith community.

Early Christians did not exist in isolation. Always they were together as a loving worshipping community. Never was that community together that they were not in prayer. Through corporate prayer their faith grew vibrant and powerful, a source of creativity and strength. These people knew each other to the depth of their souls. Sharing the experience of knowing Jesus drew them to a level of love and trust that was clearly visible to those around them.

I have had the experience of knowing some Friends who had that level of knowing the inner Christ in such a way. I have known born-again Christians among all denominations who, in my estimation, have experienced that same knowing. There is a quality to their faith life that I do not always see among Friends. (I am not speaking of blind followers, eyes glazed over in total surrender.) I'm speaking of the people we meet who are clearly living life as Jesus would. Many of these people are the elders in our communities. They are most certainly the people who are happy where they are, at any moment, living life fully.

I'm conscious of the absence of prayer from many meetings for worship I attend, and of the strained, brief silences before committee and business meetings, that barely allow time for one to center, much less seek the will of God. I'm refreshed at Yearly sessions, when I enter the meeting room which is already prayerfully silent, and am encouraged to sink into that deep seeking from which my inner direction flows.

I love knowledge, and I seek it actively. I'm an avid reader, listener of NPR and PBS, and I seek out fellow life-long learners. I'm never at a loss to find these people in my Quaker community. I'm surprised however, how many of these people I observe to be uncomfortable with silence. I have watched as people sit uncomfortably with the silence before our Meeting for Worship for Business, impatient that we get on with it. I've watched committee meetings wind out of direction when not started in the silence of centered worship. I've listened to countless discussions about Quaker Process, all attending to the human part of the process, some without even acknowledging the Presence that guides us in all things.

I've had my own journey with this over the years. I've had to struggle to develop a life of daily spiritual reflection, and still I lose it at times when stress is high or illness looms. I lean back on my intellectual self, bolstered by ego-confidence into believing it has all the answers. At such times, it is only in desperation that I return to the silence.

And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

Lately I've been thinking of early American Friends, and of the time before phones and email and blogs. Much of what we know of our Quaker ancestors comes from the letters found in attics, that Friends wrote to each other and to their families, apprising them of life in what was often a newly discovered wilderness. Through these reports, we came to understand how inextricably tied were their community, worship and prayer.

Seeking was not a separate task, separate from the activities of one's life, another task on the daunting list.

Friends worshipped when they came together for meals, with prayer and silence; they formed whole communities around the meetinghouse, as they settled in new areas; they worshipped as they worked together to build each other's homes, harvest fields, fell trees and celebrate life and death together. Their experience of worship was daily and ongoing. It is something many of us seek today, and many of us set aside in lieu of the 'business' of daily life. When do you worship?

When I read the blogs of others, I find that many are seeking this fullness of a life lived in worship and prayer. The mysticism that is inherent in Friends' religious experience is not one that requires cloistering or monasticism; instead our mysticism is found in the life lived in prayer and daily devotion, and in the sharing of that life in community with others.

Slowly I come to see that faith is not sought, it is lived. It is a paradox. One must believe to see the fruits of one's faith, yet one must act faithfully in order to come to belief.

Early Christians had the amazing experience of living in the time of Jesus' message and life. Even if they did not meet Jesus directly, they undoubtedly came in contact with people whose lives had been directly touched, and then they, seeing this, were touched themselves. Evangelism was not a sales pitch, it was a direct result of living one's faith and helping others see God through one's life.

Early Friends had the experience of seeing George Fox' and others' experience of knowing intimately the inner Christ, the Light, and they were touched by this significant yet simple outpouring of faith to seek that personal relationship themselves. Friends knew that only through living their faith could they show others the value of coming into direct relationship with God.

Nowadays, we civilized and educated Quakers have sometimes even been scornful towards those who are of too simple a faith, those who believe too readily and fall back on the Bible too easily. We sometimes feel foolish thinking of standing to pray in front of others. We are squeamish of telling others we have a leading, or taking an unpopular stand in Meeting, even when that inner voice is whispering fervently to us to do so.

Here is the gift of faith: that each of us is doing the very best that we can do to be the very best we can be. There is no wrong way, if one takes one's leadings to their faith community. In the loving community, we are praying and seeking and guiding and always turning to listen, seeking in the silence the ever-present Teacher.

Much of my life, I, living in the shadows of the judging God I was taught about, haver shrunk from my leadings, fearing doing the "wrong" thing. Here is the gift of faith: that in living in community, with an ear always turned to God, we may be supported, loved, uplifted, guided, eldered and nurtured.

This is the meaning in Isaac Penington's quote: "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."

This gift is freely given, yet we must be willing to receive. When do you worship?