A Blessing

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This was written by my Friend Mig Kerr as blessing for companions on a course entitled “Nurturing our Spiritual Lives through Spiritual Direction” She has allowed me to publish it here.

March 2021

may our days be spacious
and our nights full of dreams;
may we reach daily into the well of wisdom 
deep within

may we become aware of promptings
and bring them into the Light,
where they can unfold
and show their path

may we have companions to ride the waves with us,
even when the shore is far away;
to explore the depths with us;
to hold us in the dark:
to remind us that the stars are shining
even if we cannot see them,
to draw our eyes to the little points of light
barely visible

may we be companions to others,
walking alongside in love,
sensitive to the movings of the spirit
within and between us,
listening with the ears of our hearts

Mig Kerr

High Flight

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, 
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds – 
and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of – 
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence. 
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along 
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious burning blue 
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, 
where never lark, or even eagle, flew; 
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod 
the high untrespassed sanctity of space, 
put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Becoming Our Best Selves

To be loved just as we are is a gift. To be worthy of this gift assumes that we strive to be our best selves. Being our best selves requires that we know and acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses. Further, that we explore the ways in which they relate to each other in order to stay as much as possible in the realm of our strengths. This relationship is not always obvious. However, sometimes it becomes clear with a little reflection. For example, I can be confident and I can be organized and I can be persistent. I can also be arrogant, controlling and stubborn. 

Exploring the relationships between our strengths and weaknesses shows us that they are often closely related: confidence and arrogance, for example, are two sides of the same coin. So are stubbornness and persistence, being organized and being controlling, and being discerning and being judgmental. And so on.

Often we try to get rid of our weaknesses as if they were defects – “quality control” errors or “black spots on our souls.” However, we can’t do that without getting rid of our strengths as well. They are inextricably linked. We are the way we are made, and granting the gift of persistence also adds the problem of stubbornness. I believe that it’s important to realize that our weaknesses are often also our strengths. We need them to do the work we are called to do. We have persistence for a reason – often our challenge is to keep it from hardening into stubbornness. 

Therein lies our challenge as human beings: to keep our strengths from becoming weaknesses in our everyday lives, where these weaknesses can threaten the links that bind our communities and our relationships with other people. 

Because our strengths are also our weaknesses, when we work to eliminate the weakness, we risk eliminating the strength. Instead of trying to eliminate one side of the gift we might look for the catalyst that turns a strength into a weakness, the secret ingredient that can turn us from the person we hope or want to be into the one we fear that we are. 

These strengths and weaknesses are related through one thing: fear. Specifically, the fear of losing something we have or not getting something we want. When I’m feeling confident and fear enters the equation, that confidence can slip over a line into arrogance. Conscientiousness can slip into workaholism. Persistence can slip into stubbornness. Peacebuilding can slip into people pleasing. And so on. 

We are called into ministry just as we are, with all our stuff. An important part of preparing ourselves for ministry or any important work is to understand our strengths and our weaknesses and how they are related. Because that tells us how to control or minimize the weaknesses to bring out our strengths when we need them. It’s the fear that we need to learn to control. 

It is up to us to keep on the right side of that line; to keep on the right side of fear. But how can we keep an open heart in a world that daily shows us its cruelty? How can we turn off the fear that makes our strengths into weaknesses and damages our relationships with others? 

I believe that the answer lies in faith. Faith that God will bring us through whatever ordeal we are struggling with. Faith that we will have what we need, even if it may not be what we think we need. Faith that we are held in the hand of God and will be ok, no matter what. 

Photo by Anna Kubak from Pexels

Disturb us, Lord

Disturb us, Lord
when we are too well pleased with ourselves, 
when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little,
when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord,
when with the abundance of things we possess 
we have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
having fallen in love with life, 
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build an new earth
we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim. 
Disturb us, Lord,
to dare more boldly, 
to venture on wider seas
where storms will show your mastery;
where, losing sight of land
we shall find the stars.
we ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes
and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope and love 

(Attributed to Sir Francis Drake)

 

On Being Happy

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action.

I have just received an email canceling plans for a lunch date which I have been looking forward to. When I look beyond my disappointment, I am reminded that we often don’t recognize the gifts that are given to us, because they don’t come in the form we want or expect. Sometimes they come in a different wrapping and so we leave them unopened and unacknowledged. For me, these canceled plans give me the opportunity to spend the day with my husband reading and writing  – a gift I hadn’t expected. 

There is a wonderful phrase in French: “être bien dans sa peau”, which means to be good in one’s skin. It means simply to be comfortable with life. This, I think, is what it means to be happy: to walk cheerfully over the world, knowing that we have a place, and to be at peace with the world and with others. I believe that this is our natural state, and that we often block it with fears and resentments and conflict. 

We have everything we need to be happy in this life. How do we do it then? How do we find the gifts in the everyday? How do we remove the blocks to being “good in our skin”? 

I once had a friend who was always in a good mood, no matter what was going on. She had the gift of finding humor and laughter in whatever life threw at her. I asked her how she did it, and she told me that she had survived a terminal illness several years before I met her. “I’m not supposed to be here”, she said, “every day is a gift.” How can we find that attitude? Do we have to almost die to be happy? 

As I look at the people in my life who are truly happy, it’s not the ones who have the most or the ones who have the easiest lives. It’s often the ones who have the least and who have been through ordeals that I don’t know if I could survive who have found the key to being good in their skin. . 

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action. Seems easy enough, but it’s not. I can’t hold my breath and ‘be happy’. It takes some work. 

First I have to let go of some things: 

  • Expectations/entitlement
  • Judgment
  • Comparing myself to others
  • Jealousy
  • The need to be special
  • Perfectionism
  • Toxic relationships.

These are all things that separate me from other people, isolating me in my tiny mind – truly a bad neighborhood. 

Then I have to find some things: 

  • acceptance – I stop fighting what I can’t change
  • connection: to self, to God, to others. It is the connection to others that I have missed in Covid times. 
  • joy – which flows from the feeling of connection,

Then I have to give some things away:

  • Love – In order to have it you have to give it away
  • Things/possessions/money
  • Time – the span of my life is measured in time. I give it away by ‘spending’ it making the world a little better for others. Or maybe just making my small corner of it better. Letting my life speak. 

It’s not an easy path to walk. It gets narrower and narrower as we go along. Once we set our feet on it we are drawn along trying not to be distracted by the side-turnings. Often I fail. But sometimes, just sometimes, it works. 

Edited 6 Sept 2021

Photo by Goppang Nyarta

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 17 September 2021

God’s hands

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite.

Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)

It is required you do awake your faith. (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: 5.3.95)

This pandemic has shown how many of us need love to drive out the fear that has grown up around us in the last year. We all need love to quench the fires of fear and dread and the grief we feel for parts of our lives that are lost to us. How can we provide this for others when the love we need to find is drowned out by our own fear? How can we awake the faith that we need in order to do God’s work, to drive out fear with love when our own reservoir of love feels so depleted? 

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us that we can be a channel of God’s love for others. It’s up to us to keep that channel open, to not clog it with fear and anxiety and grief. 

It’s not only our family and friends who need our love to make their way in the world. Everyone we see is carrying the burden of these past months, in different ways and with differing levels of success. 

I see this most clearly with strangers who need loving support. For the past five years we have worked with people on the move. Not in large numbers, normally one or two at a time. They come to us having suffered all of the hellish things we hear about on the migrant routes. We see people who have escaped genocide, crossed the Sahara and been enslaved in Libya. They have lost friends crossing the Mediterranean, then crossed all the borders in Europe to get to Belgium, and we support them in this step of their journey.

And then, they move on.

It’s hard to see them go into the Channel, where we hope they reach England. And yet I’ve come to know that these are not my children, they’re God’s children and they’re in God’s hands. They always have been. 

For the part of their journey that is here in Belgium, we are God’s hands, and then we send them on; they will stay in God’s hands and they will stay God’s children. We just do our part here. Sometimes we can send them on to God’s hands in the form of other Quakers. But we send them on as God’s children. 

It’s an important part of my Quaker faith to bring God’s hands here to people who need it and just to know that it is good enough. That’s all I can do. I can’t follow them. I can’t protect them, I can’t guarantee them success. I have to release them back into those hands that brought them here. 

In the same way, I think it is also important to remember that our loved ones who are suffering from fear and grief are also God’s children. They may be lent to us, but they are ultimately God’s. We channel God’s love to them, and then let them go. 

It is required we do awake our faith – our faith that we will find the resources we need: financial, physical, spiritual, personal. That we will find the people who can help with the work when we need them, and that we will have the support we need to help our loved ones on to the next part of their journey. 

That we will be able to follow Jesus in the work he began: love one another. 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 2 July 2021

Bringing Worship Home

A&Q #3

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God

Worship: The dictionary defines worship as “to pay great honour to” or “to show reverence and adoration for”. The origin of the word is Old English, meaning an acknowledgement of the worth of someone. When I think of worshipping God, this definition makes me uncomfortable. Does God need me to pay honour to God? Does God need me to acknowledge God’s worth? It all sounds sycophantic to me if I’m honest. 

Instead, Quaker worship feels to me like sitting still in the love of God, feeling that connection to the eternal that takes me out of time and place and into a sense of fullness, of completeness. 

I don’t feel this in the busy noise of church rituals. Sometimes I find it in the silence of nature, of the forest or the fens, but most often worshipping with those Quakers in whose safe and nurturing presence my heart can rest. 

Then I feel a flow of love that calms my spirit and awakens in me a sense of the universal. I believe that this flow of the love of God is something that goes on all the time; we just dip in and out, and can feel it when we let our walls down and open ourselves to the love of God. 

When that happens, some of it sticks and I can bring that back to the world and fulfill the ministry that brings my great joy to the needs of the imperfect world. The trick is to keep holding on to that love, that feeling of absolute peace and presence that comes when worship happens.

Often I fail. It’s hard to bring it back into the world of humans elbowing each other for prestige and recognition and wealth and power without putting up the fences and walls that I use to protect myself from a world that seems to have forgotten this amazing feeling of connection. Those walls and fences of self defense bind up the flow of love and thus kill it. It needs to circulate. We only keep it by giving it away.

But what if we could trust that sense of peace and presence? What if we could come back to the world and lay down those walls? Just live wide open? 

This sense of being in that perfect love feels like a fragile thing. Feeling this love seems like only half the work: the rest is to bring it back to the world. That’s hard to achieve where there is judgment or conflict or unresolved issues. 

Whether judgment and conflict are in our personal lives or in the greater world, they can block us from God’s love. Not because God doesn’t love us, but because they generate fear which clogs the channel through which that love flows. The simple admonition to ‘love one another’ holds the key to holding on to the sense of completeness and connection in a world that seems to be falling apart. It tells us to bring back the love of God that we find in worship and to give it away to those who need it most. 

Love one another. It’s that simple and that difficult.

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 27 May 2021

In Praise of the Weird

21.07 It is by our ‘imperfections’ that we move towards each other, towards wholeness of relationship. It is our oddities, our grittiness, the occasions when we hurt or are hurt, that challenge us to a deeper knowledge of each other. Our sins have been said to be stepping-stones to God. Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting, 5th edition

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school learning to be a psychologist, I took a class that was a little different from most. Buried in the study of psychological abnormalities was a course with the unappealing name of ‘mental hygiene’. It was essentially a class in normal psychology. 

Under the guidance of a Freudian psychoanalyst, we studied normal behavior. One day the professor said something that I will always remember: “normal isn’t always healthy, it’s just what most people do — it’s just average.” We learned that abnormal behavior is often a simple exaggeration of the normal – a matter of degree.

She went on to say that differences from normal, ‘weirdness’ if you will, can be a mark of a strong character and can often be found in those who make important contributions to their community. To emphasize that point, she said (with a chuckle), “do you realize that if I could have got my hands on Jesus Christ he would have been the best carpenter in the world?”

In this sense we are all abnormal. And that’s a good thing. It is our differences from the crowd that let us do the work we are called to do. Our weirdness, our not-normality is also often the thing that helps us to know what that work is. 

I think of this sometimes, and am reminded that often the things that most annoy us about others are the things that enable them to do the work that we admire.

For example, I believe that it was George Fox’s arrogance that allowed him to challenge the powers that be and to persevere in the face of great resistance and personal risk to found our spiritual community. I wonder if Greta Thunberg’s Aspergers allows her to resist the social pressure that would have crippled me as a teenager and to do what she knows is right. Closer to home, I think of a Friend who is annoyingly persistent when they want something, not taking no for an answer. That fact has allowed them to do amazing things in the local community. 

We are made the way we are for a reason, and we might think about exploring the usefulness our “not-normality” can bring to our community. We try to get rid of our weirdnesses, but they are also our strengths. We need them to do the work we are called to do. 

As Quakers we sometimes celebrate our collective differences from the mainstream, from the normal. Our acceptance of those differences, those ‘weirdnesses’, can allow Friends to feel empowered to do work that others shy away from: work with refugees, in prisons, against the arms trade. 

Other times we find ourselves uncomfortable with individuals who are different from the Quaker mainstream – those who have a different theology, a different accent, a different way of approaching our Meeting. 

What if we could accept our own and others’ weirdness as an integral part of the gifts they bring to our community? Would that change how we perceive and live with all of those who are not like us? Can we see the gift in the differences among those in our community? Can we show the love of God to those we would like to avoid? 

Author’s note: This was published in the British Quaker Magazine “The Friend” 9 April 2021

A Rule to Live By

My Friend Ken Orchard was inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 as a series of precepts to guide the life of monks living together. Ken has written his own Rule as a guide for his life. When I first heard it read it touched my heart as ministry.  He has allowed me to publish it here.

  • Open your heart, mind and soul to the divine energy for every hour of every day. Live faithfully to your sacred potential. Make the divine energy central to you and in you and be true to it in all that you do. 
  • Surrender yourself to the divine energy without reservation and put the divine will even before your own. 
  • Total commitment brings change. Little by little or vast area by vast area let your life be transmuted in the life of the divine energy.
  • The basis of simplicity is centring on the divine energy. The heart of the monastic life is to live always in the presence of that energy. 
  • Offer yourself as a place of prayer. Enter silence joyfully. May your presence be one that heals divisions and expands hearts. 
  • Celebrate embodiment. All of creation is a manifestation of the divine energy. Worship it with unparalleled commitment and a complete love that is without self-interest. Work to make the holy manifest. 
  • Refrain from possession. Love expands the spirit, possession contracts it.
  • Treat all religions and spiritual paths, and those who follow them, with honour and respect. 
  • Seek the company of those who will deepen your spirituality and support your journey.
  • Create community wherever you are. Make of your heart a home for the homeless, a refuge for the poor. 
  • Be simple, honest and authentic. Welcome humility and vulnerability into your life. Express your gratitudes and appreciations openly.
  • Surrender yourself to the true glorifying of the divine energy.