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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)

 

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. 

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.

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? 

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.

In-Between Spaces

How might we be transformed as we traverse the ‘in-between’ spaces?

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the ‘in-between’ spaces: that pause between inhale and exhale when there is neither; that moment when a ball thrown up is poised between rising and falling; that narrow space between fear and hope which is the place of faith. 

When I center down into worship I look for these ‘in-between” spaces. It’s here that I find the opening through which God can enter. It’s here that I lose myself and make the possibility of finding something greater than me. 

There is another in-between space, not so calm and sacred. It was famously described by Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl as the space between stimulus and response. In this space, he tells us, lies our power to choose. And in that choice lies our freedom and our growth. This is a place of possibility and power – the power to choose is the power to change.

Our current covid-limited lives feel like an in-between space for me. Sometimes it feels like the pause between inhale and exhale, or the momentary equilibrium of the ball in the air. But other times (most of the time, really) it feels like a crucible, a place of transformation, a place between nothing and infinite potential. Like Frankl’s in-between space, this feels like a place of possibility, a place poised between going forward and going back. What will we make of this, I wonder? 

The possibilities for change and transformation are many. On a personal level we can use this time to learn new skills, to adopt new habits, to mend broken relationships, or to stay the way we are. On a familial or community level we can grow closer or we can fragment and break. On a political level we can unify or divide. On an environmental level we can go back into ruin or move forward into the unknown world of new ways to live. Or perhaps just go back to a simpler way of life. 

Sometimes I am drawn into worry about the future or about someone I care about. When that happens I find myself in another ‘in-between’ space, this one between the things I hope for and the things I fear. While this space is in reality fairly wide, it can feel very narrow and if I’m not careful I can allow fear to take me in a spiral down into despair. This is the place of uncertainty. It is also the place of faith, where I can find the courage to simply take the next right step. 

I’ve recently been reminded of another Victor Frankl quote, to the effect that it’s not important what we expect of life, but rather what life expects of us. He follows that by saying that we should stop asking about the meaning of life. We should instead think of ourselves as being questioned by life.  Perhaps this covid ‘in-between’ time is life’s way of questioning us, of asking whether we will go forward or back, how we will grasp the possibility of this in-between space.

As Quakers, we are challenged to let our lives speak. As we traverse this ‘in-between’ space, how will we be transformed? How will the message of our lives speak anew? In the place between fear and hope, how will our faith manifest itself? Will we grasp the possibility and power of this time or will we squander it? When our lives speak, what will they say?  

Author’s note: The ideas here were honed in a worship sharing session with some members of Woodbrooke’s 2019-2021 Equipping for Ministry course.

For Our Sins

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left.

We are promised that Jesus “will come again in glory…”

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left. In every generation there are those prophetic voices echoing the message of Jesus: love one another and let your life speak. Often we kill them. Three examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Luxemburg and Mahatma Gandhi.

In a recent Woodbrooke course we learned that crucifixion was a political death – the Roman equivalent of being hanged, drawn and quartered. It was meant to be painful and public and humiliating. A warning to those who follow — both those who would come after and those who were his disciples.

We are told that Jesus died this death for our sins. To redeem us for the sins we have committed but also for the sins whose burden we carry that were committed by Adam and Eve, two people who didn’t actually exist historically. 

But what if Jesus didn’t die for our sins but because of our sins? Not to pay for our sins but because the sins we carried couldn’t let him and his message live? 

The sins that were responsible for this particularly cruel and harsh political death are still with us: pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire. And they are the ones responsible for the continued assassination of those who tell us that we are enough, that we are worthy of love and so is everyone else. They tell us that we should love one another because God loves us just as we are.They tell us that we are all equal and that none are more equal than others. When we can accept this we lose the need to dominate and control others. We also lose the ability to be dominated and controlled, which can be a dangerous thing.

Sin separates us from the love of God. These particular sins – pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire – also separate us from our fellow humans. This separation is part of what enables the dehumanizing process which allows us to kill each other. This separation is lost if we can believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God, who loves us just as we are; that is why this message is a threat to those who need for us to be able to kill each other. 

The message that God loves us is also the message that we are not separated from God. The radical danger of that message is that if we believe this then we don’t need elite power structures to ‘save’ us from ourselves and each other. We only need to know that we are loved and that we can pass that love to others. It’s that action of denying / dismantling the power structures that triggers the need to wipe out the ones who teach it, often in cruel and very public ways.

I believe that Jesus died not to save us from sin today but because he was saving people at that time and in that place, as those who are murdered today are saving people in this time and in this place. The need to dominate and control cannot allow this radical message of love and equality to continue to be spread.

What if we could hold the belief that we are good enough just as we are? Would we be able to give up the need to dominate and control others? Could we give up pride and ambition? Could we know that we don’t need to accomplish anything more than we have already done? What if we truly loved ourselves and others, as equal recipients of God’s grace? 

If we could do that we might be able to vanquish the sins which separate us from the love of God and thus cause the death of those who teach us to love one another. 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

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