A Simple Faith in a Complicated World

News!

Oh, wow. I’ve written a book! And now it has a publication date: 28 July 2023. That’s a long way off, but it will be available for pre-order before that, and a few review copies can be had even before that. If you’d like to write a review, please let me know and we’ll see if we can snag one of those.

Watch this space!

Love Our Neighbor as Ourselves

We are admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have always understood this to mean that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves

We are admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have always understood this to mean that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We should wish for them the same things that we have or wish or wish to have for ourselves: love, community, good health, adventure, challenging work, abundance, etc. This is hard to do sometimes, as we don’t see our neighbors as we see ourselves. We see our “insides” – all of our thoughts, wishes, fears, insufficiencies and inadequacies – but only their “outsides” – their accomplishments, the face that they turn to the world. 

And vice versa. They don’t know our vulnerabilities, our failures, our insecurities. They only see the face that we show the world, the face we don to protect ourselves. I wonder how we would react to the “us” that others see? So Robert Burns writes “oh, the gift that God would give us to see ourselves as others see us.” Or to love ourselves as others love us. Because sometimes we find another person who seems able to penetrate our defenses, to see through the walls we use to protect ourselves. Someone wo can see beyond the face that we turn to the world and see right into our wounded hearts. What a rare grace that is, a communion that can feel God-given, to have someone see us as we really are and to love us unconditionally.  

In Margery Williams’ classic children’s tale “The Velveteen Rabbit”, a stuffed rabbit became a real rabbit both metaphorically and literally. It happened because he was truly loved. It’s the metaphoric transformation though, that is usually quoted when referring to this work. “He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I believe that this is the love that we all seek. 

Another way to understand “Love our neighbor as ourselves” is to understand it to mean that we should love our neighbor as our true selves. As who we really are, not not as someone or something else. Not as who we want to be, or as who we want others to think we are, or as who they want us to be, or as they see us. But who we really are: imperfect, gifted and flawed, trying our best, trying to do better, trying the patience of others. 

In order to do this, we must open ourselves to others. We must show them the “insides” that we normally protect. We must become vulnerable. In becoming vulnerable we also become real. In becoming vulnerable, we invite others into the place where we truly live. We open ourselves to having the love we offer our neighbor returned, giving the possibility of a communion of souls that (as we see above) is rare. 

What do we need to do to love our neighbor as our true selves? How can we do this? We need to be able to sit in the fear and vulnerability that come when we let our walls down – not an easy thing. How can we as Quakers create a community where Friends can do this? What in our meetings signals that it is safe (or unsafe) to let down our walls? What in our meetings needs to change for Friends to be able to be their true selves? 

How can we create the sacred space that lets us love our neighbor as our true selves, a space where we can be who we really are, warts and all, and still feel loved? A space where we can become our God-loved selves? 

William Penn and White Fragility

We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently. 

Friends House London, the headquarters of Quakers in the UK, recently renamed the William Penn room in favor of Benjamin Lay, an abolitionist Quaker. The controversy around renaming this room has produced many arguments for and against. One of the common arguments against the renaming is that we are rewriting history. But history is intact – there are no new historical facts here. We have always known that William Penn was an enslaver. The only new fact is that we didn’t care until recently. 

As Friends, with a testimony to equality and a promise to be anti-racist, we naturally feel some guilt about the fact that we have long revered someone who was an enslaver. It’s hard to accept that we as individuals are imperfect, flawed. I believe that this unease creates the sort of cognitive dissonance we are seeing in the current discussion. 

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results when our actions conflict with our values. For example, we might feel cognitive dissonance if we drive a car while campaigning for climate change. In the current case, the dissonance comes from our belief that racism is wrong and that we are good people. This doesn’t square with the fact that some of our actions as well as some of the actions of William Penn, who we admire, were racist. The cognitive dissonance we feel in the context of racism has a separate name: white fragility. 

I believe that the action on our part that is creating the dissonance is the fact that we didn’t care that Penn was an enslaver.  It’s not the historical fact of Penn’s enslavement of people that is the problem for us, but the newly acknowledged fact that we didn’t care until now. It’s not about Penn and the customs of his time; the custom of our time demands that we bring enslaving into the light. And that forces us to acknowledge that until now we didn’t care. 

How much of the emotion around this issue comes from white fragility and the fact that our failure to notice points to our own racism?

Viewed through this lens, the arguments about renaming rooms or buildings or taking down statues can be understood as efforts to reduce the guilt we feel: if it’s ok to leave the rooms or the buildings or the statues, then it’s ok not to notice that these are racist. Then we are not obliged to notice that we ourselves are racist. 

Perhaps another way to reduce the dissonance is to recognize that it is caused by the reverence we want to feel for someone who is fundamentally flawed. There are two ways we might reduce this dissonance. First, we might remember and accept that we are all flawed, that we can simultaneously do good things and bad things, and that our heroes always have feet of clay. In this way we can live with William Penn’s racism and perhaps begin to live with our own. 

Secondly, we might question the need to revere other people in the context of our testimony of equality. Perhaps instead of celebrating individuals it would be better to celebrate the actions that let their lives speak, knowing that these come from flawed humans. Examples of those actions might be creating a space for religious freedom, fighting enslavement, working for equal rights for women and children, working for climate justice and racial justice. The list is long.  

Then perhaps we can let go of the distraction of naming rooms, buildings and statues and begin the hard work of understanding our own racism. When we can bear to look at that, we may find ourselves needing to know more about white fragility and the structural racism that has benefitted us as white people. 

When we are formed in a racist society, it’s not our fault if we are racist. However, it IS our fault if we choose to stay racist. 

Photo by Kelly I on Pexels

Welcoming the Stranger

Like many Friends I have been struggling with how to help with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. My particular struggle is with the fact that these are being welcomed very differently from others.

I find myself outraged by the overt racism in the journalistic coverage. I am frustrated by the sudden willingness of governments to open their borders to white Europeans when they have been closed to brown and black people fleeing the same devastation. 

In the UK for example, Eurostar will give free tickets to Ukrainians going to the UK, and the UK government is offering 350 pounds a month to host Ukrainians. When the refugees were Syrian, potential hosts were required to raise thousands of pounds under the community sponsorship programs, and their air transport was arranged by the UNHCR. When the refugees are African, their transport is small boats across the Channel. They are housed in abandoned hotels and barracks for months and sometimes years before their asylum claims are processed. 

I have not joined the vigils for Ukraine. I keep asking “where are those same vigils for Syria? Afghanistan? Palestine? Yemen? Darfur? South Sudan?” I find myself judging those who are only now willing to help rather than being happy that there are so many. 

But Ukrainians also need support and welcoming the stranger is holy work. How can I support Ukrainians without supporting the racism behind their different welcome? How can I answer the call to welcome the stranger without taking away from the work that I am already doing with displaced people from Africa? 

Maybe I can help by supporting those who are new to this work. I can pass on what I have learned about supporting people who have lost their homes and their families. 

So here’s some of what I have learned, in no particular order:

  • Respect the dignity of people who have no possessions left. This is not their whole life – it’s a difficult part that is not finished yet. 
  • Nobody wants to be somebody else’s project. Don’t insist on doing things that people can do for themselves. Give them agency wherever possible.
  • Listen when someone wants to talk, but remember that no one owes you their story. This is an important boundary to respect. 
  • Try to find games to play that don’t require vocabulary. Twister and Jenga are good fun.
  • Cook with them, not for them, to the extent possible. Sharing food is an essential human interaction. Let them show you their food and through that, their culture. It will be different from yours. 
  • Learn a few words in Ukrainian. Teach them your language. 
  • Find ways that they can give back to you without being your servant. For example, someone with a little English can translate for someone who has none. 
  • Ask them what they need, but also watch. Not everyone is good at articulating their needs or willing to ask for help. 
  • Don’t look for gratitude or smiles. They will feel pressure to be grateful, but also resentment that they are in this position. Let them mourn the life they had. 
  • God’s hands brought them to you and for the time being you are the hands that God has to help them. When it’s time, you will release them back into God’s hands.
  • Build a community to help you in this work. Find others around you who are doing this too and share your experiences with them. Learn from theirs.  
  • Above all, take good care of yourself. You will begin to feel some of the trauma that they are experiencing. Find a way to shed that. They need you whole. 
  • Be prepared to be changed and enriched by this experience.

Photo by Ahmed akacha from Pexels

Practicing Equality

We do not have ‘degrees’ of Quakerliness. The Quaker way is more complicated and more subtle.

I often hear the phrase “weighty Quaker”. When I was new to Quakers, I thought this was something to aspire to. It seemed to convey the idea that this was someone in whose voice I would hear Truth, that this was someone who practiced our values thoroughly. 

As time has given me more experience with Quakers as human beings, however, I understand that this is sometimes used to convey that one among us is ‘more equal’ than the others and that their voice should be heard more loudly. It’s often evoked to give more authority to the speaker, as if they were holders of a Truth that we could only access through them. But the Quaker way tells us that we can all access Truth through our connection to the Divine, and our testimony of equality tells us that none of us has special access to this Truth. 

Similarly, I often hear that something or someone is ‘unquakerly’. As a new Quaker, I wanted to avoid this at all costs. I used to ask what it meant, but could not find a satisfying or even a consistent answer. As my experience with this phrase and those who use it has grown, I have come to understand that it often simply means that the speaker doesn’t like something but has no other argument against it. 

I have recently heard another phrase along these same lines: “a Quaker’s Quaker”, meant to convey the idea that this person is perfectly Quaker, and should not be doubted. That what they say must be accepted as Truth, and any other points of view ignored. Sort of the Quaker version of speaking ex cathedra

This makes me think about a Quaker career path: seeker, attender, member, weighty Quaker, Quaker’s Quaker. And this makes my heart hurt. We do not have ‘degrees’ of Quakerliness. We are not Freemasons. 

Instead, the Quaker way is more complicated and more subtle. We are all sometimes speakers of Truth, and we are all sometimes caught up in pride and ego and fear and willfulness which block our access to the divine. It is true that some Friends seem to understand how to avoid this block more often than others, but as soon as we label them as ‘weighty’, we can almost guarantee that the path will be blocked for them. 

As with all pedestals, it’s often others who place us there. When we place one Friend above another, we give them false value, and then we become disillusioned when they cannot live up to our unrealistic expectations. It’s important to remember that our testimony of equality is also about humility, and when we wrap ourselves in Quaker values and judge others as unquakerly, we put ourselves on a pedestal above them. The fall from a pedestal is a long one.  

We hear about Quaker values: peace, truth, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship. We do not have to be Quaker to work for Quaker values. We should remember that we do not own these values, nor do we have a monopoly on them. Sometimes the lives of non-Quakers speak these values louder than the lives of ‘weighty’ Quakers. Or Quaker’s Quakers. 

What if we end this separation of Friends into degrees of worthiness and try to treat each other as equal? Let’s think about dropping these labels, stop judging each other’s worthiness, and begin to weigh each others’ words against the Truth we find in worship. Let’s embrace our testimony to equality and try to listen for Truth in the voices of all Friends and friends. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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

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.

Worship

Does God need worship from us? What does that mean?

Will Rogers famously said, “God created man in his image and man returned the favour.” We imagine God in our own image. I was raised with images of Jesus as a blue-eyed European who looked a little like my brother and God as an old white man standing on a cloud and judging us all. We not only create God in our image, we give God the gender of kings. 

I believe that these images and the ways in which we interact with them arose in a time and place where rulers needed to be sure of loyalty and fealty to hold on to their power. God was imagined as what was needed at that time – the ultimate ruler who would free God’s people from whoever was oppressing them. Thus the psalms speak of God protecting us from our enemies, smiting them and leading us to safe places.

Today we still interact with God based on the image of God as a powerful ruler, the king of kings, who will destroy our enemies and raise us up to a noble level above others. We worship God and sing praises and continually tell God how great God is. 

We know these physical images of Jesus and God are not really the right ones and many of us have no problem with re-imagining God in other images. We begin to see reconstructed images of Jesus as he might actually have looked. But how do we feel when we are asked to interact with God differently, in ways that are reflections of a new imagining of God? Not as a powerful ruler who will protect us but as a loving presence who can guide us and show us how to love others. 

Take, for example, the expectation that we will worship God, i.e. to acknowledge the worth of God, to show admiration for God, and to adore God. Does God really want this? Does God need our approval? Did Jesus in the manger need to be worshipped by the Magi, to be told how great he was? In truth, he probably could have used a room at the inn, some clean swaddling clothes and a bodyguard to protect him from Herod.

I do not believe that God cares where I worship God or even if I do. I don’t think I will find God in meeting houses or churches or holy sites – unless I bring God with me. God doesn’t live in sacred places, God lives in sacred actions, in how we treat each other and how we show the love of God in our lives.

The amazing fact of Quaker worship is that we sit in silence not to tell God how great God is (surely God has better things to do than listen to that?). No, in silence together we wait. Sometimes, only sometimes, we feel a connection to God and to the ones around us and if we’re very lucky, to ourselves. Our true selves. 

When that happens, we have our marching orders—“pick up your cross and follow me”. The message is clear: not “worship me”, but “follow me.” Feed the hungry, tend the sick, welcome the stranger, let your life speak. Take the love you’ve been given unconditionally and pass it on. Give it to others who need it, who need to feel that miraculous connection that was given to you. 

I believe that bringing the kingdom of God to earth is about bringing the love of God to the earth. One person, one action at a time. 

Quaker Roots

Our roots nourish us and hold us steady. But we are not our roots — we grow beyond them into something different, something new.

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you? Advices and Queries 4, BYM Quaker Faith and Practice

We are taught that Quakerism is rooted in Christianity, but without much explanation of what that means. In the same way that early Christianity was rooted in Judaism, we are rooted in Christianity. It is our spiritual culture, the ground from which we grew, the language and concepts we use to describe our direct experiences with God. 

Our roots nourish us and hold us steady, but we are not our roots. Rather, we grow beyond them. In the same way that early Christians grew from their Jewish roots into something different, Quakers take their Christian roots and grow into something different, which fits our experience with God. 

Jesus was rooted in his family, in his culture and in his religion.  They informed every aspect of his life. But he was not only that culture – he went beyond it. He even rejected large parts of it. 

I can’t claim to be a student of the Bible, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus never said, “pick up your cross and worship me”. I think what he said was “…follow me”. Do what I do: tend the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger.” I believe that the Quaker form of worship helps us to connect to our roots and then go beyond them to “let our lives speak”; to work for the world we want to see. 

Ghandi is often quoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Quakerism began as a return to early Christianity, to the work of Jesus. In many ways, Quakers continue to do this, to respond to Jesus rather than to the Christ. To follow the one who said that we need to “love one another”, rather than the one who is represented in many modern Christian churches. 

I often think about Jesus – the man, not the Christ. I wonder, for example, what kind of accent did he have and what did that accent say about him? How did he part his hair? What did he call his mom? We hear he was a carpenter—was there one piece he created that he was particularly proud of? Did he like his work? What did he say when he smashed his thumb with a hammer? What was his favorite color? His favorite meal? His favorite swear word? Could he swim? There is so much we do not know about this man and about the things that formed him to be the one we still talk about 2000 years after his death. 

One of the things that first attracted me to Quakers is the notion that revelation didn’t stop 2000 years ago. It continues today, as Friends wait in anticipation for divine inspiration and then share their ministry with each other and with the world. 

What does this mean, then? The mystical nature of Quakerism means that my experience may not be yours. However, I believe that the roots of Quakerism are not in the steeplehouses and the hierarchies of Christianity. I believe that those roots are in the man who taught us to love one another. It’s that simple and that difficult. 

Photo by Evie Shaffer from Pexels

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