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? 

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. 

Photo by Goppang Nyarta

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

The Cult of Perfection

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential.

We are told that master carpet weavers purposely introduce an error in their pattern because only God is perfect, and to weave a perfect carpet would be an affront to God. 

So much to unpack here. The first thing is the problematic reasoning that says that only God is perfect, and so I have to be sure to be imperfect. This totally ignores the fact that if the first is true the second is not necessary. If only God is perfect, why do I need to be sure to make something imperfect? COULD I make something perfectly if I am not God? Presumably not. 

So why do we have to go out of our way to make something imperfect? Is there not a kind of hubris, a sort of spiritual showing off that requires us to wear our peity as a shining garment of forced imperfection? 

Then there is the question of why God would need for us to be sure to not be perfect. Is God that jealous? It seems to me to be a form of pettiness that is very human and not Godlike at all. We continue to imagine God in human form, with our own imperfections. Which means that the God we imagine cannot be perfect after all. 

But for me there is a deeper question. Given that we are created imperfect, what if God sometimes needs for us to be perfect? What if one day we have this amazing gift to have a perfect day or to do one thing absolutely perfectly? In the context of our imperfection, one shining example of perfection would be such a gift. Why would we intentionally foul it? Why would we want to not accept it? What does this mean for our relationship with God, with the world? 

What happens to perfect people? Do we really know any? Perhaps a better question is what happens to the ones who are most like Jesus, who try to bring the love of God to the world by working for equality and justice and (e.g.) civil rights? What happens to the ones whose work threatens the power structures of the world? MLK, Rosa Luxemburg, Gandhi. 

And yet none of these were perfect. We hear stories about our heroes that illuminate their feet of clay. That prove to us that they were not perfect. Often the response to this is to withdraw respect for them and their work. Why are we so reluctant to admire someone who has faults? What if we could understand that they did this amazing work in spite of these imperfections? That even with feet of clay they could practice the commandment that we love one another? 

Because if they could do their work without being perfect, perhaps we can too. Our imperfections, our feet of clay, should not prevent us from doing the work we are called to do. I believe that it is our imperfections which force us into relationship with others, which completes us. 

When my weakness is supplemented by another’s strength in the same area, we both become complete. To make this happen, we need to understand and accept (even appreciate) our own weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others. When we can see how these complement each other we can do things together that neither of us could do alone. It’s only when our imperfections are completed by the gifts of others that we become complete. Not I, but we

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential. 

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

A Blessing

.

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

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. 

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