E is Economic Equality

Over the last year or so I have becoming increasingly aware of the economic inequalities in British society. The low paid and those on benefits (who are not scroungers) are increasingly struggling to feed themselves and keep warm (why does such a wealthy country need food banks?) let alone participate fully in society. The very wealthy are even wealthier. The ratio between the top earners and the lowest earners in most organisations has increased considerably in recent years.

I applaud moves to address this problem. Asking big companies to declare the ratio between the pay of their CEO and of their lowest paid workers (or even the average pay in their company), encouraging all organisations to pay the living wage not just the minimum wage to all employees and discouraging excessive bonuses are all good.

But overall I think that what we really need is a complete change of attitude to a view that threats every person as equally valuable. I see a basic income (sometimes called a citizens income) for everyone as the right way to go.

Now the question is – to can we reform society to achieve that?

E is for Elder

As of first day of first month this year I have been an appointed elder of Luton & Leighton Area Meeting. In over 30 years worshipping with Quakers this is the first time I’ve been formally appointed to the role (though all in the worshipping group have responsibility for the right holding of meeting for worship). This has led me to think about the responsibilities this entails, and to explore this with the others appointed to this role in my Local Meeting.

MH library

Most people attending meeting for worship more than once will be aware that it is usually elders who close the meeting by shaking hands. People are also aware that the elders may reprimand (‘elder’) someone for speaking inappropriately during worship. They might, perhaps, say that elders are responsible for the ‘spiritual nurture of the meeting’ or words to that effect.

Quaker Faith and Practice 12.12 has a long list (a-l) of the responsibilities of elders – it is quite daunting.

The first item speaks of upholding and praying for the members of the local meeting. My meeting has about 100 people actively involved (40-50 attending on any given first day morning) and only 4 appointed elders, so this alone is quite a big task – just trying to remember that many people is a challenge.

Also daunting is that this is an Area Meeting appointment and carries responsibilities for the right holding of meetings for worship appointed by the AM – for business, for solemnisation of marriage, for funerals and for other purposes from time to time – though this is, of course, shared with a wider group of fellow elders

In Watford we have inherited a good pattern of opportunities for learning and spiritual nurture – monthly shared lunches followed by a variety of speakers and/or discussions, a twice monthly bible study group, a monthly enquirers’ meeting, a monthly light group and a twice monthly upholding group, with occasional Saturday workshops as well. But in a meeting as big as ours there is room for more. And scope for experimenting, not for complacency.

So I’m a bit daunted by the enormity of the task, but I’m much encouraged by the enthusiasm and open-mindedness of our local elders (tempered by an awareness that over-stretching ourselves won’t help anyone).

I’m also comforted by some of the detail in that long list of responsibilities – 12.12 d ‘to be responsible … for the arrangement of seating …’ – that I can understand the importance of, and can do.

MH

D is for Deep Listening

Just listen.
Listen to me and I’ll listen to you.

We won’t answer each other.
We won’t discuss.
We won’t give advice.

We will give one another our whole attention and listen deeply.
We will be fully present, here and now, for each other.
When we truly listen, we can have a taste of the Kingdom of God.

Listening1

In sangha meetings we set aside time to practice dharma sharing. In Quaker groups we use creative listening and worship sharing. Other groups have other names for this deep listening, but we can practice it at other times too, without giving it a name. And we can practice unilaterally, just listening to someone who needs to express themselves and be heard. Deep listening is particularly powerful when we are physically present with one another, but we can also apply the principle when hearing an interview, or reading a letter or blog post, even an email. Let’s just try it and see what it can do.

D is for Disability

Recently I have been given a wheelchair and lent a mobility scooter. The donors are mature, sensible people sorting out after bereavement and wanting to see things made good use of. I, too, like to see things made use of rather than sitting around useless.

But letting go of belongings is not easy, especially when each time it involves another admission that the deceased really is never coming back. In accepting these gifts, I am facing up to my increasing difficulty walking and that the day will come when I am dependent on these aids to get about. So we are sad and happy at the same time.

I am grateful to these friends for their support, for sharing the difficulty of this as well as the ‘things’ and I hope that I have been able to support them too by accepting these offers.

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dis ability

letting go of what i could

doing what i can

C is for Christians Across Watford Retreat

Thus ran the invitation:

Christians across Watford invitation to a time away together

Thursday – Friday 29th – 30th January 2015

Talking Truth without Falling Out’

Let us get away together to relax and to find refreshment. Let us share prayer, Scripture, worship, meals and conversation.

We are used to enjoying each other’s company. We respect each other’s traditions. We know, however, that there are some issues which could destabilize our underlying unity. We believe that our unity is strong enough for us to be able explore together some of these issues, and to listen, empathise and learn from each other.

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The spoken version at Leaders’ Breakfast described the aims as addressing our differences, recognising possible conflicts and considering how we might address them – talks about talks.

I felt strongly that I should go.

The initial programme referenced Acts 15 and Galatians 2, which I dutifully looked up and found relevant examples of disagreements in the early church.

The heading of the final version included this:

Let us assemble remembering the value of flexibility and openness

let’s see where the Holy Spirit leads us on the day’

As a Quaker I could feel very outside this group. I’m not a paid or ordained minister, most of the others are. I don’t often use explicit Christian language, many of my ‘congregation’ would not describe themselves as ‘Christian’ (though some would call themselves ‘Jesus followers’). I don’t normally sing, or offer vocal prayer, or talk about ‘salvation’.

I felt accepted, able to explain my tradition when relevant, and comfortable to join in. So I prayed aloud (or at least explained how we pray silently), sang, shared in communion, felt respected, included, valued. My impression was that others (from a wide range of broadly Christian backgrounds) did too.

I was impressed by the depth of sharing, listening and support ,and by the way in which people from very different traditions were able to share together. We considered what we might mean by unity, while modelling unity among ourselves and learning by doing. I heard several people say ‘we tell other people to …., but we don’t do it ourselves’ – here we were, doing it ourselves.

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Mealtimes and coffee breaks gave informal opportunities to ask questions, learn, talk, listen – and were well used. Conversations that I became involved in included ‘tell me the history of the Quakers’ (a big challenge over lunch!), ‘where do Quakers stand on equal marriage?’ (rather easier), ‘different understandings of interfaith work’ (quite challenging), ‘does God = Allah? or not’ (difficult).

A ‘brain storming’ session on the topic ‘what are my dreams for Watford in 10 years?’ led to a range of suggestions, some of which we were definitely not uniting around. Some want improved interfaith relations, some want the mosques to become churches. There was a range of big ideas and small ideas. We observed that they may be good things, but asked ‘are they God things?’. I noticed strong threads about acting from love, and praying to find out ‘what does the Holy Spirit want?’. Personally I have a dream of ‘bringing the Kingdom of God to Watford’ – this exercise, by allowing me to hear other people’s related dreams, helped clarify what this might look like. Further developing our understanding of what unity means for the church in Watford is going to be a big part of this. In conclusion it was felt that we should be open to God’s will, which might, and probably would, surprise us.

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C is for Communion

I offer my neighbour the communion cup: ‘Tim, the blood of Christ, shed for you’.

How does a Buddhist Quaker come to be offering this sacrament to an evangelical church minister?

We were towards the end of a two day retreat for Christian leaders from Watford. The flier for the retreat read:

We are used to enjoying each other’s company. We respect each other’s traditions. We know, however, that there are some issues which could destabilize our underlying unity. We believe that our unity is strong enough for us to be able explore together some of these issues, and to listen, empathise and learn from each other.

Or, as one person interpreted it ‘talks about talks’, but not shying away from the fact that there are things we disagree about. I’ll write more in another blog post, here I want to dwell on the communion ritual.

communion

How was it that I felt able to participate whole-heartedly?

The moderator of Christians across Watford, Tim Roberts, who has a passion to see a united church in the town, serving the town, introduced the session, explaining that the holy communion, eucharist, mass, whatever we call it, was celebrated by almost all Christians, but that we all had different understandings so no-one person among us could lead without making it difficult for another. Therefore we were all invited, if we wished, to share something of what it meant to us, listening carefully to one another.

An Anglican minster shared something of the diversity of views of the sanctity of the bread and wine within the Church of England – from not a drop or crumb must be left or spilt because it is so holy, to the youthful, joyful, carefree breaking of crusty loaves among the younger people at Soul Survivor.

A Roman Catholic priest shared a mystic view that could be taken, and that the rite could be understood on many different levels.

Some of the Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and members of Community churches shared very personal understandings of Jesus’ death on the cross.

I spoke of my own understanding that we are asked to remember the last supper every time we do this ie every time we eat or drink together, and how, at home, we observed a silence before we ate and this, as well as gratitude, was a thing we tried to remember. Then I offered Quaker Faith and Practice 27.39:

To Fox and the early Friends the whole of life seemed sacramental, and they refused to mark off any one particular practice or observance as more sacred than others. They took the same stand with regard to Sunday, or First Day; it was not in itself more holy than Saturday or Monday; every week-day should be a Lord’s Day. Their whole attitude was gloriously positive, not negative. They were ‘alive unto God’ and sensed him everywhere.

We do not say that to observe the sacraments is wrong, but that such observance is not essential to wholehearted Christian discipleship and the full Christian experience. We do not judge our fellow Christians to whom the outward sacraments mean so much. Rather do we wish, by prayerful fellowship with them, to be led unitedly with them to a deeper understanding of what underlies those sacraments, and so to share a richer experience of the mind of Christ. Gerald K Hibbert, 1941

When we had heard from all who wished to speak, we moved on to the ritual, passing the bread and wine from one to another around our circle, each using a form of the traditional words that they felt comfortable with. It was very inclusive and uniting. It felt altogether appropriate for me to join in. We were respecting, learning more about, and even celebrating, our differences. I hope that we can spread this attitude to difference further into our respective communities, among the Christians, and reaching out to other faith groups.

town centre

B is for Being Friends Together

I notice a request in the Quaker Life Network email that regularly lists opportunities for service that Friends can express an interest in. They are looking for Friends who are interested in visiting meetings to help the meeting discern the appropriate learning route for them.

‘I could do that’ says the voice in my head.

‘No, you couldn’t. You’re far too busy already’ I admonish myself.

art room

The request is repeated in the next QLN email.

‘I could do that, maybe I should contact them.’

I send an email. I hear nothing.

‘Quaker News’ comes out. There is an article about this new project from Quaker Life and Woodbrooke – ‘Being Friends Together’. They are still looking for potential volunteers.

‘Maybe I should follow that up’

I email again. I hear nothing. But I note the training date in my diary.

It’s January. My diary is full. I feel busy. I could just drop this ‘Being Friends Together’ business.

I don’t. I ring Friends House. Repeatedly. I email again.

Eventually I get a reply. Yes, there is still a place. Yes, I can come. Just fill in the form.

The form needs Friends to support my application. ‘Oh, hadn’t thought of that’, and there’s only a few days to go.

I email two of my fellow elders about it. ‘Of course we’ll support you’ they say. They don’t say ‘Aren’t you too busy already?’

I send the form in.

CanterburyMH

On the appointed day I go to Friends House, despite engineering works on the underground. A lovely crisp bright morning makes it a pleasure to walk along the Euston Road instead. We are only eight, although fourteen were expected.

I’m glad to be there. Simon Best, Alistair Fuller and Oliver Waterhouse are welcoming and calm, but full of enthusiasm for this project.

We’ve looked at the online resource beforehand, but they help us explore further and understand the aims. They explain the model they have in mind for meeting visitors. We ask questions. For some there are answers, for others the issues need thinking through. It’s good to have raised them.

When we share out impressions of the day we are mostly a mixture of excited and slightly scared. Excited at the potential, slightly anxious at what we might find when visiting a meeting.

I came away with enthusiasm for this project and looking forward to the possibility of helping a meeting into using it. And with an unexpected message in my mind: ‘take Jesus with you’.

Canterbury view

‘Being Friends Together’ is an online learning resource for Quaker meetings. It brings together the best of many learning resources that have been developed for meetings over many years and groups them into themes and pathways. Meetings may identify one off learning opportunities, or courses of study, resources for a study group or a discussion after a shared lunch or a weekend away. It can be used in many ways. Do take a look. I particularly liked the ‘topical activity’. One session that you can download and use straight away – just what is needed when the speaker for shared lunch can’t come at the last minute! You can browse for free, but for full access to download the resources a modest (£35) annual subscription is requested. For one subscription, the whole meeting has access.

For those who have members shared of the internet, be aware that this is an online resource, a library, it is not online learning. A few people in your meeting will need internet access, but the intention is that meetings will download the resources and use them in the ways we are used to (though some may use e-readers instead of paper copies).

A is for Accepting

‘May God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change

the courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Reinhold Niebuhr

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of accepting recently (ie over the last year or so), especially in the context of accepting my physical limitations and what I can no longer commit to do.

I get a lot of practice at accepting that some days I just can’t. Just can’t get out to work. Just can’t cook a meal. Just can’t tidy up. Fortunately others days I just can. So when I can’t. I don’t. If I accept that and rest I get back to being able much sooner than if I fight it. Whether the cause is MS, or ME, or a infection, it isn’t particularly worth finding out. Accepting the situation as it is, and resting, is key.

What is much harder is accepting that there are activities that my increasing disability (particularly walking) means that I have to refuse to do. Some days I walk better than others. With my ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) I can walk quite briskly and for quite long distances (a mile or more). What is not so apparent to an observer is that the extent to which I have to concentrate on what I’m doing ie walking. So I usually can’t manage a conversation while I walk and I certainly can’t supervise youngsters (ie Guides). Uneven ground is a challenge and for steps I require a handrail, a stick or an assistant.

So recently I’ve had to say that my days of taking the guides to camp are over. It’s hard to accept, I love to be at camp with the girls and I could easily manage the organisational part, but I can’t cope ‘on the ground’ any more. But to write an email to my fellow guiders saying that was really difficult.

The flip side of this is learning to ask for and accept help. I’m quite good at asking for lifts. I’ve never driven, so that’s something I’ve always done and people are very willing to help. Accepting that at times I need to be in a wheelchair is a lot harder. But it’s much better to go in a wheelchair that be left out! Last winter we hired a wheelchair from the Red Cross for a couple of months when I was really unwell and it was good to practise with it. Recently I was offered one that someone else no longer required and was able to accept fairly easily (and hopefully graciously).

Having a fiercely independent streak is an asset in keeping me active and a liability in making it very difficult to ask for and accept help. Getting the right balance is an ongoing challenge.

A is for Actual Practice

Advices and Queries 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.

It has taken me years to find ways into stillness that I actually do on a daily basis. Over time I have found some that work so well for me that I find myself doing them without effort. Others I like, but still take effort. Still others, while appealing, just don’t appear in my regular routine.

As a child I tried earnestly to pray every evening at bedtime – but it never lasted more than two or three days. Though at junior school we did have prayer time in assembly and at the end of the school day plus I went to Sunday school about 50 weeks out of 52. I do remember taking those seriously and enjoying Sunday school.

As a student I tried various things – stopping for a silent grace at meal times was one I managed fairly consistently, even in the public arena of hall of residence dining room (much helped by having other friends who did it too).meditation 1

So what do I actually do? Quakers, in particular, often talk about setting aside times of quiet but are reluctant to go into detail.

Every morning when I first wake up, often before I fully wake up, I practice Reiki. I do both distant healing and self-treatment. The distant healing gets very mixed with simple intercessory prayer, holding in the Light and metta meditation (because I can’t really tell the difference). I send it to difficult situations in the world and to leaders in those situations (currently leaders in Israel and Palestine, ISIS, the military government in Burma) and to people I know who are ill or having difficulties at present. I sometimes also think of, uphold, send light to, other people or groups of people that I know eg my meeting, my guides, my difficult next door neighbour. Quite often I fall asleep again, but I just continue when I wake up again. It usually takes about half an hour. On completing the self-treatment, which I do second and actually do laying on of hands on the parts of my body that seem to need it, I give thanks for everything and get up.

greet the morning

If I’m at home, I then usually go to the window, look out through a small gap in the curtains (my spouse usually still being asleep) and bow to the new day and to all the beautiful buddhas out there whom I may meet in the course of the day. If I’m in a different place I usually forget this.

At breakfast, I’m usually alone and my habit is to recite the five contemplations. When we take meals together at home (often lunch and almost always the evening meal) we observe a period of silence during which we may just breathe, we may give thanks, we may recall the last supper or other stories. My spouse is very consistent in this particular practice and it is definitely part of our family life.

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Now I sound very good, but at this point it peters out rather rapidly! On work days I usually pause on leaving the house and remind myself to walk mindfully. Sometimes I remind myself again part way to work – and sometimes I just forget.. In the last few months I have managed to walk mindfully down the corridor (it’s long, straight, boring, and goes from the area I work in to the staff toilets) most days. I have a few ‘bells of mindfulness’ in the workplace in the form of computer passwords that use key words that remind me to be mindful and some postcards on my desk. By the time I go home for lunch I just go home. I may remember to prepare the vegetables mindfully if it’s my turn to cook, then again, I might not.

corridor

That’s the private daily practice, but the shared practice is essential. I go to meeting for worship as often as is reasonably possible. That is every Sunday (unless really prevented) and most Wednesdays. If I’m at Woodbrooke or somewhere else where there are more opportunities (such as Yearly Meeting Gathering) I will take most or all of them (ie early mornings, but not late nights). I also go to Buddhist mornings of mindfulness about monthly and that is becoming part of my core practice. Some days I practice sitting meditation at home, but not as often as I intend to. Though when I do, it requires as much discipline to stop as to find the time. I will also take happily the opportunity to worship or meditate with other groups if suitable opportunities occur.

This sounds like a lot, but I enjoy it, it doesn’t generally feel like an effort.desk

I also remember the advice, read on a poster on a friend’s wall many years ago: ‘everyone should sit for half an hour a day in silence, unless he is too busy, in which case he should sit for an hour’.

Time set aside for silence, for inward stillness, is time well used and never time wasted.