K is for Knarled

I was walking mindfully and looking closely in Woodbrooke’s garden recently, when I came across a tree with beautifully knarled bark.

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It set me thinking – what makes this knarled bark so beautiful? It’s caused by injury, it’s a response to damage, and yet it produces something we can perceive as beautiful.

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Is this a metaphor? Have the injuries (physical, mental, spiritual) that I’ve received in life led me to grow something beautiful in response, or some ugly protection?

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Some of both I suspect.

J is for Joy

J is for Joy

Sorting out recently I came across this quotation from the Epistle of Britain Yearly Meeting 2004:

At the centre of our Religious Society of Friends lies a precious pearl, the Truth that we know in our hearts. Let us be confident and not withhold the joy of this continuing discovery from the world. To strengthen our Meetings, we need to tell others why we are Friends. We must face our fears of conflict and change, but also express our joy in our faith and community.

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I was already thinking to write about joy and what brings me joy, this short quotation uses the word twice – and urges us to share it, not withhold it.

Looking at the spiritual preparation questions for Yearly Meeting this year, I’m being asked about sharing my journey with other Friends, how I do that and how easy or difficult I find it. Then about my experience of being ‘spoken to’ in a meeting for worship, of being ‘nudged ‘by the Spirit, how and if I could share any leading with others.

I wonder if I have made any progress in sharing the joy in my life since we wrote that epistle in 2004.

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So what brings me joy? The simple, probably obvious, things such as

  • flowers and birds in the garden, when I take time to stop and look and listen

  • walking, being present and aware of each step

  • being with people I love

  • cooking mindfully

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And that ‘precious pearl’, the Truth I know in my heart, the Presence that I feel, though I may be uncertain how to name it? How do I express my joy in that? By

  • continuing to remember ‘that of God’ in everyone

  • sitting in silent, expectant waiting with others

  • serving my community (Quaker and otherwise) in ways that use my talents

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Do I express this joy, do I share it? I hope so. But I could do better. How?

  • let my inner child out, to stop and look and point to the latest delight

  • talk a little about my experience of the Presence and the joy I find in that

  • listen to others and hear their joy as well as their troubles

  • ask the questions that help people express their joy

  • listen to others express the Truth they know in their hearts, whatever language they use

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And you, do you know that Truth in your heart? Do you have the confidence to share it?

I is for Islamophobia

In February I went to Woodbrooke on a weekend course entitled ‘Understanding Islam, Challenging Islamophobia’. The aim may have been to help us challenge Islamophobia, the result certainly challenged me. The day after returning I wrote:

This course was challenging to us as participants. Some of us were challenged trying to learn and understand basic facts about Islam in a short space of time. All of us were challenged by our reactions to headlines from newspapers, to some examples of current government policy and by meeting some people who have been personally affected by Islamophobia. We were also encouraged that we could do something to counter this. Learning more about Islam, generally becoming friends with Muslims living in our locality, complaining about inappropriate reporting in the media, visiting a local mosque are all examples of positive actions we can take.

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I had previously taken courses about Islam so the basic introduction was useful revision to me, but not a huge challenge. But I was challenged by examples of how the press supports terrorism by inducing fear in the way they report even quite minor events and totally ignore other positive things that happen. Fear and threats sell newspapers. We considered ways in which government policy claims to be fighting the threat of terrorism, and yet also feeds the fear and compounds the problems. We had speakers who shared very freely from their personal experiences and we learnt a lot. I also felt challenged to find ways to respond. We did identify small actions we can all take, which are all good, but somehow feel too small. And yet I am only me, and I’m short of time and energy.

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I did seize the opportunity when colleagues asked about my weekend to tell them a little of what I had been doing and to ask if they felt threatened (several of my colleagues are Muslim). On the whole they felt fairly safe, they report nasty looks and being blanked rather than physical threats, though they are concerned about family members who commute into London.

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Since this course there have been more incidents blamed on militant Islamists including Brussels and Glasgow and I have heard incidents of leaflets being handed out in my normally tolerant home town inciting negative responses to these. See my last post.

One very specific thing that has stayed with me from this weekend was when in my small group Moazzam Baig was asked ‘were you tortured at Guatanamo Bay?’ and he replied ‘everyone was tortured at Guatanamo Bay’. He clearly didn’t want to go into detail. It made me think that perhaps he meant everyone. Obviously all the detainees, but also, in a less obvious but equally real sense, all those involved in detaining and torturing them. I’m still processing this challenge.

In the meantime I’ll go on learning, and being friendly, visiting mosques and helping others to do so. Small things, but every little does help.

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H is for Hate

On the whole the town I live in is relatively harmonious. It has a a very diverse community with people from many racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds, who mostly get along without more than the usual tensions between neighbours.

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However, I have been hearing recently of attempts to distribute leaflets outside mosques in the wake to the Brussels attacks. Responsible people at the mosques who deemed the leaflets inappropriate asked the leaflet distributors to leave and reported the incident to the police. So the incidents did not escalate, but it causes concern that they happened at all.

I have also heard of inappropriate leaflets being seen in local shops in the wake of the killing of the Glasgow shopkeeper. Again the incidents were handled calmly and promptly and the leaflets were removed by the shopkeepers without the need to call the police. But it makes the Ahmadiyya Muslims feel vulnerable. I have also heard reports of the shock they feel that such an attack could have happened in the United Kingdom, where so many of them have sought a safe haven.

As a group of faith leaders hearing these concerns we resolved to make a public statement in the local paper denouncing such attacks and supporting the Ahmadiyya. We are also going to explore the possibility of regular multi-faith prayer meetings as a way of supporting one another and encouraging wider participation.

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We all need to stand up and speak out against any incitements to hatred, to work with the police (our local hate crime officer seems to be well respected), to act ourselves if we see or hear something inappropriate and to take longer term actions to increase understanding between all the different groups that make up our wonderful diverse community.

G is for Growing Points

As I said in my last post (F is for Fear), I heard Advices & queries 33 read in meeting for worship recently, and another part that particularly struck me was:

Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. …

It seems to me that there are many growing points in these areas – the ones I want to discern are those that, if nurtured, will move us all closer to a realisation of what might be termed ‘the Kingdom of God’ here and now.

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And then the next question is ‘how can I help to nurture this growing point, this seedling?’

I’m a ‘little bit here and a little bit there’ kind of person, rather than a totally dedicated to one project type. So my allotment is sown with a little bit each of a lot of different crops. This approach tends to avoid gluts, but sometimes doesn’t produce enough of one crop or another. It usually does produce something. One crop fails but another is an unexpected success.

Back to social and economic life. Where are the growing points I might help to nurture?

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One recent development was a household decision early last year that the time had come to make a commitment to a political party, not just talk a lot (however loudly) at home. So we all signed up with the Green Party, having realised that that was the party with policies closest to what we wanted to see happen. I think it would be fair to say that I saw this as a ‘growing point’ (along with many others in the run-up to the 2015 general election). Joining and paying a regular subscription was one small way I could nurture this growth.

Then came the call for potential candidates, both for the general and local elections. Long discussions ensued in our household. If need be, could or would any of us be prepared to stand? We wouldn’t expect to be elected, but there needs to be a name on the ballot paper for people to be able to register at least a protest vote. Was it another way we could help? In the end one of us did stand for the local council in our ward, picking up over 100 votes, and we all learnt a lot about the practicalities of how elections work. This year is an all-out election in our borough, so we are all standing, in order to help fill all the spaces on the ballot papers. One small action has led to another. And reminds me of Advices and queries 34:

Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.

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Another growing point that I’ve noticed and wanted to encourage is the interest in Basic Income. At present I’m only observing and occasionally commenting in social media – a very low level of nurturing, but something.

Yet another growing point that I’m watching is the Transition Town movement, especially as it has now come to our town. I don’t see a role for me at present, and I really must not take on too much …

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I see all these as growing points that relate to commitments Quakers have made in recent years towards being a ‘low-carbon, sustainable community’ and working for greater economic equality and justice. I’m sure there are many more.

The growth in Islamophobia, on the other hand, is something I want to help weed out not to nurture. Again though it is by small steps, not necessarily very direct steps. My involvement with our local Interfaith Association is one way to be taking action. It’s more like planting trees than growing annuals. More on this may follow when I get to ‘I is for …’

F is for Fear

I heard Advices & queries 33 read in meeting for worship recently:

Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society’s conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

There is so much to do here that I went back to the introduction to Advices and queries, part of which reads:

Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies.

Something that spoke to me personally was ‘Seek to understand the causes of … fear.’

In particular I have been thinking recently about Islamophobia, terrorism and fear. I attended a course ‘Understanding Islam, Challenging Islamophobia’.

I don’t watch television news, it is too graphic for me, and I increasingly don’t listen to the radio. I used to listen while I washed up, cooked and cleaned, but I have been working on just doing what I’m doing. Being aware that I am preparing vegetables, washing up, sweeping – whatever it may be. The downside of this generally helpful spiritual practice is that I am somewhat isolated from what many people are hearing and seeing in the media reports.

The course made me look at recent newspaper headlines, gave me opportunities to meet some people directly affected by islamophobic attitudes and helped me to think about government policies.

Terrorists seek to influence the world by creating a climate of fear – so that is one cause of fear.

Many of our newspapers report events (terrorist attacks and other totally unconnected events) in a way that increases fear – another cause. Other media especially radio and television behave similarly. Social media are clearly a factor – my feeling is that they can work both ways especially as different people use them in very different ways.

Many government policies and announcements also increase fear, while apparently seeking to reduce it. I was amazed to hear last autumn a government pronouncement that Russian bombing in Syria would increase fear and lead to increased radicalisation and violence, only to be told a few days later that American bombing in Syria (supported by Britain) would reassure the Syrians and reduce those wanting to join ISIS or similar organisations.

The PREVENT strategy, as currently implemented in at least some parts of the UK, is increasing fear levels especially among minority groups.

So is there anything I can do to help reduce these levels of fear? In the specific context of islamophobia another factor is fear of the unknown. People who have no contact with Muslims are more likely to be affected by media images. I live and work in a multi-ethnic, culturally and religiously rich part of a town with a population that mostly gets along well together. It seems really important to help more people to a better understanding of Islam, and to just meeting Muslims socially and in normal daily interactions at work and in the shops to build understanding that we are all just people with largely the same concerns. My Muslim colleagues report that they are subject to nasty looks and some unpleasant verbal insults, but don’t, in this town, fear physical assault. They are, however, worried about others in their families who need to travel into, for instance, central London, for work. Most parents from all backgrounds would have a similar concern, although it doesn’t lead any of us to avoid such travel, despite some recent terrorist attacks on public transport venues.

So I’ll talk to people, circulate reports of the course, and, particularly important I feel, continue the work I’m doing with others in the Watford Interfaith Association. No drama, but some positive action that is within my present capabilities.

E is for Equality

I’ve been thinking of write about equality, but there are so many aspects that I could consider, inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends – housing, earning, learning, race, gender, sexuality, disability – the list of areas where people are not treated equally seemed endless.

Then I was reading Qf&p as part of our current ‘Reading Quaker faith & practice’ exercise when I came across this passage.

Quakerism need not be defined exclusively as white, Christian and middle-class, and such culture need not be adopted as the culture of those who are convinced. When this does happen the inequalities and unequal power dynamics of our society are reflected in our meetings and in this way Black people are discouraged from fully participating in worship.

Our Society is often blind to the gifts and richness of other traditions and this cultural chauvinism impedes its development. Racism within the Society of Friends is perhaps more damaging because it is unconscious and springs from stereotyped assumptions: ‘And no harm is meant by it. Harm may be done but it is never meant’.

Epistle of Black, white, Asian and mixed-heritage Friends, 1991

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I was shocked to realise that that it was written in 1991. It seems to me that we have not made a lot of progress in the 25 years since then. We still appear to be white and middle-class, though there is increasing doubt expressed about the label Christian. I am aware of those who feel they don’t fit when it is assumed that everyone has had a university education, or that everyone has a well paid job, or more probably an occupational pension, that allows them to live in middle-class comfort and indulge in a wide range of pleasant activities. I have heard of Friends who used derogatory terms about people of colour without even realising that a Black person in the group would be offended by that. As it says in this quotation ‘And no harm is meant by it. Harm may be done but it is never meant’.

I look round my local meeting on a Sunday morning and I might see as many as three people of Black, Asian or mixed- heritage. Remembering back to about 1991 I would probably have seen two, two of the three who regularly worship in my local meeting. We are usually forty to fifty gathered on a First day morning. There really hasn’t been much change. I live in a large town with a thriving multi-cultural population.

I’m somewhat at a loss as to how to change this. I can’t undo being white, or my Christian and middle-class background. Our meeting house is in one of the most affluent parts of the town, but it isn’t easy to change that.

Clearly we all need to be more aware of the harm we do that we don’t mean to and of how we cause it. Perhaps with awareness I will begin to see how to avoid it, how to change.

D is for Death

Advices and queries 30. Are you able to contemplate your death and the death of those closest to you? Accepting the fact of death, we are freed to live more fully. In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve. When others mourn, let your love embrace them.

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Contemplating our own death. Not easy. Contemplating the death of those closest to us. Probably harder.

Contemplating my own death. That’s closer to home, more specific, getting harder. Contemplating the death of those closest to me. Very difficult.

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I can cope with some of the practicalities.

I’ve made a will, as has my spouse. At some point they need to be reviewed, but they are written in general enough terms that they probably stand for now.

I’ve registered with the MS tissue bank. They welcome donations of brain, spinal cord and a small piece of muscle tissue. It has to be taken shortly after death. It’s important to let people know one’s wishes about this. I have talked to my close relatives about it and that was OK. My spouse has signed up too, samples from people without MS are also needed for research.

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I’ve thought about my funeral and discussed with my family. While I’d love a sky burial being butchered and fed to the red kites flying over Winter Hill, I’m accepting that a woodland burial in a willow casket (sustainably sourced) in a foetal position is a far more practical option. An accompanying meeting for worship would be my suggestion, but funerals are for the living not the dead – so those left can do what they like as far as I’m concerned. A do-it-yourself funeral would be my family’s general style though, as well as my suggestion.

I’ve thought through and discussed my views on assisted suicide, having a diagnosis of MS brings such things a step closer. I’m convinced that I don’t want to ask anyone to help me die. I think it would be wrong to ask it of anyone. That means I have to endure the pain and deterioration in function that is almost certainly my lot. Some days I have a lot of pain and wonder if I’ll hold to this resolution.

I’m aware of my spouse’s choices too, to quite an extent. Though I think we both should write it all down. We thought to put everything in a book, but the younger generation think it should be on google drive where they can easily access it too. My parent’s have done the paperwork ready for enduring power of attorney, wills, lists of where their money is invested, prepaid funeral plans, everything in order – and I have copies of all that would be needed.

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But what about the emotional aspects of all this?

In bereavement, give yourself time to grieve.

This is the really hard stuff. I’m naturally good at being practical, sorting out, organising, trying to support everyone else. But admitting that I need time to grieve too …

I went to my father-in-law’s funeral full of how I was there to support my spouse and our children, how I could cope with the practicalities and hold others while they cried. The service began and I burst into tears, didn’t notice anyone or anything else much for the duration – just cried all the way through. It was healthy and needed, but caught me totally by surprise. So what if the deceased is my spouse, or my child, or my parent?

Clearly a lot still to work on.

C is for Cathedral

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‘Quakers don’t build cathedrals, they have committees’

This phrase, from the introduction to an old version of the Committees* Handbook, was offered to us in vocal ministry at the closing worship of QCCIRs* committee meeting recently.

For me it immediately threw up several pictures.

Firstly, that both are places of worship. At a recent training day for clerks* and committee secretaries I had heard powerfully the importance of worship in the life of a committee*, and the advice ‘if in doubt have more worship, time spent in silent waiting worship* is never wasted time’.

Then lots of images around St Albans Cathedral. I was born in St Albans, and have lived near to there nearly all my life. The abbey* and cathedral are ever-present and have been for many centuries. The Church of England is not only ‘established’ in a constitutional sense, it is established in the landscape. Over the years I have gone to the abbey* for many different reasons including as a tourist; to get a light lunch in pleasant surroundings; to attend large scale services. I am fascinated by the decoration (while also wanting to remove it all). The gradual revelation of paintings on pillars that were whitewashed over in the reformation* has been fascinating.

A particularly powerful memory is of a visit with a group of predominately Muslim women from Watford. When it came to time for midday prayer, they went to one of the side chapels, spread their coats on the floor in place of prayer mats and prayed. I felt that my only possible response was to kneel in the pew nearby and pray too.

Another image that came to me is how parts of this cathedral have fallen down over the years. It has been patched in different materials (flint, stone, Roman brick and tile salvaged from older buildings) and repaired and extended in varied architectural styles. Yet it remains a physically intact edifice, a place of prayer and of pilgrimage, the home of an active Christian community, and, of course, a tourist attraction. Sometimes our Quaker committees seem to be falling down, we rebuild, perhaps with different materials, in different styles, but they too can go on serving.

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*Glossary

There is quite a lot of ‘Quaker speak’ and other words that assume certain background knowledge in the above, so for those unfamiliar with it I’ll try to interpret.

Committee – British Quakers have committees at all levels from local meetings to national bodies. Sometimes they oversee work done by paid staff, most, especially locally, do the work. themselves. Committee members are almost always appointed to serve for a triennium, only exceptionally do they serve for more than two successive triennia. Committees work using the Quaker business method where the business is conducted in the context of silent waiting worship and minutes are agreed during the meeting.

QCCIR – Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations. A national committee that represents and responds on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting (the national organisation of Quakers in Britain) to other faith groups. It also encourages Friends to become involved in inter-church and inter-faith activity.

Clerks and committee secretaries – clerks serve a committee by presenting the business and recording the minutes in the meeting, they may also handle communications between meetings. They are a servant of the meeting, rather than being in charge of the committee. For national level committees they are often supported by a paid staff member who handles much of the administration of the committee.

Waiting worship – Quaker worship takes the form of expectant waiting in silence. It is usually completely unprogrammed, but anyone may speak if moved by the Spirit to do so.

The abbey – not ‘Quaker speak’ but ‘St Albans speak’. Locals commonly refer to ‘the Abbey’ as if it were the only one.

Reformation – the dramatic change in the Church of England when it split from the Church in Rome under Henry VIII. Monasteries were dissolved, buildings were knocked down, much decoration was painted over or destroyed. It was part of a long period of major disagreement between catholic and protestant factions within the church.

B is for Bible reading

Recently I went away for a retreat* with Christian leaders from across Watford from a wide range of organisations and denominations. One of the strange things to me is the idea of starting with Bible readings. As a Quaker I start with expectant, waiting silence which may lead me to the Bible but quite possibly elsewhere.

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However, on this occasion one of the initial readings was from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (3:14 – 19):

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

The phrase ‘so that Christ may dwell in your hearts’ really spoke to me. Like early Friends I could read this and relate it to my own experience, in this case of the Inner Teacher. It stayed with me throughout the retreat, where our theme was ‘going deeper’ and we considered and shared what it meant to each of us to go deeper with God personally and with our congregation or organisation. The depth of sharing was amazing.

We also worshipped together in a variety of styles and heard about other unity movements, similar to Christians across Watford, in other UK towns and cities, and across the world.

Some years ago, challenged on a Woodbrooke course to be bold and speak out about how I would like to help change the world, I committed to paper and said to my small group that I wanted to help bring the Kingdom of God to Watford. In one way I believe that it is already here, even though it doesn’t look much like it. What is needed is to show people that and to change the things that don’t fit. A good start is for us all to ‘love our neighbour as ourself’, another is for us to do this together. This group is one that is working towards the same aim (even if we picture the Kingdom a bit differently) and is modelling it in the relations we are all building with one another, and, in our various ways, with the much wider community.

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* I am cautious of the word ‘retreat’ in this context. It suggests to many a quiet, inward solitary occupation. This was a retreat from the immediacy of our daily lives and from Watford (though we only travelled across Hertfordshire), but very much a seeking together for the will of God for ourselves and our town. And it was certainly not quiet, we did a lot of talking, but with a lot of good listening too.