B is for ‘A Heart Broken Open’ – a Book review

I like to read, but I’m quite a slow reader and find little time these days to read actual books from cover to cover. I’ve a tall pile of ‘to be read’ volumes. Recently I picked one out of the pile that had been there since Feb 2014 – I know, because it was a gift and had a note inside. Almost immediately I started to read I was grabbed by it, and as I continued my enthusiasm just grew. A friend hearing my enthusiasm suggested I review it for our local Interfaith Association newsletter – which I did. Since others may be interested, I thought I’d post the review here too.

A Heart Broken Open – Radical faith in an age of fear by Ray Gaston

This book is very much based in the author’s personal experiences in inner-city parish ministry, on a visit to Iraq in 2004 and a desire to be alongside the Muslims in his parish in a time of rising Islamophobia and the beginning of the ‘War on Terror’.

Ray relates his experiences in the anti-war movement in 2003, including his trial for ‘obstructing the public highway without lawful authority or excuse’; his experiences visiting Iraq in 2004 on a pilgrimage with a Shi’a Muslim friend which he describes as ‘beautiful and humbling’; his experiences fasting during Ramadan alongside his Muslim neighbours and his reflections on what he learns. It was at the shrine of Lady Zaynab near Damascus where he ‘felt a real sense of the presence of God’ and ‘… I wept. I felt my heart being broken open by God for the people of Iraq – this was the preparation I had needed …’

He remains grounded in his Christian faith which he finds strengthened by the insights and challenges of learning and experiencing more about Islam. He admits that his actions at times led some to leave his congregation. The way was not always easy, but he clearly felt led.

His account of fasting during Ramadan is almost entirely recounted by reproducing the journal he kept at the time, without editing it. I found this immensely powerful in helping me enter into the experience. The book also includes short chapters from some of those who shared parts of the journey with him. One of these recounts another person’s experience of sharing the Ramadan fast which she found very different to Ray, but a valuable experience none the less.

I was also particularly moved by his court appearance where, when called to stand, he knelt and said ‘Rather than stand before you, I prefer to kneel, not to the authority of this court, but to the authority of God …’ and proceeded to call on all present to join him in prayer for the ‘people of Iraq’ and for ‘our nation’ taking part in such a ‘blasphemous, immoral and criminal war.’ Equally moving, in a much more private scene, Ray speaks of visiting his dad during Ramadan: ‘I also want to give the time … over to him and when we are together make it a space where I focus on him, without my mind being elsewhere. Honouring him, which I so often fail to do.’

A Muslim contributor recommends that this book ‘primarily aimed at a Christian audience’, ‘be read by Muslims, as it is a beautifully written spiritual adventure that will resonate with all those who are seekers of a spiritual path”.

I would endorse that but extend the recommendation to all ‘seekers of a spiritual path’ of whatever religion and to all those who seek to apply their spiritual insights in their daily lives. This book is very much about how one person has responded to God’s call to action to make the world a better place for everyone. I am inspired and humbled.

My Faith in Practice

This is the text of what I said at Area Meeting today10/1/16. Most of it is already on this blog under Q is for Quaker in 2013. But a copy was requested for circulation and it seems as well to post here too while it is, in some way, topical.

I was only asked to speak today at short notice, but yesterday morning, in response to a question, I found myself saying:

What do I know? Not very much:

  • that I should stayed married to Jim

  • when I breathe in I know that I am breathing in, when I breathe out I know that I am breathing out

  • I am alive, which is better than the alternative

  • God loves me

These things are deeply spiritual and also quite pragmatic. The Quaker way is, I’m increasingly aware, simultaneously mystical and practical. Basically, all I need to do is follow Advices and Queries 1 ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts …’. The rest just follows.

And now, as I said to Ryan, and in true ‘Blue Peter’ style, here’s one I wrote earlier:

Why am I a Quaker?

because it’s where God wants me to be,

because it’s a place I can work out how to follow the teachings of Jesus without the rituals and creeds that troubled me in other churches,

because I feel it’s where I belong,

because it gives me a safe spiritual home from where I can engage with different traditions,

because I feel accepted and challenged,

because together we seek the will of God for us, here and now, and try to follow it,

because Quakers understand that words are inadequate for expressing deep spiritual truths (which is why this is such a hard question to answer!),

because I go to Meeting for Worship and am aware of the Presence.

I discovered I was a Quaker in my late teens/early twenties when searching for an understanding of God, what God wanted of me and what my Guide promise to ‘do my duty to God’ really meant. I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter to me whether God is ‘real’ or a human construct, but that it does matter to me that I believe. Within Quakerism, I have been able to explore my beliefs and deepen my understanding, and experiment with different ways of expressing those beliefs.

How am I a Quaker?

by remembering that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone I meet, be that face to face, by telephone, by email, in online forums, or otherwise (I was LM clerk when I wrote this, so lots of these opportunities arose),

by acting from love, not from anger,

by finding frequent opportunities (alone or with others) to be quiet and reconnect with the Presence,

by pausing to give thanks for food, friends, health, doubts, difficulties, sunshine, rain, everything life offers me,

by heeding the ‘promptings of love and truth’ in my heart,

by expressing gratitude,

by giving time to listen,

by being aware of the present moment, where I am, and who I’m with,

by trying to love my neighbour as myself,

by questioning why I’m doing what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, how I could do things differently,

by asking ‘is this the way it would be in the Kingdom of God / Republic of Heaven / Paradise ?’

by continuing to make changes (however small) to the way I live to make my lifestyle simpler, more peaceful, more honest, better aligned with the will of the Divine.

In practical terms, I do a lot of Quaker stuff: attending Meeting for Worship, serving as elder and registering officer, convening children’s committee, accepting the huge challenge of being on Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations (even saying the title is quite a challenge!).I do a small amount of Buddhist stuff: walking mindfully and trying to follow the five mindfulness trainings.

Outside Quaker structures I do a very ordinary, part-time office job for the NHS, run a Guide unit, serve on the committee of the local interfaith association, grow some fruit and vegetables on my allotment, try to keep up with the housework and support family members. I am blessed with a supportive family and local meeting, good colleagues and friends.

I have a vision that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, in Watford, as elsewhere, and a desire to help other people to perceive that. The way to that end is by many small steps, and mostly not by talking ‘God language’. It is by what I do and how I do it, not by what I say.


A is for anywhere, any time

Firbank Fell

Quakers have always claimed that people can meet for worship anywhere at any time. No time or place is more sacred than any other. Early Friends often met out of doors, having no where else to go. The British climate being what it is probably encouraged them to seek indoor spaces and they met in homes and barns and rented rooms. It wasn’t long before meeting houses were being built. But the desire to keep meetings open to the public meant that some meetings continued to be held out of doors. When Quaker meetings were banned by law and meeting houses barred against Friends, worship continued wherever it could.


In recent years my own local meeting has become quite stuck in the regular pattern of Sunday morning at 10.30 in the meeting house (although the much smaller worshipping group on Wednesday lunchtime will gather out in the garden when the weather is warm and sunny).

Having attended the ‘New Expressions’ conference last October two of our number came back enthused to try offering different opportunities to worship together.


So on evening of New Year’s day we gathered round a fire in the garden behind the meeting house. The rain held off for a while and about 35 of us worshipped together for about 30 minutes. Then we went indoors for soup, baked potatoes and fellowship.


Both the worship and the socialising were good, people came from other parts of our AM, some came who rarely come on a Sunday morning, there was a good proportion of younger people, we had some spoken ministry which was appropriate and well received.


We’re considering repeating this regularly and perhaps trying some other gentle experiments with different timings and durations. Hopefully it will strengthen our community, and encourage us to go out into the community.

Anyone for meeting for worship in the shopping centre?