All posts by renofriends

THE MEETING COMMUNITY, Part 1 (from PYM’s Faith & Practice)

The Religious Society of Friends arose as a community of the Spirit, centered in regular, shared worship. Ostracized and attacked by mainstream English society, Quakers developed a loving social community which, while not immune to struggle and conflict, supported their personal growth, their care for one another, and their work in the larger world.

Now as then, community is essential to Friends’ life and spiritual growth. A strong Meeting community offers companionship, resources to care lovingly for those in need, and a place to test and support leadings and concerns. Community is expressed in many ways: by cheerfully joining together to accomplish the work of the Meeting, refraining from gossip and disparaging others, taking part in clearness committees, providing pastoral care, and reflecting Friends values in the larger society. Community is also expressed in commemorative, sociable and playful activities of the Monthly Meeting.

Those who belong to a Meeting community receive its loving care. Each one in turn should attend to the spiritual condition of others. While respecting others’ privacy, Friends must be sensitive to one another’s needs and willing to ask for assistance in times of trouble. Conflict and difference are a part of life, a necessary result of the varying needs, aims, and perspectives of individuals and communities. Bringing them into the open is a necessary step towards empathy, understanding, and healing. Individuals and Meetings need to address conflict promptly in a spirit of goodwill and a desire to maintain loving relationship. When resolution is not immediate, the Meeting waits for way to open, while persisting in an earnest search for unity.

Recognizing the universal human needs for embrace, intimacy and sharing, as well as solitude, Friends support each other as individuals, couples, and families, however constructed or defined. The Meeting strives to be present for all its members throughout different stages of their lives and their specific needs — as single people, coupled, or in broader communities — recognizing the Divine in each. The Meeting can be an instrument of “divine assistance,” not only in supporting the marriages under its care, but also in supporting single people and all forms of partnership. We all have need for solitude as well as companionship, though these needs differ and are not always arrived at by choice. The Meeting Community plays a vital role in being sensitive to the needs and changing circumstances of its members.

I do not think I am alone in my certainty that it’s in my relationships with people that the deepest religious truths are most vividly disclosed.”  George Gorman, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1982.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

 (Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from PYM’s Faith and Practice.)

The Gifts of Silence

My husband and I were hiking on a ridge above Lake Tahoe recently when I suddenly realized I could hear almost nothing. This happens out west – if you go far enough off road you can often find a place beyond the whine of the highway or the hum of the city. We were hiking late in the day, so there were few other people around. Even the birds were quiet. The tall pines and slanting light made it feel like we were walking through holy space, the world hushed in reverence.

Since I became a Quaker and learned to sit in silence, I’ve grown thirsty for even more silence in my life. The noisier the world gets, the more I need to retreat to quiet places, and I know I’m not the only one. I read recently that the country of Finland is boasting of its charms with a new marketing campaign featuring photos of lone people in natural settings. The caption reads, “Silence, Please.”

It turns out that quiet can be restorative to the human brain. Scientific studies recently found that mice experiencing two hours of silence a day built new cells in a part of the brain that manages emotion, memory and learning. Other studies have found that chronic noise leads to higher levels of stress hormones, which are associated with lower reading scores and delayed cognitive development in children. Chronic noise appears to trigger a sensory guard in the brain, while silence lets the brain relax and process some of what has been blocked by noise.

Spiritual traditions that employ silence – such as meditation and silent worship – are built on the advantages silence offers. One of our Reno Friends recently remarked that he found two great gifts in silence. The first was the gift of the self: when the world suddenly falls away, you are confronted with yourself. There’s no hiding, and nothing to distract from what is going on in your own mind. In the beginning, he said, this can be disquieting. But in time you discover that the only way to truly know yourself is to wait patiently for the revelations of your own consciousness.

The second gift of the silence, he said, is that eventually even the self falls away and you become aware of a great void. That, too, can be disquieting at first, but in time the emptiness of true silence will bring a sense of deep peace. Once you forget yourself, you can fully relax.

So how do we build a habit of silence? Certainly meditation and silent worship provide good opportunities, but we can also look for short moments for silence in everyday activities.  Turn off the car radio and drive in silence; walk your neighborhood in silence; pause during a conversation to allow for moments of silence. Musicians know that managing the silence between notes is as important as the tones themselves. Otherwise there is no expression.

In all our daily lives, silence can play an important role.  Develop the habit; let the silence bloom.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting

Concerns and Leadings (from PYM’s Faith and Practice)

Concerns and leadings grow out of the spiritual experience and contemplative practice of the Meeting. They are the living fruit of Friends’ faith that the Spirit will lead us forward into right action in the world.  The impetus for action is often a concern: a pull toward a specific issue, an experience of the stirring of the Spirit about a particular topic, individual or group. A concern may thrust itself suddenly into the life of a Friend or may grow out of a long-standing interest.

A concern may be short lived or it may inform and direct Friends throughout their lives. For some, this call is experienced in terms of Christian discipleship: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor… and come follow me.” (Luke 18:22) In the Hebrew scriptures a call can be seen in the prophets, such as Isaiah 6:8 “Here am I, send me.”

When it initially arises, a concern may not yet be linked to a proposed course of action, but may simply be a troubled sense that something is needed or something is awry. Action, when it follows, is often the result of a sense of being drawn or called by God in a particular direction or toward a particular course of action. Friends speak of “feeling led” or “being called.” The response may be short-term and specific, or it may involve transformation of one’s life.

A leading, the experience of feeling called by God to act, takes many different forms, and always requires careful discernment. In Meeting for Worship as one considers whether a message is intended as vocal ministry, the central task is to discern whether one is called by God to give the message. One who is called to serve on a challenging committee may need the Nominating Committee’s help with discerning the appropriateness of the selection. Another may be called to speak truth to someone who does not want to hear what we have to say. In each case, Friends want to be clear about the calling before acting.

At times a call may take a more profound hold, causing us to make significant life changes, to take risks, or to engage in specific social or political actions. Friends under the weight of such a concern should rely on the Meeting to help them discern the right course of action. Friends’ long-standing practice confirms the rightness of testing a leading with the Monthly Meeting, which customarily appoints a clearness committee to meet with the concerned individual. Together, the clearness committee and the initiating individual seek to join the mystical with the practical and to test the validity of the concern.

Achieving clarity about a concern is a particular exercise in discernment. It is a process that begins with considerable private reflection and the asking of some tough questions. Is this a desire that someone else do something or it is really a call to act oneself? Is it genuinely from God?  — Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith & Practice, 1995 

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from PYM’s Faith an Practice.)

 

Seeking Unity

Unity, the idea that we should seek consensus in our collective decisions, is a central testimony of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).  In this fractious time, however, it often seems the goal of unity has been nearly forgotten.  Everyone seems to have differing views and fears and concerns, many of them deeply held. The anxieties of our age have taken a toll on our ability to talk with each other. In such a climate, unity feels nearly impossible to achieve. If so, does unity still matter?

I believe it does; in fact, I would argue that unity could be the antidote to our societal divisions. Faith and Practice, the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guidebook, says this about unity:  “Friends believe that it is possible for the human spirit to be in direct communion with the Divine. Seeking God’s will together, we believe (the) way will open and unity will emerge. Working together to discern and serve God’s will both nourishes and benefits from unity. This unity grows from trust in one another and readiness to speak out, confident that together, Friends will find the truth.”

It is clear, then, that unity is as much a process as a goal. One of the qualities I find most compelling about Friends is that every advice and testimony rests on the fundamental principle that actions matter most. When Quaker founder George Fox said “Let your lives speak,” he meant that beliefs and convictions can only be communicated through action.  It is what you do that matters, not what you say or profess.

In the case of unity, it is the process of seeking unity together through thoughtful listening and discerning of God’s will that is paramount. That’s why unity is most valuable when we disagree.

According to Os Cresson, an Iowa Quaker, “For Friends, unity is not usually unanimity, which is agreement without dissent.  Unity is more often agreement that acknowledges dissent, staying together despite differences, and moving forward with guidance from our common values.”

Seeking unity can be a challenge, as Quakers often hold disparate views of God and God’s will. Because Friends believe that each person is on her or his own spiritual path, it is more important that we are seekers of the truth than that we have all arrived at an agreed-upon destination of spiritual perfection. And this, says Cresson, is what we can model for the larger community. “The embrace of religious diversity in our midst can be our gift to the world…. Let us be patterns of living together and loving each other, differences and all. Let us openly and joyfully celebrate our peculiar combination of Quaker diversity and Quaker unity.”

That is why we must continue to seek unity with all around us. Unity matters because it requires listening with an open heart, and honoring what others bring to a discussion. It requires us to respect and love those who think differently than we do.

As the contemporary Quaker Parker Palmer has said, “Friends are most in the Spirit when they stand at the crossing point of the inward and outward life. And that is the intersection at which we find community. Community is a place where the connections felt in the heart make themselves known in bonds between people, and where tuggings and pullings of those bonds keep opening up our hearts.”

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting

 

Quakers, the Bible, and Religious Language (from PYM’s Faith & Practice)

Quakers encourage one another, in John Woolman’s phrase, “to distinguish the language of the pure Spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart,” rather than focusing on seeking names for God. The Light of Christ to one may be what another understands as the Inner Light; the Spirit to one may roughly be what another understands by the Christ Spirit. The Eternal, the Divine, and God may mean the same or not, depending on the context, the speaker or the reader. The language used in all Quaker writing (including Faith and Practice) varies with the source of material. Friends should temper their interpretations, knowing that any specific phrase may have different connotations to different Friends. 

In the course of following their spiritual paths, many Friends find great depth of meaning in familiar Christian concepts and language, while others find more universalist language speaks to their condition. Although this phenomenon may seem perplexing to a casual observer, it does not trouble many seasoned Friends who have discovered deep unity with one another in the Spirit. The breadth of Friends’ terminology promotes latitude in expression and appreciation for what may be subtle differences in understanding.

Tell them in the name of God that there is to be no wrangling about words: all that this ever achieves is the destruction of those who are listening.” 2 Timothy 2: 14.

For most Friends, the Judeo-Christian Bible is an interpretation of God’s revelation over many centuries and a rich and sustaining source of inspiration. The Quaker movement began at a time when the Bible had recently come into wide circulation in England. George Fox and other Friends knew the Bible well, studied it earnestly, and quoted it often.

While they affirmed the inspiration of the scriptures, early Friends made a distinction that has remained vital to this day. In Henry Cadbury’s words: “Divine revelation was not confined to the past. The same Holy Spirit that had inspired the scriptures in the past could inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Spirit was essential.” Thus, in emphasizing both the power that produced the scriptures and the accessibility of that same power today, Friends have avoided making written records a final or infallible test. Instead, Quakers seek the spirit behind the Bible, both in order to understand its contents and to be led in continual discovery of God’s ways.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from PYM’s Faith and Practice.)

Feeling Spiritually Cold

The British Yearly Meeting publishes a list of “advices,” bits of useful Quakerly wisdom. The other day I ran across an advice that resonated in my soul:  “Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold.”

Before reading those words, I hadn’t really considered the idea of feeling spiritually cold, though I do understand feeling angry, depressed and tired.  Certainly it makes sense that one’s spiritual energy and enthusiasm might wax and wane.  Some days we are full of love for everyone; other days we’re frustrated with our friends, family, or even our fate.  At times we may even doubt God’s love.

Which raises an interesting question:  does spirituality have an optimum temperature?  Someone who is spiritually on fire, burning with God’s love and will, can seem intimidating, even occasionally irrational.  Quakers have a testimony against proselytizing; that message could leave those aflame with the spirit of God feeling they must tamp it down to avoid offending those who prefer their spirituality in a cooler tone.

But sometimes our spirituality freezes, becoming too sluggish to do us much good.  Perhaps we feel abandoned by the spirit of God and fail to see it at work in the world, which can lead to despair.  Sometimes loving one’s neighbor feels like a test we are bound to fail, and so we turn away from what we know is right.  Perhaps our own imperfection makes us feel unworthy, and so we hide from the Light.

So what is the solution?  As British Yearly Meeting suggests, just coming to meeting for worship can be the first step to warming your spiritual heart.  The advice for spiritual coldness continues:  “In the silence, ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart, may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.”

As these words suggest, the meeting itself – the community of people around you that cares and supports you – can help melt your spiritual ice.  If the Light of God is in everyone, as Quakers believe, then maybe the spirit also resides and vibrates between us, in the sacred space that is our relationship with others.  Feeling surrounded by people that share that belief, and care about us, can begin to bring us back to a warmer place.

Maybe we can eventually learn how to keep our spirituality burning even in the worst of times.  There are some Quakers I know who seem unusually wise in the ways of God.  I often sense they have a fire deep inside them that endures no matter what the emotional weather, a comforting spirit that glows like a hearth full of coals, brimming with warmth and understanding.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

Are Quakers Christians? (From PYM’s Faith & Practice)

Friends are often asked: “Are Quakers Christians?” This is an important question.  Whether one interprets the Quaker movement as a strand within Protestantism or as a third force distinct from both Protestantism and Catholicism, the movement, both in its origin and in the various branches that have evolved, is rooted in Christianity.

Pacific Yearly Meeting includes many people who were not raised in the Religious Society of Friends and among them are some for whom Christianity is not part of their faith experience. There is thus a great variety of religious belief and expression. Many Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends articulate their Quaker faith in Jewish, Universalist, Buddhist, or other terms. Similarly, Friends hold diverse definitions of Christianity, interpreting and reacting to traditional Christian terminology differently. Some do not accept the defining beliefs required by the church of their youth or of current mainstream Christianity. This has been a point of lively discussion in Pacific Yearly Meeting for the past fifty years.

Early Friends considered themselves Christians; they interpreted and justified their unique vision in Biblical and traditional Christian terms. However, from its inception the Quaker movement has offered critiques of many accepted manifestations of Christianity while at the same time empathizing with people of other faiths. We might use the phrase “primitive Christianity” to describe more closely where Friends fit across the Christian spectrum. Primitive Christianity usually refers to those teachings which pre-date Fourth Century Christians, who had been embraced by Constantine and were becoming “established.” These earliest followers of Jesus were radical revolutionaries, representing a “new order” of faithful who lived communally, eschewed violence of all kinds, and practiced simplicity.

For some contemporary Quakers, the concept of the Divine Light Within emerges from the Bible, teachings of Jesus and traditional Christian doctrine; for others, it comes through different sacred sources. Quaker history demonstrates that an excessive reliance on any one perspective, neglecting the essential unity among them, has been needlessly divisive.

In the centuries since its founding, the Religious Society of Friends has embraced a wide variety of beliefs and practices; however, there are important commonalities throughout much of the Society. As Robert Vogel said in 1993, “…[most Quakers adhere to] plainness and devotion to truth, a clear understanding of spirit-led worship, and essential inwardness; the use of queries and advices in framing faith; seeking the sense of the meeting in business sessions; the peace testimony and other social concerns; and the rejection of outward ordinances and sacramental worship.

As the British Yearly Meeting wrote to Lima Meeting in 1987: “We respond (here) in Christian language, but many Quakers would prefer less specifically Christian terminology. We worship, live and work together in unity, however, valuing the variety of expressions of truth which each individual brings.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I am presenting a selection from Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice.)

 

Integrity to Oneself

A central tenet of Quakerism is the Integrity Testimony, which encourages Quakers to tell the truth, say what they really mean, and stand up for what they believe, even in the face of condemnation or conflict. Frankly, the Integrity Testimony can sometimes feel like a stern taskmaster. Truth can be slippery, or not even clear at the moment we need it to be. Having the courage to speak one’s truth can feel like a nearly impossible requirement. Sometimes circumstances are clouded by love or concern for others or embarrassment or weakness. How do we proceed and carry ourselves forthrightly in this complex world?

The Integrity Testimony of Pacific Yearly Meeting says: “The testimony of integrity calls us to wholeness; it is the whole of life open to truth. When lives are centered in the spirit, beliefs and actions are congruent and words are dependable. As we achieve wholeness in ourselves, we are better able to heal the conflict and fragmentation in our community and world.”

Wholeness seems to be the key. Quakers often interpret the Integrity Testimony as guidance for how to operate in the larger world, yet it also is central to helping us discern what we are thinking and feeling in our hearts. What strikes me about this language is the call to achieve wholeness in ourselves first. If we hope to work effectively to alleviate some of the world’s problems or pain, we must spend time examining our own motivations.

Are we driven to action out of a sense of self-abnegation or self-aggrandizement? Are we motivated by fear? Are we listening to what the world would tell us, or are we arrogantly pushing our personal agendas and beliefs? The Integrity Testimony doesn’t just prohibit lying to others; it also cautions not to lie to ourselves.

But how do we come to know and understand ourselves, to find the wholeness that will lead in the right direction? Many Quakers experience the phenomenon of leadings — a strong conviction that they are being led to take on a problem or follow a course of action that will address a societal issue. But this can be tricky terrain. How do we know we are doing what God would have us do, rather than taking on a mission with more dubious motivations?

This is where the Quaker practice of discernment can be useful. Quakers have discovered several useful tests for discerning whether a leading is valid. The first test is that of patiently waiting.  If you can wait to see how your leading or conviction is tempered by time, you can gain insight into how important it really is. You should also try testing your leading for moral consistency, and asking whether it is larded with self-interest or heroic ambitions. Another important test is whether the group, or Meeting, can support your leading in a spirit of unity.  Quakers often bring their leadings to their Meetings for more thorough discernment.

Quaker Rufus Jones said:  “Experience is the Quaker’s starting-point. This light must be my light, this truth must be my truth, this faith must be my very own faith. The key that unlocks the door to the spiritual life belongs not to Peter, or some other person, as an official. It belongs to the individual soul, that finds the light, that discovers the truth, that sees the revelation of God and goes on living in the demonstration and power of it.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting

 

The Meeting for Worship (from PYM’s Faith & Practice)

The Meeting for Worship is at the core of Quaker practice. There, Friends gather together in expectant silence, waiting upon God. Meeting for Worship is different from solitary prayer. The strength and focus of the community draw one who is distracted back toward the Center. In the embrace of the Meeting, an individual may be more willing to be searched by the Light that exposes weaknesses and shortcomings, and challenges the worshiper to transformation. Together, we can more clearly see Truth; we can better receive and understand continuing revelation.

The Philadelphia Quaker William Penn wrote the following query, which captures this spirit in the language of his time: When you come to your meetings…do you sit down in True Silence, resting from your own Will and Workings, and waiting upon the Lord, with your minds fixed in that Light wherewith Christ has enlightened you, until the Lord breathes life in you, refresheth you, and prepares you, and your spirits and souls, to make you fit for his service, that you may offer unto him a pure and spiritual sacrifice?

Conducting worship under the leading of Divine Will, Friends assemble in the silence without prearranged program. Each tries to still the inward clamor of personal anxieties and ambitions, listening for the voice of the Inner Guide, endeavoring to be faithful to its instruction. Such faithfulness may require an outward silence. It may require one to rise and speak words that do not come easily, which may not be fully understood, or which may be uncomfortable. It may require action, or restraint of action, by some individual or the whole Meeting, outside the Meeting for Worship.

During worship, all share responsibility for vocal ministry. God may call upon any one, regardless of experience or education, age or gender, to be a messenger. No one is excluded from the possibility of such service just as no one is appointed in advance to preach or pray at a particular Meeting for Worship. When someone does offer vocal ministry, Friends seek to be open, notwithstanding any hesitations or imperfection in the speaker’s words. An unexpected message may touch hearts, reveal the wisdom from the Source, and encourage the growth of the Seed within.

During Meeting for Worship, Friends seek connection to one another and to God dwelling among them. In some Meetings, the vocal ministry will have a common theme, each message deepening and enriching the other, and connecting to one’s own thoughts. Some Meetings are entirely silent. At a gathered Meeting, “the sense is present that a new Life and Power has entered our midst” (Thomas Kelly, The Gathered Meeting). Not every Meeting is a gathered Meeting, and not everyone has the same perception of a particular Meeting.

In nurturing its worship, a Meeting that is experiencing an extended period of arid silence might try to encourage those who are reluctant to speak to be faithful to the call when it comes. Another Meeting, where many vocal messages have come from speakers with questionable discernment, may seek to encourage a greater spiritual depth in both the silence and the words. Seeking what George Fox referred to as the “universal, true, and perfect worship,” Friends return in faith to God for guidance.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

(Note: Instead of writing a blog this month, I chose an important section from PYM’s Faith and Practice. We will hold a Quakerism 101 class on Speaking in Silent Worship on Sun. March 18 from 8:45 am to 9:45 am in the Meeting House, if you are interested in learning more.)

The Case for Words

In last month’s blog, I made the case for silence. Today I want to make the case for words.

Occasionally as Quakers worship, the silence inside the Meeting House is broken when someone rises to share a message they feel moved to say.  These messages are usually simple, and most have a universal element since messages should be shared only if they offer something to others.  So, yes, we Quakers worship in silence, but we also listen – to God, to each other, to our own hearts – and share that with the community around us.

Why allow the silence to be broken this way?  Sometimes a Meeting for Worship is silent for the entire hour, leaving a deep sense of fulfillment.  But just sitting quietly is not the point.  Silence is necessary to hear what God might be telling you, or to sift through the whirl of thoughts so you can make sense of your life or the world.  Sometimes the silence is challenging because we are inclined to turn away from this inner voice; sometimes we might lose the inner voice in the comfort of the silence.

Which is why words matter.  Words bring us together.  We worship together, rather than alone in our homes, in part because the words we share enrich our experience.  Some of the most simple and beautiful messages I’ve ever heard were shared at a Meeting.  A heartfelt message can open up a whole world in my head.  When I am spiritually cold, the messages in Meeting can feel like warm mittens handed to me by friends, and the wide range of spiritual insights can feed me for days.

Sometimes messages are shared using words that make some uncomfortable, as we all have our own experience of God.  When that happens, I try to remember this guidance from the British Yearly Meeting: “When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others.  Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit; reach for the meaning deep within it, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others.”

One of my favorite messages was shared by a friend who quoted from the Quran: “if the day of judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.”  She linked these words to her deep concern and love for the natural world.  Her message speaks to me still.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting