All posts by renofriends

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

 

 

The Case for Silence

There is something about the stillness of midwinter that soothes the soul.  Much of the natural world sleeps.  Though the wind still blows and birds hop about searching for seeds, for the most part the cold and dark confer a deep, healing silence.

Many of us who attend Quaker Meeting on Sundays are drawn by the opportunity to sit in communal silence for an hour.  The Quaker silence started, in part, as a reaction to church services of the 17th century, which were filled with ritual and liturgy.  Early Quakers believed, instead, that each person must come to her or his own understanding and experience of God.  The silence is a chance to listen for God – stillness enables us to quiet the busyness of our brains and discern what God might want us to hear.  It requires waiting.

Sitting quietly and waiting are not things we do much anymore.  With our ever-present phones and ubiquitous Internet connections, we rarely allow ourselves to be bored.  Instead of daydreaming while waiting in line at the grocery, we pull out our phones and fill our heads with news and gossip.  Sadly, this barrage of information has taken something precious away.  That is why I find silent worship so powerful.

There is no single prescribed way to be silent in Quaker Meeting.  Some pray, others meditate, and many of us sort through the clutter in our minds.  But no matter how you start, eventually a quiet descends.  For me this quiet feels like an open sky – huge, empty and holy.  Untethered from my own wishes and worries, it’s much easier to listen for deeper messages that may arise in my mind.  It’s a way of tapping our truer selves, reconnecting with our own humanity and vulnerability.  It’s a chance to renew our sense of wonder with the world.

The 17th-century Quaker Robert Barclay said this about silent worshippers:  “Each made it their work to return inwardly to the measure of grace in themselves, and not being only silent as to words but even abstaining from all their own thoughts, imaginations and desires.”

It is also within this space that Quakers listen and try to understand what the divine spirit would have them do.  This kind of discernment works best within a condition of tranquility and freedom from the demands of one’s own ego and will,  a state that the silence provides.  The modern Quaker Arthur O. Roberts suggests that silence indicates submission to God and can help Quakers prepare for effective social witness.  Silence can strengthen our souls and our resolve to let our lives speak, as Quaker founder George Fox said.

It is important to remember that Quakers sit in communal silence, not alone.  Some religious traditions couple silence and solitude, but not the Quakers.  We sit together in silence for many reasons, but part of it is to honor and support each other’s silence.  When someone in the group feels led to share a message, those words carry more weight because they rise out of the conditions of our shared silence.

Yes, there are, occasionally, words in the Quaker silence.  As much as we are drawn into the silence, we also worship together in expectation that someone else’s experience of God might speak to us through the messages others share.  Check back next month for the case for words.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Mindful Giving

Sometimes I wonder what Christmas would be like if we got rid of presents.

We would have more time to sing carols and deck the halls with boughs of holly.  Instead of spending Christmas Eve madly wrapping, we could gather around a wassail bowl with close friends and family to swap memories and aspirations.  We would have time to step out under a starlight sky and imagine angels appearing to the shepherds as they tended their flocks at night.  We could edge closer to the stillness that abides in the dark cold of midwinter, and take time to appreciate the warmth of the candlelight when we come inside.

I know the consumerism associated with Christmas today troubles many Quakers.  Early Friends refused to celebrate Christmas and Easter, saying such rituals distracted from true religious experience, and many Quaker Meetings still do not hold special holiday services.  Yet most of us – despite our misgivings – put presents under the Christmas tree as part of our holiday.  Could there be a better way?  How can we shake off the glitz and frenzy of the season to find ways of giving that uphold our Quaker testimonies of simplicity and integrity?

Quaker Earthcare Witness, a Quaker organization that addresses ecological and social crises from a spiritual perspective, suggests we practice “mindful giving” during the holiday season.  Look for gifts that have little impact on the environment, such as refurbishing furniture or passing on beloved books.  Or, instead of giving things, give a promise of an experience, such as a pledge to take someone dancing or make them a special meal.  Write someone a poem, or play the piano for them.  You can also gift people with a donation to their favorite charity, or membership in an advocacy group that promotes a cause they believe in.  Or give someone an imaginative “coupon book” that might include a free garage-cleanup, lending your car or joining them on a hike.

Last Christmas my ninety-year-old mother gave everyone the most wonderful gifts.  She didn’t know she was practicing “mindful giving,” but she was.  Instead of buying presents for her many grandchildren, she went through her collection of framed artwork, books, kitchen treasures and knickknacks, and found something special for all of them.  Geoffrey, an animal-lover, got the owl bookends carved from green marble; Craig, an electrical engineer, got his great-grandfather’s antique adding machine; college-girl Mary got an oriental jewelry box; and Joe, our pie-maker, got his grandfather’s beloved apron.  Every one of them was touched to have something chosen just for them from their grandparents’ house, and my mother was thrilled to pass useful things on to the next generation.

When the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child, they meant them as symbols of honor and respect.  Sometimes I feel we’ve lost the sense of reverence at the heart of gift-giving.  Rather than rejecting gift-giving, perhaps we can embrace it as a chance to show those we love that we know who they are.  Any gift carefully chosen—no matter how small or silly or homemade—can carry the message of love in this sacred season.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Intellectual Integrity

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.

This imperative can also apply to how we approach information and news and form our opinions. If the nation ever needed clear-headed people with strong principles of intellectual integrity, now is the time.

Yet intellectual integrity can be hard to pin down. Is it being open-minded or is it being true to what you know? Is it listening to those you disagree with, or is it saying what you believe even if it is hurtful to others?

Seeking guidance, I stumbled across the Critical Thinking Community, a non-profit that promotes fair-minded critical thinking in education and society. According to this group, intellectual integrity comprises several elements:

  • recognizing the need to be true to one’s own thinking;
  • being consistent in the intellectual standards one applies;
  • holding oneself to the same rigorous standards of evidence and proof to which one holds one’s antagonists;
  • practicing what one advocates for others; and,
  • being able to honestly admit discrepancies and inconsistencies in one’s own thought and action.

The Integrity Testimony can be a difficult master. I blush to consider how many times I’ve violated one of these guidelines, went along with a crowd or lacked the fortitude to apply my intelligence to a problem. Given that many issues today bristle with complications, how do we foster our own intellectual integrity as we sort through opposing positions and heated political talk?

The Critical Thinking Community has several suggestions. First, that we practice intellectual humility by recognizing the limits of our own knowledge and developing a sensitivity to our own biases. Most of us have deeply held beliefs about what is right, but sometimes we might need to step back and re-examine old positions and prejudices. Has time changed the facts? Do experts now have a better understanding? Have unintended consequences of such an approach been revealed? And toughest of all, could there be wisdom in some of the positions we dislike the most? All are important questions, and it takes intellectual humility to consider them.

Along with humility, the group suggests we practice intellectual empathy, the idea of putting ourselves in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them. Open-mindedness and fair-mindedness seem critical to closing the many divides between us. In the end, intellectual integrity requires us to commit to analyzing and evaluating our opinions on the basis of reason and evidence, with humility and empathy. That can take time, effort and patience, but it usually leads to more reasonable positions.

Sometimes when our Quaker Meeting is trying to decide what to do about an issue or problem, we take a long time to discern what God would have us do. Quakers can be famously argumentative with as many opinions as there are people in the room, but I believe that helps us practice tolerance. And in most cases, by giving everyone a chance to be heard and acknowledged, and by staying open-minded and seeking out common ground, we usually discern our way to a solution. And if we don’t, we sit silently in the light of God and wait until we do.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

 

Are Quakers Mennonites? Or Amish?

Every so often we get a call at Reno Friends Meeting from someone wondering if the Quakers are Mennonites or perhaps part of the Amish faith. I used to find these questions amusing, as if people assumed we drive buggies, dress in simple clothes or wear colonial-style hats, like the smiling, white-haired guy on the Quaker Oats box. But it turns out the question is not so silly.

With some research, I began to understand the confusion. The Quakers, Mennonites and Amish have similar roots. All three groups rose as Protestant religious reformers in Europe and were drawn to America to escape religious persecution. All three put down significant roots in colonial Pennsylvania and later spread into other states. All three are known as peace churches: they practice nonresistance and oppose military service. They all emphasize the importance of community, having often been ostracized in their early years by mainstream society, and they follow a principle of simplicity.

Beyond those similarities, however, is a host of difference. According to Wikipedia, the Mennonites started as an Anabaptist movement in Holland and Germany in the 16th century. The Anabaptists were Protestants who rejected baptism for infants and instead baptized adults once they accepted the faith. Today there are about 1.5 million practicing Mennonites. The Mennonite Church is complex and diverse. Most are moderate theologically and, in most forms of worship and practice, differ very little from other mainstream Protestant congregations. Worship services usually consist of singing, scripture, prayer and a sermon from the pastor. The Mennonites advocate a personal relationship with Christ and a simple life, but do not restrict use of modern technology. Some conservative Mennonites wear plain dress, but many modern Mennonites do not.

The Amish, also an Anabaptist group, share many basic principles with the Mennonites, but split from the Mennonites in 1693 and embraced a more reclusive way of living. They generally reside in closed groups of families living in rural areas. They hold worship services in private homes. They have bishops, ministers and deacons who set rules that cover many aspects of life. There are different strains of Amish, but in the most common membership in the church starts when a child comes of age and is baptized. From then on, a church member shuns outsiders, marries only within their group, and generally rejects new technology and labor-saving devices, most notably cars. They are considered one of the most conservative religious groups in the United States:  they reject birth control and higher education and prohibit women from wearing pants. They number about 225,000 members, most of whom wear plain dress.

Quakers, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, diverge from the Mennonites and Amish most fundamentally in their form of worship. Most Quakers Meetings, particularly unprogrammed Quaker Meetings such as Reno Friends, do not have ministers, as they resist having creeds or a church hierarchy. Unprogrammed Quakers also worship in silence, with no sermon or music or liturgy. Individuals occasionally rise to share a message when they feel moved by God. There are some programmed Quaker Meetings, which split off in the nineteenth century and have pastors and programmed services, but they are less common. Quakers do not baptize members or celebrate communion – they consider all moments equally sacred and so do not believe in sacraments. Most Quakers today are tolerant theologically, believing that each person’s personal experience of God is what should direct that person’s faith. There are about 360,000 adult Quakers in the world. In the United States, the Religious Society of Friends is known for its early support of abolition and for its network of top-notch schools and colleges. While there are a few conservative Quakers who wear plain dress, most Quakers wear modern clothing.

As the Protestant reformers discovered, there are many ways to worship God. But after understanding both the Mennonites and Amish better, I am pleased that some of the tenets I admire most about the Quakers – the Peace, Simplicity and Community Testimonies – are shared with these other faiths.  Maybe we’re not that different after all.

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 Power of Love

Watching the news these days can leave you with a case of whiplash. One day we see images of white supremacists skirmishing with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, then we watch as scores of volunteers rescue neighbors and strangers from flooding in Houston. Are we a nation of hate or love? Are we divided or connected? 

All this has left me thinking a lot about the second commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” A Quaker lobbying organization recently sent our Meeting a batch of pins and bumper stickers that read “Love Thy Neighbor: No Exceptions.” I offered them to those lingering after silent worship one day but had few takers. I hesitated as well, knowing I was unlikely to apply one to my bumper. It seemed to set too high a standard, one I would fail every day. As another Reno Friend said, with a rueful smile, “what if I don’t love my neighbor?”

Ah, the thorn in the garden of love. The difficult neighbor who fails to live in a neighborly fashion, the officemate who undermines your work, the friend who knifes you in the back. Even worse are those whose beliefs and principles baffle us.  How are we to love them? How can we engage in meaningful dialogue if we dislike each other?

This is one of the biggest challenges facing our fractured society. Friends’ testimony asks us to speak both truthfully and lovingly when trying to resolve conflict, whether within Quaker Meetings or in the outside world. But that can be difficult. Truth-telling often seems harsh rather than loving. Quaker writer Alison Sharman tells of finding herself in the middle of “a difficult exercise of Quaker decision-making.” She wailed to an older and wiser Friend, “how can I speak the truth in love when I feel no love?” The older Friend answered, “unless you speak the truth there never will be love.”

Perhaps, but how do we bridge the distance between truth and love? In search of answers, I ran across a quote from Anne Hillman, a poet and author who writes on spiritual issues. “Love is not a feeling,” Hillman says. “Love is a great power, an intelligence to which we are all heir and have been forever called.”

The idea that love is not a feeling felt strangely liberating. If we are not required to feel love, it frees us from getting tangled in the honest stirrings of our hearts. As social creatures, it is natural for us to like and dislike different people, just as we like and dislike certain foods or experiences.

If we think instead of love as a power, the door opens to all kinds of fruitful exchange. As Hillman says, it’s a power and an intelligence. By that she means it is a power to be used thoughtfully, appropriately, with grace and care. Love, then, becomes the context for communication. Love becomes the action of seeking understanding. Perhaps this is what Quakers mean when we say “Look for the Light of God in everyone.” The simple act of seeking that Light is how you convey love to those you don’t understand.

These are difficult times, without a doubt. Author Susan Vreeland observes: “No matter where life takes you, the place that you stand at any given moment is holy ground. Love hard, and love wide and love long and you will find the goodness in it.” I’m taking those as my marching orders. Maybe now I can put that bumper sticker on my car.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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