Category Archives: Quaker Practice

Lying Fallow in this Season

The idea of “lying fallow” comes from agriculture. It is an ancient practice used by farmers to rest and restore soil. The idea is to take a field out of production, plow it under and let it lie fallow for a year or two. During this time, nutrients in the soil are renewed so the next crop planted will thrive. As I’ve observed nature, I’ve noticed lying fallow is not just for soil.

As the leaves fall, days shorten and temperatures cool, I find myself craving rest and quiet time at home. I long for spacious hours to draw inward and restore my energy after the exuberant activities of summer. I’m not the only one. The cat spends more hours curled in his baskets, preferably in the sun or on the heated bathroom floor. The bunnies and squirrels in the park appear less often, spending most of their time underground, only coming out when it is warm and sunny.

Yet, this seems to be the busiest time of year for social gatherings and community events. Our calendars fill up with holiday parties, get-togethers, lunches, dinners, coffee dates, shopping, and travel to be with family. Our mailboxes fill with annual holiday greetings and we have a list of our own to get out.

Something in me rails against this busyness which appears at the exact time that I want to be lazy, stay home and rest! In recent years, I’ve become more mindful of how I do this season. I examine every request that comes my way and ask myself if it is an absolute YES; if it isn’t, I politely decline. At times I make exceptions – sometimes what someone else needs is more important than my preferences. I strive to balance my energy, my Light, as Friends like to say.

This year I’m trying something new, a Retreat Day once a week. On this day, I keep my schedule free so I can stay at home and float through my day, doing that which restores me and allows me to settle deeply into myself. I’m an introvert, meaning that I need alone time to restore my energy after I’ve been out and about in our extroverted and busy world.

Here’s what I am noticing about my experiment: I am calmer, slower, more peaceful and thoughtful this season. Knowing I have a Retreat Day to look forward to every week helps me be more present to others, as well as to myself. The bucket I’m giving out of is fuller, so my giving is fluid and easy. I don’t feel drained, over-obligated and resentful. I know I will have the time I need to rest and recharge. I wonder what took me so long to give myself this gift of a day of rest! Like the fields, lying fallow restores me so I can nourish others with joy, and isn’t that what this season is all about?

Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

(The views expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting)

Bad Quaker

Every now and then, someone in our Quaker Meeting says, “I’m just a bad Quaker.” If one of us gets caught complicating an issue in Business Meeting, or if someone doesn’t have time to make food for the feed-the-homeless dinner, they might drop their head in defeat and say something about being a bad Quaker.

I’ve also occasionally heard of people who left Quakerism because they felt they couldn’t live up to the Quaker testimonies. “It was just too hard,” they say. “Too much pressure.”

Why does this happen? My theory is that we are forgetting the purpose of the testimonies. The testimonies represent the collective Quaker wisdom about how to live a good and spirit-focused life. Each regional Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in the U.S. has a slightly different list of testimonies, but the standard group are what in Quaker education are called the SPICES:  Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship.

Simplicity means to value spirit over material objects and to keep your life uncluttered by things and too much busyness.  Peace is the famous Quaker commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution and Quakers’ refusal to support wars. Integrity means to speak truthfully and follow through with your commitments.  Community means to support, aid and respect others in the communities you live in, including the Meeting. Equality means to accept everyone as precious in the eyes of God – all genders, races, economic levels, etc. Stewardship means to care for the earth, the Meeting, one’s town and nation, by giving both your effort and financial support to the degree that you can.

Wow. That is a lot to live up to! Each testimony is both personal and global in scale, so it’s understandable that a person could feel overwhelmed. Being a good Quaker can also sometimes feel like all the fun in life has been sucked away. Does it mean you can’t buy a new dress for a special event?  Does it mean you must tell your mother-in-law what you really think?  Does it mean you need to spend all your free time trying to correct injustice in the world?

But here is what we must remember: the testimonies are not rules handed down by the patriarchs. (“Unprogrammed” Quakers – those who worship only in silence – don’t have patriarchs or any clergy.) Instead, the testimonies are the collective wisdom and guidance of generations of Quakers sitting in silence and listening to God. And one of the most important principles of Quakerism is that each person listens to their own experience of God. Spiritual nirvana is not the goal: the goal is learning to let down your defenses and put away your ego when you sit in silence and listen to God. Being a good Quaker is not about earning gold stars, and the testimonies are not commandments. Their purpose, in part, is to clear away the debris of everyday business and help us see more clearly the way to live a spirit-centered life.  

In my youth I spent a few years in the orbit of a Jesus movement that had many slogans. After I left the group, I forgot most of those bite-sized bits of spiritual wisdom, but one stayed with me: “Please be patient; God is not finished with me yet.”

This is the balm that can help us relax about being good or bad Quakers. Not being able to live up to the high calling of the Quaker testimonies just means you are struggling to follow the path, and all spiritual travelers will tell you they struggle to stay on the path. And, according to Quaker understanding, everyone is building the spiritual path that makes sense to them, that incorporates their experience of God. This is what makes spiritual journeys so interesting.

The testimonies serve best as guidance when they are combined with sitting in silence to hear what God has to say. Sometimes God and the testimonies will lay out a challenge; other times they will combine to light an easier way through difficulties. Quakers often say “the way will open.” This I too find reassuring: the path ahead doesn’t need to be a daunting obstacle course.

Please be patient with me: I’m listening for God to open the way.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

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.)

 

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.)

 

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