Category Archives: Quaker Practice

Other Religions

I recently attended an Episcopal service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., a ceremony filled with thundering organ music, priests in crimson robes, and prayer after prayer.  It had been years since I attended a religious service with so much pomp and finery, and I admit it was moving.  The gorgeous stained-glass windows and soaring arches of the cathedral, the echoing hymns of the choir as it processed down the long aisle, the haunting recitative of the prayers.  The only thing missing was silence.

I was there to witness the ordination of my niece, who became an Episcopal priest that morning.  My family, it turns out, casts a wide religious tent.  There are Congregationalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Episcopalians, Methodists, Jews, Catholics and atheists.  In the Episcopal Church my niece finds a richness in worship that inspires her and opens pathways to the divine.  I understand that:  many prefer to worship through song and repeated prayer, or find solace and wisdom in sermons and liturgical readings.

For me, however, the absence of the silence is unsettling.  Halfway through the service, I closed my eyes to allow my mind to bend inward toward the place where I find God.  I am deeply proud of my niece, but I found I could not participate in the sacrament of communion, even though I had the opportunity to take the wafer and blessing from her hand.  The Quakers rejected priests and sacraments nearly 400 years ago. Once I learned to “wait silently in the Light,” I’ve never again hungered for more traditional worship.

Still, it was a stirring service, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  It reminded me how important it is to appreciate and respect the ways other people and religions reach for God.  The British Yearly Meeting has an appropriate query about this:  “Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship.”

At the end of the day, we all walk our own spiritual paths, and the variety of our choices provides a wealth of experience.  How lucky we are to be able to make our path our own.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

 

Clerking a Quaker Meeting

      The clerk of a Quaker Meeting has a pivotal role: he or she is supposed to lead the monthly business meeting and keep track of administrative tasks and how they are executed.  When I first offered to serve as Meeting clerk for Reno Friends Meeting several years ago, I figured my background and skills as a former university professor and administrator would be just the ticket.

How wrong I was.

I recently attended a workshop on clerking in Quaker Meetings, and within half an hour I discovered that I had missed the big picture.  Yes, part of my job is to “keep the trains running,” but more important my job is to midwife the Meeting’s spirit-led decision process.

Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings such as Reno Friends have no minister or board of deacons to provide leadership.  Instead, the Meeting is a gathered community led by spirit.  That means Quaker process is less about reaching practical decisions quickly and more about finding solutions by opening collectively to what God would have us do.

Easily said, but difficult to do.  When I run business meeting, I have an agenda of items we need to address, and I am always watching the clock.  Individuals in the Meeting often have different ideas about how to proceed.  Some speak frequently, while others sit back and say little.  And all of us have slightly different beliefs and convictions.  How am I to reconcile these conflicting currents and needs?

It turns out that I’m supposed to make time and space for us to better discern God’s leading.  Over the last 400 years, Quakers have developed a body of moral and spiritual advices and testimonies based on their experience of God in the world.  These range from how to seek that of God in everyone, to issues such as practicing social justice and non-violence.  These guidelines help Quakers discern God’s intentions.

Our business meetings are formally known as “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business.”  That’s a mouthful of a title, but it contains an important point:  business is to be done in a worshipful process.  According to Storm Evans, a Quaker in Philadelphia, the purpose of a business meeting is to listen to each other, to listen to God, and to deepen our understanding of God by deepening our love for each other.

To help this happen, we open our business meetings with a period of silent worship, and we take the time we need to let answers emerge.  We remember to speak out of ministry, which means sharing ideas and concerns that feel led by God.  We seek to reach unity of heart, rather than a compromise or consensus of will.

Sometimes we need to stop and return to reflective silence, or table a discussion to gather our thoughts and consult our own hearts.  If something is contentious, we can convene a worship sharing session, when everyone gets a chance to share during a service where messages are heard rather than debated.  All these tools require patience, but the decisions that emerge from a careful, thoughtful process are usually more durable than resolutions arrived at hastily.

I am beginning to understand.  As clerk of the Meeting, I am not helmsman or sheepdog or leader.  I am a listener, and I am to listen to the Meeting and to God.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Working for Peace, Peacefully

An attender at Reno Friends Meeting asked me a thought-provoking question the other day. “How do you work for peace, peacefully?” I understood what she meant. With so much anxiety in our political culture today it’s easy to get swept up by the frenzy of showing up for protests, writing letters to Congress, and circulating online petitions. This work feels important because it is, yet it can leave us feeling worried and angry. So how do we rally our strength and composure to work for peace with peace in our hearts?        

The Quaker columnist Parker Palmer recently wrote an article titled “What’s an Angry Quaker to Do?” In the piece, he admits to feeling deep wells of anger over current affairs, and asks whether anger should have a role in our response. As Quakers, he says, we are led to live by the values articulated in our testimonies: community, equality, simplicity, non-violence and peace. So do our testimonies mean we should ignore or deny the understandable anger we feel in our hearts? Should we forgive and tolerate everything?

As a wise psychologist once told me, anger is a sign that something is amiss, something that needs care and attention. Ignoring or repressing anger rarely helps, and it runs contrary to the Integrity testimony, which reminds us to be true in our words, including to ourselves. And yet, anger expressed can also corrode our best intentions, and anger directed at others rarely accomplishes anything good.

One answer to this dilemma is our Peace Testimony, which describes peace as the work of “sustaining relationships of mutual human regard, of seeing and speaking to that of God in everyone, of seeking peace within ourselves, the family, the community and the world.” This, I think, is the key to managing our anger in the face of injustice: to work for peace with peace in our hearts, we must connect to that of God and the hope for peace in the hearts of others.

The British Yearly Meeting has a helpful query: “Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

As author and Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote, “One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show 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

 

Memorial Meetings in the Manner of Friends

A woman called me once with a question: did Quakers have funerals? Her mother, who had been a First Day School teacher at a Colorado Friends Meeting, had recently died. The woman, who had little experience of Quakerism herself, wondered whether the Colorado Meeting would hold a service and what such a service would be like.

As the Quakers are a spiritual community that worships in silence, this question gave me pause. I knew that Quakers held Memorial Meetings but had never attended one. I also knew that Quakers do not celebrate the ritualized sacraments of more traditional Christian faiths because they believe that every moment is sacred. To celebrate one moment as more sacred than others diminishes the sacred in the everyday. If they don’t celebrate the sacrament of a formal funeral, what do they do? I told the woman I would find an answer and get back to her.

When I checked our Quaker guide, Faith & Practice, I found that Friends’ Memorial Meetings for Worship are done the same way Quakers do most things:  gently, tolerantly, inclusively, and wrapped in the healing power of the Silence. On the appointed day, Friends gather for the Memorial Meeting and sit down in silence. Sometimes a member of the Meeting will start by rising and explaining how the Memorial Meeting will progress. Other Meetings hand out a written explanation. As memorials often bring non-Quakers into our Meeting Houses, it’s important to tell people what to expect.

The Memorial Meeting progresses organically. After a period of settled silence, someone from the Meeting – or a member of the family of the deceased – may read a prepared memorial message about the person. After that, Friends and attenders may rise and share personal memories or thoughts. As in all Meetings for Worship, such messages should come from the Light, with pools of silence between them so that all can reflect on what has been shared. Sometimes a poem will be read, or a hymn will be sung, but all in the context of the Silence. Those who have attended Memorial Meetings say they are often deeply spiritual events.

As it turns out, Reno Friends will be holding a Memorial Meeting soon, as one of our dearest members passed away last week. Ricki Ann Jones was a powerhouse of love and open-heartedness. She came to us just five years ago, having moved from Berkeley, California, where she was a member of Berkeley Friends. She had recently had a stroke, which garbled her speech, and her tiny frame was disabled by other health problems. But she burned with a love for others that illuminated the room. She adopted our Meeting as her Reno family, planning outings and parties, and engaging in adult education classes, spiritual discussions and book groups, always looking for a way to share and bring joy. We will miss her deeply; indeed, the Meeting House will not feel the same without her. May she rest in the Light.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Why Newcomers Attend Quaker Meeting

In recent months, a stream of newcomers has come to Reno Friends Meeting to try out the Quaker approach to worship. We’re always thrilled to see new faces but sometimes worry newcomers will be surprised by what they find. Unlike most churches, who worship with words and music, Quakers sit together for an hour of contemplative silence, punctuated occasionally by an individual standing to share a message from the heart. Coming into silent worship for the first time can feel like dropping into a new dimension. And so I wondered – what brings someone to a Quaker Meeting?

Talking with our recent newcomers, I’ve found that people have come to our Meeting for a range of interesting reasons. Some of our newcomers said they knew about Quakerism and had considered trying it for some time. For others, the idea of silent worship was a completely new experience, but one they thought might meet their needs at this point in their lives.

As the political climate has heated up, several told me they felt a hunger for silence. One visitor even shared that her prior church experience had gotten “too noisy.” She came to Quaker Meeting looking for something more contemplative. Another newcomer said he wanted to figure out for himself what to believe, and needed a quiet space to sort through his questions and doubt.

One young man told me he had heard so many interesting stories about Quakers, he had to check us out. He had read about Quakers fighting during wartime for the right to be conscientious objectors, and of their early efforts to promote abolition in the United States. More recently, he had heard of their social justice work and their resistance to paying taxes to finance wars. Other newcomers said they were also intrigued by the Quaker testimonies, which guide us to live lives of integrity, simplicity and stewardship of the Earth and our communities. Some said they appreciated the Quakers’ acceptance of everyone, no matter where they are from or whom they love.

All these comments resonated with me. I first sought out the Quaker silence many years ago because I was weary of ministers telling me what to think and believe. I loved that Quakers asked themselves “queries,” probing questions about important issues, rather than following a common creed that everyone must agree to. I found the silence of worship challenging at first, but soon came to treasure the deep centering and mental quiet that grounded me each week at Meeting. Now, when I occasionally attend a traditional church service, I feel there’s little room for me to consider what is in my head and heart, and I long for the silence.

But the newcomer with the most intriguing story was the one who said he had taken a quiz at an online “religion calculator,” which concluded he should be a Quaker. So he came to see what the Meeting was all about. After hearing about the online site, I tried it myself. I was happy to learn its “Spiritual Belief System Selector” concluded I am worshipping with the right group. It’s an interesting quiz, designed to sort religious preferences and beliefs in a systematic, even-handed way. If you’re curious about what belief system you align with, try it out at http://www.selectsmart.com/RELIGION.

Of course, we welcome anyone curious about silent worship and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). We invite you to join us at 10 am on a Sunday morning at our Meeting House in Reno.

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 Moral Consequences of Climate Change

Climate change is not just about melting ice caps, worsening drought and rising sea levels. It is not just a crisis for plants, animals and the environment they inhabit. It is also a crisis for people. In fact, some people consider climate change as serious a moral issue as an environmental one, and an issue that could have grave consequences for society.

Pope Francis has issued a moral call for action to phase out use of fossil fuels. “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” the pope’s encyclical warned in 2015. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an alliance of U.S. government agencies that compiles climate science research, the impact of climate change on humans could be profound: homes destroyed by rising waters or severe storms, diseases such as West Nile virus or Lyme disease spreading, crops and potable water lost due to drought, people crippled or killed by increased air pollution. The program, whose work is available at globalchange.gov, points out that those most vulnerable to climate change are the poor, under-educated, those least able to adapt, and people already struggling with high rates of disease, hunger and societal disruption.

In A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, author Stephen M. Gardiner argues that we are failing in three ways to address the ethical dimensions of climate change. First, those living in wealthy countries are passing the impact of environmental degradation on to poorer, weaker nations. Second, we are saddling future generations with our legacy of environmental degradation. And, third, when we ignore the scientific evidence, we deceive ourselves about our responsibility. We must face up to our ethical failure, Gardiner says, and push our leaders and institutions to act before it’s too late.

Starting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, the Reno Friends will meet every other week for five sessions to discuss climate change and its consequences for social justice. Our goal is to find ways that we can do more, individually and together, to address these issues. We will explore impacts of climate change here in our Sierra Nevada, as well as legislative initiatives, how to change our everyday lives, how to protest effectively, and how to address the needs of those in the Reno area hurt by climate disruption.

Please join us if you are interested in reading and learning more about the ethical challenges of climate change or in debating how we, as citizens, might respond. The discussion group will meet on Wednesday evenings starting at 6:30 in the Quaker Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue in Reno. In addition to Feb. 22, we will meet March 8 and 22, and April 5 and 19. A reading list will be distributed in advance. You’re welcome to bring light snacks. Please contact me, the clerk of Reno Friends Meeting, at wswallow54 (at) gmail.com, if you are interested in attending.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Centering During Silent Worship

When Quakers sit down to worship, they settle into silence. Many religions include short moments of silence in their services, but for the Quakers, silence is the heart of worship. The room goes still as we let go of everyday busyness. Individuals may rise occasionally to share a message out of the silence, but for the most part quiet reigns.

And yet, inside our heads, thoughts dance and twist about. As anyone who has tried to meditate knows, silencing one’s thoughts can be a challenge. Everything from grocery lists to worries about loved ones parades through the mind. Sometimes the procession makes a clatter; other times, a steady whisper of thoughts. But either way, it can be hard to settle.

At a recent “Quakerism 101” class on Silent Worship, our leader asked the circle gathered inside Reno Friends Meeting how they centered themselves during worship. The responses were illuminating.

While not all Quakers pray in a conventional sense, prayer is still one of the most useful ways of centering. One woman talked of using prayers of gratefulness to pull her attention inward. Another man said he looks around the room and prays for each person attending, and finds that when he is done his mind has settled.

Instead of praying, one woman said she tries to quiet her mind by listening for what God might be saying to her. This listening often yields surprising suggestions, messages that her conscious mind can only hear when she quiets the chatter in her head.

Some people said they try to clear the mind with simple meditation techniques, such as counting the in breath and out breath, then counting only the out breath, and finally not counting at all. Some try to relax their body bit by bit, releasing tension gradually, feeling themselves growing heavy in their chair. Others say they don’t try to stop the thoughts but instead consciously step outside them so they can watch the thoughts pass by without attaching to any of them.

The most moving suggestion came near the end when one man said he asks questions of the beloved family and friends he has lost during his lifetime. He said he used to wish he could get just another five minutes with love ones who have passed, but then came to understand that they were right there in his heart and in his head, waiting to talk. And so he has conversations with them. When he is done, his mind is centered.

Whatever it takes to quiet the spirit, Quakers figure out what works for them. I find that the great benefit of an hour of silent worship is that, no matter how long it takes to settle, there is always enough time for that deep, abiding silence that comforts and heals.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Quakerism 101

Have you ever wondered how Quakers came to be? The Religious Society of Friends can be a puzzling spiritual community, different in so many ways from other protestant religions. Even those familiar with Quakerism have unanswered questions. Who were the Early Friends, and how did they manage to invent such in interesting new way to seek God? What led them to worship in silence? How did they arrive at consensus around the Quaker testimonies?

Looking beyond the simple dress and distinctive Quaker hats of Early Friends, you might be surprised to find commonality with these passionate men and women, the founders who struggled to find spiritual truth and community in the political and social chaos of 17th-century England. To explore this rich legacy, Reno Friends this fall will offer six sessions of what we call Quakerism 101, reviewing the emergence of the Early Friends and how their faith developed, and taking a closer look into some of the nuts and bolts of Quaker practice.

The classes start on Oct. 2 with a look at Quakerism’s roots during the English reformation and at several important Quaker founders. The second session (Oct. 16) will explore The Light Within, the direct and unmediated experience of the Divine in each of us, plus Quaker Universalism. The third session (Oct. 30) will delve into the meaning of attendership and membership in a Friends Meeting.

We will hold two more sessions in November. On Nov. 6, we will examine Quaker Process and our management of Meeting business. On Nov. 20, we will look at worship and ministry, our spiritual life, activism in the Quaker community, silent worship and what it means to be a gathered meeting. The last class, on Dec. 11, will dive into Faith & Practice, our Quaker guidebook, as well as the core Quaker testimonies: Peace, Equality, Integrity, Simplicity, Unity and Harmony with Nature.

Many Quakers have written of their own understanding and experience of God, their faith and the testimonies down through the centuries. This trove of wisdom is rich indeed. Here is one of my favorite examples, drawn from the testimonies presented in Faith & Practice:

“We who are members of the Society of Friends have little to fall back on except as our experience with truth. We cannot resort to ritual or creed or ecclesiastical decisions for guidance.  We must find our way by seeing the hand of God at work in the weaving of the fabric of daily life.”

– Quaker Clarence E. Pickett.

Even if you think you know all about Quakers, please join us for this exploration into the heart of the Quaker world.

 

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

Leadership in Quaker Meetings

What does it mean to be a leader in a Quaker Meeting? Technically there are no leaders in the unprogrammed Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, such as Reno Friends. Everyone is equal, and no one is in charge. But if there are no leaders, how does a Meeting organize to get its work done? How do Quakers determine how to worship, how to manage their business, how to grow?

Early Friends were defined, in part, by their rejection of the leadership and ministry of clerics; Friends turned instead to their personal experience to understand God. Even today, most Quaker Meetings operate without a pastor or minister. There are no deacons, nor a church board, as is common in many Protestant churches. Instead the Meeting, as a gathered community led by spirit, performs the functions of leadership collectively.

The foundation for this is articulated in the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guidebook, Faith & Practice:

“Ministry in word and act, responsibility for the good order and material needs of the Meeting, visitation, faithfulness in testimonies: all these things, in the measure of the Light that is given, are the responsibilities of persons in the Meeting.”

This means that all those affiliated with a Quaker Meeting bear a responsibility to contribute to the workings on the Meeting, however they can or feel led. Some serve on committees, such as Ministry and Oversight, which tends to the spiritual and personal needs of Meeting members and attenders. Some participate on Nominating, the committee that works to discern who can best fill each organizational role. Others will take responsibility for our finances or our buildings and grounds or will serve as clerk, the person who handles administrative procedures and running Business Meetings. At most Quaker Meetings, and at Reno Friends, all these tasks are done by volunteers.

Yet none of the individuals filling these positions have authority over the Meeting. That authority rests with the Meeting for Business, which gathers once a month to make decisions. Unlike most governing boards or groups, Quakers do not vote or adopt the will of the majority. Instead, they work to find common ground that will lead them to unity.

To reach unity on a decision, Quakers understand that those present at Business Meeting need to listen to each other, and to the spirit of God. Sometimes they pause and return to silence, to allow everyone to look within for the solution forward.

“By listening to the Divine in ourselves and in each other, Friends are better prepared to find God’s will. Friends should not listen for the most convincing argument, but for the greater understanding to which each contributes and to which each may assent…. When unity is realized, the outcome is deeply satisfying. It produces a sense of the rightness of the decision and a loving connection between members.” (PYM, Faith & Practice)

It can feel challenging, at times, for any small group to operate without the guiding hand of a leader. Sometimes unity is hard to find, and an issue may be tabled for another day, to give everyone more time to reflect. But we have faith that if we love and trust and listen to each other, we can usually find the path. As Faith & Practice says, “A united Meeting is not necessarily of one mind but it is all of one heart.”

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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

 

 

Quaker Presidents and the Oath of Office

A recent news story about the U.S. Presidential Oath of Office got me thinking about Quaker presidents. The story focused on the words “so help me God” that many presidents add to the official oath, and whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would follow suit. But I was intrigued by another, more basic question:  because Quakers do not believe in oaths or swearing, would a Quaker president be required to take the oath at all?

The official oath is short and to the point:  I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution requires every president to tender the oath before he or she may assume power.

No doubt, the founding fathers wanted to make sure presidents committed publicly to uphold the Constitution, a cornerstone of rule by law rather than by the whims of a leader. And yet taking such an oath could violate the beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends. As the August Query on Integrity and Personal Conduct says:

Friends believe that we are called to speak the truth. A single standard of truth requires us to conduct ourselves in ways that are honest, direct, and plain, and to make our choices, both large and small, in accord with the urgings of the Spirit. It follows that we object to taking an oath, which presupposes a variable standard of truth. Be true to your word.

Indeed, the oath’s alternative fourth word – “affirm,” rather than “swear” – was included in the oath by the founding fathers to accommodate Quakers and other religious groups that followed the biblical prohibition of swearing. As James says in the New Testament (James 5:12, KJV):  Above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

Quakers have served as president of the United States twice: Herbert Hoover held the office from 1929 to 1933, and Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1974. Ironically, neither man choose to use the optional word affirm when they took the presidential oath. It is sometimes reported that Hoover said “affirm,” but a newsreel shows him using the phrase “solemnly swear.”

As is often the case with the Quaker Testimonies, the Integrity Testimony helps guide Friends through the collisions of principle with the rules of other institutions, the mores of society, and the practical demands of the moment.  Our guiding document, Faith and Practice, sums it up this way:

Integrity is a demanding discipline. We are challenged by cultural values and pressures to conform. Integrity requires that we be fully responsible for our actions. Living with integrity requires living a life of reflection, living in consistency with our beliefs and testimonies, and doing so regardless of personal consequences. Not least, it calls for a single standard of truth. From the beginning, Friends have held to this standard, and have often witnessed against the mainstream. When they suffered in consequence of their witness against secular order, their integration of belief and practice upheld them in adversity.

Perhaps, in the end, it matters less how a President takes the oath and more what kind of leader that person proves to be. No matter who stands up next January to swear, or affirm, to uphold the Constitution, let us hold them in the Light.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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