Category Archives: Quaker Practice

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

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