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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.

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.

 

 

HUMILITY AND THE MIGRANT CRISIS

The other day I saw a news photo of Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of several Muslim refugees from the Middle East. As a Quaker, I had never seen this Maundy Thursday ritual performed. Having priests wash the feet of parishioners is the sort of high-church tradition the seventeenth-century Quakers rejected as obscuring the pure light and direct experience of God.

Nonetheless, I found the image of the 79-year-old pope and the migrants seated above him strangely moving. Washing a stranger’s gritty, smelly, earth-bound feet is a way of saying “let me be your servant,” an expression of deep humility. It was such a relief – after a difficult week of ISIS attacks in Belgium and political grandstanding about migrants – to see a world leader bend his knee to these fellow humans.

While we all understand the need to be on guard for terrorists trying to cross our borders, we also need to remember the power of humility in trying times. Unfortunately, humility is not a trait that gets much respect these days, particularly not in the heat of our current political season. Candidates trumpet their views as if they have the only answers, and followers seem especially inflamed and righteous. It makes me long for middle ground, a place where all of us who want the best for our country and the larger world could come together and listen with open hearts.

As the English Quaker Joseph Jon Gurney said in the early 19th century: “When the pride of the heart is laid low, when the activity of human reasoning is quieted, when the soul is reduced to a state of silent subjection in the presence of its Creator, then this ‘still small voice’ intelligibly heard, and the word of the Lord, as it is inwardly revealed to us, becomes a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths.”

It takes humility to accept that we don’t always know what’s right or how to respond in a difficult situation. Pride and posturing will not help us understand why emigrants have left their homes or what they are seeking, but perhaps humility will. Whether a flood of migrants is part of God’s plan or not, I cannot say. But it’s an opportunity to practice listening humbly to others, and to God. We will need to understand each other better to make progress in this chaotic 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.

Compassionate Listening and Adult Children of Alcoholics

Reno Friends Meeting hosts several community groups in our Meeting House, providing space for organizations that share our Quaker values and have no home of their own. For the last year, members of the Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families have gathered inside our space on Thursday nights. This 12-step fellowship program is designed to promote healing for those who struggle with neglect, shame, abuse and other legacies of growing up in a home led by alcoholic or dysfunctional parents.

One recent Thursday, I decided to join them. I was curious about the program and wanted to extend a Quaker welcome. That night, twenty people showed up, of all ages and types. They knew each other well, greeting one another by name and chatting a bit. When the program started, they shared readings about how alcoholism and dysfunctional parents can torque a family. One of particular interest was the “Laundry List” of traits common among adult children of alcoholics, such as low self-esteem, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility or the need to seek approval from others.

Over the next hour, the attendees took turns sharing their stories. Some spoke of harrowing moments in their childhood and how they had responded. Others talked of how they struggled in the present to respond differently to trying situations. Some even shared little victories, such as using meditation and prayer to calm down, or drawing a boundary between themselves and someone taking advantage of them. The stories were interesting, and many made me think of moments in my own life. No one, after all, grows up in a perfect family.

But what struck me most was how the group listened to each other. They paid full attention, and no one else spoke until the person had finished. Then they all said “thank you.” By agreement, they do not “cross-talk,” defined as giving advice or commentary, which allows each story a compassionate space. Watching them, I suddenly saw what a profound gift it is to listen attentively, wait until someone is done, and then thank them for their story. How often do we do that for the people in our lives? How often do we listen without being distracted by our own thoughts, our own response? How can we learn to let go of what is in our own head and really hear what someone is saying?

At the end of the evening, several in the room came up to thank me for the use of our Meeting House. I left grateful that we are able to provide a quiet space for them, and also for the insights they gave me.

If you are interested in attending or have a friend who might be, the Reno group meets from 5:30 to 6:30 pm Thursdays at our Meeting House at 497 Highland Avenue, Reno, NV 89512.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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