Preparing for Re-Entry

Near the end of my two years of teaching in China, Volunteers in Asia (the organization that had hosted me) sent me materials about reverse culture shock. I was so excited about going home that I hadn’t thought about problems I might experience upon re-entry. In some ways, returning to “normal” life as pandemic restrictions ease will be a bit like returning home from a foreign land, and we might smooth the transition by taking time to consider the impact of the last year and anticipate what might come.

We can expect the transition to have emotional and practical consequences in our lives. In fact, there could be a permanent shift in our culture, especially among children and young adults. The good news is that normalization won’t happen as suddenly as the shut-down did, and we will have time to contemplate, make choices, and adapt.

After all the events of the past twelve months, we have changed and others have too. I read an article by a journalist about a recent plane trip. He said it was worse than he had imagined: the recorded CDC warnings at the airport, the anxious, measuring glances and the silence among those waiting to board. Worst of all was the fellow passenger who refused to let him sit in his assigned seat, leading to a vehement argument. We’ve had a year of seeing each other as potentially dangerous, assessing those we meet, and avoiding being near each other. I even catch myself socially distancing my car when parking or waiting at a light!

Here are some queries to help us assess the past year and ponder our future:

  • How have you changed? How have you been affected by the COVID-19 shut-down, economic downturn, race riots, wildfires, political turmoil, and attack on the Capitol Building? How have these events changed you, your perceptions, and your values?
  • How have these events changed your relationships with others? How has the shut-down affected your relationship with those near and dear to you? How has Covid affected your family? Have you disengaged from some people? If so, who and why, and what, if anything, do you want to do about that? Do you look at strangers in the same way you used to, or do you see them as potential disease vectors or political enemies?
  • What are some ways your life has changed? How do you feel about your job or other duties and tasks of life? How do you feel about your home?
  • Do you foresee changes in your willingness to take on new tasks? Will you take on more than you can handle or perhaps be loath to accept new responsibilities?
  • What are you looking forward to resuming from your pre-Covid life?
  • There will probably be problems trying to relaunch our lives. What are you afraid might happen?

People will have been affected differently by these experiences and will adjust to the new normal at different rates and to varying degrees.

  • How will you deal with people who are more cautious or less cautious than you?
  • During the shut-down, it has been much easier to decline socializing than it will be as restrictions are lifted. There’s a potential for judging others or feeling rejected, pressured, or misunderstood. How will you forestall such outcomes?

When I was in China, I appreciated the simplicity of my life. I owned less, flitted about less, and everything revolved around a single main focus. I resolved to keep some of that when I returned to the States, but can you guess how long that lasted? I was quickly sucked into the vortex of Silicon Valley.

  • What are some attitudes and practices that you want to keep when the restrictions are lifted? How are you going to hold on to them if the people and culture surrounding you jettison them in favor of more busyness and consumerism?

When crises occur, there is a chiaroscuro effect, as if things are hit with a spotlight – some are brightly highlighted, others retreat into the shadows. What stands out about:

  • Ourselves as a society and culture over the last year — race, distribution of wealth and responsibility, access to health care, and the design of our government?
  • Global interdependence?
  • Earthcare?

The question:  As we pick up our former lives again, are there ways we can help steer our culture, our government, and our world towards equality, community, safety, and integrity?

When I came back from China, I had a much easier re-entry than most of my VIA cohort. A lot of them had trouble finding a job and a place to live, but the biggest issue was being surrounded by Americans who didn’t understand or value what the VIA volunteers had done. However, for me “way opened,” as Quakers would say. Before I came home, I was offered the position of resident and caretaker of the San Jose Friends Meeting property, so I had an inexpensive place to live. Within two weeks, I had stumbled into a job as a teacher’s aide for an ESL program. But what made the most difference, what I had that the majority of the returning volunteers didn’t, was people who valued my experience, respected me for it, and wanted to know more about it. Many of the people I was returning to in the U.S. had had similar experiences and understood what I was going through. My Meeting, family, and the people at my job were all highly supportive, so I breezed through re-entry with relative ease.

We can support each other through this time of adjustment. We need to keep talking about it and listening to one other. We need to be tender towards each other and watch for signs that someone may be having difficulty with the transition. We need to be aware that young people and children may have long-lasting reactions to these events, and be ready to listen to and help them without judgement.  We need to be aware that this is a very plastic moment in our culture, and take steps to move it in the direction of love and humanity. With Light, focus, and mindfulness, re-entry is an opportunity to make lasting changes for the better in ourselves and our world.

Edie Uber, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

What is God?

When I proposed the topic “What is God” for the February Reno Friends spiritual discussion, I was both excited and anxious. Would anyone come, and more importantly, would we have the courage to share from our hearts and souls about this big question? Fourteen of us met on Zoom last month, and almost immediately we opened into a gathered space of deep sharing. It was truly magical!

When I sent out the outline and queries for the discussion, I also attached a PDF of the June/July 2014 Friends Journal issue entitled Concepts of God (you can download it here: https://www.friendsjournal.org/private/FJ-2014-0607.PDF). It is filled with thought-provoking essays, poems and quotes from Quakers. The Executive Director introduces the issue by saying, “…to describe God is a vulnerable act. Like the blind men in the South Asian parable, we speak of the elephant we are touching in different ways, and only in the sharing of our own experience do we begin to piece together the full picture and also realize the limits of our perception.”

I began by reading that quote, along with a few excerpts from the issue. Then I opened the discussion and hoped someone would speak. To my surprise, over the next 90 minutes, EVERYONE spoke. We even went slightly over our time because the sharing kept flowing from us. At the end, I asked permission to share the essence of our discussion in this blog, while honoring everyone’s privacy, and they agreed. So, humbly I will try my best to capture what Reno Friends had to say about God.

What is God? God is all that is. God is part of us, and we are part of God. God is consciousness, movement, goodness, love, Light, life, kindness, decency, patience, peace, acceptance, openness, ecstasy, awe, the breath of Life, grace. God is the ground of being, the Source of the Universe (or Multiverse). We are the body of God experiencing Itself. God is immanent, transcendent and yet also intimate and personal. We are co-creators with God. God is a verb.

Most of us don’t identify God has having a particular sex, while some resonate with the idea of God the Father. We agreed God is in plants, animals, octopuses, water, and the very air we breathe. The Spirit flows through all of life animate and inanimate.

One Friend shared this quote from his brother-in-law: “Trying to talk about God is like an amoeba trying to tell another amoeba what a human is.” We all laughed and nodded. I realize as I type this blog that it is impossible to capture God in mere words, yet as we all spoke, I felt a current flowing through us that I can only describe as God or Spirit. Maybe we can only feel God. One Friend said it is an emotional knowing. Another said we are an offshoot of All That Is with all the powers It has. All That Is wants to know Itself and It does this through us and all of creation.

Experiencing God

Many of us connect with God in nature—watching a stream flow or waves breaking on the beach, sitting by a campfire, watching animals, tending plants, taking a walk. One Friend said that even mundane moments can bring you into the Divine if you are present and open. As Quakers, we experience God when we sit together as a community in silence, listening for that still small voice within that is also connected to that which is Beyond. Several shared that learning to listen to God has been a valuable gift of the Quaker path. A Friend spoke of having an epiphany in Meeting one Sunday, when she realized God is in her beloved community. A mother spoke of feeling like she was a bad mom and hearing God say to her, “Love them.”

A Friend spoke passionately of God in music and feeling the Spirit swell up as a piece moves towards a crescendo. Others spoke of experiencing God in great art, pictures, poetry and dreams. A couple of us spoke about quantum physics and seeing God in atoms – being blown away by the discovery that electrons can behave as waves or particles, often depending on what a researcher is trying to record. In other words, our consciousness affects the behavior of sub-atomic matter – it seems we really are co-creators with God! One Friend wondered if God was once the singularity that gave birth to the Universe (or Multiverse) in the Big Bang. Maybe God was bored with being all by Itself, so exploded into stars, planets, moons, us, everything, so It could experience Itself. Friends found God in epiphanies, eureka moments, mystical experiences.

One Friend shared that as a child she was afraid of the dark. Her mother told her God is with you. Later she was found skipping up and down the dark hallways in the house singing, “God is with me.” For her God is love—the love of the Father. Another Friend shared about awakening in the night filled with joy, peace, love and a feeling of infinite expansion.

A Friend shared that in his contemplations about God he was told, “Don’t worry about who I am, worry about who you are.” A couple of Friends spoke about learning to go with the flow of God working in their lives. “When I push the river, I’ve learned it isn’t meant to be.” “Ride the horse in the direction it is going.” One Friend said, “Follow your heart and spirit.”

Has your concept of God changed over time?

Some Friends shared that as children they viewed God as a judgmental man in the sky, but this changed over the course of their lives into a more subtle and personal relationship with the Divine.

Friends expressed gratitude that as Quakers we can have a discussion like this, where everyone’s perceptions are welcome, and we can learn from each other’s perspectives. In the past, many had either not had an opportunity to talk about God or were told by a religious authority figure what God is. One Friend spoke of being able to break out of the definition she had been raised with.

One Friend had a conversion experience in his teens which never left him. He experiences Jehovah through Jesus and has a close relationship with Christ, which has not changed over the course of his life. Another Friend shared he had been an atheist in the past and now sees God in everyone, in nature, in the magic of our planet.

A Friend shared her path of finding good and caring people who changed her concept of God as judgmental. She loves to heal people. She believes the best of us all together makes God, and that help is always there when we need it. She has followed several spiritual paths over her life and finds value in them all. She is grateful to have finally found a Quaker Meeting.

In Conclusion

There is never a conclusion. At least, that is what I have come to. We continue to evolve, to co-create with God, weaving this never-ending story through eternity. What I can’t capture here in words is the lit faces of the Friends who shared these thoughts, the nodding heads and smiles. I look forward to more conversations about God and I’m so thankful I was able to be part of this one.

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Domestic Noise

On a recent Sunday, our Quaker Meeting was gathering for our Zoom Silent Worship, when something lovely happened. As usual, there was a bit of chitchat as folks welcomed each other to the zoom session, and then people began settling into the silence.  As the session quieted (and before the host muted everyone) there was a short period when we could all hear domestic noise from each others’ homes: the clink of a spoon in a mug, the scrape of a chair on the floor, the whistle of a cockatiel.  It was intimate and wonderful.

Domestic noise can be comforting and reassuring, the sounds of a household functioning. When I was a young mother, I could work in the other room and listen to the kids chattering and usually know what they were doing. (When they went radio silent, I knew to drop what I was doing and go check.) Listening to each other – not just what we say, but listening to what we do – is how we keep track of each other in our respective caves. And as we continue to hunker down in our homes to survive this pandemic, all of us are becoming more aware of the domestic noise in our lives.

During Covid, who we share our domestic space with carries huge implications for our lives. For better or for worse, we have been locked in with our intimates, people whose breath we feel safe sharing. For those living in larger family groups – especially those with children stuck at home – domestic noise can sometimes be irritating and pervasive, something to be escaped. For those of us who live with a partner, small idiosyncrasies we may have easily ignored in the past can loom large in our confined spaces. And for those who live alone, our own domestic noise may echo through our rooms, highlighting our aloneness in this long lock-down.

In these strange days, it may help to become more alert to the domestic noise in our lives. What can these audible clues tell us? If my husband’s cough is becoming annoying, it’s probably no fun for him either. So instead of putting a pillow over my head, maybe I should explore what it means. Does he need a cough drop, a cup of lemon tea, or a trip to the doctor? If children are fighting with their siblings more, are there practical adjustments that might make them all happier? (And if not, do we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies?)

And what about domestic silence? What can that tell us? As much as Quakers are drawn to silence, we know that it can mean something more troubling, such as a distancing from each other, an avoidance, a protective barrier that needs examination. Sometimes we fail to say what we must because we don’t want to inflict our truth on a loved one and tension builds. It’s hard enough to live with unaddressed family problems in normal times, and very difficult when there’s little opportunity for escape.  So how do we keep our patience through the pandemic with those who share our lives, even as we all go slightly mad? Mental health professionals are reporting rising rates of mental illness and depression among students, who miss school, and married people in unhappy relationships, and lonely seniors who rarely get a chance to talk with someone face-to-face. And for those who may need to take action to protect themselves, rearranging our domestic situations right now can be painfully difficult and for some financially or practically impossible. Making one’s peace with an unhappy situation can be particularly tough in these circumstances.

So how do we manage, and find ways of appreciating, the domestic noise in our lives? Quaker Muriel Bishop Summers said this in 1990: “All of us… are diminished and dishonored when we do not meet each other half way. How can we love in truth and lovingly help one another in this? Because we must remember that truth without love is violence. And love without truth is sentimentality. We do need both.”

Here are some queries to consider in thinking about the domestic noise or silence in your life:

Do I resist the temptation to fill the quiet of my home with nonstop television or radio? Do I spend time listening to the noises that surface in the quiet?

Do I listen to the domestic noise my partners or children add to the crazy quilt of my life? What might that noise, or the lack of noise, be telling me?

Do I tend to those I live with in the spirit of tolerance and understanding? Do I make space for my partners and children to share messages that I may not want to hear but they need to tell me?

Do I stop to enjoy the simple pleasures of domestic life, such as a warm cookie or listening to the wind chimes out my window?

Do I stop to listen for God in the domestic noise of my life?

When I encounter discord in my domestic space, do I have the courage to speak with both integrity and love?

If I sense there is tension in the silence between us, do I ask if there is something we need to talk about?

By Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Bringing Light into the World

This is the time when sunlight returns to our winter world and a new year begins. 2020 has been a year of retreat for many of us, clouded by uncertainty and anxiety. We spent more time with ourselves than usual. I have seen this year as an opportunity to go the “mountain”, to use a metaphor common to many spiritual traditions. There has been less outward activity and more inward reflection. But now the energy is shifting, and the time is coming to re-engage with the “marketplace”—to bring our inner Light into the world.

I am fond of spiritual metaphors like the ox-herding pictures used in Zen Buddhism to teach about the spiritual path. The seeker wanders a path up the mountain looking for the wild ox, then finds and tames it, rides it back down, comes home and enters the marketplace, bringing spiritual wisdom and helping hands to the community. The ox is a metaphor for taming the unruly aspects of ourselves, including our overactive egos and minds. Other similar metaphors include Moses bringing the ten commandments down from the mountain as instructed by God, Jesus spending 40 days in the desert before giving the Sermon on the Mount, the wandering of the Jews in the desert before coming to the Promised Land, and the vision quests of native peoples. In modern times, we go on retreats, withdrawing from our normal lives and taking time for spiritual reading and inner reflection. We hope to come back wiser, more peaceful and compassionate.

What I usually find is that it is easy for me to be peaceful and compassionate while on retreat; it’s when I return to the world that I have trouble! So, I’ve been reflecting on how this lofty idea might be made more accessible to us everyday folks. My experiment this last year has been to incorporate Retreat Days into my schedule. Sadly, I’m here to report that I was unable to retreat for a whole day despite the best of intentions. I did have success in unplugging from news, but not from life.

Then I started wondering if there might be a more practical way to do this ox-taming business, must be the Quaker in me… My new experiment is taking mini retreats and then re-engaging with the world throughout the day, seeking to bring Light and the Quaker testimonies into the world. I’m finding this approach works much better and is more realistic given the nature of my life. My hope is that over time I will be able to maintain centered-down peace while I’m engaged with the world.

Here are some of my mini retreats:

  • Silent Worship whether in community or alone—taking 30-60 minutes to sit quietly and listen for that still, small voice within.
  • Sitting in easy repose and staring out the window for a few minutes, turning off my brain.
  • Going on a walk or taking a swim and making it a moving meditation, where I focus on the movement and get out of my head.
  • Doing Qigong, Tai Chi and/or yoga practice with mindful focus. It helps to do this in a room set aside for this purpose or outdoors. If I’m near my desk or the kitchen, I can get endlessly distracted! It also helps to do just one pose or form if I’ve lost my center or need a break.
  • Taking several deep, belly breaths.
  • Driving in silence.
  • Petting the cat.
  • Breathing and repeating a mantra while waiting.
  • Observing nature and letting myself become absorbed into it.
  • Meditating using a mantra or following my breath.
  • Reading a spiritual book.

Here are some of the ways I try to bring Light into the world:

  • Smile.
  • Listen with total presence, seeking to understand.
  • Speak the truth from my heart, with compassion.
  • Be thoughtful in my actions and words.
  • Do random acts of kindness.
  • Practice peace, even when I disagree.
  • Seek unity; there’s usually some common ground somewhere.
  • Be patient.
  • Love my neighbor without exceptions.
  • Live simply and in harmony with nature and those around me.
  • Be a good steward.
  • Share generously.
  • Shine my Light, encouraging others as my equals to shine theirs.
  • Have faith and trust in the good in myself and others, and Life itself.
  • Stand in my integrity with humble courage.
  • Be open-minded and non-judgmental.

Like any human, I stumble a lot, miss the mark, make mistakes, get distracted. Then I get back on that ox and try again. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an ongoing experiment without end. I find that comforting. Oh, and it helps not to take oneself too seriously and have a good sense of humor!

Queries:

What are your ways to retreat from the world and reconnect with the Light?

How do you bring Light into the world?

What distracts you from your highest intentions? Disturbs your peace?

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

What Does Quaker Membership Mean?

Several weeks ago Reno Friends met online for a spiritual discussion about membership, which was something of a rare event. Usually, modern-day Quakers don’t talk much about who’s a member and who’s an “attender.” Many devoted Quakers spend their lives as attenders of Monthly Meetings, volunteering for leadership roles and participating in Silent Worship, Business Meetings and social events, but deciding against the step of membership. In truth, that pretty much describes me: I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting (with varying levels of devotion) since I first went to the Florida Avenue Meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 35 years ago. I’m a really good attender.

Recently, however, I’ve been wondering if it isn’t time to become a member. A Reno member I deeply respect (a life-long Quaker and thoughtful guy) asked me about it the other day, saying that since I’m so active in the Meeting, why don’t I take the leap? “Because I have doubts,” I told him. He nodded sagely.  “We all have doubts. Looks to me like you are contributing as members do, so you might as well become a member.”

Membership in a Quaker Meeting is not a simple affair, partly because membership is a question not just for the individual but also for the Meeting. To determine if someone is ready, the Meeting convenes a Clearness Committee of several members who sit with the person seeking membership for a series of discussions. Clearness Committees can be convened for any number of reasons; if someone needs help working out a personal or spiritual problem, they can ask for a Clearness Committee and the Meeting will put one together for them. Clearness Committees are there to help the individual find clarity. Those on the committee are told to ask questions rather than doling out advice.

In the case of membership, a Clearness Committee might ask whether the person thinks they are ready for the commitment implicit in becoming a member, or whether they feel they know and understand enough about the Quaker testimonies and Quaker process. It’s also an opportunity for the person to air doubts or concerns. Those who come out of the Clearness Committee convinced they want to move forward write a letter requesting membership, which is considered first by the Ministry and Oversight Committee, and then by the Meeting as a whole at Business Meeting. Both the individual and the Meeting need to agree that they are a good fit for one another.

Quaker membership has this sort of weight partly because Quakers originally developed as a persecuted group in England, back in the 17th century, and membership provided a form of protection and support for Quakers who were thrown in jail or impoverished because of their faith. At that time, people in jails had to pay for their food, so Quaker Meetings would collect funds so that members who had been jailed for their religious beliefs wouldn’t starve, and to also help their families survive.

In our spiritual discussion the other day, several members of our Meeting shared what it meant to them. One person said she became a member after years of attending because she finally felt she was truly “home.” Another said that becoming a member served as a public acknowledgment of spiritual growth that had already happened. Another pointed out that getting new members could be affirming for a Meeting, as it would mean attenders valued the group and wanted to participate on a deeper level.  

What I know is that, in my heart, I am a Quaker. I believe in the power of Silent Worship, having found it a grounding and liberating form of worship. I agree with the Quaker testimonies, and believe it is important for Quaker values to be alive in the world. I also deeply appreciate that the Quakers are a religious organization that does not require me to decide about spiritual questions or state a creed. My spiritual doubts are gently tolerated by the Quaker faith, and the focus on action over words is fundamental to how I want to live my spiritual life. When I really think about it, I know I will never be a member of any other church again.

So maybe it’s time I ask for that Clearness Committee. I’m curious what they will ask, and how I will answer.  

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Are Quakers Mystics?

Last month, Reno Friend Doug Smith led a spiritual discussion about Mysticism on Zoom. It was well attended and stimulated a vibrant discussion. One of Doug’s questions was: Do you think Quakerism can be a form of mysticism? Some thought yes and others no. Defining mystics and mysticism is a tricky task, as mystical experiences are often difficult to explain. Here is the Oxford Languages definition of a mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the Absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.

Isn’t this what we Quakers do when we sit in silence during Worship and wait for a message beyond us to come through to the Meeting? Our spiritual practice itself is mystical. I personally experience an inner quaking when I am given a message to speak. My heart beats faster and my breath comes quicker. I feel shaky and cannot calm down until I rise to speak. Once the message is complete, the quaking stops. Other Quakers have shared similar experiences with me.

Here is a quote from New Studies in Mystical Religion by Quaker Rufus M. Jones (1927): The mystic, as I hope to show, is not a peculiarly favored mortal who by a lucky chance has received into his life a windfall from some heavenly Bread-fruit tree, while he lay dreaming of iridescent rainbows. He is, rather, a person who has cultivated, with more strenuous care and discipline than others have done, the native homing passion of the soul for the Beyond… The result is that he has occasions when the larger Life with which he feels himself kin seems to surround him and answer back to his soul’s quest…

Rufus Jones was fond of saying “the beyond is within.” Christ said, “The kingdom is within you.” Carl Jung likened us to an aspen grove, connected through roots he called the “collective unconscious”. He spoke of synchronicities that occur in everyday life which seem to reveal an underlying pattern and mystery to the Universe. Most of us have had an experience that gives us a glimpse into the Mystery.

For over thirteen years, I have been reading and writing for What Canst Thou Say? (http://www.whatcanstthousay.org/)—a Quaker publication featuring mystical experiences and contemplative practice. For the last three years I have been an editor. The writers for WCTS share stories of their experiences that have touched my heart and soul. They have helped me see that my own mystical experiences are not strange, but perhaps more common than I ever realized. Here are some examples:

  • Calling a friend who has been on your mind and they say: “How did you know I was just thinking of you and about to call?” I’ve had the experience of picking up the phone to dial a friend and they are already on the line—I’d picked up their call before the phone even rang!
  • Dreaming of someone and then running into them the next day.
  • Finding just the right book or article at the moment you need it. I once found a much needed book lying in the middle of the living room floor in a newly rented house which was otherwise empty. The same can be said of running into the right person at the right time who has an important message for us, or who may change the direction of our life.
  • Experiencing a series of coincidences that lead us down a certain path in life, which later appear to be intentionally synchronistic in explicable ways. My journeys as a therapist and Quaker were marked by many such coincidences.
  • Receiving important messages during meditation, Silent Worship or other times when we are still enough to hear the voice within. Sometimes these messages can come through like a lightning bolt and are accompanied by visions and hearing a voice that is not our own. From my experience, these are rare compared to the more quiet and ordinary messages.
  • Feeling yourself disappear and become one with nature, or music, or movement.
  • Becoming so immersed in the flow of an activity that you disappear and feel something is done through you. This has happened to me when writing, speaking and working as a therapist.
  • That little “tap on the shoulder” along with a message which guides you to what you need. For example, helping you find your car keys or something you need in a store. The other day my partner was led to a thrift store he never frequents to find an obscure lid for one of my mother’s pots. Sure enough, it was there! And it was only 45 cents.

As you watch practical saints operate, in a great variety of affairs and under very different conditions, you soon see… they seem to be lending their hands to a larger life than their own.  If they were asked, they would deny that they were mystics.  “No, I am not a mystic.  I have no mighty experiences.  I am too practical and too commonplace ever to be a mystic.”  My answer would be that there is no inconsistency between a mystical life and a practical life.  The more truly mystical a person is, the greater the probability that he will be effectively practical.” Rufus Jones, New Studies, p. 198-202.

Could we all be mystics and not know it? Can we open ourselves ever more to being conduits for the Light? Is Rufus Jones onto something when he suggests we can cultivate the “native homing passion of our souls for the Beyond?” What canst thou say about your own mystical experiences?

Postscript: If you have a mystical experience you would like to share, What Canst Thou Say welcomes submissions at any time, which you can send to rhondalou14@gmail.com.

By Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Silent Protest vs. Speaking Our Truth

A Reno Friend recently shared a photo from social media that reminded me of something fundamental to the Quaker faith. It wasn’t a photo of Quakers; it was a photo of Turkish protestors, gathered to stand against their government’s crimes –   and they were standing in silence. Below the photo (which was published by The Free Thought Project) was a caption: No yelling. No screaming. No fighting. A more efficient form of protesting: Thousands of people standing in complete silence, protesting in squares & public places in Turkey. Baffling the police by creating a calm curiosity, instead of tension and aggression. Along with the photo, the Reno Friend sent a comment: “Quakers have been using this form of protest for years!”

Given the many noisy and angry protests across the United States in the last few months, I’ve been thinking more about the nature of protest. As Quakers, it feels important to speak out against injustice, to share our truth as our Integrity testimony urges us to do. For many, that often means we must speak, even shout and make signs. To be bold and loud with our message.

But as the Turkish protesters discovered, there is also a power in standing silently in the face of unfairness and prejudice. To stand up and simply be counted. To witness; to be there when it matters.

So is there a conflict between silent protest and the Quakers’ Integrity testimony?

Silent protest has long been used to demonstrate disapproval or refusal, and the Quakers have understood its power for hundreds of years. Back in the 17th century, when the Quaker faith was founded, many Quakers were imprisoned for their steadfast silence in the face of the government’s demand that they deny their faith.

And the Quakers never stopped protesting in silence. In 1969, hundreds of Quakers staged a silent, day-long vigil outside the White House to protest the Vietnam War and the slow pace of the Paris peace negotiations. In 2017, several hundred Quakers climbed a hill in the north of England and stood in silent protest against a local fracking proposal. And it wasn’t just any hill; it was Pendle Hill in Lancashire, the place where Quaker founder George Fox had a vision of people gathered together, which sparked his decision to start the Quaker church. People came from all over the country to join the fracking protest. As one participant said: “Silent protest is the ultimate in nonviolent direct action. Who can object to that?”

Silent protest has been deployed by many others, as well, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, for those engaged in civil disobedience and non-violent protest, silence can be the most effective method. When a small band of black students tried to integrate lunch counters in the south in the sixties, the power of their protest was that they offered no provocation, which made it harder for the police to respond with force. The protesters’ silence said it all.

So perhaps there is no conflict between the Quaker way of silence and the Quaker Integrity testimony. There are, after all, many ways to “speak.” The question, instead, is how do we deploy truth-telling that’s uplifting and supportive, rather than destructive?

For Quakers – and anyone looking for a peaceful way to protest – it is possible to speak our truth through silence. We just need the courage to put our bodies, rather than our voices, on the line. We can stand in integrity with others without muzzling our message. We can shine Light on truth, and trust that collectively, as equals, we can set in motion the wheels of change.

As George Fox famously said, “Let your life speak.” Our actions can speak as boldly as our words.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Love thy Neighbor: No Exceptions

…And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us… William Penn, 1693

Back in May, when the Black Lives Matter protests were beginning after George Floyd’s death, Reno Friends had an opportunity to love our neighbors. Due to the pandemic, we were meeting for worship outside in our garden, so we could be together but also keep our distance. We had sent a letter to our neighbors asking if they could bring in their dogs during our hour of Silent Worship.

On the Sunday after the protests in Reno’s downtown, we sat for peace and equality. As we were settling into our chairs, we noticed a number of people and dogs in our neighbor’s yard. Suddenly, loud, acid rock began playing out of a bedroom window facing the garden. I went over and let them know we were about to begin worship and asked if they could bring the dogs in and turn the music off. The grandmother told me that it was difficult to control the dogs. I understood in that moment that she had absolutely no control over the actions of the young men playing the music.

We decided to choose the path of peace and, leaving our garden, selected a tree out in the park where we had a lovely Silent Worship. We were joined by two squirrels, one ironically seeking sanctuary from a bully squirrel who was chasing him. The timid one hid under a lawn chair until he could race through the midst of us back to his burrow.

Shortly after that first Sunday, the Ministry and Oversight Committee decided to extend a gesture of neighborly friendliness and peace toward our neighbors, even though we were unhappy about the loud music that had disturbed our garden worship. We put together a gift bag for the family’s little boy, who is about three years old and loves to greet the USPS and UPS drivers. It contained a UPS truck and a satchel of small letters and packages designed by one of our members, as well as some construction vehicles the child would likely see on the streets. We also made a goodie bag of cookies, espresso mix, and chocolate for the rest of the family.

I was planning to deliver our gifts, but circumstances kept delaying me. In the meantime, we continued to meet for worship in the garden on Sundays and noticed the neighbors were making their best efforts to keep their dogs indoors and that there was no more loud music.

About two weeks later, my not-so-still-small voice inside said, “Go buy some flowers and deliver it all, now.” I remember arguing that it was lunch time and I didn’t want to bother them. But the voice was relentless, so I went, picking up flowers on the way. I’m so glad I listened. It was a little after noon when I pulled up to the Meeting House and saw the grandmother out on the porch with the dogs.

I took the gifts to the gate and she came over. I introduced myself and said I was with the Quakers next door and we wanted to offer these gifts of neighborly friendliness and peace. She said we didn’t have to do that; that she was trying her best to keep the dogs in and quiet, but she couldn’t always control her boys. She apologized for what had happened.

She went on to explain that it had been a very hard time recently for their family. Her mother had died two weeks earlier. They had a celebration of her life while she was still alive, as this had been her wish, and several family members had come into town to be part of it. That was why there were so many people next door that Sunday after the demonstrations. I suddenly understood the tension I had felt when I’d gone over to talk with her.

I told her I was sorry for their loss and that we absolutely wanted them to have these gifts. I was even more glad I had come as I was led, and that I brought flowers. I expressed our gratitude for the efforts they had made the last two Sundays, which were very pleasant out in the garden. She told me she’d requested that her family respect our time in our garden, since it is only “one hour a week.” I asked her to let us know if they have a family gathering we need to work around, and we will find a tree in the park again.

We chatted for a bit (it was her lunch break, so the timing was perfect). I learned that her daughter’s family lives with her, and that she is grateful for them, as she is never alone. She said she wanted to support our worship as she saw how much it had pained her mother not to be able to go to church at the end. She also told me she is a spiritual person, though she doesn’t attend church. I invited her to sit with us anytime she would like, even if it’s from her own porch. She smiled at this invitation, thanked us for our gifts and wished me a good day.

In July, we had a Zoom spiritual discussion on the subject of Loving thy Neighbor (No Exceptions). There was rich and poignant sharing about the challenges of loving others without exception, particularly when we disagree or feel upset with each other. Friends shared these insights:

  • Sometimes it’s helpful to agree to disagree. We can stand in our own integrity and truth, while respecting the different position of the other person.
  • There is power in holding those with whom we disagree in the Light.
  • It is important to approach interactions with curiosity and compassion.
  • Before communicating when upset, it is prudent to deal with anger/fear in oneself first. Then we can be clearer when we reach out to the other person.
  • It helps to remember that we all struggle, and that we don’t know what another is experiencing.

Our experience with our neighbors and the spiritual discussion that followed brings to life something another Friend had spoken about during Worship: Be kind to others; you never know what pain and hardship they may be going through. It is also a testimony to the current need and power of loving thy neighbors, especially those you might not choose as friends. It seems to me now is a time for us to live this testimony in our everyday interactions out in the world. The peaceful change we seek lies within us.

Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Continuing Revelation

The coronavirus pandemic has raised many challenges for society, but one of the most difficult are the restrictions on gathering for worship. Like many other church groups, Quaker Meetings have struggled with whether to meet online through Zoom, or outdoors, or in tiny groups – but for Quakers, it is all complicated by the fact that we worship in silence. There’s no service, no minister or choir, to videotape and upload to our website. Instead, we sit in silence and, occasionally, someone feels moved by a message rising in their heart, and they stand and share it with the group. But not always; many gathered Meetings for Worship pass without a single message. Despite that, however, we do feel the Spirit moving amongst us. There is something about being together that makes the Silence more powerful.

So how to worship if we’re also trying to keep everyone safe? At the moment, Reno Friends are sitting in silence in our Meeting House garden, separated by six feet and our masks, hoping it doesn’t rain. In the fall, when it gets too cold to sit outside, we may take our worship online, using Zoom to gather in silence. We are learning that we have to keep reinventing what we do.

For Quakers, that’s not a stretch. We believe that the spiritual journey is one of continuing revelation, which springs from our personal experience of the divine Inward Light. One of my favorite Quaker expressions is “way will open,” which means that the proper course will reveal itself in time. But it also means we don’t necessarily know what comes next. It takes patient discernment of leadings and insights to find our path. We each listen to the “still small voice” inside us, then share what we’ve heard with the others for seasoning and, hopefully, eventual unity. We keep becoming, over and over.

The idea that revelation is ongoing, rather than set in stone by a creed or biblical text, is fundamental to the Quakers’ understanding of God. According to Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting: “Continuing Revelation” means that… the Holy Spirit’s creative activity among us did not end with the first generation of Apostles at Pentecost. The Spirit continues to speak and reveal God’s insight and wisdom to us if we are willing to listen. While God is ‘unchanging,’ our understanding of God’s wisdom is not, and may increase or diminish overtime and over generations.”

This pandemic is nothing if not an exercise in continuing revelation. One week we are told to disinfect our groceries, the next week it turns out that may not matter. But, as Quakers, we know we must keep listening and reading and weighing alternatives to figure out how to live within our Light and do what God calls us to do. We also know that we must sometimes turn over knowing to the Spirit, and live patiently with the little we can know for now. 

At the moment, it feels helpful to consider this guidance from British Yearly Meeting: “Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys.” In short, there is continuing revelation all around us.

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

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

Settling Into My Natural Rhythms

As our extended Coronavirus retreat unfolds, I am settling into my natural rhythms. Delicious hours stretch before me, empty of outward commitments, allowing time to delve inwards. I am slowly coming home to myself. Why is it so difficult to create space for me in my own life? I can easily get lost in the tyranny of my to-do lists and the needs of others, ignoring my own needs in the process. These are lifelong patterns.

I was walking with a dear friend the other day who nodded and smiled knowingly when I shared that I’m grateful for my increased solitude. She said she was anxious about Coronavirus going away and having to return to her previous social life. I could relate. As we strolled along, we wondered why we feel captive to the social norms of society and the needs of others? What about our own needs for solitude, quiet, reflection? How can we speak for ourselves and still honor our more socially oriented loved ones? We are becoming aware of which relationships are important to nurture and where we may need to set better boundaries. I’m glad I can share this journey with a kindred spirit.

My partner is another kindred who reminds me that he deliberately avoids agreeing to as many engagements as I do. I fear I’ve been dragging him along into a busier life than he prefers. My other gratitude is having more time with him, alone. I adore his company and luxuriate in our longer conversations. The cat has stopped wandering around squalling for attention, since we are here most of the time and more attentive to him. He is grateful for more connection with us. I talk to my mother every day and there is more spaciousness in my heart for her. My social circle is drawing in closer as I focus on my most important relationships, rather than trying to be there for everyone and get everything done on some list.

I like the Quaker testimony of Simplicity and the query I most like is: Do I keep my life uncluttered with things and activities, avoiding commitments beyond my strength and Light? Though I have been diligent about uncluttering my things, I’ve been cluttering my calendar with commitments beyond my strength and Light. So, I decided to set Mondays aside as my Retreat Day where I schedule nothing and withdraw from the outer world. This has helped me remain sane and more serene during this uncertain time. I pray for continued resolve to honor my deep need for solitude and freedom from doing for this one day a week. How can I hear the song of my soul if I’m so busy I can’t even listen?

One of the struggles I am having is with my desire for some kind of scheduling formula. Spirit laughs at me from within and suggests, “Surrender.” I suspect I will find my way moment-by-moment by simply doing the next right thing. I trust my heart will show the way.

Rhonda Ashurst, Blog Contributor, Reno Friends Meeting

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