Category Archives: Quaker Practice

Opening to the Light

But in the central innermost region of our minds there shines one pure ray of direct Light from the very Throne of God; one ray which belongs to each one individually; which is for that one supreme and apart; the ray which shining from the heavenward side of conscience, and so enlightening and purifying it, must of necessity dominate the whole being.

      ~ Caroline Stephen, 1834-1909

Have you ever wondered how Quakers center down and open to the Light? How they sit patiently for an hour in silence, waiting for messages from the Beyond That Is Within? In April, Reno Friends gathered for a worship sharing to explore these questions.

Continue reading Opening to the Light

Judgment vs. Discernment

Reno Friends Meeting is currently taking a hard look at how we interact with each other. As part of this process, I’ve been thinking more about the importance of discernment in our Meeting life.  Discernment is a process dear to Quaker hearts, and an important tool to figuring out the proper path for both the Meeting and ourselves as individuals. But what does discernment entail, and how does it differ from judgment?

Continue reading Judgment vs. Discernment

What is Worship Sharing?

Quakers typically spend an hour every Sunday morning worshipping together in silence.  During this time, individuals sometimes rise to share a message that has come to them out of the silence.  Such messages are not planned in advance, nor are there suggested topics.

Occasionally, however, Quakers gather for a more directed form of worship-based conversation that incorporates silence as a foundation. This process, known as worship sharing, is often used to address issues that are unusually contentious or serious, or that call for deeper reflection.

According to Quaker sources, worship sharing grew out of dialogue techniques such as those used by Alcoholic Anonymous that arose in the 1960’s. The worship sharing group sits in silence to contemplate a particular query, everyone taking a turn to say how she or he feels about the issue. Participants are urged to avoid cross-talk and to listen deeply to each speaker. The silence is allowed to return between speakers, giving everyone a chance to root again in the power of the quiet.

Meetings often use worship sharing to heal after a period of conflict, or to articulate how to solve a difficult problem. Some Meetings use worship sharing to get at a deeper understanding of spiritual differences or to consider how to address a public need. Reno Friends has used it to explore how it could help the homeless in Reno. Another time we gathered in worship sharing to heal after a fractious few months that threatened to split the Meeting.

Sometimes I think of worship sharing as our secret weapon:  when we begin to spin apart, we gather in silence, and with purpose, to address the forces pulling us apart. Once everyone’s feelings, concerns and hopes are laid on the table, it is much easier to start knitting the Meeting back together.     

Worship sharing is conducted with some basic rules that help the gathering stay worshipful instead of devolving into argument or lecture. Baltimore Yearly Meeting has drawn up the following guidelines, which are typical:

  • Begin with centering silence. Reach deeply into the sacred center of your life.
  • Listen carefully and deeply to what is spoken, not distracted by your own thoughts.
  • Do not respond to what anyone else has said, either to praise or to refute.
  • Leave a period of silence between speakers to reflect and keep centered.
  • Expect to speak only once, until everyone has had a chance to speak.
  • Speak from your own experience. Concentrate on feelings and changes rather than on thoughts or theories. Use “I statements.”
  • Consider the time so as to not take more that your share. You may have many responses to the queries; pick just one or two to share. You may pass if you like.
  • Respect confidentiality; whatever is said in the group, stays within the group.

Reno Friends will gather for another worship sharing on Sunday, March 17, at 11:30 am an event prompted by the departure last fall of two Friends from our Meeting community. Please join us if you would like to better understand this Quaker process or share wisdom that may bring us back together and help heal our Meeting.

Wendy Swallow, Reno Friends Meeting, wswallow54@gmail.com

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

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.)

 

Seeking Unity

Unity, the idea that we should seek consensus in our collective decisions, is a central testimony of the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).  In this fractious time, however, it often seems the goal of unity has been nearly forgotten.  Everyone seems to have differing views and fears and concerns, many of them deeply held. The anxieties of our age have taken a toll on our ability to talk with each other. In such a climate, unity feels nearly impossible to achieve. If so, does unity still matter?

Continue reading Seeking Unity

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

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

The Power of Love

Watching the news these days can leave you with a case of whiplash. One day we see images of white supremacists skirmishing with counter-protestors in Charlottesville, then we watch as scores of volunteers rescue neighbors and strangers from flooding in Houston. Are we a nation of hate or love? Are we divided or connected? 

All this has left me thinking a lot about the second commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” A Quaker lobbying organization recently sent our Meeting a batch of pins and bumper stickers that read “Love Thy Neighbor: No Exceptions.” I offered them to those lingering after silent worship one day but had few takers. I hesitated as well, knowing I was unlikely to apply one to my bumper. It seemed to set too high a standard, one I would fail every day. As another Reno Friend said, with a rueful smile, “what if I don’t love my neighbor?”

Ah, the thorn in the garden of love. The difficult neighbor who fails to live in a neighborly fashion, the officemate who undermines your work, the friend who knifes you in the back. Even worse are those whose beliefs and principles baffle us.  How are we to love them? How can we engage in meaningful dialogue if we dislike each other?

This is one of the biggest challenges facing our fractured society. Friends’ testimony asks us to speak both truthfully and lovingly when trying to resolve conflict, whether within Quaker Meetings or in the outside world. But that can be difficult. Truth-telling often seems harsh rather than loving. Quaker writer Alison Sharman tells of finding herself in the middle of “a difficult exercise of Quaker decision-making.” She wailed to an older and wiser Friend, “how can I speak the truth in love when I feel no love?” The older Friend answered, “unless you speak the truth there never will be love.”

Perhaps, but how do we bridge the distance between truth and love? In search of answers, I ran across a quote from Anne Hillman, a poet and author who writes on spiritual issues. “Love is not a feeling,” Hillman says. “Love is a great power, an intelligence to which we are all heir and have been forever called.”

The idea that love is not a feeling felt strangely liberating. If we are not required to feel love, it frees us from getting tangled in the honest stirrings of our hearts. As social creatures, it is natural for us to like and dislike different people, just as we like and dislike certain foods or experiences.

If we think instead of love as a power, the door opens to all kinds of fruitful exchange. As Hillman says, it’s a power and an intelligence. By that she means it is a power to be used thoughtfully, appropriately, with grace and care. Love, then, becomes the context for communication. Love becomes the action of seeking understanding. Perhaps this is what Quakers mean when we say “Look for the Light of God in everyone.” The simple act of seeking that Light is how you convey love to those you don’t understand.

These are difficult times, without a doubt. Author Susan Vreeland observes: “No matter where life takes you, the place that you stand at any given moment is holy ground. Love hard, and love wide and love long and you will find the goodness in it.” I’m taking those as my marching orders. Maybe now I can put that bumper sticker on my car.

Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting

 email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com

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