Friday, 23 May 2014

Beyond Tolerance

FWCC World Conference of Friends, Kabarak, Kenya April 2012
Presenting FWCC in my recent travels to Africa, I wanted to illustrate how we are all Friends, even with our diversity of language, culture, and Quaker theology.  I acknowledged the facility with which African Friends moved between the use of English and Kiswahili, even though there were Friends there from multiple counties.  In a room of 175 Friends, I was the only person who did not speak Kiswahili.  As a guest, it would have been ludicrous to insist that only English be used just so that I can understand the words.  That would be narrow and self-serving. There is an ease in using ones mother tongue to pray or speak of the Spirit, and there is a corresponding beauty of listening to the language of God. We can hear the message, not bound by too many words, but communicated by what we understand in our hearts.  Using this analogy, not insisting on the use of a single language, would it not be equally narrow to insist that all Quakers worship in the same way? 

At another Quaker gathering in Europe, at Epilogue we began each evening by hearing the Lord's prayer recited in a couple of different languages.  As a familiar prayer, one could hear the cadence and the occasional similar word.  On the final evening, we all stood and said the Lord's Prayer simultaneously in our own native tongue. It was a powerful reminder that in different languages, using different words, we share the same love, the same religious fervour, the same love of God.

At yet a third gathering within three weeks, this time at a European yearly meeting, I was asked why I did not use the word Jesus in my presentation of FWCC, as the person needed to hear this reference to Jesus in order to feel connected to my use of the word God.  In talking with him afterwards, I realized he could only access God through Jesus.   Does this mean he should insist that anyone talking about God use the word Jesus instead?  What if he were to replace the word for himself as he hears others speak?  I spent several years as a feminist correcting non-inclusive language, learning later to consider more thoughtfully where I might be instructive and where I could, for the most part, simply replace language in my own mind.  This radically changed my view, since I stopped looking for, what I experienced as the perversion.  I softened and was better able to understand anothers experience. 

For many of us, we want to be accepting of all Friends and celebrate the wonder that our relationship to the Divine is for us, in our lives, in our families, in our meeting communities and churches, and in our yearly meetings.  Like ecumenism and inter-faith work, diversity work, even among Friends, is continuous work.  It requires that we are attentive to each other and to the attitudes we carry, often unconsciously.  Might we be less reactive and more responsive?  Every action or inaction expresses an inner impetus to include or exclude, to act in love -- or not.

Why, with our testimony on equality, why with our reading of Jesus' greatest commandment to love one another, why with our conviction that there is that of God in every person, is it so difficult for us to suspend judgement and accept the differences among Friends?

Religion is deep and personal.  It shapes and informs our lives.  It is something we are so committed to that we give our lives to it.  Fortunately we have little opportunity to test the extent to which we might die for our faith, but one could easily claim to "give my whole self', "to give my life to Christ", or to "lose myself in the Spirit."  We might understand any of these phrases as descriptive of the extent to which we commit ourselves to the religious life, to seeking, to the Quaker Way.  There are many different ways to express this, but if we hear it as Holy language, we might be able to hear it with an open heart.  When our religious life is so total, so deep and personal, we carry it with a sense of purpose and commitment.

I grew up in Friends United Meeting, the daughter of a Quaker pastor.  My ancestors emigrated from England to the US to avoid persecution in 1690.  My grandparents, devoted to the Quaker church, spawned 7 children and 32 grandchildren, many of whom continue as Friends. Within my extended family, we span across the unprogrammed, programmed, and evangelical spectrum.  When we gather, we share the joy of our faith, we pray together, and we encourage one another.  And we embrace cousins who have married into other faiths or given up on faith all together.  There is room for all of us at the table. 

Whether we were raised in a Quaker church or meeting or whether we came to Quakerism later in life, we have an experience of Quakerism that we can claim -- it is what we know.  We can each say, "I am a Quaker."  When others worship differently, it does not diminish our own experience in any way.  When my daughters were small and I would complement one of them the other would say, "What about me?"  I would say, "a compliment for your sister does not take anything away from you."  In the same way, if you acknowledge and appreciate that there are Quakers who worship differently than you, it takes nothing from the validity of your experience. 

If my neighbour is from another Christian religion, I can be happy that he or she finds meaning in religious experience.  If my neighbour practices another world religion, I might be equally happy for him or her, but I may not understand the experience as well, simply because I have less exposure to the actual practices. It has the potential to create distance.  I also has the potential to awaken our curiosity.  But if my neighbour, often from another part of the world, claims to be a Quaker, and the worship looks different from the religious experience I cherish, I might be quick to hold dearly to my own experience, rejecting his or her claim to Quakerism, even though he or she finds it equally dear.  We can both have powerful religious experience as Friends, we can both say that I am a Quaker, and we can be happy that as Friends we all find the depth of the Holy Spirit, of God, moving in our lives.  How precious is that?

If you believe that a culturally diverse world and neighbourhood is preferable to cultural isolation, then you might also come to believe that the diversity of Friends actually strengthens the family of Friends.  You might also appreciate that living in a diverse world, requires more of us in terms of learning about each other, appreciating without feeling the need to convert others, and accepting differences without judging.  For me, diversity work is a constant challenge of letting go, to look for that of God in each person, and to suspend judgement.  It is learning to be grateful that others find meaning in being a Quaker, knowing that we share some common elements of being Quaker, and there are different practices that have grown out of the history and cultures in which we live. 

Ultimately, we need to be the change we want to see in the world.  If we cannot accept other Friends as part of our Quaker family, then we will not be able to ask others to go beyond tolerating difference.  As we ask others to be more loving, more just and equitable, we must ask that of ourselves first.

Dorothy Selebwa, Kenyan Quaker and Gretchen Castle
at the FWCC World Gathering at Kabarak, Kenya April 2012
I hope we will evolve, challenging ourselves to search out those places within us that judge others, whether it is a different belief, a different opinion about something dear to us, or a different way of worshipping God.

Let us listen with our hearts and hear the language of the Holy Spirit.  Let us speak the universal language of God, the language of love.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Small Circles and Deep Church

Small Circles and Deep Church

Many Friends worship in circles.  British Friends carefully place a small table in the centre with the Bible, Quaker Faith & Practice, and other books to encourage worshippers’ inspiration.   Many Friends worship in larger meetinghouses or churches on benches or pews.  In Nairobi following a three hour worship service, Friends gathered in many small groups under the trees for singing and Bible study and fellowship.  Growing up, I worshipped in a large church that was built for Iowa Yearly Meeting (USA), its benches in a semi-circular fashion, the choir completing the circle (using a wee bit of imagination). 

Worldwide, there are at least 377,000 Quakers. We have worshipping communities located on every continent.   From the abundance of work and emails in the FWCC World Office, it feels like a substantial group we serve.

For perspective, Christianity makes up approximately 33% of the world’s population.  Within Christianity worldwide (according to World Christian Denominations) , broadly speaking, Catholics make up about 53%, historical Protestants 15%, modern Protestants/Pentecostals make up 14%, Orthodox (both Eastern and Oriental) about 12%, and Baptists 5%.  Lutherans, Methodists, Reformed, Anglicans, and Evangelicals over 3% each.  Non-Trinitarians make up approximately 1.2% and Anabaptists .2%.  Quakers make up .02% of Christians around the world.

Ok, so we are relatively small.  You knew that. 

Prompted by a recent talk I heard at the Europe and Middle East Section Annual Meeting, I have been thinking about the positive effect of Quakers being a relatively small group.  Julia Ryberg described her encounter with a clergy member of a large denomination, who heard her description of Quakers being a small religious body, and he responded with an uncharacteristically positive view.  He said that our small size is a real advantage.   I can’t say I have ever seen it that way.

It got me thinking about the ways we work.

The Quaker United Nations Office (both Geneva and New York) describes its work as providing space for informal dialogue, working in small circles.  Their brochure reads, “By creating space for quiet dialogue, we shape UN and other international priorities, and we bring attention to issues that are not yet on the international agenda.  The reputation and atmosphere of our Quaker Houses allows for the emergence of more reflective and inclusive responses to difficult issues, ideas which might not be heard in more formal settings.  The scale of international negotiations can feel challenging, but the trusting environment we provide, informed by Quaker methods, remains key to our work.”      I have heard diplomats testify to the power of this approach. It is through persistence and the willingness to have many conversations over time, acting in faith that change will happen. As we see in the UN and in many, many places, it can be a long process.

“I pin my hope to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."                                                                                          - Rufus Jones 1937

As Friends we dwell in possibility.  Holding to a vision, knowing there is potential for more or better, seeing things in new ways, creating space for whatever is next .... this for me is faith.  This optimism for me is borne of my Quaker upbringing.  This holding for change, for possibility, for transformation is at the very core of my religious life.  Possibility and the expectation of transformation is, I believe, at the heart of the Quaker experience.  

We might say that Quaker ways of working might ideally include:

Ø  Small circles:  We value the experience within the community of a circle.

Ø  Inclusion: There is that of God in every person; each person is a contributor.

Ø  Listening: Understanding is valued over attempts to persuade.

Ø  Persistence: Holding for a better outcome, we keep at it.

Ø  Spiritually grounded: Motivation comes from many sources, including anger at injustice, yet our actions are spiritually grounded.

If we aspire to be grounded in our faith, how do we as a Quaker movement and Quaker church affirm these ways of working?  How do these processes help us build trust within our worshipping communities?  How do we value our ability to work in small groups and move toward what Richard Rohr calls the “deep church”?  God provides ample opportunity to practice these ways of working.  I might be tempted to wish I had less opportunity!


It is the critical mass, or “leaven” and “salt” who can and will change the world and reform institutions. This is Jesus’ basic and first image of church. Nowhere is there found an institutional image of church as such. “Deep church” is invariably something shared between a small group of believers, which is probably why he speaks of “two or three gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).
                          - Richard Rohr, adapted from Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount


While our Quaker communities give us a place to practice the love that Jesus talked about, it is taking what we know, as a small group of believers, and using it outside our institutional constructs to reform the world.  Let us be the change.  Let us honour humanity by working in small circles, by listening and being inclusive and persistent.  Let our actions reflect the “deep church”.

My Home Group at the World Conference of Friends in Kabarak, Kenya, were the “deep church” became a precious experience.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Esturary as Spiritual Metaphor

Estuary as Spiritual Metaphor


Flying over Sweden, I saw a most beautiful estuary, a river slowing to its end, branching into multiple Y-shaped capillaries.  The perspective from above illuminated the whole of it, the alluvial fan shape, the slowing motion, the expansive reach through the smaller and smaller tendrils.  Funny that a friend had talked with me the day before about estuary as a spiritual metaphor.

I have always liked the metaphor of the spiritual stream: diving deep and surfacing, letting go, allowing the current to carry me, discover where it will all lead, learning as I go… my friend talked about the slowing of the water in an estuary.  As it slows the rich deposits are let go, deposited, creating a very rich soil, a fertile environment.   Fertility leading to new and creative energy. 

Estuary seems to defy strict definition, but it is characterized by having a free connection to the open sea, where the mix of sea and fresh water create a transitional zone dependent on the rhythms of the tides.  Some Native Americans call it the “between-land”, not quite land, not quite water. 

As a spiritual metaphor, what is it like to slow down, to be in that transitional place, moved by both influx of water and letting go of the load one carries?  To relax one’s grip.  To let go in order to let come – to let the creative place thrive.  Or just to sit in the silt and let the water surround you.  Let God’s love surround you.  What is it like to let the source of all life and breath take root in your fertile life, through the quiet and organic process of letting go and letting God…

I grew up in an agricultural environment, rural Iowa in the USA, where the pace of life was full, but not fast.  Where neighbours would stop by and you always had time to chat.   When I moved to the east coast of the United States, the pace seemed frenetic and chaotic. There was less time for people, and perhaps even less for God.  I realized I was not likely to change the energy of life around me.  Rather, I learned how to dive deep within and allow myself to move at God’s pace, at a pace that allowed me to be fed, to take in nourishment from the Holy Spirit.  I learned that the power laid within me to create a more rich and creative spiritual environment.  I did not need to be reliant on what surrounded me, but like the estuary, I could slow down and rely on gifts God had given me to carry.  As I lay the gifts down, they could be exposed to the light, to work in tandem with those things around me without being driven by the pace of the world.  Now, my children would tell you that I did not accomplish this much of the time, still there were times that I knew the power of slowing to my own natural pace, and that is where I was most likely to know God.

On the same trip to Nordic Yearly Meeting, I travelled with a Friend on the train, and we spoke in broken English of our family history as Quakers.  It turns out, both of our families had been in England in the late 1600’s, and to avoid persecution, her family had fled to Norway and mine fled to the United States, to Bucks County Pennsylvania to North Carolina, and eventually to Illinois and Iowa, the trail of so many American Quakers.  We shared a history, a time swimming in the big river, and moving into different streams.  There we were, struggling to understand the words, but definitely speaking from the same heart.  We were able to share just how important Quakerism has been to each of us.  Like the estuary, we were swimming in the same water, riding the tidal rhythms, basking in creativity, appreciating the Quaker way. 

God is in all things.

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalms 46:10



Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Serving Friends From Wherever We Are

2012 will be a year to remember in my family.  Within the course of a few months, I packed up and sold a three storey home, accompanied two daughters through graduations from college and secondary school, finished my job as Dean of Studies at Pendle Hill, sold my car, resigned from several boards and committees, settled daughter #2 in college, oh yes, and I got married, before the two of us packed off to live in London. 

The move was surrounded by the excitement of my new post as General Secretary of FWCC.  Once here, people often (pronounced of-ten) ask, “How do you like living in London?”  It is easy to reply that we love it here.  It is new and full of history and museums of all kinds.  There is amazing architecture at every turn.  We could attend Evensong every day and endless concerts by night.  Bridges over the Thames, a seemingly endless number of castles, the Cutty Sark and the maritime culture, all compete for our next free week-end not to mention the beautiful countryside.  I now realize that the resplendent floral gardens are the result of rain.  Nearly daily rain.  Other than grey-cloud-day weather, the United Kingdom is quite lovely!

Even though it is easy to be fooled into thinking our cultures are alike, sharing the same language and all…well sort of, it is actually quite an adjustment to live in another country.  Perhaps it is simply a difference of style, energy, and expression, but I do find myself quite often wondering just what the person in front of me is really saying, or I try to make a joke and am met with that familiar blank stare that tells me my sense of humour does not translate. Friends here are marvellously active and inviting, yet cultural differences leave me yearning for that ease of a new friendship in America that simply happens differently. 

I am confident that it will all get easier with time – it has already, as I have come to enjoy visiting Friends in their homes and meetings for worship. 

The truth is, I would have moved anywhere in the world to do this work.  It is the service to Friends that draws me here and compelled me to leave my familiar life.  I feel called to this work and it feels rightly ordered.  Arthur Larrabee, General Secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, was recently visiting London and said, “It seems you are in the right place!”  It is one of many continued affirmations. 

What feels so compelling to me?  I believe in the power of God in our lives, and the power of Friends in the world.  We have the potential to be transformed as we “answer God’s call to universal love”, and we have a compelling message to share with the world.  We can be instruments of healing, not in isolation, but by building unity and understanding among Friends, across cultures, across religions, and within the human family.  We are people who dwell in possibility, who can see potential.  We tend toward empowering others, we will stand for justice and protect human rights.  Our care for the earth and for each other are, in my view, spiritual imperatives.  At our best, our actions flow from a spiritual understanding and motivation that informs our choices where, as John Woolman said, love was [is] the first motion. 

As we work collectively to strengthen the Quaker network world-wide, as FWCC, as yearly meetings and local/monthly/tribal meetings, and with other Quaker organizations, our time and commitment will be well used.  I pray that as Friends we will continue to discern ways forward in order to leave this world a better place.  We have much work to do…. wherever we are.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

I Bring Greetings from Around the World

I delight in saying, “I bring greetings from Friends around the world.”  It is an important element of traveling among Friends – for each of us, whether we bring greetings from the neighbouring monthly or local meeting, or whether we are returning from the World Conference of Friends.  It is a reminder that there are other Friends who care about us.

I learned the real value of encouragement from John Muhanji and Eden Grace on a trip to Turkana in northern Kenya a couple of years ago.  As we travelled to several different monthly meetings, gathering under the Acacia trees or in open air meeting houses built from branches and clay, John and Eden asked each of us to offer a few words of encouragement.  While this generally feels quite natural to me, I found myself asking, “What in the world do I have to offer these Friends?” Part of my timidity came out of the noticeable difference between the worlds in which we live. Part of my reluctance came from my own emptiness in the face of the people I was with – people who survive daily in such a harsh environment, people who gather together as Friends around ministry without access to readings and history and much exposure to other Friends.  I was in awe of these Friends.

As we warmed to each other, we shared the joy of watching children, of meeting clerks and elders, of praying together.  Children were curious about my funny white skin and would touch it and quickly pull back.  The story goes that we have a suit of white skin that can be unzipped and removed to reveal the beautiful darkness underneath.  They gave us each a name: mine was Akiru which I am told means water, which can change everything in the desert.  It holds the power of both creation and destruction.  Hmm… I prefer the former!

As encouragement, I found myself expressing joy and gratitude in meeting them and being together.  I said that I would pray for them if they would pray for me.  I said that I would remember them when I looked up at the moon, since we all live under the same moon.  And I said, “I bring greetings from Friends around the world.”

While Turkana may paint one of the most stark cultural differences as compared to European culture, the love of Friends is ever present, communicating through interpreters, heart to heart.  God’s presence was palpable. 

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).

When I say, “I bring greetings from Friends around the world,” I am hoping to simply express a keen sense of awe

…that Friends worship all around the world,

…that God moves within and among us in miraculous ways,

… that God is accessible to all of us,

… that we encourage one another simply by being Friends,

…that even as we are each a blessing to God, we are a blessing to one another,

...that we all live underneath the same bright moon, in perfect spiritual equality.

I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10).

I ask not only that we bless each other in our daily thoughts and prayers, but that we remember that God also blesses the space between us.  May we greet one another warmly in our hearts, and may we remember the sacredness of the spaces between us.