Time to rid Germany of nuclear weapons

It is time to rid Germany – and indeed the whole world – of nuclear weapons. This was the message of around 500 Christians who gathered last Saturday (7 July) at Büchel, an air base in the west of Germany where about 20 nuclear weapons are stored in readiness. Our worship began with two minutes of silence at 11.58, two minutes to midday, symbolising the current setting of the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock represents how close atomic scientists believe the planet is to a global catastrophe such as nuclear war and has been set at two minutes to midnight since January this year.

During the worship Renke Brahms, peace secretary of the “Evangelical” (i.e. Protestant) Church in Germany, said that it was not his job as a preacher to tell the German government what to do. But it is the job of a preacher to encourage Christians, as disciples of Jesus, to follow the call to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, and to do good to those who persecute us (see Matthew 5).

Heino Falcke at Büchel

Heino Falcke, former provost of Erfurt, speaking at the ecumenical event at Büchel

One of the speakers during the afternoon was Heino Falcke, who was Provost of the Protestant church in Erfurt, a city in Thuringia, formerly part of “East Germany”, from 1973 to 1994. He mentioned the World Council of Churches’ (WCC’s) “conciliar process” for justice, peace and the integrity of creation and the role of the churches in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, known as “East Germany”) in supporting conscientious objectors to military service and young people who wanted to work for peace. What he did not mention was that he himself brought a proposal for an ecumenical council on peace to the Vancouver Assembly of the WCC in 1983. It was this that prompted the WCC to launch the “conciliar process” for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. Nor did Heino Falcke mention the important role which he himself played in the “conciliar process” in the GDR, which involved a series of ecumenical assemblies. He did, however, encourage us to join him in campaigning for an amendment to the German constitution which would make Germany a nuclear-free zone.

Towards the end of the event, Stefan Maass, peace secretary of the Protestant Church in Baden, presented a recently published scenario, “Rethinking Security: From military to civil security”. More about that below. But first a look at what has happened in the past – in the 1980s in particular – and some thoughts about our present predicament.

Back in the 1980s the Doomsday Clock stood at four minutes to midnight. It seemed likely that the arms race between NATO and the Warsaw Pact would end in a devastating nuclear war. Cruise missiles were to be sited at Greenham Common and Molesworth. Her Majesty’s Government issued a pamphlet entitled “Protect and Survive” with instructions on how to protect oneself and one’s family in the event of a nuclear attack.

But many people opposed this new acceleration in the arms race. A Women’s Peace Camp was established at Greenham Common and Christian peace activists set up a peace camp at Molesworth. CND and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation published a pamphlet entitled “Protest and Survive”.

At the same time nonviolent movements grew in Poland (Solidarnosc), Hungary, Czechoslovakia (Charter 77), and the GDR (civil society groups under the wing of the churches). They eventually brought about the collapse of the Soviet Empire, which was symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. And at much the same time treaties were signed which more or less brought a halt to the arms race.

Nonviolent movements in both East and West led not only to a pause in the arms race but also to an end to the East-West divide. I never imagined that the Berlin Wall would come down in my lifetime.

However, the world is now a more dangerous place than it was even thirty or forty years ago. Both the USA and Russia still have huge arsenals and both are ruled by unscrupulous megalomaniacs. China has built up a sizeable arsenal. France and Britain still cling on to their “force de frappe” and “nuclear deterrent”. Pakistan and India both possess enough weapons to cause unimaginable suffering. It is no secret that Israel has nuclear weapons. One wonders how long the deal with Iran will hold, now that the USA has pulled out. And relations between the USA and North Korea appear to be unpredictable and potentially volatile.

So what does the future hold? More of the same would mean growing militarisation of the EU, the USA, and a great many countries throughout the world, even though recent experience in Syria and elsewhere has shown that military responses to crises tend to make matters worse. Growing militarisation, more “failed states”, more refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, and the failure to tackle climate change resulting in more and more regions becoming uninhabitable due to flooding and droughts, etc. – all this seems fairly likely.

Indeed, it could conceivably all be much worse: all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; a nuclear missile launched by accident; catastrophic climate change even during the next few decades, because of the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; mass starvation in sub-Saharan Africa; even greater flows of refugees, which UN agencies can no longer cope with. All this is possible.

But a positive scenario is also possible. The scenario postulated by the Protestant Church in Baden envisages Germany making a transition by 2040 from a military security policy to a civil security policy. This would come about because of the recognition that Germany’s own security depends on the security of its neighbours. It is better to help build up justice, peace, and democratic institutions in other countries rather than threaten their security or attempt to build peace by military means. Germany’s civil security policy would stand on five pillars: 1. Just foreign relations; 2. Sustainable development in the EU’s neighbourhood countries; 3. Participation in the international security architecture (EU, OSCE, NATO, UN); 4. Resilient democracy; and 5. Conversion of the federal armed forces and the armaments industry.

Are you intrigued? I hope so! Last week I completed the translation of “Rethinking Security: From military to civil security”, so it is now available in English.

The great thing about this scenario is that it presents a positive vision of how the future could be, if we choose to do all we can to make it happen. I’m reminded of the verse in the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:19): “I set before you life and death, blessing and a curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your children may live.”

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Words and Meanings

Translation – as any translator will tell you – is not so much about translating words as about translating meaning. If you translate words without knowing what they mean – and I imagine that that is what machine translation does – you can easily fail to convey the correct meaning.

So a translator must have an excellent knowledge of the source language, the language of the original text which is to be translated, because they need to understand the meaning of the words. They also need to have mastered the target language into which they are translating, so that they can accurately convey the meaning of the original text in a way which the reader can easily understand.

This is especially difficult when the meaning is not easily understood, even by a native speaker. If the subject matter is physics or metaphysics or any other specialist topic, there are probably difficult or complicated concepts to grasp. Or there may be several layers of meaning – as in poetry, for example.

A translator really needs to have a very good understanding not only of the two languages, but also of the two cultures. When I’m translating a sermon by a German pastor into English for British church-goers, that isn’t too much of a problem. I’m very much at home both in the German Protestant Church and in church circles generally in both Britain and Germany. And the two cultures don’t differ that much.

I recently translated the annual report of Brot für die Welt, the German equivalent of Christian Aid. This included reports on projects in various countries such as Colombia (concerned with peace and human rights) and South Africa (concerned with the rights of mine workers and their families). I found it helpful to have visited South Africa, Ecuador, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, and Palestine, so that I have some understanding of the context of Brot für die Welt’s project work. Indeed one of my two visits to Kenya was to take part in the evaluation of a Brot für die Welt project, the Quaker-run Rural Service Programme in Western Kenya. I didn’t have much trouble translating project reports or interviews with Brot für die Welt staff. But I did struggle a bit with the balance sheet, in spite of having produced the annual accounts for the European peace church network Church and Peace for several years.

I’m now getting involved in a major translation project which is likely to throw up a few problems: the translation of George Fox’s journal into modern German. George Fox was the principal founder of the Quakers, born in 1624 in the English Midlands. He was not only writing in 17th century English; he was living in a very different culture from that of 21st century Britain. Last year my wife and I spent five months at Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria. The Hall became the first headquarters of the growing Quaker movement after George Fox visited the Fell family there in 1652. I was able to get some sense of what life was like there in the 17th century. But I couldn’t turn the clock back and actually live at that time and experience the culture at first hand. So I have to make do with reading about those times. (Here I would strongly recommend Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down”.)

Having been born in the 20th century, my knowledge and understanding of 17th century England and English is limited. But translating into German, which is not my mother tongue, could well be even more of a problem. So I’m glad that I’m working together with native German speakers and will not have to translate the whole journal (nearly 800 pages) myself.

One of the words used frequently by George Fox could cause us a few headaches or at least a lot of head-scratching. George Fox often quarrelled with people whom he disparagingly referred to as “professors”, people who professed their Christian faith but who did not actually know – or “possess” – Christ in their hearts. To translate “professor” as “Professor” or “Dozent” in German would obviously be wrong. But I have yet to find a suitable German word which conveys what George Fox meant by “professor”. “Fromme”, meaning a pious person, is the best I can come up with so far. Any alternative suggestions would be most welcome!

George Fox was at pains to point out that academic learning can be a waste of time and what really matters is to pay attention to the Spirit of Christ, our Inward Teacher, the Light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Last night I dreamt that I was waiting in a courtyard to set off on a long journey with a fairly large group of people. I was one of the first to show up (which isn’t at all typical of me) with my large rucksack. (I guess I am carrying a fair amount of psychological baggage.) Slowly, more and more people entered the courtyard. I was looking out for the leader of the group, but no-one identified themselves. Eventually, when the courtyard had become rather crowded, someone started calling out my name. I couldn’t tell very easily where the voice was coming from and felt rather annoyed that the leader hadn’t identified himself before calling out my name. After a short while I saw who the leader was amongst the crowd, but I made a show of looking all around to make the point that the leader should have identified himself more obviously. I wonder now whether perhaps I should have been paying more attention to all the other people who were coming and going. I might then have noticed the leader when he arrived. Or maybe he was there all along.

Thomas Kelly, the 20th century Quaker mystic, possessed knowledge of Christ within. He wrote in “A Testament of Devotion”:

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls.”

What sustains you?

Man must not depend on bread alone to sustain him, but on everything that the Lord says.

Deuteronomy 8:3

There is a power, a force for good – a “higher power”, if you like – which I choose to call God or the Spirit. This is what sustains me.

I encounter this power as the “fire within” or a “still, small voice” during a gathered Quaker meeting for worship, whenever I turn to God in prayer, during a walk in the countryside, whilst circle dancing, or during a deep and “meaningful” conversation with friends.

Two Quaker friends came to visit a few days ago. Neithard gave the annual Richard Cary Lecture at the German Quaker yearly meeting a couple of years ago. I missed hearing the lecture because I wasn’t at the yearly meeting. And I haven’t got around to reading it. I should do so, if I can lay my hands on a copy. Neithard reminded my wife and me of two stories which he told during the lecture.

I have heard one of the stories before. It goes something like this: A native American elder tells his grandson that it sometimes feels to him as if there were two wolves fighting inside him. One wolf is good and loving and the other is evil and hateful. His grandson anxiously asks which wolf wins. The elder tells him that the wolf whom he feeds wins the battle.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” We can each of us choose to feed the greedy, fearful and hateful wolf within us by dwelling on bitter and resentful thoughts. Or we can let go of those thoughts and feed the loving and caring wolf within us instead.

The other “story” was related to the question as to whether a glass is half-full or half-empty. I believe Neithard actually gave a demonstration during his lecture of what happens when the same amount of water is poured into three glasses: a large glass, a glass half the size and an even smaller glass. When the water is poured into the large glass, the glass is half-full (or half-empty). The same amount of water just about fills the medium sized glass. When poured into the smallest glass, the glass overflows.

It seems to me that our Western consumerist culture (which worships Mammon rather than the God of Abraham) encourages us to focus on what we are lacking, as if our lives were half-empty. I am more inclined to give thanks that my cup overflows!

It is all a question of perspective. People let us down all the time (usually unintentionally, I believe). We can choose to focus on their failure to be as loving towards us as we might have reason to expect. This is likely to lead us to the conclusion that the friends or colleagues who let us down don’t really like us. Or we can accept the human failings of our friends and colleagues without jumping to such conclusions.

I realise that it’s easy for me to say this, having been blessed with loving friends throughout most of my life. In the world of work – even within church organisations – colleagues can indeed be intentionally malicious. So I guess one has to be realistic and not wear rose-tinted spectacles too much of the time.

There is evil in the world. And we need to take up spiritual weapons to overcome it. So we need the sustenance which we gain from every encounter with the loving God, who will rule our hearts, if that is what we choose.

Who are we?

Does the picture which we paint of ourselves as Quakers actually reflect reality? I suspect that we often think more highly of ourselves than we have reason to. In reality we fall short both as individuals and as a faith community – just like everyone else. Reality is somewhat different from the rhetoric.

But let’s not beat ourselves up about that. We need to recognise our failings – as individuals and as meetings or worship groups, take care of those who have been hurt so that their wounds can heal, forgive ourselves and each other, learn whatever lessons need to be learned (i.e. repent), and do better (i.e. behave more lovingly) in the future.

But the question remains: Who are we?

Last Sunday evening, as three of us were travelling back from a regional meeting north of Duisburg, I asked myself, “Wer sind wir?” (Who are we?). It occurred to me that we might be tempted to exclaim, “Wir sind wer!” (We are Somebody!). Apart from the danger of over-estimating our own importance, we need to know who we are before we can start telling people about ourselves.

At this point I think it is significant to note that George Fox did not go about telling people how wonderful the Religious Society of Friends was. He encouraged/admonished people to turn to their Inward Teacher, the Inward Light of Christ within, to be patterns and examples, and that they would then “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one”. And he encouraged people to meet together to open themselves to the Light within.

At the end of a blogpost entitled “Joy” posted on 21 June 2014 I reproduced a letter from another early Quaker, Isaac Pennington, to Friends in Amersham. We (Quakers) are fond of quoting the first couple of lines of this letter: “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand”. I’ve heard Friends quote this because it has been their experience of the life of their meeting, for which they are thankful. On other occasions, when there has been conflict in a meeting, it has been quoted to remind Friends of the need to be tender with each other. Sadly, it is sometimes quoted to point out the lack of tenderness and a forgiving spirit in a meeting.

In his letter Isaac Pennington encouraged Friends in Amersham: “Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another.” When I feel this spirit, I know that I myself am forgiven. And, knowing this, I’m able to forgive anyone who hurts me. Even when I don’t feel this spirit, I try to avoid laying accusations against anyone, however hurt I may be, because of the likelihood that I’m failing to see the beam in my own eye (Matthew 7.1-5). This needn’t stop me from letting it be known that I’ve been hurt – I find Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as taught by Marshall Rosenberg helpful in this respect. But I do try to avoid making hurtful accusations and to bear in mind that any accusation is likely to be hurtful.

When we are able to walk in the spirit of love and tenderness, the Religious Society of Friends becomes what it is meant to be: a faith community. The New Testament word is “koinonia”, often translated as “fellowship”. The Religious Society of Friends is (or should be, I believe) a very particular kind of faith community, i.e. a peace church, “ekklesia” in Greek. A true Christian church or ekklesia is necessarily a peace church, i.e. a faith community or koinonia which engages in peacemaking both internally and in the wider world. There are other criteria (debatable and debated amongst theologians) which need to be met for a faith community to be a true church or “ekklesia”, but active engagement in peacemaking seems to me to be crucial.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, describes what a peace church should be like:

“If then our common life in Christ (“koinonia”) yields anything to stir the heart, any loving consolation, any sharing of the Spirit, any warmth of affection or compassion, fill up my cup of happiness by thinking and feeling alike, with the same love for one another, the same turn of mind, and a common care for unity. There must be no room for rivalry and personal vanity among you, but you must humbly reckon others better than yourselves. Look to each other’s interest and not merely to your own.

Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your Life in Christ Jesus.”

(Philippians 2.1-5)

This is what I think we should aspire to.

We need, however, to beware of expecting too much from others in our faith community. Whilst we most certainly need to practise loving kindness towards each other in the spirit of love and tenderness, it is a mistake to attempt to do or expect others to do what only the Spirit can do for us. Isaac Pennington writes: “… watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.”

There are times when I fail to watch over my “brothers” and “sisters” as I should (for I am my brothers’ and my sisters’ keeper). I have to wait upon the Lord to preserve me and others from harm. And we all need to wait upon the Lord to help us out of the snare. When we wait upon the Lord and live in the spirit of love and tenderness, the Spirit will guide and strengthen us as we keep going on our spiritual journeys.

Hadewijch

As we were leaving our flat this morning, my wife and I stopped to admire our marriage certificate which is hanging in a frame just inside the door to the apartment. We were married in a Quaker meeting, so we have a custom-designed marriage certificate which was signed by all those who were present and witnessed our marriage. The certificate was created by Hadewijch Touwen who, from time to time, had sent us cards which she had made herself with colourful collages.

We recently received the very sad news that Hadewijch had died from heart failure. Today we attended a memorial meeting in Deventer in the Netherlands. This was a moving occasion with more than 300 people present. The large room at the crematorium was not big enough to hold us all. Many of us were standing and others had to watch and listen to the worship via a video link in a neighbouring room.

Fortunately the speeches which had been prepared by members of her family and by one of the Dutch Quakers were translated into English. And, although I understood little of what was said during the unprogrammed worship, my wife told me about it afterwards.

One of the Quakers recounted a dream which they had had about Hadewijch. They saw Hadewijch being welcomed at the gates of Heaven. Although she was invited in, she stopped and asked whether she could go to Hell instead, because she would be able to do more to help people there.

Her son, Ide, told us: “Her care and compassion were apparent in everything she did and this is what I admire most in her.”

I first got to know Hadewijch when she was a “student helper” at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre in Selly Oak, Birmingham, during the autumn term of 1980 when I was a student following Woodbrooke courses. I have vague memories of her wielding a paintbrush or working in the kitchen.

Hadewijch spent a whole year at Woodbrooke and became a Quaker by convincement. A few years later she become the first clerk of Europe and Middle East Young Friends (EMEYF). For the first six months of 1987 I served as secretary to EMEYF, which included participating in the spring gathering in Copenhagen. That summer Hadewijch and I shared the experience of a week at Taizé together with a small group of young Quakers from around Europe.

A couple of years later I had the privilege of attending Hadewijch’s and Martin’s wedding in Hamburg, which was, of course, a most joyful occasion.

Somewhere I have a photograph of Hadewijch and Martin which I took when they visited me in Laufdorf (north of Frankfurt-am-Main) fairly soon after I moved there in 1990.

We kept in touch intermittently and I occasionally met Martin at various Quaker gatherings. In 2012 both Martin and I were amongst the participants in the Friends World Conference in Kenya. After the gathering I needed somewhere to stay on my way to Brussels and Martin arranged with Hadewijch for me to stay at their house. Hadewijch made me feel very much at home and allowed me to use a computer to prepare the presentation that I had to give in Brussels.

Some time last year my wife and I were able to enjoy Hadewijch’s (and Martin’s) hospitality once again. And they both attended our wedding in Lancaster.

Little did we know that a year later Hadewijch would no longer be with us. Hadewijch was a good friend to us both and we are grateful that we have the beautiful marriage certificate which she created. As her son, Ide, said, “She will forever live in our memories.”

In an article in this week’s issue of the Friend Terry Hobday writes: “It is in acts of loving kindness and respect that our true colours are really seen.” Light shone through Hadewijch’s life in all the colours of the rainbow.

Ide said: “When she heard about refugees in the Netherlands who could not acquire citizenship because they couldn’t master the language, she started helping them by teaching Dutch to her ‘taalmaatje’. When she heard of an elderly person who, in her younger years, loved to crochet and knit, she provided her with wool and needles. When she heard about prisoners in Iraq who had not received a fair trial, she sent many Amnesty letters to their government until they had.

“When Hadewijch spoke to you, you would always feel her compassion. In a conversation she would always listen attentively to your story and give you the feeling of being heard. This made it very nice to speak to her, not only for me but also, I believe, for everyone else. Nevertheless, Hadewijch did have clear opinions herself. These often differed from my own. For example, my parents and I have very different attitudes to faith and religion. I treasure the kind of mother that Hadewijch was, a mother who did not want to impose her beliefs upon me, but taught me to form and argue my own opinions. I have always been able to have good discussions with her about any kind of subject because we have always respected each other’s opinions and were open to changing our own.”

Hadewijch’s brother, Jeroen, described Hadewijch as a “strong, loving and very stable person”. He said: “There is a sudden emptiness at a spot where we expect someone who is always loving, attentive, friendly, open and interested.”

Jeroen said that Hadewijch felt “safe … in her faith in God”. “She did not believe in an almighty God who determined her fate, but trusted a God of love to take her by the hand and not let go.”

Mon ȃme se repose en paix sur dieu seul.

De lui vien mon salut.

Oui sur dieu seul mon ȃme se repose, se repose en paix.

(from the songs of Taizé)

Witnessing to Peace in the 21st Century

“Working for Peace: Our peace testimony in the 21st century” was the theme of this year’s annual meeting of Dutch Quakers – Netherlands Yearly Meeting – which took place a few weeks ago. This subject is very dear to my heart, as is surely obvious to those of you who are familiar with my blog. Witnessing to peace is central to my understanding of what it means to be a Quaker.

Note that it is “witnessing to peace”, rather than “working for peace”, which I believe to be significant. As disciples of Jesus, we witness to the peace which God gives us. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker movement in the 17th century, told Cromwell’s commissioners that he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars”. There is a life and power which is life-giving and life-supporting. This is a much better defence against all that threatens to damage or destroy us than any use of military force or violence would be.

When we live in the virtue of that life and power, our lives become a witness to God’s peace. We become peaceable people who have no need to resort to violence. Whenever we do violence to a fellow human being, we demonstrate a lack of faith in God.

Living in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, and following the leadings of God’s spirit of love, may well lead us to work for peace in various ways. But at all times we need to put our faith in God rather than in anything that we can do. As soon as we begin to trust our own judgement and to put our faith in our own actions, we risk making matters worse when we become engaged in conflict.

On the Saturday morning at Netherlands Yearly Meeting Antal (“Toni”) Frei, pastor of the Evangelical Friends Church in Hungary, reminded us of our calling to be peacemakers who are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told those who had gathered to hear him: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”.

Paul of Tarsus, in his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth (2 Corinthians 5:17-20), wrote: “Therefore, if someone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come. All this is the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation. It is God who through Christ reconciled the world to himself, he has not charged the world its violations. And he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors for Christ, God makes his appeal through us. On behalf of Christ, we beg you, be reconciled to God!”

During the weekend we were reminded now and then of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, which begins: “Make me an instrument of your peace.” I prefer the translation: “Make me a channel of your peace”. Maybe God uses us as instruments. I don’t know. But I find it more helpful to think of opening myself to God’s spirit of love, so that God’s peace can flow through me into whatever situation I find myself in, especially when I’m in a situation of conflict.

Each day during the weekend we met in small base groups. I’m grateful for the depth of sharing that I experienced in the group that I was in. When we introduced ourselves on Friday evening, we shared our experiences of being peacemakers. When we met after breakfast on Sunday morning, we shared our ideas about the next steps which we might take as peacemakers.

I noted down and shared a number of thoughts and ideas:

  • My first next step is to write a blog – as I’m doing now!
  • This week my wife and I are taking part in the German Protestant Kirchentag (church gathering) in Stuttgart.
  • I’m going to look out for “The Gentle Art of Blessing” by someone-or-other Pradervand, a book which was recommended to us by a member of our base group.
  • During the coming months I want to do what I can to facilitate a smooth transition during a changeover of staff at the Quaker Council for European Affairs, where I work.
  • I am planning to move house within the next couple of months, in which case I shall want to support the peace work of Quakers there and play a more active part in the life of the Laurentiuskonvent, an ecumenical community committed to working for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
  • I will continue to translate articles for Church and Peace, the European peace church network.
  • And as background or context for my peacemaking activities I will take the Charter for Compassion, a multifaith commitment to compassion as the basis for all our actions.

Wish me luck! – or rather God’s blessing.

Living from the Centre

In the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9:55) there is an account of how James and John offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which had refused to welcome Jesus when he was on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus rebuked his two disciples, telling them that they did not know what spirit they were of. Jesus did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.

James Naylor, one of the early Quakers, knew a spirit which “delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong” (Quaker Faith & Practice 19.12).

In a declaration to Charles II the early Quakers expressed their conviction that the “Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it.” They claimed: “we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” (Quaker Faith & Practice 24.04)

When I was here in Quaker House, Brussels, 28 years ago, I read Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion. It made a deep and lasting impression on me. Here are some passages which I come back to (or they come back to me) from time to time:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”

“There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”

“How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes, keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake.”

I’m still a long way from consciously keeping up an inward life of prayer and worship throughout the day. But from time to time a song will come to mind which I seem to have been singing to myself unconsciously. I often go for an hour’s cycle ride before breakfast, sometimes together with my wife and sometimes on my own. When I’ve been cycling on my own recently a particular song has tended to come to mind:

Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.
Frei sind wir, da zu wohnen und zu gehen.
Frei sind wir, ja zu sagen oder nein.

Refrain: Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.

Wir wollen Freiheit, um uns selbst zu finden,
Freiheit, aus der man etwas machen kann.
Freiheit, die auch noch offen ist für Träume,
Wo Baum und Blume Wurzeln schlagen kann.

Und dennoch sind da Mauern zwischen Menschen,
Und nur durch Gitter sehen wir uns an.
Unser versklavtes Ich ist ein Gefängnis
Und ist gebaut aus Steinen unsrer Angst.

Herr, du bist Richter. Du nur kannst befreien.
Wenn du uns freisprichst, dann ist Freiheit da.

Freiheit, sie gilt für Menschen, Völker, Rassen,
Soweit wie deine Liebe uns ergreift.
Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.

Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
You leave us free to seek you or reject you,
you give us room to answer „yes“ or „no“.

Chorus: Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.

We long for freedom where our truest being
is given hope and courage to unfold.
We seek in freedom space and scope for dreaming,
and look for ground where trees and plants can grow.

But there are walls that keep us all divided;
we fence each other in with hate and war.
Fear is the bricks and mortar of our prison,
our pride of self, the prison coat we wear.

O judge us, Lord, and in your judgement free us,
and set our feet in freedom’s open space;
take us as far as your compassion wanders
among the children of the human race.

Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.

(Translation by Fred Kaan.)

The prayer which is most often on my heart is: “Help me to love … better.”

Richard Foster elaborates several forms of spiritual discipline in his book “Celebration of Discipline”. I guess I should remind myself of his suggestions. If I remember rightly, I think fasting may be one of them. I did fast from chocolate during lent this year!

One spiritual discipline which I’ve kept up for about forty years is to set aside time before or during breakfast for spiritual reading. Until a couple of years ago, I always used to read the Losungen, daily Bible verses and short quotations published by the Moravian church. Now I usually read a poem by the 14th century Sufi mystic Hafiz, and some reflections from “Bread for the Journey”, a book of daily readings by Henri Nouwen.

When we manage to follow spiritual disciplines which enable us to live from the Centre, our internal lives become simplified. Thomas Kelly writes: “there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark. This amazing simplification comes when we ‘centre down’, when life is lived with singleness of eye, from a holy Centre.”

And: “Life from the Centre is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. … It is radiant.”

I should stress that this is an ideal, to which I aspire. I’m still, quite frequently, beset by anxiety and frustration and annoyance. And yet I hear a “voice” from the Centre telling me, in the words of a Taizé chant (after Teresa of Avila): “Nada te turbe, nada te espante; quien a dios tiene nada le falta. Nada te turbe, nada te espante: solo Dios basta.” (Let nothing trouble you, let nothing distress you. Nothing troubles the one who depends on God. God alone suffices.)

As we learn to live from the Centre, we become transformed. Our lives become “moving images of the Eternal Life” (Thomas Kelly).

In Testament of Devotion Thomas Kelly writes about transformation: “Guidance of life by the Light within is not exhausted as is too frequently supposed, in special leadings toward specific tasks. It begins first of all in a mass revision of our total reaction to the world. Worshipping in the light we become new creatures, making wholly new and astonishing responses to the entire outer setting of life. These responses are not reasoned out. They are, in large measure, spontaneous reactions of felt incompatibility between “the world’s” judgments of value and the Supreme Value we adore deep in the Centre. There is a total Instruction as well as specific instructions from the Light within.”

As we practice spiritual disciplines and live more and more from the divine Centre within, we become transformed, no longer ego-driven, but Spirit-led, as were the early Christians at Pentecost, as were the early Quakers, as women, men and children of various faiths have been throughout the ages. If, through spiritual discipline, we nurture our spiritual roots, we will inevitably be transformed.

This isn’t a path which I feel able to follow on my own. I need to be part of a worshipping community, ideally a local Quaker Meeting which is able to centre down during meetings for worship and become a truly gathered Meeting. Then the Meeting – as well as the individual members – is able to live from the Centre.

When conflict arises, as it inevitably does, instead of one or more members imposing their own “solution”, the Meeting – listening to the inner voice of love – is able to come up with creative responses to situations in which it is difficult to reconcile everyone’s needs. This requires humility and an ability to listen to each other. Maybe this is the most important spiritual discipline: listening with love.