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.

Wilfried Warneck is my brother!

Early in 1990 I took over from Wilfried Warneck as executive secretary of Church and Peace, the European network of peace churches, communities and groups. For the previous 15 years Wilfried had built up what was the Historic Peace Churches Continuation Committee into a network of more than thirty peace churches, communities, and peace and service agencies such as Eirene (International Christian Service for Peace), and Quaker Peace & Service.

When I took over Wilfried’s post as executive secretary, he took on the role of chairman. This could have been a recipe for disaster. I remember that it took Wilfried several weeks to clear out of his office. But, rather than breathing down my neck, he was able to be helpful and supportive without succumbing to the temptation to engage in micromanagement.

Admittedly there were times when I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the ideas which he had, which were going to mean more work for me when I already had enough work to do. But we enjoyed a good working relationship which was characterised by mutual respect. It surely helped that we prayed and ate together in the Laurentiuskonvent on a daily basis during the working week.

Wilfried and his wife Ruth had established the Laufdorf group of the Laurentiuskonvent about ten years earlier together with Ernst von der Recke. When I arrived in Laufdorf I was keen to join in daily worship and shared meals, although it wasn’t until Wilfried and Ruth left Laufdorf three or four years later that I became a member of the group and eventually joined the Laurentiuskonvent.

Daily worship in the chapel under the roof of the communal house of the Laurentiuskonvent provided the spiritual basis for my work for Church and Peace. Wilfried (and Marie-Noëlle von der Recke) provided the theological basis. I learnt about exegesis and hermeneutics. (I still need to remind myself what the latter means, though!) Wilfried’s sermons at Church and Peace conferences and on other occasions were informative and inspiring. Translating them for the Church and Peace newsletter wasn’t always easy, because of the complex German sentence construction, but it was always rewarding. Wilfried gave me a grounding in the theological basis of the peace church message (i.e. the Gospel of nonviolence), which we, especially Quakers, neglect at our peril.

As I write (on a train to Cologne), it occurs to me that my first visit to Bonn (or perhaps it was the second) was together with Wilfried and Ruth to protest against the first Iraq war. This was before, or soon after, the reunification of Germany, so Bonn was still the capital. It may have been on that occasion that Wilfried took me to the Malteserhof in Königswinter, just across the river (Rhine) from Bonn, where there was a community of the Laurentiuskonvent during the 1960s and 70s. Wilfried and Ruth, who were both founding members of the Laurentiuskonvent, lived there until they moved to Laufdorf in 1977.

After fleeing from East Prussia towards the end of the Second World War, Wilfried passed his Abitur in 1949. He studied Protestant theology in Bethel and Heidelberg and subsequently spent three years with the Brothers of Taizé – in Taizé and in Marseille. One thing that I very much appreciated about Wilfried was his ecumenical orientation, which meant that he was welcomed and respected not only within the Protestant church in Germany, but also in Mennonite congregations, Catholic religious communities, and in radical protestant communities, such as the Basisgemeinde Wulfshagenerhütten. He even embraced an English Quaker as his successor at the helm of Church and Peace!

I had served for about three years as executive secretary of Church and Peace when Wilfried stepped down as chairman. At his last General Assembly as chairman – I forget where it was – we held a small farewell party for him. I remember making a speech in which I asked – and explored various possible answers to – the question, “Who is Wilfried Warneck?” I finally came to the conclusion: “Wilfried Warneck is my brother.”

I didn’t attempt to count, but I should think there were more than a hundred of us who gathered in Wethen in north Hesse for Wilfried’s funeral. Besides all the members and friends of the Laurentiuskonvent in Wethen there was a good number of people from further afield, from Wulfshagenerhütten (near Kiel) in the north of Germany to Bammental (east of Heidelberg) in the south.

From Laufdorf there was Ernst and Marie-Noëlle von der Recke, Theodor von Verschuer, Davorka Lovrekovic, the current general secretary of Church and Peace, and, much to my delight, Ernst and Marie-Noëlle’s oldest daughter, Josepha, with her dark-haired and blue-eyed six-month-old baby, Johanna. From the Hamburg group of the Laurentiuskonvent there was Antje and Martin Heider-Rottwilm. Antje is the current chairperson of Church and Peace.

It was good to see a number of old friends from my time as executive secretary: two members of the Basisgemeinde Wulfshagenerhütten, who served at different times on the administrative committee; and several Mennonites, including Wolfgang Krauß, who was secretary of the German Mennonite Peace Committee, and Brigitte Albrecht, who served for a while as a volunteer in the Church and Peace office during Wilfried’s tenure.

Then there was Ulrich Frey, who was executive secretary of Aktionsgemeinschaft Dienst für den Frieden (AGDF, Action Committee Service for Peace), another of the organisations which Wilfried founded, along with Weltfriedensdienst, Eirene, the Laurentiuskonvent, and Oekumenischer Dienst/Schalomdiakonat – now “gewaltfrei handeln” (“acting without violence”).

Wilfried was a practical visionary. He not only had a vision of what a new organisation could do. He was able to win support for his vision and turn it into reality. This was all in the days of communication by post and telephone – no e-mail, no mobile phones, no Skype… Wilfried worked long hours by all accounts and was often away travelling, sometimes together with his wife, Ruth.

After the funeral, tea and cake were provided by the Laurentiuskonvent and the Oekumenische Gemeinschaft (Ecumenical Community) in Wethen. Quite a number of us took a turn to speak about Wilfried. Ruth reminded us that he was human. I remembered the observation that I made about twenty years ago: Wilfried Warneck is my brother.

Quakers: ego-driven or Spirit-led?

A couple of weeks ago I went along to the Sunday morning “parish eucharist” at the Anglican church where my brother is the church warden. The eucharist nourished me spiritually, as I hoped it might. The homily did not.

The main point that the visiting priest made, without any real theological justification, so far as I could tell, was that a church has to have a hierarchical structure to ensure unity and prevent corruption. Quite how a hierarchical structure would prevent corruption within the church was not clear to me. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that hierarchical structures are more prone to corruption than non-hierarchical ones.

Anyway, I’m thankful that I belong to a church which does not have a hierarchy of clergy. We (Quakers) find unity not in our beliefs, which are multifarious, but in our practice – of listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and being led by the Spirit as individuals and as worshipping communities. At least, this is the ideal to which we aspire.

We don’t always get it right, of course. Too often we are ego-driven rather than Spirit-led. Quaker Meetings and Quaker organisations then become battlegrounds, instead of peaceable and peace-making communities. We each push our own priorities and insist on things being done as we think fit. We can end up tearing each other and the meeting or organisation apart.

This is a long way away from discerning ways forward which are in harmony with the loving purposes of God. We each need to recognise that we may be mistaken in our perceptions or in our analysis. And we each need to submit ourselves to the discernment process of the Meeting as a whole.

This applies especially to the clerk of a Meeting or a committee. The clerk serves as a facilitator, not as a leader or a decision-maker. Decisions need to be arrived at by the Meeting or committee as a whole, through a discernment process involving all those concerned. Our egos need to be set aside. If a clerk cannot set his or her ego aside when a particular issue is under discussion, he/she needs to step aside from the role of clerk during that particular discussion. Serving as the clerk of a Meeting or a committee requires a considerable degree of spiritual maturity.

Local, area, regional, and yearly Quaker Meetings are, ideally, non-hierarchical churches. Quaker organisations, on the other hand, and this may include the administration of a yearly meeting, are necessarily hierarchical, when it comes to day-to-day operations. It just doesn’t work to have day-to-day decisions about the operation of an organisation made either by individuals according to their own whims or by a committee meeting for worship. Whilst overall strategy needs to be discerned by governing bodies according to Quaker practice, the day-to-day management and administrative decision-making needs to be left to an individual who has both an overview and detailed knowledge of the workings of the organisation.

The role of a governing body is not only to discern a broad strategy for the organisation but also to ensure that the head of the organisation has the support that he or she needs to perform the complex task of leading (giving administrative direction to) the organisation. The role of members of a governing body is one of facilitation rather than leadership.

I have found it especially helpful to read Roger C. Wilson’s 1949 Swarthmore Lecture, Authority, Leadership and Concern, in which he draws on his experience in the Friends Relief Service. One paragraph is particularly instructive:

A distinction must be made between moral and administrative responsibility. To determine what shall be done and the quality of spirit in which ends shall be pursued, is a moral responsibility; to determine how that shall be done and to see that it is done, is an administrative responsibility within the moral framework. Moral responsibility is found by Friends through “the sense of the Meeting”. Administrative responsibility in complex matters is taken by individuals given the task of translating the “sense of the Meeting” into action, being guided all along by the moral obligation to remain true to the “sense of the Meeting”.

Within a Quaker organisation we all share moral responsibility. A few individual Friends take on administrative responsibility. They deserve our respect and need our support.

Peace

“I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived

in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

George Fox

 

Peace is about people living in right relationship with each other and with the planet. Peace is about justice and wellbeing for everyone. No individual can live in peace, unless the whole community is at peace.

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Bible, encompasses the wellbeing of the whole community. Shalom is characterised by just and peaceful relationships.

“Pax”, peace imposed by force, is not peace at all. It may be better than open warfare, but it serves to perpetuate systems of injustice.

During the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire Jesus challenged unjust laws which allowed a soldier to compel a peasant to carry his pack, a landowner to take the cloak of someone who was unable to pay a debt, or the master of a house to humiliate a servant by hitting him across the face with the back of his hand. Walter Wink has described how Jesus advocated imaginative forms of nonviolent action as a way of overcoming the violence of unjust laws and customs: carrying a soldier’s pack beyond the one-mile limit, giving the landowner one’s shirt as well as one’s cloak, turning the other cheek to the master of the house.

Jesus wasn’t advocating meek submission. He was encouraging poor folk to harness the power of active nonviolence, to stand up for themselves whilst at the same time demonstrating goodwill towards their oppressors. He told his followers: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you and spitefully use you.”

Martin Arnold, a retired German protestant pastor, has coined the term Guetekraft for the power of active nonviolence, the power of goodness. In four volumes Martin explains how Guetekraft, “goodness-power”, works – even against a ruthless dictator. Martin’s books are the fruit of research into the life and works of three practitioners of nonviolence who have successfully employed Guetekraft: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Bart de Ligt.

It is because Guetekraft is powerful, that we do not need to resort to armed violence, which is invariably counterproductive, as Holly Near points out in the chorus of her song, “Foolish Notion”: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? What a foolish notion that war is called devotion, when the greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”

If we live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as George Fox did, we will not be persuaded to join an army, however just their cause may seem to be.

Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence breeds hatred and further violence.

On the other hand, peace grows from the seeds of peace. Small gestures of goodwill begin the creation of a climate of trust in which antagonists can eventually cooperate to dismantle systems of injustice. It may be a long and painful process, but it is far more likely than military action to bear the fruits of peace.

Key to the way in which Guetekraft works is the willingness to accept the costs of engaging in nonviolent action rather than do violence to one’s opponent. Peace warriors may sometimes be called upon to make the greatest sacrifice as Jesus did. Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer who was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, comes to my mind.

Millions of soldiers died in the First World War. What a fruitless undertaking!

When he was dying, Jesus prayed for those who tortured him. He is the Christ within us, the life and power in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus told his disciples: “My peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives peace do I give you my peace.”

This war-torn world of ours is very much in need of peace – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Ukraine, and in northern Iraq.

Britain is in need of peace too. A society in which significant numbers of people have to go to food banks to get enough to eat is not a peaceful one. And Britain’s possession of weapons of mass destruction makes the world more dangerous and less peaceful.

The world is in need of the peace that Jesus gives. We are called as individuals to be peacemakers. And we are called as communities of faith to be a force for peace in the world.

It is hardly surprising that we have got into the habit of thinking that life is a right to be defended. But we need to think of life, like peace, as a gift to be shared.

There are Quakers serving with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I know of a Friend serving with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. And there are Quakers serving in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq.

By no means all of us are called to this kind of service. There is much that we can do to foster peaceful community relations wherever we happen to live. And we can play our part in the peace campaigning and advocacy work of our faith community. When we join together with other faith communities and harness the power of goodness, we will become a force to be reckoned with.

Yearly Meeting Gathering of Quakers in Britain, 2-9 August 2014

It was a busy and enjoyable week, spent amongst 2,000 Quakers, mostly British, in Bath in the southwest of England. It was an all-age gathering with babies present and at least two Friends over 90 years old. And there were more than 80 Quakers from other Yearly Meetings, including half-a-dozen from Germany.

I sneaked into the overseas visitors’ tea on Sunday. Although I am still a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting and hadn’t received an official invitation, I justified this on the grounds that: 1. my wife had been invited; 2. I am living overseas; 3. until I moved to Brussels, I was serving as a representative of Britain Yearly Meeting to the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Fortunately few of the other 2,000 Quakers had the same idea and the Friend at the entrance to the tent did not ask me whether I had an invitation. So I was able to enjoy conversations with a number of guests from other yearly meetings. Since I was travelling to and from Bath on Eurostar, I described myself as an “underseas” visitor.

Now, on my way back to Brussels, travelling at high speed towards Lille, I shall take a little time to reflect on my experience of Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath. The positives far outweigh the negatives:

Meeting up with friends. It was great to meet up with so many old friends. On Sunday morning I joined in some circle dancing after breakfast. It was a large circle, but opposite me I recognised B, a fellow Sidcot old scholar. We last met some time in the eighties, so I wasn’t entirely certain that she was who I thought she was, until I was able to peek at her name-label. When I told her of my marriage, she congratulated me warmly and was keen to be introduced to Sasha. It was good also to meet friends whom I originally got to know when I lived at Woodbrooke in 1978/79, through my involvement in workcamps, through my peace campaigning work, through my active membership of Hampshire & the Islands Area Meeting (2001-2005) and Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting (from 2005), and through serving on various Yearly Meeting committees (Peace Campaigning and Networking group, Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, and Quaker World Relations Committee).

 Two addresses to the whole Gathering have stayed in my mind: Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation: Being Quaker”; and Jan Arriens’ introduction to the theme to be considered during Yearly Meetings over the next three years, Quaker witness in the world. Ben warned of the dangers of individualism and secularism. We are called to live out our Quaker witness not only as individuals, but as a faith community. Indeed, our witness may only be effective, if we act together as a community. We must also beware of losing the spirituality which is the foundation of our lives and witness. Ben said that Quakerism is a Do-It-Together religion. Jan Arriens reaffirmed the mysticism which is at the heart of our Quaker faith. There is a divine spark within each of us and we can each have direct contact with the divine, the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. When we rely on the Spirit for guidance and strength, we are likely to find ourselves engaging in effective witness to truth, equality, peace, simplicity, and community.

 I attended two “journey” sessions on Palestine/Israel. One of these took the form of interviews with four former Ecumenical Accompaniers, who had each spent three months in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). There was a strong feeling that the Yearly Meeting should put out a statement in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. A small group of Friends drafted a carefully crafted statement, which not only called on the UK government to recognise Palestine as a nation state and condemned the use of violence by both sides in the conflict, but also reiterated our firm opposition to anti-semitism as well as islamophobia. Whilst opposing the aggression of the Israeli armed forces and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, we stand together in solidarity with Jews who are increasingly being subjected to attacks just because they are Jewish. The statement was published before the end of the Gathering and can be found on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers in Britain).

 I was pleased to be able to support Sasha (Representative of the Quaker Council for European Affairs – QCEA), Andrew Lane (Deputy Representative), and Sally Sadler (a member of the Bureau of QCEA) at special interest group sessions and in two “journey” sessions. A significant number of Friends attended at least one of these sessions and we look forward to enjoying their support.

 I found programmed worship organised by the Friends World Committee for Consultation most inspiring. There was spoken prayer and a sermon with a message of hope in a time of crisis. Without the hope which derives from our faith in God, we cannot be patterns and examples bringing love and peace into a fearful and war-torn world.

 I twice joined some other “owls” for some late-night singing of simple songs, mostly rounds. That was great fun and perhaps a foretaste of the community choir which I hope to join in September.

There were very few negative aspects of the Yearly Meeting Gathering, so far as I’m concerned, the chief one being that my wife had to return to Brussels half way through the week! The accommodation at the university was lacking in some respects (no cutlery, crockery, or kitchen utensils in the kitchen, so lunch preparation was a little difficult), but the cost of the accommodation for a whole week was very reasonable.

I wished I could take all my friends back with me to Brussels. I shall have to be content with the prospect of meeting up with them again at Yearly Meeting at the beginning of May next year – God willing.

British Quakers gather in Bath – and some thoughts about marriage

This afternoon, Sasha – now my wife – and I travelled together with Gretchen Castle, General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), to Bath, in the southwest of England, to attend the Yearly Meeting Gathering of British Quakers.

The city of Bath is familiar to me from visits during my days at a nearby Quaker boarding school (Sidcot) and occasionally since then. I last visited Bath three or four years ago, accompanying service users from Evesham & Pershore Mind (a local mental health charity) on a trip to the Christmas market. I remember it being a wet day a few weeks before Christmas.

Today was relatively warm. A local bus took us past Bath Abbey, across the River Avon, with a good, but fleeting, view of Pulteney Bridge, and up a steep hill to the university. Bath is a fine city, famous for its Roman baths and Georgian terraces. But most of us will spend the entire week on the university campus, except when we go on various excursions on Wednesday.

About 2,000 Quakers have come to take part in the Yearly Meeting Gathering, which will combine the formal sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting and a whole lot of less formal events and activities. Most of us are British Friends, but there will be a significant number of overseas visitors amongst us. I have already bumped into Hadewijch Touwen, an old (i.e. long-standing) Quaker friend from the Netherlands. Sasha and I have been greeted by Kerstin and Ludger Mangels from southwest Germany. Kerstin is the editor of “Quaeker”, the monthly newsletter/journal of German-speaking Quakers. And Sasha has introduced me to the mother-in-law of a close friend of hers from Portland, Oregon.

Sasha has come here to work: to inform British Quakers about the role and work of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), and to learn about the concerns of British Quakers. I shall do what I can to support her and Andrew Lane, the Deputy Representative of QCEA, when he comes on Wednesday and Sasha returns to Brussels. I am also here as a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting, one of the constituent area meetings of Britain Yearly Meeting. I’m keen to take part in the discernment of the Yearly Meeting. And I’ve been looking forward very much to meeting up with a great many old and not-so-old friends.

It was good to find Sarah here from Evesham Local Meeting. During my seven years as warden of the meeting house in Evesham, no other member of the local meeting attended Yearly Meeting. There are other friends here from Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting. I joined Maria and her daughter, Faith, at supper time. Faith is attending Junior Yearly Meeting. I asked Maria how long she had been married: 20 years! Sasha and I have been married for three weeks.

We have bumped into a few Friends who were at our wedding in Lancaster, a few who weren’t able to come, and several who would have been invited, if we hadn’t had to draw the line somewhere. John played an invaluable role in the clearness meeting in Lancaster which paved the way for our marriage. The clearness meeting was far from being a formality. So Sasha and I are prepared for married life to be challenging at times, not just a bed of roses.

Nevertheless, our experience of the past three weeks has been very positive. Although we have been living together since the end of last year, our life together somehow has a new flavour. Our love for one another is growing.

Around the time of our wedding I was reminded from time to time of a short song which I learnt many years ago:

May the love we’re sharing spread its wings
Fly across the Earth
And bring new joy to every soul that is alive.
May the blessings of the Universe
Shine on everyone
And may we all see the Light within, within, within.

 

Shabbat Chanukah

Chanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival also known as the Festival of Lights. This year it coincided with the first Sunday in Advent and also with Thanksgiving. I enjoyed the pleasure and the privilege of sharing in the celebration of Shabbath Chanukah, the Jewish Sabbath during Chanukah, with a Jewish family in the settlement of Efrat. The small town extends for a couple of miles along the west-facing side of a long ridge southwest of Bethlehem in the West Bank.

I am, of course, well aware that Israeli settlements, such as Efrat, which lie within the Occupied Palestinian Territories, are illegal under international law. Nevertheless, I make no apology for accepting the hospitality of a Jewish family in their modest apartment in the middle of Efrat. I am keen to hear as many different voices as I can on all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These people are not evil, any more than my Palestinian friends are. The mother of the family agreed with me that everyone should be treated with respect. The father of the family sometimes exchanges friendly greetings with Palestinians whom he encounters on his early morning runs in the valley below the settlement. I can’t imagine that either of them would condone unprovoked attacks on Palestinian farmers.

Both mother and father were born and grew up in the United States. They came to Israel with two young children 17 years ago. Two more children were born and the oldest daughter is now married, so the family now consists of mother, father and the three younger children, two girls and a boy.

I had a little difficulty finding my way to their apartment because I only had an incorrect phone number and no address. I knew that I had to get off the bus from Jerusalem at Dekel commercial centre, but we had gone well past it when the bus driver remembered that I wanted to get off there. Fortunately I had no difficulty hitching a lift back to Dekel. But I then discovered that the phone number that I had was wrong.

There were quite a few people around and I approached a man who looked as if he might be able to help. He didn’t recognise the family name, but had a very clever phone (it might have been an i-pad or some such gadget) that told him the address that I wanted: just across the road and down the hill a little way.

Father and son opened the door to me. After a moment’s surprise, because I hadn’t rung them to announce my arrival in Efrat, they welcomed me in. I was soon offered a cup of tea, which is just what an Englishman needs, and fell into conversation with the son of the family.

Mother arrived fairly soon and we discovered a shared interest in history. Our conversations – in between the lighting of candles, meals, synagogue visits, conversations with other members of the family, and spending time working on a jigsaw with her son – ranged over episodes in Jewish history and church history. She was particularly interested to hear about the “church struggle” (Kirchenkampf) in Nazi Germany and about Meister Eckhart. We got to talking about mindfulness and Thich Nhat Hanh.

She has taught yoga in a women’s centre in the Bedouin town of Rahat in the Negev, but the centre has been burnt down six times. She has been persuaded that the Bedouins need government help to enable them to leave traditional patriarchal structures (e.g. polygamy) behind and enjoy the benefits of modern society (e.g. proper sewerage). I agreed that there are problems that need to be addressed, but I said that demolishing people’s homes and confiscating their land is not an acceptable solution. She seemed to think that I had a point and said that she would find out more about the Prawer Plan.

On both Friday evening and Saturday evening, shortly before I left, we lit candles in several Menorah. Each Menorah can hold nine candles. One main candle, either the central one or the first or last one, is raised above the others. Only this one candle is supposed to be used for reading or other activities. Over the eight nights and days of Chanukah one more candle is lit each evening, one on the first evening, two on the second evening, etc.

So on Friday evening, the three children and I each had our own small Menorah on a table by a window. We each lit the main candle and three more candles. Then father and mother lit the same number of candles on a full-size Menorah which they had placed outside the door to their apartment.

May light radiate throughout the world and into the darkest corners of our hearts during this wintertime.