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.

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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.

Kindness

This morning I read a short poem by the 14th century poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use on their tender self

and others.”

We need to be kind to ourselves as well as to others. How else can we love our neighbours as ourselves?

Jesus tells his disciples to “love one another, as I have loved you”. And he tells us to love our enemies as well. Somewhere in the Old Testament we are told “If your enemy is thirsty, give him something to drink.” We are to be kind to our enemies as well as to our friends.

We need to be sensitive to each other’s needs. If we see that someone is thirsty, we can give them something to drink. If we see that they are hungry, we can give them something to eat. If we see that someone is struggling under a heavy burden, we can try to carry a share of the burden or provide support in some way. We should, at the very least, avoid adding to their burden.

As well as giving to our neighbours, we need to receive what they have to give us. Healthy relationships depend on give and take on both sides. I’m reminded of the chorus, or it might just be the first verse, of a song which I have often joined in singing at ecumenical events or on the odd occasions when I’ve attended an Anglican church service:

Brother, sister, let me serve you

Let me be as Christ to you.

Pray that I may have the grace to

Let you be my servant too.

There is an ancient story told in various parts of Asia – you may well know it – about heaven and hell. In hell a large number of people are sitting around a table laden with food, but they are all starving, because the spoons that they each have are too long for them to be able to feed themselves. In heaven, the situation is virtually identical: people sitting around a table laden with plentiful food. They even have the same long-handled spoons. The only difference is that the people are feeding each other. No-one is going hungry. And everyone is having a great party!

So let us be kind to one another. Let us persist in being kind even to those who hurt us. Perhaps they will, given time, be kind to us in return. If not, no harm is done by our being kind to them. And it may be that those who hurt us are themselves most in need of kindness. We also hurt each other unintentionally, due to a lack of sensitivity or a failure in communication. We need then to forgive one another and accept forgiveness from one another. We need to be able to forgive and to recognise our own need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of kindness not only towards the person who has hurt us, but also an act of kindness towards ourselves. Harbouring bitterness or a grudge seriously damages our spiritual health. On the other hand, few things do more for our spiritual health than being kind to one another. So let’s drop the knife!

Joy

“We need to find the deep and abiding joy
which comes with doing what love requires of us.”

I’m repeating myself – from a recent blogpost entitled “Love”. It isn’t possible to write about joy without writing about love, because love is the source of joy.

There’s God’s love for each and every one of us. And there’s our love for each other.

Most of us are blessed with loving personal relationships. We find joy in each other’s company. But this is rarely, if ever, pure joy. There are inevitably times of separation which can be painful. And we hurt each other, when we fail to do what love requires of us, and when we respond to being hurt with a cry of anguish which in its turn can be hurtful. We are all human! Then, given time, we are hopefully able to forgive each other, thanks to the love which we have for each other. With this love and this forgiveness comes joy.

We discover that “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…” (You can go to the footnote below for the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham.)

Ever since I was a teenager in a Quaker boarding school I have wanted to work for justice, peace and environmental sustainability. I joined the Conservation Society when I was still at school. And, when I left school, I was given a travel bursary to attend a conference in Stockholm on “Environment, Development, Peace”. I naturally became an enthusiast for the World Council of Churches’ “conciliar process” for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

I still seek to do what I can to further justice, peace and the integrity of creation. And yet I remember more and more often what Thomas Merton wrote in his “Letter to a young activist”:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

It is in personal relationships that love manifests itself. And this love brings us joy.

Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”, if you haven’t already done so. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and separated from his young fiancée. And yet joy shines through his poem, written towards the end of 1944, which eventually became a well-known hymn with one verse sung as a chorus:

Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.

(By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day. Translation: F. Pratt Green)

There is a story about Francis of Assisi, in which he explains to Brother Leo what perfect joy is. Francis tells Brother Leo that if the Brothers were to perform all sorts of miracles of healing or turn many people to Christ, this would not be perfect joy. After a while Brother Leo gets fed up with being told numerous examples of what is not perfect joy and asks Francis, “Tell me: What is perfect joy?” Francis explains that, if they were to arrive tired and exhausted at their destination and knock at the door, but be abused as imposters and chased away by a Brother who failed to recognise them, and endure this with patience and love for the Brother in their hearts, this would be perfect joy.

Joy is not dependent on our current circumstances, but rather on our sense of God’s love for us in every present moment. So we find joy not only in a colourful butterfly settling near at hand, or a dragonfly darting around us as we cycle alongside a stream, or in embracing a friend or a lover, but also in times of suffering when we can sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us the patience and faith to endure.

Here’s a verse from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem:

Und reichst du uns den schweren Kelch, den bitter’n
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
von deiner guten und geliebten Hand.

(And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good and so beloved a hand. Translation: F. Pratt Green)

If this is what perfect joy is about, I don’t think I’m quite ready for it just yet. But I hope that I may find joy in being able to endure whatever trials and tribulations come my way with patience and love in my heart.

For “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” (Columba Marmion)

Footnote: I discovered the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham on the website of Quaker Heritage Press at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/letter20.html

TO FRIENDS IN AMERSHAM

FRIENDS,

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, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. 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. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and any thing that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So watch your hearts and ways; and 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. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.

Your Friend in the Truth, and a desirer of your welfare and prosperity therein.

I. P.

Aylesbury, 4th of Third Month, 1667

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela

The Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Statement on the Passing of Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela

We mourn the passing of our former President and leader, Nelson Mandela. Although Madiba was of a great age, his death marks the end of an era. The people of South Africa and the region are filled with love and sadness.  We also express our condolences to his family and friends, in their grief. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) of Central and Southern Africa wish to express our deep sadness at Madiba’s passing. At the same time, our deep admiration, respect and gratitude for Mandela’s life and the legacy that he has left not only South Africa but also Africa and the world.

“Freedom is in your hands” is a line from a well-known freedom song sung during the dark days of apartheid. Millions of South Africans stood up to the violence and brutality of the apartheid state and to the degradation of official racism.  Nelson Mandela was our leader, and it did seem that freedom was in his hands. Mandela’s human and spiritual qualities lit the path to genuine liberation. He was steadfast in his refusal to accept a lesser status for black people, steadfast in his refusal to hate white people, steadfast in his determination to bring about freedom and equality – liberating all of us, black and white. He was a man of rare magnanimity – of “great spirit’’, responding with forgiveness and reconciliation to provocation and suffering.

Nelson Mandela led with strength, grace, humour, and humility. He eschewed the riches that some take from high office. After stepping down as President, he focused his energies on developing and supporting the most vulnerable, the children of our nation.

This is a difficult time for South Africans. We will have to face our future without the calm, guiding presence of Mandela. We may feel uncertain, anxious, and even fearful. Mandela would not want this for us.  He would want us to reach out to each other, to stand together to meet the challenges of our future.

We recommit ourselves to the central challenge of our time – to continue Mandela’s struggle for equality and freedom. The Religious Society of Friends has long recognised that social justice is the basis for peace among people. We view the massive inequalities in wealth, not only in South Africa but also Africa and the world, as a dangerous threat to peace and stability. Genuine freedom includes the freedom to develop our full potential as human beings. Extreme poverty does not allow this and so the wealth gap must be tackled to allow for genuine social development.

We honour Mandela’s vision of a country at peace with itself and recommit ourselves to realising this in our life time.

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela, our Madiba!

6 December 2013

Friday prayers – Christian Peacemaker Teams – Nelson Mandela

Friday mornings are quiet in Ramallah, like Sunday mornings used to be in Britain. Today I got to go along to the mosque for Friday prayers around 11.30. A visiting Quaker friend and I were taken along by Saleem, whose wife works as a part-time administrator for the Quakers here.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. And I learnt at a workshop at the recent international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem that “Islam” means submission to God (Allah) and that, broadly-speaking, anyone who submits to God is a Muslim.

So it felt right to join my Muslim brothers in prayer, to bow to God along with Saleem and everyone else, and to kneel and prostrate myself with my forehead touching the carpeted floor. Would that it were as easy to submit myself to God inwardly as it is to submit myself outwardly.

Apart from occasional references to Muslims and the Quran, I understood nothing of the sermon. If I come to Palestine again for any length of time, I shall want to make a serious attempt to learn Arabic.

Christopher Hatton, a British Quaker who has been living in Hamburg for ten years, appeared just as I was about to set off with Saleem for the mosque. Christopher came along with us. He knows some Arabic, but I don’t think he understood much more of the sermon than I did.

Christopher was on his way to Hebron. He is about to begin his third stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Palestine. CPT aims to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance to injustice.

A couple of years ago Christopher served with CPT in the South Hebron Hills. One of their tasks was to observe the goings-on at “flying checkpoints” which were being set up on the roads by the Israeli occupying forces. The Palestinians, mostly shepherds going about their work, were treated less violently when CPTers were watching.

Christopher is now going to spend five weeks with CPT in Hebron, where a growing population of Israeli settlers is harassing the Palestinian inhabitants. The harassment is worst on Saturdays, when settlers, with the protection of Israeli soldiers, go on the rampage through the market. I plan to visit Hebron next Saturday and may get to witness that

When Christopher and I got back from visiting the mosque this morning, I opened up my laptop to show him some photographs. There was the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

I remember watching on TV when he walked out of prison in 1993. Few Nobel Peace Prize laureates deserve the prize as much as he did. After spending 27 years in prison (all but the last year or two on Robben Island), he negotiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, offered white South Africans reconciliation and forgiveness instead of retaliation and retribution, and voluntarily relinquished power at the end of a five-year term as president.

No doubt it helped that F.W. de Klerk and other leading white politicians recognised that the writing was on the wall for South African apartheid. They had the choice between a negotiated transition to majority rule and a likely bloodbath.

When will Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers in the Israeli coalition government realise that the writing is on the wall for Israeli apartheid? They have a choice between a two-state solution that does justice to Palestinian aspirations (and that has to include recognition of the right to return of refugees from 1948 and 1967) and a long battle against Palestinian resistance which could eventually result in majority rule in a single democratic state.

But perhaps the real question is: How much longer will the world tolerate Israel’s apartheid policies and their oppression of the Palestinians?

A time and place for prayer

I don’t pretend to be a saint. But one of my favourite quotes – by Thomas Merton, of course – is this:

“The saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everybody else. It gives them a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.”

I am a sinner just the same as everyone else. But I’m not miserable. I’m a happy sinner! No, I’m not happy about my sins. I’m glad that I’m able to enjoy the mercy of God.

Thomas Merton imagines God saying: “I have always overshadowed Jonas with my mercy…. Have you had sight of me, Jonas, my child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.”

This land, Palestine, also known as Israel, and the people here, both Palestinians and Israelis, are desperately in need of the mercy of God.

Let us all show mercy towards each other. This land and the people here need compassion, mercy and pardon, not judgement or condemnation.

Who amongst us is in a position to judge others? Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.”

And yet we need to exercise judgement. We need to name the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis for what it is: oppression. We need to name the separation of Palestinians and Israelis into overcrowded towns on the one hand and spacious communities on the other as apartheid. Maybe it is accurate to refer to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as “Israeli Occupation Forces” (IOF). Maybe it is accurate to describe the “separation barrier” as an “Apartheid Wall”.

In order to exercise judgement and then to take creative loving action in accordance with that judgement, we need to pray. We need to open our hearts to God’s guidance. We need the Spirit of love to inspire us.

There are demonic forces at work. What can be more demonic than the desire to kill someone? Such demonic forces, Jesus tells us, can only be overcome by prayer and fasting.

So I need to take time to pray. And maybe five times per day isn’t enough. And maybe a time of fasting wouldn’t go amiss.

I’ve just begun reading “Dimensions of Prayer” by Douglas Steere, who was Professor of Philosophy at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He writes: “The living God is the field of force into which we enter in prayer.” But he complains: “How little there is in us of the silent and radiant strength in which the secret works of God really take place!”

I really do need to spend more time in prayer. Here in this place. Now at this time.