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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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!

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?