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.


“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.

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.

A call to prayer and action

Five times a day loud-speakers broadcast the call to prayer. Earlier today at one of the prayer times I stopped to listen. It was good to be reminded of the presence of God, the Spirit in whom we live, move and have our being. What a good idea it is, to stop for a while five times a day and pray or commune with God in some way. How many of us manage to do that even just once a day? When I’m on my own, as I am here in Ramallah, I usually set aside breakfast-time for devotional reading. The moment of silence at the beginning of other meals is usually too short. But I guess I can change that.

I had a surprise visit this evening from Marlies and Sytse, a Dutch Quaker couple who arrived in Ramallah today and will be running a workshop tomorrow. They offer a combination of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project), and nonviolent communication skills. We met in somewhat inauspicious circumstances towards the end of last year. Now we happened to be in Ramallah at the same time. It was good to see them again and share news.

Marlies and Sytse came today from Gaza where they have run a workshop. At one stage when the participants were getting over-excited, they heard the call to prayer and suggested that everyone stop and listen. This had a suitably calming effect on those present, including those who were not in the habit of praying.

This land is much in need of prayer and prayerful people. Marlies and Sytse told me that they had heard an explosion close to where they were when the Israelis retaliated against the firing of two rockets from Gaza. And when they were entering Gaza at the Erez crossing from Israel there was an explosion only about 100 meters away. An Israeli soldier told them not to worry. I speculated as to whether perhaps the Israelis were blowing up a tunnel. The closure of tunnels by both the Egyptian and the Israeli military is putting a stranglehold on Gaza, where food prices are rising rapidly and construction work is grinding to a halt because of a shortage of building materials.

So the people of Gaza especially need our prayers at this time.

The trouble with prayer, real prayer, is that it tends to become a call to action. We may begin by calling on God to act. But if we open our hearts to God, we are likely to hear God calling on us to take action.

A long time ago I wrote (in an article in The Friend):

“We need both a deeper spirituality and a more outspoken witness. If our spirituality can reach the depths of authentic prayer, our lives will become an authentic witness for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation, a witness which becomes the context for our prayer. Out of the depths of authentic prayer comes a longing for peace and a passion for justice. And our response to violence and injustice is to pray more deeply, because only God can show us the way out of the mess that the world is in. And only God gives us the strength to follow that Way.”

I have discovered that when we make choices based on prayerful consideration, miracles can happen and apparently intractable situations can be transformed. Enemies can become friends both on a personal and on an international level as relationships are transformed by love. It is in our own interests to love our enemies. I pray that more and more people may discover this through prayer and action.

Where Am I Going?

My three-month stint as a Resident Friend (i.e. Quaker) at Claridge House will come to an end on 15 August. I’ll give myself a couple of weeks holiday, but after that I will need to be earning some money or at least living in rent-free accommodation. I was thinking of joining the Quaker Community at Bamford in Derbyshire, but my best chance of finding work around there would be in Sheffield and that’s 11 miles away. In the meantime I would have to sign on for Job Seeker’s Allowance in Buxton, which is a two-hour cycle ride from Bamford and an equally long journey by bus.

The process for joining the Quaker Community at Bamford includes at least one Meeting for Clearness. There is a long Quaker tradition, now being revived in this country, of holding a Meeting for Clearness with couples who are intending to marry in a Quaker Meeting. A Meeting for Clearness can be held whenever an individual or a couple has a significant decision to make. A small group of Quakers, who know the individual or couple well, meet with them, not to give advice or make a decision, but to support and challenge the individual or couple as they seek to discern the right way forward.

So last Saturday five Quaker friends joined me for a Meeting for Clearness in the Meeting House in Evesham where I was the warden for seven years until the end of September last year. ML was (no surprise to me!) an excellent clerk/facilitator, having facilitated a number of Clearness Meetings in the past. She has known me since 1981. The other members of the group were: S, who has also known me since 1981 and has at least 14 years of experience as a meeting house warden; NB and NT, who both got to know me as warden in Evesham; and J, who – together with his wife – supported and accompanied me whilst I was serving as a Joint Representative for the Quaker Council for European Affairs.

I wrote to the members of the clearness committee beforehand and outlined four options:

1. Take up a post as warden of a Friends Meeting House. (I had already sent off an application.)

2. Go and live somewhere until such time as I find suitable work, e.g. as a meeting house warden.

3. Move back to Evesham and look for work there.

4. Join the Quaker Community at Bamford.

I wanted to discern where my own particular blend of skills and experience might best be put to good use.  My Quaker friends helped me not only to do that, but also made some suggestions about how I might put behind me the rather traumatic experience of working in a fast-paced office environment at QCEA. I was assured of their love and support, so they were able to ask some challenging questions. I was asked, for example, what I hope for wherever I end up. My spontaneous answer was: a loving relationship, a place to sing and dance, a garden to tend, opportunities to offer spiritual accompaniment and to engage in ecumenical activities, and opportunities to engage in political work.

By the end of the Meeting for Clearness it had become clear to me that I would do best to seek a position as warden of a Quaker Meeting House. This won’t necessarily work out within the next few weeks, in which case I shall need to decide where to live in the meantime – Brussels? Oxford? Evesham? I shall also want to train as a spiritual accompanier, so I need to investigate what courses, etc. are on offer and what sources of funding there might be to pay for that.

A couple of days ago I wrote to the folk at the Bamford Quaker Community to tell them that I am no longer seeking to join the Community. I hope to visit from time to time, though. I enjoyed getting to know the members of the Community in the spring. I could live with them quite happily and the view from the front of the house is magnificent! But I see myself as a meeting house warden during the last phase of my working life. So I look forward to joining a local community of Quakers somewhere in Britain sometime soon!