11 November 2008

Pain, Prayer, People and the Presence of God

At the end of August, my dad was diagnosed with a new brain tumor. Happily, that tumor was operable. Unhappily, another tumor was discovered 23 days after his surgery.

This news threw me into a darker space than I have been since he was originally diagnosed. I wanted to crawl into a cave and hide. I wanted to be alone with my pain. I so hated the way I was feeling that I didn't want to share it with anyone.

For weeks, I held everyone, with the exception of my husband, at arm's length. I struggled with my pain alone and in the dark.

After three weeks of this, I bestirred myself to go to a Worship & Ministry meeting. We opened with a query about how we were holding onto our centers during this election cycle.

"The election isn't ruffling my serenity much," I said slowly. "What's blowing my serenity out of the water is my father's struggle with cancer. My heart is breaking for my mother, for him, for my children, myself, our extended family, and his friends. I can't find any comfort. I pull back from people, because the pain is too raw to impose on anyone else, even second-hand. Nothing helps, not even prayer."

A Friend started talking about how pain in itself is a prayer. I sat bolt upright and asked her to talk more about that. I needed to know how my pain could possibly ever function as a prayer.

She talked about opening to God and sharing our pain with him, about allowing God and God's compassion in our hearts along with the pain. As she spoke, I begin to see a glimmer of what she meant.

I went into prayerful worship then and saw how, when I hold people at arm's length, I am, at the same time, holding God at arm's length. When I close my heart to other human beings, I also close my heart to God.

This reminded me of my old tai chi master's words: You have to open your heart to get your head on straight.

I sat there in grateful prayer with tears spilling out of my eyes. For a short time, I saw how deep the commandment Love your neighbor as yourself goes.

I bow my life in humble prayer.

01 July 2008

Eldering: a Parable

I've had a lot of beautiful eldering in my Meeting. Many of my Friends have brought me along, a little bit at a time, with a well-placed comment or sharing. They've educated me lovingly, patiently, and with humor. I've been grateful for this gentle eldering, and imagine that other Friends also welcome it.

To my surprise, however, many Friends seem to think of eldering not as teaching or guidance, but rather admonishment. When I suggest that someone might welcome a little gentle eldering, I run into a wall.

Oh surely, say my Friends, we don't need to tell this Friend that they're doing something wrong.

Well, no, I certainly wasn't suggesting that. Just that we might share our own insights and approaches to different situations, plant a few seeds with what wisdom we've been given, and perhaps encourage the Friend to think about things a little differently.

I eldered a weighty Friend in this manner a few weeks ago. He has a habit of delivering deep, thoughtful, spiritual ministry. Unfortunately, in the preamble to this ministry, he also often delivers a slight or a barb directed at a subset of the Meeting.

After Meeting, I told him about reading a parenting book that suggested that, when we give our children instruction, we leave off the insults. If, for example, we are telling our child to pick up his socks, we don't need to tack on a "you filthy slob" or "you'll never learn, will you?" to the end.

This Friend didn't seem to understand what I was driving at (although another Friend, listening, did). I left it there, however, having planted my seed. Perhaps it will germinate or perhaps it will die in barren ground. I've done what I was led to do, and now I'm led to wait.

The current Worship & Ministry committee is staffed by Friends who believe in the slow and subtle approach to nurturing the Meeting and the spiritual lives of Friends. We stay in contact with Friends, plant our small seeds, and wait to see what happens. Some Friends see our role as too passive, and have suggested that we might do more, manage things more vigorously, and be a lot more visible about what we are doing.

After Meeting, I was chatting with the incoming clerk. I shared something about how the committee had handled a particular issue, and how, once again, the issue was resolved without it looking like Worship & Ministry had done anything about it.
To me, this is a sign that we're doing our job well, but not everyone sees it that way.

That Saturday, my two sons had a disagreement that ended in my younger son telling my older son that he was not going to share his birthday-gift books with him. My older son and my 15-year-old daughter were incensed about this, and insisted that I do something about my younger son's refusal to share.

"I have done something," I said, "He doesn't have to share his books if he doesn't want to. I've told him that I think that families work better when people share, but it's important that he comes to that decision on his own."

My daughter was particularly steamed at this. She wanted me to make my son share his books, to lay down the law, to punish him for his selfishness.

Within a few hours, my sons had worked things out, and my younger son decided to share his books. I was still, however, a bad parent in my daughter's eyes, because I had not taken a more direct approach. I think we have a better outcome than we would have had if I had enforced sharing. My son came to the decision, under his own power, that it was better to share and to have his brother share with him. 

That's eldering, to me, in a nutshell. Planting little seeds and then giving people time and space to come to their own insights, their own solutions, their own decisions. And, while planting those seeds, being humble enough to realize that we don't ourselves have all of the pieces of the puzzle, and that bits of the solution come from all sorts of different places.

We just toss our pebble into the pond and wait for the ripples to do whatever ripples do.

29 May 2008

Nineteen Minutes to Five

Okay, so once a month, it is my job to hold the container for worship and close Meeting at the end of the hour. This seemingly simple job has created a number of issues for me, which I have blogged about before.

For a time, I deliberately went to Meeting without a watch and trusted in the promptings of Spirit as to when to close Meeting. At first this worked well, but then I realized that it took too much of my attention. So much energy went into discerning how long worship should go that I didn't feel like I had enough left to monitor the pulse of the Meeting or tend my own worship.

So I started bringing a watch.

The next problem was that I don't ordinarily wear or carry a watch. In the midst of getting the family ready for Meeting, I needed to remember to scoop my watch out of my jewelry box and put it in my purse.

Fortunately, my husband carries a pocket watch, so he could act as my back up.

When I last came to close Meeting, I forgot my watch. As we were pulling into the Meetinghouse, I remembered, and asked to borrow my husband's. I slipped it into my pocket, slid into my chair, and fell into worship.

Some time later, I checked the time. The hands of the watch were frozen at nineteen minutes to five. Meeting for worship runs from 10:30 to 11:30.

I went back into worship and asked God to tell me when it was time to end Meeting.

Worship continued in fullness and beauty, and I imagined myself holding it open all day. Several individuals gave heartfelt ministry, and we sat there in the peace of deep worship.

Finally, I rose. "Friends," I said, "it's my job to close worship today. My watch says that it's nineteen minutes to five, and that seems about right to me. I have no idea when we should close worship."

Friends started shaking one another's hands and wishing one another good morning. Later evidence suggests that I was 10 to 15 minutes late closing worship, but I really have no idea.

As we rose, I thought that perhaps I am not meant to close worship. Perhaps my struggles with the clock, and with speaking at all after worship, mean that I should do different jobs for the Meeting.

A record number of Friends came up to tell me how much they enjoy it when I close worship. "You're so light and funny," they said, "you have such a wonderful spirit about it."

Indeed. On the mornings I close Meetings, there is always laughter and lightness of spirit as I try to find the words to welcome everyone to Meeting. My struggles to rise from worship and speak from a script are a continual source of entertainment to my Friends.

Ah. I have missed my calling. I am meant to be a Quaker stand-up comic, playing at the Meetinghouse on First Day mornings. Don't miss my "I seem to have forgotten my name and what I'm meant to be doing here" act followed by "I'm delighted to be with you all. Let's just beam at one another for a moment while I try to remember how to do this."

And, the truth is that I am delighted to stand there, blinking, and welcome everyone. I'm happy to invite newcomers to our Meeting and tell them how wonderful it is that they shared worship with us. I am filled with joy at the opportunity to facilitate announcements. After worship, I am so happy to be in the heart of the gathered Meeting that it doesn't matter that I stumble over the words I'm meant to speak.

It's even okay with me that God sees fit to tell me that it's nineteen minutes to five, whatever that means.


I dreamed I was visiting God's garden. God and I had a long walk through the garden, admiring the plants and the changes since my last visit. We came to an apricot tree, and I reached up to touch a blossom.

"I remember when you gave me an apricot from this tree," I said, "I still have the stone."

"You still have the stone?" asked God, "Do you have it with you?"

I reached into a pouch, took out the stone, and held it out in my hand to see.

"Give it to the gardeners!" God commanded.

I handed the apricot stone to one of God's gardeners. The gardeners took it to a prepared bed and gently slipped it into the rich soil. One of them watered it deeply.

When I woke, I held the dream lightly. I didn't want to read too much into it, to decide the meaning of the apricot, the stone, and God's gardeners.

All I know is that I feel very good about having given the apricot stone to God's gardeners and seeing it find its rightful place.

18 May 2008

Testing Leadings

I'm going to lift up something that Richard wrote in a comment to my post before last:

At this point it's good to look outside yourself for signs to help you discern. When you mention the possibility of doing this to weighty Friends what is there reaction? Do they caution you to reflect more deeply on it or do they brighten at the thought of you doing this? Have you detected any signs of Way opening for this project? For example did some other responsibility that was taking up some of your time and energy suddenly lifted from your shoulders to make space for the new project? Did something or someone that would help you with the project suddenly appear in your life unexpectedly?

If weighty Friends do not discourage this and if signs of Way opening appear, then don't hold back from following the leading just because you think you might like it!

Sometimes I feel like a blind person tapping in front of me with my white cane, trying to discern my next step. Part of my leading has been to take the next step and trust that God will continue to guide my feet. I can't see the end of the path from here.

It's good to be reminded to check in with weighty Friends and spiritual buddies about our leadings. My Friends did, somewhat to my amazement, respond very enthusiastically to my leading and encourage me to relax and enjoy it. It is a little like working with the children during our Meeting retreat. I might have felt like I was goofing off and having a good time, but the Meeting appreciated the work I was doing anyway.

I also continued to pray about the leading, continually, and to wait for confirmation before taking each step. This is not something I always do, and I think I sometimes might have a tendency or out-run my Inner Guide. Part of my discipline in this event, however, has been to go no further than guided by Spirit.

I am forced to admit that God was right again. There were times along the way that weren't as easy and pleasant as I anticipated, and events took a few twists and turns that underscored the wisdom of my care and attention to this seemingly simple and pleasant activity. I needed my Guide on this trip, and I needed to be on the trip to do work that needs to be done.

And perhaps I also needed to know that sometimes God calls us to go with our strengths, to refresh our spirits, and to do what we love.

13 May 2008

Baptism in the Spirit

At the rise of worship on Sunday, a Quaker elder I admire greatly asked to speak with me for a few minutes.

"At the Worship & Ministry meeting, you spoke of being born again," she started, "What did you mean by that? Did you mean that you had been born again at some time in the past and renounced it? Or did you mean that you're still born again?"

When I was 13, I came forward at an altar call at a Baptist church. The choir sang "O, Lamb of God, I come, I come" and I came to lay my life at the feet of Jesus and to welcome him into my heart as Lord and Saviour. I was baptized by immersion, and I can still remember the grave sweetness on the face of the minister who baptized me.

Had I renounced it? That experience, while not my earliest religious experience, was certainly strong. I felt God's presence deeply throughout that time, and it gave me comfort and courage through my parents' divorce and my own teenaged confusion.

I didn't stick with the Baptist church. We moved, and I joined the Unitarians and then the Pagans. I went with friends to Catholic masses, lived with members of the Hanuman Fellowship and the followers of Yogananda. I hiked extensively in the mountains. I went to Hawaii and watched Kilauea erupt from an ancient Hawaiian village now used as a campground.

Everywhere I went, I saw God. I saw the Divine in what I read and heard, in the faces of other human beings, and in the rocks and the trees and volcanoes. Wherever I went, I have carried that sense of the indwelling Spirit, of my own deep and personal connection with the Divine.

"I didn't renounce it," I said slowly, "the Spirit that moved me then is still here, in my heart. I've seen it in lots of other places since then, though, the same Spirit."

"I think, though, that it's wrong to talk of a single act of salvation. I don't think I changed for once and forever when I answered that altar call. I've come to see it as a practice, a continual need to welcome Spirit into my heart and my life, a continual process of learning to yield myself up to God's service."

I spoke then about my ongoing struggle to live my life fully in the Spirit, to live from that Spirit-led center. Not my will, but Thine. And how difficult it is to do that. And how, a lot of times, I don't want to do that, but to follow my own way.

"I'd be a much better Christian," I mused, "if I wasn't impatient."

"And proud.  And willful. And lazy."

"And sometimes, I just don't believe any of it. 'Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.'"

"But somewhere, deep within, the Spirit keeps bubbling up and renewing me and guiding me and helping me on my way."

So my faith, what I have of it, is a gift. It's not something I can claim credit for. It's not something I do.

I wonder how it happens, that baptism in the Spirit. 

26 March 2008

The Fruits of Radical Faith?

Over the past few months, worship has been filled more and more with calls to radical faith. I hear these calls weekly in my heart, and quite often on the lips of other Friends.

Personally, I keep getting the message to be a lily of the field. I am not to worry about the outcome of what I am asked to do, just to do it and trust God to handle the rest. This is a huge challenge for me, and I definitely need the weekly reminders to relax and trust in God. He's got my back, okay? It's fine for me to do my little bit, let go, and leave things in God's hands. Really. C'mon, Heather, LET GO ALREADY!

For the Meeting, I am hearing that we need to do the same thing: let go and trust in whatever God's got planned for the Meeting. Maybe we don't need to make sure that every i is crossed and t is dotted before we move forward. Maybe God wants us to cross the ts and dot the is instead. Maybe we should just GET OUT OF THE WAY and let Spirit MOVE.

Well, when God shouts at me repeatedly, I hear. That doesn't always make it easy for me to obey, but at least I'm clear about what is expected of me.

The leading I'm finding it hardest to follow right now is personal. Moreover, it's something I want to do, something that delights me. This has made me question repeatedly whether it can really be a leading, and why I am being led to do it. The answer I keep receiving is that I don't need to understand, that I should just relax, enjoy it, and leave the driving up to God.

This is almost impossible. I can follow leadings to do things that are difficult and unpleasant more easily than I can follow a leading to relax and enjoy myself.

It is my Father's good, good pleasure
To give me the kingdom as I live and breathe.

That song keeps recurring to me. God has given me so many gifts in this life: friends, family, trees, healing, learning, natural beauty, bodily comforts, safety, protection, and much, much else. Why is it so hard to accept that I might be led to do something that is easy and pleasant to do?

Much that has been asked of me this last year has not been easy and pleasant, but has been difficult and has stretched me.

I heard a Friend's laugh yesterday in the distance and went up to tell her how much it delighted me.

"Oh, I know, I have a terrible laugh," she said.

"I love your laugh."

She laughed again, "Maybe I should just accept the compliment instead of arguing with it?"

Maybe I should just accept God's gifts instead of arguing with them.

17 March 2008

Awesome and Sufficient

We held a worship-sharing to respond to queries for our State of the Meeting report to the quarter.

Our Meeting has faced big challenges this last year. It's been a time of pain and struggle, of divisions and hard feelings worked out with difficulty, of low energy and the letting go of things our Meeting has always done. We're in the process of a radical restructuring in the spirit of the Jubilee Year, and we lack the comfort of familiar forms for our ongoing work in the Spirit.

I expected our State of the Meeting worship to strike a somber note. I was extremely surprised to hear one Friend after another rise and speak of the coming of spring after a fallow period. Friends spoke of difficulties and challenges in many areas, and then they spoke of new seeds germinating. There was a great sense of hope, of energy building beneath the surface, of a time of growth and renewal after our fallow time.

Friends came to speak of the awesome strength, courage, and faith our Meeting has shown in taking on the Jubilee Year challenge set forth by Pacific Yearly Meeting. We have indeed been examining our structure in the light of the Jubilee Year, turning away from other responsibilities to focus on the shaping of our Meeting. We have allowed our fields to go fallow, and sustained ourselves with that which sprang from the Spirit of its own accord.

One Friend rose to say that the power of the Spirit of Love is awesome and sufficient to bring us into unity.

Then it struck me with great force: our forms and structures might be worn and outmoded, lacking in energy and support, but the Spirit is moving strongly among us and we are honoring it. We are willing, as a corporate body, to offer our Meeting to Spirit to use for its purposes. We are waiting for guidance and willing to follow that Spirit whereever it might lead. The Spirit of Love is awesome and sufficient to lead us, and we as a Meeting have the faith to relinquish control of the Meeting and go whither it leads.

No wonder we've had pain, having to let go of forms that no longer serve us. No wonder there is such great energy for our discussions of the issues we face. No wonder there is such great support for radical change in our Meeting. We are joined in Spirit, and we share a deep faith in our Quaker process.

And no wonder, too, that we have such pain at letting go of beloved forms. Our Meeting is dying and being reborn in a new form, and we all grieve the old forms that we so loved.

How often this last year I've heard the words "We should do this, we ought to do that, we're not doing the other as well as we might." That's all true, but it seems to me that there's a tension between perfectly fulfilling the functions of human structure and following Spirit. We say that we are primitive Christianity revived, but we also take comfort in our outward forms and having things done in the manner of Friends.

How scary it is to think about stepping outside of the forms and living unsheltered in the wilderness of Spirit! How scary and yet exhilirating to be living on the edge of spiritual dynamicism, to feel the ground shift beneath our feet.

Our feet stumble and find the new path with difficulty. We let go of old forms grudgingly, like a well-mannered dog leaving behind a juicy bone to go on a walk with our mistress. We look at the mess and confusion and feel a stab of guilt and regret.
Then we go to worship and the Spirit pours into us: "You are my children, with whom I am well pleased. You are the beloved community living my ministry. You are living in the grace and beauty of my love."

I feel intense gratitude this morning for the movement of Spirit in my life, in my Meeting, in the world. What a blessing to be part of this beloved community in transformation, to share in the suffering and strife as well as in the joy and beauty.