Evolving Faith

The annual Quakers in Pastoral Care and Counseling gathering, held at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, provides a wonderful respite year after year for people who nurture the spiritual lives of others, including chaplains, pastors, spiritual directors, and elders.  This year’s gathering challenged many of us.  Entitled, “Sailing in Shifting Seas: Continuing our Work when our Faith and World Change,” it featured talks by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, who have been friends for decades.  Supporting and challenging each other to grow in their faith has been key to their friendship.

In the opening keynote, Philip Gulley distinguished between an evolving or growing spirituality, which encourages questions, and an unevolved form of religion in which dogma is merely accepted. He also talked about the distinction people make when they say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

Early in their friendship, Gulley helped Jim Mulholland leave behind limiting religious concepts with which he had been raised, including some notions about hell. Seeking a truer faith, Mulholland outgrew one denomination, and later another.  Eventually, like Gulley, he became a pastor of a Midwestern Quaker Meeting.  Together they wrote two powerful books: If Grace is True and If God is Love.  Those books caused controversy among some theologically conservative Friends.  Gulley and Mulholland had promised their publisher a third book in the series, but Mulholland found himself unable to continue.  His faith had changed so much that he no longer knew if he believed in God.  He decided he was no longer a Quaker and gave up his job as pastor.  At this year’s QPCC conference, he framed his story as a long process of evolving in his beliefs.  While searching for help to make his transition out of church, he was unable to find many books to give him support.  So he wrote one of his own.  In effect, he has become a kind of pastor to agnostics or atheists leaving the church.

As you might imagine, at a gathering for people who nurture the spiritual lives of others, many of us present were uncomfortable with Mulholland’s suggestion that agnosticism (or atheism) is a more mature spiritual stance than faith in God. However, some in the room found themselves freed to admit that they, too, are growing out of the faith they have previously embraced.  Mulholland suggested that those of us who give spiritual support to others ought to be able not only to listen to those who are struggling with their faith, but to actually celebrate when people explore their doubts.  He gave us a list of nine reasons why people leave religion.  Many have to do with various life experiences that cause a re-examination of previously held beliefs.  Other reasons are reactions to religious systems that are coercive, stifling, abusive, hypocritical, or used for political power.  Mulholland stated that his primary reason for leaving religion, however, was curiosity.  What would open up in his life without a concept of God?  When questioned, he allowed that he still believes in a Ground of All Being, and in Goodness.  He could call those things God, he said, but since most people mean something else by that word, for him it is a matter of integrity not to claim a faith in God.

He asked us to remember what we believed about God and the purpose of life at various stages in our life: when we were fifteen, thirty, and now. This helped each of us to see the evolution of our faith.  Friends shared how their faith has changed over their lifetime.  I remembered that when I was in college I, too, left the church of my upbringing.  At eighteen I became an agnostic, uncertain that God existed.  I thought at the time that leaving the church was the end of my religious and spiritual life.  In the years that followed, however, I realized I now had to discover for myself the nature of reality.  I searched for direct understanding, for experiential knowing.  After I began to search whole-heartedly, I opened up to experiences–direct glimpses–of the consciousness, the Light, the energy, the Truth, the healing Power, the Reality which gives life to everything.  Others present at the conference described similar defining moments in their faith life.  For some, the transforming event was an experience of unconditional divine Love.  Those present who had tasted direct experience of God or Christ, now have a faith based not primarily on belief, the behavior of others, or outward religious systems, but on knowledge of a reality bigger than any human concepts.  It took some of us years before we could call that reality “God” because it is so much bigger than the images of God received in childhood.

At the beginning of Quakerism, something like this happened for those who became the first Friends. They asked questions of the churches in which they had been raised.  They noticed a difference between what was preached and how their pastors and fellow churchgoers acted.  They longed for something more than religious rituals or scholarly sermons.  They left their first church for another more open to their spiritual questions.  They kept growing and were not satisfied merely with new beliefs or practices.  Although they did not abandon the concept of God, many of them felt completely disconnected from God and Christ.  Some stopped attending church altogether.  They kept searching, looking within, or they simply waited for divine action.  Finally, those who became the first Quakers tasted a direct experience of divine reality.  For many, that experience was a Presence they felt in gathered experiences of worship with others.  Some recognized an inner voice that guided them toward a new kind of life, one infused by Light, Truth, and Love.  After opening to this direct experience and inward relationship, they, too, used many different words, in addition to “God” and “Christ.”  Their spiritual experience had become so much more powerful and nuanced than the limited concepts of God and Jesus which were common currency in their culture.

On the other side of shedding old practices, beliefs, and images can come a new relationship with a powerful, loving spiritual reality dwelling within and active in the world. The faith of Friends who experience this living divine presence grows such that the more important question is not, “What do I believe?” but “How am I led to live?”

Evolving Faith: What doubts and questions are important as you wrestle with your religion or faith? Have you shed old limited concepts of God or Christ for more expansive ones? Have you glimpsed or directly experienced spiritual reality? If so, what is your relationship with that? What do you call it?  How do keep connected to it? What does it ask of you? What are the important questions for you now?

 

Sunrise at Olney, the site of Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio

Sunrise at Olney, the site of Friends Center in Barnesville, Ohio

Come explore the transformative elements of the Quaker spiritual journey on November 7-9, 2014, at Friends Center, Barnesville, Ohio

Transformation & The New Birth, Facilitated by Marcelle Martin

For more information, see Upcoming Workshops.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Where Christ Meets Us

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? (Matthew 5:13)

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20)

The latest post on Micah Bales’s blog,The Lamb’s War, has troubled me so much I’ve felt moved to write a response.  Micah regularly provokes readers to examine what is not alive in contemporary meetings and church communities.  I value reading his posts.  In Is Jesus “Religious”?, he contends that Jesus did not behave in a religious way, and that Jesus would be unlikely to attend contemporary worship services.  He wrote, “I have a tough time imagining our modern-day houses of worship as the site for Jesus’ prophetic witness. I think he’d want to be where the action is – in the lecture halls of universities; on Wall Street in corporate boardrooms; on the internet; maybe even in the halls of government! The last place I can imagine him showing up to make an impact would be at worship on Sunday morning.”

I agree that most meeting and church services have little of the saltiness Jesus wants to cultivate in his friends and followers.  Most are too acculturated to mainstream society to encourage members to listen to prophetic promptings.  Jesus criticized many of the religious observances of his day, and I believe that the living Spirit of Christ is critical of our lack of prophetic saltiness today.

I do believe, however, that Jesus was both spiritual and religious.  He often preached in the open air and in the homes of followers, yet from the age of twelve onward, he was known to spend time in the  temple in Jerusalem, which he called his father’s house.  He was angered that the Temple was used in ways that did not honor God, and it was important to him to observe Passover with his disciples, one of the most important religious observances of his faith community.  When he visited Nazareth, he attended the synagogue and read the Torah passage for that day.

The people of his hometown were enraged by the prophetic pronouncement Jesus made there, and they chased him out.  They could not accept that a man they had known as a child, a human being like them, could be filled with God’s Spirit in the way he claimed.  Many church-goers today treat the living Christ who visits their worship services in a similar way, chasing away the salty prophet and allowing only the compassionate companion to come close to them.

However, Christ is present anyway.

The Light of Christ fills all things and is present in all places.  The prophetic Spirit of Christ fiercely urges people to take action to make our world reveal that the Kingdom of God is among us.  Christ is not proud or arrogant, however, but loving, forgiving, patient, and persistent.  If people are not hearing a prophetic call in their worship services, it is not because Jesus has refused to attend, but because their ears are not open to hear.

To truly hear God’s prophetic call to action–as opposed to our own ideas about what God or Christ might want–we need to learn to hear the voice of the true shepherd and distinguish it from all the other inner and outer voices and motivations which call for our attention.  A faithful religious community helps members cultivate the ability to hear true spiritual guidance and helps us find the courage to follow it.

I have experienced God’s presence and guidance in many ways, both in the places Micah mentions, and also in many of the gatherings and practices of my religious community.  Some of my experiences have seemed, in particular, to be experiences of the Spirit of Christ.  This winter, for example, I received some clear guidance while attending my mother’s church.  During a moment of silence, I inwardly sensed Jesus asking me (not for the first time, but never before so clearly) to take up more discipline in a certain area of my life which had been in disorder.  This instruction was brief, but so clear, so loving, and so real.  Since then, I  have heeded that instruction, and it has been changing my life.

Years ago I took a month of mostly silent retreat in my mother’s house. During times of prayer, I kept seeing a particular image of Jesus.  In the larger painting from which the image comes, it is clear that his poignant expression is directed toward the devout rich young man who wants to know what else he needs to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus invites him to give away everything he owns and become a follower. The young man, however, is too attached to his riches and to the comfort and status they confer.  The face of Jesus reveals no condemnation; he has a look of pure compassionate love.  It is the love that sees everything, a love that forgives, but a love that also calls us to let go of our attachments and enter a risky life of faithfulness and freedom of spirit.

During my month of retreat, I noticed that only one church in that small Virginia town had a woman pastor.  It was the most humble-looking church building in town, with aluminum siding instead of brick or stone walls.  I attended the worship service one Sunday morning.  I was graciously greeted. When I took a seat, I saw that I was the only person there who was not African American.  The cover page of the church program contained the image of Jesus that had been appearing to me.  Pastor Lucy preached an energetic sermon, and I felt the Spirit of Christ present there.  I also frequently experience the presence of Christ in the Spanish mass in that town; Latino families travel from all over the Shenandoah Valley to attend.

And this past weekend I visited a Catholic retreat center, home to more than 100 retired Franciscan nuns, many of whom served in schools for fifty years.  Most, suffering ailments associated with old age, clearly find spiritual support from the worship service.  After the priest performed the ritual of consecration, several sisters served communion.  I was sitting near one, a woman in a blue striped pant suit who lifted up a host for each person coming to the altar.   She had a beautiful, joyful smile on her face and looked lovingly into each person’s eyes.  I felt Christ’s presence.

Yes, Christ is present to comfort and support and guide in today’s worship services.  Does the prophetic call of Christ also reach people there?  During the coffee hour after the mass, one of the nuns said that since her retirement, she now finds joy by teaching GED classes in the local prison.

What about our Quaker meetings?

For many years before coming to Quakers, I had thought of myself as “spiritual but not religious.”  The first time I attended Newtown Square Meeting, I was greeted warmly outside the old stone meetinghouse.  It was a lovely fall day.  Only five or six attended that meeting for worship, several of them people who take time regularly for prayer, worship, and listening for divine guidance.  The small room, though paneled in wood up to the windows, seemed very plain.  In spite of a ticking clock, the stillness was deep.  A thought came to me strongly and clearly: This is like the place where Jesus taught his disciples.  I felt that I would be taught by Christ in that place, and within a few months, I felt led to join that meeting.  I was deeply shaped by participating in that close religious community and learned how to participate in the communal practices that Quakers use to help people hear and faithfully respond to divine promptings.

In meetings for worship held in that meetinghouse, over time, I experienced Christ calling me to move to the inner city of North Philadelphia, calling me to join a small Quaker “ministry of presence” in a neighborhood known for poverty and the drug trade.  After months of struggle with this call, I obeyed, and walked through a veil of fear to the other side.  My housemates and I worked with our neighbors to reclaim the local park and make it a safe place for children to play.  We went to City Hall to advocate for new playground equipment.  During the years I lived in that neighborhood, I felt the Spirit of Christ inhabiting my body in a new way.

Perhaps my “largest” experience of the presence of Christ came during the annual sessions of my yearly meeting, held in the Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia.  Days earlier, NATO had begun bombing Kosovo, in an attempt to stop genocide.  In a room filled with hundreds of Friends, there was deep concern about this.  I felt as through the entire enormous room was filled with the presence of God.  In the gathered silence, it was inwardly opened to my understanding that Christ was present as God’s compassionate heart.  I felt a call to us in that gathered silence.  Within days, some of us began a prayer vigil for peace in the world.   For an hour every Sunday afternoon, we stood in front of the Liberty Bell giving public witness that God calls us to address conflict nonviolently.  That vigil continued every Sunday for more than ten years.  Tourists from all over the world took photos and videos, which they brought home to their countries, evidence that some U.S. citizens oppose war and militarism.

The Jesus I have met in worship services all over this country called me into the barrio, into the offices of our city councilman, and onto the streets.  In prayer and worship, I have also heard Jesus call me to sit alone at a desk and computer, to write about the Quaker way to live a life of faith.  I believe I am called to a prophetic task in this, as well.

Being part of a faith community has always been essential grounding for the faithful life, and the prophetic life.

Where Christ Meets Us: Have you met Jesus in meetings for worship or worship services of your church?  Has participation in a religious community helped you life a faithful life, or has it hindered you? Where have you been taught or guided in a way that seemed prophetic?  Have you heard Spirit-led prophetic ministry in your meeting?  Have you encountered God or Christ in a way that led you to prophetic witness or action?

A Whole Heart has pages on Articles & Interviews, Videos, Upcoming Workshops, and Bibliography.

(c) 2014 Marcelle Martin

Detail from Heinrich Hofman's Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

Detail from Heinrich Hofman’s Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

 

Heinrich Hofman-Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

Heinrich Hofman-Christ and the Rich Young Ruler

 

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Openings to the Way of Nonviolence

I am finishing a book about the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey.  For months, while seeking to know how Friends in our time have experienced these elements, there have been stacks of books piled around my computer, on my bookcases, even across the back of my dresser.  In addition to talking with people, I’ve been reading autobiographies of contemporary Quakers, plus articles, pamphlets, blogs, and anthologies.  Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices and Walk Worthy of Your Calling have been especially helpful in my search for the experiences of Quakers from other parts of the world.

In the past two weeks I’ve been revising my sections about Openings and the Refiner’s Fire.  My search has revealed that a number of contemporary Friends have had life-transforming openings when they were confronted with the choice to enter the military or not.  In this time of anguish about the terrible conflict and bloodshed in Palestine and Israel, I feel moved to share how two Quakers received openings when they wrestled with the peace testimony.

People receive revelations of God’s truth and love in many different ways. Like many openings, the ones that follow did not come as quick revelations. Two men who engaged in an intense period of heart-felt listening for God’s truth and facing their fears finally experienced within themselves the truth of Christ’s call to a life of non-violence. The Peace Testimony was no longer just a Quaker belief. They received clarity about how God would have us live, which differs from our current ways.

After becoming a Quaker, educator Paul Lacey struggled with making a commitment to nonviolence:

The issue came to focus when I was trying to determine whether I could call myself a conscientious objector, recognizing that such a step would mean foreswearing violence for the rest of my life.  For weeks I felt haunted by the question, torn by my unfaithfulness if I did not accept the peace testimony and terrified at its irrationality and danger, if I did.  This long period of constant worry culminated in one sleepless night which I spent arguing with myself, going over the arguments of others, praying for guidance and being afraid that I might have my prayers answered.  Finally, early in the morning, I knew I had crossed the line.  No new arguments fell into place, nothing became more rational, but somewhere I had changed and I knew that I would have to declare myself a conscientious objector and give up reliance on force to accomplish things–for the rest of my life.

The decision put him at odds with some members of his family.  He was frightened both at the prospect that he might have to go to prison for his pacifism, and even more frightened about how this would impact his safety in the world: “I also knew that I had been led inevitably to this choice, but I felt frightened at what had happened to me.  Suddenly I was utterly defenseless in a violent world, and for a long time I went through my days fearful of what it meant to have disarmed myself.”  Later in his life, he faced a number of dangerous situations in which he might have defended himself violently, but his inward preparation and commitment helped him to choose nonviolence.  (Leading and Being Led)

Stephen Cary was raised in a Quaker family.  His father left a lucrative job rather than help create military weapons.  Nonetheless, in the face of the horrors of Nazi Germany, Cary struggled about whether to become a soldier.  He studied the scriptures for guidance and talked with others who were also searching. Finally he sensed that it was “the whole sweep of Jesus’ life and, above all, his death, that mattered.  Together they were an uncompromising, matchless witness to the heart of his message: that love alone overcomes evil.” (The Intrepid Quaker )  By the time Cary was called up by the Selective Service to enter the military, he felt clear that he could not kill.  He was classified as a Conscientious Objector and went into Civilian Public Service.

Only after acting upon his inward conviction that Christ calls us to nonviolent love, not to war, did Cary have the kind of opening that might be called a moment of vision.  Most COs were assigned hard work at menial tasks for up to four years of unpaid compulsory service.  They came from quite diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and both the labor and the living situations were difficult.  Some COs worked hard, and others resisted.  Cary was sent to clear trees on Skyline Drive in Virginia, to fight fires alongside prisoners in California, and then to build water holes and divert streams in the muddy spring woods of Massachusetts. One day during a break, while drinking sap from a tin cup, Cary watched as the three New England farm boys and the brother from Philadelphia labored diligently to load their wheelbarrows.  Others worked slowly.  Two men from different denominations leaned on their shovels and debated scripture, while two artists took one of their frequent rest breaks.  Some men with PhDs discussed 18th-century literature while prying up a boulder stuck in the middle of the mud hole.  As he watched them all, Cary received an opening that committed him to peace work for the rest of his life:

The entire company was mud-caked.  Looking at this scene, I felt a belonging beyond words.  These men, so difficult, so diverse, of so many faiths and abilities and backgrounds, were my family, my brothers.  There was no place in the world that I would rather have been than right there, leaning against my maple tree, sipping sap in a Massachusetts forest.  Tears came to my eyes.  I felt a Presence in the mud, almost real enough to be loading His wheelbarrow.  It was only a moment, but it made a difference.  I’d been spared from the death and dying and the agony of war, but that day in that water hole was the first time I became aware of my obligation, later reinforced by my searing experiences in postwar Europe, to work through all my life for peace. (The Intrepid Quaker )

Later, while working for the American Friends Service Committee, Cary labored in difficult circumstances to help rebuild European villages, towns, and cities that had been shattered by the war, slowly helping to restore relationship and communication among those who had been enemies.

Openings to the Way of Nonviolence: What has been revealed to you about the path of nonviolence? Have openings come to you after a long period of intentional spiritual seeking and wrestling? Have openings come in other ways?

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

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In Order to Give Our Gift

                    Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)

 
Operating out of a sense of separation from God and the rest of Creation, human beings have changed the ecology of our planet, causing climate change, habitat erosion, and extinction for more and more species. Unless we avert the catastrophe we have set in motion, extinction may be the lot of our children or grandchildren, too. The Religious Society of Friends has a gift to give the world, a gift to use for the healing of the planet and the human race.

I joined with Quakers twenty-two years ago, after some life-transforming spiritual experiences. I was gathered into a community designed to support direct divine experience and encourage prophetic faithfulness.  I found much quiet spiritual depth, a rich history, a theology that made sense to both mind and heart, and a community that walked with me.  After I started to respond to the inward prompting to offer vocal ministry in Lansdowne Meeting, however, I learned that some Friends were uncomfortable hearing about my experiences.  This made me wonder if Quakerism was the right spiritual home for me, after all.  At that time I had a powerful, luminous dream, the rare kind of dream that is sometimes called a vision because of its scope, clarity, and the vivid way it has remained in my mind.

In the dream I saw that humanity was facing a slowly developing but devastating environmental catastrophe.  God knew about this long in advance and had a plan to cause a shift in human consciousness.  As part of God’s plan, people had been born all over the planet with the purpose of helping to bring about that shift.  I saw that I was one of those people, and that I was being sent, with a partner, to a group of liberal, comfortable, well-educated people who were skeptical about the nearness and power of God.  These liberal Quakers had a crucial part to play in the divine plan, but only if they learned to pray whole-heartedly.  For their prayer to be effective, they needed to open their hearts in child-like trust to God.

In my dream, my partner and I joined in a circle with these Friends.  However, I was affected by the skepticism in the group.  My heart clenched in fear.  We tried to pray, but nothing happened among us.  I knew, however, that humanity’s transformation required the gift this group could give, and that giving that gift depended upon becoming able to truly pray.  I confessed that I did not know how to pray.  I asked God to teach me, to teach us.  Humbled, my heart began to open.  Vulnerable, I began to feel a child-like trust in God’s ability to bring change into the world.  Around the circle of gathered Friends, more and more hearts began to open in humble, vulnerable trust.  Then the power of God flowed through the group.

That dream came in 1994, and it helped me to know that God wanted me to stay among liberal Friends, that I had a ministry among them.  When I shared this dream with Lansdowne Meeting, I received much encouragement and was told that Friends had a long tradition of traveling in pairs.  Two years later, in a gathering of Friends from many branches of Quakerism (Quakers in Pastoral Care and Counseling), I learned an intimate practice of praying for each other in small groups.  Ever since, I have been sharing this and many other prayer practices with Quakers, often with a partner serving as an elder for me as I travel to different meetings.  Usually there is much reluctance and resistance when I introduce certain prayer practices, but experience changes hearts.  I am always delighted to see the glow on Friends’ faces after they feel divine love and healing power flow through them.

In the twenty-two years since I first started attending a Quaker meeting, I have witnessed a gradual spiritual renewal among liberal Friends, a renewal that was set in motion and fostered in prior generations by many Friends, including Thomas Kelly, Sandra Cronk, and others. Today it is much more common in liberal meetings for Friends to take time at the end of Sunday’s meeting for worship to pray for the needs and joys of members, or hold them in the Light.  We now more readily recognize and provide support for those called to ministry, and recognize those with gifts for spiritual nurture and eldering.  I believe there is still a long way for us to go, both in our prayer and in our action, before we become pure vessels (superconductors) of divine transforming healing power.  The essential gift we have to offer the world in our time is still waiting to emerge.

About ten years ago, at the annual session of my Yearly Meeting, the clerk of the Environmental Working Group quoted someone who said that the ecological movement would not gain real traction in this country until it became clearly identified as a religious and spiritual issue.  This man’s presentation had been full of facts and information about climate change and ecological footprints, but he had not spoken of God or used any faith language himself.  Whether we use words or  not, we need to become vulnerable and fully open to our Divine Source in order to effectively make our contribution to the shift that is urgently needed in our time.

Our effort is crucial: changing the way we live, speaking out about what is wrong and the healing path that is possible, and giving witness in society.  Our action is as necessary as our prayer.  However, it is not our power that can make the needed change.  Only God’s Power–flowing through us and through many all over the planet–can avert total catastrophe.

I pray to trust more and more deeply that God, our Divine Source, is able to heal us and our planet.  I pray that we Friends grow increasingly able, faithfully, to play our part in the birth of a new, more conscious, connected humanity, a birth now reaching a painful stage of labor.

Last week Quaker Speak released a new short video in which I speak about learning from early Friends what is needed in our time to participate with God in a healing shift of human consciousness:

http://youtu.be/lHxJUtePHVQ

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Please share this blog post with your friends and offer your comments below!

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

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A Tale of Two Gatherings

I have just returned from attending both Quaker Spring and the Friends General Conference Gathering. Loving community blossomed at both, but they were quite different gatherings.

Quaker Spring, which invites Friends to, “experience the Inward Christ Together,” was held on the campus of Olney School in Barnesville, Ohio.  Stillwater Meetinghouse sits on a rise at the entrance to campus, above Friends Center, the retreat house of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative). The Olney grounds include dorms, a small lake, an ample garden, a greenhouse, pastures for cows and goats, a chicken coop, and barn.  Since 2007, Quaker Spring has been an annual opportunity for liberal Friends to gather and learn with Conservative Friends. Mornings include Bible reading followed by a lengthy unprogrammed meeting for worship. In the afternoons, participants can invite people to join them in discussion on a particular topic, or may organize a clearness committee or game or outdoor event. A “Listening Committee” meets at breakfast to discern what is arising in the group. They plan the evening program day by day.

I came to Quaker Spring feeling burdened. During the opening meeting for worship, I had an image of a sunken ship, a boat called the Phoenix, whose involvement in Quaker activism in the 1950s and 60s  I have been researching for my book.  Recently it was found at the bottom of a river.  The ship is now being restored for future use by the Veterans for Peace. Like the mythological phoenix, it will rise again, and so will I.  But on the opening night I shared with my small group how I have sometimes felt sunken this past year.

I was grateful for extended worship every morning. Day by day I felt how God–and Christ–have been revealing and healing the emotions and thought patterns that have surfaced as I’ve struggled with various challenges, including grief at the end of a relationship. I rested every afternoon and walked quietly around the pond.  A few times, on the island, I sat in a narrow gap between evergreen trees and watched a flock of geese and goslings as they swam, waded, and pulled off the tops of tall grasses.  One afternoon, in preparation for speaking on an evening panel about Listening to God, I recalled the many different ways I have been aware of the divine presence alive in me and active in my life.  I remembered a time in 1995 when I was walking alone on a country road and had a sense that Jesus was walking beside me, asking me to commit to finishing an article for Friends Journal, the outline of which I had received in a dream. When I made that commitment, it seemed as though he took my hand, and I have never really walked alone since. One leading has flowed from another and I have been on a path of learning, teaching, and writing about the Quaker spiritual journey–past, present, and future–ever since. It was comforting to remember that I am accompanied, even when I seem to be alone.

A member of the Listening Committee convened a small group to have dinner with me on the last night. For an hour and a half, four wonderful people listened to me, asked questions, and provided love and support, helping me to feel how the Phoenix is rising even now.

At Quaker Spring, the movement of the Spirit builds day by day. This year, in an extension of last year’s conversations, the Listening Committee grappled with some hard questions about how to make the gathering more welcoming of racial diversity. In my final morning meeting for worship there, I felt God–Christ–very powerfully present in the vocal ministry and in the inner movements within me. It became more clear how the feelings and thought patterns that have been surfacing this year had their roots in my childhood and also in a patriarchal culture that has not valued intuition, emotion, mystical experience, and women’s ways. Even though I have struggled with difficult emotions, I have also seen God’s grace in the opportunity to acknowledge and embrace these aspects of myself and let them be released and healed. It has been part of the path to greater wholeness. Naming my blog “A Whole Heart” was an expression of the calling I have long felt to become whole-hearted.

The next day I traveled to the campus of California University, south of Pittsburgh, PA, for the FGC Gathering.  As a workshop leader, I arrived a day earlier than most participants. Still, after the quiet intimacy of Quaker Spring, I felt stunned by the numbers of people, the noise, and the confusion of figuring out the campus layout. By my second day, more than 1200 Friends had arrived and were noisily mobbing the dining hall. I wondered if it had been a mistake to come. However, I quickly discovered how to get into the quieter dining room by eating meals early, and I took time to rest and prepare for my workshop every afternoon instead of attending any of the many enticing events scheduled then.

I gained in strength as the week went by.  Elaine Emily, serving as elder, held my workshop group in prayer for five mornings as we focused on “Stories of God’s Love and Power.” From Monday through Thursday, I told stories: a Bible story, Quaker stories, and my story. Participants engaged and shared deeply. On Friday, they told their own beautiful stories of seeing God’s love at work even in difficult circumstances.

The theme of the Gathering was, “Let Love Be the First Motion.” Just a week before, Eileen Flanagan, a member of my meeting, had been asked to step in as the Thursday evening plenary speaker. At breakfast three days in a row, I joined with some other Friends to provide support as Eileen discerned what to include in her talk, and how much she would say about her participation in the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT). For a couple of years, EQAT has been engaging in demonstrations, including civil disobedience, in an effort to persuade PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

On Thursday afternoon, Eileen and almost 200 other people traveled from the Gathering to Pittsburgh, where PNC Bank’s headquarters are located, to participate in a demonstration. That same afternoon, I convened a group to hold them in the Light. Over the course of ninety minutes, seven people joined our circle. We sat in a sunny classroom with a view of the green hills surrounding the campus. In the deepening silence, I felt a strong connection to the Earth, its mountains, its flowing waters, and the people who live on this planet. I prayed for Eileen and the Friends I knew were in Pittsburgh, including a group of Middle School Friends.

My prayer soon extended to the employees and stockholders of PNC bank, and then to all of us in the U.S. who consume energy in ways that make blowing up mountains and polluting rivers profitable. My heart kept expanding. I prayed for all of us to have the wisdom and courage to choose sustainable ways to live on this planet; I prayed for help and guidance in making the changes that are needed. A couple of those present seemed sleepy. Yet a Power was present among us, expanding our circle way beyond the windows of the classroom. I did not feel like the initiator. Prayer was happening and I was a participant.   Love was the first motion, not personal love, but divine Love that flowed through us. I felt that the prayer of our little group was more powerful because it was connected to people who were taking action on behalf of the earth and its people. I don’t know if Friends in Pittsburgh were aware of our little group holding them in the Light. Nonetheless, all of us were part of a larger effort, a divine motion of Love.

That night Eileen told the Gathering how her connection to friends in Botswana had sensitized her to the effects of climate change on the world’s poorest people. She said that high temperatures and decreased water in the soil threatens the lives of 180 million Africans in the near future. After visiting Botswana in 2011, she felt led to take action. She lifted up the importance of providing spiritual support for discernment and action.

After the plenary, I joined some other Friends on the plaza outside the convention center. We sat on a low wall that circles a fountain and shared our different perspectives and experiences of the Gathering, learning from each other.  During the week, two different conversations with Friends at lunch helped me to listen more carefully, inwardly, about how to invite my workshop group to move into deeper waters.  Walks and conversations with other Friends gave me a boost of encouragement.  That week I saw so many Friends with whom I have made important connections in the past. At first it was painful not to be able to engage in deep conversation with many of them. Eventually, I felt peaceful about just waving and smiling and giving quick hugs, feeling how we were connected in one community in which love was palpable.

On Friday afternoon I offered an interest group about the Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey, not sure if anyone would come in the middle of the last afternoon. I had reserved a small room that held a conference table and 25 chairs. To my surprise and delight, 30 people showed up. Some Friends brought more chairs from other rooms.  People were interested in the elements of the transformative Quaker spiritual journey, and we had a wonderful discussion.

God’s love and power were at the center of the stories in my workshop, and no doubt also in many of the other workshops at the Gathering. The evening plenary talks were deep and moving, yet they included few explicit references to God. Speakers shared stories of how love, community, and steadfast witness are able to touch and sometimes overcome terrible pain and suffering, including rage at the murder of a son and the agony of thousands in U.S. prisons condemned to solitary confinement. Asking questions in the search for truth, loving and supporting one another in discernment and action, and prayer were all held up as important. At the FGC Gathering, we were a loving, accepting, and diverse community, embracing many interests, needs, and activities. But there was little acknowledgement in the opening worship or evening talks that what can really change and heal the world is not our limited human love and power, but only the great Love and Power of God, which can flow through us if we are willing to join with the divine Fountain of Love.

On Saturday morning after breakfast, a final meeting for worship was held in the same huge arena where the plenary talks had been held. Chairs were arranged facing in from four sides, and microphones were delivered slowly and deliberately to those who stood to offer vocal ministry. Many people had already departed from the Gathering by then. Those who participated in that meeting for worship rested not only in the love we felt for one another and the gratitude for a blessed time together, but also in the Great Love. Many messages acknowledged God, or the Mystery, the Eternal Being, and Christ within.

streaming fountain cmw3_d_fountain2 mrgfile941245026256

The theme of next year’s Gathering, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, will be “Seeking Wholeness.” I pray that we will speak clearly of the truth that wholeness comes only when we are joined in that Eternal Being, divine Mystery, and Fountain of Love.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

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Quakers and the Light

At the heart of the Quaker way of knowing God is the experience of the Light, the divine inward illumination and guidance that was known by early Friends as the Light of Christ within.  This is the Light referred to in John 1:9, The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  Early Quakers urged everyone to become Children of the Light.

What is this Light?

A delightful short YouTube video in the QuakerSpeak series shows nine contemporary Friends describing the Light and their experience of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0SLPW0JHsU

Quakers and the Light: What has been your experience of the Light?

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

 

 

 

 

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Today is the World’s Birthday!

Yesterday was cold and cloudy; today is windy but warm.  Spring’s first maple leaves have opened their tiny fingers and now catch the wind with full hands.  I have come through a long sad winter of navigating icy sidewalks in wind chills as low as negative thirty-five degrees.  Occasionally warmed by friendly companionship, I never completely lost awareness of God’s nearness, but it has been a dark night’s journey, inwardly as well as outwardly.

Since waking this morning, a phrase comes repeatedly into my mind: “Today is the World’s Birthday.”

This morning I eat brunch with seven Earlham College students, all of them musicians or actors as well as scholars.  We celebrate working together to facilitate the weekly semi-programmed College Meeting for Worship.  I am grateful for how these busy students showed up faithfully all year, and for their creativity, energy, and thoughtfulness.  Over bagels and tea, they tell me that learning about disasters in the past (Bhopal, Chernobyl) makes them feel greater compassion for those who suffer, along with a desire to bring change in how we live on the planet.  We consider the alienation that is at the root of destructive living.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

Walking home afterwards, I stop on a bridge high over the Whitewater Gorge, pressing against the metal railing and leaning into the open sky.  I am mesmerized by the tall swaying trees below, and by the purple blossoms of the redbud trees against the clusters of new green leaves.  The flowing river sparkles.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

I am preparing to facilitate a “short course” at Pendle Hill retreat center soon, a course entitled, “In the Life and Power of God.”  Over four days we will consider each of the ten elements of the Quaker spiritual journey that I have been describing on this blog, looking at how early Friends experienced the process of spiritual transformation, and how we experience it today.  These elements are all facets of the work of the Light within us, different aspects of the one transformation that brings us into fuller and fuller unity with God and into harmony with one another and this planet.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

In his twenties George Fox went through a long dark night’s journey.  He was shown much within himself and within his culture that resisted God.  He saw, “that there was an ocean of darkness and death.”  It became clear that people who deny the divine presence within themselves and block out the guidance of the Inward Teacher create a society of dead rituals, inequality, and injustice.  It was painful to him to see how human beings are in captivity, without knowing it.  He suffered, too, when he discovered the seeds of sin in himself. As he came through his dark night’s journey, however, he saw that there is “an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.”

Today is the World’s Birthday!

As I prepare to facilitate the Pendle Hill course, I feel more clearly that there is great value in understanding each of the ten elements of the spiritual journey experienced by early Quakers.  Some of these elements are quite familiar to Friends today.  We talk often of leadings and encourage each other to be faithful when prompted by God to particular tasks.  We listen and expect to receive divine guidance and insights, which early Friends often described as openings.  We know something of how God shapes us through the challenges and blessings of community.  We speak much more rarely, however, of other equally essential elements of the Quaker way described by early Friends, particularly the Refiners Fire and Living in the Cross.  Most of us are aware of the fear and injustice which grips humanity, but we are not practiced at allowing the Light to show us clearly the roots of spiritual resistance and oppression within ourselves. Nor do we often encourage each other to stay present to the painful insights and feelings that are necessary in order to become free of the inner bondage that separates us from awareness of God at every moment.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

In the midst of this difficult winter, I have been aware that my suffering is related to God’s loving and merciful action to free me of old baggage, baggage that hinders my clarity and faithfulness.  Remembering that God is at work in this “thick night of darkness” helps me to accept feeling the pain I carry from the past, helps me to allow myself to stay present when shown the negative beliefs, fears, and behavior patterns I have internalized from my upbringing and culture.  After I allow the Light to reveal such things, after I feel in my body how something in me has been blocked or repressed, then it becomes unstuck, or scrubbed or melted away.  I become more free, better able to give over control to God.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

As I arrive home today after brunch, my housemate, Tracy, invites me to go kayaking on the local reservoir.  Today’s wind makes it harder to steer and requires more vigorous paddling.  Once in a sheltered cove, however, we relax.  I expand toward a wide sky scattered with bright clouds.  A Great Blue Heron glides swiftly overhead; its long pointed bill and tail make him look like an arrow shot from a cosmic bow.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

The process of spiritual transformation to which God invites us is not just for the sake of individual salvation.  It is for the sake of restoring the world to the Shalom–God’s peace and harmony–for which it was created.  Rocking in my kayak, surrounded by the circle of saplings on shore, I remember words from Romans 8, a chapter of scripture important for early Friends.  It speaks of how all of creation is subjected to futility.  Human beings are not meant to remain stuck in the ocean of darkness, however.  God invites us to a higher form of life and consciousness.  The suffering we go through when we respond to the call is compared in Romans 8 to the pains of childbirth.  Those who respond are in the process of being born again as sons and daughters of God.  As we become liberated from fear, resistance, and alienated ways of living, spiritual gifts are released that touch all things.  [T]he creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation …itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

A turtle sunning itself on a log drops quickly into the water as I paddle near.  Another one, head erect, remains exposed in the warm sun.  I paddle into a shallow little side creek.  A goose that was peacefully floating there stands up and its wet webbed feet grip the muddy edge of the shore.  He honks at me with fury, his open mouth menacing.  I see that another goose lies in the grass nearby, no doubt incubating her eggs.  In the tight space of the shallow water, Papa Goose circles me so that the only way to get out of the creek is for me to move closer to him and  her.   As I maneuver in the shallow water, I try to show that I am going away, that I am not a threat.  He remains standing guard for quite a while after I leave. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Today is the World’s Birthday!

Early Friends believed that the End Times which are predicted and described in various places in the Bible are not just in the future.  The Kingdom of Heaven is within.  For those who respond to God’s call, the glorious transformation that God is bringing about becomes visible in the present.  The promised Second Coming of Christ is already happening, within. Even while alive here in a world that is still suffering the “bondage to decay” and going through labor pains, it is possible to enter the “new heaven and new earth.”

Today is the World’s Birthday!

Tonight, on the eve of Finals Week, the Earlham College students put on their second performance of Dance Alloy, featuring twenty high-energy dances all choreographed by students.  Some choreographers share dance styles from home–including Asia, Africa, Latin America, and New York City.  There are two powerful duets, but most dances feature ten dancers or more.  The beat is strong.  The theater is packed, and the audience is loudly enthusiastic.  One of the dances is rated four chili peppers.  Seventeenth-century Friends would have been scandalized.  I remember the joy I discovered when I started dancing in college, and well as my own efforts at choreography when I was twenty-two and living in Paris.  These brainy students are showing that they have not only minds, but also bodies. I consider that Creation is liberated through the marriage of Spirit and matter.  Afterwards, outside, the air is cool.  A bright crescent moon is visible beneath the evening star.  In the dark sky, the Milky Way shimmers like a river of Light.

Today is the World’s Birthday.

Today is the World’s Birthday:  How have you experienced the ocean of darkness and death, and the ocean of light and love?  What can you tell us about the labor pains of being born into the life to which God calls us?  Can you share anything from your experience of becoming freed from inner bondage?

* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey.

A four-day opportunity to explore the Quaker spiritual journey will take place at Pendle Hill Retreat Center, Wallingford, PA, May 11-15th, 2014.  In the Life and Power of God: on the Spiritual Journey with Early Friends

A Whole Heart has a page on Bibliography.

swan rising

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments