Listen to Your Children Praying

Days after moving back to the Philadelphia area, I attended the 20th anniversary concert of Tribe 1, “an ensemble of singers, poets and drummers dedicated to performing songs of Transformation.” In his introduction, Brother Robb Carter praised the group for the way it combines prayer, protest, and perseverance. Their opening song was a cry from the heart about the chilling, unjust violence routinely inflicted on black men in this country. Some new pieces called us to act together to weave a healthy society. In powerful gospel songs, the group moved us with heartfelt prayer. Together we created and sang a new song, with lines supplied by members of the audience put to music by the members of the ensemble.  Then Tribe 1 got their interracial and multicultural audience to our feet dancing in the aisles, inspiring us to remember that we can see through the illusions that imprison us and our society, and encouraging us to act from a place of powerful love and wholeness.

It was heart-warming to hear a favorite song I had sung years ago while living at Pendle Hill retreat and study center, where I participated in the gospel choir led by Niyonu Spann, founder of Tribe 1. During those years, while Niyonu was Dean of Pendle Hill, I had been fortunate to live in a racially and culturally diverse community of U.S. citizens and international students. As I danced in the old stone church where the concert was held, I recognized more than I had ever done before, what a precious gift it is to be part of an intimate and diverse community. I realized more clearly how impoverishing it is to spend too much time in settings in which there is little diversity of race or class, in which there is little variation from the culturally dominant modes of thinking, feeling, communicating, moving, and being in community.

The concert was dynamic. I felt more clearly the power that flows from prayer, especially prayer with others. I felt in both mind and body, and within the gathered group, the reality of how what we focus on contributes to our collective experience. I felt the power of naming reality.  We left encouraged to put into action the movement toward wholeness which we had experienced together.

At home, I listened to my copy of Tribe 1’s new cd, There is a Light, delighted to hear the concert again.   For days afterwards, while cooking, unpacking boxes, or taking care of the seemingly unending tasks associated with moving into a new home, I kept hearing the opening lines to my favorite hymn:

            Lord, listen to your children praying.

            Lord, send your Spirit to this place.

            Send us your love, send us your power, send us your grace.

When I heard those words repeatedly sung in my heart, I felt called to stop working for a while, sit down, pray, and listen for the quiet inward voice of the Spirit. I sensed how attention to God’s Spirit helps bring forth the matrix from which wholeness and love are manifested in the world.

My experience at the Tribe 1 concert helped me recognize that I needed to attend the special January 10th “called meeting” of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to address racism. I was among more than 400 Quakers who attended from 79 different Quaker meetings in the region, joined by many visitors. We began with silent worship and prayer. Lord, listen to your children praying.

At last summer’s annual sessions, concerns had been raised about many of the “isms” that separate and oppress various groups of people. Setting the framework for our time together, our clerk, Jada Jackson, recognized that sexism, classism, racism, and other isms of oppression are all linked. However, the elders and clerks who had been charged to discern how God wanted us to focus had been in unity that as a Yearly Meeting we are specifically called to address racism, amongst ourselves and in our society. Lord, send your Spirit to this place.

We were each asked to reflect on our privileges, and then on the ways we might be called to use our privileges to combat racism. And how might we do this together, in our Quaker meetings? Send us your love, send us your power, send us your grace.

For part of our time, we met in smaller groups. I was in one of four groups that formed from the seven meetings in Philadelphia Quarter. During worshipful sharing and listening, I was moved by what I heard, both from African American and white participants who told what they had learned from searching themselves and from their experience in the world. Listening, I was moved to a deeper commitment to learn about the ways that racism is still imbedded in my own consciousness and in the structures of our society. I wondered what I could do, personally and as a member of the Quaker community, to help combat racism.

All of the members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which comprises just over one hundred Quaker meetings, are encouraged this year to read and discuss The New Jim Crow, by lawyer Michelle Alexander. This can help us to educate ourselves about the destructive ways that our society is systematically perpetuating raced-based oppression, particularly through a prison system and “War on Drugs” that unjustly targets people of color, especially black men. After prison they are deprived for the rest of their lives of many of the rights of citizenship and are henceforth legally discriminated against in almost every sphere of public life. Poverty and broken families are perpetuated by this system. Alexander’s book calls for a heightened political consciousness and a widespread social movement for change. I do not know a lot about these matters, but I am willing to learn more.  And I’m willing to listen more attentively to how God may be calling for action.  The Civil Rights movement grew out of radical faith put into action, empowered by the Spirit. As a community of faith, Quakers know that movement toward love and wholeness arises from spiritual clarity and surrender to God’s leadings.

Out of listening in my small group, I came away with the conviction that I need to educate myself more about the realities of how racism is still embedded structurally in our society, and learn how I can become a better advocate for racial justice. How can I live in a way that helps to create a loving, fair society? Prayer needs to be a part of every step of the way. Can I let God, through the Light of Christ within, transform me to be more purely and truly a vessel of God’s love? How am I being called to action in my own community, both my Quaker faith community and the city of Chester?

At the end of the called meeting, hundreds of Quakers reassembled in the West Room of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meetinghouse. Many of us, like me, had been moved to a place of deeper understanding and commitment to the work of combating racism. The body approved a statement of our call and commitment to action.

            Lord, listen to your children praying.

            Lord, send your Spirit to this place.

            Send us your love, send us your power, send us your grace.

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Listen to Your Children Praying: What is tugging on your heart in relation to the struggles, violence, and oppression in our world? How have you witnessed oppression in your own life and in your society? Are you interested in learning more about the hidden ways in which racism is perpetuated? How do you use your privileges to combat racism? Is your religious community concerned about this? Is your religious community welcoming of diversity? How does God want us to live and act so as to bring more equality, justice, healing, and love in the world?

© 2015 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Prayer of Gratitude

Give thanks in all circumstances…  (1 Thessalonians 5)

During a long, stressful move from Indiana to a new home in Pennsylvania, I had a beautiful experience of whole-hearted prayer.  With help from my fiancé, Terry, and several friends, I had been packing my possessions for weeks, creating a huge stack of boxes, bookcases, tables, desks, etc.  On a cold, but thankfully dry Sunday morning in early December, two of Terry’s brothers, Dan and Bernie, arrived in a pick-up truck pulling a (clean) horse trailer.  Some Quaker friends came to help load, along with a strong young man whose help had been solicited on Craigslist by a friend too far away to help in person.  It took a couple hours to squeeze everything into the truck and trailer and strap tarps over it.  The brothers’ non-stop funny banter entertained everyone.  The plastic recycling barrel on top of the load rode high in the pick-up truck.  Dan and Bernie joked that they’d let us know where it landed, so we could pick it up when we followed in a car two days later.  They had already driven for five hours that day, but were eager to get back home, so they left after a quick lunch, hoping to do the return drive in as much daylight as possible.

truck and trailer

For the next six hours, Terry and I waited, praying for the safety of the two brothers, the truck and trailer, and everybody on the road around them.  I was touched by the brotherly love that led them to undertake the difficult task of moving me and my many books and other possessions.  I was moved by all the friends in Indiana who had helped, and by those who had put on a lovely event to say farewell to me and Terry, and to celebrate our intention to get married in the spring.  Being in need of help is humbling, and the help and love and gifts and good wishes of so many people left me feeling tender.  In the hours of waiting, that feeling of tenderness increased.  Finally, at 9:30 pm, Dan called to say that they had completed the journey safely, and that truck and trailer were now waiting in his barn for the second stage of the move.  The old tarp had been shredded by the wind, but the barrel was still attached.

That night Terry and I prayed in gratitude.  I was so thankful for the help we had received from the brothers and many friends, not only this fall but during my many previous moves.  I was grateful to all the kind people in Richmond, Indiana who had helped me to be at home there for three beautiful years.  I was thankful for the many people who had made possible our new home in Pennsylvania.  I felt gratitude pouring out of my heart, like light out of a bright window, reaching toward all who had offered their kindness and help.

“This is what it feels like to be whole-hearted,” I told myself.  The whole-heartedness issued not only from gratitude, but also from an awareness of my vulnerable dependence on the goodness of God and other people.  I felt blessedly connected with everyone and everything.

Two days later, heading toward our new home in Pennsylvania, Terry and I stopped halfway at Dan’s farm.  Terry purchased a new tarp and took the recycling barrel off the truck.  I tried to close up the gaps between tarps in the open windows of the horse trailer, not confident that the second weekend of the move would be as dry as the first had been.  Rain was predicted.

The brothers tried to avoid driving in the rain the following weekend, but because they both had to be at work on Monday morning and they didn’t feel able to do the second leg of the trip all in one day, they set out on Saturday in spite of fog and rain with a heavy load.  They had not approved of the quantity of books that I own.  While struggling to fit my bicycle into the already full trailer, Bernie had joked about me.

“She better be reading a book and riding her bike the next time I see her!” he told Terry.

In the minutes before they were due to arrive at our new home, Terry handed me a book to read.  We sat in the front window, watching for them and looking at our books.  My book was about prayer.  I read about how gratitude the most fundamental kind of prayer.  I remembered the gratitude that had poured out of my heart like light.  I prepared myself to accept with equanimity whatever happened next.  By phone we’d learned that the truck and trailer had been traveling in the rain for hours.

In the living room we had put down cloths to minimize the water and mud on floors we had just washed and oiled.  Then boxes and furniture were brought in, most of them dripping wet.  A few things that were too soaked to bring into the house went into the garage.  I was moved by the kindness of Terry’s family members and the friends who showed up to help unload the truck and trailer in the rain.   When everything was inside, Dan began to open up some of the wettest boxes and spread out soggy papers and books, to dry them out.  It was humbling to see my things strewn around; I knew I had not really needed to keep and move all of it.  The twin mattress that had ridden at the top of the pile in the horse trailer was too wet for anyone to sleep on, so we put down foam pads for one of the brothers to sleep on that night.  They bantered with each other about which one would get the dry guest bed.

Dan and Bernie in truck

I had a choice.  I could focus on my fatigue and aching muscles, the wet piles of my possessions, my embarrassment, and the books that would have crinkled pages after they dried.  I could be sad.  Or I could focus on being grateful for the kindness of those who helped us, especially the two brothers who had done so much work.  By grace, gratitude won.  We went out to dinner and had a good time.   The next morning Dan and Bernie were not content with all they had already done to help us; instead they drove us to several places, including Goodwill thrift store, to get a used sofa and other things we wanted.  Before heading off for another five hour drive, they also carried furniture and boxes upstairs, hung a Christmas wreath on the front door, gave suggestions for decorating, and offered helpful advice on what needed attention or repair.

When they were gone, Terry and I sat on our sofa, delighted by how nicely it matches the rug a friend had given us.  It was as though a divine decorator had planned it all for us.  We gave thanks to God.

front door wreath crop

Prayer of Gratitude: Has awareness of your need for the help of God and other people ever helped you to feel more grateful?  What causes your heart to overflow with gratitude?

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Entering into Transformation

A year ago I began searching for how Quakers in our time have experienced the kinds of transformation described by early Friends.  I then collected some examples, together with those of the first Quakers, into one manuscript.  This summer a kind Friend, the author of several books about Quakers, read my manuscript and responded with encouraging and helpful feedback.  One of his suggestions, however, has troubled me.  He advised me to take out most of my examples.  He thought perhaps my own experiences would sufficiently illustrate the elements of the Quaker spiritual journey in our time.  Today’s readers would identify more easily with me, he suggested, than with stories of Friends who became radical witnesses or experienced extraordinary circumstances.

Though I have been inspired by the most radically faithful people, I have also felt intimidated by their courageous lives.  I ask myself, how I can offer their stories as models when my own mind and heart seem more clouded than theirs, if my life is more ordinary?  I have, indeed, been changed by God, and my life is not conventional, yet I am also aware of much inside me that still needs healing and transforming.

Long ago, when I first became aware of the divine Presence within, I discovered dimensions of my inner experience and the outer world that had not been evident before.  Some previous activities and relationships fell away; others were infused with new energy.  Certain seemingly-fixed patterns of behavior, belief, and fear began to change.  I felt more connected to life and other people, and experienced a new, enlivening sense of power.  After an initial burst of transformation, however, I was disappointed to discover that some habits persisted.  Though many layers of fear have fallen away, deeper fears were brought into the Light that had long been hidden.  Certain changes have come only gradually, after a lot of prayer, persistence, and time.  I am aware that God’s grace is necessary, and that my ability to change myself is quite limited.

For most of us, a commitment to a life centered in God or Christ begins with some evident changes and then is followed by years and decades of slow reorientation to that commitment.  Changes may involve greater faith; taking up spiritual disciplines; more patience, kindness, and integrity; a willingness to acknowledge one’s failings and forgive others; use of spiritual gifts; alternative ways of living;  participation in community; and new forms of service.  All of these are signs of the transformation that God works in us.  Some changes seem intermittent or temporary.  We forget about our commitment to the life of the Spirit, becoming absorbed again by competing drives, busy-ness, or fear.  We turn away, but then we turn back again.  Slowly, inwardly, sometimes below our conscious awareness, we become freed of burdens and bonds which have made it hard to attend to the divine presence.  Gradually, we live more fully from our connection with God.

It is challenging to encounter stories of those whose path was swifter, more radical, or more public.  My blog post The New Birth described the transformation that resulted in early Friends becoming powerful witnesses to God’s way of peace, truth, love, and equality. Another blog post, Openings to the Way of Nonviolence, describes the more recent struggles of two Friends to embrace the peace testimony.  After that post went out, a friend sent me a wonderful book, A Few Small Candles, which recounts the stories of many young men, Quakers and others, whose conscience would not allow them to cooperate with the Selective Service during World War II.  I wept reading first-hand accounts of how those very young men heard and heeded the call to be witnesses for the way of peace in a culture that celebrates war.  Some spent many years imprisoned under harsh conditions.  In prison they advocated for reforms, enduring more punishment to make life easier for other inmates.

One example included in my manuscript is the story of African-American Bayard Rustin.  At the outbreak of World War II, he registered as a Conscientious Objector, as did many other Quakers.  A year later, however, he was troubled by a sense that war is wrong and that even conscription is “inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus” and contrary to the “spiritual truth that all men are brothers.”  In a 1943 letter to the Draft Board, he explained that God was calling him not to war but to a different purpose:

God motivates me to use my whole being to combat by nonviolent means the ever-growing racial tension in the United States. … Surely, I must at all times attempt to obey the law of the State.  But when the will of God and the will of the State conflict, I am compelled to follow the will of God. (Black Fire, 153)

Rustin was imprisoned for three years in segregated federal penitentiaries, where he and fellow war resisters actively and nonviolently fought racism.  After his release, Rustin became an early Freedom Rider, participating in the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation to draw attention to new federal regulations integrating interstate buses.  He and two fellow Freedom Riders were sentenced to a North Carolina chain gang.  Rustin’s six-part article about his experience, published in a New York paper, drew attention that led to the abolition of chain gangs at that time.  Later Rustin was an influential leader of the Civil Rights movement, helping to keep that movement committed to nonviolence.  He was also the principal organizer for the 1963 March on Washington, but he stayed in the background because of adverse public reaction to his sexual orientation.

In my manuscript I also tell about George and Lillian Willoughby, wonderfully down-to-earth and open-hearted Quakers whom I knew in Philadelphia when they were in their 80s.  From the time they were in college, George and Lillian dedicated their lives to working for peace. In 1957, alarmed by the testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada, they and their children participated in a protest at the Mercury Flats testing ground. Lillian was arrested for trespassing.  Soon afterwards, in order to draw public attention to the U.S. government’s testing of nuclear bombs, George Willoughby helped organize the voyage of The Golden Rule, which sail for the Marshall Islands in 1958.  Along with other crew members, he signed an open letter to the U.S. President, Dwight Eisenhower:

We intend, come what may, to remain there during the test period, in an effort to halt what we feel is the monstrous delinquency of our government in continuing actions which threaten the well-being of all men. … We are sensitive to the great responsibility you bear and assure you there will be no deception in our effort. All action will be taken openly and trustingly…. For years we have spoken and written of the suicidal preparations of the Great Powers, but our voices have been lost in the massive effort of those responsible for preparing this country for war.  We mean to speak now with the weight of our whole lives.  By our efforts in the Pacific we mean to say to all men, “We are here because stopping preparation for nuclear war is now the principal business of our lives; it is also the principal requirement for the continuation of human life.  It is a task in which we would have our nation lead. …  We hope our presence in the test area will speak to that which is deepest in you and in all men: that all men are capable of love.

The crew of The Golden Rule was imprisoned before they reached the Marshall Islands, but their action drew world attention to the great dangers of nuclear weapons and the international arms race.

I am deeply moved by stories of Quakers and other Spirit-led people who follow God’s leadings to courageous witness, healing ministry, sacrificial service, and acts of deep compassion.  I was glad to find such examples to include in my book about the transforming Quaker spiritual journey.  Though challenging, I believe it is important to hold up such examples, and to support the members of our community whom God calls to address the causes of suffering and participate in transforming the ways of this world.

Spiritual transformation begins in the daily circumstances of seemingly-ordinary lives.  The divine imprint is first seen within our own minds and hearts, then in our interactions with family, friends, and community.  We should celebrate and encourage these forms of change.  At the same time, it’s important to know that God also invites us to stretch beyond the comfortable circumference within which many of us live, to serve the needs of those beyond our immediate circles.  Maybe few of us are called to such radical and risky faithfulness as Bayard Rustin and the Willoughbys.  But most of us are called, in one way or another, to participate in God’s healing and transformation of the world.  As communities of faith, we are called not only to attend to our individual leadings, but to support the courageous faithfulness of other Friends.  In this way, we help God to bring about the New Birth that awaits not just individuals, but societies and the human race.

Entering Into Transformation: How has your commitment to a life with God or Christ changed the ways that you think, act, talk, and live? How has your awareness changed? To what do you give your attention? Have you been led to do things differently from mainstream culture? Have you followed leadings that involved risk or some kind of sacrifice? Do you see signs of a larger birth taking place in humanity in our time?

An opportunity to explore the transformative elements of the Quaker spiritual journey:

November 7-9, 2014, at Friends Center, Barnesville, Ohio

Transformation & The New Birth, Facilitated by Marcelle Martin

For more information, see the page on Upcoming Workshops.

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For more on the voyage of The Golden Rule, see The Golden Rule Shall Sail Again and other Friends Journal articles.

© 2014 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

 

Posted in Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

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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