Streams of Living Water

In April 2015, Pendle Hill conference center offered an extraordinary opportunity for a merging of  the Christian contemplative tradition and the faith and practice of Quakers. Fifty people desiring to immerse themselves more fully into the waters of the Spirit participated in a conference entitled Streams of Living Water, facilitated by Cynthia Bourgeault and Paulette Meier. We explored how meeting for worship and Centering Prayer, when practiced daily, can help us open up more fully to the power of the Spirit that wants to flow through us.  The heart-opening words of the first Quakers testified to their experience of being gathered, healed, guided, and empowered by the Light of Christ within, and we also heard guidance and inspiration from a contemporary contemplative.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, noted author, part-time hermit, and esteemed workshop leader. For years she worked as a colleague of Thomas Keating and others in teaching Centering Prayer, a silent practice in which one lets go of grasping onto thoughts (or anything else) and surrenders to the presence and activity of God. Her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening is possibly the best on its subject. During the Pendle Hill weekend, she explained this simple form of prayer as a way to practice the self-emptying (or kenosis) which both Jesus and early Friends revealed to be the doorway to a conscious communion and union with God. The unprogrammed Quaker meeting for worship is, similarly, such a pathway. One distinction between the two practices is that Centering Prayer remains silent throughout, while the meeting for worship often includes inspired spoken words, called vocal ministry.

In her book The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia’s fresh and careful examination of the gospels and other early Christian texts reveals that Jesus invited his disciples into a profound change of consciousness. For many readers today, this is news. It is not, however, new. Early Quakers in the seventeenth-century discovered that the Spirit of Christ was inwardly present as a living teacher inviting them into radical transformation of heart and mind, as well as way of life. Written records of their spiritual experience and the historical record of their transforming influence on society reveal the power that is possible to those who learn to live in the unified consciousness to which the Light of Christ invites us.

Cynthia Bourgeault attended a Quaker school as a child, and then a Friends meeting early in her adult life. However, her hunger for spiritual depth was not met in that meeting, and eventually she moved to the Episcopal Church. Long sojourns at Benedictine monasteries later helped her enter more deeply into contemplative experience and the transformation of consciousness toward which she felt called. She is now a lively, Spirit-filled teacher with a keen interest in helping Quakers better connect with the contemplative depths of our tradition, and a desire to help others learn from the treasures of Quakerism.

Centering Prayer offers practice in letting go of one’s thoughts. Repeatedly consenting or surrendering to the presence and activity of God within eventually leads into a deeper, wordless, unified state of consciousness, an awareness of the presence of God in all things. Cynthia spoke about meeting for worship as another form of contemplative practice. She urged participants in the conference not to speak too easily or soon when feeling a prompting to stand and offer vocal ministry. Let the divine energy of that prompting take you deeper, she suggested, so that you can become vessels of greater currents of the energy of the Holy Spirit. Then the vocal ministry and prophetic witness that eventually comes can become a more powerful expression of the Spirit.

Through most of the history of Christianity, the contemplative tradition was practiced primarily by monks and cloistered nuns whose lives focused on communion with God and prayer for the world. The first Quakers, in the mid seventeenth-century, demonstrated that a community of people can enter the profound, powerful depths of union with God while still living in the world. They were mystics and also prophets, called by the Spirit to demonstrate an alternative way to live one’s daily life. They challenged dishonesty and injustice, and hundreds of them were sent by God to publically speak truth in a repressive society.

Paulette Meier is a Quaker singer/songwriter, teacher, and long-time activist. During a year as Artist-in-Residence at Pendle Hill, she copied powerful passages from the tracts and books of the first Quakers, not only the words of George Fox, but also Margaret Fell, Isaac Penington, Sarah Blackborrow, William Penn, and others. To help herself remember the spiritual guidance offered in these short selections, she put their words to music. These were later recorded in her cd, Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong. Over the years Paulette has done a lot of singing at outdoor rallies and demonstrations for peace and social justice, and there is great vigor in the way she delivers her plainsong chants. The words of early Friends, sung in Paulette’s strong, clear voice, convey the truth they found in a way that enters the heart as well as the mind.  During the weekend we sang these words together, allowing the chants to be a pathway toward the profound shift in consciousness to which Jesus invited his followers. Many people who attended the conference at Pendle Hill had already found that listening to the cd over and over provides heart-touching spiritual guidance.

For example, the first passage in the album is instruction from early Quaker leader George Fox:  Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts…

Many forms of contemplative prayer and meditation give similar instructions to let go of one’s own thinking and let the mind and spirit become still. If one’s mind becomes quiet, Fox says, then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God.

Let go of your own thinking, let your mind become still, quiet, and calm. That will allow you to feel the divine principle, seed, or Christ light within, and this will focus your mind on God.  After that, thou wilt receive God’s strength and power…

The relationship between practicing this stillness of mind and receiving the power of God is one of the themes running through the words of early Friends.  In between this stillness and receiving divine power there is a clarity that arises, a necessary seeing of the way things really are, within and without.  In another of his epistles, Fox  urges Friends to, Stand still in that which is pure. If one gives patient, quiet attention to the pure Light of God within, it will reveal things in one’s consciousness and behavior that may be difficult to acknowledge. However, power is also given to overcome them and to change. Stand still in that which shows and discovers, and there doth strength immediately come in.

At the Pendle Hill conference in April, we experienced two half-hour meetings for worship and one twenty-minute period of Centering Prayer. During the second morning’s meeting for worship there was a much more profound and fertile silence. Many felt encouraged to engage regularly in contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer or the kind of daily period of worship maintained at Pendle Hill. Regular practice can, indeed, help Friends today move toward a powerful collective spiritual transformation of the sort experienced by the first Quakers. More teaching about what happens during worship and prayer, and about the nature of consciousness would also be beneficial. In Maine this June, Cynthia and Paulette will co-facilitate another weekend retreat at the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation.

The Quaker path springs from a deep communion with God  This flows into the world as loving service, ministry, and prophetic truth telling.   Opening to the consciousness to which the divine Light calls us requires that we learn the spiritual surrender that is practiced in meetings for worship and contemplative prayer.  I look forward to the mutual enrichment that can come from continued dialogue between Christian contemplatives, contemporary prophetic people, and the rich teaching and practices of Quakerism.

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Streams of Living Water: What is your experience of letting go of thoughts and allowing your mind to become still and quiet? What practices help you to surrender in trust to God, the Light, Christ, divine Love? Have you experienced the divine strength and power that is given when one’s quiet mind is focused attentively on God, the Light, or Christ within? 

© 2015 Marcelle Martin

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

Gathering in the Divine Mystery

In the Quaker practice of group worship on the basis of silence come special times when an electric hush and solemnity and depth of power steals over the worshippers. A blanket of divine covering comes over the room, and a quickening Presence pervades us….      Thomas Kelly, The Gathered Meeting

When I first attended Quaker meeting, it was uncommon to hear Friends speak about mystical experiences. Occasionally I encountered debates about whether Quakerism was a mystical or prophetic religion. Some thought it was both, others stated emphatically that it was prophetic but not mystical, and others were cautious of the kind of closeness to God that might lead to either kind of experience. The debate puzzled me: I believed that only those who experience a mystical connection to God can hear and respond to a true prophetic call. From the books I read, especially about George Fox, it seemed evident that the early Quaker movement was both mystical and prophetic. At the same time, early Friends lived out their faith in the concrete details of ordinary human life, in the midst of the world.

What about contemporary Friends? It was moving to find passages from the writing of Thomas Kelly in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice. Kelly’s writing gave clear evidence that some Friends in our time also experienced a direct, mystical connection with God.  Other passages in Faith and Practice revealed that out of an inward, mystical relationship to God, many people in our time had been led to acts of prophetic speaking or living.

I was hungry for such accounts, as they helped me better understand how God was at work in my life. During vocal ministry, I sometimes spoke of unusual inward experiences, such as seeing a spiritual Light flowing through all things, hearing a voice giving gentle guidance, feeling a fiery energy inside, having vivid dreams and visions about the power of God to heal the world. My heart pounded when I felt a prompting to speak about such an experience during meeting for worship, and there was a mystical sense that the prompting came from beyond me, from something larger and divine.  Many Friends in the meeting provided a supportive context in which to offer such vocal ministry. I heard, however, that one or more people felt uncomfortable hearing about such experiences.

Wondering if Quakerism was, indeed, the right faith community to nurture my sense of a direct connection with the guidance and leadings of God, I attended the summer FGC Gathering and took a five-day workshop on Quaker Mysticism.  I met Quakers from across the country who’d had similar experiences and who, like me, felt a powerful call to live a life of faithfulness, close to God. Many had felt the need to be “in the closet” in their monthly and yearly meetings about the nature of their spiritual experiences.  I then joined some ongoing groups of Friends who gathered once or twice a month to share about our spiritual lives. One group identified itself as mystics, another as contemplatives. The need to share experiences initially brought both groups together. This changed over time, and what later drew us most powerfully was the divine presence we experienced when we settled in silence together. In both groups we began to worship for longer and longer periods of time.

More than twenty years later, sharing mystical or contemplative experiences is more comfortably received in most meetings. However, many Friends with a clear sense of divine guidance are uncomfortable calling themselves mystics or contemplatives. Some feel it more appropriate to speak of their call to ministry, spiritual nurture, or eldering. Others simply help deepen the meetings for worship in which they participate and pray for others without giving a name to their experience. However we speak of ourselves, many of us still feel called to gather from time to time with others who are drawn to mystical communion with God.

My Pendle Hill pamphlet Invitation to a Deeper Communion describes the long meetings in which, sometimes after hours of silence together, early Friends felt themselves gathered into the Kingdom of Heaven, present in their midst. It also recounts experiences of Friends today who have taken up a regular practice of unprogrammed meetings for worship lasting for hours. Saturday gatherings for this kind of extended worship are currently being held quarterly in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The next one will be on June 6, 2015, at Lancaster Meeting. Friends United Meeting is planning an extended meeting for worship for one evening of their upcoming gathering entitled Stoking the Fire. Quakers have also organized weekend retreats that are, in essence, a meeting for worship that lasts for days. The School of the Spirit Ministry offers regular silent retreats.

In addition, editors of the newsletter What Canst Thou Say? have organized a few weekend retreats for Quaker mystics and contemplatives. Last year’s gathering was followed by two days of mostly unprogrammed worship, an opportunity that helped to take me and many in that group to a deeper connection with God. Some experienced a universal sense of divine presence, and others felt the presence and guidance most specifically of Christ. During the two days of extended worship, many received a taste of contemplative depth, and there was also a prophetic quickening among us.

I look forward to attending the upcoming 2015 gathering June 12-14, in Richmond, Indiana. The weekend retreat, entitled “Touching God Together,” will be led by Elaine Emily. For those who are interested, two days of unprogrammed meetings for worship will follow.  The Registration Form is available here ( Word file ) or ( pdf file. ) Although the form says May 1st, the registration deadline is May 15th.

rainbow 6 May 2015

Gathering in the Divine Mystery: During worship, prayer, or social witness do you ever feel drawn into a profound spiritual unity with God and others? Has regular spiritual practice led to a sense of deeper grounding in God, Christ, or the Light in the activities of your daily life? Have you had spiritual experiences that involve God’s love, heavenly peace, inward voices, visions, senses, knowings, leadings, or fiery spiritual energy? Would you like to enter a deeper communion in which you might hear and discern more clearly the leadings of the Spirit? Have you found ways to gather with Friends who share similar experiences and spiritual longings?

© 2015 Marcelle Martin

Posted in Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Story of Renewal

On Earth Day I would like to tell you about a wonderfully informative, inspiring, and funny book, Renewable, by Eileen Flanagan, a Quaker friend of mine whose life was renewed at the age of 49.

Flanagan captured my attention in the opening paragraph, when she describes handcuffing herself to the White House fence beside some very famous people to send a message to President Obama that the Keystone XL Pipeline would be a disaster for the planet.  The rest of the book explains what led her to that courageous act, for which she was arrested and briefly jailed. She tells the story of her idealistic youth, when she spent 3 years in the Peace Corps in Africa, delighting in a simple, beautiful culture that celebrated interdependence. With frankness and wry humor, she then describes the next decades of her life back in the USA. Though she enjoyed marriage and motherhood, she woke up in midlife to find she had become someone different from the person she had thought she would be, distant from her own soul.

She and her family had just moved into a lovely, larger home to accommodate the teenagers’ needs for more space in which to make noise, her husband’s need for a room that was quiet, and her own desire for an office in which to write. Instead of finding joy in this new home, Flanagan encounters loneliness and a strange sadness. Dismayed by the materialism of her life and disquieted by a sense that she is somehow failing to follow her true calling, she searches to find her path again.

In this book Flanagan skillfully interweaves her own frank and humorous story with larger issues that she knows will affect the lives of her children. She travels back to Africa and sees how climate change is impacting the lives of people there, including the community in which she had lived earlier. Rains have become unpredictable, temperatures have risen, crops have failed. Doing some research, she hears sobering predictions about how terrible the impact may be in the not-too-distant future, when water becomes even more scarce. It becomes clear to Flanagan that recycling and modifying her personal and family life is not enough to reverse the planetary changes that are in motion. After she recognizes how much the policies and practices of large corporations–including “extreme extraction” methods–are pushing the planet to future disaster, she becomes an engaged participant in an activist group called the Earth Quaker Action Team. She joins EQAT in finding creative and joyful ways to pressure PNC Bank (a Quaker-founded bank) to stop investing its money in blowing up mountaintops in Appalachia to extract coal. Flanagan learns to exercise her “courage muscle,” and her anguish turns to joy and empowerment when she finds the role that is true to her soul and uses her gifts.

After five years of creative pressure and protest from Earth Quaker Action Team, PNC Bank recently announced a change in policy.  It will no longer invest in mountaintop removal coal mining.

This story encourages readers to ask ourselves if we are following God’s call, finding the place where the needs of the world intersect with the joy that bubbles up when we are being true to our deeper selves and to life itself.

Flanagan’s prose is simple and clear. The eye with which she looks at the world is wise, and she has a gift for showing the connections between things. I was eager to read a few chapters of this book each night because the way she tells her story is full of so much humor, love, and hope for the future.

Flanagan’s website has links to four different ways to purchase her book: http://eileenflanagan.com/Renewable/

In celebration of Earth Day, the electronic version of the book is available for the sale price of $3.99.   Wed. April 22nd through Sunday, April 26th.  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00SUUFSNG/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00SUUFSNG&linkCode=as2&tag=thewritingofeile&linkId=PQT3E34IAHCRFR4N

To support this Quaker author’s effort to share her message that our lives and our planet are renewable, write a review of the book for Amazon.com. After fifty reviews are posted, her book will be promoted more fully.

A Story of Renewal: Do you feel concerned about climate change and its effects on the world’s poorest people? Do you have questions about how fully your life is aligned with your spiritual purpose? Do you, too, long to put your gifts to use in ways that serve God and benefit future generations?

 

© 2015 Marcelle Martin

 

Posted in Quaker Faith Today | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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 , , , , , , , , | 7 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