Where do you go?

wpid-20151107_111932.jpgI rang rather than emailed a new contact this morning. She is a university Muslim chaplain and we were discussing possible esol classes for newly-arrived asylum-seekers. She told me how hard it is right now for many of the families she is trying to help, particularly, if they come from Yemen or Syria. Once, she said, she even heard a bomb explode, while on the phone, and the line went dead.

People are losing close family members and friends in the violence. So, if you see someone dressed all in black, it may be they are grieving for someone close to them they’ve lost.

I asked the chaplain, ‘Who is talking about this? I, we…many of us here…don’t realise, we don’t know that this is going on everyday.’ Who is telling this story? And then, I thought, well, I can. Why not? At least, I can pass on what she told me. You can make up your own mind.

If you hit someone, they may hit you back. So, you might hit them harder…so then they hit you back as hard as they can and on it goes.

So, what can I do? I am making time for ‘5 minutes peace’, sitting quietly and upholding the families and friends of everyone, whose lives have been affected by acts of violence in the world today. Where are the peacemakers? How can we all work together for peace in the world? In our street? Maybe, starting simply by saying ‘Hello, morning’ to the moslim friend you pass in the street..?

I recalled an image of my mum, who’s 84 now. She flinched when a plane flew low overhead. I started laughing and asked her why. She told me the noise of the aeroplane reminded her of the Luftwaffe dropping bombs on the docks, near where she lived as a child. ‘And she never liked planes…and we never went to Australia…because of it and that happened in my mum’s lifetime…’, I said.

‘Mine too’, the chaplain said. ‘She tells me stories of what happened during the war too.’

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We are people, who happen to be Quakers

What is the ground and foundation of a gathered meeting?

  1. Come regularly to meeting for worship even when you are angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold. In the silence ask for and accept the prayerful support of others joined with you in worship. Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy. Prayer, springing from a deep place in the heart may bring healing and unity as nothing else can. Let meeting for worship nourish your whole life.

Advices and queries

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I headed off to Rep Council with a heavy heart. There was an unresolved family issue, concerning the health of my eldest son. I’d planned to be away for the weekend but so was my ex-wife, with whom he lived. Thankfully, his brother was able to come back. This was the dark cloud hanging over me when I arrived at Woodbrooke. I didn’t feel fully present for most of the weekend. It was a strain and I haven’t got a deputy. Better ask for one, preferably someone from a different Local Meeting, I thought; someone to work with and who can take over as Rep when my triennium ends.

‘I’ve never been to Liverpool. I will do one day, ‘ said a friend. ‘Well, don’t rush it. It’s still there. Take your time. It’s like going to Ithaca. Take a whole life time to reach there.’ And I don’t know why but I told this woman the whole story about my ‘stepping off the carousel’ at work. A few years ago now, it was a very low time for me. Being threatened with capability for failing to meet targets, ones, which grew ever higher each year, wasn’t pleasant. Well, if I couldn’t do this work well, what would happen if I just stopped? What if I just stopped and started to breathe, taking ‘five minute’s peace’ at work when my brain became frazzled with too much stuff, waiting quietly? Be still – watching, listening, noticing. So, I did. And it has led to me enjoying my work and exploring ways of communicating in all my relationships.

I reached out. Being a Quaker is a huge part of who I am. I assume people know this. It is difficult to put this over to people in words, especially as it’s taken me years to understand this far. In meeting for worship, everything looks so ordered, doesn’t it, sitting there quietly in the stillness in the circle.

It’s where I meet with God. But it’s not the only place. In fact, in my breathing and movement exercises, during my daily ‘20 minute morning prayer’, when walking to work or even chopping my vegetables for the evening meal, I feel I am opening to God’s presence. It’s practice. And there are times when I do find it.

https://soundcloud.com/black-bog/let-me-walk

‘How is your meeting, friend?’ ‘I’d say we are a happy meeting and we’re a small crew.’ For some reason, I thought back to when, long ago, a friend, Elaine, welcomed me to my meeting. ‘I’m sorry we’re not a friendly meeting’, she’d say. Now that she’s getting older and trying to cope with Alzheimers, I tell her when I see her how friendly we are now and how grateful I am to her.

Just a few weeks ago, I opened up the meeting house and welcomed a young man attending for the first time. He’d once met a Quaker, called Barbara, when he was a kid. ‘She used to come round and visit me mum. She made a mac out of old crisp packets.’ She did! I remember her wearing it to meeting and thinking…oh, well, you can imagine. But I saw her face. I pictured her singing in ministry, which she did often. She recited poetry by heart as ministry too. I didn’t know it then but she was one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.

Barbara, along with another friend, Julia, who’s still very much part of our local meeting, were the first people I ever heard singing during meeting for worship. ‘So, you can do that, then? People sing? And that’s ministry too..?

I recall absent friends.

A little later, I was walking around the building at Woodbrooke, when I came upon a notice board, put there to aid communication and provide information to questioners. I found it there to my great surprise and delight. Now, I make time to talk about what’s on it with new friends and the not so new, if asked. In our groups, we spoke of the importance of spending time with people, getting to know one another; of the centrality of meeting for worship; of the unexpected joys of ministry, both giving and receiving, and of creativity; mindful that we are all vulnerable to the unannounced real or perceived hurt.

Rumi says before you get involved, ask yourself three questions. First, is it needed? Secondly, is it fair? And, lastly, is it kind? If the answer to one of these is no, then don’t. Being someone, who is a Quaker, is challenging. But God has no other hands but ours.

Sometimes I wonder if there is too much communication happening with fewer people listening?

We spoke of the deep joy, arising from the children’s ministry. ‘What’s your name?’ a small boy was looking up at me. We’d been singing together in the choir that morning. ‘Ernie,’ I told him. ‘And what’s yours?’ ‘Bert’, he said. ‘Will you play with me on the labyrinth and the swing?’

How tired I felt! There’d been so much talking, so many people listening…and yet, I heard, isn’t it a gift to have time to play with a young boy? I was once a small boy myself. You forget. I checked with his mum. ‘Would that be ok..?’ ‘Yes, of course. Thank you, Ernie.’ As she joined her husband, me and Bert flew outside into the garden and raced towards the labyrinth. We spiralled on swings and laughed like geese.

I received a text from my son.

During the main sessions, in the Cadbury room, we heard about the work that Quaker Life (QL), most of whom are volunteers i.e. us, does:

  • The work of Quaker Life Central Committee and the part worship sharing plays at the start of each meeting
  • The soon to be undertaken strategic review of Area Meetings
  • Quakers in Britain – the future – http://old.quaker.org.uk/future
  • Spirituality (Being Friends Together (BFT), the library, publications, community and outreach in world cafes. The Area Meeting is now subscribed to Being Friends Together – http://together.woodbrooke.org.uk/welcome.php

And after, there was information about:

Some of us avoided facing up to conflict in our meetings, likening it, as one friend said, to some long marriages, where everything is fine but concealing ‘forty years of seething resentment’.

A few of us stayed on for an extra night after Rep Council. I’m glad I did because we learned and practised the twenty second hug from a young visitor, Stefan, who appeared on Sunday evening. I dare you to try it out yourself. Turn to the person on your left/right and invite them to have a twenty second hug. It feels like far longer.

The following morning during meeting for worship in the Quiet room, our friend, Pamela, offered all of us the ‘twenty second hug’ as she walked slowly twice round the room. Her footsteps tapped out the seconds on the wooden floor. It was powerful, moving ministry, during which the whole room felt held in Light and Love.

So, I ask you, friend, what does it take to have ‘a grounded Quaker meeting’? Could it be meeting for worship and our spoken and silent ministry? Or is it in the gaps, those places and situations, where we feel most vulnerable, are afraid to go and hope we are upheld by friends and by God? I made it through this weekend at Woodbrooke, feeling upheld by friends, some of whom I hardly knew.

We only have God’s hands, friends. God only has ours.

https://soundcloud.com/black-bog/friends-wav

On the train back home, there was an email from my ex-wife, telling me that my eldest son had had a seizure during Friday night. His younger brother had been glad he’d been there to help and that he coped well.

*Ithaca by C P Cavafy – http://www.cavafy.com/poems/content.asp?cat=1&id=74

Laistrygonians and Cyclops, wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

And, if you wish, listen to it in Greek. It’s superb – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1aFTuH1lwjM

In friendship

Together we can

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This was my first Compass Merseyside meeting and the venue was heaving. I set up my WEA STEM pop-up stand and laid my WEA goodies out on the table – a few books, including a Ministry of Enthusiasm, a brilliant read (well, I think so) about the social history of Britain in the twentieth century. I particularly recommend the last section on WEA Voices as the place to start reading. Starting at the ending, could this be a theme for the evening, I wondered?

I went there in the spirit of the WEA fighting for its future. It’s chastening to realise that it’s already twelve years into its second century. And not only the WEA, informal adult and community learning in general has almost disappeared from FE colleges. The local authority Adult Learning Services are being forced to charge full course fees, so that part-time day and evening classes, so long available for adults to join, is becoming affordable, so long as you can afford it. We have to challenge this. And we are.

Everybody is working so hard at County Hall, despite all the cuts. Because they have to, yes, and because they want to. People are relying on them’, so began the introductions. The first speaker spoke of a world far more complex now than when the WEA was formed in 1903. ‘We need to be involved. We have to look at issues from different perspectives. Complex problems require complex solutions.’ But do they? Haven’t some of the greatest advances come about when someone has seen a simple truth? They’ve not always been thought credible or popular in their own lifetimes. Change happens like that sometimes, perhaps, more than we realise, especially when combined with a critical mass support. That helps too, as we’ve seen in the founding of the Welfare State and entry to the European Union.

The next speaker came from the People’s Assembly (What is this? How significant or influential is it? I don’t really know). She talked passionately about the need to provide a robust economic argument against the ‘austerity’ programme. This will have cut Liverpool City Council’s central government grant by nearly 50% by 2017, based on 2008 figures. Bringing non-voters back and enabling people go to university by providing financial support were her two other key issues. “We’re passed ‘going, going…we’re at gone!’”, she ended.

The two Young Greens, who spoke next, expressed their sense of hopelessness at seeing increasing numbers of homeless people, sleeping rough. Is this the Big Society model in action? Of disabled people worried about keeping their homes if they have one room too many? Yet with all this happening, we still have hope. And they offered us hope, on occasion this time, tearfully. We are already a broad alliance of people, coming from different political leanings and none. The presence of so many, at least 100, in the room, including lots of young people, was evidence of that. The Young Greens’ approach to ‘the complex problem’? Partnership, Equality, Motivation – I would add ‘Time’ – and Love. Yes, Love. I wrung my ears. The first time on a political platform I’d heard someone say the driving force for political and social change in our society was love. Either things are very, very bad or could we be at a turning point? And, of course, it’s true. How could it be otherwise?

Can I remind people,’ began the final speaker, ‘that the reason that the Treaty of Europe was signed, after two world wars in quick succession, was Peace. We’ve also had economic prosperity. She listed some of the achievements – the Working Time Directive, limiting the working week to 40 hours; paid annual leave; 14 weeks’ maternity pay; live, work and study in 28 European states; youth employment strategy; consumer rights e.g. problems of safe toys and roaming mobile phone charges tackled. There are challenges to, not least, facing up the growing numbers of refugees arriving in Europe, partly the result of the EU’s actions, and then there’s TTIP. How unregulated do we want to be? I didn’t like the sound of ‘Secret Courts’ at all.

So much to think about! How could you make sense of it? It’s almost like there is a need for someone to put on a course, enabling people to give voice to their doubts and work through their reasons for support, reform or withdrawal. Where could such a course provider be found? I thought of WEA Voices of the past. What stories do they tell us? ‘Here, over here! Me, me! Here!’

The second half of the meeting started and we split into groups. I thought I would go into the ‘Housing’ group but followed my heart and went to ‘Greening the City’ instead. I wonder what do you make of this heading? Greening the city is absolutely vital. I heard on the radio that, in New York, they’re just about to plant the one millionth tree in the city, paid for out of public funds. Not just to beautify the areas, they also have an enormous impact on the public’s mental and physical health and wellbeing, saving money and resources. But there was something about the phrase, I told a friend in the break, that bothered me. ‘The term is meaningful if you’re middle class. They get it. Many live in or near green space already and fight to keep it. But if you don’t have the means, are worried about paying the bills, feeding your family, caring for sick children or an elderly parent, building up debts with Christmas coming, is planting more green space really your number one priority?’

On further reflection, I could appreciate the financial pressures on everyone, regardless of social class, can be significant for those families. And a park or green space is a lung for everyone.

After our discussion, we came up with three key points to feed back:

  • Campaigning for ‘learning’ to protect and nurture it, like libraries, sharing information so that education remains available for our grandchildren; just as it was gained for us by the efforts of people now long gone
  • Let us become ‘producers’. Grow, mend, make, repair and come together, rather than spend fortunes on objects we don’t have and which we discard too soon; made from the earth’s precious resources we no longer have enough of.

And the third point? Where is our community spirit? Disappearing? Is the flame still lit somewhere through providing decent, affordable housing, amenities, job opportunities, skills training , street parties, guerrilla gardening, urban foraging, closing roads for people and wildlife to breathe. Would this be a world you would like to live in? Hope so.

On the way out, I said to one of the young Greens, as she was leaving, ‘One of my dearest friends is 95 years old. She tells me stories about what life was like for her parents and grandparents as well as the changes she’s seen in her own lifetime. She’s a great teacher. I’ve learned that change happens in waves and cycles. We’ve heard a lot about Power tonight. Right now, this alliance is out of power. The challenge for us is to learn to work together, as if we were in power, because, one day, as my friend’s experience tells us, we will be. And it’s then that we will be truly tested.’