At the beginning of his talk, Alex Wildewood asked us two questions: ‘What might be the Quaker contribution to the evolutionary shift of consciousness that many prophetic voices believe we are called to in this time?’ and ‘What gifts, skills and talents can I personally bring to the transition to a just and sustainable future for all beings?’
We met in a Quaker context, he said, but these questions relate to everyone. And responses flowed. At the end, one friend asked how would she take all that she’d learned back to her Area Meeting (AM). What about all the hand-outs? Who would she give them to? Well, they’re sent to directly to all AM clerks, so that answers that point. Would anyone else read them? Her companion asked her simply. ‘What brings you joy, friend?’ A strange question, ay! ‘Discover that and then take that back to your meeting.’ ‘It’s such a daunting subject’, she went on. ‘Listen, you don’t have to give answers. Sit with the question, whatever that is. Wait for the question in the garden and answers will come.’ ‘Really? Can I do that? Is it that simple?’ ‘Yes,’ her friend smiled, ‘I know this from my own experience’.
Funny the things you pick up on at Woodbrooke. I had arrived there with a troubled mind. ‘I’m only really here for the singing’, I told friends cheerfully and truthfully. ‘Oh, and the fellowship…’ Actually, the subject matter explored during the weekend at Rep Council takes you to a deep place. It is genuinely challenging and also provides you with tools and ways for leaving with a lighter step, hopefully. It’s not true for everyone and not always for me either.
The reason I was troubled had been my perceived lack of involvement in planning campaigns at my local meeting. On the one hand, I looked at my way of life now and I have taken many steps to live more simply and sustainably. On the other hand, I could play a more active role, planning and supporting initiatives in my meeting, such as Buy Nothing Day and actions against the militarisation of schools. But I want to play guitars with my two friends on Tuesday nights and sing in my local community choir on Thursdays. Had I grown accustomed to being me, valuing my own identity above that of the group? If that were so, how then did I find my way into adult education, into active trade unionism and become a facilitator for avpbritain, not to mention bringing up a family? Life is complex, isn’t it, friends? Many different questions and responses pop up for us at different stages of our lives. And the more I sit with this question, I wonder how do we use all our proven methods, such as meeting for worship for business, for clearness and threshing meetings to discern our way forward as a community?
During my Equipping for Ministry course at Woodbrooke a helpful phrase was given to me. ‘By being born, you have already changed the world.’ So, while I do worry about all kinds of things, I needn’t ‘worry’. And my ministry turned out to be quite unexpected. It is to tell stories. Not much more than that, really, though some say ‘blessed are the storytellers’, don’t they? Don’t they? So, I write a story for my AM report, for Hardshaw and Mann, which pays quite a lot of money for me to be here. I rarely attend AM for worship for business, not because I don’t want to. I value greatly the connection with friends in the wider AM. I’m afraid, life’s events or just tiredness after a long week prevent me too often from going. Yet, I always hope I’ll be there. Anyway, I write a story as my report just for one person. I just don’t know who that is. And it’s for God, of course. And that’s ok, I hope. Till someone tells me otherwise but, by then, I will have written enough stories on Rep Council and it will be time for another friend to share their gifts with our AM.
During one session in our home group, we spent time discussing whether we now need a fifth testimony of Sustainability. Many friends say it is already covered by our testimony to Simplicity? One friend spoke powerfully and truthfully that she had come to the view that they were not the same. She felt it was important that we sustain ourselves first and that this was not the same as living simply. The problems of the world were overwhelming for one person or even one group. We can easily be lost. We cried a little. She went on ‘We need compassion for ourselves. Only then can we look out further.’ And who else is out there? Do we know what they’re doing? And is there a role for you, for us to play? Might you even initiate something, if you feel called, if you have a concern with your meeting? I thought of Liverpool Storytellers and my involvement in its early days.
One response came to me on the labyrinth, helping to facilitate two consecutive groups on the Saturday afternoon. There were about eight in the first one in, plus three facilitators, and more in the second, perhaps a dozen. With the first group, I hung back till most had entered before walking in. I was mainly aware of my own thoughts, of my own journey on the way to the centre. On the way back, however, I became more aware of the others walking with me, around me, sometimes beside me or coming towards me. We seemed far apart at times and I needed those gaps (well, I am a Quaker, after all. Don’t we all! Perhaps, it was the gaps that drew me and which keep me here?) On the labyrinth and reflecting afterwards, I realise how important it was to make my journey but that also, by being part of it, I was connecting with others in a very deep way. We were all on a journey.
I wanted to observe this more carefully on the second walk. I went in early this time and was surprised by what gently happened. I brought myself back at times to observe but mostly I was given to the labyrinth. It was a joyful experience to walk the labyrinth with a group, united by having spent time together over food as well as discussions in the home group; by tears… The labyrinth at Woodbrooke is a wonderful gift and I had spoken briefly beforehand to the groups about its spiritual qualities for me. ‘It helps me settle, to see a way forward when all roads look blocked.’ One friend commented afterwards that it felt like being in meeting for worship.
We gathered the threads together on the final morning of the weekend. What I bring back with me is not only the singing but also the warmth and fellowship, the love of over 100 friends present from all the AMs in Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM). I do not feel personally responsible for the whole burden of how we care for our earth. I have taken time through Equipping for Ministry and life’s experiences and opportunities to discern that the path I am on is the right one for me and, as best I can, to practise my gifts. Doubts perturb me from time to time and this is a good thing. At the best of times, I know why I’m here, friends. And it is liberating.
I will also take back with me the image of a tiny sapling breaking through the tarmac, and of my bare feet walking on the grass, planted on the ground as well as a sense of feeling ‘like a box that can burst’. As Joanna Macy writes, ‘The heart that breaks is the heart that contains the world.’
And during the final meeting for worship, just before we parted, I felt moved to minister and tell the story of the eagle that hatched with the chicks and thought all of its life it was one …adding that some of the chickens left the hen house and hid in the forest, where their wing feathers grew and one day they all flew high into the sky, like an eagle flies.
And a friend sang in ministry, ‘Here comes the Sun…’, not a bad way for an ending or a beginning. So, with no little fear, yet with great heart, I hope, I go back into the world and return to my Quaker community to offer this story. I hope it is enough, friends. I can give no more right now.
Joe Farrow and Alex Wildwood – Universe as Revelation, an ecomystical theology for Friends
Quaker Faith and Practice (QF&P 26.30) What is love? What shall I say of it, or how shall I in words express its nature? It is the sweetness of life; it is the sweet, tender, melting nature of God, flowing up through his seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto himself, both in nature and operation. It fulfils the law, it fulfils the gospel; it wraps up all in one, and brings forth all in the oneness. It excludes all evil out of the heart, it perfects all good in the heart. A touch of love doth this in measure; perfect love doth this in fullness.
Isaac Penington, 1663
Advices and Queries 42 We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.