The Tickle of God

How do Quakers take decisions collectively? We don’t vote or aim for consensus. We believe we are led by (and here individual Quakers will insert their own word for…) God/the Spirit/the Guiding Light/Presence/Christ to discern the way forward…or to wait a while longer.

The Mind of Christ, Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 406

‘But how do you know’, I asked the tutors and the students on the webinar*, ‘when the spirit is present with us during group discernment?’ And the answer came back to me straight away and was so simple. It’s the same feeling as in meeting for worship! We’ve all experienced the power and wonder of people speaking in ministry, sometimes for the first time, and revealing how the spirit is working in their lives. We are moved and left deepened by our sharing. ‘So, that’s how you make decisions in your meetings..?’ ‘Well, this is the ideal. All sorts of things can get in the way, like if you’re feeling stubborn, like the bear or sad, like the wolf (Isaiah 11: 6-9)) We don’t always succeed in holding a fully ‘gathered’ meeting for worship but we feel it when we do.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom

American friend, Bill Taber, described  the way a meeting makes decisions.  It starts with waiting, he wrote. For how long? For as long as is needed. He recognises five gut feelings, which show a healthy group discernment meeting. The first is Joy in Being Together with friends, part of supportive, challenging community, large or small. The second is Joy in the Presence of God. Thirdly, there is the Assurance we will be helped by God’s guiding presence, if we listen well. And fourthly, there is Trust in the process. It works. It may take time, although some decisions may be reached very quickly. It isn’t always about time. It can be more about intensity, when decisions come quickly. During the meeting, we are enabled to step out of our own individual minds into the mind of Christ, while maintaining our self-awareness.

The fifth gut feeling tickled me  – Excitement! How often do we experience the excitement of entering the room, leaving it up to God to discover what is going to happen with surprising results! We do have fun in our meetings at times but not excitement. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced excitement but, perhaps, I’ve never known it was there.

Time places great demands on friends, we heard. Our meetings can feel long and laboured. Too often, tasks fall on the same group of individuals, who do the work but lack the joy. How do we encourage more friends to come to business meetings when we have so many callings on our time?  One of our tutors told a story. Two friends were talking about the next Business Meeting. ‘Oh, no,’ said one, ‘how am I going to get through three or more hours of agenda!’ His friend replied, ‘ I can think of no finer or more joyful way than spending time with God, discerning our way forward.’ And I’ve felt this too at times but also felt the slow hand ticking of the clock.

How do we learn and practise our business method? It’s true that by contacting Quaker Life at Friends House, you can arrange for a team of Young Friends to visit your meeting to model good and bad practice. And I wondered about holding a business meeting in our children and young person’s meeting in January. The children could take on roles of clerking, eldership and ministry. It would help us be clearer about what we can do the rest of the year and who we can ask to do it. Bill Taber emphasises the importance of a daily spiritual practice in helping us arrive at meeting with ‘heart and mind prepared’.

‘And the ministry, so often dry in business meeting, so moving in meeting for worship’, commented a friend on the webinar. ‘That’s it, Christine! That’s it!’ It stuck me forcibly that I’d always put an subconscious divide between the two forms of worship. Yet they were both the same. I’m feeling so excited about attending my next business meeting for worship!

 

Links and further reading:

A Sustainable Life, Woodbrooke course*

Douglas Gwynne, A Sustainable Life

The Mind of Christ, Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 406

Alistair Heron, Quaker Speak

Brian Drayton and Bill Taber, Language for Inward Landscape

Emilia Fogelklou Norlind, The Atonement of George Fox, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 166 (1969)

Ben Pink Dandelion, Quakers, A Very Short Introduction

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Our Feathered Friends

It was a time of war. When is it never? The Americans were fighting the British. The French were fighting the British and then there were the First Americans, fighting everyone and no-one. And in the midst of this troubled land lived a community of Quakers or Friends. They had long cleared an area in the woodland to build their houses. First, the Brits came to tell them to leave, ‘We cannot guarantee your safety, if you stay.’ And the Americans too. ‘There will be trouble, grave trouble. Best leave.’ And some of the families did go but most of them stayed for they were peaceful people, they reckoned…and they’d planted their homes in this woodland. Who would hurt them?

One Sunday morning on a lovely summer’s day, most of the families were gathered together as usual in meeting for worship. The meeting house was made out of timber. With no glass in the windows, just unshuttered and open to the breeze, in flittered a curious bee and two playful butterflies, dancing in the beam of sunlight falling across the centre table. A young girl watched all this with drooping eyelids. On the window ledge, a young robin sang for a few moments before flying through the room and out the opposite window in search of berries and insects.

Holes in the wood let the light in and through them, she could see the greenery outside, the bushes and trees. Three elders sat together on a bench, eyes closed in prayer. Meeting could go on like this for several hours in those days and the little girl, sleepy, leant against her mum, trying to stay awake. It was hard for her. The warm air lifted. Was that a blue flash passing through a bush, left quivering? She listened to the steady, slow breathing of her mother next to her, her warm body rising and falling gently. Through a knothole, she saw a second flash, red this time and rubbed her eyes. And when she peered again, all was quiet and still…

She was just falling asleep when something made her look up. In the open doorway stood a dozen First Americans, arrows drawn in their bows, dircted towards them. She noticed the long knives hanging from their belts and something else too…was that hair..? And now, all the friends in the room watched with eyes wide open and waited.

One of the elders stood and, speaking in French, palms upwards, welcomed the visitors and invited them to join them. One of the First Americans interpreted for the chief, who stared at them. He relaxed and, saying through the interpreter, told them that he and his men also worshipped their spirits in peace and would gladly join with them. They made to come in but the elder raised his hand. ‘Please, your weapons…leave them outside. The men looked at their Chief but when he took off his bow and arrows and knives and placed them by the door, they all followed. The Quakers made space for them on the benches and, together, they fell into a gathered stillness inside the meeting house in the clearing in the wood.

At the end of meeting, the elder shook the hand of the Chief and invited them all to join them for food. And they did. Much later, when they were ready to leave, the Chief took a white feather, he said, as a token of peace, and pinned it above the door to the meeting house. ‘Everyone seeing this  knows you are our friends and will not harm you.’

Or so the story goes…I’ve been in touch with Easton Meeting in New York State. They told me that the old timbered meeting house of that time is long gone, replaced by a new, shiny modern one. But they still hold their summer meetings there. And they told me the First Americans in that area didn’t wear feathers in their head gear. It’s more likely that the Chief cracked an arrow in half and pinned that above the door as a sign of friendship.

Easton South Meeting House

Every September, the friends of Easton South Meeting gather together to retell this story and think about what truth it holds in the world today.

Equipping for Ministry for Children

A friend asked me to explain what I meant by equipping for ministry for children. I’ll sum it Child Spirit wellbeingup in a conversation I had on Sunday. Meeting for worship had just ended. We’d had the notices, including reports from the children about their understanding of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians 1:13 – envy, boastful, selfish, truth, kind…I stood holding the door, trying to place the wooden doorstop with the outside of my foot, talking to Anna, convenor of children’s committee. ‘I thought the children were great today. I really did.’ I said to her. ‘I didn’t go with them. Alan took them.’ ‘You mean you stayed in meeting? Really? That’s brilliant!’ This was the first time, I thought, she hadn’t been first or second adult with the children in ages. ‘That line in Paul about putting away childish ways really gets to me’ she said. ‘I have so much baggage that gets in the way. The children just get it.’

‘A direct relationship with God, you mean…that’s why we’re Quakers..? They just do it. It’s simple for them and that’s why I offer to take the children. It’s a way of connecting for me in the simplest way with God.’

I wondered what had happened to the door. It had stopped wanting to close. I looked down and saw I’d flicked the doorstop straight under the door with the outside of my shoe and it had stuck. That’s never happened before either.

During meeting, another friend had read aloud unprompted from Advices and Queries 19. It’s all there, listening to each word, plump with life, dancing like cooking apples and pears on the trees.

We heard our children today. They came back into a simply, lovingly, gathered meeting and joined in the final minutes of worship.

We heard our children too later, outside in the peace garden, where we held a 30 minute meeting for worship for Peace One Day. Three of our youngest children, safeguarded by an adult, asked passers-by if they would like a leaflet. As far as I could tell, all but one took one cheerfully.

And we sing.

We heard our children today…and they heard us.

‘Does that answer your question?’, I ask my friend.

Hope so.

 

Further reading and exploration:

Quaker Faith and Practice, 2.76

Advices and Queries, http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/chapter/1/

Journeys in the Spirit, inward outward upward downward, resources for working with children, available from http://www.quaker.org.uk/journeyschildren

Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Well-Being by Margaret Crompton, Pendle Hill Pamphlet 419

The Worship Kit A Young Person’s Guide to Quaker Worship by John Lampen, Quaker Books

 

 

Being Present

Start with ’Getting Ready’, Chris said, ‘and then I think you’ll be able to make more sense of some of your ideas and discover what you’re looking for in the forest.’ I puzzled over this. What did he mean? I thought back to our meeting the October before, down at Friends House in London, when I found myself offering to write an edition of Journeys in the Spirit, a resource for children’s meetings, on the topic of  Equipping for Ministry (EfM) for children. I had two more months of the adult version to go. Only on the train heading home did I start to think this could be quite tricky. What could ministry mean for children, aged between five and twelve?  I tried not to notice a rising sense that I really had no idea. But then, maybe, nobody else had either?

Over the next couple of months, I started looking around my own Local Meeting, wondering how this project might come to life. By coincidence, I was also becoming interested in fairy tales, particularly some of the original 52 stories, collected by the Brothers Grimm. Would they be able to show me anything about our children, when in meeting? And what, if anything, might they say about us adults?

In our local meeting, usually, there can be four to six children, who come to children’s meeting once a month on the third Sunday. Before Christmas, the children had created a lovely display for the wall inside the main entrance, a colourful greeting of ‘Joy and Peace’ to all who entered our meeting house. They had divided up the letters between them and created this marvellous tableau in their own homes with a little help from their parents or carers, of course. But when I remembered to take my camera, early in the New Year, the greeting had been taken down and the letters placed in a filing cabinet drawer on the third floor.

And outside the main meeting room, I found myself moving the two or three coat stands, which kept being placed in front of the children’s notice board. And I’d heard that the two members of the children’s committee, two mums, felt unsupported by our meeting. It is hard to get people to take children’s meeting. And yet, if children’s meeting was happening as well as meeting for worship, wasn’t that just the way it was?

I know the feeling. When my own children were little, I was convenor or co-convenor of children’s committee  for about five and a half years. As soon as they outgrew the biscuits – what they remember most about Quaker meetings now – they stopped wanting to come. And it always felt to me, rightly or wrongly, that the adults in meeting tolerated the younger ones, never as a meeting, accepting or embracing them. Get to know them? Where are the opportunities in our meeting now for us to connect? When do we come together?

I caught the eye of a mum, going into the Quiet room one third Sunday morning with her children. She seemed on her own.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we needed to make more time and spaces for the children to explore and discover their gifts. And that this is also a way for the adults to join with them, even if simply upholding the children’s meeting for worship, on a similar path. In ministry with the children, the adults might themselves come to grow spiritually, planting deeper Quaker roots. So many of us come to Quakers from other places and it takes time to share our stories together.

I thought what can I do to help bring more opportunities about? By writing an edition of Journeys in the Spirit, came back the instant reply? And what does this have to do the forest?  I spoke to Anna, children’s committee convenor, just after New Year. ‘I’d like to take the children this month and March as well, if that’s possible and, maybe, February too but can we leave that for now? Would that be ok?’ She said that would be fine. It gave me a couple of weeks to prepare. What could I do with them for half-an-hour? Where to start? Where would I find out about the children’s ministry? It occurred to me that I could ask them.

I start the January meeting for worship for children with 30 seconds of stillness. I invite them to imagine we are sitting in a cottage by the edge of a forest. We are sitting round the same table that serves the Thursday mid-week meeting for worship. We do a go round of ‘My name is… and my favourite animal is a …’. Next, I invite them to go play in the forest and press play. Greig’s Morning suite from Peer Gynt fills the room. They hesitate, unsure of whether to stay or go, till the owl, one of the mum’s who’s with me, swoops on them and chases us out. We run and catch and return for a storytelling, ‘Thumbling’, about growing up in the forest. Each time, I read or tell this story, something else pops up for me that I hadn’t seen before. It could be about relationships between partners or children or both; about growing points and strains, not unlike we have in our meetings for worship. I ask them, ‘What was the favourite bit of the story for you?’  And Isaac said, ‘The best bit for me was when it ended.’ Humbling…umm, maybe spread the stories out more..? I ask them to gather their thoughts together quietly in readiness for going back to the main meeting for worship. I give them a hand-out on centring down to take home to read with their families at the end. Some of them have read it before we leave the room.

Afterwards, I email the children’s committee, wondering if it isn’t time for us to look again at when and for how long the children are part of the main meeting?

Oh, thank you, John Lampen, for writing ‘The Worship Kit’. Ella, a young friend at meeting, told me how good she still found it. ‘It’s just as good for adults’, she told me. Yes, worship is, just is. So, kids and adults unite in worship? So, we need to practise worship? Children’s meeting in my eyes became meeting for worship for children; a big difference and such a small step. When February’s children’s meeting comes round, I have put a copy of the red book, Quaker Faith and Practice, on the table, next to my tatty copy of Advices and Queries. I welcome the children back to the cottage again.

We start with one minute’s stillness. I read aloud the section from The Worship Kit on centring down with the red books on the table. We gather together for a round of ‘My name is…and I like to…listen to music.’ This gives rise to much chatter, hands raising to get my attention, like at school. I said, ‘No, not school…’ and Ben told us how his mum gets them to hold something, if they want to speak. And he picks up the copy of Advices and Queries, so we agree to use this.

I remind the meeting that silent ministry is just as important as spoken in a Quaker meeting for worship; and, very important, it is ok to ‘pass’ during a round, if you want. Once agreed, the children have no difficulty in maintaining our discipline.

‘What happens in meeting for worship?’ I ask them, looking at the postcard of the Peter Peri sculpture. This shows a group of friends sitting in a circle during a meeting for worship. Words pop up, like toast. Next, I read Phillip Gross’s poem, ‘Quakers of Pompeii’, about the same sculpture. It is a difficult poem, especially on first reading. ‘Just listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you,’ I encourage them. ‘Would anyone like to read it when we go downstairs?’ I ask. Lisa, a mum with me, picks up the book and reads aloud again, emphasising certain words. Then, Ben picks it up and starts reading, again out loud.

I want us to move onto doing something practical with our hands and plasticine. Can we make our own model of a meeting for worship out of clay? Well, yes, we can. I hope it might be like an Appleseed activity, working quietly, supporting one another. Ben wants to tell us what he’s made but I ask him not to. ‘Later,’ I tell him. ‘There’ll be time later. Better to leave some mystery.’ I remember the words of a friend.

There aren’t any right answers or perfect shapes. Just what comes. One of the children struggles with this and can’t get started. Pick your favourite colour and see what comes. And she does.

It also occurs to me how much simpler it is to prepare for two , three meetings than for a single one. Next month, I hope we will explore further what ministry means. One Sunday before Christmas, I had asked for help one time in the notices after meeting in working out what equipping for ministry for children meant. I hadn’t expected any response and I wasn’t disappointed…till after last Sunday’s meeting for worship when one friend asked me if I’d like some of her hand-outs on Mindfulness. Anna had also said earlier how helpful she found John Lampen’s book, particularly, the pages on centring down. ‘If only I’d come across it ten years ago!’, she told me. The same was true for me too. I’ve only discovered my own way of centring down during EfM. There must be so many like us. What if we put on a meeting for learning on centring down for adults and children? We can practise and spend more  meaningful time together?

So, was Chris right? Have I started to see what equipping for ministry for children means? Yes, the children are learning things that will influence them when they are adults. The adults may spend time unlearning. What a lot we have to learn from each other! I’m sure one edition of Journeys in the Spirit cannot cover the whole sweep of this topic but it’s a beginning.

By asking the children questions about ministry, I feel my own understanding of Quakerism deepening. I ask myself the same questions…and there aren’t any right answers. It’s not like school. We can discuss, ask a question,look at it from different sides… both children and adults welcome more of this, I feel.

In the notices after meeting for worship, Ben read aloud Phillip Gross’s poem to meeting…ending with ‘Love the fidgets, love the aches.’ And Rosa stood up to read Advices and Queries 19, ‘Rejoice in the presence of children and young people in your meeting and recognise the gifts they bring…’

Later, I looked at the form on the notice board, showing the number of adults and children at meeting for worship. Eighteen adults and five children. But the doorkeeper had written a dash, indicating no one had read from A&Q. I pointed this out to him. ‘Oh, if someone read one out during the first 15 minutes, I missed it. I wasn’t there.’ ‘But someone did read one out…and it was after meeting…in the notices… He looked blankly till he remembered. ‘Rosa.’ ‘Oh, sorry, yes, I forgot!’ I’ll write it on straight away and he went and wrote 19 in the A&Q column.

Walking home a few days later, I realised that this is the only time in nearly 25 years of attending meetings for worship that I have ever heard a child read from A&Qs. So, it leads me on to ask where do we hear our children’s voices in our meeting? And how do we listen to each other? If they only come for the biscuits, how soon will it be before they too stop coming?

References

John Lampen, The Worship Kit

Editors, R Bailey and S Krayer, A Speaking Silence, an anthology of Quaker Poetry

Quaker Faith and Practice

Advices and Queries

Peter Peri sculpture – postcard from Woodbrooke