During worship at Meeting yesterday, ministry was offered regarding the fact that many Christian churches were celebrating the first Sunday of Advent by lighting one of four candles in a wreath and talking about hope. While I didn’t grow up with the Advent tradition, that message resonated for me and took me to a place of imagining each of us in the circle with lighted candles. A wind picks up and some of the candles are snuffed out. Other candles burn down. We need the Light, especially now in our season of darkness. Our individual candles are not enough. We need each other to help rekindle when needed, as we all draw hope and strength from the Light in the center.
I was reminded yesterday in meeting for worship of the quote, “What you focus on flourishes.” I’m not sure where it came from but it resonated for me. Where that takes me this morning is musing about the difference between multitasking and monotasking. There have been several articles lately claiming that, in opposition to the model of work where people are expected to accomplish many different things at once, humans are actually more productive—and healthy, if they focus on one thing at a time.
The Buddhists have known this for a long time, of course. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of enjoying each moment, living in the present: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” His words are in stark contrast to the way many people live their lives, rushing from one thing to the next. One day last week I went to three different meetings, one right after the other. At the end of the day I felt exhausted and depleted, although each meeting, taken alone, was worthwhile and should have energized me.
There seems to be a growing awareness, at least in some quarters, that mindfulness practices in schools and workplaces can help people focus and do their work more joyfully and productively, as the work emanates from a centered place within. A friend recently retired as counselor in a challenging school. During her tenure there she introduced mindfulness practices to children in this school, many of whom come from troubled family lives. My friend reported that allowing children the space and time to center quietly at several points during the day made a huge difference in how they functioned in their classrooms. She even heard from a couple of parents that the children were practicing these centering moments at home. They would say something like, “My amygdala is over stimulated right now. I need to take a few moments to center.” Pretty amazing.
For me, the practice of centering down comes through Quakerism and is a spiritual practice, but I am heartened to know that it can be practiced anywhere, regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.
I spent the weekend at a School of the Spirit Board retreat. The theme was “Longing.Journeying.Together.” This morning as I continue to enjoy the leftovers from the spiritual feast, my thoughts turn to the question of what I can share from the abundance.
One thing that comes to mind is that drinking deeply from the stream of Living Water replenished my soul, and I will return to the work of climate change activism with renewed strength. I now see my role in that work more clearly. During the retreat, when we considered the question of what we long for as a Board, one participant in the retreat spoke of “creating spaces where [spiritual] longing is both normal and accompanied.” I think she was referring to the fact that our culture rarely allows us to express our deepest longings, but when we do, and more importantly, when we decide to act on them, it is good to have companions on the journey.
Perhaps our work in climate change activism is to create opportunities for people to recognize their own longing for a sustainable world—a world in which their children and grandchildren can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and eat healthy food. Would anyone disagree with this? They may disagree with various strategies for reversing our current course to destruction, but can people of faith join together for helping to bring about the Blessed Community on earth?
In a recent essay, Bill McKibben says that the question he gets asked the most when he goes about talking about climate change is “What can I do?” He says that the problem is with the word “I.” The right question is “What can WE do to make a difference?” “Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry. Movements are what can put a price on carbon, force politicians to keep fossil fuel in the ground, demand subsidies so that solar panels go up on almost every roof, not just yours. Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number.”
“The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual. Join together—that’s why we have movements like 350.org or Green for All, like BlackLivesMatter or Occupy.” * Or EQAT or GreenFaith or any number of local coalitions.
I’m actually a little surprised at where this musing has taken me today. It seems that I have become an activist. But I know in my soul that I am also a contemplative. It was interesting to hear from one of the brothers at the Norbertine Abbey where our retreat was held that the Norbertines have always maintained an active role in the world, along with their daily prayers and spiritual disciplines. I long to maintain both as well. I pray that my actions will be Spirit-led, and that I allow space in my daily routine for listening to that Spirit.
Yesterday was World Quaker Day, celebrating the fact that Friends would be worshiping in each time zone throughout the day, starting with New Zealand, and ending with Hawai’i. The theme for this year was “Inspired by Faith—Witnessing Together in the World.” It was indeed inspiring to see pictures of Friends in many places and to realize the amazing diversity in the worldwide body. However, it raised the question: Given the remarkable diversity among Friends worldwide, not only in the way we look, but in the way we speak and in the ways in which we worship, how do we witness together in the world?
While I recognize that many of the Quakers worldwide were originally brought into the fold by missionary effort, I am aware that many Friends in the U.S. today would rather support programs aiming toward creating peace or building water filters in other places in the world than support those explicitly trying to proselytize. So might “witnessing” include taking action to make the world a better place?
My first encounter with the word “witnessing” was in my Baptist childhood, when I heard missionaries from faraway places speak of saving people for Christ. We were told that we needed to “witness for Christ” everywhere. I came to equate the word with actively trying to “save” people. As an adult I came to reject that concept, and neatly tucked the word away in a box somewhere in my mind. Today I am taking it out and re-examining the word to see what it might mean for me now.
According to my dictionary, the word “witness” derives from Old English “wit,” meaning knowledge. As a verb, the word means “to have personal knowledge of.” To bear witness, then, means to speak from personal experience, which strikes me as an essential quality of vocal ministry in our Quaker meetings today. Our testimonies are a form of witness. In preparing for our meeting’s celebration of World Quaker Day I wanted to find a couple of songs that might be appropriate to the theme. In searching Worship in Song, I found that one of the major categories was “Witnessing to our Testimonies,” including songs about integrity and simplicity, equality, justice, peace, care for the environment, and care for one another.
“Witnessing” can also mean “being present.” At Quaker weddings we typically sign a certificate as witnesses to the marriage. We may be called upon in a court of law to tell what we saw or heard in a particular situation. Again, the word relates to personal knowledge or experience. Were you present? What did you see? Tell your story. How often do we speak together about our experience of worship?
One video I watched in preparation for our celebration yesterday was “Friends World Committee on Consultation: Quaker Voices from Around the World.” I was moved by hearing voices in English and Spanish telling of personal experiences in worship. One of those voices was a young woman from Ecuador talking about how much she enjoyed the singing and praise that was included in worship with Friends in Ecuador, but she also had experienced a more silent form of worship in the U.S. and learned that we can “listen to God” in that way.
In today’s musings, I am also recalling a story George Lakey told at FGC Gathering a few years ago. While I can’t remember the details, it seems he encountered a couple engaged in a dispute that was becoming violent. He let them know that he was watching them, witnessing. He didn’t try to stop them but kept reminding them that he was watching. His presence helped to ramp down the violence. How often do we witness acts of injustice in our communities and remain silent?
To witness, then, can mean many different things, but essentially what it means to me today is to allow the Spirit underlying the Quaker testimonies to be visible to others through my actions as well as my words. And I think we CAN do this together.
I look out my window this morning and see naked trees, where just a couple of days ago there was a brilliant array of yellow leaves, and before that a lush forest of green. I realize with some sense of dread, that this is how it will be for the next eight months. Naked trees, hunkering down to their roots where their sugars are stored for the winter. Hunkering down. I’m not ready. I’m never ready.
In worship yesterday I asked myself the question, “Where is the blessing in this season?” As I settled with this question, I recalled a haiku by a 17th century Japanese poet, Mizuta Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.” I once bought a card with this saying on it (it was intended as a sympathy card), but I’ve never found the right occasion to send it to anyone. It comes to me now that being able to recognize the blessing that comes from tragedy, or from a season of despair, may not come until later. It doesn’t help someone who is grieving to say, “Hey, consider the blessings that may come from this loss.” But I met with a friend last week who went through a messy divorce years ago and is now in a much happier and healthier relationship with someone new. She says having her first husband leave her was devastating at the time but now she sees it as the best thing that ever happened to her.
Okay, so now I’m looking out my window again. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Wait—the sun isn’t being shaded by the trees. This feels like a blessing. The sun is also shining more directly on the solar panels we installed on the roof last summer. That’s a blessing, too. I look more closely at the birch trees as they reflect back the light of the sun, unencumbered by leaves. Beautiful. Blessing.
Maybe I need to be more like the birch trees, slowing down, sinking down to the tap root, reflecting the measure of Light I’m given today, and waiting.
My mind is filled this morning with thoughts about a lecture I will be giving tonight. Months ago a colleague invited me to give a “Professor’s Choice” lecture for members of Osher Lifelong Learning as well as the general public. I agreed, but struggled with the question of what to talk about. Should I dig out old papers, delivered at conferences long ago? Should I talk about my current social justice activism around issues of climate change? I raised this question with my spiritual nurture group and came to the idea of telling my story, or at least telling A story about my academic work. My musing about this has led me to see the threads that connect that work with my current concerns.
“Indigenous Language Revitalization” is the stated topic, and I hope to move beyond the objective, observable “facts” and get to the deeper issues, such as historical trauma that disrupted the lives of Alaska Native people in so many ways, including the loss of the ancestral languages. I also want to hold out the very real possibility that Native ways of knowing, embedded in the indigenous languages, can teach us how to survive. That’s what I believe, but is that my story to tell? We’ll see. I have a number of personal stories to share and hope to weave them into the larger narrative in a way that makes sense, at least to me. This exercise, after all, is a kind of review of how I spent some 35 years of my life.
I have never before, in a large public setting, attempted to talk somewhat extemporaneously rather than read from a script. I pray that words will come from the heart and not just the head.
What resonates for me today are the three simple prayer words suggested by Anne Lamott: Help, Thanks, Wow. Yesterday in our time of “afterthoughts” at the rise of meeting for worship I heard one person ask us to hold her friend in the Light, and another express gratitude for something that had happened. I noted that these expressions fit the first two kinds of prayer and I added an example of the third. My weekend had been one big WOW, and I was still relishing it. We had gone to Denali Park on a sunny day, with a few clouds scudding across the mountains allowing the sun to spotlight one point and then another. Some hillsides were splashed with golden birch and aspen leaves intermingled with the deep green of spruce. Other hills were cloaked in red tundra vegetation. We took a couple of short hikes, feeling grateful that our feet, legs, and knees still support us. We stopped to rest along the Savage River and marveled at the ancient rocks that were tumbled over time and carved into overhanging cliffs by this relentless waterway. We saw a couple of hoary marmots scampering among the rocks. At each point, as I uttered or simply experienced “Wow,” I felt in the presence of God. This is what Anne Lamott calls prayer: “Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.”