Shalom

My word for today is Shalom. This past weekend I encountered this word in various guises during the plenary talks and in the home group sessions at the Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas meeting. It means so much more than the English equivalent, peace. It can be used to mean wholeness, completeness, well-being, or, as Cornelius Plantinga puts it, “The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” In his talk during the weekend, Carl Magruder likened the state of Shalom to “God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.”

What does this concept mean for me today? I feel affirmed in my call to work for eco-justice, to work for Shalom. This concept lifts me up from the despair I sometimes feel these days when I listen to or read the news. Are we experiencing a “great unraveling,” as some writer claim (e.g.,Paul Krugman)? If so, does it precede the “Great Turning” that Joanna Macy writes about? On a personal level, I can relate to the idea that the egg must be cracked, the bread must be broken, the seed must burst, before transformation and growth can happen. I’m not so sure about the global level, but I think that positive change may be preceded by destruction. I don’t think it means that we should sit back and watch the destruction happen, nor should we spend our energy fighting each new onslaught. Rather, we should work toward that greater goal, hold out the vision of Shalom.

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Equinox

 

As I look out at the reflection of brilliant sunlight on the mountains of snow in our yard, the birch trees casting long shadows across the expanse, I rejoice that our solar panels are once again functioning (thanks to a young friend who climbed up on the roof and cleared the snow). Today is hailed as the first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. That’s sort of a joke here in Alaska, if by Spring you mean daffodils and fruit trees bursting into bloom.

What this day means to me is that there are roughly equal amounts of daylight and dark all over the world. The word “Equinox” comes from Latin equi (equal) and nox (night).   While in our culture we don’t do much to celebrate this amazing fact, it seems significant to me. In Alaska it is particularly significant because it is only at the times of equinox that our days are sort of “normal.” From here on until the Summer Solstice, the amount of light will rapidly increase until there is no dark. But just for today, we hover with the rest of the world in equality.

If today the whole earth experiences equal amounts of light and dark, then can we also consider that each person on earth stands in equal relation to the Great Mystery/God/Creation?

“It is a stony road ahead but our faith will uphold us; the power to act is God’s power which is mediated through each of us as we give and receive support one from another. We can all listen if we will to the sounds of the earth, tuning into it with joy.”

(The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain   25.02)

So one way to celebrate this day is to tune into the turning earth and recognize the equality of all beings under the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living toward heaven on earth

When asked what Quakers believe about the after-life, my stock answer is that we are more concerned with this life and don’t worry much about what happens when it’s over. Within the past couple of weeks I have had to confront this question in different ways. The first was a conversation with my elder sister, who was shocked when I said I didn’t expect to meet our parents in heaven. I know that ‘s a comforting idea for people, and I didn’t want to destroy it, because my sister just lost her husband and is confident that he is waiting for her there.   She said, ‘How can you live without hope?” I said that I lived with the hope of making this world a better place–the blessed community, the commonwealth of God.   I don’t know what happens when this body gives out. My sister was not happy with my response, wondering how I had fallen so far from the Truth we grew up with.

The second encounter, a week later, was singing in the Gospel Choir and hearing Bobby Lewis talk about how the slaves survived the horrors of their life on earth by singing “There’s a better world coming bye and bye, way up in the sky.” I love Bobby and am always uplifted by his positive messages and, of course, by the music. Somehow, unlike the encounter with my sister, I didn’t feel pushed into an either-or place. Rather, with Bobby it’s both-and. I’m not at all uncomfortable singing about heaven, because I can hold the idea of heaven on earth.   No argument.

The event that helped me bring it all together, really, was a memorial service for a friend’s mother, Anne. It occurred at the end of the Gospel Choir week, and the daughter asked if we could sing a number for her mother, who had also sung with us in the past.   Bobby sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Tears ran down my face as I remembered Bobby singing that song for my mother 14 years ago.   I had been with Mom through her time of dying and had just returned home, grieving and vulnerable. That song reached deep inside me and gave me hope, just as it did last week. Not hope that I will see Mom again but that her spirit continues in some form, enlightening the world–my world, at least.

Also at Anne’s memorial, her husband read a poem by Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes.” Wow. I have read it over several times since and it continues to amaze me. Here’s one line:

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.”

So I will step out into this day refreshed and hopeful. Living toward heaven on earth.

Mindfulness in Preparing for Worship

When I was studying Japanese tea ceremony, it always struck me how important it was both for the host and the guest to prepare themselves for the experience. A guest might follow a path through a simple gate into a garden. Along the way, she might notice certain things blooming or see a delightful pattern in the way a rock is placed. She might take a drink at a place where water is softly dripping into a bamboo scoop. Meanwhile, the host has prepared the interior space of the tea house with a sprig of whatever is in season, placed in a simple vase in the tokonoma (the alcove), where there is a carefully chosen scroll of calligraphy which, if you can read it, might carry a message for the day. Depending on the time of year, there might be a hint of incense burning on the coals below the floor level or a slight scent from the blossom and the sound of water boiling in a pot.

Now it is time for the guest to enter. The door into the tea house is quite small. In order to enter in the old days, so the story goes, the Samurai warrior had to relinquish his sword in order to bow low enough to enter the sacred space. Today, the guest bows, symbolically leaving her weapons outside.

Two questions arise for me today in relation to Quaker worship. First, how do we prepare ourselves and our spaces for the experience of worship? In our Meeting, the members of Ministry and Counsel rotate responsibility for “hosting” meeting. This typically means arriving early, arranging the chairs if needed, and settling into worship as a way of preparing the space. Some hosts like to stay in the entryway to greet Friends as they arrive, while others settle inside the Meeting room. Unlike the Japanese tea room, no special care is taken to create an external atmosphere. We used to have a few prints hanging in the Meeting room. Years ago when the room was repainted some Friends felt the artwork should not be rehung, while others treasured the stories of each one and wanted them kept. The conflict was solved by hanging one print on one wall. Those who found it a distraction could sit facing the blank wall.

The second question is how do we enter our places of worship? Do we leave our “swords”—our pens, our words, our anger—outside the Meeting space when we enter? Do we enter mindfully with hearts open, vulnerable, and expectant?  Are we prepared to be surprised? Transformed? Do we mentally greet others in the room as we take our place?  In Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, Bill Taber writes:

“Entering the door of the meting room can be a very special experience of going   through the Door Inward; it can be a “body prayer” as we continue to let body, mind, and spiritual senses seek attunement with the Stream in this holy place as we move toward a seat.”

As Taber also points, out, preparing for worship can take place at any time, not just at the door or in the Meeting room.  Mindfulness of our inner state, of our environment, of others in our lives, can be a daily spiritual practice.  That was the most important lesson I learned from my tea ceremony teachers.  I think they knew that when I returned to this country I probably wouldn’t be able to continue the outer rituals, but they helped me see beneath the forms to the principle of mindfulness, and that has stayed with me as I became a convinced Quaker.

 

 

 

 

Invitations

In our time of introductions and afterthoughts following meeting for worship yesterday, several people spoke their concerns about the ban on immigration. I didn’t speak, but later a Friend came up and said, “You seem to be in pain.” I guess my face showed what I was feeling. He offered the opportunity to express some of that feeling in words. This is an example of what several seasoned Friends have offered me over the years: the opening to go to a deeper level, to voice what is stirring in my heart.

This morning I am musing about the gift of inviting others to share more deeply, whether in clearness committees or ordinary conversation. In a meeting yesterday a Friend told of an experience in a clearness committee where he felt the rising of a difficult question but was hesitant to ask it. After several minutes of suppressing it, he finally could stand it no longer and put the question into words. It turned out to be a pivotal moment for all, allowing the focus person especially to look at an aspect of the situation that had not been acknowledged.

The movement of the Spirit in this way is not surprising in a setting where three or four are gathered to listen deeply. How about in everyday conversations with people? In the past few weeks there have been many opportunities with friends and even strangers to share our feelings of dismay, fear and outrage. I have tried to maintain a hopeful stance, taking the cue from President Obama in his farewell speech. “We the people” is not an abstraction. The need for collective action is bringing all sorts of people together to march, to contact their legislators, to pray.

But can we go deeper? How can I help to create spaces for people to search their own hearts and find the source of strength that will sustain them? Asking the right questions rooted in compassion and love is a gift. We don’t do it on our own. It is at the heart of being a spiritual nurturer, an elder, a Friend. Our world needs us to be there holding the spaces, inviting people to go beyond the anger and fear and into action guided by love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

God Rocks

One of the many Biblical metaphors for the Divine Presence/God is that of a rock. Many of these images, especially in the Psalms, relate to a place of refuge, a shelter from the storm. For example:

“Hear my cry, O God; Give heed to my prayer. From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For You have been a refuge for me, A tower of strength against the enemy. “ (Psalm 61: 1-3)

“Incline Your ear to me, rescue me quickly; Be to me a rock of strength, A stronghold to save me. For You are my rock and my fortress; For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me.” (Psalm 31:2-3)

“Trust in the LORD forever, For in God the Lord we have an everlasting Rock” (Isaiah 26:4)

Recently I have found myself yearning for a shelter, a refuge, a place of quiet from the storm. With the constantly shifting political landscape, it is tempting to find a place to hide and wait for the storm to pass. It helps me to know that I can retreat from time to time to rest, “Be to me a rock of habitation to which I may continually come.” (Psalm 71.3), but I know I can’t stay there. I feel the need to engage with my community and work together to create healthy alternatives to the forces of greed and exploitation and injustice.

Besides the image of refuge, rocks can also represent obstacles, challenges. For example, when we take our canoe down the Upper Chena River and I am in the bow, I constantly watch for submerged rocks that could hang us up. They are not places of refuge or safety. Maneuvering around them takes some skill, experience, communication, and trust. But they are part of the river, and they make the trip interesting.

Whether a rock is a refuge or a challenge may depend in part on where I am in my journey. Do I need a challenge to make things interesting, or do I need a respite from dealing with issues in the world? And I believe God is present in both situations, guiding me and giving me what I need.

 

Waiting for the light, waiting in the Light

It is almost 11 a.m. and the sun has not yet risen. The thermometer registers twenty degrees below zero. How do we survive in this place? And why? Many of our friends have taken to spending the winters elsewhere, like Arizona. We’re retired, so why don’t we join them?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the fact that our current way of life here is unsustainable. We Alaskans import something like 95 percent of our food. Last year when the food supply line was interrupted, the grocery store shelves cleared off in three days. That event should have shaken everyone, but as soon as the systems were repaired, we all sort of forgot that it had happened.

In case of a power outage, our house has backup systems that would carry us for a while. We live in a birch forest so we have the means to stay warm, and could also cook on the wood stove. Without electricity we don’t have access to our water tank, but we could melt snow in the winter and collect rainwater in the summer. We have some food put by in the freezer: salmon, kale, and berries, mostly, but it wouldn’t last long. While I’m not inclined to stockpile a survival bunker (I have seen large cans and boxes of unreal food items for sale at some stores), I wonder if we should be better prepared.

These thoughts are taking me to a depressing place. Maybe I should go back to bed and hibernate until Spring. Or perhaps I should focus on where I find hope, peace, joy, and love in this season of Advent. Yesterday in meeting for worship I had a profound sense of being part of a community. There was no vocal ministry, but a sense of peace pervaded the room. I felt gratitude and love for these people with whom I have been worshiping for almost thirty years. These are my people. I belong here. I will wait with them, expecting a birth, a birth of something new, a divine light that will shine in the darkness.

As I look out my window now I see that the sun is just barely hitting the tops of trees on the distant hill. There is reason for hope. I will put on my warmest gear and take a walk to a place where the sun can hit my face. Yes, I will survive another day.