Tag Archives: inequality

T is for … Testimony against Times and Seasons

‘Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.’ Janet Scott, Quaker Faith and Practice 27.42 – excerpt

It’s been the sort of time when this testimony (and it’s non-observance) has been high on my radar. Indeed, I feel very strongly right now that we should reclaim it in some way.

I was looking around the Internet for some comments on this Testimony and came across this one: I suppose I mark Christmas because it’s there, and not to do so is a distinctive statement in itself – rather like wearing C17 “plain” dress would be. This comes from a website called Quakerinfo.com and I think it is really telling.

Do we – individually or collectively eschew making distinctive statements about things we are strongly committed to? And/or: is our testimony against times and seasons something we should be strongly committed to?

I don’t have the knowledge to argue the origins of this Testimony with any degree of certainty – no doubt some of you who read this may be able and willing to chip in on that.

But as I understand it, the crux is this: we don’t believe that some days are more holy or more sacred than others because all days are holy or sacred. And therefore, to single out some days in the way they are in the Christian calendar would be to denigrate all the others.

I’m not sure I live up to that understanding myself in any meaningful way although I do try to do something worthwhile with each day. What I do know is that I am completely fed up with the way ‘special days’ are commercialised and abused by industry to make them profit. This year has been almost worse than previous years because we have now had Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and various other shopping opportunities thrust upon us in addition to the Christmas mayhem. People are encouraged – not to say dragooned – into spending money on stuff they (and the people they give it to) don’t want and don’t need. The success of Christmas is measured in sales turnover of the big high street chains.

This is so far from any possible meaning of the Christmas story that all I can do is turn away from it and hibernate. On the whole, that’s more or less what we did this year. A few Christmas cards, a few more Christmas e-mails – and I was careful to make them as non-saccharin and as non-pseudo religious as possible – and a nice meal on the day. And that was it.

But you can’t escape the rigmarole; you can’t escape the endless onslaught of ‘Christmas’ adverts.

But our Meeting had its traditional Christmas celebration; and we sang carols – well, I didn’t join in but I was there. And that’s when I wondered whether we are actually making enough of a statement.

We gathered on a Sunday afternoon before Christmas – so at least we weren’t saying this has to be on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve; we spent, collectively, a good deal of money on food and drink – much more than necessary; we collected a reasonable sum for a local homeless charity (we could have double that if we had not spent anything on food, I’d say).

And we sang a number of ‘well-loved’ carols. And when you actually look at the words I find it really hard to believe that we could seriously be saying any of this and mean it; but it seems perfectly possible to sing it.

Each year, I think: I’ll re-write the words so that we can actually mean them; and then I don’t because other stuff intervenes.

But here’s one of the ones we were singing (I think) and I thought I would at least try a bit of a commentary:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed

So, we’re celebrating the fact that for reasons of government interference in people’s lives a family with a new-born infant is homeless?

The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.

Newborn, homeless, probably cold: we describe this as ‘His sweet head’; and why ‘little Lord’? It conjures up an image of a life of privilege. But it could not have been further from any kind of truth – and not so far from the reality of Palestinian children today: children who grow up under occupation and who find themselves homeless because their parents have been told to leave their homes for arbitrary reasons.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,

Not terribly likely that stars do anything remotely related to what we think of as looking.

The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

You’d hope that he was asleep; but chances are he was waking up regularly and crying (see below).

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes

We would rightly be horrified to think of a newborn and his mother (who, after all, has just given birth) being accommodated in such conditions – from a health and safety and hygiene point of view if nothing else. So why are we singing about this as if it’s worthy of rejoicing?

But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.

See above

I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.

So now he’s in the sky and we’re asking him to look down on us from there – presumably to look after us and care for us; but what are we doing about the homeless children in our society? And wouldn’t we be better occupied with them?

And so on and so forth. Frankly, I can’t bear to go on because the song is so superficial and so saccharine.

So maybe 2015 could be the year when we reclaim our authentic voice that says it how it is: Christmas and other so-called Christina holy days have been so utterly debased by the commercialization that surrounds them that the only response is to ignore them completely and to come up with another way of doing something meaningful: every day.

And maybe that means we do need to – at least metaphorically don plain dress and bonnets and be visible as Quakers in a world that needs some plain speaking.

M is for Meeting for Worship

The other Sunday I was sitting in Meeting; there were some spoken contributions and after about the third, it felt like a discussion group. I was considering standing and saying this and reminding Friends that this was a Meeting for Worship.

And then I stopped myself, because that term has always been a bit of a problem to me.

The question arises: who or what do we worship? Or what is it exactly we are doing there for an hour or so, mostly in silence?

The problem with words

I was brought up in German Yearly Meeting and in German the word for Meeting for Worship is ‘Andacht’. This is also true for some other European languages (see Sue Glover Frykmann’s post on the subject).

So is there a real difference between these two terms? Well, yes, there is.

Andacht can be translated into English in many different ways; in a German etymological analysis, it suggests that it can be a ‘religious deepening or immersion’ or a prayer service. It has the word ‘Denken’ (thinking) at its root and implies ‘paying attention’, commitment, and dedication.

Worship, in contrast, require an object. In the online etymology dictionary, you find that as early as 1300, the word suggests: “reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being”, as indicated in Wikipedia: honour shown to an object.[1]

And therein lies the problem for me. If I don’t have a concept of a personal God (which I don’t) then who or what is the object that I pay reverence to in Meeting for Worship?

In a setting where I think of this as ‘Andacht’ that question doesn’t arise.

Is thinking allowed?

The other issue is the question of ‘thinking’. The word Andacht as mentioned above, implies that it does have something to do with thinking; a contemplative kind of thinking, granted, but somehow the brain is allowed to be involved.

In Meeting for Worship, this doesn’t necessarily come into the definition. Indeed, I have said myself, on occasion, and have heard it said, that I worry every time someone starts spoken ministry with the words: ‘I’ve been thinking…’

So I began asking myself why thinking isn’t somehow part of the picture. Some of us will say with utter conviction (me among them) that ‘God has no hands but ours’ but what about brains? Surely, our brains – complex and amazing as they are – are part of our make-up and part of the gifts we bring to this life. And so, why should we leave them at the door of the Meeting House?

Answers?

A school friend (from my Quaker School days) who converted to Mormonism after being brought up in an eighth generation Quaker family said to me when I asked him why he had converted: It’s simple: the Quakers have all the questions, the Mormons have all the answers.

Ever since, I have felt that it is important sometimes to come up with some answers, even if that has to be with the proviso that these are my answers and not answers which would be necessarily embraced by all Quakers (as all Quakers embracing any specific answer is almost inconceivable).

So here is my attempt at an answer to the question: what is it that I do in Meeting for Worship (and I tend to prefer to call it ‘Quaker Meeting’).

Because I don’t have a concept of a personal God, there is no question that I feel that in Quaker Meeting I would be showing reverence to an object. But because of the concept of ‘that of God in everyone’ I do have an idea that there is something out there and in us that connects us. You might imagine it maybe like the air we breathe; I’m inclined to add sunshine, but that would make the concept a little rose-tinted, because sunshine is nice. So let’s leave it with the air.

And so this image came to me: when we dry our laundry outside, in the wind and, yes, the sunshine, it does it good. It makes it fresher. It refreshes it in a way that a tumble drier or even a rack in the back bedroom can’t do.

So maybe, engaging in the process of Quaker Meeting is like being refreshed by the wind and the weather and the air we all breath; being aware of the fact that this is something that we have in common; that this is something that we can’t buy more of, or be deprived of by those with more power and more money.

It is an experience of essential, existential equality.

But it’s also about allowing the damp, the cobwebs, the staleness, the old, well-worn stuff to be blown about a bit and rearranged.

Does thinking come into it?

Well, actually, no. Because if we think we are driving the process; and if we want to experience the being blown about a bit, then we need to stop trying to drive the process. But what can happen – at least to me – is that at some point the process triggers something that leads to thought. And that’s ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] From Bosworth and Toller, Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, “weorþscipe

L is for…. Life, Lament, Loss, Leadership, …

It’s been a while again since I last wrote on this blog. There are reasons. Some trivial such as other things to do, taking a holiday from blogging and so on. But the real reason is more complicated.

I seem to have lost the impetus to say anything; the situation we find ourselves in the world over is so dreadful that it seems trivial to write for this blog (my other blog hasn’t fared much better).

I have been mulling the ‘L’ words that could be the focus; the ones in the title are today’s cull of words; there have been others.

But life is maybe the most apt to be writing about right now.

Hundreds of people dead in the shooting down of a civilian aircraft in the Ukraine; a terrible mistake, probably, committed by people who might not have known what they were doing, who might not have known how to use the hardware they had somehow acquired – from whom?

Hundreds of people lost their lives; many hundreds more have to cope with the loss and grief; for no reason whatsoever. There are now words.

But of course the media and the politicians all have an answer (and many useless words): they know who is to blame, they know who to sanction.

Hundreds of people dead in Gaza and Israel; many of them children. Hand-wringing from the international community; the US administration declares the bombing of a UN school as totally indefensible and then opens an armoury to the Israeli Defence Force.

Not to speak of all the other places and all the other deaths.

There are so many questions this raises (and in all the questions that follow, ‘we’ stands for humans, the human race; but maybe not for ‘humanity’):

  • Why are we so attached to life; so attached to it, in fact, that we can think of no worse punishment than to take life away.
  • Why are we so willing to take life away from people who have really not done anything against us? People who just happen to be categorized as ‘our enemies’.
  • Does the fact that we are so attached to life give a lever to those who would engulf us in terror? They seem not so attached to life – to rather relish death.
  • Why are we so willing to spend enormous resources on designing, perfecting, manufacturing and selling weapons and all that goes with them, when we say that we believe in the sanctity of life?

And of course, life is not always good; how many billions of people on this planet struggle daily to eek out a living, to barely stay alive, to just get by? And whilst we wring our hands at the murders, the shootings, the bombings, the accidental deaths – and the nearer they are to us, the more we do so – why do we not care about life enough to work for justice? For justice for those whose lives are under threat daily, not because of war, but because of a lack of access to the most basic necessities – at the same time as some of us have not only more than we need but more than we could ever justify.

So maybe this is about lament; a lament for the world, the planet, the people on it (and other species). It’s summer here in the northern hemisphere and normally the media expects this to be the silly season. There’s been no room for that in the last few months.

A commitment to the sanctity of life requires and end to the manufacture, sale and use of arms and ammunition, the end to an economic system that is geared to injustice, and the end to a political system that maintains inequality and hatred in equal measure for the benefit of the materially wealthy.

(No images with this post – you’ve seen them on the news).

F is for being Fortunate

It’s one of those things we often forget.

The weather gets us down (though it’s been pretty good these last few days); the government gets us down – some things never change; we have some health issues; we have problems with the car, the roof needs fixing. So we can get wrapped up in the things that a wrong with life, the things that make it frustrating (and believe me, I could produce a very long list of them here, but I won’t), and the things that we don’t like.

What we forget is how fortunate we are. One of the things that I try to do in Meeting on a Sunday (I should do it more regularly, but at least on a Sunday morning I have a space to do it and no excuses for not doing it) is to consider why I am incredibly fortunate.

I have just looked on the Internet for some of the images and messages that sometimes land in our inboxes or on our Facebook timelines that remind us of this. Here are just some:

  • I am alive.
  • I am able to see the sunrise and the sunset.
  • I am able to music and bird song
  • I can walk outside and feel the breeze through your hair and the sun’s warmth on your skin.
  • I didn’t go to sleep hungry last night.
  • I awoke this morning with a roof over your head.
  • I had a choice of what clothes to wear.
  • I have access to clean drinking water.
  • I have access to medical care.
  • I have access to the Internet.
  • I can read.
  • I haven’t feared for my life today or ever, really.
  • I have had some challenges, and I have learned and survived.
  • I have – mostly – the freedom to make my own decisions.
  • I live in a country that protects my basic human rights and civil liberties. And even if it’s far from perfect, it’s a lot better than some places.
  • I have a friends or relatives who look forward to our next get-together.

There are many of these lists on the Internet, some designed in a very eye-catching and mind-catching way. Here is one example that I like.

It reminded me of a song, sung by Joan Baez on one of her early records (you know, when they still had vinyl) called ‘There but for fortune’. It was actually written by Phil Ochs and the words are:

Image of Alphabet blog F

 

Why I am writing about this?

Because I want to remind myself and all of us that this kind of ‘being fortunate’ – not earned, not deserved, just given to us because of where and when we were born and where we live – brings with it responsibility. Responsibility to share what of that fortune we can share – and speaking strictly for myself, I don’t think I ever do enough of that; responsibility to keep in mind our fortune and stop complaining when a few things go wrong; responsibility to identify the reasons why others are so much less fortunate than we are and to do something, anything, to change that.

The responsibility that comes from the recognition (so ably expressed by William Penn in 1682) that ‘True Godliness does not turn people out of the world but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it;
not hide their candle under a bushel,
but to set it upon a table in a candlestick.’