Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hopes and Dreams for 2009

Most of us in the West have religious origins going back to an historical event of a people escaping from slavery in Egypt. The story is that this people led by the prophet Moses sought freedom from slavery, carrying a collective dream of building a community of freedom and equality. (1). They wandered for forty years before entering what they perceived as their inheritance under a new leader, Joshua.

For centuries they resisted having a king. At the heart of their religion was a simple perception, God is king of all people and so all people under God are equal. They sought to live in the light of this perception and they recognized it as ‘God’s dream’ for his people. Much later they succumbed to having their own king. Later still their kings, aided by Temple officials, began to rule the people unjustly. When this happened the prophets of the day echoed in loud tones the demands of the ‘dream of God’:
What I want is mercy not sacrifice’.
‘Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion’. (3).
“Act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God”.

Centuries later the Jewish people were overrun by a foreign Empire. At this time they experienced oppression not only from Rome, but also from their own king Herod. Jointly these forces ruled, with the support of the temple officials. At this point the prophet Jesus entered history. He came with the same ‘God vision’, again proclaiming a universal kingdom of freedom and equality.

We know that he had few issues with those at the lower end of the social scale but he had huge issues with the Scribes, Pharisees, High Priests and all who put unjust burdens on the backs of the poor. He referred to the ‘dream of God’ as the ‘kingdom of God’, which was good news especially for the poor.

For him the ‘dream of God’ is first perceived at the deepest core of one’s being. He encouraged his followers to trust their deepest inner experiences and to recognize these as the ‘voice of God’ calling them to act justly. In this way those who trusted the wisdom of his teaching, experienced this reality in their own lives, and they too began to work towards building a community of freedom and equality. Jesus fell victim to and was eliminated by the fear and hatred of the combined ruling classes whose security he seriously threatened.

However, great progress had been made and many of his followers lived the vision and proclaimed ‘God’s kingdom’. Many more died at the hands of those who without an inner authority exercised a strong outer and controlling authority over those they called their subjects. Each true follower of Jesus continued to recognize that the ‘dream of God’ was for more than one’s own personal wants. Some who traveled to the ends of the world would never have considered the possibility that others, who claimed to belong to their own community, would themselves come to ‘lord it over others as the pagans do making their authority felt’. (5).

A few centuries later the Church was 'hand in glove' with the Roman Empire and it too became comfortably ensconced in Rome, while the poor under-classes again suffered indignity at the hands of the rich and powerful. This time it was within a so-called ‘Christian’ Europe. While striving to become richer and more powerful the Church and many 'Christians', the inheritors of the ‘vision of God’’, shifted the focus by arriving at theories about trinities and virgin births, while using dualist concepts about an alternative 'spiritual’ world. Meanwhile here on earth the ‘God vision’ of a Community of freedom and equality was tragically ignored.

This process was greatly accelerated in the age the Enlightenment, when for many people science became a substitute God and thus scientific knowledge was often used at the expense of the ‘dream of God’. Compassion, mercy and communal life became second rate values. In a more aggressive climate Countries, while competing with one another, exploited the world beyond their shores and proceeded to appropriate for themselves the world’s inheritance. Empires made inroads into the New World and through greed whole ancient and innocent peoples were virtually eliminated. Nations set up profitable trading routes, and African men and women were traded as slaves as a very favorable commodity within an elitist economic system.

The same Dream of God for freedom and equality fired George Fox and his early followers, and especially John Woolman. They came to know and experience the power of the inner light, that enlightens those who wait in the silence for the promptings of love and truth that arise from the depths of one’s being. The call of such promptings will always be to - ‘doing the will of God’.

Forty years ago a new prophet again proclaimed the ‘dream of God’. People of good will responded to Dr. M. L. King Jr. His dream of men and women, the children of both slaves and slave owners, poor and rich, sitting down at a common table sharing the task of building harmonized communities within a single fragile world. His dream struck a chord, and re-ignited hopes in modern people who once more saw the potential of 'an ancient dream'. He knew that erroneous dreams do in truth offer comfortable living to the rich but that they lead too to misery for countless millions, and the lives of all become circumscribed by fear. Many people began to live with an inner trusting that ‘God’s dream’ could take a giant leap forward. In that spirit people continued to pray “Thy kingdom come on earth”.

These past months amid the ashes of centuries of exploitation, domination, terror and war we heard from across the Atlantic contrasting speeches about love and fear. Today an Afro-American stands before the American people as President-elect. He carries the hopes and projections of the whole world. Once again ‘hope and history rhyme’ . (6). We know that the political, social and economic challenges facing Barrack Obama are enormous, but if each individual would commit to working towards ‘the dream of community' – rather than persisting with the values of 'rugged individualism', who knows!

A contemporary writer reminds us that ‘what is, is’. ‘What is’, is determined and so unalterable. We need to give our full attention to all ‘that is’, rather than delude ourselves into believing that it should be otherwise. (7). On the other hand 2009 is not determined and so what January 2009 needs is our intention. If enough men and women can hold the dream of realizing the values of freedom and equality, arising from their own highest values, and shift the focus of ‘faith’ from ‘believing in theories’ to an ‘inner trusting’, then with confidence we could stand behind a leader of integrity, like Barrack Obama, as together we enter this new era in history.

With our past behind us, we like the mythical phoenix, could rise from the ashes of a fragmented world. America has taken the first faltering steps towards a new metanoia - or an 180o turn. Perhaps America can actually lead the movement away from the greed and avarice at the heart of all egocentric economic dreams.

Together we can work towards building a single world of freedom and equality, on the foundation of love rather than fear. If men and women can have the courage to publicly stand up for, and work towards, their deepest dream and if in their loving intimacy they could have the inner and outer freedom to ‘let the soft animal of their body love what it loves’ and come to know where they truly belong in the family of things. (8) the possibilities for our fractured world would be beyond calculation.

I loved Barack Obama’s victory speech on election night. John McCain too, was magnanimous in defeat. It is possible that Democrat and Republican, men and women, black and white, rich and poor, can work together towards a new but ancient common goal – that of forming national communities of freedom and equality secure enough to respect the freedoms of other nations in pursuit of similar goals? Today we stand on the mountaintop of ‘now’ looking down into the valley of tomorrow. The important thing is the intention we carry as we enter each new situation. We can share a dream and go on making the very best choices, day by day, that we know how? This Christmas we can sing our ancient carols, while consciously acknowledging the Christ-center-within, as around the world we sing:- “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in us tonight”. (9).

1) John Macmurray (The Clue to History). 2) Hosea 6:6. 3) Amos 6:1 4) Micah 6:8. 5) Mk.’10:42. 6) Séamus Heaney (The Cure at Troy). 7) Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now). 8) Mary Oliver (Wild Geese). 9) O Little Town of Bethlehem.

6) Irish poet, Séamus Heaney, expressed a profound truth in ‘The Cure at Troy’ – when hope and history rhyme, we can hope for a great sea-change.

The Cure at Troy

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.
If there's fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

8) The American poet Mary Oliver offers further words of wisdom to those who hope.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Monday, 8 December 2008


Several months ago I went along to a Quaker meeting for Worship in which there was a lot of ministry offered on the theme of friendship. One Friend read from Advices & Queries:

21. Do you cherish your friendships, so that they grow in depth and understanding and mutual respect? In close relationships we may risk pain as well as finding joy. When experiencing great happiness or great hurt we may be more open to the working of the Spirit.

After the meeting, I joined the meeting for reflection upstairs in room 3. This is an opportunity chat over any issues that may have arisen that morning, and to get to know people a little better, within a smaller group. During that time, I offered some thoughts on the need for “spiritual friendships” but when asked what I actually meant by that I rather fumbled around for words. I found myself ruminating on it for several days. Its nice to get the chance to return to this theme here!

I remember, at the time, that someone else had spoken within the meeting about how they value difference in their friends and this had resonated with me.

I thought back on a book written by Steven Chalke entitled Intelligent Church in which he had written about the characteristics of a spiritually mature congregation. He placed great emphasis on being an Inclusive Church; one that involves itself in the life of the surrounding community, working with and involving others. He then goes on to suggest that an intelligent church is a messy church. Why? Because messiness is the consequence of being inclusive. Whenever a local church chooses to be outward-looking and welcoming of all, it will automatically become messier than it was before - it’s inevitable.

"In many senses the church is a hospital - it is a place of spiritual, social, emotional, moral and psychological healing. And just as in a hospital the patients suffer from different conditions, are at different levels of health and are at different stages of the healing process, so it is with the church. Sometimes healing takes weeks or months - sometimes it takes a lifetime. Simply visiting a hospital doesn’t automatically make a sick person well. Some need intensive care, others less intensive but no less important ongoing treatment or rehabilitation. No hospital is a centre of physical perfection, and neither is a church one of spiritual perfection - rather, both are messy environments full of messed-up people striving to be less so."

We come into spiritual communities with our own wounds, uncertainties and incompleteness. So this life together will need patience and care to work out.

There’s a metaphor that I found in a book written by David Runcorn where he describes that at the height of the struggles against apartheid in South Africa a multi-racial community was founded in Cape Town. It was called The Community of the Broken Wall taken from the New Testament in which Christ is spoken of having broken down a wall of division between ourselves and God and between each other. “For he is our peace, [who]… has broken down the dividing wall” (Eph. 2.14).

Runcorn writes -

"The image of a community without walls confronts one of the biggest temptations of community living. It is perilously easy to create a private, insular world of like-minded people and shut out all those who don’t fit in.

In a community without walls, people will meet others who are seriously different from each other. It will not be a safe, insular network of the like-minded. It is harder and harder in our world to find the kind of place where we learn to talk and listen and meet each other in our real differences".

And I guess that this was the aspect of spiritual friendship that I had been looking to express those months ago.

Messy Church. I like that. I wonder whether we aspire to be messy too?

How messy is your spiritual community?

Sunday, 7 December 2008


Religion is like scaffolding around a building. This is all our notions and ideas and questions like ‘Who is God?’, which are often left over from childhood confusions and accumulations of poorly thought through cultural accretions.

Over time we come to believe that the building will fall down without the scaffolding. That belief is more important than experience. In the Quaker silence there is the opportunity to strip away the scaffolding and reveal the building behind it.

And Lo! The building does not fall down, and, furthermore, it is beautiful.

At the time when I had my first spiritual opening or awakening, I was in contact with a group of evangelical Christians. They immediately told me what my experience meant, introducing me to all the classic doctrines of the Christian Church, with that spin of literalism that they so relish. Soon my experience was covered in the scaffolding of dogma, including the important dogma that this was the only significant experience – my ‘conversion’ – from now on all teaching would be the ‘literal truth’ as revealed in the Bible and mediated through the church and its ministers.

However, two more significant openings occurred, and the second of these, the revelation of the fallacy of human authority, led directly to me becoming a Quaker. In fact, I count myself as a Quaker from that moment, some nine months before I first attended a Quaker meeting, and nine years before being accepted into membership.

Not only did the belief in the innate authority of human institutions melt away, but also belief in the authority of the bible and the multitude of interpretations that were being pushed at me from all quarters – not just from fundamentalist evangelicals, but from traditionalists and liberals as well. There is only one test: ‘does this interpretation speak to my condition?’ And my condition is mediated through my own knowledge that I have built up from my own experience.

In the twenty years since that spiritual opening on 6th December 2008, I have not had any more dramatic spiritual openings. Now I look to that direct experience of what some call ‘the divine’ as being normative, though not necessarily common. There to be discovered, should I only let go of myself and my chattering mind and enter in. For in the same way that beliefs and dogmas – what Quakers call ‘notions’ - can blind us to the reality of God’s presence, so can the objectification of experience by the mind.

We can approach any encounter in three ways:

Oh! -That’s interesting
Oh! -That’s beautiful

And we enter into the ‘divine presence’ of the ‘I AM’ that is beyond words, beyond attachment.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Transition Cities

I was at the first Transition Cities conference in Nottingham last week with a bunch of people from Sheffield's new Transition Initiative. We were sharing ideas with groups from all over the country on how to build city-wide movements which can help us navigate the transition to a low-carbon, relocalised, sustainable, resilient and life-sustaining future. Check out the short film about it; miraculously filmed, edited and published in just 4 days.
You can also read more about it here and here.