Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Standing on our Heads

We need to spend more time standing on our heads.

Now I like keeping myself well informed. I get lots of emails and feeds from all over the place. I read two quality magazines every month, and Guardian Weekly every week. I watch lots of documentaries on the telly – mainly BBC4. I live in a house full of books.

All this information fills my head and makes me feel bright and light and I feel as though my head has become like a hot air balloon floating serenely through the sky. But then the wind blows and I am thrown this way and that. Should I do this? Should I do that? Should I ignore that? How important is this? Just what ought I to do?

The trouble with information is that it has no purchase on us – it is what we have been told, not what we have felt. We Quakers have a word for this – we call it 'notions'. But we are so caught up in the western enlightenment idea that thinking is the most significant thing we do, that we do not realise that thinking on its own is mere notions. Stuff we have read in books or found using Google. We have been taught that feelings are at best unreliable, and possibly downright dangerous. Stick to the facts and you can't go wrong. Yet until we actually experience anything for ourselves, and thereby engage our feelings first, we cannot effectively act on anything.

When we do engage our feelings, and know we need to act, we Quakers have a word for this as well – we call it having a 'concern'. We are no longer worried about whether we ought to do this or that – we are driven by our deepest emotions to get on with it without question. There is no thought about whether this is the right thing to do or not – you just know, in a place beyond thinking and mere words.

However, our feelings come from our bodies and flow down into the earth that is our home, leaving our heads up in the air.

So stand on your head and be rooted to the earth, and let the passion and drive in your groin and the fire and anger in your belly and the love and pain in your heart flow down into your head and displace all those mere thoughts.

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Today, in our Meeting for Reflection post-worship, we had the benefit of several recent attenders, who shared with us their feeling of uncertainty: as a newcomer, it is quite easy to feel wrong-footed. 'Everyone else is an experienced and knowledgeable Quaker. Why should I feel that I can offer ministry in this group, where anything I say will probably be seen as naive and trivial? I don't know why I came, and I probably shouldn't have.' Those of us who had been around a bit longer were able to say that we also feel some of that. To be uncertain is very OK. I felt this was a very valuable thing to say and to hear.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Kate & Craig's leaving party

Thanks so much to everyone who came to our party on Sunday, and especially to everyone who helped to organise it for us. It was an amazing send-off, and we both feel truly held and supported by the Meeting as we get ready to make our journey to Zimbabwe this Thursday. Gordon even made us this cake - iced by hand, with help from Google Maps...

(Kate claims that the little stick figure at the front is her).

Please continue to hold us in the Light as we make this journey. We really don't know where it is leading us, but the love and encouragement of our Quaker community in Sheffield makes it feel possible for us to take the risk of faithfulness in a way that we couldn't on our own. You are all a great gift to us.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Only being loved makes a man lovable: basic Christianity

One of my favourite passages to quote is from Harold Loukes (1960) The Discovery of Quakerism. Here are a few selections from a longer piece...
'the Quaker effort for criminals and the insane brings out something of the meaning of their search for "that of God in every man".'
'The problem comes when we meet the unlovable: how is that to be loved? It was because this was to hard that through so many Christian centuries the treatment of criminals and the insane was marked by such bitter cruelty.'
'the Friendly challenge... was to say that whether or not a man was "unlovable" was beside the point: he was made to be loved and only being loved makes man lovable. As a doctrine there is was nothing new in this: it was basic Christianity. The novelty lay simply in the way Friends sought out the two most unlovely groups they could find and set their unsentimental caring to work.'
This seems very apposite as a new project is launched in South Yorkshire, Circles of Support and Accountability, which aims to provide a network of support to sex offenders who would otherwise be lonely, isolated and... all the more likely to re-offend. If criminals in general can be thought of as an 'unlovely group', then surely sex offenders are the most vilified and despised of the lot?
It's a project which started in Canada in 1994 and from the beginning has relied heavily on volunteers being drawn from faith communities.
Volunteers are now being sought to set up 2 or 3 groups in this area. There's more detail in our Sheffield Quaker website. I fervently hope that we will, as a community, being able to get involved in the project.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Zimbabwe latest

It looks like Morgan Tsvangirai (Prime Minister of Zimbabwe) has finally had enough of trying to work in government with Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF. In a statement yesterday he is calling for civil disobedience and refusal of recognition to illegally appointed State officials. Wonder what happens now...

Extract from a Statement by the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai
7th October 2010

"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is with some sadness that I have to make a  statement today about the state of this transitional Government.  It  relates to the Constitution and Sovereignty of Zimbabwe, and the  principles of democracy for which my Party and I stand for. The MDC  utterly rejects the notion of one-party or one-man rule. The MDC utterly  rejects any suggestion that power is an entitlement through historical  legacy, or that power is a God-given right of an individual or individuals.

"The MDC firmly believes that political leaders should only serve and
  act on the basis of a mandate of the people.  Lest we forget. The MDC  was given that mandate on March 29, 2008, when the people of Zimbabwe  clearly rejected the notion of one-Party and one-man rule.  That mandate  was to govern on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, in  September 2008, I signed an agreement, allowing for the formation of a  joint transitional government with those Parties which the people had  rejected. I did so for several reasons that I outlined at the time. Not  least, I did so to try to help end the needless suffering of the people  of Zimbabwe which had been inflicted on them by the failed and corrupt  policies and abuses of the previous regime..."

"...We are all - citizens, politicians, soldiers, policemen, workers,  mothers, fathers and children – subject to the Constitution and laws of  this country.  None of us own that Constitution and none of us own this  country.  None of us, whatever our history, are above the law.  We are  all but caretakers for future generations. Ladies and Gentlemen, The  MDC’s National Executive has today resolved that we must make a stand to protect the Constitution of Zimbabwe and to return it to the custodianship of the citizens of Zimbabwe. As a first step, we will  refuse to recognise any of the appointments which the President has made  illegally and unconstitutionally over the past 18 months.

That includes:

  •  the Governor of the Central Bank, appointed unilaterally by Mr Mugabe on 26 November 2008
  •   the Attorney-General, appointed unilaterally by Mr Mugabe on 17 December 2008
  •   the 5 judges, appointed unilaterally by Mr Mugabe on 20 May 2010
  •   the 6 Ambassadors, appointed unilaterally by Mr Mugabe on 24 July 2010
  • the Police Service Commission
  • the 10 Governors, appointed unilaterally and furtively by Mr Mugabe last week
"As Executive Prime Minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe, I will today be  advising the countries to whom these Ambassadors have been posted that  these appointments are illegal and therefore null and void. I will be advising the Chief Justice of the improper appointment of the judges  concerned, and that they are therefore null and void. I will be advising  the President of the Senate of the improper appointment of Governors,  and that they should therefore not be considered members of the Senate,  which is therefore now unconstitutional. I  will be advising the joint  Ministers of Home Affairs and the National Security Council of the  illegal appointment of the Police Service Commission.

"We now similarly call on the people of Zimbabwe, at whose pleasure we  serve, not to recognise these individuals as the legitimate holders of  the posts to which they have been unconstitutionally and illegally 
appointed. In doing so you must all remain peaceful. I now call upon Mr Mugabe to return the country to Constitutional rule by correcting the  unlawful appointments. I invite SADC [South African Development Community] to join me in calling on Mr Mugabe  to respect the SADC Resolutions, the SADC Charter and Protocols, the AU  Charter, and the principles of democracy. I invite SADC to deploy  observers before the constitutional referendum  to help protect the  rights of Zimbabweans to express their views freely and without violence  or intimidation. And I invite SADC to urgently intervene to restore Constitutionality in Zimbabwe."

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Faith and Money

Some people choose to dismiss faith, especially faith in the invisible, because they regard it as unreal. “Give me the facts,” they say. “Show me something real. How do we know that God exists, anyway? What proof is there? Man made God in his own image,” and so on. Richard Dawkins assumes that statements about God are meant literally, and concludes that because he can refute the literal meaning of such statements (as if God were just another bit of science, to be proved or disproved) he can therefore ignore the whole domain of faith.

Likewise, some people dismiss the concept of marriage, on the grounds that a marriage certificate is only a piece of paper. Well, so is a cheque for a million pounds only a piece of paper. Each of these pieces of paper is worth how much importance is invested in it. If you believe in marriage and value your own marriage, then you can have a marriage that is believable and valuable. If not . . .

In case anyone should think that it is money, not love, that makes the world go round, let me say that the whole monetary system entirely depends on faith and trust. There was a time when money was coinage, and coins were standard sized pieces of gold or silver, metals regarded as valuable because they had a use in jewellery. Now, people accept as valuable a chunk of brass or a piece of paper, which is useless in practical terms (you could use a £50 note to light the fire, if you had nothing else) or a string of numbers on a screen. Or a string of cowry shells. Money is whatever people believe is money, treat as money and use as money.

The system works as long as the next person also accepts that these things are valuable and treats them as if they were. Money works, as long as people believe in it. When people cease to believe in money, it becomes worthless. This happened in Germany, between the two World Wars. They tell the story of the man who took a wheelbarrow-load of notes to the bakery, to see if he could buy a loaf of bread. He made the mistake of leaving the wheelbarrow outside the shop while he went in and enquired. When he came out, the money was on the ground, but someone had stolen the wheelbarrow.

Monday, 27 September 2010

"Tell them stories"

My favourite story-line from Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' triology is leading the ghosts to freedom, found in the third book, 'The Amber Spyglass'. Lyra and Will contrive to enter the land of the dead – complete with Stygian boatman – to find Lyra's friend Roger, and Will's father. There they find the ghosts of the dead being tormented by harpies, who feed off their misery. Lyra realises that the fantasy world she has invented to protect herself enrages the harpies and make them attack her even more. Then she shows the harpies that they can get far richer nourishment feeding off true stories, and that if the ghosts tell the true stories of their lives, they will be led to freedom through the door that Will makes with the Subtle Knife. That freedom is to become one with the universe, to dissolve into all that is life, which they discover is a moment of true bliss. This is what Mary Malone witnesses when she finds the door from the land of the dead as the ghosts stream out in their thousands:

'Tell them stories. That's what we didn't know. All this time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That's what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.' (The Amber Spyglass, end of ch 32; Folio 2008, p387)

And so it is in our world. We live lives of pretence and fantasy, thinking we are at the pinnacle of our civilisation, when in fact we are sucking dry the life of our planet, and the lives of one another. We are bombarded, harpy-like, by statistics telling us how bad it will be. But this just drives us more and more into fear and denial, as we sit frozen, rabbit-like, in the awful glare of the future bearing down on us.

This is because statistics and facts can only engage our minds, and the only response available from our minds is either fear or denial. We invent ways of avoiding the truth, thinking we are 'doing our bit' by making trivial changes to our lifestyles, such as recycling more or using the car slightly less.

What we need is motives to drive the necessary change in our lives, and these cannot come from the head, only from the heart, the belly and the groin, - our passion, our anger, our creative action. So where are our stories? Stories of hope and perseverance, of resilience and determination, of heroes and demons, of love and compassion.

Click to see how Fra Angelico saw the freeing of the ghosts from the land of the dead (limbo) (c 1450)

Thursday, 23 September 2010

What price a plate of beans?

Esau and Jacob were twin brothers, sons of Isaac. Esau was born first, and so, in the patriarchal society of the time, Esau would inherit his fathers wealth. Esau grew up to be a hunter, and was much loved by his father, whilst Jacob became a farmer, and was more loved by his mother, Rebecca.
And so one day, Esau had been out hunting and came back to the camp famished, to see Jacob preparing some bean stew. So Esau asked for some stew, but Jacob saw his chance and said to Esau: “You can have your fill if you sell me your birthright”. And Esau was young and impetuous and had no thought for the future, only his hunger, so he gave up his birthright to his twin for a plate of beans.
Jacob became the founder of the Jewish people and Esau was forgotten apart from a couple of stories. (Genesis 25 24-34).

And so it is with us. Our whole society is built around having convenience now, with no thought for the future. All the way from the short term policies of high finance down to popping out in the car rather than using the bus.

We use the supermarket rather than the local market, even although fresh local produce from the greengrocer and butcher is way better, and often even cheaper. We use the car rather than walk, even though we know that we are not fit, and miss the pleasure of the sun and the air and meeting people. We buy bland mass produced bread, when the locally made artisan bread is a joy to the senses. We buy cheap and think we have a bargain when in reality the stuff is often rubbish and people and the environment on the other side of the world have been trashed. We fly rather than use the train, even although St Pancras International train station is way more beautiful than Heathrow, and we can enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

We have squandered our inheritance for a plate of beans.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Websites and networking and communicating, oh my!

I'm at a Quaker Website Support group right now. We've just been speaking about how we do things and communicate (what we do) to and between each other. How do you think the blog, our website and the Newsletter best interact with each other? We've had an idea about potentially having a repository and online sharing/holding/discussion space for us to post Minutes and other things. But we need ideas and people to help us: inputring data, developing protocols, making connections and being creative so depending on what your talents are, we can use them.

Do you have skills or are you interested in blogging, social networking or websites? If this you, let us know. You don't have to be "super Quaker" to come along. Post a comment or catch one of us after Meeting.

Nadine, Laura and Gordon

...Creating Action

Yesterday's workshop, 'Creating Action' - the second of two, for the exploration of personal responses to climate change - gave a dozen of us the chance to journey together through themes of hope, interconnectedness and empowerment.

Our point of departure was a simple, yet profound, exercise. We all stood in the empty room and chose, without indicating who, two other people with whom we would seek to maintain an equal distance between, in the configuration of an even-sided triangle. Those two people also each chose two others - any two people - to keep equidistant within their own 'triangle'.

The only rule to this exercise was that we would all try, as best we could, to maintain even distances between us and our partners, even as everybody else tried to do the same with their own chosen partners. In this way, the entire group formed a constantly shifting, self-regulating 'organism', which naturally moved about the room, fast and slow, never quite reaching stasis.

This game provoked many immediate responses; sometimes laughter, often surprise, occasionally frustration and always a feeling of change. With our focus directed outward into the spaces between our bodies, we relinquished our identity as separate beings and found that we were truly moving as one. Like geese flying in formation, we only needed to remain aware of the geese at our beak and at our tail to know we were in our 'true' place: here and now.

After this, we moved into an exercise that gave voice to our future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They'd come to meet with us, from the future, to ask how we had found the courage to save our planet at this time of crisis. These humans - free, thanks to our efforts today, from the suffering born from a planet in crisis - gave heartfelt thanks and gratitude for the efforts we'd made in our lifetimes; efforts that secured their future.

Finally, we followed a 7-stage process, starting with the question, 'If you knew you could not fail, what would you be doing for the healing of our world?' The 7th and final question brought us right into the present: 'What can you do in the next 24 hours, no matter how small the step, that will move toward this goal?' Within 30 minutes, we'd all created visions for a future to be possible: all that was required was our 'next step'.

'The peace testimony involves thinking and uttering the unthinkable, in the conviction that this may lead to a fundamental shift in attitudes. What is idealistic in one generation becomes a cherished right or precept in the next.' (The Quaker Testimonies)

These two workshops have hopefully served as kindling for sparks of affirmative, compassionate - collective - action. Sheffield Living Witness Project remains a newly opened door through
which we're all invited to 'take next steps', to 'find our true place' and to 'hear the call' of future people in this time, now.

Watch this and other Quaker spaces for details of our next meeting...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Taking Stock...

On Monday evening, 14 of us came together for an opportunity to reflect upon climate change in the context of a workshop offered by Sheffield Living Witness group. 13 of us 14 had little idea what to expect of the 3 hour session, titled 'Taking Stock'. For my part, as the one who'd planned the session, I felt a great generosity of enquiry as this group of friends gathered in the Meeting House.

Feeling that I could respond to my own uncertainty about what was to follow by seeing the same unknowingness in others, we set off in a very collective spirit on what began as a physical journey - through simple, yet dynamic exercises that brought us into new and renewed contact with one another - and culminated in the collective witness of a deep sharing of our individual fears, angers, sorrows and emptiness. We spoke from the heart as we touched within us the reality of the environmental and social degradation that seems to so abound, presently, upon our Earth.

In connecting with our breath and our bodies, we moved deeply into a still space of deep listening - a true state of living witness. In this listening circle, I was reminded that within our Meeting - within us as human beings - we contain the story of what it is to be alive; to commune with both our joy and our suffering. Although we gave voice to our despair, we did so whilst standing on a ground of hope.

Simply, I knew that the air my friend beside me breathed in was the air that I had now breathed out. Perhaps, in an uncertain world, this reality of connectedness can stand as not only an ever-lasting Truth but also a physical, tangible guide to knowing that we are here, right now.

- Thank you to you 13, for making me 14

On Monday 20th Sep. (6:30-9:30pm) you are all invited - 14 and over! - to breathe into the unknown in the second part of this workshop, titled 'Creating Action'. This will be an opportunity to discern creative, practical action(s) that will seek to enable the Meeting to 'engage with others and the natural world as part of a wider spiritual consciousness.' (from The Quaker Testimonies, March 2003) If you would like to come, (but weren't at the 1st workshop) then please don't be shy: come!

Friday, 10 September 2010

My, my

I am writing this with my pen, in my notebook – I own both. I look out of my window, at my garden. I own both (or I shall do, when I have paid off the mortgage). My city is Sheffield, my country is England.

Well, there are not many people who can say ‘my country’ because they own it, not even Queen Elizabeth. So there are two meanings of ‘my’: the pen which belongs to me, and the country to which I belong. Much grief and difficulty come from people who can not tell the difference between ‘my’ car and ‘my’ wife (or ‘my’ children). Who belongs to whom? As a possession, or as a loyal member?

Is God my God? Or am I God’s Paul? Is my soul my soul? Or am I its?

Friday, 13 August 2010

Quaker Meeting in Battery Park

I have just come from an outdoor Meeting in Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Seven of us sat in the Labyrinth of Contemplation (a scrubby area between two major roads, near the piers for the Staten Island Ferries) on park benches. No-one knew eachother, but there was a sense of familiarity. A light rain fell steadily through the meeting and there was some business with umbrellas. After a while the flies began to treat us like trees and landed on us freely. The bike hire place down at the waterside started to play tracks by The Rolling Stones, and there was a smell of camomile from the bushes. Somehow the gathered silence in the midst of all this was palpable. We were a few hundred yards from the site of the World Trade Buildings; a war monument to Korean soldiers was in front of us; what a challenge to integrate these things with the presence of God.

Shortly after, I was navigating Broadway after dark with my two kids, looking for somewhere to eat, and a young woman came up to us unbidden and went out of her way to show us a good place; turns out she used to live on Ecclesall Road.

(No moral intended; these two stories are not connected. Except that it felt like grace of some kind.)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

God Knows

I think it’s all about our awareness of the spirit. In 1981 or 1982, I was very concerned about a friend of mine who was quite ill physically and emotionally in a bad way. One night, in that time between lights out and falling asleep, I found myself saying in my mind, “Dear Lord, you know Margaret – you know her better than I do. Please look after her.” Then I realised that I was praying. At that time and for many years, I had thought and believed that, at least for me, God was not real – there was no God. There was no one to pray to. As soon as I realised that I was praying, I stopped.

Too late. I had already said my prayer. What’s more, in an instant, three other things happened that I had never experienced before. My eyes were closed, the room was unlit and the curtains drawn, but I saw a very bright, soft, white light which filled my gaze. At the same time, there was a huge sense of presence: I was in the presence of someone as vast as outer space, but completely kind, not at all unsafe. At the same time, I also received knowledge, a message, though not in words. To tell anyone else about it, I have to translate it into words. Roughly speaking, I was told, “Message received and understood.” Not, “OK, we will do as you ask,” but “Heard you.”

As I said my prayer to “Dear Lord,” I thought (as much as I thought anything) that I was addressing Jesus, but the response I got was so huge that I then thought, and I still think, that for the first time I was aware of the presence of God. Thinking that, I still did nothing about it for the best part of twenty-five years. I told myself, “I have experienced the presence of God,” and yet I did nothing. I don’t know why I dealt with it as I did, but looking back, I assume that I wasn’t ready to handle it any other way at that time. My friends tell me that these things should not be rushed.

I believe that the significance of that first exchange was not that God should be informed that Margaret was in a bad way. As I said at the time, God knew her better than I did. Nor was it necessary for God to be told that I was worried about her – if God knew her, God also knew what was going on in me. Nor was it about asking God to intercede on her behalf – the response was, “Heard you,” not “Roger, Wilco.” I think the significance of that two-way communion was to let me know I believed in God, when I believed I didn’t. Possibly to open my eyes to the reality of God, but definitely to open my eyes to the fact that I was already a believer. If not, why was I praying? “There you go, Paul, you’re praying to the Lord. Now, what does that tell you about yourself?” It seems “Do you believe in God?” and “Do you know whether you believe in God?” are two different questions.

Which is surprising. I was certainly surprised by what I did that night, as well as by the response I got. But I have thought for some time that surprising discoveries and answers to questions you didn’t know you were asking are rather convincing. To find God after years of conscious schooling and diligent ground-work may be scarcely surprising, but to find out that you are already a believer, against your expectation and rather against your will, seems more compelling. Perhaps that is what is meant when the Bible says that there is more rejoicing in Heaven when one lost soul finds his way than when a procession of virtuous people enter the Kingdom, to paraphrase Matthew 15:7. It may be no bad thing if the way to grace is a bit hairy.

Do I believe that God would take the trouble to send me a personal message just to let me know that, against all expectations, I was a believer? Yes, I do. God is like that.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Letter from Zimbabwe

This is part of a recent letter from Steve Brooks (pictured above with sewing trainees), a Friend from Washington DC Meeting, who is volunteering as acting coordinator at Hlekweni until I go out to relieve him in November. It gives a flavour of some of the challenges facing the community there, and also how busy Steve has been since his arrival in June!

Dear Friends:

I've been in Zimbabwe a little over a month but so much has happened. I feel settled in my "second home". I'm now interim coordinator as the outgoing coordinator, David Jobson, departed to South Africa several weeks ago. We're in the throes of a financial crisis as the training numbers this term are not what we hoped for. We're struggling to find creative solutions to this as we've got some great potential here, it's just a challenge to find a way to make it generate an income, especially in the current environment in Zimbabwe where there is too little money chasing too many goods.

I've made several trips to Harare, the capital and largest city in Zimbabwe, one great thing is that we managed to track down a supplier for drip irrigation parts in Harare, something that we've been looking for about two years. Drip irrigation is a technique that is used in dry areas, you fill up a large trash can sized container with water and then a network of plastic tubing delivers the water right to the roots of the rows of crops, it's a very efficient way to irrigate small to medium sized plots. Hlekweni has been very successful in training rural farmers on the use of drip irrigation, often where others have failed. Drip tubing does have a 3-5 year life-span and our drip irrigation project in Gwanda is older than that. So we need to get those farmers new drip tubing as a part of wrapping up our project. After that, we'll supply farmers with replacements but we'll charge them at cost out of the profits they've made from sales of produce.

I've also visited the small meeting in Harare and stayed with a Hlekweni board member, Richard Knottenbelt, who is also caretaker for the meeting. His wife Pushpa is a wonderful cook and has given me a couple lessons on making Indian curries. I'm enjoying experimenting with that.

Aside from Hlekweni, I've been involved in a couple other projects, one of them support of a couple Primary Schools. The appeal last year for textbooks for Samathonga Primary School was quite successful and the second shipment of textbooks arrived about two months ago. Samathonga is now rated second out of 94 schools in its district, in no small part through the assistance of US Friends. In addition to the benefit of having textbooks in the classroom, it's given a big morale booster to the staff. The other school is Lochview Primary School which is on the outskirts of Bulawayo. I got connected with Lochview because one of the teachers at Samathonga quit and went to work at Lochview. I visited him there and saw that they had many needs. It turns out that Sipho, my buddy and the chair of the Hlekweni board, used to live in that neighborhood, we visited the school together on my last trip and she knew many of the people there. So we conceived the idea of helping the school. The school called a community meeting and they determined that the most urgent need was a lunch program as many of the students are receiving little food at home, many are HIV positive and are therefore especially in need of nutrition, and some are in child-headed households. So we've started a lunch program at Lochview, which has been going on for a couple weeks now. The food is being purchased and delivered with the assistance of Sipho, one of the teachers is heading up the coordination, and parents are helping out with the preparation and serving of food.

We have a deaf person on staff at Hlekweni who has never been around deaf people and is illiterate, can't talk and uses crude sign language to communicate with a few of his coworkers. He works in the garden. There's a school for the disabled called King George the 6th school in Bulawayo (you can google it, they have a nice website) and we've arranged for two deaf graduates from KG6 to come to Hlekweni for training in building. We've asked them to help us learn sign language so that we can in turn teach our deaf employee. It's also giving these young men from KG6 the opportunity to learn a trade which they passionately want to master. It's also a way of mainstreaming them as they've been among the deaf at KG6 their whole lives. The transition to the hearing world can be a daunting challenge but these guys are up to it, they're really quite something.

We've also been working on support for Innocent Muleya, a final year medical student at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo, and his classmates. NUST has been undergoing some turmoil because the administration is trying to extract additional funds out of the students. In June, the medical students went to go take their exams and they were informed that if they didn't pay their exam fees beforehand, they couldn't sit the exams. Prior times, they could sit the exams and then when they paid, the university would release the results. People have no money and the students were so fed up with being jerked around that they all quit and arranged a last minute transfer to University of Zambia. So they were looking around for last minute financial support for this decision. There are more layers to this which are too much to go into here, but that's the thumbnail version. So my friend, Dr. Del Meriwether, of the Meriwether Foundation, agreed to pay the tuition and fees for all 10 or 11 medical students and I am assisting him to a small extent in this effort as well as helping Innocent with fees for his application for a study permit and his living expenses.

Finally, I've been liaising with the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a human rights organization dedicated to providing a safe place for Gay Zimbabweans to socialize, get support for HIV/Aids, and advocating for equal rights for GLBT. A couple months ago, the police raided the Harare office of GALZ and arrested two people, the administrative assistant and the finance person. They are up on charges of harboring pornography and insulting the president and the trials are going on now. The charge of insulting the president is based on their having a copy of a resolution supported by Willie Brown, Mayor of San Francisco and passed by the San Francisco city council, supporting Gay rights and deploring victimization based on sexual orientation. The GALZ offices were closed for about 6 weeks and although they're reopened, people are just slowly returning. This is a case of political intimidation connected with the constitutional process. One of GALZ's problems is a slow, and often broken website that is impossible to update. With the help of the Friends Meeting of Washington's web guru, Vonn New, we're working on getting an internationally hosted website that can be updated by normal, non-techy people.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Sea, boats, ship wrecks,... water-based metaphors for Quaker meeting

At our last Sunday meeting for worship we heard ministry from a Friend who had been on a sailing trip, and recently returned. For her, still feeling the motion of the waves, and the unsteadiness of the room (rocking up and down!) set off thoughts of how we each sit there, bringing our own peculiar and immediate experiences. This ministry led to more nautically based ministry, which I could really relate to. Another Friend recalled first coming to Quakers and feeling like a ship-wrecked, nearly drowned soul (possibly escaped from pirates, by walking the plank!) and feeling that finding Quakers was like finding a solid rock to cling to. (She actually believed individual Friends were like rocks.) Later she realised that it's more like finding a life boat and climbing in, with a whole lot of other ship-wrecked souls.
This ministry speaks so well to me. By sheer happy luck yesterday, I heard the end of a BBC radio programme that included a reading of a poem, also very much on the theme of floating or drowning...
Here is the part that I heard, it is the end of 'Buoyancy' by Rumi

Praise, the ocean.
What we say, a little ship.
So the sea-journey goes on, and who knows where?
Just to be held by the ocean is the best luck we could have.
It's a total waking up!
Why should we grieve that we've been sleeping?
It doesn't matter how long we've been unconscious.
We're groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness around you, the buoyancy.

The whole poem is an exquisite expression of joy, of immediacy, of feeling God in everything around us. How about these lines for describing a 'gathered' meeting...

Let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness around you, the buoyancy.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


I thought of this a while ago, one day when I was wearing a jacket with deep inside pockets.

In the beginning, we human beings hunted game and gathered fruit and veg freely, where we could find them. Then someone developed herding and agriculture, invented fences, and began the notion of ownership of land and hunting rights. Those who partook freely were now called ‘poachers.’

We Quakers hunt and gather spiritual awareness freely, despite the fact that some people like to put a fence round ‘Truth’ and think they own it. In this respect, we are ‘poachers.’

That pleases me.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Who We Are and What We Do

The Interim Report of the Review Group for Sufferings and Britain Yearly Meeting Trustees has just been presented to Meeting for Sufferings for feedback from Area and Local Meetings. Buried in the linear propositional logic of the 'management speak' of this document is, I believe, an attempt to evolve the relationship between 'Who We Are' and 'What We Do'. However, this way of speaking cannot even begin to capture the dynamic and living mutuality of such a relationship.

It is at the heart of our identity as Quakers. For we are not just a religious group, silently contemplating the nature of reality, nor are we just a society campaigning for peace, justice and equality. No, we are a religious society – What we do is for who we are, and who we are is through what we do. This relationship is at the heart of the nature of our testimonies. They are not ideological statements or political positions, but illustrate the essential nature of that part of the dynamic: Who We Are is through What We Do.

But how do we go about the other half of the dynamic: What We Do is for Who We Are? The great danger of the approach of using 'management speak' is that you can easily lose the dynamic significance of the relationship. We become mere ants in a nest or bees in a hive busying ourselves for some treasured ideal to be achieved in some utopian future.

The full richness of the relationship can only be expressed through poetry and metaphor when using language, or through images and art. I therefore tentatively offer an incomplete diagram of the various groups in BYM and the relationships between them.

I suggest that each pair of relationships, the mutual to-ing and fro-ing between groups, can be illustrated by a single word or a simple image. The word or image does not define the relationship, but rather acts as a pointer to enable us to see the dynamic of the relationship, expressed in body mind and soul as we participate in it. I invite you to fill in the words and images and I have provided a few words to get you started.

The formulation of the relationship between what we do and who we are: 'What we do is for who we are, and who we are is through what we do' is from the work of the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray. He originally stated it as 'The functional life is for the personal life; the personal life is through the functional life.' in 'Persons and Functions', four talks on the interrelation of the religious and the political aspects of social life, delivered on BBC radio in December 1941. He also stated it as 'The state is for the community; the community is through the state' later in the same talks, describing the necessary and proper relationship between the structures of government and people living in communities. Macmurray explored what it is to be a person, especially in relation to the world and other persons. The titles of his major works: “The Self as Agent” - i.e. what we do is more important and prior to what we think, and “Persons in Relation” - we are only truly persons in so far as we are in relationships, in many ways sums up his philosophical position. You can find out more at http://www.johnmacmurray.org.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The book group met last week to discuss 'Gilead' by Marilynne Robinson. I experienced again that lurch towards new understanding, the sum being greater than the parts, which we sometimes achieve in the group (I think). I arrived having rather dismissed aspects of 'Gilead'. Then discerning friends expressed quiet, deeply held feelings towards the book. Others brought out themes which had passed me by; we weaved a new sense/shape of the book from many strands.

A lot of the talk was 0f fathers and sons and forgiveness and ageing and redemption and The Old Testament. Personally, I ended up saying that I realised the book was beyond me at the moment. I appreciate that clearness, in the Quakerly sense.

And - the cappuchinos are luscious, the carrot cake is exceptional, and we meet in a small private room with new people along every time; you are very welcome. Blue Moon Cafe, 4pm, next meeting 7th August, book is 'The God of Small Things'. See previous post for full program.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Bookclub list 2010-2011

If the angel


to come

it will be

because you have

convinced her,

not by tears

but by your humble

resolve to be

always beginning;

to be a beginner.

by Rainer Maria Rilke

This is the poem I read out loud last Saturday. I read this after Laura and Jill had read beautiful poems but before Beryl and Ruth read excerpts (perhaps they will post them here or contribute them to the newsletter). It felt very grounding and was a nice end to what was a session where we talked about books. Many, many books. We've set up books for the upcoming year even though we didn't plan it that way. We just had so many books and it seemed to all come together.

Each month will be facilitated by a different member of the group. People feel free - and are welcome - to drop in to the books/months that only interest them (and a number of people who come along now are non-Quakers). Some even come along if they haven't read the book as the point of this is not just to talk about literary "things" but to get to know each other and more about "life" and other "cultures" and "experiences" (too many quotation marks, sorry) through talking about the themes of the book. Some of us do stay for food afterwards sometimes but not every month. If you feel hungry, invite people to stay afterwards with you though and someone usually will accept your offer.

Themes coming up this year (and continuing on from last year really): can we trust memory, perceptions of "truth", emigration, what is "home," how do our experiences with our parents affect our understandings of spirituality, can we connect to the spiritual or creative through food/nature/others?

Here is a quick list for the upcoming year (so far all planned for Saturdays from 4-5:30 at The Blue Moon but check the Sheffield Quakers website or the Newsletter to confirm times and books beforehand as these rarely but occasionally need to change).

July 3: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Aug 7: God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy


Sept 4: Palestine by Joe Sacco

Oct 2: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

Nov 6: When we were orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Dec 4: Away byAmy Bloom

Jan 8: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantell

Feb 5: Poetry (T.S. Eliot audiobook cd reading Wasteland and Four Quartets etc)

March 5: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

April 2: Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson

May 14: Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything by Elizabeth Gilbert

In June 2011, I suppose if it feels right, we will read bits out again to each other and plan for the future like we've just done.

The local Sheffield bookstore Rhyme and Reason (a fabulous establishment) is very friendly and can certainly order in any of these books for you: 0114 266 1950 or suggest "similar" books (as in "I've liked this book, can you recommend something similar?").

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Essay Competition Results

The Friends Quarterly has recently announced the winners of its essay competition on the theme of 'The Future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain'.

Three essays were awarded prizes, written by Linda Murgatroyd, Simon Best and Felicity Kaal. You can read the winning essays here.

In all there were 106 entries to the competition, and all of the essays are available to read online or download here. I have only had a chance to read a few of them so far, but it looks like a fascinating collection of perspectives and insights on contemporary Quakerism. It would be interesting to read your responses to any of the entries, if you'd like to comment below.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Canadian Quakers and Raging Grannies

I've been in Canada for the past couple of weeks and I visited my first Canadian Meeting in Montreal. It was in a community centre in a lovely area of town. They set up the chairs for a certain number of people. Every couple of minutes of so, the door would creak open and someone else would tiptoe in. This went on the whole Meeting until they ended up with twice the number of people they usually have. It was wonderful to be somewhere different that felt so very familiar on so many different levels as well. As I understand it, this year there may be a first Canadian "Faith and Practice" ratified at their Yearly Meeting in August.

In the Notices, one of the women mentioned a protest some were going to in Ottawa in conjunction with the Raging Grannies. Now this is something I'd sort of forgotten about but is a wonderful Canadian way women have found to protest very effectively about 25 years ago, almost the exact same time the Quaker Women's Group here in England were giving their Swarthmore Lecture. Anyway, the Raging Grannies seem to have fun during their protests while mocking stereotypes about older women and getting a fair amount of media attention as well.

Here's an article on the Raging Grannies:

Rock on Raging Grannies. I think they're the bees knees.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Exploring Feminine Spirituality

A fresh idea or experience to Sheffield (although other Quaker groups in this country already have started or travelled their own adventure) is the chance to join others once a month to explore feminine spirituality.

This group's journey starts for the first time on Saturday, June 26
7:00-9:00 Sheffield Central Meeting House Library.

All welcome in the evening (men and women). More details to be announced in Notices and Newsletter and then the initial path(s) to be decided upon and tweaked by the group itself as it evolves. No training or equipment required except your Quaker principles.

We are asking people to bring along an object that represents someting "feminine" to you for discussion on this first evening (next month we'll probably discuss the word "spirituality" or maybe "exploring").

If you have any questions about this evening, feel free to contact us beforehand. Our contact details and more about this are in the June Newsletter.

Ruth Hallam-Jones
Nadine Wills

Friday, 21 May 2010

Moving to Zimbabwe

As some of you may have heard already, Kate and I have recently decided to move out to Zimbabwe later this year, where I will be taking up the post of Director at Hlekweni Friends Rural Service, near Bulawayo.

Hlekweni is a Zimbabwean Quaker-led charity that provides training in vocational skills, including sustainable agriculture, carpentry and early years education to young people from all over the country. It is doing crucial work to give people the skills to earn a living and support themselves and their families in a country which now has 90% unemployment and massive poverty.

Obviously this is a huge step for us as a family with young children. We have been very encouraged by Sheffield Friends who supported us with making this decision through a Meeting for Clearness. It is very important to us to know that we are going with the support of our Meeting, and with a continuing connection to Friends here. We don't know how long we will be at Hlekweni for, probably for several years, but we intend to return to Sheffield after that.

Hlekweni, and Zimbabwe as a whole, are facing enormous challenges. I was reassured by a recent visit that Matabeleland is a relatively safe and peaceful area of the country (certainly much safer than where we lived in South Africa in '97-8). Hlekweni is also very well known throughout the region. It has been running for over 40 years, with generations of young people graduating from their training programmes, which are highly regarded in the country. This means that it is seen as an asset to the country, and police and local authorities continue to be very supportive of its work.

There is also a primary school for local children on site, which Moya and Jonathan will be able to attend. One of the things that Kate and I most want for our children is the experience of sharing their lives with an African community, and having their consciousness shaped by those friendships and encounters. Moya is especially excited about the chance to live in Africa, learn a new language (Ndebele), make new friends and keep animals...

We very much want to keep in touch with all of our Friends in Sheffield and the rest of the UK while we are in Zimbabwe. Hlekweni now has broadband, and we can phone and even text(!) so we can keep up with each others' news (including this blog). Volunteers and visitors would also be very welcome. There is plenty of guest accommodation (including the house in the picture above), and a canteen for meals. Volunteer help is especially useful in the areas of permaculture, appropriate technology, education and play-work, arts and creative activities, conflict resolution (Hlekweni also runs AVP workshops), computing and finance, amongst others...

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Talking of Poetry... Ghazal 3

I started writing this after meeting with a small group of Quakers last week. I keep using the same form (roughly) - the Ghazal - as I used in the two previous poems I posted. Each couplet is supposed to stand alone as well as forming part of the whole - not sure I've really got this completely but anyway, I'd like to share it. The last couplet has this 'poet's voice' that comes in - I use an alias instead of my name - my 'takhallus' - I use Llew, the nickname of my maternal grandfather, the sort of family uberpoet!

Jane's rug!

Friends. When we sat together pleased to rest,
from listening our hearts pleased to rest.

Between us on the floor a woven rug,
where my eyes did linger seeking rest.

My thoughts wander the patterns on the rug,
unsettled, I find there's no place to rest.

Specular chemistry ignites the rug,
whose threads, fused, smoulder in their place of rest.

Between us, like some ancient test, this rug's
a whirlpool, dizzying the pace of rest.

I read the weaver's cosmic map, the rug
chaotic, helps me fly, to chase off rest.

Llew laughs: Such Grand Plans! laid out on a rug!
The whole universe in the face of rest.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Poetry/cake please

It strikes me how many Quakers are poetry lovers/writers. Or at least that's how it seems to me. In our newsletters, here on the blog, and now Roger's poem in The Friend.

So, it shouldn't surprise you that I had a lovely conversation about poetry after Meeting this past week. Partially about Roger's poem, but not just and not just really although I liked his poem and could publish a post just on why I like what he wrote down and pulls out of experiences for me (thank you for reminding me of the blue shirt). I like this about Quakers though, this word-and imagery-loving-ness.

I went home smiling about that and then I almost literally tripped over a poem I wrote last summer (well the book it was in) not about Quaker worship but because I had been trying to describe how the sacred occurs at other times.

And I felt inspired by that talk and by Roger to rewrite it...and then share it. I wonder how many of you have poems about Quakers too? How many poems are there in newsletters or in closed pages or whispered on tongues but never spoken aloud? Wouldn't it be nice to publish/re-publish some of them here together?

Anyways, must run...am off to - what else - a talk on poetry :-).

Quaker cakes
by Nadine Wills

It's the sifting together
deliciously layered
that somehow reveals
strawberry smiles.

It's in the brought-ness
this done thing - sharing -
waiting to be undone.
Because it was brought
now a mostly empty space
in place of that sweet offering.

And everyone ate
a daffodil sun
dappled chocolate fingers
sometimes we didn't talk
as children
hopped around us.
And perhaps
in moments
small as fairycakes
nothing matters.

But we ate.
We came together and we ate
what was offered to us
with all those hands and tastes.
All those times,
with all those Friends,
we ate.
We ate Quaker cakes.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Worship as Access

I very much like and commend Maurice's blog dated 2nd April about the style of worship in our Meeting.

Maybe the whole purpose and function of the Quaker mode of worship is to court access to that wordless place where awareness of the spirit may grow. Genuine access to the spirit may be wordless and unruly, but some people like to take it over and organise it and script it. I prefer my spirit to be subversive.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Ministry in Meeting for Worship

I enjoyed all the contributions on the blog concerning the size of our Meeting and the issues related to our ‘threshing’ in January. It’s great that many from our Meeting expressed both at our Meeting in February and via the blog their perception of our situation as being a wonderful opportunity rather than as a concern, in the sense of it being a problem! I’m glad too that related issues around ministry and silence, have been ‘threshed’. On Jan. 31st Laura wrote of her “delight that we should be having this discussion via the blog”. I’m happy that the whole topic is being kept alive and before it goes to sleep I would like to offer my perspective on silence and ministry in worship.

At Meeting for Sufferings on March 27th many of these same issues were raised and ‘thrashed’. The topic was taken from priority ‘a)’ of “A framework for Action 2009 – 2014”: ‘Strengthening the spiritual roots in our meetings and in ourselves’. It seamed very clear at Sufferings that whether ‘bums on seats’ are increasing or decreasing, the relationship between silence and ministry in worship is an issue very much alive throughout our YM. I was glad to be able to offer some feedback from our own Meeting, flowing from our February 7th LM and the many reflections offered by Craig, Simon, Laura, Sharon, Rosie and others who have contributed to the blog.

The following insight once came to me in the silence. Suppose a group of hermits decided to meet for an hour each week to pray or to contemplate. Being hermits they agreed that the whole gathering would be in total silence!! The question for me was: whilst the hermits would surely gain a great deal from the experience – would this be what we seek in our Meetings for Worship?

In my view the answer is a very simple ‘no!!’ My perspective is that we meet as a community in which we wish to support one another and to learn from one another. Our community grows in depth not only through what comes to us individually in the silence but also through the sharing of the inner experiences that each individual recognise as spiritual or as being of God. It’s my belief that Quakers should have reason to be concerned if the balance tips too far in one direction or the other i.e. if within our MfW we have too much ministry or too much silence!

I see clearly the problem of too much predictable or ‘heady’ ministry. However, it would be concerning if individuals who join us in Worship were deterred from exercising their gift of ministry because they get the impression that meeting in silence is more valuable than a Meeting with ministry. I know that I’m nourished both by silence and by the ministry that flows from what others experience as coming to them from the same silence.

I believe that the Quaker way of worship brings with it wonderful gifts. We deepen our prayer lives; we learn about the gift of discernment and we learn about active listening. For me, all of this is a part of the Quaker experience and a part that hopefully we will pass on to future generations. We learn in the first instance to sit in silence and in the silence we allow ‘that of God’ to speak to us in our hearts, but we also learn to receive and to offer ministry. Some Quakers seem to believe that we have no priests, but surely the reality is that we are all priests i.e. we are called to minister to one another. Ministry for Quakers is a two-way process. We receive with gratitude and we offer freely.

By participating in Worship we learn to grow and to progress from merely occupying ‘Quaker space’ to discovering the ‘Quaker Way’. This is the way along which: a) we learn to listen to the spirit of God deep within ourselves, b) we learn to listen deeply to the spirit of God as communicated to us by other members of our Meeting, c) we learn to discern the appropriate time in which to offer ministry. Hopefully we also learn to use the gift of discernment further in doing the will of God in our daily living, in today’s complex world.

I now digress to make a point. We learn to speak by speaking. We learn to write by writing. We learn to think by thinking. These are skills that we have developed from earliest childhood. Together with the wider society Quakers share the priority that is placed upon these skills. We all seek to help our children to acquire proficiency in their use and we wish that they practice them on a regular basis. However as Quakers we surely place a high value on ‘discernment’ also. I understand discernment as the ability to know from ‘deep within’ the rights and wrongs of actions. Just as with speech or writing discernment is a gift that we develop not in a vacuum but by exercising it within a community. Where better, I ask, than within the security of a loving community?

Quaker worship teaches us to wait in a deep silence. As the Psalmist wrote, ‘Be still and know that I am God’. In the silence we pay attention to what God may wish to communicate to us from ‘within’. In the silence we also receive ministry from other members of our community i.e. we learn to actively listen and to pay attention to what God may wish to say to us through other members of our community, even some unlikely ones. This is the real gift offered by diversity. However, we can also learn about offering ministry.

We learn to trust our inner knowing or discernment and then we need to do something with it. As with all skills, discernment too needs to be tested out. We test it out by trusting what comes to us in the silence and then when the time seems appropriate and when we feel moved to do so we offer ‘words’ in ministry. Very importantly we can learn still more from the feedback we later receive from caring and honest Friends - be they elders or attenders. Hopefully these Friends will be willing and able to offer us encouragement - or further guidance if this seems appropriate!

So, returning to the overall question of ministry within MfW. I too wish that ministry be deep and spiritually based. We should all be wary of offering predictable ministry or of saying something just because it seems ‘clever’. I wish especially that we would all give adequate time between one ministry and the next and I too would welcome the occasional meeting when no one feels led to offer ministry.

However having said all that - I would also like to encourage all in our Meeting to be brave in trusting the strong insights that come to them in MfW, especially when the insights are accompanied by strong emotions. For me the emotional component that accompanies ideas that come into our awareness is a very significant factor. Surely something of this emotional component was the source of people being called ‘Quakers’.

Holding on to all of this and still knowing that we can get it wrong, I value what St. Paul said: “The spirit of God is not a spirit of timidity”. I believe that we all need to learn a) to trust the insights that come to us; b) to trust the emotions that accompany such insights; c) to trust ourselves in offering ministry; and d) to trust the feedback we receive from others in our community.

In brief, we are a single Quaker community. Within this community we learn to minister by ministering and in ministering we also test out for ourselves and for the Meeting the gifts we share. Discernment and ministry are gifts for the whole Meeting. I would hope that we are all guided by no.13 of Advices & Queries:- “Do not assume that vocal ministry is never to be your part. Faithfulness and sincerity in speaking, even very briefly, may open the way to fuller ministry from others. When prompted to speak, wait patiently to know that the leading and the time are right, but do not let a sense of your own unworthiness hold you back. Pray that your ministry may arise from deep experience, and trust that words will be given to you”.

Let me once again state that like others, I do not want ministry for its own sake and I don’t want ministries coming one after another without adequate time to absorb what has been offered but I do hope that our MfW is a place where we learn from that of God in ourselves and in others. This is something that would never happen in the case of the hermits! I delight especially when a Friend, who rarely ministers, offers a gem that that has come to them from the silence.

I urge a certain caution lest, even with the best will in the world, we make any assumptions about other people ‘airing personal thoughts and reflections’ or ‘offering a ministry that does not arise from a deep spiritual centre’. This could really be a ‘put off’ to a more timid soul. I believe that it would be a disservice to our community if the best efforts of one person were stifled or snuffed just because another person perceived their best effort as being less than adequate. We all need to be very careful about valuing one another within our one community.

In any community valuing another is demonstrated especially by actively listening to what that other person has to say and then by offering that person words of encouragement. I learned a great lesson at the York YM about the need for Friends to be ‘kindlers and not snuffers’ of the spirit, lest we ‘snuff out’ those who are more timid by nature and those who take a great leap in joining us in our Quaker space because they too wish to learn about the Quaker Way.

My hope is that our MfW will always be a place of welcome to those who wish to join us in Quaker space. I hope that our MfW, while being grounded in silence, will also be a place where visitors do not feel intimidated by either words or silence. Please God, no one who worships with us will hold back from offering ministry just because they feel discouraged from so doing or because of a sense of their own unworthiness. Rather, may each one of us feel encouraged to develop our gifts of discernment and when the time seems appropriate may we have the courage to offer in ministry what is discerned as being an appropriate ‘word’ for the Meeting.

Priority a. of our “Framework for Action” starts with the words: ‘We wish to see all our meetings being inclusive worshipping communities, where everyone is welcomed and valued’. This is a wonderful aspiration. May we all learn from our experiences of ‘silence’ and of ‘ministry’ so that our Meeting, with all its diversity, may progress towards being ever more inclusive and welcoming. In this spirit, may we discover an ever-greater discernment of what God’s will is for us within our Meeting and beyond it, in Sheffield and the world? This is our time and place!!!

We are approaching Easter. Grant that each in our community may experience new life and vitality from the spirit of God in our hearts and in our community. Happy Easter.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Leonard Cohen and Bicycles

I still remember the Meeting when Linda spoke about Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem". She talked about these lines of his:

Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light get in.

As always, she spoke beautifully, and it still comes back to me every once in awhile.

A couple days ago, I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts and a band did a beautiful cover of it (Canada's "The Once"). If you like folk music, you can listen to their cover of "Coming Back to You" here: http://www.theonce.ca/music.htm.

I like this particular podcast (essentially a radio show that you can listen to again online) because in many ways it is about happiness and home and what makes life good. It makes me smile and laugh and trust that light does "get in". It is broadcast from the Canadian version of the BBC (CBC) and is called "The Vinyl Cafe". They travel across Canada and stop/play in towns all across the country telling stories and having local bands play. Then they pass around a bucket to collect money for a special project they choose each year.

They start off each show by telling people in the audience (it is recorded live) what is good about their community. Then people play music. Then stories are told. Stories where things don't always go so well, and people are people, but things turn out okay in the end. I think sometimes we need this. At least, I need this. Stuart McLean is author/storyteller, very much in the tradition of Garrison Keillor I think.

Anyway, thought I'd recommend this particular episode because not only is Cohen's "Anthem" included, but a short story (McLean tells a series of stories about a small community) about cycling and giving testimony: issues many Quakers may be interested in and willing to laugh about.

You can download an MP3 file and listen to the radio show here:

You are looking for the: VC: March 27th, 2010 "Dave and the Bike" episode. Or, alternatively, it is on iTunes (search for "Vinyl Cafe").

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Apocalyptic language and climate change

Good Morning,

I listened to Beyond Belief this week where there was a very good discussion of the use of apocalyptic language in the context of climate change. If you haven't heard it I recommend taking half an hour to do so.

Click the link in the title above to get to the programme.


Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Angels and Palestine

As mentioned last week, the Bookgroup is going well. We talk, we drink, we laugh, we share. About 8 or 9 people now every time. Some come for the books, some come for the company.

We decided against reading The Famished Road for the upcoming April 17th meeting. A number people have tried started it numerous times and...the last book promised angels and it didn't really give us angels. Roger suggested Quaker Sally Vicker's novel Miss Garnet's Angelas a wonderful alternative. A couple people oohed and aahed when it was suggested. So it seemed an obvious altenrative. Sorted.

In September Matt Robson and I are making an appeal which touches on Palestine, a topic I would like to know more about, so thought it might make sense to have a themed book club. Asked Matt what his favourite book on Palestine was and he said the graphic novel (which I keep meaning to read more of anyway) Palestineby Joe Sacco (and foreword by Edward Said in some editions I believe). Again, an enthusiastic response by the one person who had read it and nobody seemed to hate the idea so...date still to be set, but that's what is coming up in the bookgroup for September.

Sustainability and Arts in Development: upcoming events at the University of Sheffield

Two events that are open to the public and free at the University of Sheffield in the next couple weeks that are of a Quakerly sort of interest and seem to follow on from discussions that are going on at the Meeting.

The first is on sustainability (and city design and free canapes) and the second is on arts and development (and has live music with great musicians and more free food). Both take place in the ICOSS Building which is here: and looks like this:

1) Universities as Catalysts for Sustainable City Design

Are Professors really stuck in their Ivory Tower? Is higher education relevant? Can Universities really catalyze community change?

This talk and discussion will focus on an urgent new role for higher education institutions to be the catalysts for sustainable city design. This event will focus on the Sustainable City Year programme at the University of Oregon (USA), a programme that helps direct expertise of faculty and students toward a single city to help on sustainability issues. In this model of education, students get hands on experience in working with city officials and city officials get a range of new ideas from the next generation of thinkers and practitioners.

This year, the Sustainable City Year program is working with the City of Gresham (Oregon, USA) and is directing 15 faculty, 24 courses, 7 disciplines, and about 100,000 hours of student and faculty effort toward the city's needs. Can this model of higher education work in the UK?

FREE and Open to the Public. Canapes and drinks provided.

Sheffield: March 11 5:30-7:30 Sheffield University, ICOSS Board Room, 219 Portobello (To book a place, please email: judith.eversley@rtpi.org.uk)

Nico Larco, AIA, is an Assistant Professor of Architecture and Marc Schlossberg, PhD, is an Associate Professor of City Planning. Both co-Direct the Sustainable Cities Initiative at the University of Oregon (USA). Professor Schlossberg is also currently a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar based at the University of Sheffield's Town and Regional Planning Department.

Talks are supported by the Royal Town Planning Institute, Planning Aid, and the University of Sheffield.

2) Arts in Development (with music!)

This event will feature talks followed by open discussion on arts and development, involving Sheffield academics and artists working in the community, followed by a workshop on Indian and Southern African music. Come experience and participate in the santoor, tabla and vocal music mini fest.

For details see

Date – Thursday, the 18th of March, 2010, 1.30 -3.30 pm

Dr. Nadine Wills, LeTS, Univ. of Sheffield - A critical look at arts and development
Dr. Chamu Kuppuswamy, Sheffield Law School - Intellectual property rights and
traditional arts
Dr. Kathleen Van Buren, Department of Music, Univ. of Sheffield - Arts and healthcare
Mr. Philip Weiss, SEMEA, Sheffield and Mr. Mandla Sibanda, Sunduza Dance Theatre,
Sheffield - Traditional arts management and practice

Performances by John Ball, a member of Indus and SOSA-XA! Sounds of Southern Africa.

Venue – ICOSS (The Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences (see details below)

Admission is FREE, Please sign up with the event coordinator Chamu Kuppuswamy by emailing her at c.kuppuswamy@shef.ac.uk or leaving a message on 0114 2226877.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

This is happening Now

You can read Frances Laing's interviews with some of the Yarl's Wood detainees in The Friend (available to read free online here). There is more information on her blog here.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Becoming Friends

One of the wonderful unintended consequences of Quaker Quest for British Quakers has been the growing realisation that we need to offer all these newcomers some way of engaging with Quaker spirituality (beyond just gesturing in the direction of the library and saying 'there's lots of books about it in there...')

A new project called Becoming Friends has now been developed by Woodbrooke, which offers a range of ways for people to learn about, explore, and discuss the Quaker Way. The course includes written materials, links to video and audio recordings, online forums and also the opportunity for learners to share and discuss themes and experiences with a trained 'companion' from their local Meeting.

The course is available in paper format (for £10) or online (£5), and is a great resource for all Quakers and attenders (not just the newcomers it has been designed for). More information, including a free demo option here.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

about being a Quaker...

Before the New Year our Hearts and Minds group met. The final activity of that particular session was where we were each asked to write on pieces of paper terms or phrases that for us encapsulated – in some way – what we felt and/or had learned about being a Quaker. Several of the group are members of the Society of Friends; others are more or less long term attenders. We have all agreed to share this list of understandings as perhaps a window into further reflections about being a Quaker.

  • Equality
  • About compassion and listening
  • Being open and honest (or trying to be)
  • Committing to the practice of being silent together
  • Being someone who isn’t afraid of silence
  • Peace
  • Possibility
  • Developing my voice
  • Being part of a group where everyone’s voice can be heard
  • Respecting and honouring others
  • Finding something beyond ‘thought’
  • Not stealing post-it notes from work – thinking about what I do in the world
  • Living according to my values and questioning and affirming my values
  • Having a place to be
  • Listening deeply
  • God – living life
  • God – forgiveness acceptance
  • Questions and learning
  • Having somewhere to go and something to do on Sunday morning without having to think about it each time!
  • Thinking
  • Something greater than me
  • Supportive environment for trying to live a positive purposeful life where beliefs, ideals and actions are linked
  • Doing and being with integrity
  • Making time/space to let a voice inside be heard – to listen to ‘that of God within me’ and to have this approach to others
  • Connections with my family
  • Shaking/stirring the pot and letting it settle
  • Engagement and ethics
  • Connectedness with history
  • Important values, together, peace, equality, simplicity? consensus
  • Acceptance – non-judging
  • I love the uncertainty of not knowing where a Meeting for Worship is going to go
  • The children – and offering them this…
  • Exploring
  • Shared and equal responsibility for the voice within us and the community as a whole
  • Be able to be still and quiet
  • Being free to believe in god, and to not believe too
  • Being part of a community
  • Am I a Quaker?
  • Listening
  • Engaging with Quaker tradition/testimonies
  • No priests!
  • Being open to the still small voice within
  • Being part of a community
  • Greater acceptance of the diversity of individuals
  • Practice
  • Making and developing friendships
  • Living reflectively
  • Having responsibilities for others in the Meeting – not just ‘taking’
  • Living actively, rather than reactively
  • Valuing my own experience of spirituality
  • Listening, hearing others
  • Being someone who takes their coat off to worship!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Meeting needs in worship

There has been much threshing in our large meeting about our meeting for worship arrangements now that our main Sunday morning meeting is nearly filling the space available. A lot of this threshing has focused on meeting the many and diverse needs of those attending the meeting. Many feel that the big main meeting is too 'busy' with lots of ministry and want a 'quieter' meeting, mainly in silence.

I for one am becoming settled on having two meetings for worship on a Sunday morning. But this is simply to accommodate the numbers. Each meeting would be a full and proper meeting for worship, and whether or not it is 'busy' will depend on the leading of the spirit on that day. After much concern about the 'busyness' of our main meeting, exercising discipline in giving and receiving ministry seems to be paying off, and we have had some much more centred meetings recently. In other words, it is not the size of the meeting that determines its quality, but the extent to which those present are attentive to the leadings of the spirit.

However, I became much moved in our recent business meeting to what might go wrong if our two meetings did evolve into meeting two different sets of needs. I saw myself wondering what it would be like to be the clerk at a business meeting where the two worshipping groups faced each other to the left and right of the table, and the clerk needed to judge the sense of the meeting in coming to a difficult decision. I would not want to be that clerk.

Of course, there is no reason why we cannot have two meetings for worship and still be one community. People can attend either the earlier or later meeting depending on their circumstances on each Sunday. We could still all meet each other, especially in the time between the two meetings, and we would still all share the concerns and work of the community.

But what if the earlier meeting became the 'quiet' meeting? Then what if I was well known and respected for giving regular ministry, and decided to attend the early meeting one Sunday? I can imagine it might be like what I have experienced before, when going into the snug of an avowedly local pub, and noticing that the conversation stops as I go towards the bar to order my drink. I feel distinctly not welcome, a stranger in their midst, and beat a hasty retreat to the tap room next door.

The problem with these scenarios is in seeing the purpose of the meeting for worship as meeting our needs. The actual purpose of a Meeting for Worship is to celebrate the life of the community – to give 'worth' to that community, in its sorrows as well as its joys, in its pain and hardships as well as its rejoicing and successes.

If we bring our needs into the meeting, we will find them amplified and frustrated, but if we leave our needs at the door, we will find them miraculously met. We must put aside the pride that has been bred into us by western individualism and learn the humility of forbearing one another in community. We must come with hearts and minds prepared.

We need to submit to one another in love. Submission does not come easily to us proud westerners who think ourselves masters of the universe because our science and technology has given us so much. We could do worse than learn from our Muslim neighbours: Salam, Islam, Inshallah – Peace, Submission, If God Wishes.