Tuesday, 18 October 2011


“It isn’t easy,” said Pooh to himself. “Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Grace is not an easy concept to understand. It has connotations of favour, the free (gratis, from the Latin gratia, grace) gift of mercy and forgiveness which comes to us from God. As with most Godly things, it is essentially impossible to define it very precisely or to know its attributes. It seems to me that the really difficult part for us is to be able to accept it. So, receiving grace – is it accepting that you are forgiven? Or daring to love God with a full and open heart? Daring to know that you are loved? All of the above?

How can we get from here to there – from not knowing grace to knowing grace?

Some people seem to believe (or seem to act as if) one must earn grace: believing the right beliefs, doing the right deeds, acts of piety (and filial obedience, especially to the Church) but avoiding any hint of spiritual pride, avoiding all the multitude of sins that have been specified by the experts over the centuries, including those that very few people have ever heard of. For a select few, through an extensive course of applied piety and passing various detailed checking procedures after death, it is possible to achieve veneration, beatification, ultimately sainthood. It is said that any US citizen can aspire to become President. Perhaps any of God’s children can aspire to saint-hood, depending on what they do to earn it. The necessity is (in the ancient formula beloved of teachers) Must Try Harder. From this point of view, grace seems to be seen as a medal awarded for outstanding spiritual achievement, and posthumously.

Others would disagree: grace can not be earned, only accepted by the enlightened, but here is how you can bring about that enlightenment. Perform the following spiritual exercises so many times daily (after your macrobiotic breakfast) – yogurt and yoga; meditate the right meditations, chant the right mantras. A sort of spiritual health diet. I am not comfortable with the thought that one can manufacture acceptance of grace, any more than one can make a horse drink or explain a joke. I recall an episode in The Good Life, in which Margo, who appeared to have no sense of humour, pleaded with Tom, Barbara and Gerry, “But why is it funny?” That is a question which can not be answered. I don’t have much respect for painting by numbers, either.

It seems to me that grace is a favour, endlessly extended. All we have to do is take it, as a gift. That isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most of us, most of the time, are suspicious and imagine that there must be some catch, or some condition to fulfil. “Me? How can God love me? What have I done to deserve that? Looking at my track record, I can’t see that I deserve God’s love. Surely other people are worthy of this gift, long before I am. I’m not a very Good person.”

Such thinking introduces the notion of competition. Some people will tell you that grace, or salvation, are not for everyone, but only for the Chosen Few. Which you have to be born into, or brought up in, or in some other way most people are not allowed it – it is an exclusive offer. Us and Them, the sheep and the goats.
That might be the case if grace were a strictly limited commodity. If there are twenty chimpanzees and only twelve bananas, there is likely to be trouble. On the other hand, if there are lots of chimpanzees but bananas for all, there need be no fighting but only the sound of peaceful munching. If God’s love is infinite, as we are advised, then all may share in it. If it is only for a few, then it isn’t infinite at all, but limited, in short supply, and conditional. I believe that we each have a unique pathway through life. I do not see this as a CV submitted as part of our application for the top position, no. I see spirituality as a learning experience, but without a set curriculum.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

'Becoming, once again, native to this place, Earth.'

About 18 months ago I attended a talk given by one of the key players in the transformation of the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden into 'Incredible Edible Todmorden'.

Paul Clarke shared how the people of Todmorden had embraced the ideas of a few willful locals to 'reinvent our place, in mad times', by initiating a wide range of food-growing and self-sufficiency projects, from planting herb beds on the train station platforms, to a major land development and management project on the edge of town, 'for growing, study and learning'.

Todmorden has, in Clarke's words, turned from 'ego-centric to eco-centric'. The former industry town is now flourishing once more. Check out http://www.incredible-edible-todmorden.co.uk/ for much more insight!

Last Saturday (8th Oct), a dozen or so friends from our Meeting spent a fruitful day exploring Britain Yearly Meeting's commitment to becoming a low-carbon sustainable community. What emerged out of this day of digging and sifting was a handful of healthy-looking seeds for our Meeting to consider planting, together.

Food is a unifying element of life - 'a universal connector', as Paul Clarke said in his talk of a year and a half ago. The visioning exercises friends embraced last Saturday led us to see food - growing it, cooking it, learning about it and eating it - as a means of helping tend our community toward becoming low-carbon and sustainable; toward 'the conviviality of self-reliance'.

Over the coming weeks, the Living Witness Project Sheffield Support Group will conduct a brief survey to help our Meeting at large to discern what actions we all might like to take in order to build on the strong and exciting visions that emerged from Saturday's session.

We've thought of 3 simple questions: Who in our Meeting grows food? Who would like to learn how to? And who would support a Sheffield Quakers food growing and trading project (by whatever means appropriate to each individual and family in our Meeting)?

So, look out for the questionnaire, as well as the next LWP Sheffield update in next month's SQN, which will give more details of many of the seeds that are sprouting in our Meeting.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Already Growing

Dave Edmonds and I have just spent the weekend in Bamford, at the Quaker Community, sharing and connecting with friends from around the country who are already active in fostering our fresh aim as Quakers to evolve into a low-carbon, sustainable community.

This is an exciting time to be a Quaker. A radical root has taken hold in Britain Yearly Meeting and we in Sheffield are gifted with many good conditions to nourish this new growth. What I've discovered over the course of a relaxing, energising and forward-viewing weekend spent in the company of friends is that, as a community, we have all the elements we need in order to grow together.

It seems that many people in our society miss out on belonging to a group, a self-sustaining, active community, based on deep principles and beliefs. As friends, we come together in meetings for worship, or reflection, or for worship sharing and an energy - a witness - greater than our individual parts leads us in dynamic ways to new discoveries, to fresh ground; to fertile soil. Being together makes this happen.

For me, the most exciting word in 'low-carbon, sustainable community' is the final word, 'community'. It really is the first word, and where we, as a circle of friends, can easily begin from. Lucky us!

On Saturday 8th October (10am-4pm), there's a chance to get together for a few hours and look a little deeper, as a group, at what 'low-carbon sustainable community' means to us, who live and worship in Sheffield. Sunniva Taylor, of QPSW, will be helping us with this. Following lunch, we'll have a chance to discern a collective action that we, as a Meeting, wish to work toward over the next 12-18 months.

Personally, I'm looking forward to growing in the spirit of community, to enjoying the great benefits to be unearthed in working shoulder to shoulder with friends as we work and walk in our living witness. In this vision there already lies the seed of sustainability. Working together, we'll water that seed wonderfully and the 'low-carbon' bit will follow!