Friday, 16 May 2014

A while back, Maurice gave a personal view of what it means to be a Quaker. I agree it would be good if different Friends would have a go at expressing their own views on this. I’ve taken up his challenge.

I felt even more that I should follow this leading when I turned the page from Maurice’s article in Sheffield Quaker News (essentially the same as his blog) and read, in another article, an encouragement to try the website for Cape Cod Quakers ( as a good general account of Quaker ways. I myself visited one of those meeting houses, a quaint little building, many years ago, soon after I started attending meeting in Sheffield.  This chimed in, with strange co-incidence, with a book I was reading at the same time. I will give that a recommendation in passing too.  It’s quite a long novel, by Geoffrey Eugenides, called the Marriage Plot. Amongst other things, it is about a young man’s spiritual journey. The final part - quite out of the blue! – starts with the words ‘There were a lot of things to admire about the Quakers’. He finds some peace and a welcome haven in the Quaker Meeting of Prettybrook, New Jersey. (see the Friend 10.08.2012)

I love ‘happy co-incidences’ or synchronicity. I believe that life does make meaningful shapes around us. Such is the experience of a powerful MfW, when the spoken ministry of others chimes perfectly into what you yourself need, whether you knew it or not.

Community is for me a very important part of being a Quaker. It’s about being with others, with a sense of shared purpose and commitment. We don’t all see things exactly the same but there is a bedrock of shared values. We want to come together regularly to worship and, growing out of the worship, to create a happy and active community. Quaker work, eg on committees, is primarily a further way of building the community.

I love the Quaker tolerance for uncertainty – or recognition that life is complicated and ever-changing.  I love the Quaker instinct for a great metaphor to try to give some sense to the ineffable: ‘Please be patient those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over the heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be.’ (QFP 20.06)

I am one of those who can only really make any sense of the notion of God, when it’s put into the human context – how we love and care for each other, how we live our lives in community. Being part of Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting is, for me, ‘exciting’ and ‘like the right place to be’.                                           

Monday, 12 May 2014

My Prayer Story.

Recently, I invited a friend to share more of their inner experience publicly without knowing if they were able to do so. It's something of a revelation to discover I feel able to do so here. I'd like to thank Sheffield Friends and readers of this blog for creating a climate of respect, fellowship and trust without which, I suspect these words would not have been prompted*.

All of eighteen years ago, a bright, summer sun found me one afternoon in the fair city of Portsmouth sat within a chapel at a table, attempting to learn verses from the Bible in preparation for two years of missionary service on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I often let myself in to the chapel on my way home from work to read and pray in the silence or to enjoy the use of a piano. Although alone, I kept being interrupted by unwanted thoughts popping into my head, making it difficult to achieve the task in hand. The verse I was trying to memorise was from the Book of James, chapter 1, verse 5, which reads "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally...". It occurred to me that I lacked wisdom in that very moment - "How could I learn these verses with these interrupting thoughts?". Reflecting on the verse, I realised I could ask God to explain to me how I could learn the verses. This sparked an inward debate - did I really believe that God could or would answer in such a direct fashion? Well, yes, I did - the Mormon faith is founded on many personal visitations in answer to such a prayer and the ability of every individual to get answers straight from God is very much the cornerstone of the religion. In fact, this very verse is purported to be the same verse which prompted Joseph Smith to ask God which church he should join. Being alone and with no pressing engagements, I decided to try the experiment for myself. I would ask in faith and see what happened. The verse continues "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord." This describes something of the quality of the asking - one has to believe that one shall receive in order to receive.

I retired to another less-used room within the chapel so as not to be disturbed should anyone else come into the building and geared myself up for the task in hand. After some deep breathing and firming of my resolve, I knelt down and began to pray. Upon doing so, I was filled and surrounded by a feeling of love and light and had a picture of someone - a man, stood behind me. My analytical brain kicked in and explained that this was clearly a representation of my higher self and not actually God, but as I thought so, the quality of the experience faded, so I decided simply to believe, as a child, that I was talking to God and allowed myself to go with the experience. The feeling returned and increased in intensity as I asked my question - I can't remember whether I asked out loud or vocally inside my head, but I was used to praying vocally, so it may well have been out loud - "How can I can learn these verses of scripture?" An answer came immediately - into what? My mind? No, more than that. A voice which sounded like my own, but filled with infinitely more love and wisdom filled my being, saying - well, I won't tell you what was said. Suffice it to say that an answer came in plain English, describing my situation using a very everyday metaphor that I could readily comprehend. I asked for further clarification and was asked in return what I thought the answer could be. I was indeed having a conversation with the Almighty " one speaks to a friend." (Exodus 33:11)

For some time I was quite unable to leave, being filled with the spirit and the singularity of the experience, but eventually, I returned to a state of some normality and rose to my feet, enlightened, confirmed and astonished.

As you can imagine, I was very excited about the experience and wanted to rush off and share it with someone - who first?! Before doing so, I remembered the counsel of our church leaders "We'd have more spiritual experiences if we talked about them less." And that experiences like this "...are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction." So I kept it under my hat for a long time and have told less than a handful of people in my lifetime. This is certainly the first time I have committed the experience to text and only do so here having been constrained and prompted* over several weeks and months to share that experience here.

Having done so, I realise how strange it is that knowing such experience is possible and freely available that I have not availed myself of it more in my life since that time. It is true that I used to pray a great deal, especially as a missionary and that answers to prayers sometimes came not as directly as this one but through situations or feelings - indeed, the incident of meeting my best friend, companion and wife, Stephanie coincided with a prayer and could certainly be seen as an answer to that prayer, but that is another story.

I can only explain the absence of prayer in my life by likening it to a period of my life when my earthly Father and I were estranged. I didn't want to talk to him because I knew what he would say and I didn't want to hear it. My take away from this is that I can and once more, want to pray.

Thank you for reading, friends.

Paul Newman.

*Promptings are how I describe gentle inward nudges, felt more than thought or heard but there are occasions (often in ministry) when it's like receiving dictation - words which come through me, perhaps from a deeper part of me I do not yet recognise as self, perhaps from God. 

Friday, 9 May 2014

Quaker Practices for Meeting for Worship

For our 'Quaker Basics' session on Quaker Worship session this week, Rosie Roberts produced a handout, drawn from various sources, outlining some of the practices that support Meeting for Worship. She offers them here for comment and discussion by the wider community.


NB These ‘practices’ are collected together as a means to an end: that of our gathered Meetings for Worship, and all the ministries (verbal and non-verbal in Meetings for Worship, practical, and outreach) that flow from them.

  • Try to come with your heart and mind prepared for Meeting for Worship;
  • Try to arrive on time – or better still, early. The Meeting for Worship begins when the first person sits down;
  • Where to sit? Anywhere;
  • Can we read in Meeting? If you wish to read to yourself, try to do so sparingly – reading tends to shut you off from sharing the experience of the Meeting, and those near you may find it distracting;
  • Stillness and silence are as much a part of our worship as our speaking. Ministry in Meeting is both vocal and non-vocal;
  • Shaking hands at the end of Meeting signifies the companionship of a gathered Meeting.

  • Listen
  • Listen to all ministry in a spirit of acceptance. Whatever is said, even if it does not seem to speak directly to you, may speak to others in the room.
  • In an hour-long Meeting, allow the Meeting to feel ‘gathered’ before ministering. How long …… ?
  • If you feel prompted to speak, ask yourself whether the message is for the gathered Meeting – or maybe just for you? Even if for others, is this Meeting for Worship the right time for it? There are many alternatives: Meeting for Reflection, a discussion group or spiritual friendship group, an article, a blog, or simply a conversation. Are you in danger of entering a debate? Wait until you are sure that your message – and the time – are right.
    • Let your message grow within you, and then try to speak in humility, from your own experience and from the heart;
    • Speak clearly and loudly enough for all to hear;
    • Aim for simplicity and clarity;
    • It is usual to stand up – but feel free to remain seated if you have difficulty standing;
  • When ministering, respect the ministry of others:
    • Leave time for yourself and others to absorb what has been said;
    • Speak your own truth, without challenging what has been said before – the Meeting is not for debating issues or taking sides;
    • It is very rarely helpful to speak more than once during Meeting.

  • It is helpful for Meeting to close with a period of silence, so avoid ministering near the end. Remember that we have three groups of children joining us during the last ten minutes, who need to be able to come straight in.
Rosie would welcome your comments and responses to these suggestions. Is there anything you would change, or add to this description of Quaker practices? What is your experience of Meeting for Worship at Sheffield Central?

The next Quaker Basics session will be on Quaker Discernment, on Tuesday 20th May 7-9pm at Sheffield Central Quaker Meeting House. All are welcome.