I’m a Quaker; this is why.

It should be said much more often than it is that inviting questions when you haven’t worked out the answers yet is a Bad Idea. I learned this the hard way a few years ago, when I said on Facebook “I’m a Quaker; ask me why.” When someone did just that, I tied myself into a Gordian knot of “well, I suppose some people say…” and “I don’t mean you can’t” which confused everyone concerned and in no way answered the question. This week being Quaker Week, I’ve decided to have another go. So, in a slightly more premeditated way, here is my answer: this is why. It’s a different answer to the one I would have given 15 years ago; a different answer, no doubt, to the one I will give in 20 years time; but it is as true as it can be right now.

Lights and darkness, hope but not too much hope. A candle burns in a bedroom window, surrounded by lighted windows and a starry sky. In its reflection, the candle has just been blown out.

Loyalty. The Quaker community has been a constant throughout my life. As I have moved around the country, new Meetings have welcomed me into membership and joined the chaos of my family life. Quakers introduced me to my husband; gave me my first kiss; made me believe that there were others around me who valued me just as I was; gifted me with friends without whom the world would be a darker place and I probably wouldn’t be here at all. There are prophets in this community who dare to say the things no one wants to hear; lone tigers who do terrifying things against everything society and their quieter minds are telling them; people who shape the norm and people who shatter it; people I love and people I honestly can’t really stand. Every one of those people has an equal place and an equal voice and without any one of them, this community would be poorer. They took me in and made me strong enough to take on a world I would often rather avoid. They have loved me and my children, baby-sat for us, driven us around the country to gatherings and weddings and conferences, and quite frankly, have dug themselves far too deep into the centre of my being for me to just get up and walk away.

Challenge. There is beauty and peace in worship that consists mostly of silence. It isn’t easy, though. It’s very hard to hide when all there is is you and a Light that is digging around in all the dark corners you haven’t hoovered for quite some time and were really hoping no one would notice. I frequently go into Meeting with a Big Question I want answered: you know, “what should I be doing with my life?” or “how can I make world peace happen by lunchtime next Tuesday?” I usually come out with no answers at all, but more questions; or answers to questions I hadn’t dared to ask; or instructions that go beyond anything I want to admit to. In decision making I find myself going in the opposite direction to my expectations; in daily life I am suddenly, utterly convinced with no premeditation or control that this is what Needs To Be Done.* And then I have to live with that knowledge, that decision, that call, and try to hold on to that certainty when the clouds of the world roll over those beautiful starry skies and I cannot remember, quite, what it was that I saw there.

Discipleship. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you have love one for another.” (Always in a soaring melody, for me, never spoken.) To me, the stripped back act of discipleship, of following the summoning and the footsteps of Jesus, is about talking the talk and walking the walk and living a life that rings true, resonating through my bones and becoming a conduit for a Love far greater than I am. I find the strength to yearn towards this through the stillness of Quaker worship. I’ve tried other styles of worship; I find them moving, energising, interesting, intellectually stimulating, educational, tedious and baffling, but I do not find them to be a way to the still small voice that lies in the midst of chaos and noise and walks the straight path through me. If I spend too long away from that deep pool of stillness I get cranky and lose my way. Much like I do when I haven’t eaten, or haven’t slept. All these things are equally fundamental to my being.

Action. Quaker is a doing word. It is about seeking opportunities to serve our society, making tea and keeping the buildings standing and caring for each others’ health and well-being and taking care of all our resources; it is taking a proactive role in our local communities; it means playing a role in politics, in social witness, in showing how business and ethics can work together to make the world more peaceful, more sustainable, break out of the current mould. It means finding the paths you are meant to get involved in and jumping in with two left feet if that’s the only way to do it, rolling up your sleeves, getting muddy and tired and lost along the way and knowing you are doing it for all the right reasons. It is saying that faith without works or works without faith are both meaningless, as each informs, drives, sustains the other. It is saying that even when these ambitions are achingly out of reach, the very hope of trying is itself an action.

Are Quakers perfect? Of course not. A worshipping community is like any other kind of family. Some are full of light and love and silly in-joke moments. Some are filled with darkness, forbidding silences, fear of crossing the threshold because there is nothing left within them of the goodness they once aspired to. And most are somewhere in the middle, with times of brilliance, and times of apathy, and times when you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, but somehow, everything is just uncomfortably askew. It’s in those trying moments that worship binds us together, striving to live God’s love in a world that really, really needs it. And it’s in the moments that we shake each others’ hands when we disagree, when we agree, when we celebrate and grieve and struggle together, that we are closest to Him.

*This has been, at various points, praying, moving house, teacher training, calling my Mum, and any number of other things at other times.

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Take a deep breath

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we went on holiday to Valencia. Whilst there, we learned many useful life lessons: beaches and dinosaur museums are almost as good for bribery as Haribo and ice cream; Spanish meal times are the way forward (breakfast until 11 as a normal thing? It makes life so much more civilised!); never expect a child to walk more than 3 metres in direct sunlight, unless you have earplugs or there is ice cream at the end of it (at which point, running and leaving you behind, panting in the heat, becomes way more fun). The most lasting lesson, however, was one I learned alone, on a sun-filled stressful family adventure to the beach. The children were finally old enough to be watched by just one adult, and having a fabulous time getting covered in as much sand as possible, so my husband and I took it in turns to go out of our depth and actually swim in the sea. It had been so long since I’d done this, my body had completely forgotten what to do. Waves came towards me and I panicked, freezing and fighting to stay in control. The wave passed. I remembered I can actually tread water pretty well. I looked out to sea, saw there were no immediate waves, and took a breath. The next wave appeared, and my body started to remember that it knew what it was doing. By the third wave, I had it, relaxing into the incoming surge, focussing on the moment, accepting that when the waves came, they were not there to be fought but to be ridden, to be felt, endured sometimes. And then they passed. There was a moment of stillness in which to breathe.

Take a breath.

It is advice I dish out with joyful abandon, and almost never take myself. I say it to my students: if you are getting panicky in an exam, look out of the window and take a deep breath. Let it out. Count the beats to make sure you are breathing more slowly than normal. Keep going until the voice in your head stops repeating “I can’t do this” at the top of its lungs and lets you listen to the question in front of you instead.

Take a breath.

I do this with The Cowgirl, whose emotions regularly consume her entire being. Excitement needs to be jumped and wriggled out. Exhaustion has her curled in a bundle like a nesting cat. Fury cannot be contained in her tummy but comes out in screams and flying fists. Actually, I think this is probably more healthy than the volcano I often have bubbling in my gut, but that doesn’t help if you’re on the receiving end of one of her deceptively strong left hooks. So she screams for a while until fury turns to fright, and then she huddles on my lap and we recover together. We take a breath, feeling the air together, bypassing our lungs and going straight into our bellies. We compare who has the biggest tummy, and I stop holding mine in. We blow out and try to blow each other over. And we keep taking breaths until the anger has passed.

Take a breath.

Trying to get up when it takes everything in you not to cry at the pain running like acid down your spine, you suck air through your nose as hard as you can. Controlling your body as your instincts control you, you pant through contractions before a long low exhale and a baby’s first, faltering inhale. Laughing like maniacs as you lie on your tummies, sharing secrets, you inhale in whoops to try to limit embarrasing consequences. Learning how the world works and what your interactions do to it, you gently breathe out bubbles, whoosh away dandelion clocks, puff out birthday candle flames.

Take a breath.

The thing about taking a breath is that, however perfect that breath is, however much it gave you exactly what you needed in that moment, it can never be enough to stop, to not need to do it again. In the next moment, after a few heartbeats, you need to do it again. And again. And again. The cycle is always necessary, and endlessly repetitive. Most of the time we pay no attention to it at all, until something comes up that gets in the way and makes us focus by breaking the rhythm.

Take a breath.

Today may be an amazing day. Today is allowed to be the day you get it all right. Today can be the day you have the right answer to a crisis at work, or you get home with the time and energy to chat about discoveries, sorrows and playground shenanigans before the bedtime conveyor belt starts. Today might be the day you keep going with fighting bad habits or finally take a step towards building up better ones. Today might be the day everything goes entirely as you wish it to. And then tomorrow comes, the cycle starts again, and the mystery and mayhem of a new dawn takes over. And tomorrow may not be perfect. And that’s ok.

Take a breath.

Everything that matters in life follows that same pattern. Breathing. Eating. Learning. Loving. Growing plants and making memories. Reading, teaching, worshipping, praying. Sometimes it is perfect. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes it gives you everything you are craving. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the answer appears in your heart before the sentence has even made it past your lips. Sometimes your cries echo for years, unanswered and seemingly unacknowledged. And whatever the moment, the feeling, the answer, next time, you get to do it all again. We want to see results, to know there’s a reason for all this. The rhythm keeps repeating and we look for meaning from the centre of the cycle and cannot find it.

Take a breath.

That answer will come. Every time you do this, it has an effect that cannot happen without what you have done. Each repetition is important, even when the results can only be seen after a long and cumulative journey. Creating a sustainable future; learning the alphabet; trusting that you are actually doing quite a good job of this whole life thing: all these things are made up of tiny moments, none of which are turning points, all of which are important.

You have this. We all do. Sometimes we can see it in ourselves. Sometimes we need others to find it in depths we are too tired to dig through alone. But it is always there. You’ve got this. If not in this moment, then in the next. Or the next. Or the next.

Take a deep breath.

I am dust.

Ash Wednesday is dissonant. It is jarring. It makes me wriggle in my chair and want to cower behind the cushions at the same time.

I stand, in a beautiful church shimmering with gold, and have cold, damp ashes thumbed onto my forehead. They were made earlier in the week in my back garden, smoldering in the barbeque as the joy-filled palm crosses disintergrated into black, crispy mulch.

Remember that you are dust.

My children stand beside me, quiet because everyone around them looks different to a normal Sunday, quivering with pent-up energy made worse by knowing they cannot let it out. The solemnity hangs in the air, unexplained, inviting and incomprehensible.

To dust you will return.

My husband turns from me and gently, hand shaking just a touch, marks the cross on the forehead of each child, remembering their own mortality whilst doing everything he can to forget it. At least, that’s what I assume he’s thinking; I know it’s there in my mind.

I stumble back into the real world, awkwardly engaging in conversation when all I really want to do is be still, and breathe, and try to assimilate the fact that I have just had my own mortality literally pasted onto my forehead. In that moment, there is no turning away from the fact that this is me, and I will die, and that is part of why I am here.

Walking down the street, the dissonance follows me. Eyes do a double-take on seeing my forehead. Should I tell her she has something on her face? Is she one of those crazy people? No one mentions it. Everyone sees it.

I leave the church dreaming that this year, everything will be different. I will be thoughtful, and helpful, and kind every day through Lent. I will give up the food that is bad for me, and take up an act of kindness every day. I will pray more, and read the Bible every day, and come out of it knowing exactly what God wants of me.

All too soon, life intrudes again. Tomorrow is World Book Day, and so there is a Paleontologist to be transformed into Hermione Granger, and a Cowgirl who has decided that in fact, when she grows up, she wants to be a Tiger (because the Tiger is very naughty, and eats all the food in the cupboards, and I want to be like that too). Marking needs to be done. Meetings need to be had. Washing needs to be hung out to dry.

Usually, by this point in the evening, my pious intentions have already crumbled into dust. This year, the process started early, as I didn’t even make it to the Ash Wednesday service; the car had a flat tyre, and absorbed All Time into an abyss. So instead, in this pause when the wand is away, the tiger costume is hanging up, tomorrow’s marking is just about finished, and the house is asleep, I am trying to reach that point of stopping, and breathing, and waiting.

Because Ash Wednesday is not just dissonant because it reminds you that you will die, standing there in the midst of the busyness of everyday life. It is also jarring because it throws the knowledge that, in fact, none of this is about me, right into my face. Lent is not a sanctified excuse to lose weight. Nor is it the chance to answer those big questions about where my life is going or what might happen next to me. It’s not a time for self-congratulation, or self-absorption, or starting new projects.

Lent is a time when we remember what it is like to be lost and alone. It is a time of wandering through the desert, not knowing yet how the story will end, and having to trust that everything will happen as it should. It is a time of madness, and forgetting, and self-discovery. It is a time for remembering what it is to be homeless, and hopeless, and hungry. But more than that, more than anything else, it is a time of waiting. It is a time of listening. It is a time of holding on while the storm crashes by, because only then, in the resulting stillness, can the voice of God be heard.

And so, tonight, I am waiting.

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