Spiritual Practice

“Unfortunately, most of us are the product of an overly spiritualized, individualistic theological formation that passes today as Christianity. We’ve been taught to save our own soul and not worry about the rest. Concerning suffering, we’ve been told,  be patient, heaven will follow, hang on. No, that’s not right, that’s not salvation. The salvation that Jesus taught is salvation from every bondage that oppresses human beings. And that salvation takes place in this world.”
   – Quaker Testimony, New England Yearly Meeting

Stumbling into Quakerism

My spiritual and theological evolution is varied and diverse, as for many. My spiritual  wanderings have taken me through Catholicism, Anglicanism, Reform Judaism, Buddhism, and Nature-based spirituality. I’ve been blessed by my engagement with each of these traditions.

Through my wanderings I never lost respect for and fascination with the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. My attraction wasn’t the miracles or the healings, or even the resurrection. Rather, I found the practical teachings of Jesus compelling – love your neighbor, break bread and share table with those different than you, embrace forgiveness as a path of healing and sanity, show deep concern for social justice and those on the margins, and care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy. This – the finding of meaning through kenotic love – to me, was wisdom and truth.

Jesus was compelling. Christianity wasn’t. I reject many of the standard foundations of what constitutes Christianity for most today. I do not affirm many traditional teachings such as original sin, sacrificial-substitutionary atonement, the existence of a personal God, and most notions of providence.

I strongly affirm evolution, science, and adopt a skeptical stance toward most supernatural claims, favoring an epistemological realism-naturalism.

If you ask me if Jesus is God incarnate, I’ll answer with a question – what is God? How do you understand divinity. Did he work miracles? They are likely metaphors, allegories, and mythic attempts to convey the essentials of Jesus’ teaching. The Resurrection? My reasoning and reflection on common experience leans toward the claim being more of a powerful metaphor rather than a physical reality.

All of this obviously leads to the question, am I a Christian? Again, my response likely won’t please most orthodox believers. I don’t really invest that much in labels. I find Jesus’ teaching and example compelling and convincing enough that I seek to model much of my life on such.

I can accept the notion of Jesus as Lord, but I don’t interpret that phrase as a proclamation of Jesus as God. Rather, I understand the origins of the claim in contrasting Jesus to Caesar – Jesus is the archetype, the model, the standard for much of human behavior.

MY QUAKER CONVICTIONS

1. There is that of God in everyone, therefore each human life is sacred and we are interconnected to each other. 

2. Each person is capable of the direct and unmediated experience of the Sacred.

3. Silence and simplicity have a necessary role in communal and individual spiritual life.

4. Our understanding and experience of the Sacred is nurtured and enlarged in community.

5. We welcome the truth from whatever source it may come and believe that our understanding of the world and human nature are continually evolving and deepening. Therefore, we affirm a sense of the continuing and ongoing nature of theological insight, teaching, and claims. 

My Quaker Practice

My spirituality is shaped and nourished by my Quakerism. I belong to an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting, which means our liturgy is silent worship, punctuated by unplanned vocal ministry – personal sharing as individuals are so moved to do. I find the silence nourishing and a powerful time of reflection, meditation, and contemplation. 

Quakerism aligns with my commitment to theological realism, in that Quaker theology is humble and focused on the layers of meaning in the various theological claims it makes. 

(To learn more about Quakerism, check out Friends General Conference, a Quaker umbrella group.) Or see my brief introduction

The following are central aspects of my own Quaker practice and spirituality.

Availability

Much of authentic living is rooted in availability to others, to live in such a way as to embody hospitality. This availability implies a willingness to give others of our time, attention, affirmation, and resources – to be available to others through participation in their lives and genuine concern for them.

Availability accepts the challenge to live without walls, living openly in a way that our convictions can be seen, challenged, and questioned. Integrity implies that who we are religiously, is who we are simply and fully. This involves building friendships and authentic community outside our comfort zones and is motivated by authentic care and friendship. 

Availability is a form of kenotic love, and therefore should promote the concrete welfare of others and never be simply something self-serving. We can be tempted to think that we are making ourselves available and doing good, when in actuality we are imposing our own agenda on others, rather than respecting their radical otherness and particularity.  For availability to be authentic, we must avoid turning kenosis into a self-indulgent imposition of the self onto the other, in what Catherine Keller calls, “narcissistic projection.” 

Prayer and Meditation

Prayer is an expression of the heart and human intention. Prayer provides inspiration and orientation for the human spirit, focusing our highest hopes and desires. 

Yet prayer is not magic. To quote Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.”

Much of Quaker prayer is akin to meditation or centering prayer – silent worship, reflection, a quiet communion with the world and that sacred presence we find within it.

Quaker worship is similar in that it’s an attempt to hear more clearly the “still small voice.” Friends in the unprogrammed Quaker tradition worship entirely in silent, expectant waiting, punctuated by the vocal ministry of those who feel led to speak.

Sabbath

Beginning on Saturday evening and lasting through all of Sunday, I attempt to focus on leisure, creative activity, art, getting out in nature, socializing, and reflection. I often mark the start of this time of renewal with the lighting of candles, and sometimes a reading of poetry or scripture. If I’m with friends who are interested in such things, this can include a leisurely meal and discussion on the reading.

Attending Meeting for Worship on Sunday morning is a key part of the Sabbath and offers its own restorative potential. When possible, I try to gather afterwards with friends for a slow, Sunday dinner.

I do my best to avoid shopping, work, cleaning, mundane chores, and seek to limit my exposure to advertising and the popular culture on the Sabbath. Instead, I try to fill the time with simple pleasures, slow living, and unplug from the grind of the typical daily routine.

Practicing the Sabbath is urgently needed in our society, because it offers us a real way to resist the consumerist, commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses, along with anxiety and violence.

Sabbath is not only resistance. It is an alternative to the demanding, pervasive pressure of corporate advertising and the cult of corporate-professional sports that demand our “rest time.” Sabbath offers the time to taste and see an alternative way of living. 

The celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible reminder that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Our practice of it can offer us a glimpse of the New Order of Love made real on a weekly basis.

An Open Table

A significant part of Jesus’ ministry involved food – feeding people, communal meals, gatherings, and table ministry. Therefore, practicing an open table (and door, and heart, and hand, and mind) is a living symbol of the new order of love. 

Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something sacred happens at the table  – people are encouraged to share food, ideas, and open their hearts. There’s an intimacy of the table. Being at table with others is different than being in a living room together, or standing around – it’s a face to face, measured encounter. 

Meditating on the Seasons

Becoming more aware of nature, our local ecology, the sources and production of our food, its agricultural connections, and ecological implications – can play a role in deepening our spirituality. 

Attuning to the inherent rhythms of nature can reconnect us to our place in the world. Christian tradition offers ample opportunity for us to re-root ourselves in nature through celebrations that blend biblical events-narratives with agricultural cycles and the seasons.

Christians have historically marked the seasons with festivals that reinforced and celebrated their central myths, conjoining the meaning of significant religious events with the agricultural calendar. In Christian holy day celebration, the seasons provide a rich context for spiritual reflection, melding the deeper meaning of the mythic event with the inherent existential meaning of the natural cycle.

For example, Christmas and its emphasis on increasing light at the time of the winter solstice; Easter’s themes of liberation and new life during the arrival of spring. Contemplating death and finality at All Hallows at the end of October – the end of the harvest. Each Christian holiday is aligned to emphasize the intrinsic metaphors of each of the seasons.

At start of the twenty-first century, most of us are no longer aware or even sensitive to the seasonal timing of these festivals and their natural meaning. The festivals remain, but gone is the direct sense of participation in the cyclic energies of the earth.  This sense of participation in nature must be restored.

As theologian Thomas Berry explains, the entire order of the universe can be experienced in the seasonal turnings and renewals. Seasonal patterns contain a fundamental dynamics of human life – desire, fulfillment, loss, change, growth, decline, and much more.

Each season and each holiday provides opportunity for reflection, personal accounting, and marking off significant times and events in our life. We live each day with the symbolism and metaphor of the constant progression/changing of the seasons – and food, meals, and sharing at table can be a concrete place for this to all take place and come together.

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My Rule of Life – Practical Quakerism

At the heart of Friends Spirituality are six “Quaker” values, or “testimonies,” often referred to with the acronym SPICES – Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Sustainability.

Striving to embody these values creates a unique, rich, personal spirituality and lifestyle and grounds me in the rhythms of sacred daily living. 

Simplicity

Complexity is a destructive, paramount trait of contemporary society – our daily lives are more complicated than ever with increasing detail, process, and requirements in economics, communications, career, family life, politics, and so on. The antidote is to cultivate a commitment to simplicity – the recognition that less is more.

Significantly fueling complexity is dysfunctional, consumerist thinking that equates a good life with having more things. This faulty mindset leads to constant accumulation of material goods as a means to happiness. Yes, comfort is part of a good life. The problem is not with the things themselves, but with the tendency to over-invest ourselves in things that can’t make us happy.

Consumerism isn’t our only problem. The pace of life also has become an increasing concern. Our culture is inhumanely fast paced. Chronic over-commitment and perpetual rushing leaves many of us exhausted and stressed. We are carried along by the fast culture; we’ve all grown accustomed to rushing. Our bodies and minds have been trained to hurry through meals, conversations, tasks, even sleep. Fast life disrupts our habits, ruins the peace of our homes, erodes relationships, and kills the body and mind.

These, and other, trends have left our economy rigged for plutocracy – work has lost its dignity, wages are stagnant as corporate elite skim ever deeper from the gains of productivity. Wealth inequality, cultural bifurcation, and the loss of meaningful creative opportunity has frayed the social fabric and set the stage for upheaval and revolt.

In the midst of the growing instability we are enmeshed in material excess practiced at high speed and that comes at the price of our energy, our time, our environment, our money, and often our best efforts. This leaves precious little energy and time for friends, community involvement, reading, conversation, and other simple pleasures.

Slow and Simple Living is the progressive answer to our culture gone mad. We must reject the dominant consumerist culture, find practical, innovative, and independent ways to earn a living, and disinvest ourselves from the ruinous values that fuel our current cultural insanity.

Peace

Quakers value the possibility of peaceful living. We believe that war, violence, and hate are incompatible with holy living. Violence harms the aggressor as well as the victim. Non-violent alternatives are nearly always available to those who seek them. 

While work for peace can be a powerful expression of our commitments to love, our peace testimony does not require that we be complete pacifists. Some Quakers acknowledge that their pursuit of justice may include, reluctantly, the conscientious, proportionate, and wise use of force for purposes of self defense or protection of liberty.

Integrity

Simplicity and peace require integrity, which is honesty in all dealings, telling the truth on all occasions, and consistent adherence to one’s core values. 

Quakers try to live according to the truth as best we understand it, with humility. Yet this humility does not rule out speaking our convictions, including to people in positions of power. As we are guided by integrity, so we expect to see it in public life.

At the foundation of Quaker behavior is the belief that your words should match your deeds and your deeds should be an honest reflection of your words. Integrity also means being true to oneself—having one’s outer self be the same as one’s inner self.

Community

Christianity is a communal affair. The spiritual life is not a solitary venture. We are social by our very nature and cannot achieve wholeness without others.

The New Order of Love is first and foremost, a community. Christianity has long employed the analogy of the human body when speaking of this community. In this sense, the Christian community serves as a sacrament of Jesus in that we, the community, are the Body of Christ. 

A central Christian imperative was not to shun the community or cut oneself off from it.  Authentic community requires effort, time, and sacrifice. But the effort is vital to the spiritual life and to making real the new order of love.

Equality 

In contemporary terms, equality brings to mind issues of human rights and social justice. It’s about creating a society where all have equal opportunity for participation in all areas of social life – where no one is unfairly marginalized. 

We affirm the possibility of a just society. We believe that discrimination, inequality, and prejudice in all their forms, and against any person, are incompatible with holy living. Because we are the presence of Christ in the world, it is our work to seek economic, political and social justice in ourselves, our community, our nation and the world.

In the early days of Quakerism, Friends acted on this belief in several ways: equally valuing men and women in worship and decision making, opposing slave-owning, and rejecting war and the death penalty. Today, Quakers act on this belief by challenging racism, welcoming individuals of various sexual and gender identities, and striving for a society that is inclusive of all in its affirmation of human dignity. 

Sustainability

Quakers strive to use God’s gifts wisely. These gifts include not only material wealth but environmental richness, talents, good health, and wisdom. Good stewardship means taking care of these gifts that have been given to us, not just for ourselves but for future generations. It also means considering the impact our life choices will have on those around us and their needs for health, safety, and comfort. 

Ethical consumption and eating are central to a sustainable lifestyle. Are we engaged in fair and just consumer practices? Are the animals we eat humanely raised and slaughtered? Should we even be killing and eating other mammals? What ecological impact do our daily habits and practices have? 

Sustainability is a hybrid of prudence, balance, and temperance – the ability to analysis systems in terms of their optimal functioning based on inputs, outputs, and influences. In practical terms, it is the ability to know the difference between needs and wants, to understand proper limits, and to delay short term gratification for long term benefits.