Category Archives: Reflections

Do we know what hunger is?

In the UK we customarily eat when we are hungry, especially where there is temptation and food / snacks / drinks are readily available. It is probable that at most of these times we are not actually hungry, that it is purely habit and a kind of addiction. When we want something in life generally we are able to buy it, despite the likelihood that we do not actually need it.
As a parent I have a responsibility to consider what I do and the choices that I make. Children learn from parents how to behave on our planet, and what reasonable expectations they should have for their every whim and wish to be met.

Citizens of the world are hearing of people in Afghanistan who in recent years have been given the hope of rights, freedom and security. They now live in fear of the knock at their door which may lead to execution as a direct result of these freedoms, which they have dared to exercise in collaboration with the occupying forces. I wonder how I can dare to believe that every luxury that I desire (and somehow feel I deserve as reward for the hardships I face, for goodness sake) should be satisfied?

So today I eat my simple breakfast muesli, eat fruit, homemade soup and hopefully a homemade dinner with wholefoods & vegetables. I will try to do without packaged, unnecessary snacks or drinks. I will try to wean myself off caffeine again and even try to drink only (clean) tap water, which in itself would be a luxury to the majority of people on earth. I could be labelled an extremist, but for most of the world these simple things would be an extreme luxury, so why should this be?

There are numerous campaigns where people commit to following this way of living, to “do without”, but closer to home our Quaker testimonies and ideals point to these very things, such as with the final two Advices & Queries:

41. Try to live simply. A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength. Do not be persuaded into buying what you do not need or cannot afford. Do you keep yourself informed about the effects your style of living is having on the global economy and environment?

42. We do not own the world, and its riches are not ours to dispose of at will. Show a loving consideration for all creatures, and seek to maintain the beauty and variety of the world. Work to ensure that our increasing power over nature is used responsibly, with reverence for life. Rejoice in the splendour of God’s continuing creation.

Let all of our actions speak, and be proportionate and considerate of people, creatures and plants around the world. And let us be grateful for those simple things which would be such a luxury to most.

A breath of wind

It is very pleasant to feel a gentle breeze and hear the rustling of the leaves on the trees. A warm wind from the south is also a joy to most of us. However, the wind is unpredictable. It can be gusting, whirling, whistling. It can become a howling gale, or even a hurricane. The same wind that can fill the sails of a boat can also become a storm blowing it off course. 

These common experiences lie behind the use of wind as a metaphor for the Spirit. In the Bible there is the phrase, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3.8) What are we to understand then about ‘spirit-filled’ people? 

We might expect people of the spirit to be kind and loving, gentle and considerate. And one hopes they are. They can be like the zephyr that brings warming comfort, or like the wind that lifts the wings of the eagle. However, they also have the power to disturb, bring change, inspire revolution. The people who are driven by a spirit of truth and justice can be stubborn, persistent, discomforting, and even as irresistible as a tornado. 

The same word is used for breath, wind and spirit in the early stories of the Bible. It is ‘ruach’. We might prefer the wind/spirit to be like a sweet breath on our cheeks. But where there is corruption or injustice, or violence against people or the planet, the wind/spirit can blow away our complacency and challenge our prejudices. I remember a Bible-study session in the German Kirchentag in Berlin one year, which began with the sound of breathing, and a procession of large leaf filled branches rustling as they moved. But it moved inexorably towards a storm of challenge to violence against women and the planet. 

The celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit has just been celebrated in British churches. It is the feast of Pentecost. This comes as a reminder to Christians that sometimes there is a need to offer a  gentle caress to those who are bruised and vulnerable. But it also prompts the conscience to search out the reasons behind the pain and suffering and to challenge the people and systems that create them. 

People of the spirit can be found in all religious traditions and amongst those who do not identify with any formal faith. Perhaps you recognise someone, young or old, who has shown the spirit to you, either gently or forcefully! Perhaps you feel the spirit within you urging you to love and to care, to act to bring about change and to make peace.  

May the spirit be with you!

Time travellers

We travel through time from past into present and to the future. We mark moments in our lifetime with special occasions, at birth, coming of age, marriage, death. All this suggests that time flows in one direction.  But our experience is sometimes quite different. The pattern of days in the week, of months in the year, of seasons, and of religious celebrations suggest a more circular motion. And our memory and emotions can take us anywhere and anytime.

I think the experience of lockdown has also had an effect on our perception of time. Perhaps you found that at times it has been hard to know what day of the week it was. Did each day seem just like the one before?  Did you feel that time seemed to drag? So that what was familiar and routine became to feel a like being imprisoned? Perhaps the future became for you more uncertain. Many have said that they missed the past contact with friends and wider family, the hugs that were so normal.

The connections between religion and time are varied. At the moment Muslims are marking Ramadan, a month long fast based on the lunar calendar. Christians are in the season of resurrection (from Easter to Pentecost – Whit Sunday). The Jewish calendar at the moment marks the time between Passover and the Feast of Weeks. These occasions come round each year, but there is also a longer time scale. A Christian traditional view of time is :- a beginning in creation, a fall into alienation from God, the coming of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth and an eventual renewing of creation, a reunion with God. 

These regular, repeating, cyclical expressions of faith are meant to help us navigate our life through all its challenges and changes. They accompany daily and weekly acts of prayer and devotion. They can be reminders and prompts to act in love and kindness to our neighbours. They can be assurances that we are loved and that there is forgiveness and new possibilities. Just like other routines of home,  work and leisure they offer a framework for decision making and provide a structure of meaning.

Sometimes, however, the totally unexpected comes and throws our patterns and predictability into chaos. Is it then that we think about what is timeless and eternal? What really and deeply matters in life? What will last beyond the days and months and years of our lifetime? This sudden upheaval can make us reassess our priorities, look again at our values, and perhaps change the direction we take. 

Each moment holds the potential for love. Each day we can be kind. Every week provides opportunities for giving and receiving care for one another. As we travel through time we can bring the eternal into the present.

A version of this blog was published in the Leighton Buzzard Observer on 27.4.21.

[These blogs are the views of individual Friends and do not necessarily represent the views of other Quaker or Britain Yearly Meeting. For agreed statements please visit the Quakeers in. Ritalin website. ]

About Time

After meeting recently I was asked about my doctoral work, in particular about the term ‘Quaker time’.  My thesis is titled: The Temporal Collage: how British Quakers make choices about time at the beginning of the twenty first century. In her work with Quakers about moral choices Jackie Leach Scully describes decision making as building a collage because:

1.  People often had to make decisions on partial information without certainty of what the outcome might be.

2.  Collage is a creative working of the elements involved.

3.  Collage is flexible and can be imaginative and fluid.

So it is with time.  When we commit to Quaker work, for instance, we do not know how we will be changed by what we do.  Many Friends I spoke to had wonderful experiences and most made friends through their work, but for others involvement was less positive.  Thankfully for those Friends, Britain Yearly Meeting has many opportunities to live out a Quaker life, and disappointed Friends largely found a place for themselves elsewhere.                                   

Quaker time is one of several components of the individual collages of those I interviewed.  Ben Pink Dandelion used the term in his 1996 thesis to distinguish the time Friends spend in Meeting for Worship, participating in the structure of the Society, in special interest groups and Quaker learning opportunities.  In 1859 Quaker requirements of endogamy, plain dress and speech (the peculiarities) ended which meant that life beyond the meeting became privatised, that is, beyond the reach of elders.  During the so called ‘quiet period’ the influences on individual Friends decision making was limited to those within the Society, whereas now they are many and often complex. Nevertheless, my research showed that Friends regard much of what they do to be influenced by their faith, and embraced by their spiritual selves.

Of the elements that comprise the collages Friends build, one is Holy Busyness, the time given out of faith, for instance the love given in time shared with family, or as volunteers within the wider community and sometimes in paid work, but not specifically with Quakers. In this way collages are built of polychronic time, shaped into a design that suits us as we move through life.  Polychronic time is not the same as multi tasking, that is doing several things at once.  By contrast, polychronic time is woven flexibly into our lives. There are rigid, unavoidable elements such as clock time, the time of deadlines, calendars, and priorities which sit alongside the interwoven elements of relationships and interconnectedness with the wider world. 

As we come out of lockdown in 2021, I am reviewing my collage.  I need to consider what has to be in there, what I can keep and what I might discard to stay safe and well, and how I keep it bound by my spirituality. 

[These blogs are the views of individual Friends and do not necessarily represent the views of other Quaker or Britain Yearly Meeting. For agreed statements please visit the Quakeers in. Ritalin website. ]

What would you be prepared to die for?

Most of us at some time in our life think about what is our purpose here on earth. Does our existence have any meaning? One way to test this is to ask, “What am I prepared to die for?” Is there anything or anyone who means so much to you that you would lay your life on the line for them?

This is Holy Week in which Christians remember the events of the last days in the life of Jesus, leading up to his crucifixion on a cross. Although the story is more detailed than the way the rest of Jesus’ life is told, the aim of the storytellers is not to tell how Jesus died, but why. They also stress that this was the way that Jesus wanted to go. They say that he was not under the control of anyone else, either Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, or the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem.

There are many moving examples of people who have donated organs to others, kidneys for example, that can save someone’s life. There are also stories of a few who have taken the place of others in the line leading to the death chamber, and who have died in their stead.

Another kind of willingness to die for others is that shown in the lives of martyrs. I don’t mean those who go on suicide missions to kill others, but those who stick to their beliefs, their cause for justice, even if it means they lose their lives. Perhaps Martin Luther King is one example.

Jesus can be compared to these examples. He is regarded by some as a martyr. A good man who stood up for the poor and oppressed. He is an inspiring example for us to follow, if we dare.

For many Christians he is more than this. Somehow, they believe, the life and death of Jesus releases us from what is wrong in our lives and in the life of the world. This too is a reason to follow his example: to live a life of love towards each and every neighbour. Because he loved us, we should  love one another.

Did Jesus die in vain? I think he died for a purpose. But the question is, has that purpose been fulfilled or will it be fulfilled in the future? The Christian message of Easter is that it will be fulfilled. Jesus was justified in loving and dying the way he did, and events since and to come will show that his way of love is the best way for all of life to flourish. His death can help us learn how to live and gives us hope for the future.

[These blogs are the views of individual Friends and do not necessarily represent the views of other Quaker or Britain Yearly Meeting. For agreed statements please visit the Quakeers in. Ritalin website. ]

Charitable giving

Charitable giving

Charity at its heart is a gift of love. 

There has been much publicity recently about people raising huge sums for Charity, Captain Tom Moore among them. However, at the same time many established charities are struggling because their usual sources are drying up. Kids Out is a local example. Christian Aid Week in May has been the major way in which that Charity has raised the bulk of its funds for many years until recently. Door to door collections was the normal method, though it has proved more and more challenging recently and during the Coronavirus lockdown is not possible. 

Churches and all faith groups are also feeling the pinch of reduced income because normal activities have been prohibited. Many rely on a weekly collection – the offertory –  during worship. Sometimes this is called ‘free-will’ offering. It is an expression of thankfulness, a ‘love-gift’. Although there can be an element of duty when it is regarded as a necessary part of believing, as when a tithe (tenth) is expected, or when almsgiving is a pillar of faith. 

Many people have their favourite Charity, which they support regularly, which could be anything from a hospice (which is likely to be really struggling at the moment) to a refuge for ill-treated animals. National fund-raising events such as Children in Need raise millions each years by appealing to our sympathy for the plight of the most vulnerable. Sponsored sports events such as the London marathon give benefits to the runners as well as to the charities they support. 

All of this money-raising effort for Charity enables good work to be done. However, there is a question as to whether some needs should be met by Government funding, which is raised though taxation, rather than by charitable giving. Should we need to rely on money raised through charitable giving for the National Health Service or should it be fully funded as part of our national infrastructure? Often the work of charities is to do extra and supplementary work over and beyond the basic care we offer. But it could also be seen as merely papering over the cracks, rather than dealing with the underlying issue. Proper funding requires Government action. 

Another issue about charitable or faith based giving is whether it is spontaneous, ‘from the heart’, or pre-determined. Is one better than the other? Many worshippers now contribute by direct debit or by other regular payments, and this enables greater confidence in making plans for further action and service. But there are some who view this as duty and regard a second gift or a thank-offering as a more genuine expression of faith. 

Charitable giving is not just about giving our ‘tithe’ or our duty, it is about offering our whole selves, everything we have in service. If love is our motive, then it requires our all, not just the little extra we think we can afford. Our whole life is a love gift, received and given!

Wise or Foolish?

What counts as wisdom these days? And what is folly? April 1st is a traditional day to make a fool of someone, though that is not a practice to encourage. Perhaps it is wiser to recognise our own folly and admit it on All Fools Day. 

The Hebrew Scriptures, on which Christianity draws, is composed of three parts: Law, Prophets and Wisdom. Books such as Proverbs and Job are amongst the collection of received wisdom. Folly and Wisdom are often contrasted in the collection of sayings in Proverbs. There are many warnings about thinking that you are wise, for example, “Do you see someone wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” (Proverbs 26:12). In the teaching of Jesus there are elements of this wisdom tradition, like the parable of the wise and foolish who build their houses, one on rock and the other on sand (Matthew 7.24-29).

So what is wisdom and what is foolish? One of the key features of the Hebrew Scriptures is the teaching that we should care for those who are vulnerable, such as orphans, widows and strangers. To be merely concerned about yourself and your wealth is not wise. Jesus takes up this idea in the parable of the rich man who thought he could store up his wealth and live an easy life, eating and drinking and being merry, only to die a sudden death (Luke 12.18). Jesus also teaches that it is important to care for the ‘little ones’ by which he meant not just children but those who are vulnerable and at risk.

One of the wonderful aspects of the current pandemic is the way that people are showing a concern for their neighbours who might be at risk. This is true wisdom. Whereas the panic about stocking up on toilet rolls or the worry about the stock markets may well be folly. Discovering that what is really important is our relationships with each other, this I suggest, is wisdom. Thinking that we can exist by our own efforts, I believe, is foolish. 

Often the wisdom of ‘the world’ is set against the wisdom of the Gospel. ‘The World’ in this context means the system of thinking and behaving that puts oneself and money at the heart of things. In the scriptures this is judged to be folly. The Good News is that love and justice will be given to the  poor and oppressed. Sayings such as ‘the last will be first’, and ‘how splendid are the humble’ show what Gospel wisdom is. 

So, on All Fools Day, and everyday, we could show our love and concern for those who are in desperate need, whether they ‘deserve it or not’. Such folly is the mark of the wise.

Psalm 127

A song of ascent of Solomon

I find this a difficult Psalm. 

Within the boundaries of a traditional religious culture it appears to offer assurance and promise. It says, “ God will grant you security and peace. Through the gift of children you will be blessed in your old age.”  

First, some reflections on the different parts of the psalm.

  • Perhaps it is the way the psalm begins with the idea of building a house that makes the connection with Solomon in the Psalm’s title. Solomon who is remembered as the wise king who built the great temple and extended the power of the nation. There is a strong element in the tradition, however, of not relying on your own strength, but trusting instead on the steadfast loving-kindness of God. The history of the Israelites was nearly always precarious, sitting between two great powerful empires. The Egyptians to the southeast and the Babylonian/Assyrian empire to the northwest. Prophets often warned against playing power politics and thinking this would keep the nation safe. They spoke instead of being faithful to God, caring for neighbours and pursuing justice for the poor. This was the only guarantee of God’s favour. 
  • The second part of the psalm expresses the tradition of the value of family and children. There is an inbuilt assumption of the father being the head of the household, and the value of ‘sons’. The reverse, of course, is the prejudice against those women who could not have children, and the lesser regard for daughters. It always seems to be the woman’s fault! The patriarchy of past cultures still lingers in many places. Often the contribution of women is hidden, and the place of women demeaned. And so the scriptures need to be read with eyes that see beyond this particular cultural feature. 
  • It helps to know when there is a reference to the ‘gate’, that this was the traditional place for seeking and finding justice. It was the place to take a dispute and have it judged. Of course the powerful could corrupt even this place of justice,  nor was the King above temptation to use force to gain his own ends. But there were often those who would stand up for the poor and confront even the most powerful, like Nathan speaking to King David. 

In thinking about this psalm, it helps me to remember that we can learn from the Bible without having to assume that it is always right. So the warning that working hard will not lead to contentment or happiness can be accepted without going to the extreme of thinking that there is nothing we can do except rely on divine favour.  

Perhaps the other lesson I take from this psalm, is that it is for pilgrimage, or journeying. It is not the last and final word. As we travel on we find new insights, see deeper into the truth and have to be ready to change our understanding and behaviour. Sometimes we have to wrestle with the scriptures and hope that what we gain is truth.

Terry Oakley 29.3.2020

Psalm 23

The shepherd looking after the sheep is one of the most familiar metaphors in the Bible. 

For most people this is a comforting and reassuring psalm, based on God’s constant and loving care. 

God is the good shepherd. In the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel God’s care is contrasted with those who are hired to do the work but whose heart is not in it, and who are likely to abandon their charges if danger threatens. 

Though this is an old poem its imagery is often used in Christian contexts. For example, ‘you spread a table before me’ is frequently used as a reference to Communion. This is a common feature of the Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures. But it can result in the original context being ignored and other meanings lost. In Psalm 23 where the theme is of care for sheep, the table could represent the pasture that the sheep feed on and to which the shepherd leads them. This same pasture that could be threatened by predators, from whom the shepherd defends the flock. 

On a stylistic note this psalm is one of the clearest examples of parallelism. Each phrase is repeated in a slightly different form to emphasise its meaning. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is matched with ‘l shall not want’. 

But what does it mean if we are the sheep? Like all metaphors this idea of sheep and shepherd has its limits. I have always been unable to escape the reality that the sheep are in the end for the benefit of humans. Their wool for clothing and their bodies for food! More worrying for me is the idea that we can leave everything to an all-powerful protector. This does not ring true to my experience. Nor would I want it to. We have capabilities and responsibilities which we should exercise, including looking after each other. Yes, there are things beyond our control, but I hope we have long passed the age when we offer sacrifices to appease the ‘gods’ so that we will be kept safe. 

Singing the 23rd Psalm has been such significant a part of my life and to the spiritual journeys of millions of Jews and Christians that it is hard to get beyond the emotional impact it has had. In times of oppression, extreme hardship and mental anguish it offers hope and comfort. But it is dangerous to make it the sole expression of our faith. It is, for example, a long way from ‘take up your cross and follow me’!  This closer to the image in Isaiah of the sheep that is led to the slaughter for the sake of others. Here the message is a sacrifice that makes whole. (This metaphor too has its limits.) 

What might it mean to be a shepherd? Being a carer for others has a long and strong tradition within religious movements. ‘Shepherding’ in this sense is commendable. But the danger always lies in the (absolute?) power that the shepherd has over the sheep. I much prefer the encouragement to ‘love one another’ and to be a ‘good neighbour’, which are mutual responsibilities. 

Psalm 23 is no longer a song I can sing comfortably.