Saturday, September 29, 2012

Afterthought #9 - National Quaker Week

Just discovered that we’re two days into the sixth national Quaker Week (28 September to 7 October).

Alistair Fuller, Head of Outreach Development for Quakers in Britain says: “Every year we hold Quaker Week to encourage Quakers to talk about how their faith shapes their daily life and witness in the world.”

Throughout England this week, Quakers are wearing badges stating “I’m a Quaker – Ask Me Why.”  The Quaker Week website explains people wearing the buttons “…will be keen to share their personal faith journey and will be ready to say how they put their faith into action to work for social and political change.”   

British Friends have a theme for the week, too—Looking for a Spiritual Home­—focusing on their meetings as “communities where individuals can connect deeply with one another and with the Divine and are free to become most fully themselves and can explore together what it means to be a Quaker today.”

I don’t have one of these badges, but this seems like a good week to wear a T-shirt made by folks at Salmon Bay (Seattle, WA) Monthly Meeting. It’s my way to celebrate the spiritual home I’ve found among Quakers. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Revealing the Bones of Truth

A new edition of Juliet Barker’s 1994 biography, The Brontës, tells a story about Branwell, the brother of Charlotte, Emily and Anne.
In 1834, Branwell began to study painting with a member of the Royal Academy of Art. The student painter sketched a portrait of his sisters and penciled his face in among theirs. When it came time to paint, he brought color to the faces of his sisters, but rubbed out his own, blending it into the background.

Eventually, the painting ended up in London's National Portrait Gallery, and now visitors can see that Branwell’s teacher failed to instruct his pupil how to mix the pigments properly. They shone for a while, but became transparent with age. Now, the delicate pencil sketches beneath, including the artist’s own face that he’d erased, are gradually re-emerging.

One review of the updated Brontë family biography used Branwell’s story as an analogy to praise the book. The reviewer compared Barker to a skilled restorer working on a family portrait,gently rubbing off the lurid colors of myth and gossip, and revealing the bones of truth underneath.”

Revealing the bones of truth underneath. That’s what happens for me in my writing, at least when I silence the critic that sits on my shoulder and follow where the words lead me. As I strive to sketch portraits in words, I bring color to places I’ve been and people I’ve known. I work to tell some of the untold stories of struggle, of faithfulness, of hope, of fear. Mine and others. Sometimes, though, my words cover up more than they reveal. Unlike Branwell, I have a writing teacher who nudges me to peel away the pigments that hide the full story.

And when I remember that Spirit is with me when I work, I’m strengthened to let the stories emerge, revealing the bones of truth underneath.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Largest Clearness Committee in the History of Quakerism

The subject line of a recent e-mail from my friend, Jon Watts, caught my attention:  Can I Continue to Be A Musician? 

This Quaker singer and songwriter explained he’s at a crossroads after four years of ministry through music and the success of his latest album, “Clothe Yourself in Righteousness.”  Even more than any of his previous works, Jon’s latest explores faithful Quaker practice and serious transformation.  He’s had great turnouts at concerts and good sales of his music.  Equally gratifying for him is hearing that the music and words are affecting the way that Friends think about their faith, culture, and identity.

But, while spiritually nourishing, Jon’s music making is not financially sustainable. He’s given up his apartment, his car, his health insurance. He figures he has enough money to get through the autumn, but he needs to make some choices about the future.

“As a Quaker,” Jon wrote, “I’m trying to make this decision in a discerning way, to find the way forward that I can’t imagine, the way forward that I can’t arrive at just through reasoning.”

Quakers’ term for this way of deciding is spiritual discernment, a practice grounded in the central Quaker belief that the experience and guidance of God is available to every person, that each of us has an “Inner Teacher” who can lead us to the answers we seek. As Patricia Loring wrote in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment, it’s how we “…discriminate the course to which we are personally led by God from our other impulses.”

Jon and I learned a lot about spiritual discernment in Marcelle Martin’s 2007 Pendle Hill course, “Discerning Your Call.” In addition to reading Loring’s pamphlet and Callings by Gregg Levoy, we practiced discernment with clearness committees.

Clearness Committees are a long held Quaker practice in which a group of Friends meets with a person confronting a dilemma in life. In the Pendle Hill class, many of us were seeking clarity about work. Other times the process is used for those facing marriage/divorce adjustments or decisions, family/parenting difficulties or other major life changes. I’ve requested Clearness Committees over the years when my family contemplated moves and when I considered applying for graduate studies in writing.  I’ve also served on committees with Friends seeking clarity about work and calling.

Here’s how they operate in many Quaker meetings.

The person with a concern (focus person) will request formation of a Clearness Committee, usually under the direction of a committee in the Meeting.  The focus person gives the committee a written description of the issue needing discernment, and together they identify a small group of people who might best work with the focus person to access that Inner Teacher.  They all meet, usually several times, to discern together.  Unlike many decision-making processes, though, the central role of the Clearness Committee is to ask questions of the focus person. Their job is not to give answers.  

Suzanne Farnham’s book, Listening Hearts:  Discerning Call in Community, gives helpful direction about such evoking questions, questions that only the focus person can know the answers to. Some examples include:

What hints, messages, or signs have you received about this?
Where do you sense the most Life, or Spirit?
When you imagine God looking at you and your choices, how do you imagine God seeing or responding to them?

The “listening hearts” role of the committee is most powerful when committee members set aside personal opinions and listen deeply to the focus person’s responses.

At least, that’s how Clearness Committees typically operate. But Jon is using contemporary tools for his discernment process and is creating a virtual Clearness Committee. A big one. Perhaps The Largest Clearness Committee in the History of Quakerism.

I can just picture Friends dismissing Jon’s approach to this valued Quaker process. Until a couple of years ago, I would have, too. But, as I wrote in one of my first blog posts (I'm Not a Birthright Blogger), I’ve been convinced that this electronic media age offers some tools to nurture and connect us in our spiritual journeys.

Before you write off Jon’s invitation, take a look at his State of the Art Report. It’s a fine example of that important first step in the discernment process.

I’m going to accept Jon’s invitation. I look forward to trying it and hearing how it works for him. I expect I’ll learn some new ways to listen.