Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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Amongst The Dust

I struggled to get to Quaker meeting this morning. Apart from the driving rain and bitterly cold wind, and the prospect of cycling 4 miles in it (my lovely wife had taken the car to visit friends), I think my monkeymind was trying desperately trying to keep control. I had a strong impulse to sit at my laptop and continue working, despite having spent the past 5 official days of 'holiday leave' working at it.

As it happens, I am a big believer in some kind of synchronicity and it was not lost on me that shortly before bed last night, the following quote from Quaker Faith & Practice appeared on my Twitter feed:
"28. Every stage of our lives offers fresh opportunities. Responding to divine guidance, try to discern the right time to undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt. Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness."
With this playing on my mind, I threw on my rainproof jacket and navigated the hostile roads to the Meeting House.

The meeting itself was one in which nobody gave ministry, one hour of pure silence. I spent the initial 10 to 20 minutes resisting stillness, and on picking up Quaker Faith & Practice to search for the above quote, found myself pouring over the section on social responsibility. The irony, if you could label it as such, was that I had come to the book looking for affirmation that life had become too busy, and was seemingly being told to get busier.

Having settled down, the minutes then passed slowly but nourishingly so. 

Towards the end I felt moved to speak but decided to hold back, partly out of nerves, and partly out of reverence for the silence. It somehow felt necessary to let the hour pass uninterrupted. 

Had I given ministry, I would have spoken about how the meeting felt like it had given me chance to let the dust settle around me, dust that I feel was coming close to choking me. By dust I mean the combination of anxious thoughts and nervous energy, which when acted upon, tend to get stronger and stronger until exhaustion and despair temporarily breaks them (and you, and those around you). 

I would have spoken about the need to not simply withdraw from our responsibilities, that the pursuit of our calling, our deepest dreams, cannot be ignored - but nor should we become a slave to our sense of responsibility, and more accurately, to a misplaced sense of responsibility rooted in fear of personal failure and a desire for individual success, as defined by others. Also, our priorities - which responsibilities are to take precedence - surely change over the years and we must somehow stay tuned into this.

The idea of proactively relinquishing responsibilities, of letting go as a positive decision, would have also surely surfaced in my words, as it had in my conscience. I have felt a great burden of responsibility in my working life and family life these past few weeks, a responsibility in particular for others - with the longer roots of this surely going back years. I often find myself taking on responsibility that should be left to others to undertake, even if that responsibility is then left unfulfilled, even if the much-fretted about 'failure' occurs. During the meeting, the story of Jesus rebuking his sleeping disciples (Matthew 26:40) touched my conscience - maybe Jesus was also prone to a bit of control freakery and rigid expectations of others, maybe he struggled with similar issues?

I guess that's the beauty of the Quaker story of Jesus (the Unitarian story of Jesus also) - he is fundamentally human as well as sacred, he is relevant to our condition, he is somehow more reachable as a conflicted, though nonetheless iconic, figure.

To finish, my thoughts turned to the need to not just trust in others, but trust in God, and I would have given voice to this. To be clear, I am not a classical theist believing in the old puppet master sat amongst the clouds - but I do believe in a greater overarching consciousness, a governing power that grounds our being, seeping into every part of existence - neither personal or impersonal in nature, transpersonal perhaps. We need to be patient and discerning, allowing Divine Will to emerge out of the dust, rather than turning our already frantic minds to solving where our lives should be going and creating even more dust in the process. We need to trust that things will be OK, one way or another, and things may in fact be that little bit more OK if we just stop trying so much.

This is where I'm at right now. And speaking to a fellow attender afterwards, it turned out she was in a similar place. Such is the way Quaker meetings seem to occur.

If you feel anything of the same, then I implore you to try something similar this week;

imagine yourself as a hod carrier,

and rather than loading even more bricks on,
                                                   take some off,

stop and stand still every now and then, take in your surroundings,

dust yourself off,
                      let the breeze carry it away,

trust the house will still get built in the longrun,

and with less hurry, it might be built on stronger foundations,
                                                                      and be that little bit comfier inside.



I've not blogged for a while mainly because I have been so busy with the day job, which as a teacher, inadvertently becomes the 'life job' in that it can come to consume every waking hour. I think this is something that the naysayers about teachers and their working conditions simply don't understand.

Things have also changed spiritually speaking. I have pretty much given up on my local Unitarian church, as thought-provoking as the minister's sermons are and as special as our wedding service was. I've also drifted away from the local Baptist church, although I do still feel called to go back there at some point - mainly because they were so warm and welcoming. Instead I've found myself attending the local Quaker meeting pretty much every Sunday. In doing so, I think I've moved from 'enquirer' to 'attender' status. I call it a change but I think it was something I'd felt deep down for a while, ever since I stepped foot into Sheffield Quakers a year or so ago to be suddenly hit by a wave of 'unspeakable something', ever since I read the biography of George Fox and the writings of Rufus Jones, and ever since I read John 15:15 through Quaker eyes.

I am not at the stage to declare myself a Quaker. I still miss communion (no-frills Baptist style), I still miss hymns (when done properly - and classically) but the silence is calling me right now - I think partly because of the hectic weeks I'm going through. The silence is my sabbath. I have been to modern, guitar-centred churches and find them simply too noisy - I need a space to reflect and reconnect - a space not just for rumination or for some rigourous attempt to negate the self, rather a sanctuary for focused, prompted, affirming contemplation.

But attending the Quakers is not simply a passive process - it's not 'chillaxing' as my students would say. The process of giving ministry can prove to be deeply inspirational, both challenging and affirming. 

A few weeks ago a Friend stood up, recalling her journey to the National Memorial Arboretum and an unexpected encounter with 5000 bikers also making a pilgrimage that day. She spoke movingly about the idea of God in everyone, and everything, and how she was challenged to recognise this through this visit. 

It made me reflect deeply on the Hebrew names of God. On becoming a Unitarian Christian I used to think El-Echad, 'The One God', was the 'correct and proper' name for God, conveniently ignoring the fact it appears rarely in scripture aside from the Shema, the Jewish declaration of faith. Now I find more power in the names Immanuel, 'God With Us', and Elohim, which can be translated something like 'We Are God' (this has historically created some controversy in that it seems to mean both unity and plurality). I am not fluent in Hebrew or a Biblical scholar, but the idea of Elohim - the God of Many Voices - is something I have rolled over and over in my mind for the past few weeks since the Friend gave her ministry.

Yesterday's meeting also proved significant with reflections given on 'What it means to be a Quaker?', triggered by a badge that is currently being given out amongst Friends which has written on it, "I'm a Quaker, ask me why." The reflections looked at the need for somewhere to meditate, a sanctuary, a community in which we seek meaning both individually and with other people, particularly during tougher times. This got me recalling the 'Life Shape' triangle from the book 'The Passionate Life' by Mike Breen.

It seems to me this offers a pattern and process with which we can re-model our busy lives on, whether we are religious or not. I think it also offers an answer (though I hasten to add, not the answer) to the 40 Days of Prayer for the Future of Friends initiative from Friends United Meeting in the United States.