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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Emmaus Road moment

I readily admit that Easter is a funny time for me because I simply do not 'get' it in the way the traditional churches teach the story of Jesus's martyrdom and reported resurrection. The fact is that I've never fully grasped it which means it was never that hard to lose - my childhood understanding was that Jesus was killed by nasty Romans and God literally brought him back to life. And I suppose, just like the Easter bunny and the toilet monster, I ditched it before hitting my teenage years.

In my early Unitarian days, around my early twenties, I tended to simply focus on the martyrdom aspect of the Easter narrative - naively and simplistically relating to Jesus as a 'fellow dissenter' who was brave enough to die for his beliefs and for his community, an example I was and am now more than ready to admit I would struggle to follow but do take a more healthy measure of inspiration from. As I read more into Progressive Christian interpretations of Easter, it strengthened my take on Jesus as basically a socio-political radical caught up in what amounts to a bloodied tale of political intrigue - a bit like a medieval West Wing. This is not to demean the political aspect but rather to suggest that in reducing Jesus to a political martyr, his story does not really stand out from the stories of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and others - figures who I can perhaps relate to more to due to their appearance in much more recent history.

However, having said this, I have always had a nagging sense of there being more to the story than that. Last year in particular, I had a few albeit brief moments of connecting with something potentially more mystical - and it is worth noting that when I look back on my journal entries from this time I can now see that a slow drift from an ultra-rationalist Unitarian position to a more conscience-led Quaker position had clearly started to gather momentum.

This year has again been pretty much the same experience as last year. I initially took up a chocolate fast for lent - although this time it ended abruptly after hearing a Catholic priest talk about how he had given up all drinks except tap water, as a way of internal discipline and remembering those who for whom this is a luxury in itself. The talk was only a few minutes long but it put my own effort, which I usually present as 'a way of enjoying my Easter eggs more', firmly to shame. And so I quietly ditched it.

I have also watched the mainstream church's engage in their traditional practices for 'Holy Week', admiring as per usual the church leaders washing those we still consider to be unclean in one way or another, but again doing this from afar - with no real connection.

Which leads me to today's Meeting for Worship with the Quaker community I am now more or less a (small 'm') member of. I had come to meeting today wondering whether 'Easter time' would be mentioned and if so, whether it would be spoken of positively due to it being something Quakers recognize their brothers and sisters in the Christian faith treasure dearly or spoken of negatively as a ritualistic marking of holy seasons which is traditionally something Quakers reject.

I sat down and scanned through Quaker Faith & Practice, feeling quite unsettled, and found myself looking up passages on Jesus and the resurrection. I read though a whole series of them until I came across the following:
26.54: We make our guesses at the nature of God, and we are often like my small daughter who said, 'My mind goes round and round when I want to think about God, but I can think about Jesus.' To me Jesus is a window through to God, a person who in terms of personality, in a way that can be grasped by our finite minds, shows what mercy, pity, peace are like in human life. I turn to the Jesus of the New Testament - to his healing word, his freedom from anxiety, his outreaching insight, to him as a whole person - not to imitate him but to let him live and grow in my life...  
I do not pray to him - I look at him, dwell upon him, love him. But it is the presence of the God he worshipped of which I am conscious as I look at the night sky, the sleeping child and the rose. When I listen in the quietness and when I pray, it is to God that I listen and pray. And since personality is the highest value that I know in life, since all truth comes to us through the medium of human minds and thoughts, I am not surprised that God too comes to me in terms of personality. I can well understand how to many Christians Christ comes as a tangible figure, a Son of God in a special unique way, even though that is not the way he comes to me. Every word that comes to our lips is a symbol and the symbol of the father God has been sanctified by Jesus' use of it as well as by how it has been used throughout the Bible. We have much to learn about the image of fatherhood and from the growing and developing idea of God in the Old Testament. Now we may be beginning to learn about God the mother as well." --Ruth Fawell, 1987
Having been restless, this reading immediately started to bring me into focus and I could feel a gentle prompting to share it - but decided against, having sensed the meeting was intensely gathered and I should patiently give way to Friends with a greater calling to give ministry.

The first Friend to rise came within 5 - 10 minutes of me reading the above passage. She spoke in plain and simple yet moving terms of how she had never 'got' Easter as a child or young woman but had in her later years still not reasoned with, especially the Calvinist reasoning, but had come to connect with it in some more unspeakable way in terms of renewal. She acknowledged that Quakers had traditionally taught this must be attempted each and every day before going on to acknowledge this is a very high standard to meet and whilst maybe focusing on one day per year is not really enough, it is a start. From there, and on that note, she wished us a Happy Easter.

Following a further 5 - 10 minutes of silence, another Friend rose to speak of the self-sacrifice she saw in Jesus - not just as a radical insurgent plotting against Roman rule but simply as a human being who had understood that to fully live is to ultimately give out your life to others, observing that even on the cross he had concerned himself with the thief to the side of him and his mother below rather than his own torturous fate. She also noted, movingly, that when he finally came to die perhaps their was some relief in his that his difficult period of service was finally finished, and perhaps that is something we can relate to - that we often pray for own struggles to finish perhaps missing the point that if life is about pouring as much out for others, our call to serve is never finished until we too are called to return to God.

Both of these deeply moved me, giving me insight into the human condition, but again I felt there was still something missing.

My mind turned to the Taoist writings I had been reading over the past few weeks and the perspective they take. I recalled that for them the Tao, what we might rightly or wrongly call God, is an unfathomable, transcendent, somewhat impersonal force that gives seed to everything from the tiniest bug to the giants of known space such as Jupiter and Saturn. In particular an image of the solar system in movement came to mind. I recalled how I had come to share much of the same understanding of the 'The Other' albeit from a Christian Quaker footing exploring other perspectives, but I had not found this fully satisfactory - there something was missing.

And with that my thoughts turned back to the reading from Quaker Faith & Practice and to the ministry given. And in doing so, I felt prompted to take the Bible and read the final stages of Luke's Gospel - something I had first discovered last year and perhaps is a lesser known event due to the relative prominence of Doubting Thomas at this part of the commonly-known Easter event. I sat and read the story of Cleopas and the (significantly) unnamed other who were walking on the road to Emmaus, engaging in what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the things that had taken place and their meaning. At some stage on this journey they are greeted by a stranger, who after sometime, is revealed as Jesus walking with them. 

It struck me, as it did last year but with greater impact, that whilst I cannot verbally place Jesus in terms of who he exactly is, what his passing and reported resurrection exactly represents, I can grasp the idea that it is through this particular story of this particular human being we see that great, inconceivable 'Something' become realized and known - becoming Someone that we can walk with, talk with, experience at a human level. In my mind's eye the image that occurs is of Jesus simply standing there a few meters away with the planets as backdrop, with one arm reaching out.

And from that little glimmer of insight, I can relay the same Easter sentiments as my Friend - that through the story of Jesus, you too can realise your True humanity, your True purpose - and your True God. And in turn, you find renewal, today and everyday.


Two Easter thoughts

The past few days I have been watching the events of Holy Week and enjoying the quiet, relatively humble spiritual pursuits of this time of year. It is less showy than Christmas and I am glad it remains that way (it occurred to me this week that Easter is probably quite limited from a capitalist point of view, as there's only so much material profit to be gained from the giving of chocolate eggs).

I am also reading around the internet, as I often do during 'holy' days and seasons, to find inspiration from others.

I relate to much of what Andrew Brown writes on his blog, and find myself in strong agreement with this J. Cyril Flower quote he has shared:
"I confess that I find the laborious attempt to define what is called the "place" of Jesus, or any other great prophet of God, altogether unedifying. It is enough if we follow the light when and where we see it, in whose hands soever be the torch. When I am in Switzerland, worshipping God in the splendour of the snowy mountains, it is of no interest to me that, in India or America, there may be snow-clad mountains which are a few hundred feet loftier. If I am in Switzerland, let me breathe in the beauty of its mountain grandeur, and expand my soul in contemplation of the present symbols of the Infinite and the Eternal: he who is among the Rocky Mountains or in India can do nothing more, and should do nothing less. We live in an atmosphere and a civilization whose best characteristics are steeped in the influence of Jesus. We are enlisted by birth, environment and choice, under his banner. There are other captains in the one great army of God; but he is ours, and we shall promote the success of the divine campaign for the kingdom of heaven, not by gossiping about the particular features, demeanour, or apparel of the various captains - but by lovingly and faithfully following our own; for all genuine religions are allies, and not enemies. The prophets of God are many, but God is one; and that under whatever banner India, China, England, Palestine may move forward, they may be led by their accepted captain, courageous, faithful, loving their brothers and honouring their leader, to God, should be the aspiration and the prayer of all who are disciples of Jesus of Nazareth."
Like many 'liberal Christians', for want of a better less loaded descriptor, I am more than willing to explore other traditions and the writings of prophets & philosophers away from the Christian tradition. Recently this has taken me towards Taoism but previously I have engaged with Buddhism and I feel a pull towards exploring Hinduism, Sikhism and Sufism at some point in the future. I do not see this as undermining my Christian perspective or my burgeoning Quaker perspective - I would argue, as much as I am ever prepared to argue about these things (which is very little!), that George Fox and many other of the Quaker greats would have explored such things had they had the same opportunities for exploration as we do now. I would argue that Unitarian pioneers would have done the same, as many did, although I do believe the Unitarian church today has taken this exploration too far - and I am aware that there is a similar tendency within the Religious Society of Friends.

Ultimately, for me, Jesus is the teacher & exemplar, the ethereal figurehead,  I grew up with and so as much as I might struggle with Christian theology - 'the religion about Jesus' - I continue to feel inherently drawn to him and to seek the perspective and approach to life of him and his disciples.

This is why, for all my confusion about Easter, I remain naturally interested in it and try to remain open to it.

Another interesting read I have happened upon this week comes from Adrian Worsfold's blog. I do not usually find myself in agreement with this fellow 'religious liberal', again for want of a better term, but his reflection on Easter from a more humanist and political perspective speaks to much of my condition. Particularly so the following:
"For me, the Christian myth derives from that actuality, rather than treating the myth as primary (via which there is unique salvation). The reality is that the loss that happens in some events is real and cannot be glossed over, but there is a point where - the tragedy recognised - you do carry on. 
In one sense the present economic troubles are continuing because there has not been a tragedy, a death, or a collapse. We still have liquid money bubbling about to try and avoid economic death. The government bailed out the banks and now banks are being used to bail out governments. Governments are using quantitative easing to hold a baseline insead of allowing money to flush out, basically to disappear. The danger is that once the economy does move we will hyperinflate. Nothing died, and without dying it can't resurrect."
Marcus Borg and other Progressive Christians speak of domination systems in relation to the Easter events and the Jesus narrative as a whole. It seems to me that whilst we do not live in an over-bearing dictatorship, we do still live under domination systems at macro and micro levels - and there is a need for death and resurrection now, metaphorically speaking.


Quaker Confessional

I had predicted today was due to be a quiet affair at Meeting for Worship (quieter than usual that is, in terms of ministry) as most of the fellowship had gone on a retreat to Swarthmoor Hall. Last week there had been a question of whether to even open the Meeting House to which a Friend noted that the smaller meetings are often the most powerful. His words turned out to be somewhat prophetic.

I've been having a number of difficulties recently - specifically conflict with other people - and today's meeting answered one of the big questions burning inside of me; How do we fight for justice, a battle borne out of a righteous anger, without turning those we have to struggle against into hated enemies?

The initial ministry given today by a visiting Friend was a reading from Quaker Faith and Practice:

"I am convinced it is a great art to know how to grow old gracefully, and I am determined to practise it... I always thought I should love to grow old, and I find it even more delightful than I thought. It is so delicious to be done with things, and to feel no need any longer to concern myself much about earthly affairs... I am tremendously content to let one activity after another go, and to await quietly and happily the opening of the door at the end of the passage-way, that will let me in to my real abiding place." -- Hannah Whitall Smith, 1903

I reflected on this, primarily what it means to 'grow old gracefully'. It occurred to me that 'growing old' could also be read as 'moving forward in life's journey'. From there, the still small voice - wherever it may spring from - grew louder, asking me to consider moving forward from the conflicts of recent times by letting go, by forgiving. In turn, the images of two much-loved ancestors appeared in my mind's eye, with a focus on how they responded to the conflict they endured - one left permanently wounded due to bitterness over times gone by, the other spending the rest of their days contented having put aside their hurt.

This all felt timely having had the words of William Dewsbury, also from Quaker Faith & Practice, still repeating themselves over and over to me following my chancing upon them at last week's meeting (I had randomly fallen onto this page whilst trying to settle down in the early stage of the meeting). The reading goes as follows:

"At that time did the wars begin in this nation, and the men called ministers cried, 'Curse ye Meroz, because they went not forth to help the Lord against the mighty'. Then I was willing to give my body to death, in obedience to my God, to free my soul from sin, and I joined with that little remnant which said they fought for the gospel, but I found no rest to my soul amongst them. And the word of the Lord came unto me and said, 'Put up thy sword into thy scabbard; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my children fight', which word enlightened my heart and discovered the mystery of iniquity, and that the Kingdom of Christ was within, and the enemies was within, and was spiritual, and my weapons against them must be spiritual, the power of God. Then I could no longer fight with a carnal weapon against a carnal man, and returned to my outward calling, and my will was brought in subjection for the Lord to do with me what his will was."

In particular the phrase, "put up thy sword into thy scabbard," has become a mantra for me this past week - keeping at bay the flames within me from growing any further.

Then, just this weekend, I chanced upon a Taoist poem - part of an inspirational collection by Richard Seymour - which reads:


Men may commit monstrous acts, 
But they are Not monsters. 
They are human 
As are we. 

What exists within them,
Exists within us too.

This is why they are dismissed as 'evil': 
To distance Us from Them. 

This must be understood, 
Before They are understood.
Punishment alone does not prevent.
Understanding must come first.

Again it had a piercing effect, resonating deep within my soul - bringing my attention also to the classic Quaker teaching, delivered by George Fox, of seeking to find that of God within everyone.

As these various pieces of wisdom united, I began to feel what is now becoming a more familiar experience - the quaking sensation felt within my core followed by my mind clicking into resistance mode. I resolved several times not to stand and give ministry there and then, my inner dialogue citing a multitude of reasons not to, even attempting to excuse myself by promising to write my thoughts down here on my return home. But again the still small voice grew louder, answering that to do this would be to behave selfishly, that to take part in Meeting for Worship is to commit to opening yourself to the Spirit and to giving yourself to the fellowship, it is not simply about taking from others.

And so I suddenly stood, and from there I bared my soul. I talked through in detail about the conflicts consuming me, confessing to my sins and sharing my fears.

Following that there was more silence, and my mind attempted to admonish me as a fool, as an exhibitionist - yet there was also a clear sense of being both unburdened and supported, 'held in the light' by the other Friends present, and of giving.

After Meeting for Worship, we briefly joined hands as we usually do but the Friends stood either side of me gripped my hands more tightly. What followed was a lengthier discussion than usual as Friends discussed the ministry given, sharing their thoughts, their experiences, their concerns, their sense of mission.

It was another surprising yet fruitful gathering - strengthening my commitment to the Quaker path as a way of being practically Christian.


A little bit of Tao

I haven't had or made time for this blog over the last few weeks. Other matters have taken over, mainly related to work - or put more accurately, I have allowed such things to take over. 

Anyway, over the weekend I was clearing out our spare room where all my books are stored. Towards the end, with the clutter removed out of the way, I felt an urge to pick up my Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching. It is a book I have owned and felt a need to treasure for many years (it has avoided many book clearing out sessions!), and it is beautifully illustrated inside, but I have to confess to not really connecting with it. Or at least that was the case until this weekend, with so much  angst weighing on me, that I picked it up and read it a bit at a time - akin to someone savouring a box of luxurious chocolates over a number of days or weeks. In turn the words of this ancient Chinese wisdom have stayed with me providing a sense of assurance and calm, like a soothing song.

Although I do recommend purchasing the same illustrated copy I have, the text is readily available online.

Here is the bit I am currently contemplating:

Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. 
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt. 
Chase after money and security 
and your heart will never unclench. 
Care about people's approval 
and you will be their prisoner. 

 Do your work, then step back. 
The only path to serenity.