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26/08/2013

The Practice of Trust

I recently read comments from a Unitarian, posted on a messageboard, that they found a Quaker meeting they had attended to be often dominated by people who simply liked to be heard and at times, due to small numbers of the faithful, somewhat empty. I don't doubt this tendency occurs in some Quaker meetings and it is admittedly just one person speaking on a messageboard, but I did feel a little saddened at the way the Quakers were being characterised by a Unitarian, especially given their close ties and shared understanding. I do think this penchant for an approach to religion overly-centred on critical and comparative analysis is a problem for today's Unitarians (and Progressive Christians also, as it happens), keeping in mind I consider myself to be Unitarian in part and therefore sharing some of the responsibility.

Within the Quaker meeting I attend I have found a less intellectualised approach to liberal religion, a more fulfilling and 'growthful' practice, and yesterday was an example of this. And it is something I have previously witnessed at Unitarian chapels, those of a 'simply Christian' variety I attended before finding fellowship with the Quakers.

It's funny (not in a 'ha ha' way I hope!), but yesterday I realised, perhaps for the first time in my life, that I in fact have a need for meditation - and a need for prayer.

I have spent the past four weeks away from the Quaker meeting house I attend, and during that time, have certainly felt my sense of perspective and sense of being rooted dip. There are of course very real reasons for this dip based around exiting a highly stressful job and trying to prepare to walk into the relative unknown of a new job. So in that sense it is not the lack of meditation and prayer that is causing the dip - it's not a case of God, somewhere on a cloud, taking umbrage at being ignored and prodding me.

Rather, I have come to realise meditation and prayer acts as a preventative and protective measure. And whilst meditation appears to be an accepted 'in word' these days, I do deliberately recognise prayer as an equal - if not greater - component to this practice. For me, I find meditation is the opening gambit, and from there the more important process of prayer follows.

But, of course, that leads to the question,

"Well, what do you mean by prayer?"

And again, I am sure for many the image conjured up is of someone kneeling with hands clasped and head bowed believing they are talking to an imagined old man up in the sky, listing their various wants and whims that need answering, ideally within the next 7 days so they don't have to have an awkward conversation the next Sunday about why it hasn't been done yet!

Although I cannot give a comprehensive, convincing definition of prayer and its power, yesterday's Meeting for Worship provides an insight.

We sat in silence yesterday for around 40 minutes and I personally found myself alternating between periods of rumination and periods of settled, focused contemplation.

During the ruminative periods, I became aware of just how much my mind was preoccupied with planning various tasks from the important to the mundane to the bordering-on-ridiculous (a plan to make an irate call to a football phone-in even sprung to mind!). I returned each time to a quote, which I cannot remember word for word, that I had read before Meeting for Worship began in Quaker Voices - it was a quote from Thomas Kelley which basically said we need to cease our noisiness, outer and inner, to the point we can only hear our own pulse and, from there, we might just hear the whispers of God.

As the entire meeting became increasingly gathered - with the sounds of the odd page of the Bible turning from time to time, the traffic rumbling outside, and indeed my own breath and pulse, all seemingly becoming louder, a Friend rose to speak. She began by noting that Jonathan Sacks, 'Chief Rabbi' and de facto spokesperson for the Jewish communities of Britain, was retiring after long service as one of the country's most prominent ethical and spiritual guides - following this by stating her own personal respect for him and love of his teachings. The Friend went further to note Jonathan Sacks had recently made comments that he believed an increasing individualism with British society - where persons work to their own personal code of ethics and operate primarily for their own betterment - was a factor behind the recent crisis in economic institutions, and subsequent social ills (see here for the BBC news summary of this). From there, she discussed how Jonathan Sacks had argued faith communities can provide an example of 'trust in action' and its consequent benefits. She felt she had seen a marked decline in trust within British society during her own life and that membership of a Quaker community needed to continue to be centred on trust - trust in one another for insight and for practical support matched with trust in the teachings and practices of our particular tradition.

This prompted prayers of my own to be more trustful, including a confession of my sin that I tend not to trust others, even those closest to me, all in the name of 'being independent'. And whilst this might mean I talk proudly about how I am a 'self-starter' on my CV, it does lead to issues when things perhaps get tough and there are breaches I cannot fill - and this can sometimes lead to 'culpable disturbance of shalom' as I rebut offers of support and compound problems by plodding on. With thoughts around 'what if it all goes wrong' with reference to my new career direction, I have tended to try and problem solve how I might contingency plan when in fact the people around me - family, friends, fellowship - are my ever-ready contingency plan.

As I silently offered up these prayers, another Friend rose to speak. He acknowledged the opening ministry and its connection with his own contemplation of a radio slot looking at the use of psalms for helping people going through troubled times and crisis. He explained he had felt particularly moved by Psalm 91 and in light of the ministry, felt that in the plea to trust one another, we must also recognise our need to trust in God - from there he recited the first part of the psalm which brought forth tears;

"Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, 
“He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart."

A first impression of this snippet, particularly in the cold light of day, might suggest the need for adherence to a narrowly defined God - and from there a cerebral conversation might take place about the whats, whys and wherefores. But it is in fact a deeply poetical and metaphorical plea - yet also a straightforward plea - to trust in 'a greater scheme of things beyond the self'. 

Put simply, yes you have to do your bit - try your utmost to do what is required of you, try your utmost do what is right - but then must come a putting of trust in others, and The Other, to do the bits you cannot do. Meditation and prayer, particularly when rooted in a fellowship and a tradition, is a vehicle for encouraging this mindset.

James Martineau once observed,

“Religion is no more possible without prayer 
than poetry without language, 
or music without atmosphere...” 

and perhaps this could be followed with,

Life cannot be lived fully without trust 
just as a swallow cannot fly without wings,
nor without its kind,
nor without the movement of the heavens...

or something along those lines...

As I left the meeting house, I resolved to place more trust in the flock and more trust in the flow.

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