A member shared a message this week about growing up catholic and being taught catechisms in Sunday school. One went like this: grace was likened to a full bottle of milk and an empty bottle was likened to sin.
In certain traditions, especially buddhism, being empty is not considered a sin but a spiritual opening. The image of an empty vessel ready to receive is quintessential. In fact, there is a famous story of a student who seeks wisdom from a buddhist master. The master sits with the student and artfully engages in a sacred tea ceremony by preparing the cups, making the tea and carefully pouring it … until the students cup runs over. The student yells at the master “you are dishonoring the tea ceremony!” to which the master replies “it is hard to fill a cup that is already full.”
The beauty of the silent Quaker meeting is the silence itself. It offers the opportunity to empty out amidst a life that is so full of noise and doing. It is akin to the Taoist koan of “the action of inaction.”
When I heard this message of the empty milk bottles I recalled my childhood. It was completely automatic and a kind of free association. Neurons just began to fire as I went down memory lane. I’d go down to the our neighbors farm, wash my milk can with scalding hot water, dip it in the big stainless steel vat and leave my $1.15 on the farmers desk.
Milk bottles, especially full ones where the cream separated over night on the top, represented pure luxury for me. As a child, I loved nothing more than having all that delicious cream in my Cheerios in the morning. I always made a point of beating my sister downstairs in the morning to get that cream.
The full bottle of milk with the cream was a gift I gave myself. My little reward for going down early in the morning to get the milk before the milk truck got there and hauled it away.
This hour of emptiness, of Quaker silence, is a gift. Some might even call it bathing in the Grace of God. We don’t need to earn it. There’s no task to complete to receive it. There is no being ‘deserving of grace.’ It’s there for the taking, like the cream, just waiting for us to partake.
Perhaps it is possible to be both filled with grace and empty to receive it.
Like many people in the meeting, I was without power for a couple of days. My unique concern was not for staying warm or cooking (thankfully I have a wood stove), but for keeping the water out of my basement. No power, no sump pump.
By day two, the water was creeping up to 2" high and at 3" the furnace and the hot water heater are in jeopardy.
My mind is built like Eeyores. When the power went out, the gloom sets in. I begin catastrophizing and cursing myself for all the stuff I did not do; like buying a generator.
What I learned is that my worst fears were never realized. The water stopped at 2 inches. It just percolated up and decided not to go further in spite of my thinking I'd be cold, dark and wet.
The point is this: Be careful what you sow. The mind is a curious thing and for better or worse very few of us are built like Tigger. We tend to expect the worst and go there in our minds -- especially when the power goes out.
If my thoughts are seeds, I must take care to choose good seeds and plant them where they will do the most good.
Matthew 13: The Parable of the Sower
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.
Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore.
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.
As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.
But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.
Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
A message came through today about our common humanity. Throughout history, our distant Neanderthal cousins from as far back as 60,000 years ago and even so-called modern humans from as close as 6,000 years ago have painted their hands on walls as if to reach out to us. What is their message?
I AM HERE!
The hand is such a powerful image. It speaks to the very form of our humanity. We recognize it immediately. We lend a hand. We give a hand up. We use sign language to communicate. We build with our hands. We create art and music with hands. We touch with our hands. We create community with hands when we say things like "many hands make light work."
In the language of Genesis, we also recognize that we are "created in the image and likeness of God." Could there be another message here?
I AM GOD. I AM HERE. I AM A PART OF YOU AND YOU ARE A PART OF THE GREAT I AM.
The one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm of David says it so eloquently.
Search Me, O God, and Know My Heart
A Psalm of David.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in hell, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Today in Meeting a long time member shared a message about how she had a "Wow" moment when she first got connected to God in a Quaker meeting and how now that she is close to God those "Wow" moments are rare.
When I consider my relationship to the Gathered Quaker Meeting and making a direct connection to God -- I frankly wonder how that happened. Something "Wow" must have happened but I don't know what?
It was quiet.
As I excavate my approach to God I can only come to one conclusion: I experienced a spiritual awakening in the presence of people listening for God. THE GATHERED MEETING.
And what is amazing is that I hardly noticed it. I only know that something stirred in me and I needed to return.
I could say that, for me, my WOW moment initially was mostly unconscious and to this day is still building to a wider experience of spirituality, integrity, community, equality and peace.
What was only a dim experience at first has only continued to brighten as I seek to deepen that initial stirring. And while it is probably different for each person, I sort of like the constant unfolding to deeper and deeper levels. It reminds me of peeling an onion -- the deeper you go the more robust the smells and flavors.
After meeting today the queries I am left with are:
A transcript of messages for State of the Meeting 1/28/18
Responses to the queries: How has our meeting changed me? Are there ways we would like meeting to change us? What might some of the Mechanisms be?
A snapshot of our meeting:
Today’s worship was deep and gathered. This gives me strength and hope. Messages were from divine love, knitting us together towards a common purpose. The physical space is warm and welcoming and full. As a side note, I almost didn’t come today; I couldn’t sleep for thinking of Elisabeth. But our corporate worship has invigorated me. As I reflect over the past year, this is one way the meeting/corporate worship has changed me: My personal relationship with Jesus/God is exponentially better when shared among friends.
Courage, openness, warmth, devotion to Quaker values, determination to move forward in the Light and the light of these values.
Safe space and supportive community make one feel comfortable, welcome and - especially supportive of people in need of extra care.
The meeting has given me an outlet for my need to be involved in good causes and has helped me to always look for nonviolent perspectives.
People keep me going and have changed me for the better.
Being part of our meeting community enriches my life and that of family members. Worship, spiritual exploration and depth call for and accompaniment with witness activity in the world – all this and more old Chatham meeting offers week after week and month after month.
Has made me better.
How does our meeting nurture contemplative practice and grounding in spirit? Perhaps this is our growing edge? Balancing the “doing” of service in the deep “being” that changes even our neurons in the direction of compassion, trust and service this is our calling.
Meeting has helped me to listen deeply… To be more tolerant of views that are different from mine. To feel part of the “gathered meeting”, to value being in community, to feel the support of others in the meeting.
I have been coming to this meeting for so long that I can’t tell how it has changed me. I think it has helped me grow that is if I have. I would like to deep and spiritually I’m not sure how.
Our meeting helps me realize I’m not alone – spiritually, politically, etc. so I feel stronger in knowing that I’m supported as I grow and act. In our meeting I find silence from the empty noises of the world. I would like to meeting to support us in our healing the world as a meeting but also our individual efforts. In our meeting I find kind, gentle people.
Meeting has changed me by helping develop my sense of how tradition is the foundation of new openings. “Way will open…”
How has the meeting changed me? I have become more appreciative of activist friends and the struggle to make the world a better place. I have deepened my understanding of service and have come to value the opportunity and the gift of seeking to serve a group who is temperamentally and ideologically different from my natural inclinations.
Good people – universal concern for the nonviolent pursuit of peace.
As a non-Christian I appreciate all opportunities to practice acceptance of other religions – spiritual viewpoints. My continued attendance here does provide me contact with Christianity, Bible stories for the youth and children etc. As far as change in myself, it grows more and more easy to integrate my complete acceptance of a viewpoint that is not my own. Our world needs this capacity.
Spiritual Journey Snapshot
Recorded by Dee Duckworth
“My mother was Episcopal, my father was Jewish, I grew up around Catholics, and I went to a Quaker college.” This is the one-liner version of Brian’s spiritual journey and, when it’s unpacked, it actually says a lot of what is important.
Growing up, Brian celebrated Jewish holidays with his father’s family and went to church with his mother on Christian holidays. His parents, though neither practiced their faith, wanted Brian to have a cultural knowledge of their religions. His mother gave Brian a child’s version of the Bible as a kid and he studied the history of world religions with his father. It was important to his family that the children have the knowledge they needed to make choices for themselves.
However, when asked if Quakerism was an aspect of Brian choosing to apply to Earlham College, his answer was an adamant “No!” In fact, that aspect of the college gave him pause, as his parents were “very leery of faith-based commitments.” It wasn’t until later that Brian learned there was considerable tension, including name-calling, between each parent and their respective in-laws. Brian had learned to respect religion “like you’d respect a chain saw,” having learned about all the faith-based conflict around the world, and having experienced anti-Semitism growing up.
Even on his initial visit to Earlham, Brian could feel a difference – he felt at home, accepted, valued. In New Jersey, Brian grew-up in a “very violent” working class neighborhood with “lots of physical violence.” Though guns were not in evidence, knives and chains were and, being different, Brian “had the tar knocked out” of him more than once. Understandably, the atmosphere at a Quaker college spoke to him.
With Friends United Meeting headquartered in Richmond, Indiana, too, the Quaker influence was strong, but not intrusive at Earlham – more like a “flavor.” It wasn’t until he transferred to RPI after three years that Brian noticed himself missing Quakerism. So, when a friend suggested attending Albany Meeting, Brian agreed, and so it began.
Being a Quaker coincides with Brian’s values: “None of us gets to say, ‘This is how you have to be!’” God is inclusive and would not value one religious view over another; there is wisdom in all faiths, in all cultures. At Earlham, the cantor at the synagogue attended Meeting on Sundays and considered herself a Quaker. Faith community is important, especially when you did not have community growing up. Community is the Divine in all of us and God is that which is greater than the sum of all life.
Spiritual Journey Snapshot
Recorded by Laura Schwartzberg
October 29, 1929 was a memorable day for many. The stock market crashed and Elaine was born in the Bronx, New York. “You are born into a religion,” Elaine told me when I asked her about her spiritual beginnings. Elaine’s mother was a Methodist and her father an Irish Catholic, which became the dominant religion in her home. Out of respect for his wife’s feelings, however, there were no crucifixes or other signs of the Catholic faith in the house. It was all low-key but the family attended church every Sunday. When Elaine was a young teenager, she sang in the choir, in Latin, which was the official church language then. Her mother did convert, but Elaine sensed that she was never really comfortable with Catholicism.
Elaine had a close friend, Florence Rubin, who was Jewish and lived down the street. Every Friday they would spend two hours together at Florence’s house where the candles were always lit for the Sabbath. Florence’s mother was out with friends and the two girls enjoyed each other’s company until Florence’s father came home from work at eight. He would stand at the door watching as Elaine ran down the block to her own home until she was safely inside. This friendship and the experience of living among other religions made Elaine more sympathetic to other customs and languages. The music in church and in her friend’s home resonated spiritually and she heard Italian spoken by the grandparents in the neighborhood.
It wasn’t until Elaine met Herb, who came from a Methodist family, and became engaged that religion became an issue. They were married in a Catholic church in 1954 because she knew her parents expected a Catholic wedding. Herb’s best man was Jewish and her younger brother, a former boy soprano, sang selections from the Messiah. After their marriage, they attended both Sunday Mass and Methodist services each week in Islip, Long Island where they lived, but at this point, they were both becoming critical of certain aspects of their respective religions. They decided to do some research at their local public library where they took out many books about religion. The one that affected Elaine most, however, was not about theology or comparative religions. It was a beautiful book of photographs of the interiors of Quaker Meeting Houses. There were no people shown, and Elaine wondered, what kind of people sat and worshipped in such places? She was struck by the sense of serenity, quiet and simplicity in the photographs and asked the librarian, “Is there a Quaker Meeting House in Islip?” There was not, but the librarian found out there was one nearby in Westbury.
Elaine and Herb immediately felt at home and were warmly welcomed as attenders in the Westbury meeting. At that time, the meeting was fraught with politics and the tension between activist members and those with quieter religious leanings. It was 1956 and the United States government was performing atomic tests in the Pacific Ocean atolls. There were activist Westbury members who owned sailboats, some of them big enough to sail from Long Island waters all the way to the Pacific Ocean to protest the atomic tests. Peace was a very important issue to Elaine and Herb as well, reinforced by Herb’s experience in the army at the end of World War II and his older brother’s service in the Far East for a longer period, which he survived. Elaine felt that “to pursue peace is an everlasting effort.”
When Herb received a Fulbright to study metal art in England, they became attenders at the local Quaker Meeting there. Their daughter, Martha, was born in England. When they returned to the States, they heard about Powell House, and looked for a place to live in the area because they felt that there would soon be a Quaker Meeting there. A few years later there was. In 1966, after their son, George, was born, they finally became members of the meeting. Elaine says that she has always enjoyed the silence, the listening in meetings for worship and the “quiet prayers that pierce the space.” She goes for spiritual refreshment and to be with others in silence.
When our meeting decided to build our own place of worship, Elaine became active on the committee that designed and carried through the long process of making the Meeting House a reality. Her early vision of Quaker meeting houses, from the long ago discovered book of photography led her commitment to the work. One of the lasting memories she has from that time is a conversation with a heating system installer who worked on the building. He spoke to Elaine about his gratitude to the Quakers at the end of World War II who provided cocoa and cookies when he was a cold and hungry nine-year-old boy in Germany. Elaine reflected on her own experience as a child during the depression, when nothing was wasted and saving resources was a necessity. The Quaker testimonies of simplicity and wise usage of nature and our planet’s resources are still important to us today.
So many of the powerful events in our lives have tremendous emotional and physical impacts on us. The death of a family member, a divorce, a legal problem or even a significant failure or win. You could say these events anchor us mentally, physically and spiritually to events in our lives.
Some of these anchors can keep us deeply grounded in the things that are important to us like love, peace and family. And those anchors, if healthy, are very useful.
Other anchors may weigh us down and keep our "ship of life" from sailing free. I can think of a few anchors in my own life that are covered in barnacles and have been a drag on me for some time. Maybe it is time to hack away at those chains and break free from the things that no longer serve me.
A few questions I've asked about anchors that seem unhealthy:
-- are these anchors making me happy?
-- are these anchors aiding in my spiritual development?
-- how could I develop spiritually if I did not have these anchors?
-- are these anchors hindering me from being more human?
It is possible through quiet contemplation to determine what we need to let go of. And it's okay to be in a drift for a while. At some point, a message will come as to where to drop anchor once again.
To assist me in the "drift of life unmoored" I have been meditating on one text that has been like a sea anchor in times of uncertainty: the Sermon on the Mount
THE EIGHT BEATITUDES OF JESUS
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure of heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Gospel of St. Matthew 5:3-10
A Beatitude is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent. Perhaps this a good mooring place.
Joseph Olejak is a member of Old Chatham Quakers. He currently serves on the Outreach, Peace and Justice Committee and is committed to bringing about a world that works for everyone. Presently, he is focused on a project to share the Quaker Peace Testimony by publishing a book and short documentary film called A Peace Beyond Understanding: My Quaker Journey.