Monday, 29 February 2016

Quality Assurance- A reflection of what we can be like from the inside out.

One day, when I was quite young, my family took me to visit a great aunt. We brought with us a box of chocolates not knowing quite what to expect. I remember thinking on the journey there that chocolate was a very good present for the occasion because (hopefully) she would open the box, pass it around, and we would all get to have some.

Unfortunately it did not seem this elderly relation received chocolate very often. She was so pleased with the gift, began to open it right away, enjoying every moment. This savouring of her present made it the slowest unwrapping ever! I watched in shocked fascination. After so much concentration, the cellophane somehow survived intact. Then it was folded so as not to waste anything. She stopped to admire the picture on the box, then said quite a bit about it. Everyone politely joined in.

All this time I was just longing to tell everyone about the contents of that box. By enjoying the wrapping so much, we were missing the point. Chocolate can be so amazing when you get past the layers. Just like Quakers..

Those Cellophane moments are for me still a source of frustration. There's that phrase about "having a Quaker presence," because letting other people know you have an opinion is so often a beginning. Cellophane layers help make us feel all shiny and clean. They can be incredibly reassuring although people have sometimes asked me whether there is anything more to Quakers than our willingness to be heard. We have a well-established reputation for peace, a predictable presence at certain events, but just like those chocolate moments, I keep wanting to tell them there is more.

Quakers can also present a very pretty picture on our box. We have a record of finely woven tapestries put together over time, so if someone asks about us, we can illustrate the reply. When you approach Quakers from the outside in, testimonies stick to the surface, become a covering, simply a way of life, something to aim for rather than actually do.

For those wishing to spot the ingredients, there's worrying uncertainty because we have no creed printed on the outside of our box.
A barrier, like corrugated paper shows our diversity. Some slip in happily, say they have found their spiritual home, having found the right shaped slot in the box right away. We call each other Friends but not all their flavours are predictable and they may not be very like you. Some Quakers can be a bit chewy. Others come with strange fillings, unexpected crunchy bits, or so well wrapped up, it takes time to understand them. It would be nice to slip in easily but I think we are supposed to be a selection, even jostle about because that process of learning from our mistakes is a way in which we can grow. If you eat the whole box of chocolates in one sitting, it would probably make you ill.
Worship governs our sense of direction. We are there to look beyond the layers. It is not supposed to be focused upon each other. 

For some, choosing chocolate is an intellectual exercise that can be worked out through reason. To do this you need criteria. So what are you looking for? Is it size, appearance, the result of scientific research, nutritional benefit, cost, number of calories, social impact, convenience or some other factor that is going to determine choice? Chocolate is complicated when you try to make it a logical process. Its doesn't work if you rely entirely upon knowledge and reason, just as with Quakers.

 At the centring down of Chocolate there is essentially a bean. We may also be likened to having a seed within us, to cultivate and harvest. Like chocolate, we do not process ourselves. Through worship we receive guidence and the potential to become what we are meant to be.

After we had left my great aunt, I would like to think she finally encountered chocolate, recognised the contents of her box not just as a source of sweetness, joy and of food, but also as a memory of family who chose to come and see her.

Monday, 24 August 2015

What unites a Quaker Community?

There's a team effort every time some strange cat decides to prowl round the garden. Usually this matter is brought to our attention by the loud indignant wailing of our own cat, who is elderly, very deaf and so has no idea of what a coward she seems. By putting all her energy into a sound she cannot hear, the whole street will be informed that some major crisis is about to happen. Prompted into action, the dog starts pacing up and down, quivering with excitement knowing there is a specific role in this emergency situation dogs tend to do rather well.

Nose pressed firmly against the back door, whimpering, scratching with increased urgency. After seconds which feel like years, the door is finally opened. There is the smallest signal of command and then its a case of Whoosh!, joyful barks, off down the garden path, and "Goodbye" to the ginger tom. For a few moments there are a few barks to advertise this achievement and then its a case of job done, back to the house and sleep.

If only our moments of Quaker ministry could be like this! We would receive some compelling insight, perhaps loudly, then quake in our customary way. Moments of reflection would be a joyful experience, full of confidence and excitement.Then its onto our feet with a whoosh, happy barks at being able to make so positive a contribution to the life of our Meeting. Fast retreating fur represents that struggle against evil in whichever form this appears, and then its a case of job done. A few moments later the cat flap opens and shuts, and your most improbable Friend of this all-inclusive Meeting gratefully creeps inside. Afterwards other Quakers come up to you to say that they heard your barking, then saw all sorts of other cats, even tigers run away and it made a lovely sound.

So how does this kind of ministry come about in Meeting? If you asked most cats for a weekday opinion it would be noted that dogs can be a bit of a pain most of the time. Unlike these more sedate Friends, dogs are too bouncy, excitable, do not understand cat body language, cannot politely contain their curiosity and instead of communicating in the proper way, sniff in all the wrong places. Dog thieving makes it necessary for cats to gobble up their dinner. Its embarrassing for cats to find themselves so impolite with no time to pick about and savour. Cruel necessity leaves nothing to look forward to later. What if other cats make judgements, think you have forgotten how to behave when you are only trying to fit in? In turn dogs can be quite unfair, ready to misjudge a friendly contented purr as some kind of threat. Dogs have different temperaments, and even though you may be trying your hardest, cannot always hear you.

So far as us dogs are concerned, that wailing, hissing, scurrying, noise outside could well be for someone else's attention. If you get it wrong and start bouncing up and down excitedly for no apparent reason, people can get pretty annoyed. Some thoughts which only you can hear, seem of no relevance to anyone else stay with you.
If you do not wish to listen to the problems of elderly grumpy noisy cats, there would seem much less likelihood of hearing. Its a cold night.  The basket's safe and warm so I'm going curl up tightly. No one criticises a quiet dog remaining in their basket. Suppose anyway I get it wrong? Just because I've never seen an elder throws slippers or a cushion at someone about to give ministry doesn't necessarily mean they don't want to. Cat's is not my business. Basket's the best place to be. But then loyalty becomes an issue. Who after all belongs to my family, my friends, my Meeting, my community, my world? Why should I care? Why should I take the risk? Why do I find myself suddenly and quite unexpectedly barking?

Some weeks ago someone collapsed in Meeting. I did not know what to do. It would have been foolish and arrogant to pretend that I did, but worrying it seemed no one else did either. No one took her pulse. It seemed ages before anyone helped her to lie down. Instead she was propped up by someone who talked to her in a reassuring way with the best of intentions. No one took the initiative to clear the room so it was all so public. What if our lack of knowledge was making her condition worse? When the ambulance man arrived the surprised look on his face to see so many of us still in the same room, seemed to say it all. I was so ashamed to be there. It seemed to me that our Meeting needs to work out what procedures they should follow and appoint some of us at least to learn first aid. Some big scary tom cat came visiting and we did not know what to do.

This incident raised so many questions for me, setting in place a process that I should have become used to by now. How can I consider myself a Quaker when things happen which make me so frustrated and angry? To me it is so important that we should be humble, accepting our lack of knowledge and the importance of leadership. We do not have faith leaders as such, but surely this does not mean we are capable of doing everything on our own? Quakers can at times seem pretty arrogant to others. I dont want to be pretending to have all the answers, preaching. There must be some other faith group or faith community more accurately matched to my character and needs. For hours I surf the net, reading up about all the other different religions, hoping that someone somewhere will reach back the other way.
Steadily however I have become much more aware that is is not similarity that binds a Quaker community together. Although there is an expectation we should be loving and responsive to every insight and need, and there might well be matters of agreement, actual leadership does not come from each other. Instead we are able to act and take responsibility as individuals, trusting to be guided by the Spirit. Bouncy dogs are not very much like grumpy old cats. A plan of action worked out between them probably wouldn't work. Instead through receiving love they identify loyalty and can still work together as a team.  

Maybe among Quakers it is possible to be a little bit on edge, always listening out for the dangers. Dogs can be a bit distracting and not all their intervention welcome. Sometimes we get things wrong, and affectionately chew up your slippers. None of us are perfect but at least we are still listening, honest about what we hear and prepared to take the initiative about protecting the things that matter.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"Theists" and "Non-Theists"- Can we get on together?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I tend to be quite old fashioned. Just as some English people dress up in Civil War army uniforms to re-enact battles, there seems to me no shame in trying to re-create a perspective from the past. We might even learn something new, become clearer in our identity and sense of belonging, even stronger. (These days things are not as accurate as they might be. Re-enactors operate in much smaller numbers than the original armies, fire blanks, enjoy certain modern comforts on the quiet, even book in to guest houses, bring along their own food, and, when in the company of civilian spectators, resist the temptation to pillage!)

Quakerisim has always seemed to me as being about a search for truth. To me this characteristic defines a process rather than to specify a product. Since our journey of discovery, should last a life-time, it tends to worry me when Friends give themselves labels such as theist or non-theist as if they are now fixed in their position, or have adopted some kind of a creed. On whatever side of that very big "Pond" we just happen to be, our shared journey and the willingness to work together as Friends should in my view be what defines us as being Quakers.

The process of being a Seeker after Truth reminds me of boat holidays I had as a child. Most years we would travel up the river Thames to its highest navigable point just beyond St John's Lock at Lechlade, then, in the absence of other options, turn round and go back. That final lock was always slightly worrying as the river was already narrow, our family not very good at steering, and the available gap between two banks, steadily getting smaller. In passing through that final lock however, I might well have noticed a statue of Old Father Thames. Not surprisingly, it still looks a bit out of place, having been originally commissioned in 1851 for display in Crystal Palace as part of the Great Exhibition. This fine sculpture may have been much admired by Victorians who seemed to do this kind of thing a lot. It was however nothing at all like how I imagined the river.

Just as it would be misleading to say that I do not believe in the River Thames, having never met that bearded, half-naked man with a spade, the term "God" is also subject to a wide range of interpretation. There was no doubt I had some understanding and experience of the River Thames, having been travelling along it all week. Michaelangelo's portrayal of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling also conveys meaning to a particular type of audience. This depiction of God works for some people. In our search for the truth, it would seem we should be honest about our limitations, including the ability to imagine or reason.

As Quakers stumble over the "G Word" not wishing to alienate the non-theists among us, it would seem of relevance to note that this is a very Old Testament Problem. Since it was impossible to see God, Jews developed ingenious ways to avoid saying his name, emphasised the role of angels as intermediaries and made no attempt at description. Instead of speculating about the nature of God, the emphasis was on being alert to creation, so that you could appreciate, for example, the significance of a bush bursting into flames, maintaining a sense of wonder. The main requirement of God's Law was self-discipline, not substituting a more tangible form of worship in the form of idols. In the same way we might also become distracted by easier options or struggle to prioritise. In whichever way we experience these "Golden Calves", there is still a choice to be made.

It would seem to me, our relationship to God can still be compared to living by a river. We may not be able to create sculptures on what this water is all about, or wish to paddle upstream in search of its source. At times water provides a lesson in humility since the river allows so many different types of boat to travel.

We may identify with having water as a life force flowing through our bodies. In recognising our dependency, we might also choose to have a contract, choosing to respect the seasons, act responsibly and not pollute the waters. Without referring to any scripture, carrying stone tablets about in an Ark, or being dogmatic about belief, there is a relationship and interaction. Our lives too may be built around an instinctive moral law that defines our relationship with the river.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Should anyone be allowed into Quaker membership? Is it being mean to exclude people who want to join us and what are we all about anyway?

A few weeks ago our neighbourhood group met for the first time. Although we skirted around various topics, and all of us were tired, bits of the discussion somehow stuck in my mind.

From what was being said, it would seem there can at times be huge dilemmas when accepting Friends into membership. I wonder if this is true of other Quaker meetings out there.

It seemed to me that the issue of membership provides an opportunity to look honestly at who we are and what we represent. Are we considering ourselves to be Christian these days as our founder members did or sneaking into the various ecumenical groups under false pretences? Do we see ourselves as still being a religion, or more relaxed (liberals with a small "l"). Should Quakers make the saving of planet earth a priority, adapting to become more like a way of life these days? Is it now all about culture? Should all Quakers be conscientious objectors or can such matters be left for the individual to decide?

It is always good to hear from those who talk very enthusiastically of their first time in a Quaker meeting and how they immediately feel at home. Perhaps however there are others who have looked around the Meeting House on a Sunday morning, then sat through notices and wondered how came they to be among so very different a group of people to themselves. At times like these I have been reassured by my love of history. We have always had individuals who were not quite like the rest. Its a little hard for me to imagine George Fox sitting down quietly to a men's creative listening group, or putting himself on the flower rota, though sometimes I do like to try!
Some of the more vigorous ministry from Early Quakers such as interrupting church services, shouting out abuse to the people of Litchfield, burning your musical instruments so you can walk about with something resembling a barbecue on your head, or going naked for a sign, might easily attract the attention of elders these days. All of these individuals understood the importance of drama to communicate a message, how necessary this approach was to be inclusive in a semi literate society and absolutely sane.

So what is Quakerism really? Are we consistent, or subject to a changing environment, irrevocably changed from the old days?  Who do now we think we are?

Although it is often said that we began in 1652, the climate which made so many individuals receptive to the message of Quakerism developed during the English Civil War. Many regimental chaplains who enlisted for the Parliament side soon became disillusioned and returned home to their parishes. In the absence of the usual spiritual leadership, Parliament resolved this each soldier in the New Model Army should receive a pocket Bible. This vital piece of military equipment for the time encouraged soldiers to work things out on their own. That characteristic of being on a campaign and needing to seek out truth is I believe,what defines us even today as being Quakers.

Our Meetings for worship do not create membership through the ability to accept a creed. Instead it is process whereby we come to a belief rather than the belief itself which matters. This feature enables Meetings to have considerable diversity, without compromising its identity in any way.

So what should we be asking when an individual asks to join us? Since I have never been an Elder or part of those gatherings that decide such things, the best resource I have available is our history.

1- Are you a Seeker after Truth?
Historically Quakers can be at their worst when instead of focusing on the opportunity of their own unique spiritual journey they start looking around at each other and gossiping among themselves. Instead of allowing a religion of freedom, and personal responsibility, there is the opportunity to judge, so much emphasis on our way of life, and tremendous pressure to conform.

2-Do you require leadership?
The process of being a Quaker is about our unique relationship with God. It does not require interference or distractions.  If you are looking for human intervention, it could be very frustrating to worship in silence.

3-Do you understand what it is like to be human?
At times Quakers can come over as being arrogant. A knowledge of our own weakness and dependence helps make us receptive. Since we are all a part of God's Creation, it is not appropriate to create hierarchies within a Meeting, or see Quakers as being superior to any other faith.

3-Are you Convinced?
Quakers take responsibility for their own spiritual journey. This practice would not make much sense if we did not trust God's love and ability to guide us.

If you genuinely care about a person, it is natural to want the best thing for them.  Love for another human being may be expressed in many ways. It is easy to see love as we welcome Friends into membership of a Meeting. Surely it is also a demonstration of love not to mislead or obstruct those might benefit from a different framework for their journey?


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Preaching epidemic

A few weeks ago I received an e mail from a Quaker at our meeting thanking me for raising awareness about the situation in Libya. This kindness came with an offer of a "collection slot" so I could speak about my concern more widely and raise money from other Quakers.

The following week another Quaker offered to help me set up a Facebook Group so that anyone wishing to send a message of support for people living in Libya would be able to do so. Although the technical side was relatively easy, I felt very inhibited when the site required me to divulge my identity. Perhaps this was lack of courage on my part. It did not seem appropriate for me personally to be leading a campaign. By far the biggest challenge was that of impressing my priorities onto other people. Without a supportive cast of people wishing to join in, it was so easy to give quite the opposite impression from what I originally intended.

Very early on in this process I encountered competition. It seemed there was some kind of league for world problems where those without the benefit of professional marketing skills might so easily fall off the bottom of the list. A single Facebook page jostled uncomfortably with so many other worthy causes. Somewhat illogically I hoped for magical solutions, there would be less to worry about generally in the world and we then could all focus our attention in a much more efficient manner.

Promoting my own concern made me very aware of how often Quakers seem to do this. These activities result from an interpretation of our testimonies. These also have a tendency to jostle for attention.Some become comfortable and compelling with a certain feel-good factor. Others of a more challenging nature mysteriously become "something we might aspire to" as they slip steadily down the list. My very short campaign to raise awareness about a particular issue, challenged me with a realisation that it not our way of life that just happens to make us Quaker.

To me, whether from a soap box, a pulpit, in a leaflet or even through social media sites, all of this telling people what to do is preaching. However well intentioned, in my concern about Libya I could imagine myself being vigorously heckled by George Fox. In his very loud persuasive voice he would be telling everyone not to worry about people like me intervening since God spoke to individuals direct. In a country devastated by suffering, religious extremism and the recent civil war, this uneducated, itinerant shoe-maker reminded everyone he met of their own power to communicate with God direct. When asked for specific advice on the subject of wearing swords (something we all occasionally do in Meeting!) he very decisively threw the issue back for the individual concerned to work it out for themselves. (The next instalment of this story about William Penn would suggest he did this rather well!)

When Early Quakers talked about being directly accountable to God, there must have been some connection in other people's minds. These views had been expressed before. It would have seemed quite shocking that the Divine Right of Kings should be held by ordinary people. Surely this was a recipe for chaos! This understanding of kingship had already proved so devastating and destructive. Just four years earlier it had been the main cause of a very public trial, sentencing and then the execution of a King. Happily these days, although Charles I sometimes raises a Royal standard in Meeting, however strong the views, Quakers do not have the resources for an army.

This link to Divine Right demonstrates why we were seen as being so subversive. In the aftermath of civil war, survivors were desperate to restore law and order. They could already see how all their original ideals had been transformed by conflict, there was now relentless greed, an insatiable desire for revenge and such insecurity at every level of society from all that power had achieved. When people are frightened there is often an incentive to seek out a greater force to assert its authority. Their world would not seem very different from that of many communities today. Although English people considered Cromwell's military rule as a very definite option, for Early Quakers this process led to a search for truth.

Whereas early Stuart Kings had gained Divine Right through a process of hereditary, to Quakers this remarkable privilege and opportunity was an inclusive characteristic of being human. We have all been born with a capacity to seek truth, and in this journey of discovery, can have a direct relationship with God. That process, mysteriously referred to as "convincement" made their behaviour entirely logical. If you are able to trust a power so much greater and better than yourself, it does not seem that necessary or very sensible to settle for anything less. Why should they settle for the power of weapons, the influence of wealth, the external padding of popular opinion, or so many lesser truths when given what God has to offer as a resource?

At times, being caught up in our freedom and enthusiasm, we might forget that crucial connecting link, be  distracted by the temptation to impose our individual leanings upon others. Like every other human being, I have my priorities and concerns.

The people and peacemakers of Libya are often in my thoughts. I remember a country so obviously blessed by God in its natural beauty and know that those people living in it right now are part of that creation. Sometimes all of us need to be reminded quite how beautiful we are. That awareness of being valued may come through the love and support of other human beings. From a distance I have very little idea of the internal politics, only remember a few words of Arabic and genetically cannot possibly describe myself as belonging to a tribe! The God of Islam when communicated honestly and sincerely is however the God I also know.

When there is an opportunity to send my love to Libya, I have chosen to make that commitment, despite the inevitable problems with translation. There are so many needs out there, so many different people and communities about, all requiring the right medicine. To a world pre-occupied with power, status and success, there would seem a need for us not to worry about getting things right all the time, or how we might seem to others. Instead there is the opportunity to trust in the power of our Creator, do what God tells us to do, respond to the promptings of the Spirit and just share love about.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

"Brief Encounter"- Is this all Quakers need to do?

One day when my children were very small, I made a list of all the things people enjoy doing while they are away on holiday. Since practical considerations prevented us from travelling about the world sight-seeing, I decided to spend some time each year having a holiday focused entirely on the things it is possible to do elsewhere but also quite feasible in your garden.

These days we no longer put up a tent, make dens with old blankets or have much use for a paddling pool. Instead of entertaining children, a gang of sparrows have been joining us every morning at coffee time expecting to be in fed. For those adults pretending to be all sensible and mature it may be helpful to know that there is an alabi for wet messy fun. This involves sticks, sloppy blanket weed and is usually referred to as pond maintenance!

I love being in my garden, feeling safe, and sustained through the exclusive company of people I know very well. It is so relaxing not having to go out and meet people, a very necessary holiday for me although ever Sunday morning I am still aware of other Quakers out there who just happen to be in Meeting.

 For those who have ever felt tired after a working week, enjoyed a morning lie-in, time to properly enjoy breakfast, coffee, reading the paper, pottering about the home, doing a bit of gardening and spending time with the family, it would not seem necessary to explain how precious Sunday morning's can be. In all these different ways it is possible to celebrate the moment, refocus, sort out priorities, even worship and be as Quakerly as we like (on our own!). With so many competing attractions out there, it would seem Quaker Meetings do very well these days to attract anyone at all.

For many years I might well have described myself as one of those "Brief Encounter"  Quakers, attracted by the promise of freedom. Through the absence of a creed and our silent worship, there is the opportunity to step outside the usual constraints associated with religion. It may seem surreal at first to be surrounded by so entirely by the worshipping opportunity of silence. Across the floor of each Meeting House there is the attraction, even passion, and a need that feels in some way fulfilled. Although it is undoubtedly love which draws so many Seekers of Truth to our Meeting, and an initial feeling of having found your spiritual home, there is the railway timetable and a world outside to consider. A whistle blows, and when it is only freedom that you are looking for, the spiritual journey moves on.

A considerable number of Quakers I know come through a sense of duty. They attend knowing that meetings need to be sustained through their presence and it is not merely a case of numbers. There is however a very fine line between a sense of duty and importance. Perhaps some roles in our meetings can give individuals a sense of superiority over others. When the job ends, the absence of any other identity leads them to mysteriously disappear for a time until a new role of usefulness is created. Perhaps it is assumed that our tasks and responsibilities about Meeting are so arduous and unrewarding that no one could possibly wish to do them very long. It could be said Quakers methodically shoot themselves in the foot every three years through a system of triennial appointments. This deliberate inconsistency may be a reason why we can be embarrassingly deficient at some types of organisation especially where leadership is required. It would seem almost anything is better than having a hierarchy in our Meetings.

At one time almost every Quaker Meeting struggled to keep going. The problems associated with getting to Meetings often began with a walk or horse-ride of a considerable distance in all weathers that might well involve some expense and take all day. This journey with its associated absence from church services, marked you out as being separate from the rest of society, unsure of any rights associated with property or protection from the law. Those who travelled in the ministry were regularly identified as being vagrants. As Quakers became an obvious target for intense persecution and arrest, their usual Meeting places were boarded up. For the duration of a Meeting and in all weathers, Quakers were often obliged to meet very publicly often amongst a hostile crowd in the open .

In my town every adult Quaker was imprisoned. In the notable absence of protective parents, there were some very good reasons why traumatised, vulnerable Quaker children should remain at home on a Sunday morning. Instead they were quite regularly beaten with sticks and doused in water for holding a Meetings for Worship in the street. This was the "ice-bucket challenge" that no one else appreciated for Truth.

Although some Early Quakers identified very strongly with being a persecuted people, it would not seem very likely that Meetings for Worship were identified with freedom. Being mocked, beaten and doused in water was most unlikely to give their children a feeling of security or importance. At times it may still take the children of a past generation to remind us that there is a stronger reason for attending a meeting for Worship than the comfort associated with having a particular role or the rights we have come to associate with freedom.

Children maintaining meeting for worship in my community were likely to have known Isaac Pennington. Initially this son of London's Lord mayor might well have seemed like a celebrity. With everything to lose he deliberately chose to attend a Meeting for Worship and so came to share a prison sentence with their parents. Perhaps even then it was necessary to keep reminding themselves just how good a Quaker meeting for Worship can be.
Isaac Pennington later described how
"Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand."

Perhaps these days lack of adversity has allowed Quakers to relax in their expectations of Meeting. It is so easy for us to forget that quite exceptional environment where everyone felt included, everyone felt loved, everyone reciprocated that love through the pattern of their own lives, shared a testimony of suffering for the Truth and kept their Meeting going. Over time the people attending a Quaker meeting may change a great deal on the outside but the heart remains constant. That capacity to love honestly and without exception, drawing communities together and bringing out the best of each one, is still I believe a characteristic of being human.
As my own holiday at home draws to a close, I expect to attend Quaker Meeting very soon. In this big messy pond of distracting blanket weed and so many other people, in my own spiritual journey I am learning through example to be a child of my Meeting.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

When Peace is not enough

This morning I was reminded of the time my father collected me from school. During playtime, someone started spreading the rumour that bombs were being dropped in Libya. We were supposed to be doing Arabic but the teacher didn't turn up. I was one of the last to leave Tripoli College that day, took my Arabic text book with me and have kept it ever since. On the way home I was told to look out of the back window because seeing a child might stop people throwing bottles of petrol at our car. This didn't seem to work. We did not wish to draw attention to our home by parking a car outside it, so stopped about 400 yards away and ran. The next couple of months were spent behind closed shutters. My parents listened to the radio all the time. I made a horrible pink pin cushion with lace round the edges that I kept for many years. We had a suitcase packed even though there was no way of getting to the airport, and I could not understand why people hated us foreigners so much.

At times it seems as if a shared understanding may be helpful. At other times however it can be most unkind to imply a comparison with more extreme situations people are going through right now. These days I look back on those experiences which made me the person I am now. They made me realise strength that I did not know I had before. Some of those happenings you would in no way choose but when things are good, happy and peaceful, you tend to appreciate it more. For those caught up in troubles, it must be very hard to imagine good, happy peaceful times ever happening again, but I honestly believe that Light will eventually triumph over darkness.

Until such a time, it does seem so important to remember those who are suffering, likely to be very frightened, and despairing of human nature. George Fox went through such a time. he called it the "ocean of darkness." A Muslim friend called this a time of great 'fitna', the Arabic term for trials and tribulations. When confronted by such suffering, it can be very hard finding the right thing to say.

There may be a temptation to talk about our Quaker peace testimony. We could step in as impartial observers, offer to arbitrate and get people to talk to each other. At times it may be very helpful for a third party to identify some aspect of common ground on which it is possible to build. There will always be room for a foundation. Perhaps because the human race is a family all growing up together, that we tend to fall out most easily with our siblings.

Peace-makers can seem very helpful so long as you are in a good position to bargain. If you are feeling threatened, the very last thing you want is for some do-gooder with very limited knowledge to talk of conflict resolution and bring your enemy nearer.
That brief telling off to the school bully, being told to shake hands to someone who twists your wrist in doing so, bringing the abusive partner home after a telling off and ride in the police car, telling you to vote when there is no guarantee of safety, offering a gun amnesty when there would seem no other defence but to have the means of dispatching a bullet near you. These characteristics among peace-makers can give you nightmares. Human Beings are no different from any other species. Our primary concern is safety. When you are on the receiving end of an injustice, that commodity most necessary to your condition is power. Because we do not have all the evidence or know the answers, it always worries me whenever I see Quakers taking sides.

It would seem quite ironic that one of the usual ways of resolving this situation is by talking about belief. This process can feel amazing, but only if you are the person doing all the talking, or, at the very least, have been invited to do so. Those on the receiving end, experiencing perhaps a very different kind of spiritual journey, may not have the means to imagine quite what you mean by "God." The term "Our Father" can sound very different to the child of an abusive parent. It is possible to leave a victim even more dis-empowered, isolated and unhappy by talking about religion.

The other mistake people often seem to make is by providing the wrong kind of weapon. This process usually involves something to carry about that explodes and may create lots of casualties around you. It may be what people ask for but strength in a human being comes from the inside. In some ways I would liken violence to the use of drugs or alcohol. These provide temporary relief or an illusion of power. They have very little to do with proving a point, providing a solution or making anyone stronger.

It seems helpful to remember that Quakers have always been motivated by stubborn, plain-speaking, uncompromising truth. Strategically we might exploit any point of weakness in the aggressor since those who use violence seem content with second best. Truth however allows for many different perspectives. Those who adopt violence are so often victims themselves. When you are caught up in a cycle it is quite impossible to judge.

Perhaps in our confusion, we step might back, choosing instead to make gestures, rather than try to resolve anything. This would seem to me as being an honest approach and likely to do least damage. Symbols of peace can raise awareness even though we might seem somewhat ineffectual to others. 

Increasingly I have found myself wanting to tell other people how I see then. This morning a picture was conveyed through social media of the old castle on Tripoli sea front. Its a facinating building. There used to be a zoo there. Every sunset during the month of Ramadam a gun used to fire from castle across the harbour. Those hungry and thirsty from fasting must have been so relieved to hear the sound of gunfire but they hear it often now.

I remembered how the old Souq (market) with its narrow streets, and very beautiful houses was situated just behind the castle. The people I saw there used to amaze me with their skill, craftsmanship and patience. I remember the sound of chisels rhythmically tapping away, and the creaking of a wheel turning round as craftsmen put decorations on brass plates.

There were bracelets that I wore made with thousands of tiny beads and so many different things they could make with leather. I had a little braided camel that I loved. The patterned wool rug I have on my floor right now must be over 40 years old and it still looks like new. I remember the place where it was hanging the day that we bought it. I remember Fezzan dates filled with almonds and shaped into a block. They can make the best bread in the world in Libya using clay ovens. If you have ever seen the traditional way of making tea in Libya, you would know how patient Libyans can be. Those who are able to make tea always seem to have a role in a crisis.
Whenever I saw anyone riding a camel it used to amaze me. Humps wobble about a lot and very grumpy camels spit a long way when they don't like you. Its not at all like being on a horse. Those able to ride camels understand the importance of leadership, using the right kind of control on a stubborn, bad tempered, frightened animal. I remember how cleverly Bedouin tents were made, to be put up and taken down so many times, using every available resource. There was the best taxi service ever in Tripoli with beautifully dressed horses who wore hats to keep out the sun. When people talk about armed gangs roaming about the streets of Tripoli, and private armies, I would like the rest of the world to know that the people of Libya are amazing. Those tribes are so interesting, talented and diverse. I wish that I knew more about them. I wish someone would write about them more, but can tell you now, fighting is not the only thing they can do.

As a Quaker, I understand the importance of power. When people say something good or kind about me, I am empowered. In turn this gives me the strength and capacity to pass on power to others. Kindness, is like a car suddenly getting filled up with petrol. Kind words can also travel far.

It would seem to me that Quakers talk a great deal about power. Like so many other faiths, we have identified a limitless resource.
Love allows us the strength to be fully honest, transforms the way we see each other. Love gives us the power to fulfil our potential, Love allows us to forgive. Love mean we can always give away and still find we plenty more. Love allows us to see a way through conflict situations. Love does not need second best.
To me, peace on its own is not enough. When you are up against anything it is necessary to employ power. We may loose our credibility, at times feel pretty daft, but are not supposed to have all the answers, win or try to impress anyone. It would seem to me our role as peace-makers is about giving something of ourselves away, responding to people as they really are, washing the feet of others.