Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Walking humbly, walking cheerfully

A bit of a change of focus this week. Last weekend we (that’s my colleague, Lizz Roe, and I) were running the 3rd module of the Good Lives programme, ‘because we need to walk humbly as well as cheerfully’. It was focussed on our spirituality, and on how we create and sustain a spiritual discipline that will nurture us as we work on the pressing issues of our time.

In case it’s obscure to any readers here, I should explain the title. It comes from two well-loved (by some people!) phrases. The first is biblical:
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8) (King James Version)
Yes, I know, the ‘man’ language is anachronistic! But the rhythm of this language is the one I grew up with, and I still find it resonant, in spite of the ‘man’.

Here it is in ‘The Message’ translation:
“But he's already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don't take yourself too seriously— take God seriously.”
Terribly ‘correct’ and ‘accessible’ – but so clunky, and no poetry in it! The version we ended up using for the Good Lives Study Pack was the best compromise we could find – the ‘God’s Word’ translation:
“The Lord has told you what is good. This is what the Lord requires from you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to live humbly with your God.”
The second well-loved phrase is from George Fox, and there are no translation problems:
“And this is the word of the Lord God to you all, and a charge to you all in the presence of the living God: be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (Quaker Faith and Practice 19:32)

So, having run the event, I thought I’d include here some of the exercises we did with people. We did a lot of sharing in threes and in the whole group, but you could reflect on the questions by yourself, perhaps in journalling.

If you’ve never tried journalling, here are some places that might get you started: http://www.annunciationtrust.org.uk/approaches/journalling.shtml

Or you might want to gather with a couple of friends and try sharing your answers and reflections.

But first, here’s an adaptation of one of the inputs that Lizz Roe gave during the weekend:

Most faith based communities have particular things in common – it’s what marks them out and means they get included as faith based communities in dictionaries of religion!

In Britain there is huge variety, even within a single faith group, differing beliefs, theologies, and so forth; nevertheless, broadly speaking what we can say about faith groups in general is the following:

Most faith based groups have the following 8 things:

- A shared sense of what is holy, and what is meant by that
- A shared set of behaviours, practices, liturgies and rituals
- A shared set of values/ethics
- A shared understanding of God in their community (which may be that God isn’t really important, or that faith in God is not as significant as observance of particular practices etc)
- A shared understanding of the place of any scripture or holy writing or sacred texts in the community (eg as a source of authority, as an inspired set of writings, as the rule to live by etc); this understanding could be that there aren’t any such texts
- A shared understanding of the role of belief in the group
- A common personal discipline (and encouragement of it)
- A shared understanding of where power, leadership and authority reside

It’s interesting to observe that in the strongest faith based communities, there is strong agreement about all of these things in terms of shared understanding, behaviour, and ‘ideology’. In ‘weaker’ communities there might be strong shared understanding but weak shared behaviour, or strong shared behaviour but weak ‘ideology’.

What we do know is that where the congruence between all three is strongest, this leads to stronger faith based communities - which may or may not always be a good thing!

At the core of this are two things:

- A shared set of behaviours, practices, liturgies and rituals
- A common personal discipline

Amongst Quakers in Britain, we’re strong on the first of these, but we’re increasingly less good at the second – at a common personal discipline!

Quakers in the 17th and 18th centuries would have recognised the need to meet regularly with an Elder, to read the bible (every day), to pray (every day), to read other texts, pamphlets and writings, to go to business meetings (dealing with the life of their community) as well as to attend Meeting for Worship, if they were endeavouring to live up to the Light and to make real the Republic of Heaven here on earth.

They recognised that witness and worship went hand-in-hand and would be supported by a regular discipline of prayer, reflection and worshipful discussion with another, perhaps a more experienced Quaker. What we think might work for us to sustain us for the long haul may now be different (although it’s worth asking ourselves where and what we might learn from these early Quakers), but it is the regularity of their practice that it is important to consider – it’s called a spiritual discipline for a reason, because it requires discipline to do it even when one is tired, frustrated, burnt out or fed up!

Richard Foster, an American Quaker, has some interesting things to say about this in his book Celebration of Discipline: the path to spiritual growth.

And now, here are some of the questions for reflection:

Pick one thing – the most important to you right now – that your spirituality means to you.

On a sheet of paper (maybe large, with coloured felt pens) – write down words that you associate with your experience of spirituality.

Reflect on that collection of words – what are they telling you?

In terms of a spiritual discipline, what do you actually do?

Is it helping? (In what ways, if it is? In what ways, if it isn’t?)

What do you intend to do, but don’t actually accomplish? Why is that? (time? Motivation? Resources?)

Does you have a spiritual community? If so, does it help you?

Do you need (or choose) to look elsewhere?

If you don’t have a spiritual community, would you like to have one?

What would you hope for, if you had one?

How is all this (above) for you in terms of action/activism in the world? What do you actually do?

What do you intend to do? (and what gets in the way? – is it time, motivation, resources?)

What do you want to do?

Does your spiritual community (if you have one) nurture you in this?

What might help?

* * * * *

It would be good if anyone felt moved to add some of your reflections on these questions as ‘Comments’, here on the blog. The sharing of our thoughts and experiences is one of the ways we can nourish ourselves and each other and create a community where we can speak freely of the things that matter most deeply to us.


  1. As one of the participants on the course, I want to start by saying that it was an intense and rewarding experience to be with a richly varied group, exploring these issues. It's great to revisit the ideas of spiritual community, in writing and to notice how my practices are enriched by sharing 'discipline' with others. My meeting is currently running 'listening groups' which really supplement my solitary reflections. I wonder if an online community, with good leadership and commitment, could develop such levels of trust.

  2. This comment was sent to the Blog by someone who hasn't got any of the accounts to post himself:

    All very interesting, particularly as I didn't attend this course due to other things in life 'being more important' and getting in the way.

    The idea of a personal daily discipline is something I have been thinking about a lot in the last two years. I initially started considering it after an Anglican priest ran a session at a Quaker gathering and asked how many people there prayed daily. One person put up their hand. Since then, I have tried and failed to make this a habit, though a recent conversation at a spiritual direction session helped. I was recommended to try to make a time each day for religious practice, but if I couldn't manage the same time every day, then doing it in the same place can be helpful in forming a habit. The other thing I was told was to make the daily religious practice a priority around which other things have to fit, rather than my tendency to do it if I have time.

  3. For the last couple of years I have been meeting with an elder from our Area Meeting every few weeks. She has helped me to develop a regular meditation practice, as well as talking through my general spiritual journey and work/activism issues.
    This has been a hugely helpful and important process for me. It's also a great advantage I think that we are both Quakers, so there isn't the kind of 'teacher/student' relationship that is often the case with a meditation teacher or spiritual guide in other traditions.
    This is certainly where I experience the most support from the Quaker community in my spiritual life and activism, but I expect that this is a fairly uncommon practice in Quaker Meetings.