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Issue No.117
17 December 2018

Discerning our daily choices

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Ben Pink Dandelion reflects on life as a Quaker, and how it challenges and affirms


HOW ARE WE CALLED TO LIVE OUR LIVES AS PEOPLE OF FAITH in a world that besets us with material temptations, yet at the same time can overwhelm us with humanity's injustices? It is a journey of continual tension, calling for daily discernment, and may work best if we can find ourselves part of a spiritual community.

Before I was a Quaker, I was an anarchist. I lived at a peace camp near Warrington, was an ardent vegan and then fruitarian, had a brightly-coloured hairstyle and changed my name to protest at the way the father's name was always passed down and not the mother's. I was an atheist and all I did was 'for the cause', with little sense of compassion and empathy for those with different views. Everything was clear. I was at the centre of my universe.

Think of Quakers and it may conjure up pacifism or prison reform or perhaps porridge. I started attending Quaker meetings after realising that the revolution was probably not going to take off in England. I still wanted to work with a group of people who appeared to want to change the world. I became an activist Quaker, finding kindred spirits amongst pacifist Quakers in a leaderless group that didn't take votes. It felt a little like my anarchist group.

However, a year later, after an experience of being held by God whilst on a bus journey across America (an unbidden sense of divine accompaniment that has remained with me ever since), everything looked different. I began to understand the home I had found as a peace protester in spiritual and theological terms. Thirty years on, I am still in the honeymoon period!

The Quaker faith is founded, to my mind, on four key ideas. The first is that we can encounter God directly without the mediation of minister or text. Second, because of this, we need to be committed to discernment, to know when something really is from God, not just from our imagination. Third, we have developed ways of worshipping to try and nurture this sense of encounter. For Quakers in Britain, that means using silence and stillness to cultivate our experience of God; absence leads to a sense of presence. Fourth, we are led out into the world to try and change it. An encounter with God leads to transformation; we are transformed in order to transform.

This is where it can get difficult. How are we to make the right choices? How are we to know when to act as prophets or as reconcilers, as outlaws or citizens? Quakers in Britain today are strong on the idea of the spiritual life being about seeking. We are clear we do not have the whole picture about God and have a strong sense of unfolding revelation. At the same time, eg on issues of war and equality, we have an historic witness which continues today. We are probably clearer on ethics than theology. But in daily life, how are we to live and how are we to decide how to live? It is almost as if we need a 24-hour discernment group (what we call a 'clearness committee' in the Quaker tradition). While we feel we seek the will of God in our worship, it is not always easy to stay in that place of encounter in everyday life, to remain as mystics in the midst.

We can try, however. We can become practised at knowing how it feels when we have been faithful, when we have been rightly led. For me there is usually a release of energy, a lightening of the load. Sometimes consequences just fall into place. We know the gift of the Spirit viscerally.

Sometimes the decision is harder. Here I have found the Amish test useful: 'does this action build community?' Using that as a guide, I have come to good choices in which I have been able to set self aside and put my family or my Meeting or my wider community first (not buying the classic car that would put us into debt just because I wanted it). Sharing these dilemmas in our faith communities is invaluable. Getting to know each other in the things that are material as well as eternal means we can help each other along in all our concerns and challenges. Together we can resist the consumerism that places us in competition with each other or contributes to climate injustice and hardships faced by those in poorer countries.

What of the world's ills? We are to play our part and not just sit back. But for me, the clue to getting the balance right between resistance and burn-out is to focus on the phrase 'our part'. We are not to save the world alone. We are dispensable, even as we are precious children of God. We need to do what we can when we can, but also understand what is ours to do. From 1 Corinthians 12, we can understand that we all have different Spirit-given gifts. It is helpful to know what these are and to work with what God has given us as our unique ministry. For some, it may be to coordinate a campaign; for someone else, it may be to publicise a meeting or get the chairs ready. All gifts are equally important. We are all equally children of the light of Christ, whatever our role and however public that role may be.

Let's seek God's transformation in our lives so that we can, in turn, help to transform the world, playing our part, discerning continually and, ideally, supported by a community who are all trying to do the same. My experience of an accompanied life means for me that we can achieve whatever God is calling and leading us to do. As we lend our hands to God, we are never alone.