Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Fresh Word

"See, I am doing a new thing!
   Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
   and streams in the wasteland."
Isaiah 43:19
Earlier this week, I read a blog post by Johan M.  The whole post was good, but one part jumped out at me.  Johan asked, 
"Are there Friends who actually have a direct message on their hearts for our new audience? Perhaps we're not limited to translating existing texts, but will be hearing from someone with a fresh word."
In particular, it was the last part, the part about a fresh word.  I had heard that phrase before, but in reading it there, it had new life.  I wrote it down and I have it on my desk at work where I can see it.

Recently, I have been feeling a heaviness around the Religious Society of Friends, mostly having to do with money and maintaining institutions.  I feel like we need a fresh word.  So that is my prayer for myself and for Friends.

I shared that prayer during our time for petitions at Freedom Friends Church this morning.  Later, during open worship, I gave the following message:
The last time I was at a gathering for Friends World Committee for Consultation was almost exactly three years ago.  It was in March, 2009, in Canby, Oregon―not very far from here.  During that gathering, God gave me a message to give to the group, but I did not give it.  Afterward, I felt awful.  I knew that I had been unfaithful, and I thought I was going to be sick.

When I first started feeling led to go to the World Conference in Kenya, I didn't want to go.  I fought with God, as I often do.  And I wondered if God was making me go to Kenya because I did not share the message I was given at the last gathering―if, because I didn't give the message nearby, I would have to go halfway around the world to give it.

Now my trip to Kenya is soon, and I'm not angry anymore.  I am excited about it.

The message that I didn't give was very short:  You have everything you need.  It would have been so easy to give that message―you have everything you need. 
Since not giving the message, I have noticed that it has stayed with me.  A lot of things have happened in the past few years.  At times, I have been unemployed, or I haven't known where I was going to live, or I have had very little money in my bank account.  But I have always had everything I needed.

I do not know whether this is the message that I am supposed to give at the World Conference, but I do believe that there is a reason that I am going.  And I am grateful for all of you for holding me when I go.
After meeting, a weighty Friend said that my message sounded like experiences he had read in journals of 18th and 19th century Friends who, early in their ministry, felt led to give a message, but did not for one reason or another.  He reminded me that those Friends were later called on to speak.  I am sure that I will be as well.

When I got home, I posted on facebook that I was praying for a fresh word.  Almost immediately, Brian, a friend of mine from high school, suggested "callipygian."  (Go ahead, look it up.  I'll wait.)  While I doubt that "callipygian" is the fresh world I will be bringing to Kenya, the comment is another reason I am grateful to be part of a larger community―other people remind me to keep a sense of humor!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Practicing Lent

For the past few years, one of my spiritual practices has been to spend time in the morning in prayer before work.  Other practices come and go, but this has been a consistently good one for me.  I set an alarm on my cell phone and pray for about 15 to 20 minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less).  I pray at other times as well―really, I believe that breathing is prayer―but having a quiet centering time in the morning is good for my spiritual health, and if I miss more than a day or two, I can tell.

Prayer time is my cat Bella's favorite time of the day.  Most days, as soon as I sit down, she curls up in my lap and starts purring.  I often begin my prayers by listing things that I am grateful for, and having a purring cat on my lap is at the top of the list!  Bella also helps keep me faithful―if it looks like I am not going to pray, she gets quite upset.

When I applied for the School of the Spirit, I saw that there was time for individual spiritual practices in the morning.  That seemed like a good fit, and I thought I would just continue my practice of sitting in prayer in the mornings at the residencies.  Our typical schedule for a day at a residency was:
7:30  Spiritual practice
8:00  Breakfast
8:45  Worship
10:00 Class
12:00  Lunch, followed by free time
2:30  Koinonia groups
5:00  Dinner
6:30  Class
8:45  Collection
In some ways, the rhythm to the days was lovely, but there was a lot of sitting.  By the second or third day of the first residency, I was pretty antsy and irritable.  The only real block of free time was right after lunch, which is a great time for a nap, but less good for a run.  Everyone around me seemed serene; I felt like I was about to start climbing up the walls.

When I complained about my need for exercise, someone suggested that I go running before breakfast.  But that was my time for spiritual practice, I responded.  Yes, and running could be a spiritual practice.  Oh.

And so it was.  Instead of sitting and praying before a day of sitting, I would run and pray, or do yoga and pray, or go for a walk and pray.  I checked in with one of the teachers about my new practice and she reassured me that it was my intention that was the important thing, not what I was actually doing.  I am sure my more energetic spiritual practices made me a much more pleasant person to be around during the residencies!

When I was home from the residencies, I had other times to exercise, so I went back to my spiritual practice of sitting in prayer in the mornings.  I did find myself consciously praying more often while running, walking, or doing yoga, though.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  When I was a kid, I used to give something up for Lent each year.  One year it was chocolate, one year it was soda, and once nearly my entire family gave up meat for the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Then I gave up Lent.

At one of the School of the Spirit residencies, we talked a lot about power.  One of the teachers said that, especially for young women, it is important for us to not give away our power before we know who we are.

I have been thinking about that in relation to the idea of giving something up for Lent.  I don't think it is valuable to give something up just for the sake of giving something up, but I do think there is value in giving something up to make space for something else.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do after feeding the cats usually is to open up my laptop.  I will check my email and open facebook and twitter to see what is going on in the world.  I never mean to spend a lot of time online, but I often will end up sitting there for 20 or 30 minutes, until I need to shower, have breakfast, and pray.

I don't think the internet is a bad thing.  I am glad that it allows me to connect with friends and family who do not live nearby, and email often is the best way to communicate with me.  But I don't like that it is the first thing I do in the morning.

So for Lent this year, I have decided to give up the time I spend on the computer in the morning before work.  I feel the same way about this as I did as a kid giving up chocolate―will I be able to do it?  Will it be hard?  How will I feel by the end?  It may seem like a small thing, but I am hopeful that it will help me change a habit that I don't like. 

I am interested to see what my mornings will look like without time on the computer.  I hope to spend more time in prayer in the morning, and I know that some of it will be while I am running or doing yoga.  If I feel led to write, I will write in my journal instead of opening my laptop.  Some mornings, I may just take the time to make myself a nicer breakfast than usual.  And I expect that most days will include at least 10 or 15 minutes of sitting on my couch with a purring cat on my lap.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Walking the Labyrinth

[This article first appeared in the Friends Journal special issue on Quaker Women in Ministry in October, 2011.  I wrote it as my final reflection paper for the School of the Spirit.]
“This is the message we have heard and declare to you:  God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another . . .”  I John 1:5-7.
I find walking labyrinths comforting.  I begin by standing at the entrance and setting an intention, then go.  Even when it seems like I am going the wrong way, I know that I am on the path that will lead me to the center.  And, as the sign by the labyrinth at Ben Lomond Quaker Center reminds visitors, there is no wrong way to walk a labyrinth.  I sometimes stomp my way through.  When I reach the center, I often cry, releasing the emotion of whatever it was that brought me there.  I sit and spend time holding my intention in prayer.  Then, eventually, I stand up and walk back through the labyrinth and out into the world.

The world outside of the labyrinth seems much more complicated.  As a woman who is called to ministry, I sometimes feel like a mess of contradictions.  I am small and soft-spoken, but I often feel led to give strong, prophetic vocal ministry.  I am afraid of everything, but I jump into things with both feet.  Biblical language is my first religious language, but I am easily upset by gendered language about God.  I am attracted to both men and women, but I feel clear that, at least for now, God is asking me to be celibate.  I am a homebody who craves local community, but I have felt a clear call to traveling ministry.  As an introvert, I find people draining, but I love them fiercely.  And my primary relationship is with a vast and personal God, but I spend a lot of time angrily fighting with God.

When I am feeling overwhelmed by these seeming contradictions, it is helpful for me to remember who I am.  My name is Ashley Marie Wilcox.  I am 29 years old.  I have lived in the Pacific Northwest nearly my entire life.  I am a member of Freedom Friends Church, of the Religious Society of Friends.  I am a beloved child of God.

Over the past three years, I have spent a lot of time traveling in the ministry among Friends, primarily in the Pacific Northwest.  At the same time, I have participated in the School of the Spirit program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, a two-year program, with residencies four times a year at a retreat center in Durham, North Carolina.  Between the two, I have traveled a lot.  At times, I just kept a suitcase out, ready for my next trip.

I think from the outside, all this travel seems glamorous and exciting.  I can get caught up in other people’s excitement as they ask me where I am going next.  And it is exciting.  More than that, it has felt deeply right.  It is different from anything else I have done.  Although there is usually some reason for my visit, such as sharing news about the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference, I know that’s not really why I am there.  Traveling ministry is an exercise in listening to God and to others, to try to be faithful in responding to whatever happens.

At times when I am traveling, I feel like an excuse for others to do things that they want to do―to talk about their experiences of God, in whatever language they use for God, or to get together with people that they want to see.  The time I spend traveling in the ministry feels out of time―the hours seem longer and I lose track of the days.  It is intense and amazing, and strange and miraculous things happen and seem ordinary.

But traveling in the ministry is also hard and can be very draining.  As my friend and traveling companion, Sarah P once said, “Travel in the ministry is eight-tenths drudgery and two-tenths spiritual stuff.”  To others, it may seem like I just appear at their meeting on a Sunday; they may not see all of the work and care that went into getting there.  For me, the traveling ministry usually begins months before the actual trip.  I feel led to visit a particular place, and spend time in prayer about that leading.  I meet with my care committee and talk with Friends from my meeting about my sense of leading.  When I feel clear, I get in touch with someone from the meeting or church, to talk about whether it feels right to Friends there, and what they might expect me to do during my visit.  I prefer to visit Friends in a spirit of openness, to spend time in worship with them and see what arises.  I also find that shared meals are a good time to learn how Truth prospers among them.  Sometimes Friends want a prepared message or a more formal workshop.  It is important for me to know what is expected in advance.

As the time approaches, there are a lot of logistical details to work out.  Because I do not have a car, transportation is always an issue for me.  Over the past few years, I have traveled by train, airplane, boat, bus, and rental car to get to meetings and churches.  I have been blessed with grant money for these trips, without which, they would not have been possible.  I have slept in a lot of different beds and eaten breakfast with many Friends, and I have found that breakfast is a time when people are quite open and generous.

Coming home is even harder.  After giving ministry, I am tired and tender and I need time to process and decompress.  But much of the ministry takes place on Sunday, and I have a full-time job where I am expected to be on Monday.  Those are hard things to balance and I have tried to do so in various ways:  by taking sick leave the day after ministry, which always makes me feel guilty, by cutting back on traveling ministry, and once, by quitting my job so that I could be released for ministry for the summer.  I have not found a perfect solution.  Coming home is also hard because I have experienced so much in a short time.  It is disorienting to come back to life the way it was before when I feel so different, and I don’t always have words to describe what has happened or how I feel I have changed.

In the middle of all of this, I felt led to move from Seattle, Washington to Salem, Oregon to become clerk of my meeting, Freedom Friends Church.  Becoming clerk was a hard transition for me.  Freedom Friends Church is a small and young meeting.  I have been attending since 2004, a few months after the meeting started, and I became a member in 2005.  The day that I became a member, our membership grew from three to six.  Now we have over 20 members.  Before I became clerk, there had only been one clerk, Alivia B, one of the founders of the meeting.  I felt intimidated stepping into her shoes and inadequate for the job.

Even though the meeting is small and young, it has had an impact on Quakerism that belies its size.  Freedom Friends is famous or infamous, depending on who you ask.  This is partially because it is both explicitly Christ-centered and inclusive, which is unusual for a Friends meeting in this part of the world.  We also have a surprising number of people who write Quaker blogs and travel in the ministry.  And we have written and approved our own Faith and Practice, which has spoken to people far and wide.

It has been disorienting for me to go back and forth between public ministry and being at home at Freedom Friends, because I feel like the reputation my meeting has is very different from its reality.  The truth is that most of the people who come to Freedom Friends have no idea that the church is famous.  Week to week, it is a church that struggles.  We struggle to pay our rent and a high number of members struggle with mental illness and physical disabilities.  For many, it is a victory just to make it through the door on Sunday.  But it is a place where God’s love is tangible, in worship and in the ways that we love each other.

One evening at a School of the Spirit residency, I found that I had an hour of free time.  That was surprising because the days at the residencies are very full.  I felt drawn to the retreat center’s labyrinth.  When I got there, I was alone.  It was a cool November evening and the moon was out.  I was struggling with the idea of becoming clerk of Freedom Friends, and set my relationship with my meeting as my intention for walking the labyrinth.

As I began to walk, I noticed that I had two shadows­―one long shadow, cast by the lights coming out of a nearby building, and another, more solid, short shadow, cast by the moon.  When I turned in one direction, I could see one shadow, and turning in the other direction, I saw the other.  Seeing these two shadows seemed to reflect the differences between how others see me and how I see myself, and how others see my meeting and how it sees itself.  Reaching the center, I sat and spent time in prayer.  After a while, I felt like I could see steps forward for myself and for my meeting.  I stood to leave, following my shadows back out of the labyrinth and into the world.

Recently, I have had the sense that the shape of my ministry is changing.  I am feeling called to lay down traveling ministry and spend more time at home, with my meeting.  This is really hard for me because I love traveling ministry.  I have never felt so alive as I have when traveling among Friends.  It is also hard because I am realizing how much being a traveling minister has become a part of my identity.  But I know that, whether I travel or not, I am still a minister and a beloved child of God.

Laying down traveling ministry feels a little like walking out of the labyrinth and into the wilderness.  As hard as traveling ministry can be at times, at least it is familiar.  And in addition to laying down traveling ministry, the School of the Spirit program is ending.  I am in a liminal space again, unsure of what will come next.  But even when I feel afraid of the changes, I am convinced that nothing, not life nor death, nor language nor theology, nor men nor angels can separate me from the love of God.  I know that God uses everything, especially the hard things.  And when I keep my focus on God, my entire life feels like a labyrinth―although I may sometimes feel like I am walking in the wrong direction, I am always on the path to the center.

Ashley M. Wilcox is presiding clerk of Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon and a graduate of the School of the Spirit Ministry's program On Being a Spiritual Nurturer, class of 2011. She carries a concern for supporting ministers in the Religious Society of Friends, and writes regularly about her spiritual journey on her blog:

 © 2011 Friends Publishing Corporation. Reprinted with permission. To subscribe:

Thursday, February 9, 2012


"Where is God when you're lost?  God is there, where am I?"
Lauren F. Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (31)
A few years ago, I read Girl Meets God, by Lauren Winner, and I was disappointed.  It wasn't Winner's fault―her writing is lovely.  The problem I had was that I felt like the book's title was misleading.  At the time, I felt like God had completely turned my life upside-down.  I was having shattering mystical experiences and I hoped that Winner's book would help me make sense of some of what I was going through.

Really, I think Winner's first memoir should have been called Girl Meets Religion.  Raised in a Reform Jewish home, Winner first converted to Orthodox Judaism, then became an Episcopalian.  Though she was clearly a spiritual seeker, it seemed to me at the time that she spoke much more about the rituals in each of the religions than about her experiences of encountering God.  But she was a bright and thoughtful writer, and I appreciated reading about the spiritual journey of a young woman close to my age, even if the book was not what I expected it to be (I later learned that Winner did not choose the title, her editor did).

Like many converts (and I include myself in that category), Winner became very passionate about her new faith and what it meant to call herself a Christian.  After her first book, she began focusing on chastity and declared that she wanted to change how Christians have sex

I was not interested.

After growing up in an evangelical culture where everyone I knew told me that sex was for marriage, period, and True Love Waits―I signed the paper, I had the ringthe last thing I wanted to read was one more person telling me about how Christians should be having sex.  So I stopped paying attention to Winner's writing for a while.

Then Winner got married, and her marriage was an unhappy one.  On top of that, three weeks before her wedding, her mother died.  Winner's new memoir, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, is about her relationship with God through those hard times.

I couldn't put it down.

Just as so many books and movies end with a wedding, many books about faith end with a conversion, as if, by accepting the tenets, a person has arrived.  But even though I have never been married, I know that the wedding is only the beginning and marriage can be hard work.  I believe that being in a relationship with God can be just as challenging and rewarding, and Winner's book talks frankly about what happens after the initial glow of conversion fades.

In many ways, Still is the book that I hoped Girl Meets God would be.  In short chapters, Winner describes how she experiences God's presence, often unexpectedly, and how that presence is fleeting.  In a chapter where she talks about her struggles with prayer, she writes,
"I do not know why things shift.  I've shown up for chapel at school, and there I stand, reciting a psalm.  I must admit I have never much liked the psalms, they have never prayed easy to me. . . .  [I]n fact I have found them dull for many years and mostly an occasion for woolgathering, and then in a moment I can only call mystery, I am standing there in chapel reciting Psalm 25, "Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted," and the words still me―there at Morning Prayer, those words are my words; they are the most straightforward expression of anything I might ever have to say to God, or to myself.  For the space of eighteen syllables, I have, it seems, prayed. 
I leave the chapel hoping this will happen every morning now, that this is the start of my completely new and different, totally fiery relationship with the Psalter. . . .  Of course, that is not what happens.  The next morning the psalms are dull again, and I am not even really paying attention; except their dullness is enlivened slightly by the small new knowledge that once (and so maybe again someday, maybe this day) the psalms prayed me."  (65-66)
As I was reading, I appreciated how honest Winner was about her doubts.  It was also refreshing to read about a person going through a crisis of faith who continued to go to church.  The book chronicles the small things that helped Winner find her way back to faith―not the same faith she had before, but a different, more mature relationship with God.

I enjoyed this memoir very much and I hope that Winner will continue to write as her faith changes and grows.