Thursday, June 21, 2012
Epistle of the 2012
Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference
June 13-17, 2012
Greetings to Friends everywhere.
Grace permeated our days and wove the variegated fibers of our lives together into a tapestry of light and love much like the quilts that surrounded us in our meeting space at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. We gathered on June 13, 2012, at the Menucha Conference Center above the Columbia River near Corbett, Oregon, around the theme of Inviting, Contemplating, and Enacting Grace. Prior to the conference each participant wrote a short essay in response to the theme. The conversation among us began as we read each other’s papers online and throughout our time together. We came with differing experiences among Friends and other faith traditions, some excited, others tentative about what we would hear, and feel, and do together. We came yearning for community, a place to feel at home. We came knowing we would be challenged to listen deeply, to learn to open and stretch, hoping the effort would yield deeper understanding and add new patterns and textures to our tapestry of grace as we were woven together.
Thursday morning we received a message from Ashley Wilcox on Inviting Grace. Ashley opened with her admission of love for the Apostle Paul. Drawing from Acts 9 she showed us that sometimes we invite grace through doing the completely wrong thing. We can also invite grace into our lives by accepting and giving loving acts and living words. Darla Samuelson taught us how to use specific disciplines to create a space for grace to touch the pain of shame that is common in human experience.
Friday morning Cherice Bock led us through a contemplation of grace through a word study. She asked the provocative question, “Do we have to feel guilty to receive grace?” In answer to her own question, she proposed that grace is an undeserved gift with no strings attached. Cherice concluded that grace is active, social, and enduring.
As stewards of grace when we extend grace to others we receive grace into our own lives and are further called to extend grace in this world. Christine Hall continued by saying that in contemplating grace we are swept up in a love that connects us to God, one another, creation, and divine mystery. She finished with a quote from Thomas Merton stating that through contemplation we “see through the illusion of our separateness.”
Saturday, responding to the theme Enacting Grace, Carol Urner challenged us to say “yes” to leadings even when we do not know where our “yes” will lead us. In that “yes” there is a river of light that will flow through us and sustain us. Elenita Bales followed and reminded us that that the word “enact” contains “act.” She encouraged us to develop a rhythm of faithfulness in speaking the truths that emerge from our souls, and to risk vulnerability that we may become a channel of change. Quoting historic Quaker Ann Wilson, Elenita asked, “What wilt thou do in the end?”
Afternoon workshops presented a variety of ways we can nourish our lives and create an opening for grace. In Writing as Spiritual Practice we explored several ways to begin and be faithful to our own spiritual writing. A workshop on the Bible revealed that in spite of feelings about Scripture, ranging from anger through love, the group had an interesting and respectful discussion. In a session entitled Speaking Holy Boldness participants considered viewpoints and experiences that made clear that prophetic witness is alive and well in our yearly meetings. Another group shared the different practices, such as movement, meditation, prayer, and visualization they use to hold others in the Light. In a session entitled The Hard Stuff women from different yearly meetings responded to questions that had been submitted in writing earlier. Participants engaged in respectful discussion that acknowledged our differences while encouraging understanding and acceptance. One workshop focused on listening and care committees and offered guidelines and tools on how to support others through suffering. Judy Maurer shared her experiences and reflections on teaching, listening, worshipping, and working on social justice issues in Russia. Christine Hall introduced Way of the Spirit, an opportunity to engage in contemplative study through a new program in the Pacific Northwest.
Evening activities provided opportunities to further be woven together in our tapestry of community. Thursday evening Roena Oesting, dressed and speaking as Elizabeth Fry, recounted major events from “Betsy’s” life as written in her journals. We expressed gratitude for the way Elizabeth Fry’s work in prisons started a pattern of prison reform work among Friends that continues today. On Early Friday evening we listened to the experiences of those who attended the FWCC Sixth World Conference of Friends in Kenya. Their exchanges were fruitful, rich and full, though sometimes difficult. As we heard their stories we could sense that there, too, they were held by grace. Later, we danced, sang, played Hearts fiercely, worked on a HUGE puzzle, and created art. All these allowed for new openings into one another’s hearts and connections through joyful exchanges.
Throughout the conference threads of conversations at meals, home groups, over the puzzle, or on hikes further wove us together in beauty and grace. It was an amazing gift to sit at a meal and turn to a stranger and feel no awkwardness. On Sunday morning we were gathered together for a final hour of worship in which Nancy Thomas brought us the challenge to carry gratitude with us in response to God’s grace. We came here to be ourselves and left affirmed in our appreciation for and joy in the deepening cross-yearly meeting friendship; that is grace. Borrowing a sentiment from Carol Urner, we have to finish, but we have not yet begun.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
I returned from the ninth Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference this afternoon. Before I left, I said that I was going to the family reunion of Quaker gatherings. That is true for me in many ways.
The women's conference brings together women from all the branches of Friends here in the Pacific Northwest, and the relationships are deep and true. At the same time, newcomers to the conference are welcomed with joy. It is a blessed community of women who challenge each other, laugh together, and listen deeply. The presence of God is palpable.
The theme of this conference was "Inviting, Contemplating, and Enacting Grace." The past four days were a rich and full time, and the conversations and messages have left me with a lot to ponder. Right now, I am exhausted, so instead of writing more about it, I am going to post a (short) poem.
I woke up a couple weeks ago with three lines of a poem in my head. At the time, I thought that it was the end to a longer poem, and I wondered what the rest of it was. Now I think I just needed a title and, after the conference, I have one.
Like Rebekah's laughter,
Jacob wrestling, andAbraham saying, "Yes, yes, yes!"
Sunday, June 10, 2012
I usually know ahead of time when I am going to give a message in open worship. Occasionally a message will come to me in the middle of worship, but more often, I have some advance warning. This can be as much as a month in advance or just a few hours.
When I first wrote here about knowing that I would have to give a message in meeting, a Friend asked why I was so certain I would have to speak. My immediate response (not what I wrote) was that I knew because I felt terrible. What I actually wrote was that I have spoken in meeting enough times to be able to recognize certain physical signs when it is likely that I will have to speak. All of those things―my heart racing, a tightness in my stomach, difficulty breathing, and shaking―happen when I get a message ahead of time, they just last much longer.
Sometimes I will know that I am going to speak because a certain word, phrase, or image comes into focus, like a pinpoint of light, and that is all I can see. Other times, I feel like I have the message in its entirety, but a clear sense that now is not the time to give it. The hardest thing for me is having the feeling that I will give a message, but no words―no sense of what that message will be. Trying to figure out the content of the message just makes things worse.
The benefit to knowing that I will be giving a message in advance is that it gives me time to prepare. I can look up Bible verses or quotes so that they are ready, and I have time to find support in the form of an elder to ground me, information about the schedule, or water and a snack to keep me going. Sometimes I write down a few notes.
The downside is that I have time to freak out and question everything. Just before worship is usually when what Jane Fenn Hoskens called "the reasoner" shows up. Call it what you will―the forces of darkness or my own insecurities―this is the voice that tells me that I do not have a message and that I never have. It says that I am delusional and self-aggrandizing―what makes me think I am so special that God would speak through me?
This voice is very convincing for a while, but one thing I have learned is that it makes mistakes and goes too far. Eventually, it will say something like, "You know God isn't real." And that makes me laugh. Because I know that God is real and that the voice is desperate. This helps me to find my center again and focus on the task at hand: delivering the message.
Then, finally, it is time to give the message. I am always surprised by the messages I give. Even when I think I know what the message will be, it changes. Sometimes the messages that come before it shape my message. Other times, I am led in a different direction than I expected as I am speaking. I try to leave space before and after I speak, to make sure that I am following my guide.
Afterward, I almost always feel better. It is a relief to have given the message. I usually feel tired and vulnerable, and very hungry and thirsty―empty in every respect. I feel both terrified that I will have to do it again and terrified that I will never be asked do it again.