One Quaker's View on:

 Believing in God is just another conspiracy theory? By Jim Batson

photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin Unsplash

 

My Quaker friend and I were sitting one morning in a café, in the sun, drinking coffee and eating cakes. We were talking about this and that including conspiracy theories which were topical at the time and then I said, “I have been thinking about God and thinking that a good topic for a home discussion would be `Believing in God is just another conspiracy theory.’” He looked puzzled. Then, he smiled. I went on, “I feel a bit cheeky and hesitant in raising this subject in a Christian group like the Quakers.”   He responded; “I am a Christian and I am not offended.”  A few days later I hosted a small gathering in the lounge in my home. There were six of us. A good number.  As the host, I not only got to choose the topic but I was free to make an opening statement. I was enthusiastic. I had enjoyed my research and I was eager to learn.

Inadvertently, the discussion took me to the heart of my matter. Looking back, ten years or so ago, my motivation for attending Quaker meetings was because I wanted to find out about being `spiritual’. I was certain my personality had a spiritual aspect but I did not know it. Naively perhaps, I expected that if I attended a gathering of a religious group frequently enough and for long enough, my hither-to-fore hidden spiritual dimension would emerge, if not by osmosis then as if by magic. At the time I felt as if something in me was under-developed especially when I heard others use words like `spirit’ and `spiritual’.  I could not feel what they were talking about. I felt deprived, not in an under privileged sense, but more because others seemed to have what I think I ought to have. I wanted what they had.

I grew up in a godless family. The word God was never used, not because of some atheistic principle, but more because God did not have a place in our family’s existence. I think, if push came to shove, both my parents would have recognised the existence of God, though he/she/it was never called upon nor mentioned. I imagined my parents would write `Christian’ on the census form if there was place for `religion'. I found out about God by attending Sunday School for a few weeks; by attending church parades when I was a `wolf-cub’, and from assembly readings from the bible when I was at secondary school.  We also had weekly `religious instruction’ classes at secondary school.

A conspiracy theory, as far as I can tell, is an unverifiable explanation for something or for an event attributable to a force or an organisation that is operating covertly. One has “…to be in the know…”, as my mother would say. Adherents share a `nod-nod, wink-wink’ type of relationship and although the explanation lacks validity, adherents act as if it does. Faced with this blind belief I have sometimes felt ignorant, and when there is a group, I have felt excluded in the face of collusion. I have felt ignorant, and sometimes ashamed that I did not know something that is so obvious to others. A conspiracy theory is unprovable; it lacks validity and whatever validity it does have is generally attributable to the commitment that its devotees give to it. They share a mutual devotion. I put belief in God in this mould.

During our home discussion I realized I had a different attitude to the believers in God than I had to conspiracy theorists. Instead of feeling diminished in the face of their collective knowing, I felt superior. I was not intimidated by their collective devotion. Quite the opposite. Instead, I thought of God believers as having been duped; they were either fooled or they fooled themselves. I felt superior because I could see through the charade.  Believers, as I knew them, had overlooked their own part in the God-creation process; or so I thought.  As a consequence, I had held God-believers in contempt.  I realised, I was holding in contempt those people whom I was trying to emulate. A weird paradox. It is no wonder that I could not possess what they had. I lacked belief and I lacked commitment.

I have spent a life-time trying to understand and create peace, non-violence and harmony, in my work and in my relationships. During the home discussion I thought about what was helpful in this pursuit. I had long kept in store a bundle of attributes any of which would contribute to more harmonious relationships. I believed that harmony was better than disharmony; that love was better than violence; that peace was better than war. I had long been convinced that violence does not work. In the long-term peace and non-violence are much better options. I concluded that this is my God: a bundle of attributes which promote peaceful harmonious relationships; empathy, compassion, love, generosity, honesty, trust etc, etc.  Perhaps this was my own version of God.  When I am faced with a relationship within which I am struggling I call upon my God to suggest something which I may be overlooking. To me, my God is a resource I call on when I am struggling. I felt relief, I had achieved what I set out to achieve.

 

 

 

 Spring again.  By Jan Marsh

photo by Yoksel Zok Unsplash

Once again, the early birds are waking me with their calls. I can feel the change happening as I'm more ready to get up these mornings and less likely to huddle under the duvets (yes, two in winter!) resisting the sharp bite of a frosty morning.

A pair of tuis were in the pear tree this afternoon, glossy and fat, diving and flapping their wings at each other. Were they courting or fighting? Hard to tell. A simple tune rings out over and over as they fly from one treetop to another around my garden. The hellebores are flowering thickly under the plum tree, their shades of mauve and green dusted with little white petals which drift down from the tree. The daffodils are beginning to droop and the crocuses have disappeared back into the earth after briefly popping their heads above the surface.

Soon there'll be more blossom – the cherry, the pear – but this year the Granny Smith apple tree is gone. It fell down at Easter, the ground too sodden to hold its roots. I've cooked and frozen the last of the apples which I had stored in the shed. That's the second apple tree to die in that patch of lawn so I won't plant another there. A magnolia might be nice – I'm admiring their display all over town just now. It's a short but glorious shout out to spring and makes me think of Walt Whitman's Louisiana oak 'uttering joyous leaves of dark green'.

The spring has given me a boost to get on with some chores. The concrete has been cleaned up and I'll seal it to keep the moss at bay; the house too is washed and shiny but the windows are streaky. Small repairs inside and out have been done but there's some paintwork to touch up when we get another fine day. It's all part of loving my home.

It also feels as though I'm tidying it up to a point where I could leave for a while. Where to, I wonder? Maybe this is just the restlessness of spring and when summer comes I won't want to be anywhere else but here in my home among my friends.

 

I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing

By Walt Whitman

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,

But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,

(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)

Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,

I know very well I could not.

Source: Leaves of Grass (1891-2) (1892)

 

 

 Simple Words.  By Jan Marsh

 

Some things sound so simple. I puzzle over why they prove so difficult in practice. On caring for the environment, David Attenborough says, Don't waste." He elaborates: don't waste water, don't waste plastic, don't waste trees. His lifetime's work summed up in two words.

The Dalai Lama says, Be kind."' The longer version is, My religion is kindness. Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible." Discrimination is not kind, nor is poverty. War is definitely not kind. So with that one word, we could have supportive communities, world peace, loving families.

When I was a young mother I volunteered some of my time at the Peace Foundation. I would drop my son off at school and bring my three year old daughter with me. I worked alongside Les and Kath, retired people who were mentors and role models for me. Les had been a minister and was instrumental in setting up Marriage Guidance in New Zealand. His work had taken him to conferences around the world and he was a great raconteur. When we took a break over tea and shortbread he would tell us a story. One of these concerned a conference of church leaders, held in Africa, with a highly respected keynote speaker. Les told how the room was filled with expectation as the speaker took the podium. He said, God is Love." Great opening. But no! This was his entire presentation, his message to the churches.

Thirty years later, retelling this anecdote to my daughter (who remembered Les well) I realise how profound that statement is. Not just that God is filled with Love, or the term 'God' is a metaphor for Love, but God is Love. As Keats might say, that is all you need to know. How different the world would be if all those who profess belief in any kind of god accepted that. It is there in all religions: love thy neighbour, do to others what you would have them do to you. But do all religions really encourage us to seek the most loving path in life, being loving not just to those in our church or those like ourselves but to everyone? Could they truly manifest God in their communities, showing that Love doesn't discriminate, Love is for everyone.

John Woolman grasped it: Love was the first motion" in his desire to visit Native Americans, treating them with respect and showing a willingness to learn from their spirituality, an attitude that was unheard of in the dealings of arrogant Europeans with local peoples. He seemed to gain a lot from the experience, including an enhanced appreciation of our Quaker Testimony of simplicity.

Why is it not so simple? If I had stayed with my Catholic upbringing perhaps I would still believe in Good vs Evil and the notion that the Devil (possibly these days a more abstract concept than the horned red horror of my childhood) implants evil thoughts. All I can say is that human beings are complex and our needs and desires conflict in ways that at times can bring out the worst in us. Yet most of us love our family and friends, want the best for them and will do kind acts to care for them. Most of us are good-enough citizens, keeping the rules, paying our way, smiling at strangers or holding the door open for someone with a load to carry. Could we broaden it beyond our immediate lives? Be easy on the environment by taking only what we need? Refrain from vilifying a group we don't know? Check ourselves for prejudice which is bound to be there?

Don't waste.

Be kind.

God is Love.

 

 

 Reaching for the Light: Good intentions are not enough.   By Quentin Abraham 

 

Revelations come from unexpected sources. Shortly after returning permanently to Aotearoa/NZ in 2002, I was at a ten day residential Playback theatre workshop in Paekākāriki. There was much hilarity as we shared improvised adverts. My friend Ngapaki started to cry part way through her advert on selling te reo Māori. Through her tears she was coaxed to tell her story. She spoke about the anger she felt at not being able to go into a shop and speak her own language in her own country. It was as if she had channelled the riri and injustice of her tūpuna in that moment. I heard the truth of her words.

As a Friend when I hear such a Truth I am compelled to act. My partner had already signed me up for te reo Māori classes at the hospital with Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. However, it was from this moment on that I redoubled my efforts. I reduced my moaning about how hard it was to learn te reo Māori, the lack of sleep on noho marae, the sacrifice of social commitments, the feelings of alienation, confusion and anxiety by being immersed in a language and culture I did not understand, and being in a minority. As Quakers we were never promised that leadings would be an easy path.

It is strange to be writing about this during the Covid-19 lockdown. To date we can be immensely proud of our leaders. The majority of our country has responded to the ethical principles of kindness and connection, prioritising the collective wellbeing of our communities and caring for our elders and those less fortunate than ourselves. If we overlook the scrabble for toilet rolls, face masks and guns, it feels like we are all orienting to values that continue to also be held in high regard within many parts of Māoridom. As private hospitals and hotels are commandeered for the needy, temporarily we seem to be rejecting the priorities of a few privileged, wealthy individuals. However the stark reality of the inequity caused by colonisation is ever-present. Wealth and resources are still distributed unevenly. There is no reason to believe that the first people of our country will fare any better than they did in the 1918 flu epidemic.

At Summer Gathering at Wainui, Horomaka (Banks Peninsula) this year, I gave ministry about the previous night’s warm up activity. We were asked to position ourselves on an imaginary map of Aotearoa according to our mountain or river. This activity was offered with good intentions. It was similar to a previous year’s activity where we positioned ourselves according to the major towns where we lived.

However, can we really claim or identify these as our maunga and awa? Are we really Tangata Tiriti and are we at the stage where we can claim these places as our tūrangawaewae? Do we speak the first language of this land and/or the mita of that rohe? Have we read the Treaty of Waitangi claim for these regions? Do we know about past and current injustices carried out on these lands? For example, the farmers who still reap the financial benefit by paying peppercorn rents from lands stolen in Taranaki.

The following day, a Friend ministered in response. She had changed her academic course to learn te reo Māori. She had stood by her friend when a taxi driver implied as Māori she was cheating by studying the Māori language. She spoke of the connection as non-Māori she felt to Taranaki maunga. This was her home.

As Friends we are open to continuous revelation. How could two pieces of seemingly opposing ministry hold truth? I approached two elders to see if there was something else that could be discerned. One stated, “I’m with (our other Friend) on this one…as long as you acknowledge mana whenua we can claim our connection to Taranaki...How long is a piece of string? How far back do we have to go? After all we are all migrants…This was a personal and individual matter.”

The other elder was not so quick to agree. There were issues about whakapapa and requiring more information about the relationship our Friend had with the land, people and tūpuna.

As Pākehā we are often accused of wanting definitive, correct answers to messy complex situations. We are not always so good at sitting with uncertainty. On the Facebook Group, Māori for Grown Ups, Jasmine Taankink asked if Pākehā/Tauiwi should use local iwi pepeha and received over 269 different comments in November 2019. Here are a few of the responses.

No one should claim mountains/rivers they claim us; we need to ditch this outmoded practice;

Pākehā should research the history of their own ancestors and whakapapa back to their own ancestral lands;

be generous and share this land;

the maunga protects everyone;

Pākehā should be admired for citing their pepeha and acknowledge the local maunga;

make no claim on mountains and rivers as it triggers historical trauma;

it is ongoing cultural appropriation;

Pepeha is about bloodline;

this Māori construct is not suited to Pākehā;

focus more on your other connections;

Whakapapa-a-iwi belongs to Māori as it is not just about the whenua but the stories of struggles;

after a Pepeha is performed it is often forgotten so avoid tokenism;

it is not about what “moves your heart”;

find out who you are and your identity;

encourage and then give positive constructive feedback;

ask the local hapū...and get seventeen different responses;

Pākehā do not bury their ancestors’ bones in the mountains;

if we remain ignorant we will continue to colonise;

it is unacceptable for Māori as it is Pākehā to claim someone else's maunga/awa regardless of how many generations you have been away from your own traditional lands;

it is too easy to teach pepeha from a template;

everyone feels intertwined with Papatūānuku, stop treating her as a commodity;

choose to mihi to them all;

pepeha to elements that have spiritual significance;

replacing “tōku” with “te” does not fully remove the 'my' aspect;

the blasé way of teaching pepeha has led to a situation where Pākehā are claiming mana whenua status;

it sets people up to being shot down for reciting whakapapa wrong; this conversation is part of the restoration/decolonisation space in Aotearoa;

people need safe spaces to explore their own place and responsibilities as citizens of Aotearoa;

are good intentions enough?;

If we want our Pākehā whānau to understand our world view, we cannot shortchange them with an easy fix;

our non-Māori ancestors should be acknowledged, they are part of the story of how we came to be.

The Summer Gathering organising committee did a tremendous job at including themes from Te Ao Māori. They created a space for some of these issues to surface with the inevitable tensions. They invited Nui Robinson, a local kaumātua. He began his session with a huge flourish about his English whakapapa, keeping the British flag flying and how this shaped the future of Aotearoa in relation to the influences of the French colonialists and the formation of Te Tiriti.

Asked how Pākehā/Tauiwi might pepeha, he replied that your DNA needed to be in the water of the rivers. He did not believe he could go to England and claim a river even if very distant ancestors had lived there. To whakapapa to these rivers, your DNA needed to be in the water. However, he stressed that we can all be kaitiaki. We did not have time to ask him who had the rights/responsibilities to make decisions about those rivers.

From this kōrero I did have a sense of how strange it would be for our Friend who ministered to claim a river from their European ancestors, just as it seems disingenuous for me to google a large mountain on the Afghan/Pakistan border to pepeha from my unknown Indian side. To really connect we need to find meaningful tohu (signs/symbols). In a te reo Māori class a kaumātua asked us to recite our pepeha. We were collectively told that he could not smell the haunga (stench) of our pepeha. Our pepeha needed to be infused with more resonance and meaning in order to connect.

Toi te kupu, toi te mana, toi te whenua. Language culture and land are core markers of power in Te Ao Māori and arguably in Te Ao Pākehā. It is not enough to focus on changing our words with kind platitudes. We need to give up our privileged power position and embrace a broader framework of decolonisation.

One reason progressives love committing to anti-racism rather than, say, decolonisation is the former requires nothing more than a state of mind. “I’m not racist” – drop the spoken or unspoken “but” – and congratulations, you can wash away the guilt.

...But the trouble with recognition and its attendants, like the glossy history-tellers, is it’s a cunning standard. Does recognition restore Indigenous peoples’ power to develop and protect their land or does it just reinforce existing power relations?

As Friends we all search our individual consciences, discern how we will act in accordance to the principles of our faith. Collectively we have a testimony to acting with integrity. Our Pākehā ancestors failed to uphold the Treaty promises. Although we tell stories of our Quaker tūpuna avoiding violent conflict with iwi we were also complicit in surveying the land so it could be taken in an unjust manner. In our Advices and Queries we are explicitly directed to redress this wrong.

Remember our obligation to honour the status of Māori as the indigenous people of Aotearoa and partners in the Treaty of Waitangi. Seek to discover the effects of the colonial and postcolonial history of Aotearoa. Work to ensure that the sharing of power and resources in our society is a genuine partnership. Do you acknowledge the values that the Māori world can offer? How can we work together as equals, with mutual understanding and respect?

If language is the carrier of culture, can we really form genuine and meaningful relationships without speaking te reo Māori? Prior to coming to Summer Gathering I was asked if I would teach the Māori language. Over the past 10 years I have seen very little lasting change as a result of our attempt to teach some introductory Māori language sessions. To go beyond a tokenistic level it requires real daily commitment from individual Friends.

I would estimate that less than 0.01% of our community speak te reo Māori to a competent level. This is a massive failure of our corporate witness to uphold our commitment to be Tangata Tiriti.

On Saturdays, when I only speak te reo Māori, it is a lonely place to be in a Quaker setting. How lonely would it be for Tangata whenua who want to exercise their right to live and be Māori? Friends tell me that we lack diversity in our membership because we tend to draw from White privileged communities as if this should explain this disparity.

Some questions:

● Are we aware that we are maintaining dominant colonial practices, personally or institutionally?

● Does our unwillingness to right these wrongs result in the inequitable distribution of resources that disproportionately kills our Treaty partners?

● Does the prevalent use of the English language mean that all the dominant institutions in our country are weighted in favour of our own interests?

● How will Māori tikanga, ideas about healing, authority over land and decision making, really be shared?

● How can we “Work to ensure that the sharing of power and resources in our society is a genuine partnership”?

Our good intentions are not enough and our ignorance is not an excuse. It can be challenging to face our role in reproducing racism and maintaining the status quo. We may be tempted to “weaponise” our hurt feelings to avoid this discomfort and avoid taking action. As Treaty worker, Mitzi Nairn, suggests, can we become the kind of Treaty partners that Māori might have hoped for when the Treaty was signed?

I dream of the day my friend Ngāpaki and her whānau can walk down the street and speak their own language in their own country. In our current Covid-19 lockdown, what would it be like if 1000 Quakers committed to the first steps of learning the first language of our country? This is a dream that could benefit and uplift us all.

 

 

 The challenge to ‘just turn up’ and Covid -19.   By Christine Gillespie 

 

Just before lockdown I visited the Motueka Quaker Meeting instead of going to my Nelson Meeting, because I wanted to support Friends - they were about to lose the Galbraith family, Elinor and Glenn having been appointed leaders of Titoki Christian Healing Centre near Whakatane. The group had chosen faithfulness as an after-Meeting-for-Worship topic of discussion.

I decided that I can be faithful by just turning up. 2 successive Saturday working bees at the Nelson Quaker Meeting House had prompted this thought. The first involved a lot of cleaning, mainly washing the front picket fence and scraping paint off the tin fences out the back. Marie arrived with a big pot of soup for our lunch, after which I left for a Nelson Tasman Climate Forum meeting. After listening to excellent and inspiring speeches, I signed up for the sub-group focusing on Peace, Conflict and Reconciliation in our response to the Climate Emergency. The second working bee was to repaint the tin fences a dappled forest green.

The other prompt was an article in the Otago Daily Times by Jenny Beck on 6th March.

Jenny wrote about the Third Place:

 “Your First Place, the one that probably engages your heart most and rightly so, is your home. Your Second Place, where you spend most of your waking hours, is your workplace.

And your Third Place? … churches, cafes, libraries, parks, sports clubs, places where people gather for easy social interaction….

“Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place says that these places are vital for social communion, community building and developing a sense of place and belonging… They’re anchors of community life, allowing for broader connections to develop… Third Places are welcoming and comfy, are accessible, provide food and drink, ideally aren’t costly money-wise, encourage regulars to attend, are a source of friends, new and old. The Third Place is neutral ground; freely chosen, there’s no obligation to be there. It’s also a leveller, in that no particular social status is required of attendees. It’s open and accommodating. Conversation is the main activity, usually of the happy and light-hearted variety. The Third Place also has a homely feel; the mood which is set by the regulars is friendly and playful. Above all it’s welcoming to newcomers who quickly develop a sense of ownership, regarding it as their "home away from home".”

A good description of my Quaker Meeting. By just turning up to scrape off old paint and slap on new I got to spend time with old friends and newcomers, learn stuff about them I never knew, tell them things I’d just learned  - having recently attended my first ever Mormon funeral service. I got to share hearty vegetable soup and refreshing watermelon. I was under no obligation to be there, but had I not turned up I would have missed an opportunity to deepen my sense of belonging, to have interesting conversations, and to feel part of creating and mending and caring for a special place.

It is easy to get discouraged about the loss of family – parents die, siblings move away, children and grandchildren live overseas, or in this Covid-19 reality to miss the easy conversation, pleasure of shared enterprise and warm hearted friendship of workmates (at our best). And in the last few weeks we have had to sacrifice access to our Third Place. Right now, we don’t know when we can return to our churches, cafes or libraries.

The challenge to just turn up has morphed into finding creative ways to ‘turn up’ – at our fences: I recently harvested my grapevine and for the first time in the 6 years that I’ve been living in my street I dropped off bags of grapes at the 5 neighbouring houses. I’ve not before met the folk at 3 of those homes. I can continue to turn up – with my feijoa crop!  We can turn up on phone calls to our friends and acquaintances and on Zoom calls to our kapa haka groups, book clubs, line dancing sessions, yoga class, knitting circles, Meetings for Worship. My friend Ann is playing Scrabble with her neighbour by phone!  Our need for social communion, community and a sense of place and belonging are as vital as ever, so we are finding ways to preserve them. We just need to keep turning up.

 

 

 Being in lock down.  Reflections on Day One.  By Jan Marsh

Day One

At first the jargon sounded funny, strange combinations of words or familiar words in different contexts. Why was it self-isolation instead of isolate themselves? Wasn't shelter in place what people did when they were too late to flee bush fires and hurricanes in other countries? Contacts were no longer the address list in our phones but people we had spent time with who might have made us sick and needed to be tracked down as if they had an STD. Everyday items we barely gave a thought, such as hand-sanitiser and toilet paper, seemed weirdly desirable. Panic-buying which stripped the supermarket shelves became a thing.

We got used to it. People adapt. Then came 'social distancing', not some kind of snobbery but keeping two metres away from those not in our household. That seemed drastic as meetings were cancelled, churches closed, gym classes ceased, swimming pools, libraries, sports – all the fun ways we distract ourselves and mix with people – came to an end. It felt drastic but implied that something bigger was about to happen. We had seen it on TV – lock down. Hence the panic buying, a mere symbol of the fear welling up in us all at our loss of freedom, the restrictions that would separate us from our friends, our grandchildren, our religious groups. We are social creatures, of course we were panicking. When the word to stay home went out, it came with only two days' notice.

House arrest or home detention are serious punishments. Solitary confinement even more so and those of us who live alone will stay alone for the duration. Yes, phones, email and video calls are helpful tools, but face-to-face contact is the deepest need. It calms the limbic system which regulates our emotions, satisfying us in ways we are barely aware of. If this is the solution, how bad is the problem? It's a moving target, so hard to define.

I take a deep breath and look at the present moment. This morning I woke as usual, let the cat in as usual, opened the curtains to the sunrise, noting its apocalyptic red and grey hue and finding the humour rather than the fear. I did my salutes to the sun as usual. But it's Thursday, I swim with my friend and catch up over breakfast on Thursdays. There's no swimming, the pools are closed.

What next? I've made a list of chores. I intend to blog regularly. I've put a teddy bear in the window for the children next door to see. I'll phone my sister and video call my swimming friend, trying to keep the shreds of my normal social life intact. I read a brave, sensible message from the Director of Medicins sans Frontiers and I weep; grateful that I'm not in a war zone and sad for the losses in this new normal.

And by the end of the day I'm feeling pretty positive. I've had a good day: lots of phone calls, including a successful video call on the laptop and a less successful one on my rather old phone. I have a sense of achievement from doing a few small writing jobs and some gardening. I biked to the beach and had a walk along the sand before biking back, delighting in the minimal traffic (but note to self: there are still trucks going to the port, stay well over in the cycle lane!) Because I rarely spend a whole day at home, even now that I'm retired, I'll make sure to go out for at least an hour's exercise each day. You know, it could be ok.

 

 

 Meditations on kindness and compassion. Compiled by Liz McLeod-Taepa and Jan Marsh

February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. These meditations focus on the importance of kindness and compassion in our daily lives - in our families, at work, in the supermarket.  Compiled for discussion at Summer Gathering 2019/2020, we give you two of those here, one from Te Ao Maori, the other from Kristin Neff, academic and blogger.

 

1. Aroha:  Unconditional love that is derived from the presence and the breath of The Godhead.

 Aroha is an important concept in regard to the survival and true strength of whanaungatanga (kinship ties, extended family across all universes). It is a quality that is essential for the survival and total well-being of the world community. It is a pillar of life from AIO (the Godhead, Divine Parents).

 Aroha is not to be talked about, it is only meaningful when actioned. Human needs, the human element, are more important than material possessions. For example, one has started saving money to buy a new car, and then something happens to a member of the family or tribe that requires finance in regard to personal strife such as illness, death or the threat of losing an ancestral home, one does not hesitate to hand over whatever money has been saved up, to help out. Caring for people and sharing is also quite commonplace for Maori people who have retained the traditions of old. Example: an uncle of the author adopted twenty two children. While he did not have much finance he made good use of the natual resources on ancestral land. He was a tiller of the soil and a wonderful conservationist. His children learnt about the importance of sharing their aroha with the trees, the birds, the fish and their earth mother Papatuanuku.

 The pressures of urban living can sometimes make this concept more difficult to uphold. Where there is aroha, however, individual differences and cultural diversity are to be found enriching and exciting. Each person respecting and caring for the other engenders a climate of goodwill and support.

 Evil or negative forces cannot flourish where absolute aroha reigns. In a climate of aroha the psyche, the spirit of a person can soar to great heights. Aroha is truly a divine love because it knows no bounds, and is infinite.

 From Te Wheke Dr Rangimarie Turuki Pere  Ao Ako Global Learning NZ 1991

 Questions:

 1. How would you translate Aroha into English?

2. Is it a concept that transcends culture?

3. How does it manifest in your life?

 

 2. Kindness to ourselves

Kristin Neff is an academic with a strong interest in moral development and mindfulness. She writes extensively about compassion and especially self-compassion, which is another way of saying kindness to ourselves. The following is taken from her writing and her website self-compassion.org.

With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give to a good friend. When you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

The three elements of self-compassion are:

1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment: being gentle with yourself rather than angry or critical

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation: this is the human conditon, to fail or suffer at times

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification: a sense of perspective rather than being caught up in the problem

 

Here is an exercise in self-compassion:

1. First, think about times when a close friend feels really bad about him or herself or is really struggling in some way. How would you respond to your friend in this situation (especially when you’re at your best)? Note the tone in which you typically talk to your friends.

2. Now think about times when you feel bad about yourself or are struggling. How do you typically respond to yourself in these situations? Note the tone in which you talk to yourself.

3. Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently?

4. What might change if you responded to yourself in the same way you typically respond to a close friend when you’re suffering?

 

 

 Christmas Advice: every day is sacred     Jan Marsh 

We wish each other a peaceful and happy Christmas and for many it will be. Family gatherings, shared food and presents, laughter and fun. Beach picnics are being planned.

But the lead up is already getting stressful. On a minor personal level I have caused and been the victim of parking rage - as I reversed to avoid a collision with someone backing out of a parking space, I frightened a pedestrian who was walking behind my car. He banged on the roof and opened my car door to shout at me. Startled, I shouted back! Not at all peaceful.

On a world scale there are heart-breaking tragedies in many places. And those are the ones which reach us in the news. There will be many more where people are living in quiet desperation.

And for some the holiday time holds bad memories, often for reasons to do with family violence. If that's you, you are welcome to avoid Christmas as far as you can and to stop reading right now. I wish you whatever form of peaceful self-care works best for you.

For most of us December becomes a time of cramming in extra work, end of year social events, shopping in crowded places to buy presents, then queuing in the Post Office to send the parcels and, on top of it all, making holiday plans. What are we to do?

Start by staying calm and be tolerant - we are all in the same boat, everyone feels rushed. If possible, stay out of car parks! I find I need to make quiet time for myself, gardening or reading, to withdraw from the bustle of Christmas build-up. I may not go to all the events that are on and its good to remember that I can see my friends in January too - it doesn't all have to be crammed into the two weeks before Christmas.

Simplify and make the day a happy gathering but not the culmination of weeks of stress. Perfection is not required. Love is. We are lucky in New Zealand that the summer weather makes a barbecue or a beach picnic possible. Ask extended family members to bring food to contribute, which shares both the work and also the pleasure of providing food. Most people will put a lot of thought into the one dish they bring and a meal of carefully prepared dishes can be a feast.

Christmas and New Year are traditionally times of excessive drinking which makes it a good time to remember the harm alcohol can do and choose to be moderate. There is a variety of enjoyable non-alcoholic drinks which have the bonus of being cheaper than wine or beer.

Be present. Your kind attention is a gift in itself. Take some time to play with the children who will want to share and enjoy their presents, or talk to an elderly relative, perhaps someone who needs you to be patient with their hearing loss or other disability. Have an all-ages game of cricket. Give home-made vouchers for gardening time or a quiet lunch together after the busy season settles down. Offer to buy the present together, perhaps in the January sales, when a shopping trip might be more fun.

Remember its only one day. For many people the build-up creates such high expectations and overwrought emotions that the aftermath is a come down and can even be depressing.

Every other day of our lives is just as important as Christmas Day and is just as much an opportunity to be loving, generous and attentive to others in our lives. In other words, celebrate life and be the best of ourselves most of the time, take the pressure off Christmas.

 

 

 Winter - a tough time for a fair-weather Friend     Jan Marsh 

 I'm a fair weather friend – I always feel better on a sunny day. Winter can be tough, with the cold weather and short days keeping me indoors too much. The garden lies dormant so there is little to do there and no motivation to be out in a chill wind.

Our winters are not really that hard. A few frosts, snow on the mountains across the bay, a cold wind blowing up from Antarctica some days and sometimes grey, rainy stretches. Most days we will see the sun – cheerful, even if not very warm. But for many years I got a bit depressed during the winter, especially when I was at work full-time, leaving the house in darkness and returning in darkness. I felt very shut in and badly needed the walk I regularly took at lunchtime to get a coffee and spend a few minutes reading the paper in a cafe, just to feel connected to the outside world.

Fortunately, my love of swimming gives me an all-weather form of exercise although I do miss the outdoor pool where I swim during the summer, often with a 50 metre lane all to myself. At summer's end, I have to adjust to the crowds at the indoor pool but I still love to swim and make sure I do so three times a week. I also have a few hardy friends who will walk in most weathers, so I fit in a social walk at least once a week, often with a cup of coffee to follow. I'm happy to walk by myself too, especially if I can take advantage of a sunny hour now and then. And since my friend and coach taught me to run 'injury-free' as he put it, I aim to run once a week. That's not really often enough to improve but I still enjoy it. That's the exercise taken care of and I'm sure it helps a lot in getting through the winter.

I've also learned to plan for the long periods of time indoors. I have friends who are keen knitters so I took some advice from them and picked up a skill I had hardly used since I was a child. My first project was a patchwork rug for my grandson, a task shared with my daughter, sisters and mother. We all made some squares which I stitched together and my sister knitted an edging around it. We were pleased with the result and he still has it. After that I went on to cot blankets which I donated to the young parents' school, a place for parents and their babies to continue their education in a classroom near where I live. I added a few beanies and hoped they would be good for the little ones. Now I'm back to knitting for the next grandchildren.

There's something very calming about listening to the radio or some music while creating something stitich by stitch. I had to get over the idea that it's an occupation for elderly people – or accept that I am a little elderly! - and now I am glad I revived the skill.

Guilt-free TV goes well with winter too. My son added me to his Netflix subscription and I can choose a series to look forward to in the evening. With the heating on and the cat on my lap, perhaps a cosy rug over my shoulders, it feels a little like the Danish hygge which is such a good example of how to pass the winter. Of course, stretching out on the couch with a book is always a good option, too and hot chocolate never goes amiss.

I'm pleased at how well I've got through winter. The buds are on the trees before you know it!

 

 

Being present - the only time we are really alive is now     by Jan Marsh

I spent the long weekend painting my living room. After the first morning, when a kind friend came to help me wash down the walls and gave me a couple of hours of her gentle company, I worked alone. I made a conscious decision to work slowly and carefully, initially to avoid getting paint on the carpet, and then because I enjoyed it.

It took three hours to do the brush work, cutting around the windows and doors, scotias and skirting boards. Two hours to roll the paint on the expanse of walls. Five hours each on the Saturday and Sunday to apply two coats of paint, then the third morning to re-hang all the pictures. With the radio or some music in the background and the sun shining in, I sang along or mused a little but mainly I stayed mindful and focused on the job in hand - carefully covering the walls with paint. I enjoyed it, not just for the end product, which did please me, but for the process itself.

There is something very soothing and centring about doing a physical task and being fully present. Connecting with the job in hand, being aware of my body as I balance on the ladder making smooth gentle movements, moving from one section of wall to the next. Nothing more was required of me than to be present, doing this one task. I came to the end of the weekend feeling as though I had had a holiday - a rest from my busy, often anxious brain.

There are other ways of moving into this feeling for shorter periods of time. I had the good fortune to learn to swim in my late 50s, with a teacher who saw swimming as mindful and meditative and wanted to share that experience. After the initial phase of frustration and at times panic, I've been able to find that space and enjoy going back and forth in the pool, tuned into my body's movements and the sensation of water stroking my skin. That same teacher taught me to run safely without injuring myself and I marvel that in my 60's I can enjoy a five kilometre run once a week, focussing on the rhythm of movement and breath. I was not a sporty child so these skills have a sense of wonder and delight for me.

From long years of practice as a psychologist, I can also be very present in a conversation especially if it's with just one other person. Buber's ‘I/Thou' means a lot to me as that connection takes place in its moment in time and I can be with the other person is a way that honours ‘that of God' in them.

As I am able now to live more of my life in the present moment, its clearer to me how this is the way to deal with anxiety and depression, the products of our busy time-travelling brains. So often depression arises from dwelling on the past: experiences of shame or injustice that haven't been resolved, perceived failures that make us feel like giving up. Anxiety comes from desperate attempt to anticipate future problems and ward them off, often creating imaginary ‘what if' fears, adult versions of monsters under the bed.

I don't deny the need to learn from the past and prepare for the future but our busy, over-stimulated lives often push us into dwelling almost entirely in the past and future. And yet, the only time we are really alive is now.

 

 

A Quaker analysis of the first Well-being Budget 2019    by Jan Marsh

The Wellbeing Budget has been hailed overseas as a fresh new way of looking at economics, valuing the wellbeing of New Zealanders above GDP. This has been asked for over many years by more progressively minded citizens; it is good news that the Labour-NZ First coalition, backed by the Greens, has listened.

By contrast, the National Government stayed in power for three terms on the back of steady growth in GDP. The fact is, that growth was based on the need to rebuild Christchurch, Kaikoura and other parts destroyed by earthquakes and was also boosted by rising house prices which made the rich richer and the less rich homeless. So yes, as the only indicator of how the nation is doing, GDP has got to go.

So, will the 2019 Budget contribute to the well-being of New Zealanders? I have to confess I haven't read it in its original form, so my impressions are based on news sources such as Stuff, Radio NZ and the Spinoff, and on Bill Rosenberg's summary for the CTU which concludes: Quick answer: Yes, it was a Wellbeing Budget in that it was built around the idea of focusing on many of the things in life that improve wellbeing, and that is praiseworthy. But it was greatly underfunded to achieve what we know is needed.

How does it stack up in the light of Quaker values as described in the Testimonies?

Simplicity: Economics is never simple but if one theme could be highlighted let's hope it's compassion: compassion for the hard workers in low paid jobs, for the homeless, for beneficiaries, for addicts who need not be criminalised, and for those with mental illness and other forms of distress which could be treated early in the community.

The intentions are there. Budget guidelines required all priorities to demonstrate how they contribute to well-being.

Work is still needed to change bullying workplace cultures and heartless government departments if compassion is to be a thread throughout our public life.

Peace: The high operating costs and the increase for new aircraft for Defence is a huge disappointment. To quote Peace Movement Aotearoa:

“Successive governments have said for decades that there is no direct military threat to this country, but this has not yet translated into action about meeting our real security needs. As the UN Secretary General said just last week: “States need to build security through diplomacy and dialogue ... In our turbulent world, disarmament is the path to preventing conflict and sustaining peace. We must act without delay.” (Facebook 30 May 2019)

We would do better with improved, professional civilian coastguard, fisheries protection and search and rescue services, and setting aside money for humanitarian and social welfare needs.

Integrity: We do appear to have a government which is not afraid to show that it is guided by values and will try to keep its promises. This is inevitably compromised by the demands of an adversarial political system and the need to keep coalition partners on side. Time will tell.

Community: The increases in Whanau Ora allocations and index-linking benefits to come more into line with wages are small steps towards reducing inequality. If those on lower incomes have a little extra in order to participate in leisure and social activities, we will build stronger communities. Regional development and funding for research into what makes healthy communities could contribute. Money for Māori and Pacific language developments will also strengthen ties. The allocation for the gun buy-back scheme could make our communities safer if it is enacted in a thorough, timely way.

Equality: Alongside the welfare budget mentioned above, the increased allocation for mental health initiatives could also reduce inequality. It has been clearly shown that those who suffer from mental illnesses are severely disadvantaged in many ways – through stigma, loss of earnings and low wages, poorer physical health all play a part.

The government has listened to the Mental Health inquiry and adopted 38 of the 40 recommendations. Treating addictions as health issues rather than criminal ones has great potential. Another priority that could make a huge difference is making services available to those with mild to moderate needs. But money is not the only solution. Will there be a workforce to respond to the needs? In many parts of the country the Primary Mental Health Initiative, brought in about a decade ago, saw huge growth in office buildings and administrative staff, but tight constraints on the number of sessions available (as few as three per client which is laughable!) and the number of referrals GPs can make. Early treatment can make a big difference to many people who otherwise languish on waiting lists until they are severely ill enough to qualify for treatment. But will psychologists, nurses and addiction counsellors come forward after years of disillusion?

Other measures to reduce the gap between rich and poor, improve housing accessibility and employment options will contribute to improved equality. Let's hope we are moving back in line with traditional NZ values of fairness and respect for all.

Sustainability: Now that we no longer have a climate change denying government there are so many initiatives needing attention. Sustainable energy projects could wean us off the fossil fuel economy. Boosting Kiwirail and getting freight off the roads will reduce emissions, especially if the rail network maintains and develops its electric sections. Supporting farmers to clean up their land use and funding research for ongoing climate-related initiatives sound promising. Good beginnings but let's keep going.

This is very much a once-over-lightly look at the budget, but my intention is to use our testimonies as a value base for assessing public decisions. Try it yourself and see if it's a model that fits.

 

 

Fury on Maundy Thursday 
By Emily Provance 

 

I had an experience that took me by surprise. On Thursday, I participated in a worship service that involved the reading of John 13. This is Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet. The reading of the Scripture and the message that came after it were deeply grounded, and the speaker made a number of excellent points. He suggested we place ourselves in the position of the disciples in the room. How would we react to this, to Jesus' offer to wash our feet?

I never got that far. I got stuck on the part where Jesus said, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet." That was when I started to feel angry.

It didn't go away. I felt ready to spit fire. And this did not make sense to me. It didn't feel like a normal reaction to this story. I wondered: what about this had me so thoroughly infuriated?

It took me some time to get there, but eventually I realized that it was the telling of the story in such a way that didn't take power into account. "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet."

Jesus was talking to a room full of men. I think it's really important that he was talking to a room full of men. And not just men, but men who--among their own people, at least, though not so much in the wider Roman Empire--commanded a certain level of respect.

When this story is told, it's often with the implication that if Jesus could humble himself to wash others' feet, and Jesus, after all, was Jesus, then the rest of us have no excuse not to humble ourselves in service. But as I listened to the story, I began to realize that this interpretation is exactly backwards. When Jesus knelt to wash his disciples' feet, he was risking nothing. There was no way that this act of humility would lead to a loss of status. The people in the room already honored him as Lord. The point Jesus was making, I think, was about inverting the power dynamics. Jesus--the acknowledged and unquestionably respected leader--served humbly. That's a big deal and not what the disciples were used to, and telling them to take on positions of humility would not threaten in any way their ability to serve.

But that's not my experience. And I suspect it's not the experience of many of us.

Nobody takes on the task of washing everybody's feet at Quaker gatherings. That's not a thing that's part of our culture, though it was a part of the culture in Jesus' day. So what's the modern equivalent of washing everyone's feet? Making the coffee--washing the dishes--providing the childcare.

These are the things that, in the last five years, I have (mostly) deliberately stopped doing. Especially the childcare thing. And why? Because I'm young and a woman. And when I take on the humble functions, it prevents me from being taken seriously. It took me some time to learn this lesson, and I resisted learning it--but it's true.

Many Friends I know are hard at work disrupting patterns of white supremacy and decolonizing Christianity. The intense feelings I experienced during this Maundy Thursday have made me wonder: how would it feel to engage with this story as a person of color?

More broadly, how do I navigate the intersection of spiritual humility and societal power dynamics? How do I do this for myself? How do I make space for it in my faith community? What is Jesus' message if we contextualize it fully?

Questioningly, Emily

Read more from Emily at quakeremily.wordpress.com 

 

 

Constancy and change – losses and gains
By Jim Batson

 

I went to a memorial service the other day. It was for someone I had known but did not know well. I went out of respect. I arrived late and sat at the back of a crowded room. I heard numerous accounts of the person’s life; some I knew of and some I did not. As in other funeral events I had a glimpse of aspects of the person’s life; personal and professional: they were revealing and broadening. I got to know the person after they had died in a way I did not know them when they were alive.” What a pity”, I thought.

By the time the service came to an end, I was bored and fidgety. I wanted to go home. I was pleased I had paid my respects; and pleased I had, in some respects, done my duty. As I walked away, I felt down and joyless. Perhaps it was the cumulated sadness; perhaps it was the ceremony which was long and had elements that were repetitive; perhaps it was the tone of the speakers. Whatever it was, it had a downing effect on me.

As I walked away, I fantasized about my own funeral and wondered if people leaving that ceremony would have a similar experience. As well feeling flat, I felt inadequate. I perused my life and struggled to identify edifices that many attributed to this person. I remembered walking away from another funeral service feeling just as inadequate. In that instance I was comparing my achievements with the achievements of the dead person. My mood was conditioned by my realization that I haven’t been an edifice builder nor have I been a great achiever. I felt dispirited because, I concluded that at the age of 77 I was a bit late to getting started.

After a couple of days my mood lifted. In the intervening time I had remembered another funeral service I had attended which left me feeling buoyed and buoyant. The key words used when referring to this dead person were words like `inspired’, `inspirational’ and `inspiring’. After that ceremony I remembered I had gone away feeling optimistic. The dead person was inspiring. Others said so. I had found the person to be very accepting.

Coincidental with the memory of that funeral I tracked down a description that I knew was buried somewhere in a book. I had read the book years ago (10 years ago, I would say) and I had remembered the description. It is a big book; nearly seven hundred pages. The book sat on my shelf for a long while tempting me to browse to find the passage that I found so captivating. The day after I had been to the funeral service I succumbed and started browsing looking for a hint of the passage I remembered. Eventually of course, I found it. It took me ages! Needless to say, it was unlike my memory. Over the years I had romanticized the image portrayed in the description and I had bent the reality (the author’s description) to fit my own needs; but there was sufficient similarity between the original description and my memory of it for me to make an easy identification.

I remembered that the writer was on a cycling tour of Japan and had come across a middle-aged Japanese man in a park. They struck up a conversation. The Japanese man explained that every holiday he came to the park and took photographs. He went to the same spot in the park, four times throughout the year coinciding with the different seasons, and took a photograph. In the album he carried with him he had photographs of the same spot in the park differentiated by the colours and textures of the seasons. When I first read the description, I was inspired so much so that I tried to emulate the efforts of this Japanese man. In my home you will see on the wall of one room four photographs of the same place in eastern Scotland near where my parents spent their last years alive. The photographs are dominated by different colours and different textures. They were taken years apart; but they show the same hill, the same copse of trees; the same field and the same dry-stone wall.

 

 

Click on the links below to read older “Views”:

Gay and Quaker - Christianity and diverse sexualities.
By Jan Marsh

Knowledge of world religions deserves to be part of our state school curricula.
By Peter Donovan

Resilience.
By Jan Marsh

Healing - our life is love and peace and tenderness.
By Jan Marsh


How I became a Quaker.
By Marian Clement

Why I became a Quaker.
By Christine Gillespie


Why Guy Fawkes Day has to go. And why Parihaka Day should take its place.
By Christine Gillespie



A Reflection on Compassion and Empathy
By Jim Batson

Apartheid, Palestine and Israel
By Christine Gillespie

Thoughts on Sustainability
By Lawrence Carter

Walking our values
By Jan Marsh