Friday, October 31, 2014

What is God?

Below, ESR's Carole Spencer shares her reflections on leading a recent retreat on "Images of God":

Someone has said that “To think about God is to the human soul what breathing is to the human body.” 

Last weekend, Friday evening Oct. 24 and Saturday Oct 25, I led a workshop/retreat on ‘Images of God’ at Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana to explore what may be the central question of the human soul.  Retreatants experienced ten hours of full immersion in the deepest of theological and spiritual explorations—our language, concepts, images and experiences of God.
Eleven brave participants signed up, four men and seven women.  Most were of the baby boomer generation and beyond.  The oldest participant was in his 80s, the youngest in his 30s.  Most were either Quakers or Methodists, but their religious diversity was much broader than their traditional affiliations, ranging from skeptic to mystic.

We explored images of God through scripture, poetry, music, and visuals such as art and icons.  Participants were invited to reflect on, and reconnect with, their images of God through different stages of their life. 

A basic assumption of the workshop is that God is beyond all words and images, yet we need symbols and metaphors to be open to the mystery of the divine in which we live. A second assumption is that our language and our images for God will mirror our culture and our conditioning, and it is natural to construct images of God that are anthropomorphic, cultural and time-bound.  As we mature and develop spiritually, and as our world changes, our images of God change, expand and evolve.  The goal of the workshop was to open participants  to new ways to encounter, connect and respond to the divine mystery in their life.

‘JesusWept’ by Daniel Bonnell, one of the several artist images we reflected on.

One participant shared a powerful experience she had as a young child of eight years old upon seeing the aurora borealis.  Later, several days after the workshop she gave me an envelope with several poems she had composed that described her experience of God.  She has given me permission to share the poem called ‘Awakening,’ a marvelous image of God as both personal and cosmic love.


On a cold midwinter night
I, a child, am snug in bed asleep, when –
   someone is calling my name
   someone is gently shaking me –
“Loie, come see, come see
              something wonderful.”

I’m wide awake now and curious.
Wrapped in my blanket, shivering in excitement,
  I follow my parents out on the hill
  between house and barn.
The night air is charged with a bright
              mysterious light.

Over our heads the night sky
shimmers and moves with colorful lights
    - a giant tongues of flame
in pale red, green and blue.
We three stand close, faces uplifted in
             awestruck wonder.

I take for granted this is God’s work.
Although I couldn’t say just who God is.
     Family love enfolds me
     as my spirit reaches into the sky –
I am experiencing the immensity of
            Creative Love.

That night stands as a bright landmark
on my journey of awakening faith.
    I know that, small as I am,
    I am a part of this Grand Creation –
As close as family Love –
As wide and mysterious as
           The Universe.

~ Lois Jordan

Carole SpencerCarole Spencer serves as Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion. She is a recorded minister in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Listening and Visioning

The following is the text of a message delivered during worship by ESR student Travis Etling as part of the ESR Board of Advisors meeting on September 28, 2014. 

The din undoes us
Our lives are occupied territory…
occupied by a cacophony of voices,
and the din undoes us.
In the daytime we have no time to listen,
beset as we are by anxiety and goals
and assignments and work,
and in the night the voices are so confusing
we hardly sort out what could possibly be your voice
from the voice of our mothers and our fathers
and our best friends and our pet projects,
because they all sound so much like you.
We are people over whom that word shema has been written.
We are listeners, but we do not listen well.
So we bid you, by the time the sun goes down today
or by the time the sun comes up tomorrow,
by night or by day,
that you will speak in ways that we can hear
out beyond ourselves.
It is your speech to us that carries us where we have never been,
and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.
So give us ears. Amen.
When I read this prayer, I immediately think about Quakers. I imagine Friends practicing what Particia Loring identifies as a listening spirituality.[1] I imagine Friends sitting together in open, silent worship, waiting expectantly. I imagine Friends practicing an apophatic attending to the presence and activity of the Spirit. This waiting worship, this attending, is best described as a deep listening that is empty, receptive, centered and still.
I also imagine Friends engaged in discernment. I imagine Friends, individually sorting through those voices that reach for us, that make claims of us, claims about who we are in the deepest sense.
I imagine Friends sitting with each other in a clearness committee, asking the questions that rise out of centered silence. These Friends help us to ask the questions that we’ve forgotten to ask ourselves in our individual process of discernment. The committee members give voice to these questions not because they have the answers but because they can’t possibly anticipate what the answers might be. We ask, not because we have the answers but because we trust in the still small voice within to respond to those questions. This voice may respond loudly, but more often the voice is still, subtly, slow like an opening blossom.
I imagine Friends sitting together in worship sharing, centering in silence and then responding to a biblical passage or a query. I imagine Friends sharing deeply out of silence and into silence so that the sharing is not discussed, refuted or even affirmed but is rather allowed to resonate among the gathered Friends and the Spirit that is present wherever two or three are gathered. We share, in the context of worship, so that we may better hear, deeply hear what the other has to share. We share in the context of worship so that we may better hear what the Spirit is saying through the other.
I think this vision of a people gathered to practice listening spirituality is a striking and beautiful vision that gets to something essential or central about contemporary Quakers. I think that these practices have great potential in the context of our post secular but also our post ecclesial landscape. In the context of diverse theological, philosophical and political perspectives, this practice of deep listening may be especially valuable to the broader culture.
If this listening spirituality is the heart of contemporary Quaker practice, I think the imagination should be the lungs. With this foundation of listening spirituality, Quakers are ready to engage in a recovery of the religious imagination. How will we become a people who value visioning as much as we value listening?
I think about the vision of the British Friends who looked out over London from the Ferris wheel and thought, how many people out there are Quakers and just don’t know it? How many people would benefit from this contemplative, experiential faith? This vision about the future of Quakers, lead them to think deliberately about how Quakerism could be shared with the world. This vision lead them to develop the Quaker Quest process, a deliberate and systematic process of in-reach and out-reach that Friends can use to share their practices of listening spirituality. In contrast, my experience with Quakers is that we tend to be conservative (in a bad way) and not so visionary, outward or forward looking.

I think that a robust religious imagination helps us to think about the future. Vision has to do with looking forward, looking outward. If contemplative listening helps us to hear each other and God, discern and follow leadings, prophetic seeing has to do with what is to come. Many writers have described our time as a period of renewal and spiritual awakening. Other have noted that the broader culture has become both post secular (religion and spirituality are here to stay) and post ecclesial (we will be organizing ourselves differently). How will Friends speak to whatever it is that this rapidly approaching future brings? What visions will guide our interaction with that future? Walter Brueggemann’s prayer asks that we hear God’s voice “out beyond ourselves.” He prays: “it is your speech to us that carries us where we have never been, and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.” Prophetic words from Brueggemann to Quakers.
I think we are sometimes guilty of a kind of cultural self-absorption. We are endlessly fascinated with our history, culture, theology, personalities, processes and language. Surely there is a balance between conservation and innovation – where are we in that tension? How do we become as proficient at visioning as we are at listening? How do we become as skilled at looking toward future as we are at examining our past? How do we build on the foundation of this deep listening spirituality? Have we invested as much time and energy in visioning as we have in preserving and conserving. Have we invested as much time and energy in imagining and experimenting as we have in documenting and archiving? Have we invested as much time and energy being in dialogue with contemporary thinkers as we have with George Fox, Margaret Fell and John Woolman?
[1] Patricia Loring. Listening Spirituality. Washington Grove, MD: Openings Press, 1997
Travis Etling is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Travis on his blog,

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Nonviolent Life

The following is a review of John Dear's book, The Nonviolent Life, by ESR student Christie Walkuski. Dear is the keynote speaker for ESR's 2014 Ministry of Writing Colloquium on October 31-November 1.  You can learn more about that event and register online hereAs we lead up to the Colloquium, you are invited to join the ESR community in reading The Nonviolent Life during the coming month.

“The time has come to unlearn the ways of violence,” says long-time peace and nonviolent activist, John Dear, in the introduction to his latest book, The Nonviolent Life. Dear insists that part of this un-learning is practicing three dimensions of nonviolence: nonviolence towards ourselves, nonviolence in our interpersonal relationships, and nonviolence out in the world, by joining, in whatever way we can, the global movement for peace and justice. 
I am struck by Dear’s inclusion of practicing nonviolence toward self, which may sound like a lovely, uplifting and affirming exercise, but in practice is really huge spiritual work--the work of healing our own woundedness--through constant prayer, meditation and self-examination.  Tending to our own inner healing, Dear says, and learning how to be nonviolent toward ourselves and others, is the work of a lifetime, and what the spiritual life is all about. Amen to that. This spiritual work is not one that this reader hears many people in activist or faith circles talking about.  As a seminary student, I don’t hear much about this piece of the spiritual life among my peers and professors, and in my public theology class for which I wrote this review, we have talked more about the idea of engaging faith in the public sphere, a way to assert Christian or moral values into political discourse, rather than a way of being the change we wish to see in the world. 
It makes simple sense: how do we serve as agents of peace if we are practicing violence in our own hearts? We can say we are for nonviolent peace-making and social justice, but unless we practice nonviolence personally, unless we commit to the work of our own conversion, how are we to understand, for example, and foster, the principles of non-retaliation, reconciliation, or Christ’s call to not be angry (Matt. 5: 21-22).  The book challenges readers to be fully invested in the nonviolent life and serves as a kind of guidebook to “being the change”.
Being the change we wish to see in the world is not some catchy slogan to merely think about as an alternative approach, nor a way to absolve ourselves of the need to engage in the world and focus only on ourselves, but a necessary ingredient, a requirement.  Nonviolence starts in my own heart.  If we are not practicing all three dimensions of nonviolence, Dear says, we are not living a nonviolent life. 
How do we “be the change”? This is what Dear lays out for us, and it’s not for the weak in spirit.  It takes daily prayer, meditation, and self-examination. It takes self-awareness.  It takes a commitment to heal our own woundedness.  It takes not only a willingness to change, but change itself.  “Question yourself!”, Dear seems to be saying, “not only authority!”  This spiritual work, when overlooked or avoided, produces angry activists that cannot sustain their work for change, people who burn out and become bitter, people who harbor resentments and self-hatred.  They, in the end, may offer more harm and violence to the world.
Then there are those who only focus on their own healing. They think this is enough. Dear quotes King: “An individual has not started living until he (or she) can rise above the narrow confines of his (or her) individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”   If we do not broaden our concerns, we are not reaching our true potential as sons and daughters of God, Dear writes.  “We need to help God,” he asserts, in disarming and transforming the world. 
What a beautiful idea.  However, while this is certainly compelling to me, I’m sure there are some who are perfectly content to ignore the violence in the world! And they find ways to justify their arguments for a faith that keeps them only tending to their own wounds.  They think they cannot do anything about the world. They give in to hopelessness, the kind which is not about spiritual surrendering and self-emptying, but that is spiritually irresponsible and self-protecting (that’s self with a capital S).  They never join movements for change.  They never take a stand against injustice. In the end, they only go so far in their own healing which makes them unable to bring much healing into the world.  They too, I believe, might offer more harm and violence than good to the world.
At first while reading this book I had the thought, ‘is John Dear living in reality?‘  The message seemed too simple.  As I read on, it hit me.  Oh. This is calling me to actually changeThe seeming simplicity in message--for example, suggestions to not get angry, or to win difficult others over with loving kindness--highlights just how counter-cultural Dear’s message is.  It seems simplistic and fantastical because it is a message so opposed to the violence we live with every day and that is so ingrained in our culture.  “Maybe we should take Jesus on his word,” Dear says as a reply to those who would raise similar questions.
Everyone engaged in activism and in self-healing work should read this book.  Each chapter includes queries for further personal reflection and small group discussion, encouraging both contemplation and action in our daily lives, in the world. If we want to, as Dear says, radiate personally the peace we seek politically, this book should become our companion and workbook, referred to often.

Christie Walkuski is a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. You can read more from Christie on her blog,

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