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Tampa Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

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Reflections on Queries and Advices from SEYM Faith and Practice

The queries and advices for First Month center on our Meeting for Worship. The first query is the foundational one to all of the others: Are our meetings for worship held in expectant waiting for divine guidance, with a living silence in which we feel drawn together in the Light by the presence of God? The key is that we wait for divine guidance. One thing that sets unprogrammed Friends apart from most other Christian faiths is the lack of need for an intermediary to tell us what we are supposed to hear from God and how we are to interpret it. We are spoken to directly by God/Spirit/Light either individually or via the vocal ministry of another. Whether or not we are led to be the vessel through which the Spirit speaks to the Meeting, we are receiving the divine word.

What is equally important about this query is the silence that undergirds Meeting for Worship. This is an external silence of as little extraneous noise as possible as well as the internal silence of quieting our minds so that we can experience the working of the Spirit among us, so that we may understand the corporate message that is alive in the Meeting – whether spoken or unspoken. The external silence feeds the internal silence. No one can do away with all noise during Meeting – else we would live in a vacuum. We can however do small things such as turn off our cell phones – not just put them on vibrate. Even that little buzzing sound can serve to distract us from the center of our worship and we want to give our entire beings to communal listening.

As regards the internal silence, there are ways that we can prepare for Meeting for Worship. This preparation does not refer to ‘bringing a message’ to worship that we want to share, but making our minds and hearts ready to listen. We can do this by quieting ourselves prior to our time together. Whatever distance one must travel on the way to Worship, can be in silence – not playing the radio, not chatting with another person in the car, not even thinking about what plans we have for after Meeting. Just as Friends have a regular spiritual practice during the week, so should we have similar practices to prepare the soil of our souls to receive the sustenance of God’s word.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

The queries and advices for Second Month center on our Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business. The query: Are we able to unite in good grace with the sense of the meeting when our personal desires tend in another direction? and the advice: Avoid undue persistence. As we release our attachment to our ideas, the Light may reveal solutions none of us has considered both call us to humility in our decision-making as individuals and as a community. In Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business, we are waiting for leadings of the Light. We wait with the same openness as Meeting for Worship for the Spirit to speak to our corporate body. This means that we leave behind our own preferences and devices when we enter into discernment of the Spirit’s leadings. Even if we have strong opinions about a topic, we must listen as if we did not. This approach can allow the Light to, as one of the other advices states, reveal solutions none of us has considered. This ‘letting go’ of attachment to our desires, helps us to be more open to where we are being led.

The idea that we are not always right or do not always have the correct or best answer is difficult in our world today that is filled with people pushing their own agendas. Being right is seen to be a characteristic of a good leader. Thus, if someone “backs down” from their position, they can be viewed as weak. People who refuse to surrender their own opinion, however, come across more as bullies than as persons of fortitude. The true strength lies in listening and being able to discern the voice of God in all that is shared. As Friends, we can counter the attitude of dominance by bringing an understanding of corporate wisdom into whatever decision-making situations in which we find ourselves. It not only engenders a peaceful means of reaching solutions, but helps all to feel involved in the process.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

Let us admit it. There are some people on this earth with whom we do not get along. Someone once said that there are those we encounter in life who are there simply to “bring us closer to God.” In other words, every encounter with a difficult person brings one to pray for patience, generosity, wisdom, and counsel. The queries for Third Month center on Harmony within the Meeting Community. The advice that can help us, not only in our relationships in Meeting, but as we interact with others in the secular world, is that when we have a difference with another person, speak to them in private in the love and wisdom that is gentle and pure.

This practice speaks to our testimony of integrity which calls us to be truthful in our expression, being direct and “avoiding talebearing.” Faithfully laboring toward Spirit-led interaction is important in building a relationship; in establishing a beloved community, it is essential.

We can use the same approach with our everyday interactions with others – calling them aside and speaking gently to the situation at hand, listening to the other’s truth without judgment. This is not always easy to do. Emotions often get in the way of truly listening and may lead us to judge the other’s motivations – sometimes even before they have finished speaking.

So, in our lives as Friends, we must strive to “listen with the ear of our heart” (Benedict of Nursia) so that we can exhibit a forgiving spirit to all and “answer that of God in everyone” (George Fox). What a world we would have if all people did the same!

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

The queries for Fourth Month center on Mutual Care. Mutuality is giving the same respect, love, care, and trust to others as we would expect them to give to us. It is a universal moral principle, as the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule states, to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. Virtually every culture and religion in the world has a similar moral precept.

Notice, though, that it does not say to “treat one another the way we are treated,” but rather as we would like to be treated. For some interactions, this calls us to look beyond the judgments we might have regarding someone who has harmed us to see ‘that of God’ within them, and approach them the way we wish they would have treated us rather than the way they did.

Even in situations in which we have not been harmed by the one with whom we are interacting, it can take a great deal of effort. It presupposes that in every encounter we have, we stop and make a particular choice regarding how we are going to treat someone or respond to them. This calls us to a slower, more thoughtful approach to human interactions rather than the quick, reactive method we tend toward in our fast-paced society. It takes a great deal of energy to communicate like that but, as Friends, it is what we are called to do as witnesses to the truth and sincerity of our Meeting community.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

The queries for Fifth Month center on Education. Since we have very few children who are regular attenders with their families, the queries for Fifth Month that refer to the religious education of children and their spiritual upbringing are generally unused in our Meeting – though when there are children present, they are given spiritual nurture and loving care. When applied to the whole Meeting community, however, we have a very strong Adult First Day program and the spiritual uplifting that occurs with the Wednesday night gatherings. Our interactions with one another are always opportunities for learning. The advice that advocates that we “Seek…the full development of God’s gifts, which is true education,” calls us to recognize and call forth the gifts of each one of us and thus gain wisdom from their experiences and knowledge.

At the heart of this communal learning process is the time that we make “for regular periods of personal prayer and worship and for reading the Bible, Friends literature, Faith and Practice, the queries and advices, and other sources of spiritual value.” Though Friends do not hold with the Bible as the final or sole source of revelation, it is a treasure trove of deeply spiritual writings that can give us direction for our daily lives. Friends literature can open our eyes to new ways of looking at Quaker life and the spiritual journey we share as Friends. Faith and Practice, of course, is a foundational piece of our Quaker spiritual life. Not only does it clarify process questions, but it is rich with spiritual wisdom in the many reflections from ‘weighty’ Friends and Quaker ancestors. The other sources we use to strengthen our spiritual life, be they books, films, or other people, are varied in depth and scope. The important thing is that we take them as the gifts they are and remain open to what the Spirit can teach us through them. It is not so important where we go to be spiritually nourished, but that our learning leads us to “Reach out to that of God in everyone, and endeavor to live out the testimonies of Friends in all the expected and unexpected circumstances of daily life” (Advice for Fifth Month).

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

The queries for Sixth Month center on Home, Family, and Relationships. Families today cannot be defined by rigid parameters. Rather, family consists of those with whom we share love and life. This can be the family in our home or it could be an extended family of neighborhood, work relationships, or worshiping community. The first query of this month reminds us that our family, home, and relationships should be filled with “love, peace, happiness, friendship, and refreshment of spirit” and within these relationships, “the presence of God is experienced.” This, of course, does not mean that everything will always be the proverbial “bed of roses (though some may be blessed to have this gift), but that the approach to resolving any difficulties or dissension is based on love and the experience of God’s grace.

One of the advices for this month encourages “reliance upon God’s guidance and help for each day’s needs.” This continual turning toward God as a family is the key to solid, loving relationships. The oft-heard expression, “The family that prays together stays together” has merit. In a Quaker family, this is not limited to First Day Meeting for Worship, although regular participation in communal worship is encouraged. It also does not mean that there is a specific ritual in which all members must participate or certain prayers all must say – that is not the way of Friends. However, there should be some commitment to set aside quiet time daily for Spirit to work and nourish each person. This becomes the well from which the family draws when crisis looms or heavy decisions must be made. It grows the ‘habit’ of discernment that pervades our every breath.

So, as we sit with these Sixth Month queries and advices, we reflect on the nature of our closest relationships – those we consider our family – and discern those things that may need to change in order to bring ourselves and our loved ones closer to God and to each other.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

The idea of “fulfilling all obligations of state and society that are not contrary to our religious convictions” has always been a challenge. Even Jesus felt it was important to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Of course, we don’t get the money for our taxes by gutting a fish and pulling out a coin either.

There have been many courageous F/friends who have refused to pay taxes or otherwise contribute to the war machine or to funding for organizations or systems that go against our values. They have risked home, family, freedom, financial security, and reputation. Those who are not willing to go this far for whatever reason, however, are not to be judged. Each person must make the decision that seems best for their situation in life. For example, there are some who judge the purchasing practices of others to support conglomerates that oppress their workers. However, sometimes these huge corporations are the only affordable resource for the necessities of life. It has been proposed that economic sanctions are the playground of the wealthy. Those who have means may have the choice of shopping ‘green’ or ‘buying responsibly’ because they can afford it. Many people cannot.

There are ways in which we can support the overall betterment of society and “strengthen our physical, mental, and spiritual life, avoiding those that may hinder others, our Earth, and ourselves.” We can, as the advices state, “choose recreations that increase our vitality, self-awareness, and peace of mind and strengthen our will to create what is good” and “be mindful of our connection with the Divine and others [and] avoid substances, behaviors, and activities which diminish this connection.” So when we do have a choice, we can listen to the leadings of Spirit and discern a better path – perhaps going for a walk on the beach instead of spending money walking through a theme park, watching the wonders of nature rather than watching TV, reading a spiritually uplifting book rather than reading about violence and murder. All of these things are not going to upend the political, social, and economic structures that are harming our world, but they can bring the human race into a better frame of mind and heart so that the decisions of those who have the power to change things are rooted in “the promptings of love and truth in our hearts, which are the leadings of God.”

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

On the surface, the Queries and Advices for Eighth Month seem to affirm who we are as Quakers. Simply stated, “personal integrity and right action” anchor our expression in the world.

For Friends, integrity is foundational and historical – our words are not empty, our practices are steeped in right action and intentional process, and our relational activity is grounded in God. Truth is not static or an occasional option; it is a fundamental element revealed in our ongoing relationship with the Light. As we deepen our inner life, our ability to better apprehend the nuances of connection in the leadings of the Spirit is a natural and grace-filled result.

As with most aspects of a life lived in the manner of Friends, what seems simple on the surface is usually rooted in a deep faith and persevering practice. The Queries and Advices for Eighth Month are clear on what we do, why we do it, and how we get there. Some modern day Friends ride easily on the reputation of earlier Friends whose lives spoke loudly in witness and integrity. It is not that we are competing with this “cloud of witnesses” but it is important to acknowledge that we must be compelled by our testimony of Integrity in all that we do. When we say we are Quaker, we represent a long history of those who were faithful and made courageous choices. We are authentic when we come from a place of integrity, and as Friends, we find that integrity rises up from our faith.

When we ask if we “make time in our day for silence, solitude, spiritual reflection, and growth of our inner life,” we are actually affirming how we ground our lives in God. This is an intentional practice that is not meant to be ponderous; even small moments of spiritual connection can be profoundly nourishing. The important piece is regular practice. If the only time we seek the “still, small voice” is in worship on First Day, we will probably have a harder time quieting our minds and centering down. The more we sink into the silence in our own daily lives, the more we feed our spirit and counter the negative influences that shadow our sense of peace. When we regularly immerse ourselves in that Light and Love, we are better able to be the examples in the world that Fox called for. Our integrity is a demonstration of our faith, rooted in our spiritual practices. We know God’s gifts are working in us when we listen beyond words; we are tender and open when we are willing and know we are all one in God; we are faithful when we seek and are of service to others. When our integrity is constant, visible, and unrelenting, we are standing firm in our faith as Quakers.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

Being a witness as Quakers may be most obviously evident in how we live the testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. These testimonies are not just nice words, but give us a foundation upon which we build our daily lives. They are worthy goals for which to aim, but inevitably, they all boil down to the individual choices we make in every interaction. Each encounter we have with another is an opportunity to recognize “that of God” in them.

There are so many examples of Spirit working in our world; we have only to seek them out. This presents a challenge in our fast-paced and technologically-rife society. In order to recognize the workings of the Spirit, we must be open to them. This necessitates that we discover a quiet space within where we can center down even amidst the chaos.

When we come across challenging situations in which it may be difficult to find “that of God” in a person, we can take refuge in that quiet space and enter into discernment about the best path to take. The ease with which we are able to enter into that spirit of discernment develops over time and with a lot of practice. We may not be successful the first few times or even the first hundred times, but we must, as the advices for this month state, “not let failure discourage us.” The more we immerse ourselves in the Light, the more readily we fall into discernment as second nature. Additionally, if we “keep before us the essential truths and test our life by them,” we will come to discover that “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) that will guide our every step.

A final challenge from the queries for this month is to have our Quaker witness “characterized by humility and a willingness to learn from others.” In our highly individualized society, the idea of humility is countercultural and the notion that someone may know more than we do is sometimes almost anathema. It is viewed as a sign of weakness by many to be reliant on others than to ‘go it alone.’ If everyone could recognize that they can learn something in every situation, wisdom would abound.

As Friends, we need to be aware that everything we do is a witness to who we are – as individuals and as the Religious Society of Friends. So let us “make our lives consistent with the high principles we profess” and act “as good as people think [we] are.”

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

As we watch the news unfold each day, we may find ourselves asking, “What can I do?” Due to the overwhelming nature of the problems in the world today, we may feel that there is nothing we can do “to transform the world with our loving spirit” as the first query for this month asks. We can, however, transform our hearts, which in turn can have an enormous impact on our interpersonal relationships and create ripples which will in turn reach the farthest shore.

One of the advices for this month challenges us to “keep an alert, sensitive, and questioning mind.” This calls us to refuse to accept the status quo and instead to bring to light those areas of life in our society and our world that encourage discrimination, violence, antagonisms, and injustice of any kind. Not all of us are made of the stuff necessary to lead protests and rallies, or to walk the halls of governmental leaders to speak on behalf of the voiceless. However, we do have ways we can contribute to the promotion of all that is good and just in our everyday lives: be a witness to Friends’ testimonies in our personal lives by maintaining our integrity in every interaction, learning about the root causes of injustice and conveying this information to the more vocal in our midst who can take such wisdom and strengthen into their own witness, and living our lives in such a way as to reflect inclusiveness, justice, nonviolence, and simplicity in all that we do.

One of Jesus’ teachings recounted in the Gospels is, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Matthew 5:15). For those of us who can remove the shadows from the halls of government or be their own spotlight on a concern to society or the planet, that light may shine brighter for all to see. For those who, due to a personality that keeps them from being comfortable in the public eye or because of responsibilities that leave them little time or energy to expend on the more obvious approaches to resolving issues, their light can still shine, albeit perhaps not as brilliantly, through the daily interactions and responses in which they are able to “answer that of God in everyone” (George Fox).

So, Friends, let us shine the Light into all the dark places of the world in whatever way that opens to us so that we may “be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them…whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you” (George Fox).

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

One of our most beloved quotes from George Fox contains the words, “Walk cheerfully over the earth…” This experience of finding joy as we walk the path of life includes the idea from the advices for this month of “cherishing the beauty and wonder of all God’s creation.” If we can see “that of God” in all creation, not just in people, we cannot possibly turn a blind eye to the magnificence of the creation of which we have been made stewards. We must also be able to recognize our connectedness with all of creation, thereby understanding our responsibility to maintain and protect the Earth.

William Penn had an inkling of the perspective we should take regarding our planet when he says, “It would go a great way to caution and direct People in their Use of the World, that they were better studied and known in the Creation of it. For how could [we] find the Confidence to abuse it, while they should see the Great Creator stare them in the Face, in all and every part thereof? In other words, if we truly see God in creation, there is no way we could ever allow it to come to harm.

Unfortunately, our world is in dire straits regarding the quality of our air, water, soil, atmosphere, and more, yet so many people refuse to listen. Ultimately, it comes down to the unwillingness of people to step outside of their comfort zones – to sacrifice the familiar for a greater good – the salvation of our planet. Those of us who walk the earth with blinders on are only adding to the suffering of so many of God’s creatures. Sometimes people are unwilling to see all of creation as having equal value or worth, and so if the current climate situation is not seen as directly affecting humans, then it is not a real problem. This is beginning to change, however, as in some areas of the world, even our own back yard in Florida, people are starting to discover that it is no longer just trees, plants, and animals who are at risk, but the people as well. Recognizing that all of nature is interconnected helps us to see that whatever affects any part of creation affects the whole.

So let us look through new eyes, allowing the vision of the Peaceable Kin-dom to move us to discern the way we should walk on this planet Earth.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting

Peace is somewhat of an ambiguous term when used in its broadest sense. It can be a moment of quiet after a very busy day full of noise; it can be the absence of war; it can be the reverence with which people treat one another or even a sacred space. When we look at Friends’ peace testimony, it becomes something altogether more profound.

The clearest understanding of Friends’ peace testimony can be seen in the 1660 Declaration of Friends to Charles II: "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world." This was truly revolutionary since the Christian Church at the time was very much at the forefront of military efforts across Europe. The Protestant Reformation was also at its height and so much of the Christian world was in upheaval. To declare a belief that both religious and secular wars were against the teachings of Jesus was to become a target.

We have similar difficulties today between the beliefs of historic peace churches such as Friends, and the views of some other Christian denominations who glorify war and violence as necessary to defend the country, their faith, and their rights. Throughout history, to the present day, there have been instances of faith being used as justification for violence – that, due to the rightness of their cause, it must be “God’s will” for them to fight. This runs counter to the message of Jesus which calls us to love one another - a message he was born to proclaim and embodied in his life of service, even to his death on the cross.

Though the Declaration is focused on fighting in wars, Friends’ peace testimony today includes all forms of nonviolence. We are called, for example, in our SEYM Faith & Practice, to “nurture peace within ourselves” – recognizing that of God in ourselves as well as others, “to take part in the ministry of reconciliation between individuals, groups, and nations,” and to “strive for nonviolent approaches to conflicts” wherever they exist. These attitudes encompass every aspect of life and would, ultimately, lead to the cessation of war or, better yet, the understanding that war doesn’t even have to be considered as a viable solution to conflict.

Friends’ peace testimony begins with that inner Light guiding us to cultivate love in all our relationships: in our homes, in our communities, in our Meetings, and in our work. Life is not easy for most of the world. Let us help to make it more bearable for all by becoming witnesses to the testimony of peace in our hearts and in our world.

Lisa Erazmus and Jan Dahm
Tampa Monthly Meeting