What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Pastoral Care

March 28, 2014 § 3 Comments

Human life is quite full of human suffering. One of the most important roles for the Quaker meeting is to minister to one another in our suffering. Thus pastoral care is for Friends a form of ministry. 

The faith and practice of pastoral care, the roles and responsibilities of both the individual and the meeting, are not different for pastoral care ministry than they are for vocal ministry or witness ministry, or any other form of ministry: 

As individuals, to always seek to be open to the promptings of the Spirit to serve, in the knowledge that any one of us at any time could be called to be there for someone in pain; that you do not have to have professional training to do this. 

As meetings, to teach the spiritual practice of Quaker ministry, including pastoral care as one of its forms, thus encouraging all members and attenders to be available to the Holy Spirit, and to each other as pastoral caregivers; and to create a fellowship in which Friends know each other well enough to recognize when someone needs our care.

Pastoral care as ministry

As with all other forms of ministry, the goal is to bring someone to G*d and to bring G*d into their life. To seek to awaken the sufferer to the Comforter within them and to give them whatever kinds of support seems appropriate.

The one sure vehicle for doing this is love. For whatever else “God” is, most of us can agree that G*d is love, that loving is as close as we can normally get to the divine. This love is taught in a Masters program that no outward schooling in counseling can replicate, though it can facilitate.

Just as this love is inwardly learned without outward instruction, so it is outwardly expressed without specific forms. That is, when we encounter someone in pain, the first thing we can do is to be still inwardly and listen for how we might be led. We can seek to act and to speak in the situation in answer to that of G*d within our Friend, and to heed that of G*d within ourselves, waiting as it were to be led into action and speech by the Holy Spirit, by the Mystery Reality that binds us together in love. We can settle into the feelings we have for our Friend, our care for them, our wish for their well-being, and in the fullness of that silence, find a way forward revealed. Thus simply sitting together for a time, in the silence, in the light, in that love, can often be the best first action.

We may, in fact, end up employing professional skills and tools in the situation, just as a Bible passage may find its way into our vocal ministry, or our knowledge of hydrofracking may inform our tactics in our earthcare ministry. But love is the first motion, and along with that, expectant listening, knowing that we can be inspired to right action if we attend to the light within us and within others.

But pastoral problems often are—well, usually are—complex and hard to deal with. They often feel bigger than our meager knowledge or skills or gifts. And they are so fraught with tension that it is hard to silence our fears and sense of helplessness, our reluctance to intrude or the tendency to seek a solution, so that it can be very hard to hear that little voice inside or feel that little nudge toward right action. And very often, there really isn’t much we can do, as an individual or as a meeting or pastoral care committee, to actually solve these difficult situations. 

We can try. We should try to do something, even if we are not clearly led, I think. The trying is its own act of love. But at the least, we can love and we can pray. We can just be there, and say that we are there. We can listen. And we can minister to the heart, even when we cannot minister to the situation. We all know what a difference it makes to know that the meeting cares, to get those flowers and cards and visits and covered dishes. These things any pastoral care committee can do, whether it has trained professionals or not.

We often do put people on our pastoral care committees who are mental health professionals or professional mediators, people whom we recognize have already realized their gifts and their calling in this area. But even when these Friends are bringing their professional training and skills to a pastoral need in the meeting, they also are bringing the gifts and the calling that led them to their profession, they are bringing the love and the healing of G*d, the giver of those gifts, the source of that calling.

Gifts of pastoral ministry

And what are the gifts of pastoral ministry? 

  • The gift of attention, of being consciously open to the signs of suffering in others;
  • of listening, of really being present to someone when they are speaking;
  • of empathy, making a habit of imagining what someone else is going through as though it were you;
  • of compassion, making a habit of turning from the awareness of some problem to the resolve to do what you can to help;
  • of discernment, a deep openness to G*d’s inspiration as to the source of someone’s suffering, or the solution to the situation, or to the possible role of the meeting;
  • of prayer, the practice of bringing others into our devotional life;
  • of presence, the willingness to simply be with someone on their own terms, without any expectation of outcome and without fretting too much about the awkwardness;
  • of healing, one of the rarer gifts, of channeling healing power, knowing what to do or what to say or how to help in the moment of counsel, beyond even the great gift of just being present.

These gifts are universal, a natural capacity we all possess, though we each possess them in different measure. Some people seem quite naturally to possess some of these gifts in greater measure, but I believe we can cultivate them within ourselves, we can raise them up or strengthen them, with a little practice.

On prayer

I want to emphasize the value of prayer. The gift of prayer is one of the most endangered in the liberal Society of Friends. But ironically, its very rarity among us enhances its power when we use it. And it has tremendous power to start with. Even “holding someone in the Light” has real power when through the practice we descend into our own depths and send forth our love.

I have seen the truth of this many, many times. In my own meeting just recently more than one Friend has testified to how important the meeting’s prayers were to them and how they could feel the meeting’s love at work within them. I have seen miracles.

I do believe that healing prayer stands a much better chance if practiced in conjunction with some deepening exercise. At least that’s been my experience. Something happens when you take the time to really center down before praying for someone, and when you stay in that deep place for a good time, allowing your lovingkindness to sink you ever deeper as you reach out across the ocean of light with G*d’s love. Oh, it feels sublime and it has great power.

On money

I believe that the Quaker meeting has a special role to play in ministering to the financial suffering of its members. This was the central mission of the church that Jesus built and it was a central mission of the Quaker meeting in the earliest times for Friends. But this post is long enough. This discussion will have to wait until my next post.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Prayer

December 19, 2013 § 7 Comments

The gift of prayer. 

In my last post about family devotional life, I mentioned prayer, but deferred discussion because it is too big a subject to add to an already long post. And it’s bigger than “family” as a category. As I said then, I believe that a good discussion of prayer will take us to the heart of our religious life.

In his introduction to George Fox’s Journal, William Penn wrote that, as many and as great were Fox’s gifts,

“above all he excelled in prayer. The inwardness and weight of his spirit, the reverence and solemnity of his address and behavior, and the fewness and fullness of his words, have often struck even strangers with admiration, as they used to reach others with consolation. The most awful, living, reverent frame I ever felt, or beheld, I must say, was his in prayer.”

Today, the gift of prayer—the ability to sweep others in the meeting up into the Presence with the intensity and integrity of our prayer—is almost totally lost among us. At least that’s true of the liberal meetings with which I am acquainted. And I wonder about our programmed meetings. You at least do pray vocally in meeting. But do you program your prayer the way you program everything else? Can programmed prayer dissolve the invisible sheath that holds us away from the presence of G*d? Are those who do feel the spontaneous, spirit-led call to prayer free in that moment to sink to their knees and take the meeting with them?

To whom do we pray? 

Prayer as it is traditionally practiced assumes a Being that is listening, that cares, that answers. That was the assumption behind the practice of prayer in my church and in my family when I was a kid.

However, I suspect that many Friends in the liberal tradition, anyway, just couldn’t with integrity teach their children to pray to a traditionally defined supreme being kind of god. Many of us just do not believe in such a god or have any experience of him (sic). So to whom would we pray?

And if you’re not praying to some entity that could hear your prayer and maybe answer it (or cherish it, if the prayer is not supplicatory), what do you do? I think a lot of us have just stopped praying in the face of this dilemma.

Instead, we “hold in the Light”. That’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it seems a bit weak. It feels weak to me because it has nothing to do with relationship—it is very abstract. On the other hand, simply addressing a divine being in the traditional way also seems a bit weak. Both do something to align the soul inwardly toward something we’re saying is divine. But both are too often just a vague exercise of the imagination—a form without power.

In my experience, prayer is effective in direct proportion to how focused it is, both in the mind and in the heart. The 19th century Indian master Ramakrishna used to hold his disciples underwater in the Ganges until they were about to drown. Then he would haul them up and say, “As badly as you wanted air just then, that’s how badly you need to want God.”

Well, that’s a bit extreme. But you get the idea.

This gets to the heart of the issue for Liberal Friends: just who—or what—is God for us? What is worship if there is no supreme being, or at least, no distinct identifiable spiritual entity capable of relationship with us? What is prayer without some one to address, rather than some thing—or nothing at all?

My own prayer journey.

My own journey in this area is quite heterodox; but maybe not so uncommon, in its broad strokes.

As I said in my last post, my mother prayed with my brother and me at bedtime when we were little. I wish I remember when she stopped doing that. I do remember that she would ask us to remember to pray during what I guess was a kind of transition stage when we got a little older and she wasn’t doing it with us. The prayer was a stock family favorite that actually made me somewhat nervous: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lord my soul to take.” You can guess the part that caused some anxiety. Also, of course, our family prayed together before every meal, also a stock family favorite: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”

My parents took for granted a traditional theistic God to whom you could pray quite naturally and they believed that he (sic) was paying attention, not just to our prayers, but to everything we did. However, when I went to college during the height of the ‘60s, a bunch of factors combined to undo this simple faith for me. I replaced prayer with meditation, for which I learned several methods, and with other practices that worked better for me than conventional prayer. I still practice them.

And then I reconnected with theism in a new way in a mystical experience in the mid-1980s and I recovered prayer as direct address to an identifiable Spirit (just not the traditional Christian God; I choose to call this being an angel, but that just begs the question of what I mean by “angel”, and that’s a discussion for another time). More recently I find myself praying sometimes to Christ, to what I think of as the Christ-spirit (but that, of course, begs the question of what do I mean by “Christ-spirit”).

The real breakthrough came only last year, in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of New York Yearly Meeting during its Summer Sessions. I finally found the address—the “to whom” that I might pray:
    Our Father who art in Heaven,
    our Mother who art in Earth,
    our Holy Spirit who art in all things living
        and in each one of us,
    we thank you for your transcendental revelations, and
    for your abundant beauty and providence, and
    for your abiding presence and
        the truth that you have awakened within us.
    We ask that you guide our steps and
        illuminate our minds,
    that you sustain and heal our bodies, and
    that you bring our hearts into lasting loving kindness.
    We pray this in the spirit of honest yearning,
    in the confidence of your revealing, and
    with the humble commitment to be faithful to your call.

So my own prayer life keeps evolving.

Recovering the gift of prayer.

From this sometimes intense and unexpected path, I have learned the following: Prayer life evolves. All you have to do is start where you are and practice. And there are ways to focus one’s spiritual attention that are deeply satisfying other than the traditional simple address to a spiritual being. On the other hand (in my experience), “spiritual beings” do exist, Christ included, and spiritual life conducted in the context of relationship with such a being is even more satisfying.

I was going to say here that you can’t just make it up, but upon reflection, I’m not sure that’s true. What I mean is that I believe it can be enough to just start with whatever you can do, practice it, and see where it goes. The sustained inward alignment works like meditation works. At a certain point, a standing wave gets established in your consciousness and you move to a new level; something deeper starts happening. Eventually, you can feel called into prayer, maybe even into relationship.

A multitude of forms await those who seek a vital prayer life, and the key is just to start, however lame it feels, and see what happens.

Finally, as I’ve said in other contexts, I think consciousness is the key. Whatever you do, doing it from a centered consciousness makes it better. It’s not necessary, of course not. But it is better—deeper, more consistent, more rewarding, more fulfilling. So learning a deepening technique and combining it with prayer really helps.

We don’t know whether George Fox used some “technique” or whether Jesus did, to find their center, to find the Presence that dwells there. We like to romanticize such prophetic figures and think of them as utterly self-taught, but that is rarely true. Jesus had John the Baptist; was there some schooling in the spirit done? (Of course, traditional theology holds that Jesus was himself already God, so he was always in the Presence; he was in fact the Presence itself. Yet he still prayed to his Father. A topic for another post.)

However, both men possessed a charism of great depth. Clearly they both lived in the Life in some powerful, natural way. I’m not in their league. I use deepening techniques because they work for me.

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