September 25, 2005

There and back again

Today after an adult education program called "Quakerism Then and Now," I was driving home and yearning for Friends to be able to speak to the connections between our contemporary practice and the roots of faith. I guess that's why the phrase "There and back again," borrowed from a certain popular Hobbit, came to me:

I am hungry for more Friends to return to early Friends about the origin of our testimonies and practices--"There"--so that we might corporately keep close(r) to the roots of our faith today--"and back again."

This morning I listened to Friends identify what is meant by simplicity; what in our life as Friends is "simple" today, and what in our life is "complex."

On the "simple" list were items like:

a walk in the woods
an easy recipe
direct contact to help people.
On the "complex" list were:
television
fancy clothes
committee meetings.
On the surface, I can agree with these items, but I had a rising concern that this presentation of what is simple and what is not is disconnected from and falls short of what early Friends understood and practiced in terms of simplicity.

Thankfully, another Friend from the worship group in which I participate lifted up that, for him, that which is simple has the leading of the Divine, and that which is complex often does not (at least, this is how I remember the Friend's contribution, anyway).

Little else was said about the historical roots of simplicity among Friends, which I have come to understand include the stripping away of all that is "not God" so that what is left is only "of God," and the removal of ornate adornments and empty rituals in order to enhance the immediate and direct connection to the Divine.

I was stretched to be still during that hour this morning. I fear I didn't do well in that regard, and I left before the hour was completed as a result.

As I drove away from that adult education program, I found myself revisiting the question of what the kernel, the heart of the ministry I carry is. What came to me is this:
There and back again:
Renewing and conveying my Quaker faith.
Blessings,
Liz

UPDATE: Over at Embracing Complexity, Contemplative Scholar expands on her comment below and offers resources about testing our leadings.

13 comments:

Cathy said...

However the past is the past. No matter how much you to, you really can't live that way again. You can only live in your time.

Contemplative Scholar said...

Thank you, Liz, for posting about this. I think a lot about simplicity and complexity, and, like your friend, I find myself especially attracted to understanding simplicity in terms of centering one's life around leadings from the Divine.

But I do not think that what is complex then is somehow not from the Divine. Sometimes it may be, sometimes not.

If you center yourself in what you feel led or called to do (and that is the essential simplicity of your life -- you focus only on that), then sometimes you may feel led or called to embrace complexity.

This is certainly how I feel. The world's problems are complex, and so there is need for there to be some people who are willing and able to face this complexity.

So, I'm not sure that the opposite of simplicity is necessarily complexity -- instead, those two make a powerful creative tension, I think. The undesirable contrast may be something more like "extravagance" and/or letting oneself be divided between seeking acceptance, or wealth, or status in the world vs. centering one's life solely on discerning God's will.

Liz Opp said...

Cathy, thanks for stopping by. And yes, to some extent, I agree that we can never go back and that we must live NOW.

At the same time, as I have gone deeper into my Quakerism, I have learned that there are practices from early Friends that are enriching my own practice as a Friend, including the most fundamental one of coming under the discipline of the Spirit, so that we may be obedient to God's call rather than to our own self-will. Corporate discernment is a large part of that discipline, and yet I fear liberal Friends may be stepping away from that practice, of listening for the Spirit together.

And welcome back, Contemplative Scholar. Thanks for expanding on the duality of simplicity <--> complexity. Well said!

Blessings,
Liz

Joe G. said...

I appreciate your thoughts, Liz. I read the post as a desire to recapture some of the original inspiration and underpinings of simplicity as a spiritual practice. The way you described the group's response, simplicity had more of a psychological-need focus: our lives our hectic - we need to simplify our lives to feel less hectic - this is spiritual. Mind you, there's nothing inherently problematic with this, per se. However, it is problematic if that's where the process ends.

My take: simplicity for early Friends was a way of abandoning distractions, both unwanted and wanted, as a way of listening to the voice of God. By listening they were transformed.

In some sense the "opposite" of spiritual simplicity is distraction (versus complexity). Busy-ness can also distract from the discipline of slowing down, simplifying the spiritual process to first listening (and then being changed by that the listening) and then doing, if so lead.

Some thoughts before I go to bed. Good-night, Liz!

Liz Opp said...

Beppe, thanks for this important reframe--shifting from the duality of simplicity <--> complexity to the duality of simplicity <--> distraction.

Phrasing the duality this way holds more life in it for me.

Blessings,
Liz

Robin M. said...

I don't know which Big Thinker said that the opposite of true is false, but the opposite of a Big Truth is sometimes another Big Truth.

Like simplicity and complexity.

I just read another Lloyd Lee Wilson article about the Quaker pillar of the spirituality of subtraction - the idea of peeling away all that is not God or of God in our lives. I think this is related to Beppe's point about distraction.

For me, as I have eliminated a lot of distractions in the last few years, God has rushed in to fill up the holes, in my schedule, in my thinking. The key for me is not to be so distracted by things that seem to be of God (Meeting activities, Quaker blogs, for examples) that I let that become the source of my busyness instead of leaving time for God to work on me.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz,
Unfortunately I too have found that "simplicity" is one of the most lost Quaker testimonies--what we think of as "simplicity" has little to do with the "plainness" that early Friends talked about. We've substitute the modern simplicity movement for our own historical understanding--an understanding that I find really helps me cope with the 21st century world. I like modern simplicity but it's different than traditional Quaker simplicity/plainness. I think we really need to have the two testimonies.

Paul L said...

I, too, have had a hard time getting my arms around "simplicity" as a religious testimony, at least as used by modern-day Quakers.

I personally think of it as a shorthand for a constellation of related characteristics including humility and non-ostentation, directness, mindfulness and non-distraction by superfluity, good stewardship (non-waste), guilelesness, and so forth. Very closely related to Truthfulness. "Plainness" would be another term that could encompass these characteristics now that it has lost its 19th century connotation of a dress and speech code.

I think a lot of modern Quakers equate "simplicity" with asceticism which I think of more as a method or means of achieving wisdom or enlightenment than a fruit of it, whereas genuine simplicity is what results from a God-directed life. (But distinguising between means & ends is often misleadint.)

Liz Opp said...

All of these comments remind me of something a Friend brought up following a recent MfW of the worship group. I think we were talking about ideas that were emerging about what we might be able to accomplish as a group of fFriends (don't quote me on that).

He then said, "Basically, I want us to follow God." (Don't quote me on that, either.)

My sense is he was pointing out that we were falling into the trap of worshiping the worship group, rather than worshiping and seeking God.

So it occurs to me that "keeping low" might also be part of simplicity.

Blessings,
Liz

Aj Schwanz said...

One of my friends pointed out the word "bondservant" in the Bible - we're called to be God's bondservants. All a bondservant is called to do is listen and respond - no questions asked. At first I was repelled: yuck! Who wants to be a servant?!!? But then I realized that there's freedom in that: freedom from having to know why, freedom from having to make sure we're "safe", because the master of a bondservant looks out for every single one of his/her needs - it might not always look how we expect, but it's there.

So in regards to simplicity/plainess, perhaps it's in the things we feel are our "duty" - really, we just need to listen and to obey.

And in regards to old time Quaker stuff, I *love* this quote: “We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam, which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation” - Eberhard Arnold, 1st generation Quaker

Liz Opp said...

Aj, thanks for visiting! Your quote reminds me of something I heard a Friend say over the summer:

Following God's leading is like being a ship on the open water. God is the wind and we must work together to raise our sails so they will catch the wind, and that is all we need do. But if we never raise the sails, we will wander aimlessly on the open sea...

That's the gist, anyway.

Blessings,
Liz

Chris M. said...

Lovely discussion, Liz, thanks for the thread. I liked Paul's constellation of values around the testimony: not one thing, but a package. (A little bit like the "tag cloud" on The Quaker Ranter, perhaps?)

And Robin mentioned the dialectic of simplicity <--> distraction to me recently. So then as I was driving home from work tonight, I saw this saying on the sign for Temple United Methodist Church: "What is distracting you from coming closer to God?" !!

(Side note: This church is sponsoring a member of our meeting to do service work in Pretoria, South Africa, among other interesting connections.)

The Lord moves in mysterious ways, Friends.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for adding to the thread of these comments, Chris M. And for the "sign" that we might be onto something, about simplicity <--> distraction. smile

Blessings,
Liz