Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The best time to plant a tree is always today

Photograph from SueAnn's Journey

A poem written for dVerse Poetics today, using a photograph of Sue Ann. It also draws on a suffering and healing reflection from  Quaker Faith and Practice (Britain Yearly Meeting). The poem  is based on a Spanish form called Cueca Chilena.

Looking out, makes me sixteen,
alone in the world,
friendless, utterly friendless,
ill and full of woes.
Yet boarding school womb
kept me happier
then the three months of pretence,
families do no harm.

I was awake for three weeks,
doctors refused pills,
and too young for hospital.
So I was pious,
yet dark courage picked
me for action
and I blessed my weeping wrists
to make life an act.

Suicide I did not fear.
The grief of parents
even those contracted to love,
made me cold and pale.
Yet the morning pause,
as staff and girls learn
how I became a story,
made loneliness less.

I thought long with strange wisdom,
(the child now silenced
by voices old when Christ died).
for Plato’s Greek sings.
Yet what wisdom, since
Socrates was lost
and made by hemlock promise.
Tears are for which loss?

I decided not to die,
it was cowardly.
I prayed to find sleep
and to feel comfort.
Yet who counts the cost
of dreams while they wait?
At fifty-one they came true
to save me from waste.

Love was still a lonely wait
under growing trees
not yet able to give shade
to life’s bitter truths.
Yet spring will triumph
for those in despair
to bring joy into each life
and be death’s defeat.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Awake on a cold autumn night


No God is found in any book or rule
or with good folk that preach aloud the word,
for faith is empty when worn to accrue.

Look beyond Savile suit and Oxford tongue
or in from rags to find if love is bold.
No God is found in any book or rule.

In night alone in silent thought, a guest
abides with song and love to mend your need,
for faith is empty when worn to accrue.

If Icon tears of holy splash on plague
are circus cheer, then love is silent seed.
No God is found in any book or rule.

In Sunday best, unknown at work, cliques
build up walls of truth in stone well laid,
for faith is empty when worn to accrue.

To love is more than words, love is surety:
silence of lovers, silence of a friend.
No God is found in any book or rule
for faith is empty when worn to accrue.

Based on a reflection from Quaker Faith & Practice
by Donald Court in the 1960′s about perceptions of truth.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Wakening up from a dream

I went to the first Hearts and Minds gathering last night so engaged with Friends for the first time in well over a year. I suppose this is why I woke up this morning from a dream about a wedding. I was trying to help someone who wanted to escape from the marriage by a priest in front of the altar. Images of the emperor God, the aristocracy of the priesthood and the passive masses and the associated religious language shaped the feeling about this wedding. Then the image shifted to a gathering of equals sharing the responsibility and pleasure of committing to a life long union with the power shared and invested in the people gathered- the tone set by a democratic religious language. The couple  in the first image were at first supplicants and then in the second image laughing and sharing in the joy with friends.

A possible  cause of the dream was being asked why had I come to Quakers. And the answer for me was our roots in the radical left of the English Civil war and the democratic stream of politics. Another was the question we were left to dwell on at the end. What is a meeting for worship? For me this phrase as a confusion of meanings in that it looks to the democratic and emperor notions of worship at the same time. Meeting is a collective gathering but worship has overtones of a majesty and awe. But that is the conversation for next week.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Now where was I?

 update picture
Well there's me thinking its time for me to refresh my links with Friends and out of the blue comes an invite to join an eight session Hearts and Mind workshop. This is a Woodbrooke activity for British Friends to discuss the basis of their beliefs and faith and is a welcome way of engaging me.

Ever since China I have been mulling over why engage with a minor strand of religious thinking which is part of only one major branch of world faith. My wife is a Amma devotee, believes in Angels and so mixes Hinduism with a Christian New Age Paganism. She is part of the pick and mix traditions opened up since the sixties.

I keep coming back to the fact I was born in the west and my cultural identity is wrapped up in Protestant Christianity. I reject the notion of Christianity being the only path but remain sceptical of rejecting 5000 years of Judaic-Christian practices as my cultural bedrock.  Hence a Quakerism rooted in Christianity but on a journey to speak to our condition, draws me back timeand time again.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Quakers and China

I have just come back from a holiday to China and seen at first hand the sheer pace of change since my last visit in 1991. Then markets were only recently liberalised, no private ownership of property, no private cars, foreigners mainly in tour parties (we have family in China so were not restricted then) but now a housing boom, traffic jams worthy of New York and London, modern 21st century cities and foreigners two a penny.

The pace of change shows no sign of slowing with many peoples standard of living raising fast enough for them to accept the increased disparities in wealth and so keep impulses for democratic reform under the surface. If no political freedoms certainly more cultural freedoms then in the past given the range of music, DVD’s and magazines available on the street.

Censorship is still an issue as I was unable to get on any Blog sites while there.But this is not a political piece, I am interested that this western economic transformation is taking place within a culture whose roots go back to several 1000 years and has a continuity that the West does not. To be similar, the Greco-Roman culture would have continued and the Roman Empire would have created a ethnic, language-political unity that would have constantly reasserted itself over the century.

For me the one recurring thought was this was a nation of over 1 Billion that consistently has no interest in invoking a unified and personified supernatural power. Hence, questions about the nature and existence of God which fuel much of the debate and discussions amongst Quakers are largely irrelevant.

These differences go deeper, for example Platonism stresses the rule of law, whilst Confucianism preached a society ruled by ethics. Quakers in arguing for that of the divine spark in all people is more in tune with ethical living then imposed authority. We are pulled back in the western sphere when looking at Enlightenment thinking calls for liberty and democracy, as Chinese Legalism demanded unquestioned loyalty to imperial authority. Here our roots in radical Protestants make us question any authority that conflicts with our vision of the righteous life.

I could continue to explore the links between Quaker practice and a Chinese philosophy primarily focuses more internally, while Western philosophy focus is more external. For me the challenge is how to unite the two so that I am concerned with changing the world to make it fairer and changing individuals so that it remains fair.

An example, could be to tackle the current western view of the environment by exploring our interrelationship with it as developed over the centuries by the Chinese whilst looking at at the political and cultural changes needed to make this a reality.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Quakers and Class

I am saddened to see I have not blogged for a month. My excuse is work pressures and not wanting to face trying to make sense of some of my Theological thoughts. It is also because I have become active in my Local Meeting which whilst positive means less time for reflection. What I will have to write about and reflect at some point in the future is the burning issue of the day at my meeting: how to reconcile working with excluded paedophiles by holding them in the meeting whilst at the same time starting a new children's meeting to widen involvement with the community.

Shaking my head at the complexity of that one I came across a much more familiar issue that of Class as set out below.
I'm writing because I took George Lakey's "Quakers and Social Class" workshop at Gathering this year (2007, River Falls, WI) and I'm looking to talk with other Quakers about social class, especially to Quakers who are either working class or grew up working class and who also feel like an odd duck among Quakers. I grew up working class and discovered in George's workshop that I've internalized much of modern Quaker's middle-class and owning-class tendencies. This, for me, has been much like discovering in my early twenties the depth to which the patriarchy had affected my life.

I'm starting a google group for working class Quakers or Quakers who grew up working class. Email me if you're interested in joining at njeanneburns at
Coming from a UK working class background its odd(welcome but still odd) to my ears when I hear Americans talk about class as all to often they mean status and see it in more fluid terms then the UK/European context. I see class as having three elements: firstly its about your degree of economic power/autonomy; secondly, its about your status within that economic band and thirdly its about the political values and practices that the first two generate. The whole is dynamic rather then static so will alter over time as personal and social circumstances change. The perspective also changes if you take "a what has been my experience line" or "a what has been the general experience of a groups line" For example, white collar jobs as described are classic class boundary jobs and so groups and individuals are often acutely aware of the benefits and pains of loss in status.

Its very common for individuals and groups who move into new social positions to adopt or internalise the values of the new group. Hence the importance of books and ideas as one reaction to being aware that what is normal is in fact a political/ cultural construction.If not clear already my academic background is in political sociology and I use ideas drawn from Gramsci who fused notions from both Marx and Weber.

At a personal level my mother was barely literate and worked as an unskilled factory worker and her brothers were labourers on building sites. My father was unknown. No one had the hope of escape so drink and dysfunctional family life was the norm up and down the generations. The fact that I loved books and reading was seen as abnormal and resulted in beatings etc.

Of my brothers and sisters, one became a bus driver and had a stable marriage and so moved up the class/status ranks. The rest did not and had kids by various partners, low level jobs when not on benefits (welfare), poor education, and so seen as “problem families”. I left school equally failed by the education system but managed to get a low level white collar job. So had already started to move away from my class base. Over the years I moved further and went from the bottom 3% to the top 3% of the educated population in the UK. In class terms I have jumped several layers which is highly unusual.

It has consequences, I don’t share the cultural norms of the class I move in( My job is social policy and creating social change so I engage with the political classes and social administrative elites) and I am an alien to the class I came from. Hence it has made me more aware and wary of “group think”.

I came to Quakers because of their radical and libertarian roots ( I bypassed the university radical socialists who despised the real working class) and over the years have appreciated and valued the theological rather then political basis for these practices. This is perhaps the heart of the political struggle for me. I value religion when it points me to appreciate the humanity of the individual but not when it ignores social oppression. I value a socialist perspective but not when it “demonises” the class-enemy.

I find Quakers often blind to their social and class biases, one of my sticking points has been around an over passive view of the peace testimony. I start from a Gandhi or Martin Luther King direct action line but question what to do if faced by a South African or Nazi German political regime. But often its more subtle and ignores social struggle. At one meeting, they were concerned enough about beggars to give out soup and sandwiches but not to tackle the housing and lack of structured support which was creating the situation. Or in another, the core of members came from upper middle class background and found it difficult to accept me and my families(oops now that would have been interesting but its a typo and should read family!) as equals as we were the Wardens. This was never up front but cultural norms kept clashing. A interesting pattern was that Wardens with independent means(ie similar to them) fitted in well but those that had to work as well had a sliding scale of fitting in. The lower the status job the more stormy the spilt with the meeting when it came.

Quaker Faith and Practice Advices and queries no 33 is holds the key for me when we look at Class.

Are you alert to practices here and throughout the world which discriminate against people on the basis of who or what they are or because of their beliefs? Bear witness to the humanity of all people, including those who break society's conventions or its laws. Try to discern new growing points in social and economic life. Seek to understand the causes of injustice, social unrest and fear. Are you working to bring about a just and compassionate society which allows everyone to develop their capacities and fosters the desire to serve?

And so do you?

Saturday, 7 July 2007

So which Quaker writers are Prophets without honour in their own land?

I came across Paul's blog on He was wondering after seeing Marcus Borg speak
Perhaps there is something about a prophet being without honour in his own land that makes an outsider look more attractive, but we do have thinkers and writers and dare I say theologians within our own family that have something to say to us.
I read many of the liberal protestant thinkers and those on the edges of faiths such as Marcus and many others of the Weststar institute, Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, Don Cupitt, Bart D. Ehrman, Richard Holloway and many of the Sea of Faith writers such as Don Cupitt.

Like you Paul I am struck how many of these writers articulate and expand themes that Quakers are or have explored in our history. The common thread is that many of these writers and explores are trying to share a faith/practice lived by experience which plays to Quakers core practice.

However, this has cost them and they are by no means welcome in main stream Christian circles. Witness the fallout in the Anglican community of John's legacy of an inclusive church, or Karen's relationship with the Catholic church. Or the perhaps the most extreme was Lloyd Geering. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church charged him with heresy for his radical beliefs.

I do read various Quaker writers such as David Boulton, John Punshon and Ben Pink Dandelion and will be reading Consider The Blackbird Reflections On Spirituality And Language BY HARVEY GILLMAN and want to read Light To Live By:An Exploration In Quaker Spirituality BY REX AMBLER and Truth Of The Heart An Anthology Of George Fox EDITED BY REX AMBLER.

However, I am struck that the non Quaker writers are grappling with big issues of what God, the church, Jesus, morality etc means if we want to embrace the modern world

Yet this list of 2oth Century Quaker writings
explores inspirational individuals dealing with many issues of extreme injustice or devotional insights but would a non-Quaker be drawn to them?

So who are our writers and thinkers that challenge us and explain to the world the spiritual riches that could be a beacon for so many who reject a empty formula Christianity and a lets be nice to the neighbours secularism?