Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sustainability, Faith and Overwhelm

In 2011, Britain Yearly Meeting agreed to become a low carbon society. In doing so, Quakers in Britain are joining a host of other faiths who are taking leadership throughout Great Britain for their dioceses and communities. For example, Muslims are working on greening the hajj (sacred pilgrimedge to Mecca) and the Church of England has agreed to a 42% cut in emissions and has a created an ambitious 7 year plan to do so. Pope Benedictus recently said that the ‘emergence of the ecological movement was and continues to be a cry for fresh air which must not be ignored; the earth has a dignity of its own…we must follow its directives…the importance of ecology is no longer disputed. We must listen to the language of nature and answer accordingly.”

The recent upswelling of protests manifest in Occupy London at St Paul’s Church in London has focused attention on the inter-twining of climate change and the relative failure of the financial and monetary system to deliver the promises of security and well being. The inherent interconnection of these major crises, both in their origin of injustice and their impact on people’s lives, especially poor people’s lives, can no longer be ignored as a fundamental violation of the values of all the major faith traditions. Quakers are experiencing the call of creating the Beloved Community, which we recognize requires collective action. We recognize that this means that we need to change our own lives and become living examples of what we want to see in the world. This is a process of mutual learning, love and support.

As we learn to respond, we need to respond not simply from our ‘heads’ but from our hearts and our spirits. These crises will require us to lean upon a Light older, longer and stronger than any of us, a Light best experienced together.

But what does that really mean? How can the Area Meeting support the local meetings in engaging with these issues? What is standing in our way of becoming clearer about what needs to be done and then actually doing it to become a spiritually joyful, low carbon society?

Prior to the Brighton Area Meeting gather, I spoke with several local Friends, asking not only about sustainability but about the general spiritual state of the Meeting. Believing that this is, at its heart, a spiritual question means that we can actively use all of our spiritual selves, traditions, resources, literature, poetry, practices and processes - as well as creating new ones.

What became evident is that as we try to understand what we need to be doing, what's 'right there' is, simply, Overwhelm.

People are overwhelmed with the enormity of climate change and the apocalyptic visions that frequently come with it. The challenge between the need for global, national, regional, local and individual responses to both mitigate and adapt to climate change is experienced as overwhelming for many meetings. Plus, there are the ‘normal’ issues facing British Quakers: a dwindling membership, challenges with finances, the running of meeting houses, aligning ourselves with the regulations for charitable organisations. Thus, this session was organized not around the ‘technical’ aspects (creating baselines for carbon footprinting) or the ‘theological’ aspects (why the Creation is an integral part of our Testimonies) but the ‘softer’ and at the same time harder side of ‘how we deal with Overwhelm’. In preparation, I was aware of how much I am very much a 'student' in this regard, and knew I needed an elder.

Indeed, an elder did appear. We sat in worship before the workshop. It became clear to me that I needed to trust that it was OK that I did not know what the second half of the workshop should look like before we started it; that it would be revealed and that I could trust that we had enough time to do what needed to be done. The real point was to get closer to the Spirit, and trust that all else could come from there. With that, I felt permission to take a decidedly explorative approach (and remembering that one of my mentors, Joanna Macy, frequently did that).

Pam Lunn’s Swarthmore Lecture encourages us to conceptualise our current breakdowns as a training ground for a time of increasing crises and dynamic situations. Thus, when I discovered that ‘overwhelm’ was likely to be experienced at Area Meeting, as we had a remarkably large amount of business to go through in a very short period of time, I invited the members to just watch their feelings and experiences during the morning. Due to some highly efficient Clerking, an immensely long agenda was sped through and the Quaker Life representative decided to bring her work down to the local-meeting level. This was met with strong approval by the Meeting.

In the first half of the workshop we discussed what we were learning from the ‘practice’ of dealing with overwhelm during the morning meeting. We acknowledged that the challenge that we faced during our business meeting – a lot to do (people were dying, getting married, moving, transferring membership, and there is an economic crisis to attend to) and not much time to do it in – is a perfect symbol of what we are facing in the world: we need to reduce our carbon footprint - fast. Some of the fears experienced by our Clerk were common amongst us: a fear of disappointing people, cutting people off, and not ‘doing things right’ under the seemingly oppressing clock. We had a frank discussion about how we often do not prioritise the important things but instead focus on the less-important issues. We talked about how we feel trapped by time, and often loose track of the sense of ‘right order’ and doing things in ‘Gods time’. We recognized that there is a lot we don’t know – and a lot we do know. We know we must take small actions, but that we must also act collectively at the policy and ‘macro’ level. And yet we do not know – we can not know – exactly which actions will lead to which results. And so we must go through a process of discernment; we must lean upon God to help direct our actions. Yet too often, we did not give ourselves the time to do that.

Thus, the second half of the workshop became an experimentive space to explore where God was leading us – how can we deal with overwhelm in our meetings? Where is God nudging us? It quickly became apparent to me, as people explored these questions, that I needed to support each group in finding the question that was right for them: I went around to each group and helped them discern what question was arising.

It was very clear that the challenge of becoming a low carbon society forces Friends to think beyond their monthly and Area Meetings into the wider community. They discovered through experience the importance of letting themselves be with confusion, overwhelm, fear and grief – and then working through it. They found that on the other side they could, indeed, find meaningful and powerful actions to take.

I reminded people that there is a well-practiced cycle (based on the work of Joanna Macy) that they can work through:

Start with Gratitude
What’s really There: the reality of the situation.
Face the Despair: together.
Seeing with New eyes – what else is there?
Take action.
Gratitude – and repeating the cycle.

In the end, people were greatly appreciative of the chance to have some time and space to explore these issues. They found the exercises challenging but fruitful. Importantly, people realized they were wandering together and felt less alone in their search. They wanted to continue the process. Later conversations emphasised this point: we need to keep these conversations and experiences alive - which means evolving.

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