Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ministry or vanity?

Robin's post on Blogging as Ministry has raised several questions in my mind. As I commented on Liz's post I am quite clear about my use of Facebook. That is all about taking me out of my often too comfortable isolation, about making connections with my family and renewing connections with friends old and new. But about blogging I'm not so sure. Why do I write a blog? Is this a Quaker blog or just a blog written by a Quaker - and does the distinction matter?

A lot of what I write is about my life - perhaps a rough draft for the spiritual autobiography that I must one day sit down and write. I have the title - which is also the title of this blog - and have published a few fragments so far. But if I am writing ministry here should I keep away from the trivial and always leave 'the day of small things' to Facebook?

As Robin says, for me reading other people's blogs is part of the process of writing and often spurs me into putting my thoughts into words - as it has today. I want to be part of the Quaker conversation, but for me this can also be a problem. I gain a lot from listening to others, but I realise that part of me also wants to be heard. I want to be recognised by the 'proper Quaker bloggers' who choose which posts appear on QuakerQuaker and sometimes I find myself wondering what I have to write to make that happen!

But as in meeting for worship I know that true ministry is given and has nothing to do with conscious striving for effect. I must be true to myself and to my own spiritual journey and write what I cannot avoid writing with no thought of any audience. Because I am a Quaker to the core of my being this is necessarily a Quaker blog. I know that a few people read what I write and I am always happy to read their comments. Perhaps the nearest comparison between what I write here and ministry is that when I rise to speak I have no idea what effect my words may have on those who hear them and do not ask to know. It is enough if I can be faithful.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Let me introduce you to my Friends - Grace Hall Chamber

I have been meaning for a while to begin a series on some of my Quaker Friends from the past who inspire me and I hope will inspire others. On International Women's Day I thought it appropriate to begin with a woman who, although a minister, did not travel extensively and did not write anything for publication. Most of what we know about her comes from a handful of surviving manuscript letters and from references to her in the writings of many of her contemporaries. To them she was usually known affectionately as 'dear Grace'.

Grace Hall Chamber was born in 1676 near Durham. She was the only child of James Hall and his second wife, but she also had five siblings, the children of her father and his first wife. Grace was educated at home in a prosperous Quaker family and being 'endowed with an excellent understanding' acquired considerable skill in medicine and surgery which she used throughout her life.

In 1704 she married Robert Chamber, a substantial Friend, and moved to his family home at Sedgwick near Kendal. Grace had an extensive acquaintance among all classes of society in her local community and concerned herself with the lives and happiness of all her friends, not only Quakers. In 1711 she was recognised as having a gift of ministry among Friends although she did not speak frequently or at length. Her travel in the ministry was mainly local and in the company of her husband. There is no record that Grace and Robert had any children of their own, but Grace acted as a mother, nurse and friend to all who needed her, often caring for them in her own home.

Grace's letters give two glimpses of her caring ministry. In 1737 she writes an account for his friends of the death in her house from smallpox of Charles Barnett, a travelling minister far from home. She writes - 'He had not one minute of perfect ease since he came to us so that we had very little discourse with him upon any account but his illness and what might be of service and most suitable for him, but the first morning after he found he was not able to travel he named his wife, as she little knew how he was and said, "I am out of all their reach. I am two hundred miles from my habitation." And I answered, "Think thyself at home. We will do whatever we can for thee. Thou shalt want for nothing we either have or can get to do thee good."' The letter continues with a description of the funeral and, on a practical note, an account of the effects of the deceased and of the memoranda Grace had written at his dictation.

In 1743 Grace writes about the care she is giving to Fanny Henshaw who she took into her home for more than a month. Fanny was brought up in the Church of England but became a Quaker as a young woman, much to the dismay of her family and friends. Very soon after her convincement - perhaps too soon - she began to travel in the ministry and became exhausted both physically and mentally.

Grace writes of Fanny's situation - 'She has been quite overdone, both body and spirits, and the fever coming upon her in that low condition was beyond what her constitution could undergo without being borne down below measure, which is not easily recruited, there being need of both inward and outward helps. As divine providence has provided both for our souls and bodies so I conclude we ought to receive both in as much faith and thankfulness as possible we can.' Grace gave her rest, counsel and the recommended treatment of salt and fresh water baths until she recovered and reflects - 'May we above all things look to the giver of all our good enjoyments in all our circumstances, whether it being plenty or poverty, he knows best what is good for us and we may soon learn by experience both how to order ourselves and advise others - this is what I am and have often been concerned for in secret.'

In 1753, when they had been married for almost fifty years, Robert Chamber died. Grace characterised Robert as 'one of the best of husbands' but acknowledged that her ministry had always to take account of his needs. As she said, 'He was very unwilling to want me, but I think he made that up, as much as any man in his circumstance could have done, in letting his house be free and open to sick and lame, poor and rich. If I were but there it was mostly well.'

In her widowhood Grace travelled further afield in the ministry, often with her lifelong friend Lydia Lancaster. In 1760 they went on a journey to Bath, Bristol and London. Contemporaries wondered at their taking on so much when so advanced in years but described them both as 'green in old age'. On her return Grace became more infirm, finding it difficult to get to even local Quaker meetings. She died, aged 85, at Sedgwick and was buried in the Friends burial ground at Preston Patrick.

The Ministry-Life Balancing Act

Reading Robin's post the other day got me thinking about the struggles I have had with recognising and finding ways to follow my own ministry.

It took me a long time to feel that my interest in spiritual autobiography could be seen as a kind of ministry. It was only when I moved from an academic and personal view of the subject to the development of a workshop that aimed to tell others about the form and tradition of this kind of writing and to encourage them to attempt to write their own that the thought that what I was doing was ministry entered my head.

I was 'released' to follow this ministry more intensively by a combination of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust awarding me a fellowship and my employer promising that I would have a job to return to after a year. At the time, having gone through the experience of being made redundant twice, I would not have been brave enough to proceed without that safety net.

Afterwards I went back to work but also continued giving workshops and wrote an account of the fellowship. This brought me into writing and publishing both of which I now see as part of the same ministry. I know that I have been led along the path I have taken and sometimes I have been gently but firmly pushed into taking the next step. Looking back I realise that it is always when I have turned outwards, shared my experience and the experience and words of Quaker foremothers and forefathers with others, that what I have done has become ministry.

Along the way I have sometimes taken false steps. There was a time when I really wanted to find a job in the Quaker world. I thought that this would free me from having to balance my Quaker calling with other paid work. Failure and rejection were hard lessons but in time I learned from them. I remained independent and gained much from the work that did come my way. All the time I know that my Inward Teacher has been providing me with lessons that I needed to learn and has been patient with my slowness to understand.

Many years ago in meeting I was given three phrases which I understood were messages for me and not to be shared at that time. I wrote them down and they have travelled with me as lessons and encouragement in my ministry and my life. They are - 'Count your blessings' , 'A way will open' and 'My time is not your time'.

I understand more about what my ministry is and how I should express it as time goes on. Now that I have retired from paid work my view of it is slowly changing again. I am trying to be open to new possibilities but I am also continuing to write and publish, if only infrequently, here and elsewhere. God knows where I will be led next but I am still waiting to find out.