Plenary address from General Secretary - Nancy Irving

Remember the story that Noah told us last Thursday about second generation Friends Mary and Samuel? Mary realised that Samuel was coming to worship every Sunday like a good young man but he was just going through the motions. She challenged him with the question, when you leave Meeting, are you the same person who arrived at the beginning? The clear implication is that we should be touched deeply in our souls by our worship.


So I ask you – are you the same as when we arrived here last week? How has God been working through you and within you? It is not always pleasant or pretty. Sometimes it takes some pain or some anger to crack us open like an egg, so that the work God has been doing inside of us can come out. That happened to me on Friday, I slipped and fell down hard and I cried in pain. Then I realised I needed to cry for other reasons, reasons that were not clear at the time. But those tears made it easier for me to prepare this talk. I didn't intend to wait so long to write this but the words that came to me when I was still in England were not the right words.

So here we are – a people in the midst of change as we deepen our faith – we will always be changing if we are faithful to that Voice within us. Much as I am grateful for the changes and depth of my spiritual life, I still resist it. I want God to have me come to a nice place of comfort where I can stay awhile. I get scared of how I might be led to change. I get scared that God will ask me to do something I really don't want to do. I sometimes turn off my ears to God's voice – I go to Meeting on Sunday and think about some committee work or how nice the weather is. I don't want to be changed. I am often like Samuel Bownas from Noah's story.

But then things happen, like falling down in pain, that crack me open. This has happened many times in my life and as I grow older and know how to listen better, I am aware of it more often – although I continue to resist listening.

That is what I want to talk about this evening...empowerment. Empowerment of yourself in relationship with God and then empowerment of us as Friends, as a family of God.

That relationship with God – and ultimately our relationship with each other as a family – is based on Trust. Trust that God will provide, trust that what happens may be for some good, although that is often not clear.

I want to tell you about a four-year period in my life beginning in 1990. I had graduated from law school although I studied law because I wanted to know what lawyers know rather than out of a desire to be a lawyer. I worked five years as a lawyer in a bank in Oregon in the northwest of the United States. It did not nourish my soul although it paid my bills. Then another bank from far away bought my bank and simply to save money they decided they did not need so many lawyers, so I lost my job. My boss was sorry to lose me and treated me kindly with salary for several months. I knew this was a God-given opportunity and I went into the mountains on retreat to listen deeply to what God wanted me to do. I fasted and prayed.

I had a lovely relaxing time but no great insight. Finally, I came to understand that my life message is 'There is another way'. I said, OK, God, I understand, but what am I supposed to do? I heard nothing more. I went back to the city refreshed but disappointed that I had no idea what to do with myself.

But teachers appear – and many times they are an unexpected surprise. One morning, a wise friend of mine named Maria said, I think you are supposed to practice law for a few years and see what you learn. That was not an idea that I wanted to hear – I wanted to hear about something bigger, perhaps more important. I had lunch that day with two friends and told them what Maria had said. They said why not? I came up with all sorts of reasons which included practical things like not owning a computer or printer. One of those friends said he would bring them to me that evening and he did.

So now I'm getting nervous. In the next few days, three people came to me and said they would pay me to do some legal work for them. I saw God's hand in this and reluctantly said yes. I was feeling very vulnerable because I had never done this general type of law. In a couple weeks, I had to go to court in a suburban town where I had worked one month while I was a student for a lawyer there. I stopped by to say hello to her and she said she was retiring and selling her practice, did I want to buy it? Still reluctant, but seeing the hand of God in this, I said yes.

That is what God always wants us to do – to say yes!

So God gave me the tools, including an experienced legal secretary! I soon started to realise what God wanted me to learn by taking on this law practice – God wanted me to learn compassion. Unlike working in the bank, my clients now were people like you and me, who needed the knowledge and skills I had and they were trusting me to be their advocate, to be on their side. I did not have rich clients and for many, it was their first time talking to a lawyer. I helped them buy their homes, set up their businesses, write their wills, and also a lot of family law, including divorces which were very hard. I found that I was partly a social worker at times.

After two years, I felt a clear divine message that I had learned what I needed to learn and that I should close my practice. I heard that advice but didn't trust it. It was not obvious what I should do next and I was still paying for my house and for my legal education – I needed to know I had an income. So again I resisted. I took mediation training and judges asked me to conduct arbitrations for them. But I was waiting for God to hand me my next assignment in a neat package.

That didn't happen. So God got my attention by causing me pain in my bank account. Clients who owed me a lot of money broke their agreements and didn't pay me. I was feeling desperate. I needed help. God gave me three friends who met with me weekly and we explored together life options, not just for me but for each of them too. Tax day came and I had the money to pay all the different taxes but one small tax – about 117 dollars. On tax day, I didn't know what to do and I came to my office and there was an envelope under my door. It held a check for 125 dollars from a client. At that moment, I knew I was in God's hands. I deepened my trust in God.

Up until then, I had been trying to negotiate with God and I said to God that I would do anything as long as I could stay in my house. I now realised I could not put conditions on God. As soon as I released that condition, I learned of work that was suitable for me in another city 100 miles away. Within a matter of weeks, I had that job, I closed my law office, I sold my house and I had moved. It was incredibly fast – I thanked God profusely.

God wasn't done – this was not the job of my dreams but it was a challenge and I could do it. A year later, it became more apparent how God was working in my life. I was diagnosed with cancer and needed surgery and chemotherapy. If I had been still working alone for myself, I would not have been able to pay the bills. I would have been bankrupt. As I was working for an organisation, I got paid time off and the medical bills were covered. Within months after my treatment was completed, I knew it was time to move on and I did. I left that job not knowing what was next. I could move on because I knew I could trust that God would provide what I needed even if it wasn't what I asked for or wanted.

Now you may be saying – cancer, that is terrible! For me it was another great teacher. I knew it was what I call a cosmic sledgehammer. I had to accept offers of help from others. I knew the lesson was to live my life differently. The differences were slow appearing, but in that time, I got involved with FWCC in my section, followed my dream of working and travelling overseas, and I found a way to serve that used all my skills. This job. I got to meet you!

As you have listened to this story, I hope you have been able to see the hand of God guiding me as I stumbled through my own darkness. I call that Grace. The way I understand Grace is that it is the loving gift from God that is freely available and unmerited – we do not have to deserve it. We only need to accept it. It is in the little and big positive things that happen in our lives. Grace is a means of understanding how God works and for me it makes it simpler to avoid big theological words and concepts. Grace simply is given to us.

For me, Grace is important to understand as we talk about empowerment. Empowerment is very worldly, but it cannot happen without Grace. We may have the skills and means of doing something but without Grace we probably will not be effective or make any impact.

That is an important part of the idea of empowerment – making a difference, having an impact. There are three concepts within empowerment I want to mention.

  1. empowerment in the sense of your identity in the world and that includes our collective sense of identity as Friends and Quakers in the world.

  2. Empowerment involves giving ourselves permission to do things differently. Our world is constantly changing and if Grace is alive in us, we can respond in the present moment, with God-given life and awareness.

  3. Empowerment, together with Grace, connects us with others, both within and outside of the Society of Friends.

Every year I meet together with the general secretaries of the the other Christian World Communions – my counterparts from the Anglicans, the Vatican, the various Orthodox, the Methodists, Reformed, Seventh Day Adventists, Mennonites and others. Usually there are about 25 of us. FWCC is by far the smallest – even the Mennonites have 1.4 million members and on a good day, we may have ¾ of a million. We do not even have a reliable count. At one point I thanked them for continuing to include us as we are so small and the response from around the table was 'we cannot imagine meeting without the Quakers'.

When the Nobel Peace Prize was presented in 1947, the presentation speech said, 'this prize goes to the Quakers as represented by American Friends Service Committee and Quaker Peace & Service of London Yearly Meeting.' The Quakers who earned that Nobel Prize were not just Americans or Brits, not just unprogrammed Friends – Quakers from all parts of our family were part of the relief efforts from the time of World War I all the way through World War II. Our small society was doing work that only a few others were also doing. We were the beginning of work that now other big organisations take on following disasters and wars. Since then, we Quakers have for the most part moved on from that type of peace work.

We have moved on, but we are scattered in our impact. Now there are others with more resources that take on that work. We have started non-Quaker groups such as Alternatives to Violence, Oxfam, and other organisations. Back in the early days of Friends, we were known for prison work. Elizabeth Fry's picture is still on the 5 pound note in the UK in recognition of her work in prisons over 150 years ago.

But who knows us now? And even if we are known, what are we known for? On a global or even a national scale, not much. I think that on the local level, your work may be better known. I hope so.

So why is this on my mind? What does it matter that no one recognises the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers? My answer to that is both inward and outward – not unlike Carmella Lao's description of the Kingdom of God last Friday.

Our identity comes from within, both as individuals and as our churches and meetings and as a religious organisation. Our identity provides us with a sense of how to proceed, how to act, how to respond. It is a gift. A strong sense of identity as Friends can sustain us through challenges and difficult times. Our awareness of God's grace can help us navigate the path which is rarely straight.

However, often I see that sense of identity encumbered with many pronouncements like 'Friends should...' or 'Quakers must...' or Friends ought...' We have heard these phrases during this conference.

I would like to see those pronouncements replaced with a sense of calling and that comes from within, not from outside dictates. There are various Friends' processes that can assist us to own that sense of calling both as individuals and in our local worshipping communities. I am partial to two processes – threshing sessions and clearness committees.

A threshing session happens at the level of the worshipping community. It is a specially called meeting at which an issue is presented but no decision will be made at that time. But the meeting is used for everyone in the community to be able to express their views and to hear the ideas of others. Listening is very important and soliciting the views of those who are usually silent is also important. Often there are one or two benefits – an idea emerges that wasn't thought of before and/or by the time of the next business meeting when a decision may be taken, there is greater understanding within the congregation and the decision comes more clearly and quickly with the Grace of God. Hearts and minds may be touched as a result of a Threshing Session.

A clearness committee is a process that is used in several contexts. Some churches and meetings use them for membership discernment, or for those wishing to marry. I speak tonight of the use of a clearness committee to help an individual test a leading, that means to test an idea that has come to him or her for a course of action, to see if it is truly God's will for them to take this action. I used a clearness committee to help me discern whether to move overseas for a year in the year 2000 – it was not a Quaker position. A small group of people from my Meeting met with me. I had prepared for them by writing a brief introduction about my dilemma and decisions I thought were before me. They came together and asked me open-ended questions – questions that did not lead to a particular answer. Someone took notes of the questions that were asked – not notes of my answers! So I could continue to consider the questions at a later time. I found it a very helpful process to see if that opportunity was indeed a calling, a path God wanted me to take. It was, although it wasn't always easy.

I mention these techniques to you tonight because I sense that many of you will be going home full of ideas about how to be helpful to others you have met here. This conference exists so you will make connections with your distant cousins. We want the connections to be lasting connections. To be a lasting connection, if more than simple friendship is involved, will require testing the leading. I encourage you to involve others and to not be led just by your well-intentioned impulses. The impact you will ultimately make will be greater if it is shared.

This goes back to the concept of our identity as Friends – we are more than just a collection of individuals. One great lesson that many of us from affluent societies can learn is to act corporately rather than just individually. Our affluent societies have taught us to think selfishly, individually. That's not what early Friends taught us; that's not what Jesus teaches us. If we are to have an impact as Friends and Quakers, we will be effective acting together and that takes discipline and surrender to Grace and divine guidance.

That is my second point of empowerment – giving ourselves permission to do things differently. I still carry that message from 1990 – there is another way. You probably have heard the phrase 'when one door shuts, another opens'. Is God talking to you, talking to us through our bank accounts? Isn't that a message that it is time to find another way? Turn to Grace, turn to divine guidance however you find it, turn to the wisdom that each of us carries. This is not a time to act alone – this is a time to share problems, to pray together, to get to know each other and be open to the possibilities that are right here. The possibilities that may live within your church or meeting. It's not a time to put conditions on God – be open to possibilities.

That's my third point of Empowerment – through the Grace of God, our connections with each other will build our identity, strengthen us at all levels across our differences. We are in a time where our young people, and we have heard some of their voices during this conference, teach us how to cross our divides while honouring our differences. They are using modern communications. They are curious. They are dissatisfied with the world as we are living it. They are speaking. Time to listen and time to renew our own connections with Grace and trust where it may lead us.

I will share with you my dream – one that I have carried for several years now. I am not sure its time has come – perhaps its time will never come. It must come from you if it is to come into being.

I have learned many things from my work with our Quaker United Nations Offices. The lesson that relates to my dream is how they discern their areas of work. They are always interested in hearing about the concerns of Friends around the world. But we usually express our concerns in big broad areas and with only a very small staff they have to figure out where their skills can best be applied. They look for areas of work where no one else is working at the UN. Then they spend months and years bringing this concern to the attention of more and more people and delegations. When this concern is finally on the agenda of bodies such as the UN Security Council or the Human Rights Commission, they know other groups will take it forward and they look for the next area of work.

Let me give you a couple examples. When the UN formed the Peacebuilding Commission a few years ago, they did not give it much money or status. The New York QUNO saw that this new group needed to build its capacity to help the identified countries which included Burundi. They worked with UN staff in New York to help them be effective in their work and they also connected these people to Quaker work in Burundi. This continues. In Geneva, for several years, Rachel Brett worked to eliminate the use of child soldiers – children not yet considered adults. Finally now there are agreements and treaties signed by most countries agreeing not to use youngsters in the army. Rachel is now focussing on women in prison and their children—an issue that no one else was paying attention to.

So can we as a family of Friends identify some areas of work that we can work on at the local level, the national level and the international level? Since our first days, Friends have been involved with prison work. We all have prisons where we live, near our churches and meetings. Most of them are horrible places that only make worse the problems in our societies. What can we do together?

In our Global Change Consultation process, we learned that all of us are impacted by the effects of our changing climate, our abuse of natural resources, the greedy values of our financial system. We care deeply about our planet. What can we do together? What can we do in our homes, in our worshipping communities, in our countries, and even internationally?

The question is can Friends be the resource in certain niches of these issues – or other issues – for the world to turn to? Can we truly have an impact as we once did? Is there a small part of this challenge of global change where Quakers can be empowered to make a difference?

I don't have the answer – you do! You've met each other now. You know our differences and you know that we share the desire to live the Kingdom now – however we may understand it. This is an opportunity to model what we have been talking about this past week.

We have the tools of trusting God, knowing Grace will support us if we discern with prayer and care. Using these tools we can empower and inspire our communities at home and keep our connections alive.

I have great hope for us as the Religious Society of Friends. Thank you for letting me serve you.

Let us close by singing Amazing Grace on page 25 and let's give it some life as we sing it!