I am so grateful I had the chance to attend this conference. I've been wanting to go for the last several years but it hadn't worked out, so finally I got to go this year. The goal of the conference is to bring women together from different communities of Friends to build relationships and share about our faith journeys through narrative theology. I actually love spending time with Friends from various traditions, and as you know if you've followed my blog, I love theology. So this was right up my alley.
One thing that was fabulous for me personally was the space to sleep, pray, exercise, eat and participate in conversations without interruption by two little ones! My boys are great, but it was amazingly nice and restful to have a few days without them at a retreat center (Menucha) surrounded by women I enjoyed spending time with. My friend Darla and I went running almost every day (the last day we finally gave ourselves enough time to make our goal of finding the end of the Women's Forum Trail--kind of a good metaphorical end to our week--and we got muddy up to about mid-calf) and I practiced yoga with a few others under the direction of an experienced yoga-teacher-Friend, Ellen.
I also found it stimulating and encouraging to find Friends with whom my heart was in resonance from several other yearly meetings and unaffiliated meetings. I will treasure these friendships, and I'm excited to see where they go in terms of drawing us together as Friends. I hope we can start working together better on things we all care about, and that maybe we can start doing a bit more inter-visitation.
I went to Marge Abbott's workshop on prophetic ministry, which was excellent. I am so grateful that God is working in so many of us to bring truth to our communities through our own voices and talents. Prophetic ministry is a lonely business, and though most of us didn't have others there in that workshop from our own meetings, it's encouraging to know one another is out there, listening and attempting to follow through with action as led.
One woman I will not soon forget is Carol Urner. She came as another of the plenary speakers, and she's an octogenarian from Whittier Friends in California. She spoke about some of her experiences and ministries, and her main point was that we should "say 'yes' to God, even when we don't know where that will lead us." This, of course, is what we all strive to do, but she spoke with amazing passion that can only come from decades of putting this advice into practice. When I'm in my 80s I hope to have at least half the passion and stories of faithfulness that she has!
There were many other wonderful women and great events, but I think that's enough for now. I'll copy the epistle below so you can read of the communal experience we shared.
Epistle of the 2012
Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference
June 13-17, 2012
Greetings to Friends everywhere.
Grace permeated our days and wove the variegated fibers of our lives together into a tapestry of light and love much like the quilts that surrounded us in our meeting space at the 2012 Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Theology Conference. We gathered on June 13, 2012, at the Menucha Conference Center above the Columbia River near Corbett, Oregon, around the theme of Inviting, Contemplating, and Enacting Grace. Prior to the conference each participant wrote a short essay in response to the theme. The conversation among us began as we read each other’s papers online and throughout our time together. We came with differing experiences among Friends and other faith traditions, some excited, others tentative about what we would hear, and feel, and do together. We came yearning for community, a place to feel at home. We came knowing we would be challenged to listen deeply, to learn to open and stretch, hoping the effort would yield deeper understanding and add new patterns and textures to our tapestry of grace as we were woven together.
Thursday morning we received a message from Ashley Wilcox on Inviting Grace. Ashley opened with her admission of love for the Apostle Paul. Drawing from Acts 9 she showed us that sometimes we invite grace through doing the completely wrong thing. We can also invite grace into our lives by accepting and giving loving acts and living words. Darla Samuelson taught us how to use specific disciplines to create a space for grace to touch the pain of shame that is common in human experience.
Friday morning Cherice Bock led us through a contemplation of grace through a word study. She asked the provocative question, “Do we have to feel guilty to receive grace?” In answer to her own question, she proposed that grace is an undeserved gift with no strings attached. Cherice concluded that grace is active, social, and enduring. On Sunday morning we were gathered together for a final hour of worship in which Nancy Thomas brought us the challenge to carry gratitude with us in response to God’s grace.
As stewards of grace when we extend grace to others we receive grace into our own lives and are further called to extend grace in this world. Christine Hall continued by saying that in contemplating grace we are swept up in a love that connects us to God, one another, creation, and divine mystery. She finished with a quote from Thomas Merton stating that through contemplation we “see through the illusion of our separateness.”
Saturday, responding to the theme Enacting Grace, Carol Urner challenged us to say “yes” to leadings even when we do not know where our “yes” will lead us. In that “yes” there is a river of light that will flow through us and sustain us. Elenita Bales followed and reminded us that that the word “enact” contains “act.” She encouraged us to develop a rhythm of faithfulness in speaking the truths that emerge from our souls, and to risk vulnerability that we may become a channel of change. Quoting historic Quaker Ann Wilson, Elenita asked, “What wilt thou do in the end?”
Afternoon workshops presented a variety of ways we can nourish our lives and create an opening for grace. In Writing as Spiritual Practice we explored several ways to begin and be faithful to our own spiritual writing. A workshop on the Bible revealed that in spite of feelings about Scripture, ranging from anger through love, the group had an interesting and respectful discussion. In a session entitled Speaking Holy Boldness participants considered viewpoints and experiences that made clear that prophetic witness is alive and well in our yearly meetings. Another group shared the different practices, such as movement, meditation, prayer, and visualization they use to hold others in the Light. In a session entitled The Hard Stuff women from different yearly meetings responded to questions that had been submitted in writing earlier. Participants engaged in respectful discussion that acknowledged our differences while encouraging understanding and acceptance. One workshop focused on listening and care committees and offered guidelines and tools on how to support others through suffering. Judy Maurer shared her experiences and reflections on teaching, listening, worshipping, and working on social justice issues in Russia. Christine Hall introduced Way of the Spirit, an opportunity to engage in contemplative study through a new program in the Pacific Northwest.
Evening activities provided opportunities to further be woven together in our tapestry of community. Thursday evening Roena Oesting, dressed and speaking as Elizabeth Fry, recounted major events from “Betsy’s” life as written in her journals. We expressed gratitude for the way Elizabeth Fry’s work in prisons started a pattern of prison reform work among Friends that continues today. On Early Friday evening we listened to the experiences of those who attended the FWCC Sixth World Conference of Friends in Kenya. Their exchanges were fruitful, rich and full, though sometimes difficult. As we heard their stories we could sense that there, too, they were held by grace. Later, we danced, sang, played Hearts fiercely, worked on a HUGE puzzle, and created art. All these allowed for new openings into one another’s hearts and connections through joyful exchanges.
Throughout the conference threads of conversations at meals, home groups, over the puzzle, or on hikes further wove us together in beauty and grace. It was an amazing gift to sit at a meal and turn to a stranger and feel no awkwardness. On Sunday morning we were gathered together for a final hour of worship in which Nancy Thomas brought us the challenge to carry gratitude with us in response to God’s grace. We came here to be ourselves and left affirmed in our appreciation for and joy in the deepening cross-yearly meeting friendship; that is grace. Borrowing a sentiment from Carol Urner, we have to finish, but we have not yet begun.