New England Yearly Meeting

A community of Quakers and Quaker meetings across New England.

As Way Opens

May 29, 2018
Fran Brokaw, Hanover (NH) Friends Meeting

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion. —Isaac Penington, 1661

My Quaker faith plays a key role in my life, and has for a long time A key opening for me came when I was a busy young mother of two young children, working full time as a physician, married, and active in my faith community. I read an article in Friends Journal that changed my life. I don’t remember the author or anything else about the article, but I do remember one line, which I will paraphrase here: “I do not have a work life and a home life and a spiritual life. I have only one life, and I want to live it in a unified way.” That stayed with me, and from that time I have yearned to live my life centered in Spirit, in a unified whole expressed through my work, my parenting, my faith and all my relationships. As Thomas Kelly wrote in 1941,

Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center…Life from the Center is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It is amazing. It is triumphant. It is radiant. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. And it makes our life programs new and overcoming. We need not get frantic. He is at the helm. And when our little day is done we lie down quietly in peace, for all is well.

A few years after reading that, I was privileged to provide care to my beloved mother during the last 10 days of her life, when she was dying of metastatic breast cancer. It was a blessed, bittersweet, painful, and sacred gift. And it was an experience that helped nudge me toward the practice of palliative care, the medical specialty that became my passion. Way opened for me to join the newly inaugurated palliative-care team at Dartmouth-Hitchcock as one of its founding members. This work allowed me to bring my whole self to care of patients, including my medical knowledge and skills, compassion and empathy, and my spirituality. Palliative care was my calling, and drew me closer for the spirit-centered life I yearned for. I also maintained and loved my primary-care practice, which allowed me to connect deeply with people over many years. It was a gift to have work in the world which allowed me to go home every day knowing that I had made a difference to someone—usually small, occasionally large.

I believe that everything we do makes a difference, and everything matters. Our actions have ripple effects, good and bad, far beyond our imagining. I believe that our primary reason for being, is to be channels of love in the world. We are all broken in many ways; we are all imperfect (thank goodness) and the flow of love through us provides energy for healing for ourselves and others.

As I neared the age of 60, I felt unsettled with my life in many ways. My marriage had ended; my children were young adults on their own life journeys. I realized that I had spent the first 30 years of my life focused on studying and learning, building foundations for life. I graduated from college, got married, worked for a living for a while, and went to medical school. At age 30 I became a physician, and I also became a mother. For the next 30 years, my life energy had centered on raising my children and building my career in medicine as a teacher and a provider. By 60, knowing that the most I could ask for might be another 30 years on this beautiful planet (if I am lucky,) I wondered how that final phase would flow. The children were successful young adults. My work as a doctor remained fulfilling, but the distractions from the heart of the work were troubling, and were increasing exponentially. And, I was eligible to retire at age 60.

I participated in a 2-year Quaker spiritual program called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.” I used that time in deep discernment about whether and how to retire from medicine. I had pictured myself continuing to work part-time, doing more work among Friends, and using my expertise in end-of-life care to aid my community in some way. My discernment involved not just looking at facts and choices and making a “rational” decision, but laying a question out to God, letting go of the outcome, and praying and listening for the leadings of the Spirit.

In 1658, George Fox wrote,

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That it is which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

Ideally this work is done with other Friends listening and praying with you, asking questions to open up deeper layers, but not offering advice. Then, if a leading feels clear, one may proceed “as way opens.” The way that opens may be entirely different than anything planned with rationality and human frailty. So as I entered retirement, I purposely made no major plans, and I waited and listened to see what was required of me.

Around this time, the stories of the killings of unarmed young black people became predominant in the national news. You know their names: Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. Their names could fill hours of time. I was moved and angered. Some friends and I started a weekly Vigil for Black Lives on a corner of the Hanover Green, a step which was entirely out of character for me. I believed in equality, in peace, but I had never been an activist in a open way. I was beginning to sense a leading toward anti-racism work and racial justice, but that would require me to step out of my comfort zone, and I hesitated. I was afraid. Afraid of the unfamiliar role of an activist, afraid of not being good enough, afraid of my friends disagreeing with my actions, afraid of failure, afraid of feeling embarrassed, afraid of so many things. I took small steps and I listened and prayed and waited for the way to open.

Around this same time, the way opened for me to reconnect with some college classmates from Swarthmore College, and we had wonderful conversations about life and kids and work, and politics and the world. We had not known each other well at school, but we have so much in common. We are professionals, well-educated, most with graduate degrees, successful in life and in careers. They were like me in almost every way except one—I am white. They are black. And then I learned that when they had “the talk” with their teenage kids, they didn’t mean the same thing I did. My husband and I talked to our kids about drugs, alcohol, sexuality and consent, staying safe, and not getting AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. They talked to their children about how to behave WHEN they get stopped by police, so that they will not be killed.

I need to repeat that: They talk to their children about how to behave WHEN they get stopped by police—So. That. They. Will. Not. Be. Killed. It still gives me nausea and chills when I say that.

When that realization hit me, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. The safe, mostly predictable world I walk in is not the same world that other people walk in, even though they are EXACTLY like me in almost every way. And God did not just give me a leading, God showed me an opening, and kicked me in the butt to make sure I knew that I was supposed to go that way. I feel I have no choice—I must follow this path and do this work, and I need to do it to save my own soul. I don’t believe in heaven and hell in a literal sense. I mean that I cannot live with integrity in the world that treats me so differently than it does my friends, just because my skin has less melanin. I MUST do something, some kind of work to change it.

This is not the first time my world view was shattered, but it has been the most profound. I have spent the 3 years since I retired reading and listening and learning, much as I did when I was in school. I am blessed to have fellow travelers to walk with, to work with, to learn with, to learn from. Some people call the world we are seeking collective liberation or liberation culture. Some people call it the kingdom of God, or the realm of God. The name I prefer is Beloved Community. 

I am a beginner in this work. I am very imperfect. I make many mistakes. But I am learning. I do not strive for perfection; I strive to be good enough. When I feel despair at the depth of the pain and brokenness of the world, I remember the ripple effect, and I remember none of us can ever know the full effect of our lives. I trust that God is present, in every moment, in every being. Our task is to listen, and to proceed as way opens.

I end with another quote from Friend Isaac Penington, taken from a letter written to Friends in Amersham in 1667:

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.



New England Yearly Meeting of Friends

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