Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Preacher's Kid Finds a Home Among Friends

I've missed two weeks of meeting for worship due to my sister's visit. I am surprised to find that when I say I've "missed" two weeks, I find that I actually do miss those two weeks! How wonderful it is to miss meeting for worship! It makes me feel as though perhaps there has been some healing of the fracturing of my life when my father left the Church.

In those intervening years, I denied my need for spiritual community. I turned to my intellect to patch myself up. And though I studied spirituality both formally and informally all those years I was away from the church, I denied any true NEED for religion. I made myself believe I had grown beyond it because to acknowledge the pain of that leavetaking felt like a betrayal of my father's decision. So in these years, I have sown bitter herbs and thorns. Religion is abusive. Religious people are parasitic, judgmental ignoramuses who prey on the good men and women who choose to serve them. The entire thing is bullshit, a waste of time, a travesty, an embarassment. But now look at me! I actually missed going to meeting! Perhaps, to use Hildegard of Bingen's term, there has been a "greening" of the arid field of my heart.

It has been a long time since I felt the need to attend a worship service. For some years, Sunday has had no special meaning for me. It was a day like any other. But there was a time, long ago, when being anywhere other than church on a Sunday would have been unthinkable. I was a preacher's kid so when Sunday rolled around, we rose early and dressed in our Sunday best, ate our breakfasts and got in the car to journey to whatever church (or churches) Dad was serving at the time. When we were little, those churches were Methodist and Presbyterian. As teens, after my dad switched denominational affiliation, we spent out Sundays in Congregationalist (United Church of Christ) churches.

Perhaps other church-going children dreaded Sundays. Perhaps they were bored from the forced inactivity of sitting through long sermons. Not us. Sundays were work days for us. We helped fold bulletins. We helped with little housekeeping tasks in the church and listened to our father practice his sermon. Standing at our father's elbow, and subject to the fact that many people cannot distinguish what information should not be shared in the presence of children, we were acquainted with the politics, loyalties, sorrows, and joys of the parishioners. From an early age, we were expected to sit quietly, listen carefully, study thoughtfully, and to speak clearly. Church was more than just a Sunday morning affair. We arrived first and left last. We were the "royal family" at church suppers and fellowship events. We went to preacher exchanges and special holiday events. OH and the holidays were long for us! We had Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Sunrise service too not to mention the bible study and sermon preparation that preceded it. We had all of Advent, Christmas Eve sermons and concerts and Christmas day services. We had the ridiculously long season of Pentecost. (We used to joke: Today is the 789th week of Pentecost...)

We also had the trials and sorrows of the poor souls who sought my parents' time and attention in the midst of all this.

Phones rang in the middle of the night. People found shelter in our home. Money saved for our vacations was given to families in deeper need. We followed Dad to nursing homes and sick rooms. We saw him at work at baptisms,weddings, funerals, and calling hours. We knew about spousal abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, rape, poverty, grief, death and mourning at a very young age. Sometimes when we answered the phone we heard the desperately needy voice of a person looking for help from one of our parents. Some of these people were crime victims. Others were drug addicts or were suicidal. We learned to be tactful, discrete, and swift. My parents shielded us as best they could but as PK's we may as well have worn large neon signs on our foreheads advertising that we were good listeners. I learned very early to never show alarm or disgust at any story. I also learned to sense pain beneath a decorous facade. Even today though I have very intentionally avoided any career that would set me up as a counselor or confidant, I find that people often disclose to me.

The paid ministry is a dozen jobs rolled into one. Dad was a therapist. In fact, he did post-graduate work in psychology to handle his congregation's needs. He was an executive officer who must know the church's business affairs. He must be a musician, scholar, teacher and janitor too. And he was a performer. The church is a theater and the pulpit was his stage. We watched him transform himself from "Dad" to a person we jokingly called, "Father Daddy" in his sweeping black robes. He commanded that audience with his deep, resounding voice rising and falling in an enthralling cadence. Gait and gesture, costume and timing were as much a part of the service as were the elements of communion.

I loved to watch him as we sat in the pews with our mother, a regal and poised woman, in the front of the church. We sat quietly and devoutly next to our mother who, with her quiet, reverent dignity was even more imposing than our father. Apart from our parents' high expectations, we also were aware that the congregation watched us and so we behaved accordingly.

We were model children. Had to be. And we knew that after the benediction (which we had memorized, of course) we would rise to take our place next to our father to greet the people.

Learn to smile and nod and laugh appropriately.

Learn how to speak to the elderly men and women clearly and cheerfully.

Learn to keep your head up and your hands and feet from fidgeting.

And so it went from before I have reliable memory until I was college-bound. Every Sunday. Until it was over and my father moved on to a new career. Just. Like. That.

Then I was on my own. I studied religion and spirituality for the next fifteen years but I had no community. I tried a couple UU churches but it never felt right. So strange to go in and sit there. It felt disjointed. I felt disjointed.

I realized this week that one of the reasons I could not feel at home in the Unitarian Universalist churches I have visited was in part because I was there only as a body in the seat. I cannot be a passive participant. I am a preacher's kid and trained to that lifestyle. Religion was not something we did on Sundays. Religion was the essence of who we were. It was the breath in us. So I can't just "go to church." To sit there and listen to a sermon is nothing but a lukewarm version of the vibrant spark of my childhood religious experience.

And so I come to sit among Friends. I came because if I could not be the minister (and I cannot) I wanted to be one of them. I did not want to sit among people going through the motions. I wanted to feel energy crackle around me. I wanted to be surrounded by people whose spiritual voices were deep, resounding, vibrant, electric, devestating. I wanted the hard work. I need the hard work.

But I don't want to shoulder the burden alone. Although I have toyed with the idea of returning to seminary, I know I will not. I have no wish to be all things to all people and I have no desire to return to a religious community that I see as over-reliant on their hired clergy. I saw the church run my father down as they demanded more and more from him and gave little back. I wanted to be around people who were not content to ride on their preacher's coattails, not content to rely on his words or make his human efforts a broken substitute for divine revelation. What I wanted was to be a member of a community of ministers each with a calling toward service to the Divine and to the divine in each other. And on most days,that's what I have found. It is a beginning.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Do Liberal Quakers Quake?

Introduction to an old post revisited:

After several months, I am revisiting this blog entry that describes the first time I felt compelled to speak in meeting. Following this event, I have spoken several other times. Each time was accompanied by these feelings of...well...quaking.

I am universalist with a tendency toward being head-centered and non-theistic. I have heard and read from some that liberal Friends are more head-centered, less spiritually focused and more interested in social justice issues than in spiritual process. Personally, I don't buy that. Now, I'm not saying that I haven't encountered issues and complications among my new friends the Friends. I see with them many of the same challenges faced by my other friends the Unitarian Universalists. We liberals are not perfect people and I think many of us can identify our own eccentricities and weaknesses (anyone up for navel gazing?) But to say that all this intellectual, social justice, peace marching stuff really stands in for true spirituality is really simplifying it. It is uncharitable and ignores our diversity as communities and as individuals.

When I entered the Friends' company, I didn't know the rules and assumptions about FGC or FUM Friends. I didn't know how one was supposed to experience anything. I just sat in the meeting and waited. I knew some of the history but had no particular expectation in meeting. Strike that. I did have the strong expectation that nothing would happen at all. In fact, as I was in a strong non-theist mode at the time, you can imagine my surprise when, in the midst of my not-believing, I received a message to share with the meeting. I find it curious that my reaction to silence should be so physical. Actually, perhaps this physical reaction in a person who lives a bit too much in her head is not really surprising, but it is curious.

I wondered if more liberal Friends from similar intellectual backgrounds could speak of similar experiences. I was hungry to talk about it after it happened to me but also hesitant. Perhaps I'd lost my marbles. My reaction was basically, "What the hell was that all about?!!" I was deeply relieved when other liberal Friends told me they experienced similar feelings and sensations.

Do Liberal Quakers quake? As it turns out, the answer is Yes! Sometimes we do. One can be deeply spiritual without being religious. One's entire body and soul can be engaged in the process. A Neo-Pagan feminist with intellectual preferences for nontheism can quake. Will wonders never cease?

And now the post---


As a general rule, I am a loquacious person and comfortable with public speaking. Still, since I began attending our small monthly meeting this summer, I have felt no desire to speak. I have come to the meetings and studied Quakerism because I am attracted to its principles and discipline...a discipline that closely resembles that which I already practice. However, I have found limited use for the silent waiting. Waiting for what? That's a hard question for someone like me to answer in my current condition- a condition resulting from a period of unprecedented spiritual aridity. In fact, I have been content to usher the children out for First Day school so that I wouldn't have to sit there in that long silence thinking, for the most part, about how pointless it all was given my tendency toward non-theism. For what, exactly, was I listening? Truthfully, I heard very little except others shifting in their seats, (Why did he think nylon was a good fabric to wear to meeting?). I'd sit uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing my ankles and listening in horror as my stomach growled noisily. I could even hear the sound of my own eyes blinking (ch-snick, ch-snick), but I never heard God or any approximation thereof.

But this week, I sat and listened to myself think about the pointlessness of sitting with my eyes closed and wondering how long it had already been and when my stomach would begin its relentless rumblings. Increasingly bored with the back of my eyelids, I looked around the room we occupy. It is a large room with several slender Gothic windows set into walls of white painted brick. The panes of glass are frosted but some of the window panels were pushed open and through them I could feel the breeze and see the still-green maple leaves outside dancing. As I looked at the even rows of white bricks and the repeated pattern of slender windows on the wall, my mind wandered aimlessly around thoughts of symmetry. I recalled the time my artist uncle muttered with disgust, "In the absence of anything better: symmetry." My admiration for my uncle notwithstanding, I am an admirer of symmetry, of plainness, of simplicity, of order and discipline. I suppose, Vulcan-like (excuse the Star Trek reference), I crave order because my most inner nature is violently emotional.

And as I sat there watching the sun and wind dance on the little patch of leaves I could see through one pane of glass, I thought that outside was a "riot of life" and it came to me that the order of our meeting place was made more beautiful by the light and life outside which, in the end, would always be more real than anything we well-intentioned, well-ordered folk could construct. And so it is also true of me. My desire toward plain dress and voluntary simplicity in lifestyle, my academic and spiritual disciplines, my faith and practice are all symmetrical windows and white painted bricks. They are real and solid and even, I hope, useful and beautiful things. They define me, contain me, sustain me, and strengthen me. But the light...the light that illumines me.... comes from a wild place.

So I knew I needed to say that. I didn't particularly want to say it. It scared me to have to say that. We had gone weeks without a word spoken and I am merely a newcomer. I felt I had no right to say anything. If they were content with the silence, these seasoned Friends, then who was I to open my mouth to talk about bricks and breezes? I started to feel shaky. My heart pounded. What was all this about? Was this nerves? I speak publicly for a living for goodness sake!

Then another woman spoke a message about honoring our personalities as well as our bodies. I glanced down at my hands and was surprised to find them drenched in sweat. The words kept repeating themselves in my head and my heart kept pounding and I felt this curious sensation. I felt as though I had been strummed and that a part of me was vibrating with energy. I wanted so much to speak and release this terrible energy. I even parted my lips to do so but pulled myself back again and again.

Then, and I can't quite understand how it finally came to pass, I spoke. My palms dried and my heart ceased its pounding. And that was that. Out of my grumpy, non-theistic silent inner rant arose a truth about wildness that I had to share. It didn't even make much sense (and I so love all that is sensible!) Perhaps I have been clinging too tenaciously to my ability to analyze my own spirituality. I have been troubled by the inconsistencies of my theo/thealogical convictions. I was moved to speak, I say in passive voice. By whom? By whom indeed! Despite my discipline, the light that illumines me comes from a wild place.