Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Modest Recommendations to facilitate "sticking together"

Yesterday I wrote about my sense that Friends should stick together despite our many theological and practical differences.  I think there is a need for, and I think we have the discipline and will to model a loving community that centers itself not on a set of shared "truths", but on a principle of love.    Sadly, my own community of Friends is greatly troubled and conflicted.  They are making difficult decisions about who they are and how they should proceed.

I'm not sure about the right path, but it is good to spend time thinking about it.  It is good to spend time talking about it with others.  My husband and I both work on Sundays.  We do not get much time to spend talking to Friends about these concerns so I am using this blog as a place to flesh out ideas among other Quakers.  Speaking as a liberal Friend and as an attender at a local, rural meeting with very few members and attenders, I sense a need for Friends to spend more time in the following activities:

1.  Talking to each other.  I'd like us to spend time talking about our theo/alogies, core beliefs, emerging and developing beliefs, and philosophies.  The point of this talk should not be to compete with each other or to create an orthodoxy or a hierarchy of truths.  The point should be to get to know each other at a deeper level.  Our community is not sustainable if we do not know each other at the heart and soul level.

2.  Laughing with each other.  When people share deep thoughts and religious action, it is very easy to get caught up in a kind of morbid seriousness.  Life is far too important to take seriously.  If we are able to laugh at ourselves, we are less likely to take offense.  We are more likely to forgive.  Try hating someone with whom you have just shared a laugh.  You probably can't do it.  Our community needs joy, and we can find it in each other.

3. Cry together.  Like learning to laugh with each other, learning to cry together will strengthen our meeting.  Learning to share our worries, pains, illnesses, and tragedies will be tough.  Many of us are taught that it is unseemly to betray vulnerability.  When asked how we are, we are taught to blurt out the cheerful lie followed by an insincere question.  "I'm fine!  How are you?"  To become the Beloved Community, we actually need to care enough about each other to offer up the truth.  I do not suggest that we use our meeting as a kind of dumping ground for toxic emotion.  Certainly Friends who are also in the caring professions must be careful that they are not exploited for their psychological and counseling skills.  However, we do need to know that when we are not fine, we can say so and know that we are loved.  The world is full of pain, and I think it needs us.  We cannot offer mercy and comfort outside our meetinghouse doors if we cannot find it within.

4.  Eat with each other.  This can be tough with crazy schedules and with diverse diets.  Dish to pass meals are great.  Those of us who have very specific diets can share our favorite dishes with others and ensure that we have enough to eat, but the focus should not be on the food.  Instead, it should be on the communion and fellowship.  Breaking bread (or rice cakes, or corn thins, or gluten-free cupcakes) together reminds us that we are a family.

5.  Learn together.  We can and should continue to explore the history and practice of our faith.  We can learn more about Friends who sit next to us in worship and Friends who worship in distant lands.  Some of us have more experience or have studied more than others.  Those who have spent more time on a given topic may facilitate a conversation.  We can share books, watch videos, and even just "kick ideas around."  I like the idea of "kicking around" ideas.  It helps keep my learning playful and reminds me that while Friends value individuality, they also value corporate discernment.  While Friends engage in individual devotions, we are not solitary practitioners.  We can apply that same strategy to our learning.

6.  Include the children (whatever their ages).  Young people don't tend to stick around Friends' meetings.  When they have wings to fly, they often fly right away.  I think that it must be very difficult to be a child in a Friends' meeting.  I have worked hard to help my children grow into the discipline of a silent worship service.  I am proud of what they have accomplished.  I have also worked to teach them about our Testimonies, and history and to see themselves as a part of the unfolding of a collective Quaker service to the world.  However, I cannot help but notice that children and their parents are not always clearly welcome in the midst of all that stately and profound silence. 

We "young family" types wiggle too much.  We are undisciplined and immature in our bodies.  We make noise and sometimes say or do things that are awkward or inappropriate.  This is how we learn and grow.  I think that grown-up Friends forget about all the bouncing energy and playfulness, the impatience, curiosity, and restlessness that is a child's birthright.  I think they forget about the rebelliousness, hormonal surges, melancholy, and firecracker tempers that go along with adolescence.  And they forget that as we age, and as we go through our own adult losses, romances, disabilities, illnesses, and passions we too may need other Friends to move beyond brittle patience to a more hearty and heartfelt welcome for folks in all stages of life.  Let us learn to embrace the young, the goofy, the headstrong, the depressed, the coughers and snifflers, the forgetful, and the wigglers for they too shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

7.  Lean into the messages.  When I first began attending meeting for worship with Friends, I had read that Friends receive messages from Spirit which they feel compelled to share.  I read that they must discern between the messages of their own egos, and those of "God."  To be honest, I thought this was probably nonsense.  However, I decided that if I was going to give worship with Friends a fair shot, I would "do it properly."  To me that meant that no matter how insightful, clever, profound, or eloquent the message that popped up in my mind, I would keep a sock in it unless I felt certain that the message did not come to me through my own ego.  I therefore thoroughly expected to never utter a single peep.

When I received my first message, it blew my mind.  It was, as I have written before, a thoroughly unpleasant experience, but it was unpleasant in much the same way that giving birth is unpleasant in that it was still very, very good.  The sensation of losing control was almost nauseating.  My hands sweat and trembled.  An idea (and not even an idea to which I felt any particular connection) raced round and round my head.  Words formed as my heart raced, and then I spoke.  That's how it happens with me.  Maybe it happens with you in another, but equally profound way.

I think we should teach newcomers to trust that the messages will come.  They do not need to be forced.  We do not need to be the authors of the messages.  There is another Author who only needs us to be the vehicles, vessels, and voices of those messages.   I think we should remind each other that the speaker is not the source of the message.  The message may reflect the speaker's individuality, flaws, and mannerisms because although the note may be perfect, we are not perfect instruments.  It is also perfectly fine when they come through someone else.  The message and not the messenger is where our focus should rest.

We need to lean into these messages.  We need to pay attention to them, treasure them, and allow ourselves to be excited by them.  Too often I notice friends reacting to a message in much the same way as they would to someone with an unfortunate case of gas.  They act mildly embarrassed and then pretend it did not happen.  If it is poor form to discuss messages after meeting, that's really too bad.  I'll tell you what.  When Spirit sends a message through me or through the person sitting next to me, I'm not just profoundly moved, I'm excited as all get out.  I mean...wow!  That's a pretty amazing thing, isn't it?

8.  Be like a family.  It is important to honor the ancestors.  It is even more important to feed the babies.   Our future grows out of our history, but it has to grow.  We have to change.  I notice that some Friends hold up the first generation of Quakers as a kind of generation of saints.  Perhaps they were.  But so too were the Quietists and the Conservatives, and the Liberals, and the Evangelicals, the Beanites, the Gurneyites, the Hicksites, the and the Congregational Friends.  Revelation did not end with George Fox.  Each generation had something to learn and something to teach. 

There is nothing we can do about the tensions and the schisms that rocked the Quaker world in the days of our ancestors.  It is sad to think about their communities blown apart by dissent and anger.  But perhaps we can learn to focus on the energy and light that was generated as a result of those explosions.  We can do more than just learn from their mistakes to become less cantankerous and contentious Friends today.  Their conflicts, tensions, and reconciliations shed light on our path, and remind us that we are a growing and evolving people, and that as flawed as we are, we are the recipients of continuing revelation.

Let us continue to work with faith toward Peace in this new year.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Dream of Confused Quakers: A Star Trek miracle

Free association.  Writing very quickly off the cuff.

  I'm a Trekkie and I've passed that along to my children.  Right now, in vacation-mode, we are watching a Star Trek marathon.   Several Star Trek episodes seem to focus on one or more of the Enterprise crew losing their memory and/or sense of mission.  It is a good theme.  Effective and entertaining.  Lots of us feel a sense of loss of identity and mission.  We're happily tooling around the Universe when out of the blue, we're swept by a beam and our memories, personalities, and ambitions become nebulous at best. 

So whilst watching an episode in which Data, Troi, and O'Brien are behaving quite badly because they can't remember who they really are  (Damned alien body invasion again), I was suddenly reminded of a dream I just had.  The details are fuzzy, but it was about a small group of Quakers who couldn't remember just who they were or what they were doing.  I was watching them and thinking about their condition although I could not speak to it.  They were bewildered, but clearly well-intentioned.  They only knew one thing and that was that they were Friends.  They weren't quite sure what that meant, but it was a beginning.

Perhaps, I thought, even if they aren't sure what being a Friend means, if they just cling to each other, they'll remember.  That's what happens on the Enterprise.  They forget who they are and they forget what their mission is, but they stick together.  Eventually, one or more of them remembers something about the Prime Directive and they are able to convince the others.  At base, no matter how evil the alien or insidious the beam, or distressing the plot line, the crew always find in themselves the ethical core of the Prime Directive. 

We live in a distracting world full of noises and blinking lights.  Sailing about in our spaceship, it is easy to be ovewhelmed by all the unexplored territory.  Going boldly where no one has gone before has its dangers.  Friends are no longer wholly Abrahamic, monotheistic, or even basically theistic.  We have invited Vulcans, Betazoids, Klingons and even androids to share our ship, to take the helm, and to be our crewmates.  They come to us with different cultural values, different histories, and different assumptions.  But if they believe in the Prime Directive and are willing to not only abide by it, but allow it to become their guide when the dangers of space invade their minds, wipe away all their sensor logs, and interrupt all their data streams, then you know that at the end of the story, the crew will get back together.  They will reaffirm themselves as the people of the Enterprise, the people who believe in the Prime Directive.  Their ethics, their morality, their actions, while disrupted and confused at first, will begin to align with that Directive.  Sacrfices will be made.  There will be close calls, but in the end, they'll stick together and they'll remember who they are.

And who are they?  And who are we?  We are a diverse people bound together by a Prime Directive.  We may be confused about our mission, about our identity, and about our approach.  Worf and Troi almost never agree.  Spock, Kirk, and Bones are conflicted about the nature and direction of humanity, yet somehow, it is difficult to imagine an Enterprise made up only of "by the book" Star Fleet types.  It seems that the Prime Directive is not best served by literalism or legalism.  It is always bad news when the Star Fleet brass come on board and begin messing with the crew's process.  You have to live in space to understand it.  No desk jockey understands the Prime Directive in the nuanced, compassionate, and even maverick way that our fine crew understands it.  And no Star Fleet engineer stuck on base knows just how much the ship can take.  The Star Fleet engineers always warn their captains that "she'll fly apart", but they also manage to hold her together, usually by breaking all the rules in the manual.  It is their creative tension that keeps her steady.  Be cautious, be quick, and push it to the limits. We'll never truly know what she's got until we're willing to push past warp 9.  Technical knowledge is great, but the Enterprise requires experience.

I've been witnessing a great deal of handwringing about the identity and future of the Religious Society of Friends.  Lots of it seems to have to do with resentment against aliens in our midst who do not share our Earth values.  They remind me of Bones grousing about that damned green-blooded Vulcan.  What are we to do with this diversity?  There are Vulcans who insist on cool,analytical approaches and who have peculiar, otherworldly philosophies.  There are Betazoids who want to infuse everything with an emotionalism that often makes us uncomfortable.  There are androids who seem (although we are never really sure) to not possess any emotions at all.  In addition to that we have former members of the Klingon and Romulan Empires.  And the Borg too!   They aren't Terrans.  That's for sure.  Their existence challenges our assumptions that the best worldview comes from our particular world.  But they are all Starfleet.  They are all believers in the Prime Directive and each, regardless of individuality of personality and culture, has wed him or herself to Star Fleet's mission of exploration, of seeking out new life.  More importantly, they've bound themselves to the principles of the Prime Directive.  For some it is a passion.  For some it is a mission. For others it is a God.  For some it is "merely logical."  They all have a role to play and each of them will save the ship and its crew at least once in at least one episode.  I suspect the same is true of Friends.  Let's be careful who we beam off the ship.  They might be the very soul who saves the day in the next episode.

Let's not begin a process of defining ourselves by exclusion.  Let us have faith instead that whatever spiritual dialect we speak and whatever our religious species, we are drawn to Friends because we share a profound core belief, and we can be trusted to embody the wisdom of that belief.  It is our Prime Directive, interpreted a bit haphazardly by some captains and quite strictly by others, but ever-present in our minds and hearts.  It provides us with an unassailable core on which we have built our community.  We have called in our Inward Light, our Guide, our God, our Christ, our Spirit.  We have calmly acknowledged its presence and called it nothing at all.  We have sought it in Silence and activism.  We have interpreted it through our holy books, our dreams, our histories, our meditation, our scholarship, and our conversations.  Our Enterprise has been our Testimonies, and it has been a good ship, although often under heavy fire and in need of extensive repair.  It carries us where we need to go to search out new life and new civilization.  It is the vehicle of our mission, our hope, and our principles.  It is the medium of our ability to find life in the cold emptiness of space.  But even it is not the center of who we are.  Even if it is destroyed, the crew will survive so long as we stick together.  No evil plan has yet been devised that could permanently rob the crew of its devotion to each other and to the Prime Directive.  It is unthinkable.  I don't think the Writers would have it. 

Live long and prosper, Friends.  Qapla!