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.


Bill Rushby said...

Your suggestions for better community in a meeting are fine. However, you appear to subscribe to the current liberal Quaker orthodoxy that division is bad and should be avoided at all costs. What this policy does is to slowly erode the minority faction to the point of oblivion. The Orthodox Friends in PA; they are no more. The Conservative Friends in Ontario; they are no more. Is this good? Not in my estimation!

Hystery said...

Bill, I can see how you might find my comments to indicate that I believe that division is a very bad thing. Actually, I do not.

I believe that schism has occasionally been a good thing for Friends. I would not be welcome in any Friends' meeting if had not been for the Hicksite division. The history of my thealogical perspective also grows out of the Congregational Friends' division from the Hicksites in Farmington in 1848. I'm therefore thankful for that division too. It was painful for the people involved,but it was also creative.

My comments here should be read only as a reflection of how Friends within Liberal meetings can work together to uphold their communities within the context of their characteristic theological diversity. Diversity is our strength. We are weakened by a tendency to be too polite to talk about it.

I cannot speak to the needs of Orthodox or Conservative Friends and what is good for their communities. The nature of the relationships between Liberal, Orthodox, and Conservative Friends is difficult. I don't have an answer for that one.

Here in NY, I have worshiped with Christian Friends in their meetinghouse and with Liberal non-Christian Friends in theirs. I'd like to see us remain devoted to each other as Friends, but I do not see a need for us to ignore the fact that depending on worship and theo/alogical orientation, we may have very different needs that may not be well-served in one combined meeting. Instead, I would like to see a spirit of continued cooperation between Friends in a more ecumenical/interfaith fashion that does not require that we share common governing/organizational structures. I think we might love each other better and be better partners in our spiritual work if we weren't so worried about trying to agree with each other.

Bill Rushby said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response!

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