May 9, 2005

Releasing Friends from my expectations

Over on Beppeblog, Beppe has created a series of posts about what's troublesome to him about contemporary liberal Friends these days. Related to one such post, as I was typing a comment, I began to understand why I carry a sense of grief about the spiritual diversity of the monthly meeting that holds my membership. Not only why I carry grief, but also how I have been expressing that grief in an unintentional manner.

Sadly, in my humanness, I have often failed to base my testimony of Quakerism on my own direct experience of the faith. Instead, I have extended, extrapolated, and projected my experience—or more precisely, my hopes of that experience—onto other Friends.

It is only now beginning to dawn on me that such extrapolation and projection has been the result of my concern for the diminishment of a set of Quaker practices that holds much life for me. In my frustration and my grief over unmet expectations I have had, I had been wishing that these same practices still held life for others in the meeting.

For months, I have been fending off the realization that the practices that are precious to me aren't counted as treasures for others. I haven't wanted to face my anger, sadness, disenchantment, disillusionment. Yet I know that the only way to cope, to get through this period, is to surrender myself to the process, to the Holy Spirit, and acknowledge my powerlessness.

I feel the deep grief well up in me as I recognize these truths at a new level. It is like letting go of a friendship that has been dear to me for many years...

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Now, at Beppe's blog, as a result of an exchange of comments between the two of us, my thinking and understanding has again been exercised: I know that I can feel my feelings when it comes to the meeting and its circumstance, but I am concerned about how these raw feelings seep out in subtle, unhealthy ways, like projecting my grief and anger onto other Friends and ultimately wanting them to change—to be "better Quakers" according to my own definition—as a result.

I found myself wondering, as Beppe prompted, Is there anything wrong with wanting Quakers to be more faithful to our principles and practices? Did not John Woolman, George Fox, Margaret Fell, and others since them, each in their own way, lift up the human shortcomings of their fellow worshippers, striving to hold Friends accountable, to act out of greater integrity...?

So why am I so conflicted?

I am coming to realize—and having difficulty remembering—that it's a fine line between holding one another's feet to the fire (which is what I had hoped I was doing) and holding a person's feet to the fire long after the person has shouted, "Let go of me, I don't like doing this anymore!"

The former act is one of what Sandra Cronk calls "mutual accountability" (see below); the latter is one which borders on harrassment if not abuse. Once I had a handle on this distinction, I felt a clearness within me. Now I just have to remember to draw on this distinction in order to discern if I am being faithful or if I am letting my grief seep out.

I am also made tender by these words from Claire, who posted a comment to a guest piece by Jeffrey Hipp. Claire writes in part:

Sometimes when Friends call for more Christ-centeredness on the grounds that Friends are slipping away from true Quakerism, it makes me feel as if I am “less” of a Quaker, or not a true Friend. [Jeffrey's] post articulated clearly both sides of the story and was comforting for me to read.

We must wait and listen to the Spirit rather than taking it upon ourselves to “force” any such change either way.
Claire's words have tendered my heart where other similarly stated concerns have not been able to reach me. Her words remind me of the phrase "intention versus impact."

In some circles that address oppression in its different forms, this phrase encapsulates the reality that what is said or done with a good intention may not be welcomed or interpreted as such. In my case, if my intention is to encourage Friends to draw on certain practices and principles in order to be faithful to our Quakerism, but the impact of my words is the opposite—Friends interpret my words as meaning that I am saying they are not Quaker enough—then there is some clean-up to do. Attending to the relationship is needed.

But I cannot know the impact of my words until someone tells me what they are. I seldom hear about any hurtful impact until weeks or months have gone by. Then what? There is no way to recall the specific circumstance, and consequently no opportunity to search for the underlying intention of my words when so much time has passed...

There is more for me to write, but for now I feel the nudge to stop here and allow the Inward Teacher to continue to instruct me.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Quotes from Sandra Cronk's "Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community" (Pendle Hill pamphlet series, #297; 1991):
The process of mutual accountability was not a way of checking to see whether Friends lived up to certain petty points of lifestyle, but a way to give each other the strength to be a people who listened to God and lived God's new order... (p. 16)

Friends saw mutual admonition as... helping each other hear and respond to God's call. The admonitory aspect of mutual accountability involved all sorts of situations, including helping people to recognize and exercise their gifts, to see where the broken and unfaithful places were in their lives, to overcome paralyzing fears, to discern leadings, and to know when they had outrun or lagged behind their Guide. Thus, admonition was not simply telling others when they were wrong, at least in the way we usually interpret that idea. It was admonishing a person to be courageous in adversity or to undertake a much needed ministry or service. It was encouraging one another to take a risk in trusting God's leading or letting go of a behavior that was blocking deeper commitment to God. In short, it was helping each other move toward greater faithfulness in all areas of living. (pp. 24-25)


Joe G. said...

Ah, yes, the ultimate analysis: is any of this done in relationship (to others, to God, to ourselves). Wow, what a lovely counterpoint to my series of sniveling, I mean, concerns about liberal Friends. I will ponder this: "intention" vs. "impact". Wow, #2. Love it! When we're doing things out of Mary-energy, than perhaps the intent will be much more in line with God's guidance (rather than doing it out of Martha-energy). Thanks, Liz.

PS: honored that you posted something in response to my series of posts.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz,
I only have time for the most-undigested of responses. Two things come to mind: the first is that at some level we need to be unconcerned with results. Our job is to be faithful to the message. Sometimes it might get folks bent out of shape but maybe sometimes that's okay. Other times we'll have the logically correct message whose time hasn't come; in those cases being silent is the best course.

The other piece that makes all this hard is that we have a lot of folks who have come to Quakerism but don't want to practice Quakerism (I realize that's a firecracker statement that begs the question of "well what does hie mean by Quakerism"; I'll dodge an answer this time!) For all my talk and bluster, I'm very much a religious liberal, but I do recognize that contained in liberalism is a seed of a kind of fascism that is trying to reduce all the world to an interchangable cogs and sprokets. In the material world, everything becomes a bar-coded commodity available from Walmart. Religious congregations are all to become generic multi-faith fellowship halls whose differences are ones of color and style only ("have a problem with the authority of a minister, well then Beliefnet recommends: Quakers"). There's a violence to this uniformization, fueled by an intolerant-tolerance that destroys individual character. If you try to practice Quakerism in the wholeness of belief and practice as it's been understood all this time, you are intolerant. American liberal culture trains us to see the problem as being located in the individual who wants to have a religious identity (and not with the religion that lacks an identity).

Surely, there are nuances to all this and it's not as simple as I'm pointing out. But I do want to say it's okay to have an opinion about our religious society, even if that opinion hurts others. It's okay to expect that you can pratice your own religion in your own religious community without guilt that you're not another religion.

Anonymous said...

This dillemma between a call for Christ-centeredness vs. very universalist (or very liberal) Quakerism comes from both sides, I think.

The whole issue needs to be examined in the context of intention versus impact. It is double-sided; intentions on both sides are good - no one is trying to be hurtful or violent - but impacts of actions have not necessarily been positive all the time. In an attempt to make sure everyone is comfortable and accepted, universalist Friends tend to avoid and rename anything at all Christ-centered. In this attempt, those Christ-centered Friends are made uncomfortable. In an attempt to bring Quakerism back to focus on Christ, universalist Friends end up uncomfortable.

Universalist Friends, instead of taking personal offense at every word that might be linked to Christ-centeredness or the Bible, must recognize this offended feeling within themselves and examine it. Christ-centered Friends must recognize that some universalist Friends may not be at a place in their spiritual journey where they feel comfortable with Christ-centered language, and be tender and clear in their usage of words that mean so much to them. Also, Friends must look to the deeper meaning beyond the surface words rather than taking offense to the language used. In my experience, the words used are not the point, but the Spirit and the message behind them - this is something that many people do not think about.

I hope that I articulated the above in a clear way - it is possible that I am off a little, but this is what seems to be the sense of the situation.

My Spirit is warmed that some of my words have meaning for you. Sometimes it is easy to feel that I am talking to myself, or that my words have meaning only to myself (which, perhaps, is my own worry or insecurity showing through that my words might be superfluous or not fully centered).

Anonymous said...

I understand well what you mean about
'letting go a friendship that has been dear'
in the sense that the fellowship that you
thought was there dissolving, and whatever
covenant community there is having its spell
of binding love broken, not only the secular
love, but the Godly love too.

As for intentions/impact, the road to hell is paved...

On a more serious note, I think we'd better
distinguish between advancement and
meeting polity. We just have come off a few
blistering weeks of advancement work in
which some faith was really tested and we
threshed rather seriously with the articles of
our collective faith in the MM. The result is
some greater clarity, but also a few more
murky spots. Thankfully the results are
not muddy water Quakerism, either for
the meeting polity nor the advancement
concern under review (whew). But it did
uncover an intentions/impact tension, concerning
how we can expect to release our Friends from
expectation versus release our seeker-newbies
from expectation. Things are complicated, so
it would require some depth to communicate
the clearness (and lack of it) that the joint
M/O and advancement committee of my meeting
seemed to arrive at. Suffice to say there are
interesting points to consider about how we
present our open arms, to both those already
fellowshipped with us and those finding us anew.

I'm also struck by the turn of phrase in the Martin
comment, about interchangeable cogs. This does
seem to be the muddy water result then some truths
are let stand and stand and stand. I think liberal society
does figure that once a truth has been found by whatever
means, it can't really be torn down. And so we don't really
have a model for subsuming truths into larger ones
because in a way an overliberal society doesn't really
believe in continuing revelation that reconciles disparate
truths. Instead, all the little pillars are let stand, instead
of larger truths being found that leave a pillar standing
and extend our understanding much further around a
nearby set of other pillars too.

In other online forums I am chipping away at a few
things along these lines. But not very fast.

Anonymous said...

Hi Liz

So I'm not sure how to interpret this post because I'm not sure where these thoughts leave you. Some of these possibilities seem more likely than others, but I want to lay out the possibilities that come to mind:

Are you thinking of leaving Quakerism?

Are you "taking back" some of the things that you've been saying about the importance of relying on the Spirit as a corporate body while worshiping and doing business? If so, what are you "taking back?"

Are you making a big step away from your big liberal meeting?

Are you not taking a big step away from the meeting but are envisioning a different role for yourself?

What are you going to do now?

What led up to this?


Anonymous said...

I would think that by now, Liz, you know that the practices you hold dear are dear to many other Friends, even if they're not all in the surrounding 100 miles. Maybe we just need a smaller country.

I read this as being not that you are going to give up on what you believe but that you are not going to beat yourself up or others up because they don't believe the same things, although you are allowed to be sad about it.

For me the question of intention vs. impact is important. I know I have to be careful that what I think I am saying is not always what other people understand me to be saying. I don't have to worry too much if people don't agree with what I think but I am concerned if I am not expressing myself in terms that anyone else could understand. Some of the worst conflicts in my Meeting have been when one person (or several) thought someone else said something completely different to what the person meant. Mary Rose O'Reilly in The Barn at the End of the World wrote about how her classmates at Thich Nhat Hanh's dharma talks and students in her English classes would compare notes afterwards and they would have written down diametrically opposed statements. She wondered how many of Jesus's disciples did the same thing.

Next, I think the question of projecting our interests and fears on other people is alive and well among Friends. I wonder how much of online community is made more powerful because we are able to project more onto people without having to deal with the contradictory realities of the people we see offline.

Thank you Liz for having the courage to write about what you don't know, when you don't have the answers, and helping the rest of us to formulate the good questions.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting. For one thing, reading your thoughts in response to mine helps me clarify my own self-understanding even further. (Can you say navel-gazer?!)

Robin, you do a nice job in summarizing what I was wanting to get at: I read this as being not that you are going to give up on what you believe but that you are not going to beat yourself up or others up because they don't believe the same things, although you are allowed to be sad about it.

I also will have to keep close tabs on myself, the "Adversary" I think is what Fox called it. I can be sad about the apparent dilution of Quakerism among Friends I have known for years, but I mustn't let my anger or grief manipulate me into controlling their practice... And as Robin points out, there are other Friends who cherish the Quaker treasure; and neither must I let my voice fall silent (or my fingers on the keyboard become still...).

As for the questions raised by Elizabeth, rest assured I remain firmly a Quaker. I am not going to withdraw my membership in the Religious Society of Friends any time soon, from what I can tell! On the other hand, I do sense a shift in my relationship to the monthly meeting. I foresee an end to my service on committees within the meeting; maybe even an end to regularly attending MfW for Business. God will guide me, either way. Also, there are subgroups and individuals I will still be involved with, like the newly formed group for LGBTQ Friends and allies, "Affirming Diverse Orientations," and no doubt I'll continue attending early worship from time to time... at least until the worship group moves its worship to the morning hour!

Martin, I hope you'll expand on your thoughts someday. I find something resonating within me with your words: ...If you try to practice Quakerism in the wholeness of belief and practice as it's been understood all this time, you are intolerant. American liberal culture trains us to see the problem as being located in the individual who wants to have a religious identity (and not with the religion that lacks an identity). And yes, I strive to be faithful to the message I've been given, but I'm realizing that sometimes my emotions unexpectedly "drive the bus," especially when the situation is outside the context of meeting for worship.

I also appreciate muchly Claire's reminder, that we listen for deeper meaning beyond the surface words, a discipline which for me has taken years to understand and engage in... And much like your other remarks, Claire, I believe that all Friends need more practice in this area, regardless of which side of the universalist-Christocentric Quaker fence we find ourselves.

David, thanks for sharing your meeting's experience with its advancement/polity issue. And the metaphor you offer about the pillars of truth being embraced by yet larger cover and extensions of the Truth, holds some life for me; I'll have to sit with it some more.

(BTW, for readers who want to learn more about Quaker polity, I remember coming across this book at a recent FGC event.)

(Also BTW, Claire has a busy blog herself as Quakerspeak. I'll add it to my blog list.)