It's been several days since my return from Midyear Meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s day-and-a-half program of worship, fellowship, presentation, singing, and a teeny bit of business.
It has taken me some time to carve out the space to write about my experience: The "splat" of the larger world hitting against my spiritual windshield after immersing myself in such a lovely time of refreshment and nurture is a bit of a shock to my system. I needed some time to recalibrate my inward grounding. Something like that.
Being Yoked Together: The bench and the chairFor some time now, I've been struggling with how to articulate the corporate nature of Quakerism. I was hopeful that speaker Deborah Fisch would refer to corporate and individual experiences among Friends, and as I suspected, her ministry came in the form of stories drawn from her own experience. One such story gave me pause...
Deborah shared an experience she had had in Paullina Meeting, where every year the whole of meeting came together to harvest corn, shuck it, remove the kernels from the cob, take the corn to the mill, grind it... and eventually bake cornbread for the surrounding community as a fundraiser.
(You can read a bit about Corn Bread Day if you look for the heading "Paullina Monthly Meeting to host...," about halfway down the page.)
Though the tradition of Corn Bread Day has been laid down by the meeting--and according to Deborah and other Iowa Friends, picked up by some local community members and held at the town's junior high school--part of the experience of that work was, as Deborah put it, that Friends were "yoked together" in their labor and in their love.
The phrase "yoked together" and the example provided, strummed a chord in my heart. These were not Friends who felt imposed upon by giving up some time away from their routine of watching television, hanging out with friends, or crossing things off their To Do Lists.
These were Friends who brought their whole family into the process, where folks worked long and hard, side by side, young and old, convinced and birthright, man and woman.
I imagine they also laughed a lot. And they knew they were doing a service for the community.
I took that story into worship with me on First Day.
Bear Creek Meeting, in rural Iowa and about 25 minutes west of Des Moines, is one of those charming old meetinghouses that has benches in its meetingroom.
In worship I reflected on Deborah's kind words of gratitude for those benches, aware of the many Friends who had sat upon them for decades, in waiting worship, seeking to brought into the Arms of the Divine. Despite their hardness, even beneath the hand-sewn foam cushion that ran the length of each bench, the benches provided me with some comfort, and a peculiar sense of being connected with the Friends with whom I shared that bench for that hour.
On the bench, I could not move my seat to a spot I favored. No, I had to make due with the Friends sitting on either side of me. All through the day-and-a-half, I had to submit to sharing a bench with at least three Friends, and often it was more like four or even five. I never had a bench to myself, and unless I was sitting on an aisle, I was always sitting next to someone less than a crooked arm's reach away.
The few benches that remained empty were the facing benches, yet even those were well used at one of the sessions. The space fit the number of Friends in attendance, and we were suffered to be brought closer to one another as a result.
Now it occurred to me that elsewhere where I had worshiped among Friends, there were primarily chairs set up. And I sunk into the Seed and felt the unity of being yoked together on that bench, in worship as well as in labor. Yoked that is, yet not shackled.
And I wondered how easy it is for us as modern Friends to slip into chairs that can be moved slightly this way or that, in rooms that are large enough to accommodate not just our worshipers but also all of our supersized Americanized personal space, which sometimes keeps us separate from knowing one another in that which is eternal.
The bench became a symbol of the yoke for me, and I felt opened to experience being yoked together in labor, in worship, and in love.
First Day's Meeting for WorshipIn a room filled with 80-100 Friends, most of them Conservative, there were quite a few pieces of vocal ministry, something I did not expect. Nevertheless, what caught my attention in retrospect was just how many of those pieces of ministry referred to God, or Jesus, or Scripture, or Love...
Had I been a new attender or a visiting seeker (which, in a way, I was), I think I would have gotten the message that there is a Principle that can be known, that can be shared if we but listen to one another and share with one another and seek one another out during our faith journey.
If I had been (too) hurt by a Christian upbringing, maybe that message would have spurred me to get up-and-out as quick as I could. But maybe that message also would have offered me a different sort of Christian message, one that I hadn't heard, had I been raised in a typical Christian household.
Something beneath or beyond those spoken messages had a Living Presence that had breathed life into these Friends. Something had been breathed into life by these Friends.
It had breathed life into me.
In hindsight, I wish that the Midyear Meeting had had what IYM(C) calls an "Exercise Committee," which hand-records ministry that is offered during MfW and during MfWfB. (There are a few examples on the internet of such a report).
I have no recollection of what was said, except for the ministry about the difference between preserving and conserving our Quakerism--the very words I explored in a post of my own just a few weeks ago!
But the felt-sense I had had of that worship was very sweet, very deep, very rich. Perhaps, by virtue of having engaged in the interior work of opening ourselves to the minstry that Deborah shared with us, we had become yoked together, and perhaps we carried ourselves and our yoke into that particular Meeting for Worship. We shared the work and the labor of listening for that still small voice.
If I have not Love...First Corinthians, chapters 12-13. What a treat to hear Deborah paraphrase and quote these poetic verses. But even more precious was to hear the tremble in her voice, to hear her speak of the Love that is at the center of the practice and fellowship of Conservative Friends.
...if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2)Throughout the weekend, Deborah reminded us that we are called to love. We are called to capital-L Love. And I don't believe Deborah meant a goopy, saccharine, naive love.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7)
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
This I know experimentallyWell, in the end, as I have said many times to Friends here at home, I cannot describe the experience of being among these gentle, loving people.
On the ride home, the Friend I was riding with said to me, "I am so glad I went! Liz, you were right: It was different from our own yearly meeting, and I did have to experience it for myself."
THAT was the best thing I could have heard. It affirmed what I had experienced on my own, and the fact that language cannot encapsulate what was there among these Friends, at least for some of us.
Maybe it's because it's still so new to me. Maybe this is a honeymoon period. But what if it's not? There's only one way to find out: keep coming back.
Iowa Conservative's annual sessions are scheduled for July 2006. I hope to write more about this continued "experiment" then.
P.S. The low point of the weekend came when one of the youngest Friends in the Minnesota group got terribly sick on Saturday morning. The family felt it best to drive the 4-1/2 hours back home in order to care for him.
In hindsight, I recognized that I could have offered more care to that family, or more care to the kids of the Friends who were supporting that family. I still have a lot to learn about submitting to sharing a yoke versus holding onto the yoke of my own personal desires.
P.P.S. I hope to write a second post that has other little tidbits from Midyear Meeting.