November 30, 2006

What does a Quaker do at a time like this?

Over on Mark's blog, I left a comment on his post about speaking and listening in Meeting for Worship.

What I posted there got me to thinking:

What are the various Quaker disciplines that exist to help guide us in difficult times?

Are there disciplines or structures in our faith for us to draw upon, even during not-so-difficult times, when we know inwardly that there "ought" to be a way to respond but there's no particular testimony that speaks to the precise circumstance we face?

Aren't there times when any one of us might say to ourselves:

What's a Quaker s'posed to do at a time like this?
"A time like this" might mean:

  • overhearing a racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist comment;

  • reacting negatively and strongly to something that was said in Meeting for Worship, MfWfB, or a committee meeting;

  • feeling out of step with the the rest of the meeting, as the meeting addresses a significant piece of business;

  • having been told something hurtful by someone who is seen as having authority or power within the meeting;

  • seeing a child or children acting inappropriately in the meetinghouse, when the parent (or parents) is nowhere around.

  • Living in America, so much of our media and so many of our peers insist that we do something now:

    Take actions into your own hands! Protect yourself! Protect your investments! Don't wait! Act now! Walk away! Don't just stand there! You don't have to put up with that!

    On and on, one exclamation point after another.

    Many of these secular advices have been creeping into our meetingrooms, and they have crowded out the more challenging, traditional advices:
    to love one another and to stand still in the light and submit to it.
    I like to put things more simply for the moment:

    When in doubt, wait.

    I know it sounds simplistic, but don't be fooled: there is much to be done while waiting. What I've been holding and considering is that perhaps interconnected with the discipline of waiting, there are in turn other Quaker disciplines with which we can engage, disciplines that extend beyond waiting worship.

    Waiting for an opening

    As we are waiting, we must be alert to any Openings that may appear. An opening may be an opportunity to speak with another fFriend about what is occurring, so that an additional point of view can be considered. Or an opening may be a new insight that is given, based on something we are listening to or reading or contemplating. Or an opening may be that the very fFriend with whom you are laboring calls you with some new insight that has tendered her or his own heart.

    We must be careful not to speak or act prematurely, not to speak or act simply because we want to. Is there an opening to speak, an opening to take action? Is my own heart made tender so that I may speak and act out of love rather than judgement; concern rather than fear? Have I been opened by the movement of the Spirit?

    Testing our leadings

    If we are disciplined enough to wait on the Lord, we may use that time more conscientiously to test our leadings and to discern what action, if any, is in harmony with God's will.

    Such a waiting period is important, since Friends believe that if a leading comes from God, it will persist and the sense of rightness will increase over time. If, instead, we begin to doubt our initial thoughts or question our plans of how to respond to a chronic situation, it may be that we have not truly "given ourselves over" to the Spirit for guidance.

    In many cases, testing our leadings while waiting also allows us to tap the community, or at least a segment of it (e.g. a clearness committee), to help us discern the way forward. Since Friends believe that Truth itself does not change, only our understanding of it does, and seeking the sense of even an impromptu clearness committee may shed more light on what is the rightly led course of action to follow.

    Laboring with one another

    I often think that the discipline of laboring with one another is the hardest to engage in. I don't know if it's a reflection of America or a reflection of Quakers--or a reflection of American Quakers--but so many of us are uncomfortable dealing with conflict, being in disagreement with one another, not having an easy answer to resolve a complex and tense situation.

    Such labor among Friends often begins when two or more people who care for each other, or for the process, or for the outcome--or for any combination thereof--find themselves not united around how to move forward with a decision:

    Do we spend the money on improving the meeting's kitchen or on sending a few young Friends to a Quaker gathering halfway around the world? What if one Friend, but not another, wishes to approve membership for an attender who, for three years, has been coming regularly to worship but has never served on a committee or attended a Meeting for Worship for Business?

    How do we move forward when our laboring with one another clearly indicates we are not united?

    Laboring with one another requires an awful lot of waiting. We need to listen to one another; listen for the Holy Spirit's guidance; listen inwardly and honestly to our own human frailties; listen compassionately when another Friend brings her or his humanness to us.

    We need to be able to explore completely where our desire to hold on and not let go comes from; where our fear comes from if we were to let go; and how it is that God asks us to be a servant to the Light rather than a servant to our own ego.

    Sometimes the labor is as much about laboring with ourselves as it is about laboring with another person.

    My favorite example of such labor, and the surprising results that come of it when we are able to wait for our labor, our difficulty, to find its own resolution, is the footwashing at Marlborough, which is also recounted in a pamphlet by Sandra Cronk.

    Waiting to feel the inward motion of Love

    The discipline of waiting until we feel a sense of Love stir within us is perhaps the hardest to observe or learn about from others. That may be because such an inward motion is hard to articulate or point to, let alone observe empirically. It doesn't matter that so many Friends are familiar with John Woolman's words. If we haven't felt the inward motion of Divine Love for ourselves, I don't know that we can know it any other way.

    And since we maybe don't know what the motion of Love feels like, it may be hard to wait while we are stewing over whatever the situation is that has set us off in the first place.

    From my own experience, the motion of Divine Love often comes unexpectedly. I can't force it, I can't will it to come. It comes as I let go, as I surrender.

    But even as I am "giving myself over," I am not doing so in order to beckon the motion of Love. That sort of "agenda" or objective won't work.

    I let go because my heart has been made tender in my waiting, and there is room then for God's Love to do its work, both in me and through me.

    And then I am more comfortable simply waiting.

    Quakerism as a faith discipline

    This post started off as an exploration of various disciplines within Quakerism, and especially how we might engage in the disicipline of waiting. Of course, I want to acknowledge what might seem obvious:
    We must keep in mind that sometimes what is required of us is to do nothing more than wait.
    That said, I sense that there is more to say about these and other disciplines, and about how Quakerism itself is a discipline. It's just that the more I write and explore, the more I want to keep writing and exploring!

    Much like how our language of the Divine cannot encompass the Divine itself, so it is that I can't seem to wrap my writing around the essence of these disciplines. And, much like with learning a second language--"use it or lose it"--so too with these disciplines:

    We must engage in them and practice them if we are to be able to be easy and "fluent" with them, not just within our meetings but also in our day-to-day life.

    Thanks for reading me.


    November 27, 2006

    Seeking and finding together

    Last week, when Deborah Fisch was in town, an unusual incident happened that spoke to me about what it means to accompany one another during our journeys within our meeting communities.

    It was the end of her visit, and Deborah was getting ready to hit the road. A Friend was going to drop me off at my home, and on the way, we were going to lead Deborah back to the freeway. As we headed to our cars, Deborah asked us to wait a moment so she could find her earpiece to her cell phone so she could make hands-free calls.

    She didn't find it.

    The three of us retraced Deborah's steps back into the house where Meeting for Worship had been held. The earpiece wasn't there either. The other Friend and I took turns going through Deborah's car, while Deborah began to empty out her coat pockets, her knapsack, and her suitcase.

    No earpiece.

    Deborah made it clear it wasn't her preference to shell out more money to replace the earpiece, and so she took us up on the offer to head back to my place where she had been staying over the weekend and carry on the search there.

    Once back at my house, I walked through the house all over again, pulled out the sleeper sofa, and looked under the mattress. Meanwhile, Deborah emptied her knapsack and suitcase one more time and picked through everything. A minute later, I headed outside again, empty-handed.

    Then I heard my name called, excitedly: Liz!

    And there was Deborah, on the walkway up to the house, smiling and holding her little trophy high in her hand.

    Deborah explained that the other Friend had suggested maybe the earpiece had fallen out of Deborah's pocket while she was walking to pack up the car that morning, so the Friend had kicked aside some oak leaves that had gathered at the foot of a step... and there it was!

    . . . . . . . . .

    As the day went on and Deborah made her way safely through the freeway system, I thought about how the three of us had worked so hard to find such a simple thing. My thoughts intermixed with a question I've been living with, about what it means to labor with one another or wrestle together over something, and why Friends don't seem to engage in such community-building work as frequently as we might.

    I took a look at what the three of us had just been through:

  • We were searching for a thing that would ease one Friend's journey (looking for the earpiece).

  • When we couldn't find it right away, we stayed engaged; we stayed connected to each other (we kept looking).

  • The search became longer, more difficult (we retraced Deborah's recent steps).

  • Over time, it became harder to understand why we were keeping at it. Did we really have to?

  • One Friend reminded the others why it was important to keep looking (Deborah explained why she didn't want to just go out and buy another earpiece).

  • We recommitted ourselves (we looked through the car, her backpack, her suitcase).

  • A new idea emerged (maybe it's at the other house).

  • We pursued the new idea together.

  • A Friend suggested a new approach (passing her foot through the oak leaves)...

  • ...which ultimately bore fruit! (the long-lost earpiece!)

  • I would like to think that we would have kept searching, "however long it would take," until all of us had agreed to let it go, or until each of us had felt "released" from the need to keep searching. The truth is, I needed to be coaxed to push on, and if either of the other two had wanted to stop, I could easily have been swayed to stop looking, too.

    I needed the other Friends' commitment; I needed their faithfulness.

    It often seems that when Friends undertake a difficult task, and when the going gets tough, we are tempted to stop our efforts; our energy wanes. We maybe even stop paying attention to what is the capital-L Loving thing to do in the situation.

    Maybe we start paying attention to what I call the American anthem of individualism: We start paying attention to "me, me, me..." We start focusing on our own wants and needs, and if something becomes too inconvenient for us, well, we may step away from the task entirely, even while others continue on the sometimes unpleasant journey.

    It's a form of discipline to turn our attention, restrain our impulse, or deter our American nature away from "me, me, me" and make space for, and recommit to, "all of us, all of us, all of us."

    It's a discipline to let go of the pursuit of the individual American dream and hold the intention of moving together, as a body, seeking the way forward together, even while struggling and laboring with one another, until the spiritual debris is kicked aside and the Way forward is revealed.


    UPDATE: An offshoot of this post, I have written more about other disciplines within Quakerism.

    November 22, 2006

    A visit from Deborah Fisch

    This weekend, the worship group was blessed by the visit and presence of Deborah Fisch, clerk of Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and coordinator of FGC's Traveling Ministries Program. Aside from the positions she holds, Deborah is also a personal friend to some of us in the worship group, and she has been following the progress of our small group for the past few years.

    The ministry that Deborah shares is often expressed through her personal stories... stories which are slowly finding their way onto paper, not because she is writing them, but because Friends groups are recording the plenary sessions where she speaks, and then producing the transcripts as pamphlets. During the evening presentation that Deborah gave on Saturday night, she again returned to the stories of her life that serve as examples to her and to many Friends about the nature of God's Love; the discipline of corporate practice; and the challenge and reward of being faithful to God's leading.

    This weekend was not the first time I have heard Deborah speak; and her stories that she shared for Beacon Hill Friends House's Weed Lecture are more of the same. There are few Friends who provide a plenary presentation by speaking out of the Silence, without notes or a complete draft of their remarks in front of them. Maybe it is because of Deborah's careful listening for what God lays on her heart that Friends are brought closer to the Inward Teacher as a result of Deborah's tender sharing. It amazes me each time--not just the power of story and personal experience, but also the way that we connect with one another, and with God, as a result.

    At one point, at the close of her evening presentation, Deborah was asked if she had actually experienced a meeting that she described in her stories: a meeting whose members actively nurtured the spiritual gifts of each other and freely welcomed the children into the whole life of the meeting; a meeting whose members regularly companioned one another through crises of faith, without giving answers or trying to fix another's shortcomings; a meeting whose members noticed who had not come to worship and then make a phone call to those Friends on Second Day, asking if all was well.

    I think Deborah's response is indicative of the caring "center" out of which Conservative Friends, as a group, seem to live more intentionally:

    Well, I can say I have traveled to a lot of meetings and I have visited with a lot of Friends. And each meeting has at least a piece, or maybe even a few pieces, of what is possible. Friends are wanting to be faithful to how they are called, and they are hungry to know one another in That Which Is Eternal...
    It was not lost on me that Deborah did not raise her own meeting above any other; and neither did she put any meeting down.

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

    Deborah also referred to a metaphor she had used earlier in the evening, about the "spiritual refrigerator" within our meetings.

    There is plenty of nourishing food already in the spiritual refrigerator of our meetings, but many Friends are at that "hungry" stage of our spiritual journey among, where we open the meeting's refrigerator door, stare past the shelves full of food, and groan, "There's nothing to eat!"

    What we need to do, Deborah explains, is take a closer look at what's inside the fridge; maybe seek out the Friend who has the gift to use what is on the shelves and create a delicious meal from it. Or maybe another Friend has the gift (the patience? the willingness?) to sort through the really old stuff that's in the way back, stuff that maybe has gone bad because it's been ignored or forgotten for so long. And maybe that Friend can recognize if there is something still of value in that old container that's worth saving, while tossing out the stuff that has no Life anymore.

    My own thought is that we need to be careful not to throw out the container itself when throwing out the spoiled food within it. That's a very easy thing to do, so as not to have to deal too closely with what can be so nasty. And yet we need to be careful not to discard the practice--the container of a part of our faith--without first learning where the practice came from, what its roots are, and how might it add to the spiritual banquet if it were to be restored.


    UPDATE: The story of Deborah's visit doesn't quite end there...

    November 3, 2006

    Paul Kelly: How we talk about Quakerism

    A guest piece by Paul Kelly, used with permission.

    The following piece originally appeared in The Good Raised Up as a comment in response to an earlier post. Although I don't consider myself Christian, I appreciate the observations that Paul Kelly makes about how Friends talk about the Christian message, Jesus, etc. –Liz
    We left our episcopal parish this past spring when ... the politics of the parish had become a constant subterranean distraction, and had deepened to differences over "biblical authority." Worship there wasn't working for us anymore, though we still love many of the people, the sincerity of faith, music. Many good memories. I don't regret the 7 year exposure to more traditional Christian preaching, teaching, and spirituality. But to make a long story short, we seem to be back among Friends.

    Thinking about some of the themes in the conversation about "convergence"... A couple of Gordon College students came to meeting Sunday on assignment, and a small group was giving them the run-down on Quakerism. I was struck by how quickly Friends turn to their history to describe themselves, even if they don't know their history very well. It struck me that one problem with this tendency is that it can make it harder to see Friends' history clearly--history becomes too freighted if it becomes the terms in which we describe who we are now.

    One participant offered that Friends were more concerned with the teachings OF Jesus than the teachings ABOUT Jesus. I'd heard this before--actually from the grown daughter of an Indiana Yearly Meeting pastor describing her father's approach. But I was uncomfortable here, too. On the one hand, early Friends did have strong teachings ABOUT Christ Jesus as light, seed, truth, come to teach his people himself. On the other hand, there can be long stretches of time when what makes sense to me (or what I want to challenge myself with) are some of the teachings OF Jesus. But I realized afterward that what made me uneasy was the implicit stake in denying (or at least setting safely aside) a big part of the traditional gospel. Whether or not I can affirm Jesus as Teacher and Lord--and whether or not I expect others to affirm--I want it all available.

    My younger daughter and I attended the annual retreat of the small meeting we are attending. An old woman (she would prefer "old" to "older") born in Germany, lived through Hitler, is an important quiet (sometimes sleeping) elder in the meeting. Her love and faith are very real, and she faces the debilities of age with enormous appreciation for the many good, active years she has enjoyed. But she is one who would rather not even use the word "God." "Life" works for her, and she needed Quakers' non-creedal space to free her natural reverence into something to cherish and share with others. Well, "life" works and doesn't work for me. "God" carries other meanings that somehow go beyond life as shown on this planet, and sometimes I need that beyond in order to maintain faith here. But I have no desire to tell her she is missing the boat or "hiding from the summons of the cross." Fact is, I'm not that sort of evangelical. I am deeply grateful that she is available to the meeting, to me, to my daughters--and she will give her own testimony. Is it too much to want the gospel, the NT, the Hebrew tradition, the history of the church, Quaker history, Ghandi, Buddha, sentimental French moral tales of the 19th century, and you and I today all available as we seek, a la Paul, to not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good? Is Jesus too much totalitarian fire in a bottle to be held that way? Always a question for me. But I find from experience that I either hold it lightly or not at all.

    I was thinking the ideal response to an inquirer would not be a disquisition on Quaker history, practices or beliefs, but, as Jesus once said, "Come and see."

    Paul Kelly