May 7, 2007

Coming under the weight of a concern

In recent months, I have wondered how to describe what it means for an individual, a committee, or a meeting to "come under the weight of a concern."

No matter how much experience a Friend has with the concern at hand, it doesn't seem like it's enough for that Friend to say, "This is important; we need to do something about it!"

In my experience, even if a larger group finds itself united with the concern--for example, witnessing to the support for the GLBTQ community--the group may never move from saying the words to taking the corresponding action or providing the relevant outward witness.

It worries me, frankly.

"The meeting is so large that we no longer know one another well enough to provide the pastoral care and nurture we wish to."

"Not enough Friends are stepping forward to serve on the committees or in positions that require the greatest amount of dedication and service but we can't twist people's arms to do that."

"The number of Friends who understand the foundation of our faith and what gives rise to Spirit-led vocal ministry is diminishing and we need to do something to revitalize the meeting."

"So few adults even know who the teenage Friends
are in the meeting!"
All of these comments, or some variation, are things I have heard over the years and during my travels among Friends. Sometimes a committee addresses the concern and then presents a report to the meeting, which in turn often records a minute, hoping that that will move things along to resolution, to new practices, to greater cohesiveness.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same.

What is it, then, that stirs a committee, let alone a meeting, to come under the weight of a concern, to the extent that our inward condition is changed as well as our outward witness?

In addition, while I understand that much of this inner work is left to God and the workings on our heart of the Inward Light, I also believe that as a corporate body, God does work through us, speak through us, love through us. I worry that entire meetings might experience the promptings of the Spirit but end up dropping the ball rather than taking it the distance.

I worry because if our meetings are not faithful to the small nudges of the Spirit, how can we prepare ourselves to be faithful to the larger prompts and leadings off the Spirit?

Still, I can point to some comtemporary examples of a subgroup, monthly meeting, or yearly meeting that has come under the weight of a concern, to the extent that the faithfulness of these Friends is now bearing fruit:
  • In 2004, the Central Committee of Friends General Conference came under the weight of affirming that spiritual gifts are not distributed according to sexual orientation or gender identity. That minute and corresponding epistle still is causing some positive ripples among American Friends. It has also provided the challenging opportunity for liberal Friends and evangelical Friends, for North American Friends and African Friends to labor with one another around the same concern.

  • A number of years ago, the monthly meeting I was attending at the time discerned that it would bring the meeting community together in an intergenerational retreat setting. For a number of years after the initial experience, the meeting continued to offer the retreat annually, which allowed the whole of the meeting to see itself with new eyes and without the usual separations that occur during First Days (i.e. adults stay for worship; kids go to First Day School). Adults and children sang together, did crafts projects together, engaged in worship-sharing together. I believe the meeting still seeks opportunities to come together in fellowship as a whole, away from traditional First Day activities.

  • I remember being prodded and moved when I learned that New England Yearly Meeting had come under the weight of the concern to address racism. The minute that the yearly meeting approved mentions a "working party" within the yearly meeting's Ministry & Counsel--which says to me that the yearly meeting has made a commitment to carry this concern for a long time.
  • But what is it about these particular events that lend themselves to large-group action and commitment; to a sense of the meeting that is written in our hearts and brought forward in a living testimony based on the inward motion of the Spirit, rather than allowing the sense of the meeting to be frozen in words that are recorded on a page and placed into an archive somewhere?

    Certainly each of these events required a few dedicated and faithful Friends... but each meeting certainly has some of those, right?

    Certainly each of these events required close and careful listening for the movement of the Spirit and testing of what would be in harmony with bringing about the city of God right here, right now... but each meeting certainly engages in that sort of discernment process, right?

    Or does it?

    So I am left with asking the questions:
  • What does it mean to come under the weight of a concern? How do we help Friends understand what is meant by this concept?

  • How does a meeting or committee come under the weight of a concern? How do we know that's what's happened?

  • If it's "simply" a matter of experiencing the Shepherd's guidance together and then being faithful to following its Voice as a community, then why does it seem so many times we go astray?

  • If a group or meeting affirms that it is under the weight of a concern, how do we hold one another accountable to bearing that burden and participating in relevant activities over time, especially as a faith community?

  • How can a subgroup or a committee or a meeting ask Friends to come under the weight of a concern, especially if a clerk or if another subgroup doesn't see the value of the thing?
  • Somewhere in my heart, I feel I know the answer. Yet I wrestle with how to bring the concern forward of what it means to come under the weight of a concern.

    It's a Catch-22: waiting for others to come under the weight of the concern for how we come under the weight of a concern...

    Thank you, in advance, for helping me consider these questions prayerfully.

    Blessings,
    Liz

    6 comments:

    Mark Wutka said...

    Liz,
    There is a chapter in Brian Drayton's "On Living With a Concern For Gospel Ministry" that talks about "Bearing the Burden of a Concern". It has several examples of Friends feeling "uneasy" when carrying a particular concern. That is what I think of when I hear "coming under the weight of a concern", it is a uneasiness that something isn't right. My understanding is that the uneasiness comes from God's prompting of us.

    Since I believe that the "weight" comes from God, I don't believe that Friends can bring themselves under the weight of a concern, but they can make themselves open and attentive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit - this can often involve releasing one's own tightly-held opinions and being willing to be shown a different path.

    I think you touch on a bigger issue, which is how Friends function (or fail to function) as a faith community. It may be that I hear that issue in your questions because I just finished reading Sandra Cronk's pamphlet on "Gospel Order" (PHP #297), but the worries you express early in your posting sound to me like problems of community. What is the purpose of the faith community? Is it to do good works, or is it to support each other in coming closer to God?

    I'm not sure if I have helped at all or just muddied the waters, but thank you for raising this up and giving us much to reflect on.

    With love,
    Mark

    RichardM said...

    Liz,

    Ideally it works something like this. An individual Friend comes under the weight of a concern as prompted by the Holy Spirit. She is responsive to the concern and takes action. The action could be one that the Friend can take to directly deal with the issue. (e.g. enroll her child in the local Friends school) or one that will require the cooperation of others. Suppose the concern is of that larger nature (e.g. establishing a local Friends school). The appropriate action in such a case is to take this concern to her monthly meeting. After weighing it carefully the larger group comes under the weight of the concern and are in turn lead to take further action. The action of the group can either be to just immediately do something about the issue (e.g. establish a committe to start raising funds to build the school) or to take it to some larger body like the Yearly Meeting. Depending on the size of the action needed the concern travels up a path until it gets to the size group that needs to take practical action.

    This process can go wrong at any step of the way. First, the individual might just be mistaking a personal feeling for a true leading. There are signs of this. Do they adopt a hectoring holier-than-thou tone and imply that Friends who don't immediately drop everything they are doing to devote full time to this issue are being selfish, obtuse, etc.? Or it might go wrong when it gets to a larger body. The Friend, or the committee, will bring the issue forward, heads will nod approvingly, voices will murmur assent, a minute will be approved and then the issue will die. The problem here is that the larger body is not really taking on the concern. They are just going through the motions. If this happens then the individual who is carrying the concern needs to come back to the group and lay out the concern again. There is plenty of precedent for this sort of thing. And a person who is genuinely carrying the weight of a concern will bring it over and over until they no longer feel the weight of the concern. A person with a real concern with be humble but extremely persistent about raising the concern. Failure of the larger group to take it up will not produce an angry reaction (that's a sign that it's really personal) but rather a sense of weariness that this heavy weight is still on the individual Friend's shoulders.

    This is an important issue that more Friends need to be talking about.

    Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

    What does it mean to come under a concern?

    When I came under a concern for the environment, i.e. the natural world, God's creation, in the early 1980s, I sought out a number of my elders both in Intermountain Yearly Meeting and in Pacific Yearly Meeting, and asked this same question.

    Their answers were much like Mark's.

    To be more precise, the answers they gave me all stressed the fact that Friends do not use the word "concern" the way people of the world do. The worldly usage is given by our friends at Merriam-Webster: "concern ... 1 a : marked interestor regard usually arising through a personal tie or relationship b : an uneasy state of blended interest, uncertainty, and apprehension...."

    But "concern" for Friends owes far more to the "burden" of prophecy described by the prophets of Israel and Judah (thus Isaiah 13:1, "The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw," and the similar verses Isaiah 14:28, 15:1, 17:1, 19:1, 21:1,11,13, 22:1, 23:1, 30:6; Ezekiel 12:10, Nahum 1:1, Habakkuk 1:1, Zechariah 9:1, 12:1, and Malachi 1:1.) Such a "burden" involved an issue that the prophet was called to address; as a burden, it weighed on him until at last he was driven to relieve himself by speaking or acting, laying it on others.

    (Modern Bibles generally mistranslate "burden", Hebrew massa, as "oracle" or something equally inappropriate. But any student of Hebrew can tell you that massa referred to a load or burden piled on a beast of burden, or to the similar burden of tribute heaped on an oppressed people by its ruler. The rendering "oracle" is simply due to translators who have no clue as to what the prophets were going through inwardly as the Spirit pressured them.)

    So to come under the weight of a concern is to receive such a burden from the Lord. And to answer your second bulleted question, it doesn't matter whether it's an individual or a committee or meeting; the process is the same in both cases.

    Your third question -- "if it's 'simply' a matter of experiencing the Shepherd's guidance together and then being faithful to following its Voice as a community, then why does it seem so many times we go astray?" -- is, I believe, best answered simply by observing that we humans have limited understanding. It's that limitedness that causes us to err: we misunderstand the situation we're required by the Spirit to address, and so we proceed inappropriately.

    That is precisely why Friends have traditionally "seasoned a concern" by seeking further factual knowledge about the matters involved, and feeling their way deeper and deeper into the moral ins and outs, before they act upon it. For instance, after I shared my concern about the environment with Friends in Pacific Yearly Meeting, they let it season for a year and a quarter before deciding how to respond. Friends in Intermountain Yearly Meeting waited far longer.

    I don't feel that your third bulleted question can be answered in any general way; it depends entirely on the specifics of a situation.

    The answer to your fourth question, at least in my limited personal experience, is that the subgroup has no power of its own; it may preach (hopefully in ways that do not alienate its hearers), and it may lead by example, but ultimately it must wait for the people of the larger group to feel the same truth in their own hearts and consciences. That is certainly what has happened to me, as I have waited for Friends to grasp the message I shared, out of my concern, back in 1985.

    I would add that, in the late 1980s, some Friends perceived me as adopting the sort of "hectoring holier-than-thou tone ... implying that Friends who don't immediately drop everything ... are being selfish, obtuse, etc.", that RichardM refers to, as I said things like, "We need to start work on the greenhouse warming issue and the species-extinction issue now. If we don't see the urgency, perhaps we need to consider the forces that are conditioning us not to see it."

    But of course, the Old Testament prophets too were regarded as hectoring, holier-than-thou, and judgmental, by people who didn't get it, when the prophets said things like, "Assyria is going to come and level this nation and carry the lot of you into captivity, unless you awaken to a perception of the wrongness of your way of life, and reform it."

    There are many Friends who have said, in my hearing, that this sort of tone is a sign that the person is not under a true leading. But having been on the inside of a concern, I must respectfully disagree. Jeremiah was not a false prophet simply because he acted in a way that made his very name a byword for hectoring, holier-than-thou, judgmental diatribes. The weight of a real concern may well require one to do such things. That is precisely why those under a concern suffer so from the weight of it: they don't want to behave in such ways, and yet the Spirit often leaves them with no choice.

    Poor Jonah, driven to march through the streets of Nineveh, calling the inhabitants to repent, like some lunatic! But he had to do as the Spirit commanded. And so, when the Spirit calls, must we.

    Liz Opp said...

    Friends Mark, Richard M, and Marshall -

    I have seen your replies but have not had the time, or more recently the energy, to reply. I've been harangued by a bout of lethargy it seems, and I hope to "snap out of it" soon.

    I hope you'll check back in a few days...

    Blessings,
    Liz

    Anonymous said...

    Liz: This essay, and the comments that ensued, reached me just at the moment I needed it. Presently, I have no words to add to the discussion other than to say thank you (all) for speaking to my condition.

    In the Light,

    Mia

    Liz Opp said...

    Mark - Thank you so very much for reminding me of Brian Drayton's book in general, and of that chapter in particular. And when I saw your mention of Sandra Cronk's pamphlet, I realized I had not yet reordered it, ever since my own copy had gone missing.

    Anyway, there are some parts of Drayton's chapter that do well to address the areas I have had difficulty articulating:

    "[Friends] believed that if a Friend felt a concern to undertake religious service, it might well be God intervening... [Since] Friends believed that the meeting should test to see if this was a true leading or not, the meeting shared the responsibility for the ministry... Woe to the meeting if it blocked the authentic motions of the Spirit!" --p. 133

    And:

    In supporting a Friend who has come under the weight of a concern, it is important to remember "that the Friend and her community had been given a gift, in the form of the concern, and they shared the burden of its right care. This attitude must follow, if we believe in fact that concerns and leadings are the result of God at work in the heart.... [Such hospitality] may primarily rest in one heart, but the whole community should be anxious to care for it." --p. 136

    So with your prompt, Mark, and reflected in Sandra Cronk's words as well, I realize that I am striving to grasp what a spiritually healthy relationship looks like between the Friend (or subgroup) who carries a concern and the meeting who is responsible for care and nurture of its members.

    Clearly there is more for me to hold, digest, and consider.

    Richard -

    While I agree with you about what I think of as the "mechanics" of how a concern is brought to a meeting, and how a meeting might come under the weight of the concern or not, I realize that my questions in the post were misleading: I simply couldn't put my finger on what it was I was wrestling with.

    I wasn't asking about the practical nature of bringing a concern forward, as much as I was seeking to understand the movement of the Spirit, the relationship between the minister and the meeting, the importance of testing a leading... all those "intrinsic" processes that are harder to "see," more difficult to articulate.

    That said, I do appreciate the time you've also taken to offer up how the process might go wrong. ...To paraphrase Sandra Cronk: Ministers need their meetings and meetings need their ministers if indeed we are going to live into a new order, a Gospel Order, together.

    Marshall -

    Indeed, it has taken me a few years to understand that the use of the word "concern" among Friends differs from the secular use of that word.

    And yes, there is something about being given, or having received such a thing from the Spirit--not out of meanness on the part of God, but out of God's own yearning, perhaps, that we become God's hands, God's voice, God's ears and eyes while on this earthwalk and call us into greater Love, greater Care for one another and for the planet.

    Marshall, I also appreciate the experience you bring with having lived with these questions and processes, and your willingness to share them here and on your own blog. And like you, I too believe that Friends must be careful not to judge the authenticity of a leading or concern a specific Friend is carrying, based on how emotional the Friend is when challenged or when told "Not now." All of us, after all, are human, even as we strive to bring out one another's divinity and Light.

    Mia -

    Thanks for dropping by. Part of our testing of things is when we hear from one another, "This spoke to my condition." Often, that is all that needs to be said.

    Blessings,
    Liz