December 18, 2007

You can't stop Christmas (or elders) from coming

Every Who down in Whoville
The tall and the small
Was singing without any presents at all!
He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming.
It came!
Somehow or other it came just the same.

And the Grinch with his Grinch feet, ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling:
"How could it be so?
It came without ribbons!
It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes, or bags!"

--from How the Grinch Stole Christmas
I had a rather obvious-in-hindsight thought the other day, while talking with a Friend about my experience at a recent Quaker event.

Despite the fact that many meetings have stopped using the practice to name, record, or otherwise formally acknowledge Friends who have gifts of ministry and eldership, these gifts still exist among us.

The Spirit moves within our meetings, speaks to our condition, and calls forth from us those gifts that the body of the meeting needs. Such gifts might be to provide a nurturing presence to young children; to maintain accurate financial records; to be available to coordinate visits to Friends who are ill; or to have the temperament and time to work in the kitchen during a busy potluck.

None of these gifts get the flack or attention that gifts of ministry and eldership seem to get from meetings. Then again, many of these other gifts seem to go unacknowledged or are taken for granted, which could be seen as a different sort of flack--the flack of unintended neglect.

Yet the gifts of ministry and eldership, like the gifts of caring for our children and coordinating potlucks, still exist within our meetings--even if we as a body never name them or acknowledge them; even if there is no meeting of ministers and elders to be convened or if a meeting doesn't craft a letter of introduction for a Friend who travels beyond the meeting in service to the Spirit.

A number of Liberal Friends meetings and others have done away with recording of elders, ministers, and overseers. Yet Friends with vocal gifts, gifts of counsel, and gifts of expressing care for one another, coupled with the yearning to be obedient to how the God calls us, will strive to be faithful to the leadings of the Spirit, not to how meetings do or don't affirm one another.

And yes, all gifts are equal in terms of importance to bringing about the Kin(g)dom of God, but all gifts are not identical. So it is that each gift requires a different sort of support, a different sort of care and accountability, in order to ensure that the gifts are being put to right use.

Even without formal acknowledgment, the support of care-and-accountability committees*, or informal appreciation, all the gifts of First Day School teachers, pastoral caregivers, childcare providers, treasurers, elders, ministers, and cooks will still come into service to the meeting community and to the Living God:
We will come without ribbons
We will come without tags
We will come without packages, boxes or bags!

*FGC calls these committees anchor committees.


Anonymous said...

I brought to our Meeting in Asheville, NC an old poem that I found among the diaries of elderly aunt. I posted it via magnet, on the fridge. Someone took it down and had it calligraphied and framed - to smile down at the kitchen sink.

It reads:
God of all pots and pans and things
Since I could not be a saint
In doing lovely things
Or wandering late with thee
Or dreaming in the dawnlight
or Storming Heaven's gates
Make me a saint
By getting meals
Or washing up the plates

Although I have a Martha's hands
I have a Mary ming
And when I black the boots and shoes
Thy sandals, Lord, I find

I think of how they trod the earth
What time I scrub the floor

Accept this meditation, Lord
I haven't time for more

Anonymous said...

Nice, Liz. It occurs to me that part of the reluctance to acknowledge each other's gifts - especially gifts connected to ministry or eldering - comes from a deep yet recent aversion to authority, authority which is expressed in human terms and in real-life situations. Unprogrammed Quakers tend to practice what I have come to call "hyper-egalitarianism", in which there can be no one person vested with any authority, even if that authority is expressed gently and lovingly (the occasional gifted clerk not withstanding). An elder or a minister is a person who might rise within a meeting and say something along the lines of "Come with me!" or "This isn't right!" I long for a society in which we re-discover the way to identify Friends in our midst with gifts sufficient to guide and correct us.

RichardM said...

Another part of the reluctance of meetings to recognize gifts of ministry and eldering comes from loss of experience with these gifts. A meeting in gospel order will have the experience of one generation handed smoothly down to the next. A person who has a gift that is still undeveloped will be able to see that gift fully developed and in use by seasoned ministers and elders. The seasoned ministers and elders will see and recognize the developing gift and will offer support, advice and encouragement. And in addition there will be stories. People within the meeting will tell stories of ministers and elders who have died. These stories will help preserve the communal memory of how to do these things correctly.

When there are meetings whose communal memory of the line of elders and ministers has been broken then it becomes much harder to figure it all out again. One can read books about it but books do not carry the real full-blooded sense of how these things are done. Ideally ministering and eldering is a kind of apprenticeship from which you learn by observing those who have mastered the craft. Thankfully these traditions have not completely died out within Quakerism. It is our job in this generation to take the little first hand knowledge of these things we still possess and share it around so that we can rekindle it within those parts of the RSOF where it has temporarily been lost.

Liz in the Mist said...

Just stopping by to wish you Happy Holidays! :)

leftistquaker said...

Hi Liz,

This is my first comment on your blog. Our meeting laid down its ministry and counsel cmte. and created two committees; pastoral care cmte. and worship and spiritual life cmte. After two years of trying to make this new division of labor work, we recombined them this fall and as a former W&SL member, I am now on the reformed M&C. Just so you get my context.

During this first cmte. session, the clerk commented "we aren't special people" as members of this cmte. I had something inside me say, "no, but..." The best I could do to speak that "but" was to say that what we are doing and the needs of the meeting are special and we are holding the meeting in a way that those outside the cmte. do not. I know that I will never think of the meeting the same way after this experience. And we've only met once! It is changing me.

I am still not ready to call myself an elder, and my former experience in top-down churches gives me worries about becoming an elder. At the very least, I'd like a different term, like "caregiver."

Peace! Charley

Liz Opp said...

Elizabeth -

Thanks for stopping by and for sharing the poem you had come across. It does make a person smile, doesn't it?!

Ben Lloyd -

Nice to see your comment here! To be fair to unprogrammed Quakers, I see the "aversion to authority" more pronounced among some Liberal Friends than among some Conservative Friends.

Then again, I've had far more experience with the former than the latter.

On a (perhaps) related note, I have experienced Conservative Quakers as being more ready and able to set limits and boundaries around what is or isn't appropriate for Friends, yet many Liberal Friends seem very reluctant to do so.

For example, although I have affinity for Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative Friends and have attended 3 consecutive annual sessions, when I asked about having access to the online (approved) revisions for its new book of discipline, I was told it wasn't appropriate for me, since I am not a member of IYMC.

I didn't take any offense but I have heard and seen Liberal Friends take offense when other limits or boundaries have been lifted up--around how weddings might be conducted, for example.

Still, there seems to be a growing number of Friends who are being more vocal about asking for guidance from elders and from those who have such gifts.

RichardM -

I unite with the description you offer here, about how certain elements of our faith tradition are passed along from one generation to the next.

I continue to encourage Friends to draw on one another--especially from outside of our own monthly and yearly meetings--to learn about the deep, vibrant, and rigorous Quakerism that still exists in pockets and regions around the country, if not the globe!

Lovin' Life Liz -

So glad you stopped by to say hello... Happy holidays backatcha.

Charley -

Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experience.

The monthly meeting where I am continues to touch on the idea of splitting its Ministry & Counsel into a similar two-headed body, but there is great resistance: I worry that it's because we are too settled in our own "good thinking," and we mistakenly give more weight to the perceived truth of our thoughts than to the Living Truth of any experience we might have.

Also, it's been my experience among Liberal Friends that service on M&C is a responsibility that often is shared among members in the meeting, not always based on or connected with a member's gifts--and repeated terms of service, whether or not a Friend has a gift of eldership/oversight, is frowned upon.

As to the other part of your thoughtful comment, I agree that those Friends who serve on any committee aren't necessarily "special people," though committee members do in fact offer a particular service to the meeting--and to God; and, like what you hint at, I would say there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that.

Thanks again for the comment.


Anonymous said...

In our North Carolina conservative meeting the idea that there are limits and restrictions is still alive and strong. For example, one shouldn't just say whatever pops into your head or give reflections on something you've just read about and call that vocal ministry. We do have a sense of what vocal ministry really is and there is some effort to stick to it.

We produced a little publication on this topic a couple of years back and I still have copies here. If anyone wants me to mail them a copy of "On Vocal Ministry" just let me know.