May 26, 2008

Northern Yearly Meeting sessions

In recent years as Memorial Day weekend has rolled around, I often debate with myself if I will travel to the annual sessions of Northern Yearly Meeting (NYM). The points of debate are predictable in my case.

PRO: The site for sessions is beautiful and relaxing.
CON: Three times out of four, the weather is lousy.
PRO: The yearly meeting inevitably addresses a wide variety of concerns that, at first blush, interest me.
CON: I tend to let my buttons get pushed, especially during the sessions for Meeting for Worship with attention to Business.
PRO: There are opportunities to worship with Friends whom I cherish.
CON: Worship isn't always central to the sessions, given the competing needs of young families, a growing adult young Friends group, and a desire by many for a relaxed and fun holiday weekend.
This year, after my partner and I learned that one of our dearest fFriends was going to attend, even though he currently lives out of state and his wife is dying, we decided to make the trip.

In preparation, I made a commitment to three things:

1. I gave myself permission to walk away from a business session if I felt my frustration or concern for how things were going would rise excessively. It's often been a hard line for me to walk, the line between yielding to the corporate desire of the group--including "business norms" it has adapted--and speaking up if I feel we as a group are going astray in our corporate discernment process.

2. I decided to use yearly meeting as a place and time to focus on connecting with fFriends whom I seldom see and with whom I share a rich spiritual fellowship. There were conversations I had begun in months or even years past, and I wanted very much to continue them.

3. When it came to workshops and interest groups, I would borrow the technique that an Iowa Friend uses and had shared with me early this year: I would go to the workshop that had a topic about which I was most eager to hear from others, and worry less about what I myself might be able to offer the discussion.

In the end, I had a pretty good time at the sessions overall.

For one thing, I participated in a workshop that allowed Friends to share the leadings they had been given and the extent to which they felt supported by their monthly meetings. The workshop wasn't necessarily billed as that to begin with, but by the end, we were wondering aloud about the possibility of intervisitation as a way to teach meetings about leadings and ongoing care-and-accountability committees.

Also, one of the evening plenaries consisted of a panel of Friends who were invited to speak about the leadings they had come into and what they were doing about them. Following the remarks by the panelists, all of us got into small groups and considered a few basic questions, which went something like this:
Have you ever experienced a leading? How did you know?

Did you have support from the meeting? What was that like?

How did it go?
After about 30-40 minutes, we came back into a large group and were asked to share what had come up. Our observations and musings were very similar:
It seems a leading can be either like a kick in the pants, all of a sudden; or it can be like ripples on a lake after a pebble has been tossed into it, moving outward very, very slowly.

We weren't sure how to know what a leading was.

Some leadings brought results that we could see or otherwise experience. Other leadings seemed like they would do nothing or had no clear purpose, at least not in our lifetime, but it was still important to abide by the leading nevertheless.
As the sharing continued, I felt us move into that rare corporate experience of a gathered meeting. We were brought together in our consideration, and there was a sense of the Spirit "over all."

It wasn't until the afternoon of my last day at the sessions that I realized I had yet to participate in a full hour of waiting worship. I asked around to find out if I had missed something--maybe there was a Meeting for Worship that first night, when I was engaged in catching up with fFriends from out of town...? No, I was told, that first night was an intergenerational activity that had started once enough people were gathered.

I looked at the schedule for sessions. I noted that there was an hour of worship scheduled each day--at 6:30 a.m. I also saw that the second day included an all-gathering worship, though it turned out that the first half was a programmed worship led by visiting Friends from El Salvador Yearly Meeting, followed by a half hour or so of open worship--after the children and youth had left. And the third day--which was First Day--included another opportunity for worship, though it was dedicated to Meeting for Worship for Memorials.

As I was walking to worship on First Day with a memorial minute in my hand to present, I overheard two kids talking to each other as they were walking to the building. The first one asked his buddy, "Where are we going, why are going here?" The second one replied, "It's First Day and there's Meeting for Worship!"

At first I took heart at their awareness of what First Day and Meeting for Worship typically mean... but I didn't see these young Friends hang around when worship got underway, and there were no "junior meeting" groups there at all.

The realization that the centrality of open worship didn't seem to exist at this year's sessions caught my attention, and that realization came on the heels of another Friend having said to me, "Liz, you're active in the yearly meeting, right? What else are you involved in during annual sessions?"

The fact is, I haven't been involved and I have felt no opening or nudge to be active--and that was cause of concern enough for me to seek out a member of the Ministry & Nurture Committee to talk about my lack of earnestness to participate in NYM.

The M&N member and I had a nice conversation: she did well to hear me out and make sure she was understanding my concerns, both about what seems to be a falling away from the central place of worship at the yearly meeting, and about my own uncertainty as to the place of the individual in relation to the corporate body when it comes to a Quaker body as liberal as this one.

Anyway, there were still some items to address within the remaining business session on the final day, but we were headed home by then. What surprises me, though, is how at peace I feel now that I'm home... Perhaps because I didn't expect or insist on a very God-based experience, which brings up sadness in me alongside the sense of peace. But also perhaps because I had set aside time for conversation, so I felt a bit more cared for this year than in previous years.

And now it's onto the rest of the summer.



Anonymous said...


This is a wonderful and rich account of your time at NYM, and actually jives with a conversation I was having this past Sunday with a fFriend about the "purpose" of the summer gatherings of YM as a whole (we were talking about New York Yearly Meeting specifically). So your post has more or less continued that conversation for me. Thank you.


Mark Wutka said...

Thanks very much for posting this! I occasionally go through similar things with my YM (SAYMA). Our outgoing clerk has worked very hard at trying to improve the business meetings, and also to question the purpose of the yearly meeting itself. While there may be things that frustrate me about my yearly meeting, I feel great joy at just seeing other folks from SAYMA - many of whom I only see at the annual gathering. Heh.. just thinking about it makes me eager to be there.

I am looking forward to seeing you at the NCYM-C annual gathering. In my 2 previous visits I have found it to be very deep, and just what I would want a yearly meeting to be. I hope you find it so as well!

With love,