February 13, 2010

Worship, community service, and a meeting's identity

At Meeting for Worship with attention to Business today--at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday, an experiment that we as a meeting are engaged in--a Friend reflected on the dualism that Quakers are about two things: worship and service.

There is a balance to be struck between the two. If we worship for too long without taking ourselves out of our meetinghouses, we cannot do God's work in the world. If we only participate in acts of service, we potentially exhaust ourselves and risk losing our spiritual grounding and connection to the Inward Teacher, the Inner Light.

The comment about worship and service was made when Nominating Committee asked us to reflect on what it's been like since we as a meeting have gone without an active Community Service Committee and without an active Peace and Social Action Committee for a few years.

Friends spoke about a couple of larger projects that we no longer participate in because of the lack of logistical support that the committees used to provide. Other Friends spoke about the good works and steady witness provided by individuals in the meeting--Joe Friend attends peace vigils regularly; Lisa Friend writes letters to elected officials; Chris Friend drops off food at the local food pantry; Annie Friend every once in a while helps out with feeding people who are homeless.

After several minutes, I was stirred to bring up a different point, though we were asked to move on to consider other business.

What I see is that if we are to revive either the Peace and Social Action Committee or the Community Service Committee, then we must be willing to step into and work to sustain a new identity for ourselves, as a meeting--an identity that says We care about the communities in which we live and worship; we are witnessing to the world a way of peace and love; and we will not tolerate injustice.

It would be a tremendous experiment, and it would take time, effort, and commitment--not by a committee but from the corporate body.

Then again, it was a risky experiment to hold Meeting for Worship for Business on a Saturday morning, after decades of conducting business on First Day afternoons or on a weekday evening. Though many Friends suspected that the turn-out would be small and inconsequential, there were in fact more Friends there this morning than there have been in a good many years.

The clerk said to me during the break, "I think our energy is better in the morning, and that is helping us tend to business." I agreed with him. After the initial worry passed of how tired or small in number we'd be, we seemed to settle well and remained grounded for much of the morning.

Could we actually embrace, as a meeting, the "new way of doing business"--or at least the new time?

This is a question very similar to what I felt we were being asked by Nominating Committee:

    Could we see ourselves, as a meeting, engaging in new or revived forms of service? Could we knit ourselves together in the name of lifting others up? Could we shift our energy away from the meeting activities and family busyness in which we are typically involved in order to make ourselves available to a different Purpose?
Still, something troubled me.

Another Friend offered a question--or at least this is the question that I heard, even if it wasn't the question that the Friend stated: What about the committees that Friends are currently serving on? What if we need those gifts on those committees at this time?

Yes, well...

If we are going to shift the balance from worship and inward service (e.g. committees) to witness and outward service (e.g. community), then we are going to have to be willing to use our "discretionary time" differently. We are going to have to be willing to have smaller or fewer committees, to do fewer social activities within meeting, and perhaps to do fewer social activities outside of meeting.

When I say "we," I don't mean the Friends in the meeting we know who always show up at political events or at peace marches. I mean the Friends who talk about how important it is to engage in service or to have a peace witness--and that has included Your Truly--and we need to hold ourselves accountable to talk less and walk-the-talk, walk the walk more.

That's where the corporate life of the Quaker community comes in. I have been helped to step outside of myself and move beyond my comfort zone by those with whom I worship. They have invited me to participate in an activity that otherwise would intimidate me; they have been there for me, spiritually holding my hand.

I've gone to another faith community's open house and I've visited in the hospital someone who was barely an acquaintance. And when I've felt vulnerable or unsafe or uneasy in those circumstances, I was able to share that openly with my fellow worshipers. I could keep on the path, putting one foot in front of the other.

We need each other. We need to invite one another and encourage one another to "do the thing we think we cannot do." We need to work with one another as we grow into our new possibility, shed our previous identity, and explore our new identity as a faith community, as a worship group, as a meeting.


P.S. For a post that touches on a similar theme, read Mary Linda's My discomfort is my lack of discomfort.


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Mary Ellen said...

Liz, thanks so much for these reflection. I am hopeful that others in the community are feeling some new possibilities stirring as well.

forrest said...

>we will not tolerate injustice.

Oy vey! God hsrself tolerates injustice! I don't think God likes injustice, but hse can live with it (like putting up with dirty diapers until the kids learn how to use the potty?)

If I myself were injustice-intolerant? I'd need to take so much antihistamine I wouldn't have room for nourishment!

It's made me a trifle nuts, but I've had to recognize that injustice must serve some purpose-- or God, in fact, would not tolerate it for a moment. Yes, we should certainly do all we know to eliminate it, but--

I don't know if you've noticed, but the amount of injustice in the world is literally overwhelming, and the main reason most of it persists is: People like it! Oh, they suffer horribly from it, but they're meanwhile convinced that it's the only thing keeping them alive and happy; they may agree with us about Injustice in principle, but they don't want to hear nuthin bad about all the specific little injustices they've been taught to cherish, about the whole system of injustice they've been convinced is entirely right, just and good for everyone!

I think much of the reason those committees are languishing... on some unconscious level, we all realize what we're faced with. We know we can't overcome it; but we haven't been able to consciously accept how very bad it is. We won't scare this dragon away with our firecrackers; it's going to take some serious prayers to know where to start...

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for the comments... I want to respond specifically to Forrest -

You and I are not far apart in what we are saying.

In the post, I emphasize that the meeting must be willing to step into and claim for itself an identity, an identity that includes a firm stance against both injustice and tolerating injustice.

In no way am I saying that as a meeting we're there. In fact, I'm saying the opposite: that as a meeting, we are not ready to affirm such a thing, let alone act on it!

I would also say that when my own eyes have been opened--to my internalized racism/classism/superiority--I have in fact been able to tolerate far less oppression than I used to.

Do I perfectly witness against injustice? No, I have plenty of failings.

But my identity is now based on being a person who strives to call out and heal racism, classism, and other oppression--at the very least within my own circle of influence.

If we never confront injustice, we will never know God's kin(g)dom.