May 2, 2010

Dirty Words in Modern-Day Quakerism

Yesterday I convened a small group of Friends for the first workshop in a series to raise money to bring notable Quaker presenters to the midwest. The workshop was called Dirty Words in Modern-Day Quakerism and was intended to identify words and practices that seem to be dismissed or underappreciated by Friends today.

The challenge for me as the facilitator was to create a process that would allow participants to reflect on why certain Quaker terms, concepts, or practices left a bad taste in their mouth and then move them towards considering those same things in a new light.

To start us off, after opening worship and introductions, we spent some time talking initially about how the meanings of words change over time in the first place. I broke it down into four steps:

NAME - the word itself, usually with a neutral meaning or positive intention.

STAIN - a distorted understanding or a negative meaning is attached to the word, usually the result of power, schisms, stereotypes, pain, etc.

REFRAME - a new or renewed understanding is attached to the word. Often the negative meaning is removed and substituted with something neutral or positive.

RECLAIM - the new/renewed understanding is integrated into language, behaviors, attitudes, etc. and there is a reengagement of the original word.

Then I read aloud a list of Quaker-related terms, a good many of which are also steeped in the Christian tradition. I asked Friends to identify one or two words from that list which repulsed them. After sharing those words, and before we got into any discussion about the "stain" or personal baggage that led to their rejection, I asked Friends to pair up and focus on one of the words that had been raised. Each pair then worked together to come up with as neutral a definition as possible about that word. In the remaining time, the pairs talked with each other about what had happened in their life that wrought some negativity to the word or that led them to reject it.

Back in the large group, each pair shared the definition for the word they had worked with, along with why the word had become "stained" for them: corporate, salvation, perfection, authority, etc. I think people appreciated having the chance to say some of these pieces aloud and be witnessed in their discomfort and pain around them.

Immediately after that sharing, I asked the pairs to reconvene themselves and spend some time in worship around the word they had worked with, allowing the Light and the Spirit to work on their hearts and to listen and watch for what maybe was the original meaning of the word--the meaning that existed before the stain had occurred, before any personal baggage had attached itself to the word...

And then I asked them, in their pairs, to rewrite the definition.

When we came back to the group, we shared that new understanding--that reframe--and had a conversation about the insights that such a simple exercise had provided. We drifted into looking at other words and topics, too: discipline, evangelize, obedience...

I'll have to revise the list if I offer the workshop again. Other words that we mentioned that aren't currently there are: sin, fundamentalist, and Liberal Friend.

Over the course of the day, we talked about the in-creeping of the secular world into our faith tradition, which also contributes to the staining of certain Quaker concepts. And we reflected a bit on how much to "explain" to other Friends what we mean as we ourselves reclaim some of this language while other Friends are still repelled by it.

In turn, that led to a short conversation about our spiritual development as Friends and how many of us are moving from being a "spiritual refugee"--running from a religious tradition--to being a "spiritual citizen"--consciously moving into, adopting, and integrating a new faith tradition for ourselves.

Towards the end, I spoke a bit more about the subtle difference I've experienced between reframing and reclaiming the words and practices that I had discarded; and we looked again at the list of "words that may cause unease," this time allowing for a Q and A session in case there were words that Friends weren't familiar with in the Quaker vernacular--which there were!

Given that I continue to carry a concern for how we convey our faith to one another and what it is that sustains us in our faith, I felt this was a good next step toward deepening our corporate understanding of Quakerism. Each of the participants mentioned that they had gotten something useful out of our time together, for which I'm glad.

Next up is in two weeks, another workshop for the Seed Series, called Fear Factor: Getting Out of Our Own Way. I've barely begun to think about the sorts of activities and handouts to use but I'm looking forward to what develops!


P.S. These workshops and the work I'm doing to coordinate local and regional presentations is a growing part of what I am calling my work as a Quaker resource coordinator in the midwestern United States. I'd love to hear from you if you want to offer a workshop in this part of the country or if you have ideas of who I can invite here for a presentation.


choirqueer said...

Looking over that list of terms, I found that the word I felt the strongest charge with was not on the list -- it was the word "stain"! I didn't grow up Quaker or Christian, so the words commonly associated with negativity for folks of those traditions didn't resonate so strongly with me, but I can definitely feel that kind of energy with the word "stain", a word that I associate with shame, damage, upset, hurt, ruinedness...even though the thing that got stained probably is still a perfectly useful shirt or carpet or tablecloth, we are ashamed of it and want to clean it up or hide it away or throw it out. But the only way to keep something from ever getting stained is to never use it at all. A shirt with a stain is still a useful shirt if you continue wearing it, but a shirt that never comes off the hanger is no use at all!

So, I am very glad to see you taking these stained words out of the closet (so to speak!) and inviting people to try them on and see if they are still useful!

Robin M. said...

I'm currently wrestling with the word 'holiness'. Which has a beautiful dictionary definition and a really bad reputation among religious people from a variety of backgrounds. I'm wondering how to reframe or reclaim it for its original purpose.

R said...

Sounds like a wonderful workshop. I'd like to try to replicate it for my meeting in Virginia.

Eileen Flanagan said...

Wonderful exercise. I especially like the idea of moving out of refugee mindset, which I think is a real problem for Friends, at least in my neck of the woods.

Michael Bischoff said...

Thanks for this report, Liz. I've been eager to hear how the day went. I'm grateful for how the Spirit is working in you and the group who was there.

Liz Opp said...

Oliver Danni -

Hi there! Thanks for your comment... I like the simple truth you present that "the thing that got stained probably is still... perfectly useful..."

Also, like you, I didn't grow up Christian, and I can now see how that's probably helped me avoid a lot of baggage or personal history that other Friends may have to work through. Or at the very least, my baggage is "different"...

Robin -

I want to encourage you in your wrestling! One thing I explained to the group during the workshop is that I need others to bring to the table their own L/light, since I'm not necessarily strong in Quaker history or biography.

On the other hand, I see you've already written quite a bit about the holiness movement and what might be a sort of contemporary counterpart to it...

During the workshop, we often looked up words and concepts in the book A to Z of the Friends. It has a 1-1/2-page entry, and the two pieces within the entry that strike me, given what you've written about over the years, are:

(1) a mention of Hannah Whitall Smith as one of the early Friends who influenced the movement, and

(2) how the movement "began as a unifying and ecumenical force for renewal within a broad spectrum of churches" (p. 135).

I have to go back to your post and read through it again, along with the comments...

Rosemary -

I hope you'll report back here if you use a similar exercise with your meeting. Thanks for your comment.

Eileen and Michael -

Thanks for your comments too. I've been thinking of you both, for very different reasons, so it's nice to see you here.

And yes, Eileen, I think since many convinced Friends or long-time attenders find resonance with and may even apply the phrase "spiritual refugee" to themselves, it indicates that some of us may be resting in our spiritual comfort zone longer than what God had intended...


R said...

Thanks, Liz. I will report back. I'm clerk of our program committee and I'm going to suggest a discussion next year on this and try to follow your process as well as we can. Btw, I was inspired by your blog to start a discussion about language on Quaker Quaker if you're interested. There have been some wonderful responses. I'm new to the blogosphere, and I'm really learning a lot!

R said...

It occurs to me that I ought to ask your permission to use your idea. Sorry I didn't think of that from the beginning! How would you like to proceed, if at all?

Liz Opp said...

Rosemary, how about you email me at lizopp AT gmail DOT com? Given my current obligations, it will be easier for me to be in touch that way for the time being. Thanks for your interest and your care!


Liz Opp said...
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Hystery said...

Liz, this sounds like such a fruitful exercise. When I first began attending my meeting I used the term "obedience" and wow, did that get a chilly response from others! I'm looking forward to sharing some of your ideas with Friends in my meeting. These kinds of conversations can help us understand our reactions to words and help us listen to each other deeply rather than defensively. Thanks for your work.

Liz Opp said...

Good to hear from you, Hystery.

I think taking up these conversations--and reincorporating some of this language--is made easier or less scary when we know that others are doing so as well, especially when it is done out of a yearning to be faithful, out of a practice of being low, and out of a willingness to love those who may question our use of the language!