March 4, 2013

Dominoes, Matthew 18, and healing as a worship community

Part of my continued absence from the Quaker blogosphere is that my worship community is in need of healing. Like other, more established Quaker meetings, the community can be fragmented when one or more Friends interpret something that's happened as a betrayal, while other Friends interpret "the same something" as acceptable, not problematic, or something that doesn't warrant attention at all.

The sense of betrayal or the experience of sudden disillusionment can be the result of the meeting's taking a stance on practical matters, like how to prioritize its funds--"We should give money to non-profits that are doing important work" vs. "We need to spend money on maintaining the building so we can continue doing important work."

But more often, the feeling of being let down--hard--is the result of some spiritual matter gone awry, especially when it relates to the condition or the implicit sense of covenant community, such as when to set a limit with a visitor who speaks frequently during worship against an historically oppressed group--"We affirm GLBTQ people and we need to prevent this Friend from attending worship because she is saying hurtful and hateful things against them, making our community unsafe" vs. "We affirm that there is that of God in everyone, so how can we obstruct that person from worshiping among us?" is an example I witnessed personally quite a few years ago.

Such conflict and potential schism seem to be the result of two conflicting principles or practices. If we are not careful, we may end up knowingly or not, unintentionally or not, taking sides.

What is more helpful, I have found, is to be disciplined, patient, and even willing--or, just as important, willing to be willing--to live into the discomfort of being caught in the pull between the two.

We must be humble enough to recognize when we don't know and can't know what is needed...

My experience has been that when a critical mass of Friends in the worship community encourage one another to "be cool in [their] own mind" and to "wait in the Light," a third way eventually presents itself. Or sometimes just naming the tension and making explicit the two (or more) things that are vying for our "vote" also makes the tension and conflict easier to bear.

But still, we are human, and not everyone has the capacity to bear that tension and conflict for long. Sometimes, Friends have to step away from the community, maybe for a short break, maybe forever.

Quite some time ago, Friends General Conference published a pamphlet initially titled The Wounded Meeting. It has since been retitled Dealing with Difficult Behavior in Meeting for Worship, more accurately reflecting the pamphlet's content.

That pamphlet was one attempt to provide ideas and options on how meetings might address disruptive behavior--though specifically behavior that might arise during worship. Of course, things happen outside of Meeting for Worship too, and the need for reconciliation and healing is sometimes the result of something that impacts and tears the fabric of the community and the connection among Friends.

Not only that, but also the community has its immediate response to the initial situation, and then there might be a decision made because of that initial response that others then, in turn, respond to. It's like dominoes that topple one on top of another, and we might often feel helpless or horrified as things go from bad to worse. All the more reason to go as slowly as possible...

A recent pamphlet, Matthew 18: Wisdom for Living in Community, looks at the process that is outlined in Matthew 18, puts it in Quaker context, and applies Jesus' advice more broadly than just to what might occur in worship. I've begun reading it and am struck by a number of passages, as well as how frequently authors Connie McPeak Green and Marty Grundy refer to the need for humility, a willingness to be vulnerable.

When there's a tear in our community's social and spiritual fabric, we have to address it. Sometimes addressing it means having 1-to-1 conversations; or a called session; or a set of new policies or explicitly stated expectations; or a meeting for worship for healing; or a combination of all these things; or something else entirely. Some Friends don't want to see new limits put into place; other Friends need those new limits in order to re-establish trust.

And sometimes, we are given Grace and we find our way through the eye of the needle. (I realize I'm mixing metaphors; so be it.)

The work of healing and repairing relationships is messy. It's painful. But when done with much care, it also helps us grow in our capacity to love one another. Connie McPeak Green's and Marty Grundy's pamphlet speaks to this.

Here are a few things that I currently have in my personal Toolbox for Healing, given my own experiences. Some of these might overlap with the Matthew 18 pamphlet, I suppose:

1. Accept the feelings I have, and acknowledge the feelings that others have, too. We can have different feelings at the same time, and no single feeling is more right or better than any other.

2. Seek pieces of the Truth that exist in the stories and experiences of the person(s) who see things differently from how I do. This is different from seeking common ground. We all have a need to be validated for what we experience, and it's a gift I can give to the person with whom I'm laboring if I can put aside my own desire to be "right" and affirm the piece of Truth that exists in the other person's perspective, perception, and experience.

3. Allow for multiple truths to co-exist, even when my logical mind tells me they can't. Lean into the cognitive dissonance that these multiple, co-existing truths evoke.

4. Worship often, and hold the community, myself, and the other people involved in the Light, especially those with whom I disagree.

5. Stay connected as best I can, even though it's hard. Send a brief message that says, at the very least, "I care about what's happened and I'm not in a place yet to talk about it."

6. Ask the people who are hurting what they think might help... and then be ready to provide at least the smallest, most significant portion of it in order to rebuild trust.  This may require some negotiating, if a request is clearly unreasonable. But I need to be low enough to let go of my assumption that I know what is or isn't unreasonable.

7. Ask God to show how I have been unhelpful or have unknowingly carried out harm to others in the situation. Ask God to show me those items in the most gentle way possible. Connie and Marty in their pamphlet take a long look at the phrase "stumbling block" that appears in some translations of Matthew 18.

8. Discipline myself from gossiping, casting blame, sharing someone else's version of what happened. Discipline myself to let the Spirit exercise my own self by saying less and by listening inwardly more.

What's in your own toolbox or that of your spiritual community? What tools have you discarded? What tools do you draw on regularly?

How has your meeting or worship community successfully navigated a potential division or rift? What stories of the Way opening can you share?



Treasuring one another through difficulty
Qualities of a Quaker worship community