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


Marshall Massey said...

Would Jesus “prevent this friend from attending worship”, or would Jesus minister to the person, calling her/him to a higher understanding? Would Jesus support people who want to say who can worship and who cannot, or would he minister to them as well?

It seems to me (and please correct me if I am wrong) that I am hearing a lot of political correctness. There is nothing necessarily wrong with political correctness, but I believe that Quakerism operates, not by enforcement of political correctness, but by nourishing the principles of the Kingdom in the hearts of women and men.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall, thanks for the comment.

I would agree that a desire for "political correctness" often interferes with our ability to "nourish the principles of the Kingdom...," including our ability to minister to one another.

Very well put, and so I now think of another "tool" to add to the above list:

9. Seek opportunities to minister, lovingly and faithfully; and be open to the Spirit when I am being ministered to.


Robin M. said...

I don't know where this falls in terms of tools, but sometimes people haven't healed from some previous hurt or series of hurts that make them unable to cope "reasonably" with the current situation. And the well-meaning but insufficient people at the Quaker meeting are not in a position to do anything about that. In this case, sometimes the best response is to try to prevent them from hurting other people while they are still being unreasonable. Which can either look like telling people they can't come back or staying close in a small group, but not allowing the hurtful behaviour to go on in the main meeting for worship, etc. But this is really hard, especially with people you don't already know and care about and understand. And it requires tremendous emotional strength, which we don't all have, and is especially hard in a small meeting.

I hope your worship community finds healing soon.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for taking the time to join the conversation, Robin. Great to hear from you on this topic.

You are right that "the well-meaning but insufficient people at the Quaker meeting are not in a position to do anything.... [Sometimes] the best response is to try to prevent them from hurting other people..."

At the same time, too often it seems to me, we forget that we are also able to say, "Well, among us, we may not have the resources to right this concern... but we will reach out to others for help and guidance while we continue to companion and encourage one another."

In fact, that is currently where my worship community finds itself. It's a struggle; it's our journey...


Anonymous said...

It is so hard, when feelings run strong, to remember that we gather as a community to listen to the Spirit within us all, not to share opinions and ideas. Granted that I, as a fallible human being, find it impossible to communicate that of God within me without putting it through my own filters of experience and capabilities. Needing forbearance for this, I offer the same to those around me. It is rare, in the 40+ years that I've been among Friends, to find that someone is so difficult that the meeting has to tell them to shut up. I've only seen it once that I can recall. For meetings that are more individualistic than community-minded, this is very hard. For communities that don't have elders whose special care is the vitality of the Meeting for Worship, they may also struggle with finding a way to address these difficulties. It can be done. This is more common in my experience than out-and-out muffling someone.

Narcotics Anonymous faces similar problems at times, with the additional complication that they are there to save lives, not just souls. (smile) They have a booklet on "Disruptive and Violent People" or something to that effect which contains much that would be helpful in the situations you describe. We should not hesitate to look elsewhere for valuable resources.

I recently had to make a decision to transfer from one meeting to another, not because of someone being gagged, but because the process of discernment in Meeting for Business was so dysfunctional that my need for spiritual nurture could not be met. Not the same situation as you describe, but I know something of the pain that wells up when a Meeting is face to face with brokenness. I still attend that Meeting regularly, still love the members, but find that I am receiving something I sorely missed in the new meeting to which I have transferred. Thank God I had such an option.

Bill Samuel said...

Robin makes a good point about the impact of past hurts. In fact, when a situation becomes critically difficult, I think almost always one would find that at least one of the principal actors in the conflict is being significantly affected by past hurts.

Her solution is less than ideal. The Meeting should seek to offer help in healing past hurts. Theophostic Prayer Ministry would be one way to provide such help.

Liz Opp said...

It's now early in Fifth Month and I just came across your comments! So sorry for having missed them earlier.

First, Letters From the Street - Thanks for suggesting the NA booklet; I'll see about looking into it. And the more I am sitting with the situation, the more I agree that "we should not hesitate to look elsewhere for valuable resources."

...I do worry that many Quakers and our meetings wrongly believe (or are told) that all we have to do is continue to worship--or, to worship and thresh--and we will figure it out. "In case of emergency, be quiet" doesn't work when Friends are hurting. We need to be humble enough to say to one another, "We don't know where to go from here, but we'll ask around until we can put our fingers on some resources."

Bill - Thanks for reiterating what Robin said, which alludes to the previous commenter, about how our own "filters" are affected by our past experiences. Who was it who said, "The water tastes of the pipes"....? (It seems to be attributed to Friend Henry Wilbur.)