April 5, 2006

Midyear Meeting at Iowa Conservative

It's been several days since my return from Midyear Meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)'s day-and-a-half program of worship, fellowship, presentation, singing, and a teeny bit of business.

It has taken me some time to carve out the space to write about my experience: The "splat" of the larger world hitting against my spiritual windshield after immersing myself in such a lovely time of refreshment and nurture is a bit of a shock to my system. I needed some time to recalibrate my inward grounding. Something like that.

Being Yoked Together: The bench and the chair

For some time now, I've been struggling with how to articulate the corporate nature of Quakerism. I was hopeful that speaker Deborah Fisch would refer to corporate and individual experiences among Friends, and as I suspected, her ministry came in the form of stories drawn from her own experience. One such story gave me pause...

Deborah shared an experience she had had in Paullina Meeting, where every year the whole of meeting came together to harvest corn, shuck it, remove the kernels from the cob, take the corn to the mill, grind it... and eventually bake cornbread for the surrounding community as a fundraiser.

(You can read a bit about Corn Bread Day if you look for the heading "Paullina Monthly Meeting to host...," about halfway down the page.)

Though the tradition of Corn Bread Day has been laid down by the meeting--and according to Deborah and other Iowa Friends, picked up by some local community members and held at the town's junior high school--part of the experience of that work was, as Deborah put it, that Friends were "yoked together" in their labor and in their love.

The phrase "yoked together" and the example provided, strummed a chord in my heart. These were not Friends who felt imposed upon by giving up some time away from their routine of watching television, hanging out with friends, or crossing things off their To Do Lists.

These were Friends who brought their whole family into the process, where folks worked long and hard, side by side, young and old, convinced and birthright, man and woman.

I imagine they also laughed a lot. And they knew they were doing a service for the community.

I took that story into worship with me on First Day.

Bear Creek Meeting, in rural Iowa and about 25 minutes west of Des Moines, is one of those charming old meetinghouses that has benches in its meetingroom.

In worship I reflected on Deborah's kind words of gratitude for those benches, aware of the many Friends who had sat upon them for decades, in waiting worship, seeking to brought into the Arms of the Divine. Despite their hardness, even beneath the hand-sewn foam cushion that ran the length of each bench, the benches provided me with some comfort, and a peculiar sense of being connected with the Friends with whom I shared that bench for that hour.

On the bench, I could not move my seat to a spot I favored. No, I had to make due with the Friends sitting on either side of me. All through the day-and-a-half, I had to submit to sharing a bench with at least three Friends, and often it was more like four or even five. I never had a bench to myself, and unless I was sitting on an aisle, I was always sitting next to someone less than a crooked arm's reach away.

The few benches that remained empty were the facing benches, yet even those were well used at one of the sessions. The space fit the number of Friends in attendance, and we were suffered to be brought closer to one another as a result.

Now it occurred to me that elsewhere where I had worshiped among Friends, there were primarily chairs set up. And I sunk into the Seed and felt the unity of being yoked together on that bench, in worship as well as in labor. Yoked that is, yet not shackled.

And I wondered how easy it is for us as modern Friends to slip into chairs that can be moved slightly this way or that, in rooms that are large enough to accommodate not just our worshipers but also all of our supersized Americanized personal space, which sometimes keeps us separate from knowing one another in that which is eternal.

The bench became a symbol of the yoke for me, and I felt opened to experience being yoked together in labor, in worship, and in love.

First Day's Meeting for Worship

In a room filled with 80-100 Friends, most of them Conservative, there were quite a few pieces of vocal ministry, something I did not expect. Nevertheless, what caught my attention in retrospect was just how many of those pieces of ministry referred to God, or Jesus, or Scripture, or Love...

Had I been a new attender or a visiting seeker (which, in a way, I was), I think I would have gotten the message that there is a Principle that can be known, that can be shared if we but listen to one another and share with one another and seek one another out during our faith journey.

If I had been (too) hurt by a Christian upbringing, maybe that message would have spurred me to get up-and-out as quick as I could. But maybe that message also would have offered me a different sort of Christian message, one that I hadn't heard, had I been raised in a typical Christian household.

Something beneath or beyond those spoken messages had a Living Presence that had breathed life into these Friends. Something had been breathed into life by these Friends.

It had breathed life into me.

In hindsight, I wish that the Midyear Meeting had had what IYM(C) calls an "Exercise Committee," which hand-records ministry that is offered during MfW and during MfWfB. (There are a few examples on the internet of such a report).

I have no recollection of what was said, except for the ministry about the difference between preserving and conserving our Quakerism--the very words I explored in a post of my own just a few weeks ago!

But the felt-sense I had had of that worship was very sweet, very deep, very rich. Perhaps, by virtue of having engaged in the interior work of opening ourselves to the minstry that Deborah shared with us, we had become yoked together, and perhaps we carried ourselves and our yoke into that particular Meeting for Worship. We shared the work and the labor of listening for that still small voice.

If I have not Love...

First Corinthians, chapters 12-13. What a treat to hear Deborah paraphrase and quote these poetic verses. But even more precious was to hear the tremble in her voice, to hear her speak of the Love that is at the center of the practice and fellowship of Conservative Friends.
...if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7)

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Throughout the weekend, Deborah reminded us that we are called to love. We are called to capital-L Love. And I don't believe Deborah meant a goopy, saccharine, naive love.

This I know experimentally

Well, in the end, as I have said many times to Friends here at home, I cannot describe the experience of being among these gentle, loving people.

On the ride home, the Friend I was riding with said to me, "I am so glad I went! Liz, you were right: It was different from our own yearly meeting, and I did have to experience it for myself."

THAT was the best thing I could have heard. It affirmed what I had experienced on my own, and the fact that language cannot encapsulate what was there among these Friends, at least for some of us.

Maybe it's because it's still so new to me. Maybe this is a honeymoon period. But what if it's not? There's only one way to find out: keep coming back.

Iowa Conservative's annual sessions are scheduled for July 2006. I hope to write more about this continued "experiment" then.


P.S. The low point of the weekend came when one of the youngest Friends in the Minnesota group got terribly sick on Saturday morning. The family felt it best to drive the 4-1/2 hours back home in order to care for him.

In hindsight, I recognized that I could have offered more care to that family, or more care to the kids of the Friends who were supporting that family. I still have a lot to learn about submitting to sharing a yoke versus holding onto the yoke of my own personal desires.

P.P.S. I hope to write a second post that has other little tidbits from Midyear Meeting.


Anonymous said...

Iowa (C) Midyear Meeting isn't normally that crowded. Credit for those packed benches that left you feeling yoked together goes to this year's planning committee, which picked the right combination of topic and speaker to draw a big crowd.

People like to hear stories about themselves, that explain them to themselves. The topic, "What Makes Us Conservative Friends?", promised us a weekend of just that. And of course, Deb could be counted on for good storytelling!

The Bible took shape the same way. The Hebrews put it together as a collection of stories about their past, explaining them as a people to themselves. The stories weren't all good ones; they weren't all stories in which everything that was done was something a listener might approve of. But that wasn't the point. To a listener asking, "Who am I? Who are we? What is the point of my/our being here?", the stories were valuable clues, and as valuable clues they drew crowds and were treasured.

You write about how people who'd had the wrong sort of experience of Christianity might have been blown away by the Bible-and-Christianity-based ministry. But for a people who are basically Christian, among whom even the non-Christian members know they have to place themselves in a Christian context and be prepared to live by Christian principles, this sort of ministry has the same character as Deb Fisch's storytelling. We are a people embedded in a very big story, a story that goes back over 3000 years, and we explain ourselves by means of that story to ourselves. That is an important part of what you saw at Midyear.

Iowa (Conservative) is a somewhat unusual Friends community in today's world. Unlike many liberal meetings, a very high percentage of its core membership have known each other from childhood; and in many cases their great-grandparents knew each other from childhood, too. A significant percentage of its meetings are essentially ethnic, centered on families that have lived in the same area for over 100 years. I said to Deb Fisch shortly before she started speaking -- and she kindly repeated it in her ministry -- that Conservatism isn't something you can just inherit. This needs to be said, I think, in a context where so many Friends have imbibed the Conservative life from infancy!

We need to have our path explained to us, over and over again, so that we can go beyond merely inheriting it, and take ownership of it -- so that we can go beyond being consumers, and be producers of it. Friends in Iowa (C) do understand the importance of taking ownership and being producers, however. They look at the world around them, and realize what a treasure they have amongst themselves, and care for that treasure.

So once every so often, the members of the tribe all gather together after sunset, and they put the sticks of their stories together in a heap, and it makes a bright fire. And then, if they like, they sing, or dance. And that, I think, is what you saw.

All the best --

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz,
Thanks for the story-telling. I never thought about the chair/bench difference--in contrast to your experience I've rarely sat in a chair. The yoked-together on a bench metaphor is nice...
Your Friend, Martin

Mark Wutka said...

Hi Liz,
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Like Martin, I have also never thought about chair vs. bench, but unlike him, I always take a chair if one is available - and often one that is flanked by empty chairs (I'd like to say it is because I am extra-meek, but I know that isn't the case). I will keep the yoke in mind the next time I am at Meeting for Worship.

I also appreciate Marshall's comments about telling (and living and producing) our story.
With love,

Paul L said...

Count me in as a bench man. I accept chairs as a necessary accommodation, like having a parking lot at the meetinghouse, but there's a cost; it isn't just the same.

Chairs in a meetinghouse remind me of when churches began to give the communion wine in little thimble glasses instead of a common chalice. Hygiene was the given reason. Technology trumps everything in the modern world.

Marybeth recently visited the Arch Street Meetinghouse and the guide had her sit on a cushioned bench. She then said that the cushion was stuffed with horse hair. 18th Century horse hair.

Marybeth said she felt an immediate and visceral sense of connectedness to her ancestors who likely sat on those same benches at yearly meeting time., and whose horses tails may well have been contributed to her comfort 250 years later.

It's one thing to shake a hand that shook a hand that shook the hand of Lincoln. It's another to have worshiped cheek to cheek with Will Penn.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Paul,
Well you've opened up the dark side of the bench/chair division with mention of the horsehair cushions. It's always seemed to me as something of a fetishness in old meetings keeping the centuries-old cushions. They can be flat, lumpy and filled with vermin but suggesting replacement is a kind of heresy. I've heard of debates ranging for years almost resulting in meeting schisms.

When I first walked into the old Wilburite meeting I'm attending these days two things immediately jumped out at me: the bench cushions were new and the floor had been freshly sanded. They're now talking about replacing the sign out front. This is all shockingly revolutionary. And wonderful. It looks nice too. I'm to the point where I've only half-jokingly decided that I'll never be part of an East Coast meeting that hasn't already gone through the 'Strum und Drang' of those cushion-replacement business meetings!

Liz Opp said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. I couldn't have guessed how much commentary there'd be about cushions, benches, and chairs, though!

Marshall, I don't know if you'd be interested in my own thoughts about how we convey our Quaker faith across the generations, but your comments about how most Friends no longer inherit their faith reminded me of that earlier post. Brian Drayton and a few others are lifting up how so many Quakers today are convinced Friends, and so the nature of Quakerism and how we learn it and live into it is changing as a result.

As for the hanging onto some things when they no longer serve us well... Deborah had spoken briefly to that as well, though I don't recall the details. I can report that there were some new cushions at Bear Creek Meeting, and some old cushions as well. The old ones seemed to do little good, though here and there were smaller, newer cushions that could be placed "individually," as it were, on top of the older cushions.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Liz, I found your comments about how Quakerism is conveyed to new generations to be well worth pondering. And I thought the comparison to new generations of the deaf learning Sign, very apt indeed.

But I myself was talking about the transition from being a consumer of the goodness of a religious community, to being a producer of such goodness. And I don't think that's really the same issue.

My impression is that you were writing about situations where the young are already motivated to practice Quakerism, and simply need to be taught by elders how to do it. Whereas I was writing about situations where the motivation itself is lacking. I was thinking of kids growing up in the Quaker world, and of attenders enjoying their experience of meeting for worship, who may enjoy their experiences of Quaker gatherings, but who do not feel moved to play an active part in nurturing their meetings or in presenting Quakerism to the wider world.

Am I making sense to you here?

You also wrote, Brian Drayton and a few others are lifting up how so many Quakers today are convinced Friends, and so the nature of Quakerism and how we learn it and live into it is changing as a result. And here I would beg you to use the term "convinced Friends" more carefully! The actual problem, in my personal opinion, is precisely that many members and attenders today are not convinced as yet; they are persuaded of the value of Quakerism, or maybe enamored of it, but persuasion and enamorment are not the same thing as convincement.

Real convincement, as Friends have historically understood the matter, is what happens when one feels oneself "convinced of sin", i.e. convicted of having chosen to behave wrongly, by that soft little voice that one recognizes as being the Teacher of right and wrong within oneself. Early Friends took this understanding of "convincement" from James 2:9 and from a couple of verses in John. The experience of convincement, of recognizing that one has been guilty of choosing wrongly, and of feeling driven to change as a result, was the soil out of which the new life of the Spirit, with proper care, could arise and flower.

Real convincement impels us to yield up our whole lives to be changed by the Spirit from the bottom up. And that is precisely what happened to people who became "convinced Friends" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But where such convincement has not yet happened, we get members and attenders who may identify with the good things Quakerism has done down through the centuries, and who may proudly say, "I too am a Quaker", while never actually changing in any deep or thoroughgoing way.

If we were to revert to this more traditional way of understanding "convincement", then I think what Brian Drayton is saying might need to be reworded. What is going on is not that "many Quakers today are convinced Friends, and so the nature of Quakerism and how we learn it and live into it is changing as a result." Rather, what is going on is that many people have been admitted into the Society of Friends without having first undergone convincement, and the nature of Quakerism has changed as a result.

All the best --

Liz Opp said...

Marshall - Thank you for taking the time to make such a clear distinction about the use and meaning of the word "convinced"! You do me and others a favor by doing so, and I apologize to Brian Drayton if I have misrepresented his comment in such a broad paraphrase here.

As to the "consumer-producer" parallels between Friends and Deaf people and how both groups convey and pass on that which they treasure, there is more that I could add, but it will detract from the wonderful points you raise.

Back to the words "convinced" and "convicted." I had understood that convincement was the breaking through of the Spirit, in effect convincing me that "there is One" by whom I am known inwardly and by whom I can be directed outwardly; and that conviction is the breaking through of the Light to show me my brokenness, my failing, where I have "chosen to behave wrongly," as you put it.

...I had hoped to find an email address for you, but no luck. If you return and see this comment, I'm considering lifting up your comment as a guest piece. You can respond here, or email me privately at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.


SerenityWriter said...


I came to your blog looking for more conversation about benches and chairs after reading your article "On the Significance of Benches" in the February issue of Friends Journal. I realized the comparison of chairs and benches to individuality and community as soon as I started reading the article. I especially enjoyed the paragraph about Quaker society calling us away from individualism so that we might be nourished in community. That paragraph, in just its one sentence, speaks to so much of what we should think. Community, and with it a sense of both belonging and being needed, is what many of us search for. My family were Quakers in Rhode Island from the last quarter of the 1600s until around 1900, all of that time in one meeting. I can't begin to imagine the sense of community they must have enjoyed--something that we largely cannot enjoy today. Their meeting still exists today. Sadly, though, there is not one Friend left in that meeting from any of the original founding families (the last such member died a few years ago). Happily, others were called to continue the work and the meeting carries on.

Thanks for reminding us of the importance of community over individuality. I can't continue my family's Quaker community heritage because there are no meetings near where I live. I have to express my feelings about the importance of community in my books and short stories in the hope that those who can gather in community will do so.

I find that building community over individuality is much like accepting faith over maintaining personal control. It's hard to give up the individual control to accept and follow faith, just as it is hard to subjugate individuality to community. Giving up control and bowing to community is a challenge of giant proportion that I chip away at daily. I'm still trying to figure out how much of a dent I've made.

I don't know if you write fiction, but your concept of benches and chairs and community and individuality makes a great premise for a short story or a short novel. I'd enjoy reading such a work if you ever wrote it.


Liz Opp said...


Thank you so very, very much for taking the time (and energy!) to seek out this post and add a comment. I am feeling very humble and shy, knowing that the February issue of Friends Journal is out now.

I have never been called to write fiction, but I thank you for the encouraging words! ...As for your comment itself, I find your family's story poignant, and your own reflections touching. I sense they'll stay with me quite a while, no matter where I find myself sitting.