November 30, 2006

What does a Quaker do at a time like this?

Over on Mark's blog, I left a comment on his post about speaking and listening in Meeting for Worship.

What I posted there got me to thinking:

What are the various Quaker disciplines that exist to help guide us in difficult times?

Are there disciplines or structures in our faith for us to draw upon, even during not-so-difficult times, when we know inwardly that there "ought" to be a way to respond but there's no particular testimony that speaks to the precise circumstance we face?

Aren't there times when any one of us might say to ourselves:

What's a Quaker s'posed to do at a time like this?
"A time like this" might mean:

  • overhearing a racist, sexist, homophobic, or classist comment;

  • reacting negatively and strongly to something that was said in Meeting for Worship, MfWfB, or a committee meeting;

  • feeling out of step with the the rest of the meeting, as the meeting addresses a significant piece of business;

  • having been told something hurtful by someone who is seen as having authority or power within the meeting;

  • seeing a child or children acting inappropriately in the meetinghouse, when the parent (or parents) is nowhere around.

  • Living in America, so much of our media and so many of our peers insist that we do something now:

    Take actions into your own hands! Protect yourself! Protect your investments! Don't wait! Act now! Walk away! Don't just stand there! You don't have to put up with that!

    On and on, one exclamation point after another.

    Many of these secular advices have been creeping into our meetingrooms, and they have crowded out the more challenging, traditional advices:
    to love one another and to stand still in the light and submit to it.
    I like to put things more simply for the moment:

    When in doubt, wait.

    I know it sounds simplistic, but don't be fooled: there is much to be done while waiting. What I've been holding and considering is that perhaps interconnected with the discipline of waiting, there are in turn other Quaker disciplines with which we can engage, disciplines that extend beyond waiting worship.

    Waiting for an opening

    As we are waiting, we must be alert to any Openings that may appear. An opening may be an opportunity to speak with another fFriend about what is occurring, so that an additional point of view can be considered. Or an opening may be a new insight that is given, based on something we are listening to or reading or contemplating. Or an opening may be that the very fFriend with whom you are laboring calls you with some new insight that has tendered her or his own heart.

    We must be careful not to speak or act prematurely, not to speak or act simply because we want to. Is there an opening to speak, an opening to take action? Is my own heart made tender so that I may speak and act out of love rather than judgement; concern rather than fear? Have I been opened by the movement of the Spirit?

    Testing our leadings

    If we are disciplined enough to wait on the Lord, we may use that time more conscientiously to test our leadings and to discern what action, if any, is in harmony with God's will.

    Such a waiting period is important, since Friends believe that if a leading comes from God, it will persist and the sense of rightness will increase over time. If, instead, we begin to doubt our initial thoughts or question our plans of how to respond to a chronic situation, it may be that we have not truly "given ourselves over" to the Spirit for guidance.

    In many cases, testing our leadings while waiting also allows us to tap the community, or at least a segment of it (e.g. a clearness committee), to help us discern the way forward. Since Friends believe that Truth itself does not change, only our understanding of it does, and seeking the sense of even an impromptu clearness committee may shed more light on what is the rightly led course of action to follow.

    Laboring with one another

    I often think that the discipline of laboring with one another is the hardest to engage in. I don't know if it's a reflection of America or a reflection of Quakers--or a reflection of American Quakers--but so many of us are uncomfortable dealing with conflict, being in disagreement with one another, not having an easy answer to resolve a complex and tense situation.

    Such labor among Friends often begins when two or more people who care for each other, or for the process, or for the outcome--or for any combination thereof--find themselves not united around how to move forward with a decision:

    Do we spend the money on improving the meeting's kitchen or on sending a few young Friends to a Quaker gathering halfway around the world? What if one Friend, but not another, wishes to approve membership for an attender who, for three years, has been coming regularly to worship but has never served on a committee or attended a Meeting for Worship for Business?

    How do we move forward when our laboring with one another clearly indicates we are not united?

    Laboring with one another requires an awful lot of waiting. We need to listen to one another; listen for the Holy Spirit's guidance; listen inwardly and honestly to our own human frailties; listen compassionately when another Friend brings her or his humanness to us.

    We need to be able to explore completely where our desire to hold on and not let go comes from; where our fear comes from if we were to let go; and how it is that God asks us to be a servant to the Light rather than a servant to our own ego.

    Sometimes the labor is as much about laboring with ourselves as it is about laboring with another person.

    My favorite example of such labor, and the surprising results that come of it when we are able to wait for our labor, our difficulty, to find its own resolution, is the footwashing at Marlborough, which is also recounted in a pamphlet by Sandra Cronk.

    Waiting to feel the inward motion of Love

    The discipline of waiting until we feel a sense of Love stir within us is perhaps the hardest to observe or learn about from others. That may be because such an inward motion is hard to articulate or point to, let alone observe empirically. It doesn't matter that so many Friends are familiar with John Woolman's words. If we haven't felt the inward motion of Divine Love for ourselves, I don't know that we can know it any other way.

    And since we maybe don't know what the motion of Love feels like, it may be hard to wait while we are stewing over whatever the situation is that has set us off in the first place.

    From my own experience, the motion of Divine Love often comes unexpectedly. I can't force it, I can't will it to come. It comes as I let go, as I surrender.

    But even as I am "giving myself over," I am not doing so in order to beckon the motion of Love. That sort of "agenda" or objective won't work.

    I let go because my heart has been made tender in my waiting, and there is room then for God's Love to do its work, both in me and through me.

    And then I am more comfortable simply waiting.

    Quakerism as a faith discipline

    This post started off as an exploration of various disciplines within Quakerism, and especially how we might engage in the disicipline of waiting. Of course, I want to acknowledge what might seem obvious:
    We must keep in mind that sometimes what is required of us is to do nothing more than wait.
    That said, I sense that there is more to say about these and other disciplines, and about how Quakerism itself is a discipline. It's just that the more I write and explore, the more I want to keep writing and exploring!

    Much like how our language of the Divine cannot encompass the Divine itself, so it is that I can't seem to wrap my writing around the essence of these disciplines. And, much like with learning a second language--"use it or lose it"--so too with these disciplines:

    We must engage in them and practice them if we are to be able to be easy and "fluent" with them, not just within our meetings but also in our day-to-day life.

    Thanks for reading me.



    Paul L said...

    There's a lot here, but I'll address just two of them.

    You suggest that the dominant secular culture advises: "Take actions into your own hands! Protect yourself! Protect your investments! Don't wait! Act now! Walk away! Don't just stand there! You don't have to put up with that!"

    Sometimes. But more often, or at least as often, it says: "Mind your own business. Don't bother. Wait for a more appropriate time. Take it like a man."

    So I think the dominate culture says both at the same time. It reminds me of when Paul Wellstone died, a lot of us wore green buttons saying "Stand up. Keep fighting." I often wished I had another one -- red, maybe -- that said, "Sit down. Stop fighting." The point being: There is a time to be a prophet, and a time to be a peacemaker. Those callings may not always be incompatible, but they often are. It takes discernment to know which to be at any given moment and this is why the various disciplines you discuss are so important.

    My second comment is yto our suggestion to, when in doubt, wait. It reminds me of Malvina Reynolds' song, Quiet

    I don't know much about much,
    And what I don't know I don't say,
    And when I have nothing to say,
    I'm quiet.

    When there's occasion to holler, I'll buy it.
    I can make noise with the best.
    But most of the rest of the time I'm quiet.

    I've made mistakes in the past,
    Things that I blush over yet,
    But I hardly ever regret
    Having been quiet.


    I have a T.V. at home
    And I do truly enjoy it.
    I can just leave it alone
    And it's quiet.


    I'm not unsociable, no,
    People are fine in repose;
    Somehow my favorites are those
    Who are quiet.


    Quiet's a wonderful sound,
    Sweeter than oboe or fiddle,
    Someday I'm going to be found in the middle
    Of quiet.


    Sing me a song of the sea
    Soft as the breath of a breeze,
    Sing me to sleep and then please
    Keep quiet.

    This is a funny song from a woman who is best known for being famously NOT quiet.

    Liz Opp said...

    Hey, Paul--

    You make a most excellent point: at least as often, it [the dominant culture] says: "Mind your own business. Don't bother. Wait for a more appropriate time. Take it like a man."

    It's true, though I wonder if you and I weren't exposed to one set of messages more than the other when growing up. My mother, for example, was much more of the "Do it now!" variety... and I think back on a number of TV ads for Menards and other businesses, with announcers yelling and insisting that "Time is running out!" So it's clear to me which set of messages made a bigger impact on me, anyway.

    Still, I yield to the truth of what you lift up here. There are times to stand up and fight; and there are times to be still and wait.

    Thanks for the lyrics to the Malvina Reynolds song--I clearly need to get back to Nightingales and hear some of these wonderful songs!

    As for the line, "I hardly ever regret/having been quiet," I must say my experience has been very different. I have often regretted having kept quiet... Quiet in the sense of not having had these various disciplines in my spiritual toolbox at the time, anyway. Thank goodness I don't stay in the same spiritual place year after year.

    Thanks for writing.


    Paul L said...

    "I wonder if you and I weren't exposed to one set of messages more than the other when growing up."

    Me: Midwestern Lutheran?
    You: East Coast Jew?

    You wonder?

    I thought you'd point out that which message people get may be related to their sex.

    And I, too, hesitate to sing that verse. I am painfully aware of lost opportunities to witness. But having opened my big mouth more often than I wish to admit, I take Malvina's advice seriously.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi, Liz!

    You write, "What are the various Quaker disciplines that exist to help guide us in difficult times?

    "Are there disciplines or structures in our faith for us to draw upon, even during not-so-difficult times, when we know inwardly that there 'ought' to be a way to respond but there's no particular testimony that speaks to the precise circumstance we face?"

    Just speaking for myself, I think these are the wrong questions to be asking. The original difference between Friends and other sorts of Christians was that, whereas other Christians were guided by church structures, Friends looked to the inward Guide, the Voice in our hearts and consciences that tells us what is helpful and what is hurtful, what is constructive and what destructive, etc.

    But here you are looking, not to that Guide, but to church structures -- testimonies, disciplines, etc. Um. I confess I don't know what to say!

    I am also uneasy about your emphasis on waiting before doing anything.

    The good Samaritan in the parable, when he saw the wounded traveler, didn't respond by saying, "I must wait on this for a day or two, and be clear about whether it is the Spirit that is telling me to intervene, or whether I just want to." The good Samaritan intervened without hesitation, and Christ praised him for it, and told the fellow before him to "go and do likewise".

    When Christ told Levi, in Mark 2, to "follow me", Levi didn't respond by saying, "I must wait on this for a day or two." He rose and followed him.

    When James Nayler, working at the plow, heard the voice telling him to go out and preach, he didn't hesitate. And there are many similar stories I could cite from other early Friends, George Fox included, in which they heard the inward Guide calling on them to do something, and they didn't hesitate.

    A dozen years ago, an old, seasoned Friend told me a story of something that had happened in a meeting he was familiar with. This was a rural meeting that had been overtaken by development spilling out from a nearby city; the original rural members of the meeting, whose families had been Quaker for many generations, were becoming outnumbered by new young suburban well-educated professionals and their families, who were learning Quakerism out of books.

    The paint in the First Day School room was cracking and peeling off the walls. It was brought up at meeting for business, and the new Friends who now dominated the meeting, appointed a committee to explore what sort of paint and what color of paint should be used and bring a report back to the meeting. Weeks went by, while the committee sought clearness from the Spirit.

    Meanwhile, one of the old farmers who belonged to the meeting, who couldn't get to meeting for business much, heard that the First Day School room had peeling paint on the walls and needed repainting. He went and bought some paint, used his key to let himself into the building, and scraped and painted the walls himself one Saturday morning.

    He was bewildered when the young professionals jumped down his throat the following day.

    That, in this old, seasoned Friend's mind, was an illustration of a major difference between the new unprogrammed Quakerism and the old. The new Quakerism waits and waits on the Spirit, and often can't agree on what the Spirit is saying. The old Quakerism just jumps in and does the job, like the Samaritan in the parable.

    Anonymous said...

    Awesome post Liz!

    Heather Madrone said...

    Lovely thoughts, Liz.

    Your ideas about waiting resonate with me. One thing that I've learned from parenting four children is patience. When I am clear about what to do, I act. When I am not, I wait. And when I start feeling hot under the collar and want to *react*, I take a deep breath and wait really hard.

    In those emotionally pushy circumstances, waiting can allow possibilities to emerge that weren't present earlier. Suddenly, way will open and my path will be crystal clear.

    As a society, we do have a tendency to want to do something to fix all that ails us. We've forgotten how to take a long view, and how to have faith that God will take care of matters. God acts in God's time, not ours, and many worthwhile things require long years of labor in preparation.

    I wonder whether, if you polled Friends as a whole, we would be more likeley to report that we ignore our guides or that we outrun them.


    Liz Opp said...

    Hi, Wess -- Thanks for the enthusiastic acknowledgment. Good to see you here.

    Heather -- I like the phrase "emotionally pushy circumstances." It kinda sums up those situations to which this post might be most applicable. And though I don't have children, I've had my own journey to remind me that some things worth having do indeed "require long years of labor in preparation."

    Marshall -- I appreciate returning the conversation to the foundation of Quakerism, about listening for and being obedient to the Inward Guide.

    At the same time, I have a mix of other reactions when I read from you that "these are the wrong questions to be asking." I'd be helped if you asked me questions about why I posted what I did, rather than framing things in terms of "right" or "wrong."

    Perhaps you are intending to offer up to me and others additional questions or considerations...?

    For me, what had arisen in me before starting this post was the question of how we work through what Heather names as "emotionally pushy circumstances," and not what to do in something as clear-cut as providing care to someone who is physically or emotionally hurt; nor what (not) to do in something as matter-of-fact as selecting a paint color--a choice that is usually complicated by a full-blown committee process.

    For me, my own experience has been that in a number of emotionally/spiritually difficult circumstances, there is more--much more--to it than only looking to God. That's what I am striving to articulate.

    I would also add that seeking God's guidance and how we seek God's guidance are both part of Quakerism.

    ...Is it possible that what I call "disciplines" (testing our leadings; waiting for an opening) you might call practices? I would venture to say that no matter the language you and I use, we are probably united in our understanding that ultimately, what is required of us as Friends is to listen for God so that we may be faithful servants.


    Anonymous said...

    Hi, Liz!

    I greatly appreciate your clarification -- that "what had arisen in me before starting this post was the question of how we work through what Heather names as 'emotionally pushy circumstances'". For me, at least, that really changes the whole meaning of what you are saying here, and in a way that I find very helpful. Thank you!

    As for my framing the issue in terms of "right" and "wrong", that is what the inward Guide does for me -- it tells me what is right and what is wrong. Right and wrong are in fact precisely two of the most important things that God teaches us about; they are the dimensions of convincement, which is a matter very central to Quakerism.

    However, you may note that when I wrote, "these are the wrong questions to be asking", my full statement was, "Just speaking for myself, I think these are the wrong questions to be asking." In other words, I was saying that the Guide suggests that these are wrong questions for me personally. I wasn't passing judgment on you, dear heart, nor was I saying that the Guide in my conscience was doing so.

    Okay. You ask for additional considerations. I have already offered one additional consideration in my original comment -- namely, considering what the inward Guide has to suggest. I am not clear on what sort of additional consideration, beyond that, you are looking for. Perhaps if you can say a bit more about what you feel is lacking --?

    I am confused by your statement that "there is more--much more--to it than only looking to God." Just (again!) speaking for myself alone, I have to confess that it has been a fifty-odd-year-long struggle for me, learning how to hear what God is saying to me, or maybe I should say, learning how to let myself hear without letting my ego and my defensiveness get in the way of my hearing. Is that what you're talking about? Or am I missing your point here?

    I appreciate the value of the disciplines you are pointing to -- "testing our leadings; waiting for an opening", as you say. I went through them both last year, when I was trying to discern whether my leading to walk across the country was genuine!

    But what bothers me -- and has been bothering me increasingly in the months since I began walking -- are the cases where we -- and when I say "we", I include myself in the group I'm talking about -- where we use the testing process, and the waiting-for-an-opening process, to shy away from the fact that we already hear what God tells us is right and we just don't want to admit it.

    We do this a lot. I was doing it when I felt the call to walk across the country, and resisted it, and delayed my response by testing it for another two months. And other Friends do it too, as I've seen very clearly vis-à-vis environmental matters.

    Speaking of my own experience, once more: whenever I am purely not-resisting what the Guide has to say to me, I am capable of obeying it instantly, even when its nudges are very subtle. This is not always the condition I am in; often I have a very hard time hearing the Guide even when it shouts to me. But the condition in which I obey its subtlest nudges instantly, is to me the ideal condition to be in. When I am in that condition, my relationship to the entire world changes, and my whole experience of life does, too, and I can feel that the change is for the better.

    Tmothy Travis said...

    This really touches me.

    Sometimes I know just what to do, right on the spot, and sometimes I don't know what to do until later.

    I have written about the mistake/sin of not doing what I knew I should do, and I have written about the disaster of doing something just to show that I knew that something should be done, or needed to be done or, even, could be done.

    Spiritual disciplines are near to my heart. We have a discussion group about them at Bridge City Friends Meeting and I have written about them, as well.

    (hmmm...the second commercial for my own blog...)

    The copy of Richard Foster's book in my library is well thumbed and replete with post-its.

    I think of these practices as ways to open to the knock I know is always there, even if I do not hear it at the moment. If a discipline does not work to do that, or no longer works when once it did, then I don't use it.

    It's very much about what works...

    Thank you for this piece and for the link to Patricia McBee's very fine article. I shall find use for both among Friends.

    Liz Opp said...

    First to Timothy --

    Thanks for the "advertisement" to your blog; I don't get there too often. After a little bit of searching, I think I found the post you mention, about an opportunity for Friends to consider spiritual disciplines and practices. Can you say anything about how the discussion group has been going, or what sort of format is being used? I'd like to hear more--or maybe you can point me to another post where you write about that, and I've just missed it. ...And your earlier post reminds me that I really do need to get Foster's book...!

    And Marshall --

    Thanks so much for your additional reply. It helps me clear out some of the "stuff" I was holding.

    In particular, this part of what you write helps me connect with you more personally: "I was saying that the Guide suggests that these are wrong questions for me personally..." Although I did see and consider your earlier words that began with "Just speaking for myself, I think these are the wrong questions..."

    I had interpreted your original remark as an intellectual statement that came from you, rather than as a suggestion/nudge from the Guide about whether these questions are applicable to your own circumstance. It's a subtle distinction, perhaps, but this was the very sort of "laboring" I needed in order to find my way through the "ouchiness" I was feeling and from which I was not released...

    Because of your care in answering some of my specific questions, Marshall, I feel I have come out the other side, united in God's Love with you.

    As for "additional considerations," I think this second set of comments from you offers some of them! I am struck by the similarity between what you write, about "learning how to let myself hear [God] without letting my ego... get in the way" and what Lloyd Lee Wilson says in his recent address to New England Yearly Meeting:

    "When I focus on obedience my ego is usually front and center, deciding what God commands and what should be acceptable standards of obedience..." p. 4

    In our desire to be faithful to the Guide, if you and I--and Lloyd Lee!--have different experiences wrestling with our own egos and making sense out of the subtle inward nudges we experience, it makes sense that each of us would be living with different questions as well.

    So again, thanks for taking the time to clarify and to let me have a peek into your struggle to be obedient. This whole exchange has fed my soul in an unexpected way, and it reminds me that we each come to the place of yielding to the Spirit in our way, in our own time--and in God's time, too.


    Anonymous said...

    I don't always express myself well, and I can see that in this instance I initially expressed myself poorly.

    I'm glad we were able, together, to clear up the misunderstanding.