November 26, 2008

Quakerese: Concerns and leadings

A few recent conversations and emails among Friends, as well as thoughts of my own, have converged within a matter of days, all about what Quakers call concerns and leadings, so I thought it would be worthwhile to do some writing about these two topics.

The other morning, too, I was pressed to explain the difference between a concern and a leading, within the Quaker vernacular. My off-the-cuff answer went something like this:

"A concern is something that is laid on a person's heart, or that has arisen from within a person but not out of that person's conscious intent or choice. In addition, a concern has no clear action or direction related to it, no "map" on how to address, resolve, or reconcile it. The Friend who has come under the weight of a concern may be left with the exercise--the inward wrestling--of answering the question Now what?!?

"By contrast, a leading is a particular prompting of the Spirit that has a specific action attached to it, although oftentimes, like a concern, there is no conscious intent or choice to decide on, or to have thought up, such an action. A leading is often connected to a concern--but not always: early Friends for example were led to visit other meetings but did not necessarily understand why."

After reflecting on my own impromptu answer for a while, I reached for a seldom-used book on my shelf: The A to Z of the Friends (Quakers). It's a collection of alphabetized entries of nearly all things Quaker, including people, places, historic events, concepts, vocabulary, practices, and more.

I hesitated to look for an entry for "concern." It's a word that is heavily used these days in the wider world, and I wondered if the word had become completely secularized: We are concerned about the economy, the environment, the planet. We are concerned about how our meetings handle conflict and the low attendance at our meetings for worship for business.

I was pleased to have seen this entry after all:

CONCERN. The name, dating from the earliest period of Friends, given to a leading from God "laid upon" an individual as a call to action. Testing the concern with the local meeting provides a check as to its validity. The meeting may also unite with the concern, that is, share the sense of rightness for action. The meeting may then act on its own behalf or take the concern to a wider constituency of Friends. Most new directions for Quaker work and witness have begun life as an individual concern. Some concerns remain within a single person but with meeting support of the individual witness.
I was surprised to see how closely the entry linked "concerns" with "leadings," so of course I turned to look at what there was to be said on the latter subject.

That entry was more than twice as long, and while it points to a similar s/Source as in a concern, the entry goes on to address several ways to test a leading, as well as matters of responsibility and leadership within the meeting:
...If the spiritual fellowship recognizes the leading as genuine and in good order, the individual may be given both responsibility and authority to take leadership, whether in committee work, as a recorded minister, in a professional capacity, or in following an individual concern.... Such leadership is not a status conferred but a spiritual readiness recognized.

As the days have gone by and I've returned to the draft of this post a few times, I realize that much of why I make the distinction that I do, and much of why I define the two items as I do, is the result of my own experience.

As many as seven or eight years ago, I was experiencing what I articulated as a "concern about my relationship with the monthly meeting." In this case, I meant a generic, secular sort of worry; not a spiritually driven concern. Something was amiss and I couldn't put my finger on it. I asked to meet with a few Friends from the meeting, and after a few meetings, the ad hoc group was laid down without a satisfactory result for me.

The concern persisted, but I still couldn't articulate it. I was spiritually hungry but didn't know what I was hungry for.

As I began to travel among Friends, mostly in service to Friends General Conference and its Central Committee, I was exposed to language, concepts, and practices that I hadn't heard before--and my spiritual hunger began to ease.

At last I could name it: I was carrying a concern for how we share our faith with one another, as Friends--a topic I have written much about on The Good Raised Up.

Now that I knew what my spiritual concern centered on, I looked for an avenue to share it. The concern was morphing from a private, inward motion to a more outward one. But where was I being led? And was it God that was leading me?

I looked into FGC's Traveling Ministries Program. I asked for and was appointed a clearness committee by the monthly meeting, which heard more about my experience in coming to carry this newly named concern.

In the end, while the clearness committee affirmed the validity of the concern I had, it did not unite with the pursuit of traveling in the ministry through FGC's program. Instead, to my surprise and to my dismay, the clearness committee affirmed that it was their sense of the committee that I "travel" within the monthly meeting itself and seek ways to bring the concern that had been laid on my heart to the meeting--somehow.

Thankfully, the committee also minuted its request that I be appointed a committee of elders--a committee for spiritual care and accountability as I continued to sit with the concern and understand how God might be leading me, if anywhere.

Over time, I was indeed led: I began to speak out of the silence of worship in a new voice. I engaged in an informal listening project to learn how Friends in the meeting had been experiencing me, both before and after I had articulated the concern I was carrying. I began to travel to other monthly and yearly meetings. I developed and presented a workshop about Quaker identity and I began this blog. Most recently, I helped pull together a panel of Friends in the meeting to talk about how they came under the weight of the leadings they had been given.

These leadings are an outgrowth of the original concern, and I can't envision the events occurring in any other order. But for some Friends, they have specific leadings first, without an understanding of why they are led to those actions, and it's only in retrospect that they come to know the underlying concern that "connects the dots" for them.

Still, this post has been mostly about my own answer to the question, What's the difference between a concern and a leading? How would any of you answer that question? What personal experience have you had that might shed more L/light on the distinction, if in fact there is one?


November 23, 2008

Precious Lord

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home
I spoke these words during Meeting for Worship this past First Day. Then, after a pause and a few deep breaths, I went on:

I feel like I have been naughty today. A naughty girl who knows she was being naughty but kept being naughty anyway.

I have spoken kind words with an unkind intention. I haven't been as kind or as loving as I could have been to others. I haven't extended myself in service to others the way I know I can. When I had an opening to address a concern I have had, I did so with a sense of righteous indignation.

I know that others didn't see how I have fallen short of my Light, but I know that I have fallen short. And I know that God knows. So I have sat myself in a corner and there I am staying.

I can see God's hand stretched out to me, but I don't want to reach back. Not yet anyway.

Except that I do... want to reach back.

So I need help, Lord. I need your help to lead me Home.

November 15, 2008

The great balancing act

Dear fellow bloggers and readers of The Good Raised Up,

It's was hard enough to keep this blog active when the 2008 presidential elections and other things had been keeping my attention.

Now that the elections are behind us and the economy is going nowhere--or nowhere but down--I had hoped I could refocus more seriously on this and other writing. What I have found instead is a barrier in a new form.

Since September, I have been serving the monthly meeting as a co-clerk of the meeting's Ministry & Counsel Committee. There is plenty that I could write about--but of course, "what happens in M&C stays in M&C."

Unless it's a report to the meeting.

Well, even then I'm not so sure.

M&C has given at least one report to the meeting, and certainly other business of the meeting has been taken up and addressed. What surprises me, though, is that I am discovering that I have an internal stop when I consider writing anything at all about specific items that have been threshed or decisions that have been minuted during Meetings for Worship for Business.

I think it has something to do with the hat I wear now, the role I play... It's as though I represent the meeting in a different sort of way than before. Or maybe it's that I represent Quaker bloggers in a different way, but I can't be sure.

When I was a practicing sign language interpreter, my colleagues and I often counseled one another to be mindful that when we were out in the field working, we were, in some odd way, representing all other sign language interpreters, so we had better be mindful of our professional conduct. The sign language interpreter community was so small that we worried that a misstep by any one of us would be seen as a misstep by all of us.

This kind of feels like that.

Of course there's the concern for confidentiality within M&C and the meeting. Just because something is minuted during a Meeting for Worship for Business doesn't mean that the meeting as a whole has digested and integrated whatever the situation was that led to the minute. If I write too soon of a situation, it may be unfair to those blog readers who are also a part of the meeting community and who need more time or more privacy or more "cocooning" with local Friends.

That said, I still have the same buttons that get pushed: I worry that we are making decisions that are more often based on what people want or agree to rather than on how God leads us; I cringe when we seem to be more concerned about efficiency than about faithfulness.

Here's an example I feel okay about lifting up: At a meeting for worship for business, the hour was late but nearly everyone who had arrived at 7:00 was still there at 9:15, even after a break at 8:45. Though some Friends made it known that they were eager to get home, the fact that there was still an alertness among most of us, and interest in certain agenda items that we had yet to hear, demonstrated to me that something of the Spirit was still present to us. I felt a need to reciprocate and to stay present to it.

So I don't know what sort of posts I'll be writing here over the next few months. I'd like to think I'll be sharing more of what comes out of the prayerful work I'm doing with my care-and-accountability committee, or bringing forward news of the worship group, as well as posting things that reach my ears and eyes about FGC and its 2009 Gathering.

I'd like to think that I'll find a way to write about the new juggling act I'm practicing, which includes having my spirit in Ministry & Counsel, my hands in the Quakersphere, one foot in Conservative Friends, the other in Liberal Friends... and my heart with so many of you.


November 11, 2008

An open letter to Barack Obama

This post is a tangent from the usual fare I put here. But my feelings on the issue of gay marriage have only been made more clear in the light of Barack Obama's election to the U.S. presidency and his own comments on the subject.

The hand-written letter went into the mail this past Friday. My best guess was to send it to his current senatorial office, and I wrote "Please forward" on the envelope.

I sent a typed copy of the letter to my folks, too: while they didn't sign our wedding certificate, my father did write a letter a few years later to a U.S. senator, explaining his views on why there mustn't be a constitutional amendment that would limit the rights and freedoms of any Americans, including two people who wish to marry each other.


Barack Obama
President Elect
Federal Office Building
230 South Dearborn St.
Suite 3900 (39th floor)
Chicago, Illinois 60604

November 7, 2008

Dear Barack Obama:

I tend not to write these kind of letters, the kind that goes to a president, let alone to a president-elect.

I find myself in a whirl of conflicting emotions as the news of your being elected to serve as president of the United States sinks in.

On the one hand, I am thrilled that a man who lives such a principled life, even during such crazy times as running a presidential campaign--how old were Malia and Sasha when this all began in Iowa...?!--has advanced to an office, a station that one would think would also require a principled and moral life.

Our lives are a testament of our principles that guide us, and I tell you: I am ready to have as president an individual who will ask us to do as he does, to act as he acts, to serve as he serves.

On the other hand, even as radio reports, television news broadcasts, blogs on the Internet, and individual accounts from around the world affirm the message of this moment in time--that someone other than a White man can reach for and be elected into the presidency of the United States; even as you declare that "This is our moment. This is our time"; even as you say, "Nowhere else in the world is my story even possible"; even as you say, "Change is coming," my heart catches in my throat:

I can indeed affirm, "Your story is possible. Your achievement is historic." I can affirm, "Anyone, ANYone can be president!"

But I cannot yet affirm, "Anyone, ANYone can marry."

I tell you, Barack, this breaks my spirit.

While it's true that your story as an African American in this country is much longer than my story as a woman in this country who loves another woman, I cannot yet affirm, "Anyone, ANYone can marry."

Instead, I must tell my seven-year-old niece that I can't marry because... Because not even the man who will become president of the United States says I can.

A White American man who knows "enough" about the Civil Rights Movement and about Women's Lib can say, "Of course an African American, a woman could become president." But African Americans, American women are the ones who can testify directly to just how possible it really is. Or wasn't.

A straight American who knows "enough" about gay rights can say, "Of course a committed same-sex couple can enjoy the same freedoms and protections as a straight, married couple can." But gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans in those relationships are the ones who can testify directly to just how possible it really is. Or isn't.

It's not the same to be told that there will be certain freedoms and protections in place, just as it isn't enough for there to be certain laws in place to protect disabled Americans, young Americans, elderly Americans, and foreign-born Americans. Discrimination in their day-to-day encounters with average Americans still happens.

It's not about whether or not my partner and I can receive the same ownership rights in property, the same visitation rights in hospitals, and the same inheritance rights in death as my straight counterparts do.

It's about whether or not my partner and I can receive the same legal status, the same automatic respect, the same cultural opportunity, the same institutionalized access, the same inalienable rights, the same ineffable JOY that straight couples receive when, at their mosque, synagogue, church, or courthouse, they say, "I do."

I humbly and respectfully ask you to reconsider your views on gay marriage, on the change of the institution of marriage over the decades, and on who is or isn't served, who is or isn't lifted up--legally, financially, emotionally, and spiritually--in marriage.

Yours sincerely...

November 10, 2008

IYMC visits and a high school drop-in

It's been a busy start to the month, not including the historic presidential election.

Over the first weekend of the month, the worship group had three Friends from Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative (IYMC) visit with us as we begin seeking affiliation with a yearly meeting.

Here are a few things that were notable to me:

1. The visit was arranged in just under three weeks, from the time we were given a date when all the visitors could make it to the time they actually arrived. During the one evening and one morning that the Iowa Friends were with us, all the children and all of the regular adult attenders participated in at least one significant portion of this very short visit--and we have six kids and nearly a dozen adults!

I consider this an indication that the Way is open for us to continue seeking affiliation with IYMC.

2. We were reminded to consider that any of us who have attended the annual sessions of IYMC have been witness to the clerking of only one presiding clerk, who has been serving for ten years or so. Since each presiding clerk has a unique style and perspective on how to go about attending to the business of the yearly meeting, the visitors encouraged us to consider that the current clerk is bringing a great deal of discipline (in the good sense of the word, in my opinion) to the body, and that this hasn't always been, and won't always be, the case.

This was a sobering thought to me, given how much I've appreciated the current manner and discipline of the body during their meetings for worship with attention to business at annual session.

3. The visitors, who are serving as a sort of membership clearness committee for us on behalf of IYMC--though it's for affiliation of the worship group, not membership of individuals--also cautioned us that IYMC at the level of its monthly meetings may not be all that different from Northern Yearly Meeting at the level of its monthly meetings, especially when considering the breadth of theological diversity of Friends there.

I find I'm less concerned about that point, given the frequent reference to Scripture and the greater proportion (it seems to me, at least at the yearly meeting level) of Friends who speak humbly of their walk with their God.

That was all just the first weekend of the month! Next week the worship group will reflect together on our experience with these Friends from Iowa, and we'll see how the Spirit moves among us at that point.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Towards the end of the summer, while I was worshiping at the monthly meeting, a member of the meeting's First Day School Committee announced at the rise of meeting that the committee would be doing something new with the high schoolers this year: they would be seeking adults to be a Friendly Adult Presence (FAP) for that group for a month at a time.

The concern is that there continues to be a disconnect between the adults of the meeting and the oldest teens among us. For years, the teens haven't come to Meeting for Worship--not even with the younger kids for the first 15 minutes--and the adults don't make time to interact authentically with the teens, with the possible exception of the parents of their friends or their past FDS teachers.

For as long as I've been an adult among Quakers, I've been aware of my struggle of wanting to connect with teenage Friends but not wanting to "impose" myself on them, not wanting to just pop in and out of a conversation and pretend I've had a meaningful interaction with them.

I've been seeking a way to be engaged with them through some structured activity, and through my own authentic desire rather than through some "required" event. So when the announcement was made that there was a request for FAPs for the high school program, I volunteered on the spot.

Yesterday was my first drop-in there, since the first First Day was hang-out time for them at a coffee shop, the Friends from Iowa were visiting the worship group, and I'm no good around strangers when there isn't a structure. Seriously.

Yesterday was worship-sharing time around a query, and the adult leaders offered up the topic of equality, what that means, and how it may or may not relate to the presidential election. The teens outnumbered the adults by three to one, and I chose to pass the first couple of times, not sure of the lay of the land or what the teens might make of me.

As they opened up, so did I, and within a few minutes, we were talking about oppression, privilege, gay marriage, Obama, and everything else that would typically come up in a high-energy discussion about the state of things in our country.

I left that morning emotionally and spiritually spent, having opened myself to share about my relationship with my partner, an open letter I've sent to Barack Obama, and my concern for white privilege, especially among young white Quakers. I learned how seriously this group takes themselves when they're encouraged to share their views of the world.

The worship-sharing was so rich and intense and worshipful, it reminded me of the open Meetings for Worship that the high schoolers host at the FGC Gathering each year. My only hope is that I didn't outrun my Guide, and I'll be curious to see how the next few First Days in November go...