December 14, 2008

Memorials and weddings in covenant community

The monthly meeting here has had three or four meetings for worship for memorial in the past 18 months or so. All of them have occurred during my stint as a member of the meeting's Ministry & Counsel, with varying degrees of involvement from M&C and from individual members of the meeting.

Attendance at these memorial worships has varied as well. Sometimes there has been a large turnout from the monthly meeting, such as when a particularly visible Friend has passed. Other times there has been a much smaller turnout of Friends, even if the family of the Friend who has died is also a part of the meeting.

What I want to know is: Why is it that at each and every memorial, an overwhelmingly large majority of the meeting community doesn't show up? What gives?

I worry about the impact of the secular world on the nature of our covenant community as Friends. The in-creeping of the world seems to have encroached into our meetings to such an extent that many of us can now feel ourselves simply excused from attending memorials--and even weddings--by saying we don't know the Friend who has died "well enough" or we don't know the couple that is getting married.

I worry that our meeting community has gotten so big that we forget--or worse, we don't even think about--how we are a part of a spiritual family. Getting involved doesn't fall only on "those people over there who knew him better" or "that committee that always takes care of arrangements." It falls to all of us, because we are in a community that has a special relationship to each other and to God.

And yet...

As a meeting community, we seem to continue to devalue or "miss" the importance of the shared experience that occurs when we are brought together in a corporate way, for worship. Add to that the reality that these days, it's harder to sustain even a small web of meaningful relationships. That goes for us as a meeting community, too.

In a world where there is so much competing for our attention, we who are convinced Friends need to hear from long-time Friends about our responsibility to attend and witness weddings and memorials, and to help ground the space in the Spirit. Elders and other Friends in the meeting need to make it clear to newer Friends that this is a part of our work and service as a covenant community.

If we're not there for each other at the best of times and at the worst of times, how can we expect our fellow community members to be spiritually present in the most mediocre or or the most average of times?


P.S. Full disclosure: I feel as though there is more to be shared, but I cannot seem to grasp what it is. Perhaps one of you reading this will bring more Light to the topic...


my post on Qualities of a Quaker worship community

my post on the dangers of not speaking openly about Quakerism


natcase said...

Liz, I want to zero in on something you said near the top:
"...many of us can now feel ourselves simply excused from attending memorials--and even weddings..."

That word "excused" I think contains a key. Who excuses, and what are we excused from? a duty? a covenant? a promise? an expectation?

Who is doing the expecting?


And I don't think it's the secular world creeping in, but the wider churched world. The sense that "those people over there who knew him better" are the real basis for a memorial service is absolutely one I've bought into, and even feel (guiltily) comfortable with. But I think I got it from going to non-Quaker memorials, which are in fact mostly family and close friends. And "crashing weddings" is such a no-no that even when as a member of meeting I am explicitly invited, I still feel a little funny.

Especially where families are not all Friends, the whole idea of what a memorial or a wedding will be includes questions of catering. This is again a question not of the secular world intruding, but of people coming from, and not wanting to totally weird out family members still in, other faith and cultural traditions.

One final thing from my personal standpoint: when we go to meeting events as a family, one of us has to watch our son. Yes, we could both go theoretically if there were childcare, but honestly what almost always happens is one of us ends up hanging with him, and the other one (most of the time it's me because I'm the one who seems more interested in meeting-wide group things) gets to enjoy the program.

How were things different in the "good old days?" A few points:

- Wives, for all the Friends' insistence on equality, got handed childcare organization by default, and by and large, I expect, accepted that.

- Families were larger, so there were more high school/college age girls around to lariat in for duty.

- Again, for all the Quaker equality, fewer women went away to college, and so became part of the childcare continuum.

- Fewer women worked outside the home, so there was less sense of the preciousness of actually spending time with kids.

- Meetings, especially rural meetings, were closer knit all the way from kids on up. They just were. I don't live in a village. I wonder, really, if the ideal you are calling upon is not a Quaker ideal, but a rural ideal.

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Well, I've missed a number of these meetings. Never without regret.

I've tended to be working, or exhausted from working, or committed elsewhere in my community.

I know I do too much, and I struggle with knowing when it is time to lay things down. But I know, too, that it is increasingly difficult not to do "too much" for many of us.

I became a teacher as an act of faithfulness to my leadings; I believe that, for the moment, a teacher is what I am meant to be.

My society does not offer me any ways to do my work without sapping my strength--or, if it does, I have yet to find them.

Do we question the commitment to covenant community of those Friends whose leadings take them overseas, to hospitals or war zones? Must we question the commitment of Friends whose leadings are to more commonplace things, like family, earning a just living, health, rest, or time alone?

Whether my work was in response to leadings or not, the decision to downsize a career--what it would take for many of us to be as available to our communities as we wish we were--is made very difficult by our current social structure. If I work part-time, I can offer my child no help with college tuition; I receive no health insurance (again, it's hard, as a parent, to feel ethically justified in doing that); I may find no work at all in an era of mandatory overtime and the race for ever higher "productivity" from workers.

I'm not saying it should not be questioned, or that I am excused from the struggle to discern what to leave in and what to leave out. But it is a struggle, and I think sometimes it gets framed in discussion as being about a selfish individualism. Hey, maybe it's that, too, sometimes!

But it can sometimes be very difficult to be face to face, engaged in the community I love.

Liz Opp said...

Nat -

Thanks for chiming in. I hadn't thought of the messages that other religions and houses of worship might bring to bear on how any of us individually might approach Quaker weddings and memorials.

Maybe I was significantly "sheltered" in my Jewish upbringing--but I'd rather think that I was made to feel very welcome at my first Quaker wedding--not by the couple, but by others in meeting. Ditto for attending memorials. So I worry that those of us in the meeting who have some "weight" in these matters are stepping back rather than inviting ourselves and others in.

As for what early Friends did, and particularly on the childcare front, I have no knowledge. But I have heard other Friends talk about the fact that there were women who traveled in the ministry back then and that children, not too long ago and especially in Conservative meetings, used to sit for the entire time in meeting for worship. Presumably they would attend and sit through weddings and memorials, I suppose--but some of those, I've heard, arose directly out of worship....

Cat -

Thank you, too, for chiming in! Learning more about the discernment and choices you've made over time helps me realize that I seldom hear from Friends about their internal struggles, about how they wish they could go to such-and-so event, or how they need to decide if they should work with Committee X or help out with Activity Y.

But that, too, points to the nature of covenant community. Are we talking enough with members of the meeting about the ups and downs of our life? Or do we keep our conversations on the surface just because it's "easier"?

I don't have the answers. I just know I continue to yearn for more... which is why I drive some Quakers crazy, I suppose.

Cat, I'm glad you could share some of the details of your own circumstance. I do need to be reminded that not everything I experience among Friends is about "selfish individualism."

I suppose sometimes I write a blog post just so I can have this sort of reality check--it's just that this time, I didn't think to ask for one!

Hope you are well.


Martin Kelley said...

I've missed both funerals and weddings, often for the very excuse you cite: that I don't know the Friend that well. The latest funeral was a Friend who I haven't seen since he moved away to a retirement home about five years ago and I wanted to go but the logistics ended up being above my energy level when the day came. Lame excuse, but there it is. I've missed weddings when it was a couple that just started attending a short time before. I probably should make the effort for the sake of it (not going because of "not knowing them" is a chicken-or-egg sort of issue) but I wonder if the low attendance is also a symptom of modern meeting life where we're often not connected past that hour a week.

Maybe the bigger problem with the missed funeral isn't that one missed event, but with my not staying in touch with the Friend after he moved (and he with me, and the meeting with all of us). I'm not very good at staying in touch and we don't have good meeting structures for keeping people in touch.

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Liz-- You write:"But that, too, points to the nature of covenant community. Are we talking enough with members of the meeting about the ups and downs of our life? Or do we keep our conversations on the surface just because it's "easier"?"

And you have a point. I know that I am often hesitant to open a more serious, intimate conversation with another Friend because I do not want to presume that they have the time or interest to hear me out, or any inclination to share anything similar with me in return.

And Martin writes, "Maybe the bigger problem with the missed funeral isn't that one missed event, but with my not staying in touch with the Friend after he moved (and he with me, and the meeting with all of us). I'm not very good at staying in touch and we don't have good meeting structures for keeping people in touch." and I feel that he's making an important point, too.

I know that I cherish the contacts I have in the Quaker blogosphere because it does allow me to say what is deepest in my heart; after all, if the reader doesn't want to hear me out, they can skim or skip what I have to say. No harm, no foul! And I'm hoping that some online tools will allow those members of my own meeting who use them to connect with one another more deeply, if they wish.

But I think this is part of the reason I long for webs of community. I cannot be everywhere, reaching out to every person I would like to know better or support more fully or engage more honestly. I remember, in the days when Peter and I were running a coven, that one of the great benefits I felt was that I knew, if Peter or I could not be part of some important event in a community member's life (ranging from attending the dying to rites of passage like moving boxes into a first house) there was a pretty good chance that another member of the coven could be there. It always comforted me... as did the concept many of my Pagan mentors voiced, that we are, together, the eyes and hands and heart of the gods. That sense of being part of something bigger, that can touch what I cannot--at least, not today.

I think that all the ways we have of forming webs of community within our meetings, whether through informal networks that get together for hiking and family stuff, like the events our mutual friends Rich and Sue like to foster, or traveling together to Yearly Meeting or FGC or a Quarterly... Friendly 8s, music clubs and art clubs... all these activities help us create the kind of whole-person connections that can allow us, collectively, if not individually, to reach out beyond what any one set of arms can do.

But, comforted though I am by these thoughts, I am still very unhappy that I do not manage to be more present for my meeting--meaning me, personally, live and not Memorex--than I do.


Tom Smith said...

Our quite small meeting just looked at the LEYM query for the year. One aspect of the discussion/worship sharing was that even in a small meeting there is little opportunity to maintain connections beyond First Day Meetings due to geographical, professional, busy-ness, etc. I actually shared that I had recently begun to be involved in the Quaker blogosphere that seemed to bring more "connectedness" than in the Meeting. I also am struggling through "The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman," an enlightening STUDY of not only Woolman but his contemporaries in many areas. The differences among Quakers of the day gave rise to polity that maintained community. I don't know that most Meeting members get to know each other at the depth that a close knit community of daily contact and confrontation would give rise to.

Many marriages in Friends Meetings now often do not end with the couple attending the Meeting on a regular basis and raising children within the Meeting. Also, as Martin gave an example, most of the elderly Friends no longer stay in the care of the local Meeting but move to another location. These circumstances are not excuses but reasons why it seems that virtual connectedness may be becoming an important aspect of "community."

James Riemermann said...

I don't know for certain why others sometimes miss weddings or memorials, but I know why I sometimes (though not usually) do. I suspect I'm not unique. It's mostly conflicts, and sometimes exhaustion.

Most of us have obligations and connections outside of the meeting community, and sometimes we have to make choices between these obligations. And sometimes our lives get so backed up with stuff we just have to give ourselves a pass on something we'd like to do because we need to do nothing for a while.

RichardM said...


I think you are sensing that poor attendance at these events is the canary in the coalmine--and the canary isn't looking too healthy. I concur. I think the point you meant to make about this was not to point a finger at any individual Friend who doesn't attend any particular function, but to point to the overall situation and note that it shows that we, that is the community as a whole, is not in gospel order.

Individual circumstances vary and there is no "rule" here about how many of these events anyone "must" attand. But if too many of us are attending too few of these events, then we are not in gospel order.

natcase said...

Cat's second comment points to a deeper question (well,deeper to me anyway): Is a Friends meeting community ideally a self-contained group in and of itself, or a sort of "home base" from which to become integrally part of the wider community? Where is the balance between putting our energy back into the meeting, and using the energy we find there out in the world as a whole? I don't think there's an easy answer to this one, or even one that is fixed.

Liz Opp said...

Dear everyone,

I do so appreciate the time you each have taken to consider this post, as well as writing a response.

My own reactions to your words are these:

1. I often forget that my own days are spent very differently from how many readers and bloggers spend their days. If I had a conventional 9-5 job or a young family, it's likely I'd be making different choices about where I spend my time and energy. I could only be reminded of that, though, because you took the time to tell me of your personal struggle. Thank you for helping me get my head out of my navel... again.

2. Richard M hits on the concern that I wasn't able to articulate fully: "But if too many of us are attending too few of these events, then we are not in gospel order." If too many of us are attending too few corporate events, then we will not maintain the critical mass needed that helps us be sustained as a faith community. In my mind, that means we are that much closer to being just a group of individuals and not a gathered people... a group that happens to worship in a funny manner for an hour or so a week on Sundays.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading the re-issue of Parker Palmer's book "The Promise of Paradox" in which he mentions that community has acquired a consumer model--we go get some every now and then to add to an otherwise private life.

It's hard to combat the pressures of consumerism, even when we want to.

And oh wow! "Feed the World" has just come on the radio ("Let them know it's Christmas....")

Leaving aside the deep issue of that song, how do we go about the business of community in a way that will "feed" us sufficiently that we will consider weddings and funerals something more than add-ons?

[using the universal "we" here, not speaking about individuals}


Liz Opp said...

Cath -

You ask an important question:

How do we go about the business of community in a way that will "feed" us sufficiently that we will consider weddings and funerals something more than add-ons?

I don't have an answer, but I appreciate the opportunity to consider, once more, that there is more to a faith community than just worshiping together or attending major life-marking events.

It's more like a both/and/and then some!


Linda said...

I'm catching up on blog reading and just came across this lovely post. I appreciate the conversation this has opened.
I usually go to the memorial of any member, and any attender that was part of the life of the meeting, if I can possibly get there. I go whether or not I knew the person, and certainly whether or not I liked the person. I do this for two reasons. One, when my father died, the clerk of the meeting told me she would be there for my father's memorial, though she would have to change her plans to do it. Many, many people from meeting came, including at least one with whom I had never had a conversation. The way I was held up by meeting prompted my decision to request membership. The other reason is that a good friend mentioned the importance of going to memorials to the life of the community, so I learned the unwritten rule.
We don't have enough avenues for transmitting these subtler points of etiquette within the meeting community. If you don't make friends with a seasoned Friend with a concern for community, no one might ever mention that you are expected at weddings and memorials.
Of course, there are times when a prior commitment or just exhaustion lead me to decide to not attend a significant event. The point is, though, if we corporately felt that our attendance was mandatory at such things, the overall attendance would be steadier.

Liz Opp said...

Linda -

Yes, yes, yes! Thanks for articulating some of these things that have been in my heart. Yet another example of why we need each other, so we might have a fuller understanding of the Light and of what is being asked of us.

Thanks for the comment.


Anonymous said...

A late comment of thanks. I was recently in a committee meeting where I related how this blog post had cemented my intention to attend the wedding of two members recently held under the care of our meeting, and another Friend shared that it had similarly ensured her presence at the same event. It was a beautiful wedding, with rich worship, and a wonderful day for our meeting. Thanks for helping ensure that we got there!

Liz Opp said...

ThomasT -

Oh, thank you for such a wonderful testimony!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up