October 11, 2010

The weightiness of prophetic ministry

While reading an essay by Thomas Gates about covenant community and deepening the life of our meetings, I found myself deeply reflecting on two pairs of elements of our meetings that are in creative tension with each other:

    the individual worshiper vis a vis the community as a whole 
    the community as a whole vis a vis God's leadings and instruction for us.
My reflections deepened while I was considering Tom Gates' paraphrase of something that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friend Arthur Larabee said.*

Here's what Tom writes:
I keep going back to Arthur Larabee's question about business meeting: "Why is it that we persist in deciding things in this way?" His answer: not because it is quick or easy or efficient (it is not), but rather because we have found that over the long run, this way of deciding builds and nurtures community. In other words, the point of our business process is not to make decisions, but to build community.
Granted, the context of the essay itself is about addressing conflict among Friends while placing conflict squarely in the wider context of covenant community. And this paraphrase of Arthur's words points to the Quaker practice of giving greater weight to the sense of the meeting rather than to the sense of an individual within the meeting.

Most of the time, I'm down with that; I unite with that.

But . . .

What happens when we "persist in deciding things in this way" to the detriment of the bringing about the kin(g)dom of God? What if we give so much weight to the role of the community and to testing the sense of the meeting that we fail to recognize prophetic ministry that has risen from among us?

What if we allow the sense of the meeting--for the noble purpose of "building and nurturing community"--to outweigh God's Divine Instruction itself?

This is a question that has been looming in my peripheral consciousness as I'm nearing the end of reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship. The authors of this massive 2009 book offer example after example of how an individual Friend felt convicted by the Spirit to take action against some form of social injustice--from the earliest enslavement in the late 1600s to the modern race-based and class-based oppression of the American Quaker educational system--how these few persistent and faithful Friends labored with their monthly meetings and their yearly meetings so that they might heed God's Instruction to them...

And time and time again, the weight of the sense of the meeting--not the weight of the individual's prophetic ministry--slowed or prevented the social change that was striving to emerge.

I would say this:

1. Certainly there are times when the need to go more slowly is crucial, to bring the meeting community under the weight of a concern, with hearts and minds clear. But can we not also release the Friend with such a call to do as God bids her or him? Can a letter of introduction or a travel minute from the meeting indicate the labor that the meeting is involved in around the topic, rather than shut the Friend down and close our hearts and ears to that Friend's ministry?

    1a. Before anyone jumps down my throat about corporate discernment: of course I acknowledge and recognize the importance of corporate decision-making among Friends! What I am wrestling with and asking questions about has to do with the balance, or the tipping point, between the place of corporate discernment and the place of what may well be prophetic ministry--especially when we, the comfortable, are afflicted by the message a Friend brings us.

2. Too often, our collective privilege gets in the way of our willingness to hear, embrace, and live into true prophetic ministry. As a U.S. faith community, Quakers are predominantly comprised of worshipers of European descent who are also mostly middle-class or wealthier/highly educated. It's hard for those of us with privilege to give up some of our privilege, yet that is what being faithful servants of the Spirit often must do.
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." --Matthew 19:21-24 (NIV)
3. I need the support of my community--my Quaker covenant community--to help me loosen my death-grip on my privilege; to help me see how I act, think, and speak out of a place of privilege; to help me work for the betterment of the wider community around me and not equate my service to God exclusively with the building up and nurturing of my own Quaker meeting.


*For those readers who don't know Arthur, he's frequently recognized as the "go-to guy" when it comes to clerking and navigating Meetings for Worship with Attention to Business. I personally believe there are other "go-to" people, but they are doing quieter, less visible work.


Eileen Flanagan said...

I know exactly the tension of which you speak, having seen it in my own meeting. On the one hand the conservativeness (for lack of a better word) of the meeting can be an obstacle for the person with a witness. On the other hand, an individual can have a clear sense of leading and assume that the meeting should be led in the same way they are, which is also problematic. Finding the synergy between individual and group discernment is a fascinating and daunting topic. Thanks for raising it.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz, I have a comment, but it is much too long to post here, so I am sending it to you by e-mail!

Alice Y. said...

Thanks so much for writing this.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall and Alice -

Thanks for stopping by...

Eileen -

My point is that I think we especially would do better in reclaiming our ability to bear witness if we were to look at our recent inaction while we've been seeking clearness as a meeting--seeking clearness at the expense of those who are experiencing years or even generations of systemic oppression.

People and groups that have a great deal of privilege believe they (we) have the luxury to wait, thresh, pray, and discern. People and groups who experience oppression seem to value timely and consistent action over well-intentioned words, especially from folks who claim to be allies and advocates. There comes a time when we Quakers must "show, not tell."

I'm still learning about what it means to be a person of unearned privilege, and then additionally, what it means to be a member of a group that has privilege on top of that. It's complicated but I am understanding that it can be sorted out--and it must be, if we are a people to be gathered and among the people to help build the kin(g)dom of God.


ef said...

I keep meaning to leave a comment, and then not quite getting it together. I"m not sure what I want to say, because I"m not sure I get what you're saying.

My first take was that you were saying that we should stop doing the things that make us slow, like discerning, waiting on spirit, things that I appreciate about quaker process.

Having read you like 6 times now, it occurs to me that the issue in question might have a lot to do with another concern of mine, that we often hear Friends say "I am easy with that" rather than "That seems well-led" - The expectation that what is well led won't scare the hell out of us is, I think, a major problem

Liz Opp said...

Pam -

Thanks for articulating what you could... I think I understand your question.

I am not advocating that we give up waiting on the Spirit for guidance!

What I'm suggesting is that we take into consideration more than just how a decision--or our lack of a decision--impacts ourselves personally and/or ourselves as a worship community.

I'm suggesting that sometimes we discourage a Friend's leading that could bring us corporately into some witness against institutional oppression, or we can't find unity to engage in some social change work that could give evidence that we are actively engaged in solution-seeking as allies.

Sometimes we put our desire for unity ahead of God's call to be a bit less comfortable. But discomfort is not an indication of the absence of God's leading.

Sometimes we don't "live into the experiment" to test a leading, and instead we let our internalized, unspoken "isms" find ways to say "No, that's not in right order."

I wish I had a specific example to offer, but I don't. There are, however, MANY examples in Fit for Freedom, which is what got me started thinking about this stuff.

As for the phrases "I'm easy with that" and "That seems well-led/in right order," I tend to distinguish between the two, based on the weightiness of the matter at hand.

If it's a minor concern--allowing the clerks to tweak a minute away from the business session; returning a proposal to a committee so they can iron out a few more details, and such a delay doesn't negatively impact an entire group of people that is already oppressed--then I often seek out if Friends are easy with that action.

If it's a knottier concern, or a proposal that appears to be a bit of a risk for a Friend or committee to have brought forward, then I'm likely to use the other phrases, about "testing the leading" or asking if Friends find it's in "good order/right order/Gospel order" to move forward.

I wrote of a similar distinction between faithfulness and obedience, which can be found here.

As always, I appreciate the questions and having a chance to clarify myself.