January 1, 2014

Being known by being vulnerable

In the meeting where I attend occasionally, during the last few minutes of a recent worship, we were invited to share anything that was on our hearts but hadn't risen to the level of speaking out of the silence.  It's a smaller worship in an otherwise large urban meeting, and reserving the last portion of our time together for this type of sharing is often a precious time.

This past First Day, I unexpectedly started thinking about occasions when a few Friends had talked with me individually about the justice work I was doing at the time.  I had invited them to participate in some of the events and activities I was organizing among Friends, and their reply quite plainly was, "Well, I'll think about it but I'm not an activist like you are, Liz."

I held those words and that memory, wondering what their message was for me on this First Day morning.  I kept circling back to the word "activist." ...It felt to me like that word created a separation between us, as if one group of Friends--"activists"--were set apart from and unreachable by all other Friends.

The more I reflected, the more misunderstood I felt:  my experience of stepping into justice work was about making the simple choice to get involved.  Staying disconnected from my sisters and brothers in the Divine Family had become intolerable for me.

I chose to get involved in the lives of people who were suffering at the hands of those in power.  I chose to get involved and share how a proposed measure by the state's legislature would hurt me personally. I chose to get involved in the hopes that my friends, neighbors, and fellow worshipers would also get involved.

At the moment, back in the meetingroom, I didn't feel clear to share any of this.  It felt more like a memory and reflection that I was to hold and sit with on my own for a while. There was no message for the gathered community, no sense of prayer, no internal quivering or indication of the Still Small Voice compelling me to say something.

And then a Friend spoke out of the silence, inviting messages forward that remained on our hearts but weren't weighty enough to be considered messages arising from the waiting worship.

A petite woman across the room from me stood and spoke about the coming of the New Year.  She explained how she and her adult daughters and son have a tradition of sitting down with one another, and as the mom, she asks each one what she could do to have a better relationship with them in the coming year.  The Friend asked for prayers as the time approached to be with her kids again.

She finished and sat down.  I sensed something shift in me.  I waited a few minutes and offered what had been on my heart.

"I too want to know what I could do to have a better relationship with you, as a meeting.  And I also know that there are times when I have to share with you something that I am holding back..."  I take a breath and explain how Friends' use of the word "activist" to describe me and simultaneously to describe themselves as "not-them" had caused a separation for me; that I wasn't feeling understood; that all I was doing was choosing to get involved in an issue that was important to me.  "Wouldn't we all do that for something we cared about...?" I wondered aloud with them.

Then the message left me and I sat down again.

Another few minutes ticked by.  A young man stood and cautiously started to speak.  He spoke of never having felt like he belonged anywhere.  He has been worshiping at this large urban meeting for five years and he still felt like an outsider.  He didn't know what he had to do to be on the inside of the meeting, though he yearned to be there...

But something in the messages that he heard this particular morning allowed him to share the shame he had felt at not feeling like he belonged, and at the rise of meeting, I noted that a few Friends were speaking with him.  A few others of us commented to one another--and I later shared with him as well--that most of us in our Liberal unprogrammed meetings feel like we're outsiders, and many of us are searching for that sense of belonging, even for those of us who have been among the same meeting for two decades.

And yes, a few Friends approached me and said that they would feel complimented if they were called an activist.  I quietly explained that the words we use impact each of us differently, and we need to share the impact of those words (and actions), regardless of the very good intentions that were attached to them. It's one way how we become Known to each other.

I think that particular worship brought the 30 of us closer to the Living Presence among us.  It's a bit of a paradox, that the more vulnerable we are with one another, the more at home we are; the less we fear each other.


P.S.  Martin Kelley and others have suggested over the years that the single most important thing we can do to offer hospitality and welcome to newcomers among us is to invite them to join us for coffee or a meal.

P.P.S.  In a conversation with a Friend who missed worship and is a sort of spiritual companion to me, she and I spoke about what might happen if we affirmed one another's gifts and ministries, instead of labeling one another as "this sort of Friend" or "that sort of Friend"?  What if we started inviting Friends to share the gifts that we see in them: would they feel a greater sense of belonging? What responsibility do we have to stop excluding ourselves and instead to start inviting ourselves into the life of the meeting, to see ourselves as already belonging?