31 December 2006

Stone Soup for the Soul

or: On the Role of Leadership in a Friends Meeting

Pacific Yearly Meeting has given its monthly meetings the charge to consider the Jubilee Year and what it might mean to Friends. Initially, this led to great confusion in our Meeting as we tried to figure out what connection the Old Testament Jubilee could possibly have to our modern lives. Our society is so very different from that of the Israelites, and the scope of the Society of Friends is quite limited economically.

Our Meeting has taken some small and not-so-small steps to try to review what we are doing in light of the Jubilee Year. Are we as a corporate body acting from the center? Are our structures and institutions alive and in congruence with our needs and values? What can we do to center down corporately and make our Meeting a living embodiment of the Light?

This summer, some of our beloved Friends (who also held strong leadership roles in the community) moved far away. The Meeting (and I myself) was in a kerfluffle before they left but, to my surprise, the Meeting did not falter once they were gone. Their departure, instead of being a crisis, was an opportunity for the Meeting to go deeper, to develop new strengths, and to rejoice in the members who remain.

In past years, some of our Meeting traditions have grown heavy for those who are trying to carry them. It has become abundantly clear that we cannot continue to do these things as they have been done. We have chosen to lay some of them aside and to continue others in a simpler form.

Which leads us to Christmas Eve.

It is the custom of our Meeting to have a programmed celebratory family worship on Christmas Eve in the evening. I woke with a start the Saturday after Thanksgiving to realize that Worship & Ministry had done nothing to plan for this annual event. The Christmas Eve service is a cherished oasis of sanity and connection in my own holiday celebration. It has also traditionally been a fair amount of work for either a member of Worship & Ministry or a planning committee.

I started thinking about how we could have a wonderful Christmas Eve worship that would include everyone and not strain Worship & Ministry's slender resources. Since Christmas Eve came on a Sunday, we'd already have unprogrammed worship in the morning so perhaps we could make the evening worship a bit less programmed than it usually is.

As I mulled it over, I got the idea that the whole worship could be musical, with the music provided by members of the Meeting. All that Worship & Ministry (which was starting to look more and more like me) would need to do would be to get the ball rolling.

And so it came to pass. The committee approved the idea and sent me and another member of the committee off with their blessings. We talked to the musical members of the community and they started organizing themselves to prepare numbers, lead carols, and copy song sheets. A few Friends volunteered to help with the set-up.

We had a lovely musical evening with instrumental music, a sing-along, and sacred circle dancing followed by a bountiful potluck. I worked steadily and joyfully, without undue stress or exhaustion.

I left the Christmas Eve worship feeling blessed by my community and also with a sense that this is how Friends are meant to organize. Historically, unprogrammed Friends have deliberately eschewed professional leaders and ministers. We are a religion of clergy, and that means that each person brings her gifts to the community.

I and the other Christmas Eve facilitator went back to Worship and Ministry with new enthusiasm for stone soup events. Our business for the evening was to plan our spring Meeting retreat (an event that has historically burnt out the clerk of Worship and Ministry), and the committee explored ways to share responsibility more widely in the community.

One of our possible themes for our retreat is "What would our Meeting do if we were truly Spirit-led?" At one point, the clerk of the Meeting suggested that we might make the weekend an experiential potluck, with individual Friends bringing activities and gifts to share as their potluck dishes.

Turning to Thee

In a recent discussion with friends, the subject of the Quaker thee came up. We traced its linguistic development and speculated on why Quakers clung to the second person familiar while others replaced it with the second person formal and plural. More mysterious was the Quaker clinging to the objective "thee" instead of the nominative "thou" and the practice of conjugating "thee" as if it were third person singular (i.e. "thee does" instead of "thou dost").

I have long regretted the loss of the tender and personal "thou" in English speech. I am now regretting the loss of the religious and personal "thee" in Quaker speech. "Thou" served to set apart speech with an intimate from impersonal or commercial speech. "Thee," it seems to me, is a direct appeal from that of God in me to that of God in thee.

I am wondering about introducing "thee" into my own speech with Friends. For me, it would function as a reminder to speak from the heart and the Spirit, a reminder that Friends are connected at a deep and personal level.

11 December 2006

In God's Time

About once a month, I am responsible for closing Meeting. This means that I need to provide the flowers for the center table, discern when Meeting is over, welcome folks to Meeting, and facilitate introductions and announcements. I find this a challenging duty for many reasons, but it also gives me delight.

I don't ordinarily wear a watch. I gave watches up years ago because I decided that they interfered with my ability to move according to my children's needs and not according to the clock. For many years, my watch sat in a drawer, its battery getting deader and deader.

Our Meetinghouse has no clock in the main room, and so I have had to be creative in order to end Meeting on time. I have borrowed watches from sympathetic Friends. I have sat near individuals who wear watches with large dials.

I recently got new batteries for my watch just so I could wear it to Meeting on closing days. Naturally, in the rush to get four children, myself, and the flowers ready for Meeting, I forgot to put on my watch. Moreover, I forgot completely about the need to monitor the time until I was deep in worship.

Glancing around, I could find no close Friend wearing a watch. "Very well," I thought, "this morning I will just have to close Meeting on God's time instead of clock time."

I gave the closing of Meeting completely over to God and settled back to deep worship. After some time (although it was difficult to say how much because I was in a timeless space), I was prompted to end Meeting and welcome afterthoughts.

"It's too early," I thought, but I opened my eyes and closed Meeting. At 11:30 on the dot. I had my usual difficulty finding words after deep worship, but I managed to fulfill my duties well enough.

My focus during worship these last several months has been on radical faith and surrendering control of more and more of my life to God. That morning, I had especially been thinking about how we as a Meeting can act more on living faith and less on custom and tradition. Are we, as a corporate body, allowing the Spirit a big enough space to act through us or are we relying too much on past directions and past decisions?

On a more personal note, should I even try to wear a watch when I close Meeting? Or should I instead put my faith in God to prompt me to close Meeting when I should? Would my Friends be as tolerant of faith-led closing if I closed Meeting 1o minutes early or 15 minutes late?

And Kristina, if you happen to be looking in on this post, I felt your presence strongly at our worship that morning. I could almost see you sitting there, encouraging me to forget about clocks and pay attention to Spirit instead.

01 December 2006

Setting a Place for the Spirit

Some years ago, I was taking a walk along our road. I intended it to be a long, vigorous walk.

After a short distance, I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in some time. We started chatting, and, after a few minutes, I was suddenly prompted to go back home. I left my friend abruptly and headed home at a trot.

When I rounded the next corner, I saw a naked toddler standing in the middle of the road.

"Hi honey," I said, reaching out for her hand, "Where's your mommy?" She led me to her house, where her grateful dad gathered her for a big hug.

When the Spirit speaks loudly enough, I have no trouble hearing. In that case, I didn't even stop to think. I simply obeyed.

When the Spirit speaks more softly, however, I'm not sure that I always hear. How many times have I missed the Spirit's whispers? How many times have I heard the gentle prompting and convinced myself to continue on my own wilful way?

I spent First Day with the children this last week, but I did get one very clear message during the ten minutes that we joined the main worship:

There is no issue too large for God's guidance. There is no issue too small for Spirit.

I think I am being asked to remain open to the Spirit at all times. Even if I think that God doesn't care what vegetable I serve for supper, I should leave the door open for Spirit to prompt me otherwise.

In some areas, such as parenting, I am quick to seek guidance. In others, such as work, I rarely do. I think I am being asked to expand God's scope in my life, to open more of my actions to guidance from the Spirit.