26 June 2007

Responding to Comments

One of the things I miss about mailing lists (as opposed to blogs) is the ability to respond to a comment when the response is ripe. I'm going to try the experiment of responding to comments in blog posts instead of or in addition to responding to comments in situ.

In Listening in Tongues, I mentioned my ongoing struggle to balance my individual worship with my corporate role as Meeting closer. At the last Worship & Ministry meeting, I asked the committee members to share their thoughts on the role of the closer. We did a round of worship sharing on closing Meeting. One of the things that I cherish about this committee is the quality of depth and tenderness that Friends bring to our work together. In our sharing, we seemed to approach the truth of what we are called to do when we close Meeting.

One of the things that has stuck with me is that the closer is essentially clerking worship. We are not just there to discern when worship has ended, but also to tend it while it happens. We are also responsible for handling any emergencies that might arise (health emergencies, disruptive individuals, problems with the sound system for the hearing impaired). The closer is the designated driver, there to keep the Meeting safe in its journeys. The closer is in worship, too, but mindful of her responsibilities to the Meeting as a whole.

When I closed this last Sunday, we ended "late" again, but right on God's time by my spiritual watch.

In Children in Meeting, Honey asked how my boys did in worship and what they said afterwards.

Both boys did well in worship and seemed to enjoy it. They got restless a few times, but they seemed to sink into the peace and love in the room. My youngest told me that he liked worship, that it felt good. My 11-year-old didn't say much, but he's a deep thinker and will share his opinion in the fullness of time.

After Meeting, the clerk came over to my younger son and told him how nice it was to see him in worship. They talked about worship for a few minutes, with my son sharing his opinion of a few of the messages. I appreciated the clerk taking the time to welcome a child to worship and his willingness to talk with him so naturally about my son's worship experience.

A Crooked Trail

Recently, I've been finding my way along a narrow, crooked trail. I've found myself handling a very sticky, very confidential issue on behalf of the Meeting.

I haven't been able to share this issue with the Friends I usually rely on to help me find my way in the Meeting's work. I haven't been able to pass this off to the clerk or the appropriate committee. I have needed to work with a few Friends on this issue, but have had to hold much of the information about the situation in confidence.

This has not been easy for me. I'm very much an open process person. I believe that groups work better when everyone knows what's going on. In Meeting, I have come to rely on the wisdom of the community, the strength of seeking truth in Quaker process among Friends.

In this case, I have had to trust to my own wisdom and my own leading. The leading part hasn't been so hard. Each step of this path has been laid out clearly before my feet, with walls and cliffs on either side. Each step has been tricky to negotiate and emotionally difficult, challenging my compassion, my ability to stay centered, and my ability to avoid polarization. Along the way, I have often thought that this task ought to have been given to someone else, someone with better skills and more experience. Let this cup pass from my lips.

In the past few days, however, I have accepted that I might just be the best person for the job. There's a generational shift in the leadership of our Meeting, and many of the wise Friends who might be better suited for the job are no longer up to it. This situation was an opportunity for the new generation to develop some of the skills that will make us the wise and seasoned Friends for the next generation.

This task has given me renewed appreciation for the way Friends usually handle difficult situations. It's much easier to be part of a committee laboring over a difficult issue, where tasks can be shared with those best able to perform them. It's much easier to handle difficult situations when you can test your discernment by meeting with weighty Friends. It's much easier to move forward when you can feel the Meeting behind you.

In worship on Sunday, Friends talked about the support we get from God (or our inner guides or the Light) when we walk through the darkness. A Friend talked about Jesus' faith on the cross. Another Friend talked about the faith of the Jews in the concentration camps. Several Friends talked about how they had been lifted out of their own personal despair. Sitting in the Meeting, I felt my own heart lift. We might not always be able to share the details of our struggles, but we still support one another.

I think I often put too much faith in the power of words and forget the value of silence. Worship reminds me to go deeper, beyond the words and into the experience.

14 June 2007

This Path Under My Feet

I've recently read two very different views of Left Coast Friends: David LeShana's Quakers in California and A Western Quaker Reader edited by David Manousos. LeShana details the history of Western Friends from the pastoral point of view. He tries to be fair about the Beanite portion of California Quakers, but he is part of the evangelical Quaker church, and he clearly believes in the rightness of that point of view. I felt a bit at sea in his world view; it is not the story of Californian Friends as any of the Quakers I know would tell it.

Reading A Western Quaker Reader was like coming home. For one thing, I kept running into the names of Friends from my Meeting. For another thing, the narrative is not presented as a single thread told by one voice, but rather a narrative pieced together from many points of view. Different individuals relate their own first-hand accounts of events in Western Quaker history. Members of each yearly meeting tell parts of its stories. The whole thing doesn't hang together, but it does give a flavor of what it is that we do in the Beanite part of the Quaker family.

A few weeks ago, I was reminded that the word "liberal" means "free." A liberal arts education is designed, according to the Greek model, to prepare the citizens of a democracy to take part in the work of governing the state.

I've been thinking of this meaning of the word "liberal," and also of how responsibility is the flip side of the coin of freedom. Freedom without responsibility is mere license. Freedom with responsibility is an integral part of our American/English/Roman/Greek/Western heritage.

Freedom, and its concomitant responsibility, is also a deep part of our Quaker heritage. Each individual is answerable, not to a presbytery or the local priest, but directly and personally to God. We are a religion of clergy, each of us taking responsibility for our worship, our property, our community, and the earth itself. We need no hireling ministers, no paid clergy; we do the work together. Like members of a family. Like the citizens of Athens. Like the apostles.

How do we do this? Where are our models? We're the only Christian church I know without a hierarchical structure. We're deliberately decentralized, with power and responsibility retained by Meetings, committees, and individuals.

We're not efficient. We sometimes fumble our responsibilities. Things fall through the cracks. The editor of the newsletter (that would be me) makes at least one major error every single month. The Worship & Ministry committee (that would also be me, at least in part) wakes up to discover that we don't have a functioning Children's committee (a committee under our care). We learn that there are problems with the children's program. (Er, and my children are a big part of the First Day school class.) The bulk of the last two Worship & Ministry meetings have been concerned with belated oversight of the children's program.

This is all, I suspect, part and parcel of how we do business. Our quality varies. We discover things later than would be optimal and deal with them more slowly than would be ideal.

And yet I, and liberal Friends wherever we exist, would not trade our slow, inefficient system of governance for a crisp, efficient, hierarchical system. There is something precious in our very slowness, our very inefficiency. We can't just barrel ahead with solutions as soon as we think of them. We have to wait for our slowest, most methodical, most deliberate members to get there.

Still, it would be nice if someone had told us sooner that the Children's committee was struggling. And it would be lovely if the newsletter editor had more time to double-check her work before publication. And if we were all a little more proactive and efficient. The engineer in me chafes under the inefficiency and unprofessionalism. Our Quaker performance is rough, unpolished, as plain as spilt salt.

In our slowness and inefficiency, we build relationships. We have to pay attention to the details of how our Meeting is run. We can't depend on the minister or the church board to take care of things for us; we have to lend a hand, attend our committee meetings, carry part of the burden. We labor with one another, both over the work at hand and over our different points of view.

At our Meeting retreat this year, a new attender told us that he thought we could use more of some sort of activity.

"Great!" I chirped, "Would you be willing to lead it?"

"But you're Worship & Ministry!" he protested, "You're the ones in charge of the retreat."

"We might be serving on the Worship & Ministry committee, but it's not all up to us," said another member of the committee, "We're a religion of clergy. We Quakers didn't do away with the clergy, we did away with the laiety."

He looked a bit flustered. I felt a bit apprehensive. Maybe we'd just given him more reality than he could handle. Later, I found myself on the path with him and apologized for being so abrupt.

"No, it was a good reminder," he said, "That's one of the things I like about Friends, that everyone is equal."

That's one of the things I like about Friends, too.