I have wrestled and gone a full twelve rounds with my own angel in writing this. How does one express indignation, hopefully of a righteous quality, in a fully Quakerly sense? Am I making too much of this? Am I making not enough of it? Will my words wound, rather than correct? Discerning that, yes, this needs to be said, I have proceeded. But seeking to spare feelings, I have sought anonymity and vagueness whenever possible as regards specific details.
My life seems to take one of two leadings these days. While following the first leading, I channel my inner George Fox. Something is wrong here! This is not the way it needs to be! How dare you! I become very consumed with setting people right. Perhaps I may even border on self-righteousness. On the second path, I am more diplomatic. I give people the benefit of the doubt. Seeking that of God in everyone, I strain and search for that very thing. Or failing that, I keep in mind what Elvis Costello noted. "Oh, I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused."
This weekend, the life of a Friend in both senses of the word was formally memorialized. Two weeks before, he died suddenly while exercising. He was not yet thirty. The suddenness of his death was a complete shock to many of us, myself included. The family wished that we might incorporate Quaker worship into the Memorial Service. Though held inside a Catholic church at a Jesuit University, the service was a blend between Catholicism and mainstream Christianity, though most of it was filled with vocal tributes from those who knew him in life. Ten separate speakers (I counted) were featured, after which the service was to conclude with fifteen or so minutes of unprogrammed worship. I know this because the suggestion was my own, albeit with the feedback of many Friends who gave wise council.
I now need to pull back slightly from the narrative to provide an adequate back story. Those of you who know anything about Washington, DC, culture know that Georgetown University has long had a stellar academic reputation. Along with this reputation comes a lofty, patrician attitude of old money and older connections. When my friend chose to enroll, he was in effect following in a well-established family line of high achievers. Yet, he was probably one of the most self-effacing, modest, unprepossessing people I have ever had the great fortune to know. The most profound irony of all was that in death, only in death, I realized that his talents and skills held no bounds. The phrase Renaissance Man is often overused, but in this context, it could not be more suitable or fitting. He had the money, the name, the pedigree, but never once made mention of it in any of our conversations.
Attitudes of some of those gathered indirectly and sometimes directly contradicted my Friend's memory. For whatever reason or another, many of those who were previously scheduled to speak all had some greater connection to Georgetown. This was to be expected, I suppose, considering the location of the service. When it came time for silent worship, I was literally praying that it would be truly silent. I was hoping that it would not turn into, as so many Memorial Services become, a popcorn meeting, with a hefty dose of verbal competition mixed in to the meld. My intention in arranging this portion of the service, writing most of the description that explained unprogrammed worship to those in attendance, as well as relying on the sound advice and experience of other Friends in so doing was to make sure that those who were not Quaker might really get a chance to see the virtues of silent worship.
My Friend attended a local Friends' school for high school, and former teachers may have decided that silent worship meant their right to voice their own private, unscripted eulogy. Predictably, what transpired wasn't very silent. I don't think ten seconds elapsed before someone was on his or her feet, talking again. Fifteen minutes or so later, the Father leading the service made a wise decision to bring worship to a close after the fifth speaker finished speaking. Whether by intention or design it had turned into Friends School v. Georgetown. Nothing anyone said was objectionable, except by the fact that this was specifically meant to be worship, with a correspondingly heavy emphasis on silence. That fact was printed clearly inside every order of service.
And once again, here was my inner George Fox, this time channeling Jesus.
"When you pray, don't be like hypocrites. They like to stand in synagogues and on street corners to pray so that everyone can see them. I can guarantee this truth: That will be their only reward."
But then I think to myself, "You're really being too harsh." Perhaps they got caught up in the moment. These speakers did have very moving things to say about him and his family, after all. Maybe it didn't go as planned, but it was a still a lovely service. One can't control everything. And that is true. It was a very moving, very thoughtful tribute to a life taken too soon. Those who spoke clearly were trying to speak about the dearly departed, not themselves, though sometimes even in speaking of others we are still speaking honestly of ourselves.
It's not what was said that bothers me so much. It's factionalism, rivalry, subtle one-upsmanship, and self-importance that gets to me. It's people who might take no small offense that I do not doff my metaphorical hat in their presence. Once there was an unwillingness to put on airs and dress up speech to perpetuate hierarchy and inequality. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
My Friend lived this example and many others. But if his life speaks from beyond the grave most, it is in this verse of Scripture from Proverbs: "Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor".