Monday, October 14, 2013

Lessons Learned from Unexpected Visitors

Because my Meeting is located in the middle of a city, we sometimes attract unexpected visitors to Meeting for Worship. Some years ago, a cheerful, kind, but mostly incomprehensible homeless man made us a regular destination on his Sunday mornings. A Friend was designated to sit by him the whole of Worship and gently implore him to sit after he'd said the requisite three minutes of nonsensical gibberish. Lest one think otherwise, he had quite a rapport with many of us and we were quite fond of him.

Between Christmas and New Year's, he was beaten to death outside of the Watergate Hotel. The reasons why were never mentioned, but I imagine he must have been an easy target for the amoral and violent among us. The notice of his demise in The Washington Post included lots of praise for our departed friend, some of it from the Meeting. It was only then that we recognized that he'd bounced back between two houses of worship, drawing as much praise from the other church as from us.

I must admit that I felt guilty for not being more tolerant during his time on Earth. I often found his messages tedious, but my main complaint is that his messages kept me from centering down the way I would have liked. One way to look at the lessons provided by his presence among us is in how it challenged me. Since then, I have tried to look for the Divine attributes of every vocal ministry and the Divinity of every person. The easiest approach might have been harsh denunciation, but we sought to look for the good first before we settled for the bad.

A related situation that occurred yesterday during Worship was quite different. Early on, a man standing at the back of the room began speaking loudly. Though his speech was slurred and his talk meandered, he managed to give a rambling tirade about the evils of Obamacare and homosexual women (his words, not mine). A disruption like this happens once every now and again. There is a system in place for dealing with it, one I am pleased to say that worked flawlessly in this instance. Three Friends rose and, without aggression or anger, gently escorted the speaker out of the Meetinghouse.

Afterwards, those of us who remained inside tried to make sense of what had just happened. As happens with highly educated people in times of crisis, we sought to intellectually unpack what we had just heard and experienced. The vocal ministry that followed sought to make sense of the aftermath from the best possible light. One Friend rose to express concern for his health, hoping that the same Obamacare he had been vociferously denouncing might help him with his illness. Another postulated that the speaker was the miner's canary, articulating the voices of those who opposed change and reform.

As for the second observation, I'm not sure I would place such stock in someone so seriously mentally ill. At best, he was only able to parrot a few boilerplate phrases one might hear in the media or on the street corner. Though I do agree with the reforms underway and the process of changing mores now present, I'm not sure I would use the harangue of a person not in his right mind as validation for what I wanted to believe as truth.

A homeless man on a rant, however hurtful, may mean little to nothing. Over time, I've looked over my writings from times where I was having a manic episode. Though I was convinced of their superior, flawless quality upon composition, to the sober eye, they make little to no sense. If he had full control of his faculties, his conduct would have been considered disrespectful. I dread the possibility of attending Worship while in a manic episode, knowing I would have to put the pieces back together myself. Healing and Reconciliation would not be easy. Building back trust with others would be difficult.

A phrase I have used over and over again to describe Quaker unprogrammed Worship is that it is an exercise in religious anarchy. With no ritual and no outward sacraments, everyone in attendance during Worship is responsible for filling in the gaps themselves. No hymnal guides us, nor any responsive reading. This is why it is easy for those seeking a soapbox to disrupt Worship. For the uninformed or unrestrained, the inviting silence may be too much of a temptation.

Three or four years ago, I believed my leadings directed me to call out the Meeting during Worship. By its conclusion, one person during Worship described me as a Baptist minister admonishing his flock. The energy I expended, in addition to the act itself, is nothing I would do again unless I felt it to be completely imperative. At the time, I felt that the Meeting had to be confronted with its shortcomings, if it ever wanted to grow and reach its full potential. In time, the stress began to wear me down.

The responses I received in this grand experiment were often hurtful. One Friend rose to tell me, in a roundabout way, that I had a lot of nerve to say what I did. She has never returned. Others misunderstood my intentions, reacting more out of anger than love. I might have been seeking to provoke, in that Jesus sort of way, but I never intended to hurt anyone. I can be a thin-skinned person myself, but I know that certain people see a potential rejection of themselves in every possible dialogue.

For all I know, provocation might have been the approach the homeless person was seeking. I'm not sure what about mental illness often creates a need and a compulsion for people to speak truth to power. Even in my worst times, face to face dealings were sufficient, and I never gave impromptu sermons on public transportation. I would like to perceive of others like him in a different way that isn't mostly about me. Rather than see the homeless person in question as the bellwether of our opposition, I would like to posit that he might well have been a partially deformed image of ourselves.

We may have viewed him as our opposition, but he followed our model, though he may have been ignorant of the particulars. As Shakespeare wrote, centuries ago, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." This phrase has often been interpreted to mean that fate is not what drives men and women to their decisions and actions, but rather the human condition. When even the most strident voices are taken as instruction, not censure, we may very well be making progress ourselves, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

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