Sunday, September 21, 2014

New Voices

What is divinity if it can come
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
These are the measures destined for her soul.-

from “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens

I’m home and not at Meeting. In approximately eight minutes, Worship will begin and I will not be there. Most people with whom I interact and befriend do not understand the guilt I feel for not being present today. Weekly attendance was never stressed for them. If one didn’t feel like going, one didn’t. I can, I admit, be somewhat contemptuous of those who think of Quaker Meeting as a tourist attraction, especially in my very transient, urban Meeting in Washington, DC.

My experience was quite different. Every week, when I was a child, I dressed up in a suit and tie. I could generally manage the suit part of dressing myself, but I could never get the hanging of tying a necktie. My father, who is left-handed, had to show me how to do it in a mirror, backwards. With difficulty, I can manage, but not easily. The next time I have to dress formally, I’m contemplating buying a bow tie. If it makes me look seventy years old, I don’t care.

My Meeting can be emotionally and psychologically draining. Giving every attender the right to speak in Worship means that the message shared can be alternately brilliant and very offensive. One of the long-term members is an autistic woman who gives ministry that can be inspiring, but often rambles, frequently lambasting the Meeting for treating her like a pariah and not incorporating her views. Friends grit their teeth and put up with her. She has no life outside of Quakerism, which is tragic, but despite this, she has no right to verbally berate the rest of us. This is an old issue, and I seek not to fan the fire, only to make a larger point.

I believe that religion ought to be an open avenue for all who seek it, but I can understand why the non-religious see our pacifism and beliefs as naive, impotent, and tolerant to the point of masochism. Inclusivity doesn’t mean getting abused on anyone's behalf. This morning I’m taking a brief break to refresh. When I lived in a different city, I felt excited when I parked outside and walked inside the Meetinghouse. I knew I was going to be greeted with warmth and friendliness. I knew I would be made to feel welcome and loved.

In very different surroundings, I feel loved and appreciated usually by a minority group of members and attenders. It is not the lack of general socializing that gets to me most, it’s the scattershot and undisciplined vocal ministry, even with recent improvements. Some Friends confuse NPR or a Thích Nhất Hạnh with the Holy Spirit, even when they are well-intentioned. I know this is commonplace to liberal Quakerism, especially in an urban setting, but I favor Friends who honor what we denote as Spirit-led vocal ministry. We are given a great gift of freedom to form our own message and honor our own Divinity, but we take it too nonchalant and informally.

An update. Meeting has already started and I am not there. I still feel guilty. When I was a very young child, I was highly anxious and afraid of my own shadow. The Methodist church I attended had an adjacent graveyard where the elders of the church were buried. I would flee and cower behind one of the ancient gravestones because I was deathly afraid of Sunday School. But by the time the service began, I would remove myself from my hiding place and take my place alongside my family. Even then, I knew this to be part of my moral duty, though I would not have put it that way at the time.

Sermons I heard could be of a very high quality or very dull. I happen to think that effective preaching is a gift from God and relatively rare. I think I would have remained a member of a mainline Protestant denomination had the minister been reliably charismatic and inspiring. Since then, I’ve taken on a new standard of ministry, though sometimes I feel that I alone have to keep everyone focused in the same direction with what I share. I listen closely within myself to the messages that are the most powerful and the most inclusive. I see my role as one of enhancing Worship for others, and I see this as my God-given leading.

But when I am not present or I am not led to share, the wheels seem to come off the bus at times. I am not aware of anyone else whose leading and duty to the Meeting corresponds to my own. It is not my responsibility to steer Meeting for Worship in the proper direction. After all, I am a minister, but not the minister. When I was a member and clerk of Ministry and Worship, I was privy to many complaints regarding the quality of vocal ministry. I took these to heart.

In an unprogrammed Meeting, the rules that govern ministry are very open-ended. It is imperative upon the faith and belief of the individual Friend to discern a true leading from one that is not. If we don’t know how to do this, we are often left either with a political diatribe, a public service announcement for Eastern philosophy, or a psychotherapy session. The question then remains as to whether genuine Spirit-led ministry can truly be taught.

Part of it is a question of learned helplessness. We know someone else will take part in a committee, so we don't. We know someone else will give the vocal ministry weighing on our hearts, so we refrain. Learned helplessness is sometimes called the bystander effect. In the middle of a crisis, many hesitate because they know someone else will do the heavy lifting.

We have a few guidebooks along the way, but as religious mystics, much of that inner work is our own. No one said it was easy, but to be Quakers, we must challenge ourselves for the good of everyone. Those who are not Quaker might see this opportunity as something of  direct democracy. Every Friend's voice is valued, but I now have observed years of problems that transpire when there are no checks and balances within reason to resolve crises. More recently, it took us over 10 years to draft plans to build a handicap-accessible campus, for example.

When I was a member of a programmed faith, I never once wanted to intercede and take the place of the minister in the middle of his weekly talk. I had been conditioned to politely listen and hopefully be inspired for twenty minutes. With unprogrammed Worship, we are commanded to think of ministry very differently. At its best, a gathered meeting, our goal, is an extended, harmonious dialogue from every person who stands to speak that can go off the rails or line up perfectly. It has inspired in me a kind of direct communion with God that was never possible before. I do understand why the Early Friends took on this radical form.

We usually take an indirect approach to this concern. We assume if people feed their own spiritual needs, the rest will follow. But I wonder what direct classes and workshops on the subject of vocal ministry would provide those enrolled. At my Meeting, maybe 10-20% of those in attendance regularly share ministry, but this leaves 80% who do not. I think some of us are better at it than others, but I encourage a renewed focus that might bring new voices, enriching others and themselves in the process. Even when there are no official leaders, some speak more loudly and more frequently than others. Others who are less talkative ought not doubt their skill. This may be my leading, but it is not solely my own.

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