Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Religious Ideal

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Matthew 10:14

God never promises the perfect house of worship, city, and demographic makeup. Our own founder, George Fox, wandered for years in eternal search for those very things. My father's mother, the daughter of a Pentecostal minister, dragged my father from one preacher to another, hoping to find a cure for her numerous chronic illnesses. And yet her faith never wavered, though I would question the tactics employed by those who claimed to heal with Jesus' steady hand.

I had dreams, too. I wanted to be a trusted elder, in the best sense of the word. I wanted to see a generation of children born, reared, sent off to college, and hopefully to return when it came their time to be mothers and fathers. I wanted to be weighty in the best sense of the word, too, a person whose opinion could be trusted, whose wisdom was impeccable.

My dream is the dream of many. One of my Friends wishes she could live in a tight-knit Friends community roughly 200 years ago, a place where every child was known by name, as was every adult Friend. And here we could be peculiar together. Here we could be plain together. Here it didn't matter that we stuck out to the outside world.

What is your religious ideal? Have you experienced it in your own life? If you have, you've been extremely fortunate. Most people I've talked to have experienced times of great discord within their own Meeting, no matter how small, no matter how large. It might be foolish to believe in this ideal, and yet we yearn for it. For a while, we see it, we fall in love with our Meetings, just as much as we would another human. But within a year or two, the honeymoon is over and everything has cracks in it, cracks large enough to peer through. And the most ambitious of the reformers begin work there. Some succeed. Many fail.

In my own life, it's a matter of proportion. Like plants, those plants that flower beautifully must be able to choke out, or at least rescind the growth of the weeds. I believe what all know what weeds are. And without a spade or hoe or shovel, and, even more crucially, the willingness to use them, weeds take root very easily. There was a time we tended our gardens. But then we confused flowering plants with blight, and our numbers shrank.

So we over-corrected. We pretty much let anyone join and instead of ripping the roots out as needed and pruning, we let them grow wherever they wanted to grow. And others came, infested with weeds. These were allowed to stay as they were. And eventually, there were more weeds than there were healthy plants. But an army of weeds can overrule the robust plants, and so they did. We were no longer a healthy garden.

And this is a familiar story I hear from Friend to Friend, though perhaps not in those exact words. And reformers who fight weeds take aim against an uphill battle, seeking to undo the permissiveness that we created for reading out Friends for not marrying other Quakers or bidding farewell to those if they fought in the Civil War. We created both problems, which has complicated efforts of those who fight today to make changes.

This might not be a very popular sentiment, but I think that sometimes things either are or are not. I don't mean gay marriage or Republicans versus Democrats. I couldn't care less about political or ideological issues in a religious context. To me, these are secondary issues. Instead, I care about the fate of the Religious Society of Friends, and being afraid of exclusionary policies to the point of paralysis is one such issue. I'm bisexual. There, I said it. Should I be not allowed in Worship? Of course not. But tolerating any people who are the weeds in our garden, the toxic ones, they should be eldered (gently, with civility and love), and if they don't respond, they need to go.

Some years ago I was clerk of Ministry and Worship. A man was sharing too frequently during Meeting for Worship. Devising a way of confronting him was difficult. He didn't join a committee and never went downstairs for coffee. So I sat next to him and when it came time for shaking hands, I asked him if we could briefly step outside.

He agreed.

"Friend," I said. "Would you please consider spacing out your vocal ministry? What if you spoke only every other week, not every single week?"

He got nasty nice at me. He asked me under what authority I spoke. I identified the committee to which I belonged. Then he accused me of being the Meeting police, got huffy, left, and never returned.

That was never my intention. But when we do not tend our garden, weeds feel entitled to be there. He felt entitled to be heard, week in and week out. But weeds do not intend to beautify their surroundings. They are there for their own reasons.

Too many Meetings are full of weeds. They discourage flowering plants or force the genuine article to the side, away from the action. They make committee service a chore, rather than a pleasure. This is to say that every Meeting has its share of weeds. But when the healthy flowering plants are in control, so too is God's hand at work. God's purpose for our lives is at work in those situations.

Don't worry that a garden spade is a weapon. Don't confuse pacifism with passivism. Any garden needs pruning now and again. On work day, consider bringing your own tools, the ones that exist between your ears. If you don't do it, no one else will. No one's asking you to be a Southern Baptist. We deserve nothing less than our Religious Ideal.


Daniel Wilcox said...

Wow, you wrote about "what is your religious ideal"? Your article has me running in half a dozen different directions all at once:-) So many thoughts and worries and concerns...
Do you have time to read a 500-page tome on this?

#1 It seems the Religious Society of Friends has always been a jostling of the ideal versus the messy present,
the vision versus the practice. At one point in my life, I became so upset at our Friends' rejection of a key Friends testimony that my wife and I left Friends for awhile. Only guess, what? We discovered even worse situations in a different denomination.

#2 May I ask you a specific question? (I hope this doesn't sound invasive, but I am trying to understand, especially given how much this topic and related ones are currently center-most in Quakers' concerns.)
You wrote, "I'm bisexual."
While I strongly support same sexual marriage, I admit I don't understand this from a gay person's perspective. For instance, why write about feeling attracted to both men and women as a Quaker? It would seem that as a seeker of truth, a person would seek to know what God's ideal is for him/her and follow that. Thus you would choose either to marry in one direction or the other.

Or do you bring up your situation because of not feeling accepted and understood by groups such as NWYM?

#3 The garden analogy can be carried in another direction. As an old backpacker, I used to love getting out into wilderness areas. In many ways those less cultivated, restricted, planned places showed a whole different way of nature.

Sometimes, weeds are really important. And, besides, as Jesus said, none of us can tell weeds from plants anyway. Heck, plants used to be weeds:-)

Comrade Kevin said...

I meant, in mentioning my sexual orientation, that we as a Religious Society have used schism when it is entirely useless. It has broken apart Yearly Meetings and is entirely irrelevant to the total debate. But what has been substantial is separating weeds from plants. I think we can separate weeds from plants and not doing our God-given duty has created a ton of issues large and small.

But we must continue to seek the truth. I myself have left a Meeting that was toxic, one that careful judgment and careful pruning would have improved.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for responding quickly.

But how can you spot a weed? Can you give another example besides the participant who over-talked?

I'm torn between leaving and staying with a drought--have done both.

I left when one yearly meeting when they came out strongly in support of nuclear weapons.
But stayed twice when two meetings overly monitored open worship.

Now I'm on the far out edges of Friends.

Comrade Kevin said...

I'll do my best. In my former Meeting, I gave frequent vocal ministry at first. Where I had been convinced, no one seemed to mind that I was so vocal. But one of the unwritten rules of this new place was that no one should share more than once every other week. Naturally, like all unwritten rules, I had to figure it out for myself.

My partner's father happened to be sitting next to me. I forget where she was at the time. I gave a vocal ministry that deeply spoke to him. But on the bench sitting immediately in front of me, a dour-faced Friend decided I was due for a nasty lecture.

"You ought to think about how frequently you share," she said.

I think I said something to the extent that I talked at the desire of the Holy Spirit.

"Well, you need to watch how often you share," she said, and left her bench.

I went downstairs for coffee and got more of the same treatment. This one was more passive-aggressive.

"If you share as much as you do," he said, "you clearly should wear a name tag."

See, Friends were making assumptions. To them, I was a problem, but I was really just new. And that is my primary complaint with many Meetings.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Intriguing story. Thanks for sharing.

I'm not sure though how your story helps in explaining how we can spot weeds and deal with them.

Comrade Kevin said...

It is a worthwhile point, but I don't think it takes much to identify toxic people. And by weeds, that is really what I mean.