Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Simplicity Even in Complicated Decisions

In the Law it is written: "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord. So the gift of speaking in other languages is a sign for unbelievers, not for believers. The gift of speaking what God has revealed is a sign for believers, not for unbelievers.


Over the weekend, several members of my Monthly Meeting met to discuss an important matter. The Peace and Social (Justice) Concerns committee had been left recently without any members. It was believed that in the seat of government, to not have a counter-weight to the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and the Oval Office was beyond reproach. I agree that in the abstract, having a presence would be ideal. However, I and others felt that it was time to reevaluate the role of the committee in the daily life of the Meeting. A Meeting for Discernment called for this precise purpose yielded some interesting commentary, but few concrete answers.

In times past, Peace and Social Concerns had been a haven for sometimes inflexible ideologues. Those who held strong political opinions naturally gravitated to the committee, each of whom had their own rather massive ax to grind. I often wonder if this was to the group’s detriment. As pacifists, Friends can feel isolated and out-of-step with the rest of the world. Critiquing the dangerous aspects of the Military-Industrial Complex feels cleansing sometimes, but the means by which we lash out can be just as violent. That was, in particular, an issue on the minds of a few as we sat in silence, contemplating the queries set before us.

Afterward, the Meeting over, a Friend correctly noted that we focused more on the micro details and less on the big picture. Washington culture is partially to blame. The occupations of many members and regular attenders require the skill to solve very specific, esoteric problems. Many are experts in his or her field, which is invariably highly specialized. This is one of the drawbacks of having an intensely cerebral Meeting. Friends sometimes confuse intellect, which comes from the self, with Spirit. The Meeting also reflects a strong secular character, which in this case is often the sign of people who ascribe their success to personal achievement, not so much to God’s role in their lives. I have often grown frustrated with people who could have what they crave so intently, but fail to see it. It is, as the metaphor goes, like standing in the middle of a raging river, while dying of thirst. All anyone needs to do is reach out.

During the Meeting for Discernment, we highlighted the basic problem with some success and much creativity, but few solutions were proposed. I did not doubt the presence of the Spirit in all that was said, but it felt misdirected to me, channeled in unhelpful directions. Approximately one Friend agreed to be part of the committee, should it not be laid down, but he is of the same persuasion as most others who have previously served. One can only work with what one has, but inner work is often more imperative than outer work. Many Friends work for Peace and Social Justice in their outer worlds, be it an occupation, volunteer activity, or both. But much of addressing what Peace really is, in particular, requires that we ask ourselves some tough queries.

On the subject of committee service, I must admit I only have one other model in front of me. While a member of a much smaller Monthly Meeting, the same ten people shared responsibilities because they had no other choice. Had they not agreed to take part, nothing would have ever gotten done. I was invited to participate in the process, and would have gladly had I not left to move up here. It always seemed to me that everyone went about their service cheerfully with no complaints. In an example of how the grass is always greener, they often lamented that if only they had more members, so much more could be accomplished. I have learned since then that the more people involved in the process, the less actually ends up getting done. This isn’t always the case, but it does nonetheless make matters unnecessarily complicated.

While a member of Birmingham Friends, the Meeting functioned in an organic, uncluttered sort of way. Only rudimentary scheduling needed to be done beforehand. Meeting with a Concern for Business lasted all of an hour and never exceeded it. Though we’d never use the word ritual, what I’ve experienced since being in DC is a kind of strict formalism in the way that the Meeting functions. One needs to learn the terms, work the system, and memorize the roles of pertinent players. It’s a very bureaucratic setup, and it makes sense in the context of the structure of the world around it. However, it often complicates what could be much more Simple. Despite the open-ended nature of the queries for contemplation, an intellectual exercise is what Meeting for Discernment became. Relying on the Spirit is fine, but giving people a broader platform with insufficient guidance seemed to be problematic here.

Returning to Peace and Social Concerns, perhaps the committee needs to be dissolved for a while. Older members have stated that it has been laid down before in recent memory. This entire process reminds me that sometimes less is more. Out of so many beautiful words and phrases I've encountered recently, the Testimony of Simplicity seems apt. Though I enjoy the terminology, history, and application of Quaker Process, there may be instances where it does not have to be relied upon as a singular means of discernment. Say what you will about giving everyone an equal voice, sometimes three voices are sufficient, and thirty are absolutely excessive. Yet, I know we are learning from each other, and at minimum I know more about those who sat around the circle with me. That information may be the most helpful of all.

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