Friday, April 19, 2013

The Art of Belonging

At a Young Adult Friend gathering last night, I listened for some time to the lengthy concerns of a Friend. I was not expecting such an aggressive and passionate display, else I might have thought twice about sharing what I did. Her energetic concerns were prompted by what I thought was be a fairly harmless announcement on my part. It regarded a particular point of Meeting business.

I mentioned that the decision had been made to elder a regular attender because of the frequency of his vocal ministry. The custom in my Meeting is that frequent speakers ought to allow the ability during Meeting for Worship for God to speak through others and stand aside from time to time. At my last count, he has given ministry every week for the past three months. What he shares is almost always helpful and Spirit-led, but I intend to make a request of him following Worship to space out his vocal ministry henceforth.

In this situation, it might be easy for me to seem like a hypocrite. Not aware of this unwritten rule, when I arrived four years ago, I gave vocal ministry every week until I was rudely told to stop. The small Meeting in which I'd become Convinced never minded my verbosity. I still feel hurt when I think about the form that Eldering took when it was my turn, but since then, I've resolved that I'd do it differently when it came my opportunity.

Returning to my Friend, she still bears scars and no doubt emotional wounds from being very different from the statistical norm. The small Southern town where she spent many of her formative years left her feeling distanced, misunderstood, and set apart. She routinely speaks about herself as an outlier. Any dialogue that involves drawing boundaries, regardless of their extent or stated purpose is automatically suspect, perhaps even malicious to her.

Routine offenders aren't being given an adequate chance to speak in their own defense, as she believes. While I understand her inner conflict, it is attitudes like these that have broken down Meeting discipline and allowed transgressors to continue in flagrant violation of Faith and Practice. Here, she is speaking without knowing the full story and does not particularly want to hear it.

In this situation, she is projecting her own sense of exclusion and alienation onto a very different set of circumstances. I myself felt different and out-of-step earlier in life, but I took a very different path than she did. It would have been very easy to internalize the shame of not being a popular or especially well-regarded kid, or to regret that I didn't have the ability to win a cult of personality of my very own during high school. In fairness, I never really wanted to belong to most established groups and clubs when I was an adolescent, since to me they always seemed pointless, dull, and silly.

Friends sometimes want to complain, but don't want to make any structural changes, either. I don't like this, but I'm too busy to devote the time. This is an especially defeatist perspective and makes one wonder why anyone's concern was shared in the first place. Complaining without being willing to step into the breach is entirely worthless.
I vote for the Democratic Party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs

I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
-Phil Ochs, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal"

There's another level to this discussion present, too. Culturally, it is expected that we should seek adulthood and eventually accept adulthood with open arms. A while back, I spoke to a long-time Friend who is a psychotherapist by trade. During our talk, he shared something very interesting with me. In his learned judgment, many people he treats seek first to run from adulthood, not run towards it. They’d rather live in a state of suspended adolescence than adopt the roles intended that we would all adopt, once we reach a particular age.

But how shall I liken this generation? The people of that age, the stubborn and perverse; who were pleased with nothing, with no one's ministry, neither with John's, nor with Christ's, but found fault with whatever they heard, or saw done.

We seem to be confusing authoritative with authoritarian. Maturation, from a physical, psychological, and religious context arrives at different times for each of us. You can't be taken seriously, to use a sports analogy, unless you first play ball. I think there is a middle ground between respecting a person's spiritual journey and holding them accountable when they cross a line. We've been too individualistic in speaking first from our own hurt, and, over time, it's done nothing but damage the Religious Society of Friends.

In a recent column published in the April 2013 edition of Friends Journal, Benjamin Lloyd writes,
We no longer have formally identified elders in our monthly meetings who are granted authority as an acknowledgement of a particular skill-set, much in the way meetings acknowledge the gifts of other Friends—accountants, teachers, gardeners. How tragic, that a religious movement based on the valiant strivings of leaders like Fox, Penington, Penn, Mott, Fry, Hicks, and Jones should be rendered so passive by a nearly hysterical mistrust of authority. [bold mine]
We can't let our religious past dictate how we feel about religion today. I know that the very word "church" causes some regular attenders and members to wince. This reaction is entirely avoidable and can be removed from our psyche, if we're willing to let go of the seductive, addictive power of past hurts. We can let down our guard and find ways to resolve the tender parts. The boundaries we've drawn to ward against pain and sorrow have locked us inside instead.

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