Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hannah and the militant atheist: a parable about vocal ministry

There have been some interesting responses to my blog post on vocal ministry. By divine coincidence, a thoughtful discussion of this topic also took place on-line, moderated by Mary Klein, editor of The Western Friend. You can read her notes at  Better silence, better vocal ministry

In response to my blog, one Friend wrote:
I remember when Ministry and Counsel at our Friends meeting worried that someone might speak ecstatically, so they put restrictions on meeting.
Imagine how George and some of the early Quakers would be treated in our modern meetings. Strictly censured, even kicked out.

Hmm. Ecstatic utterances not allowed at Quaker Meeting? What kind of restrictions, I wonder? Given that criterion, I suspect that not only George Fox, but Jesus Christ would probably not be welcome at some Friends' meetings!

Another Friend noted that early Quakers often gave long messages during meeting for worship and our modern preference for short messages is just that, a modern preference.

Most shocking, however, was the a comment that a "weighty Friend" made to a Friend I correspond with. He told her bluntly, "Most messages are crap."

Ok, that's speaking plainly. I get it. He's pissed off.  I was shocked, but not surprised by the crudity of this remark. Quaker hostility is seldom so overt: it usually comes out in indirect form, like sarcasm or passive aggression. 

I think a lot of hurt along with hostility lurks inside many Friends and needs to be faced honestly and tenderly. That's why it's important to have an eldering process that involves a number of Friends, as this Friend notes:
Our meeting does usually have two people meet with a person, but only after the whole committee considers the situation to determine what's behind the person's ministry. Often what’s behind it is a lot of pain; we need to be tender with the person while also protecting the sacredness of worship. We try to make it clear that we value the person, and that we want to help shape the ministry, not snuff it out.
I would add that eldering should not  be directed just at the person who is being complained about, it should also involve the person who is doing the complaining. Does this complaint come from a place of love and concern for the Meeting, or is it coming from a place of ego, judgmentalism,  and anger? If it's the latter, then the complainers need counseling and healing, and maybe even some truth-telling and tough love. (That's the Jesus approach, who was willing to say to those who criticized others: "Judge not lest ye be judged!")

Facing one's Shadow (the Jungian term for the parts of ourselves we don't like to acknowledge and often project on others) is hard work and requires a lot of commitment, as I have learned from my own experience with therapy, spiritual direction and a men's support group. 

I told the Friend who was distressed by this crude remark that anyone who says things like this is a spiritual light-weight, not a weighty Friend. I encouraged her to listen to her Inward Guide and speak her truth, even if some Friends are offended or vexed. 

A truly weighty Friend made it clear that if we speak truth, we may not be appreciated in our home meetings. 

He also made it clear that what "defiles" us is not something we put into our mouths, but what comes out of our mouths. 
“Listen,” he said, “and try to understand.  It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you realize you offended the Pharisees by what you just said?”Jesus replied, “Every plant not planted by my heavenly Father will be uprooted,  so ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.”  (Mark 7.14–23)
Jesus was not afraid to speak truth even when it offended others. He wasn't rattled by the eldering of the Pharisees  because he experienced God within himself. 

I'd like to follow this Friend's example and tell a parable I heard when I first started attending Meeting in Princeton many years ago.

I was told about an elderly Friend named Hannah who was very pious. She prayed constantly, read the Bible every day, and was always thinking of God. Whenever she lost a needle and found it, she was thankful and praise God. 

One First Day a Friend rose up in Meeting and delivered a long tirade against religion, and announced that he didn't believe in God. Once his sermon on atheism was over, he sat down. A stunned silence followed.

After Meeting, members of ministry and counsel were concerned about Hannah. She didn't complain, but they felt she might be hurt or offended by this militantly atheistic message.

"How did you feel about today's message?" asked a member of M & C.

"I had no problem with it," replied Hannah. "God is strong. He can take it."

This is the kind of inner confidence and security that I believe Steve Smith was alluding to when he noted that truly weighty Friends are not perturbed when their ideas about good order or Quaker process or whatever else they revere as God are challenged.  If we have a strong sense of the Spirit within us, we aren't rattled by messages that don't suit us. When our sense of God within us is strong, we can be accepting and loving of others and their differences.  Through God's infinite grace, we can roll with the punches, and stay centered.

Finally, I'd to share a process for "eldering" that transcend the we vs. them/him duality: "This Friend is causing a problem and we have to fix it." Instead of singling out an individual for correction,the whole meeting became involved in a "meeting for learning." This not only seems very Quakerly, it works! We did something similar to this at a Meeting where I was clerk of Pastoral Care and had similarly positive results.

Some years ago, our meeting organized a longish religious education series about speaking in meeting. We had particular individuals in mind who we wanted to get this education, but didn't want to single them out. So we invited everyone who had ministered in last year; fifty people came. We asked them to share about a time when they really spoke from the Spirit, and then share about a time when their ministry didn’t go well, and then we asked them how they went about discerning when to minister. Worship did become richer and deeper in our meeting for a while after that.

1 comment:

  1. I love short story nuggets like the one of Hannah:-) So wise.

    Maybe the key to solving some of the most difficult issues in Friends meetings today, (from disagreements on ethics related to sexuality to questions of philosophy), is to first seek transparency and openness toward each other. Much can be said for emphasizing the "compassionate listening" of the Friend Gene Knudsen Hoffman.