Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What do we do when someone's vocal ministry offends us?

The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.[a])
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’[b]
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

Mark 7:1-8New International Version (NIV)

I read this passage for my mid-day devotions right after having a conversation with an elder of my Quaker Meeting about vocal ministry, and it somehow seemed very pertinent. In unprogrammed Quaker worship, anyone can rise and give a message, and sometimes these spontaneous messages annoy some people. In my meeting, there is a lot of contention among Friends about what constitutes appropriate vocal ministry. For this reason, my friend Jean wanted to discuss with me a pamphlet I wrote called "Eldering and Vocal Ministry: Guidelines for the Vexed and Perplexed." Some Friends in our Meeting have very clear-cut ideas  about vocal ministry--it shouldn't be too long, or too preachy, it should come out of personal experience, etc. etc.--and when these expectations aren't met, they get vexed. Indeed, inappropriate vocal ministry vexes them to the point that they feel impelled to complain to ministry and counsel. And ministry and counsel feels obligated to do something about eldering those who violated our Quaker norms/rules and "disturb the peace." Some Friends have been deeply hurt by this eldering process. The question arises: Should we let Friends give ministry that other Friends find inappropriate, or should we silence them through "eldering"? Faced with this dilemma, what can we do?

This is a scenario that I am all too familiar with, having experienced it in virtually every Meeting I've attended. Sometimes I've been on the receiving end of eldering, and sometimes I have served on ministry and counsel and have been asked to elder those whose vocal ministry breaks what some Friends consider the norms or rules.

This story from Mark's gospel struck me as relevant to this eternal problem: how do we respond when our religious expectations aren't met, and when we are annoyed or angered by violations of our norms?

The Pharisees in this story aren't making an unreasonable request of Jesus' disciples: cleaning one's hands and food makes good sense. In light of their reasonableness, Jesus' response seems an overreaction. Why is he calling them hypocrites and invoking the prophet Isaiah? Why is Jesus so down on "human rules"?

I suspect that Jesus responded to the Pharisees because underlying their question was a lot of judmentalism, and anger. "Why do they eat with defiled hands?" ask the Pharisees, which is a loaded question.  "Defiled" is a strong word, implying a serious breach not just of etiquette, but of the Law, the Torah.

The Torah has a lot to say about cleanliness, but the "tradition of the elders" refers to rules that were added to Torah for those who wanted to be super-pious. These traditions about washing can be  found in the tractate calledYadayim or “Hands” (see Mishnah Yadayim 2:1). 

Although rules about cleanliness were important,  most Jews would agree that the "prime directive" of the Torah is "to love your neighbor and to love God." In responding as he did, Jesus may have wanted to shock the Pharisees into realizing that human rules and traditions can stand in the way of a direct relationship with God, and with one's fellow human beings, which is the purpose of Torah as well as of Jesus' ministry. 

Jesus also saw that the cleanliness of the Pharisees was a cover for a sense of spiritual superiority. Because the Pharisees were ritually clean, they also felt spiritually and socially superior.

Jesus wasn't interested to catering to those who felt religiously superior ("the righteous"), he deliberately sought for his disciples people who were uneducated, marginalized, and (as the saying goes) "unwashed." Fishermen, tax collectors, women, even prostitutes. He accepted and loved them just as they were (though from time to time he lovingly rebuked them, as good teachers sometimes do). 

What does this have to do with vocal ministry among Quakers? Most Friends tend to be middle class, and privileged. We are much closer to the Pharisees than we are to those that Jesus hung out with. We come to Meeting with a set of expectations that reflect our social values and beliefs. Generally speaking, middle class folk tend to value order, cleanliness, and "peace and quiet."  Therefore, we feel comfortable when everyone "follows the rules" or (to use Quakerspeak) observes "good order."

Steve Smith has written an excellent piece called "Weighty Friends and Quaker Pharisees" in which he talks about Friends who have been around the Quaker world a long time and think they know what "good order" among Quakers is all about. This can lead to judgmentalism, judging others harshly. "Valuing our own opinions," says Steve, "we may be quick to criticize what we regard as other Friends' missteps and failures" (Western Friend, March/April 2013, p. 16).

Underlying this sense of superiority, notes Steve, may be a deep sense of insecurity. As he notes,  "The more fragile our sense of self and the less satisfaction we feel in the rest of our lives, the more prone we are to judge."

When we feel insecure, we often react to others in ways that are harsh. Steve goes on to say "our responses to good order among Friends can be more hurtful among Friends than the lapses themselves."

Steve reminds us that truly "weighty Friends" don't "throw their weight around." They are usually light-hearted and buoyant people, like William Bacon Evans. They take their concerns seriously, but not themselves.

As for the "rules" about vocal ministry, I think that they can be very useful, when used to help us connect with Spirit. When we speak out of the silence, it is helpful to avoid sermonizing, editorializing, and excessive verbiage. But when Friends "break the rules," we need to remember that these expectations are just guidelines, created for a purpose. The purpose of these guidelines, and of our coming together in worship, is to help us to grow closer to God and to each other, to learn how to be more loving and compassionate.

Jesus spoke harshly to the Pharisee because they had made up rules and then expected others to live up to them. By being judgmental and assuming an air of superiority, they had distanced themselves from God and from love.

I don't suggest that we speak harshly as Jesus did to those in our Meeting who want others to follow "good order," but we nonetheless need to speak the truth in love.  The important question is not: did this Friend follow good order, but how do I learn to respond in love when I am annoyed or triggered?

Rather than casting blame on those who criticize others, it might be helpful to ask questions such as: "Why do you feel so strongly that such-and-such a message was inappropriate?" If we are willing to go deep and find out where these strong feelings of judgmentalism are coming from, we can begin to know ourselves better and to heal ourselves.

The early Christian contemplatives valued silent worship, but they understood the dangers of justmentalism masquerading as silence. The monk Poeman said, “If a man appears silent in speech but is condemning other people in his heart, his is really talking incessantly. Another man may seem to talk all day, but he is keeping silence since he always speaks in a way that is right with his heart.” (101)

We can sense the difference between the guarded silence of someone who is judging others, and the joyous silence of one who is at peace with himself and with God. As we seek to build a community based on love and truth, we need to help each other to experience the silence that brings us closer to God, to our true selves and to others. If we want to know God/Reality intimately, if we want to have a loving relationship with those in our meeting, we need to let go of judgmentalism and listen compassionately to what is in our own hearts and the hearts of others. We need to seek "that of God" especially in those  who annoy or even hurt us. This I know from experience since I have been guilty of judging those who are judgmental!

I also know from experience that if we want to be true Friends and create a loving community of Friends, our prime directive must not be  a set of human rules, but a deep spiritual law: "treat others as you wish to be treated."  This simple but sometimes difficult-to-follow rule is what frees us to be wholehearted and loving Friends.


  1. Significant points. It's not the forms, but the Light.

    You wrote, "And ministry and counsel feels obligated to do something about eldering those who violated our Quaker norms/rules and "disturb the peace."

    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.

    This is the perennial difficulty of leadership--how to help a group be creatively open, yet keep disorder from distracting, even becoming too much like the banalities or harm of the public square.

    1. I think you are right: Fox and early Friends would not be welcome in our liberal, unprogrammed Meetings. They were too emotional, too Christ-centered and probably would talk way too much. They were all about transformation, not meditation. In order to have spiritually deep messages, we need to go deeper intoourselves as a community of faith and share our hearts with each other. If we meet once a week, and don't have daily spiritual practices, and opportunities to meet with each other for worship sharing and spiritual deepening, we will probably end up with superficial worship and messages. I asked my elder friend if those who complained were open to attending worship sharing and sessions exploring vocal ministry, and I was told, "Probably not. They're too busy." If we are too busy to do inner work as individuals and as a community, we shouldn't expect our Sunday worship to be profound.

  2. Not about your main points, all of which were excellently conveyed, but I am always curious when people use the phrase "even prostitutes." Why set them them apart from fisherman, tax collectors, etc.? Are they lesser beings? Isn't this itself very judgmental?

  3. Very good point! Seen through Jesus' eyes, prostitutes are just as precious as a high priest. Thanks for reminding me of this important truth!

  4. This was a very good message for me to hear right now. We have one member who appears to be very bitter about lack of effort by other Friends, and is speaking about it every week. There is some resentment of this hectoring among members, and I must admit that I feel some of that too. But I can also see that she is in great pain. Her parents both died, and on the other side of the planet. She is still coming to terms with that. So I struggle not to judge her, and to hear her heart.

    Our biggest challenge was during the run-up to the Iraq invasion. A longstanding member began to stand up regularly to say that the war was absolutely necessary, that we needed to get behind the president, and that the anti-war testimony simply didn't apply in this case because the cause was too important! This was not casual Republican drive-by, either - he was an artist and generally very spiritual. I could not understand where he was coming from, and a quiet fury grew inside me. Then my perspective slowly shifted from what he was saying, to studying my own reaction to it. I can't say I completely understood what he was saying, but I tried to back off from my judging.

    I have been on our Worship and Ministry committee, which is tasked with guiding members' ministry when it is "inappropriate". The ministry at our meeting is generally very good. But I dreaded the idea of applying my judgement to others' ministry. Not that inappropriate ministry should be accepted uncritically - but I felt my idea of 'appropriate' could be far too narrow a filter.