This weekend was the long-prepared New Monastics and Convergent Friends weekend at Pendle Hill, co-led by myself and Wess Daniels, with very helpful eldership from Ashley W. As I posted afterwards on Facebook, “I feel we served the Lord faithfully, navigating the hopes and fears of the members of the church who gathered into this short-lived community. Not the conversation we expected, but the conversation we were given, which is enough (always) and for which we feel gratitude.”
A few weeks ago a newsletter brought written reports about the latest round of conflict at a local meeting that’s been fighting for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit underwhelmed by the accounts of the newest conflict resolution attempts. The mediators seemed more worried about alienating a few long-term disruptive characters than about preserving the spiritual vitality of the meeting. It’s a phenomena I’ve seen in a lot of Quaker meetings.
Call it the FDR Principle after Franklin D Roosevelt, who supposedly defended his support of one of Nicaragua’s most brutal dictators by saying “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casual historians of Latin American history will know this only led to fifty years of wars with reverberations across the world with the Iran/Contra scandal. The FDR Principle didn’t make for good U.S. foreign policy and, if I may, I’d suggest it doesn’t make for good Quaker policy either. Any discussion board moderator or popular blogger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integrity you need to know when to cut a disruptive trouble-maker off–politely and succintly, but also firmly. If you don’t, the people there to actually discuss your issues–the people you want–will leave.
I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Conflict in Meeting came through Livejournal this past First Day. The poster, jandrewm, wrote in part:
Yet my recognition of all that doesn’t negate the painful feelings that arise when hostility enters the meeting room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spoken. After a few months of regular attendance at my meeting, I came close to abandoning this “experiment” with Quakerism because some Friends were so consistently rancorous, divisive, disruptive. I had to ask myself: “Do I need this negativity in my life right now?”
I commented about the need to take the testimonies seriously:
I’ve been in that situation. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on flagrantly disruptive behavior. I wish I could buy the “it eventually sorts out” argument but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meetings where all the sane people are driven out, leaving the disruptive folks and armchair therapists. It’s a symbiotic relationship, perhaps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spiritual community.
The unpopular solution is for us to take our testimonies seriously. And I mean those more specific testimonies buried deep in copies in Faith & Practice that act as a kind of collective wisdom for Quaker community life. Testimonies against detraction and for rightly ordered decision making, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meeting they should be counseled; if they continue to disrupt then their decision-making input should be disregarded. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quaker process of disowning (which allowed continued attendance at worship and life in the community but stopped business participation). Limiting input like this makes sense to me.
The trouble that if your meeting is in this kind of spiral there might not be much you can do by yourself. People take some sort of weird comfort in these predictable fights and if you start talking testimonies you might become very unpopular very quickly. Participating in the bickering isn’t helpful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Distancing yourself for a time might be helpful. Getting involved in other Quaker venues. It’s a shame. Monthly meeting is supposed to be the center of our Quaker spiritual life. But sometimes it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these circumstances. I certainly understand the value and need for the Quaker testimonies better simply because I’ve seen the problems meetings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any easier for you.
But all of this begs an awkward question: are we really building Christ’s kingdom by dropping out? It’s an age-old tension between purity and participation at all costs. Timothy asked a similar question of me in a comment to my last post. Before we answer, we should recognize that there are indeed many people who have “abandoned” their “Quaker experiment” because we’re not living up to our own ideals.
Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than others. It sometimes seems like an email correspondence with the “Quaker Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get messages from seekers newly convinced of Quaker principles but unable to connect locally because of the divergent practices or juvenile behavior of their local Friends meeting or church. A typical email last week asked me why the plain Quakers weren’t evangelical and why evangelical Quakers weren’t conservative and asked ”Is there a place in the quakers for a Plain Dressing, Bible Thumping,
Gospel Preaching, Evangelical, Conservative, Spirit Led, Charismatic
family?” (Anyone want to suggest their local meeting?)
We should be more worried about the people of integrity we’re losing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embedded in some of our meetings. If someone is consistently disruptive, is clearly breaking specific Quaker testimonies we’ve lumped under community and intergrity, and stubbornly immune to any council then read them out of business meeting. If the people you want in your meeting are leaving because of the people you really don’t want, then it’s time to do something. Our Quaker toolbox provides us tool for that action–ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tradition gives us access to hundreds of years of experience, both mistakes and successes, and can be a more useful guide than contemporary pop psychology or plain old head-burying.
Not all meetings have these problems. But enough do that we’re losing people. And the dynamics get more acute when there’s a visionary project on the table and/or someone younger is at the center of them. While our meetings sort out their issues, the internet is providing one type of support lifeline.
Blogger jandrewm was able to seek advice and consolation on Livejournal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quaker Generation” series of posts are now lurking away on my Facebook friends list. Maybe we can stop the full departure of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engaging their local meeting. They can be reading and discussing testimonies (“detraction” is a wonderful place to start) so they can spot and explain behavior. We can use the web to coordinate workshops, online discussions, local meet-ups, new workship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thousands of miles away can help give us clarity and strength.
I think (I hope) we’re helping to forge a group of Friends with a clear understanding of the work to be done and the techniques of Quaker discernment. It’s no wonder that Quaker bodies sometimes fail to live up to their ideals: the journals of olde tyme Quaker ministers are full of disappointing stories and Christian tradition is rich with tales of the roadblocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to center in the Lord when our meetings become too political or disfunctional (I think I should start looking harder at Anabaptist non-resistance theory). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through whatever comes we need to trust that any testing and heartbreak has a purpose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suffering will be productive to His purpose if we can keep low and listening for follow-up instructions.
Blog by an American couple living in Vietnam and advocating for greater motorbike safety. The technical aspects are pretty straight-forward but the neat part about it was watching the client learn about blogging and online photo
sharing as we worked on the site: I introduced her to Flicrk, Picasa
and Gmail! She took to it like a fish to water and the site is full of great
photos taken by her husband David. Read more about their
work doing physical therapy in Vietnam and their posts about life in Da Nang.
. Technology: Movable Type, Flickr. Visit Site.
It’s said that John Woolman re-wrote his Journal three times in an effort to excise it of as many “I” references as possible. As David Sox writes in Johh Woolman Quintessential Quaker, “only on limited occasion do we glimpse Woolman as a son, a father and a husband.” Woolman wouldn’t have been a very good blogger. Quoting myself from my introduction to Quaker blogs:
blogs give us a unique way of sharing our lives—how our Quakerism intersects with the day-to-day decisions that make up faithful living. Quaker blogs give us a chance to get to know like-minded Friends that are separated by geography or artificial theological boundaries and they give us a way of talking to and with the institutions that make up our faith community.
I’ve read many great Woolman stories over the years and as I read the Journal I eagerly anticipated reading the original account. It’s that same excitement I get when walking the streets of an iconic landscape for the first time: walking through London, say, knowing that Big Ben is right around the next corner. But Woolman kept letting me down.
One of the AWOL stories is his arrival in London. The Journal’s account:
On the 8th of Sixth Month, 1772, we landed at London, and I went straightway to the Yearly Meeting of ministers and elders, which had been gathered, I suppose, about half an hour. In this meeting my mind was humbly contrite.
But set the scene. He had just spent five weeks crossing the Atlantic in steerage among the pigs (he doesn’t actually specify his non-human bunkmates). He famously went out of his way to wear clothes that show dirt because they show dirt. He went straightaway: no record of a bath or change of clothes. Stories abound about his reception, and while are some of dubious origin, there are first hand accounts of his being shunned by the British ministers and elders. The best and most dubious story is the theme of another post.
I trust that Woolman was honestly aiming for meekness when he omitted the most interesting stories of his life. But without the context of a lived life he becomes an ahistorical figure, an icon of goodness divorced from the minutiae of the daily grind. Two hundred and thirty years of Quaker hagiography and latter-day appeals to Woolman’s authority have turned the tailor of Mount Holly into the otherworldly Quaker saint but the process started at John’s hands himself.
Were his struggles merely interior? When I look to my own ministry, I find the call to discernment to be the clearest part of the work. I need to work to be ever more receptive to even the most unexpected prompting from the Inward Christ and I need to constantly practice humility, love and forgiveness. But the practical limitations are harder. For years respectibility was an issue; relative poverty continues to be one. It is asking a lot of my wife to leave responsibility for our two small boys for even a long weekend.
How did Woolman balance family life and ministry? What did wife Sarah think? And just what was his role in the sea-change that was the the “Reformation of American Quakerism” (to use Jack Marietta’s phrase) that forever altered American Friends’ relationship with the world and set the stage for the schisms of the next century.
We also lose the context of Woolman’s compatriots. Some are named as traveling companions but the colorful characters go unmentioned. What did he think of the street-theater antics of Benjamin Lay, the Abbie Hoffman of Philadelphia Quakers. The most widely-told tale is of Lay walking into Philadelphia Yearly Meeting sessions, opening up a cloak to reveal military uniform underneath, and declaring that slave-made products were products of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splattering Friends sitting nearby.
What role did Woolman play in the larger anti-slavery awakening happening at the time? It’s hard to tell just reading his Journal. How can we find ways to replicate his kind of faithfulness and witness today? Again, his Journal doesn’t give much clue.
Reading John Woolman Series
- Part One: “The Public Life of a Private Man”
- Part Two: “The Last Safe Quaker
- Part Three: The Isolated Saint (this page)
- Part Four: I Really Do Like Woolman!
Picked up today in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Library:
- The Reformation of American Quakerism, by Jack Marietta
- John Woolman Quintessential Quaker, by David Sox
- The Tendering Presence: Essays on John Woolman, edited by Mike Heller
PYM Librarian Rita Varley reminded me today they mail books anywhere in the US for a modest fee and a $50/year subscription. It’s a great deal and a great service, especially for isolated Friends. The PYM catalog is online too!
I had an interesting opportunity last Thursday. I skipped work to be talk with two Quakerism classes at Philadelphia’s “William Penn Charter School”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn_Charter_School (thanks for the invite Michael and Thomas!). I was asked to talk about Quaker blogs, of all things. Simple, right? Well, on the previous Tuesday I happened upon this passage from Brian Drayton’s new book “On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry”:http://www.quakerbooks.org/get/1–888305-38-x:
bq. I think that your work will have the greatest good effect if you wait to find whether and where the springs of love and divine life connect with this opening before you appear in the work. This is even true when you have had an invitation to come and speak on a topic to a workshop or some other forum. It is wise to be suspicious of what is very easy, draws on your practiced strengths and accomplishments, and can be treated as an everyday transaction. (p. 149).
Good advice. Of course the role of ministry is even more complicated in that I wasn’t addressing a Quaker audience: like the majority of Friends schools, few Penn Charter students actually are Quaker. I’m a “public school kid”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheltenham_High_School, but it from the outside it seems like Friends schools stress the ethos of Quakerism (“here’s Penn Charter’s statement”:http://www.penncharter.com/content/aboutpc/quakerism.asp). Again Drayton helped me think beyond normal ideas of proseltyzing and outreach when he talked about “public meetings”: “We are also called, I feel to invite others to share Christ directly, not primarily in order to introduce them to Quakerism and bring them into our meetings, but to encourage them to turn to the light and follow it” (p. 147). What I shared with the students was some of the ways my interaction with the Spirit and my faith community shapes my life. When we keep it real, this is a profoundly universalist and welcoming message.
I talked about the personal aspect of blogging: in my opinion we’re at our best when we weave our theology with with personal stories and testimonies of specific spiritual experiences. The students reminded me that this is also real world lesson: their greatest excitement and questioning came when we started talking about my father (I used to tell the story of my completely messed-up childhood family life a lot but have been out of the habit lately as it’s receded into the past). The students really wanted to understand not just my story but how it’s shaped my Quakerism and influenced my coming to Friends. They asked some hard questions and I was stuck having to give them hard answers (in that they were non-sentimental). When we share of ourselves, we present a witness that can reach out to others.
Later on, one of the teachers projected my blogroll on a screen and asked me about the people on it. I started telling stories, relating cool blog posts that had stuck out in my mind. Wow: this is a pretty amazing group, with diversity of ages and Quakerism. Reviewing the list really reminded me of the amazing community that’s come together over the last few years.
One interesting little snippet for the Quaker cultural historians out there: Penn Charter was the Gurneyite school back in the day. When I got Michael’s email I was initially surprised they even had classes on Quakerism as it’s often thought of as one of the least Quaker of the Philadelphia-area Quaker schools. But thinking on it, it made perfect sense: the Gurneyites loved education; they brought Sunday School (sorry, _First Day_ School) into Quakerism, along with Bible study and higher education. Of course the school that bears their legacy would teach Quakerism. Interestingly enough, the historical Orthodox school down the road aways recently approached Penn Charter asking about their Quaker classes; in true Wilburite fashion, they’ve never bothered trying to teach Quakerism. The official Philadelphia Quaker story is that branches were all fixed up nice and tidy back in 1955 but scratch the surface just about anywhere and you’ll find Nineteenth Century attitudes still shaping our institutional culture. It’s pretty fascinating really.