April 20, 2011

 

An Open Letter to Ministry and Oversight, to the Clerk, members and attenders of San Diego Meeting of “The Religious Society of Friends.” And To All Friends, for Consideration

 

As all things come from God-- Disagreement is a gift, however disagreeable it may seem. Disagreement is an opportunity to observe how we deal with disagreements, and to consider whether we can find better ways to respond.

 

I have been in disagreement with the spirit of this Meeting through much of my time here, and though I've handled that as best as I knew how, I've by no means felt that I'd adequately fulfilled my responsibility to Truth. Almost as a penance sometimes, this has led to me repeatedly offending against our consensual cult of restful silence.

 

Truth is not 'violence', but people often do call it bad names when it happens to disagree with them. We speak of feelings being “hurt”, but feelings (short of habitual abuse or long-term suppression) do not suffer violence. What feels the pain are our personal egos. These are far from fragile, and not to be mistaken for our actual selves.

 

One extremely natural approach to disagreement is to disparage the messenger. This not only provides a reassuring explanation for the disagreement, but an excuse for not listening. It's common, and reasonable, to seek understanding of how a speaker can be so wrong-headed-- but this easily leads to 'diagnosing' him, the better to ignore what he's saying-- Though that distinction is subtle, the violence implicit in that second lens is that we've gone beyond disagreeing with a person, and classified him as someone we don't need to listen and respond to.

 

Our accepted approach to disagreement is to give it formally-correct Quaker process. This falls short whenever our sense of truth and of God's intention stumbles over habitual assumptions and emotional reactions. Formally-correct is the easy way, but leaves us only with a reflection of the Meeting's surface feelings and beliefs.

 

Going too sharply against that tacit consensus would surely bring unwanted turmoil, and might render the Meeting unsatisfactory for many purposes-- Crucially, we would cease serving so well as a source of personal approval and confirmation for members with typical beliefs and attitudes. Our value as a respectable endorser of good political causes-- which probably has little enough effect on anyone's actual opinion-- might diminish. We might consequently be less appealing to some members, and to some other people we might like to attract. This would be unfortunate, but shouldn't overrule our true calling. [The Meeting might conceivably come to serve as a source of confirmation for my own beliefs and attitudes (routinely disparaged at present); but I don't think that's what I need or want.]

 

We are either 'in the Truth', or we're going through the motions--and if all we can reasonably expect is to be 'partway-there', we'd rather be coming closer to 'there' than when we started.

 

We inherited that expression: “in the Truth”-- because our spiritual ancestors believed that they were recipients and conveyors of essential spiritual truth, that they could and did know God, that they'd truly observed God living as that Truth within them (and-- usually captive-- within others.) I'm not saying the beliefs of early Friends are due normative priority over our own knowledge. I do insist that they knew this one thing, that it is essential, that we've failed to realize what it means, that “Quakerism” without it is a sham.

 

Late last year I felt led to give a message: that it is possible for human beings to know and embody Truth (not necessarily 'infallibility'-- as people often misunderstand the nature of inspiration-- but being given an intuitive sense of how things are, so far as a person has so-far learned to receive and understand.)

 

Being immediately contradicted, I had some taste of why our custom is against contradicting messages, which can certainly be disturbing. Perhaps I went against another (normally reasonable) custom and spoke again that day, attempting to clarify matters, but I'm not sure. In any case, there was yet another message, from someone else denying that truth was available or of any consequence in comparison with Good Works. I approve, of course, of both people's doings, and agree it would be good if more of us were so involved. But what left me deeply disturbed, wondering if this was truly the Society I'd thought I belonged to, was that Meeting closed with no one else inclined to affirm that spiritual truth exists and matters.

 

I wrote quite a bit in the course of that disturbance, wondering (painfully!) if I were being led to renounce my membership. I know I disturbed my share of other people in the course of my disturbance.

 

In substance, I feel that what most upset most members was the violation of their expectation that the customary rules should always be observed: that Meeting must not disturbed by people verbally disagreeing with one another. That aspect seems cause for even greater concern!

 

We do not meet in a séance, expecting to “channel” God (although many of our predecessors seemed to think of it in almost that way!) Neither are we (so far as I've observed) meeting to speak to God. We are supposed to be human beings attempting to feel and obey God's promptings, and Friends have a very long history of disturbing other people and their institutions by doing that.

 

I don't like to upset others, or to take it too lightly when I do upset them; aside from disliking it myself, I know it's generally not good practice for arriving at or recognizing the truth of a matter. But I agree with George Fox's advice, to “Be valiant for the Truth upon Earth... Trample under all that is contrary” (and so forth)-- to the extent that outward social peace can't be my primary consideration.

 

This Meeting has made outward social peace our primary consideration by default.

 

That suggests that most members have failed to find or connect with that more substantial and significant source of Truth and Guidance our spiritual ancestors knew.

 

I'd had to conclude that from pretty early on in my acquaintance with Friends... but for a long time there were certain members I could expect to have spiritually grounded messages. And now, for a long time since those members died, there haven't been.

 

God has given me this burden to feel-- though I could hardly be expected to carry it. God has also given me some gift for vocal ministry-- which is only consistently available for written messages.

 

Such a gift doesn't guarantee that what people read will be what I intended to say, no matter how much care I take. One aspect of it is a mere facility with words. Another is the stubbornness to struggle with a concept until it comes clear how to say it. But so far as this is a form of ministry, it tends to manifest as an immediate, given sense of what to write-- or else to simply leave me helplessly wordless.

 

That is, it isn't entirely “mine”, for my purposes, no matter how good those might be. My hope-- that this Meeting will start bringing more people consciously under God's guidance and teaching-- is in accord with God's purposes; but it may not be how SHe intends to fulfill them. Certainly I don't get to decide how, when, or if that ever happens.

 

A person can be mistaken, whether he stands up to speak in Meeting or sits down to write something on the internet. In one context, people try to listen respectfully, in hopes that at least some of a message may be prompted by God, may convey an insight they haven't realized yet. In the other context, these same people say, “I don't have time for this!”

 

In either setting, some people are upset or offended if one person contradicts another? Why? Do we imagine that Popes, or Meetings, can be infallible? Or should be passionless? People can be carried away in the defense of some idea-- and I too have stratagems for winning an argument, or backing off if I can't-- but when I catch myself arguing in that mode, it simply isn't what I want this to be about.

 

People can learn from disagreement, if that's what they want and if they approach it in that spirit. They can get hostile, and refuse to learn anything from it, and that's a terrible waste of a good argument! Should we be afraid to say anything, because that might happen?

 

I think we can agree that some ways of argument are abusive, and call people's attention to it if they lapse into these.

 

I don't think we should be mentally shutting each other out.

 

And so I consider the risks necessary, that we should strive to become a Meeting of minds, not just complacent bodies in the same room. I say that too much concern with appearing “peaceful” and consistently “rational” has gotten in the way of our finding the Reality we need to align with, before we can see the truth through our differences and settle them in fearless love.

 

In the Light,

Forrest Curo

 

Views: 87

Comment by Pat Pope on 4th mo. 20, 2011 at 4:59pm

"our consensual cult of restful silence."

 

That's exactly how I see the silence with which some issues are dealt with within the Meeting.  At times, I find the silence to be dysfunctional.  We won't talk about it, yet there's an 800-pound gorilla in the room and we just act like it's normal when it's not.  What about speaking truth to injustice?  What happened to that?  What happened to the bravery of Friends of years past that would have them speaking to those in authority on matters about which they felt strongly?  Yet we won't even address issues within our own Meeting?  I think in some ways people call themselves perserving unity, but it's really not unity when a breach remains. 

Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 4th mo. 21, 2011 at 12:20am

Here on the opposite coast, we're in a fair bit of financial difficulty because Friends were too agreeable about funding perfectly worthy causes -- and not listening to those Friends who said "Is this really prudent?" A decade or two of spending, staffing, professionalization and spending some more has us in a real tangle...There is still hope that we will "get it" and worship God rather than the institutions which we tend to hide behind.

 

One Friends pointedly accused modern Friends of "terminal niceness"... until their ego is bruised -- or their project discontinued.

 

My current dilemma is how to become yielded and accountable in community if questions are not raised.  I'm not just talking scientific criticism, but the ripping up and laying open that the Spirit of the Living (and Unsettling) God so often does.

Comment by parise on 4th mo. 21, 2011 at 9:19am
i have been given several reasons recently to keep hope and attention directed, if not toward my meeting, than at least toward the greater expanse of the quaker faith.  you have given me another.
Comment by Stephanie Stuckwisch on 4th mo. 23, 2011 at 4:48pm

Sadly, what you describe has become too common, at least in liberal meetings. Too often, people attend and then join because of a desire for community with like minded people and with very little understanding of the concept of spiritual communion.

Everyone comes to meeting with past hurts, myself included. While I believe we need to be tender to these hurts, they cannot be allowed to limit movement of the Spirit among us. Everyone must speak from their own experience of God and others must listen with openness. I recently heard this referred to as "listening in tongues".

What I need from my meeting is spiritual challenge. My personal experience is that growth happens when we are challenged to see from a different perspective. We don't have to agree, but we need to listen deeply and with love.

 

 

Comment by Steven Davison on 4th mo. 24, 2011 at 10:15am

Know, Friend, that thee is not alone. Though it sounds like thee may feel alone in thy meeting.

 

Is this really true? Is there no one else in your meeting who has experienced Truth? who hopes, at least, that their vocal ministry actually comes from God, who strives to be open and faithful in the Life? Wherever two or three . . .

 

The behavioral creed (to use Pink Dandelion's phrase) is another matter. We seem to have boiled our tradition down to two precepts: that there is that of God in everyone, and that we have no creeds (that is, no shared beliefs)—except the mostly tacit rules we do in fact enforce regarding behavior. One of those rules is, don't pretend to know the Truth, to have found, when the rest of us are devotedly and perpetually seeking. Another is, don't transgress the tacit boundaries of acceptable vocal ministry; preaching is out of the question. Nothing to do about this, I think, except continue to try to be faithful to one's call to ministry.

 

That's what really matters! You don't really know what God is doing with your ministry, or when or how it will bear fruit. It's all a mystery; only the faithfulness, the steadfast clinging to the Light you are given, will keep you going. But keep you must. Martyr means witness in Greek, you know. You're not being asked to die beneath the lion's jaws, only to believe in the Guide and continue to witness. It will be a long haul, no mistake. Maybe a lifetime without outward confirmation.

 

Meetings do change. People die, new people come in. The new ones come in hungry, or they wouldn't be there. If you can be there for them, feed them the bread of life, they will return the joy. They may not really know what they want, but they probably want substance, not shadow. That's the matter.

 

Then there's the manner. Prophets usually don't like trying to fit their message into a form that will make it attractive. And you, like me, I suspect, turn to religion for transformation. We like fire. Most people turn to religion for healing, consolation, peace, nurture. They like cool water and a solid foundation. Can you take them to the well, and not just to the crucible?

 

The prophet's ministry is often directed toward the community. Communities defend themselves. Getting to know individuals better might open a way. Go out for lunch with some folks. Ask questions. Maybe even ask to hold some opportunities with Friends you think might not feel too awkward about it.

 

I have felt alone and seriously considered leaving Friends, too. Or at least leaving my meeting. But I remember what an elder once told another Friend of mine who had the same feelings: tell me, Friend, where woulds't thou go? And now my meeting is a terrific joy. Did they change? Yes. Did I change? I guess.

 

Don't get me wrong: I think liberal Quakerism is in real trouble. So few Friends know their tradition well enough to pass it on, let alone actually practice it. So few seem to have had deeply transformative religious experience, especially in their adopted Quaker community. So many come wounded and even angry. So few meetings have experienced a gathered meeting recently enough or often enough to know that's what they really want. I worry.

 

But search your heart: are you called to a ministry of renewal? I only know thee through this bloggish medium, but my sense is that the answer is yes. I hope you find someone to share the burden and the joy with, and that God keeps raising up the Truth in you.

 

Steven

Comment by Paula Deming on 4th mo. 24, 2011 at 12:06pm

I missed meeting this morning. Thank you, Steven, for your ministry. I feel so blessed!

Your fFriend in the Light, Paula

Comment by Forrest Curo on 4th mo. 24, 2011 at 5:18pm
Well, I made it to Meeting today-- and all of you helped!
Comment by Christine Manville Greenland on 4th mo. 25, 2011 at 10:37am

Yesterday, because of a family gathering, I invited my son's Buddhist friend to accompany me to Meeting. Her comments left me with many questions... about my own short-sightedness, and lack of perception among other things.

 

She found it jarring (and used that term) when Friends rose abruptly to speak... She shared that in her tradition, there is a sense of acknowledgment, accompanied by a long pause and a bow. This raised a question for me about whether, when we offer vocal ministry if we are truly bowed before the Source of all being.

 

The only person's behavior I can change is my own.

Comment by Mary Lindsey on 8th mo. 7, 2011 at 11:39am

Forrest wrote:  "In substance, I feel that what most upset most members was the violation of their expectation that the customary rules should always be observed: that Meeting must not disturbed by people verbally disagreeing with one another. That aspect seems cause for even greater concern!"

 

This is an area of Meeting that I find extremely limiting and sometimes this inability to resolve conflict has driven Members and Attenders from the Meeting.   We have a peace testimony, but seem unable to cultivate peace (at times) in the Meeting.  In one sense this has been spiritual exploration for me as I sat in silence with the discord and beginning to experience on a deep level how easily we humans are wounded and individuals react out of the woundedness.  From the individual to the Meeting to the Middle East, this unresolved conflict seems to be directly contradictory to the Peace Testimony.  If we are not able to resolve individual and Meeting conflict then how is it that we hope and pray for  Peace in the Middle East and the World?  War zones have unimaginable conflict and pain relative to what transpires among individuals in our Meeting, yet the latter simply cannot resolve the conflict.  I think we have so much to learn about Peace right at home in our own Meetings.  Human experience being what it is, living Peace, can mean sweeping disagreement and conflict under the rug - only to be "tripped over" as the pile gets higher and higher.  From my observation there is not much difference in the Peace Process between over conflict of War and covert conflict of unresolved differences and conflict in the Meeting -- in the end humans beings are wounded -- which creates more conflict.

 

This conflict avoidance begins with Members/Attenders rationalizing their avoidance by stating reasons why that cannot or will not sit down at talk an issue out with someone they are on conflict with.  How is this different than the Middle East?  I write this not to be critical, but in hopes that we can better understand the emotional difficulty of the Peace Process where armed conflict exists.  My question is what would happen if each Meeting developed a conflict resolution process/reconciliation process with the same devout dedication of working toward Peace within the Meeting that Friends activism works toward in the World?

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