Kevin Camp

Keeping the Faith When Dialogue Is Difficult

Some years back, the committee of which I was clerk decided to Elder a Friend for sharing vocal ministry too frequently. As long-term readers may recall, I aimed to deal as fairly with him as I could, but he took immediate offense and never returned to Meeting again. I wanted to open a free-flowing dialogue based on mutual respect, but he was content to take his ball and go home. Before parting ways, he accused me of acting as the Meeting police (which I was not) and gave me at best three minutes of his time.

Punishment in any form was not my intention, but he saw the steps we took as malevolent and offensive. Those of us who must enforce the rules may need to be reminded again that one can't plan for everything. We often expect that rational discourse alone is sufficient. Surely we can communicate on a higher plane, we think. If that were truly the case, if you will pardon a brief political aside, Barack Obama would be the most effective American president ever. I wish that reason and logic, not feelings and emotional impressions were more powerful.

Hand-wringing attitudes are adopted by too many Quaker Meetings and Churches, and often they only create inertia. Rarely do they ever produce positive outcomes, reinforce proper conduct, and encourage right thinking. But rather than dwell on what doesn't work, I'd rather embrace a more optimistic attitude with an eye towards the future. I've since moved on to a different Meeting. It's a warm, caring, stable place and I'm happy to spend First Day in its company. I appreciate that people don't fight over the smallest stakes possible only to be needlessly contentious and in control of something, no matter how minuscule.

It would be too easy to make a big deal about what is to follow, to wax indignant, if you will. I'll provide only as much background as is necessary, then quickly move on. The Friend I noted above showed up at Meeting for Worship yesterday, still nursing a grudge, very much still licking his wounds. I was in the middle of speaking to someone else when he arrived on the scene during post-Worship refreshments and fellowship. He took great pains to pull said Friend away from me, to monopolize her time and attention by way of power play. It was a little like having someone forcibly remove a dancing partner by rudely cutting in, mid-song.

I didn't take offense to it because I had a hard time taking his approach seriously. It was rendered weakly, for one. He wanted to make me upset, but the immaturity of the approach made me smile instead. A few seconds before, I'd tried once again to initiate conversation with him, this time to explain the approach we'd taken. He avoided eye contact completely, acting in a manner I can best describe as nasty nice. I wanted the opportunity to talk and reach a resolution, but he was not of a similar mindset.

In the future, if I see him, I'll make another attempt at confrontation. I'm not mad at him. Truthfully, I never was. As I told him then, he would have been in full compliance with our wishes if he agreed to space out his vocal ministry from week to week. Surely that wasn't asking too much.

I was trying to spare him of the grief I experienced when I committed the same faux paus. It's an easy mistake to make, particularly when members and attenders hold unwritten rules that are never spelled out, especially for newcomers. I became convinced in a small Meeting where I was given the wonderful opportunity to give frequent vocal ministry. I never dreamed that such conduct could be verboten elsewhere. If I could have spoken freely with him, I know we would have reached an understanding.

I'm fond of a particular quotation. It says that there isn't a single person one can't love if one hears his or her story. And I agree, but it's contingent upon the other party to share that story with another. Otherwise, both parties are flying blind, totally unaware, potentially at odds.

Unprogrammed Worship is meant to be a collective exercise. When it becomes too focused on individual expression, everyone loses out. For me, personally, one of the most difficult lessons to learn was that people who were considerably older than me in years were capable of acting many years younger. I was a precocious child who wanted to be older and felt more comfortable around adults. It seemed incomprehensible that adulthood might be a state of being that is avoided as often as it is embraced.

Now I know better. But situations like these routinely crop up in ways that aren't strictly religious. It might be popular to be mindful of the foods I take into my body and the products I buy. This are no doubt important, but we are also in control of the conscious decisions we make in the way we treat others. Old fashioned virtues like kindness, compassion, and honesty are equally important parts of our Testimonies. I'll leave hair-splitting to others who feel the need to regiment and calibrate their life choices to the micrometer. Those are worldly games, and my focus goes well beyond the cares of this life.

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