Twenty-two years ago, I attended the FGC Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, with my young family. My daughter Madeline was four and my son Colin was just six months old. It was a pleasant summer week nestled in the cool of the Appalachian Mountains.
The Friends that gathered for an interest group that asked “Is Liberal Quakerism a Mature Spirituality?” were for the most part like me: 30-something men and women, many with young families. We were engaged in the life of our meetings, but thirsty for something more, something deeper, which was either eluding us or perhaps wasn’t there.
Some of us had started exploring Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Yoga. We talked about how many of the people we knew as Young Friends had drifted away from Quakerism, dissatisfied with the seemingly superficial and introductory quality of the spirituality. Some had found what they were looking for in other religious communities. We scratched our heads. Where was the deep well of Quaker life hidden? How could we experience the power that inspired early Friends to live in Truth, knowing God’s healing grace and wisdom in their lives? By the end of the evening, we were no surer of the answers to these questions than when we’d begun. Some of us exchanged addresses (snail mail) and promised to write and did for a while.
In the year that followed, I began to attend silent retreats in the Buddhist tradition. Pretty soon, I had begun to formulate my own hybrid theology of Buddhist and Quaker practice. One First Day, at Radnor (Pa.) Meeting, I was moved to share in vocal ministry gleanings from these thoughts: how Buddhism and Quakerism represent embodied and experiential spirituality; and, how much I had learned about myself from my cross-cultural religious explorations. An older Friend, someone who rarely spoke in meeting, rose soon after my ministry. It was clear that he was troubled. The Truth of Quakerism did not need any improvement, he said. It did not need to be mediated by other traditions to be relevant to young people today. It was alive and still speaking to seekers everywhere.
While I was glad to hear his message, I found it hard to take in at that moment. Fortunately, my Buddhist training had given me tools for coping with the strong waves of emotional energy which were passing over me. At rise of meeting, I was approached by a member of meeting, Dorothy Steere, who after some niceties about the ministry in meeting, asked me if I had ever read Brother Lawrence and his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God? I had not read Brother Lawrence. Would I enjoy reading and discussing his works with her? Yes, I would. A seventeenth-century lay-religious who worked as a cook at a monastery in France, Brother Lawrence’s writings are filled with spiritual maxims for practicing the presence of God. He emphasizes that union with God is something which is indefinable, unknowable by the discursive mind, but found in a peaceable and humble quality of soul and in a love which empowers others to lead faithful lives.
At first read, I found Brother Lawrence to be going on about lowliness of spirit, self-emptying and humility as being the hardest of spiritual disciplines. Frankly, I found it a bit tiresome. Dorothy responded with a wry smile. “Perhaps,” she said. In her vocal ministry, Dorothy spoke often of the discipline of self-emptying as exhibited in the life of Jesus and as exhorted by his early followers in their letters to each other as they endeavored to live in blessed community. For Dorothy, the path of self-giving and selfless service to others truly opened her to the movement of the Spirit. In her gentle spiritual companionship, she displayed a loving attention to my journey and a focused intention to guide me (and others) in the ways of the Spirit, striking the delicate balance between admonishment and nurture. This was my second experience of being eldered in two quite different ways in just a few months. And, it slowly dawned on me, like a knowing on the threshold of awareness, that I was slipping into the deeper stream of an older Quaker tradition. I was being led, sometimes gently, at other times not as much, into a fuller understanding of the collective spiritual formation that is a Quaker community.
My enthusiasm for Quaker worship and the spiritual guidance experienced through connecting with a weighty elder of meeting was shared by other young adults at meeting in relationship with Dorothy. We began developing spiritual friendships with each other as well. Unfortunately for those of us with young children, the responsibilities of First-day school precluded our full attendance in meeting for worship because meeting for worship and First-day school occurred during the same hour. A group of us brought to business meeting the proposal to extend our weekly gatherings from one hour to two. This would allow everyone to attend worship and participate in First-day school. As I learned, if there is one guaranteed way to create conflict in meeting, it is to propose changing the time of worship. For several months the discussion wore on. Many Friends in the older, middle-aged group were resistant to the proposal. They had survived the one-hour format in their younger years and we would too. No action was taken. And, the generational divide at meeting widened.
During this time, I decided to attend the meeting’s men’s group. I carpooled with Douglas Steere, Dorothy’s husband, who had stopped driving at night. As I drove, Douglas asked me questions about my life and work. At the men’s group, the topic of the change of the worship time came up. Most, if not all, in the group were unfavorably disposed to the proposal. Immediately, Douglas turned to me and said, “Well, young man, you’re part of the group wanting to make the change. Tell us why you think it is a good idea.” Slowly, I began to relate the story of my spiritual odyssey among Friends, and how I had recently begun to feel a real sense of being led and nurtured by the meeting community; that I and other young Friends were beginning to understand how to enter into the process of group spiritual formation and we wanted more. In fact, we craved it. We wanted fuller engagement with the depth of worship and the community of older and wiser Friends. When I finished my ramble, Douglas looked up and said to the group, “I think we ought to listen to this young man.” I don’t think I had ever been listened to with such prayerful attention. At the next meeting for business, meeting approved the proposed change to the First-day schedule.
I have been blessed to be part of a meeting that was gracious and generous with its love. The elders of meeting were willing to serve without regard for their own status or need to be overly controlling; they used their authority on behalf of those newly entering the stream of the tradition, not as ostensible self-sacrifice, but as a means of empowering others and ensuring the flow of living water into the life of meeting. This was a vibrant witness of a Quaker community’s ability to empower its members through nurture and love. Had I missed this when I was younger, or was this insight part of my own continuing maturation, the edge of my growth? I realized that it is an awareness, like that of the presence and absence of Spirit in our lives, that spirals from foreground to background, conscious to unconscious, in our hearts and minds with our barely noticing its subtle movement. The Spirit blows where it will, and we learn to read its signs.
In my yearly meeting the practice of recording ministers and elders was laid down in 1920. The creation of committees to oversee the functions of ministry and care of members means this work is now the responsibility of all members. And this is a good thing. It seems very rightly ordered. But the historic responsibility of the elder, of discerning when and how to engage in confronting divisive behavior or in addressing differences that threaten the unity and harmony of the community, has become diffused.
Often in meeting, unmentionable or untouchable conflicts simmer for years resulting in overly contentious business meetings and smaller and smaller attendance. Have we become overly concerned with inclusivity and acceptance and the appearance of harmony at the expense of the unity and peace which are fruits of the Spirit? Scripture gives us a wonderful image of the fruits of the Spirit. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It sounds delicious, this rare fruit. But this harvest is only reaped when we walk the path with awareness and intention, emptying ourselves of thoughts and ideas of how things should be and opening to the way they are.
Today, the elders of a meeting, whether called by that name or not, are those Friends recognized as having a concern for the spiritual vitality of meeting for worship and the harmonious functioning of the community. They see to the good order of our life together with active discernment. They encourage gifts of ministry among members. They are often led to call to order those persons who disrupt worship or the rightly ordered conduct of our business. These last practices of the function of an elder are where most of us bristle. When elders work outside of the committee structure and function by self-appointment, the risk of estrangement becomes great. This I know experientially. It is especially risky when persons with behavioral or emotional differences are confronted in this way. For Liberal Friends, the loss of community cohesion through the alienation of anyone who has been more than a passing visitor is an agonizing situation to be avoided at all costs. Yet we are at a loss as to who to turn to when such estrangement occurs. How do we know who are our “elders?”
We recognize elders by the qualities of wisdom and care they display among us, including an on-going commitment to personal growth in the Spirit with the goal of helping others to grow as well; and also by the ability to talk about one’s spiritual journey and to help others amplify their understanding of how the events of their lives conform to a movement of Spirit which is meaningful and precious. To be willing to talk about darker spiritual matters and to be present in humility before the search of another, in both shadow and light, is where the weight of the elder is deepened. I would even say that therein lies the authority of the elder. It is found in the humility she brings before souls. Such humility has nothing to do with being a subservient doormat. It has everything to do with the connectedness and unity found in Spirit with others in loving relationship. It is a humility which befriends our own earthiness, our saltiness, and the salt of others.
For Friends, the experience of living in Truth as individuals in community is the central organizing dynamic of Quakerism. In mystical Judaism and in Islamic Sufism this knowing is often described simply as “seeing reality.” For the ancient prophets of Israel, it was this knowing, and the compassion it engendered, that fueled their passion for social justice and peace. Theirs was prophesy rooted in the conditions of the here and now. It was also the source of their hope for renewal and for the restoration of a community which did not depend on domination and violence. Of course, non-dualism, or unitive knowing, is foundational to the teachings of Jesus, who reminds us that God does not have favorites. He allows the sun to shine and the rain to blessedly fall on the wicked and the just.
For early Friends, this overwhelming experience of God’s radically unconditional love for all people and the creation itself was transformative. It empowered the movement to seek a world renewed and transformed by the power of love. And, I would affirm, it is this Truth and Love that continues to transform our lives as Friends today. As I have gotten older, I have experienced this shift of consciousness as a reorientation of my sense of self from the center to the periphery, from the core to the margin, from full to empty. This realization is gradual and sudden, as ordinary as breathing; it is far-off and yet remarkably close-at-hand. It is here in our midst and coming any moment now. For me, it has also been a release from the anxious search for certainty and the grasping for belief. This awareness has the power to transform our world when we relax and fully accept the Truth of what is happening in the moment. The most remarkable thing about such a shift is its utter ordinariness. It is the gift of the Spirit hidden in plain sight.
It is this experience that has changed my understanding of how Friends can best meet the challenge of inclusiveness and diversity because it moves the work of addressing conflict from one of resolution to one of transformation. I’ve found that transformation happens when we let go of old understandings, when we embrace the disorientation of conflict and sincerely engage in the struggle to find new Light. The first step on the journey in the transformation of conflict is to acknowledge the reality of what has happened—to recognize and respond to the painful emotions and tears to the fabric of the community which have occurred. This truth telling will provide assurance that the reality of the situation “as it is” in the community is not going to be ignored.
The next step is to affirm a commitment to the empowerment of Friends in disagreement to resolve differences and heal relationships themselves. Friends must feel empowered to engage in the process of reconciliation. In the work that I have participated in with meetings, especially those addressing the challenge of disruptive behavior, this is the turning point. When Friends understand that there is a process that will empower them to find unity with others, Way opens. Once these steps are taken, Friends are able to take an optimistic view of the motives of others and themselves. Seeking to understand the positive intention of an action that may appear to estrange, and then uniting with that intention as a way of affirming competencies and the power of the Spirit to lead Friends in unity, is the hope born of struggle.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the transformation process will be creating a safe place for the full expression of emotions by all involved. And equally trying will be finding the centered presence to be authentically responsive to everyone’s feelings including one’s own. Being comfortable with strong emotions means relaxing into uncertainty and ambiguity in relationships. Being present and authentic to what is happening in the mediation setting, being responsive to feelings as they form, coalesce, and change, is no easy task. It will take the support of the entire meeting community in their awareness of the work of the mediators and elders involved. The meeting will also need to understand that many conflicts in meeting will involve a long-term process, and that mediation is but one intervention in a longer sequence of loving concern and reconciliation. Other interventions may include advice regarding help from outside the meeting including pastoral and professional care. However, recognizing when empowerment and transformation occurs, even in small degrees, is vitally important to the process, as is not viewing a lack of discernible transformation to be a failure on anyone’s part. Our main job is to patiently midwife the birth of a new consciousness, to witness a spiritual transformation that will increase our capacity to act and live with confidence.
As Friends, we can live and walk and know ourselves in Truth, acting with confidence and assurance that the Spirit of God is knowable as Love and that Love is available to everyone, everywhere. But ultimately, it is a communal journey. We need each other to find the wholeness we seek. We need those at the core of our tradition, our elders and ministers, as much as we need those who travel a wider field: the seekers and sojourners and prophets who ask us to expand our capacity for living in blessed community.