The Grief and the Promised Land

The grief is real.

Imagine if every monthly meeting experienced deeply gathered worship; if every monthly meeting was rigorously engaged in outreach; if every monthly meeting played a meaningful role in its neighboring community; if committees arose and were laid down solely in response to the direction of Spirit; if all Friends understood what spiritual gifts were, and made a practice of naming, nurturing, and supporting them; if all Friends knew how to recognize and live faithfully into ministries; if all Friends used discernment in all areas of their daily lives.

Imagine if neither age nor gender nor race nor class nor level of education was an obstacle in any way to a sense of full belonging in the Religious Society of Friends; if it was never necessary for any Friend to ask for financial assistance to attend a Quaker event; if the majority of Friends practiced intervisitation or traveled in the ministry at some point in their lives; if Friends from pastoral meetings and Friends from unprogrammed meetings were equally assured of their full acceptance in all parts of our beloved community.

Imagine if 100 percent of Quaker gatherings were either multigenerational or included meaningful parallel programming for children and youth; if children, youth, and young adults were encouraged to participate in any Quaker activity they liked, and were provided the support they needed to participate meaningfully; if older adults were welcomed into traditionally younger spaces and were provided the support they needed to participate meaningfully; if we developed systems of communication that were genuinely accessible to younger generations; if we explained our Quaker terminology as we used it, without fail.

Imagine if our Quaker culture put multiracial culture, not white culture, in the center; if our decisions about allocating time and money were fully in keeping with our testimonies; if we spoke truth with love at all times in all places, both individually and collectively; if we learned to speak and live courageously; if each one of us lived a life that was 100 percent climate-sustainable.

I testify that this is possible.

And imagine what a light on the hill we would be.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” —Genesis 12:1

The grief is real.

Those of us who make up the Religious Society of Friends are not what we could be, and the first step to becoming something new is to name the fact that we’re not the new thing yet. There’s so much that could happen if we threw ourselves into the arms of God, if we behaved as though continuing revelation were real, if we declared collectively that we have no idea what our faith community might look like next year, and that the only thing we know for certain is that God is our guide and protector.

But committing to change and flinging open our doors is terrifying. What happens when half the people in my meeting are suddenly people I’ve never seen before? What happens if every other Sunday becomes intergenerational worship? What happens if my committee’s laid down because the meeting is called to redistribute its resources? What if my place of safety isn’t recognizable anymore?

Let’s pull this out of the abstract and look at an example:

Suppose we are called to fully welcome children and families. What might this look like? We might make a commitment to hold no meeting functions—worship, business, social, or service—without a plan for how children will be welcomed in the space. We might develop intergenerational worship. We might create a dedicated physical space for teens. We might put changing tables in all of our bathrooms. We might hire a childcare professional. We might work out a system of rotation so that all Friends, not just the parents, take turns providing a children’s program during business meeting. We might develop a teen accompaniment program to help with the transition from children’s programming to full adult participation. We might even change our worship space to a location that’s more fully family-friendly.

And what might we gain? We might gain a sense of joy; fresh energy and new ideas; the spiritual gifts carried by parents who, right now, cannot be fully present in our communities; a more certain future; a chance to learn by teaching; newness; and intergenerational connection.

But what must we grieve?

I love the absolute silence of child-free worship. If we increase the childcare budget, can we still afford other programming that’s important to me? I haven’t missed a business meeting in 14 years; how can I go facilitate a children’s program instead? I feel uncomfortable in playful environments. I feel safer when I know I’m not going to be asked to sing in worship. It’s much more convenient for me to schedule committee meetings without thinking about childcare.

Every one of these responses is worth hearing and affirming. When we make a change, even if it’s true that we might gain more than we lose, even if it’s true that this new step is a step in faithfulness and living into God’s call, it doesn’t negate the fact that we are losing something familiar, sometimes even something beloved.

We expect to grieve when someone has died. Can we learn to expect to grieve when we’re called into new things? Can we set aside time together in our meetings to grieve the old ways? Can we learn to treat grief as part of rebirth?

The grief is real.

We skip over this sometimes. We envision the glorious could-be and lament that it is not, and yet we never address our fundamental and totally human resistance to change. We cannot reach the land God shows us if we never leave our father’s house. If we do not collectively name this leaving and grieve the loss, however, we’ll contort ourselves into ridiculous shapes in an effort to “leave” without really leaving.

We do this in a number of ways. One way is to declare that we’ve already arrived. We have already reached the promised land. The Religious Society of Friends is perfect, or nearly so, and those imperfections we have are so insignificant (when compared to the glorious experience of the Light) that we cannot imagine why we aren’t growing. It must surely be due to some external circumstances, some influence of the world that we cannot control.

Another way is to diminish the power of God. Yes, there’s a promised land, but we can’t really get there . . . or not right now; or not with the amount of money we have; or not in the current circumstances. When God says to leave our father’s house, God doesn’t mean now; it wouldn’t be practical.

And yet another way is to hope we can reach the promised land without actually going anywhere. God is so powerful that God will bring the promised land here, now, exactly where we are, without any need for us to change at all—right?

But we have not reached the promised land. We can reach the promised land, but the promised land will not come to us. To get there, we will, at some point, have to leave behind the way things are right now. But the way things are right now feels very safe, or at least a lot safer than tromping through a wilderness we’ve never seen before.

The grief is real.

We are allowed to feel sad when we consider our beloved community’s changing. We are allowed to feel angry when others suggest it. We are allowed to feel frightened of the unknown. We are allowed to crave safety and sameness and security. To pretend we don’t experience these feelings will not make them go away.

The danger is that it’s too easy for us to avoid the grief of leaving the familiar. To do so, we just have to not leave the familiar. Or—and this is more common—maybe we can leave it a little bit but mostly not, and then say, “Look, we’ve changed,” and tell ourselves that the work is finished.

To get to the promised land, we must voluntarily, faithfully, and courageously release everything that feels safe and comfortable: not to immediately change everything (for that would just waste energy), but to put all of our traditions and habits into the category of “could be changed” and then listen to God (and each other) intently. And in this letting go of habits, we must acknowledge the grief that comes with change and walk alongside each other through it.

We must affirm for one another that the grief is real. We can’t skip over it (“we’ve already reached the promised land”), or postpone it (“we can’t really get there right now, so why try?”), or pretend it’s unnecessary (“the promised land will come to us, so we don’t need to change”).

Here’s another example:

Suppose we are called to be fully relevant in our neighborhoods: what might this look like? We might fundraise for the local public school. We might organize a meeting workday to volunteer at the public library. We might host movie nights. We might run GED classes, a mindful parenting meet-up, or job interview workshops for college students, depending on what our neighbors most need. We might add Spanish (or Korean, or Russian, or French) to our signage and find an interpreter for meeting for worship. We might go out into the community and talk with our neighbors.

And what might we gain? We might gain a sense of service-mindedness, new life as new neighbors come through our doors, a chance to learn from those who are unlike us, confidence in our own gifts and skills, human connection, and stronger communities.

But what must we grieve?

I don’t have time for this; I’d have to completely rearrange my schedule. I’d rather stay home on a weekday evening. I don’t like meeting strangers. I’m shy. It’s uncomfortable trying to give vocal ministry with an interpreter. What is our legal liability if we open up our doors? Does this mean laying down a committee that’s important to me? New people challenge the status quo. Suppose I make a mistake and embarrass myself? What if something goes wrong? What if some of our old members get uncomfortable and leave? Our meeting is so imperfect that I’m not sure I feel good about inviting people to come.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Nowhere does God promise that this will be a comfortable process.

When we as Friends are discerning next steps, can we ask explicitly, “In what ways will this new thing be difficult?” Can we affirm and respect the difficulty—the genuine, painful, and justified grieving of what we leave behind—and at the same time commit to continue moving forward?

Let’s do this thing.

Because the grief is real—and so is the promised land.

Emily Provance

Emily Provance, a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City, is called to a ministry of hearth building: that is, to the work of creating a home for Friends, a community rich with nourishing opportunities, so that each of us can then minister in the world, fully fed. She is an associate of Good News Associates, a nonprofit organization that supports non-institutional ministries.

4 thoughts on “The Grief and the Promised Land

  1. Thank you. I appreciate this article very much and look forward to hearing more about your work and leadings.

  2. Grieving and growth go together. With my son, everytime he moves into the next size of clothing, I grieve the sweet developmental stage he just moved out of–and in the same breath am so so grateful for the newness in front of me.

  3. Your article is very moving and it cuts through all the fearful excuses that keep people and meetings from changing. I wish my meeting could make these hard choices and commit to grieving and seeking the promised land. Thank you, Emily!

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