Please Come Anyway

You know when you cut yourself really badly, it doesn’t hurt at all for a while. You don’t feel anything. Death—our reaction to death—is sort of like that. You don’t feel anything at all. And then later on you begin to hurt. (Madeleine L’Engle, A Ring of Endless Light)

Lucas died on a Saturday; I go into the house on Sunday. This was no one’s plan but God’s. We’d already planned a visit, and then my phone chirped: LUCAS DIED. PLEASE COME ANYWAY.

When someone has died, the dishwasher still must be emptied. Dogs insist on going for walks. There are meals to eat, and there’s algebra homework. We slide into this otherworldly place, watching kitchens be kitchens and roads be roads, and though nothing’s behaving differently it seems it all should be.

The guest in grief-time follows the family. Quiet? Chatting? Working? Sleeping? Distraction—comfort—fade into the walls.

LUCAS DIED. PLEASE COME ANYWAY.

Dishwasher first, then dog, then algebra. I reflect on the many people I knew who’ve been trained for this. I remember a piece of advice: take their grief, soak it in, send it upwards; it isn’t yours.

This family defines itself by capable. I understand this. I do, too. It’s after dinner, after visitors have come and gone, after there’s nothing left to do capably that Hank settles in to tell stories about his son. On the floor beside him, I settle in to listen, and when I reach up for I’m-not-sure-what, he takes my hand and holds it.

We sit there, hand-in-hand, for an hour.

 

 

 

This story is part of a series on traveling in the ministry. All names and identifying details have been changed.

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

 

As St. Augustine Says

As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand, it isn’t God.

The line above is from Madeline L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. Of course, it’s really from Saint Augustine, but I know it as something Grandfather said once, in a moment when Leo got ahead of himself. L’Engle’s book, which is theoretically the story of a girl who talks to dolphins, is really a thick and nourishing stew of life and love and death and God, with poetry sprinkled throughout and the occasional dash of marine biology. My copy’s a bit tattered, with a lot of passages underlined.

This past Sunday, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. I did it accompanied by Billy Elliot: The Musical, courtesy of my iPhone, dodging tourists and bicycles to get up any kind of decent speed, while Billy struggled—in the clear tones of a boy soprano—to answer the question, “What does it feel like when you’re dancing?”

I can’t really explain it
I haven’t got the words
It’s a feeling that you can’t control
I suppose it’s like forgetting
Losing who you are
And at the same time
Something makes you whole
It’s like that there’s a music
Playing in your ear
And I’m listening, and I’m listening
And then I disappear

And then I feel a change
Like a fire deep inside
Something bursting me wide open
Impossible to hide
 

And suddenly I’m flying
Flying like a bird
Like electricity
Electricity
Sparks inside of me
And I’m free, I’m free

Early Friends wrote prodigiously, quite possibly because no number of words will adequately explain the experience of opening to the Divine. We ourselves, today, don’t talk about it much, perhaps because we fear sounding crazy—I know I fear that, especially when I’m talking to non-Quakers—but the Quaker concept of ministry means opening up and letting God take over completely, and it’s scary and it’s vulnerable and it’s powerful and it’s messy and it’s not always safe and it doesn’t always make very much sense—it’s like forgetting/ Losing who you are/ And at the same time/ Something makes you whole… I’m listening, and I’m listening/ And then I disappear/ And then I feel a change/ Like a fire deep inside/ Something bursting me wide open/ Impossible to hide/ And suddenly I’m flying…

Or, to go back to what Grandfather said in that old, converted barn, surrounded by books that held the wisdom of centuries, As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand, it isn’t God.

I’ve spent the last five years engaging with what I cannot understand. Of course, along the way, there’s been plenty I can understand; at least in the beginning, I was far more comfortable with the analytical, and the work of intellect can come from God, too…but it’s an altogether different thing to burst wide open and fly

Stories.

This is the first of a series on travel in the ministry, rooted in quotations from A Ring of Endless Light. What it is to travel in the ministry…I won’t find words to explain it. When Billy reached the end of verbal language, he showed what it meant to live God’s plan for him: he danced.

I’ll tell stories.

They’ll be stories from Kenya and England and Tanzania and Peru and Mexico and Indiana and North Carolina and New Jersey and New York City and the church in Harlem that’s right across the street from my home. They’ll be tweaked a bit sometimes, the names changed always, to conceal identifying details, but they will be the stories—the lived experience—of travel in the ministry.

 

 

 

If you’re in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, or North America, and if your Friends’ community might benefit from the experience of having a traveling minister come to visit, take a look at this program from Friends World Committee for Consultation.

To participate in the Holy Experiments ministry, which is designed to knit together an international community of Friends who are following Spirit adventurously and building more culturally inclusive faith communities, go here.

The Madlib Society

Did you ever play Madlibs as a kid? You get a text with a lot of blanks in it, and each blank has under it a part of speech, such as “verb” or “adverb” or “proper noun.” You ask a friend or a team of friends to fill in the blanks without looking and without knowing the context, and then you read it out loud and laugh [verb] uproariously [adverb].

I got to thinking about madlibs this morning and decided to play a little bit with my computer. Starting from “The Religious Society of Friends,” I found a random adjective-noun generator and used it to complete the phrase “The [Adjective] Society of [Noun].”

Here are some of my favorites:

The Correct Society of Elbows

The Mysterious Society of Calories

The Medieval Society of Transitions

The Vacant Society of Commodities

The Constitutional Society of Experiments

The Continuing Society of Asylums

The Decent Society of Bars

The Productive Society of Records

Hmm…

This is not just silliness for silliness’ sake—though to make it clear, there is nothing wrong with silliness. It’s more about asking questions: who are we, and who are we perceived to be?

We have a hard enough time answering the question “who are we?,” though some branches of Friends do better answering that than others. And yet, deciding who we are isn’t enough. Sometimes, “who are we?” might even be the wrong question.

What if we asked the question, “What did our Quaker meeting do this week?” And not just on Sunday between the hours of 10am and 1pm. If the meeting did something on Thursday or Tuesday or Sunday night, count that too. “What did our Quaker meeting do this week?” Like my middle school creative writing teacher said, look for the active verbs.

Here’s a list of things my own Quaker meeting did in the last week. It’ll be incomplete because I’ve been traveling, so I don’t have my finger on the pulse of everything at home:

Worshipped twice on Sunday;

Announced things for twenty whole minutes after worship;

Ate cookies and sandwiches;

Held half a dozen committee meetings on various days;

Sent a lot of emails to each other;

Hosted a one-man play about a conscientious objector from World War One;

Posted about six times on our private Facebook group;

Protested gun violence;

Appeared tangentially in an article in the New York Times about controversy at a Quaker school;

Appeared tangentially in more articles about that same controversy in other publications;

Dyed Easter eggs;

Hosted a small shelter for the homeless every night.

There’s a lot of good in this list, and I’m not making the list to criticize the actions. I do want to ask how much of the list sounds like The Religious Society of Friends, how much like The Productive Society of Records, how much like The Continuing Society of Asylums, and how much like The Correct Society of Elbows. And so forth.

If we look at the entire list, you could probably say that it’s imperfect but fairly solid. However, most people never see this whole list. The people in our neighborhood don’t see this whole list. The people of New York City don’t see this whole list. Even our own children don’t see this whole list.

 

What did the people in our neighborhood see us do this week?

Walked into the building on Sunday;

Hosted a one-man play about a conscientious objector from World War One;

Appeared tangentially in an article in the New York Times about controversy at a Quaker school;

Appeared tangentially in more articles about that same controversy in other publications;

Hosted a small shelter for the homeless every night.

What sort of Society would you assume that we are, based on this list?

 

What did the people of New York City see us do this week?

Protested gun violence;

Appeared tangentially in an article in the New York Times about controversy at a Quaker school;

Appeared tangentially in more articles about that same controversy in other publications.

What sort of Society would you assume that we are, based on this list?

 

What did our own children see us do this week?

Worshipped on Sunday (though only the last ten minutes);

Announced things for twenty whole minutes after worship;

Ate cookies and sandwiches;

Protested gun violence;

Dyed Easter eggs;

Hosted a small shelter for the homeless every night.

What sort of Society would you assume that we are, based on this list?

 

The perception of what a group does directly affects who chooses to participate.

The perception of what a group does directly affects who chooses to participate.

Jesus said we should pray in closets and give money in secret, but He also said not to hide our lights under bushels. If we lived in a time when people spent their whole lives in the same small village, communicating only with their fellow villagers, then continuing as we are might be fine. After all, in that setting, everyone sort of sees everything, so what you do is pretty much what you’re perceived to be doing.

But we don’t live in that time. We live in a time when people are highly mobile and deeply individualized and bombarded by messaging through technology, and we can no longer assume that what we do is what we are perceived to be doing. If we truly believe that outreach matters—and I do believe that, because people are looking for us—then we have to start thinking about how we are perceived, because the perception of what a group does directly affects who chooses to participate.

What did the children and teens in our meeting see us do this week?

What did the people in our immediate neighborhood see us do this week?

What did the people in our wider geographical area see us do this week?

Because if we don’t ask, we might very well be projecting the image of The Correct Society of Elbows. And that’s not who we are–I hope.

We Are a People

Two weeks ago, I was invited to talk with a class of first graders about my work as a Quaker minister. First graders ask awesome questions—“how does it feel” questions and “when did it start” questions and “why is it like that” questions, and perhaps best of all, they have no idea which sorts of questions don’t have answers, so they just go right ahead and ask everything. If you’re looking for insight into a difficult situation, I highly recommend attempting to explain it to a first grader.

I’ve worked a lot with this age group, so their reactions didn’t surprise me much except for one part, when we got stuck on the question, “Who picks you up at the airport?”

Me: …and then, when I get where I’m going, somebody picks me up at the airport and takes me to the conference center or the meetinghouse or wherever I’m supposed to be.

Kid #1: Who picks you up at the airport?

Me: Well, somebody who’s a local Quaker does. It’s different every time.

Kid #2: Do you just get in a random person’s car?

Me: Well, no, I usually have the person’s phone number or something ahead of time. And I send them a text message and say something like “we’ve landed, and I’m coming downstairs now, and I’m wearing a black jacket and carrying a blue backpack.” And they say, “I’m the bald guy in the gray car with the blue bumper sticker that says “Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions).”

Kid #3: And then they just drive you to where you’re going?

Me: Exactly.

Kid #4: Why?

Me: Because they know I need to get there.

Kid #5: Is it ever not a Quaker who picks you up at the airport?

Me: Um, sometimes it’s a person who’s a friend of Quakers, but usually it’s a Quaker.

Kid #6: How do they know you’re coming?

Me: Usually somebody who’s a Quaker that I know reaches out to them and says “Emily is coming on Saturday and she needs somebody to pick her up at the airport and take her to the conference center” and then the local Quakers talk to each other and figure out who can do it, and that’s how it happens. Not just for me, but for other visitors, too, if other people are coming.

Kid #7: So they just pick you up at the airport? Just because you need somebody to pick you up at the airport?

Me: They do. See, being a Quaker is kind of like being part of a big family. So even if we don’t know each other, we know we’re kind of like family and we try to take care of each other.

And that’s when it clicked. A sort of general murmur of ohhh went through the group, and we were able to move on. But at the end of the thirty-minute conversation, guess what was the one specific thing that the first grade teacher commented on as I left the room? “I love that idea, that you’re all like a family.”

Sometimes I forget how counter-cultural this idea can be, and I forget how surprising it can sound and how difficult it might be to understand. For a group of six-year-olds in a secular school, I used the word “family.” A more complete description would be “a covenant people.” Friends are a covenant people, a group given to one another by God with the assignment to build the beloved community.

It’s important to recognize that we are not the only covenant people; there are other groups who understand themselves this way, and it’s my feeling that God probably recognizes them that way, too. It’s also important to recognize that being a covenant people does not imply that we are perfect. To be a covenant people is about the nature of our relationship with one another and with God; it has nothing to do with the degree to which we are successfully living out that relationship.

There are lots of ways in which we’re falling short. And our failings are worth talking about—not feeling guilty about (which is frankly counter-productive and spiritually destructive)—but recognizing and talking about so we can learn and grow and do better. But just this once I don’t want to talk about our failings. I want to talk about the potential. What does it mean, that we are a covenant people?

It means that we are inexorably connected to the Divine. You will be my people, and I will be your God.

It means that we can experience division, but we can never be truly torn apart. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? . . . And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”

It means that we can learn from one another—and praise God with one another—across cultures and nationalities and languages and theological differences. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

And it means that we pick each other up at the airport. Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

I’m so glad to be among you. Thank you.

Building for Growth

One of my favorite books is The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge. I don’t recommend it as bedtime reading; it’s 403 pages of densely packed text on systemic analysis in the business world, but that just happens to be my cup of tea. You can see in the photo above what the pages of my copy look like.

In the chapter about growth, the book says, “If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

To illustrate, it tells the story of a technology company that built a particular type of superior computers, selling these with the guarantee of a two-weeks-or-less delivery time. At first, things went swimmingly. Customers loved the product and were drawn in by the rapid delivery. The sales force functioned extremely well—possibly too well—and eventually, it became clear that there would come a time when the factory couldn’t keep up.

One bright executive suggested building a new factory, but the others were not convinced. What if sales slowed down? Better to wait until they were certain of the market.

Eight months or so later, demand did outstrip supply, and at that point, executives approved building a new factory. But construction took a good six months, and in that time, the two-weeks-or-less delivery guarantee stretched to four, then six, then eight, and finally, customers began cancelling orders and purchasing instead from competitors. By the time the new factory opened, demand had dipped so far that the new factory was superfluous.

To make things worse, when demand eventually began to creep back up—after all, the company was selling a superior product in comparison with its competitors—the executives did not learn from their earlier mistake. When it was suggested that a third factory would eventually be necessary, they delayed: “Last time we did that, demand dropped and we wasted all that money!” When demand again outstripped capacity, the delivery wait time again became unreasonable, which again caused demand to drop, this time irrevocably.

The company went out of business.

“If there is a genuine potential for growth, build capacity in advance of demand, as a strategy for creating demand.”

Why am I talking about this on a Quaker blog?

We’re not selling a product, but the principle is relevant anyway. Let’s take a look at this “if-then-because” statement.

Starting with the if: “If there is a genuine potential for growth…” This strikes me as an of course. The Quaker message is universal, empowering, and hopeful. All people have direct access to the Divine. By listening intently to the voice of Spirit and following the leadings we hear, we can be transformed as individuals. Furthermore, by doing this listening in communities and by following leadings together, we can build a world in which all people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, respected, and loved, and in which all creation thrives. There is no way that this message would not be appealing to more than the less-than-a-million people who currently call themselves Friends.

So let’s look at the next bit of the sentence: “…build capacity in advance of demand…” What does that mean, in a Quaker context? Does it mean to get a bigger building? Well, yes, if yours is one of the very few Quaker meetings that has no more room for anybody to sit. But many of us are in the opposite circumstance, with physical facilities that are comically big. How can we, then, build capacity?

It’s more about preparing for people who aren’t yet there.

Even if you don’t yet have small children, you can have soft toys in the worship space and a collection of picture books and a dedicated volunteer to provide.

Even if you don’t yet have teens, you can have a room or corner that’s a designated “teen space,” with couches and bean bag chairs and a Friend who’s qualified and prepared to serve as an adult presence.

Even if you don’t yet have any visitors or newcomers, you can have a designated “welcoming Friend” and a stack of pamphlets (regularly dusted) and a glossary to attach to every business meeting agenda.

Even if you don’t yet have anyone who’s hard of hearing, you can use a microphone in meeting for worship.

Even if you don’t yet have language diversity among your attenders, you can have a small Spanish section or Korean section or Russian section in your library, or whatever language other than English makes the most sense in your neighborhood.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are struggling financially, you can create or simplify processes by which meeting funds cover Quaker-related costs for those who need assistance.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who are genderqueer, you can make sure there are easily accessible gender-neutral bathrooms.

Even if you don’t yet have attenders who struggle with mobility, you can install ramps and move coffee hour to a first-floor location.

And even if you don’t yet have racial diversity in your meeting, you can read Lifting the White Veil or Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship or participate in an e-retreat about understanding and healing white supremacy.

If you don’t take these steps to welcome the new Friends before they arrive, then like the company selling computers, you’re building capacity just a little too late. This is the last part of the statement: “…as a strategy for creating demand.” We build capacity for the community we hope to have because otherwise, we are demonstrating by our behavior that the only people we want are those who look and act exactly like us. And those who do not look and act exactly like us will understand that implicitly and will stay away.

Good intentions are not the issue; we have to look at the impact. Exactly who are we prepared to welcome? Not who are we wishing would come, not who do we like to think we would welcome, but who are we actually—physically, emotionally, intellectually, monetarily, and spiritually—ready for? In a very real way, the answer to that question limits who will come.

Holy Experiments

Last year, I published a series of blogs on multiage inclusion. A surprising number of Friends read that series, and I realized that many of us are ready–or past ready–to engage with the questions of how our cultures and our institutional structures often undermine the very call of Spirit without our realizing it—not just in terms of age inclusion, though that’s significant, but in many other ways as well.

It’s worth noting that some Friends have been engaging in this work for quite some time. From that point of view, I’m late for the party. But what gives me hope is the critical mass that I see—Friends all over the world who are poised to say yes, God is calling us to grow and change—and moreover, the fact that in 2018, we have everything we need technologically to bring together those Friends-all-over-the-world and to do this work as a people.

And so, on April 2nd, 2018, the day after Easter, I’m launching a new ministry. It’s called Holy Experiments.

Holy Experiments is designed to support Friends with an aim toward following Spirit adventurously and building culturally inclusive communities of faith. This will happen in a variety of ways. One piece will be skill-building—looking at culture and structure methodically, with a lens to understanding and learning to perceive unintended effects. The second piece will be what I’m calling “along the way”—affirming the spiritual conditions necessary in a faith community that’s doing hard things. A third element will be weekly queries, and a fourth will be concrete, specific experiments—things that Friends are encouraged to try, to see what happens, and then to keep or release, as led.

Friends are welcome to engage as able. You can step in, drop out, participate fully, be an observer…and that level of participation can change over time, day to day, week to week, whatever you can do. You can receive weekly emails (through Flocknote), and if you live in the United States, you can receive a weekly query by text message. (If you’re in a country other than the United States, you’ll still get the query, but it’ll come in your email.) Sign up for emails and/or texts by clicking here or by texting HOLYEXPERIMENTS (all one word) to 84576.

There’s also a Facebook group for regular interaction with other Friends.

I come from an education background, and I know that not everyone enters the world through text. So sometimes we’ll be reading together, but sometimes we’ll be using photographs or paintings or videos or music or comic strips. A little bit of everything.

Backpack and I will be looking for opportunities to travel. I want to come and speak with Friends in your area about this work; please invite me. I haven’t quite managed it yet, but I’m working on obtaining grant support so that I won’t have to create a financial barrier by asking churches or meetings for the cost of my travel.

Eventually, I hope there will be other resources to engage more Friends—Bible studies, small groups online, religious education curricula, ready-to-publish newsletter articles, and so forth. I’ll be checking in with participating Friends to see which of these things might be the most helpful.

Holy Experiments is a four-year project. It will end on March 28th, 2022. Just about anything could happen in any of our lives between now and then, so as I’ve said—drop in, drop out, participate fully, be an observer, whatever you need to do.

This ministry is under the tender care of my support committee, which is itself under the care of my local meeting, which is Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting in New York City. It is non-institutional ministry, meaning that my costs will come mostly out of pocket. If so led, you can offer financial support here. I’m equally grateful for prayerful support and for social support—by social, I mean spreading the word so that others may join in.

Looking forward to April 2nd

Permission to Experiment

Aren’t mistakes a lovely thing? They get a bad rap, probably because when we hear the word “mistake” we tend to think of the ones with dreadful consequences—after all, dreadful things do stick in our memories better than ordinary things.

Really, though, “mistake” is defined as “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong,” which could cover anything from backing the car into the basketball hoop to knocking over a glass of milk. We learn from mistakes every day. When we back the car into the basketball hoop, we learn that we need new glasses, or that the brakes should be checked, or that we shouldn’t drive while answering phone calls; when we knock over a glass of milk, we learn not to place the milk quite so close to the edge of the table.

Many mistakes have as many positive consequences as negative ones, if we’re willing to count what we’ve learned and how we change our behavior as a consequence. Babies learn to walk by making one mistake at a time. Baseball players learn to hit the ball partly by striking out a bunch of times. And many of us have found our ideal professions by first choosing the wrong ones. These sorts of things even happen on a larger, less personal scale—for example, in the United States, one could argue that the entire purpose of the Supreme Court is to recognize, correct, and learn from legislative mistakes.

Every one of us makes hundreds of mistakes every day, most of them so tiny that we hardly even think about them. These are the moments when we’re working toward some goal—say, getting out the door with two small children—and in the course of achieving this, we drop things, we step on the dog’s toe, we leave the keys in the kitchen and have to dash back for them, and so forth. We often don’t even think about these things, consciously, as mistakes, but instead as what-happens-as-we-try-to-get-out-the-door-with-two-small-children. These little mistakes are just a given as part of pursuing a goal.

But then we walk into our Quaker meetings. And somehow, we suddenly have the idea that it’s completely unacceptable to make a mistake.

Obviously, I don’t mean the kind of mistakes like eating three extra cookies at social hour. We do that sort of thing all the time—or at least, I do. I’m talking about what happens the moment we sit down to do discernment.

Discernment is the process of prayerful listening by which we discover God’s will for us. This can and does work on an individual level in day-to-day life, but most of the time, when Quakers use the word “discernment,” we’re talking about practicing this listening as a community. This is what Quaker process is supposed to be all about. A question comes before the meeting, and we engage in a process of prayerful listening by which we discover God’s will for us.

This is miraculous when it works, and I’ve experienced it working many times. Friends take turns rising and speaking in worship, and one has one little piece of the truth, and another has another, and suddenly we hear words coming from one Friend and it’s just absolutely clear how it all comes together and what we should do, and then we affirm it and do it and—

Well. Sometimes we get stuck on do it.

I think that part of the reason we sometimes get stuck in discernment is because we’re talking about God’s will and surely God’s will is so definite, so clear, that it will be delivered chiseled in stone. Or not chiseled in stone—we’re not living in the days of Moses anymore—but perhaps God will email a PowerPoint with a detailed 27-point plan.

If it is God’s will that we should build a new building, then surely we can’t move forward until God has made every detail clear, from the financing to which plumber to hire to whether we should landscape with tulips or daisies.

If it is God’s will that we should write an epistle to the world about the movement of Spirit, then surely we can’t move forward until God has affirmed the placement of the second and third commas.

If it is God’s will that we should become a more fully inclusive community, then surely we can’t move forward until God has made our first, second, and third steps clear and has assured us beyond all doubt that taking these steps will work out in exactly the manner we’re hoping for.

Except….this is not my experience of God. One time in my life, and once only, I experienced a leading that manifested as a literal voice and provided a surprising level of detail. Other than that, in my experience, God does not send PowerPoints. God provides us with a call and, for the most part, lets us work out the details.

I can’t say for sure why this is. Maybe God is too busy to worry about paint colors. Or maybe it’s about learning from our mistakes. When a baby is learning to walk, is it helpful for someone to stand beside her and offer precise instructions for where to place each foot and exactly when and how to shift her hips? Obviously not—she’s incapable of following those instructions perfectly anyway, and it’s far more efficient to let her fall down once in awhile so she can learn from that and do better next time.

Why don’t we Friends grant ourselves permission to experiment? Initiative is not antithetical to discernment; experimentation is not in conflict with obedience. In the book of John, Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” We’re not expected to engage in the blind, unquestioning obedience of a servant. We’re expected to do God’s will, yes, but not in such a way that we stop using the brains God gave us (as my mother would say).

It’s okay for Friends to try new things, even without making sure that this exact plan is the exact thing God wants us to do this exact second. If we have, for example, discerned and affirmed that God is asking our meeting to serve our neighborhood community, then it’s probably okay if we start by trying an open-door community dinner, and if we discover that doesn’t work (or only works once or twice), then we can move on to offering English lessons at the public library or providing peace scholarships for local high school kids. We tried something, we learned from it, we tried something else. (We took a step, we fell down, we stood up again.)

We’re allowed to experiment and learn from mistakes. We’re allowed to be dynamic, curious communities. If we outrun our Guide, our Guide will let us know, as long as we continue checking in.

Addicted to Crisis

Being animals, we humans walk about with a cocktail of chemicals in our brains. These chemicals influence, if not completely dictate, much of our day-to-day emotional state, and the release of these chemicals (or lack thereof) is frequently controlled by environment.

In times of crisis, for example, we release endorphins, and endorphins increase our tolerance to pain (both physical and psychological) as well as encouraging us to be friendly and helpful in our interactions with one another. And at the moment that the crisis ends and the pain disappears (or lessens), the endorphins don’t immediately vanish. They stick around for as much as a couple of days before gradually ebbing away, which can result in something casually called an “endorphin crash.”

Most of us know there are several ways in which a group can bond. We can have a strong common purpose; we can have shared experiences over a long period of time; or we can endure a collective reaction to a threat.

Ideally, a religious group would bond through common purpose and shared experiences. Too often, though, I witness Friends bonding through collective reaction to threat. I’m not talking about long-term threats in the outside world; I’m talking about the types of threats that feel like immediate crisis. As ridiculous as it sounds, these often come in business meetings.

An item comes up on the agenda. It might be poorly presented; it might be connected to old pain; it might simply be a matter on which we are not in agreement. We experience conflict. Sometimes, if it’s a big enough issue, we experience conflict for a period of days. We’re tense. We’re frightened. Eventually, we’re able to minute something, generally by the skin of our teeth, and we walk out of business meeting experiencing profound relief and gratitude—and probably other things, but the profound relief and gratitude are present. And, thanks to brain chemistry, we’re brimming with endorphins, which make us feel friendly and helpful and sort of temporarily numb. We go and share our final potluck in this state. We’ve been through something together; we’re bonded; we feel like we’ve grown closer as a group. (At least, most of us do. Sometimes, a few people finish this process feeling pushed out.)

I don’t want to judge the authenticity of the crisis. Sometimes, the particular question at hand is a genuine threat to the community and is a genuine emergency. But the thing is, this type of crisis-endorphins-relief cycle is addictive. It’s a dramatic way to bond a group together in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn’t matter so much if we were together every day, all year, visiting one another’s farms and meeting up at the local general store, but we’re not. Especially in the case of regional or yearly meetings, we often only see one another a few times a year or less. Which means that if those fairly infrequent meetings are taken up by crisis enough times, crisis can quickly become our primary way of bonding as a group. We might even, unconsciously, begin to seek threats in an effort to experience that feeling again.

Obviously, this isn’t healthy. It also isn’t of God.

Endorphins seem to be one of three types of chemicals in our brains that encourage group bonding. (I’m speaking here not as a neuroscientist but as someone who’s done a fair amount of reading on the subject.) The two major influencers are endorphins and dopamine; a third, somewhat less important chemical for group social bonds, is oxytocin.

Endorphins, which cause us to feel friendly and helpful, can be triggered by a trauma, but they can also be triggered by exercise, laughter, music, and chocolate.

Dopamine directly influences how strongly we feel linked to those in our social network. When we experience high levels of dopamine (especially over time), we feel more strongly attached to the people we think of as friends. A release of dopamine can be triggered by exercise or music—and, according to one study, by cupcakes.

Oxytocin creates feelings of calm and closeness. It also crystalizes emotional memories, reduces stress, and encourages generosity. The best ways to release oxytocin aren’t super appropriate in public, but laughter, exercise, music, and hugs can help.

It would seem that if we hope to build strong, bonded faith communities, the ideal schedule for a day-long gathering would look something like this:

8am – Arrival and community singing

8:30am – Breakfast

9:15am – Communal exercise period (dance, yoga, walks)

10:00am – Worship

11:00am – Walking and singing break

12:15pm – Lunch

1:00pm – Meeting for worship for business (agenda constructed to allow opportunities for singing breaks and periodic laughter)

2:45pm – Break for chocolate cupcakes

3:00pm – Resettling through singing and communal movement

3:15pm – Meeting for worship for business

4:30pm – Cooperative games or physical work project, such as gardening

5:30pm – Dinner

6:15pm – Committee meetings (stand-up meetings encouraged as able)

7:30pm – Guest comedian

8:00pm – Sing-along or dance

9:30pm – Goodnight hugs, exit the building

Perhaps most importantly, let’s be aware of the concept of crisis addiction. Let’s talk about it. It’s rather easy to tell ourselves, “Oh, we couldn’t possibly take an extra hour for singing, because we have to deal with this crisis,” but do we fully recognize the implications of such a decision? Have we considered which activities we hope will define us as a community? Can we be aware of how those choices influence the people that we will become?

Revamping the Job Descriptions

It’s been months ago now since a friend of mine said, “I really liked that series on multiage inclusion, but I think you missed something.”

She went on to tell me a story about her meeting and how difficult it’s been for the meeting to find a clerk. Essentially, no one—and it’s a fairly good-sized group of people—will do it. Most can’t do it. For many Friends, either the particular conglomeration of skills is too much or the time requirement is overwhelming.

Let’s think about what a local meeting clerk is often asked to do:

1) Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees;

2) Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees;

3) Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda;

4) Assemble an agenda for meetings for business, bearing in mind all of the various factors that go into questions like, “If I put item A before item B, will everyone be so distressed by item A that we can’t deal with item B?”

5) Sensitively anticipate a variety of potential reactions to the items on the business agenda and do the behind-the-scenes work of talking with Friends who might (either reasonably or unreasonably) need some conversation about the items ahead of time;

6) Appear on time and completely reliably for meetings for business, and listen intently the entire time without ever becoming distracted;

7) Introduce items of business, including their history;

8) Hear and articulate the sense of the meeting;

9) Sense the moments when the group needs silent worship or an opportunity to stretch, and call for these;

10) Follow up promptly on all matters requiring the clerk’s signature, clerk’s forwarding, etc.;

11) Occupy a visible leadership position (whether we call it that or not), which requires understanding the culture of the meeting, engaging with interpersonal dynamics, remaining reasonably impartial, being a listening ear for those who are troubled, and often figuring out how to respond to anything that’s “nobody’s job in particular.”

Now imagine asking a person with a full-time job, two children, and a hospitalized mother-in-law to serve in this position. Even if this Friend is almost super-humanly gifted and has an abundance of relevant experience—and neither of those things is terribly likely—the pressures of job and family make this a nearly impossible sell. It’s not just a matter of asking someone to give up leisure time; it’s a matter of asking someone to sacrifice time that is desperately needed for parenting, partnering, and caregiving. That is not okay.

The same thing happens on a wider scale. At a recent yearly meeting gathering, Friends struggled with a particular proposal that came from a small group that considers business on our behalf between sessions. The particulars of the proposal aren’t relevant to what I’m saying here, but for me, a startling moment came when one Friend rose and observed that “nearly person in the group proposing this is over sixty-five. And of course they are, because you only get to be a member of that group because you’re serving as a clerk of one of the large yearly meeting committees, and those clerking positions take so much time that it’s virtually impossible to do them unless you are retired.”

To that I would add and financially secure, and available for meetings in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, and able-bodied, and fluent in the English language (spoken and written), and capable of easily engaging with budgets, and knowledgeable about Quaker process as well as all of the quirks of our particular setting and history, and practiced in engaging with the dominant white culture of our organization.

Back to my friend: “I really liked that series on multiage inclusion, but I think you missed something…we need to be looking at the job descriptions.”

Somehow, we have it in our heads that the best approach to run a Quaker meeting is like a business. We design a system to serve the purpose of the organization, and then we slot people into the various positions that we’ve designed. We might occasionally cut or add or alter a job, should the purpose of the organization require it, but we continue to behave as though human resources (generally the nominating committee) is a separate department, and their responsibility is to staff the structure. This ignores the fact that we don’t have an entire world of applicants to choose from. It also ignores the spiritual principle that service to our communities—service from every Friend—is an important part of being a people.

Let’s take a look at a different kind of process.

Say that the First Friends’ Church needs a new clerk. But they’re committed to being as fully inclusive as possible, and besides, nobody will do it. So they sit down and make a list of each of their names. (My First Friends’ Church is going to be pretty small, for simplicity’s sake.)

Name    
Randy
Jacqueline
Alejandro
Hector
Adriana
Fatoumata
Kristy
Ruben
Holly
Rosa

Their next step is to settle into worship sharing. They look at one name at a time and start naming gifts. They can do this because they pay attention to one another, and they’re reasonably familiar with the gifts that each community member carries.

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed    
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

Not everything they’ve listed seems relevant right away. Does it matter that Randy understands plumbing when we’re trying to figure out what to do without a clerk? Maybe not, but it certainly can’t hurt anything.

The next step is to make a note of relevant life circumstances. Here, everyone—and especially the Friend being discussed—adds what seems needed.

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed Life Circumstances  
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

works alternating weekends but has many weekdays off
Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

doesn’t like speaking in front of groups
Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

recently immigrated from Honduras, learning English
Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

big project at work right now, very little time to spare—but it will be better in six months
Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

is in seventh grade, weekday afternoons occupied by marching band, evenings with homework
Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

recent thyroid cancer diagnosis (prognosis good)
Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

new to Quakerism within the last year
Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

struggling with mobility and hearing loss
Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

mother of three young children, working part-time, currently serving as recording clerk
Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

mother of three young children, working full-time

It’s pretty easy to see why no one here is stepping up to serve as clerk. But let’s see what happens when the Friends talk the role through one responsibility at a time:

1) Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees; most of the committees meet on weekdays—could Randy do that?

2) Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees; and it might make sense for Randy to take this one on as well

3) Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda; this requires a lot of emailing and converting files from one type to another, but it’s a time-flexible job, so maybe Holly…but she’s already serving as recording clerk and doesn’t feel like she can do both…hmm…

4) Assemble an agenda for meetings for business, bearing in mind all of the various factors that go into questions like, “If I put item A before item B on the agenda, will everyone be so distressed by item A that we can’t deal with item B?” Jacqueline’s very organized and could take this on; preparing the agenda doesn’t require speaking in front of groups

5) Sensitively anticipate a variety of potential reactions to the items on the business agenda and do the behind-the-scenes work of talking with Friends who might (either reasonably or unreasonably) need some conversation about the items ahead of time; Ruben can do this if Jacqueline calls him to make sure he knows what’s on the agenda ahead of time—he’s not so good with email

6) Appear on time and completely reliably for meetings for business, and listen intently the entire time without ever becoming distracted; Ruben is willing to do the clerking during the meetings, but he sometimes misses some of what is said, even if Friends are asked to speak loudly…but Adriana is willing to sit next to him and take notes on a large-screen laptop, so that will help!

7) Introduce items of business, including their history; Ruben can do this easily

8) Hear and articulate the sense of the meeting; again, Ruben and Adriana can work together

9) Sense the moments when the group needs silent worship or an opportunity to stretch, and call for these; Ruben can do this easily

10) Follow up promptly on all matters requiring clerk’s signature, clerk’s forwarding, etc.; Ruben needs to do any physical signatures needed, but Adriana and Holly can work together to make sure that everything gets where it needs to go

11) Occupy a visible leadership position (whether we call it that or not), which requires understanding the culture of the meeting, engaging with interpersonal dynamics, remaining reasonably impartial, being a listening ear for those who are troubled, and often figuring out how to respond to anything that’s “nobody’s job in particular.” Fatoumata’s been caring for the group this way for years, though as she’s working through a health crisis, she will need some help with this—probably from Kristy

To recap, here’s the approach that First Friends’ Church has just outlined, with a few additions, as well, to help everything go smoothly:

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed Life Circumstances Responsibilities
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

works alternating weekends but has many weekdays off –      Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees

–      Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees

–      Do occasional weekday phone calls with Ruben to pass on information

Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

doesn’t like speaking in front of groups –      Assemble an agenda for meetings for business

–      Take the recording clerk position so that Holly can be freed for other work

Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

recently immigrated from Honduras, learning English –      Provide childcare during business meeting every other month (alternating with Kristy)
Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

big project at work right now, very little time to spare—but it will be better in six months –      Begin serving as assistant clerk six months from now so that he can eventually take over for Ruben
Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

is in seventh grade, weekday afternoons occupied by marching band, evenings with homework –      Sit with Ruben and take notes in case he can’t hear what is being said; read back minutes aloud so Jacqueline doesn’t have to

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

recent thyroid cancer diagnosis –      Care for the group as a whole; be a listening ear and handle unusual situations that come up
Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

new to Quakerism within the last year –      Help and learn from Fatoumata

–      Provide childcare during business meeting every other month (alternating with Alejandro)

Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

struggling with mobility and hearing loss –      Take on the clerking function during business meetings, with Adriana’s help

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

mother of three young children, working part-time, currently serving as recording clerk –      Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

mother of three young children, working full-time –      She’s got enough going on; we’re not going to ask her to serve in a formal role. But we do value her voice in meeting for business, so Alejandro and Kristy will alternate childcare responsibilities to make sure that Rosa (and Holly) can attend.

Is this complicated? Yes.

Would this exact distribution of responsibilities work for any other meeting? Probably not.

Will it work for First Friends’ Church a year from now? We don’t know. Circumstances change. But if the Friends gathered are sufficiently flexible in their viewpoints, they will be able and willing to make changes as necessary. In the meantime, they have ensured that every member of the community—including Alejandro, who is still learning English, and twelve-year-old Adriana—is making a meaningful and named contribution to the community, and each person’s contribution is a reasonable expectation given the individual’s circumstances.

And dividing responsibilities in this way has another advantage, which is succession planning. Randy, Hector, Adriana, and Holly are all Friends who definitely can’t serve as clerk right now but quite possibly could a few years down the road. The thing is, if we discount them right now and wait until they’re available to take on the full role, then at the point they’re available, they won’t know how to do it.

Friends, it is time to revamp our job descriptions. We are not a corporation that outlines positions and then hires the most suitable candidates. We are a covenant people challenged to work with the people we have to ensure that every person is served and serving and has a voice.

One more time, here are the steps in the simplest form possible:

1) Make a list of the tasks that need doing (not the positions to be filled).

2) Make a list of the people who are willing to help.

3) In worship, name the gifts and skills you have observed in each other.

4) Give each Friend an opportunity to name their current life circumstances.

5) In worship, and treating one another gently, match the tasks to the people. Each person gets to say “yes” or “no” or even “yes, with the following conditions…”

6) Write down what’s been agreed to and make sure everybody has easy access to the list.

7) Try it.

8) Whenever you need to, go back and make changes.

Miracles Come from Reality

There’s a scene in The Princess Bride when Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo Montoya are outside the castle gate, which is guarded by sixty men. They have less than twenty hours to raid the castle and rescue the Princess Buttercup from the evil Prince Humperdinck.

WESTLEY: Our assets?

INIGO MONTOYA: Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel.

WESTLEY: It’s impossible.

INIGO MONTOYA: No!

WESTLEY: My brains, his strength, your steel, against sixty men? It can’t be done. I mean, if we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.

INIGO MONTOYA: Where did we put that wheelbarrow the albino had?

FEZZIK: Over the albino, I think.

WESTLEY: Well, why didn’t you list that among our assets in the first place? . . . now, what I wouldn’t give for a cloak.

INIGO MONTOYA: There, we cannot help you.

FEZZIK: Will this one do?

INIGO MONTOYA: Where’d you get that?

FEZZIK: At Miracle Max’s. It fits so nice, he said I could keep it.

And lo and behold, so armed with wheelbarrow and cloak, they rescue the princess. (That’s not really much of a spoiler. Of course they rescue the princess.)

 

BEING WESTLEY

To Westley’s credit, I’m pretty sure this is the only time in the movie when he declares that something is impossible; he’s really a pretty resourceful guy. But what he does in this scene is a lot like what many of us do every day—we can’t possibly do such-and-such, not without this thing, and this other thing…it’s impossible…it cannot be done. We look around, take stock of what we have at first glance, and give up. Or maybe we do a little something—some modified goal—but actually rescuing the princess, we are quite sure, is out of reach.

Notice, though, that when Westley names the assets he needs, they appear, seemingly out of thin air. Wheelbarrow? Check. Cloak? Check. And suppose there hadn’t been a wheelbarrow, but Inigo Montoya had had a pogo stick stashed away? Couldn’t they have made that do?

It’s often easier to throw up our hands and say “impossible!” We can’t possibly have a First Day School…we can’t possibly provide all the pastoral care that’s…we can’t possibly host an open house for our community…we can’t possibly build a new church website…

“Impossible” gets us off the hook.

 

BEING FEZZIK

Fezzik’s got a cloak stuffed down his shirt. He knows he has it, but he’s hiding it—not on purpose, not selfishly, but just because it never occurs to him that the cloak might be of any value in their situation. He’s the only one in their little trio who knows he has the cloak, and yet he doesn’t bring it up until cloaks are specifically mentioned, not even when Westley asks Inigo Montoya to list their assets.

This is another phenomenon that we tend to repeat in our faith communities. We might have a particular resource (extra time on our hands, a spare bedroom) or carry a particular spiritual gift (writing clearly, teaching, helping new people feel welcome), and the rest of our meeting might never know it. We hide it—not on purpose, not selfishly, but just because it never occurs to us that what we have might be of any value to the meeting.

What do you have that you could give? Can you make sure your faith community knows this? You don’t have to announce it with trumpets; it doesn’t have to come off like boasting. A simple, quiet, “I have some teaching experience and would be glad to offer that if it’s ever of use,” is a good start.

 

BEING INIGO MONTOYA

The other reason no one knows about Fezzik’s cloak has little to do with Fezzik and more to do with Inigo Montoya (and Westley, for that matter).

Westley looks right at Inigo Montoya when he asks, “What are our assets?”

And Inigo Montoya responds without even checking in with Fezzik. “Your brains, Fezzik’s strength, my steel…” (By “steel,” in case you haven’t seen the movie, he means his skill with a sword.)

The other men have pigeonholed Fezzik because he happens to be a giant. Fezzik is big; what he has is brute strength; “lifting heavy things” and “Fezzik” are synonymous. It’s so obvious to everyone what Fezzik brings to the table that they don’t even ask him. And therefore, they miss a part of what he has.

Do you pigeonhole anyone at your church? Is there an accompanist who you assume is “the person who plays music?” Is there an accountant who you assume is “the person who clerks the finance committee?” Do you think of one person as being too young too be helpful? Another as being too old?

Assumptions are incredibly easy to make, especially when a person has served long and skillfully in one particular position. But can you ask the question? Can you say, “Just out of curiosity…are there other things you’re good at or would like to try?”

When Inigo Montoya hears the question “what are our assets?,” he doesn’t even stop to think about it. He names the three most obvious assets—the assets that everyone knows about and that are right in front of him at that moment. He forgets about the wheelbarrow that he left in the woods. He fails to ask Fezzik if he’s missing anything. He’s not inclined to take time to really consider their assets, which one has to confess is idiotic for somebody preparing to storm a castle guarded by sixty men.

 

LIVING IN REALITY

We have princesses to rescue.

Obviously, no one of us is asked to save the world by ourselves. And yet collectively, the Religious Society of Friends is a covenant people charged with building the kingdom of God on Earth. This is not a small task. This will take miracles, and what I want to put forth today is that miracles do not happen when we declare them to be impossible.

Miracles come from reality. Reality is the stuff from which miracles are made.

When we’re open to it, God calls us to do things that may appear, at first, to be impossible. But as I’ve said, “impossible” gets us off the hook. The same goes for, “we could do this if we only had a wheelbarrow.” I mean, it’s okay to say that if you really do need a wheelbarrow, but if you don’t have one, you don’t get to spend the next twenty years lamenting your lack of a wheelbarrow. Find a pogo stick and get on with things!

We often ask the question, “What do we need in order to do this thing we’ve been called to do?”

But the better question is, “How will we do this thing with what we have been given?”

Miracles from come reality. They require a rigorous assessment of the assets at hand. Everything. The assets that are obvious, the assets that individuals might be unintentionally hiding, the assets that nobody ever noticed, even the assets that we’ve left behind someplace that might take a little time to go back and get. It’s a treasure hunt. It’s exciting. How do we get from here to there with what we’ve been given?

God doesn’t ask us to do things that are impossible. If something is genuinely impossible, then that must not be what God is asking us to do, at least right now. This is a fact. But too often, that fact is used to justify this kind of thinking:

1) What are the obvious assets we’ve given?

2) What can we do with those things?

3) Therefore, what we are called to do must be something on that list.

And that’s backwards. The miracles I’ve witnessed have happened this way:

1) What are we called to do?

2) Wow, that’s a big thing. But if that’s what we’re called to do, we must already have—or be about to be given—everything we need in order to do it.

3) So what do we have, and how can we use it in order to do this thing?

Miracles don’t fall out of the sky. Miracles come from reality. Which means reality, though often very difficult, isn’t an obstacle to miracles. It’s the stuff from which miracles are made.