In the past few years, I’ve traveled among liberal unprogrammed, conservative unprogrammed, pastoral, and evangelical Friends on several continents, and one of the blessings I’ve received is the chance to hear and carry stories. All kinds of stories—personal stories, ministry stories, meeting stories. Institutional stories. I learn a lot from the differences between our stories—how Friends from one place or one branch or one culture are different from Friends in another—but I learn even more from the stories that are the same. When I hear similar stories across branches, across cultures, and in multiple countries, it says something about the condition of the Religious Society of Friends.
I want to share one story that I’ve heard from Friends across our theological spectrum and throughout the United States and Britain and Ireland. (I haven’t heard this story in other parts of the world. It may or may not be happening elsewhere. I don’t know.)
The story comes from two perspectives. When I hear it from a Friend in a local or yearly meeting, it goes like this:
“Yeah, that [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center] is supposed to be Quaker, but . . . well, years ago, when we [started/helped start/developed] it, we had a really good relationship. But over time, it [got bigger/took funding from other groups/hired non-Quakers/changed its mission], and now, even though we [provide some funding/have Quakers on the board/facilitate a volunteer program/know some of the staff], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure they’re really Quaker anymore, even though they’re still called that. I don’t know what to do.”
When I hear the story from a staff member of an institution (whether that person is Quaker or not), it goes like this:
“Yes, our Quaker identity is extremely important in this [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center], and . . . well, years ago, when we first got started, we had a really good relationship with local Quakers. But over time, they [decreased in numbers/weren’t able to keep up with our funding needs/stopped volunteering/couldn’t make timely decisions], and now, even though we [receive some funding/have Quaker board members/have a couple regular Quaker volunteers/invite local Quakers to our events], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure how to be in relationship with the local Quakers these days. I don’t know what to do.”
What’s striking to me is the sense of helplessness on all sides. “I don’t know what to do.” To bridge the distance—and sometimes open animosity—between meetings and institutions is a challenge, and I think the key might be in reexamining how we define the relationship.
What is our model for the relationship between Quaker institutions (schools/hospitals/community centers/etc.) and Quaker meetings? We often use the phrase “under the care of,” but what does that mean? A parent/child analogy may be appropriate in the beginning, when an institution is just being established and is genuinely infantile and unable to fend for itself, but after a certain number of years, a parent/child dynamic is inappropriate and patronizing. And a marriage analogy seems like a bit much.
How about “neighbor?” Could Quaker meetings and Quaker institutions view themselves as neighbors? Not I-don’t-know-your-name-but-your-dog-barks-too-much neighbors. Neighbors in the Biblical sense of the word.
I ran a search in the Bible and found 180 references to neighbors, and they ran the gamut of human experience, as Biblical references often do. This is one reason I keep returning to the Bible (including the Apocrypha). In many ways, little has changed since the days of our spiritual ancestors.
I found a passage in Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) that made me sad and that rang true at the same time. “Be fond of a friend and keep faith with him, but if you have betrayed his secrets, do not go after him any more; for, as one destroys a person by killing him, so you have killed your neighbor’s friendship, and as you let a bird slip through your fingers, so you have let your friend go, and will not catch him.” (Sirach 27:17-19) It reminds me that if we have lost our relationship with our neighboring institution or meeting, we have almost certainly let the relationship slip, let it go, whether by betrayal or by neglect. The loss of relationship is not an accident. It’s not a natural force against which we are helpless. It’s the result of action, or inaction, between neighbors over time.
And it’s not what the Bible says God asks of us. Instead, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) And when I, as a Friend in a meeting, think of this commandment in the plural rather than the singular, I feel that “myself” would translate to “ourselves,” or my own local meeting. So . . . we ought to love the Quaker institution next door with the same fierceness that we love our meeting.
Leviticus gives us a good place to start. “Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16) Not only should we not slander our neighboring institutions, then, but if we find ourselves being silent while somebody else does, that’s a problem, too.
And there’s this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) It’s hard not to envy when there’s an imbalance of resources—or reputation or loyalty or success. Can we resist dwelling in jealousy? Does it help if we remember that God provides abundantly, that we don’t have to compete for blessings doled out with scarcity?
“And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.” (Exodus 12:4) This one’s a more complicated, but what it implies is pretty cool. What the Lord is describing here—the chapter begins with “the Lord said to Moses”—is the celebration of Passover. It’s the practice of religious ritual, both a celebration of the Lord and the Lord’s miracles and a common history as one people, and in it, there’s an allowance made for what to do if one household has a greater abundance than can be consumed. In this context, God asks the people to share both the religious practice and the resources that make the religious practice possible. How often do our meetings and institutions, as neighbors, share worship? Discernment? Prayer? Scripture study? Consideration of queries? How often do we talk about our understandings of these various practices, thus sharing the resources (the personal experiences and wisdom) that make these practices possible?
And don’t forget Luke. “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:6) In this, the last verse of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminds us that neighbors rejoice with one another when one neighbor has a reason to celebrate. In fact, Jesus reminds us of this multiple times, since the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son also end with the neighbors being invited for a celebratory party.
Here’s an interesting passage: “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag.” (Deuteronomy 23:24) This one makes me laugh because it seems to imply that it’s okay to steal from your neighbor as long as you only do it a little. But I wonder if that’s my personal cultural lens talking. Maybe it’s something more along the lines of, “Neighbors should expect to contribute to one another’s needs without having to be asked, as long as what’s taken isn’t unreasonable.”
And in case what’s taken seems like it might be unreasonable, take a look at these next two passages:
“Question your friend, he may have done nothing at all; and if he has done anything, he will not do it again. Question your neighbor, he may have said nothing at all; and if he has said anything, he will not say it again. Question your friend, for slander is very common, do not believe all you hear.” (Sirach 19:13-15)
“What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? Argue your case with your neighbor himself.” (Proverbs 25:8-9)
There will be times when our neighbor’s behavior seems unreasonable. In those times, it’s best to ask—“hey, what’s going on?” Because it’s entirely possible that we’re mistaken, that what we think is true is a misunderstanding or a rumor. But if it turns out there really is a problem, we’re not obliged to just roll over and accept what’s been done. “Argue your case with your neighbor”—in other words, it’s okay to be clear about what’s not okay. It’s our duty as neighbors to argue our case . . . but that doesn’t guarantee that we won’t have to compromise.
“Do not resent your neighbor’s every offense, and never act in a fit of passion.” (Sirach 10:6) There’s sure a lot of advice about what to do when our neighbors get annoying. I find that comforting, really. Bumpy spots are to be expected.
And yet: “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Ephesians 4:25) Notice that this says “speak the truth,” not “be nice.” But what’s especially striking is the members of one another part. Why should we speak the truth with our neighbors? Because we are members of one another. I confess to finding that phrase a little fuzzy—like “under the care of”—but it definitely tells me that we’re inextricably entwined.
Just a few more. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:1-2) It’s tempting to read this as implying that one neighbor is strong and one neighbor is weak. But that feels overly simple and flatly inaccurate. More likely, we each have moments of strength and moments of weakness. In our moments of strength, do we use that strength to build up our neighbor? Or do we use that strength—just for an instant—to feel self-righteous about our neighbor’s weakness?
This is hard. It’s all hard, and it’s harder when—as is often the case—there are historical bad feelings, often stemming from genuinely hurtful actions by one or both neighbors. When that’s true, I suggest we look to what Deuteronomy has to say: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)
Most people carry around a feeling of indebtedness at least sometimes. “She did such-and-such, so I’m owed such-and-such…I am owed an apology…I have a right to a bit extra next time…” And you’ll note that even in Deuteronomy, it’s okay to hang onto that for awhile. But eventually, we’re encouraged to grant release, to practice forgiveness, to stop trying to exact the debt from our neighbor. The idea here was that everybody gets a clean slate. Including us. We get a clean slate, too.
“And who is my neighbor?” a man once asked (Luke 10).
Jesus didn’t respond simply. He told a story instead, the story of the Good Samaritan, a story in which traditionally “good” characters are behaving badly and traditionally “bad” characters are behaving kindly, and he ends by turning the question back on the man: “Which [person] do you think proved to be a neighbor?”
“The one who showed mercy,” the man answered.
Can we go and do likewise?
Queries for Quaker Meetings
If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring institution, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?
Do we love our neighboring institution with the same fierceness that we love our own meeting?
Do we avoid slandering our neighboring institution? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?
Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring institution’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?
Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring institution? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?
When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring institution to the party?
Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring institution, even without needing to be asked?
When we think that our neighboring institution has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?
When something about our neighboring institution’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?
Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring institution? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?
Do we speak the truth to our neighboring institution?
Do we remember that we and our neighboring institution are “members of one another?”
Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring institution?
Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring institution, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?
In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring institution, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?
Queries for Quaker Institutions
If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring meeting, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?
Do we love our neighboring meeting with the same fierceness that we love our own institution?
Do we avoid slandering our neighboring meeting? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?
Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring meeting’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?
Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring meeting? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?
When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring meeting to the party?
Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring meeting, even without needing to be asked?
When we think that our neighboring meeting has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?
When something about our neighboring meeting’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?
Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring meeting? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?
Do we speak the truth to our neighboring meeting?
Do we remember that we and our neighboring meeting are “members of one another?”
Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring meeting?
Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring meeting, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?
In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring meeting, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?