I have a great love for systems analysis—that is, the discipline of looking at complicated systems of people, cultures, practices, demographics, etc.; noticing patterns; and discovering how to influence those patterns. I mention this up front because I believe systems analysis, just like prophecy or discernment or clerking or music, is a gift that can be used in a spiritually grounded manner to serve the family of Friends and the world more broadly.
And yet, I have sometimes encountered Friends—a minority, but not an insignificant one—that disagree when I identify systems analysis as a useful spiritual gift. Here are some things that I have actually heard: You’re missing the point. It’s not about that. Spiritual work is all about relationships. This intellectual stuff doesn’t really matter.
When I attempt to be faithful and I share my gifts with Friends and that’s the response, I feel deeply and personally rejected. God has made me, Emily, with certain specific spiritual gifts, and these gifts are what I have to share with my community. If those gifts are not valued, what does that mean about how my community values me?
And yet, I’m guilty, too, of undervaluing spiritual gifts that I don’t understand. I remember working once with a Friend who is deeply mystical. Sometimes, our conversations went something like this:
Me: What about [insert logical idea here]?
Friend: No. It doesn’t feel right.
Me: But why? It feels like a good fit to me because [insert logical reason here].
Friend: But it doesn’t feel right.
We were speaking two different languages, and hers was not less viable than mine. I didn’t always treat her as kindly or as respectfully as I might. I couldn’t always figure out how to value both her contribution and mine, and that’s something I’ve regretted ever since.
There are other Friends with other gifts who’ve talked to me about feeling undervalued in their communities. I hear it from Friends who work with children—“Nobody cares what I’m doing in First Day School.” I hear it from Friends who are children—“I have things to say, but nobody ever asks me.” I hear it from quiet, dedicated Friends who sharpen pencils and make coffee and replace the toilet paper in the bathrooms—“It would be nice if somebody noticed my contributions, just once in a while.”
Paul knew what he was doing when he compared the body of the church to a human body in 1 Corinthians 12. The body works as a unit, and the various parts function in ways that are mutually complementary. But imagine being a kidney. If you were a kidney, you might have some idea what the bladder does, or what the liver does, or what the stomach does, or what the blood does. But would you even be able to imagine what it might be like to be an eye? If you were a kidney, wouldn’t it be tempting to say, “This ‘seeing’ thing…I don’t know…I’ve never experienced it. Is it even really a thing? If it is, it can’t be worth much. I mean, I get along just fine without it.” And you could very easily go back to being a kidney and never think much about the eyes again.
Those of us who are kidneys should be kidneys. We should be the best kidneys we can be. But I wonder what would happen if we all took a minute to step back, to look at our whole communities, and ask ourselves—and each other—what do we each contribute? How can we listen better, even to languages that we don’t understand? Can we trust that someone’s experience is their experience and that our inability to relate to it doesn’t make it less true?
Can we make it a practice to say to one another: I’m grateful you’re here. I’d like to know you better. What can I do to support you?