Sacred Joy

This is the second of a series of ten blogs about ten cultural flips for multiage inclusion. It’s not enough to shift our culture. We really have to flip it.


Cultural Barrier #2: Equating seriousness with sacredness

Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?

I’m not at all convinced by the idea that younger people are naturally more cheerful than older people, but whether it’s a natural part of life or something we’re socialized into or some combination of the two, older generations do seem to spend a lot less time laughing and playing than the younger ones do.

Among (northeastern, liberal) Friends, I see a lot of equating seriousness with sacredness. Take a look around the room at the next meeting for worship; you don’t see a whole lot of smiles. And if your meeting laughs during business meeting, you’re lucky—that’s an unusual group. I’ve even heard this perspective articulated. A couple of years ago, we used a joy-based query for an extended meeting for worship, something like, “Tell us what in your meeting brings you joy.” Afterward, when we reflected on the day, several Friends said things like, “The worship wasn’t as deep as usual. I think it was because we focused on the lighter side of things; we lost the opportunity to explore the really deep questions that we usually hold.”

Like many other things, over time, equating seriousness with sacredness becomes a deeply entrenched part of our culture. But it isn’t necessary. And to those who are coming in from the outside—either because they are younger, or because they are exploring Quakerism having recently arrived from other traditions—a commitment to seriousness feels less like a commitment to sacredness and more like a commitment to being boring. In this type of culture, children check out pretty much immediately. Many other younger people and newcomers aren’t far behind.

It isn’t that our younger generations can’t handle serious.  They handle serious all the time–especially our teens.  Serious is a huge part of life.  But generally speaking, younger generations are less likely to be willing to participate in communities where the balance between work and play, struggle and joy, lamentation and celebration, is drastically skewed.

Their sense of balance isn’t off.  Ours is.


Culture Flip #2: Behaving as though joy and gratitude are as sacred as struggle and lamentation

What does this look like in a monthly meeting?

I’m not implying, when I suggest this, that we should start treating struggle and lamentation as less sacred than we currently do. I’ve heard some Christocentric Friends refer to this as “holding both the cross and the resurrection.” I think of it as honoring the suffering but also the joy of the promise of God. We can’t just dance across moments of genuine darkness and pretend that all is fine and dandy. To do so is to dishonor our sisters and brothers who are in pain.

However, to fail to celebrate what’s worth celebrating is to dishonor our sisters and brothers who are rejoicing. It’s also not what God seeks for us. Pollyanna claimed there were eight hundred “rejoicing texts” in the Bible—times when God commanded us to rejoice. I ran a quick search online and only found four hundred and thirteen. Still, as any parent knows, if you tell somebody to do something four hundred and thirteen times, it’s generally because you’re hoping they will do that thing.

I’d love to see meetings sit down and make a record of all the time the whole meeting spends together in the course of a month. This might include meeting for worship, business meeting, and other whole-meeting or most-of-the-meeting gatherings. Then divide it up. How much of this time was spent playing, laughing, rejoicing, or celebrating, and how much of this time was spent working, crying, lamenting, or grieving? When in doubt, think about people’s faces. If most people were wearing their “serious face,” it goes in the second column.

Then think about what you might do to ensure that next month, the columns are evenly split, 50/50. A two-hour business meeting about property should be balanced by a two-hour potluck and board games session. If there isn’t enough time for both, the business meeting clearly needs to be shorter.

Each microcosm of the meeting can repeat the exercise. Is our committee time 50/50? Is our First Day School time 50/50? Is our Bible study 50/50?

It’s not really about the 50/50 balance, of course, and it certainly isn’t solely about multiage inclusion.  Communities that celebrate together live more fully into God’s plan for us.  Or, if you’re searching for a more scientific reason to do it, laughter releases chemicals in our brains that lead directly to trust and group bonding.

Can you aim for the 50/50 balance for a month, as an experiment?  For two months?  For three?  Can you discover how prioritizing joy and play might shift your whole meeting’s understanding of what it is to be faithful?

Each committee might do some discernment: “What can we do this month to help members of the meeting rejoice and express gratitude?” Ministry and Counsel might add an opportunity during announcements for expressions of joys. Buildings and Grounds might make a celebration bulletin board for pictures of new babies, marriages, and graduations. As for Finance Committees—I leave that to you, but there must be something!

New York Yearly Meeting’s fifteenth query begins, “Do we partake of the joy of the love of God and make our lives a celebration of the sharing of this love?”

How does your meeting, as a whole, partake of the joy of the love of God?

How do you make your life together as a Beloved Community a celebration of the sharing of this love?


The Cultural Barrier The Flip!
Perception that Friends’ meetings are internally focused and irrelevant Doing frequent work and service in neighborhood communities outside the meetinghouse walls
Equating seriousness with sacredness Behaving as though joy and gratitude are as holy as struggle and lamentation, including 50/50 time division for the whole meeting between play together and work together
Frequent use of Quaker terminology without context Practicing brief, clear explanations and contextualization of all terms and references to institutional structure, every time, in the moment, as we go
Communicating solely through paper publications and websites Developing a meaningful presence on social media (for internal communications and outreach)
Idolatry of Quaker process Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate)
Valuing traditions over the needs of living Friends Regularly reexamining physical facilities, procedures, and practices in the light of how they are working for our communities today; recognizing the difference between our Spirit-led testimonies (which are eternal) and how we express those testimonies (which may need to change as circumstances change)
High financial cost of participation in gatherings Shifting to pay-as-led pricing; changing locations and structures of gatherings so the actual cost is lower
High reading level (high school and above) of almost all of Friends’ written materials Using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary in all documents
Isolation of parents (among Friends and in society in general) Providing childcare at all meeting events without exception; prioritizing spiritual and practical nurture of parents
Consistent physical separation of age groups Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions


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