A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Travelling in the Electronic Ministry

The world is changing and Quakerism must adapt or disappear. That’s actually a good thing and we should welcome it. New circumstances call for us not to mechanically attempt to relive the past, but rather to consider carefully what parts of Quaker tradition are essential and what parts are merely of antiquarian interest. Everyone should try this on their own but here is my attempt to get down to the central core of Quakerism: We believe that God speaks to everyone. He calls each of us to a new and more abundant life. Moreover, he speaks to us not just collectively but individually. God will give any person who wants to listen personal advice on how to deal with the specific events happening in their life. This being true, there is no need of a middle man. We do not need a priest to tell us what God wants us to do. We do not even need the Bible to tell us this. This is not to say that we should ignore the Bible or the advice of other people, but these are secondary helps. Each of us can and should directly listen for and follow God’s advice.

More traditional Christians rejected Quakerism as a dangerous doctrine. If everyone felt free to listen to God’s advice on their own then, they argued, this opens the floodgates to ranterism. People, being what they are, without a pastor or at least the Bible to constrain them will rationalize that whatever pops into their heads must be from God. Many modern secularists echo this idea. The dangerous actions of George Bush, are the direct result of his dangerous belief that his violent and reckless ideas were really God’s personal advice to the President. Quakerism recognized the danger of individuals mistaking their own whims for divine guidance and emphasized that the advice of weighty Friends was a crucial factor in helping individuals tell the difference between their own personal feelings and God. Quakerism isn’t pure individualism. There is a need to rely on collective wisdom because the voice of God is often hard to hear over the noise produced by the world. “Sense of meeting” is a sounder guide than the autocratic rule of any priesthood (because in practice these priesthoods are just self-appointed bureaucracies.) Individuals should rely primarily on their own sense of God’s will but for help in discernment depend on the decentralized advice of fellow seekers. This remains grounded in the local face to face relationships of the monthly meeting.

If this is the essential core of Quakerism, then how do we apply this insight in the 21st century? What, if anything, does it tell us about blogging, Facebook and Twitter? Quite a lot actually.

First we should distinguish between electronic intervisitation and electronic ministry. Facebook is almost exclusively an avenue for intervisitation and most blogs are primarily a form of intervisitation. Keeping a Facebook page or blogging are ways to keep in touch and share the ephemera of life. Intervisitation has traditionally been recognized as a good thing and been much encouraged. Paradoxically as travel has become easier intervisitation has decreased among us. Venues like Facebook may change that. Intervisitation was encouraged because it strengthened the bonds of community and allowed Friends to learn each other’s special needs so that we could love each other in practical down-to-earth ways. The dangers to be avoided were time-wasting on triviality and, more seriously, the temptation to gossip. These dangers are also present in electronic intervisitation. Perhaps all that is needed here is to update our queries to make Friends mindful of what is good and what is potentially harmful about such activities.

Second, there is the issue of electronic ministry. Some Friends see their blogs as more than intervisitation. They feel they have some message to share with the world and maintaining a blog is their way of sharing it. This is ministry rather than intervisitation and Friends traditionally took greater care to provide oversight for ministers. While traditional Quakerism recognizes a free and unprogrammed ministry open to all, it is also mindful of the dangers of unguided ministry. Individuals are encouraged to speak during meeting for worship as a way of learning if their messages are genuine or not. Feedback from the other members of meeting is essential. “Friend, your ministry today spoke to my condition” is not meant as flattery. It is meant to provide useful feedback. Elders were appointed to be particularly responsible to provide both positive and negative advice to individuals seeking to develop their gift of vocal ministry. In many modern meetings this function is taken over by a Ministry and Counsel Committee, but the intent is largely the same: to provide collective guidance to individuals about their efforts at ministry. When ministers would feel a leading to travel and share their messages with more distant groups of Friends additional care was taken. Monthly Meetings would be asked to give the minister a Travel Minute approving his or her leading to travel. Friends mindful of their responsibilities would not travel in the ministry without the collective approval of their Monthly Meeting. In addition often an elder was sent with the Friend to listen to the ministry they gave to the distant Friends and to report back to the local meeting what took place. Finally, the distant Friends were asked to endorse to travel minute, that is, to report back as well.

Can we replicate this for the 21st century? Certainly we can. Friends who feel that their blog is not just for intervisitation but also for public ministry can make their monthly meeting aware of what they intend to do. They can ask that the blog be monitored by the elders or by the corresponding committee of the monthly meeting. And they can record this approval on the blog itself. This would create an electronic equivalent of travel minutes and travelling companions in the ministry. Members of the monthly meeting could even read comments recorded on the blog as the equivalent of endorsements of travel minutes.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Dennis

Dennis and I were almost exactly the same age. Our mothers are sisters and we saw each other fairly often while we were growing up. Dennis and I were both unusually sensitive children, but the subtle differences in our families made a huge difference in our lives. My father was a great dad. He was a steelworker back in the days when unions were strong, and there were only two kids in the family so we were able to have a house and a car. There was money for music lessons and occasional family vacations. Neither of my parents went to college but when I graduated from high school I left Trenton for college. Dennis wasn’t so lucky. His father drank a little too much and worked at less well-paid jobs. Their family lived in apartments in a rougher part of town. We would visit Dennis and the other cousins in those apartments from time to time and it used to make me sad. If you’ve never seen the living conditions of the urban working poor in this country then you might not understand how hard it would be on a sensitive child. Conditions are crowded and noisy. Dreamy kids, like Dennis and me, need to dream. To dream you need a certain amount of solitude, quiet and the soothing presence of Nature. I had all these things but Dennis, just one more rung down the economic ladder, had none of them.

I went off to college, majored in philosophy, dreamed and lived my dreams. Dennis was stuck on the streets of Trenton and eventually turned to drugs. He didn’t use drugs very long but his body and mind were so damaged by them that he never recovered. On my last visit to Trenton to see my mother, I also visited Dennis. We sat together on the porch while he smoked cigarettes and we talked about our lives. He marveled that I had been able to become a college professor. There was no trace of jealousy in his wonderment. There was no trace of anger or bitterness over how his life had turned out. There was just joy and appreciation for my success. I was glad that Dennis wasn’t bitter. I am not at all sure I wouldn’t be.

I got the news recently that my cousin Dennis had died of lung cancer. They found the cancer when he went to the hospital and it was already very far advanced. He died within a month of his diagnosis. I'm sure that some would read the story of our two lives and draw the conclusion that I am a success because I worked hard and earned it and that Dennis was a failure because he used drugs. But to me it is a sadder story of one sensitive boy who got what he needed to thrive and another who didn't.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Real Change

I got an email out of the blue the other day from an old friend from grad school. We brought each other up to date and he told me a little about his career changes, messy divorce and a bout with cancer. He’s out of academia now but he still gets up and works on philosophy from 6:00-8:00 every morning before starting for work as an executive in a software company. He kept up the same schedule during the cancer treatments never missing a day of work. I had to smile a bit to myself that he hadn’t changed a bit—still the same tough son-of-a-gun I knew back in grad school. It confirmed a thought that I have long held: people usually don’t change very much over the course of a lifetime. And it got me to wondering if he had changed in any way for the better.

This constancy is partly a good thing. My friend’s toughness is surely an admirable trait and it would be a shame if this part of his personality changed. But the sad thing is that our personal defects seem to be equally resistant to change. Intellectuals, like the two of us, will often deceive ourselves into thinking we have changed for the better when all that really changes is we come up with new, more sophisticated rationalizations for who we are. The measure of real change can be found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Are you really changing? Don’t tell me about the latest realization you have come to. Look for the fruits of the Spirit. Do you manifest more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? If so, great. If not, stop kidding yourself. Most people’s friends and families are not fooled by our self-congratulatory talk, but they tend to go along anyway. Why don’t they puncture these rationalizations more often? Why do they play along? Perhaps it’s because they judge correctly that we “can’t handle the truth,” or putting the same point less dramatically, we just don’t want to listen to unpleasant truths. My family does a pretty good job in holding up a mirror to my faults and I’m thankful for that. Being made aware of your faults doesn’t mean that you will overcome them, but without that awareness real change is virtually impossible. And for reasons that I surely do not understand it seems to me that suffering is another necessary condition for real change. You can learn to talk a better game without any suffering but no genuine change of heart occurs without at least a little cross-carrying.

Even so, however, awareness and suffering are not sufficient to produce change. This is no automatic or mechanical process. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life and part of the mystery of life for me are the ways that suffering opens up opportunities to change. But the fruits of the Spirit only come when we open ourselves up to change. I hope to see my old friend face to face soon and I hope that when we meet both of us will be able to truthfully see some positive change has come from the past thirty years of living. But if not, I hope both of us will have the courage to say so

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Betrayed

I said good-bye to Jim this week. We had lunch and he helped me with a project I am working on and then we talked about his leaving. Jim moved to North Carolina a couple of years ago when he got laid off from his New York law firm. It’s tough to start over when you are in your late fifties and Jim was not able to make an adequate income here in North Carolina because there is simply less need for his specialty here than in New York. So he is going back to take a position with another firm. He is ambivalent about this for a number of reasons. I think he genuinely likes our little meeting and the slower pace of life is also appealing. So he asked me what I really thought of his going back. I told him I understood that he was at a difficult phase—too young to retire and too old to be really attractive to a lot of potential employers. I wished he could stay and still hoped that maybe he would find something appropriate locally, but I know he’s got to find work. Of course going back to New York is not sure thing. With the economy still headed down there are going to be a lot lawyers looking for new jobs in the near future. Then I brought up something I thought was bothering Jim. Didn’t he still feel betrayed by his former employer—the one that fired him in his fifties? I knew beforehand that this was how he felt but I thought it might do Jim some good to talk about it and to have me express my agreement with those feelings.

Betrayal hurts and I think this culture doesn’t generally acknowledge just how deeply it hurts.

Later on the same day I was with another group of people. Someone we hadn’t seen for a few years had dropped in unexpectedly and there was some jovial chatting. Somehow the conversation turned to honesty and one man there bragged that he had nothing to hide or be ashamed of. There must have been at least one raised eyebrow and a short pause until he added a further little joke to the effect of “except for my adulteries but nobody takes that seriously.” This isn’t an exact quote but it was the intended sense. I very briefly considered commenting that perhaps his wife took them seriously and in fact perhaps she even feels betrayed. I didn’t feel as though I should offer such a comment to someone who is not a Quaker and probably wouldn’t think that I should be offering my opinion on such matters. So, I just said good-bye to the group and went home largely because I felt that doing so was expressing my disapproval in an appropriately understated way. It was the second time in one day that I felt called upon to offer a little witness that betrayal is just plain wrong.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Faithful in the Little Things

My wife and I drove up to Richmond to get the car and to return the car we borrowed. We were both a little nervous driving the highway again after the accident, but by taking turns with the driving it wasn't excessively stressful on either of us. I continue to ponder what it is I am supposed to learn from the experience. One thing is form a conscious intention to be thankful. I've done that and I think that over time sticking to this will change me for the better. Another point comes from a comment made on the last post that I should devote more time to my family. At first I didn't take it very seriously since I already devote a lot of time to my family. But as I sat with this over a period of days I began to see that I should indeed devote more attention to them. Over my Cheerios and bananas this morning it became clear that there was a small task I was led to do. We homeschool our youngest child, Mark, who is just getting ready to go off to college in the Fall. If left completely to himself he will spend all day every day on math and science. We largely want to go with his strengths and let him follow his own interests. This works well for the most part but one consequence is that his writing skills have not kept pace. This past year I have been trying to get those skills up to what he will need for college, but it has been a struggle. Time for new writing assignments. Yesterdays efforts to write essays had not gone well. He freezes up when the assignment is too hard for him, and much time is thus wasted. This is frustrating because in one sense the writing assignments shouldn't be too hard. "Shouldn't" that is, if his writing skills were up to normal. But they are not, so I really need to let go of that "should" and start where he is. In fact he's made great progress with his writing this past year though he still has far to go. So I gave it some serious thought and set him assignments that were just a tiny bit harder than the last assignments he was able to complete without freezing up. He was working successfully on these as I left for work this morning.

It seems paradoxical that one of the results of this experience has been to add more to my to-do list, but for the moment that's where things stand. I'm sure I will have to do some cutting of that list shortly and I'm not clear yet on what to cut. But the most important thing is to be promptly faithful in doing small things that I feel clear I should do. When you are faithful in small things the bigger things gradually become clear too.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Not an Accident

We were on our way back from a family gathering up in Virginia. My brother had driven down from Maine with two of his children to visit his oldest daughter, Julie, and see her new baby. Our two boys had never met their uncle or their cousins so this seemed like a good time for it. It was about 5:00 PM of New Year’s Eve and we hoped to be back in Greenville before it got too dark. My wife was driving and I was considering setting my priorities for the coming year. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of the Yearly Meeting and this involves finding time to visit each of the monthly meetings within the Yearly Meeting some time before our annual session in July. I also have some major projects going on at work and last year I began doing some major and minor repairs around the house and these aren’t quite finished. Lately I’ve found myself too busy for regular exercise and I know that’s not something I should allow to slide. In thinking of all this it was becoming clear to me that I couldn’t do a good job at all these things and I was going to have to decide what to do and what not to do. But it was also clear to me that this wasn’t something I could be totally rational about. Whether some of these projects could go forward or not was going to depend on what other people decided and that wasn’t under my control. So with my eyes half closed I settled into turning all this over to God and asking him to take over and direct me into which of these projects I should put first and which I should let go of. It was very much like sitting in Meeting for worship turning over my personal issues to God. I had just reached the point of turning it over when it happened.

My wife had put on the blinker to change lanes and was moving over to the center lane when another car came flying up from the far right lane at a very high rate of speed and cut into the center lane without warning. My wife swerved sharply back to the left to avoid the collision. She lost control of the car when a tire blew out and the car began to spin. It did two complete 360’s through three lanes of heavy traffic moving at 70 mph until we landed on the right shoulder. The cars behind us stopped and we determined that everyone was OK. The car that caused the accident sped off. Amazingly, we did not hit the concrete median or the guardrail or any other car. We had one tire still intact but the other tires and rims were shredded. We were able to call some old Friend/friends who now live in Richmond and they cancelled their New Year’s Eve plans and put us up for the night. The expenses of fixing up the car are going to put a big dent into the family budget. In fact we are going to have to dip into the savings to pay for this but ever since the car stopped I’ve been feeling incredibly thankful that all the people involved are fine. I won’t forget the State trooper grinning and saying, “Technically, since you didn’t hit anything and no vehicle hit you, this wasn’t a traffic accident. It was a traffic incident.” Still, it was one heck of an incident.

So what does it mean? I don’t think that the timing of this is a coincidence. In my experience putting yourself completely in God’s hands leads to events that shake up your life. Sometimes these events are painful and sometimes they are just scary, but the end result is spiritual growth. For reasons that I don’t understand people seem to need events like this to shake them up to allow them to grow. God understands all this and arranges for what we really need when we open ourselves up to allowing him to do whatever he chooses. I’m still not clear about what my priorities are going to be for the coming year. I’ll be looking for Way to open on some of these things and for Way to close on others. I’m clear about not needing to be in charge of the course of events.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It’s for You

When real vocal ministry occurs it doesn’t just reflect what is on the heart of the Friends speaking. It is a message for someone present. Since I lack a gift of vocal ministry I don’t get messages addressed to other people. God often speaks to me during worship to shed light on issues I am struggling with or showing me ways I can serve others, but since these messages are for me there’s no point in sharing them out loud with those gathered. Messages intended for vocal ministry are different. The minister gets the letter and the name on the envelope is not the minister’s. Usually the minister can't read the address. But they know that if they speak, the addressee will get the message. As a person present at the vocal ministry, since you never know if the message is for you or not, you should always listen. I got caught not listening last week.

Just before meeting I had gotten a phone call from a stranger asking me to help another person who I also didn’t know. Was this genuine? Might it be a scam? There was some risk here. Nevertheless, I briefly went within to seek guidance in this matter, heard that I should offer help, and agreed to let the stranger come and stay with us a few days over Thanksgiving. As we rushed to get to meeting, I didn’t even have the chance to discuss this with my wife. While I felt clear that I had done the right thing, I was thinking about how I would explain to her that a stranger asked me to allow another stranger to stay with us for Thanksgiving and I had said yes. This is what was on my heart during meeting for worship.

My wife gave the only vocal ministry during this meeting. She related the story of a Friend who had a leading to go abroad. He followed the leading. He went to the port to get on the ship. But at the last minute he was led to turn around and go back home. She said that despite appearances the Friend was being faithful (and wasn't just crazy). Honestly I didn’t pay much attention. Last night I got a call from the stranger who was looking for a place to stay over Thanksgiving and after a minute or two on the phone it turned out he was looking for a place to stay in Greenville SOUTH Carolina, not Greenville NORTH Carolina. We both laughed over the mix-up. We then chatted a bit and he told me more about his troubles and hopes and plans. Meanwhile my wife got on the phone to find the contact number of Friends in the other Greenville. I got off the phone and wondered if maybe I had been mistaken about my leading to offer to help in the first place. The whole thing sounds more like human error than action under the guidance of an infallible God. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel foolish. I felt as though I had I had been faithful. So my head was skeptical about the whole affair but my heart was light.

Just before we went to bed my wife reminded me of her vocal ministry and pointed out its relevance. (Which I had completely forgotten by this point!) Now the message seemed extremely clear and pertinent. Like that Friend of old I had been faithful to what I was given. I should not listen to the doubts of my practical mind. Good comes from being faithful even though from our human vantage point we sometimes can’t see enough of what’s going on for it to make sense to us. In other words, just obey and don’t worry about the results.

Next time I hear vocal ministry I’m going to be more attentive to the possibility that it’s for me.