Tuesday, October 31, 2006

November Bla

There was a book of poems about the months of the year that we used to read to the kids when they were little. The poem for November ended:
Rough November
Tough November
I have had enough November.
It's been November here for over a month now. Southern Ontario skipped the pretty part of fall and plunged right into the chill, the wind, the rain, the sleet, and the relentless gloom.

I find myself thinking about leaving our meeting.

Maybe it's because of November.

Numbers are down at our meeting. Last Sunday, there were only two children there (both mine), and maybe a dozen adult members, and I had to take the children's program because it was the coordinator's week off.

Since we moved into the new building over the summer, I have gotten the meeting to arrange the chairs into concentric squares instead of a single circle, because the square arrangement allows for more rows, and the open corners allow people to move into the middle rows; whereas a circle is a closed, unaccommodating shape. But Sunday, they had arranged the chairs in a circle again. So when my children came back from the children's program, they didn't see chairs available to them, so they didn't even want to come in the room. Someone had also decided to leave most of the lights off -- maybe to save electricity -- which meant with the late afternoon gloom, the room was in semi-darkness. Hardly welcoming to a child.

Or maybe it was just too close to Halloween.

I'm tired of explaining again and again that we've moved to a bigger place to make the meeting more open to newcomers, that we need to leave many chairs empty, and that we need to break up the "circle" idea. At the first opportunity, back it goes.

And then I feel weary of it all.

My efforts over the past several months to start up learning programs (at the request of several members) have also all fizzled. We had managed to run a study group for about 10 weeks last spring, and it was great while it lasted. Then I got the meeting started on after-meeting discussions into the late spring and summer, which lasted about two months. Time constraints had conspired against these efforts, I was told. Now I'm trying to get the group up on a team blog for an exchange of thoughts, ideas, readings, etc., but I'm not meeting with much success.

People seem to think it is "just one more thing that I have to do."

I continue to go to meeting because there are a few Friends that I learn from and several that I care about. Moreover, I kind of feel as if things will start to fall apart if I leave. Maybe that's a puffed-up sense of my own importance, but I do a lot to keep things going. As well, we have three new people out to meeting, all of them young (under 25). So I feel a responsibility to stay.

And yet, I'm restless for something with a bit more umph, some edge and drive.

Yes, there is a sort of spiritual laziness that we can associate with Friends. Being Quaker consists of being very nice, supporting good causes in pro-active ways, and being at Meeting on Sunday, whether you have anything to offer to the meeting in the way of spiritual health, depth, learning, or vocal ministry, or not. We tend to limit Quakerism to what we already are and already think. We do what we've always done. We leave the spiritual leadership to someone else and just hope it comes on Sunday.

But then, what religions are so different? The churches-of-the-holy-hootenanny make a lot more noise, but are they any less spiritually lazy? Anybody can shout Halleluiah. Anybody can play follow the leader, repeat what the leader says, think what the leader thinks. Drink-box religions aren't much different: just stick in the straw and suck it all in. You don't even need to read the label or question what's inside. They do all the packaging for you. And the mainstream churches work at being earnest, at playing "let's pretend" about their traditions and beliefs, when they just don't believe them anymore. Maybe it looks like the people are making spiritual effort, but I suspect there's not much going on there.

At least when (unprogrammed) Quakers do nothing, they have the decency to make it look like doing nothing.

And all churches have difficulty with change. Even changing the colour of the hymnbook or the choir robes is enough to send a quarter of a congregation packing. And churches that introduce that handshake thing or the kiss of peace, well, they can kiss their congregations good-bye.

So if I left Quakers, where would I go? Is there a religion that is not encumbered by silly poor gospels and by the people who adhere to them? Is there a religion where people don't flee from learning, hiding behind rituals or dogmas, quotes or preachers?

I suspect that creative, forward-thinking religion is very rare. And it's scary too -- too many deep, difficult questions to probe. Who really wants to rip off their layers of protective skin to stand naked in the November winds of unanswerable questions? Not many, I suspect.

American author Annie Dillard says if we had any real faith, we'd wear hardhats to church/meeting -- after all, we are calling on or getting in touch with the very forces of the universe. The universe might come crashing down on our heads.

Imagine church pews or Quaker benches equipped with seatbelts.

So yes, I'm thinking again about leaving and wondering if there is any place to go.

Or maybe it's just November.

If it's November, then that isn't so good, because there's at least another month of it to go.


At 12:40 PM, Blogger Johan Maurer said...

I wrote a post last year called "Leaving Quakers," but I didn't remember to list "November bla" as a possible cause.

I love your line, "At least when (unprogrammed) Quakers do nothing, they have the decency to make it look like doing nothing."

It's precisely in that "doing nothing" that revival can occur, because it's an inward journey. I remember one Sunday morning in Ottawa Meeting: I looked up at a smallish group of people who seemed utterly tired and uninspired. One Friend got up and spoke about some government policy he disagreed with. I sighed inwardly, knowing that he was probably speaking, not from the Holy Spirit, but from a belief that meetings should not go too long without at least some vocal ministry. I was struck by the beauty of his face--and suddenly all the faces became utterly beautiful and I saw the image of God reflected in them.

Of course it might have been spring. I can't remember.

I know this leap can't be forced, but it can be yearned for. I'm not one who believes that spiritual growth only comes when we don't appear to want it. It's okay to hunger and thirst and even beat our fists on the table. God, I want more! I'm not going to pretend I don't!!

Another thing: yes, some of the noisier churches might be just as lazy, but some might not. I remember the Pentecostal church half a block from the Friends meeting not far from Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Birmingham, England. While the dear little Friends meeting proclaimed equality, the Elim Fellowship congregation actually had an amazing variety of colors and ages and languages. That kind of wonderful mix doesn't usually happen without a real effort at signaling and maintaining access. The same church held (holds?) a weekly coffee morning where anyone is welcomed in for coffee and conversation. That, too, required effort, and for me it was worth it. The people who came in talked about their real-world problems, even the problems that revealed they were not full of perfect and unswerving faith.

The other congregation I experienced while at Woodbrooke was the Vineyard Fellowship congregation that met very near Woodbrooke. I suppose it was possible to be lazy in that congregation, but the worship was so interactive and participatory that I can't imagine how. The leadership was catalytic rather than vicarious.

One reason I think I will always be Quaker, no matter where I am outwardly (including in the very lively Ministerios RestauraciĆ³n congregation at the Mennonite Church) is because I am deeply wedded to the 1 Corinthians 14 model of worship. The potential must be there for ALL to participate in ALL dimensions of worship, whether or not we individually are prepared or led at any given time. The reality is, of course, that we can also potentially ALL be lazy.

As for the Friends meeting near Woodbrooke, I don't really want to imply that it had nothing to compare with the Elim or Vineyard churches. They fed me spiritually and gave me a wonderful and warm welcome during my academic year at Woodbrooke. As frustrated as I was with some Friends' inability even to name the Name whose power animates us, the beautiful reality was often among us. I just wanted that reality to be more accessible!!!

One interesting side-note: as with some other Britain YM meetings that have meetinghouses, this one had wardens who lived on the grounds of the meetinghouse. British Friends might or might not be horrified at my choice of word, but these wardens exercised a definite pastoral role--tenderly, and somewhat behind the scenes, but definitely pastoral. There is a place for that specific kind of energy in raising the energy level of the whole community.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger kwattles said...

Thanks for the lines of poetry about November.

But more than that, thank you for laying out some of the dynamics that occur in almost any meeting, I'm sure.

"People seem to think it is 'just one more thing that I have to do.'"

That is definitely a consideration, with any project. Often enough, "people" are right.

Years ago, I was interested in urban planning, and I once took the time to read through several old studies and plans. I realized how well-intentioned people are at the time, and enthusiastic (or so they contrive to be), but how so few if any of these plans and projects are ever reviewed in hindsight. It's always "on to the next."

Is there merit in going through that cycle? in driving up enthusiasm for planning and thinking-about activities? Maybe for some people, but we have to be careful.

A lot of things are going on in the more mundane be-here-now activities, like potluck meals and one-to-one conversations. In just showing up at a vigil, month after month, without hope for any particular outcome.

Being in a Quaker meeting is like that, a lot of the time. And I find that it's important to treasure that aspect, and to show our enthusiasm for it (assuming we do feel that way).

I'm one of several people keeping a mid-week meeting going. I have to recognize and value my own reasons for going regularly, and I have to appreciate what the meeting provides for others who attend, perhaps much more sporadically or just passing through or just visiting once. It's a funny sort of balance -- to be aware of the one-to-one experiences (one meeting at a time, one person at a time) as well as the continuity and sense of progression.

And from your post I gather that it's also helpful to be aware of shifts in seasons and moods, which are not inherent in the enterprise itself.

At 11:08 PM, Blogger Dave Carl said...

I can both relate to Nancy's sense of of the blahs, and appreciate Johan and Kwattles' responses.

At 1:16 AM, Blogger Chris M. said...

Nancy: I just LOVE the hardhat image! And the seatbelts! We have two hardhats at our house, one for a child and one for a grownup. I'm supposed to teach Firstday School tomorrow and have no idea for a lesson. (Why did I schedule the Children's Religious Education Committee meeting for the morning before the day when I have to teach? Sigh...) Maybe I can work them into the lesson. I will think about it!

The phrase Robin uses for creative, forward-thinking religion is "high-maintenance religion." And it's true, not everyone is looking for it. That may be okay, but we who are looking for the fire need to keep blowing on the embers.

With all best wishes,

-- Chris M.

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Chris M. said...


I used the Dillard hardhat metaphor as the basis for my Firstday School lesson this past week. It was so helpful!

I wrote about it on my blog, here.

In peace and friendship,

-- Chris M.


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