Thursday, September 20, 2007


I took a break from Quaker blogging for the spring and summer while my eye healed. It's good to get back into it. I'm pleased to see a lot of new bloggers, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them all.

Coming back to a group like this one, I get to see what we are doing with fresh eyes (ha ha - get it?). I flipped back through some of the older posts that I missed over the summer, just to see what people have been talking about.

And -- don't take this wrong, now -- I have been struck by an almost dominant "down with Quakers" message, like a catalogue of our shortcomings. We seem to come back to this theme frequently, from all different angles.

Sure, sometimes words and ideas come across as negative when they're supposed to be musing or inquiring. That's the nature of the written word: you don't have control of how people read it or what they latch onto. Maybe for commenters, the negative is just more attractive, in the way that the bad guys in movies are so much more interesting than the good guys. So the thread veers toward the negative like a magnet to the north pole.

But my question is: Are these buttons?

When Margaret Fell was writing epistles to the fledgling Quaker meetings back in the 1600s, she lamented their preoccupation with buttons. Who cares whether Quakers wear buttons, she moaned. Who cares whether they wear a hat or keep a day?

I recall one of Lucretia Motts' sermons, where she too laments the buttons of her day: "It has been well said our fathers made graven images, but we make verbal ones."

When we try to discern what is wrong with Quakerism today, are we staring at our buttons?

Like, is this what we're supposed to be doing?

I wonder if I go to any other denomination's blogsphere, will I find largely the same conversations? -- how X needs to be more A (or less B), how it needs to get back to its roots (or get away from old roots), how its gatherings need to be more Spirit-focused (or more active in walking the talk), etc.

I wonder if all this is true. Do we really need these things? Are we being called or led in this way?

Maybe what's important now is not for Quakers to be uberQuakers -- or even Quakers at all. Maybe many are each being called to be Spirit-led in a more nameless, formless way, just following those inner nudges, listening for guidance, building the kingdom of heaven on earth. Maybe the Light is pulling us in different ways, but that it's okay.

Maybe the inner grumblings we feel are just our own. Maybe they're not to be extended to the Quaker group.

I'm just saying maybe because, well, maybe.

The first meeting I belonged to had a yearly tradition of a silent supper at the meetinghouse. The idea was to come together and eat in a Spirit-filled silence, in a manner reminiscent of a communion. I finally managed to attend one of these dinners.

There was one elderly woman, very tiny, a bit childlike in many ways, who had come to the dinner as well. The meeting members were filling their plates and sitting down in silence, but this elder was quietly chatting with people around her. Just pleasant chit-chat. Either someone hadn't told her it was a silent supper, she just didn't get it, or she'd forgotten.

As the meal started and she still hadn't settled into silence, my inner irritation grew. Why didn't someone quietly tell her that she was supposed to be silent? It would only take one or two words. I found it hard to centre down as the puddle of irritation grew in me. I looked up and stared at the people around her, wondering why they weren't doing anything.

And then I saw what they were doing. The Friend beside this elder was holding her hand quietly as they ate. The Friend across the table was listening, nodding, giving his full attention to her. Others were gazing at her, rapt, some smiling indulgently.

It was one of those spiritual whoosh moments. The point wasn't that we were supposed to be silent, but that I was supposed to be silent. And here I was, the whole time, being outwardly silent but inwardly totally nonsilent.

The others had it right. They each kept their own silence. That silence left them open to listen to this elder. They found their ministry through her.

Only I did not.

Silence was my button.


At 12:17 PM, Blogger kwattles said...

Another group that I'm part of, besides the Quakers, has a good approach to "criticism." It's a recreation cooperative, with a training component for people who want to lead recreational activities -- games, folk-dancing, singing, dramatics, etc. -- in other groups.

So people get a chance to "practice teach," and afterwards there's a chance for feedback and consideration.

There are four steps.

1) The practice teacher -- the person who led an activity -- says a few things about "what went well." Then 2) others in the group can say "what went well" for them.

Then 3) the practice teacher says "how it could have been done better," and finally 4) the group adds their suggestions of how it could be done better.

We evaluate our events that way, too, towards the end -- 1) what went well and 2) what could have been done better.

I don't know how this relates directly to the "buttons" analogy. There are definitely ways that modern Quakerism goes well, and there are ways to do it better, and I think we do need ways to address those.

But note that the approach described above works on behalf of the group. The individual's teaching serves as a sort of "case study" for the group. It doesn't give much space for self-centeredness in participants, except as shared experience which is relevant in a specific way.

I wonder if a lot of the grumbling that we see and hear from Friends is about how "I" relate to the RSoF. Maybe that's rooted in concepts such as "that of God in each person" and "what canst THOU say." And in a culture that encourages narcissism and egocentricity, I don't know how we can really get past that in our involvement with Friends.

At 7:56 AM, Blogger kwattles said...

If the last paragraph of my comment above was at the beginning, the rest of it might make better sense.

I had the "punchline" in mind throughout, in the context of your post, Nancy, but it should have been the "lede."

At 1:58 PM, Blogger Blue Gal said...

I've said this before to other Quakers. Groups that have no defined set of rules for members, ie Quakers, Unitarians, Democrats, will inevitably be tempted to navel-gaze in order to "define" themselves. That doesn't work well in a group where individual connection to the divine is the most important thing. My attitude is to strip off as much human organization as possible in Quakerism and keep it to silent/inspired worship and social gatherings involving food. All else is distraction from our true intent.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger earthfreak (Pam) said...

Good stuff for thinkin'-over here....

I think that the tendency to be negative is somewhat "natural" - esp. in an internet environment. Also, the tendency to notice it (I don't tend to notice as much when someone is saying something that is both nice, and in agreement with my perspective, just nod and move on...)

So, the question is, are we questioning our buttons, or clinging desperately to them?

I particularly like the reminder that our faith journey is about US (keeping our own silence) when it is SO much easier to worry about if others are doing it right... A reminder I can certainly use daily, or more often.

At 5:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, Nancy. Very profound. Thank you for that! I am following a spiritual path which has only recently led me to the Quakers. I won't be sure if it is a right fit for me until I delve more, but with wisdom such as yours touching my heart, I might have found "home."

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Allison said...

I went to a talk once by a Zen Buddhist priest about spirituality in action. It's all about balance. Only doing inner work equals navel-gazing. Only doing outer work equals burnout and anger. The two must go hand in hand to see what's really important.

At 6:16 PM, Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hello there, Nancy.

I see this post is from 2007... Are you still online, blogging or elsewhere? I was reminded of your blog because of looking at an old post by Johan of Can You Believe...

Did you know that I'm working to create a publication based on Quaker blogposts like this one?

I'd love to hear from you and ask you about including some of your posts... I just don't know if this comment will find its way to you.

I hope you're well. And I hope to hear from you: lizopp AT gmail DOT com

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up


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