Saturday, September 22, 2007

Quaker Eldering?

I used to think that to “elder” in the Quaker sense, meant you had to be old, an elder. Often, that’s true. But to think in that way, can cut us off from the wisdom of the young, who elder us as well.

It can mean admonishment, maybe, but not usually. Admonishment can be given with love, with guidance from the Spirit. Or it can be given in a hurtful way. We all have our prejudices. But pushing them on others is not useful or fair, to the Meeting community nor the person in question.

Case in point is the Friend in our Meeting who has made it clear that she feels reading in Meeting is not appropriate. That it blocks our ability to connect with God. She even went so far as to confront another Friend at the front door when she saw him bringing a book into Meeting.

There are many ways to connect with God. We have to be open to the way that feels “right” for us. I read a devotional passage or something from Faith and Practice at the start of the silence, which draws me in. I may start out with that passage, and then see where it takes me. Some folks journal. Others meditate. Others pray. Many people sit quietly listening for God.

I won’t tell this Friend that I sometimes let my son read a bit of Harry Potter for part of the Meeting. What canst though say?


Suzy said...

What canst I say? That Friend needs to get a life. Really. I won't ask who it was. I have some guesses, but no, no -- I won't press the issue. I'll confess -- sometimes I will read my way right through an entire Meeting for Worship. Because I wasn't brought up in an environment of worship and prayer, it is sometimes extremely difficult to center down and keep my mind from wandering every which way. I'm doing my best to be physically present at Meeting every week, and phhhhhht to the person who objects to the manner in which I worship when I am there. What is it -- the gentle shushhhh of a turning page that is so objectionable? Sheesh. That's not eldering, that's being a busy body. (And I'm in a feisty mood today. Watch out.)

jbixleri said...

So, the question of eldering about behavior in Meeting is a good one.

I have some sympathies for the Friend who is disturbed by the trend of people reading in Meeting. I also have sympathies for people who find it as a useful way to center. (And I'm 100% supportive of letting children read or even color is perfectly appropriate, even if they turn pages noisily -- welcoming our children's presence in Meeting is essential).

First I'll explain my sympathies. As someone who has been going to Meeting all my life, and is somewhat conservative in personality (if liberal in other ways), I do view new trends with some trepidation. Examples would include lots of singing messages, that swept through our Meeting and the broader FGC community about 5 years ago but seems to have since died back a bit, or reading in meeting (a practice that seems more common than before), or bringing coffee into the Meeting room space, or bringing dogs (not seeing-eye dogs) into the space, or bringing in cell phones and leaving the meeting to take it when you get a call.......when I see change, I do have some protective feeling of wanting to safeguard the sacred space of worship, against the ever encroaching pressures of secular life.

Sometimes I think there are trends that should be countered. More often than not, there is spirit/vitality in the trends, and I find ways to welcome them into the sacred space.

As an example of a secular trend that I am pleased to see being resisted, I like how at FLGBTQC worship this year at Gathering the greeters told every person to turn off cell phones, and that silent vibrate was NOT the same thing as turning it off -- this was a collective eldering.

On book reading and singing in Meeting, I have come to feel somewhat more comfortable with these(my best friend often brings a book into meeting), but would be uncomfortable if they overtook the room. If there were 5 singing messages every week, I would find that hard. If 25 percent of the people were reading during Meeting for Worship I would also find that hard.

For some of these examples, the person doing it may be doing it in a spiritual not secular way and I may learn to see it as valuable myself, once I get over my surprise at things being done differently from what I am used to. In other examples, I may just try to envelop the behavior with Light, the same way I do the ambulance sirens that provide a noisy disruption. In other examples, I may be disturbed enough, I'll raise the question (usually with other Friends, but if I were braver it might include the person involved), to see if it is just me who is bothered, or how others view it.

So, I guess I would encourage Friends to talk to each other. An older Friend at annual sessions spoke in my hearing of her dislike of seeing more and more people doing Eastern-style meditation in Meeting, not knowing that I sit cross-legged in Meeting myself, and I took that opportunity to open an interesting conversation about how for me it is a centering technique, but I use it to help me entering into expectant waiting and worship, and view it as helpful to my Quakerism, not separate from it. She opened my eyes to the possibility that my cross-legged posture was being (mis?)interpreted by her as being alien and a threat to her beloved Quakerism, and I was able to express how it was helpful to me.

So I encourage us to talk about behaviors that seem different. And ask questions.

I realize I've never asked my very close friend about why she reads in Meeting. I guess I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to phrase the question without sounding judgmental. But I do have some questions. I guess I think there are so many hours in the week for reading and only one for worship, and so why shorten the amount of time in worship? Or would one say that reading is a form of worship? Can one be reading and also be open to experiencing God's presence? Or is the first at best a pathway to the second and as such should be limited to early centering time (possibly even before worship begins?) If someone is having a hard time and the best they can do is be physically present, I want them/you in the room, not to stay home. But I'd rather you were here worshipping next to me, joining in the collective worship. Because if everyone was reading, it wouldn't be Meeting for Worship, would it? Does that help explain why a Friend might be troubled by it? (Not to condone a confrontation at the door if done in an unfriendly way, but maybe it is appropriate for us to ask each other some queries about the place of books and reading in Meeting. I'm comfortable with it in limited doses (and do it myself, now that it is commonly done in my Meeting). But I would be puzzled to see someone regularly read for long periods in Meeting for Worship.

poodledoc said...

Thank you, F/friends! You've given me much to ponder.

Ed said...

Jbixleri brings up some very interesting points. In addition, I can certainly understand why it could be troubling to have people reading during meeting. As a person who is extremely sensitive to sound, I can sympathize from that perspective, and, yes the gentle shushhh of a turning page could prove very distracting to me, particularly when I know it will be happening every minute or two. On the other hand, I am aware that I am somewhat unusual in this regard and, while there are instances where it might be appropriate to request that other people attempt to accomodate my oddity, most of the time I strive to find ways to deal with it myself.

However, all that being said, being personally concerned about something is one thing. Taking it upon oneself to unilaterally correct the situation, particularly if it has yet to be determined by the meeting that it is something that actually requires correcting, is, as we say in the midwest, a whole 'nuther thing.

jbixleri said...

I thought a little more about eldering during Meeting yesterday (especially when a lonely and troubled person in my Meeting who speaks EVERY Sunday rose to spoke yet again). I followed my advice in Saturday night's comment, and asked another F/friend about it later and whether she found it troubling. It was helpful to hear her compassionate view of this individual, and be reminded of how his messages are short, and she believes sincere. It was also useful information to learn from her that at least one person is said to have left the Meeting after being troubled by this individual's messages. My conversation made me doubt this is an issue for any eldering. But it was useful to explore the possibility.

I guess my response to the latest comment is that yes, if it is just me that is being bothered, it is a good spiritual discipline to let go of my views of right and wrong and envelop the behavior (and my response to it) in the Light. But, there is no minister, no usher, no "someone else" to step in if there is indeed a behavioral trend that is distrubing the very precious Worship space. And so, it is up to us individual Friends to on (fairly rare) occasion, to some eldering. I would usually consult with others first, to help discern it was a mattern of collective concern. And I would try to address any issue in a loving way that would continue to welcome the person. (And if I felt I couldn't do that, I probably wouldn't speak up at all, which is indeed what usually happens). But, assuming that after a discernment process that determined a behavior was in some ways detracting from Meeting for Worship, and assuming that one could be genuinely loving in one's reaction to it, then I do think it behooves us as individuals to speak up. It's probably better to model what we expect of Quaker behavior, then to "shush" other people. But we do have to find ways to pass along our Quaker traditions, adapting to new trends to some extent, but not in a hasty or careless manner.

I'm off to substitute teach a class on Quakerism tonight. That's my preferred mode of passing along Quaker wisdom, sharing with people as they ask questions (and turning it back to them with a "what canst thou say?" But eldering, if done in the right way, also can help pass down the shared wisdom of the past.

Liz Opp said...

It's quite a long time since you posted this piece, but I'm currently working on my own blog post about eldership among Friends and only now discovered your writing.

In fact, a few years ago, there was a go-around among some Quaker bloggers about what eldering is or isn't, has been or wasn't. The discussion included Friends from Conservative and Liberal branches and a number of us found it to be quite rich.

I've added a link to your post to the bottom of something I wrote back then, Eldering Then and Now.

I don't know if the questions and concerns you raise here are still relevant, but they certainly reflect concerns I've held for a while, though I might come out on a different side of the issue compared to many modern Friends.

For example, our American culture tells us that our individual rights are tantamount--such as the right to read a book during a gathering where others are just sitting--but our Quaker tradition tells us that Something Happens when we lay aside our individual preferences and ambitions and instead come together to open ourselves and listen, together, to the Living Presence.

These days, many of us contemporary Friends take offense at anyone who asks about our behavior, especially our behavior during worship, and so opportunities to learn about the corporate nature of Quakerism are instead lost because we have our personal rights to protect, and we love our Quakerism so much, and so we leave the situation feeling scolded or reprimanded or otherwise corrected.

In my own case, if I cannot center down and engage in the corporate worship that is before me in Quaker meeting, I will leave the meetingroom rather than squirm so much as to be a visual distraction or a spiritual disruption to the worship that is going on.

To Suzy who "[says] phhhhhht to the person who objects to the manner in which I worship when I am there," I am concerned. What is it like if I say phhhhhht to the person who disallows me and others from engaging in the corporate worship--the shared experience--of listening together that we are supposed to be doing?

There is no easy answer when such dualities come into play: the role of the individual in relation to the place of the community, for example.

But when we live into the paradoxes while expressing love and care for one another, often a Third Way opens or some new Understanding, some new Light, is given to us.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. I've just posted additional reflections on eldership, though they don't address the specifics that are mentioned here.