Thursday, April 26, 2007

Breaking the Quaker Code of Silence

I was drawn to Quakers in the first place, because (unlike my Mormon uncles, or the inmates of any traditional church) they were reticent about God, hesitant to put words in God's mouth or tell him at great length what they expected of him. And also because my best friend dragged me there. Why should an atheist come to Meeting?–because my friend asked, and if God was going to exist despite all the good reasons I knew otherwise, I'd give him a chance to get in a word or two on his own behalf. I went once, had a nice experience; but God didn't tell me he'd been there, and so I didn't feel it right to return. What happened between me & God developed elsewhere, in its own time.

[I use the G word- -It's been misused a lot, but it's what we've got for the purpose. (If I say "he," you're welcome to say "she" or "ge" or anything that does it for you.) Some of the difficulties are simply in the nature of things; an honest effort to understand how we exist, rather than Nothing-with-nobody-to-notice-it, sometimes just makes me dizzy! It's not just-us; it's not other-than-us either, but what humans call paradox and mystery is simply the way things are.]

I visited meetings several times over the years, and always went away feeling that I didn't belong; that "They aren't doing this right!" or that "I have nothing to contribute here, no money and I don't do marvelous Good Works." There was even an apocalyptic time in 1970 when I sat with a student worship group, and felt an invisible presence in the doorway: "Why Forrest," it asked, "What are you doing, trying to hide among the good people?"

I returned in 1991, after I'd been roped into a campaign for the rights of homeless people. Enlisted at last with the angels, I expected to find other people intending to devote themselves to God. Some of the people at meeting did join in demonstrations, were helpful in various ways. Worshiping with the group felt right. But there was something I didn't understand about it.

It's that culture of silence.

Talk puts barriers between people, and silence can be a way to bypass them. Talk can hide God behind a verbal image, which silence may dissolve. But silence is a double-edged sword.

Silence also puts barriers between people. Refusal to talk about God shuts us off from learning ways of recognizing him.

In the Bible, Adam is not necessarily created male or female. But at some point, God says, "It is not good for the man to be alone." We could have been one person alone, communing with God and living in Paradise as if it were a vacant lot. It wasn't what God had in mind, when he made this world and called it "good."

We find God in ourselves, if we're going to find him anywhere at all. There's no "corporate worship" unless we parts of the body go into worship ourselves. But we come together for the occasion because we weren't made to be so alone.

Silence is the "plain dress" of contemporary Quakerism. It's become a "poor silly gospel" that risks taking the place of its actual purpose.

Remember the "parable of the talents"? The master distributes money for his servants to hold while he's traveling. Two servants find uses for the money, and return more than they were given. The third buries it in the back yard, and when the master sees that his servant is only returning the original deposit, there's the usual wailing & gnashing of teeth. "To he who has much, more will be given, but he who has little will find even what he has taken away;" that's the moral we're given. But what was "little" here?-- the gift, or the willingness to use it?

Since a few spiritually connected old members have died, the messages in my meeting have dwindled to the point that our Ministry & Oversight committee was concerned about the lack, a year or so before my own term there. Are we merely short of spiritual gifts?-- or have we been practicing a sort of spiritual stinginess that leads to us receiving little?

I've always had misgivings about our "state of the meeting" reports, considered them empty formalities, our annual exercise in denial. This year was different. Our Yearly Meeting ministry committee was suggesting that local meetings treat this year as a jubilee, a long sabbath, an occasion for discernment of what we were doing, and whether all of it was really necessary. That recommendation may have been influential, was certainly in the background. Also, the report had been left in the hands of two aging members, the third of the committee having left unexpectedly for Costa Rico. Not knowing what to say about us, certainly not about "our spiritual condition," they followed the example of nearby La Jolla Meeting and scheduled a potluck "talking meeting" to learn what our meeting members could say about themselves.

At the potluck, we found the meeting sharply divided between "Our meeting is just fine, so please shut up!" vs "We wouldn't know a ‘spiritual condition' if it bit us!" The report even reflects this division. But it isn't only the report. The value of preparing the report is to bring a meeting's attention to its situation. Doing this, we've also agreed to continue examining and working on the divisions between us. Before and after-meeting study & sharing groups are starting up again, with new members interested in attending.

Why does that make me hopeful? I had a message last week. For years I've felt oppressed with a sense of being given important things to say to my meeting, but without the ability to make them palatable. And lately I've sometimes been telling myself, "I have nothing to say to these people!" This last week, I simply told them "I don't know what to say to you because I don't know where you are!" Right, wrong, welcome, unwelcome? It was an uncomfortable thing to say. But between the silence of the meeting and the chatter of after-meeting refreshments, it's been damned hard to know a lot of us very deeply.

As someone once said, "If this is a true message, you know it too." I was very surprised, during refreshments, when one of the old members came up and thanked me. I don't know how this will turn out, but we're letting something new happen.

As for me, I can know God by myself. But when I keep it to myself, it goes nowhere and I get stuck. When I find ways to share what I've learned, other people can share what they're learning. Once talking, I don't easily shut up enough to hear them well. But I'm learning. And when this happens, God brings out a lot more for me to understand.

Is a conversation only "listening"? Only "talking"? Is a meeting only silence, or only messages? Can we bring our souls out of the closet for refreshments, share the meat of Christ's words between us? I see it beginning here. Is this something other meetings need as well?