In my blogpost, "My Discomfort is My Lack of Discomfort" I said this:
"I think too many of us want our meetings to be a place of comfort, not challenge. Too many of us hide behind our sensitivity with religion in general and don't want to be part of anything that seems might force us out of what we perceive to be safe; we don't want our spiritual life to be directed nor our motives and actions to be questioned. Our messages inspire, rarely challenge."
I was brought up in a fundamentalist, evangelical Baptist church in which the rules of right and wrong were well defined, loudly communicated and firmly censored--although there were plenty of unspoken rules, as well. When one broke a rule, one was quickly judged, perhaps with love. Some of the rules were founded on theological interpretation but others were more connected to societal norms. I was given the label of Jezebel for wearing a sleeveless blouse to church (the fact that I was a terrible flirt probably helped). One of our wonderful youth pastors was harshly criticized by a large faction of the church for wearing a beard.
My religious background is rigid and authoritarian. I left because I couldn't reconcile my idea of God loving us with the concept that God creates in us this flaw -sin- and the punishes us with eternal hell unless we accept a narrowly proscribed set of beliefs. The questions I'd always had about "What about Muslims and Jews and Hindus?" never left me. I couldn't accept the belief that they were damned nor that Grace was contingent on keeping ever vigilantly good-standing with that narrow set of beliefs.
So I left and wandered and wondered and railed and ranted. And, finally, I found my way back to God through the quiet and safe space of a Quaker meeting where I was welcomed. I found the lack of Christian-speak refreshing, accepting without question the Quaker jargon. On some levels I felt I had found my home.
But there was the issue of fitting in. Looking back I now see many unspoken rules that I didn't see when I first began attending. Almost none of these have anything to do with religious or theological interpretation; most have everything to do with class and background. Because I held this group in such high esteem and wanted to fit in, I didn't speak of my working class background and never mentioned my lack of education. Many privileges were spoken of as if they are the norm, things I will never been able to experience but I kept my mouth shut and my ears open. As I've said before, I'm very well spoken, well read and a flaming liberal so I fit in easily and passed as just like everyone else but I was troubled on many occasions because I was having to keep hidden a part of me so I could feel accepted. In other words, I was not able to be known because I felt the need to not allow myself to be known in order to be accepted.
Over time, I began to feel a great deal of agitation over this issue. The statements made by people about very obvious privileges spoken as if they are the norm upset me. The biases about less educated people began to trouble me greatly. I began, slowly, to speak out about my background; first in small groups and then to the whole meeting. Obviously, I'd already established a loving bond with my community so some people expressed surprise at my background but I was never rejected (although I have been strongly encouraged to go to school at all costs by several people). As I grew more honest about who I am, I grew in my relationship with God and with my community.
I do feel a Friends meeting should be a source of challenge but it can only be a challenge if we can be our true selves with one another and know one another in a loving and accepting way. As my church of origin exemplified for me, rules and a rigid system of right and wrong keep people in fear and separated from one another: none of us want that. But, as I experienced with my meeting (and, from reading other people's blog posts, is a common experience for people from non-middle class backgrounds who begin attending a Friends meeting), class privilege, biases about education and other things and, I would add, political affiliation, all work to keep us closed off from one another. On many occasions I have heard "it doesn't seem Quakerly" but when pressed to define "Quakerly" what is said is about culture, not spiritual understanding.
When I say "I think too many of us want our meetings to be places of comfort, not challenge" I guess what I'm saying is that we need to go deep and make them both. We need to be aware of how we welcome people, how we represent ourselves and how we accept differences. We need to be able to show our "true face" with one another in loving acceptance so that we know one another and are deeply, lovingly known. And once we reach that level of intimacy, we then may be lead to challenge one another and hold ourselves and our community accountable to reach a deeper, stronger, more immediate awareness of our connection with God. What I'm thinking is the true meaning of Eldering as I understand it. Knowing and being known and encouraging one another with the guidance of God.